The Living Planet

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Discovering Denmark – from Ribe to Svendborg to Copenhagen (Day 3 and 4)

I blame travel fatigue, but not much photos were taken on the last two days. It doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see, in contrary, island of Fyn is a fantastically beautiful and cozy place. However, I was just kind of absorbing things around me, without really thinking about taking decent pictures. There were still quite a few taken, but a lot didn’t make the final selection.

Ribe - SvenborgSvenborg - Copenhagen

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Are those birds?

 

 

 

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Solitude

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Discovering Denmark – from Copenhagen to Skagen (day 1)

Denmark is a fantastic country, and the beauty of nature compliments nicely the colorfulness of the cities and the kindness of people. For the past 4 days, I and my trusted co-pilot (aka one-and-only Lana) had a chance to travel around this wonderful country. Even though we have left more than 1000 kilometers behind us, we were able to experience only a fraction of Denmark. I hope this, and the following blogs, will give you a taste of this country.

Day 1:

Copenhagen - Aalborg

On the way to Sjællands Odde

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Ferry to Årchus

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Årchus

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Heading towards Skagen – the most northern part of Denmark, where Baltic and North Seas are joining together.

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Discovering Denmark – Helsingør

5th month of the colonization of Denmark, and it has been finally decided to venture outside the city walls. Even though Copenhagen is a fantastic city, and establishing a routine is one of the most crucial steps for a successful colonization, the time was right to leave our proverbial “hamster wheel” and explore:

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There is no shortage of interesting destinations in this fantastic country, but which one to pick? The scientific method of “opening a travel guide and pointing with a finger” was applied, and so the city of Helsingør was selected.

Helsingør, known in English as Elsinore, is a city in eastern Denmark. Helsingør has a population of 46,492 and it is the largest city and main shopping destination in North Zealand, with over a million visitors a year. It is known for its castle Kronborg, where William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” is set. The ferry route connects Helsingør with Helsingborg (Sweden) which is a stone throw away. As you can guess, both cities used to be under Danish control and they were responsible for collecting dues/toll from all passing ships (so called The Sound Dues), which made Danish kings super filthy rich.

So without any further ado, I give you Helsingør (but mostly the castle):

Once upon a time on a cold winter morning

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It’s like a tiny Copenhaven…for such a small city, all houses are seriously well maintained

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Øresund (the Sound) and Sweden, right across wild Nordic sea

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Fishermen and a …merman (?!) The long lost evil twin of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid?

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Kronborg Castle – getting closer

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Maiden and a Flame – last stop before venturing into the icy dominion of the Castle

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Exterior Court, and not a creature in sight

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Holger the Dane – ancient warrior, sleeping until he is needed to save his homeland

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The main party hall (unfortunately I totaly forgot to document the interrior, but it’s definetly worth visiting)

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Riga – a City frozen in Time

While growing up, I heard many stories about the wonders of the Baltic region. For every Russian person, the Baltic region was a piece of “abroad”, a glimpse into European lifestyle and luxury. Many of my parents’ friends came back from vacation, bringing fantastic souvenirs and showing pictures of unbelievable sights, as of picked from some German fairytale. And of course each and everyone knew about superclass parties and concerts in Jurmala. Growing up (or better said “maturing”) in Belgium, I heard my friends tell crazy stories about bachelor parties and the beauty of local women.  Departing to Riga, I guess, I did expect to see something that would be a blend of my childhood impressions and crazy have-a-good-time stories, but the reality was a lot more contradictive.

I’ve travelled some time already and I must say, I didn’t expect to experience a cultural shock in a European country, but it happened nevertheless. Define cultural shock? Unable to understand just what a hell is going on and how to behave properly, caused by the expectations being in contrast with reality. What did I expect? Just another European capital, a bit sterile, and filled with happy “bourgeois” on their ways to Christmas market. Instead I got a city which appeared to be frozen in different times, completely isolated from fast-paced modern times.

It seems that this time continuum disruption could be geographically localized: the old city seems to be stuck in medieval German period, while outside you had a full submersion into a post-soviet reality. And it’s the second part that shocked me. Even though my hotel was located in the city center, this strange feeling of being in Russia at the end of the previous millennium never left me: outdated clothing aimed at efficiency rather than style, cars covered by dirt and soot, not so smiling faces (even hotel personnel was rather gloomy). Once you wander a bit off the main streets, everything becomes a bit darker and sadder. A lot less cozy bars and diners, a bit weirder looking basement shops and a lot more people being on their guard, and way more cars randomly parked blocking pedestrians in every possible way. By contrast, once you are back in the circle of “wonderful life” – aka city center, you’ll encounter rather expensive shops, champagne boozing “nouveau riche” and a strange attitude of proud supremacy. I guess I just didn’t expect this kind of outdated contrast within the borders of EU…I bit naive I must admit.

But enough about the dark side. Riga’s government spend a lot of effort to brighten up the Old City, and I must say – mission accomplished (considering the state it was in before). As mentioned above, the Old City has that amazing medieval spirit, and this despite overly touristic setup (and why so many American coffee shops?). Nor tourists, nor overabundance of gift shops bother a tired wondering soul. I’ve taken a short tour guide, and while listening to the stories about the ways of guilds, traders and common man of that time, I felt like being teleported to the golden ages of Riga. Being not overly pricy, Riga is actually a nice break from overly expensive everything back home, while delivering a calm atmosphere of a small and secure Old City. So walk around the city center, climb up St. Peter’s cathedral, visit the “oldest pharmacy in the city” where they still make original spirits and just be a tourist.

