Monday, June 30, 2008

Financial Issues From Abroad

One big fear you have when traveling is that you will run into some sort of financial issue back home that you can't easily deal with. For instance, I once had the experience of having a Mexican Bank machine fault and eat my bank card. In Canada this wouldn't be much of a problem, but abroad this type of thing can really mess up a trip.

As a result of previous experiences I tried hard to have everything in order. I arranged automatic payments for any house related stuff, filed my taxes, and set up all my banking so it could be done online. I took care of the house insurance, car insurance, and even cancelled my cell phone.

Unfortunately even the best laid plans can fall apart.

Today I found that Telus is billing my credit card every month even though I cancelled my cell phone before leaving Calgary. Something similar happened to me last time I went on vacation. Telus changed my rate plan without my consent and charged me $80.00 per month for 4 months even though I didn't make single phone call. It took hours to resolve, but since it was a short trip it was easy to deal with when I came back.

In Canada the whole thing would be resolved in about an hour by sitting in a bunch of voice queues. Unfortunately, because I am away the whole thing is almost impossible to deal with. The Telus website requires me to provide a username and password before I can email them. Unfortunately, since my service is cancelled my username and password won't work any more. So email is out.

I guess I could phone them. They are the phone company after all so you'd expect that to work. Unfortunately the important numbers all seem to be 1800 numbers which won't work outside of Canada. And even with a local number I'd have to deal with the horrible service levels. I've routinely been on hold 45 minutes or an hour with Telus, which is a problem when phone calls are expensive.

There real lesson here is that we simply shouldn't tolerate bad customer service. Telus has never been anything but terrible to deal with. Yet most of us are too lazy to do anything about it even though there are billboards all over the place advertising better products for lower prices. We simply deal with problems as the come up and hope for things to improve. Unfortunately when problems happen from abroad, bad customer service becomes impossible customer service.

Whether it is car insurance (another story altogether), or phone service, we need to become better consumers. If we are unhappy with what we are getting we should take a few minutes to get something better. An ounce of preventation and all that.

In my case, I managed to solve the problem with the help of my mom. She called Telus and confirmed that my account was shut down. She only had to wait on hold for 10 minutes she says. It turns out that my account cancelled in such a way that there were two more bills outstanding, and the second bill just happened to match the minimum monthly payment I make when I make no phone calls. No fault on the phone company. This time. But I still won't sign up with them again.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan takes some getting used to. Outside of the big cities of Bishkek and Osh there are almost no hotels. If you want to stay somewhere, you have to find somebody to take you in.

In many places this is done through B&B style arrangements. In most towns there is a tourism office that can put you in touch with local familys. Rates are set at around $10.00 per person per day including breakfast. Most of the hosts speak little English but all the ones we've stayed with have been great.

In Balykchi, which has no tourism office a young man who spoke some English came up to us to help us out. When we asked for a place to stay he offered up his family's house and we stayed with him and his mother for the night. He wouldn't accept any money.

Outside of the towns the best place to stay is in Yurts. We did a five day backpack trip where we stayed in or at Yurts every night. The Yurts belong to nomadic families that move from the towns to the mountain pastures in the summer to feed their flocks. In the daytime they serve as a kitchen and eating area. At night the tables are pulled aside and everyone sleeps together on the floor.

On our hike we had a Kyrgyz speaking guide which was very helpful. Each evening we'd walk up to a yurt and chat with the shepherds. They'd quickly invite us in for tea (with lots of bread and butter) and Kumuz. The shepherds never knew we were coming but they were always welcoming. We soon realized that we could walk anywhere in the countryside and simply ask people if we could stay with them for the night. The never ask for money, but we typically pay about $10.00 each including dinner and breakfast. Sometimes we sleep in our tents and trade some fresh food for a meal.

We've gotten so used to the yurts that we even did an overnight backpack without supplies, confident that we would be able to find a yurt to stay in. It worked out splendidly.

Some of our best times in Kyrgyzstan have been in the yurts. In just under a month we've spent time with about ten different families. We've played with their kids, answered their questions, eaten their food, and slept on their floors. It's been a remarkable experience and we are humbled by the kindness and hospitality we have experienced here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Living Ruins

For more than half a century the Soviet Union was one of the world's great powers. Most of Asia, and a good chunk of Western Europe was part of a bold social experiment to see if there was an alternative to capitalism. There wasn't. The experiment failed spectacularly. Communist economies created only poverty. Idealism gave way to tyranny. By 1990, the entire house of cards came apart.

