Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Search of the Perfect Hot Dog

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In Search of the Perfect Hot Dog

When we departed Homer, our ship cruised northward in the beautiful Cook Inlet and docked in Anchorage itself. This is unusual. While the scenery is magnificent, the harbor itself is small and larger cruise ships dock instead in Seward from which passengers have a 2 hr. ride into Anchorage. Even smaller ships tend to avoid docking directly in Anchorage because it requires a day of sailing to get back to the East side of the Kanai Peninsula and the Gulf of Alaska, which is where the cruise ships operate. I am telling you this, because getting to travel the Cook Inlet directly into Anchorage was a real treat, and not all that common.

Arriving into Anchorage on Memorial Day meant that virtually everything was closed. Since it was the end of our first cruise, it was what the ship calls a “turn around day,” with former passengers leaving and new passengers arriving. The ship offered a short tour of the city, but we set out on a mission to locate the World’s Famous “M.A.’s Gourmet Hot Dogs.” I know this sounds crazy, but a friend had read about a street vendor in Anchorage who was said to be a real character, and who offered the world’s best hot dog. Lisa and I seriously doubted that the guy would be at his usual place in front of City Hall on a holiday, but that did not stop us from venturing forth.

We found a local taxi driven by a Pakistani. Since it was pretty early in the morning, we thought we would leave locating our hot dog until a little later, and so we asked him to show us around, and in particular, show us any scenic spots. As you would imagine, the city was pretty quiet; in fact, dead so we whipped around it fairly quickly. Then he set off to show us a few places to take photographs and along the drive, he quickly pulled over so that we could take pictures of a large moose across the street. It seems that here in Alaska, the moose are everywhere, and of no real interest to locals. We stopped at two places for photographs, and at the first stop, we were immediately surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes which literally ran Lisa baDSC_5829ck to the cab. I ran to the overlook, snapped a few pictures, and then ran the gauntlet back to the cab rather quickly. One more stop for pictures, and then our driver took us to the airport to a favorite location for he and his daughter to sit on weekends and watch the planes take-off. It turns out that our driver was an aviation buff, and even had an app on his iPhone 4 that allowed him to listen in to the airport and control frequencies. Now I know what you are thinking, because the thought went through my mind, too. I am sitting here just yards from the airport runway sitting with a Pakistani, who comes equipped to listen in to the aviation frequencies; this may not be too bright. But he seemed like a nice enough fella, and anyway the woods around the airport were full of guards in bullet proof vests on a very obvious patrol of the perimeter. I did get a good picture or two of a departing 747, after which we headed off to find our gourmet hot dog.

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To our surprise, when we arrived downtown and pulled up to city hall, there was our outdoor hot dog stand all set for business.


From what we had read in the internet, the owner was a real character, and during weekdays the lines to get a lunch stretched over a long distance. Today, however, there was only one fellow in front of us. Lisa and I decided to just share a reindeer hot dog until we knew what we were getting into, and true to form, the owner was a character, but he freshly grilled our dog and split it for us in record time. Now I have to be honest, it did not do much for me. It had a very thick skin which turned me off, and while it was tasty enough, I got a bad feeling that I should not eat more than the two bites I had already taken. So when he was not watching, I dumped what I had left into a nearby trash bin; Lisa pretty much did the same.

Our mission accomplished, we headed back to the ship, only to literally run over a couple wearing helmets and riding Segway’s. It turns out that here were our new found friends taking a Segway tour of Anchorage before their flight home at 4:30. We, of course, stopped and did the hugs and kisses routine, but as we did so, I began to taste acid reflux. I did not think much about it at the time, but over the next 30 minutes as we drove back to the ship, it got much worse to the point that I could hardly wait to get to the room and take some medicine. So much for my gourmet hot dog experience, but then everyone has different tastes.

Today our ship has sailed back south through the Cook Inlet, completed the turn to the East and is now negotiating some absolutely gorgeous narrow channels as we move to enter the Gulf Of Alaska. In going through the narrow channels, we have spotted quite a few glaciers, and saw our first sea ice just a few minutes ago. The weather is beautiful with a mostly sunny sky and temperatures a relatively mild 50 degrees. Later this afternoon we will transit the College Fjord on our way to our stop at Valdez tomorrow.

I have posted some pictures from Anchorage, but will finish up tomorrow. I have also really appreciated the comments from everyone and glad to know that so many of you are enjoying our travels.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Now We Are Official “Mooseketeers”


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Today in Homer, Alaska, events really turned into one funny incident after another, ending with an official Hunt For The Moose. But first, let me back up a moment.

