This is the End

Around the world in 570 Days. Not bad. The tail end of the trip, through the Caucasus and Turkey, proved just as rich and full as any other period during my 19 months of roaming around. I’m now ready to settle down for a minute or two, or so I think, in the motherland.

Remy and I took a trip to Qoboustan, about an hour outside of Baku, checking out the mud volcanoes along the way

Crossing the border from Iran into Azerbaijan meant  a couple of obvious changes. Seeing the duty free shop stocked with alcohol, the trade of which is banned in Iran (punishable by up to 74 lashes), was the first thing to catch my attention. The next, once well onto Azerbaijani territory, was seeing women’s hair, not to mention their curves, in public, another first for me in six weeks. Amazingly, they looked totally indecent to me. No worries, though, as my eyes quickly adjusted to the new horizon.


Mud cracks never get old.

I arrived to Baku late at night to the apartment of a friend of a friend I’d made in India six months earlier, Julie, with whom I stayed in Pondicherry and later visited Hampi. Baku, in a word or two, is an oil boom town with money to burn. As such, it simply lacks accommodation not geared towards oil executives with corporate cards. If it wasn’t for Julie’s friend Seva, who works at the French Cultural Institute, I would have rolled on through right into Georgia.


Window washing in Baku. Baku is riding the wave of a recent oil boom, and has built up an impressive skyline of super modern buildings from world class architects mixed in with a belle epoque old town, a remnant of the city's first oil boom at the turn of the 20th century

I spent a good portion of my time in Azerbaijan with another of Seva’s house guests, Remy, a Frenchman traveling around the former Soviet republics while working on a project in which he hands out disposable cameras to children and asks them to photograph the cities in which they live as they see it, later developing the film thanks to the traveling blackroom he moves with, and finally recording their impressions, all to be compiled into a series of photography exhibits in each of the ten cities to which he will travel, in part funded by the French government. This was a magnificent lens through which to explore Baku, and later Tbilisi and Yerevan, as Remy and I ended up teaming up for about a month. The nature of the project calls for discovering all districts of a city, so as to get a diverse pool of young photographers.


There's never a wrong time or place for a game of Backgammon in Georgia

Once Remy had a little free time from his project, we decided to take a day trip out to Qoboustan, about an hour’s ride from Baku, and home to several unique artifacts, including a field of constantly erupting mud volcanoes, as
well as a couple of ancient finds, including Ancient Roman grafitti and prehistoric rock wall art.


Georgian monk in T'bilisi

Heading on to my next destination, Georgia, I caught an all day bus straight to the capital, Tbilisi, a city I’d stopped into during my first visit to Georgia four years back, but a city which I’d never given enough time to really understand. As such, I rationed a week for Tbilisi, but as with so many travelers in Georgia, I didn’t leave before I’d spent almost two full weeks  there, postponing my departure on four different occasions. It was the awesome people I met that kept me wanting more.


The monastery lying above the village of Kazbegi in the Greater Caucasus. Mt. Kazbek, over 5000m high and, according to legend, the peak on which Prometheus was chained to after sharing the secret of fire with man, overlooks in the background

Besides the capital, I managed to take an overnight trip to Kazbegi, a small mountain village nestled in a valley below a 14th century monastery, itself perched high on a peak facing one of Georgia’s highest and best known peaks, Mt. Kazbek. Besides being over 5000m in elevation, Kazbek is supposedly the mountain to which the titan Prometheus was chained to after having shared the secret of fire with mankind, and where he was left for eternal torment by the gods, and where an eagle pecks out his liver everyday, only to have it grow back at night for the following day’s feast. While I never got close enough to prove the legend right or wrong, the setting was truly stunning.


Another take on the monastery above Kazbegi

Another day trip took Remy and me to Gori, birthplace of probably the most famous Georgian to walk the earth, Joseph Dzugashvili, or Stalin. Gori came into the spotlight more recently for other reasons, namely its role as punching bag during the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, ostensibly fought over the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia, but more likely a Russian punishment for Georgia’s ever closer ties with Europe and the United States. As one of the closest cities to the border with South Ossetia, Russian soldiers showed little mercy to Gori, bombing and burning large parts of the city to the ground. While there are few traces left of the war in terms of destruction of the city, the most touching reminder of what went down in 2008 are the numerous rows of cheap housing for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), the Georgians kicked out of their homeland during the war. Visiting the IDP settlements was a study in human agony, shame, and depression. Families that had for generations lived on the land that is today called South Ossetia were forced out of their homes with only what they could carry.


Ilia II, current Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and the spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country's main cathedral, Sameba


Woman in traditional Georgian dress in Sameba


I stumbled upon a wedding ceremony in a small church in T'bilisi. I look Georgian enough that no one questioned my presence, each side of the family concluding that I'm probably from the other side.


An opposition protest in front of the parliament building in T'bilisi. The crowd is calling for, among many things, the leaving of Russian troops from Georgian land occupied during the war in 2008.


Housing for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from South Ossetia. Georgia has set up settledments for the 100,000 or so IDPs all over the country.

After finally getting together the will to leave Georgia, Remy and I caught a minibus to Armenia, specifically to its capital, Yerevan. Besides getting to know the city by night, I managed to join my host for a three day excursion to climb the country’s highest mountain, Aragatz (4090m). A December ascent of Aragatz would be a stupid risk under normal circumstances, but considering the very late arrival of winter to the region this year, conditions were still bearable enough to give it a shot.


Stepan enjoying an after lunch nap during our approach march for Mt. Aragatz


We built a stone wall to protect our tent from the roaring winds, and to stay warm while we waited for night fall


Mt. Ararat, a holy mountain for Armenians, supposedly the landing spot of Noah's ark after the flood. Ararat lies in Turkey today, a painful fact for many Armenians

Stepan and I were met with quite a challenge, as the winds at our campsite approached hurricane force strength – we had to build a stone wall around the tent to keep it from blowing away. Besides being quite fun and a great way
to kill some time before nightfall, the construction of the Great Wall, as it came to be known, kept us warm as tempperatures started to drop well below freezing.


Huddling up on the summit of Armenia's highest mountain, Aragatz (4089 m). Despite the hurricane force winds, we were blessed with some really great weather, especially considering it was already December!

The day of the ascent was a long one, as thirteen hours passed before we could kick back. Urged on by the beautiful sunshine, but deterred by the roaring winds and bitter cold, we made it to the summit before noon, taking in the tremendous views in all directions, but in particular of Mt. Ararat, the most holy mountain for Armenians. Ararat lies on Turkish soil today, a really bitter reminder of Turkish domination over the small Caucasian republic. Having Ararat lie in Turkey is no different for Armenians than it would be for Indians to have the Ganges wholly in Pakistan.


Stepan on the summit

Getting back safely to Yerevan, I spent a day recovering before taking another trip outside the capital, this time to the 4th century cave monastery of Geghard, as well as the Ancient Roman sun temple at Garni. The land that is today Armenia is one of the cradles of human civilization, and these ancient religious sites, both of which show evidence of being occupied thousands of years ago, act as a reminder of this.


Geghard Monastery, about an hour outside of Yerevan, is built on the side of a mountain and occupies a series of caves.

From Armenia I hitched my way back into Georgia, through which one has to travel en route to Turkey. Armenia and Turkey do not have an open border crossing between the countries, as diplomatic relations between the two remain in very poor condition. Two main issues stand in the way: Armenia insists that Turkey admit responsibility for the genocide of probably several hundred thousand ethnic Armenians during WWI. Turkey argues that Armenians killed during this period were victims of the war, not of an official systematic campaign to cleanse the lands of ethnic Armenians. Second, Turkey supports is ethnically Turkish brother in Azerbaijan regarding the age old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a battle over lands that both Armenia and Azerbaijan claim to be theirs. The Republic of Turkey insists Armenia back down if normal diplomatic relations are to come about.


Garni, a temple complex about an hour outside of Yerevan, whose origins can be traced back to the 3rd millenium BC. Armenia has a truly ancient history

From Georgia I made my way into Turkey, the last destination before taking the express way home to Poland. With the idea to make it home for Christmas, I had much less time for Turkey than originally planned. Extensions of my stays in Iran, Georgia and Armenia left me with only twelve days for this huge country. I decided that rather than push through all corners of the land, my time would be better spent getting intimate with one or two places. I chose to visit Ankara, the capital, and then to spentd the rest of my time in Istanbul.


The waters of Borjomi, back in Georgia, a sanatorium since the mid 19th century. It's also the source of one of Georgia's most famous exports, its Borjomi mineral water

Winding down in Istanbul was just what the doctor ordered. I had enough time to stock up on gifts for family and friends, as well as to partake in the joys of the Turkish kitchen, one of the best in my opinion.


The ovcharek kavkazki, or Caucasian shepherd, a vicious addition to any walk in the country-side. I became accustomed to walking with a stick and stones for self defense during my three day trek around Borjomi.

I’ve now finished the journey, at least physically speaking, since it will no doubt continue on in other ways. Thanks for following along.



Iran, like Alaska and India, was one of the “destinations” I’d planned to visit on my journey, one of the dots connected by lines. Six weeks is all I had, hardly adequate for this huge and diverse land, but a fair sample for my first visit nonetheless. I covered a few corners of the country, passing through Mashhad, Gorgan, Gonbad-e-Kavus, Karaj, Rasht, Ardebil, Astara, Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Chak Chak, Kharanaq, Tabriz, Kandovan, and of course Tehran, in which I ended up spending close to two weeks, using it as a base for travel, and feeling right at home by the end.

One of several entrances to the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashahd, the most important Shi'ah Muslim pilgrimage site in Iran. Imam Reza, the Eighth Imam, is buried in a mausoleum within the complex.

A full discussion of my stay in Iran should delve deeply into topics such as politics and religion (and the combination of the two), but this is not the forum for that. I’d like to visit Iran again some day, reason enough to practice a little discretion in what is written, or rather what is not written.


Kang, a stepped village outside of Mashhad. The roof of each home is the terrace of the one above it

My first stop could not have been in a more appropriate place. Mashhad is Iran’s second largest and most holy city, a sprawling metropolis centered around the shrine complex built for Shi’ah Islam’s Eighth Imam, Imam Reza. The only one of the Twelve Imams buried in Iran (the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Mohammad, according to Shi’ah Islam), Imam Reza was buried in what is today Mashhad after being poisoned to death by the Abbasids, a rival sect of Muslims, in the ninth century. Apparently looking Iranian enough (the beard goes a long way), I managed to enter the mausoleum itself (normally reserved for Muslims), where the faithful mourn for the death of the Imam, some people being brought to tears as if he passed away yesterday. It was absolutely electrifying; the feelings were contagious, and I found myself with the chills.


Climbing up the steps in Kang

After visiting the shrine, I took a day trip with a group of Czechs to the stepped village of Kang, about 40 minutes outside of Mashhad.  There weren’t many travelers with which to hook up while in Iran, but this was hardly a problem. One is never alone in Iran, as there is no shortage of totally genuine people wanting nothing more than to exhibit a little bit of the hospitality for which Iranians are so famous. Asking for directions on the street inevitably ends in something so much more, whether it’s being led by the hand to the destination in question, or getting an invitation for tea or lunch, sometimes an exchange of numbers to meet up on a later date, or even just a friendly conversation, it seemed like any and all interactions resulted in a new friendship of sorts.


School girls in Kang

Besides a trip to Kang, I joined a couple of newly minted Iranian friends for an excursion outside of Mashhad and into the Binaloud Mountains to climb its highest peak, Mt. Binaloud (3210 m). We hitched a ride in a rickety old truck, and were lucky enough to find it filled with members of the Iranian Mountaineering Federation with plans to head up the same mountain as us. As we didn’t have a guide for the hike, teaming up with them was a blessing. They even offered us a lift home once we’d descended back to the trail head the following day.


We hitched a ride to the trail-head in a rickety old truck


Mohammad Reza and Vali during the bumpy ride up


We stayed the night in a shelter before our early morning climb


Summit of Mount Binaloud (3210m), the highest peak in Khorasan Province of Iran


With Mahdi on the summit

From Mashhad I traveled West, stopping in Gorgan. I managed a trip to nearby Gonbad-e-Kavus, a largely ethnically Turkmen city, as well as home to an impressive 72 meter tower built 1000 years ago, and still in perfect condition. Iran boasts several different ethnic groups – besides the majority Persians (they are NOT Arabs), the country has sizable minority populations of Azeris (known in Iran as Turks for their Turkish descent, not to mention language and culture), Turkmens, many of whom escaped to Iran following the Soviet occupation of their native land in what is today Turkmenistan, Baluchis, Arabs, and others.


Gonbad-e-Kavus, a 1000 year old tower in the Caspian region of NE Iran, a majority ethnically Turkmen area of the country

From Gorgan I caught a bus to Tehran, Iran’s sprawling capital, packed full with an estimated 15 million people in the metropolitan area. I arrived early in the morning, just in time to take the metro during peak rush hour. After not finding the room to squeeze into the first subway car, I caught on that this had to be no different than the L train in Brooklyn on a Monday, and that I simply had to put my head down and charge, like I used to do every morning. Sure enough, my 24 kg bag and I had no problem forcing the right of way onto the next train, and I proceeded on to North Tehran to my Couchsurfing host.


Faniz, one of many new Tehrani friends, in her apartment

Tehran is hardly a tourist hub, not because there isn’t much to see (there’s enough to keep busy for weeks), but rather because it can become overwhelming with the constant chaos of everyday life, not to mention the suffocating pollution. But, like in Delhi during my travels in India, it was the friends I made in Tehran that made it such an attractive place to spend so much time, and the chaos actually turned endearing.


I spent the weekend in Karaj, an hour outside of Tehran, staying at a friend's place. You see, not all women in Iran wear black outside the home. However, hips and hair and any other curves must be covered.

I was quite a nomad in Tehran, shifting between Couchsurfing hosts, and later moving into the flat of my good friend, Amir Ali, with whom I studied in NYC. Currently living in Dubai, Amir Ali dropped into Tehran for a few days while I was there. It was great catching up with an old friend, and we even managed to put together a road trip to the Caspian coast, being  joined by a couple of other friends. Amir Ali, Ali Reza, Micky, Francois (the same Francois as in Uzbekistan – our hare-brained plan to maybe meet up in Tehran materialized, and even led to another month of shared travels) and I filled up the Nissan Patrol that would take us to Rasht, Masuleh, Astara and Ardebil over an intense 48 hrs.

That's no giant fruit roll-up - it's a blazing hot coil of steel weighing over 20 tons. We stopped into a steel plant on our way to Masuleh


After a bright and early start from Tehran, with Micky at the wheel, we reached the area around Rasht, eventually getting to Masuleh, a picturesque stepped village and a popular destination among local tourists. Some people imagine Iran to be a vast desert land, but pay a visit to the Caspian coast, and Iran’s dense forest side shows itself, where it rains more often than not. Indeed two huge deserts do cover a majority of the eastern end of the country (Dasht-e-Kavir and Kavir-e-Lut), but the mountains (Zagros and Albroz ranges) and forested lands add an entirely different element to the country’s geography.


Micky and the Nissan Patrol, our ride for the road trip

After a communal stop at the barber’s, with nearly all of us getting at least a beard trim (getting one’s hair cut on the road is so much more exciting – one never knows exactly what end result to expect), we powered on until Astara, on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. The next day we braved the cold of the Caspian Sea and went for a morning swim. The Caspian is not known for being the cleanest body of water – between the Volga River, and all that’s pumped into it, flowing in from up north, to the countless oil and natural gas related pollutants seeping out of the energy infrastructure,  it hardly makes the grade. However, Iran does have the cleanest water of the Caspian’s littoral states, complete with waves and sandy beaches, so it was definitely worth our visit.


Masuleh, a stepped village outside of Rasht, shrouded in a mist common in the Caspian region, the wettest in Iran

The next day included a magnificent drive through the mountains and up to Ardebil, first for a pilgrimage to the Ali Daei Stadium, as Ardebil is home town of the football legend of the same name (more on that later), and later a pilgrimage of another sort to the Sheikh Safi al-Din Khānegāh and Shrine Ensemble, where lies the great Sufi mystic of the same name. After getting our fill of both of Iran’s principle religions, Islam and football, we continued on for a disappointing stop in Sareyn, apparently known for its hot springs, and finally a marathon drive all the way back to Tehran, with Micky at the wheel the entire time. We each passed out one-by-one in the truck, but Micky powered on.


Amir Ali in Masuleh


Chris, Ali Reza, Amir Ali, Francois and Micky in Masuleh


We went for a swim in the Caspian Sea near the Azerbaijan border at Astara. The water was cold, the wind was strong as hell, and we loved it.


We visited Ardebil, home town of football legend Ali Daei, and it's brand new stadium. Amir Ali going up for a header.


Mausoleum for Sheikh Safi-od-Din, a renowned Sufi mystic, in Ardebil.

Following a day of recovery in Tehran, Amir Ali gathered nearly the same group for one of the biggest football matches of the year, the Tehran derby, or Derby Sorkhabi. The match up is between the two most popular teams in Iran (both hailing from the capital), Persepolis (pronounced Pers’polis) FC and Esteghlal FC, and easily fills the country’s biggest stadium, at the Azadi Sports Complex, which can hold over 120,000 fans, splitting it down the middle into a sea of red (Persepolis supporters) and blue (Esteghlal).


Our custom jerseys for the Persepolis-Esteghlal match - the Tehran derby - a match up between Iran's two most popular teams.

The match is especially important for Amir Ali, as the head coach of Persepolis (the most popular football team in Asia) is his old friend, football legend Ali Daei, former captain of the Iranian National Football team and the world’s leading goalscorer in international matches, ahead of Pelé and Maradonna and any other name you can think of. Probably Ali Daei’s biggest fan, Amir Ali custom ordered some jersey’s for us to wear, with “Soltan Ali Daei” (King Ali Daei) printed on the front, and our names on the back. We arrived to the stadium hours before kickoff, so as to reserve some good seats.  We sat in suspense throughout the match, hesitantly accepting the nil-nil draw as the clock entered extra time, only to be utterly shocked when Esteghlal striker F. Majidi launched the ball into the net a minute into extra time, shattering the mood of some 60,000 people in the stadium, and millions of others watching on television. It was a deep blow.


Our jerseys for the derby. Soltan Ali Daei, or King Ali Daei, printed on the front on a Persepolis red


Azadi Sports Complex stadium with a full house of over 120,000 supporters for the Persepolis-Esteghlal match. Only a row of policemen divides the seas of red and blue.


Francois really getting into it, much to the delight of his neighbors

That night, Amir Ali and I were invited to the birthday celebration of Ali Daei’s wife, Mona, which everyone hoped would double as a victory celebration over Esteghlal, especially considering that Persepolis had emerged victorious at the previous derby. A solemn mood prevailed at the party.


With Amir Ali heading back home to Dubai the following day, Francois and I put together a rough schedule for exploring some of Central Iran, namely visiting Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd.

Meidun-e Imam Khomeini in Esfahan - the world's second largest square, after Tiananmen in Beijing, only this one was built in the 16th century.


Imam Mosque, formerly called the Shah Mosque, in Esfahan

Esfahan is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Add to this the fact that it is still very much full of life, with vibrant bazaars in the center, working mosques and medrassahs, and a most spectacular square, the Meidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, and it really does not disappoint. The Persians called this old capital Nesf-e-Jahan (half the world), meaning that to see it was to see half the world, and also referring to it as a point where many cultures and nationalities met and mingled, being a true cosmopolitan city.


Western woman wearing a chador in the mosque. It hardly suits her.


Interior of the dome of Imam Mosque - a photo cannot do it justice


Woman in chador at Imam Mosque


The exterior ivan of the Imam Mosque


Panorama of the square as seen from Ali Ghapu Palace

Siosepol bridge straddles the Zayendeh River in Esfahan


Old school door with distinct door knockers for men and women. Which door knocker is used signals to the woman inside whether she needs to be in hejab (cover herself) when opening the door

From Esfahan, we headed further south to another old Persian capital, Shiraz. Besides making a pilgrimage to the mausoleum of maybe the most-loved Persian poet, Hafez, we planned to use Shiraz as a jump-off point for visiting the old ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis. Built by a series of big-named emperors, including Darius, Xerxes and Ataxerxes, Persepolis was once the wealthiest city on the planet, used as a place to receive tribute from vassal states of the empire.


Overlooking the ruins of the once great city Persepolis outside of Shiraz

Francois and I decided beforehand to spend the night near the city ruins, so as to see it at a relaxed pace over two days (and to visit nearby sites at Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargad), packing a tent and sleeping bags for some parking lot camping, a well accepted practice in Iran. The details of the countless reliefs that cover the walls, stairs, and columns of Persepolis are a testament to the greatness and sophistication of Persia and its people in the sixth century, when most structures were completed. At the time of the city’s construction, Europe, with the notable exception of the Greeks, was little more than  a disorganized band of tribes running around naked and washing once a lifetime. Proud Persians will happily remind you of this fact.

