Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Croatia | Istrian Peninsula | Pula

From Venice I wandered on down to Pula in Croatia.
Old Roman-era portal leading to the old town of Pula (click on photos for enlargements)
Statue of James Joyce outside a cafe he frequented when he lived in Pula
Square in the old town of Pula, which is a pedestrians-only area. It was early morning so there was no one about.
Temple of Augustus, built by Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC–AD 14), said to be the oldest Roman monument in Croatia. On the right is a Neo-Pagan tree offering.
The most famous Roman monument in Pula is the Amphitheater built in the first century a.d. by Roman Emperor Vespasian (r. 69–79). The amphitheater seated about 20,000. Gladiators fought each other here (whether they fought to the finish is unclear), and also fought wild beasts like lions and tigers, whose cages can still be seen. Nowadays we have only the NFL. But James Harrison would have made a great gladiator!

By the fifth century the teachings of the Nazarene, a temple to whom can be seen in the background, had replaced the pagan beliefs of the Romans and gladiatorial bouts were outlawed. Nowadays the amphitheater hosts concerts, film festivals, and other cultural events. The Foo Fighters, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Norah Jones, Alanis Morissette, Sinéad O'Connor, Elton John, Sting, Michael Bolton, Seal, Tom Jones,  Leonard Cohen, and Grace Jones, among others, have all performed here.

Turkmenistan | Darwaza | Portal to Agharta

Update: Turkmenistan Leader Drives Donuts Around 'Gateway to Hell' In Footage Following Death Rumors.

One of my main objectives while in Turkmenistan was visiting the ruins of Urgench, which had been trashed by the sons of Chingis Khan back in 1221. Urgench is 290 miles north of the capital of Ashgabat. It is possible to drive from the capital to Urgench in one day, but most tourists like myself prefer to drive to the Darwaza Crater, 150 miles north of Ashagabat, spend the night there, and then continue on to Urgench the next day.

The Darwaza Crater is widely touted as the Portal to Hell. Indeed, the word darwaza reportedly means “portal” in the Turkmani language. The portal is not, however, a natural phenomenon. It was created in 1971 when geologists accidentally drilled into a huge underground cavern filled with natural gas. The cavern collapsed, leaving a crater about 230 feet in diameter. To keep from poisoning the local environment the geologists set fire to the huge amounts of natural gas seeping from the crater. They apparently thought the gas would burn off in a few days or weeks. Instead, the gas has been burning ever since and the leakage shows no signs of abating. No one has offered an estimate on the value of the gas which goes up in flames here each day. Natural gas is so plentiful in Turkmenistan that no one seems to care. 

The crater is in the middle of the Karakum Desert. There are no facilities in the area. Like the thirty or forty other tourists who spent the night there, I brought my own tent and vittles. There were people from Russia, Germany, Austria, Australia, Hungary, and other sundry locales. The people from Australia said they they had come to Turkmenistan specifically to see the crater. They had driven from Ashgabat that day and were returning there the next morning. 

There are other reputed Gates to Hell, including One In Turkey (this Turkey video also has views of Darwaza). Thanks to Snuggles in Richmond VA for bringing this video to my attention.
 View from Space: Darwaza, the Gate to Hell, is the small dark spot in the middle, not the larger gray area (click on photos for enlargements).
 The Darwaza Crater is about 230 feet in diameter
 Darwaza Crater
People on the edge of Darwaza Crater. On the downwind side the heat emanating from the crater is almost unbearable.
Darwaza Crater at night: Dante would have loved this place.
There are rumors that the cavern which the geologists inadvertedly drilled into was an extension of Agharti (also spelled Agharta), the underground Kingdom described by Marquis Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre and Ferdinand Ossendowski. The King of Agharti was reportedly none too pleased by this incursion into his domain and has been in a snit ever since. See the King of Agharti’s Predictions. His threat to return to the surface of the earth in 2012 was not fulfilled, however, and at this point in time the Darwaza-Agharti connection must be relegated to the realm of pure speculation.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Iran | Sultaniyya | Mausoleum of Ilkhan Ölziit

Wandered by the town of Sultaniyya, site of the mausoleum of Öljeitü (Ölziit in Mongolian), the eighth Ilkhan. Ölziit was the great-grandson Khülegü Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate, and the great-great-great-grandson of Chingis Khan. It was Ölziit (r. 1305–1316) who had moved the capital of the Ilkhanate from Tabriz to Sultaniyya, 175 miles to the southeast. At the insistence of his mother Uruk Khatun, a Nestorian Christian, he had been baptized as a Christian and given the name Nicholas. When he was still in his teens, however, he married a Muslim girl, and apparently under her influence he converted to Islam. At first he was a Sunni Muslim, but he eventually became disillusioned by Nit-Picking Sunni Jurists and switched to Shiism. Perhaps to burnish his credentials as a Shiite he hatched a scheme to move the bodies of the two proto-martyrs of Shiism, Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ali’s son Husain, from their shrines in Iraq to Sultaniyya and house them in an enormous mausoleum of his own making. It is not quite clear if he also intended the building to be a mausoleum for himself.  The mausoleum was built, but the plan to move the remains of Ali and Husain to Sultaniyya came to naught.  The building ended up as the repository for Ölziit’s own remains. 
The structure is 161 feet high, with a dome eighty-four feet in diameter, reportedly the third largest brick dome in the world. Larger are the brick domes of the Cathedral of Florence in Italy (138 feet), and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (103 feet). Apart from brick domes, the largest dome in the world is the steel dome of Cowboys Stadium in Texas, built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the Khülegü of our age (click on photos for enlargements).
For comparison, here is the dome of Hagia Sophia
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
The vast interior of the mausoleum is undergoing renovation 
Interior of the mausoleum
The interior of the mausoleum was once covered with decoration. This eight-foot high panel is one of few surviving examples.
Catacomb under the mausoleum. This space may have been built for the remains of Ali and Husain.
The open walkway just below the dome
The open walkway just below the dome
Decoration of walkway
Decoration of walkway
Detail of decoration
View of Sultaniyya from open walkway.  Sultaniyya, once the capital of the Ilkhanate, is now a sleepy little town with a population of just over 5000. It is justly famous for its kebabs. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Mongolia | Khentii Aimag | Onon Hot Springs

