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Through the Rockies on our way to the Pacific Northwest

Livingston, Anaconda, Granite, Coeur d' Alene, Spokane, Ellensburg

sunny 24 °C
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Our plan was to leave Yellowstone via the Northeast Exit and to drive along the Beartooth Highway. We had already gotten that recommendation from the French couple we had met in Loreto, once more from Ralf in Zion and it was also featured as a spectacular diversion in Janis’ National Park magazine.
Still, after looking at the map and realizing it would be more than a 200 mile / 300 km detour and factoring in that it was starting to rain heavily when we left Mammoth Hot Springs, we decided to skip the Beartooth Pass. I guess that with the over 9000 miles we’ve driven so far and Max still not being a real fan of long drives, we have gotten a bit more conscious about distances and the difference in mileage we can make on small windy roads vs. the interstates.
So the new plan now foresees to leave Yellowstone via the North Entrance, getting on the interstate in Livingston and heading due West via Idaho to Washington. This plan also results in skipping beautiful Glacier National Park in favor of having more time to spend at Mt Rainier and Olympic National Parks. Unfortunately, even with five months to spend in North America, we have to make choices and it’s simply not possible to see everything we’d love to see.
By the time we arrived at our beautiful campground at Mallard’s Rest 42 miles north of the park exit right next to the Yellowstone River, the heavy rain had stopped and there were only the clouds remaining.

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We hoped that by night time they’d be gone such that we could observe the Perseid meteor showers. And we were lucky indeed, around 11 pm most clouds had disappeared and we got to see significantly bigger and lighter shooting stars than so far on our journey – in fact the nicest ones both Sam and I have ever seen so far.
The next day no one of us was keen to leave. So we took it easy and enjoyed our lovely campground for a bit longer. Eventually hunger made us leave after all and Rosa’s Pizza in Livingston came just at the right time to help us out.
Sam had picked the Lost Creek State Park for camping this night via our map. As we pretty much did not have much network reception and internet since back in Moab, we could not check our usual resources. And as our mobile phone seems to have issues since the update to a newer version of the operating system, also our navigation system Scout let us down, as it did not find the downloaded maps on the SD card anymore. So with just the map as a guide, we did not really have high hopes in finding a campground when there was no camping signposted, just binoculars for wildlife watching. We turned around and rather headed to a national forest campground a bit behind Anaconda.
That way Sam also got to tick one more of the items on his bucket list: he wanted to see a ghost town and close to Philipsburg there was ‘Granite’ up the hill. Despite the recommendation to only go up the road with a vehicle with high clearance (which ours definitively does not have), we went up the 4 steep and windy miles making over 1200 ft / 400 m within that relatively short distance. The road was relatively good (much better than what we had encountered in Mexico around Coco’s Corner) and we made it without any issues.
There were still quite a couple of buildings around – all of them in more or less desolate states. After all, the main exploitation of the mine with more than 3000 miners living there had taken place already over 100 years ago. And since then nature was allowed to take over again.

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But as there was not too much to see with many buildings simply being destroyed over the years and probably some wildfires, we left again and made our way down the steep grade. And even though it felt like we had been sitting in the car already for ages, we only really started getting moving once we had reached the interstate.
As we were only going to pass a very short stretch of Idaho (less than 100 miles), we at least wanted to stay there for a night. The plan was good, the execution less so: what had looked on our famous map like a very short 10-mile detour from the interstate to get to a lakeside campground along Lake Coeur d’Alene, turned out to be a tiny windy road that did not end and did not get us to where we wanted. And after an hours’ worth of driving and seemingly just being half way of where we wanted to get to, we turned around with a bit of frustration.
At least we were lucky then to get a spot at the campground at Wolf’s Lodge – at a cheaper rate than the KOA in Spokane we had called and with better services. And the first activity was to use the WIFI and to install the Washington map again on the mobile phone, such that as of tomorrow we’d be able to do better planning again. And then we headed with Max to the kids’ puppet-theater and games evening. He had lots of fun and was really proud once he got his new football as a prize.
The next day I requested to spend a day in a mall. We’ve had enough landscapes and nature around us and this felt just like the right change in scenery and atmosphere. And so the Spokane Valley Mall was the perfect opportunity to see how many Americans spend their Sunday, but as well to get new sandals for all of us.
We spent so much time in the mall that we did not want to go much further to find a place for the night. So when we saw the signs at the interstate in Spokane towards the Riverside State Park, we simply took the exit and eventually got a space at the Pitcher and Bowl area of the park.

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So after having spent most of the day inside, we got the opportunity to hike a bit, to throw stones into the river and building some dams.
The next morning, we eventually headed on towards Western Washington. We were amazed – after weeks and weeks of having poor to no mobile phone reception, we suddenly had continuous excellent phone connection all along the highways even far from the next towns. The last time we were able to enjoy that luxury was probably along the densely populated stretches of the California coast. We used the opportunity to make some calls and research while driving. While I’d consider myself not necessarily dependent on a mobile phone, it still proves to come in very handy when trip planning. And it helps to save tons of money when being able to research free vs. governmental vs. private camping options. So it felt relieving to see that I had my planning tools back at my disposition again.
We eventually stopped in Ellensburg for the night. Even though we were a bit disappointed when we realized that the pool of the KOA was defect and closed, we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had a really nice location under big shady trees next to a very fast flowing river. A nice spot to stay and figure out where to go next…

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 14:51 Archived in USA Tagged town shopping lake river mall drive ghost yellowstone idaho reception Comments (1)

Cultural and natural highlights around Seattle

Seattle, Muckleshoot reservation, Mt Rainier National Park

semi-overcast 22 °C
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The drive towards the Seattle / Takoma KOA where we had made reservations for the weekend was lengthy and we were happy to eventually arrive. We were not too impressed by the camping spot we got right next to a busy road, nor the facilities of the KOA. To quote Sam: ‘If this would have been the first KOA we got to, it would have been the last’. But the location of the KOA is good and the next morning the pool was also nice and clean, so we should not complain too much…
We had quite a plan what to do and headed off around noon for our first adventure: We wanted to see the Skopabsh Pow Wow of the Muckleshoot Tribe, which took place just half an hour away from the KOA. We got there just in time for the Grand Entry, placed our folding chairs in an excellent location in the shade directly next to the dancing area. It was very impressive – specifically for Max – to see the various groups of dancers enter the arena until eventually maybe 200 (?) dancers of all ages danced to the music.

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There was no entry fee or anything and we felt welcomed to be there. This being said, we were probably the only foreign tourists there and in general the number of non-Native American people was quite limited.

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The dancers were clearly proud of their cultural heritage and it seemed that for them like the most natural thing to preserve it. Seeing the pride of everyone who was in the arena was fascinating. And it made no difference if it was the little five-year-olds, the youngsters or the elderly ladies and chiefs.

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We enjoyed the event very much – the dancing, the drumming & singing, the dance contests, the food, everything was a lot of fun. It had been really worthwhile to attend the Pow Wow and we were very happy that we went.

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Still, eventually we left and headed into Seattle. We had wanted to go to a baseball game at some stage anyhow. And given that we still owed Max a celebration for not needing diapers at night anymore and that the Seattle Mariners were currently in town playing the Milwaukee Brewers, this was a great opportunity. So we headed to Safeco Field, got tickets far up on the View Level and soaked up the atmosphere.

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Max was given lots of baseball cards as he walked along with us. We then made sure he got his ‘first ballgame certificate’ before stopping at the playground close to the bleachers. After watching the first two innings of the game, it was time for hot dogs. A bit later, Max got to show his skills at throwing, running and batting at the kids’ corner. He also joined the Mariners’ Kids Club to get a backpack, ball and Badge with his name and picture on. And in addition to all that, it was StarWars night and consequently we even got to meet a couple of StarWars characters.

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We were simply amazed how many free activities there were to keep the kids (and their parents) entertained and happy. And we enjoyed the view and the fun of it all...

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Luckily enough we stayed until the end of the 8th inning to see a couple of runs and even some home runs. But by then it was pretty sure that the Mariners would win and with Max being beyond just tired it was time to head back to the KOA and to have a good night’s sleep.
The next morning was overcast and fairly cool – always a very strange thing to happen, as we’ve been spoiled by so much sunshine lately. But we stuck to our plan to go to Mt Rainier National Park and headed south east.
We still had an errand to run along the way: a stop at the Crocs store in the large outlet mall of Auburn. Sam had managed to rip apart his Crocs in Yellowstone and was in dire need to get new ones. Once he was the happy new owner of a pair of camouflage Crocs (yellow and orange were out of stock in his size) and lunch at a Philippine place at the local food court, we headed off.
Mount Rainier had been looming all along in the distance, raising up impressively over the rather flat area around it. As we got closer, we realized that it was actually not quite as flat as it had seemed and that from close up the mountain lost a bit of it majesty.
Once we got to the park, we stopped at the White River campground and got an excellent spot right next to the river between old trees featuring lichen that looked like long beards. There were warning signs advising us to retreat to higher ground in the event of and earthquake or loud noises coming from the volcano. After all, Mt Rainier is an active volcano and it's power should not be taken too lightly.

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Sam got the fire started and before too long we had a nice stew on the fire featuring beans, potatoes, broccoli, kale, onion, squash, tomato and corn - a nice combination of flavors that tasted really well. Together with our neighbors Kyle and Elon we roasted some marshmallows, got treated to some pop tarts and enjoyed watching the boys play with each other.
After a quiet and starry night, we got to enjoy the celebrations of a group of hikers who just completed the 94-mile wonderland trail around the mountain, hiked about 0.1 mile of the hike ourselves.

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As we did not feel like doing much hiking – despite having lots of great opportunities to do so - we took our car up to Sunrise to enjoy a much closer view of the mountain / volcano, it's glaciers and the sub alpine meadows.

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At that stage, we still were able to see the mountain. A bit later it was all covered in clouds until, eventually one had to know that there is a mountain hidden somewhere. So by the time we got to the reflection lakes which usually provide perfect picture opportunities of the mountain, we did not even bother to take pictures. But at least we found some nice waterfalls and a cute chipmunk.

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We camped outside the national park at the Big Creek campground, located in a nice forest right next to a small stream. And we even had a little neighbor visiting us on our picnic table.

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One last night with just the three of us – as for the next week Janis will be traveling with us.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:07 Archived in USA Tagged baseball volcano mountain indian river glacier dance drums seattle active powwow Comments (0)

Getting into the Canadian Rockies

Grey Wells PP, Tete Jaune Cache, Jasper NP, Icefields Parkway

overcast 10 °C
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Waking up in Grey Wells Provincial Park in a drizzling rain did not quite feel like this is how Canada should be like. Still, the rain needs to happen at some stage to keep all of the waterfalls in the park supplied with enough water. And Dawson Falls were a very nice sight indeed and despite the fact that they are just 4 miles upstream from Helmcken Falls, quite different.
Given the weather we were not really tempted to go further into the park for kayaking on Clearwater Lake and made our way back to the highway. Just after the crest of a small hill while still in the park, I was suddenly forced to slam the brakes: there was a bear mother standing in the middle of the road with two small cubs. Sam was quick enough to take a picture before the three headed into the forest, hiding so well from view that we have not seen them anymore even though they could not have been more than five meters from the road. That made us wonder how many bears (and other wildlife) we might have passed already without noticing them.

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After a round of shopping and enjoying salmon and berries on a ‘bannock’ (a kind of Indian frybread) the drive north was dominated by rain such that the mountain views were obscured by clouds most of the time.
Luckily, by the time we reached Valemount, the rain had stopped and gave way to even some bits of sunshine. Valemount’s salmon run is taking place two weeks before the one in Gray Wells, but we were lucky enough to still spot a salmon in the spawning area of the local creek – a female protecting her nest. What a different setting vs. the craziness of the Bailey’s Chute we had seen the day before.

