Trek Talk - ElderTreks Blog

 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Our last full day in Kyrgyzstan and true to form the weather is still overcast and raining slightly. We are scheduled to go hiking in the Al Archa Gorge which is only 30 minutes from the city, but that 30 minutes takes us from a bustling city with monuments to Lenin (They actually keep them for 2 reasons one is that it is part of history, good or bad, and second, they have discovered that tourists want to see them!!! One of the last places in this part of the world that still has a few statues and where a whole floor of the state museum is dedicated to Lenin's life.) to the Al Archa Gorge where the mountains still have snow.

It's a real shame the weather is not better as the group is decked out in rain gear for a 2.5 mile hike into the park. The birds are quiet and hiding because they to do not like getting wet. The scenery however is magnificent.The hike (walk really) is refreshing, but it is cold.  You can see your breath. It is then onto the memorial for those lost in the Stalin years. During that time Kyrgyzstan was suffering sufficiently that a group of local citizens wrote to "Uncle Joe" asking that he help the people of Kyrgyzstan who were suffering greatly, if he could not help they respectfully suggested that Kyrgyzstan no longer be part of the Soviet Union. Well does "off with their heads" mean anything? All were rounded up and shot. It was only found out years later after the collapse when a daughter of one of those shot spoke up and in the ensuing investigation they found the remains of this group in the woods outside Bishkek.

The sun is shining the next morning as we say goodbye, maybe Kyrgyzstan is happy to see us go, and it is off to the airport for our flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Roger, our tour leader, has warned us of the security we will go through at the airport but 4 times!!!!!  Twice before we have even got to check-in. This is our first introduction to the forms that we will be completing every time we enter or leave Uzbekistan. Two copies detailing everything. But the flight is on time and Uzbekistan Airlines impresses everyone with the seat pitch and the service on this 60 minute flight. Many grumblings about the bag of pretzels they get on American Airlines compared to the service onboard Uzbek Airlines.

Upon arrival the line takes us about an hour to clear customs and immigration which, when you think about it, is less that arriving at Toronto with half the formalities. Not sure what I expected about Tashkent but it is a long time since I have been impressed by a modern city. There are parks everywhere, wide boulevards lined with the best shops and, best of all, it's hot!!!! That short hop over the beginning of the Pamir mountains has taken us to a beautiful city, where the streets are clean and there is a sense of a nation on the go. Our day in Tashkent is filled with Islamic Madrassas, Mosques and Mausoleums.

Tired after two days of the heat (yes I know we are never satisfied) tomorrow we aree off to Samarkand.

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Today it is a side trip from Taskent in Uzbekistan to Khojand in Tajikistan. Early morning start as it is 2 hours plus to the border, but that gives us just amount of time to complete the forms needed for exiting Uzbekistan and re-entering later in the day. Gosh do these people love paperwork. We arrive at the border that you would think is straight out of the cold war. Barbed wire, soldiers and the inevitable line up. The locals have to wait for us and it still takes 90 minutes to process us out of Uzbekistan!  Now our forms indicate not only how much money we arrived with but how much we are leaving with (remember we have to do this all again when we return). It also includes how many bags we have so even though we don't have our suitcases we have to put them on the form. Talk about a stupid waste of time. 3 Customs officers process us; one checks the forms, one checks our passports (we have already been checked at immigration) and one enters it into the ledger that should be renamed the doomsday book its so big. At last we take our walk across no mans land ( about 500 metres) to Tajikistan where they say Tourists? come on in. A perfunctory glance at our passports, a quick stamp and we are in Tajikistan.

We have also travelled back 200 years in doing so. It's about an hour from the border to Khojand and when we arrive it's just us tourists and the locals. A guided tour of the local museum by a woman whose English is remarkable but I'm sure she didn't take a breath the whole time.They have spent a ton of money on this museum but not sure who is going to visit it. Lunch is served in I think the only air conditioned restaurant in town (it's hot 37 Celcius) then onto the local bazaar for some Retail Therapy.

This is a local bazaar, no stuff from China here. Fruit, vegetables, nuts and to please the women a visit to the section where they make local dresses. It's remarkable that here the locals are as interested in us as much as we are in them. When we take a picture we have to show them the digital result which brings much laughter. The day soon comes to an end then it's back to the border where we are almost waved through on the Tajikistan side, walk the 500 metres and then, yes you got it, back to them looking at forms, scanning bags etc on the Uzbek side before walking to our bus some 90 minutes later.

