Amazonia & Tiputini Biodiversity Research

Amazonia & Tiputini Biodiversity Research

The Tiputini Biodiversity Station, bordering Yasuni National Park, Ecuador


Steven A. Martin, Ph.D., Environmental Management

Click on Photos to Enlarge

The Rio Napo, Ecuador | Western Amazonia

Where is the most biodiverse place on the planet?

In my search for far-flung places to study, I met Professor Kelly Swing, an ecologist with the University San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador, who believes the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) may well be that place.

Swing told me that the station's output of research marks it as a world-leading biodiversity hotspot. While there are other sites of similar importance, these do not offer the same level of access and safety for researchers.

Tiputini Biodiversity Station | Western Amazonia, Ecuador

Tiputini Biodiversity Station is adjacent to the Yasuni National Park, and together they form the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve.

Location of Yasuni National Park in the western Amazon, Ecuador

Experience of a lifetime

My arrival in the Amazon town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, Ecuador, better known as El Coca, was little short of disaster. On flying out of Quito, the Andean city nestled at the foot of the infamously active Cotopaxi volcano, we hit turbulence and heavy rain as the plane descended into the Amazon basin.

Packed with an odd mix of environmental researchers and oil workers, the 12-seat twin-engine propeller plane was forced by the weather to turn back across the mountains and the safety of Quito.

Above Quito, Ecuador

Learning there was a second flight scheduled to depart in a few minutes, I cleverly jumped in. However, this plane got delayed on the runway and the previous flight took off ahead of us, arriving first at El Coca.

First sight of the Amazon Basin near Puerto Francisco de Orellana (El Coca)

First sight of an oil drilling station near El Coca

Stranded in the jungle

Just twenty minutes behind my original flight, I landed at a deserted jungle runway.

Since I was not on the original flight, and in the hurry of the storm, the cars and drivers for the university and oil companies had already left.

I was standing in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, completely alone.

Alone in the Western Amazon

Moi Enomenga

The sound of the jungle grew louder as I looked around and saw nothing but trees and mud. It was my first time in the Amazon and I started to think that I might just be in serious trouble.

There was a light rain, no shelter, and the only thing to do was follow the muddy track and see where it led. But which way to go, left or right?

At that moment, a tall, strikingly confident Indian strode out from the forest and walked straight up to me.

He spoke to me in Spanish, "What are you doing here alone?"

Moi Enomenga, Huaorani Amazon eco-warrior and environmental celebrity

I was half terrified, and half relieved to see someone. In halting Spanish, I explained that I was a visitor from the University, and that my car had left without me because I had arrived on a later plane than expected. I was worried he might stab me and steal my camera, but instead he offered to show me the way to the hotel normally used by the university in El Coca.

Although I was stranded for a few days until I got things sorted out, it allowed time to get to know my rescuer. It turned out that he was not just any random passer-by, but a famous environmental campaigner – Moi Enomenga, Huaorani Indian and Amazon eco-warrior.

Interview with Moi Enomenga

Amazon celebrity

Moi is an Amazon celebrity, the son of a proud indigenous leader who chose the traditional life over the ideology of early Christian missionaries. His father took his family deep into the Western Amazon to an area known today as Yasuni National Park, and so instead of learning the Bible, Moi learned deep indigenous knowledge and the cultural traditions of the Huaorani.

The man I met near the runway at El Coca, little did I know, was also the Huaorani jungle boy featured in Savages, a best-selling book by award-winning writer Joe Kane. Moi had matured to become a leader of the local indigenous movement trying to defend the rainforest against the oil companies.

He certainly helped me out – a total stranger in the forest.

"Savages" by Joe Cane, with Moi Enomenga

A voice for the forest

Moi's example shows that one man who chooses to raise his voice can speak for the collective resources of the largest – and most endangered – natural habitat on the planet. Protecting the Amazon rainforest is his life's work, and the Yasuni National Park and surrounding area are testament to his ongoing success.

His recent project is the creation of a new protected area named Yame Reserve, in honor of his late father. In the light of all the growing threats to his environmental and cultural heritage, his willingness to network with tourism organizations, conservation groups, the Ecuadorian government and the United Nations offers hope to this globally vital, and profoundly endangered, natural paradise.

National Geographic | Ecuador's Yasuní National Park

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC 2012 | "Ecuador's Yasuní Park is one of the Amazon's last wild frontiers, boasting an incredible biodiversity—treetop orchids, prowling jaguars, nearly 600 species of birds—and serving as home for two indigenous nations. But a vast untapped oil supply beneath the forest floor is attracting the attention of multinational oil companies. National Geographic sent a team of five photographers, each with a different specialty, into the heart of the Amazon to document the delicate balance of life in Yasuní and how it is being impacted by the demand for oil."

Oil pumping station and water pollution in the Amazon rainforest | Steven Martin

Puerto Francisco de Orellana (El Coca)

El Coca is Ecuador's gateway to what the locals call El Oriente – the East of Ecuador, also known to outsiders as the western Amazon. El Coca is a rustic frontier town of around 45,000 people built at the confluence of the Coca, Napo and Payamino Rivers.

Puerto Francisco de Orellana, or El Coca | Amazon frontier town of nearly 45,000 people and gateway to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station and Yasuni National Park

It was an Ecuadorian holiday weekend and I was unable to get a call though to USFQ. Given my limited time schedule, it was looking like the Tiputini trip was off.

I didn't know exactly where the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) was, and my assumption that it was "just down the river" was way off.

For several days, I explored El Coca. The Spanish I gained from studying abroad in Spain was a godsend. I met taxi drivers and boat transport services, and eventually a group of oil workers at a makeshift helicopter pad.

They told me it was next to impossible to get to TBS without an organized expedition. The oil companies and other interests had a variety of armed guards, checkpoints and road-blocks along the route. There were also the issues of traversing several rivers, and, of course, a wide range of natural predators, including snakes.

Making phone contact with the university was the only way in.

People of El Coca

People of El Coca

People of El Coca

Moonlight expedition

After several days of this, I returned to the hotel one evening, and reception informed me that USFQ had called. My transport to Tiputini was arranged.

Due to my delay and problems in scheduling transport, I would have to travel to the Biodiversity Station at night. My first reaction was shock, but I figured I was in good hands with USFQ, and there was a full moon and clear sky.

It was a long night, traveling by jeep, by boat, and on foot. First we traveled several hours downstream on the Napo River to the village of Pompeya and the entrance of an oil operation.

In order to pass the oil company's security checkpoint, I needed to produce my passport and the yellow fever vaccination card, which I had gotten in Quito a week earlier. The guards at the checkpoint were armed, dressed in military fatigues, and seemed larger than life.

Next, we drove several more hours by jeep to the reach the bank of the Tiputini River, arriving at just after midnight.

The best was yet to come – we had to navigate the river, a deep and narrow channel carved through the clay that forms the Amazon Basin.

Moonlight on the Tiputini River | Franklin, a Quechua guide with USFQ, whistles to signal our arrival

In a motorized wooden canoe, with the help of a small group of Quechua Indian guides, we powered down the Tiputini River toward the station, dodging obstacles in the water as insects pelted us in the face for two hours.

My knuckles turned white from clutching the sides of the canoe to avoid being catapulted into the river as it tilted sharply left or right to avoid rocks, branches and sand-banks.

Above, the river naturally created an opening to the sky, and the full moon was visible the entire night. The air was fresh and clean. Once my eyes adjusted, I could clearly see the river and banks in the moonlight, and I felt exhilarated to be in the real Amazon at last.

I never felt more alive.

Tiputini Biodiversity Station | Patrice Adret

Select Photos | Travels and Guides at Tiputini

Click on photos to enlarge

Quechua guides at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station

Franklin, my Tiputini guide

Tiputini River transport canoe and guide

Rainforest research observation tower at TBS

Bromeliads in the rainforest canopy at the Tiputini observation tower

View of the Tiputini River below the Rainforest

View of the Tiputini River from TBS during the dry season

Curious Toucan

TBS researchers accommodations

Learn more

If you feel motivated to learn more about the University San Francisco de Quito (USFQ)'s Tiputini Biodiversity Station, or would like to arrange for a public talk on this topic or other Learning Adventures, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

For study abroad, there is nowhere on earth more exciting, remote or rewarding.

Thank you.

–Steven Martin

Thank you for reading my story and sharing in the journey to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station and Yasuni National Park

At the request f the TBS administration, I wrote the following letters supporting public and private awareness.


Contact USFQ and TBS

Interested parties, including students and scientists, can contact USFQ for more information on joining or supporting education and conservation efforts for these outstanding programs:

Batanes Islands Archaeology

Batanes Islands Archaeology


Pacific navigator, Batanes Islands, Philippines | Ivatan cultural heritage

Archaeological survey in the Batanes Islands, northern Philippines.

In 2006 I joined an archaeological field study in the Batanes Islands, in the Philippines, together with Prof. David Blundell, Prof. Peter Bellwood, and an international team from the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.

The 2006 Batanes Islands archaeological survey team with Prof. Peter Bellwood (second from right) | Sabtang Island

Ivatan Idjang fortress | Sabtang

Archaeological survey | Batan

Across the Pacific rainbow

During my post-graduate studies in Taiwan at National Chengchi University (NCCU), I wrote my Master's thesis on the Bunun, one of the island's 16 Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, historically known as the Formosan Aborigines and collectively referred to today as "Indigenous Taiwanese Peoples".

Comparative linguists and anthropologists had theorized for some time that the Formosan languages were among the earliest Austronesian languages, and that some of the speakers of these languages were skilled ocean navigators who had successfully migrated south from Taiwan to the Philippines.

From the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Austronesian-speaking peoples spread as far west as Madagascar, and as far east as Hawaii.

Today, Austronesian languages comprise a super-family of over 1,250 languages dispersed throughout maritime Southeast Asia and the Pacific (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Distribution of the Austronesian Language Family | Source: Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI)

In 2005, I had the good fortune of discussing this topic with anthropologist David Blundell and archaeologist Peter Bellwood at Academia Sinica, a research institute located on the outskirts of Taipei, where I often went to use the library services. I clearly remember the cold rainy night when Peter Bellwood produced from his pocket a piece of green jade discovered in an ancient site in the Batanes Islands:

"If the linguists are right about Taiwan as the homeland of Austronesian languages, there must be material evidence, and I think I've found it!"

Peter explained that this type of stone, namely a jade classified as Taiwan nephrite, could only have come from Taiwan due to the unique green tint, and Earth scientist Yoshiyuki Iizuka at the Academia Sinica research lab would analyze it in the morning to see if it was true.

The results came back positive – the jade was from the east coast of Taiwan.

I was intrigued by the scientific evidence supporting the "Out of Taiwan" hypothesis – that is, a prehistoric movement of language, material and people out of Taiwan – a cultural diaspora that reached across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Could Taiwan be the "mother island" of the Pacific?

Due to the fact that the Batanes Islands are the nearest island chain to Taiwan, Peter suggested it would be an outstanding place to conduct archaeological research on Taiwan jade.

I was more than keen to go.

