Amazing Places: The Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan

I will start to post short write-ups about some of the amazing places that I have visited over my past trips.

This post is on the The Gates of Hell (also known as Darvaza Crater) located in the hot, expansive Karakum desert of central Turkmenistan.

The locals have dubbed the cavern "The Door to Hell"
The locals have dubbed the cavern “The Door to Hell”

The Gates of Hell were created in 1971 when a Soviet drilling rig accidentally punched into a massive underground natural gas cavern, causing the ground to collapse and the entire drilling rig to fall in.  Having punctured a pocket of methane gas, poisonous fumes began leaking at an alarming rate. To head off a potential environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight. The crater hasn’t stopped burning since.

The diameter of the crater is 69 m, and its depth is 30 m.  Its glow can be seen for kilometers around.

I was here in June of 2013 on a 30-day Central Asia overland trip.  We camped overnight nearby.

View of the camp from the top of a small hill nearby
View of the camp from the top of a small hill nearby
To avoid poisonous gas discharge, they lit the gas and thought that the fire would burn all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning today, after 42 years of burning continuously.
We can walk all around the crater, as close as we wanted.  There are no guard rails.
This was as close as I wanted to get. Any closer was too hot (and unsafe).
This was as close as I wanted to get. Any closer was too hot (and unsafe).


What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

P1100879My travel friend recently sent me a link on a TED talk that was very interesting.  It is on “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” by Robert Waldinger.  Robert is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development where they had just completed the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For 75 years, they tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and asking them all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.

So, what have they learned from the tens of thousands of pages of information that they have collected since 1938?  Well, the lessons aren’t about the wealth or the fame or the their success from working harder and harder. The conclusion from this 75-year study is: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. 

The study learned that there are three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.  It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community, are happier, they are physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.  And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.  People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

The second big lesson that they learned is that it is not just the number of friends you have, and it is not whether or not you are in a committed relationship, but it is the quality of your close relationships that matters.  It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.  For example, high-conflict marriages, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced.

The third big lesson that they learned about relationships is that good relationships do not just protect our bodies, but they protect our brains as well.  Being in a securely attached relationship to another person in our old age is protective.  When people feel they can really count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.  And those good relationships do not have to be smooth all the time.  Older couples can bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments did not take a toll on their memories.

So the message is that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being.  The people  who are the happiest in retirement are the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates.

The TED talk closed with a quote from Mark Twain.  More than a century ago when he was looking back on his life, and Mark Twain wrote: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

As we move to our next chapter of our lives, we have to remember that the good life is built with good relationships.

Moving Head Office in early 2017

IMG_1959Our company announced late last year that our head office will be moving a few blocks to the new Metrotower III at the heart of Metrotown, from our current 30+ year old tower west of Metrotown.  Last week, employees had an opportunity to take a quick tour of the facilities.

The new office tower is a LEED-platinum building with all the modern amenities.   We will occupy the majority of the 29 floors while leasing the rest.

The exciting news for me personally is that this new head office will be literally a 2-minute walk from our current townhouse.  I can potentially see my office space from our living room window.  And the view of the office tower from the 27th floor where we had the tour was quite panoramic.

There is also discussions about a possible implementation of a phased retirement program, allowing eligible employees to work 3 days a week to transfer knowledge to younger employees.

With these two new developments in my work place, my retirement plans may change.







A Fantastic trip to the Middle East

This Emirati woman was not shy to have her photo taken with us.
This Emirati woman was not shy to have her photo taken with us.

We’ve been back home for nearly two weeks now since our early new year trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Qatar, and we are finally getting our routine back.  I usually like to get our trip photos sorted, edited, and put into trip albums with detailed captions right away so that I don’t forget the details of the trip.  I also like to do a bit of research on wikipedia on the background of a few photos that I find interesting looking back at home.  Some people may think of it as work, but I get pleasure in organizing the trip photos, learning more about what we experienced, and “writing a photo essay” about it.

The trip was quite amazing, as our itinerary worked out perfectly as planned, and we did not face any difficulty during our travels.  The international and 3 regional flights were great, we had no issues with any of the car rentals in all 3 countries, the infrastructure (metro, bus, highways, hotels) were excellent, and the people was really friendly.

We enjoyed the modern architecture and the opulent sights of the UAE and Qatar, and we enjoyed the wonderful mountain and desert scenery of Oman.  We did mostly sightseeing in big cities, with a bit of bike riding in Dubai, and we did quite a bit of hiking in Oman. What we liked the most about this trip was our freedom to explore these 3 countries at our own pace with absolutely no hassle from the locals and no large crowds.  And the weather was perfect!

