I recently got back from my trip to the ‘Stans, and what a trip it was.
First, a few preliminaries. In the early days of Living Cheap News, I was criticized by one of my nuttier readers for traveling. “You can’t be frugal when you’re paying for two places to live,” she huffed. “One here and one wherever you are.” I ignored her and traveled anyway. And, as for having to turn in my frugal card, I remind everyone I have always said frugality is deciding what’s important to you and doing without what is not important. Amy Dacyczyn decided having a house and a family was what is important for her; Jeff Yaeger decided not having a nine-to-five job was important to him. I decided seeing the world for myself rather than believing everything others told me the world was like is important to me. Unfortunately, as I’ll discuss later, between the airlines and the TSA, I may well decide the hassles of travel these days outweigh the benefits.
The group I have been traveling with is Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), part of Grand Circle Travel. My first trip with OAT, to Tunisia in 2010, was a real eye-opener. It was my first exposure to older travelers. On that trip we had a couple—he was 85; his wife was 80—who were the first up the hills and probably the most energetic people on the trip. These kinds of people—older and physically active—were outside my experience. It was the first time it occurred to me that, yes, we do have to age, but we don’t have to become decrepit. That alone was worth the trip. The next trip I took with them was to eastern Turkey, and I met more of the same older yet energetic people. So, when OAT offered this new trip to the ‘Stans, I signed up. Ours was the second trip they’ve done of all five ‘Stans, and, while the trip needs a few adjustments, which I’ll mention later, I’m glad I did.
A trip like this requires a sense of adventure and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of humor. Recommended also are hepatitis A and B and diphtheria vaccines, Imodium, and antibiotics. The overriding question—especially once you’re outside cities--regards toilets. Eastern or western? If you’re older, a woman, or a man needing to do a number two, eastern toilets are a challenge. Sometimes they are literally a hole in the ground. Oh, and never be without your own toilet paper. Never.
I left Kansas City Sunday, April 9; the flights took me from here to Detroit, then to Amsterdam, and then to Istanbul where I had to pick up my bag and check it with Turkish Air for the flight to Bishkek. This is not as easy as you’d think. I had to go through Turkey’s long entry visa line to get access to the baggage, pick up the bag, take it to the Turkish Air counter, check it, and then go through Turkey’s long exit visa line to get to the Bishkek flight. By the time we got to Bishkek, at 3:15 AM local time, I’d been in airports and on planes more than 24 hours. The Detroit-Amsterdam flight featured a little monster in the row just ahead of me that did not allow anyone any sleep. It seemed to me his parents were trying to keep him awake—perhaps so the brat would sleep once they got to their destination. The Istanbul-Bishkek flight was one of the new Airbus planes that are so narrow that evidently there isn’t enough room for both my shoulders and the asses of people using the aisles, so there wasn’t much sleep on that flight, either.
After a few hours in the hotel, we took off to see Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. One highlight was the American University of Central Asia where a variety of students from all corners of the world are taught in the liberal arts tradition and in English. This university is in a modern building and would do many of our universities proud. Most of the students we spoke with were interested in international studies.
The next day we took off for the bazaar, which, as it turned out, would be like many other bazaars in Central Asia. But this one was the first. We met our local guide who so closely resembled—both physically and especially in accent--Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle that at times it was difficult to keep a straight face (and even though it was not her real name, we referred to her as Natasha). Natasha was not my favorite local guide. Someone once said Pinocchio is the patron saint of guides, and I suspect that was the case with Natasha, who could not have been very old when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 but who still missed the “good old days.” As we toured Bishkek she commented on the new apartment blocks that were going up, saying the old Soviet-era apartment buildings were built better even if they were smaller and more spartan.
I would like to have seen more of Bishkek. It is a city that is growing by leaps and bounds (hence the new apartment construction Natasha bemoaned). And it is overrun by cars. We were told the cars “come from” western Europe. I suspect many come without the consent of their former owners. At any rate, even though people drive on the right side of the road, as we do, there are cars with right-hand drive and cars with left-hand drive, and traffic laws seem to be considered advisory. But in the too-brief time I was there, I didn’t see any accidents.
