So, let me guess – you’re laying in bed, even Rex Murphy’s monologue didn’t put you to sleep, and now you’ve fired up your phone or iPad and plan to read my blog for a few minutes rather than popping a pill. Well, have I got good news for you! Saturday #79 was a bit of a dud so rather than write a short piece about a ho-hum day, I’ve put together a very, very, very long list that is guaranteed to have you nodding off within minutes. On the flip side, it might come in handy should you ever decide to follow in my footsteps. (And don’t pretend you haven’t at least thought about that!)
The reason I call it “The Best of 2015 (ish)” is because I have moved the goalposts a bit. Most bloggers do some type of a year-end list, but I’m too lazy to separate out the parts of my trip that actually fell in 2014. It would accurately be described as “The Best of The Second Half of 2014 and All of 2015 and Two Weeks and Two Days of 2016” but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
So here goes. Let me know if you get through it before you drop that phone on your forehead.
Most Indifferent People – Beijing, China
Most Menacing People – Alice Springs, Australia
Best Live Entertainment – Calgary, AB (during Stampede Week)
Fewest Bars – Pushkar, India
Fewest Working ATMs – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Best Western Style Mall (tie) – Siam Centre, Bangkok / Istinye Park, Istanbul, Turkey
Most Scam Attempts Per Minute – Varanasi, India
Most Fun to Say Out Loud – Ashgabat (Best said with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.)
Best Modern Skyline That Came As A Complete Surprise – Baku, Azerbaijian
Most Grand But Crumbling Buildings – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Safest Large City – Hanoi, Vietnam
Worst Air Quality (tie) – Beijing, China / New Delhi, India
Most Feral Cats – Buenos Aires, Argentina
FOOD AND BEVERAGE
Hardest Place to Get a Steak – Agra, India
Best Restaurant Name – Eat At Mike’s (Carmel, CA)
Best Street Meat – Crackling Pork on a Stick with Hot Sauce (Xi’an, China)
Street Meat That Looks Awful But is Actually Okay – Chicken Feet (various locations in China). Canadians will spend $15 and scarf down a dozen wings at Kelsey’s but won’t even look at chicken feet for about 2 cents per foot. What’s the difference between a wing and a foot?
Worst Snack Food –”Arul” (Various locations in Mongolia). I swear that Arul is another name for Milkbone. It’s a rock hard piece of dried and fermented yak milk that Mongolian people chew for hours to clean their teeth. Dr. Ballard must have travelled to Mongolia at some point.
Consistently Good Bathrooms – Starbucks (various locations)
Worst Restaurant I Returned to After 32 Years – Bonanza Steakhouse (Saskatoon, SK) It hasn’t changed and the prices are about double what they were in 1982 but considering inflation, they must be cutting food costs to keep them that low.
Best Restaurant I Returned to After 32 Years – Rae & Jerry’s (Winnipeg, MB) Loved this place in 1982 and it hasn’t changed one bit! Still the same decor, menu and drinks. I had the steak sandwich and a Caesar while seated at the bar. The only difference was that June Sifton (newspaper heiress) was no longer propped up on stool #3.
Best Airport Food – Oxtail Soup at Warung (Sepang, Malaysia) To get to this restaurant you’ll have to buy an airline ticket as it’s located behind security on the International Departures Level at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Best Airline Food – none
Worst Meal – Duck Bones at La Qin, Beijing, China. I mistakenly thought there might be some meat on the “duck bones” but they were in fact just dried duck bones. As I was finishing a dad wanted to take photos of his son with the crazy white guy who ordered duck bones.
Best Club Sandwich – Small cafe opposite State Department Store (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)
Best Hotdog – Japadog (Vancouver, BC)
Best Hamburger – Fergburger (Queenstown, New Zealand)
Best Barbecue (other than beef) – Kangaroo meatballs (while camping in the shadow of Uluru, Australia)
Best Steak – 14 once sirloin at Steaks by Luis (Buenos Aires, Argentina). Trip Advisor rates Steaks by Luis as #2 out of 3210 restaurants in Buenos Aires. With 14 ounce sirloins including potato, salad bar and three beers for about $10, I’d rate it one of the best values in the WORLD!
Best Fish Tacos – Red Fish Blue Fish (Victoria, BC) A few morsels of fish and some pita bread for about 2-1/2 times the cost of a complete steak dinner with three bottles of beer in Argentina but still pretty good!
Second Best Collection of Food Trucks in the World – Osborne Village (Winnipeg, MB) Who knew?
Best Spring Rolls – Boc Nguyen (Hanoi, Vietnam)
Best Craft Beer – Mikkeller Tenderloin Pale Ale (Bar Mikkeller, San Francisco, CA)
Best Bottled Beer – Chingiss (widely available in Mongolia)
Best Wine – Virtually all wine produced in Chile (good, cheap, plentiful)
Worst Wine – Virtually all wine sold in Western China (makes nice paint thinner though)
Best Experience With Champagne – Veuve Clicquot with friends Randall and Freddy and some of their friends, consumed on New Year’s Eve from the balcony of their Sydney home, overlooking the Harbour Bridge and what is unquestionably the world’s best fireworks display.
Cheapest Drinks – Free rum and gin on my Dragoman Silk Road trip thanks to Duncan who had purchased cases of booze in Malaysia for $1.50 a bottle
Worst Experience with Alcohol – Rice wine in China on my birthday
Waiter Who Blushed The Most – A restaurant in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan called one dish “Besh Barmak” but after much quizzing the teenaged waiter admitted that it was braised horse penis. It wasn’t exactly filet mignon but it was tender and edible.
Best Coffee Experience – Starbucks (24,697 locations). I’ll probably hear about this one but I know what I like and Starbucks delivers every time, unlike hundreds of hit and miss cafes in the world where the coffee might arguably be better but the washrooms are gross, there’s no wifi, no air conditioning, no electrical outlets, etc.
Best Tea Experience – Masala Chai from a chai wallah in India (several million locations)
Weirdest Restaurant Setting – I had a decent sirloin steak with Garry & Jessie Woods while seated in the vault of the old Royal Bank in Cloverdale, BC. I banked at that branch when I owned a business in Cloverdale in the late 1980s.
Most Consecutive Dishes Sampled Without Disappointment – 12 from random hawker stalls in Newton Circus (Singapore)
Best Replica of a Boutique Hotel – Siamaze (Bangkok, Thailand)
Best Replica of a College Dorm – USA Hostel (San Francisco, CA)
Best Replica of a Morgue – YHA (Newcastle Beach, Australia)
Best Replica of Faulty Towers – Trip Inn (Westport, New Zealand)
Best Replica of Bates Motel – YHA (Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island, Australia)
Best Hostel Cat – “Leche” the cutest black and white cat at Discovery Hostel Rio (Rio de Janiero, Brazil)
Best Hippy Hangout – Green Tortoise Hostel (San Francisco, CA)
Best Chance of Finding Bedbugs – Nomads Hostel (Auckland, New Zealand)
Best place to sleep until 2 a.m. then go to a bar with a group from the hostel and drink until 9 a.m. – Puerto Limon Hostel (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Best Hostel Attached To A Bar – Nomads Hostel (Auckland, New Zealand)
Best Mattress – Siamaze (Bangkok, Thailand)
Best Linen & Pillows – Siamaze (Bangkok, Thailand)
Best Bunk – Siamaze (Bangkok, Thailand) (Sturdy bunk beds with a solid ladder to the top bunk, a heavy privacy curtain and electrical outlet, shelf and reading lamp inside each bunk. This place ticks all the boxes on my hostel rating system.)
Best Shower – The Plot (Singapore)
Best for Meeting an International Ring of Computer Hackers – The Point (Lima, Peru)
Highest Concentration of Senior Citizens – Mongolian Steppe Guesthouse (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia) I shared the 12-bed hostel with one person – the 86-year-old handyman / front desk clerk who spoke no English but who made me a nice herbal tea every morning and brought it to my bed.
Best Hostel Chain – YHA (New Zealand)
New Hostel Chain to Watch – Zostel (various locations, India) They are improving existing hostels and opening new ones throughout India. As India’s rapidly growing middle class discovers travel within their own country, this chain of high-end hostels will do well.
Worst Hostel Chain – Bothy Hostels (various locations, South America) I have nightmares thinking about the Bothy Hostels. Don’t go. Don’t even think about it.
Most Overpriced – Original Backpacker’s (Sydney, Australia) To be fair, I paid a premium for a private room over Christmas, but like many things in Australia, it was at least three times the price of similar accommodation in South America.
Best Staff (4-way tie) – Zostel (Jaipur, India) / The Plot (Singapore) / Discovery Hostel Rio (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) / #bunk (Istanbul, Turkey). Very warm and welcoming people who bent over backwards to help everyone, not just me. I appreciate good customer service and the staff at these four hostels went beyond the call of duty.
Most Invisible Staff – Stanley’s Guesthouse (Patong Beach, Thailand) The woman who let me in and took my money left after handing me the key. I didn’t see her for the next three days and I was the only guest. I let myself in and out through the bar, helped myself to beer (left the money under the bar) and as I left the key on the bar when I left, the door was left unlocked.
Strangest Dorm Mate – Klaus from Saturday #38
Best Beach Location – Karioi Lodge at Raglan Surf School (Raglan, New Zealand)
Worst Overall Rating (tie) – Bothy Hostel (Cuzco, Peru) / The Point Hostel (Lima, Peru)
Best Overall Rating – Siamaze (Bangkok, Thailand)
Best Hotel – Vivanta by Taj (Mumbai, India) I haven’t stayed at many decent hotels so this place would not be included in any legitimate “Best Of” list.
Worst Hotel – Hotel Sunder (Tsetserleg, Mongolia)
Best Caravanserai – Tash Rabat (At-Bashi District, Kyrgyzstan) A stone structure dating from the 9th century, even before the Silk Road was at it’s busiest.
Best Pension – Rock Valley Pension (Goreme, Turkey)
Worst Guesthouse – Bata’s Guesthouse (Murun, Mongolia)
Best Camping – Various locations in Mongolia. We were the only people for 100 miles, camping in the midst of rugged, unspoiled scenery, and drinking water from a stream, orange juice from the carton and vodka from a bottle.
Worst Camping (tie) – Various locations in Mongolia (cold, rocky ground, no infrastructure, hard to find or even buy firewood) / Jeti-Orghuz Valley, Kyrgyzstan (rocky ground, cold, wolves howling in the night, big animals sniffing around outside my tent)
Best Camping In a Shadow – Jiayuguan, China. We spent a few days in very remote parts of China, camping right beside the Great Wall.
Creepiest Hotel – Grand Orzu Hotel (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). I officially began to feel old when the secret service agent that was assigned to tail me for three days turned out to be crippled and using heavy metal crutches that you could hear from a block away.
Best Building Converted To a Hotel – Karavansary Hotel (Sheki, Azerbaijan)
Biggest Hotel Ripoff – Airport Holiday Inn (Santiago, Chile) ($240 for a 29 minute phone call to Canada)
Best Sleep – Royal Saigon Hotel (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
Worst Sleep – Nana’s Guesthouse (Georgia) My roommate was extremely intoxicated and talking in his sleep so I slept outside on an iron balcony with dogs barking below me all night.
SPORTS, ACTIVITIES & ENTERTAINMENT
Best Balloon Ride – various operations (Cappadocia, Turkey
Best Helicopter Ride – 12 Apostles (Great Ocean Road, Australia)
Best Scenic Plane Ride – Nazca Lines (Nazca, Peru)
Best Concert – Impromptu set by an unknown band in the middle of the playa during a blinding dust storm at Burning Man (Black Rock City, Nevada)
Worst Day at a Racetrack – Wandering through the abandoned barns at the defunct Sandown Raceway on Vancouver Island. I spent four summers there in the 1980s when it was thriving. Very sad to see what has become of the place.
Best Dance Show – Patrons at Celebrities on last night of Pride Week (Vancouver, BC)
Worst Dance Show – Tango at a Dinner Theatre in Buenos Aires, Argentina (It’s essentially the same dance to the same music, repeated 57 times.)
Best Bridge to Walk Across – Lion’s Gate Bridge (Vancouver, BC)
Best Bridge to Drive Across – Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco, CA)
Best Fireworks Display – New Year’s Eve off the Harbour Bridge (Sydney, Australia)
Best Fishing From a Boat – Piranha fishing (Brazil’s Southern Pantanal)
Least “Authentic” Experience – Visiting a family on a floating island on Lake Titicaca. (They said they lived on the island yet they didn’t have any food or clothing in their hut and an aluminum boat with a Mercury engine was moored out back, hidden by reeds.
Best Encounter With a Dead Animal (Bird) – Cutting the talon off an eagle that had been shot by a farmer in Mongolia (He shot it as it had been killing the newborn lambs that are his main source of income.)
