Foodie Friday: Shashlik

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time you probably know that we break one of the most widely recognized travel rules at almost every chance we get-eating street food. Now we’ve written about our adoration of street food before and certainly Danny’s constant attraction to meat on a stick, so its possible that you think street food is delicious everywhere and certainly meat on a stick should never be passed up. Well, this week’s foodie Friday is going to prove that untrue.

5089250202 89587e55f0 Foodie Friday: ShashlikShashlik is simply meat on a stick. Grilled over a coal fire, its found all over Central Asia. No, it’s not any sort of exotic meat, its mutton (sheep), ground up and sometimes mixed with some chopped up onion. It’s generally served with a generous helping of naan (white bread) and often with some vinegar and raw onions. Unfortunately, shashlik, perhaps like so many meats on a stick, is often made with the fattiest and poorest cuts of meat. More than once there were bits of bone in my shashlik, but perhaps the most off putting of all, for me at least, was the layer of greasy fat in your mouth afterwards. No wonder its served with vinegar and onions, nothing less would cut through the fat.

Before you get angry or grossed out, let me clarify- Shashlik isn’t disgusting, not by any means. It’s just fatty, really, really fatty, and frankly the ubiquitous fatty taste and texture left in your mouth was so off putting to me I could hardly stand to eat it after a few days. Danny of course was more willing to give the meat on a stick a chance, but eventually he too agreed that it wasn’t the most eerrrr ‘delicious’ of the meats on a stick. Perhaps the Central Asians should take some lessons from our meat loving friends.

IF YOU GO: In Central Asia you’ll have to try shashlik once, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. Kazakhstan did serve it up a bit better than Uzbekistan, however.

Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

We watched Borat for the first time four days before arriving in Kazakhstan. If you haven’t watched Borat, you should…it is funny.

The ironies of the movie, and our travel here are large. In the movie, Borat is played by a Jew while Borat’s fat producer is an Armenian. Whenever they speak in ‘Kazak’ to each other they are actually using Hebrew and Armenian respectively. We are Jewish, we watched the movie while inside Armenia, and then flew one of the only direct flights from Armenia to Kazakhstan.

5009393354 fcd07465b6 Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Upon our arrival in the country portrayed as using horses to pull cars, we found two national airlines and one Tour de France championship team. (Alberto Contador’s Astana is named for the Kazakh capital, Astana) Sitting in the airport we have Lay’s potato chips and Dove chocolate bars to choose from…if that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, I recommend you travel with us more often. As Borat would say….Very Niiiiiiccceeee. Did I mention this country ends with the letters S-T-A-N?

From the third largest city of Shymkent (which comes from the word for ‘cotton’) we made a pilgrimage out to the city of Turkistan (literally, land of the turks) to see the great mosque and mausoleum of the Turkic holy man Kozha Akhmed Yasaui. If we were Muslims, this little half day excursion would be equal to 1/3rd of a trip to Mecca. The site itself, aside from being an Islamic holy place, was a beautiful and massive building with an 18 meter dome, below which sat a giant cauldron for holding holy water. On the way home, our ears were talked off by a medical student who wanted either was looking to practice his English or to tell someone about his wonderful girlfriend he was going to visit.
5020346124 95913ba4e6 Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

We had planned to spend some time in Almaty and in Northern Kazakhstan but both the Kazakh and Russian Governments seemed to think otherwise. First, our reason for spending time there was to get a Russian transit visa to allow us to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad across to Mongolia, usually a one day process. For us dirty and dangerous Americans who are clearly old cold war hacks looking to foment massive rebellion…the process took a ridiculous two weeks…the visa would have been good for 7 days.

Then as we began to realize that Russia wasn’t going to happen, we learned that the border agents had somehow messed up on our passports and we weren’t registered in the country properly. As our visa came from the US, this should have been automatic. As we had already been in the country once, this should have already been done the first time. As luck would have it however, our migration card was missing the required stamp and this meant we either needed to head for the border or spend a day getting registered. As it took over and hour to even figure that much out at the police station, we opted to head for the border. A good thing too as the next day the Chinese closed their side in observance of their autumn moon holiday.

Our final few days in Central Asia pretty much encapsulate the region for us. We left Uzbekistan because we were afraid of a registration problem and to get our Russian visas…which was also a big fail. Then we ran out of Kazakhstan early for similar registration issues as we’d been afraid of with Uzbekistan. In the end, no issues or bribes were paid….but these were the only countries we even COULD travel to on our own. Africa was difficult on our mind and body, but in the end was an experience we will treasure forever. Central Asia however, was just a giant pain in the butt.

As Borat would say… “Not verrrry nice.”

All Aboard the Soviet Train

When we arrived in Kazakhstan as part of our Central Asia overland, we knew the first thing we had to do was purchase a train ticket. We did so, using a mix of pictures and charades, and later that night arrived for our first real train journey on this entire trip.

Aboard the train we just showed people our ticket until someone showed us to where we were supposed to be. We had ‘berth’ numbers assigned to us but we were looking at the wrong numbers…ticket was in Russian of course. Our birth had four beds, two below that served as benches during the day and two above. We had the top bunks, and our things were on the shelves above our heads. There were two more bunks across the aisle along the side of the rail car. It was sunset and once the train was underway we crawled into our alcoves and fell asleep.

5019632285 5e314b1652 All Aboard the Soviet Train

The train resembled the inside of a Klingon space ship. Everyone slept on metal shelves. It was a giant case of function over form. My feet hung over the edge of my berth into the aisle…this was a good use of space since the aisle wasn’t always in use. There were cushions on the top shelf for us to roll out on our metal racks and we did so….next we were given sheets. We were able to lay horizontally. This was some of the best overnight transportation we’ve had this entire trip.

The next morning, very very early, we were awaken to transfer to another train to head into Uzbekistan. Getting onto the train was the first challenge. Not since our entrance to Egypt had we seen such an awful display of humanity, it was a stampede to get onto the train. We really didn’t understand it, we thought we had assigned seats but we guessed maybe we didn’t with how everyone was pushing. Jill took a couple of duffel bags to the head as she managed to finally climb aboard.

The conductor handling our rail car didn’t like it either, but he did take a liking to us. We had tickets just for the daytime so we had no sheets given to us, but they managed to find some for us. He and his wife, the only other person in our berth, were going back to their home in Western Uzbekistan…called Karakalpakstan. They had tons of ‘chai’ (tea) contraband which we found very funny the way they hid it all over the train. They took care of us, showed us the good food to buy when we stopped and made sure Uzbekistan customs didn’t harass us….by helping us to fill in our forms. They even checked to make sure we received the proper black market rate for our money. The conductor’s name was Saperbai, I know that because for 10 minutes we passed our iTouch back and forth as he tried to use our letters and I corrected the spelling based on his pronunciation. We shared photos of our family and trip with them and it didn’t take long before our berth of 3 had a rotating audience of 30.

The second train we took was much the same experience, but a lot nicer. It was funny because the ticket agent first told us there were no seats available…because the only ones that were available were for the top (3rd shelf) of the less nice train. It was easily twice as nice as our first train.

This time though, we boarded in Eastern Kazakhstan and rode a shorter distance. The ride though started earlier so we found ourselves with plenty of time to socialize before bed. There was the man getting on with us who worked in the legal department of one of the telecom companies (not the one we had a SIM card for) and three women who had traveled all the way from Chechnya (just north of Georgia in the Caucus) over three trains and four days.

With them we had much the same experience we had on our first train. We shared photos of our family and trip. One pointed to a photo of my mother and said ‘mama’ before pointing to my father and saying diedushka, or grandpa. They spoke nearly no English but it was enough to give Jill an impromptu Russian lesson and keep our hands filled with apples just as fast as we could eat them. We took photos together and one of the women became emotional over the fact that a photo of her would make it to America.

IF YOU GO: Be at the station at the right time. All trains in Kazakhstan run on Astana time, which is one hour ahead of the local Aktau time where we boarded. Within Russia proper, the entire expanse of the world’s largest country runs on Moscow time.

