Friday, 26 June 2015


It's a bit difficult to get into Myanmar. You need a two way ticket, and before not long ago you required to give a detailed itinerary of where exactly you're planning to travel to. We planned 6 days in Kuala Lumpur in order to get the visa done which takes 5 days. Now the visa application procedure is outsourced to some travel agency, they take 1 day but charge $10 for their services, which is not bad considering that this agency was a 10 minute walk from our hotel and had AC inside. When we came to pick up the visa, we got a taste of what Myanmar was like when the pickup was 2 hours delayed and there was no explanation given. 
We arrived at a small but very clean airport. Again, a country not like I imagined it. People walk around all fashionable and sit into big and sparkling jeeps. But then I thought that it might be like that only in the airport where people actually have money to fly. And indeed once we got out, we went from a first world airport to 3rd world city streets. The roads are better than in Nepal, but everything else is not far from it.
Myanmar is a strange priced country. It's a 3rd world and poor country, but hotel prices are ones on the most expensive in SE Asia ... probably next after Singapore. The number of tourists go up, but locals still don't have enough money or expertise to build hotels, so number of hotels is lacking. A very average room costs around $30, where in other SE Asian countries, you could live in a castle for that amount of money. It comes in a great comparison with food, where a huge bowl of soup can cost $1, and a 1 liter bottle of water is 20 cents. Additional cost except accommodation, food, transport and entertainment, come the scams. It seems that every single price that we're told somehow increases when we're ready to pay. With exchange rate $1 = 970 Kyat, an $8 entrance ticket becomes 8500, although $8x970=7760. We argue with them, they try to prove to us that they have a different exchange rate ... it's very funny, as their booth is a meter away from a currency exchange place!!
Hotel booked us a taxi for $8, the driver took $10. Bus tickets were $8, at the bus station suddenly they're $9, even if we show them confirmation letter with date, seats and price. They tell us that this is a VIP bus, or VIP seats. Bills in restaurants almost always come wrong and how do you prove you're right when the menus don't have prices and for every item you have to ask how much it costs ... Alex's nerves are getting looser and looser... I'm still ok, not sure why, maybe because Alex is dealing with the money, but I don't get it, why argue, just pay how much you think is right.
It seems that the country doesn't have anything except stupas and pagodas ... maybe except the beach, which we went to of course. Considered to be one of the best beaches in SE Asia, we couldn't know whether to agree or not. It's 13 kms long, nice fluffy, clean sand, clear water, but almost not a single soul on it. There is no music, no people, no pina coladas. How would you rate a beach like that. I finally had 4 days to sleep and gain my strength after the sickness. Too bad we didn't do much, and barely made it to an island an hour south of us, but I got the sleep that I needed ... travelling just gets it out of you.
5 hours back to Yangon, 2 hours back and forth to the city center and a night bus to Mandalay, we're finally in a new city 24 hours later. The bus is a VIP AC bus, of course you don't need AC when it's 15 degrees or so at night, but since all poor countries sometimes lack brains, they always set the AC to freezing just to prove how rich they are and how special you are. Thank god I remembered my AC buses in other countries and took a sleeping bag with me which was a night saver.
In Mandalay we saw more temples which require a $10 ticket, with all the benefits going to the government and a whole section in LP which gives hints on how to dodge paying the price. Everyone in here is against the government which controls everything. We have a new edition of Myanmar LP, 1 year later, the prices are almost double. There are special hotels that are open to tourists which the government says how much to charge for; only special places in the country which are open for tourists, in other parts of the country people don't live very well (I'm not surprised with a $40/month average salary), the government still uses forced labor, and apparently there are still cannibal tribes! In short, Myanmar is a strange country, but people are generally happy. I found already that social status, security, money doesn't affect the happiness factor.
Buddhism here is very different than I've seen anywhere before. Here they regard it more as a religion rather than a philosophy. In any temple there are usually hundreds of Buddhas, all lit up with neon halos, and people pouring water on him and praying to him. I'm sure Buddha wouldn't have want to see that if he was alive. 
We've seen hundreds of monks walking and receiving food. It was more of a tourist attraction rather than a traditional ceremony. Hundreds of tourists shoving cameras into their faces. I guess they have a good chance every day to practice their patience.
I signed up for a 3 day trek. The owner of the guesthouse who organized it was Indian, and was concerned more about making money rather than creating a good reputation. We were 5 people, and she said that if we'll be 6, then we'll get a discount. We saw another couple who wasn't really talking to us, and we were told that they're taking a private tour. So we didn't get a discount, and they paid 3 times the price to go with guides who don't speak any English, and they ended up walking with us all the way. We later found out that the owner told them that we don't want them in our group!! Other that than, the trek wasn't that great. We saw some villages and tribes, the landscape was nice maybe for a few hours. A lot of the time we walked on a road where cars go, but it was nice to see something else than stupas and monasteries.
New year is not celebrated in here. We sat in a cafe with the group from the trek, at midnight some people shouted "Happy New Year!!" ... that was about it. On the main street there were way too drunk guys where we clearly didn't fit in. In Russian we have a saying that you'll spend the year as you celebrated it. Lets look at the positive and make the year about forgiveness and overcoming obstacles. 
Took a boat trip around Inle lake, pretty much saw everything that we saw on the way into the town after the trek. One temple was amazing, and it was where we waited for a boat for 2 hours at the end of the hike. It was one of the most beautiful temples I've seen, and the guides didn't even tell us about it. If I saw it, it would've been absolutely unnecessary to take a boat trip. At least it was cheap, $15 for 4 people for a whole day trip.
Bagan was next. There are 4000 temples in Bagan spread over a large park territory. We took bicycles and spent 2 day riding from temple to temple, all of them somehow differ from one another. We saw a sunrise from a temple, a must see experience, and every time I'm convinced that it's just as good to see the same thing when you had good 10 hours of sleep. We arrived to Bagan at 4am on the bus, and only because of that I agreed to go see the sunrise, which wasn't that great anyway. I think Bagan is my favourite place in Myanmar, relaxing, fun, and interesting with a small street of very good restaurants serving Western food and real Belgium chocolate pancakes :) We spent there 2 days, but I wished we would've skipped Mandalay and stayed in Bagan 2 days longer.
Another night bus back south, a pickup truck and one more bus. The bus got stuck. It's a weekend and an independence day, and all of Myanmar decided to visit its holiest site - the golden rock. It's a rock balancing on a side of a mountain that has survived a few strong earthquakes and apparently granted some wishes that even the royalty gave away it's gold to cover the rock in it. The traffic was crazy, nothing was moving, thousands of people were walking somewhere. We walked too, but then someone turned us around, and told us to come back a few days later, told us where the bus is to the next destination and helped us get a motorbike taxi half an hour to the bus parking. They were going 100 kms/hr, crazy guys!! When we arrived they asked us for double the price, and an addition to luggage. We sent them somewhere and gave them $2 as was agreed upon. Nobody spoke English in there and it was difficult to understand what time the pickup is leaving or how long the ride is. Someone showed "6" on their fingers, and we tried to figure out whether the ride is 6 hours long, or will it arrive at 6pm. Our driver didn't want to accept US dollars, and we run out of Kyat, they kicked us out of the pickup. It's good, because we took a next one, and it was half the price. Another foreigner completely lost her mind, was asking everyone if the pickup is going to Hpa-An like 20 times, the locals were already ripping their hair off their heads. She was running around the pickup and screaming in English if someone here speaks English ... I was sitting there laughing, they explained everything on hands. It goes to Hpa-An, it leaves now, it costs $3 and will be there at 3pm.
In Hpa-An we ate breakfast in a local restaurant where we ate until we exploded. We ate yummy chicken and fish, sweets, tea, soups for $1.20 for 2 people and then fixed both of my bags for 30 cents. Awesome town! We took a whole day tour to see different caves in the limestone mountains, and swam in a canoe inside a cave. The caves weren't as great as the scenery which we enjoyed very much. In the morning Alex woke up with 100s of bed bug bites, I don't know how that happened, since I had only a few and tiny ones and we slept in the same bed. I think he must've had an allergic reaction. They were huge and red and puffy and itched like hell for a week. And then he was cheap enough to get $20 antibiotics which the pharmacists advised him to take. He said that the pharmacist just trying to get his money. In the end, the infection spread, and the red spots starting appearing randomly on his body even a month after the first incident.
Another attempt at a golden rock. Some local guy met us, showed us everything, where to leave the luggage, where to exchange money, where to catch a bus back. We were always cautious, expecting him to ask for a tip or for money to store the luggage, but nope, it was all done with good intentions ... amazing!
The road to the golden rock is very steep, and there are special trucks going up. I don't know how much power that truck has, but a hell of a lot. It stopped on the way to collect donations or for some other random stops, and it took us an hour to get up with probably half an hour being breaks of some sorts. At the top it's a disney land as usual. Thousands of shops, restaurants, too many steps, people, a huge area, and a small rock standing on a cliff. There were more people chilling or sleeping somewhere else, not too many right beside it, or taking pix of it ... weird ... In short, nothing special, it should be deleted from top attractions of Myanmar list for sure.
In the evening we went to our last stop - Bago, which is only 2 hours away from Yangon. We took a motorcycle tour in the morning, saw as usual a bunch of temples and a lying Buddha. I think I'm templed-out. We saw a temple where there lives a big Python, and people all over come and give it money. Then the Python moved and the money poured in like rain. Maybe I should've bought a parrot and done a similar business in a hut nearby ;)
Back to Yangon and off to long missed civilization of Thailand.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Nepal 2

Going back to Kathmandu to meet Alex. He comes from Ukraine for 2 weeks. Finally we can see all of Nepal together! There are elections happening soon, and some groups oppose elections, so they demand a country wide strike which will shut down all businesses. They try to act smart and keep their hands off of tourists, Thamel is swamped with police and army for tourists' protection, but still, many shops and restaurants are closed, they said that they will set taxies on fire and will puncture tires in local buses. I'm not really sure how are we gonna get around this week. Hopefully it won't be as bad as it sounds.
First day we relaxed - as much as noisy and dirty Thamel allows you too, and then went to the monkey temple. When I've been there the first time around, there were too many people and less monkeys, now it seems like it was another way around. There were herds of them, and they were all migrating at the same time. We almost ended up by mistake right in the middle of their move, and yes I'm still scared of monkeys, but the ones here seem to be harmless, cause I'm assuming they're used to so many tourists sticking cameras up their faces.
Alex decided to surprise me. He decided to come travel with me for 3 months instead of 2 weeks. Man oh man, a surprise indeed!!!
We went to the old town of Kathmandu and Patan which are only 4 kms apart, but before they were separate kingdoms. Most of the buildings are very new though because the 1934 earthquake leveled a quarter of all the buildings in Nepal. In Kathmandu the entrance was $7.5, we decided not to pay it, and went through the ticket office as though we didn't notice a thing :) In Patan we found a side entrance, but they're smarter here, and actually give a red ticket which you hang on your neck so you're easily identifiable ... so not much luck here :) The temples are beautiful, but they pretty much all look alike. One exception was that on one they had sex scenes, and on the other torture scenes.
In these and other temples of Nepal, the Nepalis Buddhists worship young girls who are called Kumari.
Wikipidia - Kumari or "Living Goddess" is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions.
Once Taleju has left the sitting Kumari, there is a frenzy of activity to find her successor. Some have compared the selection process to the process used in nearby Tibet to find the reincarnations of Tulkus, such as the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. The selection process is conducted by five senior Buddhist Vajracharya priests, the Panch Buddha, the Bada Guruju or Chief Royal Priest, Achajau the priest of Taleju and the royal astrologer. The King and other religious leaders that might know of eligible candidates are also informed that a search is underway.
Eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakya caste (the clan to which the Buddha belonged) of silver and goldsmiths. She must be in excellent health, never have shed blood or been afflicted by any diseases, be without blemish and must not have yet lost any teeth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the 'thirty-two perfections' of a goddess. Some of these are poetically listed as such:
A neck like a conch shell
A body like a banyan tree
Eyelashes like a cow
Thighs like a deer
Chest like a lion
Voice soft and clear as a duck's
In addition to this, her hair and eyes should be very black, she should have dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty teeth.
The girl is also observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness and her horoscope is examined to ensure that it is complementary to the King's. It is important that there not be any conflicts as she must confirm the King's legitimacy each year of her divinity. Her family is also scrutinized to ensure its piety and devotion to the King.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities necessary to be the living vessel of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of Dashain. On the kalratri, or 'black night', 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing.
As a final test, the living goddess must spend a night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear. The fearless candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness that typifies the goddess who is to inhabit her. After passing all other tests, the final test is that she must be able to pick out the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of things laid out before her. If she is able to do so, there is no remaining doubt that she is the chosen one.
Once the Kumari is chosen, she must be purified so that she can be an unblemished vessel for Taleju. She is taken by the priests to undergo a number of secret Tantric rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past experiences. Once these rituals are completed, Taleju enters her and she is presented as the new Kumari. She is dressed and made up as a Kumari and then leaves the Taleju temple and walks across the square on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar that will be her home for the duration of her divinity.
Once the chosen girl completes the Tantric purification rites and crosses from the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne, her life takes on an entirely new character. She will leave her palace only on ceremonial occasions. Her family will visit her rarely, and then only in a formal capacity. Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have "fire eye" painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
The Kumari's walk across the Durbar Square is the last time her feet will touch the ground until such time as the goddess departs from her body. From now on, when she ventures outside of her palace, she will be carried or transported in her golden palanquin. Her feet, like all of her, are now sacred. Petitioners will touch them, hoping to receive respite from troubles and illnesses. The King himself will kiss them each year when he comes to seek her blessing. She will never wear shoes; if her feet are covered at all, they will be covered with red stockings.
The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below the Kumari's window in the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard, of her palace, hoping that she will pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even though her irregular appearances last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the courtyard is charged with devotion and awe when they do occur.
The more fortunate, or better connected, petitioners visit the Kumari in her chambers where she sits upon a gilded lion throne. Many of those visiting her are people suffering from blood or menstrual disorders since the Kumari is believed to have special power over such illnesses. She is also visited by bureaucrats and other government officials. Petitioners customarily bring gifts and food offerings to the Kumari, who receives them in silence. Upon arrival, she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion. During these audiences, the Kumari is closely watched and her actions interpreted as a prediction of the petitioners lives', for example as follows:
Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death
Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death
Trembling: Imprisonment
Hand clapping: Reason to fear the King
Picking at food offerings: Financial losses
If the Kumari remains silent and impassive throughout the audience, her devotees leave elated. This is the sign that their wishes have been granted.
The sky has finally cleared up, and who knew that you can have amazing views of the mountains right from Kathmandu. I always thought it was impossible, as Kathmandu sits in a valley surrounded on all sides by hills, but no!, everything's possible, and a small scream always escapes me when I see snow covered mountains in the distance :)
Went to cremation ghats. It's a holy place, similar to Varanasi, since this river ends up in Ganges and Shiva's head fell on that spot, all devout Hindus need to visit this place at least once in their life time, and to try and die in the river or at least get burnt in it. There is a free hospice in there where people come to die, doctor visits once in a while, and when he says time is right, they put the person on some stone for 20 minutes in hope that he can die on it, if not, he goes back to the hospice to try to die again. There is also a temple there where animal sacrifices take place. But you can't kill an animal just like that, you have to ask it's permission. So you take water and splash it on the head of the animal. If the animal shakes it's head (a sign of agreement), you can sacrifice it. If not, you splash the water again and again until it finally shakes it's head!
We then took pictures with "holy" people - Sadhus who abandon their families, cloths, food for the holy immaterial world. They wonder around the cities asking for food. But not these Sadhus. While we were taking pictures with them they blessed us with tikka and flowers and said that if we'll give them $10 they'll give us a lot of blessing. I think we gave them enough by giving them $2 at which they almost cursed at us. There are 4 types of Sadhus, but I didn't ask how they choose which one to be. Naked Saddu; one who only drinks milk; one that smokes hash, and an entertainer. Naked Sadhus also carry heavy rocks hung from their penis and put needles through their body.
