What Are The Odds This Is True?

So here’s a thought for you.

According to a recent visit to the German History Museum, at its apogee, the Roman army had 400-500 thousand troops to protect the empire’s 50-60 million inhabitants.

Today, the United States military has ~1.5 million active duty personnel and a similar number of reservists (source) to protect its roughly 300 million strong population.

Interestingly, this is roughly the same ratio of 1 soldier per 100 citizens. This is only two data points and does not a trend make, but I wonder if there’s some sort of permanent ratio that is simply the cost of being the world’s policeman – and it’s independent of technology/politics/history/etc.



I’m 1,000 meters above the earth and falling at 5 meters per second. Actually, it’s not just me – Wendy’s there too, plus almost 20 unbathed French, German and Japanese tourists.

The funny thing is that I have no idea that we’re falling. We’re not accelerating so I can’t feel anything. Despite the fact that the air is in front of my face – no windows here – I can’t hear any rushing or anything. And the martian landscape we’re above gives no clues as to depth. Add in the fact that the balloons around us are both going up and down and I’d have no idea which direction we were moving if our pilot didn’t tell us.

Cappadocia from above

A balloon ride over Cappadocia is an essential means of seeing the landscape. Every morning almost a thousand people go up in 72 different balloons; it’s the largest collection of balloons found anywhere outside of balloon festivals.

You arrive early to watch them inflate in the pre-dawn twilight.

Balloon inflating

Depending on the whims of your pilot, you might then rocket to a few hundred meters and watch the other balloons rise. And I should add that you have no idea where you’re going to go; your course is set by the vagaries of that morning’s wind.

Balloon taking off


Our pilot then dropped down into one of the many ravines that dot the landscape. We all watched speechless as he glided over ledges and dropped down into canyons that contain thousand year old cave dwellings. We could have literally reached out and touched them or plucked walnuts from trees. You can get a sense of it about halfway through this video:

Our pilot then rose quickly to 1000 meters where the temperature is noticeably lower and we got a profound sense of just how thin the bottom of a balloon’s basket is and how far we were from the ground…

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

Landing is also an interesting time. Since nobody knows where you’re going to land, a fleet of chase vehicles are following you around as you fly. When you land, a trailer pulls up directly underneath you and the basket drops into place. Very professional.

A quick glass of sugary fermented grapes masquerading as champagne and you’re back to your hotel. And it’s not even 8:30 am yet.


In the distance, looming over all of Cappadocia, is the massive volcano that deposited all the rock and ash that makes the area so unique. Except that according to our guide – and one should never fully trust a guide in this touristy an area – there were actually three simultaneous volcanos that flooded the area with ash and lava millions of years ago.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a little bit of miscommunication here between geologists and the tourist industry. I mean, think about the word “simultaneous”. For type A people like me, it’s got a pretty clear meaning. At exactly the same moment (define it as the time taken for an atom to change state, a hummingbird’s wings to flag; whatever nano-scale small increment of time you want…), two or more identical things need to be happening.

Now imagine you’re a geologist. You spend your time wondering how a four billion year old rock evolved and most things take millions of years to occur. Unless your one of those adrenaline junkies who studies volcanos and earthquakes, it’s likely that in your entire career you’re going to see nothing happen. All the action has either occurred in the past or is set for the future. That continental drift ain’t fast enough for you to observe. On any given day, it’s the academic equivalent of watching paint dry.

So maybe, just maybe, when the geologists talk about “simultaneous” volcanos they really meant that three volcanos, only separated by a few hundred thousand years, formed the valley. I mean, they could be forgiven for getting carried away in the excitement of a few things happening in less than a few million years and calling it “simultaneous”. In the grand scheme of four billion years of volcanos blowing apart and reforming the earth, that’s a pretty inconsequential error.

But I digress; it’s just one thought that ran through my head as we were in the bus riding from site to site.

And there’s a lot to see in Cappadocia.

Let’s start with those thousands of Star Wars-style (despite any protestations by your guides, none of it was filmed in Turkey) rock-carved dwellings that are ubiquitous. Some have even been converted into hotels:

Cave Dwellings at Goreme Open-Air Museum

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

These were built by early Christians; when anyone invaded, they would rush underground to various cities they had built. The area is literally pocked with multi-layered underground cities. At Derinkuyu you can go eight floors undergound and explore countless booby traps. Interestingly, no one knows how they disposed of their bodily wastes…

There are also vast crumbling castles. The ruins of Cavusin were used from the 9th century until the Ottomans. Erosion gradually pulled down the mountain’s facade and revealed all the dwellings there:

Old Dwellings in Cavusin

And the similarly ruined castle of Uchisar looks like a failed cross between Mont St. Michel and Kowloon Walled City:

Uchisar Castle  

It also happens to have one of the best views of the area…

View from Uchasir Castle

…and the view from the neighbouring Cafe at Argos is one of the best views you’ll ever find in a cafe (if I could afford it, I’d stay at the associated Argos In; mindblowing place).

