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Our last two stops were great in northern Spain and northern Portugal. Like a previous post, I may not be able to comment on each photo here as I am leaving for a river trip soon. But if I fail to caption each of these, I finish up when I get back! Enjoy.

Flying form Romania to Spain, we had a excellent view of the southern side of the Alps. A recent snow storm had dropped fresh snow just the day before. The captain said that the Matterhorn was visible out there but I didn't see it.

Northern Spain was so green!

Bilbao, Spain

Our first stop was the famous Guggenheim Museum. I didn't know too much about it but was pleasantly surprised at some of the exhibits (although many modern art museum will have some strange themes.

The spider at the entrance.

Tulip art. This piece is quite large.

This is one example of a seemingly strange exhibit. Imagine a hall as long as a football filed and in it are merely eight steel shapes. I walked in and said, "What is this?" But after walking into the shapes and seeing all of the different designs, it was AMAZING!

Here is the big view. We use tour guide systems on these trips in which a local guide can talk into a radio powered headset and then. we all can hear the guide without the need to stand real close. If you go more than 35 meters away, the signal fails. However, I went deep into three or four of these shapes on the far side of the hall and the guides voice came through loud and clear. The steel shapes act like an antennae.

San Sebastian, Spain

We stayed at the town of San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay.

The old town was really wonderful and all of the "foodies" on our trip loved this stop as San Sebastian is known for its gastronomy. Some members of our group had made a reservation at a restaurant one year in advance and paid $500 for a 26-course meal. The portions were thumbnail size I heard.

Another scene on a street in the old town.

One of the churches in San Sebastian.

Across the bay is Mt. Urgill and I next went to the hotel seen on top. The following photos are taken from there.

On Mt. Urgill looking west.

Looking east into the bay and the spectacular setting of San Sebastian. The old town is seen just above the island in the bay.

Close-up of one of San Sebastian's beaches.

Close-up of the old town.

Note the upturned strata on the island. This reflects uplift of the Pyrenees Mountains whose main mass is located east of here. However, the entire region was caught up in the uplift event.

The Pyrenees have had multiple deformation episodes but the latest one was the Alpine Orogeny that created the Alps.

The road cuts near here are spectacular.

Barritz, France

I signed on for a day tour across the border in southern France and loved it.

A map of Spain and Portugal to show these locations. Note the towns of Bilbao and San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain near the French border. Just across the border is the village of Biarritz. Note also that this is the place where the orientation of the shoreline shifts from east-west to north-south. Biarritz is located right there.

This is looking from the area of the lighthouse to the east where rocks from the Pyrenees uplift are located.

Turning 90 degrees right note only a flat sandy coast. This is where the elbow of the Bay of Biscay is located. No mountains looking in this direction all the way to Normandy. This is a former plate junction where the Iberian microcontinent collided with Europe (France).

View if the lighthouse from the center of town.

In Biarritz I visited the market.

France hams for sale. I would have loved to taste it.

The fruit stall.

Fresh fish from the Bay of Biscay. Look how nicely they are displayed. This was one of the cleanest markets I have ever seen.

Visiting the Virgin Mary statue on the bay. Note the tilted sedimentary rocks.

View to the west toward San Sebastian. Our day trip to France was excellent! And our stop in Spain was great too. On to Portugal!

The Coa Valley, Portugal

Our jet took a short flight to Porto in Portugal and we drove 90 minutes to the Douro Valley. The Douro River is a major waterway in northern Iberia. For the Douro Valley, I partook in a day trip to an archaeological site in the Coa Valley.

Through the wine growing region of northern Portugal. It is very scenic. I was very eager to see the Coa Valley because it is the site of a Paleolithic rock art site. The rock art here is between 25,000 and 10,000 years old. Many people have heard of the famous cave paintings in France and Spain and this site is partially equivalent in age.

The Douro River Valley where the Coa River meets this river. Note the river cruise boat.

The museum at the site had perfect recreations of the art as well as excellent exhibits. This is a recreation piece of one of the more famous elements. It is a depiction of a horse with seemingly two heads, one looking each way. But the archaeologists believe the artists were trying to depict motion.

The archaeological site has an interesting story. In 1991 a dam was set to be built on the Coa River shown here. As part of the pre-construction archaeological survey, they found the Paleolithic rock art. The energy company tried to find that the art was not of that age but it was futile. A national campaign was begun and by 1995 the dam project was halted forever. The dam site can be seen on the left side of this photo. What a great story. Read more about it here.

The way in was on dirt roads. The site is limited to about 50 people per day and there were 15 guests in our group.

The last town before the site is Castillo Melhor and the local restaurant is in on the theme.

A larger view of the site with the big floodplain bar likely the site where the artists camped. To think of Homo sapiens living here 25,000 years ago in the height of the Ice Age is thrilling to me.

The first panel being explained by our archaeology guide Antonio Barata. He has worked with rock art at this site since the days of dam construction.

When we arrived the panel was in the shade. But within 10 minutes the sun had drawn high snout to illuminate the elements. Many elements overlap one another and irregularities in the rock are sometimes used for eyes, noses, and other features.

This is a depiction of a horse on the left facing right. There are three heads on the torso which is very evident on the left. Antonio believes that the artists were depicting motion as the horse was grazing with its head down (easily seen at center), then lifting its head in two other positions above that.

Antonio pointing out the site.