As with our past trips, we will have to write detailed trip reports at a later date.  For now, here are a few more of our favorite photos:

They helped us take some photos
The Empty Quarter in Oman
Starting our 3-hour trek to Wadi Nakhr and the Balcony Walk
Starting our 3-hour trek to Wadi Nakhr and the Balcony Walk
The cluster of beautiful architectural buildings as seen from the road leaving the Presidential Palace
The cluster of beautiful architectural buildings iin Abu Dhabi
The Corniche, a long seaside promenade that curves around Doha Bay and affords pretty views of Palm Tree Island and the city's skyscrapers. Many locals and western expats stroll along the Corniche in the afternoon. We met an Australian who moved to Doha as a school teacher and is enjoying her lifestyle very much. She has no plans to move back.
The Corniche in Doha



2015 Year End Review

Asphalted road .Forward to the New Year 2015

We are just a few days away from a New Year, and one sleep away before we fly to the Middle East for a 15-day trip to explore 3 countries there.  2015 has been a huge transitional year for us.  Here are some of the major events for our family:

January – our daughter moved out to live on her own and with her boyfriend at Olympic Village.  It was nice to be able to help her set up the condo and visit her as an adult.  Our family house of over 23 years was put on the market, and within 7 days, it was sold for a very good price with competing offers.

February – We were very busy getting rid of our stuff and preparing for our big move.  Our initial arrangement with my brother-in-law to rent their recently purchased condo fell through, but we were very fortunate to find a brand new townhouse across from Metrotown to rent for a reasonable price.  Our son got his work visa approved, and soon we saw him off to London, England, to start a new career in investment banking with a major bank.  We moved into the new townhouse on Feb 25, allowing a 5-day overlap before we hand over the keys to the new owners of our house.

March – 4 days after we moved out of our house and started to live in the townhouse, we flew to London to attend our son’s MBA convocation at Oxford University, and to visit his new home in a leased flat in central London.  Afterwards, we took a train to visit Belgium and Luxembourg for a few days before flying to Dublin to visit Ireland and Northern Ireland with a rental car for 2 weeks.

April – We settled down at our new townhouse and explored our new neighborhood.  I cycle 5 minutes to work, and my wife skytrain to work downtown.  We tried out some new restaurants nearby, and were happy to discover how convenient it is to live so close to all the amenities.  We hardly ever use the car to do chores.  We tried out the strata unit’s exercise gym, and jogged to Central Park for exercise whenever we had the time, in addition to playing badminton 3 times a week, which are the only times we drive our car.

May – My mother-in-law became ill and passed away quite suddenly. It was very sad for the whole family.  There were many family matters to attend to, including arranging for the funeral.  It reminded us of the frailty of life.

June – The weather got much better and days much longer.  Since I have so much more free time with zero home or yard maintenance, I signed up for several hiking Meetup groups and participated in many hikes on the weekend.  We also flew to Whitehorse, Yukon with a credit card 2-for-1 flight promotion, and traveled on the “Golden Circle” route with hiking in Kluane National Park and sightseeing in Skagway, Alaska for 6 days.

July – We started to ride our bikes every weekend to explore different neighborhoods around Greater Vancouver, just like what we had done 4 or 5 years ago.  We have a Greater Vancouver bicycle route map that we highlight each and every path we rode.  We also continued to sign up for more hikes via the Meetup groups, and we have met many interesting people through these activities.  Our sister’s partner treated us on a sailing excursion with his friend’s sailboat and had a wonderful bonding time.

August – We trained hard in July and August to prepare for the annual BC 55+ Games (a 24-sport event to encourage BC seniors to stay active in participation and in competition).  This year was my 3rd year participating in the sport of badminton (2nd year for my wife), and we both did very well, earning 2 medals each in our age category events.

September – We took a 3-week trip to the Italian Dolomites and the Greek Islands with another couple from Brampton, Ontario, that we met on previous trips.  It was a great trip with lots of fantastic hiking, sailing, activities, culture, food, and companionship.  Visiting world wonders of Santorini and Meteora were part of the highlights.

October – The weather was still very nice in Vancouver when we came back from our trip, so we filled our time with many more outdoor activities. I found time to sign up for more Meetup groups of different interests, such as Travel Hacking and Blogging.  We also entered a Masters level badminton tournament at the Vancouver Racquets Club where the best of the BC players play.

November – I decided to start a blog .  We brainstormed for a nice and appropriate domain name to buy.  Once I bought the domain name, along with a hosting plan, I was able to quickly get the site up and running within an hour.  It was fun to learn a new skill and put my creative hat on to create something from scratch.  I attended a Travelers Century Club meeting in Vancouver to hear great stories on exotic places of travel and enrolled in some weekly exercises for the core.

December – Between learning more features and tools with WordPress, playing badminton, and meeting new friends that arrived in Vancouver in their camper truck that we met in Yukon in June, and who are in the midst of traveling the world for the past 8 years, Christmas came quickly.  We had several get-together dinners with friends and families.  Our son did not come home for Christmas, but with technology like Skype, distance does not matter to our family bonds.  With the recent terrorist threats around the world, cheap air tickets were everywhere to be had. We bought return air tickets to Paris for $670 each for next May, and we were able to complete our detailed trip itinerary and booked all the hotels within a few evenings.  We tried to fit a trekking trip to Ladakh, India for next September with my sister-in-law and her partner, but the timing did not work, and we decided to visit Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion instead.  We have now 2 trips 85% planned for 2016, plus the one that we are leaving tomorrow afternoon to United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Qatar!

We’ve had a busy and hectic 2015, and we are looking forward to potentially more positive changes next year!

Happy New Year!

