Into the Wild – In the Saddle

I left off last time where Vlad had arranged horses for us to get us to the source of the Ikat river. (Click to see the previous post)

He arrived early in the morning to pick us up, but before we got in the car he explained that we needed to perform a short ritual, part of the local shamanistic traditions, that would help to ensure our safe passage. The ritual was mostly devoid of, well, ritual. Perhaps some incantations or magic words were muttered that I missed, but basically a glass of

Waiting for the milk ceremony to begin

milk was passed around and we all had to take a sip. Still, it seemed important to Vlad that we do this and we were willing to accept whatever worldly or unworldly assistance that came our way. Then we piled into his Toyota Corolla and he drove us to where the road literally ends, the last tiny town on the border of “frontierland”. Vlad had promised us that the guy who was to take us into the wilderness was “a solid guy” named Sayan.

Sayan’s home felt more like a wild-west compound or homestead, straight out of a Hollywood Western film. All wood construction, some horses standing around, a high powered rifle hanging from a nail next to a doorway, some kids with hammers and nails working on an extension of the veranda, and Sayan, who for his part in all this had chosen the Rambo costume instead of the cowboy one that went with the rest of the set. He wore his longish hair pulled back into a ponytail, camouflage pants, combat boots, and a nice big Rambo style knife that hung from his hip.

Sayan readying the horses

He greeted us with an air of equanimity and introduced us to Erdem who would also be coming along with us, a young guy who we never quite understood if he was his son or nephew or grandson. Sayan did indeed seem like a “solid guy”, the type you would want to be leading you into the bear-infested wilderness. The compound was a-buzz with his family members and a handful of others who had no doubt shown up just to witness the spectacle of these three foreigners showing up in their tiny town with big plans.

Rambo wasted no time. He led us into the kitchen of his home and pulled out a plastic tube from which he extracted a couple of battle scarred old military issue topographical maps of the area. Some space was cleared at the kitchen table, the map spread across it, and we all hunched over it and began to discuss the objective and agreed on a plan that seemed to be the most reasonable approach to reaching it.

The next order of business was another shamanistic pre-expedition ritual.  A half a dozen little glasses materialized and a fresh bottle of vodka was cracked. A few words were said, and some vodka

Sayan pouring out the first round

was flicked into the air for the spirits, who apparently do not have the same thirst as us mortals. Because the rest was for us, ALL of it. One shot went down the hatch. 3 minutes later Vlad poured the next round. A few minutes after that the third round was placed in front of me. This time I tried to graciously refuse, but that was clearly not on option. He explained that when a bottle is opened it must be drunk. And so it was that, at 9 in the morning, before setting off into the Siberian wilderness, we found ourselves polishing off an entire bottle of vodka.

Vlad (with his eager compatriot) pouring the second round
Round three, or was this four?

As if that was not surreal enough, it was around this time that one of the guys told us he had some marijuana, that Rambo would be bringing some with him because it’s good to help you sleep, and asked if we wanted some right now. “Uhhh, maybe later. Thank you”.

It was upon leaving the little kitchen, returning to the bright Siberian morning light, half drunk, observing some little Buryat kids running around, one guy loading the gun, another strapping our bags onto the back of a horse so that we can mount up and head into the wilderness, another guy rolling a joint, that I felt a wave of “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure”.

Soon it was time to head off and say goodbye to Vlad. My initial intuition about Vlad had been spot on. He was an honest guy, he just wanted to help out, he wasn’t trying to milk us for money. We gave him some anyways which he tried to refuse, but we insisted.  We were very grateful to have met him. We snapped a photo with him, mounted our horses and rode off.

Within the first few hours we made two stops at places that were obviously sacred to the local people as seen by the offerings left there to appease the spirits. Milk was thrown into the air, and of course, more vodka was drunk.

First milk offering
Second ceremony stop (That ain’t water he’s pouring out of that bottle)

We crossed the Garga river several times, each time elevating the “Holy shit – Adventure” feeling a bit more. The mosquitos were relentless, but the horses took the brunt of that attack.  We kept up an exhausting pace. Rambo was being paid to deliver us to the X on the map, not by the day, so it was in his interest to haul ass. We moved at a fast clip with almost no breaks. The romantic idea of heading off into the Siberian wilderness using horses as our mode of transportation was rattled out of me little by little as the insidious and painful reality (and sobriety) began to set in.

First river crossing
Second river crossing

After 9 hours in the saddle we were all totally wrecked. The forest opened up to a wide grassy plain upon which sat two tiny wood hunters cabins. The sun hung low in the sky casting a magical light on the whole scene.

We pointed our horses towards the cabins (hoping to God that he intended to stop there for the night) and began to part a way through the clouds of mosquitoes when Rambo spotted a wild boar in the high grass about 100 meters off. He dismounted, took aim, and POW! The boar took off running and then I lost sight of it. He had missed! What kind of Rambo was this guy! He had a perfect shot at him! It wasn’t until we got a bit closer that I realized he had not missed at all. The beast had made it 40 meters and collapsed in the grass, dead as a doornail. A perfect shot. Rambo dismounted again, and cooly tied one end of a rope to the boar and the other end to his horse’s tail (!?) and then jumped in the saddle and off we went towards the cabins, dragging the dead wild boar through the grass by a horse’s tail. The Wild East indeed.

Tyler and Rambo with the felled boar

The hunters cabin was a mess. A bear had recently raided it and left quite a scene. Tyler and I opted for our tent and missed out on the late night bong session that Bartek said later ensued just before bedtime.

I fell asleep in the tent to sleep to the sound of a million mosquitos planning a desperate and futile attack.

In the morning the mosquito siege outside the tent had only intensified. The same magical golden light that had lit up the cabins when we first saw them was back on duty, and Rambo and Son were readying the horses. We were back in the saddle by 7am.

