Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fairbanks Gold Mining Tour

What did I know about the Alaska gold rush of 1896-1899? - Zilch. Nothing. Nada. In my mind, the famous gold-rush was vaguely associated with California, or the Black Hills of Dakota... The words "gold rush" brought to my mind cowboys, stagecoaches, and the like. I didn't even remember that Jack London's novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang had anything to do with the Klondike gold rush. I assume -- or at least hope -- that my American cousins aren't as ignorant as I was on this subject.

cute toy-like train
Not that I'm such a maven now. But the few hours we spent on this "fun" mining tour, complete with cute toy-like train, charming folk-singer, huge gold-dredging machinery,
gold-dredging machinery

and hands-on gold-panning, were an eye-opener. Later to be enhanced by further forays deeper in Alaska. In the pic below you'll see our new friends, Elaina and Andy, on the left; Stuart on the right, his pan hiding his wife Susie's face; and my Michael behind Susie.
Panning for gold. Really!

Just so's you know, panning for gold takes a lot of patience, not to mention strong wrists and eagle eyes. Those teensy bits of gold are swimming among grains of sand, dirt and tiny pebbles. If you persevere, you actually end up with a few dollars' worth of gold! Which the friendly plaid-shirted staff of the huge souvenir shop nearby will be only too happy to "exchange" for you for a silver or gold-plated souvenir locket which costs thrice as much as your newly-found gold. But those are the rules of the game, of course. Mind you, if you covet one of those dainty lockets -- and I myself am quite a sucker for romantic lockets -- you don't have to go fetch the gold yourself... You can go to the website of Gold Dredge 8, Fox, Alaska, and order your gold-bits locket online.

What can I say -- it's all about fun and entertainment. I'm not complaining; after all, I'm here on vacation, to relax and enjoy while exploring new territory, widening my horizons, picking up some general knowledge, and making new friends. All the same, it's worth reminding oneself that the real gold-diggers led a very tough life, and only a fraction of those who left everything behind for the prospect of gold, actually found any.
reconstructed gold-miner's room
 I may look cozy and comfortable sitting on the bed in the reconstructed gold-miner's room, but I can't vouch for how the laborer felt. He was probably too tired to feel much of anything.
Nina in gold-miner's "room"
Next stop: Riverboat trip

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Alaska Cruise & Land Tour Notes (2)

My expectations of the land tour turned out to be totally unrealistic. In my imagination, I saw myself trekking, dressed in my warm, lined Adidas pants, sturdy Timberland hiking shoes (bought in Banff, 2009, after realizing that my beloved Reebok Princess were just not up to dealing with snow and glaciers) --
Nina on Athabasca Glacier (Canadian Rockies), in thin gym pants and Reebok Princess sneakers
-- not to mention stylish trekking poles which we borrowed from our son, the real hiker-and-trekker in the family:
Daniel trekking in the south of France
Now, when we signed up for tours, we were asked to select the level of difficulty or adventure we were up for. I assumed I was less fit than I was in 2009, for example, on our Canadian Rockies trip (see here, and there), and we opted for "moderate difficulty".  Well, moderate my foot, pardon the pun. The hikes we ended up going on turned out to be embarrassingly easy. Some of which was our own fault -- we simply chickened out of anything laborious. Speaking strictly for myself, I'll say I also chickened out of anything involving even the  remotest chance of coming across a real, live predator. Some of our co-trippers, like Susie and Stuart (an Israeli couple, originally from the U.S., and the only other Israelis we encountered on this trip), were more enterprising and hiking-oriented.

So there we were, on our way from Toronto, via Minneapolis, to Fairbanks. The stewardess on the Minneapolis-to-Fairbanks leg of the journey was quite amusing: A tall, good-looking woman of indeterminate age, who told us -- the small, premium-class audience -- with open cheer and relief, that this was her last day of work, her penultimate shift, after which she would never again have to say "Please fasten your seat-belts"! She would finally have time to go skiing, spend time with her grandkids, follow her own pursuits and have fun. Yes, eventually she will fly again. As a passenger. As well she should, being eligible for free flights [on that airline] for the rest of her life.

Landed in Fairbanks with its adorable Curtiss GN4 biplane * hanging over the conveyor-belt: (Sweet childhood memories: my dad used to take me to hangars at the air force base where he worked.)

