Belgian beer and chocolates

Dinant

I came to Belgium in the middle of completely hot summer, out of curiosity. I rarely travel in that part of Europe so it is even more interesting to visit a country commonly associated with beers and chocolates.

Witkap - local brewery in Belgium

Belgian chocolates

We drive my yellow bus from the Luxembourg side and arrive to Rochefort, a random town on a map. It turns out that today the town is hosting street car racing. I presume that the organizers have split different participants into different classes, because among their machines there are quite modern racing vehicles and all kinds of different hand-made garage inventions and experiments. My favorite one is an old-school Einstein-looking guy in his time machine resembling a rocket on wheels.

Vintage cars racing, Rochefort

Vintage cars racing, Rochefort

Street racing, Rochefort in Belgium

One visiting Rochefort should also drop in on the cave called Grotte de Lorette. Not only for the relief offered by the 10 degree cool off compared to what is happening on the surface, nor  because of plenty of interesting formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Our highlight is a French-speaking guide who also “speaks English”. We join a group, it turns out, as the only two persons who don’t speak French. Our guide lights a lamp, walks a bit, makes a stop every several meters, tries to explain something, builds up a longer explanation for several minutes in his monologue then at some point, for unknown reason, he inflates balloon with hot air and lets it go, then again points to something, talks and once he reflects that it is been a while he spoke anything to us, he comes up with an essential summary of his last monologue, such as pointing to a stalagmite and saying: “The red water makes this, okay?”.

Grotte de Lorette, Rochefort

This region is famous for the Trappist beer brewed by monks. Belgium has as many as six out of eleven monasteries around the world that brew Trappiste Beer in accordance with traditional values. The main focus goes on self-sufficiency and non-profit approach. The sale revenues are used exclusively to maintain the monastery and its residents. Any surplus is donated for charity. Moreover, the beer must be brewed by the monks themselves or at least with their direct supervision. And – strangely enough – it’s not the beer that is most important, but the manner of brewing and lifestyle of the monks that need to follow the traditions of the monastery.

Belgian beers, a lot of beers!

Most popular Trappist beer is Chimay, Orval and Rochefort.

In the course of a few days in Belgium we try different masterpieces of local breweries. Most Belgian beers are very specific. Majority is dominated by heavy, full-bodied, dark and hearty type of texture with distinctive taste. There are variations among them, some being slightly sweet, with a delicate hint of bitterness and dominant touch of herbal spices or forest fruits. One of more interesting beers is Belle-Vue Kriek, a very sour one, is also one of a few beers in the world that are brewed from cherries!

Time for Dinant

Meuse river, Dinant

It was thanks to a random picture that I saw some time ago that led us to Dinant. An unusual sight of the river, the cathedral and a citadel built on a steep rocky slope attracted my attention. Our walking tour begins with a stroll along the river Meuse. We pass the boulevard densely filled with lively bars and restaurants. Some spots are occupied by people who came here on their barges.  Some of them seem like they are in no rush and perhaps are likely to settle here.

Passing the bridge I notice some saxophone-shaped decorations. I decided to investigate on that one and I found that actually the saxophone was invented around 1841 by a man named Adolph Sax, instrument builder, who was born in Dinant.

The following morning we visit the citadel, naturally, by running up the stairs, even though the elevator is included in the ticket price. Warming up by ascending 408 stairs is just right. The fortifications of the citadel rise above the vertical cliff. It has been a strategic place since the eleventh century. Those who were in charge here, could have controlled the Meuse valley. On-site we get to know the history of the city, we also find out that it was completely destroyed during the First World War and that reconstruction was performed in a very careful manner to match the original shape.

The trail towards Brussels

Meeting with an old friend again, this time in Europe! :)

As we are getting deeper into Belgium, at some point we found ourselves at the outskirts of Brussels. It’s a great chance to meet Guy, a seventy year old traveler who spent five years traveling through South America in his Iveco bus. My parents met him some time ago in Chile, then a few years later traveled with him in Colombia. Now is high time to meet in Europe. Guy lives in Zaventem, a town just outside Brussels. As soon as we arrive here, Guy suggests little trip to Brussels so our appointment for coffee turns into 24 hours of intense sightseeing.

At the beginning we visit the Palace of Justice. A one piece of a giant building with monstrous columns. It happens to be the world’s largest courthouse.

Palace of Justice, Brussels

Humongous hall in Palace of Justice

A short walk takes us to panoramic views over Brussels. We continue strolling and proceed from the administrative part (as we all know, the bureaucracy in Brussels is pretty big thing) to the historical part of the city.

There is a park with famous people, scientists, researchers and precursors. Many of them are worth mentioning but my particular attention goes to Mercator for whom we shall be grateful for his merits in cartography and Vesalius, who is often considered the founder of modern human anatomy. He had to creep into the graves to steal the dead bodies to be able to examine and describe anatomy.

Gerard Mercator - the inventer of most common map projection

As we wander the narrow streets, Guy finds one specific place where we are going to eat mussels. It is Leon restaurant, the one Guy has been visiting once in a while for past 40 years. He also mentions one sandwich shop that he has been visiting since he was a chile. He even knows one waitress that has been working there for over 45 years!

Mussels with Chris and Guy

Nightlife in Brussels

Another interesting fact is that starting from last weekend, the Brussels city center is officially closed to car traffic. People play table tennis in the middle of the street, someone has set up some benches and a barbecue. It is a warm summer Monday evening and the city is bustling.

City center is now closed for cars and open for public

Restobar Le Perroquet, Brussels

Busy streets of downtown Brussels

Coming morning Guy takes us on a history lesson to Waterloo. We are listening to his lecture and reconstruction of the historic battle of 1815 with details. It is a sunny, extremely hot day with not a single cloud in the sky. Allegedly 200 years ago it was the rain that was the main cause of Napoleon’s defeat. Who knows, perhaps that rain changed the course of history?

Impressive and exhausting triahtlon Edinburgh to Waterloo

Waterloo battle site

We move to the northern suburbs of Brussels to see the Atomium. It is a representation of an iron particle that was enlarged 165 billion times and built in the form of a 102 meter high model on the occasion of Expo 1958. An interesting fact is that the original design was to construct it without the “supporting legs” for most remote atoms but they dropped the idea as it would have doubled the construction cost.

Guys visiting atomium

Interesting structure

Atomoum - Expo 58

In that area we also come to see the Japanese tower and the Chinese house, both also built specially of Expo’58.

Chinese house

Japanese tower (built for Expo '58)

The next day, while going for a run at the border town Peruwelz we unwillingly cross the Franco-Belgian border. It’s another hot night, even though at this point we do not yet realize that the hottest days are still to come.

Time for dinner

In the end, here comes something for architecture enthusiasts.

Gotic cathedral in Arlon

belgium-112

belgium-109

belgium-107

 

Nature hikes in Luxembourg

Luxembourg streets

If you look at the map of Europe, Luxembourg is hardly noticeable. Roughly forty percent of this half a million nation are immigrants. It seems that Luxembourg is commonly associated with tax evasion, countless financial institutions and so-called headquarters of global corporations. In this tiny country there are registered nearly 150 different banks that hold 750 billion euros worth of assets and about 300 billion euros in cash deposits. There are different views on the subject of creating a tax-evasion-friendly environment, but the truth is that small states face limited capabilities of infrastructural development. The solution is to create robust service sector and attract foreign investors.

Some time ago I picked up a brochure titled: “Hikes in Luxembourg”. At first, I was a bit surprised and it made me smile. I noted to check up in the future if Luxembourg is worth visiting for nature enthusiasts. Quite coincidentally it took me less than a year to come here my friend Chris. This time instead of meeting in Bolivia or Myanmar, we have decided to make a small trip on a third continent – Europe.

Just within first few hours here, we realize that Luxembourg is filled small charming towns surrounded by forest trails from where you can easily access quite remote places.

Clervaux

One such towns is Clervaux. It is surrounded by river Clerve from three sides. Top sites are historic castle and church, both gracefully rising above stone buildings of the town and proudly giving it its character. At this stage of the journey, we would not yet fully solve the question what language do Luxembourgers speak. It’s a small country, but despite the size, it has several dialects. It seems unclear whether it sounds like French or German or something else, but to simplify matters, since 1984 the creative inhabitants have called this language Luxembourgish, in other words “Lëtzebuergesch” in Luxembourgish.

