Mobile Date Mart


If it is autumn in Egypt, it is date season! Red and yellow panicles hang from date palms throughout Egypt. The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is probably the oldest cultivated tree in the world. Archeologist found evidence of cultivation of the date palm more than 7000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Today, Egypt is the number one producer of dates in the world producing yearly around 1.7 million tonnes.

Whether traveling in the Sahara, or Northern Nigeria, or the Pamir Mountains, I always keep a stash of dried dates in my backpack.  They are high in sugar content, fiber, potassium, and protein; a hungry traveller can find peace and sustenance in a cup of tea and a handful of dates.



Cairo in Larnaca

IMG_9135American University in Cairo Press – Facebook posted a short essay on:

“The Story Behind the Book” 

Or read on in October Newsletter:

Mantiqti Arabic Newspaper promotional interview.

Humphrey Davies interview in Arabic



Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo


-From AUC Press 2018 Spring Catalogue

After three years of intense research that was like putting a 1000 piece puzzle together – patience, organisation, identification,  the Field Guide is OUT and available at AUC Press, Oxford University Press, and Amazon. Information about the book launch will be posted within the  week.

This book is a comprehensive study of the history in naming streets of Central Cairo, including Zamalek (Gezira Island). It is the first of its kind. Thank you to all who generously contributed time, information and the ever sought after clue that helped unravel stories of nearly 800 street names.

Tibet, Friendship Highway and more…

5104CC2D-4562-41D9-B124-682CB8F4D89AThe last 8 days of this five week exploration of the lesser routes of the Silk Road in Central Asia and China was spent in the Tibet Autonomous region. Though Tibet is not an official route of the Silk Road, movement between Central Asia, Tibet, India, and China is well documented. Through Central Asia going eastward, one comes in contact with  remnants of the Buddhist religion left from monks and pilgrims crisscrossing the land. So to continue to understand the movement of material culture associated with the migration of peoples, I returned to Tibet Autonomous region to have a broader understanding; however, the region’s history, religion, and culture is rich and complex, this journey and humble post only serves as a grain of sand in this ancient land. 


Map of Tibet Autonomous Region by Chinese Government

Diverse cultures and traditions are fading fast with global homogenisation favouring technology, so it is personally important to experience traditions, culture, food, and languages in a local context rather than in a museum (though I do love collections) or a theme park, (the latter seems to becoming a trend.) Furthermore, last year when traveling through China and Kyrgyzstan my guide/translators became my friends, so I was keen to re-connect in person with Tenzin in Lhasa as I did in Kyrgyzstan with Farhod, and Helen in Xining. 

In this high mountain region of Tibet, arriving at Lhasa Airport at 2.5 miles above sea level was the lowest elevation this week. 


Climbing to the ‘roof of the world’

Fortunately,  the altitude doesn’t bother me, except, I will admit to having Tenzin carry all my things and stopping often to catch my breathe! We head out of the airport to the city of Tsetang. We drive along the muddy, flooding Brahmaputra River also named Yarlung Tsangpo River (flows to the Bay of Bengal) that, this year, has damaged roads and bridges to the high volume of rain. 

If one is to begin at the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism, a visit to Tsetang is vital as it is known as the cradle Tibetan’s civilisation. Tsetang is the capital of ancient emperors of Tibet as Xi’an is the first royal capital to the Han Chinese. Tsetang is overlooked by Mount Gongbori one of the 4 holy mountain in Tibetan Buddhism. One of three caves in the mountainside is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people who resulted from the mating of a monkey and a beautiful ‘she devil’ or monster ogress.


One of three caves in the mountainside is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people In Tsetang

There were many firsts on this trip. The first monastery, Samye, built in 779 CE; the earliest geomantic temple, Tradruk, built in 7th century; the oldest palace, Yumbulagang, built in 7th century; the first time to eat a rose cake in the present. 

Samye, Tibet’s first monastery, is located only 30 km from Tsetang and was founded in 779 CE by King Trisong Detsen.02A4EB38-8564-4FEA-B6BF-AF6CECEA43EE Samye Monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but has been restored to its former glory. The main temple is the only surviving structure. Reconstruction however incorporated the three different styles of Buddhist symbolism: Tibetan, Indian, Chinese. The monetary complex is dedicated to the Indian teachers, Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, whose stupas are located on a nearby mountain.


Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, whose stupas are located on a nearby mountain.


