By Karen Billing
Carmel Valley resident and world-record traveler Bill Altaffer recently went around the world in 50 days. His trip included travels through Russia, China and North Korea.
His journey began in St. Petersburg, Russia, with a small group of six Americans through Valor Tours, supported by MIR Corporation in Seattle. The group was on a 29-day tour of the 13 “Hero Cities” of Russia — Ukraine and Belarus. The cities were honored as Hero Cities for the unique bravery of their citizens; the former Soviet Union lost close to 27 million people in World War II.
Traveling by train, Altaffer saw the “fairy tale glow of lights on Russian Orthodox domes” in Moscow; Volgograd, the former Stalingrad where one of the most important battles resulted in Hitler’s first major defeat on the Eastern Front; and Novorossiysk where, in 1942, a small unit of Soviet soldiers were able to defend the beachhead for 225 days.
They were the first American tour group to visit the Sudak Fortress in Kerch on the Crimean peninsula. The extensive underground fortress was built using proceeds from the sale of Alaska.
Altaffer visited the Kiev concentration camp Babi Yar where more than 30,000 Jews were murdered and Minsk, the capital of Belarus, “a living testimony to the atrocities of WWII where half of its population perished.” While he visited many war museums and memorials, the Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War was the largest of its kind in the world and especially sobering was the Yama Memorial (the Ditch) that memorialized 5,000 Jews killed in 1942.
From Minsk, Altaffer flew 14 hours via Dubai to Zhengzhou, China.
“We were among the few foreigners in the interior of China,” Altaffer said. “If you have not been to China in the last few years, it has changed. There are more modern and clean attractions everywhere. Resort hotels are everywhere and there are many top restaurants.”
His group visited Luoyang, the home of Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple and Mount Huashan, one of the five sacred Taoist mountains.
“Narrow stone stairs, some with dizzying vistas, lead up the steep crags and temples, statues and pavilions are tucked among the rocks,” Altaffer said of Mt. Huashan.
They flew to Lijiang in the Yunnan Province, an alpine hamlet near the northern tip of the Himalayas, where they saw the Black Dragon Pool Park with 500 varieties of flowers and China’s first national park Pudacuo, which has wetlands surrounding two lakes and is home to more than 100 endangered species.
They drove to Zhongdian and to the Tiger Leaping Gorge above the turbulent Yangtze River, then took a four-hour flight through Kunming to the ancient city of Ping Yao. Ping Yao is surrounded by a city wall 6.4 km long with 72 ornate towers, known as the first city in North China and no vehicles are allowed in the city.
From Beijing, they flew to North Korea, where Altaffer has been five times. Their Korean International Travel Agency guides met them at the airport for their 10-day trip, the limit for Americans.
They saw Ancient Buddist temples, the 105-story pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel and watched the Arirang show known as the Mass Games, recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest spectacle of people anywhere in the world.
They traveled to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) with South Korea. There, hot water is available only once or twice a day, there’s a lack of easy access to electric plugs, the state holds onto your passport and you must present flowers and bow to the statutes of great leaders, Altaffer said.
“Walking around on your own will not happen. Also, it may bother you to be completely unreachable to the outside world,” Altaffer said.
The group visited Kumsusan, the Sun’s Memorial Palace, which Altaffer described as one of the top five experiences of his life.
“Words cannot describe it,” Altaffer said.
Photos are not allowed so he has no evidence of its grandeur — tons of marble, manicured gardens and people-movers. He said visitors must deposit all of their items at a cloak room, bow multiple times and move in a military-style group.
“Most in my group agreed it was like going to a different planet, such as Mars, with people on it, but truly at the other end of the travel spectrum,” Altaffer said.
Altaffer holds the world record for visiting the most UNESCO World Heritage sites (892 of 936), as well as being the third most-traveled person in the world. (World Heritage sites are natural and cultural places that are considered to have “outstanding universal value.”) He’s visited all 192 UN countries, plus 300 island groups, exhausted 14 passports and 130 visas, surfed on every continent and skied on seven of them, visited both the North and South Poles and has been to Siberia 20 times.