Thursday, January 12, 2017

Visa-Free Travel to Belarus

As of mid-February, citizens of 80 countries will be able to visit Belarus for up to five days without going through a cumbersome visa process. Unfortunately, this provision only applies to those arriving by air at the Minsk airport, not those arriving by road or rail.

Still, Belarus is the second former Soviet country to ease travel restrictions recently, and it is a step in the right direction. I hope others, including Russia, will also make their borders more open to travellers. I don't even mind the cost of visas, it is the hassle that makes me think twice every time I visit Russia. The visa process is no easier than it was in Soviet times.

Belarus is mainly an agricultural region, and is also noted for the persistence of certain aspects of the Soviet system. It is a favourite of those nostalgic for the Soviet Union and its architecture, and also of Jewish travellers in search of their roots. Minsk was one of the major cities of the Pale of Settlement where Jews were required to live in the Czarist era.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

News from Siberia

I recently discovered a fresh source of news from Siberia called The Siberian Times http://www.siberiantimes.com. It will be of interest to people contemplating a visit to the region, or just eager for information about this amazing part of the world.

It includes information and reviews of transportation, hotels and restaurants and items of interest about developments in Siberia. I saw one story about an 89 year old woman from Siberia who is travelling the world alone, even though she speaks no English. Another concerns an 86 year old former teacher who has become the oldest person in the world to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya.

Apparently anyone who is strong enough to survive into old age in that difficult region tends to be pretty tough both physically and mentally. There are plenty of other stories about encounters with wildlife, pollution, business and political developments. Below, in honour of Russian Christmas, is a view of a home on the Small Sea of Lake Baikal.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Some U.S. Hotel Deals

It's no secret that winter is low season for travel in many parts of the world, including most of the United States. It is also a good time to score some relatively low prices on upscale hotels.

For example, at the boutique Diva Hotel in downtown San Francisco, on most weekends through June rooms start at just $119 and the facility fee of $15 is waived. In Boston, the Colonnade Hotel downtown charges $289 for a Saturday stay, but if you also stay Friday that night's stay is based on the temperature in Boston at 5 p.m. that day. In other words, you could, if the temperature were 20 degrees Fahrenheit, stay for an average cost per night of just over $150. Even better, free parking is included.

In Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, the Victorian-style Inn at Jim Thorpe has reduced prices during the week, Sunday through Thursday, fron now through April 30. The rate for a mini-suite is just $99. and this includes a $20 dining room credit.

I found the above information on the Budget Travel Website http://www.budgettravel.com, which is a good source for travel bargains.

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.