We took a brief hike in a national park, where Natasha frequently talked about squirrels much to our amusement. Too soon we left Bishkek for Lake Issyk-Kul, which has very little to recommend it. The hotel was right out of the old Intourist days even though it was built in 2007. Old habits die hard, I suppose. The staff was trained to say “no” in several languages. The only “yes” I ever got out of anyone was when I asked if this is where I turn in my keys as we were leaving. In this part of Kyrgyzstan there’s just not much to see. There is a field of petroglyphs, but once you’ve seen one, … . The one highlight was a golden eagle. We got to pet the eagle and have it sit on our arms. It was darling—a one year old female that was very much like a puppy. It was supposed to kill a rabbit, but all it did was land on it, much to our relief and Natasha’s chagrin. One of the most memorable experiences—for all the wrong reasons—was our visit to the museum and memorial dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalskiy, a noted Russian explorer who happened to die and be buried in Karakol. Natasha droned on and on and on and repetitively about this guy. I felt sorry for him, since she mentioned his 1888 death from typhus so often that it seemed like that was his major accomplishment. Several of us wandered off on our own to explore the grounds.
In Karakol we had lunch with a local restaurant entrepreneur who had been a kidnapped bride, so we got to hear first-hand about this practice which, though technically illegal, still goes on in the ‘Stans.
The practice of kidnapping brides does not usually involve rape. Women—especially in the villages—are so incredibly restricted that simply spending the night away from home ruins their reputation. Strangely, the parents of the kidnappers will sit the kidnapped woman down and explain to them that their families will not take them back now that their reputation is ruined, and that their son is not really such a bad dude, after all. It comes down to a choice of marrying the kidnapper or well, who knows what? In the case of the entrepreneur who served us lunch, she married her kidnapper whom, she said, she learned to respect but never loved. Interestingly, her husband had come around to where he favored education for his daughters—quite a modern approach.
Natasha claimed she was once in danger of being kidnapped, but I think the group found it unlikely that even in Kyrgyzstan someone would be that desperate.
Natasha impressed me as an extremely negative control freak with a tenuous hold on the truth. For example, when we were approaching the Soviet-style hotel, she gave us a cock-and-bull story about how expensive wi-fi would be and that there would be one password for each device. (I had suggested that if one person paid for wi-fi we could all have access to the password.) It turned out wi-fi was free although not very good. Given how lazy the staff was, it was ludicrous to think they’d go to so much effort to assign so many passwords. Why Natasha felt it necessary to invent such industriousness for a staff so lazy remains a mystery.
While we were driving one day there was a big clunk noise on the bus, after which the air conditioning no longer worked. Natasha found it necessary to invent a story about how the buses were used and built for different climates and when the temperature got to a certain level the air conditioning would come on again. We’d all heard the clunk. Many of us actually knew something about mechanics. But Natasha persisted. I’ve known a few compulsive liars in my time, and, sad to say, Natasha fit the profile. Hopefully OAT can find a better local guide.
In my opinion, the Lake Issyk-Kul part of trip needs to be reevaluated. Admittedly the eagle experience was memorable, but I think more time in Bishkek and Almaty would be more meaningful. As it turned out, we only spent a day in Almaty, our only stop in Kazakhstan. I’d have much preferred at least another day there.
We spent the better part of the day getting to the crossing for the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. There are some very good roads in Central Asia, but many are really bad. OAT recommended women wear sports bras. It seems the border closes for two hours at lunchtime, and while we were there well before lunch it looked like we might not be processed in time to avoid the two-hour wait. Fortunately, one of our group was persuaded to have an episode. The border guards decided they didn’t want to be bothered with the paperwork in case one of the American tourists died on their watch, and we were soon on our way for our limited visit to Almaty.
And then we went through the looking glass.
We left late in the evening for the flight to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. We arrived in the early morning hours to a huge but empty airport. As it would turn out, huge but empty would pretty much describe Ashgabat, but more on that later.
I was already prejudiced against Turkmenistan because to get a visa requires a “letter of invitation” (and a sizeable visa fee). I sent the required information and copies in January. In March, just a few weeks before departure, OAT called and said I’d copied my passport too close to the edge and could I send another copy? Ummmmm. Well, since OAT’s visa service people had my passport, I couldn’t, but fortunately I’d kept a copy of my passport photo page. That worked, as it turned out. But it was just a hint of things to come. When you come through the cavernous airport, there’s an unmarked booth. As it turns out, that’s where you pay an additional $14 (in U.S. currency) and drop off a varying number of photos. (I had three—they took them all.) Then you go to another unmarked booth and get your passport stamped. And then you run into Turkmen, who refuse to que. It seems they all have a reason they should go ahead of you, and it seems the country tolerates this one area of rebellion. I wondered what the Turkmen word for “asshole” is. If anyone can help me out with that one, I’d appreciate it. I’ve tried Google, and while I find “asshole” used frequently to describe various and sundry border guards and officials, I’ve not found the actual Turkmen word for it. Anyway, if you ever visit Turkmenistan, that would be a good thing to know.
