Mexico – Part 2 of 9: Mainland Pacific Coast (Mazatlan to Manzanillo; Dec 30, 2016 to Jan 14, 2017)

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After 25 days in Baja California and Baja California Sur (see previous post), we took an overnight ferry across the Gulfo de California to mainland Mexico and continued our road trip, spending the next 15 days along the Pacific coast in the states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima.

After getting off the ferry in Mazatlan (Sinaloa), we spent a few hours exploring the city (population ~658,400). It’d visited Mazatlan as a 17-year old with my friends on our high school senior trip but all I remembered from that trip was the beach, the bars, and the boys. Ha!! So it was nice to revisit this touristy but charming city. We walked along the malecon (boardwalk) and wandered around the historic center, appreciating the lovely plazas, the ornate Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (1899) and the lively markets filled with a variety of foods and merchandise. After a lack of variety of produce in Baja, I was in heaven seeing the variety of colorful vegetables and tropical fruits at the markets.

From Mazatlan we continued south along Ruta 15. After being in Baja, which is largely arid, it was great to be in the lush tropical forest. It was warm and humid but comfortable. Just before sunset, we arrived to the small coastal town of San Blas (Nayarit; population ~37,000), getting to the beach in time to enjoy the setting sun while playing in the small waves. The beach was nice but since it was south of a river mouth, the ocean water was brown with suspended sediment. Oh well, at least it washed the day’s sweat away. Since the sand flies were out in force (our first encounter with the tiny biting insects), we decided to explore the town for a few hours before bedtime. We walked around the main plaza which was still festive with Christmas decorations and bustling with locals who were eating foods from the many street stalls and shopping for trinkets from various street vendors. Mathieu bought a handmade Panama hat from an ancient man with a great smile. After, we ate street tacos made by two sisters, also with great smiles and hearty laughs. Back on the beach, we quickly set up the tent and jumped in, trying to outrun the swarming sand flies. Despite the annoying insects, it was a great first day in mainland Mexico.

The next day was New Year’s Eve so we continued south on Ruta 200 to small fishing village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle (Nayarit; population ~1,600) on the coast of Bahia de Banderas (Banderas Bay) to meet my friends Jody and Randy. They’d set sail from San Diego (California) in October 2016 on their 38-ft catamaran, Free Luff, for a longterm sailing trip in Mexico and beyond. Joining them on the adventure were Thad and Kristin, saling on She’s No Lady, a 41-ft catamaran. Once in La Cruz, we joined Jody, Randy, Thad, Kristin, Tom and Barb (who also sailed from San Diego), and new cruising friends, Jason and Jenn (who sailed from Seattle on their 36-ft monohull, Danika). We had drinks and did some pre-NYE dancing at a local bar. Then,  before the clock struck midnight, we jumped in the dinghies and gathered on She’s No Lady to watch the fireworks exploding from various beaches along the large bay. Happy New Year!!!

We spent the next 10 days with Jody and Randy on Free Luff. After about a month of tent camping, it was luxurious to have a comfy berth (aka bedroom), a head (aka bathroom) and enjoy Randy’s delicious cooking, including his famous chilaquiles (thanks Captain Randy!) in the galley/salon (aka kitchen/dining room). And it was great to hang out with friends, play in the water, whale-watch, visit the quaint town of La Cruz, and just chill.

Along with fun on the boat and in the water, we also crammed Jody and Randy into Genevieve (our gear-crammed 4Runner) for a day-trip to Puerto Vallarta, about 40 minutes south of La Cruz. Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco; population ~255,700) is a major tourist destination, known for its lovely beaches, nice malecon, many restaurants, bars and shops, all in a tropical climate. While filled with tourists (domestic and foreign), the colorful city has retained its character and charm. We had a fun day walking around, discovering the artwork along the malecon, visiting the ornate La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (1942) and wandering through the various markets and backstreets. We also enjoyed lunch at a vegetarian Mexican restaurant that Jody and Randy had visited nearly 10 years prior. We piled our plates high with veggie delights from the buffet. Even Mathieu enjoyed the soy birria (a spicy stew common in Jalisco, traditionally made with goat meat). It was a nice change from greasy (but delicious) street tacos and tortas we’d been eating.

The next day, the crews of Free Luff and She’s No Lady, including Jason and Jenn, left the anchorage at La Cruz and sailed to Yelapa, a small town on the south side of Bahia de Banderas. Given its location on the coast of the rocky peninsula, the town is only accessible by boat. After a 4-hour sail, we arrived to the town’s small bay. Once anchored, we went ashore and took a short walk up the narrow, winding paths of the town, through the lush tropical forest to a small waterfall. It felt great to swim in the cool, clear water. After beers at a beach-side restaurant, we returned to our boats and spent a relaxing evening enjoying the sunset and stargazing. The next day, we went ashore again and took a longer walk from town through the tropical forest to a larger waterfall where we again enjoyed swimming in the cool, clear water. After the hike, we had lunch at a beachfront restaurant then sailed for about 4 hours to Punta de Mita, a resort town on the north end of the Bahia de Banderas peninsula. The trips to/from Yelapa and Punta de Mita ended up also being whale watching trips. We saw the spouts of many whales (likely humpbacks) and also got close enough to see their dorsal fins and tail flukes as they dove. We were also treated to a spectacular show of a few whales doing full breeches. Their massive bodies appeared to be suspended in midair. Amazing! We anchored offshore of Punta de Mita, where the ocean was calm, and again enjoyed the sunset and the stars. The next day, we inflated the stand-up paddle boards and Duckie and played in the water. On the way back to La Cruz, we were treated to more whales. Awesome.

Anchored back at La Cruz, we spent more time relaxing on Free Luff, playing in the water, eating delicious food, including Mathieu’s crepes, and hanging out in town. We also hung out with the gang, joining Jenn and Jason on She’s No Lady to enjoy a delicious dinner cooked by Thad and Kristin and drink some delicious whiskey. One night, we went ashore and found the plaza full of people, most of whom were gathered around a long table holding a ring of sweet bread sprinkled with dried fruit. It was Dia de Los Reyes (Three Kings Day). Per Wikipedia, the holiday represents the day the Three Wise Men gave gifts to Jesus Christ. The day closes the Christmas festivities and is the day the people of Mexico exchange gifts. During Día de Los Reyes, Mexicans serve Rosca de Reyes, or King’s Cake. The Rosca de Reyes has an oval shape to symbolize a crown and has a small doll inside which represents baby Jesus. The doll figure symbolizes the hiding of the infant Jesus from King Herod’s troops. The person who gets the slice with the doll must host a party on Día de la Candelaria in February. Children in Latin America and Spain receive the majority of their gifts from the Three Kings rather than from Santa Claus at Christmas. Before going to bed, the children place their old shoes with a wish list on top for the Three Kings. In the morning, the shoes are filled with toys and gifts from the Three Kings. While the piece of bread we shared didn’t contain the sought-after doll, it was tasty. Besides the eating of the Rosca de Reyes, people were dancing in the plaza to the music of a live band consisting of a male singer, a guitarist, a keyboardist, an accordion player, and a drummer. They played what I would call Tejano-style music, bringing back fun memories from my years living in Texas. While the crew went to the bar, Mathieu and I danced with the locals in the plaza. It was a fun night of dancing and people watching.

On another day, Jason and Jenn invited the crews of Free Luff and She’s No Lady to join them on Danika for a day trip. Since it was the first time Mathieu and I had been on a monohull sailboat we were a bit nervous about seasickness (monohulls can sway more than catamarans). However, we had a great day sailing in the bay on their beautiful sailboat. And again, the sail was also a whale watching trip and we were treated to numerous whales. Amazing.

The next day, we crammed Jody and Randy into Genevieve again and the four of us drove to San Sebastian del Oeste, a tiny village in the mountains about 2 hours east of La Cruz. The town is a “Pueblo Magico” which per Wikipedia, is a designation by federal and state agencies given to towns that offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance. Currently, there are 111 Pueblos Magicos around Mexico. We had a great day exploring the lovely colonial town, including taking a short hike to an abandoned silver mine and stopping at a mirador to enjoy a nice mountain-top view of the quaint pueblo.

On the morning of our last day on Free Luff, Mathieu organized the filming of a drone video of the three boats. In the light of the rising sun, he drove the drone over Kristin and Thad on She’s No Lady, then over Jenn and Jason on Danika, and ended by flying over us on Free Luff. In preparation for the video, Jody, Randy, Mathieu and I had choreographed a little dance. Our costumes for the dance included bathing suits and blue masking tape. That’s all I’ll say; watch the video ; ) (see link below).

It was difficult to say farewell to my wonderful friends, but after a fabulous 10 days with them it was time to continue the road trip. We continued south on Ruta 200 then took a secondary road back to the coast where we wild camped on a secluded beach south of the tiny village of Ipala (Jalisco). We spent three days on the wide, white-sand beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. Other than a half dozen local fishermen fishing in the surf, we had the beach entirely to ourselves. Wow. While relaxing one afternoon, we were approached by Geraldo (or Ricky for foreigners unable to pronounce Geraldo), a super friendly local fisherman selling fresh fish. He opened his backpack to show us the catches of the day, including two sizeable pargo (a species of snapper common on the Pacific coast) and offered to cook one for us on the beach for 150 pesos or about $7. Yes please! It was too much fish for two people so we had him cook half of the fish and we put the other half in the cooler for the next night. When he returned later than afternoon to cook the fish for us, he brought us two beautiful papayas he’d picked from a local tree. We had fun chatting with him as he cooked the half fish (which he’d cut dorso-laterally and cooked with the half head on). He cooked it with onions, tomatoes, salt and pepper. It was delicious! He stopped by to say hello and chat at the start and end of his fishing day. It was great to make a new friend. We especially appreciated having met him when, as we tried to start the truck to leave of the third day, we discovered the battery was dead. Thankfully Geraldo stopped by to say hello as he’d done the previous day, and was able to find a friend with a 4×4 (necessary for driving in the deep sand) who could give us a jump. In coming to help us, his friend brought us three beautiful papayas. That morning, we’d eaten one of the two papaya’s Geraldo had brought us the day before so now we had four giant beautiful papayas remaining. We will always remember the generosity of Geraldo and his friends.

From there, we continued south on Ruta 200 to Melaque (Jalisco), a small coastal village Geraldo recommended we visit. Upon arrival, we went directly to the mirador to enjoy the setting sun. Once the sun set, the few other admirers left and we set up camp in the parking area. Yup, we wild camped in a dirt parking lot but it was free and the view of the rising sun the next morning was gorgeous. Apparently it was a popular designation; during breakfast, we exchanged greetings “hola, buenos dias” with numerous runners and bikers as they stopped at the mirador to enjoy the view before heading back down the steep road to town. While talking to one biker (a Canadian who lived in Melaque half the year), I gave him a papaya which he gladly accepted, especially since he was on the way back down the hill. (Now three left. Ha!).

After coffee and wifi at a beachfront restaurant in Melaque, we continued south on Ruta 200 to Manzanillo (Colima). It was a large city (population ~184,500) without much charm but it was good place to resupply. After briefly exploring the malecon, we drove to a beach just south of the city. We entered via a gated entrance guarded by a ancient, shrunken man who was noticeably fit. He was super friendly, giving us the OK to access the private beach. In return, we gave him one of our three beautiful, ripe papayas. (Now two left; I felt like a papaya fairy. Ha!) The area looked as though someone had planned to develop it with beachfront houses but then abandoned the plans. There were street signs but no streets. There were a few houses but most appeared to be abandoned. Despite the somewhat strange area and the sight of the nearby stacks from the power plant, the beach was awesome. It was a wide, black-sand beach which we shared only with a few locals. We played in the waves and threw disk (aka frisbee) for a few hours. We’d planned to continue inland to spend the night on a volcano. However, after realizing this could be our last time on the Pacific coast for awhile, we decided to spend the night on the lovely beach. We spent the evening sipped tequila and listened to music while stargazing. The next morning, we played in the waves for a bit, said farewell to the Oceano Pacifico, and headed east to continue exploring Mexico.

We had a great time traveling along the coast of mainland Mexico, hanging out with friends, making new friends, and exploring new places. We drove ~1,000 miles (~1,600 kilometers), traveling mostly on the free roads, preferring to drive the smaller (often curvy) roads through the small towns versus taking the larger (often straighter) toll roads that circumvented the small towns. And, preferring to avoid paying the expensive tolls. We felt safe the entire way. And the road trip with my wonderful road trip partner, Mathieu, continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album (pics and videos):  https://goo.gl/photos/uo2UWpLjNpGFjuzj9

And click this link to see Mathieu’s done video of the Free Luff crew’s deck-top dance in Bahia de Banderas:  https://youtu.be/BkuGWy4-rFU

Enjoy!

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Mazatlan.

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Happy New Year! With Thad, Kristin, Randy, Jody, Jason, and Jen.

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Free Luff.

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Puerto Vallarta.

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Yelapa.

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With the gang on Danika.

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Water play!

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San Sebastian de Oeste.

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Going ashore on the dinghy.

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Beach south of Ipala.

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Sunset from the mirador in Melaque.

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Black-sand beach south of Manzanillo.

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Mexico – Part 1 of 9: Baja (Dec 5 to 29, 2016)

After 3 months with Mathieu in France and Iceland (see previous post), I returned to California at the end of August to spend time with my family and friends. I was overjoyed to see my loved-ones who I’d missed so much during the year and a half I’d been gone. I spent about 2 months visiting people and relaxing at my parent’s house in Pacifica (near San Francisco) before Mathieu arrived from Paris. Yeah! For about a month, I toured him around parts of northern and southern California to visit my peeps, then it was time for the next adventure. We loaded our clothes and camping gear (for both warm and cold weather), a frisbee (thanks Samantha!), a kite, my mountain bike, his GoPro, drone, kite board and mountain bike (all the way from Paris) in my 1998 Toyota 4Runner and crossed the border from San Diego, California, into Baja, Mexico. Road trip!!

I’ve always referred to the entire peninsula south of California as “Baja” but “Baja” consists of two states, Baja California (Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California) and Baja California Sur (Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California Sur). Per Wikipedia, Baja California has an estimated population of 3,432,900 while the state of Baja California Sur, the second-smallest of the 32 Mexican states/Federal Entities, has a population of 741,000. So, it’s a large area without a lot of people. Perfect!

So how did we spend our 25-day road trip through Baja California and Baja California Sur? Exploring small towns, historic missions, and a few large cities, eating delicious food, camping and hiking in the deserts and mountains, camping and taking walks on long stretches of wild beaches, and whale watching of course!

After an easy stop at the Tijuana (TJ) border to get our tourist cards, we drove south on Ruta 1 to spend our first night at Punta Cabras. Being at this beautiful beach brought back wonderful memories. This was the beach where, during a weekend camping trip in 2006 with my friend Anaika, she and I met Ron and his friends (also from San Diego). Anaika and Ron later married and brought my two amazing “nieces” into the world. It was a wonderful first night of wild camping (aka in the wild, no facilities) on the beach, and best of all, we had it to ourselves.

From there, we continued south on Ruta 1, leaving the coast to visit the mountains of Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Per Wikipedia, the 180,162-ac (72,909-ha) park, established in 1947, is known for its pine forests and granite rock formations. Among many other species, the park is home to the California condor, an endangered species that has been successfully reintroduced into the area through the efforts of several international agencies. This was my second visit to this beautiful park. While we didn’t see condors, as I’d seen on my first trip, we did see coyotes, deer, and a bobcat (my first). While in the park, we visited the national observatory, the second most important in Latin America, getting a special tour from Alejandro, a caretaker there. We also hiked and mountain biked through the pine forest and got some good drone video of the amazing views of and around Picacho del Diablo, the park’s highest peak at 10,157 ft (3,096 m). We shared the trails with a few other hikers but had the campground to ourselves, likely because it was super cold. To keep warm in the near freezing nighttime temperatures, we sipped tequila and listened to music next to Mathieu’s roaring fire. It was here that I discovered that Mathieu is a bit of a pyro. Despite this, we left the forest unscathed. Ha!

After three days in the park, we drove back down the mountain to Rancho Coyote, a private ranch at the base of the park. Being at a lower elevation, it was much warmer, and with it’s grassy camping area (which we shared only with the owner’s cute dogs), hot showers, and wifi, it was a great place to wait for Mathieu’s cousin, Fabien, who was joining us from Paris by way of TJ. After a long drive from TJ, he arrived in his rental car in the early evening. We had a great evening hanging out by the fire, enjoying the stars, and for Fabien and I, getting to know each other.

The next day, the three of us drove down the mountain and back to Ruta 1, stopping a few times to enjoy the views of the Pacific coast and the valley below. We then drove east via a decent dirt road and wild camped in the Valle Santa Clara, a huge valley on the east side of San Pedro Martir. Waking up to the light of the rising sun on the tall ocotillo plants and other desert trees and shrubs and on the mountains, especially Picacho Diablo, was amazing. From there we joined Ruta 5 and crossed to the Gulfo de California (crossing #1). This was the first time any of us had seen the gulf and it was stunning.

