Sunday, November 09, 2008

Home sweet home?

I thought I would've been more anxious to return to NYC at the end of the summer to start my new life, but I had mixed feelings. I was thankful, however, that home was still NYC. Although my life in NYC would be drastically different.

So, just as I thought it would be OK to wrap up my entire life in 5 days before embarking on my travels, I also thought it would be just fine to come back from two months of travel and start my new life the next day after! I arrived Tuesday afternoon and was instantaneously knocked down by the flu. Then Wed morning I went to pick out a new apt and catch up on two months of work e-mails (apparently my new job that was suppose to start Aug 21, actually started before I defended my thesis and flooded my e-mail box while I was traveling. oops.) Then on Thursday, I was thrown into meetings all day long. Friday I went to lab, and Saturday I moved to my new apt. And my new life began... in all its craziness. Unfortunately, it made for a hectic new beginning and my new job was rather intense, hence these posts coming way late.

I miss traveling. At first, I didn't have time to think about anything but work, but as things settled a little more, I find myself reminiscing for the summer and the days of wandering countries. And as I began to have time to breathe, sleep and meet up with old friends and people in my life, I recounted the tales of the summer as I have here. So the grand adventure that I had looked forward to for so long is done. But of course the question already looms: Where am I going next? Well, I can barely leave Manhattan these days, but rest assured, those who know me, know I will never stop exploring! Hmm... I am thinking South America?

But for now, this trip was everything I could have hoped for and more!!!
Highlights and my trip in numbers!


- country: Kyrgyzstan (although Italy is always a staple)
- food: Italy! (gelato.. need I say more?)
- city: Istanbul

- town: Manarola in the Cinque Terres in Italy
- view: the cliffs in Santorini, Greece, glaciar lakes in Kyrgyzstan
- transit: day 1 on horse over the mountains to the country/lakeside of Kyrgyzstan
- jam: sour cherry in yurt #3
- moment: stepping out into Athens at the beginning of my trip.
- leg of the trip: the Tri-stan trek.

- night: a toss up between the 1 hr moonlight walk to the secluded rock beach with Joy and Otto, and the night in Skopje, Macedonia airport
- day: Day 2 in Montenegro (the guy, the old lady and the swedes in that town)
- moment: flying off my horse in the hills of Kyrgyzstan
- meal: mutton dumplings (I just couldn't...)
- ice cream: the gooey gummy stuff in Istanbul
- sight: Jane catapulting from the outhouse with her headlight in the pitch dark in the Kyrgyz

- transit: carrying my 50 lb backpack when my back gave out while also being pick-pocketed in Athens subway, the not so safe big plane ride from Tashkent to Bukhara, Uzbekistan
- quote: "Can I hassle you?" "I would like to make love to you."
- point of confusion: why was I the only person not carrying 2 melons onto the plane from Uzbekistan to Moscow?!?! Do they know something I don't?

- The caldera views
and lazy days in Santorini in the Greek Islands
- Dinners + gelato at the Ipata house
- Eating gelato anywhere in Italy
- Walking the towns in the Cinque Terre with mom

- Dipping into the cool ocean in Croatia with Joy
- Gazing at the Fjords in Montenegro
- Exploring and chilling in Istanbul
- Staying with Abby and Jake in Almaty
- View from the top of the pass at the glacier lakes in Kyrgyzstan
- Playing the Kyrgyz card game with Jane and Aipeck in our third Yurt

- Admiring the architecture in Uzbekistan

OK, so as I was traveling, I kept tally of random things. So, here are some stats for fun!

Days traveled
: 56

Countries visited
: 8

(1 repeat, 7 new countries, + 2 nights in 2 new countries' airport: Macedonia & Russia)

Different "beds"
, or rather, different places I spent a night: 30
(hostels, B&Bs, hotels, homes, apts, ferries, airports)

ice creams eaten
: 33
(greatly enhanced in Italy, and dramatically reduced in the 'stans)

Hours spent on the internet
: 20 (mostly in Istanbul)

Weight of big backpack leaving the U.S.
= 20 kg ~ 44 lbs

Weight of not so big backpack leaving Uzbekistan
= 9.8 kg ~ 21.5 lbs.