After our last two shore excursions in which it seemed that all we did was to tramp from one museum to another without really seeing the surrounding area, Lisa and I looked at our schedule for Homer with a new understanding. Before we left home, we booked the one and only excursion which “toured” Homer, but in re-reading the material it turns out that it would not depart until 1pm and then it would go from one art gallery to another, then to a museum, then onto yet another art gallery, ending back at the ship as we were to sail at 5pm. This sounded BORING. The only other choice was to take a shuttle service offered by the ship into town and back which ran every 30 minutes.

The morning had dawned with a sunny partly cloudy sky which made the surrounding snowcapped mountains just jump out at us across the clear and calm waters of the bay. We opted to “blow off” the tour for which we had tickets, and jumped on the second shuttle to depart the dock. The choice of using the shuttle was a wise one because the distance into Homer itself was almost six miles. The bus finally pulled into a deserted parking lot in front of a small mall in which all the stores seemed to be closed. After all, it was Sunday morning on the Memorial Day weekend. The driver opened the door and announced this to be the first of 4 stops if anyone would care to get off. Seeing absolutely nothing around, not even a car on the road, everyone wisely decided to skip the first stop. Several minutes pass and the bus pulls to the side of a main street, opens the door once again, and announces this to be the second stop.

Homer, Alaska

Here again, it did not seem that anything was open, and traffic was non-existent. Everyone just sat and looked at each other, when I decided” to hell with it!” We were already half-way through our circuit, so Lisa and I decided to jolly well get off and do something. In fact, during our drive, I had been reading over some promotional material handed to us on the dock and had spotted the phone number for the local cab service. I figured at this point, we had nothing to lose but to ring it up and see if we could grab a car and driver, because obviously this shuttle was going nowhere in particular. Talk about following the crowd at chow time, as we were standing on the sidewalk waiting for the bus to depart, the next thing we know everyone on the bus decides if this stop is good enough for us, then by golly they are going to get off also!

As it turns out, some of the galleries nearby were open, and when I turned around Lisa had already disappeared into one. My, oh my, that woman never misses an opportunity to shop! Anyway, I did phone for a cab, and to my surprise in less than two minutes, up pulls a local cab driven by a young girl wearing shredded jeans whose name was Sabrina. She said that for $50/hr she would show us around. So once I rescued Lisa mid-purchase, and we set off for an adventurous day in Homer.

Our first stop was to the “north” overlook from which we got some wonderful photographs of the entire bay and snowcapped mountains on the other side.

Homer, Alaska

There was even a glacier for us to photograph. As we are getting back in the cab, I overhear something on the radio about a moose sighting. Lisa and I both got excited and wanted to know if that was by any chance nearby and could we actually see a moose? Sabrina laughs and says that moose are everywhere, and she will get us a picture: thus the adventure began. Racing off down a dirt road in the direction of the “sighting,” we bounce along scanning the roadside, but after several miles, alas there was no moose to be found. Sabrina assured us that she would find us a moose in town because they are always hanging around there. Homer, AlaskaSo we headed back into town after taking a detour to photograph a local Greek Orthodox Church.

Sabrina put the “moose” alert out on the radio, and soon sightings were coming back to us. Each time we would run off to see “the moose,” it was only to find absolutely nothing. At this point, I started teasing Sabrina that this is all some hoax put on by the cab company to run up the meter while we ran all over town looking for the non-existent moose. In fact, I said, I was starting to doubt this entire moose thing! This made her even more determined than ever to find a moose. I cannot tell you how many sightings we chased, but in the process we saw Homer quite literally from one end of town to the other. It was really becoming comical in the car, and all three of us were into moose jokes. Suddenly, there was a moose sighting very near our location, and so with a quick “u-turn,” Sabrina was off and looking. The moose is presumably “right next to the old cemetery, behind the white house that is falling down, and is resting in the grass.” I mean, how could you miss it? But miss it we did, again and again, until I had Sabrina stop at the cemetery and we got out of the car. In walking around, I heard a rustle and looking left saw a huge moose indeed resting in the grass but back in the shrubs. Homer, AlaskaThen we realized that it was a mother when we saw two very young animals trying to make their first steps. It was really hard to get a photograph, but I did get enough recorded that you can clearly see the mother.

By now, a moose in a bush was not going to do it. I told Sabrina that it was so far away that for all I know that was a cow tied to a stake in an effort to fool tourists, and that we must have a real moose sighting. We were just about to give up when another sighting came at the Post Office which was just across the street from us. Zooming over in that direction, there in the flesh was a beautiful moose crossing the parking lot. Homer, AlaskaSabrina pulled in and stopped so that we could take pictures, when all of a sudden there is a loud screeching of tires and the roar of a motor as some “bozo” in a red pickup comes careening across the lot chasing after the moose. I really figured this clown had to be drunk, and for a moment I thought he was going to just run the poor animal over. Honking his horn and acting like a jerk, he ran the moose off before we could get many pictures. Then to my complete surprise after the moose departs, the truck comes roaring over to where we are standing and the guy rolls down his window, and in a threating manner asks if I am mad at him? My reply was “I don’t even know you, so how can I be mad at you?” He mouths off a little more and I said “but if you keep up this attitude, I am going to become real mad at you real fast.” Anyway, we got back in the cab and he pulled off!