We travelled for a few days with Jirka, a young Czech who told us stories of life under communism. He remembers the day when Germany opened the borders. His family drove their smoky old car into Germany and everyone greeted them. They couldn't believe it when they saw all the products in a grocery store. They still have photos of all the incredible selection of laundry detergents you could buy. Under Communism there was one. When it was in stock.

Downtown Balykchy

Now, like the Mayan city of Tikal, the great buildings and artifacts of the Soviet Union are crumbling. The Soviets planned magnificent cities with broad streets and ample public spaces. Unfortunately nobody can afford to maintain them anymore. The parks are overgrown, the sidewalks are crumbled. The Pakistan border post with China is a small tin shack. Kyrgystan has a large marble building but when you go inside everything is abandoned and fallen apart. Broken lights hang from the ceiling. You walk through empty halls until you reach a small shack set up in a larger room. This is the border post now. Eventually the building will fall apart completely and the shack will be moved outside.

Lenin Statue Outside a School

The private spaces are even worse. Soviet apartment blocks are drab and poorly constructed. Now, 20 years after the last maintenance they are little more than ruins. The toilets have stopped working. The water is unreliable. The heat doesn't work. Windows have fallen out and been bricked up. Many of them are abandonded completely.

It is an amazing experience to be able to walk through the ruins of one of the world's great civilizations only 20 years after the civilization crumbled. Only two decades ago it was impossible to visit these places. Now you can walk around freely almost anywhere in the ex-Soviet Union. You can talk to the people and hear their stories. The Lenin statues still look out over the streets. But the secret police are gone and there is food in the stores.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Kumuz Again?

One of the great things about traveling is trying new foods. And I'd be the first to admit that I'm pretty adventurous. I've had fried grasshoppers in Mexico (they taste like peanuts). I've eaten all sorts of revolting tentacles and internal organs in China. I ate a horse penis in Guatemala. But Kumuz is on an entirely different level.

According to the travel guides, Kumuz is a drink made from fermented horse milk. According to oe blogger, it is "The most revolting thing I have ever tasted". All I can say is that the idea of milking a horse grosses me out, and allowing the milk to go sour doesn't add to the appeal. To add to the horror, we met a Vet just before we left who warned us about horrible diseases we could catch from dairy products. National drink or not, I resolved to avoid it at all costs.

"It's Kumuz", said our driver excitedly as the expectant lady handed me an enormous bowl of white liquid. I stared in horror, trying to find a way out. There was none. The entire family was looking at me expectantly. I was an honored guest and it would be horribly rude to refuse. I shuddered in horror, a false grin on my face. I tentatively sipped the liquid. It had the consistency of water and was sour like yogurt. A little bit of grease floated on the surface. It was incredibly strange and disgusting. I had another sip. Smoky aftertaste. Another sip. I finished it. I hoped I wouldn't be ill.

That night before dinner we got to watch the horses being milked. A dozen baby horses were tied to a rope so that they couldn't lift their heads. The mares stood stoicly next to them, waiting. One by one, the baby horses were brought to their mothers to feed for a few seconds. Then they were tied up again, and the men (alway the men) milked the horse into a not very clean looking plastic bucket. The whole process looked very unsanitary.

An hour later, as dinner was ending I was handed a large bowl of white liquid. "Kumuz" said our guide happily. I tried to find somebody to give it to, but they were too fast with the bowls. There was no escape. I tried to smile as everyone looked at me. I looked at the bowl. A couple of horse hairs floated in it. There was also some straw and something I couldn't recognize. It fizzed slightly. Sour. Smoky. Weird.

Kumuz is an obsession here. Everyone loves it. The capital of Kyrgyzstan is named "Bishkek" because a Bishkek is the stick used to stir the Kumuz. It's like naming Ottawa "Hockey Puck". Whenever anyone goes into the countryside they stop at the yurts to get Kumuz. Whenever you hike past a yurt you are offered Kumuz. Whenever you are waiting for something people tell you to just "drink some Kumuz". It's crazy.

In the corner of the yurt was a large object made of dark leather. It was blackened and oily looking on the outside and smelled of smoke. The leather had been sewn together to make a waterproof container. It looked organic. A stick stuck out of the top. It was the Kumuz container. The final link in the Kumuz chain. The container which is never cleaned or emptied. You just keep adding more milk. I could easily imagine the years of milk slime on the inside of the leather. No wonder they stir it so much.

