Sunday, January 29, 2012


The idea is—was—to start in India and then go through Pakistan to Afghanistan and on up to the Central Asia ‘stans.  This is one of the world’s most remote regions, and a blank spot on the map of many a country-counter besides myself, and a region problematic at the very least, for travelers and residents alike.  Most travelers have already gone to India by the time they’re considering the ‘stans, of course, but for some reason I haven’t yet.  India in fact is the jewel in the crown for many travelers, THE destination of choice, the destination that sometimes turns an ordinary person into a serious traveler, or an ex-pat, both female and male alike.
The India craze started back in the 60’s when gurus became a fixture in Western pop culture and continues to this day with the ashram/meditation centers as popularized in Eat Pray Love.  Unfortunately the Indian government, like many others, including my ex-home Thailand, feels the need to control the influx of foreign bozos on its shores, and so has instituted a policy of requiring travelers to remain out of the country a full two months every time they leave the country, a policy which may hurt genuine travelers more than would-be visa runners, so unfortunate.   Fortunately for my proposed trip that policy would be worse if instituted in Pakistan, so not really a buzz-kill so much as a mere annoyance.
As fate would have it, not only is Pakistan a political hot spot right now, but, with the border to Afghanistan closed, the trip as planned is virtually impossible.  So it’s on hold, and if nothing changes by September, then it’ll have to wait another year.  Part of the plan is to do the return loop through the narrow corridor that crosses the Himalayas from China back down into Pakistan.  You can’t do that in winter.  The trip’s not easy in the best of circumstances, what with war in the region, and a dubious acceptance of foreign travelers in the ruins of the old USSR.  And not only do they all require sometimes-difficult visas, but that area where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all meet is enough to make a jigsaw puzzler dizzy, with roads crossing through other countries to access their own remoter regions.  I finally decided to factor in a flight or two, since sometimes visas are available on arrival at airports where borders have none.
Of course the hypothetical side trips get even more bizarre, like a transit through Turkmenistan—almost impossible as a regular tourist—in order to catch a flight to Azerbaijan, whose notch I also lack on my bed-post.  From there I could even consider entering Iraq up in the Kurd region if the gods are smiling.  Last time I checked you could insinuate yourself across the border there without a visa and without ever really exiting Turkey officially.  Shit’s relative.  More likely, though, would be to fly back to the next ‘stan up the road, and on into China.  Flights from Istanbul into the Turkic ‘stans are quite reasonable btw, the Central Asian republics all knowing that Turkey is something of a big bro’ even if the feeling is not mutual.  I’m not sure to what extent the languages might be mutually unintelligible, though, most likely with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, I suspect.
You can even enter China through the back roads of Kyrgyzstan and on to Kashgar, though the road from Almaty in Kazakhstan on to the large Chinese city or Urumqi is the more official route.  Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest countries now, of course, and wouldn’t be a bad place to make up for some of the traveling I didn’t do in Russia itself.  I’m not sure if the Trans-Siberia train goes through it, but spurs to it certainly do … for those with visas … but not me, thank you very much, been there done that.  China’s still the prize, IMHO though, all the better if roads meander on to Tibet from Kashgar… which I doubt.  No matter, the trip over the hump back into Pakistan would be thrill enough, and if late in the season, pressing luck a bit.
Once back in Peshawar, Pakistan, the trip could get even more bizarre.  Unless two months have passed, then I couldn’t go back to India even if I wanted to, thanks to their efforts to suppress “visa-running.”  So best I could come up with is to fly from there to Sri Lanka via… guess where?  How about Saudi Arabia?  That’s one of the hardest places in the world to get to by normal tourist channels, and skyscraping expensive when you can, group tours only.  Even “hajjis” wait for years to get their Ramadan visas, and that’s a requirement for all good Muslims!  Sri Lanka sounds like a pretty chill deal, though, something this trip is noticeably lacking to this point, though Kashgar might serve as such for those of us with acquired tastes. 
The original idea was to allow 2-3 months for all this, then hook back up with my wife in Thailand, her home of birth, so my home-in-law at this point, long past the point of being a thrill in itself.  I’ll leave that to the love-lost night-trippers and emotionally forlorn, love on the installment plan, been there done that, too.  As it stands right now, all this is on hold, and I’m taking a quick trip to the South Pacific as consolation.  The strangest part of the Central Asia trip is that the real meat of it, the hard part from northern Pakistan to Kazakhstan, covers only some 600 miles/1000 kilometers as the crow flies, an easy day’s drive on any American Interstate highway, likely at least a month on the actual ground, maybe closer to two.  This is not wandering.  This is definitely hyper-travel.                

