Travel Stories

From Susan Shearer

Susan Shearer reports on an amazing ten-day Irish knitting adventure she had this spring, joining 18 other knitters from the US, Canada, and UK. "We started in Dublin where we met Kieran Foley, a truly creative knitter in his use of both color and pattern; then on to Galway where we experimented with traditional Aran stitches before spending two days with more classes on Innisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands. Our final stop in Killarney gave us a class with Carol Feller, a young designer who is reinterpreting the traditional patterns in modern garments. Spending 10 days with a group who love knitting and sharing tips on yarns and techniques was inspirational. We enjoyed each others' company so much we're planning to meet in Pittsburgh in the fall for a reunion and more knitting!" Susan adds that she is looking forward with great anticipation to our reunion next May.

From Suzanne Janney

A Silk Road Trip

Our Silk Road trip this summer with the Alumnae Association was fabulous. Oliver and I went from Beijing to Istanbul over a three and a half week period with MHC Prof. of Russian and Eurasian Studies Stephen Jones, his wife Marina, and 12 others from MHC. It's hard to overestimate the group's sense of friendliness, cohesion, and spirit that developed as we stood in 95 degree heat in Tiananmen Square, toured the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, (see photo) and walked on the Great Wall at Mutianyu (see photo), near Beijing. From Stephen's talks and our readings, we learned about the different interpretations of ancient life on the Silk Road as well as the transformation that that is going on now in China, as it experiences its second cultural revolution, deeper than that of the 1960s, one that Stephen explained is a profound assault on both the political and physical landscape. China is changing from a rural to urban society, gaining in technology, and opening its borders, while some ethnic groups within the country are being subjected to some harsh treatment by the dominant Han Chinese. We saw all of the above first-hand, as China rushed to finish venue and hotel construction for the Olympics and tightened airport and border security. Although we didn't visit the Bird's Nest or WaterCube, we did drive by them, as we did plenty of Soviet-style apartment buildings in disrepair in the Chinese cities.

We embarked on the Silk Road from the gates of Xi'an (see photo), where we were awed by the expanse of excavated terra cotta warriors that stand guard over the tomb of China's first emperor in an airplane hangar-proportioned structure, and marveled at the beauty of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda which was built to house Buddhist scriptures brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang. Then we went north to Ürümqi, where we were welcomed at the Xinjiang Autonomous Regional Museum by its curator and presented with typical Uigher hats before viewing some of the oldest artifacts in the world – the mummified Beauty of Loulan from [1800 BC], perfectly garbed in feathered hat, coat, and shoes, with combs, jewelry, and fabrics like corduroy from that period preserved on the high, dry steppes. We visited the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Mongul-destroyed ruins of Gaochang and Jiaohe cities, the first by donkey cart. Outside the oasis city of Turpan, we saw not only wind farms but abundant vineyards and the centuries-old karez system of underground irrigation tunnels dug to capture snow melt from the Heavenly Mountains. A highlight for us was the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in a breathtaking valley nestled inside the Flaming Mountains, where we reveled in the cave paintings and their tortuous history.

From there we flew to Kashgar (where Kite Runner was filmed) and experienced its fabulous Sunday bazaar, featuring everything from sheep and horses to saddles and hats. Then we drove to the ancient stone Tash Rabat caravansari, still standing high above the tree line, where we stayed in a yurt camp; we called our ladies' yurt "North Mandella." Stephen's insightful lecture on the advanced sustainability of the nomadic culture of Central Asia, delivered in the dining yurt illuminated by a single dangling light bulb as baby sheep baa'd outside was memorable, as was the men vs. women's team quiz on the reading we had done (MHTs prevailed!). The next day, we drove high into the Pamirs over the Torugart Pass at 15,000 ft. and passed into Krygystan, where we encountered some long delays, dour border guards, and typical-traveler problems: flat tires, illness, and "are we there yet" boredom enroute to Uzbekistan. With three MDs in the group, we were covered! After a long drive around Lake Issykkul, we reached the capital Bishkek, having picnicked at a memorial site where ancient stonecutters had crafted haunting likenesses in stone of ancient wayfarers who had disappeared into the desert. We were privileged to visit Tashkent (where we saw many mosques and two local wedding parties), took the "Golden Road" to Samarkand (Tamerlane's capital with an impressive Registan Square and madrassah) and explored Bukhara (home to artists, carpet-weavers, and site of many madrassahs), before spending a glorious couple of days in Istanbul. It was a great adventure, and absolutely, for us, the trip of a lifetime! The Mount Holyoke spirit of inquiry, civility, and perseverance was with our group all the way!

