Part 2        go to Part 1

How did I get to the top of Meteora towers on a bike? After Meteora became such a popular tourist destination, an  access road was built to nearby rocks with bridges and staircases to monastires. And the hordes of package tourists invaded the hermit monk's domain.

Picture with two girls, who wanted to be photographed with me, will not be sent because I lost my camera again. However, the picture of similar to Meteora geological phenomenon from my Trip Report to Turkey of year 2000 is attached. You may notice that these follical symbols, as tour books call them, are thinner, but more pronounced in   Turkey then in Greece.

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I am in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities. Two years ago I decided not to stay in the hostel because I can afford a hotel. This year I am more experienced and prefer to stay in a hostel anyhow. I am staying in a room with 18 beds, but not all are taken. Hostel is located in a unique  place, next to the 1500 years old Agia Sofia church. It is surrounded by minarets and cupolas. Closest cupola  is 10 meters away from the hostel's big open balcony. There is magical feeling here, especially at night, when minarets and cupolas are illuminated and birds are flying above them. Price of staying in hostel is 4 dollars per night. They even change bed sheets every day. Istanbul is a city of contrasts. The price for a small shish kebab at a street stand is the same as the price of public toilet and the same as a ticket to a subway, it is  about 40 cents.

I am traveling already for 2.5 months. I used to work in geological and surveying expeditions before, and I like a nomadic life. Those who think that nomads are not as civilized or normal as settled people, are wrong. A nomadic life requires a person to be focused, organized  and to not waste time and energy on unnecessary things. I enjoy being very efficient in my trips. I juggle in my mind, the schedule of buses and trains, possible routes and select the most rational one. I like to combine functions, like having a bus ride and breakfast at the same time. I never waist my time on just plain waiting for something. If I have completely nothing to do,  I create in my mind my next Travel Note.

Traveling is the best school of life for young people. In older times, Russian nobles sent their children for travel to Europe for education. Peter the Great was sent like this. It is especially useful for teenagers to learn not to be afraid to look stupid and ask a stranger for directions several times, because when you get in the wrong place, it will be pointless to blame that stranger. Note for these who do  not have children: blaming others for their own mistakes is a favorite teenager activity. They can learn best how to deal with the people while on travel. They learn not let their emotions  fly when talking with stupid or unfriendly officials from whom their  immediate future depends.

Nomads carry only things which they need, while, settled folks are sunk in a sea of unnecessary things, which require their constant  attention and time. I have, everything I need in my little backpack and I know exactly where everything is located. This time however I have one luxury item in my backpack, an electrical hot plate.   This  allows me to prepare sophisticated breakfasts and dinners. On the picture below you will see a dog and cat waiting to share with me my breakfast of hot buckwheat serial with milk, prepared on the electrical plate in a Meteora camping. Their responsibility was to clean dishes after the meal, see next picture.

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Tomorrow I will go by bus to Trabzon, Turkey. In Trabzon I hope to learn about the situation  in countries I plan to visit. My plan to go to Tbilisi, Georgia, then to Erevan, Armenia, return to Georgia, and continue to Baku, Azerbaijan. Then cross Caspian sea on ferry to Turkmenbashi, former Krasnovodsk, Tadjikistan. Then visit Samarkand, Kxiva, Bykxara and finish my trip in Alma Ata, Kazakstan. From there I will return to St Petersburg for my return flight to Washington July 15. If something will go   wrong I will skip any part of my planned trip and return to St. Petersburg earlier. I will appreshiate any information on above countries, you may have. Please write me if you have any.

Alex Mumzhiu
Istanbule Turkey
May 20 2002 8:30 pm
PS. I do not know if there are Internet cafes in places I go.

My dear readers,

I am very pleased with your response. Today I received 19 letters. You know, I really need your response because sending E Mails with the pictures is not easy. Not many Internet cafes have scanners, many are turkey-ized, itallized, sinized, many have stupid user friendly shells. So if I do not receive responses for a while, I start to think, why should I go through all this trouble if nobody needs my TN.

I will answer now some questions having common interest. About two months ago Yahoo limited the amount of outgoing E Mails by about 100 in 24 hours, I guess. Then, I asked several people to forward my notes to others. I learned that some people fell   through the cracks. So those who forward my E mails to others please forward a copy of it to me also. These who receive my E Mails through a re-sender can reply directly to me at You do not have to reply through re-senders.

