21 November 2017

Ebelskiver Pan

I got an ebelskiver pan a few weeks ago after reading about other types of breads you can make in them too.  I couldn't think of a reason to have a pan that could only be used for one thing, but when I realized that there are lots of places that make little round pancake things, I decided to give it a try.  I did popovers and ebelskivers before our trip and last night we had paniyaram (southern India) with tomato chutney and banh khot (Vietnamese) with nuoc cham.  I think it's best to use this pan for breakfast or a snack rather than for dinner because it takes time when you can only cook seven at once (and I really can't justify two pans) and they really are best hot so it's nice if you don't have the whole family waiting for food.


Saute some diced carrot, onion, chiles, etc in some oil along with mustard seed and curry leaves.  You can add some hing too, and some salt.  Mix that into 2 cups of dosa batter and cook in the ebelskiver pan.  This makes around 20-25 paniyaram.

Banh khot:

Combine 1 cup of rice flour, 2 T of cornstarch, 1.5 cups water, 1/2 cup coconut milk, 1/2 tsp turmeric, and 1/2 tsp of salt.e'  These aren't flipped like ebelskivers and paniyaram, but cover them with a lid so they'll steam.  I added tofu or chicken to each after I filled the pan.  This also makes around 20-25 banh khot.

I also want to try takoyaki (Japan), khanom krok (Thailand), masa (West Africa- found this one while looking for corn-based recipes), and vitumbua (East Africa).

20 November 2017

Mada'in Saleh

Edited to add that Mada'in Saleh is currently closed, maybe just for a bit, maybe for as long as two years.  But some of the info here will still be useful, and the area is still worth visiting. 

Mada’in Saleh has been the place I’ve wanted to visit in Saudi and we finally made it there last week. Saudi has tons of interesting archaeology but it’s nearly impossible to get decent information about seeing it, and since nearly all of it is many, many hours from Riyadh, you can’t just head off with your whole family and hope for the best. Mada’in Saleh is only marginally better in the information category, but we were able to do this one on our own.

Most people do go to Mada’in Saleh on a tour. That’s a perfectly good option with some advantages over doing it yourself, but there are also disadvantages. Since I wanted to do this on our own and it was so hard to find the information I needed for this trip, I’m going post a fairly detailed trip report in hopes it helps someone else and I'll try to get some photos up later.

We drove to Al Ula from Jeddah. It’s less than seven hours, with Yanbu a convenient stop in the middle. You can also drive through Medina which I would have preferred, but the coastal road was quicker. It’s my understanding that non-Muslims are allowed into the city so I’d have liked to see it, but maybe some other time. Not long after we left the coast, the terrain got a lot more interesting and rocky and the scenery was amazing till well past Mada’in Saleh. It’s a lot like southern Utah in many ways. The road along the coast is boring as can be since you can’t see the Red Sea, but looking out the window later was perfect. In my opinion, I think it would be better to drive instead of fly if you live in Jeddah since the trip isn’t too long and it’s so interesting.

Hotel options in Al Ula are getting more varied. There are a couple of cater to western expats but that’s not what I wanted so we took a chance on a place called al Harbi. Maybe our experiences in Ta’if made me more realistic, but this hotel was fine. No towels or supplies in the kitchen, but the beds were good and the air conditioning worked without being too noisy and the price was much lower than what we paid for worse places in Ta’if. I’d be fine with staying there again. It’s on the west side of King Fahd road a little north of the museum down an alley next to an optical shop. We ended up having to call the place since we couldn’t find it ourselves because it’s not marked.
We ran over to the museum before it closed and I really liked it. It’s small but has lots of good information. Definitely worth a stop but if you’ve already read a lot about Mada’in Saleh and its history, it won’t be too long a stop. Afterward we went exploring around Dedan and found a man from Al Ula who got us ice cream and then took us up on top of the escarpment overlooking Al Ula. That was one of the places I was hoping to go and it would have been hard to find without him showing us the way. The wadi was beautiful in the dark.

The next morning we went to Dedan first. The main thing to see there are the Liyhan Tombs. You can see them from the main road, or the road that runs along the fenced area. But I think it’s much better to go inside. Just hand over your iqama and you’re in. You can drive down to the old train station, stopping to climb up to the tombs. There are plenty of signs along the ways. The most popular spot is the Lion Tombs (search for "Lion Tumbs" on google maps), but the whole thing is fun to poke through. There’s a dirt road through the palm grove near that marked point on google maps, or you can go down to the real road. It’s at the intersection of 375 and 70. Instead of going onto 70 from 375 (if you’re going north) take the paved road off to the right and follow it to the main entrance. That road isn’t on google maps yet.

Most of Dedan’s ruins are under palm groves so the main thing to see are the tombs, but it’s possible you can find someone to show you more things (the man who took us up the escarpment told us he had a friend who could show us around, but we didn't take him up on the offer). Based on the things I’ve read from people who have done tours, they mostly go along the tombs you can see yourself, but locals told us there were other interesting things to see that we didn’t have time to find. We spent about an hour there and everyone had a good time.

