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Baitrek Tower just got served
I flew into Astana (now known as Nur-Sultan), the new capital of Kazakhstan, last night after a day in Baku. This required a scheduled one hour layover in Almaty — Kazakhstan’s most populous city and former capital — which actually ended up turning into 15 minutes for me because the flight from Baku to Almaty was delayed by 40 minutes.
And during those precious tick-tocking 15 minutes, I had to obnoxiously run ahead of everyone in line, go through Kazakhstan’s new free visa on arrival pilot program for Americans, get my passport stamped into the country, run outside and upstairs to the domestic terminal, go through a very arcane airport security process (the airport staff pretends to glance at my domestic ticket and directs me to the international terminal, which then I had to run back from when I saw myself back in a passport line), cut in front of a lot of people bunching up in what doesn’t seem like much of a queue through security, before I get flagged by an Air Astana attendant who then berates me for being late to my gate (as if I were responsible for their delayed flights!). She helpfully, however, takes my ticket and gets it expedited, while I run down a long hallway to make it to my Astana flight at the last minute.
So I made it. Yes. But my checked luggage (only one carry-on is allowed for Air Astana) did not.
I already had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t be able to transfer my checked backpack within my 15 minute layover, and when I confirmed this after landing in Astana, I filed a report at their 5th floor office so that my backpack could arrive on the first flight from Almaty the next morning. Air Astana was very good at giving me a generic instruction sheet (although without a reference number to track on their website — they missed that part), my tag number, and an incident report to use for insurance.
I called a cell phone number on the generic instructions sheet a few hours later around midnight (the lost and found office in Almaty is 24/7, unlike Astana’s), giving them my tag number, and they reassured me my bag was still in Almaty and would be on the first flight out to Astana for an 8am arrival. When I called the Astana office (which opens at 8am) the next morning, they said they physically had the bag with them and all I had to do was to check back in with the 5th floor office. Easy breezy.
Satisfied, I went out on the town.
Founded in 1830 as a defensive settlement for the Siberian Cossacks, Astana was inexplicably and suddenly (for supposed reasons such as being “less earthquake prone” and “more central”) renamed as the new capital of Kazakhstan on December 10, 1997 and became a “planned city” much like Dubai, Washington DC and Brasilia; the city was essentially rebuilt from a sleepy settlement into a world class city within a few years. Today it’s also known as the world’s most remote and 2nd coldest capital city (with temperatures averaging between -11 and -22 degrees celsius), and — with billions of dollars put towards massive skyscraper-ing in the middle of a desert — the “Dubai of the Steppe.”
Designed by the Japanese, the city is similar to Baku in that it incorporates a lot of futurist-modern architecture meant to encourage the nation into the next generation of statehood and forward thinking. Almost everything you see in this city is only a few years old, and there are still tons more construction expected for the World Expo being held here in 2017. If there’s any time to go see a place before it changes dramatically in the next few years, it would be here.
I left the airport to be greeted by a nice evening snowstorm.
Driving into the city from the airport felt like a formal procession into the world of Tron; I could’ve sworn I heard ’80s synthesizer music playing in the background.
The way the lights and the roads seemingly stretch into infinity lasts for a good 20 minutes without missing a step.
No matter where you drive in central Astana, you’ll be pointed to main Ak Orda (aka Presidential Palace). You can’t miss it:
And of course you can’t look up in Astana without noticing their own Statue of Liberty, the iconic 105m tall Baitrek Tower distinctive for its lattice structure hold up a glass golden orb, symbolizing the golden egg (supposedly containing the meaning of life) laid by Kazakh’s mythical bird Samruk.
I slept in a little bit and hibernated a bit in the morning, seeing as how a brutal morning blizzard would be a good deterrent to sightseeing without my hat or gloves (thanks Air Astana).
Eventually around 11am the snowstorm died down and I went out to the furthest sites from town, about half a mile east from the New City and across from Ishim River. It can take you either 30 minutes to walk that far from Astana’s center to this part of town, or you can take a cab ride for 5 minutes.
My first stop was the glorious Hazret Sultan Mosque, built in 2012 and boasts the largest dome in the country.
