Sep 212015
 

We were up early the next morning, and met up for breakfast. I went to the front desk to check on the status of our driver for the day, and they still hadn’t heard anything…but promised to let us know. No clue why it was so difficult! Went back 30 minutes later and it was confirmed. The price was lower than we expected, so it turned out to be all good in the end.

Unfortunately our driver spoke no English, so I got to chat with him and play translator. I felt semi-bad for Ian and Jordan, but he was a good driver so it worked out. He was happy to share his version of the recent troubles CAR has been going through, and his insights into how things are now. The one word he kept using over and over to describe the current situation was “calm.”

Turns out the reason for the delay is the hotel has one driver they use, and he was sleeping/unavailable when we originally made the request. When they finally got in touch with him, he was happy to take us and he decided the price he would charge. We were headed to the Chutes de Boali waterfalls, about a two hour drive out of town. The roads turned out to be pretty good for the most part, and I’d guess it was a roughly 120-150km drive each way through pretty typical African countryside with wide open spaces:

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After about two hours of driving, we got to the turnoff point to the falls, where the road was gravel and quite a bit rougher:

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Headed to the waterfalls:

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When we got to the falls, we were swarmed with local kids insisting on playing guide. There was no way we were getting rid of them, and they only wanted a few dollars, so we decided to play along. It was worth it in the end because they were happy to show us around. First stop on the overlook, the falls were much bigger than I had expected!

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Our driver turned out to be a pretty good photographer too!

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Wide angle view of the falls:

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The kids asked who wanted to go down to the base of the falls, and Ian and Jordan decided to go. I decided that with the semi-recent shoulder surgery it was better that I passed on it, and in the end I think that was a good call. I don’t think Jordan went all the way down, but Ian did:

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Unfortunately somewhere near the bottom he slipped pretty badly and banged his jaw on a rock. Fortunately nothing cut or broken, but he was definitely pretty sore for the next few days!

Our driver taking a selfie at the falls:

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After that, the kids took us to the top of the falls, maybe 100 meters  from where they plunged down below. Of course there was a bridge across the river, which given how it looked I decided to skip again. Ian was a bit braver:

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…as was Jordan, with the kids making sure he was safe:

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After the bridge we headed to the final viewing platform at the top of the falls. There were a few UN types hanging around there, and they’d brought their own personal bodyguards to make sure they were safe. I still don’t know if this is just typical UN overcautious, or if the situation was really that volatile that things could have gone south at the drop of a hat. Either way, at no point at all did I feel the least bit unsafe:

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After the falls, our driver asked if we would like to see the small city of Boali. Absolutely! He took us to the house of the local pastor, saying we would be safe with the pastor walking us through the town on a Sunday…nobody would mess with the pastor!

We set off on the walk, and everyone we passed was smiling and waving to us, and greeting the pastor. It was a super cool experience. A little girl with her mother, playing in the wreckage of a burned out car:

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Street shot of the town of Boali:

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The walk was super interesting, and the pastor was happy to share his views on things. Seems the Seleka rebels had come to Boali because of the hydroelectric plant there, and they wanted to cut power to the capital. People resisted him, but he said they brutally killed hundreds of townspeople. You wouldn’t know it from the friendliness we saw, but apparently Boali had seriously suffered as recently as just six months ago.

I wanted to keep walking and talking to him more, but the sun was also super strong and we were getting pretty hot, so it was time for the long drive back. On the way, we passed a group of women in very colourful outfits just walking down the road:

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We also saw several men transporting wood on carts like this:

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Very overloaded car…this guy didn’t seem happy to have his photo taken:

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We made it back to the hotel late afternoon, and grabbed a snack, hanging out for the rest of the day. We considered wandering the city, but given we didn’t really have the lay of the land and darkness was just over an hour away decided it probably wouldn’t be the best of ideas. It was time to fly out early the next morning and continue the adventure!

