Thursday, December 31, 2009

trip part ii

after spending about 10 days back in the US, split between the bay area and portland, we head off to part 2 of our adventure tonight.

it was nice being back in the US, nice beds, hot showers, good food, burritos (four times in 10 days). a bit rushed to replenish and buy new supplies/gear and also see as many people as we could.

next up, bolivia (which involves 4 flights and a 22 hour layover in lima, peru), then overland to chile and argentina. we fly to new zealand at the beginning of march via LAX, with a couple day stop in the cook islands to check them out. a month in new zealand, month in australia, and back to SF april 30th.

even though our packs have almost doubled in weight from all the climbing and camping gear, we're excited for the next 4 months. it'll be quite different since we'll mainly be hiking, backpacking, and climbing, things that we've missed quite a bit over the last 7 months.

if anyone is interested in joining us on this "tamer" part of our journey, we'd love to meet up with people along the way...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

egypt, athens, slovenia photos

photos from egypt, athens, and slovenia have been posted:

home for christmas

after spending a few days in athens where it was cold and rainy, we spent a few days in ljubljana, slovenia visiting erick's cousins. just our luck we managed to time our trip when they had a cold front passing by, with highs around 15 deg F and snow. as a result we didn't do much except christmas shop in the city and visit the town of bled, but it was very beautiful and his cousins were extremely hospitable. slovenia is a beautiful country and we'll have to return there one day during the summer to take advantage of the mountains.

due to the scheduling of our flights, we had a one night layover in amsterdam, just enough time to take the train into the city, sleep at a hostel, and take the train back to the airport. but we finally made it home after 7 months and it's great to be back. unfortunately we'll only be here for 10 days before heading to bolivia and with the holidays, it'll be a very short and busy 10 days...

Monday, December 14, 2009

out of the middle east

our time in the middle east has come to an end, we left Egypt yesterday and are now in Athens for a few days.

the desert oases were interesting. we spent a night in the white desert, visited the interesting formations there and in the black desert. of all the oases, siwa was by far the nicest one and the most remote. we had a couple days there, then in Alexandria before flying out.

unfortunately, the less than hygenic conditions in Egypt caught up with both of us at the end. we both had stomach problems and didn't feel well the last week. might also be partially due to malnutrition the past couple months. very glad we saw all the countries and sights and enjoyed our time but also happy to leave.

Greece is giving us sticker shock and also weather shock, it's very expensive and cold. but nice to be back in a place where prices on food are clearly marked and not made up depending on whether or not you're a local.

we'll be home in a week, can almost taste the burritos.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

pyramids and temples

we've spend about a week doing the touristy things in egypt. went to the pyramids in giza, which are very large, though now quite as impressive as i imagined. part of the problem might be because we were scammed getting to the pyramids. a really nice guy (teacher) helped us from the metro to find a bus to the pyramids. long story short, it turns out he and the bus driver work with some horse/camel stable and we were taken there and had to listen to a sales pitch for why we should ride a horse/camel around giza. we refused and ended up having to walk an additional 2 miles to the entrance of the pyramids. what we get for being cheap and trying to do everything by public transportation.

after cairo, we headed down to aswan on an overnight (all tourist) train. aswan was very nice. had an evening boat ride around the islands, which was beautiful and relaxing. went to visit philae temple which was well preserved and had been moved stone by stone from it's original place under the water (after the dam was constructed).

we took an overnight felucca ride up the nile, which was actually very nice and good food, then drove to luxor. visited the valley of the kings (where there are 63 royal tombs underground, including king tutenkhamans) and the valley of the workers, tombs of the workers who built the royal tombs. the tombs were of course empty but still very impressive with painted carvings and the burial chambers.

from here we head into the desert oases for about a week, then alexandria, then we fly to greece for a few days...

Saturday, November 28, 2009


after spending 6 nights here in dahab, we're headed to cairo on the overnight bus tonight. fortunately dahab is a really nice place to spend time, laid back, backpacker friendly and cheap (and expensive) food options. unfortunately the main thing to do here is dive and snorkel, which we partook in neither. erick was interested in snorkeling but it's been really windy these few days so he never got a chance.

we did go up to st. katherine and see the world's oldest monastery, including the burning bush, and hike up mt. sinai, where moses received the 10 commandments. it was a nice hike, even if we didn't do the typical touron sunrise hike.

after cairo, aswan, luxor, western oases, alexandria, then we fly off to greece. less than a month before we head home for christmas... we're looking forward to good burritos and chocolate.

Monday, November 23, 2009

turkey, syria, and jordan pics

new pics posted from turkey, hot air balloon ride, syria, and jordan:


we made it through another country, jordan, and are now in country #22, egypt, after a long and drawn-out ferry ride. the ride itself was only 1 1/2 hours, but they boarded us 2 hours before and made us stay on the ferry another hour after we arrived in nuweiba, egypt. then we had to buy visas and stuff, so we ended up traveling for 13 hours yesterday.

we're in dahab, egypt right now, in sinai. big diving town (on the red sea), very, very touristy and americans everywhere! strange being in a place so touristy again.

jordan was okay, not as good as we'd hoped. we went in with very high expectations, but things were a bit different than we'd envisioned. first, everything was extremely expensive, close to western european prices for standard middle east service (similar to accommodations and food we got in syria for double the price). people weren't as friendly and we felt that many were trying to rip us off, like in areas with lots of tourism. of course coming from syria (and iran before) we were comparing it to two less developed (tourism-wise) countries.

site-wise, we were impressed. jerash, near amman, is the largest intact roman ruins site in the middle east and it was better than anywhere i've seen in western europe. unfortunately we were a little tired of ruins by then. petra was amazing, as cool as it looks in the movies and pictures. the entrance through the siq (canyon) is spectacular. we had fun hiking around petra, even with not so good weather. went through a fun little slot canyon, wadi muthlin, the second day, which was one of the nicest canyons i've seen, including utah.

wadi rum was fun, we spent 3 days there (the bus to aqaba was full so we stayed an additional night). unfortunately there's great climbing but we had no way to climb, so we just hiked and scrambled through some canyons. mostly french climbers in pretty big groups, no americans. the rocks and routes looked very similar to red rocks but a lot less developed and many areas had bad approaches (through sand or necessary to hire a 4wd or camel). maybe one day we'll go back and climb.

we have no desire to dive here, so we're trying to find something to do. there's great climbing in sinai (granite cracks) but again we have no gear and hiring a guide is ridiculously expensive. we'll try to boulder a bit, but we heard you need to have a guide to go into that canyon. we'll see...

Sunday, November 15, 2009


we made it through syria no problem. only had to wait at the border for 3 hours for our visas, while they faxed Damascus and waited for an answer. we did save $114 each by getting the visas at the border and not in the US. our time isn't worth much these days so it was worth it.

spent a few days in aleppo, they have a nice citadel there and took a day trip to st. simeon church, which was a Christian pilgrimidge site in the 5th century. pretty impressive. then headed to hama where there are cool waterwheels from the 13th century including one of the world's largest (ASME plaque to prove it) and a day trip to a well-preserved crusader castle, crac des chevaliers. only downside is erick got pretty sick from some ice and laid up for two days in the hotel until cipro worked its magic.

then went to palmyra, very nice roman ruins in the desert and free! spent a couple days in damascus, big city and lots of tourists and came to amman, jordan yesterday. went to visit jerash, most intact roman ruins in the middle east today, also very impressive. unfortunately I think we've both had enough roman ruins for a while.

Syria was surprisingly touristy compared to where we've been recently and very easy to get around with english and not knowing arabic. people, especially kids were very friendly, always saying hi but not the same curiosity of westerners as iran, probably because they see so many. jordan is a lit more western and touristy. don't think we've seen do many american tourists since rome and i cringe everytime I hear a loud american tourist, which was a lot today.

tomorrow we'll most likely head to Petra or maybe dana nature reserve.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

cappadocia, turkey

we made it to goreme yesterday here in capadocia amidst a snow storm and freezing weather and met up with erick's ex-roommate matt and his girlfriend leanne.

since it was freezing (literally, the temperature was 0 deg celcius) we decided to head to derinkuyu where there's a large underground city, parts of which are 4000 years old). it was cool to wander around and it was dry. only bad part was we had to wait for buses for a total of half an hour in freezing weather. took a while to thaw our feet out.

this morning we had the hot air balloon ride and the weather actually cooperated and it was dry. it snowed a bit overnight so it was really beautiful. there were lots of balloons and tourists (~25 balloons so a pretty crazy sight). the ride itself was beautiful and amazing and well worth the cold and cost.

today it actually cleared up and the sun came out. we went for a couple hikes in the surrounding valleys, saw fairy chimneys up close with churches and houses.

we'll stay here another day then take the night bus to the border and try to get into syria on Thursday. we'll try our luck at getting visas at the border or may be denied and turned back to turkey. rumors that blogspot is blocked in syria so not sure when i'll post again.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

new photos, finally

just posted lots of new photos, including all the iran, armenia, georgia, and snowy train ride photos:

snow on halloween

we successfully made it to country number 19, turkey.

we spent a day in sighnaghi Georgia, east of tbilisi. it's located in wine country, perched up on a hill with the old city wall still intact. very beautiful. managed to get in a little hike the first day to a monestary and holy spring before the weather turned bad.

headed back to tbisili and took an overnight bus to trabzon, turkey on friday night. managed to spend most of my birthday on some sort of transportation. first was that overnight bus with the Georgia-turkey border crossing at 2 am. luckily our bus had 7 people including us so the border crossing was quick. from Trabzon waited a couple hours in the bus station and took a 5 hour bus to erzurum. we didn't realize Erzurum was so high and cold so the actually had a decent sized snowstorm going on and a few inches on the ground. a snowy halloween.

we lucked out and ended up getting train tickets on an overnight train out of ezurum to Kayseri. ended up being the nicest train compartment we've been in, only 2 people, chairs, sink, refrigerator. after 15 hours on the train we got to Kayseri this morning at 6 am and found a bus to urgup (cappadocia) where we'll spend one night before heading to goreme to meet erick's roommate matt. maybe have a belated bday dinner since all we ate yesterday was bread, cheese, clif bars, and bananas.

it's surprisingly cold here in turkey, we were looking forward to warmer weather, and at least in eastern turkey, no one speaks english or german and there are very few ATM machines.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

tbilisi, georgia

we spent a couple more days in armenia, staying in the town of vanadzor in a soviet-era hotel which smelled strongly of smoke and we had to request the water and water heater be turnedvon when we wanted it. we took a day trip to debed canyon to visit sanahin and haghpats monestaries. we tried to take public transportation and walk, so we wouldn't have to pay lots of money to a taxi driver for the day. worked out for the most part mostly by luck. we took a train to and from alaverdi, instead of a bus, since the schedules in the lonely planet were completely wrong.

saw the monesteries, had a nice hike and made it back. got lost a couple times and had to wait a few hours for the train but it all worked out.

took a marshrutka (mini van) here to Tbilisi yesterday. we wanted to head to kazbegi today to see the mountains but the weather is cold and rainy. we decided to stay here another day and see the town then head towards turkey somehow. problem is it is supposed to rain everywhere for the next week so we don't know where to go.

armenia was quite a bit poorer than we expected, especially the rural areas. it was difficult to get around since there is virtually no tourist infrastructure anywhere. knowing Russian was very useful to communicate and get around. it is a nice country with quite a bit to offer but still has a ways to go before becoming a good place to travel.

so far georgia seems to be a bit better to get around and seems to be a bit better off. unlike Armenia though they've seemed to distance themselves from their soviet past, not surprising given their relationship with russia.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


we decided to take the bus from tehran to yerevan (armenia). ended up being a 22 hour bus ride with the border crossing timed so it happened at 2 to 5 AM at night. nice. no problems getting out of iran or into armenia, fortunately.

the iranians and armenians on the bus were really nice and helpful, without us even asking. a few helped us fill out the iran departure tax forms which were all in farsi (though ended up we didn't need to fill it out), people bought us tea, helped us figure out exchanging money, etc. the highlight though was we met an 89 year old man, giovanni, who is iranian by birth, lived in the US for many years, and now lives in yerevan.

he befriended us, took us back to his apartment in yerevan, let us stay, fed us, took us on a day trip to see the temple in garni and geghard monestary (~30 km from yerevan), let us do laundry, and wouldn't let us pay for anything. he treated us like family (said we were like his grandkids). when we left yerevan yesterday he asked when we're going back and he'd keep the room made up for us. had to tell him we weren't going to go back.

such amazing hospitality, you always read about stuff like that but never expect it. it's amazing that he's in such good health and living by himself, if i were his child or grandchild, i'd be very worried about him. this will probably end up being one of the highlights of our trip!

now we're in dilijan, about 1 1/2 hours north of yerevan. we went for a nice hike today to a monestary, it's nice being in a place with mountains, blue sky and fresh air again, even if it is a bit cold. we'll make out way to georgia then to turkey to meet erick's ex-roommate matt, in cappadocia in a week and a half...

out of iran

after spending 15 days in iran, we made it to armenia.

the tour was good, just the two of us. guides varied but for the most part they were all good and helpful. we went to lots of big cities (tehran, shiraz, esfahan, yadz, kerman, mashad) and saw many mosques, old houses, gardens, cultural, and historical sites. won't go into that, the pictures (when i get around to posting them) will speak for themselves.

first off, everyone we met there was extremely nice. very curious about tourists, we always had people coming up to us and asking where we're from. many were surprised we were americans, only because they see so few. we had some good, interesting conversations with many, it was a bit surprising how honest and critical some were about the government and revolution. only one somewhat negative reaction when we said we were american, and he wasn't rude, just kind of ended the conversation and walked away.

school girls were really curious about us, always coming up and asking to take pictures. one funny incident is a 4 year old boy who came up to me for no reason and started kicking me in the shin. left a little scab. otherwise, we really enjoyed meeting and talking with people.

in the cities, traffic is horrendous. takes forever to go anywhere and it doesn't seem like driver follow traffic laws, usually red lights but not always. so car rides were a bit nerve wracking, since 2 lanes were usually used as 4 or more lanes.

pollution in the cities and highways was really bad, as bad or worse than china. probably due to the cheap gas (40 cents/gallon with a gas card, $1/gallon without card), so there are many cars with no pollution control.

i think we both are glad we went to iran, it was an interesting and good experience, but we were also ready to leave at the end...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

esfahan and yazd

after spending a couple days in shiraz, we headed to esfahan, with a stop at persepolis (old palace complex built ~2500 years ago by darius the great). very impressive ruins. also stopped at some other ruins at pasargad (built by cyrus the great) but they weren't in as good of conditions.

spent a few days in esfahan, with a day trip to see an old persian village of Abyaneh (people still speak and dress in the old style) and the town of Kashan, where there are old 19th century big houses and nice gardens.

we're here in yazd for a couple days, saw an old zoroastrian fire temple with a flame that's been burning for 1000+ years and the towers of silence, where the zoarastrians used to leave the bodies of the dead to be eaten by vultures.

we'll spend another night here, then head to the desert, then to kerman with a day trip to bam, to see the earthquake damaged citadel.

trips been good so far, very interesting, though tiring being on a tour. everyone we've met has been very friendly and curious about tourists (even americans).

Thursday, October 08, 2009

in iran...

after spending erick's bday in dubai, we spent the next day flying to iran, via bahrain.

dubai was pretty crazy, one night was enough. we were fortuante that we went right after the metro (unmanned) was opened so getting around from place to place was really easy. even went to see ski dubai, which is pretty far from the main area. lots of construction everywhere, very hot, lots of people of different ethnicities. good to see but for a day.

we made it into iran with a little hassle at immigration. finally let us in with fingerprints. spent a couple days in tehran sightseeing, crazy city with lots of traffic. we're the only ones on this "tour" so we have our own guides. flew to shiraz last night, had a morning tour, will have another tour this afternoon, then will see persepolis and drive to esfahan tomorrow afternoon.

people have been really friendly (lots of questions and curiosity), we're given a surprising amount of freedom even though we're american, we have the evenings free to wander around and explore. very, very few tourists, which is quite different and nice.

don't know if when i'll have interweb next but will update when i can. we decided to go out into armenia and spend a week there and in georgia (near tblisi) before flying to istanbul...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

hong kong and macau

we've spent about 4 days here in hong kong and have a couple days left, visiting my grandmother and meeting up with my parents. it's nice to regroup, reorganize, refill stuff (ie 20+ new clif bars for erick), but better yet having good food, being taken care off, and being able to speak the language (cantonese).

nothing too exciting to report, we've both been here before and done all the touristy stuff plus it's been very rainy. went to macau with my parents for a day yesterday to check out the crazy casinos there (not quite vegas but they're trying) and checking out some of the more popular tourist sites. one unfortunate thing that happened is that erick got his camera stolen in macau out of his pack on a crowded street... other than that lots of eating, too bad we can't eat enough for the next 3 months and not bother to eat while traveling.

next stop, dubai for a night (erick's birthday) then iran for a couple weeks. we were successful in getting our iranian visas here in HK and amazingly everything's good to go with the tour.

Monday, September 28, 2009

in hong kong, finally posting again!

we made it out of china today and are in hong kong. we'll spend about a week here visiting my grandmother and parents, who timed a trip here to meet up with us. it'll be nice to "relax" a bit, regroup, and restock. we're heading to dubai on saturday and supposedly iran, though we're having communication issues with the travel company and it looks like we may have to change our itinerary, unfortunately.

blogspot and picasa were blocked in china, so i wrote up blogs about the north korea trip and china adventures but haven't been able to upload them until now. also posted a bunch of photos, from the remainder of mongolia, north korea, and china. each album has many pictures (some well over 100), sorry about that, just too many interesting photos...

pics in normal place:

beijing and sichuan, china

our stay in china was relatively short. we first went to beijing to meet up with the north korea tour group. my longtime friend cressica was in town and we met up with her for dinner one night. unfortunately she was extremely busy so we didn't get a chance to actually travel around with her and add to our random china adventures.

after we got back from north korea we took a 32 hour train ride from beijing to chengdu. the china trains are much nicer than the russian ones but the boarding process is also a lot more crazy and chaotic. shared the cabin with a mother and her 2 year old daughter one day, who had lots of energy and was running around trying to get into everything.

hung around chengdu a couple days and got to meet up with our climbing friend alice, who was in town for a conference. it's nice seeing familiar faces after being away for so long. also went to see the panda breeding and research center in chengdu which was really interesting. the pandas were extremely cute, of course, and after
learning more about them it's amazing they've survived so long.

originally we were going to go from chengdu to yangshuo to climb a bit but the weather in yangshuo was really hot and humid which would've made miserable climbing conditions. so we decided to stay in sichuan to explore. found a couple areas with big mountains (mt siguniang) and tibetan villages (danba) but unfortunately all the roads to the to places were closed from the earthquake.

we decided to go to songpan, an area famous for horse trekking instead and hike around. the bus ride there was probably the worst bus ride we've been on. the 8 hour trip took 13 1/2 hours. all the roads were under construction from the earthquake and continual rock and landslides. we had to wait at a few places for a total of a couple hours while they cleared the road. many sections of road were one lane from construction or slides. then at night when the bus pulled over to let someone off it was hit by a truck trying to pass, so we were there for over half an hour while the drivers sorted it out. driving up we saw a lot of the earthquake destruction, entire towns being completely rebuilt (using the same brick architecture) roads, bridges completely destroyed, a car completely smashed by rockfall and abandoned. of course large crews of workers everywhere repairing the roads and clearing everything by hand. pretty crazy.

songpan is actually a nice little town, restored city wall, a restored main area which isn't tacky like many touristy areas, blue sky (rare for china), and a decent number of Tibetans and Chinese Muslims wandering around the city still dressed in traditional clothing. went to mounigou valley (a national park an hour west of songpan, aka mini- jiuzhaigou) one day which was actually really nice. very clean
and well maintained, pretty scenery, and best part no people! we saw two other groups the entire day, something i did not expect in china. we saw zhaga falls (the worlds largest tufa falls), erdao lake (colorful pools of water) and drove through Tibetan villages and two monestaries on the way. very nice day trip.

the bus ride back to Chengdu wasn't as bad, only 12 hours. one blown tire (sidewall blew) which was changed quickly by some guy with a huge pneumatic wrench, lucky it blew as we were driving through a village. the bus driver did not instill confidence though, it seems like he could barely drive (better than the Mongolian monk though). he stalled the bus 7 to 8 times including going into the Chengdu bus station, ground the gears, would shift into the wrong gear or would drive in the wrong gear, all while chain smoking. fun. can't say we'll miss china bus rides, with everyone smoking even though they're not supposed to, people blaring music very loudly because they either don't have or choose not to use headphones, people hawking and spitting into the aisle, and people yelling (talking) at each other for hours.

north korea

the post many have been waiting for, maybe. our trip to north korea. unfortunately china blogspot and picasa so i had to wait until hong kong to post these blog entries and the pictures.

but we made it safely in and out of north korea no problem. probably it really will be the safest place that we will travel, never worried about things being stolen or being ripped off or anything.

we had to go with a tour group, there were 16 of us including our american escort, walter. all of us were american except for one canadian. good group of people, diverse backgrounds and ages, not just one demographic. most were seasoned travelers, many had never traveled with a tour group before. we had two north korean english-speaking guides/escorts who were always with us except at the hotel, a driver, and a video person who filmed a DVD of our trip.

we ended up spending all four nights in pyongyang, the hotel we were to stay at in mhoyang was under renovation by many north korean soldiers.

the first night was the highlight, we saw the arirang performance (aka mass games). it was the best, most amazing live performance i've ever seen. there are 100,000+ performers, including 18,000 school kids who sit on the other side of the stadium and hold up colored cards to make amazing pictures for the background that are constantly changing. almost like a big screen projection. the performances basically tell the history of north korea and the wish for reunification through dancing, singing, gymnastics, acrobatics, and massive choreographed acts. reminded me a lot of the beijing olympics opening ceremony. definitely worth seeing.

the rest of the sightseeing in pyongyang was to the largest kim il sung statue (65 meters tall), many monuments, the metro (yes it's an actual operating metro not fake), an empty department store with lots of expensive items, an impressive library (grand peoples study hall) with free classes and even a madonna cd, the uss pueblo (imperialist US spy ship illegally conducting espionage activities in north korean waters), juche tower, views of the ryogong hotel which is finally being worked in after a 10+ year break and will be the largest hotel in the world when completed, a childrens palace where lucky kids can go after school and learn many types of extra cirricular activities for free, kim il sung's birthplace, the victorious fatherland
liberation museum (about how the north koreans defeated the evil US imperialist aggressors in the korean war). the best was kim il sung's mausoleum, where we had to dress up, go through this huge process of going in, lining up, bowing to the body, seeing all the medals and degrees he was awarded (including a doctorate from kennsington university in california). crazy ordeal, ridiculously large and ornate

the other days we went to the ancient capital if kaesong and punmandong, inside the DMZ. went into the DMZ and into a building run by the UN where the demarkation line splits the building in half- so we "went into" south korea. and saw the buildings the armistice (or surrender according to the north koreans) agreement was signed.

another day went to mhoyang to see an old Buddhist temple with one monk that was partially destroyed in the war but rebuilt and the international friendship hall where a fraction of the 250,000 gifts kim il sung received from other countries are on display. we saw a few rooms including one with a wax figure of him that we had to bow to. unfortunately (i mean fortunately) we didn't see the building with kim jong il's gifts.

all that filled our days in north Korea and it was pretty much non-stop.

so that being said, what was it really like? on the surface everything looked great. people seemed to have good lives in Pyongyang, great resources, city was very clean and no pollution or traffic problems. but reading through the surface these are the
fortunate ones. and even from these 2 million people how many actually have access to these resources? lots of propaganda everywhere (plus side no advertisements), we got told a lot of anti-American propoganda. Pyongyang does have the traffic ladies everywhere and no working traffic lights, everyone wears kim il sung pins.

