Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul

Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul

The horse stood outside the house ready for me. I was a bit unsure if I was ready for him, it had after all been 10 years since last time I sat on a horse. I was happy though to see that my saddle was patched with a pillow, to ease the pain a bit.

I must admit that I struggled a bit getting myself up in the saddle at the first try. My guide Kalybek just smiled and made me try again, this time with greater success. Starting slow, the village houses were replaced by lush green fields, and I could see why Kyrgyzstan has a reputation of having beautiful nature. Crossing a river and resting in the shade, with Kalybek’s dog loyally followed our every move.

Crossing a river by horse. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Lush green landscape. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

I rode through the fields on a horse with no name. At least Kalybek did not know it at that time. Maybe that is why it decided not to obey me, since we were not acquainted. And yes, I got that song stuck in my head, even though I rode through green plains rather than a desert.

Starting slowly uphill in the valley, the nature reigns. The sun was shining from the clear blue sky, and the only thing I heard was the rhythmic sound of hooves against the ground, and insects singing. Getting further, the sound of the stream took over.

As you probably figured, my horse was not too keen on moving fast, but at least it was slowly, but steadily moving towards the goal.

We rounded the ridge and a small yurt camp appeared on the green plain, bathing in sunlight. After 3.5 hours, both my horse and my butt were happy to get a break… As an attempt to reduce the risk of stiffness, I stretched a little before walking around the camp. The lighting was beautiful, and it all looked like an idyllic postcard from the time I was crazy about horses as a little girl. The herd of horses grazed with the beautiful mountains as backdrop, in harmony with the cows.

My first yurt camp. What a picture perfect place to spend the night! Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

My first yurt camp. What a picture perfect place to spend the night!

The two ladies living in my small yurt camp started making dinner. While the food was boiling, they grabbed two buckets and walked towards the horses. I sensed what was in store, and followed them. The horses with foals were milked one by one, and within no time, the bucket was full of mare’s milk. Back in the dining yurt, the milk was mixed in a barrel with mare’s milk that was already fermented.

Dinner was served, starting with bread and many kinds of jam on the table, followed by a stew of potatoes, cabbage, carrots and some sheep meat. And tea. Lots of it. And eventually the kumis – fermented mare’s milk. Wondering what it tasted? My first thought was smoked cheese.

A full tea bowl with kumis. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

A tea bowl filled with kumis.

Rise and shine
The night on the thin mattress was surprisingly comfortable. I will not lie, I did not sleep like a princess, but it could have been worse. My biggest worry was that I thought I would be cold, but I actually woke up sweating! The good thing about waking up several times, was that I could enjoy the simulated stars by the light coming through the tiny holes in the yurt roof. First by the bright light of the almost full moon, then by the sunlight.

After breakfast, it was time to get back in the saddle. Though in a different one. Since the-horse-with-no-name and I never became best friends, Kalybek asked me to ride his horse, Buurul, instead. It worked like a charm, and we headed up the mountain with the dog as a loyal companion.

Heading towards WiFi Mountain. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Along the way we met a man with two extra saddled-up horses, and tagged along with him for a while. When we at a later stage met some hikers and he offered them to rent the horses, I understood why. It was a match made in heaven for them after a steep hike in the hot sun.

An eagle flying over the mountains. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Digital detox
Arriving at the top of the mountain, we could see the blue lake Song-Kul ahead of us, completely still, reflecting the mountains at the far end. Then I heard the beeps. Kalybek’s phone receiving messages, meaning mobile reception. My phone had been in flight mode since we left the village, and I was originally planning to leave it like that until we were back in the civilization. But I cracked. So much for digital detox… The mountain top was later named Wifi-Mountain…

View of Song Kul from the top of the mountain. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

View of Song Kul from the top of the mountain.

Our horses resting before heading down to Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Kalybek had told me we would meet up with a friend of him, and it turned out that he was the guide of a nice Dutch couple, Tess and Julian, that I had met earlier in Bishkek! Teaming up with them, my horse found a new best friend, and followed Julian’s horse’s every move.

Heading towards Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. The beautiful Song Kul lake reflecting the mountains. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Arriving at our yurt camp close by Song-Kul, we had lunch, before the water of the lake was luring us to go swim. Being up at 3000 m, the water was refreshing. While laying on the pebbles drying in the intense sun, a flock of horses came to drink along the shore.

Our yurt camp by Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Refreshing bath in Song Kul lake. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Horses coming to drink. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

The beach and our yurt camp. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

The beach and our yurt camp.

Amazing clear and calm water of Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Second round of kumis
Kalybek’s family stayed in another camp nearby, so we got back on the horses to go visit them. We found them at the beach enjoying the sun. And kumis. The fermented mare’s milk is to be found everywhere in the yurt camps, and is very popular. I of course had to have a few sips of the sun-heated milk while looking out on the beautiful scenery by the cold lake.

Horse and Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Afternoon ride along the shore oof Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Following them back to their yurt camp, I also tagged along to witness the milking process again. And to help mixing the milk with the bishkek afterwards.

More mare's milking in beautiful surroundings. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Mare's milk. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Mares milk.

The girl with the binoculars. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Idyllic life by the lake. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Back at our camp, we walked up the hill to watch the sunset after dinner. When the darkness came, most of the others went to bed, while I sat outside for a long time, just enjoying the silence, watching the full moon reflecting in the water, listening to the flag blazing in the wind, with the head of the dog laying on my lap demanding to be petted.

