Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Overland segment from Black Sea to Baltic Sea complete!

This is not a full map, but a rough sketch of the 4,000 km all-rail overland journey we just completed from the Black Sea port of Odessa up the Potemkin steps one month ago, to just yesterday climbing the steps overlooking the Baltic Sea towards our next stop in Finland.

View Larger Map

If we break up the whole planned itinerary (from Selcuk to Singapore) into purely overland (strictly not oversea or by air, but by rail) segments, the first was in India, the second within Turkey, and this third one cutting through Eastern Europe as shown on the map. The next all-rail segment should hopefully be continuous from Helsinki to Ho Chi Minh city, part of the longest rail journey in the world that I am greatly looking forward to.

Hopefully this will help me revive this personal blog a bit as well as a place to post maps, short quips and pics for friends more than just the professional essays emphasized on my other one...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Last day in Turkey, off to Ukraine

After 9 excellent days in 4 cities in Turkey (Istanbul, Izmir, Seljuk,
and Ankara), I was able to get the reflective blog up to speed up to
my preconceptions of Turkey, and we were able to update several good
pics on Facebook and my wife's blog.

Now we are about to board the M/V Caledonia for a 37-hour ferry ride
from the karakoy harbor in Istanbul, which should get us across the
black sea and into Odessa around noon on Saturday the 16th of May. On
the ferry I hope to be able to wrote posts reflecting on the wonderful
conversations and perceptions I have collected here.

On a scale of 1 to 10 measuring "could we live here?", my wife gives
Istanbul an 8, and I would probably say 8 as well if I lived right
next to the tram or ferry lines I needed.

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Buying a SIM card in Istanbul

My phone number in Turkey is +90 55 444 38294, please text or call to
say hello before we leave here on 14 May.

I first went into a phone store in the super-touristy Sultanahmet
district (expecting the best odds of being able to get by with just
English), where I was told "new SIM card, 25 lira, 20 credit". I asked
about how much talk time that would give, to which he replied "4-5
minute". I thought that sounded expensive (25 lira ~ US$17), but it
seemed the main cost was the SIM card itself, with later refill
credits being cheaper.

I then went to one of those call booth shops (where one could call
from a landline phone to, say, the US for €0.18/min), and asked if
they sold SIM cards, to which the guy pointed to the same Turkcell
25lira/20credit card, and another one by a company called "Avea" which
was 35 lira for 100 credits. Not needing a phone until the evening, I
decided to think about it and maybe shop around some more.

After walking around and getting to the main train station, I came
across a commercial street with several dedicated Turkcell and Avea
shops (not just shops of dealers that carry them). Stopping in the
first Avea shop, I asked how much a new SIM card would be, to which he
replied "20 credit, [punches the number '10' into a calculator] lira,
or if you want 100 credit -- ['15' on the calculator] lira.". Wow, I
thought that was a good price, and amazed at the difference from the
place in Sultanahmet. I said I'd take one with 100 credits for 15
lira. "OK, your phone registered in Turkey?". I said "no, India". He
told me we'd have to go register the phone at the Avea store near
Galata tower, over 1km away across the strait. Too bad, I thought.

I then popped into another Avea store a few doors down (and probably
less than 100m away) from the first store. The guy said "100 credit --
[types '19' into the calculator] lira". Ok, good, can I use it now
even if the phone is from India? "Yes, no problem". He rips open a new
SIM card pack and puts it into his own phone, does what looks like
sending a text message, then takes out the card and hands it to me
saying it now no longer needs a pin code. He said there were 100
credits on it, but we probably spent another 20 minutes there with me
trying to test/verify that all was OK. My phrasebook didn't have the
Turkish for "how do I check my balance?" (something I'm surprised the
pamphlets, like the ones for Vodafone India, lacked). Dialing "*123#"
simply said "1 Kontorunuz bulunmaktadir" which I hoped didn't mean one
credit left. He then dialed 9333 and asked me to listen, but
unfortunately all was in Turkish. He then pushed a few additional keys
to get a recorded voice in English saying "you have 99 credits, one
regular, and 98 bonus credits.". Not user friendly, but I greatly
appreciate the guy's patience.

