Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Turkey Always. Turkey All Ways.

So, I flew to Istanbul and it is BANGIN. Istanbul is certainly one of the world's finest cities. Within an hour of arriving I had established myself in a hostel, had two baklava, two beers and a kebab sammy. Also I had made a fast friend in the form of Toby a Kuwaiti who spent his days harrassing Turkish vetrenarians for Kentamine. Upon arrival I also got the news that my job wanted me to produce a survery of hotels in Istanbul. I was there for about four days and fell pretty quickly into a routine. After a breakfast of yogurt, honey and beer I would set off around ten and walk the city from hotel to hotel, doing interviews, visiting rooms and touring health spas. I toured everything from hostels to converted Sultanic palaces with suites costing 50,000 Euros. I would get back to the hostel around 8pm exhausted and starving then find Toby to get into some trouble.

Istanbul is huge. It has about 25 million people (!) and the various districts are like cities unto themselves. Some feel like paris, some Beirut and some NYC with everythting in between. It is a huely litereary society with tons of newspapers, celebrity authors, and book shops on every corner. The night life is also HUGE.

My first forray into Istanbul after dark was less than succesful. Toby, a british bookie I befreinded (dave? maybe?), and I headed off around midnight and on the well intentioned but misguided advise of a cab driver ended up in a shady pseudo red light district populated mostly by eastern europeans. I had also, apparently, underestimated how blasted Toby really was but got the picture when he proceeded to vomit outside of the cab. I had honestly only had like two beers at this point and was a bit taken aback. Also nothing spells easy money to a Russian night club owner than a cab full of tourists one of whome is already vomiting. Anyway, I ordered a few over priced beers, and we all discussed where to go from here. A large Russian bouncer came over, concerened with our lack of spending and asked what we were looking for. Toby fell into a discussion with him which I couldn't hear. I assumed he was asking where a dance club was or something. Obviously the bouncer's english wasn't so good because he brought over a napkin and pen for Mo to write his requests on. I wasn't really paying attention. Toby was writng on the napkin but also nodding off. When the napkin got passed back to the bouncer. In the candle light I read:



Uh oh. This was certainly not the turn I wanted the evening to take, especially not in the shadiest club in Istanbul. I thought Toby had been joking and was rectafying the situation when he snatched the napkin back from the bouncer. Instead I watched him draw helpful illustrations on his napkin. One of a pot leaf and one of breasts. It was at this point that the bookie and I took more charge, leading Toby out of the club and baack to our waiting beds.

The next night was a much greater success. I made freinds with a chraming Australian couple and with the man who worked the front desk of the hostel, we hit the town. We started at a lovely open air rooftop beer garden terrace and after a few hours made our way to a club famous for its Balkan dance music. It was above another larger techno club and we walked up six flights of stairs to a small but packed club. There were windows 360 degrees around the space and were dancing literally pressed up against them with seeminly nothing sperating us from the Istanbul skyline and the Bosphorus below. That place was amazing and I danced for maybe three hours until I was literaly too exhausted to stand.

The days were also not without adventure. One of my jobs was to write up my general impression of the vibes of the hotels I visited from the lobbies. I visited the huge Swiss Hotel and wrote in my notes "The lobby is packed with people, although they are oddly aloof and seem very nervous". Only later did I notice the large banners,


I made it a habit of arriving at the nicer hotels in flip flops and stretched out t-shirts, smelling like a hostel. It wasn't a concious decision but it was all I had and I figured if they discriminated against me (none of them did at all) I could write them up as having bad service. Got em. Anyway, one of the major perks of this gig was using the bathrooms of all the five star hotels. I was especially thrilled to try out the Ritz bathroom and had been holding it all day in preperation. I had noticed that many Turkish toilets had this weird nozzle thing projecting from the toiled bowl. I now noticed the ritz toilet also had one and that the toilet itself was attatched to a kind of nob on the wall by a gleaming silver hose. After my bussiness was done I stood eyeing this nob for a while and ultimatly couldn't resist so I gave it a good solid turn. Immediatly a powerful jet of water shot from the hose soaking the entire stall and leaving me utterly drenched from the knees down. I had to conduct my hotel tour squeaking my way loudly across the marble floors, and pushing the Ritz's famaous service to the limit when I left puddles and soggy foot prints across their presidential suite.

