Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Good info on airline food

Want a preview of what you might be served onboard (if you get anything at all) so you know how many snacks to pack? If so, take a look at airlinemeals.net, where you can scroll through photos and reviews of meals served on all your favorite airlines. Better yet, contribute your own photos and reviews. There is nothing like making the photos public to put a little pressure on the airlines to ramp up standards a bit.

If you are in the mood for a great example of customer feedback to an airline regarding food, take a look at this humorous letter, written by an anonymous passenger of Virgin Atlantic.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Learning about Kyrgyzstan

Planning a trip to Kyrgyzstan and you’d like to know more about the country and the culture. Here are some suggestions:

Non-fiction books
Kyrgyzstan: central asia’s island of democracy? By John Anderson is overdue for an updated edition, covering the period only up to 1997. Despite this, it provides a very useful and readable overview of Kyrgyz history, political and economic development and security issues within a compact 100 pages. Filled with lots of useful facts, it’s a good primer for visitors who want to understand the country context.

Kyrgyzstan (Lerner Geography Dept., 1993) This book is intended for middle-school readers, but it's a useful introduction to anyone looking for a short overview to the people, land and industry of Kyrgyzstan. Chapters include The Land and People of Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan's Story, Making a Living in Kyrgyzstan and What's Next for Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan by Claudia Antipina, Temirbek Musakeev and Roland Paivo presents a nice collection of photographs, focusing on Kyrgyz textiles and costumes.

The Tulip Revolution: Kyrgyzstan One Year After by Erica Marat presents, in the form of a timeline, a chronology of the 2005-2006 events in Kyrgyzstan and an analysis of the country one year after President Akayev’s ouster. This book offers a useful opportunity to understand recent Kyrgyz history.

Kyrgyz Leadership and Ethnopolitics: Before and After the Tulip Revolution: The Changed Position of Ethnic Russians and Uzbeks by Munara Omuralieva. I haven’t had a chance to take a look at this new book yet, but some Russians and Uzbeks found the Kyrgyz nationalism associated with the tulip revolution to be threatened. It would be interesting to read this analysis.

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron takes readers on a modern day trip through the Silk Road territories.

Over the Edge: A True Story of Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia by Greg Child tells the story of four American rock climbers kidnapped near the border with Afghanistan.

Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia by Nancy Lubin is a bit outdated, but still useful as an introduction to some of the social, political and economic issues of the south of Kyrgyzstan.

So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places by Elinor Burkett is a memoir of an American woman’s time teaching at a university in Bishkek.

Better a Hundred Friends than a Hundred Rubles? Social Networks in Transition – The Kyrgyz Republic, a World Bank Working Paper by Kathleen Kuehnast and Nora Dudwick provides insight into local culture and relations.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron recounts a journey to Central Asia in the early 1990s.

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk is a highly engaging account of the battle between the great powers for the territory of Central Asia.

Turkestan Solo by Ella Maillart is the travel journal of an adventurous female traveler in the 1930s, who crossed Kyrgyzstan and explored many of the major Central Asian cities.

Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track is my book, based on research from the 2.5 years I lived there.

Kyrgyz Republic by Rowan Stewart has beautiful pictures and top-notch narrative information about Kyrgyzstan.

Lonely Planet Central Asia has a short section on Kyrgyzstan but includes the necessary basics. This book is most useful for those planning to visit several countries in the region.

Kyrgyzstan (The Bradt Guide) is one of the newer additions to the guidebook collection.

Community Based Tourism has published a guidebook to CBT services. The guide to Bishkek in the appendix is especially useful. Buy a copy for 170 som at CBT offices or download a draft of the 2006 version at: http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg/images/stories/files/Guidebook_2006.pdf.

Maps available in the West include Kyrgyzstan: A Climber’s Map and Guide by Garth Willis and Martin Gamache and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Map by GiziMap.

Fiction books
Any novels by Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, Chingis Aitmatov, will provide a good sense of the local culture and life. Those available in English translation include: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, Jamilia, The Place of the Skull, Cranes Fly Early and Short Novels.

This is Not Civilization by Robert Rosenberg is a novel set largely in Kyrgyzstan, written by a former Peace Corps volunteer.

Beshkempir: The Adopted Son tells the story of a young boy growing up in the typical local manner, until his best friend, in a burst of anger, reveals that Beshkempir is adopted. The film progresses with little dialogue, moving viewers through the days and weeks of typical village life. Most of the movie is in black and white, with occasional vibrant bursts of color. The relations between individuals, the land and animals are wonderfully conveyed, as is the typical life and cultural practices of Kyrgyz villagers. The movie frankly portrays issues such as early sexual exploration and spousal abuse.