By comparison, buying the SIM in Bombay involved one stop at one shop
to buy a pack that clearly said "Maximum Retail Price Rs. 199 (about US
$4) = Rs. 99 for the card + Rs.100 credit (about 60-90 minutes of
domestic talk, or 10 min to the US)", and I needed to use a local
friend's info to register.

By comparison, I admit that while buying a GoPhone in the US might
have had far less price variation, a customer speaking no English
would be very unlikely to get any help in Turkish.

Sent from my iPhone

Taking the metro and tram from Istanbul airport

Ataturk airport gets an 8 out of 10 for the ease of a foreigner being
able to make it from the airport to the city center by rail/metro.
The signs in the airport clearly point to "Metro", and after buying a
"jeton" (fare token) from a booth for 1.40YTL (about US$0.90), one can
get on a clean, modern, uncrowded, smooth-riding train with many clear
maps showing the stops and connections to where you might want to go.
At the first junction (Zeytinburnu - sp?), a tourist can change to the
T1 tram after buying another jeton (bringing the total cost of the
ride to 2.80YTL ~ US$1.80), on which it is about 16 stops to the
foreigner-rich Sultanahmet stop (near the Blue mosque, Aya sofia, and
dozens of touts and overpriced everything). The number of stops and
need for two tokens (the electronic "Akbil" pass was not available for
purchase at the airport), we the reasons for not getting a "9".

Of course, on my way to the metro, at least one guy stopped me to ask
"why metro, take a shuttle! All metros are the same!". I only wish
that more airports in the US, India, or the Middle east had such easy
rail access from the airport to a walkable downtown. The US has gotten
better in recent years with Airtrain at JFK/EWR and BART at SFO, but
still leaves something to be desired when compared to even Kuala
Lumpur or Hong Kong. It will be interesting to see how well the Delhi
Metro (due its own post on the deeper blog) will eventually score on
the scale.

On the ride, about three different men stood up and offered me their
seat (seeing I was carrying a child). The Istanbul tram/metro would
be hard to discern from any other in continental Europe.

Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Swine flu watch on flight from Qatar to Turkey

I heard swine flu started in US/Mexico, but in Doha airport there were
signs about it everywhere, and many of the employees and passengers
were wearing these breathing masks.

On the flight, they handed every passenger one of these masks and told
us we had to wear them when we got off the plane, but fom the plane to
passport control none of us did. The entry form was also replaced by
one asking for passport/flight details, then about our temperatures,
symptoms, and proximity to anyone diagnosed.

Hopefully a week or two from now we'll have all forgotten about it.

Nigerian Air Force on Doha Tarmac

I'm guessing this plane was for a government official visiting Qatar,
and minutes later I saw a Saudi plane in this same space (seems to be
an oil pattern), and even a similar-sized plane with a South African

Unfortunately there is too much haze in the picture to get any better
view of the skyline than that in the left corner, and even the area to
the right had buildings and cranes that didn't show in this photo.

All the conviniences of a modern airport

DOH offers free wi-fi, plus facilities like these, which can make a
five hour layover a bit easier for a destination frequently visited by
planeloads of non-tourists from India, who can not even get a transit
visa on arrival. I would have loved to pop into town but was told not
to expect different than Dubai or Las Vegas - namely a rapidly built
set of skycrapers arranged in the desert in such a way that one would
have to drive everywhere.

The duty-free shopping has world-class selection, but many prices
probably north of "high street" ones on many items. All the duty free
is dual prices in US dollars at the 3.6 exchange rate, and there is
also a big deal made about $125 raffle tickets to win $1million or a
luxury car.

The food court is easily the worst I have seen any any airport, first
or third world: they are bad impersenations of American diners where a
single fried egg or a coffee latte would each cost just under $6.

The mad rush of different ethnic groups of people zipping through here
from one part of the continent to the other, the uneven development,
and high prices for imitations of foreign things (I could not find any
"local" food items for sale, except maybe the $18 bag of pistachios)
seem to be traits of a "gold rush" town. People still seem to be
coming here to work (and I think oil and real estate are the main
draws), but I'm still waiting for the first pedestrian city in the