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Sam and Max were at least as fascinated by the salon as by the truck and especially the one on its trailer across the road. They would trade in our van in to travel with that truck without any hesitation.

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That evening we followed Uwe and Carola’s recommendation of staying overnight at the campground of the Tete Jaune Lodge. And in fact the location directly next to Fraser River and the facilities were simply great.

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And at the risk of sounding a bit crazy: I was delighted to encounter what I consider ‘normal’ washing machines spinning around a horizontal axis. And yes: our clothes were clean after washing them – even Max’ stuff. Hooray!
The next morning it was quite obvious that it did not make any sense to stop at Mt. Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Given all the clouds, we simply passed by and were happy at every opportunity to see a bit of the landscape around us.

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Eventually we headed directly into Jasper National Park where we got a spot for the next two nights at Whistler Campground. To Max’ delight the friendly ranger at the gate had made sure we were located right next to a large playground.
After enjoying the pleasantries of our new home location, we headed off for a hike to the Five Lakes. Already on the way there, we were impressed by the nice vistas of rivers with the mountains in the back.

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And once we arrived at the Five Likes, not surprisingly, we had the impression that also there were more Germans than any other nationality. The hike was really nice and Max was even officially allowed to ride his bike on the trail – unlike in the American national parks where almost all trails were officially for hikers only.

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There had been a warning sign at the start of the trail to watch out for bears, as they like to come to this area during berry season. So we made sure to talk loud enough and consequently did not encounter any bears, even though they might have been close by. We did see lots of squirrels though and a couple of smaller animals and insects.

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We enjoyed the solitude of the five small lakes along the trail. At one of them there was even a pair of the red chairs located in especially scenic spots all through Jasper national park.

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On our way back to camp, we noticed a couple of cars parked along the road with people getting out to have a look at an elk. Even though it was a really large male elk and a beautiful sight, we rather stayed away and were even a bit worried about the people getting so close. After all, we had been warned by enough signs about the elk during fall rut season and were cautious not to get too close.
The next morning it was raining and consequently we did not feel like going for any sightseeing in the national park. Instead we took advantage of one of the activities directly at the campground and went geocaching. With a GPS we borrowed from the ranger station we headed off to find the 10 caches hidden all over the campground. And that took quite a while – after all the campground is enormous at 781 spots spread widely in a forest probably a mile long by half a mile wide.

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It was fun finding the locations of the caches and their hiding places. So maybe geocaching is something we’ll continue doing also in other places.
After hiking so much on a rather cool and partially raining day, we had promised to Max that we’d go to the local pool. As usual, he enjoyed being in the water, swimming, jumping and sliding with pure delight.
After dinner (Kaiserschmarrn) that evening Sam set off towards a meadow south of the campground to see if he’ll be able to see any elk during their rut. After a long time of hiding and watching, he eventually returned back to the van having seen no animals at all – not even squirrels. I suspect he had been watched silently by a couple of animals who were doing just as well a great job in hiding themselves, but we’ll never know for sure…

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 08:46 Archived in Canada Tagged salmon lake river pool hike bear geocaching campground rut Comments (1)

Aussie Christmas

Cape Naturaliste, Margaret River

sunny 28 °C
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After two relaxed days in Busselton, we were keen to explore the coast on the way to Margaret River. Our first stop was at the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse for taking a walk to the whale lookout. As whale watching season is over already, we were it was not too surprising that we did not see any. Instead we got to see a seal playing in the waters below us.

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A short ride in the car brought us to Bunker Bay, where we found a nice and secluded spot for lunch. Our only companion was a big lizard that seemed not to take notice of our presence.

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At Sugarloaf Rock, we had hoped to see a couple of phaetons that are supposed to nest there. Even though we did not see any, the detour was certainly worth it: the coastline was spectacular with the waves hitting the rocky coast. And it was not only us enjoying the waves: a pod of dolphins surfed the waves seemingly having lots of fun in the process.

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But not only the dolphins were keen to surf the waves. At Yallingup Beach there were lots of kite surfers enjoying the powerful wind and the breaks coming in.

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Finally, it was time to drive the last couple of kilometers to Margaret River, where we planned to be over Christmas. Along the way, we passed at least 20 wineries, some distilleries and a couple of specialty food places, like a very tempting chocolate factory. We resisted the temptation to make a stop at any of the nicely landscaped places and headed on.
After all, our campground featured not only a pool, but also a bouncing pillow. That is a guarantee that Max will have fun and consequently we’d be happy as well – an important prerequisite for Christmas.
Also the weather treated us to a special pre-Christmas present. As we soon realized, it was not windy anymore. Since back in Exmouth and Coral Bay, we’d been getting used to (and sometimes upset about) the constant heavy winds that made even the hottest days feel chilly and uncomfortable. And suddenly, just in time for Christmas, the wind was gone!
Life is good. And even more so when it’s Christmas Eve and the day starts already with a traditional and relaxed breakfast: rolls with salmon and horseradish with sparkling wine from Capel Vale. Max was happy with his choice of jam instead of salmon and apple juice instead of sparkling wine.
Another tradition of the Dorner family is to take a hike up a mountain in the afternoon. Due to the acute lack of mountains around Margaret River, we skipped the mountain part of the tradition and went for a simple walk into the town of Margaret River instead. We made it all the way to the River and the Rotary Park before going back to our campground.

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After all, we were ready for having our Christmas Eve dinner. And contrary to what we usually have, this time we went for the classical Aussie Christmas meal. In other words: we headed to the ‘barbie’ and had steak and sausages with mashed potatoes and a glass of white wine to go with it.
It is not necessarily straight forward to create a traditional Christmas celebration, when outside it’s sunny and warm and there’s not even a living room to set up a Christmas tree in. Despite the challenges, it still seemed like an almost ‘normal’ Christmas, starting with the ringing of a bell up in the rooftop tent. And when Max got to check what’s up there, there was a (painting of a) tree, there were presents, cookies and mulled apple juice.
Once all carols were sung, wishes exchanged, presents opened, we had a very pleasant evening. Calling home, playing with Max’ new presents and simply enjoying the moment.

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Christmas Day is the big day for the Australians and we were surrounded by Christmas carols and greetings. As we had celebrated already the day before, we took it easy. Sam edited probably two weeks’ worth of pictures while I swam, jumped and played with Max.

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It had been a very peaceful Christmas indeed. Different than usual, but very close to the ‘normal’ version we’re used to.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:53 Archived in Australia Tagged river walk breakfast kite christmas aussie lighthouse dolphin surfer present barbie Comments (2)

Westland or should we rather say Wetland?

Haast Pass, Jacobs River, Fox Glacier, Hokitika, Greymouth

rain 20 °C
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From the northern end of Lake Hawea where we had stayed for the night, it was only a short drive over to Lake Wanaka. After a nice drive along its shore, we started heading up towards the mountains.

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After having talked to an English traveler the night before, Sam had all of our excursions for the day planned out. The first stop was at the Blue Pools. We hiked 15 minutes through pristine forest to reach a swingbridge. After hiking along a bit further, we got to a second swingbridge spanning the Blue Pools. Their color was amazingly blue and the water crystal clear. Still, the main attraction proved to be something else: we got to watch a whole group of youngsters jumping from the swingbridge into the water underneath. It was not nearly as high of a jump as the bungy jump we had observed the day before, but this time without a rope. And surprisingly enough, there seemed to be much more hesitation and thrill involved in doing the jump into the holes. Quite a crowd had gathered around the swing bridge to applaud and it was great fun.

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Hiking up towards the car park, we came across a busload of German tourists. Looking at the age group and their immaculate trekking outfits, I told Sam that I’d take a bet that up in the carpark there’d be a Rotel bus (the German travel company that is famous for having their travelers stay overnight in rather small sleeping compartments in the back of the bus or in a bus trailer). Up at the carpark, I was disappointed to see only a ‘normal’ bus, but Sam pointed out the ‘Rotel’ sign to me quickly enough. And later that day in Haast we saw the sleeper unit of the group: a full-size truck trailer converted into the usual sleeping setup. We were happy to travel independently!
Eventually we reached the Haast pass. It’s named after Austrian explorer Julius von Haast who made the crossing back in 1863. Up there we were greeted by the sign ‘Welcome to Westland’. Sam rightfully pointed out that it might as well be more suitably named ‘Wetland’, given its infamous amounts of rain of about 5m annually.
Thanks to the rain in the last couple of days, we were rewarded with waterfalls showing off the full force. After a first stop at the Thunder Creek Falls, the valley started opening up and the narrow valley with its steep sheer-sided walls gave way to a rather wide valley with the road gently snaking along the riverside.

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The Roaring Billy Falls were our next excursion. While the falls were nice, the actual highlight was the walk there. We passed through a wonderful forest of large fern trees and felt like dinosaurs might be lurking just behind the next curve. Down at the river we spent some time skipping the perfect flat stones on the river. It had been a good decision to do this part of the journey on a nice day!

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All along the road we saw lots of vintage cars. After wondering for quite a bit what was going on, we talked to a couple and found out that it was the Timaru vintage car club having an outing doing a tour of the South Island for a week. It looked like a lot of fun. Probably it would be not nearly as much fun when it’s raining – after all many of the cars had no real rain cover!

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In Haast we were lucky to fill our tank before the next stretch of almost 170km without a gas station, but were surprised to find out that there was no mobile reception. For the first time in years I did buy a phone card and used it to call our campground for the night to reserve the last powered site. Sam was so surprised. He checked twice why I had bought a new SIM card, before realizing that this was a really old fashioned phone card like the ones I used when I was still studying in Munich.
Having our campsite secured for the night, we could take a leisurely stroll at Ship Creek. We got to see and touch our first Westcoast beach with its round pebbles and rough sea. We did both walks, starting with the Dune Lake Walk which led us through sand dunes and stunted forest to a nice viewpoint of the beach. The Swamp Forest Walk was as swampy as expected and featured enormous trees. Once more, a great stop on our way.

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At Knights Point we appreciated the nice view of the coast before the road headed inland for a bit. Still, we continued to make only slow progress, as the road continued to feature more curves than straight stretches. Heading north, we did get glimpses of Aoraki / Mt. Cook and it felt much longer than just those two weeks when we stayed just on the other side of it.

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Later than expected we arrived in Jacob’s River at the Pine Grove Motel. Two weeks ago, we had stayed just on the other side of Aoraki / Mt. Cook.
There are two ways how we could get back there. By car the shortest route would lead us via the Haast Pass and would take 439 km. The direct route would be just around 40km by hiking up the Copland Valley Track to Welcome Flat Hut and from there crossing the flanks of Mt Cook an effort which should only be undertaken by serious mountaineers.
We only realized later that in fact the Copland Valley track was temporarily closed that day due to the projected heavy rains of up to 150mm. And we can confirm: indeed, it was raining heavily.
As we arrived in Fox Glacier, we did get a nice view of the top of glacier from the viewpoint south of the bridge before heading to the glacier itself.

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Despite the rain, we also hiked up to the viewpoint above the glacier to see its lower end. Despite the 450m distance to where the glacier currently ends, it still looked very impressive. And it is - together with its twin glacier Franz Josef a bit further north – the only glacier in these latitudes coming down so close to the ocean, surrounded by rainforest.

