The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]

Amazing Race 13, recap 9: Russians don’t laugh at you, they laugh with you

With Terence & Sarah eliminated, and Starr & Nick coming in 1st four times in a row, it was any one of the team’s game during episode 9 of the Amazing Race 13. As the teams headed off to Moscow, Russia from Almaty, Kazakhstan, I was curious what would trip up Nick & Starr and if Andrew & Dan could dump their status as the team with the most trouble with tasks.

Moscow was shown as a complicated city that is more than a little expensive in the taxi department. The city gave two teams a bit of grief. Language barriers and a lack of being able to find directions were consistent problems. By the end of their day, I hope there were shots of vodka waiting.

Travel Tips:

  • Hotel bedroom slippers will temporarily work as shoes.
  • I would find someone who knows English to write down locations in Russian in order to find places more easily. That’s just an observation I had after watching the teams struggle.
  • Keep a sense of humor. It will help.
  • Work out taxi costs before you get in a cab, but it may not do much good.
  • On second thought, when traveling in Moscow, don’t take taxis. They are EXPENSIVE.

Recaps and Cultural Highlights

Even though teams left the Pit Stop in Almaty, Kazakhstan at different times, they were on the same flight to Moscow. The airport scene in Kazakhstan was a hoot once Andrew & Dan showed up. Because they left their shoes at the puppet theater when they dressed up as a cow, there they were shuffling along in hotel slippers. Luckily for them, there was an open shoe store at the airport despite the late hour. Shoes weren’t cheap, however. From what I could tell, the least expensive pair cost $80.

Each bought sneakers and didn’t complain about them pinching, rubbing, or making blisters later on in the episode. I assume that meant they were decent shoes. If anything, these frat boys were pleased with their shoes, but were concerned that their money stash was diminished. What a funny story they have to tell later.

Dallas and Starr had more time to further their interest in each other at the airport. Yawn. As with any romance that starts on the road, I give it a 1 out of 5 chance of succeeding.

What was more interesting was when the teams hit Moscow. The buildings’ magnificence impressed the whole gang, but everyone was focused more on money once they hopped into a taxi.

Moscow is very expensive. A taxi ride from the airport to the first stop at Krutitske Podvorye Monastery cost $100. Not one dollar. One hundred dollars. Other taxi rides to the other tasks seemed to cost about the same due to the distances the teams traveled. Being lost may have added to the price.

The monastery was a beautiful Russian Orthodox building with a church service in progress when the teams arrived. I gave Toni high points for covering her hair with a scarf when she stepped inside the church to light a candle. The candlelighting led to the next clue. As she said, “It’s history…There’s reverence and respect. ” As she pointed out, when in a place of worship, one should act appropriately.

Once she & Dallas received their clue that directed them to Kolosok Camp, a decommissioned military base, they were off again without a hitch. Nick & Starr were close behind until Nick & Starr got lost.

Once at the camp, teams were to chose between marching with soldiers or serving soldiers borscht. All teams initially picked the marching. From Ken & Tina’s amorous attitudes during this activity, it looks like all they need to do to get rid of their marital woes is to put on a uniform once in awhile.

While Toni & Dallas and Ken & Tina were marching away, Nick & Starr were not having one bit of luck with their driver. It didn’t matter that it was Nick’s birthday. They spent a good deal of the time between tasks during this whole episode lost. To their credit, there was minimal snipping, although Nick did ask Starr how crying could help. He should try it sometimes.

In the meantime, even after Nick & Starr finally showed up, Andrew & Dan kept bumbling along at the military camp which provided great guffaws at my house. First, Dan couldn’t correctly wrap his feet with fabric like a good Russian soldier should. “Neit, neit, neit,” the supervisor kept saying. The boys decided to ditch the marching and headed off to serve borscht to the 75 waiting soldiers. Once they found out they had to wear the uniforms to serve soup, it was back to the marching.

That was a bad idea. Andrew couldn’t march to save his life. I was rolling on the floor and my sides hurt from watching him. I like this guy. Even the Russian soldiers were laughing hard at watching them. To his credit, and to Dan’s, they got a kick out of themselves as much as the soldiers did. Back they went to serve the soup. Despite their abysmal luck with tasks, they looked like they were having a great time. They also seemed to be off of their bickering from the last episode.