A fabulous rendition of an aurochs, a wild predecessor of domesticated cattle. The last aurochs died in Poland in 1837.

More elements on the rock. Our group was ecstatic to see such ancient art.

Look at this! The rock type is schist.
Thank you for reading about my trip - Kingdoms and Cultures of Eurasia!
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Much of this trip skirted the western side of the former Soviet Union and our visit to Albania and Romania reflects this. If, like me, you were subjected to the grainy, black and white images of wrinkly old ladies standing in a bread line in the 1960s and 1970s, you might also expect these countries to look the same today. Not wanting me to aspire to anything socialized, our government  imprinted these images of scarcity and want in our psyches. Admittedly, things were not always good under the Soviet dictatorships and we heard many stories from the locals in this regard. We did however, also hear how roads, railroads and other infrastructure was improved during these dark days. Like most things in life, there was spectrum of benefits and misery and not just a single story to be told. Both of these countries were subjected to brutal social conditions in the Communist era but they are now thriving and forward looking. Wee had great weather in both places. Take a look.

Tirana, Albania

Our jet landed in the capital, Tirana and our hotel was directly in the city center. I took this photo from the window of my 20th floor hotel room. You can see the mosque to the left under construction, with funding provided by the government of Turkey. We heard this refrain often on our trip. It seems the Turkish government wants to exert influence in nearby countries as a sort of "Return of the Ottoman Empire."

Map of Albania showing surrounding nations, Tirana the capital, and Skoder and Lake Skoder.

Skodra, Albania

I opted for a full day tour to the northern city of Skodra (also spelled Shkodër). Our objective was to visit the Rozafa Castle located on the hill seen here. Check out the link provided for a more detailed explanation.

Walking up on the old road. We left the capital early to beat the crowds. That was a very good thing.

Once on top of the hill we could see why this was such an incredible place to build a castle - the hill is located at the confluence of three rivers. This view to the south shows two of the rivers coming from the distant mountains in the background, known as the Albanian Alps.

View to the north to the modern city of Skodra with some of the castle ruins in the foreground. Look a those cirrus clouds! I love watching them.

There are three concentric walls and this is the entrance through the outer wall. Note the city in the background. Beyond the city is the border with the country of Montenegro.

Cobblestone road in the entrance.

Looking out beyond the outermost wall.

View to the north from Rozafa Castle to the city of Skodra.

This view is the left of the one above and shows the third river in the area. Look closely and you can see it is a short river and begins when water leaves Lake Skodra, visible in the left background.

Turning downstream on the Skodra River where it joins the other two river. Note the Albanian flag.

One more turn to the left showing where the two rivers approach the Skodra River.

Spring was in full bloom and these poppies reveal here the color for the flag was obtained.

Everywhere we went young people engaged us as they often do not see Americans. However, European tourism is strong in al of the countries that we visited.

After passing the second wall, we encountered the old church, whose bell tower had been converted into a minaret when the Ottoman's invaded the area in 1478. I love those clouds visible here. What a day!

Inside the modern city of Skodra, where the old streets are welcoming and beautiful.

One of the things these trips do not lack is plenty of good food. We stopped at a very local Albanian restaurant located about halfway between Skodra and Tirana. The food was excellent as well as the beer! It was busy with locals - we were the only visitors here. Fourteen courses had everyone in our group raving about the day.

Our ride back to the capital passed through some beautiful landscapes. The Albanian Alps are a place I could envision returning to with striking mountain scenery protected in National Parks. I think my strongest take-away from Albania was realizing how words - such as Albania - can create impressions, feelings, and even judgements that are not necessarily true. Had I visited this country during the 1960s and 1970s, my impressions may have been quite different. But Rozafa Castle, the Albanian Alps, and the cirrus clouds on a sunny day would have still been there, Our next country only confirmed this observations.

Bucharest, Romania

As five of the nine counties visited on this trip are new to me, I only learned something about their history - anything - only a few days before touchdown. The ability to quickly learn about a country's history is really an artifact of living in this modern, wired world. Sure, there were printed travel guides in the "old" days but having ready access to many documents at once is a sure sign of modernity. As I learned, Romania has a fascinating history and landscape.


Map of Romania showing Bucharest, Pelaş, and Bucovina.

A Triumphal Arch that was designed after  the one in Paris. An original wooden arch was built here to honor Romanian independence in the 1870s and this version was constructed and dedicated in 1936.

Romania is a proud member of the European Union.

The fire from my 7th floor hotel room to the east in Bucharest.

The Royal Palace of Bucharest, now an art museum.

An old Orthodox Church in the heart of Bucharest. Lots of outdoor cafes lined the streets of the city.

On our 2nd day, we headed north into the Carpathian Mountains where the Pelaȿ Castle is located. More of a mansion than a castle, the interior was astounding in its over-the-top size and design. From the Wikipedia site:

When King Carol of Romania (1839–1914), first visited the site of the castle in 1866, he fell in love with the magnificent mountain scenery. In 1872, the Crown purchased 500 square miles of land and the estate was named the Royal Estate of Sinaia. The King commissioned the construction of a royal hunting preserve and summer retreat on the property, and the foundation for Peleș Castle was laid on 22 August 1873 and interior redesign continued until his death. Several out buildings were also constructed: a guards' chambers, a hunting lodge, royal stables, and a power plant. Peleș became the world's first castle fully powered by locally produced electricity.