Tomorrow I will go to Batumi, Georgia on bike/minibus combination. From Batumi I will go to Tbilisi, then to Yerevan, Armenia, back to Tbilisi and then to Baku, Aserbaijan. Then across the Caspian sea to Central Asia. I am very exited about this trip, I dreamed about thys tryp since high school. I think I will be in Baku about June 4 or 5.  As I wrote before I  invite all of you to my virtual  birthday party June 6. Exact time will be sent to you on June 4 or 5, BYOB (bring you own bottle).

Alex Mumzhiu
Trabzon, Turkey
May 22 2002
11 50 pm
Attached ys ydeal travelyng vehycle

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Welcome to Georgia.

What I read about Georgia was not very encouraging. Several Georgians who live abroad also warned me on visiting Georgia. At border control I was the only none local. Unfriendly  boarder guard took my passport with suspicion and asked several unrelated questions, then he gave my passport to his commander and I waited and waited and waited while other people were passing by. I was told to wait. My hope was that Turkish boarder was only  10 meters away and I may escape back to Turkey before they start to shoot. In the meantime, tension of other sort was growing around my bike. People asked me questions about the bike and where I am traveling from. Some boarder guards tried   it. The idea of a person traveling the globe on such funny little  bike was very likeable  to them. Eventually my passport arrived and the guard demanded 3 dollars. Instructed by Lonely Planet (you are correct, Romanovich) I started to argue it.   When, unexpectedly one of the men excited by my bike, said that he will pay this fee for me. He also said that he would be happy to invite me to stay at his house, but unfortunately it is under repair now. This is  Georgia!!!, I recognized it. Hard times did not change Georgian national character.  I traveled on folding bike through many countries, but I never had such enthusiastic support as here.

There are no tourists in Batumi and no Russians. I saw some Russians women, but no a single Russian man. After Russian troops killed some demonstrators in   1990?, a wave of Georgian nationalism wiped all Russians out of the country. What Estonians are trying to do for many years, Georgians made at once. But they probably went too far. There is no anti Russian sentiment here at present time. Just opposite,   Russian music is played in cafes and restaurants, they watch Russian TV and when I told them I am from Leningrad, Russia, the response always was very warm.  In Italy I told  am from America. Italians like Americans, because so many Italians live in America. In Greece I told I am from Russia, Greeks like Russian for their support in the past. In Tunis I always told them I am from America.  I felt it would be kind of small treason to tell otherwise. I get small punishment for my frankness. Somebody punctured my tires in Tunis city hostel. I guess it was the hostel manager. It was the only flat during my entire trip.

Batumi looks like the rest of the former Soviet Union. Buildings are in the disparate need of repair. Roads are full of pothole. I stay in Intourist hotel, it is like returning in a time machine  to former Soviet Union, the same wallpaper which I remembered, the same chandeliers, the same curtains as it was in my home. All Soviet Union was supplied from the same sources.  Room cost 15 dollars. But food is very cheap, big dinner with wine was 4 dollars. But the best are fresh hot pirogis with cheese (sulgyni) at the market for 10 cents a piece.

I am taking bus to Tbilisi in a half an hour Bye

Alex Mumzhiu
May 25 2002 10:45

I stayed in hotel Iberia in Tbilisi for 15 dollars. It used to be a flagship of Soviet Georgia, sitting in the central plaza of the city. Now it fell on hard times,  and all floors except for the 3d floor are occupied by refugees.  One more time I had proof of the rule "do not trust locals, trust only Lonely Planet". Locals told me that the hotel didn't take tourists, and I spent the first night at a nice, but much more expensive and far from the center hotel. Central location is my number one priority, because I like to walk a little, sometimes, not only ride bike.

Not far from the Iberia hotel is the famous Stone church. It was   built to commemorate the first well known sexual allegation case.  One nun complained to authorities that the priest impregnated her. Priest said "If she is right, she will give birth to a child, if not, she will give birth to a stone". And, guess what, she gave birth to a stone. Church was lavishly restored with money generously donated by the Police Chief of Tbilisi. Where did he get so much money? It is clear in Tbilisi immediately.

Myriads of traffic police stop (and probably milk) every second car.

