China’s New Frontier: It’s all about the Journey

Road to the New Frontier of China

Traveling from the edges of Kyrgyzstan to the western frontier of China is for those looking for beautiful scenery and unique experiences.  Flying is just too easy. But, be aware.  There is a mental and physical price to pay.   Many foreign passport holders are still required to hire a private escort to take them through the area south of the border and then on to Kashgar, The journey usually requires a long wait at the top of a chilly mountain and a possibility that a truck full of uranium could be sitting next to your car the whole time.  Start the journey from Naryn before dawn, bring some snacks, maybe a face mask and a whole lot of patience.  Border guards usually have no knowledge about what’s going on and take a large break at lunch time.  Remember,  this border is primarily used for shipping goods back and forth between the two countries.  No warm welcome here.

Yaks in the foothills of the Celestial Mountains

Of course,  there are rewards to all the aches and pains.   Endless views of barren pastures featuring packs of wandering wild horses, playful yaks, remains of ancient Caravanserai’s and occasional sightings of a local family packing up their yurt as the sun comes up.  This is probably one of the best ways to experience this part of the ancient Silk Road.  Now, it’s really all about the journey.

Silk Road  Tash Rabat Caravanserai in Kyrgyzstan

Circling the Flame

Mount Ontake on Sakurajima

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.

Ferry to Sakurajima
Ferry to Sakurajima

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.

Kurakami Buried Shrine Gate
Kurakami Buried Shrine Gate which led us to the Soba Restaurant across the street

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.

Shoreline of Sakurajima
View to the east from the road above on Sakurajima
Sakurajima
Shrine on the west side of the island of Sakurajima

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.

Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
Ended it all at the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
View of the Mount Ontake from the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
Mount Ontake on Sakurajima
Just another volcanic burst from Mount Sakurajima

Four Years and Seven Days Ago and I’m back in Shanghai

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In the span of two long days we packed and stored our NYC life, grabbed a direct 14 hour flight from EWR to PVG, and checked into our new temporary home in the former French Concession (FFC) in downtown Shanghai. We chose Shanghai because we are familiar with the city and will be able to have a longer visit.

In 2008, the Chinese Consulate in Seoul granted my husband and I both 30 day Single Entry Visas. It was pretty much just enough time to hit up the major tourist draws – Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Back then, China was frantically getting ready for their world stage premier and the Olympics was just the first act. There were other events unfolding behind the red curtain which were causing headaches for everyone for travels, locals, and officials alike. Securing travel visas was difficult. We made due with what we were granted in Seoul and just saw what we could. This allowed us to budget only 5 nights. This time it will be a 3 week visit.

This time, the Chinese consulate in New York granted both of us 90 day multi entry visas which are good for a year. This will allow my husband and I plenty of time to visit what was missed back in 2008 including a proper visit to many cities like Shanghai. We will also witness what has become of China after four years of rapid expansion and construction. So far, it’s obvious that much has changed and this country is still rolling along at full Maglev speed.

Shanghai still appears to be caught up in a construction frenzy. Streets are constantly being swept in the former French Concession and it is not uncommon to see a Bentley speed by while strolling down Huaihai Road. Will the things we see in China’s cultural capital be a stark contrast to what lies ahead? I’m enjoying it all none the less.

The first week was a blur of jet lag and it still hasn’t sunk in that there’s several more weeks – and possibly months – ahead in this journey. At least the jet lag only lasted a few days, Shanghai looks sort of familiar and the transition from living in NYC and now in Shanghai is not very difficult – just warmer.

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Travel Life: An intrepid unintentionally picky eater

Have a weak stomach and can’t leave home without popping a few Tums Tablets?  That’s me but I don’t let it get in the way of my wanderlust

Mezes in Damascus
Mezes in Damascus which were excellent and no regrets

Fresh fruit juices, grilled kebab, ice cream, “healthy” green salad, drinks with ice cubes and the list goes on.  These are just a few things that I can’t eat when I’m far from home.  The eating part of the itinerary unwillingly promoted itself to the priority section of most of my pre-trip planning. A few very uncomfortable food related instances happened early in my adventure travel days had a profound effect on how I travel today.

I have always wanted to see as much of the world.  Still true but minus the visit to the local shaman with an interpreter in tow.

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Food Market in Yerevan Armenia

A good amount of travel research time is usually spent figuring out where and what to eat a the next destination.  The location of my hotel/hostel hopefully is very close to a good food establishment whether it be a grocery store or restaurant.  There’s an added bonus if the restaurant is located in the hotel/hostel just for jet lag and precautionary reasons.   When I am starving, have just recovered from another case of food poisoning or just got off a 30 flight I usually  want a restaurant to be literally within crawling distance.