View from Cafe at Argos In Cappadocia

The region also abounds with numerous stream-filled canyons, almost all of which can be hiked. It’s fun to descend from the dusty plains into the tree-lined bottoms. At some points you actually have to hike narrowly through ancient hacked-out caves or water-eroded tunnels. Also, beware that nothing is marked clearly; you occasionally come to cliffs and have to backtrack:

Goreme Open-Air Museum

Ihlara Valley

Pigeon Valley

Finally, since Cappadocia was once covered in water and composed of different layers of sediment, the rocks have eroded at different rates and left some pretty incredible – and almost unbelievable – shapes behind:

Balanced Rocks

Rock structures


Those early settlers were mostly Christians who excelled at creating churches. There are hundreds of them; when some of them break, the Turkish authorities don’t even bother to fix them or seal them from the elements:

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

The earliest recorded cave paintings come from the 9th century and are fairly simple:

Inside church

However, over the next two centuries they got increasingly sophisticated:

Church at Goreme Open-Air Museum

When the Muslims came, they began a process of gradual assimilation and slowly exercised their power over the locals. Since Muslims aren’t allowed to worships idols, Christians weren’t allowed to paint eyes on their saints:

Church in Ihlara Valley

What did these people do to survive? Farming was pretty common – and you can see it pretty much unaltered from how it was likely practiced then (the following photo is actually an orchard amongst many dwellings and rocks):

Orchard and field

But the real money was in dovecotes. This is a polite way of saying that the locals earned their keep by collecting bird shit. They would create caves that contained numerous alcoves for pigeons and then brick them in:

Dovecote in Pigeon Valley

Drawing on Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

The red paint apparently attracted the pigeons; once a year they would go in and collect all the guano. Erosion gives the casual tourist a sense of what the alcoves looked like:


Nowadays it is all tourism, all the time. In fact, the main city – Goreme – is literally built out of the old dwellings (as are Uchasir and Cavusin):



If you look at all the photos above, you may noticed the complete and utter absence of horses. This would be of no consequence, except that, curiously, “Cappadocia” means “land of beautiful horses”.

If you go on a group tour of the many sites, remember this, as eventually you will be taken to a jeweler to watch onyx be carved (as a prelude to shopping!). This trinket will then be offered to the first person who can recite the meaning of Cappadocia.

Also make sure to remember that speed is more than accuracy here as your judge is not a native English speaker. If you, as I did, should yell “land of many horses” or something similar you’re likely to win. And then you, like me, will be the proud owner of an improperly finished paperweight.

If one of you kind readers gets it for Christmas, please enjoy your handmade souvenir, created by a Turkish master who has spent his life – just as his father and grandfather – perfecting the art of turning raw rock into emotion. I’m sure you’ll love it.


Cappadocia is a fantastic place and here are a couple more photos to close:


Pigeon Valley

View from Uchasir Castle


Geography is Destiny

When we visited Laos, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was so (relatively) poor due to its status as a landlocked country.

So I put together the following graphs comparing PPP Adjusted GDP per Capita (IMF or CIA number if IMF not available) for all countries that are not islands (my hypothesis is that they develop differently than continental countries-different political/environmental pressures, etc.) and at least 1,000 sq kilometer in size. I’ve coloured the graphs based on whether the countries are landlocked or not. I’ve skipped North America as there are no landlocked countries.

The results are pretty clear; on average, you’re worse off economically if you’re from a landlocked country.


5 of the 10 poorest countries are landlocked; 11 of the poorest 20. Only 1 of the richest 10 and 2 of the richest 20 are landlocked.


Asia & Middle East
5 of the 10 poorest and none of the 10 richest.



The most even of the bunch. Only 3 of the 10 poorest and 3 of the 10 richest. However, you could argue that Austria wasn’t landlocked for most of its existence (due to the Holy Roman Empire) and than Luxembourg is a statistical outlier due to its small size.


South America

It’s left as an exercise to the reader to interpret the chart below.


Kowloon Walled City (Park)

It’s not on most tourists agenda, but I would highly recommend that if you go to Hong Kong you check out Kowloon Walled City Park.

It’s not the park that’s so interesting, rather it’s what used to be there.

First, some history. In 1841, the Brits took over Hong Kong Island. Understandably, the Chinese were concerned about losing more territory, so they took a small Kowloon fort (dating from 1810) and upgraded it to a walled garrison in 1847. The actual walled area was tiny; only 6.5 acres.

In 1872, the British banned gambling from Hong Kong. The enterprising gamblers simply moved across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon. It was the beginning of that city’s notoriety.

In 1889, the Brits took over the New Territories and gained the land surrounding Hong Kong Island. The Chinese troops were expelled and that was the end of the rule of law in the “Walled City”. Squatters moved in.

In World War II, the Japanese tore down the walls of the city and used the stones to extend the airport runway (the walled city is almost right next to the old airport).

In the 1950’s, heroin boomed and a lot of it was produced in the Walled City and exported throughout the world. Along with it came strip clubs, brothels, casinos, opium dens and – tastiest of all – dog meat stalls.

