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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

The Cheapest Way to Change Your Plane Ticket

I discovered the cheapest way to change a flight recently.  I was trying to change the time for a $350 ticket by a few hours and the cost came out to $1,300 to change the ticket.  I complained enough that the airline representative mentioned the “Confirmed Flight Change”.  The confirmed flight change for that flight would only cost $75 instead of $1,300!

The way a confirmed flight change works is that you change your ticket within 12 hours of the new flight that you want to take.  So in this case, I wanted to get on a 4:15pm flight- I had to call after 4:15am that day and the price to change to that flight would magically drop to $75.  The risk is that the flight fills up before you get within 12 hours of take-off.  However, you can ask the airline representative how many seats are still available and monitor this.  In addition, I just wanted to change to a flight earlier that day, so I just needed there to be room on some other flight earlier in the day.

 

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How to Visit the Tokyo Fish Market

I don’t much like fish and definitely hate the smell of fish.  But I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the Tokyo (Tsukiji) fish market during a recent business trip to Japan.  The fish is so fresh that the market doesn’t smell and the shops serve up fresh fish dishes that are to die for – even for a non-fish lover.  The only catch is that the market gets going at 5am and there aren’t any great instructions on how to get the most out of your visit.

The 5am part is no problem because your jet lag will wake you up at 3am at the latest.  And I’ve outlined a brief review of how to navigate the market below:

To get to the market, take a taxi – it will make sure you are dropped off at the entrance of the market.  Unfortunately, there are no signs on the entrance of the market – it just kind of looks like an airplane hangar met a toll collection plaza.  Walk into the airplane hangar and just keep walking.  You’ll quickly notice the fish traders driving around in motorized carts.  Keep walking until you get to the end of the covered hangar.  As soon as you see daylight, look to the left – if you walk in this direction for 10 to 50 meters, you’ll see the restaurants on your left.  We’ll get to the restaurants later, but its important to take note of this junction before you get too deep into the market.  Now, to visit the rest of the market, keep walking in the direction that you were walking in initially – straight.  Keep going straight, through all the shops, styrofoam packaging, straight, straight, straight.  Until you hit a T-junction and you are facing a wall of off-yellow garage doors.  If you peer through the windows of the doors, you’ll see the tuna auctions going on inside.  Chances are the security guard won’t let you look because it is his job and he’ll politely escort you out of the fish market area and back to the restaurants.  Since the Tohoku Earthquake, the tuna auctions have been CLOSED to visitors.

Back in the restaurant area, you can just stand at the edge of the fish market area and see the enormous tuna being carved up or the odd sea creatures oozing out of their boxes.  When you are done with the market, I recommend you go to the back left corner for restaurants.  By back left, I mean the leftward direction you looked when you walked in.  All the way in the back corner there is a beef restaurant, which is where the auction participants and employees eat.  It is also the cheapest eats in the complex.  About 350 Yen for beef on rice.  You probably also want to try the raw fish.  There are lots of restaurants in this area; they all seemed the same to me and all have roughly the same prices – expensive prices.  I’d go for a bowl of tsukedon because you get far more raw fish than in a sashimi or sushi order for the same price.  Expect to pay 2,300 Yen for any fish dish; there is no way around it, the restaurants have minimum orders.

If you found this helpful and see that the tuna auctions have opened, please do leave me a comment.

China’s Top Ten

China turned out to be much bigger and better than we expected in every regard.  We had trouble keeping the list down to ten – but here it is, again, in no particular order:

Le Shan and Emei Shan – Le Shan and Emei Shan are two sites near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.  Le Shan has the world’s largest Buddha – which at 71m tall is probably the biggest statue you will ever see in your life.  Emei Shan is a network of Buddhist monasteries strung along several beautiful mountains in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Budget three days to see the whole complex.  The trail is challenging (think tens of thousands of steps), but the scenery is mesmerizing and sleeping in the monasteries adds to the experience.  We will remember Emei Shan for the rest of our lives.

