Monday, June 30, 2008

Airline Woes

One of the beauties of funemployment is that when two of your friends have weddings on the other side of the country on consecutive weekends, you don’t have to buy two plane tickets, you can just buy one and find a way to be amused during the week. Even better, if your brother is funemployed as well you can road trip up and down the coast for your amusement. And for the cherry on top, if you’ve been flying to say India and New Zealand, you can even get the plane ticket with miles (and $7.50).

So on Friday morning, I snuck in a quick round of disc golf with Nate and Colin then headed to Dulles arriving mostly on time. On Saturday, Joe and I headed up to Baltimore for wedding number one. Emily and I have been friends since we were toddlers and our families are very close. At Thanksgiving last year, she was lamenting the difficulty of finding a nondenominational officiant for her wedding. My father offered to go through the difficult certification process offered by the Univeral Life Church. And there he was Saturday evening at the altar asking them to say “I do.” And they did. Congratulations Emily and Matt! My flash wouldn’t reach during the actual vows, but here’s dad just before the ceremony (that crazy pink poodle was raced on a land and water course).

And a shot of Emily peeking down at Matt from the staging area.

Sunday was a recovery and family bonding day. What better way to do that than moving furniture, ripping up carpeting, and most importantly using power tools.
Mom hid a safe distance away in the porch while us men folk took down the pine tree in the side yard and had some world’s strongest man competitions.

Monday was full of disc golf, ultimate, and catching up with the Baltimore Summer League crowd. Tuesday we started driving north meeting Kelly for lunch in Delaware and Cara and Brian in Massachusetts for dinner.

On Wednesday we played tourist in Salem with Maggie, Nate, and Troy. Twenty three people died because some girls were bored and pretended they were witches. At least there were a bunch of enthusiastic tour guides and some funny props to lighten the mood.
Thursday we explored downtown Boston with Elliott. The Charles has a bunch of novice sailors that seemed to keep getting capsized by the winds. At least the boats look graceful when they’re not actually in the water.
By far the most fun we had was throwing a disc through a fountain near Faneuil Hall. Not sure if the drivers enjoyed us chasing the disc into the streets after misdirected discs flew into traffic.

A close second on the fun-o-meter was our wide array of rodeo experiences.

On Friday we headed to New York and went for a hike on the Hudson with Katrina and Mike. Mike had been biking earlier in the day and you might think he’d have to work hard to hike, especially wearing flip flops. But really no one can sweat up a storm like my baby brother.

In the evening we made it down to Baltimore for a rooftop deck party at Tracee’s house and were able to sleep in before Jared and Lana’s wedding reception. Their actual wedding had been in St. Thomas two weeks prior, but celebrating a second time didn’t lower the amount of delicious food that was around. Sadly the camera didn’t make either party.

Sunday morning started deliciously with dim sum and continued with more carpet removal and furniture rearrangement. At 4:45pm we headed off to Dulles where I made my 6:25pm flight to O’Hare with plenty of time to spare. We pushed back about ten minutes late and then promptly sat on the tarmac for an hour waiting for storms to clear. We landed right around 8:40pm, and I secretly hoped my 8:45pm connection to Seattle would be also be delayed by the storms for half an hour or so, so that my bag could make the transfer.

Be careful what you wish for. By the time I’d made it from the C terminal to the B terminal my flight had been delayed until 12:45am. The most ridiculous part of it was the 10:35pm flight to Seattle had only been delayed until 12:05am. Faced with adversity and a stomach that hadn’t been filled since dim sum ten hours earlier, I followed a time honored tradition – to the bar.

An hour before my flight, I started walking back to my gate. I glanced at the first set of departure monitors and noticed we’d been pushed back to 12:55am. Ten minutes, no big deal. A quarter mile later, I passed another set of monitors which said “CANCELLED”. At the same moment my phone rang and a cheerful recording confirmed the cancellation and suggested I contact the booking desk. I picked up the courtesy telephone (with a dozen of my plane mates) and the agent informed me that my flight had been the last one of the night, Monday’s flights were all full, and she could book me on Tuesday afternoon, would that be acceptable? Clearly not, so she had me call the reservations desk, which was magically able to book me on Monday’s 8:45pm flight. Better but still not great.