Anyway, those are all of the adventures I care to retell in a public forum. I'm in Damascus now and it is abslutly nuts. Completely insane. I'll write more later. Probably from Paris.

Love Jones

Note: The guy who drove me over the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakstan was named Saladin. How sick is that?

Its been a minute since I've written anything so here goes. Lets go back about two weeks. I'm in Almaty, the major city in Kazakstan, considering where to go. The plan was to take the train from Almaty to Aktau on the Caspian Sea then a ferry to Baku in Azerbaijan. From Baku to Georgia by train and then also by train fro Tiblisi Georgia to Istanbul Turkey. Anyway that was the plan so I went online to check out logisitics and a few things came up. First, the train from Almaty to Aktau takes 67 hours. This sucks, I love trains but it would push the whole schedule in my head up like three days. Second, apparently since the Georgian war the ferry across the Caspian is unreliable as hell. Often your forced to wait in Aktau for between 15 and 30 days waitng for a space to open up all the while dispensing bribes with abandon. Multiple travelers recomended "sleeping on the docks with Kazak truckers to ensure a spot". This would be ok I guess if Aktau were bangin. The only thing my lonely planet had to say about Aktau, other than you can cath the ferry from there, is that violent muggings against foreigners have been on the rise in recent years. So, basicaly 15-30 days sleeping with truckers on the docks of a city famous for its violent muggings. I was still fairly undetered until the third bit of news, the ferry is supposed to take eight hours but more commonly takes between 30-36 hours. In order to secure a room at all once onboard you must bribe the captain. Here's the kicker: the entire ship is served by one toilet which everyone recomends not using. This same ferry sunk in 2006 killing everyone onboard. Also, my good freind Owen has been haunted by premonitions I was going to meet with disaster on the caspian and for about five months now has been warning me not to go. All this aside I would be remiss if I didnt tell you the big reason. I miss my girlfriend. The thought of putting another thirty days between us was,well, absolutly unthinkable.

So, fuck it. The whole point of this trip was to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted so I decided to check airfares to Baku then continue by train from there. Well, as it turns out all airfare to Baku connects through istanbul, where I'm heading anyway. So, I decided to fuck Azerbaijan and Georgia (there are thousands of years of precedent for this) and just fly to Istanbul. On the same web page I saw that flights from Damascus were cheaper and at an hour and a half much shorter than the 28 hour bus trip so, what the hell, I booked that too.

At this point I was on a roll and giddy with acomplishment. God knows backpacking across Europe when single is fun. Also traveling through europe with your loved one would be amazing. But, I could see my european leg of the trip all too clearly. Getting drunk enough in the mornings to make bad financial decisions involving large meals, napping the day away trying to block out the sounds of Manau Chao from fellow-hostel dwellers and spending the time I wasn't hungover in bed or using my mother's credit card at restaurants I had seen on "No Reservations" at the internet cafe cursing the sorry state of African internet access. So, I booked a flight from Damascus to Paris, and then obviously one from Paris to Togo. Arriving November third cutting my trip by a mere 20 days and cleanly cutting off the eurpean leg.

So, say what you want but I am straight up thrilled.



Friday, October 16, 2009

Fuck a Tussle

So, I got to my hotel after my long car trip and passed out. In the morning my back and neck were killing me. I noticed a card next to my bed advertising massage services but after getting my money jacked in Uzbekistan I decided it wasn't worth the paper. Anyway I've been out all day researching for my next article and when I got home this evening my back and neck were still hit so I caved and made an appointment for a massage.

Two hours later he arrived. He was about five foot five, bald and snaggle toothed. He carried a brief case and wore a suit made of something between crushed velvet and corduroy and a wide striped shirt like an escaped convict in a silent movie. Something about him put me on guard. Upon first seeing him the voice in my head said "This man will hurt me"... so I invited him in.

