A lot of you are aware that I really don’t handle heat well, today was mid-30s again and it’s forcing me to slow down, no AC in my room either so the only respite from the heat is the subway… yay!
First task for today was to make my way to the train station and get tickets on the bullet train to Samarkand.

Samarkand is the main attraction for Uzbekistan as it was the most important midway city on the Silk Road, Marc Antony wrote that he had never seen it’s equal, in fact before the term “Silk Road” was coined there are written records from China referring to these trade routes as “The West Road to Samarkand” and accounts from Rome (Byzantine) calling it “The East Road to Samarkand, to each culture it was the end of the known world, cool eh?

 Not much english here and after several false starts I found a ticket window staffed by a lovely Uzbek lady with a bit of english. With her bits of english plus her great attitude and the fact that I knew the names of the different trains in Uzbek and the schedules we were a great team.

Eventually we figured out that the bullet train, the Afrosayib, was already sold out for all the days that could have been of use to me but that the old slower Russian express, the Sharq, was available, got my slow train tickets and it serves me right for not getting them sooner.



Overheated already so happily headed down into the subway for the cross town trip to the market. The Chorso Bazaar has been at the same location since it’s days as a Silk Route trading centre (do I need a “Silk Road” jar that I put a dollar in each time I type it?)
My internet is really struggling, uploading pics is not working but I managed to get a few up:
This lady was great! Making me taste all her sweets and proudly showing off her work. She had a great patter, say a bunch of stuff in Uzbek, look at me, laugh and shrug and move onto the next thing. 
My workmate and friend in Vancouver, Vadim is from Tashkent originally and had instructed me to make a lunch out of fresh bread, butter and tomatoes from the market, I did as told and was not disappointed.
Lots of berries are in season and everyone wants me to try thiers, amazing strawberries and these little cherries and some raspberry looking berry the colour of a green grape. Also the largest cauliflowers I have ever seen, insane.
Berries are very much on the not safe to eat while travelling list but I couldn’t resist, so far guts are hanging in there.
The bread kitchen:
After the market I cooled off underground again and rode north to visit the Hast Imam Square,  the religous centre of Tashent. Not many people, scalding heat, calm and quiet, I ended up hanging out on the grass here for a good while.
The library at Hast Imam contains a copy of the Quran that has a pretty good claim to being the oldest. There are individual pages here and there that are likely older but this copy likely dates from just after Muhammad’s death and over 1/3rd of the original pages are still intact.
While walking to see the old Quran I got this great shot of a workman trying to repair a fountain while people wait to get in, I’m not kidding about the heat.
After the mosque’s I stopped at a random place for food, super friendly service, amazing homemade strawberry and basil iced tea and really average lamb, oh well, having a pretty great day. Great enough that I even offered one of the ever-present (and I mean EVER present) state security people guarding a subway entrance a fresh cold bottle of water, he looked at me like I was insane, ok, pulling back a pinch.
Spent the rest of the afternoon chilling in a park with lots of the local population (not 3,000,000 worth tho, where is everyone?). Statue in the park of Tamerlane (here Amir Timur), the national hero of Uzbekistan and someone I have been interested in since I can remember (I remember my dad telling me about Tamerlane when I was a really young kid), Tamerlane wasn’t actually Uzbek but hey, who wants to split hairs.

