We decided since we got sidetracked in Dunhuang that we had to at least travel to Turpan during our extended layover in Urumqi. It is unfortunate that it’s the worst time to visit the “Death Valley” of China but we’re here and not sure if we will be in this part of the world anytime soon.
Bus to China’s Death Valley
The bus from the long distance bus terminal in Nianzigou easiest and cheapest way to get to Turpan. Public bus No. 51 drops off passengers in front of the station and across the street from the Urumqi Water Park. The public bus costs 1 RMB and you pay when you get off. A one way ticket to Turpan is currently 20 RMB per person. The VIP is in name only. The buses have some miles on them, the seats are a little rickedy and there’s a bucket sitting in the middle of the aisle which I gathered was for trash? At least the ticket is cheap and the ride isn’t really that long. Travelers should get an early start to secure a front seat on a direct bus that takes about 2 1/2 – 3 hours. Tickets are assigned to a seat number, and if someone is sitting in yours don’t hesitate to politely give them the boot.
Desert Transition from China to Central Asia
Turpan is officially in China but has more of a Central Asian feel to it. The landscape, the street food, and the diversity of the local people are just a few of the first things that can be seen just a few steps from the bus terminal. The haggling for everything from hotel room price to the cost of a car for the day begins here. Bargain hard.
Turpan is second lowest depression in the world and holds the title of being China’s furthest point away from any ocean. During the end of July, standing outside in the middle of the day in Turpan pretty much feels as if I am standing in front of an open convection oven. So yes, it’s HOT and probably the most uncomfortable time to be here. The one advantage we have is lesser amounts of package tour hordes to deal with at the sites themselves. The sites are slowly being reconstructed by the Chinese Government making less authentic and turning into more like theme park attractions. There is still much to see, but they work fast here. So, there is no doubt that what remains somewhat authentic today could be literally gone tomorrow.
To Book a Room Ahead or not?
Turpan is a sort of town where getting a room on arrival is doable. The town can easily be visited in a couple of days depending on the person. The rates are negotiable upon arrival. Booking on the spot will lower the higher rack rate and it’s always good to see the room before making a commitment.
We had a hit list of options and started with the best option location wise. Our first choice was the Transportation Hotel located in the bus station. It gets good reviews on Trip Advisor and is new. The hotel is nice, but I would probably try out the Turpan Hotel. John’s Cafe on the property serves great food under a grapevine terrace, cold beer, wi-fi is available and the staff are very friendly. The hotel is a bit dated, but other travelers we met said they were happy with the hotel. Despite what the LP Guide says, John’s Cafe does provide travelers with travel information and can arrange car services to the area sites.
The beautiful landscape shaped by volcanoes and the art of bathing in a onsen attracts many visitors to Japan and beautiful mountain towns like Aso. This small town is the prefect place to experience Japanese culture and see one of the countries largest active volcanoes even in the rainy season. If it is sunny – then it’s a day for hiking. If it’s raining then there’s always the option of taking a short bus ride to the spa town of Kurokawa.
The hikes here begin after passing through a small village, followed by a mountain shrine which then leads into a thick evergreen forest. The road wines its way up to an area of green rolling hills where horses and cattle graze just below the mountain peak. The serpentine trail continually ascends up until it ends at the observation point next to the open crater. The hiking trails travel through fields of red rock sand and boulders. The volcanic expanses receive a fresh coat of ash each time the active crater erupts which happens daily. The last large eruption took place in May 2011.
Mt. Naka-Dake or just Mt. Naka is the only remaining active crater in this area. The northerly wind, its’ speed and sulphur levels are high enough to warrant the closing of the highest viewing point. The sulfur from the volcano is pungent and sometimes overwhelming this morning causing some with sensitive noses to seek cover under protective scarves and surgical masks. The sulphuric gas can get to dangerous levels and warning signs are everywhere. We can either wait for the wind to change or just hike up a different direction. Today, the lower viewing point is still open, so we were able to get look at the open neon green crater and hike up to the other side of the mountain. Some areas being off-limits because of the current wind conditions but there is more enough to see for first timers.
Why hasn’t Aso been on my list?
It’s easy to miss because Japan has always been a pricey destination for budget travelers. Most travel the country by using the JR rail pass which needs to be purchased before arriving to Japan. Until now, it’s has been the most popular and convenient way to travel to most towns and cities inside Japan. The JR pass is expensive since the price is in Japanese Yen and goes up and down as it’s value against the USD fluctuates. This is one factor that deters perspective tourists until recently.
Japan now has a couple of budget airlines that offer domestic flights from Tokyo many cities giving the JR Rail some much-needed competition. Peach Airline offers flights from many including departures from Osaka to a few cities in Kyushu and AirAsia will soon be offering flights inside Japan as well. Visitors now have more options and can now see more of Japan in less time including towns like Aso.
My current home town of NYC has some pretty amazing museums. The city is fortunate to have the world’s history and art come to them instead of traveling many time zones away to see it.
When I’m traveling I’m always up for checking out the ones that get a little less attention and are somewhat off the beaten path. I’m in search of what will never reach any museum close to home because it’s just impossible to really appreciate something that is thousands of miles away from its origin. It’s pretty hard to move an entire building as well. Some have been somewhat successful. For example, the MET in NYC did do a great job of bringing the Islamic world back after being in storage for a decade.
I usually find places that are more known for both their architectural beauty and small collection of art inside. Here are a few of my favorites from my travels over the years. Trips to Russia and Iran just require a pricey and lengthy visa approval process and Syria is considered very unsafe for foreigners and nationals alike. Things will hopefully the violence will end and peace will resume in days ahead. Here’s just a little look inside a few.
The one thing to not miss while staying in Kagoshima is making a day trip to the volcanic island of Sakurajima. The last major devastating blast was almost 50 years ago and hopefully it won’t go off again anytime soon. One of the three peaks still gives the surrounding area a daily coat of grey ash which makes a sun umbrella really handy here. It’s an amazing site to see in person and biking is one of the best ways to see it from all angles. We bring along protective masks while we ride and hope we don’t inhale too much debris.
A trip to Sakurajima and a bike ride around the island pretty much takes up an entire day. The ferry takes 10 minutes, leaves often and costs just 150 Yen each way. What a deal. We rented bikes for 1500 Yen for the day and only knew that it was hilly and could take anywhere from 3-5 hours. The route is hilly and sidewalks and bike paths come and go. The hills did end up seeming longer and harder to conquer since the steel street bike frame is too small and it only has 3 gears. I’m used to my light bike back at home minus any gear.
The soba shop was a welcoming site at around the half way mark across from the buried Torii Gate on the eastern side of the island. This is where we got the best and closest view of the active crater. The road continued to be hilly but it ended up being a good workout and the scenery was gorgeous.
We ended our ride back at the ferry terminal, returned the dusty bikes and checked out the port area on foot. We were not on a schedule so we just watched the boats go by on one side and viewed the volcano let off steam in the other direction while relaxing and soaking our feet at the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park. The days events reaffirmed my continuous love of Japan.
Our stay in Kyoto was only a few days but we’re without regrets and are looking forward to what’s ahead. Our plans on where we are going in the weeks ahead are still pretty undefined. They mostly will be dependent on the weather, if we can find an apartment in Tokyo for the month of June, and if we get totally killed by the weak dollar. For now, we are just careful and try to just enjoy our time whether it ends up being 4 weeks or 7.
We want to make sure we do something new at the beginning just in case we need to go back to China sooner for whatever reason. We are already in Kyoto for a wedding so we decided to head down south and see more of the Kyushu Prefecture. We have been to Nagasaki and Beppu but the rest of the island is new to us and a prices for hotel and transport are more inline with the budget.
We decided to try Japan’s first budget airline called Peach. Peach is an affiliate of with ANA, much faster and cheaper than the Shinkansen, and offers great rates to the few cities it currently services. I’m looking forward to it.
We land in Kagoshima and take a bus to the center town where we booked a room. Our list of things to see and do includes biking 37 km around Sakurajima’s volcanic Mount Ontake (working off the wedding food), touring a Shochu Factory, and relaxing an Onsen. Beyond that, I hopefully will get rid of this cold and have some time to figure out what’s next.
So goodbye to Kyoto for now…
While we were in Kyoto we did manage to get some touristy things in like:
Take a boat trip back up the Hozu River
and check out some of the temples of southern Kyoto
We said good-bye to Shanghai on Friday as we boarded our taxi in the surprisingly sleepy Jing’an District. The ride to Pudong seemed like more a demonstration on how our taxi driver could get us to the airport faster than his nemesis the speedy Maglev. Of course, there are no working seat belts in this shaky compact and we are left to overlook the lack of safety and the speedometer and just watch the Shanghai skyline disappear behind us. We reached the Pudong Airports in 45 minutes and the Maglev never managed to pass our vehicle.