Steven Martin (left) and Peter Bellwood (right) interview | Photo and camera work by David Blundell – Basco, Batan, The Philippines | April 2, 2006

Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas

In March of 2006, after attending the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) conference at the University of the Philippines in Manila, I asked Peter if I could tag along as a photographer on his upcoming archaeological adventure to Batanes.

A memorable and educational expedition followed, and a selection of the photographs I took were used in the development of the Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas under the care of David Blundell.

The Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas is part of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI), a global consortium of people who share the vision of creating a distributed virtual library of cultural information based at University of California, Berkeley.

Traveling from the port of Ivana, Batan, to the port of San Vicente, Sabtang | San Vicente Ferrer Church, c. 1785, in the distance

Batanes geography

There are ten islands in the Batanes, three of which are occupied. The provincial capital is Basco, located on the island of Batan, and the highest point is an active volcano, Mt. Iraya, at just over 1,000 meters (see photo below).

The iconic Mt. Iraya | Elevation 1,009m | last erupted in 1454

The islands are located south of the Bashi Channel, midway between Taiwan and Luzon, an area known for strong winds, swift ocean currents, high waves, and large tropical storms.

Batanes lies at the heart of Typhoon Alley, so named for frequent and notorious typhoons. The satellite image below shows the eerie eye of Super Typhoon Meranti surrounding the island of Itbayat on September 13, 2016.

The eerie eye of Super Typhoon Meranti surrounding Itbayat, Batanes | September 13, 2016

The islands were built through geologic and physiographic processes, whereby ancient coral reefs formed a limestone base coated millions of years later in thick volcanic ash, like a dried-up vanilla sponge cake with a layer of fresh chocolate icing. As an ongoing process spanning 35 million years, the limestone core of Batanes has been steadily uplifted by tectonic forces while at the same time peppered with minerals and rocks of all sizes from volcanic explosions, resulting in distinctive landscapes host to diverse flora and fauna.

Today, the Batanes islands form a unique karst landscape of limestone cliffs, caves, and underground streams, ringed with volcanic stones now tumbled and polished in the surf to form expansive bays and boulder beaches.

Batanes Islands Geography | Volcanic rocks tumbled in the surf to form a boulder beach | Limestone cliffs in the distance

Figure 2 (below) shows the position of the Batanes Islands, including the three main islands explored during the research, namely Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat.

Figure 2: The Batanes Islands, staging grounds for the Austronesian diaspora | Source: Peter Bellwood, Australia National University (ANU)

The Ivatan Language, culture and history

The Ivatan people are believed to have migrated to the islands during the Neolithic period, approximately 4,000 years ago. Their exact origin remains a topic of debate.

Ivatan is an Austronesian language, representing an early branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages (i.e. Bashiic languages), which are distinct from the Formosan languages on Taiwan. Cultural and linguistic connections with Taiwan and Bashiic languages include the Yami, a fishing, seafaring, and boat-building culture on Orchid Island, located just off Taiwan's southeast coast.

The Ivatans originally built storm-proof thatched houses until limestone construction was introduced by the Spanish in the16th century. The long-lasting limestone buildings have become cultural icons for the tourism industry.

Ivatan Fisher | Chavayan, Sabtang

Ivatan limestone houses | Batan

Ivatan fisher and family | Sabtang

Cleaning Mahi-mahi | Batan

Drying fish | Batan

Batanes Islands oral history videos

These conversations (posted on YouTube and on the ECAI website) were recorded by David Blundell and myself in Ivana, Batan Island. We carried out the interviews on the veranda of the home of Mr (Pablo) and Mrs (Anquilina) Valientes, with additional contributions from their grandson Edwin Valientes and other relatives.

Conversations with Pablo and Anquilina Valientes | Ivana, Batan


Pablo Valientes, in his 90s, describes Ivatan language and recounts the local resistance against the Japanese occupation of the island during 1941-1945. The movement was known as BISUMI, Fighters for Basco, Ivana, Sabtang, Uyugan, Mahatao, and Itbayat (six municipalities of the Batanes).

Anquilina Valientes, in her 80s, discusses Ivatan language comparatively with other local language dialects in terms of expressions and variations in other villages and islands.

Archaeologist for a week

I relished the opportunity to play archaeologist for a week, and it left me with a lasting appreciation for this very important type of work, helping to piece together the improbable story of human history from whatever clues our ancestors left behind.

The Batanes Islands were the key staging grounds for a well-established ancient maritime trading network. This was evident from the discovery of Taiwan nephrite workshops, where ancient craftsmen shaped tools and created art. They would then have traded their products, sending them southward over vast distances of open sea, taking advantage of a sociocultural and commercial network which spread right across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

What impressed me most in Batanes archaeology was the richness of each site, the number of sites, the potential for finding new sites, and the vast extent of the maritime trading networks the sites represented.

Random sampling by soil auger | Archaeological survey at Batan

Roadside archaeological site | Sabtang

Peter Bellwood leading the team

Ivatan Idjang fortress | Sabtang

Ivatan Idjang fortress | Sabtang

View from the Idjang fortress | Sabtang

In the good company of distinguished professionals, I had the opportunity to witness the recovery of ancient artifacts from beneath the soil, and to make a personal connection with the spirit of human endeavor. Peter's team had found clear evidence of workshops producing earthenware, jewelry, adzes, fishing tools, and other artifactual materials, some of which were indeed crafted out of Taiwan nephrite.

David Blundell describes such artifacts as the voice of Austronesian history, speaking to us from the ancient past, imagining them as, "Austronesian-speaking stones."

Through excavations at archaeological sites in Taiwan, the Philippines, East Malaysia, Southern Vietnam, and peninsular Thailand, green nephrite from Fengtian in eastern Taiwan tells a story of ancient maritime trade networks and cultural communication in a 3,000-km-wide halo around the South China Sea (Hung et al., 2007).

Figure 3 (below) displays Taiwan nephrite artifacts uncovered from sites in the Batanes Islands, including a Fengtian (Taiwan) nephrite adze (A) from the Sunget site, Batan, which dates to between 1200 and 800 BC (Hung & Iizuka, 2013).

Figure 3: (A) Nephrite adze from Sunget, Batan. (B and C) Three-pointed lingling-o and pelta-shaped nephrite segment from Savidug, Sabtang | Source: Dr. Hsiao-Chun Hung

In Batanes, I gained a new appreciation for the study of ancient history, as well as for the craftsmanship of the ancient islanders. Archaeology embodies the spirit of human exploration – not exploring only space, but exploring also the long-forgotten past. Working with the team in Batanes opened my eyes to the value of different methods of research, the joy of collaborating with friends and colleagues from different universities, and the importance of publishing findings in peer-reviewed journals so that all future researchers in this area can benefit.

Exploratory research | Batan Island

Batanes photo journal Highlights

Below, photos taken during the Batanes Island trip with David Blundell in late March and early April, 2006.

Click on photos to enlarge, or visit my Batanes Photo Album.

Batan Island

Mahatao Lighthouse, Batan | Mt. Iraya in the background

Surfing waves | Batan

Ivatan boat builder | Mahatao, Batan

The Basco Church | Batan

Site survey location | Batan

Batan Island beach

Ivatan youth | Basco

Sabtang Island

Arriving at San Vicente | Sabtang

Water taxi | Navigator of the Seas | Sabtang Lighthouse

Exploring near Chavayan | Sabtang

Chavayan Beach | Sabtang

Ivatan fisherman | Chavayan, Sabtang

Ivatan House | Malakdang, Sabtang

Ivatan house and culture | Malakdang, Sabtang

Ivatan Community Art Basco, Batan

Batanes Heritage Center | National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, Provincial Office

During my time with David Blundell in Basco, Batan, we got to spend a few unexpected days around town after learning that the weekly Asian Spirit flight had been delayed.

It was a great opportunity to spend time with the Ivatan community at the Batanes Heritage Center, where Ivatan youth were painting a mural telling the story of navigation and settlement in the islands.

Pictured here, the mural begins with a canoe driving through the surf and landing in the Batanes Islands under the blazing sun. The story continues with the development of the characteristic thatched roof houses, agriculture, pottery, and the arrival of the Catholic religion. The third section of the mural welcomes the computer age, with sports, education, and modern transportation connecting the islands with the world.

Ivatan youth imagine their cultural history through art | Basco

Ivatan community art illustrating the diaspora and evolution of Austronesian culture

Personal interviews with Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim and Prof. Peter Bellwood in The Philippines

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to personally interview two of the most accomplished scholars in Austronesian Studies, namely Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim from the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), and Prof. Peter Bellwood from Australia National University (ANU).

Interviews and video arranged by David Blundell.

Wilhelm Solheim (left) and David Blundell (right) at the University of the Philippines Diliman | April 6, 2006

Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim II

The interview topic in this short film is the cultural history of the Austronesian speaking peoples, and in particular Professor Solheim's Nusantao hypothesis. Professor Dr. Wilhelm Solheim II was instrumental in developing the Archaeological Studies Program at UPD.

Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim II | Source: National Geographic 1979 | Secrets from the Past: Ch 2 Who Uncovers Ancient Secrets?

Prof. Solheim died on July 25, 2014, at the age of 89. It was an honor to have met him and I hope viewers can appreciate something of his personal warmth from this short interview.

Interviewing Prof. Wilhelm G. Solheim | Clip 6 | University of the Philippines, Diliman (UPD) campus | 2006

Prof. Peter Bellwood

In this short clip, Prof. Peter Bellwood shares his personal history and educational background, and discusses his interests in Austronesian studies. He suggests to those interested in this field of study to choose one of three main areas of research, namely comparative linguistics, archaeology, or human genetics.

Interviewing Peter Bellwood at the Basco Pier, Batan Island | 2006

Relevant books by Peter Bellwood

Online Learning Resources

Ivatan Studies Journal | Graduate School Research

Thank you for visiting my Batanes Islands Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to the Batanes or other Austronesian heritage sites, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Cambodia Historical Geography

Cambodia Historical Geography


Dr Steven A Martin

Cambodia is a small country with an awe-inspiring history, where natural resources and the opportunities presented by geography played a leading role in the development of one of the world’s greatest historical civilizations, the Khmer.

International students at Siem Reap, Cambodia | Khmer cultural tourism

Map showing the Tonle Sap in central Cambodia | Modified from: | Click to enlarge

Buddha faces at the Bayon | Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Water, Stone, Iron and Wood

The natural abundance of fresh water has always been the basis of agriculture and transport systems, thanks to the Mekong River (Mother of Waters) and the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), two of the world’s greatest hydrologic systems.

Meanwhile, ready access to stone, mainly rusty-red laterites and pastel sandstones, provided the building blocks of early civilization in the region.

Emboldened with hardwood forests, iron ore deposits, and the mastery of fire, the Khmer were empowered to build houses, fire kilns, and smelt ores and forge the tools and weapons of the largest ancient empire in mainland Southeast Asia.

The Mekong River

The Mekong is the 10th largest river in the world, and is the symbolic heart of tropical mainland Southeast Asia. Seasonal flooding brings silt and nourishment to the land, and nutrients and freshwater fish to the Tonle Sap, producing two ecologically vibrant outcomes, the floodplain and the flooded forest.

The floodplains receive water and minerals from as far away as Tibet, naturally irrigating and fertilizing enormous tracks of low-lying land, perfect for cultivation of rice and other food crops. As the Tonle Sap swells, it creates a flooded forest similar to the Amazon basin, where partially-submerged trees and their root systems create a haven for spawning fish.