They’re very liberal at the mosque, allowing anyone inside anytime and encouraging me to take as many photos as I wanted.
Afterwards we stopped by at the Palace of Peace & Accord, a glass and steel pyramid that opened in 2006 as the home for the triennial Congress of World & Traditional Religions and the geographical center of Astana’s future developing city by 2030. Inside is an opera hall that seats 1350 people.
Nearby is the Palace of Independence the houses a scale model of what Astana is planned to look like in 2030, and next to it the 91m tall Kazak Yeli Monument, which is meant to symbolize the destiny of the Kazakh people.
Driving back west towards the new city and the main part of Astana, you’ll notice the Central Concert Hall on your right, built to represent the petals of a flower:
Protecting Ak Orda/The Presidential Palace are two enormous curved wings of the House of Ministries, which also houses Samyrk-Kazyna, the HQ of Kazakhstan’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Further west stands 3 apartment towers with wavy sides known as the Northern Lights and beside it, office towers that look like overfilled books also known as the Emerald Towers.
Emerald Towers on the left, Northern Lights on the right
More architectural delights/monstrosities:
At the eastern edge of Astana’s new city is the Khan Shatyr, a 150m high tent-like structure made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), which allows the entire building to be translucent and absorb heat, producing summer-like temperatures inside even if outside is as cold as -30 degrees celsius (that’s -86 deg F!).
Inside is essentially a big shopping mall. On the top level, however, is the Sky Beach Club which features a sandy beach, palm trees, water slides, and a swimming pool for anyone who wants to forget they’re in the world’s most remote and second coldest capital city.
Within the new city is also another, smaller Nur Astana Mosque, having opened in 2005.
It’s way more crowded that its bigger, eastern cousin, but similarly liberal in that they pay you no mind if you’re the lone obnoxious tourist taking photos of everything.
Finally, to round out your sightseeing in Astana, take the elevator up to the top of the Baitrek Tower, ie the golden egg, which costs about 500 tenge per person.
We got there during lunch break (between 1 and 1:30pm) so we went ahead and ate (750 tenges per meal) with them as well:
After a quick meal, we headed up 105m to the inside of the orb, climbing up two additional flight of stairs to get to the very top. There visitors can place their hand in a print of President Nazabaev’s palm while looking at his Presidential Palace to the east.
While in the orb, you can take a few panoramas of the city and appreciate having conquered all of Astana’s lands in a single day.
Now it’s onwards to Uzbekistan.
- At time of posting in Astana, Kazakhstan, it was -7 °C -
Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 35km/hr | Cloud Cover: blizzard
Join us on an adventure in the Caribbean like you never could have anticipated:
Underwater Sculpture Park, Cancún, Mexico
Chichen Itza, Mexico
After leading successful trips together to North Korea, Iran, Chernobyl, and Antarctica for the past 2 years, The Monsoon Diaries and YPT is once again joining forces and inviting YOU to take on the Caribbean in a way nobody else has!
More than that, YPT is specifically inviting everyone to join them in the Cuban celebration of May International Workers Day! This is by far the biggest celebration in Cuba, and you can imagine it as a combination of a Soviet era parade and a classic Latin-American carnival.
The Monsoon Diaries will first lead a few easy days in Cancún and Chichen Itza in Mexico before YPT takes over on April 25th in Old Havana. We then head to the Bay of Pigs and the mausoleum of Ché, where we not only see his final resting place but also the legendary train that he derailed. We then travel to explore Trinidad, after which we return to Havana for the highlight of the trip: MAY DAY.
For May Day, all of Havana (and Cuba) take the day off to dance through the streets with their work parties as they listen to Latin themed revolutionary music extolling the greatness of Fidel, Ché, and Chavez whilst the ruling communist party elite look down at us from the balcony (last year YPT got some great pictures of Raul Castro).
Therefore, this is the time to be in Cuba, and it will be a truly amazing once in a lifetime experience.
Our journey will be accompanied by local representatives, our Cuban guide Roger, a western guide, and our very own bus, which means lots of flexibility and chances to get very off the beaten Cuba track.
