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September 1, 2013

A Ticket Round the World

To travel around the world is the unaccomplished dream of many people, and it’s something that’s so tempting when reading travel articles, seeing photos on social media sites or watching expedition documentaries. When dreaming of Round the World tickets, obviously the first doubt that comes into play here is the money, it is always thought to travel around the world is to have a lot money available to you, not to mention the paperwork and time spent for planning. However, in reality never before in the history of humanity has it been so easy, we simply need the enduring desire to go, with the Round the World trip taking president over all other priorities. If you have got this far then it is definitely worth taking this idea out of the box of pipedreams.

The first thing to do is to realise that it is not obligatory to have a horrendous amount of time off in order to travel the world, nor is it necessary to spend all of your life savings. There are return routes round the world that are available to enjoy from ten days, to ten months and more, and for less than £2000. So what really needs the tough thinking is deciding where you want to go, depending on the time and money you want to spend, and then you can start organising your adventure. There are plenty of web pages and travel companies that allow you to make your own route round the world. There are popular suggestions but it’s practically encouraged to tailor your journey to your dream. So you have the choice if you want to follow an established route, or create your own. Following what you want, you can touch down on all of the continents or keep to the countries that interest you the most.

In respect to the paperwork for such a bold journey, the advantage of having a round the world ticket is fantastically simple to travel far and for an economical price. So instead of trying to do the paperwork as you go along, it’s all just down to the ticket. With this, you are not an itinerary but you have the ability to travel the distance and price you are willing to go. With these tickets comes the ability to fly into and from a country and what you decide to do in between is the unique experience.

August 29, 2013

Uzbekistan: Down and out in Karakalpakstan

October 24, 2012

They usually begin in the middle of the night, those sharp stomach pains that awaken you from a peaceful slumber. If you’re on the road long enough, in a foreign country with unfamiliar foods, you’re eventually bound to be afflicted with some sort of intestinal problem. Was it the afternoon ice cream snack, the colorful carrot salad at lunch, or the strange Uzbek version of pigs in a blanket served at dinner? I’ve had my fair share of sickness while traveling, the worst being in Paris and Brussels (the French speakers have it out for me, I guess) and I tend to just spend the entire day in bed when that happens. That wouldn’t be an option this time, however.

We were headed to Nukus that morning, a little over 100 miles away from Khiva. With my stomach rumbling fiercely, I skipped breakfast and spent the three hour bus ride alternately popping capsules of Immodium and Pepto. (Want the secret to quickly losing weight? Food poisoning). While our bus rolled through the Uzbek desert, we watched “The Desert of Forbidden Art”, a documentary about Igor Savitsky and his efforts to stash Russian avant-garde art in the backwater town of Nukus, away from the watchful eyes of the Soviets. The 40,000 (!) pieces of artwork he did save are now housed at the Nukus Museum of Art. Visiting this museum was the main reason we were traveling to Nukus.

Unlike the Silk Road cities we had visited over the past week, Nukus is relatively modern, having only been founded in 1932. It is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan that is home to the Karakalpak people (although they are quickly being outnumbered by Uzbeks moving to the republic). Aside from the art museum, there is not much for a traveler to see in Nukus. There are no grand mosques or mausoleums, nor is there a quaint old town; the city is entirely Soviet in construction, with the typical wide avenues, tree lined streets, and pre-fabricated apartment buildings.

We arrived at the museum shortly afternoon and were treated to a beautiful lunch spread, which, I unfortunately had to skip in favor of drinking Coke. I rarely drink Coke in the U.S., but when I’m sick abroad it is the first thing I turn to. It’s a nice taste of home, and the syrup always seems to calm my stomach.

We toured the museum for several hours. The artwork on display in this large building is only a small percentage of the collection, with the rest kept in storage rooms. Looking at some of these paintings, one could only wonder how the Soviet authorities could have possibly considered them anti-socialist (but then I guess if a piece of art wasn’t of the socialist realism school, then it was immediately suspect). It was hard to imagine that Stavitsky, a Russian painter and archaeologist, had managed to amass one of the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world (second only to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg); one can only marvel at his dedication to his fellow artists and perseverance in saving their art for future generations.