Historically, fish resources on the Tonle Sap were among the most plentiful on Earth. Elderly fishermen still boast of the days of their youth when the Tonle Sap was so teeming with fish that all they had to do was row their open boats into the lake and wait for a full catch to jump in.

Mekong River | Click to view hi-res topography map of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)

Mekong River at Sam Pun Boak | Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand | Click to Thai Geography Page

The Tonle Sap

The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Asia and a global hot-spot of biodiversity, a valued sanctuary for migrating birds.

Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake with the Mekong, is the life-blood of the lake and one of the only rivers in the world to display an astonishing natural feature: the biannual flow reversal.

As rains brought by the Southwest Monsoon feed tributaries along the six countries of the Mekong (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), the Tonle Sap River reverses the direction of its flow, and carries an extraordinary volume of water and fish species from the Mekong into the lake.

This remarkable hydrologic event occurs from June to October, when the river fills the lake to as much as five times its normal depth and area. In the dry season (November to April), water drains out of the lake and toward the Mekong.

The lake is the key source of food for nearly fifty-percent of the Cambodian people and represents the greatest inland fishery network in Asia. The Mekong and the Tonle Sap remain the life-blood of a country and its resilient people who use their local culture and knowledge to follow the seasonal changes of the monsoon to survive.

Tourism boats on the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake


Laterite, a soil type and stone comprised of compressed soil, is a product of the tropical Cambodian basin, where thousands of years of alternating wet and dry seasons and oscillating floods create the conditions for its formation. As a process, silicates are washed out of the soil, leaving iron and aluminum oxides to build up and form laterite.

Khmer architects learned many centuries ago how to cut cubes of this metallic mud-like rock from the ground in large blocks and set them to dry quickly, forming a near lava-like stone perfectly suited to building megalithic structures such as Angkor Wat.

Laterite is to Cambodia what limestone was to Egypt, a workable stone employed in the building of enormous structures that exemplify the historical geography of a great civilization.

However, compared with Egyptian limestone, laterite forms coarse blocks pitted with holes. It is difficult to prepare a clean, smooth surface with the aesthetic qualities desired for a religious monument.

"Laterite is to Cambodia what limestone was to the Egypt"

Tropical weathering, or "laterization" near the Tonle Sap

Laterite blocks drying in the sun at Siem Reap


On the other hand, sandstone, another resource available to the Khmers, is an exceptional facing stone. Sandstone was also used as a base for carving fine artwork such as bas-reliefs, many of which are still visible today in temples and monuments throughout Cambodia.

Phnom Kulen

A geographic blessing to the Khmer economy and collective conscious is Phnom Kulen, a forty kilometer long isolated chain of small sandstone mountain plateaus fifty kilometers to the northeast of Siem Reap.

Ancient sandstone quarry at Phnom Kulen

The Kulen Mountains are sacred to the Khmer and were the definitive source of sandstone throughout the Angkorian period (early 9th to 15th century).

River of 1000 Lingas | Kbal Spean | Phnom Kulen

Sandstone is a clean and sometimes colorfully pink soft stone, ideal for depicting the Apsara dancers (Khmer celestial nymphs) and many other Hindu and Buddha images still visible today.

The Kulen Mountains were a definitive stronghold against invading forces from Java during the early Khmer period, later forming a vital part of the Khmer empire’s political and cultural geography, and are still regarded by Cambodians today as the source of holy waters.

Apsara dancers in pink sandstone

Phnom Kulen | Sacred mountain and holy water of the Khmer

Iron and Fire

The early Cambodians developed a mastery of fire and built kilns to smelt ores, cast iron, and fire ceramics for pots and bowls used in households and temples for storing foods, water, and oils. Iron ore was an important natural resource in Khmer history, and ore deposits began to be exploited during the pre-Angkor period.

Khmer sword - Bronze handle - Iron blade - Dr Steven A Martin research

Khmer sword with bronze handle and iron blade

The Khmer demonstrated an early understanding of technologies needed for casting iron, particularly for tools and weapons. The need for iron ores and production drove development and distribution networks, including roads throughout the basin. Iron gave the Khmer purpose, unity, and regional superiority.

The Battle of Tonle Sap bas relief depicting warfare among the Khmer and Champa kingdoms

In this Day and Age

Angkor, formerly a city of nearly a million people, is the result of a complex interaction of cultural and industrial influences, whose natural resources provided the setting for a globally unique historical geography which gave birth to a civilization that, at its zenith, was arguably the greatest in the pre-industrialized world.

Young monks at Bantaey Srei historical site, Cambodia

Today, there is a renaissance of Khmer architectural and engineering spirit, unmistakably visible in the construction of new buildings and hotels in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and around the country.

After the horrors of the Pol Pot period, Cambodia has recovered as swiftly as jungle growing back over a ruined temple, and now the country is back on track as a vibrant economy which is one of the major engines of development at the heart of the ASEAN region.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, receives millions of tourist per year

Perhaps more than ever, the sustainability of Cambodia’s unique natural resources and the natural gifts of her geography will once again play leading roles as a new Khmer civilization once more steps forward to take its rightful place among the world’s oldest and proudest human cultures.

Apsara Dancer | Classical Khmer performance art | Siem Reap, Cambodia

Personal Videos On Location

Short video clips featuring Cambodian national guide Ratha Singh. Mr Ratha shares his knowledge of Khmer history during our 2015 visit to Phnom Kulen, Siem Reap.

Phnom Kulen | Beng Mealea Temple

Phnom Kulen | River of 1000 Lingas

Siem Reap | Bas Relief at Angkor

Select Documentaries

There are currently a significant number of documentary films on Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire of varying content and quality. Of these, I have selected three videos below for teaching the cultural and historical geographies of Cambodia and the Khmer Civilization.

Khmer Mystery | Fou-nan Lost City | With Charles Higham and Miriam Stark 41:00

Angkor Wat | Land of Gods (I)

Angkor Wat | Land of Gods (II)

Environmental Documentaries Mekong River and Tonle Sap

The building of dams throughout the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) affect the lives of millions of people and the ecology and biodiversity of the region.

Asian Development Bank | Saving Cambodia's Great Lake 22:39

About the Research

This research was inspired through experiences at the 2014 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) in Siem Reap, and my 2015 tours to historical sites in Cambodia.

Siem Reap, Cambodia | David Blundell (left) | Steven Martin (center) | Charles Higham (right)

Special thanks to Prof. David BlundellProf. Charles HighamPeng Ponna (Mr. William) at Paññāsāstra University, and our Siem Reap guide, Ratha Seng.

Galapagos Islands Ecology & Conservation

Galapagos Islands Ecology & Conservation


Steven A. Martin, Ph.D., Environmental Management

Click on photos to enlarge.

Map and Location of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

In 2003, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), Ecuador, invited me to visit the opening of a new international college campus on San Cristobal Island – in the Galapagos!

I didn't waste any time in booking the flight to Quito to meet the staff who were developing the facility and study program.

Galapagos brown pelican

After a meeting at the university main campus in Quito, I flew to San Cristobal, the administrative capital of the islands.

I arrived at the new campus in the afternoon, and although the accommodations were not yet officially open to staff and students, they made an exception, and I was among the very first to stay at the new facility.

Welcome to San Cristóbal | Galápagos National Park Headquarters

Arriving in San Cristobal

USFQ | GAIAS | GSC | San Cristobal

A baby seal sunbathing on the rocks | 2003

What I found was way beyond my expectations – a new college campus built directly in front of a world-class beach!

Today the USFQ facility in the Galapagos has grown to include a scientific research center developed in conjunction with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

Below are a few photos taken in 2003 when the original community college opened to offer students on the island an opportunity to study locally.

Study on the beach | San Cristobal

USFQ GAIAS | GSC | Study Abroad on San Cristobal

USFQ programming

At the time of my visit in 2003, the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS) was established as a branch of the USFQ in Quito. Current programing includes USFQ Galapagos semester abroad opportunities, service learning projects, and ongoing projects with the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Summer and semester programs with USFQ

International students who study at USFQ can select semester-long courses from a variety of academic areas in the biological and social sciences:

  • Evolution, Ecology and Conservation
  • Marine Ecology
  • People, Politics and the Environment
  • Sustainable Tourism

Helpful links

The newly-opened USFQ campus | 2003

Oceanfront classrooms | 2003

USFQ accommodations | 2003

San Cristóbal | Administrative capital of Galápagos Province

The Galápagos Islands are located nearly 1,000 kilometers west of the South American coast, and I stayed on San Cristobal, the fifth largest and easternmost island in the archipelago.

I knew the islands received large waves year-round from the northern and southern hemispheres – But was it safe to go surfing there, considering the abundance of marine life and a wide variety of shark species?

Map of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Fortunately, I had packed several surfboards for the trip, and was able to meet up with the local surfers, who explained that although sharks are definitely of concern, they are well-fed due to the natural abundance of fish in coastal waters, and not generally interested in eating surfers.

However, Galapagos sea lions were another story, particularly males protecting females, and mothers protecting their young. Males reach weights over 400 kilos and females average 120 kilos when full grown. Although they barked at me in the water, and chased me around a little, nothing serious happened.

I had surfed among frisky sea lions before in California, but sharing the waves with large marine iguanas was a first for me. I watched as they launched themselves off the rocks and dove through the big waves like fearless prehistoric surfers.

A Galapagos marine iguana checks the surf before taking the plunge

In 1835, a 26-year-old Charles Darwin (1809-1882) arrived in the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, a 10-gun brig-sloop, captained by Robert FitzRoy, landing at San Cristóbal.

Forever touched by his experiences in the Galapagos, Darwin went on to develop his theory of evolution, and is best remembered for his research on the process of natural selection. His name, now a globally-recognized acronym for his scientific theories, is often expressed as simply "Darwinism".

As far as we know, Darwin didn't surf, but it is safe to assume that he marveled at the big waves, as well as the wildlife around San Cristobal.

Today, the port city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galápagos province, remains the oldest permanent settlement of the islands.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno | San Cristobal

Evolution in theory and practice

Having the opportunity to visit this amazing place, following in the footsteps of Darwin, was a truly life-changing experience. Iguanas diving into the sea, seals of many different types, colors, shapes and sizes, the incredible variety of birdlife, dolphins and sharks swimming near the coast, and giant land-bound tortoises, for which the archipelago is named, all combined to make it one of the most incredible places on Earth.

Like the tortoises, my time in Galapagos was mainly land-based, in contrast to tourists who spend most of their time in the islands on live-aboard boats. While I may not have had the opportunity to travel between the 13 different islands, go diving, or see very much of the marine wildlife, I was there on my own, independent of tour guides and groups, rules and regulations.

I was free to walk to local surf spots in the mornings, paddle out to sea, sometimes alone, and to explore inland areas in the afternoons and evenings to see the flora, fauna, and the geographical features of the island.

Frigatebird | Crater Lagoon

Around San Cristobal

One of the benefits of spending time on the same island was getting to know the local people. I met fishermen, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, surfers, and the new staff who were setting up the university program and community college.

