Just people’s kindness is worth the travel

The taxi driver who picked me up from the airport offered me a cigarette. I don’t smoke but I thanked him.

This man sitting opposite me on the train had a food box with two spoons. The second spoon was for me. I don’t eat meat so I had to refuse, but I smiled.

There was a group of young people in the restaurant last night who were drinking vodka, and invited me to join for a glass or two.

When I was on the plane on the way here, I was lucky to get three seats just for myself and got a good night sleep. When I woke up, I realized that someone had put a blanket on me.

This had happened also on the night train a few days later. It wasn’t cold on the train, but I was thankful a stranger had thought of me.

I’m now travelling in an absurdly overcrowded mini-van. It’s not comfortable at all, but I’m so happy I’m smiling. The woman next to me smiles back, showing a range of golden teeth.

My well-travelled suitcase has a broken wheel. I’m struggling moving it on the streets, and I see locals make fun at me. I smile back.

Just these smiles, just this kindness of strangers; it is totally worth the travel.

Notes taken on a day travelling in Kazakhstan, December 2016.

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I’ve found the worst hotel ever, it is in New York

Research about office layouts shows that workers in cubicles with high partitions are the most miserable. Good news: there are now hotels applying the same principle.

I realized this during a recent trip in New York, where I stayed at a place called Chelsea Cabins. It was outrageous.

The technique is simple: use a large space and divide it into cubicles which you call “cabins” and advertise as “private rooms” with shared facilities.

As you see, they’ve added sorts of containers within the large space and these are the “cubicles”.

The catch: the cabins don’t have a ceiling; they’re technically merely cubicles. And everything else is in the same space: cubicles, reception, showers, kitchen, all of that is cramped together in one big room with no sound isolation.

And this is how, when I expected and paid for a tiny private room, I realized all I was getting was a cubicle in a 25-person dormitory. Cramped like a chicken in a battery cage.

This is the “ceiling” of the “cubicle”: as you can see, it’s not closed, so there is absolutely no sound isolation.

Oh they’re lovely cubicles, they’re tiny of course but the bed is clean and comfortable, there’s also a tiny table, a socket so you can charge your phone, and a mirror. But they’re just cubicles and you can hear everything what’s going on in the same space.

So I spent the night listening through my earplugs to people’s body noises and zippers from their bags. I woke up at 7 am because that’s when one guest’s alarm went off, and then listened to people’s conversations whilst they were having a bagel.

And yet here I was, having paid a hundred dollars for a private room but technically sleeping in a 25-man dorm. Feeling speechless, and hopeless too, for I have a feeling that this is not really legal and yet I have no idea where to complain.

If that is the price to pay for visiting New York, thanks New York, I’ll pass.

For these Chelsea cabins are not cabins good grief, they’re cubicles!

24 hours on the Kolyma Highway, also known as Road of Bones

A spectacular leap into history and a stunning drive, the 2000 km long Kolyma Highway is also known as the Road of Bones, because the skeletons of the gulag prisoners who died during its construction were used in many of its foundations.

Only 1714 km left until Yakutsk!

This highway runs from the coast of the Pacific Ocean to the Lena river and has enabled Soviet Russia to populate extremely remote areas with terribly harsh weather conditions, that were rich in coal, gold, tin, and other minerals.

A Kamaz truck and a rusty Soviet sign, somewhere along the highway.

You hardly see any passenger’s vehicles on the Kolyma Highway. A few vans perhaps, but mostly trucks: heavy, robust, Soviet born Kamaz trucks that transport industrial goods, or food products for the remote villages.

The road is in good condition but it’s a dirt track in most sections. Every truck is followed by a huge cloud of dust, which makes the driving highly challenging when you’re following one or trying to overtake it.

Distances between towns are huge, and it is common to drive for many hours and not see a soul or a house.

Every now and then, an intersection with another road, leading to a small town a 257 km further West.

I’m not really sure why our driver kept a gun within reach. Protection against bears, brigands, or both perhaps?

Our driver had a gun next to the gear stick.

Every now and then, a rusty sign; an abandoned village; a little chapel at the side of the road. Or a little café open 24 hours that serves meat patties and mashed potatoes.

A cafe on the Kolyma Highway.

I was there in July 2016 and travelled on the Kolyma Highway for 1090 km from Magadan until Ust-Nera, where I took an Antonov plane to reach Yakutsk.

