Cost is obviously one of the most important factors in deciding where and when to travel. Before beginning, I should say that a lot of my trip was in the low season for many places (that is, not summer), and I would almost always travel in the cheapest class of transportation
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As I am starting a trip that will take me from China to (hopefully) Eastern Europe over the next several months, I thought I might go through what I am packing for this trip. There have been a few changes since my last trip's packing list (link for original packing post), mostly in terms of electronics, but for the most part it is very similar. Overall, my goal is maximum mobility and minimum weight, but not bare-bones, super lightweight (for that, see No-baggage challenge). My backpack is right around 25-28 pounds (11-13 kg), so it's light
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Bolod was the owner of the guesthouse that I stayed at in Ulaanbataar, and, due to it being the low tourist season, also my source of transport/translation when I headed out to the Mongolian countryside. His main guesthouse was actually closed, but I stayed in his "suburban guesthouse", which was just a room in his house with his wife and kids.
He grew up in a small village in Eastern Mongolia and came to the capital when he was young for school. Coming of age when
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Preparing for my trip to Asia, I had to obtain visas before arrival to China and Russia. Since I am just finishing up this process, I wanted to describe the steps that I went through in case anyone might be doing the same thing and wants to save some time on research. This is geared for the independent traveler without set itinerary.
5:30 am. I'm leaving my hostel in San Cristobal as the sun breaks, already reminiscing about the cool weather, good people, and nice local markets stocked with fresh produce every day for pennies. I have left myself two weeks to hitchhike back to Michigan (click here to see the route). After talking with a few of the dread-locked, unicycle-riding sort on the street last night about hitchhiking, I decide to take colectivos up to Villahermosa since hitching in Chiapas is supposedly fraught with long waits and suspicious people. Another big plus is that the main highway to
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This story is the other side of the news reports, the non-profitable story, the anti-State Department website of the capital of Guatemala, Guatemala City. Instead of pointless violence, I am writing about pointless kindness.
After being abroad for a long period of time in non-traditional tourist spots, a certain persistent question always and unavoidably comes up: “But, isn’t it dangerous in [insert city]?” Even between long-term travelers who should know better the question is frequently asked, with swapping stories of tourist crime (usually second or third hand and undoubtedly exaggerated for narrative effect) being an entertaining way to pass the time
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You have set out to travel to extract yourself from the daily routine, but there is one chore that will never go away: dirty clothes (nudist colonies an exception). And if you´re trying to save money on the road, or just don´t trust that random lady on the corner lavanderia, washing your clothes by hand is the only option that´s left. The good news is that it´s easier than you think, and with practice becomes no chore at all and you can tailor it to your situation. Here´s a quick run down on how to get it done.
With the cash economy spread to every corner of the globe, it´s no hidden fact that travelers abroad are many times looked at more as breathing cash machines and less as curiosities from foreign lands. It´s not that people are necessarily looking to grab money from tourists, but rather that poverty incentivizes creative pricing where price tags are lacking. Those of us traveling on a budget for extended periods need to economize since we´re already putting a hefty bit of cash into the local economies of the places we visit, so let opportunists prey on the less saavy traveler. There
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Cost is obviously one of the most important factors in deciding where and when to travel. Before beginning, I should say that a lot of my trip was in the low season for many places (that is, not summer), and I would almost always travel in the cheapest class of transportation available. I also hitchhiked quite a bit, utilized Couchsurfing, ate basic food, and wasn't afraid of camping. If you have higher standards for when you travel, you can expect it to cost that much more.
So I'll break this down into three groups: flights, visas, and on-the-ground costs. All of my purchase history is online through my bank, so I went back through the information to determine how much my trip cost. Also, if you don't have travel equipment you have to factor the price of that in; you can see what I pack at this link.
After hitching into Bucharest from Bulgaria and spending the night there in a hostel, I set off the next day to a farm a few hundred kilometers north close to the larger town of Brasov. I found the farm through WWOOF, which is a network of organic and conventional farms that ask for moderate levels of work (4-6 hours) in exchange for a place to sleep and food. From what I heard, it was a good way to experience the local culture, explore the beautiful countryside, and save money to boot.