Naturally, we also found some time to visit the capital, namely Luxembourg City. It turns out that my old friend from childhood Amalia lives here. This is what I call the right timing. As we arrived in the evening, we got to the electronic music party in Philharmonie in the chic district of Kirchberg.

 

Place D'armes, main square in Luxembourg City
Bridge in Luxembourg

Orchiestra is playing

In a continuing preparations for several mountain trail runs, every day I try to find an interesting place to run. My top pick is the Mullerthal valley offering plenty scenic trails that will take you along the river, over the hills and between the rocks. To finish off another memorable day I suggest a bottle of local beer Diekirch. All you have to do is enjoy it and wait until the middle of hot summer night till magical fireflies appear in the darkness through which you will hear only ambient sounds. It is hard to believe that we are in Luxembourg!
Mullerthal Running Trails

Mullerthal Running Trails

Mullerthal Running Trails

 

 

Some things to see in Copenhagen

Nyhavn

I happened to be in Copenhagen several times, either passing by or coming for shorter or longer visit. Once I even lived there for some time.  I got up in the morning and just like other Danes I cycled into town. This was the most convenient way to meet local people and get to know the city. Probably any person visiting Denmark will notice that it is a country that has been extremely well organized and structured. Therefore, to make an overall contrast I would like to share some of my subjective thoughts and experiences in a less structured way hoping to offer some travel tips for those traveling to Danish capital.
Mural painting in Christiania

For the beginning, it is worth to mention that one of the highlights that drives young people into Copenhagen is Christiania. Formally, it is not part of neither Denmark, nor Copenhagen. It remains a self-proclaimed independent state with roughly 850 inhabitants and size of 35 hectares. It has aroused much controversy since its inception in 1971. It was started out by some squatters settling down an abandoned military base. Over time, Christiania became an integral part of urban folklore and even the ever existing conflict with Danish authorities regarding the possession, use and sale of cannabis was finally given up. Today, it is merely a quiet hippie town. Before you leave Christiania you will see a sign “You are now entering the EU”.
Leaving Christiania

Many bicycles in Copenhagen

Downtown Copenhagen

Downtown Copenhagen

More bicycles than cars in Copenhagen

World's happiest nation

Old Stock Exchange in copenhagen

Mural painting by canal in Copenhagen

CPH Living

Boats in Copenhagen

Girl by the canal in CPH

Copenhagen is crossed by multiple canals. It attracts enthusiasts of kayaking, rowing and those who prefer to live on the water. It also provides the opportunity for sightseeing by a tourist boat. Nyhavn is a historic seventeenth-century harbor, which originally was a hub for merchant ships from around the world. An entertainment center was needed for the thriving harbor. Many restaurants, pubs and playhouses with girls were built up in the area. All that visiting sailors would need to have a bit of fun after their long voyages. Hans Christian Andersen used to live in Nyhavn and this place was his good inspiration.

Over time, as full ocean vessels grew larger and larger, much of the Nyhavn’s traffic was overtaken by larger harbors. Nowodays, Nyhavn is beautifully renovated boulevard of buildings with colorful facades and historic boats moored by the shore.

The easiest way for a quick trip outside the city is a cycling tour around the island of Amager (the one where the airport is located). The island is large enough to forget about the city stress, actually it is large enough even to get lost. You will reach the southern edge through various fields, villages and little forests. There are some wild unattended beaches ideal for kitesurfing. Then you can tour the airport and a few kilometers further north there is Amager Strandpark, a city park perfect for sport enthusiasts, especially skateboarding and watersports, as well as those who simply like to relax on artificially created sandy beach strip

Some more kilometers to the north there is another interesting site. Jægersborg Dyrehave is a park with an area of ​​11 square kilometers. It has a population of more than 2,100 deer. Come there if you like to see these animals. Meeting some of them it is absolutely inevitable!
Jægersborg Dyrehave

Jægersborg Dyrehave

Speaking of animals, the Copenhagen zoo one of the city’s highlights. There’s also been quite a lot international controversy around it. Particularly those concerning purposeful killing of giraffes, lions and other animals by zoo staff. Whether it has been done in the name of science, or to preserve the best genes, to infuriate people or just for any other reason, it does not justify it. What matters though, is the simple observation: the strength of propaganda and people’s trust in local authorities made most of them believe it was rightful decision!
Giraffe in Copenhagen ZOO

Elephants in Copenhagen ZOO

Poral Bear in Copenhagen ZOO

Lions in Copenhagen ZOO

Now it’s time for Copenhagen in a nutshell, in other words, a 42.2 km run along city streets. Running a marathon is one of the best ways to discover interesting parts of any given city. At least that is the intention of the organizers. The Nykredit Copenhagen’s Marathon route will guide runners through selected parts of the city that are considered notable. The start and finish of the marathon are located on the Islands Brygge boulevard on the island of Amager. Runners will pass great Langebro bridge and run towards in the central part of the city. Running through the city center, as well as districts of Østerbro, Nørrebro and Vesterbro lets you see the iconic monuments of architecture, as well as various places of historical and cultural importance. The route takes us through green Østerbro, multicultural Nørrebro and modern Vesterbro. Most important factor are the crowds of cheering supporters. There is loud music, concerts, orchestras, choirs and DJs, all of them scattered along the way. Cheering gives you so much energy – I completed the first half of the race in less than hour and a half, completely forgetting about the remaining half of the race. As I was passing a Kenyan girl running like an antelope I woke up to the fact that I’m perhaps running a little bit too fast. Eventually, I managed to finish the race in 3 hours and 13 minutes. It is enough time to discover main parts of the entire city. Those in a hurry are able to finish the race in less than three hours, but some who like to do more sightseeing, took it easy and used as many as six hours to finish the race.

Boats in Copenhagen

Restaurants at Nyhavn

Nyhavn waterfront

Another great way of experiencing Denmark is cycling through it. The route from Gedser to Copenhagen runs across the islands of Falster and Sealand. Covering a distance of 150km at moderately recreational pace takes an average of eight hours. In the south of Denmark at some points you will see abandoned villages where nobody wants to live. Every second household is for sale. The road towards the capital is a perfect quality cycling lane mostly separated from the car traffic. For several hours you will ride through many fields, meadows, forests and villages and once in a while you will see a subtle hill breaking the prevailing flat landscape.

Gedser - Copenhagen by bike

Carlsberg at Nyhavn

Among Chilean volcanoes

chile-731

We are in Cunco, a small village in the region of Araucanía in Chile. As the name rightly suggests, this terrain is populated with araucaria trees.

chile-491

We stock up and head towards Lake Colico. The first car we encounter pulls over to offer us a ride. It’s a giant, heavily overloaded Dodge RAM 2500. Its hood is almost at the height of one’s head.

chile-499

Benjamin, the driver, surely believes in the power of his road monster. It carries a total of 11 tonnes of cement in cargo bed and a trailer. As if it was not enough, he offers us a lift. The pick-up car is loaded almost like a full-size truck!

Benjamin turns out to be an extremely welcoming guy. He invites us for a dinner in his family house. He shows us a hydroelectric power station producing electricity for the needs of their household.
chile-501Benjamin’s family is focused on developing tourism here. The place offers perfect setting thanks to the proximity of nature and peaceful ambience.
chile-503

The interior of the house is full of travel souvenirs and outdoor accessories. They got even kayaks hanging over dining room table! Outside, there are horses, hot-tub and a private coastline with pier and place to picnic. We jump off the wooden pier into the Lago Colico and admire idyllic surroundings.
It turns out that beaches in Chile are public. The access to them, however, is very often private, which makes it an interesting paradox.
chile-507

chile-512

chile-517

We try to follow the trail, but soon we get lost. Luckily we manage to find a tiny meadow by the river to stay for the night. As we enjoy the evening by the bonfire, I realize there is a leech stuck to my leg. I pull it off with my fingers and the moment I’m going to sleep I wonder how many other leeches are going to be under my tent during that wet and rainy night. Downpour during the night is also a water resistance test for a tent bought in a Chilean supermarket. As expected, the tent fails the test.

In the morning, we wait until the rain calms down and start walking. After a few kilometers hiking it starts to rain heavily again. Soon we are completely soaked.
To that end, we have to cross the ice-cold, turbulent river with water level reaching up to thighs. Moments later we get extremely cold. There is no other solution but to keep walking. A couple of hours later we arrive to some abandoned construction site that one day might become a mountain hut. We fold up in sleeping bags and shivering and completely soaked wait for several hours for the next day to come.

chile-522

chile-526

chile-531

chile-543We kindle a bonfire and spend most of the morning drying clothes. This time, to our joy – the sun appears.
chile-554

chile-558

chile-567

We reach waterfall Ojos de Caburgua and become instantly mesmerized by its three streams of water coming into the turquoise river.

The area has several other picturesque waterfalls. Bellavista is one worth-a-visit and the other’s name unfortunately escapes me.

On the way to the volcano Villarrica

chile-606

The road to Pucon is not a busy one. Here once again we experience Chilean hospitality. An old jeep with a few widows missing pulls over. We meet Omar, a retired Chilean of French-Italian origin, who usually drives from his mountain ranch to the valley once every two weeks to do laundry and meet friends. Omar takes us to the town and invites for a coffee in place run by his friend.

Finding a place to sleep and a travel agency to climb Villarrica volcano is way easier that we thought.
chile-594The following day we start the ascent. Out of the entire group, only me and Światek prefer to walk instead of taking a lift to skip the first part of the hike. We catch up with the rest of the group after 45 minutes of uphill walk. The entire hike from the base to the volcano crater takes about 3.5 hours. The weather is sensational. The only cloud on a clear blue sky is the smoke coming out of the volcano. It quite a new experience to look inside the crater of a dormant volcano. The air smells of sulphur.
chile-610

chile-616

chile-620

chile-621

chile-627

chile-641

chile-647

NOTE: It turns out that on 3 March 2015, a few months after our visit, the Villarrica volcano erupted for the first time since 1971. I wonder if it is better to be there too early or too late?
Probably too early, so you can enjoy the downhill sledge ride on the snow from the top to the foothills.

Dancing with sea lions

By some strange coincidence, we find ourselves in the village of Valdivia. The main curiosity is a chance to meet face to face with sea lions.

For the first time we have an opportunity to play with them a little bit and quickly realize how alarmingly fast they can move as one trespasses their territory – a wooden platform – and lays down trying to pretend being sea lion. Adrenaline guaranteed!

chile-664

chile-672

chile-679

Lake Llanquihue

We continue towards Puerto Varas, a fancy town in the Bavarian style. It undoubtedly owes the charm to German settlers from the 1850s. The city is picturesquely situated by Lake Llanquihue. We spend a few relaxing days exploring the area.
chile-694The most impressive setting is by the waterfall called Salto del Petrohue. A powerful stream of water squeezes through a narrow canyon formed by lava. Mountains covered with green vegetation contrast with perfectly turquoise lake Todos los Santos, a snow-covered volcano Osorno and blue sky with a few distinctively white clouds.

chile-714Crystal clear water gets into pale blue shades. We jump to take a swim in the refreshingly cold water.

In the evening it is time for a farewell a beer by the lakeside in Puerto Varas and set off. Each of the three of us in a different direction.

chile-723

Santiago de Chile & around

chile-419

Santiago is huge city. How can you start with it?

Incidentally I discover that Maja, a friend from collage has lived here for several months already. This is an ideal opportunity to meet her and hear some stories about realities of living in Chile.
chile-805

I think in every capital it is tricky to enjoy the peace and tranquility which are more typical to the countryside. Santiago is no exception. The skyline is dominated by high-rise buildings. Modern subway operates for the benefit of residents, there is well developed urban infrastructure and – notably cleaner and safer streets that those found in other capitals of Latin America.

Social status remains of great importance for everyday life. Foreigners often are privileged in the job market, often for being better qualified, or at least perceived that way by employers. Having a nice job means you can easily afford a lavish lifestyle. Nowadays, a rooftop pool, house cleaner, doorman and a private underground parking became a standard that clearly make social inequality even more visible.
chile-465

In the course of a few days Majka and her boyfriend Jose show us the city. A common way to spend weekend evening is a house party with friends (this time among several astronomers!). It is often combined with barbecue (parilla) that starts as late as two at night when everyone is already starving.
chile-473

chile-467   chile-811

During the day we visit some interesting places such as lavish, full of historic buildings and monuments promenade Barrio Bellas Artes. Then we come to the backpackers district Baquedano. It is a paradise for hunters of sensationally cheap (or at least good-value) bars, cafes and restaurants. From here we ascend to the viewpoint of Cerro San Cristobal (869m above sea level) that sports perfect view of the diverse architecture of the city and surrounding mountains.
chile-474 chile-476

During the break, apart from usual beer, one can try products from local microbreweries, so-called. cerveza artesanal. Another interesting drink is called ‘michelada’. It is a drink made of beer mixed with sour juice served in glass frosted with salt. Maja, Jose and probably many other Santiaguinos love it, but in my case I might use a few (dozens) months for get used to that salty taste. There is nothing like a standard, one-liter Escudo or Cristal.

Around the capital

Over the course of one month travel to Chile with Dorota and Światek, we managed to visit the far north and the middle south of the country, as well as some surroundings of Santiago.

We spent some hours in La Serena, a very neat and developing coastal town. It is also a starting base for pisco producing regions. Pisco is an alcohol similar to cognac, the quality of which is at least at par with the French produce.

chile-406

We stroll through the historic alleys and colorful restored streets of the city, once plagued by pirate attacks and completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1730.
chile-414

chile-415

chile-421

chile-442

chile-450

Viña del Mar and Valparaiso are two other coastal towns in Santiago. Wandering around the narrow, winding streets filled with colorful houses is pure fun. We start from the uphill trip with one of the historic, dating to a hundred years ago, elevators (ascensores) that resemble a cross between a tram and  a gondola. The ride costs 100 Chilean pesos, which is only several cents.

As we climb the hills of the city, the panoramic view gets wider. It reaches the surrounding hills, irregular buildings of Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Alegre districts up the bay with several warships in harbor.

Talca

A few hours to the south there is a town of Talca. I get here and stay with Nadia who I met on Couch Surfing.

chile-773

She shows me around the city, which has partially been destroyed by the earthquake in 2010. She is very hospitable girl, studying theater play and interested in traveling.  From the local delicacies it is interesting to try a cereal drink with peach inside – mote con huesillo, as well as eat Chilean version of a hot dog. The one made with tomatoes, sauerkraut and mayonnaise is called completo, and the other with avocado, tomato and lots of mayonnaise is called italiano – not for the origin of recipe but for its resemblance to the colors of the Italian flag.

Talca is a starting point for exploring Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay. To get there, you first take a bus to Vilches Alto. Unfortunately I missed the only morning bus, luckily I managed to get there with a few hitch-hike rides.

chile-774

chile-787

Most people stay in the park for some days walking with a backpack and camping. I decide to make it more intense. As part of the warm-up I run a couple shorter routes and then hike Enladrillado, a trip scheduled for two easy or one intense day. It takes me about 5 hours to finish the route of 28km / 1900m D + (positive elevation).

Enladrillado

chile-790

chile-794

chile-797

This is a mountain trail leading to the frying-pan flat top, a place perceived by conspiracy theorists as UFO landing strip. Being under time pressure, it turns out that after returning back I manage to be in good time to enjoy a one liter bottle of Cristal waiting for the last bus :-)

Landscapes of Atacama Desert

chile-224

Northern region of Chile is famous for surreal landscapes created by nature. It takes a few long days of driving to reach northern part of the world’s longest country. Finally, together with Dorota and Światek we all arrive to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town located next to the Bolivian border. It is perfect base camp for exploring local must-see attractions. I just realized that it’s been almost 3 years since my last trip in the Altiplano and again I’m enthusiastic to discover more natural wonders, this time on the Chilean side.

chile-153

chile-156

Our adventure begins with Laguna Miñiques and Laguna Miscanti. These are two high-altitude brackish lakes, once a single big lake, currently separated by lava flowing from the eruption of volcano Miñiques. The landscape of entire area has been shaped over the centuries by Chiliques, Cerro Miscanti and other surrounding volcanoes.

chile-183 chile-190 chile-195 chile-210

A high altitude lake Tuyajto (located at 3800m above sea level) is our next stop. The Atacama Desert is widely known for being one of the driest places on earth. Therefore the evaporation by far exceeds precipitation. Thus, just as in the case of Salar de Uyuni, the minerals dissolved in water become saturated solution at some point. As the temperature changes in pair with evaporation, some of the salt and other minerals crystallize. It leaves spectacular and unique mosaic polygons made of salt.

chile-225

chile-226

The environmental conditions also influence culture and tradition of local people. For example, in the Toconao village there is a small church with roof made of cactus wood. It is quite special species of cactus. Not only because it grows as little as 1 meter per 100 years. The plant is considered sacred and for that reason it cannot be cut. Instead the final stage of roof construction has to be put on hold until the cactus naturally dies. According to recent estimates, it may take another 500 years.

chile-229 chile-260 chile-262

Another place we visit is called Piedras Rojas (Spanish for: Red Stones). This is a blue lake surrounded by red rocks – the color is due to high iron content.