First he went to the bathroom and after a few minutes emerged wearing a bright pink nurse's shirt with "medical services" in navy over the pocket, grey jogging shorts and black business socks that came to just bellow the knee. He then put the comforter from my bed on the floor and began unpacking his brief case. I saw it was full of all of these weird plastic devices with screws and suction cups that I had never seen before and can't really describe. Luckily he only took out some oil and a little plastic knobby thingy. He then pointed at me, pointed at the blanket on the floor and said "sleep".

I did and so began the most painful massage I have ever had. He was STRONG and it hurt so much I had trouble breathing. Once when he was breaking the bones in my foot I actually sat up and gasped:

Man: Pain?

Me: Yes... a little. Can you do it a little softer?

Man: Pain. Yes, pain massage. Now.... Sleep!

By the mid point my body was literally recoiling under his touch and I kept inadvertently trying to squirm away from him. He must have noticed but only said "after massage relax" and didn't let up. In my head it occurred to me that maybe he was some kind of genius and that if I could only bear the pain perhaps he would fix all of my back and neck problems. His final move was to grab my limbs then throw himself on top of me popping my joints, neck and back.

When I rolled over and saw him again, putting on his watch and packing up his bag, something had changed. He didn't look creepy anymore. He looked sweet. A smiling, shy little guy. He kept trying to ask me in broken english if the massage was good, if I was ok and telling me to drink lots of water. He looked almost apologetic as if he knew it had hurt. I found him completely endearing and sympathetic. Here was this forty year old guy, in rugged-ass Kyrgyzstan, who had dedicated his life to medical massage.

Anyway, he just left. He said in two hours I would feel amazing. Right now I feel exhausted. I'm supposed to check out the night life here for my article but I'm so tired and everyone keeps warning me it is dangerous here at night. Maybe just one or two discos...

all yours

All up in it Like a Preacher in a Pulpit

So, I mentioned in the last post that I've discovered shared taxis. Well I've officially pushed it too far. I just got into Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, after spending twenty nine hours in a car. The first thirteen were spent with two friends I met in Tajikistan. The driver Ali is seven feet tall with a mouthful of gold teeth. He is an ex border patrol guard and also used to be Kyrgyzstan's Aikido champion. The other guy is an Uzbek english student studying in Tajikistan. He doesn't like books but loves cock fighting (his words). He would watch cock fighting videos on his cell phone all the time and when I would ask him about his roosters his eyes would light up. He was a devout Muslim, super shy and naive and I found in unfailingly endearing every time he would start a conversation with "I love cocks" or my favorite "I have a big cock and no one can beat it". Anyway the three of us spent 13 hours traveling a distance of about 400 kilometers. That should have taken under four hours but we had to travel over a mountain range. I had never seen mountains this tall and we drove straight up them. I crashed off of a cliff once and it was all good but these drops were sheer and like 2000 feet up and it had me all spooked. Also the road was super dusty but they insisted on driving with the windows open so I was covered with a fine layer of dust. Halfway down we hit a pot hole and the car started spraying gas from the under carriage. Somehow they fixed it using only a metal file. The trunk lock also broke and I had to tie it shut using an exercise band I brought. I helped! The drive was prett sick though. We passed lots of little remote villages. You would see something glinting in the sunlight a mile off and then discover it was a group of women returning from the fields, the gold thread in their head scarves catching the light, or swirve to avoid ancient men bearded and stooped in dusty suits riding tiny donkeys over the mountains. I also saw a nine year old smoking a cigarette on donkey-back hearding about a hundred ponies down the freeway.

After I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan the soldiers literally forced me into another car. Before we left I saw the driver paying off the guards and then began calling all of his friends on the cell phone. Again, the only word I understood was "americansky". I called my girlfriend and told her I thought he was gonna leave me someplace and escape with the money. It was one in the morning and Kyrgyzstan was desolate. Girlfriend was understandably concerned when we pulled up to a little house and the driver gestured for me to get out of the car and off of the phone.

