How to Decide to Cycle from Kazakhstan to Turkey

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positively chill

Before I moved away from Kazakhstan, I wanted to travel in Central Asia and the easiest way to do it seemed to be by bicycle. My reasoning was threefold.

1 – There are buses, trains, and planes in the region but the costs add up and navigating transit systems was difficult enough within the city I was already living in. Bicycle travel is essentially free and gave me the most control over my movements.

2- Kazakhstan felt very safe to me. When one of my Kazakh co-workers spent a semester studying in the States, I asked her what she found especially strange about living there and she said, “There are so many weirdos! Especially on the bus. You would never see that in Kazakhstan.” In my experience, this is true. The weirdest thing that ever happened to me on the bus was when a woman handed her baby to my friend without saying a word so that she could go through her purse to get change for her ticket. She wasn’t worried for a second about a complete stranger minding her child. Ask anyone in a western country what the weirdest thing they’ve seen on the bus is and the answer will always involve bodily fluids.

Buses aside, I only heard of three petty crime instances while living in KZ, which includes how my friend stole over 15 mugs from the university canteen. And though I experienced a great deal of sexism (but where in the world does this not happen, am I right?), I experienced as much catcalling/the-general-street-harassment-one-deals-with-as-a-woman in 10 months in Astana as I do in 10 days in Vancouver. I can’t even go for a run in a sports bra in this city without hearing a some dude yell out his opinion about it.    

My rudimentary thought is that Kazakh culture is more family/community-minded, as opposed to western individualism. Maybe the consequences of out of norm actions are felt more deeply. But I almost never feel more like an oblivious foreigner than when I speculate too much on this topic.

Because of my inability to articulate my “safe feelings,” it sure came across as blind ignorance. We’re all scared of the unknown and this is not a trip I would’ve done by myself had I not already been living in and familiar with the region. So I told all my friends to shut it (and expressed my appreciation for their concern, of course).

3 – I had travelled by bicycle twice before and know that all you really need is a positive chill attitude. Even though I knew nothing about bikes except how to change a flat, I knew that I love bike trips and this was enough. Shit’s gonna go wrong even if you do have a lot of bicycle knowledge.

To go on a bike trip, you just have to want to do it. You will hate your life at times. And wonder why you ever decided to make yourself so uncomfortable. But it forces you to be entirely present. There’s a passage about a bike trip in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins that sums it up nicely.

And the countryside was something much more than just a setting: they were conquering it bit by bit, by main force. In the weariness of the climbs, in the joy of the descents, they became part of it, lived it rather than looked at it as scenery.

I guess there was also a fourth reason. I was working as a librarian at a university and the academic year ended in May. I could not imagine the boredom of working at a university library during the summer, at a university that did not really offer summer classes. But I was meeting friends in Europe in August so this seemed like a good way to kill two months.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

How to Plan a Cycling Trip Across Central Asia and the Caucasus Part II

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Bicycles, chips, watermelon, dirty roadside stores, and ice cream: what it’s all about.

This is an updated guide, essentially, for those who are curious or looking for information on doing a similar trip. I find it so helpful with any project to know what the plan was, what changes were made, and the end result. I’ve highlighted the big changes and here is also Part I for comparison’s sake.

Route

This was my original route. Over 3000k of cycling. Days not written in on this list mean I took the day off.

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  • June 2 Almaty to nowhere – 115k
  • June 3 Bishkek – 115k
  • June 4 Merke – 119k
  • June 5 Akyrtobe – 90k
  • June 6 Taraz – 66k
  • June 7 Tyrar Ryskulov – 103k
  • June 8 Shimkent – 73k
  • June 9 Tashkent 137k
  • June 12 Chimgan –
  • June 15 Tashkent –
  • June 16 Gulistan – 114k
  • June 17 Jizzakh – 127k
  • June 18 Samarkand – 110k
  • June 20 Kattaburgan – 78k
  • June 21 Navoy – 98k
  • June 22 Bukhara – 122k
  • June 24 Solakaural – 86k
  • June 25 Turkmenabat – 70k
  • June 30 Baku (via trains and cargo ship, since transit visas don’t allow for cyclists to cycle all the way across Turkmenistan)
  • June 30-3 Lagodekhi – 428k
  • July 3 Signaghi – 47k
  • July 5 Tbilisi – 87k
  • July 7-9 Kars 303k
  • July 10 Goreme (via overnight bus from Kars)
  • July 12-14 Ankara – 303k
  • July 15-18 Istanbul – 454k

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Cappadocia

This is the route I ended up taking, mileage per day, and reasons for changes. Just shy of 2000k total.

  • June 2 Almaty to nowhere – 130k
  • June 3 Bishkek – 101k
  • June 4 Nowhere – 110k
  • June 5 Jambyl – 132k
  • June 6 Zhabagly – 141k

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I don’t burn easily, especially if I’m careful with sunscreen. But I got an insane heat rash the first five days. There was no shade except for the marshutka (small bus) stops. And sometimes I was so desperate, I used the tiny amount of shade I could find by leaning on a dumpster. When I slept at night, my body was like an oven, radiating heat. By the time I arrived at Zhabagly, I was exhausted to a point of delusion in which I felt like some sort of beautiful amazing alien. Endorphin highs combined with mild heat stroke is a weird trip. Needless to say, it was time to take a few days off. It was during this time I also realised I wasn’t going to receive my Azerbaijan visa in time to apply for my Turkmenistan transit visa and I made the decision that I would fly from Tashkent to Baku and skip Turkmenistan altogether.

