Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sep 16 - The World Changed, and We Were Unaware

For 42 days (July 24 - Sep 3), our only contact with world news, other than the few days where we had access to CNN, BBC, or EuroNews, was by watching Chinese, Russian, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz TV. Since we don't understand a whole lot of Chinese, Russian, Uzbek, or Kyrgyz, (and since those channels don't cover a whole lot of world news), it is now time to note what happened while we were out of touch.

Oil: On July 11, 2008, the price of oil hit $147 USD per barrel. By July 24, it had dropped slightly, to apx $128 USD per barrel. Today it is $91 USD per barrel. In July gas at the pump was right around $4 per gallon when we left, and $3.55 per gallon when we got back, although it has now temporarily spiked in Georgia as Gulf refineries closed because of Hurricanee Ike.(Prices of gas where we traveled were consistently in the $.90 to $1 per liter range, which corresponds to $3.50 - 3.80 per gallon, although they are likely to be falling there.)

The dollar, euro, pound, and Chinese yuan: on July 25, the Chinese yuan was at 6.8213 to the dollar (1 yuan = $.1466). It is now 6.86824 (1 yuan = $.1456). Pretty stable. But on July 25, $1 = .6371 Euro ($1.5696 = 1 Euro), and today it is $1 = .7043 Euro ($1.4198 = 1 Euro). The British pound was $1.9893 = 1 pound. Today it is $1.7803 = 1 pound. The Uzbek sum and the Kyrgyz som have weakened very slightly against the US dollar.

In July, the following were still independent entities, unencumbered by sale, bankruptcy, receivership, or conservatorship: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, IndyMac, Merrill Lynch, and AIG.

How can so much change in 7 weeks or so? We had very little knowledge of it, and were seemingly unaffected by any of it.

This region of the world will certainly be affected by the price of oil/diesel fuel. But the things that really affect it are the price of rice (currently over $1 per pound in the markets), the price of flour (bread and noodles), and the price of locally produced meat, vegetables and fruit, and the price of imported goods, like refrigerators, computers, automobiles, trucks. Will the strengthening of the dollar and the slow collapse of the US and world financial institutions affect the price of these things in Uzbekistan? The stability of the nations of Central Asia may depend on the answer to that and similar questions.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sep 6 - Stay tuned: there's more to come!

We will publish more posts about our trip and upload our photos to the blogs. So keep on checking in and sharing your comments.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Trip Home

We got to the Almaty Airport a little before 10 pm, and were dropped off at the departure level of the terminal. Instead of walking right in, we crossed the bridge to the parking deck, took the stairs down, and started across the parking lot to enter the terminal at the arrival (ground) level.
Right adjacent to the terminal stood a hotel. We decided to walk over there, just for the hell of it.

The hotel had......rooms. We were shown two kinds: (1) 2-bed spacious (plain but quite suitable) en suite (toilet and shower) rooms for 18000 tenge ($150); and (2) 2-bed smaller rooms with a sink, with the toilets (but no showers) a walk down the hall for 7500 ($62.50). We decided that a good, unhasseled nights' sleep would be prudent, so we put room choice 2 on the credit card (our only credit card purchase for the entire trip). A bed to call our own. So much for sleeping at the airport.

We got up the next morning, had a leisurely breakfast with two hearty bowls of what the menu called call kasha, but what is closer to a buttered cream of rice soup. It was delicious, and Carol ate about 1 1/2 of the bowls. Mike got a blintz, which turned out to be a crepe with butter. An order of tea brought a cup of water and a tea bag.

At 10 am we took a leisurely 3-minute walk the terminal. No fuss, no rush. Finally, at 11 am, having found nothing at the airport on which to spend our last $9 in tenge, we exchanged it back to USD and checked the bags.

Our flight, sold to us by Expedia, was as follows:
Air Astana KC901, leaving Almaty at 12:30 pm Kazakh Time (+6), and arriving Heathrow Terminal 2 at 3:15 pm England Time (+1).
American AA091, leaving Heathrow Terminal 3 at 4:45 pm England Time (+1), and arriving Chicago O'Hare at 7:20 pm CDT (-5).
A by-now cancelled United UA1414, leaving O'Hare at 8:55 pm CDT (-5) and arriving Atlanta at 11:45 pm EDT (-4).

