Friday, 18 December 2015

16 days in Uzbekistan

Long overdue post on my solo September/October trip to Uzbekistan. Here are the details: 
Day 1: arrive in Tashkent at 1935hrs (from Beijing)
Day 2: Tashkent
Day 3: train to Samarkand (high-speed rail which took just 2 hours)
Day 4: Samarkand
Samarkand's famed Registan 
Day 5: train to Bukhara (took about 6 hours)
Day 6: Bukhara
Day 7: Bukhara
Day 8: morning shared taxi to Nukus, with a change at Beruni (all in all about 8 hours)
the lone mulberry tree in the courtyard
of Kalon Mosque, Bukhara
Day 9: day trip to Moynaq; Savitsky Museum, a bit of a walk around Nukus
Day 10: shared taxi to Khiva via Urgench (approximately 3 hours)
Day 11: Khiva
Day 12: Khiva
Day 13: Khiva; night flight to Tashkent (Uzbekistan Airways)
Day 14: Tashkent
Day 15: Tashkent
Day 16: Tashkent; flew out at night

Samarkand: 2 nights felt just about right. There are a few places to see in the city.
Bukhara: 2 nights here are good too. It helps that your entrance ticket for a number of sites are good for at least 2 days (ditto Khiva).
Khiva: spend a night here if you don't want to linger too long. Or two nights, provided you leave in the morning.
Tashkent: some interesting architecture (look out for the rocket-looking Banking Association building near Navoiy Park).

Some things to take note of

Amir Temur Maydoni as seen from
Hotel Uzbekistan, Tashkent
Visa: I'm not sure who won't need a visa to Uzbekistan. It's neighbours and Russia perhaps? :) but depending on which country you come from, you might/not need a letter of invitation before the embassy will process your request. This you can arrange from travel companies such as or

Flying in: plenty of airlines can get you to Tashkent/Urgench, e.g. Uzbekistan Airways, Aeroflot, Asiana, China Southern, Air Astana

ceiling work at Tosh Hovli, Khiva
To/from the airport: taxis are available though you're going to have to haggle before you get into one. I paid 2USD (about 10,000 som on the black market at the time of my visit) for my ride into the city which is about 4-5 km away. Buses and marshrutkas are available right outside once you manage to walk past the many cabbies waiting to pounce on you (ok not quite). Their routes are marked out on a board at the respective bus stops. Note that they operate only till around 10.30pm. If in doubt, ask someone.

Travelling around Tashkent: the city has a pretty good metro system. get a token (1,000 som) at the kassa office. do note that you'll be stopped for bag checks before you're allowed on the platform. Once there, don't even try to take photos. apart from the metro, there are taxis, buses and marshrutkas.

a mausoleum at Shah-i-Zinda,
a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Inter-city travel: trains are clean and reliable. Tashkent's railway station connects you with most parts of the country. There are buses too but I was told not to bother. Shared taxis are another option, but you'd have to wait till the car is filled to capacity before the driver decides to push off. Flights are available too, which you can book on sites like

panoramic view of Khiva
Money: you'll pay for virtually everything in the local currency (soms). You can exchange them from the airport. Problem is, the rate isn't particularly attractive, especially since the black market rate could get you double or more (even if it's illegal to do this). However, refrain from changing from your taxi driver. Pay him in USD (they're usually willing to accept this). Do your exchange at your hotel/guesthouse, or ask them where you can get the black market rate. Then again, you might just find the dealer coming to you instead. Do check to make sure you're getting the right amount. It's not uncommon (especially if you fall into the trap of changing money from cabbies) to find yourself with less than what was agreed, or your stack of notes interspersed with smaller denominations. 

if you have a camera, you're going to make instant friends

Dressing: Uzbekistan may be a Muslim country but it's secular to a fault. Having said that, don't be mistaken into thinking that walking around in a pair of tiny shorts will be ok. To be safe, stick to T-shirts/blouse, jeans/pants, knee-length shorts, or observe how locals dress before toying with the idea of something a little more adventurous.

Ship Cemetery at what was once the Aral Sea, Moynaq
What if I don't know Cyrillic: Most places have signs in Russian and Uzbek, the latter being written in Roman alphabets so you shouldn't feel completely helpless. Having said that, you'll definitely find people who can speak English. Most tourist sites/restaurants/cafes would have signs/menus in English. If eating establishments don't, they'd at least be able to verbally tell you what they have (even if it's in halting English).

How safe is it: I found Uzbekistan to be very safe.


Inside Central Asia by Dilip Hiro 
The Railway by Hamid Ismailov
Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

More images at instagram, @kevusingh

Thursday, 7 May 2015

"Iran? Are You Mad?"

