Friday, September 27, 2013

Acting like a tourist

Topkapi Palace!  Representing Kyrgyzstan!

Life is good!  The first few days in Istanbul, I was acting like a local person, hanging out with new friends and relaxing in the Asian side.  It was grand, and then when the work week started up and they all went to work, I decided to play tourist and check out the city.  So I've been checking out the European side, doing some of the main touristy things and hearing loads of foreign languages and English.  Bit of a change from the mostly Turkish side where I'm living.

Here are some pictures from the Topkapi Palace where the sultans lived for over 400 years.  Loads of history here, where at one point the palace was large enough to have 4,000 people living there.  It's up on the highest hill around, looking at all main points of entry via water.  Quite a wicked view from up there, plus some great treasures from the past.  I saw one of the world's largest diamonds (the sultan took it from some people in town who were having a dispute), weaponry from the area (wicked swords and such, plus some English Crusader swords that were easily over 6 feet long) and some clocks.  For some reason, I love clocks.  I've been to clock museums in New Zealand and Slovakia, and now Turkey.  If you have any old, amazing clocks, I am now taking donations.

Some of the palace grounds.  Great landscaping everywhere to go with some sweet buildings

Me and the Bosphorus!  True Blue!

After the palace, I checked out the Spice Bazaar, which is similar to the Grand Bazaar from yesterday, just with loads more spices (bet you saw that one coming).  Not everything was spices, as they know tourists are there and try to hook you with other products.  Pretty sweet stuff where you have to bargain.  It's part of the culture here (as well as drinking tea 10 times a day), so there are no prices listed and then you get to start the process of trying not to get ripped off as bad as the guy before you.

Tiles for sale at the Spice Market

Spices, teas and more!

Then it was more walking (thinking it's been almost 20 miles of walking the last two day, getting the most out of my shoes) over the Galata bridge, past all the fishermen and up the hill to the Galata Tower.  Galata is a sweet neighborhood (on the funkier side and in a perfect location in town) and is pretty much all uphill.  At the top of the hill is the Tower which is magnificent and is surrounded by a square where the old men play backgammon and people hang out drinking tea.  Good times!  Then I got a text to meet some couch surfers for turkish coffee by an old palace up the road, so I met them, watched the sea and had a blast.  Later that night, it was on to Taksim, one of the main shopping/bar hopping areas, where I met Aysun, the woman I am living with for a drink in a cool rooftop bar.  Great views and times up there! Life is good!

Galata Tower Square

That's how you spruce up some old stairs.  And toss in one of the thousands of cats, and you've got a sweet picture.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Istanbul State of Mind

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

This city is amazing.  It just keeps on going and going, both in size and fun.  There are the two main parts of it, the Asian side on the East (duh) and the European side.  Most of the tourist attractions and historical sights are on the European side, and so I decided to get in with the locals and stay on the Asian side.  Much more my style, and after doing some research, I set my target on the neighborhood of Kadikoy, which is known to be more eclectic, full of cafes, shops, bars and lots of fun, plus it's right on the water.

Through couch surfing I found loads of connections in the city, and so far in these first few days, I've been more than welcomed and feel like a celebrity coming home.  Already I have a place to stay while I am here (right in the center of Kadikoy), and had a couple other offers.  It's been a great time bouncing around the city and meeting new people and feeling at home.  I've been taken to some of the better places to eat, and have been blown away by the food.  Delicious and everyone here seems to know the best place to eat and where I should look for cooking work.

On the weekend, I was taken all over with my friends and since then, I've spent the days exploring both Kadikoy (which truly is amazing, and will be a perfect place to live) and the European side.  Just wandering the streets and taking it all in is impressive, and so you need to stop off for some tea or a Turkish coffee.  People drink tea like it's going out of style.  You can't escape it here, with even vendors walking by every 3 minutes in the parks.  It is super strong and caffeinated like hell, so the people here are very awake and enjoy talking.  It's a good thing they speak good English and some German, because my Turkish is coming along super slow.  It's a crazy language that looks cool, and yet has so many tricks and setups that I get lost with even the simplest words.  In other words, I'm having fun!

More stories and pictures to come soon.

Corn and chestnuts, as well as bread, are sold everywhere all over the city

The Grand Bazaar

Full on embroidery going on in the Bazaar

Mosques everywhere

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Birthday fun

So far, the birthday in Kyrgyzstan has been amazing. We are staying at a small yurt camp right by Issyk Kul lake, where we are the only guests and the life is relaxed and happy. It's a beautiful location, with amazing views of the lake with snow capped mountains in the distance.  Staying in a yurt was at the top of my list for this country, and we're doing it! Legit yak fur woven into felt everywhere, with a nice little skylight up top.  The last few days have been more typical of life in Kyrgyzstan, with hiking, riding horses, yurt camps and lots of shared minibus rides.  Google the country, and that's it for the country, not really the wild apple forests we spent time eating our way through.