Georgia is having a difficult time and most Georgians want to go back to the Soviet Union, or, because it is not possible, go to a more close relationship with Russia. President Eduard Shevardnadze is pulling Georgia away from Russia and toward the USA, which created mild anti-Americanism here. How difficult are times in Georgia was explained to me graphically by one stranger. He said people lost everything, they sold all their gold and to emphasize what he means he  showed me his mouth without golden crowns and his neck without golden chains. But really, like in Estonia, Russia and elsewhere in the former USSR, decently looking old people are digging in the trash cans and begging. Small children are attacking few foreigners on the main street. I observed how very   tuff looking German hippies was attacked by 4-6 year old girls. Poor Germans did not know what to do. You cannot fight 5 year old.

But let us continue our tour along the Rustavely, the main street.   Across from the Church is the obelisk commemorating the killing of 16 people by the   Russian troops in 1989, see picture. The obelisk looks abandoned. Even while it was Georgian Independence day, nobody cleaned the stone. The more Georgia wants to embrace Russia, the more they want to forget this incident. There may be another reason. Despite the fact that 16 killed was not a  small amount, Georgians reaction was exaggerated with many cases of barbarianism, violence and extremism toward Russians, which Georgians don't want to remember. It was interesting for me to see this abandoned stone. That shooting was one of the main events leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union. And in just 13 years, the  perceptions have changed so much.

Across from the obelisk is Marriott Hotel. The cheapest room is 130 dollars. American military advisers, easily recognizable by color of their skin, stay here.

I went to a famous Tbilisi underground sulfuric bath. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote that they are superb, see picture. They are many  times cheaper here than in Turkey (50c for entrance). An athletic man called tershik (scrubber) put on gloves with shark skin or something like that on them, and started to scrub me furiously to remove dead skin. I felt that he was removing too much, but keep silent. I thought it is supposed to be like this. Actually he removed much of live skin along with dead. I felt like I spent all day on a beach without sunscreen and spent the rest of day under a cold shower in my hotel.

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1. Obelisk

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2. Memorial board on the bath with Pushkin quotation
"I never in my live get anything so luxorious as Tbilisi bath"

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3. Georgian girl on Bromton

Alex Mumzhiu
Erevam Armenia
May 300 2002 11am

I told you that I was scared  when I entered Georgia. I was even more concerned when I went to Armenia. Most if not of all the huge industrial plants of the Soviet era are shut down after the collapse  of the Soviet Union. I saw their rusty skeletons on my way to Yerevan. The country is surrounded by the enemies, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The only way in and out is through Georgia, which uses its position to charge exuberant fees. On my way back I paid $60 for a three day transit visa.  Couple years ago, a group of armed men stormed the parliament and shot down a bunch of parliamentarians. Doesn't it sound scary? 

The reality was much, much better than expected. Yerevan is a pleasant compact city, not in a bad shape.  But what impressed me the most was its night life. Well after midnight the streets are filled with cheerful, dressed-up people, young people, families with children. Outdoor cafes and restaurants are full. Women are allowed to show much more flesh than in Georgia, but less than in Russia. I used these slackened rules, to wear shorts. In Georgia I did not risk it. Their night life looks much better than in Washington. Where do they get their money from.  It is a puzzle for me.

I stayed with a family (home stay). I found them from the Lonely Planet book, very nice retired couple who treated me very well. The payment was  $10 per night, which is equivalent to their monthly pension. The host was a recognized inventor and  his flat was full of little gizmos, invented by him. It was also nice to know that my money goes to these particular people, but  not to some anonymous international corporation. They, like many people here, remember with longing, the golden days of the former Soviet Union, when they lived like  kings, and they loved Russia and Russians. Ironically this love isn't shared by Russians. There is strong anti-Caucus sentiment in Russia, because of war in Chechnya and other issues.

I usually  eat at the street food stalls, because I was in a rush to see all the LP recommended landmarks. In my last day I went to a good  restaurant and tried a bunch of Armenian dishes. It cost  only $13 including wine. It was nice to be in a cheap country again. However going between  cheap and expensive  countries, back and forth, back and forth, brings you to a  realization of how relative are those values on achieving of which, most people spend their lives.  See also A. P. Chekhov "Shinel" (overcoat).

I took a minibus back to Tbilisi for $11.  The road between the two capitals is awful. Tomorrow I will go to Azerbaijan by bike. There are no buses or trains between the two countries, incredible.

