Time to Explore the North Island of New Zealand

Don’t worry, this blog is only two months overdue. I might eventually dig myself out of the large blogging hole I have dug for myself.

Our housing search brought us down to Oakura, about 15 minutes outside of New Plymouth, but we decided that was a little too isolated

We spent the first two weeks of our time in New Zealand getting sorted.  The twelve boxes we arrived in New Zealand with were unpacked   We opened a bank account and looked for apartments. The housing options were rather limited. The first thing is that New Zealand does not believe in insulation. I don’t understand the logic behind not insulating houses in a country with very expensive electricity, where it is is 50F a good portion of the year, although I suspect it is related to shipping costs. The second thing is that they do not believe in central heat. The new builds have heat pumps, some of the houses have gas or wood fireplaces, and many just use portable electric heaters in each room. The combination of these factors leads to damp drafty houses. Luckily housing is pretty affordable compared to Boulder prices. Rent is paid weekly, and I don’t think that we saw a single house for rent for more than $2000USD/month. We ended up in new build house that is on the market for sale. We are hoping that it will stay for sale for awhile and that we will eventually move out on our terms. 

White Cliff hike

We have discovered that some things are cheap in New Zealand and some things are expensive compared to the states. It also depends on how you look at the value of the currency. Salaries in New Zealand are close to those in the US (higher at the low end, lower at the high end) if you treat 1NZD as equal to 1 USD, but 1 NZD  is worth $0.68 USD. At first glance restaurants look expensive since you do not tip, and tax is included in the price. A $20 NZD burger seems expensive, but it is about the same price as a $10 USD burger after tax, tip, and currency exchange. If NZD is your currency and you are paid a comparable amount of NZD as USD (which are worth more) the $20 burger is really $20. This makes things seem very reasonable for a US tourist, but a lot more expensive if you live in New Zealand. 

$26 USD for a six pack, kinda pricey

All of our time critical endeavors got sorted out in our first nine days in New Plymouth, and Katy still hadn’t started work yet, so we decided to take Yoshi on a road trip to the Rotorua area. We packed our camping gear and set out. Rotorua is an area near the center of the north island about a four hour drive from New Plymouth. New Zealand’s interpretation of speed limits and highways are very different than the states. First of all they have two main speed limits, 50 KPH (31 MPH) in town and 100 KPH (62 MPH) outside of town. Secondly they have very few roads with any shoulder at all, but a highway (usually) does. Also you can count on the highways being sealed (paved) but not necessarily other roads in remote parts. Combine these factors, and you have roads that are 60 MPH, but have corners where the suggested speed limit is 15 MPH. 

We had an uneventful drive and camped at a lake with a nice view. At dinner we discovered that there had been a rather large miscommunication, and Katy only had sandals, which we decided were not the best footwear for our planned 20 mile backpacking adventure planned for next two days.

Some hazards on our hike/tramp

The next morning we made a detour to town and picked up some sneakers and then headed to the hot water beach trailhead. It was a 10 mile hike (or tramp in New Zealand English) partially around Lake Tarawera to the campground. The campground is only accessible by boat or trail, and the area gets its name from the near boiling geothermal water that flows into the lake at this point creating a hot tub like portion of the lake where it mixes with the cool lake water. It is a little more variable than a hot tub, since the water temperature wasn’t uniform from the top to the bottom, and sometimes you got surges of really hot or cold water. We went in the water for awhile and then cooked some dinner. That evening we played some cards and Settlers and got a few bug bites around our ankles. The bites initially felt like a small prick, but did not itch and just left a small red mark. The next morning was a different story. The small innocuous bites had turned into large hard red welts that itched furiously. That was our first introduction the New Zealand sand fly. We learned (the hard way) that sand fly bites itch for three weeks, and the welts that they leave can take a month or longer to go away. Needless to say they became rather unpleasant, and one of our next stops after the hike was to load up on bug spray. Sand flies normally appear near water and mainly stick within three feet of the ground so if you have pants and shoes on you tend to be pretty protected (Katy: or most people would be, they love Todd and are perfectly happy to bite him on any exposed skin). 