Roasting in Tashkent


Midnight flight from Istanbul to Uzbekistan, though it seems Turkish Airways doesn’t quite get the idea of an overnight flight… who eats a meal at 3am?!
I’m on no sleep here.
I want to see as many of the old Silk Road cities as I can on this trip, Budapest and Bucharest and Tbilisi and especially Istanbul all had differing levels of interaction with the old China to Rome trade routes, all on the western side, Tashkent is my first stop that was a central or east of central Silk Road city.
Tashkent is around 2200 years old, but not much of the original city remains, it was one of the Silk Road “Gateways to the Orient”, mentioned by Marco Polo and crew… OK, more history later, it is crazy hot here, 33c all week.
The Uzbekistan visa was the one that posed the most challenges, the country isn’t that open and doesn’t have an embassy in Canada, it’s not bad if you are part of a tour group but solo travellers have some extra steps (letters from my boss, info on my father, many forms). I hadn’t followed perfect protocol (time crunch) and landed in Tashkent with lots of papers and stamps but no guarantee of entry.
The visa area of the airport was a madhouse at 6am, I wandered around looking lost and eventually stumbled onto an official with pretty good English and he seemed to understand why I didn’t have a proper visa. The flight attendant asked to see my Uzbek visa on the plane, when I explained that I would get it on arrival he said “well good luck ” so I was a bit nervous on the flight. 
The official asked for my paperwork, letters from boss, etc and I realized they were all in my pack which I had had to check, told him where they were. The official looked concerned, looked at my passport, looked concerned, looked over towards the baggage area, looked at my passport and looked at me, grinned “Welcome to Uzbekistan!”, passport stamped! Apparently just smiling your ass off is as good as paying for stamps and forms to gain entry.
The official exchange rate is 2200 Uzbek som to $1 but the lonely planet forums had mentioned the black market rate is closer to 4000:1. My taxi driver (Marco, great guy) said ” You not go to bank, I change US dollars. ” and we commenced haggling, a long and fun process and eventually Marco gave me the 4000:1 rate. 
What $100us gets you:
Marco gave me a little tour and then deposited me exhausted at my hotel around 8am.
Checked in, handed over my passport (they hold it until you checkout and give you a slip for the exit visa) and passed out in my tiny but top floor room.
Forced myself out of bed around noon and headed out, internet speeds are slow here and the hotel doesn’t really have wifi so first stop was the sim card store, had to get my passport back from the front desk along with stamps and papers required for approval to purchase a sim card. In Moldova sim cards are sold in literally every store, $3 for a 1gb card, when it runs out plop down $3 wherever you are for another 1gb card, impressive. Not the case here, walked much further than it looks on Google Maps (Soviet city design, massive blocks and wide streets for sending tanks to crush any rebellion that might pop up) and went in the first of three wrong doors, finally got the right place and was told to take a number and sit down, got #401, now serving #360, waited, waited, waited.
Handed over passport and forms and more forms and filled out forms and broke down major language barriers, my Uzbek is shit. Eventually walked out $110,000 som poorer ($40) but with 5gb of fairly high speed data. The entire rest of the world seriously makes North American cellular look like a clusterfuck.
I’ve never walked around a fully Soviet planned city before, it’s like a twilight zone city, everything just a bit different, but very green and quiet, nearly 3 million people here but I can’t find them… so. damn. hot. though.
Some kids were kicking a ball around ahead of me as I was walking, apparently impervious to the heat, the oldest boy turned and kicked me the ball… oh shit. Dude, soccer, no.
Miracle of miracles I flailed but still kicked it up over his head and into the arms of the younger boy, they seemed to like that.
Too hot to walk too much, stopped for iced coffee at a really good place called ecorn and ate some cheap pizza on the way back to the hotel.
Also passed some sort of group wedding, I counted at least four bride and grooms, some like this couple in modern dress and some in traditional, I assume, Uzbek wedding dress,  lots of music and singing and photos in the park, nice to get to see this,

Rollin` on the TTC (Tbilisi Transit Company)

I know what you are thinking: A sleepy little mountain city has a subway?

Yes. And as near as I can tell their logo is an upside down ‘W’.

Despite the city’s small size the subway was important and was already planned out by 1955 and opened in the 60’s, important partly because the mountain landscape makes roadbuilding challenging and partly because Tbilisi was a key city for the USSR, sometimes called the Fourth City, after Moscow, St. Pete’s and Kiev.
Following recent wars and conflicts with Russia the Georgian state has pulled away hard and focused more on Europe than ever, all signage in the city that had been in Georgian and Russian up until just a few years ago is now in Georgian and English. This plus the small size of the metro (2 lines and 2 dozen stations, but a 3rd line being built) makes the metro pretty easy to ride.
Like Prague the carriages are mostly older Moscow built 8178’s and the system in generally a bit neglected feeling. Track is bumpy and cars are loud plus several stations appear to have a much too close relationship with Tbilisi’s sewer system.
Signage is quite good, if dim.
Most stations have clocks for time of day and time until next train PLUS time since last train, never seen both countdown and countup in the same place before.

The areas around most stations are an energetic marketplace and in several cases are a bit of a madhouse, Georgian ideas of personal space are more in line with Turkic countries so it’s easy to feel like screaming.

The system is a little rough around the edges but I can’t think of another city this small with a system this good, Tbilisi is much smaller than Vancouver and this metro is what Skytrain should have been.

Another gorgeous day in…. Istanbul?

I had plans to visit Azerbajian and possibly Armenia but about a month ago my flight was cancelled (still trying to get my refund) and everything flew into chaos. Istanbul is the travel hub for this area so I routed through there and orginally was going to spent 12 hours back here before my next flight, got another email two days ago that my flight out of Istanbul is postponed 12 hours so…. 24 more hours in Istanbul.
Got up this morning feeling a bit euphoric, dropped my pack at the airport and took the subway into the city, took a bit to realize the good feelings are cuz I really like Istanbul and am happy to have another day to poke around.
My flight from Tbilisi was very late and I didn’t get to bed until after 2am, didn’t get into the city today until about 1pm, so…
This is my favourite thing from Istanbul, Isikul Kebab, ground lamb with a tomato sauce on a bed of turkish flatbread that soaks it all up plus tons of amazing yogurt, really exploding with flavour, the orange dip is roasted red pepper and paprika and walnut and olive oil and is the first thing I will try to recreate when I get back to Vancouver.
After lunch took the ride to the Asian side again and walked along the water a loooong way…
Scoop of caramel, scoop of cherry, chocolate dip.

