Travel Articles by Brad Olsen

Brad Olsen has been a regular travel columnist for Heartland Healing Magazine for several years. Select PDF versions of "Sacred Destinations by Brad Olsen" are here, along with a sample of World Explorer where Brad Olsen is a Contributing Editor and catalog designer for this magazine.

He is also an occasional contributor to Perceptive Travel magazine, including this article on discovering forbidden archaeology, another on the sexual draw of the Burning Man festival and another about a trip down a river in Laos on a sinking raft.

Brad Olsen travel articles from Heartland Healing. Click on each link to read as a PDF:

  • Interview-HH1-1.pdf The first issue of Hearland Healing featured an interview with Brad Olsen. His column "Sacred Destinations" appeared in every issue since!
  • MontStM-HH1-2.pdf Perhaps the most famous island-castle-monastery in Europe! Visiting Mont St Michel is like walking into a fairy tale.
  • Malta-HH1-3.pdf The prehistoric temples of Malta might just be the oldest in the world. Their ancient mysteries are far from being understood.
  • Fiji-HH1-4.pdf Paradise on earth comes with a cost. 
  • Tsunami-HH1-5.pdf Only 10 days after the Southeast Asian tsunami hit, Brad Olsen was on location digging through the aftermath -- not only the physical destruction, but of people's lives. 
  • Shasta-HH1-6.pdf The Magic Mountain of Northern California.
  • SteAnne-HH2-1.pdf The greatest healing shrine in Canada.
  • DevilsLake-HH2-2.pdf The most famous effigy mound lake in Wisconsin is little known outside the Midwest.
  • Kalalau-HH2-3.pdf Trek along the rugged Kalalau Trail on Kauai to one of the last lawless hippy enclaves in America!
  • Chaco-HH-3.1.pdf This article examines the many mysteries of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, once the largest metropolis in North America, then mysteriously abandoned.
  • Philippines.pdf Take a tour to some of the best islands in the Philippine archipelago.
  • Chautauqua-HH-3.4.pdf One of the oldest gatherings of the mind continues in New York state. Come and see how this venerable event has redefined itself in the 21st century.
  • Burning-Man-HH-4.1.pdf This cover article examines the width and bredth of the social experiment that is Burning Man.
  • BVI-HH-4.2.pdf Take a sailing journey around the British Virgin Islands in the eastern Caribbean. Beware of pirates!
  • 5.4BighornWheel.pdf Explore all the astronomical and spiritual of the world's most famous medicine wheel.
    5.5Angkor.pdf Travel to the most famous ruins of Southeast Asia, and climb Cambodia's most sacred mountain.

World Explorer Articles

Top Four World Pilgrimage Sites
By: Brad Olsen
Pilgrimage is defined as: "1. A Journey to a sacred place or shrine. 2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance." All pilgrimages to holy places share the same purpose-the search for God and/or the self-a quest for interpersonal communion with a higher force. In some traditions, the destination is left deliberately ambiguous, whether the goal of the journey is actual or merely symbolic. Tibetan tradition relates the mythical Shambahala, or Shangri-La, which may have existed in ancient times, but might also have been an intentional metaphor for a state of consciousness. Throughout history, all world religions and indigenous tribes have encouraged a pilgrimage somewhere. Christians seek miracle cures at Lourdes, France or Chimayo, New Mexico; Muslims trek to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia; Hindus journey to the Ganges River, India; Buddhists and other faiths to Mount Kailas, Tibet; and Jews worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. Early tribes and indigenous people primarily sought the wonders of nature for their spiritual quests, such as Australian aboriginals venturing to Ayers Rock; American Indians to sacred mountains in North America; or prehistoric South Americans to Lake Titicaca.

1. The River Ganges The River Ganges is Mother Earth to millions of Hindus. She is commonly referred to as "Ganga Ma" or "Mother Ganga." The Ganges is an extremely sacred river, a highly revered and physically dynamic life force to the Hindu faith. Millions throughout India make a pilgrimage every year. Through the centuries, countless yogis have left countless blessings along her banks. Thousands of temples adorn the shores of the Ganges, and every day bells ring to call the devout to worship and bathe at their nearest Ganga temple. Hindus believe that washing the body in the River Ganges removes karmic blocks and cleanses past sins. To a new disciple, a Hindu would say, "Don't mind the floating garbage-it is merely an indication of Mother Earth's presently polluted state-have faith, jump in and let yourself be engulfed by her warm embrace!" Somehow, despite widespread pollution, scientific tests on water purity remain inexplicably high around the Ganges' many bathing centers. Hundreds of bathing and burial ghats grace the shores of the Ganges, with the highest concentration in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares). Varanasi is India's holiest, and perhaps oldest, city. The Hindus believe the souls of those who die and are cremated along the shores of the River Ganges will be transported immediately to paradise. Varanasi is a destination to which every devout Hindu attempts to make at least one pilgrimage, especially just prior to death. A slow boat trip on the River Ganges at dawn, past 1,500 temples, shrines, palaces, burning ghats and bathing ghats, where thousands of pilgrims come daily to wash away their sins, is one of the greatest spiritual sights in the world. Rishikesh is a famous town on the Ganges, the name literally translated as "village of seers." Anyone who goes there knows Rishikesh is blessed with a sacred vibration. For centuries it has attracted saints, sadhus and all those wishing to become rishis, or seers. So significant are the seers that there is even an eye hospital in town for those needing improvement on their physical eyesight! A multitude of Ganges temples grace the east side of the city near dozens of ashrams. Rishikesh is located in the Himalayan foothills, close to where the River Ganges emerges from the mountains. The riverside city of Sarnath is where Buddha preached his first sermon about "the middle way" after having attained enlightenment. Travelers may view ruins of the old city and spiritual sites such as the old Dhamek Stupa (a little Chinese Temple) and the Mulagandhkuti Vihara, which is a magnificent Buddhist temple with murals depicting the life of Buddha. Also in Sarnath is the Asoka Pillar with a lion capital, which has been adapted as the state emblem of the Republic of India. Sarnath is located only six miles north (10 km) of Varanasi.

2. Mount Kailas The majestic Mount Kailas soars 22,028 feet (6,608 m) above the remote western Tibetan Plateau already high at 15,500 feet (4,650 m) above sea level. The sacred peak is situated far away from any life, in a sort of lunar landscape. Surrounding the lingim-shaped mountain is a pilgrimage route known as the kora, a 32-mile (52 km) path that circles the mountain. Prostrating themselves on the ground along the way, pilgrims have come to Kailas for thousands of years to behold this profoundly spiritual place. Most come to walk the kora route. The biggest challenge of the trek is crossing the 18,300-foot (5,490-m) Dolma La Pass. Stupas, icons and prayer flags from several faiths adorn the kora on the outer slopes of Kailas. Both Hindus and Buddhists consider a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas as the highest point of a spiritual life. Kailas represents Asia's most sacred mountain to millions of faithful adherents of several religions. Festivals abound year-round at Mount Kailas. Perhaps the most prominent celebration is the spring full-moon festival honoring Buddha's birthday, enlightenment, and death. Drumming through the night, Khumba monks chant and dance under the silver glow of the moon, joined by those from other religious persuasions. As all faiths merge into one while under the white domed power of Kailas, an ongoing drama of renunciation and revelation continues as it has for thousands of years.
The 11th-century Tibetan saint Milarepa spoke of this peak: "The prophecy of the Buddha says, most truly, that this snow mountain is the navel of the world, a place where the snow leopards dance." Just over the border from India, Mount Kailas is the source of four great rivers: the Karnali (Ganges), the Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra. All four rivers flow down from the lofty heights of Kailas like a giant mandala extending thousands of miles into the Indian seas. Many spiritual seekers believe that Mount Kailas represents the crown chakra of the earth. At the base of the mountain are two lakes, one shaped like the moon and one like the sun. From the solar lake flow the four rivers in four directions. Mount Kailas is one of the most traveled pilgrimage routes for Hindus, Bon Po, Jains, Buddhists and hearty travelers of all nations. Several well-trodden routes coming from all directions are well known by native Tibetans and relocated Chinese people. The sacred peak is known alternatively as the holy "Mount Sumeru" or "Meru." Tibetans call the mountain Kang Rimpoche, meaning "precious jewel of the glacial snows." From afar, the snow formations on the top of the mountain resemble a palace, complete with icy domes and turrets. Pilgrims wishing to walk the kora route around the mountain must travel on foot over high and desolate terrain for five days. Altitude sickness is more of a rule than an exception. Prepare for extremely cold weather and a lack of basic necessities, including shelter, food and fresh water.

3. Mecca and Medina In the early 600's CE, when the soon-to-be-prophet Mohammed lived in Mecca as a trader, the city was a small but crowded place of about 3,000 people. Mecca resides in a forbiddingly dry and sandy valley surrounded by a double range of desolate and treeless hills. The only thing that made life possible here was the well of Zamzam in the town square. Also in the middle of town was the Kaba, a boxlike shrine that contains a sacred black meteorite. Mecca and the Kaba would soon become the holiest place in the world to followers of the new Islamic religion. Mohammed moved his ministry to Medina soon after his revelations began in 610 CE. The principle revelations were conveyed to Mohammed through the archangel Gabriel. These visions continued with him up until his death in Medina in 632. By that time, Islam had swept aside all other religions on the Arabian peninsula. Within a century after the Prophet’s death, the Arabs ruled a vast empire stretching from Spain to India and north into Russia. Medina became the new administrative center for the expanding Muslim empire. As the adopted capital and city where Allah's word spread through Mohammed, Medina is second only to nearby Mecca as a pilgrimage city. Mecca and Medina are the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world, and the ultimate goal for one billion believers in Islam. According to Mohammed's command, all Muslim prayers worldwide must be directed toward Mecca. It is estimated that one billion Muslim faithful turn towards the Grand Mosque in prayer five times every day. At the time of the Hajj pilgrimage, which occurs once a year by the lunar calendar, as many as 4 million gather for a period of about six days. The pilgrims circle the Kaba, drink from the miraculous well of Zamzam, pray in white tents on the plain of Mina, then returnto the Kaba for one incredible moment when thousands of devotees touch their forehead to the ground in awe of Allah, then shout "Allah-Hu Akbar"in unison. This chant meaning "Allah is greater than anything" reverberates throughout Mecca and can be heard from miles away. Today the Grand Mosque in Mecca attracts untold millions to behold the sacred Kaba, and be present in the city where Mohammed received his revelations from God. Tourist visas are not available for travel in Saudi Arabia, and visas of other sorts are very difficult to obtain. Pilgrims wishing to visit Saudi Arabia's holy cities must arrange a visitor's visa from someone already in the country who can verify the visitor's faith. The two holiest sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina, are strictly off-limits to non-Muslims. Steep fines are imposed for just turning up at the checkpoints to the sacred cities. All pilgrims coming to the Kingdom must have special visas that declare their religious status in Arabic.

4. Lourdes The small town of Lourdes was hardly more than a hamlet until 1858, the year a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous had the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary at a location called Grotte de Massabielle, by the river known as Gave de Pau. Over a period of several months the young girl and many townspeople gathered at the riverside grotto and viewed an apparition of Mother Mary, or the "Immaculate Conception" as she described herself. Once the girl's visions were recognized by the Catholic Church, the fledgling village at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains experienced a building boom and is now one of the most visited sites in southern France. Bernadette lived the rest of her life as a nun, was beatified in 1925 and canonized a saint in 1933. The holy city Lourdes attracts more than 5 million Christian faithful every year, making it the largest pilgrimage destination in France. Most of the visitors who come to Lourdes are hoping for a miraculous cure for their pain and suffering. Some 70,000 visitors per year are handicapped or have serious physical ailments and are given preferential treatment at the site. Lourdes has been called the "City of Miracles" and "Capital of Prayer," which does correspond with a tangible reality. Well over 5,000 cases of spontaneous healing have been reported, and of those, 65 have been declared miraculous by ecclesiastic authorities following long and precise procedures. Such recognized miracles by the Catholic Church have undoubtedly led to the steady increase of pilgrims. Just outside town is the Cite Religieuse, the object of desire for the throngs of faithful flocking to Lourdes. Tucked alongside the riverbank is the candle-blackened grotto where the apparitions of 1858 occurred. Inside the grotto is a Virgin Mary statue and the source of Lourdes’ holy water. The water from the spring has been scientifically classified as "clustered," meaning it contains structured crystalline molecules more so than regular water, and is used for blessings and healing. Suspended in front of the grotto are rows of rusting crutches offered up by the hopeful. Rising above the grotto cliff is the first church, built here in 1871, and below there is a river-level basilica, which can house nearly 20,000 people for Mass. Because of its famous reputation for rejuvenation and abundant holy water, most modern Christian pilgrim routes in Europe now lead to Lourdes.

The Mysterious Effigy Mounds of the Upper Mississippi River Valley