The Orient Express: Paris to Istanbul. (8/24 – 9/1/2016)

1.Orient ExpressWife Linda and I took the trip from August 24 – Sept 1, 2016. Some observations for whatever interest anyone on this list of friends might have.
The original “Orient Express” connected the English Channel with the Black Sea in the 1920’s, an era where trains were “the” modes of travel. With its connecting trains, it passed over the railway systems of thirteen different countries of the continent of Europe. Even then, it was expensive travel and those doing so insured that it was a class act. Black tie and female finery for dinner and each car the lap of luxury. The genre was immortalized by Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and the film of the same name in 1974.
Automobiles and super highways made it pretty obsolete and the original trains fell into disrepair in numerous train graveyards across Europe, to be resurrected in the 1980’s to their former glory by entrepreneurs. There are several routes now, the centerpiece being the Paris to Istanbul route, 5 days and five nights. The cars are truly opulent now (see photos) and the former glory has been maintained.
First, some observations on some of the characters we met.
Seven middle-aged women that lived on the same block for 33 years somewhere in Connecticut. They got married there, had their kids there and now they’re in their late 50s. They could have been the models for “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012). There were originally eight of them and they all had vowed to make this trip together at some time in their old age. Then one died unexpectedly and left the money to make the trip to the remaining seven in her will. So the seven went together as a group, did all the activities together. I watched them and saw a veil of sadness within them, an occasional tear.
There was a gaggle of very Arabic women, complete with headdresses. Must have been about ten of them, maybe more and they were pretty much together on some of the end cars. One of them stood out from the rest. Some of the guys called her the Queen Bee. She had a different kind of hair-containing appliance, exposing her neck and face. She was tall, had the cheekbones and complexion of a drop-dead beauty (see photo).
So when we got into a hotel and some WiFi we “think” we found her. Best evidence is she’s “Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned” the second wife of the former ruling Emir of Qatar. He has three wives. My guess is that none of them assemble in the same room at the same time but they manage some contact as the Emir as 24 children, six by this woman. He appears to be retired since 2013.
She’s incredibly well educated and has had her fingers in many world social, political and cultural pies. Said to be one of the best-dressed women in the world. She’s been seen hanging out with numerous world leaders. They all stayed to themselves and I suspect some of them were bodyguards. My wife ended up tangling with one of them after wandering around getting told that one of the bathrooms was “private”. Wrong thing to tell a woman that (she opined loudly) has been thrown out of worse places by better people. Snake eyes all around.
This lady apparently got the train in trouble when we tried to pass into Turkey. The Turks are famously neurotic about who gets into their country and demanded to eyeball each and every passenger and their travel documents including mandatory visas. A weak variation on the theme of “Midnight Express” (1978). According to our porter, the train was held up for a while as the Turks decided how much they liked the former Emir’s politics, but since he was no longer in power, they relented and we ultimately went on our way.
So, what was the experience like?
First of all, it was expensive, very expensive and the adventure we had anticipated wasn’t quite what we got. This was billed as a nostalgic trip back in time to experience what it was like to make this trip the way it was in 1920. To a certain extent, it was that, but with some caveats.
The temperature on arrival in Paris was 95 degrees F and it stayed that way for most of the trip but the train was beautiful. The modules are tiny, barely room to sit and the heat was oppressive, including in the evening. Luggage must fit on an overhead rack like on aircraft. A cabinet opens for a washbasin and mirror. There are no shower or bath facilities. No WiFi. There is no air conditioning except in the bar car and the dining cars. Open window suffices. Every other day we were all shuttled to five star hotels in various Eastern European cities for showers and to get away from the tiny train accommodation.
Dinner was black tie and females gussied up to the max, including lots of bling. Food was world class excellent, with a named chef in residence on the train, the kitchen running 24/7 to feed a hundred passengers. He came out every night and accepted lots of praise. French, of course.
Two adults getting dressed for dinner in such a tiny space is fraught with unintended humor and physically exhausting, each literally reaching around the other. During the day there was not much to do but gawk out the window at the rarely changing landscape. At night, after dinner, the porter converted out tiny module for sleeping, two fold out trays about 6 feet long and maybe 2.5 feet wide. It was so hot that the window had to be open and it was VERY noisy thought the night, bright lights and trains proceeding the opposite direction 6 feet away at over 100 mph about every half hour. It sounded like a full-on Guns ‘n Roses concert all night long.
The highlights of the trip were dinner and the every-other-night hotel to get a shower and sleep in a real bed quietly. Yes, it was an adventure but one I’m pretty happy not to repeat. It’s a been-there-done-that trip with lots of photos to remember it by. Happy to have had the opportunity to do it, but much more of the world to see.
If you’re interested in this trip look deeply into it and talk to me before deciding. Maybe I’ll comment on our wondering around Paris and especially one of my top five favorite cities in the world, Istanbul. A city no one should die before visiting. Maybe next Sunday. I have a ton of photos.
I give the trip 3 of 5 clickity-clacks for the overall noise and discomfort experience, definitely 4 of 5 for the adventure quotient.

