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India: The (Real) Top 5 “Must See” Destinations

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Over the past ten years, India’s status as a place to do business has grown immensely.  According to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), India is the 10th largest business travel market in the world.  With more Westerners traveling for business and gaining appreciation for the vast and unique cultural attractions, history and landscape, more leisure travelers are keen on exploring India, but it’s a big country – 1.2 million sq. miles covered by more than 1.2 billion people!

Louise Nicholson, a trained art historian, India travel expert/guide and author of more than 25 books, including National Geographic Guides to India, says, “You can’t see all the major sites of India in one trip, unless you have a few years to spare. My mantra is ‘less is more’, meaning the fewer places and areas you travel to, the more you will undoubtedly get out of your journey.”

TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice destination picks for India include the following geographies in their top five: 1. Jaipur 2. New Delhi 3. Mumbai 4. Jaisalmer 5. Bardez

We asked Louise to give us her version of the top 5 special choice destinations in India. Not surprisingly, her picks are quite unique. In fact, only Mumbai made her top five when compared to TripAdvisor’s choices.

“This is almost impossible to do, so much choice, as if you want the top five destinations in all of Europe!  But here are five choices for five very different tastes; India is all about finding the right place for YOU, which is what I have been doing for 35 years.”

  1. World Trade Centre, Mumbai

    World Trade Centre, Mumbai

    Mumbai – a great entry city for a first visit to India.  Many people just transit through, but it merits stopping and exploring. Mumbai is a bustling buzzing port-city made great by the British in the 19th century, and now the financial, fashion, film and entertainment capital of India.  Downtown (around the Taj Mahal hotel) is easy and safe to walk, and you can find bars, restaurants of all cuisines, the Prince of Wales museum, cool contemporary design and art galleries in beautiful old warehouses, and fantastic fashion.  Other areas have their own neighbourhoods for eating and shopping; I really like Bandra.

  2. Udaipur, Jodhpur, Nagaur – the best trio of cities in fairytale Rajasthan, and you just drive between them – so, no airport hanging about.  These are some of the best Rajasthan cities at the moment, thriving, not too big, walkable, great hotels.  Ideal for honeymooners and people wanting the full combo of dazzling colours, romantic forts, shopping direct from craftsmen, and outrageous playtime palaces, many of which you can stay in and partake of their amazing spoiling spas.  At Nagaur you stay in the palaces the queens lived in!
  3. Sacred temple water tank of Koviloor, Tamil Nadu

    Sacred temple water tank of Koviloor, Tamil Nadu (Photo: kulasekaran Seshadri)

    Tamil Nadu – this is the state in South India where you see historic India, but living full pelt today, especially in the huge temple cities with their temple bazaars, festivals, their own in-temple elephants.  You can start from Chennai and then do a tour through the villages and fields to visit Mahaballipuram, Thanjavur, Thiruchirappalli and Madurai.  Good historic hotels along the way.  Find delicious food, music, weavers, ladies in glistening saris.  And watch all those rituals and festivals.  You even have a drop of French sophistication at the former French colony of Pondicherry!

  4. Ajanta and Ellora – two world class mind-blowing sites inland from Mumbai; you just take a 40 minute flight to Aurangabad, which is your base for visiting each site.  Still in rural India, it is as if you are discovering each one.  Dating from 2nd century BC up to the 8th century AD, or so, you see the birth of monumental sculpture and painting that spread eastwards across the Buddhist world, and Hindu and Jain sculptures that set the tone for the great medieval achievements.  As if that were not enough, one of India’s most important Shiva pilgrimage temples is at Ellora (almost no foreigners know about it), and the high quality shimmering Paithan silk weaves on sale in Aurangabad.
  5. Crow's Lake is one of the hundreds of lakes in Northern Sikkim.

    Crow’s Lake is one of the hundreds of lakes in Northern Sikkim. (Photo: Carsten.nebel)

    Sikkim – up in the lush and pristine Lower Himalaya hills located between Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim was an independent kingdom until recently.  Few tourists visit, yet it is tranquil, varied and very beautiful.  Just the place for relaxing in the spring and fall.  You start from Darjeeling, crossing into Sikkim to explore a very distinct culture.  You can visit a tea plantation, go inside ancient monasteries to hear monks chanting, spot orchids hanging from trees and great big rhododendrons blossoming in their natural habitat.  You can take walks through villages and farms to spot hill birds, see how people live close to the earth, and take hikes of varying challenge into the mountains.  There is even a superb new hotel built in Sikkim style with excellent food and rooftop terraces where you can gaze – all day long if you wish – at a row of family snow-capped Himalayans peaks.  I am taking a tour there next April – come with me!