Then we drove to Mada’in Saleh, about 15 minutes up the road. If you read all the tour and hotel websites about visiting Mada’in Saleh, they say you need a permit to get in. But I’d read other things that made it sound like it wasn’t necessary, and some friends of ours tried to get a permit in Riyadh a couple of months ago and we’re told they didn’t do permits there. I decided there was no way a Saudi was going to turn away someone who’d driven for hours to get to a national site like this so we didn’t bother with the permit. Also, our hotel told us we didn’t need it. And we didn’t. No one mentioned it - all we needed was my husband’s iqama and they let us in. I’m not sure what would happen if you didn’t have someone with an iqama in the car, but if you’re a resident and doing this without a tour group, I don’t think you need to worry about the permit.

The north entrance is the only one open, at the railway station. At the beginning of the 1900s the Ottomans built the Hijaz Railway along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah. It wasn’t used for very long because it was a target during WWI and then the Ottomans were no more, but the old railway stations are still there (and there are good websites where you can learn lots more). Most of the administrative buildings in Mada’in Saleh are in the old station buildings, and there’s a railway museum too. There’s also a pilgrimage route museum in the old fort that I was looking forward to, but it was closed. I have no idea when it’s open.  There are plenty of other Hijaz Railway stops in the area and it would be fun to track them down, especially since they follow the old pilgrimage route and you could see historical sites too.  That would be a fun trip.

Unlike Petra, Mada’in Saleh is nearly all drivable. The road loops around to all of the major sites and there are parking places and trash cans along the way, with plenty of signs and a few bathrooms. We didn’t see any food for sale, so bring your own if you want to eat there. They’ll give you a map at the entrance that isn’t entirely accurate but still is useful. After that, you just poke around as you please. We spent about four hours there. I think tour groups generally take two or three hours.

The tour groups tell you more stories (some of dubious provenance and some completely incorrect, or at least they're incorrect as reported).  There are plenty of sources out there to learn about Mada'in Saleh's history, even if the practical details aren't there.  And we all liked climbing around.  You shouldn't climb on the tombs, obviously, but you can poke around the area and climb up to some great views. The Diwan area is particularity good for this.

Mada'in Saleh isn't as impressive or monumental as Petra in any way.  But it is still a large and interesting site that's very worth visiting.  Also, there are pretty much zero visitors and no tourist anything at all.  It's a pleasant and quiet visit in the middle of some amazing scenery (think southern Utah with cool tombs and no one around).  And visit in the winter if you can.  January or February would be lovely.  Mid November was still a touch hot in the afternoon.  Remember that it's closed on Friday morning, as are most things in Saudi.

After Mada'in Saleh, we went to Elephant Rock (it's labled Jabal (I think, I can't remember which word they used) al Feel (Fil means "elephant" in Arabic).  There are other dirt roads in that area that would be fun to explore among the rocks.  We saw more people there than in all of Mada'in Saleh. And then we went back up the escarpment to take the boys and to see the wadi in the daylight.  Go west at the 70/ 375 intersection, stay to the right at the circle and drive up the escarpment to the end of the road for a great view.  It's fairly steep in some places but there's a good guard rail the whole time.

Also, near the town of Mu'tadil is where the Zuhayr inscription was found.  I never could find an exact location so we didn't see it in person, but it's still nice to know it's there.

We dropped the boys off at the hotel and went to al Dira next (al Ula Heritage Village on google maps).  I always love these restored towns even if other family members have to humor me.  The buildings are made of stone for the first story which holds up a lot better.  The second stories are mud brick and mostly collapsed.  The beset part is the fort right in the middle of town.  This was definitely one of my favorite restored towns I've seen.  It also has a lot of stones from Dedan (they're about 3 km apart) on that first level and you can see Liyhan inscriptions in places.  People have been living in the wadi for thousands of years, but al Dira was settled around 1300 and there are records about it from pilgrims passing through since it was a stop on the Dimashq-Makkah route.

And then we got dinner and went to bed.  We left first thing the next morning, since it was Friday and most things were closed.  By then, people we ready to try to get home in a day.  It was about a ten hour drive with a longer stop in Buraidah.

It really was a great trip.  There are still SO MANY things I want to see in the area, but it's almost impossible to get good information to know if you can even access the site or how to find it.  I'd have liked to go to Taima and Tabuk, and to see more of the pilgrimage route, if only to see the old towns along the way.  But I was glad to be able to do what we did and to do it on our own.  My husband wasn't sure it would be worth the trip, but I'd told him that if he didn't go with me, I'd have to line up a tour that would cost $1000 (it's incredibly frustrating that there is no way for women to see these places on our own), he went along and ended up loving it.  He keeps commenting that it was much better than he expected and that he loved the terrain.  I'm also glad that we drove rather than flying (although it would have been nice if three of us had been able to drive instead of just one of us).

It helped a lot that we speak Arabic.  There are far fewer south and SE Asian expats in al Ula than in the bigger cities.  Most of the expats we talked to were Egyptian.  Staying at our hotel, finding the road up the escarpment and learning about that area, and ordering at some of the places we ate required Arabic (although I bet you could do most of those without Arabic, if you're determined).

I know that you can't do this on your own if you don't have a man around to drive and check into hotels, but if you're thinking about it and have the resources, give it a try.

09 October 2017

Chor Minor Bukhara

This building is tucked away in a neighborhood in Bukhara, but if you're looking for it, you'll find plenty of people willing to point you in the right direction (and if you're looking for anything else in the area, you'll get sent back here unless you explain clearly where you want to go instead).  The name means Four Minarets in Farsi/Tajik/Persian but they're really four towers (since this isn't a mosque and these weren't used to call people to pray).  The building is part of a madrassah complex, or used to be, before everything was demolished.

We got up early in the morning to see this one, before we ate breakfast, since it was in the opposite direction of most of the places we wanted to see in our limited time in Bukhara.  We also walked along the Shahrud canal (which I would have learned so much more about, if I'd only gone to the water museum) which is the main part of Bukhara's thousand-year-old water system. The large pond at the center of the Labi Hovuz complex is part of this canal system. 

Everyday Saudi Arabia: Cats

There are lots of feral cats in our neighborhood.  Everywhere.  All over the place.  And generally, we don't bother each other.  But they've been hanging out in our garden quite a bit more, including giving birth to kittens.  And yesterday, one of those kittens somehow ended up in the house.  I don't think I'll ever know how, unless it sneaked in when someone left the door open in the afternoon.

Both my youngest son and I heard the kitten quite a bit last evening, but I didn't think it could possibly be inside even though something in the back of my mind kept telling me there was something in the house.  I knew we could hear a kitten outside mewing quite loudly even when we were inside so I assumed this was another really noisy kitten.  But I never heard it outside and my son kept insisting it was inside.  So finally, this morning, when I heard it in a different part of the house, I went looking for it and found it in the closed-off part of the house.  Not being much of a cat person, I just left the outside door open and it either left in a few minutes or its mother came to get it.  Either way, the kitten was outside with two larger cats. 

And now I am finding the traces of a kitten spending the night in my house.  I will pay attention next time if I think a cat is in the house.

04 October 2017

Samani Mausoleum Bukhara

There were many, many things both my husband and I were looking forward to seeing in Uzbekistan, but the Samani Mausoleum would be at or near the top for both of us.  My husband got interested in this building more than 25 years ago when he needed to write a paper for a masonry class- the brickwork is amazing.  He ended up writing about something else (because how easy could it have been to write a paper on this place in the pre-internet era, while the Soviet Union existed no less?), but he's never forgotten in.  For me, this is only remaining examples of Samani architecture because pretty much everything else was destroyed by the Mongols or by time.  Also, this is the earliest Central Asian mausoleum which is significant since mausoleums play an important role in Islam in Central Asia.  History for me, architecture for him.

The Chasma Ayub Mausoleum is right there too.  We were short on time and didn't go inside, but I still regret that because it's now a museum about the water system.  Chasma Ayub means Job's Well, so it's logical the museum is there. If only I had convinced my husband the architecture inside was worth risking my lingering too long over photos of municipal water system.  Next time.

Everyday Saudi Arabia

I think it's time for a series of posts about why Saudi Arabia is quirky? weird? unique? frustrating? extreme? oppressive? friendly?  I'm not sure there is a word in English that captures the feeling that all of words combined express, especially since some of those are stronger some days than other days.  Maybe it should just be called Everyday Saudi Arabia.

So here's today's story with some background first. I nearly always cook dinner at home here, unlike in Mexico where you could run down the street and get tamales for everyone for $5 at 6 pm if dinner didn't work out.  There are plenty of good places to eat here, but the sunset prayer nearly always conflicts with dinner time.  The sun set at 5:38 last night and the latest it ever sets is about 6:45.  And as you get into winter, the evening prayer is as early as 6:30 with the sunset prayer at 5:00.  Everything closes at prayer time for about 30 minutes so there's not a lot of time to get food in there unless you plan ahead, and the point of buying dinner is that you didn't plan ahead. Also, I go grocery shopping once a week and I don't choose the day I go.  I just have to follow the schedule so sometimes there are 5 days between trips and sometimes 9-10 days.

Yesterday I was gone all afternoon and I forgot to start one crucial part of dinner before I left which meant that the meal I'd planned wasn't possible.  But since it was the night everyone helps clean the house and we eat something fun for dinner afterward, I didn't have a fun backup plan, especially since I hadn't been to the grocery store in a week because of the van schedule.  We knew we'd have a short time between the end of our last appointment and the beginning of sunset prayers to get something to eat.  The first place we tried was closed so we had to drive much further away and then we took a wrong turn.  By that point, we had to find something to eat immediately or wait another 30 minutes which no one wanted to do.  The two choices where we were sitting were Dominoes Pizza and Popeyes.  Dominoes was already starting to close so we had to go with Popeyes, a place none of us had eaten or ever really wanted to try, but it was food and they let us in.  Actually, they just let my husband in since I had to wait in the car because I didn't have my abaya with me.  We've had a couple of other meals from places we wouldn't necessarily have chosen because of the frantic prayer time rush.

And that is why I try really hard to not mess up dinner and to be home in the afternoon.  There isn't much you can do about it when you get it wrong.

02 October 2017


It's been a long, long time.  First we traveled all summer.  Then we recovered from the summer and got everyone back into normal life.  I feel like I'm almost caught up, except here and it feels like it will be nearly impossible to do that with the trip to Uzbekistan. I'll start with one building at a time, but first, some general ramblings.

It's been a very long time that my husband and I have wanted to visit Uzbekistan.  We've applied for visas, made plans, traveled nearby, lived in Kyrgyzstan, and studied Uzbek, all without actually getting to go.  So when the chance came up to go for work, both of us jumped at it, but also tried to not get too attached to the idea because we'd been foiled so many times before.

But then the visa was approved, and the travel, and the time off, and there was housing for us, and we found a way to spend the night in Istanbul there and back.  And it kept getting closer and things were still working out for us.  Some friends of ours who had a work thing scheduled in Africa had theirs cancelled at the last minute.  Others had their work travel cancelled too.  Saudi Arabia's visa system went down a few hours before we were scheduled to fly out, which meant they might not let us leave.  In the end though, we made it to Tashkent.

We flew to Khiva the first weekend and took the train to Bukhara and Samarqand the second weekend.  It wasn't long enough in any city, especially not in Bukhara and Samarqand, but I'm not sure if either of us could ever have enough time there.  We hadn't planned on going to Khiva but the train tickets the other cities weren't working out on short notice so we went there instead and I'm glad we did.  I'd read so much negative stuff about Khiva over the years, but I loved it.  While it was very touristy and restored, most of the tourists there were not western tourists and a majority were Uzbek.  There were far more western tourists in Bukhara and Samarqand.  And what's not to love about a tiny walled city?  Clearly the demographics of the walled city of changed since there were lots of people living there and I had a lovely time wandering through all of the streets and climbing on the city walls, in between seeing all of the restored buildings.  It's not really like Samarqand or Bukhara, but it was very worth visiting in its own way.

Bukhara and Samarqand were, of course, wonderful.  We stayed a short way from the Jewish synagogue there which was amazing to see after reading so much about it.  Bukhara felt, by far, the most authentic of the three cities, which isn't surprising.  And then we went to Samarqand where we finally saw the Registan and so many other places.  Samarqand was much more Sovietized, but you that was easy to ignore. 

Even more than seeing so many places, one of the best parts of the trip was speaking Uzbek, which I wrote about in the previous post.  And eating familiar food.  And being in a place that felt so comfortable even though we were there for such a short time.  I can't wait to go back.

24 July 2017

So.  We made it to Samarqand, Bukhara, and Khiva, and we had a great time.  I still can't believe we made it to all three places.  We have just a few days left here and maybe I'll get through some of the many, many photos I have to post.   And we're running out of time to get things done in Tashkent.

It still is so nice to be in Central Asia.  Part of that is just not being in Riyadh in July since Riyadh has to be one of the worst places on the planet in July.  It's lovely to sit outside in the morning, to be able to walk a kilometer to the grocery store, to open the windows at night.  I was with some other expats who are living in Tashkent right now and they were talking about the dust and heat in Tashkent.  I just sat and smiled because it seems so not dusty here and so much cooler than Riyadh even on the worst days.  (Bukhara was sandy though, more like Riyadh, in some parts.)

It just feels so familiar and comfortable here, including the mishaps.  The electricity went out while we were getting ready to leave for Khiva.  Luckily, the dryer (yes, a dryer in Central Asia.  I use it because I don't have a clothesline or rack with me and it's not worth tracking either down for a few weeks' use) had finished, but it was downstairs in the very dark basement and we don't have any backup light sources.  I managed to get all of the clothes into a bag, but then I couldn't find my way back to the (very steep) stairs.  I had to resort to calling my husband who came to the top of the stairs and talked to me till I found my way.  That could happen in any new place though.  Mostly we haven't had unique to Central Asia mishaps.  The taxi drivers can never find our street since it has a similar name to another nearby neighborhood.  It took quite a lot of convincing last night that we knew where our house was and the taxi driver didn't, but we made it home in the end.

One of the best things has been Uzbek .  I understand a reasonable amount of Uzbek and can't produce much, but my husband speaks quite a bit.  When we first flew in it took a while for him to switch from Arabic to Uzbek, but it came back very quickly.  It's lovely to have an Uzbek speaker with you in Uzbekistan and almost everyone he has talked to has been surprised he speaks Uzbek.  We know a few American Uzbek speakers at work, but most of them speak Russian better than they speak Uzbek so they use Russian instead.  It's also nice to finally have him speaking Uzbek in Uzbekistan.  We've run into very few people who don't speak Uzbek, fewer than in Kyrgyzstan.  You could get by here just learning Uzbek (neither of us have used Russian much at all), although Russian is good to have also since there are obviously people who don't speak Uzbek.  Samarqand was interesting though, since it's mostly a Tajik city.  But nearly everyone spoke Uzbek in addition to Tajik.

More later.

21 July 2017

Hasti Imom Complex

This is probably the most well-known ancient site in Tashkent, although it's hardly the only one, in spite of what some people tell you.  

The first time we went here was after wandering along Zarqaynar Street from Chorsu Bazaar, which is worth walking down, especially since you'll run into some other old structures.  Having this complex open up in front of you as you walk through the old mahallah is lovely.   Here's some info about it, or you can just look at the photos. Some of the buildings are new, some are older madrassahs and mausoleums.  One of the oldest copies of the Qur'an is here too, although we've never been there when it's open.

19 July 2017

Istanbul Symbol

As soon as we left the airport in Istanbul, I noticed the city's symbol everywhere.

This has to be one of my favorite city symbols ever.  It won a contest in 1969 and has been used since then.  You have the Bosporus on the bottom with city wall topping that part, and the domes and minarets of the city.  The seven triangles represent the city's seven hills.  To me, it also looks like the Hand of Fatima which adds to its wonderfulness.


As you can probably imagine, there aren't a lot of easy ways to get to Tashkent from Riyadh.  There are some nice flights that just have a short layover in Dubai, but those were unreasonably expensive so we flew Turkish Air through Istanbul. But this time, we left the airport!  How exciting.  It was just overnight, but it was lovely to finally see a little bit of Istanbul.

We poked around the New Mosque and the Egyptian bazaar in between eating lots of good things like lokmalar and borek and pide and Iskander kebab and simit and kofte and kokorec and more things I can't even remember.  The second day we mostly spent on the water, taking the public ferry to the Asian side of the city and then taking a cruise up the Bosporus to the second bridge.  The child with us liked that and it was so pleasant to be on the water.

I loved the public transit in Istanbul.  It's a hilly and watery city so there are sky trams and funiculars and ferries in addition to the usual buses and subways and trams.  And it was so diverse.  So many different people and ethnicities, wearing everything under the sun, eating so many things.

Also, the lira and the riyal are worth almost the same amount in dollars which made the money part uncomplicated.  And even though it was humid, it felt so wonderfully cool the entire time we were there.

And it felt so Turkic.  Both my husband and I noticed that right away.  I loved that.  Turkish is worth speaking if you're there, but a lot of the signs were in Russian and Arabic and English too.  It seems to be the perfect place for us.  I've always wanted to live in Istanbul, but it just moved way up on my list of cities to move to sooner than later (for the record, the short list includes Cairo, Tashkent, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Mexico City).


We spent the last couple of weeks of June in Jeddah, which was lovely.  I didn't quite know what to expect, since it's still Saudi Arabia but everyone says it's more liberal.  And it was, in lots of ways.  It felt like a vacation even though we were there for work.  The place we stayed was like a resort with swimming pools everywhere and even a little grocery store.  It was lovely to be able to get food without an abaya with just a short walk.  

I'd been worried that the humidity would be bad, but even though the heat index was around 120 a lot of the time we were there, it still wasn't as awful as Riyadh at 115.  Everyone liked not being so dry and when the wind blew, it felt good, instead of like someone had put you in the dryer like it does in Riyadh in the summer.  

We didn't end up doing that much in Jeddah except hanging out.  Part of the family went snorkeling one day and got very, very sunburned so there was lots of recovery time.  But we did go to the aquarium and poked around al Balad, which was my favorite part.

We stayed in Taif on the way there and back.  It was noticeably cooler which was so nice.  But I picked the wrong hotel on the way there because it was next to a large mosque and we were getting into the last week of Ramadan so there were prayers being broadcast every couple of hours all night long.  But we survived and enjoyed the cooler weather and got around Mecca the next morning without accidentally going in.  And we were able to drive down the escarpment outside Taif which is amazing and also has baboons.  Really.  We went north around Mecca on the way home which is boring.  

Al Balad is the old city in Jeddah.  The Saud family may have rural roots, but Saudi isn't entirely Bedu.  It was interesting to see and read about the difference between Hijazi and Najdi Saudis, to see different architecture, and to feel like we were in a place that probably wouldn't control everyone's lives so strictly if Hijazis were in charged of Saudi instead of Najdis.  Al Balad is still very conservative, but it's not Najdi.  I loved seeing the old buildings and it was recently declared a World Heritage Site so I hope more restoration will happen.  There are a lot of falling-apart buildings in there.   Mostly it was nice to be in a city that felt lived in, rather than the artificialness of Riyadh (and Tashkent, to some extent, but in a different way).  There was even street art.

One evening we went to a bit of a street festival during Eid al-Fitr.  There were hand-cranked ferris wheels and street food and people selling things and just generally having a good time in a mixed crowd.  We also found a couple of the old embassies from when Jeddah was the capital of Saudi Arabia which was fun.  I seem to be missing a chunk of photos but when I track them down I'll try to remember to add them here.  

I didn't get everything done here I wanted to.  I'd like to spend a lot more time in al Balad, and we need more snorkeling.  I'd like to go back during Eid al-Adha if we can make the logistics work.

Escarpment, Again

In my never-ending quest to explore the Tuwaiq escarpment, I found another access point that seemed to involve a paved road most of the way.  I convinced the necessary people to take me there (I even scanned a stack of papers for one of those people) and we drove off in the few days we had in Riyadh between Jeddah and Tashkent.

And the road really did work.  It took about an hour to get to the edge of the escarpment, which is twice as long as our quick blocked-off way, but shorter and much less bumpy than anything else we've found to replace the block-off way (except for Camel Trail 1, but there are people there).  I think we can manage this one on a weekend afternoon when it's cool.

As always, the photos never do this place justice.

14 July 2017

Tashkent Food Prices

I can't not do a post about food prices.  These are from Tashkent in July of 2017 at a Korzinka grocery store. Keep in mind that living off $5000/year is normal here and that a lot of this produce is either not available or very expensive for at least 4-5 months of the year.

Tomatoes- 34 cents/pound
Milk- 5.41/gallon
Eggs- 2.45 for 15
Onions- 44 cents/pound
Garlic- 1.10/pound
Peppers- 26 cents/pound
Carrots (precut yellow)- 53 cents/pound
Local lemons- 2.44/pound
Not-local oranges- 1.84/pound
Apricots- 1.10/pound
Cucumbers- 38 cents/pound
Lazer rice- 85 cents/pound
Laghman dough- 1.14/500 grams
Sugar and flour- about 60 cents a pound
Naan- 30 cents a loaf
Kashar cheese- 5.31/pound
Creepy processed cheese- 2.41/pound

I didn't check meat prices.  I haven't seen bulgur here like in Kyrgyzstan and red lentils are relatively expensive.  The spice packets are around 20 cents.  I didn't buy the watermelon so I don't know how much it cost.


So.  I'm sitting in Tashkent right now and even though I've been here for several days now, I still can hardly believe it.  After dithering over our summer plans all spring and not having anything quite work out, it suddenly became possible to go to Tashkent in July if we could get everything together in time.  That wasn't a given since it's Central Asia, but we pulled it off with only a few days to spare. I keep looking at the Uzbekistan visa in my passport and remembering how we spent 6 months in 2010 trying to get visas here without success.

We mostly have to be in Tashkent but we're working on weekend jaunts to Bukhara or Khiva.  Plus Samarqand, of course.  It's been a long, long time that we've been waiting to go to these places.  And Tashkent is interesting too.  Just for a reminder, Tashkent is also a very old city but it's almost entirely Soviet now since it was demolished and rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake.  But there are still some old mosques, madrassahs, and mausoleums around the city.  Last night we spent a lovely few hours in the area around the Hasti Imom Masjid. There will be many more photos and posts about the buildings we see.

It's so nice to be back in Central Asia.  It's complicated, like always (it took five days to get the internet sorted out, even with expert help) and we were dropped off at our house at 3 am with no money, no cell phone, no food, and no idea where we even were in the city because the street name we had been given was either old or incorrect.  But we've done this before, and this time we speak some Uzbek and Russian.  So when I woke up, I went outside to find out the name of our street.  Then I found an old map in the house.  Next I got the house phone to work after 15 minutes of trying and figured out how to call from a landline to a cell phone.  The nice LDS man on the other end understood where we live based on my very sketchy instructions and took us to his house for church where we also met the son of a couple we knew well in Bishkek 12 years ago. They fed us shepherd's pie for lunch and loaned us 200,000 som to get through the day and dropped us off back at home.  We found a grocery store down the street and got naan, juice, salami, crouton snacks, cheese, and bananas and checked the guidebook to find an ATM that might have cash in it.  We found a taxi (since any car might be willing to taxi you about) and got money. So by that night, we had friends, food, money, and we knew where we were.  Mormons to the rescue again.  The cell phones and internet have been more complicated, but one can deal without those for a longer time.  One of the people we met on Sunday gave us a ride to the grocery store on Monday morning. You can't imagine how lovely it was to go grocery shopping without an abaya on and be driven by a woman.

The house we're in is so Central Asian.  It's a much bigger and nicer house than anything I've lived in before in this part of the world, but it's definitely not western.  The doors, the floors, the windows, everything is so familiar. And it smells like Central Asia outside. Also, everything works (almost) which is nice.  I warned my youngest son who doesn't remember Kyrgyzstan that you have to be careful with things here because they break easily. He is getting the hang of that.  He doesn't love the walking everywhere part though and can't believe he used to walk 3 miles in Kyrgyzstan when he was four.

It was unusually hot when we arrived, but it still felt cooler than Riyadh.  Now it's a little cooler than normal we are loving it.  It's so nice to be outside again.  The stars are lovely. We went on a walk at 2 pm and didn't die.  Everyone kept warning us that Tashkent is hot, but they can't scare us anymore.  The mid-90s, which are normal, feel AMAZING and right now the temperature is around 90 which is like early November in Riyadh.

It's interesting coming here straight from Saudi Arabia (Suudi Arabistan in Turkic languages).  Uzbekistan is so paranoid about Islam that they don't even allow the call to prayer to be broadcast. We were standing next to several mosques last night during maghrib and there was no hint of the call to prayer.  Also, they've adjusted the official prayer times quite a bit.  The dawn prayer is over an hour later than it should be, noon prayers are at 1 pm instead of about 12:30, and asr which should be around 4:30 here isn't till 6.  In other words, the prayer schedule is adjusted to fit the work schedule, except for maghrib. I hadn't really paid attention to this in Kyrgyzstan (I should go back to check old photos to see if they did the same thing) but it's so glaringly obvious right now since prayers control your life in Saudi.

We've eaten laghman twice- they sell the noodles at the grocery store- and potato vareniki once.  I found beshbarmak(!) noodles today so we're trying those along with another local noodle and we'll get creative with some Sovietized ajika (and since I didn't get this posted that day, I'll report back that it was delicious).  We've also had lots of juice, plenty of hot naan, kattama, and more.  There was some unfortunate processed cheese that was so creepy it couldn't even melt, but there was backup kashar cheese and everything was fine.  We've had yellow carrots and orange lemons and the yellow-green peppers I love so much here.  And watermelon for the little one, of course. And milkshakes in a bag.