The birthday started with a brilliant sunrise over the lake, with nary a cloud in sight, guaranteeing an excellent autumn day. Breakfast was perfect with fried eggs, a tasty tomato-cucumber salad, freshly baked bread and some strong instant coffee. Then it was off to explore the countryside and get a hike in on a day with few clouds. One shared minibus later, we were dropped off at a road to the Fairy Tale Canyon, and we set off. The colors and shapes of the rocks were amazing up there. Reds, pinks, oranges, browns, all of different shades, shining in the sun. The canyons twisted all over, up ridges, down gullies, through washes which felt like the southwest.  Wicked views of the rocks, with the bright blue lake in the background. Perfect view for a birthday hike.  Check it out:

Later it was back to camp to swim, and eat a feast of Kyrgyz food with our hosts. Life is good!   Here are more pictures of our yurt camp:

Yurts and a homemade swing!  We've got room for more guests, so come on over!

Just an average night in Kyrgyzstan on the lake

Monday, September 16, 2013

Lake Issyk Kul and beyond!

Click here to open photos in new window

Wow, these last couple days have been amazing.  After all of us being sick for a few days (now cured by antibiotics which make me feel like superman), the adventures have been plentiful and pure Kyrgyzstan. Non-stop fun as usual in this country, exploring and feeling at home, and living very cheaply.

We went off the grid Saturday morning, took a minibus out of Karakol and headed up the mountains on a wicked hike, through the alpine forests, along a small river, with snowy mountains ahead, and natural hot springs awaiting us.  It was an easy hike, probably too easy as the incline was so slight, that the 500 meter elevation gain took 4 hours. We were almost knocked over by herds of horses, cows and sheep, with laughing cowboys who shouted hellos at us (as most of the friendly Kyrgyz people do).  At the top of one hill, we looked out and saw this amazing view beyond of where we would be staying, a perfect setup of huts in the middle of a valley alongside the river.

The hot springs were worth the trip up, as was the view up there, surrounded by amazing mountains, some of which had snow, others which soon would be getting snow, as it was getting colder and had just started to rain.  Later on we played cards with Belgian friends from Karakol and ate our instant noodles for dinner, before being told that our beds (in a veranda that was leaking and a bit windy) were being moved to a new spot as it might snow that night.  The beds were moved into a room filled with 3 Russian couples drinking vodka who had to push all their beds together to squeeze our beds in.  Quite a tight fit, to make for an entertaining night, capped off by snoring contests and springy bed noise.

I woke up early and walked up a hill to get a wicked view of a green meadow with horses, with fresh snow in the distance.  Felt just like being in Switzerland.  But a storm was coming so we had to hustle downhill quick.  We went mighty fast, but still had over an hour of walking in rain (felt just like Portland).  Luckily the last 30 minutes were in sun and we dried out and caught a minibus back to Karakol, grabbed our bags and set off to get close to lake Issyk Kul in a small town called Tamga known for its beach.  Our guesthouse was located right on the entrance to an old Soviet sanitarium.  Dinner was at an empty cafe in the sanitarium (only place to eat in town) with the usual all Russian menu.  Ania translated as always and the feast was on!

Today we rode horses up to an old Tibetan carving on a stone that used to be the border between China and Kyrgyzstan in the 13th century.  I named my horse Roscoe, although it should've been Rascal as he kicked Eliza's horse in the head, Ania's horse in the leg and tried to bite Ania.  But I liked him as he was the leader and had a good look to him, plus a lively step.  Good views of the lake on the way up, and plenty of streams to cross over, including one where Roscoe decided to jump over it instead of walk through.  As usual, there were apples and pears all over on the ride.

We rode the horses back through town to our guesthouse, and then after my legs returned to normal width, we hiked up to the cemeteries, looking like a small town on a hill overlooking the lake.  The Russian Orthodox and Muslim cemeteries are on separate hills, right next to each other.  Amazing views of the lake up there, plus some interesting graves showing each religion.

Later we chilled by the lake and explored more of the town.  Lake Issyk Kul is the 2nd largest alpine lake out there, and is surrounded right now by snow covered mountains.  Very impressive stuff.  Amazing days, amazing times.  Life is good! 