May 142015
 

Although I slept better at the Asmara Palace hotel and got nearly 10 hours on and off, the incredibly warm room made it hard to sleep too well. Headed down for breakfast eventually, which was included, and the spread was pretty disappointing. Toast is usually the one reliable option anywhere in the world, but in this case there were just a few mediocre baked goods, some sketchy looking cold cuts, and some canned fruits. They were making eggs to order, and I did get a pretty good cheese and onion omelette. Oh, and the coffee was reasonably good as well.

Ended up chatting with a couple of Canadian guys sitting at the next table about the Caps win over the Rangers a couple hours prior, and discussed the woes of being Jets and Leafs fans at this point in the season. They were in Eritrea for work, working on a couple of large mining projects. The government seems to be opening up a bit, and allowing a bit more outside investment which should help a bit.

If you’ve read my recent blogs, you know that in November you know I ran into the Chinese Premier in an elevator in an Auckland Hotel. Then, back in February, I ran into Ugandan president Musevini in an elevator in Kampala.

So, as I was getting ready to leave on my daytrip, there was a huge security entourage pulling up to the Asmara Palace and hustling someone very important looking in…and when I saw the flag on the car it just confirmed it: it was semi-deposed President of Yemen Hadi! This just keeps getting weirder!

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My driver eventually showed up nearly 45 minutes, turned out they’d had some trouble getting a permit for me to visit Massawa (foreigners require an individual permit for each trip outside Asmara, and you can only apply for one at a time) but eventually it had arrived and he came to pick me up. The day before we’d been in a standard medium sized car, but today was a four wheel drive. Asmara is at 2,300 metres above sea level and the weather is quite nice – around 22C/72F during the day but Massawa is on the coast and rather hot…hitting 46C/115F the day I was there. Yikes!

A short way out of Asmara, we began the long, winding, gradual descent towards Massawa:

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Scenic descent:

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Mosque in a small village along the route:

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This was a common site on the drive, local men herding cattle along the side of the road:

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After about two hours, we crossed the final bridge towards Massawa:

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Driving into the city, our vehicle started to overheat due to the stifling temps, so my driver stopped to add coolant or some such thing. I used the opportunity to snap some photos of some tanks from the Eritrea-Ethiopia war which were on display:

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Entering down from the intersection:

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Bombed out building from the war:

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Finally, we drove into the old city of Massawa, and stopped on the coast to take some photos:

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At this point, I was hot, hungry, tired, and a bit cranky, and asked my driver to stop at “somewhere nice on the water” so I could have some food and a drink. He dropped me at what he said was the nicest hotel, and asked “you stay for 90 minutes? I want to swim.” Swimming did sound nice, but with a healing tattoo and being tired and such there was no way I was going to. I told him to go ahead, and I would sit and have some lunch.

I sat at a small outdoor patio with maybe 8-10 small groups of Eritreans, and ordered an Eritrea Beer and tried to cool down. The fans were helping slightly, but when it’s 46C and humid out there’s not too much you can do. I ordered the “spaghetti and meat sauce” to go with it, and it was delicious despite only making me warmer. I have to say, the Italian food in Eritrea was so far surprisingly rather tasty!

Then….CRASH! My plastic lawn chair absolutely gave out from under me and two of the legs shattered into shards and I fell to the concrete floor. This, combined with all the flies and mosquitoes trying to nibble on my healing tattoo had me rather grouchy, despite having finally gotten some food and drink.

The staff were super nice, making sure I was ok, and stacking two chairs on top of each other for me. Thanks. Now I feel fat. LOL.

At this point, a Sri Lankan guy came over and started chatting with me. He worked on a ship that was in port “picking up some supplies” and then heading back. Then, he beckoned over his Captain who was also eating there. He was a Ukrainian gentleman with nearly no English spoken. They were delivering a large shipment of food and oil to Eritrea, and picking up “supplies in transit” to carry onwards. They asked what I was doing there, and I told them I’m working on visiting every country, and Eritrea was #178 for me.