String Hoppers for breakfast
String Hoppers topped with spicy Coconut Simbal for breakfast in Sri Lanka
Pistachio Pastry in Alleppo
Pistachio Pastry in Aleppo – Worth the belly ache I got later

The back story and the naive beginnings of a hungry traveler

I decided early on that I’m not an adventurous eater –  wimpy eater is more like it.  I got burned trying to be like Anthony Bourdain.  I was on a three-week trip and going to meet a friend of my then boyfriend who was in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.  This was a great trip in between all of my food mishaps that is.   It didn’t ruin my whole trip but I just have memories and wasn’t up to taking pictures.   The theory that everything bad happens in threes was proven.

Airplane food

First, minor but not so fun bout of sickness was a flight from Istanbul to Bucharest.  I was having a pleasant chat with a Turkish guy sitting next to me.  Lunch came and went and I was too busy talking that I just automatically ate what was in front of me.  Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that chicken salad sandwich on that Air Tarom flight.  The gentleman proceeded to eat my travel companions sandwich he smartly declined.   Lets say I missed a day of sightseeing in Bucharest.

Lesson:  Bring my own food and don’t eat any meat/egg dish that has salad attached to the name on the menu.

Japanese Matsuri food outside of Tokyo
Not so tempting Japanese Matsuri food outside Tokyo

Doing too much to fast leads to bad things

Second, was the trip to the local doctor in Sofia.  I had just met Kathy for the first time and she was wonderful.  I realized that all the travelling from Bucharest to Sofia had taken its toll on me.  I was feeling well and we had a long trek ahead.  It was time to see a doctor again.  In short,  the doctor only spoke Bulgarian and at least Kathy was there to help.   I was glad to get to a doctor  after a very awkward back and fourth translation of my symptoms.  He gave me some mysterious pills,  I took them regardless and we were on our way. Luckily,  they  did the job.  I was a little terrified to eat for a day and a dropped a few pounds.  The beer I drank later made up for the lost calories.    The locals here think that  Rakia sipped while eating shopska salad (both very dubious)  cures everything.  I think they might be on to something or just like a reason to drink Rakia.

Lesson:  Bring Cipro and think about eating just bread and bottled water after a long rail/plane trip.  They are both available just about anywhere.

Fish sandwich cafes along the Bosphorus in Istanbul
Looks innocent right? Well they are still there a couple of years after my incident selling sandwiches

More food problems at the end of a rocky journey

And the third.  The 2.5 weeks were filled with seeing wonderful sites and meeting new friends (doctors too) along the way.  It was the last leg and the worst was behind me.  A friend had mentioned that one thing you can’t miss in Istanbul is the fish sandwich sold on small boats just off of the Bosphorus.  We found the boats like he said and grabbed a couple of dubious grilled fish sandwiches served in a very crusty bun. The fish just fileted, grilled and put inside a white bun with sprig of lettuce and slice of tomato.  No sauce.  I should have stopped after a couple of uncertain bites. The next day, I ended up waking up with a face that was so swollen that I could barely see in front of me.  It was a pretty frightening sight.
The only real adventure was a trip to the local ER in Istanbul early that morning.  The American Hospital of Istanbul is a comfortable facility and I highly recommend it to others in need of care – whether it be of itchy hives or other travel illnesses.  One dose of Cortisone IV – $5M Turkish Lira  – Relief from hives on my face for 24 hours – Priceless.

Lesson:  Make sure to know where and if there’s an ER near by just in case.  Resist those local dishes especially made with fish.  Additionally,  try to eat fruit with skin or  properly clean fruit without it when traveling.  There are many microbes that hideout on the surface of food and in liquids.  They are are usually harmless to locals but could be deadly to those without built up immunities.

What can a traveler do besides just drinking tea and eating bread the whole trip?

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There’s always plenty of chai where ever you go

We all have our weak moments when that chocolate covered banana at the street fair in Tokyo looks too good to resist and we want to try to eat like a local to save money.

Japanese Matsuri Food outside of Tokyo
Yummy Japanese Matsuri food outside of Tokyo

In the end, all that travelers can do is take preventative measures, use some common sense and have a good time. Here’s a few things I think about and do these days when I travel that seem to help me:

–  Be organized and plan the  exact route on how to get from customs to your bed

–  Get all required vaccinations and don’t be cheap on things like Malorone Pills

–  Bring your own food.  Remember you can even get food poisoning on the plane.

–  Take it easy when you first arrive and set out a reasonable plan of attack

–  Ease into the local food

–  Stay hydrated and try and skip that glass or 3 of wine on the plane (these days it’s hard to resist after the hassles travelers have to go through to get on a plane etc.)

Stay well and have happy and safe travels in 2012!

A typical day for visitors on a guided tour of Iran

What does a typical day on a guided tour in Iran look like?

