destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice
— jeremy kitson —
traveling in winter has it’s difficulties. my flight was cancelled from boston to bucharest due to snow in boston. i rescheduled it twice and crossed my fingers because one day lost was fine, but two would throw off the next five flights i had booked. funny thing winter weather in boston, that snowstorm we were supposed to get never happened. i think there was .00001″ of snow on the ground as i went to the airport to catch my flight to london the next evening. even funnier thing, winter in romania means they actually get snow when they say they are and my flight was delayed to bucharest from london. i missed a day and a half in bucharest and landed right after the giant snowstorm dumped about a foot of snow on the city. it was cold, windy and snowy but there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.
i fought against sidewalks that were not shoveled and sidewalks covered in ice but i made the most of the little time i had in romania. even when you’re tired, the weather is problematic, or are extremely hungover (i’m talking latvian hungover), just get up, go walk around and get lost outside. you see a different side of the city when conditions are less than ideal. you never know what you’ll see when you least expect it, and fresh air is always a good idea… unless you’re in a smog cloud somewhere in asia.
off to moldova, the unhappiest country in the world….according to the world values survey (and wanna know who was second most unhappy? my next destination of belarus. should be a killer few days). after almost slipping down the icy steps of my hotel (city park hotel) i wandered to a nearby park with some sort of tall white thing in it. very descriptive, i know, but a skyline is not something chisinau is known for after all. i wasn’t sure what exactly i was looking at but i saw some pigeons congregating by this mysterious white tower and this seemed like a decent photo op. as i started snapping, a kid darted out from nowhere and disrupted the pigeons sending them flying right at me. i managed to take a few pictures before i took off running out of pure terror. i’m pretty sure someone captured a picture of me looking like a total maniac fleeing the scene, i can see the moldovan headlines now, american fears birds, does not fear new threats from north korea.
one of the prettiest things i came across in chisinau, after my bird attack, was a beautiful blue church with bright gold domes. surrounded by snow is gave it an extra glow and was really a sight to be seen. i should also mention that wine and beer in moldova were both really fantastic, so if you are feeling a little unhappy when you visit this landlocked country in eastern europe, crack open a beer and go chase around some birds, life isn’t that bad here after all.
my flight from chisinau to minsk left at the absolute asscrack of dawn, so it was a very, very early morning for me. (my flight was via kyiv and the only time so far i have not had a direct flight within europe, i have planning skills, what can i say?). i was the only one stopped when our tickets were scanned and my passport was then scrutinized in detail. maybe they aren’t use to many americans flying from moldova through ukraine to belarus? can’t imagine why that is uncommon, just a normal sunday for me. as we were herded onto the terminal bus, a college-aged girl speaking perfect english asked me why on earth i was in moldova, overhearing my passport interrogation. i told her i was traveling to all 51 countries in europe, moldova is in europe so….and later when she asked if i was doing this alone, i proudly said yes. alllllll alone. a few others looked at me and were listening to our conversation probably thinking the same thing my parents say to their friends, she’s weird, i don’t know what she is thinking. sometimes i don’t know what i’m thinking either, but i had to plane to catch to belarus. so long suckers.
to go along with my tv show reference of latvia, the only thing i really new about belarus was that phoebe’s scientist boyfriend moved to minsk on friends. they also recently changed their visa requirements for many western countries and as long as you fly directly into the minsk airport, are staying for five days or less, and have international health insurance coverage you are good to go. welcome to the mysterious country of belarus.
i absolutely loved minsk. they even have lobster flavored potato chips, which i tried along with a few local beers. i’m telling you, one of the best things to do when you’re in a foreign country is to find a local grocery store. they are fantastic and filled with all sorts of weirdly amazing things. i mean, lobster flavored lays?!? i live in the lobster capital of america and i have never seen such things in my life. minsk, am i right?
after trying out the local delicacies it was time to explore. walking down perfectly maintained, six-lane wide roads (i can just see the tanks rolling down these streets during the cold war… i’m an american, what can i say?), i instantly got a really good vibe being in minsk. there were giant metal statues in equally giant parks all over the city. the weather was amazing, the skies were blue and i was loving living the minsk life. cheap beer, weird potato chips, roads without potholes, spacious parks and ponds, tons of parking, this place is about 10,000 times better than boston. pretty sure every time i am in the north end there is a massive sinkhole about ready to engulf half of salem street.
i walked for what seemed like forever and i still had not seen even a third of the city. everything was so spread out and there really was so much to see. some of my favorite sights were strolling around gorky park, oktyabrskaya square, the church of all saints, and st. peter and st. paul’s cathedral. i even had lunch on a bench outside the red colored church of saints simon and helena, which was surrounded by communist-era looking buildings. it was really interesting being surrounded by structures that were from a time when americans would have never dreamed of visiting a country like belarus. i really felt like i was transported back to the 1980s. i’ve been to berlin a few times, and to many other eastern european countries but i could really feel the russian influence here, but without actually being in russia. i’m a fan, and already looking forward to another trip back to belarus. might even do it the old fashioned way and get a visa so i can stay for longer than five days. fancy smancy.