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Noble Prize Winner Andrey Sakharov's bust in Yerevan

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Monastery Khor Virap  with mount Ararat on the background.

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Inventor of Armenian alphabet Mesrop Mashtots adores folding bicycles.
Vai, vai, vai! What a bike!

June 2 2002
Tbilisi Georgia
Alex Mumzhiu

(Actually I am sending it from Baky June 4 2002)

My Dear readers
I appologize for not ansvering many letters which I received resently. Also I am re-sending this letter for second time because I was able to sent it only to few people before Internet is offul here. I am in Khiva I crossed Caspian sea on ferry to Acrau   Then I take a train and bus to Khiva It was most difficult part of my entire trip I will write about it later

Alex Mumzhiu
June 13 2002 2 pm
Khiva Uzbekistan

My dear friends and subscribers, The Virtual Birthday Party was great. Eighty people from five continents came. Some even brought virtual gifts with them.   Romanycz ( brought a very useful gift, which I will tell you about later.

Vladinir T. brought a poem:

Below is text in Russian (KOI8-P)

Милый Санечка, дорогой мой Миклуха-Мамжу! Привет отзавистника Вовки-Морковки.

С днём рождения! Шлю стихи - скромный,по качеству, подарок.

Сижу я в таверне,Сижу - не тужу:
Мир, знаю наверно,Поздравит Мамжу.

Поздравит с морями, Что я переплыл,
Поздравит с горами, Куда восходил.

Поздравит со странами,Где я побывал.
С людьми, часто странными, С кем водку пивал.

Со ста чндесами -Их видал наяву:
Попробуйте сами, И я вас пойму.

Поздравте с успехом,Со счастием быть
Ехать со смехом,Колёса крутить!

Но только с годами, а мне шейсят пять,
Не надо, ребята, меня поздравлять:

Мне молодо очень в этом Баку - З
а это и выпьем -merci, вам, beaucoup!

I went to my hotel late and the only things I was able to get from the 24 hour store was a bottle of vodka and a piece of sausage, but I felt happy in "this Baku" as the  poet said, after hearing so many good words from my friends.

But, let me return to my notes in hronologically order. I left Tbilisi by bike, because there was no public transportation to Azerbaijan. The road to the border, down the Kyra river, 40Mi, 60Km was fun. Unpleasant border formality, as usually, was smoothed by my funny looking bike.

In Azerbaijan I took the bus to Baku, 12 hours, $10. I was the only tourist there, so the  2 drivers invited me for the dinner with them. Dinner, at dinner stop was served in a special VIP room for drivers and the food was superb. According to Caucasian hospitality they paid for it.  I told them as to everybody else that I am from St. Petersburg. I know, if I tell them that I am from America, it will be endless questions about how many cars I have and how many rooms are in my house.   I felt sometimes like a spy about to be  discovered, because I cannot support conversation about details of recent events, I do not know names of popular singers, football players and politicians in Russia. 

We arrived in Baku at 3 am and I went to the LP recommended Absheron hotel. To my surprise, the doorman told me about two other bicyclists who stayed here a year ago. They were the brave German couple which I met at Russian / Mongolian border during my trip last year.

Baku is in  better shape than other two Caucasian capitals, Tbilisi and Yerevan. The city is clean and looks very European. Azerbaijan received about $7 billion dollars from the West for the oil development. Walking along these nice streets, it was difficult to imagine that just 12 years ago, this city erupted in Armenian massacre and Russian tanks had to enter to stop it. When Russian tanks left, Armenians and many Russians left too. There is a cemetery in the centeral park  for rioters killed by Russians. There is no cemetery for Armenians, because rioters had a habit of cutting them in small pieces.  Always suspicious of Soviets, western tour-books write about this event, saying that tanks came "under pretext" to stop violence. Armenians classify it differently, and honor general Lebed, who headed this operation, as a hero. General Lebed was killed recently in an air accident.

As I said, it is difficult to imagine it now. City is nice, people are friendly, Russian language is spoken everywhere. There are much more Russians here then in Tbilisi or Yerevan.