Curious on what actually goes down when you are an American on a mandatory guided tour in Iran?  It’s not as bad as it sounds and there’s no choice in the matter since we are Americans. My husband and  I, like many travelers,  usually prefer to go at my own speed when we take a trip.   We get typically get by with help from good pre-trip research, a guidebook with a good map, on site pointers from other travelers we meet along the way and the occasional internet search at the local internet cafe/hostel.

Many who are considering a trip to Iran wonder simply what a day is like when you need to be escorted around by a local guide.  I found plenty of videos; pictures; blog posts about traveling in Iran but little information about how a typical day went down.   I understand it may not be very exciting material but I hope it gives others a little more insight on how things roll along during a typical day.  I travel independently so tours aren’t usually a part of my travels except for the occasional organized day trip to a protected area which requires a guide.

My typical day:

7am: Get up  and wait for our guide to do the same.  The first few days the time was more like 3am but it worked its way eventually to 7am. I like early starts even if it means chilling out for a couple of hours waiting for our fixer.

9am:  Meet our sleepy-eyed guide for breakfast which hopefully includes eggs, fresh bread, cheese, butter, jam (hopefully not of the carrot variety) and of course cups and cups of tea.  I’m excited when things like hot soup, real coffee and pastries are there as well.  This happened a couple of times.

Shiraz Niayesh Traditional Hotel
Dining area of the Niayesh Hotel in Shiraz early morning…it’s 7am..where is everyone?

10am ish:  Or somewhere around that time…Check out the sites until it gets really hot which usually coincides with lunch hour at high noon.

12pm – 1pm:  Many things that require an entrance fee close at this time anyways.  It’s a good time to have lunch when everyone else does.  Lunch usually is the biggest meal of the day and the choices are very much like dinner.   The vegetarian menu typically has been limited to rice, bread, yogurt/Doogh and the usual plate of  Kookoo Zabzi –  sometimes the cook has other choices but usually it means meat dishes where the meat is literally picked out of the plate.  I decided I had enough Kookoo Zabzi and alternated with kebab.

12pm-late afternoon: Our guide goes to the gym and lets us have some time to ourselves.  This is when I have a few minutes out of the sun and let my hijab down.  It was hot that day but no complaints.  The hijab kept my head safe from the suns rays.

Persepolis
Mid day in Persepolis

3-4pm:  We take off again to see sites in the best light and before evening prayer time.

Shah Cheragh Mosque
Evening prayer time at the Shah Cheragh Mosque in Shiraz

Around Sundown:  We have dinner and check out what goes on after the sun sets.  This is when I hope to find something sweet like Saffron Ice cream and get some good night shots.  The evenings are when most cities typically come alive.

Our view of the Sweeping Mosque or Bibi Dokhtaran Mausoleum near by
Our view of the Sweeping Mosque or Bibi Dokhtaran Mausoleum near by in Shiraz
Shiraz Market near the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
No pistachio Ice cream but plenty of other sweets to choose from in Shiraz

The Skinny on the Iranian Travel Visa for U.S. Citizens

The process sort of reminds me of what it takes to get a Russian Travel Visa.  It involves some cash up front, a form of letter of invite, a detailed itinerary, and patience.  The Russian one seemed more to do with cash since it took a just few minutes to fill out the application, a few hours for a credit card transaction confirmation and later you have a letter of invite.    Iranian visas involve almost as much cash but require a little more patience.  In the end, a visa holder will be free to travel to a country full of hospitable people,  beautiful sights and see for themselves what goes on in a country who doesn’t get too much love from the mainstream media.

Here’s a breakdown of the Visa process:

Have plenty of patience because it can take some time to get your visa

Find a tour company that suits you and your budget.   Pars Tour Agency is our choice since they are based in Shiraz and came recommended..  Pars begins by providing the letter of invite aka Authorization Code for a small fee of 30 Euro.  It’s a requirement for U.S. citizens and the fees are different depending on who you use.

Wait for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran to fax the authorization code to the Consulate of your choice.

If not approved, the agency can resubmit the application again and hopefully it will go through this time.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will then fax the approval document on to your chosen consulate office.

If approved, send or bring the following within 3 business days to the chosen Iranian Consulate Office:

  1.  Application form (my case #101)
  2.  Money order of $112/ applicant and $20 return postage fee made out to the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  3. Single Passport picture (ladies this means one with hajib and remember…no smiling) and your passports (see below)

It’s longer to get the authorization code  from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran then it is to get the visa from the consulate.  Visas get issued by the consulate with a week of sending your passport, appropriate photo (women need to obey Islamic code which means donning a Hajib and remember…no smiling)

Ultimately, everything works out and the scramble to get everything done and the real fun begins.

