Soaking in a hot stone bath in Paro

Soaking in a hot stone bath in Paro

Slipping into the soothing water at the hot stone bath felt like yet another blessing after returning from the hike to the Tiger’s Nest.

On the way back to Paro, we stopped for a hot stone bath. Our guide had called in advanced and booked the time. This is essential, as it takes more than 5 hours to heat the stones on the wooden fire.

The hot stone baths can be found in farmhouses and hotels, and it is tradition to go as a family or a group of friends before special occasions. At this particular hot stone bath, there were several rooms in a wooden shed out in the courtyard. Our room had two wooden tubs, and looked a little bit like open coffins…

Filled with cold water, the burning hot river stones were dropped in at the far end. The water sizzled, and some of the rocks were so hot that they crack when meeting the cold water, and released the minerals inside.

Indulged in the heated water, the muscles instantly felt relaxed. When you feel it is time to get the temperature up, you simply shout out “Aue Dho gobay Dho” or “Dho Dho” which literally means “need some more stone”, or “stone stone”. The strong farmwoman quickly found her fire tongs, opened the chute at the end of the wooden room, and exchanged some of the chilled rocks with smoking hot ones. On the second round, I could clearly feel the strong heat spread from my feet and up.

I am normally too restless to even stand 10 minutes laying still in a bathtub, but I found my peace here and soaked for 45 minutes! I only wish I had known about this amazing tradition earlier, so we could have pampered our bodies several times during our tour. Oh well, just another reason to return….

Red hot stones prepared on the fire for the hot stone bath in Paro. Bhutan.

Bringing the hot stones from the fire to the hot stone bath. Paro, Bhutan.

Bringing the hot stones from the fire to the hot stone bath.

Putting the hot stones from the fire into the hot stone bath. Paro, Bhutan. Enjoying the hot stone bath in Paro. Bhutan. Feeling the heat from the hot stones in the hot stone bath. Paro, Bhutan.

Hiking to Tiger’s Nest

Hiking to Tiger’s Nest

The clouds were hanging low over the valley, and considering the heavy rainfall during the night, I was not quite sure how the hike to Tiger’s Nest would be.

As I have grown up with the saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”, we dressed accordingly, and brought extra clothes in waterproof bags.

Stepping out of the car at the starting point of the hike to Tiger’s Nest (or Paro Taktsang, as it is officially called), it was quite obvious that this is the main attraction in Bhutan. We were quite overwhelmed by the amount of other tourists. Not that it was that many, as the tourism in Bhutan is limited and it never felt crowded, but it was for sure a lot more than we were used to. Then again, the other days we had only met a few every now and then…

It was still early morning, and the few souvenir sellers that were already there, had not yet finished unpacking their goods. Even the sad-looking horses had not started their tough day carrying lazy tourists to the cafe with the viewpoint. Needless to say, we depended on our own feet…

Passing the three houses with prayer wheels rotated by the running stream, the assent started for real. I could feel the height making it harder to breathe and my feet felt heavier, so we went nice and slow. The rain had luckily stayed away, but the clouds and mist were blocking most of the view.

Three houses with prayer wheels rotated by the running stream.

Three houses with prayer wheels rotated by the running stream.

As the cafe about half way up is the only place along the route with a bathroom, we went the short detour there before continuing the last part. The grey wall of clouds was right in front of me, but all of a sudden the wind swept by making a hole in it, letting us sneak a peak of the Tiger’s Nest high up on the steep cliff.

A sneak peak of Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

A sneak peak of Tiger’s Nest.

While waiting for the grey clouds to go away, a colorful bird suddenly appeared. Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

While waiting for the grey clouds to go away, a colorful bird suddenly appeared.

The magical moment was short, and as fast as it appeared, it was concealed by the clouds again. Back on the track again, the peace and quiet was interrupted by some other tourists playing music from the loudspeakers on the phone. They had passed us earlier riding the horses, but luckily, we were faster than them by feet and quickly passed them. Soon we could hear the calming sounds of the breeze in the trees and the billowing prayer flags again. And my pounding heart and short breath…

His Holiness Je Khenpo named Gendün Rinchen was born here.

