Thursday, 7 November 2019


SOUTH PACIFIC ADVENTURE – PART I


It took thirty long hours to get from our hotel room in Baku to the Best Western in downtown San Diego, across ten time zones. Traveling from east to west always seems harder for me than going in the other direction. We’d been to San Diego before, in 2003, during Elva’s March Break. A city of 1.5 million, it’s clean, modern and very walkable, and has an excellent public transportation system. You can ride the LRT and buses all day for $6.


During the four days we spent in the city, we returned to places we’d liked, such as the beach on Coronado Island, Balboa Park, and Old Town. Elva found a nice shopping mall and we visited a car museum that featured a nice classic car and motorcycle collection as well as the baddest lowrider I’ve ever seen up close. I celebrated birthday number 66 with a crab bucket at Joe’s Crab Shack.



We were glad to board the MS Amsterdam on October 28 and settle into the familiar Holland America surroundings. Our cozy inside cabin looked just like others we’ve stayed in on previous voyages on the Rotterdam, the Zaandam, the Volendam, and the Prinsendam. Five days at sea may seem like a long time but it went by fast. There is always something to do aboard ship and, if you want to do nothing, you can do that too!


We landed in Honolulu on November 3, a Sunday. Elva and I had planned out our day, deciding that we’d buy day passes for public transit, go to Pearl Harbor in the morning and Waikiki Beach in the afternoon. While many passengers opt to take the Holland America shore excursions, we find them outrageously expensive, ranging from $100 US per person for a half-day tour to $250 and more for a full day. We’ve been on the tours before and have found them to be a disappointment for the most part, too often featuring only photo stops and visits to souvenir shops. Not the best way to spend precious time and money.


The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 resulted in the deaths of some 2,400 military personnel and civilians. It forced the USA to declare war on Japan and enter World War II. It was a sort of coming-of-age for the Americans, not unlike the World War I battle of Vimy Ridge and what it meant for us Canadians. 


We’d watched the movie Pearl Harbor onboard ship on our way to Honolulu; the story prepared us well for what we saw. Standing on the USS Arizona Memorial, built atop the sunken hull of the battleship, brought powerful emotions: 1,177 men died on the ship that day and some 900 bodies remain inside the hull. Their names are inscribed on a wall of remembrance. Some survivors, 43 of them, decided to have their remains interred in the hull as well when they passed away, in order to share a final resting place with their comrades. 

Waikiki Beach is not as nice as Basin Head, but it’s right up there! When I think of some of the really shitty beach resorts we’ve seen, Myrtle Beach being the worst, I have to say I was impressed. The hotels are first-class, the beach is beautiful, the oceanside parks are immaculate, and public transit is very convenient to use. Our total transportation cost for the day: $5 US. Entry to Pearl Harbor was free! Remember, we don’t mind spending money, we just don’t like to waste it…
On our second day in Hawai’i, the ship called at the port of Lahaina on the island of Maui. After getting our bearings with the help of a guide at the tourist information office, we rode the local bus for about an hour to Kapalua, a major resort area on the northwestern tip of the island. The vegetation is lush, Eden-like, and the resort hotels very high-end ($1,000 a night!). The beach at Kapalua Bay is small but incredibly beautiful; same goes for its neighbour, Napili Beach. After a nice lunch at the Napili Kai resort, we took the bus back to town and strolled around Lahaina until it was time to return to the ship. We find cruising to be an excellent way to scout places we’d like to come back to. Maui is definitely a keeper!
The third island we visited, Kauai, is said to be the second-wettest place on earth. We rented a car and drove west and north until we reached Waimea Canyon. We stopped at several lookouts to take in the canyon’s features: the many colours of the rock faces, the river far below, and the waterfall on the left of the photo. The road ended at Kalalau Lookout, shrouded unfortunately in a thick fog. On the way back down the mountain, the heavens opened. 


Not pressed for time, we decided to drive east and north to see the rest of the coast and take in a couple of recommended sights. Wailua Falls was a bit of a disappointment but the lighthouse at Kilauea Point made the drive worthwhile. In the seven hours we had the car, we circumnavigated the island. Kauai is quite different from Oahu and Maui. It’s much less touristy; more laid-back and natural. 
 
 
The town where we docked is called Lihue; not a big place but it has enough for the determined shopper. We overheard one passenger whose plan for the day was to take the free shuttle to a second-hand clothing store and spend her day there. Can you imagine paying good money to take a cruise to Charlottetown just to spend your day at Value Village? Another guy spent the day at a golf course… Looking for lost balls! “Found twenty-seven,” he told me proudly. Go figure!


