Tusiyon, Shokh Dara Valley

For the first time in my 10 days in Tajikistan, I was travelling alone. I left Khorog midmorning on a zigzag route around the city trying to find a marshrutka that would take me to the Shokh Dara Valley to the town of Tusiyon.

After a bumpy half hour in the vehicle, the driver got out and knocked on my window, telling me this was my stop. I paid a fare of 3 somoni ($0.50 CAD), walked across a bridge, and followed a dusty, hairpin road under an unrelenting sun up to the town. There were no marked homestays so I asked around for a name listed by the regional tourism organization. A young woman named Umeda, embarrassed that she thought she couldn’t speak good English, walked me over to a home where people were having tea. I asked if this was a homestay, and after some confusion (I didn’t speak Pamiri/Tajik/Russian, nor did they speak English) told me welcomingly to sit down. A few minutes later, they recruited a man from town who popped into the home and translated for us. Sasha spoke great English and stayed for the 2-hour long tea session, putting his English-language skills to good use in particular when translating an old man’s inquisitive questions about me, my Filipino background and my life in Canada. Besides that, they conversed in Pamiri and even though I couldn’t understand them, it was nice to be seated with them and observe the tea culture, snacking on non and sweets as well.

Eventually, the tea wasn’t replenished and we continued on with our day. I was showed to my room where I left some things before exploring the town. There were no sights per se, but walking along the streets, people greeting me at every turn, I made my way up a zigzagging slope to a fantastic viewpoint of the valley. I could see the picturesque town below, smallscale farms and apple trees providing plenty of green tones to contrast with the reddish brown mountains.

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I headed back down, wanting to go up another slope and see the region from a different angle. I ran into Sasha again, and he suggested we walk up to a route to a place where goes to relax. We took a dusty, winding road away from the town, views becoming spectacular with each foot forward, and he showed me some of the local plants, picking some beans and wildberries for me to sample. And we talked about life – life there in the Pamirs, life in Canada; two people with different backgrounds, paths converging at a common intersection in time and place, learning about each other. It’s interactions like these that motivate me to travel. I love seeing nature’s beauty and our attempts to match it with jaw-dropping architecture, but talking to people from different backgrounds is always a privilege. I know I’ve written it before, but there’s a common humanity that links and unites us all despite all the perceived differences which we think separate us.

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After close to an hour, we arrived at a flat pasture surrounded by mountains all around, and relaxed for awhile. I learned that Sasha had been working in Dushanbe for the past two years so hadn’t seen this site since then. There was a herd of cows grazing under the gaze of a shepherd who was a childhood friend of Sasha’s. He seemed to know everyone in town, except for the new generation of kids. There’s something nice about growing up in small towns and knowing everyone which contrasts with the anonymity of urban life in the West. Even when I’m travelling and I stay somewhere for a few days and realize that people recognize me, it’s a nice feeling.

On our way back down, we ran into his uncle who wanted to invite us to his home for a snack. Sasha kindly refused, saying we had to get back, but a minute later we ran into his aunt and he couldn’t say no to her, so we went into their house. She served us a fresh, salty cheese served with non (obviously!), and a bowl of sour milk with chunks of this cheese, to be mixed with sugar before drinking. I’m usually a bit iffy about dairy when travelling, but it was quite delicious so I ate quite a bit. Sated, we left and continued down into town where we received more offers for home visits and food, but we politely declined. Women and girls were walking the opposite way with buckets in their hands, heading to higher pastures to milk the cows. At the entrance to my homestay, I thanked Sasha profusely for showing me around and providing local insight about his hometown.

Even though I had just eaten, it was almost time for dinner. Dzamira laid set up the “table” for me on a mat in my room, and soon served me fried potatoes and more non (of course!). I was surprised to have a companion for the meal – 3-year old Amir, full of untameable energy as most boys that age tend to be, but it made for a fun and amusing dinner. Many towns in the Pamirs generally only have electricity for a few hours in the evening, so a battery-powered lamp illuminated our meal. I played with Amir for awhile and talked to the grandfather, the owner of the homestay, before retiring for the night.

The next day, I had a simple but tasty breakfast of non, eggs, and mystery meat before saying goodbye to my host family and walking down to the road to flag down a car to Khorog. Though my stay was short, I felt grateful and fortunate to have had the experience I had. It’s another addition to an ever-growing collection of stories and memories I manage effortlessly to treasure. Tajikistan is quickly becoming one of my favourite countries I’ve visited…

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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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A look back to the Himalayas – Trek to ABC, Nepal

Travelling and trekking have kinda become my thing the last couple years. It’s a great feeling to have an almost endless array of stories, many of which are simply inconceivable to the imagination, to tell friends and family at various occasions.

Still, it’s hard to believe that I’ve actually lived some of these experiences – how what was once just a vague, perhaps outlandish idea in my head somehow manages to simply become reality, sometimes through determination, sometimes through sheer chance.

I remember reading guidebooks of Nepal at a public library in Toronto in the autumn of 2013, researching a bit about treks. A few months later, a year ago today, in fact, I found myself in this video, at Deurali on day 6 of my trek to ABC, Annapurna Base Camp, in Nepal. It was already a wonderful feeling to just see the Himalayas all around, and to think how far my body, mind, and spirit had taken me. In many ways, it’s still so surreal…

I hope to see more of the Himalayas when I visit India next month, and will definitely keep you all posted!

Another photo for the Balkan sunset collection

I’ve seen so many sunsets in the Balkans that I feel I can make a photo collection out of them. Well, I took another one for the collection today. Unfortunately, I took it from inside a bus and the windows were dirty and stained, which contributed to a blurry image, one certainly not worth posting. But the sunset was so vivid and stunning that it’s certainly worth the effort to at least attempt to describe what my eyes witnessed.

