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At the ITB Berlin this year, we walked through the Romania section and saw some pictures of the painted monasteries of Bucovina in one of those glossy brochures on UNESCO World Heritage sites in Romania. The exterior walls of those churches are completely covered with frescoes of saints and biblical stories – and in a second we knew that we had to see the real thing ... Amazing ... Continue reading
Posted 3 days ago at Westwards
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We sit in a No. 3 microbus towards the Uzbek border, with two very cool 10-year-old boys in leather jackets, when five voluminous peasant women cheerfully enter the microbus. “Ah, Sarazm – archaeology!” they nod and point to the high metal roofs a short distance from the road. Sarazm is one of the oldest towns (or rather "proto-urban settlements") in the world. The first settlement existed here in around 3500 BC, and archaeological excavations have confirmed several layers of inhabitation from the 4th to the 2nd millennium BC – from the Neolithic Period to the Bronze Age. Not surprisingly, Sarazm is the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Tajikistan. Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2014 at Westwards
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Since we started our research trips into the Central Asian countries we have developed a growing interest in the petroglyphs that can be found in the area. Some of them, like the Tamgaly petroglyphs about 160 km away from Almaty, are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the Gorge of Tamgaly more than 5000 petroglyphs can be found, the earliest of them dating from around 2500 BC. Getting to the actual petroglyphs involves a 15 minute walk from the parking lot and most of the rock carvings are concentrated in a few groups of several hundred images. Clearly marked paths bring you close to the beautiful oxen, horses and camels. Although we have visited a few other petroglyph sites in Central Asia, this is the first time we see the famous sun-headed persons, and also depictions of a sort of cart. Although archaeologists and scientists still ponder if these are images of real carts or if they depict a mythological scene, they have clearly wheels with spokes. Again this hasn't been resolved yet, but it might actually have been Central Asians who invented the wheel more than 4000 years ago. Reasons for visiting the Tamgaly Petroglyps: The images on the rocks are quite striking – people with sun discs instead of heads, dancers, disguised persons who may be hunters or participants in cultic performances; plus lots of different animals including the long-extinct aurochs and spiral-horned ibexes. They are very old and it is fascinating to imagine the people who carved them: why, how and on what occasion did they do it? How long would it take? How to get there: We rented a car with a driver for the day, which was quite expensive and something we rarely do. But to get to the Tamgaly petroglyphs, you really need your own transport as there is no village nearby. While a 4 WD is not really necessary, a car with a high undercarriage is advisable, as the last 10 or 20 km are on a very bad road. NB: Tamgaly is a different location from Tamgaly Tash where the petroglyphs are newer and slightly more accessible. Continue reading
Posted Oct 5, 2014 at Westwards
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On the road to Turkestan, we look out over the steppe for the blue cupola rising above all the modern houses. The mausoleum of the Sufi Sheikh Ahmed Yassawi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is visible from far away. But once we come closer, the view of the impressive dome is blocked by one of those monumental portals that the great Amir Timur liked to put on his megalomaniac buildings. Only few of them have survived the centuries and the following dynasties, and the Ahmed Yassawi mausoleum is the best preserved. Built by Iranian architects, the portal alone is 44 m high. Like proper pilgrims, we were following the sequence of holy sites relating to Ahmed Yassawi. We first visited the mausoleum of his mother, followed by the one of his teacher, Aristan Bab. His mausoleum, often rebuilt, stands in the middle of nowhere, but believers flock to it nonetheless. While we visit, a huge group of Kazakh pilgrims push in behind us. Conveniently, the otherwise locked tomb room of Aristan Bab is opened for them and we are swept in with a mix of devout babushkas and newly or vaguely religious people. “Hands in prayer!” their guide commands, and Natascha finds herself enlisted to help a heavy old woman with bad knees onto a seat, while Isa is reprimanded for taking too many pictures instead of pious praying. It was a rather inclusive experience and we quite enjoyed it. Unlike the mausoleum of Aristan Bab, the huge mausoleum of Ahmed Yassawi is not only visited by pilgrims – there are also a lot of Kazakhs who came just as tourists. Inside the holy place, next to an enormous bronze cauldron, we find a rack with leaflets available in several languages, including English, about the history and the architecture of the site. At least the English version does not greatly enhance the experience or understanding of the mausoleum, but the Kazakh tourists aren't deterred: they just collect an armful of leaflets, one in each language. Ahmed Yassawi, the 12th century saint, is not only revered in all of Central Asia, but also one of the major spiritual forefathers of Sufism in general. It is said that three visits at the Ahmed Yassawi mausoleum can replace the Hadj. We have been here for the second time. Additionally we have also visited the great mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, where seven visits can replace the Hadj, so we are already 17/21 Hadjis, we calculate. Should you visit the mausoleum of Ahmed Yassawi? Definitely. It is the top tourist site in Kazakhstan, and even compared to similar Timurid architecture in Uzbekistan it is absolutely worth a visit: Ahmed Yassawi's mausoleum is far better conserved than Timur's other great buildings (Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand and Ak Sarai in Shahrisabz), and standing on a plain with almost nothing blocking the view it is an awe-inspiring sight. And: 3 times here replace the Hadj! Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2014 at Westwards
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A number of Silk Road sites in China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyztan have been named UNESCO World Heritage properties this year. There are eight in Kazakhstan, and Akyrtas near Taraz is one of them. According to archaeologists, Akyrtas was a caravan resting station on the Northern Silk Road for hundreds of years. There are several groups of ruins that date back to the time of the Arab invasion or earlier. Most impressive is an enigmatic palace from red sandstone that was apparently never used. The shared taxi drops us at a nondescript turn-off from the highway. “Akyrtas,” the driver says and points vaguely to the mountains on the right. There's a railway line between us and the mountains, and as we can't find any underpass we walk over the rails as everybody else seems to be doing anyway. On the other side of the tracks also no road. So we start walking through the steppe towards a bright speck at the foot of the mountains which we assume is a metal roof on the excavation site. The sun is burning (must have around 30 degrees) and around us nothing but the whining of a power line. Nearly two hours later we arrive at a parking lot where an old Mercedes just stops and a Kazakh family climbs out (other tourists!). Archaeologists have dug out half of the Akyrtas palace and restored some of it so that it is possible to see the walls and get an idea how big it was: a huge courtyard with enormous columns. “13 rooms in that corner, 15 in that one,” the UNESCO documentation describes, and some of them are clearly recognizable. They have very thick walls for a palace, we think. But then, nobody really knows what it is. It may have been a caravanserai in the first place, or a castle, or a representative palace for one of the Arab rulers who died before he could move his court here. Next to it there is a modern building that looks like a museum with its curved roof. From outside we can make out rows of chairs and some photos showing the building progress of this “museum”, but no artefacts whatsoever. It was probably built to impress UNESCO dignitaries and to house some kind of preliminary exhibition, but is now inhabited by an elderly couple. The brand new toilets are also closed. We follow some car tracks onto a hill. No more signposts and information boards on this side of the premises. We end up at the corrugated iron roof that we had seen all along. The excavation below it seems to be a smallish old caravanserai with small but decorated rooms from unbaked bricks. Next to it is another structure which has been interpreted as a castle, with huge walls and some pottery fragments still in situ. Should you visit Akyrtas?: If you have a great interest in the old Silk Road routes, definitely. Otherwise it is mostly the attraction of walking from the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2014 at Westwards
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Der neue Baedeker ist fertig! Jetzt noch dicker! Mit noch mehr Infos! Hier geht’s zum Baedeker: http://shop.baedeker.com/baedeker/asien-naher-osten/japan-baedeker-reisefuehrer-reisefuehrer_pid_821_24648.html? Continue reading
Posted Sep 4, 2014 at Westwards
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"We are on a round trip through Hungary and Romania", one of the elderly German bus tourists explains to a German father and son who came by car but can't remember the names of the Hungarian towns they passed. Sighişoara is a pretty mediaeval town in Transylvania, and most of the foreign visitors (including us) seem to be German. The town is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site … (read more on www.westwards.de) Continue reading
Posted Aug 30, 2014 at Westwards