Here is a view of the Carpathian Mountains in central Romania. These mountains are the site of another castle just 35 miles away that was the setting of the 1897 novel "Dracula" by Bran Stoker. Indeed, one of the three provinces in Romania is Transylvania. The Carpathian Mountains have a history related to the uplift of the Alps to the west. The rocks seen here are mostly composed of limestone.

There are numerous statues at the entrance of the castle/mansion.

After ascending a red carpeted stairway, the entry room was attained. Three stories high and full of ornate woodwork.

King Carol I (pronounced Karl) was very fond, of his weapons collection with many pieces dating back to early Medieval times.

Here is a fully outfitted armored horseman as he might have looked in the 14th century.

The stained glass windows were quite impressive.

Portrait of a young King Carol of Romania.

A scene from the music room.

This is not a nickel-plated bathtub in one of the 33 bathrooms, it is a solid nickel bathtub.

The largest guest bedroom where Franz Joseph I of Austria slept for one night only.

The main dining table with an opening to the third floor of the entryway. I have not previously had much experience with European castles and I understand that "castle fatigue" can be as undesirable as "church fatigue" in Italy. However, I was pleasantly surprised with this visit. While I might not return to this castle, The Carpathian Mountains hold a lot of interest to me.

Bucovina, Romania


We once again returned to our jet for a "commuter trip" to the northeast part of the country, a region called Bucovina. It was a one hour flight from Bucharest to this area, very near the neighboring country of Moldava.

Map of the regions in Romania.

Bucovina lies on the northern fringe of the Carpathian Mountains and this view to the south shows the low hills at the base of the range. It was green and hilly and very interesting to me.

The reason for our journey north was to see two beautifully painted and preserved monasteries. These have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites for the preservation of their 15th and 16th century frescoes.

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Things became far too busy on this trip to blog regularly. Now that the trip is over I will catch up .

Esfahan, Iran

Here's the deal - the day we left Iran, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear treaty. National Geographic (using TCS World Travel as their trip provider) has cancelled this destination on their next trip leaving in a few days. What most Americans hear about Iran and what it is like to actually be on the ground is a complete disconnect. We found the people inviting, curious, and very welcoming to Americans. The pictures here focus only on the ancient sights that they wanted us to see But most everyone on our trip was anxious to find out what it was like there today.

This is the 17th century Safavid palace called Chehel Sotun. There used to be about 17 of these places in Esfahan but only three survive today.

This is Persia and not Arabia. So the art in the parks display humans and not merely geometric forms.

Iranians love a picnic and this city is full of green parks (one might never know that Esfahan is located in a parched desert with all the green in the city). Just about anywhere there is green grass you will find some family picnicking.

I was shocked to see the river dry! Last time I was here the river was running. But a drought has been dragging on for a number of years and the river has been diverted and diminished. This is the Khaju Bridge.

Plates can be inserted into the notches on the left that will hold back water making the bridge as much of a dam as a bridge.

These girls (like many others) asked us to take their picture. None of our guests felt that the young people were being told nasty things about Americans. Their smiles and outgoing nature was very evident. There was a calm acceptance in their manner.

This is the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, said to be the second largest city square in the world (after Tiananmen Square in Beijing). We were standing five stories high in the Ali Qapu Palace (one of the three remaining palaces in Esfahan) looking south to the Shah Mosque. The photo shows only about 1/3 or the square.

This is a view to the north and the other 2/3 of the square. Al of the stalls on the first floor are bazaars where shops sell things.

At the top of this palace is the Music Room. The many niches that are shaped like musical instruments allow for a beautiful sound.

View from the reflecting pool to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.

View inside of the many blue tiles.

Entrance to the Shah Mosque.

The lobby in the Abassi Hotel. We stayed three nights here and for many, this turned out to be their favorite stop on the whole trip.

Zighy Bay, Oman


The map shows the Musandam Peninsula, which juts into the Persian Gulf to create the Straits of Hormuz. Zighy Bay is located where the red letters spelling "Oman" are located. The Arabian Plate is drifting northeast and impinging into Iran and the Eurasian Plate. Therefore, the mountains in the Musandam and southern Iran are spectacular! Our jet landed in the United Arab Emirates at Ra's al Khiyamah on the Persian Gulf (just left of the "red Oman") and we drove across the peninsula to the coast of the Gulf of Oman.

Once on the Gulf of Oman side, we took a dhow to access our resort hotel. We had great views of the rugged coast here.

Approaching Zighy Bay and our resort, the Six Senses. The air quality was really bad here and the temperature was above 100 degrees.

I opted for a sunset tour in 4X4 jeeps in order to see more of the landscape.

Much of the tour was in a slot canyon sliced through limestone rocks.

The box canyon.

I gor to walk a portion of the narrowest spot. The limestone ranges in age from Permian to Paleocene and re the deposits of the Tethy's Sea.

This is a very remote area with people living solitary lives in the hills. This is what serves as a mosque in the area. Compare this to the blue mosques seen in Iran!

Petroglyphs on the limestone.

Three mountain building events have affected these rocks and the tilting in the limestone layers is obvious.

Deep dissection into the tilted layers creates patterns that most people find interesting. However, while these forms are easily understood by a geologist, they can be quite difficult to explain to the uninitiated. I usually try by having people imagine a stack of colored construction paper. Then tilt that stack slightly and cut through it with scissors. This would expose the various colors in the cuts.

