A glimpse of Paddington…and Kimye too

** Click on pics for higher resolution versions

I often think about how fortunate I am to live in such a great neighborhood at this stage of my life. When looked at in totality, Sydney is an amazing place to live, by both objective and subjective measures (Top 10 Cities Highest Quality of Life). From its year round good weather and stunning beaches to low crime rates, booming economy and growing housing market, it’s a place that really makes people feel happy on a consistent basis. One particular attraction to the city is the quantity of livable neighborhoods, each with their own unique spin, but the majority with long lists of desirable qualities that can make your final decision a bit tough. I won’t go into too much detail on this topic, as you’ll able to see firsthand in a couple months when my roommates and I face this very dilemma on House Hunters International (I’ll preemptively answer the looming question: no confirmed air date yet). But I do want to share a bit about the neighborhood we picked and where I currently live: Paddington.

Beautiful homes

No need for too many words as the pictures do all the justice here. But I did want to call out the similarity to another great neighborhood: Lower Pacific Heights in San Francisco. Which you might better know as the “Full House” neighborhood. Victorian style townhouses.

Full House Painted Ladies

Paddington Homes

White Houses

Slanted Road

Glenmore Rd

Mossy House

SidebySide

Glenmore Rd 2

Local park

Great place for reading a book, walking your dog, our house favorite of throwing a football, or just soaking in the sun.

Park

Park House

Shopping

Paddington shopping is well known for it’s boutique shops featuring stylish clothes and eclectic art or collectibles. And I have a story to tell to explain. I took these pictures a couple weeks ago on a nice Sunday afternoon. I just happened to stop in front of a store a few blocks from our house to take a photo of some of the shops. Just two days ago, I was coming back from Bondi Beach and see hundreds of people with camera’s standing huddled around the same spot. Wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. I later come to find out Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were interested in Paddington’s finest.

Shopping St

Thomas Dux

Local Bar

Our favorite spot for a Pure Blonde or One Fifty Lashes…don’t worry these are names of local beers. Although we do run into a few non pure blondes every now and again…

The Royal

Landscape

Nice view of the city Skyline.

City

Trees

Palm Tree

Rushcutters Bay

Beautiful bay with a yacht club and marina just a 10 minute walk from our house. A great place to grab a coffee or go for a run.

Rushcutters

Rushcutters 2

Driving from Almaty to the Charyn Canyon

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Visiting or living in Almaty and looking for a short excursion from the city life? Charyn canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world next to the Grand Canyon, makes for a fantastic day trip being only 200km and a 3 hour drive away. The canyon itself offers stunning views of Kazakhstan’s picturesque landscape and the drive there offers a “real” taste of the Kazak people and their lifestyle, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Quick Guide

  • Bring enough food and water to last you the whole day, there aren’t many “quality” options on the way there or back.
  • Bring toilet paper, I’ll just leave it at that 🙂
  • It’s at least 6 hours of driving and a good visit at the canyon will take 3-4 hours, so plan accordingly.
  • Leave your wallet and passport in a separate compartment in your car and only a small amount of cash on you (1500-2000 tenge). This way you can claim that’s all you have and they can’t confiscate your most important document.
  • Don’t cave right away to the officers. If you know you are in the right, stand up for yourself. If you did commit a violation, keep calm and have your cash ready.
  • Bring your camera and have fun!

Getting There

google directions

It’s a fairly easy drive as you stay on one highway (A351) for the majority of the trip. Leaving Almaty, take Al-Farabi east through the tunnel and head northeast towards the airport. You will reach a roundabout after 10-15km, take the second exit which will keep you going straight on the A351. There are three points on the A351 where the road splits and you will need to continue going right. The first is around 125km into the trip and right after the following gas station and near the post with a green diamond shape on top.

1-get ready for first turn right 2 - Turn right

After another 25km, the second turn is near this blue sign and circular shaped outpost. Stay to the right. After this turn you will be heading towards the mountains.

3 - second turn right

After another 25km, the third and last right is less identifiable, but has a red and white guard rail seperating the two directions. Stay to the right.

5 - third turn right

After the third right, you will reach a sign stating you have reached the Kokpek Gorge. From here you will a nice drive through the mountain pass.

kokpek gorge

You will reach a sign stating Charyn Canyon 10km, shown below. From here, you will take a dirt road 10km until you reach the National Park entrance.