As I said, we got there early in the morning. My first impression of Ashgabat was the fountain in front of the Grand Turkmen Hotel being scrubbed. As it would turn out, Ashgabat is probably the most scrubbed city in the world.
To get an idea of what Ashgabat looks like, I’d suggest you Google “Ashgabat Turkmenistan monuments.” Ashgabat is a city of white marble. From 1991, the end of the Soviet Union, to 2006 it was ruled by a dictator who took the name Turkmenbashi and proceeded to fill the city with monuments. I can’t decide which is the most pathetic, but certainly in the running is the Earthquake Monument, inspired by a massive 1948 earthquake that killed Turkmenbashi’s mother and two siblings. The monument includes a bull on which a cracking earth is mounted. The cracking earth is capped with a woman who is holding a golden baby—Turkmenbashi. Also in the running is a monument to—no shit!—a book Turkmenbashi wrote. He also built an over-the-top mosque and gravesite for himself. He’s buried there, but he also had four mock tombs for his mother, two siblings, and his father, who was killed in the Second World War.
Ashgabat is filled with six lane streets that are almost devoid of cars. We had a great local guide who began by telling us that everybody in Turkmenistan is “heppy.” Even the women sweeping the streets are “heppy.” Everyone, she said, has at least two cars—especially the rural people, who have four-wheel drive vehicles for their farms and a sedan for fun. At first I thought she was serious, but I think it was a case of laying it on a tad thick. One day, and we were there four days, a schedule glitch enabled her to introduce us to a friend of hers at the friend’s house. The house was quite nice, but it was a far cry from the white marble and a good distance from the six-lane streets. And it was a nice break. It may what the the areas of white marble apartments were like before Turkmenbashi’s building spree.
Turkmenistan is said to be the closest one can get to being in North Korea without actually being in North Korea. I believe it. Our tour bus was stopped because a guard thought someone had taken a photo of something forbidden. (And not to put too fine a point on the Turkmen, the area around the U.S. embassy in Ashgabat is another zone where photos are forbidden.)
One thing I found interesting is women are not allowed to buy clothes off-the-rack. They must choose their material and have their clothes made. The clothes are colorful but cover the wearer from neck to ankle, and are worn by every woman—even the “heppy” street sweepers. Men, on the other hand, are not bound by these rules.
In order to maintain control, I suppose, rules in Turkmenistan are arbitrary and inconsistent. For example, some of our group visited a museum. The museum would only take dollars, and the museum gift shop would only take manat, the local currency.
I also noted there were almost no dogs or cats in sight. I was told people had pets, but they walked them after dark. I figured the pets were probably kept near all the imaginary cars we didn’t see on the streets. When I got home I discovered via Google that Tutkmenistan’s leader requires that stray animals be destroyed. (See one article at http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64582)
At any rate, our time in Ashgabat ended, and we flew (again at night) to Tashauz, a Turkmenistan city near the Uzbekistan border. The flight was on Turkmenistan Airlines. A meal of sorts was served, and passengers were not allowed to refuse the meal. We didn’t have to eat what was served, fortunately, but we could not refuse to accept it.
OAT advised the weight limit for bags was 33 pounds for this internal Turkmenistan flight. As a result of that advice I took a much smaller bag than I had originally planned to use. It turns out the limit was not enforced (for us, anyway), and even when it is enforced the overweight charge is not all that much.
Tashauz was much more like a typical town with a market and friendly people. We drove to the border, where we changed buses and drivers.
I guess the border crossing was smooth enough if you’re used to that sort of thing, but it involved going through Turkmenistan’s exit process, carrying our bags about a mile over unpaved paths to a waiting van that took us to the Uzbekistan entry point. As many of you know, I take supplements, so I got interrogated about my supplements both leaving Turkmenistan and and again when entering Uzbekistan. In all fairness, I suppose there is a serious issue with drug smuggling, but really. Swansons? Puritan’s Pride?