It turns out I shouldn't have judged him so harshly. Inside the house he had me sit down on the floor around a table cloth and a sleepy woman brought me bread and candies and even cut open an amazing watermelon. He passed me the usual tea cup of vodka but this time said "Niet Vodka!" and wrote out 1oo proof ++ on the table cloth with his finger. It burned more than anything I have ever had to drink in my life. When I left they gave me a large bag of apples as a gift.

Feeling much more relaxed and incredibly happy I stood in the cool alpine air under a huge sky of stars and waited for the guy to put his things in the car then three of his friends, two men and a super cute little kid, arrived and we were off.

Although long, uncomfortable and exhausting the drive was amazing. At night the Kirghiz steppe was empty and stretched forever under the moonlight. The wind howled. Kyrgyzstan has the largest population of wolves in the world and boy does it seem appropriate. This is wolf country for sure. I napped on and off and watched the sun rise over towering snow capped mountains. We crossed two mountain ranges, even taller than the ones in Tajikistan, and once came down from the clouds to find a vast sparkling bright blue alpine lake. We passed yurts with nomads on horse back herding sheep or selling home made yogurt and honey on the roadside. It was breathtaking.

Also breathtaking was when we were coming up the mountain on an icey switch back when the driver started a race with the car next to us. They would gun it up the mountain around blind hair pin turns consistently swerving out of the way just in time to avoid downhill bearing semi trucks with horns blaring.

Eventually after a series of wild and vivid dreams and listening to 2pacs greatest hits twice we arrived. I dont even remember showering or getting into bed but I awoke clean and rested.

Monday, October 12, 2009

White People Have Gold

So, I've discovered something that is changing my whole trip: shared taxis. In the last three days I've been to Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand, Termiz on the Afghan border and now I'm in Dushanbe Tajikistan. What you do is go and hang around bus stations until you find a car going where your heading. Then you pile in with three strangers, the driver puts on some blaring arabic pop music and then floors it going about 90 miles per hour all the way to your destination. I've taken three of these for between four and seven hours each and they are bangin. First off they are fun. It feels like fear and loathing in Las Vegas gunning it through the deserts of Uzbekistan windows open and the bass bumpin. Also its a great way to see the country. You pass through little towns and cities and farms, deserts and mountains all at eye level, swerving around puppies and waving at little kids. Also, sometimes in the middle of the night you stop at a tea house and sit up on the traditional raised reclining platforms eating fresh sweet tomatoes with rock salt and the truly odd but wildly filling and cheap truck stop fare of a plate heaped with chickpeas, tube pasta, cheese, grits, and mutton all topped with a fried egg and a hot dog. Then you pass the tea cup of vodka and lay back under the stars before continuing your journey. These rides can be hair raising. For some reason Uzbek drivers like to black out their rear windows and will only use their headlights sparingly at night. Also, they literally floor it the whole way swerving into oncoming traffic around donkey carts and Iranian semi trucks. The roads are sometimes awful with potholes that come up to my waist. The strategy they seem to go with is just going all out over the holes. Its like Mario Bros. If you go fast enough you can just glide over the small jumps and it seems to work ninety percent of the time but my oh my that tenth pot hole is a doozie. This last taxi took my to the Border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Crossing borders on foot is such a love hate thing. I hate waiting, the tedious lines and being at the mercy of corrupt border guards but I love the feeling of walking from one country into another and watching all of the military folks' uniforms change and the propaganda style change. I also LOVE that weird space between the two borders. Literally between two countries, these corridors have all kinds of strange characters from russian hooligans, to shady toothless money changers and this one had a blind woman with a bundle of burning grass blessing people for change. That said, this particular border was miserable. I got there at about 1pm. Filled out a declaration form and guessed I had about 1500 bucks on me, After the guard searched me he discovered I had $1850. First he said I was under arrest but I pretended not to understand. He obviously wanted a bribe but at first I was in no mood. After he said his boss would confiscate the extra 350 bones I offered him twenty bucks. He just looked insulted and dragged me to his boss. Anyway the boss made lots of calls on his cell phone in which he laughed heartily and the only words I could make out were "americansky". Every hour or so he would have a soldier come in with a gun and handcuffs and say I was under arrest. I would smile real big, hold out my wrists and say Ah Salamm Alaykm and then the only words I knew in Uzbek, "thank you very much". Then the soldier would look confused, put the handcuffs back in his pocket and leave. Anyway, a very long story short he made me write out a confession that I had been smuggling currency. Then made me wait while he translated it word by word into uzbek then added it to a huge file of other confessions from american and europeans which he showed me smiling. He then read me a statement that said I could get my money back by following proper protocol and told me to sign a paper in Uzbek. After I signed he informed me that I had just waived my right to have my money returned. Then he showed my $350 bucks to all of his friends out the window who cheered, pocketed the money and stamped my passport.