Food – We loved Chinese food in all its variety and intense flavors.  Mouth-numbing peppers, dim sum, Peking duck, lagman, the list goes on and on.  The best way to find the best food in China is to eat what Chinese people are eating.  Do not order the food that you want in a Chinese restaurant; order the food that other people are eating.  That will always be the best option.  Walk around the restaurant – see what looks good that other people are eating and then point at what you want and say “wo yao yigga” (I want one of those).  Trying to find that restaurant in the guidebook in China is futile since addresses have no meaning in Asia.  Food is sold everywhere in China.  Ignore the guidebook – stop to eat at a restaurant with food that looks good.  Point to the food that looks good and eat that.  Ordering foods that you want that the restaurant may or may not have or may or may not be good at cooking is a guaranteed recipe to get bad Chinese food.

Xian – Xian is the old imperial capital of China.  Unlike most of China, where everything of cultural value was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Xian has old stuff and a lot of old stuff worth seeing.  The terracotta warriors are a great site (try to do it without taking a package tour – they take you to all sorts of miscellaneous unimportant sites and try to sell you stuff you don’t want; riding public transport to and from the site is fast and easy).  The city walls are absolutely spectacular – rent a bike to go around them.  The forest of steles museum is also impressive – it has the oldest evidence of Christianity in China.

Macau – Macau, an old Portuguese colony, is downright weird.  Signs are in Chinese, then Portuguese and then in English.  We couldn’t find anyone who knew what Portuguese is.  Make sure you have a double-entry visa if you go since going to Macau technically means that you have left China.  Macau didn’t suffer from the Cultural Revolution, so there are several historical sites (particularly churches) that are of interest.  The main draw (and there is a main draw since Macau now receives more tourists than Hong Kong) is the casinos.  There are several American-style casinos, but don’t expect to see American-style games.  There is one poker game in town, which is at the Grand Lisboa.  There is a blackjack table at the Wynn (with a $30 minimum).  The rest is Baccarat, roulette and more baccarat.  The currency of Macau is the Pataca (valued at 10:1 to the dollar), but all casinos only accept Hong Kong dollars for bets (valued at 8:1 to the dollar).  So make sure you bring Patacas into the casinos with you to pay for food and drinks, since the casinos will only cash you out in Hong Kong dollars.  And prices listed are the same whether you are paying in Patacas or Hong Kong dollars.

Xinjiang – Xinjiang is China’s largest and western-most province.  If you have had enough of “Han China”, head west and get a taste of Central Asia.  The Uygur food is exceptionally good.  The Taklamakan Desert is enormous and wild and there are several mountains in the Tian Shan range surrounding the desert that reach above 25,000 feet.  All of which conspire to make spectacular scenery.  Getting around Xinjiang by train is very easy and very fast despite the vast distances.

Three Gorges – Taking a cruise through the Three Gorges should definitely be part of an itinerary through China.  Now that the dam has been built, the rushing Three Gorges have become a placid lake – but the beauty of the Yangtze has not diminished.  If you go on a tour – make sure to pay the additional supplement to see the Little Three Gorges.  The dam is worth seeing, but is unexciting.   To add to the experience and save a bunch of money, take the cruise with Chinese tourists rather than with Westerners.

Shanghai Museum – After spending time in 20 big Chinese cities, Shanghai looks remarkably similar to other big Chinese cities – only that there are more foreigners.  The highlight of our visit to Shanghai was the Shanghai Museum.  Neither of us are avid museum goers, but the collection of bronzes and scrolls was world class (and entrance is free).

Beijing – Beijing has all the good and the bad of China wrapped in to one.  Good luck finding a sunny day while you are there (because of the smog), but you would be very unlucky if you can’t find the excellent restaurants, tourist sites and social scene.  This giant, throbbing, very Chinese city is an experience entirely unto itself.  Note – when trying to get around Beijing in a cab, do not bother giving cab drivers addresses; the city is oriented around its various enormous shopping malls and tourist sites.  So make careful note of the name of the shopping mall closest to your hotel.  “The Ritz Carlton or Marriott, please” will get you nowhere.