In search of some wildlife we explore the Los Flamencos National Reserve, a national park with an area of 740km^2. Its section Soncor including lake Laguna Chaxa is particularly interesting. This area is situated at 2300 meters. The surface is mostly covered with salt crust and saturated solution of minerals. Apparently it seems to be favorite spot for flamingos to hang out.

chile-233 chile-240 chile-252

Here we observe all varieties of flamingos having their habitat in Chile: Chilean flamingos, Andean flamingos and James flamingos. The birds spend entire days watching the tourists, in the meantime frivolously and gracefully wading in alkaline brines in search of food.

Crossing the desert, you can see the small shrubs and mosses. It is food for vicuña, herbivorous animals (eating only vegetarian food) resembling small camels, that have adapted to local conditions. Vicuña are closely related to the guanaco or llama and it takes some practice to be able to distinguish them each time. Just as in the case of flamingos.

chile-323

chile-266 chile-269 chile-277

We encounter some other inhabitants of the desert. Vizcacha is kind of rodent, quite similar to grey rabbit with curly tail. We also met a few times zorro culpeo, times an Andean fox.

Evenings in San Pedro de Atacama are also fun. After long-awaited one liter bottle of Escudo beer and a glass of wine, we decide to go beyond the city limits and search for the stars. It’s an opportunity to make a few pictures of the sky, because the atmosphere over the Atacama Desert is considered the most clear in the world.

chile-284

At 4:30 in the morning we set off to the Tatio Geysers. El Tatio is the highest geyser field in the world. At an altitude of 4320 meters, there are over 80 active geysers, giving the site another status of the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere. I enjoy those numbers and statistics! Let’s come up with another one. The average eruptions have a height of about 75 centimeters and it is not uncommon to see 6 meter high geyser eruptions.chile-290 chile-292 chile-305 chile-315

We arrive in good time before the first rays of sun. The temperature is about minus 5 degees Celsius and considering the humidity, feels like much colder.  The cold air in contact with hot steam gets warmer. Walking just between the geysers can get you a bit warmer, but you need to be careful. An accidental fall into one of 85-90 degree almost boiling-hot ponds is not desirable.

chile-336

Shortly after dawn the air temperature rises and frozen mud begins to melt. We head towards natural hot springs. To walk on a muddy bottom we take off shoes and quickly find that you have to be extremely careful not to burn your feet while walking along bubbly bottom. That’s where the cold water is mixed with 80 degree hot underground water. Despite the efforts I got my foot burned so the pain lasts for another two days. It is not too bad on the average, for example, one German girl in our group had to be escorted to the doctor. I would say the right temperature for relaxation is about 37-40 C, anything beyond is too hot. chile-357 chile-365

On the way back we stop for a stroll along the Cactus Valle, a full of cacti canyon formed by river. I did not expect to see a river in supposedly driest place in the world, but here it is.

Late afternoon we set off to see the sunset in the Valle de la Luna. We’re going there for a long walk along the edge of precipice. We observe shadows getting longer, listen to the wind and wait until the sun finally disappears behind the mountains.

 

chile-373 chile-377 chile-378 chile-379 chile-380 chile-383 chile-384

The night sets in and it is about time to prepare for the nighttime meeting with astronomer and stars. We are waiting at the appointed site and shortly a SUV comes by. It turns out that the driver is not the most experienced one. He accidentally rams a gate to someone’s possession and then tries hard to drive up the driveway using handbrake. He fails four times. Something seems to be strange also with the eye-sight of our driver. Fortunately, the astronomer realizes something goes not according to the plan and he personally comes to pick up our group.

So begins an amusing evening with telescopes and Chilean wine. Maybe second impression is more important? Astronomer is a specific and quite hilarious person. His blinking red LED-light on forehead makes him look like a character from a comic book telling unheard-of anecdotes about the solar system and the universe.

Mistakenly I expected the stars to appear bigger when seen through the telescope, but in reality it is still different magnitude of distances as opposed to Milky Way which can be seen very well on a perfectly clear sky. We are also able to see myriad of stars, otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Watch more stars, drink more red wine and continue listening the astronomer’s stories. So goes our astronomical evening.

In the morning we start our return trip through the desert. We arrive to Calama. This is a vibrant city, whose economic power is mainly contributed to ​​- no surprise – copper mining. We take a casual walk across the city center and realize that there are even monuments of miners, made of – you guess it – copper.

We also make a stop at Sierra Gorda. This is an appealing little town. There are a few shops, a town square and plenty of mine workers, leaving the impression as if they worked on a four shift basis. It is here that Polish copper giant KGHM made big investments in copper mining. To tell the truth, the whole area reminds one big copper mine!

Heading south we aslo stop at Copiapo. It was on 5th August 2010 in San Jose, the nearby copper and gold mine, where the accident in which 33 miners were cut off from the world deeply underground. Miners, colloquially referred to as “The Thirty Three” (“Los 33”), were trapped at a depth of 700 meters underground and as much as 5 km from the entrance to the mine. The rescue operation lasted 69 days – luckily ​​everyone survived.

The Chinese built a 40 ton heavy and 12 meters high monument to commemorate the events and dedicated it to the peace in the world. It is good to see the monument, for at least two reasons. It has been raised to commemorate historical events and the fact that it was not made ​​of copper.

chile-391

Penguins and sea lions

Sea lions in Chile

It’s time for some adventures from Chile. The car ride from Santiago towards Atacama offers intense experience with semi-arid landscape. The road north meanders between the ocean on the left and the Andes on the right. The predominant view of bushes and cactus is rarely replaced with some vineyards, olive plantations, or abundant wild plants along the seasonal riverbed.

Caleta  Hornos at night

We sleep in a tent in seaside village Caleta Hornos. The following morning we get off the main road no 5 and head towards Las Choros.

We are not alone here. Along the way we meet gray fox culpeo and a herd of guanaco swiftly running between cacti.

Guanacos in Chile Coastal Chile

We reach Punta de Choros, starting point for a visit to Reserva Nacional Pinguino Humboldt. It turns out that due to strong winds and big waves none of the boats would sail today. Therefore we patiently wait, spending the day walking south along the coast towards sandy dunes. Allegedly, scorpions can be found here, but we are not that lucky.

Sunset in Punta de Choros Boats in Punta de Choros

During the night the wind doesn’t stop, it intensifies and though the morning the waves are even higher. The difference is that there is additional group of clients and boat owners are not able to avoid the temptation of making extra money. I love all the situations where the simple economy bends previously established rules. Here we sail.

The scene of passengers getting onboard looks like it was pictured in a comic book. The waves are so big that every 10 or so seconds the pier is flooded and precisely during that time the skipper loosens the rope to prevent damage to the boat. The boat moves away and few seconds after comes back to take one passenger on board within not more than two seconds, then next one board and so on. During this operation, one of the Chilean girls got soaked her entire leg, a desperate mom with three small children brought two of them to tears and seemingly brave nun, finally chickened out after seeing what it is all about. In total 12 people sail towards the reserve on this tiny boat through powerful 3-meter high waves.

Humboldt penguins in Chile Penguins in Reserva Nacional Pinguino Humboldt

We sail to an island inhabited by Humboldt penguins. This variation of cute black-and-white bird reaches a size of about 60cm. We are happy to enjoy view of the largest concentration of around 10,000 of the world’s population. The seem to like rocky coast, waves, wind, harsh climate and the company of seagulls, pelicans and … sea lions!

Sea lions in Reserva Nacional Pinguino HumboldtIsland belonging to Reserva Nacional Pinguino Humboldt Sea lions resting on rock

Our boat approaches sea lions (in Spanish, lobo marino) also known as Patagonian sea lions. These animals lead a comfortable lifestyle. Lying down on the rocks most of the day and fishing (or call it hunting for fish?) if they feel like to. Typical sea lion eats an average of 10-15 kg fish per day. These are massive and quite lively animals, as we will later see. The body can reach up to 2.5 meters and weight up to 300kg. Meeting such guy might have unpredictable ending. Breaking the waves our boat embarks one of the islands and about two hours later we came back to the mainland.

Red house with flowers in Vallenar

Further north the road runs along the coast. Desert landscape is still made up of withered shrubs and cacti.

The first major town on the road is Vallenar, located in a desert valley. We walk along its narrow streets filled with colorful colonial houses with lush vegetation in the display.

We also visit the famous resort Bahia Inglesia. It is rather a typical posh-style hangout with seaside promenade, appealing rather to beach goers and fans of tiny bottles of Heineken at inflated prices.

Caldera located just nearby leaves far more interesting impression. This is a typical fishing town. We visit fish market in the morning to try a few types of ceviche. The dish is made of several types of mussels, fish and interesting, unknown to me the ingredients – probably also coming from the sea. One of the fishermen sits in his boat, guts fish and feeds the remnants to a befriended sea lion that look at him longingly and demands more fish.

Fishing boats in Caldera Fish market in Caldera

To my surprise on the other side of the market there are five sea lions, which together with a few passers-by and pelicans seem as if no one paid any attention to anyone. However, for an observer like me is interesting, because the sea lions are intriguing creatures.

A couple of cormorans in Caldera Curious sea lion

We return to the desert. The road is dotted with mountains, frequent turns, roadside memorial chapels and guanaco. You can also stumble upon quite an interesting example of turning someone’s imaginary object into real concrete structure. Behold Mano del Desierto, the Palm of Desert.

Desert landscape of Chile  Mano del desierto

Mandalay by the Ayerarwady river

myanmar-846

Mandalay is a flat city. During the day it is hot as a frying pan. Vertical-horizontal arrangement of the city’s streets makes it easy to find your way, so it is quite unlikely to get lost here.

This morning I’m meeting Vera. A few days ago we agreed that our roads would join here.myanmar-777

As soon as we meet, we hop onto a pickup truck and drive to the famous 1200 meters long U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. Notably, the longest teak bridge in the world. We walk towards the middle of the bridge, which by the way seems to be alarmingly high due to low water levels in dry season. Suddenly the sky becomes overcast, a few minutes later strong wind rises and it starts to rain. A gale breaks branches and smaller trees, puts leaves and plenty of objects flying and floods the surrounding buildings. It takes just a few seconds to be completely soaked. This is an alternative experience of the place compared to a more classic way of seeing the iconic landmark of Myanmar on a fine weather day.

myanmar-772  myanmar-783 myanmar-786

The next morning I am visiting the produce market in the city. I am keen to see all that trading chaos, with mud, screams and intense smell all over the place. Most of the product stands are arranged orderly, but it’s not always the case. You walk past ten mango salesmen, then you will see massive piles of watermelons, spices, chili peppers, entire section of garlic, onions, mango again, then something which looks like grilled canaries, followed by roasted worms, fresh fish and meat. This is so interesting to see and against my odds, I even managed to get lost here. Luckily I had a compass with me to find a way back to a hotel.

myanmar-800

myanmar-809

myanmar-812

myanmar-817

myanmar-820

I meet again with Vera and we decide to rent out mopeds and cruise along the Ayerarwady River.

myanmar-833

We start by circumventing the Mandalay Palace. It takes time, because the palace and its surrounding area is gigantic. We head west and get to the coast of Ayeyarwady. The poorest, hopeless residents of the city live in makeshift houses cramped in a massive cluster along the riverside.

The road south stretches along the river. As we leave the urban area, the are also less people around. One of the most interesting sights along the way are a couple of policemen trying to remove the poisonous snake off the road. With lots of awkward attempts they finally manage with a help of stick to handle it.

myanmar-840

myanmar-842

We reach the bridge and cross over to the other side. We try to find our way through narrow winding streets of the settlement, finally we leave the bikes to climb Sagaing Hill. Interestingly, I just noticed another yet identical snake crossing our road.  Perhaps it is a good idea to pay extra attention for snakes in the area.

myanmar-874

We climb a series of stairs leading up to the top. The view let’s you discover the surroundings. Turns out that the area is mostly jungle with some irregular buildings and hundreds of pagodas connected together stairs and corridors. Someone must have had the imagination to plan and organize it. Looks as if a new pagoda was built there immediately as soon as they had cleared a plot of jungle.

myanmar-845

We’re going to the north towards Miguin. Drive along a little less frequented roads takes us through small villages. After about an hour a giant brick structure appears to our eyes. Theoretically, due to the risk of collapse we are not supposed to go to the top, but it’s not that easy to give up the viewpoint.

myanmar-868

mandalay

Morning train to Hsipaw

I have accidentally arrived to Mandalay at 3 am. What can you do at this hour? Probably just try to get away. I grab my backpack and hop on a motorcycle taxi. We rush through the big city’s darkness towards railway station. To my surprise, even at this early hour there is a lot of turmoil going on. About 70 Burmese people are waiting in front of a ticket counter. I line up, naively believing that 15 is enough to buy a train ticket.

A young girl looks at me and at some point she grabs me and takes to another ticket counter. She wakes up a cashier and tells him something. With this luck I get my ticket in less than five minutes. The cost is 1700 kyat, which is just above one euro. In fact, a 100 km distance to travel is not the most impressive, but the time it takes – 12 hours – certainly is. In other words, in terms of price per hour of travel it is by far the cheapest train ride in my life.

Both the train and the journey itself are unique. Passengers carry massive loads, entire sets of luggage: bags, baskets and home-made “packages”. Blocking the aisle entirely, these become obstacles for ticket collectors, passengers getting on and off and those willing to use the toilet.

The train passes vast highlands and valleys reaching all the way to the horizon. The railroad tracks cut across the jungle, sometimes through a solid rock tunnel, just on the verge of a slope or via historic viaduct. The viaduct is called Goteik Viaduct. It’s is a bit over 100 meters high and 750 meters long, built in 1901, hold the title of world’s the second highest railway bridge. Despite being recently renewed, it is still a shaky structure, so for crossing the train slows down to the pace of a pedestrian.

One of the views which stuck in my memory are two boys in a tiny village rushing the train along the tracks. They hold a three liter jerry can and a cup. They sell drinking water for train passengers. The train will set out in a moment, so the boy fills one passenger’s bottle in a rush. He can’t prevent water from spilling all over the place and looses around 90% of it on the grass. He manages just in to hand it to customer to make his profit equivalent to 10 cents. There won’t be another train in 24 hours.

Having reached Hsipaw

I stay at Yee Shin Guesthouse and use the opportunity wash all my clothes.

I manage to get up before five to see early morning market. The residents of surrounding villages trade here fresh vegetables, rice, meat and spices. There are also some stands offering locusts and worms.




After breakfast I decide to rent a motorbike, allegedly the one with capacity of 1500cc. Both the engine and the brand of the machine – Hong Ga – sound interesting. I do not know if anyone have ever heard of such thing. I am exploring the surrounding villages inhabited by Shan tribes. This is a region of hardworking people, many of them engaged in traditional crafts.

A teenager sells impregnated bamboo hats. A bit further out there is an ongoing silk production using simple tools and wooden frames to dry the material in the sun. In the area there are also workshops producing longyi (a national garment), candles or rice noodles.

 

A visit to the bank

Until recently Myanmar was a cash only economy. Bank accounts, ATM cards and bank transfers are some sort of novelty. Those things are subject to gradual changes. If you enter a bank, you are almost guaranteed to see piles of money just behind the counter. The crowd of young workers keeps counting, checking and arranging the money. There is not a single ATM in the town – at least according to the Lonely Planet. However, last night I have witnessed the historic event. An ATM has be brought and it looks like one of these days it will be installed right next to my hotel.