Number of shoes thrown away at the end of the trip
: 3

Number of shoes acquired
: 1

Hours in transit
: 167.5 total

Plane - 43

Ferry - 33.5

Bus - 28

Foot - 16.5

Horse - 15.5

Train - 15

Car (driving) - 10

Taxi - 6.5

Hours waiting at airports
: 43

Number of different airlines flown
: 6
(British, Olympia, Croatia, Turkish, Krygyz, Uzbekistan) keeping it local!

At Tashkent airport - the main international airport in Uzbekistan. All of the departing flights for the day fit on this one screen. And this was one of the larger airports I flew out of on this trip!Please let me leave your country!
Me and all my documents trying to get out of Uzbekistan.
Rule of thumb: always keep all your paperwork, ESPECIALLY any paper that has a stamp on it. The more stamps the better. Just flash them all and say a prayer.

So, it took me 48 hours, and 4 flights to get from Bukhara, Uzbekistan back to NYC! We spent 8 hours in Tashkent waiting to leave the country, watching everyone saran wrap their bags and getting our paperwork in order. Then Jane went east and I went west to get back to our respective parts of the U.S. and start our respective new lives.

My second leg got me to Moscow, where I was relieved to find some English speaking agents. They let me spend the night hassle free at the bustling airport without a visa. My third leg got me to Heathrow which was my entry way to Europe at the beginning of my journey. In my fourth leg, I thoroughly enjoyed the British meals and English movies across the Atlantic.

The moment I got back to my apt, I collapsed on my bed. And then my body decided it had enough of the crazy food in the stans and ridiculousness of traveling and went on strike. I could not move for the rest of the day, attacked by the stomach flu or something similar. Go figure.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The TRI-stan trek!

- Your going where?
- The stans
- Huh?
- Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan
- Why?!?!

So, I couldn't believe that this part of the trip finally came! Jane and I had schemed up the stans back in February. She wanted to go to Mongolia, but I wanted to stay more clear from Asia proper having been there the last two trips. Jane was coming from Asia. I was coming from the Mediterranean. So... why not some place in between, like the stans? Sure! Why not?! Adventure, unchartered territory, beautiful nature, off the beaten paths and treks. This seemed right up our alley. Especially since we both spent a lot of the summer in more first world countries, we didn't mind roughing it a bit. And that is how we decided on the stans.

Kazakhstan - the first of the stans

When I landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at 2 am in the morning, I was so anxious to see Jane and start our tri-stan adventure!

We decided to fly into Almaty, Kazakhstan, simply because it was the closest entry point to Kygyzstan which is really where we wanted to go, but couldn't find reasonable flights to. It ended up being wonderful because my dear friend who I grew up doing gymnastics with is actually living in Almaty with her husband. So, we got to stay with them and catch up on the past decade of life and get the inside scoop on the city and country. One of my former grad school classmates also grew up in Almaty so she was giving me pointers too. Who knew I had all these connections in Almaty, Kazakhstan, half way around the world?!

Hotel Kazakstan
The landmark building with the crown, and random person with balloons.

This was my first time being in a former soviet block. The city, which probably once had much character, is now marked with nondescript concrete buildings, flashy neon signs, numerous squares with commemorative statues and carefully manicured water fountains.

In front of the Cathedral, one of the few hallmark buildings in the city with character.

Lady posing with her meat at the green market.

Meat ranged from cow to chicken to horse. There were also lovely vegetables, fruit, dried goods, pickled dishes and any random thing you could want. We managed to convince the lady to give us 1/2 kilo of apple and plums. They are only fond of selling large kilo size buckets of things. Almaty actually means apple in Kazak.

Jane in front of the Kyrgyzstan embassy.

At last we found it! We walked a LONG time ... turns out it was a little yellow swiss house hiding behind this gate and small sign.