Orient Express Paris to Istanbul


Orient Express 1Wife and I have not taken a real “vacation” since we were in Nepal in 1983. I figured time to celebrate her burgeoning career as chief nurse anesthetist at one of the UPMC hospitals, basically the boss, running the operating rooms. A big, tough job. Then sort of making note of my semi-retirement, cut back to teaching only. More time on my hands.

We’re taking the reconstituted Orient Express train from Paris to Istanbul. 36 sleeper, restaurant and Pullman cars, the styles originating from the 1920s. The original Orient Express ran from 1983 through 1977. At it’s peak, it was the lap of luxury and really the only way to get anywhere quickly in Europe in the late 1800s. It’s a six-day trip, Travel through seven countries with day/overnight stays in Budapest and Bucharest.

The Orient Express name became synonymous with old-world luxury train travel – as well as with international glamour and intrigue, culminating in the film “Murder on the Orient Express”, that’s a classic.

This is a much bigger deal than I realized when I signed up. There IS a strict dress code, something I have eschewed in the past. No jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes. All clothing must be “smart business attire”. That means “slacks” and shirts with collars. I own nothing like that. Dinner at the hotel stops, gentlemen will wear jacket & tie. Dinner aboard the train will be “black tie” for gentlemen and appropriate female attire (long dresses), sending me out to rent a Tux and my wife out to purchase female finery, including “heels”, none of which she owns.

Why this trip?

Some of you might remember a film a while back, “Somewhere in Time” (1980)

Christopher Reeves becomes obsessed with a portrait on the wall of a woman from the early 1900s and desires to go back there for her so desperately that he is able to accomplish that goal by dressing in impeccable 1900s garb and self hypnotizing himself physically into that era. They fall in love and plan a life. But (no spoilers) this is not his time and there are ripples in that time that unpredictably and suddenly return him to his correct time. He sinks into a deep depression, sits in place at his original departure place and dies of starvations, whereupon his young woman greets him and they are re-united. It’s a really, really interesting film.

I have no plans to follow Christopher. I do, however, have an interest in returning to sites where I existed much earlier in my life to feel any faint vibrations of that time. I returned to Vietnam over 40 years on to feel those vibrations and I wrote a book about it. Much of it was disappointing. I return to various homes and places where I have lived and sit for a while just looking at them, feeling what I can of the past. I got off my bike and sat in the middle of a Route 66 leg in New Mexico for a while feeling the faint vibrations of my childhood and my father riding on that road in the 50s.

I do feel the vibrations of my past in some of these places and I savor that. They were “better” times for me. I would go back if it were possible to accomplish it Chris Reeves-style. I would build another full life there, then I would hide paintings and photos of me living my life again and dying there for any of you to find behind some boards in the attic as my house is eventually torn down to make way for progress.

I think the train is a throwback to the past that a lot of those on it want to return to. The trip is done exactly as it did in the late 1800s, no WiFi, no TV or other modern amenities. I guess it’s the kind of throwback I like to think about.


I visit Israel (July 2012)


For the Israeli Society of Critical Care Medicine, July 12-14, a meeting I previously reviewed on Postcards from the Road.

The real fascination to me was learning about this fascinating place, the Jews, some things about orthodoxy and how a combined Church and State works. Sadly I missed a visit to Masada because of the intense heat. Will remain on my bucket list for another day.

The old city of Jerusalem is an interesting place with an over three thousand year history.  It’s split up into four sections, Christian, Jewish, Moslem and, interestingly an Armenian quarter dating back to 95 BC. Unlike the majority of Christians in Israel, Armenians ethnically and religiously separate, a homogeneous group, intermarrying over the years and keeping their culture intact.

The Christian quarter contains what is traditionally said to be the path of Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha, the hill where the crucifixion took place. Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher around the whole site around 333 AD. Stations are identified where certain events occurred during the trek with the cross, and a burial site said to be compatible with what it would have looked like at the time is a short distance from the preserved rock formation the cross is said to have been erected upon.

There is some suspicion that this whole arrangement has been molded as a tourist attraction as it would be highly unlikely that anyone would know exactly what happened at any of the stations 2000 years ago. Similarly, in the town of Tombstone, AZ, the reconstructed town cemetery probably doesn’t really contain many of the infamous figures of the old West, but the site is a popular tourist visit.

One of the high points was the food. The cuisine was just incredible, some of the best food I have ever had. The wine (grapes grown locally) was also excellent. Very authenticBeef Stroganoff in one bistro by the sea.  Lots of tasty local dishes prepared in picturesque restaurants. A real treat.

Here are some of the photos:

(Screen size can be enlarged- bottom right of viewer)

Starts with photos in and around Tel Aviv. Then Jerusalem, grave sites of Jews who live in other areas but come back and be buried in Israel. The Wailing Wall, some open markets, Christian areas. Then the Roman era ruins of Caesarea, much of which is remarkably preserved. A road unearthed, an aqueduct that goes for kilometers, well preserved statues. A chariot racetrack like in Ben Hur, rooms with much of the original floor detail intact.