Took a break and did a nine-day horse trip to the ultra-exclusive (during the high-season you can only get there by horse, which keeps out the hoi-polloi in their Land-Cruisers and Hummers) Onon Hot Springs Resort and Spa on the Upper Onon River. With me on the trip were Töv Aimag herdsman and Gazarchin Zevgee,  his wife Tümen Ölzii, his son Batdorj, and his grandson Puntog.  I have done eleven Previous Horse and Camel Trips with Zevgee,  including a trip to Asralt Khairkhan, the highest mountain in the Khentii Range, This would make the twelfth trip with him.

This was my third trip to the Onon Hot Springs. The first was in 1997, as described in Part 3 of my book Travels in Northern Mongolia. I returned to the Hot Springs in 2003 while doing a Khora around the Sacred Mountain of Burkhan Khaldun. This time we were planning to take three days of treatments in the famously therapeutic waters of the various springs at the complex.  

Starting from Zevgee’s ger on the upper Kherlen Gol we rode up the Kherlen River Valley for a couple hours and then returned east up the Shirengetei River Valley, where we camped for the first night. 
Zevgee’s ger on the Upper Kherlen River
The next day we rode up to the headwaters of the Shirengetei Gol, crossed over Baga Davaa (Little Pass) to the valley of the Elüür Gol, and then crossed Ikh Davaa (Big Pass) into the drainage of the Onon Gol.
Our group at Ikh Davaa. From left: Puntog, Zegvee, Batdorj, and Tümen Ölzii
Zevgee preparing a pot of ever-welcome Iron-Goddess-of-Mercy Tea at our second night’s camping place on a tributary of the Onon Gol.
Late on the third day we arrived at the Hot Springs Complex on the banks of the Onon.

 Lounging in front of the Boutique Guesthouse at the Hot Springs.

Tümen Ölzii at the Guesthouse

View of the Hot Springs Complex from the Guesthouse

Lush vegetation typical of that found near hot springs
As I pointed out in my book Guide to Locales Connected with the Life of Zanabazar it was Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia (1635–1723) who reportedly first studied the medicinal properties of the Onon Hot Springs Complex.  They are thought to be especially suited for treating lower back problems, which is why Zegvee and I came here. There are nine bathhouses at the Hot Springs, each with water of differing water temperatures. The usual course of treatment is to soak in the cooler hot springs and then proceed to the hotter ones. 

Bathhouse containing Baga Tsenkher Hot Spring, supposedly named by Zanabazar himself. Warm to medium hot. 

Bathhouse containing Ikh Tsenkher Hot Spring, also supposedly named by Zanabazar himself. Warm to medium hot. 

Danzan Ötsiit (?) Hot Spring, cool to lukewarm

Kheeriin Khaluun Spring. This spring is so hot I was never able to enter it. The water was near boiling.

The first four bathhouses

Aglambiin Khaluun, luke-warm to warm

Two pits each with water very close to boiling

Baatariin Khaluun Spring Bathhouse. Very hot. I could enter it only very, very slowly, a few inches at a time until I was up to my neck in water. Then I had to be very careful not to disturb the water, causing fresh hot water to well up into the bathing pit.  This new water was too hot to stand. 

Sign describing the medicinal properties of the Baatariin Khaluun Spring

Balbarin Khaluun Spring: the roof of this bathhouse has caved in and it is no longer in use. The water is medium warm to hot. 

Noyen Khutagt Öndör Nuruut Spring. Medium Hot.

Nomin Khaani Khoyer Khaluun Spring. This one was too hot for me to enter. Near boiling.

Zevgee and Tümen Ölzii in front of the Buddhist Temple at the Hot Springs

Interior of the Buddhist Temple

Interior of the Buddhist Temple

Ovoo on the hill above the Hot Springs

The Upper Onon River Valley
After three days at the Hot Springs we rode back to Zevgee’s ger on the Kherlen Gol. It turns out we made the trip right on the cusp of summer and fall. On the first two days temperatures were an uncomfortable 95º or hotter and we were plagued by flies and mosquitoes. On the last two days it had cooled off to the point where we had to wear a jacket or deel while riding, the flies and mosquitos were almost gone, and there was a distinct smell of Autumn in the air. The total distance we traveled by horse was 105 miles measured between fourteen checkpoints. When we arrived back to Zevgee’s ger we found his grandson Kherlenbat eagerly awaiting our return.