Once teams finished marching like a soldier or serving watery borscht, they were off to find the town Zhukovsky and the Zhukovsky Bakery. At the bakery, one member had to move 50 sacks of 55-pound sacks of flour from the back of a tractor trailer to the bakery floor. Ken was able to plow on through this task. Once Andrew showed up, he happily kicked with this task as well. Dallas, although keeping his team’s lead, struggled. Nick struggled even more so. No one pulled out their backs. I was anticipating that. Once the flour sacks were moved, it was off to the Pit Stop at Neskuchny Sad Park. As Phil pointed out during some of his descriptions of Moscow, the city is filled with beautiful parks.

Who Won: Toni & Dallas were able to keep their lead and arrived at the Pit Stop first. Finally, a team other than Nick & Starr won a round.

What Toni and Dallas won: A trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Who lost: No one. This was another non-elimination round. After all the laughs at Andrew & Dan’s expense, I’m happy they stayed in the race for at least one more week.These two said they are fine with their underdog status.

That’s a good thing. If they win this race, it will be the biggest comeback ever. It’s a long shot. They have a speed bump to do and absolutely no money because they gave all they had to the taxi driver who dropped them off at the park. If they are still in Moscow next week, I say they are in big trouble. If they head to a new country, they receive more money. As they said, they need a miracle.

Amazing Race 13 recap 8: Kazakhstan makes Bizarre Foods look tame

India was easy compared to Kazakhstan–sort of. This week’s Amazing Race 13 was a glance into some of the more unusual aspects of Kazakh culture. As teams sped through the streets of Almaty, even though much of the city looked western and urban with architecture that reflects its former Soviet Union ties, the teams experienced more of Kazakhstan’s agricultural tradition than perhaps is apparent in Almaty daily life.

I’m not sure how much more I learned about Kazakhstan, but I do know what not to order in a restaurant. Plus, Borat made this country famous, something the teams referred to when they found out this is where they were heading.

Travel Tips:

  • If you’re a vegetarian don’t attempt to eat the rear end of a sheep
  • If you make a mistake, the quicker you admit it, the faster you can make up time
  • If you ask people directly for help, you’ll have much better luck than just randomly shouting out, “Can someone give us directions?”

Cultural traditions and Recap: If you find yourself in Delhi and want to head to Kazakhstan, there are three options: through Frankfurt; through Dubai; and through Moscow. In the Amazing Race, it doesn’t matter which flight you are on because when your team shows up to the Alel Agro Chicken Factory in the middle of the night, you’ll have to hang out until 7:30 a.m. when it opens. That means the team that went through Dubai (Andrew & Dan) had time to get there by the time the gate opened. As a bonus, the sunrise over a chicken farm was lovely.

Once the gate opened, the first task of the day was the mad dash to the clue box. Nick, in true competitive spirit, snatched a clue right out of Andrew’s hand, thus propelling Nick & Starr towards the Fast Forward with Terrence & Sarah close behind.

While these two teams tried to down soup made from the butt end of a sheep as belly dancers danced, the other teams donned white jumpsuits, masks, shoe coverings and gloves in order to find one of seven golden eggs among the 30,000 chickens that were milling about the chicken shack.

As the chickens clucked and pecked, one person from each team cajoled the chickens to move in order to find one of the prized eggs. As the team members searched, the other team members clutched their masks to their faces and shouted encouragement. Although I wondered about the stench, I’d rather have done this then the Fast Forward.

Downing the soup was a dreadful process that probably Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods would have had trouble with. Both Nick and Starr tried not to barf with each bite while Terrence tried not to barf as soon as he eyed the guy eating the sheep’s head. Terrence, a vegetarian hadn’t eaten meat for 15 years.

Sarah gamely scarfed her gross looking soup down, but it was too much for Terrence. Why they didn’t give up sooner? I have no idea. Instead, they watched Nick and Starr almost make it to the last bite before they headed back to the chicken factory to look for their golden egg. I was curious about what else the restaurant served. Here’s a link to other food descriptions that sound much better, except I would not want to eat sheep’s head.

As soon as each team found their golden egg, they hopped into a giant crane truck with a driver who was to take them through the city to Koktobe Arch at the foothills of the Tienshan Mountains.

