31 August 2008

Macedonia Stopover

I was booked on the overnight bus out of Dubrovnik going direct to Skopje. Heading off down the coast before night the panarama was spectacular and I had one more short sea experience on the ferry.

Managed to sleep on and off and in between naps I produced my passport several times--I lost count after a while. I didn't need any visas and as long as it came back to me, I didn't care who stamped it.

For once this trip I was most assuredly going in the right direction. We encountered huge lines of traffic coming in the opposite direction at every immigration point, but no delays for us.

After a long night crossing three countries, winding our way through the mountains of Montenegro, we pulled into Skopje early Saturday morning. With only a three-day time window before my flight out of Athens back to Thailand, I checked first off on transport options. Three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) there is a bus out to Thessaloniki. That cuts it close, but is still doable, so I booked a seat straight off for the Monday bus. That gives me two full days to explore Skopje, a completely random added extra venue on my itinerary. An unplanned surprise that turned out to be a gem.

Founded in the 3rd Century BC, it was under Roman rule from 148 BC. In it's newer history it was part of the Ottomen Empire for over 500 years (since 392 AD), and the ancient center has a very Turkish feel. Captured by Serbs before WW I, and under Bulgarian occupation during WW II, it became part of Yugoslavia following the war.

Situated on the Vardar River, the old district has both ancient Roman aqueducts and notable buildings from the Ottoman era. Skopje is purported to be the birth place of the Byzantine Emperor, Justian.

Two nice hostels not far apart from each other nor far from the central area. Great Turkish coffee in the old quarter, and the reccommended meal is kabab. Succulent and spicy grilled ground lamb rolls served with small roasted red peppers. Good local beer to wash it down.

I went to the National Museum where they gave me a New Year Greeting card in four languages as my entry ticket. Small eclectic collection in a spectacular building.

Early Monday morning I boarded the mini-van going to Thessaloniki. Still within the limitations of my tight schedule. It's the bane of solo travelers that the new era of steep [read astronomical] flight costs require advance booking with no change options, as I hate traveling with urgent deadlines. I would love to stay on in Macedonia and go out to Okra Lake, but it has to wait until next visit.

29 August 2008

Delightful Dubrovnik

Our arrival at the port in Dubrovnik was late afternoon after a wonderful passage up the coast in and out of the many islands along the way.

I had a booking at a guest house. It's not often that I succumb to modern travel habits of pre-booking accommodation, but I feared a tight market based on travel reports of tourism in Dubrovnik. I needed have worried, as I saw lots of random signs being held up around the part listing lodging in 4 languages as I disembarked. However, I couldn't have done better than what I had.

Initially there was a transport glitch. I had received an email from the guest house saying they would meet me, but I didn't see any signs of them. A quick phone call in the maritime office produced a young man on a motorbike to carry me off to Lapad Begovic Boardinghouse. He was sceptical of my ability to ride on the back carrying my rucksack, but I assured him I was an experienced hand at akward travel.

The location at Lapad couldn't have been better. Perched up on the side of the hill overlooking a small bay, with the cobblestone streets and stairs leading up to it, while at the foot of the hill is a major transit point for city buses and the start of a pedestrian promanade leading out along the cove.

The house had a self-service kitchen, a barbeque, patio dining area and wonderful coastal views. It made a good base from which to explore the area or a relaxing venue to kick back and enjoy.

Often referred to as the "Pearl of the Adriatic," Dubrovnik is indeed a little gem. Grad Dubrovnik, as the ancient city is called, is newly repaired after the Serbian-Montenegren attack during the siege of Dubrovnic in 1991-92 after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Founded in the 7th Century under protection of the Byzantine Empire, truly it is a stunning monument to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches.

Situated high on a promentory overlooking the sea it was a natural fortress against invasion and so it is no mystery that the most striking feature are the city walls that run for 2 km with a system of turrets and towers that provide protection.

I went early in the morning before the crowds and the heat kicked in, and walked Dubrovnik's "wall." Another few hours spent exploring the medieval cobblestone streets and buildings, and I drifted off just as the tour buses began to pull up.

Since the overnight bus to Skopje only travels on alternate days, I opted to stay over in Dubrovnik. A direct bus was infinately more suited to my tight schedule at this point over the option of multiple local transport between the intervening countries.

With the gift of an extra day, I took advantage and explored the Elaphite Islands on a local one-day cruise. Three stops throughout the day at the largest islands wandering around ruins of former patricians summer residences on the islands wooded slopes. Midday the Captain and his crew prepare a splendid grilled fish lunch washed down with Croatian wine and the local firewater drink, Raikia. Fabulous finish to a lovely few days.

25 August 2008

South Heading @ Sea

One form of public transport I had sorely neglected this trip--Boats! Only on Lake Baikal for a very short ferry ride out to Olkhon Island. It was time to correct that situation.