Not having anything better to do and operating under the assumption that a human who can see you is more helpful than one halfway round the world I wandered the last quarter mile to the gate, where a long queue was waiting. A rumor spread through the line that they were adding a flight Monday at 6:00am. Another call to the reservations desk said indeed there now was a 6:00am flight – and I was the first passenger booked! He said I was confirmed, but would have to wait for a seat assignment. As several of the other people in line got similar stories, we decided to keep waiting to talk to the gate agent. We’d moved a couple of yards in half an hour but now a couple of irate passengers were screaming at the gate agent trying to get hotel rooms. Also magically half a dozen cops showed up including two K-9 units. That calmed the irate guys down a bit and they moved out of line.

Just as we were nearing the head of the line, two guys in suits showed up. It was 2:00am and union rules said the gate agents had to clock out. But don’t worry, at 3:15am the morning shift would show up and we could get rebooked and hotel rooms then. Really helpful. At least I was able to talk my way into a blanket for the remainder of the night. Given the option of trying to get three hours of crappy sleep or stay up all night captioning pictures and writing a blog post, I’m doing the latter. It’s now 3:30am and no new gate agents are here, but hopefully there will actually be a flight at 6:00am and I’ll have a seat on it. And I’ll finally post this from the comfort of my own apartment – our interwebs may be slow, but they’re already paid for and I’m certainly not giving anymore money to O’Hare or United for a while.

Action Update: I did make it home about 12 hours late all told and my car didn't start so Joe couldn't come pick me up. But I did get the full set of road trip pics posted here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Bit of History

For those of you that have joined late, there's been some confusion about how this blog works. In January 2008 Cyrus Gray, David Logan, David Lott, and Alex Slepak drove a pair of rickshaws across India in a bit of adventure called the Rickshaw Run. Hence the blog's original title: "Across India... in a rickshaw!" After an amazing month of adventures visiting Goa's beaches, the Taj Mahal, Darjeeling, fighting food poisoning, having rocks thrown at us and the like, we all went our separate ways.

Logan and Cyrus returned home and stopped posting. Lott went back to work. And Slepak went to Everest Base Camp - clearly the most exciting option. He'd quit his job and launched this crazy scheme called the Landshark Rally so he started doing a bunch of practice traveling - Thailand, Australia, Vietnam et al - and kept posting to the blog. Which is how we came to "Across India... and beyond!" After two months back in the office, Lott came to his senses and decided to take some time to travel the world as well. So he headed off to New Zealand and started posting about it.

Sometimes the posts would get interleaved, causing people that only knew one of us to get confused. But we decided that to keep you, our lovely fans, more entertained, it was worth the confusion to have more stories and pictures.

In July, Lott and Slepak are reuniting for the Mongol Rally so we'll be posting from the same place again! The general plan is July 19th, Slepak and Lynn start driving from London. Around July 30th Lynn is traded for Lott in Istanbul and the adventure continues towards Mt Elbrus (highest mountain in Europe) where we know a guy who knows a guy that should be able to get us up it, or partway at least. By August 25th-ish we should be in Novosibirsk to pile Theo and Tina into the car and finish the official leg of the rally in Ulan Batar. At this point, Lott heads to Beijing to catch up with old high school friends and the car continues to Vladivostok before catching the ferry to Japan.

Until then, Lott is on a DC-Boston-DC road trip, headed back to Seattle for some frisbee, then heading to Alaska for a spell. Slepak is in Russia trying to source us a car for the Rally then figuring out how to get it to London for the launch on the 19th. And we're both dealing with way too much paperwork and bureaucracy as we try to get all of our visas straight.

Hope that makes everything clear as mud! Also we love all your questions and comments so let us know if you have more of them.

Monday, June 23, 2008

And then... there was rain!

It's my last day in Siberia - tomorrow I'm flying off to Moscow. Well, I suppose, I shouldn's assume that just because I've got a ticket I'll be flying anywhere, this is unpredictable Russia after all, but the chances seem fairly good.

As Krasnoyarsk doesn't actually have a whole lot to see other than this really pretty church I found tucked away on a back street, I've been venturing outside the city.