I fondly remember the smell and taste of home-grown Galapagos coffee, kindly shared by the owner of a small cafe in the early mornings before opening to the public.

Appreciating natural history and travel

Like Darwin, spending time in the Galapagos changed the direction of my life.

This amazing, one-of-a-kind world of biodiversity, deepened my appreciation of natural history and my enthusiasm for learning and travel.

Sunbathing on the beach in front of the USFQ campus

Toward the end of my stay, I called home to the US from a payphone right on the beach, and agreed to sell my stake in our business, Surf Lessons Hawaii, to my business partner. With that cash, I was free to attend graduate school in Taiwan and begin to realize my plan to launch an online magazine, the Study Abroad Journal.

Learning is an adventure.

Thank you for visiting my Galapagos Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this amazing educational opportunity, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Online Resources

San Cristobal | Galapagos

Mekong Delta Exploratory Research

Mekong Delta Exploratory Research


Over the past 10 years living and teaching in Thailand, one of my favorite past times is exploring the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

The GMS an intriguing mix of countries, brimming with diverse peoples and historical geographies, offering countless and affordable adventures.

Among my most memorable travels are those taken in 2014 and 2015 to the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.

Friendly faces on the Mekong Delta | Click to Southeast Asian Civilization

Photos on this page link to the Southeast Asian Civilization course.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam | Click to enlarge

Agriculture and Fisheries

Mekong Delta is an expansive floodplain of 40,000 sq. km. populated by over 17 million people across 13 provinces. It is responsible for 60% of Viet Nam’s rice production (90% of this is exported) and 60% of the country’s fruit.

There is a large export industry of fish, and 65% of fishery production is sent to the USA. While there is a considerable fishing fleet working the offshore areas around the Delta, the majority of production is based in aquaculture. For the most part, local peoples eat the small fish and sell the big fish.

Mekong Delta food environment

Other important commodities include coconut products and honey. A burgeoning tourism industry is evident in nearly all eras in the Delta, ranging from individuals to small groups to mass tourism.

Exploratory research on the Mekong Delta

Topography and Land Reclamation

Once reaching Viet Nam, the Mekong splits into two main branches at the Delta. The north branch divides into four distributaries and the south branch into three distributaries.

The Delta consists of hundreds of islands formed over millennia of sedimentary deposits; an untold number of waterways create an exotic and dangerous maze of jungles and swamps.

Land reclamation is evident throughout the Delta, with gravel and dirt-laden barges destined for low-lying properties and canal banks. Farmers also dredge local canals every few years and use the silt to reinforce the sides. Busy barge-based cranes used for large-scale dredging of the main river branches are nearly always in view on the horizon.

The ancient network of rural mangrove-lined canals invite visitors to reflect on the country's enigmatic past, while the new palm-lined highway to Saigon represents the fast lane the country is taking to its future at the heart of the economically vibrant and socially diverse ASEAN community.

Crane loading a barge with gravel in the Delta

Vietnamese barge transporting soil for land reclamation on the Mekong Delta

Faith and Religion

There is a heritage of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and to some degree, American missionary influence, and this is evident in Vietnamese language, culture, architecture and religion. For example, Catholic and other denominational Christian churches speckle the banks of the Delta and constitute as much as 15% of the religious base.

However, 60% of the Delta population follows a type of ancestor worship and this may be attributed to an age-old relationship with Chinese culture.

Faith and religion on the Delta

The Delta Road

The government opened up the Mekong in recent years, completing the ‘Delta Road’, a collaborative effort with the Japanese, and this was engineered in part to keep the Delta’s produce fresh and undamaged, particularly rice, fruit and seafood, when they are transported to Saigon overland.

These new transport networks are key as the traditional floating markets are becoming impractical. Thus, there is an ongoing shift from a water-based trade economy to a land-based export economy.

Historically, there were much smaller human populations in the Delta due to the dangers associated with snake and crocodile-infested swamps.

Traditional Delta transport

The "Delta Road" represents an ongoing shift from a water-based trade economy to a land-based export economy


Winter is the dry season on the Delta and the rainy period is normally during the summer, although the Delta is indeed south of the typhoon belt which impacts central Viet Nam and the Red River area further north.

The water level is higher during the rainy season, and this ‘wet time’ is utilized for fishing, while the ‘dry time’ is best for vegetables and potatoes. Climate change is evident and local farmers explain that nowadays the seasons are not so distinct.

The biodiversity of the region is still wide-open to exploration and inquiry, with thousands of new species discovered in recent years. However, there is an unfortunate war-torn legacy of ‘agent orange’, the chemical defoliant dropped by American forces upstream of the Delta, and as many as 2 million people are affected by it today.

One of the many canals on the Mekong Delta

The watery world of the Mekong delta, Vietnam


The Delta was once part of the Funan (68-550 AD) and Chenla (550-760 AD) empires with ties to early Chinese trade networks, and later saw Champa settlements (associated with central Vietnam) and Khmer settlements (associated with Cambodia). Some Khmer still live in the west of the delta region near Cambodia.

According to my Delta guide, the Khmer never actually left the region; rather they mixed and integrated with the North Vietnamese (i.e., the ‘Kinh’ ethnic group) who migrated to the Delta over time.

The feelings of the North Vietnamese about their Delta settlement are represented in the local music which carries sad tones and lyrics, voicing their homesick emotions.

There was also a significant era of assimilation 300 years ago, when Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer cultures mixed together.

Personal interview with Sombo Manara | Champa Kingdom

Interview with Prof. Dr. Sombo Manara, a leading expert in Khmer ancient history. The interview took place at the Po Nagar Temple in Nha Trang, Vietnam, a 7th - 12th century Hindu temple and vestige of the once powerful Champa Kingdom.

Cham is an Austronesian language, part of a super-family of languages generally associated with the seafaring peoples of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Visit Chasing Jade: Archaeology and the Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas to learn more about Austronesian prehistory.

Life and settlement on the Mekong Delta

Cultural Stereotypes

Vietnam is polarized by Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south, two sprawling urban and cultural centers with unique cultural attributes.

Stereotypically, the north and central populations distinguish themselves as thinking, planning, hard-working, and saving for the future.

In contrast, and as my Delta guide, Nguyễn Minh Phương, himself from the central region, put it, "The people of the Delta live for today, and are sometimes typecast by their northern counterparts as being reliant on the good weather, having strong physical features, and a sweet palate."

Daily life on the Delta

Life on the Delta Road

Next generation on the Delta

Water color painting for sale on the Delta

Travelers, Traders and Invaders

The Mekong Delta is a beautiful place to visit, an exotic tropical landscape steeped in ancient tradition with modern geographical significance. At 4,350 km, the Mekong is the world’s 12th-longest river, the lifeblood of mainland Southeast Asia – a trans-boundary network known as the ‘Greater Mekong Subregion’ (GMS).

The Mekong derives its name from the Sanskirt word ‘ganga’ after the Ganges River in India, and the toponym evolved in Thai and Laotian languages to ‘Mae Nam Khong’, literally ‘mother water Khong’.

The mouth of the Mekong called to traders, invaders, and great cultures and philosophers from India and China, providing them safe harbor and entry to upstream riches, including Cambodia’s fish-laden lake, the ‘Tonle Sap’, and the Khmer Kingdom at Angkor.

Coined by the French as "Indochina", friends, foods and freedoms await in the mighty Mekong Delta, an eclectic blend of culture, race and religion along Southeast Asia’s greatest of rivers.

Vietnam | Modified from: | Click to enlarge

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to the Mekong Delta, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Special thanks to my Delta guide, Nguyễn Minh Phương for his time and insight, which helped to make this short article possible.

If you’re traveling to Ho Chi Minh City, he can be reached at:

Nguyễn Minh Phương, certified Mekong Delta guide

Nguyễn Minh Phương, certified Mekong Delta guide

Pakistan Gandhara & Indus Valley Civilizations

Pakistan Gandhara & Indus Valley Civilizations


At 15,397 feet above sea level, the Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved international border crossing in the world, and our ancient, rattling public bus creaked and groaned up to it through spectacular mountain scenery, around hairpin bends with terrifying drops...

Welcome to part II of my Journey to the West, a six-week overland trip from Beijing, China, to Islamabad, Pakistan.

Click on photos to enlarge.

View of Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I) near the Sino-Pakistani border at sunset | Karakoram Range | 8,080 m/26,510 ft

Physical Map of Pakistan (German version) | Click to enlarge

The Karakoram Highway to Pakistan | Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, Xinjiang, China

Passing through the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous country on the notorious Karakoram Highway (KKH), I spent one night at this final Chinese outpost at 3,090 m/10,140 ft on my Journey to the West. According to the Chinese bus driver, the Pakistan border was an estimated 10 hour drive, depending on the changing conditions of the road.

Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, Xinjiang, China

Tashkurgan | Tajik Man

Tashkurgan | Tajik Woman

Much of the Karakoram Highway was a narrow, rugged track, chiseled out of an unstable complex of different types of rock formed through violent seismic activity and extreme weather. I witnessed massive landslides, ice avalanches, and unpredictable flooding, and these events delayed the two-day crossing from Kashgar, China, several times.

Karakoram Highway | Kashgar, China, to Islamabad, Pakistan

From interpretation signage posted along the way, I learned that the Karakoram Highway was developed by Pakistani and Chinese engineers, and took 20 years and over 1,000 lives to construct, with particular hardship occurring in the remote areas of Pakistani‐controlled Kashmir.

Karakoram Highway Memorial

Indeed, things didn't always go as planned when travelling the Silk Road, a common theme in the journals of ancient Chinese monks, such as Xuan Zang, the who traveled this very route in the mid-seventh century.

Half way to the Pakistan border from Tashkurgan, the bus was forced to stop at a section of road that had been washed out from a flash flood during the night.

In the spirit of the monks and merchants of yesteryear who had experienced great challenges on the Silk Road, I felt it was a great opportunity to get off the bus and get my hands dirty. Fortunately, the road workers allowed me to help them construct the cages of rocks in wire needed to temporarily repair the road so we could pass.

Roadwork on the Karakoram Highway near the Sino-Pakistani border after an overnight flash flood

The Khunjerab Pass | Sino-Pakistani border

At 4,693 m/15,397 ft above sea level, the Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved international border crossing in the world, and our ancient, rattling public bus creaked and groaned up to it through spectacular mountain scenery, around hairpin bends with terrifying drops.

Khunjerab Pass, Sino-Pakistani border crossing | 4,693 m/15,397 ft

The Hunza Valley | Gilgit-Baltistan

The first evening in Pakistan, I arrived in the Hunza Valley with my new Pakistani guide, Iqbal, and driver, Usman (featured image at top of page). Waking up at first light and walking outside, I was stunned by the view of Rakaposhi, towering 7,788 m/25,551 ft above, surrounded by deep blue sky.

Rakaposhi | 27th highest mountain in the world | 7,788 m/25,551 ft

The Hunza is a high-mountain sanctuary fed by glacial streams and known for the longevity of its people. In the morning, I woke to views of snowcapped mountain peaks, melting glaciers, and fertile valleys with apple, apricot, and pear orchards. The headwaters of the fertile Hunza River, rich with minerals from the high glaciers, sparkled on the valley floor, it's waters flowing to join the Indus from Tibet.

Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan region, Pakistan | Averaging 2,500 m/8,200 ft

Landslides from sedimentary rock, shale, and glacial debris shaken lose from earthquakes characterize the landscape, and it is logical to assume this led to the name Karakoram, Turkish for black gravel, given by early Central Asian traders. Today, K for Karakoram, stands for the second highest mountain in the world, K-2.

My driver, Usman, said to me, with his eyes peeled to the road, “I use both eyes, one for the road, one for falling rocks.”  He suggested buckling my seat belt: “Muslims believe that life is very precious.”

A landslide blocks our travel south | Karakoram Highway | Pakistan

The junction point of three greatest mountain ranges of the world

Following the Gilgit River south, we reached a place that geographers dream about – the  junction point of the three highest mountain ranges in the world.

In the photo below, the ranges are as follows: Himalayas (right), the Karakoram (distant center), and the Hindu Kush (left).

This was also my first glimpse of the Indus River (right) as it emerges from the Tibetan Plateau. The Gilgit River is on the left.

Junction point of three greatest mountain ranges of the world | Himalayas (right), Karakoram (center), and Hindu Kush (left)

Taxila | Archaeological site visit

As described on my Silk Road page, the UNESCO-listed Taxila was one of the most ancient universities in the world, where people from all over Asia came to study medicine, religion, and science. Instruction was available in at least five different languages, and this multicultural environment contributed to the pre-eminence of Taxila as a center of learning by the 5th century BCE.

Taxila, Pakistan | Excavated remains of the ancient Greek city at Sirkap, founded by Bactrian King Demetrius in 190 BCE

At the height of the Maurya Empire in 250 BCE, King Ashoka recognized the significance of Taxila as an international city at the crossroads of Persia, India, and China, and declared it the provincial capital of his empire.

The Jaulian Monastery

The Jaulian Monastery is the treasure of Taxila, an ancient education and art center with preserved stupas depicting Greek, Indian and Chinese cultural images. The site was of special interest to archaeologist Sir John Marshall (discussed below).

A place of ancient pilgrimage, my local Muslim guide compared it to Mecca, "Many people in history made a great journey to reach this location."

Jaulian Monastery | Taxila Archaeological Site, Pakistan

Interview at Jaulian Monastery | Taxila

Stupas at Jaulian Monastery | Taxila

Sir John Marshall (1876-1958)

Any account of the research and excavations at Taxila, and the Indus Valley Civilization sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, would be incomplete without mentioning Sir John Marshall, the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928. He was the first person in modern times to recognize the significance of these abandoned cities, and worked extensively to document, protect, and popularize these mysterious ancient sites.

During my site visit at Taxila, I had the opportunity to personally interview the grandson of Basharai Khan, who was Sir John Marshal's personal assistant. Alongside learning about Marshal's fieldwork, I was also fortunate to visit the Taxila museum, which he founded in 1918.


Portrait of Sir John Marshall (1876-1958) | Taxila Museum, Pakistan

The works of Sir John Marshall in PDF

John Marshall’s outstanding work is currently online and publicly available at:

Below, I have provided direct links to three relevant books from Sir John Marshall’s legacy.

  • Marshall, J. (ed.) (1931). Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization. | 30Mb
  • Marshall, J. (1951). Taxila: An illustrated account of archaeological excavations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. | 65Mb
  • Marshall, J. (1960). The Buddhist art of Gandhara: the story of the early school, its birth, growth and decline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. | 65Mb

Gandhāra Civilization | Greco-Buddhist art

Taxila was a key site where the ancient Greeks met the Buddhists, a cultural coincidence that occurred at the dawn of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the development of the Gandhāran civilization. Gandhāra reached its zenith during the Kushan period in the 2nd century AD.

Fasting Buddha, Gandharan period, 2nd Century CE | Lahore Museum, Pakistan

Click on the links provided here to view my PDF presentations of Gandhara and Taxila, featuring site visits to the Second City of Sirkap, founded by Demetrius in 190 BCE, and the ruins of Jaulian, a two-thousand-year-old monetary which served as an education center.

Academic Resource Online | Gandhara Sculpture from Pakistan Museums

In 1960, a comprehensive exhibition of Gandharan sculpture was brought to America. Subsequently, sixty-five free-standing and relief sculptures dating from the 2nd -5th centuries A.D. were photographed, catalogued and published as Gandhara Sculpture from Pakistan Museums. The book visually represents the golden age of Gandhara, when the flourishing Buddhist colonies created some of the first representations of the Buddha in human form. Benjamin Rowland, Harvard University,1960

Sakyamuni's First Meeting with a Brahmin | Late 1st century, fine-grained schist, Peshawar Museum

The Indus River Valley Civilization | Harappa

Continuing to travel south from the Taxila archaeological sites, I began to understand what makes the Indus River Valley such a unique area of historical significance, and why the entire subcontinent is named after it. This valley was the cradle of many great Indian cultures, not only Hindu, Jain and Buddhist, but also older and more mysterious cultures whose scripts remain undeciphered.

The Pashupati Seal | Meditating Yogi with horned headdress surrounded by animals | Indus Valley Civilization | Moenjodaro

A day's drive south from Taxila and the capital city of Islamabad, I felt like a time-traveler, heading back thousands of years before the 2000-year-old Gandhara Civilization to experience first-hand the 5000-year-old Harappa archaeological site and the Indus Valley Civilization, an enigmatic slice of ancient history that has profoundly influenced the way people think throughout Asia and the world.

Harappa | Archaeological site visit

Beginning over five thousand years ago, the UNESCO-listed site of Harappa was once one of the world’s most important cities and cultural centers.

Through personal interview with my Pakistani guide, Shafik Malik, he told me a story of a young Sir John Marshall working on a British railroad project in the area:

"Villagers were bringing wheelbarrows loaded with red bricks for use as fill under the railroad tracks, and Marshall, suspecting that they looked unusual, asked where they came from. The villagers told him about a place where there were scores of old bricks spread out all over the land, and no one had idea where they were actually from. Marshall went to investigate..."

Since the discovery and excavation of the site in 1921 by Marshall, Harappa has come to be recognized as one of the oldest and most important civilizations and archaeological sites in the world.

Red bricks form foundations of ancient workshops at Harappa | Indus River Valley Civilization

UNESCO divides Harappa’s history into five key phases:

c. 3300-2800 BCE – Ravi
c. 2800-2600 BCE – Early Harappan
c. 2600-1900 BCE – Harappan
c. 1900-1800 BCE – Transitional
c. 1800-1300 BCE – Late Harappan

5,000-year-old red Harappan bricks | Indus Valley Civilization

Shafik Malik | Pakistani Guide | Harappa Archaeological Site | June 24, 2001

As explained by Mr. Malik and outlined in the interpretation signage at the site, the earliest settlement at Harappa was the Ravi phase, founded on an ancient levee of the river Ravi between 3500 and 3300 BCE.

With more than a decade of experience working at Harappa, I wanted to know more about Malik's personal feelings about the site:

“At 2600 BC the Harappa Civilization is magnificent, a great city center with monumental public buildings, craft areas, bazaars, and connecting trade routes to the world... Small manufactured seals still puzzle us with undeciphered inscriptions… When I think about Harappa, I get a mystic feeling.”

Ravi/Early Harappan Phase 3300-2600 BCE | Click to PDF slides

Archaeological work on the Ravi phase has revealed that these early inhabitants imported stone from what is now Afghanistan and western India, and shells from the Arabian Sea to make beads. They manufactured earthenware vessels and figurines of clay by hand.

Water well and sewage systems at the Harappa archaeological site

Red bricks of Harappa

Locals at Harappa

Pakistan Photo Journal | June 2001

The 15 photos shown below were taken during the drive south from the Sino-Pakistani border to Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

Welcome to Pakistan | International border police

Karakoram Highway | People's Republic of China & Islamic Republic of Pakistan | 1958-1978

Entering Pakistan en route to the Hunza Valley | Karakoram Highway | Gilgit-Baltistan | View from the bus window

English-made Bedford truck decorated with Pakistani Islamic art

Usman | Pakistani driver and international guide

Pakistani youth | Hunza Valley

Hopper Glacier | Naga Valley | Gilgit-Baltistan

Hunza Valley stream | Gilgit-Baltistan

Upper Indus River Valley | Road of Alexander the Great still visible on the opposite bank above the river

Nanga Parabat | Killer Mountain | Third highest peak in the world

Gem stones for sale at Nanga Parabat

Upper Indus River Valley | Gilgit-Baltistan

4th-8th Century Buddhist rock carvings above the Indus River | Shatial (west of Chilas), upper Indus Valley | Sogdian Iranian Civilization

Crossing the Indus by single-cable chairlift | Shatial

Pakistani kids | A few hours north of Islamabad

Faisal Mosque | Islamabad

Mohenjo Daro 101 | National Geographic 3:14

Thank you for visiting my Pakistan Page.

If you feel motivated to know more about the Silk Road or other Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Skateboarding the Great Wall 万里长城

Skateboarding the Great Wall 万里长城


Skateboarding on the Great Wall of China in 1995 | Badaling 八达岭 万里长城

Learning Adventure for Students of 806-123 / 809-122 Eastern Civilization

Click on images to enlarge.

Backstory – My first time to skateboard on the Great Wall

Between 1995 and 2002, I studied Chinese philosophy during summers at Peking University. Hiking – and skateboarding – on the Great Wall quickly became my favorite activity, outside of attending lectures and campus life.

Each time I traveled to the Wall, I learned something new, and the more I visited different areas, the more I wanted to learn about the history and culture behind this amazing symbol of the Chinese people.

Catching air at Badaling Great Wall 八达岭 万里长城

Skate the Wall

Our sleek private taxi wove its way between big trucks and buses, tiny cars and vans, zooming motorcycles and buzzing scooters. The silent bikes and carts yielded without stress, smoothly avoiding us as if doing Tai Chi.

Radiating from Beijing, the traffic faded into tranquility. We, students from the University of Hawaii, headed due north with our driver, a kind-hearted Chinese man with dark glasses and a love for classic Western rock music.

We gave him a thumbs-up and nodded when his stereo played Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

En route to the Great Wall with our favorite taxi driver | 2002

Around us, wheat and corn formed a checkerboard landscape, as hills graduated to small mountains with riverbanks planted with weeping willows, walnut and peach trees, thriving under deep blue sky. Slender poplar trees cast zebra-striped shadows which flickered on our faces while we blazed on.

It was a perfect day to skate the Wall.

Skateboarding on the Great Wall | 2001

Philosophical Attitudes

Just as philosophical attitudes of Chinese and Americans may differ, so too have their reactions to my skating on the Wall.

Photos from my early trips in 1995 shocked some Western friends to contend, “You mean they allow you to do that?”

Badaling Great Wall | 1995

In contrast, Chinese friends were enthusiastic and positive.

The first time I skated the Wall, a guard stationed at the Wall shouted in Mandarin and took my board. To my surprise, he traded me his rifle for my skateboard and tried to ride it, shooting down the hill out of control, skidding to a halt, and tearing holes in his clothes.

Bruised and bleeding, he reacted with a smile, and raced up the hill for another try.

