A Travellerspoint blog

Lockdown in Kyrgyzstan

DAY 2568 - DAY 2725

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SOME GRAPHIC IMAGES OF ANIMALS

Arriving in Bishkek, one of the few places where for the moment (mid-March 2020) no one has tested positive for Covid-19, is the stuff of science fiction. As the plane inches toward the terminal, I notice two people in hazmat suits walking across the tarmac. Minutes later, they have boarded our plane and proceed to take every passenger’s temperature with an infrared gun! As I write this entry months later, wearing a mask, being sprayed with disinfectant and having your temperature taken in all public places is now standard procedure. Moreover, it seems odd and irresponsible when these things don’t happen.
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Covid check on the tarmac at arrival in Bishkek

Covid check on the tarmac at arrival in Bishkek

There are only a couple of foreigners at Immigration, and while it takes awhile, once they’ve determined that I have not come from a corona hot spot (only China and Korea at this time), I’m on my way. Within a few days however, foreigners arriving from all countries are quarantined in army barracks or simply denied entry. Under normal circumstances, Kyrgyzstan offers two months visa-free entry to most foreigners and staying longer is as easy as a visa run to Kazakhstan and back for a new stamp. But it is clear that normal, if/when it returns, will be different and leaving anytime soon is looking complicated as countries worldwide shut borders and impose quarantine. For now, we’re welcome to stay in the country through mid-May.

On this trip to Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek is looking less stark Soviet with several new shopping malls, many trendy cafes, shops and so many pharmacies; odd for a country with subpar healthcare. It’s a chilly 40 °F/ 4 °C but spring is starting to muscle in as daytime temps hit 60 °F/15 °C.
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek

Ala-Too Square, Bishkek

At $17/night, Hotel T3 is an outright bargain. Pretty basic but large room, comfortable beds and a boiling hot, powerful shower. Breakfast is included but we prefer Vanilla Sky Cafe where they serve lots of fresh food options and perfect cappuccinos for pennies.
T3 Hotel, Bishkek

T3 Hotel, Bishkek

We met Alexey, our driver/translator/friend, here in Bishkek 5 years ago as soon as we realized that the most efficient and comfortable way to visit Kyrgyzstan is with a car, preferably an SUV, with someone who speaks Russian and Kyrgyz. To revisit that post, click here -https://spicechronicles.travellerspoint.com/36/. Within minutes of our reunion and demonstration of the latest improvements he’s made to his remarkable 2001 Toyota Land Cruiser, Alexey is hooking us up with people in his network and figuring out where to get the unusual supplies we ask for. This is THE guy to call if you want to visit Kyrgyzstan, period. Alexey Drozdov - TEL/WA +996 776 522 810.
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We have come to take pics of Kok Buru, an ancient game played throughout Central Asia under various names; Buzkashi (Afghanistan), Kokpar (Kazakhstan). Westerners call it Dead Goat Polo, which is somewhat accurate given our notion that it is socially inappropriate to use a headless goat as a ball, but goat for ball is perfectly normal here. The action itself looks more like rugby on horseback. The origins of this legendary game, the national sport of Kyrgyzstan, lie somewhere between nomads hunting or defending their livestock against predatory wolves, to men and horses honing their fighting skills.

Like most countries racing to stay ahead of Covid-19, large gatherings and sporting events have been cancelled which just might be an advantage as we head to the mountains hoping to find small groups of men playing. With everything shutting down, I’m guessing most families in rural villages won’t be glued to Netflix.

Bishkek’s cluster of modern high rises diminishes quickly as we turn west on the Bishkek-Osh road. In less than two hours, the vintage, built to conquer, Land Cruiser is weaving around cars and trucks over Too-Ashuu Pass (3,180 m/10,433 ft) on two lanes carved through this stretch of the Ala-Too mountain range.
Too-Ashuu Pass

Too-Ashuu Pass

Off one of the hairpin turns at the top, a plowed path leads to perhaps the smallest ski resort on the planet that boasts one, not so reassuring, chairlift.
Too-Ashuu Ski Resort

Too-Ashuu Ski Resort

As we descend from the pass, the entire Suusamyr Valley is carpeted white with a handful of weathered caravans on the side of the road. It’s hard to imagine that soon the ground will transmute into green fields, where locals will erect yurt camps and sell hugely popular sour cheese balls and fermented milk beverages, while their herds nibble high altitude, nutrient-rich grasses throughout the summer.
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The turnoff for Talas is dominated by a double archway and towering statue of the national hero Manas. Figure of disputed origin, idealized in an epic poem recognized by UNESCO, he is solely responsible for the country’s identity.

Otmok Pass, Talas region

Otmok Pass, Talas region

Driving thru Kyrk Kazyk village, we spot a group of guys on horses and one headless goat (slain with ceremony before the game) around a tai kazan (goal). Men and horses shove each other in a crush of flailing bodies stretching for the carcass being trampled beneath a knot of stomping hooves. The victor secures the dead weight under one thigh and rushes the goal kicking up clouds of dust. Trained not to fear the meter-high circular mound of molded dirt, the horses slam into the thick rubber tires attached around the exterior as the rider heaves the dead weight into the goal. It is an extremely physical and dangerous sport and not unusual to see men and horses fall, even float into the goal themselves!
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Boys (I have never seen or even heard of girls participating) start playing around 4-5, riding donkeys and using a much lighter pillow made of a goat skin stuffed with hay. Thrilled that school is closed due to the coronavirus, village kids are eager to show off their skills.
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We are the only guests at the Kerben Palace, the most (read only) upscale hotel in Talas. At $20/night per night, breakfast included, it’s surprisingly nice. We take the rest of our meals at Kanikei, which looks like it might also be the best in town. Outside of Bishkek, menus are pretty standard - lamb with rice or potatoes often swimming in oil. Forget anything green. I revert to a diet of shashlyk (skewered grilled meat) and tomato salad.
Kerben Palace Hotel, Talas

Kerben Palace Hotel, Talas

The next day, we’re directed to a playing field just outside of Talas. The game is being organized by a jovial local man. He explains that he has five daughters and will donate the goat for today’s match, along with a lamb as the official prize. In return, the players will wish him good fortune and many male offspring. His poor wife!

Play is scheduled for noon but in typical Kyrgyz fashion, starts much later. In the meantime, people gather for a Kyrgyz-style tailgate party with numerous vodka toasts and a fat-laden homemade kielbasa made from horse meat. Refusing would be impolite. The vodka chaser is my savior.
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The riders form a semicircle around the live goat for a prayer. The animal is swiftly beheaded, and the hooves are cut off so that the carcass is less likely to be ripped apart during the fierce game. A couple of guys take it to the river nearby and wet it for extra weight while spectators lay down bets. When play begins, teams of 4 against 4, and a referee, thunder up and down the field kicking up dirt and fighting for possession of the goat. Every 10-15 minutes in this unofficial game, play breaks for water and riders rotate in/out.
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Two hours later, just as it began, the game ends with a prayer. Suddenly, in a freestyle twist, one of the men swings down from his horse, scoops the goat from the ground and races off chased by everyone on a horse. There are about 60 riders from four villages. It turns out, whoever reaches his village with the animal can keep it. I should mention that the (seriously tenderized) goat is always cooked and shared among the winners after a game.
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By the third week of March, rumors begin to circulate: travel between regions will soon be restricted and lockdown is under consideration. We return to Bishkek figuring it’ll be more comfortable if we get stuck.

We’re sitting at Sierra Coffee when the government announces that all cafes and restaurants with over 50 seats must close. Within minutes of the news, a truck pulls up outside and tables and chairs are removed from the restaurant. Problem solved!

There’s a fridge in our hotel room, so we rush over to the fully stocked supermarket inside Bishkek Park Mall just in case panic sets in.
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For the time being, only three confirmed cases in a village far away in southwestern Kyrgyzstan have been reported. Here in Bishkek, it is business as usual. With large squares and wide avenues, there are no crowds and with never more than a few people on the street, social distancing is quite natural. We spend our days in cafes with little to no contact with others, feeling pretty safe given the chaos that is overtaking the rest of the world.
Park in central Bishkek

Park in central Bishkek


Bellagio Cafe, Bishkek

Bellagio Cafe, Bishkek

We are able to make one more trip to Talas the following weekend. The five-hour drive is becoming quite familiar as is cafe Kojomkul (named after another Kyrgyz legend, famous for his Herculean strength) where we always stop for lunch. The cantine, neither pretty nor good, is apparently the best option on this road in the Suusamyr Valley. In full swing, I wonder if they’ve heard there is a health crisis. But as is standard in every Muslim restaurant, there is a sink for hand washing at the entrance. As usual, only a few items on their large menu are available, not that any of it appeals to me, but it’s infuriating all the same. I settle on Kourdak - a traditional dish of lamb, potatoes and onions. There is so much fat and oil, half of it stays on my plate. To be fair, we have had delicious Kourdak in many homestays throughout Kyrgyzstan.
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About an hour before reaching Talas, on a long stretch of road flanked by mountains, in the distance we see a group playing Kok Boru. We must have passed the road leading to the field but who needs a road? With no warning, Alexey veers the SUV into a field and beelines across the uneven, rocky terrain toward the game.

March 21. It is Nowruz today, the Persian New Year and spring equinox. Kyrgyzstan celebrates this day as the beginning of spring, but the usual grand festivities including the final games of professional Kok Boru have all been cancelled. However, gatherings of less than 50 are permitted and we set out in search of local games. Most villages in the Talas region have a field and we’re getting pretty good at discerning the feisty stallions used exclusively in the game. Other telltale signs include men wearing high leather boots with heels, a whip or komcha that they often hold between their teeth and the traditional tebetei or hat.
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On a tip, we approach a playing field. With no one in sight we’re not feeling optimistic until several men on horseback appear on a ridge in the distance.
A tai kazan on a Kok Boru playing field

A tai kazan on a Kok Boru playing field

Within half an hour there are about 30 cavaliers and a bunch of spectators. The field is littered with plastic bottles and empty cigarette packs, so we start to clean up. Within a few minutes, a few men help with the task which gives me some hope that they are becoming more conscious about their own environment. More likely, they are embarrassed that a foreigner is picking up their garbage!
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Kanikei, our goto restaurant in Talas, has closed. For three days, the best option appears to be takeout at Box Lagman - an Uyghur dish of noodles, meat and vegetables - served in Chinese-style takeout boxes. The routine: place our order, pick up some vodka and (Belgian!) beer at the grocery store and eat in the dining room of our hotel. For fun, we set up a vodka taste test to see if we can distinguish between brands but to our uninitiated palates, it all tastes like rubbing alcohol.
A sanitized door handle at the supermarket in Talas...

A sanitized door handle at the supermarket in Talas...


Vodka taste test

Vodka taste test


All the disinfection you need!

All the disinfection you need!

It’s a good thing we are checking out of the Kerben Palace today because they have been ordered to close! We’re waved through the checkpoint at the edge of the Talas region. As long as we are leaving they do not seem to care. Hours later, we’re about 30 minutes from Bishkek when our hotel there calls to say they too have been ordered to close. We scramble for an Airbnb.
Covid checkpoint entering Bishkek

Covid checkpoint entering Bishkek

The huge, fully-equipped apartment ($35 USD) is in a relatively modern building above Navat, a famous Kyrgyz restaurant. I book four nights. We end up staying six weeks!
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Apartment above Navat restaurant, Bishkek

Apartment above Navat restaurant, Bishkek

View from the living room

View from the living room


Nighttime view from the bedroom

Nighttime view from the bedroom

Within two days, Bishkek completely shuts down. You cannot enter or leave the city without special permission and foreigners are not eligible. You can only go out for one hour and within 1km to the supermarket or pharmacy and you must carry a written itinerary and wear a mask. Restaurants are open for takeout only, parks are closed and there is a curfew from 8PM to 7AM. The routine is quick to set - we go to the supermarket at Bishkek Park every few days just to get out.
Bishkek Park Mall with only the supermarket lit and social distancing measures in place for a bank receiving one client at a time.

Bishkek Park Mall with only the supermarket lit and social distancing measures in place for a bank receiving one client at a time.

The rest of the time we stay home, grateful that we have so much space and everything we need. The gigantic living room becomes my gym. Online fitness classes, a 30 day yoga challenge. I’m hooked!
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View of daily training at the Ministry of Defense, from the kitchen window

View of daily training at the Ministry of Defense, from the kitchen window

Every 15 days, the government makes announcements including that since the airport and borders remain closed, all visas are extended until further notice. Time flies and soon it is the beginning of June. Roadblocks are lifted and once again, Alexey drives us over the mountains to the Talas region, thankful to have perhaps the only tourists left in the country. As we wind past the ski resort on Too Ashuu Pass and stop for lunch at Kojomkul restaurant at the entrance of the Suusamyr Valley, the scenery has changed. Most of the snow has melted and we’re often slowed by herds of sheep and horses on the road moving to higher elevations for summer grazing.
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We stop for dinner at Kanikei which has reopened, then check in to OUR room #12 at the Kerben Palace as if we never left.

The guy who is organizing a game in the village of Taldy Bulak, invites us into his home. As with all encounters in Kyrgyzstan, nothing happens until you’ve had tea. Kyrgyz are known for their hospitality and generosity. There is always a spread including bread, the tastiest butter, jams, honey, fresh fruit bursting with flavor, cookies, candy, etc. Handmade cushions with typical motifs are placed around the low table for comfortable seating on the floor.
A young man prepares tea to welcome us before a game

A young man prepares tea to welcome us before a game

Players gather outside around the goat. A prayer is recited, the goat is swiftly slain and the group races toward the field.
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When men, horses and bystanders are all exhausted, we follow everyone back to the house where the goat will be prepared for dinner. In the meantime, the brother of our host offers to show us another playing field about 10 kms away in what he describes as a stunning gorge. The car turns off the main road onto a dirt track that carves through verdant hills about 20 minutes before stopping at a river crossing. Beyond, perched on the side of a steep hill blanketed with wild flowers, are the two tai kazans (goals). We’ll need to shuffle across a narrow log over the water and walk the rest of the way. The area is indeed pretty, but massive high voltage towers nearby kill the beauty and will interfere with the drone signal. We stop to say hello to the local families that have installed their yurts nearby for the season. Before we leave a woman brings out a round loaf of bread. We are asked to each break off a small piece and eat it. This will bring them good fortune.
Proud parents at a yurt camp near Taldy Bulak

Proud parents at a yurt camp near Taldy Bulak


Back at the house, the goat is simmering, but will not be ready for another couple of hours, It is getting late so we decide not to stay for dinner. Can’t say I’m disappointed.