Steaming water in the lake

That morning we hiked out and then headed to our next camping area, Waikite Valley Hot Springs. The hot springs allow you to camp for $5 more than just single day admission. We got our fill of the hot springs in the evening and the next morning and then headed to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which is a geothermal pool park.  One thing with New Zealand is that admission tickets to attractions in New Zealand are expensive, typically $20-60 NZD for admission, so you really need to pick and choose what you want to do. The geothermal park had a geyser that is not as faithful as Old Faithful, which means they add soap to break up the surface tension so it erupts on schedule at 10:30am every morning.  There was a short walk around the area that had a lot of the geothermal activity.  I would compare it to a miniature Yellowstone.  

Our final stop was the town of Rotorua.  You can tell that Rotorua is a tourist town, but it is also one of the outdoor centers for the north island.  As nice as it would be to live in an area like Rotorua, I think that you would feel like a tourist a lot of the time.  We had a great mini escape before we drove back to our motel in New Plymouth and moved into house #1 the next day.

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Moving to New Zealand in 12 Boxes

New Zealand

Taking off from Denver, one last look at the mountains

We have started a new adventure, living in New Zealand for a year. We were unsure how the adventure was going to start because Katy was successful in getting her visa in less than a week, but mine never came through. We decided to give New Zealand Immigration a call; after 105 minutes on hold a cheery woman answered and politely informed me that the current processing time for my visa type is 40 days, and my application was in a queue in the New Zealand consulate in London. She recommended I upload a copy of my plane ticket so once it was assigned to a human they might process it faster. I decided to call back the next day, and after 95 minutes on hold I was able to talk to a gentleman who said there is no way I would get my visa in time and that he would email the London consulate and ask them to rush my visa and to call back the next day. The call the next day yielded the information that they have read the email, but my application had not yet been assigned a human. I was then to call in at 4am Denver time Monday morning for another update. My fourth call yielded the most unhelpful person that insisted the time frame was the time frame, but I was able to convince her to look into my file, and they had assigned my file to a human, win. About five hours later Katy got an email that I had received a visa. It was a little stressful not having a visa the day before we were scheduled to leave (plan B was to try to get a tourist visa on arrival).

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House is cleaned and our boxes are packed

Mac took us and our backpacks, 8 boxes, ski bag, bike box, and carryons to the airport, and we were able to successfully checkin and pay $1200 for our bags. We then did a tour of the lounges in the Denver airport and headed to Houston. Our flight from Houston was delayed a bit, and we discovered that one box did not make the plane. We then participated in a tour of Asia in the front of the plane courtesy of airline miles. We used United miles for our flight, which we got in part of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. We flew from Houston to Taipei, then to Singapore, then to Melbourne, then to Wellington, since the long way around was the only way we could get award seats.

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We arrived slightly jet lagged and piled our boxes onto two luggage trolleys (please note that they are trolleys, not carts, but don’t get them confused with trundlers at the grocery store which certainly aren’t carts or trolleys…). While waiting for the last bag someone came up to us and told us the last bag didn’t make it, but would be here tomorrow.  When it did show up, it was a box of 70 pounds of Katy’s clothes and shoes that was tossed and exploded; it was completely covered in tape and the cardboard had lost all structural integrity (you could roll the box).

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Only a little luggage…

We then fit all of our stuff into a Ford Ranger pickup truck with a cab that was rented from Hertz. It was a rather large vehicle to be introduced to driving on the left hand side of the road with. We spent three nights in Wellington at a cheap AirBnB getting some logistics like cell phones and Katy’s medical license sorted out. We also purchased Yoshi, a 2010 Toyota Prius, which was a fresh import from Japan. The nav system is in Japanese (and still thinks we are in Tokyo), some of the dash is in Japanese, the warning alarms are in Japanese, and when you get in the car you get a friendly Japanese greeting. At least that is what I think it is.

We then drove as a caravan the 4.5 hours up to our new home in New Plymouth. We had rain for about half of the drive and are learning that rain is a very common occurrence. Driving on the left side of the road does take some getting use to. We initially decided that whoever was driving was the person who went to the driver side of the car, even if they had forgotten that the US passenger side is now the driver side. We have turned on the windshield wipers a good number of times instead of the blinker, since they are transposed in left drive vehicles. We have not gone through any roundabouts the wrong way, and it took a quick second to realize that on the very few New Zealand roads that have two lanes, the left one is the slow lane.

We arrived in New Plymouth during a light drizzle which lasted for most of the next week. Our seasons are all screwed up. We left Boulder in July and spent a month in Mongolia wearing long pants and puffy jackets instead of shorts so it seams like we missed a lot of summer. We are now in spring in New Zealand and will skip a winter. The downside is that we will skip summer next year when we come back to the states.