200 year-old graffiti near the entrance to Persepolis


Cuneiform writing on the wall


Pictures of kings from far-away lands bringing tribute to Darius adorn the walls of Persepolis


The southern steps leading up to the Apadana, or Audience Hall

After visiting the ruins, Francois and I sat down for a quick tea, after which we planned to find a nice piece of asphalt on which to pitch our tent. Within minutes of sitting down, however, we were approached by two men, one speaking just a few words of English, asking to join us at our table. Sure enough, moments later, we were invited to their home, all squeezing onto one motorbike for the bumpy 2 km ride. We shared a very memorable evening, staying up well into the night.


The Appadana in Persepolis

With some difficulty, we got up the next morning to continue our Ancient Persia tour, hitching our way to Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargad. Naqsh-e Rustam, about 12 km from Persepolis, is the resting place of most of the Achaemenid Emperors. It also features several impressive reliefs highlighting the glory of Ancient Persia, including one which depicts the Sassanid King Shahpur I triumphing over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab, both of whom fatally failed the further expansion of the Roman Empire onto the Iranian plateau, instead dying at the hands of the Persians. I’m somewhat disappointed that neither of these stories ever made it into my elementary school textbook.


Relief depicting Shahpur I's victories over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab - one was taken prisoner, the other killed in battle

From there we journeyed on to Pasargad, some 80 km away, with a retired Brazilian gentleman and his tour guide. Pasargad was the capital built by Cyrus the Great, responsible for turning the Achaemenid Kingdom into an empire. Not nearly as impressive as the ruins at Persepolis, having a tour guide to question incessantly about the history of the empire, as well as paying homage to Cyrus the Great at his tomb, made the trip well worth it.


The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargad

After a night back in Shiraz, Francois and I headed northwest to the desert oasis city of Yazd, perhaps best known as the center for Zoroastrian culture in Iran, as well as a major stop on the Silk Road. We unexpectedly stayed a full week in Yazd, having a most amazing host, taking day trips from the city, and even making it into the desert mountains for a night under the stars.


Arabic calligraphy at Masjed Jome in Yazd


Inside Masjed Jome in Yazd


We visited a confectionery factory in Yazd, a city famous throughout Iran for its sweets


Zoroastrian Tower of Silence outside of Yazd. Believing both fire and earth to be sacred, Zoroastrians would neither cremate nor bury their dead, instead leaving them in these towers to be picked apart by vultures.


Farvahar, a Zoroastrian symbol, on the walls of the temple at Chak-Chak, one of the most important Zoroastrian pilgrimage sites


Francois overlooking the near deserted village of Kharanaq


Francois and I found a rocky patch of mountain outside Kharanaq to spend the night. The full moon really lit up the night


We woke up with quite a view


A lazy morning outside of Kharanaq

From Yazd, we planned to stop in Kashan, about 3 hrs south of Tehran, on our way back to the capital. We missed the turnoff, too deeply tuned into our MP3 players, and instead got off at Qom, the center of Shi’ah Muslim learning, from where emerged most of the religious leaders of the current Islamic Republic of Iran. We searched for a place to stay, only to discover that the city did not have a single room available, on account of the fact that Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i, was in town for the weekend, and pilgrims from all around had come to see him speak at Friday prayers. Improvising a little, we decided to pitch our tent in a paved section of the center of town where once a river flowed, taking a queue from the other pilgrims already sleeping there.


Our ride back to Yazd

My last week in Iran was spent catching up with now old friends in Tehran. I got into a steady rhythm, finding it difficult to leave, but eventually heading northwest to Tabriz, the capital of the Turkish region of Iran, Azerbaijan, which borders the country the Republic of Azerbaijan. I spent a couple of days exploring the city, and even took a day trip out to Kandovan, a picturesque village an hour outside of Tabriz, nick-named the Cappadoccia of Iran, famous for its troglodyte dwellings.


Our campsite in Qom - there were no more hotel rooms available on account of the Ayatollah Khameini coming to town, so we improvised

I’m now in Armenia (Yerevan), having already passed through Azerbaijan and Georgia. I’ll be back in Georgia soon, from where I’ll cross to Turkey and the terminus, Istanbul.


Dead West through Central Asia

I was prepared for a little solo travel in Central Asia after bidding my old friend Max farewell in Tashkent. Little did I know that a chance meeting with a French traveler on the street would turn into weeks of shared adventure. Francois and I teamed up to explore the main cities of Uzbekistan – Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. After all the blue tiles of the magnificent Islamic structures started to look alike, we even made it into the countryside for an unforgettable four days of village-hopping with some of the most insanely welcoming people I’d ever met. Following my run through Uzbekistan, I rolled right through Turkmenistan in 5 days flat, all that my transit visa would allow for, stopping in Mary and Ashgabat, the capital, before continuing on into Iran, from where I write this post.

One of three medrassahs (Muslim university) at The Registan in Samarkand

The most obvious difference I felt when crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan was the sudden lack of a shared language. I was sure that citizens of the post-Soviet states speak fluent Russian, but apparently Uzbekistan, more so than the other Central Asian republics, was effective in expelling Russian language and culture from its everyday affairs, thanks to a strong promotion of its own age-old language and traditions. While many people still speak at least broken Russian, it was only the older generations with whom I could speak fluently, many of whom picked up Russian while serving in the Soviet Army years ago. English is slowly emerging as the second language of choice among the country’s youth, but Uzbek pride seems so strong as to keep even that in check.

Mussulman's father during a chay break in a small village near Langar

Tashkent was the Soviet Union’s fourth largest city – after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev – and was considered the capital of the Russian dominion over Central Asia. It’s sprawling metro and impressive cultural institutions are testament to the city’s status in the region. We hoped to catch a performance at Tashkent’s Alisher Navoi Theatre, world-famous for its ballet and opera, but found that the season had yet to start in mid September. At last, I’ll remember Tashkent best for its thousands of police men, dressed in green uniform and thus nicknamed “cucumbers.” Uzbekistan is a police state, whose government presence, particularly since the 2005 unrest in the eastern city of Andijon, which nearly led to the topple of long-standing President Islam Karimov, can be somewhat stifling. The movement of independent travelers is heavily controlled, as an official police registration is required for each night spent in the country, without which border crossings can turn very tricky, as the police can demand as much as 1000 USD for failing to comply. Fortunately, I have nothing but positive experiences to report, as luck remained on my side throughout.

I asked for a family portrait, and this is what I got...the wife/mother looking on from behind

The name Samarkand has, since childhood, stirred up memories of the stories from 1001 Arabian Nights, of nightingales and rose gardens complemented by bustling markets and magnificent mosques. I was more than a little excited to finally put a face with the name, and more than a little disappointed to discover that the city had been recently sterilized to make way for wealthy European tourists. While the Registan, the heart of the city for a thousand years, and home to some of the most glamorous man-made structures I’d ever seen (three imposing medrassahs, or Islamic universities, surround the main square), I was at a loss to imagine how the city functioned before its recent decade-long restoration. The old town has given way to sprawling avenues, wide enough to fit the plus-sized tour buses (and the plus-sized tourists that ride them) that dominate the city today. The old bazaar has been squeezed under a lifeless roof on the outskirts of the old town. A series of several hour walks away from it all brought a little comfort, but the romantic Samarkand I’d dreamed of was no where to be found.

Mussulman's wife was a little bit shy, but let me take a photo nonetheless

Eager to get away from the sterile center of Samarkand and hoping to find a more genuine example of Uzbek culture, Francois and I chose a spot on the map about 150 km south, not far from the border with Tajikistan, and caught a series of rides, eventually getting to a village called Langar. Besides picking up food to hold us over for a couple of days, we lacked anything resembling a plan, as our hope was to simply do a little trekking between villages away from the city. Everything fell right into place, however, when the passengers from our last shared taxi, exhibiting what we’d soon learn to be standard hospitality in the region, invited us to their home for watermelon and tea. Mussulman and Nuryk are school teachers in a village of 30 families some 8 km down a desert mountain path west of Langar. Needless to say, their village did not even appear on our maps, but they seemed so genuinely eager to have us over as their guests, that we simply couldn’t resist. After a cramped and bumpy ride in a three decades-old Lada Niva, what the Soviets called a “jeep,” we emerged into a fertile river valley, our home for the next four days.

A group of determined girls on their way to school

Finally getting to Mussulman’s, after masterfully manouvering past the watermelon and tea invitations from other villagers, (at least until the following day, we pleaded) we were seated on the taras outside his cosy one-room house and were slowly showered with food and drink. We shared a wonderful evening with Mussulman and his neighbors, all of whom were invited to partake in the feast. His wife, who had not been forewarned of the party plans, did not seem to mind the sudden full-time all-night task of managing the kitchen. We finally retired to a blanket spread out in the courtyard, with only a star-studded sky as company for the night.

The heat was a little more manageable in the shade of the vineyard

The next day we hoped to find a relaxing place by the river to go for a swim, picnic, read and nap, perhaps a few km down stream. However, news travels damn fast in tiny Uzbek villages, and before going one kilometer we were ushered into someone’s home as the honourable guests from Poland and France. We did manage to slip away eventually, finding a soft piece of riverbed on which to pass the afternoon.

Near Langar

We had told Nuryk, our friend from the shared taxi the day before, that we’d spend our next night at his place. He assured us that it was enough to ask for “Nuryk’s House,” and that we’d be guided to the right spot. After inquiring around, we reached a smart-looking house and asked for Nuryk. The man of the house, who claimed to be Nuryk’s father, assured us that his son was in Tashkent, and that sharing a taxi with him to Langar the previous day was in fact impossible. He didn’t dwell on the fact too long (and neither did we), however, insisting we come inside to be his guests for the night before we could continue our search. Again, the neighbors were called for (including the Nuryk we were looking for), and the party began.

One of several adopted families from our 4 days near Langar

For our last night in Langar, Francois and I wanted nothing more than a little peace and quiet. Being a guest in someone’s home can be exhausting after a while, especially when changing host several times a day, repeating the same stories time and again. The plan was to find a spot by the river, cook up some of the food we’d been carrying for days and crash. Before we could descend down to the river bank, we were stopped, and, predictably, invited over for dinner. We resisted with everything we had, begging to be allowed to camp out the night by the river, arguing that we were tired and that all we wanted was to go to sleep. We fought off the first wave, but were soon approached from another side by the neighbors with more invitations for dinner, tea, watermelon, sleeping, etc… We politely refused, again arguing that we were fit for nothing more than sleep. The first man came back, pleading with us to come with him, since his wife was not accepting our refusal, saying that he wasn’t allowed back home without us.