We knew we could not check the bags through to Atlanta because the third flight did not exist, but we knew we had to check the bags as far as O'Hare.

BIG PROBLEM. Our connection time at Heathrow was only 90 minutes. This one hour and 30 minute period is apparently so tight by current standards that the computer could not allow Air Astana to check the bags through to Chicago O'Hare, nor could an appropriate luggage handling tag be printed. After 45 minutes, the Air Astana reps just handwrote ORD AA91 on the luggage tags, and we were off.

We were seated next to the Engineering Manager of Air Astana Airlines. This gentleman, a Brit who was beginning a two week vacation at home, is in charge of safety and maintenance for Air Astana's 30 or so airplanes. We talked about a lot of things, including who regulates Air Astana (the British, the Europeans, the Arubans (where the planes are in fact registered), and the Kazakhs). The first three, along with our gentleman, who has over 30 years of experience in the airline business) make sure that this is a well-run airline.

An example: Air Astana has a number of 50 passenger planes for its service to the smaller cities of Kazakhstan. They use Fokker 50 seaters. This gentleman's informed opinion was that the Antonov AN-24, on which we had ridden from Osh to Bishkek, is one of the most dangerous airplanes in service in the world. It is underpowered and without a substantial margin of error in case of engine problems or overloading. (Maybe that's why the pilot revved up the engine so much before we took off at Osh.)

The Almaty-London flight was uneventful, but we neared Heathrow about 30 minutes late. We ended up in a holding pattern and landed at 4:15 pm, with just 30 minutes to spare. With the permission of the flight attendant, Carol and Mike unceremoneously ran to the front of the plane before it even finished taxiing to the runway, and were the first ones off.

It is a long way from Heathrow 2 to Heathrow 3, including a shuttle bus ride. It took us 20 minutes to get there. We got on the American Airlines plane 10 minutes before its scheduled departure, pretty sure that our bags had not made it.

On the American flight, also uneventful, Carol found 3 adjoining seats, and slept. Mike watched a couple of movies and some TV shows. Finally we landed on time, and found no luggage belonging to us in the carrousel. We formally entered into the United States, then went to the United Airlines counter. There we were assigned seats on the 6:45 am flight to Atlanta the next morning, a free hotel near the airport, and $30 in dinner and breakfast vouchers.

We were 11 hours jetlagged (10 if we pretended we were in Atlanta) and pretty much out of it. We used the dinner vouchers for 2 bowls of soup, and a Caesar salad, with real lettuce. (We had barely seen lettuce on the whole trip, and probably would not have eaten it anyway, out of safety concerns.)

We could barely sleep (even after trying to listen to Joe Lieberman at the RNC), because it was mid-morning Kazakh time when we went to bed, and mid-afternoon KzT when we got up. Doing the best we could, we presented ourselves at the O'Hare check-in. We received the Homeland Security special search because Mike presented as his ID the expired Georgia license he had kept in his wallet for ID during the trip, and because we had no luggage! We used our breakfast vouchers at [welcome home!] McDonalds (wise move, since only drinks were served to peon class on the flight).

At Hartsfield Atlanta, we filed our missing baggage claim. Under existing rules, United, the last airline in the chain, is responsible for finding our luggage, even though they had nothing to do with losing it. Oh well.

We took MARTA, the Atlanta subway train, to our car, which our kids left for us at the appointed parking lot, picked up the mail, did some grocery shopping, read 6 weeks of accumulated e-mails, and went to bed at 8 pm. For our first meal at home, we enjoyed a large salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives, and lemon juice and olive oil. (We had not eaten anything with lemon juice and olive oil on the whole trip, to the best of our knowledge.)