Since there was no rule of law, hundreds of mom and pop factories opened up in the city. Noodles and candies were made, as well as 80% of the territories fish balls. The tallest smoke stack in the entire city was in the building; 13 stories tall, but you couldn’t tell from the street.

Perhaps the oddest unregulated industry of all was dentistry. In the 1970s, the streets outside were lined with dental clinics:

Dental Clinics in Kowloon Walled City

From the ’60s on wards, the population of Hong Kong boomed and the Walled City followed suit by building up. The whole complex was a giant network of buildings built one on top of the other. At it’s peak, there were 40,000 people living in over 500 buildings on only 2.7 hectares. This entire warren was navigated by 20-30 alleys; there were only 3 working elevators and no running water (It was quite a business to sell water to residents). The tallest buildings were 16 stories tall.

There had been many attempts to tear the site down over the years, beginning in the 1920s by the Brits. In the late ’80s it was finally agreed that it was time to tear the damn thing down as it was becoming a threat/embarrassment to the city. Eviction started in 1992 and in 1994 the site was torn down. Here’s a shot of what it looked like before it was destroyed:

Kowloon Walled City in 1990s

Also, a few years before demolition, a German camera crew shot a documentary about it. Fascinating:

The site is now a park and interpretive center. Where people used to shoot up, locals now do Tai Chi in the morning.

Yamen in Kowloon Walled City

The interpretive center has a few gems in it. Before demolition, the government hired a team of Japanese anthropologists to create a cross section of the site, demonstrating what life was like inside it. Here are some shots of their drawing. Keep in mind that most of these apartments are ~200 square feet in size:

Cross Section of Walled City Cross Section of Walled City

There’s also a bronze model of the site which gives you a sense of how it must have stuck out from the rest of the neighbourhood:

Bronze Model of Walled City

Bronze Model of Walled City

When they were demolishing the site, the wreckers discovered that the original fort, and the cannons (from 1802) next to it, were still there. The entire city had been built around them. They’ve preserved the building (called the Yamen) and it’s now the home to the interpretive center and the heart of the park:


Well worth a visit.

Treasures from the Tokyo National Museum

One of the stereotypes of the Japanese has been that they don’t so much as ‘create’ things as take an original idea from somewhere else and then continuously improve on it until it is perfected. Exhibits A, B & C: the car industry (American and German), consumer electronics (American) and ramen noodles (originally Chinese). Perhaps the ultimate example can be found in Toto’s magical toilets – one of which graces our hotel room.

As we explored the Tokyo National Museum it became evident that Japan is the ultimate remix culture. They’ve adopted ideas from other Asian nations and folded them into their own cultural identity. Buddhism came from the Korean peninsula in the sixth century or so. The Chinese gave Japan painting and calligraphy techniques. Heck, even ramen noodles are originally Chinese.

With that in mind, here are some photos of different sets of items from the museum. Have fun seeing if you can find other cultural references.

Japanese Painting & Drawing

The following are byobu folding screens that were set up temporarily as background decor, for privacy or to stop drafts. They’re a subset of what are called shoheki-ga paintings. The choice of subject was determined by the nature of the room (e.g., castle or temple), it’s function and the style of the times.

Room dividers

Room dividers

I also quite liked the detail in Ishibashi-Yama, Enoshima and Hakone by Kano Yosen-In (1753-1808):

Ishibashi-Yama, Enoshima and Hakone This lovely lady is a ghost; the image is the backdrop of a Kabuki play:Ghost print Kimonos

The museum has a beautiful selection of kimonos. Here are a series of close-ups:Kimono Patterns Kimono Patterns Kimono Patterns Kimono Patterns Kimono Patterns Kimono Patterns Samurai, Armour & Swords

The museum has an interesting description of how the Samurai’s traditions evolved:

The military elite held the political power in Japan for about 700 years spanning from the late 12th century until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Whilst taking the culture of the nobility, the former authority in power, as an example, they absorbed Buddhist- and common culture to create a pragmatic and powerful culture of their own.
The hitatare and kamishimo, originally commoner’s garments, evolved into the formal attire of the bafuku (military government) with time, the kosode kimono and dofuku short coat were also favored by the samurai.
The sword was the single most important equipment for a samurai, and was also appreciated as the best possible gift bestowed or presented to the shogun and the daimyos (feudal lords). Swords were usually worn in pairs of one long and one short type, such as a pair of a tachi with koshigatana, or a katana with wakizashi. Indoors, only the short sword was permitted. The style of sword mountings differed in accordance with the owner’s rank, or with the attire and fashion of the age. Sword mountings, armor, and saddlery were produced with the best available skills of the various genres of decorative arts, such as lacquerware and metalwork. In the Edo period (A.D. 1603 – 1868), military equipments were (sic) treasured and handed down over generations as symbols of social status and historical importance of the individual daimyo clan.

Samurai sword guard; fish theme Samurai Sword Samurai Helmet Samurai Armour at Tokyo National Museum Samurai Armour Samurai Armour Samurai Armour