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Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by binary visions, Jan 7, 2017.
Good luck. NC needs more folks like you two.
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While we were in Australia, we took a ferry to the rather unique island of Tasmania. Upon arrival, we headed immediately for the Warrawee Forest Reserve, a small platypus sanctuary located in the town of Latrobe. Apparently it's almost entirely funded through donations, put together by a group of local guys. It's a really pleasant place, quiet, full of trails and wildlife and, of course, platypus (platypuses? platypi?).
Wineglass Bay is a famous Tasmanian attraction. It was fine, but a short walk up to the viewpoint meant dozens of people sharing the spot with you.
We did more hiking, of course, looping through the Tarn Shelf Track which was quite nice in a barren sort of way.
We attempted to hike Cradle Mountain, but the weather at Cradle is notoriously unpredictable and frequently awful. Despite a reasonable forecast for the day, we arrived to find blowing rain making its way through the valley. We waited out most of the rain and started up the trail, but after arriving at higher ground, we were being buffeted by extreme winds that were literally pushing us around the trail. I would have liked to summit, but also preferred to avoid being blown off the mountain, so we headed instead for Devils @ Cradle, a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary in the park. The Devils are at risk of being wiped out by a contagious cancer, so the sanctuary participates in the study, protection and relocation of the endangered critters. They're raucous and aggressive in groups, but surprisingly personable.
After heading back to the mainland, we spent a little time in Melbourne. It was quite a pleasant city, reminding us a bit of Boston and containing one of the best botanical gardens we've ever seen - 90 acres of immaculate landscapes and ponds.
We took off from Melbourne and headed along the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide.
Along the way we enjoyed beautiful views of sapphire waters, delicious fish & chips, and lazy koalas.
Our first stop along the road came in Yuulong, at a great little farm. We spent the evening looking at glow worms around a nearby river, and admiring the astoundingly clear skies.
The woman who owned the farm had rescued an orphaned baby kangaroo who she had named Rooey. Rooey was full of personality and I think Jenn would have moved in to be Rooey's permanent caretaker if she had the opportunity.
Back on the road, we stopped by the 12 Apostles. While I assumed the famous attraction would be wildly overhyped, it's a pretty spectacular place.
As we progressed along the road, we stopped at Lord Ard Gorge, walking along the protected beach and listening to the crashing of the waves as they washed into Thunder Cave.
Tower Hill Reserve, a pleasant little nature reserve on our drive to Port Fairy, turned out to be a great diversion. Wallabies, a couple of huge emus wandering around the fields, and koalas decorating the trees.
We cruised through the Coonawarra Wine Valley and the McLaren Vale Wine Valley, sipping amply as we went along, and staying at an incredible stone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. AirBnb was amazing throughout our entire trip, we got to stay at so many unique places with so much more character than the "standard" guesthouses you'd get on Booking.com or wherever.
One of the places we were looking forward to the most was Kangaroo Island, southwest of Adelaide. The island turned out to be an astonishing haven of wildlife, from monotremes to marsupials to mammals to birds. The wildlife was so dense that, when we were caught out after dark one night, we endured a harrowing, white-knuckled drive home at about 6 miles per hour, slamming on the brakes and swerving left and right to dodge the animals.
On Kangaroo Island, we stayed at another farmhouse where a bunch of farm animals entertained us in our time not spent exploring the rest of the island. Ollie the alpaca and Buddy the farm dog were there at breakfast every morning. Our favorite, though, was Elsa the kangaroo - another orphan who was raised by the family we stayed with, and who we enjoyed feeding and scratching.
Staying on the theme of lovable wildlife, we found a local farm whose "business" has become the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned, injured and abused animals. Paul's Place is a wonderful spot where Paul and his family take in animals who can't live in the wild, or exotic species purchased by owners that can't care for them, or any of a number of other reasons why they might need a long-term home.
This isn't a zoo, just a guy providing a home for animals that can't take care of themselves. It's a pretty amazing place. Some of the animals are hand-raised (thus very affectionate with people, like the koala), some of them are rescues whose trust levels have slowly been built up to love people. Some are rehabs who will be released (thus no contact with humans except Paul), and some still have trust problems thanks to abuse or neglect, and are kept in relative solitude.
Once we left Kangaroo Island, we headed back to Sydney and drove over to the Blue Mountains for a week of hiking and exploration. While perhaps not as intense or dramatic as some of the peaks we climbed in New Zealand, we found the park to be beautiful and fairly serene once you escaped the most popular sights.
I know something you can do to resolve this issue.
Personally, yes, but personally TV isn't the issue because I can control it. I can turn on a football game and turn it off when it's done.
It's more the droning of stupid programming and dumbed down news that seems to saturate everywhere you go.
A LOT has changed since you left..
Likely about 4 more years of it, too.
Those kangaroos are super cute.
I thought Jenn wasn't going to come home, or was going to come home with one stuffed in her carry-on.
Unfortunately, the reason there are a lot of rescues is because kangaroos are commonly killed in the road and people will rescue pouched orphans from the mother. But they're really fun and nice as backyard "pets." Pets is a little loose because they're voluntary pets - no fences will keep them in, so they stick around as long as they're happy and getting fed.
My experience is that the more traveled and wise you become, the more jaded and discontent you become with most of the world. The up-side is that it become easier to recognize and connect with the real gems in the world.
While we do love hiking, we didn't completely avoid cities. We spent a week in Sydney, doing the famous coastal walk, seeing the iconic opera house, and climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge - a touristy and expensive activity for sure, but a unique view that you certainly can't get anywhere else. We spent some time perusing the local food and beer scene, and even took a surfing lesson, both managing to get up on the boards thanks to the expert instruction of a guy who was almost indistinguishable from Jeff Spicoli.
After Sydney, we drove up the Pacific Highway to visit some friends we had met in the Galapagos Islands 7 years prior, who we had kept in contact with. The multi-day excursion up to Brisbane was scenic, cruising inland to see a few of the small towns, then finding our way back to the beautiful coastline. In Brisbane, we loved catching up with our old friends.
Before leaving Australia, we drove down through Canberra, which was an extremely odd city but had a spectacularly comprehensive war museum that's absolutely worth a stop, and then climbed Mt Kosciuszko, one of the "seven summits" (the highest mountain on each continent). That knocks off two of them for us (the previous one being Kilimanjaro from a few years ago). It's a fairly modest hike, since the summit only tops out at 7,310 feet, but it was beautiful, especially of you skip the most popular route to the top.
NEXT UP: THAILAND
jenn discussing the perils of swamp ass.....keeper.
“You don't [reintegrate]. You realise that by having lived in so many different cultures, your personality and way of thinking has changed, and trying to adapt to what you were before you left is a mistake that will disregard the personal growth you have done.”
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain
One really comes to truly know their homeland when you live away from it for an extended period of time, that's for sure.
For example, I HATE the US television info-tainment industry. Back in the 90's I felt one had to watch the news daily to be well informed... boy, was that a wrong assumption. I don't need talking spokes models and arguing guests to yelling at me about what's happening in the world. I haven't watched the a news channel or show 4 years and haven't missed it one bit (same with the NFL ).
We regretted having to depart Australia, but the cost of first world countries would have made our trip a much shorter one if we had stayed.
Neither of us had been to Asia before, so our first experience was arriving in the noisy, crowded, dirty city of Bangkok. Ultimately, we really didn't like the city - too many people, and it really didn't have the friendly atmosphere we saw in many other cities, even the crowded ones. The noise, the heat, the smells, the crowds, and the constant badgering you faced from every tuk tuk driver who saw a white face in the crowd and took it as an immediate opportunity to try and run a scam... I can't say I'd ever be pleased to find myself back in Bangkok.
We were anxious to get the hell out of the city, so we headed up to Khao Yai national park where we spent a few days exploring the caves and the park. Horseshoe Bats abounded there, flying out from the caves in the tens of thousands and creating black waves in the sky. We also saw our first elephant, who had come up from the forest to rip jackfruit from one of the roadside trees, stopping traffic in both directions and causing a crowd.
The wildlife in the park was beautiful, full of colorful snakes and lizards, deer, gibbons, and a rare siamese crocodile.
After the park, we headed south for the island of Koh Lanta. Though the islands are more touristed these days than they used to be, you can still find some relative solitude if you avoid areas like Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. We rented a motorbike and spent our time cruising around the island's coast, taking a couple excursions to other islands to swim and snorkel in the crystal clear Andaman Sea.
Our visit to Koh Lanta coincided with the Thai new year, Songkran. While an important religious celebration, it has also become famous for being the largest water fight in the world - millions take to the streets throughout Thailand and throw, squirt, hose and dump water on everyone who walks by. The blog link contains a video of our motorbike ride down the main street of Koh Lanta, getting drenched. It's madness in the real cities.
Some good wisdom in that quote. I think we're having trouble with that concept - we don't feel the same, but we don't quite know how to fit in with normal life. A couple times I've felt some anxiety being in the middle of a noisy group, something I never had trouble with in the past.
what lenses did you take?
No Africa or South America. I thought a year was a long time but it's astonishing how little we saw compared to how much there is to see.
I forgot the camera gear list earlier:
Nikon D7100 DSLR
Nikon 300mm f/4 PF VR
Nikon TC-14E III 1.4x teleconverter
Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX
Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
Nikon SB-700 flash
Sirui T-1205x tripod
Sirui G-10x ballhead
Nikon D7000 SLR
Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5
Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro
Overall, Jenn didn't use the macro lens enough to justify it - the telephotos were sufficient most of the time. I would have liked to leave the flash at home and have taken a much smaller flash for just some fill light for birds.
That said, the 300mm f/4 PF was a godsend, with the teleconverter I got 400mm & VR with a pound and a half weight savings over my 80-400mm. The Sirui tripod was as big a tripod as I would have been able to carry, and found it surprisingly sturdy - it was/will be amazing as a hiking tripod.
We continued our adventure though Thailand by traveling north to Chiang Mai. Now, we really had no love for the city of Bangkok, so I feared that the northern cities would be more of the same, only smaller.
Turns out that Thailand's northern cities are nothing like Bangkok and we found Chiang Mai to be pretty fun. Its ruins and temples are no less impressive, but they are more plentiful and densely packed within the walls of the old city, making it very easy to simply set off on a walk and stumble across a dozen photo-worthy locations. The food was outstanding, with tons of great food carts and markets, combined with better smells and fewer people yelling at you to give them your Baht. If you ever go to Thailand, I'd recommend skipping Bangkok entirely and heading straight for Chiang Mai.
While in Chiang Mai, we took a trip to Doi Inthanon National Park to explore the birdlife. The park was beautiful and chock full of feathered friends.
Our stay in Thailand was enjoyable, but nothing prepared us for how amazing our volunteer week at Elephant Nature Park was. Nothing I can write in this short paragraph is going to substitute for Jenn's beautiful account of our experience there, so just... go read it. It's important to know about these kind of places in the world. They do good there. Real, honest, good for animals.
Before leaving Thailand, we stopped at Chiang Rai for a night and marveled at the odd spectacle of the White Temple and the Black House.
NEXT UP: LAOS
elephant park....would have spent the week crying.
Yeah... The animals all have such tragic stories. But they're all so happy in their new surroundings that it's hard to do anything but smile - they've all got tight family groups and friends and as much food as they can eat.
Hoping to not spend 16+ hours on a bus traveling down awful SE Asia roads, we opted for the infamous "slow boat" to Luang Prabang. It seems like every backpacker in the world traveling between Thailand and Laos takes this route, but it did sound pleasant.
We met a nice guy on the bus to the border, who said he had been hitchhiking all over Thailand on a shoestring budget. Always up for a good time, we hitchhiked with him from the bus drop off point, to the Thai/Laos border, then to Houay Xai, where the boat leaves.
The boat ride was unremarkable. Loud, excessively drunk and annoying backpackers dominated the noise on the boat. We met several nice people but unfortunately, were all sufficiently irritated by the shouts of "WOOOO!" before shots and slurred pseudo-intellectual discourse that we rapidly transitioned into reading and stuffing headphones in.
The lovely city of Luang Prabang was our destination, and we were not disappointed. We checked into a gorgeous guesthouse with a staff whose cheer and hospitality made us feel incredibly welcome. The city is so pleasant to explore, with large Asian temples sitting alongside French-inspired houses. And the food - the food was unbelievable. Every place we ate, from the fancy formal places to the roadside cafes to street market vendors had the most spectacular food. If you're a food fanatic visiting Asia, Luang Prabang is not to be missed.
