Clearer directions to Doho Lodge

It’s now my second week in Ethiopia (more on that eventually), and last weekend, we did a road trip to Doho Lodge. The lodge was absolutely fabulous, as you will see from reviews elsewhere. Incredible hot springs (some of the best I’ve ever been to), really nice lodging, and limited–but absolutely delicious–food options (including a few non-Ethiopian and child-friendly options like pasta, rice, and sandwiches).

There’s only one thing to be wary of: mosquitoes – take lots of repellent and make sure that your rooms are closed in the evenings, and that the bed nets are down. If sleeping outside (highly recommended for the amazing firefly displays), check that the nets are properly installed and that there aren’t any holes in the nets!

Anyway, when I was researching the lodge, I found that it was very difficult to understand the directions to the lodge from the website, and didn’t see any other guidance from other blogs about Doho Lodge. Although the route is well signposted, Google Maps doesn’t have the latest information about gravel and asphalt roads in that area, so I thought I’d put up clearer instructions in case others search for it and want to find out how easy it is to get there.

From Addis, you take the A1 all the way down to Awash (or Awash Saba) town, and continue on the A1 (you take a left turn after Awash town to stay on A1, towards Djibouti, when you get to this T-junction) past Awash Arba town, for about 8 kilometers until you get to this point on the map (9°11’28.8″N 40°09’00.7″E). Here, there is a sign to turn left to Doho Lodge, and it’s also marked in Google Maps as “Doho Lodge Main Road“. Take the left turn, and continue down the very good asphalt road (not shown in Google maps at all – as either a gravel or an asphalt road) for seven kilometers, until this point in the map (9°10’14.8″N 40°04’56.7″E). Here, just after a small local community security checkpoint, there’s a signpost for Doho Lodge to the left. This is the start of a 7 kilometer gravel road (of very good quality – easily passable with a regular 2wd vehicle) until you get to the lodge.

Here are some pictures from Google Maps:

Getting my Garmin Forerunner to properly Sync with Spotify

Just a quick note on my experience getting my Garmin device to sync with Spotify. I see from the Garmin Forum and Reddit that this seems to be a notoriously difficult challenge. On my home network (which uses Orbi Wifi routers broadcasting at both 2.4 and 5ghz), no matter what I did, my Forerunner 745 would not download my running playlist on Spotify. I tried everything with no success- bringing the device closer to the router, creating a dedicated 2.4ghz network on my router, and trying to reinstall Spotify on the watch and restart the device. At best, the device would download one song at a time before announcing that the sync failed (red circle with an error message).

Ultimately, what worked, was when I created a 2.4ghz hotspot on my Windows PC (connected to the internet via an ethernet cable to the router), and got the device to use this wireless network. The sync then worked flawlessly (and very quickly).

tl;dr: Creating a 2.4ghz exclusive hotspot and connecting my watch to that wifi network fixed my Spotify sync errors.

Visiting the Urungach Lake: Rules/Advice as of June 2020

Just a quick little file note in case people want to know the latest rules – and are looking for some practical advice – about visiting the Urungach Lakes (also known as the Jade Lakes or Нефритовые озера Урунгач) in Uzbekistan. We found lots of advertorials about the lakes, and some rough guidance on the tracks and difficulty levels, so here are some extra details that we wish we’d known but couldn’t easily find online.

The lakes are about a 3-3.5 hr drive from Tashkent city, depending on your vehicle and the condition of the roads. The remoteness of the lakes and the lack of any tourist infrastructure makes it one of the most wonderful highlights in the wider Tashkent region (viloyat) area.

If you are a foreigner residing in Uzbekistan, you do not need a permit to visit the lakes anymore, at least as of June 2020. This was confirmed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs office in Gazalkent, which seemingly has authority over the frontier/border permit regime for the road to the lake. At the frontier area checkpoint on the road towards Piskom, the border guards will check your passport and registration details (the propiska stamp in your passport). They may ask for your diplomatic accreditation. This is a big positive development, as getting a permit can sometimes be a hassle. I do not know if this same permit-free regime applies to tourists who do not live in Uzbekistan.

You also do need any special permits to camp overnight. You just arrive at the national park entrance and pay the entrance fees. The turnoff to get to the campsite is not well signed in Google Maps, but Yandex Maps has an excellent route map all the way to the bottom lake).

Best time to go: We hear that mid-to-end spring is the best (May-ish), but our attempt to go then was thwarted by COVID-19. We went in June 2020 after the easement of internal travel and tourism restrictions, and the water levels in the lower lake were less than peak but still gorgeous. The upper lake looks like it’s an all-year water body, but all the colors and photography happens at the more scenic lower lake which ebbs and rises seasonally. The water will decrease even further in the next few weeks/months and by end-Summer there’s almost no water. Tradeoff if you go in April/May: it gets biting cold at night. Even in peak summer in June, it was 12 degrees Celsius at night, which is cold enough to need a sleeping bag with some insulation, or thicker clothes.

Best way to get there: Once you arrive in Chorbog/Charvak, make sure you get onto the left-hand side of the Charvak Reservoir lake. Otherwise, you’ll add another hour to your journey time at the very least. Drive on the road to left of the Reservoir lake all the way past Sijak. As the water becomes more jade-colored, you’ll get to a fork where the main road is a U-turn into the bridge to Nanai. Don’t take that, but instead take the left fork and continue straight on. Yandex Maps has all of this very clearly signed in the route directions. The Piskom/Pskem river is always to your right.

Road conditions: From the fork across the river from Nanai, it’s a gravel road (or what has become one over time) with varying degrees of potholes. Shortly after you take your final left turn towards the park, you’ll find a car park after which the road conditions worsen considerably into just a rocky track. Set aside about 1 to 1.25 hours for the section from the Nanai fork to the Urungach turnoff.

Vehicle advice: For all-season access, you need a vehicle with 4×4 – differential lock and low-range capability. Now that doesn’t mean that the locals don’t try getting up there with a Chevy Cobalt, but the ones that do try tend to have two or three strong family members running behind the car to keep pushing it out of ruts. There are some particularly steep inclines where a low-range capable vehicle is needed. If you don’t have a good vehicle, don’t sweat: at the car park you can organize a Niva transfer to the lake. Make sure to make return arrangements as there’s no cellphone reception at the lakes. Also make sure to bargain for a ride. Though we didn’t need one, the rate fell from 100,000 soms to 45,000 soms one-way within 10 seconds of discussions.

Camping advice: Once you arrive at the lake, please let the ranger know you would like to camp. You’re ability to camp on the lake itself is lottery, so your options are the campsite about 8 minutes before the lake, or a chance at the lottery via practicing your best Uzbek to get the ranger’s permission to camp on the lake. We succeeded with the later, and there is a gorgeous little area about 10 minutes down the track towards the upper lake where you can scramble down some rocks to an old nut tree. It’s just at the point where the river widens into the lower lake. There are two sites under the tree, and if you walk from the nut tree towards the water and turn the corner on the left, there is another flat area where you can pitch a few more tents. The nut tree site is far enough from the water for year-round safe camping, but the other site closer to the river may be risky when water levels are higher or are subject to rise. The only other option is to camp at the lakefront, but on the weekends it’s absolutely chockablock with visitors, and even on weekdays is not a very private/quiet area.

The campsite on the lake is a bit more compact and so not a lot of safe spaces for kids to run around and play. It’s also a good 10-min walk from the lakefront from where you have to carry everything you’ll need for your stay. But the bonus is being right by the water, the thunderous noise of the water, and the sheer isolation of being all by yourself when the day-visitors go home.

We didn’t see the other campsite, but friends of ours camped there, and it’s a lovely flat grassy piece of land near a creek. Lots of trees to climb and play with, and some open space for kids.