And this has been met with mixed results. Yesterday, I went to see the Krasnoyarsk Stolbi (pillars). This actually worked reasonably well, aside from the fact that there were no sings or indications of any sort of how to get to the park. But once I found it (the Lonely Planet map was actually fairly accurate for a change), it was a slow and relaxing chairlift ride up the mountain (it's a ski resort in the winter) and at the top you got some spectacular views of the green mountains sprawling in all directions, the Yenisey river slowly winding past Krasnoyarsk, and the pillars strewn between them (and looking nothing like what I had expected - I was picturing something more like the 12 Aposles near Melbourne, instead they are just really big piles of rocks).

From the top of the chairlift, a path leads into the forest. There's lots of signs, but they all just tell you what you cannot do in the National Park. Nobody bothers to tell you where this path might be leading or how long the way would take... So, naturally, I went. About an hour, I came up to what was later explained to me to be the 4th Pillar. I hung around there for about 20 minutes climbing all over, taking some pictures, and debating whether I should keep going or head back. After 20 minutes, another group of hikers/explorers showed up - I'd actually seen them earlier at the top, but they'd apparently taken longer to get here. Yura, Lena, and Vera are all locals, we talked for a bit, made friends, and since Vera seemed to be playing tour guide for them, I figured I'd go along with the three of them. It turned out that the path was somewhat of a loop, and went by a several more of the pillars, some of which we were able to climb. It also turned out that the locals don't come here just to get a glimpse at the rocks - some come here for an all day hike, some come for rather serious rock climbing. In the end, we estimated that we hiked for about 18 kilometers. The decision to leave my hiking boots at the hotel and take my cheap Indian-made, Singapore-purchased sandals, which were already falling part anyway, was probably not the best choice I'd made that day!

All in all, I'd say the Pillars exploration was a success, so encouraged by that, I decided to venture along the Yenisey today to see the town of Divnogotsk... I'd heard and read it was a popular place to visit, even though I couldn't quite figure out what there was to see there, other than a big dam. But you could take a cruise on a hydrofoil along the river to get there, so that seemed like fun. Unfortunately, this is Russia, so best laid plans tend to disintegrate, and I quickly learned that the hydrofoils apparently only run on Saturdays and Sundays currently. There's no particular reason why, it's just the way it is, so I took the bus. The bus drops you off in a square in the middle of Divnogorsk, where the people scurry along to wherever they're going. The tourists, like me, kind of wonder around and try to figure out why I came here. Failing to come up with a better reason, I embarked on a hike down towards the river. The skies were looking somewhat ominous, with thunder and lightning and an occasional light drizzle, but I made it down to the river and took a few pictures:

without getting particularly soaked. And then I stepped into a store to pick up something to eat and the rains came in earnest. Not your Seattle drizzle, this was a serious downpour... Taking stock of my situation, I decided that trying to find the dam in the rain wasn't quite worth it, so I got back on a bus and headed back to Krasnoyarsk, terming Divnogorsk more or less a lost cause. But the weather had improved by the time we got back to Krasnoyarsk, experiencing only one brief (10 minute) delay when the driver couldn't get the bus started...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Siberia: the wild, wild East

I’ve been in Russia for over a week now. The best I can describe the week is a learning experience – traveling independently in Russia may just be harder work than traveling anywhere else in the world, certainly harder than any of the countries I’ve been to so far. And I even speak the language here… almost like a native… The problem, of course, is that this may not be Soviet Russia anymore (and thus we’re actually allowed here now), but the attitudes of the people in the so-called service industry haven’t changed a whole lot and the infrastructure is developing but tends to work in curious, circuitous, occasionally unpredictable ways. And the lack of hotel space is downright criminal!

When you’re traveling, say, anywhere in South East Asia, there’s always going to be a dozen local ‘guides’/helpers, who [for the right price] will solve any problem you may have – find a place to stay, get a ride anywhere, at any time... In Russia? I don’t know if it’s the Soviet Union-instilled reluctance to bend the rules and come up with creative solutions to problems (for fear of reprimand from above?) or just the relative newness of the whole service industry, but getting things accomplished is always a challenging task. The customer, let’s just say, is not always right. The unfortunate (for me, at least) result is that in order to successfully travel in Russia, you have to actually plan ahead and make arrangements ahead of time, which is certainly sensible, but I’ve tried pretty hard to avoid doing so on the trip this far…