For more about Louise and her special trips to India, visit: www.louisenicholsonindia.com.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo! Mexico – Beyond the Beach

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Did you know that each year U.S. residents make more than 20 million trips to Mexico? Yet, most rarely venture off the comfort zones of their beach resort.  ExpertFlyer is taking a deep dive with an art and cultural travel series where we interview experts from three global destinations, including Mexico, India and the United Kingdom.  Our first interview features Stephanie Schneiderman, owner of Tia Stephanie Tours, specialists in Mexican and Columbian cultural vacation experiences.

You are a specialist in Mexican and Columbian cultural tours.  Is there a growing demand for cultural/art experiences in Mexico?

I think travelers already know that Mexico is a popular beach destination, to places like the Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta/Nayarit, Los Cabos, but some of the traveler set are recognizing that Mexico has so much more to offer, more in the interior of the country and more related to Mexico’s history and people. This awareness has come through touch points such as: the new wave of chefs who are introducing more authentic flavors of Mexico in U.S. restaurants; Mexico Tourism’s messages that include Adventure and Culture (not just Sun & Beach);  areas of Colonial Mexico have been popular for awhile, such as San Miguel de Allende, but some people are going  further afield to have more authentic experiences with interactions with the people of Mexico. This segment is already traveling the world for cultural and human experiences, but they realize that they don’t have to go to Paris for Art, Italy for Cuisine, Bhutan for Culture, Egypt for Pyramids;  they can see all of that, in their singular expression in Mexico, just a 3-4 hour flight from most U.S. cities!

If one is interested in this type of experience, which areas of Mexico do you recommend?

Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban Ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

I recommend that everyone go to Mexico City. They will be very grateful they did and will make it a return visit, assured. This is based on our experience introducing travelers to this cultural powerhouse and world class capital city. I call it the “I never knew”  phenomenon: “I never knew Mexico City had so many museums (164 and counting), “I never knew Mexico City had such ancient history,” “I never knew Mexico City had world class contemporary art galleries and architecture,” “I never knew the cuisine in Mexico City ranges from delicious street tacos to high end contemporary Mexican cuisine, fine dining experiences,”and on and on.People also love exploring Oaxaca, which is about 4-1/2 hours to the east of Mexico City.  Oaxaca has a singular regional artistic expression, dating to Rufino Tamayo and expressed today by many artists, such as Francisco Toledo and others who express with color, fantasy and “magical realism.” Going to Oaxaca City, one can explore numerous art galleries that work with established and emerging artists. Traveling to the communities that surround Oaxaca City, one can visit Zapotec weavers, wood carvers, potters and other artisans that Oaxaca is known for. And, the cuisine is world renowned, given its over seven variants of “mole,” including, black, red, almond, green, yellow, and many other flavors of this sacred sauce that combines dried chili peppers, seeds, nuts, sometimes cinnamon, chocolate, peanuts and other herbs for an indescribable flavor.

I also recommend, for travelers who might already be on the Yucatan Peninsula, that they go deeper and explore communities such as Valladolid and Merida, Yucatan,  to visit ancient Maya sites, such as Uxmal and Ek Balam, and also venture into the less visited State on the Peninsula: Campeche. Campeche City is a UNESCO World Heritage City and is a walled city that fended off pirate attacks in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It sits on the Gulf of Mexico and is home to unique cuisine, based in sea food, combined with Mayan dishes using turkey and corn as ingredients. In Southern Campeche lie some of the most important and remote Maya sites that will make travelers feel like true explorers. Calakmul was once a great empire and surrounding sites of Ixpujil, Becan, Chicanna and others are marvels of Mayan architecture and art. We love Campeche and invite travelers to explore it!

Travelers yearning for a rich art experience travel far and wide to places like France, Italy, Spain, etc.  How is Mexico emerging as a major player in the global art scene?