His Holiness Je Khenpo named Gendün Rinchen was born here.

Reaching the highest point right opposite the Tiger’s Nest, the grey wall we had become quite aquatint with was still there. We had a short break and some sips of water, and just as we were about to give up and continue, the grey was yet again swept away. The view was absolutely breathtaking (ok, I might have already been out of breath…) and after standing motionless for a little while, I got my camera out.

The grey wall of cloud hiding the Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

The grey wall of cloud hiding the Tiger’s Nest.

Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

A lot of photos later (I would not risk it to disappear behind the big grey curtain again), we started descending the steep stairs. Going down again?? – you might ask. Yes, we had to go down the gorge to cross the bridge with the waterfall backdrop to get back up at the other side. And mark my words – this is the steepest part of the track, and you have to get back the same way.

Waterfall and the Lion's Cave at Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

Entering the temple, you have to leave your phones and cameras at the gate, as it is strictly forbidden to take any photos. It also allows you to have full focus of actually being present at this fascinating place, not worrying how to make the best pictures.

Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, the one that introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, flew from Tibet to the cliff high up in the mountain on the back of a tigeress in the 8th Century. Once he arrived, he sat down in a cave meditating for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Many centuries later, in 1692, the first part of the Tiger’s nest was built around this cave. The complex has been built in several stages, including the rebuilding after the devastating fire in 1998, and now consist of nine temples.

Walking around the temple caves, we climbed the rocky stairs and listened to the stories about the temples, statues and the paintings. As this was at the end of our tour in Bhutan, we had learned plenty about the Buddhism from our knowledgeable guide, and could recognize quite a few of the Buddha’s, paintings and other symbols. It kind of felt like a final exam, but in a good way, making many of the pieces of the puzzle of what we had learned along our journey fall into place.

I must admit – I had pictured myself experiencing the Tiger’s Nest in sunshine under the bright blue sky. And I was a bit disappointed that the only grey day we had, was the day of what I thought would be the highlight of the trip. In hindsight, I was actually happy it ended that way. Not only did the clouds protect us from the burning sun, but the clouds also made the scenery look even more dramatic.

Prayer flags in the wind. Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

Long rows of prayer flags all along the track to Tiger's Nest. Paro Taktsang. Bhutan.

Long rows of prayer flags all along the track to Tiger’s Nest.

 

Museum of Broken Relationships

The Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb, Croatia.The Museum of Broken Relationships was on my must see list before going to Zagreb. People from all over the world send in their contribution as therapy or simply just to share their stories of their break up.

The broken caterpillar. One of the items at the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb, Croatia.

“….Every time we would see each other we would tear off one leg. When we ran out of legs to tear, that would be the time to start a life together……”

The axe used to chop the furniture's of the ex in small pieces. One of the items at the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb, Croatia.

The axe used to chop the furniture’s of the ex in small pieces. Read the full story; http://bit.ly/2i1vQMj.

However, broken relationships are more than two (or more often, one) lovers deciding not to stay together anymore. Broken relationships can also be a parent leaving their child and not return, someone dying of disease or natural causes, and also betrayal. The exhibition also had a collection of items from refugees.

The betrayals are obviously many, with numerous examples of infidelity, but also the betrayal of trust for the girl that was raped by the summer camp teacher.. The latter represented by the police report.

The police report after a rape at a summer camp. One of the items at the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb, Croatia.

The police report filed 24 years after the rape happened. “…I loved to sit on his knees. I used to call him my big teddy bear…. The last night of my stay, he woke me up and took me out of the dormitory. I walked holding his hand under the sky full of stars after a hot summer day. I was happy. He took me to his room, tickled me, it made me laugh. Then he raped me. It was hell. He made me promise not to say anything otherwise I would die. I didn’t say anything. I was nine years old…..”