With that little bit of venting out, on to the fun stuff. My first stop in Russia was in Irkutsk, near the shores of Lake Baikal. The train from Beijing to Irkutsk runs straight across Mongolia, stopping briefly in Ulaan Baator (which, btw, looks like a thoroughly depressing, dusty town) and was generally uneventful as for most of it, I didn’t just have the compartment to myself, I usually had the entire carriage all to myself. The ride involved plenty of rest, a bit of the over-priced food from the dining car, and getting through more than half of the 900+ page book I have since finished. (I recommend Shantaram by the way.) The most exciting part was crossing from China to Mongolia where the track changes from the narrower Chinese gauge to the wider Russian one, so the wheels are actually swapped from right underneath each carriage with the help of a huge hydraulic lift:

At this point, your passport gets taken away for a couple of hours by the Chinese authorities, who don’t speak much English. I passed the time attempting to talk with my conductor:



After having a couple of these, I was pretty sure that he understood the word passport… and this conversation had stretched our cross-cultural communication abilities to their limits. And I was kinda optimistic that I’d eventually see my passport again (I did, with a Chinese exit stamp even). Also during this time, we got a fairly casual inspection by the Chinese custom authorities… or maybe they were from the Mongolian side… On to the Mongolia-Russia border. No fancy hydraulics here, what you do get here though is the most thorough inspection you can imagine. They checked my compartment… twice! The second guy took some of the ceiling panels off and inspected up there too. Apparently, the Mongolians tend to smuggle things into Russia. And then we were into Russia (well, after another lengthy passport-stamping delay), but eventually. And Russia greets you with the awesome site of Lake Baikal, flanked by snow-capped mountains:

And then to remind you that this is, in fact, Russia, you also see this on a passing train:

Irkutsk itself was fairly unremarkable. A couple of nice churches, apartments turned into hostels, tour agencies everywhere. But it’s actually some 70kms away from the lake itself, so not what I came for. I was, however, immediately reminded where I had come when I needed to take a tram from the train station to the hostel, saw the tram rolling towards me, raised my hand trying to flag it down. Were this, say, Indonesia, the driver would’ve stopped even if I hadn’t signaled and tried to convince me I needed to go wherever he was going. In Russia, the woman behind the wheel gave me a somewhat curious glare and calmly kept going. 15 minutes later, I caught the next tram… from the actual station, 30m down the way.

After a day in Irkutsk, it was off to Olhon island – a beautiful place a little ways up Lake Baikal, where I had actually wished I could’ve spent more time:

And the next morning caught the bus back down South to Irkutsk (so I could go North to Severobaikalsk…). The bus is a fairly ancient PAZ-3205 – I can’t decide whether or not it’s older than me… I’m betting that it is! But it only broke down twice(!) – once on the way there (30 minutes), and once on the way back (a mere 10 minutes). The driver, Valeriy Ivanovich appeared to have both situations calmly under control.

Next stop was Severobaikalsk, on the northern edge of Baikal – this is where the hydrofoil came in. It supposedly made a stop at Olhon, but since I’d already bought a ticket from Irkutsk and nobody on the island could actually tell me whether or not it was possible to get on it from Olhon, I headed back to Irkutsk. Changing the ticket is certainly possible – you just have to do it in person, at the ticket office in Irkutsk. I was on the very first hydrofoil run across the lake of the summer, so maybe things hadn’t been fully worked out yet, but presumably the service had operated in years past… Obviously, as we made the stop at Olhon, a few people came on, including a guy I’d met there the day before, so I could’ve stayed on Olhon and skipped the trip back to Irkutsk… oh well…

Getting to the northern end of the lake involves a 10 hour ride on the hydrofoil Kometa

