Ontor Pass – Kyrgyzstan

Djigit Peak Glacier

Planning hikes to lesser-known areas in Kyrgyzstan is always a bit of an adventure.  We aren’t allowed to drive, so we have to find a taxi driver (who will lie about knowing the area) with a car suitable to drive up some terrible road.  You also rarely have reliable information about what exactly you will find if the hike anything but the most commonly visited trails.  AJ, a fellow PCV and Andre, a Dutch friend who owns a guesthouse in Karakol and I took a trip this past summer to Ontor Pass.  Ontor Pass isn’t hiked more than a few times a year so it was a bit hard to know exactly what the hike would entail but it looked amazing and we really wanted to give it a shot.  In early July we met up in Karakol and caught a taxi into Karakol National Park to give it a shot.

The first day started out with rain. Heavy rain. No taxi ride in Kyrgyzstan seems to be complete without some complication, this day our driver decided to pretend to misunderstand the bridge we said we wanted to be dropped off leaving us with an extra mile hike in (just an extra mile in pouring rain.)  The beginning portion of the hike is up a road and is heavily trekked.  Many people come up this road before turning left to see Lake Ala Kol.  After passing the Ala Kol turnoff, the rain subsided.  Soon, we reached a junction in Karakol Valley, we elected to go up the left side.  The path we were taking would end up making a large loop and we expected to be exiting the right side of the valley in about 48 hours.

Continue reading “Ontor Pass – Kyrgyzstan”

Thermal Baths, Fancy Cafes & Oktoberfest? Budapest!

Budapest Sunset

Continuing to take advantage of cheap access to Europe, we went on another trip in October.  A little late posting about this but I wanted to share what we did (and pictures.)  First up, Budapest!  Budapest was one of those cities that everyone seems to know of but we really didn’t know anything about.  We turned to our favorite travel source… Anthony Bourdain.  It can be a little frustrating watching his show because he gets to do things we never will be able to – I’m pretty sure legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was not going to escort us around the city – but we did get some ideas to get started.  Here are a few of the best parts of Budapest.

New York Café was one of our first stops.  This place is probably the fanciest looking restaurant we’ve ever been to.  Like most of the tourists there we skipped the food since it’s pretty pricey and just had espressos and hot chocolates.  The hot chocolate tasted like they just melted an entire chocolate bar into a cup, it was incredible.  The history of the place is pretty interesting to.  Many super famous and important writers used to hang out there in the middle of the 20th century and it was a bit of a hangout for citizens who weren’t so happy with the political situation of the time.  It was bombed heavily during World War II and even rammed by a Soviet tank in 1956.

The Central Market Hall is Budapest’s largest indoor market.  It’s pretty touristy but as always when we leave Kyrgyzstan the sight of pork is pretty exciting and there’s tons of it for sale here.  We ate lunch at one of the vendors in the market which was pretty excellent food but the vendors dealing with tourists all day made them a little less than friendly.  Still, a pretty fun place to check out.

Continue reading “Thermal Baths, Fancy Cafes & Oktoberfest? Budapest!”

And Just Like That… We’re Home

COSing group

As I write this, we sit in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean heading towards Chicago.  We’ve left Kyrgyzstan along with 15 other volunteers having finished our service early.  But before we get to that, let’s back up to the beginning.  To live and work in Kyrgyzstan we need two things from the government, a visa and accreditation.  People back home are familiar with visas and the process for Kyrgyzstan was pretty straightforward.  The accreditation was something new to us but it’s a process most former Soviet Republics have (they still carry over a lot of processes from Soviet days) where you are registered to live and work in a certain area of the country.  From the time we first arrived to Kyrgyzstan, the accreditation was difficult to acquire and we were in country for several weeks before the Peace Corps staff was able to acquire our accreditation cards.  The following are some details on the challenge for Peace Corps trying to maintain our status in the post over the last 5 months.  You can skip to the end if not interested in the back and forth minutia.  Sorry for the lack of photos this time but check the end for a video of us surprising our family!

As the initial year’s accreditation was set to expire August 31st, 2015, our staff again tried to get new accreditation cards but they weren’t getting straight answers from the government.  With our visas about to expire, the staff had to consolidate all the volunteers from our group in Bishkek and make plans to send us out of the country before the visas expired.  Staff from Washington DC came out and we all sat anxiously through meetings trying to find out our fate.  Receiving the visas, ‘evacuating’ to Kazakhstan or getting sent back to America on administrative hold were all possibilities.  Normally volunteers meeting up in Bishkek is a fun time, but this was not one of those times.  Peace Corps ended up buying tickets for all of us home and two days before we were set to fly out, the government granted us the accreditation but only for four months instead of the normal year.  The whole ordeal was really disruptive to the morale of the post and many individuals service.  Peace Corps gave everyone the option of taking interrupted service (basically stopping your service early due to circumstances beyond your control) and a handful of volunteers opted to take that.