The original (ish) map of Riga – Trading outpost and a serious fortfication

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Riga Town Hall Square with House of Blackheads

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Central Square with St. Peter’s Church in background

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View from St. Peter’s Church

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Medieval atmosphere (Rozengrals restaurant and Jauniela street)

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A melting pot of various architectural treasures – German medieval guild house, Russian Orthodox Nativity of Christ Cathedral and Art Nouveau Buildings)

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Bastejkalna parks (and I finally got my snow)

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Normandie – Sea, cliffs, food and foxes

Once the relocation to Denmark became a sure thing, I certainly realized that there are so many beautiful spots around Belgium that I’ve been ignoring for years. France seemed like a great destination for a short road trip, and more specifically Normandy.

All I knew about that particular part of France is that at some point allied troops landed on the shores of Normandy and kicked nazi’s ass on the western front. So in other words I had no idea what to expect from the trip.  According to Tripadvisor, Normandy is wel known for it’s beautiful nature, dozens of pictoresque castles and abbeys, and local cuisine (primerely bounties from the sea). In the early-ish morning we hit that dustry road, and 700 kilometers and 9 hours later we’ve reached our destination – Mont St. Michel.

Let me give you one tip, don’t try to outsmart the toll roads, it won’t save you a lot of money but you’ll lose A LOT of time. I thought of cheating the system by setting my GPS on “avoid toll roads” mode…and so did those oher hundreds of guys. After 3 hours of turtle driving through local (sometimes very scenic) roads, packed with caravans, station wagons and other cheapskates, I’e reached my limit of zen and turned to the nearest toll road…eventhough we already did a helluva detour, this manouvre still saved us over an hour of driving.

SInce you can’t say “chateau” withour romance, I’ve planned to visit a few of those babies on the way to Mont St. Michel. The beautiful thing is that those castles are still occupied by the descendants of the original families. The castles basically stay in the hands of the same family for hundreds of years, and for a small fee you can enjoy the tour around the park and take a peak at the daily life of current chateau owners (aka Lords..probably).

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I’ll be honest, if you saw a couple of those, you saw them all. But the scenery is still very nice, and atmosphere is appropriate (knights, servants, peasants…).IMG_6303

When we finally arrived to the little town of Beauvoir (aka our homebase), the only words that popped into my mind where “charming”, “cozy”, “cute”, and a whole bunch of other candy-sweat references. The town itself was tiny (one street max), but nevertheless it had 5 little restaurants. The B&B where we were staying had a very home like vibe, and the hostess was threating all her guests like the most important people in the world.

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One great night sleep and a pancake infused breakfast later, we were all set to continue our journey. The plan was to take the coastal route and visit few of the most iconic places in the region. While driving along the cost, you’ll be treated by a fantastic view on the Abbey of Mont St. Michel.

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Sheep as far as the eye can see – typical scene from a daily life in Normandy.

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By lunch time, we’ve reached Cancale. This city is well known for it’s sea food and an amazing view from Point du Grouin.

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Unfortunately, the city is swarmed with tourists so I’d advise to head straight for the Point du Grouin: you’ll have the view and you’ll have the food (not expensive and good, a lot of locals eat there).

Taking a walk around the area, really makes you appreciate this beautiful planet we are living on.

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There was even this little guy chasing us, kindred spirits maybe?

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And of course, after fresh air and a long walk, it’s time for some vine and sea food.

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Even though, after a lunch like this it’s accustom to take a nap, our journey had to be continued. The next stop was Saint- Malo.

Saint-Malo used to be a fortified island that controlled a large area of the open see and entrance to the river. But Saint-Malo became notorious as the home of the corsairs, French privateers and sometimes pirates.

I’d recommend to park your car on the streets away from the touristic center (free on Sunday) and enjoy the scenic walk over the Saint-Malo promenade.

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Apparently pirate ships are still patrolling the area.

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The city if tough and well protected, a thick wall is circumventing almost the entire city.

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But it’s not always about cannons, powder and money…the whimsical side is expressed in the city names (Street of the dancing cat).

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Our last stop was the city of Dinan. This city used to be pretty important when the trade was done via river, but now it’s a favourit destination for those who like this unique medieval atmosphere.

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Mont Saint Michel – the Eternal Dream

I’m gladly dedicating the entire post to Mont St. Michel, because this place is one of the most magnificent places I’ve visited so far. Some can ask: “What’s the big whoop? It’s just another abbey/castle. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”. But this just doesn’t apply to Mont St. Michel and I have evidence to prove this.

Short history to set the mood: “The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times and since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The structural composition of the town exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it: on top, God, the abbey and monastery; below, the great halls; then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, fishermen’s and farmers’ housing.

Its unique position of being an island only 600 meters from land made it readily accessible at low tide to the many pilgrims to its abbey. Equally, this position made it readily defensible as an incoming tide stranded, drove off, or drowned, would-be assailants. By capitalizing on this natural defense the Mont remained unconquered during the Hundred Years’ War with a small garrison successfully defending it against a full attack by the English in 1433.