A group of villagers on their way back from the mosque during Eid ul-Fitr, the last days of Ramadan

We stood by our story, however, and bid everyone goodnight. Just as we were about to fire up the stove, now under the cover of night, our friend with the determined wife emerged with a large plate of plov, the Uzbek national dish, a bowl of tomatoes with onions and a thermos of tea. We had been defeated after all. The man and his neighbors kept us company as we feasted by the river. Uzbeks, like many people in this region, believe guests to be God, and treat them as such.

After the donkey, the transport of choice in Langar

Reaching Samarkand the following day, we spent some time recharging, before heading to Uzbekistan’s other famous gem of a city, Bukhara. Bukhara was once the capital of Islamic learning, with literally hundreds of medrassahs scattered around the city. It was the place of study for, among many others, Al-Jebra (from whom we have algebra), Al-Khorezm (from whom we have the concept of the algorithm) and Avicenna (whose treatise on medicine was the standard work in Europe until well into the sixteenth century). Bukhara is also known for its once-bustling Jewish community, which had settled in the area as merchants at the time of Bukhara’s golden age a thousand years ago. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, very few Jews remain, most having left for Israel, but several synagogues and yeshivas are still scattered around the old town.

Medrassah in Bukhara, once the capital of Islamic study

The last city on our list, Khiva, had once been capital of the Khorezm Empire, which controlled much of Central Asia. Naturally, it was a key city on the Silk Road, particularly known for its vibrant slave trade, fueled by assaults on caravans by the surrounding nomadic peoples. Today it is little more than a museum-city, in the true sense, as the city’s population was moved from the old town to the outskirts, again making room for caravans of tourists, and again removing any soul the city may have had. Francois and I spent part of the day admiring the architecture, but, eager to meet some locals, decided to take a stroll to the outskirts. We came across a heated match of football played out by the local school boys, and decided to join in the fun.

The Ark, former home of the Emir, in Bukhara

After fully exhausting ourselves on the pitch, we went for a walk to cool down a bit. Not three minutes had passed before we were invited by an old woman for tea. She summoned her grandchildren and neighbors to fill out the place, and started to reminisce about the time she had guests from Japan – two years back. A little tired, we thanked our host and excused ourselves, only to be escorted by the grandchildren to yet another football field for yet another match. News had traveled that we play, and we had little choice but to conjure up the energy for another hour of running around the dirt pitch.

Khiva, once the capital of Khorezm...yes, more blue tiles.

Leaving Khiva, we caught a train all the way back to Tashkent, from where I had to pick up my visa for Turkmenistan. We spent a day and a night hanging out with some Couchsurfers, and, hoping to switch it up after weeks of eating plov, even stopped in for a bite of some Korean food. While Korean food may sound exotic for Uzbekistan, there is actually a sizable minority of Koreans living in the country, having been settled there around the time of the Korean War in the 1950’s. The kimchi was spot-on, and a very welcome change to our palettes.

After an amazing football match on the outskirts of Khiva. You can't fake those smiles

At this point I bid Francois farewell, making loose plans to meet up again in a few weeks – he planned to stay an extra week in Uzbekistan and later fly into Tehran, while I was to make the land crossing via Turkmenistan, also expecting to end up in Tehran within a couple of weeks.

After a 30 min break for tea, we were coaxed into yet another match for yet another hour of running. It was well worth it

I was a little nervous to cross out of Uzbekistan after hearing the horror stories of cavity searches and exorbitant bribes to the border police (especially since I lacked police registration for my three nights in Langar), but found comfort in joining a newly wed couple of Italians that had lived the last two years in Kabul, now on their way back to Europe. After hearing the mad stories of what they went through on a daily basis, I could no longer justify my anxiety. With broad smiles and silly jokes to help us along, we easily slid right through, breathing a sigh of relief as we entered into the next unknown – Turkmenistan.

These were our cheerleaders during the football match. They insisted on a similar group photo, and I couldn't resist

From the nearest Turkmen border city, Turkmenabat (formerly Chardzouh), I caught a train south to Mary, the country’s second largest city, after the capital Ashgabat. Mary is perhaps better known for being right next to the site of the ancient city of Merv, once on par with Babylon, Damascus and Constantinople as the largest cities in Asia. A crippling attack by the Mongol Horde in the thirteenth century left the city without a population (i.e. they were all slaughtered for putting up a resistance to the attack), and the place never recovered.

Alisher Navoi Theatre in Tashkent

Getting off the train in Mary, I asked a young boy, whom I overheard speaking Russian to his mother, for directions to a cheap hotel. Instead of giving directions, I was promptly invited into their home to stay for as long as I pleased. Not too surprisingly, they were an ethnically Uzbek family originally from Bukhara, but had been settled in Mary during Soviet times; the Soviets repeatedly shifted around groups of people in their Central Asian republics, hoping to prevent any from getting too concentrated, and thus strong enough as to foment unrest.

We made some local friends our last few days in Tashkent

A family of ten, they were happy to add another member to the gang. We shared several meals, speaking openly about the political situation in Turkmenistan, a police state so rigid that it has been christened the “North Korea of Central Asia.” I bonded with one of the sons my age, exploring the city, and eventually making it out to the ruins of Merv. Merv is Turkmenistan’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, but remains totally ignored by its people, and by most travelers as well. The city ruins are the most pure I’d ever seen – no tickets, touts or tour guides by the gates, but rather a thousand years of history just waiting to be explored, left untouched in the middle of the desert. Once the capital of the Seljuk Turk Empire, the same empire that kicked the Christians out of Jerusalem during the Crusades and ruled most of Asia before the Mongol Horde arrived, it recently received some attention from the Republic of Turkey, which funded some minor renovations to prevent further deterioration, but this is nothing compared to what the place deserves.

Propaganda photo of the current president of Turkmenistan making a national Turkmen dish. Please note the puppies playing. I couldn't help but laugh

My newly adopted family saw me off at the train station before my journey to Ashgabat the following night. I really was sad to leave the place, and would have stayed longer had my visa allowed for it. Reaching Ashgabat the next morning, I began to search for a place to stay within my budget. I discovered that only one hotel would greet me, the Soviet era Hotel Ashgabat, which has a special floor dedicated to foreign guests. It didn’t surprise me to learn that this floor was probably wired with microphones.

Turkmen school uniform

State control aside, Ashgabat was a surprisingly modern metropolis: stores were fully stocked with European and American branded goods, streets were squeaky clean, and, always a good indicator, internet connection was damn fast. Massive government buildings dominated the sky line, a legacy of the infamous Turkmenbashi (Saparmurat Niyazov), president/dictator of the country from the fall of the Soviet Union up through 2006, when he died of heart failure. Some of the absurdities from his time in power, fueled by an incomparably large ego and unending natural gas reserves, could fill a blog post on their own, but perhaps can best be summed up in his commissioning a huge golden statue of himself in the center of Ashgabat, which rotates all day long so as to assure his face is always in the sun.

My adopted family in Mary, Turkmenistan seeing me off on the train platform

I’ve been in Iran for the last month, falling deeply in love with the place and its people. I’m in Yazd at the moment, in the center of the country. I’ll soon be heading back to Tehran and the country’s northwest, from where I plan to cross into Azerbaijan.


Kyrgyzstan, with its imposing mountain landscapes, ancient nomadic culture and recent Soviet past was sure to be a unique place to visit. Adding to this the recent revolution from April of this year, during which the government was overthrown, as well as what locals call The War that took place this June, during which thousands of people died in the millenia-old city of Osh because of ethnic violence, and my three weeks easily became full of unforgettable experiences at every turn. Finally, being joined unexpectedly by one of my closest friends and frequent travel mates Max in Bishkek added a completely new yet familiar element to my travels in Asia.

Hitching from the border in a Soviet era Kamaz, budget transport of choice in Kyrgyzstan

Crossing the border from Xinjiang into Kyrgyzstan made for a very appropriate introduction to the region. I had teamed up with a Mandarin-speaking Malaysian woman (Lam Li) from my hostel the night before leaving, happy to have a partner for what was sure to be a marathon border crossing, requiring more than a stroke of luck to accomplish in one day. Cross-border bus services were terminated following the War this June, so the only way to make the trip would be by some sort of combination of shared taxis, hitch hiking and, worst case scenario, walking. It took two rides to get to the border (both had a price on them, as hitching in Asia often does), during which Lam Li, with her perfect Chinese, took the reigns regarding price negotiations and chatting up the driver, an unwritten rule of hitch hiking, while I sat back and dozed off. Another Chinese truck was enough to get us across the 12 km no man’s land between the Chinese and Kyrgyz border gates, at which point the onus fell on me, as the Russian speaker, to get us safely into Kyrgyzstan with limited police harrassment, and into a ride that would take us to the nearest town (Sary Tash) some five hours away.

Our 'table' at lunch

My Polish passport (or perhaps the Polish travelers before me that had blazed this trail) made things almost too smooth, as I was instantly greeted as a brother by each and every soldier inspecting our documents. Though Poland was never part of the Soviet Union, and though it lies thousands of kilometers from Central Asia, there exists a special bond between all nations that struggled through Communist rule, giving me a special status time and again when dealing with officials and police in this region. In fact, the commanding officer on the border even offered to get us into a truck that was heading to Sary Tash, suggesting that it’s enough to say his name, and that doors will literally open.

Hard at work. Apel and her sister milk all the cows twice daily

Lam Li and I were joined in our Soviet era Kamaz truck by a local Kyrgyz girl, Apel, a Sary Tash native who was temporarily working at a border bodega during her summer break from university in Osh. A very jolly and outgoing girl, Apel invited us to stay on her family’s farm, reasoning that we were sure to arrive quite late, and that her mother is always eager to have guests anyway. Following an extended late night stop to change a flat on the Kamaz, we arrived to Apel’s family home to a surprised yet very excited mother, promptly being told to sit and wait for tea and bread, a snack before getting to bed.

Butter is sold by the karin - sheep's stomach - which can hold about 10 kg

Enjoying the change of pace offered by our new pastoral surroundings, Lam Li and I decided to stay an extra day at Apel’s, helping out with the twice daily milking of the cows, the churning of butter and the bringing of water from the communal well.  Apel’s family has five dairy cows, from whose milk they churn butter and make cheese to be sold in the markets of Osh. They had 15 cows until recently, when two weddings in the family required gifts of five cows each to Apel’s brothers’ brides. Age old traditions run deep in rural Kyrgyzstan, as the area’s remoteness has left it largely untouched by any colonizing powers over the centuries.