We took a bus to a mid location between Kathmandu and Pokhara - Bandipur. We got out, waited for an hour for a bus which didn't come, got a price of $20 to go 8 kms by a private car and ended up taking a bus again to Pokhara. There are elections now, some minor group is against government and against elections, so they scare everybody that if they'll be running any business, they'll burn it, or bomb it, or I don't know what. They try not to touch tourists, but still, we got stuck on the junction waiting for a local bus which doesn't run. Again, in Pokhara, we can't go trekking because only local bus goes to a starting point, they can call a car which will cost $100, and tourist buses only run between Pokhara and Kathmandu. Shops are not stocked properly because delivery doesn't work, and a lot of shops are closed because owners can't get there. Anyway, I hope tomorrow the elections will happen, and will go smoothly so that we can finally go trekking!
I signed up for the world's fastest, longest, steepest zip line. Maximum speed is 140 kms/hr, but I wasn't scared at all :( It looks scary when you just look at it, or when they prepare you and tell you about safety instructions, but the ride itself wasn't as exhilarating as I was hoping for.
We rented a scooter for a day to see sights around Pokhara. First was a sunrise view point of the mountains. We arrived there right on time and the place was swamped with people. Not the quiet and beautiful location we were hoping for. But luckily, we were the only ones who arrived on a scooter, so an hour later, all the tour groups left, all the taxis left, and we were left alone to enjoy the mountains and cloud covered Pokhara in the valley below us. Then we went to tourist free lakes and to a Tibetan refugee camp. To ride in Nepal is not for weak nerves. There are almost no roads in here, and the ones that exist are in terrible condition. You have to look for directions, pot holes, cows, dogs, chickens, people, and oncoming traffic, since people always take over in here and will push you to the side of the road. Cars will turn into your lane without any indications or even without looking, they'll just turn. It's your fault if you'll hit them ... so yeah, driving here is fun and not fun at all.
Off we go to Annapurna trek which often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world! I made notes during the trek, but I lost them somewhere :( We took a local porter with us - Harry, I'm sure the trek would be difficult enough without extra 10kgs on my back. People usually skip the first 1.5 days because the hike goes on the road. We barely managed to get the last jeep, and arrived in a village at night. Guest houses fight over clients by offering free room, but require you to have dinner and breakfast with them.
First day was beautiful but difficult. I guess we weren't used to walking for so long. Sometimes the path would merge with the road, and every time a jeep passed, we had to put a scarf on our nose, since it lifted a huge cloud of dust. The setting was jungle like with lots of waterfalls. My fake North Face shoes are perfect. Nothing hurts, and I loved them so much, I even shipped them to Canada after the trek. Closer to the evening, we had one of our many many fights. I got too tired and needed a break, he said that he's tired of trekking and just wants to get to the village. But I can't get to the village when I can't walk. So he went forward, and I picked a rock, sat on it, and ate a power bar. 15 minutes later, I regained my powers, got extra energy from the bar and continued walking quite fast. He waited for me about 500 meters down the road, and then got mad at me, because he thought that before that I was walking slow just to piss him off!
During our trek we took many breaks, long lunches, and in general when the map said that the trek between 2 villages is 6 hours, it would take me 9. First few days the elevation was low and it was very green, after a few days, the jungle changed to pine forest, and we started seeing snow covered mountains. During the day it was warm, I was even walking in a t-shirt, but at night and in the morning, it was soooo cold! There is no electricity in the rooms, and the temperature inside is the same as outside. I would wear all my cloths, bundle up in a sleeping bag, and still would be cold. It's good that a few more days later, the common area of the guesthouses had fireplaces and I would sit near it until it was time to go to sleep. Needless to say that showers were out of the question. We would just wash the areas that needed to be washed. But because it was cold enough outside we didn't sweat much. We reached a village with a mandatory acclimatization stop. The hotel there had solar panels, and we took our first hot shower in the late afternoon, because in the morning there was not even cold water available, since it froze! We washed all our cloths, which got dirty the next day anyway :) I went to an acclimatization lecture. We were told to drink lots of water, and not to gain more than 500 meters a day in altitude, and the best way to acclimatize is to walk slow (I'm natural at that!), and to sleep lower than the highest point of that day. The lecturer said that during this season (a bit over a month) already 2 people died due to altitude sickness, and most people who get in trouble are the athletic people who think, why should I only walk for 2-3 hours a day, I can do more! Why do I need a day to acclimatize? They gain more than allowed altitude change which kills them. It's a bit scary to listen to, especially with the sounds of rescue helicopters flying about your head. But we follow the rules, so hopefully we'll be fine!
Acclimatization day was fun. We did a short hike to a frozen lake and a glacier, had chocolate cake in a bakery, emailed mom that I'm doing find, and watched 7 years in Tibet in a local "cinema" ... with popcorn! The closer we get to the top, the less we have to walk and the more we can sleep in :) Before there was a jungle, then forest, then bushes ... now there are no even bushes, but brown earth. And there are villages here ... why would people live here? And it's not like the villages sprung up for the hikers. It's the organization who wanted to involve the local people and give them more income, so it trained the locals how to be a bit tourist friendly. On our last day before the pass it was cold!!! And the people working there said that this is nothing, 2 weeks ago, then it was really cold! Alex started getting a headache, but before turning back and walking a village down, we decided to walk up 600 meters, then back to our village, and see if his brain will readjust, and he also took a pill. He seemed to be fine. At 3am, we woke up for the longest and the most difficult day of the hike, the Thorong-La pass at 5416 meters. It's cold, it's high up, and it's 45 degrees steep ascent to the top. The mountains are covered in snow, so it's very pretty. When we crossed the pass, we entered a Tibetan plateau, and it's a pure desert. We didn't know what's worse, a 45 degree ascent, or a never ending decent to the first village after the pass. I felt like a zombie, just walking and walking, not thinking about anything. 6pm, after about 13 hours of hiking with some rest stops, we finally arrived! Another hot shower! Yeiii ! :) Next day, it seems that nobody wanted to do any more hiking, and the guest houses were full of people partying, drinking and staying warm.
Next morning we had to wake up early again, because we were passing a valley where winds really pick up in the afternoons, and we had to cross it before that happens.
We've heard that the rest of the trek goes on roads with constant jeeps passing by, so we decided to end our trek after 11 days in the big town of Jomson.
Instead of driving 16 hours in a jeep back to Pokhara where your insides come out, we decided to take a flight, to bad it wasn't with "Yeti airways" :). I think the most expensive flight in my life so far $110 for a 20 minute flight. Small plane that fits only 20 people. I sat in the front seat looking at the pilots. It was cool to feel the power of the plane at it takes off, how the engine gave more and more power, you could feel it with your butt :)
Back in Pokhara, I'm feeling dizzy, not happy, not concentrated. I wonder if there is such a thing as a low altitude sickness :) I think I took a way too long shower, and it seems that for 2 days we do nothing but eat. Sooo good and sooo cheap, unbelievable! :)
We went to Chitwan national park away from cold. Many animals are walking around, we even saw a rhino right near the resorts zone. Many birds are chirping around the river, and on our jungle walk we saw barking deers, a rhino crossing the river and on elephant safari we saw more deers and a mother with a baby rhino lazily grazing the grass in the middle of 10 or so elephants, not having a care in the world. I didn't like the elephant safari though. The riders were hitting them with sticks, I even yelled at one not to do it. And later I didn't leave a tip cause I didn't feel a fair treatments towards the elephants.
We decided to stay in the park one more day, cause it's way too relaxing and pretty and far far away from the hassle of Kathmandu.
We rented bicycles to go to the lakes, but there are no roads, and an hour later Alex and me got lost from the road and from each other and with famous Nepal roads, my back, my hands, my legs, my head, everything hurt. No more bikes for me for a while!
I always thought that I would only visit a country once. What's the point of going back when there are so many other places to see? This was true until I visited Nepal. It's now over a year later, and Nepal is all I can think of and I'm not even sure why. I'm not the only one. A lot of people told me, "yeah, you're saying that until you visit Nepal, this is a country worth coming back to!", I shook my head in a "no", but who knew, they were right!
Everest, see you soon!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Nepal 1