On our way back to the ship, I spotted a bald eagle sitting atop a nearby tree, so Sabrina pulled over and I was able to take a photograph which turned out pretty well.Homer, Alaska Before you knew it, we had returned back at our ship after three hours chasing moose, but we had a great time and got some great photographs. Homer is a very picturesque community, but it is small and is rarely visited by cruise ships. Once again, we got to see the real Alaska, and not just the tourist Alaska.

Homer, Alaska

Tonight the ship sails up the Cook Inlet into Anchorage which marks the end of our first of two cruises. Tomorrow the ship will fill to capacity as we sail south to Vancouver, Canada.

Hope everyone is enjoying their holiday weekend.

“Mooseketeer Jim”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Annual King Crab Festival – Kodiak Style




Today we awoke to two nice surprises. First, today was the first day in the last 14 days that the city of Kodiak, Alaska had not had rain. In fact, the clouds opened to produce a stunningly beautiful day. Kodiak, AlaskaSecond, today just happened to be the Annual King Crab Festival; a good old fashioned, small town American celebration; complete with kids marching, bands blaring, and a host of events to entertain.

Owing to the events, our ship had to anchor quite a ways from the harbor because the highlight of the festivities was a fly-by of local Coast Guard aircraft, followed by a rescue competition by teams of EMS and Coast Guard personnel with the local harbor the focus of these events. For this reason, we were hustled off the ship rather early because the last ferry back onboard would be at noon. After that we would be stuck on shore until ferry service could resume at 2pm.

Kodiak is home to the largest Coast Guard Station in America; home to over 2,500 personnel. The city is also home to some 700 fishing vessels and an overall population of around 15,000 people. Unlike the ports which line the West Coast of Alaska, this part of the State is visited by comparatively few cruise ships. This year they have only 14 visits scheduled, which is just fine by the locals. I do not mean by this that they were unfriendly, in fact, quite the opposite. I felt that people went out of their way to be warm and open. But, Kodiak is a working town and not a tourist town.

Our tour bus turned out to be one of the city school buses. I can’t remember the last time I was on a school bus, but for certain the seats were not built for someone my size. Because of the town parade, the bus had to make many detours on its way to our first stop, Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park.

Kodiak, Alaska

This Park incorporates a portion of the old World War II defense positions, and so it is full of bunkers and old gun emplacements. The visitor center is housed in an underground bunker that was so cold inside that I felt as if I was in a meat locker. Built atop a commanding hilltop to the approaches to Kodiak, it offered stunning vistas. Some in our tour saw whales, but sadly Lisa and I did not. The tour did encounter one Bald Eagle sitting on a lamp post, but in traffic he was quickly left behind and we got no photographs.

Our next stop was at the Alaska Fisheries Research Center, where they had a small tank of specimens indigenous to the local area, and they also had a large touch pond, where the adventurous visitor could actually touch the specimens.Kodiak, Alaska I was more interested in going outside the back where there were some really good pictures of the surrounding waters and a float plane airport.

From here our bus again took a roundabout route to the Alutiiq Museum of Native Culture. Once again, Lisa and I were less interested in yet another museum, but were a great deal more interested in the beautiful Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church across the street. Kodiak, AlaskaAnd so, we wandered over and were greeted pleasantly by some workers in the yard, who made it clear that we were welcome to enter. Doing so, we found the local priest sitting alone in the interior deeply involved in reading his books. He welcomed us also, and then moved to the back of the church and invited us to take pictures.Kodiak, Alaska He and Lisa got into an involved discussion and in the process, we learned that the church dates to the 1870’s and today has a congregation of around 100 people.

Once again, we crawled back onto the bus and set off for yet another museum, always mindful that we must complete our tour by noon or be stuck for 2 hours ashore. The next museum turned out to be just blocks away from the pier, which by then had become a beehive of activity for the Festival. We begged off the museum tour and walked to the pier, where a good old fashioned carnival was in full swing.Kodiak, Alaska Rides had been set up for the kids, you could toss rings, try your hand at tossing a basketball, or any of the usual carnival events. Then there was the food – which is what I honestly think most people came for. There were hugs bins of King Crab, which were being scooped up and tossed into vats of boiling water, with a long line of people waiting to buy the finished product. Cotton candy, ice cream and let’s not forget root beer floats, which is what caught Lisa’s eye.

Grabbing some great photographs of the harbor, we made the noon tender and proceeded back to the ship. While on the way, the Coast Guard began its fly-by-event, and from the tender, I was able to grab a few interesting shots for the day’s collection.

Kodiak, Alaska

Anyway, we are just now departing Kodiak and will arrive into Homer, AK tomorrow. I do hope that everyone is enjoying the holiday weekend, and our shared journey.


Friday, May 27, 2011

The Land Where Eagles Fly

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Our visit yesterday to Dutch Harbor, Alaska actually turned out to be quite an experience. First, let me get you oriented as to where exactly Dutch Harbor is located. Dutch Harbor, Alaska

“Dutch Harbor” is technically the name of the port located on Unalaska Island, which is one of over 300 small volcanic islands that make up the chain of islands known as the Aleutians. This chain of islands extends in an arc from the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia towards Alaska, with Unalaska being the eastern most island in the chain. To the east of Unalaska, is the small chain of islands called the “Fox Islands” which lead to the Aleutian Range on the mainland of Alaska. While technically “Dutch Harbor” is merely the name of the main port on Unalaska Island, over the years people simply call this area Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Presumably there was not much to see in this small community and so, the ship offered no tours only a school bus that made a circle around town stopping at the 3 main attractions, two museums and an old church. If that is all we had done, it would have been such a waste because in fact, there is a great deal to learn about this area, and by pure chance, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do so.

Lisa and I have met a wonderful couple with whom we share many things in common, and with whom we are having a really great time.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

It turned out that Joe, a semi-retired surgeon, had scooped out Dutch Harbor on the internet and found a local resident who offered a personalized tour of the area for $75 per person. Originally Joe and Jan were planning on traveling with another couple, but when the cruise schedule got changed, their friends canceled their trip. So, having space available on their little private excursion, we were offered the opportunity to join them for the day; how fortunate that turned out to be.

Our guide Bobby did a wonderful job of driving us all over the area on an extensive 4 ½ hour tour that went down virtually every road on the island. Her husband is a longshoreman, and she wears several hats, one of which is being responsible to the government for maintaining a watch on an accurate count of the Bald Eagles on the island.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

With that background, let me share what we learned. Dutch Harbor is the number 1 fishing port in the United States, and is home to around 4,000 residents. Virtually everyone works in the fishing industry. If I heard correctly, Dutch Harbor is home to the largest food processing plant in the world. Approximately 4 container ships per week come to the harbor to haul away the pre-packed frozen containers of fish products. Interestingly last year this remote community was only visited by 4 small cruise ships. The town does have an airport left from World War II that can handle small turboprops. However, because of the short runway and mountainous terrain, the aircraft cannot always take all of the passengers or their luggage, and at times cannot carry enough fuel to make the non-stop 3 hour trip to Anchorage. In those cases, the plane must stop en route to take on more fuel.

The surrounding scenery was magnificent in spite of the low hanging clouds. The area is home to a large number of bald eagles, and Lisa and I were able to obtain some “once in a lifetime” photographs of the majestic birds.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Let me focus on two important items that to me were fascinating. First, we were able to enjoy a private tour of the historic Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Cathedral, one of the oldest cruciform-style Russian churches in the United States.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

The Cathedral is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and houses one of the country’s largest and richest collections of Russian artifacts, religious icons and art totaling over 700 pieces. Included among its icons are some that were donated directly by Catherine the Great. The current structure was completed in 1896, but stands atop previous chapels that date to 1808. Considering the extremely harsh weather of the region, where the winds regularly gust to over 100 mph, it is nothing short of amazing that the structure is still standing, and in reasonably good shape.

It was during our tour that I learned for the first time that during World War II, the indigenous populations of this area had been forcibly removed by the US Government and relocated to some old warehouses in Sitka that had been abandoned for over 30 years. Indeed when the ships departed with the natives, no one had decided where they were going, much less how to care for them when they arrived. All that was certain was that they were going! This church is very important to the natives and realizing what was about to happen they took extraordinary steps to hide or to take with them the relics and icons that are so historic. Many of the people did not survive the harsh environment where they were dropped, and at the end of the war, when they returned home, the government dumped them at the dock with their bags and left them on their own. Many had been transported from villages far away, and the survivors dutifully trudged with their few belongings back to their homes only to find that everything had been destroyed by the military. I cannot related the entire story, but suffice it to say that to our guide in the little church this was all very personal because it had happened to her parents. The stories were heart wrenching, and until now, I had no idea this had occurred.

