A journey to Mecca

The pilgrimage to Mecca, or the “Hajj“, is a once-in-a-lifetime journey required by all followers of Islam. Each year, millions of pilgrims make the journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to pay respects to their religion, resulting in a tidal wave of visitors, traffic and stress on the local economy.

Vimeo user KDMart captures the journey spectacularly in the above video, from the masses of crowds migrating towards Mecca to the circular movement around the Masjid_al-Haram. In real life, the mass of bodies in the high temperature desert can often be a noisy and crowded affair, but in time lapse, the pilgrimage takes on a macroscopic beautiful movement of bodies and nature, a beautiful display of religion in motion. KDMart does a great job in telling the story.

10 countries Americans need advance visas to visit

advance visaWe live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.

Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites.

  • China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
  • India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
  • Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
  • North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
  • See also: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan


  • Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
  • Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
  • Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
  • See also: Turkmenistan


  • Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
  • Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
  • Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
  • See also: Nigeria, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Suriname

The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thomas Claveirole.

New world’s tallest building planned for Saudi Arabia

tallest buildingLess than two years after the Burj Khalifa opened in Dubai, Saudi Arabia‘s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has announced a new world’s tallest building to be built on the Red Sea resort town of Jeddah. The Saudi building is planned to be 172 meters (564 feet) taller than the Burj and will stand at 1,000 meters or 3,281 feet. It will be part of the $20 billion “megadevelopment” Kingdom City and will house luxury condos, offices, and of course, a hotel. The prince has signed a $1.23 billion deal with the Bin Laden Group, the largest construction firm in Saudi Arabia and unaffiliated with Osama Bin Laden, to complete the new tallest building in five years.

Last month, Gadling explored the 2,717 foot Burj Khalifa. Gadling and Huffington Post blogger Melanie Nayer was one of the first guests at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong earlier this year, currently the highest hotel in the world. Check out our gallery below of the world’s tallest buildings.


Image of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa by Flickr user Jason Rodman.

How to get a second passport

second passportA second passport sounds glamorous. And in point of fact, it is glamorous. There’s no debating the matter. Possessing a second passport gives its bearer bragging rights and the ability to feel a wee bit like a spy, especially when he or she is traveling with both passports in tow.

So you want to get a second passport and feel like an undercover agent? Not so fast. The US State Department allows Americans to obtain a second US passport under two circumstances only: [1] when a particular passport stamp will prevent entry into certain other countries the bearer intends or needs to visit, and [2] when a foreign visa application’s processing time interferes with upcoming international travel.

The first loophole addresses diplomatic barriers to travel. The chief example here is the Israeli passport stamp. Several countries refuse to admit travelers with an Israeli stamp (as well as Jordanian or Egyptian entrance or exit stamps from Israel‘s land border crossings with Jordan and Egypt) in their passports.

With an Israeli stamp in your passport, you may be refused entry to Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Anecdotal evidence from friends and various online sources indicates that some countries are stricter than others, with Lebanon and Syria particularly unbendable. The bearer of a second passport can alternate between passports selectively, thus making sure that he or she will not be refused admission for a years-old Israeli passport stamp at, say, the Damascus airport.

The second circumstance addresses the problem of bureaucratic delays. People with upcoming travel scheduled while their passports are unavailable as a consequence of a foreign visa application (or another procedure involving a foreign government) can apply for and receive a second passport.

The second passport is only valid for two years. In addition to the required form and photographs, applications must include evidence of upcoming travel and a letter explaining the applicant’s specific need for the additional passport.

Pop-up restaurants: dining for a new decade

pop-up restaurantsFirst, it was underground supper clubs. Now, everything’s coming up pop-ups. As with food trucks, this form of guerrilla cheffing borne of economic need has become a global phenomenon. Equal parts dinner party and dinner theater, a pop-up refers to a dining establishment that is open anywhere from one to several nights, usually in an existing restaurant or other commercial food establishment.

The impermanent nature of pop-ups means no real overhead or utilities, and little food cost and labor. They’re not enough to sustain chefs financially, but are instead a great way for them to make a name for themselves and draw some income in between (or during) gigs. Pop-ups also give chefs a chance to stretch themselves, stylistically or ethnically, although some prefer to let local ingredients shine. Most pop-ups give props to sustainability by sourcing product from local farms, which is part of what gives these fly-by-night operations such a wonderful sense of place.

I first heard about pop-ups while couch-surfing in San Francisco two years ago (my own pop-up form of survival after relocating back to the West Coast from Colorado). Chef Anthony Myint, the brainchild behind SF’s Mission Street Food pop-up, which started in 2008, was serving much-lauded, locally-sourced dinners Thursday nights, each time with the help of a guest chef. The food was unpredictable with regard to cuisine or style. The location? Lung Shan, a nondescript Chinese restaurant in the city’s vibrant Mission District (FYI, my favorite place for great, usually cheap, eats). I remember thinking at the time, “More, please.”pop-up restaurantsFast-forward 24 months, and while the pop-up is no more, the venture was so successful, Myint is now co-owner of San Francisco’s popular Commonwealth, as well as newly minted (har) chef at the forthcoming Mission Bowling Club. And Joshua Skenes of Saison, one of Food & Wine magazine’s newly crowned Best New Chefs, started the restaurant as a pop-up.

San Francisco has long been an incubator for innovative ideas involving food, so it’s no surprise pop-ups are, ah, popular there (click here for a recent round-up). Meanwhile, fellow 2011 Best New Chef Jason Franey, of Seattle’s Canlis, has also been getting in on the pop-up. In February, he cooked a one-night gig at “Hearth & Home,” held at one of the city’s Macrina Bakery locations (another tip: if you’re in town, visit Macrina in its own right. Four words: chocolate-orange pound cake).

The pop-up trend–which now applies to boutiques, galleries, clubs, coffee houses, and bars–has gone national. Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Miami: all popular for restaurant pop-ups. Oakland has seen phenomenal response to its Pop-up General Store, which features a twice-monthly gathering of food vendors held at a catering kitchen. Founded by former Chez Panisse Chef Christopher Lee and his former sous chef Saimin Nosrat (of Berkeley’s defunct Eccolo), the venue features all the deliciousness you would expect when a group of mostly former Chez Panisse cooks and food artisans get together and prepare things to eat.
pop-up restaurants
Pop-ups are even crossing the pond. The New York Times reports that, starting today, Singapore is sending some of its top chefs and a pop-up kitchen on a yearlong trip around the world, with nine stops planned in Moscow, Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi, Sydney, and Dubai. Dubbed Singapore Takeout, the goal is to showcase the city’s eclectic, multi-ethnic cuisine. The kitchen is a converted 20-by-eight-foot shipping container. Also hitting the road is chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se. He’ll be featured in a ten-day pop-up at Harrods, London later this summer.

Tip: Due to the nature of pop-ups, the best way to find them is to Google the words, “pop-up restaurant, ____ (city).” You can also go to Pop up Restaurants for news. Get popping!