World's oldest skateboard park

Unexpectedly, we had a marvelous hour together, sharing the moment and cultural experiences.

I realized that the function of the Wall had changed from combat to sport, from exclusive to inclusive, from military to peaceful – attracting tourists and hikers, students and teachers, philosophers and politicians.

The Wall had become fun and exciting, as if suddenly transformed into the world’s greatest skatepark.

Skateboarding at the Great Wall

Meng Jiang Nu

In contrast to the touristic carnival-like atmosphere experienced at many sections of the Wall today, truth is, the Great Wall is no laughing matter.

Hiking the Wall on a hot summers day, exhausted at the onset of heat stroke, I could feel the blood, sweat and tears of the conscripts and prisoners who built it.

Sometimes called the "World’s longest tombstone," the Wall was a place where men were sent to toil and suffer until they died and their bodies were buried near the Wall.

Hiking on the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing

Set in the Qin dynasty (221BC-206BC), one story still resonates among the collective memory of the Chinese, the dramatic separation of a loving couple and their tragic ending as a result of building the Wall.

Ancient literature, paintings, poems, music, and modest temples throughout China, Japan, and Korea honor the heartbreak of Meng Jiang Nu (Lady Meng Jiang), who searched the entire length before finding her beloved dying husband, Fan Qiliang. Legends tell she cried so hard that the wall collapsed where she found him.

Modern cartoons, videos and films in recent years continue to romanticize her story, representing the ruthlessness of the emperor, the tragedy of the Great Wall, and the kindness of a gentle woman.

Lady Meng Jiang and the Great Wall | Source: Stent, 1878

Her story is a recurring theme in Chinese folklore, with literary evidence dating back more than two-thousand years. One of the many treasures of Chinese historical literature, a Bianwen manuscript (c. 9-11 century) of the story was discovered at Dunhuang, Gansu province, an important stop on the Silk Road.

The story of Lady Meng Jiang | c. 9th-11th century Bianwen manuscript

Iconic guardian of China

A great unification of the Wall took place under Emperor Qin Shi Huanghi, the legendary ruthless ruler who founded the Chin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and hence gave his name to China. He also left behind his personal terracotta army of Xian, the larger-than-life clay soldiers built supposedly to guard him in the afterlife.

A continuous project, the Chin fortifications that began in strategic mountain passes now string together to stretch thousands of miles across China, from Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, winding westward to Jaiyuguan, Gansu Province, in the Gobi Desert.

View from a garrison | Jinshanling Great Wall

The Wall is an iconic guardian of China, towering over the fertile river-valleys and plains of the south, protecting them from invasion by the marauding bandits of the Mongolian plateau to the north.

The northern face of the Wall is always sheer, often 30 feet tall, or perched on the rim of a high cliff, while the southern face is sometimes only ground level.

Today, the Wall with all its branches, if placed end to end, would stretch more than 30,000 miles.

Jinshanling, north of Beijing, a 10 kilometer stretch of unrestored Wall

The World's first internet

The Great Wall can be justly described as the world's first information superhighway. Timely information could be sent across the entire country in a single day – smoke by day, and fire by night.

The Wall served as a secure connection network, offering enough band-width to allow soldiers to ride two-abreast and travel in both directions, garrisons serving as safe terminals, battlements providing the firewall, vats of hot oil ready to be poured on the heads of potential hackers.

From the east, China streamed live to the world – and from west, the world steamed live to China.

The Great Wall – Connecting east and west

The Silk Road

The Great Wall was heavily fortified, serving as the military power line of the Silk Road as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when caravans of horses and camels transported men and women, trade wares and silks, plants and animals, technologies and religions. Han Dynasty garrisons extended the reach and power of the Great Wall system deep into the desert areas of western China (see photo below).

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) garrison on the ancient southern Silk Road

Perhaps no other exchange of information was as profound as what occurred leading up to the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy (Tang Dynasty, AD 618-907), when Indian Buddhism flowed into China along the trade routes of the Silk Road, carrying information and ideas that changed how the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans think.

For example, ancient Buddhism and art, illuminated with Greek and Persian influences, flourished in Western China, a sign that east-west cultural communication and collaboration is much older, and much better developed, than previously thought. (Visit my Silk Road and Pakistan pages to learn more about Grecco-Buddhist culture and China, or see the works of Sir Aurel Stein and Sir John Marshall).

Uyghur dancer | Turpan, Xinjiang

Jiāyùguān Fort

The Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) earned the reputation for hosting China’s most masterful wall builders, creating faultless square-cut bricks, which still appear clean, tight, and engineered into perfect function.

The most famous Ming Dynasty wall remains Jaiyuguan Fort, the western terminus of the Great Wall in the Gobi Desert, fabled end – or beginning – of the civilized world, depending on one's perspective.

Sunrise at Jiayuguan Fort | 2001

One story of Jaiyuguan Fort tells of a architect placed in charge of construction. Upon ordering the massive number of bricks required to build the fort, which he calculated down to a specific number, he was warned that it had better be enough. With confidence he agreed and added one brick to the order just in case.

When the complex was completed, only one brick remained. The story is a testament to Chinese ingenuity.

Four characters inscribed near the front gate roughly translate to mean: Strongest fort under heaven.

Jiayuguan Fort | Ming Dynasty | AD 1368-1644

Acuity and continuity

Layers of architecture attest to the acuity and continuity of Chinese culture and philosophy as the wall, like the art of the earth, rises in chronological order from a subterranean foundation.

I have stood at sections where the base was built during Chin Dynasty, the middle during Han, the upper during Ming, the watchtowers Qing (AD 1644-1911) while the surface was only one week old.

I’ve watched as farmers bashed bricks off the Wall with sledge hammers, loading them on donkey carts to use on their farms, while in the distance I could see contemporary building crews adding a fresh face, handrails, stairs, and toilets for tourists.

Farmer at Jinshanling Great Wall

Can we see the Wall from Space?

It is often said that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure recognizable from space, but when I asked Colonel Scott Horowitz of the US Air Force, commander of four Space Shuttle missions, he told me:

“It's nearly impossible to see the Great Wall, even from low orbit, because the color of the bricks and building materials match the colors of the corresponding landscapes, and also due to the heavily polluted skies over China.”

Scott said that it was just about possible to make out the line traced across China by the Wall, with a little imagination, on a crystal-clear day. On the other hand, he said that the Great Pyramid, in Giza, Egypt, was clearly visible throughout the hours of daylight, and especially in the early morning and late evening, due to its long shadow.

Surf Doctor Steven with NASA Astronaut Scott Horowitz in 2002

Above Huanghuachen Great Wall | 2001

Prof Yang Xin | Peking University

Returning to Peking University after a trip to the Wall, I asked my philosophy professor, Yang Xin, a specialist in Great Wall aesthetics, “Why Great Wall, and not simply long wall or border wall?”

He explained, “Although the original name may have implied long wall (wall of 10,000 Li), the significance matured and greatness was attributed. One brick is only one, with function limited, yet when they combine, a great animation is formed, just like the Chinese culture.”

He added, “The Wall unifies mankind with heavenly forces, as if an enormous composition of cursive calligraphy, its aspects constantly altered through time and seasonal changes."

Professor Yang Xin, specialist in Great Wall aesthetics | Peking University

We’re all just bricks in the Wall

When I first visited the Wall in 1995, I was shocked by its grandeur; later its spiritual aspects overcame me as I saw it as a symbol of both the Chinese people and the human race.

From some viewpoints the Wall looks like a coiling dragon, reaching to the sky, riding on the backs of mountains. From other angles, it resembles a growing plant, following the earth’s natural curves.

Simatai 司马台 Great Wall

After skating the Wall, I could imagine the ancient battlements reflecting rhythmic, piano-key-shaped shadows playing rock-n-roll upon the earth, zigzagging up the mountain in harmony with nature.

Ultimately, the greatness of the Great Wall stands for the greatness of humanity, as well as the suffering of humanity – we’re all just bricks in the Wall. ♦

Jiayuguan fortress, westernmost garrison of the Ming Great Wall | 2001

Thank you for visiting my Great Wall Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy the photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this topic or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Other skating, sandboarding, surfing fun in China...

Sandboarding at the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang, China | 2001

Surfing behind a water buffalo in a Chinese rice paddy | 1997

Surfing small waves on an island near Shanghai, China | 1997

Hiking with students from the University of Hawaii | Jinshanling Great Wall | 2000

Skateboarding at Huanghuachen Great Wall | 2002

Skateboarding with Chinese youth | 2001

Short Videos

TED-ed | 4:29

Smithsonian Channel | 4:52

Silk Road Journey to the West  絲綢之路

Silk Road Journey to the West 絲綢之路

Teaching Demo | Silk Road | Eastern Civilization


THE SILK ROAD 絲綢之路 Sīchóu Zhī Lù


Kashgar, Xinjiang, China | Silk Road

1995 Xi'an to Kashgar

I first traveled along the Chinese Silk Road in 1995, on a trip organized by Professor John Cheng through the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH). We journeyed by bus, train and short flights. Reaching Kashgar on China's westernmost border just in time for the Sunday Bazaar, I vowed to return one day with more time to explore.

2001 Xi'an, China, to Delhi, India

In June, 2001, I returned to explore the Silk Road. On this trip, I traveled overland from Xi'an to Kashgar, China, and across the Karakoram Mountains to Pakistan (see Silk Road Part II, Pakistan).

Although a long journey across deserts and mountains, it was certainly not as difficult as in the past. By 2001, modernization in Xinjiang had brought hotels, tourist amenities, and transportation networks, including a new rail link between Urumqi and Kashgar.

I hope you enjoy the highlights of the 1995 and 2001 photo journals below, and find the links to Silk Road maps, presentations and resources helpful.

For more information, please contact me or visit my university course at Eastern Civilization.

Jiayuguan Fort, Great Wall of China | A beacon of Eastern civilization and culture

Teaching | My course in Eastern Civilization

Sir Aurel Stein | Photo 1909

I have been sharing my Silk Road experiences with students of all ages for over twenty years. I am interested in the early works of European explorers, particularly Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943).

Stein's archaeological and geographical work is well represented in his 1933 publication: On Ancient Central Asian Tracks: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and Northwestern China.

Many of Stein's original works are currently royalty-free and available on

1933 Chinese Silk Road Map by Aurel Stein | Innermost Asia | Click to enlarge

1995 Experience | The University of Hawaii Silk Road Study Tour

The photos shown here are highlights from my first trip along the Silk Road.

The travel began at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, and ended at the Kashgar Bazaar, also known locally as the Sunday Market, and now officially known as the International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia.

Click on photos to enlarge.

