the commute

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i spent my last days in Leh soaking up every last bit of Himalaya i could before moving onto my next epic commute.  this commute would involve three bus rides, each longer than fifteen hours.  the first one was by far the worst of the three and potentially the worst ever of my life.

i stepped onto the van full of tourists just after midnight where i was promptly placed in the front seat and thrust up against the front windshield with a seatbelt that stretched only halfway across my chest to a non-existent buckle.

instead of leaving right on time, the driver decided it would be a better use of our time to drive aimlessly around the city, through alleyways, backing in and out of just about every compact driveway he could, even knocking on random doors while searching for locals he could accept bribes from to bring them along for the ride.  after many failed attempts at meeting his price point, he did eventually find his clients.  he packed them three to a seat and stacked them high in the aisle.  several tourists tried to voice their concerns throughout this process as if actually believing it would do any good but the driver paid them no mind whatsoever.

as soon as his payload of tourists and locals were intact, we set off on our eighteen hour journey though the high desert mountains back to Manali in Himachal Pradesh.  the driver gripped the wheel with purpose as we sped stupidly fast along the many cliffs and curves of the unpaved highway.  a thin layer of glass only inches from my face was the only thing between me and perhaps death.

to top it all off, as chance would have it i was also experiencing the worst flatulence induced abdominal pains i have ever had.  its origin was unknown and its onset was sudden.  as we hurtled haphazardly down the road, piercing pains shot through me and became more pronounced with every bump and dip.  my stomach quite simply was a war-zone and it took all the strength i had not to let loose the mayhem into the van where the other innocent passengers were clung to each other for warmth and pretending to sleep.  they had their own demons to work through i’m sure.

we did stop a few times where i attempted to remedy the situation by any means necessary.  this only gave me temporary relief and restarted the clock of the ticking time bomb that was the civil war inside Roark’s guts.

on and on we went as night turned into morning and morning turned into day.  finally, my pain subsided enough to allow me the luxury of passing out from the exhaustion i felt.

i awoke conveniently several kilometers shy of Manali at the town of Vashisht and begged the driver to let me out.  there, i teamed up with two cheerful Spaniards i had met a few days prior in Leh.  they had also just endured the same commute.  we found accommodation in the tallest building in town and got some much needed sleep.  i awoke the next morning feeling almost like myself again.  whatever that means.

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these Spaniards were the first travelers i had met who had brought along their own climbing equipment as well as a slackline.  i met up with them after their morning climb to do a bit of slacklining.  we managed to find a prime spot in a half-built building between two concrete columns with a roof that sheltered us from the rain.

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Vashisht is one place i could get happily stuck in for a very long time but the truth of the matter was that i had an elsewhere to be as well as a time window to get there in.  so instead of growing happily complacent in that blissful village in the hills, i got right back on another bus.

…to Delhi!

this time, a VIP air conditioned luxury coach with seats that recline and Bollywood films that blare.  we finally arrived fifteen hours later outside the hot and filthy Delhi bus terminal that i have come to know so well.  i couldn’t possibly have braced myself enough for the barrage of tuktuk drivers that attached themselves to my face immediately upon exiting the bus.  i’m sure it was no accident that the bus driver let us off two kilometers from the actual bus station so we would actually need to rely on these vultures.  like leading lambs to a slaughter, we each got surrounded and consumed.

i have been in this situation enough times to know that there is absolutely nothing i could say to get them to leave me alone.  words will only indicate to them that you recognize their existence, thus further fueling their fires.  so instead i let my actions do my talking for me.  i immediately unslung Escapo (my trusty guitar) and held him straight out in front of me with the body facing directly ahead.  then i simply walked forward with purpose letting Escapo pave the way.  each person i struck met me with looks of confusion and disgust until the crowd opened up to let me breath.

when i first purchased Escapo almost eighteen months ago, i imagined i’d be using him to serenade attractive girls in parks on cool afternoons.  i never imagined i’d also be using him as a weapon to for example: fight off angry dogs in an alleyway.  Escapo has become an extension of my arm.  a tool for any circumstance with the scars and scratches to prove it.  he is my one and only true sidekick.

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i only needed to spend less than an hour at my favorite bus station before my next bus departed.  this time a public bus headed due west to Rajasthan and deep into the Thar Desert.  this was the most pleasant fifteen hours of my commute.  the driver was nice enough to let me ride the entire way up in the cockpit for a front row view of the endless flat landscape with the occasional torrential downpour that inflicted flash floods on the small towns we passed.

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it was a long haul to my final destination but the bus driver made good and sure i was comfortable the entire way, keeping me fed and quenched when appropriate.

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the hour was late when i finally reached the city of Bikaner in northwest Rajasthan where i promptly made my way to Vijay Guest House run by the notorious Camelman.  i couldn’t know it at the time, but the bustling town of Bikaner would soon become one of my favorite destinations in India.

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a bite at the lake

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my next Ladakhi adventure involved a long bumpy ride 70 kilometers east of Leh to the small village of Spangmik located on the shores of Pangong Lake at 4350 meters. Pangong is a long and skinny endorheic lake that stretches 134 kilometers, 40% of which lies in Ladakh and 60% in Tibet. it’s also only 5 kilometers wide at its broadest point.

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one’s itinerary at this lake is simple. you go to the lake, you stare at the lake, eat and sleep in basic accommodations and then be transported back to Leh. once you arrive in Spangmik you can walk or drive to the next village but you can’t go much further than that before hitting a military blockade.

in general, there is a large military presence in Ladakh. though Ladakh is a peaceful realm, it’s only a stones throw from the ongoing boarder disputes with China and Pakistan that range from annoying to deadly.

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in addition to military, Ladakh is also infested with marmots of questionable character. on the way back from Pangong, our driver pulled over to show us his favorite marmot watching spot. he showed us that all one needs to do to see them is walk out a few yards and then make a kissing sound with your lips and they will all run out of their holes, scamper toward you and stand at attention. they are so curious and unafraid that you can even pet them.

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i of course had to learn the lesson the hard way that one should take precaution when petting a marmot. for example, always pay close attention to the petting hand and under no circumstance shift your focus to snap a photo of your hand petting the marmot.

the snap

the snap

the aftermath + iodine treatment

the aftermath + iodine treatment

once our driver saw the bloody mess that was my finger, he immediately rushed me far into the hills past several military checkpoints to a half-cylinder shaped bunker. upon it was written “World’s Highest Field Hospital”. crammed inside it, were hundreds of military personnel all milling about. many were queued into lines that wrapped around rooms. others were crouched on hallway floors. some were lying on stretchers and seemed to be in a considerable amount of pain. they all looked as though they had been in this hospital for a very very long time. my driver took me by the arm and lead me through the crowds. the layout of the bunker was surprisingly elaborate for what it was and there seemed to be no inch of it that wasn’t occupied by a soldier.

when we finally made it to the room where the only doctor sat, the doc took one look at me then immediately stopped treating his current patient and then beckoned me to come and sit. this room was by far the most packed full of uniformed men and as i walked toward them, they all moved out of my way willingly while each giving me the same accepting head side-bob. when i reached the doc, i sat and tried my best to explain to him what had happened. this was of course a very laughable matter to him. i was still too traumatized by the incident to share in his amusement but i understood it all the same. how often after all does a tourist wander into the world’s highest field hospital after being bitten by a marmot? i am willing to bet almost never. “Marmots are so docile” he told me, “you must have really done something to provoke it”. “this was an evil marmot” i explained. then i asked him if marmots were known to carry communicable diseases such as rabies, to which he simply replied “i don’t think you have anything to worry about”. then he sent me off into a storage closet full of drugs where a very nice man administered me a tetanus shot and then gave me some antibiotics and painkillers. finally, i was sent to another nice man who applied a bandage over my wound. after it was over, the doc saw me again to impart to me a few lasting words of wisdom then sent me on my way. this was all of course completely free of charge.