I found myself walking around among the items for hours, reading every single story. I sure have had my share of bad stories with men, but most of these top them all…

So many items, and so many sad stories at The Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb, Croatia.

So many items, and so many sad stories at The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.

Then for some cute details after all the sadness; the museum shop has “bad memories eraser”, and the WiFi password in the cafe is “just friends”.

Do you have a story or an object from a former relationship you want to share? The Museum of Broken Relationships can help you get them of your chest.

Experiencing Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg

Experiencing Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg

Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg are popular places to visit at Svalbard. I had actually been to both by snowmobile on my first visit to Svalbard a few years ago, but wanted to experience them in the summer as well.

Basecamp Explorer offer two day trips by boat to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg during the summer season, including accommodation at the former radio station at Cape Linné.

Dressed in woolen layers and the water and wind proof suit, we all found a seat in the open rib boat. Leaving the sheltered harbor in Longyearbyen, the wind picked up. Even though the waves did not look big, we were in for a bumpy ride. My previous rib boat trips came in handy, by knowing to ride the seat like a horse in the waves.

The fog is hanging low down the mountainside. Svalbard, Norway.

The fog was hanging heavily down the mountainside, while the sunbeams managed to break through the clouds further out in the ocean. Birds were speeding alongside the boat, and the peaceful puffins escaped under the surface when we approached. By the time we reached the tip of the peninsular near Barentsburg, I wished I had put on an extra layer of clothes. Luckily, we only had 30 more minutes until we docked at Isfjord Radio.

Being greeted with hot mulled wine with cava sure helped. Along with the struggle to get out of the large survival suit. “Welcome to Isfjord Radio! Your room is upstairs in the main building. And do you see the white spot over there?», the guide asked, pointing a finger to the shore on the other side of the house. “That is a polar bear”. We had heard rumors that polar bears had been observed in the area, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be able to see one right away, with the naked eye! Just as a white dot in the distance, but still!

Nice to warm up by hot mulled wine with cava. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Armed with rifles, the guides walked us the short distance from the quay to the house. Safe inside, we took turns in using the binoculars to get a closer look at the large male polar bear, resting by the ocean. At the same time, one of the others spotted a female polar bear with her two cubs!

Polar bear mother with two cubs. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Hand-held binoculars flourished and exchanged hands so everyone could see. And through the telescope, patient souls could get mobile images of the mighty animals. The polar bears moved slowly along the shoreline. Towards us. The binoculars were rapidly exchanged, and the clicks from the shooting SLR cameras were increasing. Thrilled, we watched the baby bears play. Rolling over and play fighting, while the mother waited patiently.

Playing polar bear cubs. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

At the closest, they were only 300 meters away from the house, before they disappeared behind a cliff.

The polar bear show was over for a while, but from the large windows, both from our room and downstairs in the living room, we could witness plenty of other wildlife. Birds flying around, reindeer grassing outside, and a fox that suddenly appeared running around. And the sleeping polar bear we had spotted in the beginning, was still enjoying his peace.

Seaview at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway. Nice view at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Dinner was served, a delicious 3-course meal mixing local ingredients both from the land and the ocean. I was just about to have a bite of the reindeer, when the polar bear and the cute cubs made their appearance for a second time. Everybody gathered by the windows to watch them as they walked along the beach, before sitting down again, enjoying the food with a polar bear view.

Delicious reindeer for dinner at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Delicious reindeer for dinner.

Satisfied by both food and impressions, I sat down in the windowsill, silently looking out. A rain shower passed, leaving behind a rainbow. Yet another magic moment before the time hit midnight.

Papa bear is waking up. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Papa bear is waking up!

Rainbow at midnight at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Rainbow at midnight at Isfjord Radio.

A new day, new adventures

My planned morning swim was called off, as the polar bears were last spotted close to the beach (some would call that luck…). After a delicious breakfast, we packed our bags and did our morning gymnastics battling the survival suits.

