Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to do in Kathmandu?

Greetings from Kathmandu where I haven't seen even one "kat", nor for that matter hardly any dogs!  I hope the explanation doesn't lie in some exotic Nepalese cusine similar to that of their Chinese neigbors!  (but the Yak cheese here is great!)

Oman was exotic but Nepal is even more so.  How's this for exotic?

On Saturday afternoon my colleague and I spent several hours among Hindu mourners and ascetics in the Holy City of Pashupatinath observing several Hindu cremation ceremonies.  These take place daily along the Baghmadi River which is a tributary of the famous Ganges River of India.  Several fresh funeral pyres were lined up along the river and periodically, families arrived carrying a recently deceased relative all rolled up in plastic sheeting. After performing several rituals, they laid the body, wrapped in an ocre robe, onto a pyre. A male family member then circled the pyre three times and lit the pyre, starting near the head of the deceased.  After about 10 minutes, flames covered the pyre and smoke spread across the entire area.  And of course one couldn't help inhaling some of the smoke - a rather bizzare thought!  After the fire had fully consumed the body, the ashes were swept into the Baghmadi and slowly floated towards the Ganges.   Although it was all very surreal to me, the locals took it completely in stride.  Kids were even swimming in the river among the ashes. I saw one boy paddling in a casket which I was told was probably used to carry someone from a distant town to the cremation site.  People from nearby towns don't use caskets but only the yellow plastic sheeting.

Funeral pyre at Pashupati
Hindu ascetics at Pashupati

The ascetics, which probably included a few eunichs, were really an exotic lot, having spread ash and various color tones  over their faces and bodies.  They sustain themselves from alms and from donations from tourists who take their pictures.  They are outwardly friendly but completely otherworldly.  And I wouldn't be surprised if a little opium or other local narcotic didn't contribute to their state of mind.  As the Germans say "andere Laender, ander Sitten" -- other countries, other customs.  The world really does have great diversity!

 Pashupatinath was extremely interesting in its own right.  As a non-Hindu, I wasn't allowed to go into the temples but could walk through the streets and look into temples through the doorways.  Many pilgrims were present as were a few "holy cows."

Here are a couple of related links:

Over the weekend I visited two other UNESCO heritiage sites -- the ancient Hindu temple city of Bhaktapur ( and the large Buddhist Stupa of Bhudanat (( which is very close to my hotel. In the foregoing link, note the eyes staring down from all angles of the Stupa as well as from surrounding pinnacles and posts. These eyes are one of Nepals most endearing symbols and are common on hats, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.

Hindue temple in Bhaktapur

Street scene in Bhaktapur

Bhoudanat Stupa in festive mode
Buddhist Monks at Bohudanat Stupa

Here is an interesing post on the history/legend of BoudhaNath -- please note: there are many different English spellings from the Nepalese transliteration -- (

A few more general comments on Nepal:  it is one of the poorest countries in Asia and because it was never colonized inherited very little infrastructure.  Electricity goes out several times a day and all of Kathmandu's petroleum is brought in from India on large tanker trucks which must navigate the horrible Nepalese roads.  It is very isolated and has few resources.  The major source of income is the tourists that come to trek in the Himalayas or to climb Mt. Everest.  (I didn't get very close to the Himalayas during my time here but I could see the snow-capped peaks in the distance which are truly impressive).

I'm supposed to be traveling to Phnom Penh Cambodia via Bangkok on Thanksgiving Day but it looks like I may be stuck in Kathmandu a while longer. You may have heard that the Bangkok Airport has been closed due to major political demonstrations.  If I am unable to leave tomorrow I'll be looking for alternative ways out which won't be easy from this isolated country.  I may have to bypass Cambodia completely and fly to Jakarta via Hong Kong which would be my last stop before returning to the U.S.

Happy Thanksgiving and have lots of turkey for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

a Q without a U;

 Here's a little trivia for you:  What is the only word in the dictionary that starts with the letter "Q" and is not followed by a "u."  Well,  of course, it's Qatar -- pronounced KA-tahr --  an Arab emirate on a small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf from the North side of Saudi Arabia (  I'm currently in the Qatari capital of Doha where I'll be until Friday.  Following are a few tidbits of information on Qatar, which may be  more than you want to know.