The seed for the idea to take the boat on the Adriatic got planted on the train coming from Munich to Slovenia when I shared my map with two Croatian boys traveling to Zagreb. The boat routes are marked clearly on the map and most intriguing. When the subject came up again with my friends in Ljubljana, I was ready to jump on the idea.

Once the decision was made to travel by sea, I booked "deck passage" on the Marco Polo out of Rijeka. My friend drove me over from Isola, Slovenia and we had a lovely trip, stopping for a mixed grill which introduced me to the tasty Balken condiment treat made with roasted red peppers. Yum! I was instantly addicted.

Aljonka and I had one last espresso at a cafe facing the port with the Marco Polo waiting in all it's glory. I waved to her goodbye as I walked up the ramp. Scouting around, I had my choice of comfy spots either inside or out, and I staked a claim in the inside lounge area. The key to the best spots obviously is boarding early, but there's plenty of room for all.

By departure time, there are only about two hours of daylight left, but the sunset at sea was magnificent. Various passengers bring out their provisions with some sharing around and soon we are all being lulled off by the hum of the engines.

My only complaint is that the lights are left on full throughout the night. Some light is necessary, but the center bulbs could be dimmed. Otherwise, the fend-for-youself accommodations are quite comfortable.

Being an Italian ship, there is great espresso available from early morning on. The restaurant is not terribly expensive for those who didn't bring a stash of goodies, but there are also nearby markets at the ports of call with enough time to hop off and buy things like bread, meats, cheese, fruit, drinks, etc.

Winding down the coast, in and out of the islands makes for a pleasant journey and stellar arrival at Dubrovnik.

24 August 2008

Lovely Ljubljana

A spectacular train ride through the Austrian Alps brought me to Ljubljana, Slovenia where my friend Aljonka lives. As I had visited in 2007, I knew already how lovely Ljubljana is and was eagerly looking forward to another visit.

For such a small country, Solvenia is blessed with lots of variety--four major geographic regions. Dramatic alpine regions, Pannonian plains, forests that still are homes to the dimishing bear populations in eastern Europe, and the sun-drenched Adriatic coast.

Two earthquakes about 400 years apart resulted in the architectural mix one finds in the Ljubljana--Baroque that emerged after the first quake and the Art Nouveau style that followed the second quake.

They boast a 1,000 year old Medieval castle which is under reconstruction, so much is not open. However, the view from the hill it is perched on is fantastic.

The symbol of the city is the Dragon and I am particularly fond of the Dragon Bridge over the river. I am a Dragon by birth on the Chinese astrological scale, so I feel a kinship with all things related.

My first visit to Slovenia, my friend introduced me to a vast range of the country, from the shores of Lake Bled, to the Dolomite Alps and the limited but lovely coastal area. During this visit the pace was a little slower, but did include both mountains and sea.
As with my visit last year, it ended on the coast. Two glorious days enjoying the fresh Adriatic breeze. One day was spent sailing with friends on a Catamaran, and then it was time to head out south for Greece and my eventual return to Thailand.

22 August 2008

Farewell France

One magical day back in Paris to pick up my rucksack and bid my friends "Adieu, a la prochain," and I was off on the night train to Munich where I was to change trains and continue on to Ljubljana. First glitch came during the Paris-Munich leg of the journey when we encountered a 3-hour delay in the night. Seems a freight train blocked the tracks. I woke up in the night and realized we were not moving. How long we'd been stopped I had no way of knowing, but as time dragged on it became obvious I would miss my connection. Not a troubling thought in train rich Europe, so I soon went back to sleep with a clear mind. Last year when I missed a connection in France due to a train delay I was bumped up to first class. Perhaps that would be the case again.

But the new ticketing came in Munich--Germany not France. Nothing so traveler friendly in the country that prides itself as a model of efficiency. I had to stand in line with everyone else and hope for the best. There's a train out in about an hour, and never mind that there are no seats still available. Requires another connection in Austria and there will be a seat on the second train. I only have to stand for the first 5 hours.

Needless to say I rejected that fine offer and opted to stay the night in Munich then take a direct train the following day where I would have a seat. I prefer to relax and enjoy all the beautiful scenery of the Austrian Alps the train would be traveling through.

Especially since there is a great budget hostel in Munich--The Tent. It's been there since 1972, but that's about four years since I was last in Munich. It's right on the tram line, near the Botanical Gardens in a lovely park setting. Three options are available--their large tent with bunk beds, a smaller tent with mats for the floor or set up your own tent. For under 10 euros a night it's your best bet in the area. A nightly barbeque, congenial company and a good cold beer, what's more to want.

Bayonne Bash

From central France I went south to Pays Basques for a few days visit with a friend and arrived just in time for the lead up to and the opening of the Fetes des Bayonne, a madness somewhat akin to the San Fermin in Pamplona but on a slightly smaller scale.Situated at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers, Bayonne has the longest tradition of bullfighting in France. No surprise that the festival is based there.

The attire is white with different splashes of red (t-shirts, scarves, belts, etc.) Even this color scheme is after the one at San Fermin, but older locals often dress in the original Bayonne colors of blue and white. No matter which, with the festival approaching, the colors are seen in increasing abundance.

In my wisdom, I stayed and observed the buildup where virtually every store front turns into an instant bar, watched the World's Biggest Piment Omlette being made, cheered with the throngs in the street for the opening presentation of the keys to the city, oohed and aahed to the fireworks/artifices, and then took the night train out to Paris before any drunken brawls began. Such great memories of music and dancing in the street in a sea of red and white.

Perigord Pensees

After Rouxou it was off to Sarlat & Perigueux on "Les Bus du Lot" but not from St. Denis as was the plan. The bus I needed in order to connect at Souillac quit running some 3 weeks before. One of those tiny little footnotes in the schedule designated this and got completely overlooked. So my friends drove me to Souillac where I continued on alone. Just one last kir together.

Sarlat la Caneda, as the offical name reads--Ville d'Art et d'Histoire--situated north of the Dordogne, province of Perigord, is only about 32 km. from Souillac. In a country renowned for it's pates, Perigord is the primer center in France for Frois Gras Oie & Canard. Add to that, Truffles, confits & Margrets and it makes a committed gourmands heart go pitter-pat.

The Gare is 2 km. outside Sarlat and my hotel was another 2-3 km. beyond that, back at the junction of the road from Souillac. Had I known, I could have jumped off the bus as we passed it and saved myself the walk along open highway with no consideration for pedestrians. But for it's far from town location, Hotel la Charmille lived up to it's name. Quaint old structure with comfortable budget lodging.

A heart-shaped town with a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, Sarlat (Black Perigord) dates from Medieval and Renaissance times when it was a busy market town. A treasure trough of elegant burghers' houses, the central area is confined and calls out to be explored on foot. It's chock-a-block full of tourists, but still pleasant to wander around.

On to Perigueux, Capitale du Perigord, situated on the right bank of Rive Isle. It should be named "Perideux" as it is really two cities in one--La Cite Gallo-Roman on the site of Vesunna Temple and the Medieval-Renaissance quartier. It is in the latter Classical city one finds the Cathedral of St. Front, a major pilgramage site.

The "ancient church" is actually two distinct buildings, the most recent being the Carolingian (11th C.). It was renovated by Paul ABADIE (think Sacre Coeur/Paris) during the 19th C. Set on the side of a hill allowed for a large network of crypts and half buried chapels to develop under it's bays.

16 August 2008

Devine Dordogne

After five days in Paris that included the Bastille Day celebration and a visit with my brother, I headed with my friends Lucie and Ben to spend a week at her parent's home near Vayrac in the Dordogne Valley, a region rich in history that lies between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees.

From their house perched high on the Puy de Isolud with its spectacular views of the valley, one can spot castles (there are over 1,00 in the region) and medieval villages dotting the horizon. It truly fits Lucie's mother's description..."un petit coin de paradis."

The region is famous for its pre-history of cave art and centuries of invasions by Celts and Romans that were followed by the peasant revolts that continued until the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. Not until 1598 with the Edit of Nantes was an end to the battles finally achieved.

Everywhere you go you see the influence of the Romans and the battle-scarred legacy they left behind. Visiting the charming villages that have endured over the years in and around the area is like taking a step back in time.

A relaxing week spent enjoying the French countryside, feasting on amazing local produce including a range of small farm produced cheeses and visits to medieval villages. One day canoeing on the Dordogne, an evening concert of chanson francais sung by their good friend at a nearby chateau and the comfort one only experiences in the company of good friends.

06 August 2008

Paris, Post Bastille

One day post-Bastille I met my brother, Jim, and my niece, Michelle, at their hotel and the idea was to show them around Paris, a city I know and love. At the outset we had a serious problem when Michelle greeted me with three stipulations--no museums, no cathedrals and no walking. I thought surely she must be joking, but no, she was serious.

It is her loss in Paris if she chooses to exclude museums and cathedrals, but under no circumstances would I agree to the edict of no walking. Paris is a city made for walking. As great as the Metro is for getting around, you don't see much from underground.

We started walking along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower hoping to enjoy the spectacular vistas of the Paris sky line. I'm always happy walking in Paris and it was a beautiful sunny day. Having slowed my pace to that of a snail, I was incredulous when Michelle managed to plod along remaining a full block or more behind with my brother as the liason somewhere in between. Her sour face sent a message to us both.

As we passed by Invalides, I attempted to spur her interest to no avail. We did manage to get as far as Place de la Concorde, but she simply refused to continue walking further. Hunger pangs were full blown at this point, and since that short little stretch had taken us over two hours it was now time to consider lunch, so we headed to the Metro which cheered her up a little.