Heading towards Barentsburg, a few Minke Whales all of a sudden appeared from the surface of the ocean. We stopped for a while to watch the majestic mammals as they graciously slid up and down in the water.

Beautiful scenery as we go by RIB boat from Isfjord Radio to Barentsburg. Svalbard, Norway. Spotted some Minke whales on the way from Isfjord Radio to Barentsburg. Svalbard, Norway.

Arriving at the quay in Barentsburg, we again fought the survival suits to avoid walking around like penguins.

Climbing up the stairs felt like stepping back in time. Many of the houses looked quite abandoned, while others had gone through massive changes since I visited 5 years ago. Some houses had been demolished, while the two large apartment buildings had been modernized. Lenin was still watching over the community.

Stairs from the harbor to the settlemet in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway. The old canteen in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway. Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

The Lenin statue outside the apartment buildings in Barentsburg. With the sign - Communism is the way of life. Svalbard, Norway.

The Lenin statue outside the apartment buildings in Barentsburg. With the sign – Communism is the way of life.

Lenin's view in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

Lenin’s view in Barentsburg.

Walking through town felt like walking around in a ghost city. It was completely silent, and we did not see a single person. Unlike the abandoned settlement Pyramiden, this Russian settlement houses 3-400 persons, including 50 children. Non of the children were out playing. Not even the cat was out. Eh, sorry, the arctic fox. One of many fun facts about Svalbard is that as cats are not allowed on the archipelago, so the one they have in Barentsburg is registered as an arctic fox!

While the parents work in the mines underground, the children attend school in a colorful decorated building. Paintings of wildlife, Russian sailing vessel and a Norwegian Viking ship stands side by side with iconic buildings as the Empire state building in NY, Kreml in Moscow and Bryggen in Bergen.

The decorated school in Barentsburg. Svalbard, Norway. The coal mine in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

Barentsburg rely only on themselves and Russia. The heating and electricity comes from the coal in the mines, drinking water from the lake at the other side of the fjord, and the food and other goods are imported from Murmansk.

The food at the hotel is typical Russian and the drinks in the bar as well. I of course had to taste it all; the pickled vegetables, the cured meat, the salty white fish mixed with potatoes and peas, the cabbage soup with sour cream, and last but not least – chunks of potato and meat mixed with vegetables and baked in the oven inside small ceramic bowls. The meat was so tender, and the potatoes and vegetables were soaked in the meaty sauce. Even though I was quite stuffed, I just could not stop eating. Good thing they had strong liquor to help digest afterwards. I did not go for the strongest one, though. The Russians apparently have a tradition to consume drinks with the same level of alcohol as the present latitude. Barentsburg is situated 78° N…

Walking back towards the harbor, I stopped by the characteristic wooden church. The Orthodox Church was built in 1996, after the fatal air crash that left 141 Russians and Ukrainians dead.

The Orthodox Church was built in 1996, after the fatal air crash that left 141 Russians and Ukrainians dead. Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

Our time in Barentsburg was up, but on our way back to Longyearbyen we stopped shortly by Grumant. This former Russian settlement was abandoned in 1960’s. At its peak it had 1200 inhabitants, but as they worked shift, the settlement only had beds for half of the population.

The two day trip to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg was an amazing combination of majestic nature, interesting settlements and history, tasty food, and lots of wildlife. It was absolutely a great way to experience some of what Svalbard has to offer, and I highly recommend it.

What to pack for Svalbard in summer:
Even if you visit Svalbard in the summer, keep in mind that it is far north, and the temperature is low. Dressing in woolen layers is the key to success, and if you are uncertain, it is always better to bring a little bit too much clothes, than to end up being cold. On the boat trip to Isfjord Radio, I was wearing a woolen singlet, a thin woolen sweater, another thin woolen sweater (but more loose to allow air between the layers) and a thick woolen sweater (instead of jacket). On my legs, I wore woolen johns and normal hiking trousers. A slightly loose pant is an advantage. Two pairs of woolen socks, the second being the large (and loose) kind that my grandmother knitted. I finished off with a hat, gloves and scarf. All in wool, of course. In addition, you get a survival suit to wear on top. This is windproof, but other than that, it does not give much isolation.

