Irrawaddy Cargo Ferry

Before Nick and I even left the United States, Nick heard of a local ferry that takes passengers down the Irrawaddy river from Bhamo to Katha and stopping in Mandalay. He was set on taking this ferry and I think the main reason was because passengers sleep on the deck. In order for this to work out, our timing in Myanmar had to be perfect. Nothing could go wrong or not only would our visa expire, we would miss our flight to Bangkok. The likelihood that Nick and I actually made it onto this ferry was slim. When our Lonely Planet Guidebook was written buses were forbidden to take foreigners to Katha and Bhamo due to civil conflict. Would it be possible now to take a bus? Would the ferry be running the exact day we wanted to catch it? How long would the ferry take? There were so many pieces to the puzzle.

Nick bought bus tickets to Katha without a problem in Mandalay. The bus company said we would leave Mandalay at 4 pm and arrive in Katha at 5 (this probably meant we would arrive at 1 am). We didn’t want to arrive in the middle of the night, so Nick changed our tickets to Bhamo, just north of Katha by 80 miles. This way we would leave Mandalay at 4 pm arriving Bhamo at 6 am and catch the ferry the following day. We boarded the night bus but little did Nick and I know this would be the worst bus experience we have had yet.

Although our seats reclined 1-2 inches this was a far cry from a night bus. As a Burmese comedy show played loudly throughout the night (which Nick and I had already seen on another night bus), the lights turned on every 30 minutes and passengers were car sick (which is extremely common in Asia), we tried to rest. At 2 am, we were told to get off the bus. We checked our map app and we were not in Bhamo. The driver insisted. We eventually got off and walked a few blocks to another bus. It took us 12 hours to drive 215 miles. There was no way we were making it to Bhamo. Okay, change of plans, we were 17 miles away from Katha, we would get off there. The bus drove north on windy single lane dirt roads. This was the opposite direction of where we wanted to go! The bus eventually took us 27 miles (1.5 hours) in the wrong direction. We got off, ate breakfast and waited an hour for a transfer. Eventually, we jumped on our third bus which took us back to where we had originally transferred buses. We were still 17 miles from Katha and it was now 8:30 am. Ahhhh, it clicked, the bus station sold us tickets, assuming it would take us 24 hours to go 275 miles. What!? Silly us for assuming am, not pm.

After 17 hours and little sleep, we arrived to Katha. We checked into a small guesthouse with nice accommodations. It seemed as if Nick and I have lowered our standards as our rodent roommate, non-functioning squatter toilets and pigeons living in the ceiling, didn’t seem to phase us. We explored the small colonial town, home to British police officer and author, Geoege Orwell. Nick and I later visited the market and ferry office. We learned that the ferry would not run tomorrow. Bummer. Okay, we’d double check again tomorrow then take the train back. The next day, we walked around town and it seemed like Friday morning was dedicated to hair cuts, bucket bathing and drying fish. We enjoyed a traditional burmese breakfast of bao and tea (burmese black tea, evaporated milk, condensed milk, water and salt) at a small teahouse. Initially, Nick and I found the local food to be extremely oily and greasy, however have come to adore the cuisine. The silver pots full of curries, fresh peanut and vegetable salads, fermented tea leaves, fish pastes, and rice line the streets. Bamboo baskets full of fried treats and shan noodle stalls will be missed.

Breakfast Bao & Burmese Tea
Burmese Tea House
Fish Drying

After breakfast, we returned to the ferry office. To our surprise, a ferry would be running at 5 pm, however for 30,000 k. Everyone told us the deck should only cost 10,000 k. We tried to haggle but left to mull it over. After hours of a simple misunderstanding we returned to see written, the amount due of 13,000 k. We said, “Ah, thirteen thousand k.””Yes, thirty thousand khat,” the man responded.

So we had arrived to Katha and purchased ferry tickets. Now all that was left was to find the ferry. Needless to say, Nick and I ran around town for 2 hours looking for an “unmissable” jetty and ferry. My ankle was sore, Nick was carrying all of our gear and no one seemed to know where we were going. After asking directions from about 20 locals we found the obvious jetty (photographed below) among other dozens of boats lining the shore.

Boat Jetty

Although 2 hours late, the double decor cargo ferry arrived. We walked past the goods which included bags of rice, star fish, recycled cardboard and bamboo furniture. We went upstairs past the more expensive cabins and arrived to the deck. There were about 15 other people sleeping on the deck with us including families and soldiers. We had some snacks and feel asleep. It was cold and the bright lights stayed on all night. At one point I woke up, stuck my head out from the covers to see thousands of moths attracted to the light. Disoriented I quickly put the cover back over my head and five moths were trapped inside fluttering around. Although, we passed some horrific smells we had a relaxing night.

When you wake up to thousands of these guys…

The next morning we woke to a beautiful sunrise. We enjoyed the slow river life and eventually explored the boat. We had a delicious lunch of rice and vegetables prepared by the boat restaurant (photographed below). We chatted with some locals and watched a Bollywood film. After, an American movie played on the screen that captured everyone’s attention. A porn, cannibalist, gore movie that made nick and I crawl in our skin. We couldn’t watch and couldn’t imagine who decided to play this and what the locals thought of it. Overall, this ferry seemed more like a cruise ship with a “cinema”, “dining hall”, sleeping quarters, but you know, the type of cruise ship you get for $10.