The farm was located in a national park among the Carpathian Mountains in the Transylvania region, right on top of a ridge with mountains rising on either side in a village called Magura. The family, consisting of a thirty-something guy named Iosef with his mom, sister, and sister’s daughter, had cut down on food production in favor of retrofitting their house to take tourists to gain income. This left mainly just cows and sheep to take care of as well as a smallish garden.
It took several bus transfers to get from Brasov to the farm, and it was dusk by the time I was making the final 4 km hike up to the farm. They welcomed me with a bit of food, and the next morning the work started in earnest. The big project for the day was collecting the hay that had been cut with a scythe and dried for a few days. We lumped it into large piles, carried the piles to a thick synthetic sheet that was tied to a truck, pulled it up from the valley to the house, and then added it to the winter storage pile.
Taking a bus out of Istanbul was enough of a delay, and after a handful of short rides, with long waits in between, the border crossing finally popped ahead on the road.
Walking the expanse took a while, but actually going through customs was just a matter of them looking at my passport and waving me on. After getting through and wasting time at a bank that wouldn’t change my Turkish lira, I started walking into Bulgaria.
The story of long waits repeated itself; eventually, as the sun was going down, a girl who worked at customs picked me up and left me at a bus station in Svelingrad, not far from the border. Looking at the map and Wikitravel on my iPod, I decided my next stop would be Plovdiv (yes, incredible planning skills), a city with a quaint old district, Roman ruins, and cheap hostels. Of course, there were no more buses to Plovidv that day, so I just went out to the road after walking through some dicey Gypsy neighborhoods and started thumbing again to get back to the highway.
“Is she doing ballet while pole dancing?” I asked Djanay perplexed, not quite able to catch on. “It seems like it,” she said with a straight face and the sort of contemplative look you might see on someone while looking at abstract art.
The handful of young kids in front of me were watching the show with 100% attention, which slightly worried me when one of the “professional” dancers fairly graphically, though always covered, started rubbing her vajayjay. The twenty-something guys in the audience were just about drooling. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten my camera. I was too confused with the juxtaposition of a five year old kid giggling and a bikini-clad girl writhing on a pole to be stimulated to an appreciable degree, and when I asked Djanay what “professional” meant, she said, “I’m not sure, a professional pole dancer I think.”
Arriving into Astana tired in an overnight train from Pavlodar, I caught a cheap taxi to where my Couchsurfing host lived in the older part of the city. The taxi driver got lost, and ended up making a huge detour through almost the entire city (luckily, I agreed on the price beforehand). This was my first introduction to the bizarreness that is Astana.
Leaving the Soviet-era buildings around the train station, the taxi crossed the river (artifically widened) and made a loop around “new” Astana which was just a whole bunch of buildings with futuristic architecture and shiny facades. I could see, though, that this new part of the city was built purely by force of incredible amounts of petro-dollars. Any other city has residential areas that spread out from the center, but the “new” Astana just sort of rose out of nothing in the Kazakh steppe.
Talking later with my Couchsurfing host, Emanuel, he gave me a rough run down of what’s been happening in Astana.
Emanuel was originally from Mexico and had been working with the World Bank for several years before taking a three year assignment in Kazakhstan, so he had quite a bit of insight to the Kazakh economy. His project was assisting the government in diversifying their economy, since at this point in time it is almost entirely dependent on oil production.
After getting bribed on the bus from Omsk it arrived in Pavlodar around midnight, where Shannon, my Couchsurfing host, met me. She was an American working with Peace Corps, and had been in Pavlodar for more than a year and a half.
Straight away we stopped by the nearby Russian Orthodox cathedral since Shannon wanted to check out the midnight mass before Easter that ends Lent. It was packed and people were lined up outside, and in the middle of the crowd Shannon ran into someone she knew from Pavlodar. Some dude in front of us said they should be quieter when they talked, then felt bad and gave us one of the two Easter cakes he was carrying around.
Her apartment was lonely since she recently had German roommates move out, but that left plenty of space to crash. The next day there was an Easter get-together for the Peace Corps volunteers, and I met the whole Pavlodar crew at another apartment that belonged to a semi-retired married couple from California, Paul and Susan (fondly referred to as Poosan in a hilarious blog by two other Americans who traveled through Pavlodar: Herro Asia - Going Native in Kazakhstan via Americans) .
