Planning my Silk Road and Baltics RTW


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March 11th 2013
Published: March 11th 2013
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Silk Road and Baltics visit 2013


My son Will, who has been teaching English for the last year in Bangkok, Thailand, was planning to move to Europe to attend law school. He didn't want to fly there directly; preferring to take an overland route across South Asia. I suggested to him that this route was difficult...not sure if you could even go from Thailand through Burma to get to Bangladesh...and certainly going through Pakistan and Iran would pose some dangers. Perhaps he should consider overlanding at a higher latitude...like the Silk Road. He agreed and asked me to go with him.

Having just spent beaucoup bucks on our 40th anniversary trip across the South Pacific to Sydney and then New Zealand, I wasn't sure I could afford such a trip. I turned him down initially. But in the back of my mind I really wanted to go. Traveling the Silk Road had always been on my bucket list. I have read many books; e.g., "Shadow of the Silk Road" by Colin Thuberon, in anticipation of the opportunity.

So I produced a spreadsheet itinerary which I began to fill in. It started with Beijing, China, from where we would travel via the Ming city of Pingyao to Xian, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. But when Will didn't get his Bangkok-Beijing ticket before it doubled in price, and had to fly to Xian and then take a train to Beijing to meet me, we decided to go to Plan B. We cut out Pingyao and Xian to take the soft sleeper overnight train directly from Beijing to Lanzhou. This would give us another day in Xiahe (Labrang). We had traveled from Lanzhou to Xian in 2009, so at least we weren't skipping the beginning of the Road...road being a bit of a misnomer because it was a mishmash of trails, not a formal road like the Romans built.

From Lanzhou we will take the side trip to Xiahe, ethnographically Tibetan, where my parents were married in 1949. We had planned to visit Xiahe with the Labrang Monastery in 2009, but missed it due to travel restrictions. Instead we visited Minxian where Mom and Dad had lived for the first five months of married life. We were not able to find their home then. On this trip I have printed a photo album of pictures (many with this blog) to show people so that I
Pilgrim making his way around the monasteryPilgrim making his way around the monasteryPilgrim making his way around the monastery

by standing, then laying prostrate, then standing where his hands were, and repeating thr process all the way around the monastery...5 km at the time.
might identify landmarks in the pictures. During our visit to Xiahe, we will attempt to find landmarks and tour the Labrang Monastery.

We will return to Lanzhou in time to catch the soft sleeper overnight train to Dunhuang. Originally we were going to stop at Jiayuguan on the way to Dunhuang to see the fortress at the western end of the Great Wall which marked the end of civilization. However, the train passes through Jiayuguan at 2 am, so we thought it would be better to return through Jiayuguang on the way from Dunhuang to Turpan, where we would have the afternoon to visit the fortress and wall.

We will have two full days in Dunhuang to visit the Mungao Caves, with the best Buddhist caves in China. The caves included murals at statuary built by devoted merchants at the point where the Silk Road splits into north and south routes to go around the Takla Makan Desert. We will also have a chance to ride camels into the desert.

After Dunhuang, and an afternoon in Jiayuguan, we will catch the overnight soft sleeper train to Turpan for a day or so of sightseeing. From there we
Mom and Dad at the market in LabrangMom and Dad at the market in LabrangMom and Dad at the market in Labrang

This was taken in 1948 during their courtship. They are accompanied by their chaperon.
will take the two hour train ride into Urumqi in the far west of China.

I then started to investigate prices, starting with transportation; knowing that if I couldn't use frequent flyer miles, the whole thing was off. I was able to use 32,500 United frequent flyer miles plus $5 fee to cross the Pacific Ocean (actually the flight path takes a northerly route over Canada, the Barents Sea, and Russia, not even crossing the Pacific). I checked the cost of trains across China for the itinerary discussed above...only $278 (including travel agent fees) for a soft sleeper, with three nights on the train, thereby saving almost half that amount in hotel bills.

I wanted to end our travels along the Silk Road (which goes all the way to Istanbul, Turkey) in Uzbekistan, touring Samarkand, Bakhara, and Tashkent, but didnt' know what was the best route (best being a very subjective term) to take from West China to Tashkent. My overland options were:

- from Urumqi by bus or train along the northern route through Almaty, Kazakhstan, or

- from Kashgar by bus along the middle route through Osh, Kyrgzstan.