We stopped in the small coastal town of San Felipe (population 16,702) filled mostly with domestic tourists, to have a beer and use the wifi. Sitting at the bar on the malecon (boardwalk), we watched as pickup trucks trailering off-road race cars passed. We’d encountered a dozen or so off-road vehicles (very popular throughout Baja) since entering Baja but here there was a large concentration of these cars, their owners and support crew, all covered with the sponsor’s logos. The last of the four Baja 1000 races (a 800-mile race starting and ending in Ensenada) for the year was in November but the off-road fun continued. We also watched a small parade of immaculately restored classic American cars (i.e., Mustang, Camaro, El Camino, etc…) cruise by, all with Baja license plates. It was a great place to people watch and check out some awesome vehicles.

From there, we continued south along the paved secondary road to Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. The views of the gulf coast along the drive were gorgeous. We’d planned to camp that night further south. However, after a stop just past the puesta de militar (military checkpoint) to adjust the items on the truck’s roof-rack, Fabian’s rental car wouldn’t start. We’d had issues with it a few times already but had been able to get it started with a jump from my truck’s battery. It didn’t work this time. Mathieu and Fabien banged around the hood for a bit then determined that it was likely a dead starter. Crap. We spent the rest of that afternoon and evening on the phone arranging for delivery of a new car with the rental car company. Between the two French and one American, who combined spoke decent Spanish, we managed to arrange, via a crappy phone connection, with the rental company agent who spoke limited English for the delivery of a different car. Since the car was due to be delivered sometime between 11pm that night and 6am the next morning, we ended up camping by the broken down car at the puesta de militar. The federales were very nice, putting cones around the vehicle and making sure our roadside camp was in a safe area.

After a night of listening to big trucks pass through the puesta de militar, the new car was delivered at 6am and we continued south along the secondary road (most of which was under construction), to Ruta 1 then took Ruta 12 to Bahia de Los Angeles. Wow. This turned out to be our (Mathieu’s and my) favorite beach in “Baja”. We camped at the north end of the long, pebble beach, enjoying views of the bay, the peninsula opposite us, the small nearby island, and the mountains that ended at the water’s edge. We shared the beach with 7 to 8 camper vans and small RVs but had plenty of space. I was in awe that we could camp for free on such a beautiful beach. We swam in the clear water, walked along the coast, watched fish jump, saw dolphins, watched the seabirds fish, and that night, enjoyed the full moon. As Mathieu says, it was a paradise.

From Bahia de Los Angeles we returned on Ruta 12 and back to Ruta 1, crossing back to the Pacific coast (crossing #2). After a night wild camping near Punta Santo Domingo, we crossed into Baja California Sur, just north of Guerrero Negro, then drove to the village of San Francisco in the Sierra San Francisco mountains within the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. The road was paved for about 90% then turned rocky. It was a long, slow drive with the road winding along deep canyons as it continued up. The views were beautiful, a vast flat-topped desert landscape with deep canyons. The village of San Francisco appeared to consist of a few large ranchos where they raised goats and horses surrounding a small church, a cemetery, a small school, and several other small buildings. On the road, we met Angel, a local who ended up guiding us on a 2-hour hike to Galeria de Santa Teresa, a mirador overlooking a deep canyon. The views of the canyon and beyond were lovely. On a clear day, Angel told us you could see the Pacific from there. After talking to the local landowner, we wild camped at a spot overlooking the canyons and valleys below. It was another good day in the mountains.

After enjoying a beautiful sunrise in the mountains and chatting with the landowner who’d stopped by after taking his daughter to school, we returned to Ruta 1 and went to San Ignacio (population 667) to visit the mission founded in 1798. The small town is located in a beautiful palm oasis fed by natural springs so was green with lush vegetation, a dramatic change from the ecosystems we’d been in so far. The town was largely unchanged since I’d last visited with friends in 2005 and 2006 to go to Laguna San Ignacio, a protected lagoon where hundreds of gray whales gather each year to give birth. We were there too early for the large gathering of whales but spending a few hours in the palm oasis was very nice.

After having a tiny hole patched in my tire (amazingly, the only one of the trip), we continued east back to the Gulfo de California (crossing #3) to Bahia Concepcion. While driving past a small bay, Mathieu saw something in the water. We assumed at first that it as a dolphin but quickly realized it was a whale shark, the largest fish on earth! Per Wikipedia, the largest confirmed individual had a length of 41.5 ft (12.65 m) and a weight of about 21.5 tons (47,000 lb). Luckily there was a pull-out nearby so we could get off the very narrow, 2-lane road for a better look. After pictures and a drone flight over the giant fish, we grabbed our masks, scaled down the steep embankment, and swam out to it. It was amazing to swim with such a beautiful creature. We got close enough to see its white spots and touch its tail. It tolerated us hovering near it for nearly 10 minutes then turned, swam through Fabian’s legs and away. What a wonderful surprise, especially since most of the whale sharks had left the gulf by the end of November. It was also a special experience because that day was Fabien’s 40th birthday. To continue the celebration, we had a rib dinner and drinks at the nearby restaurant along with a few dozen snowbirds (per Wikipedia: a person who moves from the higher latitudes/colder climates of the northern United States and Canada and migrates south in winter to warmer locales, including Mexico). Together, we jammed to the sounds of DJ David who played hits from the 70s and 80s mixed with some musica Mexicana. We had a great night of celebration.

The next day, we continued south on Ruta 1, stopping in the coastal city of Loreto (population 14,724) to explore the city and visit the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, a mission founded in 1697. While touristy (with mostly foreigners), the city was charming and tranquil. The next day, Fabien went scuba diving with a local dive shop and we spent the day at Playa Escondida where we’d wild camped the night before, throwing disk (aka frisbee), flying the kite, and relaxing. After the dive, Fabien packed up and drove to La Paz from where he’d fly home to Paris. We’d had a great 10 days of adventures with him.

From Playa Escondida, we returned to Loreto to find a bike shop. We’d forgotten to secure the bike rack in the up and locked position the day before and accidently dragged the bikes behind the truck for about a mile on a dirt road before noticing the strange noise. Crap. Thankfully, after removing the dirt and gravel, replacing the wheel and tire on one bike and a brake pad on the other, and tightening up some loosened parts on both, the bikes were ready for action again.

From Loreto, we drove into the mountains we’d been admiring during the drive along the coast:  La Sierra La Giganta. The mountains were rocky with sparse desert vegetation but with patches of lush vegetation the canyons. We stopped at the picturesque Mision San Javier (founded in 1699). All of the missions were constructed in the shape of “the Cross” and thanks to Mathieu’s drone video, I finally got a bird’s eye view of this classic formation. From there, we continued southwest on a decent dirt road. Other than the few vaqueros (cowboys) we passed, we were the only people on the road. Near sunset, we ended up camping at a private ranch we’d stopped at to ask for information. The owner, Humberto, and his wife were very sweet and allowed us to camp for free. They seemed to like having guests as there was a family of five also camping there. Dries, Carolina, and their kids Metra (~10), Casper (~7), and Coby (~4), who were Flemish from Belgium, shipped their Toyota Hilux, totally tricked out for camping, from Belgium to Canada then drove through the U.S. and into Mexico. From here, they would drive through Central America to Panama where they’d ship themselves and the truck back home. Wow, what an amazing experience, especially for the kids! We had a great time swapping travel stories with them.

The next day, we rejoined Ruta 1 and continued south to overnight on the Pacific coast (crossing #4). While trying to access an unknown beach, we ended up driving on an extremely narrow ranch road lined on both sides with tons of super spiny desert bushes. Unable to find a way to the beach, we had to return via the same route. While the truck tires made it unscathed, one tire on each bike had been fully penetrated by two or more thick spines. Crap. We hadn’t even ridden the bikes since the last repair. Ha! After a night at Punta Conejo, a popular surf break crowded with camper vans and small RVs, we continued south on Ruta 1 back to the gulf (crossing #5) and to La Paz.

La Paz (population 215,178), the capital of Baja California Sur, is touristy but charming, especially the malecon and the nearby local markets. We spent two nights wild camping at Playa Tecolote, a lovely, uncrowded beach just north of La Paz and explored the city during the day. While there, we also took a boat tour to Isla Espiritu Santo, a rocky island reserve a short boat trip rom La Paz, where we swam with sea lions, visited a frigate sanctuary and ate some delicious ceviche on the beach.

From La Paz, we drove south on Ruta 288 then on a dirt road through the Sierra La Gata mountains to the coast. Per our road map, the road was classified as “maintained.” However, it appeared it hadn’t been maintained since our 2008 map was published becaused it turned out to be a narrow, single track road with a steep drop off in parts and some very rough 4X4 parts. Of course, Genevieve (or Genny for short) did great and thank goodness because I’m not sure how another vehicle could have helped us on such a narrow road. During the trip, I realized that my old 4Runner should have a name, a name that signified perseverance and tenacity, and immediately thought of my grandmother, Genevieve, a woman who’d had both qualities. Once through the mountains, the view of Bahia de Los Muertos was amazing. I could only imagine that our views from this narrow dirt road that fell off into the sea far below must have been similar to those seen by early travelers on California’s historic Highway 1. And we were the only people on the road. Wow. Near sunset, we found a short road that lead to abandoned house on the beach and set up camp. It was Christmas Eve and we were in a perfect spot with no one around for miles. We celebrated with tequila and a good dinner.

Christmas Day we were gifted an amazing present. We’d been watching a whale about 150 ft (46 m) offshore. It appeared to remain in the same general area so we put on our masks and swam out to it. Never in a million years did I think we’d find it but we did. We swam right over it. It was a humpback who appeared to be getting a bath. He remained still while tons of small fish hovered around him, eating the algae and small crustaceans off his skin. We watched him for about 15 minutes until, with a strong pump of his tail, he slowly swam away. It was an amazing experience. We watched him surface a few more times as we ate breakfast. Wow, it was a Christmas to remember for sure.

From there, we drove south, rejoining the paved road to Los Barriles. As we approached the town, we could see dozens of kites in the air. We found out later that Los Barriles is a mecca for watersports, including kite boarding. We’d been traveling around with Mathieu’s kite board but he’d wanted to take a refresher course before getting back on it so he took advantage of us being there to take a lesson. What a perfect day:  swimming with a whale and kite boarding.

From Los Barriles, we continued south on the secondary road (most of it washboard) stopping along the way at various beautiful beaches, including Cabo Pulmo, and overnighting at Nine Palms, another beautiful beach that we had to ourselves and another great place for me practice throwing disk.

From that secluded beautiful beach, we drove to Cabo San Lucas (population 68,463). Oh, culture shock. We walked along the restaurant/bar-lined malecon, along with hundreds of other tourists (domestic and foreign), and were constantly bombarded with tour offers. While Mathieu took an hour-long boat tour to the Cabo Arch, I had a beer at Cabo Wabo. I figured if I was going to have a beer in Cabo it might as well be at a bar I’d heard of. Cheers Sammy Hagar. Toward sunset, we escaped the masses and hiked to the top a small hill overlooking the marina on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. While I didn’t care much for Cabo (way too touristy and without charm), the view of the bustling city as the sun set was lovely.

From Cabo, we drove north on Ruta 19 along the Pacific coast to Todos Santos (population 5,148) a touristy but charming city which boasted a growing art scene. It was a nice place to walk around and an excellent place to eat more ceviche. That night, we wild camped at a beach just north of Todos Santos. Being a well-known surf break, we shared the beach with other campers, but there was plenty of space for all along the long, wide beach. We set up camp to minimize the mild wind and enjoyed the evening. Sometime during the night, the wind picked up significantly, blowing the walls of the tent on top of us. With some adjustments to the tent, we fell back to sleep.

Despite a somewhat rough night, the sunrise the next morning was gorgeous. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast then tried to throw disk but by then the wind had picked up again. So, we tried to fly our kite. You know it`s bad when it’s too windy to fly a kite. Eventually the wind became unbearable so we threw everything in the truck and headed back to La Paz (crossing #6). After a last swim in “Baja”, we boarded Baja Ferries where, after an overnight ferry to Mazatlan, we would continue our road trip through mainland Mexico (stay tuned for upcoming posts).

Adiós Baja y gracias para todo. During our 25-day road trip, we camped every night, five nights on the Pacific coast, twelve nights on the gulf coast, and seven nights in the inland mountains or desert. And of the 24 nights of camping, we paid to camp only five times (the most expensive being 180 pesos or ~$8), wild camping the rest of time in some beautiful, secluded places. Amazing! And during the roughly 2,300-mi (3,700-km) drive, we crossed from the Oceano Pacifico to the Gulfo de California six times, and felt safe the entire way. Along the way, we swam with sea lions, a whale shark, a humpback whale, and enjoyed stunning landscapes, from beaches, deserts, and tall mountains to charming small towns, and met friendly people (locals and travelers). And we ate delicious food. Mexican is my favorite type of food so I was in heaven eating street tacos, charro beans, ceviche, totopos (corn tortilla chips) with spicy salsa, and more. And tequila is my prefered drink so I was in heaven sampling the local brands. Baja is amazing and I look forward to exploring more in the future.

And thank you Mathieu for being a wonderful road trip partner. xoxo

Click the link to see the full photo album (pics & video):  https://goo.gl/photos/UiDA1kN6SfHTfE9L8

And click this link to see Mathieu’s drone video mix (humpback, whale shark, Isla Espiritu Santo, San Pedro Martir (the road there & the view from the Observatory), and Bahia de Los Angeles: https://youtu.be/lZOK9sS__0E

Enjoy!

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Punta Cabras where we welcomed ourselves to Baja.

Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice (June 17 to July 13, 2016)

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After two months in China (see previous post), I returned to Paris with reunite with Mathieu. It’d been over 4 months since we were together in Cambodia (see previous post) so I was super happy to see him again. During my 3-month stay with him, we took a trip to the beautiful country of Iceland.

Per Wikipedia, the Republic of Iceland (Lýðveldið Ísland in Icelandic) is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has a population of 329,100 (of which 207,174 live in Reykjavík) and an area of 40,000 sq mi (103,000 sq km) making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The settlement of Iceland began in the 9th century when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, immigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls of Gaelic origin.

About 85 percent of total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources (primarily geothermal and hydrroelectric) and Iceland ranks among the top 10 greenest economies in the world. Iceland still relies heavily on fishing, including whaling, but its importance has diminished from 90% in the 1960s to 40% in 2006.

Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau of sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, and glacial rivers that flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence still keeps summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

So what did I do for nearly 4 weeks in the land of fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields, and waterfalls? Explore and trek of course, taking full advantage of the summer season’s midnight sun!

By the time our flight landed and we picked up the rental car, it was 2am, so we decided to find a nice place several miles away from the airport to park and spent our first “night” in Iceland sleeping in the car. Thank goodness we were prepared for the 24-hour daylight and had our eye masks. The next morning, we pushed up our masks to welcome a cool but mostly sunny day.

The first stop was Reykjavík to stock up on groceries and explore the city. The small capital city (population 207,174) was bustling with tourists checking out the numerous charming shops selling trinkets, souvenirs, fancy outdoor gear, and all things made of Icelandic wool. The Euro 2016 Championship had started June 10th and lucky for us, there was a football (aka soccer) match that day: Iceland vs. Hungry. So after meandering around the city, window shopping, checking out the waterfront, etc… we joined a few hundred spectators bundled up in the city’s main square to watch the football match on a jumbotron. It was cool to be in a sea of blue (jerseys, hats, scarves, face paint, etc…). Despite the drizzling rain that started shortly before the match, we had a great time singing, laughing, drinking beer, and cheering with the fans. The match ended in a tie (1-1) but the fans were happy. It was a great first day in Iceland!!

From Reykjavík, we spent a few days slowly making our way north on Roads 47 and 54, following the contours of the fjords, stopping along the way to marvel at the many waterfalls and rivers, then drove around Snæfellsjökull, a magnificent 700,000-year-old glacier-topped volcano located at the tip of long, narrow peninsula. Per Wikipedia, the volcano is one of the most famous sites of Iceland, primarily due to the 1864 Jules Verne novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the center of the earth on Snæfellsjökull.

From there, we continued further north on Road 60 to explore the lesser-traveled Westfjords, stopping first at Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Iceland and Europe’s largest bird cliff, ~9 mi (14 km) long and up to 1,443 feet (440 m) high. These cliffs are home to millions of birds, including northern gannets, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins! Per Wikipedia, this site hosts up to 40% of the world population for some of these species. It was amazing to finally see puffins for my first time! Adorable. We also watched a brown arctic fox run on the trail ahead of us searching for bird nests to poach on the cliff edge. The arctic fox, brown in summer and white in winter, is Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal which came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea. The view overlooking the sparkling ocean below was stunning, especially on such a gorgeous, sunny day. Along with seeing puffins and an arctic fox, the day was extra special (and extra long) since it was June 21, the summer solstice. I decided to stay up to watch the sunset on the longest day of the year. I bundled up, sat on a boulder on the beach near our campsite, listened to music, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally at about 1:20am, the sun went below the horizon. Wow, it truly was a summer solstice to remember. (Note: I heard the next day from fellow campers that the sun rose again about two hours later. Crazy!)

As we prepared to continue our roadtrip, we met Gail and Terrence, a French couple who were hitchhiking around Iceland. Together we traveled along the small roads of the Westfjords, stopping at various waterfalls, viewpoints overlooking gorgeous inlets and bays, and small quaint towns. It was great to meet some fellow travelers and Mathieu was very happy to have some fellow French-speakers to chat with. After a few days, we said farewell to them in the village of Ísafjörður but luckily ran into them a few more times along our route in northern Iceland.