So, we arrived in Severobaikalsk – of the foreign contingent on the boat, it was me, Jake, a Canadian I’d met on Olhon, and David, an Australian, who was aiming to reach Yakutsk by land. I suspect we were the only three foreigners in Severobaikalsk… The hotel, obviously, didn’t have any rooms available, but the exceptionally friendly lady working reception, Olga, runs a bit of a homestay business right at her house, which is where we ended up staying… for less than the hotel would’ve been and what I’m pretty sure was a nicer room. The next day, Jake and I tried our luck with the neighboring village of Nizhneangarsk, which was supposed to be an excellent place to see the wild Siberia. I can report finding exactly one hotel there (which was expensive, and the staff, oddly enough, not particularly friendly), a state-run tourist information center (which was fairly useless, unless we were interested in spending lots of money on the trips they half-heartedly organized), and some fairly run down wooden buildings sprawling for a 5km stretch along the lake. We went back to Olga’s in Severobaikals the next morning, and promptly decided to buy tickets for the train – me to Krasnoyarsk (30 hrs), Jake all the way to Moscow (4+days!). Prior to leaving, made a quick side trip to Solnechnoye, a spot with some natural hot springs – I’m not sure what exactly I’d been expecting, but something a little more natural than the hot tub with a pipe running, supposedly, from the hot spring, I suppose… This trip, however, was not without merit, as we spent the next four hours hiking (and fighting Siberian mosquitoes, which were out in full force) in the hills around, getting some spectacular views, and finding plenty of snow… two days before the summer solstice!

Oh, and train is certainly the preferred way to get around here in Siberia:

The other fascinating thing about being here is that the sun absolutely refuses to set in the evening! Yes, yes, I know it’s just about the longest day of the year, and we are quite far up north, but it’s still weird when the sun is still high up in the sky at 9PM. The sunsets can be quite beautiful… they just tend to happen a bit after 11 at night:

And the following afternoon, we got on our train and bid Baikal adieu. A parting shot of Severobaikalsk:

It’s a busy train station they’ve got here! My guidebook tells me that the BAM line, on which we are traveling, was quite the technological achievement considering the terrain it covered, and may have nearly bankrupted the Soviet Union, but it does provide a rail link to a lot of the Siberian natural resources. Can’t confirm any of that, but the scenery on the way to Krasnoyarsk was pretty spectacular:

And 30 hours later, I got off in Krasnoyarsk, which is a bigger town, closer to Moscow, and thus even more expensive! But it is home to some spectacular limestone pillars, so that’s in the plans for tomorrow – to compare and contrast with the ‘Twelve Apostles’ limestone pillars I saw near Melbourne in Australia… And on Tuesday, it’s off to Moscow, which will certainly try to be even more expensive, but I get to cheat by staying with family instead of in the outrageously expensive hotels! But before all that, Russia plays Holland in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 at 2:30 in the morning local time, so the entire city is excited! We’ll see if I can make it through the whole game…

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Do you have your tickets?

To what?

To the gun show Istanbul!

Maybe that's an inside joke that only frisbee players will get. What about a Mastercard Moment:

  • One way flight to Istanbul: $956
  • Visas to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan: $850
  • Home brewed vodka: $3/litre (the only affordable bit of this insanity)
  • Travel a quarter of the way around the earth, from Istanbul to Mongolia via a plethora of countries most people haven't heard of in any crap car that has an engine with no more than 1 litre of power: Priceless

Also, yet another New Zealand gallery uploaded. Check out Mt. Cook, Arthur's Pass, and the West Coast of the South Island.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

If it's funny bathroom signs you want...

I don't know if you can beat China:

These were hanging above every urinal in a bathroom at the Summer Palace in Beijing...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Bathrooms - Blenheim, Taupo, Tongariro, Rotorua

In our continuing series on interesting bathroom signs we have

I thought this sign meant just pee on the side of the building. Fortunately it was “During Hours” when we passed through and I didn't have to cause a scene.

Next up was at the Black Water Rafting base camp in the Waitamo Caves. You get a nice inner tube to float through the caves after you spelunk. Unfortunately they don't let you bring a camera and charge a bundle for the few pics they take.

The last of my North Island photos have been captioned and posted

South Island coming up!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ingalls South Peak Ski Tour

Originally this weekend had been penciled in to bag Glacier Peak with Lia and some of her fellow grad students. A combination of washed out accessed roads, weather, and other commitments led me to be standing outside my apartment at 5:45am Sunday morning waiting for Robert (whom I hadn’t met) to pick me up. We picked up Kyle and Heather (also strangers) but not Lia. It felt kind of like solo travelling in New Zealand again – go meet some random people and do something fun. Fortunately Lia makes friends with great people and we got along splendidly.