There’s a “bio-toilet” 300-400m before the lake. Other than that, there are no other facilities, so it’s either a shovel or a bag. Consider the bag as the whole area is a water source that could be polluted. There is no treated potable water, although the ranger swore that the river water was pristine and potable. We didn’t chance it and carried our water with us. If you’re traveling light, a water filter or tablets are a must.

Lots of insects and relentlessly burning sun. Bring insect repellent and sunscreen.

Wear good shoes that have a good grip: the rocks and somewhat slippery track to the upper lake need solid footwear that can hug the ground on the inclines.

Track to the upper lake: It was harder than we expected it to be. The track to the upper lake is unmissable. Left of the lower lake, it’s the only track. Lots of rockfalls, so be careful for the first part until the track opens up into the climbing section. The lower lake is at 1371m ASL. The upper lake is 1522m ASL. The track from the lower to upper lake is a easy-to-medium difficulty hike of about 40-50m without kids, and about 1:15 with kids. It comprises a flat section of about 500m, before a series of switchbacks takes you up very quickly the 150 odd meters that separates the two lakes. Be careful with kids: there is a lot of loose rock and scree-like material, making it very easy to slip all the time in the vertical section.

The water is bloody cold: The water temperature makes swimming in the NZ ocean feel like a sauna. It’s biting cold – in the single digits Celsius, even in the peak of the 45-degree tinderbox Uzbekistan summer. The lower lake is supposed to be colder than the upper. Both felt close enough to ice for me not to know the difference.

Reeder 4 Initial Installation

For the longest time, I’ve consumed most of my (non-Twitter) news via RSS feeds. RSS feeds are an incredibly convenient way of bringing different newsfeeds from different websites and informations sources together.

I’ve experimented with different types of RSS readers over the years, and my favorites have been Digg, Unread, and more recently, I’ve switched back to Reeder 4 after hating it for years. Reeder is quick, and its new redesign makes it a lot more intuitive to use. The only annoyance with Reeder, however, is the exceptionally slow initial setup time. When you install it on a new device, it parses through the entire history of every news source – often accumulating up to 40,000 stories. And until it’s done with this initial startup, which can sometimes take hours, you cannot refresh to find new news stories.

I don’t seem to be able to find a way to restrict Reeder’s searches of news sources (or more technically the RSS XML files) to the last [x] number of entries. I thought I’d write this up in case someone else has faced a similar issue and has found a fix.

Understanding Chase’s awful terrible no good Verified by Visa integration.

This is a long and somewhat technical rant.

tl;dr: If you are planning to spend lengthy periods outside the United States, or are someone who frequently buys things on overseas websites, using the Chase Sapphire as your primary card is a major challenge due to the way Chase chooses to manage Verified by Visa authentication for Chase cards. The card also has a few other flaws (no embossed numbers, all family cards with the same number and CVV code), which further weaken the card’s reliability. You cannot count on it to always work abroad or to work when you need it most (e.g. time-sensitive situations where something is about to sell out). By using the Chase Sapphire as a primary card, you are also increasing the failure rate of your back-up credit cards cards as a result of underutilization (which increases precautionary card suspensions). This could leave you totally screwed when you need to pay for something urgently. I would cry too if it happened to you.

The details:

3-D Secure technologies, which add an additional layer of verification security to online credit card transactions, have been around for more than a decade. Verified by Visa, MasterCard SecureCode, and American Express Safe Key are the most popular examples of 3-D Secure deployments. If you use your credit card to buy online outside the United States, you’ve almost certainly come across these technologies.

The customer experience of this technology has largely remained unchanged since when it were first launched in the late 2000s: enter your card details – if they’re right, you’ll get some additional verification questions or be asked to enter a One Time Password from your mobile device, and if that’s authenticated, the transaction is then processed.

