A bus full of young Buddhist nuns in Yangon, Myanmar, one of my first stops for the year for an article on colonial architecture.
In the northern hemisphere, the new year always arrives in the midst of winter, days I find well suited for reflection and being home with friends and family. It’s a good time to look back on a good year of travels and experiences, great times with great people, and so like nearly every one of the other travel writers out there, I feel compelled to put together a photo summary of where we’ve been; the highlight reel, if you will.
Tip and I spent just under 6 months traveling internationally, and a good amount of time on the backroads and byways of Wisconsin and Minnesota as I worked on a few guidebooks (Minnesota’s Best Beer Guide, Best Hikes Near Milwaukee, and a new edition of 60 Hikes Madison) and a couple weeks in Michigan for a book tour for Michigan’s Best Beer Guide. And I fell just shy of 30 books read this year, with a handful of spectacular works among them.
While 2014 was a great year, we did lose a dear fellow travel nut, Wes Nations (Johnny Vagabond), and the last of my grandparents, Grandma Eva, passed away just weeks away from reaching a century. We who survive them carry their stories to keep them present. They will both be missed dearly. I sent my grandmother postcards from just about every country I’ve ever visited, and she looked forward to seeing the photos when I returned. So here is a summary of that last round of postcard-places
Taiwan: I go every spring for some education marketing work and a bit of personal travel on the side and it remains one of my favorite countries just for the people alone. It doesn’t have the Great Wall or Terra Cotta Warriors, but the people are some of the nicest you will ever meet. I gush a bit the place, but I am always impressed by the politeness, the level of concern to help a stranger, the orderliness without being sterile and boring. Here is the Taipei train station from which you can get on the Taiwan high-speed rail and go from north to south in about 3 hours.
Forgot to mention: did a lot of eating in Taipei and found I really actually like the century egg very much.
In spring I went back to that other China, slowly ticking off the places I’ve been, and this time adding Chengdu to the mix. A local brewer led me as we ate around town and had some local beers, and I also managed to get out to see the pandas at the breeding center. I need to post a complete gallery; it was a gas. Funny animals.
Work took me back to Seoul in April, a destination I associate primarily with food. But here I had a chance to see some historical costumes at Bosingak Belfry in Jongno. Normally just a quite pavilion, this day some kind of festival was going on and a crowd had gathered to watch them all march in. The local beer scene is improving and so I joined a couple of former students from WESLI in Madison as they took me around to a few microbreweries in Itaewon.
Another Japan Rail Pass, another week in Japan racing between cities. Last spring I added the former imperial capital of Nara to the visit list. Here is the Great Buddha Hall at Todai-ji temple complex, part of the UNESCO World Heritage listing of the historic monuments of ancient Nara. Expect a lot of little deer milling around. The locals leave them be so the population is a bit overwhelming sometimes. Within this hall is the largest wooden statue of the Buddha in the world.
As usual we had some work in Thailand and got to spend time with family and friends in Bangkok. A trip out of town to eat seafood took us along the shore of the Bay of Thailand. A great day trip if you love seafood, salt pans, bird watching, or just exploring.
May saw another return to my favorite of favorites for travel: Turkey. I had promised Tip long ago that I would take her to see Cappadocia, and this year I finally made good on the delayed honeymoon destination. We had some killer hiking, and stayed in Ortahisar, a less touristy town in a really cool hotel.
Then we ventured to southeast Turkey, almost to the border of Syria, to explore an area that has been on my want list for years. I love archaeology and so Gaziantep’s Zeugma Mosaic Museum was a must (photo gallery). I came to call this leg of the journey our “Gaziantep Trip”, though it included kebap-famous Urfa and the most incredible Neolithic temple site of Göbekli Tepe
Urfa is also where where Abraham was thrown into the fire by Nimrod. This is – Balikligöl or Pool of Sacred Fish — near Halil-ur-Rahman mosque.
