Archive | July, 2018

Kyrgyzstan #4

22 Jul

The Adventures of the Chocolate Covered Goldfish – Part 4

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke to a gorgeous sunrise over Issyk Kul, and enjoyed a breakfast sharing our favorite (and least favorite) places to travel to with the group of British boys we had met the night before. After packing up the chocolate-covered goldfish and the rest of our backpacks, we savored our final few moments in our yurt before hitting the road. We were essentially starting our trip back to Pittsburgh, with overnight pit stops in Bishkek (Kryzgryzygyryzstan’s capital) and Almaty. We thought our luck had continued in Bokonbayevo when we found ourselves with the entire backseat to ourselves as our taxi set off on the four-hour journey to Bishkek. Unfortunately, we were instead offered up a Double Downgrade as we stopped and picked up an extra passenger and then were ushered into a car with non-working windows. And we thought the Inverse Hitch was bad! I summed up the ride in my journal as follows: “So hot, so uncomfortable.” We did manage to secure some delicious peaches at a stop along the way, and the Kazakh lady who tried as hard as she could to speak English with us was grateful when we offered her some. #SharePoint We were luckily given the opportunity to pee as well, which would have been better had there not been a man pooping right next to me.

We arrived in Bishkek feeling hot and exhausted, but the local shop we were dropped off near had neither Coke nor water, which forced us to flee towards town in search of fluids. Luckily, the gas station we stumbled upon had ICE CREAM, which gave us an opportunity to compare a Magnum to the local ice cream. Talk about a mismatch! We wandered into town along shady, tree-lined streets in search of wifi. We found a cinema (which we definitely returned to!), passed through the university, ate some cake (#youliketotryeverythingdontyou), and finally located wifi at a cafe where the food looked way better than it tasted. We made a plan for our 24 hours in Bishkek, booked a hostel, and headed to the cinema!

I love fasty food.

 

Sammi: “This looks science-y.”

 

There’s nothing better than going to the movies in another country, and we were primed for some AIR CONDITIONING after that “So hot, so uncomfortable.” ride. Deciding what film to see proved challenging: there were so many great choices and we had no idea what they were. We tried our best to compare the options on the screen with the film posters hanging on the walls, but it was harder than pronouncing Kyrgyzstan. We eventually decided on a film, bought our tickets, and headed straight to the concession stand (because, you know, POPCORN). Wow! Wow! Wow! We encountered a whole display showing SEVEN different types of popcorn. This was like a dream come true!

 

So many good choices! If only we knew what they were.

 

A picture is worth a thousand pieces of popcorn.

 

After some taste testing and deliberation, we finally made a choice and were ushered into the tiniest cinema either of us had ever been in. The film started and we were initially excited by our choice – it was a Kyrgyz film (when else in our life will we have the chance to see a Kyrgyz film in the cinema) that was set in Bishkek and around Issyk Kul. I was initially dismayed that we had no idea what the people were saying, but Sammi reassured me that it looked like an action film and we should be able to follow along based upon the action. Unfortunately, the majority of the first 45 minutes involved characters sitting around talking. WE HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON! We laughed until we cried. Then we got yelled at by an usher for putting our feet on the seats in front of us. Then we laughed until we cried again. Towards the end of the film we finally started to feel like we had it all figured out. In the penultimate scene the main character, an older man, was taken to the hospital after spending several hours floating around in the lake. A shot showed him looking week then panned to his heart rate monitor as it appeared to go blank. “I know what that means!” declared Sammi confidently. We both lost it when the old man stepped out of the hospital room ten seconds later…

Thoroughly perplexed by what we had just experienced, we set off from the cinema for Viva Hostel. After some sock and hair clip shopping we circled our hostel multiple times before eventually finding the front door. “Are you sure it’s here?” I asked as we walked through a rough looking industrial area full of drunk men. We were assured by the hotel staff that the area was safe and were so excited to have air conditioning that we took a nice early evening nap. Well-rested, we set off into Bishkek in the hopes of ticking off some Bingo squares by finding live music and some local fare. We were BLOWN AWAY to stumble upon streets full of open fire barbecues cooking delicious smelling skewers of chicken (called shashlik). We immediately ordered some and were transported into a world where chicken tastes better than anything we’d ever had. We bought extra for the road and couldn’t have been happier to be walking through the streets with a plastic bag full of chicken.

This is literally the best barbecue in the world.

 

Nighttime in Bishkek.

 

Our plan was to check out the live music at Metro Pub, and after running into the British boys (again!) and dodging a bloody man with no shirt on we arrived to find the pub completely empty. We decided to come back later, and made our way towards the center of town where we enjoyed some of the beautiful buildings lit up at night. We eventually found ourselves at Center Bar, where the entire 2nd floor was dedicated to karaoke! We ordered a hookah, drank some beer, and made friends with our Uzbeki neighbor. He had a deep voice and seemed to be taking the karaoke very seriously; later on he admitted that he had gotten divorced two weeks ago and was singing sad Russian ballads to drown his sorrows. Gulp. We crossed off a Bingo square by ‘Bust-ing a Move’ and then found the most amazing ice cream stand on the street. Run by an adorable couple from France, we watched in awe as our ice cream was poured, frozen, and rolled on the spot. We HAD to get some.

 

 

 

 

When we eventually made it back to Metro Pub, the place was hopping! We wandered into the back to find an extraordinary rave with a hot rasta DJ, gorgeous women dressed impeccably, a killer light show, and lots of interesting people to watch. We had a great time drinking beer and analyzing the scene in front of us; we even spent some time talking about how much fun it would be to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. Whoa! When we finally made our way back up front we discovered a live Russian band playing a mix of Russian and American hits. We drank local beer, took shots of vodka with some locals who felt I wasn’t dancing hard enough, and soaked in the scene. It was surreal, and we spent half an hour watching people and chatting outside before finally heading home to our air-conditioned bed.

 

 


 

We had a grand plan for the final day of our adventure, and started our morning with shashlik for breakfast. Yum. We spent a few hours in Osh Market, and had an amazing time shopping for shoes and hair clips. Our journey took us through endless stalls of fruit, vegetables, nuts, clothes, plants, bread, pastries, and just about anything else you could imagine. We ran into the British boys (again!) and really had to convince them that we weren’t stalking them. We found some furry ears that were purr-fect for exfurcising (everyone needs a pair!), drank a ten cent cup of beer, tried lots of candy, and once again threw away a half-full cup of fermented milk.

 

A rainbow of pastries!

 

Is that a wheel of bread?

 

We found another shashlik restaurant for lunch and promptly over-ordered. How could we not?!? We ate juicy, delicious chicken until we were stuffed and then bagged the rest. It ended up being a great gift for our generous hotel receptionist. We grabbed our bags, made sure the chocolate-covered goldfish were secure, and set off for the taxi stand. We returned to our favorite gas station, and this time we stuck with the Magnum. We purchased nine Kyrgyz chocolate bars (#itsallaboutthewrapper) and were finally ready to say goodbye to Kryzyrgryzstan. Unfortunately, we had to wait forever for our taxi to set off and eventually had to resort to Jamaican tactics (getting into other vehicles and threatening to leave) to get on the road. Our ride was luxurious and we were able to cross the border into Kazakhstan despite the fact that the border agent didn’t think Sammi was the person in her passport photo. We bought more ice cream and nine Kazakh chocolate bars (#itsallaboutthewrapper) just across the border, then soaked in the landscape over the final hour of our ride into Almaty.

 

Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.

 

One bite in: “Let’s order two more.”

 

We finally jumped out in a suburb of Almaty where Alex (our amazing CouchSurfing friend) was with his wife and son. We met him at a massive grocery store where we loved wandering the aisles and buying canned horse meat, chocolate, frozen yogurt treats, and cookies (#youliketotryeverythingdontyou). We had a last supper of shashlik and beer, and were humbled when some drunk men celebrating a birthday invited us to their house for a feast. Alex reminded us that our flight was in eight hours and Kazakh feasts last for days, so we politely declined and instead headed to Alex’s house to meet his wife and son. We had a great time playing with his son and talking about traveling before catching our final taxi to the airport. After an incredible 10 days in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, our trip had finally come to an end.

 

“We’d like you to be first American in our home.”

 

I’ll let my final entry in my journal sum up the experience:

“This trip really has been amazing – in many ways the opposite of hard. The people have been so welcoming and friendly, the food has been good and interesting, the scenery has been beautiful, and life has been full of adventure.”

Kyrgyzstan #3

20 Jul

It’s been over two months since Patrick sent me this INCREDIBLE blog about our continued time in Kirg….Kergiz…Kiergiez….Kyrgyzstan.   I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

 

The Adventures of the Chocolate Covered Goldfish – Part 3

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke after an amazing yurt’s sleep to find a fun breakfast waiting for us in the family-style dining yurt. It was yurtastic (especially the candy!) and we had a great chat with a Slovenian couple who were incredulous when Sammi showed them the Slovenian sticker on her notebook. We returned to our yurt to gather our things, then caught a ride to Bokonbayevo (which is hard to say and even harder to spell) for our yurt-building workshop. If there’s one constant in Sammi and I’s adventures, it’s that when we find something we like we try our hardest to overdo it (#howmuchchaicanwegetifweorderinbulk), and it was clear we were going to push this nomadic tent thing until it yurts. (Hahahahahaha!, said sammi reading that just now!)

Sammi ‘quickly’ (read ‘painstakingly slowly’) uploaded her snaps at the tourism office and I stepped outside to check out the town. My ears almost started yurting as I strained to make out a sound that was emanating from down the street. “Was that music?” Knowing that I couldn’t turn to Sammi for help with the situation, I followed my ears and before I knew it I was standing under a lamppost in the center of town staring up at single speaker playing one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard. It was surreal, and I thought about recording it before deciding that I’d just savor the moment. When you travel, some experiences are left in the perfect place that you found them…

Snaps uploaded, we met our translators (we had paid extra because we were confident having a translator would enhance the experience and give us lots of information about the local culture) and hopped in the taxi to the yurt construction site. As we passed by lots of yurtile farmland, we started to prod our translators for information about Kygry… (“How do you say it again?”). Unfortunately, they were teenage girls with a rudimentary understanding of English, so our information was limited to largely monosyllabic words. Our yurt-building instructor was an incredibly interesting guy who had grown up in the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the region (riding horses, living in yurts, chasing animals to hunt), which sounded idyllic to us but was “tiring” to him. He was happy to have settled down and didn’t miss life on the road horse. Constructing the yurt was a fascinating experience and was just difficult enough to make us want to feel like Smartbo again. We persevered and completed our yurt, and our hearts only yurt a little when we realized they were going to immediately take it down.

Yurtelling me that’s all there is to it?

 

Ok, it’s yurturn.

 

Yurt so good. Come on baby let me yurt so good.

 

The excitement didn’t stop with the yurt construction, as we were ushered over to the other side of the road we learned how each of the yurt parts were made. The craftsmanship was impressive! We then got a lesson on traditional bow and arrow making as well as hunting, which really proved to be a highlight. Sammi was transformed into Smartbo(w) with a traditional hat on her head and a bow in her hands.

 

 

Is that shirt hunter green?

 

Yurtmade swings!

 

Luckily our adventure wasn’t over, as we were treated to tea and yurtmade sweets by the family. Now we were in our element! The sweets were delicious and we enjoyed ‘chatting’ with our host about his life since he started hosting tourists and teaching them about his traditional lifestyle. His wife showed us some beautiful crafts that she had made, and we were both excited to leave with new slippers.

 

Work hard, tea hard.

 

We caught our ride back to town and noticed ominous clouds on the horizon. We had scheduled a horse ride for that afternoon (because you know, horses) and the weather was a concern. After significant back and forth between our tour operators, we finally decided to risk it and head to the hills for a quick ride to a lookout point. We were slightly confused when the man from the tourist office hopped into our taxi with us, but he was hilarious so we looked past the fact that the tourist office representative had just sold us a tour operated by himself. We got our horses and were immediately grateful that we hadn’t followed our initial plan to just rent horses on our own. It turns out that the horses in Kyzgry – I mean, Kyrgyzstan – just roam wild most of the time and then are ‘caught’ by locals when they want to ride them. They’re not exactly the horses we ride in the USA.

 

The ride to the ride.

 

The ride.

 

“My horse won’t go.”

 

“My horse just goes.”

 

We survived a brief rainstorm before enjoying a gorgeous ride up to the panoramic lookout. Sammi’s horse was great, and just followed the guide straight up the mountain. She had an incredibly pleasurable ride. My horse, on the other hand, didn’t like the concept of moving. I did a lot of kicking, a lot of “Whhhhoooooosssshhhh”-ing (the supposed command for ‘GO’), and a lot of standing still. Oh well, at least it was beautiful. I had a nice conversation with my guide about his favorite words in the Kyrgyz language after a failed foray into cross-cultural joke-telling.

 

“Why were you so far behind?”

 

The view from the top.

 

My guide: “Want to hear a joke?”
Me: “Yes.”
My guide: “Well it doesn’t want you.”

 

We tried some fresh fermented mare’s milk and watching kids play before heading back down the mountain to town. We had skipped lunch and were feeling hungry, so we stopped into a local cafe bar and ordered a delicious plate of chicken & lamb with more potatoes than we’d ever seen. We also found a strange food for sale at the counter which led to us playing one of our other favorite games: Guess What This Tastes Like!

 

“Spraying Beer. Beer to Drive.” Yep, let’s go there.

 

 

We returned to our yurt camp (now knowing how they were made!) for another great dinner of lamb, flat noodles, and a potato dish. We had a great chat with some British boys before a perfect sunset spent down at the beach drinking beer and dreaming up plans of starting a foundation to help people travel. We talked about life and watched the stars before retiring to our yurt for bed after another amazing day…

 

Yurt sweet yurt.

 

 

A foundation is born!

 

Kyrgyzstan #2

19 Jul

The Adventures of the Chocolate Covered Goldfish – Part 2: The Fairy Canyon

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke the next morning to find breakfast waiting for us in the hotel dungeon dining room, where we were only slightly distracted by the Russian sex pop music videos blasting from the television in the corner. We laughed a ton and survived the dangerous cherry pit jelly before deciding to do 20 minutes of exercise in the hotel courtyard. #notquiteexfurcise We had an efficient, effective, and somewhat extreme planning session (you know, because we didn’t really know where we were or what there was to do) that led to us booking a yurt-building workshop (when in Kyrgyzstan) and horseback ride out of Bokonbayevo, which was located about 130 km West on the Southern edge of Issyk Kul. We packed up our belongings (including our bounty of chocolate-covered goldfish) and tried to hurry to set off. As Sammi later put it, “We rushed with our words.”

 

This school is ready for an adventure!

 

Before leaving Karakol we wanted to stock up on supplies for the day, because we hoped to visit the remote Skaska Canyon along the way and weren’t sure when we’d reach our final destination. We arrived at the market and immediately bought some local apples and plums. I stumbled upon a stall selling about 20 different types of what appeared to be salads, and was overly excited because we were both jones-ing for some vegetables. Sammi joined me and we started to motion to see if we could try one of the options. The woman behind the counter laughed and responded in perfect English, and 8 minutes later we had tried cow lung salad and pig stomach medley and were weighed down with 8 giant bags of every type of vegetable and mushroom salad you could imagine. In hindsight, we should have seen it coming. Of course we were going to buy too much! In our defense, we did actually ask for less salad but the lady insisted that “This is the smallest portion I can sell it in.” The salads posed a conundrum: how were we going to eat them? Was the trip getting hard? False alarm. The stall next to us had a fork and spoon set, complete with non-sharp tips to protect the plastic bags we were eating out of, for the meager price of 10 cents. Heavily-laden with healthy food and prepared to eat it, we returned to our hotel to begin our journey.

 

Smalled up. Kind of.

 

We both ended up seeking the advice of an intense Russian man who acted as the travel agent at our hotel with regards of the best way to get to Bokonbayevo via Skaska Canyon. “Are you millionaires?” he joked after I asked how much it was to charter a private taxi. Public was much cheaper, and after some minor confusion about what the numbers on the marushkas actually meant, we finally found the taxi stand and opted for a shared taxi with adorable dressed up girls in the back seat. The scenery along the lake was gorgeous and we talked about travel as we made our way to our first stop.

 

Is this that Fairy Tale where the best friends die because they can’t find any shade?

 

We hopped out at Skaska Canyon, known locally as Fairy Tale Canyon, and started the “short hike to the canyon” which turned into a death march. Bogged down by excessive salad and shoes that slowly filled with sand, we trudged our way a few miles into the rolling hills under the midday sun. We made a crucial tactical decision to stash Sammi’s bag, which buoyed our collective spirits and made us feel like Smartbo.

 

“Let’s take a picture of the bag just in case we forget where it is.”

 

“Are we there yet?”

 

Fortunately, it was worth it. The geography was interesting to say the least, and the multitude of layered colors set against the backdrop of the deep blue sky, snow-covered mountains, and alpine lake was spectacular. I’ll let the photos speak for themself.

 

#worthit

 

“Look cool. Literally”

 

How do you say sunburn in Kyrgyz?

 

“Have you seen my friend shade?”

 

We searched far and wide for a nice, shady spot with a view, but were unfortunately denied by the fact that there was indeed no shade. Literally – the only place it could be found was right next to a cliff. We eventually let hunger (and the fact that we could smell our salads cooking in the midday sun) take over and decided to eat on top of a hill with a gorgeous view of the entire scene. It was almost perfect. Quote from my journal: “We suffered through lunch…”

“I found shade!”

 

Picnic selfie. Not pictured: sunburnt arms and legs.

 

After taking in the view one last time and posing for some pics, we set off down the hill and stopped at the first shady spot that could accommodate the both of us. We sat down, drank some water, and reflected on how much better it felt to not be baking in the sun. “That picnic really was torture.” We reached into our bag and were overwhelmed to find a special surprise for dessert: somehow we had forgotten about the chocolate-covered goldfish! The fact that the chocolate had melted made the experience of eating way more goldfish than we should have even better – we got to use our plasticware and the delicious clumps chocolatey goodness just melted in our mouths. We laughed until we cried. Then laughed until we cried again. We soaked in the perfect moment until Sammi watched me pick at an ingrown hair and yelled, “That’s disgusting, you’re tamping my tail!”

 

Open wide…

 

On the road again.

 

We reluctantly re-shouldered our packs and headed to the main road to catch a bus. After passing a massive Buddha-like statue of what turned out to be a local millionaire, we disembarked in the little village of Tom where I had picked out a set of yurts right on the shore of the lake to stay in. We had a tiring but beautiful walk, discussing how much you can tell about a place by its dogs before descending upon a local beach. It was a gorgeous sight to take in, so I rushed Sammi straight past it.

 

Our sneaky approach to the local swimming beach.

 

“How much walking have we done today?”

 

The final mile along the shore of Issyk Kul was stunning, and we laughed and played with our shadows as we approached Bel-Tam Yurt Camp. The place felt like an oasis, and we were lucky to find a perfect yurt overlooking the water waiting for us. We bathed in the crystal clear waters of Issyk Kul, which means ‘warm lake’ because it never freezes due to its 0.6% saline content. The water was perfect and the surrounding scenery was amazing. Feeling refreshed, we headed to the main yurt for a delicious family-style dinner on the floor that included heapings of plov, vegetables, pastries, and candy. We learned all about Kyrgyzstan (and Poland) from a Polish UN worker and played a ‘board’ game with the kids before grabbing some stellar local ‘312 Wheat’ beer and settling in for the sunset. We played with an adorable puppy and watched the gorgeous night sky unfold in front of us. There were more satellites in the night sky than we had ever seen, and we saw shooting star after shooting star before heading in for a well-earned night’s sleep.

 

Another long walk is worth it. #theme

 

Bel! : )

 

Board game?

 

Our (smelly) new friend.

 

Fairy Tale sunset.

 

Kyrgyzstan #1

18 Jul

Back in July…..

 

The Adventures of the Chocolate-Covered Goldfish Part 1: Finding the Perfect Snack

A guest blog by Patrick

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!

After surviving the Inverse Hitch and Sammi’s run-in with the Border Guard, we waltzed into Kyrgyzstan with high spirits. From my journal: “We casually set off walking into one of the most beautiful sights I can remember – gorgeous rolling green fields with mountain backdrops and herds of horses galloping all over – so amazing!” It was a surreal landscape, and the stunning horses made the experience truly spectacular. They also added a layer of intrigue to the adventure. Are they dangerous? Can we just walk right through them? Why are they head banging? I wonder if they get tired running around all of the time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were delighted to take our first snack break in a new country (#teamsnackattack) and elated to find out that the Heinz (#pittsfurgh) steak-flavored chips we bought actually included Heinz steak sauce to dip them in. We may have licked the tub clean. We finished our snacks and started to hitch. We’d had such good luck in Kazakhstan – surely it would be the same here. Distracted by the beauty we prepared to flag down cars. Unfortunately, the cars just never came. And when they did, they were full. Uh oh, maybe this was going to be the hard bit!

 

This begs the question: what’s the most interesting snack accessory you’ve ever uncovered?

 

 

Patrick: “Should we keep walking or head back to the border?”

Sammi: “How about a snack break?”

 

The thing about hitchhiking is it works better when there are cars.

 

We eventually decided to walk back towards the border in the hopes of finding a ride before it set off. After a few hours with no luck, we eventually met a tour guide in a van on his way to collect some other tourists who were crossing over from Kazakhstan. He offered to give us a ride and was incredibly generous – he even gave us water and laid out the green carpet for us to wait on. We played the ‘Guess where the tourists we’re waiting for are from!” game and were both wrong – they were a super cool family (father, mother, and son) originally from Montreal. They were on a trip to celebrate their son’s graduation from middle school, and he had planned the trip after being inspired to travel to the former Soviet Republics by one of his teachers. My heart swelled thinking that students might actually be inspired by the adventures of their teachers!

 

 

Artificial turf couch. Check. Artificial turf bed. Check. Things are really going to get crazy if we find an artificial turf chair…

 

We made an interesting stop at a former caravanserai from the Silk Road. It wasn’t much but a mound and a pile of rocks, but it was incredible to think that thousands of years ago intrepid travelers stopped there for a night’s rest in the midst of a journey that would take them thousands of miles from Turkey to China. The rest of the ride to Karakol was gorgeous, as we wound through the hills along a river. There were tons of apiaries along the way, and it seemed like around every bend we found a stall selling local honey. We had a great conversation with the family from Montreal, and I was particularly excited because I was heading there for a week the following month. Our new friends wrote down a few suggestions on the box of their EpiPen, and I was more than happy to share the story of our chance encounter while dining at Les Enfants Terribles (the highest restaurant in Montreal) a few weeks later.

 

Stopping at a caravanserai, just like travelers thousands of years ago.

 

The best travel recommendations are always written on obscure pieces of paper.

 

We arrived in Karakol, a medium-sized city known as a tourist hub for the Issyk Kul region of Kyrgyzstan, and struggled to find wifi because we had to pee too badly. #notthefirsttime We eventually found a bathroom, a room to sleep in, and a restaurant with photos of everything on the menu (you know, because we don’t speak Kyrgyz!). Being the comprehensive travelers that we are, we set off down the main street of town to compare that restaurant to all of the other options. You never know when you’re going to find a photo of the same meal you were going to order that looks slightly better or that is slightly cheaper. Our trip through town was full of new Kyrgyz info: there were rotisserie chicken stands everywhere (the chicken looked better from afar), flowers for sale all over the place, and an incredibly popular stand on the corner of the sidewalk with a line down the street. “What do you think she’s selling?” Sammi asked. There was a table with two large containers of mysterious drink – one was wrapped in blue and the other in red. We guessed coffee, which was pretty much exactly what we didn’t need, but decided we just had to try the most popular drink in town. We bought one of both color because we have no self-control and were surprised to discover two different flavors of fermented milk. Sammi almost convinced herself that it tasted good, but eventually followed my lead and threw most of her cup away.

 

It’s got to be good.

 

We returned to the original ‘photo’ restaurant convinced it was the best option, but after Sammi took our waitress outside (where the photo banners were) to order she returned with a disappointed look. “They were out of pretty much all of our first choices.” Note to self: they don’t always have everything in Kyrgyzstan. Luckily, our meal was saved because we did successfully order one thing that was sizzling. #fajitasinsidejoke

 

“I wish we spoke Krgy…, Kygyr…, K….” “You mean Kyrgyz?”

 

For our evening quest we chose a noble venture: visit every magazine (shop) in town looking for the best snack to buy. We’ve been playing this game for years (this pretty much accounts for 30% of Sammi and I’s travels), but it was SO MUCH FUN to formalize it. We Very Hungry Caterpillar’ed or way through Karakol, encountering a towering statue in a park (“WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”) while eating a multitude of snacks of the dessert variety. The stores literally just had giant boxes of different cookies that you could buy by the gram, and we quickly realized that meant we could try one of everything. (#theme #youliketotryeverythingdontyou) We were momentarily convinced that we had found the best snack in town when we pulled a chocolate ice cream bar made from camel’s milk out of the freezer, but Sammi’s reaction (captured in the photo below) suggested otherwise.

 

If it’s not camel ice cream, what is it?

 

After posing for a series of photos with a confusing sign (“Oh! They’re GLASSES!!!”) and navigating a coin-saving controversy, we finally found Kyrgyz gold. Tucked away in a corner of a shop was a box of goldfish. You know, like we used to eat as kids. But they were CHOCOLATE!!! What? I immediately bought a handful, only to discover that these were goldfish crackers covered in milk chocolate. Mind. Officially. Blown. I started to place a larger order when Sammi rightfully challenged me. “Why wouldn’t we buy all of them they had?” Yes, and! We bought every last chocolate-covered goldfish we could find in Karakol, and the adventures of the chocolate-covered goldfish had begun…

 

“That’s right. We even want you to scrape in the broken ones.”

 

This was such a good price. Do you know what these go for on the black market?

 

Stay tuned for fish-y updates.

Kazakhstan #3 – Hitching

18 Jul

The Life-Changing Magic of Hitchhiking

The final installment from our trip to Kazakhstan  — A guest blog by Patrick

Our hearts raced as we considered hitchhiking at night. We both had strict rules against it, but this was our hard trip and we were supposed to be daredevils and things had gone so smoothly thus far. We were leaning towards risking it as we departed Kolsai Lake 1, but then the universe spoke up: the construction crew was back at it and they refused to let us pass. After some aggressive back and forths with the grumbly foreman, we were eventually allowed to pass. We still hadn’t made up our mind as we approached Saty, the point of decision. We could stay comfortably there in our yurt again tonight, or risk it all and continue on with the Germans. As we drove down the main street one final time, we looked at each other and decided to go for it: we were throwing ourselves back into the life-changing magic of hitchhiking.

The sun goes down on Saty.

 

Our ride down the hill from Saty was quick thanks to Anna’s adept driving, but our spirits dropped as we noticed clouds on the horizon. The lightning started in the distance and grew closer as we approached our drop off point. A storm? Really? Had our luck run out? We said a heartfelt goodbye to our amazing German teammates, and hopped out of the car just as dusk settled in.

That massive storm was headed straight for us.

 

Hitching at dusk, a new experience!

 

We hurriedly prepared ourselves (Sammi had washed herself in the freezing cold lake before we left, but we both changed our shirts and transformed into non-threatening humans) and got to the road as quickly as we could. There was no time to waste! We were passed by three cars before the nicest Kazakh guy pulled up, smiled profusely as we explained we wanted a ride to Kegen, and immediately told us to hop in! Well, that was a stressful 8 minutes.

He knows how to count “One, two, three” in English. I know how to say “Shop” in Kazakh. It was a great conversation.

 

Our driver was so amazing – just genuinely helpful and interested in us. Unfortunately, he spoke about nine words of English, and our Russian was a little weak (Note to self: Learn Russian!). We somehow managed some broken exchanges about numbers and boxing and the USA. Luckily music is the universal language. Our new savior turned up his Kazakh tunes, finding a catchy dance/trance tune with some English. “It’s my life!” bellowed through the car on seemingly endless repeat. And never stopped. Our driver was so excited that the song had English in it that he had put it on repeat. “Is this torture?” Sammi asked.

One of the interesting things about traveling in Kazakhstan is that for many of the locals we interacted with we were the first Americans they had met. Apparently Kazakhstan isn’t at the top of American bucket lists. That was awesome for us, as many of our hosts and new friends were overly eager to meet an American in the flesh and brag about us to their friends. Or, in this case, girlfriend. Our driver was so excited that he insisted that we FaceTime with his girlfriend. While driving. On windy roads. In the dark. And rain. All of a sudden our dream ride had turned into a death trap with mind-numbing music. With that said, it was so much fun to soak up the joy he had from having us in his car, and we were more than happy to talk to his girlfriend in a language she couldn’t understand.

#safetythird

 

As we approached Kegen, the town near the border we hoped to stay in, we tracked down the location of the hotel we had read about on the map and instructed our new friend/driver to take us there. It was pouring down rain when we arrived, and the place looked not only deserted but slightly haunted. Uh oh. Our fearless friend got out of the car and tried to wake up someone in the hotel to no avail. He even stood out in the rain and called the number on the hotel to try to help us out. No luck.

gen·er·os·i·ty – (n) finding random Americans a hotel in the pouring rain after you’ve driven an hour out of your way out of sheer kindness

 

Sammi and I were somewhat concerned at this point, but luckily we were able to find another potential lead on the map. Our driver conversed with some locals, navigated around a massive hospital to the ‘Sauna Hotel’, and once again got out in the rain to try to find us some accommodation. This time the owner picked up his phone, came over, and showed us our warm, dry room. We took a photo with our new friend before saying goodbye. As we were parting we realized that he wasn’t even heading to Kegen (where we were) in the first place; he had driven an hour out of his way to take us where we needed to go.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

 

One of my favorite things about traveling is having the opportunity to accept the incredible generosity of strangers. Fundamentally, this world is an amazing place and people are full of love and joy. Traveling constantly puts you in situations where you don’t just want the help of others; you need it. And I never fail to be overwhelmed with gratitude for the locals who are willing to go out of their way (literally and figuratively) to help people who don’t even speak their language. This is what makes hitchhiking so magical – you literally put yourself at the mercy of the kindness of others, and they rarely disappoint you.

From my journal: “It’s amazing how much travel can broaden and deepen your belief in the goodness of people. The sheer generosity of others, especially when asking nothing in return, frequently brings me so much joy.”

This text exchange between Sammi and Helen is perfect.

 

We enjoyed the banya (we were staying at the Hotel Sauna, after all), got some sleep, and started prepping for tomorrow’s adventure: hitching across the border to Kyrgyzstan. We woke up to blue skies, high spirits, and incredible thirst. We set off to find a magazine, where we promptly bought too many cookies (#theme #youliketotryeverythingdontyou) as well as some much needed water. We found a small cafe tucked away next to a shop and enjoyed a delicious meal of soup and dumplings. We were joined by a Japanese traveler who was biking around the world, and enjoyed swapping travel stories. He also agreed to take our extra cookies, which was a huge win.

The morning scene outside of our hotel.

 

Breakfast! Don’t ask what a Wenice is.

 

Buoyed by full stomachs and having finally found the bathroom (“The lady finally just walked me there”), we set off to the border. It’s not everyday that you wake up with the goal of hitchhiking into Kyrgyzstan! After Sammi epicly missed a high five with a local and a man with a gun went running by, we caught our first hitch with the nicest father and son who were driving to the next town in an old Soviet car that was missing it’s front seat. The father had the heartiest laugh ever and enjoyed talking to us in Kazakh about things we couldn’t understand.

Hitch #1: Is that a tar truck?

 

From there we had a short walk past a mosque before catching a ride with two construction workers to the end of the town by the border. Now we were a mere 11 km from the border. We were passed by four cars in a row before we hit the jackpot. A car pulled over with plenty of space and motioned at us invitingly, pointing to the back seat. We started to get in and were surprised to find a large British man with a bigger backpack than we had ever seen. The man then started to wave us out along with the British guy. The driver, satisfied by his empty car, then sped off in the other direction.

“What just happened?!?” I asked Sammi. We thought we were getting a ride but then we got an extra traveler instead. It was the INVERSE HITCH, every intrepid traveler’s worst nightmare. Instead of getting a ride to our destination we now had to figure out how to hitch with another human and twice the luggage. Alas, Kazakhstan wasn’t going to let us go that easily!

We started walking and were beginning to accept our fate when a tiny Soviet car packed full of people pulled over. After some careful rearranging of children and things, we somehow managed to get our stuff into the trunk and pile into the back seat. And so, the eight of us went on our way, Sammi and I, our inverse hitch British friend, three children, and two adults, along the final 11 kilometers of bumpy, rocky road to the Kyrgyz border. The car literally scraped the ground every time we hit a bump, and everyone’s foot fell asleep. But we made it to the border and were overly grateful for the three rides that had made our day traveling over rough roads so smooth.

Smalled up.

 

We watched the tiny car drive off into the distance (it turned out they were headed North along the border) and walked across the border. Things were going smoothly and we were feeling a little too confident. Sammi snapped a quick photo of me heading into Kyrgyzstan, and was immediately called out by a soldier. He demanded to see her phone and threatened to deport her over and over again. He was pretty clearly looking for a bribe, but Sammi was so surprised by the turn of events that she didn’t recognize his intent. Fortunately, he eventually relented and allowed her to cross through. Our morning was a success, and now it was time to turn our focus to a place we were even less prepared for. Readers, we’re headed to Kyrgyzstan…

Walking into Kryz…I mean Kyrz…I mean Kryg…

 

Kazakhstan #2 – “Eight Minutes of a Hard Bit”

17 Jul

This is the next (favorite) post about our adventures in Kazakhstan.
A guest blog by Patrick.

 

We awoke the next morning without a plan; we had meant to make a plan the night before, but we were tired and the great thing about traveling with a resourceful travel partner is you can afford to wing it. Alex had let slip that hitchhiking in Kazakhstan was pretty easy, and we both knew that hitching was in our future. We surveyed the map and found a remote alpine border crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Yes, please.

We said goodbye to the incredibly generous Alex (THANK YOU SO MUCH!), and made our way back to our favorite subway ever for the ride to the regional bus and taxi stand. We had to walk a bit from the station, and had quite an adventure along the way: Sammi found an artificial turf couch to relax on, we decided to be daredevils and cross a major road without a crosswalk, and Sammi was asked in a language we don’t know to watch a baby while the mother bought a kebab. Sammi just smiled and nodded; the baby survived.

Ok, so it’s not the WHITE COUCH from the Dream Flat, but…

 

Our new Kazakh friend/savior.

 

We had planned on taking a taxi out of the city and then hitching a ride up to Saty (a mountain village with homestays and access to gorgeous alpine lakes). We casually walked up to the taxi stand and quickly realized that we knew no Russian, had no idea what we should be paying, and were totally unprepared to negotiate our safe passage. Whoops! We had been lulled into a false sense of confidence! Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as it seemed while being led around by a CouchSurfer. Luckily, this wasn’t our first rodeo. We walked away, regrouped, and made a plan. The SIM card we had received from Alex wasn’t working for data, so we started asking around for help. Before we knew it we had located an incredibly nice gentleman (pictured above) who got some boys to help set up our internet. Voila – we had google translate! After posing for photos with several locals, we had a great exchange with our new friend who agreed to take us to the taxi and negotiate a good fare. We paid half as much as the other tourists in our car. 😉

“We had eight minutes of a hard bit” -Patrick

Topics of conversation during the taxi ride from Almaty: how great traveling together is, how great we are at traveling, and how great traveling is. Our newly ingrained trifecta!

 

We had negotiated to hop out at the crossroads to Saty with the plan to hitch from there. No matter how confident you feel, hitchhiking always takes a little bit of a self pep talk. Luckily there were two of us, so we were able calmly collect each other and prepare for the arduous struggle of being turned down repeatedly. We readied ourselves and stuck out our thumbs. Ten minutes and three cars later, we had a luxurious ride in an SUV all of the way to Saty. #hard

Hitchhiking: Minute 1 of 10.

 

Our wonderful hitchhiking hosts were three lovely Germans: Harry, Anna, and Anika. They were on virtually the same itinerary for the next couple of days as we were, and in no time ‘Team Find the Lake’ was formed. We arrived in Saty and introduced our new friends to one of our favorite past times: surveying every accommodation option in a village and then deciding which one is the best. SO. MUCH. FUN. We quickly found our dream yurt, owned by a nice family and surrounded by apple trees. Sammi and I were sold, and so were our German friends after they visited four other places. We could barely contain our excitement when Anika translated “Your yurt is ready.”

Our first successful hitch of the trip – on our way to Saty!

 

We settled in, had a delicious tea break, and then set off to Kolsai Lake. We ran into some serious obstacles along the way, namely a grumpy National Park employee who grilled Harry and an intense construction crew who were paving the road. After some Harry/hairy maneuvering, we found the gorgeous lake just in time to sit down and watch the sun go down. It was beautiful until a Kazakh guy walked right in front of us, got out his soap, and started bathing in the middle of our view. We returned home for a delicious family-style dinner of lamb and potatoes before crowding around the television to watch the World Cup Final.

The surreal drive to Kolsai Lake.

 

Team Find the Lake becomes Team Found the Lake.

Following a great night’s yurt-sleep, we awoke to find ominous weather bearing down on us. After hours of deliberation over breakfast, we finally decided to try to drive to Kaindy Lake and leave the epic hike we had planned for another day. “Who wants to hike in the rain?!?” We set off for the closest magazine (that’s Russian for shop) to stock up on provisions. When the first magazine didn’t have everything we needed, we moved onto the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, before we had scoured every shop in Saty. “You like to try everything, don’t you?” Harry asked us. He nailed it. We felt like The Very Hungry Caterpillar as we worked our way through Kazakh chocolate in beautiful packaging, Coke that wasn’t quite cold enough, round bread, nectarines, sausage, orange donuts, and mystery dessert sticks.

“If I had asked you yesterday how many times we would drive up and down this main road, what would you have guessed?” I asked as we finally made our way out of town. We missed our turn to the lake which allowed us to participate in Patrick’s favorite activity (Backtracking), then had a gorgeous drive through a river and into the mountains.

The drive to Kaindy Lake.

 

Pit stop!

 

We arrived a Kaindy Lake, famous for its upright Spruce Trees that are still standing from the day the lake was formed by a landslide about 100 years ago. We were greeted by some amazingly generous locals, who shared freshly picked apples and boursaki with us before sending us down to the lake. We spent a lovely morning chatting with a Kazakh-American couple we met, picnicking along the banks of the lake, and, of course, swimming. “If we’re going to swim somewhere on this trip, this should be the place.”

The hospitality of the Kazakh people was amazing.

 

“I know my way sucks but it’s what I’m doing.”

 

“The hard bit.”

 

“Who’s excited to talk about credit cards?”

 

Bingo!

 

#hard

 

“Did you see that yellow duck?”

 

#lakelife

 

We hiked around to the other side of the lake before returning home for dinner and an explanation of the exclusive nature of Bavaria. Our homestead was bustling with a long-haired greyhound (“Does that count as a unique animal?”), frolicking children (“Do you think I can just pick him up?”, and a deformed sheep. We had fun flossing and brushing our teeth, bathing in the Russian banya, and admiring the beautiful scenery.

“Sorry about the (w)hole situation.”

 

“Down low, too slow!”

 

The next morning involved another round of intense deliberations about what to do and whether it was worth hiking to Kolsai Lake 2 given the weather. Team Find the Lake eventually settled on the hike, so we immediately traveled to the closest magazine(s) to buy more supplies. Sammi and I were elated; the cream-filled shortbread sandwiches we found were delicious. We found our way back to Kolsai Lake and set off on our hike in the pouring rain. A local guide looked us up and down, advised that the hike was long and hard, and identified Sammi as the only one of us who was properly prepared. Way to pack that poncho, Sammi!

Tromping through the mud!

 

Team SnackAttack.

 

#worthit

 

The hike was long, muddy, and beautiful. We passed through rolling hills of wildflowers, under dense forest, and along rushing waterfalls. There were lots of snack breaks and photo opportunities in between hours of deep conversation and soaking in nature (literally, because it was pouring). Team Find the Lake faced some serious adversity, but we lifted each other’s spirits and made it to Kolsai Lake 2! As we arrived, we were confronted by heavily armed Kazakh soldiers who asked to see our passports. We were less than a kilometer from the Kyrgyzstan border, and they take crossing international boundaries seriously. We paused for a little picnic in the sun(!) before making our way back through the mud to the car. It was a long but rewarding day, and everyone was exhausted.

“I’m running ahead so I can take your picture!!!”

 

Oh my god, she spelled it correctly.

 

Team Found the Lake (#2)

 

So. Happy.

 

Sammi and I had started to formulate potential plans for our next step in the morning, and were considering catching a ride with our German friends back down to the crossroads where they first picked us up. From there it would be about a 45 kilometer hitch to the town of Kegen, located near the Kyrgyz border. However, as our hike wore on and the day grew later, we started to question whether it was a good idea. Do we dare attempt hitchhiking at dark?

Team Found the Lake (Twice!), Fell in the Mud, Ate a Lot of Snacks, Took a Lot of Photos, and Survived Three Days Crammed Into the Duster

 

Kazakhstan #1 – God Almaty

15 Jul

A guest blog by Patrick

As we landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, we quickly realized that we had reached a pinnacle of collective exhaustion. Our minds raced with important questions. Why didn’t we get ANY sleep over the past week? Why didn’t we sleep more on the plane? Do you think it’s safe to take a nap in a random park? It was tiring to think about being so tired. Not to be outdone, our stomachs worked on overdrive trying to digest the enormous amount of food we had consumed at not one, not two, but three airport lounges along the way. #prioritypass

After receiving advice from a Kazakh woman that it was definitely not a good idea to take the bus from the airport into town, we promptly exchanged money and headed for the bus stop. Our first experience on Kazakh public transport was surprisingly pleasant – the woman sitting behind us even grabbed Sammi’s head and placed it on my shoulder after she kept nodding off in the other direction. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all!

We made our way across town, through a market with exciting looking fruits and veggies, and to the flat of our amazing CouchSurfing host Alex. He was headed out for beer, but we explained that we were a little tired and were going to have an early evening. We got to know his two cats before falling asleep immediately.

Our CouchSurfing hosts: one of them will cuddle you all night long and the other will snore.

 

We awoke the next morning ready to explore, and Sammi made sure that Alex knew it with her typical morning energy. If she had brought her tail, it would have been wagging. Alex had arranged for us to go camping in the mountains with his friend, but the weather didn’t cooperate so we called an audible and planned a day trip to the mountains and a tour of Almaty instead. We caught a bus outside of his flat and were engaged in an interesting conversation when a woman leaned over and said something in Kazakh to Alex as she was exiting the bus. “What did she say?!?” we asked with excitement. “Don’t talk so loud!” he responded. Oh.

We hopped off the bus outside the subway and had the ABSOLUTE PRIVILEGE of riding the Almaty subway for the first time. It was clean, cheap, and provided plenty of space for stretching. We immediately started to ponder if we could just spend all day riding the subway! “There’s only 6 stops,” Alex reminded us.

With our luxurious underground ride sadly behind us, we headed to a local cafe to meet Alex’s friend Zoe for breakfast. We were starving after going to sleep without dinner the night before, and quickly perused the menu with English translations that the waiter assumed we needed. I turned to the drinks section and was frozen in my tracks. ‘Latte Popcorn’ was listed on the menu. Latte Popcorn? Are my eyes deceiving me? Is that what I think it is? Is this one of those situations where the person who did the translating just really didn’t grasp English? We asked Alex and he confirmed that there was in fact a ‘Popcorn Latte’ on the menu. Given that our friendship with our CouchSurfing hosts was still new, we both tried to contain our excitement as we cooly ordered one each. Our friendship had been forged in rural Jamaica over endless pots of every type of popcorn we could dream up. We invented jerk popcorn. We love coffee because it makes us both crazy. And now, in this remote corner of the globe that we knew nothing about, we had found the epitome of a coffee drink – LATTE POPCORN. We calculated the odds that we would ever see ‘Latte Popcorn’ on a menu again in our lives – they are astronomically low!

Thanks a latte!

 

We had a delightful breakfast eating salad, soup, and a delicious baked veal dish while we discussed American impressions of Kazakhstan. We explained that many of our friends and family were concerned about us because they felt that Kazakhstan is dangerous. To this Zoe responded, “Dangerous? Where?!?” and looked under the table. Apparently Kazakhstan is actually an incredibly safe place. Phew, what a relief!

We caught a bus into the mountains, hopping off at a ski resort where we took the funicular up into the jagged peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. As we were getting ready to board the funicular, Sammi and I were only mildly concerned to find the basic rules of behavior if you are taken hostage posted next to the opening and closing times. “Dangerous? Where?!?”

“Don’t neglect the food.” That’s one you don’t have to tell us.

 

HARD hiking in the dangerous Tian Shan mountains.

 

FUNicular.

 

Is this the hard bit?

 

Public transport in Khazakstan, where the hardest part is not talking too loudly.

 

The funicular ride was gorgeous, and we had nice walk at the top before heading back down into town. Our whirlwind tour took us through Central Park where we were informed that “Almaty is the 2nd best city in the world after New York”, you shouldn’t dance to the military music at a war memorial, and if you buy a can of Yeti you’ll be getting a Red Bull like energy drink (because what Sammi and I need after drinking Latte Popcorns is more caffeine). We made our way to Green Market to work on our Bingo card: camel’s milk (gross), mare’s milk (gross), hard dough candies made from camel’s milk (gross), and the largest horse meat market we had ever seen. Sammi made friends with an Uzbeki fruit and nut salesman that let us try EVERYTHING, which is pretty much our dream come true.

Getting to try everything that you want at the market is HARD.

 

From there we caught a cab to a local restaurant to try some authentic Kazakh fare. While driving through the streets of Almaty, we observed a man reach into the car in front of us from the outside and start running. A man jumped out and started yelling, and before we knew it Alex had told our taxi driver to step on it and run that man down. WE SPED THROUGH THE STREETS ON A CHASE THAT WAS STRAIGHT OUT OF A MOVIE! When we caught up to the guy, Alex jumped out and ran him down! Alex forced him to stop until the man from the original car arrived and explained that the thief had stolen his money. Apparently he was a druggie. Alex calmly jumped back into the car and directed the taxi driver to continue to the restaurant. “DANGEROUS? WHERE?!?”

Watching the England game with real English beer.

After a delicious dinner of plov and handmade Chinese-style noodles which we got to watch them make, we swung by the store to pick up some horse meat jerky and beer for the England-Belgium World Cup Consolation Final. After watching the game we jammed on the guitar and harmonica (it turns out Bob Marley genuinely is universally loved) before heading to bed.