Monday, March 13, 2017

Almaty, Kazakhstan: Don't Whistle After You Drink Milk Champagne in a Yurt

Thinking about whistling in Kazakhstan? Think again.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, however we learned at the airport that Russia continues to regard the country as a domestic destination.

Nonetheless, a five-and-a-half hour, overnight flight from St. Petersburg took us to the world's largest landlocked country and specifically to its former capital and most populated city of Almaty.

Almaty is located in the southeastern part of the country at the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Literally translated, Almaty means "a place of apples" and is believed to be where the first apple trees grew around 20 million years ago.

Upon arrival, the locals advised the thing to do was to go up into the mountains. In addition to enjoying incredible views of Big Almaty Lake and the forested surroundings, the Medeo Sports Center is housed in the mountains boasting the highest skating rink in the world at 5,545 feet above sea level.

While the country isn't yet on many tourists' radar, the city of Almaty does have a few notable attractions including Holy Ascension Cathedral, the Green Bazaar, Republic Square, Central Almaty Mosque and Park of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

While visiting we learned that Kazakh refers to both the country's people and its language, and that the language is of Turkic origins with many Russian and Arabic words. It was not written until the 1860s where it was captured in Arabic script, and then in 1940 the country adopted the Cyrillic alphabet along with a few extra symbols.

The names of seven countries in Central Asia end in "stan:" a suffix meaning "land" in Persian. The word Kazakh itself means "wanderers" or "outlaws," and is fitting for the nation comprised of formerly nomadic tribes. Traditionally, Kazakhs lived in yurts, or collapsible tents with wooden frames covered by felt which they could carry along in their travels.

It is believed that ancient Kazakhs were the first to domesticate and ride horses, and horses are still a dominant theme in their culture today.

Kumis, or what the locals refer to as milk champagne, is a traditional drink made of fermented mare's milk, and the national dish is beshbarmak which is a collection of noodles, boiled horse meat and spices. A popular sport in the country is kokpar in which riders on horseback play a variation of polo with a headless goat carcass.

The adventure to our first "stan" was memorable and educational. Of all the cultural facts, likely the most critical was the local belief that whistling a song inside a building will make you poor for the rest of your life. A word to the wise: keep your whistling lips on lockdown or stick with humming unless you are riding horseback through the mountains!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tenerife, Canary Islands: Carnival in the Canaries - February 2017

Located off the western coast of Morocco, the Canary Islands are an autonomous community of Spain. The archipelago includes seven main islands and several smaller islets all with a pleasant subtropical climate. When considering a weekend getaway to the Canaries, each of the islands has unique offerings and it's important to do your research.

Because we were visiting during Carnival, or Mardi Gras, we chose Tenerife. The island of Tenerife is known for having the second most popular and internationally well-known carnival after Rio de Janeiro.

As the majority of Carnival festivities aren't scheduled until after dark, we were able to spend the days exploring the island. We stashed our suitcases in the northwestern port town of Puerto de la Cruz and rented a car so that we could easily navigate the island.

A scenic spot to walk along the ocean and grab some fresh seafood, we stopped by the area around Castillo San Felipe before driving south along the coast. It takes approximately two hours to drive the entire perimeter of Tenerife. The largest and most populated of all of the Canary Islands, its most well-known attraction is Mount Teide which is the highest elevation in Spain, the third-largest volcano in the world and located in the center of the island.

The roads on the western side of the island wind in and around small coastal towns and climb to high elevations before dropping down to sea level in the south.

We spent the afternoon in the town of Los Cristianos on the beach and admiring the elaborate sand sculptures. The beaches in the south are golden compared to those in the north with black sands.

Based on the architecture we saw, Tenerife's heyday was in the 1970s and coincidentally many of the island's visitors looked like they may have peaked during that time as well.

Nevertheless, no matter your age, when the sun went down the party started. Drinks in hand, we stood next to the live band and watched as the Carnival Announcement parade moved into the main square. Marching bands and dancers flooded the streets and the Carnival Queen sparkled from head to toe waving to the crowds as her feathered float passed by.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fez, Morocco: An Afternoon Navigating the Medina - February 2017

In many North African cities the "old town" is referred to as a medina. Medinas are typically surrounded by a wall and characterized by narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. Having spent hours lost in the medinas of Tunis and Marrakech, we wised up on our visit to Fez, Morocco and hired a local to guide us through the maze.

Inside the medina it's dark. The light of day is blocked by towering walls, shop awnings and smoke billowing from open fires. The alleys are lined with stalls and crowded by donkeys carrying heavy packs, chickens clucking and hoards of people.

Some people are scurrying through, others are resting with a smoke or a tin cup of tea, and yet more are grabbing you by the hand to escort you into their shops to have a look "for free." Fortunately, inside the Fez medina, the locals are not as aggressive, and touching and shouting is not commonplace.