In other words this has always been a center of power and piety, which is clearly felt in the atmosphere. It is like a Fortress of Solitude without Superman, Sentry Tower without Sentry, Stephen Strange’s Mansion without Dr. Strange and Death Star with The Emperor (geeks out there know what I mean), place of quite seclusion and power, waiting for its super hero to take residence.

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Mont St. Michel looks like a castle from Lord of The Rings, or some magical castle from another fantasy tale, with its tall spires, hidden gardens and majestic halls.

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During high tide, which comes pretty fast, the entire sandy part gets flooded, making the city inaccessible from land. Of course, today there is a bridge and a shuttle service, but imagine the attackers being caught off guard in the heat of the battle.

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Every year, administration of the island sets up various themes to entertain the visitors. This year it was dragon/phoenix theme, with appropriate illumination, music and props. This “dungeons and dragons” setup make those guided tours a whole lot more fun.

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Unfortunately, I’m awful at taking interior pictures, but what one won’t do to please one’s reader (thank you Google). Just imagine the shadows of cloaked monks, quietly moving between tall pillars in a dimming light of the setting sun…mystical!

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At the top terrace, there is an open terrace when one can fine the Garden of Solitude (Actual name? I would call it this way). This is where I can imagine myself spending hours in quite meditation and contemplation. Isn’t it a perfect place for a super hero to take rest after saving the planet? Also a great place to hide from zombie apocalypse. Basically, this whole place is just one big vault to hide from…well, everything.

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The window on the other side is overlooking the lands and the view is simply breathtaking (sorry, no bigger picture but trust me, it’s awesome!)

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We (I and my travel enthusiastic wife) have spent two full evenings in there, and it was clearly not enough. There are many places that remained hidden from the curiosity of my camera. The pictures can’t do justice to the view from the upper levels.

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While we were climbing those steep stairs, we came across secluded gardens, cemeteries, small restaurants and even private houses, all efficiently packed on a small mountain.

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It’s easy to get lost, especially when it’s getting dark (and rainy), but once you stumble upon the wall, it’s just an easy hike to the main gate. This also gives you a chance to see the whole place from a different perspective.

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C’mon, tell me it’s not one of the scenes from Lord of the Rings? I half expected a dragon coming down from that tower, breathing fire and eating the villagers.

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And be careful when the tide comes, if you are late you’ll have to pay the ultimate price.

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As one can expect, this place is swarmed with tourists, and that definitely kills the atmosphere. But if you go in the evening, then you can avoid the crowd and long waiting lines. The parking is free after 7PM, and the shuttles to the actual abbey are driving till 1AM (parking is outside of the actual area).

We’ve spent quite some time in there, and believe me, once the illumination kicks in, you won’t be able to leave any time soon. Plus, there is a whole range of things you can do: explore those little streets and gardens, discover history, or just buy a bottle of wine and kick back in one of the gardens and enjoy the view.

I won’t do the restaurant on the premises as they are way overpriced and not very good. However, the towns around Mont St. Michel provide enough accommodation and food opportunities for a very decent price.

Yucatan (Mexico): Part One – a little something about everything

Introduction
As I’m flying back to my daily life, with each second pulled away further from the deep blue ocean, scorching sun and liver-unfriendly cocktails, I’ll try to set my discontent aside and consolidate my discoveries in a user friendly format. This edition will be consisting out of two parts. Part one will contain short information about a number of topics related to my travel (food, drinks, history etc). In part 2 I will try to share the magnificence of some locations that I had a chance to visit.

About Brussels airport and flying
Fyling is awesome, right? Nothing beats that iron self-discipline of keeping you confined in a small space for a great number of hours. True, you can get places a lot faster, and flying with a light buzz always takes that edge off. Selecting an appropriate flight is the first thing that might (or might not) make your life a bit easier.

Charter flight vs regular line flight – yes or no? i don’t want to sound snobbish, but hell no!  Why is that? Atmosphere would be my first reason. The calm atmosphere among frequent plane travelers, which makes you feel as a part of the aerial family is totally missing in charter flights. Most people are not used to take a plane, so you’ll see a mix of excitement, fear and increasing restlessness.

There is also a big chance that there’ll be a lay-over for a couple hours (empty planes don’t make money), but they won’t let you out of the plane.

2 hours lay-over in Cuba.

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And then the delays….My God, those constant delays! There will be delays and they will be quite long. So when you are sitting in that cattle pen called waiting hall, sweating your eyes out because of the weak air conditioner, hours of delay ahead of you, just remind yourself that paying that little extra for the line flight would eventually save you a lot more.
And lastly, the quality of food. The food is horrible even to airplane standards, all kinds of non-alcoholic drinks/snacks are extra charge and you won’t be fed a lot (so make sure to stock up on cookies). 

Enough nagging, I have a fresh travel tip to all of you. Long distance flights are exhausting, and since you can’t put yourself in a hyper sleep, you’ll have to make this trip as comfortable as possible. The main cause of the exhaustion is simply dehydration due to the sneaky plane air conditioner. So the main message is to stay hydrated: take that refillable bottle past security and start feeling it up. Continuing doing sol in the plan creates additional benefits: you get your movements (it’s well known that sitting for long hours without moving can have serious health consequences) as you refill that bottle or run to the bathroom.
As you can’t smuggle water past the security (I still think that it’s part of the scheme to make you buy that overpriced water/food while waiting for your flight), the refillable bottle will save you quite some money as every airport should have drinking fountains.
Brussels airport is clever about this, they’ve hidden their fountains in the bathrooms so don’t line up for that 5 euro water bottle but head straight to the nearest bathroom.

