In 2019 my wife and I set out to travel around to the world — visiting 6 continents and 24 countries between April 3 and July 24th. Below is a digitized version of the notebook I kept while traveling.
4.3 — Canada and Brazil
On the morning of April 3rd, my dad drove us to CVG at 9 am. Our flight left at 11 am, we arrived in Toronto by 12:30pm, and had an 11-hour layover! We left the airport, took the train to downtown Toronto. From there we went to the CN Tower, previously the tallest free-standing structure in the world from 1975 to 2011 (it is now currently 3rd). We explored the city from there for the next few hours. Something interesting: Toronto has a large network of interconnected tunnels under the city. It is full of shops, restaurants, and entry points to the building above you. It’s like an underground town. That way people don’t have to walk around in the cold from point a to point b, but through warm, underground tunnels.
We got back to the airport around 8pm and then finally, our 9-hour flight to Sao Paulo left. Once again, we had a long layover, 6 hours, so we left the airport to at least get a little view of what Sao Paulo looks like. Well, it’s rough. What seemed to be the majority of buildings were run down, full of graffiti, broken windows, etc. Sasha was able to get her Uber to work, so we took that instead of trying to figure out the metro on a short time budget. The traffic was horrible and took 45 minutes to and from the airport to near downtown. We walked around for maybe an hour before returning. The SP airport was confusing, it took us way too long to find where you actually go to get to the security part. But, we made it.
The flight to Rio was only about an hour. As soon as you get off the plane you know you’re in the tropics, it hits you right in the face. My palms were immediately sweating. I’ve been carrying a towel around my neck and wiping my face off repeatedly throughout the day, a la Dad. When arriving at the hotel in Copa Cabana, we were greeted with glasses of champagne as we signed in – a nice touch after two long days of travel. The weather is projected to be rainy later in the week, so we signed up for a massive full-day tour of the major sites for the next day — a bus tour downtown, San Sebastian Cathedral, Sugarloaf Mountain, Brazilian steak house for lunch, Maracana stadium, and Christ the Redeemer via train (relevant for later). We left at 8:30am and didn’t return until 12 hours later. The weather is around 90 degrees and has humidity like I’ve never experienced. Despite the heat, Rio is unbelievably beautiful. Sasha and I were lying in bed last night looking at the photos we took and still don’t quite believe it. We are looking at stunning photo after stunning photo still questioning if it is real. Rio is definitely on the shortlist of most beautiful places I’ve ever been, along with others like — the Swiss Alps, Cape Town, French Rivera, Big Sur, and Hawaii.
Stop one of the tour, San Sebastian Cathedral. It was so massive and unique – not designed like a typical church. Next, atop Sugarloaf Mountain, probably the best views of the city. I was so hungry by the time we got the steak house, paradoxically, I felt nauseous and couldn’t eat that much. After a short stop off to see the Maracana soccer stadium, we made it to the base of the train station that leads up to Christ the Redeemer. The train was manufactured by the same Swiss company whose train takes you to the top of Jungfrau. The statue is larger than one imagines – the head alone is 120 tons (240,000 pounds)! The full status is 1245 tons! On the train trip down, exactly halfway, the power went off. An energy blackout off this section of the city. We sat on the train in the dark, in the jungle, as the engineer switched power to the onboard battery and eventually got us back down the mountain. Ah, Brazil…
4.9 — Brazil and Argentina
We are on our way to Buenos Aires with a layover in Brasilia. Eventually, we’ll arrive at our hotel at 2am “tonight”. Picking up where I left off: the next day in Rio was more a relaxing beach day, or that was the plan. Due to the number of people that literally block your path on the street trying to sell you something, follow you down the street trying to sell you something, and people coming up to you as you lay on the beach trying to sell you something – any notion of a relaxing beach day was ruined (at least for me). I literally ran into the ocean to avoid them. I got wiped around by the waves a bit before we walked back to our hotel, stopping by the lagoon along on the way. We got showered, took a nap, and signed up for a Rio dancing show at Ginga Tropical. I was skeptical if it was worth it at a price tag of 85 a person for a 1.5-hour show, but wow, these performers are extremely talented. I was blown away by the show and glad Sasha pushed me to go after all. I guess it is the closest thing to Carnival we can see during the offseason. The next day we visited the Museum of Tomorrow and a nearby Rio art museum, both located downtown by the port. We walked around the city, noticing how empty it was, but then later realizing we were in a Catholic country after all and this is Sunday. Before returning to Copa Cabana (our hotel) we visited ‘the steps’.
The next day was our final full day in Rio and having accomplished almost everything on our list to check out, we spend half the day relaxing on our rooftop pool (15th floor) looking out over the beaches below. No one’s selling me shit up here! Despite sitting in the shade the entire time, I still got a little sunburnt; welcome to the tropics. Later, we went to see the final thing on my list: The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading – literally the most impressive library I’ve ever seen. We then contrasted the number of people walking the streets, now Monday, compared with the day before. Rain was set to hit later the night, and boy did it rain. Despite Sasha’s phone insisting that it was merely “light rain” it stormed outside heavier than I’ve ever seen rain in my life and it continued that pace of over 4 hours! We were forced to stay in for the night, eating dinner at our hotel. The next day’s weather report showed the flooding devastation around the city, 10 people died. The roads became rivers, sweeping bikes, cars, and trash along its path. Talking with the attendant at our hotel, he said storms of this magnitude typically only happen once every 3-5 years, but this is the second such storm this year already.
4.14 — Argentina and Uruguay
We arrived in Buenos Aires late at night/early morning (2 am). We waited in line in the airport bank to exchange our remaining dollars to Argentine pesos. Back in the early 2000s, the currency was pegged to the dollar 1:1 — two government debt defaults later, today it’s 42:1. Talking with our bed and breakfast host, he said the projections are 65:1 by the end of the year. I nearly bugged Sasha to death describing Argentina’s history of nearly unbelievable economic mismanagement. Count them, 8, I repeat 8, government debt defaults since 1815. Quick math here, that’s averaging a government default every 25 years! Only the IMF is stupid enough to lend money to Argentina at his point. Understandably, our hotel only excepted payments in US dollars or Euro’s. Side note: there is construction going on everywhere in the city. Somehow there is money flowing from underground sources amidst this economic mess.
Despite all this economic negativity above, the city is extremely beautiful, with stunning architecture around every turn. The first day we got some directional tips from our host and then set out exploring the city. We walked around the city marveling at buildings. The architecture is the closest thing to Europe in the western hemisphere, it reminded me of Paris at times. We next went to the La Boca area. Overly touristy for sure, but unique and pretty — Lots of colorful buildings with small alleyways that you follow through like a maze. It was here where our first Uber problems began. We later found out the Uber is illegal in the country (and yet we could still call request rides and get them like nothing. Welcome to Argentina). I won’t go into too many details here, but several of the cars would not pass spec in the US for safety checks — like lack of accessible seat belts, full-on crack across the entire windshield looking like it would sadder at any moment, and a car stalled three separate times at red lights (these are all from different rides). Oh yeah, and one of us had to sit in the front seat so it wouldn’t look too suspicious to the cops.
Our second day, we took a 1.5-hour ferry across the Rio de La Plata to Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay. Colonia was the first landing spot for the Portuguese in Uruguay and the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was a great day trip, a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the big city across the water. The next day we explored the Cementerio de la Recoleta, certainly the most impressive cemetery I’ve ever been too. It was a moving visit, filling my heart with mixed emotions as to way many would send so much money one-upping one another on who could build the more impressive tombstone. I spent virtually the entire time, thinking, trying hard to decide what I hated more: Religion or Communists. For dinner that night, we visited a fancy restaurant in the Palermo district for an early steak dinner – on the steak short list for one of the best steaks I had (and for only for 17 USD!). In fact, probably the most surprising thing for Sasha and I was how cheap everything was (see economic mismanagement above). Due to huge devaluations in the peso relative to the USD, our purchasing power was huge. Looking back on what we considered cheap last week, in hindsight now, Brazil was actually quite expensive.
We went to a Tango show that night in an old-time theater out of the 1920s (won’t go into details about the picture incident, ask Sasha). The show was a great experience, a must when visiting Argentina. The next day was our final one in Argentina. We stopped off at a recommended ice cream shop, literally the best ice cream I’ve ever had. No seriously, this place won the top prize for best ice cream in Buenos Aires (plack is on the wall) and is ranked in the top five of best ice cream in the world. We explored the few remaining areas see still wanted to see and revisited some of our favorite spots as well, soaking in our final hours in the country. We went for a fancy steak dinner at a waterfront restaurant (Le Grill) and got the “Chef’s Special” a four-course meal with dessert and wine (total price: 52 USD). It was a romantic and nice way to spend our final meal in Buenos Aires.
4.17 — Australia
It was a tight window when transiting in Santiago, we had to literally run a mile to our gate and just made it there as the plane was midway through boarding. The flight to Australia went as well as it could for a 14-hour flight. I got a little sleep on and off; overall, the time passed faster than it seemed. Two days in, Sasha and I’s sleep schedule is still messed up. The past few nights we fell asleep around 9pm, wake up around 2am, awake until maybe 5am, then back to sleep until around 8am. Our stomachs are hungry at strange times and not hungry at normal times. Welcome to Australia, 10-hours different from east coast time (12-hours difference from Brazil/Argentina). We have literally inverted day and night. Day 1 we walked through Hyde Park (we are staying near the south entrance to the park) and got tickets to go up to the top of Sydney Tower. You get a full 360 view of the city. We next walked through the city eventually reaching the Opera House. We got tickets for an interior tour later in the day and explored the Botanical Gardens just east of the city center. We were lucky during the interior tour, as the main theater (a 2070 seat masterpiece) did not have a concert scheduled for later that night, meaning we could take as many pictures as we liked. The large organ on the back wall of the theater took 10 years to build, 2 years to tune, and is comprised of over 1000 pipes ranging from the size of your pinky to the size of a 3-story tall tree. More fortunate news: if we would have done this world trip next year, this theater will be closed for two years for renovations.
We watched a light show projected on the side of the Opera House at sunset before walking back to our hotel and falling asleep at 9pm. The next day we joined the Hop on Hop off bus tour that drove a 2-hour loop around the city. We stopped off at the wildlife center to see the Australian Big-5 up close – Platypus, Wombat, Saltwater Crocodile, Koala, and Kangaroo. It was an amazing experience to get to see such strange creatures up close. Australia is such a unique continent — 90% of Australia’s reptiles are found nowhere else on earth. After lunch at the harbor, we re-joined the bus tour and got off at the Sydney bridge. We walked across to the other side, getting scenic views of the city and harbor as we walked. We re-joined the bus again for the final leg of the loop and then walked back to our hotel through the Botanical Gardens and, once again, fell asleep at 9pm. Hopefully, by tomorrow we can get our sleep schedule back on track.
