Every unplanned trip has its unforeseen circumstances, and sometimes those unforeseen circumstances can get quite costly. And there was certainly one of those on this particular trip through the Silk Road. On the way back from Yerevan, the Armenian capital to Tokyo, the cheapest way would have been to fly through to Russia and then to Japan. The next cheapest, involving non-Russian transitions, would have been costlier by a margin of close to 300 usd.
Monday, March 12, 2018
Saturday, March 10, 2018
at 3:33 AM
It is unsurprising that in many places of the former Soviet Union, people (and middle aged men in particular) love their alcohol. The winters are cold and long, so shots of vodka are great for keeping warm and whirling away the long nights. The wide availability and cheap cost of making and buying the stuff make them friendly on the wallet just as it is on the senses. The public's indulgence has created a very strong distilling culture, in which high quality alcohol is even made at home with different fruits.
Thursday, March 8, 2018
at 3:55 PM
The immigration official at the Armenian land border with Georgia looked quite hostile. "What were you doing in Azerbaijan?" He asked rather angrily as he flipped through the passport to find the unexpected Azerbaijani entry and exit stamps. When he received the usual "tourism" answer, he was simply unconvinced, deciding to take a copy of the passport page with the Azerbaijani stamps before allowing the passport holder into the country.
Tuesday, March 6, 2018
at 9:10 PM
The little town of Gori an hour outside the Georgian capital of Tbilisi is mostly known for one thing today. It is the birthplace of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. To most outsiders today, Stalin is known mostly for his unpredictable political purges and disastrous collectivization efforts, leaving hundreds of senior Soviet leaders and millions of its citizens dead. But in his hometown, Stalin is still celebrated, not least for his contribution to defeating Nazism and turning the USSR into an industrial power within a generation.
Monday, March 5, 2018
at 3:16 PM
Just a few days ago, the author found himself discussing how to increase number of tourists in Azerbaijan with a few locals in an underground bar in Baku. The economy was in dire straits as the GDP dropped along with oil prices. The government's supposed diversification to non-oil sectors involved little beyond investing in infrastructure to increase exports of natural gas. Tourism, for a city as beautiful as Baku, deserves to be one of the main sources of income in a diversified economy.
Sunday, March 4, 2018
at 10:30 PM
The restaurant does not look like much from the street level. With a little "restaurant" sign pointing at a dimly lit set of stairs leading down to a basement of a otherwise commercial building filled with fashion shops. But as soon as the set of glass doors dividing the stairs from the streets were opened, the loud sounds from down below were inescapable. Simultaneously, almost disco-like lights from the basement give off the impression that one is entering a nightclub rather than a restaurant.
Friday, March 2, 2018
at 6:11 PM
At the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital city, the author found himself briefly unable to enter the country due to misunderstanding of the country's visa-on-arrival rules. The immigration staff not only helped him step by step through the process, he also did so with smiles, jokes, and even free chocolate to help him get over the three hour wait at 11pm. In the subsequent taxi ride from the airport to city center, the taxi driver got lost but remained good natured, joking about how streets shouldn't have same names.
Thursday, March 1, 2018
at 3:48 PM
Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, is in many ways the city of its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Having came up with the idea of creating a brand new city to replace Almaty, the economic hub of more than a million people, as capital of the country, he certainly did not hesitate to put his own imprints on the city itself. The city's new airport, university, several other institutions are unabashedly named after him, while the main museums all have sections exclusively dedicated to his life and politics.
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
at 2:13 PM
The Mongolian names for dumplings (buuz) and restaurants (guanz) sounds conspicuously like their northern Chinese equivalents 包子 (baozi) and 館子 (guanzi). Simultaneously the southern Chinese name for the same dumplings 饅頭 (mantou) made to both Korea as mandu and Central Asia as manty. The favorite pulled noodles of Lanzhou 拉麵 (lamian) found itself to Central Asia as laghman just as it went to Korea as ramyeon and Japan as ramen.
Monday, February 26, 2018
at 8:41 PM
The center piece of the central park of Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, is a gigantic statue of Lenin, flanked by memorials to Soviet soldiers crowned with the classic hammer and the sickle. Various government buildings in the city, leftover from their prior usage as regional administrative offices for the Soviet Union, are still marked with obvious Soviet insignias despite obvious attempts by the current Kyrgyz state to hide them under contemporary national symbols like the country's flag.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
at 5:45 PM
When the Soviet Union found itself in power, it not only took over some vibrant cities in its territories, it also quickly worked to create brand new ones to suit needs of the planned economies and regional administration. Villages are expanded into cities based on a consistent set of designs that adhere to Soviet philosophies of how cities should look like and function. Based on the set of designs, many similar cities are created in the Soviet sphere of influence.