We got fed plenty of good and meat each meal (erick had lots of problems with the food) but saw very few non- working animals in the country. our guides were friendly and let us argue with them and dispute their version of history but didn't believe our views or have any questions about the version of history they've been raised with
even if it makes no sense.

photos were somewhat restricted but they usually didn't care when we took photos unless it was military stuff. people on the street were friendlier to us than I expected, even some military soldiers and traffic ladies smiled and waved at us. of course they didn't know we were imperialist americans.

at the library there was a free English class and a couple people from the tour group went up to talk to the class. they were warmly received and the students were interested gave us a warm welcome even though we told them we're american. that was cool.

walter constantly pushed the envelope by talking with all the guides trying to convince them the American version of events is the truth, surprised they keep letting him back in.

in retrospect, we both very glad we went and it was worth the price. it was basically what we expected. a very surreal experience, it felt like a trip to Disneyland where everything is glorified and fake, only it's a cult worshipping one person. pretty crazy. don't think we'll ever see another country like this, at least in our lifetime.

trouble with getting into china...

seems like china doesn't want to let me in. both times i entered china (on the train from mongolia and flying back from north korea) i got hassled.

the train was the worst. a woman came around to collect the passports and arrival cards from each cabin. she looked at mine, stared at the picture, told me to take my glasses off (i've learned it's much smarter to take your passport picture with glasses on if you always wear glasses like i do). looked at me versus the picture for a few minutes. i even put my hair down to help match the picture. she asked when i took the picture and i said 9 years ago. she finally accepted it and continued on.

little did i know that it wasn't over. she came back with another agent and asked him if i looked like my passport picture. he looked, didn't say anything conclusive and told me to follow them. i got marched off the train, down the platform (everyone else was still locked in the wagons) and took me to the supervisor in charge. on the way they asked me the last time i'd been to china, why i've been here so many times, and where i was born. in the supervisor's office it was him and three others. i remembered i had my drivers license and pulled that out. he looked at everything and determined it was me in the passport photo and they let me go.

but the fun wasn't over. they ran me back to the train because it was just about to be moved to have the bogies changed (mongolia and china have different gauge tracks). they put me on the last car, i had to go through 7 wagons to get back to mine. first went okay, then I had to deal with a Mongolian passenger who wouldn't let me by, kept turning me back , explain to 6 Chinese guards what happened and what I was doing, three carriage attendents who only spoke Mongolian who wouldn't let me through their carriages and unlock the doors between the carriages and explain to two more Chinese guards what i was doing. finally got to the last door before my wagon and the attendant let me through but the last door was locked. she shrugged and went away and I thought I'd have to spend 2 hours standing there while they changed the bogies. fortunately, two of the Chinese guards i passed came by and got the key and helped me get back to my cabin, just before they disconnected the wagons to change the bogies.

flying back to Beijing was not as bad, though erick got a taste of it too. the immigration agent didn't think either one of us looked like our pictures and had us sign our names and compared it to our passport signatures. guess we both passed because he let us both in. luckily we shouldn't have any more china entries this trip.

Friday, September 11, 2009

khovd trips

now on to our time in khovd. besides the car ride back, this was the "real" mongolian adventure we were looking for.

we lucked out in khovd, not having any plans and not speaking mongolian. we found a guesthouse (only guesthouse in khovd- the big family guesthouse) run by adiya in his parents' house. he spoke english and arranged a couple trips for us and also came along as a translator, though his english wasn't great. also found a great vegetarian restaurant in khovd as well, which was a great find.

khovd power comes from russian so everyday we were there, there was a power outage of some duration, which also meant no water. the day before we left, the power was supposed to be out for 3-4 days...

we did two 3-day trips from khovd. the first one we went to see tsambaragav uul (mountain) and a canyon along the khovd river. the driver had never been there, so we stopped at a ger to ask for directions. got invited in, served milk tea, fried dough, aaruul (dried curds), our first true experience in a ger, which was cool. drove up a canyon and hiked up to a ridge close the the mountain, we could see the glacier, really beautiful. adiya determined it was too cold to camp even though we'd set up the tent, so we drove down the canyon and went up to a random ger and asked to spend the night there. it was a nomadic family, young mother and father and a 6-month old baby. we were probably the first westerners they'd seen. we slept on their floor, they cooked dinner for adiya and the driver (us too if we wanted to eat meat) and didn't expect anything in return even though we showed up unannounced and completely unknown to them. amazing hospitality. second night camped near the khovd river, which was beautiful. on the drive back to khovd, we stopped at a kazakh ger and had tea (just went to some random ger) b/c adiya wanted us to see the difference b/w the mongolian and kazakh gers. the kazakh gers were very colorful and full of embroidery. the grandmother asked if erick and i spoke kazakh since we looked more "european" (at least erick). funny.

our second trip we went to look at some big caves with petroglyphs (didn't really see any), tsenkherlin agui, then drove 6 hours to monkhkhairkan mountain to see a waterfall. again, they didn't know directions so we stopped several time to ask horsemen, people in gers, etc. ended up taking the "bad" road, which was pretty bad, lots of rocks, rockfall, and even a dead camel feet up pinned underneath a big rock. we got to the waterfall area near dark, they still didn't know where it was. luckily there was a ger, we stopped, went in for tea, and it was interesting b/c it was small and 3 bachelors lived there. they said there was a family that live near the waterfall that would be better for us to stay with and one of the guys would take us. drove another 45 minutes in the dark and arrived at a few gers. one family gave up their ger for us to sleep in, we thought they were sleeping in another ger but turns out they slept in their truck that night!

beautiful view the next morning of the mountain. adiya mentioned that the waterfall was close but didn't say where. we waited for him and the driver for 2 hours to leave, they were talking/visiting people and who knows what. we watched the nomads chase the yaks around, played with a couple kids. got in the car with the one bachelor that helped us out and took him back to his place to pick up something then he rode with us to town. asked adiya about the waterfall on the way and he said he told us that morning, it was close to where we stayed and there's no water in it right now. so we drove all that way and no waterfall! who knows if it exists.

drove back towards khovd that day, to khar us nuur (lake) where we stayed with adiya's grandmother. she'd killed a goat that day for us, i tried a little, erick of course not. at night we played cards with her (she's a card shark) and the next day got to watch her distill airag into vodka, boil the milk and make the milk skim, and cook the goat organs. and got to try homemade yogurt. it was a cool experience and didn't feel that bad since it was adiya's grandmother, not some strangers.

so overall, we're very glad we went to khovd and that we got to have there authentic mongolian adventures, staying/meeting with nomads who'd never seen westerners, seeing how they live and experiencing the amazing hospitality. and of course if we never went, we wouldn't have to great adventure of driving back to UB from the previous post...

pictures sometime probably much later, depending on if we can post in china.

driving across mongolia with a monk and drunk driver

so we just had the craziest adventure ever here in monglia. i don't think most people will believe everything is true and not exagerated or from a script of a bad movie, but everything below actually happened to us in the last 3 days... will also write a post about our amazing trips in khovd later on...

we were supposed to catch a flight from khovd back to UB on wednesday. on tuesday we had adiya (from the guesthouse in khovd) call the airline to see what time the plane's departing since it's not really standard/predictable. turns out there was a problem, the plane was stuck in moron because of a runway (asphalt) problem so the plane can't take off and all the flights for the next week are cancelled. problem for us since we had a plane to catch from UB to beijing on thursday morning.

adiya spent the whole afternoon helping us and the best solution we could come up with was to take a car back to UB (~2 days drive), get a refund for the non-used air ticket in UB and buy new train tickets to beijing leaving saturday morning. as long as we were in UB by 6pm friday afternoon, that would be no problem. he found us a car (we thought it'd be more comfortable and get there faster than the bus), a subaru forester (very rare in mongolia), good condition, the driver seemed nice, and pretty cheap (~$35/pp for the 2 day, 1450 km journey).

we left khovd wednesday morning, there was an older monk in the car, the driver, and a mongolian girl. on our way out of town, the mongolian girl decided she didn't want to go so we dropped her and her 70 kg bag of potatoes off at her house and went to the bus station to recruit a new passenger. by chance, there was an american, alex from tennessee, there looking for a bus. he agreed to come along. little did we know that we got him into an adventure of a lifetime...

first sign that things would be fun is the driver let the monk drive shortly after leaving khovd. the monk is learning and doesn't know how to shift very well, the car goes across the road when he shifts. nothing scary, just amusing to see the monk drive.

stopped for lunch a few hours in and the driver drank 1/2 a bottle of vodka with his friend. needless to say he was really, really drunk. the monk also performed a ceremony to bless the house and occupants, which was really cool to see. no one would let the driver drive, so alex took a shot, but hit too many rocks so the monk took over for a bit. then erick drove for a good hour or more. while erick was driving, the driver sat in the back with me an alex trying to "learn" english and asking us how to pronounce the words on the cover and back of slaughterhouse-five. when he deemed himself successful, he hugged me and kissed both my and alex's hand. then asked our names several times and wouldn't believe me when i said i'm american, so i finally agreed that i'm chinese, not american.

finally at a pee spot, the driver wanted to drive and the monk deemed it was okay. we think the monk owns the car and the driver is hired just to drive, since the monk was cleaning the car at every stop and the driver rarely even inspected the car, even after rough terrain or when we hit rocks or a big bump. driver drove, still very drunk, cranked up the music very loud and started singing for along time. alex reached up a couple times to turn the volume down but it just crept back up. we were all dozing in the back and the driver lost control of the car (either fell asleep or b/c he was drunk) and drove off the road, nearly flipping the car. he got it under control, back on the road, and luckily no one was hurt. drove a bit longer until a ger in at midnight where we slept.

next day driver and monk were alternating driving in the morning. on monk's drive, he hit 2 parallel tire tracks (all dirt roads) going 60 km/h and the car flew off the ground and landed hard. end result, both front and back axles bent (back much worse). driver didn't even get out to look at it and monk didn't realize the severity of the problems (erick and alex went out to look at it and quickly realized the severity of the problem). we drove another 0.5 km and the tire blew up, completely shredded from rubbing on the wheel well from the bent axle. since it's a subie, only a donut spare tire, which was actually good b/c a full size spare would've just rubbed and blown up shortly after.

we drove another 600 km on dirt then paved roads on the spare tire, including a little detour when the driver got lost. they looked for a new tire at a town but no luck (no one stocks that tire) so we kept driving on it.

today we were in a hurry to get back to UB to purchase our train tickets by 6 pm. we stopped for lunch and were making pretty good time on paved road, then reached arvaikheer (430 km from UB). the driver stopped at an auto shop (we thought to look for a new tire) and we spent 1/2 hour + getting the car washed and detailed! before setting out on more dirt roads. unbelievable! erick and i were pretty anxious and told them we had to get to the train station by 6 pm and they said they understood.

drove another 250 km or so, driver was getting pretty confident and flying at 130 km/h on the spare tire. even newly paved roads in mongolia still have potholes or else big chunks of asphalt cut out of them for no logical reason. driver hit on of these at 130 km/h and the spare tire blows. we were done for since there's no other spare and we still had a ways to UB.

we were lucky it's a busy road and the 3 of us (erick, alex, me) flagged down a car within 10 minutes, left the monk and driver with the problem car, and got a ride back to UB. didn't make it to the train station in time so thought about flying, but the guesthouse got us tickets to beijing on tomorrow's train and we'll finally be leaving (hopefully). this little adventure ended up costing us $520 in the forfeited purchased train ticket and the non-refunded unused plane ticket (we can't get a refund b/c we won't be in UB when the MIAT office is open). small price to pay though since we made it back to UB in one piece and we're still alive and uninjured...

pictures will be posted sometime, probably not soon since not sure if we can use picasa in china...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

gobi trip

just got back to UB from the gobi trip. we enjoyed the khovsgol trip more for several reasons but the gobi trip was nice and had a few eventful incidents.

first our driver was a maniac. I'm glad we made it back in one piece. he drove really fast and a few times caught quite a bit if air by not slowing down on bumps. once he decided to pass the other van we were traveling with 1/2 km from camp and nearly flipped the car getting back in the tracks. but we survived, he was a nice guy, and spoke a little English.

the more eventful stuff happened to the other car, one girl in particular. the second day we saw one group of cars the entire day. we passed them no problem. went another hour and waited for the other van but the never showed up. our driver somehow got cell reception and called the other driver and they'd had an accident. so we drove back an hour to the site. the other group of cars was a group of Italian tourons in nice land cruisers. one Italian managed to convince his driver to let him drive. well as the other van approached instead of going right and passing as is customary and what the cars ahead of him did, he swerved left into the van and the collided. the van got the worse deal, front smashed in, engine fire, car needed a couple hours work to get it going. and the Italian didn't apologize though it was clearly his fault and wanted to leave right away. luckily no injuries, just a few scrapes and whiplash and the car was somewhat repaired that night.

incident 2, the French girl from the other car sprained her knee pretty bad playing a Mongolian running game and colliding with a pretty big guy. just when it was getting better, yesterday at lunch she went to use the bathroom (outhouse). directions weren't clear and she went into a neighboring yard and ended up being bitten in the ass by a dog. no teeth marks but an open wound. they took her to a hospital in the town we were in last night and as of yesterday she was deciding if she should get the anti-rabies shots (10 over 10 days) and forget the rest of her trip or take the small risk of maybe getting rabies and dying. must be the worst vacation ever for her.

about the trip, saw lots of camels, desert, some small sandstone cliffs (flaming cliffs), big sand dunes, and road camels. erick and I took the public bus back today, the other couple in our car have two more days in places we've already seen. the bus wasn't too bad (7 hours) except they wouldn't let us put our bags below so we had our bags on half a seat and the floor and we had to share 1 1/2 seats for 7 hours, not very comfortable.

tomorrow we fly to khovd in the west. should be interesting because we have nothing arranged and it doesn't seem too developed tourism wise.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

khovsgol lake trip

we just got back from an 8-day trip to central and northern Mongolia with erick's friend Bryan and two Chinese girls who did the same trip but in a separate car. we really enjoyed the trip, Mongolia is an amazing place, very beautiful and undeveloped. just as it's described outside the cities nomads with large herds of livestock- horses, goats, cows, yaks, sheep (and a few camels) everywhere.

before the details, the highlights. 8-days of driving 8 hours a day (except one day) on horrendous roads. picture backcountry unmaintained 4x4 roads, averaging about 22 mph except for the last day where it was almost all paved. and there's not one dirt road but many. in many stretches, the "road" is 1/2 mile wide with 8 - 10 parallel but sometimes interconnected roads to choose from. it's like those choose your own adventure book. lots of nothing, just big plains and mountains with the occaisional ger and livestock, pretty awesome. we had an awesome driver and a cool Russian 4x4 minivan/jeep which was very durable (only one flat tire, one fuel filter problem, and a brake fluid lake, all of which he fixed within 10 minutes) but which always smelled of gasoline. and the driver only listened to one tape though he had more. we calculated and we heard that one tape ~60 times. erick, bryan, and i can now sing those Mongolian songs in our sleep. the other car (an old Japanese SUV) lost its exhaust system, spewed black smoke, and had some other problems.

we stayed with families in gers for tourists and got dinner and breakfast as well for $3.70/night. ate in local restaurants for lunch. food was hard for erick (vegetarian) and he had a couple days of stomach problems (from inadvertently eating meat we think) and ate clif bars for a few meals. bryan was brave and ate some BBQ marmot today that the drivers bought off a girl on the side of the road yesterday. we also bought some fresh airag (fermented mares milk) from a family yesterday and got to watch them milk horses and go in their house.

sights besides the vast emptiness and nomads. small sand dunes, ancient city of kharkhorin and the erdene zuu monestary (very Chinese style with Tibetan Buddhism), beautiful terkhiin tsagsan nuur (great white lake) with a cool volcanic crater and an early morning horse ride, khovsgol lake- beautiful large fresh water lake. we did a great hike there around the lake and had good smoked fish. a remote monestary restored by UNESCO, amarbayasgalant khiid, then back to UB.

we all had a great time despite the the rough conditions (bad roads, no showers, all outhouses, camping conditions- which erick and I are used to).

next up, most likely a 7-day gobi trip with a trip back on the public bus, then a flight to western Mongolia to see the big mountains for a week. will try to post pics tomorrow.

of other interest, our north Korea visas are approved and our trip is still on for mid-September.

Friday, August 14, 2009

terelj national park

just got back from spending a night at terelj national park near ulaanbaatar. it was a very touron experience, staying in a ger, horseback riding, etc. we were mainly curious to check out the potential climbing there since we heard there limitless potential.

we found a few bolted routes and some good potential routes with a mixture of rock quality. the area looks like jtree with grass and small mountains but similar rock formations. we bouldered a little bit which was fun and hopefully we'll be able to climb a little bit while we're here in Mongolia.

we just arranged for a 8-day tour starting Sunday when Bryan arrives. pretty packed itinerary but hit many recommended stops including white lake, karakorum, lake khovsgod, and the famous monestary. The hostels providing the car and driver and we'll stay with families on the way and eat in roadside cafes. should be fun.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

out of russia...

we made it out of russia and into mongolia today. the train border crossing is a model of inefficiency, we spent a total of 7 hours for the border crossing including the 30 minutes it took to travel between the border towns.

luckily it was a painless process and we could go outside the train for most of it, until the went on the train to search the ducts and luggage compartments for stowaways. they make it much harder to leave russia than enter!

we'll spend about a month here in mongolia before heading to china and north korea. erick's friend bryan is arriving Saturday and we'll take a week long trip with him to lake khovsgol then come back to ulaanbaatar and arrange some other tours to the gobi desert and who knows where else.

we enjoyed our time and adventures in russia but it's good to be out.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

siberia adventure pictures

spend the last 3 hours posting pictures from our adventures in siberia (backpacking, climbing, mountaineering):

Friday, August 07, 2009

arshan and russian grade II mountaineering

we're out of arshan after 3 days, now in ulan-ude, our last stop in siberia (and russia!). were finally successful in getting train tickets without any big surprises today, we take the train from here to ulaan-baatar (mongolia) on monday afternoon. now that we have train tickets out and everything's set, i can say that the russia portion of the trip has been a lot more memorable in ways i didn't expect and also a lot more enjoyable than i expected. i think this may turn out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip (among many). alright, after all that reflection onto the fun stuff.

we took the bus from irkutsk to arshan, a mini-van which was pretty quick. got to arshan and went in search of the climber's hostel, priyut alpinista, as described in the lonely planet (with twin rooms, climbing maps, camp in the mountains). well we got there and the buildings had burned down in a fire during winter. only tent camping. the owner of the place, igor, spoke very limited english. luckily there was a couple from st. petersburg staying there after a 12-day backpacking trip, who spoke english. we asked for information about climbing and igor offered to guide us. he didn't want to do anything hard, since we came across as complete morons (no gear, no idea what we're doing, etc). we couldn't communicate that we were after the splitter hand cracks and even if we did, he wouldn't have had gear to do it. erick took out our gear to show him (harness, shoes, belay devices, quick draw). he took out what he had left after the fire, 5 rusty thin pitons (all similar size), 2 ascenders (both right handed), 3 figure-8 devices, and about 5 screw gate carabiners. nice. and a hammer. he agreed to guide us though on a russian grade II peak, which we didn't know what that meant at the time.

that evening he invited us to a fire/bbq. we bought food and showed up at this place. he ended up taking us on a walk to the site, which was about 1/2 hour straight uphill, about 600 feet elevation gain. great view though. met some other tourists from moscow and also the couple from st petersburg came as well. had a nice fire and food.

next day was a long one. we started out at 6 am from igor's place, with a 2 1/2 hour, ~3,500 foot uphill climb to start it off. then traversed over a big boulder field to a cirque below Peak Zdorobye (Friendship Peak), our first destination. About an hour of 3rd class scrambling up some talus, then we roped up. by roping up, i mean we each tied into the rope about 10 feet apart with a butterfly knot and simul-climbed without pro. most of it was 3rd class with the occassional 4th and easy 5th class move. it was pretty exposed though in some sections and not as secure without climbing shoes on. we got up to the left summit then traversed over to the right sumit (~2450 m high). from there we downclimbed (still roped together) to the saddle between Zdrobye and Arshan peaks.

since we'd gotten up pretty fast and proved ourselves not to be incompetent, he suggested we also climb up arshan peak. this was a bit harder and it started raining. we belayed at a few points, up the steeper sections and erick and i changed into our climbing shoes. then it started to rain. rain pretty much made the rock slick and our feet useless, didn't trust them at all. luckily the terrain was easy and there were plenty of hand holds. ended up summitting to amazing views of the surrounding valleys and peaks, with fog, sun, rainbows all around. probably one of the most spectacular summits i've been on, just because of the view then. peak arshan, ~2511 m, from igor's house to the peak, 6 1/2 hours, which he says is his summer record.

then came the descent. that was just painful and long. first it was about 2 hours of downclimbing 3rd and 4th class slick rock. very slick, and pretty much straight down with big drop-offs. fun. we ended up mainly trying to go down the ridge. after 2 hours, the trail turned much better and it was okay for a bit. then straight down in the forest, lots of elevation to lose. we finally made it to the river and after a tea break (igor thoughfully brought a stove with him) we hiked out. unfortunately, the last part of the trail, which is along waterfalls, involves lots of scrambling and boulder hopping, which is not what i needed at the end of the day. after a brief stop at the mineral springs (taps have mineral water (naturally carbonated) of different temperatures coming out of it, we made it back to igor's place a bit after 7 pm.

so in total, about 5300 ft of vertical gain (and loss), time to peak, 6 1/2 hours, time to descend, 6 1/2 hours, 2 peaks summited, russian grade II.

even though we're still in pain and sore, with the long descent, and virtually no technical rock climbing (no one placed any gear), we both really enjoyed the trip. we were extremely lucky with the weather as well. it rained a little bit on the way to the summit, a little foggy, but overall okay. on the way down it didn't start pouring rain and thundering until after we'd made it down the scariest part and were on easy terrain. otherwise it would've been much worse...

another fun thing we did in arshan was stay in someone's rented room. they had a separate shack they rented out, two (old) beds, stove, fridge. the house had an outhouse and faucet for water (standard in the town). an interesting experience. the bus ride from arshan to ulan-ude yeseterday was another adventure, just long (7 1/2 hours) and cramped (erick and i shared 1 1/2 seats in the back of the mini-van) with a screaming kid and damp (kind of smelly) van the whole way. but we survived and it's just something else to remember.

two more days left in russia, then the mongolia fun begins...

Monday, August 03, 2009

climbing near lake baikal

after the trek was over (see previous post) anton (owner of the guiding company) picked all of us up. erick and i were dropped off with him on the way back, about and hour outside of irkutsk for some climbing.

our first clue that it'd be interesting (besides us being completely trashed and tired from the trek) was the amount of food anton brought for us for 1-day. about 30 lbs of food! we hiked into farron rock and cleopatra rock (next to each other) and set up camp.

the area is granite with routes about 10 - 15 m high. very well bolted (better than gym bolting!), most routes very overhung with some jugs, very gym-like. not having climbed in 2 months, we couldn't manage to do much. didn't help that all the routes were very pumpy and the easiest routes started at 6a. erick did lead one route that was really fun, because it was crack the whole way. we sought out the crack, anton avoided it unless he had to use it.

tried about 5 -6 routes and most of them were just too reachy (russian climbers must all be pretty tall) or pumpy or strenuous (heel hook over the head) for us in non-climbing shape.

still it was lots of fun and great to get out on the rock again climbing, even if it is sport climbing. will post pictures soon...

next up, we'll head to arshan, in the sayan mountains a few hours SW of irkutsk for about 5 days. if things go well, we'll be able to climb some of the splitter cracks we've seen, otherwise it looks like an amazing area to hike around in (high mountains, lakes, big peaks, etc).

4-day trek to lake heart (near lake baikal)

this trip would be more appropriately named "experience life as a siberian exile".

we just got back from a 4-day trek (and also one day of climbing which i'll write a separate post about) in the hamar-daban mountains south east of irkutsk (about 5 km south of sludyanka). we had very little expectations before we set out, signed up for the trek because it fit well with our schedules and we wanted to get outside and do something active. little did we know that it'd be one of the hardest backpacking trips that either one of us had ever done.

first day involved hiking along an old road for a good portion of the day, visiting a lazurite mine, and then slogging for 2 hours uphill through a mosquito infested bog/swamp to find a campsite that our guide had never been to. almost lost my shoe twice to the bog. oh and it rained for a good portion of the day. let's say bog walking with packs (or in general) is not fun. camped in the only non-swamp area we could find on not so flat ground (we were supposed to camp about 5-10 minutes further in a meadow).

second day we bushwhacked through wet shrubbery on uneven ground (swarming with mosquitos) uphill in rain for an hour, before rejoining the trail that we set out on in the morning. ended up on top of cherkogo peak (2090 m) in fog and occasional rain, with about 30 feet visibility. had a fun, exposed hike down and spent the night near a small hut, which had a great wood stove to dry our shoes.

third day we day hiked up to a pass then up two peaks. it was a beautiful clear day and we actually got to see lake baikal. our guide victor suggested we take the "direct" route back to the hut to pick up our packs. turns out he assumed a trail existed that led from a ridge down to the hut. it involved going up two more peaks, then down a loose, steep (3rd class) gully and bushwhacking because no trail actually exists. ended up moving camp down near some waterfalls (trail passed 7 waterfalls) which were really beautiful but we were all exhausted from the day hike. at the end we got to downclimb a 20 minute section of 3rd class boulders in the rain.

fourth (last) day started by hiking down a slippery trail then straight up a rocky gully (very, very steep) and then about 16 km down a nice trail and rocky road back to the trail head.

we had two days of rain, two days of sun with a bit of rain. 4 days of wet shoes and socks, 4 days of wet packs, 4 days of swarming mosquitos, and 4 exhausting and physically challenging days.

all that said, now that we're dry, back at the hostel, things are drying and we're washing our clothes, we had a great time on the trek. not something we'd voluntarily do again, but all the hassle and adventure is what makes in memorable. victor was a good guide (except for not knowing a couple trails/directions/campsites and understating distances by as much as an order of magnitude), we had good company (our two fellow trekkers Julie and Graham from the UK were fun to be with and had great attitudes) and we did enjoy the suffering and crazy things we went through now that it's all over...

will post pictures sometime...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


decided to start a new post for stolby and provide some beta about the area since we found none before we went...

first, directions:

- from the krasnoyarsk train station, take bus 36 or 56 to the Opera Ballet Theatre Stop (next to Hotel Krasnoyarsk)

- take bus 50 from the Opera Ballet Theatre Stop to turbaza (second to last stop). the stops are not signed, ask the fare collector to let you know when to get off (stolby).

- get off the bus, cross the road, turn right and take the paved path that parallels the road. the path will cross a bridge after a couple of minutes and join the paved road to stolby. turn left on that road.

- walk ~6 1/2 km along the road to a picnic area. it's the end of the paved road on the stolby maps posted along the road. do not try to take the path up to the stolbys that cuts off the road halfway up, you will get lost.

- at the picnic area, there's a small kiosk and you'll see a dirt path that goes uphill on the left. this path leads to 1 stolb after 5 minutes.

- take a picture of the map displayed on the boards, it's very helpful.

stolby is like a cross between joshua tree and city of rocks. coarse granite pillars with more aesthetic lines and cracks. contrary to what we though, people do climbed roped there, we saw quite a few bolted lines (which looked really hard, 5.12s, 5.13s). we did see one person free solo something relatively easy, but no one climbing down head-first. we brought our shoes and bouldered a little bit (found a nice short easy hand crack) but that was the limit to our climbing there. it's a beautiful area, and great to be back in more mountain-like settings after the coast and train. worthwhile visit if you're in siberia, but not to make a special trip out there just to climb.

in siberia, after 86 hours on the train...

we made it to siberia, after spending 3 1/2 days on the train from moscow to krasnoyarsk, a day in krasnoyarsk, then another 17 hours from krasnoyarsk to irkustk, where we are right now.

the train ride wasn't quite what i expected. don't know what i was expecting, but i guess something more memorable. we rode in kupe (2nd) class, which has cabins with 4 berths in each. they're small and cramped but not too bad. scenery was okay, it didn't get interesting until the last part of the train ride. a lot of siberia is swamp land and uninhabited. our cabin mates were nice, russian, but didn't speak much. so pretty much 3 days of starting out the window and reading. getting exercise was difficult. we tried walking up the train one time and that was enough for us. so during the longer train stops we'd get out on the platforms.

the platforms at the smaller cities were interesting, lots of vendors selling fruit, fish, shoes, random stuff. less so at the bigger cities. we bought all our food before getting on the train, stuff we could eat with just hot water of without cooking (noodles, soup, bread cheese). it was nice to get off the train though.

we spent a night in krasnoyarsk, primarily to visit stolby, which climbers will know from the patagonia video. that was interesting, we ended up staying in a real russian hotel. they had no cold water (yes cold water, not hot water), who knows why. so ended up we didn't get to take a shower after being on the train for 3 days. i'll write about stolby in another post.

arrived in irkustk last night after one night on the train. we're going on a guided 4-day trek tomorrow in the southern lake baikal region and hope to climb a little bit afterwards. that's still to be worked out.

a little frustrating today as we are trying to buy our train tickets to mongolia to make sure we have tickets and leave russia before our visas expire, but it seems we can't do it from here, since we want to have a stopover in ulan-ude. i guess we'll hope for the best and either find a way to buy tickets here through an agency or try our luck in ulan-ude and hope there's room on a train...

fortunately the bed bug bites pretty much don't itch anymore. erick had bites show up the day we got on the train and got to spend the worst part of it on the train. now we're checking all the mattresses we sleep on when we arrive at the hostels/hotels.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


we've spent a couple days in moscow. unfortunately those stupid bed bug bites made my life very difficult the past few days. I have over 200 bites and most of them decided to flare up. Yesterday I had to wear shorts because pants hurt too much rubbing against the bites. I look frightening large bright red spots covering my legs and arms. people definitely gave me a wide berth. at least I wasn't concerned about getting robbed since no one would want to touch me. took some pictures but they're too scary to post. luckily much better today the swelling has gone down, itching much less, and could actually walk around the whole day without going crazy with pain/itchiness. erick found a couple bites today on his ankles. I can see how people go crazy living with bed bugs.

moscow is nice. the metro stations are pretty amazing from their depth to elaborate decorations. we saw lenin today which was memorable and the red square is really beautiful. also went to the cosmonaut museum which is highly recommended. some really cool exhibits (all in Russian) and things to see and cheap admission fee.

we get on the train tomorrow for 3 1/2 days to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, where stolby is (for the climbers). spend a day and a half there then back on the train for 17 hours to Irkutsk. we'll spend a week and a half in the area, visiting lake baikal and hopefully the Sayan mountains for some hiking and climbing. should be interesting and exciting.

Monday, July 20, 2009

bed bugs and st. petersburg

looks like i got eaten alive by bed bugs at the vana tom hostel in tallinn (our best guess). my arms and legs are covered in over a hundred small red, very itchy bites. after lots of researching on the web, my self-diagnosis is bed bug bites. it fits the pattern of very itchy, small insect-like bites, some in patterns, many in groups of three. they're extremely itchy (as i've already said a few time) and more keep showing up everyday. we stayed at the hostel for 3 nights and the bites take up to 9 days to appear, so i'm hoping today or tomorrow should be the end of it. we should've suspected something when the sheets provided at the hostel were burgandy color, not the typical white or light color...

spent a few days in st. petersburg. lots of adventure buying train tickets, mailing postcards today. some of you can expect to receive a postcard with 5 stamps on it. yes 5. hard to fit on a postcard...

st. petersburg was nice. spent some time at the hermitage yesterday looking at the art and mostly looking at the palace room. we were by far most impressed with the hardwood floors there. some really intricate inlay patterns, pretty amazing.

we head to moscow this afternoon on the train, will be there for 3 nights, then on thursday board the train to krasnoyark (in siberia), a train ride of 3 1/2 days. should be fun or at least memorable.

e-mail us your address if you want a postcard from somewhere weird. we realized we don't have a lot of your addresses...

tips for buying train tickets in russia

lessons we've learned so far for buying russian train tickets and not really speaking russian:

- writing down in cyrillic the destination, date, desired class, and desired train is very helpful

- make sure to write the date with day.month (roman numerals or preferably spelled out in russian).year. use "." between the day, month, year, do not use "/" between the day, month, year. using "/" can result in buying a ticket for the wrong month, as happened to us. we asked for a ticket for july (VII) and got one leaving in august (VIII).

- specify which train you want, either by train number or departure time (research online before going to the ticket office). writing "afternoon" (in russian) leads to some interesting facial expressions and complete confusion.

- pay in cash, even if there is a visa/master card label on the window. we have no idea what the purpose of those stickers are, but if you hand them a credit card as i did, be prepared to hear some a very exaspirated string of russian and then a quick run to the nearest ATM machine to withdraw lots of cash.

- always double check your tickets after receiving them. even with an english speaking ticket seller and an explanation of the ticket, we discovered that we purchased tickets for the day after we wanted to depart (july 29th instead of july 28th).

- outside of major cities (st. petersburg and moscow) you can only buy international tickets for trains originating from that city (ie cannot buy tickets for trains leaving from ulan ude from irkutsk). makes planning more difficult.

this list to be updated as we buy more train tickets...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

st petersburg

we're finally in russia, took the bus from tallin here yesterday. luckily the border crossing was straight forward and easy, except the immigration officer couldn't scan my visa page in my passport and examined every page of my passport and tried scanning other pages. called someone else over to look at my passport and made some comment that i've travelled a lot. asked me if i speak russian, i said a little bit, and he asked "why?", half laughing. interesting.

st petersburg is a city, a bit overwhelming. we're very glad we learned how to read cyrillic and a few basic russian words, it's come in handy already. walked around st petersburg today and it's a beautiful city full of old architecture, some amazing churches, and nice canals. we'll make the obligatory visit to the hermitage tomorrow, from the outside it looks massive, no wonder people can spend days inside.

other adventure so far is we bought train tickets for moscow today. as the book recommended, we wrote out where we wanted to go, the date, class in russian. we got the tickets no problem (though a lot more expensive than we thought it'd be). checked the tickets and they're for the wrong month! (august instead of july). good thing to remember is to write the date with "." in between the day-month-year not "/". after standing in line for another 20 minutes, she changed our tickets to us for the next train (our first option was fully booked) and we'll be going to moscow on monday.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


we've made it to the last point in our Baltic states and Europe portion of are trip (treating Russia as separate from Europe). we're in Tallinn now and head to st petersburg on Friday.