On the plane, I read the latest and seemingly most informative book about “Lawrence of Arabia” T. E. Lawrence, his life and accomplishments: “Hero”, by Michael Korda (2011).

It turns out that his involvement in the shaping of the Middle East was very significant and interesting. I have endeavored to summarize some of the fascinating history below just to possibly pique your interest in reading more.


In 1914, Turkey joined World War I on the side of the Germans and specifically against their traditional enemy, Russia.  The British analyzed the situation and decided the cheapest and safest way to neutralize the Turkish war effort was to tie them up with an Arab revolt in what was then Arabia, a major part of the Ottoman Empire.

In the spring of 1915, the Allies (Britain and France) undertook operations in the Dardanelles intended to break the back of the Ottoman Empire with one blow and open the waterways for the passage of supplies to Russia. Amphibious landings at Gallipoli failed due to unexpected Turkish resistance. Subsequently, the Ottoman army defeated a British expeditionary force at Baghdad in 1915.

It was quickly discerned that the Brits weren’t adequately equipped for a desert war. It was decided to pay the Bedouin tribes of the area to harass the entrenched Turks. The Bedouins were happy to accommodate in return for gold sovereigns. In this way, the Turks could be kept busy on an irrelevant front and out of the major European theater.

Into this arena arrives lieutenant T. E. Lawrence, a square-peg-in-a round-hole minor military mapmaker with archeology experience, selected to go to Arabia as an intelligence officer because of his extensive knowledge of the area and his fluent Arabic. His charge was to look around and report to his superiors in Cairo what was going on in the desert.

What was going on was that the Arab revolt on horse and camel back, using outmoded shoulder arms including some muzzle-loaders, was out gunned and out manned by the Turkish aircraft, artillery and mechanized army. At best, the Arabs were simply an irritating inconvenience for the Turks.

Lawrence’s superiors had no idea what they were getting involved with by sending him to Arabia. Lawrence had a strong interest and loyalty to the Arabic dream of throwing out the Turks and establishing a Pan-Arabic political State. Aligned with Prince Feisal, Lawrence quickly evolved to a position of guerilla leadership with the aim of throwing the Turks out of Arabia. He became involved n blowing up Turkish trains and tracks, tying up the Ottomans with repair to maintain supplies to their occupation troops.

The big break in the offensive came in 1917.  The route to protected Damascus (held by the Turks) was guarded by the 12-inch guns lining the mountains surrounding the port city of Aquaba, part of what is now Jordan. It was virtually impossible for an invading party to approach Damascus via the Red Sea. The entire defense was pointed toward the sea.

It was inconceivable that Aquaba could be approached via the extended and brutal inland desert route.  On 6 July 1917, Lawrence and his rag-tag Bedouin followers survived a month is one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world (The ”Sun’s anvil”) to overwhelm Aqaba’s small and unprepared Turkish garrison from the unprotected rear.

Once Aquaba was taken, Damascus lay unprotected. Accordingly, Lawrence and his Arab invaders entered Damascus in October 1918. Lawrence was instrumental in establishing a provisional Arab government under Faisal, which, following localized arguing and bickering amongst the various factions, collapsed quickly.  The French Forces entered Damascus shortly thereafter, destroying Lawrence’s dream of an independent Arabia.

Of course, it was always a foregone conclusion that the British and French never had any intention of giving up the spoils in favor of an independent Arabic nation. It continues to be a bit of a controversy whether Lawrence knew about the (poorly kept) secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, prospectively dividing up the geography of the area to benefit the Brits and the French, with a nod to the Russians. It’s inconceivable that he wasn’t aware of this agreement. He had years of experience in the area and it’s history and he almost certainly knew the transparent motives of his superiors.

It’s thought that his ultimate reasoning was to get the Arabs ensconced in Damascus as a force the Brits/French had not counted on, thereby making them a political force to be reckoned with in subsequent negotiations. Lawrence hadn’t counted on generations of feuding between the various tribes ultimately collapsing any potential for them to work together as a cohesive political force.

The results of the Sykes-Picot agreement split up the Middle East according to the extremely complex Paris Peace Conference of 1919.  Britain was given much of what are now Jordan, southern Iraq, and the port of Haifa in Palestine to allow access to the Mediterranean.  France was allocated portions of Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  Russia got Istanbul and portions of Armenia.

The division of Palestine was a special issue, crafted by Lloyd George of Britain, and is extremely complicated, much more that can be described briefly. However, Jerusalem ended up being carved up on the basis of the religious interests of the Allies, Brit Protestants, French Catholics and Russian Orthodoxies.

Lawrence eventually left Arabia frustrated and depressed at his failure to bring the Arabs to a political bargaining position with the allies.  He never sought a political position of leadership again in his remaining lifetime, ultimately enlisting in the Royal Air Force as an aircraft mechanic, desiring nothing more than mechanical busy work (as described in his later book “The Mint”).