By the end of the day, still no word about the luggage. As a damn-fool move, we had packed the defunct camera, with all 850 photos, in the backpacks, along with both of the disks we had copied in Bukhara. Carol feared that we might never see any of it again. Mike was coming to feel the same way.

Update: On Sep 4, at 10 am, we learned that the bags had been found and that there was a substantial probability that they were on American Airlines flight 47 to O'Hare. On Sep 5, both bags were delivered to our house while we were at work.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sep 1 - Bishkek KG to Almaty KZ

We were packed and at breakfast before 8 am. No others we up to join us for a breakfast of yogurt, tea, crepes, sour cream, and apple preserves. Even though Bishkek gets its name from "pishpek" (the churn used for making the mare's milk drinky, "kumys"), we would not have a chance to sample this delicacy.

Radison Guesthouse was the cleanest place we had stayed in, with a flowering central courtyard and a quiet location in a most interesting part of Bishkek. Our choice of regional TV channels was also a plus. This morning, on what may have been a pre-Ramadan special, there were some interesting Muslim music videos. One portayed a teenage boy singing about doing good deeds and keeping the faith every day - really catchy. With not too many changes, it could have been shown at any Vacation Bible School or yeshiva.

After breakfast we walked over to the central area of town, and changed $8 US to get just enough spending money to get us out of Kyrgyzstan. We did a little shopping, and checked the internet. No message yet from Hotel Kazzhol.

When we returned to Radison Guesthouse the British couple was preparing to leave. They had more than enough baggage to fill a taxi to the bus terminal by themselves. We had already plotted a simple one-bus journey to the station. So we said our farewells, giving them the last piece of Mike's coffee gum (which he had purchased in China).

It was 10 am, and time for us to hoist the backpacks and walk three blocks to where we could catch the 113 or 114 bus on the street named Jibek Jolu (Silk Road in Kyrgyz, related to Ipak Yoli in Uzbek). Once again, we passed the blue-steepled Russian Orthodox Church. When we arrived at the station, we had the routine down pat. We were mobbed by the shared taxi drivers going to every destination, including Almaty. We walked past them into the station itself. There, waiting, was a commodious bus to Almaty, nearly full, and ready to leave. The next bus, which would leave in 15-20 minutes, was right behind. This second bus had a nice choice of seats, and only cost 300 sum apiece. Since we had budgeted 350 sum apiece, this was pleasant news. Carol picked out the two best remaining seats; we even had time to visit the facilities and buy cold water for the journey.

At 10:55 am, the bus filled, and we were off.

About 30 minutes in, we arrived at the Kazakhstan border, to cross over. Everyone was told to get off and take their baggage. First we had to exit Uzbekistan, filling out our customs declaration (with special attention to how much money you were leaving with), then get the Uzbek departure stamp. At that point you are out of Uzbekistan. You walk several hundred meters through "no-man's land." You now get in line to get the Kazakhstan stamp in your passport. That being accomplished, you are now in Kazakhstan. This is the process that had taken 4 hours on August 14 and 1 hour on August 27.

As the bus unloaded, our driver said something to me in Russian including the word "buistra," which Mike understood to mean fast or quickly. Anyway, Carol had to find a restroom. It turned out there was a 5 minute line (with a for-you-special fee of 5 (!) som (KG) or 20 tenge (KZ) for the dirty stand-on-the-bricks-over-the hole facilities). So it looked like weren't going to be the first through the line, at the very least. Still, we hustled, and things moved fairly quickly. Pretty soon, maybe 10 minutes later, we were through the Uzbek lines, past the no-man's land, and into Kazakhstan. Mike was encouraged when he noticed that there was someone else from the bus between Carol and himself, so at least Carol wouldn't be last.

We were soon both back on the bus. Although we the most "foreign" people on the bus, we weren't the last to return. Not even close to last. Eventually, nearly everyone was on, but two.

While we were waiting, a local woman came into the bus, selling some piroshki. We had 70 som left, and 4 sold for 60. Surprisingly, they turned out to be sweet, filled with a fruit (apple and pear??) mixture. Not bad for an impromptu snack. Since Almaty (Alma-Ata) means "father of apples," it was a nice intro to the country.