Two decisions are needed to make this system work. First, the easy one: merchants have to opt-in to use the technology. Adoption brings with it the benefits of lower risks from fraudulent transactions, but a higher risk of something going wrong with the transaction since it involves an extra processing step that requires a number of systems to talk to each other. It looks like this isn’t a big issue: adoption seems to be fairly wide spread in non-US markets (e.g. 82 percent in Netherlands). In the US, fears of addition additional friction to online transactions has led to very low adoption rates – around 5 percent.

Second, credit card issuing banks (e.g. Chase) need to make an investment decision. They need to decide what type of fence they will put in place for the additional authentication. This could be asking for your mother’s maiden name, a random sub-set of challenge questions, or a one-time password sent to your mobile device. So this decision involves adoption costs. The card company’s 3-D Secure system needs to be able to talk to the Bank’s customer information database to authenticate the extra security questions.

With merchant adoption rates high outside the US, Banks have long invested in running technologically costly – but easy to use – verification systems (e.g. challenge questions). Because the net benefits probably add up. So 3-D Secure transactions when you have both a non-US credit card – and a non-US based merchant – move like a breeze.

American Banks, which for the longest time have largely underinvested in these systems, have slowly begun to catch up. Slowly.

Enter Chase. A bank that prides itself on offering the very best of financial services for travelers, epitomized by its near-magnificent Chase Sapphire Card. The Sapphire is heralded by popular card review websites as the best thing since sliced bread for international travelers. And mostly, it is exactly that. No fees, travel credits, good earning rates, cash back, premium lounge services, etc. It’s marketed almost entirely as a card dedicated to the American on the go. Recently, I was at a restaurant with my manager and lead economist, and when it was time to pay our split bill, we all whipped out our Chase Sapphires at the same time to pay. Sad but true.

But while the bells and whistles are really cool (especially when you use points to buy tickets) the Chase Sapphire is highly unreliable as it relies on Chase’s terrible awful no-good junk approach to 3-D Secure (Verified by Visa) verification. For some reason – whether a genuine corporate cost-benefit decision, or a petty spat between Chase and Visa (as suggested to me by one of Chase’s fraud team managers) – Chase uses an extremely tedious and completely anachronistic method. To understand how VbV works for Chase cards, here is an example:

  1. Click to buy the last remaining seat on the aircraft.

  2. Review itinerary, and proceed to check out and pay for the ticket.

  3. Enter payment details: card number and details, address, etc.

  4. Press “Confirm” and wait.

  5. Merchant has opted to use Verified by Visa, so before the transaction is approved, it activates the VbV system.

  6. VbV talks to Chase and sends the customer Chase’s authentication approach.

  7. The customer sees a screen that says something to the effect of, “This transaction cannot be completed online. Please call Chase on xxx xxx xxx to complete it.”

The messaging from Chase at this stage is confusing. Often, the transaction is still on hold pending VbV verification – but the wording is so confusing that I’d bet my savings that most customers usually give up and redo the transaction to try another credit card.

In fact, the transaction is still active and pending VbV verification, but I needed to call Chase to complete the transaction. Without closing my browser window, I need to call Chase, answer some security questions that the VbV team will ask, and if they are correct, the VbV team will manually approve the VbV authentication.

Oh wait – there’s a catch: you will need to dial this number even if you are overseas and need to pay out of your nose for the phone call. The number you dial leads you to an automated operator, and then places you into a queue where you need to wait to speak to a VbV team member.  And while for general customer service Chase Sapphire members get premium phone lines, this one is a generic number that places you into a queue with all chase credit card customers waiting to deal with a fraud or VbV issue. 9 times out of 10 when I have had to do this, my transaction times out while I’m still waiting on the phone because the queues can be enormous. And when you’re abroad, the costs of that phone call can be exorbitant.

This entire circus is especially unsuitable for time-sensitive transactions. If you end up needing to VbV your Chase transaction, you are virtually guaranteed that you lost that last seat on the plane, and those tickets to the Taylor Swift concert in Amsterdam (that you set an alarm to wake up at 2 AM for so you could snatch a ticket in the first 30 seconds before the concert sold out). 👋🏽 Tay-Tay! Maybe next time.