We entered Uzbekistan, which was by far my favorite of the countries we visited, and not the least because Batir, our trip leader, who lives in Uzbekistan, was also our local guide.
We started in Khiva, one of the old Silk Road cities. I learned that, while the Silk Road itself is ancient, the name “Silk Road” only dates to the Nineteenth Century.
Khiva is a charming and relatively compact city. It was here I ran into Uzbekistan’s confusing currency situation. It seems there is an official rate of exchange: 3700 som to the dollar. Most vendors will take dollars, and that’s the way to go when possible. I exchanged $25 at the official rate in Khiva. I stopped in a “mini market” and bought a small piece of cheese for the equivalent of $5 in som. I thought, “My God! These prices are outrageous.” As it turned out, the prices were not outrageous, they were based on black market exchange rates, which I’d learn more about in Bukhara, our next stop, and you’ll learn what I learned when my travelogue gets to Bukhara.
On one of our Khiva days, we traveled all day to Nukus, which is in the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic. It’s part of Uzbekistan (for now), but if it wished it could become its own country. The primary reason for the lengthy trip was to visit the Savitsky Museum, which contains art that was controversial in the Soviet times. If you’d like to explore the subject further, there is a documentary about the museum narrated by Ben Kingsley titled The Desert of Forbidden Art. There was some discussion as to whether the museum visit was worth the lengthy trip. From Nukus we returned to Khiva and then were off to Bukhara. Bukhara is where I got my education on Uzbekistan’s currency.
We arrived on a Sunday, and as we were doing an orientation tour a young man approached me with postcards. I told him I might buy some the next day. He said he’d be in school, so I looked at what he had and bought a packet and some stamps. Then he said he’d like to change money. He offered 6,000 som to the dollar. It may not be the OAT way, but selling dollars for 6,000 som was a lot better than getting 3,700 for them, so I took him up on his offer. As it would turn out I was offered 7,600 by a man who would soon be travelling to the U.S. and needed dollars. I began to understand why the $5 piece of cheese was happening. Uzbekistan—at least urban Uzbekistan—is on a dollar (or euro) economy. Vendors who deal with tourists deal in dollars, and not too many people exchange at the official rates, which must make life hell for people who have no access to hard currency.
For example, Chevrolet has a factory in Uzbekistan, and many people drive Chevys because Uzbekistan charges an import fee on foreign cars. Chevy makes, for example, a Cobalt that will run on either gasoline or methane (and has two tanks so drivers can switch between the two). The cars sell for $8,600, which is a lot of money for most Uzbeks. And it’s difficult to get dealers to accept som. And that’s just one example of why locals need access to hard currency.
At any rate one mild criticism I have of this trip is I would like to have had a better understanding of how the currency situation worked before I exchanged any money at the official rate. Fortunately, I hadn’t changed too much.
I think Bukhara was the most friendly of the cities I visited in Uzbekistan. People would stop and try out their English on me—which was always better than my Uzbek. This old city has many remnants of its days on the Silk Road including beautifully tiled madrassahs which have been converted into hostels, the Ark—the old city fortress, and, of course, bazaars and the usual souvenir vendors. In Bukhara I ate something that disagreed with me violently. Immodium would work for a while, and then it would hit again. Finally I gave up and used the antibiotics my doctor had prescribed “just in case.” Eventually that worked.
Our next stop, Samarkand, was one of my main reasons for the trip, and it didn’t disappoint. I’d seen photos of Registan Square, but, oh my, they don’t do the place justice. Three blue-tiled madrassahs face the square. One, with its portrayal of lions (which look like tigers), would seem to violate Islam’s dictate against portraying live animals, but Islam in this part of the world had to compete with Zoroastrianism, so it’s a bit different and much less rigid than what we usually think of when we think of Islam.
I was still fighting my whatever-it-was, so I learned to be on the lookout for restrooms and, to the best of my ability, not be too messy when the restrooms inevitably turned out to be eastern. We saw many of Samarkand’s sights including the beautiful necropolis and the observatory of Ulug-Bek, which was built in the 1420s.
We were scheduled to visit Shakhrisabze, the birthplace of Tamerlane, but thankfully, we didn’t, since it would have resulted in yet another day of driving many hours. From Samarkand we next visited Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. I didn’t know much about Tashkent before I went there, but it is a charming town. To get oriented our driver dropped us off a few blocks from the hotel. Our walk took us through a flea market. The next day I visited the flea market and found my favorite souvenir of this trip—a plexiglass trophy from 1961 commemorating Yuri Gagarin’s space flight orbiting the earth.