Even after our snack was devoured, still there were two open seats on the bus. The driver and the whole bus was really getting angry now. Finally, the two showed up. Goodness knows what they had been doing. But this episode suggested Froman's Fifth Rule of Travel, which is: Never be the last one back, EVER. There is an associated rule, which is never be the last one on the bus (or the train, or the ferry, etc.). This is clearly not always true, because if it is the last bus of the night, or the last ferry of the day, you want to be on it, last or not. But the last one permitted on the vehicle usually gets stuck with the worst seat, and sometimes gets to stand the whole trip, or to have to sit with luggage on his lap, or other substantial inconveniences.

We were on our way to Almaty, with 240 km of Kazakhstan to go. Steppes to the left, hills and eventually mountains (some snow-capped) to the right. After an hour or so, we stopped for a ten minute break. We both needed a restroom, so Carol took the 10 som we had left and went first. She came back with only 2 som! Imagine, 8 som for use of the facilities. Mike then took the remaining 2 som and dropped it in the box. The guy said something like "%$&% Hey!" Mike got the 2 som back but didn't get to use the WC.

A little about prices in Kazakhstan. Of the 5 core Central Asian 'Stans (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan), Kazakhstan "stans out" financially. Uzbekistan has a little bit of oil, but Kazakhstan has a whole lot of oil. One result of this is that Kazakhstan has a bunch of really wealthy people. However, it also has a growing middle class, much larger than in any of the other Stans. It also has higher prices. Much higher prices, as we were to discover later today.

25 cents to use the bathroom is quite high for this part of the world, but there you have it. We were now in Kazakhstan. There was also a cafeteria at this reststop. While we weren't going to eat there, a quick look at the menu revealed that most of the plates were at least 400 tenge ($3.33) and some were as much as 700 tenge ($5.83). These were much higher prices than any we had seen at any time on this trip.

The countryside gradually gave way to small communities, some with house with dacha-style roofs. Then came rows of apartment houses. By three pm, we were in Almaty, Kazakhstan (our plane left from Almaty at 12:30 pm the next day). The bus left us in the Sayran bus station, about 5 km west of downtown. We had decided to continue on to the Kazzhol Hotel, where we had tried to register online. A few quick queries later, we were told to take the 94 bus. Bus fares were 50 tenge (42 cents) - quite reasonable. A 94 bus came by, so we got on. Cross street markers were hard to find, so we eventually got the whole front of the bus ready to advise us when our cross street arrived.

After several kilometers past commercial and residential areas, we got off. Three blocks to the north, and a dogleg to the east, and there we were at the hotel. We walked in. We asked for a room with two beds, toilet and shower, which we believed to be the standard room listed in LP for 10900 tenge ($90). The woman at the desk said they had room. Mike tendered the credit card. The woman swiped it, and handed the slip to Mike to sign. 17000 tenge!!! ($142) Sticker shock in the extreme. We insisted on looking at the 10900 tenge standard room. It was a dinky little space with one narrow too-soft single bed. We then looked at the 17000 tenge room. It was what we had come to know as a standard room (using the Chinese terminology), but the beds were also soft, the room was small, and not well furnished. This room was inferior to the $40 room we had had in Tashkent, or the $40 guesthouse room in Samarkand.

What to do? Next door stood a similar hotel. Their 2 bed room was only 16000 tenge, but it was sold out, and the best they had was the 28000 tenge deluxe suite. ($230+). This was now getting surreal. Carol looked again at the Lonely Planet guidebook. A block and a half away was the ecotourist information office. Perhaps they could hook us up with a homestay.

So we got the visa charge for 17000 cancelled, and walked over to the eco office. Locked tight! This was really getting to be a bummer. The dorm accomodations listed in LP were on the south side of the city, and we were now too pooped to venture into another wild goose chase. We cogitated and finally decided we were just going to sleep at the airport. Like Victor Navorski in the film "The Terminal," which we had viewed in our guesthouse room not 48 hours previously, we were on our own.