I have lost plane seats, event tickets, low prices on things like cars, etc. It has been a nightmare. And more frequently these days, I’m noticing that whenever there’s a 3-D Secure (VbV) transaction involved, I am just getting outright rejections when I use my Chase card. Merchant processing banks may be blacklisting Chase’s VbV approach because of the huge delays it entails before a transaction can be finalized. I recently tried to buy some ferry tickets for a forthcoming trip to Cabo Verde and ran into this problem. Thankfully, my Capital One Card (which uses OTP based authentication to my mobile) worked and I managed to snap up the last few seats on the ferry.

Having a back-up card with you for VbV transactions certainly can help. But even then, there’s a catch for time-sensitive transactions. Because you probably don’t use your back-up card that often, in a time-sensitive overseas online transaction, there’s a high chance your back-up card may shut down the transaction for fraud. This happened to me with the ferry tickets – it got rejected the first time I tried, and I needed to call Capital One to lift the fraud hold, after which `the transaction (and the VbV) worked.

So if you are an American abroad or a frequent overseas traveller, and especially if you buy things online abroad where 3-D secure adoption is extremely high, think eighty times before deciding on a Chase credit card (like the Chase Sapphire) as your main card. I first noticed some basic coverage of this issue on this website, but thought I’d use this post to fill in the details of how and why it happens in case others are trying to understand what’s going on when they have a failed transaction and google “Chase verified by visa”. That article from 2015 also points out that not having a number embossed on your card can also cause issues overseas in case electronic payment terminals fail to work. The Chase Sapphire cannot be used when manual card processing is required (those old clunky machines that physically swipe over your card with high pressure to imprint the card number on an inked credit card charge slip). I would also add a third negative to the Sapphire (and possibly all Chase cards): all additional cards have the same number and CVV code as the main cardholder. So when one card gets stolen all cards have to be locked and replaced with a new card. And as you may have experienced first hand: credit cards tend to get stolen or lost a bit more often when you’re traveling overseas.

For an international traveler – it’s critical that your card works well with the systems it is interacting with overseas. The Chase Sapphire might have nice bells and whistles, but is an immensely flawed tool for a global traveler – one that is almost certain to bring you lots of frustration, and potentially some awkward and embarrassing moments. You’ve been warned.

Disclaimer: While I’m a payments systems aficionado, I’m not an expert, so I may have some of the more technical process details wrong or partially depicted in this post. But hopefully I have the right broad intuition of what goes on with 3-D S transactions more generally, and with Chase’s VbV implementation more specifically.

End of rant.

So long Digg Reader

RSS feeds are my crack cocaine – I spend hours a day on my feeds consuming news, information and everything in between. So the quality of my RSS reader is supremely important to me, and I’m really fussy about my reading experience.

When I read the Google Blog announcement that Google Reader would be discontinued in 2013, I remember feeling an acute sense of panic. I loved Google Reader for its simplicity, even if I had to suffer the Gmail-like interface (which I detest), and it was really convenient to run through a large number of feeds in short time. Other RSS readers like Newsblur, The Old Reader and Feedly were either too clunky or too undercooked at the time.

So Digg’s announcement about the launch of its Reader came as a big relief to me. It was perfect – simple, quick, easy to work with, and didn’t require you to make sense of the main Digg site which still feels like a pointless waste of time. Anyway, Digg became the perfect sequel to Google Reader.

I switched from Digg Reader to Feedbin a year ago, because Feedbin has amazing feed management tools, and is even simpler and cleaner than Digg. But every once in a while, my brain will still decide to fart and instruct my fingers to type out the URL for Digg Reader instead of Feedbin – the result of a habit of accessing Digg Reader 30 times a day for three years.

So it was sad to read about the closure of Digg Reader. You will be missed. I hope that being the subject of my first long blog post in more than five years is a sufficient tribute!