From then on the road we had been following became less and less discernible until it just disappeared for most of the time. Solid ground gave way to flooded grassland and giant muddy pools of water. The horses struggled through, often submerged in mud up to their knees.  We crossed rivers. It rained. Mosquitoes mosquitoes. Some more rain. It was very tough going and Rambo was by no means taking it easy on the new guys. The pace was relentless.

After about 7 hours in the saddle we began to reach some higher (drier) ground as we approached the climb to the Ikat pass. We later learned that years ago this pass was so dangerously inhabited by bears and wolves that prospectors would have to give their horses vodka to give them the courage to keep moving because they were so spooked otherwise.

At the top of the pass the landscape opened up to reveal our destination, the Ikat lakes….the source of the Ikat river and our ticket out of here. The only thing that lie between us was 5 kilometers of what seemed to be easy peasy terrain of short-cropped grass, but was in fact our introduction to what we later learned is the terrain that seems to cover half of Siberia….bog. It looks like solid ground, kind of a lumpy grass, but with each step your foot would sink into a spongy hole halfway up your shin. The horses struggled through the bog while we struggled to comprehend the superpowers that Valentine had called upon to do this on foot.

We reached our final destination at 7pm, 12 hours after we started out that morning. Once again the strange and beautiful late evening Siberian light was casting its magic like a net across the landscape.

Ikat lakes
Ikat lakes

We woke the next day to find Rambo and Son already packed up and ready to start the return journey. They left some offerings of candy and cookies for the local gods, and some marijuana for us, then we said some goodbyes and watched them ride off into the morning light. It was right then that I think we all shared another “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure” feeling. We were now completely alone, literally in the middle of nowhere, going back the way we came, without horses, would have been nearly impossible in these post-rain conditions. From now on it wasn’t only about a “fun adventure”, there was literally no other way out of this other than to use our own devices.

Last goodbyes with Sayan and Erdem

After hours organizing our gear, and inflating the kayaks (happy to see they were holding air) we were ready to shove off.  The moment of standing on the bank of this river, about to jump into these boats, provoked another distinct feeling, it had shades of the “Holy Shit – Adventure” feeling, but it was different. At the core of this feeling was the knowledge that we had no fucking idea what we were doing. 

I have strapped dusty backpacks to the side of dustier motorcycles with strange foreign license plates on them, I have methodically packed a backpack with just the right amount of food and all the gear to get myself safely to the top of a mountain. And each time I do those things, when I jump on that motorcycle and start it up, or I take the first steps towards that mountain peak, there is a comforting familiarity to what I am doing.

Standing on the bank of that river next to a kayak loaded up with a weeks worth of food, in the middle of nowhere and with a mandate to reach point X on a map before date Y, using nothing than these “inflatable pool toys” which at that moment seemed impossibly insubstantial… there was absolutely no comforting familiarity.

Team Idiot, about make our maiden voyage

But here we were. It’s not really a feeling of fear, it’s more that feeling when you are about to jump off a cliff into a lake or river or ocean, it’s a little unnerving to take that first step, but you know it’s going to be a rush. For us it manifested itself in laughs, mostly at ourselves and the palpable confirmation of our idiotness.

Readying our steeds

And so we took the first few unfamiliar strokes of our paddles in the direction of the unknown adventures that awaited us. 

More to come….CLICK HERE to see what happens next.

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/DTXQMfCYjWHxeu2J7

Into The Wild, First Steps

You may remember my mention in my last blog post about Valentine, our “guru” who to our knowledge is the only other person to have done the route we planned to do.

If there is one thing that we learned from our attempt at this trip it is that Valentine is no guru.

In fact he is more like a superhero, endowed with powers far beyond the average intrepid adventure seeking idiot, of which demographic shoes we shamelessly filled.

Yet we tried our best to follow dutifully the sound of his pipe, one GPS coordinate at a time.

I guess its safe to say that we didnt, in the end, reach our goal. At least not in kilometers covered. But the goal of radical adventure and of finding that remoteness, that patch of untouched of land? That we accomplished.

The trip was essentially a massive test in problem solving, adaptability, and endurance, all administered with a healthy dose of inexperience and comedic relief.

The problem solving, which had begun long before any flights were purchased, continued the minute we all found ourselves in Irkutsk, a small Siberian city with an international airport. After sorting through all our gear, divvying it up and cramming it mercilessly into our backpacks, in a way we were quite impressed that we fit it all in, but there was still some math that wasn’t adding up. There were three of us, and four huge backpacks, which had a combined weight of about 93 kilos (205lbs). The fourth being the two person kayak.

Problem solving commenced and a throng of ideas poured forth, with contributions coming from as far as Germany and Nevada. Tyler was a big fan of tying the fourth pack to a long pole with each end resting on the respective shoulder of two intrepid idiots. This would have earned us style points no doubt, but it met resistance with Bartek and I. Valentine had used a little two wheel cart thing during his trip, although his blog dropped a few hints that it hadn’t worked out so great. Nonetheless we thought it worth consideration.

We spent the better part of a day wandering around Irkutsk looking for bear spray and firecrackers to ward off unwanted camp visitors, picking up other last minute supplies, and all the while keeping an eye out for two wheel carts with monster truck wheels, with none to be found.

Tyler, riding the Babr. The Babr is the symbol of Irkutsk, a mythical animal that showed up on the citie’s coat of arms in the 1600’s and somehow came to look like the lovechild of a beaver and liger.

The next morning the alarm went off at 6:45 so that we could hastily finish the last bit of packing that had to be done and get to the train station on time to catch our 8:30 AM train to Ulan-Ude. Miraculously we succeeded in this mission, arriving proudly at the train station with even a few minutes to spare to order an instant coffee from the babushka at the station cafe. We were puzzled to find that our train was not showing up on the board that announced which track each train would arrive and depart from. Inquiries were made and a local seemed to take some small pleasure in explaining to Bartek that ALL trains in Russia depart from “Moscow time”. Irkutsk being 5 hours ahead of Moscow, that meant that our train would not show up on that board, or any track, for quite a while.  I think this was the first time one of us referred to ourselves as “Team Idiot”. It wouldn’t be the last.

