Thursday, June 28, 2012

Live Like A King For Under $1000/Month

"Where can I live like a King for under $1000 per month?"  The question is much more common than I would have thought - that was before I began my journey as a professional jetsetter.  Now I get it all the time!  Last week, I was sitting on a flight to Frankfurt going through photos of my latest journey to Kyrgyzstan.  Next thing I know, the guy sitting next to me started to ask me about the cost of living there.  That was the first thing he asked me about my trip!

I told him the great cafes and resturants were very affordable.  Entertainment and performances were frequent and top notch, with ticket price that were frugal friendly.  However, I really had no idea of the overall cost of living.  Each time I visited, I stayed at the Hyatt Hotel, which is Bishkek's only hotel that is considered "safe" by western standards.  In other words, all cars and trucks entering the premisis are checked for bombs and round the clock security is thorough and noticable.

When the guy asked me if he could live in Bishkek on $1000 per month, I was pretty sure the answer was yes, but I had no idea of the rent situation for an apartment.  Then I came across a great YouTube video explaining just that!  It was an episode of House Hunters International, and it featured a young couple who wanted to move to Bishkek to live and work.

They end up looking at three apartments, the most expensive of which is $500 per month and absolutely beautiful.  It's clear that even a small budget will go a long way in Bishkek.  $500 is out of their price range, so they end up looking at two smaller apartments and go with the cheapest at $150 per month.  $150 per month, what a deal!  The place is actually pretty posh.

After watching this episode, I was a bit shocked!  One night's room rate at the Hyatt is enough for a month's rent at amazing apartment in Bishkek!  So it's confirmed, Kyrgyzstan is a place you can live well on $1000 per month.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Most Popular YouTube Video - A Fashion Model In Times Square!

After YouTube expanded its monetization program to everyone, I made a conscious effort to try and create some good content to post.  I had no experience with posting videos on YouTube, but I figured that my travels would give me a bit of organic material.

I've had some success with posting videos of airplane takeoffs and landings, especially in the more exotic locations.  But my most successful video happened completely by accident.  I had just gotten off of the subway in Times Square and was walking uptown, when a light drizzle began to fall from the sky. 

I don't mind the rain, so I didn't really think anything of it.  I was preoccupied listening to my iPod anyway.  All of a sudden, a shockingly tall woman in a bikini ran past me.  Of course, this caught my attention, it's not everyday that you see a woman over six feet tall scampering by in a bikini.  Strangely, she was running with a guy who was wearing a tuxedo and sunglasses. 

As it turns out, there was a professional photo shoot underway behind me, and the model was running to avoid the raindrops.  As she ran by, I could tell that her hair and makeup were flawless, and she probably sat for a long while to get it that way.  If her makeup got wet, it would probably mess up the entire photo shoot.

With the YouTube monetization program fresh in my mind, I whipped out my digital camera and began to record.  By this time, the model was in front of me and headed for the shelter of scaffolding on a nearby building.

Once she reached the dry sanctuary of the scaffolding, the model was exposed to the hoards of tourists in Times Square.  Many were undoubtedly from out of town and absolutely thrilled to see a real model in the flesh.  Everyone began snapping photos of the model and her sidekick as they stood there uncomfortably, trapped because of the rain.

That night, I posted the video on YouTube and went to bed.  I was shocked the next day to find that it already had 84 views!  The views have leveled off since then, but it's still my most popular video and "viral" compared to the rest of my videos.

It's really reinforced my view that some of the most successful videos on YouTube are completely random and unplanned.  Believe me, when I'm walking the streets of NYC, my eyes are always peeled for the next big YouTube hit!  Enjoy the video!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Is Times Square Ever Really Empty? Or Just In The Movies?

Everyone has watched a movie that featured Times Square empty.  Typically, the world comes to an end or natural disaster strikes, and the crossroads of the world is left eerily bare.  In reality, that’s not truly the case. 
At one point, I worked near Times Square and had to walk through it on my way home.  Many times, I would leave work very late and go through Times Square because there were always restaurants open.  You can always count on Starbucks or McDonald’s for a late night fix, not to mention a smattering of gourmet delis.

I don’t work near Times Square anymore, and these days I find myself trying to avoid it if at all possible.  Gawking tourists are probably the most annoying thing about Times Square.  They stand stationary on an already crowded sidewalk, while native New Yorkers attempt to hustle past them to get to their next meeting on time.  

