Chalaadi Glacier, outside Mestia, in Svaneti, Georgia

People often ask me what’s my favourite country I’ve visited, and it’s hard to choose one out of the 55 I’ve been to 😉 But Georgia is definitely near the top of the list, with the sincerity of its people and its unending natural beauty, like this melting glacier flowing into the valley outside of the town of Mestia in the Caucasus Mountains. This little Asian guy felt so foreign and out of place in a land I knew little about, and yet I yearn to go back and experience more of it …

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Haphazard hike to Gergeti Glacier in Kazbegi, Georgia

The town of Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains is a 3-hour marshrutka ride north of Tbilisi. Though perhaps a bit uncomfortable in a cramped marshrutka, the drive up to this mountain town was simply spectacular and the passionate traveller in me was only concerned about watching the magnificent views of Georgia while staring out the window. After spending 8 days in Tbilisi (with day trips to Mtskheta and Gori), I really felt like I was going to a special place and that I would finally get to embark on some amazing hiking in the country after hearing about such opportunities at the hostel in Tbilisi the previous week, and from fellow travellers during previous journeys. (I should also mention that this experience was a memorable chapter from my Eurotrip from two years ago in August 2013. I’ve wanted to write about this hike for awhile – better late than never, I guess!)

The picturesque Tsminda Sameba Church (Gergeti Trinity Church) overlooks the town from atop a hill, and I hiked to this point a couple hours after getting into town, taking an “off the beaten path” sort of route. I spent the late afternoon simply admiring the vibrant green fields and the majestic mountains before descending back to town to relax for the evening, knowing that the next day would be a long one.

“Off the beaten path”
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A shepherd tending to his herd
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Confession: When I’m travelling, I can be someone who does things without much thought. I’ll get an idea and simplistically think that it will somehow just happen. My trek to Gergeti Glacier was one of those instances – I read some stories online about the logistics of the hike, went into town and bought some water and freshly made, steaming hot bread made in a tandoori-like oven, and walked and walked and walked, one foot in front of the other, in my hiking boots that took me across Spain and up one of the Alps.

A sense of where I’d be going: from Gergeti Trinity Church to about 2 km southeast of where Gergeti Glacier is pinpointed. Also note the proximity to the Russian border. (credit to Google Maps)
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Two years ago: My arrival in Santiago de Compostela

Two years ago, I arrived at the plaza in Santiago de Compostela after 32 days of walking roughly 800 km. It was a journey that began at the Pyrenees on the edge of France and passed through scenic mountains and picturesque valleys, modern cities and modest farming villages. I had woken up at 3:30 am that morning to walk the last stretch of 20 km with a group who I became friends with throughout the past month, in the hopes of getting into the city before the onslaught of pilgrims and tourists.

I know I post periodically about my experiences on the Camino de Santiago, but I don’t think I’ll ever adequately be able to write any collection of words that would do my experiences and emotions justice. It was a true journey of the spirit, an ongoing expression of limitless faith, hope, and love. It was a supreme test of perseverance, waking up early every morning (sometimes earlier than desired, ahem, those nuns playing new age music at 5:45 am in Carrion), walking across all sorts of terrain through the pouring rain, blistering cold, numbing wind, pulsating sun. From the outset, there were difficulties: I got lost on the very first day, mistakenly climbing a winding mountain road that ended up adding at least 4 km to the day. Realistically, I should’ve taken a break after just the third day when I limped into the city of Pamplona, searching for a pharmacy to treat weak knees and sore heels. I would also catch a lingering cold and get an allergic reaction to a spider bite later on.

But after all of those challenges and many more, I made it to Santiago de Compostela. I actually made it. Me. I remember feeling weightless walking through the streets of the city, taking the last steps to the centre of the plaza. There was no more walking. I leaned against both my walking sticks, bowed my head, and, overwhelmed at finally reaching my destination, I wept. “I’m here,” I thought. “I’ve arrived.”

A warm embrace to everyone I met along the Camino. It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since our paths first crossed. I’m grateful to have shared part of the journey with you 🙂

Route over 32 days from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela
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Me!
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It ain’t too far

Camino - en route to Acebo

Often during my month in India, a rickshaw driver would pull up to me and try to convince me that where I was going was too far to reach by foot. And I’d just be thinking, “I once walked 800 kilometres across Spain. It ain’t too far.” 😉

Reflections for a new year

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Well, 2015 is here. It’s another year…

The past two years have been so incredibly meaningful, dotted with innumerable occasions that my soul yearns always to remember.

