This month marks a very notable milestone in my travel career. I have just returned from visiting my 100th country (actually I am now at 102). The TCC, a US organization, is responsible for listing and tracking such information. I have visited at least 50 countries more than once and a few, like France and England at least a dozen times. Almost every time I do a travel presentation for a group, I am asked which country is my favourite.
This has to be one of the most difficult questions to answer, because every place I visit has its own uniqueness, charm and culture. Some do stand out from the rest, but not because they are better or more interesting. Usually it is because of the difference in culture and sights, from those to which I am accustomed. I have taken a trip down memory lane and listed what I consider some of my more memorable visits.
My first on the list is the West African country of Namibia. About the size of Alberta, with a population of less than 2 million, Namibia offers a tremendous amount of sights to see and experience. In the south is the second largest canyon in the world. Travelling north along the Atlantic coast you experience the largest sand dunes on the planet, as well as the remnants of nineteenth century diamond mine ghost towns.
The north has wildlife much more abundant than that of Kenya or Tanzania, and puts Kruger Park in South Africa to shame. Lions and zebras, rhinos and cheetahs, a massive elephant population and giraffe inhabitants, the numbers of which continue to surge, all roam free amid the terrain of the Namib desert.
Another country, which has captured my heart, is Egypt. I remember my very first landing in Cairo, at 10:30 PM and was whisked by taxi for 45 minutes through twisted streets, along a variety of houses, battling traffic, which consisted of donkeys, camels, cars, vans and bicycles.
When I arrived in Giza I checked into my hotel and went to sleep. My emotions stirred the next morning when I opened the curtains and staring me in the face was the Great Sphinx. Words cannot explain the feeling of seeing the 4,500 year old monument, as well as the rest of the pyramids, for the first time.
Travelling to the Valley of the Kings, Lake Nassir and Abu Simbel, where the giant monuments of Ramesses II stand, is an unforgettable experience, and one I would highly recommend to anyone seeking a little archeological adventure in their travels.
I love to experience the vibrant life of cities, and Istanbul is one I would never tire of. Visiting the Blue Mosque is an experience in culture as well as education, and the history of stepping into Hagia Sophia is breathtaking. The structure, now a museum, was built as a Greek Orthodox cathedral in 537 CE, but was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman times.
Another memorable visit for me, was the Chinese city of Xian and the Terra Cotta warriors. The historic significance of the more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses is amazing. The entire tomb, part of a massive underground city was built by Emperor Chin, the first person to unite the tribes of the area into one unified region. China gets its name from him.
China as a whole, is a fantastic country to visit. The skyscrapers of Shanghai are a stark contrast to the rural villages, which have been overlooked by time. Very little however, competes with the thrill of walking on the Great Wall, about two hours north of Beijing. To think, the structure dates back 2,800 years, was 21,000 km. long, and is visible from space (not the moon, as many people think). The Ming section, the one we are more familiar with, is just less than 9,000 km., slightly longer than the trans-Canada highway.
The last two places which complete my top five list are Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands. Both are in the Pacific Ocean, but that is the only similarity they share. Easter Island, with its mysterious statues, is a rugged island, settled by Polynesians and is situated exactly half way between South America and Tahiti.
The story behind the statues is incredible and is based on a simple tribute to the Chiefs of the island. The engineering feats are astounding, and my Focus article: The Story Behind The Statues (Focus, May, 2012) explains in detail how this marvel was conceived and executed.
The Galapagos Islands are a six hour flight, directly north of Easter Island. Discovered by Charles Darwin, these volcanic faults are a result of a shift in the earth’s tectonic plates. The wildlife was the basis for Darwin’s controversial study on the origin of species, which challenged prior beliefs. For tourists, the unbelievable tameness of birds, iguanas, sea lions and sea creatures is amazing.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not have one particular favourite country, and have enjoyed every place I have visited. I have written over 120 articles for Focus Magazine, many of which are available on their website (focusonscugog.com), as well as my own (photosNtravel.com). If ever you have questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact me at jon@photosNtravel.com.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com