I checked Travelblog to see
Mom and Dad strolling by the Labrang MonasteryMom and Dad strolling by the Labrang MonasteryMom and Dad strolling by the Labrang Monastery

Will and I will try to find this spot and take the same picture when we visit in March 2013.
the experience of others through this area. I was surprised to see how few there were traveling through Central Asia. However, I received some valuable advice from those I contacted. One was that the roads across Krygzstan were terrible...it takes 18 hours by bi-weekly bus to go 300 miles from Kashgar to Osh on the Kyrgzstan border with eastern Uzbekistan, and then a similar amount from there to Tashkent. The weather is also a delaying factor with snow in the high passes in early April. Similary, the train from Urumqi to Almaty and on to Tashkent was only twice per week and very slow, with difficult border crossings.

Overland didn't sound viable given my time constraints. I checked airfares from Urumqi to Tashkent transiting Almaty which were $328. This would be faster and cost less than the buses, food and lodging for the more lengthy and arduous overland route (although the Chinese are building a highway from Kashgar to Tashkent...which will make travel so much easier someday). I recognized that a purist would want to travel the Silk Road overland for the authentic experience, but I didn't have the time...and didn't want to pay $160 for a visa just to pass through Kazakhstan when there isn't much evidence of the Silk Road left anyway...no caravanserai, mosques from that period, etc.

So having decided to fly from Urumqi via Almaty to Tashkent, I checked the cost to fly Will from Tashkent to Rome. I discovered that AirBaltic had a flight via Riga to Rome for about $250. Now I also have the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Finland on my bucket list. Continuing west would save me 50,000 frequent flyer miles for a separate trip there, which I could now use for another trip. I will likely go to southern Poland with Linda in conjunction with the Balkan visit someday...these 50,000 miles will come in handy then. So rather than flying back to Colorado via the Pacific, I decided to keep going west!

I asked Will if he wanted to do these countries with me or go directly to Rome. He chose to travel with me. So I booked flights from Tashkent to Riga for $215/person. I completed my booking home using 20,000 American Airlines frequent flyer miles (plus $280 fees, which I hate to do, but the cost of a one way ticket would
Mom and Dad's Wedding in LabrangMom and Dad's Wedding in LabrangMom and Dad's Wedding in Labrang

greeting Tibetan general and his wife at their wedding reception
have been about $1720). So I will fly from Helsinki with a layover in London, arriving at 5 pm and departing the next day at 11 am. This allows me time for an evening in the West End; seeing a play at 7:30 pm may be a bit tight, however.

So with total a transportation cost of ~$1100 to go all the way around the world, and a chance to scratch a few things off my bucket list along with 6 countries towards my goal of 100 countries, I couldn't afford not to go.

The next issue was visas. I read on Travelblog that the Chinese government had made it more difficult to get a visa, so more research was in order. I learned that I needed to have confirmed flights into and out of China together with hotel reservations in Beijing as part of the application package...but no Letter of Invitation. I took the risk of paying for these non-refundable flights and then not getting a visa. Then I learned that the application with $140 application fee had to be hand delivered to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, which serves Colorado...no mail in was acceptable. However, they would send the passport back by Express Mail. Fortunately for me, my sister lives near Chicago, so she agreed to hand carry it; delivering it to the consulate on 30 January. I received the passport with visa back on 9 February.

While my Chinese visa was being processed, I broke my right ankle on 4 February and had surgery on 6 February...six weeks and one day before I was due to fly to Beijing. My surgeon thought I would be healed by then, but that depended upon several factors including keeping my foot elevated. I certainly have an incentive to follow doctors orders! I also think I am jinxed. The last time I was in China in 2009, I had gout in the same foot which disabled me then.

Next, applying for the Uzbekistan visa. I heard from fellow Travelbloggers that this was a difficult time-consuming process. At least they didn't require a Letter of Invitation. On 16 February I mailed off the application with the $160 fee which arrived at the Uzbekistan Consulate in Washington, DC. on 20 February. They had promised the visa would be issued within 10 working days, so adding mailing time back, I
Monks at the Labrang MonasteryMonks at the Labrang MonasteryMonks at the Labrang Monastery

Will and I will try to find this spot and take the same picture when we visit in March 2013.
fugured I should have the passport with visa by 8 March; but it didn't arrive then. I called my friend Darryl (who I've known since 11th grade) if he would stop by the Uzbekistan Consulate the morning of 11 March, which he did. They still hadn't processed the visa, so he waited until they did. He expressed mailed the passport and visa to me the afternoon of 11 March...I should have it by 13 March, a week before I leave. I hate cutting it so close!

