Fréttablaðið Fólk: my interview in Iceland´s biggest newspaper

Enjoy a rough translation of this Icelandic article journalist Starri Freyr Jónsson wrote about me in this weekend´s edition of Fréttablaðið. If you understand Icelandic, you can just read the original article in the picture below!

Fólk, Fréttablaðið. Helgablaðið laugardagur 5. ágúst 2017

Finds Happiness in the small things

When Katrin was 22 years old, she decided to travel to 200 countries before she turned 20. Today she is just over 30, and 208 countries are already on her list. Future travels include remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, Central Asia and middle Africa.

There are definitely few, if any, Icelanders who have traveled as much as Katrín Sif Einarsdóttir. At only 22 years old, she set the goal of traveling to 200 countries before she became thirty. Today she´s just over thirty and the country count has reached 208; according to her countdown, which has perhaps more countries than people think exist, also considers countries that are not defined as an independent states, for example places like Greenland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Taiwan.

Katrín Sif was born in Iceland but grew up in Canada. “I started traveling alone when I was 18, but had a very outdoorsy life as a child and a teenager. Until age 21, I traveled mostly to South America and Asia. When I was 19, I lived for a four-month period on a ship sailing around the world. The trip began in Mexico, and we sailed across the Pacific Ocean through Asia and Africa, then to Europe and across the Atlantic to Florida. ”

Despite extensive travel, Katrín Sif has completed a double BA degree in philosophy and French, and has completed two master’s degrees; one MSc in environmental science and natural resource management, and an MA in Icelandic history. “In between, I have worked in restaurants, both at home and abroad, and worked with writing and as an editor during and between travels. I still see myself most as a cowgirl and work as a tourguide during the summer time in the highlands of Iceland, and sometimes work as a shepherd in the autumn in the east and north. ”

Thankful for a safe home

This summer she went to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan where she, among other things, completed an eight-day horseback riding trip in Kyrgyzstan. “This fall I want to travel across Europe and learn about wine production. Later in winter, I’m headed for some of the Pacific islands that are extremely difficult to travel to, for example Wallis and Futuna plus Tokelau. However, next year, I would like to spend a few months in central and northern Africa and learn some Arabic. I would also love to travel to Central Asia and to some former Soviet Union republic and learn a little Russian. ”

After all the years and the number of countries it is difficult for her to point out some of the destinations that stand out. “However, in 2016, I visited North Korea and Afghanistan, which were both astonishing. It was very safe to travel in North Korea, the country was clean and offered more exciting places than I expected. Of course, I always felt like it was being watched or followed by my shadow of a guide, so I never knew if I was really experiencing North Korea or something staged. Afghanistan is a very beautiful country where the countrymen are very friendly and hospitable. Like their neighbors in Pakistan, terrorism and war have made it very stressful to travel in these areas. In such circumstances, I am grateful for the peace and security that prevails in Iceland. ”

Learned a lot on the way

After traveling for more than half of her life, Katrín Sif has learned a lot about how people act and interact. “I’ve learned to be very tolerant, patient and understanding as I get to know other languages, religions and different cultures. I have also learned to see happiness in the small things and to live a simple life with an 8 kg backpack for a large part of the year. This lifestyle has taught me to be happy with what I have at each time in each place. However, no matter how much I travel, I always find new and new exciting destinations to keep wanting more. ”

Even while traveling, she sometimes gets home sick. “I love Iceland more and more every time I come back for different reasons. Still, I always complain about the weather! If it were only hotter here, less wind and brighter winter I would definitely stay longer here every year. ”

Check out Katrin’s trips and travel stories on her blog, nomadiccosmopolitan.com, and follow her on Instagram (nomadic_cosmopolitan) to see photos from her journey.

 

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Mindfulness in Iceland

I was recently in Nepal and participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes, and realized they’re not very different. Meditation is actually something we do all the time, though it may be mindless, and sometimes misused to be a tool for negative rumination.

I’ve always noticed that Icelandic nature, and the things I do in Iceland, seem a perfect setting for productive meditation. I’m usually most relaxed when I’m horse back riding, looking out on some epic scenery in the highlands, sitting in a natural hot tub in the middle of nowhere, or watching the midnight sun touch the ocean before going back up into the horizon. If the weather was better, I’m sure there would be more yoga retreats here.

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meditating with my horse in some summery sunny Icelandic weather

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an ambassador of peace and well-known spiritual leader from India, was in Iceland last week to give on a talk on the importance of meditation. He explains it as a way for people to find inner calm and happiness, which spreads naturally through a population and serves an important role in creating peace.