Over the next few weeks, we continue driving across the country and stopping when we spot Kok Boru playing fields. Sometimes we are lucky and a game is on. The scenery is different in every place.
Red rock formations on the Kokemeren River near Kyzyl-Oi

Red rock formations on the Kokemeren River near Kyzyl-Oi

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Community Based Tourism (CBT) is a local association that promotes eco-friendly homestays throughout rural Kyrgyzstan. The formula is bed and breakfast for +/- $15 per person with lunch and/or dinner for a few dollars more. While most hosts do not speak much English, there is remarkable progress in communication and infrastructure compared to five years ago.
Typical Kyrgyz decor, CBT Homestay #6, Kyzyl-Oi

Typical Kyrgyz decor, CBT Homestay #6, Kyzyl-Oi


When he’s not driving, Alexey likes to watch movies on his phone. Everything makes him laugh!

When he’s not driving, Alexey likes to watch movies on his phone. Everything makes him laugh!

We drive up to Song-Kol Lake - elevation 3016 m/9895 ft - to see if there are any Kok Boru playing fields in the region. We do find a couple, but with summer approaching there are no games as families are busy setting up yurt camps and most of the men are tending the herds.
Song-Kol Lake

Song-Kol Lake


Setting up a yurt camp at Song-Kol Lake

Setting up a yurt camp at Song-Kol Lake

A Kyrgyz woman preparing the most delicious bread

A Kyrgyz woman preparing the most delicious bread

Typical toilet at a yurt camp

Typical toilet at a yurt camp


Cemetery near Kyzart

Cemetery near Kyzart


Plowing through deep mud toward a playing field in Kyzart where we’re told a game will be played.

Plowing through deep mud toward a playing field in Kyzart where we’re told a game will be played.

Mira Guesthouse, 23 eu with breakfast, Kochkor

Mira Guesthouse, 23 eu with breakfast, Kochkor

The bedroom with private bathroom, a real luxury in rural Kyrgyzstan

The bedroom with private bathroom, a real luxury in rural Kyrgyzstan


Dining room at Mira Guesthouse, Kochkor

Dining room at Mira Guesthouse, Kochkor

Homemade, traditional Oromo (stuffed and rolled pasta)

Homemade, traditional Oromo (stuffed and rolled pasta)

We’re invited to visit the animal market. The chosen goat rides back in the trunk.
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The dramatic rock formation of Jeti-Oguz (Seven Bulls) is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most stunning landscapes and would certainly provide an exceptional backdrop for Kok Boru. We scout the location in search of playing fields and stumble upon a game in progress. And then it clicks, we’ll have to come back here and shoot a game in the snow... Fingers crossed.

A very young boy warms the horse up for his dad at Jeti-Oguz..
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We take a day to visit the stunning alpine valley of Altyn-Arashan. The road to the top is only accessible with a 4-wheel drive or on foot. Alexey drives us up and we walk down. Some of the boulders are so big, I close my eyes as the jeep rolls over them listing dramatically from side to side. We hike down along the river lined with pine trees. It looks like an underdeveloped Switzerland.
The road to Altyn-Arashan

The road to Altyn-Arashan


Pine forests of Altyn-Arashan

Pine forests of Altyn-Arashan

During the Soviet era, coal mining was much more prevalent, but there are still mines operating in Kyrgyzstan. The biggest shaft mines are in Sulukta at the southwestern tip of the country bordering Tajikistan and we plan to go there one day but for now, we decide to check the mines in the Jyrgalan Valley 60 kms east of Karakol, the largest town on Lake Issyk-Kul.
Soviet MIG on display near Tamga village, Lake Issyk Kul,

Soviet MIG on display near Tamga village, Lake Issyk Kul,


A beekeeper near Karakol

A beekeeper near Karakol


Altai Guesthouse, 35 euros with breakfast, Karakol

Altai Guesthouse, 35 euros with breakfast, Karakol


Karakol Ski Resort

Karakol Ski Resort


A perfect rainbow near Karakol

A perfect rainbow near Karakol

We drive into a gorge and follow a dirt track past the village of Jyrgalan that eventually leads to a small working mine.
Statue commemorating miners at the entrance of the Jyrgalan Valley

Statue commemorating miners at the entrance of the Jyrgalan Valley


Jyrgalan village

Jyrgalan village

We meet four men and one vicious dog. If that chains busts, we’re in trouble. At first they are a bit reluctant to let us take any photos, but eventually, Alexey softens them up. Different from a shaft mine, in this horizontal mine, the men walk straight in about 100 meters. They scrape the coal from the walls at the end of the tunnel, fill a cart and bring it out. A truck comes every couple of days to pick up the load. One of the miners is the dedicated chef and prepares a delicious meal that we are invited to share.
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We drive back to Bishkek and settle into a new apartment above the ultra chic men’s shop called Podium.
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View from the apartment above Podium

View from the apartment above Podium

Masks, temperature checks and social distancing measures are required everywhere, but cafes, restaurants and some shops are open. After a couple of weeks of traditional cooking, we welcome the variety Bishkek has to offer.
Gourmet salads at Skyberry Cafe

Gourmet salads at Skyberry Cafe


Salmon Tartare at Oyster Bar

Salmon Tartare at Oyster Bar


Sushi at Oyster Bar

Sushi at Oyster Bar


Vegetable biryani, chicken tikka and dal at Gandhi Indian restaurant

Vegetable biryani, chicken tikka and dal at Gandhi Indian restaurant

At Atrium Salon, a great haircut and color is 14 euros, pedicure 8. The exceptionally hygienic and sublime one-hour massage at Kamin Spa in our building is a mere 15 euros.
Kamin Thai massage

Kamin Thai massage

Around July 1st, Covid-19 cases begin to rise and the government tightens restrictions. Supermarkets, pharmacies and shops must close at 7PM, cafes and restaurants at 8. Borders remain closed and the next possible date for commercial flights to resume is Aug 1st. We hunker down and spend our days in the apartment going to the supermarket when necessary and sometimes out for a meal where there are never more than one or two other tables occupied.
Skyberry Cafe, Bishkek

Skyberry Cafe, Bishkek


Oyster Bar, Bishkek

Oyster Bar, Bishkek


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Visors are the new normal in shops

Visors are the new normal in shops

The weather is gorgeous, and there are hardly any bugs as Bishkek sits 800 m/2600 ft above sea level.
Delightful dining on the terrace at the apartment above Podium

Delightful dining on the terrace at the apartment above Podium

On July 20th with the announcement that Bishkek is the epicenter of a new spike in Covid cases, Alexey suggests a road trip to the Batken region in the southwestern part of the country to search for the bigger (shaft) coal mines. On the drive out of Bishkek, I now recognize all the turns, the bottlenecks at several open markets, the Chinese workers building new roads...
Assorted fermented beverages for sale on the street

Assorted fermented beverages for sale on the street


A woman selling fresh steamed corn on the side of the road

A woman selling fresh steamed corn on the side of the road


A man hauling watermelons

A man hauling watermelons

The snow on Too-Ashuu Pass has melted save a few peaks with icing in the distance. Naturally, we stop for lunch at Kojomkul.
Kojomkul restaurant, Sussamyr Valley

Kojomkul restaurant, Sussamyr Valley

Yurts and caravans now pepper the green fields where horses, goats and sheep graze. Rickety stands selling those sour cheese balls and various aberrations of fermented milk line the roadside. This time we bypass the turn off to Talas and continue south, stopping for the night at Kok Bel an open, empty hotel on Toktogul Reservoir. The nondescript room (21 euros) has an extraordinary view of the water. At 284 sq. kms/110 sq. miles, it is the largest manmade lake in Central Asia.
Toktogul Reservoir

Toktogul Reservoir

As the road bends south, our search for coal mines produces only a few, small (quite likely) unofficial operations. We stop for the night in the city of Jalal-Abad famous for recording the first outbreaks of coronavirus in Kyrgyzstan in March. Hotel Sputnik is the obvious choice as much for the name as the price (21 euros). It’s super tacky and could use a better cleaning, but it’ll do.
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A woman selling bread on the road between Osh and Sulukta

A woman selling bread on the road between Osh and Sulukta

We’re told there are mines in Kok Jangat 20 kms away. There is absolutely no signage. On a hunch, Alexey veers off-road following the tracks of a truck we pass full of coal, bumping along up and over hills with nary a lump in sight. He stops in front of a cluster of yurts. The family, here for the summer with their animals, is happy to see some new faces. They insist on tea. You simply cannot refuse Kyrgyz hospitality. Within a minute, we’re seated on cushions in the dining yurt. The ladies rush about setting out freshly baked bread, butter, jam, cookies, cream, watermelon and tea. To be polite, I taste the koumiss, fermented mare’s milk. My lips barely touch the sour, fizzy liquid and my expression provokes a hearty laugh. I’ll have the tea thank you.
Having tea with a local family in their yurt

Having tea with a local family in their yurt

Eventually, we do find some coal mines, but they are small, and there are no working shaft mines. We call it and drive to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan (population +/- 200,000) for the night. I’m looking forward to a nice hotel with a pool as temps are way into the 90s F/30s C here, but the big hotel has been requisitioned by the government to quarantine doctors after they complete their service. While they certainly deserve it more than we do, the only other option, a crummy guesthouse that could use a deep cleaning, is rather disappointing. However, dinner across the street at a restaurant with tables nicely spaced around a pretty garden compensates a bit. Vodka flows like water at every table.
Guesthouse in Osh

Guesthouse in Osh


Brio Coffee House, Osh

Brio Coffee House, Osh

Approaching Sulukta, the scenery morphs from one type of rock formation to another. A roadblock greets us. We are welcome to visit the town after a medical check. Within minutes, an ambulance arrives, but as we show no signs of illness, the medics decide to accompany us to the only guesthouse, that way they will know where to find us.
Covid checkpoint, Sulukta

Covid checkpoint, Sulukta

One look at the place and we are all prepared to sleep in the jeep. We decide to look for mines before spending the night in this unattractive town. Tourists don’t usually come this way, and the lady pumping gas is intrigued. Turns out her friend owns a coal mine. She makes a call and 20 minutes later, as is customary, we are sipping tea on a ridge overlooking this man’s vast mining operation.
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We’re welcome to take photos but we’ll have to wait a few days. In the meantime, he offers to set us up with an apartment in town. Believe me, this was a hundred times better than the guesthouse...
Apartment complex, Sulukta

Apartment complex, Sulukta


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The two restaurants in town are closed. We survive the three days on instant noodles until finally we can take photos at the mine.

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It takes several days to drive back to Bishkek.

Lunch stop in the small town of Arslanbob

Lunch stop in the small town of Arslanbob


On the list of worst toilets on the road ever!

On the list of worst toilets on the road ever!


Hotel Altyn (24 euros) in Karakul, on the road from Osh to Bishkek

Hotel Altyn (24 euros) in Karakul, on the road from Osh to Bishkek

Oh the luxury of our apartment above Podium! The owners are happy to have guests, people in our favorite cafes seem genuinely happy to see us and the lady selling delicious fruit on the corner is relieved to hear that we did not have Covid.
Our dedicated fruit vendor

Our dedicated fruit vendor

Although restrictions are still in place, life in the city seems to be slowly coming back and within a few days we hear that while the borders are still closed, a few commercial flights are starting. We walk over to the Turkish Airlines office where they are receiving people at the window. The agent is extraordinarily helpful and books us a flight to Europe for mid-August. We leave Kyrgyzstan dragging our feet. We came in March, planning to spend a month and ended up staying for five. It was starting to feel like home. For the most part, whenever we talk about Kyrgyzstan, people cannot pronounce it or locate it on a map and have no idea why you would want to visit. Stunning nature, phenomenal hospitality, fascinating history, incredible value and hardly any tourists. That about sums it up.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 06:11 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (9)

Georgia the country, not the state!

DAY 2423 to DAY 2517

sunny 10 °C

I’m half asleep when our flight lands at 5AM in Tbilisi (pronounced tuh-blee-see). We disembark in a daze. Never sure if it’s because I’ve stuffed my swollen feet back into shoes or just an uneven surface, but it’s not the first time I stumble on the jet bridge leading to the terminal. Silently, I prompt myself, “Pick up your feet!”

Long corridors with unintelligible signs lead to the Immigration window of our choice. No lines, hardly any people; unlike arriving in any other country capital (pre-coronavirus that is). The officer smiles and says, “Good morning.” I stare at her in disbelief while she scans my passport. Almost immediately, she stamps a page, hands it back to me with an enthusiastic, “Welcome to Georgia,” simultaneously placing a small bottle on the counter. As I turn away, she calls after me, “For you take! [sic]” I fumble a thank you then pass through the gate, still processing the most hospitable welcome I have ever received from an immigration officer, when I realize that I am holding a 250 ml/8 oz bottle of red wine! The kicker is the label:

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At baggage claim, a woman in a smart suit, carrying an iPad, rushes forth and in perfect English asks if we need a taxi. Not at all prepared for such assertive behavior, I wave her off while we collect our bags. She takes no offense and says, “When you’re ready, I will be happy to direct you to an official airport taxi. If you are going to the center, the fixed price is 40 Gel,” (about 13 euros for the 30 minute ride). We are used to being accosted for transportation, but never has it been so polite and precise. In the Arrivals hall, while we get our bearings and some local cash (Georgian Lari), several men offer rides, none of which seem legit, and the language barrier is just too taxing at this hour. I hail the woman who happens to be in my line of sight and in a flash we’re on our way. In the following days, we discover Bolt, Georgia’s version of Uber. Although we paid a fair price for the airport taxi, nothing rivals Bolt, and they accept cash. Despite ridiculously cheap fares anywhere in the city, we end up using the service only a couple of times as Tbilisi, though hilly, is quite walkable and the activity tracker on my wrist has successfully brainwashed me with 10,000-step guilt.