Within the walls of the Fez medina car traffic is prohibited, and it's actually the largest car-free urban area in the world. Surrounding the mosques and near the decorated communal fountains, stalls sell everything from camel meat by the kilo and shovelfuls of snails, to leather goods and copper pots.

On our way through we grabbed a pita stuffed with cow's tongue and splashed with hot sauce and tried our best to keep up with the guide as he darted uphill through the crowds. The heart of the city, the medina is exploding with life and has a culture of its own that's undeniably engulfing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Jerusalem, Israel: 10 Days in the Middle East - January 2017

The Middle East. Just uttering the phrase causes some to lament on the conflict and instability that has tormented the region throughout history. Others think to the setting of religious stories they've held close throughout their lives. And yet, tens of millions of people call this turbulent area of the world home.

After years of sidestepping the region due to fear, we decided the time was right. With the goal of having a more historical and cultural experience rather than to embark on a religious pilgrimage, we set out to make the most of our short time.

Day 1: Arrival/ Tel Aviv, Israel
In planning our trip and not knowing what to expect, we elected to arrange for an airport transfer service offered through the hotel. Upon arrival into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport, we were met planeside by an airport employee who immediately whisked us off the tarmac and into a sedan. We were driven directly to the entrance of the border control area and escorted to the front of the line. Within moments of touchdown we were met by our hotel car. It was definitely easier than we anticipated without any heightened security delay. That afternoon we spent relaxing and getting acquainted with the area. 

Day 2-3: Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan
After an early start to the day, we took a bus south to the Eliat crossing near the Red Sea. We were able to obtain a visa at the border and met a Jordanian guide on the other side. For the next two days we explored the lost city of Petra, camped in the desert under the stars and ran with the Bedouins along the dunes in Wadi Rum. Currently Jordan is one of the safest Arab nations in the Middle East. Not only was it exciting to experience the culture and see the country's most well-known treasures, but it was the perfect timing to escape Israel while the country was observing Shabbat.

Day 4: Tel Aviv, Israel
Our only full day in Tel Aviv, we began by walking south on the beach promenade towards Jaffa. Towards the city we saw incredibly-unique architecture and significant construction along the way. Even though we were wearing jackets, the beaches were filled with families sunbathing and crowds watching volleyball. At the Jaffa Market we grabbed a falafel and fruit juice and walked the stalls selling fruits and vegetables, home goods and souvenirs. We could have easily stayed longer in Tel Aviv with its host of international offerings and laid-back vibe.

Day 5: Jerusalem, Israel
A short drive from Tel Aviv, we reached Jerusalem in late morning and were anxious to explore inside the walls of the Old City. After entering through the New Gate and passing by the Tower of David, we wandered the city's quarters through markets and down winding cobblestone alleys. We spent time admiring the Western Wall and parted crowds to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After following the path of the Via Dolorosa, we took an elevator to the top of the Austrian hospice to enjoy a spectacular view of the ancient city.

Day 6: Masada and the Dead Sea, Israel
On our sixth day we decided to get out of the city and see the surrounding area. Two of the top tourist attractions in Israel are the hilltop fortress of Masada and the Dead Sea. We spent the morning walking the ruins and had lunch at a traditional Jewish kibbutz, or communal settlement. We walked off our meal in the desert oasis of Ein Gedi where according to biblical story King David hid from King Saul and wrote the majority of the Book of Psalms. After hiking through the waterfalls, we stopped off at a beach resort to spend a few hours floating in the Dead Sea and covering our faces in silky gray mud.

Day 7: Bethlehem, Palestine/ Jerusalem, Israel
With help from an Israeli friend, that morning we ventured into Palestinian territory. On the other side of the wall was the Church of the Nativity which is believed to be built over the birthplace of Jesus Christ. While in Bethlehem our Christian Palestinian guide shared with us the difficulties of being a Christian in a Muslim-led and majority country. In the afternoon we returned to Jerusalem to see some of the sights outside of the Old City including the Mount of Olives.

Day 8-10: Cyprus/ Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
After a fast-paced week spent seeing as much as we could of Israel and the surrounding lands, it was time to relax. We hopped a short flight to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. During our stay at a Limassol beach resort we were able to visit the birthplace and temple of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, witness the locals celebrate Epiphany Day and even mustered the courage to venture into the area of the island occupied by the Turkish Army.

Our visit to the Middle East was unforgettable. In ten days I learned more about western religion than I had over the course of my life. During our many adventures, there were moments when we were fearful and times when we were humbled, but we came away from the experience with a greater appreciation for the region's rich history and culture, and a hope that somehow its people can find enduring peace.