Sunrise on the Irrawaddy River
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After 25 days spent in Myanmar, Nick and I are not in a hurry to leave. This country is changing fast and it was our pleasure to observe. People were happy to describe a more democratic system that is trying to provide a better life for everyone. However, we are worried by some of the ways in which this is happening, including, massive amounts of pollution, speedy migration to metropolitian areas, and a far from eco-tourist friendly system. We hope the very special people, rich culture, unique food and inspiring landscape is preserved for generations to come. We learned more everyday.

Click here to watch our Myanmar video!

Kyaukme (Shan State)

We arrived to Kyaukme by train and saw very few other foreigners. I took the opportunity to rest my ankle while nick continued on and trekked north, a trek highly recommended by a French couple we met in Laos. I spent the majority of my time going stir crazy in my guesthouse (good thing the metal bars kept me in). During my first night, while eating chapati and curry, a local girl abruptly said, “Come here, tomorrow at 5, we eat at market together.” And just like that it seemed as if I made a friend. The next night night we ate at the local market and finished the evening eating chapati at her tea house. On my last day, I ate with her father, sister, stepmother, and stepsister. The Burmese, Shan and Pakistani family made rice, cauliflower, cabbage soup, chicken curry and shrimp curry. They liked watching me eat with my hands as I was obviously less familiar. Overall, I was bummed to miss out on an amazing trek, but the rest was necessary.

“(Stacy) Are you mental?” -Wayne Cambell

Nick’s Trek North

While Stacia was resting in Kyaukme with her foot up and crutches ready, I went on a 3 day trek/motorcycle ride with a group from Germany, Singapore, Belgium and Holland led by our amazing guide, Thura. It was a very eclectic group with some having more experience and motivation for trekking than others. Overall, we had a good time making fun of American politics and admiring the untouched culture of the Shan State.

First, we motorbiked for 3 hours to a small village in mountains outside of Kyaukme. The surrounding countryside was primarily occupied by Pulong peoples 1 of the 150 ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Ever since Myanmar became independent from Britain these people have been fighting for autonomy from the government. In the first village, we had a lunch of traditional tea leaf salad and toured a couple local worker’s shops. The first shop was for rice whiskey (100 proof) which Thura bought for later that night. This shop also had pigs to eat the by-product of the whiskey. Next, we visited a bamboo paper mill where “gold paper” is made for new year. Before heading off Thura bought us all beetle nut, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Making Bamboo Paper
Pigs eating rice whiskey by-product

After another hour of driving, we stopped to hike to the highest point in the region which offered great views. On the way down, we stopped to meet some ethnic Nepali, whose grandparents were brought to Myanmar to fight the British. Next, we drove to the village where we would spend the night. On arrival, Thura pointed and said, “look insurgent army” and laughed very heartily. On the hill and the main road were men in camouflage, holding rifles. At first I thought he was joking, but he insisted, yes it was the Shan State Army. Although currently an insurgency, there is a year long ceasefire that has enabled access to the area. I think this detail was purposefully left out of the itinerary. We soon were shaking hands, meeting and laughing with the soldiers who were enthusiastic to meet us, but not to be photographed. That evening we wandered around the town as soldiers turned into fathers and sons going home for diner or catching horses from the field. Our homestay family were friends of Thura’s grandfather, a nice older couple with a beautiful wooden stilted home (as all are in the region).

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Shan State Soldier





Feed honey to a dog for sterilization, put it on a woman’s forehead for a quicker delivery, slap the stick on a penis for enlargement.

The next morning, we left the motorbikes and continued on foot into the tea fields lining the hills in every direction. We hiked for a few hours before stopping in a home for tea and a rest. There were only women home and they were happy to cook us some fried peanuts. After another few hours of hiking we arrived at another home in the tea fields with a man making a bamboo basket. At first we thought it was just another special shop tour but then the man retrieved an old musket from the home. As usual with Thura it was another surprise, target shooting!

Soon after, we walked into a small village (maybe 25 homes) where school was in secession. With angry teachers looking on, we took pictures with the kids and went through the English alphabet. Our homestay was in another beautiful wood stilted home with indoor (no chimney) open fire and a very welcoming family with two young boys. That night before dinner we swam in a small pool that doubled as a small hydroelectric facility for the village lights.



In the morning, we relaxed and watched the village wake up as kids went to school and fog lifted from the valley below. We then took the fast way back to our first village to retrieve our motorbikes. Thura then took us down some adventurous trails to a small village with a beautiful view next to the school. However, we were quickly off again to make it back in time for my 4pm bus. Just before Kyaukme we stoped for a traditional lunch of raw beef mixed with sticky rice (Stacia would have been thrilled) and then I wheeled in just in time to meet Stacia to head back to Mandalay.

Luang Prabang

Every backpacker has been to Luang Prabang, therefore I assumed it would be as disappointing as Vang Vieng. However, the ancient charm of the old quarter was well preserved and was similar, however almost more genuine than Hoi An, Vietnam.  The architecture was simple yet refined and the open-air schoolhouses were especially unique.

The UNESCO protected peninsula was packed with 33 beautiful Buddhist Temples built between 1500- 1700. The lavish gold lotuses and bodhisattvas painted atop jet-black walls were exquisite. Although Theravada Buddhist Temples seemed more lavish and almost gaudy in comparison to Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, I can appreciate the attention to detail and complex mosaics.