Great Wall – Go to Simatai.  It is the most remote of the Great Wall sites, about 3 hours each way.  There are no hordes of tourists or Chinese people selling stuff you don’t want and spectacular views in each direction.  The easiest way to get there is to latch on to a tour organized by a hostel.  Alternatively, you can ride the 980 bus from Dongzhemin long distance bus stations to Miyun and then hire a taxi to take you to Simatai from there (which should cost no more than 50 RMB for one person or 30 RMB per person for a larger group, negotiate ruthlessly).  At Simatai, ride the cable car up halfway – this is totally worthwhile since the hike at the bottom of the mountain is hot and offers few views.  At the top of the cable car, hike up the rest of the way – the train is not worthwhile.

Shopping – Buying and selling things is integral to life in China.  It happens constantly and is only interrupted by meals.  Everything is negotiable – and if you are a foreigner – you must do so ruthlessly.  Most purchases we made were negotiated down between 95%-99% from the initial asking price.  The key to getting the right price is to walk away, and keep walking after hearing the initial asking price; do not offer your own price – listen to how quickly the price goes down.  The last price you hear will be still too expensive, but closer to the mark.  Next time you see the item that you want – take 50%-75% off this last price you heard and start there.  We negotiated handbags down from 600 RMB to 45 RMB and a stamp from 250 RMB to 1 RMB!  So be aggressive.  If you are interested in clothing and tailored clothing, go to Alice’s Tailor Shop in Ya Show (a cab driver will always know “Ya Show”) in Beijing.  If you are interested in a truly good deal, go to the wholesale markets in Guangzhou – everything that is made in China and sold to the world is here – so if you want to buy 1 or 100,000 sets of golf clubs at a bargain price, this is the place to be.

The Torugart Pass: A How to Guide

The Torugart Pass connecting Kyrgyzstan and China is billed as one of the most logistically difficult international borders to cross in the world.  There is a ton of paperwork, permits, invitations and checkpoints all the way from Naryn in Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar in China.  Without the right preparation, things can go terribly wrong – in 1999 a group of Dutch backpackers was stranded in the 70KM+ wide no man’s land for weeks after they exited Kyrgyzstan and were not allowed to enter China. But, with the right preparation and a little extra cash, crossing the pass can be a beautiful and convenient way to get from Kyrgyzstan into China.  All-in we spent $350 for a no-hassle crossing and private cars on each side for more than 1,000km of driver-time.  At $.35 per kilometer, this is the cheapest ride in Central Asia (and the drivers take care of all the border logistics, invitations, etc…).  This price was for one car on each side, so the per person cost is much lower.  I hope that readers looking to cross at Torugart can use the comment section below to organize themselves into larger groups to defray the cost.  Note that the travel agencies or CBT will not make a big effort to find other people to ride with you, since it is a headache and less money for them.

Before attempting the Pass, the most important thing to understand is that the main reason that the Pass is difficult for tourists to cross is that it is not meant for tourists.  The Chinese and Kyrgyz governments have decided to designate is as a commercial thoroughfare. Indeed, truckers prefer it to the Irkeshtam Pass in southern Kyrgyzstan where they reportedly pay higher fees/bribes and rougher roads.  As a result, Chinese trucks carrying consumer goods to Kyrgyzstan’s markets wind for miles down each side of the Pass waiting for customs inspection.  In short, as a tourist, you are not really welcome there.  Showing up and hoping you can hitchhike and talk your way through three checkpoints on each side and many kilometers of no-man’s land is not a winning strategy.  It could work, but success is unlikely and would be time consuming even with the best of luck. As the hapless Dutch backpackers learned, being stranded 300 kilometers from the nearest town at 4,000meters altitude is just not worth the possible savings vs. hiring someone to help you navigate the Pass.