A beautiful day is coming to an end. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Sunset and full moon by Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Horse in sunset with the full moon. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Full moon reflecting in Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Waking up in paradise 

Morning mood by Song Kul lake. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Morning mood by Song Kul lake.

My new friend. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Kalybek with his horse. And loyal dog. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Kalybek and his horse. And the loyal dog Laika.

Horses enjoying the summer in the mountains. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

What goes up, must go down... It does not look steep, but I can promise you it was... Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

What goes up, must go down… It does not look steep, but I can promise you it was…

I went through different stages of enthusiasm during the trip. About an hour in on the ride the first day, I was wondering how I would be able to make it through the rest. The second day I believed I could do anything, and that a few extra days would be a piece of cake, even riding an extra leg to visit Kalybek’s family. The last day started good, even galloping a bit through the plains and up the mountain. Then it was only downhill from there. Literally. I must admit going steep downhill was not my favorite, but luckily, I got used to it quickly, and Kalybek and his friend made sure we got down all right. Riding through the village, I was looking forward to having my feet back on solid ground again. Don’t get me wrong, it was just the perfect amount of time to enjoy myself, but not feeling that I should have gone on for an extra day.

And even if you do not have any skills with horses, I absolutely recommend this experience, fully enjoying the beautiful nature in Kyrgyzstan.

Booking:
I booked the horse trip one day in advance, through Apple Hostel. As I was alone, I paid 11.600 som for the three days. This included the horse, guide, 2 nights’ accommodation in yurt, 3x lunch, 2x dinner and 2x breakfast. If you are two or more people, the price goes down per person.

How to get there:
Apple Hostel is conveniently right next to the West bus station. Take bus number 514 to Kyzart from the far end of the bus station, on the side of the station building. Buy the ticket from the ticket office, price per person is 300 som. The first bus start to fill up at 7 in the morning, and leaves when it is full. When the bus leaves, you ask the driver to call the guide that will pick you up before you reach Kyzart, both to let him know approximate arrival time, and what intersection to drop you off. As I had bought a local sim-card (it is super cheap!), I used my own phone to call.

What to bring:
This of course depends on the season and weather. If it is sunny, the days are quite warm, so I wore shorts and t-shirt. I did however put on pants after the first day, as my leg got sore after rubbing against the straps for the stirrups. Evenings and nights get cold as it is quite high altitude. Based on my experience, here is my suggestion what to bring:
– Fully changed camera and phone for taking lots of pictures
– Extra power bank to charge your phone to take more pictures
– Headlight for the dark nights
– Wet wipes
– Sunscreen
– Full water bottle(s)
– Thermal underwear
– Woolen sweater
– Warm light down jacket
– Trousers with zip on/off legs so it can also be used as shorts
– One extra t-shirt
– Swimwear for the refreshing lake Song Kul and a sarong as towel
– Flip-flops
– Woolen hat and woolen gloves
– Waterproof poncho (you never know…)
– Underwear
– Toiletries
– And last but not least; a medium size backpack to pack the things above.

You can leave the rest of your luggage at the guesthouse where you start your trip.
I did not need to use the rain poncho or the hat and gloves, but I would absolutely bring them just in case. In the night I was sleeping in my thermal underwear, but it ended up being too hot, so I took my blanket away for a while to cool down.
Again, this is only based on my experience. Check with the guide about the current conditions for your trip, and pack accordingly.

Food tour in Bishkek

Food tour in Bishkek

Local food is an important aspect of my travels, so whenever I find a food tour, I am in! Apple Hostel in Bishkek had just put together a food tour for their guests, and I was the first to sign up.

The main part of the tour took place at Osh Bazaar. The market is one of the largest in Bishkek, and you can find everything you need, from food to clothing, or maybe an extra key to your house.

Main entrance at Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Main entrance at Osh Bazaar.

Lepeshka is the traditional round bread, and a natural first stop on our tour, as bread is a very important part of a Kyrgyz meal. It is actually seen as sacred, and it is considered impolite to leave bread behind after a meal. Either you finish it, or you take it with you. Two other good things to know regarding the bread, is that it should not be left upside down, and if a local see a piece of bread on the ground outside, they pick it up and put it somewhere higher, so that birds or other animals easier can spot it.

Lepeshka - traditional bread. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Lepeshka – traditional bread.

Walking through Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Another very important part of the Kyrgyz culture, is the Kumis – fermented mare’s milk. It is widely found, especially in the yurts in the mountains, and of course also at the Osh Bazaar. It is actually so important, that the capital is named after the wooden stick used to mix the milk – the bishkek.

Our guide Aigul took us determined past the stalls selling cheese and honey, and ended up in front of a woman selling different kinds of homemade fermented drinks out of buckets. We started easy, with one made of corn, continuing with the wheat-based, and last, the fermented mare’s milk was presented. The first sip was interesting. The second went better, but I do not think it will ever be my favorite drink…

Bozo - fermented corn. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bozo – drink made from fermented corn.

Kumis - fermented mare's milk. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Kumis – fermented mare’s milk.

Byshtak - similar to cottage cheese. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Byshtak – similar to cottage cheese.

Moving on to the large hall with food, we had lots of interesting things to try.

Small balls were lined up in large bags, with slightly different colours. The base for all of them were the same; yogurt and salt. Some were added spices for different taste, while others were smoked. Mutual for all of them was that they were left outside to dry in the sun. The longer they dried, the harder they got. Most of them were quite salty, and are often enjoyed as a beer snack. The fried and salted beans felt more like a suitable beer snack to me than the dried yogurt balls though.

Kurut. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Kurut - yoghurt with salt. Dried on the roof. They get harder the longer dried. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Kurut – dried balls of yogurt with salt.

Too burchak - fried beans. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Too burchak – fried beans.

Another stall had a pile of what looked like rocks. And it turned out it was just that. Dried clay is an important source for minerals, so it is quite common to suck on them, especially for pregnant women.

Gulboton - when you crave minerals. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Gulboton – when you crave minerals.

Next up was trying the local tobacco. It was not for smoking, but tiny black balls to put under the lower lip. Kind of like the Scandinavian “snus” for those familiar to that concept. I have never been a smoker, but as I try to taste the local things when travelling, I decided to give it a go.

Nasvai - Kyrgyz tobacco. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Nasvai – Kyrgyz tobacco.

The locals usually have it in for two minutes, but we were advised to take it out after one. I believe it took me about 10 seconds to feel the effect. 5 seconds later, I felt really drunk! I kept it in for a little longer, but it did not last the full minute. Luckily, the sensation did not last very long.

The taste was not the best either, but small strawberries soon filled my mouth with its sweet taste, bringing back childhood memories from picking tiny wild strawberries in the woods.

Fresh and tasty berries at Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Continuing on the sweet note, the colourful and super sweet “hvorost” was our last dessert at the market. I think it is safe to say that you can find something for every taste at the Osh Bazaar.

Hvorost - sweets. Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Hvorost.

Dried fruites and nuts at Osh Bazaar. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The restaurant for our sit-down lunch was about 10 min walk away from the market. Aigul ordered three different dishes to share. With the food, we also got tea. According to Aigul, there are dissimilar traditions in the different regions how to pour the tea. She is from the north-west, where they pour just enough for a few mouthfuls. It is considered lazy if you pour more, meaning you think it is too much a hassle to pour several times. Especially the elderly can get offended. However, they are aware that there are different traditions all over the country, so I guess you will be off the hook as a visitor not knowing better.

Ganfan. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Ganfan.

Lazdzhi. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Lazdzhi.

Balyk sai. Food tour in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Balyk sai.

The food tour in Bishkek left me with a little more knowledge about the food traditions in Kyrgyzstan, and many new tastes, and I am very glad I did this as an introduction at the beginning of my visit.

 

The food tour is mainly accessible for the guests staying at Apple Hostel, but if you stay somewhere else, it is possible to contact them for an offer; applehostelkg@gmail.com.

 

Day trip to Pyramiden

Day trip to Pyramiden

Visiting the ghost town Pyramiden was high on the list for my visit to Svalbard. Exploring these kinds of unusual sights are intriguing, and the guide gave insight to the way of life in this former Russian settlement.

After a nice lunch in Longyearbyen, I was ready for my afternoon trip to Pyramiden. Heading north with the mountains on one side, and the partly snow-caped mountains and glacier at the other side of the fjord, I was excited for this trip combining nature and the mystic ghost town.

Skansbukta, a bay in the outer part of Billefjorden, is known for the rich bird life and the former gypsum mine, and we could easily witness both from the boat. The mining for gypsum was not a success, so after two attempts, the mine was abandoned. We could still see the traces of the mining and the trappers hut at the beach, but the main attraction now is the birds. My personal favorite among them are the cute puffins!

Skansbukta bay in the outer part of Billefjorden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Skansbukta, a bay in the outer part of Billefjorden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A cute little puffin! Billefjorden, Pyramiden, Svalbard, Norway

A cute little puffin!

Grey clouds hanging down the mountains. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Heading on, I could see the massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen in the distance. I ignored the fact that I was quite cold, and stayed out on the deck to enjoy the beautiful, yet grey, scenery. As the boat approached the majestic glacier, the wind silenced and the sun came out, warming up my frozen butt… I did bring more warm clothes, and they even have some thermic overall suites on board, but I was just too lazy to put them on. And I actually did not realize how cold I was until I felt the heat.

The grey clouds that had followed us all day cracked up, and gave way for the blue sky. This combined with the white clouds, and the white and blue glacier, made it picture perfect! Everyone on board came out to enjoy this powerful natural sight, and it felt like time stood still for a moment.

Arriving at Nordenskiöldbreen glacier. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Blue ice at the massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen up close. Near Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Nordenskiöldbreen glacier near Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

But Pyramiden (and the guide) was waiting, so we had to continue our journey.

Due to the risk of polar bears in the area, you are not allowed to walk around on your own without a gun or rifle, so we had to stay close to the guide at all times.

The Pyramiden area was originally Swedish territory, but they sold it to the Russians in 1927. They built the settlement at the foot of the Pyramiden mountain, hence the name of the town, and started mining for coal in 1956. It was considered a very lucrative job, both being very well paid, and also included free housing, food and entertainment. At the glory days, there were about 1800 people living in Pyramiden. Some workers came with their family, others came alone. In one of the apartment buildings, the top floor was for single women and the bottom floor was for single men. The floors between were for couples and families. Very few left Pyramiden still single…

Welcome to Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

An apartment building in Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

An apartment building in Pyramiden.