  • June 9 Shimkent – 95k
  • June 10 Tashkent – 103k
  • June 13 Baht – 93k
  • June 14 Jizzakh – 115k
  • June 15 Samarkand – 101k

Almost everyone I know who’s been to Uzbekistan has gotten food poisoning, myself included. I just thank my lucky stars it occurred when I had a hotel room to myself in Samarkand. So I stayed three extra days and took the train with my bike to Bukhara, instead of cycling the 300k.

  • June 20 train to Bukhara – 15k (managed to cycle to the train station)
  • June 23 train to Tashkent
  • June 25 flight to Baku

See Zhabagly paragraph for why I flew.

  • June 27 Qobustan – 90k
  • June 28 Gebele – 129k
  • June 29 Sheki – 86k
  • June 30 Lagodekhi – 116k
  • July 1 Signaghi 47k
  • July 3 Tbilisi – 103k
  • July 5 Gori – 83k
  • July 6 Nowhere – 70k
  • July 7 hitched to Kutaisi

I met a Russian cyclist, at this point, and he didn’t feel comfortable cycling in the rain. I would’ve gone on cycling, had we not met but perhaps it was for the best as Georgia is full of hairpin curves and doing them on dry pavement would’ve been difficult enough.

  • July 8 cycled to a church, back to Kutaisi then on our way a bit before hitching to Batumi – 65k
  • July 11 Hopa – 31k

Meant to take a bus from Batumi straight to Cappadocia but was totally abandoned at the border by the driver.

  • July 13 cycling around Cappadocia – 25k
  • July 15 Istanbul via bus

Visas

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The photograph was their idea, I swear

Getting my Uzbek visa in Almaty, Kazakhstan was straightforward and only took a few hours.

In retrospect, I would’ve applied for my Azerbaijan visa myself. That’s what another cyclist I met did and he said it went off without a hitch and he received it within 3 weeks. Whereas, I applied for it through the Visa Machine who did an absolute cock up of a job and it took 10 weeks and meant I wasn’t able to go through Turkmenistan. Because to get a transit visa to Turkmenistan, you must have the visas for the countries you’re going to before and after, before you apply. By the time I realised this was a no-go, I was so exhausted from food poisoning and heat rash that I was really relieved to be skipping three days of travel by train and one day by sketchy cargo boat. The plane ticket from Tashkent to Baku also didn’t cost me that much more than travel in Turkmenistan and it meant that my schedule was more flexible, especially since the cargo ship from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan leaves when it pleases and I would’ve had to wait anywhere from a few hours to a week to catch it.

I totally effed up in Turkey and thought my visa was good for 180 days but it was only good for 90, which I didn’t realise until I was at the border. And it was a gong show of going through the border to Turkey to an ATM to get cash out, then back to Georgia to pay for the visa, then back through to Turkey. Waiting for an hour and a half to see if my bus was coming out and then accepting that it had abandoned me there and cycling to the nearest town to catch the next bus. Lesson learned: apply in advance or have enough cash in hand for this one.

Places I Stayed

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Everyone’s favourite photograph

  • June 1 Almaty – Couchsurfing
  • June 2 Middle of nowhere – Camped
  • June 3 Bishkek – AirBnB through my friend Zbig (so no link, sorry!)
  • June 4 Middle of nowhere – Camped
  • June 5 Jambyl – Big pink building with a store, restaurant, and a hotel that wasn’t even ready yet. It probably did not have a name but I managed to get a room. There was another hotel (mentioned on this blog) about 15k further.
  • June 6 Zhabagly – Couchsurfing with this woman. She didn’t officially accept my request online so you can’t see that I stayed with her on my profile but she posts a link on her own website so I don’t feel weird about putting it here too. I can’t recommend going to Zhabagly and staying with Svetlana enough! One of the best times I had on the trip.
  • June 9 Shimkent – CouchSurfing
  • June 10 Tashkent – Topchan Hostel
  • June 13 Baht – Camped
  • June 14 Jizzakh –  It was a real pain in the ass to get a hotel in this town. The first one was ridiculously expensive. The second didn’t have a license for foreigners (this is a thing in UZ, but only an issue in small towns). And luckily a local helped me find a third one that wasn’t too much money, with a license. The name may be buried somewhere in my notes – I’ll update this if I find it!
  • June 15 Samarkand – B&B Bahodir. Breakfast was good, especially the kasha (porridge) but I would go elsewhere for dinner (they were just okay). Really lovely courtyard to hang out in during the days when it’s hot!
  • June 20 Bukhara – Rustam and Zukhra. The dinners here were good, though strangely the breakfasts were awful and always included some sort of plain cooked pasta and a hotdog. I think you could find somewhere nicer to stay for not much more money. A friend recommended the Amelia Hotel.