Churning butter the modern way, with TV remote in hand

The following day we hitched our way into Osh, catching a ride from four men in a jeep with at least a bottle of vodka on their breath. In defence of my national pride, I accepted their offer and joined them for the next bottle, making for a jolly, though somewhat erratic entrance into the city. Osh was a ghost town, half burned to the ground, with few people on the streets and even fewer businesses running operationally. No one knows for sure how the four-day War started back on June 10, as extremely limited real time coverage of the events has led to more questions than answers. The Kyrgyz government, which had been in power for a mere two months at the time, blames the mafia of former president Bakiyev for inciting the conflict. Others blame the Uzbeks, some of whom had vied for autonomy in Osh, a majority ethnic Uzbek city just 10 km from the border with Uzbekistan. The fact of the matter is that there exists deep ethnic hatred and distrust between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations in Southern Kyrgyzstan, in part because of ethnic Uzbek economic might in the region.  The Uzbeks are historically a sedentary population, with many great cities to their name and a reputation for commercial prowess all along the Silk Road, while the Kyrgyz have only recently begun to emerge from their ancient nomadic roots into the limited urban centers of the country. Regardless of the initial causes of the War, Osh is an utterly ravaged city with billions of dollars worth of damage and a population of people unable to make a living because of the destruction of the city’s 3000 year old bazaar, until recently the largest in Central Asia, and the only source of income for thousands of families.

I'm rarely the tallest in any group - family photo

Leaving behind the ruins of Osh, Lam Li and I headed for Bishkek, with a one night layover about half way in the small town of Toktogul. I had recently recieved news from my old friend Max, whom I’ve known for over ten years now, that having just quit his job in Johannesburg, and being unsure of his next move, he would be joining me for three weeks of shared adventure in Kyrgyzstan and briefly Uzbekistan in two days time. Also, three friends from my hostel in Urumqi would be arriving to Bishkek from Kazakhstan the same day as me, and we had made preliminary plans to do a trek in Eastern Kyrgyzstan.

Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bishkek, a 19th century Russian-built city with a large ethnic Russian population.  Before the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly half the population was Russian, most of which has returned to the Fatherland, but much of which remains. For the first time in over a year I could pass for a local, with only the camera around my neck to raise any suspicions. Even the ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek of Bishkek seemed to have a Russian air about them – Russian is unquestionably the lingua franca, Russian styles and tastes dominate people’s wardrobes, and many people’s attitudes were almost stereotypically Russian in nature. While Kyrgyz food resembles that of the rest of Central Asia, suddenly Russian cuisine, not that different from what’s found in Poland, was widely available. A meal of borscht and goulash in a Soviet era stolovaya, or canteen, brought me back to Poland in the early 90’s.

Jeremiah, Chris, Seamus, Jan and Max before the Karakol trek

I hadn’t seen Max in over two years, but as it goes with old friends, it felt like it was yesterday. After a celebratory bottle of vodka in the hostel, we went out for a night on the town with my three Urumqi-hostel friends, Jerry, Seamus and Jan, from England, Scotland and Germany, respectively. Night life in Bishkek, even on a Monday, was definitely happening, with a very European vibe about it. However, the long term travelers in the group found the fun to be well out of budget, so we called it a relatively early night, making plans to meet by noon at the shared taxi stand, from where we’d catch a ride to the shores of Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest alpine lake (after Lago Titicaca in Bolivia / Peru), and home to what are probably Central Asia’s only beach resorts.With five people in our group, we had significant bargaining power to get a comfortable ride for a reasonable price at the taxi stand. We decided to stop in Bosteri, some 200 km east of Bishkek, and just another 150 km to Karakol, the base for our planned trek into the Tien Shan Mountains.

Hitching a ride into the national park - Jan and Seamus had to hold on for dear life

Besides an afternoon swimming in the surprisingly warm water (Issyk Kul literally means ‘warm lake’ in Kyrgyz), our stay in Bosteri was largely uneventful, serving mostly as a healthy transition from urban Bishkek to the massive mountains around Karakol. We arrived to Karakol in time to plan a three day trek. We had originally planned for 8-10 days in the mountains, which was later discounted to 5 days, and which ended on 3, in part because of poor visa planning. Regardless, we were sure we’d have a blast, as our company could not have been better. We planned our route over a few rounds of beers and some live guitar from the boys, made a meal plan and picked up supplies, calling it an early night for our morning departure.

Glacier over-looking Ala Kyl

Reaching the gates of the national park, we were unexpectedly greeted by a guard in a booth holding a list of entrance fees. In classic Huck Finn form, we schemed how best to get around the budget-busting obstacle, which would have turned this into a very expensive trek. Seamus snuck around the gate, making our party only four, before the guard had counted how many we were. Next, I convinced the guard that we were geology students from Almaty studying the topography of Kyrgyz mountains (this stretched my Russian vocabulary to new found frontiers), and that we should therefore be charged only the ‘CIS Countries Fee,’ an 80% discount off the price for foreigners. Finally, to get around the per-tent fee, we were able to assure the guard that despite the three tents attached to the outside of our packs, we in fact had only one very large tent, and that we had merely broken up the tent into parts for ease of carry. Mark Twain would have been proud.

Men in tights. A downpour the first day had us scrambling for dry clothes

While the trek we planned could theoretically be done in 3 days, in practice this was a very ambitious schedule. As such, we hitched about 4 km into the park in an already full jeep, with Jan and Seamus riding on the outside of the car, holding on for dear life on the hairpin turns. Hours later and only about 45 minutes from our first camp site, the rain started to come down, or rather pour down, soaking everyone to the bone. Knowing how important it was to dry our clothes before tomorrow’s very big day, we opted to crash in the yurt of some local shepherds, negotiating to get unlimited firewood for the furnace, a solution to our drenched clothes and packs, not to mention the freezing night at an elevation of 2300 m.

After what we rightfully predicted to be a very long day (1500 m elevation gain followed by a long, long descent into a neighboring valley), we stumbled into Altyn Arashan just before nightfall, managing to drop our packs and head to the wild hot springs to unwind, utterly exhausted. Our hike out the next morning was as jolly and full of laughs as the previous few days. Max and I would be bidding Jerry, Seamus and Jan farewell as soon as we returned to Karakol, as they had to race to the Tajik border before their Kyrgyz visas expired in just two days. We were sad to see them go, though it’s quite likely that our paths will cross again here in Uzbekistan.

Without the same time pressure as the boys, Max and I chilled out for a night back in Karakol, with a plan to leisurely make our way to our next destination, Kochkor.  We spent the next morning exploring the Przewalski Museum and Monument, built in honour of Nikolai Przewalski, a nineteenth century Polish/Russian explorer of Central Asia who, after 17,000 km of ground covered, died in Karakol (the city was later named Przewalski, and remained so until the fall of the Soviet Union). He was one of Russia’s key agents during the Great Game, the wheeling and dealing between the British and the Russian Empires for control of Central Asia throughtout the nineteenth century.

Jan and Seamus testing their manhood at 3000 m above sea level in a lake of glacial melt. I joined them for a swim after snapping some shots

Our next stop was in Kochkor, not much of a destination, but nevertheless the best place for excursions to Song Kyl, an alpine lake situated at over 3000 m above sea level, where we hoped to chill out for a night, checking out a legitimate jailoo, or summer pasture, full of nomads and their herds. We organized a yurt stay, which included a tasty meal of fresh fish from the lake, and spent the day climbing up a mountain in the area. We both agreed that the mountains around Karakol were far more spectacular.

Back in Bishkek, we decided to indulge in the city life, going for Mexican food (it left much to be desired) and stopping into the cinema. Piranha 3D, the film whose set I visited back in June of last year while my friend Justine was working there, was finally being released. Though the film was dubbed into Russian, not much appeared to be lost in translation, as it was primarily a visual experience. We were both a little surprised by the lack of any film ratings in Kyrgyzstan, as the average age in the cinema for the Sunday matinee show did not exceed 14 for a film that was surely rated ‘R,’ and rightfully so.

Max at Song Kol next to the yurt in which we crashed for the night

The next morning we began our bid to pick up our Uzbek visas. Shear luck would be needed, as the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek is closed on Mondays, and the next two days were the Independence Days for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, respectively, meaning closures for three straight days! My Kyrgyz visa was three days from expiration, and Max had a flight home from Tashkent, two day’s journey away, in four days. Just to make things a little more interesting, I still hadn’t received my Uzbek Letter of Invitation (LOI), required for visa processing. I called the embassy regardless, explaining our dilemma, and was pleasantly suprised to hear the consul invite us to stop by in the afternoon, saying that he might be able to help us out. Sure enought, the Polish card worked again, as the consul processed our visas in under five minutes, despite being officially closed and despite my lack of all required documents. No bribe required – I couldn’t believe it!

Kyrgyz Independence Day was not the optimal date for our fifteen hour journey from Osh to Bishkek, as we waited hours for enough people to join our shared taxi for the ride. We didn’t make it into Osh til around 3 am, having to bang on our guesthouse door for ten minutes, waking up all the neighbors in the process, but at least getting a safe place to crash. The next morning, after a brief meeting with Apel, who was back in Osh for her studies, and a quick walk around the ruins of the Jayma Bazaar, we dropped back into the guesthouse to get our packs and head for the border, only to find out from a group of three Slovaks that they had just come from the border, and that it was closed for Uzbek Independence Day. They had flights home from Tashkent that night and had been desperate to cross, even offering 100 USD to the guards and showing their plane tickets as proof, but failed nonetheless, the guards holding to the fact that the border is closed for holidays. In a rush to get back to their jobs, they were forced to hire a car all the way back to Bishkek (30 USD each) and fly home for an additional 500 USD each, losing their flights from Tashkent. This did not sound good for Max and me.

Max and I after summiting an unknown peak near Song Kol

We decided to go to the border to inquire whether or not it would be open the following day, when my visa expired, and when Max would have to be in Tashkent for his flight out. Another day of closure would mean visa extensions for me and a new flight for Max, probably from Bishkek. To my utter surprise, after telling my story (with a few dramatic details for good measure), we were told that we could pass the border this very same day! I skipped back to the Kyrgyz border, grabbed Max and rushed to get our packs, since the border guards told us to be back within the hour. The Kyrgyz guards didn’t believe it, telling me to go a second time to double check with the Uzbeks, but sure enough, for some inexplicable reason, we were allowed to pass. And not only were we allowed to pass, but our bags did not even get searched, as the guards wished us well on our travels, offering a brotherly handshake instead. The border crossing at Osh is one of the most notorious in Central Asia, and we had just strolled across untouched!