The workers were not allowed to stay for more than two years, both to prevent depression during polar nights, but also to give the opportunity to others to work and save money to start a new life back at the mainland.

The houses in the town were modern, the culture center had a concert hall and a sports room, they had a nice swimming pool, a large cantina and a hotel. And even imported grass from the Soviet Union!

The decline started with the fall of the Soviet Union, and combined with the tragic plane crash in 1996, where most of the deceased were workers at Pyramiden, it was the beginning of the end for the settlement. In 1998 most of the workers left the town, and left everything behind. Maybe they thought things would get better and they would move back some day, or maybe it was just too expensive to move everything. The theories are many.

After being deserted for 10 years, some Russians started to inhabit Pyramiden again in 2008 to attract tourists. Today there are only two buildings that has electricity, and most of the houses are locked up. No one are allowed to enter the buildings without permission, but the guided tour takes you inside some of them to witness the grandness of the glory days. Today there are 3-4 persons living in Pyramiden all year around to maintain the buildings, while there are about 10 extra people during the season.

It is a very special experience walking around a ghost town like Pyramiden. It seemed dead quiet, but all of a sudden a fox came sneaking around a corner, curiously following the group at safe distance.

The mines behind Pyramiden. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway A fox sneaking around. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Arriving at the cultural center, we were allowed to walk freely inside. The house is pretty run down, but if you look closely, you can still see some of the fine details; such as the engraved polar bear on the floor downstairs.

Lenin in front of the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The world's northernmost statue of Lenin. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A polar bear engraved in the floor. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A polar bear engraved in the floor.

Several music instruments were scattered around in different rooms, once used to play music in the concert hall. Pyramiden was a haven where they could listen to music that was banned elsewhere in the Soviet Union, like for instance jazz.

One of the many instruments left in the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The entertainment room in thge cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The sports hall had a thick layer of dust on the floor, and reminded me of the sports room in another former Soviet area; the cultural center in Pripyat in Chernobyl

The sport hall in the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The stairs inside the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Standing at the porch of the cultural center, you can look out at the whole city of Pyramiden, with the glacier and the mountains as a beautiful backdrop. And the back head of the northernmost statue of Lenin, that enjoy the same view.

Lenin looking out over Pyramiden and Nordenskiöldbreen. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Lenin looking out over Pyramiden and Nordenskiöldbreen.

Pyramiden and the glacier. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Pyramiden town. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The large cantina looked like a nice ballroom, with wooden floor, large windows, flowery wallpaper, and a large mosaic art piece above the staircase. Back at the kitchen the relics of the state-of-the-art equipment from that time remains.

The cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Care for some ice cream. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Care for some ice cream?

The main staircase in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Mosaic art in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The main room in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Inside the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The kitchen in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Our last stop was at the hotel. Originally built in 1989, it still has the Soviet style even though part has been renovated to be more modern. The room where the bar is situated still has the original walls and ceilings, but the bar is new. And rich. Not in the sense of money, as the prices are quite cheap, but the selection is wide. They have their own beer and vodka as well. I of course had to try them both. Apparently, Russians have a tradition to drink alcoholic beverages containing the same % of alcohol as the latitude they are at, so if you feel adventurous, you can get a strong shot. Being at 79°, I did not feel the need to act like a local. Regular vodka was enough.

The hotel bar. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The local vodka in the bar. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Leaving Pyramiden, I wish I had more time and could stay overnight. You are not allowed to walk freely around without a gun or rifle though, but if you are licensed you can go for hikes up the mountain. Or just enjoy the scenery. And send a postcard from this unusual outpost.

Stamps at the post office. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

As the boat headed back towards Longyearbyen, I caught a last glimpse of the white and blue glacier, while puffins were flying by the window.

Practical information: 
Book online in advance. 
The catamaran leaves at 13.30, but pickup at the hotels are earlier.
Bring warm woolen clothes, including scarf, gloves and a hat, so you can stay outdoor and enjoy the scenery.
You can only pay by cash at Pyramiden, as they do not have signal for the card machines to be online.

 

Day trip from Kiev to Chernobyl

Day trip from Kiev to Chernobyl

Chernobyl. The word alone evoke fear among the people born in the 80’s and earlier, that can remember this horrible April night in 1986. The iron curtain over the Soviet Union prevented the information about the accident to reach the rest of the world for several days. Even the inhabitants of the nearby town Pripyat knew nothing about the danger.

The model town Pripyat was built in 1970, at the same time as the nuclear power plant Chernobyl. The town was constructed to house the workers at the power plant, and their families. The building went fast, and as the city mainly consisted of high-rise apartment buildings, the area in itself was not very large. With a large supermarket, the school, swimming pools, sports arena and the culture center with cinema and sports hall, the inhabitants had what they needed. In addition, they had places for leisure along the river. The day before the accident, the amusement park with the large Ferris wheel – that later became the symbol of the ghost town for many- was finished. The plan was to open it for the celebration of May 1st.

Then the unforeseen happened. The frightening accident that characterized the worldview ever since. On the night of April 26, 1986, the nuclear engineers prepared a system test to find out how the reactor responded to maximum power and how long the turbines would work after the power had been cut off. The security system was disconnected, so before they reacted and did something about the situation, the disaster was already a fact.