New Plymouth is a town of 70,000 (9th largest in New Zealand), but it is very isolated.  It is about a three hour drive to get to a larger town and both Wellington and Auckland are 4.5+ hours away. It has the reputation of being a rural place that many locals don’t stray from. There are two main industries, dairy farming and oil/gas. The most common mechanism of injury for a 20-40 year old women is falling off a horse. The town has a six mile long coastal walkway and a downtown area that has a good number of restaurants and shops. It also has two bike shops.

 

It has been a great adventure to get to New Zealand, and I am only two months late getting this posted, not enough spare time.

You can see Taranaki peaking out in the background. It is often shrouded in clouds
New Plymouth coastal walkway
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Istanbul is Hot in August, the Pool at the Ritz is not

E49F5012-FD9F-4BD4-A7CB-7CA82E1D6857Our third day in Istanbul denoted when we were down to only one week of honeymoon left. We went down to breakfast, and they remembered our breakfast drink order, one coffee with cream and one Turkish tea, and brought it without asking. Our first stop of the day was to take the metro to the Hagia Sofia.

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We tried to get there when they opened and were able to see a lot of the palace before the tour groups showed up. When we left a line (in the bright, unsheltered sun) had formed to get tickets. Did I mention that Istanbul is hot?

We then headed to the basilica cisterns, which consist of a large subterranean room with a bunch of Roman columns holding it up. It fell out of favor a bit ago when people decided they wanted running water instead of drawing their water from a pit.

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We then decided to wander over to the bazaar. There is a large covered grand bazaar and a much smaller covered spice bazaar, but in my opinion the outside streets around the bazaar are the more exciting part. At this point Katy decided she wanted a kumpir, which is basically a mashed potato with a ton of fixings for lunch. The issue is that they are not the most common food item in this section of town. We spent a solid two plus hours while wandering around the bazaar looking for a kumpir.  We finally backtracked to near our hotel where we had previously seen them for sale to find her lunch treasure (Katy says: absolutely worth all the sweat and toil).

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Carts that workers use to carry peoples purchases through the bazaar

We then wandered the rest of the way to our hotel and went to the pool for the rest of the late afternoon. We then walked down to the road along the Bosphorus and north along the shore looking for a place to eat dinner. We walked over a mile to the north, which took us away from a lot of the western tourists. We picked a fish restaurant overlooking the straight. Katy decided to be a little adventurous and ordered a Raki to drink. Raki is an anise flavored beverage that you add water and ice to in the right combination, and it makes it cloudy. I really liked it and Katy liked it more than she thought that she would.

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We then tried to order a taxi on Turkeys taxi app and failed. There was a ton of non moving traffic, and the fare was suppose to be $3, but there were not enough drivers to satisfy demand. We tried to take a taxi from the street, but they wanted $10, too much. Katy then opened up google maps, and within 2 minutes we hopped on a bus that was jammed pack and took that most of the way back to the Ritz (Katy: turns out there was a soccer game at the municipal stadium, which was next to the hotel; we could hear the crowd cheering from the lounge).

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Our last full day in Turkey we had one place on the agenda, Topkapi Palace. We tried to time it when there wouldn’t be hoards of tourists, but there were still hoards of tourists. It was a a rather large palace complex (Katy: it was massive and beautiful, despite being so hot; and I at least had no idea that the Ottoman Empire lasted well into the 20th century, so it was very interesting to learn about the history). I would say the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia were my two favorite landmark tourist attractions in Istanbul.

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We then headed back to the markets and ultimately back home. One large difference between the bazaar in Istanbul versus Bishkek is that a lot more of the bazaars are geared towards tourists, and there are a lot more touts bothering you. There are still (significantly) less touts than Morocco. It is justifiable that the bazaar is more tourist oriented because there are exponentially more tourists in Istanbul than Bishkek. Istanbul is definitely more expensive than Mongolia, but a lot of the cheap souvenir trinkets were still cheap. A lifesaver on dealing with the heat was that a bottle of water cost the same amount as using the public toilet, $0.20. I kept at least one one lira ($0.20) coin in my pocket at all times, so I could have a bathroom break or water on demand. As much as I am not a fan of paying for toilets, when they cost less than a quarter I am less irritated, especially when they are clean.