Likewise the second thing I learned had to do with the importance of the Aleutians during the Second World War, and the tremendous losses that occurred here. I did know that Dutch Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese one day prior to the Battle of Midway in June, 1941. I did not know, however, that at one point in time the US garrisoned over 50,000 troops at Dutch Harbor. The island is littered with concrete bunkers and the hillsides are a maze of tunnels burrowed deep underground to house our forces. The island is quite literally a junkyard of discarded war material. When the Japanese met such resistance at Dutch Harbor, they pulled back and captured two small islands at the western end of the Aleutian chain, the islands of Attu and Kiska. So for the first time, I learned that the Japanese had actually landed and taken US territory during the war. Indeed the government went to great lengths to keep the Aleutian campaign a secret, fearing the severe impact on morale if the public realized that the Japanese were attacking from the north along the Aleutian chain. Troops, who were sent to this area, were not even told where they were going, and in fact, they were issued clothing and provisions as if they were going to the Pacific islands. Therefore many of our troops died from being improperly provisioned from the extremely harsh conditions that they encountered. The loss of life over the next three years on both sides was enormous. The two warring armies were fighting themselves, but both were fighting the weather, which in this part of the world is described as the “absolute worst on the planet.”

Our day with Bobby came too quickly to an end. Then Lisa and Jan were cold and pooped out, so we let them off at the ship because Bobby was determined that we had to drive to the top of the lookout on the island for a vista that she claimed was unrivaled. We drove, and drove, and drove right into the low hanging clouds. The hillside was littered with war surplus and bunkers, and when we finally arrived at the top, visibility was very limited. We went to stand on top of a bunker that looked over the Bering Sea, and for brief seconds the clouds would part, and the view was breathtaking, but just as quickly it disappeared.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

On our way back down, we quickly stopped when there was a small break in the clouds and got a good picture or two, but then it was back to the ship. Joe and I were just about the last back onboard as they were preparing to raise the gangway, but it had been a truly incredible and educational day.

Today we are at sea en route to Kodiak Island, which will be our stop for tomorrow. I have the pictures from yesterday ready and should have them uploaded shortly after this is done.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Forsaken Russia


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The Forsaken Russia

The Kamchatsky Peninsula of Russia is one of the most isolated regions of that country. The area is so remote that it is not even connected to the rest of Russia by road. The only way to enter this area is by sea or by aircraft. We visited the only city in the Peninsula, Petropavlovsk.

Petropavlosk, Russia

Until around 20 years ago, it was a closely controlled military district closed to anyone who did not have special authorization to enter its confines. During the Cold War, its natural harbor and close proximity to the United States made it an important military installation. At the height of the military occupation, it was home to over 300,000 people. It was built in the typical Soviet style of the time, in a very haphazard fashion, cheaply, and with a senseless jumble of Soviet Style high-rise apartment buildings scattered about.

Today, that drab history is readily apparent; in fact, we saw almost nothing that was new. Prior to our arrival, we were warned that the authorities here would act in a way that was reminiscent of the old Soviet days. They would be very dogmatic, frustrating, and would constantly change entry requirements. We were advised to simply be patient. So it was no surprise that after dropping anchor shortly after dawn, clearance for us to tender ashore did not arrive until around 9am. By that time, each and every passport had already been closely examined. That, however, did not stop the authorities from inspecting each and every passport again in great detail as we departed the ship. Poor Lisa had to stand so long while they went over her documents that I begin to believe we might have a problem. Not one of the officials would smile, and each looked at us as if we should be immediately arrested.

Finally our tender departed for shore, where buses were waiting to show us the sights.Petropavlosk, Russia After we were all on the bus, our guide gave the obligatory warning to the effect that roads in this part of the world were not in good shape and that everyone was required by the authorities to put on their seatbelt. There was only one little problem: there were no seatbelts on the bus, but clearly that did not bother the guide, he had done his duty and advised us!

He got the part about the “bad” roads correct. Most of the roads in town were simply dirt packed. The few “main” roads were in a manner “paved,” or at least had been at one point. Today they were a hazardous pot holed mess that would have been better left “unpaved.” As we drove through town, all I could think about was what a drab place this was.Petropavlosk, Russia It was dirty, the buildings were shabby, and the streets filled with trash.

Our bus did the best it could climbing a nearby hill to take us to a “beautiful” overlook, but at times I really did not think the poor thing would make it to the top.Petropavlosk, Russia Once there, we stepped off into a trash filled walk littered with broken glass and other assorted garbage. Sadly the day was not a clear one because the city is surrounded by 150 volcanoes, 29 of which are still active, so the vista could have been stunning. The snow line started at the level of the lookout, so I can only imagine just how pretty it would have been to look on the snowcapped peaks surrounding us.Petropavlosk, Russia Instead all we had before us was a drab little town that truly would be a great place to be FROM. In fact, someone asked our guide if he was going to stay in Petropavlovsk, and he looked as if the questioner was nuts.