Overheating caused reactor 4 to explode and a cloud of radioactivity was shot high into the air. A combination of panic and paralysis followed. The Soviet Union tried to hide the accident, but the cloud was spread by the wind, and researchers in other countries, including Sweden, recorded radioactive deposition. At first, they wondered if it could be due to accidents at their own power plants, but as there were no accidents reported, it had to come from elsewhere. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, they discussed what they should do.

In lack of a decision on evacuation, the amusement park was opened to entertain the still unaware residents. Not until the day after the evacuation buses had arrived, residents were transported away from the city, announcing that it would be a short-term evacuation. For most of them, this was the very last time they set foot in Pripyat.

Nature taking over. Zalissya, Chernobyl, Ukraine

On the way to Pripyat, we passed a village totally covered by trees. Ironically, the original name of the village, Zalissya, is translated to “behind the trees”. Little did they know how true that would be…

Nature has totally taken over the houses. Zalissya, Chernobyl, Ukraine Humans moved out. Nature moved in. Zalissya, Chernobyl, Ukraine

The abandoned kindergarten in Kopachi village. Chernobyl, Ukraine.

The kindergarten in Kopachi village. Most of the houses in the village itself has been torn down and the remains has been buried.

Toys in one of the abandoned kindergarten. Kopachi village. Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Prepared with Geiger counter to check radiation. Kopachi village. Chernobyl, Ukraine.

One of the self settlers that moved back and are now living within the 10km zone. Chernobyl, Ukraine

One of the self settlers that moved back and are now living within the 10 km zone.

Monument for the fire fighters. Chernobyl, Ukraine

Monument for the fire fighters.

Fast forward, 30 years
A little more than 30 years later, I get off the mini bus from SoloEast Travel and set my foot at the broken asphalt close to the supermarket. In my hand I have a Geiger counter. It releases regular beeps and shows stable levels, not higher than for example in Kiev. Grass and small bushes grow fast in the asphalt cracks, and tall trees have long ago started the covering operation around the rest of the city. There is a powerful silence, only interrupted by the wind in the trees, and the beeps from the Geiger counter. We are all aware of the seriousness of the incidence bringing us here. The comments and laughter after the absurd music video and movie trailer we were shown on the bus on our way from Kiev (cannot be described, must be experienced. Or, preferably not ….) has stopped.

Around us, behind lush green trees, we see the typical grey Soviet brick buildings. Most of the facades are still intact, but the decay from the time, ravages and looting is clearly visible when we get closer. Glass and wooden pieces lay around everywhere. The only thing that is more or less intact in the supermarket, are signs hanging from the roof to indicate the shelf placements. The checkouts and carts are scattered around.

Nature is taking over. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine The supermarket. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

Despite the bad condition of the buildings, we can wander around quite freely. Shards of glass crunch under my shoes as I walk around in the cultural center.  Water from the rain the day before is dripping at my head when I peak into the room that used to be the cinema. Little resembles that now, other than the three lonely cinema chairs at row three. The football and basketball goals in the next-door room are quite intact, and the broken glass from the large windows still crunch under my feet. The windows that once gave view overlooking the amusement park with the majestic Ferris wheel.

The cinema at the cultural center. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine The sports hall at the cultural center. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

Down the stairs, and out the backdoor. Fading colored bumper cars are randomly scattered around. The ticket booth does not exactly invite you to buy a ticket for a ride. I can almost hear the false music from the horror movies from other abandoned amusement parks.

The Ferris wheel in the amusement park. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine The fading coloured bumper cars in the amusement park. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

The swimming pool was one of three in Pripyat, and it was actually in use until 1996 by workers that are still in the area. It was open two hours a day, and since there was no radiation inside the building, they had to wash the shoes every time they entered. Now the lush green trees grow through the broken windows, and leaves and trash fill the bottom. It is strange to see the contrast to how lively swimming pools usually are.

The swimming pool. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

Arriving at the school building, we received strict orders not to go out in the backyard. The vegetation has taken over completely, and the soil has high radiation. Otherwise, we could move freely inside the building, through the hallways and into the classrooms where the desks stood lined up, with papers fluttering around the floor. In one room, posters with historical photos were hanging side by side the woodwork instructions. In another room, many gas masks were piled up. On a chair in the middle of the room sat a doll with a gas mask on, obviously placed there as a powerful motive for photography. I continue the expedition. Up the stairs, all the way to the roof, where I looked out over the overgrown area. The silence was broken by birds singing. After the people left the area and nature took over, it has become a bustling wildlife with species from all over northern Ukraine.

One of the classrooms at the school. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine Posters with historical photos hanging side by side the woodwork instructions. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine The powerful photo motive of the doll with the gass mask. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine Nature taking over the school. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

To end the visit in Pripyat, we took a walk around the recreation area by the water. Overlooking the water from a patio, it seemed very peaceful.

Recreation area down by the water. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

Recreation area down by the water.

Glass paintings in one of the houses by the river. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine Vending machines by the recreation area. Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine

Walking further, that was when the Geiger counter went crazy.

 

On our way back from the past, we got a closer look at the future. Reactor 4 that exploded in 1986 was later covered by a sarcophagus in concrete as a temporary solution. Over time, this has become more and more disintegrate, and a new steel sarcophagus has been built to be rolled straight over the reactor. This also makes it the world’s largest mobile steel construction.