Stained-glass windows of Masjed-e Nasir-al-Molk, Shiraz
My trip to Iran was at least 5 years in the making. It was either a case of not finding the right time, worrying about the visa, or having to deal with my mum who vehemently rejected the idea. But as they say, some things are better late than never. This entry hopes to fill information gaps you may still have about this beautiful country.

Is it safe?

Tehran's iconic Azaadi Tower
Often the first question people ask about Iran because of all the negative media attention the country gets. Some colleagues of mine thought I'd lost my marbles when I told them where I was going. But I'd go as far as saying that Iran is as safe as Singapore. People don't bother you because you're a tourist. Instead, they're as curious about you as you are about them. They'd want to know what made you decide to visit Iran, what your experience of their country has been, or if you've run into any trouble. Don't be surprised if you randomly get invited to tea/lunch/chat with locals. I didn't though because I apparently looked Iranian (that's a story in itself, which I'll leave for another blog entry).

Aren't all Iranians fiery-eyed and anti-American/Israeli?
UNESCO-listed Persepolis

Granted, I witnessed two rallies against the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia (for the bombing campaign in Yemen), but these attracted small crowds of about 100 or 200 at most.
Here's another story: the first meal I had at a sandwich joint, I was asked if I'd like Pepsi or some other carbonated drink. It took me a while before I realised I was actually drinking a can of Pepsi (Coke is available too)! Some things, as they say, are worth way more than principles.

Should I really go to Iran? I don't want to be spending money in a country with a regime like that..

Oh don't worry about it. Your government is probably doing that already. Like I said, some things are worth more than principles.

Aren't all the women covered up in burqas?

Courtyard of a traditional house in Kashan
Women in Iran don't don the burqa, they wear chadors (literally tents, though the same word in Hindi and Punjabi means blanket). Then again, not everyone does. You'll see women who conceal their hair under their headscarves, while others show off fringes and part of their crowns. Some forearms are also visible (especially in the big cities like Tehran) and make up and nail polish are not unheard of. Of course, as with any other country, religiosity varies from city to city, town to town. For instance, I saw more women in chadors in Yazd than in Tehran or Esfahan. One of my bus drivers was a woman too.

Speaking of women..
If you're a guy and are introduced to a woman, shake her hand only if she offers it first. The same applies with family members.

Contemporary art exhibition, Tehran
So as a tourist, how much must I cover up?

Women are required to wear a scarf and dress modestly, which means no tank tops, no spaghetti straps, no shorts/skirts. Loose pants and tops would be best, though I saw some Iranian women in relatively tight jeans. If in doubt, go with slightly loose bottoms. Same goes for the tops. Men too have to adhere to some rules: no tank tops, no shorts. T-shirts are fine. In fact, some Iranian men themselves have a thing for wearing tight tees to show off how hard they've worked in the gym.

Dome of Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfolla, Esfahan
OK..but what about getting INTO the country in the first place?

Citizens of most countries can obtain a visa on arrival (for a 2-week stay) unless otherwise stated. The cost depends on where you're coming from. For Singaporeans, it's 60 euros. When you arrive at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, go to the Foreign Affairs/Visa counter. They might ask you for a visa authorisation code, as I was. I just told them I was applying for a VOA and they gave me a form to fill. Once that's done, go to the bank adjacent to the counter and make payment for your visa. Then you have to go back to the visa counter and hand over your passport, the filled-up form and receipt from the bank. Make sure that you have the name and contact number of the hotel you're staying at. The officer may also ask for a mobile number of someone in Iran. If you don't have a friend in the country, try getting the mobile number of whoever it is you've liaised with for your hotel stay. Oh, and make sure you come with travel insurance. Then again if you don't, there's a counter right across from the visa office for you to make the purchase.

How do I get around?

Golestan Palace, Tehran
Tehran has a modern metro system (4 lines are operational), otherwise you could try haggling for a taxi. Speaking of which, there are two fare systems for cabs -- dar baste (closed door) and na dar baste (open door). The former means you'll have the cab for yourself, the other allows for other passengers heading in a more or less similar direction to share the vehicle with you at a cost of 20,000 rials (about 60 US cents). As for inter-city travel, you can opt for buses, trains or flights. I took buses all over the country and they were really comfortable. I've heard a similar report about the trains.

Can I use my credit/debit cards in Iran?

No. They won't work due to the sanctions imposed on the country. So bring everything you need in cash (USD, Euros or UAE Dirhams). It also means that your bus, train and flight tickets have to be booked in Iran itself, unless you have a friend there who can do it for you before you get there.

How expensive is it?

Tourist sites will set you back by about 3-5 US dollars each, although Lonely Planet's 2012 edition claims otherwise. But if you look Iranian and manage to get a local ticket, you'd pay just about 50 cents per entry.
A latte costs about 2.50-3 US dollars, and lunch at a decent enough restaurant can set you back by at least 5-8 US dollars (depending on what you order). Mineral water is cheap though. So is public transport.