Leaving our” picturesque” lookout, we labored back downhill to visit the military museum.Petropavlosk, Russia It was a very small two story building painted a pleasant blue on the front, and falling apart on the sides. Our group was quite small, but even so, we filled the entryway. For the next 90 minutes a typical little older Russian lady wielding a conductor’s baton labored mightily to describe in great detail each and every item in their displays. No item was too small to merit her attention, and just to add enjoyment to the excruciating experience, she spoke only in Russian. So after she would finish, we all had to stand admiringly while our guide translated into English. Normally I would have run outside screaming for fresh air, but it was clear that would be considered very rude, and in addition, they did not want us just wandering around on our own.

After the museum, we were driven to a beautiful small Russian Orthodox Church which was surrounded by slums.Petropavlosk, Russia Before we arrived, our guide went to great length to explain that while the area to which we were going might look like a slum, it was not really one. It was just old and built from whatever material was available to people at the time.Petropavlosk, Russia A slum is a slum – you can look at the pictures and decide for yourself, slum or not. Our next stop was the newly re-built Orthodox Cathedral. During Soviet times, all churches had been destroyed so they are being re-built. This was a pretty building that had been recently consecrated, but which was not yet finished on the inside. Petropavlosk, RussiaSo--our stop took just minutes in order to allow us time to take a photograph and jump back on the bus. A quick stop at the market marked our last visit point, but along the way I did learn a few interesting items.

First, all of the buildings in the city are heated with steam provided by a central power plant. We saw large steam pipes running everywhere. According to the guide, this was not an efficient way to provide heat and it was expensive. It also allowed the authorities to decide when to turn the heat off each spring. They always seemed to do it early, and then when a cold night hit, the city enjoyed a nice chilly evening. The population of the town today has declined to 200,000, and is continuing to drop. During the Soviet era, people came to work in Petropavlovsk because wages were double what could be earned elsewhere in Russia. Also at the time, the price of goods was uniform across the entire country. Today wages in this area still run high, but now that the cost of goods is free to float, prices in the area are more than double that of the mainland because it cost so much to import supplies to this desolate region. The only real industry today is still the military presence. Petropavlovsk is home to one of Russia’s largest nuclear submarine bases.

Speaking of wages, our guide told us that the average salary of a worker was $400/ mo. A college teacher could earn upwards of $800/ mo., and a physician as much as $1,000/ mo. However, if you wanted a good income, the place to be was in the military. A young lieutenant just graduating from the academy will earn over $1,000/ mo., plus as a military officer, he is entitled to many nice perks. As that officer advances, it will be quite common for him to earn over $4,000/ mo. Our guide said that many people were openly beginning to question such a situation.

Returning to our ship around 2pm., we had to undergo the entire immigrations screening in reverse. Then all of the passports were taken to a large room filled with officials who did whatever it is they do for yet another two hours before the ship was finally cleared for departure.

Saying our farewells to Petropavlovsk was not too difficult for us, after which we set our course due East towards Alaska.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sea Of Okhotsk?

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Sea Of Okhotsk?

Here is a geography quiz for everyone: where are we?

Right now, we are passing out of the Sea of Okhotsk, cutting across the Kuril Island chain, and about to enter the Bearing Sea. Directly to our left side is the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the city of Severo Kuril’sk, located on the Island of Paramushir. Off to our right is the uninhabited, but spectacularly beautiful island of Onekotan. When we awoke, the outside temperature was 30 degrees F., and there was a small amount of snow in the air. As the sun has risen, it has painted a beautiful vista of nearby snowcapped mountains, pictures of which I hope to put online later today.

So, with all of those clues, I assume you now know exactly where we are located?

Kuril Islands, Russia

For those of you who are wondering, I will help you out a little here. We are on the Eastern edge of Siberia in Russia, now heading north towards our next port of call, the Russian city of Petropavlovsk. From there, we will only be a few hundred miles west of the United States and the tip of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

Kuril Islands, Russia

So, this is just a short update on our very interesting passage, and I will have more to share after we have visited Russia tomorrow.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Cruising On A “Ghost Ship”

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The Silver Shadow

As you know, Lisa and I departed from Incheon, South Korea on Tuesday, May 17th. Originally, we were scheduled to join our ship in Tokyo, and then travel north along the Japanese coast stopping at two different ports in Japan before reaching our northernmost stop in Petropavlosk, Russia. In fact, our ports of call would have put us almost on top of the area in which the damaged nuclear plant is located.

Therefore, at the last minute, the itinerary for our trip was changed eliminating any stops in Japan, and had us meet the ship in South Korea instead. From Incheon, we would then travel south along the Korean coast until we could turn east, and then north into the Sea of Japan. All in all, we will spend five full days at sea, in order to put us back on schedule for our arrival into Russia on Monday, May 23rd.

That change in schedule, while completely understandable, was far from satisfactory to many people, and in spite of a very generous offer of cruise credits from the cruise line, many canceled their reservations.