Helen Waugh Burns

Helen Waugh Burns shares this travelogue about her recent experiences in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. She and her husband Don traveled extensively in the Middle East.

Subject: Middle East Trip 1- Epistle from Egypt

We've been in Egypt over a week now and have just an overnight train trip to Cairo followed by a lengthy drive across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea ahead over the next couple of days before we move into Jordan. We had 3 days in Cairo before joining up with the Intrepid Travel group of 12 so we had the chance to see some of the sights of the city by ourselves. These included the Egyptian Museum, the old Coptic Christian area, walking along the Nile on the Corniche in the evening (a bit like passagiata in Italy only wearing a scarf! - them not us!), the Citadel and our first (long range and through the smog) view of the Pyramids, and the Islamic part and the mosques.

Since joining the group we had one busy day in Cairo visiting the famous pyramids and sphinx at Giza as well as the Egyptian Museum (our 2nd visit) before taking an overnight sleeper train to Aswan... Near Aswan we swam in the Nile - surprisingly and delightfully cool and refreshing and actually very clean - and had a 45 minute camel ride close to the Monastery of San Simeon on the west bank of the Nile. From Aswan we had a 600 km round trip in a minibus to see the relocated Abu Simbel temples close to the Sudanese border on the banks of Lake Nasser.

The next day we boarded a felucca (traditional Nile sail boat, rather beamy and sort of gaff rigged, the large deck covered in a mattress with pillows around the edges, great for lounging on and reading books etc under a sun shield) for a very amiable 24 hour sail down the Nile. The winds were favorable and she actually sailed surprisingly well, must have been at least 6 knots! Stayed overnight on board, were fed delicious vegetarian meals, before a 3 hour run by minibus to Luxor arriving yesterday...

Luxor (the old Thebes) is of course sprinkled with monuments (East Bank) and tombs (West Bank) rather liberally and we spent yesterday afternoon and today visiting the Temple of Karnak and several tombs in the Valley of the Kings as well as the Temple of Hatshepsut the only female King of Egypt (she wasn't a queen because queens are married to kings and she ruled for 20 years, one gutsy lady!!). The tombs have been notable for us in having much better preserved paint work on the walls and carvings presumably because they have been better protected from the elements.

OK so what have been the highlights so far. Well with the proviso that it's impossible to say anything about Egypt that hasn't been said many times before here is our version! First up, the treasures recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamun. We saw some of these many years ago in London but that was only a fraction of the total find which is utterly and astonishingly beautiful. The workmanship is superb and apart from the famous Death Mask and gold coffins the variety of jewelry, figurines, statues, furniture, chariots, chairs, funerary beds etc etc is amazing. Considering that he was a 'nobody', it certainly makes you wonder what was held in the tombs of the great pharoahs, long since looted and lost forever with no record.

Next, the Pyramids and Sphinx - certainly massive symmetrical and imposing and a bit like the dinosaurs in the sense that they are things you hear about from childhood. And they look exactly like you'd always imagined. Makes you wonder who were the engineers as they certainly knew what they were doing! We went into the 2nd pyramid (Khafre) scrambling down a narrow and low tunnel into an airless chamber within - good stuff for claustrophobia! Of course the Sphinx is rather special with a presence entirely his own.

Then, Abu Simbel. Of the monuments and tombs we have had the opportunity to see so far this stands out for its state of preservation, craftsmanship, grandeur and sheer beauty both of the colossal statues (20m tall)outside and the hypostyle (contains columns) temple inside. The wall carvings and hieroglyphics remain largely sharp edged and clear and there are some remnants of the original paint colours used for decorations. The fact that it exists for us to admire today is a real tribute to OTT egomania!

And how have we found Egypt? VERY hot (35-45) during the day, we drink litres of water all the time and hardly ever pee! and wonder how the locals are able to cope with Ramadan which is on at the moment since they are not able to eat or drink (even water) since before sunrise- about 4 am - until sunset at around 6 pm. A long time between drinks as they say!!!! The group of 12 is very harmonious with ages from 18 to us! And the Egyptians we have found to be pleasant, friendly and helpful - even the touts are pretty polite and don't hassle much. And the Nile sure is one fabulous river, without that there would just be the lone and level sands stretching far away (come on you Shelley scholars!).