We were in Tashkent a short two days and then continued to our last ‘Stan, Tajikistan. The border crossing was another of those where we were also changing buses and drivers and walking between the two countries. At least this border crossing was paved. When we made it to the Tajik side we discovered the thirteen of us, our trip leader, and the two local guides (more on that in a moment) would be traveling in a 20-passenger bus. Our luggage would follow us in another bus.
Our local guide, Shabazz, was pretty good. I think he’s new to the guide business and not quite as, um, inventive as Natasha. He is from one of the villages. At first he was accompanied by a female guide whose name I never caught. She is one of these very accomplished (a legend in her own mind) people who are always so cheerful that people tolerate (because she is so nice) but would like to escape at their earliest convenience. My first encounter with her was when she insisted on taking my bag with my laptop and I insisted on keeping it. I won that one. If anyone thinks Muslim women in Tajikistan are not allowed to speak their mind, I’d suggest spending some time with her. She interrupted and contradicted Shabazz at will.
We drove to Khujand and stayed in the worst hotel I’ve experienced in my life, and that includes fleabag hotels in Prague and Montreal that until now were in competition for the worst ever. As one of our group commented, “This reminds me of a women’s correctional facility.” And I would say that’s putting it kindly. Khujand is kind of a nowhere, and it’s where some tour groups (notably Road Scholar) end their ‘Stans tours. If it had been the only city in Tajikistan I visited, I’d have advised people to forget the whole country.
But since I spent a couple of days there, I’ll tell you what I remember. We went to Arbob Palace, which Lonely Planet’s Central Asia guide describes as “strangely pointless.” I’d have to agree, but it’s modeled (loosely) on the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and it seems couples about to be married use it as a backdrop for their wedding photos. Weddings are a really big deal in Tajikistan. There were people having their wedding photos taken at the palace. And Shabazz’ female helper simply insisted that we be in those photos as a treat to the wedding party. To me it was clear the last thing the bride and groom wanted in their wedding photos was a bunch of dirty, badly dressed Americans who’d been on the road for nearly four weeks. It would have been obvious to someone suffering from severe Aspergers, but helper girl insisted and both we and the unfortunate couple found it easier to yield than argue. She asked the couple nosy questions about how long they’d known each other (four years), how they met (I forget), etc. At any rate, we finally had to say goodbye to helper girl because she had another group to guide. Awwwww.
Shabazz proved to be surprisingly competent without all her help. He told us about how, when one area got too crowded, the Tajik government would establish another city and “encourage” people to move there. We noticed Tajiks drove very nice automobiles, mostly Mercedes and BMWs. Shabazz explained that the cars were used. It seems, according to Shabazz, that when Western Europeans tired of their cars after a couple of years, they’d allow them to be stolen, and their insurance would pay for them. Many such cars wound up in Tajikistan. But no right-hand drive cars were allowed. I think Shabazz believed this. And then Shabazz told us about marriage customs in the villages of Tajikistan.
Shabazz told us of his own marriage. His parents and those of his bride-to-be arranged their marriage. Shabazz did not meet his wife until the day of the wedding, although he said he’d spoken with her a few times on the phone. After the wedding she told him she’d seen him in town a few times. And this is the way it’s done in the villages. This is so common in rural Tajikistan that Shabazz seemed surprised we didn’t do the same in America.
We asked him what would happen if a woman chose not to be married. He said there had been one unattractive woman who had a job and a car in his village who did not get married for years. Eventually she married a widower and had to give up both her car and her job. I don’t know whether to consider that a happy ending.
Once a couple is married they generally live with the husband’s family. The wife is permitted to visit her family when her husband and his family allow it. The youngest son is expected to care for his parents, and, as a result it is the youngest son who inherits the bulk of the family’s estate.
From Khujand we hit the road for Dushanbe, and what a road it was. The reason we downsized to a 20-passenger bus became obvious—the roads through the mountains were simply neither good enough nor wide enough for the larger bus we’d given up. On the way we stopped at Istaravshan and visited traditional artists who made wood combs and knives. We had lunch at the home of an artist who is (allegedly) the last person in Tajikistan who specializes in the art of block printing on textiles.
