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North Platte, Nebraska is a railroad lover’s paradise, for freight trains in particular. On a daily basis more than 10,000 rail cars rumble through town as they head for the nearby Bailey Yard, the largest train yard in the world. To live near the tracks that cross Nebraska from east to west is to live with the ever-present sounds, sights and smells of the freight train: the night-and-day tug of the piercing whistles, the clang of the wheels, the dust the train hurls up from the tracks and hurls in its wake like mini-cyclones and the never-ending wait at crossings for the trains to pass.

Bailey Yard

If you’re a train geek, and let’s face it, if you’re reading this you probably are, the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte is a must-see destination. The 8-story high structure provides a grand viewing platform overlooking the 2,850 acre Bailey Yard; known as the place where east meets west for the Union Pacific Railroad. At any time of day or night there is a continual blur of motion as the powerful locomotives engage in their unending ritual of coupling, uncoupling and humping. (I’m not making these NSFW terms up by the way. That’s really what they call it.)

Golden Spike Tower

Golden Spike Tower

The numbers at the Bailey rail yard are daunting. It is eight miles long and pumps more than 14 million gallons of diesel fuel per month to power those 10,000 cars. I can believe those figures. I drove on the old Lincoln Highway across the entire length of Nebraska and was never far from the Union Pacific tracks.

On the long drive, filled with unending stretches of lots of nothing, the clanging wheels and blaring whistles of the trains were my steadfast companion. Back east the arrival of a freight train is something unusual to be noted. Not so in Nebraska. Here they run constantly with the frequency of a New York City subway train.

Their presence is unrelenting in the local’s lives. I asked a woman in a shop near the tracks if she ever gets used to the noise. She replied stoically, “What noise?” I guess I had my answer. The laid back rhythms of Midwestern life are reflected in the rhythm of the freight trains. I wonder which came first.

The view from the Golden Spike Tower makes you feel like Gulliver peering down on a Lilliputian railroad system.  From high above the yard looks like an old-fashioned department store’s model railroad Christmas display. If from tall heights people look like ants, then the Union Pacific locomotives, painted in their yellow and black coats, appear like so many worker bees buzzing around the hive. If you’re into this sort of thing, and I confess that I am, it can be mesmerizing. I found myself staring down on the trains for what seemed like an hour before I even blinked.

Suspender-clad retired train buffs are stationed around the tower to provide a running color commentary for the goings on below. As a train hauling 100 cars of coal slid by, the guide pointed to twin smokestacks, each as tall as a fifty-story building, just visible in the haze on the western horizon. They loom over the Gerard Gentleman Station; a coal-fired power plant that is Nebraska’s largest. The guide noted that this plant alone can burn over 19,000 tons of coal, or enough to fill about 150 freight cars, per day. I repeat, per day. That’s a lot of coal but just a drop in the bucket compared to the 500 million tons passing through North Platte each year.

You can watch all this activity from an indoor viewing platform with panoramic windows and an outdoor platform as well. The Golden Spike Tower is one of those travel experiences that won’t compare to anything else that you’ll ever see. I highly recommend it.

The other night we had one of those impromptu cultural experiences that make travel worthwhile.  On a quiet Monday evening we strolled the streets of Chinatown in Malacca, Malaysia. It was a few weeks before Chinese New Year and the town was in full preparation mode. We watched men climb rickety bamboo scaffolding to hang glowing red (…) Read more

Who would have thought that the world’s best gelato was being made in Auckland, New Zealand? But the city, which was recently selected as the 3rd best city in the world to live, takes it in stride. The owner of Giapo’s is Gianpaolo Grazioli, an Italian native and mad scientist; that’s no exaggeration, in his spare time he is pursuing an advanced physics degree.

Giapo’s doesn’t have a secret ingredient that makes it better than all the rest. But they do make almost all the ingredients that go into their 99% organic gelato. When they offer a tiramisu flavor they make both the mascarpone and chocolate from scratch. For his gianduia they don’t buy Nutella but make their own. To most people that’s crazy but that’s how Giapo’s operates.

Antipasto gelato, do you have that before or after dinner?

Gianpaolo approaches his gelato making like the mad scientist he sort of resembles. His molecular research has led him to pair flavors that work based on how their molecules interact. The result is a blend of flavors that is pushing the envelope in the gelato world. He obviously has a passion for bringing his gelato to the people. As he says, “It is a charity this store. I just make enough to cover expenses.”