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  • June 23 Tashkent – Topchan Hostel
  • June 25 Baku – Couchsurfing
  • June 27 Qobustan – Invitation to stay with a local
  • June 28 Gebele – Local somehow found me a free hotel room
  • June 29 Sheki – Sheki Caravanserai

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  • June 30 Lagodekhi – Kiwi Guest House. One of the best dinners I had and the owner will get you a litre of home made wine for something like $2.
  • July 1 Signaghi – Nana’s Guest House. Nana and the owner of Kiwi are friends. Totally loved both of these places!
  • July 3 Tbilisi – Warmshowers
  • July 5 Gori – Nitsa Guest House
  • July 6 Middle of nowhere – my Russian cyclist pal managed to procure an invitation to stay with a local.

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  • July 7 Kutaisi – random hotel I won’t even bother naming because though I love Georgia, this town was a shit hole.
  • July 8 Batumi – tent on the beach. Would not recommend since we were woken up by a police officer telling us to get a move on around 7am.
  • July 9-11 CouchSurfing in Batumi
  • July 11 Overnight bus
  • July 12-15 Avanos, Cappadocia – Warm Showers
  • July 15 Istanbul – Stayed with a friend

About CouchSurfing and Warm Showers, if you’d find it helpful to know whom I specifically stayed with (because that kind of thing is very helpful!), you can check out my references on CS (none for Shimkent, wasn’t super crazy about my host there) and profile on Warm Showers. Also, can I just say that Warm Showers is the worst name ever? I first learned about it from a fellow cyclist I met in Uzbekistan and probably wouldn’t have used it if it hadn’t been vouched for by someone in real life. Warm Showers is CouchSurfing, specifically for cyclists, and very helpful because then your hosts will know such things as where the nearest/best bike shops are in the city, they’ll know that laundry is extra paramount, and they’ll be understanding that you will only have an estimation and not an exact time of arrival.

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I really gave this wild camping thing my best go but honestly, I couldn’t get comfortable with it. I could do it if I was out for a hike in the middle of a mountain or the woods. But trying to find a spot to pitch a tent off the side of the road is fucking scary and tiring and I felt like I never slept any time I did it. That being said, I’m really glad I did it, if only because I feel like much less of a baby. Currently, I’m house sitting a very large house and in the past, I would’ve been freaked out to be in such a large space on my own at night.

As for being invited into people’s homes, other cyclists constantly talked up that when they simply asked locals about where to stay, they were immediately invited to spend the night. But this only happened to me once! I don’t know if it was because I was a young woman alone or what but locals always tried to direct me to the nearest hotel and seemed really concerned about my safety to the point that they didn’t even like the idea of me sleeping in a tent at night. I will say that the one time I was invited to spend the night, nothing bad happened and I was never fearful of my physical safety but it was super awkward and sad and like some sort of dystopian Eat Pray Love as written by Alice Munro or Miranda July.

A tip for staying in hotels. Use booking.com only to find hotels. The site charges a few bucks extra that you can avoid by contacting the owner directly.

Bike Repairs and Dealing With Mansplainers

I gotta give it to men in Central Asia that they always want to help a lady out. To the point that they will insist on helping even when it’s unnecessary or they don’t know what they’re doing, which is almost always the case with a bike repair because cycling isn’t very popular in Central Asia. A man who insisted on pumping my tire for me broke off the valve, rendering the tube useless, when I had no more left. Another insisted on putting my wheel back on for me and screwed it on so tight that my dainty lady wrists couldn’t get it off again and I had to ask another man to unscrew it for me (the horrific irony!). My back wheel was essentially ruined by the countless dudes WHO ACTUALLY WORKED AT BIKE SHOPS taking the cassette apart and putting it back together incorrectly (and I didn’t have the tools to do it myself). And much more.

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Namaste, get out of my way!

Halfway through the trip, any time a man offered to help, and an offer for help was rarely verbal, it was almost always an extension of their hands all over my bike, I firmly told them no and moved my bike away. It’s not worth a show of politeness to have something broken on your mode of transportation when you’re in the middle of nowhere. If you need help, you can ask for it and people will always be there and happy to give you a hand. But closely watch any work that’s done. Often, in bike shops, I was banished to wait outside or in the car and had to walk through their protests to supervise staff. And check over the work that’s done before leaving. I made the mistake of not doing this after a repair in Tbilisi and spent the next few days cycling with a misaligned rear wheel.

Kudos to good intentions and there were lots of times where I accepted help and men really did get me out of a pickle. But dudes, when a lady says she knows what she’s doing, it’s best to leave her be.

Luggage/Gear

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What I planned to bring in normal text. What I actually brought in bold. And what I would bring if I were to do it again in italics.