Subject: Middle East trip 2 - Jottings from Jordan (and other biblical areas)

Our rail trip from Luxor to Cairo overnight in a sitting car was surprisingly comfortable - like airline business class seats (we should be so lucky when we fly!!)... In Cairo we replaced 5 of our original group of 12 and continued on our way in a pacy 7 hour trip across the desert to Mt Sinai arriving in time to check into our pleasant hotel and then climb the mountain (5 hour round trip to catch the sunset). Mt Sinai, where Moses received the tablet with the Ten Commandments, is an impressive slab sided piece of rock and we were pleased to have climbed the mountain including the final steep section of 750 rock steps laid by a penitent monk (Steps of Redemption) and have now decided that all our past transgressions have been wiped and we can start all over with a clean slate! Thank goodness for that!! Great all round views. Don in particular was pleased to get to the top on his dodgy knee aided by ibuprofen and some (not little) determination.

Next morning we had time for a quick visit to St Catherine's Monastery at the start of the climb - this is the oldest continuously operating monastery in the world and was spared interference from the Muslims due to a personal decree from Mohammad. A highlight was a look at their collection of illuminated manuscripts, icon paintings and other ancient texts in many languages - the largest collection of these in the world outside of the Vatican.

Then it was on to the Red Sea near Nuweiba port for a delightful stay in beach bures where we snorkelled and then went for a fun dive (a lifetime first for Helen)- nice coral and fish, all in all very relaxing and great marine life. The ferry trip from Nuweiba to Aqaba in Jordan is notorious for poor organisation and lengthy delays but we got off relatively lightly and arrived at 6pm on the same day that we left as opposed to 5am the next day as has happened to one earlier trip! The difference between Jordan and Egypt was immediately apparent - Jordan is clean, the infrastructure is very good and cars and many of the buildings are modern, the Muslim influence is still apparent but not so obviously devout. And the people look different too.

Next day we drove to the desert area of Wadi Rum - real Lawrence of Arabia country - and enjoyed visits to several points of interest (natural rock bridge, rock drawings, old caravanserai routes, sunset over the sand) before having a meal and sleeping under the stars at a Bedouin (tourist) camp in the desert. All very comfortable and the scenery was spectacular and evocative of a long history of habitation.

Then on to Petra Amazing Petra. Built by the Nabataeans before they were finally subjugated by the Romans (who added their own touches) in 106AD Petra is on everybody's 'must see' list these days for very good reason. THE highlight is undoubtedly the 1.2km walk along the Siq (a natural cleft caused by tectonic forces) to the rose-red sandstone of The Treasury which reveals itself bit by bit as you approach it. We were fortunate to have 1 1/2 days to explore Petra and made full use of the time (more ibuprofen); the site apparently covers some 50 sq km (not that we saw anything like this but we did our best in the time we had) and there has been much new excavation work over the last 20 years which continues to uncover old buildings. So we got up to the High Place of Sacrifice and the Monastery at the end of the valley and saw innumerable rock faces carved with tombs of all sizes and degrees of sophistication. An unexpected feature was the multi-coloured rock which was evident in streaks of red, yellow, purple, blue, charcoal, cream - we've never seen anything like it before. Definitely worth a visit if you can make it, it is simply fabulously beautiful.

We reluctantly left Petra and spent yesterday driving to Madaba not far from Amman the capital of Jordan, via the Kerak Crusader Castle and then the Dead Sea. The latter lived up to all the photographs and comments that one has seen and heard; yes we did float with a very high plimsoll line too, the water did feel slippery on the skin and the temperature was about 10 degrees higher at 460m below sea level than it had been elsewhere during the day. One of us (guess which) was tempted along with a number of others to have a black mud treatment to rejuvenate the skin and is now being regularly taken as a 25 year old (oh yes!). Also fitted in a visit to the Mount Nebo monastery which has some excellent mosaics, Mount Nebo being famous as the site from which an ancient Moses viewed the Promised Land. Passing through sites of religious significance has been an additional interest; makes those bible school stories come to life when you can actually see the lands they were talking about.

Today we took a taxi trip to Amman and saw the Citadel and a very good Roman theatre plus some mosaics in Madaba (including the well known Mosaic Map dating from 560AD which shows all major Biblical sites from Lebanon to Egypt).

The trip continues well, the weather remains perfect and hot although not quite so stifling and the new group is very harmonious. Tomorrow we leave Jordan for Syria.

Subject: Middle East trip 3 - Stories from Syria and tales from Turkey

We left the last report poised for Syria which we reached after a morning at Jerash in Jordan. Jerash is notable for being a JAGORR ( a word created by us in a moment of levity to cover the many Greek/Roman ruins in various stages of degeneration/reconstruction that exist all around the Mediterranean; an acronym for "Just another Greek or Roman ruin" and pronounced "Jaguar" for mellifluence!). It's a good JAGORR too with a small theatre, a lengthy colonnaded roadway and a temple plus some more recent ( ~ 6+ C AD) church sites from Christian times and more excavation under way.