Then it was back on the long bus ride, stopping in Konya, the city of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the founder of the whirling dervishes. We visited his tomb, shopped for leeches, and after a day in town, took a cheap flight back to Istanbul…
… where I found more pandas. Met up with some great friends and returned to our favorite Black Sea pide joint. I can’t get enough of this city. Bangkok pals Ray and Nok were in town for a dental conference, so we showed them around a bit; met up with Gulay, a former student who now offers Istanbul tours; friends Randy and Zeynep; and of course our great friend and fixer, Hasan!
Back in Wisconsin, we put in some more miles on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, for both Best Hikes Near Milwaukee and the second edition of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Madison — both due out in spring 2015. Here is the Devil’s Staircase segment, along the Rock River in Janesville.
Our travels around the state of Minnesota — and we do mean all around the state of Minnesota — took us to every brewery outside the Twin Cities area, but we also had time to check out other attractions such as the headwaters of the Mississippi. Ankle-deep. Hard to imagine the giant muddy and mighty monster downriver.
We often miss the fall colors, but not this year. Finishing up the Milwaukee hiking guide, we spent a lot of time in the Kettle Moraine area, hiking and camping, sometimes along the Ice Age Trail again. The colors this year were fantastic and lasted a a long time.
This was the steeple view from Holy Hill as the colors were just getting started. You can see all the way to Milwaukee from this overlook, and the hiking on the nearby Ice Age Trail is fantastic in the late afternoon as the sun filters in through the colored leaves.
But then it was time for more work and travel in Asia. Off to Thailand we went, returning to some seafood during that time, but also spending our anniversary along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. We missed Chiang Mai this fall, a real regret.
A couple assignments took me to Vietnam and we spent several days in the former imperial city of Hue, visiting the UNESCO-listed citadel and imperial tombs spread around the countryside. Eating was a delicious adventure and overall we really enjoyed the more laid back atmosphere (when compared to Hanoi or Saigon).
But I’m not knocking Hanoi. It had been a few years since I’d been there and the long drive from the airport shows how much the city has grown and changed. I spent some time in search of bia hoi (fresh beer brewed the previous night), eating (naturally), and finally had a cup of the famous “egg coffee.” Um, not my thing I guess, but rather pretty.
One more weeklong round of barbecue in Seoul and some education marketing…
… another pass through Japan with a serious tour of Tokyo beer hotspots — especially Baird Brewing’s taprooms, and then a couple nights in Osaka, the foodie city. Here’s okonomiyaki, one of the local specialties. Former WESLI student Nami met me for a night of great food. And anyone who says “oh, mayo? That’s totally not real Japanese!” can eat their hipster hat — the chef here lays it on for the locals with a triple-nozzled squirt bottle. Quite a show.
The old Schmidt Brewery is now artist lofts, but a whole new generation of brewers is taking over the Twin Cities.
Our final trip of 2014 was back into Minnesota where we spent a week in St. Paul/Minneapolis hitting all the breweries and brewpubs for the upcoming Minnesota beer guide. This entailed visits to about 40 Twin City area breweries. It was a bit nuts and sleep wasn’t much of an option. We saw some great stuff though, and gathered info and photos for the book on our whirlwind tour.
What’s next? Not sure. Taiwan and Thailand, Korea, and China are certain in spring, maybe Vietnam again. A big American roadtrip west is a very good possibility in May. Plus promotion/book signings for FIVE new books! Paddling Wisconsin should be the first of them to hit market in a couple months. (Then Best Hikes Near Milwaukee, Minnesota’s Best Beer Guide, 60 Hikes Madison, Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide 3rd edition). Maybe that travel narrative about living a year in Italy will find a publisher. And of course the elusive novel.
There are also tentative plans to pull a Blues Brothers move — “get the band back together” — and play with the wonderful Marianne Flemming for a few gigs next summer. Stay tuned for that!
Thanks for following and Happy New Year!