Circle the Arctic 2015

Seattle  |  On Our Way  |  Kyoto  |  Nara  |  Gobi  |  Ulaanbaatar  |  Irkutsk  |  Lake Baikal  |  Moscow-1  |  Moscow-2

Spitsburgen Cruise  |  Iceland  |  Greenland  |  Boston  |  Reprise of Northern Summer Trip  |  On Second Thought


During a recent conversation, it was suggested that I did a disfavor to all of you who read my travel blog. Specifically, I was reminded that the blog might be the only "visit" that some blog readers get to the out-of-the-way places we see. So, in an attempt to rectify my bad humor on our 2015 Northern Summer trip, this a short additional description. I'm doing this as I re-live the trip by making a book of the photos CC and I took (my normal practice). I have asked CC to join in reporting the good parts of the trip.


We started our Northern Summer trip from Seattle. This is a great city to visit. It's picturesque, visually stimulating (lots of young people everywhere – unfortunately many looked homeless – hopefully just roughing it on their summer break), and of course there are lots of good places to eat. The downtown has a lively shopping core and endless tourist attractions. The museums are first class. The Pike Street Market is a place of totally intentional chaos, which is just what the constant stream of visitors are there to see. The waterfront is alive with ferries and freighters and, just like London, there is a huge Ferris wheel right at water's edge. Unfortunately, like San Francisco and Sydney, Seattle is built on steep hillsides and so every destination can be an arduous journey. Although predictions had been for rainy weather in Seattle, it was clear and beautiful – – a promising send-off for our trip. Our jet left from Boeing Field (where that company used to test-fly its new planes).

Kyoto and Nara

I love Japan. I like the Japanese style of architecture and landscaping. I could also visit their parks on a regular basis and not get bored.

Both in Kyoto and Nara there were people everywhere. Kyoto has many more skyscrapers since the last time I was there, so it's a very modern city as well as a very old one and balances modernity and ancient heritage quite well. Kyoto and Nara are very popular with Japanese as well as foreign tourists. Because we were visiting during the summer, these two cities were filled with hundreds (more like thousands) of school children, all wearing some identifiable article of clothing such as bright yellow baseball hats. Those "organizational" colors were a fun additional punch of color in the already-colorful temple grounds.

The temples we saw were made of wood and most of the main structures were large to very large, and intricately ornate. We learned that almost all the temples and shrines had been largely or totally rebuilt, sometimes more than once, because of fire damage. CC had never visited Japan before and found everything fascinating, with the possible exception of the exceptional humidity in Kyoto (which she described as trying to rival Houston in August).

Every square inch of land in Japan is used. For example, from the highway we could see rice paddies that went right to the edge of large factory-like buildings. We also saw golf driving ranges constructed from what looked like old rice paddies that had water still in them. The golfers shot from the paddy rim and tried to land their ball on the various "greens" out in the water. These "greens" were 15-foot square docks covered with artificial turf floating in the water and located at various distances from where the golfers teed off. We could see tiny white dots (the golf balls) on the various "greens" and guessed that a lot more of those tiny white dots were in the (very extensive) rice paddy water trap.

Ulan Bator

One of the reasons I travel is to see sights that I could not see at home. It is actually getting harder and harder to do this because it turns out that even developing countries have cities with familiar-looking skyscrapers, similar rapid-growth problems like traffic jams and smog, and people who like to emulate Western garb.

The current incarnation of Ghengis Khan has got to be the city of Ulan Bator. There's almost no place you can turn without some reminder of him, befitting someone who (with his immediate descendants) conquered most of the then-known world. In fact, there's even a likeness of Ghengis that was constructed out of white-painted boulders which were then put on the side of a mountain that's close to the city (that stone portrait has to be at least several hundred feet high, probably taller).

Although we visited Ulan Bator on a previous trip several years ago, it was a more interesting experience this time. Maybe part of that was because, at the last minute, our tour changed the hotel where we were staying. From our room in the new hotel we had an amazing long-distance view: in the foreground was a lively children's theme park with a multi-colored roller coaster and other rides plus a small lake filled with swan boats. Past the park was a traffic-choked freeway and past that, newly constructed, colorful apartment towers. Behind the apartment towers was the mountain with the stone portrait of Ghengis Khan. That one view perfectly illustrates the juxtaposition of the ancient history and the modern here-and-now that is Ulan Bator.