Sunset occurred well before the sun actually went below the horizon.

It disappeared right after this moment.

Looking north from the sunset viewpoint.

We had a drink while sitting on pillows.

I also di my very first paraglide at this stop. It was great!
Next up - Albania and Romania.
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We are now in the air flying to Iran. There was a social media blackout in Turkmenistan and I was unable post from there. So, I will publish as much as I can in this 2 hour flight and at least get the photos online.

Kyrgyzstan (see link for this country here) 

We flew into Central Asia at the tail end of a wet cold front. You can see the rain disappearing in the upper left.

And we woke up to beautiful blue skies on May 1. These are the Kyrgyz Mountains to the south from our hotel in the capital city of Bishkek.

This is the restored Burana Tower located on a branch of the Silk Road.

Stone crafted headstones in the cemetery area.

 Another headstone made of granite. The mountains in the distance are located in Kazakstan.

A definite East Asian look in this figure.

 Mill stones made of granite.

 A large fault, the Issyk-Ata fault runs along the base of the mountains. These faults result ultimately from the collision of India with Asia to the east of here.

We also enjoyed an eagle demonstration while at the tower.

A regal bird. I observed a very deep connection between the bird and its master.

The demonstration included the bird flying in to catch a rabbit (already made into meat).
 
Devouring the rabbit.

The national dish is called plov (pilaf with a flour crust).

This yurt was assembled in 12 minutes. The ones who assembled it routinely engage in competition of this type.

Turkmenistan (see a link for the country here)

Flying over the Karakum Desert, 12th larges in the world and coo red mainly in sand dunes. The dark areas are oases in the desert.


Note the main canal running across the view, with subsidiary canals and agricultural areas in green. Turkmenistan grows a lot of cotton.

All I can say is that the capital of Ashgabat is unusual! This is the new international terminal shaped like a falcon. Most buildings are faced with with marble, much of it from Carrera, Italy.

The East Asia Games wewre hosted here in 2017 and this stadium was built for the event.

This is an entirely planned community.

Planted forest.

The horse is revered in Turkmenistan.

Monument to Independence from the Soviet Union (acquired in 1991).

This is the 1st President (1991-2006).

It is a marginally Muslim country but statues of people are everywhere.

View of the "White City" from my hotel room.

The Ancient City of Merv see the link here)

(I'll try to continue this later....)






















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If you, like me, grew up during the Cold War, your childhood education likely included black and white grainy images of the old Soviet Union. Perhaps the photos were of mole-ladened, ladies wearing wool scarfs as they stood in a long bread line on a cold winters day. Or of obedient peasants gathering wheat with hand-held sickles. Whatever those images were meant to convey, they painted a picture of a stone cold, lifeless humanity - a huge Soviet monoculture devoid of anything unique. The name 'Lithuania' created visions for me of a grey, lifeless existence. However, between what what my government wanted me to think and what it actually was (and is) is something quite different. The Lithuanians never were Soviets or even Russian. They had too long a history of their own that pre-dated the Czars and even Russia as a political and cultural entity. My first visit here revealed something dynamic and alive in a country and culture with a long, interesting history. I loved this first stop on our trip and would go back in a heartbeat.

The word 'Lithuania' first appears in written records in the year 1003 AD, but the Romans spoke of a people living here as early as 7 AD, whom they called the Balts. A succession of nobles, knights and kings is recorded, people who spoke a language that even today preserves elements of a pre-Medieval tongue that was spoken across the northern plains of Europe. The country once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea whose people successively resisted the Golden Horde, Teutonic Knights, Russian Czars, and (eventually and successfully) the Nazi's and the Soviets. Cultural success was rooted, perhaps surprisingly, in an overt tolerance for others - a tolerance not often heard of in the development of many Western societies. Lithuanians retained a pagan way of life through the 14th century, comfortable in their ancient, polytheistic worldview. Eventually Catholicism reached Lithuania and the Protestant Reformation was much less successful here (and likely resulted from suspicions of the successors to those Teutonic Knights). The country remains dominantly Catholic today.

Vilnius is the capital and is located at the junction of two rivers with a hill conveniently located at the rivers' confluence. The setting was an ideal location for a castle, a city, and a nation.

We visited the Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, where paintings of old Vilnius were seen. Note the small river wrapping around the semi-circular wooden stockade on the left. A perfect place to built a city! Note the hill (called a mountain in Lithuania) in the background with another fortification on top. This image is from the 12th century, before the use of locally made red bricks began in the 13th century.

The bell tower and the National Cathedral at night. These modern structures sit just inside of where the semi-circular stockade wall was seen in the previous image. Our hotel was located just across the street from these two structures. The semi-circular river is now drained and a semi-circular street is on top of it.

The foundations of the first brick castle were laid in the 13th century and were recently excavated with a modern museum constructed on top of them. What an incredible exhibit within, charting the development of and Vilnius and Lithuania from the retreat of the Scandinavian Ice Sheet some 10,000 years ago to the present. The displays are phenomenal! Artifacts from the Stone Age were uncovered in the excavations but revealed that construction in Medieval times disrupted much of this early prehistory.

A model in the museum showing the layout of the earliest castle and the landscape elements that determined its location. The location, within the bend of the little river, separated the dukes and other nobles from the commoners and their homes outside this natural boundary.