We found the cheapest and completely hassle-free way of crossing the pass to be arranging forward travel through the CBT (Community Based Tourism, the agencies are all over Kyrgyzstan) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.  They arranged the transport on both sides of the border and made sure the ample required paperwork was in order. The all-in cost was $140 for the 200km drive from Naryn to the Pass and $210 for the 300km from the Pass to Kashgar.  These prices were to rent the whole car – which fit 6-8 people, so after dividing up the cost, it worked out to be cheaper than many Central Asian shared taxi rides.  In addition to being reasonably priced transport, the drivers know the border guards personally, arrange for the “special invitations” on both the Kyrgyz and Chinese sides for you to cross through the Pass, speak English and are generally nice guys who have it together.  We highly recommend Kubat at the Naryn CBT; his contact information is below:

Kubat Abdyldaev – CBT Naryn Coordinator

Office – 03522-50895

Mobile – 0772-689262

Email – kubat-tour@gmail.ru

Naryn_tourism@rambler.ru

http://www.cbtkyrgystan.kg

If you go with him, the hardest thing about crossing the Pass will be drumming up enough people who want to go in order to split the cost.  Hopefully, the comment space below can be helpful to people looking to link up for the crossing.

Central Asia’s Top Ten


Horseback riding and camping in Kyrgyzstan – Crossing mountain ranges with nomads above Karakol, Kyrgyzstan is unforgettable. The mountain landscapes make Montana seem ordinary and the views of Lake Issy-kol (the second largest high altitude lake in the world) are sublime. We did a day of horseback riding and four days of hiking. The price of admission: days of soreness after the ride. Well worth it for the highlight of Central Asia.

Sleeping in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan – Yurts are hard not to like. They are giant fuzzy igloos that looks like they need a hug (I did give one a hug and the owner promptly came out to see what I was doing). These portable homes are made out of felt, a lot of felt. Kyrgyz women typically take about two years to make one. The interiors are beautifully adorned and the thick felt mats make it a perfect place to sleep after a long day in the mountains. If you can fall asleep at all after your 10th cup of chai with butterfat and sugar that is.

Rainbow over the Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan – Tamerlane’s capital is the jewel of Central Asia…and its tourist center. Since Tamerlane killed everyone in Asia who didn’t have artistic talent or who wouldn’t fight in his army, you are guaranteed to be blown away by the tile-work and art in this city. We happened to be walking out of the city after a rainy day and saw a rainbow stretching from his tomb to the Registan.

Khiva, the best of the Silk Road ruins – Foolishly, we almost skipped this stop on the Silk Road. This preserved (and reconstructed) city is the only place in Central Asia where you can get a sense of what it was like to walk around in a city when the region was at its peak. The towers, palaces and city walls are equally brilliant in the sunlight and the moonlight.

Aral Sea, Uzbekistan (what’s left of it) – Moynaq is the most remote, godforsaken place you will (or perhaps even can) visit. Formerly a fishing town and tourist destination at the edge of the Sea, Moynaq now finds itself 150 kilometers from the water. All that is left is dry desert, acrid sand and a village of 6,000 people – we couldn’t figure out what they were all doing there. One of the few places in the world where you can’t buy bottled water and probably the place in the world that needs bottled water the most (since the water table is contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides). Depressing, but a worthwhile visit for a truly humbling lesson about what happens when man trifles with nature.

Afghan market in the Wakhan Valley The only other place in the world that we have been that didn’t have bottled water (or even Coca-Cola for that matter) is the Wakhan Valley. This Valley makes up the Wakhan Corridor, which is that thin part of Afghanistan that sticks out eastward to China. The mountain ranges are so massive and the settlements so remote that each valley in this region has its own language.

Grilled Chicken Platters in Kyrgyzstan – After weeks of Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik cuisine, we would brace ourselves for each meal (and even tried cooking a few of our own). We were pleasantly surprised on entering Kyrgyzstan by the dramatic improvement of the food. Our favorite was the sizzling-chicken-on-a-metal-platter as it is called in Russian. It is a mix between a fajita and Chinese stir-fry. Compared to potatoes with potatoes on top it is devine.