In an hour I will take a ferry to Central Asia, across the Caspian sea. The area beyond the Caspian sea has always attracted me, it seems to me, a very remote place. I like to travel through bear's corners. In English it is called more respectable: "off beaten path"  My ferry will came to city Aktay, Kazakstan. There is supposed to be a  railroad  to Khiva  across the desert, but no automobile road.  A  Khiva, Urgench and down the road Samarkand and Bukhara are   places, which I would like  to visit. It is impossible to find out here, in Baku, if that railroad functions or not. One of the reasons is very funny. The old lady in the train station information booth has all books with schedules, but her glasses are too weak and she cannot read these books. They never heard about computers at the train station.

If the railroad is not functioning, then I have to fly from Actay to Alma Ata (across all Central Asia and back to Khiva).  So my second birthday gift was from Ronaycz who quickly found out for me, all the information about this railroad. He said it is functioning and it is a major canal for delivering narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia. However I will go in the opposite direction and if everything will be OK, I will enter Central Asia.

I wanted to wisit Central Asia for a long time. However when I was simple Soviet engineer (Soviet term) I cannot afford it. When I became an American engineer I did not have time, and also price, if do it through the Travel Agencys,  was high. Eventually I discovered backbacker way of travel and headed for Central Asia last year, Osame Ben Laded interrapted my plans. I hope I will see it soon.

I hope I will see it this year. In this sense it is interesting to compare the reaction of my readers to my Travel Notes. These who live in the West consider them adventurous, risky, and exciting. These who live in East, mostly Russia, are not so exited, and my selection of countries also seems stranege to them. They have enough of Asian un-civility in their own backyard and prefer to visit civilized countries. I understand them completely. When I  started to travel I aslo visited civilized countries first, only then, my habbit to visit bear'scorners prevailed.

Map of my trip (click to see a large scale map)

Alex Mumzhiu
July 7 2002

Some people  advised me  to travel to Central Asian destinations by airplane to avoid long and sweaty bus rides. You can fly almost anywhere these days, but  it takes away all  the sense of  travel through  the countries,   the continents, the land. Overland travel is a  special kind of travel and should not be mixed with airplanes.  Founders of Lonely Planet started their business by traveling from London to Singapore overland. I already broke the  rule of honest bike traveling by taking buses and trains, so at least I wanted to avoid flying during my trip.

I took a ferry to Kazakhstan, instead of Turkmenistan, because  the   mad man,  who is Turkmenistan's  ruler now,  made it very difficult to travel through his country.  The ferry from  Baku to Actau, Kazakhstan   on a large  sea ship is supposed to take 18 hours and cost $50.  It actually take two days. The 40 man crew  treated 10 passengers like a prisoners. They locked our passports and luggage for a fee of $1. They also tried to extract  some more 1 dollar bills for other services.  After arrival, a special  team came to check the ship. Only after this, the  passengers were allowed to  be transferred to a waiting team of  boarder guards and other officials.  These new   countries are so crazy  about their border control  that  they   almost stop any border  crossings.

The city to which I  came,  Aktau,  according to LP should be  one of these  newest socialistic towns. I visited many cities like this in my business trips  as an instrumentation engineer while in the USSR.  Any normal person  tries to avoid these  conglomerates of  dilapidated  cement apartment  buildings and not passable  roads, at any cost.  By contrast,   I have some sort of sick  interest  to them. I wanted to see if   life still exists there. And if yes, in what form. Aktau sits on the waterless shore of the Caspian sea and the only water it has, is  from  the desalination plant powered by a nuclear reactor. The city turned out to be much better then those endless Novo-Ufimsk, Novo-Kyibishevsk, Novo-Kyznetsk, which I visited in my business trips.  It was built as a show-case socialistic town for the developers of Mangushlak gas deposit. So I was pleasantly surprised, before I read  the local newspaper.

Newspaper said that the city is located in the area where the black plague exists in nature  and  there are a couple of cases of plague per year in the area. However, the  plague is curable now,  with antibiotics.  In addition the newspaper provided a long list of  drug trafficker who were arrested and one uranium trafficker. He carried 1.5 kg of uranium. That is not all. Not in Actau,  but in Alma Ata, also Kazakhstan, three  men were arrested for killing and eating 7 prostitutes.  The newspaper also described dishes, which they prepare from their victims. They definitely prefer Eastern cuisine: shish-kebaps, lulia-kebaps, stuff like this.

The most questionable part of my trip was the part from Aktau to Khiva. As I wrote to you before,  the only way  to get  to Khiva was by railroad, "Tashkent- Moscow", through Urgench, Nukus,  Beiney and Samara on the West of Aral sea.  It was the  strangest rail road I have ever seen. The train was supposed to go 2 times per weak Thursday and  Sunday.  My  train was delayed by 24 hours for some reason. There were endless  military and police checks. My bike, which usually helps was in a bag, and  I had to answer many stupid questions like: "Show the supporting document, which proves that the purpose  of   your trip is tourism". At some stations in the middle of the desert, the   two stewards and 3 teenage helpers locked the doors at both ends of  the car and stood guard there to prevent crowds outside from entering the train.  Desperate   people were running on the platform and trying to break in. Somebody throw a stone and broke a window.  Who were these people and why they were not allowed to enter I do not know. Passengers were mostly local people and  they do not want to speak. The train ride was 24 hours and cost $2.

Nukus, according to LP is one of the saddest places on earth, because of   the Aral sea disaster and  following ecological problems.  It was not as bad as I expected.  The saddest places I saw,  were in India. Those were the shanty towns under the melting  sun without a  single tree with a puddle of smelly liquid waste  in the middle.  Nukus was much much better.  It has   a museum with the best collection of Russian avant-garde painters of the 1920-1930s. Pictures are saved from destruction because  of the remoteness of the town.  Nukus is the capital of  the sunny Kara- kalpak-i-stan and people who live there are karakalpakistanis. Try to pronounce it  and you will break your tongue.  Kara means black,  kalpak means hat. They are black berets in other words.

To finish with my travel I will describe to you, the bus ride from Khiva to Bukhara. The bus ride takes 10 hours and cost $2.5.    The bus was full of migrant workers who go to Kazakhstan as construction workers. I was again the only non local (I mean non Central Asian). These guys gave me vodka and zakyska (appetizers) they had and the long ride was not as bad as it could be otherwise. My neighbor told me his story which I will tell you, as it helps to understand the local economy. He is an electrical technician, however he cannot afford to pay the bribe to get a lucrative job at government run companies. This is why he works as a construction worker. He was going to Kazakhstan where he can make up to $150 per month at a construction site. His wife is a doctor and she makes only $8 per month (doctors and teachers are known to be very low paid). His wife can make a few more bucks by selling false health certificates, but those are irregular earnings. Last year he bought a 33X33 meter lot for $300 and a half built 9 room house for $5000. So now he needs to make more money to finish it. In Russia, the land of plenty, according to  Uzbeks, he could make up to $300 per month, but it is difficult to get there. Level of poverty in Uzbekistan is $3 per month. Pension is $10. Normal salary is $1 per day. Russians who come here feel like millionaires, like Americans in Russia. To continue this scale, I would like to tell you about Japanese. In Tokyo many establishments have a sign, WELCOME (For Japanese only). A Japanese man, if he is in the mood, can spend $1000 per evening in a Geisha bar. They do not want to see poor Americans meddling around with their worthless dollars.

I am glad that I visited Khiva  and Bukhara. But I did not feel here, such an emotional excitement which I experience in Rajistan, India. To clarify what I say, let me to use the comparison of London and Venice. London is a great city but you will not experience such emotions in front of Buckingham palace  as in St Marco plaza in Venice. I will write more about them later.

But now I would like to tell you that I just came back from   AFGANISTAN border1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

Bukhara is just 500 km from Afganistan and I cannot resist temptation to came to the boarder and spit across. I took train and taxi to Termis on Afganistan border. In Termez I tried to persey taxi drivers to bring me to as close to boarder as possible. They were reluctant to do this untill I invented the reason. I told that my son was serving there this is why I want to take a look on Afganistan. I was unable to spit across the boarder because it was wide neitral strip, but I saw Afganistan

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1. In A rush to Khiva

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2. Karakalpakistani respond to Siamese twins challenge

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3. These Karapalkistani boys was born separately

Alex Mumzhiu
Samarkand, Uzbekistan
June 18 2002

One reader wrote to me that he is amazed by self-imposed situations I put myself in, like being in an area with natural black plague.  Why do I go in such places? Mostly because of curiosity. I do not like the way of travel, when people go to see only tourist objects on comfortable buses and then return to their Western hotels.   I prefer to ride local transportation, eat and drink where locals do, visit places which locals visit, not only tourist sites. In other words to be submerged in local life. This way of travel has some additional positive side effects.  When I leave America, I sometimes get disgusted  with all these bogus sexual and racial harassment law suits and other stupid stuff, which are going on in America. And I think where is this country heading to. When I return, I realize that I live in the best country in the world.   Travel is good for my physical health too. When I started 3 months ago I could drink just 150 grams of vodka. Now I can handle 250.