Tyler was not too keen on waiting this one out so the problem was solved by paying a private driver to leave then and there and get us to UIan-Ude.

After a night spent wandering the streets of Ulan-Ude, basking in the gaze of father Lenin and in the shadows cast by soviet era block housing, we were back on the road heading north east, this time our trajectory was completely away from any and all cities, in fact the highway we were taking literally leads to nowhere, it would eventually be swallowed up by the taiga somewhere not long after our next destination, Kurumkan.

The driver of our transport to Kurumkan was a friendly Buryat* who happened to be from Kurumkan, which was an amazing coincidence considering that it was over 400km away and had a total population of just a few thousand people. His name was Stas.

*Just a quick side note….The Buryat people make up the largest indigenous group in Russia. They inhabit the lands around the eastern side of lake Baikal, mostly in the Russian state of Buryatia (where we found ourselves bumping along in the van of Stas) and were traditionally a nomadic people who kept animals, hunted, and fished to survive. Closely related genetically to their Mongolian neighbors, their language (which is still widely spoken in Buryatia) is also similar to Mongolian. The religion they practice is a blend of shamanism and Tibetan buddhism, more on that later.

A photo from the 1800’s of Buryat people that is in the history museum in Irkutsk

Back on the road to Kurumkan, civilization slowly started to take a back seat to dusty roads and taiga. Traffic dwindled to the occasional beat up Lada (the old cars you probably associate with soviet times), and old work trucks and bulldozers who were doing their best to maintain the roads.

With hours yet to reach our destination we had plenty of time to drill Stas for information, help, resources….whatever we could squeeze from him. We were well aware of our need to connect with locals who would be

Bartek translates some grim news to us as Stas makes more phone calls on our behalf

sympathetic to our plan, and/or would be motivated by whatever we had in our wallets. We ran the whole plan by him.  It’s not possible, he said. The rains have been too heavy, the water levels of the Garga river are too high. No truck will be able to get you all the way to where you need to go. He did, however, know someone who had a big 6 wheel truck that would be willing to negotiate with us to take us as far as the road would permit, no promises on how far that might be. He would make some more inquiries when we arrived.

Team Idiot and Stas

Arriving in Kurumkan felt like frontierland. The quietness of the streets, the mountains looming in the backdrop, the people making trips to the nearest public water spicket (most of the town has no running water), and the cows and horses wandering down the main thoroughfare through town.  One had the feeling that not far beyond the town limits lie the wild west, or east as it were, where the eternal battle between nature and man was being fought out, but here the underdog was winning.

_DSC8928

Some weeks before we arrived my friend Dan from Moscow had made a bunch of phone calls to the one hotel in town on our behalf, asking for someone who had a truck that might be able to help us. While we waited for Stas’s call we dialed the number Dan had given us for a guy named Vlad.

When Vlad showed up at our hotel, one of my first comments I made to my brother was that I thought he had an honest face. It would be some time

Tyler, explaining the complex details of our plan to the drunk groundskeeper.

before that sentiment could be confirmed. He echoed what Stas, the women at our hotel, and the drunk groundskeeper had told us. Water levels high, roads washed out, slim chance of any truck making even the half of the trip. He had a new proposal…horses. Horses. This novel idea seemed worth considering. It would certainly add a new dynamic to the adventure. He said he would make some calls and do his best to get some costs and other information.

The next morning Vlad had an answer for us. He found a guy with horses who would take us, but the guy said the water level was still too high to cross the river on horseback, he would agree to take us if we left the following day. It would take somewhere between 2 to 7 days to reach our destination. Two to seven days? Yea.  At this point (having heard no news from Stas) this was literally our only option. We agreed.

The ministry of ministers.

Finding ourselves with an entire day to kill and nothing that we could do to further our personal agenda, we were happy to accept Vlad’s offer to show us around town. But first he wanted us to register with the local…. bureaucratic institution? A building we deemed the “Ministry of Ministers”, ubiquitous in every Russian town or city.  The local haven for pencil pushing bureaucrats and dodgy “fixers” – ready to help you get your divorce papers, acquire some property, register to vote.

Next we checked out the local Buddhist monastery and temple, where a lone monk sat conscientiously chanting while rocking back and forth surrounded by buddha icons and colorful buddhist art that oozed psychedelia. We made our rounds, spinning the  prayer wheels and hoping for the best that buddha could offer us on our journey.

Next we headed to the nearby Barguzin river, where high water levels were confirmed and mourned.

Yep…Water levels are high

Then we had the idea to go fishing. So Vlad picked up a friend who literally carried a tin can full of worms with him and we struck off into the Siberian wilderness in Vlad’s 4 door sedan until the “road” became a swamp. From here we would walk to another swamp, which is where we were expected to throw in our lines.

Gone fishing

This was our first taste of one of the greatest perils of wild Siberia. Tiny, relentless, sanity thieves. The mosquitos will cause your mind to rattle in frenetic abandon in search of some peace. It started to become clear why these people had converted to Buddhism. And when Vlad told us “this is nothing, they will be much worse where you are going” It was these little bastards, not the threat of bears, crushing rapids, or random wilderness related injuries, that made me think for the first time that maybe this idea of ours was a big mistake.

Our fishing mission was a failure, our only consolation was that it was a hasty failure. Within 20 minutes all involved agreed that the only thing that was biting were the mosquitos. So we waded back to the sedan and headed back to town.

Done fishing

The afternoon was whiled away with trips to the ATM (which gave very limited amounts of cash during each transaction) to pay for our horses and to amass a small fund to be used for the next time we had to buy our way out of trouble, and by sitting on the steps of our new abode. Vlad had insisted we move to a flop house on the other end of town that shared a wall with the local mechanic shop. The only other tenant was a politician from a nearby town who we called “The President”. He explained to us that in Russia being a politician is a very dangerous job. Hence he was laying low here in Kurumkan until whatever threat that loomed over his head blew over.