We discussed which countries I still had left, and I mentioned the list, and then said Yemen, and asked if they’ve ever been there. “Oh yes, we go to Aden port all the time with supplies. I know many people there.” Hmmm…. I tried to get more info out of them and where they were going, but the Captain seemed pretty reluctant. When he left, the Sri Lankan explained they picked up cargo in Eritrea that was “in transit from neighbour countries” and took it across the Red Sea. Use your imagination…

Then, the Captain came back, and offered a “speedboat ride” east into the Red Sea. Now, Eritrea has no data roaming, I wasn’t sure just how far away Yemen was, but I was pretty sure he was offering to try and give me a quick ride there to check it off. So, of course, I agreed. I told him “I can’t pay you for it” and he said “no no, this is just for fun” so…I agreed to go. Probably the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done travel-wise, but hey, there aren’t many options yet… I asked him exactly where we’d go, and he just kept saying “onto the water to see things from the water.” Ok, vague, but at a minimum it would be an interesting little cruise!

We headed out onto the water, passed the Dahlac Islands marine sanctuary, then out onto the open Red Sea. There were several small islands sticking out and soon we were on the open water. Maybe 30-40 minutes off shore the guy piloting the boat started to freak out, and suddenly turn the boat really sharply to the side. The Ukrainian guy said “look over there – they’re shooting” and I could make out what seemed like a boat in the direction we’d been heading. I asked “who are they” and he said “I don’t know – but we cannot wait to find out – they are shooting!”

Sooooo….we turned straight around and hightailed it back to Massawa. I was mainly concerned because the three guys on the boat had seemed so confident it was safe to head out onto the water, and now they were suddenly freaking out. The boat didn’t seem to be following us, and soon we were safely back to Massawa port:

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…and that’s where it started. “Perhaps you have a gift for us.” “I told you I cannot pay you.” “I know, but perhaps you have a gift.” Ended up agreeing to buy them a large pallet of beer from the hotel which still ended up being way more money than I’d planned on for a trip to Massawa, but well worth it for the story. Looking at the map when I returned, they were clearly not suggesting Yemen – way too far away, but merely just doing a joyride on the boat…which was cool!

My driver was back from his swim and just hanging around, and didn’t seem at all concerned I’d been gone over three hours instead of the 90 minutes we’d talked about…hahah. So, we packed up the car and started back towards Asmara. On the way, we drove through the edges of town and stopped outside a house where lots of little children were yelling and running at the car. So we stopped to talk.

The kids seemed very fascinated by me, and the woman I presume was their mother started talking to me. Translated by the driver, she asked “why does your God tell you to wear an octopus?” I’d noticed lots of Eritreans had a cross tattooed on their forehead, and she was genuinely confused why I had a large octopus tattoo on my arm. There was just no way to explain it, lol! I smiled, and showed the kids how to high five, and soon we were back on the road to Asmara.

A common sight along the road:

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We also saw a couple large groups of monkeys along the road. My driver had some nuts to toss at them, which kept them near the car and wanting more:

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Finally got back to Asmara just after 7pm, and headed to the tour company to settle my bill. The owner asked “wouldn’t you like to have another half day at the hotel to get some sleep before your flight? For an extra $60 she was able to get me midnight checkout, which was awesome, so took her up on it. Settled my bill, and then back to the Asmara Palace around 730p. Quick dinner at the Italian restaurant again, and was in bed a few minutes after 8pm. Quickly passed out from exhaustion, and slept 3.5 solid hours before getting up and preparing to head to the airport to start the long trip home….

Jun 102013
 

When I got into this part of the trip, I realized there are a ton of pics and details from this day, so I’ll be splitting my daytrip to Samarkand into two parts.  This is part one, covering the train to Samarkand, a morning of touring, and lunch.  I was lucky to have a day off from work this weekend, and wanted to make the most of it!

Had to get up super early this morning, because I’d been booked on the 7am train from Tashkent to Samarkand.  I had hoped to be on the 8am so I could at least get a little sleep, but unfortunately there was confusion, and my driver picked me up at 6am to go to the train station, leaving me operating only about 5 hours of sleep.  And no breakfast.  And no caffeine.  Well, actually a little caffeine…I’d found a bottle of water the night before, but it was sparkling so I used the gross in-room water kettle to boil some up and make a little instant coffee that was in the room.  Better than nothing!