4.21 — Australia and New Zealand
Our fourth day in Australia was a beach day — we took an Uber 20 means east to Bondi Beach. The weather was nice, not too hot or cold. The ocean water, the Pacific, was as freezing as I remember in California. I only went in knee-high length. Sasha and I got in an argument and in haste, I stormed off only partially understanding the plan. I thought we were supposed to meet again later at a beach further south, but in reality, that was only a possible plan. What actually happened was that we sat and waited for each other at separate beaches for several hours and only found out the mix up later once we saw each other back at the hotel that night. We were worn out from the day in the sun and fell asleep early.
The next day we planned to see the Queen Victoria building, but upon arriving there we found it closed. It was good Friday and most of the city was shut down. We’re not in America anymore where commerce is our true religion and shops are always open, no matter what date or “holiday”. In this case, it was good that the city has such a large Asian population so we could find somewhere to eat that night – we got dinner at a great Chinese restaurant (all be it, a bit on the pricey side). Side note: all the American businesses in the city remained open, the Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc. Because most things were shut down on our final day, we spent almost the entire day exploring the expansive Botanical Gardens on the eastern side of the city. We left for our flight the next morning.
We arrived in New Zealand around 5pm. We got checked into our hotel, went out for dinner at a great Turkish restaurant, and realized we were at the point where we absolutely had to do laundry that night. Sasha mistakenly thought we had a laundry machine in our building, but we didn’t, so we had to walk down the street to a local laundry mat to complete. I’m actually typing this up at the laundry mat now, finishing up the remainder we couldn’t complete last night. Our first day in New Zealand was on Easter Sunday. Again, like Sydney, most of the city was shut down for the holiday, but not everything. Looking back, we explored quite a bit today. New Zealand is not that large in area or population – the whole country is 4 million people, Auckland is the largest city with 1/3 of the country’s entire population (about 1.5 million people). By comparison, the other cities we’ve visited on our trip so far: Sydney 4.7 million, Buenos Aires 15 million, and Rio 13 million. We walked most of the downtown and harbor, signing up for a boat trip to the nearby volcanic island tomorrow. After a Sasha hangry episode and eventual lunch at a highly rated seafood restaurant, we when up in Auckland’s sky tower. It’s so much taller than anything else in the skyline that you have great, unobstructed views around the city, port, and nearby islands in the distance. It was cool to spot our hotel and the island we’ll be visiting tomorrow from up there. The walked through a pretty park next to the U. of Auckland campus (shout out to Olga and Z – previous co-workers who were employed at the university back in the 90s) and upon failing time after time to find an open supermarket (due to Easter), we managed to get supplies for the hiking trip the following day at an Indian convenience store.
4.25 — New Zealand
We arrived in Jakarta around 7pm tonight. It was a mess getting out of the airport and it took nearly an hour getting to our hotel (traffic discussed in later a post). It was a long flight from New Zealand (with a layover in Sydney), something like 3 + 7 = 10 hours total, so we both got showers and are crashing early tonight (Sasha already asleep as I type this). Our last few days in Auckland went well. On our third day, we took a 25-minute ferry over to Rangitoto Island, a dormant volcano turned nature park. It last erupted 650 years ago. We arrived on the island at 10am and set off hiking to the top, 850 feet up. It started to rain a little at the top but passed quickly. We walked around the circular crater left after the explosion, about a 15-minute loop. It had a similar feel to Diamond head in Honolulu, another dormant volcano hiking park. The views of the city across the water were great. We spend the rest of the day crossing the island east, going into a narrow cave (scary), crossing a small bridge to another island briefly, then back west along the coastal trail – a trail path consisting of cooled black lava rocks along the ocean. The rains started to come down heavy at that point and we did the final two hours of the hike with our umbrellas. It will probably stand as the most hiking we’ll do this trip: 14.5 miles with an elevation change of 114 floors.
Sasha and I were wiped out the next day and took it easy by going to the Auckland War Memorial Museum (as it rained again that day). Auckland has weather like San Francisco, 50-60 degrees and misty/foggy all day. Our final day, we decided to check out a beach on the eastern coast: Bethells Beach. Sasha picked it for its caves and isolation, and boy was it isolated (will follow up later). Like other beaches on the eastern shore, it has black sand that is magnetic. We went into two caves cut into the rock side wall by the continual force of the ocean waves. Pretty cool. Then, as we were walked back, a girl came running out of another cave yelling “Daddy! Daddy! The dog’s got a penguin in its mouth and won’t let it go!” She was crying massively. The dad took his shoes off, crossed the knee-high water, and eventually got the penguin free from his mouth (by putting its head under water). The penguin looked really beat up but was still alive. Due to the isolation, we had no internet service, meaning no way to request an Uber back! We walked around the small town and eventually found someone to help. She let us into her house to use the wifi and fed us a local fruit that was really good. It was very lucky we stumbled upon her, as she as telling us that the entire town’s normal internet and telephone network is down (as has been for the past two weeks) for repairs! She happened to satellite internet as a backup which allowed us to get back.
4.28 — Indonesia
We are sitting at the airport, our 2-hour long flight to Kuala Lumpur now delayed 3 hours. Sasha got her small scissors taken away by security, something she was not happy about. The magnetic black sand from New Zealand is getting some major attention. You go through security before going into the airport and then you got through security again before reaching your gate. The sand was flagged both times. I had to take it out of the bag and explain it to them a couple times. The TSA agent had to go to his colleague and then to his manager before I finally got approved to take sand on the plane! Yes, sand. I’ll just mail it to the USA from Malaysia so I don’t have to go through this again. I’ve thought about it for a little while and I’m going to have to say Indonesia is the strangest country I’ve ever visited. As we walked the streets exploring the city (as we do in every other country we’ve visited) virtually everyone stared us down. And not sneaky looks here and there, but as a small child would do without an understanding of social boundaries (as if we were engaged in some kind of unannounced staring contest). They would whip out their phone and take pictures as if we were celebrities. Even people passing in cars would hold their phones outside the window taking videos and pictures of us. Inevitability, someone would run up and want to take a picture with us, then others seeing this would start to form a crowd — they all now wanting to take their photo with us also — seriously 20 minutes would go by and we would still be taking photos one after the other. We took more than 100 photos with people on the first day alone. I mean, at first it was faltering and we were happy to do so, but it just got way excessive. Anyone who wants to become ‘famous’ and go through this on a daily basis everywhere they go, should seriously reconsider this as their life objective.
We went to the National Monument, a white tower with a flame on top as a testament to the country’s independence, located in the city’s large central park. Upon entering the park, a police officer ran over to us with a slip of paper. We thought we had done something wrong or didn’t pay or something, but he wanted up to fill out this slip of paper with the date, our country of origin, and name. The country is trying to encourage tourism (you don’t say) and wants to know who is visiting what sites. Virtually every location we visited over the next two days had a book at the entrance where you were supposed to put this information (humorous story to follow). Side note: we did not see a single souvenir shop during our walks around the city. Inside the national monument, there is a room with a square building inside. On one side, there are two ten foot high gold plated doors which every hour or so, start to open slowly as the national anthem plays revealing a large golden dragon head. Then the dragon’s mouth starts to open slowly revealing the declaration of independence (which is just a piece of paper that has two sentences literally saying: “We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters which concern the transfer of power and other things will be executed by careful means and in the shortest possible time”). The whole process then reverses itself and as the national anthem comes to an end, the mouth and doors reclose.
Continuing from the National Monument, we tried to call an Uber equivalent (Grab car), having been worn down by the heat, to go north to the Old Town, but time after time it continued to say: “no cars available”. The Economist magazine has a correspondent that travels the world to access the worst traffic locations. Jakarta is ranked the 2nd worst in the world behind Cairo. Because of this, and other factors, there are so many motorbikes on the roadway — swerving in front of, in-between, and around the cars, adding to the slowdown of vehicle traffic. Crossing the street each time is always an adventure – despite having a walk sign, the bikes won’t stop and will just swerve around you at high speed. The smog is so bad you can’t tell the difference between the storm clouds in the distance or the pollution. Demographers estimate the city’s population somewhere between 20-30 million. The country has 17,000 islands, of which, we were on Java. This island alone accounts for 55% of the country’s population (145 million people) higher than the population of Russia!
We gave up on Grab car and decided to figure out the local buses. With some help, we managed to get on the right one heading north. The buses are partitioned into men and women sections with an attendant supervising the process. The old town has some nice historic buildings which were originally built by the Dutch. While exploring around, we were stopped by local university students asking if they could interview us. We said sure and they recorded us and asked questions like: what is your name, where are you visiting from, how do you like Indonesia, etc. They asked these questions in English, as a school project to improve English communication. Fast forward 20 minutes later and after being stopped an additional 8 times by other students asking the same questions for presumably the same school project and we were sick of it. We literally rented bikes so we could ride around in peace and not be stopped for questions again (similar to my method of running to and from places in the Bay Area so I wouldn’t have to be stopped by this or that homeless person asking for things). Venturing a little outside the main area of the old town and things feel off quickly, getting really run down and rough. We again took the buses south (thanks again to no “Grab cars”) and made it back to our hotel, exhausted. The county is 5 degrees from the equator and the humidly is, well, let`s call it unconformable. Upon stepping on a scale in our hotel (which although fancy and nice, didn’t have hot water in the shower) discovered that I’ve lost about 10 pounds from the start of the trip 25 days ago (now down to 145.5). I find it funny that the hotel has a sauna when you literally just have to just go outside.