Bartek, Vlad, and The President

We sat on the steps and passed the time by watching a mangy troop of dogs diligently patrol the area, with occasional appearances made by cows. Periodically some local would cruise up in their jalopy eager to meet the three idiots who wanted to cross the Ikat pass so they could float down the Vitim river. News had spread quick in town. Invariably one of the first questions they would ask would be “How many guns are you bringing”. Our answer of “none” was always met with a laugh that seemed to serve only the purpose of reminding us that we knew nothing about their world.  I think they secretly applauded the effort that had gotten us thus far, but were overtly dubious about our abilities to pull this off. 

The next morning the real adventure would begin.

More soon.

If you want to see a few more photos from these first few days just click on this link.

To be taken to the next blog post in this series CLICK HERE

 

Into the Wild….Siberia

Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.

-Edward Abbey

Before the ink had barely dried on the passport stamps which had served to get me from Indonesia all the way back to Barcelona (More on that here), mostly by train…I had begun planning another adventure. My faithful travel companion Magdalena was back in Zurich and had just started a new job, it might be a while before I could tempt her to quit 😉

As luck would have it though I had befriended a clever and experienced Polish guy named Bartek here in Barcelona whose travel resume closely resembled my own. Long wilderness trips, alpine mountain climbing, extended overland adventures in cars and motorcycles, exploration of countries that make most governments’ State Departments’ lists of “Better to Avoid”. We set to work hashing out a plan, which began to take the shape of a rather extreme river kayak trip in a remote part of Siberia. We would have called on our collective experience in wilderness river rafting and kayaking to bring this plan to fruition, unfortunately this collective experience amounted to exactly zero. But, to borrow a literary line, “Ignorance had never stopped me from taking action before”. And so the research began.

We were not searching for thrills and class V rapids. Afterall we didn’t know anything about that. What we knew was wilderness, what we wanted was remoteness, to stand on that patch of earth that had never been stood upon. To share the open air with the bears, the wolves, and the elk, to ride the currents with the trout and taimen and pike, to go to sleep a hundred miles from the nearest human under a billion stars, to let memories of our modern world mingle with the ash of our riverside campfire.

We wanted a relatively non-technical river, one that wouldn’t kill us but also one that would not put us to sleep, one that was remote and not full of a bunch of other people who have the same idea as us that we would have to share the river with. You can stare at a map of Siberia all day long and identify tons of rivers, but how the hell do you know which fit this description? It’s not like you can drag the little google map guy onto the river to see the google street view and get an idea of what the nature looks like, of how dangerous the rapids are, of how many other kayakers we might cross paths with. In-depth searches on google was not turning up anything either, at least not in english.

We finally started to search in Russian using google translate and found what we were looking for in the form a a super detailed blog written by some Ukrainian guy named Valentine who’s amount of experience in long distance river kayaking placed him somewhere between a guru and a god. And the good news was that we could not find online evidence of a single person other that Valentine who had ever done this route. We decided to set off in his footsteps.

The Plan

We fly into a small Siberian city (Irkutsk). From there it is two days travel by train and bus to a small town where we will hire a 4×4 to take us as far as the the road will allow us to go into the Siberia taiga. Depending on how far the car makes it we then might face a 60km (38 miles) walk through the taiga carrying on our backs provisions for 6 days as well as our boat (about 28kg or 63lbs each) to reach the mouth of a small river. From there the plan is to travel 1000km (625 miles) of the river over three weeks to a tiny outpost with 150 inhabitants that is completely inaccessible to the outside world overland except by boat. This tiny outpost gets food and supplies delivered every 6 weeks by a little propeller powered plane when the weather permits. The idea was that we could catch a ride back to civilization on this plane….that is assuming that we remain on schedule to arrive there before the plane takes off 😬.

The river itself is exactly what we were looking for, plenty of easy stretches, but also plenty of small rapids. As for “remoteness”, well the necessity to walk three days to reach our start point sure gets us off to a good start. Then once on the river, in the 3 week time it takes to do the trip we will only pass through one town that is actually connected by road to the outside world and has mobile connection. Other than that we will pass through 2 small outposts each with about 100-150 inhabitants, both of which are only accessible by boat or air. Basically, anything that happens we are pretty much on our own. Remote? Check.

For food we would rely on whatever basic supplies could be bought from the locals along the way, and we hoped to be pulling a lot of fish out of the river. The bigger problem than obtaining food would probably be to keep it out of the mouths of the hungry bears that inhabit the region.

The Planning

If I decided today to begin packing for a motorcycle trip that would take me through 30 countries over the course of a year, I could probably be ready to go in a couple hours. But being completely new to long-distance river kayaking the process of planning and packing became a full time job. Priority number one was choosing our craft. We were able to connect with Valentine, the Ukranian river guru who was gracious enough to answer a bunch of our stupid questions. On the subject of boats he recommended a Russian made inflatable two person kayak weighing about 16.5 kilos (36lbs). The price was great, and it had his stamp of approval.  We were about to buy it when we thought “Let’s post some questions on some US kayaking enthusiasts forums and see what they think about this choice”.

So I started a thread on two different websites frequented by river fanatics and explained a bit about our trip, ie no experience, 3 weeks on a Siberian river with class II and III rapids, super remote location. I linked to the boat Valentine recommended and aside from their thoughts on that choice, I asked for any other general tips or ideas to help us in our planning. The replies began to come in.

I think my favorite line was from a guy who when referring to our choice of boat said,

“This is not a trip to do in glorified pool toys.”

Here are a few other selected quotes from the responses we got:

“I have to admit, this sounds like a terrible idea…”

“I am not saying don’t do this trip, I am just saying take it seriously. If a few crazy Russians did it on inner tubes 12 years ago that doesn’t mean you should as well…”

“Don’t be dumb!”