TRANSPORTATION & TOURS
Best Overland Company – Dragoman Overland (Rio de Janeiro > Buenos Aires; Mongolia Loop; Beijing > Istanbul; Delhi > Mumbai)
I’ll Say That Again, Best Overland Company – Dragoman Overland
Strangest Train Journey – Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (The train stops for about 8 hours at the border between Mongolia and China and they change the wheels on each train car as the tracks are a different gauge in each country.)
Best Airline Experience – none
Worst Airline Experience – LAN Airlines flight 842 from Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport, Santiago, Chile to Hanga Roa (Easter Island), Chile when they oversold the flight, switched gates, announced the change only in Spanish, and quickly left a dozen English speaking passengers at Starbucks
Worst Parent on a Plane – Father seated behind me who gave his 4-year-old boy a pitch pipe to play with and then put on a set of Bose noise cancelling headphones and went to sleep (Quantas flight from Perth to Darwin, Australia)
Fastest Boat – Hamilton Jet Boat on the Shotover River (Queensland, New Zealand)
Scariest Boat – Midnight crossing of Lake Titicaca on a boat with 6 life jackets, 28 people and several live chickens in a sack (which I intended to wrestle from the old lady who held them should we capsize).
Most Scenic Day Cruise – Milford Sound, New Zealand
Best Seat Mate on a Truck – Bayaraa, the 23-year-old guide on the Dragoman trip through Mongolia. (When not showing us how to survive in Mongolia he could be found climbing a volcano, building a yurt, riding a horse at top speed on a beach, starting a fire with two sticks, cutting the talon off a dead eagle, plugging the hole in a ruptured diesel tank, or swimming in a lake that still had some ice on it.)
Best Airport – Singapore Changi (Rated #1 in the World in 2014 & 2015)
Best Road Trip – Five days in New Zealand with my nephew Andy
Best Nature Tour – Ballestas Island Boat Tour (Paracus, Peru)
Best Bird Watching (tie) – Condors in Colca Canyon, Peru / Kiwi in Invercargill, New Zealand (best time to spot them is around 3 a.m. on the grounds of the airport or golf course)
Most Harrowing Bus Ride – Skipper’s Canyon Road, Queenstown, New Zealand
Worst Bus Driver – InterCity Bus, Auckland to Wellington, New Zealand (The driver had bad attitude and wrongly accused several young passengers of breaking his bus rules, etc.)
Most Personable Country Guide – J-Lo (7 days in Uzbekistan)
Worst Guide – Ricky (3-day Colca Canyon Tour, Peru)
Most Complex Scam That I Avoided – “The Teahouse Scam” in Beijing, China (Google it.)
Most Obvious Scam That I Saw Someone Fall For – A fake piece of jade the size of a loaf of bread was being sold off the back of a motorcycle adjacent to a rockslide that closed a highway in Western China. I saw a Japanese tourist pay about $3000 cash (which he borrowed from people on his bus) in the belief that it could be sold back home for about $100,000. The massive piece of jade was almost certainly resin and green food colouring.
Best Wifi Access – Canada (free high speed wifi at many cafes, hostels, airports, etc.)
Worst Wifi Access – China (many sites blocked, slow connections, not always free, big brother is always watching)
Most Expensive SIM, Data Plan, Wifi – New Zealand
Cheapest SIM, Data Plan, Wifi – Vietnam
Best Bazaar – Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Best General Merchandise Market – Black Market, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Best Antique Market – Panjiayuan Antique Market, Beijing
Best Drugs Sold Openly in Bars – Bang Lassi (various locations in India)
Best Pride Celebration – Sydney, Australia (The parade is held at night, under bright and colourful lights, in perfect weather, and for me it was a chance to hang out with good friends old and new.). Pride in Phuket, Thailand was also good but on a much smaller scale. (below)
Worst Karaoke Performance – Me performing Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line at the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, CA (The oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in California — and not even I could shut it down.)
Biggest Thrill – Jumping from a perfectly good plane over Lake Taupo, New Zealand
Best Wake Up Call – Camels walking through our lakeside campsite (China)
Best Trip Down Memory Lane – Walking the streets of Vancouver’s West End, dancing at Celebrities, drinking Molson Canadian at Numbers and coffee at Canada’s first Starbucks. (I lived at Bute & Barclay in the 1980s.)
Best Urban Park – Stanley Park (Vancouver BC)
Most Profitable Day – Day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia, Uruguay where I withdrew US Dollars from an ATM and sold them for about double the value when I returned to Buenos Aires
Best Experience with Fire – Watching “Embrace” burn at Burning Man 2014
Best Experience with Smoke – Smoking a hooka with Neeraj Gupta in Istanbul, Turkey
Best Experience with Propane – Dancing to techno under giant flame throwers at Burning Man 2014
Most Handsome Mugger – Abercrombie & Fitch model who stole my gold chain on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro Brazil
Most Inept Mugger(s) – Taxi drivers in Lima, Peru who got nothing but left me stranded in the middle of nowhere
Best Livestock Market – Kashbgar, China
Costliest Surprise – $60 to park overnight in an underground lot in Sydney, Australia
Biggest Coincidence – I met a Globe & Mail travel writer at “The Gates of Hell” in Turkmenistan. We were wearing identical clothes (black golf shirt, khaki cargo shorts, Nikes) and we had previously lived on the same small street in Toronto, me at #90 and he at #190
Best Scenery (Shirts Optional) – Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Best Country for Backpacker Travel – New Zealand
Best Country for Foodies (tie) – Singapore / Thailand
Worst Country for Foodies – Mongolia
Best Country for Carnivores – Argentina
Worst Border Experience – Uzbekistan / Turkmenistan land border
Dumbest Thing I Did – Wearing a gold necklace on Ipanema Beach (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Something I Didn’t Think I’d Enjoy but Ended Up Loving – Horseback riding in the cold in Mongolia
Worst Red Tape (8-way tie) – Indian Consulate in Istanbul / Brazilian Consulate in Toronto / border crossings between China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan (port of Baku), Georgia, and Turkey
Worst Day – December 26, 2014 when I learned that my old boss, mentor and good friend Rod Donlevy had passed away on Christmas Day in Saskatoon, SK
Most Listened To Song – Dwight Yoakam’s A Thousand Miles From Nowhere which became the theme song of the Dragoman Silk Road trip.
Something I Dreaded But Turned Out Well – Trip to a mixed public shower in Mongolia. It turned out to have private stalls and plenty of HOT water for our first shower in about 10 days.
Something I Attempted and Failed – I attempted to place a $100 wager through Betfair on the proposition that the Canadian election would produce a majority Liberal government. The Libs were mired in 3rd place at the time and the odds were 80-1. My account had lapsed and it was impossible to reactivate from within China so I didn’t get the money down before the proposition closed.
Best Canyon – Grand Canyon (Nevada)
Best Man-Made Stone Structures – Pre-Incan burial chambers (Sillustani, Peru)
Best Man-Made Stone Carvings – Nazca Lines (Nazca, Peru)
VALUE FOR MONEY
Worst Overall Value (7-way tie)
• Bribe paid to a border official after I was ALREADY in Turkmenistan ($11)
• Rental of a tiny storage locker in Toronto for things I don’t miss and may never use ($90 monthly)
• Half Day Whale Watching from Victoria, BC (cold, light rain, many boats, never got close to a whale, several people on the boat were idiots) ($120)
• FedEx charges to ship a laptop from Istanbul to Toronto ($270)
• Vodaphone SIM card and data for about 40 days in New Zealand ($371)
• Flights within Australia to track down a lost passport ($698)
Expensive But Worth Every Penny (7-way tie)
• 24-hour access to the VIP Lounge at Santiago Airport ($94)
• Used bike, lock, lights and spare tire for Burning Man ($265)
• 7 days at Burning Man ($383)
• Skydive Taupo near Lake Taupo, New Zealand ($470 with video)
• iPhone 6S and case in New Delhi, India ($1563)
Best Overall Value (22-way tie)
• Wash, Dry and Fold Laundry in Thailand ($1)
• Deck of Steve Jobs playing cards from a street vendor in China ($1)
• 3 Ventolin asthma inhalers in Uzbekistan ($7)
• Delta Airlines (Los Angeles > Lima, Peru) ($7 after redeeming $300 in points)
• 6-hour outing on back of motorcycle to fossil field in Rajasthan, India ($8)
• 8 pieces or turquoise from a roadside vendor in China ($9)
• Leo Hostel, Beijing ($10)
• 3-hour Night Safari on camel near Pushkar, Rajasthan, India ($10)
• Hotel Karma Palace, Pushkar, India ($12)
• Siamaze Hostel, Bangkok, Thailand ($12)
• Rio Forest Hostel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ($17)
• Death Road Bike Ride near La Paz, Bolivia ($89)