By the 17th century the complex had grown more intricate. In this model, existing buildings have color and those no longer in existence are made of white foam. Note the clock tower on the far left and the Cathedral just to the right of it (brown color). Only one tower remains of the hilltop fortification (seen in the following photo).

This is about all that is left of the hilltop fortress. Note the grey scars on the slopes - these are where recent slips or landslides have been reinforced.

As the castle nearby grew in importance, so did Old Town Vilnius.

Old Town has many narrow, winding streets that are a holdover from Medieval times.

We had a great walk trough the Old Town and I took many pictures.

Vilnius is called "The Greenest Capital in Europe," at least in Lithuania. I have not been to all the capitals to know if this is true or not but it certainly is green.

It is a lively place with many post-recession sidewalk cafes.

Colorful bicycles for rent to get around Old Town.

From the University Library (founded in 1579) I leaned out a window to capture a view of the old and the new. Since 2004, the skyscrapers across the Neris River have grown.

From the top of the Palace of the Grand Dukes, I captured this view back toward the University. Note the old Lithuanian flag with the proverbial knight on a white horse. This flag was only replaced in 2004 as the official flag of the country. Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to say "No thanks" to continued inclusion in the USSR after Mikhail Gorbachov let countries decide whether to stay or not (glasnost). The year was 1988 and it set in motion world changing events. We learned that Lithuania was always a reluctant member of the USSR.

Inside the hallways of the Palace of the Grand Dukes.

We also visited the Amber Museum. The Baltic is the richest region on earth for amber, which formed between about 50 and 44 million years ago from the resin of pine trees. It washes up on the shores of the Baltic after storms.

In the evening we drove about 45 minutes outside the city to visit the Dukes summer retreat on the shores of a lake.

Trakai is a National Historic Park and is quite beautiful in late afternoon light. The forecast was for rain but it never materialized.

Close-up of the castle with the old flag.

 View of Trakai Castle from the bridge connecting it to the mainland.

Corner tower and tree.

Here is a view of the area depicting the early 17th century area near Trakai. The castle in the foreground was destroyed by the Russians later in the 17th century and was never rebuilt. The Trakai castle is seen in the background.

TCS always arranges for special welcomes at our evening dinners.

And incentives to not misbehave!

The court jester greeted everyone and was the master of ceremonies for the evening.

Which included Medieval music and dancing.

In Lithuania  hundreds of Medieval "hoards" have been found by farmers plowing their fields. The hoards typically are found in clay pots and were buried to protect from thievery. Silver and copper coins are often found. This one was on display in the castle.

Sunset on April 30, 2018 from the Trakai bridge. I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about Lithuania. Who knew it had anything to offer the world except the occasional 7-foot tall NBA basketball player!
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It has been a nice 30 days since I returned from New Zealand and Australia. I loved being at home with my wife, although I also went to the Bears Ears National Monument with guy friends for four days and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with Helen for five days, both in southern Utah. It was interesting to visit those Monuments after what I consider to be the illegal downsizing of the monuments' boundaries in December. More on that in a later post.

Today I am in Lisbon, Portugal to begin a 22-day adventure to nine different countries. The trip is called "Kingdoms and Cultures of Eurasia by Private Jet." For the next 22 days, it will by my pleasure to attempt to add to the name of the trip slightly, wanting to call it "Kingdoms, Cultures, and Landscapes of Eurasia." You can view the itinerary here.

In a few hours we'll board our private 757 jet and journey toward our first stop - Vilnius, Lithuania. I'll be visiting five new countries on this trip and Lithuania will be the first of these. Thank you for reading and fasten your seat belt!


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After leaving Australia, our group headed first to the South Island and then the North Island. The two landmasses seem like different countries they are so different. The south is wild, mountainous, and sparsely populated; the north is tropical, lush, and has more people and infrastructure.

The South Island
Landing first in Christchurch, there is still evidence everywhere of the 2010-2011 earthquake swarm. What began as a memorial to the 185 persons who lost their lives on the February 22, 2011 M6.7 quake, is now a permanent art piece constructed of 185 empty chairs.

The cathedral in Christchurch was very badly damaged and the city has been agonizing for seven years what to do with the former city centerpiece.

Recently, the city fathers and the Anglican Church have decided that the city icon will be restored.

Leaving Christchurch, we head south across the flat Canterbury Plains and into the rolling Mackenzie Basin country. 

In the Mackenzie Basin there is much history...

...and this church sits on the shores of a great glacial lake, Lake Pukaki, covering nearly 69 square miles. It is very picturesque. The South Island is rife with glacial features.

We are now in Mt. Cook National Park and are driving in a 4X4 vehicle up to the Tasman Glacier. The ridge of rock on the right of the road is a lateral moraine from the glacier.

On the way up the valley we saw huge avalanche chutes filled with boulders. Some of them like this looked very fresh.

I have now climbed to near the top of the lateral moraine and the view is up valley. The skyline of the Southern Alps can be seen in the far distance.

Once at the top of the moraine we got a fine view of the Tasman Glacier, covered in rocky debris as the glacier ablates. In 1973 the snout of this glacier was four miles farther downstream...

...way out of sight in this downstream view. The Tasman Glacier is a rapidly retreating ice sheet and in 1973 this lake did not exist - the valley floor was covered in ice.