Reactor 4. Chernobyl, Ukraine

Reactor 4.

The new steel sarcophagus has been built to be rolled straight over reactor 4. Chernobyl, Ukraine

Before leaving the area, everyone has to be checked for radiation on the clothes. Chernobyl, Ukraine

Before leaving the area, everyone has to be checked for radiation on the clothes.

Visiting a ghost town like this make a big impression. The first thought is, of course, the tragedy that occurred and everyone affected. Both then and afterwards. I admit I had mixed feelings going there; I felt I stepped on the history of those who were hit hardest, while it is important to learn more about the history and consequences. Many thoughts were spinning in the minds of the group, as we sat in silence in the bus going back to Kiev.

Sunrise hike at Batur volcano

There is a reason why I have seen far more sunsets than sunrises, but that makes them even more special. Hearing about the Sunrise hike to Batur volcano, I decided I could sleep when I got back home, and signed up for the tour.

At 02.02 in the morning, just a couple minutes late, I was ready outside the hotel to be picked up. The intense heat I had experienced the day before was definitely not present, and I was almost shivering. It was probably a combination of absence of sun and lack of sleep, giving a coldness from the inside that cannot immediately get warmer by putting on more clothes. As it was pitch black and not much to see outside, I had a power nap in the car. After about an hour drive we stopped for a quick breakfast; banana pancakes and hot drinks. I must admit that the warm tea helped a little bit getting my temperature up.

The drive continued in the dark, and I dozed off several times. Arriving at the parking lot at the foot of the volcano, we teamed up with the guide. After a short briefing we were, in a friendly but firm tone, ordered to visit the bathroom before we got started.

With our headlights on, we strolled through the fields before the ascent. The hike went zigzagging upwards and upwards in the pale lights from the headlights, while hearing encouraging voices from the dark. The gravel made the trail slippery, and it sometimes felt we slipped back two steps for every one we made forward. Still we suddenly arrived at the first stop for some rest.

The cold draft quickly cooled down the sweat, so after a short break and some sips of water, we were back at our feet. About two hours after we started the hike, we arrived at the top of Batur, 1717 meters above sea level. It was about to get lighter, but the sun was still nowhere to be seen.

Sitting down with our second breakfast, we were gazing at the horizon but at the same time constantly keeping an eye out for the monkeys that took every chance they got to steel from the ones that were not paying attention.

The damp weather and the steam from the volcano made our clothes quite moist. Fortunately, I had brought enough clothes to keep warm, but the sarong I lent to one of the others felt wetter than after a day at the beach. Luckily, it did not take long before the sun broke through the clouds, and we could see the outline of the volcanic mountain in the horizon on the orange backdrop.

Sunrise at Batur Volcano. Bali, Indonesia. Watching the sunrise at Batur Volcano. Bali, Indonesia.

While multiple sunrise photos were taken, the guides made us eggs cooked on the steam from the volcano. It is strange how food cooked outdoors always taste a little better. A rain shower creating a rainbow as a cupola over the crater, brought our cameras back out.

Egg cooked by volcano steam. Batur Volcano. Bali, Indonesia. Rainbow over Batur Volcano. Bali, Indonesia.

Making our way back down, we walked around the lush green crater. Even though we could now see the surface better, it was easy to underestimate the cruelty and speed of the sliding pebbles… Controlling the speed on the other hand, was fun.

View from Batur Volcano. Bali, Indonesia. Green crater of Batur Volcano. Bali, Indonesia.

Batur Volcano. You can clearly see the traces of the lava streams along the side of the volcano. The past 200 years, Batur has erupted 26 times. Bali, Indonesia.

You can clearly see the traces of the lava streams along the side of the volcano. The past 200 years, Batur has erupted 26 times; the most devastating was in 1926.

Back at the car we decided to go straight back to Ubud, skipping the visit at the coffee plantation that was included in the tour. The drive went fast through the lush green landscape, and I made it back at the hotel just in time for the third breakfast that morning. Climbing a volcano sure made me hungry…

 

What to bring: A small backpack with more clothes and a bottle of water. Make sure to bring something warm and dry that you can change to at the top. It can also be wise to keep your clothes in a waterproof bag, to avoid the moist.

Food tour in Budapest

Food tour in Budapest

The first Hungarian food that comes to mind is the Goulash, but I knew there was much more to it, so I decided to book a food tour with a local to get the best idea.

I searched online and found the company Taste Hungary, that runs several different food tours. I had a hard time deciding, but eventually ended up with the Buda Food Walk, so I could explore the lesser known areas of Budapest.

The food tour started at 10, and as the description promised I would not be hungry after, I decided to skip breakfast. By experience, I have never left a food tour hungry…

Getting on the tram, crossing the bridge from the Pest- to the Buda-side, I quickly got to the meeting place. When the group was complete, we got a sweet start at Auguszt, a very traditional family run pastry shop. I must admit that sweets in the morning is not my favorite, but a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do, right?

The display was full of delicious looking pastry, and the guide described them all. I was struggling making up my mind, but ended up with Eszterhazy (taste that word….), with almond meringue, buttercream, and chocolate. It tasted good, but as I said, sweets are not my style in the morning. Luckily, the others in the group were of different caliber.