Tracking snow leopards (unsuccessfully) in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan – Snow leopards are hard to see, so we didn’t see any in Tajikistan. The rugged Pamir Mountains were well-worth the journey. If you haven’t been to Asia, you haven’t seen mountains above 7,000 meters, much less whole mountain chains with peaks reaching above this altitude. We hiked to a pass at 15,600 feet with peaks dwarfing us on all sides and bright green valleys stretching out below. Really spectacular.

Osh Bizarre – We were overwhelmed by all the stuff for sale and mix of Uzbek, Russian, Kyrgyz and Chinese culture. Coming from Tajikistan, we dropped our bags on the way to the hotel directly on the side walk and stared…stores, stores and more stores! With tomatoes…and what is this?! A watermelon! We also found ak kalpaks (white felt hat that men in Kyrgyzstan wear that is supposed to look like a mountain with snow on it) for sale – reasonably priced and extra crazy with tassles for the hat lover back home.

Dushanbe – Dushanbe was a refreshingly beautiful. After the bustle of Asian cities, it was nice to see a quiet city with tree lined streets. We also picked up our best meal in Central Asia here. Dushanbe isn’t worth a trip to Central Asia in its self. But if you want to attend the Bozkashi World Championships, it is definitely worth a trip from around the world in itself.

Tipping Our Hat to Karakalpakstan

Most landscapes are similar to ones we have seen before. Northern Turkey looks a lot like the Southern Bavarian Alps. Southern Morocco looks a lot like Eastern California. Eastern Iran looks a lot like Death Valley. This is not to say that these landscapes aren’t worth visiting, but there is always a reference point. We think of new places with these reference points- a new place is drier, hotter, higher, bigger, steeper or more forested than what we have seen before. This is what we thought until we crossed Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The landscape on our 21-hour train ride from the Kazakh coast of the Caspian Sea to the Uzbek border was a completely new experience. We had no reference point or place for understanding it. Hour after hour the exact same plain passed by our window on the train. The land is perfectly flat. There is no soil, only sand. One could call this a desert, but the sand does not form into dunes. Nevertheless, the sand is loose, not hard-packed. There also isn’t any sagebrush or salt flats one might find in the desert: just evenly laid sand everywhere without a single distinguishing feature the entire ride.

At the Uzbek border, we weren’t actually entering Uzbekistan, but the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan is where the Karakalpaks live. We made the mistake of calling them Uzbeks, so as penance we’ll give them a quick paragraph in this blog. This 400,000 person ethnic group gets its name from the hats they used to wear, called karakalpaks. Situated right in the middle of Asia, the people look as if everyone on the Eurasian continents got together and had one child. The features, eye, skin and hair colors of both continents are all found in a single person.

From this border we pushed north into Karapalkakstan by bus and shared taxi to Moynaq on the Aral Sea. “On the Aral Sea” is a euphemism since the Aral Sea has receded more than a hundred miles north of here in the past twenty years- the greatest ecological disaster recorded. Soviet efforts to reverse the problem ranged from the crazy – building a 2,000 mile canal from Siberia – to the futile – making lakes outside of town. None of these plans ever worked and the water level continues to drop at a rate 3 feet per year.

Looking on the bright side, Moynaq does have the first distinguishing geographic feature east of the Caspian Sea – the rim of where the Aral Sea used to be. At the edge of town, the steppe slopes down about ten feet and then becomes flat again into infinity. You know that there was a sea here because hulls of giant fishing boats lay stranded and rusting in the steppe. With fishing and sunbathers gone, it is not clear to us what people in Moynaq do. The streets are filled with sand and buildings lay in half-eroded and half-inhabited piles of concrete. But 8,000 people live here! There were no stores where we could buy water or food. We spent the night in the only hotel in town- an unmarked Soviet-era building with no running water or electricity. We left shortly after dawn the next day hungry, thirsty and really dusty.