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When hiking down again, a ranger passed us and upon reaching the carpark we realized why: he had closed the hike due to the heavy rains and subsequent risk of flash floods.
A bit further on, after passing through Franz Josef Glacier we left the Westland Tai Poutini National Park and simultaneously also the Te Wahipounamu Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area which encompasses 2.6 million hectares of wilderness.
We drove to Hokitika in pouring rain. The rain was atrocious. Once we had reached the dry heaven of the camp kitchen, none of us was keen to run back to the camper van to get something. Max played with the toys he found in the camp kitchen while Sam and I took turns on the laptop and read. And we were also there just in time to watch the final part of the Superbowl. What an exciting game and an unbelievable catch up of the New England Patriots winning 34-28 after the Atlanta Falcons had been leading already 0-21.
It rained until we went to bed that night. Our weather app recorded 49mm of rain for the day. After all the wettest place in NZ and one of the top 10 in the world is just a couple of kilometers away from Hokitika. Cropp River – a tributary to the Hokitika River - gets over 11m rainfall in an average year, with records of 18m in a single year and over 1m within 48h. Just for reference: the wettest place in Austria gets 2,5m of rainfall per year.

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The next morning we could hardly believe our luck: it had stopped raining! So we could finally go into town. Hokitika is mainly known for its jade carvings and we checked out one of the local workshops and galleries. We did check out how comfortable one can sit on a jade bench costing 220,000 NZD, but decided against it. We rather opted for a nicely painted stone featuring a kiwi for 3 NZD. Chatting with the artist, we found out that the stone is actually called ‘Grauwacke’ and might similarly be found in the German Harz. We immediately suspected that we might be talking with an emigrated German, but in fact he was South African.
A couple of doors further, we visited a glass blowing workshop and got to watch how the cute penguins on sale are made. It was great fun to watch and we admired how quickly and nicely the artist was creating the penguins.
Down at the beach we got to admire lots of driftwood sculptures which had been created as part of the annual driftwood festival just a couple of days earlier. It was fun checking out the various sculptures and deciding which one of them we liked best (every one of us had another favorite).

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Even though Max had been interested in seeing the workshops and the beach, clearly this kind of sightseeing is not his favorite pastime. So we made sure to provide him with some sights that are sure to please him. We stopped at the skateparks of Hokitika and Greymouth. In the latter, he managed to his big delight to trade his bike for a skateboard (at least for a couple of minutes) and really enjoyed trying out the skateboard.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 01:54 Archived in New Zealand Tagged sea rain beach lake river glass waterfall pool swamp forest dune jump drive pass Comments (0)

Pancakes, Blowholes, Rivers, Fern Trees, Seals and Eals

Punakaiki, Westport, Nelson Lakes National Park, Blenheim

sunny 23 °C
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Punakaiki is famous for the Paparoa National Park and more specifically for the Pancake Rocks. We stayed at the only campground in town, the Punakaiki Beach Camp. I had stayed there already once before: almost to the day 15 years I had been part of a ‘Hiking New Zealand’ group touring the ‚Westcoast Wilderness‘. Surprisingly enough, there was a tour group of ‘Hiking New Zealand’ staying at the campground – what a coincidence.
We got a great campsite, right next to the beach with a perfect view of the sunset. Despite the great spot, we still ventured out that evening. Only seldom there is an opportunity to have the high tide coincide with sunset, i.e. the perfect time to visit the Pancake Rocks with its blowholes.
It has still not been confirmed why the sediments that created the pancake rocks formed such layers. Whatever their cause, it definitively provides a good base for erosion creating nice formations. The sea was properly at work for millions of years and as a consequence, we were able to wonder at sheer cliffs, natural inlets, tide pools and blowholes. Some of the rocks were washed out in wild forms, making them look like faces or animals.

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And indeed, while the first impressions had been nice, sunset brought a whole new dimension into the scenery.

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The next day we hiked along the Pororari River. It was a beautiful day and we were happy to walk mostly in the shade of the trees along the river banks. The hike was beautiful and the track did lead us through different terrain providing views of the river. While its waters are clean, it looks stained in a dark red / brown tone by all the tannins coming from the various plants along its sides.

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Anyhow, we got to see lots of different plants and animals along the way. The ferns and the possum sleeping along the path won the beauty prizes for flora and fauna.

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But also the landscape was spectacular and we enjoyed the vistas of the rainforest on both sides.

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At the swingbridge we eventually turned around, but not before heading down to the river and skipping some stones.

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Back at the campground we walked the couple of steps from our spot down to the beach. Max headed directly the only other child at the beach, a one-year old baby. To facilitate translations, I went over and we got chatting a bit. Nina was German, traveling with her husband Antonio and daughter Nelli. It did not take long to find out that Antonio is from Zaragoza and even knows a friend of mine. Pilar is also from Zaragoza and was part of the group of friends traveling to NZ to participate in a wedding those 15 years ago. The world is a small place after all!

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That evening we stayed ‘home’ and enjoyed our great spot at the beach. We watched the breakers coming in and eventually went to sleep to the sound of the waves underneath a starry sky.

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Before leaving the Paparoa National Park, we still wanted to explore the Punakaiki Cave. We headed into the cave well equipped with headlights. It was fun trying to figure out where to go. Despite the rather small size of the cave, it felt like a big adventure. At the end of the cave, we turned our headlights off and found ourselves in absolute darkness. Well, almost. There were a couple of tiny glowworms at the roof of the cave - nothing spectacular, but still a nice surprise.
Our original though was to head straight up into the mountains along the Buller River. The heavy rainclouds hovering over the mountains, easily convinced us to change our plan and to rather spend more time on the sunny coast. The choice was easy to just take the turnoff to Tauranga Bay to see the big seal colony there.

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In Westport, we (or rather Max) checked out the local skate park. As it started raining, we packed our stuff and headed into the mountains. We were positively surprised to realize that the rain only lasted for a couple of minutes and that we got to see the Buller River and its Gorge in bright sunshine.
As we passed through Murchison, we suddenly encountered lots of traffic. The road along the East Coast via Kaikoura is still being closed in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake. Consequently all traffic from the ferry in Picton towards Christchurch or anywhere else on the South Island is using that one road. It was fascinating to see which efforts have been taken to increase the capacity of the road by adding second lanes to one way bridges.
We stayed overnight at West Bay in Nelson Lakes National Park, supposedly featuring the clearest lakes in the world. While we were not able to verify that statement, we did get to see some old and big eels in the lake which live under the boat ramp next to the jetty.

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On the way to Blenheim, we got to stop multiple times for roadworks, always managed by roadworkers holding up ‘Go’ or ‘Slow’ signs. This made us slow indeed and we took quite a while until we reached the Blenheim area with its famous vineyards.
We did not stop at a cellar door for wine tasting, but still got a variety of wines to taste. The local Pak n’ Save store had three winemakers offering tastings of up to four wines each. And they were successful with their activity indeed. We liked one of the wines so much that we decided to get a bottle of Chardonnay we had tasted. Let’s see when there will be a good moment to enjoy it!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 00:04 Archived in New Zealand Tagged sunset river cave hike seal pancake skate blowhole Comments (0)

Heading north via ferry ride and a real highway

Aussie Bay, Picton, Wellington, Whanganui

sunny 26 °C
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Leaving Nelson after five days with Sam’s dad Otmar and his partner Gerti, we were a bit sad. We had enjoyed living in a house and having family around. Now we’d be again on our own living in our campervan.
Driving towards Picton, we knew already that the road was very windy. And indeed, coming from the other direction it was not any better than a week earlier. We stopped for a quick hike to a viewpoint shortly after Havelock. Just to jump your memory: Havelock is the the well-known world capital of green shell mussels, as it boasts at the entrance into town. The view down into the sounds with their crystal clear water was fabulous.

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A bit further on we stopped at Aussie Bay for the night. The DoC campground there is beautifully located directly next to the waters of the sound. We were there early enough to pick the prime spot at the very end of the campground. As it got dark, the campground did get extremely full. It seems like the rather cheap places like this one (8$ ppn) seem to be flooded by work and travel people who don’t want to afford the more expensive serviced campgrounds. Most of them travel just in a car in which they sleep – some are just converted vans (mostly the Toyota Previa), some are just station-wagons.

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We enjoyed our location next to the water. It was great to relax, read, play in the water and along the beach. As it got night, we were not only treated to a perfect starry night with the milky way shining at us, but also to a glowworm spectacle in the small creek just a couple of meters behind our camper. Nice!
The next morning, we headed out early. For one, we knew already that on the windy road into Picton we’d not be able to average more than 30km/h. In addition, we still wanted to do some shopping in Picton such that we’d have a picnic for the 3.5h ferry ride.

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Soon we were waiting in our line to be allowed to enter the ferry. Next to us we realized that there were many more Corvettes for it just to be a coincidence. After enquiring, we found out that there had been over a hundred of them meeting in Nelson for the last weekend.

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Once on the ferry, we had a look around. One of us stayed with Max in the kid’s area, the other one of us explored the ferry and enjoyed the views. The sounds themselves were already very beautiful and we considered ourselves very lucky to be doing the ferry crossing on such a nice day. But there was even more to be seen: we got to see dolphins and could watch a lady swimming in the attempt of crossing the 26 km Cook Straight. It seems like a very difficult task taking between 8h and 24h depending on level of fitness and conditions of the sea. And it seems a bit scare: after all one of 6 swimmers gets to see sharks and even though none has been attacked so far.

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It turned out that it had been a good decision to install ourselves in the kids' room. Otherwise we might not have met Emere with her kids four-year-old Te Iti Kahurangi and one and a half year old Rongomaiwahine (who fell in love with Max until he started catching her back when she started running away).
From Emere we learned about the Te Matatini Championships, a Maori festival taking place only once every two years. According to our Lonely Planet the Te Matatini is the best place to see ‘kapa haka’ being peformed. Most people just know ‘haka’ as the war dance the NZ All Blacks perform before their rugby games (which they subsequently win most of the time).
In fact kapa haka is encompassing Maori performing arts and includes not only the wardance, but also songs and other dances. Emere did tell us that she was going to the Hastings festival, as it was hosted by her iwi (tribe). She was hoping that she’d see other tribes sing and perform about their relation with her tribe. One of the stories she expected to be picked up by several performers was the story of Rongomaiwahine, an ancestor of Emere’s iwi. Rongomaiwahine was married, but another man named Kahungunu, wanted to have her for himself. Her husband died in strange circumstances and eventually Rongomaiwahine married Kahungunu.
We were intrigued and it was clear that we would definitively want to visit the festival. Emere gave us her phone number and we’d try to meet up once we’d be there.
Eventually our ferry entered the harbor of Wellington. Our ‘Lonely Planet’ was rather sarcastic in regards to the weather in ‘Windy Welly: despite it’s bad reputation Wellington ‘breaks out into blue skies and T-shirt temperatures at least several days a year’. It seems we were more than lucky to be there on exactly one of those days. And indeed: the parliament buildings and the famous 'beehive' looked great.

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Despite the beautiful sunshine outside, we could not resist to take a look around the National Museum ‘Te Papa’ with its Maori marae / meeting house. Max enjoyed the interactive kids discovery zone and once we had managed to get him moving again, we all had a look of the harbor from the viewing platform. From up there, we saw people jumping into the water from various springboards.
So we headed outside to have a closer look. The locals were really having fun and it was hard to resist having a dip ourselves. We stuck to watching and soon noticed the many dragon boats with their crews picking up speed while crossing the harbor basin, which looked like fun. While having an icecream we watched how the crews got into their dragon boats and got going – always directed by someone in the stern shouting out the rhythm.

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Max soon convinced us that it was time to go to the skate park that he had already noticed just across the road from the Te Papa Museum. He had fun racing against the many other bikers there.

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Even though our spot for the night was nothing more than a large parking area, it was great: we were just in the center of town next to the harbor basin.