The next day we visited Istiqlal (Independence) Mosque, something like the 3rd largest mosque in the world by capacity (200k) and 6th largest in area. We had to take off our shoes and cover ourselves, as you do, before entering. It was impressive and we got a nice tour by the attendant. Like other places, we recorded our names in the visitor log. We next when to the Jakarta Cathedral, a Catholic church directly across from the mosque. I walked in, went directly to the visitor book, put “Brad Ballard, USA”, and upon seeing there was service going on inside, said to the person standing there, it’s okay we don’t have to go in considering. What happened next is up for debate, I heard “You can go in”, Sasha claims “You can’t go in”, but I went in and just sat in the back row and watched the service in progress. About two minutes later, we noticed that it wasn’t a service, but a wedding that was in progress and shortly after quietly snuck back out the rear entrance. While walking to the next destination, we thought of the surprise on the faces on the bride and groom as the flipped through the wedding guest book (which I presumably signed) and pondered the exotic Brad Ballard, USA guest who had apparently attended their wedding. We walked to the Grand Mall, the largest mall in Indonesia, two 8 floor high buildings connected by an elevated walkway. If you were randomly dropped there you could not tell that you were in Jakarta – there were so many western brand stores and you could even pay directly with USD. Although I HATE malls, it was nice to be in the AC and out of the humidity for a while.
5.1 — Malaysia
Our time in Malaysia was too short. We had a great time in the country and our hotel was the best of the trip. The 51st floor had a rooftop pool that overlooked the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower. We arrived late in the evening already after sunset (thanks to our flight delay in Indonesia), so we didn’t do much but take a quick swim in the pool before close and had an early night sleep. We did a lot of exploring during our stay, basically cramming three day’s worth of actives into two. We walked the city, visiting a Hundi temple near Chinatown and the Botanical Gardens before escaping the heat to visit the Islamic Arts Museum. Malaysia is the most diverse country I have visited so far being 60% Muslim, 20% Buddhist, 10% Christian, and about 10% Hindu. The Islamic Arts Museum was impressive, especially all the maps, miniature Qurans, and all the various models of Islamic mosques from around the world; several of which we will visit later in this trip in Cairo and Samarkand. It started to rain after the museum (and also early the next morning) so we got dinner and got an early night sleep.
We visited the Petronas Towers the next day, but before we had a special mission. We tracked down a post office specifically to ship the magnetic black sand we got from the beach in New Zealand back to my parents’ house in the US. Take that airport security! Total cost: $83… We almost didn’t get tickets to the tower (which was nominally “sold out”) but for the grace of Allah (and our new connection with the Muslim girl at DHL) was able to provide tickets to us. Thank You! The tower had great views of all the skyscrapers around the city and the tour up included a stop at the bridge 40 stories up which connected the twin towers. It was unique to be up so high and then took out of the window the see a duplicate tower next to you. We could even see people swimming in the pool at our hotel out in the distance. After coming back down, we called to see if we could still make it to Batu Caves (on the outskirts of the city) before it closed. We rushed to do so, and with the traffic so bad, we decided that our best shot was to figure out how to navigate the metro. It was a success! That is if you don’t count that I only noticed towards the end of the trip that I rode in the women’s section the whole time! The metros are partitioned into women and men sections (like Jakarta as well and presumably all the Muslim world). Wow, Batu Caves is amazing! Most likely the best temple site I have ever visited. It’s a Hindu temple build into and deep inside a large cave. So much detail to describe here, just check out the photos!
5.4 — India
I’d like to say I went to India and achieved spiritual enlightenment and reached harmony with nature, but no, none of that happened. These spiritual “gurus” have all the answers as to how the universe began, life after death, and how through samsara we all will be reincarnated to a “higher” lifeform and so on and so on…. Yeah, yeah, yeah — how about you just manage to put in place effective trash collection service. I literally told Sasha I would like to see a garbage dump to if it’s distinguishable from the rest of the country.
Since visiting India I have downgraded Hinduism to my LEAST favorite major religion. I proudly ate meat here every day as a form of my protest. Sasha has had her difficulties too with being subordinated to a second-class citizen (third class if you consider: cow > man > women) and being treated as “property”. It began the first second we entered the country with the immigration official only addressing me (in relation to Sasha), asking me when I applied for her visa and so on – to which I replied, I don’t know this is her visa paperwork, ask her. People go on and on about Saudi Arabia, fairly so, but let’s talk about India also. Yeah, yeah, women can vote, but can they wear shorts? Random people have no problem coming up to Sasha and scolding her for not wearing long pants to cover her legs, as women are required to do (side note: the temperate is 95 degrees). Since entering the country, I have considered buying a Muslim outfit (to cover my face and body to conceal the fact that I am white). Once Indians see that we are white, they flock to us — as flees do to a white light — asking for money, asking us to buy something, continuing to follow us as we walk away. Without exaggeration, one instance I resorted to running away from someone who would not stop following us — yelling back as he ate my dust “I have shoes and you have saddles, good luck catching me, fucker!” Any shop we enter or rickshaw we ride – they notice we are white, then proceed to charge us about 5-10x the normal price just because they perceive us to have money. The country is a total rip off! Don’t try to take pictures of anything either. I’ve now been to McDonald’s in 12 different countries. It’s interesting for me to see the diversity within the menus, what they offer in different parts of the world. I always snap a few photos of the menu and food as a record to compare. When I went to snap a photo of the menu, the employee aggressively yelled at me that there were NO PHOTOS! Try to take a photo at an Indian temple and holy men will almost tackle you, yelling NO PHOTOS! Conversely, so many random people come up to us (including within in temple), wanting photos with us (presumably because they’ve never seen a white person before) — snapping this and that photo with their entire family, then a line starts to form and more people want photos with us and we are trapped taking photos until we literally have run away. They continue to snap photos of our backs as we disappear into the distance.
We visited a museum (if you can even call it that), in which upon entering they had as pay 12x the price of an Indian. There as a sign on the wall stating – Indians 25, Foreigners 300. I’d like to show you what it looked like, but no photos allowed in the museum. Again, while in the museum and Indian couple came up and wanted a photo with us. When she tried to take a selfie, a security guard with an M16 forced us outside the museum to take the photo. So, no photos literally inside the museum (not just of the actual art). Upon returning, 30 seconds later, the attendant made us reshow our ticket to re-enter as if she didn’t remember the only two white people there (probably to make us pay a second time if we didn’t have it). After only the first day of walking around the city, upon returning to our hotel that night, both Sasha and I were suffering from chest pain when breathing. Our lungs were burning. The pollution level here is the worst we’ve seen on the trip (even worse than Jakarta, which is hard to accomplish). 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Go ahead California, tax everyone to death building the 100% green economy, it will do NOTHING for the planet. Walking around India is a sensory overload, so many things going on, noises, and smells. So, so, so, many unpleasant smells, rotten eggs, and shit smell everywhere.
Okay, this post is going on too long, I’ll just leave it with a few more details – our hotel has security and metal detectors at the entrance. We are required to put our bags through the scanner and walk through the metal detector each time upon entering the hotel. The power in our room (which only works with our card slid into a slot on the wall) keeps cutting out at random times throughout the day, leaving us in darkness for a few seconds, then comes back on again. Today is our fourth day in India and I am proud to report that I did not set one foot outside the hotel today. Sasha and I have both had enough of India. The entire country and religion is one large scam. Even our hotel tries to screw us over at any chance they can. We decided to go down to our hotel bar for a drink on our final night here. I order ONE shot of whiskey and then I look at the bill and they charge me for two. When I point this out I expect them to acknowledge the mistake and correct it, but no, they fight back and forth for several minutes as he tries to “explain” that one shot is actually considered two, because there is a smaller shot and a larger shot and since he considered I “wanted” the larger (considered two shots) when I said “one”, I was charged twice. He finally removed the charge, but it was not an easy process. (While this discussion was happening, a cockroach came out from behind the bar and started crawling on the bar counter…) Not to mention how the “government” also screws you over, I quote from the bill: service charge 6%, VAT 14.5%, Central GST tax 9%, State GST tax 9% — an additional 40% added to our bill! Our flight leaves tomorrow, thankfully. It can’t come early enough.
5.9 — Thailand
When arriving in Thailand (after only two hours of sleep on the overnight 5-hour flight) we first need to figure out the taxi situation (Indian money exchange situation not mentioned here due to frustration). Arriving in Bangkok, we need to head south 2-hours to the beach town, Pattaya City. After failing over and over to get a grab car (by this time in the trip not surprisingly) we did, however, get an understanding of what a reasonable rate would be. When approached by a local taxi guy and seeing his “offering” rate of about twice as much, we walked off in disgust to find other means, public transit if necessary. Five minutes later, we turn around to discover that he has walked across the airport to find us, now offering a rate only half as much (more reasonable). We accepted and were finally on our way south. Dude, you don’t know who you are messing with, we are Indian trained at detecting and avoiding rip-offs.
Pattaya was a great change of pace given the madness involved in one big Asian city after another. Sasha was concerned about what she would eat on this trip given she doesn’t like Thai food but was surprised how Russian Pattaya was. She was taking one photo after another of the different Russian businesses and signs. We ate Russian food more than Thai on this trip as I prefer it compared with Thai also. The first day we explored our surroundings before checking in to our hotel and then got a nap during the heat of the day (still recovering from lack of sleep the night before). In the evening, we walked to the main downtown strip called “Walking Street.” Traffic is blocked off from 7pm to 3am and the street comes what its name implies. On the strip, there are neon signs, flashing lights, strip clubs, sex shots, and open prostitution – on and on, one after the other. Digging into the numbers, prostitution employs 1 in 20 people and accounts for ~10% of Thailand’s GDP. Tourism to the country is ~20% of the GDP, with Chinese, Japanese, and Russians making up the largest share of visitors. A new king has assented to the throne the week before we arrived and if you think the USA had a production boom in flags after 9/11, well, you haven’t seen anything till you come to Thailand during his week-long plus coronation ceremony. Flags virtually lining every street and his photo hanging up everywhere.
The next day we walked up to a hill near town to see a large golden Buddha, but mostly to see views of the city below. Sasha, of course, yelled at the person that he was sexist for requiring women to cover their legs, but not men. He just shrugged. We explored downtown Pattaya a little more before heading back to the local beach near our hotel, relaxing, and watching the sunset. It was the best moment of the trip. The next morning, we were in a taxi back north two-hours to Bangkok, checked into our hotel, and went out to explore the city as much as we could before sunset. We literally had to yell at the people in their “tuck-tucks” to STOP FOLLOWING US, before they would finally back off and stop offering rides. Bangkok has so many Buddhist temples! Virtually on every block, one after the other, they all started to blend together. We came back to our hotel for a rooftop dinner overlooking two temples and got an early night sleep as we had a busy day planned the next morning. We were up at 7am, dressed (appropriately), and off to visit the Grand Palace for its 8:30am opening. It was closed yesterday and our flight left at 2pm, so we only had a tight window in the morning. We frantically tried to explore as best we could with our limited time, snapping this photo and that photo quickly and moving on (which I hate to do, but had to). It is extremely detailed and impossible to take in with one visit. Grand is an accurate word to describe it. By 10am, we were rushing back to the hotel, frantically packing, and off to the airport to catch our flight to Vietnam.