After a quick stop for corndogs at Snoqualmie Pass we hit the trail. Lia and I had climbed Ingalls last fall, but this time things were different as there was snow on the ground as we headed to Long’s Pass After a quick break for food and some artistic shots Robert and I jumped over the lip and skied down a nice bowl towards Ingalls Creek. His run was much more graceful than mine

<rant>This is where I want to have a snazzy embedded video clip but Picasa uploaded videos don't seem to expose this functionality even though they are pretty much Google Videos, which do. But since the intertubes are being flakey at ye olde apartment, I'm not re-uploading the video. So if you want to watch it, follow this link.</rant>

After a fair bit of traversing we finally found Headlight Creek and headed up the slope towards Ingalls
At Ingalls Lake we debated heading off to ski the far valley wall – seems like lots of other people had the same idea But decided to head for the Dogtooth so we could climb South Peak We ditched the skis and made short work of the climb to the top Where we could see the clouds roiling over Mt. Rainier in the distance We headed down and then traversed to the North Fork Teanaway River basin for an amazing ski out Or at least for Robert who’s a great (tele) skier and for Kyle and I who are passable, but have AT gear. Heather was more interested in bagging the peak (“goal oriented”) and getting back to the car in one piece (“I don’t get the thrill you guys get from skiing”). Which we all did at 8:30pm. Last car in the parking lot, but all smiles after a great day! Check out all the photos from the trip here.

Visa Roulette

Beijing. Quite the big city - capital of China, 'the new superpower'. Home to maybe 20 embassies as far as the Lonely Planet is willing to research ('in depth' is not something they seem to specialize in), and embassies from just about every nation in the world in reality. So, since I'm here, it's a good time to try and get a visa or two for the many 'stans we'll be passing through this summer.

Option 1 - Kazakhstan. Want: double-entry tourist visa. Lonely Planet even knew about this one, and perhaps more amazingly placed it correctly on its map(!), so I had not trouble finding it when I went on a bit of reconaissance mission on Saturday. Found out the hours, got a copy of the application form, was told to come back Monday at 9AM, came back... and was told that the consular section is closed in observance of a Chinese National holiday. Unfortunately, the guy telling me this didn't actually know what the holiday was. Later found out it was Dragon Boat Racing day on Sunday, and the country gets Monday off too... the Kazakh embassy loves it some dragon boat racing! Ok, next play...

Option 2 - Uzbekistan. Want: single entry tourist visa. The Lonely Planet denies any knowledge of the existence of this embassy, the internet, however, knows everything, including the address of the Uzbek embassy in Beijing, so having done some research the night before, I was ready to proceed. Conveniently enough, all the embassies in Beijing are concentrated in two distinct areas (unlike, say, Bangkok, where they are spread out sporadically over the entire city), so while I didn't have a map, I figure it had to be close. Plus, the Chinese have posted a guard outside each embassy... sadly none of them speak English, of course. However, undaunted, I spent the next 30 minutes 'conversing' with these guys by saying Uzbekistan and Sunlitum Beixia (the street name where the embassy was) - this generally led to either a blank stare, a torrent of Chinese, or vague gesticulations. At 9:30, I arrived at the Uzbek embassy! And was greeted by a new guard, who had an English vocabulary of maybe 10-12 words - this seemed encouraging... His grasp of English didn't quite extend to 'I'd like to speak to the consular section about getting a visa to Uzbekistan,' but we did eventually arrive at an intercom, which let me talk to somebody at the embassy, who told me to come back at 10. I spent the next 30 minutes trying to find the Kyrgyz embassy - you know, just in case. By 10, I was back in Uzbek-land. Third in line. The two people before me get their visas right there on the spot - considering how much I loathed my time in Uzbekistan last time, I'm starting to like the embassy in Beijing! And then I come up, the guy examines my application, putzes away on his computer for a bit... and comes back saying that I need a letter of invitation. I point out that I got a visa two years ago without one - he shrugs and says that maybe you don't need one in New York, but certainly need one here. The internet would later tell me that Uzbekistan has 'recently' re-introduced the requirement for letters of invitation (side note: why!? do you not like the money you get from tourists?) - I wonder if 'recently' means in the past two years. Oh well, moving on... Kyrgyzstan