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The night market in Luang Prabang was a blast and a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts. It was targeted toward tourists, and a variety of textiles, teas, coffees and jewelry were sold. Although Nick and I don’t have any room to shop, between the night market and Tamarind (a café that sells handmade jams, teas and spices), Luang Prabang could easily dent a traveler’s budget. The food stalls at the night market was a great find as an entire block was lined with 15,000 kip ($1.85) fill your bowl vegetarian buffets.

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$1.85 Night Market Buffet

During our second day, Nick and I rented a motorobike and visited Pak Ou Caves (Buddha Cave) and Kuang Si Falls. First, we rented a motorbike to drive 25 km to the caves.

In Asia, everything has a cost. We rented a motorbike for 100,000 kip, filled it up with 20,000 kip worth of gasoline and were on our way. 25 km later we arrived at the local village and paid 3,000 kip to park. Then we walked through the village where we met our boatman and paid 26,000 kip to get taken across the river. When we arrived at the caves we paid 20,000 kip pp to enter. The caves are impressive and full of hundreds of Buddha sculptures and although beautiful, it is sometimes tiring always having to open your wallet.

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Buddha Cave

After visiting the caves, we drove 25 km back to Luang Prabang then 32 km in the opposite direction to Kuang Si falls. Before entering the falls, we passed fenced in areas of 20+ Sun Bears. These lethargic bears were rescued from poachers and more specifically from the bile industry. Bears are hooked up to IV’s and their bile is extracted and sold in Vietnam. Bear bile is considered a delicacy there, however the practice of extracting is illegal. Thus, it is extracted in neighboring countries where although illegal not heavily enforced. In China this practice is legal and regulated and there are currently 10,000+ bears being used for the bile industry.

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Rescued Sun Bears

As we continued to walk, we could begin to hear the rushing water. The clear turquoise water reminded me of Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. Watching the multi tiered cascade falls flow over limestone rock was mesmerizing. It would have been easy to spend the entire day here as you can swim in the falls and hike to caves and natural springs.

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*Travel Tip: To avoid the 20,000 kip entrance fee, take a motorbike or vehicle on the trail up to the natural springs. Drink a Beer Lao then hike down the falls.

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The next day, Nick and I drove back to the village across from the Buddha Cave and on the way passed an elephant park where tourists spend time riding elephants through the jungle. This is an extremely popular attraction is SE Asia, however is an terrible industry for the elephants. Please, research and think twice before riding an elephant.

We took a boat across the river to some large rock features where routes were bolted by some American climbers in the late 90s. We arranged to be picked back up by our boatman 4 hours later. Nick and I had a blast climbing on some great rock and even some multi pitches overlooking the Mekong River. We had an audience of local village kids across the river and when we repelled down they were eagerly waiting for us on the beach. When we realized our boatman was not coming back for us we hesitantly asked the kids to boat us across the river. About 3/4 across the river, water began to rush into the boat. Quickly the boat sank and we found ourselves swimming after our shoes and gear. Our rope and quickdraws stayed dry but unfortunately this was the last of my iPhone. This trip has taught me to always expect the unexpected and remind yourself it’s all part of the journey.

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1 way ride to the rocks
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Climbs with a view
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Mekong River
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Pre-sink

Although you could spend many days in Luang Prabang it is quite expensive so Nick and I decided to move north to Laung Nam Tha. ps. Check out the video tab on our blog to view our video of Laos!

Vientiane & Vang Vieng

Vientiane is an extremely clean and organized Southeast Asian city and the downtown area is concise and lays along the river. The majority of Nick and I’s time spent in Vientiane was biking to and from the Myanmar and Indian Embassies. It was extremely easy to navigate, however there aren’t too many crucial attractions to see. Some of our favorite spots included:

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Patuxai War Monument

-The Night Market, this was the cleanest night market I’ve been to thus far. It was mostly geared toward locals, however there were some merchants selling interesting goods, like jewelry and not for profit metalware (ex: spoons made from recycled metal of bombs and aircrafts during the American secret war).

-Dakha Restaurant, cheap and flavorful Indian food.

-Scandinavian Bakery, this bakery has some delicious and affordable sweets and has the best wifi in the city (although not reliable enough to download the season finale of West World).

-Benoni Cafe, stop here to splurge on some comfort breakfast food. Try the oatmeal, cappuccino, or lox.

-Makphet, this restaurant helps disadvantage youth and provides a delicious local menu.

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Monk Laundry

Vang Vieng is a bummer. It’s made for drunk foreigners who are looking to get wasted and tube down a river. Although the majority of bars have been shut down after 27 people died in 2011, the party continues. Nick and I spent 1 full day here, climbing and tubing. The most unfortunate part of Vang Vieng was that the tubing was gorgeous and could be amazing if not for the dirty party bars lining the river. I understand why tourists flock to this place as the scenery is refreshing. Nevertheless, traveling is always better than a day at work and it was relaxing as well as a good look into how many people spend their time in Southeast Asia.

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Pass from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

 

Da Nang & Hội An

Nick and I took the train from Hue to Da Nang and enjoyed the scenic journey along the coast. We watched as the wind blew and waves crashed onto shore, a result of Typhoon Sarika. This was a beautiful ride and would recommend it as it skirts around Hai Van Pass. Anyone who watches the show Top Gear will recognize the scenery from this part of Vietnam. In addition, those traveling by motorbike or small car, have the opportunity to travel up and over the pass.

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Our new train friend

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train

We arrived in Da Nang and explored the market and Cao Dai Temple. This temple believes all regions have the same reason and dignifies Mohammed, Laozi, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius. We enjoyed banh khoai (fried rice crepes filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts) for lunch with our new couch surfing friend, Tuan.

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Couch Surfing with a view
Tuan lent us a motorbike and Nick and I went to Marble Mountain. The Marble Mountains consist of 5 craggy marble outcrops topped with pagodas, each representing a different element (water, wood, fire, metal and earth). Thuy Son is the most famous mountain and although it has turned into a tourist trap it is a great afternoon visit. Explore the natural caves, pagodas and overlooks.

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Marble Mountain
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We met up with Tuan and drove across the Dragon Bridge to the beach. We swam in the warm ocean and the night sky was illuminated by city lights. He took us to get his favorite street food and Nick was in heaven (as always, the idea of a vegetarian is not understood). Nick’s favorite dish was the banh lọc, a chewy tapioca dumpling cook in banana leaves, stuffed with shrimp and pork. We spent the evening walking along the river, getting to know our new friend.

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Dragon Bridge
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Banh Loc – chewy tapioca dumpling stuffed with shrimp & pork

The next morning Tuan, Nick and I took motorbikes to Monkey Mountain where we saw over 20 monkeys hanging out on backroads roads and enjoyed a view overlooking the city. We had morning pho then said our goodbyes as we set off to Hội An.

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View of Da Nang from Monkey Mountain
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Hội An is a delightful town, excluding the hundreds of tourists and pushy sales people. The old town is exquisite with unique architecture and laterns lighting up the river by night. Nick and I spent time enjoying the old town, including: the old houses and museums, Japanese covered bridge, paper lanterns, and market. We also spent time at the beach and Thanh Ha pottery village.

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Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation
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It’s common to see woman picking lice out of each other’s hair
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Vietnamese couple on the Thu Bon River

As usual, it felt like Nick and I spent the majority of our time eating. We ate from a variety of street vendors, the Old Town Market food stalls and Vy’s Market. Some of our other favorite dishes included:

Can lầu – a famous dish that can only be found in Hội An, made with noodles, pork and local greens. A single family that holds the secret noodle recipe continues to supply the entire town as they use water from a special well.
Banh Bao (white rose) – shrimp dumping that are supplied to all of the restaurants by another single family that holds the secret receipe
Com Ga – chicken fried rice
Muc– local squid
eggplant – not sure what makes the eggplant dishes in Hoi An so special but they are delicious!
Banh Xoai (mango cakes) –  sticky rice filled with peanuts and sugar (no mango)
tofu soya cheese – try this rich dish at Vy’s Market
Hoanh Thanh – fried wontons, Hoi An’s take on nachos
coconut pudding – try this steamed coconut bao dipped in a coconut milk, sesame seed sauce at Vy’s Market
fresh rice paper in cam nam – Hoi An’s take on bread and butter
deep-fried battered bananas
Mi Quang – noodles, pork and shrimp
Thit Nuong– grilled pork tripe
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Old Town Market food stalls
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The Ba Le Well
Nick and I are headed to Siem Reap for a few days to volunteer at a World Vet’s clinic and help Nick’s mom. Then, we’ll return to Vietnam and finish exploring the south!

Navigating Northern Vietnam

Nick and I love our new life on the road. We are having a blast getting lost, eating among cockroaches, sleeping in $6 guesthouses, drinking tea, being vulnerable, haggling, trying new things and sharing smiles with strangers. However, Vietnam has been challenging for us in 2 unique ways, we are overwhelmed by the number of tourists and exhausted by the scams. Maybe because Nick and I came from desolate Mongolia and aren’t use to seeing so many Westerners or maybe because it is clear that some of the locals have been exposed to mass quantities of tourists, it has been hard to adjust. In addition, it’s tiring when we have to avoid being taken advantage of financially numerous times throughout a day. Okay, keep this in mind, put on your tourist blinders and let’s explore the wonders of Northern Vietnam (Sapa, Bac Ha and the Ha Giang Province).

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Playing by the river in Coc Pang

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Harvesting rice in Coc Pang

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Sapa

Nick and I took the 6am “sleeper” bus from Hanoi to Sapa ($8.50 pp – 7 hours). Although, rather comfortable for anyone 5.3″ and under, we recommend taking it during the day as the view coming into Sapa is remarkable. 

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Sapa sits on top of tall karsts covered in lush green rice terraces, next to a plunging valley. The town itself is a tourist pit, built as a “trekking” base for tourists. After dropping off our bags at a guesthouse, Nick and I set out for a short hike to Cat Cat Village. The colorful traditional clothing and exquisite jewelry worn by woman from the surrounding hill tribes was unique and gorgeous. While in Sapa we splurged on delicious $4 honey lemongrass tofu at Nature’s View and enjoyed getting local at the late night bbq stands.

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I’d like to name my next dog Tofu. Thoughts?

The true beauty of this area lays in the surrounding villages. Nick and I planned only to spend 1 night, however since we were ahead of schedule we decided to do the typical homestay. Within 5 minutes of making our decision, we were approached by Mama Kurr and began trekking to her village (Black Hmong People). It took us 4 hours to hike up and over the mountains to her home. Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall and were shown marijuana and indigo dye plants. Mama Kurr had me rub some green plant leaves and water together and within minutes my hands were stained dark blue. This plant is used to dye fabrics, although in the West we use a synthetic compound most commonly used in jeans, the black Hmong still use this organic option. It’s fascinating how removed Westerns are from our natural resources (using marijuana for hemp, organic dyes, and harvesting rice).