The museum

My favorite

August 27, 2013

Uzbekistan: One day in Khiva

October 23, 2012

No one really knows when Khiva was founded, but the local legend is that it happened over 2,500 years ago when Shem, the son of Noah, found himself wandering through the desert after the great floodwaters receded. He stumbled upon a well, exclaiming “Khi-wa!” (sweet water) and this ancient oasis has been hydrating travelers since.

Legends aside, Khiva has existed since at least the 10th, and possibly 6th century. In 1619 it became the capital of the Khanate of Khiva and eventually grew into the largest slave trading center on the Silk Road. The slave bazaar held thousands of Russians, Persians, and Kurds who were unfortunate enough to be dragged from their homes or fields by Turkoman raiding parties and then sold to the highest bidder in the open air markets of Khiva.

The slave markets are now long gone, and today the inner city of Khiva, the Itchan Kala, is preserved as an open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage site. The inner city is very compact, and after that grueling 9.5 hour bus drive the previous day, it felt wonderful to spend an entire day roaming this lovely area of Khiva. Some travelers complain that Khiva is “too tidy” and that the Soviets swept away all the dirt and grime that defined this city for so many centuries. Yes, walking around at times, the inner city was eerily quiet, but at other times it was lively, filled with wedding parties or groups of little kids following you asking for “bon bons” (candy) or pencils (unfortunately, I had neither on me).

Tombs on the walls of the inner city

Kalta-minor Minaret, the most recognizable feature of Khiva. It was left uncompleted after the death of Muhammad Amin Khan, although local legend states that construction was abandoned after it was discovered that the muezzin could see into the Khan’s harem from atop the minaret.

SIR! Please do not feed your baby to the camel!

Wood carving – from small cutting boards to giant doors.


Weddings everywhere!

Inside the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. Mahmud is considered the patron saint of Khiva.

Check out that dress!

Night descends upon Khiva. The inner city quickly empties, leaving just a few lost tourists and the families who still live there.

August 27, 2013

Cheap Holidays in the Sun: How to Bag a Bargain

Everyone dreams of a summer holiday and if you haven’t had yours yet, it’s not too late. While many people may be avoiding the idea completely through risk of damaging their financial stability, you’d be surprised at how cheap holidays in the sun can be easily achieved. With a little savvy searching and some careful consideration of the available online deals from providers such as Direct Holidays, you could be jetting off to warmer climes in no time.

Choose your dates wisely

If you have the luxury of flexibility, this can really play in your favour – particularly when looking at last minute deals. Put aside money each month into a holiday pot and splash out on a last minute deal when the time comes. Alternatively, plan your saving around particular dates that coincide with work and school commitments. Avoid peak seasons and school holidays where you can because these times automatically cost substantially more.

Cut Out the Middle Man

Booking online can help to save major bucks compared with booking direct. Use a reputable online provider for guaranteed quality for less.

Go Self Catering

While all inclusive and half board options may seem appealing, self-catering can cost significantly less – particularly if you’re travelling as a couple rather than a family. Those with kids may find all inclusive to be more beneficial, cost-wise.

Avoid Unnecessary Costs

Stick within the baggage limit so that you’re not faced with hefty charges, choose low cost travel insurance and exchange your currency with a commission-free agent so that you’re not faced with additional fees.

Summer holidays don’t have to cost a fortune. You just need to know where you can save money – you’d be surprised at how cheap they can be when you know how!

August 22, 2013

Uzbekistan: Through the Kyzyl Kum to Khiva

October 22, 2012

The journey along the A-380 highway from Bukhara to Khiva was one of the longest stretches of driving we did on this trip. The distance between the two cities is only 285 miles, but the journey took us a grueling 9.5 hours due to the state of the highway, which wasn’t quite a highway at the time, but rather a packed sand and gravel road through the Kyzyl Kum desert. The highway was undergoing a major reconstruction project at the time (and probably still is, since the vast majority of workers spent their time waving at all the passing vehicles!) and so was in a particularly sorry state. A German company had won the contract to rebuild the road, and the portions of the road they had completed allowed us to quickly pass through the desert. Once we reached the under construction part, however, it was a slow, bumpy ride for hour upon hour. Despite the air-conditioned bus and tinted windows, the heat from the midday sun seeped through. The landscape was similar to the desert I had grown up in, with the exception that civilization in the Kyzyl Kum seemed non-existent, with the exception of the occasional construction crews and stray dogs that lazed in the shade of concrete barriers.