This artist is (allegedly) so famous that the president of Tajikistan (allegedly) came to his house and (allegedly) was so impressed the president (allegedly) gave the artist the president’s car. The artist has a very nice house. For some reason the (alleged) toilet available for visitors is (literally) a triangular concrete hole that appears not to have been cleaned this century (and maybe not a good part of last century, either). The smell was enough to trigger my gag reflex, and I’m not all that finicky. After using that restroom—or actually not using the restroom because it was just too filthy, we were supposed to eat. Thank heavens for Purell. If this guy is truly the legendary artist we’re supposed to believe he is, he really needs to do something about that bathroom.
Anyway, we were soon back on the road to Dushanbe. We stopped at a couple of scenic sites, one of which had vendors selling dried fruit. At this site we were able to witness a man yelling at the vendors that they were unfair competition for vendors selling the same products elsewhere. Eventually we descended into Dushanbe, which is a charming city for the most part. For some reason, though, whoever designed a good portion of the tourist attractions seemed to have a stair fetish. You go up stairs, then down stairs only to go up stairs again. Go figure. The Tajik Museum of Antiquities is a definite must-see if you’re ever here. We had a museum guide that started taking us through the museum, but it was obvious that if I was going to see the whole thing, I couldn’t rely on the guide, so I broke off and did a self-guided tour. I was glad I did. One really nice thing about this trip is our trip leader did not take it personally if we split off from the group. I really appreciate Batir for allowing us this flexibility. We visited a museum of musical instruments and the local bazaar, but I simply must tell you about the Palace of Nowruz. This is a fairly new building decorated by 4,000 (or so) local artists over the course of five years. It was completed in 2014 at a reported cost of $60 million. According to a source I won’t name the actual number is closer to $2 billion. Supposedly this was all private money.
At any rate, after entering the palace by climbing the requisite couple of stories of stairs, we were treated to a giant room which is available for weddings and other functions. The guide, who was so enthusiastic about the palace, told us the room would rent for $2,000. If you wanted food with that, it would be $5,000. Given the average annual wage in Tajikistan is $1,600, this was clearly beyond the reach of most Tajiks. We were then treated to yet another room on yet another level of the palace. This room was more ornate than the $2,000 room. In fact, by now we were on the verge of tacky, but more was to come. There was a crystal room, a marble room, etc. All of these rooms are huge. In one of the rooms I spotted an open door and a restroom. I pointed that out to one of our group who had expressed a desire about to become a need to use the restroom. As he headed for the door our guide flew to the doors and slammed them shut saying, “That is for diplomats only.” The final room was full of mirrors. In fact, the mirrors had mirrors. By now we were having trouble not laughing—OK, not laughing too loudly. When the guide said she hoped the building would make the Guinness Book of World Records, I wondered what category they were aiming for.
We met with a French student who lived in Dushanbe and told about how she’d adjusted to life in Tajikistan. When some of the group mentioned that Facebook was unavailable in Tajikistan, she responded there were ways to get around that (which Shabazz confirmed). Facebook was also blocked in Turkmenistan as was CNN. (Please note I don’t know much about Facebook; I have met too many people who have let it become a job, and I’m not looking for a job.)
We ran into helpful girl who was guiding some British campers. Those poor Brits. First Brexit. Now helpful girl. And not even able to escape to a hotel room.
We had the afternoon to prepare for our departure from the ‘Stans and our one-day stay in Istanbul. Our flight (sigh, again) was a late night one. We arrived in Istanbul in time for breakfast. I was thrilled that our trip leader was one I’d had on my first trip to Turkey in 2003, but I was truly sad for Istanbul. There were armed soldiers everywhere, and the two tourist sites we visited—the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market—had metal detectors at their entrances. I hope the world and Istanbul will get back to normal one of these days.
The next day we left Istanbul. I headed for Sicily (more on that later); most of the others in our group headed back to the U.S.
I would say this trip was one of the best I have taken with OAT. The itinerary needs some work—especially the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan part of the trip, which has that “If-It’s-Tuesday-This-Must-Be-Belgium” feel, and I’d suggest that, rather than driving from Tashkent to Dushanbe with the stay in Khujand, it would be better to fly to Dushanbe and spend more time there.