Short list of WHO WHAT WHERE and HOW for Iran Travel

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Here’s my list of online sites which inspired and kept the dream alive while waiting to see if Iran wanted me to come or not.  I hope they are useful to others looking to go:

US Travel Warnings

British Foreign Office Travel Advisory

WHAT

Destination Iran Tour Site

Traveler Nico from Scotland’s Flickr Stream

Soorm’s Flickr Photos of Iran

WHERE/WEAR

Rick Steves Journal – Iran

WikiTravel – Iran

Wikipedia – Iran

Journeywomen’s Blog

WHY

Uncornered Market Trip to Iran Nov 2011

Why we travel by Paul Theroux

AND HOW?

Iran Railway Infomation

Pars Tour Agency

Magic Carpet Tourist Information

Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.

Ancient Eastern Crossroads of Apamea Syria

The Cardo Maximus of Apamea
The Cardo Maximus of Apamea

Driving up to Apamea after visiting the ruins of the other great cities of the area Al Basa and Sejilla while I was staying in Hama, Syria.  This city was the center of it all at one point in time.  The former village of Pharnake was renamed Apamea by the newly appointed and former Roman general to Alexander I king Selecukos Nikator I ‘s whose princess and wife was named Apama in 300 B.C.  It was just another recent addition to the already vast and growing Roman Empire.  The area flourished and it was home to as many as 500K occupants in the city by the 1st century.  It became the merchant center of the area for the Romans since it was easy to defend geographically, it was in close proximity to the still bustling port city of Latakia and it was at the eastern crossroads for commerce.

The city continued to be a valuable asset to the Roman empire through the centuries.  Roman Emperor Claudius continued his support from Rome even after a disastrous earthquake hit on December 13 115.  The city was rebuilt and it’s prosperity continued.

What remains today to see

There’s still a lot standing here today considering how long it’s been since it was settled and how many earthquakes the area has experienced throughout those centuries.  The structures that still standing tall today where mostly built-in the 6th century A.D. This was after the Byzantines again took back the city from the Persians after a failed attempt of Justinian the Great‘s try to regain Western regions the empire had lost.  The battles between the Romans, Persians and Arabs left the city buried to the ground in 628 AD.  The Byzantines only occupied it for 6 years prior to then.  The city was taken back after a many bold military campaigns led by Heraclius in his bid to successfully drive the Persians out of Asia Minor.  The Arabs came along eight years later and defeated the Romans in the Battle of Yarmouk.  Heraclius didn’t count on the Muslim Arabs pushing him and his brother Theodore out after this final bloody in 636.  The Byzantines were pretty much done for after this bloody battle.  The tug of war had finally ended, the Persians won but the city never again regained its grandeur it had once enjoyed under the Byzantines.

One of the many lizards who still call Apamea home
One of the many lizards who still call Apamea home

What a visitor sees in Apamea today is a small traces of a once great city mostly dominated by the Byzantines.   Two major earthquakes struck back in 1157  and 1170 A.D. and have left the city to the ruin it is today.  The city now consists of smaller and more crumbled structures as well as many tall and noble fluted columns, frescoes inside the museum and entry ways along the main Cardo Maximus.

A visitor can easily imagine what Apamea once looked like because there are many structures still standing tall.  There hasn’t been any major building in the area so even though it’s quiet there today you can still look across the valley and see why this beautiful place was always being fought over.

Orontes Valley Ancient Apamea Syria
Orontes Valley Ancient Apamea Syria

How to get there and when to go

Easiest way to get to Apamea is by hiring a car from Hama and include some other sites like Al Basa and Sejilla and the Beehives.  I suggest an early start not only because it takes some time to get from one to the next but they do close around sunset.  This particular day was beautiful and clear and we started out with the beehives, moved on to the dead cities of Al Basa and Sejilla (we must made it before the one man security force decided to close around 3pm) and got here at Apamea around 5:00pm.  A perfect time in June for pictures in terms of lighting and the fact that we pretty much had it to ourselves.

The quiet town of Palmyra

The bus rolled into Tadmor, or as most know it as Palmyra, a little over 3 hours after it left the Harasta Pullman terminal in Damascus. Taking local buses is always fun and tricky if you don’t speak or understand the native language. The final destination wasn’t Palmyra and even if it was the bus driver was calling it Tadmor. Palmyra is a small town and I still wasn’t sure if it had a bus station? I guess a good street map (LP #fail) complete with important things like where the bus stops would have been helpful. We’ve adapted to LP and other guidebook fails by now, so we had to just go with it, use our brains and harness our powers of perception.  So what we knew was the bus must be stopping soon since it’s getting close to the scheduled time of arrival and I see two others travelers getting ready to leave.  It’s highly likely that we are on same Syrian LP/Routard trail.  We also start to get ready to spring from the hot bus.   The bus stops, we thanked the bus driver and chose a direction which hopefully led into town.  We then found a safe place to get a quick look at the crappy LP map but it didn’t matter because no one seemed to want to bother us with questions like “Do you need any help?”  “Where are you staying or need to go? ” “I can drive you!” etc.

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