How is it possible too choose from these. At Auguszt pastry shop. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

How is it possible too choose from these?

Cake for breakfast at Auguszt pastry shop. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Cake for breakfast. A childhood dream?

Just crossing the street for the market, we aimed for the Langos. If you do not know what that is already, you certainly will know after visiting Hungary. I am absolutely convinced that it is impossible to not see any Langos during your stay. They are found many places, except when I was craving it as a last meal before leaving the country…

Langos are often eaten as a snack between breakfast and lunch. We joined the club, only we were eating all the meals in a short period of time. According to our guide, the particular place she took us, was the best in town. Their secret is to use cabbage in the dough as well. The traditional way to serve the Langos is with sour cream, garlic and cheese. Heavy and super good! Bear in mind you can easily share one with a friend or two…

Langos in the making at the market in Buda. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Langos in the making at the market in Buda.

Yummy Langos at the market in Buda. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Walking along the permanent market shops, we were introduced to another specialty – Mangalica meat. It is a Hungarian breed furry pig with a special textured meat with lard. Ok, it may not sound particularly good, but I promise you, the cold cuts we tasted were magical!

Meat shop at the market in Buda. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Standing in line for the cold cuts of Mangalica. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Standing in line for the cold cuts of Mangalica.

Delicious cold cuts of Mangalica. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

On the ground floor in the middle, vendors sell local produce from the surrounding area. Others sell cheese or spices. Many ingredients originally came to Hungary with the Turks, with paprika being just one of them, so many of the words for the vegetables are actually more or less the same in Turkish and Hungarian.

Local producers selling everything you need. Including paprika. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Back to the cheese; During communism, all farmers had to send all their produce to the state, so the artisan production was lost for a long time. Some have recently started again making a small production, selling their goods from a little stall in one of the corners.

Local cheese produce sold at the market in Buda. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

It was time to walk off the breakfast and snacks before the real lunch. Strolling the streets and parks of Buda, then heading up Rose Hill. Arriving at the top, we were rewarded with a magnificent view of Budapest.

Beautiful view from Rose Hill. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Beautiful view from Rose Hill.

But it is also a historical place, hosting the memorial of Péter Mansfeld, one of the heroes of the Hungarian Revolution and freedom fight of 1956. Sadly he was arrested and sentenced to death.

Walking down the uneven and charming Gül Baba street, we could clearly see the restoration work in progress of the area around his tomb. By the looks of the project sketches, it will become an even nicer area to visit.

The charming Gül Baba street. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

The charming Gül Baba street.

Behind a pale green wall, we entered a grandma-style restaurant. Old dark wooden furniture’s, off-white lace curtains and wallpaper. And lots of trinkets all around to look at while the elderly woman prepared our food. Lunch is the main meal in Hungary, so we were prepared it would be a lot.

Our restaurant for lunch. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Stepping into our lunch restaurant felt like visiting grandma. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Stepping into our lunch restaurant felt like visiting grandma.

Hot broth soup with a large dumpling came first. Then multiple dishes with paprika and sour cream – one served with cabbage, one with chicken, and one with the local pasta. It would be an understatement to say we were full when we left. We were stuffed!

Broth soup. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary. Cabbage with paprika sauce and sour cream. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary. Local pasta with paprika sauce and sour cream. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Good thing then that at our next (and last) stop, the communist style café Bambi eszpres, we got to taste Unikum. Or maybe I should not say that as a good thing – this black herbal drink tasted even more awful than the German equivalent Underberg, but at least it serves as a digestive, and we sure needed that!

Communist style café Bambi eszpres. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Communist style café Bambi eszpres.

Unikum, a local liquor with 42 different herbs. Taste Hungary food tour. Budapest, Hungary.

Unikum, a local liquor with 42 different herbs.

The guide saw us of with some restaurant tips, and pointed us in the direction of Kira’ly – a small local thermal bath just right around the corner. It is actually the oldest Turkish baths, and the only that is still original. A nice and relaxing activity while digesting both the food and impressions.

Next time I go to Budapest, I will certainly try one of the other food tours they offer, like the culinary walk ending with wine tasting…

Expedition from El Nido to Coron

Getting from El Nido to Coron, we decided to go for the three day expedition instead of the direct “fast” ferry. The trip included stops along the way and overnight in tents at deserted beaches. And food. What’s not to like about that?

No one can predict the weather, but it so happened that the night before I reached the Philippine islands, a typhoon swept by. It calmed down for a while, before it was picking up again.

Some of the day tours from El Nido were cancelled, but the most popular ones, like Tour A was still running.

We started to get a bit worried, as our El Nido to Coron expedition would include open water areas that most probably would be effected. Our worries seemed to be without cause. Early morning we were picked up and taken to the harbour for the start of our adventure. Divided in two groups we were taken to the boats that would be our companion the next three days.

Getting acquainted with our fellow passengers, we enjoyed the start of the journey up on the sunny deck. Cruising in comfortable speed, we got to know the Germans from the day before, as well as a new German girl and both a Lithuanian and Dutch solo traveler.

Anchoring up at Nacpan beach it seemed like the perfect paradise, and we enjoyed the peace and quiet at the beach before swimming back to our boat for delicious lunch. The chefs had prepared several dishes with meat and vegetables for all our desires.