It happened shortly after crossing the Bulgarian-Macedonian border on narrow, winding, bumpy roads through empty hills with low-lying mountains in the distance. The horizon was every shade between purple and yellow, and the sun made a striking appearance under the few clouds accentuating the sky, clouds shaped like free-formed swirls echoing the whims of the people in the Balkans. It was the same sun I’ve seen thousands of times before, but today particularly remarkable and spectacular, a perfectly circular, pulsating orange sphere slowly descending into the mountains. A flock of birds, black shadows flying in unison in the sky, rendered the image even more arresting. A lone shepherd tending to his flock of grazing sheep in the rolling fields might, too, have noticed.

The sun’s disappearance signalled the end of another day of travel, a day when I left Bulgaria after spending two wonderful weeks there, a day when I came back to Macedonia and reminisced my time here last year. It’s the end of another day in the Balkans, another day of intense vibrancy in which I recognize how alive I always feel in this corner of the world. The Balkans is my favourite place in the world – there’s something about this region that does something for me – piques my senses, gives me energy and makes me feel more alive, makes me strive for something better yet makes me appreciate all that I already have…

How many sunsets I have admired over the past four years in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and hopefully soon in Albania and possibly in Greece…

Tribute to my trekking boots, tribute to Nepal

Three nights ago, walking down the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu, I made one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make during my travels. After much deliberation, I decided to leave behind my trekking boots in Nepal. It’s something that I didn’t do lightly – these shoes had tremendous practical value for me as a hiker, and even more sentimental value – they’d taken me 800 km across Spain; I’d climbed 4 volcanoes in Nicaragua with them; I’d gone hiking in the Alps, the Caucasus, and the Himalayas with them sheltering my feet and guiding me through shaky and solid ground. I’d climbed more mountains than I can count with these buddies. But after almost a year of wearing them so often, the traction had really faded, they were no longer really waterproof, and they just looked really beat up. On a couple other practical notes, they would have taken a lot of space in my backpack and I wasn’t intent on wearing them through humid Southeast Asia in the months ahead every time I’d be moving from place to place. And so I left them at the hostel. Incidentally, I met a Thai girl during my last days in Kathmandu who intended on trekking to Annapurna Base Camp and needed a pair of boots, and (strangely enough) mine looked like a good fit for her. So it looks like my boots will continue to go hiking in Nepal 🙂

I feel like these boots were, and still are, a part of me and that they belong on my feet, or at least in my backpack, and that I left a piece of myself behind in Nepal (and you don’t have to tell me how silly that sounds – I know). At the same time, perhaps there’s a nice symbolism behind it. I’m sacrificing a part of myself as a traveller and a trekker. It’s like I’m paying homage or tribute to Nepal by leaving something so important to me behind, and it’s like a part of me is still in Nepal. I think it’s a nice sentiment because I really didn’t want to leave last night on the flight for Hong Kong, and right now I wish I was back in crazy Kathmandu, relaxing Pokhara, or hiking in the Annapurna Conservation Area. For reasons that I can’t fully explain in this post, Nepal has given me so much love, peace, strength, courage, determination, friendship, warmth, generosity, hospitality…the list goes on.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nepal left such a wonderful impression on me. In fact, of all the places I’ve been on my travels, I can say that Nepal is the place I’ve been touched the most. I don’t even know where to begin and don’t think I can adequately describe the simultaneous joy that fills my heart when I recall all my experiences the past month, and the melancholy I feel because I’m no longer there. After visiting Sri Lanka, I told other travellers that I felt like royalty, being the object of so much attention and stares, and the recipient of so much generosity and hospitality. In Nepal, I blended in so much that Nepalis often thought I was a fellow countryman, but I received just as much hospitality and affection. People treated me as a friend and even like family. Despite the blackouts, frequent lack of water (hot and cold), the crippling traffic, the bumpy bus rides, the suffocating smog of the cities, the blowing dust…I often felt truly at home.

Machhapuchchhre‎, Annapurna Conservation Area

Machhapuchchhre‎, Annapurna Conservation Area

Just a few examples from yesterday alone: I was passing by a shop that I’d bought a jacket from earlier in the week, and waved at the shopkeepers. They returned the greeting and invited me to take a break and chat for awhile, and we talked for what might have been close to half an hour about life in Canada, life in Nepal, and the different people we’ve come in contact with. There was no pressure to buy anything else from their shop and they were quite impressed when I listed the countries I’d been to the last six years! Later on, I met up with some friends I’d met at the hostel and their Nepali friends, and we walked to Basantapur to watch the festivities of Ram Navami. They were so welcoming and hospitable, recounting some of the history of the exquisite temples that formed part of the Durbar Square complex. They were interested in my travels as well and wanted to know what I liked about Nepal the most. And when I was back at the hostel, ready to go the airport, the staff asked me if I had a taxi yet and when I said that I didn’t, fetched a taxi from the main street to the front door of the hostel, and negotiated a fair price. These are reasons reflective of why since my first day in Nepal, I knew that I’d make a return visit. That sentiment is even more true today. I’m so grateful that I made plans to come to this amazing country renowned worldwide for the Himalayas but for me, is distinguished by the unmatched warmth of its people.

So there’s my tribute to Nepal. And now, I’d like to take this time to pay tribute to these awesome pair of shoes. With fondness, I remember the mountains I’ve ascended, the trails I’ve gotten lost in, the cities I’ve navigated, and all the animal excrements that I’ve stepped on in them – be it from cows, horses, chickens, dogs, sheep, goats, yaks…With a sad resignation, I let go…

trekking boots - goodbye :(

trekking boots – goodbye 😦