Thirty-six flavors are offered at any one time with twenty new ones invented each week. That’s over 1,000 flavors a year that he creates. Recent popular flavors include: caramelized almond and sweet peas; New Zealand seaweed and Sauvignon Blanc grapes; white chocolate and cloves; Kiwi breakfast which includes candied bacon, maple, avocado and eggs; and my favorite, a vanilla and blueberry creme brulee.

Giapo gelato Auckland

Two world famous Italians meet up, Rocky Balboa and Giapo.

In the video below Larissa sat down with Giapo to taste test six new flavors including antipasto. For this one he candies olives, eggplant, red pepper, zucchini and capers. It sounds a bit odd but was fantastic.

Note: The sound quality of the video improves after about 30 seconds once a blender is turned off.

Here’s our video taste test of other New Zealand foods

Click the link to see what flavors Giapo’s is offering this week.

Gibraltar is a pretty interesting place to visit. Besides the giant rock that takes up most of the land, it’s the only place where we’ve had to drive across the airport runway to enter. This can cause a few complications since jets also use the runway. But the Gibraltarians take it in stride. When a plane is taking off or landing they hold back the traffic, just like at a railroad crossing.

Gibraltar airport runway

How many airports let you cross the runway?

Since there isn’t much land at Gibraltar they’ve come up with clever ways to use what they have. Before World War II, airplanes used to land on the grassy area in the middle of the local horseracing track. With the advent of the war the British built a runway into the sea. With minimal margin for error not just any pilot can land at Gibraltar. Despite the somewhat hairy landing, a quirk that placed the Gibraltar airport in a list of the top 10 unusual airports, there has never been a civil aviation accident.

Gibraltar Airport cars crossing runway

Since Gibraltar is part of the UK a double-decker bus on the runway is not an unusual sight.

We met our friends Charles and Maureen, native Gibraltarians, for a behind-the-scenes visit to the “Rock.” A relic of Gibraltar’s strategic position is that the rock itself is honeycombed with tunnels, some dating to the 1700s. We were inside one of these tunnels when we heard the unmistakable sound of a jet engine roaring to life, a noise that typically provokes a Pavlovian response in Larissa as she jerks her head quicker than a one-eyed dog in a sausage factory.

Gibraltar Airport birds eye view

Gibraltar Airport viewed from the Rock. The border with Spain is about 500 yards on the other side of the runway.

We ran to a viewpoint in the tunnel and were rewarded with a literal bird’s-eye view over the runway. Since there are only about five flights a day out of Gibraltar our timing was perfect. Here’s our video of a jet taking off from one of the quirkiest airports in the world. And as our friend Charles points out, also one of the safest.

If you’re into watching planes take off check out the video of the new runway viewing platform at Perth Airport.

In Malaysia we witnessed a Hindu infant head shaving ceremony known as Mundan. We were visiting Batu Caves, a large Hindu Temple built atop a hillside, outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Take a tour of Batu Caves.

Visiting Batu Caves

There were the typical souvenir stands outside it selling an interesting combination of shiny stuff and religious offerings. Read more

Now that we’ve recovered from our Vegemite taste test in Australia, we are ready to try some authentic New Zealand foods. The country is known around the word for its lamb so we decided to try a local delicacy we came across, peeled lamb tongue. Who knew lamb tongue had to be peeled?

canned lamb tongues

We also tried the Kiwi version of Vegemite that is called Marmite. This one has a bit of sugar in it. Does that improve the taste? Watch the video and you decide. Add to that some lamb flavored potato chips, L&P soda, pineapple lumps, the mysteriously named Afghan cookies and of course, Kiwi fruit, and we had a veritable feast going on.

Click on the video below to watch it:

[youtube]http://youtu.be/graGDLkmysU[/youtube]

One of the things we’re tasting on this journey are donuts from around the world. But there was one donut that smelled so awful we couldn’t eat it. It pains us to even think of donuts in a bad way, but we met our match in a durian donut in Malacca, Malaysia.

Durian night market Singapore

It appears this vendor at a night market in Singapore let her love of durian go to her head.