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The newly designated UNESCO World Heritage monastery of Corvey lies in the middel of nowhere near the small town of Höxter. And yet, when we arrived on a sunny summer Saturday, a plethora of volunteers directed the numerous visitors to makeshift parking lots in the former castle ditch. „Are all those people interested in the protected carolingean westwork?“ we wonder. But no, they are here for the commercial garden fair taking place in the castle grounds – basically a more exclusive version of a garden center (with a steep 9 Euro entrance fee). Those already returning are clutching purposeless metall balls and other colourful garden decoration. The monastery itself is less visited. Founded by Louis the Pious in 815 and presided over by Abbot Adalhard (we rather liked that name), a close friend of Emperor Charlemagne, the only part of the monastery remaining from the 9th century is a section of the Western facade and the Western tower structure. Because of this original Carolingian Westwork – the oldest westwork in the world - Corvey has been nominated as Germany's 39th World Heritage site in 2014. Christ the Salvator and the two spires have later been added to the front. Looking from below in an unfavorable angle, the Salvator looks somewhat chubby. A small gallery on the upper floor of the westwork is easily the most interesting part of our visit. From here bishops and emperors could oversee the entire church, some of them have even been enthroned here. On the walls, the remains of old frescoes can be seen. Should you visit Corvey? The historical value of Corvey might appeal more to the specialists than to the interested public. The site is difficult to reach by public transport and explanations are so far exclusively in German. Also a day without the garden fair might be a better choice. Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2014 at Westwards
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At a minute to ten we are ready to start for the guided walk through the UNESCO-listed ancient beech forest at Serrahn. A mother and her teenage daughter are already in conversation with the ranger, Mr Best. “Until last year, I used to be afraid of dogs”, the daughter is recounting. And at ten sharp, another car enters the parking lot and a couple with a German shepherd joins the tour! Immediately, our little group of six starts the walking tour. We have to hike several kilometers into the woods (on a path marked with a beech leaf) because the core zone of the protected forest has been closed for cars since the area was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage. Beeches originally made up most of the vegetation of Europe, and without human intervention the trees would probably still cover large areas today. Unspoiled lowland beech forests are only found in Germany nowadays and therefore got World Heritage status. As we make our way along the marked beech forest trail, Ranger Best occasionally picks up a piece of rotting wood, covered with different types of fungus. Then everyone sniffs at the wood, to the great contentment of the dog who had been doing this all along. We learn that the only trees that may be cut in the forest are the American Red Oaks which are alien to the region. Even private persons can do this with a permit, but they have to present a special “Sawing License” which requires a two-day training course. One would also need expensive protection clothes, and even then it's a dangerous activity. “Who would do that?”, wonders the mother who at first had seemed interested in some logs for her fireplace. “For some people it is a hobby,” shrugs Mr Best, “especially academics and such.” Two hours into the tour, the exhibition room can already be seen across a moor, but Mr Best gets ever slower, explaining every little swamp flower in great detail. Something to do with overtime pay, we assume, and everyone respires when we reach the exhibition and cafe. Should you go? Definitely yes. On the tour you get only a small impression of the ancient beech forest, but you learn a lot about fungi, mushroom and trees in general from a specialist. Walks are for free and start every Saturday at 10 am (in summer) from the hikers' parking lot in Zinow near Neustrelitz. They take about two to three hours. Continue reading
Posted Aug 8, 2014 at Westwards
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We had read raving reviews about the vegan Döner eatery at Boxhagener Platz near Ostkreuz, and after several futile attempts to eat there we finally made it last Friday. Vöner looks like a typical fast food joint with a lot of light wood furniture, a big open counter and a handwritten menu on a blackboard. Punk music plays in the background, but somehow unobtrusively so. The average age of the other customers must be slightly over 20 … Continue reading
Posted Jul 28, 2014 at Westwards
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Seifa Utaki must be one of the least visited world heritage sites in Japan, and it is also very unique. It belongs to the set of monuments from the Ryukyu Kingdom on the island of Okinawa... Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2014 at Westwards
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Showa period retro is all the rage in Japan. Even though most items in a retro restaurant such as this one center on the immediate postwar period, we still find many of them quite familiar from our first visits to Japan. Strangely, we realise that we have been involved with Japan for long enough to ... Continue reading
Posted Jul 6, 2014 at Westwards
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The Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo's Ginza area may not look so impressive at first sight, but it is a landmark of metabolist architecture. Built by Kurokawa Kisho in 1972, it consists of dozens of prefabricated boxes fixed to a central staircase. Today the tower is in a state of disrepair but still inhabited. It is not possible to visit the inside. Related articles A walk through Orestad, Copenhagen's new architecture laboratory Continue reading
Posted Jul 3, 2014 at Westwards
Absolutely. They have their temple festival in August, so maybe you can see an Itako who would get you in touch with dead relatives...
