Archive for July, 2014

a new beginning in Kyrgyzstan

kyrg1-bishkek7

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.

kyrg1-bishkek9

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.

kyrg1-bishkek5

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”.

kyrg1-bishkek8 kyrg1-bishkek3

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.

kyrg1-karakol2 kyrg1-karakol4

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).

kyrg1-karakol8 kyrg1-karakol9 kyrg1-karakol10 kyrg1-karakol11

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek4 kyrg1-ala_kul_trek5

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek6 kyrg1-ala_kul_trek7

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek8 kyrg1-ala_kul_trek10 kyrg1-ala_kul_trek9 kyrg1-ala_kul_trek11

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek14

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek21 kyrg1-ala_kul_trek22

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek17

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.

kyrg1-ala_kul_trek18

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.

3 Comments

there’s no place like home

swiss3_zurich_pam5

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.

swiss3_zurich_roark14swiss3_zurich_roark3 swiss3_zurich_roark4

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…

swiss3_zurich_roark5

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…

swiss3_zurich_roark12

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.

swiss3_embrach1

“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)

No Comments

Adventures in Switzerland

swiss2_ticino10

“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.

swiss2_bern1

Matteo and Escapo together at last

swiss2_bern2 swiss2_bern4 swiss2_bern3

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…

swiss2_luzern_to_gstaad1

in Luzern…

swiss2_luzern2 swiss2_luzern3

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”.

swiss2_gstaad1 swiss2_gstaad2

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.

swiss2_ticino5

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.

swiss2_ticino9

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

swiss2_ticino11 swiss2_ticino1

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.

swiss2_ticino2 swiss2_ticino3

 



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.

swiss2_ticino8 swiss2_ticino12 swiss2_ticino6 swiss2_ticino13

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

1 Comment