The Pudong Airport is new and of course super-sized like most structures like it in the new China. We boarded our Air China plane an hour and after a 2 hour bumpy flight landed in Osaka. The short flight consisted of a watching Globetrekker episode where we learned how Ian Wright traveled around Las Vegas, and a Wonder Bread cucumber tea sandwich with juice.
The journey today ended in town of Zeze otherwise known as Lake Biwa just outside of Kyoto. It’s been over two years since our last visit to Japan and the sticker shock hit us just little after getting off the JR train in Kyoto. For example, in China a pastry costs 4 Yuan or about 75 cents at the corner bakery opposed to the 240 Yen or $4 dollar bagel without cream cheese from a kiosk in the Kyoto JR Rail Station. This just means that we’ll have to be selective in how we spend in Japan. This means still treating ourselves to things we love most. This includes at least one trip to an Onsen, a few nice meals and many glasses of smooth sake and souchu. We have an idea of what we want to see but the plans are loose so we have the option of cutting out if we end up going past our comfort zone.
Our plan so far is to stay here in Kyoto and visit a friend whose wedding brought us here in the first place. We will then fly south to Kagoshima using new Japanese budget airline called Peach and travel around the Kyushu region. The details are still being worked out but so far we will be going to see volcanoes of southern Kagoshima and central Mt. Aso , see castles in Kumamoto and temples of Fukuoka and Nagasaki.
Most trips overseas for the intrepid traveler involve overland travel. There’s sometimes unavoidable on small islands in the Philippines and the desert expanses of the Middle East. The road offers adventure, perspective to a new place and experiencing the local color.
Some of us have quickly found that schedules in most places do not go as planned. I think back to my early travel years and the incredibly long ride from Ephesus to Istanbul. The bus ended up including a surprise ferry ride, arrived 4 hours lake, dropped me off way in the suburbs at 23:00 back in 2005.
Local buses usually run on the drivers schedule, make pit stops where they get kick backs and usually end with you saying you are never taking the bus again. I have yet managed followed through with that promise. As one fellow passenger said on a very bumpy road in India, “It feels like we are in God’s hands and he’s shaking our bus in them”. I have taken plenty of bus rides since , survived them all and will continue to ride (if there’s no other option).
Many claim that taking an airplane is much safer than ground transport but where’s the adventure in that. Airplanes don’t look like these colorful options and not nearly as fun.
Spring actually started as early as February in this section of the world and some would believe winter was a very kind one to all of us after how much snow was dumped on us last year. We had 70 degree days in January and we had very few that went below freezing. The early spring is a bit confusing but not unwelcome to those of us who are more than ready to lose the winter digs. It just makes one wonder what kind of weather is ahead of us as summer is rapidly pushing up the eastern coast line.
I’m enjoying the perfect weather here on the island. There’s nothing better and more refreshing than spending time in NYC’s numerous parks, dining under the sky and being able to lighten the load by leaving the wool jacket, gloves and scarves behind.
My favorite spot is the little piece of green right in the middle of Midtown Manhattan and it’s Bryant Park. This little park has something for locals, tourists, families and those looking to escape their office/cube for a few.
So many FREE things to do in this lovely little piece of green in Midtown Manhattan
The park also offers a number of other free activities for both adults and their little ones. There’s someone waiting right now looking for a friendly challenge. For little ones and others who are not quite ready or in the mood to compete there’s a carousel humming along to classic french cafe music, an area next to it dedicated to kids books and plenty of food vendors who provide the perfect picnic lunch to enjoy in the park.
For the sporty crowd looking for some action there’s ping-pong tables, Pétanque along with free lessons as well as plenty of chess and backgammon boards set up at tables lining the park. These activities provide a way to meet locals and see that there’s more to Times Square then bright lights, chain stores and tour bus hustlers. One could just about manage to make a full or half day just within the confides of this wonderful little park in the center of midtown.
And did I mention how really nice the bathrooms are?
An evening stroll along the Seine/Bospherus. A room with a view of the sparkling Eiffel Tower/Blue Mosque at dusk. This is a city where travelers can show up with no plans. Time in both Paris and Istanbul can be spent just walking the streets and spending time viewing art in small and large museums and later contemplating it all over an espresso/turkish coffee and a pan au chocolat/turkish delight in a cafe “you discovered” while walking through a neighborhood just off of the LP guide map.
