Source: Jury is Always Right. Sort of …
Recommendation 1: If you go to China for the first time, do not go on your own. And not because of safety concerns (the country is very safe), but because of a huge and deep cultural differences.
The second reason for taking that tour was that it was crazy cheap. No, it was even cheaper than that. It included 11 nights in 4-5 star hotels, three intra-country flights between different cities, all breakfasts and lunches, guided tours every day, admission to all sites, and several other goodies. And the price of all this was under $1250 per person. My initial reaction was that you get what you pay for, and first of all I independently researched all of our hotels. The reviews were definitely positive, and this essentially sealed the deal. After all, what can we lose? The hotels, breakfasts, all flights and transportation are guaranteed, but if we don’t like something else, we will simply leave the tour for a couple of hours and explore on our own. It turned out, however, that it was not so simple.
Our tour started in Beijing, and the first site, as one can guess, was Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. I say “one can guess” because it seems that EVERY tour in China starts from this place (that’s how it is done in an authoritarian country!). The square is huge, surrounded by several monumental buildings linked to the Communist Party of China, but by itself is pretty boring. The adjacent Forbidden City is a vast complex of old Emperor’s palaces. It is interesting enough, but those who saw, say, the complex of King’s palaces in Bangkok, would not be very impressed. Plus most of the palaces are closed for the public and can be observed only from outside. But the worst thing was the crowds of tourists.
It seemed that all 1.5 billion of Chinese decided to visit the Forbidden City on that particular day, not even mentioning a few hundred thousands of foreigners! In this situation the main goal was not to enjoy the scenery but not to lose your group and not to get creamed by the crowd. At some moment I tripped, fell and broke my camera, so that all subsequent photos were made by my smartphone (sorry for the quality of these pictures).
In my long and eventful life I saw tons of pictures of the wall in books, posters, TV and online, and somehow there was never a single person there ! It is a mystery how the photographers managed to accomplish this.
Recommendation 3: The Great Chinese Wall should not be missed, but try to go to a remote and least touristy section (if such still exists).
The next city on our itinerary was Xian. The first thing that our guide cheerfully told us was: “You know, Xian is not a very big city. It has only about 9 million people”. (A nice small city with population of London and Paris combined?? Only in China…). In fact, nobody knew about Xian until recently. But some years ago a local farmer was digging on his lot and hit some strange things with his shovel. He called archeologists and … Xian was put on the world tourist map. Now people come here in droves to see Terracotta Warriors, one of the main tourist attractions of China. It is not one, two, or a hundred sculptures, it is a complete army buried underground:
In addition to Terracotta Warriors, there are two more interesting things to do in Xian. The first is a bike ride on the City Wall. This wall surrounds the older part of the city and is about 9 miles long. You can rent a bike there and make the whole loop with stops and site seeing in under 2 hours. Great exercise, interesting experience, lots of fun.
The second attraction is the Muslim Quarter. Surprisingly, there is such thing in Xian! And it is much more interesting than what most tourist guidebooks are recommending (and where your guides will probably take you). It is hard to properly describe it here but trust me: it is something that must be experienced.
Recommendation 4: If you are in Xian, go to see Terracotta Warriors (a must), make a bike ride on the city wall, and spend an evening in the city center near Bell Tower and in the Muslim Quarter. Two nights and one full day in the city should be enough. Do NOT allow your guide to drag you to Xian Historic Museum or to various stores for stupid foreign tourists.
After Xian we flew to Guilin. This is an area of extreme natural beauty, particularly because of thousands of unique cone-shape hills. Most of the tourists take a boat tour on Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo. The views from the boat are great even when it is cloudy (as it was during our tour), but in good weather they are simply fantastic. Alas, there are too many boats (we are in China after all !), but even this cannot spoil the impression.
It gives me a great pleasure to report that the memoir of my grandmother Ella Vovsi “A Document of Holocaust Survival” was finally published and is available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B017USI2HM. Here is the story of this memoir.
Before the World War Two, my grandmother’s family lived in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), the second largest city in Latvia, which at that time was part of the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Hitler’s Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and within the next few days occupied most of the Baltic States, including Latvia. My grandmother spent almost four years in various ghettos and concentration camps, the last of them being the infamous death camp Stutthof in Poland. Death and destruction surrounded her every day throughout these years; she almost lost her life numerous times, but each time somehow managed to escape death due to luck or a miracle. She was a very strong person, both physically and mentally. Because of this she was able to survive and not to lose her sanity.
Right after the war, when the Soviet Union began to recover from the terrible destruction and the loss of about 20 million people, and the memories were still fresh, a Latvian Jewish journalist began to work on a book about Nazi atrocities. Having learned of my grandmother, he asked her to write about her experiences during the war, which she did. Although my grandmother was not a writer, reading it leaves a powerful and horrific impression. Unfortunately, very soon Soviet policies began to change, the anti-Semitic attitudes in the country began to increase, and the topic became unpopular. Because some Latvians had collaborated with the Nazis and actively participated in extermination of Jews, it was not a politically correct subject at the time. The project never materialized.
In 1989 my family moved to the United States and brought the manuscript here. My intention was to have it published to honor the memory of my grandmother, and because I did not want her story (and other similar stories of Holocaust survivors) to simply disappear. As with many other good intentions, it took much longer than expected, but finally the project came to a conclusion and the memoir is available to everybody at the link above.
In the end of March, 2015, my wife and I spent a week in Guatemala. The tourism in Guatemala is less developed than, say, in its close neighbor Costa Rica, and a number of friends already asked us questions like “is it worth going there”, or “when should you go there”, or “what can you see there”, etc. So here is what I can say about it on the basis of my very limited experience.