We cashed another $30 or so, so that we now had over 6500 tenge. This would serve for a nice meal, a good breakfast, 3 hours on the internet (300 - 350 tenge an hour, not the 50 cents an hour we had been used to paying) and a 2000 tenge taxi ride to the airport. This was starting to feel like we were in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, not Bishkek, Osh, or Tashkent.

By this time, we were hungry, very thirsty, and there was nothing to be done but get some quick eats for our backpack-burdened selves. The guidebook suggested going to the (fortunately nearby) Yubilleyny Food Market.

At Yubilleyny, we purchased two composed salads, 3 stuffed grape leaves, a 1.5 liter bottle of water, and a 1 liter carton of tomato juice, all for about $8. Outside we found a stall selling tortilla-wrapped doner kebabs with pickles, cucumber, carrot shreds, french fries. ketchup and mayo - talk about fusion cuisine. We ordered two, at 300 tenge apiece (higher than what we were expecting). Oh, so good. We were revived.

It was now close to 6 pm. We walked three or so blocks back to an internet cafe we had seen, and spent three hours there. The price was 300 tenge an hour ($2.50), not the 50 cent or so equivalent we had been paying. We spent about a half hour researching the art of sleeping in airports (e.g., sleep on the arrival side, not the departure side), and making a list of all of the planes that were going to be leaving from the airport and when. The Almaty airport turns out to be a busy 24-hour airport, with flights leaving and arriving every several hours all through the night. We figured we could at least stay there, even though we had doubts about being able to actually sleep there. The rest of the time was spent getting our blog up to date.

A little after 9 pm, we started looking for a taxi to the airport. None were coming along our way, but eventually we noticed one parked on the street. We went up to the driver, agreed on a 2000 tenge fare ($16.67 for 10 km), and we were off. We got to the airport a little before 10 pm. Our adventure of coming home had started.

Aug 31 - Bishkek

We were in no rush this morning, so we spent some time watching a 2004 movie "The Terminal." This movie, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, involves a man who becomes stateless and trapped in a New York airport. Since it was dubbed into Russian, we missed the entire subplot of Tom Hanks speaking with a foreign accent. www.imdb.com/title/tt0362227/synopsis.
Teaser: this will all become very personal for us later.

At 8 am, there were two other couples already at breakfast in the patio. The Tom Hanks movie ended at 8:10 am, and we soon joined them. One couple was from Vienna. They had just finished leading a trekking group through Kyrgyzstan, and were flying out that afternoon. They had previously led trips in the Himalayas and elsewhere. They had been on vacation for approximately 6 weeks.

The second couple, our age, had just finished a 4 day trip by train from London to Bishkek. They had spent a few days in Bishkek, recovering from traveler's tummy, and were getting ready to start horse-trekking from Kochkor. Their plans were to make it across the Irkeshtam Pass by the end of September, and to go from Kashgar, across the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan, and thence from Lahore into India. When we asked them when they were returning to England, they replied "June, because our daughter is getting married in July." 10 months on the road!

Our plan this morning was to go to Ala-Archa Park. Bishkek is one of the few cities in the world, and may be the only capital, which adjoin mountains taller than 14,000 feet. In this case, Bishkek is at 800 meters (2600 feet) and the tallest peak in the Ala-Archa Range is close to 5000 meters (16,500 feet).

To get to Ala-Archa Park, you go south from Bishkek. About 20 km out is the small town of Kashka Suu, which is reachable by public transit. 7 km farther is the gate to the park, where you pay admission. 12 km further in is the end of the public road. You are now at 2180 meters elevation (apx 7000 feet).

We took a bus over to Osh Bazaar, from where the bus to Kashka Suu was supposed to leave. As usual Osh Bazaar was a total madhouse, but Carol had a wonderful epiphany. Here, at last, for the first time since the beginning of the trip, we had regained the blessed state of anonymity. We looked like many of the other people, and we dressed like many of the other people, and we were engaged in the same activities. No little kid said "Hello."

After 15 minutes or so, we spotted a bus to Kashka Suu (265) and got on. The fare was 21 som, and when the bus finally filled, we went south through the suburban southern towns. It was after noon when we got to the end of the line, 7 km from the gate, and 19 km from the starting point of any hikes, called the "alplager."

There were three of us at the end of the line. A couple of private cars stopped, but wanted an exhorbitant amount to get us to the alplager. Finally, a taxi stopped, and the third, a local woman, explained to us that the taxi would take us to the alplager for 150 sum apiece (300), plus 80 sum apiece for admission (160). We all hopped on, and she got off before the gate, having gotten a free ride for her role in arranging this deal.

We got to the gate, and the driver motioned to Mike to pay the admission. For the car and three people, it came to 200 sum (not 160). On we went to the top of the road, where the driver left us off and we paid the 300. The total was 500 sum, or about $14.

It was now noon. The weather was in the 60s, with a nice wind. The sky was clear, and we had views of snow capped mountains. We were back in the Alps, and loving every minute of the first breath of autumn in Ala-Archa, part of the Tian Shan mountains we had first met in Hami and Yiwu, a month ago.

We had our pick of several hikes, and chose to go to some waterfalls, a 3.75 km hike. This trail climbs relatively steeply, perhaps ascending 1000-1500 feet in that distance.

The hike was lovely, rising above a spruce forest and two roaring streams, but rocky. We were wearing sneakers and had no hiking poles (there is only so much that one can carry n a six week trip). About 30 minutes in, Mike decided that the elevation and steepness were too much, and sat down. Carol went on; her experience leading hikes finally reluctantly convinced her that continuing without proper gear was folly, and she too turned back. We got down to the alplager at 1:45 pm, having enjoyed another glimpse of the natural beauty of Kyrgystan, an ecotourist's paradise.

We anticipated great difficulty getting down the first 19 km from the alplager, but less than 5 minutes after we started hitching, we were picked up by 3 Russian tourists from near Ekaterinburg, who were on their holiday. They took us to the bus stop and would have gladly taken us into Bishkek. They spoke no English, but we communicated through hand signals: thumbs up for Obama, and thumbs down for Bush.

The 265 bus took us back to the Osh Bazaar, where we had seen a number of eateries. We picked out one, filled mostly with men, but with a few families sitting on the right side. We sat down and ordered plov, pelmeny, nan, and a skewer of shashlik, accompanied by two half liter mugs of beer. The whole bill came to 204 sum ($6 US).

Our appetities were satiated, and Carol was a bit buzzed. As we headed back to the city center, Carol was WWI (walking while intoxicated).

It was time to change a little money, to hit the internet, and to discover if there were any festivities related to Independence Day. While at the internet, we attempted to reserve a room at the Kazzhol Hotel in Almaty for the next night. We swallowed hard when we learned that a standard room at that hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet as a good midprice choice, was 10900 tenge. A tenge is now trading at 119.8 to the USD, so this would be $90 USD. We filled out the internet form, submitted it online, and got a message that the reply would arrive in 48 hours.

While we were at the internet, we watched an Israeli couple (the first of our trip) upload the contents of their camera. These included some spectacular nature pictures and human interest studies of their time in Kyrgyzstan.

Afterwards, we wandered into Beta store again, got a 1.5 liter bottle of tomato juice and a large water, and walked to the fountain in front of the Philharmonia Building, where we saw a large crowd appreciating the fountain and the amateur violinist serenading them with Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.

It was 9 pm, and time to drink the tomato juice and watch a folkloring song contest, being broadcast on Kyrgyz television. Happy Independence Day, Kyrgyzstan! (17 years)

The song duel (aitys) would have made more sense to us if we had been able to understand the lyrics, but basically it was as follows: Contestant one plays the qobyz (a two stringed primitive fiddle) or dombra (a two stringed lute) and recites some complicated poetry. Contestant two listens, and when it is his turn, he replies with more poetry, in the same style. And so it goes back and forth. Occasionally, the audience responds with laughter or applause for some particularly witty bon mot by the akyn (bard). There were judges to declare the winner.