Monday, September 27, 2010

Samarqand, Uzbekistan

Bonjour, Hallo, Hola, Ni Hao, Salam Aleikum…

I am (still) in Samarqand, and have been picking up bits of French, German, Spanish (refresher), Mandarin, Arabic, and other languages including Hebrew, Uzbek, and Russian, from all the travelers here. I have been staying at Bahodir’s for the past week or so, and am currently planning on leaving tomorrow (the 28th). At $6 a night including breakfast and unlimited tea, honey (it’s SO good) and watermelon, this is by far the best deal I will come across in Uzbekistan, so I figure it’s financially strategic to spend a disproportionate amount of time here. I’ve also loved meeting so many people (still no Americans, and all are relatively much older—but they’re cool) and getting to know them over the course of a few days. I’m following my friend Leslie’s advise to stay still when I find a place I love!

For the first few days I was still recovering from my bout of bronchitis, which I think I may have passed on to several Germans here… whoops… so I took it pretty easy, only doing one thing in the morning and then chilling at the hostel in the afternoon. Some hostels have a good vibe for hanging out, and some don’t exactly encourage fraternization. Bahodir’s definitely has a good vibe. Some of the things I’ve been “doing” are…

1) Getting an astrology lesson from a 50-year-old British free spirit. Apparently, as an Aquarius, I am humanitarian, creative, unique, individualist, independent, and a bit stoic/stubborn. The world is about to enter a phase of revolution similar to the events of 240 or so years ago (American and French revolutions).
2) Visiting a paper-making workshop outside the city. This is the only place other than Il Papiro, the papermakers in Italy, where I have witnessed the process of marbleizing paper, and here I actually got to try my hand at it. I went with a group from my hostel, and the tour itself lasted about ten minutes including discovering a few dozen types of livestock across the various buildings and open spaces, and then we sat around drinking tea, eating basil and a rock-hard sweet that everybody tried passing off to each other, and trying to communicate with our Uzbek hosts in very limited Russian/Uzbek. I learned the Uzbek word for friend- “doost”- here, which brought my grand total of Uzbek words to… five? Asal is honey (this is crucial to my existence here), rakhmad is thank you, sum is the currency here, kasa is still ticket (has been in Poland, Ukraine, and here), tea is chai.
3) Attempting to sneak into every major monument and old building here without paying. This is usually quite a successful activity. It’s almost as though the authorities here want you to be able to enter without paying. There are multiple back entrances to the mosques, the Registan, and the mausoleums, which are actually completely open in the back so long as you walk through an old cemetery to enter. We make fun of the tour buses that bring in massive groups of English and German tourists just to see isolated sites at full cost and stay in overpriced hotels.
4) Eating vegetable dishes from the bazaar nearly every day for lunch (lately I’ve been too lazy to walk the quarter mile to the bazaar for lunch, so I live off the watermelon, honey, and scraps from other people/the refrigerator). Though definitely not the most sanitary, I have yet to get sick, so it’s all good. I’ve also been sampling some really good Uzbek fruit, like soft yellow figs, pomegranates, apples, strangely shaped super-sweet grapes… this is almost as good as the fruit bowls in Thailand!
5) Walking around the old town and old Jewish quarter, of which seemingly nothing Jewish is left. It was interesting, however, to be walking down narrow dusty alleys filled with playing children, walking couples, and chatting off-duty, teal-uniformed policemen (there are more policemen here than nearly any other country I have visited), and suddenly come across an empty, relatively well-maintained park with a brand new monument, complete with grammatically-incorrect English plaque, to Karimov. The government clearly had to bulldoze an old neighborhood to make way for this useless display of power.
6) Going to an Uzbekistan club football match. I do not know football, but I know these teams suck. Samarqand’s team, Dinamo, was playing the team from Qarshi, near Afghanistan, called Nafaz, I think. I was one of maybe three women in the whole stadium of hundreds of people. A ticket cost a bit over $1 (open seating), a t-shirt $2, but no liquids (water, beer, coke, whatever) were permitted to be brought or bought in the stadium, so the two Germans, French guy and local couple (a host family for one of the Germans) I was with had to subsist off of ice cream and sunflower seeds. It’s a hard life.
7) Immediately after the football match, we joined up with the rest of the Germans and nearly everybody else staying at our hostel (including no less than 40 other Germans, 34 of whom were traveling together on some sort of “geography” business and insisted on playing the guitar every morning, right outside the dorm, at 6am-bad hostel karma) to go to a concert of Die Toten Hosen, a German rock band from the 80’s on tour in Asia that randomly decided to play in Samarqand. Two Germans and a Belarusian working in Tajikistan on a German development project had come up for the weekend specifically for this concert. Policemen yelled at people for cheering standing up at the football game, so we were a bit concerned about the police at this concert. However, the police did not seem to have the authority to control the Toten Hosen themselves, who ended up shirtless and singing from in the pond on which the pavilion’s platform hung out over.

I’m reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity on my phone, The Wild Things by Dave Eggers (my own book), Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (a friend’s book), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (a book donated to the hostel). I also read my new friend Emma’s PhD thesis proposal on the use of music to reinforce nationalism in former Soviet States—really interesting and relevant to past CA classes on colonial/post-colonial Africa, modern middle east, etc.
As I recently wrote a friend of mine: One month out, and I’m having a very good trip so far. A lot of good experiences and learning and living. I love the freedom, independence, choice, and the time I have given myself. My friend Ben, who is also taking a gap year involving several interesting jobs/internships, travel, and more, told me that one major reason he decided to defer college for a year was because quite often we get stuck on a treadmill in life, mindlessly moving forward from one thing to the next, and at every opportunity it is important to take the time to break away from that treadmill and do something different.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why travel is an important experience, because before I left my brother Alex asked me why I was going, and the best answer I could come up with was “because I want to.” A lot of it has to do with the people you meet in the hostels and on overnight buses and in airports. As Myung, a wonderful Korean woman I met here in Samarqand said, it is more than coincidence when you meet somebody here; it’s like a small miracle. You can literally walk up to anybody you see, not just in the hostels- on the street, at a restaurant or café, at the bus station—whether they appear to be a traveler or not, and because you are a traveler, it’s like you have permission to talk to anybody about virtually anything—astrology, politics, visas, bathrooms, malaria, the two words that best describe Massachusetts (I said “not Bush”), jobs, languages, whatever.

Another part of the benefits of traveling is the appreciation for daily necessities and experiences. Every time something goes well, or works—whether it be navigating your way to the proper bus as the bus station, or the fact that the toilet flushes—you appreciate it so much more. At home, you get used to things working, but every time something works out, you can appreciate it, feel the luck, celebrate the success, feel proud of the accomplishment, understand the tiny miracle that it is. It’s conscious living. My friend Dan had a teacher at City Term that has a blog called the Don’t Know you Don’t Know Zone, the idea being that there are things we know, things we know that we don’t know, and then the vast majority of things, which we have no idea that we don’t know anything about. This teacher wrote about how travel exposes you to the DKDK zone more than your typical daily life, and stretches you because of this.

Going to find some internet so I can post, now! Happy near-October!


Kiev, Ukraine to Tashkent, Uzbekistan


I left off in Kiev last week, feeling slightly improved after my day-long sleeping marathon and self-imposed embargo against physical movement. It turns out this upswing did not hold out, but first things first.