Last week, I found myself in Times Square for the first time in a long while.  I had been barhopping around New York City, starting in the East Village and ending in Korea Town (K-Town) when 4AM struck.  I felt a bit weary, so I prescribed myself a bit of fresh Manhattan air to revive me.  I walked up to Times Square, knowing that the Starbucks there would have a tall pike’s peak at the ready.

After I got my coffee, I sat down on the patio-type furniture in Times Square’s so-called pedestrian plaza.  By this time, it was probably 5:15AM.  While the place certainly wasn’t empty, it was serenely quiet.  There was a real motley crew sitting in the metal chairs around me.  I found myself amongst a mix of homeless, late night partiers sobering up, tourists, and the first corporate warriors starting their day.

It was at this point that I decided to stand up, turn on my camera, and do a complete 360 degree turn around Times Square.  I hope you enjoy it, and if you’re ever in New York City, be sure to visit Times Square off hours.  It’s an absolutely euphoric feeling!

New York City (Neon) Magnet
New York City (Neon) Magnet by RickDouglas
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Behind The Iron Curton Of Aviation. Eastern Europe Flight Map!

I was traveling to Eastern Europe last month and I immediately got a burst of old world nostalgia with the flight map on display.  The map was circa 1989 - before the fall of the Iron Curtain!  The first thing that jumped out at me was the ring surrounding West Berlin.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that East and West Germany were separate!

The Soviet Republics of Eastern Europe were not represented at all.  Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova....all lost within the all encompassing "Soviet Union" border.  Yugoslavia had yet to be broken up, so Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the like were a figment of the imagination.  The Czech Republic and Slovakia had not had their divorce yet.  In fact, they were still orbiting around Moscow's sphere.

I was shocked that any airline today would still use a map like this, especially an airline based out of Eastern Europe.  I'll admit that the plane was older, but that's no excuse to use a Soviet-era map.  Of the huge investment involved in running an airline, this is surely a minor expense! 

I have to admit, that while other passengers were shocked and appalled, this map put a smile on my face.  With the benefit on hindsight, I enjoyed looking at the map and knowing how everything changed for the better.  I'll probably never see a flight map like this again.  But if I did, it wouldn't be the end of the world!  Poka!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hats Off To The Baggage Handler!!!

You’re sitting comfortably in your seat waiting for the boarding door to close.  Life is good as you pop open the bottle of water and settle in for a great flight.  All of a sudden, you glance out the window, only to see the baggage handler manhandling your bag.  He throws it on the belt like a sack of dog food, not taking into account any of the valuables inside. 

A few weeks ago, I was traveling and I got to see the other side of the spectrum.  Waiting for my luggage to arrive on the carrousel, my fellow travelers and I were shocked at what we saw.  A walking stick made its way around the belt, with a checked baggage sticker wrapped around it.  We were laughing, but a baggage handler assigned to the carousel was visibly upset.  He shook his head and took the walking stick off of the carousel.  I could tell that he must have been thinking to himself, “what idiot checked this in!!!?”  He threw the walking stick to the side with annoyance. 

Our ride arrived to pick us up, so we had no choice but to leave.  It would be interesting to see what type of person checked this bag in.  Were they elderly and simply not need the walking stick?  Or maybe they bought it at an antique shop and it was made of a rare breed of wood.  Unfortunately, we’ll never know the truth!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Unlikely Charm of Bishkek's Parks

I just got a message asking me what I enjoy most about traveling to Kyrgyzstan - a tough question because it's so open ended.  But after visiting Bishkek probably about 20 times over the past five years, my answer is clear.  I love the parks.  This may seem like a random answer, but the parks in
Bishkek are unlike anything else I have seen.

I first noticed the monumental trees, they are absolutely huge!  American style parks tend to be manicured lawns with scattered bushes and flowers.  Bishkek’s parks have trees that are probably 100 years old and they tower over you.  It’s great on a hot summer’s day because the shade keeps everything cool. 

Another great thing is the people!  I know that sounds strange, but hear me out.  Aside from large metropolises in America, our parks don’t really get much use.  Much of the day, they are sparsely populated.  Bishkek’s parks are a bevy of activity, from children playing to young lovers walking hand in hand and kissing, to elderly people sitting around eating ice cream. 

Although the parks have not been adequately maintained since the end of the Soviet era, Bishkek’s parks have a euphoric rustic appeal.  Most of the water fountains leak and the stone monuments are crumbling.  There are leaves everywhere and the grass is long.  But everyone is in a good mood and smiling.  The fresh air and sound of the birds singing provide a wonderful refuge!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Meeting a Kyrgyz World War II Veteran!