Dallas & Toni were off to the foothills first, while Dan & Andrew had the worst luck–again. Their driver had no idea where to go, and in their resulting miffed state, the guys had a hard time attracting positive energy and someone to give them directions. Instead they thought that the Kazakhs were the “worst people,” even though people in this country have a reputation for their great hospitality.

Toni and Dallas made it up the mountain first. There they were met by Mongol warriors dressed in traditional warrior attire riding on horseback. One of the warriors was a falconer who waited with them for a falcon to sweep in with the next clue held in its claws. That was cool. And, there was a brief glimpse of the beauty of the surrounding mountains. No time to linger, though.

Once teams got their next clue from the falcon, it was off to either dress up in a two person cow suit to find a glass of milk while walking through Almaty mooing at people, or to learn how to play a simple tune on two Kazakh instruments. Each team picked dressing up like a cow –even Sarah & Terrence once they backtracked from their failed attempt at the Fast Forward.

The cow costumes were part of a children’s puppet theater troupe. Dallas & Toni had a great time with their mooing and met with many laughs and smiles from the people they passed. Andrew & Dan, growing weary of each other, had a hard time getting people to help them with directions by continuing their poor tactic of yelling out something like, “Can someone help us?” It took awhile for them to attract help.

Tina & Ken found the milk stand fairly quickly, Tina downed a glass she found on the counter even though it was warm. Unfortunately, she didn’t notice the clue on the bottom of the glass. Off this pair went, searching for another milk stand before they figured out their mistake. Back to the stand they went to get their glass. Then they made the mistake of taking off their cow suit at the puppet theater before heading to the meat stall in the Zelyoniy Bazaar, even though, Toni & Dallas, seeing them, told them they needed the cow suit. The meat market person wouldn’t give them Tina & Ken the clue, so back they went to change into the cow suit once more.

By this time, Toni & Dallas had already found their last clue and were heading to the Pit Stop at Old Square where they came in second behind Nick & Starr.

By the end of the episode excitement ensued as Dan & Andrew messed up and took a cab to the Pit Stop from the meat market. Phil sent them back so they could return to the Pit Stop on foot. He told them to hurry. They hustled. The hustling paid off.

Who was eliminated?: Sarah & Terrence. Despite Sarah & Terrence’s success with each task once they gave up in the Fast Forward, it wasn’t enough for them to edge out Andrew & Dan. Andrew & Dan were ecstatic to find out they were still in the game.

Although disappointed, this couple who uses endearments for each other in about every sentence took the loss in stride. Terrence just can’t eat meat. It’s as simple as that.

Words of Travel Wisdom: Saying things like “Good job my love,” makes difficulties easier to take. Even if you don’t win a million dollars, traveling with the person you want in your life can give you great things and make a relationship stronger. Money can’t buy happiness. (It could help though, don’t you think?)

What Nick and Starr won: Horsepower wave runners. This is the first time a team has arrived at the Pit Stop in first place four times in a row.

Personally, I’d like another team to come in first once in awhile. I was also sad to see Terrence & Sarah go. I’ll miss hearing their endearments.

Kazakhstan: A Lot of Land, Few Beaches

When I read about the number of visitors to France equaling the number of people who live there, I also read that Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world. Russia and China take up a good portion of its borders. This map gives details of the geography and also information about some of the cities.

Since the fall is the best time to go there, this is a good time to be firming up those travel plans. If you do go, I found these suggestions from Top Five Things to Do in Almaty from Lonely Planet’s Blue List. Almaty is a good place to start.

  • You can go to Medeo, a valley in the mountains to skate at the highest skating rink in the world.
  • For a 1 day trip, at Talgar Gorge you can go to an ostrich farm, fish for trout and see the burial site of the Golden Man. (See article for description of artifacts.)
  • Khan Tengri is also listed as one of the top ten mountains to see before you die.

The travel Web site has some intersting tours listed. You can tailor them to your own needs too. I have no idea if they are any good, but they caught my attention.

The photo is of Zenkov Cathedral in Almaty. It’s considered one of the eight most unique wooden structures in the world and has the distinction of surviving the earthquake of 1911. I had no idea there was so much to see in Kazakhstan before I found out about its landlocked distinction.