Nothing stays the same forever, and Cuba is changing rapidly day by day, so see it with us now!
And if that is not enough for you, The Monsoon Diaries is offering an optional 2-3 days long to a weeklong beach/cultural relaxation extension in The Bahamas which can be done as a standalone tour or as an extension to the May Day Tour.
YPT will split off and lead a tour in Haiti and The Dominical Republic (a trip which The Monsoon Diaries led last year) and is offereing a 150 Euro discount to anyone who joins along their Cuba AND Haiti + Dominican Republic trip altogether (an additional 50 Euros off the Cuba trip, and 100 Euros off the Haiti trip): Haiti Exploration Tour.
Therefore, the opportunities for travel this Spring are endless!
*Note: Cannot accept payment by either Paypal, or MoneyBookers/Skrill*
Overview of the itinerary in Cuba:
Santa Clara, Cuba
The itinerary in detail:
Friday 25th April
Guests arrive/transfer to their homestay accommodation
Free afternoon in Havana
Meet up with the rest of the group
Walk through the old city of Havana, one of the best preserved colonial cites of the Americas
La Catedral San Christobal de la Habana
Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras
Dinner and drinks in the Old town
Overnight in Havana
In the early morning, we depart for Cienfuegos (a 5 hour drive via the Bay of Pigs)
On the way to Cienfuegos we travel along the flat central plain of Cuba where there are lots of citrus plantations. We then will turn off the main highway where the scenery changes to a densely vegetated swamp where the natural fauna includes boa snakes and crocodiles
We have the opportunity to visit a crocodile farm here at Guama
Once reaching the Caribbean coast we travel along the picturesque Bay of Pigs past the site where the landing of counter-revolutionary exile militia occurred in 1961
Option of visiting a museum that recounts the events of this conflict that resulted in the first defeat of a U.S backed takeover in Latin America
There are some beautiful places to stop for a swim along the way including a sinkhole which resembles a huge natural tropical fish tank, so make sure to pack your swimwear and snorkeling gear if you have any!
Cubans are known to be very proud people, and the citizens of Cienfuegos call their town La Perla del Sur (the pearl of the south). Founded by the French, Cienfuegos appeal lies partly in the European flavour of its colonial hub, with a wide Parisian-style boulevard and elegant colonnades, and there is an ambience to inspire Cuba’s most celebrated Son singer to write the words “Cienfuegos is the city I like best”
After checking-in with your host family, you will have a short time in the afternoon to walk around the city and take in the atmosphere
Go with the guide or explore on your own
Dinner in a local paladar private home restaurant
Night out drinking in the bars of Cienfuegos
Depart Cienfuegos for Santa Clara
Depending on road conditions we can take a number of different routes around or through the Sierra del Escambray perhaps making a few spontaneous stops along the way!
We visit the city of Santa Clara, a key city in the triumph of the Revolution
Upon entering Santa Clara there is a huge statue of Ernesto Ché Guevara, to commemorate his death and that of the revolutionaries that died with him in Bolivia
We visit the museum here that is dedicated to Ché’s life.
We take a walking tour of Santa Clara where we come across significant sites such as the armoured train derailed by Ché and his troops
Dinner and optional evening of local music
Overnight in Santa Clara
We leave Santa Clara for the scenic drive through the Escambray mountains
We stop at a very beautiful waterfall on the way
We stop at a farmers house for an extremely local styled lunch
The beautiful colonial city of Trinidad is home to numerous churches and many beautiful colonial buildings
Visit the lovely nearby Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar mills)
Visit Playa Ancón, where you can enjoy long stretches of unspoiled, white sand beaches.
Scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming in waterfalls, and horse-riding are other optional activities here!
Group dinner with unlimited rum in a local Cuban home
The nightlife in Trinidad is probably the most accessible and intense in all of Cuba, with numerous live music venues and many dance performances everyday of the week, all amongst the enchanting setting of old colonial buildings and cobblestone streets
Overnight in homestay
We head off on our exploration of Trinidad
La Villa de la Santisima Trinidad was founded by Velazsquez in 1514. The defender of indigenous rights in the Americas, Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, attended over this settlement’s first mass. The future conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortes, recruited sailors here for his future expedition into that land.