During all these preparations, I Skyped Will several times to make sure he was purchasing his Air Asia ticket from Bangkok to Beijing. He couldn't take time off from teaching, but the semester ended 1 March leaving about three weeks to get the ticket and visas. By 1 March, the Air Asia ticket from Bangkok to Beijing had doubled in price so he booked a non-stop flight from Bangkok to Xian with an overnight train to Beijing (total still less than the flight to Beijing)...arriving the morning of the same day I do.

I called him on 6 March to ask how things were going with visa applications. He said he wasn't planning to submit the first one until 8 March...a whole week wasted! I almost had a panic attack! Well, he submitted the Uzbekistan application on 8 March and was promised he would have it by 15 March. He would then have 18-20 March to get the China visa, which can be processed in one morning with express service. I felt a bit better that I might actually meet him in Beijing!

With both visas in hand, I made some additional train and hotel reservations required by my itinerary, but leaving some open in case of a change in plans. I found http://www.seat61.com/China.htm to be extremely useful for all matters related to train travel (e.g., train reservations can only be made 18 days in advance, and seats were usually available 2-3 days in advance). I used http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/ for train schedules and prices, and used them to book the more expensive overnight trains as they charge a service fee of $25/ticket (e.g., it doesn't make sense to include a $25 fee on a $26 ticket from Dunhuand to Jiayuguan or on a $13 ticket from Turpan to Urumqi). I used Kayak, Hotels, and Hostelworld.com to reserve hotel rooms. This way I was able to use my credit cards to lock down 90% of the cost of the trip before it started.

So now my Plan A itinerary had been replaced by Plan B. Going to Plans C and D is what makes travel exciting!


Additional photos below
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Pilgrims at the Labrang Monastery 1948Pilgrims at the Labrang Monastery 1948
Pilgrims at the Labrang Monastery 1948

...not sure if the dog was a pilgrim...just copying his master.


11th March 2013

Wow, wow, wow! I didn't know your parents had married in Tibet. Timing-wise, it sounds like they may have been there around the same time as the Heinrich Harrer of "Seven Years in Tibet" -- your parents must have had some equally amazing stories to tell. I hope your foot is fully recuperated by the time you head off to meet Will and cannot wait to hear about your travels. Such a helpful and informative blog!
12th March 2013

My parents did have an amazing life...
which I tried to present in their own words in "The Beginning" blog, and the second blog that has many pictures of Tibetans. When you and Ali get to Colorado, I would hope to show you many of their artifacts. I hope to get many great pictures that compare then and now. I'm glad the blog was informative...it shows how my trips evolve...and why Linda will never join me for such an intense journey!
11th March 2013

Plans
You are a master at making a plan! Unbelievable! Just praying that your leg cooperates.
12th March 2013

As for planning...
I wanted to use this blog to show others how I plan a trip...starting with a spreadsheet with a rough itinerary with a row for each day and columns for departure city, flight number, departure time, arrival time, arrival city, flight cost, hotel, hotel price, food price, entertainment price...then filling in the cells. I make more adjustments than shown in the blog.
11th March 2013

Wonderful Photos
I trust you will be able to keep up the photo standard that your parents set for you back in 1948. We are sure you will have a great trip. We came the other way 10 years ago coming in from Finland, over to St Petersburg and Moscow and then down by train and bus through Kasakhstan, Usbekistan (my keyboard wont let me type the letter after y!) and Kyrgystan. The border with China had been closed so we couldn't continue that way and flew out to India. The pick of the trip would have to be Bukhara, Samarkand and the mountains and people of Kyrgystan. The roads in the latter were pretty basic at the time though. Bitumen that hadn't been maintained for many, many years. Have a great trip. It is a very interesting part of the world.
12th March 2013