Aside from the desert landscape, signs of the New Great Game abounded along this highway through the desert. We passed dozens of large Willi Betz tractor trailers driven by Eastern Europeans, transporting supplies for over 3,000 miles from Riga, Latvia to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Supposedly these trucks only transport “non-lethal” supplies to Afghanistan, so I wondered what they were bringing to my military friends serving there. Bars of soap? Boxes of Frosted Flakes? Cases of Red Bull?

In other areas we passed huge fields of new pipeline that, once installed, will transport Turkmen and Uzbek natural gas to Europeans. While to many this is merely steel pipe, it was of great interest to me. I wrote my graduate school dissertation on these “New Great Game” pipelines and briefly worked in the oil and gas industry afterward, so to see this in action, outside the confines of boring technical journal articles, was fascinating.

Where the good road ends and the bad begins.

Lunch stop

Over the Amu Darya River

Cemetery with tombs above the ground due to the high water table of this river valley

We arrived in Khiva in the early evening, with enough time for a quick walk before dinner.

One of the city gates of Khiva’s “Itchan Kala”, the walled inner town.

Cutting boards for sale

As the sun began to set we climbed up to a viewpoint for a panorama of the city. It was beautiful.

This little kid asked me to take a photo, so I obliged.

Just goofing around

Goodnight, Khiva. See you in the morning.

August 19, 2013

Hit the Tiles: Bars and Clubs in Playa de las Americas

While last minute holidays to Tenerife offer the perfect jaunt for families this summer, you can’t ignore the popularity that the island has with party animals too. While many groups of clubbers will be heading for Magaluf, Ayia Napa and Ibiza this year, many will flock to the shores of Tenerife resorts, particularly the nightlife favourite, Playa de las Americas.

But where do you go once there? Often, it’s a case of trial and error, making your way down the strip to find bars and clubs that suit your style and wallet, but having an idea of some of the recommended venues before you fly can help save you the time of finding the best ones yourself.

While the bars and clubs in Playa de las Americas predominantly centre on Starco’s, Veronicas and The Patch, you can find plenty between these venues too. Veronicas can be found on the beachfront, while Starco’s and The Patch are a little further inland.

Starco’s is a shopping centre complex that includes more bars than Veronicas, so attracts crowds earlier on the evening. Bars including Down Under, Brannigans and Fitzpatrick’s are popular haunts. Meanwhile, Veronica’s Strip is more club-orientated, while The Patch tends to aim towards the older demographic, providing plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy.

You will find, during your stay, that different bars are more popular at different times. While some open until 5am for the night owls, many are vibrant and bustling earlier on in the evening, almost as a preparation for what’s to come.

Whatever your style, the bars and restaurants in Playa de las Americas will appeal to anyone with a love of nightlife. Start your summer in style with a partying break in Tenerife.

With the help of a Thomas Cook holiday, you can enjoy a summer break for an affordable price. Take a look online, choose your favourite resort and prepare yourself for a memorable holiday in the sun, this year.

August 19, 2013

Uzbekistan: Two days in Bukhara

October 20 & 21, 2012

Arrive in Bukhara today and you will be warmly welcomed. This wasn’t always the case, however. Consider the fate of Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, two British officers who traveled to Bukhara in 1838 and 1841, respectively. Stoddart’s mission was to convince the Emir of Bukhara to sign a friendship treaty with Britain and release the Russian slaves held in Bukhara. Stoddart committed a major faux pas, however. Upon entering Bukhara, he did not dismount his horse, as custom required. Worst of all, he didn’t bring any presents for the Emir, and we know how much brutal dictators enjoy being showered with gifts! The Emir responded by throwing Stoddart in the “bug pit”, which is pretty much what you would expect – a fetid pit filled with various bugs (and rats, of course). Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Next comes Conolly, who had arrived in Bukhara intending to free Stoddart, now imprisoned for three years and counting. (Conolly, by the way, was the man who coined the phrase “The Great Game” to describe the struggle between Britain and Russia for domination over Central Asia). Unfortunately for Conolly, the Emir ordered him to be thrown into the bug pit with Stoddart. On June 17, 1842, both men were beheaded on the square in front of Bukhara’s Ark.

But don’t worry, Mom, it’s not like that anymore. These days, the most uncomfortable situation a traveler will experience is to be repeatedly pestered by silk and pottery saleswomen.

We spent two days in Bukhara. This city was where I actually felt like I was on the Silk Road of yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, the Registan and Shah-i-Zinde of Samarkand were incredible. Bukhara doesn’t have anything imposing like the Registan, but here, in the center of the city, the vestiges of the Soviet era were kept at bay and the simple mud houses and traffic free dirt roads have remained unchanged for centuries.

Bukhara’s only remaining synagogue, which dates back to the 16th century. Bukhara once had a sizable Jewish minority population, but it has dwindled to about 300 now.

Jewish cemetery

Sasha & Son, the charming bed & breakfast we stayed at, was a former Jewish merchant’s home.

Some locals hanging out.

Nadir Divan-begi Madrasah, built in the early 1600s.

Statue of Nasreddin, Muslim folk hero

Nadir Divan-begi Khanaka

Lyab-i Hauz (Persian” “by the pond”). Ponds such as this used to exist throughout Bukhara as the city’s principal sources of drinking water, but the majority were filled in by the Soviets to prevent the transmission of water-borne illnesses.

Traditional clothing and veil worn by Uzbek women in in the presence of unrelated men, prior to the eradication of this custom by the Soviets.

Of all the beautiful carpets in Bukhara, this was the one I wanted. Unfortunately, way too pricey (to the tune of $1,200).

Master knife maker

Shopping for tonight’s dinner

The Po-i-Kalyan Ensemble:

Inside the Kalyan Mosque, completed in 1514.

This couple asked to take their picture with me, so I obliged them, and they allowed me to take a photo of them. I felt like a celebrity in Central Asia because so many locals asked to take their photo with me. But why? I have no idea. Maybe I looked like an alien from outer space.

The Kalyan minaret, built in 1127. This is one of the few structures that Genghis Khan ordered his men to spare as they ransacked and destroyed the city. It also served as an execution tool; criminals were flung to their deaths from the top of the minaret. This practice continued until the early 20th century.

The massive walls of Bukhara’s Ark fortress.

Mausoleum of Ismail Samani, built 892-943!

Demonstration on how to make plov, follwed by eating plov! :) It was incredible; I had four servings! (If you can’t tell already, I love plov).

Chor-Minor (“Four Minarets”) formerly part of a large Madrasah (long since demolished)

And on our last day in Bukhara, we drove outside the city to this palace, formerly the summer home of the Bukharan Emirs.

The next morning, after being rudely awakened by the call of a rooster (seriously, does he realize it is still pitch black outside?!) I packed my bags again, had a quick breakfast, and headed down the long, bumpy road to Khiva.

August 6, 2013

Travel Wishlist: Canada

OK, so technically I have been to Canada already. Living in Seattle it is quite easy to get to British Columbia and so in the past two years we’ve visited Victoria, Vancouver, and Whistler. But that is only one small part of the second largest country in the world, and there are plenty more areas of Canada to explore. Someday I would like to take a long road trip across the Trans-Canada highway and visit the various corners of this country.

I’m a huge fan of the outdoors, so I would love to visit the province of Alberta which is home to Banff and Jasper National Parks and thousands of kilometers of trails that wind through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I’m not really a skier or snowboarder, but I’m sure there are plenty of options to snowshoe throughout the area. I wouldn’t mind seeing the northern lights, either, or returning in the summer for the famed Calgary stampede.

Despite living on the east coast for over ten years, I unfortunately never made it to our neighbor to the north. I would have liked to visit Niagara Falls and take the “Maid of the Mist” boat tour, and afterward relax at one of the many bed and breakfasts or hotels in Niagara Falls.

Nova Scotia is another province that I regret not making it to. I had been very close while visiting Maine but never made it over to Canada since my boyfriend forgot his passport. I loved the ruggedness of Maine and plentiful seafood, so I am sure I would enjoy Novia Scotia as well.

Montreal is also on my list and I’m on a mission to find the best poutine in Quebec after falling in love with the dish while on a trip to Victoria. If you’ve never had poutine, you are missing out. French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy, all washed down with a pint of beer.