Money is a little complicated here.  There aren't many ATMs (to the point some people say there aren't any at all) and the exchange rate depends on whom you're talking to.  The official, legal rate is just over 4000 som to the dollar.  The (black) market rate is quite a bit above that- I've heard anywhere from 5500-8000.  The largest bill is the just-introduced 10000 som.  As you can imagine, you need a large number of bills on hand when the largest bill is worth less than three dollars at the official rate, and much less at the real rate.  Up till just a few weeks ago (maybe a month or two) the largest bill was 5000.  The 10000 notes aren't very common yet.  You spend a lot of time counting money here.  Places like the grocery store have money-counting machines at each register.  I also haven't figured out how people colloquially give prices and once even had to resort to handing the cashier my money and having him figure it out.  How embarrassing.  I'm doing a separate post about food prices.

I hope I get to live here someday.

20 June 2017

Travel Food

I need to start collecting some recipes for meals that only require a few ingredients, especially those you can carry in a suitcase or that are available just about everywhere.  Here's the first batch.

Nutella mousse.  Requires a blender or mixer and bowls and spoons, plus nutella and whipping cream.

Whip two parts cream to soft peaks, then add one part nutella and gently mix.  Pour into individual serving bowls and chill for a couple of hours, if you like.  One cup of cream and 1/2 cup of nutella is plenty for 3-4 people.

Ramen.  Requires ramen packets, microwaveable containers, protein and vegetables as available, and other toppings like cayenne, vinegar, fish sauce, soy sauce, gochujang, as available.

This is just regular instant Ramen, but you can make it much better without too much effort.  Boil and shred some chicken or scramble or fry an egg to add to your noodles, or fry some tofu (the chicken is easiest because you can store it in the freezer to use over a few days).  Add a big handful of greens, like spinach or jusay, to your hot broth and they'll wilt and be delicious.  Use the provided flavoring packets wisely or add your own flavorings if any are available.  I think the ramen with four different flavor packets is best for this.

Spaetzle.  Requires a pot, a bowl to mix the batter, a grater or strainer with big holes (or a spaetzle thing), an efficient way to get the spaetzle out of the pot, plus eggs, milk, salt, flour, cheese, and butter.

Get a big pot of water boiling. Combine 4 eggs, 1/3 cup milk, 2 tsp salt, and 2 cups flour in a bowl. Pour some of the batter into the strainer or onto the grater and push it through the holes (I smush it with the back of a spoon) into the boiling water.  The batter will blop out in bits.  Boil till they float in a couple of minutes.  Fish them out and serve with butter and strong cheese.

Rice with yogurt curry. Requires a small pot and a spoon, plus rice, yogurt, onion/shallots/scallions oil, turmeric, cayenne, cumin, salt, and mustard seeds.

1 T black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Minced shallots, not too much
1/2 cup water
2 cups yogurt
1 tsp salt

Heat the oil and the mustard seeds in a small pot over medium-high heat till the mustard seeds have mostly popped (keep the lid on). Lower the heat and to medium and add the spices and shallots and stir-fry for a few minutes till the shallots have softened a bit. Add the water, then whisk in the yogurt. After it's combined well and the sauce is smooth, stir in the salt. Heat gently till the sauce is warm (don't boil). Serve over rice.

31 May 2017

You can see where we ended up on the escarpment here, and if you zoom out, see the wadi we followed for a long way.  You can see a road leading to power  lines just south of there and it looks like we can access that road from some new points, instead of the old blocked-off ones.

Google Earth does not do this place justice at all, nor does a cell phone camera.

30 May 2017


It's interesting to be in a rather strict Muslim country for Ramadan.  Ramadan in Kyrgyzstan is barely noticeable.  In Palestine plenty of people are observing it but since there are lots of non-Muslims living there too, it doesn't completely take over the month for everyone. But here, it does.

There's a mandated shortened workday of six hours.  Generally that means people come in around ten or eleven and work till four or five.  My children love the late start at school and early release.

Any business might be closed during the day but open at midnight.  My husband needed a haircut in Saturday and his usual place was closed at 11 am, but when he went back at 10 pm, he was able to get the haircut. Even medical places do this.

Grocery stores usually open from 10 am to 6 pm, then again from around 9 pm till 2 am.  I'm going to the grocery store later today and I'm curious to see if there are any changes inside. I'm just glad it's allowed to buy ingredients during the day and that the stores open in time to get a shopping trip done before noon prayers. I hear they can be very crowded in the late afternoon.

Restaurants are closed during the day.  They open in time for iftar and feed many, many people.  

There is no eating or drinking allowed in public during the day.  I might get a pass, since I'm obviously foreign, if I make a mistake, but eating or drinking in public during Ramadan is actually a deportable offense.  Even water.  The water is tricky for me since I carry it everywhere because I get dehydrated here very easily.  But I also don't go out much during the day.

I love being in a place where I can watch the majority religion join together for some type of religious observation. But the majority also needs to remember to not try to control everyone's lives.

Update:  I didn't make it to Lulu today because the traffic was horrible.  I was too optimistic thinking that I could get there and do the grocery shopping before prayers.  Well, I probably had time, but when we weren't even halfway there after 25 minutes, it wasn't worth it.  So I went to Hyper Panda instead.  I'll try Lulu again next week.  The grocery store was normal though.  I'd wondered if prepared foods were banned, but no.

Also, the A/C in the kitchen died last week.  The repair people are coming either tonight or tomorrow night after 9 pm.  Lovely.

29 May 2017

Wadis and Camels

Our usual road to the escarpment is often blocked now, which isn't surprising, but I convinced my husband that an adventure would be a good idea so we tried going to a different part of the escarpment.  The problem is that there really are very few roads going there so you just have to hope.

We got lucky and found a wadi that went all the way to the edge of the escarpment, complete with a bit of a track.  It was a long ride with some dicey parts, but we made it all the way there.  We were joined by camels and goats in several places.

I doubt we'll ever go out there again, but that wasn't the point. It was so nice to get out and do this.  More photos when I get them off the other device.

23 May 2017

Refugees in the Book of Mormon

There are multiple refugee stories in the heritage of many religions and cultures.  From Passover to the Hijra to US Thanksgiving to so many other examples, it's likely that most people have a refugee story.

One of my favorites is from my own religious tradition, in the Book of Mormon.  There are a number of refugee stories in the Book of Mormon, but I'm writing here about the people of Ammon.

The people of Ammon were a group of people was being targeted because they had converted to another religion.  They had also taken a vow of non-violence as part of their conversion.  A small faction in their homeland incited war against the people of Ammon and many were being killed. They had to leave.

But the only place to go was to the Nephites, the people they had warred with before their conversion.  The Nephites didn't much like the people of Ammon's ethnic group, calling them lazy and filthy.  And the people of Ammon had killed many Nephites before they took their vow of non-violence.  The people of Ammon were not at all sure it was wise to go to the Nephites, but Ammon (their new religious leader who was a Nephite and the son of a former Nephite king) convinced them to seek refuge with the Nephites.

So the people of Ammon picked up as a group and went to the border of the Nephite land.  Ammon, who had prayed about all of this, went to the chief judge and asked if the people of Ammon would be admitted.

And here's the part I like best.  The Nephites voted (no idea if women were allowed to vote, but I'm assuming not) and agreed to take in the people of Ammon.  But not only did the Nephites give them a place to live, they also agreed to protect them so they wouldn't break their vow of non-violence, in exchange for a tax to help support the Nephite army.

So you have one group of people welcoming refugees who not only were from an ethnic group they hated and fought with, but they agreed to give them a place to live and provided military protection because they would no longer fight themselves.  Good stuff. And I hope my pronouns didn't get too confusing.

21 May 2017

There's a rather large event going on in Riyadh right now.  My favorite part is the Islamic Summit because there are flags from all over the Muslim world lining the streets.  It's lovely to see all those old friends.

08 May 2017

Cucumber Feta Salad

This is amazing. If you're stuck with the huge American cucumbers, peel and seed them, but if you can get smaller, thinner-skinner cucumbers, you can just cut them up. The amounts are all very adjustable.  Fiddle with it to taste.

1/2 kilo cucumbers, chopped
1/4 cup crumbled feta
1-2 T chopped mint
1/2 T or more sumac
Pinch or more cayenne
A bit of minced garlic
Blop of olive oil
Lemon juice

Mix everything together and serve.

07 May 2017

But the Plumerias are Blooming

In The Geography of Bliss, a book I didn't like much, the author says that people in Moldova were really focused on the fresh vegetables and he seemed to think that was odd.  But for me, after living in Kyrgyzstan once and having returned since reading the book, that phrase is perfect.  The vegetables really are very fresh (something that cannot be taken for granted), but even more than that, sometimes you just need to focus on something good.  So yes, the vegetables are fresh, but when you say that, you're also acknowledging that a place like Kyrgyzstan isn't always that easy to deal with, but it's certainly not all bad.  Even if the vegetables are really limited in the winter.

Right now my corresponding phrase for Saudi Arabia is "But the plumerias are blooming."  They started blooming again a few weeks ago, after it warmed up a lot, and they'll keep going till November when it cools off.  I have lots of plumerias in my garden and I can smell them when I go outside, especially in the evening. 

It's hard to be here when it's hot.  The heat is awful, of course, but it also takes away my last bit of independence.   I really can't go anywhere without finding someone to drive me because I live too far to walk from any public indoor place.  Biking is a possibility, but I have to admit to being really annoyed with having to bike in the heat when a bunch of men are driving around in cars.  So I can either be annoyed and find someone to drive me in an air conditioned car, or I can be annoyed while also baking on a bike.  When none of your options are good, it doesn't really matter much if you have choices.

Saudi does seem to be relaxing some of its guardianship rules though.  One can hope. And the plumerias are blossoming.

03 May 2017


The very first thing we ever did in the desert was four-wheeling.  There are people renting four-wheelers in outside the city in nice sandy patches and can rent one for about $15-20/hour.  

I don't ride, because I am not that coordinated, but I still love to go out with the group and be in the desert.  Also, we go down the escarpment and I never pass up a chance to do that.

01 May 2017


I can't believe I didn't mention what we ate in Austria.  We had a kitchen where we were staying so we went to the grocery story (rather complicated by our arrival on a Saturday night a few minutes after the grocery store had closed for the weekend) and mostly cooked at home.  There was lots more spaetzle and cheese along with yogurt and muesli.  Delightful.

We had one night between Austria and needing to be back in Paris for our flight, so that morning we decided to go back through Strasbourg, I think to maximize castle and Lego store visits.  I was just happy to go to Strasbourg since it has a long and interesting history.  We were mostly driving but I still loved it.  And we were back to French food.  Also, the place we stayed had kuglehopf.