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Micro-Managing Micronesia

So the goal is to get to the remote countries of Marshall Islands and Micronesia (FSM) without risking bankruptcy in the process.  It turns out that the $1700+/- price to loop out of Guam and back is much more feasible if approached the other way, i.e. out of Honolulu.  That way you can get to Guam in the process, with connections elsewhere, Manila in my case, all for more or less the same price.  In fact, if you just want to count countries, you could go from HNL to Manila, for little more than $1000, hopping and skipping, but not stopping, through the islands for what that’s worth, then taking a one-way back.  That’s a sleazy way to see the world, of course, and lends some credence to the naysayers who deride country-counting as a “silly exercise,” so for about $1700+tax you can actually stop over.  My attitude is that if I see some place that I really like, not only might I return, but I may never leave!

Add an LAX-HNL round-trip to that and I’m in biz for not much more than $2000, not cheap but much better than the $3000 of previous calculations looping out from Manila.  Of course you have to pick the right dates and sequence to get that price, so plan to spend an hour or more on the Continental website.  This is NOT the cheapest flight to Manila btw, whether from HNL or LAX.  If that’s all you want, you should be able to get in for less then four figures US.  But if you’re a diver, Micronesia is Mecca, or Medina at least, so maybe it’s time for me to get certified.  Japanese planes and ships litter the sea floor just like at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.  It sounds spooky; I guess that’s the attraction.       

So I’ve made tentative hotel and hostel reservations in Guam, Majuro and Pohnpei, the sketchy destinations, and Philippines is certainly no problem.  My Continental flight is on seven-day price lock, for a small charge.  Chill, Hardie, chill.  Of course the real trick is to get the LAX-HNL sequence all on the same ticket, hopefully at a good price, but I’ve been unsuccessful so far.  That segment is pricey, too, and may require a stopover in Honolulu for a better price.  So I try one more time, and… got it!  For almost the same price!  I got the entire route with three stops for less than $1800!  Add some taxes and insurance and I’m a little over $2K, but not much.  You’ve got to get all your ducks in a row for this, otherwise, it just responds, “Sorry, the itinerary you requested is not available.”

So what about Bangkok?  That’s the reason I was approaching Guam from Philippines in the first place and that flight with MNL stopover is $1500… so I did okay.  That includes insurance, too, which I don’t usually buy, but it’s cheaper than buying a refundable flight, and with other benefits, too.  I doubt that I’ll dive, but who knows?  There are ruins out there, something not found in too many places in the South Pacific, so that’s pretty special. Flights with multiple stops are what hyper-travel is all about.  Don’t expect this of your travel agent, unless you need them just to write it up for you.  You can be your own travel agent with Internet.  C U in Manila.  Bangkok can wait. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Daydreaming Micronesia

It's not cheap traveling in Micronesia, maybe that's because it's so vast.  RT Guam to Majuro will set you back a cool $1600+, and you still have to get to Guam first.  Fortunately you can stop in FSM & Marshall Islands both for no extra $. I've always fantasized about Bikini Atoll, don't know why.  This is all contingent on taking a route to Bangkok that stops in Manila.  PAL doesn't charge extra for stopovers, either, though it's not the cheapest RT LAX-BKK by any means.  None of them are that cheap any more.  The days of the $500 flight to Bangkok is pretty much history.  That's too bad.  The world only gets smaller in direct proportion to the expense of circumnavigating it.