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the ride back to Leh was a beautiful, quiet and contemplative one. i decided then, once and for all that if i were to become rabid then it would have all been worth it.

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trekking in The Markha Valley

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i spent several days in Leh, exploring the town, visiting near by monasteries, acclimatizing to the altitude,  and pretty much getting used to the fact that i could no longer benefit from taking a deep breath.  then one day i packed a small bag and embarked on a seven day walkabout that would take me deep into the Markha Valley and back.

Markha is a barren holy valley carved by the Markha River that runs parallel to the Himalayan range and is located south of Leh and east of the Zanskar River.

Day 1 – Leh Airport to Yurutse ~21km

i left my guest house at dawn and walked down to the bus station in hopes to catch a local bus south to the neighboring town of Spituk (A.K.A. the trail head) but somehow i ended up at the airport instead.  giant military cargo jets flew overhead as i walked the remaining few kilometers to Spituk.

from there the road crossed the Indus River and followed it west for about 12 kilometers before heading south again up a canyon that followed the Jingchan River.  the true trail started here or at least the road became so unrecognizable that we might as well call it a trail.  the road here is in-progress and i came upon several excavators clearing freshly blown boulders from the path.  one excavator i had to negotiate my way around.  this led me straight down a slope of loose rocky debris.  this was not easy to do in flip-flops.  yup, i have not got around to putting my shoes on yet.  with all these river crossings, it just makes sense.  i’ll get around to it eventually.

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as i climbed, the valley became more pronounced and started to curve west as the rocks turned a deep red color.  i arrived at the hillside settlement of Yurutse well before sunset and was warmly greeted by a kind Ladakhi woman who offered me ginger tea, a hearty meal of dal and rice and a tent for the night.  in these parts, a no-bullshit approach is taken toward food and lodging.  for a fixed 800 Rupees (13 USD), a traveler gets accommodation, dinner, breakfast and a pack lunch.  get em in, get em out, make it simple.  a far cry from anything Indian.

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from the rooftop of the only building in town, the other guests and i enjoyed a meteor shower and a very clear view of the rest of our galaxy.

Day 2 – Yurutse to Shingo ~12km

my newfound trekking companions – Charlie, Chloe, Eva and i set out early the next day to conquer Ganda La Pass at 4980 meters.  we followed the stream bed west through the valley for several hours when i decided to turn on my GPS to assure the others that we were still on the right track.  not only were we not on the right track but we had been walking in the wrong direction ever since we left Yurutse (hey man, these things happen).  the good news was that we were only 800 meters off our mark so it was not completely necessary to backtrack.  the bad news was that this was 800 meters according to a satellite that couldn’t care less about the fucking mountain that sat between us and the true trail.

it takes a unique kind of person not to freak out in a situation like this.  when it came right down to it we had three options: (1) take the safe approach and turn back, (2) take the risky approach and head straight up the mountain into the unknown, or (3) freak out needlessly for a while and then end up going with either option 1 or 2.  Eva and Chloe were mostly un-phased by our dilemma and Charlie was even starting to get a bit excited by the fact that things were not going according to plan.  yup, these are my kind of people.

we ended up going with option 2 of course, mostly because it was the option that aroused Charlie the most.  it was a long tough climb up to the top of the ridge.  i had to go most of the way barefoot because the steep incline was causing my sweaty feet to slip out of my flip-flops (yup, i’m still wearing the flip-flops).  once we got to the ridge we could finally see the true trail.  it was located at the bottom of a thousand meter drop directly below us.  we indulged on cookies and apricots and stared awkwardly at the other trekkers below who were happily trodding along (the one’s that sprung for guides of course).

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“well, that certainly was a fun exercise… isn’t that right guys?”  one that was anything but worthless, especially once we turned our heads east to the hoards of high mountains that filled the horizon.

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we continued further west along the ridge-top until Grand La Pass was in clear view.  we surmised that the trail below had to come up to meet it at some point.  so rather than turning around, we continued along the ridge in hopes to intercept the trail.  sadly, the ridge did not connect with the pass as seamlessly as we had hoped, but at least our path did not end abruptly at a cliff.  instead it brought us to a steep yet negotiable slope that we scrambled down to meet the trail.  from there it was another ascent up to the pass where we were greeted by prayer flags and stone tablets.

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we took rest that night in the settlement of Shingo in a small guest house tucked away by the meander of a stream.

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Day 3 – Shingo to Chilling ~17km

today was a pleasant stroll 7 kilometers down the canyon to a confluence and then another 10 off my originally planned course back to the hints of civilization.  Charlie, Chloe and Eva were all headed on a different path further west to the town of Chilling where they would spend the night and wake early to embark on a rafting adventure down the Zanskar River.  i decided to follow them knowing i would have to backtrack the next day and they didn’t seem to mind.  trail turned to dirt road, then to paved road at a large bridge-in-progress that crossed the impressive Zanskar River.  from there the paved road hugged the river bank for several kilometers until we reached the one-building town of Chilling.  luckily they had a vacancy in the room above the restaurant which they shoved us all into.  once we got settled we drank beer and engaged in inappropriate conversation until sleep overtook us.

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Day 4 – Chilling to Sara ~20km

coffee and an omelet followed by a ‘see ya later’ and i am back on the road flying solo once again.  after backtracking the 10 kilometers and beyond i noticed the landscape gradually turn into a different beast.  the trail began to weave its way along a wide river bed with high red desert cliffs that towered above on either side.  i had finally entered the Markha Valley.

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i was moving fast for no good reason and enjoying the challenge of covering as much ground as i could.  every once in a while i would get pushed off the trail by a tourist caravan coming the opposite way.  it starts with a group of about 7 Europeans all marching in single file and sporting all the latest equipment – water bladders, trekking poles, actual shoes, the works.  then comes the procession of 20 ponies all packed to the brim with tents, food, propane, kitchenware and everything else one may need to get comfortable in the wilderness, not to mention the Ladakhi guides to facilitate it all.  it’s quite the production to see and quite the contrast to the approach i decided to take.  i also couldn’t help but wonder what the encounter was like for them.  here is a man with an unkempt beard, wearing flip-flops of which are barely held together with super-glue and straps.  “this man has certainly been away from the office for a while”, or perhaps “this man has lost all touch with reality”.  either will suit me i suppose.

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further down the trail a light rain started to fall and aroused a fresh desert scent.  i pushed forward and ate as i walked.  lunch is always the same – a hard boiled egg, basic unleavened bread they call Chapati, one individually wrapped slice of cheese, a chocolate bar and a juice box.

i arrived to the tiny settlement of Sara in the early afternoon and procured my no-bullshit food and accommodation.  i got to sleep in my very own room this time and decided to pamper myself with a hot shower –  or rather a bucket of hot water and a ladle to pour it over my head.  i have become a master at cleaning myself in this fashion and i even tend to prefer it to the good ole western shower.  i have also grown to prefer what i have come to call the “Ladakhi Longdrop” – an above-ground two-story outhouse built out of solid stone with the second story often open to the sky for intimate stargazing.  the most important thing that distinguishes the Ladakhi Longdrop from just any longdrop is of course the sizable pile of horse manure that chills out next to you while you go about your business.  once the job is done, just sweep the manure down the hole so the sight and smell gets masked for the next person.  fresh, basic and thoughtful.  welcome to Ladakh.

Day 5 – Sara to Hankar ~20km

i have made friends once again – with an Indian man from Bangalore named Sarej, an Israeli girl named Amit and a girl from the Czech Republic named Tereza.  Sarej and i headed out early and hit the trail.  soon after crossing the river we encountered a pony carcass in the process of decay.

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i just hope that poor tourist got their money back. (sarcasm)

we were caught up with a short time later by the girls who had been truckin’ all morning.  it was mostly Tereza who had the need for speed.  her name was Tereza but we would eventually give her other names like “Czechers”, “Czech Mate” and “Trailblazer”.  the most we saw of her was from behind as she darted off into the distance until she was a dot on the horizon.  then a few hours later we would find her perched on a rock with an accomplished smile on her face.

there were two noteworthy river crossings today.  the water only came up to just above my kneecaps but the current was strong and the stones underneath were smooth.  Amit took the first plunge and herself took a plunge as the water consumed her entirely for just a moment.  she got drenched but her resolve seemed to maintain her good spirits as if it was nothing a few good laughs and some sunshine couldn’t fix.

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the deeper we went into the Markha the more magical it all became.  the river bed intersected with crossing valleys causing the the high cliffs to break up and take on various unique shapes including the occasional peak topped with a monastery or ruined structure.  villages and patches of fertile farmland cropped up along the river’s edges.  one village called Hankar became our home for the night.  Hankar consisted of multiple buildings this time, spread out on the banks of the Markha River.  it was the largest village i had seen since i left Leh.

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Day 6 – Hankar to Nimaling ~10km

toward the end of the Markha Valley we were greeted by the 6400 meter tall snow-capped mountain of Kang Yatze.  we then left the Markha River and began to climb.  not up that mountain but up and over a ridge just north of it to a tent camp called Nimaling which was situated at 4700 meters on a grassy plane at the base of Kongmaru La Pass.  we spent the afternoon relaxing while watching the shepherds heard their goats and sheep from one place to another.

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as soon as the sun went down the temperature started to drop dramatically.  first we huddled in the mess tent and ate our dinner then it was off to our respective tents to try not to freeze to death.  unfortunately, all the tents were full that night so there were no extra blankets.  i swaddled myself in everything i had and tried my best to endure a long uncomfortable and sleepless night.

Day 7 – Nimaling to Shang Sumdo ~18km

i decided to put my shoes on today.  the six consecutive days of the direct dry desert exposure on my feet had finally taken its toll.  the almost year and a half of calluses that had by now formed on my feet were being eaten away at an alarming rate.  the dryness had penetrated them layer by layer until my virgin skin was exposed and starting to crack, causing me considerable pain.  i carefully rinsed my feet in an ice cold stream, dowsed them with neosporin, covered them in all the bandages i had, put on my wool socks and shoes and then chalked the whole experience up to that of considerable stupidity.

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we got an early start and headed straight up the steep trail to Kongmaru La Pass at 5200 meters.  the combination of the high altitude, physical exertion and sleep depravity gave me an endorphin rush unparalleled by any i had experienced before.  my body and lungs were pushing their limits but my head was floating blissfully down endorphin river, bringing tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face.  once we reached the top, we dropped our packs and scrambled an additional 200 meters up to a nearby ridge that overlooked a most diverse scene.  an endless russet mountain range to the west, a carved gaping valley to the north and the monolithic Kang Yatse Peak to the south.

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from there, it was a smooth yet confusing descent.  once we reached the river that formed the valley, the trail seemed to diverge and either zigzag through the middle of it or along side it sending us up a cliff at times.  we followed the river the best we could until we reached the town of Shang Sumdo and then got a taxi back to Leh.

the hour was late when we finally arrived back to Leh.  we were dirty, exhausted and starving.  rather than check into a guest house right away, we headed straight to our comfort zone – the Nirvana Cafe on Changspa Road.  there, we choked down some veggie burgers and napped on the floor with some warm blankets.  i am sure we would have been more than welcome to stay the night there but the thought of a warm shower followed by a soft bed was just a little too appealing.  it was a group effort but we finally managed to emerge from our blankets and achieve a standing position.  then we wandered back to our respective guest houses and surrendered to at least two days of hard earned recuperation time.

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back to reality, i mean India

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last we spoke i was lying naked on a table in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan getting scolding hot mud poured all over me by a man wearing a rubber apron and boots, but what i failed to mention was that i was also suffering from the flu. for three whole days i clung to my bed sheets in an unassuming guest house while an old strict buxom Kyrgyz woman took very good care of me. when on the fourth day i awoke to notice my fever subsiding, i had a slight travel epiphany. it’s time to go back to India! not just any India, however. but the far northern region of Ladakh near Tibet, Kashmir and Pakistan amidst the high desert mountains.

after spending 36 days in Kyrgyzstan i still felt that i had only begun to scratch its surface but i have also been traveling long enough to know that when i feel that familiar travelers itch, i would do best to respond to it. sometimes it’s just simply time to move on.

my journey was of course a long, painful and beautiful one. it started with a 12 hour mini-bus ride back to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, followed by a half-hour plane ride to Almaty, Kazakhstan where i spent the night in a cramped, insanely overpriced terminal. here my flu symptoms decided to resurface rendering me practically helpless against the harsh air-conditioned halogen-lit room. another 12 hours later my flight was finally announced and i boarded a plane to Delhi. on that plane with an entire row to myself and a hot meal in front of me i realized something kind of amazing about the situation i was in. i was actually flying from one end of the Himalaya to the other with Tibetan China beneath my feet almost the entire way.

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once i arrived in Delhi i crammed myself into the first metro train car i could. standing there sleep deprived and flu-ish, pushed up against a deluge of Delhi’s finest was a perfect reintroduction to the subcontinent. whenever the train doors opened it was all out chaos while the people filed in and out but once the doors closed again it was a gentile and peaceful calm as all the heads swayed side to side in unison. oh India, it’s been too long.

once i arrived at the main bus station i booked a 15 hour bus ride to Manali in Himachal Pradesh and waited an additional 7 hours before boarding it. Manali is a small attractive stretch of village along the Bees river in the lush green mountains of Northern India. many Israeli tourists flock here during the summer months and seem to get stuck here for weeks at a time. perhaps because they become hypnotized by the subdued hippie pace one gets reduced to upon arrival. this was as good a place as any to take some much needed rest and work every last bit of flu out of my system.

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4 days later i finally felt whole again and was ready to embark on the final leg of my journey. yup, you guessed it, back on the bus i went, this time for a 21 hour drive that spanned 2 days and took me far up into the high desert mountains over several passes higher than 5000 meters. when i finally arrived in the remote city of Leh at 3500 meters in the heart of Ladakh in the heart of the Himalaya i was beside myself with joy.

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Leh is a predominantly Buddhist outpost that formed sometime prior to the 10th century when traders carting goods between Tibet and Kashmir needed to make a pit-stop. its a peaceful city chalked full of winding dusty streets, cheerful Ladakhi people and apricots. from the rooftop of the ruined Leh Palace atop a hill in the center of town, one can behold the magnitude of the giant valley in which it sits.

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there is a kind of solitude here that allows the passage of time to accelerate undetected. this is ideal if you plan to spend your time meditating in any number of the breathtaking monasteries built into the hillsides, but if it’s adventure you seek then it’s the rapidly dropping temperature that motivates you to seize the day.

it’s become a sort of mission of mine to attack the world’s most epic mountain range from just about every angle i can. first Nepal, then Kyrgyzstan and now India. due to the colder climate, high altitude and rough terrain, the road to Ladakh is only open for just a few months a year. so unless you want to spring for a very expensive flight, your window for adventure pretty much lies in the July-August time frame.

i settled in easily and quickly and then wasted no time getting started on the planning and plotting of my very first adventure in Ladakh.

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horsing around in Kyrgyzstan

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this story starts off with me fast asleep on old Malik’s couch.  Malik is one of only a few hundred people who inhabit the town of Tamga on the south shore of Issyk Kul – the largest lake in Kyrgystan.  with only one restaurant and one intersection, not a lot goes on here, but this is a good thing considering the fact that i just finished one pretty intense trek and am about to start another one.  i first arrived in Tamga on a travelers hunch and then quickly made friends with a shopkeeper who fed me spiced wine in exchange for a few sweet tunes on my guitar.  i must have let too much time pass without playing Escapo since his strings felt foreign to my fingers at first pluck.  i get so used to him slung across my back that i sometimes tend to forget why i keep carrying him around.  by the time my fingers became nimble again, a small audience had gathered beyond the front steps of the shop.  i’m good for business i guess.

welcome to Tamga!

welcome to Tamga!

shopkeeper + family

shopkeeper + family

THE intersection

THE intersection

THE restaurant

THE restaurant

it was around this time when the shopkeeper’s neighbor Malik invited me over to his place for tea and then let me sleep in his couch for the night.  Malik likes to fall asleep to Russian talk shows and he snores even louder than i do.  Malik’s wife cooks a mean potato soup.  the kind that heals your soul a little.  “fkoosna” is Russian for “delicious” and it’s the most important word i have learned yet.

meet Malik

meet Malik

i left Tamga in a hail of dust and headed roughly 300 kilometers west to a wide open field outside of the small village of Kyzyl-Oi in central Kyrgyzstan to see a Kok-Boru game.  the rules of this game are quite simple.  place a 30 kilogram decapitated and footless goat carcass in the center of a large field with two holes dug into either end.  mount two opposing teams of five on horseback behind an imaginary line at center field and blow a loud whistle.  both teams then rush to capture the goat and deposit it into the opposing team’s hole using any and every violent means necessary.

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over the next days i had more yurt encounters than ever before on a four-day trek to and from Song Kul – a 3,000 meter-hight lake.  this trek makes the last trek i did seem like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and naked.  or rather the last trek i did makes this one seem like riding the red carpet on a segway.  i guess what i am really trying to say is that this trek was significantly easier than the last one and to top it off, i had not one but two guides (one in training) and several toasty yurts to sleep and eat in along the way.  i was also not alone this time.  along for the ride and to split the cost of this extravagance was a German woman named Sonja and a Korean guy named Shaun.  together we made quite the awesome motley trekking crew.

courtesy of Sonja

courtesy of Sonja

just because it was easy doesn’t mean it wasn’t extremely awesome.  this was my first ever taste of the yurt-hopping experience and i can say now without a doubt that i am a huge fan.  many locals move out here for the summer months, pitch yurts, raise horses, sheep and cattle and feed and accommodate trekkers.

the first day was the most challenging of all the days and involved a five-hour hike through several valleys to the foot of the pass that the lake was on the other side of.  we came upon our yurt camp before sunset, were greeted by the very hospitable owners who then fed us and put us to bed on thin mattresses with thick warm blankets.

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and here behind the yurts in this non-yurt is where i got to try a fermented horse milk beverage called “kumis” for the first time.

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the next day we crossed the pass and made it to the lake and our next yurt camp in four and a half hours time.  with so much time and energy to spare after we arrived i decided to take a swim in the almost bearable water and then get on a horse!  the experience i had with riding horses as a child suddenly came flooding back to me as soon as my ass hit the saddle.  “is this horse English or Western trained?”  i yelled down to the guide who brought me the horse and all he gave me was a blank stare just as i expected.  “do i hold the reins like this, or do i hold the reins like this?”.. “like this” he said, holding both of his hands apart.  ah-ha, English style.  not my preferred method but i’ll try to manage anyhow.  i walked her to the shore then worked her up to a trot then as i got comfortable, up to a gallop.  for the rest of the afternoon i rode her freely all through the small yurt dotted valleys that neighbor the lake.  she was so responsive to all my movements and queues.  that evening we dined outdoors on fresh fish from the lake.

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the third day was the easiest of them all.  we walked for only three hours along the lake shore.  it was at this point when we started to realize that we were actually doing a two-day trek in four days time.  this fact didn’t stop my enjoyment.  the yurts were the stars of this trek anyhow.

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our final day was a four and a half hour hike over another pass and down into a valley to the town of Kyzart (aka. the finish line)

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several days later after an insane commute across the Kyrgyz badlands, Sonja and i found ourselves 200 kilometers west in the town of Arslenbob and right next to the largest walnut forest on Earth.  it was here i celebrated 500 days of continues travel.  that’s 1 year, 4 months and 13 days of non-stop nomadic bliss.  woot!!!

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Arslenbob is a gem of a place nested in a valley with an absurd network of steep dirt roads that lead to waterfalls, a walnut forest, or getting hopelessly lost.  i set out alone on one of these roads and wondered for hours when i eventually came to a wide open clearing and a swamp.  i found some children with donkeys who were hard at work breaking dragonfly wings.  i sat with them for a good while to witness the Mayhem.

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around 50 kilometers south of Arslenbob in the city of Jalal-Abad atop a hill is an old ex-Soviet spa/sanatorium.  these giant decaying facilities are speckled throughout Central Asia but this particular one happens to be built around a hot spring.  after several failed attempts at trying to navigate my way through the confusing Kyrgyz bureaucracy, i was finally able to book myself a “mud treatment”.  i was lead swiftly by the arm by a very helpful, very persistent nurse to the lower levels of the sanatorium where i was met by an older gentleman wearing a rubber apron and rubber boots.  he lead me through a door where a long hallway of tiled cubicles stood, poured a bucket full of hot smelly mud into a plastic covered bed and then made a few hand gestures that suggested i should strip naked and lay down in it.  there are times when getting naked is an easy, natural process but this time was most certainly not one of them.  i had come too far to turn back now.  the strange Kyrgyz man in the rubber suit with bucket in hand was waiting patiently for me to keep up my end of the bargain.  all i had to do was get those clothes off and… ya know… lay down in that mud immediately after.  and so i smiled at the nice man, who was still standing there of course… and then… well… did exactly that.  before i could fully come to grips with how vulnerable i felt lying there naked in the smelly hot mud, the man just laughed and then dumped a bucket of scolding hot mud all over me.  then he folded me into the plastic sheet like a burrito, covered me in additional wool blankets and poured in two additional buckets of mud, one in the opening at my feet and another in the opening at my neck.  then he shook me back and forth and then walked away.  as pain turned into pleasure, my face began to itch uncontrollably.  i was cocooned, hot and helpless.  then an overwhelming sensation of deep relaxation washed over me and seemed to penetrate my bones.

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a new beginning in Kyrgyzstan

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when i arrived in Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan’s capitol city, i felt like i was starting all over again.  i reserved a bed at a basic hostel on the 7th floor of a crumbly concrete building.  there seems to be a lot of buildings like that here.  i guess you could say it’s got that ex-Soviet charm.

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what surprised me the most upon my arrival in Kyrgyzstan were the hoards of Russian-speaking Asians.  i honestly didn’t even know that was a thing.  pardon my apparent ignorance on the matter by my ignorance is after all one of my main motivations for traveling.  after spending more than a year in Asia i have become very accustomed to being surrounded by its people.  their ever reliable warmth and intrinsic innocence has become like a security blanket to me.  but to suddenly, after all this time witness Slavic sounds spill out of their mouths brings upon me a particular kind of culture shock that i don’t think i could quite put into words.

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though Bishkek is chalked full of ex-Soviet charm, it has a fair amount of natural charm as well.  for every crumbly concrete building, there is a pleasant park to even the score.  along the main drag, there are quite a few interesting statues and monuments to see.  i, however spent most of my week in Bishkek couped up in my room dealing with every aspect of my current situation.  this may or may not have involved standing in front of the mirror and saying to myself over and over again – “hi, i’m in Kyrgyzstan now”.

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as soon as i was good and ready to make a move, i reserved a seat on a minibus bound 390 kilometers east to Karakol at the far east end of a giant lake called “Issyk-Kul”.  this is where my true Kyrgyz experience began to take full effect.

Karakol is a rural town of just over 60,000 inhabitants as well as the jumping off point for endless mountaineering opportunities.  monolithic mountain ranges span the horizon on all sides and seem to beg any traveler to explore them.

this is the road in front of my guest house

this is the road in front of my guest house

early every Sunday morning at the north end of town, a giant animal market is held.  here, thousands of people show up with their prized sheep, goats, cows, horses, etc to turn a profit.

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now that i got a nice dose of local culture, i’m almost ready to hit the mountains.  but first, it’s time to beat this here rabbit to death…

getting closer to my food

getting closer to my food

unfortunately for little Masha here, the above statement is not a joke.  during my hopeless attempt at locating my guest house after arriving in Karakol i wandered into a small cottage and was quickly greeted by a very friendly Russian woman named Kate.  to my luck, she spoke English and set me on the right path.  the next day, i decided to pay her a visit to thank her.  this sparked an interesting sequence of events.

i accompanied her and her husband to a small rabbit farm where a good friend of theirs breeds and sells rabbits out of her backyard.  Kate’s husband is a rabbit expert so i let him do the choosing.  this one ought to do it – a four kilogram mother of two with scared eyes and a soft white and gray fur coat.  on the way home in the car, Kate dubbed her “Masha” – a proper Russian name.

when putting a rabbit out of its misery it’s important to understand that the quicker it dies the less chance the meat will have of spoiling.  in this case, sharp objects to the throat are not the preferred method, but rather one well aimed hard blow to the head is just ticket for a swift death.

Kate’s husband bound Masha’s hind legs then had me grip them like a handle bar in my left hand as the rest of her body hung straight and calm.  then he placed a thick section of tree branch in my right hand, directed me out into the yard and then gave me the go ahead.

i don’t know when Masha finally met her demise but i’d like think it was on the first blow.  by the third blow her neck snapped causing her head to wiggle free from the rest of her body.  by the sixth blow, blood quirted from her ears and spattered my swinging arm.  by the tenth blow Kate’s husband yelled “stop!”.

he quickly took the now dripping carcass away from me, unbound her hind legs and hung her upside-down from a branch.  this is where the real lesson began:  to properly skin a rabbit you must first make shallow incisions around the ankles, down the inseam of each thigh and then very carefully cut around the groin area.  once you pry the skin loose from the muscle you can then peel it all the way down in one fluid motion much like removing a wet t-shirt.  now to remove the skin fully,  detach the head and snap off the front paws.  next, saw your way down through the front of the rib cage, reach in and scoop out the entrails, heart, bladder and lungs.  then rinse and soak in worm water for four hours.  now, she’s ready to be handed off to the chef (grandmother in this case).

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ok, now that we got that out of the way it’s time to do some trekking!

after a fair amount of research and some careful consideration, i decided to embark on a ~48 kilometer / 3-day / 2-night trek through the Tien Shan forest that would take me up to a 3560 meter-high lake called “Ala-Kul” then over a 3860 meter-high pass and then down into a steep valley where a hot spring will be waiting for me at the finish line.  and what’s more, i would be dokyrg1-ala_kul_trek3ing this all by my lonesome.  i had done a fair amount of trekking before but this would be the fist time i would have to lug all my own equipment, as well the first time i would be going solo.  even though it was going to be a relatively short trek on a well treaded path, i wanted to make good and sure that i was over prepared.  i printed out a high level travel guide i found and this picture i took of a map from someone’s guide book.  then i purchased some cheap supplies and food from the local market.  then i located a stout Russian man named Igor who runs a gear rental shop out of his house. there i procured a tent, sleeping bag, stove, boots and additional warm clothing.  then i strapped it all onto my backpack and by the next clear morning i was ready to embark.

 

Day 1: Karakol (1800m) -> Sirota Camp (2800m) = ~20 km / 6.5 hrs

i was blessed with clear skies and a four hour cake-walk along a dirt road that followed the Karakol River up a gradual slope to an open meadow and a bridge.  i stopped here for lunch and stared at the bridge.  i anticipated that once i crossed it, my cake-walk would soon turn into a painful ascent.

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once across the bridge, the trail turned into a small dirt path that squirreled about before losing itself into a mass of fallen trees.  after climbing atop the mass i noticed two different paths that came out from underneath it, each leading in opposite directions.  this was confusing.  before i had a chance to panic and/or resort to more conventional navigational methods i was approached from behind by three Kyrgyz gentlemen.  “Ala-Kul?” i asked them and “Ala-Kul!” they replied.  from that moment i was relieved that i could follow them all the way to the first camp site.  from there, it was a two hour arduous climb more than a thousand meters straight up the side of a mountain.  my legs, lungs and back were not ready for this sudden change in treatment and by the time i reached the top of the ridge i was exhausted.  that’s when i turned around to fully appreciate how far i had come.

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from there, the trail followed along the ridge line as it transformed into a giant bed of boulders that cradled loose rocks.  down the other side of the ridge, it soon met up with a stream and our camp for the night.  there were a few other people there when we arrived and more would trickle in later.  i staked my claim, pitched my tent, fired up my stove, ate and then fell fast asleep before sunset.

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Day 2: Sirota camp (2800m) -> over Ala-Kul Pass (3860m) -> Altyn Arashan Hot Springs (2300m) = ~15 km / 8.5 hrs

i was awake, fed, packed and back on the trail by 7:30 the next morning.  today’s trail would make yesterday’s seem like a day at the spa.  the trail tightly hugged the left side of the next river up through roaring rapids and patches of glaciers.  the further it went, the steeper it got until i needed the use of my hands for support.  after about two kilometers of this i stepped over the ridge and realized that i was standing on the shores of Ala-Kul…  deep blue, cold and quenching.

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the trail continued all the way along the north shore of the lake before branching off and ascending another three hundred meters to the pass.  from up here i had a spectacular view of the lake and the snow-capped peaks behind it to the west and a deep valley with a backdrop of mountains as far as the eye could see to the east.

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the descent was a frightening ordeal involving steep and barely visible switchbacks down a landslide zone.  by the time i reached the bottom, my shoes were full of tiny rocks and a light hail started to fall from the sky.  from there the trail dropped gradually into the lush valley and followed yet another river, passing through grazing cows and horse trails for another seven kilometers until it reached a confluence.  by this time i had latched onto another group led by a guide who had instructed me to cross the river at a low point where the trail continued on the other side.  i took his advice then lost track of them shortly after.  at this point the horse trails multiplied into greater numbers and seemed to criss-cross in all directions.  i knew that at some point i would have to cross back over the river and according to my map the crossing point looked to be right before the confluence.  by this time i was growing weary and using most of my mental and physical capacity not to slip and fall in the mud.  i had also lost all faith in anything resembling a trail and was trying to do my best to follow the river and get to the confluence.  finally after several hours, the pines opened up to reveal the Arashan river valley in all its glory.  i had made it to the confluence and i was so happy that i could almost hear my very own triumphant score written by John Williams.

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i traversed the river bank until i spotted what i thought to be an adequate crossing point.  i rock-hopped across several deltas without issue and then quickly came to realize that i was actually standing in the middle of a swamp.  i could see solid ground only a hundred meters in front of me.  it was taunting me.  the swamp land between me and it was the last obstacle between me and the hot spring.  i was too tired and careless to backtrack so i kicked off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and waded out into the unknown.  at first it was nice – feeling the warm mud squish between my toes, but then the swamp became suddenly deeper, consuming me almost to my waist.  underneath the warm layer of mud i could feel the earth as cold as ice but i kept going further.  once i felt the mud began to shallow, i knew i was in the home stretch until i was standing on dry land once again.  i took a long rest here while i attempted to remove the mud from my feet and legs with a stick.  this was the first time i had removed my socks since i first put them on before the trek began and getting them back on in their present condition was not a pleasant experience.  another one hundred meters up the hillside above me, i noticed a hiker happily plodding along in the same direction i wanted to go.  there must be a real trail up there!… and sure enough when i reached that same point on the hillside, there it was.  a real honest to god trail and not a deranged network of horse tracks.  i followed it effortlessly for a couple of kilometers until i came over a small hill where the first signs of civilization came into view.  there it was – a few houses and a bridge.  it could only mean one thing… i had arrived at the Altyn Arashan Hot Springs.

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after arriving at the encampment, i approached the first house i saw and played charades with the lady of the house.  after a brief conversation i learned that i could pitch my tent in her yard, get full access to the hot springs, be invited to a hot dinner and breakfast and consume a liter of beer all for slightly less than $10.  i became so happy and giddy at that point that i collapsed onto the grass.

Day 3: Altyn Arashan Hot Springs (2300m) -> Ak-Suu (1900m) = ~13 km / 3 hrs

by the next morning, the full brunt of the muscle pain i had accrued during the first two trekking days was in full effect.  after breakfast, i payed one last visit to the hot spring.  the water felt like 120 degrees fahrenheit and seemed to melt most of my pain away.  i maintained a slow and steady stagger all the way to the town of Ak-Suu where i then caught a taxi back to Karakol.  once i arrived i returned my rental gear to Igor, then limped back to my guest house and slept a full twelve hours.

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there’s no place like home

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courtesy of Pam

out of the 55 total nights i spent in Switzerland, an accumulative 31 of them were spent in Zürich.  i couldn’t tell you exactly what i did this whole time but that’s okay… in fact, it’s better than okay because for the first time in over 15 months of continuous travel, i found a home away from home where i could relax in good company and let time pass by without helping it along.

Zürich is the largest city in Switzerland and home to around 400,000 people.  the old center of town is located on a sort of island with Lake Zürich to the south, the Limmat river flowing out of it to the east and a moat to the west left over from times long ago.  there are many parks especially along the lake where people play sports, BBQ and relax in the early summer sunshine.  it’s small enough to navigate on foot but why not rent a free bicycle instead and cool your lips along the way in the hundreds of free flowing fountains placed all over the city.

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not a bad place to call home for a month eh?

though Zürich is all of the above mentioned and more, it’s really my friends that have kept me lingering so.  there is of course Matteo – superstar of my last Blorg post whom i met a year ago while trekking in Nepal,  and Céline whom i also met while trekking in Nepal, and Pam – my partner in crime for several days of island hopping and exploring in El Nido on Palawan Island in the Philippines.  to my surprise, they all currently reside in Zürich and to my awesome luck, were all willing to welcome me into their homes and lives.  while in their lives i even began to get one of my own.  a non-traveling life… ya know, in a staying put sort of way.  the funny thing about it is that once you remove traveling from the equation, you are allowed the freedom to engage repeatedly in the same enjoyable activities with the same enjoyable people.  the concept i am referring to is called “having a routine”, and this is not a bad thing.  my Zürich routine included things like…

for example, cooking…

since Zürich happens to be the 6th most expensive city on Earth (as in you can seriously pay $10 for one single Whopper at the main train station), if you want to feed yourself without breaking the bank then cooking is your best friend.  luckily, this would often be a group effort that would most certainly always involve cheese.  that’s right, cheese not only exists in Switzerland, it can be found in abundance and in many colors, shapes and sizes.  excuse me for getting a little emotional about this but you have to understand that when you spend an entire year in Asia you are also sending your enjoyment of dairy products straight to its death.  but here in Switzerland, you can revive your dairy pleasures by spending entire hours preparing and consuming way too much of it.  then you can wash it down with real, honest to God wine right before collapsing on the couch and feeling that gentile pain in your stomach while you say to yourself over and over again, “no… i haven’t become lactose intolerant”.

Matteo's kitchen of magic

Matteo’s kitchen of magic

Céline's sunny balcony

Céline’s sunny balcony

fondue!

fondue!

rösti + bratwurst

rösti + bratwurst

or swimming on a hot day…

Zürich does after all got a lake named after it.  why not take a little paddle boat out into the middle of it and then jump off of it?  and while you’re at it, go ahead and throw some cold beers into the water and see if i’ll go fetch them for you.

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

or poi in the park…

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when i first met Pam in The Philippines, she was just getting started with learning some poi maneuvers.  now, just a few months later she is a pro.  inspired by her speedy advancements, i too decided to pick up the Poi’s for the first time in years.  i felt like an old dog at first but eventually i was able to teach myself a new trick – the coveted backwards 5-beat weave.  that’s five consecutive backward rotations alternating on either side of your body.



or a visit to the observatory so i can stare directly into the sun with this here telescope…

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or watching the World Cup…

Céline was the resident expert of World Cup watching events as well as our instigator for the enjoyment of those events.  crowds would gather all up and down Langstrasse equipped with enough beer and bratwurst to prepare themselves for any outcome.

a picture of a polaroid of Céline and i

a picture of a polaroid of Céline and i

Switzerland vs...

Switzerland vs…

one evening i got to take a break from my hard Zürich life when Pam invited me to my first Goa party – an outdoor electronic music festival that revolves around a derivative of psychedelic trance music that originated from Goa, India.  it was held out in the wilderness next to a shooting range, so naturally there was a healthy mix of hippies and gun lovers.  it was a joyous and festive occasion.  also joining us were Pam’s besties from the French part of Switzerland.  together they dubbed themselves “Crazy Team” – a name all too fitting of course and even though they made it a habit of speaking to each other in lighting-speed French, i still managed to soak in and appreciate their steadfast affection for one another.

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“Crazy Team” == Pam, Jeff, Lucile, Victor

‘at home’ is exactly how i felt here in Zürich, which is what made leaving quite the heart-wrenching ordeal.  us humans have long ago evolved passed our nomadic selves and whenever i become stationary for more than a couple of weeks i seem to re-discover and appreciate this fact on a level deeper than ever.  though my nomadic lifestyle has opened my eyes to aspects of our world i could never have imagined, it is in truth a lifestyle that is a far cry from anything natural.  i can’t keep this up forever, i know that.  and i also know that while traveling is most certainly living, loving and learning.  traveling is also leaving.  that’s just the way of things.

the gravity of my situation didn’t fully set in until i was sitting at my gate at Zürich’s international airport.  there, i was visited by two familiar faces: Fear and Excitement.  they often like to keep me company in my loneliest hours.  Fear reminded me that i will be lost without my Swiss comfort-zone, and that the faces of the important friendships i have forged over these past two months will not be there to greet me when i wake up tomorrow.  he’s a fucker that one.  he was just begging to be wrestled to the ground and stepped on.  Excitement on the other hand reminded me of why i was sitting in Zürich’s international airport in the first place.  my next destination – a new country far far away.  one that i have been anticipating visiting for so long that i have been beside myself with curiosity and wonder.  all i have to do now is simply get on the plane.

Zurich friends! == Matteo, Yon, me, Pam, Céline

Zurich friends! == Matteo, Yon, me, Pam, Céline (photo courtesy of Pam)

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Adventures in Switzerland

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“La Suisse”, “Schweiz”, “La Svizzera”… Switzerland is called by many names, especially by the people who live there and depending on where you go in Switzerland, you may be surrounded by people speaking French, Italian, Swiss-German or even the lesser known Romanche language.  never in my life have i been exposed to so many languages on such a small scale.  that’s four distinct languages spoken across roughly eight million people in a country that’s less than a quarter of the size of Washington state.  this of course does not include the many dialects that vary from region to region and English.  that’s right… they speak good ole’ English there too.

luckily, for the sake of sanity (mine and theirs) they have mostly separated themselves into three main parts – you’ve got the French speakers in the ‘French part’, the Italian speakers in the ‘Italian part’ and the Swiss-German speakers in the ‘Swiss-German part’.  over the course of my stay in Switzerland, i lovingly and jokingly came to refer to these parts as “almost France”, “almost Italy” and “almost Germany”.  and though some may not have found my pet names quite as humorous as i did, it at least helps to illustrate the puzzlement an outsider might feel when visiting Switzerland for the first time.

my initial exposure to Switzerland was from the French side including several villages along Lake Geneva.  by that stage i had become so invested with the place and its people as well as captivated by its natural beauty, i simply had to explore the rest of it.  after leaving Lausanne by train i was surrounded by Swiss-German speakers in less than an hour and when i arrived to the capital city of Bern, Matteo was there to greet me.  i first met Matteo a year prior on my trek through Nepal where we had hoofed it through the Himalaya together for nearly three weeks.  now, suddenly seeing him again in a train station after the passing of a year was pretty surreal.  he was excited to show me every inch of his country and i was equally as exited to be shown it.  Matteo grew up in Bern and knows the city quite intimately.  that day we marched through the town which revealed itself to be an adorable mid-evil masterpiece placed ever so perfectly in the meander of a river.  from a vantage point across this river upon a hill, Matteo showed me that one could take in the sight of the city in its entirety and drink beer while doing so.

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Matteo and Escapo together at last

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i didn’t know it at the time but this would end up being part one of several adventures with Matteo during my stay in Switzerland.  He currently lives and studies in Zurich which quickly became my new home as well as my jumping off point for two additional adventures with Matteo, each one more epic than the last.

the next Matteo adventure involved a very scenic cross country train ride through mountains, lakes and small villages including a few stops along the way…

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in Luzern…

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and Gstaad – a mountain ski resort village as well as home to Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski.  we tried to find Roman here hoping he would still be on house arrest but no matter where we looked, he never turned up.  we even asked some cows if they knew where Roman was but they just stared back at us as if saying “hey!, it’s good to be a cow in Switzerland”.

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my final adventure with Matteo was a multi-day trip down to the Canton of Ticino (A.K.A. “almost Italy”).  there, we stayed in his father’s home in Personico – a tiny village nestled in a valley where his father grew up.  the house was actually a military barracks that had been converted into a home and it served our needs nicely.

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a few kilometers south of Personico is the town of Biasca.  here, we visited some old churches and played in the waterfall along a cliff face that overlooks the entire town.

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further south still is the larger, more happening town of Bellinzona where several castles lie on the hilltops.

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one evening, Matteo and i had the pleasure of being invited to a local BBQ right outside of Bellinzona.  not really sure what to expect, we walked through a block of unassuming buildings to an open courtyard and there they were…  30 or so young adults of the high-school/college vintage, several kegs of beer, a mountain of food and an above ground pool!  after taking it all in, my very first thought was “ah yeeeah… it’s gonna be a rager!”, then my second thought was “i’m sure my liver will understand when i tell it i’m as young as i feel.  well, it turns out that only one of my thoughts were correct.  they waisted no time getting the party underway.  between the blasting of 70’s-80′ Italian pop music and the barrage of drunken multi-lingual discourse, i was quite impressed.  i even managed to throw down a few words of sage advice on a few of the guests.  i was also surprised (though not proud) to be one of the last ones standing, to see the night turn silly before passing out on the floor like the rest of them.  the next morning we awoke to a proper Italian spaghetti breakfast, thanked and hugged our hosts profusely and away we went to continue our adventure.

it’s time to get wet (again).  nearby, along the Verzasca River is a beautiful section of smooth boulders and a mid-evil stone foot-bridge.

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Ticino is a land of impressive beauty but the cherry on top was just about to come.  on our way back we ascended up a winding mountain road over San Bernardino pass – a 2066 meter pit-stop with a view of misty peaks and icy ponds.

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i most certainly saw Switzerland in new light after these adventures and thanks to Matteo, i can now finally begin to wrap my head around the place and its people.  simply put… Switzerland is a dream-land.  a realm of elegant terrain from every angle all jam packed into just 41,285 square kilometers.

Matteo: Switzerland's best tour guide

Matteo: Switzerland’s best tour guide

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getting the band back together

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on the 5th day of May, i awoke to see Switzerland in daylight for the first time in my life.  in the small village of Lutry at the far west end of the country, Alicia’s apartment overlooks Lake Geneva and beyond it – Evian, France.  Switzerland is a country of tameless beauty – rich with mountains, lakes, old cities and about eight million multi-lingual citizens.  my first days here however were not spent exploring the Alps, swimming in crystal clear water and tasting cheese in the country side.  rather, they were spent shut inside a black box.

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welcome to “The Womb” – the cleverly named recording studio that Nathan built in the basement of a warehouse in Lausanne.  here, we teamed up with our other band-member Bryan Roberts who flew hear from London to rekindle Bearded Parrot – a music project we had given birth to a few years prior.  also joining us to provide that perfect amount of estrogen is new band-member Alicia Onstad.  together we are the newly imagined Bearded Parrot and for the next week and half the Womb will be our home.  lets see what we can come up with shall we…?

“Just Kiddin’ Just Whiskey”

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courtesy of Bryan

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courtesy of Bryan

The Womb Sessions were off to a beautiful start.  Nathan, Bryan and i were able to slip into our same ole’ even-keel mode of infectious inspiration while Alicia was quickly finding her comforts.  equal parts coffee and whiskey had become a major part of our daily diet as it kept us both energized and focused… that is until we ran out of coffee.  it all started when i announced needlessly to the band, “i’m gonna get another coffee and whiskey”.  then when i arrived at the Womb’s kitchenette to notice the coffee pot was in fact empty, the very next words to leave my mouth were, “just kiddin’ just whiskey”.  the phrase then spread amongst us like a virus and before long not a single one of us could say anything of importance without following it up with a “…just kiddin’ just whiskey”.  now with coffee, whiskey and country flowing through our veins, we knew we had to stop whatever we were doing and crank out a song before things got too out of hand.  we wandered through the streets of Lausanne trying to think up the most nonsensical lyrics we could and then when we returned to the Womb we fashioned this gem.

– Just Kiddin’ Just Whiskey

“Oh Delilah”

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when Bryan brought Delilah to the table – an extremely well written and joyously melodic murder ballad about a woman who slices off a man’s face before killing him and then goes on to get executed in front of her peers, we fell in love.  it’s on this song that we discovered Alicia’s hauntingly seductive vocal abilities and as we worked our way through it, she became this woman entirely.  this was by far the most complex recording in the session and we spent more time on it than all the others combined.  throughout all of it, i pictured Alicia slicing of my own face.  i still dream about it sometimes.

– Oh Delilah

“Steal your shoes, count your feet”

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this was actually the first recording we started in the session with the intention to get our creative juices flowing.  take a bass groove i wrote a decade back, marry it with some Nathan beat-hooks and mash our four monotoned voices together on top and this is what we end up with.

– Steal your shoes, count your feet

“No time to play”

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here’s an oldie but goody come back to rear its rabbit head about the little white rabbit so obsessed with greed and punctuality that he never took the time to be happy (poor little guy).  originally recorded years ago, Nathan and Bryan resuscitated it in order to add my baritone accompaniment.

– No time to play

“Timbo”

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

it was a sad parting when Bryan flew back to his academia life in London and a sobering blow when Nathan and i realized we were left with a pile of tracks to edit (though actual sobriety never entered into it).  rather than jumping head first into the pile, we let ourselves get a little distracted first…

Alicia has been hard at work creating a children’s story about a brave little boy named Timbo who flies to the far reaches of the Earth, braving deserts, forests, arctic freeze and oceans deep with his bubble-fueled jet pack to collect ingredients to concoct a potion that will heal all of the sick children of the world.  inspired by her story, Nathan and i could not resist our temptation to write a jingle for the eventual Timbo television series.  so not to let ourselves get too sidetracked from the tasks at hand, we gave ourselves a hard deadline of only 40 minutes to come up with our Timbo jingle concept but once we started there was just no stopping it until perfection was achieved.  8 hours later we ended up with this 37 second masterpiece.  ladies and gentleman, it is my pleasure to present to you, Timbo.

– Timbo

ok… we did actually manage to venture out of the Womb on a few occasions to explore the vineyards on the countryside, take a dip in Lake Geneva and wander through some adorable streets.

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

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my final weekend in French-Switzerland was spent in Orgevaux (A.K.A. “Bubble Mountain”) – a rural mountainside community with a breathtaking view of the lake.  there, Nathan and Alicia’s friends had rented a farmhouse and packed it full of DJ equipment, party provisions and people.  the walls vibrated by night and by day we frolicked and made bubbles.

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reverse culture shock

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i had met so many Germans on my travels that i figured by the time i actually went to Germany there would be no one there, but shortly after arriving at Berlin’s Tegal Airport i realized that i could not have been more wrong.  turns out Germany is full of Germans, but that’s not even the weird part.  the weird part was that suddenly for the first time in a very very very long time i was not completely surrounded by Asians.  after spending more than a year straight in mostly rural Asian communities i had become well accustomed to my continuous celebrity status.  day after day i had been approached by extremely curious and excitable individuals all wanting to ask me the same five questions and practice their English in the process – “where are you from?… what do you do?… are you married?… where is your family?… would you like to come to my home?” and every time i would answer them respectfully – “United States… i’m a traveler… no… far far away… sure, why not.”  now here in the western world, engaging in social interaction takes real effort.  here, one is not awarded immediate celebrity status upon entering an establishment simply based on the color of their skin.  here, things are as they *should* be and in that i feel relieved but the transition is a difficult one all the same.

Berlin is a very happening place and among my most favorite cities in the world.  it’s a sprawling city full of art and music with an extremely relaxing vibe.  the people here exhibit very little pretense and seem generally happy to be alive.  it has been over a decade since my last visit.  it impressed me then and it impresses me now.  i really couldn’t have chosen a better place to nurse the brunt of my culture shock.

needless to say, this sudden transition from Asia to Europe is somewhat of a drastic one.  one that marks a new chapter in my travels.  as of today, i’ll be temporarily retiring my tourist hat and replacing it with a slightly more sentimental one.  during my year in Asia i have managed to forge many important friendships with fellow travelers, many of which come from Germany and Switzerland.  today is as good a day as any to put Asia on the back-burner and couch surf my way across Europe in good company.

the first people i intended to visit were Stefan and Matthias whom i had met in Myanmar.  unfortunately, they were out of town that week but to my joyful surprise left me keys to their adorable apartment and a fresh carton of eggs.

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ten hours of jet-lag recovery and half-a-dozen eggs later it was on to my next order of business as well as my main reason for coming to Berlin – to reunite once again with my long-time American friend Nathan.  i found him and Alicia standing on the curb outside the coffee shop engaged in laughter.  Nathan+friends live and work in Switzerland and have just arrived here to get a five-day dose of Berlin’s infamous electronic music scene while getting as little sleep as possible.  being a DJ himself, Nathan is well connected in the music scene and was able to introduce me to the many gems of Berlin.  night after night we became nocturnal creatures of constant motion.

though people do it, most people can’t actually dance for five days straight.  especially people like me who require some sleep from time to time as well as an easy glass of red wine.  enter Christina – a dear friend i had met a month prior on Palawan Island in the Philippines.  she took the train up from Leipzig to visit me.  i was extremely happy to see her again in this different context.  her presence also added some needed balance to my Berlin experience.  one evening at a chill bar we sipped our easy wine and reminisced.  our bartender – a warm-heart named Melissa who had a thirst for modern dance, befriended us and engaged in our travel-talk until the sun came up.

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after which, we closed the bar and headed to the streets for a dancing lesson.  and just like that, my intended break from dancing turned right back into dancing.  this time, not to electro-beats but rather to chirping birds and joyous laughter.  waltzing morphed into tango and then tango morphed into what Melissa referred to as “contact improvisation”.

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dancing with the bartender 101

my five-day-long day in Berlin had come to an end all too soon but my twelve hour road trip to French-Switzerland was about to begin.  along the way we gave Christina a ride back to her home in Leipzig where we enjoyed some pasta and MarioKart before our long journey into the country i would end up calling home for the next two months.

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