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We wandered back to our hotel, and I went to the pool for the rest of the day, while Katy went and had a hamman treatment, which is basically a combo bath/massage (Katy: and was amazing!!!😍😍😍). We then went out and had our best meal of the trip at a sea food restaurant that was enough off the main drag that we didn’t hear any other patrons speaking English. Katy got a whole sea bass, and I got the anglerfish (Katy: google it, it’s one of those deep sea monsters), which is a type fish that I am not sure if I have ever seen on the menu before, and both were really good.

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Katy at the late night dessert bar

Turkish Airlines had changed the time of our flight to Croatia to a couple hours later a few months ago, and I wasn’t able to find open seats on the earlier flights, so we ended up with almost another full day in Istanbul.

We spent the next morning visiting the bazaar trying to snag the last few trinkets of our trip. It worked out that in the last 50 yards of our trinket hunting, we discovered multiple stores that had the stuff we were looking for cheap. While we were walking through, we passed several news agencies filming in front of banks and currency exchange offices and didn’t think anything of them. We then discovered later that day that they were filming because of the sudden drop in the Turkish Lira. We didn’t really get to take advantage of the stronger dollar conversion for the lira, except for the hotel. They charged us the exchange rate based on the day we checked in and the credit card paid the transaction when we checked out so we got the exchange rate of when we checked out, which resulted in it being 25% cheaper than we anticipate for a total of $501 (Katy: including my hammam and all the booze at the pool). We then took a taxi to the airport, and he took the long way, which cost us an additional $4, but it irritated me so I gave the driver a piece of my mind when we got to the airport. We spent most of the afternoon at the hotel getting a 4pm checkout, so we had minimal time in the Turkish lounge, and it turned out to be Katy’s favorite one of the trip (Katy: but I did squeeze in one last dip in the pool as a result of the late checkout, so I don’t know that I entirely regret that choice…).

Turkey was a great country, and Istanbul seemed like a truly European city with all types of people in all types of dress co-mingling.

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We Made it to Europe-Istanbul

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We had an early flight, 630am, from Bishkek to Istanbul so we called up our Yandex.Taxi app, and a driver was at our door within 10 minutes. The Bishkek airport was hopping this early in the morning, and it was a mess. They aren’t super great with lines in Kyrgyzstan, which I am fine with, but Katy is not a fan. We made it though immigrants and customs without being pulled aside and having to pay a bribe—not common, but of all the countries we went to on the trip, this was the most likely to have it happen. When we were talking to one of the locals on the hike he mentioned that there is a lot of buerocracy like Russia, but it is much more manageable because you just pay a small bribe, and the issue goes away. 

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The white tastes like a grape flavored Smirnoff ice and is drinkable if you don’t think you are drinking wine. The red, this photo is the closest you should get to.

We went to the lounge, which had beer and wine (think of it as a late night, not an early morning) and some food stuffs. It was actually a lot better than the Ulaanbaatar lounge. We then had an uneventful 5.5 hour flight to Istanbul and were at our hotel by 10am. The immigration officer did want to confirm that I was really a business class passenger and just not bypassing the line (we may have been a little scruffy looking at this point). 

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We had booked a room at the Ritz during the period when the US and Turkey had stopped issuing tourist visas for one another (~February), and prices had declined to €123/night, and we were able to use one of our credit card upgrade certificates, which gave us a club room (breakfast in the restaurant, and in the club lounge four food services daily, and alcohol for free) which aren’t available with status. That made it pretty affordable at a place we normally wouldn’t stay, but we are on our honeymoon (rooms are now €200-300/night). When we got there they whisked us up to the 12th floor, so we could check in there, instead of the lobby (club guests don’t normally fraternize in the lobby, apparently). I don’t really understand it, but they were able to get us a corner room with a very partial Bosporus view at 10am so I can’t complain. The club lounge host then took a map and went over the city with us over some Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. 

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Istanbul is hot and humid. It is definitely the warmest place we have been since Tokyo over a month ago (Katy says: it’s the warmest place since Sri Lanka). At least the universal price of a bottle of water is 1 lira which was $0.20 (when we got to Turkey the conversion was $1 to 5.1 lira, our last day that changed), and they were easy to buy. We spent the afternoon walking around our portion of Istanbul. We then crossed the bridge to the older section of town and decided to do a Bosphorus boat ride ($3) since it was leaving very soon. 