The drive to the train station was only about 10 minutes, and security was tight.  There were at least three security checkpoints to get into the station checking tickets and passport, but by the time I got it they were already letting people onto the train.  I’d booked the new-ish highspeed train, which made the trip in just a little over two hours, traveling in excess of 200 kph!  There were three classes on the train – regular economy, first class, and “VIP class.”  The price difference really wasn’t that much, so I booked the VIP!  I was too curious not too!

A few shots of the seats:

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One thing that became clear quickly.  There were carriage numbers printed on the tickets, but no seat numbers.  It was first come, first served, with the attendants trying to sit groups somewhat together.  It all worked out on the trip down, but the trip back was a hot mess!

I won’t talk too much about the train trip, since I got many more details on the return when I was more awake.  There was a food and drink cart, and it had Red Bull, so that helped to wake me up a little bit.  I really should have had a second one…and just like that, a little after 9am we pulled into Samarkand station.

I’d debated if I wanted to hire a guide/car before arriving, and in the end, I’m glad I did . The sights were a bit spread out, and I got a good amount of history.  Plus, a car and guide for an 8 hour day for $80 (or so I thought) was pretty reasonable.  He was waiting for me at the station with a sign with my name on it, and we were off.  He asked what I wanted to see….and I said all the historic sights.  Isn’t that what people come here for?  “No club?  No sexy lady?” Uh no, and yes, I had to spend several hours getting grilled about girlfriends…him cracking jokes about “only 3 kids, that I know of, I have girlfriends in many countries.”  It was irritating, but I tuned it out more or less.

After convincing him I really wanted to see all the typical boring historic sights, we were off.    The first stop was the Ulugh Beg Observatory.   It was built in the 1420s in order to determine the midday point.  The most annoying part of this site were the two giant tourbusses full of Korean tourists.  No idea why they seem to come to Uzbekistan in such large numbers, but they apparently do.

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Anyways, back to the Observatory.  A picture of the outside:

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Jun 062013
 

Got to the hotel around 430am, the Hyatt Regency Bishkek:

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Guess this is as good of a place as any to start the hotel review…since I had problems from the very start.  Check-in was quick, up to my room, and it was roasting.  AC and blower weren’t working.  Call down to front desk and ask to switch rooms, “no, we are full, I will send someone up.”  The maintenance guy fiddled with it for 30 minutes and couldn’t get it to turn on either, and then I elevated and demanded a manager.  He still said there’s no rooms, blah blah blah.  I threw a mild fit.  Well, look there, there’s a room on the Executive Floor.  Funny how that worked out!  An hour after arriving, around 5:30am, I passed out…and didn’t wake up until nearly 2pm.

But, back to the hotel.  The staff was friendly the entire time, although I didn’t have a ton of interaction with them.  The perk of the new room was executive lounge access, but it was nothing to get excited about.  A nice espresso machine and cookies (?) in the morning, but in the evening they put out quite a nice snack display with meats, cheeses, etc, and free beverages.  I was allowed to bring my colleague in as well, so that was a nice perk.

Other than that, we really didn’t use any hotel facilities.  We had one drink in the bar which tried really hard to be cool, but weren’t overly impressed with it.  There was an in-house travel agent, who was fantastic and managed to book us a daytrip for the next day at around 9pm – impressive, and more on that later.

The room was comfy enough, and no complaints about the bed or room temp once I got a room where the AC worked.  It was plenty quiet, and my room had a huge shower and tub in it.  I would say the paying the extra $20 or so for the deluxe room upgrade was way worth it – it was double the size of the standard rooms plus had a king bed.  Overall, no question this is THE place to stay in Bishkek.

So, woke up at 2pm, and decided to go for a stroll.  I’ll go through the sites pretty quickly, and I didn’t see all of these the first day….since I had the weekend to recover.  But, going to post them all now regardless.

We’ll start right next to the Hyatt with the national opera and ballet:

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A short walk away was the Dom Soyuzov, a very cool Soviet-era building:

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