And buy noise-cancelling headphones, those things are life savers during the long flights.

About Yucatan (region and people) 

The histroy of the entire region is as colourfull as nachos. Two periods can be roughly identified: pre-columbian (before the white devil landed on the shores of Yucatan) and post-colombian (after the locals were decimated and oppressed by the white man).

Before the spaniards arrived (16th century), the region was following it’s natural evolution as empires rose and collapsed.  Different kingdoms were ruling the area. They waged wars, traded and created alliances for more than two tousand years. The Mayan civilization made great achievements in both science (astronomy) and architecture. For a civilization that didn’t have any metal tools or wheel, they were able to build magnificent cities and develop a very presice calender.

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The blood cult was the corner stone of the religion. Mayans believed that blood is a gift from gods, so spilling it was justified as an honor to those gods. Yes, there were human sacrifices. And yes, the nobles did practice self-mutilation (they pierced lips, genitals and cheeks with a knife made from stingray) but this should be seen from their view on life and death. It was less important on how you lived your life, what really counted is how you have ended it. Depending on the way you died, you’d be joining a specific deity in the eternity. That’s why a lot of sacrificing was volunteering as people were hoping to rejoin the gods after an honorable death.

The genital piercing part sounds particularly fun. Basically, there was no party or any other social event without a blood of a noble. His royal blood would legally approve/justify any event that was about to happen. It’s hard to imagine in our days, that a politician would cut himself every time a football match needs to be played. But then again, they are not descendants of the gods, even though they seem to act like they do.

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And all would go great for those guys (Mayan I mean), they would build bigger pyramids, develop more awesome and mysterious arts…but Spaniards came and all this went down the drain.

First Spanish explorers arrived at the end of 15th century lead by C. Columbus. Obviously, they were shocked by the sacrifices, and ankle deep blood rivers (like Spanish Catholic Church never killed anyone). So, after a short meeting, it has been decided that locals are bad and they should be turned to the good side, even if it will kill them. The bringer of light was Hernan Cortes, who basically annihilated all local power centers and downgraded the remaining population to the level of animals. Why there was no resistance? At first, the Mayan thought that Spaniards were gods, returned to their children as it was prophesied. And no one wanted to piss off the god (interesting that the gods were supposed to be white). By the time the Mayan realized what happened, the majority was wiped out either by Spaniards of by smallpox (also introduced by Spanish). The local population was heavily outnumbered and divided, but they still resisted fiercely.

But it’s thanks to Friar Diego de Landa that we only have bits and pieces about Mayan culture. The Maya recorded their history, customs and rituals in beautifully painted picture books (called Codex). The good inquisitor burned almost all of them (only 4 are now remaining), together with a load of scrolls and a bunch of people (just to make a point).

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By the time Spaniards were done with the Maya, their culture and civilization was almost completely exterminated. Even now, remaining Mayan tribes depict those events in the ritual dancing, as the fall of their civilization left a deep scar in their collective memory.

The colonial period was fun as well, as the remnants of the once proud civilization were shunted to the bottom of the social pyramid. At the top were pure blood Spaniards, secondly criollos (pure blood Spaniards born in the colony), then mestizos (mix of Spaniards and locals) and then pure blood Mayans. A number of revolutions followed (independence war from Spain), The Caste War, Mexican Revolution, but somehow the original population got screwed over and over again.

Currently, around 30% of Yucatan population consists of predominately indigenous tribes, while the majority are mestizos. There are over 30 different tribes (and thus different dialects) that are still trying to survive in modern Mexico. Those communities are living in seclusion, trying to maintain their languages and culture for as long as they can. The economic situation in Yucatan is far from a stable one, and the local tribes are being hit the hardest as they don’t speak Spanish and there is no support from government whatsoever. Basically, tourism and crafts is the only source of income, so if you overpay heavily for that small souvenir, don’t cheap out and think about local people.

About local transportation

Sitting in hotel or lying on the beach the entire stay was not part of my travel plan. Discovering the region means being mobile. There are different options, ranked based on the level of expensiveness (aka “reap off”).

  • Hotel shuttle service: probably the most expensive one, but also the most comfortable. It’s like you are leaving the hotel without actually leaving it.
  • Taxi: in all countries taxi drivers are a special breed of people. In this harsh market one has to be tough and impudent. Taxis are not in the best shape but they’ll deliver. the more foreign you look like, the higher the price will become. In general, the prices is 3 times higher than colectivo.
  • Colectivo: now this is my favorite. Colectivo’s are mini vans which are traveling between Tulum and Cancun whole day long, picking up people along the road. There are a number of stops where you can wait for one, or you’ll just wait near the highway and signal to the incoming colectivo. If there is a free spot (drivers will try to load those vans to the maximum – 15 people), he’ll stop. For a couple of dollars you’ll get anywhere you want in a fast and relatively safe manner. Prices are fixed and better to be checked upfront (30 pesos in average).

