Friday, August 29, 2008

Stunning Santorini

After a tough year of travelling, a little downtime is needed, and after an overnight back in Moscow, Katya & I headed to the Aegean. I hadn’t told her where we were heading, but after a quick stop in Athens (with a lightening tour of the Acropolis), we were headed for stunning Santorini, one of the most truly ridiculously beautiful places in the world.

For those of you unfamiliar with Santorini (or Thira), it’s a Greek island in the Cyclades which had the misfortune to suffer a catastrophic volcanic eruption about 2,500 years ago. While no doubt traumatic for the residents at the time, it has left an amazing semicircular west-facing volcanic rim island perched high above a beautiful blue caldera.

The villages of the island (and its innumerable churches) are mostly perched on the clifftop and are uniformly white, with the occasional pastel or blue roof, which create the most photogenic scenes imaginable. Add to this a (mostly overblown) reputation for wine, and some great beaches, and you have a very nice place to spend a couple of days! I had previously visited with friends on a yacht, but this time Katya & I were here to see a different side of Santorini!

Our days were absorbed with touring the island on our 4WD bike, locating new beaches, sampling the various wines, comparing which tavernas had the best grilled octopus & fetta, but always ensuring we found chilled champagne and were back in our jacuzzi to watch the magical sunset. A truly rigorous schedule.

After 3-4 days of this tough life, it was time to head to Germany for a close friends wedding, and then on to Paris.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mum & Dad Russia/Ukraine Visit

At long last I had the chance to welcome both Mum & Dad to Russia & the Ukraine. Mum came to visit last year, but Dad’s only Russian experience was a day trip to Leningrad while training for the 1980 Olympics, and things have changed a little since then!

We had a packed itinerary for their 10 days in the region. We hit the Golden Ring, toured Moscow, then St Pete’s, and Kiev. With sightseeing all day, and having them meet an interminable string of my friends and nightlife by night, I think they were glad to return to the peace & quiet of their yacht!

It was great to have them here, and while I’m confident they’re still not sure why I live here, at least they have a better appreciation for some of the highlights (& lowlights) of the region.

I have plenty of photos from St Petes and Kiev from previous visits.

See Worldguide updates for St Petes & Kiev.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Internet Fun- Wordle

This is a cool tool by Google that I thought was fun. This is what it thought of my blog:

Check it out at:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Moscow’s Golden Ring- Churches Galore

With Mum & Dad freshly arrived in Moscow from the Med, Mum made the request to explore the Golden Ring, a series of ancient Russian towns dating from about 1000AD, considered to be the birthplaces of the Russian nation.

These towns are arranged in a rough circle NE of Moscow, and all contain lots of monasteries, kremlins (fortresses), and churches, mostly topped with shiny gold onion domes- hence the name.

The group of us, accompanied by James and driven by my long-suffering driver Yuri headed to Sergiev Posad, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov, Suzdal, and Vladimir for a few days. We saw approx. 732 churches (about 730 more than Dad & I had attention span for), thousands of religious icons, lots of forest, no nightlife, and sampled plenty of mediocre Russian standards, although the local mead was pretty tasty.

Each of these quaint little towns was typically dominated by a kremlin or fortified monastery, from which a belltower would tower over the town. Suzdal was a picture-perfect medieval town, with a river meandering between hillsides dotted with churches and various spires, interspersed with interesting books, cafes and markets.

This is an interesting trip for anyone interested in Russian history or religion, but warning that even though the architecture is beautiful, church fatigue strikes quickly and without warning.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Kazakhstan: Almaty in August- Don’t Do It

Having made a previous visit to lively and leafy Almaty (see previous post & photos here), I was excited to head there with James on the last leg of our Central Asian travels.

Unfortunately, the timing of our visit meant that all my friends were out of town, most of the top restaurants and clubs were closed for Summer, it was damn hot, and there was no hot water (see my Moscow commentary on this phenomenon). Additionally, we were beset with usual logistics issues trying to confirm our flight’s back to Moscow.

Not all was bad, however, we still managed to have fun. Katya and Joel were wonderful and lent me their apartment (again), so we were superbly located for sightseeing and eating & drinking.

After another couple of months on the road, I’m excited to head home to Moscow for a couple of weeks before I hit the road again!

No photos from this visit, but see my previous post for Kazakhstan pictures!

Worldguide is here.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Kyrgyzstan: Som, Som, but Different!

Beautiful Kyrgyzstan is a world apart from its more desertified neighbours Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. The country is 75% covered by mountains, and the altitude and it’s vast lake valleys make it more temperate, and August is the perfect time to visit.

What Kyrgyzstan lacks in historical sites, it makes up for in natural beauty. Stunning Lake Issuk-Kul, the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world, the Tien Shan mountains, its myriad rivers and forests combine to form a wonderful outdoor adventure wonderland.

That said however, we recommend you can safely skip the Southern Area of Osh & Fergana, even engaging a guide could only occupy us for about an hour.

After driving in from Uzbekistan, we found ourselves in Kyrgyzstans 2nd largest city, Osh. While Osh doesn’t have much intrinsically interesting, we did find both the best plov and best nightlife we’d found in Central Asia- on a Sunday! This may also have been impacted by the 2.5 bottles of vodka James & I consumed, which promptly sidelined poor James for the next 5 days.