5.13 — Vietnam
Vietnam was the best stop of the trip thus far. As soon as we landed we got Vietnamese sandwiches and coffee. After some haggling, and an interesting stop off, we made it to our hotel in the evening. We went out for Pho as soon as we were unpacked. As the kids say on the “beer street” trying to entice us into their bar – “soooo good” – and only for $2. The sandwiches are 90 cents. Unbelievable. I saw at work one time a three-way Venn diagram that said — food that is all three: cheap, fast, and good is impossible. Well, come to Vietnam. I literally ate Pho every day here and often a sandwich also – my record was three in a day. We discovered a new drink that is a must to try: egg coffee. After getting some supplies for our hotel, we were in bed early the first night as we were off on a day trip to Ha Long Bay the next morning. It was a three-hour drive through the countryside (which was interesting to see) before we reached the bay. Then out on a boat through some of the 2000 islands steeply sticking up from the bay water. We docked for a half hour and took a canoe ride through a tunnel in the rocks. Later we docked again at a larger island that had a cave inside. It was amazing. Probably the second largest cave I’ve been, with a huge central chamber. The whole day was incredible!
The next day we slept in a bit and went out to explore Hanoi. We walked most the old town section of the city and went to the two large lakes nearby, going out on a paddleboat on the larger one. That night we went to see the water puppet show, a traditional show performed with the puppets sticking out from the water. The night was capped off with food and drinks on the “beer street”, a narrow street lined with bars on each side. We ran into two German guys on holiday and ended up talking with them the remainder of the night. The next day we went to the Imperial Citadel, an old government palace originally built by the Chinese around 1000 AD, then later used by Vietnamese dynasties in the 1800s, then the French imperialists in the 1900s, and even by the Communists during the war. Actually, the coolest thing there was bunkers deep underground used by Communist government during the bombing of Hanoi. No telling how many bunkers like this North Korea has…
We went to a war museum which was next door which displayed various types of tanks, jets, and guns used by the Vietnamese in the war (all imported from the USSR) or those captured by the Americans. They were cool to see up close. Later that night we stumbled into a K-pop concert that was in progress near the lake and so we stopped and watched a bit. For those wondering, emphatically NOT a fan. We went for massages later that night, which helped my sore back – probably from carrying heavy bags all the time. Our final day we went to the Temple of Literature, a historic temple originally built around 1000 AD where scholars studied under Confucian philosophers. Sasha was thrilled there was no dress code. We spent our last few hours going out for Pho and sandwiches one last time before heading home to pack up for our overnight flight.
5.18 — Japan
We should have been on our flight to Shanghai 2-hours ago, but we’re still at the airport – and will be for the next 7-hours. We arrived at the airport at midnight for our 3am flight, when we were told our flight was delayed 9-HOURS without much explanation. Something with air traffic control in Shanghai one time, another time the weather there, or something (we checked our weather app, it looked fine). You’ll never get a straight answer as to what exactly is going on in Communist China. No warning what so ever from the airline via email — I doubled checked all my mail and spam. Supposedly “they just found out.” Where does this leave us? Sleeping on the concrete floor of the airport. The extremely funny part is, we had a hotel for tonight (pause for comedic effect) actually two! 1: The one we just checked out of early to come here (which we only got for the day so we didn’t have to carry our bags around Japan and previously had until noon) and 2: the one we booked near the Shanghai airport for tonight (when we WOULD HAVE arrived at 5am), so we could at least get a little sleep before exploring the next day. Those two rooms stand, paid for and unoccupied, as we sleep at the airport. I literally unpacked everything out of my bag (which I just packed just an hour before) this time making a layer of clothes on the concert floor. I had Sasha lay on it to test. After two seconds, she jumps up and yells “this is fucking hard – I can’t sleep on this!” We tried to get a “third” hotel for tonight, but couldn’t (won’t go into details here). It’s in moments like these when you start to question all your life choices leading up to this point. Why didn’t we get that flight instead of this one, why did we fly this day instead of another one, could we have known this would happen, and so on. I laid on the uncushioned side, that is, the concert floor, thinking of these questions and others, and (probably unsurprisingly) was unsuccessful sleeping after 4-hours – so I decided to type this up.
I don’t want to let, what I going to call “the China flight incident” ruin what was otherwise one of the best tops of the trip, Tokyo. We landed in a sleep-deprived state, arriving at 8am from Vietnam on a red-eye flight in which we both only got about 2-hours of sleep. We couldn’t check into our hotel until 3pm, so we had some time to kill. We walked around the city in a dream-like haze, explore the Imperial Palace gardens and getting some great ramen before collapsing in bed at 3pm. Everything in Tokyo is over-engineered to the max (and tiny – such as our, without exaggeration, tissue box-sized “trash can”). Our facet water in the bathroom was in combination with the sink and shower with temperature controls and other buttons. Due to tiredness and frustration, not figuring out how to get sink water to work after about 20 seconds and used the shower water to brush my teeth. The toilet technology might as well be on a space ship or something. I had to double-take when I saw it had a cord running from behind the bowl which was plugged into the wall. A toilet. They have this side control panel with various buttons about how you want to behind to be sprayed, for him and for her, toilet cleaning, and one curious button with a music note logo labeled as “Privacy” with volume control. Highly interested, I pushed the button to discover it played rushing water noises. Okay, enough about toilets.
The next day we sent five hours exploring the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo’s largest museum and six largest in the world. Rarely (as a westerner) do you get to see so ancient Japanese and East Asian art, it was great to see. Later that night we walked to Sensor-ji temple and the Asakusa area for food, before going to a Cat Café (my choice – joking, of course – Sasha wanted to). The next day, my 32nd birthday, we went up in the Tokyo Skytree – currently the world tallest tower – standing at 2080 feet. It was awesome to see the sprawling expanse of the city from up there. We got some drinks at a brewery later that night to celebrate (a bit). Our last day we slept in and took it easy, exploring Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens, taking our time to look around at all the vegetation and Japanese design. They had a great rose garden in full bloom which was great to see and smell. Japan might be the most well-managed country in the world. The trains are efficient and on time. The subway tells you the precise car get on and off for the quickest exit and includes various screens lighting up with which station you’re at along your journey. I literally did not hear any car honk the entire time I was here (take THAT New Jersey). Things are so safe, no one even locks their bikes. It’s strange to see them just parked on the street without any protection. I did not see any graffiti anywhere. It was extremely hard to find even a single piece of trash on the street. Pretty amazing. The food was great here. I got ramen every single day from a different spot.
5.21 — China
At least our flight left on time at noon. Sasha and I both slept on the plane virtually the entire time. We arrived around 4pm, got some quick food at the airport, and then on the train to our hotel. When we arrived my old friend, James, was there waiting to greet us. It was the first time we’ve seen each other in 6 years! He has been in China for the past 5 years and I have been in California. He showed us around the Bund as the sun was setting and then we went for some dinner as he told us about his time in China. We later found a Jazz club and watched a surprisingly good Chinese jazz group (Shanghai Sisters). The next day we went to the Shanghai Museum (near our hotel) and later met up with a few of James’ friends who now live in Shanghai. We talked about their experiences in China and how they want to leave (as they can’t ever fit into the society here) yet don’t have job opportunities back home (Italy and Spain) – Stuck between two worlds. James walked with us over to Pudong and we took some photos with the lit-up buildings before he had to take the train back to Hangzhou (where he lives). It was nice to catch up with him after not talking for so long.
Later that night we met up with an old fraternity brother of mine from Ohio State, Mike, who has also been living in China the past 5 years (2 in Shenzhen and the past 3 in Shanghai). It was great to get his opinion on the developments going on in the country and he gave us some pointers for our next stop in Beijing. The next day Sasha and I spent the whole day doing some touristy things in Pudong. Mid-day went up in the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building. We got lucky with the weather, it was the “clearest” of our four days in Shanghai. The day before was horrible, 160 on the air quality index, 110 the day after, and was 65 the day we visited the tower. For reference, Western countries consider 40 to be “unsafe” levels of air pollution. From the top, you could see great views of the city in all directions, but despite the “good” air quality, smog from that height was still quite visible.
We walked around the park near the Huangpu river overlooking the Bund before heading up in the Oriental Pearl Tower in the evening. Sasha had read reviews of the glass floor up there and wanted to check it out. We now have been up in four of the top five tallest towers in the world and I must say, the Oriental Pearl is the best. We made it to the glass floor level 15 minutes before sunset (and before the city lights came on) so we could get some before/after pictures. Shanghai is probably the best city to go up in a tower at night because of how lit up the city gets. It was an awesome site to see from so high up. There is also quite an extensive Shanghai History museum on the bottom floor of the tower. The next day we explored Yu Gardens. It was certainly interesting to walk through, but I would strongly consider changing its name to “Yu Maze”, as it was low on gardens and heavy on a concert and rock walls that surround you like a maze. It is considered an example of an ancient “Chinese Garden.”
5.26 — China
Our flight to Irkutsk leaves tonight. Sasha and I are rejoicing as we are both sick of China at this point. I don’t want to go on and on about it – the annoyances with comrades, people taking sneaky photos/selfies of you, the lack of privacy of our hotel staff, the near constant miscommunication with people, and the chief annoyance above all else, having to navigate around the censored internet – it’s just little things that build on you. It doesn’t help the Beijing effectively operates as a police state, you need to bring your passport with you everywhere you go, as you will be herded through checkpoints, metal detectors, and face scans when going to each of the “tourist” attractions. For example, in order enter to the National Museum of China (the largest and most visited museum in Asia – and second most visited in the world) we had to have our bag scanned twice, face scanned, and passport checked; all at three separate checkpoints. A museum. The museum turned out to be 50% museum and 50% Communist propaganda. One display room was shelves full of gifts given to the Chinese government from various nations around the world – including ones from Nixon, Bush, Putin, Obama, and many, many others. This presumably to show how many “friends” the Communist government has and how legitimate it is. Outside the museum, I counted four distinct types of police (that I know of): ones in blue shirts, green, black, and white. I’m guessing some police is there to police the other police to make sure absolutely nothing goes wrong. And probably to bring the unemployment rate down a bit more.
