It’s official

So…right after I posted yesterday’s article, I received word that a bunch of members of Orkestar Slivovica, of Vancouver, are heading to south Serbia at the same time as me, to study with Demiran Ceremovic.  They invited me along, so I guess it’s official!  The only thing is I have to figure out all my plans AGAIN, does this mean I will head straight to Vranje?  Go to Valjevo second week of the workshop (or potentially, not at all?)  I’m still waiting on more details but everything’s up in the air.

In the meantime, cleaning up “house”, shedding the truba, and blasting through the rest of midterms (weeks 5-10 of a 15-week semester.  I guess they really ARE mid-term) and trying to keep cool as LA transitions out of “June Gloom” to a more toasty summer season.



So….17 days until I leave LA for 17 days, to visit Serbia et al.  I’ll be flying into/out of Budapest because the flights were a lot cheaper.  Right now I’m a little stalled out on my trip- I am waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll have the opportunity to meet with famed trumpeter Demiran Ceremovic in Vranje.  I’ve half a mind to head down there anyway, it’s supposed to be beautiful, and so much of the best Serbian music comes from South Serbia anyway.
In the meantime I am researching other stuff I want to do.  I definitely am going to try to visit Studenica Monastery, and hopefully Stari Ras and Sopocani which are not very far from there.  At that point it really depends.  Go straight to Vranje via Niš?  Head through Kosovo and hit some more monasteries?  Head through Kosovo OR southeast Serbia, visit Skopje, then visit Vranje?  Skip that altogether, back to Belgrade, and maybe an extra couple days in Hungary?  It’s all up in the air and not usually the way I like to travel.  What I’ve been doing is collecting info on bus and train schedules so I can at least know my options and about how long they’ll take.

So in order to alleviate my indecision, I decided to work on an itinerary for a trip I’d like to take next summer, perhaps during my summer break at the end of August.  It’s inspired by a conversation I used to have with my former bandmates of Galata Ensemble, about how we were going to visit “roots”, and go to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.  I’ve caught up a smidgen with the guys (one of whom is Turkish and the other who is Azeri heritage, from Iran), since I spent a week in Turkey this past New Year’s.  It’s a start, at least.

So here goes!  Maybe this will help you plan a brief-ish budget trip to the Caucasus.

Need: 65,000 United miles, + $100ish for flights (potentially excepting Istanbul-Baku, Batumi or Sochi-Istanbul.  Have to do some research to see if I could make it happen with miles instead of cash.  Cash, probably $200 for this if bought ahead of time)

Land costs: I’m gonna estimate a very conservative $50/day.  Food is uber cheap, transport is uber cheap, hostels/hotels/homestays  more expensive.  Do your research here.  I’m hoping to stay with some friends of friends in major cities, and maybe couchsurf here and there to help with costs.  Better to have more money than less.

Visa costs

Azerbaijan: $160 (yikes!) BUTTTTT…according to the US Dept of Gov site, if you book accomodation through a licensed operator, it’s only $20.  BIG difference.  I will look into this for sure if I actually go!

Georgia: no visa needed, yay!  Just a valid passport for travel of up to 360 days in length

Armenia: Single entry visa at port of entry is about $8 currently.  It’s valid for 21 days.  You can purchase longer ones for a higher price.

Turkey (in case you spend any time there after flying to Istanbul, or at the end of your trip): $20 US at port of entry.  I did this in December, super straightforward @ Ataturk airport.


Caucasia segment:

Day 0: Fly to Istanbul, fly to Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan (2 days) Visit city bazaar (UNESCO), Gobustan outside the city (UNESCO- bubbling mud volcanoes!!!), Atesgah of Baku (old Zoroastrian fire temple).  Hobnob with corrupt oil magnates and chill by the Caspian.  Don’t mention you like Greg Palast.

-overnight train-

Sheki, Azerbaijan (2 days) Stay in old Caravanserai, which has been converted to a hotel.  Or try a local homestay.  Visit the Khan’s Palace and do some amazing hiking.  There’s apparently some “cold springs” nearby, waterfalls, etc.  More info, see here:

Travel to Georgia (1/2 to one day, I don’t press my luck)- Marshrutka to Balakan (1-2 hr); Taxi to border (1-2 Euros, quick); Walk 4km across border, or take taxi, to Georgian town of Lagodekhi; Minibus to Sighnaghi (1-2 hr?).  “rest” evening in Sighnaghi, get some good food and wine!

Sighnaghi (1 day) Wine tasting and local folkloric life.  Take minibus to Tbilisi either late (last one is at 5 or 6pm) or 1st thing the next morning.

Tbilisi (2 days) Lotta stuff to do here.  Ton of museums, sulfur baths, hiking, ruins (especially Mtskheta outside the city- UNESCO).  If you need to get your Asian/American/Indian etc food fix, this is the place to do it.  Buy amazing goodies at the market.

–overnight train–

Yerevan, Armenia (2 days).  Couple UNESCO sites near the city, monasteries.  I love the work of Alan Hovhaness so I would love to perform some of that there, maybe find some church ruin and jump right in.  If you had a car, you could potentially drive from Tbilisi to Yerevan, stopping at some more monasteries on the way back (Haghpat and Sanahin, near the Georgia-Armenia border.  Both are UNESCO and reported to be stunning, and still in use!)

–overnight train back to Tbilisi–

–flight to Mestia, in Svaneti region–

Mestia, in Svaneti mountainous region, Georgia (2-3 days at least).  This area is reported to be beautiful.  Amazing, amazing hiking.  The highest human settlement in Europe is located here.  The entire region is a UNESCO area.

–fun flight on the way back! On Saturdays the Georgian military runs a flight from Mestia to Kutaisi.  It’s a short flight and only costs $15.  I’d check to make sure it was running- more info on Wikitravel’s Mestia page  It would save a lot of time if you can plan it for Saturday!

Kutaisi (1 day) Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery are both UNESCO sites located here

Batumi (1-2 days) express train leaves 9am, takes 3 hrs.  Chill at the beach.


Add-ons to trip, that I’m not sure are entirely possible:

@ beginning: Start from as far as Astrakhan, Russia.  Come down the Caspian coast to Daghestan, visiting the UNESCO ruins of Derbent (a 5,000 old city that’s reportedly the oldest in Russia).  There is so much diversity in Daghestan, it sounds super cool.  Except for the civil unrest, and the uncertainty of whether or not you can actually cross the border into Azerbaijan.  Oops.

OR, start in Iran, visiting sites in the Azeri province in the NW of the country.  As a US citizen I would have to get a tour organized for me, and fly into the country rather than the train.  I wouldn’t be doing it on this trip since I probably wouldn’t have the most time, besides all the hassle.  And I think the more secular states of Georgia and Azerbaijan sound a lot more fun for where I’m at at this point of my travel career.  Just too much uncertainty there which is too bad.  If you were a citizen of a country that’s on better terms w/Iran, and especially if you were a guy, could be a couple of interesting days to add on.

@ end of trip:

There’s apparently a ferry to Sochi, Russia, another resort town similar to Batumi.  The Russian Caucasus mountains are reportedly also unbelievably beautiful, and also a UNESCO site.  Facilities should be great next summer, because of the olympics next winter. Also a quick/cheap flight back to Istanbul.  Double check on that ferry since it’s unclear whether or not it’s actually running!  Bad news though: visas to Russia are expensive and a pain in the a$$.  Will they continue to loosen requirements for travelers, especially post-Olympics?  We shall see…

Visit eastern Turkey (I’m interested in Kars (one of Gurdjieff’s home towns), Lake Van, and Kurdistan).  I don’t think I’ll be able to fit it in on that trip either.


North America to Europe costs 60,000 United miles in economy.  If your “destination” is North Asia, South Asia, or Japan, it’s only 5,000 miles more!  Just “stopover” in Europe (here, Istanbul).  Yes, your stopover can be longer than the destination!  I’m looking at Indonesia though I haven’t gotten it to price yet.  You might have to call, and have better luck.

Indonesia is cheap.  Visa on arrival is $25.  Lots of amazing food, beaches, UNESCO sites, hiking.  What more can you ask for?  Estimated budget per day is $20-25.

Istanbul day 2; and salep time!

I made sure to get up early in the morning because I was going to the Topkapı Palace.  There are two parts to the palace, and it’s definitely worth visiting both.  One is the main museums and palace, and one is the “harem apartments”, where the ladies of the sultan’s harem resided.  It sounds like it would have been a quite awful place to be kept in, with all the politicking and possibility for instant disposal if you were not to someone’s liking (sounds a little like the entertainment/music scene in LA, cough cough).  The harem-ees were often the “spoils” of war, Circassians from the Caucasus being a popular choice.

The entrance for this part of the museum is a separate fee, and there are often really long lines.  It’s worth getting there early to avoid crowds, though being there in the middle of winter I think helped also, it was not overly busy.

Again, I didn’t go insane with the pictures though I did take a few.  There were a couple rooms, one in particular, that was sort of a study area for one of the sultan’s sons (I believe one who did NOT go on to become a sultan), that were interesting to me.  I had this sense of, familiarity and safety (from official duties) in those rooms, and yeah, I might have been here before.  I’m not sure if these things make any sense but I do find it curious.


There could be worse views to wake up to in the morning…





Again there are a ton of better pictures elsewhere.  ALSO!  all of the crazy jewels and artifacts in the museum- you aren’t allowed to take pictures of most of these.  Unbelievable sculptures that are of various tombstones, the most ornate jewelry and accessories I’ve ever seen, clothing, ancient artifacts, just really amazing and breathtaking!  If you go to Istanbul, you have to go to the palace.

Afterwards I headed northwest towards the Spice Bazaar.  I was in quest of a certain ingredient that is IMPOSSIBLE (wink wink, nudge, nudge) to find in the US, salep.  Salep is the root of an orchid that is protected in Turkey and illegal to export.  It has a creamy, delicious taste, that same creaminess that you get from drinking hot chocolate (I think hot chocolate is really creamy, even chocolate con agua, which has no dairy in it, anyhoots), but a subtle flavor that’s hard to compare it to.  I want to say vanilla, and some saleps do have vanilla added, but there is something additional.  It was popularized during the Ottoman Empire, and spread to the rest of the Balkans (where you can still find it today), to the cafes of Vienna, and as far as Germany and England.

I had salep for the first time in Philadelphia at a lovely Turkish cafe called Cafe Fulya just south of South on 2nd street.  I’m pretty sure it was the legal type which is okay to export, that has artificial salep flavor.  The woman thought I was totally nuts (she was correct, but for the wrong reasons) when I would ask to make it with almond milk instead of regular milk to avoid the dairy in the powder.  I’ve found salep mix without dairy in some middle eastern and Palestinian markets in Chicago last year near a place I played at, Brown Rice (now closed), but these don’t taste the same.  If I had a boyfriend I would totally want to take him to Cafe Fulya for Sunday brunch every week.


How is this in Philly?

Anyway, I digress.  Salep contains glucomannan, a dietary fiber, which some believe can help various conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.  As far as I’ve been able to research the jury is still out on this, as high fiber often means high carbs, which is usually NOT GOOD.  The major constituent by percentage is mucilage, which is responsible for the creamy texture of prepared hot salep drink.  Plants containing mucilage have also been used for cough suppressants and to deal with spasming of the gastrointestinal tract (everything from acid reflux to various bowel disorders).