Exploring Iceland and SATI Mindfulness worked together to put on a Mindfulness Retreat in Hveragerdi last weekend, and I was lucky enough to take part with another 20 or so participants, a mixture of Americans, Icelanders, and one German. Our teachers were Craig and Devon, along with a landscape architect with a Phd. in Environmental design. Calling it a Mindfulness Retreat was an interesting marketing move, since telling my family I was going to a 3 day meditation workshop would have made them a little worried about my mental health – why is it that practicing meditation is such an alternative/hippy thing?

Along with some hiking, stretching and exercising, we learned that meditation is a transition from movement to stillness, and noise to silence. It gives you time to contextualize life, commit to happiness, and consider compassion. When meditating, Sri Sri’s three mantras are: I want nothing. I am nothing. I am doing nothing.

Have you ever wondered how hard it is to do nothing? Its nearly impossible. Your mind never shuts up, and if it does it only lasts a few moments before something else you need to remember or plan to do pops up. Devon and Craig also like to call ‘mindufulness’ ‘bodyfulness,’ since its in those moments when your brain quiets that you can really feel and listen to your body. Even if its pain or tiredness, just listening to your physical sensations is an extremely powerful ability that many of us ignore.

Sometimes I caught myself imagining what it would be like to have a super low IQ, or super intense ADHD, maybe then it would be easier to focus only on the here and now. Focusing on just yourself in the moment is a really difficult way to narrow your thoughts, and I’m not sure I ever managed to truly get there in our 3 days together.

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Reykjadalur, the smokey valley and hot river most people come to Hveragerdi for

Hveragerdi was a wonderful place to have the workshop. We were surrounded by summer, green vegetation, a steaming mountain side, and a hot river to bathe in. There were also hundreds of girl and boy scouts having some kind of retreat at the same time, offering endless fields of coloured tents and people walking around with rolled neck bands. We didn’t have to compete with them for a supply of nature and relaxation, but one day when we all ended up in a forest with instructions to try and hug a tree, literally, I was hoping some of them would walk by and see a bunch of grown, sober adults tree hugging and wondered what their reaction would be.

We did some other strange exercises, like trying to walk as slow as you can without stopping (you can go really slow!), or making one hand a fist be the sun and smashing it into the other open palm which represented the moon, but everything was more fun when we did it together. What I came away with from this retreat was to remember more often to bring out the inner child and just play – with myself, with nature with thoughts, and with feelings. It definitely makes you feel lighter.

Sumac Grill + Drinks

There´s a new restaurant in town, and its officially opened as of today. Its in downtown Reykjavik, in the middle of everything 101, on Laugavegur 28, where the old Bunk Bar and hostel was. The entire interior has been torn apart and redone, designed by non other than Halfdán Petersen, the designer of the oh-so-popular Kex hostel and Iceland´s first Michelin star restaurant Dill. A selection of plates and pots are individually hand made by potter and ceramic artist Hanna Gréta in Hafnafjörður, such that no two are stained the same way or have the same pattern.

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Sumac Grill + Drinks, bar side

The owner and master mind behind the concept and menu is Þráinn Freyr Vigfússon, arguably Iceland´s best chef (okay, I´m a little biased), and has competed, placed, and won in enough cooking competitions and shows around the world that he´s definitely one of the world´s top chefs. The head chef is his friend and prized chef Hafsteinn Ólafsson, and a few other industry-recognized names fill the bar and wait staff. Me, myself, and I, are the hostess and rose and tree keeper.

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sumac infused gin and ginger beer in a copper cup

The menu is inspired by Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine, using influences, flavours and spices from the Mediterranean coast and middle east – not only in the food, but also in cocktails and deserts. Sumac, popularly used in Turkish cuisine, is a deep red, sun-dried berry, giving a little spicy kick and citrus hint to their signature cocktail, Sumac, and their made-from-scratch yogurt ice cream which tastes like roses.

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cauliflower, baby potatoes and salmon in their various clay plates and steel pans

The best sellers (so far) are definitely the grilled cauliflower head and za´atar flat bread with hummus and almond red pepper dip. The can´t miss items include the Berber chicken liver mousse, grilled octopus legs, and 100% vegan pistachio ice cream with chick-pea meringue. My personal favourites are the kumquat salmon drizzled with fennel froth, the crispy baby potatoes with Icelandic chorizo sausage, the pork belly tagine (actually cooked and served in a Moroccan clay tagine pot), and the Hilo cocktail, topped off with an organic Icelandic red-rose petal.

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Sumac Grill + Drinks, kitchen side

Find Sumac on facebook, follow them on instagram @sumacgrilldrinks, or feel free to leave their first review on trip advisor. The official website (including the menu and wine list) can be found at Sumac.is, where you can make a dinner reservation. Otherwise just give us a call, +354 537 9900! I may even answer the phone personally 😉

 

Weekdays in Paris

A weekend trip to Paris isn’t so expensive these days, with budget air lines like Wow Air and Transavia flyin for around €100 each way when you’re lucky. A weekday trip is even cheaper, with a one way flight as low as €80, so me and my sister, who has never been to Paris or France, decided to hop over for a couple of nights, Monday to Wednesday.

Me and Kristjana at the Sacre Coeur

We were lucky enough to miss the biggest day of rain in years, just by a few hours, so happily the metros and gutters had just stopped flooding when we landed. It also seemed the sky had been rained out, so for the next couple of days, which had been forecasted for rain, we were lucky enough to have only cloudy skies, with small bits of sun poking thru. It was perfect – never too hot or too wet or cold, and we didn’t get burnt or heat exhaustion. Which we were kind of expecting after spending more than 8 or 10 hours of each day outside walking.

The Louvre

We walked everywhere. And only walked. The only train or metro we took were to get in or out of Paris/Charles de Gaulle airport . In 2 days we walked nearly 55km, and my sister is still slightly limping from a cramped hamstring. But it was all well worth it!

Getting our obligatory Nutella crepes

We saw nearly all of touristic Paris, even thru the battling crowds of other tourists and half evacuated Paris businesses (Parisians start to empty in July for their summer holidays). The Sacre Coeur, the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Champs Élysées, the shopping at St. Michel, Galeries Lafayette, and Chatelet, and the neighbourhoods of Montmarte, St. Germaine and St. Denis. Just walking thru the Louvre took half a day and a few kilometers, and I randomly ran into a solo Indian/American-dwelling female traveler I met a year and a half ago in Somalia. It’s a small world, even in crowded Paris.

 

Shepherd’s Way Trekking in Kyrgyzstan

The far east has a lot of appeal – it’s the orient, the exotic, far away lands, the famous Silk Road, weird but delicious food, colourful décor, nomads, and also horses. I went to Mongolia last year for a horse trip, and found out the same was possible in Kyrgyzstan, but in totally different landscape. I had known the Gobi desert, and now I was going to the Alps of central Asia.

riding in Kyrgyzstan

I’ve always wanted to go to Kazakhstan, and the visa was just as difficult to get as Russia’s visa, except I knew no one in Kazakhstan to invite me. But, since Expo 2017 got scheduled in Astana, Kazakhstan changed the visa requirements and I was able to get one on arrival. Flying into Almaty, only a few hours drive from Bishkek, is a more common, cheaper route from Istanbul or Moscow, the two main hubs connecting Central Asia/former Soviet countries to Europe. I flew with Pegasus airlines, for very cheap, considering the distance, and carried on my luggage. I splurged another 15 euros upgrade to spend my layover time in the lounge at Istanbul airport, and drank enough Starbucks coffees, Effees and feta cheese  to well make up for it.

swimming in Issyk Kul

I was riding with a friend from France, Alicia who came on a tour with me in Iceland. We would only be two guests, but with 3 guides, and spend 10 days in and around Barskoon village on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul. We climbed up to 3900 meters, where the landscape looked just like the highlands of Iceland, except where we have frost at night and snow topped mountains all year round is between 600-900 meters.

camp at 3900m

We only had one horse each, and split all our camping gear, luggage and food in big saddle bags that each of us carried. We cooked on some old Soviet-time portable stove that ran on gasoline, and always had a hot breakfast and freshly cooked dinner. Our lunches were half-way stops, picnics full of biscuits, jams, wood-oven cooked bread, nuts and dried fruits. Although we had enough to eat, you always felt hungry – it was a combination of all the fresh air, hot days, cold nights, and perhaps the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes.

picnic time

We rode through valleys, pine forests, and even up to a glacier, and my favourite day was the Jukku Pass, a track even I became a little afraid of heights. We saw two rock slides, not so far from us, and both ended only a few metres from the road. Our guide figured we’d hear one coming before it was too late so we just carried on along the same treacherous road.

camping and trekking the shepherd’s way

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind horse trip to add to your bucket list, definitely look up Shepherds Way Trekking, and they’ll custom tailor a trip for only 2 people. If you’re not a big horse person, they also have hiking treks, and you’ll still feel like a shepherd after all the other free-roaming shepherds, goats, sheep, cows and horses you’ll meet along the way.

Horse Culture in Kyrgyzstan

I’ve learned a lot about horses after trekking in Kyrgyzstan. In this country, covered 94% by mountains, a semi-nomadic people still maintain a co-dependent relationship with their horses. They use them to travel, they use them for sport and games, they work them as shepherds, they drink their milk, and also eat their meat.

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a herd of mares and foals drınkıng

Around central Asia, they play a type of team sport on horseback called Buzkashi that slightly resembles polo, except the ball is a goat, who starts out alive and usually ends up less living by the end. There’s also a game where a boy and girl on horseback compete, where the boys goal is to kiss the girl, and meanwhile the gırl can run away and beat him with a whip. The girl wins if he doesn’t manage to kiss her, although I wonder why the girls even bother to play – of not to get a kiss, then just to hit the poor boys.

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our brave mounts for the trek

The Kyrgyz horse resembles the Mongolian breed, a small but tough, colorful assortment of hard working horses. During Soviet rule, the Russians tried to prove the Russian horse was better, proving it to be stronger and faster in races, and then interbreeding them with the Kyrgyz horse. Today you have few purebreds and a lot of mixed blood, and both are incredibly adapted to the terrain – they define ‘mountain horse’ to a whole new level.

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climbimg up and down these passes was no problem for the horses, even wıth us and all the luggage on theır backs

Horses are often named after their colour or owner – a fun tradition also common in Iceland. Female horses used to be ridden only by females, but today mostly only geldings and stallions are ridden. The mares are used for milk, or ‘kumis’, and to produce hillsides full of fluffy foals each spring.

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riding through canyons and gorges in 35 degree heat

A horses age is not counted the first three years. First they are ‘tayi’, in the second year they are ‘kunan’, and their third year is called ‘Byshty’, which means ‘ready’. Then a 1 or 2 year old, which is actually 4 or 5 years old, is trained and used as a riding horse. Most boys are given a horse at birth, a new born foal they get to grow up with. This forms a lifelong partnership between a man and his horse, something too beautiful to describe but you know it when you see it.

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thıs 8 year old shepherd still can’t reach the stirrups, but his German Shepherd and his stalliıon don’t care how little their boss is

The stallions are ridden with other stallions and geldings without much fuss, and free roaming mare and foal herds are naturally protected by one stallion. I wonder what happens when herds meet… But I didn’t see any fighting or injured stallions.

Kazakhstan, nice to meet you

The first president’s park

I had a red-eye from Istanbul to Almaty, with the budget airline Pegasus who’s seats don’t recline and you don’t get fed in 5 hours, so I arrived a grumpy and slightly disoriented Katrin at sunrise, 4:50am Friday. After getting thru customs and finding some tourist info, I realized all the country was abuzz for Expo 2017. Public buses start at 5:30am so I slowly made my way into the city center. I don’t know why, but I was a little apprehensive about traveling alone there, a place seemingly so big but yet a huge question mark.

The President’s Palace

You can’t get your bearings that easily once you’ve arrived either. The faces are a mix of North and East, the language mostly Russian, the religion largely Muslim, and the streets and buildings a showy blend of big, efficient Soviet/communist architecture and Las Vegas wannabe. Shiny, glass towers and Dubai-like malls pop up between the concrete grey, and all the boulevards and blocks are twice too big. The cars are sometimes right-hand drive, even though the roads are too, and everyone has a brand new smart phone and is addicted to Instagram and selfies more than Chinese tourists are addicted to selfie sticks. There’s a significant minority of Koreans and Turkish residents, which also made race and language identification tricky. I barely heard Kazakh, and even ethnic Kazakhs sometimes speak only Russian, but only my couchsurf host and a few of her friends spared me with English.

My Kazakh friends

I saw faces which resembled ancient Mongol warriors, but with milky white skin and mouse grey hair. The city of Almaty was spread out below snow-topped mountains whose peaks make even the Alps and Rockies look small. The lush green-ness, even in the city center, slapped summer straight in your face, and a humid 30•c have warm tingly feelies to my barefeet toes.

Portraits by @ninachikova

The nightlife was slightly international but anonymous at the same time. I went to a whiskey bar that made Scottish choices seem limited, and a nightclub sigh exactly the same top40 as New York. I was randomly approached by two separate photographers to take my portrait, just because.

Kok-Tobe

I went on a roadtrip to two places out of the city, and it didn’t take long to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere. Only 25km away from the city center is Big Almaty Lake, a reservoir for the city’s drinking water nestled between white mountain peaks. I lucked out to be there at the same time a traditional Kazakh dance video was being made, and tried to photobomb it, just a little.

Big Almaty Lake

Me and my couchsurf host, her son, and a friend with his girlfriend took me to Lake Kapchigai, and nearby Ile river to picnic and swim. It involved an endless, open road, thru a semi-arid steppe where we only ran into horses and livestock, and one turtle crossing the road. We saw some petroglyphs of Buddah from some long-ago Silk Road traveling Buddhists, and marijuana weeds growing wild were just starting to bud. I didn’t try it, but I did have a horse pizza – not quite as exotic for an Icelander, but the local Kazakhs where thrilled I wasn’t offended or grossed out by horse meat, and even more surprised that it was also done in Iceland.

This river starts in China

I left Kazakhstan by road to Bishkek, a comfortable (and incredibly cheap – €5) 3.5hr drive away. The only stops were for a wooden squat toilet and to get gas, and this ‘Royal Petrol’ station whose service area and parking lot covered a plot the size of an American super Wal-Mart, but with only 6 pumps. I guess when you have so much space, why not be a little excessive.