Wedding Chest (Tsunduk Predkov) is about a couple, a French woman and a Kyrgyz man, coming back from Paris to Krygyzstan in order to announce their marriage. Some of the scenes are overdone but the scenery is excellent, some cultural traditions and beliefs are illuminated and the reaction of the parents to the foreign bride is indicative of Kyrgyz desire for children to marry within their ethnicity.

Birds of Paradise (Zumak kystary): This Kyrgyz-Kazhak film by Kyrgyz filmmaker Talgat Asyrankulov is about a young, female journalism student who goes to the border to document the issues there and falls in with a comic gang of smugglers. The film feels roughly strung together and the acting is sometimes weak. But the highlight is the famous ostrich farm, located just outside Bishkek, featured in the film.

The PBS documentary on bride stealing by Petr Lom shows three bride kidnappings as they happen. It is a moving and important documentation of this ancient practice that still claims many victims. Watch it online at: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/kyrgyzstan/thestory.html

Other movies filmed in Kyrgyzstan, many of them shorts, include:
Pure Coolness (Boz Salkyn) (2007)
Lullaby (2006)
Down from the Seventh Floor (2005) – About the Tulip Revolution.
Saratan (2005)
Altyn Kyrghol (2001)
The Fly Up (Ergii) (2001)
The Chimp (Maimil) (2001)
Sanzhyra (2001)
The White Pony (1999)
Hassan Hussen (1997)
Bus Stop (Beket) (1995)
Taranci (1995)
Jamila (1994) – Based on the Chingis Aitmatov novel.
Sel’kincek (1993)
Where’s Your Home, Snail? (Gde tvoy dom, ulitka?) (1992)

If you know of other resources on Kyrgyzstan, please post them in the comments.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Exploring tearooms

While most Americans drink coffee, I have avoided ever having a cup. Instead, I’m a tea fan, taught during my student years while living with an English host family. I start off every morning with a cup of black tea, and wind down in the evenings with a soothing herbal.

I enjoyed high tea in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, as well as in the tea mecca of London. However, I never realized that New Jersey is full of tearooms, as are many other states in the U.S.

I’m now exploring some of these tea oases in my background. The first one I tried was the Harmony tearoom in Westwood, New Jersey. It’s a small, intimate and welcoming place, with soups, salads and scones that are to die for. It’s such a treat to tuck into a warm and relaxing environment, with no corporate logo and no hurry to move. It’s a lot of fun to try different teas, such a rooibos with an almond flavor, a fruity pear black tea or a lightly sweet chamomile. It’s a chance to step back from the hectic world and take a breather.

To find tearooms in your neighborhood, look at Teamap.com.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Some more good foreign films

When I’m not able to be on the road, I like to watch foreign films to get a glimpse of faraway places. I try to note the worthwhile ones I come across here. Below are two more to add to the list.

Since Otar Left is a film from contemporary Georgia. It does a great job of portraying the details of daily life in a post-Communist society – so much so that I missed the minivan buses, the thick doors with peeling paint, even the electrical and water outages. Three generations of women live together in a Tbilisi apartment, awaiting letters and phone calls from Otar, their son/brother/uncle, who has gone to France to work illegally in construction. When something happens to Otar, the younger two women decide to lie to Otar’s mother.

I think it’s most worth watching for the images of Georgia and for the insight it provides into a family dependent on foreign remittances and longing for better opportunities. Esther Gorintin’s performance as Otar’s mother is also amazing for a 90-year-old actress (who was a former dental assistant). I’ve been seeing some inspiring examples of older actresses lately. One is 81-year-old Estelle Parsons, starring as an evil matriach in Broadway’s August: Osage County. Another is Gorintin.

A Soldier’s Ballad is a 1959 movie from the Soviet Union. This might make you expect patriotic fervor and a chaste, lovely view of life. Surprisingly, that’s not what you’ll find at all and it makes this film unique.

The main character is allowed a six-day leaving from fighting at the front after he (somewhat unrealistically) destroys two tanks. He has two days to travel home, two days to fix his mother’s leaking roof, and two days to return. The trip home ends up taking longer than two days though, as he travels across Russia and meets up with people affected in various ways by the war. I watched it twice, once with the English subtitles and once without. It’s a rare film I enjoy repeating, but this one is touching and very nicely done.

The interview that accompanies the DVD is not as well done, but is interesting only to hear the nationalist jingoism in the exchange, especially from the American side.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Best travel gadgets of 2008

I’m blogging over at Matador Travel today on the best travel gadgets of 2008.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Kyrgyzstan makes list of top 10 countries to visit

Kyrgyzstan is number six on Lonely Planet’s list of the top 10 countries to visit in 2009. I couldn’t agree more that Kyrgyzstan is one of the best undiscovered destinations. For the full scoop on what to see and do, take a look at my newly published guidebook: Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track. And enjoy the beautiful country and friendly people!