Booking:
The two day trip to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg can be booked directly with Basecamp Explorer.
Are you visiting Svalbard in the winter? Do not despair; they have two-day trips to Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg by snowmobile as well.

See more information about Svalbard, and additional things to explore.

Fun facts about Svalbard

Svalbard from the air around midnight in July. Svalbard, Norway.

Svalbard seen from the air while flying in around midnight in July.

The Svalbard archipelago, situated between the mainland on Norway and the North Pole, is a very fascinating place. In many ways. There are more polar bears than people, and four months a year, you experience 24 hours daylight.

The Svalbard Treaty from 1920 recognized Norwegian sovereignty in 1925, but there are more than 40 nationalities living there, including larger Russian communities.

The nature and wildlife is stunning, and no matter what season you visit, there are many nice experiences.

Here are some fun facts about Svalbard:

  1. Nobody is allowed to be born here. Pregnant women are send to the mainland to give birth.
  2. On the other hand, nobody is allowed to die here either. If you are seriously ill, or simply getting old, you have to move back to the mainland.
  3. People do not wear shoes inside, including at restaurants. This rule was made after having problems with workers dragging in dust from the coal mines.
  4. There are more polar bears in Svalbard than people.
  5. Due to the risk of meeting polar bears, nobody are allowed to walk around outside the settlement of Longyearbyen without being able to scare them away. It is also advised to bring firearms. You can therefore see people wandering around with riffles. But, when they go inside for example the grocery shop or a restaurant, they have to put them in designated lockers.
  6. From around 19 April to around 26 August you will experience the Midnight Sun, meaning that the sun will never set below the horizon in that period.
  7. From around 26 October to around 14 February, on the other hand, they have polar nights, meaning that the sun will never rise above the horizon, leaving it to be pitch dark all day and night. But, the good thing is that you will have much more chance to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), as it can be visible any time of day.
  8. For beer lovers, Svalbard is home to the northernmost brewery in the world, Svalbard Bryggeri.
  9. And the northernmost bar, post office, university, grocery shop, museum, ATM and Lenin statue, to name a few.
  10. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in an abandoned coal mine, contains seeds from all over the world in order to preserve them. The countries can get back seeds to regrow after for example crises.
  11. You are not allowed to pick flowers.
  12. There are only four Icelandic horses in Svalbard. One of them is 33 years and retired.
  13. Cats are not allowed. There is however a cat in the Russian settlement Barentsburg, but it is registered as an Arctic fox…
  14. The hotel in Barentsburg offer free parking. The problem is that there are no roads connecting Barentsburg with other settlements.
  15. The Russians apparently have a tradition to consume alcoholic drinks containing the same level of alcohol content as the latitude they are at. The former Russian settlement Pyramiden, is situated at 79°…

Have you been to Svalbard, and know some other fun facts?

Food tour in Bratislava

Food tour in Bratislava

When visiting different countries, I always check if there is a food tour available. This is a great way to taste many dishes, and get to know the food culture.

Visiting Bratislava was no exception. I signed up for the Traditional Food Tour offered by Taste Bratislava, and set off on what would be a heavy lunch including a little bit of tipsiness…

Meeting by the Opera house, we had a short walk to our first stop; Café Škodovka. The cute cafe is named after the car, and the interior include half of an old Skoda. The furniture’s are vintage style from the 70s, and the guide could remember having the exact same in their living room when growing up, as there very limited choices during the Soviet era.

Retro style at Café Škodovka. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The food also had its offspring from that period, and soon three different dishes stood before us, accompanied with white bread.