Our first day in Beijing we slept in a bit, recovering from our late (and delayed) flight from Shanghai. Every flight into, around, and out of China has been delayed. The smog in Beijing is not as bad as Shanghai. The weather is dry, sunny, and hot – something like Sacramento. We visited Tiananmen Square, which, I have to say, is the least public square I’ve ever seen (insert passport check, face scan, bag check from above). Literally every direction you look there are guards and security cameras watching your every move. We took the subway over to see “China Zun” currently the tallest building in Beijing and next to it the CCTV Headquarters building. They are in the finance district among other new skyscrapers. The CCTV HQ building one of the more interesting buildings I’ve ever seen, it almost seems impossible, it’s worth seeing in person.
The next day we woke up early to join a tour group to the great wall. We went to a more remote section that was 3 hours away that included sections from the original wall, unrepaired and crumbling with old age. It was great to see the contract between the newer redone sections (for tourists) compared with older sections. Another benefit of going to this area was the lack of tourists around, at times we were the only ones on that section of the wall. It was stunning to see with your own eyes. One of those “oh my god, I’m on the great wall of China” moments where you almost don’t believe this storied tale of this wall high up in the mountains, stretching on further than your eye can see for thousands of miles. A short history – the first section of the wall was built in the 7th century BC, fell into disuse, and the majority of the wall, most of what we know today, was built in the 1300s by the Ming Dynasty — stretching on for over 5000 miles. During that time, 20% of China’s population was used in building the wall and it was required that at least one person from every family was there building it. If they died, another person from your family had to be sent to replace them. We walked along 4 miles of the wall, going up 90 floors of elevation change in the process as the wall snaked up and down along the mountains. It’s quite steep in some sections, steeper than hills in San Francisco. Plus, with the weather over 90 degrees, it was quite a workout. Such an unforgettable and memorable experience.
The next day we visited the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park afterward. The Forbidden City was underwhelming, the architecture repeats over and over throughout, virtually all the buildings were closed, and so many Chinese people pushing by you in a confined space. We would be like, let’s go check out what that section looks like, only to find it was a repeat of the last section. All the sections are walled off from each other, some areas are closed off to the public (forbidden), leaving you trapped in a repeating maze, leaving you trying to make it back out again (like some large Chinese “garden”). There are more “Chinese Palace Museum gift shops” than there were actual “Chinese Palace Museum sections.” Some of them started out as a museum and then by the end had morphed into a gift shop. The best part (which you had to pay extra for) was the old clock section – a collection of clocks that the Chinese government bought from Britain, Switzerland, etc from the 1600s/1700s. After escaping the Forbidden City maze, we explored Jingshan Park, walking up to the hilltop temple overlooking the Forbidden City below. The following day we visited the National Museum (see above) and made a quick visit to the Temple of Heaven park before sunset. The next day, our final, it rained heavily in the morning until around noon. After the rain let up, we took the subway north to the Olympic Park and walked around the area for a few hours before returning to our hotel to relax and pack up. I won’t go into details of the literal craziness of the flight to Irkutsk, just ask me sometime. Worst flight ever.
5.31 — Russia
We arrived in Irkutsk at 9am, but couldn’t check into our hotel until 2pm. We left our bags there and walked around exploring the city until then. The weather was nice, in the 50s and sunny. Irkutsk was a pleasant change, only 600k people, more relaxed and chill, compared with our more recent stops – Beijing 25m, Shanghai 34m, and Tokyo 38m… we have definitely been overwhelmed with people, people, people everywhere and welcomed the emptiness of Siberia. The city has beautiful European style architecture, some restored and others run down. The city has put more focus on tourism in the past ten years and has many history signs in English. When 2pm came, we checked into our room and fell asleep instantly for the next 4 hours. After waking, the manager told us that the hotel would be without hot water for the next week and offered to move us to a hotel down the street that had hot water. We accepted, so we packed up again, and then walked down the street to our next hotel. The next morning, we awoke to light snow outside, later morphing into a light rain. We decided to follow through on our plan to go to Lake Baikal (an hour drive away), but not to hike (due to weather) and use the trip as more of an information-gathering mission for the next day. The lake is stunning – it seems more like an ocean due to its sheer size, it even has waves. The wind coming off is brisk, cutting through your clothes like the great lakes in the winter. We talked to various locals and got a plan ready for the next day.
We returned in the morning early and walked to a ski lift. In the summer months, it became a transport route to a lookout spot on the mountain above. The views from up there are awesome! The crescent-shaped lake stretches out east further than your eye can see and the snowcapped mountains on the opposite bank were visible on a clear day. We walked from there along the coast to the small village and got on the boat we had lined up the day prior. When viewed on a map, the surface area of the lake does not seem that impressive, but the lake is the deepest in the world – 5 Empire State buildings deep! To the touch, the water is nearly ice cold and so clear you can see deep down. The water is so pure than you can scoop out some and drink it directly – So, I did. Pretty amazing. This is the world’s largest supply of freshwater, some 23% of total world supply, and it’s so pure you can drink directly out of it. I brought back a bottle for Sasha’s dad, who was curious about drinking the lake water. The lake as 3300 rivers flowing into it and only one flowing out! Our boat trip took us across the Angara river to the other side to hike along an old rail line built in the early 1900s when the Tsar’s still ruled the country. It wouldn’t be Russia if our boat was not run down by the Coast Guard patrol and then upon finding that we had one more person than allowed, forced the boat to be tied to a second boat before continuing across the lake. We meet a couple of fellow American travelers from Seattle who have been riding along the Tran Siberian railway the past two weeks east (we will set off west the next day). It was good to exchange stories, they will be heading to Beijing in a few days. Our final day in Irkutsk we explored the city more, visiting the December’s Museum and Cathedral of Kazan church before boarding our train that night. It’s a two-day journey across Siberia before we reach Sasha’s parent’s house in Yekaterinburg.
6.6 — Russia
It appears we are finally leaving on our flight to Cairo. I’m sitting at our gate at Yekaterinburg’s airport as I type this, waiting to board in an hour. Yesterday we went through this same process only to find out that our flight had been delayed 3-hours. No big deal, right? Wrong. We had a connection flight in Moscow which was only 2 hours and, guess what, there is only one flight to Cairo each day from Moscow, so that means that our 3-hour delay just turned into a 24-hour delay… Plus one less day in Cairo and a hotel night already paid for that we can’t cancel. This now leaves us scrambling to reschedule, waiting on hold with the airline on the phone, getting tickets for the next day. This is just an example of one of the thousands of things you don’t see in the pictures or videos of the trip. All the problem solving and headaches involved in getting from one place to the other.
Our two-day journey on the trans-Siberian railway went smooth. The first half of the trip was only Sasha and I in a four-person cabin, which made it more fun. We left the train to walk around the stations that had longer stops – Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Tyumen. The weather was quite cold in most places, but I guess we are in Siberia after all… I spent a lot of my time on the train reading War and Peace, going through pictures, and editing videos from our trip thus far. We arrived in Yekaterinburg at 2am with Sasha’s father, brother, and sister waiting to greet us at the train station. It was great to see everyone again. The past five days have been recovery days for us. We spend a lot of quality time with the family around the house. We shared the different gifts had brought for everyone. Sasha’s dad was thrilled when we gave him his gift, a water bottle full of water taken directly from Lake Baikal. We spent a few nights showing everyone the videos of our trip so far and shared stories of the highlight points and struggles along the way. We visited Sasha’s grandparents and drank a bottle Apapat (Sasha’s grandpa’s favorite brandy from Armenia) as they told us tails of their time in the Armenian mountains as physics researchers at an observatory. They were excited for us to visit the country. As the trip has pushed past the halfway point, it was nice to have a relaxing “half-time” break and prepare for what comes next.
6.10 — Egypt
Having lost a day due to our flight being delayed in Russia, our Egypt itinerary was condensed. We arrived in Cairo at 1am. By the time we converted money, got our bags, and got through security it was about 2am before we were on our way to our hotel (an hour away). This was compounded by the three-hour time change from Yekaterinburg, so our body clocks felt like 5am. Exhausted we slept in a bit the next day until around 10am. We explored downtown Cairo by ourselves on day one, visiting the Egyptian Museum and the Coptic Cairo area. For those keeping track, there were FOUR security scans to enter and exit the museum. It was the same story as Indonesia and India, so many stares and people stopping us to take photos. We took about 50 photos with people on the first day alone. The development level is maybe about 10% better than India, instead of cows walking the streets there are donkeys. But poop smell is poop smell. The cell network across the city is patchy and we got stuck in a section without service and had to scramble to use the subway to make it to our next stop. We were able to get it working again from there to get back to our hotel thankfully. Our hotel was right next to the pyramids, we had a balcony view of the Sphinx, and the rooftop overlooking the three great pyramids. It was awesome. Each morning we had breakfast looking out over the pyramids and by night we went up to watch the pyramid light show.
Tring to pack as much as we could into our last two days and not wanting to get stranded without a working phone, we got tours with a driver and guide. As much as I like to explore places on my own, you pretty much have to get a guide to get around Egypt effectively. They are (mafia speak) “juiced in” to the network. Egypt is one of the most corrupt and bureaucratic countries I’ve visited (along with India) and if you’re out walking around alone (looing white) your fucked. Our guide was able to give moneyed handshakes to all the right security guards and parking attendants. Front row parking — don’t mind if I do — handshake the guy, and we off. Not pictures! No way! Handshake the guard and we’re good. People following us down the street trying to sell us stuff, our guide yells something in Arabic at them and they’re gone. I pointed out a puzzle to him that he was able to answer. I’ve noticed many, many building (some 40 or so on our 20-minute drive from downtown to our hotel) that appear to be halfway built and them seemingly abandoned. People are still living in them as “normal” yet there are metal bars still sticking outward from the unfinished open roof. He answered there was some government policy that didn’t start collecting taxes on the building until they were completed, so therefore none of them ever got completed. It seemed to me a great summary of Egypt’s sluggish economy. Egypt, a developing country under development (perpetually).
Day two (guided tour day 1) we visited the Pyramids, Saqqara, and Memphis. Day three (guided tour day 2) we drove two hours north to Alexandra to visit the Catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa, Qaitbay Citadel, Pompey’s Pillar, and Alexandra’s Library. After this trip, I’ve now visited all the wonders of the world (ancient and medieval world wonders). Of these, the pyramids remain number 1 for me. They are stunning each time you see them. This compounded with their age and scale – they are truly the most unbelievable wonder. Some stats: for the large pyramid alone, built in ~2500 BC – it took 2.3 million stones weighing between 2-14 tons each, 120,000 people working around the clock, 30 years to build. Using these stones, you could build a 1-meter high, 1-foot thick wall around France. It was great to visit the other pyramids in Saqqara and to see the large Ramesses II statue in the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis. Over its long history, Egypt has had 20 different capital cities.