Strangely, that was my Kumuz turning point. I had seen the horses milked, the dirty buckets, the organic debris in the milk, and now the leather container in which the Kumuz was fermented. And still I could not refuse the Kumuz which was given to me. It was strong. Sour. Smoky. Weird. Strangely addicting.

As I write this I can almost taste the Kumuz. I can imagine the smell. The sourness. The watery texture. There is nothing like it. Sour. Smoky. Weird. I hope they have some in the next Yurt we visit.

Horsing Around Son-Kol

Son Kol is a lake in Central Kyrgyszstan. It sits at 3000m above sea level and is surrounded by mountains. In the summer dozens of nomadic families pack up their yurts and leave their villages to bring their livestock to the summer pastures.

Lara and I arranged a 3 day horse trek to the lake. We joined a swiss couple and a few guides and mounted the rather uncomfortable beasts. Our instruction consisted of "Get on the horse". "OK, now follow". There was no attempt to adjust the saddles or stirrups to us, and backpacks were simply tied on with random bits of rope.

The horses were very well behaved, but not very excited to go hiking. We learned eventually that the way to get them to move was to "teach them harder" with the little whips we were given. Nonetheless, one horse resisted to the point that only our guides had the heart to "teach him" hard enough.

We spent about 5 hours on horseback, riding through some lovely pastures, and then arrived at a yurt where we were given a great meal and some fermented horse milk. The next day we continued 5 hours more to reach the lake. It was incredibly impressive- vast flat grasslands surrounded by mountains. A number of yurts had been set aside for tourists and we were again fed a nice meal although the experience wasn't as "homey" as it had been the previous night. Clearly these shephards were more used to tourists.

It was an incredible feeling to stand in a field surrounded by horses, cows, and sheep. When night fell, the only light was from the stars. Central Asia is still a huge black expanse at night. It reminded us of another place we love: the Black Rock Desert. The world seemed to stretch forever, and all around us there was activity. People chased horses, dogs barked, children played, and fishermen cast their nets. It was magic.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Hiking with the kids.

Lara and I had a lovely hiking trip with a couple of local youth this weekend. It was arranged by a local tourism company, and for about $30.00 we got food for the weekend and transportation to and from the trailhead.

We met at the tourism office in downtown Bishkek around 3PM on Friday, and then hopped into a Minibus with 5 Kyrg youth and Medina, of the tourism company's employees. Two hours of ghastly driving in the hot bus, and we were in the mountains putting on our backpacks. We split up the group gear and food, and started our hike.

The hike started near a partially constructed building which is apparently going to be a trekking lodge. Our goal was to mark a trail and the kids had some spraypaint along which they used to make marks on rocks. The weren't the first to do so, and a times there were several arrows pointing in different directions depending on who had marked the trail before and which way they had gone. Not that it mattered, since we were in a steep valley and only a true masochist would consider leaving the valley bottom.

The food was not bad, although a little heavy, both in terms of weight as it had lots of cans and jars, and also because there were lots of greasy sausages. Still, it had all been arranged and cooked for us, and we ate it gladly. Everyone was really nice, and about half the group spoke at least a little English so we didn't have to do too much smiling and nodding.

On the second day we hiked up a steep hill to a lovely lake, where we set up camp just minutes before a 4 hour rainstorm. The weather cleared in time for dinner but we were all bundled up against the cold. The views further down the valley were spectacular and I was sorry not to be able to go further. Lara and I would probably have doubled the distance easily, although we'd have gotten caught in the rain.

Like most of the mountains in Kyrgyszstan, the meadows here are the home to Nomads who bring up cattle from the winter pastures in the lowlands. We saw a couple of their tents, and on the hike out two men on horseback caught up to Lara and I. We managed to tell them we were Canadians, and they rode off and came back with some fresh Rhubarb they had picked. It was sweet enough that my mouth waters now thinking about it.

They also brought out a bottle of liquid that they offered to us. Oh, oh. We had heard about this. Fermented Mare's milk. The milk of a cow. Fermented. Like beer. It looked even more revolting than it sounded, and the last thing we wanted was an upset stomach. Lara grabbed the bottle and took a swig, and I was stuck. I took the bottle too and took a sip. Hmmm. Not bad. If I didn't know better, I'd even say it was tasty. I took a bigger sip, but resisted having too much despite the urging of the nice gentleman.