As usual, I decided to depart my hostel in Kiev with hours to spare before I needed to board my flight, feeling that I would rather arrive much too early than a few minutes too late. After asking direction from about a dozen different people in varying combinations of sign language, Ukrainian, Russian, English, and grunting, I made my way to the proper metro, then the proper connecting metro, then a mashrutka to the airport, to the correct terminal, and finally I found the check-in desk. However, check-in only opens for a select few flights at a time, so I waited over an hour in the airport terminal before figuring out where to go. Though it was not necessary to wait quite as long as I did, I ended up being second in line—or rather second in mob—for my particular flight, and caught my first glimpse of Central Asia as masses of largely male Chinese-Russian-Middle Eastern-Eastern European faces swarmed around me. The concept of a line was lost on this particular crowd. People were checking all sorts of strange boxes, from fruit juice squeezers to kitchen appliances to unidentifiable metal contraptions, seemingly taking advantage of either a good exchange rate or a surplus of cheap electronics in Ukraine. When I handed my second passport, which I had used to enter Ukraine, to the man behind the counter, I noted his visible confusion over the lack of a visa to Uzbekistan, and then heard him talking to his colleagues. At this point I decided to intervene, and handed him my OTHER passport, this one with the visa to Uzbekistan. I was concerned that presenting two passports would be more of a problem than a solution, but this is one instance in which having a language barrier between us helped. I think he thought that it was not worth the effort of figuring out why I had two passports, and decided to just go with it. After getting my boarding pass, I noticed that the flight, though advertised as Aerosvit, was operated by “Windrose Airways.” This was either “cosmic,” as my mother would say, as my middle name is Windrow, or something to be nervous about.

I proceeded up to passport control, where a few of my fellow passengers were milling about, confused. It seemed that nobody was on duty for Ukrainian passport control, so after a few minutes we figured that this must be intentional and proceeded through to our gate. Several flights to Tel Aviv were leaving around the same time as my flight, and a few Israeli men were playing guitar and drums as they sang beautifully. I sat and ate a sandwich, listening to them and watching all the Israeli kids run around the gate, but after a while I became concerned that my lack of exit stamp would be problematic at some point. I asked one of my fellow Tashkent-bound passengers with whom I had been conversing earlier about this problem, and he laughed, having encountered the same dilemma, and then took me over to an airport worker who directed me back to passport control, where somebody was now on duty. Once again I handed them both of my passports, having to show both my entry stamp to Ukraine and my visa to Uzbekistan, and a similar it’s-not-worth-the-trouble outlook took effect with the passport control agent. Soon I was boarding my flight, and found myself in the row before the emergency exit, which means I could not recline my seat. Out of Nyquil, I took some Dayquil, hoping it would help me sleep as I had been coughing a lot getting to the airport. Two meals were served in this four hour flight, and somehow, I ended up with a vegetarian meal! The fact that “Windrose Airways” can get my meal preference right, but most major airlines can’t, must mean something about the way this world works.

Unfortunately I did not sleep well on this flight, and the plethora of cough drops I consumed did not do great things for my digestive system, so despite the unusual airline, sunrise over what appeared to be the Aral Sea, and odd passenger make-up, and vegetarian food options, it was not one of my better flights. At Uzbek passport control I was concerned that my supposedly non-existent visa would cause issues. According to the Uzbek embassy websites in New York City and Washington DC, tourists may only obtain visas for 7- or 14- day periods. However, after several phone calls on the part of my father and myself to the embassy, we managed to wrangle a 30-day tourist visa, a class of visa which used to be available but in recent years has expired. (For anybody traveling to Uzbekistan/Central Asia using Lonely Planet’s 2007 edition of Central Asia—check current visa processes! The ones in the book are outdated.) I was also supposed to have indicated my itinerary for my entire stay in the country, but I managed to get out of that as well. My unusual visa did not cause any problems at the border, and I remembered to fill out how much American cash I had with me, as I knew this could present troubles for future border crossings (normally I under-estimate on customs forms, as saying you have a lot of money or even souvenirs sometimes raises questions which you don’t want to be raised).

Murad Mirzo from Turk Turizm’s National House Hotel met me at the airport and took me back to his house/hotel near the old part of Tashkent. I was feeling exhausted, sick, and generally run-down, and decided to spend the day in my room other than a brief adventure to exchange money at the bank. Mirzo’s guesthouse had only one other guest at the time, a non-English speaking Russian, and I saw from his guestbook that this level of occupancy was fairly standard. He had guests from several continents and regions—East Asia, the other stans including Afghanistan, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East—but his English was not exactly ideal, so we continually called up his son, who was in university, to translate between us. The largest denomination of Uzbek money, called “sum,” is 1000, which is equivalent to about $0.60 US. I left the bank with a couple pounds of sum in a plastic bag, knowing it was likely I would burn through even more cash during my stay.

I spent the rest of that day eating Professor Mirzo’s cookies, bread, and watermelon, resting in my room and emailing people from my phone. I went to bed early only to find I could not sleep because of how much I was coughing. With few options where medicine was concerned, I took a couple of Benadryl to pass out.

I woke up in the morning feeling worse, and realized that nearly two weeks had passed since I had first felt sick, and that I had been getting progressively worse as time went by. If I had followed a similar course at home, I figured, I would have been resting at home and already diagnosed by a real doctor. And this was seriously impacting my experience traveling—I remember Ukraine through a haze of congestion, sore throats, and coughing. Time to call home!

We ended up deciding to move me to a much nicer hotel, “subsidized” by my parents, where, for example, staff spoke English, there was a bathroom in the room, not a walk across a courtyard away, and no guesthouse managers urging me to get out and see the sights. My miracle-worker parents arranged for a car from my new hotel to pick me up, something that was awkward to explain to Mr. Mirzo but which saved me from having to explain to him in English, translated by his son. I'm pretty sure he thought I hated his place and was finding an excuse to leave, but at a certain point (and this was that point), you have to put your own needs before other people’s feelings. They also looked up where I could see a good doctor who spoke English, and found the Tashkent International Medical Clinic—essentially the embassies’ clinic. Because it was the weekend I had to have an “emergency consultation.”

According to a very sweet Uzbek doctor, bacteria have been attacking my trachea and sinuses for the past twelve days, and would continue to attack them until I started taking four different types of medication, which she gave me. She did a full check-up on me, and then, unable to determine exactly what was wrong, she took my blood and ran some tests. Apparently, I have a few too many granulocytes, which indicates a high level of bacteria in the blood—or something. She said it was like bronchitis. With some antibiotics, sinus decongestant spray, cough syrup and a pill to make my nose stop running, I would be better in a few days.

For the next three days and nights I never left my hotel other than to pick up my bill at the clinic once, and walk around the building to get some fresh air. I accomplished very little other than achieving an increased understanding of the limits of my own boredom, which I now know quite well. From what I could tell of Tashkent—and I saw a fair bit of it out of taxi windows—this was the Uzbek city in which it was okay to be stuck inside all day. Unlike Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, there are no true Silk Road architectural gems, or anything mind-blowing at all, really. I used my time to research the rest of Uzbekistan, planning out my time here, and figure out how to download Kindle—for free!—on both my MacBook and my blackberry! It was a very exciting discovery, and I am now reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity, a book which came out days after I started traveling.

On my fourth full day in Uzbekistan, I finally felt well enough to begin traveling again, and set out for Samarkand. My up-market hotel first thought I wanted a private taxi to take me there, which made me laugh. A private taxi would probably cost hundreds of dollars—my bus ticket ended up costing about $4. There is nothing quite like walking into a bus station and having everybody stop what they are doing to turn and stare at you, this strange young white girl with a massive backpack and unusual clothing. But rather than alienating me, I found that most people were quite helpful and nice, laughing about our miscommunications rather than being frustrated, rude, or disdainful. The four hour bus ride was uneventful, hot and cramped, because I had to bring my backpack on board the bus. Uzbek “highways” are unpaved roads with a fair number of semi-intentional speed bumps (potholes) that sent us rocking and shaking for minutes on end. Local women tried shoving pastries, sweets and drinks through the open bus windows—luckily, I had an aisle seat and left it to my seatmate to fend them off—and the driver blasted Uzbek pop through the bus periodically. Local Top 40 music is really interesting—often, lyrics are in English, and have very little meaning besides the typical American Top 40 cliches. You might think music would reflect on the culture a bit—maybe this weakens the correlation between American hit music (usually pretty horrible) and the quality/depth of American culture? I hope so.