Ok, neither our plan nor our boat were being very well received in the American river enthusiast forums. So we sought validation elsewhere. The Russian wilderness rambler and pioneer is a particular sort. I had encountered some of them in my last trip to Siberia. They are well prepared, confident, and probably got married wearing full camouflage fatigues. They would be quick to tell us we were silly little boys for attempting this is if that’s what they truly thought.

And so with the help of Google translate we posted the same message in Russian forums and got very different responses than those from the US forums. The Russians, many of whom had rafted the same river (further downstream) all seemed to think we would be just fine with a precursory warning to be careful and take it easy. They also applauded our choice of boat. Validation…check.

So with confidence slightly bolstered, and after weeks of researching other options and getting all sorts of feedback we decided to trust in our guru and stick with the original plan. Here is a photo of Valentine on the same river we would do and in the same boat he recommended to us:

It was around this time that I got word from my brother that he was interested in joining the trip for the first half (which is the half that no-one does). The addition of a third person to the expedition was a welcome one and so it was we had to find another boat. After tons of research and guidance from forums in several languages we settled on a single person packraft. Which is a very different animal from our 2 person kayak but would help us reduce weight and add some diversity to our fleet.

Countless more hours were spent researching other topics – fishing gear, safety equipment, mosquito (and bear) repellant, paddles, weather averages, emergency evacuation insurance, visas, etc. Some decisions were easy, others involved lots of discussion and research.

In the meantime, our russian boat got held up in Spanish customs, which was a whole drama in and of itself. It was also around this time (2 weeks to departure) that we got an email from a Russian friend of mine (Thanks Dan!) who was helping with some of our planning. The subject line was “Massive Flooding” and the message included a link to a Russian news article. Apparently the exact region where we would be going was under a state of emergency. Heavy rains had washed out roads and bridges and flooded entire towns. The river we would be rafting, which normally has a water level of about 2 meters, was at 5.3 meters. Super.

Just as the flooding story was dominating our thoughts the customs fiasco was finally resolved and the boat was delivered to my house. We ripped into it and inflated it on my terrace. Our reaction…Holy shit! It’s huge!

With our new ship in hand we turned our focus to getting a bit of experience. We drove 3.5 hours from Barcelona to do a 2 day white water crash course with an instructor. We learned some basic rules of the river for navigating rapids and received a lot of attention from the local rafting guides who wanted to meet the two guys who were going through with such a plan. They all assured us that we would be just fine, that our plans did not include anything that we couldn’t handle and that the the boat was in fact an excellent choice.

Test run of our kayak during our white water crash course

This blog post does zero justice to explain just how much preparation has gone into this trip, but suffice it to say it was a lot. As usual my parents played an integral role of “command center”, assisting in organizing gear that I had ordered to their house in The States and in making sure we had enough beef jerky to survive a Siberian winter. The last days we watched the weather closely and were happy to see less rain on the forecast and water levels dropping.

This morning I landed in Siberia, Irkutsk to be exact. It was strange to be returning to this place I was in just last year with Magdalena when we were taking the Trans-Siberian back to Europe from Asia. I never imagined I would be back again so soon and under such pretenses. The immigration officer checked my visa, stamped my passport, and as she handed it back she said “Good luck”.

Not “Welcome”, or “Goodbye”, but “Good luck”.

I’m OK with that.

You can CLICK HERE to be brought to the next blog post

Hasta luego 🙂

 

Mongolia on Two Wheels Video

I had a low-quality little fake GoPro camera with us on this trip and from time to time I mounted it on my helmet to grab some impressions of the scenery that we took in each day.

I put together a little video of some of the scenes. Please excuse the terrible production quality!

Click to view

Also, if you haven’t already, you can scroll down to read the blog post that preceded this video. There you will find a few descriptions from this trip and lots of photos 🙂

 

Indonesia, China, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian

I’ve got a new adventure on the horizon, but before I introduce that I suppose I should try and sum up my last one. I would normally have done this while I was traveling and would have broken it up into 2 or 3 blog posts, but as almost a year has passed I am going to condense it into one post. Which means many details and observations will have to be left out, but suffice it to say, those details made their mark on my mind and soul and as always worked to shape my understanding of our world and my identity as it relates to it

Last year there was the Philippines on Two Wheels (I actually managed to get a post out on that that you can read here), from there I flew to Indonesia, where of course I bought another little motorcycle named Indie that I would use for the next 2.5 months to explore the country. I flew solo for a while but after one month was craving some company. There are not many people I know at my age that I could call on to quit their job and fly halfway around the world to jump on the back of a motorcycle and head off into the unknown. Well, by “not many” I really mean there is ONE person…and so it was that “Team Bala” was reunited

A throwback to old times…Bala, Magdalena, and me – Pamir Mountains near the Afghan and Pakistan border, 2014

We hitched rides on fishing boats to uninhabited islands where we camped on beaches, exploring coral reefs, searching for sea stars by day and shooting stars by night.

One of several tiny uninhabited islands we briefly called home

 

We spent several days diving around the Komodo Islands…then from 40 meters below sea level one week to 3725m (12,225ft) above on the summit of Mt. Rinjani the next week.  

Sunrise summit of Mt. Rinjani
New Friends…..some great guys who opened their homes to me and helped me to buy Indie

We reunited with old friends and

made new ones.

We absorbed Indonesian culture and hospitality.

 

Then there was a “visa hunting” mission that landed us in Hong Kong. The Great Wall of China has many faces, and the one that is known as the Chinese Immigration Department turned out out to be a tough one to scale.

But after one rejected application (based on the fact that our passports showed that we had visited Tajikistan), and after 10 days of zub-zero air conditioning and forced entry into shopping malls, with visas in hand we crossed into China, the country where our paths first crossed 4 years before. But this time we headed to Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkestan, where the muslim Uighur people live. 

Tien-Shen Mountains, Xinjiang

Imagine a country (it was a country, East Turkestan, before China annexed it in 1949) that borders….get ready for it….Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India, Tibet, and China….imagine the cultural overspill and mix of history, AND…that there is almost zero tourism. A forgotten corner of the world that no-one seems to talk about or know that it exists. We wanted to find out what’s going on there, and to reconnected with our Silk Road roots that had been planted years before when we began our journey through central Asia on our Royal Enfield motorcycle. 