We rented a motor bike and cruised over to Kuang Si Waterfall, a really beautiful spot if you go early in the morning to avoid the crowds of lunchtime picnickers (mostly locals with their kids).
We spent a few days visiting the capital city of Vientiane as well. The food continued to be excellent (though not as good as Luang Prabang), and the city was... well, a capital city. Pretty enough but bustling and losing much of its character to chain pizza restaurants and trendy coffee shops. We did enjoy the local market and the COPE museum, a local nonprofit dedicated to supplying prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to victims of unexploded ordinance. Even now, 40 years after the last bombs were dropped in the area, about 100 people per year are injured or killed by unexploded ordinance.
NEXT UP: CAMBODIA
The Thai sleeper trains are actually quite pleasant, so we took a train back across Thailand in order to get to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Our place in Siem Reap was ridiculously beautiful, with a happy furry friend named Patch who loved to bring up the welcome mat from the front door and leave it in front of our room, hoping I'd play tug-of-war with him.
The town was attractive enough, if you avoided the jam-packed tourist section of downtown known as Pub Street. While there were tons of good looking restaurants down there, the intense crowds and persistent tuk-tuk drivers was a little off-putting.
Of course, we didn't come to Cambodia to see Pub Street, so we spent three busy days seeing as much of Angkor as we could. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is enormous, you could spend weeks exploring all of the small temples off the main paths and in the more remote regions around Siem Reap. One day we spent touring via tuk tuk, and the other two days we put 45 miles on our tired, worn out cruisers looking at temples.
Of course, the thing you see at Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. We went for the crowded but traditional sunrise, which was partially clouded in, but still beautiful.
We went to Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city. As with many countries we visited, the capitals were often not our favorites, but we spent some time exploring and, crucially, sampled some of the cuisine the area had to offer - namely, insects and arachnids. I tried a mixed bag of bugs (grasshoppers, crickets, silk worms, and hard shelled beetles), of which only the crickets were actually enjoyable (seriously, though, crickets are pretty delicious).
The area is famous for its tarantulas, so we stopped into a nice local restaurant that supplies jobs for at-risk youth. This place served us a beautiful plate full of three fried tarantulas with pepper and lime sauce. Once you got past the visceral sense of eating a spider, they actually weren't terrible - crunchy and tasting like not much but the sauce.
Even Jenn got in on the action, managing to down a hairy leg!
Outside of the city we visited the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison, gut-wrenching places whose history is, in my experience, not taught sufficiently in school. I basically understood that there was a genocide that took place under Pol Pot in Cambodia, but not the scale. It was an intense and emotional day but an important thing to see and understand. Please click through to read the last paragraph of the entry, about us meeting Bou Meng. Thinking about it still makes me tear up.
Finally, we visited the coastal town of Kampot. Known for pepper production, Kampot and the surrounding region was my favorite place in Cambodia. I had so much fun exploring the countryside on our motorbike - it's just such a wonderful area with incredibly nice people.
While we were in Kampot, we cruised over to Kep, a pretty coastal province known for its seafood. We certainly had some amazingly fresh seafood, as we ate Kep crab with Kampot peppercorns, while we watched the restaurant owner pulling more crab traps out of the water in front of the restaurant. A hike through the beautiful Kep National Park capped off our trip to Cambodia.
NEXT UP: VIETNAM
We kicked off our Vietnam adventure in Ho Chi Minh city, though everyone still calls it Saigon. It's a huge, modern city with skyscrapers and Starbucks, so our sightseeing was primarily culinary and museums. We checked out the Cu Chi Tunnels as well. The museums and tunnels were decidedly... odd. Despite the existence of the internet and the prevalence of smartphones, the Vietnamese government still shows a tremendous amount of blatant propaganda. It's decidedly odd to see an entire wing of a museum dedicated to a fabricated and fairy-tale-like description of how wonderfully the Vietnamese treated US POWs during the war.