Arriving at the bus station in Samarkand, or Samarqand, as Uzbeks now spell it, I knew I was a fair distance from the area that Bahodir’s B&B, where I hoped to stay (that is, if it still exists…) was located. Luckily, I stick out here, and a mashrutka driver waved me over. He cleared off the passenger seat of his mini-bus and forcibly took the backpack off my back and sat me down. A few stops down the road he finally turned to me to ask where I was going… uh oh. Luckily (my logistics seem to involve a lot of luck) this mashrutka was going nearby, and when I got off a young boy sort of followed me for a while, possibly to help me, possibly for a tip, possibly for companionship and possibly because we happened to be headed the same direction. I became a bit concerned, as he did not seem to know where I was going, so after a while I spotted a hotel on my map, figured out where I was and waved goodbye (a kind way of saying leave me alone) to my “friend,” and headed to Bahodir’s, where I am now! I’ve been here one night and I’ve met a lot of other travelers from all over the world (no Americans, of course) and spent today with several of them. More about Samarkand in my next post!

Love from the old Silk Road,


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Krakow, Poland to Lviv to Odessa to Simferopol to Bakhchysaray to Simferopol to Kiev, Ukraine

I apologize in advance for how long this post is! Skip around to different cities- I titled them in bold.


Sorry for the extreme gap between posts. Since I left off from my last post I have spent five out of eight nights NOT in beds, and am about to get on an overnight (though only about four hours in flight time) flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As you can see from the title of this post, I’ve been quite busy getting to know the Ukrainian long-distance transportation circuit. We’ll get there eventually, but for now: Krakow.

When I arrived in Krakow I walked over to Greg & Tom’s hostel, which had been highly recommended by some friends who I’d met in Warsaw. Greg & Tom’s includes breakfast, dinner, and snacks, and often free vodka and activities, and in general had a great vibe. However, they were full for the night other than an above-the-budget private room, so the guy there helped me look up another hostel in the city. For anybody going to Krakow, I would highly recommend Greg & Tom’s—dinner smelled delicious and the guy was very helpful despite the fact that I was not paying him anything! I ended up staying at Mama’s Hostel, which turned out for the best as I met the coolest family there, the Crockfords. The two parents, Andi and Kevin, and their 19-year-old daughter Rachel, had all sold everything and left their lives outside Seattle, Washington behind and had been traveling through the middle east and Europe for the past six months and had travels throughout India and Southeast Asia planned still—and possibly elsewhere—for the next year or more! Their blog,, is cool, so you should all check that out. Kevin and Andi bought Rachel, me, several Aussie guys and a bunch of British guys who were in Krakow for a couple nights solely to party—all of whom were staying at our hostel—wine and pizza, and we all had a great night. I didn’t get much sleep at all, and only had part of the next day to see Krakow, but it was cool seeing some of the old city at night with new friends.

After packing up way too early the next morning, I said goodbye and headed over to the train/bus station to book my ticket to Lviv, Ukraine. My bus turned out not to leave until nearly 10pm, so I lugged my stuff back to the hostel, said hi again to my friends from the night before, then headed back out to check out some of the city and find some real food- I had subsisted off of bread only the day before. I ended up giving up on the food hunt fairly quickly, and headed to the Subway next to the hostel. Subway has a very distinct smell, which is funny to encounter when you’re halfway around the world. I headed up to Wawel Castle—the sun was behind clouds again, so, of course, I got lost—and then around to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that has become a sort of indie/artsy area with a lot of cool galleries, cafes and cars painted funkier than the Minga van! I was pretty wiped out, though, and as it was the Jewish high holidays at that point none of the Jewish buildings (including the country’s oldest standing Jewish synagogue) were open to explore, so I headed back to the hostel. The Crockfords and I spent the day hanging out in the common room as they too had a train to catch that evening, and we ended up making friends with a new group of English guys in Poland to party. Around 8pm we said goodbye to all of our friends at Mama’s and went out to dinner on the main square. It was cool talking to Rachel’s parents and hearing more about their adventures. Other than two guys from Florida who I also met briefly at Mama’s, these were the first Americans I had met (and I haven’t met any more since) on my trip, so it was also cool to talk to people from “home.” We sat at dinner a bit too long, and I ended up running to make my bus.

Like my first overnight bus trip to Albania, this bus crossed the border around 2am, and people were talking on it too much for me to sleep the rest of the time. The Poland-Ukraine border is notorious for giving difficulty to American travelers, but other than the two hour wait (I had heard it could take up to six) it went very smoothly and much too early in the morning I found myself on the outskirts of Lviv, the supposed “new Prague” of Ukraine. The outskirts, however, look more like a series of crumbling concrete Soviet prison cells, and at first I was a bit disheartened. It took hours to figure out the public transit system there, but a 20 minute mashrutka (shared mini-van with a set itinerary) ride cost under $.25 US, so it was all good. When I got to the city center, I asked directions from a guy coming off the mashrutka with me, and he ended up being an off-duty policeman (supposedly—I never gave him a bag to carry despite his offers because his “badge” looked more like a really poorly done computer printout. Then again, that’s probably what real police badges look like in Ukraine). He literally walked me to the doorway of the hostel, despite him speaking no English and me not speaking Ukrainian or Russian. I quickly realized that it would be a challenge to navigate here more so than any other place I’ve been alone, because the alphabet is Cyrillic, not Latin, and peoples’ second language is Russian, not English. I spent that morning wandering around Lviv, and though the sun was out I still had a hard time navigating because most of the street signs were in Cyrillic. Lonely Planet does not offer Cyrillic translations of their maps, which are pretty useless when you butcher the transliterated pronunciations anyways.

My first encounter with Ukrainian food was at a popular cafeteria-style eatery around the corner from my hostel. My meal cost… $3.50! It was very exciting. I also laid out my wet laundry when I arrived at the Kosmonaut Hostel, where I was staying, and thanks to my new mesh laundry bag (thank you Patty!) none of it was mildewed. After two nights of practically no sleep I gave up on doing anything productive and spent the afternoon writing my last blog post (which, as you can tell, required too much brain power for that day), catching up on some emails, reading up on Ukraine, downloading photos from my camera and skyping/fb chatting with my friends from home. A guy I met at a conference in Brazil a couple years ago, from Gambia, sent me a message, and I realized I had a connection there for later this year! Very cool.

I slept 14 hours that night, and was therefore late checking out, but it ended up not being an issue. Somewhere between the sticky wooden floors, funky smell and the fact that it was located in Ukraine, I didn’t get the feeling like the Kosmonaut was too popular a place. I bought my overnight train ticket to Odessa, and for a first class berth it only cost about $15! As you can probably tell, the prices in Ukraine were a major hit for me. I also walked up a hill and into a church, where you could light candles for prayers. I’m not a religious person, really, but coming from a family of semi-pyromaniacs, something about lighting candles always seems nice to me, and I lit a few as prayers for several people who have recently passed away in my life.

Walking around Lviv I realized that, just as Warsaw had been the city of black high heels, Lviv was the city of stiletto-heeled boots. How all those women made it across obstacles courses of crumbling roads, cobblestones and multi-story, elevator-less buildings day after day was beyond me.