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Indigo Dye plant

*Pause, side note: Tourism is interesting; on one hand I understand that I am part of the problem, a fortunate westerner who wants to see the unexplored. However, watching 7 year old village children approaching you like zombies rehearsing “1 for 5,000 – 2 for 10” and knowing that their parents are having them skip school to sell to tourists is heartbreaking. Sure, travel sustainable and give back to local communities, however is there anything else we can do to protect the beautiful people and places that are rapidly changing?

After hiking through through rice fields, we arrived at Mama Kurr’s house. The view from her “patio” was breath taking and we enjoyed drinking coffee and reading while taking it all in. The rice had recently been harvested (about 3 weeks prior) and the daily fog had settled in the valley. We played with her grandchildren and puppies and watched the pigs and chickens roam in the vacant terraces. The water buffalo observed us as we helped to prepare a delicious dinner over an open pit fire.

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Bac Ha

The next day we returned to Sapa and caught a bus to Lai Cai then another on to Bac Ha. Nick found a homestay on coachsurfing and we had a great time hanging out with a local family. We had dinner, attended the night market (traditional dance and song) and stopped for delicious chè trôi nuóc (rice flour balls in sweet ginger sesame seed tea) to end the evening.

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Homestay with Huy Trung and family
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Fishing for star fish at the night market
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che troi nuoc

The next morning Nick and I went to the Bac Ha market where local hill tribe people sold produce, water buffalo, puppies (meat?), handmade crafts, and buhn nem. The market was huge and by 10:00 packed with foreigners and locals alike. We headed 6 km out of town to the Lung Phin market where we were the only foreigners in site. This gave us a feel for what a local market actually looks like. Unfortunately, it was apparent that the local community was not thrilled by our presence.

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Hmong woman at the Bac Ha Sunday market

After the markets, we headed to Ha Giang where Nick and I rented a motorcycle to explore the most northern part of Vietnam (we strongly recommend renting from QT Motorbikes & Tour). We had a blast exploring the Ha Giang area as the next day we would set off for a longer loop. We were able to see uncut rice fields that blew in the wind and spotted a waterfall. We made it our mission to swim under the waterfall and after an hour or so of wandering in rice terraces we were rewarded with refreshing water.

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The next 3 days on the bike have been our favorite experience in Vietnam thus far. The first day was extremely cloudy and rainy. We drove up and over some (what we imagine) remarkable passes and Nick did a great job driving bumpy single lane mountain roads. We edged passed semi trucks, saw the aftermath of a bike accident and had to go around some nerve racking blind turns (don’t worry Mom and Dad we were safe!). However, we were rewarded by beautiful views, rice terraces and limestone mountains covered with vegetation. And greeted with hellos, waves and high fives from local kids.

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Ordering in a small village is always a show

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Tram Ton Pass

We spent the night in Dong Van where we explored the old quarter, a cluster of tradition Hmong houses converted into small shops and restaurants. The next day we biked over beautiful mountain passes and spent the night in Coc Pang. This small village (don’t blink or you’ll miss it) was our absolute favorite stop. We felt extremely removed from the tourist loop and welcomed by the community. We were able to share smiles and laughs  with locals while walking around town and were even invited to help a family harvest rice. The rice was cut, separated and cleaned while the family thought Nick and I were hilarious. This time in Coc Pang made the entire northern loop worth it. We know it is jealous to want an experience without foreigners, but it’s nice to get away from the crowds!

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Dzao woman herding water buffalo

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We headed back to Ha Giang, took a sleeper bus to Hanoi and now are off to Dong Ha and the DMZ. Stay tuned!

Chilling in Cat Ba

From Hanoi, Nick and Stacia took 3 buses and a ferry ($8 pp – 7 hours) and arrived at Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. Although beautiful, it seemed impossible to escape tourists (we can’t even imagine what it would be like during high season). We had a blast climbing, swimming in emerald water and kayaking through caves. We also spent time exploring the beaches, market and enjoying bia hoi (draft beer).

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Monkey Island
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25 cent bia hoi

Stay: As we stepped off the bus we were approached by a crowd, each person wanting us to stay at their hotel. Luckily, Nick had already found the Cat Ba Central Hotel II for $9 a night (double room) with ac and breakfast included. This guesthouse was a good change as it was quiet, comfortable, and had a great view. The owner was extremely helpful and I would recommend this place to anyone. 

Climbing: Nick and I were interested in climbing in Cat Ba, however had to rent gear as our bags are still full of our cold weather clothes and camping gear from Mongolia (we’ll swap it out for climbing gear at the end of the month). We were originally interested in deep water soloing, however the high costs and low tides deterred us. We rented climbing gear from Cat Ba Climbing and headed to Butterfly Valley. Anyone interested in climbing in Cat Ba, I would recommended supporting a local family and heading to Cat Ba Climbing. If you are interested in non-negotiable high prices and blonde Australian employees, head to Asia Outdoors. Nick and I rented a motorbike and were on our way to the climbs. The approach was beautiful and we had a blast, although the heat, snakes and humidity were unfamiliar.

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Butterfly Valley

Halong Bay: The next day we decided to go on a boat tour as our hotel offered a day of activities for $15 pp (kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, lunch and cruising around Halong Bay). This was the best price we could find, however there was no escaping the tourist loop. The limestone pillars jutting out of the emerald water, settling fog, fishing villages and hidden beaches made for a picturesque day.

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Escaping Ulaanbaatar

Just like any new place, at first Ulaanbaatar is very intriguing. The line between city and wilderness, plethora of “idols” to Chingiis Khan, and transitions between ger district and metropolitan blocks all give the city a unique feel. As stated in our UB post, we had a blast exploring the city, however after our first 3 days we were ready for something new. Unfortunately, we had arranged our trips in the countryside and the Mongolia transportation system works in a way that we returned to UB for a few days and then a week between excursions. We needed to find something to do other than sit around, we needed to escape UB. Fortunately, we found three activities that used up our time in a productive manner and heard of more for next time!

Hiking From Zummond Back to UB

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The first time we arrived back in UB from the north we did an overnight backpack from Zuunmod back to the city. This involved taking the bus from the Dragon Bus Station to Zuunmod (runs every hour for 2,000T). We had previously bought a relatively good map from Seven Summits on the surrounding UB area. From Zuunmod, we hiked 3.5 miles to the  Manjusri Monastery. This was a great spot for lunch among the ruins of the Stalin purged buildings and under a new reconstructed hall. We then headed up into what we thought was pristine seccluded wilderness. However, quickly learned that all the pine nuts that are sold on every corner in UB are collected all throughout this area. Every quarter mile or so there were people pounding trees and grinding the cones. While interesting at first, it did not lead to the naturally experience we were looking for. Unfortunately, I would not recommend this trail to solo female travelers. After 12 miles from Zuunmod we made camp and had a relatively warm night. The next morning we hiked through more pine cone encampments and over into UB at the Zaisen memorial. Overall, it was a great little trek and a good way to get out of UB for 36 hours.

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Lotus Child’s Centre

Before leaving for Ulgii we rented an extra sleeping bag from the Lotus Guesthouse due to the increasingly cold weather. We learned that Lotus is a nonprofit that runs an orphanage in Gachuurt with 65 kids. We thought volunteering here would be a great way to finish up our time in Mongolia and escape the city during the extra 6 days we had before our flight to Vietnam. The bus driver for the students picked us up at 10 am from the guesthouse after his morning runs and picked up the other workers on the way to Gachuurt. We arrived at the orphanage to learn that there was no structure or direction for volunteers so we just began to hang out with the kids.

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We helped 4 twelve year old girls bake bread and muffins for the entire orphange’s weekend breakfast. During the weekend the staff (including the cook) goes back to UB so there were 3 adults (Nick, Stacia and 1 social worker) supervising the kids. Although, they didn’t need much supervision as they cooked, cleaned and looked after one another better than most adults. We were blown away by their independence.

On Saturday, the kids practiced sports for a competition the next day. We helped make pizza, played cards and hid-and-seek. On Sunday, the kids competed against a local Chinese school in football (soccer), basketball, and dance performances. Overall the experience was a blast and it was hard to say goodbye to the amazing kids. If you plan to volunteer at Lotus, be sure to contact us for advice!

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Cheering on the boy’s football (soccer) team at a competition
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Not only did Stacia have a different hair style everyday, but we ate kimchi, pineapple, hot dog, pea, pepper, and ketchup pizza.
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Hide-and-seek champions: Asha & Khaliun
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9 year olds raising 1 year olds

Chinggis (Genghis) Khan Statue

We made it to the 40 meter Chinggis (Genghis) Khan statue (7,000 T pp) with Didi, the founder of Lotus. There was a small museum inside, and although nice, seemed like a huge tourist trap. It was hard going from the Lotus orphanage that is struggling to get by to what appeared to be a giant waste of money.

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Snow on Chinggis’s arm

Other Ideas

Although we didn’t make it to Terelj National Park and Khustain National Park these are suppose to be great ways to get out of the city! We had spent plenty of time in Russian vans and were looking to do something a little more independent. Extreme Mongolia had good deals on climbing in Terelj, but unfortunately they had already stopped the service for the winter.

 

 

Буркiт (Eagle)

After our trek and the usual bumpy ride, we arrived back in Ulgii. That night we stayed at the Traveler’s Guesthouse. Contrary to the name, it is actually a collection of gers in an empty lot next to a gas station. The owner was helpful and we enjoyed showering and relaxing for the night.

The next morning we drove to Sangsai with Dosjan’s (the owner of Kazakh Tours) brother. He is a very competent and brave (crazy) driver. The eagle festival was very unorganized and felt more like a field day at school than a festival. At first our driver drove around the desert looking through binoculars for eagle hunters. We found some, however they didn’t seem to know where the festival was being held either. Finally, we arrived and soon eagle hunters were riding over the hills in all directions. In all, 50 hunters were present including the famous eagle huntress (Aisholpan). Although it seemed like a tourist trap in the beginning, about 50% of the patrons were locals by the time events began. The events were shortened due to a spreading goat disease which resulted in a low turn out. There were two eagle competitions. One, involved calling an eagle down from a hill to the hunters arm. In the second competition your eagle had to “attack” a dead rabbit that was being dragged behind a horse. The final event was between horsemen. Two riders would grab hold of a goat hide and pull each other (sometimes off their horses or far from the festival) until one let go. Between competitions we looked at souvenirs (bought some eagle feathers) and ate snacks (watermelon, fried dumplings and ice cream). At the end of the competition, a majority of the eagle hunters got very drunk and could barely ride their horses or hold their eagles (a little excitement ensued). Drinking is a very present issue among men in Mongolia.

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Processed with Snapseed.
Due to the goat disease the second day of festivities were canceled, but it worked out for us as we both became pretty ill (with we think giardiasis). We instead spent the day lounging with a brief trip to the Ulgii mosque. Stacia was surprised to see that only men were aloud in the beautiful 2 story congregation room, while the women prayed in a tiny unmaintained white walled room in the back of the mosque.

The next morning we left to stay at an eagle hunter’s home for 3 days. This Kazakh family lives in a stone and mud complex rather than a ger. The family consists of a 55 year old couple, their 29 year old son, 26 year daughter in law, and their 20 day old baby. We were still moving slow and feeling ill as we had just started the antibiotics for Giardia, so we enjoyed the down time. We spent a lot of time “talking” (passing back and forth an old Kazakh- English – French phrase book) and of course, eating dairy products in the family’s living room. The language barrier allowed for a lot of awkward silence!

We learned that the man of the house’s father was an eagle hunter, as is he, as will his son and his newly born grandson. Only the Kazakh people of the West (Altai area) hunt with eagles and they need it to be stated on their license for it to be legal. He started eagle hunting in 1985. Since then, he has owned 70 eagles, however let 48 of them go quickly as they never caught a fox. He keeps a successful eagle for about 10 years. The eagle he currently has he captured when the eagle was 1 and it has caught the following foxes:

  • 2012- 22 foxes
  • 2013- 22 foxes
  • 2014- 44 foxes
  • 2015- 32 foxes
  • 2016- 48 foxes
  • 2017- tbd

He will set his eagle free in 2020 when it hits sexual maturity. He sells the foxes, as they are used to make traditional Mongolian clothing (mostly headwear). The eagle either crushes the heart/face of the fox or suffocates it (this was unclear in our game of charades). His eagle is held in a small shed with little light but room to roam. We were graciously given an eagle blind (the small hat that covers the eagle’s eyes) as a gift.

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Processed with Snapseed.

For breakfast and lunch we ate the traditional stale pastries, varieties of cheese curd, clotted cream, and butter. We drank about 10 bowls of salted yak milk tea a day and had handmade noodle, potato, and sheep soup for dinner. We enjoyed delicious fresh ira (Kazakh yogurt) before bed, as the yaks were milked an hour previously (yaks are milked twice a day). When we were served a communal rice and sheep dinner, everyone grabbed a spoon and started eating. If we even stopped eating to breath we were yelled at by 4 individuals “baloy che” (eat rice!) and when we ask for tea we are basically told we can have more tea after we eat more.

The next morning the yaks were milked, the animal droppings were collected and the sheep and goats were herded, excluding one unlucky sheep. We learned that in 2016, this family of 4 had butchered 1 yak, 1 horse and 20 sheep. The man of the house brought us into a stone and mud shed where he sliced the neck of the sheep and drained it’s blood. Within an hour the entire sheep was broken down. The lungs would be feed to the eagle, the large intestines were braided and hung (to eventually eat), and the small intestine was coiled into a climbing rope like figure and wrapped in the sheep hide. By the end, their was only a small bucket of waste which mostly consisted of blood, poop and digestives from the stomach. The stomach was washed and would eventually be blown up like a ballon, dried, and used to store butter.

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In the evenings we enjoyed listening to the older man play a Russian accordion, guitar and what looked like a 2 string ukulele. Stacia helped the older woman make bowsak jay (what we have been calling stale pastries) that are delicious when fresh. Nick helped herd yak and we continued to enjoy our last 8 days in Mongolia.

We are flying back to UB on the 22nd and are spending our last week in Mongolia volunteering at an orphanage. Stay tuned!

Altai Tavan Bogd

The flight from UB to Ulgii gave a new perspective on the vastness of Mongolia. We flew over multiple sights that we saw in the weeks prior, including Kharkhorin and the White Lake. Our flight had been delayed but as a result we got a free night in the nicest hotel in Ulgii! However, the luxury was different than Western standards as there still were stiff frame mattresses, an open top toilet bowl and the shower was the entire bathroom. Dosjan from Kazakh tours met us at the Airport as arranged. He seems very responsible and organized. We were able to arrange a border permit, rides to and from the national park and a Kazakh guide through Dosjan in a very economical and independent manor. That night in Ulgii we walked around the main square, bought groceries for our trek ($50 for 8 days and 3 people) and ate dinner at a high value Turkish restaurant, Pamukkale.

The second day in the west we woke to mosque prayers as the Kazakh people are primarily muslim. Today was the start of our trek, but first we needed to get to Khoton nuur. The Kazakh only speaking driver of a very artfully decorated Russian jeep picked us up at 10. It was a good thing he had custom padded the ceiling as the next 7 hours to drive 200 km were very bumpy. The landscape outside of Ulgii looked like pictures from Central Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) and we were struck by the difference from the rest of Mongolia. Our driver did a great job making the trip a tour with 4 stops. First, we stopped outside of Sangsai at a eagle hunter’s home. We drank milk tea, tried new more chewy cheese curd, and of course too much of our favorite cream and stale pastries. Finally, we each held an eagle which was too heavy for Stacia’s arm. The eagle hunter was obviously very proud of the bird and dressed in his traditional hunting outfit. It was unfortunate to see the bird spent the vast majority of the time locked in a dark shed, but it looked very healthy. Next, we stopped in Tsengel a quaint village and had more milk tea and stale pastries with a local Kazakh Muslim family (wooden home not ger). As we entered the national park the scenery changed to more similar of the Rocky Mountains. Just before the lake we stopped at two nomadic families. The first were friends of a the driver and he dropped off some tea and flour. The second was the home of our Kazakh guide, Hurmet. It was nice to find that Hurmet does know some English, totaling to around 50 words! At his ger, we ate a communal meal of rice and goat. Finally we continued to the lake with our guide a few hours behind with horses. At the lake the we checked in with the military, made our first poop fire and waited for Hurmet to arrive.