I share this story because it has created a very unusual situation for this trip. We are travelling onboard the Silver Shadow, one of the larger ships of the SilverSea cruise line; it is an absolutely wonderful vessel offering every possible amenity. Our previous experience with SilverSea had been on the smaller Silver Wind which can carry only 296 passengers. The Silver Shadow is by industry standards still a small ship, but by comparison, it can handle up to 382 passengers and carries a crew of 302. However, on this voyage there are only 120 guests. In short, there are three crewmembers to care for each passenger, not to mention that the “atmosphere” is almost one of a “ghost ship.” For example, we went to breakfast this morning in the main dining room where there were only 4 other guests seated in a room that could easily hold over 350 people. So, Lisa and I are enjoying a very quiet cruise with an abundance of attention from the ever-present staff. Indeed, it is so quiet in our cabin that not a sound intrudes to break the eerie silence. We hear no one out in the hall, nor a door slamming shut. There is no loud shouting or music from surrounding cabins. There is not even the sound of a single flushing toilet.

Even though we are cruising at 18 kts., there is not even the sensation of movement. In order for us to know if we are actually moving, we have to look out a window. In fact, right now the wind is almost calm, as is the sea, and we are moving forward in a pea soup thick fog. In the last hour the silence is now broken by the low moan of the ship’s fog horn in a monotonous regularity of sound. They just announced that our position in the Sea of Japan puts us directly west of the damaged nuclear power plant which is around 120 miles away to our east.

Until this morning, the weather had been quite mild with daytime temperatures in the mid-50’s. Overnight, however, the temperature dropped like a rock, and we awoke to a temperature of 40 degrees F.

This afternoon I will try to post the few pictures that I was able to take in Korea on our web page.

I hope everyone is doing fine.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Into The Void: North Korea


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Lisa and I arrived at Seoul, South Korea after a long 30 hour day of traveling, and as you can imagine, fell into bed without even bothering to take our clothes off. By in large, the trip was uneventful, but there were a few interesting occurrences.

Having literally traveled all over the world, it never ceases to amaze me that there is one, and only one place where I am absolutely certain to have a problem with airport security, and that is always in Kansas City. When I say “only one place,” I mean just that. I have never been subjected to additional screening of my carry-on in any other location, ever. Thus, I guess it should be no surprise by now, that it happened yet again, right here in Kansas City. Because of all my previous experiences, I am very careful to pack my carry-on so that there are no loose items falling about. Everything is neatly placed into a clear plastic bag so that it should be easy to look into the bag and see any item of concern to security. Before the screeners ever get to my bag, I have already removed my computer, and my CPAP breathing machine. At that point, if you just open the bag, it is pretty obvious what is in it. Now I do have to carry some electrical adapters for different countries, and an extension cord for the machine, but other than that, my bag should not be an issue – but in Kansas City it always is! As is usual, my bag was pulled for additional screening. The screener proceeded to literally remove most of the items from my bag, and put them in plastic bins to be sent through the x-ray machine individually. Just to add insult to injury, he then zipped the bag shut and stood it upright so that everything that had been so carefully packed, promptly fell to the bottom of the bag with a resounding crash. Then to add fun to the process, he hefts the bag back onto the scanner belt and turns it upside down, thus assuring that the contents of the bags are a scrambled mess. When the screening is all done, I am left with an upside down bag, six plastic bins of assorted items, a computer, a CPAP machine, and a long line of people wanting to get by me who are literally pushing my stuff off the small platform. Ah, the joys of traveling!

We flew from Kansas City to Detroit, enjoyed a 3 hour layover, and then boarded a Delta flight direct to Seoul, South Korea, which took around 13 hours. Korea is 13 hours ahead of Kansas City across the International Date Line, so we landed a day after we had departed. We flew aboard a Boeing 777 in business class and had a very pleasant trip. At one point, as I was enjoying a steak dinner with red wine, I marveled at the miracle of cruising across the globe at almost 600 mph-some six miles above the earth, with the temperature outside a frigid 45 degrees below zero, while I sat in complete comfort onboard a very large ship in the sky. Pretty cool!

There were two things about our journey that were of note. First, Delta seemed caught off guard by the fact that this flight was full, in fact it was overbooked. I gather that travelling to Seoul on a Sunday is usually a slow time, but that was not the case for this flight. Also, of interest, was the fact that there were almost no two-somes travelling in business class that we could see. Beside ourselves and a very few other couples, it was obvious that the remaining passengers were travelling alone and that their seating companion was a complete stranger. Finally we landed in Seoul and taxied to our gate. I just happened to look outside as our aircraft made the sharp turn into our gate, and I caught a glimpse of the ground crew and security personnel arrayed in a semi-circle in front of our gate. Just as we turned, the entire ensemble bowed slightly from the waist as is the Korean custom to show respect and a greeting. How quaint, I thought.