A village called Bolshevik!

Propaganda, ruins of war, and beach holidays: my first impressions from Abkhazia

Abkhazia was one of the territories on my Caucasian route this summer. Self-declared independent with Russian support after an atrocious war with Georgia in the 90s, Abkhazia is a land of contrasts. And not just the contrasts of high mountains and endless coastlines; but those of beach holiday makers enjoying their summertime in the middle of war ruins.

The war ended 24 years ago, but the first impressions are that of a country that just got out of it.

Many buildings still wear the scars of war or are even demolished. Abkhazia lost more than half of its population (killed or exiled) so many houses are abandoned and the country feels strangely quiet and empty. The roads are in a terrible state, and there were power cuts the whole day when we were there.

Many houses are in ruins even in the centre of the capital, Sukhumi. The red signs says (in Russian) FOR SALE, so if you’re tempted, just give them a call.

And yet, Abkhazia has always been an important holiday destination for Russians and still is, as it offers cheaper accomodation than elsewhere by the Black Sea, plus a few beautiful sights. So you’ll find all the mass tourism cliches, from people taking selfies, street vendors selling beach accessories, tourists parading on the promenade in Segways…

Sukhumi beach looks like a typical holiday beach, and yet, one street away you’re in the post-war zone…

What I think holds Abkhazia together, along with the support from Russia, is the propaganda. How else could you justify living in such isolation and desolation? There are a few propaganda posters; with flags of Abkhazia, and with messages reminding that the war was worth it. Abkhazia is beautiful, that’s why we had to fight for it. We died in order to live.

Beautiful sunset with view on the Novy Afon monastery and the Black Sea.

Oh, it’s not mass tourism; there’s no airport and the only way to reach is from Russia, but Sochi airport is just a few hours away, and trains run, including a direct from Moscow. So quite a few Russian families choose to spend their well deserved summer break there.

A typical photo of Russian holiday makers by a waterfall. This is Abkhazia!

What is funny, is that Russian is the default language, even amongst locals. Unless people know each other, they address each other in Russian until they find out that they both can speak Abkhaz. Why is this happening, if the country is independent?

But as a matter of fact, Russian by default is not just the language. The currency is the ruble, dispensed in the few ATMs the country has, the only train left (as connections to Georgia are broken) is fully operated by the Russian company RZD with the same Russian agent at both sides of the “border”, and regarding the “border”, well, they won’t stamp your passport, so is it really a border anyway?

There’s only a handful of countries that have recognised Abkhazia as independent, and their flags are regularly displayed across the country: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and the equally self-declared independent yet not internationally recognised Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

A deadly war full of atrocities, followed by 24 years of peace in ruins, all of that to get rid of the Georgian domination, and get vassalised by Russia instead? Abkhazian logic eludes me.

How I realised, by a sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, that I may be a travel snob

It was a tough and rewarding day travelling, and I was over the moon. So proud of myself – this was exactly what travel is to me:

  • A journey out of the beaten track
  • Where experience is as important than the destination itself
  • Travelling by my own means
  • And suffering a little bit on the way, real travel shouldn’t be too easy

After breakfast that morning, I had only a vague idea of what the day would bring to me: my goal was to wander around, into the non touristic Northern neighbourhoods of the Georgian capital, to potentially check out a few landmarks I found about in Google, and see what else I would find on the way.

I love these days spent walking, with a broad objective in mind, and letting encounters distract me and my plans. I spend the whole day observing, experiencing, analysing; getting to new insights about the place and its people. It really makes me high.

Serendipity and using my flair brought me to this cemetery, Didube Pantheon, and I am so glad I got to make this picture.

That day, I walked during 8 hours, including a 45-minute detour just to check a building that looked interesting at the other side of the river.

This bizarre building was the Ministry of Highways in Soviet times. Later abandoned, it’s been recently renovated and is now the HQ of the Bank of Georgia. It was worth the detour, wasn’t it?

That day, I also took a bushrutka – OK that’s a word I made up, because it was a vehicle of a size between a proper bus and a marshrutka (a van in Russia). And guess what: the journey was horrific.

The bushrutka was 45 minutes late. It was so incredibly crowded that it felt it was going to explode. It was too heavy to go uphill, and incredibly slow. It was incredibly hot inside. I was feeling privileged but cheating because I had a seat.