Things went on mostly as normal but we had a new deadline for our visas to expire and it wasn’t that far off.  To make things more complicated, our country director had to leave for family reasons so we weren’t going to have a permanent CD in place during the process of trying to get the accreditations.  As November ended anxiety amongst the volunteers was at an all-time high.  We were told the post and the ambassador (who was now involved but also brand new to Kyrgyzstan) had asked the government to respond by December 1st.  This date came and went and still nothing.

On December 4th we were headed into Bishkek for my birthday when PC sent us a pretty shocking email.  There was still no word from the government and they were giving all K-22s (our group) the option of taking early COS (Close of Service) or staying on and seeing what happens – the kicker was we had only three days to make our decision.  Taylor and I sat for the rest of the ride without talking about it trying to take it all in.  In the end, we decided to take the early COS option.

After talking with friends and a lot of deliberation we made the decision to take the early COS.  The decision wasn’t easy but as we lived with, we became more positive that it was the right one.  It’s hard to encapsulate all the reasons in just a few sentences but I’ll give the three main reasons.  First, we felt like we were able to leave at the peak of our service.  Our projects at work were ending and we knew coming into the winter very little was going to happen, then the spring would be just planning what came next.  We were leaving at the peak of our service and able to go before resentment and boredom set in over winter.  Second, Peace Corps offered us early Close of Service as opposed to one of the other designations.  This means in their eyes, we completed our contract and we get all the benefits that come with that including a travel stipend home instead of a ticket (a little more money to travel with next) and we have the ability to do Peace Corps Response in the future – this was very important to us.  Lastly, so many of our friends were leaving.  Peace Corps is primarily about your site and the people you work with but the fact that so many people we liked were leaving would have really made it hard to stay.  I had plans to ski and hike with them the next few months and life just wouldn’t have been the same.

So what’s next?  There’s a lot to reflect on.  I have a lot more to write about Peace Corps and Kyrgyzstan plus a couple stories I couldn’t post while actively serving.  We also haven’t even started sharing stories and photos from our last trip to Europe so watch the blog, a lot coming up.  We’ll be back in the States for about 2 months visiting friends and family plus trying to put things back together.  Then we plan on taking a long trip to Asia, probably taking us all the way to when our service would have otherwise ended.  After that… I need to find a job.

An update: As this gets posted, the government issued accreditation to the remaining volunteers and visas should soon follow.  We’re now back in the States and managed to keep our departure a secret from almost everyone.  I made a video of us surprising all our family.

Living in a Soviet-Era Kyrgyzstan Apartment

The view

Water & power often failing, sparks shooting out of your circuit breakers and hearing the walls crumble at night are just a few of the joys we get living in a Soviet-era apartment.  Balykchy is filled with dozens of nearly identical 5-story block apartments put together like puzzles from concrete panels, many of which were made right here in Balykchy decades ago.  Since last December we’ve had the pleasure of learning the ins and outs of living in one of these poorly up kept units and thought we’d share a little bit for friends at home, future volunteers here and those who are just curious.

The apartments can look depressing at first, drab brutalist architecture has never actually been inspiring, but it starts to grow on you.  There are a few trees in the courtyard to break up the gray of concrete and rocks.  There is a brand new playground thanks to a political party hoping to make up some ground with the local populace in the upcoming election.  After some time you get past the look of the apartments and just notice the families walking about and the children playing – it really feels a lot like a neighborhood anywhere.  There are some things that never feel normal though.  The garbage is never picked up early enough so it’s burned in the metal collection bins every few days and you never can get used to the acrid smell.  There’s also the vendors that periodically up into the middle of the courtyard with a megaphone letting everyone know they have products to sell (anything from vegetables to cheese.)

Continue reading “Living in a Soviet-Era Kyrgyzstan Apartment”

Ljubljana, City of Dragons

Dragon Bridge

Looking back at Ljubljana it’s a bit hard to explain why we loved it so much.  After our trip, people often asked, what was your favorite part? What was your favorite city?  Without pause, my answer is always Ljubljana… and then comes the question, why? Here is where things get a bit tough because it’s hard to put a finger on it.  The city just had an amazing, relaxed vibe to it.  A lot of travel is luck which may explain part of why this city was just so enjoyable, everything seemed to work out so well during our stay.