Later that day I gathered my pack and things I had left at the hostel—I’ve found that hostels are really great about letting you use their facilities and leave your bags behind when you arrive early or leave late due to overnight transportation—and headed around the corner to catch the tram to the bus station. It was quite a packed tram, so I figured that, like the mashrutkas, you could wait until the crowd had thinned a bit to buy a ticket. I ended up getting pulled off the tram by two undercover cops after a couple of stops. It was one of those moments where you just act as stupid as you can manage and hope that you don’t end up in jail. I had to pay a fine of 20hry, which is about $2.50 USD, and they pointed me to the next tram going the same direction with a brand new ticket. It was hard not to laugh. The fine was probably more like 10hry for locals, so if this was Lviv’s attempt to crack down on crime, I could see why international mafia rings were still in business.

That night’s train ride was quite pleasant, though I had begun to feel the symptoms of some variant of a cold virus earlier that day. The train compartments held four bunks, and I was assigned a lower bunk so I stored my backpack in the bench underneath. It was actually quite a secure system, as somebody would have to lift both me and the bench to access the bag. There was only one other passenger in my compartment, a grandfather named Anatoly who tried to buy me a beer from the food cart and then showed me pictures of his baby granddaughter, Katya, and his two daughters, on his cellphone before snoring the night away. I kept reading Everything is Illuminated, then turned off my light, put my computer, phone, and passport behind my pillow, and did my best to sleep for as long as I could. Usually I am exceptionally good at sleeping on overnight buses and trains, and this bunk came with a mattress pad, blanket, pillow and sheets, so it was a lot more comfortable than I expected, but I always worry that I’m going to oversleep and wake up several cities beyond where I intend. I needn’t have worried, though, as the train car’s overseer knocks on your door about half an hour before you arrive. The bathroom, though entirely metal, was stocked with toilet paper and soap, and seemed fairly clean. At this point, I was quite looking forward to my next train ride in Ukraine!

When we arrived in Odessa my first course of action was to buy a train ticket to Crimea—for that very night. I had decided that I wanted to try to hit up as many of Ukraine’s hotspots as possible, either a very ambitious or very stupid goal, as it required spending the majority of my nights in Ukraine on trains or buses. But after my first experience with Ukrainian trains, I figured it wouldn’t be too bad, and besides, most of my contact with locals occurs while navigating various forms of transportation. My train ticket to Simferopol, which is the main transport hub of Crimea, cost less than $4, which was both exciting and suspicious—it was an equally long journey as the last, but it was suddenly a quarter of the price? Having no means of communicating with the ticket saleswoman, I just smiled and nodded.

Lonely Planet says there is a cheap train station hotel in the station’s main building, but either nobody working there knows of its existence, or it has shut down recently, because it was nowhere to be found. After leaving the train station I decided to walk to Lonely Planet’s top hostel pick, the Black Sea Odessa Hostel, about a mile away, to stow my bags for the day and maybe even use their shower. Odessa enjoys a warmer climate than the rest of the country due to its seaside location, so despite the early time of day the walk was a bit less comfortable than I would have desired. And then I got very confused. Lviv’s major streets had been transliterated into Latin letters, but Odessa’s didn’t bother. It being 9am on a Saturday, very few people were up and about, and most of the people who were awake seemed not to have gotten home the night before (Odessa is a bit of a party town). After walking into somebody’s apartment, thinking it was a hostel, I discovered that the Black Sea Odessa Hostel was either out of business or had moved locations—the woman drinking her coffee said, “Hostel—no!” Eventually I realized that I was literally going in circles and the heat didn’t help, so I snuck into an all-night sushi bar/karaoke club’s bathroom, which, as expected, had just been cleaned for the day. I proceeded to spend about thirty minutes brushing my teeth, washing up as best I could, changing clothes and repacking my bags, as well as clearing my head, and then snuck back out of the bar. I love doing this! (Sushi, by the way, was the thing to eat in Odessa—and most of the rest of Ukraine. Coffee shops have it, pizza places have it, and there are more sushi restaurants than Ukrainian restaurants in busy/tourist areas.) I walked down the block toward a park, thinking that at the very least I could find a shady bench to sit down at for a while, but at the corner I saw a sign for a hotel! Excellent! I walked in and asked if I could, by any chance, drop my bag off with the bellman for the day. The concierge told me rather rudely that I could arrange it with him for a tip, and so I did. I emailed my dad asking how much I should tip the guy, not wanting to offend anyone but also not wanting to overpay just to appease a snappish hotel staffer’s ego. When I walked out of the building, free of my pack’s physical burden, I opened my lonely planet pages to see if the Mozart Hotel, where I had left my bags, was listed. Turns out I had chosen the fanciest hotel in the city! No wonder they didn’t like the look of an un-showered backpacker ☺ It also said the Mozart was known for its irritable staff, so I felt better.

By this point it was nearly lunchtime, and I had only eaten a couple of hardboiled eggs for dinner/breakfast on the train, so I sat down at one of the few establishments that was open that early in the day (menus are only distributed once you have sat down, a fact my waitress pointed out in a similar tone to the Mozart’s concierge. I think the city was full of irritable people—or maybe it was just that they all had to get to work on a Saturday morning) and was directed to the vegetarian dish- literally a plate of vegetables. That, a cup of tea, bottle of water and a dessert pancake nearly finished my food budget for the day. Odessa, it seems, is both an irritable AND expensive city! I spent the rest of the day reading on the Potemkin Steps, walking across the “mother-in-law-bridge” to which couple’s attach padlocks to symbolize their relationships, trying to find cheap food and a place to exchange the rest of my Polish money, and avoiding a lot of sketchy people. By the time I left I was quite glad I had not stayed the night. Odessa was not my cup of tea—at least not during the day. I picked up my backpack from the bellman at the Mozart Hotel and walked back to the train station by way of a McDonald’s. Though I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since I was little (there is nothing vegetarian besides—debatably—the French fries and dessert), they tend to have semi-clean bathrooms and are pretty much everywhere. A lot of Ukrainian toilets are squat-style, which is fine, but usually means the floor is too wet/gross to put down a backpack, so I strategically placed myself by the handicap stall knowing that would have to have a “real” toilet. Also before I boarded my second train of the day, I tried to purchase a bottle of water. Because it’s written in Cyrillic and fizzy water is at least as popular as still water here, I have taken to keeping my old empty bottle so I can match up the letters with those on the new bottle. That or I try to hand-gesture “no bubbles,” which works surprisingly well.

Waiting by the departure board for the platform number to come up, I befriended an old woman also headed to Simferopol. She spoke no English and had a name I can’t pronounce, let alone transliterate, but she helped me figure out which car I was in—the last one—and gave me a pretty clear non-verbal warning that I was in for a rough night. She was right. My sign-language for “first class” had apparently been interpreted as “first car” by the ticket saleswoman earlier that day, so I was stuck in the last train car—the worst of the lowest class. Despite flimsy walls/windows/doors, the car maintained a temperature about 15 degrees higher than the surrounding land. Luckily I arrived at the station early, so I managed to secure a bottom bunk (easier for luggage security plus the added benefit of not stepping on people trying to climb into your bed). This car had a similar layout to my first class train car, except compartments were not closed off and the “hallway” was lined with more bunks. And it smelled like it cost ¼ of a first class ticket. At first my four-bed section was home to myself, a nun (not lying), and a middle-aged woman who literally wiped down her bunk before getting in it (at this point I thought of a conversation I had years ago with Rebecca Kantar and Jackie Assar about wiping down public toilet seats before using them—they did and were very shocked that anybody didn’t). However, the nun inexplicably left after a few minutes, and soon after a herd of Polish backpackers squeezed down the hall with their out-of-date packs. This was okay. One of them spoke a bit of English and they were friendly enough, in an Eastern-European type of way. Then, a couple of seedy-looking, mid-thirties, fake-brand-name-jeans type of guys with no bags (?) sat down at the foot of my bench and proceeded to hit on me and the two Polish girls sleeping in the hallway bunks. This was not so cool. I feigned a complete lack of a sense of humor and became very interested in my blackberry, hoping they would move on, but the Polish girls seemed very interested, unfortunately, so I went to the bathroom (this one lacked a functional door, let alone soap or toilet paper, just to give you a sense of the difference between train car classes) and when I got back I switched into an upper bunk, which was an additional 10 degrees warmer due to the elevation gain. But when it comes to falling asleep inches away from a seedy guy or failing at sleeping a safe distance from him, you always choose the distance.