Durian is rightfully known as the stinky fruit. When it’s cut open it emits a foul odor that I can only compare to a combination of sweaty sneakers, old fish and sewer effluent. It’s popular in Asia but there’s a reason many hotels have signs in the lobby that say “No Durian!”

No durian sign

Signs banning durian indoors are common throughout Southeast Asia.

We were walking around Malacca (which is a great place to visit with a unique culinary heritage) when we saw a sign for “Big Apple Donuts.” Though we’re no longer surprised when we see New York City food references in far-flung locations, we decided to check it out.

Durian donut store

The durian donuts are filled to order so they don’t stink up the other donuts, or perhaps the bakery and drive away customers.

We saw one tray of donuts off to the side that looked spiky, like a puffy version of a durian fruit. At many shops in Asia the donuts are given names with cute plays-on-words. So naturally the durian donut was called “Durian Durian.” This made us hungry like a wolf so we decided to try one.

The lady behind the counter explained that they are filled to order and we soon understood why. We took the donut to a table where Michael served as the guinea pig for a durian donut taste test. Click the white arrow below to watch a video of it, but first a warning, the results are not pretty.

Durian donut larissa stinky

Larissa was a bit skeptical of my reaction so she tried one herself.

Click the link for more donuts around the world.

The shiny new Emirates 777-200LR was zooming down the runway right  towards us, its General Electric engines screaming to create 110,000  pounds of  take-off thrust. Along with dozens of other plane geeks we were leaning over the railing like kids at a petting zoo at the new Perth Airport runway viewing area. Fortunately for us it had just opened the day before.

If you ever drive around the periphery of an airport you’ll notice a mass of mostly middle-aged, mostly men sitting at the end of the runway in beach chairs. Every few minutes they turn as one and point their cameras upwards into the sky. These are plane spotters, people who track and take photos of planes at airports. Their goal is to find as many different types of planes as they can and upload the pics to web sites that specialize in this arcane subject.

We met one such aircraft spotter at the new viewing area. Jens, a Dane who had flown in from South Africa, ostensibly to visit family living in Perth. But one look at his t-shirt, emblazoned with the logo of a Danish plane spotting web site, the way his head swiveled like a puppy in a sausage factory whenever he heard another jet roaring down the runway, and the massive zoom lens attached to his camera, made us think that visiting family was just an excuse to see the newly opened viewing area.

Aircraft spotter Jens captures another one

But not all plane spotters are so hardcore. Like most avid travelers, we happen to be plane geeks ourselves but are content to just watch the planes without recording them for posterity. Like many airplane geeks though, as much fun as it is to watch the planes take-off, we wish we were on one instead.

Here’s a video of a plane taking off from Gibraltar International Airport, one of the 10 most unusual airports in the world.

If you’re into airplanes you might like this story about our biplane ride in New Zealand over the Lord of the Rings sites.

In August 2011 we started out from the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia to begin our journey around the world, along with a statue of Rocky Balboa to encourage us to “go the distance.” So far “Little Rocky” has been to over 30 countries on 6 continents. After 2+ years on the road we’ve put together an album of some of our favorite Little Rocky moments on Flickr. Here are a few highlights:

rocky statue malaysia

Little Rocky at a Hindu shrine, Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur.

So far we’ve traveled over 100,000 miles and Little Rocky has made new friends around the world. (Although in Asia a few people confused him with someone named Rambo.) He’s been great at getting conversations started and makes people smile wherever we go. A restaurant in Cambodia even whipped up a cheesesteak for him because he was missing his favorite food from Philly.

Rocky Buddhist nuns (640x621)

We were a bit surprised that these Buddhist nuns in Saigon were big Rocky fans.

rocky colosseum rome

Rocky returned to his roots in Rome where perhaps his ancestors were gladiators at the Colosseum.

jimmy carter rocky statue

With former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Miss Rosalynn in Plains, Georgia.

rocky statue petra

Little Rocky made like Indiana Jones at Petra in Jordan.

Rocky San People Namibia

With the San people in Namibia.

After two years on the road check out our photo album of “The Rocky Statue Travels Around the World” where he was hoisted by such luminaries as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; actors Danny DeVito and Andrew McCarthy; and Steve McCurry, the photographer of the iconic “Afghan Girl” cover for National Geographic.

