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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Kazakhstan, The Old Capital

Our original plan to travel to Almaty is scrapped as 12-15 hrs in a second class upper bunk of a non air conditioned train just does not seem like much fun.

IMG_0004However, I know I will have some regrets as I have been told the scenery is much better than from 37,000 feet.

Besides taking in the local scenery there are three reasons we are in Almaty, to see Lake Almaty, to hike Charyn Canyon NP and finally to get to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Although gently warned about driving in Kazakhstan and the possibility of encountering difficult traffic police we still opt for the adventure of a car rental.

IMG_0002Roadside Scenery

Equipped with small currency notes we set out early in the morning for about a 4 hour drive to Charyn Canyon NP. Carefully monitoring my speed and road signs along the way, we make it to our destination without having to unwilling part with any of our dinero.

IMG_0006A small entrance fee and we park among some of the first cars to arrive at Charyn Canyon.

Descending a steep set of stairs we begin our hike in what some consider “The Baby Grand Canyon”. The morning sun is already blazing and stops to be awed by mother nature are welcomed.

IMG_20170830_124509Charyn Canyon National Park

Our turn around point is at an Eco-Tourism Resort along the banks of a shaded and refreshingly cold river. From here you can take a taxi for your return trip although we decided to walk back and are still amazed by the scenery.

Dried Cold Sliced HorsemeatBack in Almaty we end up by accident at the very cool and almost “chic” Line Brew for dinner.

A plate of “Dried Cold Sliced Horse” and I am having a sampling of local cuisine.

After dinner we stroll a few blocks and join a lengthy queue for a 24 hour Almaty favorite. Since this is our second time to enjoy this cool delight we are going to try the competition for a taste test comparison. Earlier we were told that the two vendors use two different formula with one producing a more watery product. I guess I am going to need a third or fourth tasting to really tell the difference.

Almaty Cool TreatAlmaty Cool And Colorful Treat

It's a little later start to Lake Almaty as it is much closer to the city than Charyn Canton.

Street Corn On The CobHowever, we make a stop at the “Green Bazaar” for souvenirs and a giant sweet corn on the cob before we head up the mountains.

About 30 minutes outside of the city we pay a small toll to enjoy a landscape with jagged and majesty mountains as we drive a curving road to Lake Almaty. At a split in the road we come to an abrupt stop as the road is closed by local police due to construction. Our delay is only about 25 minutes and the scenery continues to be amazing.

Lake Almaty AwesomeLake Almaty

Lake Almaty with it's powder blue waters surrounded by mountains still capped with winter snow and perfectly planted dark green pine trees is as mesmerizing and as beautiful as I imagined.

Lake Almaty HillsideA drive around the area and brightly colored wildflowers can still be seen decorating the slopping hillsides.

I'm sure in winter and spring the area take on another form of beauty that is all its own.

Kazakhstan, An Afternoon At Expo 2017

Besides it's main focus on “Future Energy”, Expo 2017 in Astana provided a lot of opportunities to learn about other countries and their cultures along with a full venue of entertainment.

IMG_20170827_194013From an exhibition standpoint touching a block of ice from the very “top” of the world courtesy of the Russians and checking out some virtual reality gear from Serbia are highlights for me.

P8270061However, if after dressing like a Saudi Arabian Sheikh I could have rolled with his bank account that would have been nice too.

Expo 2017 ParadeElectric Light Parade

Although unable to get a relatively inexpensive (less than US$10.00) Cirque Du Soleil ticket an Electric Light Parade of sorts followed by a free amazing concert is a decent compromise.

Expo Ochestra

Next it is a laser light and fire show which turns out to be an enjoyable way to end our Expo 2017 experience.

IMG_0027Show Performers

Laser ShowLaser Light And Fire Show

Thanks, Astana!

Sightseeing Around Astana And Almaty Kazakhstan

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Kazakhstan, Astana Sightseeing

It is already blistering hot as we leave our hotel at 11am for a walk around Astana. Under a clear blue sky even the occasionally breeze is warm and gives us no relief from the blazing sun. Along dry and dusty streets we find some comfort among trees that show signs of having been thirsty for a long time.

IMG_20170827_134207Our initial destination is Bayterek Tower and our route there basically retraces our taxi cab drive from the airport to our hotel. Although we now have time to smell the flowers along the way, what we did miss under last night’s darkness was the huge U.A.E embassy along the way.

Crossing an extended bridge we watch a river tour boat pass belong us and then descend a set of staircase. Our ears take us on a path towards music as we hike through one of the many parks around the city.

In the main square of the park there is a festival of sorts going on with children enjoying toy rides and bounce houses.

Park Dancers

With laughter and happiness all around, we stand in front of a stage and spend a few minutes enjoying a free show of entertaining musicians, singers and dancers.

P8270009What would a festival be without ice cream? With a few vendors around I gladly depart with 200 KZT, about 0.60 US, for a sampling.

Exiting the park our destination is in sight. Although it is only 700 KZT for a visit to Bayterek Tower the entrance line although in the shade is too long for our comfort and we take a bypass for now.

Bayterek TowerBayterek Tower

Not too far away there is an egg I am interested in and we head that way. As it turns out this huge gray egg shaped building is not accessible and we don't get to unscramble the mystery of what it is. Sacrebleu!

P8270023Lunch at a nearby food court in a mall is inexpensive and delicious although I sure could use another scoop or two of ice cream to top off my slice of cake that is drizzled with honey.

Futuristic SkylineRecharged we continue our stroll around Astana while taking in a sometimes futuristic skyline before a brief stop at Nur Astana.

Fountain View Nur AstanaNur Astana

Some more criss-crossing the city and we end up at Khan Shatyr another interesting structure around the city which from the distance looks like a big Hershey's Kiss.

Inside Khan ShatyrTurns out that Khan Shatyr is a giant transparent tent that is a high-end mall with a small amusement park inside.

Our next stop is too far a walk away so it time to take a 2000 KZT cab to Expo 2017.

Khan ShatyrKhan Shatyr

Friday, September 1, 2017

Landlocked In Kazakhstan, Expo 2017 And More...

We arrive in Astana around 11pm and it is an efficient process through Immigration and Customs with English speaking guides readily available to help. At an currency booth inside of the baggage claim area we exchange $100 US for about $33300 KZT. Once outside of Customs ATM's are available to your left.

IMG_20170828_225127Since it is pass 10pm public transportation is not available to the city center and are only option is a taxi. Fares to the city range from 2500-3000 KZT.

Not wanting to do much bargaining after a long day of travel we settled on 3000KZT with a “Uber Like Driver” who initially wanted 4000 KZT. It is about a 30 minute drive to Orion Hotel but along the way we get to see the impressive lights of the city and some of the displays from Expo 2017.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

North Korea, A Victory Day Tour

At 14:10 on a nice afternoon in Beijing, I take a leisurely walk towards the Zhong Gu Hotel where I will be meeting with fellow travelers for my trip to the DPRK. With political tensions rising between the United States and North Korea I have had some concerns but those are easily suppressed as the beginning of my trip is actually happening.

At our pre-trip meeting we learn that our group is actually smaller than originally planned as there has been some last minutes cancellations.

Beijing Railroad StationHowever, there are six of us who will be boarding a 17:35 train for Dandong, China the border crossing city for North Korea.

It is a about a 14 hour journey that after great conversations with new friends and maybe too many warm beers, passes too quickly.

It's just pass 07:00 when we arrive in Dandong after enjoying an afternoon, a night and watching the sunrise across a Chinese landscape. Did you know that there is only one time zone in all of China?

P7250009Dandong Train Station

Outside of Dandong Train Station we hurdle in a group like lost children as we are not met by our tour guide as expected. However, we soon take comfort as others with similar concerns and backpacks start to approach us. Soon enough our guide, Rowan from YPT (Young Pioneers Tour) shows up and gives us our border crossing plan and more importantly our DPRK Tourist Visa.

IMG_20170726_075302Unfortunately, we will not get to keep them and begin snapping away.

With hundreds of Chinese nationals crossing the border today by train Rowan has come up with a new plan for us. It involves a little walking but we will cross the border by bus and at a check point that is not normally available to Western tourists.

Crossing the Yalu River we get good views of the Dandong skyline and what a contrast compared to our initial destination just a mile or so away.

P7250016Almost within touching distance is “The Broken Bridge” a bridge bombed by the United States during the Korean War.

Although China has restored their side of it we are told the North Koreans refuse to do the same as they want to keep the destruction as a memento of the war.

After some stop and go from other commercial only traffic on the bridge we begin our so far unofficial entry into North Korea and we are told we cannot take pictures of broader area. However, on our left side are also abandoned buildings which were planned mainly Chinese day visitors but has not lived up to their potential. This area was intended to have Yalu River boat crossing access which apparently the North Koreans did not become to fond of the idea.

On our right side a faded 1950's “Ferris Wheel” and another amusement park ride stands lifeless. In the background kids are having fun at a water park where green seems to be the color of the day for the pool water. In a few minutes we are gathering our belongings and exiting the bus for our official entry into The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

A bit to my surprise we are greeted by smiling officials while we lined up and pass through an airport type security screening. Our books (no religious material, pornography or tour books allowed) and all of our electronics are screened separately while our passports and visas are reviewed. We patiently wait back on our bus about 30 minutes for this process to be completed. A final part of this process happens when we are required to give more detail information about our cellphones including brand name and color.

Overall, the process is much simpler and easier than I expected and soon enough we are heading on a train for Pyongyang.

This time it is about a 5 hour journey but all in daylight. Our route is mainly along lush green farmland with occasional villages scattered in the distance. Every now and then we pass close enough to one of them to get a glimpse of North Korean life at 60 miles per hour.

P7260021A Korean style lunch is served along the way but minus warm beers.

The scenery does not change much until the outline of Pyongyang comes into sight with one of it's more prominent if not infamous landmarks comes into view. The 105-story, almost 1000 feet tall unfinished pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel is a cool futuristic skyscraper to behold.

Ryugyong Hotel

The Pyongyang Train Station soon welcomes us and our almost epic train journey is about to end. Our final destination is just minutes away and another dream of mine is about to be fulfilled.

Leaving the train station we board a comfortable bus and our tour of Pyongyang begins under the relax guidance of Rowan along with two local guides, “Back” and “Mrs. Kim”.

P7260037A short bus ride and we are dropped off to begin a walk to the famous Kim ll-sung Square and Juche Tower.

It is a surreal experience to be standing where at certain times thousands of North Koreans and their leaders showcase their “Military Might” to the rest of the world. However, today is just a normal day in the city and I get to take it all in for what it is worth. The area is not busy with the sidewalks and streets being impressively clean.

Juche TowerJuche Tower

At a park nearby serious games of volleyball are going on as local music fills the air. Our next stop is at a bookstore that offers a lot of material on North Korea and more importantly lots of reading material about it's Supreme Leader in many languages. Watching a traffic officer outside of the bookstore turns out to be very entertaining and interesting. She is very serious and animated in doing her job almost to the point of being militant about it.

Next we take a drive across town for dinner and see some impressive new apartment buildings that were built just for members of the scientific community. Along the way Mrs. Kim entertains us with some “Tour Bus Karaoke”. Our dinner which is included in the price of our YPT package is at a restaurant owned by the North Korean bus tour company. The service and food which included a lot of variety and a local beer was very good. While eating we did experience a minor power outage which lasted only about 2-3 minutes.

Youth HotelWhat seemed like a long day ends at the Youth Hotel which we are not allowed to leave.

Although it would have been nice to be able to freely walk around I came here knowing that there would be such travel restrictions. However, the hotel does have a couple of bars, a game room and a pool to pass the time. By Western standards the hotel is maybe a “3 Star” at best but the accommodation is adequate and the staff was pleasant.

Around 5am I wake up to the “Sound of Music” but it is not Julie Andrews instead it is a large group of soldiers marching twenty nine stories below me. An interesting site along a major highway that has been practically empty ever since I checked in except for a local bus or tram.

Breakfast then we are off for our “Victory Day” of sightseeing. Unfortunately, the weather forecast calls for rain during most of the day. Our first stop is at the Mansudae Grand Monument where North Koreans come to pay respect to their leaders.

The Supreme Leaders

The Supreme Leaders

Here there is a certain protocol to be followed if you want to experience this sight. We are given the option to remain on the bus if we would not be comfortable with the required protocol. I give up the equivalent of a few euros to purchase some flowers then with others we proceed to the “Ten Thousand Times” bigger than life statues of the father and son leaders of North Korea. With others I place my flowers and then we all step back in a line and take the required bow with utterances under our breath. A few “proper” pictures and I have experienced the Mansudae Grand Monument like a North Korean.

IMG_20170727_093831Next it is the Pyongyang Metro which lies about 300 feet underground and is one of the deepest metro in the world.

What is also interesting about this metro is that many of the stations have murals that tell the history of the nation.

At the Arch of Triumph we learn a little more about North Korea and as the forecast rain begins to fall we get a bird's-eye view of Pyongyang with dark clouds hanging over it. However, the gray skies still provide a nice contrast to the colorful buildings around the city.

Arch Of Triumph

From the Arch of Triumph we head over to the new and impressive War Museum which houses United States sovereign property the still commissioned USS Pueblo.

USS PuebloDid you know the Korean War is the only war in US history that ended with a cease-fire agreement?

It happened on July 27th, 1953 which the North Korean maybe rightly so celebrate as “Victory Day”.

War MuseumThe War Museum

It soon lunch time but when we arrive at the restaurant to eat I am more interested in ping-pong than I am food. Fortunately, I get to experience both but I do much better handling my food than my gracious ping-pong opponent.

P7270072I think I did manage to score one point or maybe she just let me.

Our afternoon touring starts off with an enjoyable performance at the circus for about 20 Euros. Very cool acts to a full house that have us all amazed and entertained.

The Children Of Pyongyang

However, for me the highlight of the show comes afterwards with the smiles and waves from a young group of North Koreans who interact with us.

A stop at a local department store and we get a chance to exchange our money for local currency which we are prohibited from taking out of the country. A browse around the multi-story store and I get to see the products and goods available to most locals. Not surprisingly the selections are limited to what I am use to and most products seem to be of questionable quality.

I was disappointed in the fruits available and the expensive prices for them which I am told are imported from China. One of our group members tried to make a book purchased and was denied. We are later told this is because of the short supply and the books are needed for locals not tourists.

The weather forecast is being true to itself and it ends up literally “raining on our parade”. One of the highlights of this tour was to witness the large gathering of college students dancing in public areas to celebrate Victory Day.

Unfortunately, they are dispersing as we arrive at one site. The event has been canceled because of rain along with this evenings fireworks.

P7270082At a local bar we drown our sorrows with 1-7 full size samplings of North Korean beer along with an odd bar snack, whole dry salted fish that was tough as nails.

Feeling good it's time for more Tour Bus Karaoke this time with more than just Mrs. Kim participating.

P7270084A Bar Snack

A different dinner experience then I give up about 35 Euros for the ultimate North Korean souvenirs a pair of Pyongyang T-Shirts. I have never spent that much for two t-shirts but then again I doubt I will have the opportunity to get any souvenirs from North Korea at least not in the near future.

Another breakfast and just like that my 3 Days and 2 Nights Ultra Budget Tour of North Korea is coming to an end. We are accompanied to the train station by “Back” and “Mrs. Kim” where I am given two samples of North Korean sausages by Mrs. Kim as a kind gesture. As we leave Pyongyang Train Station I have a feeling of sadness but a slim hope that maybe someday I would be able to see “Back” and “Mrs. Kim” again.

Five hours or so later we are stopped at the border and the process of crossing back into China begins. Our passports are collected along with DPRK Tourist Visas that are taken back. Some pleasant officials board the train and randomly take a look at our pictures and do selective security wands. About an hour and a half later our train is cleared to proceed on.


As we cross the Yalu River into Dandong I realize that going in and out of North Korea was not as bad as one might be led to believe.

P7260052This turned out to be an enjoyable trip and I hope that more people will have the opportunity to visit North Korea.

Thanks, Rowan and YPT!

Pyongyang North Korea