Toggle Commented Jun 29, 2014 on The world's northernmost monkey at Westwards
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There are hundreds of temples in Kyoto, and they all start to look the same when you visit, say, five or ten at a time. But then, suddenly, the atmosphere is different... Continue reading
Posted Jun 27, 2014 at Westwards
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The village of Shirakawa attracts not only tourists collecting UNESCO world heritage sites, but also manga and anime fans seeking out ... Continue reading
Posted Jun 24, 2014 at Westwards
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We spent this spring in Japan researching for a guidebook update – and still found some (unexpected) highlights. Takaoka in the Hokuriku area of central Honshu is not exactly a fixture on the tourist route. Not yet. ... Continue reading
Posted Jun 21, 2014 at Westwards
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The world's northernmost colony of monkeys lives near Wakinosawa on the Shimokita Peninsula in North Japan. Osorezan, the gates of hell, is even further north... Continue reading
Posted Jun 15, 2014 at Westwards
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Japanese food – washoku – has been named an intangible world heritage in 2013. Dengaku Dofu is a hearty dish of tofu grilled with miso (the same fermented soybean paste used for miso soup) While Japanese rice-and-fish dish sushi (or its varieties from numerous other Asian countries) has become commonplace in most Western countries, many other items are virtually unknown outside Japan. Simmered radish The Japanese cuisine is rich in vegetable dishes – for example, radish is often simmered or fried instead of just being eaten raw. Soy beans appear in numerous variations – they are made into tofu, miso, soy sauce and much more. A traditional home-cooked dinner such as this one consists of sometimes a dozen different dishes served in individual plates and bowls. There is no particular order in eating the dishes, and not all of them are eaten hot. Continue reading
Posted Apr 29, 2014 at Westwards
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In the Osaka Tournament this spring, Mongolian wrestler Kakuryu won the Makuuchi divison championship for the first time. Kakuryu's victory over Hakuho On the second-to-last day of the tournament, Kakuryu defeated champion Hakuho, who has been a Yokozuna for seven years. His victory caused turmoil, shock, and ecstasy among the viewers, and dozens of seat cushions were sent flying toward the ring (but then it was only 10 minutes before the end of the session and most people could do without their cushion). Kakuryu has meanwhile himself been promoted to the highest Sumo rank of Yokozuna. Continue reading
Posted Apr 12, 2014 at Westwards
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The Trattoria Ponte Verde, located right opposite the vegan Café Vux, offers some vegetarian dishes, i.e. with real cheese, but most pizzas can also be ordered in a vegan variation. The atmosphere and the design are pleasant, more or less a modern pizzeria style ... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2014 at Westwards
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Considering that Africa is such a huge continent and that it is, compared to let's say Asia, not that far from Europe, there are relatively few African restaurants in Berlin. But recently a new West African restaurant opened in our neighbourhood and last week we went to test it. Mama Africa is a completely no-frills eatery in the lately fashionable Schiller Kiez in Neukölln. It consists only of two small rooms with a large shop window out front. Actually it looks as if one of those ubiquitous local late-night corner shops had been converted into someone's living room: A few tables, a fridge, a computer with attached speakers on the counter, functioning as a sound system. The walls are painted yellow and white with darker dots. Everything is strikingly handmade. Clearly, no interior designer has had a hand in this. The menu lists only a few dishes, such as Egusi Soup and Krin Krin. Once we are seated, the owner Alpha Dialla comes over and explains what he has cooked today. Usually he offers three different dishes; at least one of them is vegetarian. The choice being thus limited, we end up with Granat Soup and fried plantains. Everything is available as either a small or a large portion, for an easy-to-calculate 5 € or 7 €. The Granat Soup is a bowl of peanut butter sauce with a few bits of vegetables in it, served with a huge plate of rice. "We'd always rather have too much than too little", Alpha smiles when we stare sceptically at the pile of rice. The plantains are perfect. They are just fried with a tiny bit of salt and are cross on the outside and a little bit chewy on the inside. And all this is served with an unimaginably spicy chili sauce. Our visit at Mama Africa evoked memories of our travels and food experiences in West Africa. We found the food as well as the atmosphere very authentic, the service friendly and the prices ok. A very welcome addition to the restaurant scene in Neukölln. http://mama-africa-berlin.de Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2014 at Westwards
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Over the last year or so, several vegan cafés and restaurants as well as a vegan supermarket have opened in Neukölln. What better opportunity for long-term vegetarians (but not quite vegans) and Neukölln residents to try our taste buds at meatless salami, milkless cheese and eggless mayonnaise? In online ratings, people are continuously raving about the Café Vux, and we had already made two futile attempts to visit it: Once on a Monday, which was their day off, and another one on Sunday, when they do Sunday Brunch and the café is filled to the last seat 10 minutes after opening. But today only two tables are taken. The interior design is bright and mostly white and evokes something like a Baltic Sea Spa at the turn of the century (the previous one, that is). Music plays unobtrusively in the background. There is no table service; you have to order at the counter. To cover a broad range of different tastes and textures we went for a bagel with vegan chorizo, peanut butter and fresh bean sprouts (3.20 €), and a carrot cake with coconut topping (2,30 €). The bagel was difficult to eat (not enough hamburger experience), but the mixture of the hot chorizo and the creamy salty peanut butter was very interesting and delicious (immediately after the visit we went to the vegan supermarket and bought a package of this brand of chorizo). Toasting the bagel would have made the experience perfect. The carrot cake was also quite good, but it tasted a bit too much of the very sweet coconut topping. We also like the gender-neutral toilets with „here you can sit“ and „here you can stand“ written on the door. The food as well as the atmosphere were great and will for sure come back for the brunch on Sunday. Internet: www.vux-berlin.com Continue reading
Posted Feb 16, 2014 at Westwards
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“Keep your coats on. There's no heating in the rooms upstairs.” The receptionist of Luther's House Museum in Wittenberg murmurs something about "technicians... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2014 at Westwards
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Before the winter starts in earnest, here are some last pictures of a glorious autumn in Japan: http://westwards.typepad.com/photos/japan_20131011/ Continue reading
Posted Jan 17, 2014 at Westwards