The current Emir, and one of the richest men in the world, is his Highness Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani who made news in the US by donating 100 Million Dollars to help New Orleans recover after Hurricane Katrina (  According to wikipedia, Qatar has the 4th highest per capita GDP in the world, based on oil in part, but more importantly on its tremendous reserves of natural gas (

Although I've only been in Doha a day and a half, my impressions are that the city is trying very hard to compete with nearby Dubai in terms of prominence and prestige in the Gulf. There is certainly a lot of construction and opulence here but nothing close to what I've seen in Dubai.  However one area where Doha may have outdone Dubai is in the area of Islamic art.  A new Islamic Art museum, designed by I. M. Pei, and which is being heralded as one of most important Islamic Art museums in the world has just been completed.  Unfortunately I won't be able to see it as it won't open its doors to the public until next week when I'll be gone.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Oman: right out of 1001 Arabian Nights

Where am I?  - Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman

Who's in charge?  Sultan Qabos bin Said al Said (  By Middle Eastern standards, he's a very enlightened ruler who has had great success in developing the country despite much lower oil revenues than the nearby UAE and Saudi Arabia.  He has been divorced twice, doesn't have an heir, loves Western classical music and lives a very secretive life.  Expats and Wikipedia suggest he is gay; his subjects deny it.  He is currently building one of the largest opera houses in the Middle East.

Where am I staying: Muscat Intercon --

What do I think?  It truly doesn't get much more exotic than Oman?  The Imams are now calling the faithful to prayer and I'm sure I've already seen Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin, Scheherazadah and Ibin bin Saud roaming the streets or peering down from some of the many forts throughout the Sultanant. By Muslim standards, it is a very tolerant place -- one can get a drink after 6 in the hotel bar and there are several churches, although apparently no synagogues.

What have I been up to?  Working most of the time and spending the weekend (Thursday/Friday) touring and in conversation with Sauod, my guide.   


1) Incredible forts, perhaps the most of any country outside Europe, which I had not expected --
The two most impressive ones I saw were: Fort Nakhl --
and Fort Rustaq --

Fort Nakhl - Oman
2) Vast acres of date palms -- Oman has hundreds of date sorts, considered to be among the best in the world and the country's most important export.  I'm not generally a big fan of dates but I really do like some of the ones I've tasted here;

3) High, rugged mountains in the Sultanat's interior.

4) The city of Muscat which is a picturesque blend of old Arabic and modern buildings, walls, forts, and mosques.

4) Extensive conversations with Sauod, my tour guide: some of his surprising, often unsoliticited comments follow:

Within the first hour we were together he told me that he is not very religious, even though he prays 5 times on most days, goes to Mosque on Fridays and follows most normal Islamic practices (I sensed he was much more willing to admit this to an "infidel" than to a fellow Muslim).  And He  admitted that the pressure to conform is tremendous in this part of the world.  He said that he occasionally drinks wine or smokes socially but without the knowledge of his wife or children who are religious and would be very dissappointed.  He envies Westerners who he believes have an easier time blending religious and secular life.  He believes in Allah but thinks Christians and Jews are as likely to go to heaven as Muslims. But he doesn't like Zionists! 

As is very common in the Arabic world, his wife is the daughter of his mother's sister. He wanted to marry her from the time they were children and did so at his initiative and not because his parents told him to.  He worries alot about his oldest son who is a nice boy but has no goals or ambition. He doesn't worry much about his daughters.

He thinks it would be much easier in the West to be friends with ones children when they grow up.  He says Muslim men must continue to play the father role when their children are adults and have a tremendous fear of showing their real selves or any weakness.  He admitted that there is quite alot of hypocrisy in Muslim society (as there is in the West).

He enjoys the company of Westerners but detests George Bush.