After walking around Ísafjörður (population 2,600) and enjoying a nice meal, including some Icelandic beer, we returned to our parked car to find it sitting in a pool of fluid. Apparently the fuel hose broke while we were driving on the dirt arounds along the fjords (not F roads, just regular dirt roads). This happens so frequently that this type of repair, along with cracked windshields, is not covered by the rental car insurance. Our friendly neighborhood police officer who’d been waiting by the car, called the rental car company for us and arranged for a tow truck to take the car about three blocks to a local garage. It was after 10pm on a Thursday, so we’d have to wait until the next day for the repairs. While waiting for the tow truck, we were joined by another police office and a fire truck with three fireman who cleaned up the spilt diesel fuel. Mathieu, all three firemen, and one of the police officers crawled under the car to confirm that the puddle was due to a broken fuel hose. So, there we were on the corner of this small village with our little rental car surrounded by two police officers, three firemen, a fire truck with lights flashing, and a few onlookers. We had the feeling we were the excitement for the night. The next day, we hitched a ride to the garage and paid our repair bill (about $250, mostly due to the after-hours towing). After a stop at a bakery to help us forget about the bill, we drove to Drangajökull, the northernmost glacier of Iceland. Per Wikipedia, the glacier covers an area of ~67 sq mi (200 sq km) and is the only Icelandic glacier which lies entirely below an altitude of 3,280 ft (1,000 m) and is also the only glacier that has not shrunk in recent years. The glacier-cut valley was stunning with numerous small waterfalls flowing down the steep sides and into the thundering river that flowed out of the massive glacier. Besides a few other hikers, we had the valley and the glacier to ourselves. After the hike, we drove to the tiny fishing village of Drangsnes, where we enjoyed the evening rain while soaking in a communal (aka free) hot tub overlooking a small bay. It was a great way to end the day and let go of any remaining stress over the costly car repairs.

From there, we continued our scenic drive east along Road 68 to Siglufjörður, a fishing village located at the end of a fjord, offering lovely views overlooking the ocean. After a night there, we rejoined Route 1, known as Iceland’s Ring Road encircling the entire country for over 800 mi (1,287 km). We stopped at Goðafoss, a large waterfall, and Mývatn, a lake that per Wikipedia was created by a large basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago. Being on the very popular Ring Road, we shared these sites with numerous tour buses and an army of fellow tourists. However, both the waterfall and the lake were beautiful and like in most places, if you’re willing, as we were, to walk a few miles past the trailhead, you can escape the masses. After a nice day hike up a volcanic crater, through the lava fields around the lake, and through a piping hot geothermal area, we arrived to our destination for the night:  Dettifoss. Per Wikipedia, Dettifoss is the largest waterfall in Iceland with an average water flow of 193 m3/s, and the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The water comes from the nearby Vatnajökull glacier, whose sediment-rich runoff colors the Jökulsá, Iceland’s second longest river, a greyish white. The falls are 330 ft (100 m) wide and have a drop of 144 ft (44 m) resulting in an impressive thundering noise and crashing spray. It was a truly awesome sight! From the waterfall, we continued north on Roads 865/85 north and east to the fishing village of Þórshöfn, enjoying the dramatic views of the land meeting the sea along the way.

From Þórshöfn, we drove south on Road 85 along the coast, entering the less-traveled east Iceland via Hellisheiði pass (Road 917). It was an adventure driving over Iceland’s highest (2,152 ft (656 m)) and steepest pass, and to add to the adventure, it was cold and super foggy, with nearly zero visibility. After camping for the night at a lovely spot below the pass, we drove Road 94 to the end of the Borgarfjörður Eystri fjord to visit the cliffs crammed with breeding fulmars, kittiwakes, eiders, and puffins! After watching puffins fly out to sea to fish, return with fish, pop below ground into their nests, reemerge, and watching them just look adorable, we drove south on Roads 94 and 93 to Seyðisfjörður, a charming village surrounded by mountains. Per Wikipedia, the town is well known for its old wooden buildings and has a vibrant cultural scene with an arts centre, a Technical Museum, a local heritage museum, and the only two cinemas in the east of Iceland. There are also a few restaurants and bars, one of which we visited to have a beer and watch another football match: Portugal vs. Poland (Portugal won, making the team’s single fan in the bar very happy and the Icelanders very unhappy).

The next day, we drove the short distance to Egilsstaðir to pick up my brother Jabal, who flew from San Francisco to Reykjavík then to Egilsstaðir to join us. We’d last hung out in October 2015 in Antwerp, Belgium, so I was super excited to see him. After many big hugs, we took a scenic drive on Road 910 toward the Vatnajökull ice cap. We tried to remain positive and to ignore the wind and rain but finally we had to abort our plans to camp in the area and return from where we came and away from the foul weather. We ended up finding a good campsite overlooking Lagarfljót lake. We spent the night singing, dancing, chatting, and scanning the lake’s surface to catch a glimpse of Lagarfljótsormurinn, a cryptic serpent believed by some to live in the depths of Lagarfljót. Unfortunately despite our efforts, none of us saw the reputed serpent. Hmm….maybe a few more Icelandic beers and shots of the Irish whiskey Jabal had brought would have helped our chances. Ha!

The next day, we hiked along the Jökulsá River, accompanied by two very friendly herding dogs. It was a little rainy and cold but the river and surrounding valley were gorgeous and we had the trail to ourselves. We even got to cross the river via a bucket bridge, literally a 1-person bucket that is manually moved across the river on cables via a pulley system. It was very cool until the rope fell off the pulley wheel, leaving Mathieu on one side of the river and Jabal and I on the other. Luckily it didn’t happen while one of us was suspended over the thundering river! Jabal and I only had to walk a few miles (in the cold rain) to a bridge where Mathieu met us in the car.It was a fun adventure. The next day, we returned to Egilsstaðir and said farewell to Mathieu who had to return home and back to work. Thankfully, I’d be rejoining him in Paris after 9 more days in Iceland, so it was farewell only for a short time.

From Egilsstaðir, Jabal and I continued south on Road 92 to Reyðarfjörður where, at the end of the road, we did a great day hike. It was cold and wet but the views were absolutely amazing. We were surrounded by snow-covered mountains on three sides and overlooked the inlet of Reyðarfjörður, a massive inlet that looked even more dramatic with white-caps and shadows from the passing storm clouds. After setting up the tent at the campground in Reyðarfjörður, we went to a bar to watch another football match:  Iceland vs. France. This was a quarter-final match for the Euro 2016 Championship and the fans in the small bar were pumped! With beers in hand, we settled in to watch the game with the locals. The two teams seemed pretty well matched at first (in my very novice opinion), with each team spending about the same amount of time near the goal. But that all changed when France scored their first goal about 12 minutes into the match. Then, shortly after, they scored another goal, then another followed quickly by another. So by the half, France was winning 4-0. The mood in the bar was somber but still hopeful. I was bummed for Iceland but was secretly cheering for both teams:  Iceland because they were the underdogs and France because they were Mathieu’s team. Jabal, however, was really bummed out and didn’t want to watch the second half, so we left. We found out the next day from the campground hostess that France scored another goal during the second half but that Iceland also scored 2 more goals, making the final score 5-2 France. She was very proud of her team for making it to the finals. I read later in The Reykjavík Grapevine, a humorous, free alternative magazine, that this was the first time since the foundation of the Icelandic Football Association in 1947 that the team had ever qualified for the finals of a major tournament. No wonder the country was so excited that their team had made it to the quarterfinals. Good job Iceland!!!

The next day was clear and sunny (but still cold) so we decided to return to Road 910 to try again to get closer to the Vatnajökull ice cap. Per Wikipedia, Vatnajökull is the largest and most voluminous ice cap (aka miniature ice sheet) in Iceland, and the second largest ice cap in area in Europe (the first being in Norway). To get a better look at the massive ice cap, we did a 2-night backpacking trip around 6,014-ft (1,833-m) high Snæfell mountain, northeast of the glacier. While the weather during our trek was mostly cold, drizzly, and cloudy, and my feet got soaked crossing the numerous marshy areas at the foot of the mountain, the views of Snæfell, the surrounding mountains, and the distant Vatnajökull were amazing. Thankfully, we had a few periods of sun during which the various colors of the volcanic rock we walked over and the sparse vegetation in the area came alive. On the morning of day three, we hiked up mount Snæfell, stopping just below the summit. It was a sunny day (at least for a few hours) and the views overlooking the marshy valley between the mountain and Vatnajökull and of the expansive ice cap itself were breathtaking. And the storm clouds around us and over the ice cap added to the dramatic scene. It was one of my favorite sights in Iceland, and except the four people we encountered on our way down the mountain and back to the car, we had the trek to ourselves. Amazing! After the trek, we continued south, enjoying the changing views of the impressive Vatnajökull ice cap for about 100 mi (160 km) as we continued along the coast on the Ring Road.

Over the next few days, we stopped at various spots to day hike along the Skálafellsjökull and Breiðamerkurjökull glaciers, tongues of Vatnajökull ice cap. It was amazing to get up close and personal with these massive glaciers. We also stopped at the very popular Jökulsárlón lagoon where icebergs from Vatnajökull calve into the glacial lagoon. We joined the masses to watch as small icebergs floated out of the mouth of the lagoon into the ocean. It was a cool sight. From there, we continued along the Ring Road to Vík, the southernmost village of Iceland. Being only 110 mi (180 km) from Reykjavík and on the easily accessible Ring Road, the campground in the small village was packed with tents, RVs, and campervans. However, since the wifi was good, the showers were hot, and the communal kitchen was huge, it was a good place to spend a few rainy days. We’d been mostly lucky with the weather so far, with some sunny days and some days of only light rain.

After two days of relaxing, reading, journaling, and exploring the cliffs and black-sand volcanic beaches around Vík, we continued west on the Ring Road then to Road 26 where we crossed valleys of ancient lava flows and small volcanoes to get to Hekla (4,892 ft (1,491 m)), one of Iceland’s most active volcanos with over 20 eruptions in and around the volcano since 1104. The most recent eruption occurred in February 2000 and thankfully caused no damage. At the junction of Road 26 and Road F-225, we parked, able to go no further in our non-4X4 rental car. Lucky for us, we met Herman “the German” and Emmet (also German), who gave us a ride in their 4X4 to the trailhead. They’d taken the car ferry from Denmark to tour around Iceland for two weeks. We folded ourselves into the car among the camping gear, food, and mountain bikes and off we went to the trailhead. It was a bumpy and uncomfortable 5-6 mile ride but it beat walking. We ended up hiking up the volcano with our new friends, all of us enjoying the magnificent views of the looming snow-capped volcano above and the surrounding lava-covered valley below. It was cool to see tiny flowers growing out of the jagged volcanic rock that covered the ground. The day started out cloudy but dry, then changed quickly as we neared the summit, becoming rainy with some snow, windy, and foggy. It was so foggy at times, I could barely see my hand stretched out in front of my face. Oh crap, time to abort the summit attempt and get off the volcano. Trying to find the trail in the very cold, foggy conditions was really difficult and I finally understood how people got lost in this type of weather. Thankfully, the four of us worked together to stay on the trail and we made it back to the car unscathed. As we said farewell to our German friends, they gave us some really good German beer. It was perfect after a death-defying hike. Ha!

The next day, we drove west to Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake. Per Wikipedia, the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet in this area which we could see from the deep cracks and faults around the lake. Thanks to a local at the lake’s visitor center, we found a hike to the summit of a small mountain overlooking the lake. The hike went past numerous thermal vents and a steaming hot, sulfurous creek. We had the trail to ourselves. At the summit, we had a great view of the huge lake, the river flowing from the lake to the ocean, Hekla volcano in the distance, and Reykjavík. The sun, partially covered by a few clouds, was behind Reykjavík, casting a lovely light on the land in between. On the way down, we were treated to a gorgeous double rainbow over the lake. It was a fabulous end to the last day of the road trip.

After our last night wild camping, we returned to Reykjavík, where Jabal and I shared a delicious dinner at a cozy restaurant and a beer at a local bar before saying farewell. I returned to Paris and he enjoyed a few more days in Reykjavik.

Iceland is a beautiful country with varied amazing landscapes and very friendly people, 99.9% of whom speak excellent English. Traveling around the country is easy, wild camping is allowed, and for those who prefer facilities, there are numerous campgrounds, most with wifi. While we were there during the high tourist season (mid June thru August) and the south part of the island was very crowded, we saw relatively few other tourists in the Westfjords and in the north and east parts of the island (away from the Ring Road). I definitely want to visit this amazing country again, and when I do, I’ll rent a 4X4 so I can explore the interior highlands via the infamous F-Roads.

The nearly 4 weeks I spent exploring the beautiful landscapes of Iceland were amazing. I was thrilled to tent camp the entire time, sometimes off the beaten path and and sometimes at campgrounds (with hot showers!). But of course, my experience was even more memorable because I got to share it with people I love, Mathieu and Jabal. Thank you both for all the amazing memories.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album: https://goo.gl/photos/ybqarwVE9gAWcwt89

Enjoy!

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Watching fooball in Reykjavik. Go Iceland!

 

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Latrabjarg cliffs.

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Puffins!

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Summer solstice sunset:

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With Terrence and Gail at Dynjandi waterfalls.

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Dettifoss. Wow!

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Icelandic beer and Irish whiskey near Lagarfjot lake.

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Overlooking Reydarfjordur inlet.

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Trailhead to Snaefell mountain.

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View from Snaefell mountqin, overlooking Vatnajokull ice cap.

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Overlooking Skalafellsjokull glacier.

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Near the summit of Hekla Volcano.

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Silly in Reykjavik.

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Last sunset in Iceland. Farewell. Until next time.

People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国): West to East (Mar 29 to May 26, 2016)

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After two months in Vietnam (see previous post), I went to China. While China had been on my list of places to visit, I didn’t want to go there alone. After reading several blogs and talking to fellow travelers who’d been there, I felt too overwhelmed to tackle such a challenging country alone, challenging only due to the language barrier and relative lack of English-speakers and foreign travelers outside of the big cities. While the prospect of visiting a less-traveled country sounded enticing, the idea of coping with travel logistics alone sounded daunting. Lucky for me, my friends Brett and Laura (UK), who’d I’d met and traveled with in Vietnam, invited me to join them to visit China. Now armed with travel buddies, I was ready to go.

Per Wikipedia, China is the world’s most populous country (1.38 billion people) comprised of 56 officially-recognized distinct ethnic groups, of which the Han Chinese are the largest group. While Mandarin is the most common language, there are as many as 292 living languages spoken in China. Most Chinese (~80%) practice some form of Chinese folk religion based on Taoism and Confucianism with fewer being Buddhist (10-16%), Christian (2-4%) and Muslim (1-2%).

With a land area of about 3.7 million sq mi (9.6 million sq km), China is similar in size to the U.S. However, China has the longest combined land border in the world (13,743 mi (22,117 km)) [compared to 7,515 mi in the U.S.] and borders 14 nations, more than any other country except Russia, which also borders 14. China is the world’s second-largest economy (just behind the U.S.) and the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods. China has the world’s largest standing army and second-largest defense budget (behind the U.S.), and is a member of the United Nations.

Once ruled by various dynasties, China is now one of the world’s few remaining socialist states openly endorsing communism, having been described as communist and socialist, but also as authoritarian and corporatist, with heavy restrictions, most notably against free access to the Internet, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to have children, free formation of social organizations, and freedom of religion.

China’s various landscapes are home to a high diversity of plants and animals and as such, China is designated as one of 17 “megadiverse” countries (countries, including the U.S. and Australia, that harbor the majority of Earth’s species and high numbers of endemic species). Unfortunately, a growing number of species are threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, and by use for traditional Chinese medicine. However, endangered wildlife is protected by Chinese law, and as of 2015, protected nature reserves covered about 18 percent of the country. It is also now illegal to eat an endangered species. While it appears that species and habitat are still inadequately protected overall, conservation efforts to protect some of China’s most charismatic megafauna and beautiful, unique landscapes are ongoing and will hopefully continue to increase.

So, what did I do for nearly 2 months in China, including one week in Hong Kong? First, while still in Vietnam, I downloaded a VPN (virtual private network) app on my phone and tablet so I could freely access the Internet and keep in touch via social media. Once in China, I explored quaint ancient towns, visited beautiful temples and historic sites, speed past mountainous terrain and lush green rice fields via train, volunteered at an English school, walked on the world’s longest wall, hung out with friends, and trekked, of course, among snow-capped mountains and China’s legendary karst formations.

Getting There

From the border town of Lao Cai, Vietnam, Brett, Laura and I walked across a short bridge into the small city of Hekou in the Yunnan Province, thus crossing the border into southwest China. After navigating the easy entry process, we stepped out of the immigration office and were suddenly in China and completely surrounded by the Chinese language. While beautiful to look at, the Chinese characters offered absolutely zero hint as to the meaning of the words written on the street signs, the storefronts, the restaurant menus, the bus stop signs, etc…. And unlike other borders I’d crossed, the three of us were the only foreigners around. It was exciting but a bit overwhelming and I was relieved to be with friends. None of us spoke or read Chinese but at least we could figure things out together. While no one around us spoke English, people were very friendly and with the help of translation apps, a map, and hand gestures, locals helped us figured out which bus to take to get to the train station and then which train to take to get to our first designation, Kunming, also in the Yunnan Province. During the 6-hour train ride, I was seated in a different row than my friends. Fortunately, after discovering I spoke English, a very sweet 50-something Chinese woman changed seats with her friend to sit next to me to chat. She was an engineer and spoke enough English to proudly tell me that her daughter graduated from Columbia and now worked in New York City. She also taught her ancient father, whom I was sitting next to, to say “Welcome to China, I love you” which made everyone around us crack up. We chatted, shared snacks, laughed a lot, and she wrote my name in Chinese. It was a very welcoming introduction to China.