In May 1935, Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident near London. Swerving to avoid unexpected bicyclists on a country road. He suffered an isolated head injury (probably a brain contusion) and died 6 days after the accident, never regaining consciousness. He was 46 years old. He rode a Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle, considered to be the Rolls Royce of two wheel vehicles at the time. It is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum in London and a stone pillar marks the site of his accident.


Japan 2/2012


For the Japanese Society of Intensive Care Medicine meeting end of Feb which was well attended. I am in the debt of friend and colleague Dr. Satoru Hashimoto.

High points of the trip:

*There is no substitute for Business Class. But there was actually a “first class” up front of the plane. Better food, better wine, bigger seats. Flight attendant told me it cost US$25,000 to Tokyo.

*The Bullet Train. 200 miles per hour and very first classy.Internet Access. Tokyo to Kyoto in less than four hours. Passes right by Mt. Fuji with a spectacular view. More expensive than the airlines.

*Really great shopping.Ornate lacquer boxes costumed dolls. Real swords that you can’t bring home will literally split hairs

*Huge cavernous markets with all kinds of food. Looks and smells exactly like the ones in Marrakesh, Istanbul and probably many other places.

*Kobe beef. Cows fed beer and massaged daily, like in a bovine singles bar. Consistency of butter. Said to be best only partially cooked, or as my Aussie friend likes it- still mooing and grazing on the side salad. They’ll remember me for a long time as I’m the only guy in the history of the restaurant that ordered mine medium-well. They had no idea what that meant. It was delicious.

If interested, check out my YouTube blurb (remember you can make the size bigger). Japan

In order of appearance:

·Huge cavernous train station in Kyoto situated in the middle of a huge shopping mall.

·The Ginza at night

·Cavernous market with tons of strange looking food (very aromatic)

·The real thing- fresh Fugu (requires special license to prepare as a meal.

·Shopping pleasures

·The large lacquer box is US$12,000

·Assorted temples

·Japanese traditional wedding ceremony. The bride’s head is covered to hide the horns (really)

·Portions of Hiroshima untouched from the atomic blast. Preserved as monument. Very touching.

·Looking over Kyoto

·Mt Fuji from the bullet train at 200 mph.


Neurocritical Care Society Symposium, Montreal, CA. 9/21-24/2011.


Neurocritical Care Society Symposium, Montreal, CA.  9/21-24/2011.

Montreal was easier to get into than I thought it would be (judging from past experiences getting and out of Canada).  Minimal hassle, but did require my passport.  Absolutely full of French as a first language, but most are happy to switch to English very easily. However, I don’t translate heavily inflected French accents well. Sounds to me like they’re either gargling or choking.

The French have an established reputation of being obnoxious to Americans. I didn’t see any of that, probably because they have figured out they are a service industry and they have to at least pay lip service to customer satisfaction. However, some of the hotel interfaces when faced with “irregularities” tended to be what I would call “short”. Almost like they were trying hard to be accommodating but they didn’t really feel that much accommodating off camera.

The hotel said they offered “WiFi”, but like many other hotels that doesn’t mean in the rooms. It means in the bars where while you’re there, you might like to have a drink or snack. They never miss the smallest chance to extract money from tourists or conventioneers.

The hotel was nice but nothing out of the ordinary for a major city. Usual price- expensive. Food was good but not as good as that in Paris I don’t think. Hotel food always tastes the same. Prices for everything was the International-usual, jacked up anywhere from 50% to 100% over what might be considered reasonable in a non-touristy city elsewhere.

The big draw I think was that most of the “old” section of the city was within walking distance from the hotel, so that’s what I did.  Most of the city I saw was clean and seemingly prosperous. The huge church was incredible. Said to be where Celine Dion got married. There were more street beggars and panhandlers than I see in most American cities I think, excluding San Francisco, which leads the list in that regard.  I think the Canadians have much more of a sense of “Country” than most Americans who have degenerated to much more of a sense of  “Political Affiliation”. I could see myself living here.

Here’s the photos I took, easiest to make a movie of it.

I like the architecture, old and new.  Lots of motorcycle parking on the street as you can see. Also bicycles for rent.  You put coins in, ride the bicycle somewhere and drop it off when done at another site around the city.

CODES played in an enormous ballroom with all the amenities and all went well. Didn’t get any photos. Maybe some will be forthcoming. Next gig for the CODES is in Cleveland Oct 21, followed by New Orleans I think first few days in Feb and I’m told we may possibly have the House of Blues there again which is a nice venue. Then the big one……Houston for SCCM.

Kiev, Ukraine and some travel tips


Kiev is the largest city in the Ukraine, a major industrial, scientific, educational and cultural center of Eastern Europe, population probably about three million. The city is thought to have been founded in the 5th century as a trading post for the the early Slavs. Kiev was completely destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1240, and (obviously) subsequently rebuilt.  The Ukrainian National Republic declared independence from the Russian Empire in 1917, Kiev became its capital.