8 - turn left and follow country road for approx 10km

Speed limit and the Police

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If you haven’t heard already, the police are quite corrupt in Kazakhstan and like taking money from tourists and expats. This is especially true when driving through small towns on the way to the canyon. The speed limit is only 40 km/h, and nearly every small town had police camping at the beginning, some of them having speed cameras and others not. Unfortunately, I had several encounters with the police on the trip, but it added to the adventure and now I can share some insight with all of you.

1st Stop: I was definitely driving too fast, going 60 in a 40 zone. There were 3 officers, one running the camera, one waving people down with a bright orange baton, and the third sitting in the car “writing people tickets” a.k.a., collecting the cash. I was waved down by the officer with the baton so I pulled over the side. He asked for my papers and told me to get out of the car, speaking no English, so we were communicating through gestures and intuition. He took me to the camera and showed that indeed I was going too fast, then directing me to the police car to visit with “the boss”. My friend Paul had stepped out of the car to join in the experience, and “the boss” was not very happy about this, and started yelling for him to go back to the car. I luckily received some intel from a colleague before the trip to keep only small amounts of money in your pocket and no passport, leaving them in the car. This came in handy for sure. I didn’t want to deal with a ticket and I’m sure the officer didn’t either, so I pulled out 2000 Tenge ($13) and showed it to the officer. He directed me to set it in the section between our seats, then gave me my papers back and I was on my way.

2nd “Stop”: I put this one in parentheses, because I didn’t actually stop although I was directed to 🙂 About 20 minutes after the first stop, a red Audi was cruising ahead of me. I realized that we were approaching the entrance of a town so I slowed down. As expected, there were officers waiting and flagged down the Audi. It appeared that he was trying to wave down me as well, but I wasn’t exactly sure. We made a split second decision to keep driving and if someone came after us we could chalk it up to being ignorant tourists. The decisions paid off because we continued on our way with follow up from the officers.

3rd Stop: On the way back from the canyon, after being stopped once and nearly again, I was well prepared to drive slow in each town. However, this didn’t stop the police from trying to get some Tenge off me. About midway through the trip, I entered a town going exactly 40 and began approaching the camped out police. The officer standing outside starting waving me down. I was really confused as I was going the limit, and thought about continuing on, but something told me to stop. He approached the car and motioned for me to get out of the car. I knew he didn’t have anything on me so I started arguing with him that I was only going 40, showing on my hands and pointing to the speedometer. He pointed that I was going 60, which was outrageous so we kept arguing. I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out, but luckily they had pulled over a local Kazak woman while this was happening. He couldn’t deal with us and her at the same time so he threw up his hands and waved us off. Persistence paid off.

On the road

Some things you may encounter along the way.

Lots of donkey carts.

donkey

Roadside animals.

camel

Roadside markets with plently of shaslyk…buyer beware.

shaslyk market

Lots of 20 year old Audi’s.

audi

At the canyon

I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Uzbekistan: My journey across the Silk Road

I didn’t really know what to expect before my trip to Uzbekistan, except that I would see some pretty historic cities that were at the heart of the Silk Road and that the country was pretty poor and underdeveloped.  It ended up being a phenomenal trip for lots of reasons (even despite some hiccups).  I have some other posts where I share more stories and thoughts

Missing my train in Tashkent and finding the real Borat

A lesson on stereotyping and the hospitality of the Uzbekistan people

This one is full of of pictures with some background.  Hope you enjoy!

My first experience in Tashkent 

There are two exchange rates in Uzbekistan, the national rate and the black market, with a difference of almost 25%.  The only way to get the real rate is to exchange money at the grand bazaar, which can be quite dangerous for a variety of reasons, mostly because it is illegal.  However, the agency I booked with had the driver take me there and exchange for me. I turned in $200 and got 500,000 som back. The best part is the highest bill is 1,000 som, so you are forced to carry around large stacks of money.

Uzbek Som

PEOPLE

Traditional dress of Samarkand women: colorful dresses and head scarves.

Praying ladies

market ladies

Traditional dress of the men: long robe with a skull cap and a long white beard.  This guy must be an ancestor of Ghengis Khan.

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This mans family owns the best carpet factory in Samarkand.  All handmade locally.  A carpet like the one here takes about 1.5 years with 2 people working on it to complete.

carpet dude

Samarkand bread is known as some of the best in Central Asia, and people sell it throughout the city in these wagons.

bread cart

I ran into and Uzbekistan actress on my tour of Samarkand.