I was expecting Alexandria to be more developed, but it appeared to be a more rundown version of Cairo. Although the weather is nicer, Mediterranean climate in the low 80s. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the Catacombs, but it was quite interesting. It was built around 200 AD when the Romans ruled Egypt. Inspired by the ancient Egyptians, they made underground tombs. You take a spiral staircase down 300 feet and there are three different levels of tombs. Qaitbay Citadel is on the Alexandra coast with great views overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Citadel was built by the Muslims on the site of the ancient wonder, the Alexandria lighthouse, which had collapsed during an earthquake in 1323. The modern library in Alexandra is impressive! 11 levels with a great design to overlook the entire space. The internet archive has donated their collection to the library. There are rows and rows of servers that can be seen behind glass at different sections. On the way the airport the next morning, we stopped off at Cairo Citadel a medieval fortress built in 1180 AD by the Muslims. It contained several large mosques, the largest of which – the mosque of Muhammad Ali – had an interior which reminded me a lot of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The citadel was built on a hilltop with great views overlooking Cairo.
6.14 — Belarus
We had a short stay in Kiev before we head to Minsk and then back to Kiev for a few more days, then finally on to Saint Petersburg. Why all this back and forth? Westerners (American, Europeans, Australians, etc) cannot fly from a third country to Belarus and then on to Russia. Belarus is basically “nested” within Russia and you can only fly in and back out to the country you came from. Further, you can only enter through designated entrance points, such as the capital city Minsk, entering via other areas is effectively off-limits. Belarus has had the same president/dictator (Alexander Lukashenko) since “independence” from Russia in 1991. Even today, Belarus and Russia are considered “unitary states” and citizens from both countries can travel to one another without a foreign passport. Russian even pays for the country’s retirement plan. The economy remains tightly controlled by the state, with 80% of industry still in state hands and state-owned entities accounting for 75% of the GDP. Communism basically never left. The country’s main revenue source is the sweetheart deal they have with Russia whereby they import Russian gas at subsidized below-market prices, refine it, and then sell it to the “outside world” at market prices. Their currency has collapsed two different times in the past 25 years, most recently in 2015.
Say what you want about the dictatorship, but the country is way more stable and together than whatever the shit show in Egypt and India are. You have some strange feelings visiting the country. Some “alternative” sense of “freedom.” You don’t see billboards with ads, there are not trashy gossip magazines at the checkout line, there aren’t people trying to sell you things on the street, trying to manipulate you to tell you things, there is no graffiti, trash, or homeless on the street. There was a calm tone in the atmosphere. No one seemed to be rushing around with some anxiety-type business to get done ASAP like in NYC or SF. Sasha had so many flashbacks to our childhood with many old Russian products and infrastructure around. I noticed they had a toilet in the hotel like the one at Sasha’s grandpa’s house. She said that the people working in the service industry were also from the soviet era, annoyed tone with “what do you want” and eye-rolling when you asked for a second fork. Ukraine has a closer feel to modern-day Russia than Belarus, which (according to Sasha) feels like Russia 30 years ago. They even clapped with our plane landed (for example). A first for the trip so far: the hotel took our passports and needed 20 minutes to “process them.” We had two nights and a day in Minsk. We first visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII for everyone outside the former USSR). The country is about is passionate about WWII as the American South is about the Civil War – which is to say, A LOT. There are statues and commemorations everywhere about it. We walked the streets of downtown which seemed pretty low energy, both day and night. Minsk is hosting the second annual European Games which starts in about two weeks, there were many things around the city displaying it – mascots, banners, etc. We returned to Kiev, un-nesting ourselves from this parallel world. Like a Russian doll, a sudo-country within Russia.
6.17 — Ukraine
Due to the war with Russia in 2015, Ukraine has lost about 10% of its territory and population. Sasha was very nervous going through immigration. She had read conflicting information online about what is now required for a Russian citizen to enter. It would be out of the question if she was a guy – Ukraine has banned Russian men aged 15-60 from entering the country fearing they will join fellow Russians in the separatist eastern provinces in the Donbass area. Russia has not made steps to annex the territory nor has Ukraine escalated fighting to reclaim it, so the people there are stuck in a “no man’s land” between. There were some extra paperwork and fingerprints for Sasha at immigration, but we were able to enter the country okay.
Kiev is a pretty city with large parks and beautiful architecture. The country has a hybrid feel, as if Russia and Europe had a child. Ukrainian looks like Russian, but it’s not. Sasha can read some things, but has a hard time understanding people and has to look things up on her phone when reading things. They speak Ukrainian first and don’t really try to adapt to Russian when Sasha speaks to them even though they can. Kind of like French people do to English speakers in their country. There is certainly an anti-Russian feel in the air. Sasha sometimes only spoke in English, not wanting to label herself as Russian.
We visited most of the tourist sites the first two days – St. Andrew’s Church, Andrew’s Descent, Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral, Golden Gate, and the Motherland statue. There were many orthodox churches around the city, several are behind fortress walls. The city is quite lively with many preforming musicians and outdoor DJs in the evening. We went out one night and discovered there is a steep divide in the bar/club scene – there’s exclusive high-end ones we can’t get in and low-end ones that weren’t worth visiting. This probably explains why there were so many groups of people who just brought alcohol with them and drank on benches. Our last two days we explored the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. Some sad stats: The radiation from Chernobyl was approximately equal to 100 nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan, 188 towns were evacuated around the area, 100k people. 10% of Ukraine’s area around the zone is unusable and is abandoned. 3.5 million people (1.6 million of them children) have been affected by radiation and are estimated to now be 80x more likely to develop cancer. The museum was housed in an old fire station from which volunteers went from to help have people and clean up the site. Many of them have now died from some type of health-related issue. It was a powerful museum, scaring you, reminding you, that something can go at any moment at a nuclear power plant near you and your life, your entire community can be wiped out forever.
6.23 — Russia
Saint Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, along with being one of the most interesting. Canals like Amsterdam, cathedrals like Rome, architecture like Paris, all at a higher latitude than Juneau, Alaska. Sunset at 11pm, Sunrise at 3am – 20 hours of sunlight yet the weather is only in the 70s. The sun only barely goes below the horizon so the “night” sky has a permanent white glow, hence the name “White Nights”. We stayed with Sasha’s cousin which was a big help. It was great to meet them and get pointers about what to do from locals. We arrived early in the morning the first night, 2am, and were amazed at how bright the sky was. We were tired, so we slept in a bit and went over to the newly constructed Lakta Center, somewhat near their house north of the city. The complex that surrounds the building is still under construction and the observation deck is not open to the public yet. It’s the tallest building in Europe and currently the 13th tallest in the world.
The next day we went downtown and walked around Saint Petersburg taking in some of the main tourist things – Peter & Paul Fortress and St. Isaac Cathedral. The next day we took a 30-minute boat ride over to Peterhof Palace. What a stunning and almost unbelievably beautiful place. Room after room of opulence. The fountains alone in front of the palace are amazing, but paired with a beautiful palace, miles upon miles of perfectly maintained gardens, and various unique fountains and Greek statues scattered around — it’s shocking to realize how much wealth the Tsars had. And this is just their summer palace!
When getting back to the city we walked along Nevsky Prospect (the most well-known road) to Kazan Cathedral. We then walked back over to the main river (Neva) and were stunned to see one of the bridges was up! It’s a strange sight to see a bridge standing up vertically. The following day we took a canal cruise through the major rivers of the city. Such a cool experience, the only comparison I can make is to Amsterdam. We then went inside Savior on Spilled Blood Cathedral, one of the more interesting churches you’ll see. The next day we visited the Hermitage, the second largest museum in the world and one of the best. We were in the museum for 9 hours and still missed some sections! The only close comparison to it is the Louvre. Later that night we went out with Olya’s (Sasha’s cousin) husband Dennis and son Timothy for a boat tour to see the bridges go up for White Nights. It was an unforgettable experience, such an amazing sight to witness. I really appreciate Dennis for taking time out of his night to take us out given that he had work the next morning and we didn’t get back until 3am.
The next morning, we joined him at his work for, seriously, one of the coolest things on the entire trip. He works on the Saint Petersburg metro, buildings stations and tunnels deep underground. He brought us down to two stations still under construction that will extend the purple line two stops. We walked the mile-long dark tunnel connecting the one station to the other. This project has been under construction for 5 years and has about 6 months to go until completion. He showed us some of the features, such as these massive thick solid steel doors that will shut in case of a nuclear attack or flooding (to contain water from spreading to other parts of the metro station). I cannot emphasize this enough, a really really cool experience!
6.27 — Azerbaijan
About to cross the Azerbaijani border into Georgia in 30 minutes. That is if we make it there. Our bus has had to pull off twice along our route due to an overheating engine. We are driving in a mountainous area; the Caucasus mountains are outside my right window. What to say about Azerbaijan… The country has had two rulers since independence from the USSR in 1991. The father (Heydar Aliyev) and his son (Ilham Aliyev), who has now “won” a fourth consecutive term as president. It’s a pretty simple equation: use oil/gas resources to fund a military to protect you. The country is super tight with Turkey where presumably they get a lot of military weapons and support. Both are of Turkic origin and there are many joint Turkey & Azerbaijan flags around the city. Both have serious problems with Armenia which is wedged in the mountains between them and have a closed border at either side of the country. Georgia is the only country in the region that has relations with both which is why our tour must first pass through Georgia and then into Armenia.
Some tourist firms describe Baku as a combination of Paris and Dubai. Hardly. Maybe 1/10th of either of them. Yes, they have some fancy flame tower buildings on top of a hill and some gentrified parks, but certainly a more old-Soviet feel from the infrastructure around the city. The metro is virtually unchanged since built under the USSR, so much so, that pictures are not allowed? A security guard chased down Sasha and made her delete the photo she took of the metro car. Azerbaijan is a strange country, a mix of secular Muslims and serious Muslims, flashy lit up high rise buildings, and poor slums. Those wearing revealing western clothes and those wearing fully covered Muslim outfits side by side. (Bus broke down again, sitting on side of the road for the third time) While in Baku, our guide took us on a tour of the old town and out for a traditional dinner. The old town is a walled-off fortress that contained a mix of old mosques/buildings with high-end restaurants/hotels. Kind of like a Cairo Citadel feel with hotels and way, way better bathrooms.