Picked up our far-too-heavy luggage and took the awaiting shuttle to the Hotel Springhill Suites /Marriott, Rm #513.
I must have been tired, because I did not take any pics of the large, well-appointed suite. Very negligent of me. So just click the hotel link above.
I found the hotel a bit strange: some of its aspects and amenities were in line with a high-standard hotel, whereas some others were blatantly missing. But I got the impression this was due to its Alaskan nature. Though -- unlike other places in Alaska, it operates all year round, it caters mostly to a specific type of traveler. To quote its website, "... we provide... suites to help you unwind in-between activities."

Next morning we went down to breakfast at the non-dining-hall. The breakfast buffet was laid out along a sort of narrow passage in the lobby, next to which there were some small tables. Everything you needed was there, but on a small, somewhat haphazard-looking scale that you wouldn't expect from a decent-sized Marriott. However, the buffet did offer six types of coffee and six types of milk, so who am I to complain. I took the "dark coffee", which was the strongest, most coffee-like choice, and treated myself to half & half.

Now we were ready to face our first Alaskan adventure!
Next installment: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline; the Alaskan gold rush, complete with gold-dredging; and an educational riverboat trip. Oh, and some shopping of cute local souvenirs, of course ;-)
* With thanks to Lior Bar-On for identifying the aircraft for me!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Alaska Cruise & Land Tour Notes (1)

- How was it?
- Would you recommend it?
That's what my cousins and other potential readers wanted to know, and that's what I'll try to tell you. With the understanding that my notes are purely personal and subjective.

Bottom line: It was great; go for it! But take into account the good and the not-so-good aspects.

First, a photo that summarizes this trip for me: the majestic, visually-elusive Mount Denali:
"Elusive" because more often than not it is veiled by clouds and mist. Our bus-driver /guide /narrator, Becky, said that only 30% of visitors to this area actually get to see the mountain. "Narrator" because that is the term used in the marketing materials everywhere. Never before have I been on a tour where all the guides were also performers, entertainers. (In stark contrast to our guides in China and Vietnam, say, where the solemn guides take their State-appointed responsibility with super seriousness and pour out tons of info as soon as you buckle your seatbelt or step out of the vehicle.)

The above pic lacks the iconic cruise ship, majestic in its own way. That's because Denali National Park & Reserve was part of the land tour we went on prior to the cruise. Which brings me to...
Tip #1: A sea journey in itself is not enough; make sure to book a land tour as well. This may sound obvious, but some people prefer the comfort of the ship. And the ship is indeed comfortable and tempts you with lots of options to waste your time and money. Did I really mean "waste"? Okay, you can call it "spend" if you prefer...

Tip #2: This is Alaska. Weather is unpredictable, even in summer. Here's a view of our lovely cruise ship, the Celebrity Millennium, on the 4th of July 2017, as it docked in Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, where we hoped to see whales. The upper decks with the hot-tubs and tanning beds were all but deserted, as mists and drizzling ruled the day:

So pack a lightweight but warm coat (my newly-acquired Uniqlo, purchased in Toronto Eaton Center, did the trick), a hat, and unless your feet don't mind getting wet (which seems to apply to most Canadians), also waterproof shoes. This sort of grey, wet weather also prevented us from getting a good look at Hubbard Glacier, for instance. Nonetheless, passengers congregated on the deck, cameras in hand, craning their necks and trying to get a good shot. I could see chunks of ice floating on the water, and some shapeless white fluff in the distance that was, apparently, a glacier. Having actually stood on Athabasca Glacier, and seen Bow Glacier in the Canadian Rockies up close and personal, as you can see on my Flickr albums, the Hubbard was a bit of an anticlimax. However, on a sunny day Deck 10 was lovely:

Tip #3: Don't get your hopes up when you're told you'll see lots of wildlife. Mostly, it's a matter of chance. You're in nature. You can't count on wild animals to pop up when convenient for you. I'd love to post a photo of a bear, but the bear is not much more than a brown spot in the distance. I'd love to post a photo of a whale, but I only managed to catch its tail. Here's a relative close-up (thanks to a proper zoom lense, not thanks to my iPhone) of a brown creature with ears munching on grass next to a stream:

We did also see (mostly through binoculars or cameras with good zoom lenses) some caribou, moose, dall sheep, deer, bald eagles, swimming salmon, a porcupine up a tree, and one brave wolf who loped gracefully just a few meters in front of our bus in Denali park:

Tip #4: Travel light. Don't take the cruise's recommended "dress code" too seriously. Sure, if you have a glitzy evening dress or designer suit you're dying to show off, this is a good opportunity. But any decent pair of slacks combined with your fave non-T-shirt top will do. No flipflops or dusty hiking boots, please. I brought a "good" dress (Dorin Frankfurt, my go-to designer in Israel) but it was sleeveless and I was too chilly to wear it. I'd packed my best (D.F., again) black trousers, but had gained weight and could barely button them. Which brings me to...