Mexico has always had  a vibrant art scene.  I think people are beginning to recognize this. In the 1920′s to 1950′s Mexico was the place to go to learn about, meet with and learn from the great Muralist artists, such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. In the 1960′s and 1970′s Modern Art Galleries and many Museums in Mexico were established, such as the Modern Museum of Art (MAM) and the Galerias de Arte Moderno (GAM). Even the 1968 Olympics demonstrated the creative talent of the architects and graphic designers who came up with some of the most iconic images of any Olympics (remember the pop-art ’68 graphic?). Today, Mexico City is home to Zona Maco, the internationally renowned Contemporary Art Fair that takes place every February. Top Galleries, Collectors, Art Enthusiasts flock to Mexico City to attend this Fair and to view and collect cutting edge art. And some of the most important Contemporary Art Collections are in Mexico City, including the recently opened Museo Colleccion Jumex, and Kurimanzutto, art gallery.

You’ve got an interesting tour coming up in August that showcases the work and lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  Tell us about that and the Botanical Gardens exhibit opening this month?

We are excited that simultaneously, several exhibits are taking place  in the U.S. that feature the art and lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the art of Mexico. In Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), “Diego and Frida in Detroit” opened in March, and exhibits never seen before, “cartoon” sketches of Diego’s work for the Detroit Industry Murals, commissioned by the Museum and funded by Edsel Ford in 1932. The exhibit covers the lives and art of Diego and Frida during their stay in Detroit. Diego was happy, painting and being admired by all; Frida was miserable, given the bitter cold of the Winter, the attitude of the local society towards her, and she sadly had a miscarriage. But it was here, that she began to experiment with art and techniques, including engraving, with her friend and accomplished artists, Lucienne Bloch.

The New York Botanical Garden exhibit is called, “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden and Life”, and will focus on the botanical elements used in many of Frida’s artwork. The exhibit opens on May 16.

diego-frida-tour mexico city

“Man, Controller of the Universe” by Diego Rivera (photo: Tia Stephanie Tours)

Taking these two blockbuster exhibits, we coordinated and designed a tour to complement these exhibits and learning experiences. Our “Diego and Frida in Mexico City Tour” will lead travelers to important historic places that were pivotal in the lives and development of both artists and their lives as a couple. We will see where the first Murals were painted in the 1920′s, in the Antiguo Colegio San Idelfonso, which happens to be where Frida went to high school! Visiting the Murals at the Palace of Fine Arts, we will be able to compare and contrast the art, techniques and political messages of the “Big Three”, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, as while they were part of the Mexican Muralist Movement, each had  different ideas and artistic expressions.  Travelers will enter the “Blue House,” Frida Kahlo Museum to see where Frida grew up and to imagine her in her Studio, in her Garden surrounded by her beloved animals, and sadly in her bed, where she was often in pain, due to a childhood trolley accident. And, visiting the Diego and Frida Studios in San Angel neighborhood, we will see the space that their friend and architect Juan O’Gorman designed for them to work and live separately and sometimes together! That was the life of Diego and Frida!

This tour takes place August 8-16, 2015 and will include wonderful dining experiences, including some of Frida’s favorite dishes! Visits to the archeology site of Teotihuacan and the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco are also places that Diego and Frida loved to visit.

You offer very niche experiences like your Mexican Textile tour. Talk about that and some of the other unique twists you offer to travelers who want to go deep into Mexican culture and history.

Zapotec rugs

Zapotec Rugs (Photo: Tia Stephanie Tours)

A central aspect of Mexico’s history and present day landscape, is an understanding and appreciation of the country’s original people and ancient civilizations that emerged from hunter, gatherers to building grand cities, with great accomplishments in art, astronomy, math, writing, etc. These civilizations were the Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec, Purepecha, Totonac, Huastec, Aztec and many other groups.  While we visit these sites, we always remind our travelers, and it is apparent, that these original peoples of Mexico are still present and they represent the living cultures of Mexico today. About 10% of Mexico’s population is indigenous (original), and each ethnic group has different expressions in dress, language, food, customs, rituals, etc. On our Textile Tours we are particularly interested with the rich textile traditions, dress as cultural expression, weaving and dying as master techniques and art, iconography and symbols embedded in the weaving. We visit communities on the Coast of Oaxaca, for example, to see how the Mixtec dyers climb on the ocean rocks in search of the sea mollusk that emits a purple dye, for their women to weave the lovely purple wrap skirt they are known for. We visit Maya weavers in the Highlands of Chiapas near San Cristobal de Las Casas, followed by the Lowlands (Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak) to see how weaving has not changed in over 3,000 years.

Our Textile Journeys attract textile enthusiasts, curious travelers, collectors, and all are very grateful to travel to locations they have never been to before. Even  the most seasoned Mexico travelers have called some of our tours, “Off the Grid” and “Bold”. Mexico is a vast and diverse country and one could spend a lifetime exploring it. We aim to go broader and deeper into this extraordinary country, and to help facilitate these experiences for our travelers.

Expat Lives the Dream in the South of France

Deborah Bine pictured near her home in Uzes, France

Deborah Bine pictured near her home in Uzes, France

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Deborah Bine, aka the Barefoot Blogger, is a person who likes to “go for it.”  And she does.  Two years ago after divorcing her husband and retiring from IBM, she packed her bags and put down stake in France — all by her lonesome. We interviewed Deborah to find out what drove this major life change and how she got the nerve to make it happen — without any French language skills, to boot!

Start from the beginning. How did this odyssey begin? Why France and how did you end up in Uzes?

The year of the Royal Wedding (Kate and Will) I visited London to view the wedding festivities along with hundreds of thousands of onlookers. While there, I was invited to spend a few days in the South of France with a friend who lives there. One of the highlights of being in France was going to various nearby villages on market day. That was the first time I saw Uzes — for Saturday Market. It was “love at first sight.” I knew I had to return to the magical place. So when I retired from my job with IBM in 2013, I planned a holiday to celebrate my new freedom. Uzes was the centerpiece of the trip. In Uzes I rented an apartment in the center of the town through AirBnB and for 3 weeks. I “played like” I was a permanent resident. I spent every day walking around the village, taking in all the sights, riding a bicycle into the countryside, eating where the locals ate, and meeting as many people as I could meet – French, English, Scottish, American, etc. Fortunately, the people I met made me feel right at home. Their enthusiasm and love for the town encouraged me to look at it as a possible place for me to live. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?

uzes france

Market in Uzes, France (photo: (cc) Peter Curbishley)

Is money ever an issue? Is France as expensive as we’ve been programmed to believe? How do you figure out your budget on a fixed income?

Money has always been an issue for me. But it’s never kept me from doing what I really want to do. I can usually find a way. That’s how I approached moving to France. I realized there are lots of French people who live very well in Uzes and they aren’t wealthy. So why couldn’t I? When I decided to seriously investigate the possibility, I went to a local real estate agent to look at properties to rent. Happily, I found that the cost of housing is less than where I was living in the U.S. As for other costs, they are very similar. Read more here.

What was the scariest thing about diving into a huge life changing move like this and how did you overcome your fears?

Moving away from family and a known support system was the scariest part of moving to France. Except for the people I had met on my holiday, I knew no one. Also, I don’t speak French, so I was concerned how I would manage everyday life. Fortunately I didn’t know how difficult it would actually be, or I might not have gone. “Fools rush in” is how I would describe the experience now.

You admit to barely speaking a word of French – at least initially. How did you negotiate daily living and getting what you needed in the beginning?

I met a charming English man during my stay in Uzes. We became instant friends – actually more like brother and sister. He became my “life blood” during those first few months. Every day I would knock on the door of his house with a “Deborah-do list.” When he wasn’t available and I had to brave the day alone, I found that I could communicate with the locals well enough with sign language and a big smile. In Uzes, not a lot of people speak English; however, they are very accommodating and try very hard to be helpful. The most difficult thing I still find is using the telephone. It is impossible. Imagine trying to call the power company to connect your electricity and you can’t negotiate through the automated answering system to ask if someone speaks English. How I eventually solved the problem was to hire someone to help me. There seem to be lots of people around who are unemployed or under-employed. If you ask around, you can find someone who is willing to help you out very inexpensively. You can accomplish a lot in a couple of hours with a French-speaking “assistant.”