I'll try my best...
I was disappointed with the point and shoot camera I used on my last trip, so purchased a Nikon DSLR. If the pictures don't turn out, then it's the photographer! I note your blogs start in 2008...any chance you will get around to blogging the trip you mention? As for roads through Central Asia, I understand they are still bad...that's why I'm flying from Urumqi to Tashkent. When the Chinese finish the new road, I might return to fill the gap.
12th March 2013

Old photographs...
I loved looking through all the old photos. Good luck with the 2013 recreations of the old poses :)
12th March 2013

Happy travels
Have a great trip along the Silk Road Bob. That's a part of the world I've never visited so I'm looking forward to your updates.
12th March 2013

Thanks! I hope my blogs will inspire you to travel to Central Asia...
I just found out that the travel agent wants scanned copies of my son and my passports before they will make the reservations. Mine should be back from the Uzbekistan consulate tomorrow, and I hope my son can scan his and send it to me by Friday. I hope there are tickets left...we may end up on hard sleeper which is better than nothing! Anyway, traveling in communist or former communist countries has all these regulations that we from the West don't know about and can really bite unexpectedly!
12th March 2013

Nice Blog
Gone through your blog, i found it very interesting...Thanks for sharing!!
12th March 2013

Exciting trip!
Looking forward to reading about your trip. You certainly put in a lot of planning. Enjoy and hope your leg heals well, so you can get around without any problems.
12th March 2013

I see the surgeon on Monday...
so hopefully he'll tell me I can walk on it. I'm going anyway!
13th March 2013

Great blog!
The plan is incredible, one of C, D or E will work out. I really enjoyed seeing your parent's photos as well. Good luck to you and Will!
13th March 2013

When planning, I realize that I am going against the travel philosophy of so many TBers...
who take long trips and go with the flow...spending 4-5 days in a capital city just waiting for their visa to the next country. For those of us who have tight time contraints, I have built in a day or two for emergencies, but when I book a flight on a specific date to take advantage of cheap prices, then I have to get to that airport on time. Anyway, we'll se how this plays out with Plans C, D, and E! Glad you enjoyed my parents photos...there are more in my first two blogs. And thanks for sending me the TB logo. I wasn't able to find a place to have it put on a cap here, so will try Beijing...they must have hundreds!
13th March 2013

Walking in your parents' footsteps
Let's hope your foot heals...then you can get into Labrang at Xiahe in Gansu (sometimes closed due to immolations or unrest)...and if you do...you'll be so enthused...you'll probably run the rest..! Amazing pics of your parents...real pioneering stuff. Hi to Linda & Will.
13th March 2013

The ankle is healing well...
and this time it looks like we might make it to Xiahe...not self immolations at the Labrang monastery recently. I just read the Economist article about Tibetan hope for the future, and the Chinese keeping a tight lid on potential immolations. The government even stockpile blankets and prepositions fire trucks at demonstrations to put out fires. As for pictures, I only published a few here. Most of my Dad's pictures of Tibetans are in my second blog. I'll pass on yours and Denise's greetings to Linda and Will.
13th March 2013

What a wonderful experience this trip will be with your son
Glad you are organized so you don't forget anything. The tough thing about visiting Tibet is that the Chinese government changes the rules often and when ever they want. Last year when we tried to go they created a rule that you had to travel in a group of 5. We had to cancel that portion of the trip. Your plan looks fantastic and can't wait to hear all the stories! We will keep our fingers crossed that your ankle does not give you any problems along the Silk Road. A trip of a lifetime.
13th March 2013

I was very aware that things can change at the last minute...
in 2009 we had to cancel the visit to Xiahe due to travel restrictions, so we understand how disappointed you were in having to cancel your visit to Tibet. I've been keeping my eyes and ears open to news, reading the China Times, not only for political unrest in the Tibetan areas, but also the Urghur northwest. And then there is the weather with severe dust storms and the constant bad air pollution. I bought some surgical masks for that contingency. I know I can't anticipate everything, but I should be able to anticipate and respond to the normal situations. Thanks for your best wished about my ankle...it's healing well but I will only know to what extent next Monday. Like I said, I'm going anyway!
14th March 2013

Photos
Those photos are fascinating. Thanks for sharing. It looks like a great trip and I look forward to your blogs.
14th March 2013

Amazing!
wow, your stories inspires! :) thanks for sharing and happy travels!!

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