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.
Enough with castles for now and the cramped living style of the business hotel. Many parts of Kumamoto City are attractive enough for a short visit. The beauty and the history of the city can be seen in a few hours. Most of the major attractions are located in the center of the city and within the boundaries of the castle complex.
The Kumamoto castle depicted in lights
Views of rice fields and windmills along the way to Aso
It’s time to move on. We are both ready to get out of the crowded city and ready for some open air. The next stop is Mount Aso where we plan to hike up an active volcano and I will have my first visit to an outdoor public onsen. I have spent some time studying the property rules of conduct while bathing. I just hope I don’t unknowingly offend anyone.
The Aso Boy Train we passed along the way
We will grab a local train to Aso from the JR station in Kumamoto instead of riding the slightly cheaper and faster highway bus. As I mentioned before, we have had enough with the business hotel, so I booked a room at a hostel called Aso Backpacker Base Hostel. The hostel was built in 2009 by a gentleman named Yoshi and his wife Miyong. Yoshi’s hostel continuously receives positive reviews on the major travel sites and is located a few hundred meters from the train station…sold.
Room with a great view of Mount Aso and surrounding area
The ride on the fire engine red local limited express to Aso takes a little over an hour. From the views of young rice seedlings growing in stacked rice fields separated only by a few homes, some prized beef cattle and the grassy hills they feed on, it’s pretty obvious that this part of Kyushu is the agricultural heartland of Japan. I already knew that it’s going to be a place I will be sad to leave but happy to have visited.
The local treasure of Aso in front of the train station
I’m hoping that the weather holds so we are able to get at least one hike up to see the crater. It is the beginning of monsoon season and the viewing area of the crater does close literally ever time the wind shifts due to the dangerous sulfuric acid the volcano continuously pushes out. If it the authorities roped off the entrance due to the high levels of sulphuric acid then there’s always the alternative day in the Onsen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Biking along the west side of Manhattan is one of the best ways to a break away from city and immerse yourself in the beauty of the green pathway that snakes its way around this big island. The ride from Midtown to Riverside Park (99th Street) takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Anyone thinking about taking a ride might think that going all the way up to 100th Street seems out of the question, but there is a reward for those who take on the challenge. They will be both rewarded and possibly surprised when they find the uptown section of the bike path is less crowded and more tranquil then the tarmacs below 40th Street. Riders here are able to focus more on the beauty of the surroundings and less on the obstacles which may block their path or come out of the blind spots without warning. (strollers, dogs, joggers with headphones, rouge bikers or the occasional rat making run for it)
Uptown can get really crowded during the warm weekends of summer. Large groups and families are in full force and stake claim on a pieces of the large open lawns early in the morning and make a day of it. The parks are places where families can picnic, grill and play. They even take their pets out for the day and these pets aren’t just the usual dog or parrot but of more the exotic type like their friendly pet boa or domesticated rat.
If you don’t have a bike then there’s plenty of places to rent. Bike and Roll most convenient and probably most expensive bike rental company with a couple of locations on the bike path. Here’s a list of others near by which give more reasonable rates. The best times to bike during the warm months are obviously during the week and from early morning until mid afternoon. The weekends aren’t too bad but it’s always good to get an early start.
The people who are benefiting the least Mubarak leaving office sooner than later are his police forces and political allies. They are the ones who ask for the baksheesh even if they don’t do anything helpful or even help someone cross the street safely in Downtown Cairo. Some took to the streets and were taking part in Pro-Mubarak demonstrations in Cairo today. Anderson Cooper and his crew got attacked by members of this crowd while reporting. It included men on camels and horse back seen in the photos above who usually come in handy when tourist go to see Abu Simbel and visit Giza. They seem to just be as useful as those police cars that have a doll placed in the front seat to deter people from speeding on US Highways. When I was there a few years ago an officer said it was ok to climb one of the pyramids in Giza for a little baksheesh that it. If only Zahi Hawass was there to witness.
It is now a requirement for foreign travelers going down to the Upper Nile near the border to Sudan to be escorted by a Egyptian military convoy. I just felt like a speeding line of sitting ducks but what do I know. A higher ranking officer of the tourist caravan target practice group. Our driver seemed to know him since the officer had left his rifle in the van. Opps…probably didn’t have any bullets in it because he knew he would start running if anything started going down. Our he driver throw it to him like he was in a movie like he was in a Dirty Harry movie. Kind of like giving a high five..catch yeah later.
Egypt needs its tourism since it historically it makes up around 10% of it’s GDP and employs 12.6% of Egyptians. In May 2010, Reuters projected that Egypt was recovering from the global economic crisis and fore-casted a steady growth of at least 2-5% this year. It’s surprising on how much more money the Tourism industry makes than the revenue generated from the Suez Canal. I’m not an economist but things are going to get pretty bad in the country if this mess doesn’t clean up soon. The peak travel season will be soon coming to end in May. Let’s hope its only a few months lost, not too much is destroyed and the people of Egypt are in a better place economically and politically.