Close-up of the glacier snout and its rocky mantle.

Close-up of the lateral moraine ridge.

We got some excellent view of Mt. Cook from the large windows of the hotel. This lenticular cloud never went away but still, this is considered a clear day. (The next day was overcast). Mt. Cook is New Zealand's highest peak at 12,218 ft. Prior to December, 1991, it was 31 feet higher but a rock and ice fall shaved the 31 feet off of its total height.

Leaving Mt. Cook for Queenstown we passed the gold mining village of Arrowtown, established in 1862. 

Most of the rocks used for walls are local stone made of schist.

An Arrowtown store hawking local gold. The gold was emplaced in the early part of the Cenozoic Era.

This is Mirror Lake in the Fiordland National Park containing 2.9 million acres of preserved wet forest lands.

On the Chasm Trail, we were treated to a lush fern tree forest!

They are magnificent plants. There are over 200 types of native ferns in New Zealand and 70 introduced species. About 40% of the native ferns occur nowhere else in the world.

Some tree ferns can grow as tall as 30 feet. They are reminiscent of a much earlier time in earth history and the word that drifted through my mind as I wandered beneath them was "Jurassic."

Another important green treasury on the South Island is the mineral jade (nephrite, and bowenite). The Maori people had/have a multitude of uses for jade.

It rains a lot in Fjordland with over 200 days per year of rainfall and sometimes measuring 8 meters in a single year and about 320 inches! For that reason, Mitre Peak seen above is difficult to get a good shot. This peak is as iconic to the people of New Zealand as the Grand Canyon or Golden Gate Bridge is to Americans.

We saw some rain here in the very southern parts of the South Island but on our last day, we woke up to a bluebird day! Overnight, snow had fallen in The Remarkables, the range found on the south side of Queenstown.

We took a ride on the Earnslaw steamer ship, which was put into service the same year as the Titanic. Needless to say, this ship has had a longer run. Our trip to the South Island was very enjoyable! Now it was on to the North Island.

The North Island

Flying north, we got a great view of the Southern Alps, fresh with snow.

Somewhere out there is Mt. Cook in the high clouds. Low clouds fill the glacial valleys.

First stop is the geyser area in Rotorua (meaning Two Lakes in the Maori language). It was interesting - in Australia there were over 400 languages among the Aborigines. Here, across both islands, the people were united in a single language of Polynesian descent.

This is the Pohutu Geyser erupting. Watch a 4-minute YouTube video of the geyser erupting (note that the video begins in Russian but there is some English in it. Excellent footage of a big eruption. It's all about the geological plumbing in these systems.

Thermal pool near Pohutu.

A sulphur deposit surrounding a steam vent.

Ahh - the boiling mudpots, one of my favorite thermal features! These multi-storied pots were most fascinating.

This two photo sequence shows two small bubbles on the right that had just plopped and the larger one of the left in the act of plopping.

You got to be quick but I captured a bubble in mid-plop. I could watch these features for hours. Gases coming up through fractures in the rock thermally alter the rock and break it down. Hot water mixes with the decomposed rock to create the mud. Geothermal heat drives the boil.

Hangi is the Maori tradition of cooking food in a hot pit and we were able to taste the results.

A Maori warrior.

The Waitomo Caves are a great limestone cavern system located halfway between Rotorua and Auckland. This limestone is a mere 30 million years old and formed when this portion of Zealandia was submerged. Zealandia is the no-so-micro microcontinent. The continental crust here is half the size of Australia but only a small portion of it is emergent.

Cave formations. I set my ISO number to 6400 and there white balance on cloudy. It worked really well. My camera does not have a flash.

Bacon rind formation. or curtain formation with light filtering through it.

These caves are famous for the glow worms, actually a larvae. Check it out here. Shown here are the "food traps" they weave from the cave ceiling.

I managed to get a poor image of four glow worms.

Fossilized pectin shell in limestone.

Our last stop was in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, population 1,300,000 people. It is a beautiful city located on a narrow peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea.

If you ever go to Auckland, I highly recommend a visit to the National Museum where we saw specimens of some of New Zealand's famous fossils - the..
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For the month of March I am lecturing on a Smithsonian Journeys trip to Australia and New Zealand. The flight over on the Airbus 380 was relatively easy - I can highly recommend the comfort on this exquisite and roomy jet (and I flew on cattle class!). I was able to take in four movies - The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Man From Snowy River, and Crocodile Dundee. Good fun. Once on the ground here, the distances are vast and we can only see but a small slice of this immense landscape. However, the rewards are grand and varied, from tropical forests, to deserts to a very expensive city.

We arrived in Cairns after torrential rains. This is the Barron River in flood.

The spray coming up out of the gorge behind the gondola is from the Barron Falls, normally a small trickle (due to dewatering in a hydro-electric scheme) that falls 900 feet.

This is Barron Falls in late October, 2015 - the last time I visited here.

View from the same platform in March, 2018. You can watch a one minute video of the flood here.

The newspapers were full of stories about the rain and the floods.

Some areas received 24 inches in three days and a few towns were cut off when bridged went out.

The rain had stopped by the time we arrived and out walk through the rainforest was on the cool side.

I wish I could remember the name of this emergent giant in the rainforest. Almost as tall as a California redwood, the species was harvested for wood and is nearly gone from this forest.

