Bla, Blaa; Blah, Blah, Blah.
Technobabble time. I love technology and have been an early adopter of internet related thingys for yonks. I got my first real computer in 1987 and a modem a year later. I bought the modem at an auction in London for £100. It was a huge metal box and ran at the blisteringly fast speed of 14,400 baud and was connected to the phone line. This is 14 kbps or less than 2 kbyte/s. Glacially slow by today’s standards but good then. This was pre-windows, when Bill Gates wore second-hand glasses, and I was as happy as a clam chatting to people in DOS.
Have I lost you already? I hope not.
The reason I mentioned this is because I found a website while I was searching for something else. It’s called BlaBlaCars and it’s like Über for intercity travel. It’s a carpooling service so if someone is going on a journey from, say Berlin to Warsaw, they offer a lift and a price on the website or app. You book and pay and they pick you up and drop you off at predetermined times and places. Brilliant.
I came across BlaBlaCar as a transport alternative while researching a particular journey from one awkward place to an even more awkward place in the Balkans. I checked it out and it seemed just the ticket. The authentication is like Airbnb and the feedback is like Über, so you have a pretty good idea that the service is OK. It’s Indian, but has spread throughout the world. To my amazement, I discovered that there are several million users.
For example, I was looking at transport from Paris to Cherbourg to catch a ferry back to Ireland in November. BlaBlaCar would cost 25 UK pounds. Not bad that.
I bet you never know that there’s a bread in Ireland called Blaa. It’s a doughy, white bread bun (roll); particularly associated with Waterford. Blaas are sold in two varieties: “soft” and “crusty”. Soft blaas are slightly sweet, malt flavour, light but firm in texture and melt in the mouth. Crusty blaas are crunchy at first bite, then chewy with a subtle malt taste and a pleasing bitter aftertaste from the well cooked, dark crust.
Blaas are sometimes confused with a similar bun known as a bap; however, blaas are square in shape, softer, and doughier, and are most notably identified by the white flour shaken over them before the baking process. On 19 November 2013, the Blaa was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status by the European Commission. Good old European Commission.
So, there’s an interesting little factoid for you.
I remember when I went on my first big overland journey in 1984. I went overland from London to India and travelled thousands of miles all over the subcontinent. In those days, of course, there was no such thing as the internet; and certainly no apps. I used a Lonely Planet guide book and a big old fashioned map I bought in a dedicated map shop in Covent Garden in London. It was possible to buy a huge train timetable book for India but it was very big, very heavy and very expensive. Needless to say, I didn’t buy it.
Also, I didn’t book any hotels in advance. I would just arrive in a new place and choose my accommodation from a recommendation in the Lonely Planet guidebook. I would generally meet people there and, following an exchange of information, I would choose my next destination.
This time around, I will have access to a vast amount of information on a few small pieces of tech. I’ll have a smartphone, a tablet and a Kindle. I could actually forgo the Kindle and read my books on the tablet but the Kindle is very light and convenient and also easier on the eyes with lower battery consumption than the tablet.
Techno Babble Bit
Being a bit of a born-again geek, I have taken to travel apps like the proverbial duck to water. Nearly all my travel planning is now done on either my mobile phone or on my tablet. I only use my desktop when I’m researching complex information. This is because of the large screen area and the fact that I can have several tabs and apps open at the same time and flick between them very easily.
The apps and mobile websites I use fall into four categories:
- Researching destination and routes.
- Planning the actual journey.
- Travel and accommodation bookings.
- On the road.
I now give you a category by category breakdown of the apps I use and how effective I think they are. I’ll try to use my own experience as much as possible. At the end, I’ll nominate one for the highly desirable GOOASS Award.