our time in hiiumaa was enjoyable. we rented bikes one day and biked a total of 50 km. we saw the tahkuna lighthouse, old military ruins from the soviet era, hill of crosses, the airport (huge runway with no planes at the airport) and palukula church which is abandoned and used for target practice in WWII. also stopped at some glacial boulders with our climbing shoes in case there was any potential but unfortunately nothing.

the next day we rented a car with a Finnish couple we met at the guesthouse. they go to hiiumaa almost every year so were very familiar with the sights and history. for them they liked the laid back life in hiiumaa and the old farming life reminicent of Finland 30 years ago. we hit the rest if the sights on the island, the kopu lighthouse, kassari area, the wool factory, surremoisa castle, and another trip to the airport.

came to Tallinn yesterday and after spending so much time recently on islands with fewer tourists we were a bit overwhelmed at how touristy Tallinn is and how many people there are. if course having 5 cruise ships in yesterday didn't help. after checking out the suburban bus schedules decided there's no way we can explore the bouldering we found online. even if there were more than one bus a day it'd be a miracle if we actually got off at the right place.

covered the old town sights yesterday and went to the zoo today. nice zoo with lots of different goats and sheep, polar bears, a snow leopard, and a takin.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


after spending a couple more days in kuressaare visiting a meteor crater and some old windmills (with some fun swings) we headed back to the mainland to haapsalu. our guidebook misled us a little bit by saying all buses to Tallinn from kuressaare go through haapsalu, which isn't true. but at the bus station they told us to take the Tallinn bus and get off in virtsu after the ferry crossing and wait an hour and a half for the bus to haapsalu. bus didn't stop and the bus stop turned out to be a covered bench (with 40+ mph winds that didn't seem like an attractive option) so we decided to stay on the bus to Tallinn. caught a bus in Tallinn to haapsalu.

spent a couple nights in haapsalu which is a nice town with a castle but unfortunately the promenade and beach were dug up and under construction.

took the bus and ferry this morning to the second largest Estonian island, hiiumaa, where we'll stay here in kardla for a few days, probably rent bikes to see some lighthouses and other sights.

then on to Tallinn and the next portion of the trip, Russia and the trans-Siberian railroad.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


well bad weather finally caught up with us. after spending a few days in parnu, including a day trip to the island of kihnu where we expected to find something interesting to see and didn't see too much (there wasn't even a map of the island) and then it started storming. we ended up spending an hour huddling next to the cashier kiosk to get out of the wind and rain.

we're here in kuressaare right now, the main town on the island of saaremaa. we're staying in a nice little studio apartment place but distances on the island are pretty big and limited busses. yesterday we went to the panga cliffs to see the highest (21 meters high) cliffs on the island. it was beautiful, but unfortunately all chossy limestone and unclimable. today we were going to try to visit the island of vahalse, which supposedly has large glacial boulders and bring our climbing shoes but the weather has other things to say about that. rained last night and cloudy and sprinkling all day. weather forecast is for rain the next week, hopefully that'll change.

posted two new albums on picasa of parnu and kuressaare (so far):

Thursday, July 02, 2009

photos round 2 and parnu, estonia

first off, posted some more photos from stuttgart through latvia. they can be found at the usual place:

we've left latvia, after spending a day yesterday looking at a windmill and wandering around the latvian country-side, including walking along the side of the highway to get to and from a hidden train station.

we're now in parnu, estonia, which is the self-billed summer capital of estonia and filled with lots of tourists. we'll stay here a couple of days before heading to one of the big islands...

Monday, June 29, 2009


we've been in latvia for almost a week now. started out on the southern coastal town of liepaja, which is cute and full of old and interesting architecture, probably some of the oldest wooden buildings I've seen in Europe. visited karosta, an old military base with a tour of an old military prison, which was functional until 1997. we opted not to get the full treatment and spend the night in the prison as a "prisoner" (yes it doubles as a hostel where they lock you up and harass you in the middle if the night).

from there we headed to kuldiga, which has the widest waterfall in Europe (245 meters). not very tall though (about 6 feet) and wasn't extremely impressive. cute town though with lots of historical buildings.

spent a night in Riga to see it. it's a nice city with lots of sights but definitely caters to the big partiers, one night there was enough. kind if like a nice european version of khaosan road in Thailand including the strip clubs.

we're now in sigulda which has castle ruins, hiking, caves, and sandstone rock formations (which we can't get to without a car). we'll head from here to Estonia on Thursday.

the Baltic states have been very nice so far, very few tourists except for Riga, cheaper food, very cheap transportation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

klaipeda and missile base

we've spent a couple days in Klaipeda so far, it's a nice city. our hotel is interesting located in the suburbs south of town in old communist housing. very stereotypical communist housing- big concrete buildings in variou states of disrepair. the room itself is very nice though.

headed down to the southern end of the curonian spit yesterday, to nida with a cute summer village and big sand dunes.

today was quite interesting. saw some stuff in town, a blacksmith museum which wasn't what we were expecting and a good clock museum. highlight of the day was a trip to an abandoned soviet missile base at plokstine reservation (an hour from Klaipeda), decommissioned as part of the SALT treaty. it had 4 nuclear missile heads capable of reaching turkey. now it's an empty underground bunker with massive underground missile silos, very fascinating place. don't think I'll ever see another nuclear missile base.

one more day here then we head to Latvia.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

vilnius, lithuania

we've spent 2 days here in vilnius, after arriving at midnight thursday because our plane was delayed in Munich and we missed the 25 minute connection in Riga. bad news we had to wait 5 hours for the next flight, which got in at midnight and subsequently we got ripped off on a cab ride to the hostel because the bus and train stopped running by then. good news they gave us a voucher fir 2 coffees at the airport. not enough for food, just coffee.

spent one day being tourons in vilnius, which us a really nice city. modern with an old feel to it, very clean, interesting architecture. saw the KGB/genocide museum yesterday. today took a day trip to trakai which was the ancient capital and has a beautiful island castle. lots of local tourists but not many foreigners. interesting local bus ride there too. we head to the coast tomorrow (Klaipeda) where we'll spend 4 days. if all goes well we'll get to visit an old abandoned soviet missile base.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

some photos...

posted some (fortunately edited) photos from our trip so far... i plan to upload photos to my picasa page when we have time and cheap internet connections.


roma, bern, stuttgart

after being rained out of val di mello, christie, erick and i spent 3 days in rome being tourons. went to see the colloseum, lots of ruins, many fountains, the catacombs, and walked around a lot. urban hiking is so much more tiring than trail hiking! ran into many chinese people in italy, didn't think i'd have to use my mandarin until china!

christie headed back to val di mello to climb for the weekend, erick and i headed up to switzerland, using bern as our base. little did we know that switzerland is ridiculously expensive, especially transportation! we spent a day walking around the city, which is really nice. the next day we planned to take the train to wengen and do a hike near the base of eiger (actually see the nordwand up close). but when we got up it was cloudy in the mountains and we didn't want to pay 100+ dollars per person to take the train to the mountains if the weather was bad. so we ended up taking the train to spiez and walking around the lake back to thun (about 10 miles). it was nice, mostly urban, though there were fun exercise things, play structures, and zip lines to play with on the way.

we lucked out on weather, it was beautiful and sunny (and hot!) both days, yesterday was pouring rain. took the train to stuttgart where we're staying with erick's friends dieter and angelika for a few days, before flying to lithuania on thursday. hopefully the baltic states will be cheaper to travel in than western europe...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


val di mello turned out to be an amazing place, very yosemite like. huge granite walls, big waterfalls, beautiful, and even better, no tourons! we met up with christie and got in 2 days of (bolted) climbing. unforutnately our luck turned after that. 3 days of constant rain and thunderstorms, luckily we rented these old converted campervans, complete with space heater, so we were warm and dry, just couldn't climb. christie even managed to borrow a rack and 2 half ropes for us too!

after wating many days and hearing "it'll be nice and sunny tomorrow" without that happening, we came to rome instead to be tourons, since christie and erick haven't been here before. we're staying one more day, then erick and i are heading up to switzerland for the weekend with the plan to be in stuttgart to visit erick's friends by monday...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Oregon, Barcelona, Andorra

Quick update since I'm typing on an iPod.

After the appendectomy, spent a week at home then we took a road trip to oregon, up the coast to Portland to crater lake back home. Another week at home then we spent 3 days in Barcelona with Christie and Matt. Erick and I then came to Andorra, did a nice adventurous 3 day trek and have been hanging out here for a few days.

We fly to Milan tomorrow to meet Christie for some climbing at val di mello in the mountains.