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About tourists (not to offend any one, just making an observation)

At first, I wanted to catalogue different groups of tourists, but it doesn’t seem totally fair or objective. I’ll just mentioned what stroke me the most compared to my other travels.

* Beer/cocktail kegs: I know that people are lazy, and being lazy during your vacation is something that you just have to do. But huge (1/1.5 litters) mugs/kegs that are being filled at the bar? Especially women, oh so fragile, looked weird holding those monstrosities filled to the top with beer. I looked very puny with my regular beer glass compared to those suckaz.

* Large groups (tendency to make large groups): I’d say that lonely travelers or couples were in a clear minority. People arrived in huge loud tribes that absorbed the lonely couples (never expected Canadians/Americans be so chatty). Once caught in their gravity pool, the resistance became futile.

* No interest of going outside of hotel (no interest in local stuff): of course, not everybody wants to climb those dusty ruins, but I was a little surprised that majority showed no interest in local culture at all. Catching bits and pieces of conversations I was surprised at the ignorance towards locals.

* Tattoos: I’ve never seen so many painted people. I felt like an amateur at the talent show. The large majority of tourists were wearing some kind of ink, and the most tattoos, although without clear coherent meaning, were really a piece of art.  I’ve seen people with a giant tattoo of crucified Jesus, holding a sign “In God we trust”, I’ve seen crying Maria covering almost the entire back, I saw entire passages written all over the body and pictures of their current/former lovers. In any case, what was missing in consistency was overly compensated in the quality.

* Going to the same place over and over again: I guess this one is just a personal preference.

 

About tequila (salud!)

There are many kinds of tequila (much like cognac or whiskey) and basically all are extracts of agave plant. But it’s by trying, tasting and comparing the different brands, a real appreciation of the beverage will be awaken.
The majority of tequilas are dark and only a few are branded as “white tequila”. White tequila comes directly to the market without aging and only fits for “shots”. While reposado and anejo (darker tequillas) are being aged first (6 months to more than a year). Anejo (more than a year) has a more distinct taste and should be really savored in order to unlock the true taste. 
My favorite at this moment is “tres generacios”, it has a soft chocolaty taste and a very smooth complexion.

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There is also a local type of tequila, called Mezcal. Each bottle has a worm or a scorpion swimming in it. I don’t know if it affects the taste, but this drink is quite enjoyable in a form of “shots”.

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Mayan people have a drink of their own. The first one, balche, is a honey based drink which hold a very important mystical meaning, and it is impossible to purchase it. The origins of the drink tells a romantic tale of a young warrior that fell in love with the girl who was promised to a chieftain. Only by sharing the secret of this drink, the warrior could impress chieftain and return the girl he loved. This drink is still used in traditional weddings, where the bride is covered in balche as a promise of prosperity.
The second one, Xtabentun, is also honey based and can be purchased freely. The taste comes close to Mede or honey wine, but feels a little stronger (couple of those guys knock you off, despite lower alcohol percentage of 12%). To enjoy without ice and in small quantities because of its sweetness and proofing, sipping rather than shooting.

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About food
Local food depends on the region of Mexico, and takes the name of the cities and towns from where it was created. I’d classify it as a fusion of traditional Mexican food (Hispanic roots) and local/tribal cuisine. The region’s most popular dish is “Cochinita pibil”. In Maya “Pib” means a hole in the ground, and “al pibil” is a centuries-old regional technique for cooking all kinds of meat. The most preferred meat is piglet (hence “Cochinita”), but you’ll find version with chicken as well. It’s prepared by rubbing the meat in “recado rojo” (paste which is a blend of spices, originally used by the Maya peoples), which is thinned using the juice of sour oranges. The meat is then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground or in an oven for 8 hours. It’s usually served shredded, so taco-friendly for sure.

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About diving

Rivier Maya is to be considered as one of the best diving location in the world (next to Australia and Egypt – Sharm El’ Sheikh). This mostly due to the good diving conditions (water clarity, current, waves etc), but also a very rich marine life and most beautiful coral reefs. It a very popular diving location which means that there is a big choice of diving schools. Do your research before signing up with one as not all of them are PADI recognized (if you really want to get the certification).

I had a pleasure to dive in Akumal (translated from local language: Turtle Place). And indeed, you’ll see those beautiful creatures swimming about even in shallow waters.

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The conditions for the beginners might be a bit overwhelming, as the ocean can become less user-friendly (i want to save “wavy”, but I’m sure it’s not a real word). The first dive in open water was almost my last one. I’m not getting sea sick easily, but once you start ascending, the environment starts to change from calm weightlessness to a sense of being in a box which is held by an evil child. Closer to the surface I felt like a sock in a washing machine. At this point you forget all what you’ve learned about working together with your diving partners (buddy). You’ll just want to climb on that boat as soon as possible and whether the rest follows is not of my concern. The weaves were so bad some of our fellow divers refused to continue the course.

Fortunately the rest of the dives went smoothly. Ocean was calm (or maybe you do get used to it), and besides testing the limits of my instructor’s patience, all went well and I (and my dear wife) got certified.