A few final notes on Uzbekistan:

In the country side here they burn something that smells just like Reses Peanut Butter cups. If they were made out of real home roasted peanuts and dark chocolate. I have no Idea what it is.

The water is not potable so everyone drinks bottled water. Nothing new there but in Uzbekistan all the water is sparkling! It's heavenly.

Lonely Planet always claims every place has the most hospitable people in the world. They're always saying that strangers will offer you tea or dinner and take you to there homes. Anyway when I'm traveling and my guide book says that I'm like "Where the hell are these people? I'm fucking thirsty!" Well it turns out theyre in Uzbekistan.

Child labour is a big problem in Uzbekistan. Children are conscripted every year from school to work the cotton harvest. Uzbeks all deny this but it is well known and the fields are full of little kids stooped under cotton bails (I saw them everywhere). Not only that but children as young as like nine do all kinds of jobs. Also there seems to be a high rate of that Benjamin Button genetic disease probably because of all the soviet biological weapon testing here (seriously). So you never know whether the little guy in the tiny bow tie bringing you your menu is an exploited eleven year old or a wizened man child.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We Spend What You Spent on Your Car on Our Wrist

So, as I mentioned before because of visa blullshit I had to break my no fly rule. After seven hours in the air from Seoul (one and a half hours on valium) I landed in Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan. Tashkent was my first stop in “real” central Asia and also the first place I had to write a travel article from. As a result I’ve been writing and editing about Tashkent for the last week and am not too juiced to do so here. Put simply I loved Tashkent. I loved it way more than I expected to. It’s really a very pretty city with tree lined boulevards, beautiful public parks and a lively outdoor cafĂ© culture. Also inflation is wild here so you literally have to carry a backpack in order to accommodate like $20 worth of Uzbek money. To pay for a Kebob and a cup of tea you have to count out like one hundred bills in fat rubber banded stack so that made me feel pretty baller. On top of that, I was waiting for my second passport to arrive via FedEx so I thought it best to stay in a reputable western hotel that would be sure to receive my mail for a few days which meant a nice four day long break from hostels spent at the Intercontinental (heated pool, chocolate cake, $35 dollar massages hooty hooty). I decided to get all my research done n the first two days so I could spend the rest of my time writing and enjoying myself. The first diay I hired a car (not what you’re thinking, I just waved down a teenager in a yugo and he drove me around for like nine bucks an hour) and saw every monument, bazaar and museum in the entire city. The chorsu bazaar was deffinatly the high point. It was the biggest outdoor market I’ve ever been to all situated under huge gleaming tiled domes, and radiating out for miles in little alleyways. They had incredible meat sandwiches and vanilla milk shakes and BANGIN peaches. Anyway, the next day I did the same car-hire thing but this time went to every hotel in Tashkent getting prices and phone numbers and looking at like 500 rooms. If you want to know where to stay in Tashkent I am your man.