2015-2016 change represents the new year 2016 three-dimensional rendering


Decluttering & Becoming Minimalist

When we decided to sell our 3,600 square-foot house and downsize to a 1,300 square-foot townhouse, we knew that we had to get rid of a lot of stuff that we have collected over the past 22 years.  We already got rid of all the toys that we have bought over the years when the kids outgrew them.  And we regularly donate our gently used clothing and household items to the Big Brothers and Developmental Disability Association.  But we still had lots of memorabilia, old camping equipment, obsolete electronic equipment, seldom used kitchen applianceP1070627s, and old photo albums.

Once we listed our house for sale, we had no choice but to sort all of our furniture and personal stuff into 4 categories: keep, sell, recycle, and garbage.

Soon, we are answering calls and emails from potential buyers from Craigslist, and driving endless runs to the neighborhood Value Village and to the city dump.  Lucky for us, we made about $3,900 from selling the piano that our kids learned to play music, large furniture such as our king-sized bed and teak wood bedroom set, numerous book shelves, stuff stored above our garage ceiling and basement, and much more.  We felt good donating many useful household items to Value Village.  The memorabilia was the most difficult stuff to let go, but we learned from a friend to take photos of these items such that they will remain in our memory but will not take up space in our new home.

After the whole exercise was done, we felt much “lighter” and not weighed down from all of our stuff.  We have read about being minimalist, and we actually took steps to declutter our lives for better lifestyle.

Here’s an interesting blog article about 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own.  We found it hard to believe that “Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on non-essential goods”, in other words, on items they do not need!

We are so glad that we have undertaken the effort to simplify our lives and not be consumed by “consumerism”.



Rent vs Own – Our experiences after 10 months

In our previous post, we discussed our decision to rent instead of buying after downsizing our family home of over 22 years.  As we head towards the New Year, we did a quick summary of how we have fared financially after living in a rental townhouse for about 10 months.P1070553

We figured that the we are saving about $1,400 per month in living expenses in our rental home as compared to living in our previous owned home.  This can be broken down as follows:

  • property tax, water & sewer utility $420
  • heating and electricity $100
  • home insurance $180
  • vehicle depreciation & fuel of less driving $50
  • house maintenance & amortized appliance costs $500
  • lawn and landscape maintenance $75
  • parking at work $75

From the proceeds of our house sale, we calculated that we just need to achieve a 1.4%  after tax return (at our marginal tax rate) to pay for our net rent expense.  At this time, this net rental expense is far less than the dividend incomes we are earning from our investments.

We cannot determine if the overall rent vs own strategy will work in our favour in the long term yet.  The capital gain of Vancouver real estate versus the capital gain of our investments will require a longer time horizon to determine which is a better investment strategy.

So far, we are happy with our chosen investment vehicle, and are enjoying the lifestyle of urban and maintenance-free living.

P.S.  There are many opinions on this topic out there.  Here’s one we read this morning ….  He does a good job comparing the two.






Housing Decisions

One of the big decisions when contemplating retirement is deciding where to live after retirement.  There are many options: 1) stay in the present home, 2) downsize and buy a smaller house/townhouse/condo, or 3) rent a house/townhouse/condo. With 2 of the 3 options above, one can also choose to move to a different city, or to a different area within the same city.

There is an article in today’s Vancouver Sun that talks about the rising demand for high-end seniors housing among Chinese-Canadians and Chinese-Americans, which is breaking the stereotype that Asian seniors want to live with their children. Traditionally, “multiple generations living under the same roof is supposed to be ultimate symbol of the Confucianist ideal of filial piety”, but nowadays, they prefer to live, eat, and shop close to one another instead.  Those who stay together in one house is doing it because of cost and shared resources.  Development companies are now building more upscale senior homes and marketing them as lifestyle experiences.

Our family have never considered to live together under one roof. Our son, like us when we graduated from university, wanted to experience living in a different city (he is actually experiencing living in a different country).  Our daughter also wanted freedom away from her parents.  For us, we like the idea of renting a strata home so that we don’t have maintenance issues.  We also calculated that it is more cost effective to rent than to own based on the high real estate prices of Vancouver.  There are lot less taxes, utilities and expenses with renting, and we feel that we can do better investing in financial assets than sitting on a large equity on a house. Renting also allow us the flexibility to try living in another area of Vancouver, or store our belongings to travel for a year or two.  So, renting turned out to be our decision for now.




Long Term Thinking

My wife asked me last night whether I was worried about our retirement plans after the big downturn in the stock market for the past couple of weeks.  The TSX just dropped 5% over the past 5 days and our investment portfolio is hurting.  I reminded her that market volatility is nothing new – just think back to 2008-2009 when the market was down more than 40% at one time.  We must think of the long term.

The following chart is one of my favorite running stats on the stock market:SPX Time Frames

On any given trading day, there is a 54% chance that the market will go up, and 46% will go down.  Over a period of 1 year, the probability is 74%/26%.  Over 10 years, it goes to 94%/6%.

I think the stats for Canada is even more impressive.  I think the probability of negative returns over 10 years is zero.

So, there is nothing to worry about.  Just keep enjoying our Next Chapter journeys.