Pictures are ready, waiting for a good wifi connection.  Soon I hope.  Okay, no more reading, get outdoors and enjoy the sun.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Enjoying the view along the road to Kazarman

We are in Karakol now, which is out east in Kyrgyzstan.  It was a bit of a trek to get here, as we keep on par with long travel days.  It took us 10 hours by shared taxi to get to Arslanbob to explore the wild apple forests.  Then it took us 15 hours of 3 shared taxis, and 2 mini buses to get to Naryn.  We had heard it wasn't possible to travel that far, and ended in Kazarman to find a place and have dinner.  At dinner we met a man driving that night to Naryn, so boom, we bargained our fare and we drove through the night arriving at 11:30pm.  The ride to Kazarman was amazing, with scenery alike of Colorado and Utah, with plenty of dust on the mostly unpaved road.  Crazy views, open pastures, statues in the middle of nowhere, and super hot temperatures in the car as the driver wanted the windows up to keep the dust out.  It was a battle to try and get fresh air in.  But we survived shakily, some of us still battling our stomach issues.

The drive to Karakol went better, but still ended up taking 8 hours with a shared taxi and a minibus.  We bargained and got a good deal on the shared taxi, which ended up meaning that the driver would pile his wife, son and loads of jam making products into the car.  So we had an 18 year old son in the back seat of a small 1980s Audi with the 3 of us for a 4 hour drive, again with not much fresh air. 

Karakol is the tourist hub for the Lake Issyk Kul.  Loads of treks and homestays are organized here, although for some reason, the town is not on the lake, rather 12km along a dusty road.  We have explore the town, found kettle corn for $.20 in a ziploc bag, feasted on vegetable salads in a bazaar and went to the beach.  Not much going on at the beach, but still nice to get in the water, with what looked like a half sunk submarine across the beach.

Today we are heading off to hike to Altyn Arashan which is an alpine hike above the lake to hot springs up in the mountains.  We'll be spending the night up there relaxing and soaking up the free heat.  Afterwards it's on to yurt stays right on the lake, with no town in sight, just pure amazing views to celebrate my birthday. I'm getting old.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fotos of Kyrgystan

Here are a few photos from the adventures in Kyrgyzstan so far.  We are now in Naryn, a small city in the east.  We arrived last night just before midnight after almost 15 hours of being on the road.  Slow going on windy, dusty, unpaved roads.  Well worth it to get this far.  Made full use of a travel day.  Amazing scenery along the way again, after our previous 10 hour journey to Arslanbob, which is where these photos are from.

Link to Photos


Hoping to stay in a yurt soon.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Loving Kyrgyzstan

Life is golden in Kyrgyzstan. Eliza, Ania and I have been out west in the small town of Arslanbob exploring the wild apple forests.  So glad that Eliza asked me if I wanted to travel with her Kyrgyzstan to taste apples and study how they grow. Been wicked to learn both about apples and the culture here. Such a nice mix of western and Asian cultures. It's great to have kids walk by and say hello, and then bye bye. That's all they know and they say it, don't hassle us or ask for money. Just smiling and waving. 

The trip to Arslanbob from the capital, Bishkek, was stunning. Two mountain passes, valleys filled with yurts and small villages, people selling horse milk and dried cheese balls on the side of the road and a beautiful, turquoise lake surrounded by rolling hills. It took 10 hours in a shared taxi with 3 locals and a baby. This is how you travel in Kyrgyzstan, where the roads are windy, slow and beautiful. No rush over here. We did see two bad wrecks on the roads and drive through a tunnel with no ventilation that was mighty polluted, but otherwise it was all good. 

Each day we set off to explore apple forests in a new part of town. They grow all over, as this is the origin of the apple. Such a variety of tastes and trees, even if they are right next to each other. There is also the worlds largest walnut forest, numerous pear trees, berry bushes and cherry plums all over. Getting loads of fiber!

We try every apple tree we see, by shaking the tree and taking a bite out of the apple. They are normally pretty small crab apples, and can be any color, although the majority are green. The higher up we go, they are sweeter on average. Lots of different tastes out there, some good and some horrible. We've been collecting seeds of the unique apples, which could be a different flavor (fried chicken or mandarin), unique growing capabilities (in all rocks or mixed with cherry trees) or solid rootstock. Eliza will grow them back in the US and then graft them together with domestic apples. Be on the lookout for Kyrgyzstani apples in 10 years or so!

Our homestay has been great and our Dutch friends, Domingo and Carina joined us here for a few nights. The family doesn't speak that much English so sometimes the food is slightly different than we thought, but still with good flavors.