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About hotel
There are hotels in all sizes and colors, and even though the number of stars doesn’t mean as much in our days, I’d still like to book my accommodation in the 5 star area. At least you know what to expect and there will be no cockroaches on bed and rotten bathroom facilities.
I base my final discussion on tripadvisor and booking.com reviews. Over the years they proved to be correct and representative. I’d also go through the negative comments to understand the severity and nature of the complaints (individual vs structural cases issues).
From my end, I try to review hotels as objective as possible, being fair rather than negative. In any case the following is true: the more money you pay, the better known the hotel’s name is, the better quality will be. So look for the balance between the price, reputation and reviews.

My review of Gran Bahia Sian Ka’an is to be found on tripadvisor.

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About tipping (European view)
I’ve done some research before going to Mexico and a lot of comments mentioned that you’ll have to tip every time (like in US) or the service would be bad. People advised to take around 500 USD (?!) tips money for two week stay. This didn’t seem right as tipping should be done in case service is outstanding (and not as a stimulation to get a better service). The trip was not cheap and the idea of having even more expenses made me feel uneasy.

Arriving in Mexico I did notice that in every place of service, a sign states that tips are not included. The main message is that local people do not earn a lot and tips are their main income….ok, fair enough. From the first day, I’ve noticed that tourists from US/Canada are tipping for EVERYTHING, and I really mean everything. Order a drink (all-inclusive bar) – tip, go to buffet – tip, room cleaning service – tip, check something with concierge – tip, take a golf card to the beach – tip. This tipping took really ridiculous proportions, basically you pay for the service already included in all-inclusive package. I was set to test whether tipping improves/downgrades the service. My findings showed that tipping does not have any effect on the service! The minority of waiters that were really doing their best were also genuinely grateful for the tip. The majority, however, were spoiled by the constant tipping and it didn’t really matter if you left a tip or not. In some cases, even after providing a horrible service the tip was expected.

About Cancun airport terminal 2

All charter flight are departing from terminal 2. Just few tips to those travelling back:
• Alcohol is cheaper here than in hotels/gift shops
• Souvenirs are not cheaper
• There is a Business center where you can buy a day pass for 38 USD per person (I think you can get drinks for free, wifi and snacks). This one is untested as we went for that TGI Fridays

There is a TGI Fridays which is also a valid alternative. In any case, try to stay out of the main waiting hall is much as you can. The place over there is limited and it’s hot.

About Time Sharing 

I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on this one, even though I have a strong and elaborate opinion about the topic. This type of activity is very common in the areas closer to USA (Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico etc), and their techniques are sharp and aggressive.

What is time sharing? In theory, it’s an opportunity to rent something (house, apartment, hotel room etc) at a specific location for a cheaper price. First, you pay a solid lump of money (as a membership fee), which entitles you to a number of weeks that you can use for your vacation (annual payments are paid after the initial lump sum). The lump sum is very much dependent on how big of sucker you are or how resistant you prove to be (my fee went from 20k to 5k USD after 6 hours of “No, I don’t wanna”)

What is promised? Promise vs reality :-)

  1. Exclusive privileges (free wifi, dedicated concierge, transport from and to the airport, stay at the Junior Suite, private beach with waiter service, transportation within the hotel)
    1. Reality:
      1. Free wifi, concierge and other stuff: all that stuff is provided to EVERYONE staying in the same hotel (part of all inclusive package)
      2. Transport Airport – Hotel: it’s not free, it’s roughly the same amount as you would book it your self
      3. Junior Suite: this one sounds fancy, but that’s the most basic accommodation. You can’t upgrade to a better room (Eventually, I had to book outside of the time sharing program). Remarkably, my penthouse suite price was the same as the price for the junior suite proposed by Time Sharing program
      4. Private Beach: small strip of the beach (separated indeed) at the cheapest part of the hotel complex (Those hotel chains have different hotel sections, rating from cheap to expensive). Which means that the quality is much lower than if you would take a higher class complex
      5. Transportation within hotel: granted, this one is an extra. But considering the total price….
  2. Cheaper rate on you (basic) room
    1. Reality: true, the rate is a bit cheaper. However, booking a better room directly via hotel’s website will cost you the same. The only part which is cheaper is an all-inclusive fee. Still, let’s say I can save around 1000 euro per 2 weeks stay (if we take ALL possible reductions), keep in mind that you already paid a lump sum of, let’s say, 6000 euro!!!! Which means that you’ll have to come to this place at least 6 time, just to break-even. Further more, you are forced to go to the same place/region every time.
  3. Free exchange of privilege weeks into weeks in other hotels chains all over the world
    1. Reality: at best the exchange will be 3 to 1 (3 of your weeks for 1 week someplace else). And again, only in specific hotels and for the cheapest rooms
  4. Buying the “cheapest” subscription entitles you to all privileges, but just lesser amount of weeks
    1. Reality: your subscription means nothing. They’ll come up with some BS excuse in order to sell you the upgrade (another 5-6K).

As frustrating as it is, I think I made my point. Once again, I just want to warn all those who want to listen, stay away from those time sharing folks, unless you feel comfortable spending your every vacation at the same place over and over again for the next decade to come.

Yucatan (Mexico): Part Two – Exploration

Behold the second part of  my traveler’s notes. This one will be more focused on the exploration side of the trip.

Since I’ve only stayed for 14 days (of which diving took 5 days), the list of places to see had to be reviewed and trimmed. The distances in Yucatan are quite big, so points of interest needed to be matched and grouped.