It was around this time that two things happened that would change the character of my stay. First, at lunch at the Plov center (plov is rice with mutton, veggies and fruit and is the national dish of the Uzbeks) I was introduced to horse sausage which was unspeakably amazing, and second I was invited out to dinner by a group of Indians staying at the hotel.
The Indians were two middle aged women who came from big engineering families in South India whose families had “been doing business together for hundreds of years”. With them was their family doctor, a spine and brain surgeon in Tashkent for a conference who also happens to be a professional golfer. Now, let me say that they were incredibly warm and nice to me and invited me out every night. This woman, though, was out of control. She constantly feared for her safety and was convinced everyone was trying to mug or poison her. She would clap and snap at waiters telling them she didn’t like Uzbek food. Upon entering a cab she would pound on the driver’s seat and say “Can you please turn on some music” then if it was Uzbek music “We don’t like this kind of music please change it”. She would criticize the driving of every driver and accuse everyone of trying to cheat us. If she ordered bottled water she would insist the bottle be brought to her for careful inspection first. She didn’t like Uzbekistan saying it was too dangerous (it is not), dirty (not) and the traffic too unwieldy (not at all). I can understand if this was her first time out of Wisconsin but she was from India and the driving (as well as the safety, and water) I’m sure paled in comparison to her own home city. She was a writer composing a book on driving the coast of India for Penguin but was given to saying things like “I can’t write about Muslim countries. They’re soulless.” She would comment constantly on woman having to wear Burkhas although I did not see a single, not one, covered face in all of Uzbekistan. Her friend on the other hand was kind of endearing. She was a successful painter and had a great off beat wackiness. Although a bit clueless, she leaned in once to tell me that Muslim countries were famous for their pork dishes, we had great fun together. She won me over when she confided that she had spent the day looking for Russian porno for her friends at home in India. “We can’t get stuff like that in India and I like to see the sleazy side of places”, then she regaled me with tales of finding sex shops everywhere from Istanbul to Mykonos. Her favorite game was to play “Are they a prostitute?” at random passing Russian girls. One night we all went out to check out the night life of Tashkent and her and I stayed out hours past when her companions went home to check out the late night club scene. The club scene was bumpin and packed until we left well past three in the morning filled with the hippest youngsters I’ve seen on this whole trip.
Anyway, they invited me out to a strip club the next night and I would have gone if it weren’t for the horse sausage. You see, that afternoon I went back to the Plov center and ordered a shit load of horse meat. The cook warned me not to eat too much but I figured I was misunderstanding him. Fast-forward two hours and I am laid up with the worst stomach ache of this trip.
After Tashkent I boarded the overnight train (spent hours eating cured cow stomach and drinking tea with strange but sweet men in tracksuits) to Orgench and from their took a 40 minute taxi to the famous old silk road town and slave market of Khiva. The cab driver was a nice man with a mouthful of gold teeth. He was a bit of an eccentric who pulled over to the side of the road to pee while leaving the car moving down the shoulder with me inside then ran to catch up to us. He had been chatty but at a gas station we got in little squabble about money based on a miscommunication and after we got gas he drove on in silence. Then he started rummaging in the glove box and eventually pulled out a huge knife. Uh Oh. Luckily after the knife he pulled out a walnut sliced it open with the knife and offered me half. Then we were back to being fast friends. One of his most endearing qualities was his Malcom X air freshener. I noticed another car had the same air freshener and I asked him about it. He started mumbling in Russian, looked embarassed, then ripped it off the mirrior tore it to peices and threw it out the window. I suppose that whole thing will have to remain a mystery. Anyway...

Khiva’s amazing. The whole town was completely restored by the soviets in the 70’s and 80’s. It has more tourists than I’ve seen anywhere else but who cares its fuckin sick. At night, two little girls asked me to take their picture. Then the father came out with a baby for his picture. Then the little girls dragged me back to their house to meet their grandmother and mother where I was served melon, and meat pies and bread. Eventually they offered tea and when I accepted they all cackled maniacally and proceeded to pour a long spout of vodka from the tea pot into my tea cup. I thought I was being polite and only ate what I was offered but the mother kept asking why I was so hungry and the grandmother kept gesturing that I was getting fat. Finally the father gathered my food into a napkin and hurried me out the door saying the police were coming. I’m pretty sure he was lying and I’m not sure what I did to offend them but I doubt I’ll ever bump into them again so I’m not tripping.
Anyway this is rambling tomorrow an eleven hour car ride to Bukhara
Kiss Kiss Hug Hug