The first category is researching the destination and the route I’ll take. This is before I even have a plan formulated about where I want to go. Instead, I have a general idea of where I would like to go. This time around, I knew I wanted to go to North and Central Asia but unsure of how I might accomplish this. My first port of call was the website called caravanistan.com. this is a website dedicated to amassing as much information as possible about The Silk Road. I find them invaluable and a source of up to date info on many obscure places in central and north Asia. They have great forums so you can ask questions and either Caravanistan staff or others answer
Taking joint first place for research is Lonely Planet and their range of guide books. I don’t know if you have ever come across Lonely Planet but they have been around for a long long time. They are written by people who did the actual journey themselves and wanted to share their experience with others who are interested in independent overland travel. Apparently the first Lonely Planet guide book was written by a few Australians who took several months to overland from, I think, London to Australia or possibly vice versa, I don’t remember. The original one was typeed and then copied onto a Gestetner If you know what a Gestetner is, you’re definitely showing your age. If you don’t, ask Mr Google.
Lonely Planet now have hundreds of books written about different cities, countries and travel routes. You can either buy a paperback version or you can download it as an eBook or PDF file. You can even buy individual chapters for only a few euro each. I don’t bother with the paper version as it’s too heavy, instead I download the eBook. I keep this on my tablet and it’s very convenient to read and bookmark. Disclaimer: I don’t work for Lonely Planet.
Another useful resource are the various online forums or bulletin boards available. They are divided into region and country sections. If you want to pick someone’s brains about, say, a good route from Yerevan to Tehran, just ask a question and it’s likely it will be answered rapidly. Lonely Planet, again, is probably the best, in my experience, as all the questions I have asked have been answered.
YouTube is also a useful service. If I come across a place I never heard of, not an infrequent occurrence, I check it out on YouTube. Amazing how many people upload clips of the most obscure places. Some of them are actually quite good and can be up to half an hour long. They give me a very good felt sense of the place.
The main purpose of the research section is to try to move from the general to the specific. At the end of this stage I hope to have a rough plan to get me safely and effectively from A to B; or in my case, from A to Z without being kidnapped, getting swallowed by a sand dune, accidently ending up in Afghanistan in an ISIS training camp because I thought I was going somewhere else and misread the signs, freezing to death because the temperature is -30 C. and the next train is in a months time. You get the drift; hopefully not a snow drift through.
Planning the actual journey
Second category is actually planning the journey. I use a spreadsheet here so I can overview my whole plan on a single page. I include a lot of links to the information from the previous stage. At the end of this bit, the plan is to have a itinerary listing all the places I’m going to visit, the journey between those places and the accommodation I will use. All of this information will have been researched previously.
Before I used a spreadsheet, I used an app on my phone called TripIt. I also used an app from Google called Google Trips. Both of these apps scan your email inbox and make an itinerary from the places, tickets and hotels you have booked or bought. I got tired of this after a while because they were very fiddly and missed lots of information. So, back to spreadsheets. I would rather chew a lump of glass than make a spreadsheet but needs must, etc., etc.
The hardest part of this phase is deciding the actual route. As you can imagine, there are an almost infinite number of routes in a continent with thousands of cities and hundreds and thousands of towns. Some train connections only run once a week so you have to know when the trains, ferries or buses run. I usually book accommodation near the train or bus station so I don’t have to haul my bag around and will be able to catch early morning connections without bother.
My favourite app at this point of the process is an app called Rome2Rio. It’s a really very simple service which has two boxes; for departure and destination points. Say, for example, you type in Astana to Almaty and in a second it comes up with all the routes by train, air, road, taxi, shared cars etc. As well at that, it gives travel departure and arrival times, distances, prices etc. It also provides a link to book the tickets online. This is by far my most valuable resource to get a sense of what links the various places I wish to visit. It also allows me to plan the most efficient route between these different destinations.
I mentioned bookings.com above and again this is essential to help me plan. Some countries insist on hotel bookings when you apply for a visa. For example, Uzbekistan want an itinerary and hotel bookings. Apparently they don’t pay too much attention to them. I use booking.com to book hotels on the dates I will be in the country. Bookings.com allow you to cancel without any payment or any cancellation fee up to 24 hours before the date of the actually booking. So long as I have my wits about me I can organise this.