Entry into Syria proved straightforward albeit somewhat time-consuming and involving vigorous passport stamping by solid moustachioed gentlemen. Our pre-trip recommendation to get visas before arrival at the border, which we duly followed at considerable cost in time and money (try $560 for 2 15 day visas ) looked excessively cautious when both the guide and another Kiwi on the trip got visas at the border with no hassle - and a good deal cheaper! We consoled ourselves with the peace-of-mind rationalisation. We had been in Syria for half an hour when our bus overheated and we ground to a halt on the road in the noonday sun; this precipitated a flurry of activity from our driver, the driver of a tanker who stopped to help and the other Kiwi all of whom climbed under the bus while the rest of us poured our drinking water into the radiator. The cause was duly ascertained to be an unrepairable hole in an a/c hose and we ended up flagging down a minivan, cramming in the 13 of us plus luggage and continuing on to another taxi/minivan place some 20 km from Damascus. Here we transferred into a second minivan for a short adrenalin rush to the heart of Damascus. Taxi drivers throughout our travels showed an uncanny ability to operate within millimetres of each other at excessive speeds (you know it's going to be tight when the driver folds back his mirror while driving) but the second minivan guy was in a class of his own. His van was grossly overloaded with all of us, it was thrashed and trashed, no seat belts, cracked windshield (which I was behind) and he was having a drag race with one of his mates. Being about 25 he knew he was immortal and I suspect also had an unshakeable belief in kismet. I think we touched 115 kph at times as we barged across 2-3 lanes to gain a car's length without qualm. Interesting - and we survived.

In total contrast Damascus traffic proved to be careful, considerate and it stopped for traffic lights! The city itself was clean and charming; it lays claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and has a pleasant blend of history and modern. Highlights were a couple of meals in the courtyard of a fine old Ottoman house and strolling through the covered souq (bazaar) towards the Umayyad mosque at the far end. The mosque was beautiful and the site rather reflects the history of the area - originally used for an Aramean god, adapted by the Romans, knocked down by the Byzantines for a cathedral then converted into a mosque. It contains a shrine to the martyr Hussain, very important to the Sunnis who swarmed in taking photos and occasionally weeping copiously. The main room was huge and in immaculate condition and in the elegant courtyard were some superb mosaics covering walls. A contrast in styles was provided by a new Shiite mosque fairly close by built with Iranian money and in a "Persian" style with lots of blue and gold. Enjoyed time at the National Museum next day - a diverse range of items with favourites being ancient textiles found in tombs, the earliest known alphabet inscribed on clay the size and shape of 2/3 of a little finger, a very old musical text and score also on clay (both of these from Ugarit on the Med coast and dated to 1300-1400 BC) and a room of beautifully illustrated Korans and books (quite the equal of the books seen at St Katherine monastery).

Spent the next 2 days going to and from Palmyra through mostly flat desert. Palmyra exists in the wasteland because the site is an oasis and it was an important stop for Silk Road caravans from the East. Thus it is a JAGORR and a big one too. We found it a bit disappointing considering the time taken to get there especially having been to Jerash recently. There is a limit on how enthusiastic one can continue to be with yet more toppled bits of marble and partly reconstructed columns and walls. The best bits have been nicked and reside in museums overseas regrettably, in fact it is said that every good museum in the world contains relics from Palmyra.

Krak des Chevaliers is a Crusader castle dating from 1110-1200AD; it was one of a series of castles near the Med coast and generally considered impregnable because of its site, design and construction. Although eventually taken by the Muslims (possibly due to a forged letter) it was not seriously breached and remains in great condition. Really has all the features any romantic would want - inner and outer fortifications with a moat between, accommodation for 400 knights and horses, 4000 soldiers plus hangers on, whole series of defensive touches, vast stabling and kitchen areas, church etc. Then to Aleppo, the commercial heart of Syria, where we stayed in a hotel in the heart of the souq. This souq was a much more chaotic and convoluted place than that in Damascus with narrow lanes and cramped shops. Actually it wasn't really chaotic until Ramadan finished (about 6 pm each day) then all the locals emerged to eat, shop, talk etc. Had fun next day going to the museum in torrential rain, highlight was the collection of big basalt statues with staring eyes from the Assyrian, Aramean and Hittite civilisations some 1-2 millennia BC. Different from anything we'd seen so far. Actually the real highlight was the locals convulsed in audible laughter at the sight of two tall Westerners clad in bright yellow cycling jackets and holding umbrellas, wading through ankle deep water in their sports sandals. It was nice to be rays of sunshine bringing joy to the masses on a dull and wet morning!! Visited the citadel overlooking the city then Aleppo's Great Mosque which was started some 10 years after the Damascus one (but not as impressive).