The garden at Naranjestan, Shiraz
Rials or Tomans?
This is something that requires getting used to. The official currency is Rial, but you'll be quoted prices in Tomans. The difference is that Rials have an extra '0' behind (for example, 4,000 Tomans means you'll have to pay 40,000 Rials). Turns out the currency was changed to Rials by Reza Shah over 70 years ago, but Iranians continued being more comfortable and familiar with the Toman. The central bank has plans to revert to the use of Tomans. Until then, it'll be useful to know the difference. It'll save you the embarrassment of thinking your dinner was dirt cheap.
Masjed-e Shah, Esfahan

Staying connected

Most cafes have wifi, so do the hotels. I usually had a pretty good signal. Do note though that Facebook is blocked, and access to Twitter is a bit patchy. If you absolutely must access Facebook, you'll have to do it via a proxy server (ask the locals).
You'll also need to get a local SIM card if you want to make calls/send SMSes (your home networks won't be available in Iran). For this, go to the Imam Khomeini metro station in Tehran and look for the mobile shop/centre. Take a queue number and wait. Don't forget your passport and the address of your hotel. Let the staff know if you need data, and make sure you check that it works before scooting off.


- The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd (highly recommended)
The abandoned village of Kharanaq
- All The Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer (how the CIA overthrrew a democratically-elected Iranian leader)
- Days of God by James Buchan (details the lead up to the 1979 Revolution)
- Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski (a profile of the last Shah of Iran)
- Poetry by Hafez (They say all Iranian homes have two books at home: one book of poetry by Hafez and the Quran)
- Poetry by Rumi, Sa'di, Khayyam

Saturday, 17 January 2015

To the Blue Mountains -- with public transport!

Planning a trip to the Blue Mountains from Sydney, but don't have a set of wheels (or can't drive)? Personally, I was in two minds about making a visit because of the perceived inconvenience. But despite what most people tell you, accessing this site is very easy by public transport (they're just being lazy). But first, a little background.

The Blue Mountains is a mountainous range in New South Wales, Australia. It's close to Sydney, and borders its metropolitan area. According to Wikipedia (and based on what I saw), the Mountains are a dissected plateau carved in sandstock bedrock. They are now a series of ridge lines separated by gorges up to 760 metres deep. One of the region's best-known attractions is The Three Sisters rock formation (left). There's an Aboriginal story behind it which I cannot remember right now. The Blue Mountains is not a particularly high mountain range, but that hasn't stopped countless from making trips here for its majestic scenery. It helps that the region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000.

What to see/do

The most popular attraction is Echo Point in the town of Katoomba, a major lookout with amazing views of the Three Sisters and Jamison Valley. It's a good point to start your visit, and there are information panels/displays about the surrounding environment. From here you can set off on one of many, many treks to while away the hours (and days) and check out what nature has to offer you in these parts -- including some gorgeous waterfalls. If you feel you're not fit enough, try the short walks of about a kilometre or so. The more adventurous can of course set off on multi-day treks. Mountain biking opportunities also abound.

In the mountains you'll also find a number of towns including:

Katoomba (right) -- the largest of the lot and main jump-off point for the Mountains. You can shop and fill your tummies in this area known for its hippie and artsy people.
Leura -- this one's right next to Katoomba and more quaint

So how do I get there?

Hop onto the Blue Mountains Line at Sydney's Central Station and get off at Katoomba. The trip should take you around 2 hours. When you exit the station, there's an office for a hop on/hop off service to the mountains. It makes 29 stops across Katoomba and Leura, giving you the flexibility to explore the area comfortably.

the road from Katoomba down to Echo Point;
yes, it's right at the end
Or you could do what I did -- walk from Katoomba station down to Echo Point (the lookout). It's a relatively easy 2-kilometre walk if the weather is pleasant (I walked back to Katoomba after my trek too). If you do intend to walk the whole way, get a map from the hop on/hop off office. It would help a great deal, especially if you don't trust your sense of direction. Or just ask around.

How much time to spend here?

It really depends on you. The Blue Mountains can be done as an easy day trip from Sydney, but keep in mind that the journey to and fro takes about 2 hours each. At the Mountains itself, I trekked for about 3-4 hours before deciding I'd had enough. I was told Sydneysiders do weekend trips here to mountain bike, trek or simply camp out (accommodation options are available in the area of course). So if you want to avoid the crowds, try planning your trip during the week.


Do note that the temperatures up here can be up to 10 degrees lower than on the coast during the day, and much lower at night, so bringing a jacket along isn't being overly cautious. Oh yes, it does snow sometimes in winter. During my trip there was a bit of a drizzle but it did little to dampen the experience.