Our last two ports of call in Hawai’i were Hilo and Kona on the Big Island. We had high expectations for Hilo, thinking we’d be able to use local transportation to get around. But when we got off the ship, everything was chaos at the “cruise terminal”, nothing more than a warehouse really, with people rushing in every direction. Shuttles to take us downtown, four kilometers distant, were few and far between, so we walked. Downtown is run down and public bus service is very limited. It was even hard to find wifi. We wasted $42 on the hop-on-hop-off bus that took us to places we could have walked. Lesson learned: if a place doesn’t look interesting at first sight, it probably won’t get any better. Trust your instincts and save your money!


The Big Island is slightly larger than Prince Edward Island and contains Hawai’i’s two tallest mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Our second stop, the town of Kailua-Kona proved to be far more interesting than Hilo. You may have heard of Kona coffee; it’s of course grown there on the slopes of a dormant volcano. The last ruler of the Hawai’ian people, King Kamehameha, spent his final years in the area and one of his palaces, Hulihee, is shown in the photo below. 


Our ship anchored in the bay and passengers were transported to the pier by tender. We enjoyed walking around the town, taking in the sights. A pocket beach next to the pier was perfect for a dip (the temperature was 32 C). We watched dolphins frolic in the harbour as they joined a group of snorkelers. Nearby, swimmers trained at the very spot where the Kona Ironman World Championship starts and finishes.




We know many people who’ve visited Hawai’i and loved it. We met passengers on the ship who’d been there several times. Now we know why they decided to go back. Each island has its own particular charm. Although they look and feel a lot like the Caribbean islands, they have much more to offer.


The MS Amsterdam will set sail from Kailua-Kona and head south. We’ll have five days at sea before reaching our next stop, American Samoa. Half-way there, we’ll stop for a few hours at Tabuaeran (Fanning Island), a coral atoll that forms part of the small island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass). In an interesting coincidence, the island was named by the British in honour of Edmund Fanning, the nephew of Governor Edmund Fanning for whom Prince Edward Island's Government House is named, "Fanningbank". Another bit of Island trivia: the community of Lady Fane, near Crapaud, was named after Governor Fanning's wife. After American Samoa, we’ll visit Samoa, Fiji, and Vanuatu.


Tuesday, 22 October 2019


CENTRAL ASIA ADVENTURE – PART IV

After a nice visit in Khiva, we said goodbye to nine fellow travellers and our guide, Aktilek, and seven of us set off into the unknown, Turkmenistan. Our new guide, Arslan, explained to us that all we needed to know about the country is that it is a good country and that the President, Gerbanguly Berdimuhamedow, is a good President. No more questions! While the country is open to visitors, it’s not easy to travel there. You need to be with a recognized tour group at all times and a visa costs $67 US. Turkmenistan will welcome 20,000 visitors in 2019. To put that number into perspective, Charlottetown welcomes 10,000 passengers and crew on a day when three cruise ships call at the city.

Our first night in the country, we stayed at the luxurious Dashoguz Hotel, clad in white marble on the outside and just as fancy on the inside. There was internet but, since many sites are blocked by the government, it was of little use. Whatever! It’s what we expected.
Next morning, we were met by a convoy of three late-model Toyota 4x4s. All bore government license plates and were driven by what looked like ex-military men. The drive to Kunya Urgench took about an hour. While there, we visited ruins of the ancient capital of the Khorezmian Empire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kunya Urgench is an important pilgrimage site for the people of Turkmenistan. The minaret in the photo is the tallest in Central Asia at 62 metres.
After a delicious lunch, we headed south on the main road between Dashoguz and Ashgabat. We drove on the road, on the shoulder, and in the ditch; sometimes it seemed like all three at once! The condition of the road defied description. Finally, after about 100 kilometres of bouncing around, we hit a stretch of better pavement, still nothing more than a base coat of asphalt though. One of our vehicles died but was soon replaced by another. Our drivers hit speeds of 120 kph as we hung on for dear life. The objective seemed to be to get us to the gas crater at Darvasa at sunset. The last part of the drive was off-road over sand dunes. We made it just in time!

The crater, known as “The Gates of Hell”, is one of the most unusual sites we’ve ever seen. The Soviets drilled for oil here in 1971 but hit only natural gas. The gas had formed a pocket and, upon being released, the pocket collapsed into itself, creating the large crater. Since it’s normal to burn off a pocket of gas, they set fire to it believing it would flame out in a couple of weeks. To everyone’s surprise, it’s still burning 48 years later with no end in sight.
 