Option 3 - Kyrgyzstan. Want: single-entry tourist visa, falls under nice-to-have-but-don't-quite-need-it category. Kyrgyzstan is a small country, so they don't have a full-fledged embassy of their own, instead they occupy half a floor in a building with a bunch of other small-ish embassies, including Fiji, the Bahamas, Bolivia, and 6-7 others. So, at least they're in good company. And makes finding them a little easier. When I arrive on the 7th floor around 11:30, where Kyrgyzstan resides, I find it to be absolutely barren. There are signs saying the consular section is open from 15:00-18:00, and not a live person in sight. Undeterred, I knock and bug long enough to actually speak to a person, who gives me an application form, confirms that the consular section will be open at 3, and tells me that the Turkmen embassy (my next destination) is at King's Garden Villa, 10 minutes away... by car. Sensing that a taxi driver will have no idea what a King's Garden is, I ask for a Chinese spelling, and get a chuckle from the guy, who apparently doesn't speak a word of Chinese. Outcome here TBD at 3, in the mean time, moving on: Turkmenistan.

Option 4 - Turkmenistan. Want: single-entry tourist visa, but a transit would do, since I remember hearing last time that Turkmen embassies can be a little reluctant with tourist visas. Not so surprisingly, the taxi driver I speak to has no idea what a King's Garden is... or a villa... neither do any of the other drivers there. Eventually, a phone call to the embassy (the internet taught me all kinds of things) in a mixture of English/Russian/Chinese gets us on the way. King's Garden Villas are simply a gated community, but with a bit more security since some of the residents are the IOC and a handful of embassies, including Turkmenistan. This embassy doesn't seem to have a consular section, or hours... It just has a guy, who opens the front door after a while, directs me to the side door and explains in half-way decent English (I'm still refusing to speak Russian to any officials) that I will need a letter of invitation. But he's a nice enough guy (and quite frankly doesn't seem particularly busy), so he gives me the name and phone number of an agency that can arrange for an invitation and also explains that yes, I could get a transit visas, but in order for me to be 'transiting,' I'd need visas for the neigbouring countries first. (The Uzbeks had made the exact same point but a few hours earlier). In conculsion: no luck.

In summary:
- Kazakhstan: unclear, since I haven't spoken to anyone yet, but I may need an invitation for a double entry visa. Nelly, the former-Soviet-republic visa maven from San Diego is on the case (or at least, I've emailed her asking for help).
- Uzbekistan: need a letter of invitation, once I have that, looks like the process should be quick (assuming the Moscow embassy is like the Beijing one). Nelly's on it as well.
- Turkmenistan: letter of invitation once more... A bit unclear what happens once I have that - I've seen reports online that say some Turkmen embassies simply refuse to issue a visa, others do it same-day. We'll see, I suppose, hopefully Nelly's getting this invitation too.
- Kyrgyzstan: I came back at 3 and four hours and a little over $100 I had a visa to Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, at this point, I'd have to come back to China in order to be able to enter as I don't have visas for any of the other countries Kyrgyzstan borders. More unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan is a nice-to-see detour effectively, not a requirement, but hey, I was glad to get a visa out of this whole day!
- Tajikistan: looks like they require a letter of invitation also. And it isn't a requirement either, so I'm putting off worrying about this one for a while, haven't even bothered trying to find the embassy so far.
- Iran: in a more ideal world, I'd like to go through Iran too. In this world, the odds of me getting a visa to Iran before August 1st bring up the images of a snowball... in hell, so I'm not holding my breath. Would be nice to have an additional escape destination from Baku though!

Sightseeing? Well, I didn't get to do a whole lot of sight-seeing today, unless you count comparing and contrasting the drab interiors of the various consular sections of the former Soviet republics. But I did get to see this:

I'm not really sure what 'this' is, but judging by all the Olympics-related signs all around the fence at the construction site, I gather it's got somthing to do with the Olympics. What exactly? Beats the hell out of me!

And Lott, you should start working on your visas! ASAP...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nevis, you've just been Punk'd!