Talking about visas. They can be a royal pain in the fundamentals. Some can be pretty pricey too. I had to pay US$100 just to get a letter of invitation to visit Uzbekistan from the foreign ministry in Astana. I used an agency in Uzbekistan to do this and all the communication was done by telex, apparently. I was emailed the LoI, or letter of invitation, a week or so later. I had to print this off and take it to an Uzbek embassy in Moscow to have the visa stuck in my passport and stamped. This cost another $75. I didn’t get to use it in the long run due to my fractured foot. Luckily, I got the money back through my insurance.
This was quite an experience in itself as there was hundreds of Uzbek people ther as well getting travel papers, passports or who knows what. There were armed guards everywhere and the place felt very much a relic of the old Soviet Union. I was the only pinkish-beige-with-brown-spots-on person there and yet felt perfectly safe. Actually, I really enjoy encounters like this as they’re an insight into how the local people live and how the state apparatus functions. Or dysfunctions, as can happen too.
I’ll have to go through the same rigmarole again this time but will collect Uzbek visa in Astana this time around. Let’s hope I don’t break any bones in the meanwhile. I’m agreeable to a broken heart through, in case anyone’s askin’
Travel and accommodation bookings
Here is where the smartphone rules supreme. So, more technobabble.
Bookings.com is used to book and organise all accommodation. Another advantage of this service is that they provide the booking information in both your own language and the language of the destination. For example, in Kazakhstan, there’s an option of having the information either on my phone and/or as a print-off in English and Kazakhstan language. There is also a special link that provides the address in the local language to show to the taxi. I used this many times in the past and it is very helpful. It also makes communication with the hotel very easy.
All the ex-Soviet Union countries, now called the CIS or Commonwealth of Independent States, make it possible to book train tickets online. This is really handy. When I was travelling around Russia, I could book tickets on my phone and just show a barcode when I was entering the train. Outside Russia, it’s a bit harder as a lot of them haven’t got electronic barcode recognition systems so you still need a paper copy of the ticket. But that’s not a problem. Lots of hotels or copy shops will print out the ticket for you if you send it to them in an email. I did this a few times in China when I was catching trains that were off the beaten track and didn’t use the electronic booking system.
Another advantage of being able to book hotel and train tickets online is it allows me huge flexibility. I will be travelling outside the main tourist season so this means there will be a lot of vacancies on trains and accommodations. I just need to keep my eye on public and national holidays. If I decide to stay longer in a place, because I like it, I can easily change amend or cancel my hotel or train tickets. I did this a lot in Russia and the State train company called RZD were brilliant. I cancelled several tickets and they refunded the amount minus a tiny handling fee of only €1 or so. Some of the commercial organisations who provide the exact same service as the Russian railways but have fancier websites and easier booking systems charge 25€ or 50€ if you want to cancel a train ticket. They also add a huge markup of up to 30% to the cost of the ticket. This doesn’t happen when you book directly through the state Russian railway system. The only small downside this is the website is a bit clunky and in Russian. But that’s not a problem and I soon got my head around that. There are similar systems in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan where I’ll be doing quite a lot of train travel. Iranian railways also have an online booking system and an extensive rail network.
On the road
This is the best bit! Months of planning and I’m there. Having spent months of planning ensures that I’m all there and even more here.