Addendum: 8 March 2011:  An interesting article in today's New York Times about the Sultan

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Bulgarian Mafia

Since arriving in Sofia I have heard a lot of  talk about a powerful Mafia presence in Bulgaria. And one sees the evidence everywhere which include lots of tough looking guys sitting around in hotel lobbies and restaurants and large black luxury vehicles such as BMWs, Mercedes and Hummers with black tinted windows cruising the streets.  

On Sunday I had a first-hand Mafia experience: I decided to have lunch at an attractive outdoor cafe and sat down across from two stereotypical mafia guys who I initially didn't pay much attention to.  They looked almost identical, both having close-cropped hair, dark sunglasses, black leather jackets, jeans and boots.  For most of an hour they sat drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, talking on their cellphones and surveying the area while hardly speaking to each other.  On the other side of me, parked illegal at the curb, was a shiny black Mercedes SUV with tinted windows.  All of a sudden one of the guys called the waitress and asked for the bill.  After quickly paying, they started to move towards the SUV when one of them paused sharply and went back to the easy chair he had been sitting in.  I watch as he reached into the side of the chair, took out a large pistol and tucked it under his jacket and into his belt.  He had apparently placed it into the side of the chair because it was uncomfortable while he was sitting.  He suddenly remembered it and went back to get it.  He noticed that I was watching but ignored me.  The two of them then quickly drove away. It was a scene straight out of the Bulgarian version of the Sopranos!

Below are a few links related to the Bulgarian mafia.

On Saturday I took a half day trip away from Sophia to the impressive Rila Monastery, a UNESCO world heritage site stemming back to the 10th Century, and one of the most impressive monasteries  I've seen.  The following link contains the history and some pictures of the monastery.


Friday, May 2, 2008

In Bratislava

I arrived in Bratislava, the Slovakian Capital, late last night from Kiev after a missed connection in Prague and a five hour layover.  It was a long day and I wasn't a happy camper. When I have days like yesterday I think I should give up traveling.  And when I have days like today, I'm glad I'm still doing it.

Bratislava is only an hour from Vienna and not far from Budapest.  It was formerly called Pressburg and had large German and Jewish communities.  I had heard of Pressburg before but had no idea that it was modern day Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.  The Jewish population today is about 800 out of a total of 400,000+ of which 90% are said to be Slovak. is a website which tracks the Jewish history of Bratislava.  Tommorow, May 1, is the European Labor Day Holiday which I will have off and use to tour the city.  I will also see what Jewish sites I can find along the way, perhaps the Jewish Museum if it is open on the holiday. 

My hotel is next door to the embassy which is right in the heart of this very attractive city.  The city fathers have spent a lot of money since the breakup of the Communist Bloc to restore old buildings and to spruce things up. They have a beautiful old Opera House and apparently a very active theater and cultural scene.  Most of the narrow streets in the city center are for pedestrians only  and are filled with lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants.  It is typical of the cafe society one finds in most of the old cities of Central Europe. People sit in the cafes for hours visiting and drinking cafe, wine or beer while musicians play in the squares for tips.  I must say it is very pleasant, especially when the weather is nice as it was today, I only wish that Gertrud and a few friends were here to share it with me. 

The wikipedia page below has a lot of information on Bratislava's culture and history.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chisinau or Never

Elvis pronounced it differently but I know what he meant!  Why would anyone pay their good money to travel to Moldova -- a country that's stuck behind Romania and boxed in on three sides by the Ukraine. It's even difficult to find it on the map. 