However, my endurance also has a limit.  Now, I will tell you the story which resulted in preliminary truncating of my trip.
As you may know, all former Soviet countries require foreigners to be registered with OVIR (foreigners registration office) in every place they visit. I carefully followed these rules and have never been fined. Fine for disobeying this rule can be up to $150 in Uzbekistan.  However when I went to the train station in Samarkand to buy a ticket to Tashkent, I was told that I have to receive the document called "Permission to buy a train ticket" from local OVIR. I went to OVIR stood in line, and found  out that I have to go to a different office. I went to the different office and stood in line. When I got in, I was told to bring all registration forms. I went to hotel and brought all registration forms. By the time  I returned, the clerk, in charge of train permissions left.  To make a long story short, I got permission, went to the train station, and just in a half an hour all formalities were finished, and  I get ticket on the train to Tashkent. Train was OK, by the way.

From Tashkent I planned to go to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and then to Alma Ata, Kazakhstan.  In Tashkent I learned that trains between two countries discontinued. There were  no direct buses ever. Europe unites, but these new, small and stupid countries separate. The hotel in which I planned to stay was under repair. Air temperature was so high that urine  evaporated before reaching the ground. And I gave up. I bought an airplane ticket to Moscow for $184 on Uzbekistan Airline and left Central Asia,   probably forever.

I promised to tell you my impressions of famous Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. A Moghul architecture in Rajistan, India strikes me in the heart. Central Asian's did not. I compare them because both places were under Timur (Tamerlan) power. Maybe I like Rajistan better because I did not see Rajistani architecture at all before, but Central Asian sites were pictured in all Russian school text books, along with Uzbekistani collective farmers working on  their cotton fields. In short summary,   I was most impressed by the Tamerland mausoleum. The great man died in fourteen sentry and his mausoleum preserved from that time. The Ragistan complex in Samarkand   is magnificent, no doubt about it. Khiva's fatty minarets and predominantly brown color did not impress me. However,when I went in dusk, from the far end of the city to my B&B, I got sense of living in this medieval city with tall, windowless walls under the emirs, enjoying the good old way of life. Until Russian conquest brought some civility here at the  end of the 19 century, they speareared people, threw them from the top of minarets and quartered them.

1. Afghanistan behind this border tower.

2. Permission to buy the railroad ticket

3. Khiva with famous unfinished minaret on background

Thank you for your attention

Alex Mumzhiu
St Petersburg, Russia
June 22 2002

While my trip is finished and I am just waiting here, in St Petersburg, for my return flight to Washington, I have some observations which may have some common interest.

Theatrical life in St. Petersburg is flourishing. Forget about London's Theatrical District, come here to St Petersburg. The number of theaters increased three fold from the Soviet time. In spite of generally tough times,  theaters are full. There are a wide range of theaters from absurd to realistic and all are very professional. Prices are a fraction of London's and negligible compared to American ones. In my typical evening I go to the theater on bike and leave my bike in the bag at the coat check room. After the theater, I ride bike through the  white nights till about 3 am, then go to the  Internet cafe and come home about 5-6AM. 

More about theaters: in addition to the perfect play, observing the public is also fun. Unlike the Kennedy Center in Washington, where the average age of visitors   is about 70, here, it is mostly young people. Goods, including clothes are pretty expensive here, so young ladies prefer to save on clothes (i.e., skimpy clothes), which takes Westerners by surprise. They do not know where to look, to the play or to the public. 

This is not a paid commercial for the St Petersburg  theatrical society.

PS. My Indian friend and the reader of my Travel Notes responded to my observation of hot weather in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and told me  that the Indians wrote  to their friends back home that the wheatear in America is so cold that the urine freezes before it reaches the ground.