Back to the hotel but tired.

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Samarkand land of mystique and stories of the Silk Road.

After a 5 hour drive we arrive in the new tourist Mecca of Central Asia. It is strange but we have only been on the road a week or so but in that time we were the only tourists around. To then experience the return of the big busses is really quite a shock. What do you mean we aren't the only people here? Tourists from France, Germany and the rest of Europe are flocking to see this part of the world before it is changed forever.

Samarkand is where we first experience what I am starting to call the "we can build bigger buildings than you can" mentality that seems to pervade the history of this country. Registan Square is a sight that must be seen. Absolutely stupendous. The observatory built by Uleg Bek defies the imagination about what this guy could do with almost unlimited funds but ancient tools. Spent most of his life studying the stars instead of concentrating on running his empire.  The end result - deposed by his son who then had him put to death. A bit rough don't you think?

All of these interesting characters come from "Temur" a figure still revered here as a ruler who actually cared about his people. Current politicians please take note. His statue is in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.

It's really hot today, 34 Celsius.  In and out of the bus, walking really starts to take its toll on the group. But it's a full day of being educated by our guide Babar.  Yes just like the kids cartoon from yesteryear, but he has an almost encyclopedia type memory, full of anecdotes.

This is one of those places where pictures speak louder than words, so I will let them speak for me [ed note: awaiting Bob's pics!]. Tonight however we have an experience I think most of us did not want.  Earthquake!!! Most of us were awoken at around 2:20 in the morning to our beds swaying from side to side.  It went on for about 25 seconds (or at least seemed it). Sufficient that you wondered if it would stop or should we get the heck outa here. Then as quickly as it came it was gone.

However we survived and it is onto Bukhara.

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Bukhara is our first walled city and the history here goes back 2700 years.  Until recently it was 2500 years, but they just changed it because of new evidence.

First impressions!!!  Remember, these are only mine.

They have carefully restored a lot of the city including the walls, but in doing so they have not recreated the atmosphere within it. By that I mean they have forced the street traders into alcove shops and in doing so have lost that hustle and bustle so prevalent from that time.

The Mosques, Madrassas and Mausoleums (now known in the group as the 3 MMM's) are beautiful but so much of it looks new. Now don't get me wrong the recreation when finished will create an attraction for tourists forever. They are already here in their thousands. At night however it seems to loose that newness and whilst the bustle is gone the hustle returns.

Silk from this part of the world is everywhere. En route our guide has explained that each silk worm will consume 30 Kilo's of Mulberry leaves before spinning it's cocoon. At that point they boil the cocoons to kill the worm before they can hatch as a butterfly. We stopped en route to photograph donkey-drawn carts carrying the cut Mulberry branches. For the ladies a hand made silk scarf will run you anywhere up to $25 dependent on the quality, for the men a bottle of Vodka is just slightly more expensive than a bottle of beer and that's the good stuff.

I'm not sure what season we are in here as the roses which are plentiful, have already started to whither. In Canada they are just starting to grow!!  But the fruit is ready.  Strawberries, cherries are available everywhere which brings me to the point of praising our tour leader Roger.

As this trip is technically work (ok it's a rough job but someone has to do it) I have been shadowing Roger from day 1. It's almost like doing 2 days each day. Wherever possible when we allow our clients a break in the afternoon it's off to visit the restaurant we are going to that night and a different one for lunch the next day. Here he goes over the menu of what will be served, order juices, water, sometimes vodka etc and most of all asks that 2 glasses be set for each person. Then it's on to a local market to buy whatever is needed for the next day.  Roger is the snack king of the tour leader world, so we look for local snacks he can give out on the bus or when walking, the man is always carrying this big backpack whilst the rest of us swelter in the heat.  Local fruits are the snack today, but they require their skins to be peeled before eaten as we cannot guarantee that they have been washed and so on. Back to the hotel just in time to freshen up in time to take the clients to dinner. He has done this trip several times before, has copious notes but things change. The puppet show he arranged one night used to be in one place that is now torn down so we have to track them down and rearrange another venue. Add to that the patience of Job and you wonder how they do it from trip to trip. Inevitably when we get to our restaurant no 2 glasses and patiently he goes through the process again.