1995 Highlights

Monks at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian

Big Wild Goose Pagoda | Xi'an

Rainy start on our Journey to the West | Xi'an

Riding the Iron Rooster to Western China

Exploring the Gobi Desert at 33 years old

Jiayuguan Fort | Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall

UH Hilo Prof John Cheng | Dunhuang, Gansu Province

Turpan and Urumqi | Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Flaming Mountain, from the epic tale, "Journey to the West"

Farmer in Turpan | Eastern Xinjiang

Taklamakan Desert | Xinjiang

Kazakh yurts in the Tianshan | Heavenly Mountains

Toordi Ashan | Our Uyghur driver in Urumqi, Xinjiang

Tianshan | Flight from Urumqi to Kashgar

Kashgar | Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Islamic culture | Kashgar

Musical instruments for sale | Kashgar

Knife seller | Kashgar Sunday Market

Islamic culture | Kashgar Sunday Market

Sunday Livestock Market | 1995

Tobacco seller | Kashgar

Afaq Khoja Mausoleum (c. 1640) | Kashgar

My 2001 Silk Road Independent Study Project

In the summer of 2001, I made an agreement with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to conduct independent research on the Silk Road. I proposed to travel overland from Xian, China, to Delhi, India.

My Liberal Studies Adviser, Prof. John Cheng, agreed, providing I visited Harappa, the Indus River Valley Civilization site, and Taxila, the Gandhara Civilization site.

Taxila was one of the most ancient universities in the world, where people from all over Asia and the Middle East came to study and teach. At least eighteen subjects were covered, including medicine, religion, and science. Instruction was available in at least five different languages, and this multicultural environment contributed to the pre-eminence of Taxila as a center of learning from the 5th century BC until the 2nd century AD.

Taxila was a key site where the ancient Greeks met the Buddhists, a cultural coincidence that occurred at the dawn of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the birth of the Gandhāran Civilization.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the Sirkap archaeological site at Taxila, evidence of an ancient Greek city in South Asia.

Sirkap archaeological site | Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan

Visitors today can explore the ruins of a two-thousand-year-old university, and stroll around the Taxila Museum filled with unique art history.

I kept a comprehensive photo journal of my travels, and after returning and presenting my photo journal at the university auditorium I earned enough credits to complete my undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii.

Journey to the West  西遊記

My plan was to follow in the footsteps of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘) (c. 602–664), who traveled to India in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, and kept a detailed account of his travels.

His journal, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記), is an outstanding treasure of Chinese history.

Nine hundred years later, Xuanzang's true story was brought to life in the16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West (西遊記), one of China's "Four Great Classical Novels."

Journey to the West | Xuanzang in the 16th century Chinese classic

Journey to the West is a tall tale retracing Xuanzang's travels with an unlikely group of companions, namely the tricky and powerful Monkey King, the greedy and ravenous Pigsy, and the hideous and obedient Friar Sand. Mixing fact with fiction, the story incorporates Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and folklore into the groups' improbable pilgrimage of spiritual enlightenment.

Xuanzang travel map | Click to enlarge

National Geographic | Treasure Seekers: China's Frozen Desert

Based on the lives of Sir Aurel Stein and Xuanzang: "As commerce flourished along the Silk Road, Central Asia became a melting pot of cultures. Here on the edges of the Taklmakan Desert, an exotic blend of Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and European influences fueled an astonishing cultural Renaissance. In the 7th century, a Chinese monk, Xuanzang, plunged into the desert while on a Buddhist pilgrimage to India..."

2001 Journal Highlights

Starting in Xian, at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda built in Xuanzang's honor, I began my own journey. I tried to visit the same cultural sites and physical landscapes, and to keep a journal, like he did. While his trip to India and return took 15 years or more, I had just two months.

The photos shown here are highlights from the Chinese leg of the journey, placed in chronological order.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Statue of Xuanzang | Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an

Bell Tower in Xi'an | Beginning of the Silk Road as a trade route

View from the train | Xian, Shaanxi Province, to Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

Sunrise at Jiayuguan Fort, Great Wall | Gansu Province

Jiayuguan Fort | Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall

Singing Sand Dunes | Dunhuang

Dunhuang | Mogao Caves

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) garrison on the ancient southern Silk Road

Uyghur man with his taxi at the Gaochang ruins

Uyghur youth at the Gaochang ancient ruins

Uyghur dancer | Turpan, Xinjiang

Raisins for sale in Turpan

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Urumqi, Xinjiang Gateway to the Tianshan

Hui culture | Urumqi

Frank Li | Hui culture in Urumqi

Kazakh family erecting their yurt | Tianshan

Kazakh family arriving at lower pastures | Tianshan

Home for the summer | Lower pastures of Tianshan

Kashgar, Xinjiang China's western frontier town

Overnight train | Urumqi to Kashgar

Kashgar International Trade Market

Livestock market | Kashgar Sunday bazaar

Chili peppers for sale | Kashgar

Kashgar knives at the bazaar

Uyghur youth at the Kashgar Sunday bazaar | Xinjiang Province

Watermelon seller | Kashgar Sunday bazaar

Working at the Kashgar bazaar

Wooden pitchforks for sale | Kashgar bazaar

Id Kah Mosque (c. 1442)

Islamic culture at the Id Kah Mosque

Reading the Koran across from the Id Kah Mosque

Yusuf Balasaguni | 11th century Islamic philosopher

Yusuf Balasaguni Mausoleum | Kashgar

Online resources

Thank you for visiting my Silk Road Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy the photos and information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to know more about the Silk Road or other Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Cape Town South Africa study abroad with SIT

Cape Town South Africa study abroad with SIT

Cape of Good Hope | South Africa


Study abroad in South Africa

The waves and wildlife of South Africa captured my imagination and sense of adventure. I was a surfer, and so it was easy to choose South Africa for my next study abroad experience.

Big surf at Jeffreys Bay | Eastern Cape, South Africa | 1997

When I contacted universities in Cape Town and Durban to talk about studying in South Africa for a semester, I discovered that completing the enrollment process was nearly impossible for people who did not have South African citizenship. The universities at that time just were not set up to welcome independent overseas students looking to study abroad. It looked like I would have to blaze a new trail through this bureaucratic jungle.

School for International Training | 1997

Fortunately, at this point I heard about the School for International Training (SIT) at Cape Town, South Africa.  They offered a pathway to a six-month student visa through enrollment in their program in Arts and Social Change.

SIT is a globally-respected institution, based in Vermont, USA, with a philosophy based around intercultural exchange and experiential learning. They're the result of a 1932 project called “The Experiment in International Living”, from which one participant, Sargent Shriver, would ultimately develop the Peace Corps.

"Just to travel is rather boring, but to travel with a purpose is educational and exciting." – Sargent Shriver

South Africa | Click to detailed map

The SIT Cape Town program included homestay accommodation, and classes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The day my SIT acceptance letter arrived, I packed my clothes and surfboards for the trip of a lifetime to South Africa.

It was longest commute to school I ever had, the better part of two days and nights.

Kona – Honolulu – Chicago – Washington, D.C. (Dulles) – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Cape Town.

Once I got to the university, I was pleased to find that the campus offered spectacular views from the top of the gently sloping city, at the foot of the city’s iconic landmark, Table Mountain.

The University of Cape Town | UCT Campus and Table Mountain

University of Cape Town | UCT Campus

University of Cape Town | UCT Campus

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights

In 1997, the study abroad program I attended was called South Africa: Arts and Social Change. The program is still running, currently under the name South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights. The program continues to offer students opportunities to explore issues of multiculturalism from historical and contemporary perspectives, and to visit important cultural and environmental sites around the country, such as Soweto (South West Townships) located southwest of Johannesburg.

The history of Soweto illustrates the segregationist thinking which lead to the 1948 establishment of Apartheid.

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights | SIT

Soweto | Southwest Township | located southwest of Johannesburg

During Nelson Mandela's 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island, he drafted Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

Visiting the prison, now a living museum, I met an ex-inmate who knew Mandela personally and told me about Mandela's commitment to education and learning, especially reading books, as exemplified by his famous remark, "We'll turn this prison into a library."

One of the prison cells on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years

Cultural Homestay

My host family lived in a Cape township named Surrey Estate.

The father of the family was originally from Durban, of Indian ancestry, while his wife was from Cape Town and of Malaysian ancestry, and they had two daughters in their early twenties.

The family were Muslim, and so this was a great opportunity for me to learn about Islam. I studied the history and events of Islam specific to Cape Town, focused on Cape Malay traditions and culture.

Studying Islam in Surrey Estate, Cape Town | Cape Malay culture

Mr. and Mrs. Ramjan | Host family parents | 1997

Zara (left) and Shahana (right) Ramjan | Host family sisters | 1997

Twenty years on, I am still in contact with the family, and I still have fond memories of Mrs. Ramjan's home cooking.

Shahana in 2018 with a family of her own | Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town

My first impression of Cape Town was of an Atlantic coast, multicultural city, with sandstone mountains towing over picturesque white sand beaches, reminding me of Rio de Janeiro.

Over the course of time, I discovered much more about the city, taking public transportation to school, visiting townships, and eventually living within walking distance of Glen Beach. Surfing the waves at Glen Beach connected me with Cape Town's surfing culture and from then on I felt like a local, with a tight-knit group of friends and opportunities to travel to other surfing spots.

I surfed some of the best waves in the world with the Cape Town crew, including Elands Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean coast, north of the city, and Jeffreys Bay, on the Indian Ocean coast, east of the city.

View of Cape Town from Table Mountain

Atop Table Mountain

Table Mountain from Robben Island

View over Lion's Head from Atop Table Mountain

The Waterfront at Cape Town

Cape Town train station

Picture-perfect Camps Bay

Surfer catching a wave at Glen Beach

Palm-fringed Camps Bay Beach

Around the Western Cape

Bartholomew Dias captained the first European vessel around the Cape of Good Hope in the name of Portugal in 1488, returning home after a skirmish with local tribes. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, and was the first to reach India by that route.

Nearly a century later, Sir Francis Drake, the legendary English explorer, described the Cape of Good Hope in his ship’s log as, “the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”

Among members of the international surfing community, the powerful waves around the Western Cape province are legendary, and I was keen to see them for myself.

Cape of Good Hope | Cape Peninsula | South Africa

Boulders Beach | Simon’s Town

Oudtshoorn | Western Cape

Protea | Hiking in the Western Cape Province

Eastern Cape | Addo Elephant Park

At UCT, I had heard that Addo Elephant National Park, located in the Eastern Cape Province, was one the best places to see and photograph wild elephants in South Africa. But this wasn’t always the case. The Addo elephant was hunted to near extinction by Cape farmers, and in 1931, only eleven were still alive.

Today, the number of elephants in the park and surrounding areas is estimated to be 500.

Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa's third largest national park

The Addo elephant is a unique sub-species of elephant, which is slightly smaller than most African varieties.

Visiting the park for myself, I learned that they had been protected through the work of British naturalist Sydney Skaife, who founded the Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society (currently the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa).

Addo Elephants | Protected through the work of British naturalist Sydney Skaife

The Trans-Karoo and Voortrekkers of yesteryear

Before the semester abroad was over, I felt that I needed to see and learn more of the country and its rich history, so I bought a ticket on the Trans-Karoo, South Africa’s cross-continent rail system linking Cape Town with Johannesburg.

I was intent on experiencing Xhosa and Zulu cultures, seeing Durban and the Indian Ocean Coast, and visiting the country’s legendary game reserves to see the wildlife I heard so much about for myself.

The Trans-Karoo was the modern-day route of a much older story in the European quest to push east and across the continent, namely the 1837 Great Trek undertaken by the Voortrekkers, South Africa's Dutch pioneers.

After arriving in Johannesburg, my first stop was the Voortrekkers monument, a focal point in South Africa's historical geography which I had studied at UCT (see photo below).

The Voortrekkers (Afrikaans for the ‘first pioneers’) are comparable to the American pioneers, zealous Christians who ventured across a continent in search of a new land, encountering native peoples, and facing challenges and dangers. Whereas the American pioneers headed west in their covered wagons and encountered Native Americans, the Voortrekkers headed east and encountered the Xhosa, Zulu, and other large tribes already occupying the land – and poised to defend it.

Descended from the Dutch East India Company's original settlers, the Voortrekkers were hearty adventurers left behind from an early supply station at the Cape of Good Hope. They were Boers, Dutch pastoralists, dissatisfied with British rule, choosing instead to make the “Great Trek” and face untold dangers and bloodshed in the African heartland.

They camped at night with their covered wagons drawn in a “Laager” – That is, they formed their wagons into a tight circle to provide security. Laagers were more than a campsite; they represented an isolationist mentality, first from the church in Europe, then the English church in the Cape, and on the frontier from the Khoi-San, Xhosa, and Zulu.


To the Voortrekkers, the African interior was terra incognita – a foreboding land of savages and wild beasts – but the Voortrekkers pushed east with great South African pride, “Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika,” which meant “We for you South Africa.” Outnumbered by large and powerful Zulu tribes numbering in the thousands, they nevertheless pressed on into Kwa-Zulu Natal, where they were narrowly victorious at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

Armed with a doctrine of supposed racial superiority supported by religious belief, their guns were loaded with "Bullets with butterfly wings," a modern graffiti I saw spray-painted on nearby street-corner by local youth targeting ideological connections between the Voortrekkers, the institutional segregation employed during Apartheid a century later, and the residual challenges they face today.

Soweto | The South West Township

Soweto represents a group of South African townships, appropriately named for its location southwest of Johannesburg, where residents took to the streets in 1976 to protest of the government’s implementation of Afrikaans language into the school system. The residents were, and still are, mainly speakers of Nguni languages, such as isiZulu and isiXhosa, and they fought to retain their own languages as media of instruction in local schools.

Xhosa mother and child | Soweto (Southwestern Township)

I was fortunate to tour Soweto with Max Maximum Tour Company, run by a Soweto local named Max, a Xhosa man about my age with first-hand experience with the sufferings of Apartheid.

In 1976, as a young boy, Max witnessed the force of the apartheid system against unarmed children of Soweto: “They opened fire on us with live rounds and ran us down with mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles called Casspirs, ominous war toys named after the South African Police (SAP) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).”

The Casspir I saw looked like a truck straight out of a Mad Max movie, with tall military tires, armored plates, bulletproof windows, and the only entrance through a hatch on top.

Xhosa house | Soweto

Casspir | Mine Protected Vehicle

Max took me to see the monument and small museum honoring Hector Pieterson, the first student killed in the riots which began on June 16, 1976. He showed me a group of white storage containers, with black and white photos on the walls illustrating the chaos and violence that had claimed somewhere between 200 and 700 lives.

I walked around, practicing what little isiXhosa I had learned at UCT, meeting people, and exploring squatter shacks as well as some newer parts of the city with electricity and improved roads. People were friendly with me, especially when I said, "Molo!" (Hello!) and "Unjani wena?" (How are you?) in isiXhosa.

My camera was a great tool to break the ice when I asked residents if I could take pictures of houses and families.

Life in Soweto

Xhosa parent at Soweto

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park | The first nature reserve in South Africa

One of the highlights of living, traveling, and studying in South Africa was going on safari at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Seeing Africa's legendary wildlife with my own eyes was a life-changing experience, deepening my understanding of natural history and the role that human beings play in conservation.

I have posted a few photos below, and links to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the official website for park management conservation and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Click on a photo to enlarge or visit Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife pages for the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park camp areas.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi River and Park

KwaZulu-Natal | The 'Dark Continent' and Durban's sunny coast

Other than the draw of surfing some of the best waves on the planet, I chose South Africa for my African study abroad experience as there was relatively less chances of catching malaria than in other countries in the region.

But this wasn't always the case.

It was diseases like sleeping sickness and malaria that would echo the name “Dark Continent” behind the very mention of Africa. I learned that malaria came from Italian words meaning “bad air,” because it was believed to be an airborne disease, which was partially true considering that mosquitos are definitely airborne.

The TseTse fly was actually the greatest single factor for the name “Dark Continent,” causing sleeping sickness in man and ‘Nagana’ in livestock. The fly made much of central Africa, and Zululand in South Africa, virtually uninhabitable for the Europeans.

In 1945, DDT spraying wiped out the fly, but a recent outbreak was reported during my stay, just north of the South African border.

Zulu cultural park | KwaZulu-Natal

Lungani | KwaZulu-Natal guide

Nguni cattle | KwaZulu-Natal

For me, the fun was in Durban, a 'surf city', like Waikiki, Hawaii, but with date palms and waves breaking on sand bars, compared Waikiki’s coconut trees and coral reefs. Durban had a flavor unlike anywhere in the world, a sandy beach town and cultural mosaic of African, Islamic, Indian, and European food, faces and architecture.

Hotels in Durban | KwaZulu-Natal

Zulu Rickshaw | Durban

Thank you for visiting my South Africa Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this amazing education abroad experience, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Online resources

Seville Spain study abroad with CCIS

Seville Spain study abroad with CCIS

College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS) Center at the International College of Seville, Spain


Welcome to my Spain semester abroad Learning Adventure. I hope you enjoy the pictures, and find the links useful.

This page is part of a series of journals documenting my Grand Tour of education abroad programs, which culminated in my becoming a professional academic.

In 1998 I spent a semester abroad in Seville, Spain, with St. Bonaventure University (SBU), College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS), and the International College of Seville (ICS).

1998 Spring Semester in Seville, Spain

  • Campus-based courses | Culture and society of Spain, History of Spain, and Spanish language.
  • Travels around Spain | Cordoba, Granada, Rhonda, Marbella, Madrid, Mallorca, and Segovia.
  • International travels | Morocco and Portugal.

Spain and the Iberian Peninsula

For more than 15,000 years, people have been creating extraordinary art on the Iberian Peninsula.

Beginning with images of bison painted on cave walls at Altamira over 15,000 years ago, the art that we can see today in Spain covers the whole of human history. The ancient Greeks and Phoenicians, the Romans who dominated Spain for six hundred years, the invading Germanic Visigoths, and the Moors from North Africa who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, bringing Islamic art, architecture, and religion, all left their artistic and cultural legacy on this unique country. As an American, the experience of living and studying in Spain brought history into my life in a way that I hadn’t encountered before.

Paleolithic art | Altamira bison | Click to Altamira Museum

Topographical Map of Spain | Click to enlarge

Spring semester in Seville

During the 5 months in 1998 that I studied in Seville, I saw the people and parks come to life with the arrival of spring, experiencing first-hand the Spanish idiom "La primavera, la sangre altera" (In Spring, the blood rises). As the green leaves and orange blossoms appeared, and the vibrant bougainvillea came alive in the parks, so came the sunshine, warm weather, and tourists from around the globe.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Springtime in Seville's Maria Luisa Park

Early Spring in Seville

Early Spring in Seville

Springtime in Seville

Guadalquivir River

The 1998 Seville program

In 1998, the Seville semester abroad program was designed so that our courses were held Monday through Thursday, giving us three day weekends for traveling outside the city.

After classes on weekdays, I explored the many local sites around Seville, such as the Alcazar, Cathedral, Bullring, Italica, Plaza de San Francisco, Torre del Oro, and other parks and museums.

Seville Cathedral (a 'Christianized' mosque from 1248)

Torre del Oro 'Tower of Gold' (built in 1220 CE)

Seville Bullring 'Real Maestranza' (completed in 1765)

My neighborhood | Porvenir

While in Seville, I lived in a small apartment in a neighborhood named Porvenir. It was a coincidence that the Sevillian apartment owners, who were my host family, shared my surname. The sign above the entrance to my door read "Casa Martin".

Friends near the Porvenir Apartment

My Porvenir Apartment | "Casa Martin"

Spring at the Porvenir Apartment

Porvenir means "for the future" due to the planned construction ahead of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition World's Fair. It included not only the housing area where I lived, but also two current landmarks in Seville, namely the Plaza de Espana and Maria-Lusia Park.

Plaza de España

The Plaza de Espana and the Maria-Lusia Park were a short walk from my apartment, and I passed through them nearly every day. Many times I met new people, Spanish couples young and old, horse-drawn carriage operators who took tourists for rides, and occasionally Gypsies offering a rose in exchange for good luck or a curse, depending whether or not I was willing to give up a few pesos.

The spectacular architecture of the Plaza de Espana has featured in many famous movies, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Star Wars Episode II, Attack of the Clones (2002), and The Dictator (2012).

Plaza de Espana | 1998

North tower | Plaza de Espana

Vicente Traver fountain | Plaza de Espana

Horse drawn carriages | Plaza de Espana

Ceramic tiled benches and alcoves of the provinces

Tiled alcove featuring the province of Zaragoza

Maria Luisa Park | Parque de María Luisa

Maria-Lusia Park (Parque de María Luisa) is Seville's foremost green area, featuring Moorish-style gardens and architecture with fountains, monuments, pavilions, ponds, and statues.

What I remember most are well-dressed ladies and gentlemen out for sunset walks, young couples kissing on colorful tiled benches, and afternoon visits to the Museum of Arts and Traditions of Sevilla.

Parque de María Luisa

Vendor at Parque de María Luisa

Springtime in the park

Museum of Arts and Traditions

Seville cultural events

When studying abroad in Seville during the Spring semester, week-long cultural highlights include the Seville Fair (La Feria de Abril) and Holy Week (Semana Santa).

Click on photos to enlarge.

Seville Fair | La Feria de Abril de Sevilla

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Holy Week | Semana Santa

A trumpet signals the start of Semana Santa

A "Paso" in the street

The crowd at Plaza de San Francisco

National and international travels

Three-day weekends

Throughout the five months I lived in Seville, I made good use of my three-day weekends.

From Monday to Thursday, I attended all classes, and completed all assignments, but on Friday mornings, I woke to the Spanish sunrise, tidied up the apartment, and headed directly to the bus or train station.

I visited, photographed, and studied important cultural centers in central and southern Spain, such as Cordoba, Granada, Ronda, Marbella, Madrid, Segovia, and the Balearic island of Mallorca.

Mallorca | Balearic Islands

Cordoba | Roman Bridge

Granada | Alhambra

Segovia | Alcazar

Ronda | Tajo de Ronda

Trujillo | Francisco Pizarro statue

San Lorenzo de El Escorial | El Escorial

Tarifa | Baelo Claudia Roman Ruins

Long holiday breaks

On longer holiday breaks, I went on more adventurous trips, such as Lisbon and the Algarve region in Portugal for surfing, or across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers, Morocco. One particular trip, I rode the Marrakech Express and hired a guide in order to cross the Atlas Mountains, entering the Sahara Desert, and riding a camel east toward the Algerian border.


Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal | Surf break

Algarve region | Southern Portugal


Tangier | Morocco

Water man | Marrakesh, Morocco

Jemaa el Fnaa Market | Marrakesh