Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Stans. How it All Began.

Pat and I in Abijatta-Shalla National Park, Ethiopia.
It all  began in Ethiopia. That's where I met Pat.  Of all the people I have met in all my travels and I have met a LOT of people, she is by far the most adventurous one and you wouldn't know it by looking at her.  Just goes to show that you really can't judge a book by its cover.

We were both members of the same tour group in Ethiopia. 

We didn't really get to know each other until almost halfway through our trip but after that, we were like two peas in a pod, inseparable.  I found a travel soul mate. Beyond that, I found a person whom I truly admire her.  Believe it or not, she'll be 81 by the time we leave on this trip!  But you would never know it from her energy level, her boundless spirit, infinite curiosity and open mind.  She is one of my role models for how I want to age.  Should I be so lucky.


I can't remember exactly how it came up in conversation but somewhere along in our trip, we started talking about going to the *stans* as we often proverbially refer to Kazakhstan,  Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as.  I figured if she could endure Ethiopia without issue, Central Asia would most certainly doable.  As often happens, talk never turns to reality but in this case, it did!

Pat and I kept in touch after our trip was over.   A few months later, in July to be exact, I decided to test the waters and so I emailed her to see if she was still interested and I was gleefully surprised when I got back a positive reply.

That was all I needed to get going.  Both of us are adventurous spirits but we do know our limits.  Going solo to these countries was out of the question so we agreed to explore tour options.  I did my online shopping comparing tour offerings from various companies.  The good news is that there are plenty of companies offering trips to Central Asia.  The bad news is that they are all expensive....at least they are for a budget conscious traveler like me.  Pat's also on a fixed income so we have to be very mindful of cost.

The tours varied in duration so the only way to cost compare them was by day.  The cheapest one overall was an overland tour. Perhaps suitable if we were in our 20's but I've since left my camping days behind and I am most certain that is also true for Pat.  A day here or there is fine but 20 days is too much for me.

Advantour was one of the few companies that offered a single tour that covered all five countries which is what Pat and I were interested in. They were also the next closest price competitor.  That was all enough reason to trigger the task of reaching out to them to inquire about the tour.  I also wanted to see if they would be willing to reduce the cost any.  As I had expected (though not wished), they wouldn't budge on the dollar side.  Instead, they suggested we scale back our tour but neither Pat nor I were willing to do that.  We're going a hell of a long way around the globe and I don't want to lose out a day here or there to not go to just 3 or 4 of the countries.  I know I would have regretted the decision to cut back.  Pat and I pondered our options and agreed to stand firm on doing the full tour.

In the meantime, I also checked reviews on TripAdvisor and most were positive. I was also pleased to learn that they've been in business for quite some time; we weren't dealing with a fly by night agency.  I breathed better after doing my due diligence.

Pat and I had agreed that we would set the March/April 2015 timeframe as the tentative period for our trip so since it was just July when I initially reached out to Advantour, we decided to wait a bit.  In fact, I wanted to wait until they issued the prices for their 2015 tours.

Flash forward to September.  By now, I had done a bit more checking and taking in to consideration the cost of airfare, the overall cost of the trip had skyrocketed to the point that Pat and I were both having second thoughts. I was so, so disappointed.  But I have learned to never give up.  So, we put it aside.

I told Advantour I was putting them on hold until they had issued the prices of their 2015 tours.

It was nice to read his sense of humor.  39 refrigerators!
Flash forward again and now it's mid November.  The 2015 prices are out and pinch me, but the cost of the tour has actually dropped!  And to add icing to the cake, I found a low cost carrier offering a steal of a deal to fly from JFK to Tashkent!  It was all too good to be true!  I told Pat if she was still on board, we had to act fast!  She was and so I set the wheels in motion starting with telling Advantour that we were proceeding with the tour!

From Day 1, we have been working with Yuriy, from Advantour.  He has been extremely responsive to all my inquiries and extremely helpful and accommodating in making all the necessary arrangements which began with us giving him all the requisite information needed for our visa support letters.  We need visas for Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  Before the countries will issue the visas, we have to provide them with support letters which Advantour was handling for us.  Poor Yuriy.  There was a lot of back and forth when it came to providing the information.  I consolidated the responses from Pat and I so he would have everything he needed in one place.  Timing wise, the visas cannot be issued too far in advance so Yuriy timed everything he needed to do accordingly.

The support documents from Tajikistan came to us first so Pat and I have submitted our visa requests.  Oh what a joy!  Filling in visa application forms and gathering all the bits and bobs of supporting documentation you need to attach!  No fun!  Poor Pat though.  She has to get her visa via third party agency as there is no Tajik consulate in NYC.  The only one is in DC so that's where I will drop off my visa application and passport.

As of the date of this posting, we're both waiting to get our passports back from the Tajikistan consulate.   Then, it will be off to the Uzbekistan consulate.  According to Yuriy, the paperwork from Turkmenistan takes the longest but we can get our visa at the border crossing so that's less worrisome.

To say that we're both excited that this trip will finally happen is an understatement.  While we work on getting our visas, it's good time to get to know these countries a little better.  So, it's off to doing some reading!