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We then went back and freshened up while looking at the pool but decided to abstain (for now) since the hungers were upon us. We had a loose plan and ended up walking around for about 20 minutes before we came to a kebab place. Traveling with Katy, I tend to eat less meat and go to less places that specialize in meats than if I was traveling with meat eaters, but a few times per trip we can go to a place that focuses on the meats (Katy: I had a lovely veggie kebab). We then wandered home. 

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We had 3 full days and planned to checkout of the hotel at 4pm on our last day in Istanbul. That said, there is something nice about staying in a fancy hotel with outdoor mini pools that overlook the Bosporus. Our strategy was to sight see for the first portion of the day and after lunch wander back to the hotel. Istanbul is hot. We decided to do pants (Katy: and intermittent, stifling head scarf) this day and knock out all the mosques that required conservative clothing and the following days have a little more freedom in our dress. Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country, but we only saw a handful of women in hijab during our time there. Istanbul is much more diverse, with many Muslim women (both local and foreign), wearing everything from black abaya to hijab with western clothes, to women in sundresses or shorts—and not uncommonly, women in both forms of dress a together in groups.

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We went to the Blue Mosque, which was under construction, so you could not see a lot of the ceiling (widely considers the highlight), which left a lackluster impression on us. Instead of going to the Hagia Sofia, which is right across the plaza, we decided to amble to the Süleymaniye Mosque because the Hagia Sofia entry line was too long to bake under the sun. During our amble, Katy discovered some lavender soap that it was essential she purchase, since our soap had been consumed over the past month (please note she did not feel a need to use it at the Ritz, just stockpile it for potential future needs—Katy further notes it cost 5 lira, i.e. less than $1, and smells delightful, and probably had contact with an actual lavender plant at some point). We then took the tram back home. It cost $0.50, and the terminal station was just down the hill from the hotel. We then reapplied sunscreen (at this point we have five types of sunscreen that are being used for different purposes, but our sunburn levels have been minimal) and went down to the pool. I got a beer, and Katy got a gin and tonic. The G&T was served in a chilled pint glass with ice and filled 3/4 of the way, with an 8 ounce bottle of tonic on the side, still nearly full. It turns out that the cup was just full of gin, and they supplied less tonic then gin. Needless to say Katy was a little tipsy after her cup-o-gin and sidecar of tonic. It was then dinner time, so we wandered about 20 minutes away to a smaller place that had some Istanbul craft beer in bottles. We then prepared for bed, to try to beat the lines the next morning. 

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Horse Rectum for Dinner in Kyrgyzstan?

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Where is Kyrgyzstan?  I am not going to act like I was able to pick it out on a map with a high degree of certainty before Katy and I decided to go there. It is between Kazakhstan and China; not that that is a helpful description. With our frequent flyer plane ticket, we had to continue to fly in one direction, and the only flight west from Mongolia we could take was to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Turkish Airways. The flight stops in Bishkek and then continues to Istanbul, but we decided to get off in Bishkek for four days. Our expectation going there was that we probably will never go back, and it will be nice to have a few low key days before heading to Turkey. 

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View from our AirBnB

The owner of our AirBnB in Ulaanbaatar got us a cab at 7:45am to the airport, which was really clutch. We did not have a working rideshare app, and it wasn’t really easy to flag a taxi on the street in UB. The flight to Kyrgyzstan was an uneventful 4.5 hour flight. Immigration in Kyrgyzstan might have been the fastest I have ever seen. You did not have to fill out any paperwork; there was no line, and my estimate is that it took 30 seconds total. Customs took about three minutes since one of the taxi touts had to go and get the customs official to open up customs so we could leave the airport. After being approached by fifteen people for taxis we figured out our game plan, and the taxi driver charged us the correct rate, $9 for the 40 minute drive to our AirBnB.

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Leaving the airport taxi lane the drivers have to get out and pay the attendant. I am sure there is a more efficient way to do this.

We did have some issue getting into our AirBnB/connecting with the owner, but we went to Relax Coffee, which was across the street from where we thought the unit was, and got a coffee and some internet, and eventually he came to meet us (well, actually he sent his younger brother).  This AirBnB looked great in photos but was a little worn on the inside (Katy says: Todd is wrong, it was very new, so new it felt sterile like it had never been lived in) and was lacking in basics (only 4.8 feet of toilet paper, no dish soap or rags, no salt or pepper, no laundry detergent, but it did have ample vodka glasses, enough for a small army). It did have air conditioning, a balcony, a washing machine, and a great location. 