  • Extra chain
  • Spokes/Fiber Fix
  • Gear and brake cables
  • 3 tubes I would bring even more next time. They didn’t sell my size anywhere in Uzbekistan.
  • Travel pump I bought a better pump halfway through the trip. It was dumb to skimp on this at first.
  • Bungee cords
  • Distance tracker
  • Casette Remover Lockring
  • Multi-tool including chain breaker and spoke wrench
  • Patch kit I would bring like 3 next time, though.
  • Zip ties
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench It would’ve been silly to cart this around the whole way had I not ended up flying from UZ to AZ, because I could’ve just bought one in Istanbul once I arrived.
  • Water filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stove
  • Bowls that could be used as pots/mug/spoon/fork
  • Water bottles/water bladder Never used it once since I always had to buy bottled water.
  • Swiss Army Knife Even though I lost it on my second day.
  • Balloons To blow up and pop to scare away wolves – which some other cyclists rightfully teased me about and I never ended up using.
  • iPhone
  • Camping mat
  • Solar charger
  • Baby wipes 
  • Sunscreen (one for face, four for body) I only ended up using two bottles.
  • Eye cream
  • Kobo
  • Razor
  • A dress and a skirt
  • Bathing suit
  • 1 bra
  • Underwear
  • 2 tank tops Only brought one.
  • Elephant/fisherman’s pants
  • Shorts Wish I’d brought two pairs of regular shorts instead of just one.
  • 2 pairs of bike shorts Got rid of both because they were both old pairs and my Brooks seat was good enough that the padding wasn’t necessary.
  • Cotton scarf that doubles as a towel
  • Big warm scarf that doubles as a pillow
  • Thick socks – If my feet are cold, I can’t sleep but it was NEVER cold.
  • Lush shampoo bar It totally disintegrated in the heat. A bar of soap would’ve sufficed.
  • Clarisonic and face wash. I rightly realised this was as dumb an idea as it sounded. But this is the girl who carted a hair dryer up the biggest climb across Canada.
  • Makeup (eyebrow pencil, mascara, blush, concealer– This whole trip really changed my attitude towards makeup but that’s a story for another time.
  • 20 chapsticks (jk, kind of)
  • Travel pouch I never once worried about theft and I almost ruined my passport with back sweat.
  • Decoy phone and wallet 
  • Bug Spray
  • Ibuprofen, bandaids, antiseptic, cough drops, vitamin C, immodium (maybe the most important thing of all?)

On the second day, I abandoned a bowl, a large scarf, and a pair of cycling shorts. And I would’ve felt absolutely ridiculous if I’d brought my Clarisonic with me. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have bothered bringing a stove. Even when I camped, I only used it to make coffee and oatmeal in the morning, which was nice but not essential. I also wouldn’t have bothered bringing a tent or a sleeping bag, since the only time I truly seemed in the middle of nowhere with no alternative was the first night. It was nice to know the option was there if I got stuck but I’m not sure it was worth all that extra weight. At least I got some killer quads out of it, even if they are now being crushed under the weight of many Tim Tams.

Though I could’ve done the trip without so many items I brought, who was to know at the time!

I must say that the Fiber-Fix spoke was a bit of a pain to use but was a much better alternative to bringing along cassette removal tools (I’m glad I made sure I had the cassette removal lock ring).

Food/Water

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I was always fine with carrying only 2 days worth of food at one time. I most often ate bread, cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Every time I stopped I made sure I had at least 4 litres of water before taking off. I drank an average of 8 litres a day, which sometimes wasn’t even enough. Some days I really had to be proactive about purchasing water whenever I saw a store. But it was easy to anticipate when stores would be scarce. I never had to use my water filter and I only had to veer off course once in Azerbaijan to restock on water (that was a rough afternoon).

Sometimes people would pull over to offer me cold water, which was so lovely. I always felt if I became desperate I could wave someone down for water, though it never came to this.

Top Useful Things

Bungee cords. My bike and I had to travel in so many cars and these were so helpful for packing it properly in the trunk. And of course, I used them every day for packing everything on my rat trap. Also helpful for when I had to cart my bike box around airports.

Camping mat. Essential for essential mid-afternoon naps. Good for any rest break, which 90% of the time took place on the ground.

Cotton scarf. So multifunctional! It’s a pillow/shade from sun/shield from dust/source of warmth/towel/cover for religious sites/etc.

Trains and Planes and Buses

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Surprisingly taking my bike on buses in Turkey was the biggest headache. Maybe because I don’t speak any Turkish and I at least spoke basic Russian. Trains were no issue and the plane was fine too. Uzbekistan Airways only charged me an excess baggage fee based on the weight so I paid $37 USD.

Safety

Even I was surprised that I was never fearful of my safety during the trip. There were lots of times I was scared, such as camping alone. But I never actually thought I would come to any physical harm. Central Asia and the Caucasus are very safe and though there were a shit ton of awkward dude moments, that’s as far as it went.

‘Tudes

The biggest shock on this trip were the attitudes of other travellers and cyclists I encountered. While many were as open-minded and encouraging as I had expected, I found a lot of people were stuck in basing everything on their own experience and any time I did something different from them, they came across as admonishing. I couldn’t have done this trip five years earlier or when I was younger because I think I would’ve been too unsure of myself. If you do this kind of trip, be open to others and flexible in your ideas while also remaining confident that you know what’s best for yourself.

If I Were to Do It Over 

I would have:

  • taken less items, as shown in the above list.
  • not bothered trying to camp at all. And with a few exceptions, from now on, when I travel by bicycle, especially if I’m alone, I’m not going to camp or even bring the gear. It’s so much extra weight and effort when you’re already really pushing yourself. I wasn’t even that keen on the camp/bike thing when I travelled with my then boyfriend from Vancouver to San Francisco. But I’d be up for it if I did something like cycle from Melbourne to Canberra with pals.
  • stood up for myself even more with pushy dudes.
  • learned how to say “I’m full” or “I’m not hungry” in Russian. As it was, I’m very glad I had a basic handle on the knowledge. It helped me feel much more in control – a totally stark contrast to arriving in rural Turkey and only knowing a handful of words.