A lot of people blame the Aral Sea disaster (if you are not familiar with it, here is a link with more information) on Soviet planning stupidity. Unfortunately for all of us, this is not the root cause of the disaster. The over-irrigation of desert lands and over-use of water resources is really popular among politicians and lobbyists worldwide. Taking advantage of water creates jobs, export crops and wins votes. However, over-watering a desert eventually brings salt in the ground to the surface and drives existing rivers underground- making the land unproductive forever and destroying the ecosystem. In the United States, we have our own Aral Sea disasters at Mono Lake (where, to add insult to injury, the Navy did nuclear testing near the LA county water supply) and the Colorado River. I wish I could hold out hope for the future here, but if we can learn anything from the Aral Sea disaster, it is that these catastrophes are easily created and really hard to reverse.

Where the Line Ends

There are some places in the world where people wait in line and there are some places where they don’t.  From our travels, we have observed that lines spontaneously form in places such as Europe, the United States and Turkey.  Meanwhile, in East Asia, a crush of humanity forms around any ticket counter, food source or other service.  Indeed, in advance of the Olympics, the Chinese government has deployed policemen across Beijing in order to train people to stand in line while waiting for the bus.  As we travel across Asia overland, we realized that we have an excellent opportunity to find exactly where the cultural phenomenon of the line ends.

It is important to note that we are not passing a value judgment here.  It is neither good nor bad for a culture to have lines or not.  A line divides up resources between those who are willing to wait the most and those who are not.  A throng favors those who are more physically capable and want a resource the most.  In fact, we are able-bodied and one of us is a head higher than most, so we would prefer that lines were not the cultural norm in the United States as this would, for us, dramatically reduce wait times at the DMV.

As we wound east from Istanbul, we found lines in Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan.  From Baku, Azerbaijan we found it impossible to head further east across the Caspian Sea by land, so we bought tickets for the Baku-Actau shuttle on Air Kazakhstan.  We were already a bit worried about flying on Air Kazakhstan and the boarding process did not calm our nerves.  Air Kazakhstan’s boarding passes don’t have seat numbers on them, but then again, nor do Southwest’s.  As the bus pulled up to the plane waiting on the tarmac, something completely unexpected happened.  The passengers poured out of the bus with their suitcases at a full sprint.  Men, women and children.  We had been warned by a Scottish ex-pat that this might happen, so we were out near the front of the peloton.  Once the mob hit the steps leading up to the plane, small children and smaller men tried to weave their way to the front around people’s legs.  Those with advantageous places swung their suitcases and elbows to prevent this.  A few men had boarded when the first woman joined the mass surrounding the airplane.  At this point, everyone took a step back and all women with tickets were allowed to board while the men waiting jostled for position.  After all women had entered the plane, the men lunged up the stairs and wrestled their way into remaining seats.  Once the seats were filled, the remaining passengers were left on the tarmac.  From the comfort of our window seats, we realized that we had found where lines end.

Writing from eastern Uzbekistan, we can confirm that the Caspian Sea is one of humanity’s significant boundaries.  To the west, lines spontaneously form.  To the east, lines are not to be found.  While we discovered this cultural border, we have yet to find a good explanation for it.  A British ex-pat we met bragged that people in Asia wait in line everywhere that the British Empire has been.  Anyone who has been to the New Delhi train station knows that is could not be further from the truth.  So please leave us with any ideas in the comments box below.

Finding Kazakhstan in the Caucuses

If you are looking for the Kazakhstan Embassy in Tbilisi or Baku, please read this posting.  Most people will never have the pleasure of doing so, but we thought it necessary to help nevertheless – to save you a day and many taxi fares.  Headed east across Asia from Trabzon, Turkey, we thought it would be a good idea to get our visas for Kazakhstan in Tbilisi before attempting the unpredictable crossing of the Caspian.  There is an address for the Kazakh Embassy in Tbilisi in the Lonely Planet, on the Kazakhstan website and in local tourist literature.  The address is listed as 27 Orbeliani Street.  If you ask enough people in Tbilisi for Orbeliani Street, you will undoubtedly find it eventually, a block or two from the flower market.  The building listed as the Kazakh Embassy is condemned at best – I’ll post a picture when I figure out how.

The “27 Orbeliani Street” sign is shiny and new, but there is clearly no Kazakh Embassy there.  We asked the guard at the US Embassy down the road (reliably, the building with the highest fences in town) where the Kazakh Embassy might be.  He pointed us to a totally different neighborhood, up the hill from Chavchavadze Ave. at 23 Shatberashvili Street.

Unless you have a meeting with the ambassador though, don’t go to Shatberashvili Street because this is an official residence.  We rang the doorbell enough to get his family to open the door to us.  They were very nice to us inspite of ourselves and gave us the address for the Kazakh Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan where we were headed next.

After the overnight train ride from Tbilisi to Baku, where the cars are like frat houses but with cheaper vodka, we made our way to the Kazakh Embassy in Baku.  We found the building at the provided address on Hasan Aliyev Street in a similar state as the one we found on Orbeliani Street.  A sign was posted on the gate saying that the Embassy had been moved to another address- Hasan Aliyev Passage 15, 8.  After about half an hour driving around in a cab, we gave up, left our driver a 5 and proceeded on foot to find the right directions.  We got new directions and jumped in a new cab, who took us back to the old Embassy.  Our new driver proceeded to ask every person that passed where the Embassy was, and eventually we arrived at the Kazakh Embassy in Baku.  The staff was very friendly and had our visas ready for us the same day for $20.

Giving directions to the Hasan Aliyev Passage is difficult since there are no signs for the street.  It is off the Hasan Aliyev Street about 2 kilometers from the old Embassy away from the inner city of Baku.  Driving away from the inner city, it is on the left up a small hill.  If you pass a Camal Market, a few furniture stores and a bus stop for the 315 bus, you are getting warm.  The turn is across the street from a strange blue/purple colored building.  Once you get onto Hasan Aliyev Passage, follow the instructions below.

Drive into Hasan Aliyev Passage.  Drive down it and make a right at the t-junction.  As you go straight, you will pass a road on your left, do not turn on it – continue straight and up a slight rise as the road turns to the left.  Continue straight past two more streets on your left until you reach a t-junction.  The Jordanian Embassy should be in front of you.  Make a left here.  Drive straight past a street on your left.  Make the next left (there should be a small blue sign indicating the direction of the Kazakh Embassy) and drive straight until you get to the Kazakh Embassy – it should be on your left and has a small blue sign on it.  The streets are small alleys, some of which are not paved, so have faith and good luck.

 

 

Iran Top 10

As a final post on Iran, we wanted to leave with the highlights of an intense three weeks crossing the country.  It was very hard to narrow it down and to place the items in order, but below is our top 10 list:

1)  Trying to explain to a driver why Americans think Iranians are terrorists – explaining that Americans think Iranians are Arabs was just the start of a long, interesting conversation.

2)  Old city of Yazd – whoever invented the windtower was smart.

3)  Dried apricots – the best dried fruit you will ever eat.

4)  Form-fitting manteaus – it’s as good as it gets.

5)  Persepolis – world-class ruins.

6)  Bazaars – Tehran’s is the world’s largest and the bazaar does 1/3 of the country’s retail transactions. 

7)  Date milk shake – clearly.

8)  Swimming in Persian Gulf with dolphins – the Persian Gulf is like a giant swimming pool, warm and bright green.

9)  A hospital visit to get 10 stitches from a doctor wearing Armani for only $24.42 – our insurance wasn’t accepted, but we raised the cash and haven’t had any problems with the cut since.

10)  Rayen fortress – one can only imagine what Bam looked like before the earthquake.

Iranian Surprises

If we could describe our experience in Iran over the past three weeks in one word, it would be – surprise.  With all the warnings from our government and the media images we have in our minds, we didn’t really know what to expect.  We compiled a list of our biggest surprises:

1. We didn’t get killed: Seriously, we weren’t worried, but everyone we told we were going to Iran acted as though it were a war zone where death was a meaningful possibility.  In fact, Iran is a developed, prosperous country with a per capita income higher than Brazil. Unlike Brazil, in Iran’s large cities violent crime and theft appeared nonexistent and we always felt safe.  Can you believe it – before domestic flights Iranian airlines don’t feel the need to have passengers put their liquids in plastic bags or even check passengers’ IDs.  And we didn’t see any terrorists either.

2. Women’s rights: From media images, we expected all women to be covered head to toe in black, but in reality Iranian law only requires that women of marriageable age (starting at 9) wear some sort of head covering. In less religious parts of the country it is common to see women wearing high fashion including heels and leopard print head scarves pulled down behind their ears.  It is amazing how resilient the human desire to be different really is.

3. Same sex PDA: On several occasions we saw men in the military holding hands in public and in general there was a surprising amount of public affection within gender groups but not across.

4. No knives: None of the restaurants we ate in provided knives as utensils during meals – we had to cut using a fork and spoon. Apparently, Iranians rarely use knives to cut their food.

5. The same menu: Every restaurant we went to in more than a dozen cities and towns had virtually the same menu. Lamb kebabs, chicken with rice, chicken kebabs or rice with chicken. Of course we did find the occasional rare delicacy like roast chicken in walnut-pomegranate mole sauce, camel meat stew, or date milkshakes, but we were surprised that such an ancient culture would have a homogenous diet. In contrast, when it came to snacking, almost every corner store offered a wide selection of dried fruit and nuts. Our favorite was the juiciest, softest dried apricots we had ever seen.

6. Back of the bus: In conservative cities like Isfahan, women rode in the back of the bus and men in the front. Women can vote and drive cars and ride bikes but not motorcycles. If women ride on a motorcycle, it is in the back with a man or a boy driving.

7. Peeping: We were surprised and taken aback when young women openly gave us the eye and asked if they could take us to dinner or call us. Naturally, we were unsure how to respond and approach the situation in Iran’s conservative cultural context.

8. Unibrow: The unibrow- one eyebrow instead of two- is shamelessly on display by men, women, children and, yes, even paintings of Persian kings dating back 1000 years.  We were surprised by its prevalence and its use as a fashion statement.

9. English: Iranians begin to learn English at age 8 (though how many actually make any progress is an open question). We were surprised that Iranian education policy would prioritize learning the language of the countries with which it has a long history of poor diplomatic relations.  But it certainly made it easier to get around.

10. Police: We never got stopped, checked, asked for a bribe or had our visa reviewed. Given the trouble we had to go through to get the visa and the mutual distrust between our governments, it was a pleasant surprise to find that being on the ground in Iran was easy and smooth.  An army officer in Kerman asked to talk to us and while we began to fear the worst, he asked in broken English if he could shake hands with us, the first Americans he had ever met.

11. America: No one had heard of the United States but they all knew what “America” was.

12. Squat toilets: Enough said.

13. Infrastructure: High quality roads, ample electricity and water you can drink across the country.

14. Tomans vs. Rials: All paper currency is printed in Rials, which are valued at approximately 9,000 to the dollar.  But all prices and transactions are set in Tomans, which represent 10 Rials.   For the first two days in Iran, we walked around feeling like we were probably getting screwed, until someone explained the difference to us.

15.  Nose Surgery:  A day spent in Iran doesn’t pass without seeing a woman who has had cosmetic surgery on her nose.  A coup for plastic surgeons, no doubt, to have the prevailing cultural aesthetic favor small noses in a gene pool of big noses.

16.  Iranians Like America:  Most Iranians we met liked the idea of America, would like to visit the country and were intimately familiar with its pop-culture.  Even though the US has invaded two of the Iran’s neighbors, Iranians consistently expressed hope for renewed goodwill between our nations.  We can’t say that we would be as sanguine if we were in their position.

As we head across Central Asia, we are also not sure what to expect.  Our stereotypes are that tea will be replaced with vodka, hospitality with corruption and succulent chicken with the unspeakable parts of a lamb.  We remain optimistic.