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We then went out and stocked up on toilet paper (Katy bought the cheap stuff for $0.12/roll; it didn’t even have a roll in the middle. Her defense was it was more expensive than the $0.08/roll TP; my defense is that I enjoy $1.00+/roll TP) and assorted other culinary treasures. We then headed off to Save the Ales, an all-female run and owned microbrewery. On our way we noticed that Bishkek was not like we anticipated. The streets were clean, well maintained, and ADA compliant (in the technical sense, using all the ramps might be a tad tricky). There were a lot of people in the streets in a wide range of dress. I had asked the guy upon checking into the AirBnB how I said a few basic words, and he told me how to say them in Russian, not Kyrgyz. 

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About 20% of people in Bishkek are ethnically Russian (their family could have been there for 100+ years), and a little over 60% of the population of the entire country are actually ethnic Kyrgyz. This meant that we did not stand out 100% as tourists. It helps that there are less than 20,000 US tourists a year, and most tourists make a beeline for the countryside (like we did in Ulaanbaatar). The currency was the som, which Russian Google-translate showed as catfish, so we got to know how many catfish everything cost.

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Brewery in the midst of very Soviet looking apartment blocks

Our gradual wander to the brewery was peaceful, and we were the only people there at 4pm. They had 4 beers on tap, but they were out of their IPA. I take that as a win because it is 400% more than the singular microbrewery in Mongolia had. We split one of each brew and noticed that all the employees smoked (in Mongolia TK, who did not smoke, said that 90% of youths in Mongolia smoked, and he only had one other friend who did not regularly smoke). We then decided that dinner was in our future and went to a Georgian restaurant, which was pretty good. We then headed home. 

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Cheese bread with egg on top. The amazing thing is that that the dairy product in this did not taste like barnyard, something we had grown very use to in Mongolia.

The next day we had a lazy morning and cooked some eggs and then went out to the Osh Market. Osh is the name of the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, but is also the name of the largest market in Bishkek.

I had been looking for a phone store since we got to Bishkek, since our WiFi device doesn’t work in Kyrgyzstan, to get a local SIM card. Bishkek doesn’t participate in Uber, but Yandex Taxi (Russian) is essentially Uber, but you needed a Russian or Kyrgyz phone number to make it work. Our condo owner we didn’t trust to call a taxi for us, so we wanted to use it to call a ride at 4am when we left (and if we wanted to take a ride around town). We eventually found a shop that sold them and tried to buy one. Of course I didn’t know how to open my SIM card slot, so one of the guys ended up going up the road to get the tool to open the slot, and we worked our way though it. It ended up costing $2 for the SIM card and 4 gigs of data with calls and texts, not too shabby. We did see a store owned by the cell company about 100 yards down the road, which would have saved a lot of time, but this was a good adventure. 

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The carrier we got our cheap phone plane from (posting this from Croatia and still haven’t taken the SIM card out)

We then continued to the market. The market was huge, and like most central markets it had tons of different sections. Only two people in the market tried to get our attention, and there were not a lot of tourists in the market at all. It was really nice to be in a giant market and have very very minimal parts of it devoted to tourists. 

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Snack time. 210=$3 for 2.2lbs to get a feel on prices

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Stands with various dried curd and other foul smelling dairy products

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Not every market has alcohol stands

After lunch Katy went to get a massage (1 hour full body massage for ~$20!), and I went and explored. I discovered a wine bar, so we went there after Katy’s rubbing. They surprisingly had about thirty wines you could get by the glass ($2.5-6, expensive for Bishkek), but none of them were Kyrgyz. We then went out for more Kyrgyz food for dinner. 

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Lunch. Spicy food with chewy noodles that is actually authentic. It might be true that after no spices other than salt that was put in everything (including tea) my definition of spicy might be a little off.