Hello Kitty mascot walking on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi

Hello Kitty mascot walking on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi


View of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress

View of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress


View of Rike Park and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge

View of Rike Park and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge

Home for the next few weeks is a sparsely furnished but well-equipped one-bedroom apartment in the center near Rustaveli metro station. Our early arrival instructions are to pick up the keys at the small hotel next door except, there is no envelope with my name and the night receptionist doesn’t know anything about keys! Trying to contain my impatient, exhausted tourist tone, I’m about to phone and likely wake up the Airbnb host when the woman says, “Wait! Try this one, it doesn’t look like one of ours.” Thankfully, the key works.

There’s a really nice welcome note with essential information and helpful tips. The bedroom has large windows and a beautiful wood floor, the bathroom is modern with a washing machine and there’s a combination kitchen/dining/living area in the back that faces an interior courtyard and probably doesn’t get much sunlight, but for $22/night, we cannot believe our luck.
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Our quiet street is very old and very steep. I figure, the craggy stones that penetrate my soles must have been placed purposefully to give horses/carts/cars traction and maybe even to drain rainwater. Whatever the reason, forget anything but comfortable shoes in this city.
Entrance to our apartment, Tbilisi

Entrance to our apartment, Tbilisi

We are about 100 meters from Shota Rustaveli, the central avenue of Tbilisi, named after a Georgian poet. The National Opera Theater, Museum of Fine Arts, upscale hotels and government buildings sit on either side of this elegant, lively avenue that descends to Freedom (aka Liberty) Square. The architecture is a mix of Renaissance Baroque, Neo-Moorish, Socialist Classicism, Art Nouveau... People selling everything from jewelry, books, Soviet memorabilia and crappy souvenirs line the street above and below ground. Peaceful protestors are camped out in tents in front of the Parliament building as a reminder that conflict with Russia and other civil issues persist, but for the most part, the atmosphere seems rather joyous. There are street musicians everywhere and people seem to really enjoy stopping to listen and socialize.

Drinks for sale on the street

Drinks for sale on the street


A woman baking Puri, traditional Georgian bread, at a window-service-only shop

A woman baking Puri, traditional Georgian bread, at a window-service-only shop


Men playing backgammon in a park

Men playing backgammon in a park


Anchiskhati Basilica

Anchiskhati Basilica

The Clock Tower and Puppet Theater

The Clock Tower and Puppet Theater

Ladies squeeze fresh pomegranate juice on every corner

Ladies squeeze fresh pomegranate juice on every corner


A woman selling churchkehela, traditional candle-shaped sweets, out of an old baby carriage that looks like an homage to the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin

A woman selling churchkehela, traditional candle-shaped sweets, out of an old baby carriage that looks like an homage to the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin


Dried persimmons aka kakis

Dried persimmons aka kakis


Shopping stalls in underground passageways

Shopping stalls in underground passageways


Graffiti in one of the many underground street crossings

Graffiti in one of the many underground street crossings

Not nearly as bad as Delhi or Beijing, the air quality is certainly questionable. Car exhaust, a gritty residue on the pavement and people smoking everywhere are negative points, but we are loving Tbilisi from day one!
An interesting list of restrictions

An interesting list of restrictions


The stairs leading into the charming Linville Restaurant, are as uneven as a carnival fun house!

The stairs leading into the charming Linville Restaurant, are as uneven as a carnival fun house!


That’s some selfie!

That’s some selfie!


Dogs in Tbilisi are tagged and cared for by local associations

Dogs in Tbilisi are tagged and cared for by local associations

The city has a long, complicated history; Arab, Mongol, Persian, Russian. Every invader destroyed, built, and left their style. Old Town is a squeeze of cobblestone streets and tightly stacked, balconied buildings, holding one another up. As the world takes notice of Georgia as a destination, Tbilisi is getting a facelift and within the next couple of years, construction debris will give way to beautifully restored historic neighborhoods with tasteful modern accents.
Old Tbilisi under renovation

Old Tbilisi under renovation


Typical wooden structure with stained glass motifs

Typical wooden structure with stained glass motifs

Piles of construction debris on the street

Piles of construction debris on the street


Renovation with a modern twist

Renovation with a modern twist

Tbilisi is built over natural hot springs rich in sulphur, purported to have many health benefits. There are at least six bath houses to choose from. Having done no research, and dulled by the recent experience in Budapest, I walk into the two most famous places. Pretty much put off by the atmosphere and the smell of cigarette smoke, I walk out thinking I’ll have to research this more given so many favorable reviews, but I keep postponing and ultimately never get around to it. It will be a priority when we come back, and we will be back.
Domes of the Royal (sulphur) Baths with  (4th c.) Narikala Fortress in the background

Domes of the Royal (sulphur) Baths with (4th c.) Narikala Fortress in the background


Meidan Bazaar, the ancient underground market in Old Tbilisi has become a tourist attraction

Meidan Bazaar, the ancient underground market in Old Tbilisi has become a tourist attraction


People on the street

People on the street


Sioni Cathedral

Sioni Cathedral

Forget any attempt to understand Georgian. It has a unique alphabet. Even Google Translate is at a loss. Fortunately, many restaurants and cafes display the English translation and people are so friendly, it is never a problem. There is always someone who speaks enough English, sometimes even French. While we have a full kitchen and several supermarkets nearby, plentiful food is so cheap in restaurants, we end up only making breakfast in the apartment. Within a week we have a list of favorite cafes and restaurants on both sides of the Mtkvari (Kura) River and have settled into a routine: Late morning cappuccinos (and sometimes a delicious pastry) at Puri Giuliani or Gala, “work” for a few hours, then order or walk over to Strada or Radio Cafe for lunch, “work” a bit more or take a walk to discover other parts of the city before heading to another restaurant to “work” some more before dinner.
The cappuccino comes with good advice at Radio Cafe

The cappuccino comes with good advice at Radio Cafe


Puri Guliani is never too busy in the morning

Puri Guliani is never too busy in the morning


20200103_144815.jpgSinful pastries including the pomegranate bomb!

Sinful pastries including the pomegranate bomb!


20191226_144806.jpgOrganic greens and duck pate

Organic greens and duck pate

Strada Cafe

Strada Cafe


Fabrika, a renovated factory housing shops, restaurants and the city’s hippest hostel

Fabrika, a renovated factory housing shops, restaurants and the city’s hippest hostel

Buildings near Fabrika, ripe for renovation

Buildings near Fabrika, ripe for renovation

Humorous street art

Humorous street art


Even Santa Claus needs a break

Even Santa Claus needs a break

Rooms Hotel, older sister of uber-cool Stamba Hotel, both situated in a former publishing house

Rooms Hotel, older sister of uber-cool Stamba Hotel, both situated in a former publishing house

For a fancier dinner (36 euros including wine and service), we head to Republic Restaurant overlooking Revolution Square. It’s not quite as copious as most restaurants in Tbilisi, but the food is delicious and the views...
20191228_184827.jpgKupati sausage with mushroom sauce and pomegranate reduction and cochon de lait with celery cream and plum sauce

Kupati sausage with mushroom sauce and pomegranate reduction and cochon de lait with celery cream and plum sauce


View of a Christmas market from Republic Restaurant

View of a Christmas market from Republic Restaurant

As December unfolds, large crews work day and night setting up stages around the city. A full schedule of DJs, concerts and holiday festivities lead up to an extravagant live television broadcast on New Years Eve just a few blocks from the apartment. After an unbelievable display of fireworks, we stand in the street among thousands of spectators to watch the show. While we don’t understand the banter between the elegant hosts, who change costume in between every act, the impersonations of stars like Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan are hyperrealistic and beautifully executed.
New Year’s Eve fireworks and live show on Rustaveli Avenue

New Year’s Eve fireworks and live show on Rustaveli Avenue

Celebrations continue well into January. Every day at dusk, somewhere, someone flips a switch bathing Rustaveli Avenue in a cosmic theme made of a million tiny lights. Crowds stroll along the avenue and partake in a host of seasonal activities.
View of Rustaveli Avenue

View of Rustaveli Avenue


Keeping warm at one of the Christmas markets

Keeping warm at one of the Christmas markets

Fire artist on Rustaveli Avenue

Fire artist on Rustaveli Avenue

Georgians love to eat and drink. There are restaurants and cafes every few feet serving delectable, carb-heavy dishes. The bread, alone or filled with eggs and cheese (Kachapuri) or beans (Lobiani) is divine. Walnuts are a staple ingredient often combined with eggplant, spinach or beets (Pkhali), and thick creamy soups of mushroom or pumpkin will warm your soul. Pomegranate seeds decorate virtually every dish.
20200103_144900.jpgKhachapuri and Lobiani at Puri Guliani

Khachapuri and Lobiani at Puri Guliani

20191230_155600.jpgTraditional Georgian Pkhali and Ojakhuri (pork with potatoes and onions) at Radio Cafe

Traditional Georgian Pkhali and Ojakhuri (pork with potatoes and onions) at Radio Cafe


20200107_180506.jpgSinfully creamy pumpkin soup and Khinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings stuffed with pork and onions

Sinfully creamy pumpkin soup and Khinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings stuffed with pork and onions

And then there is the wine. Georgians have been making it since 6000 BC! Supermarket shelves seem to stock more alcohol than food and there are always tasting stands. Locals favor the many varieties of sweet and semi-sweet wines, but we quickly develop a liking for the dry reds made from Saperavi grapes. At 8000 Vintages, you can shop for and taste wines in the front of the store, or sit down and enjoy one of several platters featuring local cheeses, cured meats, exceptional olives and creamy spreads to accompany a bottle.
20191229_192909.jpgMezzo platter and fine red at 8000 Vintages, wine shop and restaurant

Mezzo platter and fine red at 8000 Vintages, wine shop and restaurant

Over 80% of Georgians are Orthodox Christians, and they celebrate Christmas on (or around) January 7th according to the Julian calendar. The principal event in Tbilisi on this day is Alilo, a traditional procession led by children that descends Rustaveli Avenue to Freedom Square crosses the Baratashvili Bridge and makes its way uphill, culminating at the massive Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral. Along the route, children collect gifts and candy to be distributed to orphanages and communities in need.

large_08_Georgia_2_8107.jpgAlilo procession, Orthodox Christmas, Liberty Square

Alilo procession, Orthodox Christmas, Liberty Square


A woman shows us her Christmas doll

A woman shows us her Christmas doll


Brothers on their way to Holy Trinity Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas

Brothers on their way to Holy Trinity Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas


Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral dominates the neighborhood of Avlabari and Tbilisi’s skyline

Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral dominates the neighborhood of Avlabari and Tbilisi’s skyline


Alilo procession on the steps of the cathedral

Alilo procession on the steps of the cathedral


Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas

Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas

A priest standing on scaffolding in the cathedral

A priest standing on scaffolding in the cathedral

Throughout the city center, tour operators and freelance drivers hawk day trips and packages, restaurants and cafes place people out front to entice you in, etc. It is slightly annoying, because we walk by the same people often and the pitch never varies, but it’s always delivered with a smile and rather than insist, they usually wish us a pleasant stay. One day, a nice looking man standing next to a van mumbles in French as we pass by. Something about his gentle demeanor catches our attention. We’ve decided to check out Gudauri, the country’s largest ski resort two hours away, and he’s the man to take us there.

With a ride and an Airbnb booked, we need ski clothes! The sporting goods shops at Galleria Mall on Rustaveli are expensive (especially since we will leave most of our purchases behind). A search brings up Snowy Mountains ski shop, not far from Dinamo Arena (stadium) and Dezerter Bazaar, Tbilisi’s largest market.
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large_08_Georgia_2_7764.jpgVendors at Deserter Bazaar. Can you believe those radishes?!

Vendors at Deserter Bazaar. Can you believe those radishes?!

For $35 dollars, we get ski pants and gloves but their jackets are ugly and I hold out for something that I can wear off the slopes as well. We take a Bolt (10 Gel, about $4 for the 20-minute drive) to East Point Mall where we find jackets and winter boots for peanuts. And that is the only positive aspect of that mall especially when I realize that all the stores there have branches on Rustaveli Avenue near our apartment!

Ananuri Castle on the road to Gudauri

Ananuri Castle on the road to Gudauri

Gudauri sits on a south-facing plateau, perpetually bathed in sun, in the Caucasus Mountains. The town is divided in 2 parts, old and new; new being the cluster of condos and hotels that has sprouted around the main gondola. It is entirely possible to stay down valley or at hotels and developments along the road in, but why bother when you can ski in/out of your lodging and walk no more than 5 minutes to a variety of bars, restaurants, shops and spas. The resort itself (2196m/7205 ft.) lacks charm but the surrounding mountains and views are stupendous.