I was at a Memorial Day celebration in Boston, Massachusetts last month when I saw a group of World War II Navy Veterans hanging out together. They were all in remarkably good health and swapping stories of what it was like on their ship in the midst of the chaos. Proud of their service, they all wore identical navy blue hats embroidered with "USS Massachusetts."

That got me thinking of a man I had met while walking in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last year. He was a World War II veteran of the Soviet Red Army. Judging from his appearance, he was an ethnic Kyrgyz guy who served in the Red Army when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet Republic. He must have been in his late 80's or even early 90's. Our paths crossed in one of Bishkek's many lush parks. The Red Army veteran wore a charcoal gray suit, white sneakers, and a top hat.  The suit was a bit baggy on him, probably fitted when he was a bit younger and heavier.  Nevertheless, he looked very distinguished.  What caught my eye were the numerous Soviet service medals pinned to his chest.

When I saw him, I was immediately fascinated and introduced myself. He spoke only Russian, but luckily he was accompanied by his son, who looked to be in his 40's and spoke a bit of English. The old Kyrgyz veteran was proud to explain what each metal meant, and was delighted to have his photo taken. One of his metals had Lenin's profile, which may have meant that he was a decorated Officer.

Since he didn't speak English, his son was translating between us. At first he thought I was British, but when I told him I was American, his eyes really lit up. I think I was probably the first American he had met in a very long time. We ended the conversation with a handshake, and I gave the Kyrgyz veteran a salute for good measure.

When I saw the Navy veterans in Massachusetts, I thought about the Soviet Red Army veteran I had met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. For a minute, I wondered what it would be like if they could have met and the interesting things they would have talked about. Judging from the reception I got from the Kyrgyz Red Army veteran, I think he would have loved to speak about his experiences with World War II veterans from America. As a 30 year old carrying no emotional baggage of World War II or the Cold War, I would have loved to have listened to that meeting. Would there have been tension, debate, laughing, drinking?  We can only imagine, but this chance encounter really made my day!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Visa Requirements For Entering Kyrgyzstan

Since my last post, I got a message asking about visa procedures for entering Kyrgyzstan.  I’m glad somebody asked me, because I went through lots of needless uncertainty on my trip as well.
Here’s the bottom line: If you're a citizen of the United States or most of Western Europe, you can purchase a visa at Manas Airport.  You don’t need to go to the consulate ahead of time. 

My last visit to Bishkek was in November, and I transited through Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.  When boarding the flight to Bishkek, a Turkish Airlines representative was checking passports and visas.  I and another American didn’t go to the consulate to pre-purchase a visa.  The Turkish representative looked shocked, and was concerned that the Kyrgyz authorities wouldn't allow us into the country.  After trying to explain that we planned to purchase the visa at Manas, she made a phone call.  After some back and forth, she let us get on the plane.

Needless to say, this made me a bit nervous.  The Kyrgyz immigration agents don’t exactly have the most stellar reputation when it comes to honesty, and I was worried they would try to exploit the opportunity.

Lucky for me, I was nervous about absolutely nothing at all.  The immigration procedure was smooth.  I went up to the visa desk and handed my passport to the woman working behind it.  She handed me a form to fill out.  After I filled it out, she didn’t scrutinize it at all.  In fact she didn’t even seem to care what I had written down.   

I paid the fee in dollars, and was on my way to the immigration agent.  He was a bit theatrical when looking at my passport photo, holding it next to my fact for a better comparison.  After a solid 45 seconds of comparing, he stamped my passport.  From this point on, it was smooth sailing.  After picking up my baggage, Customs agents randomly selected one to go through the XRAY machine.  No problem, they didn't bother to search it.  I was on my way – let the vacation begin!

Here’s the exact language concerning a tourist visa to Kyrgyzstan, according to the U.S. State Department.  Keep in mind that this information changes, so check the source.

ENTRY / EXIT REQUIREMENTS FOR U.S. CITIZENS: A passport and a visa are required. U.S. citizens can obtain a one-month single-entry, non-extendable tourist visa upon arrival at the Manas International Airport outside Bishkek for a fee of $80 without invitation or sponsorship. If purchasing a visa at the airport, at least one blank passport page is required. Travelers cannot obtain tourist visas at land borders or regional airports.”