"Peace to the World" - sign in downtown Osh next to the destroyed Jayma Bazaar

Max is back in Warsaw, while I’m in Samarkand (four hours west of Tashkent), having met a French guy, Francois, with whom to explore Uzbekistan for the next three weeks, after which I head to Iran via Turkmenistan.

Silk Road in China

My second go at China has been infinitely more rewarding than the first. I’ve been all smiles the past three weeks, working my way from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, on to Xi’an, Dunhuang, Urumqi, Hotan and finally Kashgar in the Wild Wild West of the country. I’ve got my visa to Kyrgyzstan sorted, and will start to make my way to the border tomorrow morning. With bus service halted since the unrest in Osh the past few months, I’ll have to hitch my way across the border.

Hong Kong skyline as seen from Victoria Peak

Landing in the super metropolis of Hong Kong after six long months in India made for quite a culture shock. Streets were suddenly spotless, transportation was efficient and easily accessible, restaurants offered cuisines from all corners of the world, and women showed some skin, something I was so unaccustomed to that I actually caught myself staring, as any good Indian would. The shock from high prices, however, was the most difficult to overcome, as I kept calculating and recalculating the cost of every good and service, unable to believe that someone would pay any more than 30 cents for a liter of water. I got straight to business, applying for my Chinese visa and booking a train ticket from neighboring Guangzhou to Xi’an, the former capital of China and the official start (or end) of the Silk Road trade routes between Europe and Asia.

Lovely Portuguese architecture in Macau. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to found a colony in China

With a couple of days to kill before my visa would be ready, I took to exploring the city, catching a ride up to Victoria Peak, from where I would get a good view of the city and harbour, and where I could walk around endlessly in the green space that surrounds Hong Kong Island’s highest mountain. I walked all the way down to the foot of the peak, stopping into the University of Hong Kong to check out the library and campus grounds. After a full day on the town, I arrived home to the apartment of Raj, the head of Arvind’s Hong Kong office, with whom I stayed my four nights in Hong Kong, at least avoiding the sky high hotel accomodation.

The Terra-cotta Army in Xi'an, formerly Chang'an, capital of China for many centuries and the start of the Ancient Silk Road

The following day I decided to take a day trip to Macau, the former Portuguese colony, which, like Hong Kong, was formally handed over to the Chinese about ten years ago. Macau is best known today for its numerous casinos, which attract gamblers from the whole region. Remembering my last formal gambling experience (apart from daily World Cup bets among friends) with Nara in Kentucky, I opted for a leisurely walk around the island instead of joining the crowds in Vegas style casino resorts. The Mediterranean architecture and occasional Portuguese language overheard on the city streets made for a surreal experience. Was I back in Europe already?

Up close and personal

Finally getting my paperwork for mainland China sorted, I bid Raj farewell and caught the next train across the border to Guangzhou, formerly Canton, the center of Cantonese culture and language in China. I found a centrally located hostel for the two nights before my marathon train ride to Xi’an and hit the town. Guangzhou today is a largely commercial city, with some of the country’s most sprawling whole sale markets. That’s saying a lot for China. It’s also the home of Cantonese food, some of the tastiest in the country, packed with what I’d call exotic ingredients, somehow working together in perfect harmony. I contacted a friend through Couchsurfing and joined her for a food tour of the city by night. After having my fill of fried fish skin and cow intestine (among other things), all amazingly tasty, I applauded my decision to swing by Southern China before the focus of this leg of the trip, the Silk Road. Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou all proved to be great cities worth exploring much more than I’d budgeted for. I’ll be sure to come back.

I joined a group of Chinese students for a desert trek outside of Dunhuang, once a major Silk Road city

A 24 hr train ride to the north and west brought me to Xi’an, formerly Chang’an, the once great capital of some of China’s most golden ages, acting as the political, economic and cultural center for the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang dynasties. Xi’an is also home to one of China’s more famous tourist attractions, the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, built in 210 BC. As if all this isn’t enough of a claim to fame, Xi’an happens to be the jump off point for the great network of trade routes running between Europe and Asia, the Silk Road, which brought it unimaginable material and cultural wealth for many centuries.

A slightly different type of base camp from the one I'm used to

The  Terracotta Army, while very impressive at first glance, left me a little underwhelmed.  Of course, when considering the fact of how old the clay soldiers, horses and chariots really are, and how much effort must have gone into amassing the thousands of unique figures (each soldier has a distinct face), one does not leave totally disappointed. I guess the hype from reading about it since childhood acted as a hindrance, since it really is amazing, just not THAT amazing to see in person. Besides tourist attractions, I managed to make some friends at the hostel in which I stayed, and of course to spend a night hanging out with a local Couchsurfer, who brought me for one of the better meals I’ve had in China.

A very different kind of summit

The next major stop on the Silk Road is the ancient city of Dunhuang, an oasis in the Gobi Desert, located on the crossroads of the Southern Silk Road heading west into Central Asia and the major route south into India via Lhasa. As the terminus of the Great Wall is not far from here, it was long considered the western border of China proper. Once a major center for Buddhist learning, Dunhuang’s main attraction is the Mogao Grottoes, a series of Buddhist temples built inside of some 800 caves in the desert 25 km outside the city. With Jamyang’s Buddhist lessons from Ladakh still fresh in my mind, the statues and cave paintings proved to be absolutely fascinating. Spanning some 1600 years, the paintings show the progression of Chinese Buddhist thought from its Taoist and Confucius roots to the present day. Despite major lootings by Western archaeologists  following the rediscovery of the caves at the turn of the 19th century, the paintings and statues are miraculously well-preserved, retaining their bright colours and details thanks to the dry desert climate of the region. Besides exploring the caves, I teamed up with a group of three Chinese students for a camel trek into the desert, getting a taste of what travel on the Silk Road might have been centuries ago.

Sunday Market in Hotan, a major stop on the Silk Road

What followed was my most miserable bus ride to date, a 19 hr journey from Dunhuang to Urumqi across the desert. With train tickets sold out for days in advance, I was forced to opt for the bus, which doesn’t have to be a bad experience, as long as the air conditioning works when crossing 40 C swathes of barren desert, and as long as the bus stops for food and water at least once! Arriving to Urumqi with a parched throat and soar bum, I quickly found a hostel and later the Kyrgyz consulate, eager to get my visa in order as quickly as possible.

Camel and horse meat were among the delicacies for sale in Hotan

Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Region in the far northwest of the country. The area is home to the Uyghers, a minority group which, being Turkic-speaking and Muslim, hardly considers itself Chinese. The area is a frequent hotbed for civil unrest, since many Uyghers would like independence from China. Crossing into Xinjiang one truly feels that they’ve left China for Central Asia. Not only do the people have Turkic features, but the food is Central Asian (mutton, nan, pilav, yohgurt are all staples of the diet), most people don’t speak Mandarin (outside of Urumqi some Uygher is a must to get around), and religion plays a central role in people’s lives, an anomaly for the rest of atheist China.

Uygher children with characteristic wide smiles

Teaming up with two girls from Romania and Germany respectively, I caught another long-term bus for the 23 hr crossing of the Taklamakan Desert to Hotan, another Silk Road city long past its prime hundreds of years ago. Hotan is 98% Uygher, and a bastion of the Uygher resistance to the Sinicisation of the region. Despite losing most of its old town to a huge Chinese-style square and statue of Mao a few years ago, Hotan retains much of its old culture and tradition. This can best be seen at the Sunday Bazaar, which joins most of the country and city folk of the region for a mad day of buying and selling, much in the way things were done hundreds of years ago. The bazaar was just as chaotic as one could imagine a Central Asia Silk Road city could produce.

Hot tea welcome in a yurt at Karakyl Lake south of Kashgar on the Karakoram Highway

The next long term bus ride brought me to Kashgar, long one of the most important Silk Road cities, again acting as a junction between the route heading east-west and the route heading into India, specifically via the Karakoram Highway, the same route I had planned to journey up through Pakistan, before getting a visa in India turned out impossible. Hoping to settle down for a few days and conserve my resources before the city’s own Sunday Bazaar, even grander than the one in Hotan, I instead came across a couple of people with plans to travel down the Karakoram Highway to Karakul Lake, a beautifully situated alpine lake (elevation 3600 m) some five hours south of Kashgar. Eager to breath some mountain air after two whole weeks in the desert, I joined Jose, Lucie and Melinda for a two-day excursion.

Jose and I climbed up a bit to get a panorama of Karakyl Lake

Karakul Lake and the neighboring village is populated by ethnically Kyrgyz former nomads. Ironically, my first exposure to staying in a yurt was not in Kyrgyzstan, but rather in China, just three days before crossing the border west. We stayed with a marvelously hospitable family three generations deep, spending a couple of days circumambulating😉 the lake and hiking up nearby mountains. The reflections in the lake, particularly of the 7546 m high Mustagh Ata, are absolutely unreal, and made for some really special photos.

7500 m peak of Mustagh Ata reflected in Karakyl Lake

As mentioned, I’m in Kashgar at the moment, having explored the city for the past couple of days with a Kiwi I met at my hostel. Kashgar, despite all its ancient history and culture, is slowly being dismantled by the Chinese government, as the Old Town is literally being leveled to the ground to make way for modern buildings. On the one hand, I’d like to see as much of the city preserved, but who can blame someone for preferring running water and air con to living in a mud hut? I’m glad to have seen the city before its complete transformation is completed.

The Himalayas Pt II

Six months in India has come to a close. Of course, if there’s one thing travel in India has taught me, it’s that India is at least a continent, easily more diverse on its own than most other continents, with scores of unrelated languages being spoken, with a wholly new cuisine every few hundred km, with all the races of the planet mixing together for thousands of years before the advent of globalization, with every imaginable geographic landscape at one’s fingertips. I had a pretty good run at it, forging some life-long friendships from tropical Kerala to the cold deserts of Ladakh, and everything in between. I’m in Hong Kong at the moment, here to secure a Chinese visa before embarking on the last leg of my journey, the Silk Road from Xi’an to Istanbul.

Tenzing Norbu and I got stuck in a landslide on our way to Sikkim. We took full advantage of the delay, going for a refreshing swim in the mighty Teesta just below the fallen rocks

After the disappointment of having to abandon my post-India plan for travel north on the Karakouram Hwy through Pakistan because of bureaucratic bullshit from the embassies, I decided to take a train East, to the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim (pop. around 500,000), only a part of India since 1975, when they seeked protection from China by joining the republic and becoming a state. A 30 hr train ride from Delhi later, I hopped on a bus to complete what was supposed to be 4 more hours of travel through Darjeeling and on to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. However, a huge landslide intervened about an hour in. Having made a friend on the bus, Tenzing Norbu and I took a walk down to the fall site, and, seeing how bad it really was, picked up some beers from the dhaba and climbed down the valley to go for a swim in the Teetsa River. As things turned out, our bus driver got tired of waiting and turned around, returning to our starting point, taking with him our luggage, and leaving us behind (he was supposed to call us). Our best option now was to cross the landslide by foot and catch a ride on the other side, hoping our luggage would arrive as soon as the road opened. Hitching from a few different people, we finally made it to Gangtok by midnight, where I would be staying with Thendup, my good friend from the moutaineering course, in his beautiful downtown hotel.

No trip to India is complete without partaking in an Indian wedding. The setting for the wedding, a sprawling apple orchard on the groom's family land in the foothills of the Himalayas (2800m above sea level means foothills), could not have been more spectacular

The best seasons for visiting Sikkim are early autumn and mid spring. June, when I arrived, is neither. The monsoon was already in full swing (heavy rains cause landslides, paralyzing some areas for days at a time), making trekking quite arduous, and making remote corners of the state inaccessible. I had come to Sikkim more to escape the 50 C heat of Delhi and to visit Thendup than anything else. Besides, the World Cup was just kicking off, and Sikkim is India’s biggest football state (the captain of the Indian national team – Baichung Bhutia – is Sikkimese), meaning there would be no shortage of venues to watch and well-informed fans with whom to deliberate and share facts. Apart from visiting a few sites just outside of Gangtok, I layed low, conserving energy and cash for my upcoming road trip to Ladakh. I did promise to return on my next trip to India, which I’m planning to take next autumn, and during which I hope to explore the Northeast states, including Sikkim, Arunachal, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

Mel and Vishal during the ceremony

Five nights in laid back Gangtok with Thendup and his cool group of friends watching nearly every first round match was a nice break from the madness of travel. People often ask me how it’s possible to keep one’s sanity while on the road for so long (14 months and counting). In the same way that some will take time off from work, a pause in the chaos of constant motion is a required part of vagabonding. My trip to Sikkim was just that.

Boys in the hood - Jamyang, me, Mama, Ashin and Lima

Returning back to Delhi on the same marathon route, I dropped into Arvind’s place for a couple of nights before going back north again, this time to an apple orchard 3 hrs journey from Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh. I would be attending the wedding of two of Jamyang’s old college friends, Mel and Vishal, to be celebrated on Vishal’s family land. I’d met neither before their wedding day, but was brought into the family with open arms. I should add that this was quite a modern affair, especially considering that while Vishal is a Hindu Rajput, Mel is a Christian from the far Northeastern state of Arunachal. The wedding was decidedly Himachali Hindu, though a slightly abridged version, keeping only the most sacred ceremonies in place, making it far more user-friendly for the foreign crowd.

The whole crew during a morning walk around the orchard

It was quite a grand affair, as the entire village was invited, pushing the guest list past 1000. Of these, some 300 people ended up crashing the night on the estate, making for a very festive few days. We’d originally planned to spend just one night on the orchard, pushing back to Delhi, and then on to Ladakh as planned, but Vishal’s parents (in particular his mother) were far too insistent on us staying for anyone to make a move, arguing that it would be inauspicious for us to leave prematurely. When the family matriarch spoke, everyone sat quietly and listened, accepting what had been said. We ended up staying 3 nights and 4 days, forming a tight group and having a marvelous time around the orchard. We went for long walks, picked fruits straight from the trees, and even had a chance to go for a swim in the local river, one of many Ganga tributaries.

Mary, Neelu, Mel and Shweta. The groom's mother pulled out her old clothes and dressed up the girls like local Himacahali women. These our actually cosmopolitan girls from Delhi: jeans and Havaianas might give it away

One more marathon overnight journey got us all back to Delhi. On the way home, some from the group brainstormed over excuses to be given to employers and significant others as to their unplanned extended absence, while I did the math and realized that I was entering my last 2 weeks in India, as my visa would soon be expiring. Fortunately, I had saved what would arguably be the best for last – a road trip to Ladakh, where Jamyang and I hoped to summit the 6000+ m Stok Khangri, and where I’d get a first class primer in Tibetan Buddhism, as Ladakh is home to some of the oldest and grandest gompas (monastery) still surviving, and Jamyang used to work as a guide in just these gompas.

Jamyang and I going for a dip in Gaurog

The road to Ladakh goes via Manali, the same chilled out backpacker town Ethan and I had used as a jump off point for our trek back in April. It also happens to be the city of Jamyang’s birth, with a sizable Tibetan population since the time of the Dalai Lama’s exile. After doing the rounds, meeting as many aunties and cousins as Jamyang could think of, we secured tickets for what was sure to be a grueling 18 hr journey on one of the world’s highest motorable roads from Manali to Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

Next stop Ladakh. At the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers following a road trip to the Alchi gompa with Jamyang, Meraj and Kunzes. Naturally, we went for a swim shortly thereafter

The road did not disappoint. A 2 am departure meant we hoped to get some sleep on the bus, but with the hairpin turns and axle-breaking pot holes, we’d see nothing of the sort. Fortunately, the spectacular views more than made up for any lack of Z’s. We arrived in the evening to Jamyang’s parent’s house, to a home cooked meal and a hot bath. We were on a bit of a tight schedule, since I’d already booked my flight out from Delhi to Hong Kong, and since the climbing of Stok Khangri would require 3-4 days.

Stok Kangri, elevation 6137 m (20,135 ft), the protector of Leh, our goal for the weekend

We spent the next day organizing supplies for the climb, but would need at least 3 nights in Leh (elevation 3524m) to acclimatize before even thinking of heading up. We filled in the time with a trip to Alchi, a 10th century gompa built by the great Tibetan Buddhist guru Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo, one of the most revered scholars in Buddhism, and the person responsible for translating the Buddhist texts from Pali (language spoken by Buddha) and Sanskrit into Tibetan. The gompa has some spectacular 11th and 12th century frescoes, in tact only because of the extremely dry climate in Ladakh. Tragically, because of recent climate change, more and more rain falls in Ladakh (Ladakh is a cold desert and used to get no rain), and the wall paintings are fast disappearing. A pathetic restoration by a Swiss NGO attempted to preserve some of the more beautiful facades, but instead turned the ancient paintings into kindergarten-worthy drawings. You have to see it to believe it.

Jamyang on the trek up to Stok Kangri base camp

The road from Alchi took us past the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers.  Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather, we decided to go for a swim. While the Zanskar is absolutely freezing, starting from ice melt in Ladakh itself, the source of the Indus is in Tibet, giving it considerable time to warm up before descending from the plateau. We managed to bang ourselves up a bit, getting caught in a shallow rapid as we crossed the river, but nonetheless had the required exercise to help us in acclimatizing for the following day’s hike. Arriving back in Leh late at night, we tied up loose ends for the Stok Khangri expedition, and fell fast asleep.

Afternoon rest before starting for the summit just after midnight

Our first day of the expedition required a 5 hr, 800 vertical meter trek up to the parachute tent encampment of Mankarmo. We opted to not take any porters or donkeys with us, reasoning that this would make us better prepared for summit day. While we’d done plenty of swimming and walking since our mountaineering course, neither of us was in the same shape as we were in just after NIM. There were several other expeditions heading out at the same time, including a group of 7 Israelis, an Australian guy with a couple of guides by his side, two very well stocked middle aged couples, and a Slovak going solo.

A dzo, a mix between yak and cow, near camp. They are hardy enough to survive Ladakhi winters, yet provide great-tasting milk

Day 2 brought us up to base camp at an elevation of 5000m. We set up camp, ate and rested, as the planned departure was midnight that evening. It’s critical to make the push for the summit before the sun is completely out, since once it has risen, melting ice and snow can make Stok Khangri a very dangerous place. We tried to get to sleep by 8 pm after a light meal of ramen noodles, but ended up just tossing and turning in the tent.

12:40 am departure for the summit - me, Jamyang and Manzoor

We started out at 12:40 am, climbing over a low ridge, and making it onto the snow shortly thereafter, our path lit up by the clear night sky and bright crescent moon. The route up the mountain is completely covered in snow and ice past about 5300 m at this time of year. Thanks to a particularly heavy snowfall the past few days, it was a challenging way up, as we sank in with each passing step. The Australian had left 2 hrs before us, and the lone Slovak had camped on the snow 500 vertical meters above us, but we were well ahead of the other groups, which had left with us after midnight – the 25 kg ruck sacks we had carried up to base camp were paying off.

A view of the Karakouram Range in Pakistan from about 6000 m - the approaching storm would make this the last clear panorama

We agreed that the climb was one of the more physically challenging moments of our lives, as despite being in relatively good shape, we gasped for air every few steps, doing our best to keep a steady pace, but having to constantly rest nevertheless. We passed the Australian and Slovak, who were already on their way down, just below the summit. We had to rush, since the weather was starting to turn for the worst.

Jamyang attaching Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags on the summit

We summited at 6:40 am, exactly 6 hrs after departing base camp, each with tears in his eyes. Considering the heavy snow, this was very good timing. Jamyang quickly secured the prayer flags he’d carried to the summit, we snapped a few shots, though with very poor visibility, and started the descent as a white-out snow storm rolled in. We could hardly see the path as we balanced our way down the mountain’s saddle, slipping and sliding here and there. Our ice axes proved to be life-savers, as any fall was quickly arrested by a well-placed swing.

Huddling up for a group shot on the summit. Within minutes of us reaching, a white-out snow storm rolled in, making the peak unreachable for the remaining groups behind us. Our descent was eventful, as we basically slid down the snow and ice face with only our ice axes to control the fall

We emerged from the clouds to see the other groups still pushing on up the mountain, but at least 2 hrs from the summit. We advised them to turn around, since the last leg was treacherous with the ongoing  snow storm. Now out of harm’s way, we decided to have fun with the descent, glissading down the snow face, skiing on our boots, sledding on our butts, and sometimes just going free fall. The trip down took a mere 2 1/2 hrs. We got back to base camp, had a celebratory shot of rum, a huge meal of rice and dahl and a light nap. Waking up around noon, we decided we might as well head back to Leh that same day, since it was only 5 hrs away, and since my days in India were fast coming to a close. We packed up camp and walked all the way down to Stok, from where a taxi took us to Jamyang’s, and where again a nice meal and hot bath awaited us.

Back in Leh. The royal palace overlooks a mosque in downtown

For my last day in Ladakh, we visited another gompa, at Phyang, where there would be a festival the following day. Jamyang, Kunzes, Jigmet and I hopped in a jeep and went West. The monks were rehearsing in the gompa’s courtyard as the villagers looked on. I managed to capture some of my favourite shots in Ladakh on what was supposed to be simply a rest day.

Village woman at Phyang gompa

The journey back to Delhi would not be uneventful. What was supposed to be another 18 hr trip stretched on to 36 hrs after heavy rainfall and landslides blocked the road between Leh and Manali. I spent the night sleeping in the and the passengers cold and hungry, I made an executive decision to trek down to the village we could see down the mountain, not wanting to wait on the empty promise of the road being cleared soon. I felt like a tour guide as I rounded up the troops and and made sure the path was suitable for all. We made it to the village just over an hour later, taking a much deserved breakfast and chai. Word reached us that it could be hours, if not days, before the landslide was cleared. With no days to spare before my flight out of Delhi, I convinced the group to hire some horses, collect our bags, and hike around the landslide. We left the girls behind and climbed back up to the bus, collecting our stuff as planned, making it back down, and hiring a jeep on the other side to get us to Manali.

Young Buddhist novice monks at Phyang

I needed a day in Manali to rest, since another 16 hr bus ride lied between me and Delhi.  I hung out with Jamyang’s sister, who happened to be in town doing research for her thesis, and who would be joining me on the way down to Delhi. I recharged over 24 hrs, making the trip home (I started calling Delhi home a few weeks back – kind of surreal, but it was starting to feel like it).

Novice monk in Phyang

As mentioned, I’m in Hong Kong at the moment, officially here to get my Chinese visa, but taking full advantage of the city nonetheless.  Though Hong Kong was no where on my road map just weeks ago, I’m very glad it found itself on my itinerary. This modern, cosmopolitan metropolis is just what I needed before embarking on the long trek to Istanbul. I’ve squeezed in trips to Macau and The Peak, am heading to Canton (now Guangzhou) today, and then on to Xi’an, where my Silk Road journey commences.

The Himalayas Pt I

Between my 6-day trek with Ethan in the Kullu Valley, my 28-day mountaineering course with the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in the area around Uttarkashi, and my 5-day pilgrimage to Gomukh, the primary source of the River Ganges, I can say that I’ve had a pretty good first exposure to the Indian Himalaya, Sanskrit for ‘abode of snow’. The sights of the past 6 weeks have been absolutely mind boggling.  I’ve done my best to capture what I could, but I’m hardly doing it justice.  Many more Himalayan plans are in the works – we’ll soon see which way the wind blows.

A Hindu temple just after starting the trek to Hampta Pass. We got our blessing from the mountain gods and continued the climb up

Following Emily and Ania’s departure from Delhi, Ethan had but 10 days before having to leave himself – his research had him going to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong, before a return home to NY in early July. This gave us just enough time to plan a Himalayan trek, which we’d been talking about for months, ever since our fateful meeting on a bus in the Western Ghats of Kerala in January. The only problem, however, was that the season for trekking in the Himalayas was still at least a month away – many mountain passes and trails would be off limits because of snow and ice, or at least very dangerous. Determined to make it happen anyway, we decided on a bus to Manali and a through trek over the Hampta Pass, some 4200 m above sea level, a fair challenge for mid April.

Himalayan camping - we found a shepherd's paddock to crash by after an arduous climb to the top on our first day

After gathering some supplies in the markets of Delhi, we caught a bus up to Manali, nestled in a valley 15 hrs away and 2000 m above sea level. We skipped hiring a guide and bought a map instead, stopping at the mountainside Hindu temples for guidance, and seeking directions from shepherds wherever possible. The trails, it turns out, were largely non existent, so we ended up relying more on map and compass than anything else, and still managed to get lost here and there. We were extremely lucky with the weather, as sun burn, not frost bite, turned out to be our biggest foe.

Cooking on the fire - Ethan made rice and dhal every night, a standard of the Himalayan kitchen

Despite the fair weather and our high spirits, we had to scrap the plan of crossing Hampta Pass, which was still covered with snow and ice this early in the season. The risk of avalanche and rock fall was severe, so we climbed as high as we deemed safe (about 3700 m), and turned back to the safety of Manali, a 2 day trek away. We came to find that this was in fact a brilliant call, since just as we were reaching our campsite after the retreat, a violent storm rolled in. We were well protected below the tree line, but would have had a fight on our hands on the mountain pass.

On our way up to Hampta pass. We had to turn back for serious avalanche and rock fall risk

Getting back to Delhi, Ethan and I said our farewells, as he caught a flight to Jakarta, and I caught a bus to Uttarkashi, a full day’s journey away in the Garhwal area of the Himalayas. Uttarkashi is home to NIM, India’s premier mountaineering institution, from where I hoped to take a one month course starting the very next day. I’d only just stumbled upon NIM and had little insight into what to expect from the institute; the general idea was to get into some remote corners of the Himalayas and to meet some interesting people along the way, since mountain people seem to make the best company anyway. NIM did not disappoint, but did provide a few surprises.

NIM Base Camp at the foot of Dokrani Bamak, a glacier 3 day's trek from Uttarkashi

The 28-day mountaineering course at NIM operates like nothing short of boot camp. I hadn’t picked up on the clues before it was too late – the institution is under the Indian Ministry of Defense, the principal is a colonel serving in the Indian Army, and my room mate was an army captain stationed in Srinagar, Kashmir. I figured it out soon enough, though – the wake up bell went off the next morning at 5 am, followed by tea at 5.30 in the canteen, personal training (PT) at 6, and a very welcome breakfast at 7. We even stood at attention whenever the Principal or Chief Instructor (CI) walked by. To someone who’d been happily roaming around the world willy-nilly for the past year, this was quite a dramatic change of pace.

Base Camp on a snowy afternoon. Like clockwork, every morning was filled with beautiful sunshine; every afternoon brought rain or snow

After a week at the institute in Uttarkashi, honing our rock climbing skills and getting drilled into shape, we were ready to load up our rucksacks and hit the trail, starting the 3-day journey to base camp at the foot of Dokrani Bamak, a 5 km long glacier nestled between several 6000+ m peaks, and our home for the next 18 days. Our group consisted of 48 students (this would drop down to 38 by the end of the course), 9 instructors, 20 mostly Nepali porters and a herd of 14 goats, our non veg mutton lunch option on most days.

Our arctic grade tents, used by NIM expeditions to Everest. Up to eight people fit inside; that's a lot of smelly socks

Base Camp from above. Tenzing, Thandoup and I took advantage of a break in the storm one afternoon to capture some shots.

For the next 18 days, we continued with the disciplined framework set up by our instructors from Day 1, fighting the elements to keep our motivation high, the biggest challenge for many, especially when the miserable cold creeps in for days at a time. We practiced ice climbing and glacier travel, and everything in between.

The approaching storm. A wind sock and other meteorological devices helped us to predict the weather

High altitude cricket, a staple of Indian mountaineering

It goes without saying that many on the course became good friends. Shared struggle facilitates the forming of particularly strong bonds between people, and this was just such a case. The makeup of students was quite diverse. There were people from every corner of India, from Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh to Sikkim and Delhi. There were a number of military officers, including a squadron commander from the Indian Air Force and a Special Forces paratrooper.

Snowball fights at Advanced Base Camp kept spirits high when the bitter cold rolled in

The culmination of our expedition was a height gain exercise near the end of our stay. Our plan was to gear up and climb as high as possible up one of the neighboring mountains, Draupadi-ka-Danda. We eventually made it to about 5000 m (16400 ft), higher than any mountain in the Alps. Summiting the peak, however, was out of the question. With the weather turning sour every afternoon, a 2 am departure would have been required, allowing for a safe return by early afternoon.

Dokrani Bamak, a frozen paradise. This was our playground for 18 days of training

Dada (instructor) and Rahul on our height gain exercise. We made it up to 5000 m, or 16400 ft, higher than any mountain in the Alps.

The whole gang at the top

Thandoup and Tenzing sporting the latest mountaineering fashion

We welcomed the return to civilization, as we began to carry out the dreams formed while freezing on the mountain. A bath was high on everyone’s list for obvious reasons (a cold bath would have to do – NIM does not have hot water), as was chicken, beer, and the scent of a woman. One thing the mountains teach you is what really matters in life.

A chai-wallah on our way up to Gangotri

Despite the weeks of suffering, some people didn’t have enough, which is why I joined Tenzing and Thandoup, my closest friends from the course, on a pilgrimage to Gomukh (literally cow’s mouth), the source of the Bhagirathi River, the main tributary of the Ganges, and one of the holiest sites in India. We hired a jeep from Uttarkashi and drove north to Gangotri, which lies just 18 km from the glacier that feeds the mighty Ganga. With all three of us in the best shape of our lives, the trek was an absolute breeze. After getting to the glacier, everyone took a ritual bath in the snout, right where the ice starts to melt. It was painfully cold water, but incredibly refreshing nonetheless.

Our room in Gangotri - the Bhagirathi, the main tributary of the Ganga, was right below us

I’ve been in Delhi for the past week, fighting the terrible heat, which reaches as high as 50 C in the shade. The feeling one gets from a rickshaw ride can only be compared to someone holding a blow drier to your face on high heat and high power, no exaggeration. The monsoon is nearly here, which should bring some level of relief.

The great Shivling, the Matterhorn of the Himalayas, on our trek to Gomukh

I’m in town trying to sort out my visas for the next leg of the trip, the Silk Road from China to Istanbul.  I was hit with a substantial roadblock when I found out that I’m unable to get a visa for Pakistan in Delhi, which means my much anticipated crossing of the Karakorum Range will have to be put off for next time. A flight to China from Delhi or Kathmandu will have to do.

Washing away 24 years of sin at Gomukh, the source of the Ganges, which starts here at the snout of Gangotri Glacier. The water is quite literally ice cold

Part II of the Himalayas should include a trip to Sikkim to visit Thandoup, a road trip to Ladakh with Tenzing and company, and a stop in to Kashmir, home to what many describe as the world’s most beautiful valley.