#10: Simien Mountains, Ethiopia, August ’06 – I went gritty young.
Every good traveler (and about 99% of archaeologists) have a big list of countries, sites, and bucket-list items by the time they’re 30. I was thrown right into the thick of things when I was sixteen with a trip to Ethiopia (I think I mentioned it in the last entry). But I really started when I was 13 with a short two-week family trip to the UK, where I have family. My parents understood from an early age that I was ruin-crazy, and we visited about half a dozen ruined cathedrals and castles. I still have some pretty epic memories of those, although at this point in time I don’t think I could ever find the photographs.
Ever since then, it’s been a combination of natural wonders, jaw-dropping ruins, awe-inspiring skylines, dogged slums, intriguing museums, and days where I saw nothing at all but had the time of my life anyway (I’ll recount the Driving on Mars in Morocco story at some point).
For now, though, let’s start off with the country and city list (any territories will be in italics):
- Canada (1989 – )
- Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Banff, Calgary, Montreal, Quebec City, Fernie, Vancouver, Whistler, Niagara Falls
- United States (1991, 2006, 2008-2010, 2013, 2014, 2016)
- Buffalo, New York City, Salt Lake City, Miami
- Bahamas (1996, 1997)
- Eleuthera…Club Med…
- Turks and Caicos (1998)
- Grand Turk…Sandals…
- Mexico (1999, 2000)
- Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo…yeah, that was Club Med again…
- United Kingdom (2003, 2005, 2007, 2011 – 2014)
- London, Nottingham, Bristol, Taunton, Cambridge, Oxford, Hadrian’s Wall, York, Canterbury
- Wales (2003)
- Rhaglan, Cardiff, Tintern
- Japan (2004)
- Fuji, Hammamatsu, Shizuoka, Tokyo, Yokohama
- Italy (2006)
- Florence, Pisa, Chianti, Siena, Rome, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Venice
- Vatican City (2006)
- Vatican Palace, St. Peter’s Basilica
- Ethiopia (2006)
- Addis Ababa, Gonder, Debark, Simien National Park
- Zambia (2007)
- Lusaka, Livingstone, Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park
- France (2009)
- Nimes, Arles, Cassis, Gordes, Avignon, Paris, Versailles
- Jordan (2010)
- Amman, Aqaba, Petra (Ma’an), Jerash, Ajloun, Madaba, Dead Sea, Wadi Rum
- Israel (2010)
- Jerusalem, Eilat, Masada, Caesarea
- West Bank, Palestine (2010)
- Bethlehem, Herodion
- Germany (2011)
- Turkey (2012)
- Morocco (2012)
- Marrakesh, Ouarzazate, Ait Benhaddou, Dades
- Scotland (2012)
- Perth, Dundee, St. Andrew’s, Edinburgh
- Malaysia (2012, 2015)
- Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth, Penang
- Cambodia (2012, 2015-2016)
- Siem Reap, Angkor, Phnom Penh, Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea, Poipet
- Cyprus (2013)
- Paphos, Troodos, Limassol, Kourion
- Bolivia (2013)
- La Paz, Rurrenabaque, Tiwanaku, Uyuni
- Peru (2013)
- Cusco, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu), Raqchi, Puno
- India (2014)
- Delhi, Agra, Amritsar, Shimla, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Bikaner, Fatehpur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Varanasi
- Hong Kong (2015)
- Lamma Island, Hong Kong Island, Kowloon
- Singapore (2015)
- Marina Bay, Changi, Bhukit Timah
- Thailand (2015)
- Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok, Sukhothai, Hat Yai
- China (2015 – 2016)
- Beijing, Badaling, Pingyao, Xian, Shanghai, Suzhou
See…I told you the best (and arguably the most obsessive-compulsive…or maybe just the most obsessive compulsive) travellers keep a list. And I’ve filled out so many “Where I’ve Been” maps online that my sister Gillian got me a scratch map one year for Christmas. It’s on my wall – it has been for nearly two years – and it’s probably the greatest gift I’ve ever received.
Hardcore travellers get their egos tied into where they’ve been, so it’s tough to not turn country-hopping into a checklist game. I have that problem, and it turns me into a maniac when I go anywhere: I need to maximize ALL OF IT, see EVERYTHING, and much was the case in my trip to China I end up alienating my travel companion. Natasha, my girlfriend of 2 1/2 years (a little more than 14 months at the time), was about ready to kill me by the time we finally got back to the airport in Shanghai.
In the last year or so, I’ve learned to relax a bit and organize my sightseeing around taking some days off. As my mom reminds me constantly, it makes people uncomfortable to travel with someone who literally won’t turn their brain off. But it’s also this continuous narrative of feeling more at home away from home – this map will only get more and more scratched as the years go by.