Paris is not the only metropolitan city where people to travel to and spend hours getting lost amongst bustling streets and their alleyways. Istanbul is fast becoming a place where one can experience the cafe culture, romantic skylines, local cuisine and indoor art collections. There’s plenty of cute outdoor cafes that offer a comfortable place to have drink and watch the world go by.
Istanbul is a place for those who enjoy visiting cities that offer wonderful food, sites and views while keeping to a low to moderate budget. Gone are the days where visitors became instant Turkish millionaires at the airport currency exchange. Even with a few less zeros on the Lira notes, the cost of living in Istanbul is still 40% cheaper than Paris according to the Expatistan website. This means that even the budget traveler can afford a room with a view of the Blue Mosque, add a few more get a few more days to the itinerary and enjoy a few good meals. Maybe even pick up a nice rug if your bargaining skills are up to par.
Some basic comparisons between Istanbul and Paris:
There is no arguing that there’s no place like Paris. It’s a city everyone should spend time in and experience. Wine, art, architecture and wonderful sites are its big draws. Istanbul has all of these and more.
İstiklâl Caddesi located in the historic Beyoğlu district offers cafes offering tables with many different views and offer that for a $2 pint of cold beer and a $5 plate of doner kebab with rice. It’s the section of town where you can party on the roof tops until 7am and come back later and meander the streets seeing the latest additions to Istanbul’s buzzing art scene. It’s also where visitors and locals go to shop for everyday items, find a decent internet connection and find a plate of cheese Börek and strong turkish coffee.
On the other side of the Bosphorus, the Sultanahmet visitors the opportunity to lift the feet up and lounge on top of a cushioned platform, drink tea, enjoy a little nargile while watching the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia change color as the sun goes down. There a number range of places depending on amount of service, atmosphere and there’s one for every budget.
THE ART SCENE
Istanbul’s art is not restricted to just what can be seen on the walls and ceilings of many if the city’s mosques, palaces and historical sites. Istanbul is becoming a premier contemporary and modern art scene and giving other european cities some competition. Great contemporary and modern art works created mostly by native artists and can largely be viewed in the Golden Horn section of the city. The art typically references both the ancient and modern history of Turkey. Visual art, architecture, urbanism, the environment and cultural activities are highlighted in the both the large Istanbul Modern and SALT Art spaces.
Paris is famous for its very sophisticated street food of sorts that consists of buttery Pan au Chocolat, Macorone, baguette sandwiches, wine, cheese and fresh crepes filled with Nutella sold by vendors on the Montparnasse and in parks throughout the city. Turkey tempts it’s visitor’s sweet tooth with taffy-like ice-cream dished out by performing scoopers, sugar-coated fruity varieties of Turkish delight and of course rich Turkish coffee with extra sugar cubes.
The wine scene is experiencing a boom like that of the local art scene. Many visitors are beginning to find that Turkey’s locally produced wines are maturing as small wineries are adding depth to the world market. It’s no surprise that Turkey grows quality grapes since the lands are fertile and it’s neighbor Georgia is well-known for their fine wine vintages . The grapes are local and the wineries are working hard to develop their brands and begin competing with wines from France and Italy.
Istanbul is a great city on the western fringes of Europe. The Topkapi Palace Minarets and colorfully domed buildings of Ottoman construction make up the skyline. The haphazard singing of numerous muezzin begins at dawn and calls on the faithful to pray five times throughout day. Paris and Istanbul really can’t be trading for one another but they do share many characteristics. Unique architectural design that reflects the history of each city, a bustling modern and contemporary art scene and rich cuisine.
I first visited Istanbul in 2002. It was a place taken over by large groups of backpackers swilling pints upon pints of local beer in the Sultanahmet hostel outdoor roofs and patios. The city is still very good for those on a budget whether you travel with a backpack or something with wheels. Some of the hostels have changed over to boutique hotels but hostels are still in the mix as well as good affordable food and drink. There is even a street French Street located in the Beyoglu district if you feel a need to have the best of both Paris and Turkey in one city. Istanbul won’t disappoint.
We all have a vision on how we will spend our precious days away from regular life. For some its traveling far from home to a place where most things are foreign. An evening stroll along the Volga viewing the red stars that light up the top of the Kremlin, Seven Sisters and St. Basil’s. There’s also the subterranean beauty of the extensive subway system lit with crystal chandeliers and elegant tiled passageways which look more like a museum then public transport hubs.