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Also the next morning, Max' first request was to have another go in the skatepark before heading out of Wellington. So that‘s what he did. After Max had biked enough to be tired and taking more breaks than actually riding his bike, we loaded it back into our camper and headed off towards north.
We were amazed how quickly we were able to progress on a real highway. We had not been on a divided highway in ages and were not used to such rapid transport anymore. After a while, the highway transformed into a regular highway, but still featuring passing lanes every couple of kilometers. And best of all: there were hardly any curves. So despite the signs along many roads that ‘NZ roads are different – take more time’, even in NZ there are pockets where you can go fast. We were hardly able to believe it that we had made it all the way to Whanganui for our lunch break – despite the rather late start.
Whanganui was a nice little town next to the river of the same name with lots of historic buildings along its main road. We parked downtown and had lunch. Once again we marveled at the many vintage cars we saw driving around. It seems like that maintaining and driving old cars is a favorite Kiwi pastime.

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Eventually, we headed out of town to the Kowhai Park. We have been to many parks and playgrounds so far, but this was one of the most creative and fun playgrounds we’ve seen on our journey so far. It’s hard to tell what Max liked most: the dinosaurs slide, the octopus’ swings, the rocket, the zip line, Humpty Dumpty or the pumpkin house. No wonder, that it took a bit of convincing to continue our journey and not even the promise of seeing some volcanoes this evening did the trick.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 20:29 Archived in New Zealand Tagged river museum bay harbor ferry sound playground skate Comments (0)

Cambodian countryside

Phnom Penh and surroundings

sunny 33 °C
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Having seen a fair share of city life, we felt the urge to get out of town and to discover more of the countryside. So we booked a tour to check it out.
The first part of the tour brought us to the ‘killing fields’ genocide museum in Choeung Ek, one of the more than 300 Cambodian sites of mass murder during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. An audio guide provided us with much more background on the subject. It is already hard to imagine how the Khmer Rouge managed to kill roughly a quarter of the population in their five years of ruling – half actively the other half indirectly by letting the agriculture and food production go down. But it is much harder to understand that their leader Pol Pot got to live another 20 year in peace without being put in prison. Hearing that he was able to marry again and see his grandchildren grow up, was harder to believe than the fact that the Khmer Rouge continued to hold the official UN seat for Cambodia for years after having been overthrown.

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After that excursion into the brutal history of Cambodia, it was time to clear our minds. We headed out together with our guide Det into the countryside. Sam and I were riding on 330 Polaris ATVs and Max on a small kid’s ATV with the guide riding behind him.

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After a kilometer on tarmac, we headed off onto small dirt roads leading along the river Prek Thnot. We got to see little isolated villages, nice pagodas, mango and banana plantations and rice fields. Our first break was at a small store to quench our thirst. We were very happy about the dust masks we had been given. The roads were very dusty.

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Even though we were mostly riding along, we were able to get a good impression of village life. There were the youths playing soccer or volleyball on village squares, there were the kids taking a bath in murky waters of the canals leading to the rice fields, the huge and thin white cows dotting the fields, the huge containers next to the houses filled with rain water from the roof, the omnipresent signs advertising the merits of the Cambodian People’s Party, kids running up to us and waving, the setup of a wedding pavilion on the dirt road leading through a village and much more…

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Our second stop at a pagoda was very nice as well. We had a look around, and even got to see some monks.

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We were lucky to see all of this on a Sunday, being able to see people enjoying life. We had tremendous fun our tour. But it was a long trip and eventually we were happy to have the last stop for watching the sunset over the rice fields.

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We were exhausted by the time we arrived at the hotel. It had been a long and exciting day. We had dinner and fell asleep.
The next couple of days we took it very easy. We spent much of our time at the pool, enjoying life and planning for the days to come. One of those days, we realized that the pool really helped us to balance the exploring in the heat with relaxation. Realizing that the place we had booked in Bangkok did not have a pool, we cancelled that booking and found another place that did have a pool.
We read much, caught up on sleep and were happy just to be in one place without having to rush around to tick boxes in whatever sights should be ticked off by the avid tourist. While we’re often enough behaving like tourists in our travels, long term traveling is different.
So our key highlights of the next couple of days did not include the National Museum or one of the many temples. Instead, we went for another excursion with Sopha. After picking up her son Pong Pong at his school, we headed to the ferry and crossed to the other side of the Mekong.

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After another couple of kilometers passing along small markets, miniature stores, pagodas, family houses and animal paddocks, we reached the mango garden of Sopha’s brother. It was nice and peaceful there. The boys had a great picnic that Sopha had brought along, we picked some mango and had great conversations. There were many working cows passing by. It’s hard to believe that these cows are fit for doing heavy work in the rice fields – as they look so thin. From one of the nearby rice paddies we had a nice view of the sunset. What a great outing!

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On the way back, we passed a wedding ceremony in a decorated pavilion erected on the main road. Life in the dark was mellowing the scenery. The omnipresent garbage is not visible anymore, the atmosphere looks cozy, making even the poorest living conditions look romantic and homey.

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After our ferry ride back home, we concluded the evening with a typical Khmer BBQ. We were probably the only foreigners in the huge place. Sopha ordered for us a full set containing meat, various entrails (we suppose it was heart, liver, kidney, but also something else unidentifiable), shrimp and octopus. In addition, there was onion, bell pepper, mushroom, green tomato, cucumber, cabbage and water mimosa. What a feast! We were very full at the end of our meal and happy that we had to walk only two blocks back to our hotel.

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While we enjoyed life in Phnom Penh, there are also bad news that we heard from home. It’s strange being so far away and still affected by such far away decisions. While shocking indeed, the distance makes it probably more easily digestible. After all, we’ve been surviving many surprises lately and traveling certainly taught us that there’s a way out of every situation.
For lunch, we wanted to follow a recommendation of the Lonely Planet for a change. Unfortunately the nice restaurant with the view from the top floor of the Sorya Shopping Center was closed. We still enjoyed the view. Heading to the food court further down, was not a very smart decision. With all the building works in the shopping center, it was not very full and lacked through put. Luckily just Sam and I took a slight fit from the food and were happy to stay in and around the hotel for a day. It could have been worse. Other travelers had told us much worse stories.

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There was also good news that week: on Thursday, we headed to the Russian consulate right at 8am when it opens. There was no line and within a couple of minutes we held our passports with nice Russian visa in our hands.
The celebrations took place in the nearby Aeon Mall. Due to the early hour, we toasted with hot tea and hot chocolate. When the mall opened a bit later, we checked it out. Quite frankly, it could have been located anywhere in Europe just as well. Apart from a couple of stores exclusively appealing to the taste of locals (such as the store full with Korean smiling animated figures), big malls seem to get globalized and exchangeable. The only way to distinguish the location of a Starbucks or KFC is to check out the menu where in addition to English, the local language might give away where you are. But latest when exiting the mall, haggling with a tik tuk driver about the price of the journey and being back on the road, it becomes pretty obvious that we're still in South-East Asia and not Europe.

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Having received our Russian visa, our mission of the trip to Cambodia and specifically Phnom Penh had been successfully accomplished. Consequently, we were ready to head off. Anyhow, with our eight nights in the same (great!) hotel, we had spent much more time there than all other guests. Most people left after two or maximum three nights.
After a very personal good bye ceremony from hotel staff, we boarded our bus to Siem Reap. We were seated comfortably in the big bus, being able to enjoy the vistas of the Cambodian countryside passing by. Two stops and six hours later, we reached Siem Reap, the main tourist destination of Cambodia due to its proximity to the World Heritage listed temples of Angkor Wat.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cow river rice museum pool visa mall bbq ferry news quad Comments (0)

Feeling at home

Bangkok

sunny 35 °C
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After a couple of days in Bangkok, we even cut down further on our activities. We would be busy again before too long and had no intention of stressing ourselves with too much sightseeing.
At the pool, we did overhear others who had visited the Royal Palace in the morning, did a river cruise in a longtail boat, spent lunchtime in Chinatown and were discussing in their quick pool break which night market they should visit before retreating to a rooftop bar. Well – that’s not us. There were days which we spent exclusively at the pool – maybe interrupted by a quick to our favorite juice bar to get our fix of smoothies for the day.
And whenever we did venture out, one major activity usually was enough. On Sunday, our target was Lumphini Park. The original plan of walking there, was quickly dismissed when we passed a metro station along the way. The elevator down into the pleasantly airconditioned clean world of Bangkok’s excellently organized public transport was just too tempting.
Two stations further, we emerged again into the heat and strolled around the park. We had fun on our outing in a swan boat, passed the local version of Muscle Beach (which presumably is much more crowded when it gets cooler in the evenings) and realized that the canals were full of goanas and turtles.

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But it did not take long for us to call it a day. We headed home by metro again and retreated to the pool.
Another day was reserved for Sam to get his Mongolian visa from the embassy. Given the experience from his first visit, he had the taxi wait for him for the two minutes it took him to pick up his passport. He swiftly got back to the hotel with a new and shiny visa.
It was time to celebrate having all documents in place to complete the plans for our remaining journey. We went for Hanaya, a Japanese Restaurant just 15 minutes away on foot. We sat at the typical Japanese low tables and enjoyed excellent food. We had eaten so much Khmer and Thai food lately that we were excited to have something very different for a change.
The food was excellent and probably typical. We were not able to tell, but that’s what we concluded - considering that all patrons seemed to be Japanese. Despite some ‘interesting’ menu options such as shark fin or whale bacon, the most adventurous in our order were the roasted gingko nuts. The Bento Sushi Box and the Tempura Set were excellent.
Our city tour the next day cost a fraction of what we spent at Hanaya. We walked to Siphraya Pier and took the express boat on the river. It was nice seeing the river live. Once we left the touristy areas, the river got much less crowded and the vistas of stilt houses decorated with flowers took over. Every other stop seemed to be at a temple of some sort.

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Eventually we headed back all the way to the last station where we connected to the Skytrain which directly delivered us to the shopping district at Siam Square. Our plan for lunch was neither adventurous, nor very exciting. But MBK’s food court provided us with good quick food options. Just what we needed.
Compared to MBK, Pantip Plaza seemed out of this world. The shopping center that sells everything around IT and computers was fascinating. The neon lights all over the place grabbed Max’ full attention while Sam kept admiring the gaming PC’s. There were computers and mobiles everywhere, but not a single place to get an overview of where to find what. Eventually we were directed into the right area. After all, we had come to get our laptop fixed. Since the time when it fell into the sand and Sam was only able to get rid of the sand by taking some of the keys out, the backspace key had an issue. And not being perfect in typing, I really need that key probably more often than all the others.
We kindly declined the first offer to replace the keyboard for 1500 baht. A couple of stalls further someone was able to help: using some pincers, he pried the key and its mechanics apart. After fixing its attachments, everything was just like new. All of that for free. I am so thankful to have this fixed!
So while Sam and Max headed off to check out the gaming PCs, I retreated to the McDonalds to enjoy typing with my fixed keyboard. Strolling around in a mall like that might be heaven for Sam and Max, but gets close to the worst nightmare for me.
Getting a taxi to take us back home was a bit of a nightmare as well. We simply refused their offers to take us for 200 baht – knowing that we had paid a third of that price coming here. Eventually, a tuk tuk driver offered to take us back for 100 baht and we accepted. And it was an excellent deal, as he skipped many traffic jams by driving the back roads. The only downside to the much quicker journey was to sit directly in traffic with its unpleasant exhaust fumes. Bangkok traffic is only pleasant wherever there is public traffic available.
Sam also tried the other quick transport option: using a moto taxi was very quick indeed. Still, despite the luxury of having his own helmet on the ride, Sam did not recommend using this way of transport for the family.
At Max’ request we did one more trip to Khao San Road. He wanted to see some more Thai Boxing. And this time the trainer had even brought along his son. It was fascinating to see how well he was doing – much better than any of the other people training at the center despite him being not older than 10 years. Max knew already where he wanted to have dinner and anyhow felt quite at home.