Describe a day in the life of Deborah Bine? What’s your social life like?

My apartment is beside the town’s bell tower. The bell rings from 7am to 10pm every day. It strikes a bell for each hour. then one bell on the half hour. It sounds like that might be annoying, but when you awaken in the morning to the chime of a bell, to me, it’s quite soothing. First thing each day I fix coffee and carry it with me to the guest room/office to check my email. Then I water the plants that are lined up on the window sills around the apartment and on the patio. Breakfast is often fresh fruit from the market mixed with crème blanche which is similar to yogurt. For exercise in the morning, I stroll along the walkway that circles through the business area of town. Sometimes I hike through the Vallee de l’eure, a nearby park. Several times a week I meet a friend for lunch or eat alone at one of my favorite restaurants. The “plat du jour” is 10-12 euros — for a full meal. Afternoons I might shop for things I need from the pharmacy, the grocer, or other stores that are in the neighborhood – all within easy walking distance. There are many shop keepers who are my friends and I might stop by their store to visit or check out what is new. Even though we may not speak the same language, we enjoy our time together and spend a lot of time laughing. Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days. Wednesday market is for buying mostly food items, flowers and plants. It is held in the main plaza of the town – also within easy walking distance from my apartment. The Saturday market is set up in the plaza as well as along the main streets and alleyways of the downtown area. You can buy food items, clothing, pottery, jewelry, books and just about everything “French”. Social life for me in France is quite different than anyplace I have ever lived. I choose not to have a TV so I don’t invite friends to stop over to watch a movie. If I want to go to a movie, there’s one theatre in town. Even though it’s in a small building, there are four auditoriums. Sometimes there are English subtitled movies. For other entertainment, I’ll meet friends for dinner or invite them over; go to art gallery openings, which happen often or we’ll attend a local event together. My group of friends continues to expand as my stay here lengthens.

vallee de l'eure

Vallee de l’eure

What are the treasures of living in France that typical tourists miss, but should experience and appreciate?

One of the treasures of France I appreciate the most is how the French have preserved history. Unlike in the US where we seem to build structures then tear them down, the French live in homes that are centuries old; they ride on streets that are cobblestone; they shop and trade in the same stores and areas as their ancestors. The French care for their historic sites and they are proud to talk about them and show them off. When you meet people from Uzes, they can tell you all you want to know about their community and its past. Their life experiences are rich from living through wars and passing down family stories that aren’t often shared with strangers. You have to live among the French to truly understand how deeply they love their families, their friends and their way of life. Along that same line, the privilege of living in a village that has survived since the 11th century is something you have to experience to understand. The walled city, the stone houses, the spiral staircases and towers are part of your every day. Travel nearby and you get to walk in the footsteps of the Romans and relive their history.

What are your top three pieces of advice for folks thinking or dreaming of retiring in a country outside of the US?

o Do your homework.
o Learn the language.
o Embrace the differences.

Do you think you’ll ever come back to live in the US?

My first and only grandchild just turned one year old. I want to be a part of his life at some time in the future. Right now, I hope to stay in France until I’m either too old or too tired to travel. It’s a great “jumping off” place to the rest of Europe and beyond. I’m anxious to learn French so that I can feel more a part of the life and people around me in Uzes. Who knows? I might even take off for Spain!

Everything you need to know about traveling the Great Silk Road

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics – Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Central Asia remains shrouded in mystery and all but absent from most travelers’ bucket lists. But where else can you interact with venerable nomadic peoples, travel through stunning 3,000 year old mountain framed roadways; visit spectacular UNESCO World Heritage sites, and shop to your heart’s content at bazaars overflowing with rich silks, native crafts and jewelry – all while getting to know the uniquely warm and gentle people of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan? We asked Conde Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist for Central Asia, Zulya Rajabova, president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, to give us a glimpse of the Great Silk Road less traveled.

Why is Central Asia overlooked by international travelers? 

This is an important question. Central Asia has thousands of years of fascinating history and civilization. The fact that most of Central Asia was part of the USSR for seven decades erased any knowledge that we might have had about these places, putting them into the category of “behind the Iron Curtain” and therefore, inaccessible. Central Asian countries were not on the world map and Western people did not have enough knowledge about these ancient Silk Road Centers. Since we gained independence in 1991, the history of the Silk Road and the importance of Central Asia to world history is gradually returning to light.

Visa and border crossing procedures are becoming very smooth and tourism infrastructure is developing. In the past, travelers did not have a big choice of hotel options, but now, so many international luxury brands and exotic boutique hotels have opened. Also, the road conditions in the ancient Silk Road destinations are now being well maintained, making travel easy and enjoyable. Our job is to create an exciting campaign to promote our destinations by giving multimedia presentations that inspire travelers to visit these new and emerging lands in Central Asia. To ensure the best possible experience, travelers should work with tour operators who thoroughly understand their needs and travel style in order to make their journey of a lifetime a rewarding one.

Talk about the countries and climate that comprise Central Asia and the historically significant Silk Road. What are some brief highlights and important attractions from each of these destinations?

Tajikistan

Lake in Tajikistan

Central Asia consists of five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These are the destinations of imaginations, where the ancient trade route — the Silk Road — developed through the centuries. The ancient Silk Road connected the people of the East with the people of the West, but beyond that there were unique and stunning landscapes and scenery. This beckons travelers even today. You are invited to swim in Kyrgystan’s warm alpine Lake Issyk-Kul, trek the Tien Shan mountains, stay overnight in a yurt (round tent covered with skins used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia), take a camel ride over Kazakhstan’s singing dunes or the Kara Kum in Turkmenistan, and hike the foothills of the Pamirs in Tajikistan. A mix of the ancient world with a modern flair, and a dash of the Soviet era thrown in, it is home to the warmest people in the world.  Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, Merv and Khiva are the fabled cities of Marco Polo, Tamerlane and Alexander the Great. A Central Asian tour is not complete without visiting them.

Many of these cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include Bukhara, which is like a museum city and Uzbekistan, which is home to thousands of historic landmarks, including Varakhsha Palace, the Ark Citadel or Sarmish-say, and the Bronze Age Art Gallery – Petroglyphs.

For a 2-week visit, what are the most significant sights and not-to-be-missed experiences in Central Asia? 

The Kalyan minaret  Bukhara

Kalyan minaret Bukhara

This region has literally 3000 years or more of history to explore!

You can visit amazing sites from various periods in history. Examples include medieval architecture at Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and archaeological ruins and prehistoric petro glyphs in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. You have to experience the Sunday bazaars in Turkmenistan or Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. Some have been in the same place since the Silk Road caravan routes passed through. Then sip tea in my home city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

What is this region most known for, and are there unique shopping opportunities?  Where will visitors find the best value?

Uzbekistan carpets

Uzbekistan carpets

Central Asia is a Shopper’s Paradise, especially Samarkand and Bukhara.

The Silk Road traded in silk – and that’s one of the main specialties here, but also bold IKAT cottons and incredible embroidery and embellishments on handicraft items. Hats are incredibly diverse throughout the region and many people collect them when they go! Carpets are also on the list, Turkmen wool and Kyrgyzs shyrdak felt and Bukhara silk.  You can find many native crafts, such as wooden miniature inlay lacquerware (plates, bowls); intricately carved wood boxes, door frames, picture frames, as well as hammered gold, silver and copper jewelry, tea sets and platters. Every single traveler can have an unbelievable value for carpets, embroidery and true art work!

Is this a family-friendly vacation experience? Are there significant language or cultural barriers that may prove difficult for US citizens?

Family adventure on Camelback in Uzbekistan

Family adventure on Camelback in Uzbekistan

Hospitality is a sacred trust in Central Asia. Every visitor becomes an honored guest; so you shouldn’t be surprised when you suddenly find yourself at a wedding, christening or party. You can come in and sit down to dinner any time! The region is very family friendly. In Central Asia, our travelers visit with their own families and enjoy interaction with Uzbek families, where several generations still live together.

Visas and border crossings can be tricky, but that’s why you need to travel with an experienced and reputable tour company and professionals who can help you to have an extraordinary travel experience. Be sure the tour company you select offers services, including assistance with obtaining visas, arranging and recommending airfare, insurance and border crossing.

There are mounting fears among travelers associated with safety and security, particularly when traveling to destinations bordering unstable countries.  Is it safe to travel to the “Stans” – are there precautions or exceptions, such as women traveling alone?

