Saturday, January 21, 2017

Report from New York City

A friend who visited New York last fall reported that it is still entirely possible to visit without spending a fortune, despite the fact that this is a notoriously pricey destination. She travelled by Greyhound bus from Toronto, and returned via West Jet. In New York, she stayed in a shared apartment she found through, and found it satisfactory.

"The Airbnb site was a little tricky. I didn't notice at first that there were three levels of accommodation, so was only looking at the default which was apartments and houses, where prices were similar to hotels. There were two other levels also--rooms, and shared accommodation. These offered more selections at lower prices. I chose a room in an apartment on the Lower East Side, near the subway and Chinatown. It was sparsely appointed but clean, quiet and secure. However, I could hear trains on the Manhattan Bridge nearby, which I enjoyed. The comments I found for my choice were accurate."

She booked the bus trip through a Website called She chose an overnight bus via Buffalo. "The driver verified everyone's border crossing ID with their ticket while boarding. When we got to the border at Fort Erie, there was a short wait at customs and luggage was off-loaded for inspection. I travelled with just a carry-on, so I had very little wait time (smart girl.)

"The culture on the bus is very different now from my last trip. Virtually everyone carries their own entertainment with their smart phones, so there is almost no conversation. I was the lone individual using the light to read. Bus travel is a less annoying experience than it used to be.

"When we arrived, the New York skyline was a soft silhouette backlit by the morning sun. Traffic was already heavy before seven a,m. My few days in New York were wonderful.

"I was very anxious about catching my early flight from La Guardia, but friends said it was easy to reach the airport by public transit and so it proved to be. The subway line near me stopped at Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue, the main hub for buses to La Guardia. There were three bays and transit workers in glowing orange vests to orient you to the correct dock and help with the pay machines. The bus goes to all terminals, and I still managed to get off at the wrong one. Thankfully LaGuardia is not such a large airport, and I was able to find my flight in time. Arriving back in Toronto, I took the Union Pearson line downtown. I got off it at the Bloor West station, where I was able to take a streetcar to within a block of my house."

My friend did not supply price information for her trip, but has promised to do so soon, and I will pass it on when she does..

Monday, January 16, 2017

Digital Nomads in the Balkans

A professional couple (geography, forestry) who love travel and the outdoors have a blog where they write about their experiences around the world, including very recently in the Balkans. They are digital nomads, who manage to combine earning a living with extensive travel abroad.

Their blog is and has some very useful information about costs and conditions in various parts of the world. They recently lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Tirana, Albania and enjoyed both locations for different reasons. Their costs ran around $900 per month for lodging in a small apartment with utilities including high-speed internet, food, and local travel by private car. They found places to stay through

They praised the food in Albania and the ability of locals to speak English in Sarajevo. However, they also pointed out an unusual risk in Sarajevo--unexploded land mines. Obviously this is something to find out about before extensive hiking.

Earlier in 2016 they spent several months in Vancouver, Canada and liked it for the abundance of nature nearby but noted it was (surprise, surprise) somewhat expensive. They have also ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway all the away to Vladivostok, and are currently based in Finland, one of my favourite countries.

It helps that they are a Polish-Hungarian couple, so are able to get around with Slavic and Finno-Ugric languages.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Visa-Free Travel to Belarus

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

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

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

Saturday, January 07, 2017

News from Siberia

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

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

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

Monday, January 02, 2017

Some U.S. Hotel Deals

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

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

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

I found the above information on the Budget Travel Website, which is a good source for travel bargains.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Visa Free Travel to Uzbekistan

One of the major impediments to travel across the Central Asian countries known as the stans has been the hassle and cost of obtaining visas. Now one of these countries, Uzbekistan, is offering open borders to citizens of 27 countries. The catch is that for some of them, the traveller needs to be 55 years old or more.

Older citizens of the United States, Belgium, France, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Portugal and Vietnam can now tour the wonders of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva without a visa. Citizens of a number of other developed countries of any age can visit Uzbekistan for up to 30 days with no visa. Russia is conspicuously absent from the list.

The new rules come into effect on April 1, 2017, in time for the summer tourist season. I am very glad to see that at least one of the countries in this region is becoming more welcoming to tourists. The fact that it is the stan that probably has the most interesting historical sites to visit is icing on the cake. However, Uzbekistan has also been known for its repressive government and gruesome human rights abuses.

Perhaps the change in visa policy will usher in an era of more openess to the world in this very fascinating part of the world.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Lake Ohrid Region, Albania

Here is the final installment of my friend's very detailed report of a trip she took to Albania last summer.

"Our first lunch near Lake Ohrid was at a beautiful restaurant situated on the bank of a rushing river in a steep gorge. Outside the restaurant, I encountered my first pomegranate tree. These grow wild in the hills.

"We passed along the side of Lake Ohrid, by the city of Pogradici. This is a resort area, and the area around town is another of Albania's curious plateaux, covered with gardens and fields. Everywhere I have ever been, farm fields are laid out in geometric shapes, often irregular, probably with a view to delineating ownership, and fields are adjacent to other fields. In Albania, fields are shaped like irregular spots with fractal edges, as if, 'Oh, here;s a good place, let's plant corn.' Other fields may be about, but there is often waste land or construction among the fields. I think this may have to do with the issue of property rights, which has yet to be settled after years of Communism preceded by warlords and Turks. The gardens around people's homes are carefully tended, I think because the investment is more certain.

"Lake Ohrid is very big and is the deepest lake in the Balkans,and one of the deepest and oldest lakes in the world, in the same category as Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Superior. Lake Presba is located just a bit to the east and is similarly deep and old. Both lakes are tectonic, caused by ruptures in the earth's crust, and fed by springs and therefore extremely clear.

"In Korca on the Greek border we stayed in a small bed and breakfast in a lovely old Turkish house with a large stone-flagged courtyard where an ancient grape vine shaded the dining tables, and roses, oleander and nectarine bush grew in clay pots. In the morning, we discovered two turtles wandering among the flowery profusion. The city is lovely, very clean with lots of parks and beautiful private and municipal buildings, many in the Beaux Arts style."

My friend also enjoyed the spectacular scenery en route and a visit to Voskopoja, a tiny town famous for its 20 churches. She predicted that the Lake Ohrid region will be a hot spot for tourism in the near future, particularly given that Turkey is becoming more dangerous for travellers. When she mentions her travels in other countries, she is very widely travelled and has served as a U.S. diplomat in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Many thanks for her contribution, and Merry Christmas to all.

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