Following a turbulent process from 1918 to 1921, the city became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a founding republic of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Industrialization that started near the end of the 1920s turned the city into a major industrial, technological and scientific center  Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937–1938 almost eliminated the city’s intelligentsia.  During World War II, Kiev was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1943. During that period, a team of sequestered Russian officers dynamited most of the buildings on the Khreshchatyk, the main street of the city, buildings that were being used by German military.  25,000 people were left homeless. In retaliation the Germans rounded up all the local Jews they could find and massacred them at Babi Yar. Kiev quickly recovered in the post-war years, remaining the third largest city of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Ukrainian independence of 1991, Kiev remained the capital of Ukraine.

Kiev (and for that matter Moscow) have changed greatly following the social revolution.  The drab, cramped landscape of the 80s evolved to Western-style residential complexes, modern night clubs, restaurants and comfortable hotels. We saw beautiful, spacious and VERY expensive residential areas in the ‘Burbs just like in American cities. Music from Europe and North America appears on Ukrainian radio stations. The relaxed visa rules facilitate Kiev as a prime tourist attraction. The airport is modern and efficient. Buildings have been restored, especially Khreshchatyk street in Independence Square. Many historic areas, such as Andriyivskyy Descent, have become popular street vendor locations, where one can find traditional Ukrainian art, books, and jewelry for sale.  As a youth, my friend and former colleague, the late Sergei Ermakov, lived in Dnepropetrovsk, a day’s drive to the south. This entire area was closed to foreign visitors until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Someday I’ll go back there.

Enjoy the photos of this beautiful place. I home some of you someday get to travel there.

Travel tips:

1.  If you’re going any distance by air, especially if it involves overnight, scrimp and save as long as it takes to scrounge up the funds for Business Class. Travel by air is your worst nightmare in the best of situations, but having to sit in a seat the backrest of which reclines two inches with your knees up against your chest is simply torture. Squeezed into an airport gate area is extremely uncomfortable. In Business Class, you sit in a comfortable lounge with food and booze, you’re first on the plane, first off, you get good meals and a full entertainment system, the seat turns into a bed and you arrive ready to start your day instead of exhausted. This is a VERY big issue, trust me on this.

2.  Try to get away with taking only carry-on luggage instead of checking bags. I took ONE roller with my clothes in a plastic bag suctioned down to a smaller volume.  Take throw away underwear and clothing to make room for whatever you might want to bring back. OK so you wear one pair of pants for four or five days. Not a big deal. Then an unobtrusive backpack in which I only carried iPhone, iPad, Laptop, and camera. I had NO problem living in Europe and the Ukraine for 8 days. I missed out on all that waiting for luggage and the potential for the airline to lose it, which they still do.  Air France lost Darwin’s suitcase in Paris and as far as I know he still doesn’t have it. Seems pretty hard to lose luggage using bar-codes and in a country whose President convinced Carla Bruni to marry him, but it happens.

One caveat:  If your aircraft in the USA is an MD 88, it’s likely your roller won’t fit in the overhead. I ended up with mine in the closet bin. Also, the foreign airlines are getting tighter and tighter about rollers. It’s only a matter of time before they ban them, I think.

3.  If you are going overnight, to arrive in the AM of your destination (most trans-Atlantic flights) get someone to write you an Rx (or write it yourself) for “Sonata” (Zaleplon10 mg).  It’s a short half-life sleeper (four hours) that works like a charm to get you a few hours sleep with no hangover. Safe and effective. I highly recommend it. If you get short of breath at high altitude atmospheric conditions in most flights, start diamox (acetazolamide) 250 mg the morning of departure, again at noon and again at supper.

4.  Forget about getting any “free” Internet service anymore. Pretty much all the airports and hotels are stiffing you for the max with a cute twist. Several airports (including the business class lounge) advertise “free” service, and when you get in, you find out the only sites you can access are some that no one would ever access in their entire lifetime. Oh…you want to actually get into a useful site?  Well……that’s “available”.

5.  Anyplace in the UK is now so incredibly expensive by the time you find out the conversion factor, it’ll stop your clock.  Much more expensive than New York City now. And much more nickle and diming. You pay for something and find out you aren’t getting “complete” service, you pay more for add-ons you can’t do without. Wireless in Manchester in the interim airport hotel was 19 pounds for 24 hours. Dinner for one with a glass of wine, soup and an entree was 40 pounds.

6.  Security is getting more and more obtrusive.  Because of the Bin Laden thing they were particularly nasty almost everywhere.  Anything resembling electronics out of bags, lots of random searches, demands to see passports every 100 feet of excursion. Endless stupid questions: “Did you REALLY pack this bag yourself???” “Noooooo some guy with a long beard and an AK-47 over his shoulder packed it for me”. Get over it. It’s simply a fact of life now and there isn’t anything you can do about it. Arguing and complaining will just get you searched more thoroughly. If you look remotely Indian or Arabic, you can probably count on “random enhanced scrutiny”.