Getting into dirty, chaotic Simferopol after this overnight transportation marathon was not so fun. Though I really needed a bathroom, the only one at the train station lacked non-wet floors to put down my bag, so I gave up and headed over to the mashrutkas. I wanted to go to Bakhchysaray, a supposedly very cool little town with a well-preserved Tatar palace and some cheap sleeping options. I found a mashrutka but made the mistake of not confirming the price before getting in, and then I confirmed the price with a guy who ended up not being the driver, so I had to pay 40hry instead of the usual 15-20hry for a ride of a similar distance. Though this is only about $5 instead of $2 to $2.50, there are few feelings worse while traveling than knowing you got screwed for being a foreigner. After this incident, I had no interest in getting on another mashrutka, so I asked directions from some people waiting at the local bus station, and headed out. I ended up on a deserted—like, no cars, people, or even stray dogs deserted—country road, so I asked the first person I saw for directions. Turns out the word for “palace” is very similar in Ukrainian/Russian, so I had less trouble getting to the main street by the palace after that. This mashrutka cost 2hry, as most local ones do, but squeezing myself, plus my pack, plus my two small purses/bags into an already packed mini-bus was, well, challenging.

When I got to the center of Bakhchysaray, I realized I was truly in a village. Having needed a bathroom for hours and hours I headed into the palace complex and used theirs, then sat on a bench and looked up where I could stay for cheap in my guidebook. There were two options: one, a small hotel with private rooms for a little over $10, and one, a sort of hostel/campground thing that cost a little under $10. Neither of them seemed particularly easy to find, and as the Bakhchysaray pages in my lonely planet did not include a map (note to self: never find yourself map-less in a place that does not use Latin letters), I figured I would go for the cheaper one. This choice led me through the village, past the school, up a very long hill lined by crumbling houses and trash-filled fields, around a bend and finally, finally, up to the complex that was “Prival,” my choice of residence for the night. More similar to a deserted RV park/family camp than anything else, Prival employed, believe it or not, an English speaking staff-member who had just returned from working on Cape Cod! All of the questions I had been saving up over the past 48 hours ended up flying out of my mouth, so that by the end of our conversation I knew how to say “first class to Kiev,” that trains were busier than buses at this time of year, that you had to ask to enter the shower building, that breakfast was included, and that you could find traditional Tatar food at most of the restaurants in the village. Her name, too, was Katya. It also turned out that their were no dorm rooms, so I got my own private room, heinously decorated in a brown, floral motif with sparkling (yes, sparkling) wallpaper. I spent about twenty minutes lying down on the floor, that was how tired I was. I was also still feeling pretty sick from my earlier-contracted cold, and knew that I only had one shot at showering (you have to pay extra for more than one shower), so I made myself get up and walk back down to the village. It turned out that Tatar food, for vegetarians, means canned mushrooms and olives, sliced packaged cheese, and homemade bread. I had thought that at least the bread would be interesting, as it had been translated into “bread on fire” on the menu, but to no avail. The waiter was very confused that he had a customer, and asked what compelled me to walk up the 20 feet from the main road to his restaurant. Bakhchysaray is the subject of many Crimea bus tours, and not many tourists leave the main street, which I found rather sad. I headed over to the palace, a well-preserved (possibly artificial replica?) building. I knew that tours were in Russian only, so I just slipped in to look around, but I chanced upon a group of English school children and tagged along on their tour. After hearing the guide tell a kid curious about how a structure could be created without nails “trust me,” I realized I would probably be better off exploring on my own. The complex was not very large, but I was glad to have seen it, as Crimea was a stop on the Silk Road, where I will be headed as I explore Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China this fall!

After the palace I ducked into the local supermarket/convenience store and bought a refrigerator-cooled cherry juice (juices in other countries are always more exciting, like real pomegranate juice in Israel), then decided to walk down the main road for a while in hopes of seeing a monastery built into a cliff. Lonely planet was awfully vague about directions in this area, as it didn’t say which way down the road I ought to head, but I figured that if nothing else it would be a pleasant walk. Bakhchysaray resembled Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey, if not with quite as spectacular rock formations. I eventually arrived at a touristy-looking cluster of buildings, but as nobody spoke English I could not determine if I was near the monastery and decided to turn around.

Back at the hostel I brought my “shower ticket” up to the front desk. After the initial frustrated yelling on the part of the woman at the front desk, she cracked a smile and took pity on me, showing me to the shower building. Now, I have gone weeks without showering, bathed in rivers and lakes, in water brown with mud, and in public hammams in the Middle East, but this was a special experience. Four shower stalls lined up to face the door, with no curtains, gates, or coverage of any kind between you and whoever happened to peak through the doorway. This was not an all-women’s shower. Rust and dirt covered all of the water fixtures and decaying, splintering crate bottoms served as platforms in the shower. After the initial surprise (the rooms were quite acceptable and the grounds well-kept), I thought practically, and realized that nobody else was in there. I found a key that fit the padlock and locked myself in the building, praying that nobody else would need a shower while I was in there, then headed for the stall in the furthest corner, and therefore the most hidden from the door, in case anybody else with a key decided to come in. The shower ended up being quite pleasant, and I fended off a few people trying to come in by yelling in garbled English, which definitely put them off. Dried off, I tried to find dinner up by the hotel, but the only person around who spoke anything other than Ukrainian or Russian spoke only German and French. I got directions to a supposed restaurant up the hill further in a mix of French, German, Ukrainian and Russian- needless to say, I did not find this restaurant. Eventually I realized that the on-site bar probably served food, but it was pretty busy entertaining a tour group’s worth of very drunk Ukrainians, so I gave up and headed back to my room, where I ate a banana and some cereal I had with me, and watched the only thing I had on my computer- Glee. A lot of backpackers, even solo travelers, would jump at the chance to have a private room at this price, but I honestly prefer a dorm—even one with snoring, smelly, or awkward roommates—because you get to meet people.

The next morning I headed back to the bar for breakfast—it turns out you only get one egg included in the price of the room, but I wrangled two—where I met a woman from Crimea who, from what I could understand, had returned a week earlier from Silver Springs, Maryland, where she had lived for nineteen years, in order to get acupuncture from a Korean doctor working out of Bakhchysaray. Have I mentioned how strange Ukraine is? It was nice having English-speaking company, though.

I headed down the hill after breakfast to catch a mashrutka to the bus station on the “highway” (I’ve come to find that there are very, very few actual sections of highway in Ukraine), from which I caught another mashrutka to the outskirts of Simferopol, and then another one to train station. I did all of this navigating with hand gestures and a lot of confusing names- sometimes saying I was headed to Kiev did the trick, but other times it just made people think I was crazy, like I thought Kiev was down the road. These mashrutkas were packed to the brim, and as a passenger with a backpack, I was shunned to possibly the worst spot on the vehicle, on the stairs by the back door. The other passengers literally pushed me out the back of the mini-bus, which at first concerned me a great deal as I thought I was being told I could not ride the bus at all with a backpack. It was around then that I yelled for the entire bus to hear “does anybody speak English?” and there was a resounding groan that seemed to indicate, “Oh, great, we’ve got an American on board.” In addition to getting crushed by the door several times, I also had to disembark every time anybody from the back half wanted to get off.