Arrived in the smallest airport of Kathmandu! Strange how a major country airport could be so small. $100 visa?? WHAT?? I didn't expect that! $100 is all I have in cash (luckily)! The only ATM doesn't work, and I still need to get a photo done for my visa. A few guys overheard me and offered to pay for my photo, how nice :) Then they were worried how I'll get my visa, I wonder if I didn't have money what would've they done! 2 hours wait, the queue just doesn't move at all. 2 ATMs outside of the terminal didn't accept my card either :S I found 20 CAD, but in the exchange office they didn't want to accept anything less than 50. I have no money, and I need to get to the hostel somehow. Found one taxi, he told me double the price. Again, no negotiations with him, I don't want to give my business to lairs, and that's exactly what I told him. Found another driver and off we went. The cars are so old and so beaten down, not one single nice car! We drove on the streets and there are no roads most of the time, on other occasions potholes on potholes. I'm looking at the broken down streets, at dirty children playing in mud, at huge markets with everyone wearing a sari ... welcome India #2. I'm thinking to myself, what am I doing here again??!!! A second later I feel a strange nostalgia and actually feel happy :) I asked the hostel owner to pay for the taxi, and I sat in a dirty hostel but in a great atmosphere getting to know everyone.

October and November are supposed to be the best months to visit Nepal, but there is some cyclone in India, and it's raining here every day! :( No trekking in this kind of weather! There are some important holidays here in Nepal, apparently they sacrifice tens of thousands of animals, but I've missed that, then they throw blood on cars and even on Air Nepal planes!!! and then there are goats on every menu, but again, I missed that :( Half of the menu is missing from the hostel, and it's dirty like I don't know what because it's the end of the 15 day holidays, and everyone is spending them with their families. Stores are closed, employees are on vacations. Nevertheless, people are great, and I'm sitting here happy even though it's raining, it's cold, and it gets dark at 5:30pm!!
We are 4 girls in the room, we don't know each other, and we lie in the bed laughing our heads off. That's the fun of the hostels.
In the morning I wake up very happy. Welcome back to India :))

Spent a few days reading the bible, and finally set out to see the temple nearby. Streets are over flooded with people and my first cow, what's going on??! Apparently it's another holiday which involves doing a loop of 65 kms stopping at every temple in Kathmandu. I was happy about that, because the temple I went to was a monkey temple. Thus I thought, the more people, the less monkeys! Still strange to me to see Hindus spinning the Buddhist prayer wheels. And it's strange to see that no one is staring, couples hold hands on the street, people are fairly honest and actually seem happy. Big difference from India. I was cautious and a bit nervous to get out and fall right into India, but nope, everything went smoothly. If you want the relaxed Indian culture, definitely come to Nepal!
People put rice mixed with red powder on their foreheads, and unlike a small dot in India, here it's a huge red rice patty, which looks like an ugly infection, or as if their skull got opened and the brain is peeking out ... disgusting! 

I changed hostels. I can't understand why that hostel has 90% rating. The location sucks, right in the middle of nowhere. The rooms are dirty. There aren't enough washrooms. The blankets are so thin I'm freezing every night. Their menu is small and it takes them 2 hours to prepare anything. They always screw up orders, forget orders, and write in your log something that you haven't ordered, making a big line up on checkout while people try to remember what they haven't eaten. The only plus is the friendly stuff, but does that add up to 90%?
New hostel: right in the center, clean, nice and cozy blankets, lockers, and it's the same price! Now that deserves a 90% rating, and yes, it does have it.

Went shopping. Wow, did that take a long time. Everything in the center is same same. Only trekking shops and hippy shops. No variety, no nothing. I wonder if they actually think that we like that stuff? Why can't someone think of something original? Went outside of touristic center to shop. It seems like everything is made either for a barbie or for a grandma. Brand shops have original prices which I can't afford. Somehow I found 2 pairs of pants, but no sports pants. All the pants are made for Nepalis. I take XL size, then call for an attendant, and ask if she has XXL size? Then still, the length is to my ankle (Nepalis people are short). No luck :( How will I do yoga with no sports pants? Went back in the dark. The sellers sell their things with a candle light. How can you buy if you can't differentiate if they sell shoes or potatoes? I was a bit worried walking in dark between large groups of Nepalis, but nothing happened. Nobody looked at me, nobody grabbed me, it was like a breath of fresh air ... well, congested air in here :)

Went for a week retreat to a yoga ashram. The prices online were hovering above $50/day ... kinda expensive for Nepal. I asked around and they told me about an ashram that charges $15/day. I wonder where am I gonna end up in? I arrived here. It's a small little village. They sponsor a school, so the fresh air this time is filled with angels' noises. Nevertheless, I crashed to sleep instantly. I think that constant beeping on the streets and 100% attention that you have to give to even walk on the street not to get run over by a car (there are no sidewalks in here), a dorm and 1 hour taxi ride got me a little bit tired. We started our yoga practice. These 1.5 hours were filled with mostly stretches, I hope it will get more complex as the time goes on, and then some breathing exercises. Oh, and in the beginning they were singing some songs/chants to their gods and told me that when I'll learn their words I will join in. Can I tell them that I don't want to? Is there a polite way to say that their Shiva is nothing more than a cartoon character for me?
I noticed a 12 year old girl in here. She constantly works. I'm not sure what's up with that, but she makes chapati, prepares tea, sweeps the floors. Her cloths are dirty, so she's not her child. Need to do more investigation!

9pm sleeping time, 6:30 I wake up. I hope the breakfast won't be too spicy.
Breakfast was funny, they didn't add any spices at all, so it was just bland boiled vegetables without any taste. What can I say ... for sure better than tears running from my eyes :)
I made dinner tonight! No more rice, and no more curries. A bit difficult to make vegan food, as I don't know any recipes at all. Internet didn't work the whole day, so had to make my brain spin. I made some boiled veggies with fried veggies, added cilantro, caramelized garlic and toasted nuts. Yum!!! They said it was good, but it didn't feel like it. I don't care, it was the best food I had in a while. I could finish on my own everything that I made for 6 people :)

I finally decided to do liver detoxification. I have time, it's so cheap in here and apparently very effective. Of course it involves not eating for 2 days, but hey, I'm ready for the challenge. It's 2pm and all I can think of is nuts, chocolate, raisins, pastries ... my mind goes crazy!!! 5pm I'm calm. The doctor told me that after the first pill I won't be hungry anymore ... who knew, he was right! 
In the evening he gave me a glass of oil, so that all the liver stones will get out easily. Oh what a torture! The feeling of oil passing through your throat, disgusting! He then woke me up at 6 to give me pills, then at 8 he gave me more oil. This time I thought I would throw up. I felt nauseous for good 5 hours after that, especially that he told me to drink 2 glasses of water every half an hour. I'm not a big water drinker, and I barely managed 1 glass an hour ... he was not happy. He then made me a sweet drink, maybe I'll enjoy that, but he added black salt (it's good for digestion), and it felt like medicine again. So back to the kitchen, only sweet water this time ... that I could manage! And after 3 glasses, I was awarded an apple :) Every hour he asked me if I went to the toilet, no I haven't. Apparently I was supposed to go 12 hour ago. So he gave me 2 more pills, and finally when it happened, I got out and saw him waiting next to the washroom door, with big eyes, and big smile. "So! How was it????!!!!" ... um.... strange question to ask. These weird natural doctors, you would never guess what makes them excited! :)

Anyway, for 2 days now, I can't have anything but boiled vegetables and fruits, any fruits that I want, but since it's not a fruit season, I can have "all I can eat" apples. I can't have root veggies, so no potatoes or carrots, no nuts, no milk products, and everything boiled. I can't look at cauliflower anymore. I want cheesecake and iced mocha!!! Can't wait to get back to Kathmandu!
In the morning I feel weak, but not tired ... strange feeling! I don't know the effects of this treatment. Will see when I'll hike, since I have respiratory problems and knee pain, but at least I lost some weight. He said that people lose between 3 and 5 kg. But probably I lost 3 kg because I'm not that fat :)

Went for a walk around the village. Took some money with me, I counted 380 NRP (Nepali Ruppie). I'm thinking to myself, "why do I need so much money with me??". While walking I started laughing, it's only $3.8 USD!!! Here there is real value for your money. And indeed, internet costs 40 cents per hour, and I bought a bag of veggies to last me for 2 dinners and it cost 35 cents. I cooked dinner again, and they don't like it ... it's ok, I don't like their food either :) They would only make chapati (flat pita bread), and only potatoes with spices. That's all! I'll starve to death from food like that! I sit in a mud made kitchen. Where you walk on the floor and sit on the floor, and use the floor as a table. The girls made the dinner and are serving it, then eating everything with their hands, I still can't get used to it! Feels so disgusting. They asked me not to wear house shoes in the kitchen, but I don't understand why. They walk bare feet everywhere, inside, outside, on dung fertilized soil, and then walk into the kitchen. I bet their feet are dirtier than my shoes.

I checked the internet, found out that some other yoga course starts in 2 days, it means that I have to go back to Kathmandu now to catch an early morning bus. I made up some excuse that I found out that my friend is in Pokhara, and I need to go there now. Caught a taxi and an hour later I'm back in Kathmandu. Went to a restaurant, and what a surprise it was. I think it was the best restaurant in Nepal! The decor is amazing, it's sparkling clean, you sit between blooming flowers, menu makes sense and is all grammatically correct, there is live music, service is excellent and the food and presentation are amazing! How could that be???
Going to Pokhara. It's about 235 kms away, and it took us 8 hours to get there. This also is considered to be the best road in Nepal! There is a national park north of Kathmandu, only 120 kms, and it takes 9 hours on the bus! There are just no roads and whatever you call a road is full of potholes. We made 3 stops which was nice. I wanted to talk to someone, just sat near some guy and asked him "so, you're going trekking?". I was wondering how that will work out in Toronto. I would sit next to someone on the bus station ... "so, you're going to work?". Maybe I should try it just to see what will happen :)

The center of Pokhara is similar to Thamel (touristic center of Kathmandu). It's full of travel agencies, trekking shops and restaurants. Except that it sits on the lake and has side walks. You won't believe what a difference that makes! The weather is not that great. It was pouring rain while I had dinner, and it's supposed to be a dry season with blue skies. People who came to Nepal in the last 3 weeks, pretty much missed most of it, since it's cloudy and foggy, and no views of nothing! Weather forecast shows sun in 5 days, lets hope so!
I met a girl who just came back from an Everest trek. In Pokhara and Kathmandu it rains, but in mountains there is a heavy snow storm. People couldn't get out of their guest houses because the snow blocked the doorways. Then the storm got really bad and the guide was rushing them to a safe area, so the group didn't have any time to eat, drink, relax, put sunscreen on. A bunch of them got blisters on their faces, but at least they were safe. A guide of another group took the tourists off road to see the mountains better, an avalanche happened, and killed 3 of them :(

The restaurant that I went to, sucks! The waiter was terrible, he kept forgetting stuff, he had no idea about the menu, he took one order/request at a time, it took forever to get something, food was so so, and he brought me something that I didn't order :( It's so hard to go from something excellent to something mediocre. Hopefully I could find something better! 
My Buddhist meditation course started today. We have this amazing teacher, who has a wonderful manner of speech. He explains things very clearly, and I could listen to him talk all day long. We started with death meditation. He asked us to close our eyes and visualize that we're in a hospital lying on the bed. We can't see anything, everything's a blur, the throat is too dry to speak, you can't move a muscle, and you realize that you're about to die. Your life flashes before your eyes. Did you live life the way you wanted to? Do you have any regrets? Did you say "I love you" to those people who you wanted to say it to, did you forgive? Now imagine the doctor comes, gives you an injection, you wake up in the morning and he tells you, good news, you're gonna live for another month. What will you do in this month? A month later you come back to the doctor and he says, wow, what a difference, you look very good seems like you're much healthier and happier and you have another year to live. What would you do in this year?

A lot of people had tears running when they opened their eyes . Myself included, almost. He asked, do you live according to what you've imagined? Do you understand that life can end at any moment. We're in an earthquake zone, and if it will hit, this building will collapse in a second; His friend was just walking on the road and the taxi hit him out of the blue. Life can end at any moment, why are we not living to our priorities, why are we waiting to express our feelings, to start new, to follow our path?
He then showed us a small research done by a lady who asked people who were gonna die soon a question: What do you regret most in life?
The answers were:
1. Not living the life I wanted
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard (men only)
3. I wish I expressed my feelings more
4. I wish I lived more
5. I wish I didn't let fear run my life
check, check, check, check and check ... have no regrets here. Also, had no regrets in the death meditation. I think I'm on the right path :) 
Among other things we've learned how to be in the moment. We were given a small chocolate candy and were asked to say "I'm breathing in" then pay attention to what happens to the chocolate, then say "I'm breathing out" and describe what happens to the chocolate. Concentrating on the breath brings you into the moment because breath is something stable, something rhythmic and something that happens now. We sucked on this little chocolate for about 5 minutes, saying things like "I put it into my mouth", "I feel it with my tongue", "I bite it with my teeth", "I'm swallowing" etc ... People have felt after this meditation different textures, different flavours, sudden taste explosion, and chocolate maniacs were actually very satisfied after only this small piece, and didn't want to have more. The result of such a simple experiment is tremendous. Being in the present intensifies life, brings more colour to it, more flavour. 
He gave us an example of a traffic jam. What do people usually do. They start cursing, beeping, getting angry, impatient, thinking of how will they explain things to their boss again. The cars are not going anywhere, nothing will change, why won't you change your thoughts and come to the present? Look around. Maybe you'll see a nice coat someone is wearing in an adjacent car or how beautiful some tree is ...
You look at the lake, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and you think to yourself, what a beautiful lake, I haven't seen a more beautiful thing in my life. And then your boss calls you and fires you over the phone. You look at the lake, and think to yourself, what an ugly lake, why do these birds make so much noise, it makes my head hurt. What am I doing here anyway, such a waste of time!
Nothing has changed, except your perception. It's never the place or an object. Sometimes, not even a person. Everything is in your mind... which you can control, and turn your life upside down. From pessimistic and gloomy to happy and sunny :)

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Took a bus from Greece to Istanbul. It's cold in here! Istanbul has a lot of character, but you can see the whole city in a day. The mosques are beautiful, but are all identical, so I developed the same philosophy as with churches "you've seen one, you've seen them all".
I don't have much time in Turkey, but I've heard about a wonderful place called Cappadocia. I googled it, and booked flight tickets right away.
Cappadocia is a geological wonder. There is a harder material on the top of a softer material, and during millions of years of erosion, all the soft material has been blown away, leaving only a cone under a hard rock, creating a conical shapes called fairy chimneys. Now there are a lot of hotels inside these chimneys, and whole towns build with and around them, creating a very fairy-tale like setting. I can't believe I've never heard of this place before!
I checked into one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in. The beds are super comfy, and the communal area is huge, with a fireplace, 2 stories high, made out of stones, with soft couches and friendly stuff. They also have a big garden where they grow veggies, a swimming pool and a ping pong table, but it was too cold for a swim :)
This is one the best places in the world to go on a hot air balloon. One day I woke up at 6am to go and watch them, and they are beautiful! About 100 balloons, all colorful, hovering above this magical setting, just to watch them is an experience on its own, but I don't know, it's expensive, and they seem just to float in the air and not do much else, so I didn't really see the point of doing it. Back in the hostel I see all these people coming back from the balloon ride, so happy and excited... hm ... maybe it's something worth doing? Next day, same thing. I checked prices on the internet, and they're about half as much as say in Australia, and off I went to an agency and signed myself up for a balloon trip :)
5am wake up, we drive somewhere in the dark, given a tea/coffee mixture and saw our balloon inflating with huge fans. Then it started to lift from the ground and all of us looked up, wow, it's so huge! Fire's whooshing, the balloon slowly gets off the ground. Most of the balloons are still on the ground or hovering somewhere near it, and our pilot keep holding the gas lever. Up up up we go, and soon enough we're higher than all the other balloons. Man that's scary looking down and seeing the ground getting further and further away especially that you're not secured inside the box, what if the box flips over?? Everyone can't stop taking pictures and saying how amazing it is. I took 20 pictures of Istanbul in a week, and over 100 here in an hour. I run out of space on my card and my battery almost died. Yes, it was that good! :) Then we went close to the ground, we were probably 20 cms above it, touching the grass, going pretty fast. We moved between the trees, and between the valleys and fairy chimneys. Other balloons were already landing, and we go up again. The sun came up, we finally put our cameras down and quietly enjoyed the views. Landing time! It seems like our pilot wants to land on a tiny piece of land that comes out into a valley. I don't like it. We kinda miss it, then the helpers didn't catch the rope, then we landed on the edge and the balloon slowly slowly slid off the cliff into the valley. There is nowhere to land nearby where it's flat enough and where a car can drive to. We take off again, go right between a mountain and a huge tree. The helpers run across the valley up and down looking at the direction of the balloon. We land somewhere in prickly trees, the helpers break the trees, the car somehow makes its way through with a trailer, they put the balloon on the trailer, and the car takes us to a place where they can actually disassemble it and where we can get back into the van. The car was driving on the edge of the land and we were almost flipping (or at least it felt that way) so that was also a part of the experience :) Then we celebrated our flight with champagne and certificates! :)
I was smiling for an hour later. It's so great! If you have any chance to go on a hot air balloon, definitely do it! And it will be better if you'll do it in Cappadocia with a surreal landscape and 100s of colorful balloons around you.
There are many hikes in this area, and they cover different canyons. There is a white canyon, pink canyon, pigeon valley, penises valley :) I went on different hikes every day, but one day I went on a hike on my own. It was so so good. I actually went to different place as was initially planned, and I found myself exactly where I wanted to be :) I came across a small valley that was full of cones with a stone per cone. So cute. I just sat there, relaxed and breathed happiness in. It's never a feeling that I can get with anyone else. Only on my own. With other people, even one person, you have to engage in a conversation, or they want to leave, or pick another spot, or even if they just sit there quietly, my attention is still divided between the views and the person. Maybe there is something wrong with me?
Back in Istanbul I slept till 3 since I wasn't too excited about going out anyway. I took a boat ride which was ok, and then went to a Hamam (Turkish bath) which was also ok. No people there at all, would've been better if it was full. First you steam, and throw hot water on yourself. Then an attendant comes and scrubs you. You would never imagine how much dirt you have (and I took a shower in the morning). I'm actually not sure if it's dirt or just skin peeling off of you, but it's all rolled and black color! I was prepared for it though, everyone says it on reviews :) Then she puts so much soap on you that you become a huge soap bubble :)
Night plane to Nepal ... finally! :)

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


Athens is weird. So many strange people, it seems like a ghetto. I read about it enough in the comments online, but seeing it myself is something completely different... like everyone's is a bum. Taxi driver wanted to charge me 5 euros to go 1km to the hostel, but after I told him that I'll walk, he was actually nice enough to explain me in detail how to get there on foot.
Athens, Athens, Athens ... haven't seen that many tourist in a while, and I don't understand why. There is nothing special here. Some ruins, but that's about it, they're just ruins. You can see most of them from the street, and they're all the same, columns and more columns. No details, no statues, barely any shapes, just columns. It's 30 degrees outside, and I'm sweating, but all the sights close at 3 because it's the winter season!!
I'm still tired due to my sickness. I'm second day in Athens and mostly I just lied on my bed in the hostel bored waiting for tomorrow to come so that I could get out of this hectic city!
Wow, I've never seen a port that big, I see just my gate, and it's E8, it means there are at least 7 more gates out there, where are they? on the opposite side of Athens??
Arrived on a nearby island of Aegina. There were no other backpackers on the boat, in fact I haven't seen any on the island, not many international tourists either, mostly Greek. I barely found a hotel, cause this is Europe and prices are crazy expensive! I figured that if I can't find anything, I'll just take an evening boat back to Athens. The cheapest hotel wanted 25Euro for a room, I told him that I can't pay more than 15. The hotel is completely empty, and of course he tried to help me saying that I can sleep in his bed for free, but then finally agreed to give me a room for 15, even that's too much. A boat to the island, a room, and I'm at my budget limit. I still haven't eaten anything yet, and didn't rent a scooter. A scooter is another 15 (compared to $2 in India!) so I had to skip on that idea.
Went for a lunch Greek style. Ordered grilled fish, and sat there for 3 hours slowly munching on it and listening to traditional life music. I don't know how Greeks are not all overweight. The food keeps coming and coming to their table and when they leave, the plates are all empty. I never even managed to finish just 1 plate. Speaking about Greek food, I remember it being my favourite since University exchange 10 years ago, but now I'm not feeling it at all :( Ukrainian food is amazing though :)
On the island lied on terrible beaches, right near the port with brown wet sand. Didn't even go into water cause it was all in seaweed, so the island didn't impress me at all. But it was still nice cause it was very relaxing. Barely any cars, barely any people, and small alleys with blooming flowers, oh, and cats of course :)
Next day I decided to get brave, hire a bicycle and ride 40kms around the island, but couldn't get up on time cause I was having a fight with the mosquitos till 5am who kept buzzing around my ear all night long. Even when they weren't buzzing, my head was buzzing already, so I only woke up at 10am after barely 5 hours of sleep. Took a bus to a little village and from there walked back to my town stopping for quick swims at the beaches that I found along the way.
Next went to north of Greece to Meteora. Wow, what a place! What all these tourists are doing in Athens I have no idea. Meteora is extremely beautiful with only handful of tourists. People, check trip advisor, and make sure you go to places that have 5 star ranking from 1000s of reviewers! There are huge boulders and on the very top of them the monks built monasteries. When you look at it either on pictures or in real life, it seems magical, unreal though from a fairy tale. Who knew that Greece has much more than the islands to offer?!

Monday, 12 January 2015


What a difference between Macedonia and Albania. Macedonia is clean and cute, and first  impression of Albania is dirty and broken and every single undergoing project that we've seen is sponsored by EU.
Apparently there are no bus stations in Albania. The buses leave from where ever, and without schedule ... once they're full. It took a few people to find out where the bus to Shkoder goes ... pretty much from some alley.
We checked-in in a very central hotel for $10/night, communist style. I'm not sure what it means, but apparently it means that nothing works, all walls are broken, in different colors, it pretty much looks like it hasn't been maintained since it was built which was a long long time ago. But it was ok, the beds were good and clean, and we didn't mind to save some money. The lady in the reception spoke perfect English as well, though she didn't know anything about the surrounding area.
What a surprise, we thought that Albania is a muslim country, apparently there are only 19% muslim, the rest are christians, orthodox and agnostic. It seems that there are more churches than mosques, and women on the streets wear shorts, skirts and high heels.
In Shkoder there is one tiny street that's full of cafes, bars and barbers. Even the park near 5 star hotel needs maintenance. Needless to say, I don't want to stay here, and I'm still in a bad mood.
It was a very strange sight to see that all the tables from 6-8pm were full of people drinking Espresso. All of Shkoder drinks espresso with a glass of water. Not one dish with food, no coffee, no tea, no latte ... just espresso!
Shkoder is a gateway to the Albanian alps. I want to go, Alex doesn't want to go. But it's only 1 day trip, so he gave in. We woke up at 6am to catch a jeep into the mountains, but first we drove around to pick up cements, some other building materials and sacks of fruits and vegetables. The road into the mountain was beautiful, first passing the valley and then climbing a mountain. With a narrow 2 way road, we did a lot of driving in reverse to stand on the edge of a cliff so that the other cars could pass by. Pretty, but scary. When we reached our Thethi valley it was all covered in clouds and by the time we got into the room it started to rain heavily.
It's 13 degrees, but it's so humid that the cold gets to the bones. I wore all the warm cloths that I had to warm up, and when the rain stopped we went for a walk. The valley is surrounded by mountains, and I'm not sure if we were lucky or not when we met a guy who showed us a map of a hike route. I was not prepared for a hike at all, I just wanted to walk around, and with the fast moving clouds it rains then it doesn't rain, it's very unpredictable. We found what looked like a path and started climbing up. Man I hope Nepal trekking will be more level than that! On the way we found a huge mushroom, probably 30 cms in diameter. Alex picked it up, and I was sad, why if something is beautiful it has to be destroyed? :(
It took us 3 hours to reach the top, it was now 5pm and it gets dark at 7. We covered only about a quarter of the route. At the top there was a valley with unknown continuation, no signs, no obvious openings in trees, no nothing. Above all, it started raining hard again, now with addition of hail. I told Alex that it's better to go down the same path we came from. We don't have much time, I'm sure that I can come down in less than 2 hours, we won't get lost, lets not take the chance. No, he got stubborn and said that he wants to continue. It's getting dark soon, the route is poorly marked, we still have a 3/4 of the way, and we don't have a flash light, nor water, nor food, for me it doesn't make any sense. Alex told me that he wants to continue, I told him that I want to go back. 5 minutes later of stubbornness from both sides, I said that I know the way back, I'm going back on my own, I don't have time to waste to argue about nothing. 5 minutes later he caught up to me, all mad, saying that women make wuses out of man, and that because of me he's a loser! I told him that women make men smart, and in contrast to them we think with our brains, not with our balls. We got back 15 minutes before it got dark, and we were all wet. My waterproof shoes turned out to be not very waterproof. Alex didn't have a dry spot on him. I put the remainder of the cloths that I had on and crashed to sleep.
In the morning the weather was much much better. Warm, sunny, only a few clouds, but no time, we have to  move on. The road back was beautiful, maybe because the driver was more careful than the first one and I was actually relaxed instead of squeezed in on my seat.
Back to Tirana. What a boring capital. There is the main square, some mosque, church, park, and that's pretty much it. Not that any of it was exceptional. 2 hours was more than enough to see everything, but too bad we missed an exclusive ex communist leaders neighbourhood "the block" which is now a posh neighbourhood with bars, restaurants and night clubs, because Alex all over the sudden became very sick for no apparent reason :(
What is kinda interesting in Tirana is that back in the communist times, all the building were ugly and grey. So now to move forward, most of the building were painted in whatever colors and shapes that came to someones mind. You could find 10s of different colors on one building. First you'll have lines, then circles, every balcony will be with a different color, then they'll add some trees or birds. It seems like it caught on, and you could see very colorful buildings, even new, all over Albania.
When I woke up, I was in no mood at all. I don't like travelling like that. 2 countries in 12 days is just way too fast. Every day are long bus rides, every day is a hotel search, I'm tired, I constantly want to sleep, I'm not enjoying anything, I want to crawl under the blanket, and I don't care for any more sights.
We went to Berat. It's a nice little town with Ottoman architecture. Some old man found us at the bus station and took us to his guest house. It's right in the center, very cute and charming, and we could pay 20 Euro only for his smile :) The castle was quite nice. The views are as always amazing, but people actually are still living in there. So you get these charming, narrow streets with a bunch of cats and pick all you want grapes from someones backyard :) and right near it - castle walls with slots for shooting arrows.
We caught the first morning bus to Gijorat. The second we got there, Alex said that he wants to get out. But common, we haven't got to the center yet. Berat and Gijorat are similar, except that Berat's houses are white, and Gijorat's are grey. The communist leader lived there, and he wanted to make this a museum city, so a lot of the buildings were preserved. We stayed at a very nice apartment for 20 euro, right in the center. Here is a difference between a very touristic and a less touristic place. In Berat we had a cute little room, and here we have an apartment 5 times the size for the same price.
Here we saw another castle which wasn't that impressive, but it had a gallery of WWII machine guns, and a bunch of fig trees with ready to eat figs :) I then walked off the path, and found myself face to face with a huge fig filled tree all to myself :) I found out that dried figs are the best. They're kind of a mixture between dried and fresh, and each one has a different flavour somehow.
We then went to a traditional restaurant only to understand that Albania's traditional food sucks! You can't compare it with Macedonia's which has bigger dishes, better quality and cheaper price. Here we just eat to fill our stomachs, not to lick our fingers :) An example of traditional food is a deep fried ball mixed with rice, egg, mint and oregano. Another one was some creamed meat which I gave up on, and Alex shoved down with non tasty wine, just because he doesn't like to waste food.
And again we're on a bus to Sarande, the beach town. The guide says "unforgettable beaches", but I guess we've seen better. It was nice though to finally be in a relaxing beach town where time seems to slow down. Not for us though, we take a bus to Albania's famous Burtrinti ruins which Alexander the Great built. Nothing was great about them, and I'm having a hard time walking up and down the ruins, cause now it's my turn to get sick. I have no energy at all. We had to hitchhike back, as the bus that goes from the UNESCO (the pride of Albania) ruins back to town stops running 2 hours before the site closes.
Next day we went to Ksamili beach, nice beach, nice water, nice views of islands nearby. But the water is cold and the breeze is chilly. At least we got to use the beach chairs for free. Alex as a chronically late kind of person made me run for the bus which goes once an hour. I can barely walk, now I have to run. In the bus, I started to feel my throat firing off "be careful" signals.
In the morning Alex left back to Ukraine and I moved to a hostel which I didn't get out of for 3 days cause I got totally ill, and in addition to feeling like crap, I lost my voice. The owner was nice though, he prepared me lunches, bought me lemon and honey, gave me some sweet stuff and made me mountain tea. No wonder all the walls of the hostel are with "You're the best host" comments.
Overall impression of Albania ... I don't know. I didn't get into the culture, I haven't talked to anyone cause either they don't speak English or just don't care about you. Maybe that's the impression ... everyone keeps to their own. Oh, and they don't know how to cook! And you could never tell an Albanian from someone else. They look completely different, from blue eyes and blond hair to Turkey looking someone. Very strange.