The trip to the Gobi Desert was very special for CC. Not only did she absolutely resonate with the unspoiled wide-openness and stillness of the desert, she thinks that because one of her distant ancestors came from southern Russia (the western-most extent of Kubla Khan's empire), it's more likely than not (however diluted it may be at this point) that she has some Mongolian blood herself. In other words, you could almost call this Mongolia/Gobi Desert stop a kind of "visit home".

Gobi Desert

Miles and miles of miles and endless miles of pristine and unspoiled space. Vast. Majestic. Open. Deeply silent. That's CC's take.

Mine, more prosaically, is that the Gobi would be a great place to learn to drive. If you don't like the non-road you are riding on (roads in the Gobi are simply tracks in the sand made by whoever drove there before you), just make your own road.

And yet people live there – and of course have lived there for centuries, adapting to an incredibly hostile climate. We were told that the reason UB was so crowded was that people who used to live in the desert moved to the city for a better life (that's certainly a familiar story around the world). Given how harsh some of the slums were in UB, it must have been pretty bad in the desert – particularly after an extended period of no rain. It turns out that Mongolia has been going through a very severe drought recently. But like our deserts, it does rain in the Gobi and when that happens the rains bring grass and the grass supports livestock and that in turn keeps people there rather than moving into cities. In fact, some historians say that the rise of Ghengis Khan is in part explained by the fact that he lived during a period when rains were particularly plentiful over a number of years, which allowed livestock to flourish and to supply food for his armies.

The people we met in the Gobi were pleasant (all descendants of The Great Khan, of course!) and their sports of wrestling, archery, and horseback all were obvious carryovers from their warrior nation history. Having to move frequently when livestock depleted the spotty desert grassland, Mongolians came up with highly portable housing called the "gur" ("yurt" in Turkish), shelters which could be put up and taken down in a couple of hours like American Indian teepees. We slept in a gur for an evening. It was pleasant as an experience for that one night but not as steady fare.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal sounded like it was going to be a very interesting place to visit. It's called the deepest lake in the world, has the largest volume of liquid fresh water in the world, and because geologists place it's age at 20 to 25 million years it's considered the world's most ancient freshwater lake. With all that going for it, CC anticipated that Baikal would be one of her favorite stops. There were certainly some interesting things to see: Irkutsk, the large town where we stayed, is a lovely city, and a small museum near Lake Baikal was among the most creatively designed and enjoyable museums we've ever visited. However, overall, we both agreed that what we saw of Baikal itself was somewhat of a disappointment. We knew we weren't going to see much of this huge lake (it's got a 1,300 mile long shoreline) but the tiny slice we did get to see on a two-hour boat ride was unfortunately ho-hum. CC said that the best part of the boat trip for her was the fact that the boat's canteen proudly displayed Mars' candy products which were made in a Mars factory about 100 miles from Moscow.


Moscow reminds me of Washington, DC in that most of the historic/national monuments and structures are centralized – and large. This is the third time I have visited the city (the first time was decades ago and I was a guest of the Party). Moscow still is impressive. When you imagine the power and wealth it took to create the churches and palaces both in and surrounding Red Square, it makes you think.

Like many cities in the world that have been around for a long time, a river runs through it. It was one of the reasons that Moscow was built there in the first place and the reason that it was able to build and maintain economic prosperity. Consequently, a trip on a river ferry was obligatory and a wonderful way to see the city. In addition to seeing many old and historic churches and other buildings from the river, we saw plentiful evidence of the major current building boom. There are tower cranes everywhere.

The church architecture is recognizable everywhere. Not only were there gold-painted onion-domes but also "Tastee Freeze" soft ice cream-type domes that twist to a pointed apex. As if not to be outdone by all these shapes, there were colors of every kind everywhere on the structures. One fascinating practice we saw in Moscow (and in several other places) involved the beautification of buildings under construction. Even multi-floor structures got wrapped in fabric that had been painted to look like the finished building (the construction work went on behind these wraps but you really couldn't see it). These graphics were so good and so realistic that in the beginning I'm sure we passed by a number of fabric-wrapped buildings without it even registering on us.

Despite the size of Moscow and the summer flood of visitors, it was immaculately clean.

It's an eye-candy city for sure.

Svalbard Islands

A black and white world (CC would call it a dark chocolate and whipped cream world) greeted us in Spitzbergen (a.k.a. the Svalbard Islands). Together with the nearby Franz Joseph islands and others, it is known as the High Arctic Archipelago and comprises part of the largest area of wilderness in Europe.