 

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement! There are a lot of doubters out there, especially when it comes to a woman taking a journey alone, and it meant a whole lot. There’s much more I have to say about my trip and I will at some point! Look for my book Eat Cry Diarrhea in stores some time next year.

How to Go to Turkey

As aforementioned, Istanbul is one of the easiest places to get to from Astana. You can get a direct flight (Air Astana or Turkish Airlines), that is not too long (5 hours), and relatively inexpensive ($400-600). And it is an absolutely wonderful city, so that’s all the reason you need to go!

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Morning

When my BSGF (best straight guy friend) told me he was going to Istanbul for a wedding the same week as my birthday, I put it in my calendar right away. I did my library practicum in Istanbul in 2009 and while I could quickly tell it was a city I wouldn’t like to live and work in, as a librarian (a post for another time), I very much liked it as a place to visit.

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Addition to my tiny bowl lifestyle

Some lasting impressions from the first time around:

  • The food!
  • Beautiful views
  • Ferry rides
  • Figs and almonds
  • Being constantly stared at (not always in a lustful way, but in a – you are so tall and so blonde – way)
  • Friendly folks
  • Turkish delight! And being offered a sampling in a strange man’s apartment (too friendly)
  • Being stalked from KFC in a mall all the way to Taksim Square (way too friendly)
  • Bambi Doner
  • An intense May 1 demonstration
  • Smoking because I felt awkward about having so much alone time and having a waiter tell me, “Please, don’t smoke. I think you only started a week or two ago, because I look at you, and I can see that smoking is not your life. So don’t smoke.”
  • Being informed by my flatmate a week after arriving that I wasn’t actually supposed to put toilet paper in the toilet

All good impressions held up and all of the weird things were just as specific, though different, from the first time around.

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Another morning

And now here is some informative content derived from both visits:

Airports

There are two airports, Ataturk on the European side and Sabiha on the Asian side. The sides are split by the mighty Bosphorus Strait. Prior to moving to Astana, I’d only been to Asia by technicality of crossing the Bos’.

Ataturk, on the European side, is closer to where you’re likely to stay. This site has a guide on airport travel options and current taxi prices.

Where to Stay

I’ve only ever stayed in Cihangir and I really like that area. It’s close to major centres/sites without being too touristy. AirBnB places are so cheap! The two places we stayed at were great (especially the second one).

Where to Eat

Basically, anywhere. But some specific places that are good in Cihangir include: Hayat (for fish), Kasabim (for steak), Miss Pizza (for, you know), Kahve 6 (for breakfast), and Smyrna (for drinks).

What to Eat

  • All things street-side meat
  • Bread with kaymak (clotted cream) and honey
  • Pide (pizza-type flatbread thing)
  • Kumpir (stuffed potatoes)
  • Turkish breakfast (bread, cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, honey, jam, etc.)
  • Menemen (scrambled egg dish)
  • Kofte (meatball-esque)
  • Baklava
  • Turkish delight (lokum)
  • Turkish tea and Turkish coffee
  • Ayran (like kefir but better)
  • Iskender kebap (I haven’t tried this but definitely will next time: kebap with tomato sauce and hot foamy butter)

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And get that fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice with your doners

What to Do

  • Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

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  • Basilica Cistern (for all the James Bond fans)
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Sultan Ahmed Mosque
  • Walk along the Galata Bridge

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Blue gingham not mandatory

  • Eat a lot
  • Sit outside and chill
  • Take a ferry ride to the Asian side and order some tea

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    This would’ve gotten so many likes had Instagram existed in 2009

Where to Go Outside of Istanbul

Overnight Trip (Izmir/Ephesos)

This was my first time venturing outside the big city and we took a round trip flight to Izmir to go to the ancient city of Ephesos (Ephesos like Efes like the beer).

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The prettiest graveyard

We booked directly through Pegasus and our flights were just shy of $100 each. You can get them for as low as $50 if you book well in advance. It’s only an hour long flight – just keep in mind that most of the flights to Izmir go out of the Istanbul airport that is on the Asian side (ie. further away). You can filter flights that only arrive at the major, generally closer airport, Ataturk. AtlasJet and OnurAir are two others to check out.

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The library

Once in Izmir you can take a train, bus, or rent a car, which we did through this site that searches all car rental sites at once (like Summon searches on a library website!). We stayed at a small hotel in Selcuk (totally loved it), close to the site and went early the next morning after arriving.

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Dusty, the stoic hotel dog

Longer Trips

Turquoise Coast

If I had more time, I would’ve extended my Izmir trip further south to hit up the Turquoise Coast. Beaches and mountains forever. And the Lycian Way.

Cappadocia

You may recognize Capadoccia as the land of hot air balloons and phallic-esque land formations. Totally sold now, right? I’ll be going there this July. Between the expense of going up in a hot air balloon, believing the best view to be of the balloons from the ground, and having a moderate fear of flying, I’ll be sitting that excursion out. If you’re keen, apparently Royal Hot Air Balloon is the place to use. And I will most definitely be staying in this cave, despite my claustrophobia. If this region had some association with needles, it would be a perfect triumvirate of all my fears.

