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.

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.

What to Know about Traveling in Georgia (and Abkhazia)

When I think of a place called Georgia, usually Georgia state in the US is the first thing I think of. Some haven’t even heard of the country Georgia, and those who have, have vague ideas about where it is. Once you get here, you’ll have no idea where you are after you’ve seen their labyrinth of an alphabet and heard their very unusual, completely unrelated to any other language.

Visit hill-top monasteries, like Jvari overlooking the ancient capital Mtskheta

Visit hill-top monasteries, like Jvari overlooking the ancient capital Mtskheta

Georgia is in the Caucasus mountain range, bordered by Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, touches the Black Sea on the west and Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to the east. Its pretty much exactly in the middle of Europe and Asia, homeless to both but a friendly neighbor to them all. Unlike Armenia, which has closed borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan (you can only get in or out thru Georgia or Iran), Georgia, an extremely homogenous Christian society, maintains business and tourism with the not-so-Christian Iran and Turkey, and even after the sour collapse of the Soviet Union and the disputed territories of South Ossetia (and to a lesser extent Abkhazia*), has a functional relationship with Russia and Russian tourists.

Drive past vineyards to the end of the road at Vardzia Cave Monastery

Drive past vineyards to the end of the road at Vardzia Cave Monastery

It’s a country famous for wine, and they love to make cognac and brandy from their grapes too, or any type of fruit alcohol generically called chacha. They have an entirely different genre of white wine called kvevri wine, an amber coloured wine fermented in clay pots. They have their own type of cuisine, heavy on the meat, cheese and bread, especially when combined all together. BBQ meat and vegetables are served in all Georgian restaurants, and the most common fast food is kebabs or shwarma. Georgian cheese is a big thing too, and some of it was amazing, but the most unique thing I tried was churckhela, nuts covered in some sugary fruity wax that looks like candles made out of anal balls.

Try to be in Tbilisi on Tbilisi Day Festival!

Try to be in Tbilisi on Tbilisi Day Festival!

In the capital city Tbilisi, there are enough stray cats and dogs to make walking on the sidewalk a little dangerous – beware of piles of steamy poop whose smell is impossible to get off the soles of your shoes. If you dare to rent a car and drive in Georgia, the roads are okay and well marked and all that, but drivers are impatient, aggressive, and a little suicidal at times. Being overtaken on the left or right on a blind hill or bendy mountain road doesn’t give you many options to move out of the way, so it wasn’t a surprise to see how many cars are partially crashed, scraped or banged up and not fixed. Police stations line the main highways, atleast one huge station in every village, and the police officers wait on the side of the road with flashing lights in their new Ford cruisers waiting and expecting for something to happen. At least they weren’t checking anyones speed, so I guess they’re waiting for an accident.

Rent a car in Georgia if you like roadtripping and aren't scared to get a little banged up to find places like this

Rent a car in Georgia if you like roadtripping and aren’t scared to get a little banged up to find places like this

The downside is a lot of roadkill. And the roadkill are those same street cats and stray dogs you see in Tbilisi. Its downright depressing to see so many cute and innocent puppies or fluffy kittens lying whole, in a couple pieces, or smashed flat to the concrete. I don’t know if any are ever removed, so they lay there to rest in no peace at all, and don’t seem to warn the other drivers or strays to stay away from each other on the road.

Still Georgians maintain peace with God. There are crosses and churches to be seen in every corner of the country, and just walking past a church is reason to cross oneself and bow from the street. If you want to enter the church, women must be wearing skirts and cover their heads, but only the old ladies and tourists seemed to follow this rule.

the bridge to Abkhazia

the bridge to Abkhazia

*If you want to travel to Abkhazia from Georgia, you must send an electronic tourist visa application to visa@mfaapsny.org (the application form is a short 2 page pdf with basic questions, and can be found on their website www.mfaapsny.org). After 5 working days, they email you a clearance letter which you have to print out and take with you to the border. Physically crossing into Abkhazia is as unfriendly as land borders get – you must walk one kilometer in no mans land over a dilapidated bridge (unless you prefer the horse and carriage option), and enter a barbed wired alley to pass Russian soldiers who check your documents. Once you get thru, you have to travel 2-3 hours (+100km) by bus to the capital city Sukhum and pay for your visa at the Ministry of Foreign affairs (between $5-50USD depending on how many days you’ll stay in Abkhazia) during working business hours. Only after you get the visa in your passport can you return back to Georgia, so be wary of getting stuck in Akhazia if you’re not planning to visit Sukhum!

The East Fjords of Iceland

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driving the winding roads into each valley

On one of my only weekends off from riding, I wanted to take advantage of living so close to the eastern fjords by taking a 2-day roadtrip around them all. They´re some of the highest, most snow-covered mountains in Iceland, and zigzag in and out along the coast, but roads rarely make it all the way around the fjord peninsulas to connect each valley. Thus, you end up with a bunch of 1-way-in-and-same-way-out cities, sometimes totally isolated from the rest of Iceland because of snow, with some mighty scary dirt roads leading you from the valley´s harbours into the moutain passes between them. One of these towns is Seyðisfjörður, which doesn´t even have a population of 1000, but its the port connecting Iceland and Europe for ferry goers, so its a pretty important place to stay connected to. Its one of the most picturesque towns in East Iceland, since the entire drive down into the luscious green valley has a river and its many waterfalls dancing along roadside. Its also a culturally active center, taking part in the annual Eastern Iceland Jazz festival, and hosting the week-long arts camp youth festival LungA. I visited the famous blue church and was lucky enough to hear some young musicians practicing a piano-accompanied solo, and her voice resounded like an angel in the tiny wooden church.

Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður

Mjófjörður was the most remote valley we drove into. Its hardly even counted as a town, but a small village of only 35 inhabitants. The steep, narrow, winding dirt road down the valley is only open in the summer, and in winter, its only possible to leave or visit Mjóifjörður by boat from Neskapustaður. The boat doesnt run when the road is open, so we had to drive back out of the valley, over the mountains and through Reydarfjordur and Eskifjordur to get to Neskaupstaður (a 94km drive instead of a 10km sail). The weekend we were exploring these valleys was the height of summer perfection as far as weather is concerned, and the temperature reached 27.5°C in Mjófjörður – the hottest I´ve ever seen in Iceland. Children were swimming in the sea and there wasn´t much more to do than just lay in the grass, suntanning, to enjoy the good weather.

Kirkjubær Church Hostel

Kirkjubær Church Hostel

Reyðarfjörður was a more industrial town, not as beautiful as neighbouring Eskifjörður, but the Icelandic Wartime Museum (Íslenska Stríðsárasafnið) was worth visiting. Stöðvarfjörður, a little village of 190 residents, boasts the famous stone collection of Petra, a woman who collected stones all her life and has them on display all over her rock garden. There´s also a tiny little church on the hill that has apparently been deconsecrated since its now operating as a guesthouse; it only costs 5000ISK per night to sleep at God´s old home. Fáskrúðsfjörður was also a quaint little fishing town, the former residence of many French fishermen up until WWI. We went to the old French Fishermens house after closing, and though it was too late to visit the museum officially, someone had forgotten to close or lock the doors, so we politely peeked in and then shut the door properly.

Petra´s Stone Collection

Petra´s Stone Collection

Everywhere we went was sunny and warm, but in the evenings, a thick fog always fell over the fjords and hung low over the sea bays. We tented seaside by a small flowing river, so we had fresh water and also a beach to go swimming in the next day. We ran into one mink on the shore, and otherwise saw no further than a few meters in the dense fog. The cool nights were always welcomed, and the only town we got stuck in fog during the day was at Breiðdalsvík, which was also perfect since that´s where we decided to soak in the hottub and the misty clouds around us just made it all the more cosy. After a wonderful, summery roadtrip around the east fjords, Im starting to think I´ll have to go back and visit in the winter, just to see the other weather extremes, and of course, to be able to take the boat from Neskaupstaður to Mjóifjörður.

 

Roadtrip Westcoast & Craigslist Rideshare

After I spent a day in Miami, I flew to SFO to start a week long road trip from the Bay to Vancouver, B.C. I wanted to visit friends and family from here and there, since that´s what people like to do during the holidays. Me and Steve used his Subaru as a Craigslist carpooling tool and rideshared parts of our drive there and back. We decided to skip the boring, direct I5 and take all of Northern California along the much longer but prettier highway 101, and also thought it would be a good opportunity to stop along the way in Mendocino county for some wine tasting. We had Phil and Kai, both good-hearted travelers not really from any one place in the states, who drove the whole day with us to Oregon, and thankfully knew how to drive a stickshift so that some of us could taste as much as we wanted without spitting.

all my favourite people from Portland

We visited two California Organic Certified wineries, Yorkville Cellars and Barra of Mendocino, and while I still can’t admit that I can taste the difference in organic versus non-organic, you still somehow feel better supporting a more sustainable, less environmentally-damaging winery just because some California certification schema says that they are. Wierd, but true. We also stopped at a famous microbrewery in Boonville, California. Anderson Valley Brewing company makes almost 20 different varieties of beer at their tastehouse, and their Winter Solstice Seasonal ale, my personal favourite, is super scrumptious. Although, it hardly compared to the limited edition, seasonal, 11%alc. Abyss, by Deschutes brewery in Oregon; Ryan described it as God walking down your throat in velvet slippers.

Sienna Ridge Estate Winery

We dropped Kai off in Eureka, and then Phil drove the rest of the way through a grove of Giant Redwoods, weaving along Grants Pass after we entered Oregon. He needed to be dropped off in Ashland, and the person who he was staying with offered us to stay the night there too since it was getting late. Phil got the couch at his friends place, and we got Cadbury Cottage, a beautiful 2-storey, cozy house to spend the night. It’s rented out for hundreds of dollars per night during the very famous Shakespeare festival that happens in Ashland every summer, but I guess in December when noone uses it they can afford to let random craigslist rideshare friends stay a complimentary night 🙂

winter time in wine country

 We drove the next day through all of Oregon state, arriving in Portland where a group of amazing friends I visit regularily live. We stayed with my former semester at Sea classmate, Ryan, and his girlfirend, and some other Semester at Sea or University of Oregon related friends came over for a fun and drunken Friday night party. The next day we all crawled out of bed too early for anyone to be happy, all with a moderate to severe hangover, but still managed to make it to breakfast together before noon since I convinced my very understanding friends we had to be back on the road by noon. We drove another 5 hours through the state of Washington, stopping at a couple of reststops that offered well-needed coffee and cookies. They are given out by different church groups doing missionary work, sometimes by heavily tattooed elders from Christian Motorcycle Clubs with cups that say “Salvation is free, just like this coffee.”

somewhere in the middle of Oregon wine and sheep country

 

We made it to Vancouver to visit my mom and sisters, and gorged for the next few days on Mom´s home cooking and specialty christmas treats. On the drive back down, we had two craigslist people again, this time from Seattle to Oregon, but they were much younger, a guy and a girl, and had no luggage at all. Sounds suspicous, but I almost felt like we were more dangerous than them. We spent that night in Eugene, Oregon, with a friend of mine, Jesse, who works at June. Its a restaurant/bar and we stopped to have some more delicious micro-brew, local beer and stouty christmas ales. We spent most of the night talking about couchsurfing since he and his girlfriend are going to Venezuela and Colombia soon and want to start using the site; of course I gave it the highest recomendation, helped him get his profile completed, and gave him 2 suggested hosts in Colombia to make sure he doesn’t change his mind.

Jackson Wellsprings near Ashland, Oregon

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For the last leg of the drive, we didn’t find any craigslist rideshares, so we took our time stopping in Jackson Wellsprings, a hotspring spa that did good for our stiff backs and sore buts from all that driving. We also stopped at Sienna Ridge Estate, a winery right in the middle of Oregon visible from the I5, in an old, restored farmhouse. Our wine pourer was this lovely old man whose name I can´t remember, but it started with G and he’s only one of two people who work there since somedays, noone even comes to taste business is so slow. If you go there, ask him how his sister is, since he was on his way north to visit her at the Vancouver General Hospital the very next day.

I'll call him Mr. Sienna Ridge

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Even though we had no rideshares, we did pick up a crazy hitchiker, who had the most obnoxious, raspy New Yorker voice, and didn’t once stop talking (with excessive cursing) in the 20 miles we drove him. Anymore than that and I think I would have started to regret picking him up but instead it just makes yet another great story to tell from our roadtrip.

Roadtripping with the Hen House

The San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge peeping out from the fog typical of the bay area

The San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge peeping out from the fog typical of the bay area

I am moving to the easy bay area in California to complete some courses at UC Berkeley, and my family decided to make a family vacation out of it by renting a Chrysler Impala, and shoving me, my 2 sisters, mother and ancient grandmother into it. Of course we came with all our luggage, my life in boxes, a cooler full of home cooked food, a rice cooker, and uncountable bottles of water. Yes, it was a tight fit.

The newest addition to our family is our GPS system, affectionately named Disa, and she told us where to go, how long it would take, and to “Drive Carefully” once in a random while. Sometimes she was wrong, and I’d have to override her instructions, and my mom would get totally distressed trying to figure out what direction she should take. My grandma was a skeptic, because during every long stretch of I-5 highway we drove and Disa had no turns to warn us about, she would ask something to the effect of “why isn’t this thing talking to us? She’s supposed to tell us where to go. Must be no good.” We did do things other than drive, but out of the whole weekend, we were stuffed like sardines in that car for the majority of the time, fighting over butt space in the backseat and reluctantly taking turns to sit in the middle. At one point, my sister spilled half a water bottle AT my face, like, almost bore out an eye socket with the spout of the open bottle, and that created quite an uproar since there was nowhere for me to turn to fix myself, nor for my sister to run.

We made it to California with a stop in some random highway side Motel 8, and stuffed all 5 of us in one room (poor Ruth got the floor), and mom decided to cook corned beef and rice for us at 11 pm with all the windows shut (so we couldnt get in trouble for cooking in the rooms) and thus we all ended up smelling like fried onions by the time we fell asleep. Once we got to the bay, we dropped off my grandma at family friend in Stockton, and took a couple days to explore Cal campus, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and the highway 1 along the west coast of norcal. We survived off the curry and rice from our cooler and In-n-Out burger, and made alot of stops to Target and WalMart to bargain hunt for miscellaneous, unneeded cheap stuff, what we Adals do best together. There was never a silent moment, and all-in-all a wonderful trip, but its nice to finally be settled in one place and able to hear myself think again 🙂

As alway, dohop.com is at your service offering cheap flights to California.