Special Announcement

Rocky Eiffel Tower (514x700)If all these photos are making you hanker for your very own Rocky statue you’re in luck. Due to popular demand the statues are back. You can now purchase the official 12″ ROCKY Statues. Schomberg Studios, the original creator of the Rocky sculpture for the Rocky movies, is selling a limited edition of this fine statue that is recognized around the world.

We know from personal experience that these statues are very hard to find so this is a remarkable opportunity. For information on buying a Rocky statue go to the Official Rocky Sculpture Store. Yo!

Big Rocky has made six movies, so Little Rocky thought it was time for his own debut. Here (on the small screen, naturally) is a video compilation of some of the places the Rocky statue has been and the cool new people he’s met so far. We’ll be updating this as we visit more places and make even more new friends.

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Imagine having hundreds of fish nibbling at your toes underneath a giant sign that assuredly proclaims “No Piranha.” Now picture your feet are in a tank with about a dozen other feet that are also being nibbled on.

Larissa normally loves seeking out relaxing massages but turned up her nose, or more properly her toes, at this fish pedicure. Michael, who has the world’s most ticklish feet (he seriously does, he can’t even get a shoe shine because he giggles like a tween girl at a Justin Bieber sighting) also opted out.

The stated therapeutic qualities of a fish pedicure are that the toothless “garra rufa,” also known as doctor fish, massage and nibble at your feet and remove dead skin. But it’s probably a good thing that we didn’t jump in with both feet.

The treatment, which is popular throughout Asia, is coming under increased scrutiny from health authorities worldwide. The Health Protection Agency in the United Kingdom has warned that the practice could spread HIV and Hepatitis C. Some states in the US have already banned the practice.

But that hasn’t stopped the people in this video from getting their feet massaged by little fish at the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur. Be warned though, one lady is a screamer:

Normally we’re not much for folk dance performances. But when we were in New Zealand the All Blacks rugby team had just won the  World Cup. Part of their pre-game warm up is to perform the haka, an indigenous Maori dance. After the championship match the haka was everywhere, the words and steps were even available on t-shirts, a sure sign of reaching a peak in pop culture.

The dance is supposed to psyche out opponents. Tough to say if it works but they are the current world champions. We got to see the haka performed at the Auckland Museum. Note that unlike on the rugby pitch, the haka is performed by both men and women. You can decide if it strikes fear into your heart.

After the show the lead performer, Taniora Maihi, was kind enough to pose with Little Rocky and is pictured above. It was the first time on our trip that Little Rocky was maybe a bit nervous.

What they are saying in English is:

It is death, it is death
It is life, it is life
This is the hairy man
Who caused the sun to shine again for me
Up the ladder, up the ladder
Up to the top
The sun shines.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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In 2011 we attended the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea. With more than 100,000 performers it is billed as the biggest show on Earth by no less than Guinness World Records. The Mass Games are a combination of gymnastics, circus high-wire act, mass dancing, drama and all wrapped up in a veneer of self-promoting “long live the Fatherland” type of propaganda.

Over 20,000 of the performers holding books filled with multi-colored pages sit opposite the audience. They flip the pages in the books on cue to reveal stadium-sized murals highlighting everything from nature to people to weaponry. (This is a military-first society after all.) The show takes place in Rungrado May Day Stadium that reputedly holds over 105,000 spectators. When we attended the majority of them were wearing dark green army uniforms. During some portions the show felt very much like a military rally.

It’s really hard to describe the Mass Games so for once I’ll shut up and let the video and pictures do the talking:

During the next part the child performers appeared to be about seven years old. While their performance was uniformly impressive, seeing kids this age being so obviously coached and trained was sort of like watching a Stalinist version of Toddlers & Tiaras:

This next section included the Tae Kwon Do performance, a sport in which North Korea is a world leader:

The stated purpose of the Mass Games is to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birth. He was born in April, but for some reason the games are held in August and September. When the mural shown below flashed in the stadium I was surprised that the applause wasn’t as unbridled as I expected. I wonder if this means anything for the future of North Korea.

The “Great Leader” done in flash cards.

By the way, this was a difficult post for me to put together because the treble-heavy patriotic music started to drive Larissa a little crazy, but I hope you enjoyed this window into a totally different world.  You can only visit North Korea as part of a pre-approved group tour, the most experienced company is Koryo Tours. It is run by a Nick Bonner, a Brit based in Beijing.

Click the link for more stories about our trip to North Korea.

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