This original painting demonstrates the complex representation of the Buddhist cosmological order at Samye Monastery

Close to the Samye Monastery are the Chimpu hermitage mountain and San-ngag Zimchen Nunnery. Centred around the cave where Indian Buddhist teachers, Guru Rinpoche (8th century) meditated and taught his disciples.  This mountains is one of the few remaining hermitage centres in Tibet where monks and nuns seclude themselves in years of solitary meditation. 


Chimpu hermitage mountain


San-ngag Zimchen Nunnery

The Tradruk Temple on this rainy morning exudes a feeling of tranquility  even though the history of its construction is gruesome as it is said to be built over a seven headed ogress-dragon. 


Inside Tradruk Temple

About 5 kilometers from Tsetang, Yumbulagang Palace is located high on a mountain edge, looking down into the valley one can see a marker in the field that denotes the spot that the monkey turned into a human:992592AA-647D-4929-8D00-94B96C0FB26AYumbulagang Palace served at the first Tibetan palace for Nvatri Tsanpo who descended from the heavens by a ladder and the people built this palace for him. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but reconstructed to its original beauty. 


Shotun Festival 

Last year, my visit to Tibet centred around the sights of Lhasa and the  Shotun Festival or Yogurt Banquet Festival. Read about it here. This year as last year, I walked shoulder to shoulder with thousands of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who chant mantras, thumb prayer beads and spin prayer wheels for the blessing to witness a huge Thangka displayed on the hillside near Drepung Monastery.70695346-792F-4AA3-81B7-E24C01A98C75

It is now time to hit the Friendship Highway, an 830 kilometre highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu passing Mt. Everest. The Friendship Highway connects Lhasa with the Nepal border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge. My travels took me a half way to Nepal. Maybe one day I will return and finish the entire route to Kathmandu. 

After leaving the city of Lhasa,  we drive southeast along the Kyi Chu River, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Tibet name for Brahmaputra). We are headed for the city of Gyantse, 280 kilometres from Lhasa. Before arriving, we will have crossed 3 mountain passes. The first, Kambala Pass at 4700 meters, the vibrant turquoise lake, Yamdrok, comes into view. However the Notion Kangtsang peak of 7191 meters is shrouded in clouds on this very rainy day. Descending from the Kambala Pass, we stop at a small town, the road follows alongside Yamdrok Lake to the small town of Nakartse, for lunch in a lightless local eatery with a picture of Mao  staring down over our table, but it didn’t stop us from slurping up a superb yak noodle soup with ground nuts. 

Villagers along the highway take advantage of the onslaught of Chinese tourists during the summer months. Take a picture with a well-groomed goat or yak or sit next to a giant Tibetan Mastiff for a fee, of course, by why not? There are tourist traps all over the world and why not on the roof of the world? So we stop and enjoy a Tibetan tourist trap: 

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Driving onto the second and highest pass at Kharola Pass, elevation 5600 meters lies under the glacier of over 7000 metres high. Continuing on to the last pass, Semingla Pass at 4800 meters where prayer flags flutter high over the emerald green, man-made lake.

From here it is all down hill and we enter Gyantse town just in time to get permits to visit Pelkhor Chode Monastery the next day. The town is located on the ancient trade routes and the Gyantse Dzong fortress constructed in 1390 guards any approach. (Its walls were the site of a four months siege by the British Invasion in 1904.)


Pelkhor Chode Monastery

—Gyantse Dzong fortress

The Pelkhor Chode Monastery was founded in the 15th century with three Buddhist sects, two of which were Gelugpa and Sakyapa, living compatibly within the complex. Today, only the Gelugpa sect remains at the monastery. The Kumbum Stupa meaning ‘place of a 1000 images’ is one of the largest and highest, 35 metres, found in Tibet. 

Driving on to Shigatse passes through fertile plains of barley and rapeseed fields are near harvest time. We stop at a local farmers house to talk about his success in greenhouse farming. Their warm hospitality lays out masala tea and barley kernels that taste like dried popcorn. 

We have seen nothing but rain since leaving Lhasa so the landscape views have been veiled by low hanging dark clouds. As we arrive in Shigatse and before heading to visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery, we decided to stop at a local bakery and try some egg bread. 0C193A43-0AE5-4AD0-A4AD-9B0D6160FA8E

Shigatse or Xikazi, the Tibetan spelling,  is an ancient city and means ‘a manor for the most fertile soil.’ The main attraction is Tashilhunpo Monastery which is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet. The monastery was founded by  the first Dalai Lama, Genshuzhuba, in 1477 at the foot of Nima Mountain, which laid the foundation for a development of the settlement, Shigatse. The monastery contains the tombs of the Panchen Lamas, most notably the 10th Panchen Lama whose 1989 stupa used 547kilograms of gold. Tashilhumpo’s best known monument is it 80 foot statue of the seated Maitrya Buddha, regarded as the future Buddha of the world. 


