No place takes the logic out of logistics, from pillar to post, like the former Soviet Union. Inspired by our own experiences, the following entries are in no logical order. Let’s dig in.
Worst Toilet: Svaneti Region of Georgia
Competition in this category was exceptionally fierce, but the nod goes to Svaneti. Although we highly recommend a visit to the region, we suggest you pack your hip waders for visits to the outhouse.
The irony here is that Georgia is endowed with river upon river of spectacularly flowing water, particularly in the mountains. None of that water runs in the direction of the toilets, however. We won’t mention specific villages. After all, we would like you to visit and patronize the people who live there.
One outhouse seemed to be inadvertently booby trapped with some kind of poop catapult by way of a loose board that would flip and flop like a seesaw as one exited and entered the shack. There’s a patent pending on this unique design.
Just down the road (cue the horror film soundtrack), you know you are in trouble when the base of the outhouse throbs, writhes and pulses with life (i.e., maggots), almost to the point of being able to take a walk down the road. And they say there is no such thing as perpetual motion. Bah! This outhouse is on the move – it will never die.
The prize goes to this pleasantly airy mud hut near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Temperatures well below zero discourage lingering.
Most Creative Toilet: Bus Stop near Taraz, Kazakhstan
Squat pots are separated only by foot-high privacy barriers and a little boy sweeps around you, mid-business. Truly bizarre.
OK, enough of the toilet talk. No more…at least until we resume writing about China.
Most Absurdly and Ironically-Named Post-Soviet Agency: Dushanbe, Tajikistan
We hadn’t planned an award in this category, but Tajikistan’s “Agency of State Financial Control and Struggle with Corruption” begged us to create one. To fully comprehend the irony, come to Tajikistan and experience the bureaucratic abyss that is this country. We didn’t get a photo of this winner because the hordes of militia on the streets of Dushanbe simply wouldn’t allow it.
Best Travel Tip for Central Asia: “Pack your own Lada window cranks.”
Virtually all Ladas, especially the Soviet-era relics, feature windows whose cranks are missing their handles. Imagine this in a car with no air conditioning in the 40 C (100+ F) degree heat.
Worst Accommodation: Ismaili, Azerbaijan
To describe the Hotel Ismaili in Ismaili, Azerbaijan as “pestilential” is beyond generous. This pit of human despair cries out for the wrecking ball and represents the worst accommodation value in the history of traveling man.
The Lonely Planet says this is the better of the two options in town; we break out in fungus and bed rash just thinking about the other option. Two-seat rows plucked from a defunct local Soviet-era cinema take turns soaking and dry-rotting out front as victims take in the surroundings and down beer served by a mistreated 10-year-old indentured servant. We’re not even going to begin to describe the toilets. Shhh, don’t speak. Survival at The Hostel, from the film so named, would be a better bet. All this for $25/night.
Best Postal Experience: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Although it functioned much like the Pony Express and the counter woman preferred an abacus to her old computer, the Uzbek Post got our Turkmen camel shawl to the United States in 10 days. What put Tashkent in the lead for this award: the postal woman hand-sewed a burlap sack with our contents inside and then sealed the whole thing with numerous hot wax stamps. Now that’s postal nostalgia.
Apologies to our friend Dave who arrived at the post office with a 50-lb. backpack of stuff to send, only to find that he couldn’t send money or coins, regardless of their age; newspapers and print material could be sent, but only from the Tashkent post office branch across town; something else couldn’t be sent until Monday. The remaining items had to be separated into two kilogram parcels. Do your sanity a favor and only send postcards or hangings that fit in small burlap bags from here.
Worst Postal Experience: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Though Georgian kindness is missing in the downtown Tbilisi branch of the Georgian Post and Kazakhstan’s postal police are always on guard, postal pall finds a comfortable home in Bishkek. The women who work the parcel post office there have a Catch-22 style routine that would make Vladimir Putin cry (perhaps with pride). Imagine Three-Card Monte being played with your package.
After taking two hours to wrap 2 parcels, the woman informed us that the string she used to tie it would vault us into the next pricing tier – and cost us $35 more. After unwrapping the insides (we had a special wedding box made for $5 and 90 minutes of excruciating labor across the street), we had to tear the whole thing open. The wedding gift arrived in 2 weeks. The other packages, also sent by air mail, didn’t arrive for 3 months. Save yourself the tears and leave the country if you need to send a package.