Friday, 26 December 2014


I over stayed my visa in Ukraine by 3 months, and had to go through more beurocracy and fines to be able to get out. They made a mistake on the fine that stated that I only over stayed one month, and I was very worried while going to the airport that the border control people won't let me out. I only had 40 minutes till the flight departs, and the documents might've taken up to 3 hours. But thank god, they just took me to the office, photocopies the forms, and wished me to have a good flight :)
An hour till the Sofia-Bolgaria bus station and 6 more hours to Skopje - Macedonia. The views are beautiful, mainly mountains. I'm tired but can't fall alseep, and they show weird movies on TV with no sound and no English subtitles.
We have a tight schedule cause Alex only has 2 weeks and he chose to see 2 countries, Macedonia and Albania.
We wake up and it rains!! How can it rain when the weather forcast shows sun and 0% percipitation?? 1:30pm blue sky, not a cloud in sight. First I wanted to skip Skopje, but Alex wanted to see the capital. I'm so lucky we stayed, Skopje is beautiful! I think it's a statue and a fountain city. The center is amazing. Old castle, new modern buildings and renovated old buildings surrounded by 10s of statues on every corner with playing fountains. The buses are modern double decker and I don't feel like I'm in one of the poorest countries in Europe at all! Oh, and did you know that mother Theresa is from Macedonia? In 1973 an earthquake hit the city and destroyed 75% of all the buildings, so this city is pretty new. Even though it's a Christian country, the Muslim heritage is very visible. Mosques are everywhere, and churches are almost invisible. After a huge modern square we passed a 500 year old bridge into the biggest old bazzars in Europe, where on every street they sell differnet items, like shoes, cloths, gold, pots ... The food is good and very cheap. A huge salad is around $2, meat is about $3. With an appetizer, main, garnish, and 2 drinks we usually pay around $10 and leave the table with unbuttoned pants :)
There are only 2 buses a day that leave to the next village Krusevo. One is at 7:45, the other one is at 3pm. We put the alarm for 6, I happily slept through it, while Alex turned it off and went back to sleep. At 6:45 I asked him what time is it, and I jumped off the bed. We were at local bus station only at 7:15, and I was red with fury. How can you be so irresponsible!!! There are things that you want to do, and there are things that you have to do. I know that no one wants to wake up at 6, but seriously!
We arrived at the bus station 1 minute bofore the departure, and somehow we actually made it. It was a miracle! The way was very nice, hills, small mountains, vineyards, but it still rains :(
Arrived at Krusevo, the weather is nice, and it's small enough to visit before the bus to Bitola. We left our luggage at the bus station and went to explore. The village is left in 100 year old state almost untouched due to difficult access, as it's the highest town in Macedonia, at 1500 meters. The village is cute and nice, and 3 hours gave us enough time to wonder around, eat and collect a bunch of fruits that are grown everywhere, enjoy the views and even visit a gallery. I was happy that I had a travel insurance for this town, though I'm not sure if it had any coverange for falling fruits on your head :) Oh man, if you could only know how tasty are the fruits in here, nothing compared to what is sold in the stores in Toronto. Only the color and shape is the same. Plums, fruits that I never loved, I couldn't get enough in here, and in bazaars, they only cost 75 cents/kilo. After the vendor will weigh them and tell you the price, he'll always add some more to the bag.
When we arrived in Bitola, we did almost all the sight seeing while looking for a place to stay. It's pretty much a one road town. It has a European charm to it, since there were a lot of consuls in here who brought with them the European culture. It's always strange to see mosques in the middle of Europe, but at least no one was yelling from the speakers. We stayed another day in the city to see some ancient Greek ruins, but if I knew that they would be like that, we would've taken the first bus out. Oh well, you never know what you gonna get, where you gonna get it and how you're gonna get it.
That was a strange day, everything hurt, my stomach hurt, I put my hiking shoes on for the first time and I was limping for hours, then my hips started hurting. I couldn't and didn't want to walk anywhere, and sent Alex to the hotel to pick up all our stuff.
We arrived in Ohrid, the "jewel of the crown" of Macedonia. We took an appartment on an upper floor overlooking the lake and the old town, so beautiful! A few facts about Ohrid: One of the oldest human settlements were found in Ohrid; the lake it sits on is 3 million years old; it's a UNESCO city.
The whole day we climbed around the old town, with it's narrow cobblestone streets, flowers, many churches, mosques and cats. Next day we spent the time just absorbing the peaceful setting on a beach restaurant and then lied for an hour on a beach chair. Again, if we knew earlier, we would've spent 2 days in Skopje and 3 days in Ohrid. There were so many places we didn't get to see. The guide says that the most picturesque part of the lake is 10 kms from the town, where it enters a national park. In the evening we went to Struge from where the bus leaves to Albania. The guide says that Struge is a poor's man Ohrid. But I wouldn't call it that. I hated it, and my mood plumeted. We were there only for a few hours in the evening, but there are no views on the lake, there are no hills, it's broken down and dirty. Our hotel was expensive and they didn't even give us towels, not soap, and the sheets were dirty, and no one was sitting in the reception to complain to.
In the morning we woke up in the rain and took a bus to Tirana, the capital of Albania.