Thanks to an amazing couchsurfing host (thanks Steve!) we got our hands on a motorcycle for 5 days to explore the Tien-Shen Mountains

No Idea what that says, but it looks cool 🙂

We were pleasantly surprised to see many of the same foods in xinjiang as

Lagman with hand pulled noodles

we saw years before in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan…we ate handmade pulled noodles (Lagman), fresh nan flatbread, samsas, dumplings, “Big Plate Chicken”, and lamb kebab.

We were shocked and appalled at the oppression and stifling security presence in the region, which makes Tibet look like a playground. It’s shameful how the Chinese government is treating the Uighurs.

 

We visited dozens of amazing ruins still standing 1000 years after the glory days of trade along this route

We suffered through oppressive desert temperatures and bundled up in the warmest clothes we had to cross snow covered mountain passes. We rode across massive grassy plains, through lush mountain terrain and climbed up huge sand dunes  – taking in an extremely diverse landscape

One of our campsites in the Tien-Shen mountains
Much of Xinjiang is covered in desert landscape

We probably went through an average of 6-10 security checks each day. Want to visit a market? Metal detector and passport. Want to get gas? Facial recognition scan and car search. Want to board a train? Four security checks each with Xray and retina scans.

Kashgar animal market

We visited an animal market outside of Kashgar, where animals are bought and traded in the same way they have been doing for centuries

We were whisked around town (Korla) by a father and son who were also part of the team that helped organize a motorcycle for us. Despite not being able to communicate with each other, we were treated to dinner (there was no way they would allow us to pay), shown all the sites of the city, had drinks at a bar, and were dropped back at our hotel (after they helped us arrange our train for the next day). Hospitality 🙂

We visited lively markets where you can buy anything from old shoes to live scorpions or dried frogs by the kilo.

We watched as Uighur master artisans made beautiful copper cookware and teapots or hand carved bowls.

We shared the shade of mulberry trees with old bearded Uighur men – men under the age of 60 are forbidden to grow facial hair.

From town to town we either arrived just in time to see the an amazing Uighur old town before it was destroyed by the Government, or we arrived too late and the deed had already been done – a systematic ploy to erase Uighur culture and replace it with Han Chinese.

The beautiful Uighur old town building in the town of Korla has most likely already been demolished since we were there

I was surrounded by 8 armed police officers, questioned, and had my camera searched after one of them thought I was taking a picture of them (I wasn’t).

We entered centuries old mosques, considered holy and important to the local Uighurs but that young Uighurs are forbidden to enter by the Chinese government.

We ate dinner at 11pm. There is only one time zone in China, so Kashgar, despite being 5,500km (3,400 miles) from the other side of the country, is on the same time zone.

Noodle maker, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) China

From Xinjiang we made our way to Beijing where we began the journey home. True to our favorite style of travel we decided that flying would be too easy, the best way to arrive is overland, to see that borders mean nothing, that cultures, tradition and history shape who we are, not the passport we hold. So after about 4 weeks in China, we got on a train and headed to the nearest border.

We would travel the entire length of the Trans-Siberian railway and beyond…all the way to Barcelona by train from Beijing. Roughly 250 hours gliding along tracks crossing deserts, steppes, mountains, taiga and border after border. But there were stops along the way.

The most memorable was a one month stopover in Mongolia, where of course we bought a motorcycle. Most overland travelers arrive in Mongolia from Europe riding one-up (no passenger) on their 1200cc state of the art BMW adventure series motorcycles, or their 1300cc badass KTMs to explore the dirt tracks that crisscross the steppe. We on the other hand threw down 450€ for a used 150cc Chinese made bike. His name was Khan and together we conquered the Mongolian steppe….our way.

We covered 5,000 kilometers together, much of it offroad, riding two-up loaded with camping gear on our little machine. The most sparsely populated country in the world, it is easy to feel like a speck of dust blowing across an endless grassland with a sky above that looms so expansive it seems like it could swallow you up.

In our previous travels, a big part of the challenge was always to find a safe and comfortable place to camp. In Mongolia that means stopping wherever you are whenever you feel like it and putting up your tent. 95% of the time that means you would be kilometers away from another living soul, aside from perhaps some curious goats or yaks.

We also got a glimpse at Mongolian culture through the fortuitous and coincidental fact that we were there during the most exciting time of year in Mongolia, the Nadan Festival, where nomads from every corner of the steppe flock to the nearest town or outpost to show their skills in archery, horse riding, wrestling, and knuckle-bone throwing. Yes, knuckle bone throwing, but it’s really more of a flick than a throw 😉

We sold Khan, boarded the train again and headed to Siberia. Some days spent walking the shores of the great Baikal lake (which holds ⅕ of all the world’s fresh water…yes it’s true), camping along the way and keeping our eyes out for fresh water seals.

Train passing by our campsite as the sun sets over Lake Baikal

From there we made several stops, a day here a couple days there, in places like Tomsk, and Kazan where we noticed hints of culture and traditions that we had observed years ago while riding across “The Stans” which had obviously spilled across borders, or rather borders had been draw around them.  And of course there were trains trains trains. We did several jaunts that took us 30 or even 35 hours consistently on one train before our next destination.

We finally arrived in Moscow, the end of the Trans-Siberian route, but not for us. As we had decided that it would be too strange to board a plane or a bus after traveling so far by train, we continued on clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack….one station after another, with stops in Warsaw, and Zurich before reaching Barcelona in the middle of August, flooded with tourists and sunshine.

Costa Brava, just North of Barcelona

And that was that. I had departed on that journey in January, expecting to be home in 4 months. Seven months later and a few more stamps in my passport I was back home.

The trip looked something like this:

The blue part was all done by train

Soon the planning would begin for the next adventure. Which has now arrived at my doorstep.