Things are organized through the CBT (Community Based Tourism) which directly supports the community. All homestays are run through them as we'll as the guides. They rent out equipment as well and offer advice on the area. It's a great, trusted source that is local, fun and friendly. I like this much better than supporting outsiders who are more about making money than keeping it local. Great people here in Arslanbob. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Living it up in Bishkek with my new felt baseball hat

So far, Kyrgyzstan is amazing.  Definitely off the beaten path, the prices are cheap, the Russian influence is everywhere and kinda cool, the bazaar is huge and full of everything, and the view of the snow covered mountains in the distant makes you fall in love with nature all over again.  And tomorrow we are driving for 10 hours through the mountains, to a small town where apples grow rampant.  As much apples as we want to eat!  And for my friend Eliza, loads of apples to study, collect seeds and run tests on the trees.  It's going to be amazing!
Sam the Canadian, Ania, Eliza and I making new friends in the street

It didn't start off amazing, with the flight arriving at 4:45am without my backpack on it.  I'd had a 10 hour layover at the Istanbul airport (3 movies) and apparently they put my backpack in a far off corner and forgot about it.  But I wasn't the only one, 16 bags from my flight went missing.  Luckily they found them and placed them on the next flight which arrived today at 4:45am, 24 hours later.  But it all worked out and I've got everything, including a signed waiver releasing the airline of responsibility stating I "received baggage safe and sound."

I shared a taxi into town, with an amazing sunrise over the mountains, and after getting lost on the way (normal in taxis here from my two trips so far), we found our guesthouse where I met up with my friends Eliza and Ania.  This is our apple crew for the 3 weeks here in Kyrgyzstan.  Later on when meeting up with two of my Dutch friends here as well, our apple crew gained two new members, so now there will be 5 of us researching apples and living the good life in the mountains.
Colorful slippers at the bazaar

The bazaar is crazy with tiny rows packed full of anything imaginable from clothes to silk to cheap kitchen things.  Loads of colours and smells in there, with people everywhere.  The bargaining didn't work out as well as planned as they apparently don't always care about going lower and just let you walk off.  I eventually scored a great Adidas knockoff jacket to keep me warm in the mountains. 

The driving is madness here with a red light meaning slowly ease through at 3mph.  The sidewalks are pretty bumpy with tree trunks, potholes, open sewers and more.  Loads of Russian cars around which look awesome.  One for sale at $1,100 almost had me pull out my credit card.  So cool!
I want that car.  Supercar capabilities of carrying anything

The History Museum is ginormous with impressive statues and murals about the rise and fall of communism.  The place just seethes power and influence and was surprisingly full of students walking around getting some education. 

Life is good.  More to come with adventures out of the city, in the mountains, in the apple forests with great people and nature.
This is how school kid dress in Bishkek.  Seriously.  They all look like they are in a wedding party

Me famous!

Main square in Bishkek

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Krygyzstan Bound!

It's been a wicked 3 weeks in the Middle East and now I'm taking the Justus World Tour to Central Asia to visit a fairly unknown country called Kyrgyzstan.  Where's that? 

Yeah, it's probably right where you thought it was, stuck in there with all those 'Stans you can't remember.  It's a former Soviet country that has the easiest visas situation in the area, and is known for amazing hikes, lakes, mountains, yurts, fermented horse milk and tasty goat meat.  Oh, and just days ago, the bubonic plague.  The trick to not getting the plague is to have your marmots cooked well done.

I'm meeting two friends in the capital city, Bishkek, and from there we will be taking on the country, hiking and eating apples.  Apples, which originated in this area, as you know of course.  My friend Eliza has a permit to import seeds from Kyrgyzstan, so we'll be right in the apple mix most of the time, as well as seeing how life is on the former Silk Road.  I aim to eat as many apples as possible, before the fiber impact kicks in.  Who knows, maybe I can reach the goal of 50 apples in 21 days.

Israel was amazing.  I have definitely enjoyed my time here, from being in the north surrounded by Lebanon and Syria, where there is rivers, waterfalls and green bushes that remind me of the California hills, all the way to the big city of Tel Aviv which is a mixture of the party city on the beach Miami, the laidback neighborhoods of Los Angeles and the going against the rules of NYC.  It's been a great time here, and I definitely would like to stay longer.  Just been relaxing with friends on the Shabbat and taking it easy after doing as much as possible in a short period of time.  Got to be fresh for Kyrgyzstan.

Anyways, that's it from me.  Next stop, Central Asia!