Tip #5: It's a tricky balance between enjoying yourself on vacation and overeating just because the food is so temptingly set out. The food on board was indeed plentiful, varied, and aesthetically displayed. There are several restaurants, of which we chose the least formal one. Vegetarians and people on various diets will find suitable offerings. Though it always amuses me to see a person piling her plate with a selection of cakes, say, but insisting on skim milk for her coffee. I detest skim milk - it's like putting white water in your coffee.

Well, there's plenty more where this came from, but I won't try your patience.
Will add another post, or two, or three, soon.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam - some observations

It's great to have a guide like Son, who both knows his stuff and makes it sound interesting. A good guide tries to tell you as much as possible about the places you see, but knows when to take a break and let things sink in.

After a few days, my head was spinning. Pagodas, temples, palaces, Buddha, dragons, snakes, history. France, England, China, the United States, Russia -- everyone who was involved in Vietnam's history, for better and for worse, in recent centuries. With plenty of emphasis on Communism and Ho Chi Minh. I was actually pretty impressed with the latter's world travels before seeking a safe haven in China from whence he spread his ideas of what would be best for his homeland. I had no idea that he had travelled far and wide -- France, the U.S., the U.K., the Soviet Union, China and Thailand -- to study, work, widen his horizons and develop his political views. If you want to know more about Vietnam's history and Ho Chi Minh's part in it, go right ahead. Meanwhile, I'll jot down for you some other bits of info which found their way into my travel notebook:
  • Beer and cigarettes are very cheap in Vietnam. Seems to me like a government ploy to sedate the people. People smoke a lot, everywhere. Except on buses, where it's not allowed.
  • The prevalence of cancer in Vietnam is among the highest in the world. Among the causes are air pollution, water pollution, unsafe food (possibly the result of said pollution) and heavy smoking. The Cancer Hospital in the center of Hanoi is always overcrowded. There was a plan, or at least an intent, to transfer it out of the city, but the local rich residents objected -- it would be too inconvenient for them. So a new hospital is being built out of town, for the poorer population. 
  • Classrooms, too, are hugely overcrowded. The official standard of 35 pupils per classroom is not upheld; not even close. Some have as many as 70 pupils, and 3 teachers. (I can just see my teacher-friends rolling their eyes in dismay.) 
  • If weather turns cold (in Vietnam terms), i.e. under 10 deg C (= 50 deg F), there's no school. Because there's no heating in the classrooms. And because most pupils get to school on their parent's scooter, standing in front, as you can see in my previous blog post, and it's just too darn cold!
  • There's a restriction of 2 children per family in Vietnam.
  • Supermarkets. I could see the entrance to our right, but Son, our guide, turned to a different door on the left. Apparently, you must first deposit your bag/s in the locker room, and carry only your wallet into the actual shop. There's a very prominent sign, in Vietnamese and in English, to that effect next to the real entrance. Phrased in very strict terms (at least the English is.) We had no trouble buying chocolate digestives (sorry, not McVitie's) and tonic water, while Son bought apples.
  • The Temple of Literature -- Vietnam's first university. Isn't that a lovely name for a uni? Imagine my disappointment upon learning that it no longer functions as a university; it's just another pretty location with lots of tourists... 
  • Which doesn't mean it didn't provide for some cute items:

  • And a-propos universities: The government apparently agreed to the existence of a private university so long as it doesn't teach history, law, journalism, media; and does not grant a teaching certificate. Ain't that grand?...
  • The Water-Puppet Show. Definitely one of the weirdest shows I've ever seen.  As you can see, the pics I took aren't much good, but there are plenty of better ones online.

    If you want to listen to some live Vietnamese music and singing, and watch puppets "dance" on the water and act out folk tales, by all means go and see it. 
  • And just for fun:
Michael and Nina with Ho Chi Minh :-)