After our travel clients return from Central Asia, they inform us that they have never felt unsafe.  Some people mistakenly mix Central Asia with unstable countries. Central Asia is not the Middle East. We have many single women or women group travelers who are visiting and enjoying their trips.

What is your advice for planning a trip to Central Asia?  What questions should travelers ask before making a unique trip like this? 

The list of questions can be very long, but I would start with, what piques your curiosity about Central Asia?

  • What kind of food (vegetarian), cultural events or activities can I experience?
  • Will all the border crossing procedures be explained in detail and how can I be assured access will run smoothly?
  • Where and how do I go shopping? Will I be able to go to bustling Silk Road Sunday Bazaars in Central Asian villages to meet craftsmen?
  • How much will a trip like this cost?
  • How do I go about getting visas?
  • Where should I stay and for how long?

When is the best time to visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan?  Are there any events or special holidays that may add flavor to the experience?   

The best time to travel to Central Asia is March through November. However, we have many travelers who are visiting Central Asia in December to experience the New Year celebration in legendary Bukhara or Samarkand or for skiing in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.  We have different fascinating cultural festivals, like the Navruz-Spring Holiday New Year, which is celebrated in all the countries of Central Asia on March 21st; the Silk and Spice Festival in Uzbekistan in May; Horse races in Kyrgyzstan in July and Turkmenistan in September and October; Music festivals and weddings take place all summer long across the region.

In addition to exploring the ancient cities and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and learning the fascinating history, travelers have the opportunity to participate in the above mentioned events for in-depth immersion into thousands of years of rich culture and tradition.

Is there anything else our readers should know about this region and what it offers to tourists?

This is a trip of a lifetime – a chance to learn what isn’t taught in schools about places which figured largely before Soviet rule, and where much of Western civilization and culture developed. The Silk Road was a place where the people and culture of the West and East met and mixed — not just the traders and merchants, but the language, religion, music, customs, and cuisine. It’s a fascinating blend of the modern and traditional, and this blending has been going on for centuries.

As specialists of this region, Silk Road Treasure Tours offers a rich variety of tours: family, academic, honeymoon, culinary, craft and shopping, and culture with adventure. Our tours are escorted by the top guides of the region, who have degrees (or majored in) history and art.

I previously mentioned, Central Asia visa procedures have been simplified.  Travelers do not need visas to visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and they can get their visa for Turkmenistan at the airport or at the border, but before traveling there they have to have an invitation from a travel company. For Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, travelers can get their visas within 5 to 10 days.

zulya rajabovaZulya Rajabova is the founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, a US-based tour operator specializing in the ancient cities and remote lands of Central Asia. Originally from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, she is a former university lecturer, Uzbek Ministry of Tourism executive, and multilingual tour guide to dignitaries and intrepid travelers. Since 2012, she has been a Conde Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist and now also a Wendy Perrin “Wow” List Trusted Travel Expert. She is a frequent guest speaker about the Silk Road at museums, non-profit institutions, and travel industry conferences. 

Who owns the armrest between two people sitting in a plane?

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Graphic is man stuck in the middle seat

Graphic: Christoph Hitz

Just because you’re a road warrior, doesn’t mean you have to go to war over the little things. Let’s take one point of contention out of the cabin: Armrest ownership.  Is there an unwritten code of ethics for determining dibs on the armrest?  There’s a reason why we make it our business to help travelers get out of the middleseat — it’s a bummer being squashed in between two strangers for hours. Since a “middleseater” is already at a comfort disadvantage, it seems only fair that armrest rights should be all theirs.

We did some digging on Quora to see if this conundrum had been discussed with any resolution.  Here are some interesting thoughts:

Wirawan Winarto offers a rule of thumb…”Window Seat gets the view; Aisle Seat gets the access; Middle Seat gets the armrest.”

Jeff Chou says, “For two seats: Whoever gets there first. If you both arrive at the same time, rock it off. Leaving your seat forfeits rights to the armrest (lifting your arm momentarily to lift the tray table or otherwise, does not count).

For three seats:
Middle gets both armrests. Aisle gets one armrest and a little bit of legroom, window gets one armrest and a window.”

What do you say? Read more of the Quora thread here.