As we got back to the bus, the youth picked up a bunch of garbage that had been dumped in the area by thoughtless campers. This was great to see, as there is a lot of trash in some areas and we were glad to see a change in attitude. Unfortunately when we got to the bus, the driver didn't want to take our two big bags of trash. We would have left all of it, but I snuck a bag in the back when he wasn't looking. You win some, you lose some.

Our Bishkek Apartment

On Friday we left Bishkek for the weekend to do a hike with a local outdoor club. We decided to come back for one more day to upload some photos, pick up our Tajikistan Visa, and rest before going into the mountains.

The door to our apartment

We decided to talk to the landlady to see if we could get our apartment again. Of course we spoke no Russian, and she no English, so it took a while to communicate that we were leaving in the afternoon the next day but wanted to come back on Sunday. She asked us to pay a bit extra for leaving in the afternoon instead of the morning. She also wanted to know what time we'd show up, presumably because she had the key and had to be home to meet us. After a while we got it all sorted out, and off we went for our hike.

I'll digress quickly and say that the apartment is very clean, but quite rundown. There is no hot water, but apparently that is the case over all of Bishkek. Aparently the Soviets decided to put in a central hot water system for the entire city. Unfortunately it doesn't work well and they whole thing goes down for maintenance about one month a year. In our case though, the cold water also shut off. For a while we had a dribble and were able to fill a bucket in about 5 minutes, but today it stopped completely. Now we have to go down to the landlady two floors below to fill a bucket if we want to bathe or flush the toilet.

Lara in the Kitchen

Anyway, back to the story.

We got back from the hike a little early so we decided to take a chance and we showed up on her doorstep at 3:00. She was surprised to see us and told us that the apartment was in use until 5:00. Weird. What sort of place gets used by the hour?

Suddenly the light went on. Our apartment is normally used by prostitutes. Now the Vodka in the fridge made sense.

Not one to miss and oportunity I was able to save a few dollars by renting the apartment for 40 hours instead of 2 days.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Impressions of Bishkek

We've spent a few days in Bishkek (2 million people, the capital of Kyrgysztan) doing the Visa dance and arranging our China travel.

The city has little history, and as a result, the layout is excellent.  The streets are wide and lined with big trees, and there are broad sidewalks everywhere so it is very walkable.  Huge mountains loom just 30km outside of town and their snowcapped peaks tease us in the 35 degree heat.  There are lots of parks and public spaces although they are all very run-down.  A lot of the parks are just tangles of weeds that look like they haven't seen a gardener in decades.  Many of the marble buildings of the downtown are abandoned and falling apart.  I think the only maintenance that has happened since the Russians left is the removal of all the Lenin statues.

There is a pretty good public transport system in mini-buses ($.25), although preversely, none of the buses has windows which open- an amazing cruelty in a city that sees 45 degrees celcius in the summer.  Taxis are cheap ($3.00 anywhere in the city), and easy to find and we've taken them a few times when we couldn't handle the thought of a crowded mini-bus with all our luggage.

The people are friendly, vibrant, and young.  This feels like a place that is going somewhere, and with a bit of money to fix the roads and mow the lawns this city could be a wonder.  I've rarely seen a city with so much potential.  In 40 years time, Bishkek may count itself among the best places in the world to live.

Getting a Tajikistan Visa in Bishkek Kyrgyszstan

We arrived in Bishkek in June 2008 with the intention of getting our other Central Asian visas right here in Central Asia.  We found the Tajikistan Visa was pretty easy to get and I thought I'd provide some information for other travellers since I've seen a lot of speculation on the Internet.

The Tajikistan Embassy is pretty hard to find as it is in the middle of a residential neighborhood.  We had a Taxi take us for 100 som.  The embassy looks like a big wall with a garage and two doors.  The only signage is in Russian and it took us a few seconds to find the cyrillic letters for Tajikistan.  There are no posted hours but the Lonely Planet says they are open from 9-11 Monday-Friday.  We showed up at 9:45.

We rung what looked like the main doorbell and a few seconds later the door opened and a gentleman looked out.  I asked for a "Visa" in English and he nodded, closed the door and vanished.  A minute later the door opened again and he handed me a Visa form.  Then he closed the door again.  I rang the doorbell a second time to get a form for Lara, and then we sat on the lawn and started to fill out the form.  About 5 minutes later the door opened again and he gave us a bench to sit on.