Tomorrow it's onto Khiva, 11 hours through the desert!!!

Bob Perry - May 20, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

Waking up to the noise of a farm and seeing fresh snow on the mountains gave truth to the fact it was only +5 C. But what a glorious morning. A breakfast of yoghurt and bread and away we go en route to Chopon Alta which is on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul.  We are told it's the second highest lake in the world after Lake Titicaca. The lake itself has a level of salinity which prevents it from freezing in winter.  An interesting drive from one valley in the Tien Shan mountains, around them to another where the lake is, and the contrast in landscapes. On one side it is green to a certain point and then tall fir trees take over until the snow line. On the other side, nothing but grass. The explanation; one side gets a lot more sun.  The grass side that is.

We arrive at Chopon Alta on the lake after visiting a delightful family who teaches us how felt is made.  Tough work all the pressing and rolling, but then she invites us in to a lunch of salad and local chicken noodle soup. Bones and all.  An abortive visit to the local museum (closed) and then onto this resort on the side of the lake.  We are early in the season so apart from a few hardy locals we are the only people at this property.  You look out across the lake here to yet another view of the mountains. We are already at 1500 meters above sea level yet these peaks reach 7500 meters.  Ok, ok I'm enamoured with the mountains.

Dinner is at the hotel tonight and, whilst you would not call it a culinary extravaganza, it was certainly passable. Something similar to perogies. The weather is still cool and overcast but it doesn't seem to stop the humour of the group.  We wake up to blue skies and cool winds, a 7:00am breakfast, then on to Karakol.  En-route visiting the petroglyphs, 8th century BC, scratched onto boulders left by the last ice age.  Karakol is not what you would call a hive of activity but it is "Victory Day", the 9th May (WWII), and along comes a parade.  It starts with a group of young men looking very serious and stamping the beat for everyone else to follow.   The age of the marchers decreases until we are looking at kindergarten kids decked out in their finest to celebrate the day.  Hey what school kid didn't like a day off? After this unscheduled activity we visit the Preshevalsky Museum.  One tough guy.  He did 4 expeditions into central Asia in the late 1800's, all trying to visit Tibet.  The only time he made it they refused him entry.   He didn't have the right visa!   Only kidding, but yes, they did refuse him entry.   What a bummer!!   It takes two years to get to the border and then "sorry you should have used CIBT".   (For those that don't know CIBT, it is the visa service ElderTreks recommends in Canada and its partner ZVS in the US.)

Lunch (are you getting the small impression that as a group, all we do is eat?) is in a busy local restaurant then a stroll to the local market which takes all of 10 minutes.  We do however discover the "Gold" street across the road.  What's that reality show, "Pawn Kings" or something like that?  Anyway here is where the local population comes to hock their rings and jewelry for it then to be on sale.  No bargains though.  I looked at some earrings and they were $500.  On the way back to the hotel we stop at a Muslim cemetery which looks like a small village. Then, as we are running late, straight to a local restaurant (food again) for a fish dinner that is supposed to be like salmon.  Well... it was good, don't get me wrong, but it was not salmon.

We awake again to bright sunshine, good weather for our ride to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan via the Burana Tower.  This thing is 40 meters high but they lost 20 due to an earthquake and we, the 4 fools that we are, decide to climb it inside. Challenging it is, almost vertical steps, and when we get to the top Roger (our Tour Leader) tells us we are the first ElderTreks clients to do it.  I'm proud to say of the 4, 2 are ElderTreks staff, but the view was worth it.  This on top of a lunch (yes food again) of a beef stew served in a "yurt".   Absolutely delicious, cooked and served by the staff of the local museum to get extra $$. Then onto Bishkek.

Tomorrow we hike (need it to get rid of the food).

Bob Perry - May 10, 2011

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

If it's Tuesday it must be Almaty, Kazakhstan?  Arrived in the wee small hours of the morning, 05:00, which is what all international flights do here, arrive in the wee small hours that is. Not sure what impression I had created in my mind but having received the highly official visa in my passport before I came it was if I expected this whole palaver to enter the country. Well it was all over and done with in 10 minutes.  Eat your heart out Toronto Airport.  Clear immigration and customs and outside being met by our local representative Ulan. Asked him one time the meaning of his name and in Kyrg it means "first of twins".