Actually getting to Central Asia

This is part two in a series on how we actually planed and traveled to Central Asia. If you haven’t read the first post you should probably do so before reading this post.

caucasus map Actually getting to Central Asia

Ultimately we decided against going to Azerbaijan entirely for a variety of issues not least of which was a visa. Upon our arrival in Tbilisi, we walked into every travel agent we could find. On Day 2 of this, we walked into an office that directed us to the only person in the city that could actually issue a ticket for SCAT airways, which was not possible online even if we could have read the Russian website. We also learned that all flights from Tbilisi to Aktau for the next two weeks were full. This upset us, but we continued to search for information on Georgian International Airways, after having the tourist office call at least 7 disconnected phone numbers for them, we determined they either did not exist or did not want our business.

The ticket we purchased was for one week later from Yerevan, Armenia to Aktau, Kazakhstan on SCAT Airlines. This was good because we had wanted to go to Armenia but weren’t sure if we could. Had we gone to Azerbaijan, having Armenian visas in our passports could have been problematic. Officially, travel to the area of land claimed by Azerbaijan, controlled by Armenia, will get you the boot from Azerbaijan….but we’ve heard of people having all sorts of problems for having even a regular Armenian visa in their passports.

The 90 minute flight cost us $250, no small sum. It was however less than the combined total of a $120 ferry ride across the Caspian Sea, waiting (and paying for lodging) for another expensive visa, and then waiting still longer for an unscheduled ferry in the expensive port city of Baku, Azerbaijan. The most amusing part the ticket was that it was completely handwritten and by a woman who spoke little English and preferred to use her German with us. Somehow we managed to purchase it, but up until takeoff I was waiting to be alerted to some mistake having been made. I don’t believe Expedia.com is planning to start operations in the region anytime soon.

We flew to Aktau and landed at 3am and then waited until sunrise to leave the airport on a very expensive taxi to the train station to get our onward train ticket to Kungrad, Uzbekistan. We knew this train ran daily but we had heard (via other travelers) that we might have trouble getting a train out on the same day of arrival. We had no problems with this and both trains (there was a transfer in Beineyu) were sleeper plotzclass trains, phenomenally better than nearly any overnight bus we’ve ever been on but distinctly ‘soviet’ and not luxurious by any means. Aktau, as promised, was not a place we wanted to waste anytime in…both expensive and boring. We used this site to find train times in advance, but the Aktau station is called Mangyshlak and not knowing this little tidbit caused us all sorts of stress for several weeks as we painstakingly tried to purchase tickets in advance.

After arriving in Uzbekistan from Aktau we learned what might have happened to us had we crossed the Caspian Sea via one of our ferry options. An Englishman we met had taken the ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. He arrived in Baku one day early, was nearly ushered onto the ferry but pointed out that his visa wouldn’t be valid yet, then waited a day. The following day he took the ferry and had no problems getting into Turkmenistan and to Uzbekistan in the allotted 5 days. He did note though that no one in Turkmenistan was willing to talk to him, a potentially illegal act, given there were police everywhere. We were the first westerners he’d seen in over a week.

While waiting for the Turkmenbashi ferry, he met a Frenchman who had waited for 10 days for the Aktau ferry—the one we would have likely taken—then once it had been loaded with oil and gas, was told it was too dangerous and he would have to wait for the next ferry. Had we gotten the 5 day transit visa for Azerbaijan we would have been in the same boat as this Frenchman, pun intended, and would have likely violated the terms of our visa. Rumor has it though, that he had already missed the ferry once before, but that was his own fault.

IF YOU GO: Aktau is not a place you should plan to spend time in. There are some underground mosques about 400 km south, but unfortunately visits can only be arranged as part of a very expensive tour. No public transportation runs from the airport to town, its a distance of 25km. An airport taxi costs 2000T (set price) and 3800T to the train station. Local bus #101 runs from the WWII memorial to the train station, but it takes about an hour (price: 50T, $0.30). Taking the ferry to Baku from Aktau, it’s necessary to go to T@gu tours, near the WWII memorial to put your name on a list. Once in Uzbekistan, take the train all the way to Kungrad where you can take a shared taxi for about $6 per person to Nukus.

Planning Central Asia Overland

When we first starting looking at Central Asia and trying to think about our route, we really had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. We started with a map of the region and, made note of several very troublesome features (e.g. Afghanistan) and started to work at it. All through Latin America and Africa we basically traveled in a straight line along the ‘road;’ in Central Asia there are lots of ‘roads’ to choose from and we had to do some serious work and research to figure out which ones were open to us. To those who think we are on a permanent vacation, this should help to prove otherwise.

caucasus map Planning Central Asia Overland

The first challenge was getting to Central Asia from Turkey and the Caucasus. From that region we looked to the east and came up with three ways of reaching Central Asia.

1.The southern route around the Caspian Sea. Through Iran. The visa process for US citizens wishing to visit Iran is straightforward and clear as mud. Pay lots of money, apply within the US, wait 3 months, maybe get approved (but probably not because we have a website) and then take an organized tour that starts and ends in Tehran. Given that we wanted to travel from one end of the country to the other…this really wasn’t an option at all.

2.The northern route around the Caspian Sea. From Georgia we would have had to trek up through Russia and around the Caspian Sea and back down. Problem is that the Georgian-Russian border is a bit fortified at the moment (there was a war between the two a mere 2 years ago) and foreigners are not allowed to cross. This would have meant backtracking across the Black Sea and back into Europe to enter Russia through Moscow….a bit much if you ask us. Not a great option either.

3.Through the Caspian Sea. Travel from Georgia to Azerbaijan to the port city of Baku. Take the near daily ferry to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, or the not so daily ferry to Aktau, Kazakhstan. This was the ‘option’ we thought was the best.

Now that we knew where we were going we started our visa research:

Azerbaijan: Tourist visa $130 and takes 3-5 days to get. Thankfully there exists a $20 5 day transit visa, nice.

Turkmenistan: Tourist visa as much of a PITA as an Iranian visa, not an option. Thankfully there exists a cheap 5 day transit visa, nice.

Kazakhstan: Tourist visa is $60 and has two entries, no problem there.

So we begin a bit more research. We read rumors online that the Turkmenistan government likes to hold the boats at port and disallow disembarkment until transit visas have expired. This is seemingly confirmed by various warnings against said visa on the US Department of State website…the first such warning we’ve seen from them. We rule out the Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry option.

Next up is the ferry from Baku to Aktau, Kazakhstan. This should be a winner, operative word is ‘should.’ Problems. It has no schedule and generally runs only every 2-7 days or so. This means if we enter Azerbaijan to take the ferry we can either pay for the $131 tourist visa or risk overstaying the $20 5-day transit visa. Either way we’ll likely burn time and money while we sit in Baku waiting. At least we finally have an option. Confused yet, not so easy is it?

5003156457 c72f54849c Planning Central Asia Overland

The other option we can think up is to fly over this mess. From Georgia and Armenia only one airline, the Kazakhstan airline SCAT, flys to where we’d like to go. Good luck using their website,  not much English to help you. From Baku there are a few more options, but again that means getting a visa. To make matters worse, we find at least two airlines that don’t even seem to exist….Central Asian and Georgian International (not to be confused with Georgia Air, Georgia’s actual national carrier). Naturally, none of the air tickets available could only be booked until we found an an authorized travel agent within the Caucasus.

Uzbekistan Airways also flew from Baku to cities within Uzbekistan, and is a ‘modern’ airline by all accounts, but we preferred to travel on land as much as possible and this would have had us skip a fair bit and meant going to Baku, Azerbaijan, in order to catch the flight.

This is the kind of ‘route planning’ we deal with frequently and have gotten quite good at. As we’ve found most of the information we’ve used on the Internet (and especially a few cousins of ours planning their own Silk Road trip) we are happy to help future travelers by sharing our experiences. Our next post will describe the route we actually took, what we learned, and the next steps we made.