Yes, it is definitely worth visiting Guatemala. It is an interesting and exciting place to see. For example, for me it was quite unexpected to learn that Mayan culture is very much alive and thriving there – until then I somehow thought that the word “Maya” belongs to the same category as Aztec, Babylon or Pharaoh, i.e. something from the distant past. But in fact there are 22 actively spoken Mayan languages in Guatemala, there are Mayan traditions, Mayan holidays and even Mayan economy.
What should you see there? As I mentioned before, tourism to Guatemala is not very well developed yet (although it is growing fast). Maybe this is why all tourist itineraries that came to my attention were very similar, as if they came from the same cookie cutter. They all were essentially based on 4 words – Antigua, Atitlan, Tikal, Chichicastenango – and our itinerary was no exception. So what are these 4 things?
- Antigua is a small nice city with rich history, which was the first capital of Guatemala in colonial times. Part of the old colonial architecture has been restored, part has not, and the combination of both these parts creates an unusual charm. This is the most visited by tourists place in Guatemala and, as a results, there are nice hotels, restaurants and services.
- Atitlan is a beautiful lake, surrounded by several (non-active!) volcanoes and picturesque villages. When the weather is good and clear the views in all directions are great:
- Tikal is the ruins of an ancient city, which was discovered in a rainforest of Northern Guatemala in the mid 19-th century. It contains hundreds of pyramids and other buildings (many of which are still hidden by the jungle), and is one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. For history buffs this is the must see.
- And finally, Chichicastenango – a huge outdoor market. Although part of it caters to tourists with traditional souvenirs, etc, the main purpose of the market is to serve “real people” and the combination of colors, smells and crowds can be overwhelming.
Another attraction is the local cemetery located within 5-10 min walk from the market. In my life I saw many famous cemeteries, but this one is by far the most colorful.
Based on the above, a nice trip to Guatemala would include: 3 nights in Antigua with a one day side trip; 2 nights on the lake Atitlan with a boat trip to surrounding villages; 2-3 hours in Chichicastenango on the way to the airport to fly to Tikal; and 2 nights in Tikal. While in the Tikal area, try to stay in Flores, a charming little town located on an island in the middle of a lake.
When should you go there? Well, the honest answer is: not when we were there. At that time of the year, the weather in Tikal it is extremely hot and humid. During our stay it was above 100 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) and the humidity was also close to 100. For people like us, the only way to survive was to start our excursions when it was still dark and by 9-10 am be already under the air conditioned protection of our minivan.
As to Antigua and Atitlan, they are located on a higher altitude and the temperature there is always nice (surprisingly, you don’t even need AC in your hotel there). But here is another problem: it is the time when they burn sugar cane plantations in Guatemala. As a result, most of the time the air is very hazy and the visibility is low – see for example the picture of lake Atitlan above. This explains why during the whole week we almost never had beautiful natural views (but compensated them with architecture, ruins, people and Mayan exotics in general). Thus the advice: do not go to Guatemala in the end of March, go in the fall – September to November.
And finally, are there other interesting places in Guatemala? Of course they are! For example, the river and natural lagoons of Semuc Champey. Or the ruins of the barely accessible ancient city of Mirador, whose scale exceeds even Tikal. They are still away from the standard tourists routs, but it is changing and there is a hope that more people will be able to visit them soon.
Good news: my pictures were recently accepted to several juried exhibitions. The first is called “Breathing Earth” and was accepted at the 35th Annual Juried Art Exhibition “Expressions of the Natural World” in Monmouth Museum (http://www.monmouthmuseum.org/acceptedartists.html). As somebody may ask, is it still planet Earth? Yes it is: the image was made in Yelowstone. Moreover, except for a gentle “massaging” around the sun, there was no serious photoshopping involved.
The second image was taken in Point Reyes, California and accepted for the “Oasis and Mirage: Disappearing Water” exhibition in the D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton, NJ (http://www.drgreenway.org/art_galleries.htm). I was lucky to catch a moment when an ocean was glowing under the beautifully mixed sunlight (and lucky to come up with a nice title for the picture :)).
On the Edge of the Earth
The last image “Colors of Mexico” will be shown at the 31st Ellarslie Open in Trenton City Museum
(http://ellarslie.org/ellarslie-open-xxxi). It was taken in Guanajuato, Mexico, and for those who have never been there, here is the key word: colors. Imagine all possible colors in all possible combinations, then add saturation, then more saturation, and on the top of everything throw a lot of blinding sun. The result will be Guanajuato.
Colors of Mexico
Until recently, when asked what my primary photographic interests are, I usually replied that it is travel photography (see for example http://www.vovsi.com/about). But now I am not even sure what “travel photograpy” is and if such a “genre” of photograpy actually exists. To explain what I mean, let me give a few examples. A few years ago I traveled to Norway and, as any of the many “photographer-enthusiasts” made tons of pictures (most of them were dreadful but it is not the point). Here are a few:
Together with the other images from that series they describe my trip to Norway and therefore for me personally they are travel photography. But if an independent observer were asked which genre of photography each of these images belongs to, the answers most probably would be: (a) portrait; (b) nature; (c) landscape. I doubt that travel photography would ever come to his/her mind.
Moreover, let’s imagine that precisely the same images were made by a Norvegian photographer right near his/her home (most probably they would be better than mine but it is not the point). The guy/gal would never think that they have anything to do with travel. And the word “travel” would quietly disappear from the conversation … .
So here is the point. Actually two points, both rather paradoxical.
1. The concept of travel photography is relative. It depends on who is the author of the images in question. Strange, isn’t it?
2. It does not make a lot of sense to speak about travel photography while considering a single image (even made by a “real” traveler, not by an aborigen). A single image is a portrait, a landscape, a street scene, a nude, a bird, etc. For me the words “travel photography” are appropriate only when we have a series of images giving a coherent description of a certain travel.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are welcome.