In honor of our snail's pace, I ordered escargot. That touch of humor escaped her completely, but I chuckled to myself as I sopped up the tasty garlic butter with my scraps of bagette.

Michelle expressed a desire to shop for chic fashions and being the season of the ˝soldes˝ this seemed like a good option. Another Metro ride to Hotel de Ville where she got the sad news that shopping in Paris involved more walking. No American style mall with everything in one place. Her interest waned quite quickly at that news, so we headed to the cafe for one last pastis before calling it a day.

Bastille Day 2008

My first Bastille Day Celebration was in 1966 when I was living in Paris working au pair and filled with the enthusiasm of youth. I stood with the crowd on the Champs Elysee watching then President Charles de Gaulle ride in the parade, a towering figure above everyone around him. Later that night I danced with the party-goers at the Hotel de Ville.

This year was more subdued with the added perspective of age. My brother and his daughter arrived in the morning of the 14th to celebrate with me on the last leg of their trip to Egypt and Rome.

They were booked into a hotel near the Eiffel Tower, so I took the Metro in to meet them and we went back out to Montreuil to join my friends at their favorite cafe where there was a free buffet and a local all-girl band. A real Parisian celebration far from the tourist mobs. My brother and my niece went back in time for the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, while I stayed on at the party.

05 August 2008

Paris & Beyond

Finding a budget hotel in Paris at anytime can be a tad difficult, but on a Friday night before the Bastille Day celebration it has a great potential for failure. Many small hotels at double the price I wanted to pay were already full so it didn't look hopeful at the start. But my persistence paid off and I found a single room for under 35 euros in a classic old hotel that evoked the inner spirit of Paris.

Narrow corridors, up a winding staircase through a corner door and I entered a room with a shuttered window overlooking "les toits de Paris." I was tempted to stay up all night reliving my memories from the '60's, but my drooping eyelids soon overcame that temptation. Early the next morning I went out walking through the streets, watching busloads of arriving celebrants for the holiday, and greeted by the aroma of freshly baking bread that is so totally French. A morning espresso and an internet check got me in touch with my friends and I headed off to Montreuil to connect with them.

Emerging from Asia in the West

Following a short interlude in Warsaw, it was on to Berlin with the ultimate goal to arrive in Paris--just in time for the Bastille Day celebration. Vive la Françe!

Warsaw gave me the chance to rest up a tad in comfort as I have a friend to stay with, and as I was there just last year, there was no great urge to race around and set any new walking records. A few hours wandering around the "Old Town" the day many musicians and groups were practicing in various cathedrals. Strolled from concert to concert enjoying all the beautiful sights and sounds.

Trains are again back central in my life. Fast and efficient European ones, but not as much conviviality as Asian trains. I may forever begrudge missing out on Astana to Kiev at the mercy of the Russian blackmailer I sparred with in Almaty, or at least until I do it from the other direction. But for the moment, I'm still traveling east to west.

Berlin was another city I visited last year, so I raced quickly through staying only two days before pushing on to Paris. I did the full on walking tour last year and got my second "Checkpoint Charlie" stamp. My first one was in 1966 and was a rather different experience. It's SandStation season, and they are always fun to see, but I didn't need to do any full on HTT (Heavy Tourist Thing).

From Berlin it was direct to Paris, with a quick train change in Frankfurt midway. Aaaahhh, Paris. It was my first European city over forty years ago, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I arrived at Gare de l'Est, full of temporary tents demarcating construction areas, and not a public phone in sight. At information they directed me, "toute à droite, et après à droite et encore à droite." I did all the "rights right" (à droite, à droite, à droite) and still no phone. Malish, je suis à Paris. Time to put my charms to work and collect more anti-rude French stories.

I am a deep repository of personal experiences with polite, helpful, friendly Parisians and I'm always looking to increase my repertory. People on cell phones all around, I approached one young man who smilled sweetly and said, "Mais oui, bien sùre" and began punching numbers for me. No rudeness there. Merci monsieur. Merci beaucoup. But my friend wasn't answering and I had to leave a message that I would call again later.

I picked up my bags and crossed over the street to a corner cafe. I'll have a kir and relax while I wait. And the cafe had creme de framboise. Perhaps I'll have two. When I asked about "le petite monnaie" for the telephone public, the propriator slipped off to the cash register and returned with his personal cell phone for me to use. Not much rudeness there, but still no response from my friend.

By now, it was getting late and time for me to seek out alternative lodging. Armed with a list of cheap hotels in the area that I obtained from information at t-he station, I headed for the Metro, purchased a carnet (of tickets) and standing with my Metro map in hand checking my destination, up comes a woman to see if I needed assistance. Oui, laquelle direction pour aller à place de la Republique? Her response, Place d'Italie and do you need a Metro ticket, as she holds out one for me. Thank you so much, but I have one. Not much rudeness there. Au revoir.

Unexplored Ukraine

Although the plan was to arrive by rail on the Eastern front, AeroSvit (Ukrainian Airlines) delivered me directly to Kiev with no preliminary peeks of the countryside. I had to miss over half of that eastern segment of the country and wait for a look at rural Ukraine on my way out.

I've long believed in "marching to a different drum," but sometimes the alternate beat doesn't work. That appears to be the problem with my passionate desire to ride the rails between Astana and Kiev. Three days on the train--what fun that would be. However, I was obviously doing it in the wrong direction. One of the first things I learned in Kiev was that the Russian Embassy here routinely issues visas for the train (direction Kiev to Astana) for the pocket change of $25 versus the maxed out $450 Darth Vader in Almaty wanted. I was singing my melody in the wrong key.

Kiev qualifies as a beautiful city and although very green with some lovely parks, it falls short of Almaty in the sheer number of parks. However, it beats Almaty when it comes to Architecture. Right up there in the same class with Riga and Prague.

A holdover from my early days of wandering the planet before backpacker travel kicked in is that I resist the need to book ahead. Often I'm not even sure just when I'll arrive in any particular place, so I trust to luck and the travel gods to take care of things. The gods here in Kiev were napping a bit. The first hostel was full and the second was set to send me away until I put on such a sad face they found me a bed in with a lovely young Ukrainian woman--a teacher from Nikolaiv University near the southern coast.

It was late in the day when I finally settled in, so I didn't stray too far. Hunger did take me out far enough to discover a wonderful restaurant (PecTopaH), cafeteria style Ukrainian food at rock bottom prices, which saved me the hassle of trying to cope with a menu I can't read. Gotta love the advantage of being able to simply point at the food offerings. It's an even better option than Asian picture menus that don't always quite resemble what they really are.

Didn't do so well with my internet encounter. A big beefy Russian guy kept scowling at me saying, "Nyet, nyet, nyet." He didn't have a free computer, he didn't expect to have a free computer, and no he didn't want me to wait. Mostly, he didn't want me to wait because I might see the two guys who came after me get directed to the computers that were not available for me to use. Then a sweet Ukrainian girl turned and spoke to me in English. "I'll be through in a couple of minutes and you can have my computer," says she. Mr. Nyet was not happy with that, but unable to turn me away. I made a special point of finding a new computer place after that.

Early the next morning I set off to explore Kiev on foot. Map in hand I headed for Kreszczatik street (the main drag) and along the way started into the park, but was prevented from entering by a cordon of police. Suddenly I realized there were dozens of police surrounding the entire area. Haltingly I tried to enquire in Russian, "Chto vavava?" (YTO HOBOrO?) The answer, "Yushchenko, den Konstituti!" Okay...XOPOWO! Translation turned out to be "The President is speaking for Constitution Day." He seems to need more security than even Bush does, including the guys with special lenses watching all the rooftops. The group of VIP's walked from the park across the street to the Government Building and laid flowers at the monument in front, all to the accompaniment of a lovely choir of Ukrainian songs. I wasn't able to stroll through the park until the following day. After five days exploring the nooks and crannies of Kiev, I took a night train out to Lviv (Lvov) over near the western border with Poland. A charming city with an eclectic ping-pong history of ownership, Lviv was at one time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Then for a time it was claimed by Poland, captured by the Germans during WW II and eventually grabbed as a part of the post-war spoils by Russia. Independance only came with the dissolution of the USSR in the early '90's.

I could have stayed on and on in Lviv, the cultural center of Ukraine. Wonderful architecture, cobblestone streets, open squares, to-die-for pastries, and friendly people who are strongly pro-western. What more could any traveler ask for. Extra time I guess, but since the plan was to meet up with my brother in Paris by 14 July, I had to get moving, so after four over-short days, I headed on to Poland where I will visit briefly with a friend in Warsaw. I can easily visualize a repeat visit to Ukraine.

Kazakh Kudos

Kazakhstan had a cloud hanging over it from the beginning due to the Russian bureaucratic intransience over double-entry visas. Never mind that I had full backup authorization for a double-entry visa, checked the box and paid for a double-entry visa, I received a single-entry visa. In short, I was entering Kazakhstan at my own risk, with no clear land route out.

But the entry in the wee small hours of the morning was warm and friendly. The Kazakh immigration officer, in his big flamboyant hat, got on the train with his sophisticated computer and was the first border official this trip to speak English and the first ever to access my new Hi-Tech data chip. He smiled at me and said "Welcome to Kazakhstan."

The landscape from the train going south out of russia didn't change much--verdant green forests and rough board wooden houses with the same freshly painted blue and white shutters at first. But soon the houses themselves began to be freshly painted--left over from the shutters, perhaps. The trees gave way to sparser, harsher terrain that every so often was punctuated with what looked like miniature model cities with scattered dome structures--Moslem cemeteries to remind me that I am now in an Islamic country. At every stop along the route there were a bevy of ladies selling homemade perogies and other goodies displayed happily in baby carriages. The train I was on was going all the way to Tashkent and full of jolly Uzbeks. They kept insisting that I continue on with them and didn't seem to understand my potential problem at the frontier with no visa for Uzbekistan. Ominous warning for what I was to face when it came time for me to leave Kazakhstan going across one short stretch of Russia to Ukraine.

Arriving at 4:30 am in Almaty is not the best of options. No public transport and only greedy sleazy taxi men who wanted DOLLARS, lots of them, to take a crazy American anywhere. Luckily, there are usually cheap hotels of some ilk near most train stations worldwide and I found a place within walking distance that would take me in.

Setting out on my first day of discovery, I found Almaty to be a truly beautiful green, green city--nestled up against the mountains with parks everywhere. I lost count after the first day. Wide clean streets with lots of wheelchair ramps, some that looked a little scary to me. Litter containers are ubiquitous, painted green to blend with the trees and frequent recycling bins. It was not my intention to spend all my time in and around Almaty, but circumstances surrounding my objective of traveling on out of Kazakhstan by train gave me no other choice. I needed a Russian transit visa in order to continue my trip as planned.

I made the best use of my time by taking trips out of Almaty to see some of the surrounding countryside. My first trip was to Charyn Canyon which has been compared to the Grand Canyon in the US. Smaller, but every bit as lovely, I was given the choice of going with a local group and a tour guide who spoke only Russian at a local price, or in a private car with an English speaking guide at an exhorbinate tourist price. Do I have to reveal which one I chose? The local experience is the one I travel for. And the travel Gods were with me. The morning of the excursion a young Estonian man was on the bus who happily volunteered to be my translator, so I got the full local experience without losing out on any information.

Walking into the canyon the trail was a bit tricky in places, but nothing too energetic. On both sides, red clay walls deeply fissured and the only limitation was your own imagination in deciphering the various rock formations. Many large rocks were precariously perched atop others looking all the world like they could topple off. The path we took wound down to the river running through the canyon where we relaxed and had lunch.

The return trip took a decidedly scary turn when our guide veered off and litterally had us scaling the canyon wall. No one had warned me that my insurance should be fully paid up, but one false step and I could be lying in a heap at the bottom. Perilous as it was, I did survive and the views at the top were spectacular.

My next excursion outside Almaty was to the three mountain Lakes of Kolsai over near the border with China. Again I went with the local tour group and after a night's ride on the bus we were booked into small family guesthouses in a village near the lake region.

The lakes were magnificent and although the climb to the second lake tested the stamina of the most hale and hardy, the breath-taking view on arrival was well worth it. Crystal clear deep blue waters surrounded by jutting peaks set amidst alpine meadows. After a rest, lunch and a swim-break for those hearty enough to brave the 7 degree celsius water, tearing oneself away from the beauty of the lake was made all the harder knowing full well the difficulty of the trail. Later that night, back at the guesthouse, the Russian sauna was much appreciated by my aching muscles.

The following day on the rickety bus going up to the third lake (created by an earthquake about three decades ago) the group decided to serranade me with a medley of songs representing each of their various ethnic backgrounds. A true magical moment.

Other excursions included two trips to Modeo in the mountains near Almaty with it's world famous skating rink, scheduled to be the site of the Winter Olympics in 2011. On the second visit I continued further up the mountain to Chimbulak, home of the ski resport. It got colder and colder the highter we went, and I was quite pleased to snuggle into the Russian-era Army greatcoats that the guys running the lift at the top produced.

Although a very special country, visiting Kazakhstan turned out to be my fiscal "poison pill." It is an expensive country and the overwhelming cost of getting out of the country nearly "broke the bank." Special thanks for this go directly to Russia. First by refusing to give me the double-entry visa initially in Bangkok and then the exorbitant blackmail attempt in Almaty demanding I pay $450 for a lousy transit visa just to ride 8-10 hours on a train across a desolate stretch of land they claim that lies between Kazakhstan and Ukraine. So, I fly out to Kiev a little sad not to be on the train, but the choice was between disappointment or disgust. Disappointment at being 'derailed' or personal disgust over giving in to Russian greed. At least I headed to Ukraine with a clear conscience.

Siberian Sightings

The Russian leg of my journey started on the Fast Train out of Ulaan Baatar and ended on a local train out of Novosibirsk, heading south to the heart of Central Asia. My only stop of significance was at Irkutsk, a charming "Decembrist's city."

On the first train I was in with a lovely young couple (Kate from UK; Rodrigo from Spain) who had been teaching English in China. The trip bodes well with jolly companions as we break out and share our food rations. They spent two weeks in Mongolia struggling to get the Russian visa and could only achieve transit status, so they are on for the distance all the way to Moscow, where they catch their flight out for Spain.