Trinidad is also a charming, small town with the green mountains in the background.
The turquoise waters and pure white, sand beaches of the Caribbean Sea is just a short distance away
Option of visiting The Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra los Bandidos and the Casa de los Mártires de Trinidad that chronicles the struggles of this period in the town’s history
Lunch in city
Return to homestay for some rest and free time
Free afternoon to explore the city or the nearby Caribbean beaches
Group dinner and night out in Trinidad: We will be visiting the extremely famous Cave Club for a great night out!
Overnight in homestay
Scenic drive back to Havana
City tour of Havana, which encompasses the Plaza de Armas and a statue of Manuel de Cespedes: one of the leaders of the independence movement
There are plenty of good museums we will pass (and can visit later if you would like to)
We visit the famous Museo de la Revolución today to learn more about the revolution and its history
Lunch in city
Visit to the Havana Club Museum of Rum: Free samples optional
Afternoon free time for some rest and relaxation or to wander some more
Meet up for dinner and evening out at the iconic Hemingway Bar amongst other places
Overnight in homestay
Thursday May 1st – May Day!
***Trip Highlight*** Group meets up early to join the walk to the May Day March & celebration in Havana. Hopefully seeing Fidel!
This is by far the biggest celebration of the year, and by far the biggest May Day celebration in the world…And we will be very much part of this! Last year we were lucky enough to see Raul Castro waving down at us from the balcony.
Lunch in the city
We spend the rest of the day exploring the city and very much taking part in the biggest celebration of the year in Cuba
Dinner at our favourite secret private restaurant
Goodbye drinks around the malecon
Overnight in homestay
Price inclusive of:
Accommodation: Every night of the tour.
Transport: To complete the itinerary.
Breakfasts: for each day of the tour, except the arrival day.
Dinner: 1 group dinner in a local homestay.
Local guide: throughout.
All entrance fees as per itinerary
Unlimited Rum in Homestay
Price exclusive of:
Visa (we will advise you depending on your passport and country of residence)
All meals (except for 7 breakfasts, and homestay group meal)
Departure taxes (25CUC/person) and excess baggage fees
Note: People who went last year reported they spent no more than 130 euros for the whole week they were there, which included drinks, tips, meals, etc. That said, it’s definitely an affordable place for travel!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Due to Paypal regulations, we cannot under any circumstances accept Paypal payment for our Cuba tours. Please contact us for other payment options.
DISCLAIMER: YPT Cuba LTD is a separately run company independent of YPT Group LTD. Payment for all tours booked with YPT Cuba LTD follow their own set of terms and payment conditions. YPT Cuba LTD cannot under any circumstances accept payment by Paypal, Moneybookers, US backed credit cards, or US based bank transfers.
They say it’s like visiting another planet: Antarctica. For those of you who want an experience that’s totally out of this world and to come back with stories to impress, this one’s the trip.
December 13th – 22nd = ANTARCTICA
ONCE IN A LIFETIME Price: $4100 USD/pp all-inclusive ($6000 USD off the original $10,000+ price!)
First come first served; 8 spots left.
20% down payment required now, the rest you can pay there when the trip begins.
Keep reading for detailed itinerary below!
We’ve done the beaten path, we’ve done current events, we’ve done history, now it’s time for one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. We’ve teamed up with OceanWide Expeditions and worked with them to get an excellent discount just for those who book with us at The Monsoon Diaries.
Witness humpback whales in their natural habitat, see penguins at the height of their mating season, and be one of the privileged few who can say they’ve visited the beautiful continent of Antarctica.
Our special deal includes all meals and snacks, so all you’ll need to bring is a camera and a thirst for adventure. You’ll also get an opportunity to hear talks by noted naturalists (free of charge) to guarantee you the best experience possible.
WHY SHOULD I GO?
“Momentum comes from pushing, not from planning. Confidence comes from scars and risk, not from indecision.” –Life Doesn’t Start Tomorrow.
It starts with *you*. None of the following will ever matter unless you commit to your decision. Yes, dropping everything for something totally new and unknown can be scary! But nobody ever learned how to ride a bike by reading about it; you have to get on the damn thing! So get on and go!
You might respond with “Yeah, but…”
“’Yeah, but…’ is pernicious. Because it makes it sound like we have the best of intentions when really we are just too scared to do what we should. It allows us to be cowards, while sounding noble.” – 3 Reasons to Travel While You’re Young.
Let’s entertain the possibility that you’ll skip out. Then watch us as we come back safe and sound, share our stories, show you our photos, and talk about how our lives have changed. Whether or not you will realize it then, when you have your first child, when in your midlife crisis, or on your deathbed, you’re inevitably going to regret that you missed out on an epic once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This could set the tone for the rest of your life. Don’t let this happen.
Starting slowly never ever works in travel and habits become harder to break once you’ve accustomed yourself to a way of approaching new experiences. Do you think that to skydive you first have to look it up on Wikipedia, or learn to fall off a table? No. You simply jump. So those of you who want to travel, travel.And imagine how easy traveling will seem to you afterwards. Imagine how much confidence you’ll gain in yourself. Imagine the bragging rights and stories you’ll have when you come home.
Not many people realize that the opportunity for a tremendously positive life change is right in front of their faces: This could be the very moment where you turn your life around and finally do something *epic*. The world won’t wait for you.
All prices have up to a discount of $6k+ USD discount lobbed OFF from the original price. Significant discounts for groups and previous monsooners are also offered (email me for more information: calvin[at]monsoondiaries[dot]com!)
$4100 – Quad room (4 sharing)
$5415 – Twin room w/ window (2 sharing)
$6200 – Superior room (3 sharing, 1 double bed & 1 single bed)
In the afternoon, we embark on our ship in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world located at the Beagle Channel
We sail through this scenic waterway for the rest of the evening
December 14th – 15th: At Sea
During these two days we sail across the Drake Passage.
When we cross the Antarctic Convergence, we arrive in the circum-Antarctic up welling zone. In this area we may see the Wandering Albatrosses, Grey Headed Albatrosses, Black- browed Albatrosses, Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Cape Pigeons, Southern Fulmars, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Blue Petrels and Antarctic Petrels.
Near the South Shetland Islands, we spot our first icebergs.
December 16th – 19th: Antarctica
We will sail directly to “High Antarctica”, passing the Melchior islands and the Schollaert Channel between Brabant and Anvers Island.
On Cuverville Island, a small precipitous island nestled between the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula and Danco Island, we will find a large colony of Gentoo Penguins and breeding pairs of Brown Skuas.
If we land on Danco Island we can observe Chinstrap Penguins and possibly Weddell and Crabeater Seals.
In Neko Harbour we will have the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic Continent in a magnificent landscape of huge glacier and enjoy the landscape during zodiac cruises.
Camping overnight in Antarctica:
When sailing to Paradise Bay, with its myriad icebergs and deep cut fjords, we will have the opportunity for zodiac cruising between the icebergs in the inner parts of the fjords. In this area we have good chances to see Humpback Whales and Minke Whales.
After sailing through the Neumayer Channel, we hope to get permission to visit the British research station and post office Port Lockroy on Goudier Island.
Close to Port Lockroy we may also offer a landing on Jougla Point with Gentoo Penguins and Imperial Shags.
We sail through the spectacular Lemaire Channel to Pleneau and Petermann Island where we can find Adelie Penguins and Blue-eyed Shags. In this area, there are good chances to encounter Humpback Whales, Minke Whales and Fin Whales.
A visit to one of the scientific stations in Antarctica will give you an insight about the life of modern Antarcticans working on the White Continent.
Further south we may visit the Ukrainian Vernadsky Station, where we will receive a warm welcome from the station crew.
Sailing north through Neumayer Channel we arrive at the Melchior Islands with a very beautiful landscape with icebergs, where we may encounter Leopard Seals, Crabeater Seals and whales.
December 20th-21st: At Sea
On our way north we are again followed by a great variety of seabirds while crossing the Drake Passage.
December 22nd: Return to Ushuaia
We arrive in the morning in Ushuaia and disembark.