 

And that summarizes the very small portion of Turkey that I know. Happy travels!

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“For woman, that is not baggage. Impressive.”

– Kazakh flight attendant

 

How to Go to a Conference

As a librarian, you should go to a conference every year or so. It’s like spending Easter with your family. You may not totally get the point or really want to go and it’s okay to skip it every once in a while. But you get to eat a lot, take a break from your regular work, and in the end, you’re generally left feeling like you’re glad you went. It’s just plain good to do.

How to choose a conference

If it’s your first time going to a conference, it’s practical to start with the standard conference in your region (ie. the British Columbia Library Association conference, if you’re in British Columbia), or a conference that’s subject-specific to your library (ie. the Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference, if you work at a law library). Conferences can be really hit-or-miss and picking one that’s well-established will show you what a good conference should look like.

Ask your co-workers which conferences they’ve attended. If your organization has sent staff to a conference previously, they’ll be more likely to send you to that same conference.

Think beyond libraries, as well. If you’re a law librarian, go to something like the Law via the Internet conference, or go to the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries no matter what your subject area is (I haven’t been to either of these!). A quick Google search will show you a slice of what’s out there.

How to pitch your workplace

Ask your boss in-person. If it’s the standard conference in your region or subject-area then it’s a no brainer and you won’t have to create much of a case for going.

Otherwise, before asking, look through the conference programme (if the programme’s not out yet, it’s too early to ask!). Pick out a few sessions that look highly relevant to your work and become familiar with the conference theme. I really wanted to go to a law conference in Australia a few years ago but looking through the sessions, I realized it didn’t have enough of value to justify going.

If you’ve never been to a conference before, that’s all the more reason to go! It’s an important part of professional development that any decent workplace will want to support.

Once your workplace has sent you on a conference, wait until your co-workers have had the opportunity to go before you ask again.

If you’re a student

Registration fees are generally cheaper and funding is often available specifically for students. Ask your program coordinator, check out the conference site, or talk with the affiliated association to find out more.

Like any travel, an out-of-town conference ends up costing quite a bit. Unless you already want to travel to a specific region, I would stick with local conferences, as a student.

If your workplace asks you to go to a conference

Just as anytime your boss asks you to do something – you’d have to have a really good reason to say “no.”

How to get funding

Your workplace may not be able to commit to an exact funding amount right away, but they should be able to give you a general idea. And definitely be clear about who’s paying for what before you go.

Often, you’ll have to front money yourself and then be reimbursed. Keep receipts for absolutely everything! And while it’s expected that you’ll socially drink, don’t submit a receipt for dinner with five drinks on it. Common sense!

If you’re in Kazakhstan, KEEP EVERY SCRAP OF PAPER. Even if it doesn’t seem important, it probably is. Seriously, tossing a boarding pass stub might mean a $2000 mistake.

Check around for external funding. For example, one year, I was fortunate enough to receive the Peter Bark Bursary, through the Vancouver Association of Law Libraries, to help go to CALL

How to choose sessions

Most of the research that librarians do is along the lines of, “We interviewed 5 people and here are all the vague and polite things they had to say on this topic,” which is why I was never interested in pursuing a PhD in this field. This feels like a horrible thing to say but please prove me wrong and send me some actually interesting library research.

I think librarianship is a very practical profession and for that reason, I like attending the super practical sessions best. For example, a former classmate of mine did a really great session: Enhancing Library Services with User Behaviour Data. And when I went to the CALL conference, a librarian discussed how to find translations of Quebec court cases, which I then turned into a post for my organization’s site because it was so helpful for our day-to-day work!

Don’t feel obligated to attend a session every hour of the day. I would say attend at least half a day’s worth of sessions/events and attend all the keynote sessions. It’s expected that you’ll take some time to yourself, especially if you get to travel to a different city.

Remember to take notes during sessions! It’s expected that you’ll report back on the conference either in the form of an intranet post, a presentation for your co-workers, an article for your organization’s website, etc.

How to network/make a good impression

Don’t think of it like networking. There will be a lot of social events and all you have to do is attend a good number of them. You’re not expected to go if any of the events charge extra fees. Most will be free and will offer food, which is a good incentive.

The most important thing is to know your workplace before you go. People will ask you questions out of curiousity and I’ll never forget how embarrassed I felt when another librarian asked if our libraries had print copies of British legislation and I stammered that I knew we had “the old stuff” but wasn’t so sure how current it was.

Make sure you check out the vendor booths, if only to say hi. Even if there’s no way your workplace will ever subscribe to that product – it’s good to know what’s out there and it’s also polite – both because many vendors are also sponsors of the conference, and I imagine it’s probably boring to have to stand around a booth all day. They also often have free swag, so hit that up.

Be aware of who is sponsoring the conference. Once, someone I had just met asked how I liked the lunch that day and I cracked a joke about the food. I was surprised when the friend I was with, who is normally so wry, was so polite! And then I realized that the woman who asked was part of the organization that had sponsored the lunch. Sigh.

I am actually very shy in professional situations and it was a bit hard for me to warm up during the first conference I attended (another argument for attending a local conference, either some of your co-workers or librarian friends will be there). Inadvertently, my biggest advantage was being really tall and then wearing a pair of loud heels that everyone liked. Though it sounds akin to the advice given out by a dating coach, they were the perfect icebreaker!