At the train station in Simferopol, I was told by two separate “kasa” or ticket desks that there were no trains to Kiev. Luckily, I had discussed this with my Cape Cod friend Katya the day before, so I headed across the street to a very crowded bus station, only to be told in Ukrainian that there are buses to Kiev, but they only depart from the other bus terminal, across town. I deduce this from the ticket saleswoman’s tone of voice and words that sound like the Ukrainian words for bus station, central, Kiev, which I have become familiar with, and some hand gestures. Lovely.

I walk into a convenience store and wait until the cashier has a free moment, then asked how to get to the bus station, using a garbled version for the Ukrainian word for “bus station” and then repeatedly shaking my head when she pointed at the building behind her, saying “Kiev,” again and again until she understood and wrote down the numbers of the mashrutka I had to take and also the Ukrainian word for bus station, which she seemed to think I needed help getting across, despite my best efforts at speaking Ukrainian. This little slip of paper led me to the city’s other, much less crowded bus station, at which I purchased a ticket for a bus leaving that afternoon and arriving in Kiev the next morning. At this point I was not feeling too great, with a pretty bad sore throat and a lack of real food (vegetarians and Ukrainian train/bus station food don’t mix), so I tried to find snacks for the bus but ended up with old fruit and cookies, neither of which helped. The bus, at around $22 US, was my most expensive transportation in Ukraine, and not my best experience in the category so far. I tried to find a bathroom at one of the earlier breaks, and an elderly couple seemed to be looking too, but as it turned out the station did not have one. The elderly couple was taking care of business behind some bushes, but I did not want to be caught running behind the bus with my pants down, so I re-boarded the bus and waited for the next stop, in a couple hours, passing the time by emailing some friends on my blackberry, listening to the music my brothers gave me before I left (Sam Adams—thanks Ben!) and reading the archives of Texts From Last Night when I had enough service. I tried to sleep, and must have succeeded, because halfway through the night the young girl sitting next to me transformed into—not exaggerating—a guy that looked like a sumo wrestler. He was HUGE. I went back to sleep, and when I woke up he was seated a few rows back, next to somebody else—no idea why, but I was very grateful.

When I arrived in Kiev, I looked at a map and found that I was on the opposite end of the city, so I decided to try to find the metro, which would take me to a hostel I had looked up while on the bus. There was supposed to be a subway stop right by the bus station, and when I asked directions people seemed fairly secure with their pointing and hand gestures, but as I walked across a bridge into the clover of one of Ukraine’s few real highways, I knew that something was wrong. I doubled back and headed through an underpass I thought might lead to a metro station, but which ended up taking me into a parking lot/food market and a bunch of old people shopping for groceries. However, there seemed to be a bus stop, so I pointed on my map to the metro stop near my hostel, trying to pronounce it, and a couple of people pointed to the nearest metro stop, which this bus would stop at, right when the bus arrived. I was a little hazy on the directions but I had to go to the front of the bus to buy my ticket (no more near-arrests for me), and by the time I boarded it I had forgotten what my helpers looked like (I had been focusing on the map), so I sat down. After a couple of stops I asked a woman across the aisle, and she pointed out that we were at the metro stop, but the doors closed before I could get off! She said something along the lines of “yell at the bus driver and he’ll open the back doors again” but I didn’t see how that was feasible given my lack of Ukrainian, so I just waited until the next stop then doubled back. And it was, in fact, the metro station! Excellent. I bought a token and headed down the double-time escalators, then had a split second to choose between subways going in opposite directions. Turns out I chose the correct one, and in a few minutes I was back on the streets of Kiev, trying to figure out road signs in Cyrillic. Ukraine is a funny place; when I ask waiters for checks, or hostel owners for maps, or ticket salespeople for tickets, I get snapped at; when I ask convenience store workers for mashrutka directions, or fruit salespeople for the name of the street I’m on, they’re very sweet and helpful. I eventually found where I’m staying, the international youth hostel Yaroslav, a tiny, depressed type of place, but acceptable for my purposes: R&R. I arrived too early in the morning to get my bed, so I asked a guest hanging out in the common room which way to head for food, and he pointed me to a street with a lot of restaurants—the first of which was a franchise of the same chain I had frequented in Lviv! I headed in and got some really good pancakes among other things, then headed off in the direction (or the direction I thought was correct) of the Hyatt, where my second passport containing my visas to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China was supposed to be shipped to. The direction was more or less accurate, but having left my map at the hostel I double-checked with a hotel on the street I was walking. They gave me a map and told me “the distance is not walkable,” which I laughed at internally, as I had found few distances that were not actually walkable. When I looked at the map outside, though, I realized that between me and the Hyatt was a forested hill, and the funicular that normally connects each side was in disrepair. There was one street, however, that seemed to connect the bottom to the top, so I headed for it, not realizing that this was one of the oldest streets in Kiev and quite famous. The Hyatt was in a notably nicer area of town than my hostel, though even in that area there was a surplus of litter and a general feeling of grittiness. Possibly the nicest hotel in Kiev, I was not surprised by the clusters of men in business suits or security guards, but what did strike me, after weeks of sleeping in train cars and on bunk beds in small rooms, was the vastness of the lobby. The concierge woman who helped me (in a sort of “we all know you aren’t supposed to be in here” way) required ID to obtain my package, which, as I had told her, was a passport. I was a bit confused by this proceeding, and struck by the irony of requiring ID to receive ID, but realized I had my driver’s license from home, so it was not an issue. Outside the hotel I opened the package and checked over my visas, which were all in order (WAHOO!), even the Uzbekistan one for thirty days, which was not supposed to be issued at all (according to websites, officials, and private visa service providers—I have a very persuasive semi-diplomat father who is particularly good at, you know, breaking rules).

I sat on a bench outside the Sofia Cathedral- Kiev has a LOT of ornately decorated churches- and then headed back to the hostel to “rest,” as my family and friends had ordered me. Six hours later, around 8pm, I woke up! I went back to the cafeteria and got some dinner before going back to bed for another eight hours, and then resting in bed this morning. I met one of my roommates, a guy from Nice waiting for his visa in order to meet up with his girlfriend in Moscow. It seems that Europeans have it easy when it comes to visa processing—they can get a lot of their visas processed while anywhere on the continent. I showered and headed back to the cafeteria for more pancakes, then packed up and have been sitting here for over two hours, writing this ridiculously long blog post. It has actually served me very well to have to catch up on all this writing, as otherwise I would have forced myself to explore Kiev and not “rest,” as I have been ordered. I am now on my third bottle of water and fourth cup of tea since I got here. I’ve also cleared out my trip’s supply of Nyquil and am nearly halfway through my Advil/Tylenol/Dayquil. But I do feel a bit better! As this hostel does not have Wi-Fi, I’m going to head down the street to a café to post this and grab some lunch, then rest my way through the afternoon until I head to the airport for my late night flight to Uzbekistan! Hope I haven’t bored you all too much- this post is 10.5 pages single-spaced of less-than-perfectly-edited English!

Until Uzbekistan…


Friday, September 10, 2010

Wroclaw to Krakow, Poland

Hi from Ukraine!