Best Tourist Infrastructure: Kyrgyzstan
Whether you’d like to arrange a tour or do it all yourself, Community Based Tourism (CBT) Kyrgyzstan efficiently dishes out information and can help anyone assemble an authentic and satisfying experience complete with home stays, horse treks and mountain treks.
Honorable Mention: If anyone wants to see a thorough, slick, information-rich tourist bureau with informed employees, check out the Armenian Tourist Bureau in Yerevan.
Worst Men’s Haircut: Yerevan, Armenia
It’s almost always true what they say: you get what you pay for. And for 500 Armenian Dram ($1.70 at the time), Dan received the worst haircut of his life. Well, maybe his first haircut in Prague was worse (where he had to guide the hairdresser’s scissors hair-by-hair back over the damage she’d done). Anyhow, he doesn’t recommend a visit to the hair butcher at the Yerevan bus station for their Armensky variant (Armenian variation), unless you happen to be bald and are interested in some fascinating conversation with the locals.
When Dan was in desperate need to be relieved of the outgrowth of his Armensky variant he consulted a Kazakh friend in Almaty. Four dollars, a spasm of anxiety and a surprising amount of attention to each hair later, all was done and done well.
Most Terrifying Shave: Lahic, Azerbaijan
If you come across this man in Lahic, wave, chat, smile. Do whatever, but by no means should you get into his barber chair. He’s friendly enough, but a shave by him will leave you plagued with flashbacks. The guillotine is a cleaner cut. To make matters worse, he has an arsenal of powders, gels and other foul-smelling tonic that he’ll apply to the battle scene once he’s finished.
After having his neck gored, Dan forbid the barber to cut his hair. The man obeyed and instead saturated it with some kind of greasy tonic and comb-styled it in the fashion of the latest Azerbaijani butt-cut. No photos please!
Best Flight: Tajik Air from Khorog to Dushanbe in Tajikistan
Though the bureaucracy and ticket purchasing process were laughable, the Tajik Air flight from Khorog to Dushanbe qualifies as the most thrilling and terrifying flight…of our lives. Hair-raising!
Worst Roads: Murghab to Langar, Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
We wonder if these coarse boulder-strewn paths even qualify as roads. There were times we thought we would tumble over the hill out of Tajikistan and into Afghanistan.
Honorable Mention: Road between Ushguli and Mestia in Georgia.
When we walked this road, we were certain it couldn’t possibly be the same road that carried cars. Appropriate for sure-footed cows maybe, but not automobiles.
Worst Drivers: Georgia
Somewhere between self-destruction and machismo, a road is carved for sadistic Georgian drivers whose driving habits have the ability to transform an atheist into a believer.
Best Internet Connections: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Although other travelers may argue with us, the best connectivity in former Soviet Central Asia goes to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Given the government’s penchant for censorship and the formidable internet controls in the western parts of the country, we were shocked by the plentiful, inexpensive, and reliable internet and wifi cafes in Tashkent.
Every country in the region shares this award equally, with the exception of Georgia (90-day, no fee visa) and Armenia (easy $30 visa at the border). Turkmenistan, a country in which an extended visit is impossible without going through a travel agent, serves as the living definition of bureaucratic opacity.
Most Egregious Rip-off: National Bank of Uzbekistan, Urgench branch
Never let your guard down, particularly when things are supposed to be “official.”
Best Train: Bukhara to Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The morning express train is inexpensive and delightfully undelapidated. Even though the train ticket buying process (and prices) are foggy, journeys are relatively inexpensive. You get a ride on a smooth express train, air conditioning, television (including a disturbing show that features pre-pubescent belly-dancing girls) and edible food.
Most Creative Train Ticket: Uzbekistan
We just LOVE the way they cut around the corners to tell you how much you just paid.
Hottest Location: Gonur Depe, Turkmenistan
Upwards of 50 degrees Celsius and dry as the bones we kicked up under our feet
Coldest Location: Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
-15 Celsius and brutal winds that carve red streaks in innocent cheeks.