Without a doubt, the most useful app on my journeys, in the past, has been Google Translate app. This is a really smart application. You can download almost every language in the world. You can either type in a word in one language and it translates it into the language you choose. You can also speak into it and it translates into another language. The really smart bit is the automatic function where is actually speaks out the translated language on the speakerphone. For example, many times in Russia and China, I really needed to communicate but neither of us spoke each other’s language. I would open the app on my phone and plonk it on the desk or on the the hatch between us and say, for instance, I would like to book a ticket from here to Beijing tomorrow morning please. The app would translate what I say and just speak it out from the speakerphone. Then the person would respond in their own language and the app would automatically translate and speak this in English. As the languages are downloaded to the phone it doesn’t need an internet connection so it works offline too. There was one occasion where I got into the train station in Komsomolsk-na-Amure in Siberia and it was pretty late at night. I was exhausted and wanted to get my head down. Most train stations in Russia and indeed in the CIS have hotel or accommodation rooms attached. I eventually found one and tried to communicate with the fierce looking babushka who sat behind the desk. Google Translate did the business. It even got a smile from her; quite an achievement.
Another really important app, available as a physical presence as well, is my Revolut bank card. This is a new form of virtual bank where I have an actual MasterCard with a contactless payment facility. Nothing exceptional about this. There are lots of cards that do the same. But interesting with the Revolut is that it is linked to your bank account but also has really smart app. With the app, you can limit the contactless, swipe and online payments. You can put a limit on the amount of cash withdrawn etc etc. But what makes this quite exceptional is the foreign exchange capacity. It automatically gives you a very good foreign exchange rate. They say it’s midway between the best commercial rate available and the interbank rate. On top of that, they provide a free worldwide medical health travel insurance option. If you lose the card, they promise to get one to you within 72 hours wherever you are in the world. When I was in Minsk last year, I walked off and left my card in the cash machine. I have never done this before in my life. I’m generally pretty careful about security and I’m usually quite mindful but this time I was very tired and needed to get cash to drop my bag off at left luggage. So, I was in rush. Never a good idea to be in a rush in Russia. Sorry, couldn’t resist that. When I found out the card was gone and after a few airturningly blue expletives, I canceled the card on my app and ordered a new card. I knew I would be in Moscow the next day so gave the name of my hotel in Moscow as the contact. 48 hours later I got a new card and a spare card in case it happened again. Now I have a spare card hidden away in case my bag is stolen or goes astray. Sweet.
Another use for that, when on the road, is an app called maps.me This is an open source community map project where hundreds of thousands of people around the world work collaborate to update this map. It’s a bit like Google Maps but is offline. The problem with Google Maps is that it is very difficult to download large areas. For example, when I was in Russia, I could only download the Moscow area. I needed a map that would show the whole of Russia so I could plot my journey as I was moving on long train journeys. Of course, there was no internet or no mobile signal once I left the main urban areas. Maps.me just needs a GPS signal and tracks where you are.
Also really helpful is that it allows you to plot a route which from A to B, say, for example, from my hostel to somewhere I wanted to visit. Google Maps needs a signal to do this but maps.me does this offline. This saves quite a lot on internet and mobile phone costs. However, if I’m in a city with a reasonable phone signal then Google Maps is better. As much as I try to boycott the multinationals and corporate oligarchs in favour of independent or opensource providers, sometimes it’s not possible. Other times, I’m just a plain hypocrite and do what is easiest.
I mentioned Google Trips before and said that is not very useful for planning itineraries as it’s still pretty basic. However, it is very good when a signal, either 3/4G or WiFi, is available. It provides information about where you are. It gives info on all the interesting sites and all the popular tourist areas in the city. It also suggests half-day and full-day walking tours of the best attractions.
Another app similar to Google trips is Triposo, another content location app. this is based on Wikipedia and Wiki travels and, again, is linked to maps.me and open source maps. They have a vast amount of information on nearly every spot on Earth. They also provide information about tours and community-based tourist initiatives.
Finally, where would we be without an app to show foreign exchange rates. I use an app called XE and it has up-to-date information on every currency in the world and it’s very easy to use and is well thought out.
Of course at every between here and, well, my front door knows, GOOASS stands for Getting Out Of A Sticky Spot.
The joint first place winners are Google Translate and Revolut
That’s it, possums. More in a few days on the World Nomad games and The Silk Road. (see video clip below for a brief introduction to the World Nomad Games).
As always, please feel free to comment.