Our main goal here was to get our visa to Kyrgyzstan. We arrived on Friday night, chilled Sat and Sun, taking the bus and walking around town, while trying to keep breathing in the dry heat and high altitude. Monday we went to the embassy in the early morning, picked up our visa in the afternoon and headed off to Kyrgyzstan Tuesday bright and early!

Jake, Abby and I taking a break while walking around town. It was sooo hot!

Thanks to Abby and Jake for being such wonderful hosts! We really appreciated it! It made our stay here so enjoyable and memorable. It was great to catch up with you guys, hang out playing hand and foot, chat and see your heart for this bizarre city and its wonderful people.

We took a marshuka (small white mini bus) from the station in Almaty the scenic 4.5 hours across the border into Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Smooth ride and no problems crossing the border. Whew!

We basically winged our itinerary in Kyrgyzstan, using our lonely planet book and the amazing CBT (community based tourism) offices in each town. You can't really plan in advance (buses leave when they are full, treks go when you can find a guide, etc). But, it was actually amazingly easy country to travel because of this well built network of community tourism. Our main goals were to trek the country side, stay in a yurt and ride a horse.

The concrete square and water fountains in the center of the city.
We were getting used to these sights in the stans. We thought this one may pass for a Lincoln Center type place, but not quite.

Spooky! Weird things in the main park.

We happened to walk through this park while trying to find our B&B so naturally we had to come back and explore. Why are there all these scary looking rides and why are they wrapped up?

We were only in Bishkek for the afternoon to get our flights out of Bishkek to Tashkent, and also figure out how to get to our next destination in Kyrgyzstan.

This small town was a mere 8 hour bus ride from Bishkek. The route went along Lake Issykol, the most famous and beautiful lake in Kyrgyz. We stopped many times along the way picking up locals and their cargo and dropping them off a few towns away.

When we arrived at around 4pm, we headed to the CBT office who put us in touch with the local guides to organize treks. After a night in a guesthouse, the next day, we were off with a small group, our own personal local guide and porter on a 3 day trek to the glaciers and alpine meadows.

Day 1

A soviet van.
We rode this not so comfortable but durable van to the base of the trek. It bumped along precariously. We were asked, "Is this your first time in a soviet van?" uhh... yes!

Mitlan (our porter), me and Ikuloo (our guide)
Our first night we camped by Lake Aloo. It was COLD! Thankfully we were able to by hats (domas) from the local market before the trek.

We set up tents each night and cooked and ate food that we packed - nutella, bread, dried fruit, rice, and the infamous meat stick! (When asked if we eat meat, Jane automatically replied, "Is it horse?" Turns out we don't eat horse, nor do we really like mutton.)

Day 2: the Glacier pass
The Glacier pass
I saw it and thought, "how are we supposed to get up that?" But we did. I just kept thinking the whole way up, "I'd rather be dancing! I'd rather be dancing!" I am so not an endurance person. I am all about short, sweet and powerful, hence gymnastics, diving and dance and not running and swimming! This was definitely trying for me!

We made it!

View of the Glacier and the lake from the top.
It was definitely worth it!

What goes up must come down. The opposite of the pass was just as tricky. I kept thinking I should invest in some hiking shoes! I just kept sliding down the pebbles and rocks!

Jane resting after lunch.
After the pass we were exhausted and hungry!

Alpine meadows.
The rest of the afternoon was peaceful as we strolled through the rolling meadows mingling with the livesotck.

It was exactly what we imagined.

Our second night, we pitched our tent near a little house and camping ground which actually had an outhouse and some water running out of a pipe from the river.

Day 3:
Headed back to town. We were pretty dirty and tired of the meatstick, dried fruits and bread that kept appearing at the meals. It was fun, but a shower was much needed!
Me pointing to the sign that said New York in the middle of nowhere Kyrgyzstan.
There were also signs to Tokyo and the local Yurt.

Back in town:
We showered, got our clothes washed, ate a nice dinner and slept well in our leopard print beds. We arose the next morning before 7 to check out the animal market.