Nacpan beach, a real paradise. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Nacpan beach a real paradise. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Relaxing life at Napcan beach. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Looking out for the stormy clouds. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Moving on, the wind picked up, and while we as passengers relaxed in the sun on deck, the responsible person for the expedition paid close attention to the weather conditions. Sunny blue skies turned grey, and as without warning for the non-trimmed eye, the lovely sunny day turned pouring down. Our sun cover on the upper deck luckily also served as rain cover, and we all became a bit closer friends all of a sudden.

Safety first

The captain set anchor in a bay all the way north of Palawan while waiting for the other boat. After a while in uncertainty the message came; we are staying here for the night.

Our home the first night. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Stormy sky ahead. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

The crew made all the arrangements, and our tents were set up at the beach alongside the local fishing boats. It was not the deserted beach I had fantasized about, but still an authentic experience. Curious local children first shy, then boldly walking around the campsite.

Tenting at the beach by a village north on Palawan. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Helping the locals to get the boat to sea. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Helping the locals to get the boat to sea.

The closest house agreed to open their doors for us, and served as our bathroom. Along came also a big bonus; since the family was usually nearby to let us in to their home, we talked with them about family values and living conditions, getting to know more about the local culture.

After the buffet dinner was set up at long tables at the beach, the night slowly appeared. The tents were already up, and the tired ones could retreat, while the rest enjoyed the late evening around the warm bonfire.

Dinner is served! Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Dinner coming up!

Lovely evening around the bonfire at the beach. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Lovely evening around the bonfire at the beach.

A new day, new adventures

Morning came with more curious kids as well as adults. The kids were curious about us, while we, first of all were concerned about our next move. Wind had picked up more, and the chief was debating either to turn back to El Nido or to find alternative transport. All of us needed to go to Coron to continue our journeys, but safety first. The chief left us for a few hour. In the meantime, the weather on shore was not too bad, so we played with the local kids, walked along the beach, relaxed a bit in the tents, and played some more.

Curious local children. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Yoga at the beach. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Yoga at the beach.

When he returned, we gathered for information. He had arranged a larger boat to take us all to Coron the next day, so we were staying at the spot for one more night, but he had also arranged for us to stay inside the community house.

Lunch was prepared, and when we had finished eating, new information was given; the wind had quiet down, so everything was packed on the boats and we got going. Nice and slow.

More food, and more kids! Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Waves were still large, so it took us more than double the time to reach the safe deserted beach for the night.

Arriving in almost sunshine and calm sea, we packed the things we needed for the night in plastic bags and left them for the crew to paddle to shore while we had a nice swim. With nobody else around it felt a bit like “Cast Away”. The tents were lined up along the beach and dinner was prepared around the bonfire.

Food delivery at our deserted beach. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Food delivery at our deserted beach.

Our boats. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

From time to time some heavy rain showers came around, chasing us to seek shelter in an unfinished gazebo. Once it stopped, we went back to the beach. And the commuting continued, back and forth.

Along with the rain came also the wind. Stronger each time. At one point we went to check on the tents, and found that we urgently had to move them. We found a spot for ours a bit more sheltered by a tree, and decided to call it a night. The rule of no sand in the tent was broken, and I felt I woke up rolling around in a broken sand castle. The disadvantage of tenting at a deserted beach.

Bright, shiny day

Waking up to a bright sunny day was a pleasant surprise. After our pancake breakfast with eggs on the side, we packed out things together and swam back to the ship. Two ships had become one, as the smaller one had to return to El Nido. By now the group had grown quite close after spending two days together, so we had more than enough space.

Waking up to a nice sunny day. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Time to say goodbye to our beach home. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Sunbathing on deck, we were enjoying the slow moving life as we continued towards Coron. Stopping along the way to cool down swimming in the coral blue ocean, we had perfect breaks from the life on the boat. I will not lie to you; as we had to do the sailing distance of two days in one, it sure was a long day. I sometimes felt being back in time to my childhood, driving long distances by car with my parents, constantly asking “are we there yet?”. Only now, I was just asking myself, not out loud.

Locals passing by. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Beautiful beach for snorkeling. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Passing by a remote village. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines. Sunset behind us on our way to Coron. Three day expedition with El Nido Paradise from El Nido to Coron. Philippines.

Sunny day turned to pitch black night, and we could see the lights of Coron in the far distance. Sitting together on deck, we finished the supply of rum and coke, sharing brotherly. Even though we were all tired and wanted to get to our destination, we kept the spirit up; after all, we were all in the same boat… (sorry, just could not resist…)

Arriving Coron many hours after planned turned out to be a bit of a headache for the ones not booking the accommodation ahead. Including us. We found a tricycle to take us around looking for a place to stay. As I had a local sim-card I had done a little bit of research along the boat ride when we were lucky enough to have coverage, but the connection was quite bad so it was impossible to book anything. At least we had a backup plan, even though it was quite far from the center.

We decided to try our luck with the driver first. He was super helpful, and when we had given up, he still came up with another place to try. That was a fail as well as all places were fully booked, but our luck changed, and the place next door had an opening. The ones that had booked did not show up. Two lessons learned; book ahead in high season if you are picky with your accommodation, and absolutely notify your place to stay if you check in late….. We were lucky getting a very nice room to a decent price, and at a great location.

Going to bed more or less right away after a long journey, we were dreaming about our past adventure while considering our next; exploring the islands around Coron in the morning….