I'm not of the mind that the US did anything right there, but this was my first experience with firsthand government propaganda and it's very weird. There's also a somewhat odd (and, in my opinion, a little distasteful) option to stop at the edge of the Cu Chi Tunnels and fire wartime guns like an AK-47. I couldn't wrap my head around listening to narratives on how many people were killed there, then stepping next door and handing over $50 to shoot those same guns.
We had quite a nice time in Da Lat, a pleasant city in the highlands that were distinctly cooler than the surrounding areas, providing welcome relief from the 100+ degree heat every day.
We continued our journey up the coast and stopped in Da Nang, a coastal city with an impressive, and famous, dragon bridge, which spouts fire and water once a week in an event that seemingly the entire city gathers to watch.
Vietnam continued to impress us as we traveled to Vietnam's old imperial capital of Hue. The train ride up the coast was beautiful, past crystal-clear blue waters and lush green hills. The Imperial City was beautifully restored, and we started our explorations early to avoid the crowds. The incredible heat ensured we spent all of our days in Hue drenched in sweat, as we explored the tombs of old emperors.
One of our favorite experiences of the trip was three days that we spent exploring the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The gorgeous limestone karsts of the area, combined with the rivers and groundwater, means the area is simply riddled with enormous caves, many of which have yet to be explored. Carrying all the camera gear was interesting, since everything had to fit inside "dry boxes" which were actually round plastic jars that were ill-shaped for holding camera equipment. We got it all to fit, though, since many of the caves required us to swim into or out of them. It was a truly spectacular experience, and our tour operator owns the sole license to operate in the caves, so we rarely even saw other hikers.
Our final stop in Vietnam was a visit to the city of Hanoi. We visited the famed Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which was a little bit of an odd experience. We saw a surprisingly entertaining water puppet show, which I expected to find dull but ended up loving. As with most cities, we enjoyed the local food scene, including ca phe trung, a strong coffee topped with a meringue which was absolutely amazing.
As an excursion from Hanoi, we took a boat ride in Ha Long Bay. The group we booked with endeavored to avoid the more crowded portions of the bay, ensuring we had a great experience without fighting the crowds. In addition to swimming, cruising, kayaking and hiking, we tried snake wine - a local, awful-tasting rice wine that has snakes coiled up and placed inside the wine jug to soak. It was ... bad. The trip was memorable, though, and the bay - though crowded - is a sight that should not be missed.
Vietnam was a really wonderful country with a diversity of terrain and some of the most friendly people we met on our trip. I'd go back in a second!
NEXT UP: CHINA
I'm hoping for Korea and Vietnam in the fall... How long were you in Vietnam?
A bit more than 3 weeks. If you click the Vietnam heading above it'll show all of our blog entries relating to Vietnam.
It's an awesome place. If we did it again we would have liked to see the highlands in Sapa. If you end up planning anything and have questions let me know. We stayed at some great guest houses.
Great Photography. Thanks for sharing.
We didn't really love our week in Beijing. If you're interested in details, you can read the Beijing blog. Suffice it to say, it was just not our type of place - a big, polluted city with a cultural mindset that seems to value self above any consideration of those around.
So... uh, here's a few pictures.
Once we got out of the city, though, we loved our two days of hiking on the Great Wall. We saw several types of the wall - original, partially restored and fully restored. We avoided most of the more crowded sections, ensuring a great experience wandering along the remains of the wall.
NEXT UP: MONGOLIA
I just mentioned to Jenn that I let this thread lapse while we moved and got settled, and I needed to start it up again.
Will post something more tonight.
Are ya'll back in NC ?
Yep. Back at my old job. It's kind of weird to be back, but I like the job, boss and coworkers.
jealous of your trip, I am......
It's hard to convey just how much I loved Mongolia. We didn't set off planning to spend any significant time there - just a stop-off in Ulaanbaatar on our journey on the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. When we finally discovered there was no hope to obtain a Russian tourist visa, I contacted the company arranging our rail tickets and asked what else we could do. He proposed a somewhat-expensive (compared to our usual arrangements) guided trip through the central part of Mongolia. It sounded awesome, but I worried about the expense. Jenn finally asked, "what do you want to do?" I said I wanted to say, screw the budget, let's see the empire of Genghis Kahn.
So that's what we did.
The landscape in the open steppe just takes your breath away. A nonstop, gorgeous vista of rolling grasslands, punctuated by fields of flowers, herds of livestock, and an astonishing quantity of birds of prey.