After a delightful afternoon things deteriorated rapidly at the Mongolian border. It wasn't the time sink I encountered on the Chinese side, but with a whole lot more drama. It seems nomad hospitality is reserved for the vast central steppes of the country. Sour faced officials boarded the train and I, with my no visa requirement was fine, but Kate and Rodrigo were branded instantly as criminals with a one-day gap between the expiration of their Mongolian visa and the start of the Russian visa. In Ulaan Baatar they were assured by Mongolian Immigration it would only be a small fine at the border, no worries, however, Stalin's granddaughter was on duty that evening.

They were removed from the train, yelled and screamed at, fined $150 each and very nearly not allowed to return to the train. Minutes after their exit, the "Babushka" in charge of our car rushed in and reclaimed the sheets she had issued while I sat silently fearful that (a) they wouldn't make it back, and/or (b) guilt by association would extend their wrath to me. Amazingly on the Russian side we were greeted with smiles and nuanced voices. Sleep came late after the exhausting ordeal.

The following day we hit the border of Lake Baikal mid-morning. At first we could only see traces of it through the trees, but as the forest thinned out we could see shinning waters clearly looking more like a vast sea than a lake, with waves lapping at the shore. Continuing on we had a brief stop at Sludyanka where Kate managed to score some omul, the famous Baikal fish, from the vendors on the platform at the last moment as the train was pulling away. It was smoked and each individual fish was propped open with fine splinters of wood so they looked like little boats.

The three of us then headed to the restaurant car for cold beers to go with our culinary treats. Soon we were joined by an Italian woman to share our booty during the last stretch into Irkutsk where I detrained.

One day to wander around Irkutsk before I went out to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. There are lots of advantages traveling in the shoulder season and the occasional disadvantages, like having to do the trip to Olkhon on the bus that takes five hours on bumpy roads since the shorter boat run doesn't begin until the official season later in June. No matter which route the trip to the Island is well worth it. Remnants of Shamanism from the Buryat settlers with links to Mongolia, it's a world apart from the rest of Russia. On one day I did the jeep trip to the far shore of the island and amid the spectacular views our driver grilled fresh omul over an open fire for lunch.

Back in Irkutsk I was just in time to celebrate "Children's Day," a wonderful festival where the city comes alive--bands, music, balloons and dancing in the streets, with the children all decked out in fancy clothes. Spring may come late in the land of permafrost, but it comes with full force in riotous color and joy.

The biggest headache traveling in Russia is their quirky practice of listing all transport schedules on Moscow time. Forget the reality that the country crosses five time zones--Moscow time rules. Calculations can get a bit complicated if you don't know which time zone you are physically in, but not enough so that I missed any trains. From Irkutsk I traveled on to Novosibirsk where my sources told me I could connect with a train going south to Kazakhstan. For that leg of the journey, my compartment mate was a friendly Ukraine businessman conversant in English. I'd prepared my stores for the trip properly, bread, cheese, salami, juice, etc. and included the essential for train travel in Russia--vodka. So it turns out Mr. Ukraine is a non-drinker. Down with another Russian myth. Good thing I'd gone convervative and brought only a small bottle. We knoshed on his raisins instead.

My sources were spot on and I was able to get a great train out of Novosibirsk going south all the way to Tashkent. Bidding farewell to Russia on a train car full of jolly Uzbeks, I settled in to prepare for my last views of Russia and greet Kazakhstan.

Visa Vexations

Russian visas are not solo traveler friendly. It's the specific dates they require that play havoc with my random travel personality. Grudgingly I submitted a schedule that allowed me 30-days, but only one entry, not the double entry I was going to need. That seemed like a small detail at the time, so not to worry. I headed out with confidence.

A state of mind that would be sorely tested later, but as a committed traveler I don't let idle issues deter me. There's always a solution to every problem. Perhaps not the desired solution, but that's not enough to curtail my movement.

I had the appropriate voucher which is esentially a bogus schedule of travel that one can purchase online. It supported a double-entry visa, but that item was ignored. Side comment on the so-called invitation vouchers; it seems to be a popular motif to require them by some countries, mostly ex-soviet satellites.

However, visas in general can be the bane of the independant traveler. Not only can they dramatically run up the cost of travel, but they can seriously complicate matters. When countries are willing to issue them at the border, it is much simpler. But many countries require travelers to obtain them in advance.

This can be problamatical under a variety of circumstances. Many small poor countries can not maintain Embassies everywhere. So for those of us who stay "on the road" for extended periods, we have to be well-informed as to just where to obtain the necessary visa.

Where you obtain the visa can also determine the price and the type of visa issued. There are good venues and bad venues and traveler beware. The key is to find those venues that offer the best deal--cheapest price, longest stay and most entries. Definately one of the big challenges to the solo traveler.