These buskers were playing some sort of Turkish folk music, I was captivated and stopped for a coffee across the street to listen, at one point they attracted quite a crowd, about 100 people, some of them singing along, yay.

Georgia – Day 6

Power keeps cutting out before I can finish a load of laundry, each time I start the cycle I sit fingers crossed but no such luck. Sooo… I’m up bright and early washing my clothes in the sink and rolling them in my travel towel followed by more time in my homemade drying rack or hung over the furnace.

Left things to dry, hopefully, and headed out to the National Art Gallery, two exhibits, one of Georgian Jewish art that was not good and a large exhibit of Georgian Masters, one artist in particular, Lado Gudiashvili kept making me come back around to look again:

I mentioned to one of the staff how much I liked Lado and she directed me to a different gallery across town that features just his work, hopped subway to subway and headed to the Lado Gudiashvili Gallery, on Lado Gudiashvili Street for more pretty captivating art.

Like most of Europe (really Georgia is in Asia but they want to be European so that’s good enough for me) Georgia has public pay toilets, interesting twist here is that some of them also offer basical medical checkups, blood pressure, etc from the custodian.

Late lunch of a creamy tripe soup (should really write down the names) and khachapuri and then headed over to the east side of the river to see the Georgian Orthodox cathedral.

I like giant religious buildings, today seeing young 20-something worshippers slowly working their around the cathedral interior touching their foreheads to each image of a saint one at a time I haven’t seen this style of devotion in any other place I have visited, it’s really quite interesting.

Walking around after the cathedral I passed one street vendor with a particularly colourful collection of spices (I assume?). I stopped and took a picture.

The spice lady jumped up and slapped my arm, tsked and laughed and made one change, then laughed again and said “tah dah!”, spot the difference?

I walked back across to my side of the river and laid out in a park, dozed off for a bit but then felt eyes on me and sat up, a cute, grubby little girl was smiling and soon talking a mile a minute in Georgian, I mimed that I couldn’t speak with her and she laughed and held out her hand. I know it’s not a great idea and I normally wouldn’t but I gave her 5 lari ($2.50).

She ran away whooping… two seconds later half a dozen of what appeared to be her clones came tearing around the corner.  I tried to say no but they were literally crawling on me, clamped to my legs, I gave away the two other bills I had but the remaining two kids just hung on tighter. I spent a few minutes peeling sobbing children off of my legs, feeling like a monster, with one reattaching as soon as I remove the other, eventually I shook them off and basically ran away feeling awful.

Tbilisi – Day Five

Short post today as I’ve got a lovely migraine, sitting quietly in the dark… which is easy as the power is out.

Spent the morning at the National Gallery of Georgia, I won’t bog down with historical stuff, and my head hurts, but here’s a couple pics.

Pretty badass 18th century full army kit from the Georgian military.

Georgia was amoung the first places to mint coinage, the first couple coins in the pic below date from around 550BC and are the oldest local coins known (just for you Guy I will add that the oldest coins anywhere date to about 700BC).

Khachapuri yum, also a veal stew that I don’t know the name of.

During Soviet times Tbilisi had the nickname Cable Car City because of the half dozen or so gondola’s that crisscrossed from various points in the lower city up to stations in the hills, all run as part of the transit system. (I said in NYC that the gondola between Roosevelt Island and Manhatten is the only gondola in the world run as part of the local transit system, I stand corrected). After the fall of the USSR the cable car system was neglected and eventually an accident in the late 90’s killed about 20 people and the lines were taken down.
The gondola below is new in the past few years and is the first step in the city’s plan to start the system again.
The city’s sole cable car takes you from the a park near the downtown core up over the river and to the ruins of Narakala, a 4th century fortress that was mostly destroyed when the munitions the Russians were storing in it blew up about a century ago.

Churchkhela and fruit!

Clothes dryers arent really a thing in these parts so I improvised.

Tbilisi – Day Four

Starting to think my cold might be allergies, Tbilisi is really green, especially lilacs which always set me off, fine with me, allergies > head cold.

Slept in until around 9 and then walked up the hill about 30 minutes to the funicular that takes you most of the rest of the way up into the Trialeti Mountains, at the top is an (out of season) amusement park, a giant radio tower and lots of green space, spent the morning hiking around the hilltops and enjoying the view.

View from the top
Walking around an abandoned amusement park felt very Scooby-Doo, I loved it.