Lady and her bull.
Cows, goats, sheep and horses. All for sale. We saw many transactions being pondered.
Mitlan and his friend.
Mitlan, our porter for the last 3 days, found us since we obviously stood out from the crowd. His family was trying to buy a horse. He introduced us to his friends and let me take their horse for a ride.

Now, we were off to the next destination: Kochor.
Kyrgyzstan take 2: by horse.

After another 6 hour marshuka ride, 4 hard-bargained apricots and a bag of apples, and a one hour taxi ride, we arrived at Kochor, the base town for our second trek. We found the CBT office, arranged a lovely home-stay and a 4 day horse trek.
Our room at our home-stay in the town of Kochor.

Our home-stay was at the edge of town, about a 30 minute walk. We got beautiful views and and wonderful room which we spent a lot of time vegging in, and the best meals we had in this country cooked by the grandma. There was no mutton involved (after I said "moo" to ensure that we got cow and not "baaa" sheep).

Day 1: Horse trek from town, over the mountain to a lake to our first yurt stay.

Leaving town on horse.
It was just Jane, me and our local guide, Aipek, who spoke no English but loved humming songs.

Me on my horse well into the mountains.

Coming upon Lake Song Kol that we've been yearning to set eyes upon.

Our first Yurt stay at last!
After 4.5 hours on horse over a mountain pass, we arrived at our yurt at around 4:30.
There were two guest yurts and one which the family stayed in and cooked out of. Our meals were all cooked by the family and served in the yurt. There were 9 of us staying in this yurt. We watched the locals play ball and milk the horses. I tried some fermented mare's milk - gross! Goat yogurt on the other hand was quite delicious. The mutton, not so much.

Look! Two boys on a donkey!

They came by to say hello.

Day 2: A cold brutal day by the lake.
Sure. It looks peaceful.

The FALL! Our guide had to go use the toilet and by toilet we mean duck behind a bush or a rock (We don't know why we keep saying toilet; there are none out here) . So we continued on. Suddenly my horse sprung into a gallop! Jane's horse followed gleefully. The command for stop unfortunately has a rolling "R" that I never quite mastered in Spanish class (who knew it would come back to haunt me!?). So we were going faster and faster, attempting to yell "Drrrrrrrr - ack! Drrrrrrr - ack!" ("STOP! STOP!"). Ugh - Why couldn't the stop command have been the simple "CHU!" which means go. Alas, that is NOT what I needed at the moment. Of course the horse only picked up more speed. I couldn't feel my hands or face because it's so cold.

Then my foot bounced out of the stirrup... and it was all over. No hope of staying on. I slow mode swung my leg around and made sure I can free the second foot so I don't get drag. Then I rolled off the horse and onto the hillside and after a few side tumbles, I ended sitting up. And my horse galloped off as I sat on the ground pondering what just happened.

Thankfully this day was only 2.5 hours to our next yurt stay. We arrived at 1 pm to a nice warm meal of fresh fried fish in the cold yurt. We stayed clear of our horses, needing a break.

Jane bundling up in the yurt. Mattresses and blankets are interchangeable. We just got under it all! And did basically nothing until we went to sleep at 8 pm.

Day 3: Into the mountain side to the isolated yurt.

We were off to our final yurt stay... It was a beautiful ride high into the mountains.

A local sheperding his flock.
These pastures are called, jailoos. It is where families bring their livestock, set up yurts and let them graze in the summer. It is way too cold to stay in the winter!

Inside Yurt #3: a four star yurt; the most elaborately decorated.
Felt walls inside. It stays warm in the cold and cool in the hot.
We had it all to ourselves too!

We arrived at 1, with nothing to do until sunset. Aipeck spent a good two hours trying to teach Jane and I a popular Kyrgyz card game, which we finally learned after Aipeck just kept saying either "yes", "no", "man" (for jack), "woman" (for queen) and six. Meanwhile, a goat came into our yurt. It was a hilarious fun-filled afternoon!

