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January 2008

North Korea-A Land Apart



Travelers looking to experience something totally different and to travel to a place where, most assuredly none of your friends have ever been, then North Korea is the place for you. An anachronism in so many ways, Pyongyangthe country is one of only a handful of communist states left in the world, one that continues to play by its own rules on the world stage, and one that is sadly backwards, yet oddly charming. For the savvy and intrepid traveler, this strange land can provide a wonder and mystery that can only be found in very few corners of the world. One thing should be noted, it’s impossible to write about North Korea without mentioning the government. The government permeates everything about the country, including tourism. Visitors to North Korea will always be members of a tour group, and will have at least one ‘guide’ with the group, whose function is to keep tabs on tourists as much as it is to provide information to them.

To say that the government is paranoid and controlling is putting it mildly. Many tourists will feel limited and stifled because of the rules and regulations put into place. Of course, there are many ways to bend the rules. The best way to get ahead in North Korea is to play along and be respectful. Showing respect to the guides, the people, and the government will reward itself in the guides feeling more comfortable with you and perhaps allowing you to go out alone some, or showing you some places that are not normally seen by tourists. On the other hand, showing disrespect and speaking ill towards the government and its leader, Kim Jong Il, can have severe penalties for tourists and guides as well. It is important to keep in mind that severe penalties in places like North Korea are totally different than what most Westerners think of. Prison sentences, heavy fines, and worse are common in North Korea for even the smallest misdemeanor. Even if you feel that stopping and bowing in front of a statue of Kim Jong Il is totally absurd, you should still show respect by remaining still and silent as others pay homage. North Korean tour guides are expected to ‘control’ the guests, so any disturbance or scene caused by a guest, will negatively affect your guide, and could easily get them into very hot water.

All that being said, the sights that await visitors in this country are like no others in the world. In Pyongyang, visitors will be shocked to find that even though many people can’t afford food and electricity at certain Mount Baekdutimes of the year, the city has a functional and spotlessly clean metro, complete with beautiful artwork and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Visitors will be taken to Mansu Hill, where they can pay their respects to the “Great Leader”, Kim Sung Il, by bowing in front of a 20 meter tall statue of the leader. Another monument to the first Kim, is the Juche Tower. Rising over 170 meters, the tower was built using over 25,000 stones to commemorate the leader’s 70th birthday. One of the biggest pilgrimages in the country is to Mangyong Hill, birthplace of Kim Il-Sung. Thousands of Koreans visit the museum to witness the hard-scrabble conditions that the hero of heroes for North Korea had to endure in his childhood.

Kaesong was once home to a huge population, and was the seat of the Koryo Dynasty. Unfortunately, over the years, several wars decimated large parts of the city’s historical legacy, but a walk through the old quarter can provide a glimpse into the city’s past. Kaesong also has several museums and ancient ruins that have been preserved that are worth seeing.

North Korea is also home to some severe weather with the winters’ biting cold, and the summers’ monsoons. However, planning a trip during the spring or late summer/early fall, visitors will be impressed with the gorgeous skies, and alternately, blooming flowers or spectacular autumn colors.

Traveling to North Korea isn’t for the faint of heart, and is probably better suited for experienced travelers looking for something totally off the beaten path. Although visitors may feel like they are being treated poorly or that they are being ripped off for food or in hotels, rest assured that the overwhelming majority of North Koreans have it far worse. A trip to North Korea may not be for everyone, but for those daring enough to make the journey, the reward will be well worth it.

Israel-Religious and Arts Capital



Travelers to Israel will find a country preserving its historical, religious, and cultural roots, while, at the same time, building for the future, embracing modernity, economics, style, and most of all, fun!

Jerusalem is home to three of the world’s greatest religions, with about 1/3 of the world’s population regarding it as a holy city. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim sacred places within the city, and the mix has Wailing Wall and Al Aqsa Mosqueproduced some of the most beautiful architecture, shrines, and buildings that the world has to offer, but it has also produced the friction and fighting that has always plagued the city, as well as humanity in general. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel to Jerusalem to pray, meditate, and study in the 5,000 year old city. In fact, a visit to the district, known as the Old City, reveals many of Jerusalem’s most cherished places, such as the Temple Mount. All three religions claim parts of the Temple Mount as their own holy places. For the Jews, it the most holy place for their religion, seen as the place where the world was created, and also containing the Western (or Wailing) Wall, where Jews pray and leave written prayers for God, and also as the place where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God. For the Muslims, the Temple Mount is regarded as the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Since the shrine was built by David and Solomon, and these two are regarded as prophets in Islam, it is highly regarded that religion as well. It also is a place where Mohammad arrived on a winged horse after visiting heaven. For Christians, the place is not as important as a shrine or temple as it is to the Muslims and Jews, but more as the historical place where Jesus prayed and chased off the money changers.

The Old City is just one square kilometer, but contains as many religious and historical sites as anywhere in the world. The rest of Jerusalem is full of museums and archaeological discoveries as well.

Tel Aviv is everything that Jerusalem isn’t (but that’s not a bd thing), and demonstrates the Israeli vision for the future in its glass and steel skyscrapers, funky Art Deco neighborhoods, and clubs, discos, beaches, and dedication to business. If Jerusalem is the spiritual and religious capital of the country, then Tel Aviv is certainly the commercial, artistic, and cosmopolitan heart of Israel. Places that have beaches nearby are typically fun places, and Tel Aviv’s western beaches are gorgeous and happening. Whether it’s taking the family out for a day, looking for someone of the opposite sex, or just having a relaxing bite to eat at a café, Tel Aviv’s beaches offer a respite from the hassles of the big city. Tel Aviv is the Israeli center for music, galleries, and the performing arts. Because the weather is good year-round, a number of festivals, concerts, and outdoor events can normally be found. Whether jazz, electronic music, or more traditional folk music is your thing, Tel Aviv provides plenty of opportunities to enjoy a show either outside, or in one of the city’s theater, or performing arts venues.