The city seems a little out of place here, one can almost imagine Stalin saying "There Will Be A City" and it was done. 6 lane highways through the centre of town, some areas still having the Red Star above the buildings, very Soviet Unionesque. The group all arrived ok via Frankfurt and Istanbul (there's a plug for Turkish Airlines again) and they are a good bunch. From the eldest who has a weakness for red wine to the youngest who is full of beans so we should have all have a good laugh as long as we keep our sanity.

As Almaty is a relatively new city there are limited things to see and do. Part of the day tour of the city includes a ride in a cable car to the top of a hill overlooking the city. You turn one way and spread out is the city of Almaty and it is only then you begin to realize how large it is.  Not one 6 lane highway but several. Turn the other way and you are presented with this incredible view of the Tien Shan mountains, covered in snow year round.

The weather later made a turn for the worse but by that time we were inside this incredible old wooden church where there were icons that the locals had saved during communist times and replaced in later years. Interesting diversity in Almaty, you go from being hassled by Tajik women on the street for money for their babies to stores from Brioni, Boss and D&G and they are at full Italian prices folks, no cheapos here.

Then onto Kyrgyzstan. Talk about a scene from a war novel!!! The border crossing looked like all the refugees trying to escape the country, pandemonium everywhere. We had to offload all our bags from the bus, walk through Kazakhstan customs (don't let the locals knock you out the way otherwise you will be there all day) cross the bridge with our bags and go through Kyrgyzstan customs and immigration. $60 lighter in our pockets we were then admitted to the equivalent number of people going in reverse.

After a superb picnic lunch organized by our tour leader Roger it is back in the bus for a few hours drive past cemeteries on the side of the road that look like small villages, to this small village in the Chong Kemin valley. Flanked either side by the incredible mountains of the Tien Shan range, we are staying at the Ashu Guest House, where a local family has created the right "ElderTrekky" experience. Walking to this area, out of the village over what could be laughingly called lanes, and seeing farmers and local people still working the land by hand, planting potatoes.  Being welcomed by a local shepherd and him insisting on shaking your hand even though neither of us could understand each other.  Just a feeling that they are genuinely pleased to meet someone from afar. A dinner provided by the family that runs the guest house of pilaf and a local sweet made from local crackers and honey, washed down with, yes, Vodka. The rooms seem basic but not.  I know that sounds strange but they have installed full bathrooms into each room that is so big you could hold a party but has the feel you are staying at a farm house.

Tomorrow we travel to Lake Issy Kul and deeper into an area surrounded by these incredible mountains so stay tuned.

Bob Perry - May 07, 2011
 

Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour.  Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour. 

I have always thought that you could tell a city by its smell and its sound, not so anymore.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul - Bob Perry

It has been 40 years since I first set foot in Istanbul and whilst I accept that is a long time I fully anticipated that both sound and smell would bring back memories of a city struggling to fully become the tourist mecca it should be. Well I can honestly say it's made it but the sounds and smells haven't.

Istanbul is the first stop for me on a trip that I roughly calculated would be 30,000km in 30 days. From Toronto to Istanbul to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan or as ElderTreks calls it the "5 Stans". Flying from Toronto or from some of the more major cities direct to Istanbul is no longer a hassle. Turkish Airlines provides non stop service from, and I'm going from memory here; Toronto, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  I am most impressed with the level of service they provided. On time, which for me is a biggy, meal and beverage service beyond what you are going to get on US or Canadian airlines folks and non stop. Ok you arrive late afternoon in time for a small dinner, a couple of beers and bedtime. Wake up the next morning to the Muezzins call as I did.

Istanbul has really, really changed. The Sultanahmet area near to Topkapi Palace which, for me was a slightly decaying area of Ottoman houses is now the "Plaka" on steroids. Literally hundreds of small "butik" hotels (and no I have not spelt that wrong), mostly having between 15 to 25 rooms in the decaying Ottoman houses that are now renovated. Restaurants and bars along every narrow cobblestoned street. My hotel the Amiral (yes I'm giving shameless plugs here), was just in front of the Blue Mosque and within 10 minutes of Agia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.  Now walking in Istanbul may only take 10 minutes, but that could be straight up.  I've forgotten that this is a city of hills, good workout for anyone.

