Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Visa Free Travel to Uzbekistan

One of the major impediments to travel across the Central Asian countries known as the stans has been the hassle and cost of obtaining visas. Now one of these countries, Uzbekistan, is offering open borders to citizens of 27 countries. The catch is that for some of them, the traveller needs to be 55 years old or more.

Older citizens of the United States, Belgium, France, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Portugal and Vietnam can now tour the wonders of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva without a visa. Citizens of a number of other developed countries of any age can visit Uzbekistan for up to 30 days with no visa. Russia is conspicuously absent from the list.

The new rules come into effect on April 1, 2017, in time for the summer tourist season. I am very glad to see that at least one of the countries in this region is becoming more welcoming to tourists. The fact that it is the stan that probably has the most interesting historical sites to visit is icing on the cake. However, Uzbekistan has also been known for its repressive government and gruesome human rights abuses.

Perhaps the change in visa policy will usher in an era of more openess to the world in this very fascinating part of the world.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Lake Ohrid Region, Albania

Here is the final installment of my friend's very detailed report of a trip she took to Albania last summer.

"Our first lunch near Lake Ohrid was at a beautiful restaurant situated on the bank of a rushing river in a steep gorge. Outside the restaurant, I encountered my first pomegranate tree. These grow wild in the hills.

"We passed along the side of Lake Ohrid, by the city of Pogradici. This is a resort area, and the area around town is another of Albania's curious plateaux, covered with gardens and fields. Everywhere I have ever been, farm fields are laid out in geometric shapes, often irregular, probably with a view to delineating ownership, and fields are adjacent to other fields. In Albania, fields are shaped like irregular spots with fractal edges, as if, 'Oh, here;s a good place, let's plant corn.' Other fields may be about, but there is often waste land or construction among the fields. I think this may have to do with the issue of property rights, which has yet to be settled after years of Communism preceded by warlords and Turks. The gardens around people's homes are carefully tended, I think because the investment is more certain.

"Lake Ohrid is very big and is the deepest lake in the Balkans,and one of the deepest and oldest lakes in the world, in the same category as Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Superior. Lake Presba is located just a bit to the east and is similarly deep and old. Both lakes are tectonic, caused by ruptures in the earth's crust, and fed by springs and therefore extremely clear.

"In Korca on the Greek border we stayed in a small bed and breakfast in a lovely old Turkish house with a large stone-flagged courtyard where an ancient grape vine shaded the dining tables, and roses, oleander and nectarine bush grew in clay pots. In the morning, we discovered two turtles wandering among the flowery profusion. The city is lovely, very clean with lots of parks and beautiful private and municipal buildings, many in the Beaux Arts style."

My friend also enjoyed the spectacular scenery en route and a visit to Voskopoja, a tiny town famous for its 20 churches. She predicted that the Lake Ohrid region will be a hot spot for tourism in the near future, particularly given that Turkey is becoming more dangerous for travellers. When she mentions her travels in other countries, she is very widely travelled and has served as a U.S. diplomat in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Many thanks for her contribution, and Merry Christmas to all.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Book Ahead for China Savings

I recently came across an almost unbelievable price for a tour of China--$569 for air fare from the U.S. (Chicago or the West Coast,) eight nights in four star hotels, internal flights, the services of an English speaking guide and most meals. The catch is this price is for dates next November and December. If you wish to travel during the spring and summer, the cost is $230 more.

The package is available from Travelzoo http://www.travelzoo.com, and includes visits to Beijing, Shanghai, Wuxi, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. One thing to remember about travelling in China in winter is that winter is the worst season for pollution--I just saw that a city near Beijing had to close its airport because the pollution reduced visibility too much. Also, avoid travelling near Chinese New Year, which is usually in February. That is the time when Chinese themselves are on the road in their millions, going home to visit relatives.

China is one of the countries I have not visited, but at this price it is a tempting idea.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Traveller on a Mission

I've just discovered a very interesting blog by a young woman who enjoys travelling, especially by train, in Russia, the former Soviet Union and other unpopular destinations. It is https://travelleronamission.wordpress.com, and the author is a French woman who now lives in London when she is not on the road. At present she is travelling through Kazakhstan by train. She has also travelled on the Trans-Siberian and the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) trains, and spent a winter in Siberia.

She always travels plaskartny, the lowest level on Russian trains, where you sleep on a well-equipped bunk in an open car. It's not clear what she does for a living or even what her name is, but her stories and pictures are fascinating.

In addition to countries in the former Soviet bloc, she has visited Cuba, Africa, India and some other places. And her mission? It is "to get to know the world to make it a better place." She certainly is doing that at least in a small way by showing that it is possible for a woman (or man) alone to explore widely without spending a lot of money.

I wish she would write more about the logistics of her travels--visas, tickets, and so forth. This is a blog that I will definitely continue reading.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Travel Agent or Do It Yourself?

In recent years many people, including me, have started booking most of their own travel online. For a while, there was a theory that travel agents would become extinct, like the dodo of Madagascar.

Now, though, a lot of people are getting tired of the hassle of deciding on flights or hotels themselves, using multiple prices on various Websites, and reverting to the old-fashioned travel agent. For major vacations, this can be an especially good idea since tours and cruises include the agent's fee in their prices.

Airlines no longer pay agent commissions, so if you book an air ticket only you may have to pay a small fee. But, as I discovered recently, a well-informed agent can save you money because they have access to fares you are not likely to know about. For instance, I found that I could save about 10 per cent on an already low air fare if I didn't mind where I sat on the plane. It's a short flight, so I didn't mind where I sat.

I also booked an airport hotel, and again was able to get a lower price by making the booking non-refundable. I doubt I would have discovered either of these possibilities on my own.

Best of all, if anything goes wrong on a trip booked through a travel agent, you have someone to call and someone who can explain your options, if any, for redress.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

$99 to Europe with Wow Air

An Icelandic budget airline called Wow Air http://www.wowair.com is offering one-way flights to Europe from its various North American hubs for as low as $99 one way, from now through June 2017. Europe in this case means Iceland, but for another $30 you can travel via Iceland to larger places including Paris, London, Frankfurt and Stockholm.

For example, on Jan. 16 you can fly from New York to Reykjavik for just $99, and on Jan. 14 a flight from New York to Amsterdam via Iceland costs as little as $129. Remember this is a budget airline, so you are likely to pay a number of additional costs. But with such a low base price, it's probably worth it.

If you don't live at one of the major gateways for European travel, consider taking a bus rather than a plane to your gateway. And for even more savings, make it an overnight bus. I have a flight into JFK from Europe soon that arrives in the evening, and if the weather isn't too bad I may opt for an overnight bus return to Montreal instead of springing for a night at a costly airport hotel and another flight. I did this once a few years ago on arrival in Boston from Moscow, and it worked out all right. Of course, you can expect to be pretty tired when you finally get back home.