Ljubljana boat tour
Ljubljana boat tour

Truth be told, there’s not a lot of activities and sights for tourists in Ljubljana.  Wikitravel’s section on the city only lists a handful of things to see or do and most of those are museums – not usually my thing.  But the city is beautiful with a river running through the center and many great restaurants and cafes.  The city center is also very small, you can easily walk across it in 45 minutes.  We spent the first day just walking through the old town, seeing the picturesque bridges (it’s like a mini version of Paris where each bridge is unique) and walking up to the Ljubljana Castle.  There’s a funicular up from Old Town to the castle but since the walk only takes five minutes we skipped the line and just took the path up.  There are boat cruises leaving from many spots along the river for short 50 minute cruises.  We took one just before sunset which was perfect.

Continue reading “Ljubljana, City of Dragons”

Lake Bled & Vintgar Gorge – Reason enough to see Slovenia!

Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
About 1/2 of the walk along Vintgar Gorge is on narrow walkways like this one

It was a single photo that drew me to Slovenia, the photo was of Bled Gorge and I was immediately drawn to the green water, steep canyon walls and most of all, the trail that followed along – and sometimes over – the water.  We love finding unique hikes to do such as Angel’s Landing in Zion and this one looked fun.  I wanted to make sure there was more to do in Slovenia (seems dumb to wonder in hindsight) so I googled ‘cool places in Slovenia’ and quickly got lost in the hundreds of options.  The next must-see destination I found was Lake Bled, actually right next to Vintgar Gorge, which is most famous for the beautiful church in the middle of a tiny island.  So we made plans to see these two areas after stopping by Predjama Castle and Škocjan Caves on the way.

Castle on the hill
Unfortunate to have the crane in the shot but Bled Castle is pretty awesome
Church & Castle
Lake Bled’s church and castle

Bled is an awesome little town. It looks like it could be in Austria except being Slovenian, everything is half the cost.  The town itself is situated on the Eastern edge of the small lake – you can easily walk around it and there is a nice path. The most obvious feature as you walk around the lake is tiny island with picturesque Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church rising sharply from it.  You can get to the island via rowboat, captains depart from several spots around the lake.  On the cliff overlooking the lake is Bled Castle.  You can walk up there to enjoy the views for free but you must pay to go inside (we skipped it.)  In the winter they have a small ski hill you can enjoy, in the summer there are many nearby areas to hike and it’s a great town to just relax in.  Also, we ate at the best restaurant of the entire trip here.  Penzion Berc, a ten minute walk SW from the town is incredible!  I ate the best octopus dish of my life here and everything is affordable (like everything else in Slovenia.) They only take cash though so come prepared so you can avoid the mid-dinner dash to find an ATM (and call to your bank in our case.)

Continue reading “Lake Bled & Vintgar Gorge – Reason enough to see Slovenia!”

Slovenia Caves and a Castle (in a cave)

I’ve started to realize that I’ve been planning all my trips lately based on a single photo or comment from someone about a particular locale.  For Slovenia, it was a photo of Vintgar Gorge (I’ll share photos from this place soon) which was amazing but I had to find other things to do as well.  Turns out, Slovenia is amazing, especially if you like hiking.  It’s filled with awesome canyons, caves, castles on islands, delicious food and its inexpensive compared to Western Europe.  After just a few days it became one of my favorite countries in Europe.  It’s easy to find cool sites in Slovenia and we found two on the way to Lake Bled from Croatia.  Predjama Castle and Škocjan Caves, the latter of which is also a UNESCO site.

Predjama Castle
Predjama Castle

We visited Predjama castle first which is not just a castle but a castle in a cave (the best kind.)  There’s a long and interesting history to the castle but I’ll just share my favorite anecdote.  In the 15th century this robber baron named Erazem was holding down the castle.  The kingdom of Hungary was mad at him and sent an army to try and take it over.  For a year and a half, Erazem held off his enemy and by using a secret tunnel in the back of the castle could obtain fresh food to prevent being starved out.  They taunted their befuddled attackers by throwing fresh cherries at them from the castle – the attackers thought witchcraft was at work – how else could they get the fresh cherries?  Eventually, the besiegers bribed a servant to reveal when Erazem went to the toilet.  When he did, they fired a cannonball at that part of the castle (the weakest section also) and killed him while he sat on his (other) throne.  The tour inside the castle is 12 euros and worth it. Continue reading “Slovenia Caves and a Castle (in a cave)”

Plitvice or Krka National Park?