Mongolian Musings

Two weeks traveling through China from Kunming to Hohhot with the focus on reaching Mongolia while avoiding Beijing in this troubled Olympic year. From Hohhot (Inner Mongolia) there are two trains weekly to Ulaan Baatar--one Mongolian, one Chinese. My timing was good, so I got the Mongolian one to start my adventure off right.

Shades of Africa as the Mongolians are all bringing oodles of commodities in from china taking advantage of low Chinese prices on things like electronic goods, clothes and even food items such that every corner of the compartment is stuffed to capacity. The trip itself takes nearly two days and two nights, but a good fifteen hours of that is spent at the frontier. The first three hours were spent putting the cars on platforms with wheels to accommodate the difference in rail size between China and Mongolia which was pretty interesting to watch, but what I found no rationale for were the eight hours we spent sitting in front of the massive (China is into BIG) Immigration Hall, except perhaps to give the passengers lots of time to spend money in duty free. Another three hours was spent on the Mongolian side.

I was introduced from the very beginning to the fullness of Mongolian hospitality. To a nomad, survival depends on hospitality and so it is at the core of their culture. Since the train arrives at the Mongolian border too late to change money, the young woman in my compartment insisted on treating me to dinner and the young man I met in the Hohhot station appointed himself my personal guardian, as he spoke excellent English (self-taught) and was most helpful. Upon arrival in UB, his brother was there to meet him and they delivered me directly to my guesthouse.
Two days after I arrived in UB I was off with two other couples for an 8-day trip to the Gobi. With our jolly driver (Serin, from the south Gobi) and our fantastic guide (Alma, from the far west), we headed out in a flurry of snow.

Before starting any journey it is important to stop at one of the omoo shrines to ask for protection and blessings. One walks around the omoo three times counter-clockwise and tosses stones on the pile.

The first two days were spent covering a lot of "scorched earth" landscape that is harsh but fascinating--a color collage of blacks, browns and grays created by the shadows of the sun. Not until almost the third day did we encounter much green in the picture. We went camel riding, climbed the "singing dunes" to watch sunsets, hiked through the gorges of the National Park on glacial ice, explored the "flaming cliffs" where the first dinosaur eggs were found and slept in gers (yurts) with local nomadic families. On several occasions we helped put up gers, separated mama and baby goats from the rest of the flock and brushed the goats for cashmere harvesting.

Upon arrival at a ger one is greeted with camel milk tea and sweets and welcomed like family. The mantra as you leave is always the same...come back and visit again if ever you are traveling through. In spite of the cold and bitter winds you feel a warmth that embraces your soul. Magical Mongolia!!

After a three-day hiatus in UB following my sweep through the Gobi, I headed out to the interior again--this time to Central and Northern Mongolia through the lake region. Not long after you leave the capital the tarmac road gives way to rough track only. That's when you are grateful for the Russian van you are in with the padded roofs as you merrily bounce along.

There is less sand and more mountains in the Central plains (layer upon layer of them) with lots more rocks and trees, but still the ever present patchwork of colors from the shadows of the sun. Burnt oranges, blacks, browns, grays, greens and saffron. At first the trees are scant and scruffy, but as we progress they actually become proper forests.

A unique feature throughout the countryside are the vast open spaces that define Mongolia, giving it a rare sense of freedom and timelessness. In the central region there are large areas of green punctuated with scorched earth stretches. Gone are the Gobi camels and now we cavort with yaks and horses, while everywhere there are sheep and goats. I even tried milking a few goats belonging to the ger where we stayed at White Lake.

The two main large lakes we stayed by were both crusted over with ice although it is beginning to melt and we could hear the cracking from time to time as it breaks apart. No question in my mind why they call it White Lake as we watch it sparkle and glisten in the morning sunshine. In the North we frequently can see log cabins interspersed with gers and the distances between them are often less than in the Gobi. Again the hospitality we encounter from the families we stay with is unsurpassed. No matter where you are in the country, you can pick a random ger, knock on the door and be invited in for milk tea, hard biscuits and often fresh yogurt or cheese curd. The welcome from the families is in direct contrast to the scattered remains of bleached bones that testify to the harsh conditions of the land.

I've been utterly seduced by the beauty of Mongolia, but still there are a few things I don't like, namely the weather, the weather, the weather and the dryness of the wind that make my lips, cheeks, nails and even the tip of my nose feel they are about to chip and crack off. I guess that also counts under the category of weather. And that same wind creates a surfiet of dust and sand swirling around in the air everywhere you go.
Within the confines of my heat-infused world, Mongolian weather sucks! Back in UB there was one day of glorious Spring weather and then the temperature plunged to hover around zero. Not something my body adjusts to easily, but at least on the good weather day I got out to visit the Monestary in UB to bring everything full circle. It has been a wonderful month of Mongolian memories and now I board the train for the ride into Siberia.