Maybe the most remarkable thing, for us, was the roads. There are a few paved roads that traverse the interior, but much of the transit is over dirt... paths. Some of them could be termed "roads" but many look like seldom-traveled cart paths or just areas of the grass that have been worn down. Our driver was amazing, I can't possibly imagine how you memorize this spiderweb of nearly-invisible and completely-unmarked tracks.
Our time was spent bouncing between Ger camps (similar to a yurt). We even spent a night with one of the local nomad families. Funny story: the Gers have an opening in the center for venting cooking smoke. Apparently, we ended up over the top of some kind of bizarre beetle infestation, as, to our horror, we listened to the "plink, plink, plink" of beetles raining down from the ceiling. They were everywhere - crawling into our blankets, on our backpacks, finding their way into our shoes... Hundreds of them, walking over every surface. At one point I constructed a blanket tent over our bed in an attempt to stem the tide of creepy crawlies worming into our sheets. It was definitely not a restful night.
We took advantage of the incredibly late sunsets to hike at every opportunity, striking off in the direction of attractive-looking hills after dinner, which often led to breathtaking vistas.
One of the days, we traveled to Hustai National Park. The Takhi (Przewalski) Horses are the last remaining wild horses in the world - the only breed that has never been domesticated. We spotted a herd far off on a hill side and took off in their direction, hoping to catch a closer glimpse. We were completely unprepared for them to come tramping up over the hill within a couple hundred feet of us, happily munching grass with a baby in tow.
It was one of the highlights of the entire trip, and completely unexpected. Mongolia immediately got added to the "must return" list.
And just to wrap up on a funny note... here's a giant, sculpted stone penis.
After Mongolia, we had a long-haul train ride across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. While we had hoped to spend some time in Russia, stopping along the way to see the sights, it turns out that the Russian bureaucracy makes getting visas (outside of your home country) a nightmare.
Even after jumping through all of the hoops, a 10-day transit visa turned into a 7-day transit visa, meaning we had just enough time for a nonstop train ride, 36 hours in Moscow, and then a bus out of the country. In light of this, we sprung for the first class cabin which, while no bigger than 2nd class and with no better accommodations, at least only had the two of us in it for the journey.
We made friends with our fellow passengers, spending nights playing cards with a man and his daughter from Finland. The frequent stops along the way meant we could get out, stretch our legs, and stock up on food, occasionally picking up fresh baked bread or homemade sandwiches from vendors along the route.
After arriving in Moscow, we were bowled over by our spacious, comfortable, luxurious hotel room after months in tiny Asian guesthouses. Despite the urge to throw ourselves into the duvet-covered bed, we showered several days' worth of train funk off us, and almost immediately hit the streets to make the best of our brief time there.
Moscow is a really beautiful city, clean and full of impeccably restored buildings. Of course, St. Basil's Cathedral is one of the most famous buildings, the colorful towers showing up on virtually any postcard of Moscow. And yet, as beautiful as it was, it is almost lost in the splendor of the rest of Red Square, surrounded by the Kremlin on one side, the historical museum on another, and the spectacular Upper Trading Rows on another.
We took a walking tour of the city the next day, and really found the area to be a pleasant combination of old buildings alongside modern offices and big churches, including the most beautiful grocery store I've ever stepped foot in. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and wish we could have had more time to explore.
Our brief stay in Moscow was great, but the pressure of our visa meant we had to move on. Half our travel year was gone, and we were about to start our foray into Europe.
Next up: Latvia.
I'm going to keep rolling with updates here, but if having pretty pictures interrupt the monotonous drone of angry politics in your social media feeds is more your style, Jenn is picking a couple random photos a day for family and friends to see.
We had to flee Moscow far sooner than we had hoped, and our next target destination - Turkey - had just experienced a failed military coup, which put a damper on our plans to visit. So we bought a couple bus tickets to Latvia and started our explorations of Eastern Europe.