Crowds at Plitvice

The first thing that comes to people’s mind when thinking of Croatia are the beautiful beaches and walled cities of the coast but the country has beautiful national parks inland as well.  Plitvice National Park is easily the most famous but Krka National Park seems to be getting a lot of attention lately as well, we visited both after leaving Drubrovnik.  Both parks have amazing waterfalls and winding paths that take you right on top of the blue-green water.  But which should you visit?  Take a look at the photos below but spoiler alert, my answer is both!  Also, view more photos on my photography site.

Plitvice is the more famous of the two parks, photos of its beautiful waterfalls are all over Pinterest.  But we heard Krka is much less crowded AND you can swim in the pool at the bottom of Skradinski Buk.  We arrived a little after 9am and the parking lot didn’t have many cars which seemed like a good sign.  It’s a 20 minute walk to the actual pools from the parking lot (a shuttle is available) and we walked immediately to the paths.  I really wanted to get shots before too many people were around but already there were groups of people walking through sticking their giant ipads in the way of my shots.  Another issue I didn’t consider was the vibration from people walking ruining slow shutter-speed shots.

Continue reading “Plitvice or Krka National Park?”

Trogir, my favorite little spot in Croatia

The town of Trogir
Neum lunchspot
Stopping in Neum, Bosnia for a quick lunch

It didn’t even dawn on me that when driving from Dubrovnik to Trogir, our next stop, we’d have to pass through a tiny little piece of Bosnia that reaches the coast until our trip began.  The Balkans have experienced countless wars over the centuries one of which was the Austro-Ottoman War.  The war ended in 1699 with the Treaty of Karlowitz creating the majority of the borders in the area that exist still today.  The border crossing in and out of Bosnia turned out to be trivial, they looked at our passports quickly and didn’t need to see paperwork for our rental car.  The only restaurants or hotels that exist on the 20km of stretch of land is the small town of Neum.  The little resort town is cheaper than surrounding Croatia and we ate a delicious café (Restoran Bonaca) overlooking the ocean.  Excellent and cheap seafood – definitely the ideal lunch spot if driving between Dubrovnik and Split/Trogir.

Trogir Boardwalk
The Trogir boardwalk is usually lined with luxury yachts but it’s still unpretentious and has cheap food

Trogir itself is very close to Split, one of Croatia’s largest cities.  Split gets more tourists than Trogir and is supposedly a very nice city but Trogir was absolutely perfect for us.  Trogir itself is a tiny little medieval town (and a UNESCO World Heritage site) on an island wedged between the mainland and a larger island in the Adriatic.  Our AirBNB was in a great spot just across the bridge from the Old Town and was an easy walk (AirBNB is a great option for Trogir, there are very few hotels.)  Trogir is great to walk around at night and so small you can become familiar with it in just an hour or so.  The first night we ate dinner at a pretty forgettable place but the second night we ate at what would end up being my second favorite restaurant of the trip.  Kristian Pizza is truly amazing.  The food and service were so great we ended up going back a second night.  The restaurant is family owned, the father walks around greeting everybody and the son was our server.  I would eat the seafood gnocchi and the homemade pasta everyday – please excuse the gratuitous food photos here.

Continue reading “Trogir, my favorite little spot in Croatia”

A Visit to King’s Landing (Dubrovnik)

Red Roofs of Dubrovnik

Between traveling and dealing with the chaos here (maybe I’ll write about that later but when I sit down to think about it I just get aggravated) I’ve had little time to post the rest of the photos from our Europe trip.  With our next Europe trip just two weeks away (I promise we do work!) I’m going to try to get caught up.

High on our list of places to visit in the Balkans was Dubrovnik.  Yes, it’s touristy but everyone I know who went has loved it.  Plus, with three of the four of being big ‘Game of Thrones’ fans we had to see King’s Landing for ourselves.

From Kotor, we hired the same driver to take us to Dubrovnik and after a bit of confusion finding our AirBNB we managed to locate it and check in.  The owners were a charming older couple who took quite a bit of time making sure we knew every single little detail about the home – maybe overly friendly but not that surprisingly given how friendly we found people in the Balkans to be.  As soon as we checked in we walked to the Old Town to take a look.  All of the old walled cities along the Dalmatian Coast are similar but this one was much larger than Kotor.

Continue reading “A Visit to King’s Landing (Dubrovnik)”