Our tour continued westward visiting Gobustan National Park, an archaeological reserve with mud volcanoes and ancient rock engravings. This was really interesting — gas bubbling to the surface, spitting out mud, and eventually building up to miniature “volcanos.” The mud was cold to the touch. We next visited Dzhuma Mosque (the country’s largest) which was recently renovated in 2013. The good news – it was by far the cleanest mosque I’ve ever been in. We next visited Yeddi Gumbez, a mausoleum known as the Seven Domes where the remains of the last of the Shamakhi Dynasty was buried. A few of these stops included us heading off the bus and getting into old Lada’s (a Soviet-era car), leading Sasha to have flashbacks to when her parents owned the same car back in the ’90s. We drove in such a Lada up to a mountaintop church in Kish which had beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. We stayed the night in Sheki, a mountain town of 66k people (Azerbaijan’s 9th largest city). We visited the Palace of Shaki Khans, a historic residence turned museum of the ruler of an ancient state located there.
7.1 — Georgia
Georgia was awesome, one of the top five stops of the trip. We crossed into the country from Azerbaijan in a mountainous area. We walked across the border with our bags, first checking out of Azerbaijan and then checking into Georgia. We drove along the mountains visiting some old churches in Kakheti and Gremi before heading to a winery for a tasting. Georgia has a very long history of winemaking, dating back more than 8000 years! Georgia is all about wine, some towns even have a tradition that when a child is born a huge bottle of wine is made only to be opened upon their wedding day. It was interesting to hear the different technique they use to make wine, different than the standard European style.
The scenery of the country is great, mountains surrounding you on both sides. We stayed at a huge resort on a golf course with two massive pools, tennis courts, and soccer fields. I went swimming in the pool to cool off from the hot day and ended the night drinking wine with Sasha on our balcony overlooking the complex. Sasha was recovering from a fever the day before and was luckily starting to feel better. The next morning, we went to Signagi – Georgia’s “city of love” – called such because the marriage and divorce laws are more lax there. More like “city of dogs” as there were so many stray dogs running around the city a problem we also noticed in Tbilisi. The city has a small “Great Wall” surrounding it. There were great views of the valley below from up there.
We continued to Tbilisi arriving midday. We explored the city that evening seeing the Peace Bridge, took the cable car up to Mother Georgia, and Narikala Fortress. The next morning, we took a day trip deep into the Caucasus mountains, driving along the Military Highway built by the USSR, making it as close as 7 miles to the Russian border. After a lunch break at a local restaurant, we took vans up the steep hill to the very isolated Gergeti Trinity Church. The views from up there were amazing. We were lucky the weather was clear for our time up there, as on our return trip a thick fog came down on us. This time, looking over the edge of the cliffs resulting in seeing a white curtain.
That night we went out for dinner and explored the nightlife around the city. The next morning, we slept in and spent the day exploring Tbilisi. I will say, one of the more fascinating cities in the world. The mix of new and old architecture, street art, houses built on the edge of cliffs, sulfur baths, and a waterfall near downtown. We saw the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette leaning clock tower, walked up the hill to the massive Holy Trinity church, and spent the evening exploring the national botanical gardens. The country is quite affordable and Georgian food is great, so we ate well our entire time there.
7.6 — Armenia
What to say about Armenia… Let’s just recap the notes I’ve then since leaving for the airport just 2-hours ago. As our Yandex taxi driver is looking over his shoulder, arguing with Sasha (and at times acting as if he can’t understand Russian anymore) about “somehow” the app isn’t working now and how he’ll have to charge us a different rate. He swerves and almost hits another car in whom the driver is driving with one hand and praying the rosary with the other (presumably to keep him safe while driving) and is evidently unaware of irony. Sasha continues to argue that she is only going to pay the rate the app said. Spoiler alert: the guy picked us up, canceled the ride, then acted like he didn’t know what was going on, all so we had to pay him under the table in cash. Now happily arrived at the airport, we wait in line, get our bags checked in and our tickets, and as we are walking to security – two people approach us and ask us in Russian to ship a bag to Kazakhstan for them. We say “No” and walk away speedily. Then now finally through security, we arrive at the only terminal which contains six gates, this being the country’s largest airport and… some “genius” has thought it a great idea to put a public piano right in the middle of the terminal. Of course, what always happens in this situation, several kids come up, one after the other, and start smashing the keys down in every which way just absolutely annoying the fuck out of everyone, especially me.
Let’s backtrack 5-days to when we entered the country. We crossed at a high elevation pass and made our way to a town called Alaverdi. By making our way, I mean, we drove at an average pace between 5-10 mph for a long, long time. I checked with my app, sometimes we were averaging around 3.5 mph. The roads in this part of Armenia are the worst I’ve experienced in the 50 countries I’ve visited. The tour guide then explained that Armenia as the first country to break away from the Soviet Union (which is false). Every single tour guide for each of the three countries we visited in the Caucasus exclaimed proudly how they were the first to break away from the USSR. Actually, none of these were the first and a quick google search will confirm that is was Lithuania. We made it to Alaverdi, now a nearly abandoned industrial town, that produced chemicals or something for the USSR. She explained that about 10% of the city’s previous residents now suffer from cancer due to the pollution levels when the town was operational. I told Sasha that she doesn’t have to go to Chernobyl now because this town is basically the same. We continued on our journey in the mountains. I will say Armenia has great scenic beauty with picturesque mountain ranges and lakes — seeing this is worth the visit.
But, on the other hand, it appears that the country is only capable of making churches and brandy. It’s also probably the second saddest countries I’ve ever visited (Ukraine takes the cake for sure). Their past, the genocide by Turkey which killed more the 1.5 million people, something like a third of their population; to their present, these decaying, abandoned former industrial mountain towns we passed through. The mountain (Ararat) on the horizon of Yerevan, of which is that they damn near worship and is pictured on about every second painting on the street markets, and of which their beloved Brandy is named (which is very good) is not actually on their territory – Turkey pushed all the Armenia’s off it and claimed it as their territory. Each day, they have to look up at this mountain overlooking their capital city and realize it’s no longer theirs. They “claim” this is where Noah’s arch washed up and first landed on ground after the flood. They’ve had an on-again-off-again war with Azerbaijan, who’s Turkey’s big buddy, and are in the position now where they (Armenia – 3m people) are blockaded on the east (Turkey – 80m) and west (Azerbaijan – 10m) border. They border Iran to the south (not an alley) and have to rely on Georgia to the north to be a middle man to import goods, aid, etc from Russia to them. Georgia, of course, has had a recent war with Russia and has 22% of its territory occupied and is not too keen to have a relation with Russia on behalf of little Armenia. The country doesn’t have many resources to speak of, is almost entirely mountains and hard to develop.
As we continued our trip through the mountains, we visited hilltop church after hilltop church, too many to remember, partly because they each almost look exactly the same. The first one, you’re like cool! This interesting. By like the 7th, 8th, etc, you’re like, didn’t we just see this yesterday? The towns were so small we drove through that there weren’t restaurants to accommodate us, so they organized us to eat lunches in people’s homes. One of which was the Molokan people, a minority group that was exiled from Russia in the 19th century. They seemed kind of like Russian Amish people. We went through Dilijan National Park later the next evening. Shortly after this is when my sickness swept in. The bus had a sickness going around, Sasha got it earlier on the trip, but when it got to me, it hit me hard. I was in bed for two days with a towel over my head at every opportunity I got. I never remember having a fever that bad before. That also combined with a painful sore throat and a nose that wouldn’t stop running. I was on medicine and in a haze for the next few days. We went on a boat ride around Lake Sevan which was pretty. We then arrived in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital and largest city. It was a mix of abandoned buildings, old Soviet-style high-rise apartments, and newly gentrified pretty sections. The Cascade stairs and the Opera theater were pretty. We visited Mother Armenia and the Genocide memorial another day. Our final night when to check out the “Beatles Pub” and had a great time. Walking back home we went to see colorful fountains downtown that moved to music.
7.10 — Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan turned out to be one of the best stops of the second half of our trip. There is not a lot of tourists around, people aren’t trying to sell you things all the time, a good metro system, and beautiful mountains that overlook Almaty. We had a long layover in Nur-Sultan (5-hours) and although we weren’t planning to leave the airport initially, the airport was small and we were already past security in the baggage claim after we exited our plane, so we thought, why not? The main problem was that I didn’t have any offline map loaded for the city and we really had no plan. Sasha’s network was good enough to request Yandex taxi’s, but not good enough to load out maps, so we ended up taking taxis to various places around downtown until we found a section we liked. The city was pretty strange. In the past 58 years, it has been renamed 5 different times: from Akmolinsk, to Tselinograd, to Akmola, to Astana, to recently Nur-Sultan. 21 years ago, Kazakhstan’s original capital city Almaty, was moved to the newly named and built city Astana (now Nur-Sultan). Despite being a planned city, the architecture around the city appears to be random. Maybe we went to the wrong places, but it kind of seemed low energy. It was a Saturday night, nice weather, sunset time, on a holiday weekend, but it didn’t seem like there were that many people out and about when we were walking around.
We returned to the airport, boarded our flight, and arrived in Almaty around midnight. We slept in, recovering from sickness and lack of sleep during our Caucasus bus trip, and walked around the city in the afternoon. The metro is the newest and nicest of the former USSR metros we’ve visited. We saw Zenkov’s Cathedral (queue Sasha freak out), walked Arbat street, and watched the colorful fountains at night. The next day we planned to visit the national park nearby, but due to a holiday, the park was closed. We instead shifted around our plan for the following day and took the cable cars up to a hilltop amusement park nearby the Almaty TV tower. There are great views of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range from up there. We rode an alpine slide coaster that curves down the mountains giving you views of the city below as you race around the turns.
The next day we hired a car to drive us up into the mountains through Ile-Alatau National Park to Big Almaty Lake, a high mountain lake 8,238 feet above sea level. The drive up there was awesome, curvy roads leading through the mountain range. The crisp mountain air was a welcome change compared to the heat in Almaty. We hiked around the lake for about two hours before heading back down the mountains to the city. When our other plans fell through – it turns about Medeu (the mountaintop ice rink) doesn’t, in fact, have year-round ice skating (as some had claimed online) – we decided to go to a day club we randomly discovered in a park near our hotel the day before. I’d like to say I had fun, but as Sasha says, I’m incapable of “having fun”. I did get to try horse meat (Beshbarmak – the national dish of Kazakhstan) for dinner though, it turns out to be quite good!
