Most of the time, mass public transit is kind of a drag – long lines, delays, noise, etc. But sometimes it provides a unique glimpse of what life is like somewhere else:
- Moscow subway – Part of the city experience involves riding the system’s endless escalators, visiting the exquisite older stations and, finding that, once you’re on the train, it’s not much different from New York.
- Dushanbe electric bus – When you can see the pavement through the floor, you know you’re not in the US anymore.
- Istiklal Caddesi trolley, Istanbul – A relaxing way to experience Istanbul’s most elegant street – though you have to give up any illusions of being anything other than a tourist. If you’re really a mass transit junkie, you can preface the ride with a trip on the light rail from Sultanahmet and the quirky Tünel (Europe’s oldest mass transit system), and then follow it up with a tram ride across Macka Park near Taksim Square.
- Mexico City subway – Although I’m sure it’s similar in other cities, I’ll never forget my first rush-hour commute, where the only way to get on board is to stand in front of the door and let the crowd behind you shove you inside.
- Mongolian marshrutka – Similar to, but far more colorful (in a figurative sense) than, Mexico City’s ubiquitous peseros, the ‘fixed line’ minibuses plying the steppe provide the next best thing to travel by horseback. One trip to a far-off destination should provide most of the highlights – greasy buuz from meat of uncertain origin washed down with salty ayran, stopping to chat for a half-hour with friends, relatives or anyone else, a cheerful (if frustrating) disregard any sense of scheduling or timeliness, the vast openness of the steppe, ovoos aplenty and music (if you ask nicely you might get a personal demonstration of throat singing).
- Ferries of all types, though I’m thinking in particular of the iconic Washington State Ferries and Istanbul’s scenic ferries (water taxis, such as Venice’s, don’t quite make the cut – they’re not really public transportation) – there’s nothing quite like the 360-degree view you get while out on the water.
1. Never use taxis unless absolutely necessary. This applies tenfold at airports, where locals always avoid the taxi ranks in favor of a convenient bus. At Moscow Domodedovo, I purchased a bus ticket, only to have to wade through taxi drivers trying to hit me up for thirty times what I just paid to the same destination! In an international airport where there are no good public transportation options, make sure you determine a transportation solution before you leave the building – once you’re outside, you’re fair game. In Mexico City, for example, buying a ticket at a fixed-price booth near the international arrival exit cuts the taxi fare in half. However, taxis aren’t always bad – in Central Asia, ‘shared taxis’ are the most popular way to get between cities. They’re a great way to do as the Romans do, and good prices are a haggle away.
2. It’s OK not to have every detail planned out. While you might end up spending a night in a rather sketchy establishment (even with slippers, the general condition of my place in Izmir discouraged me from showering). Especially if you’re accomplished in the art of sniffing out a deal, most destinations (and people) are friendlier than you might think, especially in areas where traditions of hospitality date back thousands of years.
3. That said, it’s better to have a plan than not. Planning ahead saves time, stress and, possibly money (though not always the latter, as advertising costs are passed on to travelers in the form of higher prices). Especially when making complicated transit connections (particularly those involving timed routes), mapping where you’ll be when can make a big difference (e.g. not getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because you missed the last bus). Take every opportunity to collect transit maps and timetables, in case you’re stuck without Internet connections. See [Sample Trip Plan].
4. When in doubt, write down anything you hope you won’t need. For domestic trips, I try to keep printouts from airline and hotel reservations – in the past, not doing so has created enough room for error that I’ve managed to get myself in trouble! For international trips, I include in my money pouch a detailed itinerary with addresses, telephone numbers, confirmation codes, contact information, emergency numbers (embassies, passport info). See [Sample Itinerary].
5. That said, nothing ever goes according to plan. Things sometimes (or often, depending on the country) fail. Nothing (and nobody) is perfect. Don’t worry if you don’t get to do everything you wanted; it will likely be there next time! Leave extra time for Plan B – and enjoy the free time when Plan A works out! Don’t be the Ugly American just because you can’t get from Point A to B in a New York minute.
6. Trip planning is a zero-sum game: because you can only do as much as your time and money allow, choosing to do particular activities or visit destinations means choosing not to do others. (insert opportunity cost joke) Thorough research can help with these decisions – is a distant monastery really worth the same amount of time as three nearby museums?
7. The best parts of trips are the ones you don’t anticipate, so leave time to let them happen. Don’t overplan every minute trying to cram everything in, leaving you with too little time and too many things to worry about. Take time to make personal connections, often the most meaningful part of international travel.
Here’s the first of my initial attempts at travel writing. I’m organizing my travels into categories, of which this is the first one. Outposts are small towns located next to big things – mountains, ranges, etc. Their charm comes from being the last bastions of humanity before the great wilderness. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: Gateway to the Tien Shan mountains, this Russian outpost is dramatically situated at the eastern edge of Lake Issyk-Kul.
2. Litohoro, Greece: The twenty minute drive from the shores of the Aegean to this village at the foot of Mount Olympus can be quite disorienting; you go from sunny, touristy beaches to a strange fusion of Greek and Swiss architecture.
3. North Bend, Washington: Located on the outermost orbit of Seattle’s sprawl, this exemplar of smart growth sits beneath the looming Mt. Si. Not fifteen minutes away, you can find the region’s best stargazing (Rattlesnake Lake), public golfing (Mt. Si Golf Course), hike for the non-hiker (Snoqualmie Falls) and milkshake (Scott’s Dairy Freeze).
4. Tlachichuca, Mexico: This charming village is the perfect base for climbing Pico de Orizaba, the continent’s third-highest peak. The combination of the eclecticism of rural Mexico and the intimidating presence of the looming stratovolcano make distinguish it from the scores of other villages dotting the altiplano.
5. Lone Pine, California: Sometimes, being in the middle of nowhere is not so bad. The most quaint and least touristy in a string of towns along US-395, it is the gateway to both Mount Whitney and Death Valley.
6. Trout Lake, Washington: Just off the southern flank of Mount Adams, this tiny town offers all the amenities a weary climber could ask for.
Using a nifty Google Maps-enabled site, I found that the 2008 total solar eclipse will pass directly over Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. Rather than organizing an
I’ve received funding to photograph the March 29, the last total solar eclipse for over two years (the former nuclear test site (path), the Republic of Tuva, the Kazakh-majority Bayan-Olgii province of Mongolia (path), and the Gobi Desert. (cool map) (This is not entirely true – the centerline passes almost directly over Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city.)
Eschewing southern Libya, where the peak eclipse neatly corresponds with a smoldering war zone, Chechnya, Daghestan, and the Caucasus (where the eclipse passes over both Mount Elbrus and the Bolshoi Altazimuth Telescope), I have decided to travel to southern Turkey, to the warm (or, at least, warmer) beaches of Antalya. I’m working on the specifics and will use this blog to report on the planning and, come Spring Break, the trip itself. Stay tuned!