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Our third day in Kyrgyzstan we had booked passage on a hiking trip to a spot 30 miles from the city. One difference from Denver and Bishkek is that tall mountains are accessible close to the city, and there are a lot less foothills. We had an interesting mixed bag group through Kyrgyzstan Trekking Union ($5) with about half being Kyrgyz and the rest being tourists. Two of the younger people who were born in Kyrgyzstan said they barely speak any Kyrgyz, just Russian. It was nice to see some big mountains, and the end destination of our walk was a waterfall (seems to be a theme), so we ate lunch there instead of in the valley looking at the big mountains. Most tourists to Kyrgyzstan are there for the mountains or horse riding, and people normally leave straight to the mountain areas, spending a lot less time in the city than we did. 

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View from the trailhead. Recreational hiking is a relatively new thing for a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan

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These thistles honestly came up to my chest

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The end destination of the hike

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When we got into town we went to a brewery which just had IPAs on tap, win. This beer was actually decent, not just novel. We then went to another trendy restaurant with giant outdoor couches that served kebab and Azerbaijan food. Unfortunately we didn’t discover until after we ordered that if you ordered a full fish they gave you a fishing rod, and you had to fish it out of a pond in the restaurant.

One thing with a lot of the restaurants we have been to is that they are HUGE. You can fit five Boulder sized restaurants in some of them (Hoss’s Steakhouse size). We then went to the no name bar. Unlike true hipster establishments there was a sign on the door saying the name of the bar was the no name bar. Bishkek is different than Ulaanbaatar because they actually do hipster well. The establishment was decorated in eclectic hipster, and when we sat down we were only given a menu in Russian (almost all places that cost $4 or more for a meal had an English menu), but a waitress came right over and asked us if we wanted her to translate the menu, and it worked out way better than photo-Russian via Google translate. There are minimal requirements to brew and serve beer, so a lot of places have bad home brew (which is better than light lager) on tap; this place was no exception.  Katy got a few mixed drinks, which were surprisingly good. 

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Gers in Kyrgyzstan are not called gers like in Mongolia, and they are more sloped at the top to give more head room

Our last day we had another wander around the city day, and it was great. Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan far exceeded our expectations, and now Kyrgyzstan is on our list of countries we want to visit properly. 

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Thoughts and Musings on Mongolia

I am breaking this post into two parts. The first are things I learned about Mongolia from talking to people that I found interesting and couldn’t fit into other posts. The second part are my thoughts on the country in general.

Mongolia is a very different country than others that I have visited. Since half of the population lives in one city that is where most of the infrastructure spending goes. The number of paved roads outside of medium-to-large sized towns is minimal, and they mainly connect cities in the center of the country.

Ulaanbaatar was designed for 500,000 people, but about 2 million people live there now. Since many of the people that live there were formerly nomads they just took their gers and placed them at the edge of the city. Most of the people that live in gers use coal (sometimes plastic bottle waste) for fuel for their stoves. This coupled with Ulaanbaatar being the coldest (or second coldest) capital city in the world has led to air pollution in the city that is worse than Beijing, something you would not expect for being one of the lease population dense countries in the world.

Main very Soviet era looking plaza at night.

Yes, Ulaanbaatar does have a Beatles Square

The previous administration tried to address the sprawl of Ulaanbaatar by offering subsidized loans on apartments in the city at 8% interest. The current administration has taken away the subsidies for new loans, so our guide has a mortgage on his condo at an 18% interest rate ($300 per month payment). The government is trying to entice people to move back to the country. They have initiated a voucher program where if you live in Ulaanbaatar you get a voucher for 0.7 acres of land for free as long as it isn’t in Ulaanbaatar (with a few other stipulations).

The number of people in Ulaanbaatar has led to the city being a traffic nightmare. It takes 30 minutes to get the airport without traffic, but the one time we went in the middle of the day it took over 60 minutes with most of that additional time being spent traveling less than two miles. They do have a public bus system, which is jammed full during rush hour, and according to TK, during the winter when everyone is bundled up, he has literally been lifted off his feet by a wave of people leaving the bus and forcibly “taken” off the bus before his stop.

Nice sidewalks, but everything needed a little maintenance.

The average wage in Mongolia is low. In Ulgii the salary for a teacher was about $160 per month (our guide was a teacher the rest of the year). In Ulaanbaatar it is about $300 for teaching English at a public school and about double that for teaching at a private school. When Mongolia became “independent” the literacy rate was very low, less than 10% of the population. While part of the USSR the literacy rate increased substantially, and today it is in the high 90%s. Mongolia now scores 92 on the human development index, which is a statistic reported by the UN that stratifies countries into different tiers of development, and a score greater than 80 denotes a high level of human development. Now it is not required to send your children to school, but most people do, even in remote areas. This is done through a combination of boarding schools and the fact that in the winter families move to their winter house for ~7 months, usually in a village with a school.