After a night’s fitful rest, we had a day to explore Seoul. A part of me really wanted to see if we could look over the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea, while Lisa could have cared less. In the end, she agreed to see what there was to see, and so we rented a car and driver for a 5 hour tour of the area, including a drive north to the DMZ.

First a word about Seoul itself; it is a huge metropolitan complex, and is home to over 14 million people, which is almost 50% of the population of Korea itself. The actual “city” of Seoul has two distinct parts, separated by a river. There is the “old” city on the South side of the river, and the “new” city to the North. Surrounding this area are four separate city complexes, one of which is the city of Incheon. To reach the DMZ, it was necessary to travel North through the city of Incheon, which by the way is where we had landed the day prior, and where we would later meet our ship. It took around an hour to reach the border with North Korea.

We traveled North on a beautiful 8 lane highway with 4 lanes in each direction and a median that could be turned into yet another roadway. At first the traffic was heavy, but as we proceeded northward the traffic slowly abated until we were virtually the only vehicle on this huge roadway. In addition, beginning around 20 miles from the border, the roadway became surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence, with guard shacks and partially hidden entrenchments every 100 yards or so. At first, I thought these installations were empty, but then I came to realize that each and every one, was manned by military personnel in full battle gear, and carrying weapons. Eventually we came to a heavily guarded sentry post, where we had to turn around.

The DMZ was created at the end of the Korean Conflict in 1953. The actual area of “no man’s land” is 2 ½ miles wide to which is added an additional 3 mile buffer zone. It is said that in the narrow band of the DMZ itself, there are over 1 million land mines. Had we been able to continue forward, we would have first encountered the buffer zone where local farmers are permitted to work the fields during the day, but then must evacuate at night. Further along the road is the Village of Panmunjeom. This is the site of the building where talks between the two Koreas have taken place over the years. Six days a week, special tour busses are allowed to traverse the road all the way to Panmunjeom, but this option is not available on Mondays, and we were visiting on a Monday--of course. The best we could do was to pull right up to the checkpoint at Freedom Bridge, and then go nearby to the Dora Observation Area. Located there is a modern train station and railway bridge leading to North Korea, both of which now stand eerily silent and empty. On display is the badly damaged train engine that was the last to travel from North Korea, along with numerous monuments and walls on which people have hung poignant notes, prayers, and flags dedicated to their relatives on the other side. Visiting this heavily fortified area was a sober reminder just how high the tensions between these two entities still remain.

We then returned to Seoul with the intention of visiting the “Blue House,” which is the Korean equivalent of our White House. Unfortunately our way was blocked by a heavy security presence because some previously unannounced event was taking place at the time. So, instead we went nearby to the entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace to watch the ceremonial “changing of the guard.” For many centuries, Korea was ruled over by a royal family and an Emperor. In 1936, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they eliminated the monarchy, and when the Japanese were defeated in 1945, Korea installed a constitutional form of government which has an elected President for one five year term, and 245 legislators, each elected for a four year term. Today there are six Palaces that remain from the time of the Emperors, and while we got a brief look inside one courtyard, we simply did not have the time to actually visit one of them. What a pity, but an excuse to visit Seoul again.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to visit the well-known Chogyesa Buddhist Temple. Because the celebration of the birthday of the Buddha was approaching, the Temple was decked out in colorful lanterns on which people had written their prayers.

And thus and the end of a long day, made even longer by the jet lag, Lisa and I fell into bed early in preparation for boarding our ship the following day.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

North to Alaska: by way of Seoul, of course

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Map picture


The Globe-Trotters are about to embark on yet another adventure, so stay tuned for updates along the way. Originally we were scheduled to visit the city of Tokyo for a couple of days before boarding our ship and traveling north along the Japanese coast, making two stops, before continuing north to Russia. With the problems currently in Japan, that portion of our cruise was canceled, and instead we will travel to Seoul, South Korea to meet our ship, and then spend 5 days at sea giving Japan a wide berth before reaching the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, and the city of Petroplovlask. The area of Russia was formerly a closed military district and even Russian citizens were forbidden to visit the area without permission. We will stop for one day, and from there head due east towards Alaska, stopping at various points in the Aleutians before reaching Ankorage, AK. That completes our first cruise, but we will remain onboard and continue down the Alaskan coast finally reaching Vancouver, BC, the end of our long journey.
As I have done in the past, I will be posting updates on our blog:, as well as sending updates by e-mail. When I can I will also try to post photographs, which are easily reached by a link on our web page.
Lisa and I hope everyone enjoys sharing in the adventures, and we will look forward to seeing everyone when we get home.