Once we had filled out the form we rang the bell again.  He opened the door, nodded, and vanished.  We waited.  And waited.  We talked to some Iranians who were applying for a Visa, and then waited some more.  Finally a woman came out, looked over the forms, and then told us in English that we would have to write a letter explaining why we wanted to go to Tajikistan and what towns we wanted to visit.  She gave us a piece of paper and Lara wrote the letter.  Luckily I had taken along a map so I listed a bunch of towns along the Pamir highway.

Once we had written the letter, we rang and waited again.  We were then told to go to the other door, where we were finally allowed inside the compound to the Visa office.  We handed our forms, passport photos, and a copy of our front passport page to the lady.  She gave us back a stamped copy of the passport front page with a note explaining that the Tajikistan Embassy had our passports.  A 30 day Visa costs $50 dollars + 50 Som, and a 45 day Visa costs $60.00 + 50 som.  There seemed to be no problem getting the 45 day one.  We were told that it take 4 working days and we could pick up the Visa at 10:00 AM.

If you are travelling to Tajikistan and found this information useful, please let me know by leaving a comment.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Kyrgyszstan Arrival

We arrived in Bishkek Airport at 4:00 AM. Our plane bounced on the bumpy runway past rows of American airforce cargo planes (Manas airport doubles as a US base). A few minutes later we stumbled, bleary eyed, to the immigration counter. Kyrgysztan is the only central asian country where you can get a visa in the airport and we were hoping things would go smoothly or our whole trip would be shot. It turned out to be no problem. We got a visa form which (a bad quality photocopy in both English and Russian) and filled it out.  We paid our $30.00, stood in a line for a stamp, and we were in the country.

As we exited the arrivals area with Kyrgystan a crowd of Taxi drivers tried to sign us up for overpriced rides to the airport. Luckily we'd been warned by the Lonely Planet about Taxi sharks so we didn't agree to anything. Since it was 5AM and a bit early to check into a hotel we cooled our heels in the airport for a few hours and figured out where we wanted to stay. Then we went to the official taxi office which had a sign for a $13.00 cab ride to the city. We hopped into a BMW and a friendly driver took us the 40km to Bishkek.

When we arrived at our intended guesthouse we had a shock. Not only was it full, but we were told by some other travellers that every other place they had checked was also booked. On top of that we were told that everyone was charging $70.00-$100.00  a night instead of the advertised $30.00-$40.00. The helpful travellers told us that the one possiblity was to pay $20.00 to camp on the lawn of a hotel in our tents. We gave our cabbie the address and off we went to find expensive camping.

After a lengthy negotation in sign language at the hotel we realized that the camping option wasn't going to work either. Now we were starting to get worried. Nobody spoke English and we had no place to stay and we were tired from the ridiculously timed plane ride.  I mean, who schedules a 5 hour flight to land at 4AM?  We figured maybe the tourist office could help.

Luckily our cab driver made some phone calls and next thing we knew Lara was on the phone with a woman who spoke some English and offered to rent something us some mysterious object for about $35.00 a night. We had no idea what or where it was, but we had little choice so we agreed. The woman then mentioned some stuff about 10:00, we we assumed was the checkin time.

We hopped back in the cab, and the driver took us to the outskirts of town to a weird concrete amusement park. This is the sort of crumbling soviet relic that is hard to describe, but it had a neat tower that gave a good view of the nearby mountains. After that the cabbie took us for tea in a nice sitdown place with cushions. After the tea, he took us to his friend's restaurant for breakfast.  We realized that he was just killing time with us until the check-in.

After a wonderful breakfast of noodles with meat we got back into the cab and drove to a decrepit apartment building.  The driver punched an entry code and we walked up a scary stairway to the 4th floor, where a woman came out with a key.  On the 5th floor we were let into an apartment complete with a stove, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and balcony.  Everything was in pretty bad shape, and the hot water didn't work ( we later found out that the Russians put central hot water into Kyrgyzstan, but did such a bad job that they have to shut it down one month a year for maintenance).  Still, it was a great deal.

We offered to pay the cab driver for his efforts, but he wouldn't accept any money.  (We repayed his hospitality two days later by hiring him for a private ride to the mountains nearby so we could go hiking for the day.)  Overall, it was a pretty exciting and positive first experience in Kyrgyzstan.  We hope the rest of our trip will be this good.