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The next day we awoke after our first cold night in a tent. Hurmet showed us how to pack the pack horse and we were soon off following Hurmet on his horse, escoon asban, with the pack horse skin asban in toe. A huge white dog followed us for much of the day, but disappeared after reaching the end of the lake. That day we hiked from 9:30 to 4:30 and covered over 17 miles. Just before camp we had another military check point to wait through. At camp we cooked a communal vegetarian meal by the bright blue glacier river. Hurmet also showed us the surprisingly delicious mix of milk tea dipped sugar cube and goat cheese.

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On the second day of our trek we started off by breaking our water filter in the glacial river (good thing we had replacement parts). We then hiked into green valley, which is lined by trees on either side and a beautiful turquoise glacial river going down the middle. We hiked for another 17 miles and set up camp along the river with the larger mountains beginning just in front of us. Near dark a herd of horses entered the valley, pushed by five Mongolian men. Hurmet was able to act out that they we using the wood in the valley to make winter horse shoes. At night around the poop/wood fire we created a Kazakh vocab list and laughed at our inability to do a proper Asian squat.

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The next morning we started late (10:30) as the sun didn’t hit us until later. We hiked for 16 miles up and into white river valley and down into  Mongolian ger camp. White river valley was absolutely stunning. Hiking up and over the pass we were struck with the view of black rock walls, white sheets of ice and golden fields of grass. The contrast was unlike anything we had seen before. That night we stayed with a nomadic Mongolian family in their ger. This was the most authentic family stay we have had. Nick ‘enjoyed’ sheep vertebrae from a communal platter and we watched a horse get shoed. People were continuously coming in and out of the ger as we watched black and white Mongolian dish tv. That night we were kept up by the 5 guard dogs barking the wolves away.

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In the morning we ate a stale pastries, yak butter, cheese curd and multiple milk teas for breakfast. After some lying around and procrastination of the cold, we hiked down stream and through a bog. The mountains continued to get bigger and bigger with permanent snow accumulating. At the end of the ger community Hurmet showed us some petroglyphs of yaks, ibex, red deer?, sheep, goats and horses. After a few miles of hiking we were invited into another family ger for milk tea and distilled milk vodka. We soon realized that this was the ger of the men who were shoeing their horses a few nights before. Hurmet had given them pastries and a can of our vegetables as they had no dinner and now their wives repayed us in fresh, not stale, pastries, delicious! We also met a blonde haired toddler of the family who lived Stacia’s camera. Immediately after this ger we rounded a bend and saw for the first time, Malchin (our goal summit) and the rest of the five sisters. We descended into the valley and made camp by a final military check point and the river valley entrance to base camp. That night we made a communal spaghetti, veggie, tuna and unfortunately ketchup (the Russian and pictures made us think it was spaghetti sauce) dinner before practicing our Kazakh.

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When the sun hit our tent we rose to Hurmet making hot water for our coffee, what a treat! Soon the horse was packed and we were on our way to base camp. A very haggard looking dog followed us in search of more stale pastries. Of course we didn’t make it far up from river before one of Hurmet’s dos (friends) invited us in for milk vodka, milk tea and stale pastries. We were able to give out some toothbrushes to two of their adorable children. Base camp was just another 5 miles, two bogs and increasingly beautiful skylines away. Upon arriving we broke out the rain gear for the first time. By sunset it turned into snow gear, as the weather pattern changed. Dinner was another communal meal with Hurmet and we met a number of his guide friends. We also met other tourists but of course the local guides were more fun. One of the other guides happened to be he husband of the woman we stayed with two nights previous. Mongolia is really a small place. We fell asleep to the sounds of snow storms getting bigger.

At 5:30am our Malchin summit alarm went off. We looked outside and Nick was immediately unhappy as the weather looked unbearable. Stacia convinced Nick to go back to sleep and give up hopes of a summit but after two hours Nick poked his head outside to a few patches of blue skies! With a little 😉 convincing we headed out to see what the hike would be like. With a fresh 4 inches on the ground we took our time but made our way successfully to the summit of Malchin! It’s never an adventure without a few tears and scares. The views of Russia, the five sisters and western Mongolia rivaled all others so far. Breaking snow was fun but sliding trail on the way down was treacherous. After a lazy evening and a final dinner with Hurmet (and his neighbor/guide friend) we turned in for our final cold tent night.

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The next and final morning we packed up in a surprisingly similar routine. We ate some of Hurmet’s stale pastries and yak butter with our last slices of bread and jam. Soon we were off following/herding a loose camel out of the national park. Stacia and I had come down with a little food poisoning (or so we thought) so the last 10 miles went slowly. Now we are taking antibiodics for Giardia and hoping we feel better soon! At the north park entrance we said some sad goodbyes to Hurmet and had some final milk tea and stale pastries in a beautiful Kazakh ger. Our Russian jeep and two Kazakh drivers were waiting and we rallied off to Ulgii. This time it only took 4.5 hours to go the 150km. That night we stayed at the traveler’s guesthouse and had a much needed shower and rest.