Big City hopping

Backpacking or roadtripping in Europe is something I haven´t done a lot, and started doing late in my travels, since the budget for a month in Europe can go a long way in Western Africa or Southeast Asia. Its also nice to visit Europe in the summer, which is prime work time, but early autumn or late spring is really the perfect time to visit. I got the excuse to go to Europe for 2 days of work, but extended it into a week long overland trip of big city hopping so I could try and justify my carbon emissions from Iceland and back.

Vor Frelsers Kirke

I started in Copenhagen, where I wanted to visit a dear horse-backriding friend Ditte, but that very same weekend she went to Iceland to ride so I borrowed her summer cabin for me and my favourite German riding friend. Michael had a bad knee so we didnt ride the Icelandic horses nearby in the town of Nykobing but we enjoyed the beaches of Sjaelland by bicycle and the weather was even good enough to barbeque dinner.

Copenhagen canals

We stopped in Copenhagen for a night to overlap with Ditte for one city bike ride and some touristic stops, and the next morning I flew to Hamburg, where I´d be meeting yet another horse friend Jana, for her birthday! We celebrated by scooting around town, day drinking and taking public transport ferries with roadbeers for a cheap booze cruise. We dined with some friends and sniffed some stuff that gave me a head rush, and the next morning we were finally off to ride. We rode Icelandic horses at a friends breeding farm called Bockholts-Hoff and rode thru a German forest on horses that had just arrived from Iceland. I wore my new yoga/riding/hiking pants that were a little too tropical for the rainy weather, but they must have been the reason the sun finally came out.

riding Icelandic horses in Germany

Next I was off to Rotterdam, via flight to Amsterdam and dinner with a Dutch horse friend, who rode those very Icelandic horses with Silke and I a few weeks earlier in Iceland. A short and sweet date before I checked into my Backroads hotel and was given a Backroads van to drive to Provence early the next morning.

Dijon

My ´work´ roadtrip took me 1,099km thru Holland, Antwerp and Belgium, then Luxembourg and into France. I drive past Moselle, Metz, Nancy, a bit of Champagne region, Dijon and spent a night in Beaune. Then I drove the Bourgogne trail, past the gastronomic capital of Lyon, along the Rhone and into Provence. We ended in Carpentras, where we keep our vans, and I spent a day bike touring thru Aubignan and Sarrians.

good thing our bikes have built in wine racks

Another day was spent traveling by train back to Paris, eating some moules frites on the streets of Montmarte, and left feeling like I had taken in an overwhelming amount of sights, tastes and culture from so many different corners of Europe. I had also managed to get a tan and feel the sun, so returning to a chilly fall in Iceland was very welcomed, especially since it was one of the first times Iceland was really experiencing a truly autumn season.

Roadtrip Iceland, in the plumber car

My new found home on wheels has offered so many opportunities for travel, and because of tour guiding work, I haven’t been outside of Iceland since before May, so roadtrips in Iceland where the greatest way to play. My 2-seater car, with a mattress, fridge and sink, has been fully kitted for an impromptu roadtrip thru Iceland at any moment; two friends have been lucky enough to become the plumber car’s first guests.

my home on wheels, under Hekla

I met a couchsurf host in Geneva who was on his way to Iceland for a few days, so we decided to test the home on wheels together for the first time. We drove the golden circle, had pizza and beer at Skjól, and hottubed til the wee hours of the morning at Hrunalaug, which hadn´t yet run dry. We met two Romanian workers from the Geysir shop who offered endless entertainment, and a yoga photographer from LA who I´ll probably see again in the future for a yoga workshop in Iceland. That night we slept near Fluðir on the banks of Thjorsá river, and carried on the following day on a hunt for more hot pools.

Hjalparfoss

We visited a pool that I´ve still never quite figured out why it got deserted, but it´s just there, all alone, rundown, perfectly swimmable. We went to Hjalpárfoss, which I hadn´t realized I´d never been to until I was there, looking at something I´d never seen. We drove south, under Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull until we reached Seljlanads country, and thought we´d be sneaky and sleep close to the sea on a dead end farmer´s hay field road a couple of km´s west of the infamous US Navy DC plane crash at Solheimasandur. On our midnight walk west, we realized there were a few too many unbridged rivers to make it. He´ll have to come back to see it net time.

the perfect secret lagoon

I made a friend in Thailand last November with a handful of Americans on a Travr trip, and she was coming from LA for a week long vacation to a place she´d never been, or even considered going, so I planned a full circumnavigation of the island for her… and my car. We left Reykjavik headed for the north over Kjolur, and spent our first night in Blondudalur. We arrived quite late, after a midnight dip in the Hveravellir hottub, so my pregnant friend Kristine was already sleep. When we woke up, she was gone, and her man, and it took some time to realize that they had left for Akureyri hospital, since she had gone into labour.

super preggers Kristine in between conractions, with permission to leave the hospital for a little photo shoot and virgin mojito action

We carried on to Husavik, where we visited Geosea until closing, and camped, illegally, in their parking lot, after having one too many beers at the swim-up bar. They woke us up in the morning with a knock on the car door, politely asking us not to “camp” in the parking lot.

Lauren and I at Geosea

The next night we went to Egilsstadir, my former summer stomping ground, where Nielsen Restaurant has been making waves. Run by a friend, the former head chef Kari of Michelin-starred Dill, it was a treat to eat so well, for so little, in a quiet, countryside town.

Head chef Kari at Nielsen restaurant

We drove to the bottom of Fljotsdalur to Egilsstadir farm, the last inhabited farm in the valley headed southwest to Snaefell and the foothills of Vatnajokull glacier, to stay at the Wilderness Center. My former boss and friend Denni runs a museum, guest house and viking sauna there, surrounded by horses and reindeer. We ended up, fireside, sharing stories and grass, before falling asleep in the back of the campervan, a place that had started to feel more and more like home.

at the end of the world, Obyggdasetur Islands, aka the Wilderness Center in East Iceland

The next morning we had intended on sleeping in Vik, but one of the first and worst rainfalls of the summer had started coming down like hell on earth, so we just kept driving to Reykjavik and crawled into my warm, dry bed in Reykjavik, feeling slightly as if we had cheated on the plumber car. Its hard to say, but I´m sure my apartment was happy to finally have some cuddles too.

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.