Saturday, February 24, 2018
at 8:04 AM
"Things are different here," the local driver nonchalantly quipped, "the rules that govern the rest of China simply does not work here in Xinjiang." As the driver took a drive in search of hotels in Urumqi, the metropolitan capital of Xinjiang, he began to remark on just how years of terrorist threat changed how locals in the city and the wider region live their daily lives. After a few hours in China's volatile western reaches, the restrictions can easily be felt.
Thursday, February 22, 2018
at 3:18 PM
In some ways, the very concept of time is a social construct. After all, it is by sheer convention of the centuries past that humans decided that, for instance, 7am means early morning and 7pm means dinner time. The number could have been entirely something else had those who were in charge of creating standard time notations chose otherwise. And because humans are so used to the idea of 7am and 7pm means the same thing everywhere, there came to be the idea of time zones.
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
at 4:54 PM
There is a little village in front of the famed Crescent Lake in the middle of the desert near the city of Dunhuang in Western China. To take advantage of the convenient location to the famous tourist spot, the villagers have been busy setting up one home stay after another. By the time the author rolled around in February of 2018, practically every house in the village operates an inn, a restaurant, a tourist-oriented supermarket, or a small tour agency.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
at 12:29 PM
When one crosses a country as large as China by rail, there are many opportunities to interact with locals. Three days and a couple of thousands of miles bring together many complete strangers in the public space that is the railway system. In the interactions is commonly and conspicuously missing among the hundreds of railway staff, bunk mates on sleeper carriages, and all the people working and making their living around railway stations. That is the complete absence of greetings exchanged.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
at 12:12 PM
From those who may not know, the author is actually ethnic Mongol on his mother's side. But as ethnic Mongols from the Chinese Northeast, his mother's family has very little connection to the Mongolian nation and culture. They have not spoken the Mongolian language for a couple of generations and do not even know their proper Mongol names. It is better get in touch with that little understood Mongolian heritage that the author decided to show up to Ulaanbaatar and meet with "real" Mongols who can at least superficially tell him what is it like to be really Mongol.
Friday, February 9, 2018
at 2:38 PM
One of the lectures the author took at the University of Tokyo makes a great point about the idea of rich countries hiring foreign laborers from poor countries to fulfill supposed shortages in labor. The lecture argues that the supposed shortages are socially constructed, where the mentality of the general populace changes to one of complete dependence after they taste the ease of paying relatively little money to foreigners to do their dirty unwanted jobs. Society has become used to having foreigners fill the very bottom of employment hierarchy.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
at 4:56 PM
Wulai is probably the easiest place to find a bit of nature outside the bustling metropolis that is Taipei. The little aborigine hot spring town two hours south of the city has enough attractions to keep a traveler busy for most of the day. Some nice shops, beautiful rivers and waterfall, as well as hot springs to soak in. The air is cleaner than the city, and the ever-green mountains surrounding the town provide a beautiful background for some walks. It is only unfortunate that not many foreign travelers know about the place, especially when compared to the famed day-trip sight Jiufen.
Thursday, December 28, 2017
at 2:46 PM
Karuizawa is best described a seasonal town. The town, situated deep in the central mountain range spanning the length of Honshu, Japan's main island, is known primarily for its cool temperature and secluded nature. In the winter, snow covers the mountains surrounding the town, making it a base for skiing among both the Japanese and foreigners. Yet, given the frigid (at least by the standards of warmer Pacific coast of Honshu where Japan's main metropolitan areas are located) temperature, Karuizawa town itself seems half-deserted, with most of the shops closed until way past the new years, and few pedestrians walking about.
Sunday, November 26, 2017
at 10:49 AM
At the first sight, the Won Won Shopping Complex looks like any other retail/office building in central parts of Taipei. The concrete two-floor building is devoid of paint, excess decorations, and frankly, any character that would make it stand out among dozens of similar buildings with similar grey/brown hues on a rather nondescript street. The sign for the complex is small and fading, hidden behind little booths selling cheap SIM cards and a seat for the tired, half-napping security guard. For those in a hurry to their destinations, the Won Won Complex do not really deserve a second look, in the same way its neighbors also would not.