First of all, my mom (who is technologically challenged) was very confused about how to comment on this blog, so I did some looking around and I have a solution that everybody can use. If you have a gmail, wordpress or aim (or a few other) account, you can easily enter that information when you comment. If you don't, you can use a gmail account I just created. The email is, and the password is "whereskatie". I don't think it's going to ask you, but the security question is What is Katie's hometown? The answer is Newton. Just remember to sign your name in your comment, because otherwise we won't know your identity!

At the beginning of the week I was in Wroclaw, a small city in the southwest of Poland. It seemed like it would be a cool place to live for a while- there were a lot of students and good places to eat, and old buildings and park to walk around in- but there wasn't much to do other than walk around the city, which can be a bit disheartening when you've traveled for hours to get there. But I found a very good Polish vegetarian fast food chain, Green Way! I was in Wroclaw for two nights, and paid about $9.50 for a bed in a dorm that was over half empty. Two German guys taking leave of university were biking from Berlin to Kiev and beyond, and had a really cool speaker that was about the size of a ping pong ball with excellent sound quality. They usually camped out in farmers' fields so being at a hostel was a bit of a luxury. We swapped a lot of travel stories, which reminded me of this report I've been reading on trains and buses through my blackberry about the social hierarchy of the backpacking subculture. I came across it randomly one day while looking about salsa lessons in Mexico or something along those lines. It's really entertaining to read because a lot of the author's "findings" are very legitimately valid! Check it out here:

Also in Wroclaw I found the Soul Cafe, a more upscale place that served excellent cakes, tea, and delicious dessert wine. I went there both nights I was in Wroclaw and just sat and read my book, I Capture the Castle.

I went to Wroclaw, which I refer to as "gnomeland" amongst my friends from Poland, partially on the recommendation of Meri, Hunna and Meri's brother David who had a great time hunting for little metal gnomes scattered throughout the city as a monument to the city's history of protest, for which the gnome was a symbol.

I'm going to cut myself off here as it has been about 60 hours since I last slept, and I can feel my brain struggling. This is both what I currently look like, and how I feel.

More tomorrow, hopefully, before I head off to either Odessa or Yalta, or maybe both. This week will either have 5 overnights on transportation or four, in eight days.



PS Thank you Jane Levitt for my collapsible water bottle! It's really good.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bialystok to Warsaw to Wroclaw, Poland


I left my wonderful hosts Dominika and Karol (as well as Karol's parents and dogs) in Bialystok yesterday for Krakow via overnight stopover in Warsaw. They sent me off with plums from their garden, homemade french fries, hardboiled eggs and a full stomach of blueberry soup with rice and homemade mushroom soup from mushrooms I picked with them while I was there. Karol's mother was an excellent cook and one of my favorite memories from those few days was going out with Dominika and Karol's father to a delicious gelato place late at night (or early, by their standards- Karol DJed from 10pm to 5am).

I returned to the same hostel I stayed at in Warsaw my first two days, but was assigned to a different room and met some cool Australian girls, a Canadian guy, and one of the Australian girls' brother, who was too hungover to leave his bunk and say hi properly. Everybody but the brother went out to check out some train tickets at the central station, then on a wandering walk to a supposedly beautiful park which I am still not sure we ever found, though the park we did end up in was quite nice. We talked about stereotypes about different travelers--apparently Americans are identifiable by their tendency to wear running shoes all the time (I was, in fact, wearing running shoes that day) and North Face clothing (I just bought a North Face rain jacket before I left). I've found that more or less all the stereotypes about travellers have some truth to them. Luke, from around Vancouver, told me I had to try a Lion chocolate bar, so I went ahead and bought one out of a convenience store for something around $.30 US. It's kind of like a Twix bar mixed with a Milky Way mixed with something else- salty and sweet and crunchy and squishy and really, really good. Thanks Luke! The Australians recommended I go to Wroclaw, which none of us could pronounce, but I had read that it rivaled Krakow in beauty/architecture/history, and the aussies showed me a bunch of pictures of the gnomes that are the signature of the city, spread out as a reminder of protest back in the city's communist days. We called it gnomeland and I went to look up train tickets. When we got back the hostel I took my first shower in a few days, as Dominika and Karol did not have a real shower to speak of in Karol's house and it would have been a bit of a hassle to go back to Dominika's house just to shower. My standards of cleanliness have definitely gone down.

Despite the snoring Turkish guy at the foot of my bed and my extreme dehydration, which I only noticed when it was too late to do much about, I got a fairly good night's sleep. The next morning I packed up, probably in more like 40 minutes (I'm getting better) and headed out to walk around the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. I had limited time, so I headed for the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, old Jewish cemetary, and the oldest Jewish synagogue left in the city. I never made it to the synagogue, and the monument--if I found the real one, which I'm still not sure about--was pretty disappointing, but the cemetary was a powerful place. I walked along the wall for a while to a plaque that explained the significance of the cemetary and that the very wall I had been walking along had once been part of the Ghetto's wall. After access to this official cemetary was cut off, Jews in the ghetto had used a former sports field to bury their dead. I had been particularly drawn to this bit of Jewish history because in middle school I read a book about a kid surviving in the Warsaw ghetto, and some of the imagined scenes had really stuck with me. As it turned out, those images were probably very inaccurate, but seeing the real thing made an impact on me, and I think that for the rest of my time in Poland I will make an effort to explore more of the Jewish history here.

It was raining pretty heavily once again, and I underestimated the walking time, so by the time I got back to the hostel to pick up my backpack I had to run to catch my train. Because of this I failed to pick up food, and having only eaten a handful of cereal that morning I was much too hungry for the roll and hardboiled egg (thank you Bialystok friends!) I had with me. My pack with food supplies was way up on a rack, and as there were seven people and several bags in my 8-person train compartment, I did not feel it would go over well with the conservative-looking grandmother types to mess around with an overstuffed pack just to find some crumbly cereal and further mess up their train compartment. This train was similar to the one I took on a ridiculously hot day from Zagreb to Budapest, at least in set-up, but it was newer and had a certain Hogwarts Express-style charm accentuated by the multiple food carts selling tea, coffee, and other things that came down the hallway every once in a while. Also, we were in a bit of a cold spell, which is much more pleasant to endure while on a crowded train than is a heat wave. Eventually my compartment's inhabitants thinned out, and soon I was left with three grandmother-types. They took pity on me and fed me some grapes and cookies, a welcome respite from my attempts at distracting myself from my hunger by plowing through I Capture the Castle, which I'm loving to read. I had estimated the time of the journey wrong, and it turned out to be an hour longer than I thought it was.

When I arrived in Wroclaw, my first impression was not so great. It looked a bit like Bialystok (a small, fairly industrial town far from any cosmopolitan center of culture) might look on a Sunday, but today is Monday. However, as I walked closer and closer to my hostel, the city transformed. Somewhere between the late night open air flower market, the super cheap dinner and hostel bed, the gnomes I started to see and the massive ratusz, or city hall, in a square with people of all ages walking around despite the chill, I felt myself relaxing and beginning to actually enjoy this city. It didn't hurt that I got some dinner in there. Wroclaw was the first city ever in which I arrived with no hostel reservations, but there were no problems. I think you just have to be aware of festivals, weekends, and school/work holidays in the area, and then you can plan accordingly. I opted for the ten-bed dorm rather than the eight-, figuring that the difference in price would work out as I was so beat from the train ride I figured I could sleep anywhere. As it turns out, there are only about four people sleeping in the ten person dorm! I went out for a nice dessert at the Soul Cafe, which I really enjoyed after my day of fasting, and it cost, at $9.50, more than my hostel had. I realized that I have lived off the money I withdrew from the ATM my first day here, a little more than $150 US. Not bad, considering it includes all food, hostels, buses, trains, and entry fees for seven days. If my whole trip costs this much per week, I'll be good to keep going for quite a while.