All-in-all, I would take this trip again based on what I learned and the sights I saw—especially the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan. Batir was beyond excellent as a trip leader. And finally, the trip could not possibly have been as enjoyable had we not had such a fantastic group. We had three couples and seven single travelers. We spent more time with each other in four weeks than most of us spend with our families, significant others, partners, etc. And we got along amazingly well. Oh, we got on each others’ nerves at times—and I probably got on a lot of people’s nerves—those who’ve read some of my writings know I can be a bit, ummm, er acerbic at times. You can imagine what I’m like in person.
One question I’ve been asked a lot is what was the food like. It was very meat based. And the quantity of food was more than adequate for the most part. (There was one meal at a stop on a highway that consisted of a small hamburger patty and clumps of mashed potatoes and rice; that was the only meal I remember being really bad, and who eats potatoes and rice at the same meal, anyway?)
Well, as I said, for me it was off to Sicily.
I have done some really stupid things in my life. Doing what OAT calls a back-to-back trip may be right up there. OAT offers some really good discounts, and on a back-to-back trip there’s usually no added airfare. As a result my trip to Sicily was probably half price. But I hadn’t planned on being exhausted, and I was still on antibiotics when the Sicily trip began. And there was more I hadn’t planned on.
The Central Asia trip is new, and OAT is still ironing the kinks out of it. To me, that’s OAT at its best—constantly tweaking to get the trip to be the best it can be. The Sicily trip is OAT on an assembly line. This time of the year there’s a trip leaving every day or so. I guess I should have known that, but it didn’t register. Unfortunately, I started on an assembly line that was not the one I was supposed to be on.
I had a day between trips, and I thought it would be an opportunity to relax and unpack for an extra day. That would make me wrong. First, I had the issue of flying to Rome on Turkish Air and flying to Palermo on Alitalia. This meant I once again had to pick my luggage up and recheck it at a different terminal. When I landed in Palermo I found my driver, who was holding cards for both OAT and Explore. I got to him first, but shortly after I got to him a woman who was on an Explore trip walked up to him. He was holding the Explore sign, after all. He told her to call her driver, which was simply moronic, if you think about it. How was she supposed to call her driver? She didn’t know his number. And he was holding the sign, after all. I told him I wasn’t in a big hurry and maybe he could offer the woman more assistance. So he called her driver. He and I took off, and he delivered me… to the wrong hotel. I showed him I thought it was the wrong hotel, but he showed me on his phone that this was the hotel OAT had told him to drop me at. He wouldn’t stick around. And it was, indeed, the wrong hotel. My hotel was a mile away. OAT has said they’d give me a $100 travel voucher to apply to my next trip for the inconvenience, but there may well not be a next trip. I’ll talk about that later.
I need to back up just a tad. Before the trip, while I was in Central Asia, I received an email from Plinio, our Sicily group leader, advising how difficult it was to exchange money in Sicily. Plinio advised using an ATM card. I hadn’t known I’d need one, so I didn’t bring one. So I changed money in Istanbul with a vendor at the Spice Market I’d done business with previously, and I didn’t change a lot of money.
So here I was in Palermo at the wrong hotel with my luggage (thank heavens I don’t buy a lot of souvenirs) and on antibiotics. I sucked it up and walked to the right hotel. It wasn’t really that much different than walking between the border checkpoints in Central Asia. When I got there I discovered my room for the first night was really small and I’d get to move into the right room when the group arrived the next day. So I wouldn’t be unpacking for four days after all.
The next day the group arrived. There were fifteen of us.
We explored Palermo, which had some interesting sights including a cathedral that had been built on the site of a mosque which, in turn, had been built on the site of a church. Another cathedral was decorated with (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating) millions of tiles. The workmen included people of all religions which resulted in a Byzantine look. One of many annoying things about this trip is it seems every city and site had a “local guide.” Some of them were very good. Some not so much. The guide in Palermo was one of the good ones. She pointed out an area of flea markets. The next day I visited them, which was interesting although I didn’t find anything. That evening we were told about the Sicilian Mafia by the son of the man who was in charge of the Mafia for many years. This was probably the highlight of the trip. The next day we left Palermo for Mazara, where we explored the city, which included a Tunisian area built in Kasbah style. Our guide knew a resident of the Kasbah, and he showed us around. We saw the museum where the “dancing satyr” discovered in the Mediterranean by a fisherman is now housed. That evening we prepared a dinner in a restaurant. The next day we saw how salt is produced from the sea. This is about as interesting as it sounds. The next day we visited the Valley of Temples dating back to the 3rd and 4th Centuries BC (or BCE if you prefer). That night we stayed at an “agriturismo,” or an agricultural activity the Sicilian government has allowed to cater to tourists—sort of a B & B. The next day was one I was looking forward to—a tour of the Villa Romano del Casale, a Roman villa discovered buried in mud in the 19th Century. Our local guide knew every detail and wanted to share them with us. I just wanted to look at the mosaics. That day we continued to Ragusa. The next day we were treated to rides in Fiat 500s. This was a real treat for me as it may be the first time I wedged myself into a space smaller than a modern-day coach seat on a plane. The following day the group took a dairy farm tour. I took a much-needed break and rested.