7.  If you’re a biker, I’ve figured out how to do it. Travel in packs like the Brits do it. I saw several packs I knew from experience had to be Brits. Completely leather bound, all riding Japanese bikes, Suzukis and Kawasakis. Five or six in a pack, all equipped with GPS, all with an itinerary and traveling tight for safety. Not safe to be a singleton in these places.

8.  Double and triple backup all photographs. These shots may be irreplaceable. Having them accidentally wiped off your camera disc is easier than you think.

In the immortal words of Diamond Dave Lee Roth:  “Happy trails to yooooo”

I tour Chernobyl


By history:  On 26 April 1986, the muted explosion and resulting fire within reactor # 4 at the Chernobyl power station near Kiev was caused by a sudden, unpredicted power output surge. Complicated, of course by interlocking human error.  When an emergency shutdown was attempted, a more extreme power instability occurred, leading to the reactor internally hemorrhaging. These events exposed the graphite attenuator rods within the reactor to air, causing it to blow up. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area,.

Those that were there said it was more of a “pop” than an explosion, followed by a lot of people dying. The engineers involved on site didn’t believe their gauges and ran outside to find what appeared to be graphite shards lying around, which they approached and gawked at, even picked up, absorbing a lethal does of radiation in seconds.

A multiplicity of radioactive particles were released into the atmosphere including krypton, xenon, iodine, zirconium-95, niobium-95, lanthanum-140, cerium-144 and the transuranic elements, neptunium and plutonium. Greenpeace published figures indicate that in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine alone the accident could have resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths from various forms of cancer between 1990 and 2004.

“Corium”, a molten mixture of nuclear fuel, control rods, structural materials from the affected parts of the reactor products reacting with air, water and steam ate its way into the basement of the reactor. There was never any meaningful chance of a “China Syndrome” where the lava would bore its way through the center of the earth to the other side.

I tour the site:  In May 2011, there are three successive checkpoints before one actually gets to the site of reactor #4. The checkpoints begin about 30 km from the site, and are very thorough. They make sure anyone going in actually comes out. On exiting, everyone is checked for total body radiation. Along the way to the site the radiation is measured by the State tour guides, and varies.

The usual dose of radiation on a transatlantic flight is about 20 milli-Sieverts.  The “red “forest” area measures about 30-40 milli-Sieverts.  At several places in the area of reactor #4, we routinely measured 70 and at one point we got 120 milli-Sieverts.  Those are fairly hefty doses of juice.

The disaster caused somewhere in the range of 1000 plus cubic meters of radioactive lava containing plutonium 239 with a half life of over 24,000 years to melt into the basement where it sits today. No one will ever get near it for essentially eternity. Much like 9/11 the first responders to what was initially thought to be a fire was the mobilization of 26 nearby firefighters, none of who understood the consequences and all of whom died quickly thereafter. There is a memorial to them nearby.

It was soon recognized that the area must be sealed, and plans were made to pour concrete into the area, which would be cleaned up by radio controlled robot vehicles. This didn’t work as the radiation messed up the radio controls. So National Guardsmen were brought in and ordered into the roof to shovel off highly radioactive debris wearing lead lined suits. None could work more than 45 seconds at a time and the work was completed over months like a stream of ants. Many of these guardsmen later suffered later from acute and chronic radiation illness.

Ultimately the ultrastructure of reactor #4 was filled with a concrete sarcophagus, predicted to last 30 years. It has now been 25 years and the structure is visibly deteriorating, from the front and back.  We stood probably a quarter mile from it and measured atmospheric radiation of about 7 milli-Sieverts, which according to the physics of radiation deteriorating exponentially with distance, means the actual site is very radioactive indeed.

The problem of Chernobyl is not by a wild stretch over.

The “Red forest” (the trees West of the reactor) turned red after absorbing lots of radiation and the entire forest was cut down and buried on site, with new trees planted over them.  Now the new trees are mature but the old decaying radioactive tree debris under them are still there and still dangerous. Someday it’ll all have to be dug up and re-buried elsewhere in safe quarters, a project the Ukraine has neither the money nor the space to accomplish.

As a practical matter, reactor # 4 will remain unapproachable for eternity. Eventually it will have to be re-covered with concrete at periodic intervals, again a project the Ukraine has neither the money nor the space to accomplish. It’s only a matter of time before radiation leaks into the underground water table, if it hasn’t already. When that happens, the consequences will be dire and essentially un-fixable. This is the evil gift that will keep on giving for a very long time and should not be underestimated. The Japanese disaster, in terms of real danger over time was essentially inconsequential in comparison.