If you’d like some more info on this very interesting beverage, a great site can be found here:

T-T-K Tuesday: Earn double miles on hotel bookings (TODAY ONLY); rome2rio travel site review

T-T-K Tuesday.

A phrase I recall well from my days studying with Pete Bond of the MET opera orchestra in undergrad.  What seems like a written-out stutter is actually trumpet-nerd speak for the 2nd day of the week (well, in most normal countries.  I guess we start on Sundays in the US?).  Many fanfares use rapid tonguing for which we use syllables like Too and Koo.

Sooooo, without further fanfare (groan), my travel tip for the day.

A website that launched fairly recently is called Rocketmiles.  By booking through their site, you can earn airline miles.  Most hotel programs you can’t earn miles from, so this is a nice way to get extra miles, especially if you are going on a trip anyway.  Starting in about 45 minutes, you can make a booking on their site that will earn double the miles.  This is valid for the next 24 hours only!

***PS- Shameless plug***

If you register for Rocketmiles using this code:


OR use the following link:

I will earn 1,000 extra miles as a bonus, and so will you.  Just sayin’….

***end shameless plug***

I am going to San Diego for a day with no place in particular to stay on the way back from my trip east (the one I booked a cross-country flight for $76, remember?), so I’m taking advantage of this to book a hotel I could use anyway, and earn 12,000 miles in one night.  Yup, that’s correct- in one day and for $150, I’ll earn over 1/10th of the miles I need for my upcoming trip to SE Asia and New Zealand, and have a relaxing last day before the fall semester starts pretty close to the beach.

Granted, you have to search a bit and make sure you’re getting a good value for your money.  This one will work out to under 2 cents per mile, which is definitely a good value.  For cheapskates like me, make sure your hotel has accessibility!  Mine has an airport shuttle and San Diego has decent public transportation, so I’ll be okay.

I don’t usually stay in hotels (generally only when going on music tours, though we stayed in hotels on family vacations growing up).  I don’t usually think to stay in them, not only are they not a budget option, but it’s a lot harder to meet people.  Similarly minded travellers are more often found in hostels, and couchsurfing is a great way to meet locals, expats, and other friendly people who live in a town (I guess I’ll have to do another post on couchsurfing tips).  I recently talked with a former colleague of mine from Temple University teaching days who is also into travel deals and using points and miles, so I am going to look into hotels some more.  It does seem like some locations (cough, cough, the middle East) might be better to stay in hotels, so I will see how cheap I can do so.

Tip #2: Rome2Rio

I am hoping to visit a UNESCO site called Studenica Monastery, and potentially another nearby site called Stari Ras on my upcoming trip to Serbia.  I’ve been doing a lot of searching for public transportation in Serbia and the Balkans.  The information is somewhat lacking on anything but the most major routes.  Serbian Railways‘ website actually is fairly useful if you can figure out the navigation.  There’s a nice system map that shows all the places one can go.  It still is not entirely clear though which places you can take a bus to go further from, or how much it will cost.

Monastère de Studenica

Studenica Monastery.  Inside are some of the best preserved Byzantine-era frescoes.

I found a potentially invaluable website called Rome2Rio which helps address this issue.  You type in where you want to go and from what location, and it lists travel options and price.  Trains, buses, planes, and even taxi hire are included.  Some of the info is potentially outdated- for instance, it says that there is a direct train from Sarajevo to Budapest, but that train’s service was cancelled as of December 2012 from all reports I’ve read. Also many of the listed train travel times are just condensed travel times- they don’t include the layovers!  Make sure to click through and get to the company’s website (for trains, it’s usually the German railways site,, which lists train schedules across Europe).  Still, it’s probably the best resource I’ve come across as of yet, so I’ll try to keep up on it.

Okay, well, enough for today, time to get back to studying!  I promise promise promise, soon there will be the end of Istanbul trip, my Spain trip, Panama/central America trip, etc.  Cheers!