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New Gudauri ski resort

New Gudauri ski resort


Center of New Gudauri

Center of New Gudauri


Prepping the après-ski BBQ

Prepping the après-ski BBQ

Our spacious, fully-equipped studio is bright and comfortable and comes with an extremely convenient ski locker on the ground floor. Equipment rental is about 11 euros/day and the lift ticket is a mere 15 euros/day.
Studio apartment at Red Co. 2, New Gudauri (53 euros/night)

Studio apartment at Red Co. 2, New Gudauri (53 euros/night)

There is just one small problem, there isn’t much snow! The bottom half of the mountain Is rocky but fortunately, the top (3279 m/10,757 ft.) is fine and all the lifts are open. Over our two-week stay, we get a few inches of fresh powder here and there, and the quality of the snow is fantastic. The runs are blissful for beginners and intermediate skiers and they are empty! Weekends get a little more crowded, but not much. The gondolas and lifts are brand new. Some chair lifts even have an optional, transparent shield that you can pull down for extra protection on windy or cold days.
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Midway on the mountain

Midway on the mountain

View of the resort from the gondola

View of the resort from the gondola

Tip: Bring basic first aid items as (for the moment) there is no pharmacy (or doctor) in New Gudauri. Medics and ambulances are on standby at all times, but for non-emergencies, you’ll need to taxi or Bolt down the mountain.
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There are some black runs and heliskiing options for expert skiers and paragliding is also hugely popular. For 4 euros roundtrip, non-skiers are welcome to ride the gondola up and hang out at the restaurants and bars on the mountain. Though infrastructure is rudimentary at the top (only a couple of outhouses) and food outlets are pretty basic structures, there are tables, chairs, loungers, beanbags and the most incredible vibe. People are dancing in their boots, waiters are extremely friendly, food is good and the sun shines endlessly.
large_08_Georgia_2_9543.jpgFood, drinks, good music, chilling in the sun,

Food, drinks, good music, chilling in the sun,

and watching the paragliders

and watching the paragliders

There are plenty of good restaurants in the resort and they are so reasonable, we eat out every night. One night after dinner, we wander into a bar/restaurant called The Drunken Cherry. What a find! There is a Georgian woman belting out, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, you name it, interspersed with a DJ mixing everything from rock to disco and hip-hop. There are families with kids, young adults and older people like us. Bartenders and waiters dance as they mix and serve, and everyone is just having a fantastic time.
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Doing shots with our favorite bartender at The Drunken Cherry

Doing shots with our favorite bartender at The Drunken Cherry

After two weeks in Gudauri, it’s time to leave, but we are already planning to come back next winter, relishing the thought of how great the skiing will be with more snow.
Gorgeous Gudauri

Gorgeous Gudauri

Dragging our feet, we head back to Tbilisi for a couple of nights before flying out, We’ve spent a month in Georgia and only visited two places. There is so much more to discover the next time around. Can’t wait!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 01:43 Archived in Georgia Comments (7)

An off off-season road trip in Central Europe

DAY 2438 - DAY 2482

rain 10 °C

This road trip starts with a short bus ride (1.5 hours) from Trieste, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Crosswalk with a poignant message, Ljubljana

Crosswalk with a poignant message, Ljubljana

The weather is a bit soggy and yet, Ljubljana is so pretty and charming. The Ljubljanica River winds through the town separating the historic center from the modern city by sculpted bridges. Every angle, from street level to rooftop, offers a photo opp.
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Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

People are overly friendly: at the laundromat a guy wishes us, “a nice stay in my country.“ When we’re ready to move on, our Airbnb hostess offers plenty of advice on what to visit in the rest of Slovenia and sends us off to the airport with GoOpti, an efficient ride service, to pick up a rental car for the next 6 weeks. We’ve scored an excellent deal for 13,50 eu/day. Tip: take the highway vignette from the rental agency as it is required as soon as you leave the airport.

Once we master the interior and exterior lane configuration on roundabouts, we head toward Bled, famous for its church in the middle of the lake. Even in the pouring rain, it’s lovely.
Church on Lake Bled

Church on Lake Bled

Distances in Slovenia are super short, so we decide to push on toward Bohinj whose much larger lake sits within Triglav National Park. The landscape is one of flooded fields and submerged trees holding ground against a raging river.
Triglav National Park

Triglav National Park

Surprisingly, the tourist information office In Bohinj is open and they offer to make some calls on our behalf for a place to spend the night, but prices are very high; hard to believe given the (seriously) off season. We continue and stop at a restaurant that looks like it may also be a motel. I cringe at the offer of a dorm room with shared bath, and prepare to drive away when a guy comes out and explains that if we don’t mind construction debris in the hallway, they have a new double room for a reasonable 44 euros with breakfast. Oops, forgot to take the photo...

The rain refuses to subside as we approach Vrsic Pass. Built by Russian prisoners of war during WWI, the 50 hairpin turns of cobblestone are a test for weak stomachs. At this time of year and with dreary weather, we cross maybe three cars. Not sure I’d want to be here in the summer when motorhomes and cyclists share the narrow road. It is snowing at the top. As we descend through clouds and fog, the autumn colors and turquoise water bursting forth on the Soca River make for jaw-dropping scenery. And OMG, there is an adventure junkie, kayaking solo in this insanity!
Man vs. wild!

Man vs. wild!


Along the Soca River near Bovec

Along the Soca River near Bovec

Accommodations in Bovec are either closed or too expensive so we move on to Kobarid. The center of this tiny town is at the intersection of three roads. There are a couple of closed hotels and as many restaurants, but we manage to find an Airbnb overlooking the roundabout. The apartment is modern and spacious ($54/night).
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Apartment, Kobarid

Apartment, Kobarid


Locals at a cafe in Kobarid

Locals at a cafe in Kobarid

The short hike to Kozjak Waterfall is pretty easy until the last bit where it becomes clear that (at the very least) my feet are going to be soaked in icy water. I hang back to hear if it’s worth it and ultimately decide to wait for the photos.
Hiking to Kozjak waterfall

Hiking to Kozjak waterfall


50 shades of moss

50 shades of moss


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Kozjak waterfall near Kobarid

Kozjak waterfall near Kobarid


The ticket window at Tolmin Gorges is closed and ours is the only car in the parking lot. We’ve got this outstanding natural site to ourselves.
Check out the heart-shaped boulder just hanging there! Tolmin Gorges

Check out the heart-shaped boulder just hanging there! Tolmin Gorges


Tolminska Korita - Tolmin Gorges

Tolminska Korita - Tolmin Gorges


View of the valley from Tolmin Gorges

View of the valley from Tolmin Gorges

Finding a place to sleep is becoming a daily challenge. We want to move on but the few affordable places on the various booking sites all lead back to Kobarid. We end up in a cozy duplex in Idrsko for $38. I’m not sure there is even a village as the address is on the main road near Kobarid. Like everywhere in Slovenia, the hospitality is extraordinary.
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Apartment in Idrsko, Slovenia

Apartment in Idrsko, Slovenia

The drive to Piran, a picturesque resort town on the southwestern tip of the country, takes us through wine country. Stormy weather prevails, but the scenery is beautiful. We stop to visit the fortified village of Stanjel built in the 17th century to defend against Ottoman invaders.
Stanjel, Slovenia

Stanjel, Slovenia


A well in the center of Stanjel

A well in the center of Stanjel


View from the castle in Stanjel

View from the castle in Stanjel

Dominated by the Venetians for over 500 years, the Italian influence on the seaside town of Piran is omnipresent in the architecture and number of spaghetterias!
View of Piran, Slovenia

View of Piran, Slovenia

Cars are not allowed in the historic center, making parking the key amenity in the hotel search. VIP Residence has a distinctly Italian feel. The studio is bright white and modern with a small kitchen and giant flat-screen TV. What a treat! Our room opens onto the pool (wrong season) with a gorgeous view of the Adriatic Sea in the distance. It’s so nice, we stay a few nights. (50 eu/night).
VIP Residence, Piran

VIP Residence, Piran


View from the room

View from the room

During the day we visit Piran and Portoroz and spend the evenings in our studio surfing satellite channels.
Piran, Slovenia

Piran, Slovenia


Narrow streets off the main square in Piran

Narrow streets off the main square in Piran

It’s 500 kms to Budapest. Signs on the highway remind you to stop for the Hungarian highway vignette before crossing the border.

An electronic code releases the thick wooden door into a long dark corridor that opens into an interior courtyard typical of many buildings in Budapest. Our refurbished, fully-equipped studio off to the left is 25 eu/night.
Interior courtyard Hi5 Apartments Budapest, Hungary

Interior courtyard Hi5 Apartments Budapest, Hungary


Studio Hi5 Apartments, Budapest

Studio Hi5 Apartments, Budapest

Austro-Hungarian architecture and delicate Art Nouveau designs alternate with less attractive modern constructions in a mix of funk and opulence.
Heroes’ Square, Budapest

Heroes’ Square, Budapest


Vorosmarty Square, Budapest

Vorosmarty Square, Budapest


Painted doorway, Budapest

Painted doorway, Budapest


Little Princess statue, Budapest

Little Princess statue, Budapest


Hungarian Parliament, Budapest

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest


Saint Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

Saint Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

I have never seen a synagogue with an organ and a pulpit! The architect of Dohany Street Synagogue, aka Great Synagogue of Budapest (considered to be one, if not the largest in Europe), purposely incorporated several architectural styles to illustrate the multitude of ethnicities related to the Israelites.
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Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest

Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest

Café Gerbeaud, Budapest

Café Gerbeaud, Budapest

The stunning Gresham Palace, now a Four Seasons Hotel

The stunning Gresham Palace, now a Four Seasons Hotel

Nearby, we walk across the Chain Bridge to the Buda side of the city.
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As we navigate the steep climb to Buda Castle, noise just fades away. It’s startling how peaceful this side of the river is. And the views...
Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, Budapest

Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, Budapest


View of the Parliament from Buda Castle, Budapest

View of the Parliament from Buda Castle, Budapest

It’s our last day in Budapest and perfect weather for a spa binge! The entrance fee at the enormous Szechenyi Baths is 19 euros. Tip: bring soap, towel, slippers, etc., as everything is extra. The yellow Neo-Baroque building is beautiful and the old-fashioned changing cabins are quirky, but overall the place feels like a sanitarium, especially the indoor sections where you (and too many others) soak in basins of still, mineral-infused water. The gigantic outdoor pools, with steam rising from the surface to meet the crisp November air against the majestic backdrop, are much more inviting.
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Men playing chess in the water at Szechenyi Baths

Men playing chess in the water at Szechenyi Baths

With no time to waste, it’s off to the Gellért Thermal Bath across the river in Buda. Much smaller, the indoor pool feels like you are swimming in a Greco-Roman temple.
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But it is the hot thermal baths on either side that attract most visitors.
Gellert Thermal Bath, Budapest

Gellert Thermal Bath, Budapest

I soak, steam and sauna into a prune. Two spas in one day is my record, but while the baths in Budapest are an institution, for the record, I preferred the Korean spa experience (click my post 123 Kimcheeeeeee).

Bratislava, Slovakia is a 2.5 hour drive from Budapest through rather boring scenery. As more and more cities discourage cars, we look for accommodations with parking. The large, super-equipped apartment ($40/night) is in an austere neighborhood about 20 minutes on foot from the historical center.
Exterior of our apartment building, Bratislava, Slovakia

Exterior of our apartment building, Bratislava, Slovakia


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Apartment, Bratislava

Apartment, Bratislava

Old Town, the historic center of Bratislava, is quite pretty and filled with cafes and restaurants.
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Pedestrian streets of Old Town, Bratislava

Pedestrian streets of Old Town, Bratislava


Cafe in Old Town, Bratislava

Cafe in Old Town, Bratislava

The views from Bratislava Castle are worth the hike.
View of St. Martin’s Cathedral

View of St. Martin’s Cathedral


View of Bratislava from the castle

View of Bratislava from the castle

It’s another 2.5 hours to Vienna. By now we are drilled to purchase the highway vignette before crossing (relatively) invisible borders. The apartment outside the center is compact but well-equipped (45 eu/night) with parking nearby for 5 euros per day. It’s a 4th floor walk up! Missed that detail when I was booking. The area, Meidling, is quiet, with nondescript shops and cafes on a long pedestrian street. It’s a healthy 20-minute walk to the Schonbrunn Palace, home of Empress Elizabeth of Austria better known as Sisi. The tour of 40 rooms (20 eu pp) is a pleasure with an excellent audio guide and classic music track. We are way off season so there are not many tourists. The downside is that the magnificent gardens are bare and the fountains still.
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Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

The metro station is around the corner from the apartment and within 15 minutes we are at Stephansplatz. No matter where you look, the architecture is dazzling and all the buildings look like they’ve just been cleaned. Many of the streets in the center are pedestrian. While the grandeur of the Baroque architecture and modern constructions give an imposing feeling, the city is really not that big. Within a day, we have walked most of it.
Tip: skip the expensive (yellow) tourist tram and ride the public trams.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria

St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Stephansplatz, Vienna

St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Stephansplatz, Vienna

Inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna


St. Peter’s Church, Vienna

St. Peter’s Church, Vienna


Horse-drawn carriage in front of Hofburg Palace, Vienna

Horse-drawn carriage in front of Hofburg Palace, Vienna

By chance, the Jewish Museum is holding an exhibition of the Ephrussi family collection, made famous by artist Edmund de Waal (great grandson of Viktor von Ephrussi, the prominent Jewish banker forced to flee Vienna under Hitler) in his must-read memoire, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The cornerstone of the exhibition (and the book) is the collection of over 200 Japanese Netsuke that survived the war and moved across continents before settling as de Waal’s inheritance. I practically run to see it.
Ivory and wood Netsuke from the Ephrussi collection, Vienna, Austria

Ivory and wood Netsuke from the Ephrussi collection, Vienna, Austria

As a bonus, the ticket gives you entrance to the other Jewish Museum, site of the archeological excavation of the city’s first synagogue (built in the mid-13th century/destroyed in 1420), discovered beneath Judenplatz (square) in 1995 during construction of the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
Judenplatz, Vienna

Judenplatz, Vienna

If there is one thing to eat in Vienna, it’s Wiener schnitzel. Finding the right place is challenging as many are too touristy or too crowded. Cafe Bieradies on Judenplatz, looks inviting. The crisp, oversized schnitzel, is absolutely divine as is the Tafelspitz a boiled beef dish favored by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Washed down with an odd mix of light and dark beer, the delicious meal takes two days to digest!
Wiener schnitzel

Wiener schnitzel

Tafelspitz, beef stew

Tafelspitz, beef stew

Of course Viennese pastries are also world-renowned and there is no shortage of tempting cafes. People line up at the well-known places.
Cafe Central, Vienna

Cafe Central, Vienna


Street musicians, Vienna

Street musicians, Vienna

The drive to Poland takes 4.5 hours. As we near the southwest border, a bad smell permeates the car. Welcome to the Silesia region where coal mining remains prevalent.
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Our apartment is a 10-minute drive from the center of the capital, Katowice, in a cluster of modern hi-rises. The large one-bedroom is quite stylish and comfortable ($33/night) but as soon as you step out, the urge to cough is overwhelming.
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Park Apartment, Katowice

Park Apartment, Katowice

Silesia City Center Mall (built around a former coal mine) has all the name brands, restaurants, a food court and a hypermarket. It is packed with people. The only explanation in this economically-depressed region is that the air is fresher inside!

Having rented many, many apartments since we started this trip seven years ago, I’ve come to the conclusion that while spaces are usually clean, dishes and cutlery, are not. Tired of scouring other people’s pots and pans, we decide to invest in a few kitchen items; non-stick pan, spatula, bottle opener, but my excitement to fry eggs fizzles when for the life of me I cannot get the induction stove to heat. Who knew that not all pans work with all stove tops?!

Vendor selling holiday sweets, Katowice

Vendor selling holiday sweets, Katowice


Coal-themed ride at the Christmas market, Katowice

Coal-themed ride at the Christmas market, Katowice


Old street in Katowice

Old street in Katowice


Mural of activist Wojciech Korfanty, Katowice

Mural of activist Wojciech Korfanty, Katowice

A hard hat is mandatory to visit the Guido Coal Mine, now a tourist attraction. The (required) tour is only in Polish today. The rickety metal cage that sends you 320 meters below ground under the light of a fickle bulb is an experience in itself. Despite the language barrier, the visit is fascinating. And those hats really are vital as I repeatedly knock into infrastructure. After a couple of hours, the guide leads us into a cafe area, makes a few gestures and points at a clock. The group scatters and we figure we’ve got 20 minutes or so for a pit stop. When it starts to feel too long, I ask the bartender who explains, the tour was over 30 minutes ago! We’ll have to wait until they close the bar to ride back to the surface with the staff. Might as well have a beer!

Guido Mine and Coal Mining Museum, Zabrze, Poland

Guido Mine and Coal Mining Museum, Zabrze, Poland


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Nikiszowiec, former coal miners settlement, Katowice

Nikiszowiec, former coal miners settlement, Katowice

No matter what you’ve seen or read, there are few words to aptly describe a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. That negationist theories even exist is unimaginable. For added misery, it’s an ice-cold, rainy day with a biting wind. I don’t dare complain. Tip: if you are visiting on your own, you must get there before 10AM as there are limited individual tickets. We breeze through, but plan accordingly in high season.

Entrance gate Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland

Entrance gate Auschwitz, Oświęcim, Poland

Back at the apartment in Katowice, our hosts have kindly left us a DVD player since all the TV channels are in Polish. To end the gut-wrenching day it seems only fitting to watch Schindler’s List. Shudder...

On the short drive to Krakow (80 kms) we stop to see an installation by a local non-profit that is monitoring and taking measures to educate the public on the hazardous effects of burning coal to heat homes. In front of a school, they have installed artificial lungs made of a porous material with a fan system that filters the air through. The lungs are white and clean on the first day. We’ll be back in two weeks to see how they have fared.

Our apartment (32 eu/night) is on the edge of Krakow’s historic center.
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Apartment Elinor, Krakow, Poland

Apartment Elinor, Krakow, Poland

We park in front to unload luggage. In the time that takes, a parking officer has encoded a ticket. The great thing about modern technology is that once we’ve made our case, he agrees to cancel the ticket with a swipe. We have to pay him to do so, but it’s a third of the price of the ticket. We accept it as a win/win.

Bonus: the frying pan works in this kitchen!

Historic center, Krakow

Historic center, Krakow


Cafe Lajkonik, Krakow

Cafe Lajkonik, Krakow


Street Art, Krakow

Street Art, Krakow


This dragon blows fire if you wait for it!

This dragon blows fire if you wait for it!

Air quality in Krakow is measurably better than Katowice given stringent regulations on burning coal. Rynek Square, is magical in the evening. Decorative horse carriages and cafes sparkle in the cold air.
Rynek Glowny, Europe’s largest medieval town square, Krakow

Rynek Glowny, Europe’s largest medieval town square, Krakow


Horse-drawn carriages, Rynek Glowny Main Square, Krakow

Horse-drawn carriages, Rynek Glowny Main Square, Krakow


Misty night on Krakow’s Main Square

Misty night on Krakow’s Main Square

The Jewish ghetto aka Kazmierz, is anything but a ghetto. Many of the buildings have been remodeled and the streets are filled with trendy restaurants and bars.
Utica Krokodyli Pub, Krakow

Utica Krokodyli Pub, Krakow


Craft beer at Krokodyli

Craft beer at Krokodyli


Not everyone is happy that this former synagogue is now Havre Cafe, Krakow

Not everyone is happy that this former synagogue is now Havre Cafe, Krakow

This heartbreaking installation in Heroes’ Square commemorates the thousands of Jews who were sent to Auschwitz from here. In addition to one suitcase, many residents took a chair to “have a place to sit in their new home”...
Hereos’ Square, Krakow, Poland

Hereos’ Square, Krakow, Poland

On one corner of the square, this authentic pharmacy offers an interactive glimpse into the Polish pharmacist and his staff who took great risks to help Jews. It’s a fun museum that recounts a sober story.
Eagle Pharmacy, Krakow, Poland

Eagle Pharmacy, Krakow, Poland


Street Art “Ding, Dong, Dumb” Krakow, Poland

Street Art “Ding, Dong, Dumb” Krakow, Poland

The Schindler Factory is literally crammed with information, photos and exhibits, but not at all what I expected. The layout, which offers no views of the actual factory floor, leaves me disappointed. Right next door is the Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow (MOCAK). Worth the visit if you like contemporary installations.

Zamosc is a colorful place about 3.5 hours from Krakow, listed by UNESCO for its Renaissance town planning. There’s hardly a soul on the main square on this frigid Sunday afternoon, but it’s easy to picture the filled terraces of summer. It’s very, very pretty.
Great Market Square, Zamosc, Poland

Great Market Square, Zamosc, Poland

As we walk around, we notice that some of the cafes are open but you need to push past heavy doors to enter. Seems like the whole town is at Bohema Cafe. I had read reviews about their hot chocolate; a steaming cup of pure liquid cocoa. Your veins actually change color!
Ladies at Cafe Bohema

Ladies at Cafe Bohema

The days are at their shortest now and we’ve developed a routine for visits. The majority of photos are taken at dusk between 3:45PM and 4:15PM. Then it’s “home” or to a cafe/bar for a couple of hours to “work” before dinner. There are virtually no other tourists.

Our apartment is fitted with a huge smart TV. It takes persistence, but eventually, I figure out how to change the menus to English and consequently I am able to select original language and lose the Polish dubbing on some of the channels. At night, we binge on movies and nature documentaries. This newfound skill in TV technology will prove invaluable from here on in.

We take local roads to get to Warsaw where we’ve booked a cute studio in Old Praga, the hip neighborhood on the eastern side of the Vistula River.
Studio Old Praga neighborhood, Warsaw

Studio Old Praga neighborhood, Warsaw

Warsaw is completely rebuilt but many of the buildings look old. It’s less quaint than Krakow but still quite enjoyable.
City walls of Warsaw

City walls of Warsaw


Old Town, Warsaw

Old Town, Warsaw

Cafe, Old Town, Warsaw

Cafe, Old Town, Warsaw


Markings on the ground illustrate the former boundary of the Jewish ghetto, Warsaw

Markings on the ground illustrate the former boundary of the Jewish ghetto, Warsaw


Place your order at the window

Place your order at the window


and pay the cashier at Bar Pod Barbakamen, Warsaw

and pay the cashier at Bar Pod Barbakamen, Warsaw


Traditional Polish pierogis with meat filling

Traditional Polish pierogis with meat filling

A stern warning in the metro!

A stern warning in the metro!

Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw

Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw


The synagogue wedged between tall, modern buildings

The synagogue wedged between tall, modern buildings


Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw

It always seems to take about 3.5 hours to get to the next destination and the drives have become ritualistic: prepare a tupperware with a healthy salad and stop at McDonald’s (most highway rest stops have a KFC, Burger King, etc.) for some french fries to accompany and a cappuccino to finish.

From the brand new apartment in Gdańsk, it’s a short walk to the old town.
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Apartment Chmielna Park 2, Gdansk, Poland

Apartment Chmielna Park 2, Gdansk, Poland

The historic center is predominantly pedestrian with cobblestone streets and townhouses. Kind of a cross between Amsterdam and Bruges. There are many cafes, restaurants and typical red-brick churches. Christmas decorations have just been installed and by late afternoon, the town shimmers.

Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk, Poland


Amber is the stone of choice in many shops

Amber is the stone of choice in many shops


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Old Town, Gdansk, Poland

Old Town, Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk’s most famous citizen is Lech Walesa, the electrician who rose to stardom peacefully protesting and negotiating with the government, leading to the fall of communism in Poland and eventually throughout Europe. The European Solidarity Centre (5 eur pp) is a wonderful museum, presenting the timeline of events led by Walesa. On the way to it, we stumble into Gdansk Shipyard and follow a map with points of interest. The vast area, under renovation, will be transformed into a modern urban center with housing, shops, and restaurants. We’re told that the city is working closely with developers to maintain the integrity of this iconic place. This impromptu shipyard discovery makes the museum visit that much more interesting.

Gdansk Shipyard, Poland

Gdansk Shipyard, Poland

The photo, part of an outdoor exhibition at the shipyard, depicts Lech Walesa being carried by his peers in celebration in front of this very building

The photo, part of an outdoor exhibition at the shipyard, depicts Lech Walesa being carried by his peers in celebration in front of this very building


Add your note to the thousands that make up the Solidarity Wall at the European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk

Add your note to the thousands that make up the Solidarity Wall at the European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk

The audio guide at the museum is phenomenal. As you enter each room, the system trips the commentary. No fumbling with numbers, no wondering if you’re in the right place. Really well done.

With a little more than a week to make our way back to Slovenia, we stop in Poznan, Poland for two nights. The cute studio is 24 euros/night. Do not be misled by the crumbling entrance. As with more and more places, it’s self check-in and always tricky figuring out the instructions - codes, lock boxes...
“White” studio by Stay 99, Poznan

“White” studio by Stay 99, Poznan

Yet another beautiful square.
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Views of Stary Rynek, Old Market Square, Poznan, Poland

Views of Stary Rynek, Old Market Square, Poznan, Poland


Pub Guliwer on the square, Poznan

Pub Guliwer on the square, Poznan


Parish Church of St. Stanislaus, Poznan

Parish Church of St. Stanislaus, Poznan

We drive back thru Krakow and stop by the school to see how the artificial lungs look. After just 14 days, the results are devastating. Changing attitudes in a country whose identity is so strongly defined by its reliance on fossil fuels, is a complex economic matter. Projects are underway, but it will take time to convert raising awareness to concrete national policies.
Before/after artificial lung installation near Krakow

Before/after artificial lung installation near Krakow

Having carefully calculated the validity of the highway vignette, we are able to cross into Hungary again, this time stopping in the charming town of Pecs. The pedestrian historical center is outstanding and by 4PM it is ablaze with holiday lights, vendors and nativity scenes.
National Theater of Pecs, Hungary

National Theater of Pecs, Hungary


Christmas concert at Pecs Cathedral

Christmas concert at Pecs Cathedral


Native-born Victor Vasarely Museum, Pecs

Native-born Victor Vasarely Museum, Pecs

When we reenter Slovenia, there is still time to visit Ptuj, the country’s oldest city. B&B Silak is a 500-year-old tannery by the river renovated by Vladimir, a passionate local, and his wife.
Ptuj, Slovenia

Ptuj, Slovenia

At this time of year, there are only 3-4 other people visiting the castle all the way up the hill.
Ptuj Castle, Slovenia

Ptuj Castle, Slovenia


Interior Ptuj Castle, Slovenia

Interior Ptuj Castle, Slovenia

We reach Ljubljana for one last night. There’s snow on the ground and with Christmas just a week away, the ambiance is that of a fairytale.
A winter night in Ljubljana

A winter night in Ljubljana


Finishing food reserves on the last night of the road trip, Ljubljana

Finishing food reserves on the last night of the road trip, Ljubljana

The frying pan in my carry-on sails through airport security (if that is not a weapon...) and we are off to Tbilisi, Georgia. Having driven over 5140 kms in six weeks, we are looking forward to slowing the pace down drastically.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 23:18 Archived in Slovenia Comments (3)

Gelato for breakfast? This must be Sicily!

DAY 2279 - DAY 2300

sunny 22 °C

The charcoal-gray Fiat 500 we pick up at Comiso, (Sicily’s low-cost carrier airport) is just the right size for driving the island. It’s pretty late when we check-in at Villa Si Cilia (41 euros/night), but the owner assures us we’ll find something open in town; a 10 minute drive away. On this breezy, pleasant night in May, parking is easy; finding a restaurant serving after 9PM, not so. We end up at the counter of a small cafe with our first taste of Arancini, deep-fried stuffed rice balls. This will not be a low-calorie trip!

Basilica of Maria Santissima Annunziata, Comiso

Basilica of Maria Santissima Annunziata, Comiso


Villa Si Cilia, Comiso

Villa Si Cilia, Comiso

We’ve got five days to make our way north to Cefalu to celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday. Distances are short in Sicily, so we have plenty of time to make a few stops. There is hardly a soul in Marina di Ragusa. Off season there are only about 3500 inhabitants. That number swells to 60,000 sun worshippers in July/August. We have the worst pizza at one of the few places open and leave immediately.

My first taste of impossibly steep, narrow streets is in the UNESCO city of Modica. One wrong turn in search of a parking space near the cathedral in Modica Alta and I find myself having to back-up a steep, narrow lane. I (simultaneously) let go of the clutch and emergency brake and floor it, leaving a chunk of rubber and some sweat on those slippery 14th century cobblestones.
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Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica

Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica


View from the bell tower, Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica

View from the bell tower, Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica

Modica is also famous for its distinctive chocolate made with a cold technique that keeps the sugar from melting. Shops are filled with interesting and unusual flavors, but crunching on grains of sugar is an acquired taste.

In 1693, an earthquake and tsunami devastated many of Sicily’s southeastern towns including Modica, Ragusa, Syracuse and Catania. The elaborate reconstruction effort of eight towns of the Val di Noto (today classified by UNESCO) resulted in a distinctive style of architecture known as Sicilian Baroque. Perched on a hill, Ragusa Ibla is a fine example with a pretty church and plenty of rugged cobblestone streets to exhaust you (wear comfortable shoes).
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Cathedral of San Giorgio, Ragusa Ibla

Cathedral of San Giorgio, Ragusa Ibla


Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa Ibla

Perhaps the most stunning example of Late Baroque is the city of Noto. The main (pedestrian) street is a festival of sparkling, perfectly aligned limestone palazzos, churches, charming restaurants and the creamiest gelato.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Noto

Roman Catholic Diocese of Noto


Stained glass detail from the Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo, Noto

Stained glass detail from the Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo, Noto


Outdoor Dining, Noto

Outdoor Dining, Noto

Syracuse is a short drive from Noto; shorter if you drive like a local! The roads are excellent for the most part and highway is literal; one or two-lane configurations stretch at dizzying heights above rivers and valleys. Sicilians are in a rush and will practically kiss your back bumper to pass. Once you get used to their driving habits it’s rather fun, but the pick-up on this Fiat 500 quashes any competitive urge.

It’s late afternoon when we cross the bridge to Ortigia. The setting is dazzling, but we have not booked a place in advance and this is problematic. The streets are minuscule, one way and parking is impossible. Moreover, Ortigia does not offer many budget options. The one place I find is immediately vetoed for its damp stench. I don’t know what I was thinking other than it was getting late. With the clock ticking (cars are not allowed across the bridge after a certain hour), we retreat to Syracuse city. A long search eventually brings us to a clean, modern space overlooking the San Giovani Catacombs with free (street) parking.
L and D Luxury Rooms, Syracuse (45 eu)

L and D Luxury Rooms, Syracuse (45 eu)

By the time we’re settled, it’s late, but finding food is never an issue in Sicily.
Thick-crust Sicilian pizza

Thick-crust Sicilian pizza

A serious computer glitch disrupts our plans and we end up having to leave the next day without visiting Syracuse or Ortigia. I put it on the list for later.

The guesthouse I figured would have a room in Piazza Armerina is full! The helpful owner calls a friend who sends his father to show us an apartment nearby. The decor is ultra traditional and we will not use 1/4 of the enormous 3 bedroom/2 bath space, but the elderly man is so engaging and the price is right (35 euros).
Our car (and bags) in front of the apartment in Piazza Armerina

Our car (and bags) in front of the apartment in Piazza Armerina


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Some of the rooms in the apartment

Some of the rooms in the apartment

Piazza Armerina is most famous for the magnificent mosaics of the 4th century Villa Romana del Casale, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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Mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina

Mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina

We arrive in the picturesque seaside town of Cefalu in the afternoon.
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Like most towns, the streets are narrow and parking is restrictive, so we’ve booked Villa Magara (53 eu/night) in the hills overlooking the city.

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Villa Magara, Cefalu

Villa Magara, Cefalu

The birthday girl has meticulously organized the next three days for us (and 12 friends/family who’ve flown in from the US), complete with guided visits, sumptuous meals and joyous, nonstop celebration. Words cannot describe the generosity and love shared.
View of Castelbuono

View of Castelbuono


Flower carpet, Castelbuono

Flower carpet, Castelbuono


Chapel of Saint Anne, Ventimiglia Castle, Castelbuono

Chapel of Saint Anne, Ventimiglia Castle, Castelbuono


Local men sitting at a cafe in Castlebuono

Local men sitting at a cafe in Castlebuono

Sluggish after the 3-day binge, we leave the group and head west along the northern coast.

View of Caccamo

View of Caccamo

We stop for the night in Castellammare del Golfo. We do not know it yet, but it will top the list of favorites by the end of the trip.
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A series of tight turns and one way streets leads to an abrupt stop in front of stone steps as the GPS defiantly announces, “You have arrived.” Sensing our quandary, the phone immediately displays, “Walk the rest of the way.” I can’t help responding out loud, “ Thanks, where do we leave the car?” We look around and decide it’s obvious; right in the middle of this small square like everyone else!

Driving across Sicily, it is impossible to ignore the garbage. Bags of household trash, construction debris, even appliances are abandoned on the side of the road and it is not unusual to see people litter without a second thought. Rest stops are particularly disgusting and outside tourist zones, there is garbage everywhere. It’s extremely upsetting.
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The Doric columns of the temple at Segesta (UNESCO) suggest Greek builders, but it was actually the (indigenous) Elymians who built it in the 5th century BC. From the entrance, there is a shuttle bus to the ruins. It’s a bit more of an uphill walk to the amphitheater. With such a beautiful, natural backdrop, they certainly did not need set design! Don’t forget the hat and sunscreen.
Amphitheater at Segesta

Amphitheater at Segesta


Temple of Segesta

Temple of Segesta


View from the top of Segesta archeological site

View from the top of Segesta archeological site

View of the coast on the road from Segesta to Erice

View of the coast on the road from Segesta to Erice


Piazza Umberto, Erice

Piazza Umberto, Erice


Cobblestone street, Erice

Cobblestone street, Erice


Erice, famous for its pastries

Erice, famous for its pastries


Baker in Erice

Baker in Erice

Driving by the salt pans near Marsala. Notice the 43 kite surfers in the background!

Driving by the salt pans near Marsala. Notice the 43 kite surfers in the background!

It’s evening when we reach Trapani on the northwest coast of the island. Parking is color-coordinated in Sicily: Blue requires a ticket, yellow is for residents only and white is free. Then there are the 20-minute-only spaces that we missed. A kind man explains that if we pay right away at the police station, it will be much cheaper than the bill from the car rental agency. Months (and an interminable email thread) later, despite proof of payment, AVIS still wants to charge a hefty administrative fee. Eventually, they back down, but it is a long fight. Never give in!
Sole Terra Luna, Trapani (40 eu incl. breakfast at a cafe nearby)

Sole Terra Luna, Trapani (40 eu incl. breakfast at a cafe nearby)

You can get your steps in at Selinunte or, just take the golf cart. The massive archeological site was a thriving Greek metropolis from somewhere around 630 BC until 409 BC when it was leveled by the invading Carthaginians. It is an impressive pile of rubble, with a few distinctive structures still standing and a commanding view of the coast. Best to visit early morning or late afternoon when the sun beats a little softer.
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Selinunte Archeological Park

Selinunte Archeological Park

Garbage on the road continues to be an issue...
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Scala dei Turchi, naturally terraced cliffs on the southern coast.

Scala dei Turchi, naturally terraced cliffs on the southern coast.


The Valley of the Temples (UNESCO) is one of Sicily’s most famous archeological sites. Not sure where “valley” came from as the vestiges actually sit high on a ridge on the outskirts of Agrigento (lots of uphill walking). We visit at the end of the day when the light is beautiful, temps are cooler and the tour buses have gone.
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Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

To avoid traffic and strict parking rules in Agrigento, we head for the pleasant seaside hamlet of San Leone and Villa Amico (39 euros with breakfast, lovely owner and enclosed parking).
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Seafood couscous

Seafood couscous

If you don’t know what Caltagirone (also on the UNESCO list) is famous for, gaze up at the 142 steps of the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte. If you’re still not sure, walk into any shop in town.
Ceramic tiles on the steps of Santa Maria del Monte, Caltagirone

Ceramic tiles on the steps of Santa Maria del Monte, Caltagirone

Flower pots on the steps

Flower pots on the steps


Church of Santa Maria del Monte at the top of the stairs

Church of Santa Maria del Monte at the top of the stairs


Moorish heads in a Majolica shop

Moorish heads in a Majolica shop


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People are particularly nice here. Despite a big language barrier, they go out of their way to help: optician, restaurant owner, shopkeeper. Strangers in the street smile and say hello. The room at Casa Diliberto, is cheerful, but hasn’t been used in awhile and we have to sweep up a few dust bunnies. The kind owner checks in several times as we are the only guests in the building.
Casa Diliberto rooms (35 euros), Caltagirone

Casa Diliberto rooms (35 euros), Caltagirone


Ceramic mural,

Ceramic mural,


wall art,

wall art,


a vintage car rally,

a vintage car rally,


and kids playing football in Caltagirone.

and kids playing football in Caltagirone.

Cathedral of Santa Maria La Nova, Caltanissetta

Cathedral of Santa Maria La Nova, Caltanissetta

After much deliberation over ferry schedules, island connections and lodging options, we decide to join an organized day trip to the Aeolian islands (also UNESCO) that leaves from Cefalu early, stops at three islands and returns at night after (hopefully) a volcanic eruption on Stromboli (80 eu pp).
We spend the night before in Campofelice di Roccella, a hill town (and seaside resort) about 20 minutes from the embarkation point in Cefalu. It makes the list of places that warrant spending more time in.
Grilled veggies

Grilled veggies

The boat leaves Cefalu promptly at 9AM with about 100 people aboard.
Day cruise to the Aeolian islands

Day cruise to the Aeolian islands

The first stop is verdant Salina island, one of the shooting locations of the film Il Postino. We’ve got a couple of hours to amble around the pedestrian streets by the port and taste Malvasia, a delicious locally-produced sweet wine.
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Views of Salina island

Views of Salina island

It’s 2PM when the boat docks at celeb favorite, Panarea island. As we wander the steep streets with charming villas, boutique hotels, shops selling expensive beachwear and trendy restaurants, I cannot fathom wanting to be here in the summer with hoards of tourists invading any sense of privacy.
Small streets of Panarea island

Small streets of Panarea island


Panarea’s most famous visitor was Princess Diana, who had the right formula: anchor the yacht in between the coves of crystal clear water and stunning rock formations facing the island, and come ashore occasionally to sample authentic Sicilian granita.
Small islands around Panarea island

Small islands around Panarea island


Cruising near Stromboli with Strombolicchio lighthouse in the distance

Cruising near Stromboli with Strombolicchio lighthouse in the distance

The last stop of the day is Stromboli with its active volcano. In constant eruption, viewing fiery lava spewing from the crater at night is pretty much guaranteed, but with a couple of hours until sundown, the boat disembarks on the opposite side of the island for more gelato, souvenir shops and rocky beaches. We shop picnic items then walk over to the beach blanketed with black lava rocks. This must be the origin of hot stone massage! If you want to walk on, or swim off, the beaches, bring rubber shoes!
Beach, Stromboli

Beach, Stromboli

When night falls, the boat circles to a spot facing the volcano. Big puffs of smoke shoot up every few minutes. We’re told to look for the telltale sign of an eruption, small bursts of light from cameras of tourists who have opted to hike the crater. Eventually, we get one blast of red-hot lava. Not a night of spectacular eruptions, but still pretty cool from a safe distance.
Maneuvering into position in front of Stromboli volcano

Maneuvering into position in front of Stromboli volcano


Stromboli eruption

Stromboli eruption

It’s almost 1AM by the time we get back to Cefalu.

Friends from Belgium are joining us for 5 days. We’re not sure how to fit them and more luggage in the car, but they promise to pack light. Before picking them up in Palermo, we go back to Castellammare del Golfo.
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Check-in at Casa dei Capitano is awkward when the guy shows me a different room than expected, but he motions me to follow a few doors down and presents a much nicer option.
Casa dei Capitano (30 eu)

Casa dei Capitano (30 eu)

The one negative point in Castellammare is that several places in town, like our favorite coffee shop and seafood restaurant, serve everything in plastic! In this day and age?

Zingaro Nature Reserve is about an hour by car from Castellammare. From the parking lot, a path winds along the cliffs with several offshoots leading down steep steps to small coves and sparkling water.
Zingaro Nature Reserve

Zingaro Nature Reserve


Even off season, there are many people on the tiny, rocky beach and we are not equipped with proper footwear to get in/out of the water, so we enjoy our picnic and rest before hiking on.
Zingaro Nature Reserve

Zingaro Nature Reserve


Scopello near Zingaro

Scopello near Zingaro

The traffic around Palermo is chaotic to say the least and drivers are rather aggressive. With frazzled nerves we reach our apartment in the historic center (UNESCO).
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2 bedroom apartment, Palermo (40 eu/night)

2 bedroom apartment, Palermo (40 eu/night)

Thankfully, the owner pre-purchased a parking permit for us. Better to be a pedestrian in this city. 48 hours is plenty to take in the mix of Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman influences.
Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral


Quattro Canti Square

Quattro Canti Square


Pretoria Fountain

Pretoria Fountain


San Domenico

San Domenico


Street musicians

Street musicians


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Boiled octopus, a street food favorite

Boiled octopus, a street food favorite


Cannoli worthy of UNESCO recognition!

Cannoli worthy of UNESCO recognition!


Lady with stroller

Lady with stroller


Pop-up vendors near the Church of San Francesco Saverio

Pop-up vendors near the Church of San Francesco Saverio


San Giovanni Degli Eremiti, church, mosque, monastery...

San Giovanni Degli Eremiti, church, mosque, monastery...


San Giovanni Degli Eremiti

San Giovanni Degli Eremiti


Former private residence, Palazzo Mirto

Former private residence, Palazzo Mirto


Palazzo Mirto, Palermo

Palazzo Mirto, Palermo

With our friends tightly packed in the back, we leave Palermo and head east. Cefalu is a must see, so we stop for a couple of hours. Temperatures are much warmer now and it is more crowded since our first visit two weeks ago.
Cefalu Cathedral (UNESCO)

Cefalu Cathedral (UNESCO)

Fruit and veg vendor, Cefalu

Fruit and veg vendor, Cefalu

A tour of Sicily, would not be complete without a visit to Mt. Etna (also UNESCO). Our friend researches the possibilities given our limited time and desired difficulty and suggests we spend the night in Randazzo, aka, the black town. Amazingly, the small medieval town, so close to the crater, has never been effected by eruptions. Its distinctive black color comes from the use of lava stones as decorative motifs in many of the buildings.
View of Randazzo With Mt. Etna in the distance

View of Randazzo With Mt. Etna in the distance

Church of San Nicolo, Randazzo

Church of San Nicolo, Randazzo

Etna Guesthouse in Randazzo (54 eu for 4)

Etna Guesthouse in Randazzo (54 eu for 4)

We drive ourselves to the start point of the Mount Zoccolaro trail. It’s a relatively short (45 min - 1 hour), occasionally steep trail, through the forest to a clearing with a stupendous view of the (active) volcano and surrounding valleys dipping into the Ionian Sea.

Lava field with Mt. Etna in the background

Lava field with Mt. Etna in the background


View of Mt. Etna

View of Mt. Etna


Flowers growing in the lava fields around Mt. Etna

Flowers growing in the lava fields around Mt. Etna


Constant activity on Mt. Etna

Constant activity on Mt. Etna

Later, we are again rewarded with a clear, (though distant) view of Mt. Etna from the terrace of our apartment in Fiumefreddo, aptly named, The Godfather Apartment in homage to scenes of the movie that were shot in this town. (46 eu for 4).
The Godfather apartment, Fiumefreddo

The Godfather apartment, Fiumefreddo


The Godfather apartment, Fiumefreddo

The Godfather apartment, Fiumefreddo

Given all the hype around Taormina, we saved it for our friends, thinking this UNESCO site would be a highlight. Granted, it is pretty, but it’s beyond touristy, and this is preseason! In one of the funnier moments, we decide to drive further up the mountain to Castelmola. The Fiat 500 strains as the road winds and winds. We pull into a small square and land a great parking spot for exactly one second until we’re waved towards a garage several turns back below. On the steep walk back to town, each of us makes a comment - “Didn’t think there would be as many tourists here”, “Interesting, they have an amphitheater here too”, “I saw the same shop in Taormina”... It takes the 4 of us a full 15 minutes to realize that we are still in Taormina!
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Amphitheater, Taormina

Amphitheater, Taormina


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Views from Taormina

Views from Taormina


View of Isola Bella from Taormina

View of Isola Bella from Taormina

Back at sea level, we head towards Isola Bella to see what all the fuss is about. You practically have to step over bodies on the rocky beach to reach the point where during low tide it is possible to cross, but the water is cold and an entry fee awaits on the other side. The isola is bella from a distance.
Taormina Beach with Isola Bella behind

Taormina Beach with Isola Bella behind

Determined to spend a couple of hours on a sandy beach, we find our way to Calamosche Beach located in Vendicari Nature Reserve. From the parking lot, it’s a solid 20 minute walk across a hot, dry plateau. At the edge of a cliff, stairs lead to a fairly large bay with fine sand and gorgeous, easy to handle, waves. The water is still a little chilly in mid-June, but once in, it’s glorious. Be warned, there is absolutely no shade anywhere.
Calamosche Beach, Vendicari Nature Reserve

Calamosche Beach, Vendicari Nature Reserve

The last stop on the way to Comiso Airport is in the pretty (UNESCO) town of Scicli. It’s another one of those places worth spending more time in. We have just enough for one more gelato...
San Bartolomeo, Scicli

San Bartolomeo, Scicli

And there it is, a 5-week road trip through pretty much all of Sicily. The takeaways: Charming medieval towns, gorgeous views, crystal clear water, nice archeological sites, and sublime desserts. The leave behinds: generally heavy cuisine, overly-crowded tourists zones, and way too much garbage.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 04:53 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

There’s hope for the orangutans in Sumatra

DAY 2049 - DAY 2271

semi-overcast 30 °C

True to form, this leg of the trip starts in Bangkok where we enjoy a bit of luxury at a most democratic price before heading (back) to Indonesia hoping to do a story on the endangered Sumatran orangutan.

As mentioned before, the best bang for your buck in Bangkok is via Airbnb with one caveat: many condominiums prohibit short-term subletting. If things go wrong, the experience can be quite aggravating so be sure to read the reviews, contact the owner, etc., to avoid any hassle.

Assured by our host that we’ll have no trouble, we ignore the warnings plastered all over the building and proceed with the most unusual check-in worthy of a spy thriller. Following a series of photos we’ve received in advance, we locate an armchair in the lobby and sure enough under the cushion, there’s an envelope with my name on it. Inside, are several key cards and a small plastic case with a fingerprint embedded in a silicone film! Like magic, the door to the elevator bank opens when I press the fingerprint to the reader...
Latex fingerprint for check-in, Bangkok

Latex fingerprint for check-in, Bangkok


The one-bedroom condo in the trendy Thong Lo district is compact but fully-loaded. There’s a gorgeous rooftop pool. Never made it to the gym, but it did look nice ($42/night)
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Apartment Thong Lo neighborhood, Bangkok

Apartment Thong Lo neighborhood, Bangkok


We spend 10 days roaming Bangkok cafes, sipping lattes and “working.” Meals are split between restaurants and state-of-the-art food courts offering endless choices. The bill is rarely over $10 per person.
Coffee in Bangkok

Coffee in Bangkok


True shop/cafe/workspace at Siam Paragon mall, Bangkok

True shop/cafe/workspace at Siam Paragon mall, Bangkok


Food court at EM Quartier mall, Bangkok

Food court at EM Quartier mall, Bangkok


Rice paper roll with shrimp and fresh mint, EM Quartier food court, Bangkok

Rice paper roll with shrimp and fresh mint, EM Quartier food court, Bangkok


Hor Mok crab curry in banana leaf, Supaniga restaurant, Bangkok

Hor Mok crab curry in banana leaf, Supaniga restaurant, Bangkok

Thai tea panna cotta, Supaniga restaurant, Bangkok

Thai tea panna cotta, Supaniga restaurant, Bangkok


Chocolate melt with ice cream, Sit and Wonder restaurant, Bangkok

Chocolate melt with ice cream, Sit and Wonder restaurant, Bangkok

There is always something going on in Bangkok. This week, it’s the Navaratri festival celebrating Durga, the Hindu warrior goddess who wards off evil. Ten days of festivities center around the flamboyant Sri Mariamman Temple at Silom road. Flowers, lights and music.
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Navaratri festival, Bangkok

Navaratri festival, Bangkok

The flight to Indonesia is just two hours. Standing by the baggage carousel at Kualanamu International Airport in Medan (Sumatra), a local strikes up conversation. She’s a doctor, teaches at the university, and within minutes, this kind stranger is handing me her phone number. And that’s the reception we will get everywhere in Medan. People, smile, wave... at one restaurant the entire staff asks us to pose for a photo!

The airport taxi driver doesn’t speak a word of English, but his friend assures us the jalopy will make it to the city. For most of the ride, somehow the tires remain attached; well, until one bursts with a loud pop! The car limps thru a toll booth and fizzles on the shoulder. The driver is inconsolable, but a replacement taxi is quick to arrive and we’re on our way.

Kanasha Hotel, located behind the (more traditional) Garuda Hotel, is brand new, modern and comfortable. For 20 euros including breakfast, the room is made up every day.
Kanasha Hotel, Medan

Kanasha Hotel, Medan


Every night, we return to fresh towels, toothbrushes, soap and shampoo on the bed. We put them on a shelf thinking surely the room cleaners will stop, but they never do. Here’s what it looks like after a month or so!
The ever-expanding amenity collection in our room

The ever-expanding amenity collection in our room

Most travellers spend a night or two in Medan (the capital of North Sumatra and largest city on the island) on the way to the tourist sites like Bukit Lawang (orangutan treks) and Lake Toba (volcano). We are trying to put together a photo shoot around the rescue, rehabilitation and release of the endangered Sumatran orangutan. Obtaining authorizations proves to be an achingly slow process. Within several weeks we have seen every shop, eaten at every restaurant in the Sun Plaza mall and tried every hip cafe and restaurant in Medan. By week four, we’re rotating through our favorites.
Sushi, sometimes twice a day, at Sushitei restaurant, Medan

Sushi, sometimes twice a day, at Sushitei restaurant, Medan


Authentic pizzas at Trattoria Italian restaurant, Medan

Authentic pizzas at Trattoria Italian restaurant, Medan

Crab at Jimbaran restaurant, Medan

Crab at Jimbaran restaurant, Medan


Sangrai Coffeeshop, Medan

Sangrai Coffeeshop, Medan


Junction Cafe, Medan

Junction Cafe, Medan

People are getting used to seeing us and we attract a fair amount of attention especially when we try to walk from one place to another. Nobody walks in Medan; the sidewalks are horrendous (gaping holes, trees growing in the middle, slippery moss-covered stones), the air quality is awful, and it’s hot and muggy.
Not a reassuring sidewalk for the blind in Medan

Not a reassuring sidewalk for the blind in Medan


We quickly get on board with Grab, a version of Uber with the bonus that you can pay cash. No matter where we go, the ride never costs more than $1- $2! Movies at the mall showing the latest releases in ultra comfortable theaters cost under $3. Knowing that once we leave the city, food options will vanish, we enjoy sushi, Italian food, fresh grilled fish and Belgian beer. At the Japanese restaurants (and even in some others), you are greeted by the entire staff with a resounding “Irasshaimase!” welcome.
Sushitei restaurant, Medan

Sushitei restaurant, Medan


Fuku Japanese restaurant, Medan

Fuku Japanese restaurant, Medan


Live music at Potret Cafe, Medan

Live music at Potret Cafe, Medan

In modern Medan, where extreme poverty and excessive wealth share real estate, restroom facilities vary from squat toilets, bucket and water for flushing provided, to Western facilities with toilet paper and waste bins (flushing paper is never allowed). Apparently, the education of the public from squat to Western toilets is a work in progress. There are graphics reminding people not to stand on the seat though the campaign is obviously not working given telltale shoe marks! Sometimes, the toilet and floor are completely soaked with water as there is always a hose attachement for manual washing and it is common practice to cleanse the entire installation when finished. Fancier places have hi-end Japanese commodes that wash, dry your derrière, and even play music! Oh, and some people think mothballs are an air freshener...
One of the mansions on Kartini Road, Medan

One of the mansions on Kartini Road, Medan


Lady selling newspaper, Medan

Lady selling newspaper, Medan

Exactly whose idea was it to visit Indonesia during monsoon? At first, it was manageable, raining mostly at night. But today, it rained so hard, within minutes the streets were flooded. Thinking I was smart by waiting for the deluge to pass, when I eventually waded into the street, the wake from the cars was so high, I thought it would be safer to step up to the sidewalk. The minute I put my foot on the plank covering a wide drain, I knew I was going down. In an instant, I was chest-deep in rushing (who knows how dirty) water! Before I could panic, two locals yanked me out. Absolutely mortified, I thanked them and stumbled on to my destination with my clothes clinging to my body, certain that all my devices were floating in my bag. I was incredibly lucky; not a scratch and no water damage. The only thing bruised was my ego. As I write this (many months later), I realize I’m still traumatized.
The fateful sidewalk on a dry day, Medan

The fateful sidewalk on a dry day, Medan

Eventually, diligence pays off. We’ve filed all the paperwork and passed the medical checks for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) and we are now on standby with the Orangutan Information Center (OIC) and their field team, HOCRU (Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit). When the call comes in, we have just enough time to grab our bags (previously packed with essentials for a couple of days of rustic living, and standing by for weeks) from our hotel. There has been a report of an orangutan sighting on a rubber plantation in the Aceh Tamiang district about five hours north of Medan. We’ve been briefed on the conditions we should expect and yet... It’s pitch black as we pull up to a cluster of small homes. The wood house has a main room flanked by two bedrooms and a kitchen with no appliances. The bathroom is dissected by a tree branch. The (supremely kind) owners give us their room. They will sleep with their kids in the other bed. The rest of the team (7 people) will sleep in the main room on a large mat that will be rolled out on the floor after dinner (rice, chicken, vegetables, tea and cookies also served on the floor).
Main room of the house, Aceh Tamiang rescue

Main room of the house, Aceh Tamiang rescue

Rain pelts the metal roof as I try to sleep, wondering if my mosquito repellant will protect me overnight and thinking about the muddy conditions we’ll face in the morning.
Bedroom, Aceh Tamiang rescue

Bedroom, Aceh Tamiang rescue

It’s 8AM as we head out for a “walk” which means to search the area where the animal was last seen.
Communicating by walkie-talkie, Aceh Tamiang rescue

Communicating by walkie-talkie, Aceh Tamiang rescue

Orangutans live in the treetops and move up to 3 kms everyday in search of food. They build a new nest every night. The land is owned by the government and concessions are leased to private companies. In the name of conservation, the law requires a certain number of acres remain untouched. Naturally, the steepest (hardest to excavate) bits of the forest are not cleared creating pockets within plantations where orangutans (and other animals) get stranded. It’s hot, humid, buggy, slippery and difficult to keep up. The good news; no leeches! After 3 hours of bushwhacking to no avail, the team heads back to the house where lunch is served, on the floor.

The crackling sound of voices on a walkie-talkie jolts us from a post-lunch nap. The orangutan has been found and within minutes we’re careening down the road in two cars towards the location. It’s about a 20 minute hike into the plantation to find it perched high up in a tree. The rescue is precise: the vet prepares the sedation dart, others coerce the animal down to a safer fall height before a marksman takes aim. As the orangutan begins to lose consciousness, team members maneuver a net for the catch, but the terrain is steep and muddy and when it drops in, the weight sends everyone slipping and sliding including the photographer who bounces by me on his butt shooting! The minute the orangutan is brought to level ground, the team springs into action on the medical check.
On-site medical check in the mud, Aceh Tamiang rescue

On-site medical check in the mud, Aceh Tamiang rescue

They have about 40 minutes to determine her condition and get her to the transport cage on the vehicle before she wakes up. The vet determines that while she has several wounds, she does not need specific medical treatment at their facility and can be returned to the forest. However, getting to the release site requires a whole other set of logistics because the forest is beyond a palm oil plantation. Circumventing the plantation will take six hours! Calls are made and eventually, permission to drive through the private property is granted, slashing the transport time to two hours. A couple of team members ride with the cage on the pickup monitoring the orangutan who begins to stir.
Driving through the plantation

Driving through the plantation

Night is falling as men lift the cage off the truck, carry it into the brush and place it at the base of a tree.
Unloading the cage in the Tenggulun protected forest

Unloading the cage in the Tenggulun protected forest

When the door is lifted, the orangutan bolts straight up and disappears into the night in a flash. It happens so fast it’s somewhat anticlimactic. The drive back to the village Is interminable. With 10 people sharing the bathroom, it’s a while before everyone has cleaned up after an epic day.

Upon return, Medan takes on a whole new perspective. Our small hotel room feels positively luxurious. After an extremely long, hot shower, we rush to our favorite cafes for a hot latte, sushi, etc.
World-class cappuccino, Medan

World-class cappuccino, Medan


Sushitei Japanese restaurant, Medan

Sushitei Japanese restaurant, Medan


$2 shave at Lippo Mall, Medan

$2 shave at Lippo Mall, Medan

Aside from soup, it’s hard to get a hot meal. And you can forget about an entire order being served at the same time even in upscale restaurants. As one waiter reminds us, “We only have one chef sir...” One night, dessert actually arrives first! In some places, as they are handing you the menu, they ask you if you’d like to order. Me & Kartini makes great coffee but besides croissants and cookies, they don’t serve food. You can order a salad from the shop upstairs, BUT you have to order it a day in advance. When not totally annoying, these odd customs provide endless entertainment. Eventually, we land at Coffeenatics. The owner and staff are super nice, the coffee is exceptional, and the food is quite good as well. It pretty much becomes our HQ.
Coffeenatics, Medan

Coffeenatics, Medan

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Delicious fresh pasta at Coffeenatics, Medan

Delicious fresh pasta at Coffeenatics, Medan

Drivers in Indonesia refuse to yield and they will run you over. The trick to crossing a street is just to advance slowly and let traffic flow around you. I shame people all the time for things like not letting me pass, for listening to their phones without headphones, cutting in lines, allowing their kids to run around screaming in restaurants, etc. Manners must be learned!

Over the next few months, in between long stints in the city making contacts and following (often empty) leads, we participate in several rescues.
Rescue on a plantation in Langkat district

Rescue on a plantation in Langkat district


The vet hangs an IV drip on a palm tree during the on-site medical check, Langkat rescue

The vet hangs an IV drip on a palm tree during the on-site medical check, Langkat rescue


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Villagers, Langkat district

Villagers, Langkat district


Main room of the home we stayed in during the Langkat rescue

Main room of the home we stayed in during the Langkat rescue


Dinner is served, Langkat rescue

Dinner is served, Langkat rescue

Bedroom, Langkat rescue

Bedroom, Langkat rescue

One case becomes particularly high profile when a female orangutan is rescued with her baby. Once sedated, a team member gently removes the baby from its mother’s grasp.
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Mom is then placed on the ground for the medical check. A quick examination reveals that she is gravely wounded and the baby is in critical condition. They are rushed to the jeep but it will take 10 hours to reach the medical center!
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Despite the valiant effort of the vet, it is an excruciating moment for everyone when he pronounces the baby’s death.
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The long drive back to the quarantine center is somber. The team decides that the only fitting name for the mother, riddled with 74 air bullet wounds, blinded in both eyes and distraught at the death of her child, is Hope. Within a few days, Hope undergoes surgery for a broken clavicle performed by a Swiss doctor who voluntarily flies in when needed to help with the more complicated cases.
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Unable to return to the wild, Hope will live out her days at The Haven, the SOCP’s (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme) soon-to-open protected habitat.

Five months later, it’s now the beginning of April and the one thing missing from our story, the reintroduction of orangutans into the wild, is about to take place. The SOCP has worked in conjunction with the government.for months. It’s bureaucracy with a capital B, where paperwork always takes a backseat to holidays, elections, etc. With so many religious groups co-existing in Medan, the number of holidays (and subsequent delays) is astonishing. Finally, the call comes in: the orangutans will be transported to Jantho, a station in a protected national park about two hours outside of Aceh, where they will be closely monitored for several (or more) weeks until it is determined that they are ready to return to the wild. One and a half hours from Medan, at the SOCP Quarantine Centre, five orangutans are being prepared for transport.

One by one, the orangutans are sedated and brought to the examination room for a final medical check.
The orangutan will be transported from its enclosure to the clinic by wheelbarrow

The orangutan will be transported from its enclosure to the clinic by wheelbarrow


Weighing an orangutan

Weighing an orangutan


Final medical check before transport

Final medical check before transport

Delightfully unaware of the activity, Brenda, a 4.5-month-old recent rescue, is learning how to climb on an apparatus made from small branches to suit her size. With her left arm in a cast, the baby gingerly climbs around under the supervision of veterinarian Jenni.
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Lunch is interrupted by some extremely agitated orangutans. Everyone rushes from the communal table to the enclosures to find a giant python coiled up on the stairs nearby.
The python scaring the orangutans and humans at the SOCP Quarantine Centre, Sibolangit

The python scaring the orangutans and humans at the SOCP Quarantine Centre, Sibolangit


A couple of caregivers wrangle the beast as it twists violently. One guy manages to grasp the throat and lower the body into a bag, but when he releases his grip, the hissing snake lunges and the guys drop the bag sending both orangutans and humans into hysterics. In the flutter, they manage to snatch the string and swiftly pull the bag closed.
Bagging a python

Bagging a python

Two guys take off on a scooter to release the python back into the forest.

Once the transport boxes are closed and the animals have been fed, they are loaded onto a small truck and driven out to the main road where a long-haul vehicle awaits. Hidden in dense forest, even the locals do not know where the SOCP facility is.
Five orangutans leave the SOCP Quarantine Centre, Sibolangit

Five orangutans leave the SOCP Quarantine Centre, Sibolangit

Lead vet Jenni, will accompany the orangutans on the overnight drive to ensure their well-being. The rest of the team flies to Aceh.

The next morning, the truck is met in Aceh by two jeeps that will transport the orangutans to the Jantho Release Centre.
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Moving the orangutans to the jeeps for transport to Jantho

Moving the orangutans to the jeeps for transport to Jantho


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The ride to Jantho through the jungle takes two hours on a dirt track

The ride to Jantho through the jungle takes two hours on a dirt track


General view of Jantho Release Centre, Aceh Province

General view of Jantho Release Centre, Aceh Province


Ultra-thin floor pad for sleeping, Jantho Release Centre

Ultra-thin floor pad for sleeping, Jantho Release Centre

During the acclimation period at the monitoring station in Jantho, the cages are opened in the morning encouraging the orangutans to venture out. The animal can come back to the safety of the cage at any time until it builds the courage and determination to leave for good. Caretakers monitor their behavior and activity, noting how much time is spent looking for food, if they are building nests, etc. Like humans, orangutans need to be taught skills. A mother usually trains her child for 8-9 years before it can survive on its own. The orangutan’s history - orphaned, injured, domesticated - determines whether or not it can be released back into the wild. Only orangutans deemed capable of surviving in the wild are brought to this station.
Final team meeting before the release in Jantho, Aceh Province

Final team meeting before the release in Jantho, Aceh Province

For the caregivers, release day is a bittersweet moment.
The incredible bonds that develop with these great apes that share 97% o our DNA

The incredible bonds that develop with these great apes that share 97% of our DNA


The orangutan is transported across the river and released

The orangutan is transported across the river and released

As usual, coming back to the city is an orgy of comfort - hot showers, crisp clean clothes, great coffee and a variety of food choices.
Cajun shrimp with pasta at The Three Thumbs restaurant, Sun Plaza, Medan

Cajun shrimp with pasta at The Three Thumbs restaurant, Sun Plaza, Medan


Fresh avocado salad at Fuku Japanese restaurant, Medan

Fresh avocado salad at Fuku Japanese restaurant, Medan


Whole fish at Jimbaran restaurant, Medan

Whole fish at Jimbaran restaurant, Medan


Nasi bakar ayam at Holy Duck restaurant, Medan

Nasi bakar ayam at Holy Duck restaurant, Medan


Habitat Cafe, next to Manza Massage - $15 for 2 hours of bliss, Medan

Habitat Cafe, next to Manza Massage - $15 for 2 hours of bliss, Medan

We decide to end the almost 6 month stay in Sumatra with a visit to Bukit Lawang to see orangutans the traditional way, on a jungle trek. It’s a three-hour drive to the entrance of the village. If ever you plan to go, travel light because you have to drag/carry your suitcase along an uneven path, through the village, past souvenir stands, in extreme heat and humidity, to reach your guesthouse.
Village, Bukit Lawang

Village, Bukit Lawang

Wall art, Bukit Lawang

Wall art, Bukit Lawang


A couple of guys from Jungle Inn meet us and are very helpful with the luggage, but just following these nimble locals is exhausting! Ours is the last place on the path. Well technically not; Back to Nature, is literally 30 minutes further, but this is far enough!

Jungle Inn, Bukit Lawang

Jungle Inn, Bukit Lawang


The reception/restaurant

The reception/restaurant


Our room has two balconies overlooking the river, 30 euros/night

Our room has two balconies overlooking the river, 30 euros/night


and an outdoor bathroom with waterfall shower

and an outdoor bathroom with waterfall shower


Smoothie breakfast bowl

Smoothie breakfast bowl

I’m nervous about the trek as it has rained hard overnight and the terrain is steep. Our two guides, Nangan and Rudy are great and while it’s a little slippery, bamboo branches cum walking sticks make all the difference. And unlike the rescues, here, there are well-defined trails to follow. Several NGOs operate in the area and today there are about 400 orangutans in the surrounding jungle. Although tourism has flourished, the area maintains an eco-friendly vibe.
Indigenous plant, a most effective mosquito repellent

Indigenous plant, a most effective mosquito repellent


Rubbing the leaves on my arms

Rubbing the leaves on my arms


You are pretty much guaranteed to see semi-wild orangutans and while you hope to see wild ones, they can be quite agressive. We see about 7 orangutans over the 4-hour trek, plus Thomas leaf monkeys (the least annoying monkeys ever), macaques, something resembling a baboon, another big snake and ants on steroids!
Giant ant, Bukit Lawang

Giant ant, Bukit Lawang


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Orangutans in the forest, Bukit Lawang

Orangutans in the forest, Bukit Lawang


Rest stop, orangutan trek, Bukit Lawang

Rest stop, orangutan trek, Bukit Lawang


Drone view of our guesthouse, Jungle Inn, and the river, Bukit Lawang

Drone view of our guesthouse, Jungle Inn, and the river, Bukit Lawang

The plan is to hike down to the river and catch a jungle taxi (inflated tubes tied together) back, but we find ourselves literally across from our guesthouse so we jump in the water (fully clothed) and fight the current and slippery rocks to the other side. The water is glorious!
River taxi, Bukit Lawang

River taxi, Bukit Lawang


Refreshing fresh fruit juices at Back to Nature Guest House

Refreshing fresh fruit juices at Back to Nature Guest House

It’s hard to believe we are leaving Medan after so many months. We have made some friends and many acquaintances and developed so many routines.

Arriving in Bangkok, It takes a few minutes to work out why so many Thais are wearing yellow. Tilt: the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The entire city is bathed in yellow and gold during the 3-day festivities.
Preparation for a show at EM Quartier mall, during the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn

Preparation for a show at EM Quartier mall, during the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn


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Photos of King Maha Vajiralongkorn everywhere

Photos of King Maha Vajiralongkorn everywhere


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Puppet shows in honor of the new king at EM Quartier mall next to Phrom Phong Skytrain station, Bangkok

Puppet shows in honor of the new king at EM Quartier mall next to Phrom Phong Skytrain station, Bangkok

With a couple of weeks before flying to Europe, we decide to check out some destinations further south to escape the oppressive heat in Bangkok. We’ve heard that Hua Hin, three hours by bus, is a nice seaside town. Euh... maybe for people desperate to get out of Bangkok and play golf on the weekend, but that’s about it. Although it’s on the main road, our room behind a lovely cafe called Bliss is an exceptional deal.
Bliss Hotel and Restaurant (25 eu), Hua Hin

Bliss Hotel and Restaurant (25 eu), Hua Hin

It’s a 10 minute walk to the center and the beach. Like many Thai resort areas, there are plenty of bars, fronted by Thai women welcoming Western, (generally) older men. Yuck! The beach is nice to walk along, but unless you’re staying in a resort, there are nicer beaches in Thailand.
Grilling squid on the beach in Hua Hin

Grilling squid on the beach in Hua Hin

Cleaning crew, Hua Hin beach

Cleaning crew, Hua Hin beach

Night Market, Hua Hin

Night Market, Hua Hin

Our final destination is Ko Pha Ngan island. To get there, you need to coordinate with a ferry and the safest thing to do is a bus/ferry combo ticket. Buses in Thailand are generally ultra modern and comfortable, this one is neither. While the seats almost fully recline, there is just no way to get comfortable for the overnight ride.
Bus to Ko Pha Ngan

Bus to Ko Pha Ngan


At 5AM, it’s a two-hour wait for the (equally uncomfortable) three-hour ferry to Ko Pha Ngan, famous for its full moon parties. Needless-to-say, we make sure to visit in between moons.
View of  Ko Tao Island from the ferry to Ko Pha Ngan

View of Ko Tao Island from the ferry to Ko Pha Ngan

We rent a scooter (the best mode of travel for the island) and check into our brand new room on the beach in between Thong Sala and Baan Kai.
Room at Samutra Residence (32 eu/night), Ko Pha Ngan

Room at Samutra Residence (32 eu/night), Ko Pha Ngan


View from the room, Samutra Residence, Ko Pha Ngan

View from the room, Samutra Residence, Ko Pha Ngan


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The atmosphere is ultra laid-back with many people walking around barefoot even in town. All these uncovered bodies are rather shocking after five months in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Here, it’s all about skin. I adapt my wardrobe immediately and switch to vacation mode.Thong Nai Pan beach, Ko Pha Ngan

Thong Nai Pan beach, Ko Pha Ngan

Belgian Beer Bistro,  Ko Pha Ngan

Belgian Beer Bistro, Ko Pha Ngan

Haad Rin beach (of full moon party fame), Ko Pha Ngan

Haad Rin beach (of full moon party fame), Ko Pha Ngan

View of Ko Ma island, Ko Pha Ngan

View of Ko Ma island, Ko Pha Ngan

Mae Haad beach, Koh Pha Ngan

Mae Haad beach, Koh Pha Ngan

And with that we comfortably end this long chapter in Sumatra. While the conditions were sometimes extremely hard, the experiences were profoundly rewarding. The dedication demonstrated by the people we shadowed for months is truly inspiring. The story is as much about them as it is about saving orangutans.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 12:20 Archived in Indonesia Comments (5)

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