The yurt camp that housed us for the night was clearly the most luxurious of the four we stayed in. it even had a bar. Unlike the first three, we had a yurt all to ourselves! But again, we damn near froze! 
Although the Karakum Desert is warm during the day, the temperature drops to 5 degrees C or so at night. Next morning, our three-vehicle convoy drove south through the desert until we reached the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, surely one of the strangest cities in the world. After over 3,000 kilometers on some of the worst roads ever, we were glad to see the driving part of our adventure come to an end. Our lodging for the next two nights was the Wedding Palace. The photo says it all! Everything here is over the top.


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree…

I was reminded of the opening words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem (remembered from high school) as I tried to absorb the marvels of Ashgabat. Block after block of brilliant white marble buildings, all erected since the country gained its independence. Enormous monuments adorn the centers of every roundabout. The broad boulevards and spacious monuments are cleaned every day and the parks are immaculately groomed. We drove past the Olympic Village, complete with 55,000 seat stadium, monorail, athletes’ village, and all the venues needed to hold major sporting events. Each of them spotless but apparently empty. I dared not ask how many international sporting events have been held here since they opened.

I can say this about Turkmenistan. It is a land of stark contrasts; from the desert that covers 80% of its land area to the fertile irrigated plains; from the poverty in rural areas to the conspicuous wealth displayed in Ashgabat’s high-end shopping center; from the controls imposed on travel and internet access to the government’s stated intention to increase visitation and private investment. And I could go on. The photos below show the high-end hotel just up the hill from ours, a small copy of Dubai's Burj Al-Arab, and an empty boulevard that would be ideal for a Formula 1 Grand Prix. We had coffee on the eighteenth floor of the fancy hotel and looked down on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, also empty.
Winston Churchill, speaking of Russia in 1939, called it a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. A description that fits Turkmenistan to a tee. Still, we’re glad we experienced this unusual country. It’s one that should be on every intrepid traveller’s list.
 
We said goodbye to Arslan and to our travel companions and spent a few days in another former Soviet Republic, Azerbaijan. The capital city, Baku, has a population of 2.5 million, about one-quarter of the country’s total. We arrived at our hotel at 4:30 am, dead tired, after taking the red-eye from Ashgabat. The night manager, Shahin, must have pulled a few strings to get us an early check-in; a much-appreciated gesture. The Boutique 19 Hotel is located right in the center of the old city and within walking distance of the waterfront. It’s the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in since we left home four weeks ago.

We strolled through the narrow streets in the walled section, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made our way down to the waterfront boulevard, and visited the beautiful national Carpet Museum, a real masterpiece. Watching women make the carpets was dizzying. The process is extremely complex, kind of like watching someone calculate using an abacus: impossible to follow. We ended our day with a hamburger and fries at the Hard Rock Café, a welcome return to a familiar meal after four weeks of local food. (By the way, the third photo is not a painting, it's a carpet.)

 
It’s evident as soon as you step onto the sidewalk that Baku is a European city. The prices are definitely European as well! The Ural Mountains run north-south from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan, dividing Europe from Asia. So Azerbaijan is geographically part of Europe, certainly more European than Asian; perhaps more accurately a crossroads between the two.

Azerbaijan is a rich country, far better off economically that any of the five Stans, mainly because of its significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Agriculture and tourism are also big here. Average per capita income is about twice that of Kazakhstan (richest of the Stans) and about half that of Canada.

The more we saw of Baku, the more we liked it. It’s a very walkable city and very clean. We climbed the Maiden’s Tower and visited the Shirvanshah Palace. Elva did some shopping and we played tourist for a few days. We climbed the hill to see the Flame Towers up close and took the metro to visit the magnificent Heydar Aliyev Center, a signature landmark of modern Baku. Close by, I found a barber shop and ducked in for a trim. The guy was an artist. For the first time in my life, I had an ear waxing! I considered a Brazilian but thought I’d had enough trauma for one day.


On our last day in Azerbaijan, we joined a Viatour group for a visit to a few of the top tourist attractions outside the city: the Gobustan petroglyphs, the mud volcanoes, and the fire temple. It was a nice way to end our short visit to this fascinating country. A word of advice to people who are looking for a stopover alternative in this part of the world. Dubai may have all the superlatives (tallest this and biggest that), but don’t overlook Baku!