As to the Syrians we found them friendly and welcoming (despite the fact my wallet got lifted in a great crush of humanity in the souq - those responsible will have to answer to Allah! especially during Ramadan!). Quite diverse ethnic types, even freckled redheads, blue eyes etc which reflects the influx of peoples from Europe in the past (Armenians, Circassians, Ossetians etc). Much more organised agriculture in the north - and everywhere a lot of olive trees! The Egyptians have seemed the most strict in terms of women being well covered up; in Syria as in Jordan some young women may have had a headscarf but the tight jeans and tops and heeled boots made it clear there was a figure there! Having said this, in Syria there were also women who were completely covered in black from top to toe with the eye slit covered by an additional layer and gloves to finger tip.


The next 2 days were spent travelling to the Cappadoccia region of Turkey. Border controls leaving Syria and entering Turkey took hours for some inexplicable reason. Lot of cotton and maize in this area, cotton in particular being a valuable crop. Were overnight in Antakya, formerly part of Syria, before heading up the coast (passing not too far from Ayas, now essentially defunct, which was a thriving metropolis for the Venetian and Genoese traders to trade goods at the end of the Silk Road) and passing through a narrow rocky gorge famous in antiquity for being a natural impasse to raiders from the north. Stayed at Nigde before a morning in the Ilhara Gorge where we visited one of a series of 12C Christian cave churches with frescoes then went into an underground city built to give protection for the locals against raiders. Both places we had visited 10 years ago on our earlier visit to Turkey but it was interesting to refresh memories. The underground city was surprisingly well ventilated with fresh air considering it went 50m down in 7 levels but the passageways were a bit challenging to the longer-limbed of the group.

Then to Goreme, still a small town with an easy relaxed feel despite having developed a lot. No fancy hotels, more of a low-key place with nearby towns catering for the five star clientele. We arrived on a cool moist day with clouds everywhere making us distinctly dubious about a balloon flight the next morning. We went to see Kapadokya Balloons who promised stars at 10pm and a fine day for the flight and we were lucky; the next morning was glorious and we fulfilled a long-held ambition to take a flight (actually a long delayed 50th birthday present - that dates from a previous millennium! ). And such a striking place to do it - as we meandered through the valleys at treetop level, rose to clear the valley walls then soared 1500m above ground level (1200m) to catch a reverse air flow to bring us back to a landing area. Of course the close-up of the strange rock formations and troglodyte homes was impressive as was the wider landscape and floating low over the towns. A great experience, not cheap but definitely worth it. Later on the whole group went walking at a couple of sites to see the formations close up and have a bit of an explore.

We added to our Turkish carpet experiences and bought a new small sumac to hang on the wall; in 10 years it seems as if prices have escalated 4-5 fold. This is largely due to many fewer carpets being made as the nomadic lifestyle declines (so no need for carpets in the tents) and young women no longer seek to impress by making dowry pieces. New carpets are being made for the tourist trade in different styles and the prices reflect the time taken for hand weaving. The supply of older carpets which flowed out of the USSR when it broke up in the early 90's has also ceased. The desire of the 'have-nots" to have the wages and the benefits of those in the towns is an irresistible force for change in the world these days but does make it less diverse and interesting (at least to the observer who "has" already!).

Drove to Ankara, the very modern capital, across the Anatolian plain seeing lots of broad area cultivation and grazing en route. Didn't get to see the famous museum there as the group had voted to spend more time in Cappadoccia in the morning but we've done well for visiting museums on the trip. Caught the overnight sleeper train arriving in Istanbul at 7 am and officially ending the tour. We stayed another 3 days and saw some of our favourite sights again - the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia were the standouts and both are on our list of gorgeous buildings. Istanbul was as attractive as ever and we just quietly enjoyed it. The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum had great collections of illuminated books and antique carpets dating back to the 13-14 C tracing the development of the different regional designs - perhaps this is why we fell off the vine again and bought a second and older carpet - enough! the tent is getting quite full.

And how is Turkey doing? Very well we think - we saw none of the scrabbling of vendors on the streets to earn a little to get by on (e.g. selling individual cigarettes) that we noted previously, it was generally clean and tidy, infrastructure was good and the people had an air of confidence added to their natural warmth. They clearly feel Turkey is on the move - as one person put it to us regarding the application to join the EU - "we don't need to rely on the EU or the US as markets to succeed economically - they're on the decline anyway(!), we'll do deals with neighbours like Russia and anyone else as necessary to secure our position; we want to join the EU for the societal/administrative approaches that they use". It seems probable that Turkey's geographic location at the junction of Europe and the Middle East will again become very important.