It was bizarrely refreshing to be in the same apartment with a bunch of Americans, making Easter eggs and eating pancakes with Aunt Jemima’s syrup. That’s right, I said mother$*%#ing Aunt Jemima’s, in the middle of Kazakhstan. We hung out for most of the afternoon in the apartment on a syrup high.
Still with an afterglow from visiting the domesticated foxes in Novosibirsk, I set off hitchhiking to my next stop, Omsk. The only reason I was going to Omsk was to obtain a Kazakh visa, and it was the only place in Siberia that had a Kazakh consulate (that I could find).
Only about 600 km away from Novosibirsk, I decided to hitch to Omsk due to the short distance and to save the $25-30 it was going to cost for a train ticket. On the advice of my Couchsurfing host, who said hitching in Russia is no problem even for people with minimal Russian, I took an electrishka in the morning to the outskirts of town near the road to Omsk and flagged cars for about 20 minutes until a car stopped. I couldn’t figure out where he was going, so I eventually just wrote Omsk and Novosibirsk on some paper and drew a line to imply the road and asked, “Where?”. He only ended up going about 20 km out of town before he turned to the south, so I just got out there and started flagging cars again.
I never expected that one of the coolest places I would ever visit in my life would be a muddy, shit-covered collection of animal cages, but there I was, standing in front of five decades of artificial evolution.
How I ended up here starts in the United States, listening to a podcast that I religiously follow called Radiolab from NPR/WNYC. On the shows, they find incredible stories and apply the most recent scientific research to create astoundingly captivating narratives (if you are science-oriented or just curious about the world around you and want to get your mind blown for an hour, I highly recommend you check them out).
They had a show called “New Normal” in which they discussed reframing ideas of normalcy. One of the stories was about a fox farm in Novosibirsk which had been working to domesticate the foxes for over 50 years. It was started by a researcher at the Novosibirsk Institute of Biology named Dr. Belyaev in the Soviet days, during which he had to keep it disguised as a fur farm since the Soviet administration perceived genetic studies like his as a sort of pseudoscience and did not permit it. Starting with a few hundred foxes obtained from Estonia, he selected the ones that were most friendly and most hostile toward humans for continued breeding. This wasn’t just capturing wild animals and trying to tame them, it was an attempt to artificially re-create the evolutionary process of domestication in few generations, a process which took thousands of years for other animals like that from wolves to dogs.
By coincidence my Couchsurfing host from Krasnoyarsk was in Irkutsk for a scientific conference, so I met with him at his friend’s place in Irkutsk before we hopped an overnight train to Krasnoyarsk. It was a nice change of pace to get in a sprawling discussion with him and his friend covering everything from comparative immigration policies to management styles in the United States and Russia.
My host, Vasilii (same name as my host in Irkutsk), worked doing physics research as a post-grad in the Krasnoyarsk Technical University and was bubbling with enthusiasm about his work investigating antiferromagnetic properties of various compounds. He actually took me to his lab and showed me around since I was curious.
The large cities in Siberia have separate areas a good distance from the center called akademgorodok, or academic city, which serve as dedicated university teaching and research areas. This is presumably to allow academics the tranquility of living in a more rural setting but still within reach of urban resources. The physics institute that held Vasilii’s lab was in the Krasnoyarsk akademgorodok, and was filled with assorted Soviet-era devices and contraptions with functions I couldn’t begin to guess at, and a few newer pieces of equipment they had bought from the United States and Germany including a container for super-cooled helium.
Absent a river, canyon, or some other natural geographical boundary, crossing a border is usually an experience that raises the question, “Why did they decide to put the imaginary line there of all places?” The border between Mongolia and Russia appeared, at first, like it fit into that category.
Little wasn’t depressing about the rest stop before the border that was dripping in Soviet bleakness, called a “Business Center”. Considering the alternative places to stop, I would question an explanation of why the bus stopped there if it didn’t include sexual or financial favors to the bus owners in exchange for access to the wallets of their captive passengers.
But, as the bus lurched out of customs down the road toward Ulan-Ude, it was clear the Russians got the better end of the fake line drawing. While the Mongolian side only had dry, barren hills, the Russian side had dense pine forest. Staring into the vast Mongolian distance is simultaneously alienating and captivating, whereas the Russian pines were a bit more soothing and seemed to be like crutches in what would otherwise be a fairly intimidating landscape.
On the bus, I met another American who was married to