7.14 — Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
Uzbekistan was a bit of an adventure. We arrived in Tashkent with a quick layover (1-hour), go through immigration, get our bags (they were not checked all the way to Samarkand), then find out that our connecting flight is at another airport, so we had to figure out the money exchange (several ATMs wouldn’t take our card) so we could pay a taxi to get there… It turned out it was part of the same airport complex but was 5-miles around the airport from the north terminal to the south terminal. Later that evening we arrived in Samarkand to one of the smallest airports I ever been in. The high temperatures for our entire stay ranged between 100-106 degrees. The first night we explored restaurants and found one (called Samarkand) we ended up liking so much we came back two more times during our stay. It’s a celebration spot for the locals, each time there was several birthday parties or other celebrations happening. They have live music and dancing going on throughout the dinner. It’s amazing, you can order as many drinks and food you can possibly eat, and the bill will only be around 14 dollars total for both of us.
The first day we visited Registan and the Ulughbek Observatory. This ancient observatory, originally built around 700 years ago, made the most accurate measurement of the length of a year, the position of the sun in the sky throughout the year, and circumference of the earth. So impressive how advanced the Muslim world was back then.
The next day we made a day trip to Panjakent, Tajikistan — a town of 30k people and surprisingly the country’s tenth largest city. The border was a 40-minute drive from Samarkand and then the town was another 20 minutes. We navigated the minibus routes and made our way over and back safely. The country was noticeably poorer, it has the lowest GDP per capita (nominal) of any country I’ve visited (900 dollars) and is the poorest country of the former USSR. Most people we saw were selling random things on the street, not in stores like in Uzbekistan. The president has been in power since a civil war in 1994, he banned YouTube for a few weeks after a video surfaced of him dancing and singing wildly out of tune at his son’s wedding, and has recently changed the constitution to lower the minimum president age (from 35 to 30) so that his son can take over after him soon. There are pictures of him all around the country, although, the funny thing was, most of the pictures were literally the same one of him waving, but photoshopped with different backgrounds. Here’s the president waving with a blue background, here he is waving on a mountain range, here he is waving in a valley. We walked down from the town to the river to see an unobstructed view of the mountain range nearby and discovered a small lake that locals were swimming in.
Upon our successful return back, we celebrated at our usual spot, Samarkand restaurant. With our remaining time in the country, we visited Amir Temur Maqbarasi, Bibi Khanym Mosque, and Shakhi Zinda. Samarkand is full of old Muslim architecture, a lot of it looking very similar. Sasha got warn out with the full-body “dress code” in the 106-degree heat, only to see a temple or masque that look basically the same as the last one. The currency is virtually impossible to exchange back once you have it. The airport doesn’t have an exchange and the banks only want to exchange for other hard currencies, not the other way around. The “bar” in Samarkand’s tiny airport did not serve any alcohol despite its martini glass logo. Compounding the irony, there is a duty-free literally right next to the “bar” stocked full of all types of liquor, yet the store wouldn’t except the currency of the actual country it’s located in – only accepting Dollars or Euros for payment. We tried to spend what we had left on souvenirs, lunch, and other random things, but we were still left with 127,000 Som (15 dollars’ worth) leftover.
7.18 — Russia
We successfully arrived at Sasha’s parents’ house in Yekaterinburg this evening. We took the overnight train heading east from Kazan last night; it departed around midnight and we arrived at 4pm today. Her father, brother, and sister were at the station ready to pick us up. There is now a comfort or familiarity for me in the city and with the family. I kind of feel like I am arriving “home.” The second half of the trip has come back around full circle, returning to where we left off from at the midpoint, visiting 9 former USSR countries along the way – in Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia – it’s been quite a journey. Even though I’m not back in the US yet (and thus, fully completing the large circle around the world) the journey is at its conclusion in Russia with my family-in-law. The next week is for sharing stories, reminiscing, and relaxing with the family.
Returning to the final stop of the trip, Kazan, my arrival in Russia could have gone better… We landed in Kazan from Samarkand, which, okay, I’ll admit is a rather odd flight. Sasha went in the immigration line for “Union State” (Belarus-Russian line) and I went in the foreigner’s line. Despite having the worst waiting in line experience (freaking surrounded by Central Asian people standing so tight together back-to-back so that I, on one side, had gross, huge, sweaty grandma boobs pressing against my back, edging me so far forward that my nose would be literally touching the back of the old man in front of me) things got a whole lot worse later. After 30 long minutes of boob to nose people traffic, I get to the immigration official and upon seeing that I’m an American, displays and annoyed face, seems to try to call on the phone next to her twice, has me sign an immigration form, then keeps my passport and waves me to go back into the line with no explanation. The light to her booth goes red. When it returns to green, I try to enter again, but she points for me to go back in line again. I let several Uzbek people pass me in line, each of whom takes about 30 seconds at the window, get their passport stamped, and are on their way. I try to go back to the booth again (trying at least to get my passport back), but she won’t talk to me and angrily points for me to go back in line again. I go to the back and sit cross-legged on the ground in the back of the line. Other Uzbek people are looking puzzled at me. 30 minutes later a military officer and a guy with a notebook walk up to me, the notebook holder asking in rough English “you speak English, right?” He has my passport in his hand. I say yes and he waves me to follow him. We arrive in a small square room with a light shining on me. The man with the notebook sits on the opposite side of the desk as the military officer stands next to him with arm crossed looking down at me. They proceed to question me, one then the other, sometimes asking the same question later in the conversation (I guess to see if my story was straight or their English wasn’t that good?) Looks of suspicion on their face. What were you doing in Uzbekistan? Where were you before that? Why are you here in Kazan? How long will you be in Russia? Where are you going next? What transportation are you going there? How will you get around without speaking Russian? Your wife? What’s her name, number? Finally, the let me go. The immigration official stamps my passport, handing it to me without even looking at me. Sasha has been standing in the baggage claim for nearly an hour, looking really concerned. I tell her the whole story, really pissed off and annoyed. Great, I’m back in Russia, so highly secured and protected Russia. Security procedures so thorough and annoying that one even questions visiting in the first place.
Anyways, I finally made it into Kazan. After checking into our hotel, Sasha and I walked around the city as the sun was setting. The weather was so nice, high-70s. Compare this to the 104 degrees we were used to in Uzbekistan the past week. The next day, we took a taxi out to see the Temple of All Religions about a 20-minute drive on the outskirts of the city. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it, but it looked interesting in pictures and was one of the top things visited in Kazan. I figured it was a decorative church, funded/built by the government, to show ‘diversity’, displaying how we have tolerance for all types of religions or something. What it actually was is a near-religious cult, formed around the temple’s founder, whose picture, works of art, and informational videos are on display around the various rooms inside the “temple.” The architectural structure of the building appears to have no design, a la the Winchester Mystery House, apparently new rooms are built depending on the amount of money/donations they receive from visitors and
followers suckers. There is the “Buddhist” room, “Egyptian” room, “Christian” room, so on, for all types of religions. He’s some type of spiritual leader of some new religion, a religion of all religions, and leads these Russian hippies on their path to “enlightenment.” Of course, the text on the walls describing things advertised were in Russian (this is Russia after all, remember it is about 0% English friendly) but Sasha translated some of the things — such as a “ring of force” with a special crystal that transforms the electromagnetic field of the wearer or a “doctor” who heals the patient’s aura, the human energy field surrounding them. Major hippy shit. I turned to Sasha around this point and said: “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Kazan is a historic, pretty, and clean city with interesting architecture. Over the following days, we visited Bauman Street (a shopping street through the middle of Kazan), Ministry of Agriculture building, Kabon Lakes, the Museum of the History of statehood of Tatarstan, and visited the Kulfis Sharif Mosque and Leaning Tower within the Kazan Kremlin. And of course, we ate plenty of great Russian and Tatar food also. Overall, we took it easy and didn’t rush around in our final days of the trip. We both started to feel the tiredness of the long journey and slept in each day. We reminisced over dinner various high and low points, thankful that we made it back safely.
7.25 — USA
I’ve come full circle, I’ve reached back home in Hamilton, Ohio at my parent’s house. It was a long, long day yesterday. In fact, even more than a day. I left Yekaterinburg, Russia at 6am, and arrived in Hamilton, Ohio at 9am (in Yekaterinburg time) – a full 27 hours later. I had a 3-hour flight to Helsinki, Finland. Helsinki airport is my favorite in the world, so efficient and clean. Then a 9-hour flight to New York. An hour in customs, then take a bus to LaGuardia airport from JFK airport. Then another 5-hour layover. Then a 2-hour flight to Cincinnati. I slept in pieces during the breaks in the day – 2-hours on flight one, 3-hours in Helsinki airport, 3-hours on flight 2, and an hour on flight 3. It feels strange to be back. I feel comfortable again. Everyone speaks English, the culture and weather is what I’m used to. Which feels weird because I’ve been so used to being uncomfortable the past 4-months. A series of foreign cultures and environments, one after the other. It’s good to be back. This trip was more challenging and adventurous than the last one in 2012. It has so many more flights, more currency exchanges (especially currencies that are typically not traded and hard to get rid of), and more foreign cultures. This trip was mostly in Asia and former-USSR countries compared with the last trip which was mostly in the USA and western Europe. It was good to see the other side of the world, the path less taken. I’ve now been to 50 countries (if Hong Kong and Macau are counted separately from mainland China). My past 6 days in Yekaterinburg was really relaxing. I mostly hung around the house with Sasha’s family, getting caught up on things bookmarked on my computer over the past 4-months. I showed Sasha’s family all the videos I took and shared stories that came to mind about different stops. I took 17,734 pictures and 1,165 videos – in total, 73 GB of data. Sasha and I went to an indoor water park one of the days. I was really fun – it brought out the kid in both of us as we were excited going down all the slides.
I was bummed to find out the city, when painting the bridge, cut off the lock that Sasha and I put on it last year. On my final day, we visited Sasha’s grandparents. We showed them our Armenian pictures which they enjoyed (they both lived in Armenia during their college years, working at an Observatory in the mountains). We also talked about books. I told them that I completed the 1500-page War and Peace as we were traveling the world, they were impressed. Her grandpa started quizzing me about the book, asking about character names and different events that happened. Then I left late that night. We drove to the airport around 3am, my flight left at 5:50am, starting my long 27-hour sequence of traveling.