 

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza (translated as “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”) was one of the largest Mayan cities, and most likely it has been one of the mythical great cities (religious capitals). This place was recently named as one of the world wonders.

My wife and I arrived early (around 9) in order to avoid the main stream of tourists. The heat was still bearable and we could marvel this enormous site at a calm pace. The driver dropped us off by the entrance/visitors center. I quickly purchased the tickets (due the early hours there were no lines) and we headed towards the gate. Due to the early hour, the local tour guides were still sleepy and didn’t assault us with their offers. I would consider taking a tour if the prices were not ridiculously high (70 USD per person). By the way, I doubt that they’ll tell me something what I didn’t read in my guide book yet.

Passing through the gates, you immediately notice a map with the whole route explained in English (again, why do we need those tourist guides?). The early sun was already gaining it’s power, but the air was still fresh and cool, and complete silence dominated those deserted ruins. The early sounds of jungle and the dusty road shaped a mysterious atmosphere of archeological explorations, both unknown and exciting.

After few minutes of a brisk walk, the jungle around us suddenly disappeared and we saw “El Castillo” aka Temple of Kukulkan (Mayan feathered serpent deity) bathing in the rays of the morning sun. At first, I got completely disorientated due to the contrast between narrow jungle road and this huge open field with a majestic pyramid in its center.

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The size of the city and its architecture is really remarkable, considering that Mayan had no metal tools or wheel. 

Walking away from the temple, we stumbled upon the Great Ball Court. This is the place where ritual games took place, the outcome of those games often decided the outcome of important political discussions. It is believed that not the loosing, but the winning team was sacrificed after the game. Keep in mind that this kind of death was considered to be of great honor.

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The ornaments on the buildings contained mystical depictions of skulls, jaguars and snakes. Those carvings served not only as an ornament, but also defined building’s function (temple, offering site, warrior’s arena etc).

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Moving away from the main temple and deeper into the jungle, we came across Cenote Sagrado. Cenotes are sinkholes, which serve as portals to the underworld. The Cenote Sagrado was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Mayan people who would conduct sacrifices during times of drought. During the first excavations, thousands of human remains were found at the bottom of this cenote, together with a great deal of treasures.

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Another remarkable structure is the Temple of The Warriors. Each stone in front and around the temple depicted an important warrior, who accomplished some great achievements, and thus earning his place among the gods.

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And of course El Caracol, as the Spanish call it. This building get its name from the stone spiral staircase inside. The structure, with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape (the others are rectangular, in keeping with Maya practice), is theorized to have been a proto-observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens.

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Of course, there is much more to see and to explore.

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Around noon the sun started to burn mercilessly. The heat coming from the rocks and ruins was becoming unbearable. Additionally, first tourist busses started to arrive and herds of gum-chewing, shrieking, beer-drinking tourists started to flood the site. The local merchants (during our walk they just started to set up their tents, and didn’t really pay attention to us) started to become increasingly obnoxious and pushy.

Overall, this place is definitely worth visiting. Unfortunate, decades of bad maintenance did it’s job, and the majority of buildings are nothing more than a heap of stones. Probably, in another 50 years there will be nothing left, but then again this could be truth for our civilization as well.

Cenotes

The heat was really starting to piss me off, so on the way back from Chichen Itza we’ve decided to visit a cenote. Cenote is a sink hole (man-made or natural) that leads to the network of underground rivers (Yucatan has no surface river, all fresh water is hidden underground). The water is fresh and very clear. I’ve heard that you can scuba dive in some cenotes (they go pretty deep), but unfortunately I had no opportunity to do so.

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Coba

Coba is a large ruined city which is believed to be a city state that precedes Chichen Itza. With Chichen Itza coming to power, Coba lost a lot of its influence. This city was built between two lagoons, smack in the middle of the jungle. Unfortunately, the state of the ruins is much worse than in ChichenItza. However, this place is less known, so you can let your inner “Indiana Jones” spirit loose and spend quite some time exploring the surroundings. Piece of advice: rent a bike. I cheaped out and had to drag my sweating body through the jungle from one site to another.

The ancient pyramid stands tall, still hiding its secrets.

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Yes, I couldn’t resist the temptaion and climbed that pyramide as well…for shame. But look at the view!

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Ball Courts can be found in the majority of Mayan cities. And again, don’t forget that sacrifice was a good thing.

Mayan people accepted Christianity surprisingly easy (disregarding mass executions in the fires of Spanish inquisition), because it had a lot of similarities. One of the things they couldn’t accept is the view on death and the life after. How one lived is not important, it’s how one chooses to die is of big importance.

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Even tough, Mayan didn’t know/use a wheel, it didn’t stop them to develop an advance network of paved roads, connecting all major cities.

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Tulum

The original name of this city is Zama (in Mayan “City of Dawn”). The city is build near the ocean (must be great property value) and served as a main trading hub along the coast. The first european explorers were very impressed by the look of this colourful city (red walls, yellow buildings etc).

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Unfortunately, today the ruins are in different states of decay. But feel free to push your imagination to the limit.

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The view is still breath taking.

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Underground rivers

Some local guides really try to promote and preserve the amazing nature of Yucatan, so there are quite some opportunities to take an eco-tour into the caves and learn how fragile environment is (and consequently realize that humanity sucks much because of its ignorance). The walk is definitely worth taking, you’ll learn a great deal about subterranean ecosystem….and you’ll see a lot of pretty stuff as well.