Around noon I headed back down the mountain looking for lunch. I was sitting at the intersection in the pic below listening to music when three young backpack girls walked by, they turned and said something in some language, said “Sorry, what?”…
“Oh! Do you speak ENGLISH, YES!!”
They were lost and confused, looking for the National Gallery, my place is right by there so I knew exactly where they needed to go and also that it is closed today, we chatted a bit and the one girl said “Wow, how long have you been in Tbilisi?.. hahaha, four days!
I also love the pic, very representative of most of Tbilisi, both the style and the condition.

One funny thing I have noticed here is that those locals who speak German automatically address me in German, one older gentleman today said “Oh, I would have bet you were German!” I said “I am!” we chatted a bit, not sure what his background is but he spoke at least five langauges, we chatted about the Soviet Union and religion and all the hits. 
I’ve never seen Christians like this before, they are serious about it, people cross themselves in the street all the time and pray in public, when they come into view of a church they back away repeatedly crossing themselves… widows wear all black… really interesting stuff.
Khinkali, one of the two national dishes of Georgia, huge dumplings filled with spicey broth and ground meat. Exactly as good as it looks.

After lunch I popped home for a quick nap, been feeling like I need that the past few days, again I suspect the allergies. Then out walking around again, most of Tbilisi is really old, attractively rundown stone buildings and castle walls but the city also has an initiative to build ultra modern buildings, the juxtaposition works more often than it doesn’t, the Tbilisi Concert Hall below is gorgeous.

Also the gorgeous new Peace Bridge, a pedestrian only walking bridge over the river, at night it lights up with different patterns and colours.
Other times the modern architecture thing doesnt work quite as well…

Things got a little grey later in the afternoon, in this pic I am hiding on the bridge out of the rain.

Khachapuri Adjaruli, a boat of hot bread fresh from the oven with salty cheese a raw egg or two and a ton of butter, a healthy well rounded meal. Also beer.

Passed by the churchkhela lady on my walk home after dinner, she laughs when she sees me coming now.

Quiet Day in Tbilisi

Sunday in Georgia, quiet day just exploring the city, walking along the Mtkvari river, art galleries, flea markets, Sunday quiet, lovely.

I stopped by a local art gallery, The Art Palace, around 10:30am and strolled in, immediately a young security guard excitedly started talking in Georgian, when I looked baffled he switched to Russian, I laughed and he laughed and disappeared, he came back with another young security guard who slowly said “Us closed 11:00 O’Clock”, I smiled and went for coffee. When I came back about 40 minutes later he gave me a big smile and said “At your service now!”.

Interesting art gallery, I paid 3 lari and stepped into a dark room, an older lady spoke to me in Russian and turned on the lights to the room I was in, she proceeded to follow me around the gallery, turning on the lights in each room I entered and turning them off behind me, added an interestingly surreal tone to the artwork which was really not to my taste, endless 19th century oil paint landscapes, I didn’t stay long.

This is a kvevri, the Georgian wine-making vessel, they are buried in the ground up to the neck and filled with grape juice and must and sealed to ferment.

Very, very interesting flea market, thousands of interesting old Soviet items, I bought some old coins with Lenin on them, I asked about a coin with Stalin on it, the gentleman said there was only ever one produced, very rare, he reached into his breast pocket and pulled it out, very cool but not for 100 lari ($50). 
More delicious churchkhela for me, I am addicted, a stick is .50c Canadian and a perfect backpack snack.
Backpack Snack!
I don’t know what this little bush is but about 10% of the men I saw today and about 60% of the women were carrying a bundle of the leaves, I did finally ask one lady what the significance was and she answered, in Georgian… still no idea. I also smelled smoke all day and am theorizing that they may be burning the little bundles for some reason.

Quite a few old men tinkering on the hoods of their Ladas, I saw men fixing tv remotes and speakers and a lot of other electronic items that we would consider not worth fixing.

Istanbul Subways – Second Oldest in the World*

*but you said Budapest had the oldest subway in the world after London, what’s the deal?

Asterix time, Budapest does have the second oldest underground electified train in the world however over a decade earlier, in 1875, Istanbul had a steam powered completely underground funicular (hill climbing train) which still runs today as the F2.

I wasn’t going to write at all about the metro in Istanbul, as much as I like underground trains if I spent just four days in a place like Istanbul and spent half a day riding transit that would be a shame.

Istanbul has a huge, impressive transit system, I barely scratched the surface in the time I was there, the city has five different subway lines with two more being built now plus busses and trams and streetcars and light rail and not one but TWO funiculars not to mention a freaking underwater tunnel to Asia. The city is in an interesting predicament, the subway currently has 70 stations with 35 more under construction, if it seems strangly ambitious to have so many stations being built at once there is a catch, everytime they start digging a station they run into archeological finds that bring construction to a halt.