Tashilhunpo Monastery

The next day we begin the last leg of my journey in Tibet, a 7 hour drive back to Lhasa. We stopped in at the home of an incense-maker who supplies all the many stores around the country with incense for the daily consumption that is needed for offerings. While we were there, the owner was bundling cartons of incense sticks for people to offer at the monastery.

I asked the owner how he makes the incense, and through Tenzin, my translator, he explained, that from juniper berries that he gathers from the mountains, he makes a paste and adds Tibetan medicine and sandalwood. Then he puts the paste in a hollowed out yaks horn and squeezes out sticks that are left to dry. 

An hour out of Lhasa, our car pulls into the obligatory police security line and out of nowhere a car rams into us. On my last day and visions of being taken to a nearby hospital was not in the itinerary! But fortunately for us, the car was all that was damaged though an ambulance was called for a passenger in the other car.

Last sweet bite for a sweet journey…rose petal cake:28271AF7-ACF0-4E3E-ABF0-893A70258083



(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)




Festivals, Minorities and Landforms in Qinghai and Gansu Provences


Black lines indicate places travelled in Qinghai and Gansu Province

This week was spent with my good friend, Helen. Last year she guided me through Qinghai Provence. This year Helen took me on an 8-day trip through Qinghai Provence and the western Gansu Province to visit ethnic minorities, Huzhu Tu  and Yugur, as well as to attend Tibetan mountain god festivals, Shaman, in three villages around Tongren.  I can’t leave out  the stunning Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park! Much more was on our agenda but this post offers these highlights.


Helen and I at Tongren Museum

China has 55 ethnic minorities and the area in which they live are recognised as autonomous regions, allowing for a certain leeway for local rules and traditions to be observed. So far in this trip, I have visited the Uyghur, Tu, Yugur and Tibetan Autonomous areas in China.

Traveling from Xining to Tongren, we begin to see stupas protrude from the greenery and notice prayer flags on high mountain ridges. We pass one village that is Buddhist and then the next is a Muslim village with minarets raising high above the homes. From one village to another the architecture and lifestyle changes noticeably.

Tongren is home to the Rebgong art which is an important genre of Tibetan Buddhist art. This school consists of Thangka paintings, embossed embroidery, architecture coloured painting, sculptures (see: Xiahe to Xining ). From Tongren, we branch to three villages on a very wet and cold day. We are not sure the if the Shaman festivals will be cancelled or not because of rain…8D279A64-9CAE-4AFE-98B1-26CBA093C45D

The annual Shaman Festival observed by both Tu and Tibetan ethnic minorities express their thanks to the Mountain god who protects them from evil. Through an ancient dance to the god, they pray that the god(s) bless the land with an abundant harvest. The three villages observed three different types of dances. (The following is what I was told about the reasons for the festivals, through an interpreter,  so if this information is wrong, please be so kind as to let me know.)

At the first village, Wu Tun, and although it rained heavily, a solemn dance with unmarried men and women, and children began. Here, they thanked the mountain god for sending the Roc bird (in the story,  flew from India) to protect the people from wild animals and evil.  In Tibetan language this bird is called xia qiong. Also, the dance is for  xia qiong to bless the water, wind, and 5 grains of the Tu and Tibetan villages along the 12 kilometre of the river. 3812AAC3-9947-46C3-8CE6-1572FBC650A235B3CFB9-9B5F-4D1B-9977-EBF65BBF3C616C4735E8-0C3A-4AD3-BFE5-4F8AC6754FB0


At the second village, Lanj Jia, dancing commemorated the war between  Tang Dynasty and Tibet. It is a celebration of  peace between them.  Also a Tubo sacrifice to local gods. This is a military and dragon dance and for men only.



Lawa at Lanj Jia village

In the third village, Ma Ha Ba Tu, celebrations are to commemorate the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, a mixed army of Mongolian and Han Chinese  accepted to enlist in Ming Dynasty in the LuWu valley. The dance celebrates peace and tranquility and to pray for ancestors, life and food. Here I met an 8 year-old girl, Do Jie Zhuo Ma, meaning smart or knowledgeable girl, who stayed with me most of the afternoon until her mother called her to dress for the festival. She asked me, “If you are a grandmother, why do you wear lipstick? Grandmothers don’t wear lipstick.”