Dali 大理市

After a two-night stopover in Kunming to get our bearings, we took a 5-hour train to Dali still in the Yunnan Province. While a relatively large city (population 652,000), we went to Dali primarily to visit the old town, an ancient walled city whose buildings were constructed in traditional Chinese style, which per Wikipedia includes tiled roofs and bricks, plaster or whitewashed walls, and the use of talismans and imagery painted on doorways and walls to ward off evil and encourage the flow of good fortune. The city is nestled between tall snow-covered mountains and Erhai Lake. Roaming the streets inside the ancient walls was interesting but the highlight of exploring the area was riding rented bicycles through the small traditional villages and past the fertile fields surrounding the lake. I enjoyed riding down the narrow side streets admiring the curved tile roofs and decorative doorways. While the area was crowded with tourists (almost entirely domestic) it was beautiful and fun to explore.

Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡

After a few nights in Dali, we took a 3-hour train to Lijiang (population 1.2 million), another popular tourist city in the Yunnan Province. While Lijiang is also known for its ancient walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I thought it was overrun with souvenir and ice cream shops and lacked the charm of Dali’s old town. Fortunately, we were there primarily to access Tiger Leaping Gorge, a scenic canyon on the Jinsha River, a primary tributary of the upper Yangtze River. After a few nights in Lijiang, we took a 1.5-hour bus with fellow trekkers to the trailhead and started the roughly 13-mi (20-km), 2-day Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. While we shared the trail with many trekkers (mostly domestic), the steady stream of people thinned out considerably after the first few miles, allowing for a lovely, relaxing hike. The trail is situated high on the northern side of the gorge passing through quiet villages, terraced farmland, and pine forest all within view of Jade Dragon and Haba mountains. For much of first half of the trek, the view was obscured by tall, dense stands of bamboo. Thankfully, the view finally opened up, revealing the narrow, raging river thundering through the deep canyon below. While not the deepest canyon I’ve looked down into, sections of the deep gorge were spectacular and having a beer with Brett and Laura at our hostel’s rooftop deck overlooking the gorge after a day of trekking was fantastic.

Yading Nature Reserve ཉིང་རྟེན

From Tiger Leaping Gorge, the three of us headed further north to hike the mountains in the Yading Nature Reserve in the Sichuan Province. To get there, we first took a 3-hour bus to Shangri-la (population 130,000). Per Wikipedia, the city was renamed as Shangri-la in 2001 after the fictional land of Shangri-la in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, in an effort to promote tourism in the area. It was a large, modern city with an old town that was touristy but charming, and home to the beautifully ornate Songzanlin Monastery and the Gold Temple. In the evening we watched a large group of locals do their nightly dance in the central plaza. Group dancing is practiced commonly throughout China (and other parts of Asia) as a form of exercise and community bonding. It was cool to see people of all ages dancing together and enjoying the evening. After two nights in Shangri-la, we took a 5-hour bus packed with locals to Xiancheng then a 2-hour minivan to Daocheng. The 5-hour bus ride felt much longer than it was; the seats were made for tiny people, the only ventilation was via open windows, and there was no bathroom on the bus. I prefer fresh air to AC but it was cold outside, so when the windows were closed against the cold, it got very hot and humid in the bus. Then when the windows were opened for the smokers, it got very cold and smoky. The majority of our fellow passengers were men, most of whom smoked frequently. So, we and the other non-smokers were subjected to alternating periods of hot, humid air and icy cold, smoky air. As for the bathroom situation, I’d been on many buses without bathrooms. However, the bus would typically stop at a bathroom every few hours. Our bus, however, stopped at one bathroom that was absolutely disgusting and otherwise stopped a few times on the side of the road, once near some abandoned buildings. The men went in one direction but not far from the bus while us ladies went in search of some privacy. Fortunately women tend to bond together regardless of nationality, age, etc…so us ladies helped provided some privacy for each other. Most of the bus rides were fine but a few were adventures. (Note to self:  wear a skirt when traveling on buses without bathrooms.)

Once in Daocheng, we reunited with Charlie and Nell (UK) who we’d met in our hostel in Lijiang. Daocheng is a small town (population 30,000) fairly close to the Tibetan border. After bundling up against the cold, the five of us explored the town a bit, having a delicious dinner of local dishes including spicy goat cheese soup, which was a treat since cheese is not commonly eaten in China. The next day, we took a 2-hour minivan to Yading Nature Reserve. The road took us along tall mountains overlooking deep valleys and across barren wind-swept plateaus whose peaks were dotted with Buddhist stupas and prayer flags. There’d been no other foreigners on our bus or on the minivans to get to Yading and none at our hotel, but with the help of a translation app and a Chinese tourist who spoke a little English, the five of us got checked into our rooms then bundled up to explore the Reserve for a few hours before dark. It was cold and a little rainy but the views were amazing. After dinner, we huddled around the communal stove in the hotel lobby reminiscing about the trip to get to this remote reserve. It’d been a long journey but it was already apparent that it was well worth it.

Per Landofsnow.com, the 520-sq mi (1344-sq km) Yading Nature Reserve was first introduced to the world when the famous American botanist and adventurer Joseph F. Rock published an article and photographs in National Geographic in 1928, saying “Where in all the world is to be found scenery comparable to that which awaits the explorer and photographer!” The area is most known for its three holy mountains, Chenrezig, Jambeyang, and Chanadorje which are worshipped as embodiments of the three Bodhisattvas of Mercy, Wisdom, and Power, respectively. Local Tibetans believe that the three holy mountains protect them and try to complete a circuit around Chenresig at least once a year.

Thankfully by the time I woke up at 6am in next morning, it had stopped raining and the skies were mostly clear. Since Yading has an average elevation of well over 13,000 ft (4000 m), it was still darn cold. My friends opted to explore the Reserve at a more reasonable hour, so I spent the day trekking solo. I’d decided to try to complete the “small kora, a popular Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage circuit around Chenresig (19,790 ft (6032 m)), the highest mountain in the Reserve. By about 8am, the electric carts shuttling people to various parts of the Reserve started operating so my solitude was broken by dozens of fellow visitors, all domestic. However, after trekking several miles further, I left the majority of the crowd behind and had the trail almost entirely to myself for the rest of the day. The trail went through a huge lush meadow, then climbed up and over two barren, windswept passes, the highest at 15,419 ft (4700 m), where colorful prayer flags flapped in the wind, then lead back down through another deep valley. It was amazing to be surrounded by tall, jagged, snow-covered mountains, watching the winds swirl the clouds around their peaks. It was absolutely stunning.   

While hiking up to the final pass, I caught up to a local family also on their way up to the pass, perhaps on a day-long pilgrimage. They were three young adults and a woman who appeared to be their grandmother. I hadn’t seen them on my trail before so assumed they’d come up another trail. I don’t know how far their hike had been to get to that point, but any trail to the pass would be steep and rugged and grandma was trudging up at a steady pace. As I passed the family, the grandmother gently grabbed my arm, flashed me a huge toothless smile, and gave me a thumbs up. She also said something that I unfortunately couldn’t understand but from her smile and gestures, I felt that she was telling me “good job solo female trekker exploring in a foreign land.” And in return, I gave her a huge toothy smile and a thumbs up which I hoped she understood as “awesome job elderly female trekker who’s likely done this trek a million times.” It was another inspirational moment on a mountain. By the end of the 10-hour, 19-mi (32-km) hike, I was exhausted but super happy, and I agreed with Mr. Rock who referred to this land of snow-capped mountains, steep cliffs, crystal clear lakes, vast pastures, and dense woods was a “harmonious utopia.”

Chengdu 成都市

From Yading, our 5-person crew returned to Daocheng for a night then took a 20-hour bus east to Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province. The bus was also crowded (all locals), had uncomfortable seats, and stopped at disgusting bathrooms but at least smoking was prohibited onboard! Chendu. While there, we warmed up (now off the Tibetan plateau), relaxed, and had fun roaming the streets of this large, modern city (population 10+ million). We were there primarily to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a conservation center where visitors can view endangered giant pandas and their distant cousins, red pandas, in a semi natural habitat. Unfortunately due to habitat destruction, giant pandas only live in scattered populations in the mountains of central China, mostly in Sichuan Province, but also in Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces. A recent census found only about 1,864 giant pandas in the wild. However, their numbers are increasing due to increasing forest protection and reforestation (http://www.iucnredlist.org). After a day of oohing and aahing at cute pandas, we had a few beers at our hostel then, along with our new friend, Vivian (China) who we’d met at our hostel, had a night out on the town. As some of the few foreigners at the dance club, we were befriended quickly by a table of local partygoers who insisted on supplying us with drinks all night long. It was a fun night of drinking and dancing.  

Xi’an 西安

After five nights in Chengdu, we said farewell to Nell and Charlie, and Brett, Laura, and I took an 8-hour train northeast to Xi’an in central China’s Shaanxi Province. Xi’an is a large, modern city (population 8+ million) well known for its walled old town, for being the starting point of the Silk Road, and for the famous Terracotta Army. Per Wikipedia, the Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, discovered in 1974 by local farmers. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. Per estimates in 2007, the three pits containing the Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.

We spent a full day exploring the three pits containing the unearthed and partially unearthed figures. I have to admit I was sceptical that the exhibit wouldn’t live up to the hype, but I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, it was amazing to see the figures up close, each face and uniform slightly different from the next. And it was cool to watch as archaeologists continued excavating portions of the largest pit. The craftsmanship of the figures and their numbers was truly amazing.

Another highlight of Xi’an was visiting it’s Muslim Quarter which covers several blocks and, per Wikipedia, is inhabited by over 20,000 Muslims. Walking the narrow streets crowded with locals and tourists was a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. While exploring we sampled some sweet and some savory treats then had mutton stew for dinner, apparently a very distinctive dish of Xi’an. Given the muslim influence, the food was different in content and flavor than the noodle soups and rice dishes we’d tried so far, making it extra tasty.      

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park 湖南张家界国家森林公园

After two nights in Xi’an, we took a 16-hour train south to Zhangjiajie City in the Hunan Province, the gateway to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China’s first national forest park. Per Wikipedia, the park, established in 1982, has an area of 11,900 ac (4,810 ha) and lies within the much larger Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Global Geopark. The most notable geographic features of the park are the pillar-like formations seen throughout. Although resembling limestone karst terrain, this area is not underlain by limestone, instead these formations are the result of many years of weathering due to expanding ice in the winter and plants growing in the cracks. Due to the moist weather year round, the foliage in the park is very dense. These formations are a distinct hallmark of Chinese landscape and can be found in many ancient Chinese paintings.

Apparently, these formations from around China, including from Zhangjiajie, inspired the floating Hallelujah Mountains seen in the film Avatar. Hence the reference to the park among us foreigners as the Avatar park (along with our difficulty pronouncing Zhangjiajie). Armed with my multi day entry ticket, I explored the park daily for three days, walking up and down thousands (literally) of steep stone steps and along miles of stone walkways to view the spectacular scenery.

The park was very crowded, mostly with domestic visitors, and the visitor areas were super touristy with souvenir shops, food stalls and eateries (including McDonald’s), and paid photographers temping you and your family to dress up in traditional costumes in front of amazing vistas. It was like being at Disneyland in the mountains or Yellowstone National Park in the summer. Fortunately, the park is only accessible by a shuttle bus so it’s not congested with cars, just fellow explorers. Despite the heavy congestion of people at the most popular and easily accessible viewpoints, it was fairly easy to escape the crowds by walking further from the trailhead and by getting around the park via the many stairways versus the aerial trams. I think I climbed five hundred thousand stairs over my 3 days of hiking around the park! OK, that may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. However, the climb up through the lush forest along small streams and waterfalls was gorgeous and mostly peaceful, and at the top I was rewarded with views overlooking vast fields of tall, pillar formations of various sizes that appeared to be floating above the clouds, just like in the movie.    

Yangshuo 阳朔县

After exploring the Avatar park, we took an overnight train further south to Guilin then took a short bus ride to Yangshuo (population 300,000) in southern China’s Guangxi Province. We spent a day on rented bicycles riding past Yanshuo’s famous dramatic karst peaks along the Li River path and in the evening explored the town. Yangshuo is very touristy and due to its popularity among foreign tourists, many locals speak English. However, it was quite charming and the surrounding landscape was beautiful. After two nights there, I said farewell to Brett and Laura. They’d decided to go to Hong Kong and I’d decided to stay in Yangshuo for a bit longer. It was strange to think about being solo again after traveling with them in Vietnam and China for the past 2 months!

 I’d wanted to stay in Yangshuo to volunteer at the Zhuo Yue English College that my friend Jose (Nicaragua), who’d I’d met in Vietnam, told me about. In exchange for a bed in the 4-bed dorm room and 2 meals per day, I would help students practice their English for 2 hours each evening and during meals in the cafeteria. The students ranged in age from 17 to 35 and were from all around China. They lived at the college and attended classes all day, four days week. The students I met spoke English at various levels. For the nightly sessions, the college staff provided discussion topics to help lead the conversation. The topic my first night was responsibility (i.e., what are your responsibilities to your family, your neighbors, to society?). We talked about individuals’ responsibilities in China compared to in the U.S. I’d thought that in Chinese culture, young families traditionally housed their aging parents to take care of them but learned from the students that this is true mostly in rural areas where houses tend to be larger but that in cities, where space is limited and expensive, parents who need assistance often live in assisted living homes paid for by their children resulting in added financial stress for the young family. We agreed that most of us have become detached from our neighbors and community, and blamed our general reluctance to put down our smartphones. On the lighter side, we talked about our favorite music (hip hop, of course!) and talked about our favorite TV shows (everyone loves Game of Thrones!). Needless to say, the evening sessions were interesting and fun. During the evening sessions, at mealtimes, and during a few games of ma jiang (a traditional Chinese dominos-like game), I learned about my new friends Allen, Jack, Alisa, Vinny, Mary, and others, about their lives, culture, and beliefs, and they learned about mine. We had fun and laughed a lot together. It was an excellent experience.

Hong Kong 香港

After 8 days in Yangshuo, I took an overnight bus south to Shenzhen then the local subway across the border to Hong Kong, officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, an autonomous territory of China. Per Wikipedia, Hong Kong is a small island (427 sq mi (1,106 sq km)) with a population of over 7.3 million people of various nationalities, ranking as the world’s fourth most densely populated sovereign state or territory. Many of my fellow travelers recommended visiting Hong Kong, saying it was a very clean, modern city where most of the locals spoke English and you could find familiar foods, most notably a good burger. (After weeks of noodle soups and rice dishes, food discussions often centered around the desire to have a good burger.) Even with those reviews, I had only a half-hearted desire to visit the big, modern city, especially after hiking in the splendor of the Avatar park and hanging out in quaint Yangshuo. Lucky for me, I’d arranged via Couchsurfing to stay with Alan, a Hong Kong native who was happy to host travelers at his home on Langtau, Hong Kong’s largest island. He was a wealth of information and hearing that I liked to hike, told me about the numerous hiking trails all over Hong Kong. It turns out that since most of Hong Kong is hilly and mountainous, the majority of the country, about 70%, is maintained as green space, of which about 40% is protected park land. So along with going to Victoria Peak to view the city’s famous night time skyline and exploring the crowded, fluorescent-lite market streets selling anything imaginable, I hiked along the coast, going through small fishing villages, and hiked the Dragon’s Back Trek along the ridges overlooking the islands of Hong Kong. I enjoyed Hong Kong so much, especially the more peaceful Langtau Island, that I ended up staying there for 5 days!

Hangzhou 杭州市

From Hong Kong, I took an overnight train northeast to Hangzhou (population 9 million), the capital and most populous city of Zhejiang Province (about 109 mi, 177 km from Shanghai). I went to Hangzhou primarily to visit my friend Carla, who I’d met and traveled with for a few days in Vietnam. It was funny to be in China staying with Carla, who’s from Spain, and her roommates, Alba, also from Spain, and Tal from Israel, all of whom were attending Zhejiang University and learning Mandarin. Apparently many international students attend the university, which per Wikipedia, is one of China’s most prestigious. While my friends were in class, I relaxed in their apartment and explored the city and Hangzhou’s famous green tea fields. Carla also showed me around the city, taking me to a few of her favorite markets and restaurants. On a Friday night, the girls took me to a friend’s birthday party, where I met their friends who were from various countries including Italy, Spain, Mexico, and Russia, living in Hangzhou for work or to attend the university. I was in heaven drinking red wine sangria and munching on bruschetta with pesto. Later that night, we went dancing at a club frequently by locals, many of whom were African. I was surprised to see so many Africans in China. Per Wikipedia, once it officially became a Communist nation in 1949, China, like the Soviet Union and other Communist nations, recruited Africans to study in its universities in a bid to gain support among the emerging generation of third world political leaders. As a result of the large scholarships and substantial financial support, there was a huge influx of African students. By 2014 an estimated 500,000 Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African Americans were present in China, there to engage in the lucrative import and export business or as students or tourist, many of whom have settled in the port city of Guangzhou and Hangzhou. It was great to be in such an international city.

