Monday, 31 October 2011

China vs Laos

Location: under a coconut tree, by the Mekong River, Laos
Weather: morning warm breeze
Total mileage: 24,300
Status: passed relaxed, nearly lazy

There’re too many Chinese in China. They’re small, annoying, get tangled in ones hair and get caught in your feet.

They only want to have a nice life – though they don’t really have any meaning – but for the time being they destroy their culture, nature and those basic morals that are so important, especially while looking for a meaning.

They smoke, spit and shit literally everywhere and find it particularly fun to litter their rivers. Then they never wash their little dirty hands, including after blowing their little noses through their little fingers. It’s very hard for them to say “let me check it” when they can simply say “no!” and creative thinking must be avoided or they’ll end up in a dungeon deep under a mountain.

Good things about China #1: They do work hard 

And they have their generals. Sneaky generals, who move pieces on the map while plotting in secret bunkers how to take over this world. They don’t like foreigners driving around in their dictatorship, sniffing around. All foreigners are, surely, western spies trying to poison their peoples’ minds with stories about other parts of the world, where human beings can actually live more freely. No; they must not let that happen.

So because we want to get from Mongolia to Laos, we need to drive through China. To drive through China we need to have a personal guide, certified by the Party, sitting in our car, over our heads, telling us where we’re allowed to drive and where we are not. The spies who got caught, great way to travel. In addition we’re limited in time – must respect the itinerary, must be in a certain place at a certain time. Yes indeed: annoying and getting caught between our feet.

Good things about China #2: Yunnan people, though they're not actually Chinese

China used to be a great place. A long time ago palaces were built, great walls and temples, for the benefit of the people. But today those sites are surrounded by newer, higher walls and fences, so no one can enter without paying the extortionate fee. But it’s not too bad because locals are no longer interested in temples or other spiritualism when instead they can go to the shopping malls to photograph themselves.

But we’re not in China anymore. Now we’re in Laos. And the Lao people are great and we can do anything we want.

And so, we’re doing everything we want: days of off road driving through jungles and mud; finding an ancient site that was left forgotten for 2000 years; wild camping by the waterfalls; trekking for 2 days to visit a mountain tribe – the wonderful Khmu people. Rock climbing, kayaking, dark stalactite caves, loads of tropical fruit shakes and finally – millions of pancakes with banana, coconut and Nutella.

Good things about China #3: Laos is just across the border

And there’s also no time pressure in Laos. I can get up in the morning, stretch in front of a mountain, have a slow breakfast and play Bach on the guitar again, ‘Air’ in C major. And there’s surely enough time to chill out, relax, and write to the blog too.
So I’m chilling out, relaxing and writing.

Look people, the world is beautiful. True, some parts are better than others and some are truly rubbish and lack heart. Like China. But eventually, if you keep on and don’t give up, you’re guaranteed to get out of the shit. If you’re prepared to go even further you may find a hidden paradise just around the next corner. Like Laos. That is – evidently – worth it all.     

Go and travel.

Jen & Noam

Good things about China #4: Leave it and have some fun in Laos

Good things about China #5: Enjoy some flavour after Mongolia

Good things about China #6: Street food

Good things about China #6: More street food

Good things about China #7: The mountains have less Chinese, though it is actually Tibet (which is not really in China)

Good things about China #8: Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is not (yet) over-developed

Good things about China #9: Animal cruelty is not always good for the business
Good things about China #10: Start early in the morning, before the streets get too crowded 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

An arse kicking in Mongolia

Total mileage: 23,000m
Location: among millions of people somewhere in N China
Day: about 170? (We really stopped counting a while ago)

We’re in China and it’s a mad race. No time for morning Yoga, a chord on the guitar or the comfortable search for the suitable campsite. It’s a rush. Time is money, every minute has a price, every second counts. Just like millions around us, we’re running from one place to another, hardly taking the moment to stop and look when we’re finally there. But let’s stop it all for a moment, return back in time and talk about Mongolia.

6 days trekking

Mongolia is the only place on earth where one gets his arse completely kicked, bruised and beaten but somehow and after all learns that that was an excellent experience.

Why and how? Check it out.

Let’s begin with the most important: food.

On any standard Mongolian menu one would find the only following item, with no distinction between morning, lunch and dinner: an old threadbare piece of sheep well-boiled in greasy salty milk.

Hmm, no; not grilled barbequed or fried but simply – and plainly – boiled. Why boiled? Because there’s no other way one would be able to chew and swallow this poor dry animal that’s been fed dull grass for 3 months in a year and ice in the rest.

See, it starved
And why boiled in greasy salty milk? I’m not too sure but I do too wonder why it’s being taking over 2000 years for spices from China to cross through border control.  

So please mark Arse-Kick #1: canned food only.

On (hardly) a full stomach we’re now ready for some exploration. But when the only road in Mongolia is blocked by hundreds of pills of dirt (why?!?!), the only direction one has to follow is through millions of dirt paths zigzagging the land.

The first 200 km is fun; off road, feeling the landscape etc. The next 500 are bearable. But then bones start to detached, parts break and sanity fades. After 1000 km the brain is gone, the motivation’s dead, vehicle’s shrill and the only input accepted is: why on earth is the only perfectly driveable road is blocked?!?!

Mark again; arse-kick #2: off road only.

off road only

One should take any navigation aid; maps, compass, GPS and, if available – a few pigeons. Anything to avoid getting lost as the only creatures to ask around are grazing yaks, wild horses and camels. Seems unlikely, but it’s still a better option than attempting to communicate with the locals.

Oh, dear locals. Ask for direction and they’ll point to another. Purchase an item and they’ll quote for 10. Order rice, get mutton. Ask for water, get mare milk. Confirm it’s diesel, get 95. Have a perfect road, block it completely. I love you Mongolians, and not in the good way.

About half of the residency of this country is still traditional; migrate with the seasons, herd livestock and live in Gers. Once upon a time I’ve heard about their great hospitality and the warm treatment to visitors but since then they apparently figured out that it’s a lot easier (and profitable) to put their guests on camels for a photo to get some revenue.

Arse-kick #3: no communication and dollars only.

Enough with the asre kicking; now, to retain credibility, I need to tell why it was all so worth it.

Put it simply, the Mongolian landscape is the most dramatic, exciting and inspiring I have ever experienced.

Volcanic Canyon

Right there, in the heart of the desert mountains, a volcano erupted, painting the valley in black lava, creating lush forest and deep blue lake full of life and colours. Then rugged sharp hill tops, shaped by wind and ice through millions of years, clearing way only to a gushing stream of white water. And then the Gobi. Often bright, mostly dark, shades of red, yellow and brown. Intimidating and remote, timeless and vast – a beautiful desert.

In Mongolia one can sit under the stars, listen to the wind and feel the world turning, feel part of it all; part of the earth and the sky, part of the present and the past, part of the galaxy and the universe. Feel alive.

And this feeling is definitely worth it all. So eventually and after all, thank you Mongolia. 

Jen & Noam

More stories and photos on our website 


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Tuva, The National Anthem

“...travellers should be aware of Western Tuva’s fearsome reputation for wild lawlessness and unprovoked knife attacks.” Lonely Planet

 “It’s like the Wild West; we came across stories of locals attacking visitors, throwing stones on their vehicles... you should not go there” English traveler

“In Tuva there is a serious problem of alcohol and violence. I never dare going there” Russian ecologist & mountain guide

“Wandering Kyzyl’s streets after dark without local company is not recommended” Lonely Planet

 “...Tuva(n) people (are) bad, (and) dangerous.” A Tuvan person

“...Wow man, they can sing from their throat!” A good dear friend & musician

Ok, let’s go to Tuva.

We’re leaving Abakan behind and driving south. Last police check – nearly a border control: passports, car documents, registration and declaration. The guard needs to confirm that we are indeed intending to enter Tuva.

-        Are we..?   

After days we’re approaching out of the endless Siberian plains – goodbye claustrophobic forests. Bare mountains rise up, wild and rigid, far in the distance. Birds of prey circling the sky above and wild horses grazing on the horizon. Down there is Mongolia, in between is Tuva – Definitely picturesque.

310,000 Tuvans are living in an area as big as England. 100,000 of them in Kyzyl, the capital, and the rest are nomadic or semi nomadic. None of them would want me to say that but they’re pretty similar to their Mongolian neighbours; they live nomadic life style, they ride horses, they live in Yurts, drink salty tea, eat mutton and they love music.

And so, this is what we’ve been planning for Tuva: find nomads, ride their horses, stay in a Yurt, try their food and listen to their music – Easy...?

Part one: Anyone’s Nomad? 

We’re arriving into Kyzyl and starting to ask questions. Is anyone here nomadic? Or a Horseman? Any Musicians perhaps? We hear no word (and no sound) but the warm recommendations to sleep in a safe compound and stay away from trouble.

Tired and fruitless we’re retreating to our hiding place for some sleep.
No one tried to kill us during the night. In the morning, fresh and motivated, we decided to revise our tactics and focus our search only on music. Music will bring the answers to everything, I say. Yeah, poetic.

And indeed, in the local community centre we find the following: (1) the best musicians of Tuva (and they’re all great people) (2) An invite to join their rehearsal for the new Tuvan national anthem. (3) Djenia, a nomad and a horseman who’s inviting us to his family Yurt camp in the mountains and (4) Sean, American-Tuvan who’s telling us the story of the new Tuvan national anthem. – What a hit.

Part two: The Culture

Couple of hours later and we’re on the move again, driving west, into the Taiga.

We’re following Djenia’s Vaz through rivers and passes, valleys and forests. There are no roads here, no electricity or mobile phone signal and no signs of time to remind us that thousands of years passed since humans started to settle the earth. This is nomads’ territory.

There, far in the distance, three riders are approaching to greet us. And over the hill a young boy on a majestic horse is leading a flock of wooly sheep. And then a clear spring, decorated with colourful prayer flags. It’s a beautiful journey. Suddenly, tucked between conifer doted mountain slopes, the Yurt camp appears.

In the Yurt, a white rounded shelter, young girls make cream and butter. They’re inviting us in. We taste various products and sample an alcoholic drink while our horses are being saddled.

Cheese making
Jen on a horse

It’s a great day. We’re among nomads, riding their horses, eating their food and getting to know their life style. But I want to get an insight on their culture nowadays.

In the evening we’re sitting around the fire with Anehak, Djenia’s wife. She studied in Abakan University and speaks fluent English and French; excellent opportunity for a chat. So I’m asking about life in Tuva; about culture, the love of music and the close relationship with nature. Then we speak about social issues: the massive unemployment rates, alcoholism and the bad reputation of violence and depression.

I’m sadly learning a lot.

This is another Avatar case where the land is full of natural resources to mine and a huge fortune to make. Like the other stories, the bully will soon show up to take it all and leave the weak – the locals – with nothing.

So the Russians came. The natives were too primitive and incapable so someone had to take control. Someone had to help them to become more progressive, more educated, more modern – more Russian.

The Russians did what was necessary: Nomads were forced to abandon their lifestyle and relocate into towns, the education system has been reformed, political power and the administration are being transferred to Moscow and local leadership dispersed. Now, when Tuva is nearly Russian, it’s time to start harvesting those gold mines.

The land has been ‘leased’ to Russian constructors who employ Chinese workers. When the entire budget is routed to the mine fields there’s nothing left for local development. There’s no investment, no infrastructure and no employment opportunities. Many ex-nomads became poor, jobless and drunk. Very drunk.

Anything left for the future? I ask.
 “The only thing we’ve got left” – replies Anehak – “our culture”.


4 days later and the Naadam festival is about to begin. Horseracing, archery, wrestling, a Yurt contest and live music are all part of the celebration. It’s a colourful festival with traditional customs, local food and plenty of dancing. Tuvan culture is definitely alive and kicking, and tonight, as final verification, we’ll be witnessing the formal introduction of the new Tuvan national anthem.

Part 3: The National Anthem 

I’m exhausted. So far I’ve been driving through rivers and mountains, staying in Yurts, riding horses, celebrating, dancing, hiking, freezing, thawing, socialising, experiencing, learning, researching, sympathising and all awhile I’ve been eating mainly boiled mutton. Travelling’s a hard life. But tonight is the piece de resistance. Tonight is the premiere. Tonight the National philharmonic of Tuva will formally introduce the new national anthem.

With nationality being the pressing issue and music being ordinary obsession National Anthem is exactly what Tuvans need.

So here’s the story of the national anthem.

‘I am Tuvan’ has been the most popular folk hymn for years. Everybody knows it, everybody’s loves it and naturally it should be the official National Anthem of Tuvan. But it’s actually Mongolian. It was written by Tuvans who happen to live, quite simply, on the other side of the border.

This little geographic issue can immediately raise questions on copyrights and can lead to an unpleasant diplomatic disagreement with Mongolia around a stolen song. No; the tiny republic of Tuva wouldn’t want to provoke their dear neighbours from the south.    

So the best Tuvan composers gathered together and wrote a great piece of music. And it was indeed a great piece, tells Sean. But this is not how an anthem should be born – he adds. A true anthem should come from the people, from the public, rather than be imposed and chosen by a dedicated panel of artists and politicians. Sean man, I Agree.

The solution was so simple and daring that I truly and honestly loved it: Let’s invite the copywriters of ‘I am Tuvan’, ask their permission to use it as the new Anthem and tell the Mongolians to bugger off.

Evening, concert hall. 5 cups of coffee, 10 Bounty bars (sugar, sugar. Give me more sugar), getting the best seats from Anehak and I’m ready for the best show in town.

This is an amazing concert. A long line of the best musicians of Tuva is getting on the stage, dressed in traditional clothes, backed by popular guests from the past contributing from their repertoire. Traditional instruments are blending with electric guitars, throat singing with vocal harmonies, strings, percussions, double bass, flutes and guitars. The evening comes to a close when they are all joining forces to perform the anthem. Bravo – Excellent gig, wonderful anthem.


Ok, so this is not the most uplifting traveller’s story but I love the message: keep on moving, keep on playing, keep on with the music and save your culture. Good luck Tuva.
Jen & Noam Ben Tsion

more pictures and stories in our website  

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Into Siberia, in Numbers

28 hours: total time of loading the vehicle on an old soviet style boat, crossing the Black sea from Turkey to Russia and clearing the most apathetic & inefficient border control in the Northern hemisphere. ...but we also met Jake, a New Yorker biker, who provided the best company in the most difficult part of our journey so far. Thanks Jake.

12 days: to make it on time to the concert of the Omsk Philharmonic in, surprisingly, Omsk.

3006 miles, 23 MPH average driving speed, 13,983 potholes, 981,000 tonnes of steel beasts coughing clouds of toxic fumes ahead and 1 vital discovery: it’s quicker to overtake up the hard shoulder.

Kazakhstan: a lot of nothing 

20 minutes: average driving time between been pulled over by the next police check in the Caspian Depression.

$100: maximum asking corruption fee

3rd finger: our usual reply  

46 degrees Celsius: daily temperature in the Volga.

46 degrees Celsius #2: extreme temperature that is too bad for the brain, for the blood and for the beer.

319 mosquito bites: out of which 71 are on my legs, 3 in my left ear and 8 on my butt cheeks

1st place: new entry to the top of the World Worst Roads to the Volga territory, Russia. Or put it simply, people of the Volga – you’re road system is worse than Albania’s; sucks to be you.

238 hours: straight without leaving this 2x4m tin box for more than 30 minutes.

0.000000001: the proximity of me going officially insane.

0 minutes shower: before we’ve made it to the concert hall in Omsk. Fragrant, but we’ve made it.

excellent seats

9 days in Kazakhstan: a lot of nothing, 3 tons of dust on the wind screen, 80 dual hump camels crossing the road, 2 punctures, 1 broken wheel, 1 flat battery (all in 1 day) and 2 silly travellers stuck in the middle of nowhere.

1 out of 98,000,000,000: the chances that a bright mechanic from Yorkshire will pass by.  

1 out of 127,000,000,000,000: the chances that a bright mechanic from Yorkshire will pass by and will also be a great company for a few days.

1 day, 2 tyres gone 

Enough numbers, here’s a short story from the road –

Midnight, heavy rain, a week on the road. Exhausted and desperate for a camping spot we drove into the forest – rational action for us these days. It was dark, there was a little confusion mixed with some mannish ego and also a lot of mud of the gooey kind. Obviously we immediately sunk.

Gooey kind of mud

Locals who were nearby came right away with axes and shovels, jumped into the sticky mud and started to dig (Yes – I, too, was asking myself what locals with axes and shovels were doing at midnight in the forest but I did not care enough at the time to find out as long as they keep on digging).

The forest was too dark, the mud too gooey and the rain too wet for a heroic rescue mission so they all gave up and instead took the vodka bottles out and opened an informal welcome celebration for us. Overall it was a rather enjoyable night.

In the morning, after a tractor pulled us out, our dear rescuers invited us to their village. Irena and Ashot showed us what is real hospitality. They fed us well, took us to hot springs in the forest (a different one, not the sticky muddy forest), did a tour around and finished off with a traditional ‘Banya’.  

Beforehand I didn’t know what a traditional Banya meant so here we go: ‘Everything You Needed to Know About Banya’ in 5 short paragraphs.

After-Banya party

The Banya was introduced to our Slavic friends long ago by the Vikings and the principle is similar to Sauna: sweat it all out.

The Banya hut is divided into 3 sections: the lounge, the rinsing room and the sweating cell. As in any other proper culture, men enter first; firstly undressing completely in the lounge (wearing silly hats only), then preparing buckets of icy water in the rinsing room and finally entering the sweating cell.

In the sweating cell fire heats a pile of stones. Water is sprayed on the pile to create steam. It’s tough. Feels like a shrimp in a curry dish. The skin is being baked, breathing is hard, temperature is rising to 110C but only then the real action begins.

Each one on his turn lies down while the others slap him with branches and twigs. Exactly a moment before passing out the person moves (or removed) to the rinsing room for a freezing splash of icy water. Note the extremity. The whole process is been repeated over and over until the group, utterly squeezed, is retired outside for a refreshing slow drink. 

It may sound like a sadistic torture – and perhaps it is, but the feeling in the end is divine. It’s purifying, refreshing and rejuvenating. It brings wonderful senses of calmness, cleanness and sleepiness - I love calmness, cleanness and especially sleepiness therefore I love Banya.      


We ended up staying with Irina and Ashot for 2 nights. The hospitality was brilliant and generous. In general – more than the pine cones seeds, the beautiful girls and the abundant burning materials – the most enjoyable aspect of Siberia is the hospitality. Everywhere in Siberia we found wonderful, kind and warm people who were willing to help us, pull us of out of the mud, direct us and make us feel welcomed: thank you, the people of Siberia.  

Route Map: Russia (leg 1) + Kazakhstan

Irena, Ashot and the whole gang, Oxana, Sergei & Jena, Alexey and the Team Gorky Rafting group, Sasha ‘is little mouse’ the Altai guide, the staff in Vianor garage Barnaul, Igor the Land Rover specialist in Omsk and all of those people we met on the side of the roads – Thanks a lot guys!!!

Jen & Noam

More stories and photos from the road in our website

Thursday, 14 July 2011

3 Short Stories from the Georgian Valley

A week around Yusufeli with a notebook and my camera

Tea party

Looking for a mountain pass high above the river, we drove through Kalicaya, a small but lively village. Locals, mostly old men, were sitting outside around wooden tables, playing cards and sipping tea. We were passing slowly when one of them spotted us, walked into the road and signalled us to pull over.

When we did he started to fire orders to his friends and immediately our table was ready with chairs, tea, sugar and cookies. But I couldn’t sit yet. Our hosts’ smiley, inviting faces captured me and I wanted to photograph them first. Luckily they were extremely cooperative and happy to be photographed. It was a great moment of interaction for me and, I assume, for them.

By The Barhal River, Yusufeli

Eager to learn, focused, disciplined. The Kayaking team boys were sitting around their unexpected English teacher. They attentively absorbed every phrase, word, symbol – learning.

They’ve been working hard for weeks, preparing for their qualification for the London 2012 Olympic Games. They’ve been staying with us, at the wonderfully hospitable Green Peace Camp and promptly befriended us. It was only a matter of time before Jen took the important role of helping out with the essential English lessons.

Jen in Action 
English lesson at 21:00 every evening

The Kayakers in Action

Kayaking is a fundamental aspect in the local culture in the valley and somehow everyone in Yusufeli seems to be involved with the popular water sport. “The Barhal River is one of the best kayaking spots in the world” – Mark, expert Kayaker from Peckham London, tells me. He came over with his other kayak buddies to enjoy it whilst it’s still here.

The Barhal River, together with the small town of Yusufeli, is due to disappear underwater in the near future. Turkish developers have been planning to dam the river and flood the whole valley.
“It’s very sad” says Oktay, European championship in Kayaking, “everyone’s life here is on or around the river. But we will be ok, we will never stop Kayaking”

Jen and I, Rafting with the locals

Tracing the Source of River Barhal

Gear list: tent, 4x4 vehicle, heavy boots, food, jacket, climbing/trekking gear, camera

Time to complete: at least 2 full strenuous days – ideally 3

Step 1: four hours off road driving along the canyon, following the gushing river.

Step 2: trek up the Kashkar Mountain along the stream to reach the (improvised) base camp (3500m)

Step 3: crash into bed (sleeping bag)

Step 4: get up early and climb to the glacier (4000m)

Step 5: take a deep breath, look around and rejoice

Jen & Noam Ben Tsion

Read more about our journey here