Jam. Jam. Jam.
This is what we survived on in the yurts! It was a staple, while some of the other food was questionable. So sweet and good. Sour cherry here was our favorite. Apricot was a good standard. When we asked what each one was, we were just told, "jam. jam. jam." I did OD on jams and have not been able to eat jam since then.

Our host family. The little girl (age 5), her uncle, another Kyrgyz, and the family goat, who peeked into our yurt!

The view from the yurt.

Our Kyrgyzstan host family at the last yurt. They were so friendly and hospitable, much like most of the locals we met.

Day 4: We trotted back to town, which was painful for me. At then end, the 4 days on horse were great, but I had enough horsey to last me for at least another 5 years.

The next day: back to Bishkek
The biggest problem we ran into in Kyrgyzstan? Cars! We heard or saw fatal car crashes everyday! That's what happens when there are no rules, seat belts and you buy your driver's liscence.
A nice local man enlisted an entourage to help find us a safe illegal taxi to get us the 3 hour drive back to Bishkek since there are no marshuka mini-busses that go. We were told to only get "audi" or "mercedes." The other cars would not make it. We got an audi, with a cracked windshield (that was not a requirement) and the car had to start with a jump wire, but it got us to our door in Bishkek alive!

One more night in Bishkek, where we finally secured our much searched for vernicke (potato dumplings; we got many other interesting things before), then off to the airport to the last stan!

Kyrgyzstan was absolutely amazing!!! Jane and I highly recommend it. It's definitely up there on our favorite traveled countries (and that has been a lot for both of us!). The country was breathtakingly gorgeous and the people wonderfully welcoming. It was everything we came for!

Now, for the last of the stans...
Uzbekistan: the last of the stans!

We flew Kyrgyz Airways which had two propellers and improvised reclining seats, but safely got us the 2 hour flight into Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. We heard that Americans should be extremely careful in Uzbekistan, so we did register with the embassy, but we had no problems.

A 4 hour layover in Tashkent

After figuring out where to leave our bags and how to get Uzbek money, we grabbed a cab and headed into the city for a few hours.
First stop: Khast Imon.

This is the most prominent Medressa is an Islamic seminary and school. The culture and history of Uzbekistan is extremly rich, unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which has many nomadic people. Here, culture was rooted and fostered for hundreds of years.

Eating a chicken sandwich at the chorzu bazaar.

A little side note on FOOD if you are curious:
This was our FAVORITE meal in all of Uzbekistan, and maybe all of the 'Stans! It was under a $1 at the market and absolutely delicious, and also not mystery meat. Overall, Uzbekistan had the best food of all 3 stans. Their national dish is plov (an oily rice pilaf mix). Jane and I got burned with some seriously bad plov in Bishkek, and were hesitant to try it here, but every place we went to, all the waiter would say is "Plov?"

The meat skewers were a good staple and something Jane and I learned to say (shashylyk). Thank goodness for the cucumbers, tomatoes and dill salads.

Overall, the food in the 'stans was not easy to digest; lots and lots of OIL! The ice cream was a rather disappointing. I tried very hard (and made Jane try with me). The best was a sunflower seed one. The one with the camel picture - not so much. Maybe if we could read the packages we would've done better. We ate at a lot of local restaurants and managed to get rice in oil, noodles in oil, potatoes, dumplings in oil, meat skewers, oil and oil. It was a bit difficult. The best meals were definitely at our home-stays.

We flew an hour local flight on Uzbekistan airway to Bukhara, a major (for this area) tourist destination. We were in a huge probably 1/8 full 2,4,2 seat plane. Weird. A bit shaky. As Jane said, "Well, I wouldn't give it a 10 on the safety scale." But again, we made it.

A cute minaret that we found weaving through the local neighborhood.

Our B&B. It is practically a museum.
The B&Bs drew us to this town, rather than the other famous one, Samaarkland. Ours was amazingly peaceful and such a treat to the end of our trip.

Camel-ing around town.
In the main square, around a water pond of course.