As the blog can doubtlessly remind you, Lott and I have each bungy-jumped from the 'Nevis High Jump' in Queenstown, New Zealand in the last couple of months. It was far from the first bungy jump I'd done, but I have to admit that coming to the edge in that little contraption suspended a rather precarious 134m above a canyon floor (a most uncomfortable and uninviting canyon floor) was a bit unnerving... But I jumped, lived to tell about it, and even watched videos of myself doing it, so where do we go from here? Well, the helpful people at Nevis happily point out that there are only two bungy towers currently in operation that let you drop further: one in South Africa is about 215m tall, and the tallest one in the world is the 233m drop at Macau Tower. Low and behold, after traversing Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam I found myself in the South of China... And after about 18 hours on board relatively comfortable Chinese buses, I'd arrvied in Macau (interesting things about that 18 hours: I did not see a single other white person during that time. I met exactly two people who spoke any English, who were both very helpful - unfortunately neither one was working at any of the three bus stations I had to negotiate or at the two street-side restaurants where I learned how to order noodle soup through jestures only. When you are the only white person the customs guys see all day at the China/Vietnam border, they search your bags very thoroughly... I think they were disappointed that my books were all travel guides - not a single anti-communist, Free-Tibet propaganda pamphlet to be found...).

I didn't actually have a China Lonely Planet at the time, so for all I knew the only things to do in Macau were gambling and bungy jumping... Being unemployed has been discouraging the gambling tendencies in me, so bungy was the only other alternative. NZ charged about $170USD for 134m, here you get away with a little less than $100 for a whopping 233m - how could I say no to that price to height ratio! And let me tell you, 134 meters may have been unnervingly high, but 233 meters is a hell of a lot higher. The jump off was quick enough, but then you fall, and keep on falling, and then fall some more... for a really long time. It was quite exhlirating, really, but it sure is one hell of a long way to go down. Once you quit bouncing up and down, they lower you down to the very bottom, at which point you have to go all the way back up to the top of the tower to collect your belongings. The Chinese (I think) tourists in the elevator on the way up recognized me as having just jumped and chatted very excitedly - I'm pretty sure I managed to impress the little old ladies by not dying...

That's the big tower... that you can pay to jump off of. Head first!

Christie, a student from Toronto traveling in China for a few weeks, had jumped the Nevis before as well, but appearted a bit concerned about dropping 233 meters here. Jumped off without a hitch though... well, screaming 'Holy Fuuuu-uuuck!' anyway...

hello upside-down world!

I talked the bungy operators into letting me jump with my camera btw. This way I can share what the tower looks like as you're bouncing up and down at the bottom.

Since Macau, I've now gone back to California for a week long vacation from my vacation, then hopped back onto an airplane (word of advice: do not take American Airlines for your next cross-Pacific flight!) to see Shanghai, where I met Tommy, Henry, and Amilia of Mongol Rally 2006 fame, as well as Lynn, of Microsoft fame. Shanghai is a big, modern city, filled with sky scrapers reaching for the skies (and with one awfully ugly TV tower). The city itself seems fun, vibrant, and filled with all kinds of people from every corner of the world. I liked it enough to be willing to add it to the list of cities I've seen on the trip so far where I'd be willing to live (it's a short list actually - Melbourne is the only other definite entry. I'm still debating Auckland.), but the hazy mist of pollution hanging over the city most of the time is making me reconsider.

The Shanghai Museum, flanked my spiraling towers in the background

There's that design marvel - The Pearl Tower of the Orient. I hear the locals are actually quite proud of it - for some reason...

dusk gathers over the Pudong district on the far side of the river

it's not just shiny glass and aluminum sky scrapers in Shanghai. If you look real hard, you can also stumble across the Old Town neighborhood, which looks a little more like what I expect China to be like!

From Shanghai, it's been an overnight train to Beijing, where I'll spend four days before hopping on an even longer train and riding into Siberia, starting with Irkutsk right on the shores of majestic Lake Baikal. The air in Beijing, I've discovered, makes Shanghai's look absolutely pristine... They're planning to shut down all the factories around town in time for the Olympics so as to make the pollution seem slightly less horrible than it really is - I'm not convinced it'll make all that much of a difference.

The forecast said clear and sunny for Beijing today... Granted, you can't trust the forecast - it actually rained in the morning a bit, so some of it is actual clouds, but a lot of it just the Beijing haze...

Down below, in that myst, is Beijing's famous landmark: The Forbidden City

The Chinese - they're so helpful! I say Safety Third... Then again, they probably had Theo in mind when they made this sign...

Breaking news/late update: well, I actually wrote this last night, but am only getting around to posting tonight. In the intervening 24 hours, I've hiked 10km along the Great Wall: