Officially, the population of Istanbul is 14 million, but some estimate that the city's true current population is closer to 20 million. I read one report that suggested as much as 60% of the population, whatever it is, is under the age of 29. I can't confirm that statistic, but I can tell you that, wandering around the neighborhoods nearby our hotel, young people are everywhere...in the parks, gardens, markets, and walkways, enjoying their city. What else can I tell you after fewer than 24 hours on the ground? Conversation is all about next month's presidential elections and also the situation as it's unfolding in Iraq. For the people of Turkey, this mess is too close to ignore. As well, it's Ramadan. "For me growing up, Ramadan was about becoming a man," I heard one young man explain. "It is not easy to fast all day. As a boy, I was hungry, I was thirsty. But so was everyone else—my father, my brothers, my friends. If they could do it, I told myself, I could do it, too. When my friends and I would get too hungry, we'd go outside and play football until it was time to break the fast." It is that time now, late afternoon. I hear the calls to prayer. My own family and I are sitting down now, too, to dine. We haven't fasted all day, I have to admit, but we have traveled a long way and are looking forward to our first dinner in Istanbul. "Do you have any sparkling wine on the menu?" I asked our waiter. "Yes, we have two," he explained, showing me. Both, it turns out, are Turkish. Turkish sparkling wine? We had to give it a try, and I'm pleased to be able to report that it's not nearly as bad as you might imagine. In fact, I recommend you try it, too, your first night in this grand, historic city. More later...after I've had a little shut-eye...
We had hoped to take a side-trip by bus to Xiahe, the site of a famous Tibetan monastery located about mid-way between Kashgar and Beijing. Our hotel looked out over the ticket window of the bus station. We watched as thousands of people waited to pay their fares, so many that they blocked traffic on the eight-lane street that ran in front of the bus station. We took a couple of pictures. Take a look at our photos of the crowds in Beijing.
Watching this, we decided against trying to make our way through this unbelievable crowd, especially knowing that, when we were ready to leave Xiahe, we would be faced with a similar ordeal.
Those who stayed in Beijing throughout the holidays didn't do much better. On Oct. 2, more than 180,000 visitors crammed into the Forbidden City. That's about six times more visitors than it normally receives in a day. Hundreds of thousands more made their way to the Great Wall, where crowds were literally shoulder-to-shoulder.
Hotel rates surged. Hotel rooms in Yunnan Province jumped more than 10-fold in price, and hotels throughout the country increased their rates 20% or more. Those hoping to make the short trip between Kunming and the historic city of Lijiang found themselves stuck in an 18-hour traffic jam.
It was a good reminder for us. When we lived in Vietnam, we experienced the mania of Táº¿t, which will be on the 10th of February this year. Millions of Vietnamese head out of the cities to visit their families in the countryside. Millions more head to the beaches and the main tourist sites, creating transportation gridlock throughout the country. The trains are packed for several weeks before the holidays, then stop running altogether for several days. Grocery stores close and many hotels lock their doors. Those remaining open often drastically increase their rates. Food prices, especially at the markets, frequently double.
There is a good reason for all this: Táº¿t symbolizes the end of the old year and the start of the new one, and paying off debt is an expected way to properly close out the previous year. Unfortunately, proprietors paying off their debts may translate into new debts for you!
Táº¿t coincides with the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated throughout Southeast Asia and the Orient. Travel is very heavy during this period. Flights, trains, and buses fill up quickly, hotel rates skyrocket, and many businesses close for the week. This is not a good time to be scouting out Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, or most of Asia.
Unless you want to fast from sun-up to sundown, avoid traveling in Islamic areas during Ramadan (from July 9 to Aug. 7 this year). Muslim-owned restaurants and food outlets will be closed during the day. It is also considered improper to smoke cigarettes during this fasting time.
If you plan to go to northern and central Thailand, you may want to avoid traveling between April 13 and April 17, when the Songkran Festival is in full swing--unless you don't mind being drenched by revelers celebrating the Thai New Year with water pistols and buckets of ice water, all aimed at you (and your luggage). Travel and lodging in southern Thailand can become difficult and expensive around Christmas and New Year's, when hordes of winter-weary Scandinavians and Europeans descend upon the sunny southern beaches.
We had almost forgotten how overwhelming holidays can be, even in the Far East. When we made it back to Beijing, we hunkered down until after Golden Week, saving the trip to the Great Wall until the following week when traffic was manageable and the crowds had returned to work.
Had we been trying to conduct business during this period, we would have been wasting our time. Had we been trying to travel with a strict itinerary, we would have been horribly frustrated. Festivals and holidays can be a great time to experience a country but plan accordingly and know what you want to accomplish. If you're intending your visit as a chance to research, scout, and plan your move or retirement to that destination, you're likely better off traveling in the off-season.
Wendy JusticeContinue Reading:
Image source: Ariel Steiner
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
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