The Daintreee is considered the oldest continuously existing rainforest in the world, perhaps as long as back to the Cretaceous some 125 million years old.

On to the Great Barrier Reef at Michaelmas Caye. The following are shots I took with my underwater camera. With over 600 species of coral found here, I have no idea what the names are.

But they are beautiful.

Corals are very tiny organisms that build calcium "homes" for themselves. The colonies are the great limestone factories on planet Earth.

A large colorful parrotfish.

Brain coral and giant clams.

Close-up of a giant clam, which can weigh over one ton! Here the animal has its shells wide open. Another brilliant snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. This time I had no issues with water leaking into my mask as I lathered the Vaseline real thick on the mustache.

So, it is time to leave green and rainy Queensland behind and head west to the Outback! Note the difference in color between this near-coastal scene and the one that follows from the interior of the continent.

Landing at Alice Springs in the Red Center of Australia. Note the water gap running through the upturned ridge of rock - that is Hevitree Gap cut by the Todd River.

Australia is no different from any other country in having its war memorial to remind the citizens that they are warriors. The many signs leading up to the hilltop view list every single war Australia has participated in. The one for Afghanistan still has no end date.

Although most people c conflate the Outback with desert, this area is more akin to semi-arid with many trees and the invader grass called bufflegrass. The Outback as well had received a lot of rain in the previous 10 days.

We experienced an Aboriginal encounter with the local tribe. Here they are selling their art painted on canvas.

Mark is showing how to throw the boomerang.

We got to try a bit of kangaroo tail. It tasted like pork.

And we enjoyed some hot tea from the billie.

Next, on the open road west from Alice Springs along the MacDonnell Ranges. These Precambrian quartzite and shale rocks were folded during the Alice Springs Orogeny between 350 and 300 million years ago. Many water gaps are cut through these linear uplifts.

These are cycads, an ancient plant that evolved as early as the Jurassic period, some 200 to 145 million years ago. These MacDonnell cycads (Macrozamia macdonnellii) were seen in the Standley Gorge as refugia specimens held over from wetter times.

The sheer walls of the Standley Gorge, cut into the Hevitree Quartzite.

We visited another water gap called Simpson's Gap. This is my favorite as its form is gentler and more welcoming.

This is the reflecting pool in the narrows of Simpson's Gap.

An example of the Hevitree Quartzite, deposited as sandstone around 900 to 800 million years ago.

Now we are making our way over 450 kilometers from Alice Springs to the southwest and Uluru or Ayers Rock. The road was quite good and fairly lush given the recent rains.

That's Mt. Connor in the distance rising about 1200 feet above the plain. It is composed of a hard sandstone/quartzite caprock underlain by softer shales and mudstones.

Close-up of Ayers Rock with a nice cirrus cap.

The bare sandstone monolith funnels water off of the top into numerous pools at the base. These were much sought-after locations for water and animal resources, which were also attracted to the water.

View to the northeast on the south side of Ayers Rock. The rock is technically composed of a sandstone called arkose. These are sandstones that contain much pink feldspar, which suggests that the source area was not far away when this was deposited 550 Ma. Feldspar tends to weather chemically more rapidly than other minerals and its presence here means there was not much transport distance. See below for an explanation.

This is the northwest side of the rock and where the trail goes to the top. It was announced while we were here that climbing of the rock will be outlawed officially on October 26, 2019. It is now heavily discouraged but still attainable, although it is forbidden on days when the temperature reaches 36ºC.

This is the beginning of our champagne sunset from the viewing area.

We saw this one with about 700 other people. About 500,000 people visit Uluru every year.

Last shot of the evening.

The next day we headed further west to Kata Tjuta, formerly known as the Olga's. Kata Tjuta is the local Aboriginal name meaning "Many Heads" for the 36 domes of rock.

Telephoto shot of the Olga's across the plain.

While only 16 miles away from Uluru, the rocks here are much courser being composed of boulder and cobble conglomerate. Some of the large clasts are well-rounded, while others are sub-rounded or even sub-angular.

The clast compositions suggest that the material was derived from the nearby Petermann Mountains, observed to the southwest of Kata Tjuta. I find it amazing that after 550 million years, the source area is still standing and still presumably shedding debris outwards!

Basalt clast from the Pertermann Mountains. This was the end of our Outback experience.

Flying into the city of Sydney, Australia's largest.

It is really quite scenic and easy to get around (at least in the city center where we stayed - the suburbs have terrible traffic).

The iconic Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House as seen from Lady MacQuarie's Chair.

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Just outside of Flagstaff lies an unknown landscape - forgotten, wild, and surreal. The colors and textures are electric. My friend Scott Thybony took myself and three others out here on a blue-bird winters day in February. We live for this kind of exploration and were not disappointed.

The approach and the openness of a wild land.

Resembling a Navajo hogan, this rocky outcrop serves as a guidepost to the natural wonders of the Adeei Ecchi Cliffs. These strata belong to the eolian (wind-blown) Jurassic Wingate Sandstone (about 205 Ma). Just about 10 miles from here, the unit grades into the Moenave Formation, a fluvial (river) deposit. A reconstruction of the Early Jurassic landscape as documented by these changing lithologies, reveals a desert dune environments encroaching on an arid floodplain. The modern Persian Gulf is a great analogy.

First stop, a trackway site with over 400 dinosaur footprints.