We arrived at Riga a while before our apartment was ready, so we dragged our bags to a highly-rated vegetarian restaurant about a mile from the train station. At this point, Jenn had spent a week in Mongolia where the food is almost exclusively meat and bread, and 5 days on a train where platform foods were often meat sandwiches, so she was ready to do some serious eating. The proprietor was amazing, the food was terrific, and it was one of the best restaurant experiences we had on the trip. I've found "vegetarian burgers" to be almost universally terrible, but after being assured that his was different, I was delivered a meat-free burger that rivaled a whole lot of the meaty equivalents I've had in my life.
Riga has a fairly adorable historic district with a crowded central square that sat at the heart of dozens of cobblestone streets zigging and zagging at odd angles and lined with restaurants and pastry shops. It took a lot of willpower to not stop for a beer or a pastry at every tiny shop or bar we came across.
Lush parks and big churches seemed to surround the historic district.
One of our favorite parts about Riga was the central market. Laid out in and around some of the last remaining zeppelin hangars in the world, the market was beautiful and crammed full of delicious, cheap produce being hawked by local farmers. A quart of the best raspberries I've ever had for a buck? You bet! We spent forever wandering around the stalls, picking out cheap pastries and fresh veggies for dinner.
After several days in Riga, we made our way to Vilnius, Lithuania, and to an absolutely beautiful historic apartment that ended up being one of our favorites of the trip. Vilnius didn't have quite the same small-town feel of Riga, but was quite beautiful in its own right, with impressive churches and castle/fort remnants scattered around the edges of the old town.
While wandering around the old town, we stumbled into the Republic of Uzupis, an area of Vilnius that the local residents have declared its own territory, with its own flag, constitution, currency and army. Charmingly, you can get your passport stamped and exchange Lithuanian Litas for the Uzupi currency which can only be spent on beer at the local tavern.
A staple throughout Europe was our regular visits to the local markets, bartering with the produce vendors and snapping up local dishes to try. In Lithuania, we started to find that a theme in Eastern Europe was poppy seed pastries, with the poppy seeds either sprinkled on the outside, or mashed into flavored fillings. Delicious! We also tried a sakotis, or "tree cake" - a type of cake made on rotating spit and used to celebrate special occasions. We figured our 12th year of "togetherness" was a great occasion and enjoyed the treat!
Next up: Poland.
Poland kicked off with one of the things I was most excited for - namely, a visit to Bialowieza Forest, one of the last chunks of primeval forest in Europe.
Bialowieza is this odd piece of virtually untouched land that has avoided development and most attempts at logging or widespread hunting for centuries. As far back as the 1500s, there are records of local royalty using the land for private hunting reserves, ensuring it remained mostly wild amid the population booms.
While we had some issues with poorly documented local bus routes, we finally found ourselves in the village of Bialoweiza, and set off to explore the town and some of the outer areas of the forest. Though Bialowieza has found itself to be a modestly touristed town now, there was plenty of solitude to be found just a little off the main trails or down the small village roads.
One of our favorite sights was the majestic white storks who built towering nests of sticks and twigs on rooftops, bell towers and other precarious surfaces. As it is considered a mark of good luck to have the storks nest on your house, many places offer small platforms on which the giant piles are constructed. Other nests seem to be simply placed at random on pitched roofs whose precipice does not seem to be a stable enough base, yet somehow they remain.
While we enjoyed the accessible park areas, the real reason we came here was to explore the heart of the forest - a place which requires a special permit and a tour guide. The next morning, we set off early to meet our guide and walked through the utterly still morning before we passed under the big gates and into the deep woods.
The forest was beautiful and really everything I had hoped for. What I hadn't bargained on, though, was the ticks. Apparently Bialowieza is a veritable paradise for ticks, a place that people come to study them. Walking through the forest, we experienced a nightmare pitter-patter of crawling, bloodthirsty ticks raining down on us from the trees above. It was horrific.
Still. Worth it.
We also took a day trip across the boarder into the Belarus side of the forest. While not as private and undeveloped, the roads through the forest were really beautiful - in our 40 mile ride, we saw maybe half a dozen vehicles.
We then bussed ourselves over to Warsaw to explore the city. The "Old Town" is not particularly old, unsurprisingly, since Hitler made Warsaw one of the focuses during his campaigns during WWII. Nonetheless, the reconstruction is very pretty. One of the celebrated figures in the area is Chopin, so monuments and signs are scattered around the city, and an entire park is dedicated to him, where concerts are held.