Intrepid shopping trips to the Vernisage in Izmailovo Flea Market checking out Matryoshki dolls painted with Putin and Medvedev faces, Lenin and Stalin commemorative Statues and other Soviet Kitsch objects.
Today, visitors can freely walk around the interior walls that surround the Kremlin fortress where former Czar royals lived in seclusion and away from the common people. Their ostentatious collections of jewels, thousands of pieces of cutlery, carriages, clothing and countless gives from allies are on display for those who can pay 700 rub or about $25 USD and no pictures allowed, viewing times are limited and just about everything is a bit irregular.
All there is to be seen in Moscow and much of Russia does come with a hefty price tag which starts with the visa and goes through the lack of budget accommodation. This is not an ideal backpacker spot since it’s impossible to just land and figure it out as you go. I guess if there is a will then there’s a way like but at an expense which would deter most vagabonds.
If a traveler has their heart set on a trip to Russia then the investment is well worth the hoops and greasy palms one must contend with before being let in. If not, there are less expensive alternatives which provide similar experiences with less of a price tag and hassles. Many former Soviet controlled cities offer a good alternatives for travelers looking for signs of the glory days of communism under Stalin and Lenin.
Tbilisi instead of Moscow
One of those is the lovely former Soviet satellite country of the Georgian Republic. This lovely country is on the move and could be a member of NATO as soon as this May when NATO holds their summit in Chicago. This doesn’t exactly thrill Russia and tension between the two still continues on.
Tbilisi lies of the banks of the Kura River and it’s hills contain medieval fortresses, parks and the larger than life soviet style Kartlis Deda Statue.
The war is over in Georgia and it’s a wonderful place to visit. Travelers can’t find any better Soviet kitsch then the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia. This is where you can see the home of Josef and his family and view the 83 ton very secure custom train the paranoid Stalin travelled in while visiting his post 1941 conquered regions. There is much more to Georgia than birthplace of one of the world’s most paranoid and murderous dictator. They are still in the process of removing him from their past which includes everything Soviet. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-Western president, is trying to get rid of all Stalin references and not so long ago finally had his statue removed from the center of Gori. President Saakashvili wants to continue to sever all connections to Russia’s former occupation of Georgia.
Just trade it for Red Wine and/or Borjomi
Georgia continues in their quest to be known less for its conflicts and more for things like their fine wines, bubbly therapeutic mineral water and unique culture.The Russian’s continue their embargo on Georgia’s biggest beverage exports, wine and a salty mineral water with the labels of Borjomi and Nabeghlavi.
Wine is the blood of Georgians as vodka is in most of Russian citizens blood. Russia’s ban only makes both very affordable for locals and visitors. Vodka of all kinds is not hard to find and one of the few Soviet traditions that will be hard for Georgians to give up but the wine is devine and extremely budget friendly thanks to the Russian embargo and lack of interest from this feisty neighbor.
There’s nothing that can touch the beauty and elegance of the subway stations found in Moscow. The few built in Tbilisi which give visitors a feel for the signature look the Soviet designers were going for. Construction of most of these smaller marble walled stations was completed in 1966. Today, there’s no longer signs of Stalin, but they do deeply resemble those built in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The subway conductors and security do not allow picture-taking inside the subway system. I managed to accidentally bump my camera with this one below.
Budget low down:
Georgia: Free for most upon arrival
Russia: $130 on average and need to start process at least 2 months before departure
Accommodation in the city:
$40-100 USD/night for most hotels including breakfast and private bath similar to the Charm Hotel
$70-100 USD/night for most double with separate bath no breakfast at hotels like and similar to the Petrovka Loft close to Red Square
Splashed out 3-course meal: $30 USD
Traditional Georgian Cuisine Menu:
– a glass of wine for $3.61
– a liter bottle of Borjomi for 90 cents USD
– a plate of 3 Khinkali for 90 cents USD
– a large Khachapuri or cheese bread for $3.91 USD
Meal totaling: $9.32 USD without tip
Basic Budget meals: $10-12 USD without drink
McDonald’s Value Meal: $4.99 USD
Cheap Eats listed on this site made for foreign students staying in Moscow.
Cities of Georgia may not have the prestige of cities found in the former Mother Land of Russia but they are easier on the wallet. The choice is of course the travelers. Travelers will find a visit to Tbilisi an experience to remember. Travelers can see where Stalin grew up and how the first Soviet satellite country to declare independence from Russia has fared despite continuous conflict after cutting loose.