Uzbek actress

My Samarkand tour guide, Denis.  Family originates from the Ural region in Russia and he is second generation Uzbekistan.  Really great guy, tons of fun and very interesting facts about his city.  Highly recommended if taking a trip to Samarkand.

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In Bukhara, I went to a dinner show which had local dancers and singers.


One of my favorite pictures of the trip, at the end of one my tours, a policeman was getting ready to shut down for the night and offered me Cognac.  We shared a few drinks out of tea cups.   A great way to end the tour! My guide said he never seen that in all of his tours.  I blurred out his face because he didn’t want to get in trouble for drinking on the job 🙂

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FUNNY

Uzbek semi, carrying potatoes and flour.  This is a common mode of transporting goods

uzbek semi

Some sheep just chilling on the sidewalk.

goats

These kids were playing as I walked by and got this picture right before this kid got a thwap to the head!

kids playin

Another funny thing about the cars is that every car is either a Zhiguly from Soviet days, or a Chevrolet.  Yes, all the way from the good ol USA.  GM has a partnership with the government to produce locally and they tax all foreign cars 100%.  And all of the cars are white.  Makes for some pretty dull streets if you ask me…but at least it’s supporting Detroit!

FOOD

Uzbekistan has great cuisine, which is a blend of Turkish and Asian food.  Lots of meat, but also a good mix of vegetables, with an Asian flare of rice.  There most famous dish is Plov, which is steamed rice with meat on top, with different styles that sometimes include raisins or different garnishes.  Similar to other Central Asian countries, they drink LOTS and LOTS of tea, a great addition to a large meal.

This is called a Belishi, which is essentially a doughnut with meat and onions in the middle…delicious.  Definitely not something you can eat everyday for breakfast, but a nice delight on vacation.

billishi

Plov

Tashkent Plov

My meal at the National food restaurant, where you can walk around and pick from huge vats of different foods.

national food

Lady serving sausage at the Chorsu bazaar.

chorsu bazar

Cabbage dolma, meat and rice wrapped in cabbage.

dinner show

If you want to see more great Uzbek dishes, check out this Pinterest board.

SITES

A few things to know about Uzbekistan’s history:

  • Alexander the Great arrived to the region and assumed power in 326 BC
  • Taken over by Arabs in 8th century, bringing Islamic Golden Age to the region
  • Sacked by Ghengis Khan and Mongol dynasty in 13th century
  • During break up of Mongol dynasty, Timur, or Timerlane, the most famous Uzbek leader, came to power and expanded empire conquering West, South and Central Asia.  His lineage ruled different parts of the region for nearly 400 years.
  • His grandson Uleg Bek came to power at the age of 15 and was one of the world’s first great astronomers.
  • Russia Empire expanded into the region during the 19th century as part of “The Great Game” and later ruled by Bolsheviks, before being absolved into the Soviet Union.

Because the Arab’s ruled during the 8th century, the region has been predominantly Muslim, which is why most of their historic sites relate to Islam, including mosques, madrasas (school for Islamic study), and minarets (large silhouette structures used to call people for prayer).

Additionally, two of Uzbekistan’s cities, Bukhara and Samarkand, were hubs on the Silk Road, where merchants would come to trade between East and West.  Many of the buildings remain from this time including caravanserais (hotel for travelling merchants) and the trading centers.

bukhara arch

arabic

registon

blue tiles

mosque

Overall, a wonderful trip, one of my best.  I highly recommend a visit for any type of traveler and if you are looking for advice, happy to help you on your journey.

Missing my train in Tashkent and finding the real Borat

Toshkent trainState of panic

It was a lot more difficult to get to Bukhara than I originally expected due to some complications at the train station, which turned out to be the most panic stricken event I’ve had travelling the world.

After arriving plenty early to catch my train, one of the security guards guided me to the wrong track.  Once the wrong train arrived, I headed to my carriage expecting to begin my overnight journey to Bukhara, when the new guard told me I had to go to original track I was at…and the train was leaving NOW.  So I immediately bolted back to track 3.  Somehow in the process of scrambling, I dropped my passport and didn’t realize it until I got right in front of the train.  Knowing I couldn’t get on that train without it, I sprinted back to track 6 frantically asking all the guards if they picked up a passport, realizing the train to Bukhara was going to depart any second.   After five minutes with no luck, I was depressingly brining myself to the realization that I missed my train AND lost my passport.  The only thoughts going through my head were all the Visa’s and stamps I had collected, now gone, and the major hassle it would be to get back to Kazakhstan and then to Germany, without my passport and visas.   Damn not a great way to start my Uzbekistan adventure 😦

I headed back to track 3 and to my surprise the guard had my passport…whew.  It still didn’t make up for the fact that he guided me to the wrong track, but a small consolation.  At least I wasn’t going to be an unidentifiable foreigner a long way from home.   Now I just needed to figure out how I was going to get to Bukhara.

The Real Borat

Tashkent Central

After things settled down, the guard introduced me to the train station manager, an extremely nice Uzbek man named Ghulam.  He wanted to know what had happened and do anything possible to help.  He did everything from correspond with my travel agent over the phone, get me to cashier’s office to get money back for the ticket, book me a room at the train station hotel, and lead me through the many security checkpoints (this is a former Soviet country after all) in a breeze.   We were each other’s company over the course of an hour and he was super friendly, telling me about his life, his family, asking questions about America and my travels.  In one of the most surreal moments since being in Central Asia, I couldn’t help but thinking that the real Borat was not from Kazakhstan, but from Uzbekistan, and his name was Ghulam.  Here are three things that made me think of this

  • His look.  There is a lot more Mongolian influence in Kazakhstan, while people in Uzbek look more Russian or Caucus.  While he wasn’t a spitting image of Borat, he could at least pass.
  • His speech.  The way Ghulam phrased certain things like, “I love my wife”, or “Listen to me, my friend” made me think that Sasha Baren Cohen spent serious time in Tashkent when honing in his accent from the role.
  • The last one and the real kicker, was when we started talking about international women.  And could you guess what he kept referencing for attractive American women???? PAMELA freaking ANDERSON.  No joke.

With all that said, Ghulam was very different from the Real Borat in a variety of ways, not limited to:

  • He wasn’t an idiot or culturally unaware.
  • He studied in Europe and has a great job as a manager.
  • He speaks 7 languages.

I do not want to disrespect Ghulam or the Uzbek people in any way, but I thought the story was pretty funny and had to share it.

A lesson on stereotyping and the hospitality of the Uzbekistan people

We’ve all done it and most people do it very often: stereotype.  In fact, our brains are programmed to stereotype because they are fast and efficient cognitive shortcuts that save us a lot of time and energy.  However, most of us know that creating stereotypes can lead to negative outcomes, with things like sexism, racism, and lots more “isms”.   I was taught a good lesson on stereotyping during my trip to Uzbekistan.

A couple weeks before my trip, I read about an Uzbek man living in Idaho who was arrested and charged in a terrorism plot.  I originally brushed it off as a rogue extremist.  A few days passed and I saw the article again.  This time I started to worry about my trip.  What were the people going to be like? Was I going to be in danger? I started reading articles online and found that more and more jihadists were moving towards the Afghanistan/Uzbekistan border.   I would be staying in Samarkand on my journey, which is less than 400km from Afghanistan.  I started to worry more.  Then I read about the tragic event in Andijan in 2005.  I won’t discuss too many details, but in short, the Uzbek Interior Ministry and National Security Service killed between 200 and 1000 protesters.   The relations between Uzbekistan and the US were fairly good until that point, as Uzbekistangranted the US access to its military base, which was quite strategic for the US given its proximity to Afghanistan.   The relationship took a serious hit after Andijan, to say the least.  The US pulled out of the air base.  Major international companies left Uzbekistan.   What would this mean for me on my trip?  What were the people going to think of Americans?  Well good or bad, I was going to find out.

My worries were quickly calmed.  The Uzbek people are some of the nicest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered.  On top of that, they are fascinated, almost fanatical, about America and American people.  Every time I told someone I was from America, they responded, “Whooooa, America.  America, horosho!”  Which essentially means America is good.  Some examples that come to mind:

  • After my first choice for Plov in Tashkent was closed, my taxi driver took me to his favorite spot and we shared a great meal together.  He then took me on a mini tour of the city, even walking me through Amir Timur Square.  He spoke very little English, but tried his best to be a guide.

Plov cook

Tashkent Plov

Fountain

  • The hospitality of the manager at the Tashkent train station (see linked post for more details)
  • I had a night out in Bukhara at the local chillim (hookah) spot called City Lights.  The place was relatively empty, but a group of guys welcomed me to their table and introduced me to the “American Boy”.  He couldn’t have older than 22 and was decked out in an America shirt, America belt, some red white and blue Chuck Taylors, and around Bukhara was known as “American boy”.  We had a fun evening smoking chillim and learning about each other’s cultures.

American Boy

Chillim

  • On my last night in Uzbekistan, I went to the only bar in town that stayed open to televise the Champions League Final (Go FC Bayern!).  After watching the first part of the game on my own, three guys around my age invited me to join them.  I came to find out that it was one of their birthdays and ended up taking shots of Russian vodka chased with various slices of meat throughout the game.  The next day, Alisher, the birthday guy, met me for lunch at this amazing open market restaurant that goes by the simple name of National Food.

Champions League

chickpeasnational food goat meat

All of this made for a wonderful trip.  The cities I visited were spectacular in their own right, but the people made the trip even more special.

It’s a fundamental lesson of life we learn at very young age.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  Give people a chance and leave your preconceived notions behind.  But’s this way of thinking can be very difficult in practice.  And sometimes it takes a trip to Uzbekistan for the message to hit home.  I could have easily cancelled my trip and been left with this stereotype of the Uzbekistan people.  But I am so happy that I didn’t because I would have missed out on a great trip as well as dismissed a fascinating culture and group of people.

Give people a chance.  You owe it to yourself and the other 7 billion people on the planet.

One month in Kazakhstan: First impressions and observations

Almaty Church

I’ve been in Almaty for for one month and I’d like to share my first impressions, observations and thoughts about Almaty and Kazakhstan.

PEOPLE

Kazakh people are extremely friendly and welcoming, here are a few examples:

  • My landlord took me to the mountains the first day I arrived

Shymbulak

  • The Microsoft office manager and her husband took me sightseeing and then out for a great Georgian dinner.  The dish below is called Shashlyk, which is extremely popular in Central Asia and each country claims it as their own.  It’s different kinds of cooked meat barbequed and served with pita bread and vegetables.

Shashlyk

  • I was pleasantly surprised on my birthday when the team at work gave me a Shapan – traditional Kazakh wardrobe – as a gift.

Kazak Present

We had some fun with this at my party the following the weekend 🙂

Shapan 1

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  • The average Kazakh (at least the ones from Almaty) is a perfect blend of Chinese and Russian, with lots of variations in between.  I’ve met local people that I swear could be from Moscow or Beijing.  But on average, they “look” Asian because of the dark skin and epicanthic eye folds (still look Russian as well with high cheek bones and aquiline nose, but to me look more Asian) yet “feel” Russian because of the language, style and culture.

Wedding

LANGUAGE

  • The language barrier is very difficult for ex-pats as not many people speak English.  I have been reduced to pointing at things to communicate.

Welcome Sign

  • Russian is by far the dominate language in the city and a lot of local people are not even fluent in Kazak.  The government is trying to bring back Kazak as the national language, but that can’t be done overnight.

FOOD

  • I never thought there would a come time where I drank horse milk…until I came to Kazakhstan.  Horses are not just for riding here, as they use them for both dairy and protein consumption.  In the local grocery store, the meat section if full of various horse sausages, which are quite salty and delicious.  You can also get horse milk and camel milk.  Below is camel milk and horse sausage.

Camel milk and horse meat

TRANSPORTATION

  • It seems like every car is a pseudo taxi in Almaty.  If you need a ride somewhere, just stick out your hand an 3 to 4 normal looking cars will be lining up.  Each ride is a barter system where you agree on a price with the driver before you get in.  Most cab rides are a whopping $2-3, $5 max 🙂  I usually get some help from locals who speak English before I get in as I’ve heard some cars can be risky.
  • Every time I drive, I carry a copy of my passport with me as you never know when you might get pulled over by the police.  The government is very corrupt here and I’ve heard they like to pick on the Corporate cars.  I was fortunate enough to get a tip from my French friends to carry a copy of my passport instead of the real thing, as they can charge up to 200 Euro just to get your passport back.

LANDSCAPE

  • One of the best things about Almaty is it’s proximity to the mountains.   You can reach the Tian Shan mountains in 15 minutes by car and see them from anywhere in the city.  My office has a window facing directly at them, so it’s a nice distraction on the days when I’m doing long hours at work.

View from my Office

Office View

View from main street in Almaty

Abai

Overall, it’s been a great first month.  I’ve had a lot of fun, met some cool people, learned a thing or two about the culture, and enjoyed my time at work as well.  Looking forward to discovering more in the next month!