after my trip last month to georgia that was borderline obsessive, i was really excited to return to the area for my visit to its neighbor to the south, armenia. i landed at almost midnight and the airport was very quiet, almost too quiet. i approached the immigration desk to have my passport inspected and was greeted with a not so happy employee. probably from moldova, based on their recorded unhappiness level. smiling like a classic american as he scrutenized every page of my passport, he stopped on one page and looked at me with a skeptical look. apparently since i had visited azerbaijan prior to armenia i was some sort of social pariah. “why was i in azerbaijan? when was i there? what was i doing there? where else did i visit when i was there? what do you do for a job?” i was waiting for him to ask for a dna sample to ensure i wasn’t an azerbaijani spy or something. ten minutes of questioning later, i was free and finally off to my hotel. what on earth was that all about, i asked google since no one else was with me. (fun fact, azerbaijan and armenia are not friends. they have an ongoing territory dispute and do not look kindly on those who visit their arch rivals. good to know).
the weather in yerevan was amazing. i mean, 72 degrees and sunny amazing. for someone who has been traveling throughout eastern europe all winter in a fur trimmed heavy coat this was beyond fantastic. i was walking around in a t-shirt!! A T-SHIRT!!! yerevan is the perfect city to get lost in. it’s small enough to see on foot, but there are so many paths you can take around the city that a few days are filled with things to do and to see. i ended up off-roading on foot behind a brandy factory and saw an awesome view of mount ararat, the supposed resting place of noah’s ark. pretty awesome. i also found the most amazing grocery store ever, yerevan city supermarket. i spent a solid two hours walking around looking at everything before settling on wine, beer and spices. an interesting combination of things, unless you know me then this makes total sense.
yerevan was such a fantastic, gorgeous city and at night it really came to life. i ended up spending just as much time out during the evening as i did during the day. it’s a small city but definitely worth a visit, especially because they offer free brandy tastings at the airport at 10am. how can you turn that down? you can’t, and i should know… cheers!
feeling the brandy buzz, i was off to kazakhstan. i’ll be honest, i really wanted to go to almaty. that was my plan and the place i researched, but sometimes things don’t always go how you plan. i ended up booking a flight to astana because it worked with my schedule better and i fully anticipated it to be boring and cold, with a complete lack of history. i definitely was about to get an astana ass-kicking for thinking such a thing. i sat in the airport in yerevan doing some quick travel research on astana when an indian businessman sat down next to me. i was flying on an airline that just recently was allowed to fly over european airspace, so this could very well be the last person i speak to, so we struck up a conversation. he was surprised, as everyone seems to be, that i was traveling alone and that i was going to kazakhstan. we exchanged travel stories and he told me what to see in astana, and around the other -stan countries if i ever found my way there. it was an interesting coversation, which turned into a huge bonus for me when he negotiated my taxi for me in russian at the airport upon landing. i paid half of what i should have and was on my way to my hotel within minutes.
so astana…. first and foremost, it was cold, but i was also there in march so i guess i cannot blame siberian winds for that one. lucky for me though, i like the cold and was fresh off the sunny days i had in yerevan, so a little snow wasn’t going to get me down. secondly, i found the absolute BEST grocery store in astana. i was obsessed with the one in yerevan, but this one had freshly baked garlic bread (i ate two giant loaves for breakfast, and much to tim’s dismay, washed it down with a coke zero) and what i later found out when i used it at home, the most amazing pepper spice mill ever. i stocked up on 50 cent beer, candy, water, strange spices, and paprika pringles for the rest of my stay. travel essentials, trust me.
after filling up on 10,000 calories of carbs, i was ready for some more snowy sightseeing and after about 8 hours of walking i officially had walked almost 15 miles. i was freezing, wet, and my phone was about to die, so it was probably time to go back to my hotel, right? nope. i happened to look over my shoulder and saw some white pillars in the distance. what was that? i obviously had to find out, hypothermia can wait. i walked two more miles in the opposite direction of my hotel and came across the hazer sultan mosque. it was jaw dropping. i had been around the world to so many different countries, and to this day i have not seen anything that beautiful. i used the last of my battery life to take as many pictures as possible and stood in awe. how is a girl from iowa, who had never been on a plane until she was 15, standing in kazakhstan alone staring up at a beautiful mosque? it was surreal. i don’t think i could ever properly explain how i felt in that moment. i was proud of myself for actually doing this, for living the life i want to live and for flying to the outer corners of europe, to kazakhstan, on my own.
a trip this far into europe, and what many consider asia, was really an amazing experience. i started my european travel goal back in november and even then i couldn’t imagine myself standing alone in the snow and sleet in kazakhstan. this conquest was also a set of extremes. it was warm and freezing, it was old school in yerevan and sleek and new in astana. i went behind the iron curtain for the entirety of my trip and came out realizing there are so many amazing countries that people often overlook when they are planning their holidays. millions upon millions of people descend on paris or london every year, but how many people can stay they have been to astana? minsk? yerevan? those places all deserve their chance to impress those who visit, and if you don’t believe me, book a ticket and see for yourself. i guarantee you’ll come home with a smile on your face and some pretty amazing memories to boot.
keep reading, keep checking in… i promise it gets better.
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