Central Asia is huge, even by Canadian standards. The total land area of the five Stans is equal to that of Québec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta combined. Our experience exceeded our expectations. This little-known corner of the world is a treasure to be discovered and experienced. We didn’t feel crowded by tourists everywhere, but their presence is being felt in the region, particularly in the historic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. It’s clear that the government of Uzbekistan recognizes its tourism potential; city centers of Bukhara and Khiva are busy construction zones. Go now before these places are overrun.

Having seen enough mosques and madrassas, Paul, yours truly, and Jeff sat down one day to work on the world's problems.
We can’t say enough good things about the people in these countries. They are friendly, polite, industrious, and curious. They seem genuinely proud of what each of their countries has achieved since independence and are hopeful for the future. We saw no graffiti, no idleness, and few signs of homelessness. Not once were we approached by someone asking for money. The countryside may be poor but there is little garbage lying around and the cities display a level of cleanliness that would be the envy of many first-world countries.

Tourism infrastructure and service levels are in need of improvement; no question. Few of us on the tour escaped at least a mild case of la touristique. The food varied from quite good to just passable and accommodation standards were all over the map. Every day, I gave thanks for a firm stool! Elva wasn’t always so lucky… Eventually, our intestinal microbiota adjusted and their variety is, I’m sure, vastly improved!

As for their systems of government, twenty-eight years of independence is not a long time. Each of the five has developed its own system, some more repressive than others. However, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that democracy is not always the best form of government and dictatorship not always the worst. The people of the Stans see their present situation as much better than what they experienced under the USSR — the Bolsheviks as they call the Russians — and more secular than would be the case in an Islamic republic like Iran or Afghanistan. In every country except Turkmenistan, where we were not allowed to ask probing questions, the people displayed a hopeful attitude. They’re not looking for radical change, just slow and steady progress.

As for G Adventures, this was not our first experience with the company. Eight years ago, we did Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos Islands with them. Our CEOs, as well as local guides with Panjakent Intour and Owadan Travel, were eager to please and did their best to make our visit enjoyable and informative. We would not hesitate to recommend this tour, the Five Stans of the Silk Road.

Sunday, 13 October 2019


CENTRAL ASIA ADVENTURE – PART III

The Silk Road was a trade network that connected China and Europe, and all points in between, from the second century BC to the eighteenth century AD. Though silk was the main trade item exported from China, many other goods and ideas were exchanged including religions, philosophies, sciences, and technologies. The Han Dynasty, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Turkic Tribes, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo; all of these powerful leaders and great empires used the Silk Road to advance their interests. Many of the best-preserved relics of the Silk Road are found in Uzbekistan. We visited four of these legendary cities on our G Adventures tour: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva.

Uzbekistan has a population of some 33 million, slightly less than Canada’s and about half the total population of the five Central Asian countries. Average monthly income is about $400 CDN, less than Kazakhstan but more than Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The political regime ranks as being quite repressive when measured by various indices: personal freedom, economic freedom, press freedom, and democracy. Still, the people are friendly and do their best to make you feel welcome and the country does not feel poor. Nothing like Central America, for example. One gets the sense that this country is on the move economically.

Our hotel in the capital city of Tashkent, the Hotel Uzbekistan, is a brutalist-style structure built during the Soviet era. It was more than a bit outdated: we had no hot water and no air conditioning, and the TV didn’t work. Still, it was better than a yurt or our homestay in Sarytag. The food wasn’t bad, the coffee tasted fine, and we had pretty good wifi.

Tashkent is a city of some 4.5 million and the center resembles that of a European capital. On our first afternoon, we strolled through Amir Temur Square and to Independence Square. Next day was a free day and we used the subway to get around. Although it’s not easy to figure out the Cyrillic names, we managed without getting lost. Three one-way rides for the two of us cost $1.25 CDN! A good evening meal for two in a nice restaurant cost about $20 CDN. As for the local currency, the Uzbekistani Som, $1,000 CDN would just about fill a bucket. A bulging pocketful of 10,000 Som notes is about enough to buy dinner for two.

We visited the Kukaldosh Madrassa (Islamic school), the Juma Mosque, and the huge Chorsu Bazaar in the morning of our free day and spent part of the afternoon at the biggest mall in the city, the Samarkand Darvosa. There was quite a contrast between the bazaar and the mall. The former is where ordinary Tashkenters shop; the latter is for the better-off. We like to experience both wherever we go. In the evening, we welcomed two new travellers, one from Germany and one from Chicago.