Alex Mumzhiu
St Petersburg, Russia
July 2 2002 ,midnight

My dear readers,

I do not know if you are missing me or not, but I am missing you very much. So, in spite of the fact that my trip is finished, I am looking for the   opportunity to communicate with you again.  This time I would like to follow the LP tradition, and give you my highlights of St Petersburg: 8 best and  6 worst   things in St. Petersburg, Russia.


1. White Nights.

2. The best activity is  to ride a bike during the white   nights.  It is much better than walking.  There is no traffic  at night.  You can criss-cross the historic center of the city  during the night. Theoretically you might meet some bad guys, if you walk. On the bike you are immune. see my pervious  note on bike security at Brompton site:

3. Going to the theater. Theatrical life is flourishing.  This is typical of Russia after a revolution. Art, which was suppressed before, is flourishing, until the  new  government will put a new grip on it.  As Lonely Planet recommend for every other country,  I would suggest not  to go to any place (theater, restaurant, bar, night club) designated for foreigners.  These places are rip-offs and fake.

4. The way woman are dressed. The Lonely Planet in a tour book   "Russia, Ukraine and Belarus" describe it  in chapter "Dangers and Annoyances" like this: "In summer, women wear as little clothes as possible" (page123)

5. Serious street music.  On the street of Moskovskii  Prospect near the metro station, Park Pobedi, I observed  a serious  guitar player.   It was like a concert.  People stood around for a long time, and requested songs.  There were no new Russians  or mafia members there. There were fellow Petersburgers (Leningraders) and I felt very comfortable in their company. I observed similar thing in the underground pass near the Ohotny Riad  metro station in Moscow. There was a small symphonic orchestra playing serious symphonic pieces. And the crowd around consisted of very nice people,
despite that  they were Moscovites.

6. Best products: The beer, which is very cheap ($0.5 for 1/2 liter bottle) and is available everywhere. It is not against the law to drink beer in the street.

7. Best product: Packeted, dried, crumbled black bread with different flavors ($0.10) is the best food to have with beer. Russians, unlike westerners eat after beer and drinks, which increases their drinking capability greatly.

8. Best  trip: A 3 day trip  to Kizhi island on the Onega lake (about $100) to see wooden churches and  the museum of  wooden   architecture of the Russian North.  This is one of the places which touches my heart like Venice, Italy or Rajistan, India, or Buddhist temples in Tibet.


1. The first purpose on which people of the former Soviet union used their newly acquired freedom, was to unleash old racial, national and other hatred, which was brutally suppressed by the brutal communist regime. Jews were replaced by people from the Caucasus on the list of most hated.  Surprisingly sexual minorities are excluded. Gay bars advertised in general publications and gay oriented plays of famous gay playwright Viktuc are popular with general public.

2. Mafia enjoys almost legal status. They do not hide from the police, just opposite. They wear distinctive clothes and ride special kind of cars according to their criminal specialty. In the street and other public places you can easily recognize them. They do not hide. They want to be visible, to show others who is the boss. Unfortunately the general public does not hate them as I think they should, but kind of tolerate them. Many words from criminal jargon become part of contemporary Russian language.

3. Equality, proclaimed at least on paper by Communists is gone and now Russians enjoy their new acquired un-equality. Words "prestige" and "elite"  are between most commonly used. You can see commercials for elite bed sheets or prestigious toilets. All talk about my life in America, sooner or later ends up with question of, "is it prestigious or not"? (for example, about my car). After 4 months on bike I barely remember the make of my car.

4. Russian's attitude toward Putin's personality cult. I do not think Putin prompts it or supports it. But he cannot stop every suck-up (apple polisher) in the country from doing what they used to do for generations.  It doesn't take long to develop a full blown personality cult. An example is in Turkmenistan, which I passed in my trip on my way from Termez to Samarkand, by railroad.

5. Beer commercials on TV. These commercial are so highly pathetic. They present beer drinking as the  main purpose of human existence. When I remember brands they advertise, I do not buy them.

6. Most stupid thing: Unlike during the Soviet time, you can buy red caviar in every store now. However it will be already expired or just before its expiration date. Caviar is OK for about a year. Why whey keep it in storage till the expiration date is a puzzle for me.  Whenever I buy it, it was always bad. You need to know the sales lady to get good products, not only caviar. Sometimes customers beg iron hearted sales ladies to give them a better piece because they will take it to the hospital, for a sick person. But this trick does not always work.

Alex Mumzhiu
Washington DC USA
July 22 2002