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I did not wear these rainboots during the conference in Malaysia.

How to Keep Your Apartment Organized

A librarian friend of mine asked if I would write about how I keep my apartment so clean. I suppose it is library-related because it’s about how I keep my house organized, and librarians are pretty keen on organization. Even if it doesn’t always show in their home.

Let’s break down the two elements to apartment organization.

Weeding

Enjoy getting rid of things. I come from a family of borderline hoarders. They’re not TLC material, but they have over ten cats and way too many things. My childhood was a scared-straight program for stuff and now I have an ingrained weeding habit in me.

Buy things you will only really use. Sometimes I’ll go on a spree and buy four $10 sweaters from Joe Fresh that crowd up my closet but this mantra generally helps. The only real downside of this is it also helps me justify spending more money on single items, saying to myself, “It’ll last longer!” but that’s a separate issue.

Move a lot. I don’t necessarily recommend this but it is very effective. At the very least, periodically go through sections of your house and then never acquire more than the current amount you have. If I buy four sweaters I might use that as an opportunity to go through the clothes I have and put some aside to donate or take to a clothing swap.

Own less than 30 books. Honestly, even as a librarian, I don’t understand the point of owning tons of books. How many of those are you ever going to read or refer to again? The books on my shelf are either very expensive or belong to the Little House on the Prairie series, which I reread annually.

Sometimes my ruthless culling bites me in the ass because I’ve gotten rid of important things. Like if I ever wanted to claim warranty on something, I’d be hooped. However, nothing so traumatizing has ever happened to disturb this habit.

Cleaning

Now cleaning is so much easier when you have less stuff! I have two ways I keep my apartment clean. Every weekend, I:

  • Take out the garbage (if it hasn’t been recently)
  • Sweep the entire house
  • Clean the bathroom counter
  • Clean the kitchen counters and scrub down the sink
  • Vacuum my living room rug
  • Put away any clutter (but you will have hardly any since you just weeded all of your possessions, right?)

This whole ritual takes about 30-40 minutes. That’s nothing! And you wouldn’t believe how amazing your place will look after just doing these simple things. It’s the same routine I do when I realize someone is coming over, except for my closest pals. You know you’re best friend material if you come over and my rug is dirty.

And every single day I:

  • Make my bed before I go to work
  • Make sure there are no dirty dishes before I go to bed

These cleaning rituals have been entirely worth the extra effort. When I look around my house, I think to myself, “I’m a grown-up ladyyyyyyy!” Actually, because I live alone, I spin around with my arms up and sing it out loud.

Now, I am fortunate that I’ve lived alone for many years now, with the exception of a time when I lived with a very clean and minimalist boyfriend. And the summer I lived with my best pal in a house overrun by mice but we don’t need to talk about that. I’m not sure what advice I can give to you ladies (or men) who live with partners that won’t get rid of boxes when they purchase stuff or have an excessive amount of DVDs.

Finally, perhaps it’s a just weird superstition that’s developed from my obsession with feng shui when I was 12, but please don’t keep things under your bed. It seems wrong.

I suppose I should actually show a photo of my apartment (I have since acquired a rug):

apartment

If all else fails, you can tell Mitzi all about your cleaning woes:

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What Do Librarians Do?

Someone asked me the other week what librarians actually do. I dread this question because I’ve never been able to come up with a concise, articulate response. Here is my attempt at doing so, from the perspective of a public law librarian who moonlights as an academic reference librarian.

Librarians make people’s lives easier:

  • We know the types of resources we should look in for each type of information (ie. Look for books when looking for broad information or an overview of a topic).
  • We take complex information and communicate it in an understandable way (ie. Someone may want to know the reason a certain act/statute was created. A law librarian is able to explain that you can find what is referred to as “legislative intent” by looking at the Debates of Parliament. And then we’d show you where to find the Debates online and how to search them because it is tricky!).
  • Most people don’t know how to ask questions. We know the kinds of questions to ask to help people figure out what they’re really looking for (ie. “I’m trying to find the law about child support,” when what they’re really looking for is information on the procedure of how to vary a child support order.)
  • We know how to pick out search terms from a person’s question. And the type of language used in research databases and specialized areas (ie. Someone might say, “I want journal articles about how the behaviour of children is affected by physically abusive parents,” and we would pick out key phrases to use in a database like: “family violence” “behavioural problems”).
  • We can tell what a reliable source is.
  • We are really nice! And that’s important because sometimes it’s scary to ask for help or information.

When I tell people I’m a librarian, I occasionally get a response of, “How does it feel to be in a dying profession?” But libraries aren’t about books, they’re about information and librarians help people navigate through that information. This then leads into the Google argument, “Everything’s online now through Google so we don’t need anyone to help us search,” but that is so wrong!

  • A lot of things aren’t online. And even when they are….
  • It can be difficult even to find free information online. For example, someone wants to know, when a strata council vote requires a majority of ¾ and there are 15 votes, is it 11 or 12 votes that makes a majority. Doing a Google search using the keywords “strata” “votes” “bc” “majority” does not pull up the freely available online resource that explains the answer.
  • Many databases function on paid subscription and are only available within libraries, or large companies that are able to pay for them.
  • Many databases are difficult to search. At my workplace there is one database, which will remain nameless, that contains a resource that is so incredibly useful and I use it multiple times a week. However, the online version is impossible to use. Even if I enter in the exact name of the section I’m looking for, it ends up being the 24th result.
  • Again, most people don’t know how to ask questions. If they don’t know how to ask for what they’re looking for, they certainly aren’t going to know how to search any kind of resource for that information.