I spent the day walking from the hotel to Taksim Square and back via almost all the hotels that ElderTreks uses in Istanbul over what is mostly cobbled streets.  Talk about tired legs the next day. Had a beautiful lunch with our agent Berna and one of our guides, Gulin, looking over the Goldern Horn talking about how Istanbul was and now is. The Sultanahmet area comes alive at night with lights and, I'm sorry to say, tourist traps. Just like everywhere else the prices within this area reflect the tourist rather than the local, you could spend $30 on something that the next day you see in a small local restaurant for $3, but hey, tell me a city that isn't like that now.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul - Bob Perry

The next day I wandered into the Grand Bazaar to see how it has changed, but a tip: go early, after 12 it is a mass of people. The bazaar has now become, I think, the copycat capital of the world.  Everything from Ray Ban sunglasses to Prada handbags can be had for a fraction of the real price.  It's a shame they are copies but what can you do?  The gold stores however are just as I remembered, as I was early people were cleaning the windows to make sure that every gleam and glitter would be seen. Then time to make my way back to the hotel for the transfer to the airport for the flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Five more hours of flying and another 4 hour time change.

Bob Perry - May 04, 2011
 

Have you ever wondered how some travel agencies get their name? Some are easy to discern without much of a thought process – “Good Times Travel” or “Sunny Skies Tours”. They appeal to our simplest emotions and are supposed to convey a sense of comfort and ease and most importantly with a vacation - the notion that all will be well should you travel with them. Other companies have tried to portray themselves as having an ‘exotic’ angle with names like ‘exotic tours’ or using the name ‘wild’. Wild Asia or Wild Africa is supposed to capture your desire to see the wild side of a particular country or continent. Yet others try for the erudite approach – ‘Road Scholars’ is one example and those connected with museums and universities all have their own travel programs – Harvard Travel, Smithsonian Travel.

Did you know that ElderTreks originally started out under a different name offering adventure-travel trips to all age groups? We realized early on however that there were no other adventure-travel companies catering to the ‘mature traveler’ – i.e. those over 50 years of age and in 1987 we became ElderTreks. We knew we were on to something big when every major newspaper in North America ran a feature story on this new concept. Despite our success some people have had trouble with the term 'Elder' being used.

In essence the word ‘Elder’ means more mature and wise, somebody who may be older than you, but not necessarily old. Granted maturity and wisdom do come with age. The adjective elder is not a synonym for elderly. In comparisons between two persons, elder means "older" but not necessarily "old". In other contexts elder does denote relatively advanced age but with the added component of respect for a person's achievement, as in an elder statesman. If age alone is to be expressed, one should use older or elderly rather than elder. Unlike elder and its related forms, the adjectives old, older, and oldest are applied to things as well as to persons.

Did you also know that there was another reason for the name change? Many of our early trips were led to destinations that were really off the beaten path. They were to places like Java and Irian Jaya where we ventured into small villages and really interacted with the local people. Many of these visits involved meeting up with the local headman and exchanging gifts and greetings and gaining their authorization to enter their lands. The term ‘Elder’ was really referring to the Village Elder and was thereby a term of respect.

We therefore thought it was appropriate based on our clientele and the destinations and types of trips we were offering to use the name ElderTreks. Over the years we still get asked “Why ElderTreks?” There is a least one person a month who says that they love our company but would prefer it if we changed our name. Does it really matter what we are called? If our itineraries are unique and our staff wonderful to deal with shouldn’t this really be the most important thing? Would changing our name change ones perception of themselves? Would it change how others perceive someone traveling with us? I suppose that when someone travels with a small group of people who are over 50 years of age they might not wish to be reminded of how old they are. To me it is more important to be traveling with like-minded people to a destination that we can all enjoy rather that letting age determine things. I have often encountered travelers in their 60’s who have more energy and interest in a country than someone in their 30’s or 40’s.

In the travel industry (just as in other businesses) your name and reputation are everything. While brand imaging is a key factor, name change should really only be undertaken as a last resort. There is one well-known travel company who did in fact change their name recently. The new name they chose was a bit strange. It had an odd Latin-sounding feel to it. I had trouble remembering it and kept referring to the old name. I can only assume others had similar trouble with it for they soon changed the name a third time shortly thereafter.

We have been Eldertreks for almost 25 years now and we are proud of our name. We must be doing something right as people keep coming back year after year to travel with us, despite our name.

So for those who ask “why ElderTreks?” at least you now know “What’s in a Name”.

David Roth - May 02, 2011
 

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