The Svalbard Islands are northwest of the top of Norway. In other words, they are way north. The jumping off city for our boat cruise, Longyearbyen, is the most northerly settlement in the world and the town is (understandably) almost frontier in feel. The hardy fulltime residents (several thousand) have made the man-made landscape quite cheerful by painting their houses with a cubism color scheme, a really good idea since there's almost 24-hour darkness for many months during the winter. Much more monochromatically, residents also carry rifles outside the city-limits to protect against polar bears. Reindeer graze in the city proper.

We found it really amusing that virtually all of the smart and very well-traveled people on this trip candidly admitted that they'd never heard of the Svalbard Islands or, if they had heard of them, had promptly and completely forgotten about them until this trip. We count ourselves among these "didn't knows". Besides its location (and maybe precisely because of its location), another major Svalbard Islands claim to fame is that just outside Longyearbyen is the Global Seed Vault, a facility that preserves seeds from around the world "just in case". While there are already many tens of thousands of seeds in storage, the goal is to get as close to a 100% population of seeds as possible. The Vault is built into a mountainside and we drove right up to it. There are no guards although it's highly likely that there are impressive arrays of hidden intrusion alarms.

Our group had the chartered cruise boat to itself and a very lively and helpful crew. Our 4 days on board took us in and out of the many fiords and harbor areas that make up the Svalbards. Along the way there were glaciers winding their way down mountain valleys; many of them were multiple stories high. All of these glaciers had lines or pockets of piercing sapphire blue in their vertical face.

To get a closer look both at the glaciers and the wildlife, Zodiac boats were launched at least twice a day to look at the wildlife from the water and, in several cases, to go ashore. The wildlife is protected and the crew and guides made absolutely sure that we bothered the wildlife as little as possible. Thanks to these Zodiacs, CC saw walrus, reindeer, seals, and polar bears at a far closer range than was possible from the ship.

Similar to her experience in the Gobi Desert, CC found the vastness of the landscape and the basic stillness of the Svalbards to be very beautiful and very powerful. The fact that we'd just come from hustling, bustling Moscow undoubtedly helped shape her reaction.


Iceland was surprisingly fun and interesting. Rekjavik is on a harbor and was a fishing village for years and years. There's still an active fishing industry although today the economy is much more diversified.

We had a chance to get out on our own and walk Rekjavik at our pace, something we like to do in every city we visit. It is alive, fun, picturesque, and full of urban art and all kinds of sculpture. With its faceted, multicolored glass window walls, the Art Theater is spectacular. The main Cathedral is one of the most memorable I have ever seen. CC commented that Rekjavik was so clean and friendly and picture perfect it felt to her like a movie set designed to demonstrate "perfect Scandinavian town-ness". It didn't hurt that we had clear, almost balmy weather while we were there.

A short drive outside Rekjavik is the Blue Lagoon. It is next to one of the many thermal fields found in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is the equivalent of a huge, really huge, municipal pool and is heated with a combination of direct-from-the-earth geyser water cooled (to about 95 degrees!) with seawater. Hundreds of people were swimming in the Lagoon the day we were there. Carol loves being in geothermal swimming pools and I am quite happy not being in them. Near the Blue Lagoon was a major geothermal facility that pipes hot water to Rekjavik and other nearby towns for heating. For example, even though we were there in the summer, it was nice to have the ceramic bathroom floor tiles constantly warm. Iceland also uses geothermal to generate electricity. It's got "green city" in the bag, and I could certainly get used to a $10 per month electricity/heating bills.


Greenland was the final stop on the trip. The airport where we landed had been built by the U.S. military during WW II, is about a mile long, and is actively used by tourists during the summer and by scientists pretty much all year around. The livelihood of the several hundred permanent residents of the surrounding town (which also brightly paints its homes and other buildings) is directly dependent on that airport.

Although we initially thought that a six-hour stopover on the way to our Boston drop-off point would be beside the point and an anti-climax to the trip, the Greenland stop turned out to be great. We got on all-terrain vehicles and drove for about 90 minutes past waterfalls, past lakes with bands of tropical turquoise-blue water, to a place where we had a delicious barbeque (complete with wine) on a hillside above a river on the other side of which was a glacier that cooperatively calved while we were there. The tiny slice of Greenland we saw during our drive was green, (although treeless), contrary to most maps that always show Greenland as all ice-cap white.

IN SUM, despite the challenges and periodic disappointments experienced on this trip, we were able to see many truly memorable places we had not seen before and we were also able to revisit several places we liked the first time and add to those positive memories.

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