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Well, needless to say that we spent even more time at the pool. Sam enjoyed having the fitness studio at his disposal. And with the exception of a quick shopping tour to get a birthday present for Max and a tripod for Sam (he had been regretting not having brought his since the beginning of the trip), there was not much more we did.
But despite having had lots of time to relax, the nine days in Bangkok had passed too quickly after all. And on March 31, the alarm clock woke us up at 6:15am and it was time to head to the airport. We spent our last baht on breakfast and made sure that Max got a maximum of exercise before boarding the plane. This time we flew on Thai Airways. In other words: there was an entertainment system and the four-hour flight was over before we knew it. Unfortunately, there were so many clouds and haze that we did not get to see any mountains as we descended into Kathmandu. Let’s hope we’ll get a better view in the coming weeks.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 16:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged taxi boat river pool visa mall tuk_tuk Comments (1)

Trekking in the Himalayas

Phedi, Dhampus, Landruk, Ghandruk, Naya Pul

semi-overcast 23 °C
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Max’s birthday marked our first day of trekking. After singing him ‘Happy birthday’, he got to open his present and wear his birthday crown with a big ‘5’ on it for breakfast.
And then it was time to head into the mountains. We were excited. As we left Pokhara, we got to see the outlines of some snowy mountains. They were a bit hard to distinguish from the clouds, but here they were, the peaks of the Himalaya that we had been waiting to see for so long! Not sure if we’d ever see more than that, we took some pictures from the moving van.

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As we reached Phedi, it was time to shoulder our daypacks and to head up the mountain towards the town of Dhampus. We were a group of six: In addition to our guide Prakash, Hom and Bir joined us as porters.
It was 9:20 am when we headed off. We were off for a tough start: the trail consisted of steps that led us up along the steep hillside. And the blazing sun did not help to cool us down. I was relieved when after half an hour we reached a first settlement and got to see down into the valley where we came from. We had already covered quite some distance and altitude.

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Next was an easy bit: we got to hike through some terraced rice plantations dotted with small little houses. People were working in and around their houses or in the fields with their buffaloes. Compared to the start, it felt like we were able to stroll through level terrain – even though we consistently headed upwards.

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The steep steps started soon enough again and before we knew it, we had climbed the 600 m of altitude to reach Dhampus (1770m) where we’d be spending the night. From the saddle, we had to still head along the hillside to the other end of the settlement, where our Eco-Lodge was located.

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Max had walked everything on his own – supported by Sam who kept telling him stories and kept him motivated. At 11:40am, we made it – way quicker than what we had assumed given that we had been planning on three hours walking time.
We sat in the sun, enjoyed the view down into the valley below us, used the wifi to receive some birthday messages for Max and eventually had lunch.
We only realized when a heavy thunderstorm started how lucky we had been that we arrived so early at our lodge. The clouds were thick, there was constant lightening and thunder all around us and lots of rain. On the corrugated sheet roof, the rain was really loud. I mean really loud. The rain also marked the end of the internet connection and unfortunately also the end of the warm water supply. Prakash had been smart enough to shower right away while there was still enough solar water available. We learned a lesson and promised to ourselves not to make the mistake of waiting too long anymore.

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At dinner time, there was a big surprise: Max got a birthday cake decorated with a 5, ‘happy birthday Max’ and two sparklers. He was thrilled and we were happy that he seemingly enjoyed his birthday. And best of all: contrary to many cakes we’ve eaten abroad, this one tasted excellent!
We had an excellent night’s sleep. The rain had cleared the air, there were no dogs around and the exercise probably helped as well. As I had gone to bed quite early, all of the above helped that I woke up before sunrise and could not resist to wake also Sam to be part of the spectacle.
It was a fabulous sunrise! With the air crisp and clear, we were treated to a panorama that is hard to be matched: with Machapuchare (also called Fishtail Mountain) dominating the scene, flanked at both sides by various peaks of the Annapurna Range. At 6,993m it has never been climbed, as it is considered sacred by the local population.

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As the sun came up, the hues of red and pink emphasized peak by peak as the sun came up high enough to illuminate them. While there was no wind where we were, it obviously blew mightily further above and created snow banners which were really nice to look at.

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We had a typical breakfast in Gurung style – the Gurung being the major ethnic group in the region. And then it was time to head out into this marvellous landscape around us. What a pity that yesterday we had not even realized how beautiful it was.
The path was very nicely laid out. We hiked through a small settlement and once more we heard a welcoming ‘Namaste!’ from all sides.

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As we headed in the shade towards a small stream, I was startled by one of our porters: I had a leech wandering on my left hiking shoe. He quickly helped me to get rid of it before it could start sucking my blood and I was very alert from there on. In the next couple of minutes, I got rid of another three little fellows who found their way onto my shoe. Luckily enough, the spell was over then and we did not see a single leech for the remainder of our trip.
But there was also bad news: seemingly we had managed to wander off the path that we were supposed to take. Prakash decided to head on and after inquiring with some local farmers we started heading straight up the hill. I was devastated. For one thing, I would clearly prefer a slight incline vs. a straight line up the hill. And the other thing I need to have is a regular pace – which does not work when your guide and porters don’t know the way themselves and have to ask around here and there.
After what felt like 200m of altitude on narrow paths up the hill, we finally reached the official trail again, which was wide, laid out with stones and was ascending only slightly. What a relief. Five minutes later, we reached the settlement of Pothana, where an official checked our trekking permits.
The view from there was stunning and with it my mood was right back where it should be. All along the next stretch we got to see alternating views of Machapuchare, Hiuchuli (7441m) and Annapurna South (7219m).

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After some nice up and down we reached the highest point of our trekking round at the little village of Deurali (2150m).

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As the view suddenly expanded to the West, we got to see one of the top 10 mountains in the world: Dhaulagiri at 8167m is the seventh highest mountain. So far in the distance, it did not seem nearly as tall and without knowing, I would have never guessed that I’m looking up at a peak that is more than 6000m of altitude above us.

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We also got to look back towards Dhampus where we had stayed last night and Pokhara with Phewa Lake in the background. Just that morning with the sunrise above Dhampus and this view from Deurali was worth all the effort of coming to Nepal and hiking all the way up here.
From there on we headed down a steep descent towards Tolka where we had a great and relaxing lunch. By then we had walked already more than 7km and had 4km more ahead of us. But at least most of the 670m ascent and 790m descent we had done already and the rest was an undulating path along the steep hillside.

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By the time we reach the Tibet Guesthouse in Landruk (1640m) in the early afternoon Max was really tired, but he continued to refuse being carried by one of our porters. We were proud and celebrated our great day and achievement with a warm shower and a beer. And then it was time to play Uno – an easy card game that we also introduced our porters to.

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The guest house was beautifully located with a view straight up towards Annapurna South – well in theory that is. Soon after we left our great outlook in Deurali, clouds had started forming around the highest peaks and by the time we reached Landruk, we could only guess that there were high peaks surrounding us. The downside to the guest house was that it was not really clean. It seems that the floors had been swept, but fresh linen seemed to be an overrated luxury. I was delighted to be able to sleep in my cozy sleeping bag and just tried to avoid touching anything. Still, the beauty of the location and the nice outside areas of the guest house with its many butterflies were just superb. And it is absolutely surprising what delicious meals can be prepared on a simple wood fire!

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By the next morning, the clouds had vanished again and we got to see Annapurna South in its full beauty. On the other side of the valley, Ghandruk – our destination for today - was already lit by the first rays of sunshine. If it would not have been for the steep descent into the valley before being able to start the climb into Ghandruk, the walk would have been almost too easy.

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This morning we took it easy and had a leisurely breakfast. We left at 8:40 am, hiking through Landruk and down the steep steps towards the river. Only 40 minutes later we reached the lowest part of today’s journey, the river Modi Khola (1320m) and had 730m of ascent laying ahead of us.

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Making our way slowly upward, we were passed by many porters loaded with the bags of trekkers or with all kinds of wares. At that stage, we realized that there was no need to feel bad about the loads our own porters were carrying. With one of them carrying our 20kg backpack and the other one a bag in addition to their own packs, they must have felt like in heaven compared with their usual job. And given that Max had up to now blatantly refused being carried, we could have done the trek with a single porter up to now. Still, it was great to know that they were there.

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Two hours later we had made it all the way up. We passed a donkey / mule caravan that had brought supplies either to Ghandruk or potentially as far back as the Annapurna Base Camp. The animals seemed delighted to head down without any loads and their bells were jingling cheerfully.

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Once we reached the Annapurna Guest House, we had the whole rest of the day for ourselves. Sam used the opportunity to recover some sleep, while Max and I played extensive rounds of Uno with Prakash, Hom and Bir.

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Time has passed so quickly and we had a hard time to believe that this evening was already the last one of our trekking tour. We celebrated extensively and not only played Uno, but even introduced our team to Farkle. Like all other good acquaintances (well, except those where we forgot about it) we met on our journey, they got to write into our traveling guest book which proved to be a bit of a challenge but was successfully completed with the help of Prakash.
That night we were kept awake for long: the six dogs we had seen already all afternoon around the guest house did not believe in the advantages of night time sleep and made an effort to enforce that believe also with the hikers.
The hike down from Ghandruk was beautiful, but crowded. Contrary to the last couple of days, today we found ourselves in the middle of big groups of people. The stretch from Ghandruk to Naya Pul is not only the final stretch for the round we had done, but is also done by all people who either target the ABC (Annapurna Base Camp), the Poon Hill Trek or who are doing the Annapurna Circuit – one of the most popular treks in Nepal.
It was a long and nice hike down the hill to the settlement of Birethanti. We saw another couple of caravans, passed though many small settlements, mostly on stone-paved steps.

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After more than 10 km, Max finally gave in and allowed our porter Bir to carry him for the last remaining kilometer. Still, it had been a brave achievement that he had made it so far without using any help.

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We had lunch at the fishtail restaurant which probably boasts an excellent view of the mountain of the same name. But after our four days of experience in the mountains, we were not surprised that by noon time it was hiding in the clouds. We had a last lunch together with our porters Bir and Hom. After lunch, we had to walk only another 20 minutes until we reached Naya Pul, which marked the end of our hike.

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There our taxi waited for us. We were not pleased at all with our taxi driver. He drove like a maniac, was constantly distracted by his mobile phone despite the heavy traffic on a narrow road (which was deteriorated to the point that it seemed more like a one-way road than a two-way major highway). After five anxious minutes of observing what was going on, we asked our driver to stop talking on his phone while driving. Two minutes later we had to specify that that rule included writing text messages. He was less than amused when he realized he had to stop while talking on the phone. But that did not stop him from accepting more than ten calls and having to see how others were passing him in the meantime.
While we headed down in to the valley of Phedi, we got to see the full path we had taken on day one of our trek. It had been a really nice hike – probably one of the highlights of our journey.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:17 Archived in Nepal Tagged mountains rain view trekking river sunrise clouds valley hill hike birthday lightning Comments (0)

Something is in the air

Bayanzag via Saikhan Ovoo, Khujirt to Kharkhorin

semi-overcast 17 °C
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After nine days of traveling through Southern Mongolia, we had reached the half way point of our trip and started heading north again. We headed up a pass to cut through the mountain ridge and were rewarded with a nice view back towards the singing dune. Time to wave good bye.

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Passing through a valley we reached the northern side of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park and were driving along the mountains towards east. It was a beautiful landscape: the mountains on our right and flat lands on our left bordered by another mountain ridge in the distance.

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We could already see a difference vs. ten days earlier: the rolling steppe was much greener than before – probably to the big pleasure of the many herds of animals we passed. What looked like grass, were in fact often chives – easily noticeable by the nice aroma we got to smell every time we got out of the car. No wonder that we saw quite a couple of moves to the spring pastures.

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Unfortunately, today the Mongolian saying that seeing a move brings luck did not hold true. By the time we were ready to leave Bulgan after shopping, getting gas for the car and filling our water canister, Oogii and Amgaa had such an argument that they stopped talking to each other. We had no clue what it was about and given the tense atmosphere in the car, did not dare to ask.
Soon after that incident, we reached the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag. The landscape was spectacular and it was fun to hike around the area.