I want a challenge: 4 countries and 9 cities for less than $1500 *all-inclusive* of flights, transportation, lodging and food at $20/day for 9 days. We can do it.
From spelunking impressive Mayan ruins to horseback riding on the beach to national parks to the height of human engineering to witnessing National Geographic’s “most beautiful sunset in the world”, this trip caters to all types of backpackers, adventurers, history buffs, archaeologist wanna-bes, animal lovers, and beach bums.
“We cannot bear to regard ourselves simply as playthings of blind chance, we cannot admit to feeling ourselves abandoned.”
– Ugo Betti.
History comes alive this winter.
How many of us dare to consider ourselves as part of some greater context, placing our everyday joys and ordeals into perspective? Easier said than done. Many of us inhabit our daily worlds undergoing the same routine: get up, head to work/school, run some errands, go to sleep, repeat. And we see only what we see, barely acknowledging what exists beyond these bubbles of our everyday lives. The internet and the media may make that bubble bigger, but it’s not like the real thing — if it’s not immediately smack dab in front of us, then it doesn’t register.
So some of us dare to pop that bubble: Some of us dare to travel off the beaten path. But some of us forget that that our far-flung destinations are more than just places — many of them shoulder painful stories from the past most of us only read about in high school textbooks. But their existences remind us that the world and our history have always been bigger than we know, they implore us to understand why the world is the way it is now, and they imbue us with a quiet responsibility of owing something to the future. But for us to bear witness to some of humankind’s recent imperfections may require a bit of emotional fortitude.
This will not be your average cookie-cutter experience. (That being said, the Monsoon Diaries was never about following convention).
Whereas last year we celebrated Europe via well-traveled paths in Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco, and Portugal, this year we’re undertaking a more alternative, more emotionally demanding itinerary: World War II. The Holocaust. The Chernobyl Disaster. The Cold War. Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Panama Canal. The Dominican War of Independence. The 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Sure there’s still plenty of room in the itinerary to party and relax on a beach, but we’ll also stretch the limits of travel. And we’re going to come out of it perhaps having learned something, something about the world, something about human history, or something about ourselves.
The dates are from December 26th, 2012 – January 6th, 2013.
The trip will be split into 2 parts; the first one from December 26th to December 31st will be in Eastern Europe. We’ll then return to NYC to celebrate New Year’s Eve (12/31), and then from January 1st to January 6th we’re in Central America. As always, you can join us for one trip, both trips, part of a trip, or all of it.
The first part of the trip to Ukraine and Poland is projected to be around $452 USD per person including all lodging, tour fees and transportation. The second part of the trip should be no more than $300 USD per person. If you include flights, the whole 2 week trip is projected to be less than $2000, including flights, lodging, transportation, and food (I can even probably get it to be lower than $1500 if flight prices drop as much as they should over the next few weeks).
FYI, this itinerary remains flexible; nothing is set in stone until the day we purchase our plane tickets, so suggestions or changes are more than welcome!
In a little less than 6 hours, I’ll be leaving to climb Mt. Whitney, aka the highest peak in the continental US. 14,479ft.
You may be thinking, “This sounds really tough.What have you done to prepare for this?”
Answer: Aside from pack warm clothes…nothing.
As the website will tell you, this hike can be done in a day. Get up before dawn, hike up 11 miles along the Whitney Trail to the top (5-8 hours) and hike back down before nightfall. All in all 22 miles and about 12,000 ft in elevation changes.
As much as I love adventure and mountains, I must admit a few things: I am not such a morning person. And I get loopy at high elevations. When we were on the road to Leh last year (13,497 ft), I tried to copy down my Cambodian visa number twice when they asked for the Indian visa number. So when my friend Marcos asked if I would come along with him and his friends as they did the hike over a weekend instead of a day, I said YES.
Drive to Lone Pine from LA (6 hours). Camp overnight outside of Whitney Portal (8,000ft). Get up late and hike up about halfway (11,000 ft). Eat s’mores. Tell ghost stories. Go to bed early. Wake up early. Hike up the rest of the way (without packs). Take pictures at 14,479ft. Hike back down and drive home. Avoid nosebleeds and altitude sickness.