Mount Huangshan Scenic Area 黄山

After five nights in Hangzhou, I took a 4-hour bus southwest to Tangkou in Anhui Province, the gateway city to Mount Huangshan Scenic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Per Wikipedia, Mount Huangshan is a granite massif consisting of 36 separate peaks, rising above 6,000 ft (1,828 m). The area is well known for its scenery, sunsets, peculiarly-shaped granite peaks, Huangshan pine trees, hot springs, winter snow, and views of clouds touching the mountainsides for more than 200 days out of the year. Famous throughout Chinese artistic history, Huangshan represents the typical mountain in Chinese paintings.  

I spent a day exploring this beautiful park, which similar to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, meant climbing up and down thousands (literally) of steep stone steps, many of which were carved into the mountainside. The park was very crowded, mostly with domestic visitors, but with fewer souvenir shops. Thankfully, it was again fairly easy to escape the crowds by walking further away from the easily accessible sites and by using the stairs instead of the trams to get around. And while the topography of the park was similar to that of the Avatar park, the views overlooking vast fields of tall, granite formations were stunning.

Suzhou 苏州市

After returning to Hangzhou for a night, I took a 3-hour train northeast to Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, about 62 mi (100 km) from Shanghai. It’s a large city (5.5 million) known for its canals, bridges, and gardens. Through Couchsurfing, I’d met and stayed with Alessandra (UK) who’d been living there for about 9 months teaching English. She was a wealth of information about the city and was great to hang out with. She took me out to try some local foods, including a soup she referred to as “savory soya soup” that was interesting, and slimy glutinous rice balls with black sesame or red bean paste filling that was delicious. She also took me to a great local market with beautiful produce and interesting food items for sale. While there, I bought six hard boiled eggs. I’d been buying hard boiled eggs, called tea eggs, regularly from all over China (and Vietnam) but these held a surprise. After taking a bite, I looked down at the partially eaten egg and noticed a very tiny claw sticking out of the other half the yolk. Oh damn! Tea eggs are made from unfertilized and fertilized eggs but up until then, I’d been lucky in buying only the unfertilized ones. I’m not judging anyone who likes eating fertilized eggs but I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I should have known given that these eggs were slightly more expensive than usual; more protein I guess. Ha! During my 4-day stay in Suzhou, I also walked around the city, particularly along its famous canals which were particularly beautiful at night with the city lights shining.

Beijing 北京市 & The Great Wall of China 长城

From Suzhou, I took a high-speed train, my first in China, northwest to Beijing (population 21 million). Traveling at a top speed of 192 mi/hr (309 km/hr), the roughly 728 mi (1172 km) journey took less than 6 hours. Wow!! Per Wikipedia, Beijing, the nation’s political, cultural, and educational center, is the second largest Chinese city after Shanghai and the world’s third most populous city. Beijing also has one of the longest and busiest subway systems in the world.

The day I arrived in Beijing, I reunited with Brett and Laura, who’d been there for several days already. It was great to see my travel partners again! During my 11 day stay in Beijing, I was fortunate to stay with new friends I’d met via Couch Surfing, staying with Gabriel (China) at his apartment in north Beijing for four nights then with Sujin (South Korea) in her apartment in northeast Beijing for six nights. It was great to talk to them and get the different perspectives from a native and a nonnative who’d been living in Beijing for several years. It was also interesting to stay at their apartments in the north and northeast residential areas of Beijing versus staying in super touristy central Beijing. Thankfully since Beijing’s subway system is extensive and signs are also in English, it was easy to get to all parts of the huge city.

While in Beijing, I visited some of the main tourist sites like the Summer Palace, China Natural Museum, Tiananmen Square, Jingshan Park overlooking the Forbidden City, all interesting places but, as you can imagine, packed with people. I also went to the Panjiayuan Flea Market, Beijing’s biggest and best-known arts, crafts, and antiques market. Brett, Laura and I had a fun day walking up and down the endless aisles of interesting items ranging from pottery, masks, dishware, vases, furniture, jewelry (gold, silver, jade), prayer beads, etc… While in Beijing, I also reunited with Vivian (China), who’d I’d met and gone dancing with in Chengdu. I spent an evening with her and her friend, Michelle (China), both of whom lived in Beijing, chatting away as they showed me around the popular Shichahai Lake area. On another night, the three of us girls and Sujin, had a night on the town. I felt very underdressed at the up-scale, LA-style dance club they took me to but the music was kicking and we had a super fun night shaking our grove thangs.      

I also visited some great food streets and hutongs per Gabriel and Sujin’s suggestions. The food streets were packed with tourists, mostly domestic, who, like me, came to see and maybe taste some of the strange foods (i.e., starfish, scorpion, seahorse, etc…on a stick) offered by the street vendors. I walked up and down the blocks several times to get second and sometimes third looks at the food offerings, mostly to try to figure out what the foods where. Animal, vegetable, mineral? I didn’t end up trying any of the strange goods but mostly because the lines for the items I thought I could stomach were too long. It was a fun and interesting experience.

The few hutongs I strolled through were much more peaceful. Per Wikipedia, hutongs are ancient neighborhoods, some several hundred years old, with narrow streets or alleys commonly found in northern China, particularly in Beijing. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many of the old hutongs of Beijing were replaced by wide boulevards and high rises. However, many of Beijing’s ancient hutongs still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas, offering a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations. It was great to walk down the quiet, narrow streets and alleys, passing local residents going about their day.      

While I explored some of the sights of the city, I spent much of my time in Beijing relaxing. After moving all over China for almost two months, I was happy to stay “home” for a few days, write in my journal, catch up on my favorite TV shows via the Internet, and relax. Thankfully, Gabriel and Sujin, being travelers themselves, understood and didn’t mind me chilling at their cozy apartments while they were at work.

Two days before my flight out of China, I finally visited the Great Wall of China. Of course I was not going to leave Beijing without seeing at least a section of this historic site. Per Wikipedia, the Great Wall is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, and other materials generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China. The Wall also includes watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, and signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire. Along with providing protection against raids and invasions of various nomadic groups and control of immigration and emigration, the Wall also allowed taxation of goods transported along the Silk Road. While several sections were built as early as the 7th century BC, the majority of the existing Wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The Ming walls (including the actual wall, trenches, and natural defensive barriers like hills and rivers) measure 5,500 mi (8,850 km) while the entire wall with all of its branches measures 13,171 mi (21,196 km). Wow!

Brett, Laura, and I took a 1.5-hour bus to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This is one of the closest and most accessible sections from Beijing which would typically make it one of the most crowded sections. However, since we opted to visit the Wall on a day forecasted for rain, we were pleasantly surprised by the relatively low numbers of fellow tourists. After walking past the gondola and instead ascending the 4,000+ steps (no, really!), we stood on top of the Wall where we overlooked miles of lush, green forest. At this section, the Wall is primarily granite and is roughly 26 ft (8 m) high and roughly 16 ft (5 m) wide (per Wikipedia). Much of this section has been restored but continuing along the Wall and up and down hundreds of more steps, we were able to visit unrestored sections as well. It was really cool to see the difference between the restored and the crumbling unrestored sections. It was only by standing on the Wall and looking out at its meandering path up and down the forested hills and valleys that I finally got a sense of its massive scale. It’s amazing to think that anyone could have penetrated such a structure.

On my last night in China, I met Brett and Laura for our last dinner together. We were joined by Victoria and Brett, an American couple we’d met on the bus from the Wall back to Beijing. After peaking through restaurant windows for a bit to try to gauge the quality of the food, we finally settled on a place that looked good. Since crossing the border into China almost 2 months earlier, Brett had been talking about eating Peking Duck and I’d totally gotten on board with giving it a try. Per Wikipedia, Peking Duck is a famous duck dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era. Once slaughtered, the whole duck is seasoned then roasted in a closed or hung oven. The meat is prized for its thin, crisp skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. The meat is eaten with scallion, cucumber, and sweet bean sauce with pancakes rolled around the fillings.

The duck was served to us in four ways: a plate of sliced meat with the skin, a plate of meat without skin, a plate of deep fried bones, and a bowl of duck soup. I’m not a big fan of duck meat but the meat was tender and delicious and eating it Peking-style in a pancake with the traditional filling was a must. Having a delicious traditional meal with friends was a fantastic way to end my visit.   

My experience in China was educational, interesting, and fun. Overall, I found the Chinese people I encountered to be friendly and helpful. It’s amazing how a smile can make strangers into friends. Many people were also very inquizitive, openly staring at me and my friends, and grabbing us enthusiastically to take pictures with them. I felt like a celebrity (or an alien), which was at times annoying but mostly funny. (I wonder how many pictures of me with strangers are posted on Facebook?) I was also blown away by China’s beauty, from the snow-covered mountains, tall karst and rock formations and deep river gorges to the lush rice terraces. China truly has some unique and mystical landscapes. My experience was made even more memorable by the wonderful people, Chinese and fellow travelers, with whom I shared it. I’m especially thankful to my good friends, Brett and Laura, with whom I shared many wonderful adventures with during our time traveling together. I hope we can explore some other parts of the world together in the future.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/Gh6FFX65jQg62335A

Enjoy!

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About to ride around the lake with Laura & Brett in Dali.

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Tiger Leaping Gorge

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Gold Temple, Shangri-la.

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Yading Nature Reserve.

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With Charlie, Nell, Laura, and Brett in Chengdu.

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Terracotta Army, Xian.

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Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

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Yangshuo

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With friends from Zhuo Yue English College, Yangshuo.

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Hong Kong skyline.

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Fishing village, Hong Kong.

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With Carla, Alba, Tal and friends in Hangzhou.

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Huangshan National Park.

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Suzhou.

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With Sujin, Michelle, and Vivian in Beijing.

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The Great Wall.

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With Laura and Brett at an unrestored section of the Great Wall.

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and Beyond (Jan 28 to Mar 28, 2016)

After one month in Cambodia (see previous post), I took a 7-hour bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Per Wikipedia, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has historically been a relatively poor country with an economy based on agriculture, predominantly rice. However, about a decade following the reunification of north and south Vietnam and end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the country underwent significant economic and political reforms. As a result, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world since 2000. Along with rice production, manufacturing, high-tech industries, and oil production now form a large and fast-growing part of its economy. The country is currently the 8th largest crude petroleum producer in the Asia and Pacific region. And with this economic growth, poverty has declined significantly in Vietnam. Interestingly (to me anyway), about 30% of the population is irreligious (practicing no religion) with the remainder adhering to indigenous religions (~45%), Buddhism (~16%), Christianity (~8%), and other (~0.4%).

So, how did I spend two months in Vietnam? Exploring the culture, history, and natural beauty of the country from south to north, and hanging out with friends of course.

Southern Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Hoi)

I arrived to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city (population 8,224,400), during Tết Nguyên Đán or Vietnamese New Year. Per Wikipedia, Tết is celebrated during a roughly two week period around New Year’s Eve (in early February), with customs such as cooking special food, cleaning the house, visiting family and friends, worshipping ancestors, and giving lucky money to children and elderly people. Families also buy peach blossom, kumquat, and orange trees and flowers such as chrysanthemums or orchids to decorate their homes. New Year’s day is considered the first day of spring and the time to forget about the troubles of the past year and hope for a better upcoming year. Ho Chi Minh City and the other cities I visited during Tết were beautifully decorated with lights and hundreds of potted trees and plants in full bloom and felt very festive.

While festive and full of flowers for the holiday, Ho Chi Minh City is a modern, bustling city with awe-inspiring traffic. The streets were a steadily moving river of scooters, dotted with some cars. Many of the major intersections have traffic signals but they are apparently optional and most drivers opt not to obey them. So, crossing the street is an exercise in faith, faith that the river of traffic will part around you as you slowly inch forward. And it works! While it appears chaotic at first, you realize quickly (after shadowing the locals a few times) that the traffic has a slow, steady flow that seems to adjust easily to constant interruptions by cross traffic. Nevertheless, street crossing felt like a sport and was a constant topic of conversation among us travelers.

I improved my street-crossing skills by walking around town to visit some of the major sights, including the War Remnants Museum. This museum depicts the realities of the Vietnam War, referred to here as the American War, through graphic photographs taken by journalists, mostly Vietnamese but some American, European, etc. The exhibits also include graphic photographs and information about the use of agent orange and its multigenerational genetic effects on the soldiers, Vietnamese and American, and civilians who were exposed during the war. Needless to say, it was an educational but gut wrenching visit.

While in Ho Chi Minh City, I also got to visit my friends, Bart and Juliet, an Australian couple I’d met on my Antarctic cruise in March 2015. It was so great to hang out with them and spend a few nights at their cozy flat. And since they’d been living there for the past two years, they took me to their favorite local eateries featuring delicious dishes such as pho (noodle soup), bun (rice vermicelli), banh my (sandwich), and a plethora of fresh seafood sauteed with fresh lemongrass and ginger. It was great to eat these familiar dishes in their country of origin while sitting among locals at tiny plastic tables on tiny plastic chairs. I also tried chè for the first time, a sweet beverage made with items such as mung beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, tapioca, jelly (clear or grass), fruit (i.e., longan, mango, durian, lychee, jackfruit), coconut, and coconut cream. Delicious!

From Ho Chi Minh City, I visited the Mekong Delta, spending several days in the cities of Cam Tho (population 1,237,300) and My Tho (population 220,000). Per Wikipedia, the delta region encompasses a large portion of southwestern Vietnam, covering 15,000 sq mi (39,000 sq km), and is the country’s most productive region for agriculture (primarily rice) and fisheries. Like Ho Chi Minh City, these coastal cities were decorated for Tết and bustling with tourists (almost exclusively domestic) so it was fun to walk the streets lined with countless rows of blossoming trees and plants and people watch. While in the delta, I also explored the nearby canals and a floating market via boat tour. Besides watching the buying and selling of produce boat to boat, it was fun to buy noodle soup from a floating restauant and coffee from a mobile coffee cart cruising by. I returned to Ho Chi Minh City in time to join the masses (mostly locals) and Andrea (Czech Republic), who’d I’d met on my delta tour, to celebrate New Year’s Eve. We meandered the festively decorated streets and watched a live song and dance performance before a the midnight firework show. It was cool to celebrate New Year’s Eve twice, first in Siem Reap, Cambodia (December 31) and then in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (February 7).

After Ho Chi Minh City, I took the bus north, spending 2 to 3 nights in each of the cities of Dalat, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue, and one night in Dong Hoi. Similar to Ho Chi Minh City and the delta towns, these cities were festively decorated for Tết and bustling with tourists (domestic and foreign). Dalat (population 209,301) is located in the central highlands, a region known for its beautiful lakes, pine forest covered mountains, and coffee plantations. [Did you know that Vietnam is second in the world behind Brazil for coffee production and export? Me either. And it’s delicious!] In Dalat, I visited Dat, brother of my friend and former housemate in California, Hung. I’d met Dat over 10 years ago when he visited Hung at our house in San Diego but hadn’t seen him since. Dat and his friends took me on a tour of some of the lovely areas outside of town. The next day, Vien (Dat’s friend) and Vien’s friends took me for a hike up Elephant Mountain where I was treated to a nice view of Dalat and a delicious BBQ including chicken wings and feet (yes, feet), sausage, potatoes, eggs, and bread. Later that night, Vien took me to Thi and Tuan’s home, two brothers who made and played classical guitars. It was cool to hear them play flamenco and traditional Vietnamese songs on the beautiful instruments they’d made.

From Dalat, I traveled further north to the coastal city of Da Nang (population 1,007,400) where I explored the city, including the fire and water spitting Dragon Bridge and nearby Marble Mountain, with Sophia (Sweden), Lucy (UK), Sheri (UK), and Rich (UK). While there, I also hung out with Ly (who I also hadn’t seen since she and Dat visited Hung in San Diego over 10 years ago). She took me, Lucy, Sheri, and Rich to dinner at her friend’s new restaurant where we were joined by a group of her friends. It was a super fun evening of enjoying delicious food and drinking way too much beer with fun-loving people. You know it’s going to be a hell of a night when the locals, including the restaurant owner’s 70 year old mother, keeps chanting “mawt, hai, ba yo!” This chant, “one, two, three cheers” is the equivalent of “bottoms up.” I spent the next day hungover and unable to get out of bed but I’m betting grandma was just fine. Darn it!!

After recovering, Rich and I went to Hoi An (population 121,716) and explored Ancient Town, a part of the city declared a UNESCO World Heritage site as a well-preserved example of a south-east Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences. While parts of the Ancient Town were beautiful, it was extremely touristy and overrun by clothing shops and appeared to me to be losing its historic character. To escape, we bicycled and motorbiked to the quaint coastal villages nearby, watching as fisherman cast their nets and farmers tended to their lush green fields.