That wasn’t very concise. I think I’m just back at square one. If anyone has any good ideas, please tell me so I can steal them.

Also, I started fostering cats. Here is my current kitty, Mitzi!

Mitzi

Should I Go to School to be a Librarian?

I decided to go to library school because the best job I could get with an undergraduate degree in Classics was at a beer & wine store. It was pretty good, as far as retail/service jobs go, but I have terrible teeth and needed a future secured with dental benefits.

There was no way I was going to get a Masters in Classics, nor did I desire to spend my life in academia, but I still liked feeling a little bit academic (i.e. pretentious). By the great power of fate, the idea of an MLIS fell into my lap. I’m not even sure how I found out that there is a Masters of Library and Information Studies degree. I probably Googled, “grad school no subject requirements”.

The idea of being a librarian also interested me because I like working with people and I had enjoyed my time working at a used bookstore, which I thought would be similar (HAHA). Before starting the program, I was mostly clueless about what librarians actually do. Luckily, I ended up loving library work!

Here are some signs that library school may be for you:

  • You are really good at internet stalking your ex or your boyfriend/girlfriend’s exes.
  • You like doing lots of different tasks – all at once!
  • You have worked in customer service and enjoy all of the world’s highly colourful characters. Bonus points if you have experience working with people who have behavioural problems. My experiences with beer & wine store customers unexpectedly became very useful for reference work.
  • You pick up new subjects and new technology quickly.
  • You are good at writing and teaching.
  • You have no designs on becoming rich through your own merit, but would like to be paid decently.
  • You like cats and are a regular reader of Buzzfeed Animals/Zooborns.
  • You like books/reading. Just don’t write this as the reason you want to go to library school on your application. I get to read a lot at work, but I am usually skimming through something like the Conduct of Civil Litigation in British Columbia, not exactly my usual Victorian Gothic fare.

Don’t go to library school if:

  • You’re a weirdo dude who is doing it just to meet ladies. We all see through your ruse!

Without getting into the nitty gritty of what the program and work consists of, I will add that the best thing about going to library school was becoming part of the ever-wonderful library community. Both my social circle and my job are made so much better by the lovely and helpful librarians I know!

Here are some similar posts by other people:

Advice to Future Librarians Entering Grad School

So You Want to Become a Librarian/Archivist

Once you are in library school, check out Tips for Library School Students.

No cats today because I discovered what a stoat is:

stoat

Cats

Librarians love cats. It is pretty much a requirement.

Some libraries even have cats!

Look how excited I was over cats at a young age. I was almost a librarian prodigy. We had so many cats growing up, I once woke up to a cat giving birth on me (not the cat pictured below).

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There is really not much more to say about this. Just that you should limit yourself to sharing only one cat story per day, or else you might scare people who are not librarians/animal hoarders.

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Humility

Librarians don’t know everything. But sometimes, we are so good at finding things, we get confused and believe ourselves to be the all-knowing wizards of the world. Not to worry, even the best librarians falter because most of us are working within subject areas we have no background in, or are working within a multidisciplinary library.

For example, I currently work at a law library and the bulk of my days are spent helping people find legal information. This confuses a lot of people because I do this without having a background in law. There was definitely a learning curve, but I’m able to do it because librarians are trained to know which resources are the best for which kinds of information and  we do inadvertently learn about the subjects we’re immersed in every day.

How this works:

A lawyer comes in and says: I’m looking for a precedent of a Pierringer Release.

I start typing and calmly say with a smile:  I’m just going to take a look in our online catalogue and see what I come up with.

If he were to actually look at my face, for a split second, he would see this:

url

But within that second, I have used Google and found the Wikipedia on Pierringer Releases and I realize all it is, is a settlement agreement, and I know the best method of finding this is to do a quick search of our catalogue to find a book that contains precedents (example forms) of settlement agreements, and I take him to that book in the stacks, and voila, we have found a precedent for a Pierringer Release.

Before I even get a chance to put in my order for a pointed hat with stars and moons, I have a situation like this one, in which I was helping a student research for their paper at my other job, where I am a virtual reference librarian for post-secondary schools.

Student: Hello, I’m having some trouble with my research on Staples Economy.

Me: Oh okay! So you’re trying to research Staples as in the store?

Student: No…

I quickly Google “Staples Economy” only to discover that it is a theory of Canadian economic development.

It is not so bad, though. These instances often put people at ease and lead into a bonding moment about the general difficulties involved in research, especially because many people feel uncertain or hesitant about asking for a librarian’s help. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, and the patron calls you a dumdum but that is just life.

Depending on the situation, you can score extra humble points by asking the patron to tell you a bit more about the subject they’re researching. Most are happy to do this and you generally have to ask your patron a bunch of questions anyways as part of your reference interview.

Librarians don’t know everything. We just know where everything is. And might have to Google before we can get from A to B.