AirBaltic expands, spruces up

Yesterday, Latvian airline AirBaltic launched two new routes: Riga-Madrid and Riga-Beirut.

Riga-based AirBaltic is an airline to watch. Little known in North America, the airline is notable for its low starting fares and the inclusion of most of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations on its route map. But what really sets the airline apart from the pack is its range of underserved destinations across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Nordic countries.

These less well-served destinations include Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan in the Caucasus; Almaty, Dushanbe, and Tashkent in Central Asia; Amman, Beirut, Dubai, and Tel Aviv in the Middle East; and destinations like Kuopio, Tromsø, and Visby across Nordic Europe.

The catch is that most routes fly in and out of Riga, a beautiful city that is sadly not exactly top-of-mind among most visitors to Europe. While AirBaltic’s fabulous range of destinations can best be accessed from a starting-point in the Baltics or the Nordic countries, the airline’s fares for connecting flights from cities across Western Europe can also be quite competitive.

In anticipation, no doubt, of the summer traffic to come, AirBaltic also upgraded its site yesterday. The visual changes are minimal, but they go some way toward making the site more streamlined and enjoyable to peruse.

(Image: Flickr/Londo_Mollari)

Trekking Tajikistan

The mountain countries of Central Asia have been a bit of a hidden gem for adventure travel in recent years. While the vast majority of people can’t find Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on the map as of yet, the more adventurous travelers have begun to hear tales of rugged, remote mountain trails that weave their way through mostly unspoiled backcountry with some of the most stunning views on the planet.

That’s exactly what London Times reporter Caroline Eden found when she traveled through the High Pamir mountains of Tajikistan recently. She wrote about her experiences trekking amongst the 7000 meter peaks of the Geisev Valley, describing crystal clear mountain lakes, wide open skies, and tiny, remote villages populated by friendly, hospitable people. Best of all, the country has few tourists, which meant she often had the trails to herself, and many of her nights were spent staying with locals, which gave her a very personal glimpse into their daily lives.

The travel experience in Tajikistan has a lot to offer on the cultural and historical level as well. The former Soviet satellite has long been a crossroads for trade between the East and West, with major routes along the Silk Road passing through the country. Islam is the predominant religion now, but there are elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and even Zoroastrianism, each having an impact on the people that live there.

While that culture and history is interesting however, the big draw for the country is what it has to offer adventure travelers. Aside from the amazing trekking, there is plenty of rock climbing, horse and camel riding, and backpacking to keep you occupied for week, and mountaineers are also discovering the challenge of the “three giants” of the Pamirs, namely Peak Somoni, Peak Lenin and Peak Korzhenevskaya, which have earned there place amongst the top alpine climbing destinations in the region.

Cycling the Silk Road

Cycling tours have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially amongst adventure travelers who are looking to explore the world from the seat of their bikes. One of the leaders in organizing these kinds of adventure cycling trips has always been Tour d’Afrique Ltd, the creative minds behind such epic rides as their namesake Tour d’Afrique and the Vuelta Sudamericana. The company has even launched a website called DreamTours that allows us to design and plan our own cycling adventures, leaving all the logistics to their travel experts.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep us happily peddling our way around the globe, the Tour d’Afrique team is busily preparing for another long distance ride for 2010 that will cover the entire Silk Road, starting in Istanbul, Turkey and ending in Xi’an, China. The ride will cover more than 6650 miles over 16 weeks time, crossing through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as riders follow one of the most famous and important trade routes of all time, a route that was also explored by such historical figures as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Genghis Khan.

Some of the highlights of the journey will include passing through an amazing variety of landscapes, from including snow capped mountains and desolate open plains. Travelers will get the opportunity to camp below sea level in the arid deserts of the Xinjiang Province in western China, while also ascending to dizzying heights as they climb along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, which rises well above 15,000 feet, offering a challenge for both the heart and the legs. The ancient cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Merv will be stops along the way as well, offering refuge from the road and a chance to explore marketplaces that have been bustling with shoppers for centuries.

All told, this cycling tour will put riders in the saddle for a total of 92 days, covering an average of roughly 70 miles per day. There will also be 22 rest days, and one day of travel by ferry across the Caspian Sea, bringing the total number of days on the Silk Road to 114. That’s quite a commitment for any traveler, but fortunately the route is broken down into seven stages, so even if you can’t make the full ride, you can still have the opportunity to experience part of the adventure by riding one of those sections instead. The cost for the full trip is €8500, but the company is currently running an early-bird special that cuts €400 from the price when you book the trip before November 15th. Pricing for the individual stages can be found on this web page near the bottom.

The Silk Route Tour is an amazing cycling tour that combines culture, history, and adventure into one spectacular trip that is sure to be a life altering experience. The ride gets underway on May 22nd of next year, so get training now and prepare to join in on this once in a lifetime experience

Trekking Tajikistan

Adventure travelers enjoy a great trek, and will go to the ends of the Earth, sometimes quite literally, to find one. The more remote, desolate, and free from other people, the better. Over the past few years, some of the classic treks of the world have become increasingly crowded, which is why some of the countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have become hot spots for adventure travelers looking to discover new places to hike.

Tajikistan is a perfect example of this. The former Soviet satellite, which borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, has a landscape that is dominated by mountains, and remains mostly cut off from the modern world. In fact more than 50% of the country sits above 10,000 feet in altitude, which gives you an indication of the terrain that visitors can expect when they visit the country.

Visit Tajikistan is exactly what travel writer Tiffany Kary did for an article that she wrote on the experience. The author found that once she left Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, her only options for finding a place to stay, were either in the home of locals or her own tent. Just to get out to those regions, trekkers will need letters of invitation and special permits allowing them to travel the countryside, but Kary promises it is all worth it, thanks to the nearly unspoiled scenery and unique cultural attractions that mix Buddhism, Islam, and even Zoroastrianism.

Exploring Tajikistan is a rather inexpensive endeavor, at least once you get there. A few hundred dollars will get you a multi-day trek that includes meals and lodging. Best of all, you’re unlikely to come across any other tourists the entire time.

Photo of the day (06/24/08)

I don’t think that many people think of roughing it through Tajikistan when they think of “road tripping it”. That’s exactly why I love this picture, taken by uncorneredmarket in Gadling’s photo pool. The perfect mixture of arid rough terrain, beautiful blue sky and a classic vehicle — thundering down the dirt roads of Central Asia towards adventure unknown.

***To have your photo considered for the Gadling Photo of the Day, go over to the Gadling Flickr Pool and post it. Make sure it is not copyrighted, otherwise we can’t post it here.***