Parižsky šalát, reska v majonéze and Oškvarková pomazánka. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Treska v majonéze is a cod fish salad with mayo, made to make fish more attractive so more people would eat it as it was important as nutrition.
Parižsky šalát, or Paris salad, is sausage mixed with mayo, peas and gherkin.
Oškvarková pomazánka is a spread made of crushed crispy bacon with mustard, onion, herbs and spices.

The first one was my favorite, and the latter took a bit of time to get used to.
For drinks we were introduced to the Slovak red wine Dunaj.

The Slovak red wine Dunaj. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.
During the Communist times, farms owned by private persons were also part of the nationalization program introduced by the Communist party. Collectivization of farms meant small, independent farmers were forced to become part of agricultural mass production based on cooperative principles. The cooperative agricultural system was perceived as an aggressive measure which interfered with the traditional way of life of people in rural Slovakia. Quantity was more important than quality, including when it came to wine. After the fall of the Communist Regime, the people had to prove their rights to get back the land that was previously theirs.

Nowadays, many small winemakers make high quality wine, winning international prices. The production is still low though, and as the local consumption is higher than the production, nothing is exported. Yet another reason to visit Slovakia, to get to try the local wines that are not found outside the country. For me, it was unfortunately limited to this one glass, but they also offer more specific wine tasting tours as well, or paired with food.
Some local varieties are the result of crossbreeding popular grape varieties. A nice curiosity is that all new white crossbreeds are named after Slovak castles, while the few new red wines are named after Slovak rivers.

Moving on, we had a quick stop outside the old market hall. In addition to the Saturday market, events and concerts are also held here. This interesting building from 1910 was inspired by the Eiffel tower, and was used as a TV studio during the Communist times.

Our next dishes were served at Flagship Bratislavská reštauracia. I actually had my dinner here the day before, but had absolutely no problem with returning, as it was a great experience. I had already tried the Bryndzové halušky, sheep-cheese dumplings, that is also the national dish, but the Kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) was new to me.

Bryndzové halušky, sheep-cheese dumplings with bacon, that is also the Slovak national dish. Flagship Bratislavská reštauracia. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Bryndzové halušky, sheep-cheese dumplings with bacon, that is also the Slovak national dish. Flagship Bratislavská reštauracia.

Kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) at Flagship Bratislavská reštauracia. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) at Flagship Bratislavská reštauracia.

The soup is a very popular dish, especially in winter and for Christmas and New Years. It is often eaten as a starter on Christmas Eve, before the carp is served as the common main dish. This is where it becomes interesting… Apparently, it is Christmas tradition to buy a live carp, bring it home, and let it swim around in the bathtub for a few days! The kids even name it and play with it! I must admit I found it hard to believe, but I had no reason not to trust what the guide told us. It is however a reason for the tradition; carp is a freshwater fish and a bottom feeder, so it is believed that by swimming around in clean water, the mud will be cleansed out, and it will taste better. I have only tasted carp once in my life, and that had certainly not ended its days swimming in a bathtub… But as I strive to eat whatever food is common where I am travelling, I would be willing to give it another try. Especially if it had gone through the second traditional treatment, being soaked in milk overnight to make it taste even softer.

Enough about the food. For drinks we enjoyed a local lager craft beer, brewed in the micro brewery at the ground floor. While lager still is the most popular beer, more and more micro breweries has popped up, introducing the Slovakian people to other types of beer. And the locals sure love their brew; the average consumption is 75 liter beer per person yearly!
Do you think that sounds a lot? Their neighbours in Czech Republic has the worlds highest yearly consumption of beer, and drink 120 liter per person…

The bar at Meštiansky pivovar, a popular micro brewery. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

The bar at Meštiansky pivovar, a popular micro brewery.

We only had half a liter beer, though, before moving on. This time we were served the non-alcoholic Kofola, the local version of cola. During the communist era, they could not import Coca Cola, so all the former Soviet bloc has made their own variety. The Kofola is made by 20 different herbs and spices, and can be found on tap basically in every bar.

Kofola, the local version of cola. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Kofola, the local version of cola.