Next morning, we drove by coach to Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second-largest city. Along the way, we passed by fields that would make Island farmers drool: rich soil as flat as a pancake and stretching as far as the eye can see. There is a downside though. During the Soviet era, Moscow decided that this part of the USSR would grow cotton. And to grow cotton, you need a lot of water. And so, water from the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya (rivers) was diverted to the plains of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Instead of supplying the Aral Sea, these mighty rivers were reduced to a trickle. Google “Aral Sea” and you’ll see from satellite imagery just how dramatically the sea has shrunk. I can’t help but compare this environmental disaster with the impact the potato industry is having on my Island.

Samarkand is a city rich in history. It is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in Central Asia, founded between the seventh and eighth centuries BC. In the fourteenth century AD, it became the capital of the empire of Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane). Buildings constructed during the period of his rule have been well preserved and are the reason the city was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While there, we visited a necropolis known as the Shahi Zinda Ensemble, the tomb of Amir Timur, the tomb of his favourite wife, Bibi Khanum, and the magnificent Registan Complex which consists of three madrassas (Islamic schools) and a mosque. All of these structures date from the period between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Despite being damaged by earthquakes, they have been restored and are major tourist attractions. The visual effect of lights on the Registan is magical. Along with many hundreds of tourists, most of them European, we watched a sound and light show there that would rival anything you’d see at Disney.

Next morning, we drove east toward our next destination, a yurt camp. Along the way, we stopped in Nurota to visit the remains of one of Alexander the Great’s fortresses and the artificial lake called Aydarkul. The landscape on the drive to the lake reminded us of the Australian Outback, and not surprisingly, since 80% of Uzbekistan is desert. The land is dry, sandy, and featureless except for the occasional farmstead and herds of sheep and goats. As for the lake, knowing it’s artificial and partly responsible for the disappearance of the Aral Sea kind of ruined it for me.
Our yurt camp was already overrun with French tourists when we arrived. We’d barely settled in when they started singing in the dining hall, so loudly, we had to tell them to shut up. The highlight of the camp was definitely a ride on the two-humped dromedaries (also called Bactrian camels). They are gentle and beautiful animals. Elva loves riding a camel. She just doesn't like the getting up and getting down part. Our travelling companion, John, is on the camel in front of her. No pictures of me.
 
The drive to Bukhara took us about seven hours. Our hotel was located in the historic center of the city, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next morning, we strolled through the streets on a guided tour and experienced the historic ambience. The city is a major destination, welcoming 1.5 million tourists per year. The center of Bukhara is very walkable and there are many things to see in addition to mosques and madrassas. Particularly interesting are the craftspeople: hat makers, carpet makers, embroiderers, knife makers, spice merchants, blacksmiths, etc. Some of the families have plied their trade in the same market stall for many generations. Bukhara is our favourite place so far on this tour.
A word about toilets in Central Asia. I’ve divided them into four categories: European-style, privy (bécosse), squat, and long drop. The European is found mostly in hotels and the better restaurants and feels quite comfortable, if you know what I mean. The bécosse is quite familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1960s (there are even some to this day at Le Barachois!). The squat is like a toilet with no seat; you squat and do your business, and it usually has a flush. And then there’s the long drop! Imagine a too-small triangular hole in the floor positioned above a deep pit full of you-know-what. I don’t care how good your aim is, there will be an occasional miss. Not a place to go barefoot. And the smell! Holy Jesus! At one of them, our six-foot-four Swedish Viking came running our, one hand pinching his nose and the other pulling up his pants, shouting: “Get me out of here! Now!”


It took us eight hours to drive 450 kilometers from Bukhara to Khiva, a city of 90,000. The roads ranged from four-lane divided highway to barely passable broken asphalt. While there are signs that Uzbekistan is on the move, much needs to be done to upgrade its road network. Khiva contains one of the best-preserved walled cities in the region and includes 50 ancient monumental structures and 250 residences. We enjoyed an evening stroll through the streets and had dinner in one of the many restaurants.
After another full day of exploring Khiva, we had one last dinner with our group and said goodbye to nine fellow travellers. Seven of us will then cross the border into Turkmenistan. Not sure what to expect in this mysterious country. Should be interesting!

We’re really going to miss our guide, Aktilek, who’s done excellent work keeping us informed and on schedule. He’s getting married later this month and we’re sure his fiancée will be pleased to have him at her side as they prepare for the big day. AK is a bright, open-minded, and engaging young man, a credit to his home country, Kyrgyzstan. He told us that he dreams of owning a guest house one day. Whatever his chosen career, we know he will be successful.