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Playa del Carmen

After Cancun, Playa del Carmen is the second touristic hot spot. This means bars, loud music, all kinds of entertainment (I was approach 5 or 6 times by a guy offering me narcotics), restaurants etc. My wife and I went around noon, when everybody’s doing siesta, in order to explore the city without any hassle. Closer to the sunset, the city awakens, and the whole central area becomes one big bar. Unfortunately, I was not able to document our trip properly as my wife insisted on souvenir shopping, and after that my desire to explore was broken.

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Cozumel

Cozumel is a cosy little island close to Playa del Carmen. The best way to get there is by taking a ferry (as I recall correctly, it’s around 250 pesos for a round ticket).

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In pre-Columbian times, this island served as a prime pilgrimage destination for Mayan ladies. This island still has some ruined temples hidden in the jungle, dedicated to the goddess of fertility Ixchel.

After Spaniards eradicated the entire population on this island, the whole place became deserted. Around the end of 17th century the pirates picked this island as their base of operation. And for almost two hundred years, Cozumel witnessed Jolly Rogers, abusive rum drinking and singing on top of a treasure chest.

The pirate atmosphere is still hanging over the island.

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The island is very small and can be explored by bike or car (both and more to be rented in the town of San Miguel).

I haven’t seen those little beetles for a while, but Cozumel is full of it, in all shapes and colors.

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The main attractions are diving and snorkeling (one of the best reef diving sites in Mexico). This island is not so touristy, so biking around cab be pretty exciting.

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To conclude this blog, I want to say that Mexico has a little bit of everything for everybody. I just wish I had more time to learn this country and its people a little better.

Xi’an Part 2: War and Peace

Emperor Qin tomb and his Terracotta army

Being a crazy fan of Chinese culture (and especially movies…watched “Hero” and “Fearless” about 100 times), I couldn’t leave China without visiting the final resting place of the Great Emperor Qin, he was The first emperor who was able to unite all Chinese kingdoms…unfortunately his impressive achievements died with him.

Since we were traveling on our own, it was a little harder to find a decent tour (in contrast to the abundance of travel agencies in Beijing). Eventually we could arrange something through our hotel, no matter how shady it looked like. Meeting our guide the next morning, did made me worry about the competence of the agency. This guy was clearly a local junior thug, bling bling and the attitude, with a very basic knowledge of the topic but kind enough to share that he has a killer hangover, and showing clear interest in our stuff…charming fella. But in all honesty, the guy was friendly and he did outperform (considering his poor condition), giving us plenty of time to walk around on our own.

The well-known dig site, where all those terracotta guys where exhibited, was our first stop. The amount of work done to dig out those statues is difficult to grasp, really a wonderful example of international cooperation. Of course, considering how long the teams have been working on it (I think around 60 years already), there is not very much to show. It is believed that this site is just one of many (makes one wonder the scale of the project Emperor Qin has set up to immortalize himself).

Visitors are greeted by Imperial cavalry

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This place has been located by mistake, and a lot more ground is yet to be investigated…how many more warriors are still standing guard out there?

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After a quick lunch, our guide wanted to call it a day, but I wandered if we could see the tomb. He was surprised, but did agree to drive us there. Surprisingly enough, there was not one tourist (both domestic or foreign), so the whole place was free to explore.

Imagine a giant green pyramid, with an enormous park around it and you’ll get a pretty good idea about this place. There is a bus service that could drop you off at different archeological sites on the premises, but taking a walk through the well maintained alleys is recommended.

The green hill in a distance is Emperor’s Qin tomb. It is believed to hold a complete map of the entire china with rivers of mercury, stars made of gem stones and a sun of solid gold. Maybe we’ll never know what’s really inside, as the tomb is sealed shot and there is no technology available yet to open it safely

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This whole place is a green oasis of tranquility

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Big Wild Goose Pagoda

This Pagoda is one of the oldest monestries in Xi’an (or maybe even China). It was build/founded in 652AD by Xuanzang, a monk and traveler who brought the teaching of Buddhism to China from India. It is believed that those original sutras are still stored somewhere within the cold deapths of the pagoda. The monestry has a number of small shrines, each hiding a great variaty of religius artifacts. The monestry seems very much active as monks are still living there, taking care of this remarkable example of architecture.

Located in the center of busy Xi’an, this monestry keeps all the urban noises outside its walls. While walking around, the spiritual atsmophere easly consumes the sounds of many tourist groups, creating secluded and peaceful environment. As I strolled through the small inner courts, breathing the intoxicating smell of peach blossoms (the whole monestry was full of those), I couldn’t shake this feeling of universal harmony and some kind of a cosmic presence…almost a meditative state of mind.

Monks seeking enlightenment and warriers fighting for the glory, Yin and Yang, two sides of the same – few of the many sculptures scattered around the Pagoda

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Many tourists do not interrupt the spiritual journey and bad weather does not spoil the beauty

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The whole complex is not that big, but it’s filled with trees, flowers and all kinds of green

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Fantastic treasures are hidden inside…and no camera in the world can do them justice

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Nice and clean courts, perfect for meditation

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View on the foggy Xi’an from the top of the Pagoda

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