Heading North, we arrived in Bishkek, the pleasant & bustling capital. Not much pre-Soviet exists here, but it’s a nice place to re-embrace civilisation, the Internet, and pizza. Bishkek is nestled under the Tien Shan, and snow-capped peaks rise behind the city.

Our main destination in Kyrgyz was Lake Issuk-Kul, a beautiful 150km-long turquoise lake nestled between two arms of the snow-covered Tien Shan and is renown throughout the CIS. It’s thermally warmed waters are delightful for swimming at its many beaches, and it is dotted with resort towns.

We examined some ancient petroglyphs nearby, and indulged in the lake and its environs. Our departure took us further East near the Chinese border, through beautiful forests, nomad grazing pastures, nomad Kyrgyz families with their animals and yurts, to a remote border crossing on a pass into Kazakhstan.

Our driver seemed intent on driving no faster than 40km/hr, giving him the dubious distinction of becoming the only driver in the CIS who I have ever told to speed up. We subsequently flashed by Charyn Canyon, en route to a late arrival in Almaty.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

D&G in Central Asia

While I know you're all eagerly awaiting my updates from Ukraine and Uzbekistan, it's been a little difficult to find a reliable internet connection in Southern Kyrgyzstan to upload all my photos, so you'll just have to wait a little longer.

In the meantime, I wanted to update "Cam's Law of D&G". As expected, D&G sightings have been rampant throughout Ukraine and especially the 'Stans. The most treasured sighting was this stellar example (below) of a "G&D- Dlcoe & Gabanba" rip-off I saw in a market in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, but men & women alike have been sporting vibrant D&G logos throughout our travels, furthering evidence of the existence of Cam's Law.

In another interesting development, prominent Versace logos were widespread in the ultra-low GDP per-capita Uzbekistan, especially on car seat covers, making me wonder if in fact a previously unconsidered "Law of Versace" may in fact pre-exist the Law of D&G. Further studies are warranted, but given temperatures in Uzbekistan exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (125+F), James & I were keen to move on to cooler climates.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Uzbekistan: Powered by Plov (or “Making Armenia Look Easy”)

The Lonely Planet notes that “only the insane or deeply unfortunate” find themselves in this region in summer. With temperatures over 50C degrees (125F), we were on occasion certainly feeling unfortunate. With street names like “Nuk[e]us please” & “Fuqqit”, the residents of Tashkent seemed to agree. Despite this desert region, the government still sees fit to condemn the Aral Sea to oblivion by massive wastage of water on a grand scale, with huge fountains gushing forth across the country.

Our (very) warm welcome to Uzbekistan consisted of ludicrous airport bureaucracy that only post-Soviet nations can truly perfect. After a mob stormed the haphazardly scattered passport control booths (which of course duly closed as we were next in line), we then played conveyor roulette, as some of our flight’s bags came out on one unannounced conveyor, some on another, and yet still others on a trolley half-an-hour later. We then had to queue for another hour to fill in detailed customs declarations, to notify the authorities exactly what currencies and valuables we had in our possession.

We quickly learned that this was due to the impossibility of actually obtaining cash once in the country. Several unsuccessful ATM visits later (all out of cash- one of which ate James’ card), we swapped our last few USD for a stack of bills as high as your elbow. The almighty Uzbeki SOM’s largest bill is worth approx. $0.80, meaning we needed to carry a briefcase to carry the currency we needed just to buy lunch (that is, when we were able to find cash).

Just as fruitfully, our first day in the worlds most hot & demoralizing city- Tashkent, was spent educating the Kazak consulate that in fact we only needed a single entry visa to complete our travels, and that contrary to their understanding, their borders do not in fact bisect Uzbekistan en route to Kyrgyzstan (if you’ve ever seen a map of this part of the world, you’ll understand the confusion).

Finally, visas in hand, we headed to Samarkand, one of the great Silk Road cities.
Samarkand and Bukhara are names that evoke the romance of the Silk Road. Winding camel caravans, precious silk carpets, desert caravanserais, towering turquoise mosques and madrassas, and steaming piles of plov (the quintessential Uzbek dish of rice, mutton, and vegetables). They are also damn hot. Temperatures notwithstanding, we launched into this world of unending Tamerlane, turquoise, and of course plov with gusto. The plov powered us across Uzekistan, as we sampled each region's variety in an unending cascade of rice and mutton fat.

Several days later we could tell a mosque from a madrassa, a Hannuka from a caravanserai, seen how the Soviets restored (and added to) these vast monuments, and even saw a solar eclipse. These fertile oases, plucked from the surrounding desert and fed from waters that would otherwise feed the Aral Sea, were not exactly teeming with life (although James & I did our best to find it), but we were grateful for our own lives after noticing a large dent in the wing of our flight back to Tashkent.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Central Asia Preface: Watermelon World

Travelling in Central Asia, there are several sights and experiences that you expect to encounter. Yurts, Plov, Turquoise Madressas, and idiosynchratic travel arrangements are all part of the fun.

One of the more unexpected sights for me, especially considering the tragedy of the Aral Sea, was the obscene wastage of water and the abundance of watermelons in every corner of this dry land. From the leaky dozens of fountains in Samarkand in 50+ heat, to the midday lawn sprinklers in bone-dry Tashkent, to the endless cotton fields in the desert, to the lorry-loads of hundreds of watermelons in every town across Central Asia, I wondered if the prevalence of even 10% more sanity could make a huge difference in this fragile environment.

Our odessey across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan was an eye-opening taste of the wonders of Central Asia, stay tuned for stories and photos.