Roast duck is a very popular dish, especially in fall when it is the main season. It is traditionally served with red cabbage and potato pancake. In general you will find a lot of potatoes in the Slovak diet, but it was not introduced to the country until the 1700s, and made popular by the Austro-Hungarian Queen Maria Theresia.

Pečená kačica s lokšami a dusenou červenou kapustou - roast duck served with potato pancakes and steamed red cabbage. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Pečená kačica s lokšami a dusenou červenou kapustou – roast duck served with potato pancakes and steamed red cabbage.

Sviečková na smotane - beef with steamed bread-dumpling and carrot-parsnip sauce. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Sviečková na smotane – beef with steamed bread-dumpling and carrot-parsnip sauce.

I was getting quite stuffed, so after just tasting a bit of the Sviečková na smotane, beef with steamed bread-dumpling and carrot-parsnip sauce, we got going to walk off a little of the food.
Heading to the old town, we went through the north gate of the once fortified city.

By the Michael's gate, the north entrance to the once fortified old town of Bratislava. Slovakia.

By the Michael’s gate, the north entrance to the once fortified old town of Bratislava.

After learning a bit of history along the way, we entered Obchod v múzeu, a combination of a small shop formed as an old general store with a museum in the back with old shop artifacts. Among them was also a bottle of sparkling wine from back in the days when wine was still exported. This particular wine, Palugyay, was actually to be found on the wine list on board Titanic.

We were soon taken back to present time, and the Bratislava rolls (Bratislavské rožky) filled with either poppy seeds or walnut paste was up next. Surprisingly, I found space for them as well, with the walnut flavored being my favorite.

Bratislavské rožky - Bratislava rolls - traditional pastry filled with poppy seeds or wallnuts. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Bratislavské rožky – Bratislava rolls – traditional pastry filled with poppy seeds or wallnuts.

With sweets, came also the bitter-sweet black currant wine – Ríbezlové víno. And salty and smoked sheep cheese. By then I had for real reached my limit for solid food, and only had a taste of it. Personally I figured it would match better with beer anyway, so good thing I was planning to continue to a beer festival after the tour, since they would not allow me to leave without the rest of the cheese. The hand made chocolate with sour cherry liqueur also found its way to my purse and was saved for later.

Ovčie nite - sheep cheese. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Ovčie nite – sheep cheese.

Handmade Sour cherry in sour cherry liqueur covered with chocolate. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Handmade sour cherry soaked in in sour cherry liqueur for at least half a year and then dipped in chocolate.

Just a stone’s throw away, we entered a honey shop to taste the products made from their own beehives. I found myself amazed that it was at least 20 different flavours available, and tried a few of them. The combination of honey and ginger would do magic for sore throats!

Different types of flavoured honey. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

They of course also produce honey wine, also known as mead. Good thing a small amount of fluid easily can fit in a stuffed stomach.

Medovina - honey wine (mead). Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Medovina – honey wine (mead).

In a back alley in the old town, we found “The white mouse”, a shop selling wine and liquor, including the local tea-herbal liquor. There are several varieties of the Tatratea, ranging from 72 % down to much lower % with more fruity flavor. We tried the original with 52 % alcohol and I must say, I much prefer that one to the more known equivalent Jägermeister and Fernet Branca.

Tatranský čaj - TatraTea - local tea-herbal liquer 52 %. Food tour in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Tatranský čaj – TatraTea – local tea-herbal liquer 52 %.

Stuffed, happy, and a little bit tipsy, I thanked the guide for her knowledge about the food and the city, and ventured off to explore more on my own.

PS: I only had a light snack for dinner in the evening. And the smoked sheep cheese sticks with the festival beer….

Practical information:
The Traditional Food Tour can be booked through Taste Bratislava. Booking in advance is essential.
Price: 59 € per person
Duration: 3-4 hours
Meeting place: Depends on the group, but in a central location downtown. Please ask when you book.

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.