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But the area is known even more for its finds of dinosaur skeletons – the ones we had seen in the Dinosaur Museum in Ulaanbaatar. We did not find any bones, but we did find quite a lot of plants growing in the dry sand. There were signs of spring - even here in the desert!

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Max made an effort to find some dinosaur remains at our campground at the bottom of the cliffs. He was soon distracted by playing with his cars and consequently forgot about his mission. Sam did not forget about his mission though, to take nice pictures of our camp and the surrounding cliffs at sundown.

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While Oogii made excellent dinner for us, Amgaa had left to make some repairs on the car. His prediction of being back after an hour proved to be very wrong: five hours later when the sun had set already, he had still not arrived. Luckily, we had taken all our stuff for the night into our tent already. Oogii was not so lucky, so we had supplied her with surplus blankets and a sleeping pad such that she’d be able to sleep. Eventually, Amgaa arrived and Oogii was able to get her stuff after all.
We did not get any explanation for Amgaa’s absence and given that he still did not talk with Oogii, the atmosphere at breakfast was not too pleasant. We were hoping that things would improve again, but given our remote location, there was no choice anyhow.
Our first sightseeing stop of the day was in the biggest saxaul forest of Central Asia. What sounded very impressive, turned out to be not quite like the picture we had in our minds when there was talk about a forest. The saxaul trees are the only trees present in the Gobi and are prized by the nomads as excellent firewood comparable to coal. Even though the forest we visited was very old, we did not see any trees much higher than 2 meters. So in our books, we had visited an area of rather sparse bushland.

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Heading north, we passed enormous areas of a joint Mongolian / Korean project attempting to grow saxaul. The project is called the Green Wall and aims to alleviate desertification by planting saxaul on an area of 3000 hectares. While it sounds nice of the Korean government to support Mongolia, there is an expected side effect as well: Korea has a massive health issue with dust in the air and this project might help to decrease the amount of desert dust being blown from Mongolia to Korea.
What followed was a track that was probably the worst we’ve been on so far. In the area where the river Ongi disappears in the desert, large salt pans have formed. In early spring, it is still dry enough such that there is no big risk of getting stuck. Still, we were able to see many deep tracks that were proof of much more difficult conditions during the rainy summer season. The deep ruts in the track were sometimes very hard to see in advance. Amgaa was trying to detect all of them on time and break before we were hitting them. One time we were flying after all and our Furgon was suspended in the air with all wheels losing touch.

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In the early afternoon, we reached our destination for the day: the monastery of Ongi. We built up camp on the river banks, just downstream from the monastery. The spot was just great – super idyllic and peaceful. We praised the fact that we were traveling outside the major tourist season. Otherwise the place might not have been nearly as peaceful, considering the big tourist ger camp just next door. There would have been many more tourists around and all of their drivers would have parked along the river to give their vehicle a proper car wash – which is also what Amgaa did. After about three hours of work, our Furgon was shiny as new.

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Even though the ger camp was still closed for another month, for a small fee we were able to use their facilities. It felt great to have a proper shower again after a couple of days!
It was sad to visit the old monastery. It had been one of the major Buddhist monasteries of Mongolia – sometimes even compared with the Potala Palace in Lhasa. At times, up to 10,000 monks had been living here. As part of the communist activities in the 1930’s the monastery was destroyed – as most others in the country. Today, only a few ruins remain, and very few buildings have been reconstructed with a few monks trying to bring life to the place again.

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Sitting at a lookout, Sam and I got philosophical. After all, we were nearing the end of our travels: in four weeks, we’d be back at home with Sam’s family. On one hand, we’d certainly know of enough interesting places to go to fill at least another year of traveling. And we could easily go on for even longer than that. On the other hand, it also feels ok to go back home. After having been away for over a year, it also feels good to finally see friends and family again. And knowing that we’d be going home with the Trans-Siberian Railway – an idea we had already for ages – somehow sounded like a perfect end for our journey.

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Back at our camp, Oogii was already busy preparing our dinner. For me, it was time to get our laundry done. And the location next to the river was just perfect. Our clothes got cleaner than expected and it dried quickly on the grass in the sunshine.

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Once the sun was setting, Sam headed out to take some nice shots. He headed into the hills on the other side of the river. Once he successfully returned from his venture, he had not only made a couple of nice shots with his camera, but he had also found some nice crystals. By the time he was back, temperatures had fallen significantly and suddenly wading through the river was not nearly as tempting as it had been in the late afternoon.

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That evening we were not alone. Oogii and Amgaa’s boss Ure was in Ongi as well together with her client Tomm and a driver. They came over to have a beer and snacks together. Tomm was scouting Southern and Central Mongolia as a potential location to organize the 2018 GS Trophy, a BMW sponsored motorbike event with participants from all over the world. Sam was delighted and chatted the whole evening with Tomm. After all, it’s not too often that you meet someone who has participated in the Paris – Dakar motorbike race and can tell stories of his many adventures.

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The next morning, we simply enjoyed our relaxed breakfast. None of us was really keen to leave this lovely spot by the river and to exchange it for a day’s worth of driving. Eventually we managed to head off after all. All along we imagined how it would be, driving along these tracks on motorbikes instead of a Furgon.
We passed Saikhan-Ovoo, which translates to ‚the beautiful cairn ‘. We must have missed the cairn, but could not fail to notice the square kilometers of garbage on the Southern end of town. In our eyes the more appropriate name for the town should have rather focused on that. On the other hand, we did produce enough garbage ourselves on our journey and unfortunately in a country without a properly organized garbage system, it is hard to tell, where our garbage will end up – not matter how sure we’ve made that we dispose of it into official garbage containers.
Lunch was a bit earlier than usual. But as we headed into an area with heavy rain clouds, it was a good idea to eat while we’d be able to stay dry.
There was already a faint smell of rain in the air. A couple of kilometers after we headed off again, it started raining. At least we can now confidently say that we’ve experienced all kinds of weather in Mongolia – sun, sandstorm, rain and snow. Despite the weather, we briefly stopped at an ancient megalith, a so called deer (or raindeer) stone.

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The rainclouds created a very special light. And being able to sit in the car, it was actually quite pleasant. Probably it was not nearly as pleasant for the many herd animals outside. Most of them huddled together and were standing in the direction away from the wind. Only the yaks with their heavy wool seemed to be fairly unimpressed by the weather.

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We also came across lots of birds. There were cranes and geese who must have arrived recently form their winter habitats in Southern China and India. But also the local birds of prey were present – most notably an eagle who was busily eating while we watched.
Our original plan had been to stay in the valley before the spa town of Khurjit, known for its hot springs. Considering the rain storm we were in once we reached our designated camping spot, we kindly declined and all agreed that it would be a better option to stay in a yurt.

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We had a couple of errands to run in Khurjit. The town was the largest one we had been in for a while, but that is a relative statement. There were still calves feeding in the middle of main street. We soon realized that shopping was done quickly, but getting money from an ATM proved to be impossible. By the time we were done with everything, the weather was back to perfect again. There was only a slight breeze, the sun was out and there were only some few small clouds. There were no rain clouds to be seen anywhere around.

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So we changed back to the idea of camping in our tents after all. The idea was great, the execution awful. The unplanned camp so close to town sparked another disagreement of Oogii and Amgaa which resulted in Oogii getting out of the car.
Sam and I were pretty fed up with the disagreements. We asked Oogii to translate to Amgaa that we have had enough of the constant fights and that we expect both to work together. Eventually I asked for a phone and explained the situation to Ure, who we had met the day before. I asked her to explain our expectations to Amgaa.
Luckily it turned out that this was the only intervention required and that as of then, life continued normally. While it was not the warmest interaction between Oogii and Amgaa, they at least talked again. It would have been a pity having to go to the extreme of having to ask for another driver to take us for the remaining five days of our tour through Mongolia.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 18:03 Archived in Mongolia Tagged river monastery forest cliff dinosaur Comments (0)

Highlights of Central Mongolia

From Khurjit via Kharkhorin, Elsen Tasarkhai, Khustain Nuruu National Park to Ulaanbaatar

semi-overcast 13 °C
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We camped at a very nice place a couple of hundred meters away from town along a small stream. There were horses and sheep around and in the evening sunlight, the atmosphere was really nice. But at the same time, it was also super cold and we all headed into our tents very early.

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Overnight we had some frost, but as soon as the sun was out, it got pleasant and warm again. We had the perfect weather for today’s explorations. Our first stop was right outside Khurjit, where we passed a couple of burial mounds dating back to bronze age – round for women and square for men.

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Soon afterwards, we reached the Orkhon Valley and Karakorum, the capital of Genghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, which grew to become history’s largest continuous empire – extending from the Chinese Sea all the way to what is now Belarus and Ukraine. Today the centerpiece of the area is Erdene Zuu Monastery, Mongolia’s first Buddhist center built in 1586. Together with a couple of other highlights of the Orkhon Valley it has been declared a World Heritage Site.

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While the communists destroyed part of the buildings in the 1930s - such as the big refectory hall - only four nice temples and the surrounding wall with its stupas remained. We were impressed by the intricate artwork, the elaborate tiles and the paintings.

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Just next door to the monastery is a Museum featuring the history of the former capital Mongolian Karakorum. Today, not much of this formerly huge town remains, as it was destroyed in the 14th century by Chinese Ming troops. We got the perfect overview of the history from stone age over bronze age and obviously its prime time under Dshinggis Khan and his successor Kublai Khan. We were impressed to see that back in those times, the town had an Islamic mosque, a Chinese Buddhist temple, a Mongolian Buddhist temple and a Christian church. Seemingly, the rulers were very open to other religions and the peaceful coexistence of different beliefs was no issue. Sometimes one would wish that today’s society would be as advanced all over the world as this.

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After that excursion into history, we did our shopping in present day Kharkhorin. We liked the tiny market place and enjoyed watching how the locals came into town. Up in the air, some big birds of prey circled the area and provided another exciting pastime for us. We also stopped at a gas station. As usual, the choice was limited to 80 octane, 92 octane and diesel. Seemingly all higher grades of gas are only available in Ulaanbaatar. Our Furgon is obviously used to his gas. Sam and I just started talking what this choice of gas would mean for a modern car or motorcycle that might be traveling to Mongolia. Admittedly, we are considering to come back one day – potentially driving all the way from home.

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For the night, we stayed along the Orkhon River. Even though it was just a slight ridge that separated the valley from town, we felt like in the middle of nowhere again. There were horses and cattle grazing along the banks of the river. And the river attracted a wide range of bird life that entertained us with an exciting air show. It was warm and pleasant weather with not a single cloud in the sky. Life is good.

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From the hill above our camp, we had an excellent overview and our Furgon with the tents blended perfectly into the otherwise wild landscape. It’s no wonder that the Orkhon valley is a favorite destination for people visiting Mongolia.

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But not only the landscape was fascinating. We also loved the wildlife and specifically the birds. While we stayed at our camp, there were up to six black kites (or were they other birds of prey?) circling above us. When noticing a bit of tough mutton meat which we had tossed away after dinner, they became interested and after a couple of attempts to grab them, everything was gone. It was a very special show and could have watched them forever.

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Once it got dark, we lit a small camp fire, sat there with our beers and enjoyed being in such wonderful surroundings. And luckily enough, everybody joined the fun and the troubles of the last couple of days seemed long forgotten.

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In the middle of the night the sudden noise of a rainshower woke us. We had not expected any rain after a wonderful day with perfect weather. The next morning turned out to be freezing cold. It was overcast and very windy. Only the birds seemed undisturbed by the weather. We saw black kites again, cranes and wild geese. We had our breakfast in the wind shadow of the Furgon and were happy once we were ready to head off.