135,000 people were evacuated from the area. The city of Pripyat, a stone’s throw from the disaster, formerly a beautiful and upscale city of 48,000 souls, was evacuated completely in two hours using 1400 busses. Evacuees took only documents and money, leaving everything else. They were resettled elsewhere in the Ukraine. In future years, it was determined that no one would ever be enabled to return and some were allowed in to recover goods from their apartments. However, when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the economy collapsed and pirates from Belarus crossed the Dnieper and looted all the apartments for whatever could be carried off.  The town is now frankly spooky. Clearly a beautiful city in the past, it is now overgrown with weeds and stands totally abandoned, as it will forever. See photos.

Driving in Russia deserves special mention.  As insane drivers go, Russia hardly deserves mention, but it is a rather interesting experience. The list of lunatics is easily led by Hanoi, a situation of driving in a spinning maelstrom of non-linear quantum mechanics; vehicles dropping through wormholes, appearing and disappearing randomly.  Survival is about the same as chance.  In Sicily, it’s survival of the most aggressive, with dozens of obscene hand gestures in the offing to emote drivers’ feelings about traffic situations. In Russia, they play vehicular chess. Drivers calculate the probability of other vehicles’ actions, sometimes several moves in advance, and then commit their vehicles to action assuming those probabilities come true. From the back seat you close your eyes and hope when you open them it’s in the same world.

I tour a Concorde at Manchester (UK) Airport


The only fully intact Concorde of the six in existence is on display here in Manchester, UK. Three month waiting list to get a ticked]o to tour it.

Pristine condition. I was  little surprised it’s bigger than I imagined it. And the inside is not unlike the average modern jetliner. The distinction ends there. Top speed nearly 1400 miles per hour, twice the speed of sound at 60,000 feet. London to New York in 4 hours.

Back in the day, a round trip ticket would be over US$10 – $12,000 today. About half the weight of the plane was fuel, which it gobbled in huge quantities, especially using the afterburner to take off and get to full speed.

The disaster at Charles de Gaul ws explained in detail. A front tire ran over a piece of metal which blew the tire, flinging shards of rubber into the lower wing breaking the fuel tank, which spewed gas out catching a spark from the engine. Both engines on the left blew up and the aircraft was past the point of no return for takeoff, but didn’t have enough power o the remaining two engines for adequate lift and so crashed killing all on board.

Shortly thereafter, the fuel tank was reinforced with kevlar and the tires were re-designed by Michelin not to come apart with a blowout.  But soon thereafter, 9/11 occurred and the public temporarily lost interest in flying, nearly wiping out the airline industry.  It was the kiss of death for the very expensive Concorde, which was retired in April 2003.

Sir Richard Branson offered to buy British Airways’ Concorde fleet for service with Virgin Atlantic Airways, but British Airways refused the offer. The real cost of buying the aircraft was £26 million each.

The airframe design and engineering of the Concorde was magnificent for 60’s technology, including analog computers.  Looking at this beautiful machine, I can’t help but wonder if the same basic design could be rebuilt using 2010 technology and materiel to become profitable.

I tour a 60’s Russian missile base


About 300 KM South of Kiev out in the middle of a nondescript field lies the preserved ruins of what was a major camouflaged nuclear missile base, comprising (by my count) 12 silos each filled with SS-18 ‘Satan’ Intercontinental missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to North American targets in 20 minutes, each with a target accuracy of 200 meters.  The lids covering the silos, all under turf, weighed 125 tons each and could open to their full extent in 8 seconds to an angle of 86 degrees.  Following missile liftoff, the lid would close under it’s own momentum and weight.

The control center is a chilly and Spartan 12 stories underground at level 11.  Level 12 contains sleeping and bathroom quarters and was only accessible by a tight crawl space.  Shifts were eight hours each, with three more officers in reserve one deck below. The control center is much smaller than I had envisioned it, quite cramped actually.

At any given time there would be three officers present.  Two in front of identical consoles with all analog computers and TV monitors. Another officer sat in a jump seat between the two consoles. All had lap and shoulder belts. The center was shielded by a meter and a half of reinforced concrete and shock absorbers at every angle.  It is said to be capable of enduring a direct nuclear hit, following which there were food, water and supplies for a 45 day sequester. Survivors had access to hidden trap doors to the surface.

The decision to push “the” button (see my finger on it in photo) was made in Moscow and the information relayed to the control center by encrypted radio transmission. The order was given by the officer in the jump seat, and, just like “Fail Safe”, both officers at the consoles must push identical buttons simultaneously. However, there was another layer of reliability. If for whatever reason, one or the other button didn’t get pushed, a Moscow control officer could bypass everything and fire the missiles by a satellite order via special antennae.

This site is said to be the one that would have fired the “Missiles of October”, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and there is a bronze plaque commemorating those involved on the Russian side out in front of the museum. By agreement with the major powers, all the silos are filled with cement after the missiles were removed and dismantled.



Fukuoka, Japan (2005 maybe?)

Across the big pond again to Japan. This time I took my son Seth, a junior high student who happens to study Japanese as one of his languages (other two are Arabic and Russian). Speaks, reads and writes Japanese at level two of four in the Standardized tests. I managed a Business Class ticket and Seth dessicated in the flying sardine can 13 hours Chicago – Tokyo. Sorry about that. Dues, you know.

I suspect that the airlines intentionally squeeze them into economy to promote their ridiculously expensive business class. It’s a Hell-hole back there. Like a torture chamber. Only thing missing is the weird organ music and rattling chains. But even so, a 13 hour trip is brutal in any kind of seat. After 6 or so hours there is no way to get comfortable in a seat that leans back a bit more. You’re still not supine so I can’t sleep anyway. No matter how you arrange arms and legs, pressure points appear quickly and you’re moving all the time. It’s just brutal.

But at any rate, we hit Narita late in the afternoon, cleared customs and were treated to a delightful traditional Japanese supper by Mr. Taniguchi of Respironics. We got a chance to wander around the Ginza for a while, even passed the Apple Store prominently placed on a main Ginza street. They must all be standardized. Looks just like the one in New York. A good night’s sleep and off to Kyoto the next AM on the Bullet Train.

Very safe, sleek, quiet and almost uncomfortably fast. Close to 200 mph (max speed 320 KPH). I’m told there’s never been an accident. We were told to sit on the right side for a great view of Mt. Fuji. It went by so fast it was gone before I could dig out a camera. Kyoto in record time to pick up my friend and CCM-L stalwart Dr. Satoru Hashimoto. Got a chance to tour his very modern and efficient ICU (see photos). Then off to Fukuoka and the meeting. Bullet train again…..zoom.

Hotel was beautiful and first class. Opening ceremonies were elegant. Foreign speakers were introduced formally. Met Dr Maekawa, the Chairman of the Meeting, a most gracious host. At this point, I had a full day to kill doing whatever I wanted. Several others were taking an all day formal tour but I usually prefer to sneak around myself. Seth took off like the wind and was seen shortly thereafter skateboarding with some other Japanese teens. His knowledge of the language enabled him to go wherever he wanted. He walked around town for three days from morning to night soaking up culture.

I took a side trip to Hiroshima. About an hour by Bullet Train from Fukuoka. I figured I better get over there since it’s pretty far out of the way for most visitors to Japan with limited time. The photos of what Hiroshima looked like (see my photo essay) are absolutely frightening. The bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 exploded about 600 meters above the (now) memorial building still preserved as a memorial. The rest of the museum archived many artifacts including a chilling melted wristwatch stopped at exactly 8:15 AM. I suspect the downward force vector spared the building from total destruction and the sideways vectors essentially flattened the rest of the city around it. An entire city flattened in a blink of an eye. 60 years later, Hiroshima is a teeming, thriving city. A testament to the ability of a people to survive and rebuild. That’s all I have to say about this rather emotional experience. The photos tell the story better than I can

Dinner for the foreign guests and some of the local physicians was very interesting. VERY traditional Japanese. Shoes off, squatting on the floor (ouch). VERY Japanese food…….variations on the theme of raw seafood. Now I have to say at this point that I just don’t do raw seafood. Satoru made it a little easier by asking in advance that some of my meal be broiled. That was a nice touch and, of course, it was fabulous. I did have some (raw) Pufferfish (Fugu) a fish with the potential toward toxicity that must be prepared by specially licensed chefs. It just tasted like raw fish to me. The treat of the day was STILL ALIVE squid sectioned in the middle for easy spearing of the corpus strips with chopsticks. It was right out of Hannibal. Literally eating live squid. Impossible you say? I have the videos to prove it (see end of my review). May be too intense for younger viewers.

But the best part of the evening was Seth. Of course all the foreigh guests had to stand up and introduce themselves (in English). When it came around to Seth, he stood up and did his intro in seemingly flawless, fluent Japanese. Every jaw in the place bounced on the floor. The spectacle induced instant estrogen storm in two of the young attractive nurses, who leapt and stuck to him like barnacles for the rest of the evening. Young American boys with long blond hair speaking fluent Japanese don’t wash up on the shore every day I suspect.

Next day was my talk. I had heard early that many attending the congress didn’t do well with written American English and I was admonished to speak slowly. I figured much of my slide presentation might go poorly understood. So I expended a fair amount of energy to have translated (by the World’s Smartest Woman- Elyse Hendrick) into Japanese. Her version was culturally corrected by Satoru (using a lot of his valuable personal time- I appreciated greatly). When it came time, the audience seemed visibly pleased that they could effectively share in the slide presentation. Professor Maekawa was spotted sitting next to my kid Seth in the back row, conversing in Japanese.

Back in the flying sardine can and home to sweat out the Jet Lag, which always seems worse going from West to East.

My impressions:

I found the Japanese to be a delightful people. Polite to the point of self effacement. I saw people almost get into arguments trying to shoo the other one through an exit door first. Curt bows are de rigeur for every occasion even for perfect strangers. I was very very appreciative of the hospitality they provided my son who I didn’t expect they would even see. Their critical care units are impressive. They (naturally) take impeccable care of their patients and their symposium was first class.