Next, I took an overnight bus to Hue (population 340,000) where I stayed with Phuong, a friend of a friend I’d met in Dalat. Phuong introduced me to his friend, Phat, who took me out for a delicious dinner and more chè. Phuong also hosted a gathering of his friends, including Phat and Carla (Spain), where we sat around a fire, drank a few beers, ate fire-roasted potatoes and corn, and chatted. While in Hue, Carla and I explored the city, visiting the elaborately decorated UNESCO-designated Citadel, a walled fortress with a moat protecting the former imperial palace.

From Hue, Carla and I took a bus to Dong Hoi (population 160.000) where we met Tuong, a local Carla had organized for us to stay with via CouchSurfing. After picking us up from the bus stop, Tuong and his friend took us to where we’d be sleeping that night. Imagine our surprise when they took us to a dorm room at a live-in high school. Both guys were teachers there and from the looks of the room, it appeared that we were taking over Tuong’s dorm room for the night. I’ve stayed in a lot of “dorms” in hostels over the past year of traveling but this was the first real dorm room I’d slept in since college. Ha!! The room was fine and even had a private bathroom but there were no mattresses on the beds, only a mat laid on top of the plywood. Really?! Needless to say, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep but since it was at least quiet, it wasn’t the worst. After taking us to their favorite restaurant for dinner, we went to their friend’s house who had a large room that appeared to be dedicated primarily to karaoke. Besides the large flat-screen TV and karaoke set up, the room also included purple and blue velour couches and chairs with giant rhinestone buttons, a disco ball, flashing lights, and mirrored columns. It was…..awesome! The super thick binder of song choices included hundreds of Vietnamese and American songs. While my karaoke goto song, Pat Benatar’s 1980’s hit “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, was missing in action, it was easy to find other popular hits and we had a fun few hours taking turns “singing.”

Northern Vietnam (Son Trach to Sapa)

While I enjoyed the southern half of Vietnam, especially since I got to met and hang out with new Vietnamese friends, I was ready to finally see the limestone cliffs and high mountains of northern Vietnam. From Dong Hoi, Carla and I took a bus to the small village of Son Trach to explore Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site created to protect one of the world’s two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes and its associated forest ecosystem. Per Wikipedia, the park contains the world’s largest cave, Sơn Đoòng Cave, with the largest chamber measuring more than 3mi (5 km) in length, 656 ft (200 m) high and 492 ft (150 m) wide. We explored the park on the back of motorbikes driven by two local gentlemen with the Phong Nha Easy Riders. The drive through the densely forested valleys and underneath the dramatic limestone cliffs was beautiful. It’s easy to see why the latest King Kong movie is currently being filmed there. While we didn’t visit the world’s largest cave, we did explore one of the park’s many caves, Paradise Cave. Caves are always cool!

After saying farewell to Carla, I took a bus to the small village of Tam Coc. After almost one month in Vietnam staying mostly in hostel dorms (and one high school dorm), I booked a private bungalow at a tiny hotel nestled between rice fields and giant limestone cliffs. While I had to stay bundled up to keep warm in my bamboo-walled bungalow, it was a perfect place to relax and enjoy some personal time. I enjoyed it so much, I ended up staying there for 7 days during which I wrote in my journal, read, sorted pictures, watched movies on my tablet, talked to friends and family back home, and just chilled. A few nights, I joined other hotel guests for dinner, and copious amounts of local rice wine, hosted by the hotel owners and their family, adding to the wonderful, homey feel of the small hotel. While there, I met a few other travelers, including Brett and Laura (UK) who I ended up traveling with for the remainder of my time in Vietnam.

Now re-engerized, I took a bus-ferry-bus with Brett and Laura to Cat Ba Island (population 17,000, of which 4,000 live on floating fishing villages off the coast). I went to the island specifically to tour Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO site known for its thousands of towering limestone islands of various sizes jutting out of the ocean. However, other travelers had advised me that Cat Ba was an better alternative to the super touristy Ha Long City, the typical base for Ha Long Bay tours. And they were right! While tours from Cat Ba go to Lan Ha Bay, adjacent to Ha Long Bay, given the similar geology, I imagine that the thousands of towering limestone islands I saw jutting from the ocean in Lan Ha Bay were equally breathtaking. During our boat tour, Brett, Laura, and I admired the dramatic scenery, kayaked around the formations, and wondered about life on one of the many floating fishing villages we passed throughout the day. While on the island, we also explored Cat Ba National Park, home of the endangered langur, a small monkey only found on the island. While we didn’t see the elusive langur (whose babies have orange fur), we had a great day hike through their densely forested jungle. During our 7 day stay on the slow-paced island, we enjoyed good food, cheap beer, and more chill time.

From the island, we took a bus-ferry-bus to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city (population 7,587,800) where we ended up staying for 11 days, mainly because of the processing time to get our Chinese visas (next designation) but also because we were enjoying the wide variety of good, cheap food. While I’d heard from many travelers that Hanoi was noisier, more crowded, and had worse traffic then Ho Chi Minh City, I found the opposite to be true and enjoyed what I felt was the more leisurely paced large city. Besides visiting the markets, eating good street food, drinking cheap beer, (and walking to and from the Chinese Embassy multiple times), we also enjoyed some cultural entertainment and saw a water puppet show. Per Wikipedia, the tradition of water puppetry dates back to the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool with wood puppets attached to a large bamboo rod under the water used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play. It was a great way to spend our last night in Hanoi.

From there, we took a bus north to Ha Giang (population 71,689), located in the mountainous Ha Giang province where over 90% of the population are ethnic minorities. To explore this less frequented area located near the Chinese border, referred to as the last frontier, we rented motorbikes to do a self-guided tour. I’d been nervous to learn how to drive a motorbike up until now but for some reason became comfortable with the idea as a means to explore the mountainous, super curvey roads of northern Vietnam. Hmm… During my practice sessions in town, I lost control of my bike twice resulting in only a broken mirror and a scratched and bruised elbow and shin. With only minor damages to me and my bike, Brett, Laura, and I set off on a 4-day loop to Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Vac, and back. Most of the roughly 200-mi (320-km) loop is within the UNESCO Dong Van Global Karst Plateau Geopark, Vietnam’s first geological park, created in 2009 to (per the brochure) conserve the local heritage and environment through economic development that promotes eradication of hunger and reduction of poverty for upland people. The 906 sq mi (2,356 sq km) geopark has an average elevation of 4,593 ft (1,400 m) and is home to 17 different ethnic minorities. We made our way slowly and very cautiously along the two-lane road that took us up and down steep mountain passes, through gorgeous valleys, and passed many small villages. The scenery, as well as my confidence on the bike, improved with each passing mile. To explore the mountains of northern Vietnam, most tourists opt to visit the nearby town of Sapa intead of the Ha Giang province. As such, we saw few other travelers on the road or in the small villages and towns where we stopped. We were fortunate to be in the small town of Dong Van on a Sunday and enjoyed exploring the large Sunday Market, bustling with locals buying and selling livestock, clothes, household items, produce, spices, other goods, and cooked food. The market was particularly colorful due to masses of ethnic minority women and children dressed in traditional vibrantly-colored clothing. Driving through the amazing scenery and through numerous small villages made the road trip a particularly memorable experience.

After returning unscathed to Ha Giang, we took a bus to Sapa (population 138,622), also near the Chinese border. While we’d been told it was super touristy, we wanted to see the town for ourselves. During the five days there, we experienced one clear, sunny day during which we enjoyed the view of the large valley below town and the surrounding mountains. The view on that sunny day along with the the plethora of shops and restaurants made Sapa feel like a lovely mountain resort town. Otherwise, it was very cold and the town was enveloped in its notorious thick, wet fog. (It was SF/Pacifica style fog.) In the cold, we bundled up and enjoyed walking around town, window shopping, and eating good food. Even in the dreary fog, the city center appeared vibrant due to the multitudes of ethnic minority women and children in their traditional colorful clothes selling their handicrafts. Sapa and the nearby border town of Lao Cai (94,192), where we spent our final night in Vietnam, were good last stops before leaving the country. Next designation:  China.

Vietnam is a beautiful country. I have to admit I wondered how locals would react to me as an American given the lingering effects of the American War, especially those associated with the use of agent orange. However, people were generally friendly and the topic of the war was never brought up. In fact, people often seemed more eager to talk with me once I told them I’m American. My experience in Vietnam was educational, interesting, and fun, and was made even more memorable by the wonderful people, Vietnamese and fellow travelers, with whom I shared it, especially Brett and Laura, my fun travel partners for the northern half of the country.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:    https://goo.gl/photos/bJqCnMeVKWofXFiJ8

Enjoy!

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Ho Chi Minh City skyline.

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With Bart and Juliet in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Coffee at the floating market in the Mekong Delta.

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Happy Lunar New Year in Ho Chi Minh City with Andrea.

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With Vien and new friends overlooking Dalat.

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With Ly, Sheri, Lucy, Rich and new friends in Da Nang.

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Ancient Town Hoi An.

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With Phuong in Hue.

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With Carla at Paradise Cave, Phong Nha National Park.

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Chilling in my bungalow in Tam Coc.

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Floating fishing village in amazing Lan Ho Bay.

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About to embark on a road trip in the Ha Giang province with Laura and Brett.

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Amazing view on road trip through Ha Giang province.

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Amazing view on road trip through Ha Giang province.

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Beautiful smiles of kids in Sapa.

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Fisherman on river near Hoi An.

Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, the Coast and Beyond (Dec 28, 2015 to Jan 28, 2016)

After almost 7 weeks in chilly Nepal (see previous post), it was time to warm up. So, I took a 10-hour fight to the Kingdom of Cambodia (the country’s official name), a predominantly Buddhist country where Khmer is the official language. Per Wikipedia, Cambodia is a relatively poor country whose economy is largely based on the export of rice, fish, timber, garments and rubber. Its economic depression is likely due to its tortured past. After gaining independence from France in 1953, the country was subjected to extensive bombing by the US from 1969 to 1973 during the Vietnam War (referred to locally as the American War) and as a result, was once one of the most landmined countries in the world. Shortly after the war ended, the country was ruled by the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, who was responsible for the deaths of over 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. Thankfully, the country’s economy is growing and the overall future outlook for its population is positive.

How did I spend one month in Cambodia? Exploring the culture, history, and natural beauty of the country, hanging out with friends, and relaxing, of course!

Getting off the plane in Siem Reap, my chilled bones started to thaw immediately as it was much warmer than it had been in Nepal. The heat felt good at first then just felt… hot. After a short wait at the airport, Mathieu arrived from Paris. We’d had a great time hanging out in Paris (see previous post) and now would spend two weeks together in Cambodia.

Siem Reap is a large modern city (population 174,265) along the Siem Reap River, and is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the magnificent remains of the Khmer civilization, including the famous Angkor Wat temple. Per Wikipedia, the Angkor Wat temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world, measuring 1,626,000 sq meters (162.6 hectare). It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century. It is a national symbol and appears on the Cambodian flag.

Mathieu and I spent three days exploring the temple area, two days by motorized tuk tuk and one day by bicycle, and still didn’t see all of the temples. While the Angkor Wat temple is magnificent, we both enjoyed the smaller temples more, finding them more elaborately decorated and intimate. Exploring the temples, especially those still partially covered by jungle, I felt like the adventurous Lara Croft from the movie Tomb Raider (no wonder since some scenes were filmed there). It’s amazing how well the intricate carvings covering the temples have endured through the ages. Our final day of exploring the temples fell on New Years Eve, so after a day of bicycling from temple to temple in the hot sun, we spent the warm evening celebrating and dancing in the packed streets with the locals. It was a great way to celebrate the coming of the new year. We ended the night by getting pedicures by tiny flesh-eating fish. After 33 days trekking in Nepal, I definitely needed those tiny fish nibbling on my feet. It tickled!

The next morning, we took a short flight to Phnom Penh, the capitol and largest city in Cambodia (population 1,501,725). From there, we rented a motorbike (Honda Baja Trail 250) and started a 7 day road trip to the coast. Leaving the traffic-ridden, bustling city of Phnom Penh, the well maintained road to the coast felt wide open. We traveled along the Mekong river, passing though several small towns and miles of rice fields as we made our way to the Phnom Da temple, an 11th century cultural historic site. While the site turned out to be unimpressive, overnighting in nearby Takeo (population 39,186) was a fun adventure. While we read that the small town was a tourist destination, it turned out to be a destination primarily for local tourists, meaning for us that there was almost no English spoken or written. Fortunately, since finger pointing and hand gestures constitute a universal language, we were able to get a hotel room, order dinner at a street stall, and buy food at the local market with relative ease. From there, we continued to the coast, staying in Kep (population 40,280), Kampot (population about 40,000), and Otres Beach (about 5km south of Sihanoukville) where we ate delicious fresh grilled seafood (i.e., squid on a stick and whole fish), drank cheap beer, and enjoyed gorgeous sunsets. While these towns were touristy (with lots of locals and foreigners), the vibe was relaxed. While in Kampot, a town whose high quality pepper is exported world wide, we visited Bokor National Park. Unfortunately, the park is being slowly destroyed by deforestation and resort development. However, we were lucky to see a large troop of monkeys along the road, which was the highpoint of our visit to the somewhat depressing park. After a few nights in lovely Otres Beach, we took a boat tour that dropped us off on Koh Ta Kiev Island, a small roadless island with only 5 or 6 small lodges offering bungalows, tents, and hammocks. By day, we explored the tiny jungle island, and by night, we relaxed on the balcony of our tiny, naturally cooled beach front bungalow and watched the sun set over the beautiful clear blue ocean. It was paradise.

On our way back to Phnom Penh, we drove through Kirirom National Park, traveling on a small road through lovely, thick jungle and forest, and through a tiny village where people shouted friendly hellos as we passed. We also visited a large, elaborate pagoda located in the park, having it and the park almost entirely to ourselves. It was a beautiful park and great end to our road trip. Back in the big city, we celebrated Mathieu’s last night in Cambodia enjoying a delicious dinner and a cocktail on the riverfront. After he left to fly home to Paris, I remained in Phnom Penh for the next 12 days. While Phnom Penh just another busy, noisy, traffic-ridden city, it turned out to be a good place for me to spend some extended time relaxing at my hostel, journaling, writing my Nepal post for my blog, watching a few of my favorite TV shows online, hanging out with new friends from my hostel, and visiting the Night Market multiple times for delicious food, especially my favorite, papaya salad. On several evenings, I also joined the large group of local women (and one man) doing aerobics on the riverfront (apparently common in Asia). It was fun to jazzercise to a mix of electronic pop and traditional Cambodian music. Thankfully, my new jazzercise friends helped me learn some of the more complicated dance steps and gave me friendly laughs as I stumbled through parts of the routine.

During this time, I also visited Choeung Ek, the best known of Cambodia’s sites referred to as “killing fields.” Per Wikipedia, under the Khmer Rouge, urban dwellers were forced to move to the countryside to work on collective farms and forced labor projects. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept at the nearby prison known as S21. It’s mind boggling to think that in just over 4 years, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of 25 percent of the Cambodian population (over 2 million people) as a result of the combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care. As we left the killing field, a friend pointed out that we rarely saw  Cambodians over about 60. And now we understood the reason. Needless to say, it was a very educational but emotional day.

After staying in the same place for a bit, which I really needed, I finally left Phnom Penh and took a 10 hour bus northeast to Kratie (population 318,523) located on the Mekong River to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. Per http://www.worldwildlife.org, the Irrawaddy is an oceanic species found in coastal areas in South and Southeast Asia, and in three rivers: the Ayeyarwady (Myanmar), the Mahakam (Indonesian Borneo) and the Mekong. The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit a 118-mile stretch of the river between Cambodia and Laos and are scarce, with only about 78 and 91 individuals estimated to still exist. In Kratie, I rented a bicycle (a beat up cruiser) and rode the paved but bumpy road along the Mekong River, passing through small villages where numerous friendly locals shouted hello as I rode by, to get to the part of the river where a small subpopulation of dolphins reside. After only 10 minutes on the boat, I saw them, a group of 3 or 4 of these critically endangered dolphins (see my photo album for video). After that, I was treated to repeated sightings of various groups for the duration of the 45-minute boat ride. I’d read that this subpopulation is threatened by a new dam proposed on the Mekong River in Laos, so I felt extra lucky to see them. After, I decided to ride a bit further to visit the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center to see another endangered species, the Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle, a freshwater turtle formerly found throughout Asia. The small facility, located at the 100 Pillar Pagoda,  was opened by Conservation International in 2011 and is supported by the Cambodian Fisheries Administration and the Monks of the 100 Pillar Pagoda. The center operates a successful community-based education and headstart program releasing baby Cantor’s turtles into the local section of the Mekong River. There was only one baby Cantor’s there at the time, but it was worth the ride to see the funny looking little critter. By the time I got home, I’d ridden almost 45 mi (72 km) on my beat up cruiser but my sore butt was worth seeing dolphins, turtles, a beautiful stretch of the river, and saying hello to dozens of friendly locals.

From Kratie, I took a 4 hour bus to Banlung (population 17,000) to see what the area further north looked like and to visit Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake, a 700,000 year old volcanic crater lake within a protected area. Per Wikipedia, the lake itself, as well as the surrounding areas, are considered sacred by the local tribal minorities. At my hostel, I met Femke (Holland) who invited me to join her on a scooter ride to some nearby waterfalls and to the lake. So, I jumped on the back of the tiny scooter she’d rented and we cautiously made our way on the rutted dirt road to a tiny, unimpressive waterfall. The surrounding area was a bit depressing too as almost all of the forest for as far as the eye could see had been replaced by rubber trees as part of a huge plantation. Oh well, we had fun getting there. Thankfully the road to the crater lake was paved, the area around the lake was still forested, and the lake was a much more impressive sight. We spent a nice afternoon swimming and relaxing by the lake, meeting up with others from our hostel. Back at the hostel, Norman (a Banlung native who worked at the hostel) and a few of his friends introduced us to the local rice wine, distilled in someones house in Banlung and bottled in plastic water bottles. Along with several rounds of Cambodian beer, we emptied one water bottle of the stuff, which was surprisingly smooth, fairly quickly. I snuck off to bed as the second bottle was making its way around the table. And thank goodness because I felt OK on the bus ride back to Kratie, which is more than I can say for a few of my hostel mates on my bus. Ha!! It was a fun party night and a great way to end my time in Cambodia. After a night in Kratie, I took a bus to my next destination:  Vietnam.

Despite being subjected to horrific atrocities only about 35 years ago, Cambodian people were very friendly and most spoke at least some English and were eager to practice with travelers. My experience in Cambodia was educational, interesting, and fun and was made even more memorable by the people (Cambodians and fellow travelers) with whom I shared it, especially Mathieu.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/XaL1QE9o6rWeAQ8T7 

Enjoy!

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Angkor Wat Temple.

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Celebrating with Mathieu and the locals. Happy New Year in Siem Reap!

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With Mathieu. Born to be wild!

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Pagoda in Kirirom National Park.

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Koh Ta Kiev Island.

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Picnic with Mathieu at Otres Beach.

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At the Night Market in Phnom Penh with friends.

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Baby Cantor`s turtle.

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Enjoying rice wine with friends in Banlung.

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Sunset on the Mekong River in Kratie.

Nepal: Annapurna Circuit-Annapurna Base Camp and Everest Base Camp-Two Passes Treks (Nov 11 to Dec 27, 2015)

After almost 5 weeks hanging out with friends in Europe (see previous post), it was time to get back on the trail. So after a 12-hour flight from Paris, I landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, home of the Himalaya Mountains and Mt Everest, the highest peak in the world.

So how did I spend almost 7 weeks in Nepal? Exploring and trekking, of course!

Being my first time in Asia, I had a bit of culture shock upon arriving to the capital city of Kathmandu (population 975,453) with its unfamiliar language and customs. However, given the friendly nature of the Nepali people with their respectful greeting of “namaste” and the prevalence of English-speaking locals and travelers, I quickly adjusted. I arrived on Day 3 of Tihar, a 5-day festival that, per Wikipedia, “shows reverence to humans, the Gods, and the animals, like crows, cows and dogs, who maintain an intense relationship with humans. People make patterns called Rangoli on the floor of living rooms or courtyards using materials such as colored rice, dry flour, colored sand or flower petals outside of their house, meant to be a sacred welcoming area for the Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism.” On this particular day, kids walked shop to shop singing traditional Bhailo songs, receiving small amounts of money and candy from shop owners in return. The explosion of festive colors and sounds was a great introduction to Nepal.

While in Kathmandu, I hung out with my friend, Corey, from San Diego, and explored the city, including Durbar Square, the Monkey Temple, and Thamel, the area where most travelers stay. I even went dancing at some local clubs with friends I met at my hostel. It was a fun night of shaking my booty to a mix of American and Nepali hip hop.

While exploring the city, I passed homes and businesses whose walls were being supported by wooden beams, large mounds of bricks, and large excavated pits interspersed among intact structures. Given the seemingly unregulated building practices in Kathmandu, it was difficult to determine if this was status quo or earthquake damage. However, locals confirmed that it was primarily damage from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that occurred in April 2015. The earthquake had also severely damaged many of the temples of Durbar Square. It’s unfortunate that I only saw the temples post-earthquake as I could only imagine their previous significance and beauty. While the damage was still very evident around the city, rebuilding was underway. When I asked about the effects of the earthquake, the handful of Nepalis I talked to preferred to talk, with pride, about how they were rebuilding instead of about their losses. Along with being friendly, they are proud, resilient people.

Annapurna Circuit-Annapurna Base Camp (20 days, 175 mi (283 km))
After four days in Kathmandu, Corey and I, our backpacks filled with warm clothes, sleeping bags, miscellaneous items, and too many snacks, took a 9-hour bus to the small town of Bhulbhule (2,755 ft, 840 m) to start the trek.

The Annapurna Circuit-Base Camp trek is within the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal’s largest protected area. Per Wikipedia, the Circuit ” crosses two different river valleys and encircles nine mountains, four of which are above 26,000 ft (7925 m) and has often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world, as it crosses a wide variety of climate zones from tropics to arctic at Thorong La pass and has cultural variety from Hindu villages at the low foothills to the Tibetan culture of the high altitude valleys and mountains.” The trail went through jungle, rhododendron and pine forests, arctic scrub, and passed terraced rice fields, waterfalls, gigantic cliffs, and countess colourful Buddhist prayer flags and wheels, mani walls (piles of stone tablets engraved with Buddhist prayers), stupas (Buddhist shrines), and several beautiful gompas (monasteries). The trail also crossed numerous bridges, of which 28 were suspension bridges (I kept count), giving the feeling of being in an Indiana Jones movie.

During the trek, we passed through numerous small villages, adding to the experience by offering a peak into the daily life in these rural communities and allowing some interaction with the friendly locals. We slept each night in a village. While the lodges were typically simple, they provided a bed with warm blankets, toilets, and a shower, occasionally with hot water, and I enjoyed the luxury of a private room each night. Since the lodges were very cheap ($1-2 per night) or sometimes free, the owners expected trekkers to eat dinner and breakfast at their lodge ($2-6 per meal). The food was typically tasty but since the menu was almost identical at every lodge along the entire trek, I became less excited about my meals as time passed, especially dinner, which was typically dal bhat (a plate of rice with veggies and soupy lentils), veggie curry, or fried rice, noodle, or potato with veggies and cheese or egg. There were a few other choices on the menu (i.e., pizza, burgers, spaghetti) but I chose to eat only Nepali dishes for dinner. On a few occasions, I sampled the Nepali booze: raksi (a traditional home-brewed alcohol of millet or rice), chhaang (a fermented “beer” of barley, millet, or rice), and apple brandy. Apparently, raksi was ranked 41st on CNN’s list of the World’s 50 most delicious drinks (water was ranked 1st and mango lasse (a creamy fruit shake) was ranked 50th). These drinks tasted…interesting and they were cheap and warmed the body.

While many people hire a porter and guide for the trek, Corey and I carried our backpacks and found our own way, following a map, a guide book, and the red and white markers of the “alternative trail” painted on rocks, trees, and posts. Following the alternative trail allowed us to avoid hiking on the relatively new jeep road that parallels portions of the Circuit. For the first two days, we trekked along a river valley then finally saw the mountains. While the jungle and forests were absolutely beautiful, I couldn’t help but gasp when I got my first glimpse of the snow-covered peaks. Over the next several days, we continued along the valley, getting closer and closer to the high peaks. I never got tired of admiring the view each day. During a 2-night stop in Manang, the usual stopping point for trekkers to acclimatize before going over the high-altitude pass, I did an overnight trip to Tilicho Base Camp (13,615 ft, 4150 m) and Tilicho Lake, a glacial lake that at 16,237 ft (4949 m) is reputed among the Nepalis to be the highest lake in the world. The views of the mountains and glaciers around base camp and the lake were stunning. I couldn’t see the avalanches occurring on the slopes around the lake but it was very cool to hear them. On day 10 of the trek, Corey and I hiked up and over the pass, Thorong La, the highest point on the Circuit at 17,769 ft (5416 m). The trek up wasn’t long but much of it was steep and at that altitude, the air contained roughly 50% less oxygen than at sea level, making it noticeably harder to breathe. But the view from the top on that clear, sunny morning of the surrounding mountain peaks and the valley below was magnificent. To my astonishment, except for the tea shop guy, I was alone at the prayer flag-strewn pass for about 45 minutes until the other trekkers arrived, so was able to immerse myself in the view and the feeling of being at the highest point I’d ever stood (so far).

A few days after going over Thorong La, Corey flew back to Kathmandu and I continued the trek solo. We’d had a great time trekking together for 13 days! On the descent, the trail again passed through forest and jungle along a beautiful river valley. I spent a night in Tatopani to enjoy the hot springs (and temporarily thaw my chilled bones) and two nights in Ghorepani to view the light of the rising sun on about 15 snow covered peaks from Poonhill, and to enjoy a rest day (my first after 16 days of trekking). After, I started the trek up the valley to Annapurna Base Camp. Along the way, I met Herve (France) whom I hiked with for the remainder of the trek. I was especially happy to have a hiking partner for the very cold, predawn trek to Base Camp (13,550 ft, 4130m) where I viewed the light of the rising sun on the Annapurnas, this time from the opposite side as I’d seen from the Circuit. Beautiful! After enjoying the amazing view, we trekked down the valley, overnighted in Jhinudanda to enjoy the hot springs (and temporarily thaw our chilled bones), then on to Nayapul (3,510 ft, 1070 m), the end of the trek. From there, we took a 2-hour bus on a very windy road to Pokhara, a small lake-side town where many trekkers relax, eat, and celebrate after finishing an amazing trek. After roughly 175 mi (283 km) of trekking, it felt great to be warm, take multiple hot showers, relax, drink beer, and eat delicious food (that did NOT include dal bhat, curry, or fried noodles, rice, or potatoes!).

Everest Base Camp-Two Passes Trek (13 days, about 90 mi (145 km))
After two days in Pokhara and four days in Kathmandu, during which I hung out with Corey, her friend, Ele, and Ele’s adorable son, I took a 10-hour bus to the small town of Shivalaya to start my next trek. Similar to my previous trek, the Everest Base Camp-Two Passes trail passed through varying landscapes which changed from terraced rice fields, jungle, and rhododendron and pine forest to artic scrub on the ascent up the valley to the high-altitude pass then changed back to forest and jungle on the descent into another valley. The majority of the trek is within the Sagarmatha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to three of the tallest ten peaks in the world: Everest (29,028 ft, 8848 m), Lhotse (27,939 ft, 8516 m), and Cho Oyu (26,906 ft, 8201 m). This area is also home to the Sherpa people who “came to the previously uninhabited region about 450 years ago from Tibet to escape war, persecution, or famine and conducted subsistence agriculture and trans-Himalayan salt trading. It has been speculated that a part of the Sherpas’ climbing ability is the result of a generic adaptation to living at high altitudes.” Hence their success climbing Everest! During the trek, I again encountered numerous colourful Buddhist prayer flags and wheels, mani walls, stupas, several beautiful monasteries, crossed many suspension bridges (I counted 14), and stayed at lodges where I ate a lot of dal bhat.

To start the trek, most people take a 45 minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. As there are no roads to (or in) the National Park, the only other option is to trek there. I opted to trek there starting from Shivalaya, adding about 38 mi (60 km). Although the distance is relatively short, the trail crosses three valleys, going over four passes, and added 5 days to my overall trek. Thankfully, I met Paul (UK), Guillaume (France), and Alex (US) on the bus to Shivalaya and trekked with them because I encountered only a handful of other trekkers during the first 5 days. We trekked through jungle and forest as we went up and down each valley. Then after a few days, we rounded a corner and had our first view of Everest. It was far away but it was cool to finally get a glimpse of the world’s highest peak. Along the way, we passed through many small villages, where friendly locals were going about their daily chores. Unlike my previous trek, there were signs of earthquake damage along the trail. Many of the buildings in the villages we passed through during the first several days had been extensively damaged or reduced to piles of rubble. While people were in the process of rebuilding, the effort will likely be a longterm process, especially since everything has be to carried by animal or human to these roadless areas.

After 5 days of trekking, we arrived in Namche Bazar (11,286 ft, 3440 m) where I enjoyed a night of wifi and a last night of hanging out with the guys before saying farewell to them and starting the trek up the valley to Everest Base Camp. I spent the next 7 days above 13,800 ft (4200 m), during which I spent 3 very cold nights above 17,000 ft (5182 m). As I climbed higher in elevation, the view of the high peaks became more spectacular. In Gorek Shep (16,863 ft, 5140 m), I had an amazingly close view of Everest and many other high peaks, including Lhotse. I planned to hike the 2 hours from Gorek Shep to Everest Base Camp (17,595 ft, 5363 m) but unfortunately woke up that morning with mild altitude sickness. Instead, I hiked to a somewhat lower elevation to acclimatize more before hiking over the first high-altitude pass of the trek. Thankfully I met Thomas (US) the night before I planned to cross Cho La, an icy pass at 17,782 ft (5420 m) that would have been foolish to do alone. We ended up hiking together for the remainder of the trek including hiking to Gokyo and over the second high-altitude pass. The views from Gorek Shep were amazing but the views in/around Gokyo (15,715 ft, 4790 m), located next to a glacial lake, were even more amazing. While there, Thomas, Zhenya (Ukraine), who’d we’d met at the lodge, and I hiked along the massive glacier to several beautiful frozen glacial lakes, enjoying more spectacular views of Everest and the surrounding peaks along with way. After two very cold nights in Gokyo, we crossed the second high-altitude pass, Renjo La. The trek up to the 17,585-ft (5360-m) pass was steep and long but worth the effort. The views from Gorek Shep and Gokyo were amazing but the views from Renjo La were even more amazing! On that clear, sunny morning, we sat at Renjo La and enjoyed the stunning view of Gokyo Lake and the majestic mountains (including Everest) on one side of the pass and the view of the expansive valley and distant high peaks on the other side. From the pass, we started the 2-day trek down the river valley to return to Namche.

During the trek, I considered hiking for another 4 days to Salleri to then take a 12-hour bus or jeep to return to Kathmandu. However, by the time I reached Namche, I was finally tired of trekking and tired of being cold, very cold. So, I hiked to Lukla to fly back to Kathmandu. In Lukla, Thomas, Filip (Czech Republic), who we’d met in Gokyo, and I met Nathan, Raj and Ben (all from the UK). Thanks to Ben, we were introduced to tongba, “a turbid liquor obtained by leaching out the extract with water from the fermented mash of millet.” It was…interesting, especially since the mash of millet was served in a giant mug with a metal straw and was refilled several times with hot water. And it was free, warmed the body, and was a bonding experience among those of us who tried it. Ha!

The next morning, we all walked the short distance to the airport which consisted of one building, one runway, and parking for six small planes. The runway seemed impossibly short and sloped downhill, ending at a steep drop off to the valley below. No wonder the Lukla Airport is known as the most dangerous airport in the world. To take off, the plane revved its engines while braking then burst forward down the short runway. There was definitely some nervous laughter among the 12 passengers (tourists and locals) as our tiny plane revved up. After take off, we relaxed and enjoyed the view of the Himalayas during the short flight to Kathmandu.

After roughly 90 mi (145 km) of trekking, I was happy to be back in Kathmandu. It felt great to be warm and clean, and to relax, drink beer, and eat delicious food (that did NOT include dal bhat, curry, or fried noodles, rice, or potatoes!). I happened to arrive on Christmas Eve and fortunately two of my fellow hostel mates, Anaj and Felix (German), had organized a potluck. So I shared a delicious Christmas Eve dinner with about a dozen other travelers, including Thomas and Filip, on the rooftop of our hostel. We even played the white elephant game, which was interesting since the gifts consisted of items from everyone’s backpack that were no longer wanted or needed. The next day, Thomas, Filip, and I met Nathan, Raj, Ben, and a few other friends, at a restaurant to share a delicious Christmas lunch. It was a very memorable and merry Christmas with good food and great friends.

Trekking in the Himalayas had been on my life list. It was amazing to be among some of the world’s highest peaks and to get a glimpse into the beautiful culture of the Nepali people. Also amazing is the fact that while the Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna Base Camp, Everest Base Camp, and Two-Passes trails are typically trekker super highways, I encountered relatively few other trekkers. Per the trekking permit office, over 20,500 people hiked the Circuit in 2014. However, in 2015, the number of trekkers on this trail was reduced by almost 50 percent. This reduction was likely due to the suspension of permits to climb Everest because of safety concerns related to the earthquake, the uncertainty about the conditions in Kathmandu and on other trails (i.e., the Circuit) resulting from the earthquake, and uncertainty associated with ongoing fuel shortages due to political conflicts between Nepal and India. While I hope, for the sake of Nepal’s struggling economy, visitation returns to normal or higher levels quickly, I have to admit I feel blessed that I was able to do these treks when I did. The fact that I was able to enjoy long stretches of the trail and stunning views, including the ones from Thorong La and Renjo La, by myself or with just a few friends is amazing and likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My experience in Nepal was amazing and was made even more memorable by the people, locals and fellow trekkers, with whom I shared it. Thank you all for being part of my experience.

Here are a few pictures. Click the links to see the full photo albums:

Annapurna Circuit-Base Camp Trek:  https://goo.gl/photos/fcJENKwKhPSfPvsCA

Everest Base Camp-Two Passes Trek:  https://goo.gl/photos/fcJENKwKhPSfPvsCA

Enjoy!

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In Durbar Square, Kathmandu.

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Nepali girl at one of the many temples in Kathmandu.

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With Corey at the top of Thorong La (17,769 ft, 5416 m).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At Annapurna Base Camp (13,550 ft, 4130m).

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With Guillaume, Paul, and Alex on Everest Base Camp-Two Passes Trek.

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View of Everest and other high peaks from Renjo La (17,585 ft, 5360 m).

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Christmas Eve dinner crew.

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Christmas Day lunch crew.

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Everest.

 

 

 

 

Europe: England, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, and France (Oct 8 to Nov 10, 2015)

After 7 days trekking in the Scottish highlands (see previous post), I went on a brief tour of several  other countries of Europe, visiting England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and France, for a second time.

So how did I spend about 5 weeks in western Europe? Exploring the culture and history of some beautiful cities and surrounding natural areas and hanging out with friends, of course!

London, England (Oct 8-11)
After a 5-hour train from Glasgow (Scotland), I arrived in England’s capitol city of London (population over 8 million), to visit my friend Sally who moved from Austin, Texas, where I know her from, to London over 5 years ago. It was great catching up with her on my first night over a bottle of wine at her cozy flat in Highgate. For my first full day in London, I explored the city. It was fun to see the sites I’d only seen on TV and in movies, including Piccadily Square, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Thames River walk. I also visited the British Royal Museum, renowned for its extensive art collection from all over the world and the Tate Modern Art Museum. Later, Sally and I walked around the Springfield area and she took me to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, for a drink. They usually adhere to a strict dress code but thankfully our smiles persuaded the door man to let us in wearing jeans and sneakers. The next day, Sally took me out for more sightseeing, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and The London Tower. After, we explored the market areas:  Camden Lock, Borough Market, and Inverness Street Market. It was an explosion of people and color and cool unusual things, mixed with repeat versions of the same old touristy crap. It was people watching and window shopping at its best! We roamed around these market areas for several hours enjoying the scene, then stopped for an pint at a pub where the crowd was completely enthralled in the World Cup rugby match on TV. It seemed like the quintessential London experience.

Antwerp, Belgium (Oct 11-14)
After a great visit with Sally in London, I took a 3.5-hour bus to Antwerp (population 510,610). It was interesting to be on the bus as it was loaded onto the train that then traveled under the English Channel to be offloaded on the other side in France. I went to Antwerp to hang out with my brother, Jabal, one of my favorite people in the world! He was on holiday in Antwerp to return to Belgium DesertFest, one of his favorite psychedelic rock festivals. I met him for Day 3 of the 3-day rock festival. We had a great time drinking Belgium beer, listening to music, and being the silly siblings that we are. Over the next few days, we explored the beautiful city of Antwerp, including the Main Square area, several lovely cathedrals, and the Scheldt River walk. Per Wikipedia, the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world, ranking third in Europe and within the top 20 globally. The city has a historic vibe despite the fact that it was hit by more V-2s than all other targets during the entirety of WWII combined. While the attack did not succeed in destroying the port, the city itself was severely damaged and was subsequently rebuilt after the war in a modern style. We also walked to an old fort located in a beautiful forested city park a few hours outside Antwerp. After a short train ride to Brussels, we visited Atomium, a structure constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Its stainless steel spheres are connected so that the whole forms the shape of a cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was very cool, as was hanging out my awesome bro!

Paris, France (Oct 15-23)
After a great visit with Jabal in Antwerp, I took a 5-hour bus to visit Paris for a second time (see previous post). This time, I visited my friend, Mathieu, a Parisian who I’d met in Argentina, then crossed paths with in Bolivia and again in Peru. I enjoyed relaxing at his flat and exploring parts of Paris I missed during my first visit, including the Eiffel Tower. Not only did I get to enjoy the amazing views of Paris from the tower, but Mathieu and I watched a movie from there. It so happened that NetFlix was having an event on the second floor to which we got last minute tickets. So we relaxed on bean bag chairs and watched the 2015 movie, Aloha, starring Bradley Cooper, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. So fun!

Amsterdam, Netherlands (Oct 23-26)
After a great visit with Mathieu in Paris, I took a 7-hour bus to the Netherlands’ capitol city of Amsterdam (population 831,279) to hang out my friends, David and Paul, who came all the way from California to hang out with me! And, they brought me a large bag of tortilla chips, two bottles of salsa, and tequila, three things I’d been missing from home. I’ll admit it, I ate almost the entire bag of chips the first night. We had fun exploring the Amsterdam night life, hitting some bars and dance clubs, and exploring the sights of the city including the infamous Red Light District, “coffee” shops, and the areas along the endless maze of lovely historic canals. It was so great hanging with my California boys!

Berlin, Germany (Oct 27-29)
After a great visit with David and Paul in Amsterdam, I took a 10-hour bus to Germany’s capital city of Berlin (population 3.5 million). This time, I was not in the city to meet friends, but to explore some history. To learn more about this historic city, I took a walking tour during which we visited sights including Brandanburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the largest remaining section of the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Topography of Terror Historic Site, and the Spree River walk. During the tour, much of the WWII information I’d learned in high school history class came to life. On my second day, I visited the Sachsenhaus Concentration Camp and Historic Site. It was an emotional but very educational day. Interestingly, visiting a place where humans did horrible things to other humans helped me remember to always try to be compassionate, understanding, and loving towards others.

Prague, Czech Republic (Oct 29-Nov 3)
After visiting Berlin, I took a 5-hour bus to the Czech Republic’s capitol city of Prague (population about 1.2 million) to visit my Czech friends, Renata and Gabriela, who I’d met and trekked with in Peru (see previous post). It was great to have my local friends showing me around the beautiful city of Prague, taking me to sights including Old Town Square, Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge, and the Vltava River walk. Per Wikipedia, Prague suffered considerably less damage during WWII than some other major cities in the region, allowing most of its historic architecture to stay true to form. As a result, the extensive historic centre of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with exploring the city, Renata and Gabriella took me on a road trip to the Cesky Kras Protected Landscape Area, about an hour from Prague, where we hiked through a gorgeous forest in fall colors to one of the Czech Republic’s many castles and the nearby quaint village. It was so cool to hang out with such cool girls.

Paris, France (Nov 3-10)
After a great visit with Renata and Gabriela in Prague, I returned to Paris. This time, along with hanging out in Paris again, Mathieu took me to Cassis, a small city (population 7,793) on the south coast of France, just east of Marseille. We traveled there via high-speed train. By car, this trip takes about 8 hours; by high speed train, it takes about 4.5 hours. Wow! Cassis is a small, quaint coastal town filled with many shops, cafes, a small marina, and lovely beaches. During our visit, we also explored the Espace Naturel des Calanques (Calanques Natural Landscape Area), trekking along the limestone cliffs overlooking the gorgeous clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, and the Plage d’En Vau beach, swimming in the gorgeous clear but cold blue waters of the Mediterranean. Per Wikitravel,  “Qu’a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire: n’ai rèn vist” (He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, I haven’t seen anything.” These words, spoken by Nobel-prize winning writer Federique Mistral, reflect the great attraction that Cassis exerts on all those who go there. I concur. It was great to hang out with Mathieu again and explore such a magical place.

While somewhat brief, my visit to these lovely, historic European cities and beautiful natural areas was wonderful, and my experience was made even more memorable by the people with whom I shared it with. Thank you Sally, Jabal, David, Paul, Renata, Gabriela and Mathieu for a great visit!!

Here are a few pictures. Click the links to see the full photo albums:

London, Antwerp, Paris: https://goo.gl/photos/RnWGC8T5oV46oJm3A

Amsterdam:  https://goo.gl/photos/vpc9h2GEvZiFBWau7

Berlin, Prague, Cassis:  https://goo.gl/photos/n9RxrgfxCdBx82mA7

Enjoy!

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London with Sally.

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Antwerp with Jabal.

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Paris with Mathieu.

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Amsterdam with David and Paul.

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Berlin – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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Prague with Gabriela and Renata.

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Cassis with Mathieu.

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Cassis sunset.

 

 

Scotland: Walking the West Highland Way (Sept 30 to Oct 6, 2015)

After two months in Ireland, I returned to Scotland (see previous posts), this time to walk the West Highland Way. This 96-mi (154-km) long footpath through the Scottish highlands is listed among the top 20 epic trails in the world by National Geographic magazine (http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/best-trails/worlds-best-grail-trails/#/west-highland-way-scotland_56346_600x450.jpg).

So how did I spend 7 days in the Scottish highlands? Trekking of course!

Upon arriving in Glasgow, I reconnected with Dave (England) who I’d met in Chile (Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) and traveled with for almost three weeks in Argentina (El Bolson, El Chalten, and Bariloche). From Glasgow, we took a short train ride to the small town of Milngavie where the trail begins. After getting a map and taking a few pictures, we started the walk.

The West Highland Way links hike/bike trails between the small towns and villages it passes through. Per Wikipedia, parts of the trail follow ancient roads such as drover’s roads (to herd livestock), military roads, and coaching roads. Upon its opening in 1980, the West Highland Way became the first officially designated long distance footpath in Scotland, and in 2010, it was co-designated as part of the International Appalachian Trail.

While on the trail, Dave and I trekked through varying landscapes including rolling pasture lands dotted with black-faced sheep, native grass and shrub lands, and valleys bordered by rugged mountains, crossed numerous rivers and small streams, and walked for a day and a half along the shores of 23-mi long Loch Lomond. We also walked through patches of woodland and forest, some natural and some artificially created. Per the West Highland Way website, most of Scotland’s pine forests are made up of nonnative species such as sitka spruce, larch, and douglas fir. However, ancient Caledonian pinewood forests (consisting of Scots pine, juniper, birch, willow, rowan, and aspen trees) once spread across thousands of kilometers of the highlands. These native forests now remain at just 84 protected sites covering 180 km2 in the north and west where restoration is ongoing. Walking through the patches of forest was beautiful, contrasting sharply with the vast areas of pasture and grasslands, but walking through the patches of ancient pinewood forest was magical.

Along the way, we passed through several small towns and villages, the “villages” typically consisting of a hotel or lodge with a pub welcoming walkers to rest, use the facilities, and have a pint. Similar to my previous experiences in Scotland, the locals were very friendly, being used to hordes of walkers on the West Highland Way. Fortunately for us, we walked during the low season and therefore often had long stretches of the trail to ourselves, meeting only a handful of other walkers during the day. On our first day, we met Richard, a Scotsman, who we ended up walking and camping with intermittently throughout the rest of the trek. We was a wealth of information about Scotland, the highlands, and the walk. And, he walked in a kilt, adding to my Scottish walking experience (ha!). While many walkers opt to stay at the hotels along the trail, Dave and I tent camped each night, mostly at developed campgrounds. Besides having access to facilities (i.e., toilets and showers), camping at developed campgrounds also allowed us to enjoy a pint with our fellow walkers at the end of the day. A perfect way to end a long day of walking!

On our last day, Dave and I did a 10-mi (16-km) roundtrip side hike to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the United Kingdom at 4,409 ft (1,343 m) then walked the last few miles of the end of the trail in Fort Williams. The summit was cold, windy, raining, and thick with clouds, preventing any type of view, but it was a great end to our 7-day adventure.

Walking the West Highland Way was a great way to explore the beautiful Scottish highlands, and my experience was made even more memorable by the people with whom I walked. Oh, and by the amazingly good weather we enjoyed for most of the trek (which we were told repeatedly is quite unusual). Thanks Dave for trekking with me again!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/WVWTA4mPFrn3h1aB7

Enjoy!

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Ireland: Browns Mills, Kinsale, and Beyond (July 29 to Sept 29, 2015)

After 3 weeks in Dublin, Ireland, Elie, Scotland, and Paris, France with my Texas and Illinois peeps (see previous post), I flew back to Ireland for a planned 2-month stay with my Irish friend Martin. Martin and I have been friends since meeting 5+ years ago while camping in Death Valley National Park, California. After many years in San Francisco, he recently moved back home to Browns Mills, Ireland.

Browns Mills is a small farming community just outside of the well known town of Kinsale in County Cork [about 180 miles (286 km) southwest of Dublin]. Farmers in the area, and throughout Ireland, primarily grow barley, the majority of which is grown for livestock feed and bedding, with a small percentage of it grown for whiskey production, if the quality meets the makers’ high standards. Kinsale is a historic port and fishing town (population 2,257) located on the coast at the mouth of the River Bandon. The streets of this charming town are lined with colorful shops and delicious local cafes and restaurants. While it’s a highly visited town, it didn’t feel touristy, I think because there are no American chain stores (yeah!). It’s also known as the gastronomic capital of the Republic of Ireland.

Beside growing barley on his own 10-acre plot, Martin works as a contract farmer, meaning he’s hired to harvest, mow, and bale other farmers’ fields using his big toys (aka combine harvester, tractors, bale handler, etc). He is also the proprietor of Motofeirme, a service helping non-Europeans find, purchase, insure and store their own motorbikes for travel around Europe and beyond (www.motofeirme.com or https://m.facebook.com/motofeirme). Given his busy life, especially during the summer harvest, I came to Browns Mills to visit and to help him with Motofeirme.

So, what did I do for 2 months in Browns Mills, Ireland? Explore southern Ireland and learn a lot about farming and motorcycles, of course!

Upon arriving in Kinsale from the Cork Airport, I was treated to a very friendly welcome by Martin’s mom, Eileen, who is an adorable, exuberant person with a lovely warm smile and laugh. Martin sent her to pick me up from the bus stop since he was busy harvesting. In fact, I didn’t see him until my second day there and even then, only for a few hours over the next few days. Thankfully, Phil (England), my predecessor, was there to greet me and show me around. I settled into my private room in the 4-bed bunkhouse at Martin’s place then took a few days to transition from having just been in bustling Paris to being surrounded by farmlands for as far as the eye could see, hearing cows mooing in neighboring fields, and seeing tractors and giant harvesters, including Martin’s, drive down the narrow farm roads. It was nice to slow down and smell the barley.

Phil, who’d been helping Martin with Motofeirme since April, showed me the ropes during his last week there before heading home to the Neitherlands. Basically I would be the Motofeirme greeter, meeting and assisting bikers arriving to Martin’s place to pick-up or drop-off their motorbikes before/after their European travels, tend to the bunkhouse, and perform other odd jobs as needed. It was great meeting the bikers, mostly from Australia, Canada, and the US. It was especially amusing greeting those who were seeing their motorbikes in person for the first time, having purchased their bike through Martin, who they hadn’t previously met, via photos, phone calls, and emails. The sigh of relief that the motorbike they pre-paid for prior to boarding the plane to Ireland was there and in the promised condition was definitely perceptible. Some of the bikers I met stayed in Kinsale, but most stayed in the bunkhouse, some for a few nights and some for a week or more while they readied their motorbikes and gear for the upcoming road trip or unwound before returning home after many weeks or months of being on the road. Hearing about their travel plans and stories from the road was definitely a huge perk of the job.

When there were no bikers picking up or dropping off their motorbikes, I helped plant, harvest, and bag veggies for Horizon Farms, a local farm run by Martin’s friends, Colum and Liz, that supplies many of the area restaurants and markets. I really enjoyed learning about growing and harvesting veggies including leeks, onions, cauliflower, lettuces, spinach, and various types of kale and broccoli. I have a new appreciation for the amount of hard work it takes to bring gorgeous veggies from the farm to the table. And I was able to bring home bags of the veggies I helped harvest (all by hand) – a huge perk for a veggie lover like me! Working and chatting with the Horizon crew (Colum, Liz,  Nollaig, Philip, and Matt) made me feel like a local and definitely added to my Irish experience.

In between exploring Kinsale and Cork, hanging out with Martin, working for Motofeirme and Horizon Farms, I also got to hang with some of my friends from San Diego, California, whom I hadn’t seen in over 6 months! I spent 4 days with Anaika, Ron, and their girls, Zeia and Auni, during their stay on an organic cattle farm near Bray in County Wicklow (about 12 miles south of Dublin). Then I hung out with Jody, Randy, Kristin, Thad, Karin, Ryan, and Helen for 4 days during their trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. Then, Paul Kim came to visit me for 10 days during which we went on a 6-day road trip to explore southwestern Ireland, including the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, Iveragh Peninsula (aka Ring of Kerry), Gap of Dunloe, and Kilarney National Park. We had a great time exploring the spectacular scenery in our tiny rental car with a left-handed stick shift driving on the left side of many very narrow roads. Our road trip mantra:  to the left, to the left.

Living in and exploring Ireland for 2 months was a fantastic experience. It was great to learn more about Ireland’s rich history though visiting early monastic sites, forts, cemeteries, churches, castles, tombs, etc., talking with locals, and exploring the amazing scenery which included rolling pastureland and native shrub/grassland, oak/pine forests, limestone outcrops, and coastal mountains and cliffs. The experience was made much more special by the people I shared it with including my local friends, Martin and the Horizon crew, my Motofeirme friends, and my friends visiting from California. Thank you all for being part of a memorable visit.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/TCkrkb9XqsYoqQ47A 

Enjoy!

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In the Motofeirme bike barn.

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Getting a ride on the harvester.

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At the pub with Martin.

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Planting veggies with Philip, Matt, and Colum (driving).

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Having a cone wih Anaika, Auni, and Zeia at Powerscourt Gardens.

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With Ryan, Kristin, Helen, Thad, Jody, Randy, and Karin in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Exploring a 7th/8th century oratory with Paul.

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Lovely day at the harbor.