Traveling to Israel, visitors will find a country with a deep historical and religious history, which billions of people respect and worship. The country also is building for the future, and offers lots of chances to enjoy all the benefits that the modern world provides as well.

Slovenia-Central European Charm



Slovenia is a small country, bordering several others, including both Italy to the west, Hungary to the northeast, and Austria to the north, with Croatia and the Adriatic Sea to the southwest. With so many surrounding Castle Bledcountries, Slovenia is richly multi-cultural, and full of various historical points of interest for any traveler. Throughout the years, Slovenia has had many names, and been part of many empires, including both the Roman, and Holy Roman Empires. Slovenia gained it’s freedom and independence from the SFR of Yugoslavia in 1991, during the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. With so many different points in history where there have existed battles for freedom, and struggles from other rulers, Slovenia holds monuments of various cultures, and people.

Slovenia offers to tourists and vacationers a haven for those traveling to the country for sports; with clear, clean snowy hillside, snowboarders, and skiers can revel in taking part in winter fun with many like-minded others. For other people who prefer aquatic outdoor activities, there is also white water rafting and kayaking, or canoeing. Near the coast of the Adriatic sea are plenty of different choices for divers, surfers, and those who love to sail. Gold in Slovenia has becoming more and more popular, amongst Slovenians and foreign visitors ever since it was first introduced in 1938. Also available, besides winter clubs, are horseback riding and tours, available in warmer months, for short to lengthy periods of time. There are dozens of museums, dedicated both to art and history, native to the Slovenian culture, as well as caves, and ancient cathedrals, located in antiquated cities, still thriving after hundreds of years. The possibilities for activities are endless, and there truly is something for everyone.

Well known for their many varieties of wine, both light, and rich in flavor, Slovenia has over a dozen famous vineyards, and the country itself is fiercely proud of their selection of delicious wines. Culinarily speaking, pastries and baked breads are very popular traditional foods in Slovenia, along with their native cheeses, and honey. In the countryside of Slovenia, visitors can find what are called “tourist farms,” which are sometimes vineyards, as well, but not always. It’s usually a private home, that opens itself to visitors, owned by a family, who then serve the visitors a traditional dinner, with three courses of wine; one for the first two courses, a main course wine, usually full bodied, and strong, then a light, sweet wine with dessert.

In Slovenia, the most popular forms of accommodation are bed & breakfast type environments, where the families will open their homes to travelers, and serve either dinner and breakfast, or just breakfast the next morning. Guest houses, huts, and privately owned are also very popular, and are a big help to families who might otherwise, without tourists, have lower incomes. Hostels, and hotels are located within the towns, for those who will be staying within the cities in Slovenia for the most part of their trip, and there are also luxury hotels as well, scattered throughout larger cities.

Russia-Transcontinental Travels



The country of Russia is very large, and stretches out of a large portion of both Western Europe and Northern Asia. Russia is in fact, the largest country in the world, and covers twice as much area, as the second Moscow Kremlinlargest country, which is Canada. After December of 1991, Russia was no longer the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, after it finally broke free of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, becoming instead, the Russian Federation, and to most of us, known simply as Russia. The Russian culture, having been around for many, many centuries, is rich in struggles, and history. Travelers coming to Russia to experience the vivid, and culturally colorful atmosphere, will not be disappointed with what they find in this incredible country.

Russia is also not just a frozen wasteland, the winters may be cruel, or even bleak in some regions of the country, but in others, there are still beautiful summer days, and green grass growing. Travelers interested in coming to Russia for a leisurely stay have many options; the summer for the warmth, traveling north for the cold, winter activities, or traveling in the off seasons to South Russia, for smaller crowds, and colder weather. There are many popular destination cities in Russia, but the three best known and most popularly traveled are Moscow, Russia’s capital city, St. Petersburg, known as The City of Tsars, and Pskov, one of the oldest cities in Russia. Moscow, being Russia’s capital city, covers a large area; there’s something for every vacation palate there. If tourists want to explore the city, go hiking, or lounge in a luxurious hotel, they can. St. Petersburg, contains several points of interest, such as the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Mikhail Castle, the Summer Garden, the St. Isaac and the Kazan cathedrals. And as for Pskov, as far as it being said to be old, it recently, in 2003 celebrated its eleven-hundred year anniversary. Although it’s a bustling city, full of new developments, and stylish, trendy places and people, travelers will still be able to feel how ancient the city around them is.

Soups and stews are very popular in Russia, because centuries ago, it was mainly a peasant meal, and hundreds of years later, traditions amongst the Russian people still thrive. Soups in Russia go from several Dombai Karachai Caucasusdifferent variations, in both hot and cold. Borscht, is a popular traditional Russian soup, that should definitely be sampled by visitors. Meats in Russia are served either as large boiled cuts, in soups or porridges, or cold, as a snack. Fish was an important part of Russian cuisine, when most were still Russian Orthodox, as it was similar to the Catholic religion, where families would eat fish on Fridays, instead of other meats. Most of the traditional drinks in Russia are no longer in use, but when they were, the drinks were original to their region, and not used anywhere else; such as sbiten’, kvas, medok, mors, curdle with raisins, and boiled cabbage juice. Sbiten was later replaced by tea, a similar drink.

Hotels and accommodation in Russia are varied; namely it depends on what cities you plan to visit; for example, in St. Petersburg, one very attractive alternative to hotels is actually staying in temporary apartments. They are much, much cheaper than a luxury hotel, and provide a more homey atmosphere, and welcoming environment, for those who prefer that to hotel accommodations