We then headed for Catania, stopping in Syracuse on the way. Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes of “Eureka!” fame. By the time we reached Catania, our final city, I was thrilled just to have survived. We visited the local World War II Museum which had a sign recommending we see a film. The group followed the local guide; I wanted to watch the film, which was an excellent history of World War II, starting well before the war and continuing until it suddenly stopped in 1943. It seems the film is supposed to take us to the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the museum takes it from there.
We were in Catania as Sicily was preparing for the G7 meeting in Taormina, so I skipped the trip there and rested. The final day of the trip we took a drive to Mt. Etna. And the next day I came home.
As you can tell I did not enjoy the Sicily trip. I take responsibility for being tired when the trip began, but there are some issues with the trip that OAT really needs to think about. The trip has too many activities that are questionable, among them the Fiat 500 drive and preparing dinner in Mazara. And there are a lot of activities that drag on longer than they should, among them the painted horse carts. These carts are indeed beautiful, and a brief explanation of their history would be interesting. The operative word being brief.
Another issue is I was frequently not aware what we were going to do—for example, a visit to the chocolate shop turned out to be an opportunity to be told how chocolate was made, sample some tiny samples, and buy something. This was a “discovery?” I think it would be a good idea also to advise people in advance that the day will be strenuous when that is the case. It’s not great to board the bus, become part of a captive audience, and find you’ve wasted a day when, at worst, you could be doing something you’d prefer to do—even if that something is reading a book at the hotel. Every minute of a vacation does not have to have some activity!
Again, I acknowledge I started this trip tired and not feeling great, but even now, a few weeks later even writing about some of these experiences is unpleasant.
Which brings me to travel in general these days.
I started flying on a somewhat regular basis in 1971. At that time I was 6’6” tall. I’ve since shrunk to 6’5”. In the 1970s I fit in airline seating. I do not recall having my knees embedded in the seat in front of me, inches away from someone’s kidneys. Nor do I recall having to sit with my legs in a V-shape with one knee in the aisle and the other keeping my seatmate from lowering their tray table (and I’m talking to you here, Alitalia—your seating sucks). With the exception of the flight from Detroit to Amsterdam and the flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City, every seat on every plane was taken. On the flight from Paris to Minneapolis I actually had to ask the man in front of me not to put his seat back. (“Excuse me, sir. My knees are embedded in your seat, and I’d like to be able to use my legs when we get to Minneapolis.”) And with the exception of the flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City, not one airline employee even noted my discomfort. On that last leg of the trip, a flight attendant told me there were seats in the exit row if I’d like one. I did. Thank you, Delta.
Even when I flew to Greece two years ago airline seats were not this uncomfortable, even for me. I’ve been flying for a long time, and I’ve been tall for a long time, so I can truly paraphrase Norma Desmond here and say yes, I am tall; it’s the airline seats that have gotten small. And I guess that’s not going to change. I have reservations for a trip to the Suez Canal next February. After this trip, I’m about 85% sure I’m going to cancel. It will cost me to cancel, but when I think of getting on another long flight, I shudder. I have until October to decide.
I’d hoped to be able to use some of the many American Airlines AAdvantage miles I’ve accrued over the years to fly business or first class on the Suez Canal trip. Even this far in advance that’s simply not possible. Even coach seats are not available. Evidently American has decided it’s enough that they let you accrue miles; using them for something of meaningful value is simply beyond the pale.
Add to the discomfort and the inability to use frequent flyer miles the hoops TSA puts you through these days, and you’ve got a trifecta of reasons not to travel.
In short, while I enjoy travel, traveling is more trouble than it’s worth. The cost benefit analysis does not work out when you take into account that the flying part of the equation is downright painful.
© 2017 Larry Roth