Archive for April, 2011

On my way home…

April 13, 2011

Heading to the airport. Business class upgrade is confirmed, thanks United! I’ll be home in about 19 1/2 hours.

It’s snowing in Moscow

April 12, 2011

I made it back safely to Moscow and checked in at the Red Square hostel. I’m really over landing in countries in the middle of the night! I got in at 2:00 am and went straight to sleep. Tomorrow I get to make the 17 hour series of flights home! This trip has been really great and I’ve enjoyed all the places I chose this time. There were some things to note if you plan on visiting these places:

Kazzhol Hotel, Kazakhstan – this was listed as the lonely planet’s top pick for midrange hotel. I think they have been surviving off of that review for the last couple years. The hotel was not friendly, clean, or convenient unfortunately. They also failed to call me for my wake up call at 3:00 am to catch my flight (luckily I set an alarm as well). Every time I went to ask the hotel staff a question, they told me that I did not pay for my room for the night (as if that was a standard greeting). They also tried to charge me for the room the night before I got there. When I asked about the taxi to the airport that I had arranged, the woman at the desk told me that there were many taxis outside (at 3:45 am). The restaurant downstairs was great though, and reasonably priced.

Flight schedules – unfortunately, almost every central Asian flight schedule sucks. This makes it exceptionally hard to safely get from the airport to the hotel and back. Arrange a pickup with the hotel, and pay the ridiculous price. You’ll pay it either way, just the other way includes an actual robbery vs. a robbery via the extortionist hotel prices. The integrity of cab drivers at 4:00 am is non-existent. Most importantly, do not get into a cab if there are two people driving you to your destination (the cabbie’s friend, etc.).

Language – buy the lonely planet Central Asia Phrasebook. Unless you speak Russian, you will need this book more than anything else you bring. English is not very prevalent. I would also help to learn how to read Cyrillic as well. Otherwise you will be extremely lost (it won’t take that long to learn that the B is a v, the C is an s, and the Y makes an oo sound).

People are really great – everywhere in the world. People generally have the best intentions. Give them the chance to prove it…

Some funny pictures from around Almaty

April 11, 2011

Given a choice, this is all I eat:
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Take me down to the paradise city:

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They must’ve stolen this sign from southern California:

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Very nice! (said in Borat’s accent)

April 11, 2011

I am exhausted. Almaty is significantly larger than Bishkek, and I walked around the entire city for about 6 hours.

My first impression was that Almaty was rather featureless, lacking the soviet style grandiose statues I expected. But after the first mile of walking, I realized they were just spread out over a larger area. The Kazakh diversity is very similar to the Kyrgyz. There is a nicer infrastructure that is apparent when walking down the street though. There are some phenomenal sites to see, and humongous buildings to try to fit in your camera viewfinder.

I headed in the general direction of the Kok Tobe (missing umlauts – should be pronounced “cook Toby”) cable car tram that is supposed to have great scenic views over Almaty, but it must be too early in the travel season, because it is only open on weekends currently.

It was a pretty good distance back to Zhibek Zholy (a west-east running promenade filled with buskers, vendors, artists, and an ethnic Russian rapper who was butchering Ice Ice Baby – “Yo, check out my hook while my DJ revolves this”). I walked all the way down to Pushkin St. and made my way to the Center Mosque. It is supposedly the largest mosque, able to hold 3,000 people, in Kazakhstan and is available for worship only. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque. Almaty is built on a large hill, so you are always walking down or up. It’s hard to get lost with this constant reminder of which direction you are traveling. I have to say, the neighborhood gets progressively sketchier heading downhill on Pushkin St. The bartering from the street vendors gets more aggressive, and the crowds of people with seemingly nothing to do but gather together grow larger. Got some great photos of the mosque though.

One thing that struck me today about both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I have not seen a single tourist. Nobody. It’s really weird actually. Maybe it’s still too early in the travel season, but the weather is great here (today it was about 80 Fahrenheit). Maybe the droves of tourists will come next month, but it is a weird experience not running into a single traveler.

You’ve probably skipped reading all this anyways and went straight for the pictures anyways. It really is a beautiful country. These pictures don’t even begin to do it justice…

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Freedom of the press in Central Asia

April 10, 2011

I made the trip back from Bishkek to Almaty this afternoon. In fact, it was supposed to be this morning, but the first cab driver arranged by the hotel had a different idea of a fair price than the person who arranged the trip with the hotel. I can’t stress how important it is to verify the arranged price with the actual guy in the driver’s seat. I’ve had this misunderstanding quite a few times, and it’s better to check twice vs. getting left halfway there on the side of the road. After the “mix up” (hotel’s definition, not mine), I got the coolest driver ever. Not so much the guy, he was nice, and a good guy, but he knew this trip really well. Upon starting the car, he pulled out a sign that read “PRESS” in Russian and backed it up with a fake set of press credentials. The border would have taken four hours, but we went straight to the front of the line and were through the border in about 30 minutes. Entering Kazakhstan takes a lot longer than going the other way for sure. They had to inspect the vehicle (seriously inspect the vehicle – like pulling pieces of the interior off of it and checking the undercarriage for things) and I had to walk through the checkpoint separately and meet the car on the other side. While I was waiting, one of the border guards came over and asked me for my passport, and asked if I was from New York City. I replied, no, that I was from San Francisco. He grinned a huge smile and yelled “Schwartzenegger! Governor! Terminator!” This was really, really confusing to me. When i was in Beijing, people didn’t know where San Francisco was, but on the border of KZ and KGZ, the guy new what state it is in, and who the governor was. I wasn’t going to argue with the man with an AK-47, who was obviously happy about past California governance, or inform him that Ahnold was replaced by Moonbeam. The best thing to do when anyone with authority is excited about something is to share in their excitement. He quickly shuffled me to the front of the line I was in though. I resisted the urge to turn around and tell him that “I’d be back” but it made me laugh to think about. I’ll post the picture of the fake press pass after I’m back and can redact the name and picture of the driver to avoid any problems for him in the future. Apparently he writes for “Elite Women’s Vogue.” Seemed legit to me.

The trip itself is a mixture between boring and amazing. The Tian Shan mountain range is just to one side of the road, and the other side is endless flatness of grass. The mountains are amazing. Really amazing! I took four hours of mountain pictures while we drove. The road is better than any freeway than I’ve seen in California. The drivers all drive reasonably and carefully as well (no stupid passing around blind corners going on).

It’s nice to be heading in the general direction of home for sure. Tomorrow I’ll take the recommended walking tour of Almaty and see what there is to see…

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Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (Frunze)

April 9, 2011

My cab arrived at the hotel here in Bishkek at about 8:00 am this morning. I was walking around downtown Bishkek at 8:01 am. Every guidebook talks about the shifty nature of this city, but I didn’t see it at all. Everyone has been very nice so far. This place represents every irrational fear Glen Beck has ever had: Muslim Asian Russians are everywhere! The city is a very interesting central Asian demography. Most ethnicities around the world have a diaspora that is represented in major U.S. Cities (Somalis in Minneapolis, Chinese in San Francisco, Armenians in Los Angeles). This is a great way to familiarize yourself with a culture before you throw yourself into that culture by traveling to a country that you do not understand fully. I have to say, I was completely ignorant to the Kyrgyz people and their culture prior to showing up here. It has been a fantastic time observing people interacting. The demography here is so diverse that you really would not be able to say whether you were in China, the U.S. or Russia from looking around.

The city is built in soviet style, with huge marble buildings and giant statues everywhere. I’ve seen more soviet artwork and monuments here than in Moscow. It’s almost like this place has been in a state of arrest since 1989. I walked good hour and a half to see the Kyrgyz version of the white house, which is near a beautiful park, and the main square that was ground zero for the April 7th 2010 revolution. Further down the road was the National State Museum that has some great (and exclusively Russian language) history of the Kyrgyz Republic. A new wing of the museum was dedicated to last year’s revolution, housing stories and possessions of the people killed during the riots. They also have the actual tear gas canisters that were used, along with bullet casings and arm bands worn by the rioters (see photos below). I kept walking to the amusement park and sat around and observed people having fun and enjoying the weather (it was about 85 degrees today).

After I was tired, and with my foot nice and swollen, I made my way back to the hotel and took a cab to Osh Bazaar. It is one of the largest markets in KR, and the vendors come quite a distance to sell their wares. To be honest, there weren’t too many things that weren’t for everyday household use. If I had wanted a new teapot or a new extension cord, I would have been very happy though. It was very impressive to see how big the market was though. It kept going, and kept spilling out of the sides of the physical boundaries of the market.

Considering I started my day at 4:00 am this morning, I’m surprisingly awake still. I feel lucky that this day feels like it’s been really full and enjoyable so far.

One highlight from the State Museum that I found hilarious: there is a mural depicting Ronald Reagan as a cowboy riding a missile while wearing a grinning skull mask. As you can see from the pictures, it looks as funny as the description sounds. Enjoy the photos…

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Stopover in Istanbul airport en route to Kazakhstan…

April 8, 2011

On my way to Almaty (and onward to Bishkek as soon as I land), and I’ve been freaking out for the last day reading a ton of horror stories about airport taxis stranding people halfway to Almaty or robbing them. So, I was very relieved when the hotel in Bishkek said that they could arrange a driver to drive to Kazakhstan to pick me up. Big relief.

There is a Kazakh man sitting next to me using his cell phone like a boom box blasting something in between Celine Dion and opera. This trip is going to be a really interesting experience…

50 years ago…

April 5, 2011

The world celebrates the 50 year anniversary of the first human shot into space on April 12th. This monument in Moscow honors Yuri Gagarin. He completed a full orbit of the earth in about an hour and a half in 1961. You can read more about the story of Vostok I at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Gagarin.

Vladimir, not John

April 4, 2011

That title makes much more sense if you say it out loud. Today I went to the mausoleum of Lenin to see him. Unfortunately, Lenin is all closed for business until April 20th (long after I depart), and I won’t be able to check another preserved ex-world leader off my “to see” list (I saw Mao in Beijing and it was quite interesting). So, I walked around Arbat St. instead. One of the highlights of this country is the subway system. It is an amazing system! Not just the efficiency, but also the beauty of the stations. Most stations are built in the Stalinist style with incredible detail. The trains are old, but luckily you never really ride the trains for very long because of the map design. If San Francisco had a system that worked this well, people would actually look forward to their commute. Instead we have muni :(.

Happy Anniversary GFTB!!!

April 3, 2011

I just noticed that today is the one year anniversary of the Gluten Free Travel Blog! I think it is amazing that I get to mark this occasion abroad. Thank you to everyone that reads along. To many more years of passport use…

UPDATE: Apparently I’m unable to read a calendar, because I was a month off. It was March 3rd, not April 3rd that saw the first GFTB post. Happy 13 month anniversary anyways!