Like a firework bursting in the black sky ignited by a single spark and illuminating the night, my life has been like a firework with the initial decision to quit my job to free up time for travel having produced treasured accomplishments, triumphs, memories, friends – each highlight part of a collective memory but flickering uniquely and unmistakably in the kaleidoscope of my mind.

The past couple years have been filled with experiences where I’ve not only stepped outside my comfort zone, but expanded it so that I now feel comfortable in so many more situations and environments. They have been years where I’ve pushed myself to my limits and reached new frontiers in what I now know I’m capable of. They have been years where I’ve crossed lines that I assumed were so far beyond my reach, only to realize my surprise when I discovered that my strength could take me so far beyond these lines. They have been years where I’ve periodically stopped and shaken my head, marvelling at how everything comes together almost magically at a common time and place to create something really special.

And they’ve been years that will fill my upcoming years with laughter and merriment each time I recount the strange circumstances in which I’ve found myself that sound utterly ridiculous to declare as fact (That time a guy tried to mug me in Morocco/That time the marshrutka dropped me off at the side of the highway in Georgia, 10km outside of the town I wanted to get to/That time I hiked to the top of a mountain in Taiwan only to have a 360 degree view of dense fog/That time I rode a bicycle in Thailand to a hospital to get the stitches on my foot removed/That time I fell in a moat in Myanmar/That time I was sleeping in a hammock at a hippy lodge in Nicaragua/etc/etc/)…

Like any year, I know this one will also be filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, trials and tribulations that will continue to make me question and wonder.

But you know, 2015 is another year of life. It’s another year in which I continue to breathe and I know that once in a while, my breath will be taken away by something so beautiful and unexpected. It’s another year in which my heart continues to beat, and I’ll appreciate that sometimes it will beat lightly in comfort and safety while other times it will pound to its limits, like on a challenging trek.

It’s another year to dream, another year to learn, another year to love, and, of course, another year to travel!

The past years have been so good to me, and I’m grateful. Yet somehow I know, without any tangible proof, that the best is still yet to come. Always.

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New passport

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After I quit my job 20 months ago, one of the first things I did was apply for a new passport in preparation and anticipation for all the travelling I’d be doing.

Well, that “new” passport has been used and abused, stickered and stamped on more times than I can count. It’s been my most frequent travel companion. And all the pages are full. In a way, it was a sign for me to come home.

Flipping through the pages is like reliving my journeys or reading my biography. Every visa is the beginning of countless stories, every exit stamp the end of a chapter.

Last month, the German immigration officer at Tegel Airport in Berlin was struggling to find a place for my exit stamp and told me, “You need a new passport.” I applied for a new one today and can only hope to have a fraction of the experiences and adventures with my next passport.

The only downside – I can’t spontaneously leave the country until I get the new passport within a couple weeks!

Into the harbour to seek shelter

It’s a common tradition in Japan to receive a fortune after making a small offering when visiting a temple. I did just that at the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto back in January this year, less than a week into my Asian adventures. This is what it read:

“In the autumn evening when the wind is blowing hard, a sailing boat is coming into the harbour to shelter for the night.”

I enjoyed contemplating on these words at the time, and carefully tucked away the folded paper into my passport holder. Numerous months later, I came across the fortune in Amsterdam during a show-and-tell session on the passport holder’s contents (passport, random currencies, entrance tickets). I unfolded the paper and found it so appropriate to be reading the same words knowing that I’d soon be returning home after all these months.

The boat has been at sea for almost 9 months since it was last in the harbour, and has been away for most of the last 17 months. It has sailed around the world through both rough and calm waters, docking at some magnificent locations. At times, the boat has been solitary while navigating the waters, while other times the boat has shared the journey with a formidable convoy. The boat has been damaged by natural and man-made calamities and has been repaired on multiple occasions. Throughout the voyage, I believe the captain has weathered it all with a lot of dignity and enough command, but the captain needs a rest.

There’s two more nights left until that autumn evening arrives. I’m coming into the harbour and seeking shelter. I’m coming home.

passenger ferry boat to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

passenger ferry boat to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua