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trying to keep you non Slovaks in loop in case you want to know more than what you can guess from the pix, love you all!

Navrus @ Bayon Olgyi, Western Mongolia

Olgyi inhabitants celebrating Navrus, which is by far the biggest Central Asian holiday (equivalent of our New Year’s). Being the only one in ‘my district’ with the camera involved me in visiting 10 houses & eating kilograms of mutton, horse and cow, drinking 17 cups of milk&salt tea and taking over 421 pictures of everything around… Can it get any more real? :)

1 week in Bayon Olgyi

Our arrival in Olgy was full of action, also very intensive and more chaotic than anything else in “my Mongolia” before.  I was hopping on and off the Gazik at least 4 times at various places, where my co-travelers had some family values, members, friends or relatives.  Since I speak no Mongolian, except for a few words, I somehow felt like some dirty laundry being moved from one house to another.  At each place, there was lots of tea being served, also soups, meat dishes, potatoes and at least half a dozen of ‘sto gram’, which means a stakan of vodka.  Before you down the first sto gram, you dedicate a bit to Mother Earth by dipping your ring finger into it and splashing a bit of a mug.  Some kind of a shaman-to-protect-us ritual.  After the first one, it’s all a no chaser downing process.

Singing came up, pictures continued, and blurriness finished the warm welcome.  Surprisingly “my form” is still good enough and, luckily, heavier and big Mongols got quicker to the ground than me.  I can’t really use the term years of practice, since they are almost all over 50 and know well how to play this game.

When we finally came to the Zharghan’s house (I have no idea what time it was and barely remembered we had not walked but someone drove us home), he was comfortably wasted, so his son took off his shoes and his wife, who had not seen him for a month or so, only quietly put a pillow under his head.  I sat in a small room with about 7 other people, all leaning against the empty wall.  Being polite and feeling alright, I even tried some Russian with the group of strangers in the room.  Half an hour later I only blew up my mattrace and with some kind of a smile on my face zipped up my Mountain Hard Wear sleeping bag.  At that moment my travel through the wild Mongolia was over.

I am waking up in the middle of the night.  It’s cold, I have “the Sahara” in my mouth and can’t breath whatsoever,  since my nose is completely blocked.  It’s pitch black, there are people sleeping around me, Zharghan snoring, but otherwise I haven´t got the foggiest idea about the constellation or the number of the attendees.  I know there is my bottle of water handy somewhere, but at the time being, have no idea where.  My bladder is close to giving up.  I need to get out into the freezing darkness.  Memories of high altitude places in Nepal came to my mind, the places, where you have to do such an activity 3-4 times a night, and every night.  I step under the starry skies. There is no light, just theirs.  I don’t remember seeing anything, even close to something similar to this, in my whole life.   It surely is at least 24 below zero, so just a few minutes later I am back, breathing into my sleeping bag and knowing that any liquids consumption before the sleep next night will definitely be skipped.

I am waking up before 7 am.  The room is full of the sleeping family members.  It’s so cold that I dig back my head into the blue sleeping bag.  The family wakes up but it’s the mother who needs to get up first.  Cold steam leaves my mouth while she puts some wood and the dried yak dump on fire.  The oven makes the place hot quickly.  We are having a morning milk&salt (traditional Mongolian) tea, well, 5 cups per person at least.

Olgyi is the second largest city in Mongolia (supposedly populated by about 150k people).  However, it’s not a Mongolian city really, since most of its inhabitants are actually Kazakhs (Kazakh Mongolians).  An hour in the city was enough for me to know that, in some way, I was truly stuck in here.  I generally prefer land travel and avoid flying as much as I can, but this time I need to wait for a flight, since there is no other choice for me to get to Kazakhstan.  The next and the only flight leaving Olgy is scheduled in a week.  Luckily (and stupid to say), there is an internet café, which I consider almost a miracle and a life savior in the city center.  Nobody, however, browses, nor types.  It’s purely an online multiplayer venue, where the youngsters enjoy reaching another level in blood hungry PC games.

It’s been a week since I left UB and tomorrow will be a big-big day for all of Olgy’s inhabitants. It’s a day called Navruz, which is an adaptation of the pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations (equivalent of our New Year’s) and by far is considered the greatest holiday in the whole Central Asia.  The kids clean the houses and help mothers with preparing food, hang carpets on the walls and add up a few more decorations here and there.

For me, it’s finally a day when I can go and take a shower.  There is no toilet, apart from the squatter outside that the few houses share, neither the running water in the 1 room house, where I stay with the Zharghan’s family.  (A wish is not to finally have a porcelain toilet, on which you can sit instead of performing a skiing position, but to have a toilet that is finally inside).

I have no clue how the showering system works and so I diplomatically point out that it would not be a bad idea to (finally) take a shower.  Zharghan rang some number and says we would be going to a sauna at 3.20pm that day. We then went to the city together and split our ways around noon time in the internet café after having a sto-gram from the freshly purchased bottle.  Before 3 o’clock Zharghan picks me up at the internet place again and we leave together for the shower.  It´s 3.20pm when I am entering a strange, old looking building with the public baths and what I see really offers me a serious cultural shock. I am looking at an incredible number of people waiting for their turn to get inside, running, squeezing, standing, skipping the queue to pay and get a receipt with a waiting time.  We have none, and evidently, the phone reservation meant absolutely nothing.  We get a new bath time:  4pm.  Well, it ended up to be a 70 minute wait in the end and I was at the stage of giving up any showering, ready to leave the place and keep putting my icebreaker merino underwear into test for another day.  Luckily, all went fine in the end, we took sauna for an hour, during which I soaped up my entireself 3 times.  It was a great feeling to be clean again, especially when being aware that the next shower was not going to be taken sooner than in 4 days, in Kazakhstan.

This is how it works here and it surely takes time for me to get used to these really hard and unimaginable conditions of living.  All backpacking in general involves some kind of stepping out of your known homes, places and all other zones of comfort in your life.  Mongolia with its purist way of life represents a proper test of endurance and perseverance to stay calm, happy, positive, and patient.  Dozens and dozens of times I caught myself in situations, when being exposed to such a little comfort and hygiene status and allowing myself only the very base of physiological needs.  I had been to some poor countries and places before, out of which I’d put Bangladesh as the hardest destination to travel, but being here now, in winter Mongolia, I consider it its hardest competitor.  Sleeping on a floor of a small house with a 6 member family is still fine, also not having  running water available for weeks, being many times either too hot or two cold, wearing the same clothes and not having any personal space to change a simple clothing item seems bearable. At the same time though, to represent and be talkative, positive and not complaining in all that long time, this all may possibly offer a really strong test of character.

There are surely big differences in duties performed by men and women in Kazakh/Mongol families.  Father is surely a breadgiver and babymaker and works many times outside of home, not seeing his family for weeks or months.  Almost all men smoke, being outside or inside of the house.  It’s completely normal for a woman to have 5-7 children.  Women with their kids take care of the household.  Wife usually makes bed for the family members, cooks, mops the floor every night, hand washes clothes and does the whole cleaning in general.

The whole week in Bayon Olgyi actually ran pretty quickly and it was a great experience to see how people live in this still unexplored part of our planet.  The weather was improving and getting warmer and warmer every day.  It was sunny pretty much every day but the temperatures dropped easily by 20-30’C by nights.  My time in Western Mongolia was full of observations, learning things about Kazakh Mongols (as well as myself) and was packed with local experiences.  We ate rich food consisting of meat every day.  There were guests and neighbours coming and visiting our house during every single day from 7am till late midnights.  People sit, have a tea, discuss somthing, talk, eat, leave to let the others come and so it goes.  Slurping soup and tea is a must and, being later out of Mongolia, in Kazakhstan, I caught myself still slurping, which I found pretty funny . Burping is fine and noisy farting is allowed only to father in the family.  One of the highlights of my last week in Mongolia was a 2 day trip to a town called Sengel, where we went to visit Kenz Bair and his family.  The drive, welcome, hospitality, wooden houses and fences in the village, sto-grams, nature with snow capped mountains behind the frozen lakes wrote down just another unforgettable experience in my heart.

After a week of staying at the Zharghan’s place in Bayon Olgyi, my time to say good bye came.  Even though I was buying some food/drinks/sweets for the kids and family on a daily basis, I left Zharghan with some money to fix his 3 falling out teeth (despite being sure it will not be used to cover dental expenses to eliminate his pain) and left the girls with probably the first toys in their lives, the 2 dolls I still carried from Slovakia.  After sto grams with Zharghan before the dreadful check-in procedure at the Olgy airport, I jumped on a plane with the feelings of unidentified satisfaction that I have really made it…With the feelings and all those deep emotions, still mixed up with a need to leave this hardship at least for a while and finally enjoy a dump somewhere in an indoor bathroom…

Roadtrippin’ Mongolia

Part 1 – Yes or No

The clock confirms it’s something past 10pm. I’m sitting on a bed with a half broken mattrace and a pillow. The sheets with no linings are animated by stains having been formed there ever since the evergreen year of their purchase. The doors to the room are permanently open. There is some music flowing in from the corridor’s buzzing TV, men’s chat from the other rooms and an occasional girl’s giggle add up to the audio. The Kazakh hotel room where I am sitting is never empty. People come and go, enter, or peep in only, say something or nothing, smile or not, look around as if searching for their comrade chauffeur, wonder a bit and leave (me).

Nobody speaks any English here and only a few of many in the premise have some Russian palabras still lying somewhere deep in their memory, no matter how much dusted over the years passed since the 10th grade of their elementary school. We always seem to try using them in our favor to (try and) open up a short ‘knowing-me-knowing-you’ conversation.

It’s Tuesday and I am still in Ulaanbaatar. I was supposed to be on my way to the farthest west of Mongolia, the city called Olgyi, yesterday….Well, things did not go my way.. The whole roadtrip is to last 2-3 days; a 48 hour drive or so they say. The drivers I met at the Kazakh Hotel here in UB just a few days ago had evidently some problems with their license plate (papers) so the police did not let us leave on Monday as it had been planned. After numerous phone calls using strangers’ phones (I don’t have mine in practice) and understanding very close to nothing (my Russian is a mid class rust) I got the info we would be leaving at 2pm the next day, Tuesday, 15th March ’11.

When I got to the Kazakh hotel 5-6 hours ago today, I knew it was going to be all but easy to make it to Olgyi by wishful Thursday or latest, by Friday. Friday would actually be the only day of a week when I could get a plane from Olgyi to my next destination, which is Kazakhstan. Sitting here now and ashamed to take out my netbook  and play some music not to look too posh, I have got plenty of time to be clever and realize there is a massive challenge proportion lying on my plate and/or a very little chance for me to make it all the way to Olgyi in time, taking into the consideration the hard conditions that are surely awaiting us in the next few days.

Somehow, however, I am taking it mentally very easy. Originally I was not planning to fly at all and wished to get all the way (probably over 11k km) from Mother China to the Sweet home named Bardejov by land. I spent a day running around UB looking for the answers to my potential travel options from Olgyi to Kazachstan, and got 3 in total. The first, and the most exciting one (however, time consuming and in winter time less certain) was a 3 day drive by a shared taxi, including border crossing from the West of Mongolia to China (Urumqi) and 2 more days from there to Almaty (KZ). However, the borders are apparently open 2 weeks of the month only and the next two weeks these are closed, so things could get really complicated and you wouldn’t want to mess around and get stuck in the middle of nowhere when it’s averaging 20 to 25 below zero at night. The second option, an exciting and easy one, would be a 2 day drive to Kazakhstan via Russia. Nevertheless, I don’t possess the bloody Russian visas, and only the transit would cost me 70 euro, which is ridiculous, not mentioning a compulsory pile of papers and bureaucracy steps in UB to get all the stuff done. The third option is a double flight combo (Olgyi – Oskemen – Almaty), lasting around 4-5 hours and reducing my budget by $295. Well, I have always felt this trip would be more of an adventure, shaping up its own way in its own time and no mater what I do or how hard I try, it’s not going to help much, just cause stress or create unneeded disappointments.

***

I was just asked to move to another ‘hotel’ room, plans and things around change within an hour. First of all, and as I have said earlier, I should have been on the road for over 29 hours by now, secondly, I left the hostel at 1:50pm today to meet the guys and leave at 2ish. In Mongolia, patience is the key to success, since traveling here itself is by far not so easy and language barriers on both ends (me and the Russian speaking Kazakh-Mongolians) can create quite a lot of havoc.

All I do is trying to keep things simple and you bet that during my all 8 hours of waiting for the departure I was always ready to jump off in a first whistle.

I had another alternative, to be honest, and even said to myself earlier this Tuesday morning that if the guys did not turn up at the meeting point (The State Department Store) between 2 and 3 o clock, I would leave and take a 15 hour train ride to the Chinese borders down south and from there cross pretty much the whole of China from Inner Mongolia (Chinese province) to Urumqi in the western Sinkiang province. Adding 2 more days to get to Almaty would have resulted in a week of travel (about 55-60 hours net train time and 28 hours on a bus after as a bonus). Making decisions by my naturally given talent of time play & logistics, I found this way to be cheaper and safer, but would involve backtracking to China, from which I have just come. Needless to say, this trip would be by far less adventurous and would not offer me enough new things to experience, since I already knew what to expect from train transportation in China. On the opposite, roadtripping through frozen white Mongolia for 2-3 days in a Russian old-school jeep (gazik) undoubtedly sounded like an ultimate (crazy maybe) way to go and presented another proper challenge for me to add up into my traveler’s basket.

When my driver Zharghan did not come by 2:30, I used a near-by stander’s phone to see how the story was unfolding. Well, the near-by stander is, however, too busy and before I get any info from the receiver, I need to hand him the phone back. Dang. Sometimes I hate myself for being so (European) time punctual. It’s almost 3pm and I am still standing at point Zero.  I am entering the department store knowing there is an information desk. Lady understands English, dials the digits and finds out Zharghan has no idea where I am, why I am waiting there (and probably why I am and not at the Kazakh Hotel – this is only what I think for now). The outcome of the phone call works out well though. They are coming in 30 minutes and picking me up here. Well, a half an hour in Mongolia is, as a matter of fact, more Brazilian than UK based, so after standing outside for almost 41 minutes, half frozen, I re-enter the Department store and the nice information desk officer redials the number, doing me another big favor. Yeap, the boys are coming and I choose to wait for them inside now. Finally, the decision not to go back to China is confirmed.

My new room, where I choose to sit, just not having a choice other than one empty bed with used-up bedsheets, contains 3 drivers, all chain smoking cheap local ciggies. Everybody sits or lies on everybody´s bed. Hygiene almost none, privacy zero. All of the guys are friends or so-called brothers, have the same hard jobs with little money and heaps of worries, so why stress their pure lives by anything else?! Bed sheets have surely not been washed for ages, the rubber floor displays all kinds of spots and is burnt by dozens of previously dropped and crushed cigarette buds.

Time is ticking… But not here. By all means I am not feeling uncomfortable. Rather opposite, and safe. People are friendly in their own way and I am sure there will be no trouble. It’s too early (or late?) to think about my Friday’s plane that I will most likely miss. Luckily (in some way), there is no online booking of a ticket available, the flight can be purchased only on a place, which means locals will sort me out and find a way how to move me to Kazakhstan.

Que sera sera, I am feeling prepared for whatever Mongolia brings. I have been dreaming to „breathe the air“ of this unique country for over 9 years. The driver seems to be ready, he changes his oily clothes, rubs his leather jacket with his greasy pants to make it shine a bit, washes his hands and now we all seem prepared to hit the road…/

Something after 11pm I am stepping out into the darkness with  the kind of excitement I can hardly  describe…Just as if it was not -23’C outside and I was only to enjoy a few hour ride to a Disneyland….

Part 2 – The Drive

We are leaving the sparsely lit suburbs of Ulaanbaatar around midnight. It’s 4 of us in total, the 2 drivers whom I met already (Zharghan, Kenz Bair) and his sister-in-law. It’s really cold in the car and I am wondering if this “Soviet machina“ has any heating. There is a gap on my left window and bits of insulation seem to be missing. I take all textile I can from my carry-on (my big bag is stuck behind me, so I can only dream to have more things handy) and sticking my Slovak flag into the window gap, putting a towel and the Mongolian flag on my hip side not to touch and feel the freezing doors from inside, I whisper to myself : “Boy, this is gonna be fun !?“. We drive till 3am this night and turn the engines off at a moon lit place where 7-8 gers (Mongolian traditional rounded tents) stand. We step into one of them as if invited or visiting family or friends. We get a warm welcome, some hot tea and we lie by the inner side of the ger. I can’t really sleep, so I just lie for two hours practicing avoiding listening to fellas snoring right by my face.

Waking up at 5ish, a simple breakfast consisting of tea and some bread may start the true journey. It’s sunny, the sky is blue, I can see mountains shaping relief on the horizons, dark colored horses contrasting on white snow and occasional ger communities here and there..Holy smoke, now I am and I feel the true Mongolia. We make a few stops to see some horse/shaman pagodas that are on our way and also to fix the motor of our vehicle /wasn´t that too early?/, take a leak, some pictures, switch the driver or eat at Mongolian ‘motorests’.

The car is completely packed with luggage that can’t be properly attached to anything, so it flies around and pretty irritates the already squashed people on the back seats (me and the 51 year old woman) by falling on their heads and shoulders. The car is actually pretty cool, easy to fix (thank God), with lots of head space, less of the leg one though. It’s close to impossible on most of the way to do anything inside the jeep, not even a simple maneuver. You just have to sit still and be patient. I am still doing some reading and writing as much as my skills in moving objects on advanced terrains allow. A car radio is a forgotten luxury. At 1:30pm and after over a 19 hour ride today we stop at a ger to get some food and finally enjoy the lie down position. The next, third day of our trip, starts early. After less than 5 hours of sleep we move on. The weather is a killer and half of the scenery is just a no-snow, flat brown dead land with such strong wind you can’t even get out of the car. The doors push themselves to close and any attempt to pee takes really good practice. With my face full of sand after each involuntary break we embark gazik and move on. There was nothing spectacular to see out of a jeep window before we crossed the city of Altay. I noticed only blown-up tires, a few dead (possibly frozen) animals and empty oil and vodka bottles. At one ger in Altay, where we stopped to eat, one physically unattractive but a try-to-look-good local woman offered me to make her a baby and using her body language showed some other things she could do for me. I was a diplomat and said we were busy going, but perhaps on my way back from Olgyi to UB I will stop by. You know by now I am not heading that way.

I am starting to compare this adventure to my Caribbean Sea crossing when I left Colombian Cartagena to sail by a 10 meter boat to the San Blas Islands of Panama. The sail normally lasts about 2,5 days to reach San Blas. It took me 7 to get with my two South African captains to the southernmost San Blas island, which was 24 hours of sailing from the location where we intended to arrive. Some things are identical here, in some ways even harder. Nobody brushes their teeth and even my hygiene box is still stuck in a no-go gazik space. The only thing I can do is to skip this activity just like the rest of the crew. Using a deodorant would be an out of this planet act, since I already feel pretty strange using a tissue when blowing my nose instead of spraying it freely into the wind. Changing clothes?  Heh, a  no-way dream, just as long as are the days and nights.  Luckily I can dig out some socks from the head of my backpack on the third day.  That’s all in terms of changing clothes on this trip.

Smoking and eating while driving is normal and the harder you cough, the tougher you are. Putting a hand in front of your mouth is not a common practice. Toilets can be found only at villages and they are all outdoor, no-paper squatters, hundred or so meters in open space of stretchy frozen fields. When you get to one of them and it’s not full of snow, you enter it balancing yourself on a few planks, separated from each other by about 25 cm gaps. The deeper the hole below you is, the better – just make sure you have zipped up your pockets. The plank-gap-plank-gap floor is covered by a wooden box {size of 2×1 meters} with a few gaps to feel the freshness of freezing wind blowing at your naked bum. Toilet paper is as sparse as pigeon’s teeth, so you’d better come equipped. If you don’t find the toilet, you hide yourself behind the rocks or curtain of darkness when the night falls. Washing hands is also tricky since water is only inside of the ger (in a bucket, extremely rarely you see a sink) and soap is almost never available. 99.9% bacteria killer liquid solution is a must if you want to keep your stomach working as long as possible.

The night is falling and there is some hitchhiker asking for a ride. Zhargan offers him a spot between him and the shot-gun seat. The crew now consist of 4 Kazakh/Mongolians and one Slovakian. A few hours before sunset the scenery is changing dramatically and suddenly we are driving in a completely white country. It’s really cold but the heater inside finally started working. We are crossing a mountain in a terrain which brings the first “what if” thoughts to my mind… The hardest part takes almost 2 hours, first up, then down, very carefully, not doing even 10km hour speed. Luckily, we are on the other side and after a really uncomfy day affording ourselves some rest at another ger since 11pm. My butt cheeks hurt so much from all this jumping in the car that I can barely get out of it and when finally standing, the last thing I have on my mind is to sit again.

We leave the ger the next day (Friday) at 8am. It’s cold and cloudy and the white countryside sends shivers down my spine. We have crossed the mountains behind us and there is still at least another day to go. There are no roads, you just follow the path marked by the tires in fresh snow. The sunburnt faced Zharghan, our main driver, is an absolutely fascinating person. A 160 cm or so short, 53 year old man is a pro driver, who loves driving, the activity he has been doing since his age of 18. GPS is in his head and we never get lost. Ok, we had once a 360 degree experience and got out of tracks a couple of other times but that’s really all about it. He still keeps the good vibe going by being chatty, positive and humorous. He is also the only one who speaks some Russian. Kenz Bair is a tough guy, 32 of age, even though I was first estimating him something close to 40. He is a guy, who owns this jeep and is running a few businesses around Mongolia. Now he’s hiring Zharghan to drive him and his 50 year old, half deaf sister-in-law, to Olgyi. They speak only a few words in Russian and I sit next to the lady during the whole trip.

A few hours later we see some suicidal Mongolian maniacs driving a passenger vehicle Toyota here and soon we are giving them a hand (=chain) taking them out from being stuck in the snow. Less than an hour later we are stuck ourselves and we all try hard to push our GAZ back to freedom. (Not sure what will happen to the Toyota boys somewhere behind us this day).

Long hours sitting at the back are filled with eating, day dreaming, sleeping and if terrain permits, also by reading and writing. During the breaks when ordering some food, I am catching up with my diary and taking pictures of all the things around, the existence of which your brain can sometimes just hardly understand. (On the third and fourth days I am helping myself with the pink pill, as I can’t sit normally anymore. On the fifth my bum got used to it all (or found its way), so I am fine without any dope).

We arrive in a city called Hovd something before 1am and let the hitchhiker go his way. This is our final destination for the day. All I know we are staying at Kenz Bair’s family’s place. The welcome is intense, long, full of hugs with at least half a dozen of people. Family gathers, food and sweets follow. “National Geographic“ steps in and makes shots from all possible angles. Vodka and toasts are always available in between. I try a squatter toilet, the third time in 4 days and still unsuccessful. Is anything wrong ? /= toughen up, Tom, or so Sam once told me/. After downing about 7 shots it’s close to 4am. All of my companions share one of the two rooms in the house, I am getting the kitchen area,where we drank and ate. All the leftovers get swept from the floor, I get a mattrace and off we go to a tipsy dreamland.

Saturday welcomes us with blue skies, the sun and smiley happy family members. We have a massive breakfast (forget English breakfast or cereals, toast and orange juice) – a big plate full of meat joins the table. Mutton, cow and horse are served before 8am. Bread in Mongolia? No way, it just wastes space in your stomach. It’s a meatland! I am surprised not to see a vodka shot, but reckon at the same time, all the bottles were emptied only a few hours ago.

After heartly bye byes and wishes translated from language to language I leave the house and sit into gazik, still with pieces of horse between my side teeth. We have only six hours to go today. Everyone feels more relaxed, the golden sunshine travels with us during the whole journey today and we definitely enjoy the most beautiful scenery we have had on this trip so far. Snow capped mountains show up and disappear. We cross the hills and drive around frozen lakes, watch shepherds in their thick fur coats and hats, riding horses behind their livestock feeding on yellowish grass sticking out of white grounds. The colors change from waking up spring grasses to fascinating black&white naturally created images.

Unfortunately, stopping is not possible. The crew are target/destination driven, me more wishing to please the Lumix needs. I don’t dare asking them to stop more than once, so all the pictures taken are more from places where we stopped to eat, wee or fix the jeep. There was no need to have an openable window in a jeep in the Soviet era I reckon, so all I can do is at least keep some photodocumentary from behind the glass.

The whole roadtrip from UB to Bayon Olgyi through winter Mongolia lasted from Tuesday night till Saturday afternoon. We have crossed 1700 kilometers in a Russian gazik, out of which only about 450 (right outside of UB) are paved, and spent 62 hours net time driving, making an average of 27km/hour. The story written above is solely made by my perceptions and created by experiences and feelings I had had during those 5 days. The way I saw things or places I visited may be neither 100% correct, nor sufficiently described, just like me not being any writer. I truly wish and hope not to have offended anyone. Cheers for your support.

Story to come next – ‘Bayon Olgyi’.

Recap Reset Restart

Time’s ticking and mine at home is surely at its end. After spending almost a month in Slovakia, pleasing my Mom, enjoying my family and downing pints with friends, hosting Lucy and Mito in Bardejov, drinking water from the tap, not throwing toilet paper into the basket neither caring about my drink if someone threw a pill there, or not, I am almost back on track and ready to move on.

(Make your reading more fun – click here.)

I’ll be packing my heavy duty bag tonight since tomorrow I am off to
Bratislava and the day after (Jan 24) I am flying in the early morning hours from Vienna to Hong Kong, where my 3 month 2011 Trip begins.

Unfortunately, Mito stays in Europe and on Feb 7 starts a new AV job which he is really happy about. He will live in London so will host you guys if needed.

Over the last 3-4 weeks I have been working hard to get some visas sorted in advance, for the countries which I am plannig to visit, just to make the transfers smoother and transits easier. It’s been unimaginable pain in the @ss with few of them especially after not being used to needing any visas at all in Latin America. Just for your imagination, this paper bureaucracy business has not eaten only my nerves and energy but over 300 euros and I still lack some stamps in my passport!

Briefly about 2011 Trip:

After seeing Hong Kong skyline at night which has been my dream since some teen age, I will be moving to Philippines which I skipped in 2003 when traveling in the SE Asia with Kapi.  Plus I am happy to heat up my body after the European wet winter and before I come to Japanese and Korean mountains. Leaving the islands will bring me to Beijing from where I will be moving most of the time direction Europe.

I originally wanted to cross the whole Mongolia from Ulabaaar to the west before entering ‘jag she mash’ Kazakhstan. However, this plan will not work due to the poor infrastructure in Mongolia and having expected -10 to -20 degrees C below zero during March, when I will be there. Nonetheless I will get to Kazakhstan somehow either by returning to China or via Russia. The last country of this trip shall be Iran which is considered a must-see destination of the  whole Middle East. Unfortunately I don’t have the visas there yet (they were promised to be issued to me 3 days ago but were not even yesterday).

I am expecting this trip to be a full-on adrenaline adventure, much harder than all the previous ones, less organised, with no soft shells around and with lots of tourist unspoilt lands and people especially in the depths of the Central Asia.

Not sure what the internet connection and online availabilities will be like as I move on deeper into the continent, but everytime I find a chance to drop a line, I will greet you from this blog and try to keep it as much up-to-date as possible.

Before the new chapter starts I will definitely close the first one by adding some of Befores and Afters from the 2010 Trip.  See below.

***

At Ivan’s place while packing – Feb 9, 2010

Leaving UK

Start of Latin America Trip – entering Brazil

Leaving Latin America – Cancun, Mexico (20.12.2010)

Still looking for a reason ‘Why to Travel’ ?

Before

After

Mega up-to-date: triper.sk Recap Aug – Dec

Holy smoke, 4 months have passed since our last English Recap blog – and as usual, gallons of water have flowed since then in the river of Amazon…

Part 1 – Flow

Moving north from Peru in the beginning of August after 5 weeks that I spent there, got us through one of the dodgiest border crossings in South America to Ecuador.    Our time/place in Ecuador was planned in advance to meet up with 2 Slovakians, Lucy and Branko.  Lucy came to Ecuador to spend a month or so traveling with us (which ended up to be almost 2) while Branko was returning there after his trip to Galapagos for his last drinks on the South American continent which he was leaving after 2.5 months also traveling with us.  Once we had all met in one little Pacific coast village, Montanita, we had enjoyed a few cold ones and afterwards  watched some fish jumping high out of the ocean for some reason.

Our week in Ecuador was spent in a relaxed way, unusually not killing ourselves with too many activities since we had felt we had done it all in the previous countries earlier this year.  Thus, Mito was learning to use his way to surfboard in the right way, while I was planning how to travel through Venezuela safely and cheaply and getting ready for Colombia, about which I had heard only the greatest stories.

After the last bye-bye dinner with Branko, Lucy, Mito and I left Ecuador for Colombia, which we found a dream land from the very first night in the plastic surgery capital of the world Cali.  We then continued to see some coffee plantations in Manizales and visited Medellin where we couchsurfed at  Marcel’s place.

Coming to its capital was the second highlight of its own, when we had a great opportunity to spend 4 days with our friend’s, Rolo Vasquez’s family – This was a place where Mito could not wait anymore and left us without exploring inland Colombia deeper for the waves in the north.  The day 21 Aug was the day we split and after that did not meet till 2 months later.  Find his travel part about the water adventures he had had on his journey here.

Lucy and I continued in a group of two and visited Zipaquira (amazing salt cathedral), Barichara (one of the prettiest little towns I have seen during this year), and Villa de Leyva and Bucaramanga before leaving for Venezuela.  All our time in Colombia was fulfilled with meetings very friendly and open hearted people, every city and each place was truly welcoming and one of our other deep local experiences we had was visiting Freddy Vasquez’s friend, Giovanni, in Bucarramanga who let us stay in his house with all his family members.  He treated us the best way circumstances allowed only because friends of his friends are also his.  Truly hearty time.  Thank you Giovanni.

Part 2:  Venezuela

It’s one of the most feared to visit countries and surely with Paraguay the most avoided by backpackers in South America  (all right, I am not counting Suriname and Guayanas…).  Venezuela has this funny low safety heard-it-in-the-grapevine stamp and the black market currency need of use reputation that make people want to skip it and spend their time elsewhere.  In real life if you avoid big cities and/or are watching when and where you are going , you will be fine.  The black market is a must to use, since you get 7.9-8.1 Bolivars for 1 USD instead of 4.3 Bolivars that all the banks give you.  It’s easy and safe as peas to find places where to change it unofficially.  Higher denominations give you better exchange rates, of course so plan accordingly.

Our main objective was to visit Roraima (a Tepuis=Table Mountain) on Venezuelan/Guayanian/Brazilian borders.  It’s also called the Lost World and surely it feels like it.  There are only about 360 Tepuis in the world, out of which almost 310 are in Venezuela and 150 of them are all in one National Park – Canaima.  First of all,  it had taken us 44 hours to get there during which we did non-stop for a break or shower (37 hours on the buses, passport-drug-gun spread legs control happened to me on one of them 7 times between midnight and 9am so not the best sleep on the bus either, other 7 hours were spent waiting for the connecting buses to come).

Roraima is a spooky, mystic, magic, unbelievable and fantastic place all in one.  The mountain is 2 billion year old and out of approximately 2000 plants that grow on Roraima, 1000 are endemites.  I am definitely ranking it among top 3 things I have done in South America and can surely recommend this 6 day trek to all of you wishing for some true adventure.  Needless to say, a group of people that has met to climb Roraima was down-right-stupendous, which made the whiles worth a while.  (Steve, great Scottish/English buddy of mine in the picture has spent 5 days in the jeep with me cruising Salar Uyuni in Bolivia back in June.  This was not just a lucky coincidence).

Second place which happens to be in the same National Park – Canaima and is the most popular Venezuelan travel destination, is the Angel Waterfalls which are with its 979 metres ranked the longest in the world.  (You might have seen them both, Roraima and Angel Falls if you happened to see a Disney movie – “UP” – which I can now also recommend).

Roraima and Salto Anger Videos

Pix Roraima

Salto Angel

It took us only 37 bus hours also by numerous buses to get back from Canaima National Park to Colombia.  This time it was the Caribbean and hot sunny weather that was waiting for us in Santa Marta in exchange for very rainy Venezuela.  Great for a change and extremely happy to be in a smiley face country back again.  I spent some time on the coast, participated at the best Karaoke Couchsurfing night in my life and then came back to the Caribbean where I spent 2 weeks resting, chilling and enjoying the most romantic city of Colombia.  This was also the place where my foot touched South American soil for the last time.  Similarly like Mito, I took a sailing boat from Cartagena across the Caribbean to Panama City.

(Bye to South America English Article)

Even though the sailing trip was meant to last for 4-6 days, half of which is the sailing time and the rest is about enjoying the most beautiful islands of Panama, San Blas, my sailing lasted for 9 days and in the beginning (first 2-3 days) seemed like a crazy nightmare.  Later when I had changed to be another seawolf of a ship, all things span around into the right direction and my time on boat will surely be memorized as one of the coolest and unforgettable things I had done in my life.

Caribbean Sailing Videos link

Coming back to land was a great feeling though.  First of all, I had to wait extra 7 days in Cartagena for a sails ship, then I spent extra 4 days on it , which made my already squashed plans squeezed even more and resulted in me hitting the Central America roads quicker, also I wanted to catch up with the surfer asap.

I loved Panama City and spent 2 full days exploring it.  After that I took a night bus ride all the way to Costa Rica’s capital San Jose.  I originally wanted to see a bit more of Costa Rica, but the places I was recommended to visit were at that time negatively influenced by the rainy season, plus Mito , as well as some other travelers I met on the road , told me not to waste time in Costa Rica (for various reasons) and move on quicker up north.  I decided to have at least one truly local experience in Costa Rica so I Couchsurfed San Jose with 2 great Couchsurfers, spoke of their country and culture while downing (testing!) 13 pints of Costarican lagers.  This, better than an expected local experience, moved me to a morning bus and my never ending Central American hangover was accompanying me all the next day traveling to Nicaragua.  Thank God the border crossings were really easy.  I just put on the shades and said to myself I needed to look tough and move around as if I had passed those borders multiple times before.  All went smooth.  Changing local currencies where I made the local street hawker swear on his mother’s health that the money he was giving me was not fake made me feel good.  I took it easy down south in Nicaragua and stopped first in San Juan de la Sur, a place Mito and other co-travellers highly recommend.

To me, the place seemed more like a surfers’ place where everyone tries to look & sound cool, have branded swimmers and on land verbally show off they ‘do & know’ how to surf the waves.  Anyway, it was alright to stop for 2 days there and spend some time picking up some Pacific bronze.

Part 3 – Reunited

After exploring Granada quickly, the day D came.  2 months after splitting with Mito we had met in a city of Leon, near a place where we had hoped to achieve one of our dreams long ago back in London.  See details here.

After this we continued travelling together for 3 weeks, smashing another Nicaraguan volcano peak while living in a max bottom class & off-the-beaten track village of Potosi, where going to the toilet meant stepping over pigs chasing you for food.

End of Nicaragua meant passing thru Honduras quickly and coming to El Salvador.  Country highly recommended to me by a couple of individual travelers experiences almost 3700 gangs related to violent murders happening in it each year and by these statistics it belongs to one of the most dangerous in the world.  However, if you know where NOT to go, you are fine and most likely will be having your best local experiences while passing Central America.  Salvadorians are nicely described by the slogan – “We have the war. We keep going.  We have Hurricane Mitch.  We have Hurricane Stan.  Then we have some earthquakes, but Salvadorans, we keep on going.”  I loved their attitude, genuine friendship, willingness to help and hospitality offered on everyday basis.  Surely it’s been ranked my top country I traveled in Central America.

After arriving to Salvador I split for a few days with Mito, who went surfing and I continued exploring more inland parts of that country.  We re-united on Halloween night, put the Slovak hockey jerseys on and got slightly intoxicated.  After one night in the beach resort we continued exploring 2 more inland places together – Suchitoto and La Palma and then travelled to Guatemala thru Honduras again.  This time we visited Honduras most famous Mayan Ruins – Copan, and moved on to Antigua, Guatemala.

We really enjoyed colorfulness of Guatemala, sweet and friendly people in all places we had visited there.  It was actually the first country that welcomed us with cold evenings during which we had to use our jackets and even take out the sleeping bags for the night hours.

Best Comedor of Antigua

Part 4 – Sudden death

On the 8th day of waking up in Guatemala by the Lago Atitlan , we split again for 2.5 weeks.  I went back to Honduras, Bay Islands and Mito the opposite direction to Mexican Pacifico.  While being separated , we put another stripe on our travel experience ribbon – Dengue fever.  Thanks to Moni, who pushed me to see a doctor I survived this body & mind torture.  Mito had more of a self treatment , so it took him twice longer time to get over this non-sense.  This was not something we’d like any of you to experience and we are both happy that with God’s and loved ones’ help we are out of it.

After getting relatively fit to travel again I returned to Guatemala, skipped Belize due to losing days being in bed (plus it was not worth investing so much money in such a short time interval there).  I visited Tikal (possibly biggest and coolest Mayan Archeological site in Latin America) at North of Guatemala and crossed the borders to Mexico day after.  I did the classic tourist route but unusually quickly, more like in a fast forward mode.  Cities in which people spend 3-5 days on average each (Palenque, San Cristobal de las Casas, and Oaxaca) I did in 3 days in total, made my ‘ticks’ and headed to Mazunte beach to meet  Mito.  However, if you head down to South Mexico, allow more time for all three of them.

When we saw each other in Mexico, the first thing we had noticed was another weight loss.  Our mothers surely will not be very pleased to see their sons returning home being almost 10kgs down, but oh well, this is how the cookie crumbles when you backpack for so long I guess and Christmas plates back in Slovakia are usually quite rich.

So we had a few days together on a sunny Mexican Pacific coast beach which we enjoyed, even though it was slightly overcrowded by hippie people who are not our 100% cuppatea.  All’s good though, health returned almost fully back to normal and our next big chapter is Cuba.

I moved to Mexico City to get my Cuban Tourist Card sorted here and later visited my friend in Guadalajara whom I have known since 2004, from the times back in London.  I am flying to Cuba from Mexico City tomorrow (6th Dec), and meet Mito in La Havana who will fly from Cancun on the 7th.  It the end, we will both fly from Cancun back to Europe on the 20th Dec.

I hope I did not make you too bored by this crazy recap monster :)

Just in case you have not noticed since the last English update, we have introduced a few new features to our blog –

  1. Travel Map – to view places we had seen and destroyed
  2. Facebook Fanpage – for easier picture listing
  3. Video links with Thumbnails so we look a bit more Pro

Since internet costs $6 per hour in Cuba and is supposedly ridiculously slow, we will skip blog updates from there and will catch up with you all again once we’re back in Mexico (Dec 15) for the last sun rays in Tulum before adjusting back to already snowy winter in Slovakia.

Thanks for your time, suerte!….

Surfing trip South and Central America by Mito…

I was passing few times diferent spots in Peru  as Tomas.  I was looking more for surfing placies as for turists atractions.  I start my surfing trip in lovely Huanchaco (Point break – Right, Beach Break), which is small village next to Trujillo ( http://triper.sk/?s=huanchaco ), where I bought the board.

Unexpected with a good food, good waves, and amazing people I stayed there almost 9 days . After that I  decide to move more north to Chicama where are one of  the longest waves on the world ( http://triper.sk/?s=Chicama )…Amazing ( Reef Break – Right )

I couldn’t stay more there as 3 days because I had a meeting with Tomas in Mancora Peruvian the most famously city for holydays. We have been separated from Bolivia because I was Climbing Illimani  (http://triper.sk/2010/07/09/illimani/ ) and Tomas Machu Picchu (http://triper.sk/2010/07/09/mp-trip-pix/ ). Macora meeting was short , just one day surf  on 1h close beach ( Cabo Blanco – very nice waves!!! – Right, Reef break) with evening drinks and continue to Ecuador, passing Montanitu the best Ecuadorian surf spots , (Beach break)  and fabulouse place for parties . We just slept there :0))))))) and morning little bit sick was heading to Puerto Lopez, where we met with Branko and Lucka. Puerto is famous for whale watching and close to village you can surf also on absolutely virgin beach 10min, by local bus ( very loudly music in every super fast bus :))))) Beach breaks ).  This was my last spot where I was surfing, because after that, we travelled inside in countries Ecuador and Colombia,  which was little bit uncomfortable for me with a board. After 2 weeks I gave up visiting cities and created plan to get immediately on Caribbean site without visiting Venezuela, where I heard about possibilities for surf. Upon arrival I went, direct to small village Taganga , which is entry gate to Tayrona national park where I went next day ( http://triper.sk/?s=Tayrona+ ). In this lovely place I stayed 3days. I found out to on Colombian Caribian site, there are no waves in this part of year ( actually  I visited one Mendihuaca, but it was heavy beach break which was just smashing me down !!!!!)   I meet there one surfer, who ask and told me , what I’m doing here???? Just rapidly go to Panama to Santa Catalina you will enjoy there.  This all happened immediately , took the bus to Cartgena where I manage boat to Panama. ( http://triper.sk/?s=Boat+to+panama ).

In Panama I got a problem with camera trying repair, but in 3 days I just found out to my Nikon warranty is European and it is nothing to do with America.   They wanted to repair me for 250$ and with a waiting  time  2 – 3 weeks, what was impossible for me. I went for surf to Catalina, ( Beach breaks, World class Point break ). This place was nice but I didn’t feel there so comfy and opened minded  as in other countries. (  maybe I was too long on the boat :)))) . I dried out my camera from humidity of Colombian jungles and seams to be working from this point, just feeling to something is still wrong – focus problem) I wanted to do a change and the surfing friend told me about Pavones ( Costa Rica ), which is next to border with a longest waves in Central America.  It was painful to get there, because I changed maybe 6 local busies, to get there. Surpriiiice ..here is no waves at this moment and the new swell will come in 2 weeks!!! Sweaty, angry and over travelled I just turn back and with a very bed experience with a people ( all help is no help…just trick how to get money from Americano, how to cheat just to have them…)…just wanted to leave the country.  I travelled from one boarder crossing to other reach Nicaragua.  Absolutely contrast in countries , you can see direct on the boarder. I knew, to I’m coming to the lovely country with nice people and amazing surfing spots. Immediately, maybe 30min behind the boarders, is Nicaraguan surfing small village Sn Juan de la Sur

This amezing place was welcoming me with vibe what I was looking for. By the chance i meet my friend from Panama boat and we have been surfing there on Maderas beach Pointbreak – sleeping direct on the beach http://triper.sk/2010/09/20/nicaragua-san-juan-y-madera/ )I met there more friends for surfing and we been there around 2weeks .  And Remanso beach 1 week very nice waves ( Beach break – http://triper.sk/wp-content/uploads/DSC_22601.jpg )  Latter we decide to move for another spot the most famous for Nicaragua Popoyo ( beach break and world class point break http://triper.sk/?s=Popoyo ) It is hard to get there, so with a food we stayed another 1,5 weeks. On the way back we had a flood ,

so our plans to  go on another beach Las Penitas, next to Leon has been changed  and almost with a last bus which could pass thrue, we reached the  Granada ( http://triper.sk/2010/09/28/granada/ ). With a lot of fun we stayed there 3 days and latter moved to Leon to surf on Ls Penitas. ( Point breaks , Beach breaks  http://triper.sk/2010/10/05/playa-las-penitas/ ) Surfing was quite +,- because firstly it  wasn’t waves there and latter we just split up for all directions. I went more north surfing to Salvador, to surfing paradise El Tunco

( Amazing spot !!!! one of the best , there are maybe 6 spots for surfing ,  travelling max 5 min by local bus , surfing everywhere http://triper.sk/2010/10/21/tunco-y-sunzal-surfing/ , I surfed just in SunZal direct in Tunco!!!, because I didn’t have more experience for other spots!!!!)

On this spot I was waiting till Tomas will  finish his trip around Venezuela. Meeting point was Leon , where we planned make our dream Volcano boarding.  From this point we have been travelling again together  via El Salvador, Honduras, till we again split up at Lago Atitlan ( Guatemala ) Tomas was heading back to Honduras, on Carribian site and me immediately crossed borders with Mexico to San Cristobal ( http://triper.sk/2010/11/17/san-cristobal-de-las-casas/ + Tomas photos ) one of  the most famose Mexican city where I also visited San juan de Chamula Maya village ( http://triper.sk/2010/11/18/san-juan-chamula/ ) . I did small trips around, what I handle in one tour. Cascadas azul ( http://triper.sk/2010/11/23/cascadas-azul/ ), Cascada Mishol Ha ( http://triper.sk/2010/11/23/cascada-mishol-ha/ ) and Palenque ( http://triper.sk/2010/11/25/palenque-mexico/ ). After all this 16h trip I took overnight bus for another 12h, for Pacific site, to small village Barra de La Cruz ( world class waves reef break, left http://triper.sk/2010/11/28/ ) where i was  again waiting for Tomas.

I passed  there Dengue fever, so I surfed there  maybe 5 times :((((( ….absolutely top place for surfing and for a local life, because there is no possible  the foreign investments.  The next spot were I went was Puerto Escondido, where is one of the bigiest Beach breaks on the world, and the best Mexican barrels….

When I’ve  arrived there wasn’t swell, so the waves was just maybe 3-4 m high, and barrels didn’t works in this conditions ( Beach break Zicatela beach, left reef break El punto – http://triper.sk/2010/12/03/puerto-escondido-surfing-playa-zicatela/ ) This was my lasts pot which I visited…..Thanks God for this trip for this pleasure for this fun…

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