Oh, yeah, I’ve also arguably been to Sudan. I sat in an airplane in the dark for two hours both ways during a layover between Frankfurt and Addis Ababa. No one got off the plane, no one really came on the plane except for a few armed airport guards, and all I saw of the country were rolling Sahara sand dunes stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction beyond the city. So…did I really go to Sudan?
Alright then, fine.
Now for the other list, where it actually looks like I saw things and could comment on them enough to say HOLY SHIT THAT WAS SO COOL!!! This is a top 10 list, starting backwards, and will give you all an idea of the things I am most interested in.
(SPOILER ALERT – THEY’RE MOSTLY OLD, AND MOSTLY IN AFRICA AND ASIA)
#10: Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia (2006): Not all of them are archaeological or architectural, and not all of them are things that I saw when I was a well-established traveler either. The Simien Mountains are about as close as you get to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World outside of Venezuela. The single dirt road into the mountains snake through green-capped spires (alongside a cliff which our bus nearly slipped off) which once forming the walls of a supervolcano, and are home to some of the largest populations of gelada baboons on earth. My little Ethiopian voluntourism group hiked for three days to a small campsite and back – one fat guy rode a donkey the whole way up – and on the second day we climbed Ethiopia’s second-highest peak (and God only knows what it’s name was). It’s less accessible these days due to tension between rebel groups and the government, but back in 2006 it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
One of two huge hordes of monkeys living on the mountainsides in this part of the Simiens – they’re quite friendly but don’t get close to their infants…
#9: The Great Wall of China (2015). You could call it overrated, but why? It’s one part engineering marvel and nine parts mountains as ornate and beautiful as the Simiens (although fewer baboons and 100000x more tourists). This is thus far the most incredible site I’ve seen in China, and narrowly beat out the Terracotta Warriors and the Forbidden City for a spot on the Top 10. There’s a reason that people fawn over it, and like the Taj Mahal or the Colosseum, the reason is justified. Note: the Great Wall is way steeper than you’d ever think it was, so wear proper shoes or get caught in flip-flops like a few unfortunate Chinese tourists did trying to climb back up a particularly treacherous segment of the Great Wall at Badaling.
No Mongolians getting over that thing!
#8: Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock/Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel (2010): This one was a site which, while imposing and beautiful, especially Dome of the Rock, carried a lot of gravitas and significance. Most recently the Israel Archaeological Commission (?) constructed a tunnel under the Mamluk street level of the Old City of Jerusalem alongside the foundations of the original exposed Western Wall, allowing tourists and pilgrims alike to walk alongside the Herodion ruins and access the Holy of Holies, the closest place one can get to the original Temple without actually going on Temple Mount. The religious significance of the site, too, with Jews along the Wall and Muslims on the Mount, give global geopolitics another dimension and give some weight to the accusations coming from either side during the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict.
The feel of the Old City of Jerusalem is intoxicating…so much history, so much war…
#7: Roman Forum/Colosseum, Italy (2006): 2006 was one wild year in Italy. I was sixteen years old and just starting to really enjoy the things I was studying in school (History, Politics, English, Classics…those things that make no money), so my parents decided to take my sisters and I to Italy on a family trip in the middle of the FIFA World Cup. Italy won, and Rome went crazy (this was the year where Zidane headbutted the guy)! And, of course, when in Rome, while experiencing the wildest party known to man, you go see the vestiges of one of the greatest civilizations that ever existed. The Colosseum, while a shell of its former self having been used as a quarry for 1600 years, is still incredibly imposing, while the few columns left in the Forum are grand reminders of the might of Rome. The most complete ruins are actually that of the Flavian Palace on top of the hill overlooking the completely-gutted Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla (which is on my bucket list because I did a project for one of my classes in undergrad on its architectural layout…and have since forgotten everything…). Still, a must.
Rome in 2006 – I had way less photography equipment back then.
#6: Victoria Falls, Zambia (2007): I don’t think I’ve ever fan-boyed over a waterfall more than Victoria Falls, and the nickname “The Smoke That Thunders” (in Tokaleya Tonga “Mosi-Oa-Tunya”) really suits it. At the height of rainy season, Victoria Falls is a merciless sheet of water pouring into the Zambezi Gorge separating Zambia and Zimbabwe. I did another voluntourism trip to Zambia when I was seventeen in place of the traditional Grad Trip to Dominican Republic many of my friends took, and this time my main draw was not building a house with Habitat for Humanity, which to be honest was dull and boring, but to see Victoria Falls. And it didn’t disappoint, although I got completely soaked twice: once on a cliff directly across from the waterfall and again five minutes later on a bridge crossing through the splash zone. The photos I got, even by my self-imposed astronomical standards now, came out looking like watercolours.
The Painting That Thunders…
#5: Taj Mahal, Agra, India (2014). More than the Great Wall of China, more than Angkor Wat, more even than the Sistine Chapel, THIS is the most beautiful building on earth. Part mosque, part mausoleum, part architectural monster, the Taj is a building that gets all the pzzaz for a reason. It’s huge! And crowded. But unlike the sprawling, muggy city of Agra that’s been built around it, the Taj Mahal is spotless and pristine. Now, go see it while you can because it’s predicted to fall down in the next 20-30 years due to the receding of the Yamuna River upon whose shores it’s built, but hopefully the bloated Indian bureaucracy will have finally completed the paperwork for a thorough restoration of its base by then.
#4: Ganges River Ghats, Varanasi, India (2014): To put this in front of the Taj Mahal for a trip to India seems like a travesty, no? Well, Varanasi is probably the rawest city I’ve ever experienced. It’s not for the faint of heart by any means. No one stops for traffic, the lack of sanitation is unbearable, there’s a constant billow of smoke in the air, cows, monkeys, and dogs litter the roads, and don’t even get me started on the dead bodies floating in the Ganges. But when the sun goes down and the Aarti drums begin, you realize this insane city and its riverfront ghats are something special. It literally feels like the end of the world as you witness the extreme religious fervour of a thousand white-painted ascetics praying alongside putrid mass-cremations along the jetties. Not for the faint of heart, but it may just open your eyes.
Why shouldn’t the holiest city in Hinduism scare the living bejeezus out of you?
#3: Machu Picchu/The Inca Train, Peru (2013): Machu Picchu is arguably the most famous archaeological discovery of all-time. And this one is probably one of the few sites that we can actually say was discovered by a Westerner, unlike Angkor or Petra which were known for centuries by local populations who were apathetic to their histories. I hiked the Inca Trail with an ex-girlfriend in the summer 0f 2013, and to be honest the only tough part about it was dragging her up and down every mountain! Otherwise, even if you train for only a month beforehand, it’s a surprisingly pleasant four day trek. And the reward at the end is Machu Picchu, a too-good-to-be-true archaeological masterpiece that, similar to the Great Wall, is 10% ruins and 90% mountain scenery. We saw a condor fly over the site the day we were there and our Quechua tourguide freaked out, which apparently a really incredibly good omen (or something guides say to tourists to make them feel special).
On your left you’ll see two of the dozen “tourist-llamas” that mow the lawns of Machu Picchu.
#2: Petra, Jordan (2010): Getting shocked by the sight of the Treasury down the narrow siq at Petra (see image) is the closest I’ve ever had to an archaeologasm. And it’s not just some single epic Hellenistic skyscraper (featured prominently in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) built into a five-hundred-foot jagged cliff face – there’s HUNDREDS of them! Around every turn! There are a few normal buildings that aren’t rock-cut, but they’re each so colossal that they emphasize how wealthy this once-famous trade oasis was. And if you hike further up the mountains you get to the Monastery, the building in the image in my last entry. I went with the group I excavated with, and rather than join me for a hike up there to witness the OG rock-cut behemoth, they decided to pretend to sacrifice each other at the High Place. Still a hike, but I got the better view…
Try seeing that through a crack in the rock and not losing your breath…
#1: Angkor, Cambodia (2012, 2015-2016): Call me biased, but I had a very good playlist on the first time I saw Angkor Wat back in 2012. The same music playing when Allan Grant saw the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park blared in my ears as I walked through the gatehouse to first witness the temple’s splendour. I had the Raiders March in my ears biking around the Bayon. I took my earbuds out and listened to nature as I walked carefully across the stone moat into Preah Khan. And I had “Lovers in Japan – Reign of Love” by Coldplay playing as I rode through a Cambodian rice field outside of the Bakong Temple on the most lovely day of cycling in my life. Angkor is a gem, any way you experience it, and it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life. I won’t go too far overboard with why Angkor is the most amazing archaeological site outside of Egypt, because I’ve got an entire three months to convince you all of that!
And that’s only the outside…
And just in case you were wondering, these were the 10 runners-up that may appear in future travel stories (don’t worry, these aren’t stories above, just rankings – just, again, a way to frame this next January-June full of traveling and surveying):
11. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (2012)
12. Terracotta Warriors/Tomb of the First Emperor, Xian, China (2015)
13. Forbidden City, Beijing, China (2015)
14. Gardens by the Bay, Singapore (2015)
15. Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, UK (2005, 2011)
16. Royal Palace/Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, Thailand (2015)
17. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel (2010)
18. Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats), Bolivia (2013)
19. Pingyao Walled City, China (2015)
20. Qutub Minar Complex, Delhi, India (2014)
That’s all for today – I am narcissist-ed out. The next article will be discussing my fieldwork, and I need to write a lecture for my Introduction to Archaeology class first!