More to come.

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Philippines – Island Hopping on Two Wheels.

When the dust cleared, the truck exhaust dissipated, and the sound of bad karaoke had faded into the distance, I had traveled over 5,000k (3100 miles) through the Philippines on Bernie, my little 125 cc friend.  Island after island, beach after beach, I discovered more of what makes the Philippines tick.

My Route

I crossed 5 seas (The Bohol, Sibuyan, Camotes, Sibuyan, Sulu, and Visayan) and boarded 9 ferries to plant my feet on 13 different islands.  Not bad right?  That only leaves 6,994 Philippine islands I have yet to explore (yes, seriously).

Immediately upon arriving in the Philippines, moto hunting commenced and I found myself thrust into an oh-so familiar yet always foreign environment.

“The scenic route” through life for me has become one of neighborhoods in foreign cities and towns that are even foreign to most locals.  Searching for the right sprocket to fit my motorcycle, or a Chinese made part to replace the original that failed in my bike.  I saunter through metal marketplaces trying as I may to maintain an aire of disinterest and of belonging.  This is the mask any veteran traveler learns to wear.  It’s difficult.  Because EVERYTHING is interesting, and you definitely don’t belong.  You want to gauk, to stop, to stare, to point your camera. Sometimes you resist for reasons of security, to be less of a target for pickpockets or whatever other danger hangs in the air.  Mostly though you simply and inherently want to avoid looking like you are an observer in a zoo.  The realization often escaping you that it is you who are the zoo animal.

My journey in Philippines started before I landed.  The friendliness of the people, I would learn, ranks in the tops of my global experiences, and this began with a conversation I had with a friendly fellow named Bernard who sat next to me on the plane.   Bernard was my first introduction to the Philippines and would turn out to be a true friend.  It’s no coincidence that I named my motorcycle “Bernie”.

Bernard to the Left and his buddy Mark to my right on the day I bought the bike. Bernard gets all the credit for making that possible.

My second introduction to the Philippines was Manila.  Most densely populated city in the world.  After I finding my Philippine two wheeled travel partner, I would claw my way in and out of this metropolis several times, each with the same determination that was required of me many years ago to hack my way through the Amazon jungle.  Big trucks unleashing clouds of unimaginably thick exhaust that my lungs absorbed with disapproving resolve.  Traffic was stifling.

Philippine roads overflow with contraptions called “tricycles” which transport impossible numbers of people in one fell swoop.  They are powered by motorcycles with engines that we would consider fit for lawnmowers, yet in this country they serve as buses.  My daily game is to find the tricycle with the biggest burden.  How many do you count? (Hint, there are three inside of the little sidecar).


There are other machines that hog the roads, elbowing the three wheeled minibuses out of their way with a blast of a horn, they are called Jeepnies.  The national animal of the road.  A remnant of America and WW2 that integrated itself into the Pinoy life and culture.  Competing for kitsch and color with the tricycles, they are two things that are distinctly Philippine.

Other things Philippine are scarce.  500 years of colonialism has robbed it of much of it’s original identity.  I hunted for culture but came up with a coconut and a handful of beachsand.  If you were hoping to find some little souvenir to bring home to your family, you would be hard pressed to find one.  There are no wooden shoes, no statues of buddha, no handwoven rugs.  What is Philippine?  They would proudly show you one of the 14 local malls in their small city, I don’t think they know those came from America too.

There were many pitstops in towns begot by the average traveler attracting the attention of locals who love to chat.  Most people speak at least some English so chat you may, perhaps with the man who just slashed open the coconut with a few clean swipes of his machete that you now drink out of from a straw.  The best thing about the Philippines?  The people.  If only they sold Philippine smiles at the airport souvenir shop.

Ill keep this brief, and sign off here.  The stories are in the photos (the images themselves but I also added commentary to many of the photos).

TO SEE PICTURES AND READ MORE STORIES JUST CLICK HERE

                                     Or CLICK HERE to continue to the next post in this series                                       “Indonesia, China, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian”

Prologue:  The Philippines behind me now, I find myself on the Island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.  Digging up some new stories. To read the update on that and what came after CLICK HERE

Cruising the Caucasus, Georgia & Armenia

Border crossing experience entering Georgia:  “Passports please”…..WHACK! STAMP! “Welcome to Georgia.”  No visa, no questions, no money…Almost felt too good to be true.  We entered Georgia with high expectations.  Most of the overlanders we had crossed paths with while in The Stans who were coming from West to East had passed through Georgia and they all told us we were in for a treat…nice people, amazing scenery, rich culture, and good food.  What did we find in Georgia?  Keep reading to find out.

Our route. From Azerbaijan into Georgia, into Armenia, and back into Georgia. Just shy of 2000k (1250 miles)

 

We entered our first Christian country in 8 months – I ate a ham sandwich and washed it down with a gulp of red wine.

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With our Couchsurfing host Zaza eating Kinkali

We spent more than a week in Tbilisi (Capital of Georgia), hogging out on Georgian food, kinkali (meat filled dumplings), lobio (bean soup) Abkhazian (garlic and walnut paste spread onto fried egglplant), and Katchapuri (warm buttery bread stuffed with cheese). We wondered if we liked it all so much because it really was actually good or just because the Central Asian food we left behind was just that bad.

We made friends with a funny Georgian mechanic named Nico in Tibilisi who helped us located some parts for Bala.

We watched couples lined up one after another to get married by long-bearded Orthodox priests in the main cathedral of Tbilisi

Georgia & Armenia BEST1-15

One day I went into a small shop looking for a tool to fix Bala, the man behind the counter seemed gruff.  He seemed to have no patience for my attempts at using Russian.  I had already judged him as unfriendly.  He didn’t have the tool I needed so I left and sat on the curb nearby to wait for Magdalena who was around the corner.  A few minutes later the man from the store passed by, and without a word, he simply flashed a smile that seemed so impossibly unnatural on his rough featured face, and he handed me a loaf of bread still warm from the bakers oven and walked off

We fixed Bala!!!  (Well not entirely running great but at least better than she had been running the last 6,000k)

We made a detour into Armenia.  Impressions/Experiences-

We found there to be an endless supply of half -ruined but beautiful old churches built around 1000 AD (Armenia was actually the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the official religion in 301 AD)

We saw entire towns that had been completely abandoned.  Factories, shops, churches and homes with smashed windows and trees growing out of them.