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We had only a short drive ahead of us: we drove to the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai. For all those people who do not want to take the drive to the Gobi desert, they offer a nice opportunity to see some dunes in central Mongolia. We had been to the Gobi, but considering how much we like deserts and sand and how much Max loves to play in the dunes, stopping here was our perfect plan.
At 13 °C and in a strong wind, we briefly discussed our overnight options and quickly concluded that a yurt would be by far more comfortable than our tents. We stopped at a nearby family of nomads and were lucky to hear that they still had a yurt available for us. And indeed: once again we marveled how comfortable it was in our stable and warm yurt. It was just perfect – perfectly invested 35,000 tugrik (about 13€).

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In the afternoon Sam and I headed out to the dunes despite the sandstorm. It was nice to be outside and we enjoyed having some time for ourselves (Max stayed in the yurt with Oogii playing Lego). After a day of sitting in the car and in the yurt, we had missed our fix of fresh air already. We got back just in time for dinner and for a nice colorful sunset.

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The next morning, all of us took a walk to the dunes – this time in sunny, calm weather. We felt very lucky that the weather was pleasant today. After all, we had arranged to take a horse ride in the morning and a neighbor of our family stopped by to pick us up.

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The three horses were not nearly as impressive in size as the camels had been a week earlier. In fact, Mongolian horses are smaller than many other breeds. Max got to ride together with the nomad on the leading horse. I followed on the white horse and Sam came last. It also felt very different riding a horse vs. a camel. We liked the trip we took through the dunes and back.

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As we got back around noon time, the wind had picked up again. That made the choice easy to just stay another night in our nice yurt. It also felt good being able to stay a second night in the same place and not having to pack our stuff.

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Before we got to leave the next day, our hosts invited us into their yurt. It was very clean and all things neatly arranged. They had pictures of their extended family on display and made an effort to make us feel at home. We were served milk tea and the lady prepared traditional buuz (meat filled dumplings) for us. Even though they are living a very simple life and only see their children on the weekends (as they are at school during the week), they seemed to really enjoy life. Husband and wife were constantly joking and making fun with each other. We enjoyed the atmosphere and the laughter even though we did not understand most of what was being said.

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In order to get at least an impression of the nearby mountains of Khongo Khan Uul, we took a detour the next morning. And lucky us that we decided to do so: already the lake at the east side of the dunes was worth the trip. As we got there, it lay there completely still, reflecting the dunes. What a great place! I’m sure it would be great to camp there on a calm day. But also the mountains and rocks we passed, did not fail to impress us. It seemed a bit like the Valley of the Gods minus the people.

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After more than 200 km of driving (which was quick thanks to a good asphalt road), we stopped for a quick lunch at a river. It was no big surprise that there were sheep and goats around and some birds of prey.

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In the next town, we attempted to refill our water at the communal well. Unfortunately, it was lunch break and we would have had to wait for more than an hour. So we headed on and soon reached Khustain Nuruu National Park. The park has been founded to preserve the Przewalski Horses in the wild. After having been extinct in the wild by 1970, the joint conservation efforts and breeding programs of zoos around the world allowed to reintroduce the animals in the wild.
By now roughly 300 horses live within the national park. While the rangers make sure to protect them, educate tourists to keep their distance and make sure that they are at a safe distance from regular horses (to avoid cross-breeding), the animals are really wild and on their own to support themselves even in the harshest of winters – even if that means that not all of them will survive.
When inquiring at the national park entrance, we were told that we were lucky to arrive so early in the season with hardly any tourists around. Consequently, the horses can still be found in easily accessible areas of the national park. In our case, it just took us a short drive when Amgaa spotted a herd of seven horses just on the other side of a small valley. It was great to watch them – a great sight and much different vs. seeing them in a zoo.

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A bit further on, we got a hint to take a short hike into a side valley. We did so and discovered another herd of 13 horses. Even though we were a couple of hundred meters away, the horses had immediately noticed our presence and one of them was constantly turned towards us – ready to warn the others in case of any perceived danger. We stayed away in order not to disturb them.

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But the national park is not only home to wild horses, but also to deer, marmots and a local kind of ground squirrels. We got to see all of them. While the deer were obviously most impressive in size, it was lots of fun to watch the fat marmots race across the steppe to reach their holes. Some of them did not even bother to head for their holes, but tried to hide behind some tiny shrubs – a funny sight, as they were still perfectly visible to us.

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Having seen so many animals, we were more than content that we had included a visit of Hustain National Park in our itinerary. We headed out of the park and camped in a valley that we knew already from a video we had seen several months ago: our last camp in Mongolia had been the first camp of our Swiss friends when they did their trip at the end of last year together with Oogii.
It was a very special place: a bit further up, there were several burial mounds from the bronze age. There were herds along the flanks of the hills surrounding us. At one stage, a rider on horseback passed our camp. We wondered where he had come from and where he was heading to. Even though there were a couple of winter camps of nomad families in the surrounding hills, it still seemed such remote a location that we could not help being amazed at this country and its people.
After dinner Sam and I headed on a walk to the hill next to our camp to see the sun go down. Even though the wind was fierce, we just enjoyed being outside and wanted to enjoy the beautiful landscape to the fullest. So we headed on to the small peak at the end of the valley. We only realized along the way, that it was further away than it had seemed. As we got closer we realized that the ‘goats’ we had seen on the other hill, were actually full-grown horses.

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The next day was dedicated to packing our stuff, making sure we do not forget anything that we had distributed all over the place in our Furgon. We had less than 100km to get into Ulaanbaatar and soon found ourselves back in the city – far away from the beauty of the steppe.
We truly enjoyed Mongolia and were sorry that this marked our last evening in the steppe. Mongolia left a very positive impression on us and we’re fairly sure that we’ll be back at some stage.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 18:24 Archived in Mongolia Tagged river sand wild horse monastery dunes Comments (0)

Crossing Eastern Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk

sunny 27 °C
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After three nights at the shores of Lake Baikal, we took a minibus to Irkutsk. The name of the town sounded very familiar to us – after all both Sam and I had played the strategy board game ‘Risk’ since our childhood which features an area called ‘Irkutsk’. For many other people, it is probably better known as one of the centers of Siberian exile. By the end of the 19th century, almost every third inhabitant of Irkutsk was in exile and not allowed to ever leave Siberia again.

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We were not forced to stay in Irkutsk – rather the opposite: we intentionally wanted to spend some time in town to experience Eastern Siberian city life and to see some of its cultural heritage. After briefly stopping at our hostel to check in and to leave our belongings, we headed into town. The tram got us right to the Quarter 130, a lively pedestrian zone attracting tourists and locals alike. It was a tough choice of restaurants and we eventually settled on the terrace of a nice brewery for lunch.

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It was great weather and we could see the crowds passing by. Some of them were headed to the music festival at the southern end of the quarter. Others headed north towards the book festival. We enjoyed the music festival and listened for quite a while. The book festival turned out to be rather disappointing – after all we are very slow in reading Cyrillic letters and simply don’t understand enough Russian to make much sense of the books on display.

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We passed the statue of Lenin and crossed Karl Marx Street to reach the main park. From there it was just a five minutes’ walk to the main attractions. We passed the Polish Church, the Church of the Savior (which seems to be the oldest stone building in Eastern Siberia) and visited the Cathedral of the Epiphany across the road. As in all Orthodox churches, women were provided with scarves to cover their hair before entering the church. We were lucky to get there during a service. The choir was singing beautifully.

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Just below the church were the banks of the Angara river. This morning we had already passed it’s starting point at the outlet of Lake Baikal. It was a nice area for having a walk and we joined the locals before deciding that we had seen enough for today. We headed back to our hostel, made dinner in the nice kitchen and had a great night’s sleep.

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The next morning, we spent a bit of time at a nearby park before shouldering our backpacks and heading to the train station. We had booked train number 1 the ‘Rossiya’. We wanted to spend at least one of our segments on the Trans-Siberian-Railway enjoying the classic experience on this Vladivostok – Moscow service which runs every other day and takes 6 days and 4 hours for the 9289 km.
The train seemed to be a bit newer than the last one we had been on. To Max’ big delight, here was even a TV in every compartment. This time, we were not alone, but shared the compartment with Maksim, a 32-year-old engineer from Khabarovsk. Fortunately, he spoke English, so we were able to easily communicate with him.
But he was not our only acquaintance on the train: in the compartment, next to us we met Kat and Ed - a Welsh couple who spent the last couple of months biking from the Southern tip of India all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal. As always it proved to be a lot of fun to compare experiences. They had been blogging as well (their blog is doctorswithoutmotors.blogspot.uk.co in case you’re interested to learn more about their travels). Contrary to us, they were using couchsurfing throughout their travels. The way they explained the great hospitality they experienced along the way, they inspired us to try that one day as well as a means to getting even more contact to locals. But we were able to inspire them a bit as well, as they had not thought that traveling with a kid can be both easy and rewarding.
Back in our compartment, it did not take long for Sam and Maksim, to take out their respective bottles of vodka. Sam’s Baikal vodka did not stand a chance against Maksim’ Sand Crab vodka from Kamchatka.

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At the first longer stop in the station of Zima, we used the opportunity to get out and to stock up our beer supplies. We only realized after our purchase that Maksim’s beer recommendation was rice beer from China. On our own, we would probably never have tried it. We soon realized that despite our prejudices, it tasted very well. After an extensive dinner, lots of dried fish (which are eaten together with beer in Russia like we would eat chips) significant amounts of beer and vodka, we had a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast on the train and then had to pack our stuff. At 8:07 we reached Krasnoyarsk, today’s destination. We waved good-bye to Maksim who was staying on the train until Novosibirsk and to Kat and Ed who will only get off far-away Moscow. Thanks to the clock at the railway station we realized that in Moscow it was still 4:07 in the morning and that consequently we had already crossed our first time zone on the train.

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Contrary to the majority of tourists along the trans-sib route, we had chosen to break our journey in Krasnoyarsk. The town itself is just a regular Siberian town, but its location certainly is special. It is located on the banks of the mighty Yenissei River. Its tributaries include the Angara River (the outlet of Lake Baikal) and reach all the way into Northern Mongolia. Together with them, it is forming Russia’s longest river system.
But that’s not what we came for: we stopped in Krasnoyarsk, as it offers not just the flat tundra that most of Siberia is known for. We wanted to spend a day in the Stolby Nature Reserve which offers great hikes in the hills and granite rocks.
It was only a short walk from the train station to our hostel. We had a bit of trouble finding it until we realized that its entrance was in the back of one of those ubiquitous apartment blocks. And once we got there, we came to realize that the lady in the hotel spoke only Russian and not a single bit of English. Even with pointing on the map and using some Russian words she was unable to tell us which buses or trams would get us where we wanted to go.

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So we headed out on our own and tried our luck by just taking one of the trams passing by our hostel. We were not lucky, as it turned the wrong direction already after the first stop. We got out and reluctantly decided to do our city tour by foot. From the massive statue of Lenin that seems to adorn every single Russian town, Gorkii Park was just across the street. Presumably, this is the favorite weekend outing for all locals with kids. But on a Monday afternoon, not too much was going on.

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We crossed the park to get to the banks of the Yenissei. It turned out to be a great decision, as we got to witness the step dance practice of a young ambitious ballet dancer. On the planks of the wooden deck, his steps were amplified like if he was playing a big instrument.

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Just before it started raining, we made our way into a local Russian version of Starbucks called ‘Traveller’s Coffee’. The cakes were just perfect, the drinks as well and the atmosphere was very nice – a perfect end for the day.