Some local crafts. There were a lot of ceramics.
Miri-abab Medressa, an Islamic school opened in the 16th century.
The sunsets here were amazing! A fellow traveler, Rodrigo, from Spain that we met at our B&B showed us this place, and a lovely roof-top restaurant.

Jane and me in front of the medressa before climbing its tower.

Though it took us a $200 visa to enter this country, and we were only here for 2 nights, it was well worth the trip.

Beautiful sunset behind the town from the tower.

A perfect end to our trip.
Our last night in Uzbekistan and Central Asia.

The 'stans were amazing. Jane appropriately nick-named it Absurdistan. It was everything we hoped for and more. I still can't believe that we planned to go there, went there, and just absolutely loved it! So many good adventures, wacky scenarios, crazy stories, and wonderful memories! It was well worth the difficulty and price of getting there with flights and visas. If there was only one leg of this entire summer that I could do, I think it would have to have been the 'stans with Jane!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Istanbul take 2: the tourıst approach

days 4 and 5

Now I started to get serıous about seeıng the sıghts ın my last few days. The bıg 3 are the Blue Mosque. Haghıa Sophıa. and Topkapı Palace (by the way - İ can't fıgure out how to do commas. The keyboard optıons seem to be only ın Turkısh or Japanese).

Topkapı PalaceThe maın entrance.

Home to the the sultan- the palace was orıgınally buılt ın 1453. The grounds are large wıth 3 courtyards. Many storıes occured behınd the walls.

The Harem - where the Sultan's concubınes and female slaves were confıned.

They had to stay here theır whole lıves. They were foreıgners that were hıghly educated but kept ın the confınes of the wall. I defınıtely would have gone crazy! The prınces were also locked up here untıl ıt was tıme to rule. Hmmm. How does one rule a country and command world polıtıcs when growıng up ın thıs shelter?

The tıles throughout the palace - partıcularly ın the Harem - were beautıful.

Haıghıa Sofya
Orıgınally a Chrıstıan church buılt ın 527 AD - ıt was converted to an Islamıc mosque ın 1453 ın the conquest of Constantınople.
Of the Byzantıne style - thıs buıldıng was the fırst ıncredıble domed structure wıth no support pıllars ın the mıddle. It collapsed a few tımes - and ıs always ın constant repaır as seen by the constructıon here. But ıt ıs stıll ımpressıve!

Some of the ıntrıcate gold detaılıng of the Haghıa Sofya.
Now I dıd all the tourısty stuff over a span of 5 days when I probably could have done ıt ın 2-3 days. Thıs meant tıme for relaxatıon and ınternet!
The park that I chılled ın - remınded me a bıt of Central Park but wıth creepy stray cats and men.

Turkısh bath. I checked out one of the best baths. It was ınterestıng. The tımıng actually works out as the part of the cıty that my hostel ıs ın has no water. Apparently ıt ıs not a terrıbly uncommon experıence. Theır reason when I asked. 'It's Turkey.' That ıt ıs!

OK - enough of the tourısty stuff. Of course I have to show at least one pıcture of food ın Istanbul. It ıs pretty delıcous.
Baklavas - Turıkısh sweets
I have had more meat than usual. Yummy kebaps. meatballs. doner kebop sandwıches. Today İ got fresh fıgs and peaches from the market. So juıcy! The ıce cream has an ınterestıng gummy texture. You can't exactly lıck ıt. It's more lıke half bıtıng ıt. And the sweets are flaky dough drenched ın honey and sprınkled wıth pıstachıos. I am not the hugest fan of the Turkısh delıghts - a chewy gummy thıng. I have trıed food from nıce restuarants. local eaterıes. fast stands. the market. All and all. pretty yummy!!!

Well - that's Istanbul for you. I love ıt here. Not exactly sure ıf ıt's the east meets west or the novelty of the mosques or the gırls that I met here or the amount of tıme I have to relax or the easy ınternet access. I can defınıtely say ıt ıs NOT due to the - uh - specıal attentıon from the locals!

Now off to the much antıcıpated but unknown stans! You may not hear from me untıl I return to the states!