Some rituals for the Shaman is to insert steel needles into the cheeks or back of males from 8-45 years. This ritual is usually a one time requirement.


Photo courtesy of Helen, my guide

Each village has a human, named lawa, that goes into a trance and is said to open to the gods and becomes a vessel with the mountain god.Below is a picture of the lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu, being prepared for his transformation and a video of the ceremony where he becomes a vessel for the mountain god.


The lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu

People from the villages:

The rich land of Sunan Yugur Autonoumous Prefecture is located in Hexi Corridor,  (see Lanzhou to Dunhuang) at the northern foot of the Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province. There are more than 30,000people living in Sunan, a third of whom are the Yugur people. Throughout history and today, although the Yugur (not to be confused with Uyghur) group is relatively small, they have been deeply committed to their traditions. 

The Yugur people story begins during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the nomadic tribe migrated from Siberian over the Tien Shan Mountains in search for grass and water, then to the Mongolian Plateau during the end of the first century. This tribe separated and migrated to the Qilian Mountains, assimilated with locals to form the Huihe people, forefathers of the Yugur ethnic group. For nearly 300 years , the Tang Dynasty preserved fundamental peace with the Hiuhu and during this time the Yugur tribe emerged. The Qilian Mountains, natural cover for defence, gave them control of transportation through the Silk Road and they made connection with Central Asia between the 9th and 11th century, and they established the Ganzhou Uyghur Khanate near Zhangye. But it was destroyed and the tribe left the Hexi Corridor. During the 16th century tribes began to migrate eastward, and merged with a branch  Eventually through intermarriage, war, and migration the Yugur ethnic group emerged. 

In Chinese, “Yugur” means wealth and stability. Animal husbandry is the major industry of the Yugur people. The Yugur people believe in the Yellow Sect of Lamaism, their customs and habits are similar to the Tibetans. Only one meal is eaten every day of which their staple foods are primarily rice, wheat and some mixed grain.  Yugur people usually eat beef, mutton, and pork, as well as chicken and camel meat, to which they add some garlic, soy sauce and vinegar.

The Yugur people are renowned for their hospitality. No matter when guests arrive, they will give them a feast. Fragrant tea or milk tea will be immediately presented that lets each guest feel the Yugur people’s friendliness. 

My appointment with Mrs. Ke Cuiling, keeper of Yugur traditions and culture, lived up to the Yugur’s notorious warm welcome and generous hospitality.


Mrs. Me Cuiling in her ethnology museum and showing the woman’s Yugur dress

We were served a feast of Yugur delicacies and at the end the offering of finger glass of traditional barley liquor accompanied with the flicking of liquor to appease the gods and bring blessings to ourselves. 

Like many traditional crafts that are passed down over generations, Mrs. Ke learned the skills from her mother and elder sister from an early age. She worked for many years in the local museum before beginning her own local cultural center. Despite her tight schedule, Mrs. Ke still manages to train young Yugurs in tailoring of traditional clothing, embroidery, and culture during her spare time. Ke Cuiling faces the same problem as traditional artisans face throughout the world that technology and consumerism will erase local and traditional handicrafts. But she is doing something about it by opening opportunities for tourism and summer programs for youth. ( Read: Keeping Yugur Ethnic costume alive.)

Zhangye, meaning extending the arm, is a city in the centre of the Hexi Corridor. Fifty minutes drive and we are in Zhangye National Geopark is located in Sunan and Linze counties in the Quilain Mountain range within the prefecture-level city of Zhangye, in Gansu Provence. Zhangye Danxia is known for the unusual colours of the rocks, which are smooth, sharp and several hundred meters tall. 0E421BB8-B305-47A9-9F0E-577DC480392198465943-458C-4AE6-AC97-02C7DEEC5A4F5B5C5EB0-DB8E-4C14-8295-49646BD6C6E5B597B171-4289-46E8-867B-2CBE1AF6D40DThey are the result of deposits of sandstone and other minerals that occurred over 24 million years. The result, similar to a layer cake, is connected to the action of the same tectonic plates responsible for creating parts of the Himalayan mountains.

Wind, rain, and time sculpted extraordinary shapes, including towers, pillars, and ravines, with varying colours, patterns, and sizes. (Information from Wikipedia)

Of course, one must leave a wish before saying farewell to this awesome geological wonder:DBAE65C1-08B6-4240-859D-E99AD5E0A1AF














(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)