But since "I had to come here for work" I'm coping and have actually found it quite pleasant! Chisinau (Kishinev in Russian) is a pretty city if one doesn't focus too much on the ugly public tenaments built by the Soviets.  It has beautiful, tree-lined streets, some impressive old buildings and churches, a very diverse cultural offerings  and a vibrant street life with lots of pretty girls.  I must digress here briefly:

I don't know what it is about  Eastern European girls but they must all see themselves as being perpetually on the catwalk.  Gertrud and I first noticed this a couple of years ago in Riga, Latvia which we concluded had the most beautiful girls of any city we had ever been in. Everyone of them looked like they have just come from modeling school as they strolled around the city on their high heels.  Last week while having lunch in an Ashgabat restaurant, everything in the restaurant suddenly went completely silent as a blond Russian bombshell, who went up to at least 6' 4" in her high heels entered with a 6-foot guy.  She was perfectly packed into a tight fitting mini and I thought I saw real tears develop in the eyes of some of the older guys as they took it all in.  This vixen and her friend initially took a seat near the front door but then decided to move to the rear so that everyone could pick up their jaws and go back to eating!  It really isn't unusual to see such types in Eastern Europe. Many of them seem to prefer the "cheap blond" look, but others are really stunning!  One thing's for sure: none of them eat hamburgers, chips, T-bones or milkshakes!  America - wake up! 

But back to Chisinau:  Moldova is one of those little countries that has been a tragic pawn of history due to its size and unfortunate geographical location.  It is the "little guy" in the neighborhood who the bullies step on whenever they seek new territory or influence.  During its entire history, all or parts of Moldova have been under the Russians, Ottomans, Rumanians, etc. and has carried such names as Moldavia, Besarabbia, Wallachia and Transnistria.  Today the population is an ethnic melange of Rumanias, Moldovas, Lipovans, Cossacks, and Bulgarians to name a few.  In the 1890's Chisinau had a Jewish population of 50,000 out of a total of 110,000 or 46%.  and there are apparently still about 30,000 Jews in Moldova.  Between 1817 and 1940 there was also a large German community  One sees only scant evidence of them today.

Despite major disadvantages, Moldovans have been able to sustain themselves over the years by filling important niches in the Eastern European viticulture and agriculture markets.  It's rolling hills are well-suited to wine-growing and are a major source of good quality wine for Russia, the Ukraine, Romania and other countries of the area.  Moldova also boasts that its winery in Milestii Mici is the largest in the world -

My friend Bill would like the violin music here because much of it has that melancholic Eastern-European/gypsy sound.  It's what his father used to play in the Wintergarten in Berlin. - (you have to wait a little until this really gets going)

Unfortunately I didn't have a weekend to see the sights of Moldova so can't provide much in the way of a first-hand knowledge. In a couple of hours I'll fly to Istanbul for the weekend and will work in Ankara next week.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi

Greetings from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet Republic.  (   This isolated and land-locked country shares borders with Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan and also has a coast on the Caspian Sea, the world's largest enclosed body of water.   Turkmenistan belongs to the Turkic family of countries that also includes Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbajan.

Ashgabat was established as a Russian village in 1818 on the ruins of an old Silk Road city that had existed since at least the 2nd Century BC.  It became the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 and of Independent Turkmenistan in 1991. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ashgabat rapidly developed as the Turkmen capital, primarily around the personality of the country's dictator, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, who became known as Turkmenbashi -- Leader of the Turkmen.   Prior to his death in 2006, foreign media labeled him as one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive dictators, highlighting his reputation of imposing his personal eccentricities upon the country, which extended to renaming months after members of his family. He was known for an all-pervasive cult of personality which many say exceeded that of Stalin. It was reported that money under his control and held overseas may have exceeded US$3 billion.  Today Ashgabat is often referred to as "Marble City" due to the extensive construction of glistening white marble buildings and self-aggrandizing memorials that began during his regime and which continue to this day.  They have apparently been funded from the sales of the country' extensive holdings of natural gas. Western diplomats and visitors wonder who will occupy all of these imposing edifices and how they will be maintained. The hotel I stayed in looked fantastic from the outside but the rooms and service were very basic.  (It's the only hotel I have ever stayed in where guests can use the gym for free but have to pay $8 to use the treadmill because it draws electricity!) Despite it prosperous appearances, the country still has a cash economy with no ATMs and with credit cards only accepted for room payment at major hotels.  Internet access is extremely limited with only dial-up mode available under tight State control. 

Check out these pictures of some of Ashgabat's new buildings which are quite amazing,32

I'm off to Chisinau later today. Where's that?