I've been thinking about how I can use all the knowledge I've amassed about traveling throughout my life. I think it would be so cool to do some sort of consulting business for students looking to travel alone/independently on a budget or to unusual places. I just sent an email to my older brother Alex explaining how he should advise his friend to search for cheap plane tickets to Africa in December, and realized that I really have learned a lot, just from planning this trip. It's cool to realize you've learned something without noticing.

LOVE from Wroclaw (which I would pay you to pronounce correctly--I have enough trouble with thank you, which sounds like chingku-yeh, sort of)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Warsaw to Bialystok, Poland


On Friday I left Warsaw to come to Bialystok, Poland, where I am currently staying with friends of friends. Friday I woke up and timed myself with how fast I could pack up and leave the hostel. Including getting ready, packing, getting all my stuff off of my 9-ft-tall bunk while not waking up the British guy in the next bed, checking out and doing lots of other random stuff like leaving behind my first completed book and filling up my water bottle (turns out you can NOT drink Polish tap water), it took me about 49 minutes to get out the door.

I finished my first book, The Lottery, by Patricia Wood, my last night in Warsaw. If I keep reading at this rate I'm actually going to NEED to go to English language bookstores, rather than just want to. Inspired by my friend Will Watkinson's Rumi exploration earlier this summer, I'm reading another Sufi poet's work--Hafiz. Then it's I Capture the Castle, Everything is Illuminated, the end of the second Lord of the Rings, and my central asia guidebooks. And Letters to A Young Poet. It's always interesting to juxtapose what I'm reading with where I am.

The young couple I am staying with here in Bialystok can't understand why I like exploring places outside of the main tourist sites, and it got me thinking about that as well. A friend's parent described Poland as a "brown and crumbling place" before I left, and I realized that those words are pretty much the sole criteria for what makes a place worthwhile for me- if it's a little rough around the edges, has a complicated history or confused identity, then that is what I am looking for. The couple also has been off work for about a year, ever since they got back from the United States where they worked for several years. They actually met in the United States, although they live within a few blocks of each other here in Bialystok! I love stories like that, where fate seems to go out of its way to get two people to connect. But the way they live without having the structure of a job seems like it would be more challenging to me than actually having a job. I don't mind changing the structure of my life so much when I am on the road, but at home it's nice to have a routine of sorts to structure the day. But for them, I think it makes total sense, after living for years in a foreign country in order to earn more money, to take a bit of a sabbatical.

Headed back to Warsaw in order to get to Krakow, hopefully in the next day or two depending on the transportation situation... I'll keep you posted! And I'm working on connecting a map to my blog, so you can actually see where I am. I think my hosts think I'm crazy for being on the computer as much as I am!


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Newton to Boston to Frankfurt to Warsaw


First of all, I want to say thank you to everybody who has helped me put this trip together, including my parents and brothers, my friends, some of my teachers, family friends, and the random travelers I have met over the past few months.

A rough itinerary update: it looks like I am headed to Poland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Egypt, and Israel this year, though everything after Uzbekistan is subject to change. I'm hoping to put a map up on this blog, but in the meantime...

I am in Warsaw, Poland, staying at the Oki Doki hostel. It's a colorful place full of young European tourists, but it has a tiny common room with a lot of people drinking beer right now so it's a little hard to type this out. The summary is this.

I lost my phone in the Logan airport--seriously. I am always really careful to not lose track of my important stuff- passport, computer, phone, ipod- but I managed to leave behind my phone at the check-in desk. I only figured this out when I had about ten minutes before my flight was supposed to depart. I ran back to the security checkpoint, where the femal security guards were all rude about it and the guys were really sweet, and when they rescanned my bag and couldn't find anything I asked if one of them could run through and get my phone since I knew it was there and otherwise I would miss my flight. They refused, and told me to choose between my phone and my flight. In my frenzied state I actually calculated the cost of missing my flight versus the cost of replacing my phone. Obviously, I chose the flight. And then as I was running through the gate, I spotted my phone at the desk of the gate. They had brought it through security for me! I was so relieved that it was the first thing I told my seatmate, Deven, a student at Endicott College on her way to study abroad in Florence. Normally I can sleep on red-eye flights, on overnight buses, on airport floors, whatever, but Deven's excitement was infectious and I spent a good share of the night talking with her and Sandra, a German au pair on her way home.

When I arrived in Warsaw it was raining. I needed to find the 175 bus to Centrum and then some form of public transport to Swietokryzska (you try pronouncing that on no sleep). I got directions from four people and eventually found my hostel, where I was not allowed to check in because my bed was not ready. I arrived in Warsaw in a skirt because that gets the least stretched out and unwearable after a flight, but it was freezing! I changed and then went out to find food. The rain was pretty heavy and my pants were soaked by the end of my walk, despite my umbrella--a last minute addition to my suitcase--and my new, very effective rain jacket. Lunch was cabbage, cabbage, and more cabbage. Not joking. I got two things and both of their main ingredients turned out to be cabbage. My other two meals here have been dumplings- which came with an unadvertised side of cabbage- and an Asian stir fry- which came with cabbage in the stir fry and an unadvertised side of cabbage. I think that if you were on an IV, they would give you a side of cabbage, or maybe blend it up and put it in the IV. I was very excited when I found pierogi, Polish dumplings, that were vegetarian, as I have been on a dumpling hunt that began with Willie in Hungary a few months ago. I headed back to the hostel around 3:30pm, wishing it were later so I could go to sleep, and then I got very lost. I usually have a very good sense of direction, but the lack of sunlight and the fact that the rain prevented me from opening a map created a confluence of events that ended up with me, totally soaked from the waist down, with blisters from wandering around in wet, new shoes. I lasted about an hour from when I arrived back at the hostel to when I fell asleep. My roommates here are solidly male, from Switzerland and somewhere in Asia, from what I can tell, and not the most outgoing, which always sucks when you're staying at a hostel. After greeting a couple of them and getting out most of my stuff, I slept--for sixteen hours straight. I did not know it was possible to sleep that long.

Today I showered, washed my clothes from the plane, and realized that when vitamins say take with food, they really do mean take with food, or else you end up with a stomach ache and you have to eat immediately. It was not raining much in the morning, and the afternoon was rain-free except for a light drizzle once, so I enjoyed the weather and wandered around until my dumpling lunchtime and then a quick visit to the Royal Castle. Nearly everything in the castle was reconstructed, which was somewhere between disappointing, saddenning, and entertaining. Included in the display of national talent and grandeur were two busts- one of George Washington, and one of Thomas Jefferson, gifts from the U.S. Embassy. I tried reading on a bench on the street outside the Polish president's house and then, when too many people tried to sit down right next to me, I went over to a big, beautiful park and sat there, where mainly families and businesspeople were walking, so I was not disturbed. I then had dinner at a very cheap, very good Asian diner that lonely planet recommended and went back to the hostel. Tomorrow I go to Bialystok to visit the daughter of Wiecek, who does work on my family's house, and I'm staying with her for a couple of days. I am very excited to hang out with a real Polish person- I have yet to learn any of the language.

Some of my favorite things about Poland so far have been:
-the pierogi! They totally fulfilled my dumpling quest.
-the way everything smells like rain (though not the rain itself)
-the warm blanket in my hostel bed
-the fact that it is 8:30 local time and I am still awake!
-the way the young people dress- like they all are buying Eastern European knock-offs of New York City high fashion
-my first waiter, an abrupt, serious old guy who only smiled when I tipped him.
-the fact that all my stuff has so far dried really quickly

Follow me on my new twitter account, @katiewsimon.

Many more posts to come...