The area of Canada that intrigues me the most, however, is the Yukon Territory. The Yukon Territory is north of British Columbia and is home to some of the mos pristine nature in the country. Its features are very similar to Alaska, and Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan at 19,551 feet, is located here. The Yukon Territory seems like a nature lover’s dream, with plenty of activities ranging from hiking to kayaking to dog sledding to snowmobiling. The Northern Lights can also be seen here, as well as plenty of wildlife including the fierce grizzly bear.

August 6, 2013

Uzbekistan: The bazaars and caravanserais along the Silk Road to Bukhara

October 19, 2012

Another five hours of driving today. Visiting all these Silk Road cities necessitates a lot of driving, but I’m not one to complain about a road trip; I’m perfectly content to put my headphones on, choose a playlist, and let the scenery roll by. And an air-conditioned bus certainly beats the camels that previous Silk Road travelers relied upon.

As usual, the long drive was broken up by a few stops along the way. We visited a huge outdoor market located in Mirbozor. I think the locals were quite surprised and amused to see a group of 17 Americans and Canadians pile off a large tour bus. Not your typical everyday occurrence, I’m guessing.

The bizarre itself was an incredible mishmash of Safeway, Home Depot, Walmart, and a food court. Here was nearly every product you might need, all laid out on tarps to protect from the desert dust. Need a bottle of Fanta? An axe? Perhaps some homemade sour cream? The market was vast, and I could have spent hours here, but our visit was a quick half hour. Much like the market in Khujand, we were asked “Otkuda, otkuda?” “Ya iz Ameriki” “Ah, Amerika”.

Tasty Uzbek carrot salad. This stuff is great!

And then back on the bus for some more driving, with a quick stop at the Rabati Malik Caravanserai in the Navoi Province. Built in the 11th century, this caravanserai provided protection and shelter to Silk Road travelers. It was composed of walled-in courtyard lined with merchant stalls. Here, travelers could purchase supplies, feed and water their animals, and relax safely within the confines of the caravanserai, without fear of being attacked by bandits.

All that remains of the interior

Water reservoir that supplied cool drinking water to the caravanserai.

Before arriving in Bukhara that evening, we visited the studio of the Narzullayev family, who specialize in the Gijduvan school of ceramics. There are various schools of ceramics throughout Uzbekistan (i.e. Rishtan, Tashkent Gijduvan) each with their own preferred colors and designs. The art of ceramics is passed down from family member to family member, and the Narzullayev family is currently headed by its sixth generation of master craftsmen and women.

Not only potters, also musicians!

Uzbek suzani embroidered by hand

We made it to Bukhara by early evening and would be spending the next two days there.

August 5, 2013

POTD: Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine

One question that I often get from people who want to travel to Chernobyl is where to stay in Kiev. Well, like any destination, it depends on your budget and tastes. In Kiev, accommodation ranges widely from bunk bed filled hostels on the outskirts of town to five star hotels in the city center. When my friends and I visited Kiev, we opted for neither of those options and instead rented an apartment. Yes, you can rent an apartment for just a few days, often at rates far below that of a decent hotel (especially if there are several of you, and you can split the cost). Plus, the apartments have kitchens, so you can purchase groceries and cook your own meals instead of eating out all the time (of course, we opted to eat at restaurants because none of us really enjoy cooking that much). The property manager of the apartment also picked us op and dropped us off at the airport for an additional small fee, which definitely saved us the hassle of trying to explain the location to an airport cab driver.

Another perk of renting Kiev apartments is the location. The apartment we rented was located very close to Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), the central square of Kiev. The above photo shows the monument to Berehynia in the middle of the square. In Slavic mythology, Berehynia is a female spirit who serves as the “hearth mother, protectoress of the home”. This square has also been the site of many political demonstrations throughout Ukrainian history, most notably when Orange Revolution protesters pitched their tents on this square.

In addition to Independence Square, Khreshchatyk Street was just a few minutes walk away; this is the main street of Kiev where you can find plenty of restaurants and shopping opportunities (and in our case, the TGI Friday’s where we celebrated American independence day with burgers and beer). If you have very limited time in Kiev, I would highly recommend renting an apartment in this area since so much is within walking distance, including the beautiful St. Sophia Cathedral.

Most apartments will also be equipped with wifi and TV, in case you’d like to catch up on Facebook or see what the Ukrainian version of MTV is like (actually much better than American MTV because they actually play, you know, music). I’ve rented apartments throughout Western and Eastern Europe without any issue and would definitely recommend it to any cost-conscious traveler.