The World in A Teacup

Think about it. Every culture in the world has some kind of tea they call their own. It’s not just a bunch of tea leaves taken from a tree! There’s thousands of varieties and ways to prepare the drink, all with special cultural significance to their own people. Here’s a few you might not have known or thought about!

Yak Tea

Found in the grass plains of Tibet, this is made with loose black tea, thoughthere seemed to be more of the stalks in this than leaves. Yak milk is then boiled in a pot over a fire, the tea added, then served into rice-bowl sized tea cups. It tastes more of the milk than it does the tea, and is very filling because of it.


Mate

One of South America’s favourite drinks is often passed around and shared. Made from a herbal leaf, it’s crushed up and put into a small pot, and water poured over it. I love the metal straw-crossed-strainer it’s drunk from! If you’ve not seen one yet, have a Google!

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Above image courtesey of http://www.annahar.com

Saffron Tea

It is of course common to have herbal teas. However, saffron is such an expensive spice outside of Iran that most people wouldn’t consider putting it in a tea. Saffron is very abundant and relatively cheap in Iran. The tea is a dark orangey colour, and has a wonderful earthy flavour. Iranians love teahouses, and they’re often the places to hangout with friends and family after dark. They serve all sorts of teas, including cinnamon and cardamom teas, which came in a close second and third to saffron! Tea is served in small glass cups, and often served with small cakes – and if you’re up for it, sheesha.

Above: Even in the smallest of Iranian villages, you can still find a teahouse!

Artichoke Tea

In the ex-resort town of Da Lat, Vietnam’s French connection is highlighted in its architecture and food. Butter is used more often in cooking, some wines are grown in the region, and the climate is better for European fruit and vegetables like strawberries and artichokes. It’s here that the unusual artichoke tea can be found, a local speciality that crosses Vietnamese tea culture with French influences.

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Above: The market in Da Lat is one of the few places you can sample artichoke tea.

Masala tea

Perhaps this isn’t unusual, but it is interesting to note how far this way of making tea has travelled! Originating from India, this spiced tea brewed in warmed milk has become the traditional way of making tea in Oman and East Africa, despite the distances. The sweetness and blend of spices can change a little between cultures and families. A delicious way to prove how small the world is!

Russian Samovar

The Samovar is a Russian invention that was spread by their empire throughout Central Asia, and neighbouring countries such as Iran and Turkey. It is essentially a big urn, usually heated by coal. Long before the office kitchenette had hot water instantly available, these samovars were a staple in Russian homes, and were an easy way to boil water quickly and prepare tea.


Above: Russian samovars were imported the world over, including to the Persian Shah. (See large silver samovar on back table.)

Tea with Tea Cake and Tea Ice Cream

I love matcha. Since matcha powder came along, there’s been green tea flavoured everything popping up, from ice cream to KitKats. When you think about it, it’s crazy that tea can be put into so many things, and not just drunk – the humble drink has come a long way, and promoted itself to food! There are a lot of matcha cafes opening up, with matcha powder based drinks and goods for sale. A few of my favourites include matcha and Oreo frappe from a place in Sydney. When in Korea, a friend recommended this place, O Sulloc’s, apparently quite famous for the tea products made on Jejo island. Since I was only in the place once, I went all out: a green tea latte, with green tea ice cream, and green tea cake!

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There are hundreds more of course, but these are a just few of my favourites. Others that caught my attention included insect poo tea (don’t think I could bring myself to drink that!), the luxurious gold coated tea (don’t think I could afford that), chocolate tea (don’t think I won’t try that) and the banana tea which my sister found for me in Sri Lanka. This wonderful drink we call tea is incredibly versatile, and clearly loved worldwide.

Know of any other weird and wonderful tea varieties or ways of brewing? Comment below!

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Organising Visas for Central Asia and the Middle East

I’ll be sharing my experiences of getting some of the visas for my trip, and updating this post as I go. Please bare in mind that the process may be different according to your nationality and passport. Best piece of advice is always ring the embassy!

China:

They get so many people applying for visas to enter China on a daily basis the embassies and consulates aren’t even involved, it’s a separate visa processing authority. It’s fairly straightforward, and everything is very clearly explained on the processing centre’s website. You will need to organise a Letter of Invitation for many visa types, so if you don’t have a local contact, or aren’t on a tour, you’ll need to research how to arrange one. They usually come within a week.

The only thing not mentioned on the website is that you need flights in and out of China. This means you need a booking confirmation of held flights on the dates you wish to enter and exit in order to be able to apply. All other documents are as specified.

Get to the centre early, easpecially if going to one of the bigger centre’s such as Sydney., and try to make an appointment online. Making an appointment means you’ll wait about 15-20mins to apply, without one you could be waiting over an hour. Visa pick ups are a little quicker, but I still waited for about 35 mins.

They’re very reliable at processing visas on time, standard processing is 3 days, express can be done in 24 hours.


Dubai
Although this may be easy enough to google, I did find it odd. Everywhere I read said a ‘visa on arrival’ had be organised at the airport. However, when I did get there, it was merely the usual entry stamp, the customs officer didn’t even want my documents proving entry and exit. I think I was in the queue for about five minutes, stamped into the UAE hassle free after ten.

Oman:

There’s a little trick with this one if you’re entering and exiting from Dubai and Qatar, but ONLY if you do that. Visas will be free if you do this. This is so tourists from Dubai can go check out Musandam really easily, and it encourages more tourists to the area. For me, although I was entering from Dubai, I was travelling onwards to Iran, so I went with the visa on arrival. It’s incredibly cheap at only 5 rial! That works out to be about $20AUD ($17 USD or so) for 10 days. Longer stays of up to 30 days were about 15 rial I think, though I don’t remember clearly. Up to date information is on the Oman Air website, and there’s a few links found on the Muscat airport webpage.

Muscat isn’t a huge airport, so I got off the plane, and straight into the visa queue like most other passengers. You can actually exchange money at the same time as paying for your visa,so I exchanged the bit of cash I had and the visa payment was deducted from that amount. You get a receipt with a stamp to prove you’ve paid for your visa, then line up for the immigration officers to check your passport. I had to queue for a little while, but it was still a very straightforward process. It’s not a physical visa, just your standard entry stamp, so don’t stress about having extra pages in your passport!


Uzbekistan:

I chose to get my Uzbek visa in Dubai because I’d read you could get it on the same day. This was a stressful decision for me,because if this didn’t go as planned, I would ruin my whole trip! I got off my flight into Dubai, dropped my bags off at a hotel, and went straight to the consulate with my filled out documents.

Letters of Invitation for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are both embassy/consulate specific. This means that the LOI is only valid at the embassy or consulate which you initially specify when filling out the paperwork. So if you get an LOI to be used in Abu Dhabi, and you turn up in Beijing, it might not be accepted. I suspect you could probably get away with it in many cases though! I think my Uzbek LOI specified the pick up location, but the Turkmen and Chinese LOIs didn’t. But do bare it in mind when applying and organising where to file the paperwork.

Although the people working there did speak a little English, everything was being communicated in Russian and I presume Uzbek as well. I had no idea what was going on. I sat down because everyone else seemed to be waiting. Then people just sort of wandered up to the window, handed in some papers, a few people were called over to change something on their papers….I eventually stood behind someone else, and a queue starting forming. I then got to the front, to be told I had to line up in front of the other window – and then was told the same when I got to the front of that line. The person in charge of the visa window didn’t turn up for at least an hour. Then they took my application, LOI and passport, and just shut the window again, so I was left confused about how long this would take, if I was supposed to wait for them to give it back to me or come back in two days, and he didn’t even tell me how much it was, as I wanted to check if Australian passports had the same charge as most other nationalities. A long while later and it was all done, much to my relief! I paid is USD, because their English website quoted in dollars, but they were a little put out I wasn’t using dirhams. It was 350 dirhams, or 85USD. Take exact change! In the end I suppose it was quite easy, I was just jet lagged, hungry, and very much out of the loop with the inner workings of this consulate.


Iran:

If you’re going to Iran, this is something you’ll definitely need to read up on, because different nationalities have vastly different visa charges and British and US citizens have a very different process from the rest of us (or so I gather). I could have organised this visa from the embassy in Canberra, but chose to arrange it on arrival instead. Again, getting it arrival was quite easy, and very well organised. There are a few things to remember though!

For those applying beforehand, you need a photo to apply. For women, this means a passport style photo, but with a headscarf. Interestingly, you don’t need that when applying on arrival, so mine didnt have any photos printed onto it – and it meant I got extra passport photos for nothing!

The first thing is that it is definitely important to get a letter of invitation or a visa activation code. There are people who didn’t have either at the airport, and I’ve read other blogs where people claim you don’t need one either. However, a pre-arranged visa activation code or LOI will guarantee that you get your visa. It will also significantly speed up the process. If you don’t arrange either of those, they must do all the same checks as they would have done had you organised it earlier, and there is a chance you can be turned away at the airport (in Iran, or before you leave your home country) and forced to buy a new flight. The same is true of any country of course, which is why it’s always important to organise visas! I arrived after, and left with my visa before some of the other people who didnt seem to have the right papers. I would guess that the need for the activation code and LOI is probably determined by your nationality – I wouldn’t like to risk it coming from Australia! I noticed the Bahraini student group didn’t seem to have so many papers, for example.  

The other thing they will ask when you arrive is if you have insurance for Iran. Without it, they will ask you to pay about $18 USD for local insurance. The lady in front of me had travel insurance, which stated it was worldwide cover, however,as it didn’t explicitly say it covered Iran, was asked to take out local insurance. Without a stamp from the insurance window, the staff at the visa window will not accept your passport. I had insurance which stated it covered the Middle East, and though I got a bit of a talking to, it was accepted and stamped. I suspect a smile and polite greeting to the staff behind the counter goes a long way too.

The visa payment is in euros, and they most certainly prefer them! I paid in dollars, and I think I may have been charged extra for it, though I didn’t know the USD to euro exchange rate off the top of my head to check. For Australian passports, I was asked to pay 145 euros. Many other nationalities got cheaper rates. The embassy in Australia said the visa would be $160AUD on arrival, and the same if you pre-organised. I paid $163USD, and a Kiwi friend of mine paid about $170USDthe same day. We think Euros is the flat rate, while USD might be adjusted with exchange rate, though can’t be sure of course!

The whole process only took about half an hour. Get a stamp on your insurance or take out the local one, go over and hand in our documents and get given the price of your visa, go the window next door to make the payment in cash, then sit and wait for you passport to come back with the visa inside. Although the paperwork was a little different to get my activation code, it was far simpler than trying to get my Uzbek visa in Dubai! The airport staff were really helpful too, and everything clearly signposted.


Turkmenistan:

This was another LOI situation. Again, I had to chose between embassies and consulates to visit overseas. I had the choice of Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Korea, Japan or Armenia which would have interested me, but I went with Armenia because I wanted to spend a fair bit of time there. Initially, I contacted all of these embassies to check that I would be able to apply for the visa at their offices. Within three hours, the Seoul and Yerevan embassies replied confirming that it would take a few days to process. However, when later trying to contact the Armenians again to check the exact amount of days and their opening hours, I have had no response at all, which made me a little apprehensive! I left myself with a total of 10 days in Armenia, so that at least calmed my nerves a little.

Please see the above entry on Uzbek visas regarding validity of LOIs.

I went to the embassy first thing on Monday morning, and the embassy is down a residential street off a main road. A taxi from my hostel near Republic square only cost 600 drams, and took about 10 minutes. There was a guard outside, and someone washing a car in the drive way. Nothing but the guy in uniform really said ’embassy!’ The guard noticed I looked like a lost tourist, and the taxi driver seemed confused as well, so he came up to the taxi and led me over to the door. I rang the doorbell, said I was there for a visa, and was directed up the stairs and into a small room.As far as I could tell, I was the only person there, so it felt a little like an interview. The lady was abrupt but very efficient, asked for all of my documents, and gave me the correct form to fill out. The one listed on the Caravanistan page (also the only one I could find anywhere on the net) is not the correct one. Very similar questions though, just laid out a little differently. She made sure I filled it out correctly, and was helpful when I needed some clarification about the translation of a few words.

The service charge is $35USD, which you can pay upfront or when collecting the visa. She did say that she needed to ‘put it in the computer,’ and that there may be extra charge, which I took to mean different nationalities have different visa costs. I chose to pay later as a result. They ONLY accept payment in USD, not local currency. I was told to return to pick up my passport 3 days later – the express option didn’t seem to be on the table anymore, but I didn’t ask since I had an extra day to potentially reapply if something went wrong.

I returned first thing on Thursday morning as directed, was asked to pay the fee, and then a man came down with my application, asked for clarification on two points on my form and then handed over my passport with visa attached. After hearing so many reports of visa rejections, I was relieved! It’s also one of the cheaper visas of my whole trip. 

NB: I applied for tourist visas in all above cases. For Turkmenistan, recent reports indicate that transit visas may be a little more difficult, and I met several people who had been rejected when I was in Armenia, both with and without invitation letters. As I was part of a tour, I could apply for a tourist visa. Tourist visas are only for those on tours, so many people opt for the transit visa option, but there is high risk of being rejected that way. 


Armenia

This was an easy visa on arrival situation. Arriving bleary eyed, late at night meant the process was a bit more confusing than it should have been, but all I really had to do was fill out the form, get Armenian drams out of the ATM, and pay for the visa. The drams was inconvenient, as there was no exchange place near the immigration counter, so I had to guess the rough exchange rate and how much cash I would actually need for the next few days. But other than that, a very straightforward and painless procedure.

 

Vietnam 

For the first time, I’ll be applied for my Vietnamese visa overseas. The process was very straight forward, I just had to turn up at the embassy in Beijing, fill out the form and pay the fee. No proof of entry or exit was required, and I could get the express visa 3 days later.

The Forgotten Kingdom

 

It fascinates me the way that some parts of history are ‘lost’ in the popular narrative. There are a variety of reasons of course, but even those reasons are constantly changing and evolving, reshaping what greater society pays attention to, and what we collectively ignore.

“Fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard.” —Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

Champa is one such example. Once, Champa was one of the prominent kingdoms of Southeast Asia. They were well known for their skill in ship building. They had great connections with kingdoms worldwide, so much so that even Shakespeare referenced them. Despite the famous art and inscriptions all over Cambodia’s Angkor depicting the various clashes with the Cham, most tourists leave the Khmer temples and monuments with several photographs of a battle scene and no memory of who was fighting whom.

The Cham occupied most of what is now southern Vietnam. After decades of being sandwiched between the Viet and Khmer kingdoms, they were eventually overtaken by the Vietnamese. However, there are still many Cham structures in Vietnam. Pictured above are the towers near Phan Thiet. Interestingly, right next to these towers, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery has been built. It was a noticeable irony when we visited these towers, the chanting of the monks ringing out across the site where the old Hindu monuments were crumbling away.

The best display of Cham buildings are those at My Son, just outside of Hoi An. The average traveller doesn’t even know that they are there, just twenty minutes away by car. These structures were severely damaged by US bombing raids during the war, but are still considered the best remaining examples of Cham architecture.

Feature image taken in Phan Thiet province, just outside of Mui Ne, images directlly above taken at My Son temple complex.

There’s a strange confluence of the information that we have access to and that which we are exposed to. In this day and age, we have no excuse but the sheer overwhelming wealth of knowledge at our fingertips; ignorance seems almost lazy once it’s put in perspective. And yet, if you did not know to take a taxi ride for just twenty minutes outside of the tourist hub Hoi An, the average traveller could easily spend their given three days shopping at the famous tailors, or relaxing on a riverboat ride that doesn’t go quite far enough south to reach the My Son sanctuary. As archaeology in Vietnam and the wider Southeast Asian area has boomed in the last century, the access to information about lesser known sites has certainly increased and become available in several languages, but it has taken a lot more time for this to filter down into the tourism industry. Even now, when the Northeast of Vietnam is famed for it’s hilltribe trekking experiences with ethnic minorities – as are northern Thailand, Burma and Laos – people (travellers included) do not associate these nations with being multicultural on a day to day basis. Our ideas of modern geography are so entrenched that it has perhaps allowed us to forget that states rise and fall, and that borders can shift between battles.

I often wonder in these changing times of globalisation if the general narrative of history is widening or closing. With more and more visitors travelling to Vietnam each year, are these lesser known sites becoming more exposed, and their cultural heritages coming fully out into the open? Will the trends on Facebook and hashtags on Instagram lead more people to seek out these monuments, or just cement them in the ‘exotic other’ category where only seasoned travellers avoiding tourist hot spots will visit? Or will they be appreciated visually and not historically, as more and more visitors travel by photo?