When we reached a bus stop and I saw a man stand with 2 children, I didn’t believe my eyes: they did actually try and get in. I sensed the trap, and immediately grabbed someone’s bag to put it on my lap; good choice, as just a second later my neighbour had a child on his. Tap on my own shoulder: oh yes I’m an experienced traveller.

There’s no tourist landmark in the Northern suburbs of Tbilisi, but if you’re a travel snob like me 😉 you are likely to find it interesting to explore them anyway!

At the top of the hill, I gave the man by the door a heads up that I was planning to get off at the next stop, so he would let me pass. His severe face expression confused me and I jabbered and didn’t express me really well. He said no and looked away.

That day, I learned the difference between hospitable and friendly. Georgians are incredibly friendly with tourists because they are incredibly hospitable – they love having you there in their country and want you to experience all what’s great about it. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly friendly outside the beaten track, especially if they don’t know you’re a tourist.

I had to fight a little, but I did eventually manage to extract myself from the overcrowded van.

I was starving, as it was Easter Monday and Georgians are serious about Christian holidays: all shops and restaurants were closed and I didn’t find a single thing to eat or drink the whole day.

I was happy and proud: it was a real day travelling, outside the beaten track, experiencing the real life and its daily struggles, just for the sake of it. A bit of a painful process at times, hence even more rewarding.

And the next day, I came across this article posted by a fellow traveller in a Facebook community I belong to: 22 Reasons You Are A Travel Snob.

Reason 1, tick. Reason 2, tick. Reason 11 obviously, and 13, and 17 perhaps, 20 possibly, and certainly, oh yes, reason 5:

You equate pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing without as more authentic than traveling without pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing with.

My heart skipped a bit: I may actually really be a travel snob!

How I climbed on top of an Iranian minaret to dance the boogie woogie

If you have been in Iran like me, you know that the country, seen from the inside, has not much to do with the axis of evil Western propaganda tells us about.

The friendly and hospitable people of Iran have to comply with the rules, but it doesn’t take long to spot a nice touch of rebellion in a portion of them.

The duo – uncle and niece – who took us to the ancient village of Kharanagh were masters of joyful irreverence. How they were having fun and were flirting with the norms gave me a delightful flavour of this part of Iran.

The village of Karanagh (85 km of Yazd) is now abandoned but there were women picking the fresh pistacchios at the time we visited. You can see the minaret standing in the village.

They told me I should climb to the top of the village’s minaret mosque, which was very old and very narrow.

“Stand with one feet on each side”, they told me. I found this a funny order, but I complied.

“And now, dance the boogie woogie”. What? “Yes, shake from one leg to another”. Really?

The minaret is 15 meter tall; the stairs inside to get to the top are not broader than 50-60 cm; in th efinal two meters, there is no stairs, so it’s proper climbing . I was standing there, shaking it!

I must have looked very puzzled, because they laughed a lot, but I did what they told me, and the minaret started shaking, making the whole mosque tremble and gently roar.

It’s only after a few seconds that I realized what they made me do: I was dancing the boogie woogie on top of a minaret! I also like to flirt with the norms and the rules, but this went much beyond what I had hoped for myself in Iran.

Not only did this seem rather dangerous – how many more times until the poor mosque will actually collapse? – but it made my travel companion, standing at the bottom of the minaret with no clue of my endeavours, freak out and believe he was trapped in an antique mosque during an earthquake.

View from the top of the minaret!

But I was so exhilarated! I am not one who expresses political opinions or signs up for ideological debates; but I did manifest my outlook on life: I danced the boogie woogie on a top of an Iranian minaret!

This post is a response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Climbing

Teaching Iranians how to cook vegetables in Masuleh

Iran is the land of kebab; particularly if people are going to bother and go out to a restaurant, then it’s a festive meal and kebab is on the menu. Not the most exciting perspective for a non meat eater like me.

During my trip in Iran, tired to eat rice and bread after a while, I decided to try and make them grill vegetables. I bought a few onions, aubergines and courgettes on a food market and brought them to a street food restaurant.

The men were puzzled at first. It had never occurred to any of them that they actually could grill vegetables, it seems. But they gave it a go; and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner of grilled veggies with lime, garlic yoghurt, and Iran’s fantastic flatbread.

Seeing aubergines on a food market prompted me: why should I stay on a rice and bread diet, when there are so lovely veggies around?

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme was Cook.