Some are very well preserved with clearly delineated claw marks.

Moving toward the cliffs.

A preview of the strange erosional forms here.

Normally, wind has very little power in eroding and shaping landforms in the southwest. It does often transport grains away that are already dislodged. But the wind probably has little eroding power. The relatively weak cementation here allows for the likely sculpting by the wind.

Especially along weaker cemented horizons like the thin pedestal seem here.

Remarkable, isn't it.

Note the obvious cross-bedding highlighted by alternating layers of oxidized (red) and reduced (green to white) horizons along specific beds.

Looking out toward Gray Mountain to the west and the Grand Canyon area. Wide-eyed boys enjoying wide-ranging views,

An old Navajo hogan in ruins. The hogan is constructed of gray limestone beds from within the Wingate Sandstone. I had never before seen limestone beds from the Wingate. They are quite common in the overlying Navajo Sandstone and represent oasis' deposits during the Jurassic when the water table was high. If algae is present in the oasis ponds, calcium will be secreted and deposited. as limestone

A wonderland of seemingly jumbled rocks. But most of these have not moved and have merely weathered in place

During uplift, a consistent joint pattern is imprinted in the rock mass and erosion can attack these vertical lines of weakness to ultimately create ghost-like forms. Full moon night hike anyone?

Differential weathering - the well-cemented horizons protrude outwards, the weaker cemented horizons are indented. These conditions were imprinted while the rocks were still buried but upon being exposed, the forms take shape.

Cross-section of a dune. Note the darker wedges of sand coming in from the upper right. These are sand flow toes - formed when the crest of dune becomes oversteepened in a windstorm and then cascades down the leeward side. The direction of dip documents the direction of dune migration and wind direction. Sorry YEC's. These features are ubiquitous in arid dune environments today and the rocks were not formed in a world-wide flood from the Superstition Period. No offense meant - just sayin'.

One has to imagine that these forms are constantly changing - well, at least with respect to deep time. Something like this might change drastically in only 1,000 years. Or not.

Underlying the Wingate Sandstone is the Chinle Formation, soft gray mudstone that gives rise to the famous Painted Desert landscape. Here, Wingate Sandstone boulders have come to rest in equi-distant positions along the base of the small cliff. It reminded me of spokes in a wheel. Thanks Scott for a great day of exploration on our own two feet!
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Sorry everyone - I took a month off. I am now back to blogging. This first post after my break highlights a winter hike down to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This is an excellent time to be here.

Photo by Gina Longo
The temperatures this time of year are usually the cold side in the morning but the sun is often out and by 10 AM is is nice and warm. Here I am answering a question by one our guests on the South Kaibab Trail.

Photo by Gina Longo
In spite of the cool temperatures, it's always a good idea to get an early start on the trail. That gets us to the destination sooner where more fun can be had!

About three miles down the South Kaibab Trail is this eroded breccia pipe. Breccia is an Italian word for very angular deposits. However, the word pipe signifies a cylindrical shape that extends through the strata for thousands of feet. These are important features in the Grand Canyon region because many of them are rich in Uranium. We can say that the breccia pipes are uraniferous. Of course, this one will never be mined because it is inside the national park. But those located outside the park are sometimes mined. These features form on top of a cave whose roof progressively collapses with the material coming to rest on the cave floor. Through time, the process leaves a vertical shaft filled with breccia - a perfect environment for soluble uranium to precipitate out into the matrix of the breccia.

At the Tip-Off, about five miles in, we saw the mules hauling out trash from Phantom Ranch. What an essential Grand Canyon scene!

Look at this lovely woman fixing of lovely trail lunch - yum! Helen, my wife, is seen in her element along a Grand Canyon trail. She added so much to the success of this trip.

A young Bighorn sheep watching the hikers go by the trail. That's Buddha Temple in the background capped by a thin layer of the Toroweap Formation which rests on top of a thicker white band of the Coconino Sandstone (note the thin planar band at the contact of the two).

The same sheep now seen in front of Zoroaster Temple.

This is the River Trail paralleling the Colorado River. It is one of my favorite day hikes while staying in the Phantom Ranch area. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 using a lot of dynamite.

As luck would have it, we saw the Park Service mules bringing down the groceries for the rangers.

Helen raced ahead and got everyone's keys to their cabins. This is Norma Longo, a friend with whom I have traveled with before. She is also a geologist and was doing this hike for the second time.

There were still golden cottonwood leaves in the early winter.

Photo by Gina Longo
Wayne and Norma on the River Trail.

A beautiful scene on trhe Bright Angel Trail in the Tapeats Narrows.

This passerby was standing along the Bright Angel Fault as it cuts through the Redwall Limestone, so I asked him to admire the fault for scale. The two buttresses on either side of the wall are on the upthrown side of the fault (about 150 feet of offset here). The wall has been sheared smooth by movement along the fault.

The cavities formed when groundwater percolated through the downthrown block and intercepted the fault. All of this. - fault movement and cavity formation occurred while the area was still buried and before the Grand Canyon formed. Later erosion (helped with a bit of dynamite) then exposed the rocks.

The Jacob's Ladder section along the Bright Angel Trail.

If you would like to come with me and Helen on an informative Grand Canyon trek while staying in cabins two nights at Phantom Ranch (meals included!), write to me to reserve space on two trips I am offering next December! I hope to see you there!
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