The universities in Mongolia are in Ulaanbaatar, and many families send their kids to Ulaanbaatar for education, but many never leave. This has translated to Ulaanbaatar being a very young city. Despite all of this prices in the city are very cheap. We ate lunch at a noodle shop, and it was $3 for two entrees and a soda. A beer at many establishments cost $1. Despite the low food prices there is a emphasis on food safety. We did not have GI issues the entire time that we were in Mongolia, which I found very surprising. At the cheap noodle place I repeatedly saw them wiping counters (not sure if the rag they were using was clean, but there was an effort).

Mongolia is not the most vegetarian friendly place we have been. Faced with Katy’s dietary restrictions, most places offered her every carrot in a 5 kilometer radius, but little else. On a plus side, she can now see a mile through her eyelids, and the orange hue to her skin will likely fade eventually… (really, that many carrots)

They really wanted to be hipster, but they missed the mark. That said the place was always jammed with Mongolians.

We got lunch for $3 total from this place.

There for some reason there is an infatuation with Korean beauty products (which Katy shares), and most things are 50% cheaper than US/Korean prices. Like in the US, most people have a smartphone. In general things are really cheap in Mongolia. Spending more than $4 in a typical restaurant is difficult. Even in fancy restaurants the $8-10 plates are meant for two people. That being said Mongolian food is not a culinary delight. They use minimal amounts of spice, and most of the meat is boiled. They don’t differentiate fat from meat, so a lot of dishes with meat are pretty fatty. When we got back to Ulaanbaatar our dinner stop was Indian food, and boy was it good and spicy. Most Mongolians when they go out to dinner don’t eat Mongolian food, and Korean is the current food fad. One thing they do well are noodles. Most places that we got noodles they were homemade wheat based chewy noodles that were really good.

One true microbrewery in town. They were out of all their beers except the pale ale. It was drinkable, but the first time I tasted hops in over a month so I wasn’t picky

Overall Ulaanbaatar was a surprise. It is a city that is trying in many aspects. After not having a real bed in about four weeks coming back to a real bed and laundry machine was pretty amazing. Katy and I both had an amazing time in Mongolia. We feel that we saw a lot of the country (even though we missed giant parts), and we might come back in the future if there is a compelling reason, but it isn’t at the top of our return list. I am glad that we split our trip up into two parts and were not with one tour company for the entire time. It allowed us to fly between segments, which saved over 40 hours of driving with our itinerary and gave us two different but equally good guides with very different perspectives to share.

The steps to the fourth floor of our AirBnB, very Soviet era looking. Inside the apartment was really nice.

Outside of the opera house. We went to a cultural show which was surprisingly good, but didn’t have enough cash so I had to run and find an atm before it started. Found this on the way.

The State Department Store was located next to our AirBnB

Katy watching here prayer wheel go around. Most of the Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed during communist purges.

We ended up at a Korean BBQ place one day for lunch

Downtown Ulaanbaatar

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Three Days at Khovsgul in Photos

We spent most of the day driving to lake Khovsgul. Khovsgul is a rather large lake which contains about 2% of the earths fresh water. We had three nights at the lake before we drove to Moron and flew back to Ulaanbaatar.

Herders in the road. I swear the car rocked a couple times as the cows bumped into it.

Reinforced power poles, this area gets a lot of wind in the winter, I am just happy that it reduces the chance of summer power outages

Katy and I ended up switching beds since she didn’t like getting out of bed when it was cold to add more wood to the fire

Our snack stash. Half of it was ruined by evil squirrels that get into the gers. Ended up storing the survivors in the stove when not in use. Katy was so mad the snacks got eaten she was ready to make squirrel pot pie.

Safety first on our boat ride

We stayed on the lake three days. Our guide said that he had never in five years stayed in the same place for three nights. I think normally people spend a long time driving each day.

We bought some alcohol distilled from yak milk at the yak festival. It is about 25% alcohol and tastes of slightly sour milk. It cost $1.20. We did not finish it.

We splurged for some wine one night in the camp.

We walked to a sandy beach one morning that we found when we went to the reindeer herders teepee.

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