We woke up next to a big crystal clear lake
Georgia & Armenia BEST1-45

We woke up to a 100 cows trampling past our “bed”

We woke up on the steps of a old abandoned church surrounded by an abandoned town.

We missed Georgian food

We found the people to be incredibly friendly.  See next line.

We got a flat tire near an old church. First a priest shows up and offered his help holding Bala on her side so I can work off the tire.  Little while later he returns with two cold drinks.  Then another guy shows up and offers us a tire pump. Then the priest returned again with 3 ice creams, I took a break from the bike and the three of us ate them together. He takes off again.  Then another guy comes over with a bag of plumbs from his garden, around the same time the priest returns with two peaches, and the bike pump guy also returns…this time with a few handfuls of mulberries. Somewhere in between all this a couple also showed up in a car and offered to invite us for a beer. Finally the priest returned one more time with soap to wash our greasy hands.

Our tent, parked in front of an abandoned church in an abandoned town.
Our tent, parked in front of an abandoned church in an abandoned town.

Back in Georgia…

In a small town we met a team of archaeologists digging up evidence of animal domestication from 8,000 years ago.  We shared a big Georgian feast with them at the local restaurant. They picked up the tab.  Thanks 🙂

In front of an 800 year old ruined fortress off a small highway in Southwestern Georgia some 150 kilometers from Tbilisi, by complete coincidence we bumped into Nico, our mechanic friend who we had said goodbye to a week before.  We formed a little motorcycle gang and spent the next few days traveling together and enjoying each others company.

With Nico, camping somewhere in Georgia
With Nico, camping somewhere in Georgia

I learned that archaeologists always throw something into the remains of a dig when they are finished…a handful of coins with current dates on them, a plastic toy, or any other anachronistic item that would alert future scientists that the site has already been examined.  Our new archaeologist friends humored me with a small request…. and now, a part from Bala’s carburetor rests next to what was once an 8,000 year old human dwelling.

We spent two days with a guy who had spent years in prison for murdering another man

We explored a 900 year old monastery that was carved into the side of a mountain overlooking a beautiful valley with a river winding through it.  Imagine a small town consisting solely of hand carved caves, over 400 rooms total that once included a bakery, a pharmacy, 25 wine cellars, and 12 chapels complete with beautiful frescoes painted on the walls.

Vardzia, the cave dwelling monestery
Vardzia, the cave dwelling monastery

We learned that Georgia is where it all began…the earliest archaeological evidence of grapes cultivated for the production of wine that was ever found was in Georgia and dated to around 6000 BC.

We met a guy who recruited the help of several of his friends and drove us all around town to help us fix a part on Bala that had broke, he wanted no money for it.

Once when Bala broke-down, a man invited us into his home, we spent the night at his house, he treated us to lunch and then to dinner, offering to pay was not an option. The next morning we woke up at his home to a huge breakfast that he had prepared and served to us on a tray.

We met a man who closed down his small air-condition repair shop for the day so that he could take us to a nearby thousand old church and monastery and give us a full tour.

We met a man who has dedicated the last 8 years of his life to the church, who has aspirations of becoming a monk.  He believed in being kind to strangers.

We spent some “vacation” days in the resort town of Batumi on the Black sea.  We gambled in a casino and treated ourselves to a fancy dinner.  We started chatting with a man next to us, he was interested in our story.  It later came out that he was the owner of the restaurant and after he excused himself to go back to his table of friends the waiter came over with two glasses of wine on the house.

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Driving along one day in the middle of nowhere our carburetor manifold breaks.  End game, no way to fix this…we need an original part from India.  We walk Bala over to a farmhouse we had passed a while back.  There, the old man who runs the farm lets us leave Bala in his garden while we wait for the part to arrive from India in 10 days. Before we leave him he gives us a bag of fruit and a big smile

We got into a shared car to get to a remote mountain region in the north of Georgia. The driver insisted we come first to his home before hitting the road, where we were served food and he served himself a few shots of vodka before we hit the road.

We fell in love with the Georgian alphabet.  აქვს ლამაზი დღე ჩემი მეგობარი  I just wished you a nice day…in Georgian.

Remember the guy we hung out with for a couple days who had spent years in prison for murder?  That is the same guy who helped us fix the part for Bala, who invited us into his home, served us breakfast and treated us with the utmost kindness, the same guy who closed down his shop so that he could give us a tour of the nearby historical churches and monasteries, who has dedicated himself to becoming a monk. His name is Shalva, we will never forget him.

Shalva :)
Shalva 🙂

We fell in love with Svaneti, an isolated mountainous region in the north of Georgia, one of the last living medieval cultures left in the world.  It is wild, untamed, mysterious, and stunningly beautiful.

We hiked and hitchhiked for several days through Svaneti, from Metzia to Ushguli. We stayed with a family in old stone villages surrounded by 5,000 meter (17,000ft) peaks and dotted with ancient defense towers,  we camped next to glaciers, we camped next to ruined old stone structures, we crossed rivers on horseback, we saw and photographed more than 40 different wildflowers, we made friends with cows and dogs, we drank vodka in our tent as we listened to the sound of a raging glacial river, we hitched rides from policemen, road workers, and polish tourists, we didn’t want to leave.

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Collection of the photos we took of all the different wildflowers we saw along the way
Collection of the photos we took of all the different wildflowers we saw along the way

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Luckily our part finally arrived from India, thanks once more to the guys a Vintage Rides, and so we were able to shove off, towards our next destination, to cross yet another border…to see what adventures await us in Turkey.

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