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And then there was one of those unexpected random acts of kindness: at the supermarket I had a full shopping cart and was about to pay a sizeable amount. Out of the blue, the lady next to me asked the cashier to swipe her customer card, which resulted in a 10% of my bill. What a nice surprise! Those are the instances when I wish to fluently speak a language instead of only being able to repeat Спасибо (Spasibo / Thank You) over and over.
The next day we were picked up at 9 am by our guide Anatoliy and headed to the nearby Stolby nature reserve. Already on our drive, he provided us with lots of information about the town, the river and the surroundings. Especially the stories around the closed town of Zheleznogorsk (which was formerly known as Krasnoyarsk-26) were fascinating. We had been aware that many towns in the former Soviet Union had been closed to foreigners. We only realized that such closed towns continue to exist even now.
Anatoliy showed us a hidden path up towards Takmak Rock – without his help we would definitively not have found it. It was a pleasant hike through a light larch and birch forest. Max was alternating between extremes: either he raced ahead or he dragged behind such that eventually Sam and Anatoliy resorted to carrying him part of the way. Once we had reached the top, we stopped for a break to eat our sandwiches and to enjoy the view.

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Following the break, we headed to another viewpoint before heading steep down and then up again. As we walked along, we not only got to see many more rock formations and many spring flowers, but also some insights into Russian leisure activities. We hiked along some ski slopes, saw the start of a steep mountain bike track and passed a couple of cabanas that can be rented for private festivities. And when Max started watching some men working, we learned a very true Russian saying that there are three things you can watch endlessly: running water, fire and other people working. How true!

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On our way down, we took the chairlift and then had a surprisingly good and cheap lunch at the buffet of the ski restaurant. A great finish for a perfect outing! Next time around, we’d definitively come back and do a tour with Anatoliy again – maybe during the Siberian winter at temperatures of below -30 °C. I’m sure it would be very different, but as much fun.

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After our busy day, we took it easy and did not do too much. Still, the atmosphere in our hostel was not too tempting and we rather went outside to have dinner vs. spending time in the communal kitchen with the guys there. The hostel seemed to be exclusively used by Russian working class men. In their uniform training outfits they just did not appeal to us as potential conversation partners. Who knows – potentially we would have had a great time with them. We’ll never know as we preferred the comfy atmosphere of a nice café in town.

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The next morning, I packed our stuff while Sam and Max went shopping. They had an ‘interesting’ experience when a 60-year old lady approached them and asked them if Sam would be willing to come up to her flat to help her fix an electrical appliance. Sam was not willing to and used our upcoming train as an excuse. That turned out to be a big mistake, as the lady (which spoke excellent German, as she used to be a German teacher) then imposed herself to get the shopping done more quickly such that Sam would not miss the train. I had a good laugh when hearing his account how he wanted to buy certain products. She then dismissed them as ‘too expensive’ and suggested alternatives at a lower price (and lower quality). Eventually Sam got quite frustrated – after all he wanted to shop for a hostess gift which was supposed to be high quality.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:29 Archived in Russia Tagged lenin beer park church train river rock hike vodka Comments (1)

White nights of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

rain 12 °C
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Arriving in St. Petersburg on a grey morning at 12 °C and pouring rain was a bit of a damper. Even though our apartment was only 20 minutes walking distance away, we were rather put off by the thought of getting drenched.
We knew from our host Anton that an Uber to the apartment should cost around 100 rubles. So we were not keen on taking up the offers of the taxi drivers waiting in the station who tried to charge up to 2000 rubles. As we walked towards the exit of the building, the offers got lower, but admittedly we were only able to find a guy offering 400 rubles in the end. By that time, we were already at the end of the parking lot of the railway station and had gotten a good share of rain. In other words: despite knowing that we had a bad deal, we did not mind anymore.
At the apartment, our host Anton was already waiting for us. The ‘Zoe Suites’ were a super nice and luxurious three-bedroom apartment with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. For the first night, we’d be the only guests, so we had the place for ourselves.
Anton also shared with us that in St. Petersburg, there are only 60 sunny days per year, so that we should not bee too surprised about a rainy day like today. We couldn't resist to recommend to Anton to move to sunny Mongolia which features 300 days of sunshine. Given how far north we were, it was no wonder that temperatures were not very high either. St. Petersburg marks the northernmost point of our travels so far ever located almost as far north as Anchorage in Alaska.
It took us until the early afternoon to motivate ourselves to get out into the rain. Admittedly, we had been spoiled on our travels so far. Strolling along St. Petersburg’s main avenue Nevski Prospekt, we passed luxurious shops, important architectural highlights and many monuments. We also observed as one car hit another at an intersection. Both cars continued as if nothing had happened. We were rather astounded about that. A local next to us only shrugged and commented ‚normalnyi‘. Ok, that's also a way of looking at things...
The Nevski Prospekt was impressive and much bigger than what we would have imagined. But anyhow, even though we knew that St. Petersburg is Europe's second largest city after Moscow, it still surprised us by its sheer size. We walked along, passed the statue of Catherine the Great surrounded by her associates (aka lovers) and made it all the way to the Kazan Cathedral. By then we were soaked enough to give up our sightseeing effort and headed into a café.

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We had great plans for the evening: Anton brought his daughter Zoe over and she played with Max until both of them were long overdue to go to bed. I skipped the fun and went for an evening program of a different kind: I went to see a classical production of ‘Swan Lake’. Being in Russia meant that I also wanted to see Russian ballet. I had a great evening.
When I left the theater at almost half past ten, it was still light outside. Being so far up north means that the nights are really short in June and it hardly gets dark at all – the famous white nights of St. Petersburg. I felt extremely safe walking through the streets of St. Petersburg on my own. In fact, I was not alone - there were many people out and about on the way to and from restaurants, clubs and bars.
The next morning, we were greeted by the sun. We were delighted and headed out right away to take the metro. The St. Petersburg metro system is the deepest in the world and we realized that it took us quite a while to reach the ground level again. Similar to the Moscow, the stations are very beautiful - the so called workers' palaces.

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The metro took us to the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg's citadel next to the Neva River.

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It was sunny, but extremely windy and rather cool. That did not stop the people from sunbathing at the beaches along the fortress walls next to the Neva River. Probably they had protection from the wind. We did not and almost got blown away as we crossed the Trinity Bridge over to the other side of the Neva River. The high wind was also the reason why we did not get to do a tour through the canals of St. Petersburg. The wind caused the water levels to raise and to make the smaller bridges in the center of town impassable.

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We continued our tour on foot. Via the Summer Garden we reached the Church of Savior on Spilled Blood. The church marks the spot where emperor Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1881. The church looks a bit similar to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Being a recognizable landmark, it was also the prime spot for the many TV crews to setup their camp such that they can report live from the St. Petersburg World Economic Forum which took place these days featuring Russia’s President Putin and important politicians from many countries.
The inside of the church was as beautiful as its outside. The interior walls are covered by 7500 square meters of intricate mosaics. Heading out of the church, we got to enjoy the church from the same angle as we had seen it a day earlier. What a difference! Yesterday it had looked nice in the grey rain. Today with the blue sky it looked spectacular.

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We had lunch in an excellent Georgian restaurant ‘Cha Cha’. Having relaxed there, we were motivated again to walk the remainder of the way home. We passed the Russian Museum, the Circus and other nice buildings along the way. With so many nice buildings, the city reminded us a bit of Vienna. And also the food reminded us of home: the strudel we bought in a bakery was meeting even the highest Austrian strudel standards.

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We spent the evening at home and took it easy after a busy day. The next morning, we woke up with a big surprise: after the beautiful day yesterday it was raining heavily again. The weather was purely awful. So we dropped our plan to visit Peterhof today. Lucky us that we had not bought tickets in advance. In this gruesome weather it would not have been any fun to explore the extensive gardens with the fountains.
Anton recommended that we rather visit the Yusupov Palace. Contrary to many other St. Petersburg sites, it is not quite as overrun by tourists as e.g. the Hermitage Museum. So that’s where we went. And indeed: the palace was beautiful and when we did our tour there were hardly any other people around. And once more it was the site of a murder: Rasputin had been assassinated in the basement of the palace in 1916.

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By the time we left the palace, it was still raining. We tried to catch the bus back towards the Nevski Prospekt. After searching for quite a while to find the bus station into the other direction, we gave up and started walking. Luckily, the rain eventually turned into a mere drizzle. We walked by the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and the Admiralty Building to reach the Hermitage Museum which includes the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. On the Palace Square the rain finally stopped and even the sun was peeking out a bit.

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At a café, we relaxed a bit before taking the bus back to our place. We used the time to pack our bags – after all we’d be heading back home tomorrow.
A bit later, Anton and Zoe picked us up. We took their 30-year-old Mercedes Benz S Class to a park. We had to use a hole in the fence to get in. Officially, all park doors were closed due to a predicted storm. But considering that there was an event of the Economic Forum taking place right next to the park, we speculated if the park was maybe just closed for that reason.

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From the park, we headed on to the Smolny (or Resurrection) Cathedral. In the evening light, it was a beautiful sight. But as we were hungry, we did not spend much time and headed towards the Ukrainian restaurant where Anton had booked a table for us. Luckily, he had reserved, as the place was packed.

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It was a great last evening of our trip. We had great food and enjoyed Ukrainian music. It was fun to chat with Anton and his wife Nadia. We exchanged stories from our travels and laughed a lot. We confirmed once more, how friendly and pleasant Russians are – great hospitable people. Zoe even presented Max with a good-bye present: a typical Russian stuffed animal called ‘Cheburashka’, which can even speak a couple of sentences and sing the Cheburashka song. But also Sam and I requested a souvenir: we asked Anton and Nadia to write into our traveling guest book, which by now is almost full. What a great last night out – an absolute highlight.

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When we left the restaurant after midnight, there was still light on the horizon. Despite the lack of sleep, Anton did stop by at our apartment at seven in the morning to make sure that we made it well to our taxi to the airport. Let’s hope that one day he will come to visit us in Germany, such that we can reciprocate the great hospitality we enjoyed.
Within thirty minutes, we reached the St. Petersburg airport. It did not take long to check in our bags. But then, we encountered a couple of difficulties. At first, the guy at the customs desk asked us if we had any liquids in our checked bags. We truthfully answered that ‘yes’ there were not only toiletries, but also two small bottles of vodka in the bags. That caused him to make us wait at his desk for about ten minutes until he had received a message that our bags were ok and that we could proceed.
Immigration was worse still. We knew already that the Russian embassy in Cambodia had stuck our visa into our passports such that the machine-readable part was on the inside fold, i.e. the visa was not machine readable. While the immigration officer back at the Mongolian – Russian border had been only slightly frustrated by this issue, the lady at the airport made a huge deal out of it. It took her almost 15 minutes to clear the three of us such that we could get out of the country.
Fortunately, we got through the security checks without any further delay, as otherwise we would have probably missed our flight. For the first time in our 26 flights so far, we had to run to the gate in order to make it on time.
All that rush avoided any possibility to get melancholic about the fact that this is the absolute end of our trip around the world. Even though we knew it was our last flight and that we’d be at home with friends and family within just a few hours, it felt still very unreal and hard to believe.
We were able to see a bit of the landscape underneath us also from the plane. But maybe it would have been easier approaching the end of our travels more slowly by train. As we had learned in the last few weeks, there’s a different quality to traveling by train. But then we would not have arrived within 2 hours and 40 minutes, but we would have needed to spend at least 34 hours in at least four different trains.

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The immigration officer at Vienna Airport briefly checked our passports and waved us through. It’s so easy being an EU citizen arriving in another EU country – what an advantage over what we faced in many other countries. Despite the fact that it is not needed, we asked for stamps in our passport to mark our arrival back home. That way, it’s officially documented now that we have reached the European Union again after more than 13 months of having been away.
We are home…

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 20:57 Archived in Russia Tagged rain church palace river museum fortress wind cold Comments (0)

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