Meanwhile in the bank, a seemingly easy operation of exchanging 100 euros for kyat is not as straightforward process. The first step is verification. My slightly creased bill, a bit worn-out due to tropical conditions, does not pass the verification machine test. A girl at the counter keeps trying and trying over again until at around her 150th attempt I realize that she is too polite to let me know that my bill is not good enough. I ask her to stop and hand another bill. Luckily that works, otherwise, I might have to wait till the ATM is plugged.

Lost & found

In the northern part of Hsipaw there is a place called “Little Bagan”. Not for no reason, as it resembles (of course in a micro scale) temples of Bagan, or even Angkor Wat for its trees growing all over the buildings.

I wait through downpour in the teak monastery. One of the students shows me around and at some point a senior monk takes over the initiative. He starts with some fundamentals of Buddhism. I shortly discover that his views are quite extreme. Especially the concept that all of the present evil is a consequence of the actions that have taken place in previous incarnations. Just as if our fate was already predetermined and we couldn’t do anything about it.

Just before the dusk I go out with a motorbike to enjoy muddy and dirt clay fields a little bit more. My bike finally gets bogged down and it is just good luck that I manage to turn back.


The following day Chinese minority in Hsipaw is celebrating the birthday of Buddha. The believers come to make a sacrifice. Usually this involves donation (usually quite large, such as $6). In return a person in charge hands in a colorful perforated sheets of paper, which in turn are used to make some kind of origami. A dozen or so of created paper decorations are placed on a tray and then thrown into the fire – for happiness and success in life.

The caretaker of the temple shows me the library resources. There are top-quality materials, such as books to learn Chinese or computer programs, all of those donated by the Chinese government.

In the meantime on the porch, a very social and friendly place, men sit comfortably, smoke cigars and wait for women to serve the food that is being prepared since early morning. Another day in Myanmar passes…

hsipaw

Where the garlic grows (Kalaw to Inle Lake)

myanmar-495

We are going to take a double-decker pickup towards Kalaw. In fact, it is an ordinary pickup, with the difference being that people sit on a roof. Interestingly, local women are not allowed to sit on vehicle’s roof, because it is “not appropriate”.

The car keeps overheating, but the situation is under control as long as we regularly fill up radiator with water. It is very tight and bumpy journey, lacking anything but suffering. This is our sacrifice to be there and walk the famous trail from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

We start the following morning. A tropical downpour greets us for a good start. The first kilometer of trail goes through dense coniferous forest. Several meters behind us we notice a monk carrying a massive load of luggage on his back, so we help him carrying some of it towards monastery.

Our guide Sounar uses every opportunity to show us various common fruits in Myanmar, some of them resembling blackberries, raspberries or strawberries, similar to dates, sweet or even salty.

It is a trail with lots of knowledge about nature. We find out that the older a bamboo tree is, the lower part of its stem branches out with flowers. Bamboo is a basic building material here. Its growth usually lasts up to 20 years while the bamboo walls have a lifespan of about 15 years.

When someone wants to build a house, most of the families around would chip in a bamboo tree each and that is often enough to build the house. If a village works together, the construction can be ready in one day!

Residents of the area use traditional means of transportation, such as wooden carriages pulled by two cows. Cows are also used in agriculture. We meet farmers working in the field, plowing the soil, planting rice, chilli, sesame, mustard and garlic. The crops naturally determine daily routines of women and children in the villages. They do the preparation, sorting and packing part. You can smell garlic and chilli peppers from the distance. Coming closer than a meter to a big pile chilli seeds makes your eyes burn.

On our hike we visit numerous villages whose names are catchy and easy to remember: Lupyin, Sarpin, Linnpan, Kyout Su, Let Pan Pin, Nan Tine, Te Yet Pin, Yoar Let, Ye Koung Tao, Hte Tain, Nann Yote, Kyout Su and Inn Tain.

Each village is peculiar in regard of its people specialization. For example, on the ground floor of the house in Kyout Su, where we spend the first night, there are few cubic meters of garlic scattered across the floor. On the second floor you can smell the intense scent, but at least we sleep peacefully without worrying about vampires. We spend the evening play chinlone with villagers. It is a small, stiff and bouncing ball made of bamboo.

We go to sleep shortly after a dinner prepared on hearth. We wake up before dawn to eat breakfast and start walking to make some distance before sunrise.

In one of the villages Sounar shows us the process of preparing kunya, a tobacco-based stimulant used daily by most of people in Myanmar. Generally speaking, it is a piece of tobacco wrapped in a green leaf together with few extra ingredients, such as cardamom, cloves or fruit juices. The product is put into one’s mouth, then gently chewed, kept idle for several minutes and then chewed with more intensity. Saliva and teeth turn dark red and the excess amount of liquid is spit on the ground marking the typical red splashes on the ground in populated areas. Kunya is still very popular despite its apparent devastating impact on teeth and health in general.

 

It feels like it is going to rain again, so we wait through that taking a midday nap on a monastery on the way. Unexpected guests are welcome to pay a visit in a monastery. You are welcome to rest here as well, just remember that you are not supposed to point your legs toward the Buddha statue.

During the day meet several more people manufacturing bamboo baskets and bamboo housing walls. One adult can on the average produce three small baskets, one large basket or one medium-sized bamboo wall in a day. We spend the night in Hte Tain.

 

After a few hours walk we finally reach Inle Lake. We come to the village Inn Thein and jump into the water, watching out for motor boats passing by with tourists. There is a major souvenir marketplace, but we find Inthein more interesting. It is a huge complex of pagodas and stupas.

The river and lake crossing all the way to Nyaungshwe takes about hour and a half.

Inle Lake is famous for its markets, which can be easily reached by boat. We visit some of these places. At one of the markets, Maing Thauk, you can find almost everything. Fresh fish, fruit, local spices, silverware, ancient papyri or bronze pipes for smoking opium.

Fishermen on the lake also deserve some credit for their denying-the-gravity postures while still keeping the balance. The fishermen can stand on one leg, use the other leg to operate a paddle and hold a fish basket with their hands. Admirable graceful movements. The only question is if the fisherman’s income comes from fish he catches or tips he gets from tourists?

During the day we get to know two Dutch girls who encourage us to visit the Red Mountain winery. We decide to rent bikes with an intention of going there. I presume this is a state-owned winery. We start our visit with wine tasting. For about 2000 kyatts (approx. € 1.5) per person, each one gets four glasses of different wines. We order a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon as it appeals to all of us. The weather deteriorates and at some point we need to wait through the thunderstorm. In that case it means ordering a few more bottles of excellent Burmese wine…

 

kalaw inle lake

Limestone caves around Hpa-an (Myanmar)

It’s another extremely hot morning. You are sweating terribly just from the process of eating breakfast at 7.30. We plan to spend the day on exploring the area around Hpa-an using wrecked but still running relatively strong scooters. These are remote areas characterized by limestone mountains and caves. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of local traffic roads, but it is just as easy to find the right way thanks to locals. Even a 3-year-old girl could help us once by pointing with her finger the direction we were looking for.

We climb on Mt. Zwegabin, a bit less than 900 m high mountain. On the way up we reach a monastery and continue for a while upwards, but at some point the heat becomes so unbearable that we eventually turn back before the summit, literally footsteps before the extinction from overheating.

We admire limestone mountains covered with tropical vegetation. Enjoy the landscape to the sounds of insects, wind, burning sun, Buddhist religious ceremonies with loud music and about 1,150 statues of Buddha in one place!

On the way we stop at a waterfall, where dozens of local children scream and jump into the water at the same time. In the end, we find long-awaited caves. The first one, Kawgun Cave, is more like a hole in the rock rather than a proper cave, but there is a lot of sculptures and statues of the Buddha dating back to the seventh century. The more interesting one is Yathaypyan Care. It’s much larger with plenty walkways and bats sleeping on the ceiling. After a few minutes we reach a vantage point and shortly after sunset it becomes almost completely dark.

The following day we cross river Thanlyin onto a small island to climb Hpan Pu. It is another vantage point to enjoy the surrounding countryside of Hpa-an: the delta of the river, adjacent villages, rice fields and distant limestone peaks. With all that the area to look at we decide: let’s head north.

 

Mawlamyine and the Ogre Island


We arrive to Mawlamyine at six in the morning and to our surprise it is not too early for a very early check-in. Courtesy of  Breeze Guest House. Without wasting time, we set off on scooters to explore the area around.

The everyday life of the town’s inhabitants concentrates around the market, bustling with retailers selling all strange things, little stalls offering services and family restaurants serving great local food.

There is also a boulevard stretches from north to south for several kilometers. This one has its glory days left behind long time ago. There are relics of a bygone colonial era such as faded buildings, narrow streets, cracking walls and desolated trading port.

Mawlamyine

However, what has still kept its charm until nowadays is the Kyaikthanlan pagoda towering over the city. It is accompanied by many smaller stupas and pagodas. Come here at dawn or just before dusk to contemplate the view from the pagoda hill and most likely you will believe that this place could actually have inspired George Orwell. As for now, it is perfect inspiration for me to take a few panoramic images and time-lapse sequences.

Today we get to know Vera, an energetic adventure girl with a big backpack on her shoulders and more than a hundred ideas on what to do the next day. In the evening the temperature drops to about 35 degrees and the difficulty to endure the heat and humid air is not extremely high anymore and you can almost breathe normally.

Win Sein Taw Ya

The following morning we visit Win Sein Taw Ya, the world’s largest reclining Buddha monument. This is an impressive 170-meter long structure and even more impressive is the fact that the Buddha can be visited from the inside. There are plenty of temples, shrines and galleries. Some of them are under construction, probably for last 20 years, because somebody apparently underestimated the massive size of this structure and the possibility to fill it up with paintings and statues. More interestingly, just on the other side of the Buddha there is a construction site with another Buddha,  just as big, but half-finished. It seems to be intact for at least a decade or so, probably due to funding or still completion  work with the original one.

We’re hitchhiking back to the town and entering an air-conditioned car seems like transition from oven straight into freezer. The other stage of the trip is a bit more traditional. We all hop on the back of the truck carrying rusty metal barrels.

A short boat crossing from jetty at Strand Road takes us to Bilu Kyun Island (also known as Ogre Island). It feels like taking a time travel a few decades back.

Nut-Maw is a small merchant village on the island. Local trading is based on water transportation on narrow wooden boats. All the houses are made of wood and bamboo. As a rule, most are also raised on stilts. Residents lead a quiet life, roaming slowly around, performing simple everyday chores, such as visiting each other and spending time outdoors.

There are a few things which caught my attention since I came to Myanmar. Everywhere you look, you are very likely to see men wearing skirts, locally known as longyi.

Women (and sometimes men too) decorate their faces thanakha, a traditional cosmetic. This is yellow-white mush made by pounding bark from thanakha trees on a special stone called kyauk pyin. It serves as the traditional protection against the sun.

Among other curiosities, sellers are not pushy at all with their goods, instead they adapt the assumption that if a person is going to buy something, then he or she will buy it anyway. More importantly, the prices are not inflated for foreigners, so you are not likely to ripped off.

Land crossing into Myanmar


The overland travel to Myanmar, former Burma, had crossed my mind long time ago when visited Southeast Asia for the first time. Even though some of the Burmese land borders began to open already few years ago, the south of the country remained largely isolated from the world until August 2013. Today one can “easily” get from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to Dawei on the Myanmar side using unplanned means of transportation.

This is the adventure I plan to share with Chris, a good friend who I met two years ago in South America. This time Chris arrives from Saudi Arabia and I take a flight from northern Norway. We meet on the Khao San Road as it seems to be a good starting point and a place to catch up. So called ‘One Night in Bangkok’. Due to unpredictable course of happenings and prolonged visa formalities it actually turns out to be ‘Two Nights in Bangkok’.

We leave the big city. Upon arrival to Kanchanaburi we are lucky enough to catch another bus that will take us all the way to Phu Nam Ron near the Burmese border.

An extremely helpful and unquestionably hospitable Thai, who introduces himself as Doctor O, lets us to stay for the night at sort of a porch next to his office. Except for the hard floor, biting insects and fighting dogs in the middle of the night, we sleep very well.

In the morning we manage to cross the border at Htee Khee. The tarmac road on Thai side simply ends in a certain point and doesn’t continue an inch beyond. We learn from the border post statistics that merely twenty some people (mostly local Asians) have crossed the border here during the initial couple of months after opening. Really strange to think the place completely did not exist until recently.

We hire a driver who promises to take us to Dawei for $30. The new gravel road is simply a narrow strip cut through dense Burmese jungle. There might be some plans for asphalt, but that clearly hasn’t happened yet.

We arrive to Dawei after four hours. The city is rather not impressive. What was once an important commercial port, now turned into a sleepy tropical town. We manage to find the only hotel that is licensed to host foreigners. The city’s main attraction is probably Shwe Taung Zar Pagoda, an impressive complex of temples.

 

Low chairs and tables

A short tuk-tuk ride takes us to Maungmagan Beach. It is a holiday place for locals with bars and restaurants stretching along the seaside. In other words, perfect retreat to drink beer and eat roasted lobster.
It is here where for the first time I realized that when you are choosing a bar to sit you need to pay attention to the type of tables and chairs they have. With an average height of about 160 cm, Burmese people often tend to equip premises with too little chairs and tables, sometimes with a crossbars at the knee’s height, which makes it impossible to sit.

While Myanmar cuisine has some common roots with the others in the region, it also distinctively stands out.
The prevailing rice and pasta are often served with a lot of vegetables, especially fresh greens, mysterious white balls, garlic, ginger and other intense spices. Some of them are quite controversial, such as ubiquitous sauce based on smelly fish extract. I believe it takes a lot of time and commitment to enjoy it.
A common dining option is an open buffet. Here and there you would see about a dozen pots with different dishes cooked in the morning and served under a thatched roof throughout the day. In the midday’s heat the pots cool down slowly and most likely keep the temperature until the end of day.
 

The surrounding villages are teeming with local life. Men weave a new bamboo wall, women sew clothes for their children, while the children carelessly jump over a stretched elastic band and run around.

We take an 11 hour bus ride to Mawlamyine through the jungle. On both roadsides I can see that the road itself has been constructed recently. There are still traces of excavators and machinery visible in the laterite, still haven’t been through one of rather lavish rainy seasons here.
At some point I understand why the bus has also rear headlights. It is a handy gadget to use on a road of about 3-4 meters wide to control the position of rear wheels. Just in case we don’t fall down the abyss in the middle of the night. It must be an Asian answer to the notorious Bolivian Death Road.

These are the initial experiences in Myanmar. What happens next remains to be seen!

           

Serbia, Danube and bicycles

Let’s move south. Eurovelo 6 is a bike trail going from the Atlantic coast of France, following for some time Danube river, all the way to the Black Sea. Our goal is to cycle along the Serbian section of the this route, commonly known as EV6.

We start from Baja, a Hungarian town nearby the border. We make our start easier by simply leaving our car by the Duna hotel in the middle of a town square and hopping on our bikes.

The first section takes us through quiet villages and newly formed path on the top of the dike by the river Danube. The dike is constantly being expanded, so the areas nearby are also deforested. Soon we arrive at the Hungarian-Serbian border in the village of Backi Breg.

There is no problem to find a place in the evening, where a friendly host allows us to pitch a tent. And that’s a good sign. In the morning we exchange money. Each euro produces 113 Serbian dinars.

The journey begins to bring memorable sceneries. On the both sides of the road we can see farmers working hard in the field, cultivating corn, peppers and some grains. There is a work atmosphere.

We lost the trail No. 6, but the road is nice and with low traffic, so at the moment there is nothing to be worried about. Serbian villages tend to feel like a real folklore – one of the situations is as follows: We are stopped by a man who invites us to taste some of his apples. We cycle further and soon there is the guy’s brother catching up with his car, who fills our panniers with apples. It turns out that he left the car in neutral gear and as it suddenly began to move, he quickly ran after it!

The road goes via Sambor, a nice town. It has an elegant market square with extensive promenade. It is also a place to get something to eat.


Balkan cuisine is rich in meat dishes. Some of the popular dishes are ražnjiči, grilled pork skewers and meso burek, kind of an energy snack, dripping with fat, baked pastry stuffed with lots of meat. It tastes especially good for breakfast. At dinnertime, one can try a giant candy bar of the meat – call it what you want, but it still is a third meter long bar of meat in breadcrumbs.

Late summer is definitely colder than we planned and even colder from what you might expect from southern Europe. After a few nights with a temperature dropping to almost zero, any sort of comfort in a typical light sleeping bag becomes very difficult to achieve. Therefore we decide that if possible, we will try to find accommodation to sleep without freezing.

There is a short crossing on the Croatian side. A very short one. We basically enter Croatia, eat a lot of grapes and return to Serbian side of the EV6.


On our way we find Šijački winery. It is located in the picturesque village Banoštor just above the Danube. We are warmly and enthusiastically greeted by Ivana Šijački, who tells us about the production of wine, its history, family tradition, as well as, most importantly, she invites us for tasting.

Currently Ivana, together with her father and brother are engaged in the production of wine, which has been a family tradition for several generations. The family has 10 hectares of vineyard. Capacities allow to produce about 60,000 liters per year and in the near future the production is going to be increased to about 100 thousand liters annually.

Winery lies at the northern slopes of mountain Fruska at about 180-200 meters above see level, just above the Danube.

An interesting fact is that the grapes get as much as an extra hour of sunlight per day due to the sun’s rays reflecting in the river.

It is just as hard to believe that during winter a single snowfall of one meter can fall in this idyllic land! The area is directly threatened by floods, years 1998 and 2006 were particularly a near-miss for Danube to tip over its sides.




Srem region is intentionally unprotected against flooding, letting the river to overflow here rather than to threaten located nearby Novi Sad, the second largest city in the country.

As we experience, on Tuesday evening, Novi Sad is teeming with life, you will see some tourists, but most of the bars are filled with local students. In the morning we visit the Petrovaradinska tvrdava fortress, which is located on the other bank of the Danube, offering panoramic views of Novi Sad.

Serbs are passionate about using different transportation tricks on their trailers, car roofs, or even overloaded bicycles. They do it in a creative way and can easily fit together a washing machine, three large flower pots, a bicycle frame, a tire from a tractor and a lawn-mower. The improvisation has no limits. We even manage to see a three wheeled Opel Kadett. A resourceful owner managed to put a tree trunk instead of the missing wheel. The design might not be too streamlined, but surely is enough to go to nearest garage.

For a short section the road becomes very not so interesting because of the truck traffic. We decide to detour and take this task seriously, so we enter the park Frutska Gora, where tough terrain begins. Going through the bush we finally manage to reach local roads. We pass the village of Maradik, Beška, N. Karlovci, in the end we have gained some altitude to completely enjoy high-speed downhill ride to the shore of Danube in Stari Slankamen. We are lucky, the riverside restaurant is serving freshly caught catfish.

We are inevitably approaching Belgrade. We raise onto the Danube escarpment in Zemun. We cruise along well maintained historical streets and promenade. Plenty of permanently parked barge-restaurant stretch along the lower riverside of Danube

The perfectly prepared bike path continues all the way to Belgrade. The capital of Serbia is a rapidly growing, international city with lots of fancy cafes and restaurants on the main pedestrian street. Most of them are filled with tourists.

However, just as you cycle a few hundred meters from the center you will still see some traces of the NATO bombings forced by the United States in 19999 (in spite of general opposition of the United Nations). Like many other, similar American operations, also this one remains questionable. Was it really worth and indispensable to loose hundreds of civilian lives for the purpose of “prevention”?

After a short visit we decide to get out of Belgrade by train. An interesting thing. When we buy the tickets from conductor, he managed to ask us in his basic English: “I write or I not write?”. It turned out that the ticket with “no formalities” has a small discount and free carriage included!

We get off the train in Backa Topola. This is a random village from which we decide to drive some distance under the cover of night. We pass through Bački Sokolec, already quite tired and a perfectly trimmed football field looks too tempting not to pitch the tent.

In the morning, I get to know Srjdan, an owner of the only bistro in the village. We’re talking about the Serbian reality, how “life used to be better here”. According Srjdan, once 80% of Serbs constituted the middle class. Today, around 90% live in poverty and 10% are elite. No middle class.

Well, with asking corn prices equal to around 10 dinars per kilo [about 10 cents], it is difficult to make a living, thus easier and cheaper to import food from Hungary or Poland. During our conversation I try to understand Srjdan’s point of view. “Slobodan was able to take care of everyone. Yes, he was also concerned about his own well-being, but this whole war is an invention of the American media”. According to Srjdan, the real foundations lie in the religious differences. The once tiny Islamic Kosovo suddenly, with sometimes even 8-child families became a 2 millionth nation with Albanian roots who wants independence and Islamization of the country. Utopian vision of a Greater Serbia [Yugoslavia] had no real chances of survival. At some point Russia and the United States joined the game, trying to give the Yugoslav republics freedom. On the one hand “voluntarily”, but on the other hand (as it is the case today) in order to take profits from minerals in the region. It’s a common strategy on which the entire world is built.

“There is no future in Serbia” – with this barely positive conclusion, Srjdan announced that he wants to sell his three hundred square meter house for less than thirty thousand euros and start a new life in Canada.

No prosperous state has been created in a day. The fact that the government in rule is not the most brilliant one doesn’t help, yet you need more than just hope and positive thinking.

Last 80 km to Baja in Hungary goes smoothly. We return back to the area full of bureaucracy, but also with great opportunities and economic freedom, the European Union.  Causing mixed feelings once in a while, I also wish Serbia became a member state one day.

In the meantime in the center of Baja, our car has been moved for to free space for wine festival. Plenty representatives of local wineries have already opened their stands. The evening comes, locals show up at the market square and the great wine tasting party begins.


Kenyan coast of the Indian Ocean

Yes, our mission is complete!
Finally Indian Ocean

We made two thousand kilometers linking Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean on our bicycles a few days before planned arrival. Now we can use some time to cycle around Diani Beach area, bathe, snorkel and watch sunrises over the ocean.

Diani Beach coastline
Diani Beach coastline

One day we visit Raptile Center, a private facility for breeding reptiles and amphibians led by a guy named Steve. Steve shows us his snakes, some of them he takes out of the cage and puts them at our hands, while the other snakes he only dares to tease with a stick. He assures that the snake I am about to hold is not venomous, by saying “semi-poisnonous, no problem”. Although he resembles some kind of a madman, he seems to be trustworthy.

Chameleon
Chameleon
We happen to meet many crazy people
We happen to meet many crazy people
Wrestling with python
Wrestling with python

After a few such entertaining days we realize that we still have to reach Mombasa. Soon we will have to face the most difficult part of our trip: crossing the civilized part of Kenya, full of cars, buses, malls, white people and shops. Entirely different world.

Time to relax
Time to relax

We leave well-maintained beaches and get to the slums full of garbage in Mombasa’s suburbs. We take a completely crowded Likoni Ferry linking Mombasa with mainland. In the meantime we visit the Old Town, then we stop at a Somali restaurant for a lamb with canjeero (a flatbread similar to Ethiopian injera made of teff flour).

The east coast of Kenya, especially Mombasa, is a blend of several cultures. Saharan Africa, the immigrant population of the Arabian peninsula, the Western civilization and Arabs from the Swahili tribe originating from the Horn of Africa. The latter one is the tribe which gave rise to the kishwahili language functioning in several countries of the region. It is also the official language in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We arrive at Shanzu and stop for a few nights at Hebron and Prudence’s place, a couple we get to know by Couch Surfing. Here we observe and follow the presidential election atmosphere. Besides, we get to know the daily life of a Kenyan family and emotional moods associated with elections that absorb everyone, including us.

Elections are coming
Elections are coming
Waiting to vote
Waiting to vote

The political campaigns which seem to be more of a music festival than an election rally are coming to an end. The atmosphere and tensions are high on the election day and it persists for several days, as a result of unplanned delays and emerging conspiracy theories. We all look forward to a peaceful and democratic end of this chapter of Kenya’s history.

Just before leaving the continent, we manage to find an Italian living in Kenya who agrees to buy our bikes for himself and his wife. Despite the sentimental attachment we decide that our two bikes deserve peaceful retirement in Africa.

Bike for sale
Bike for sale
Time to say good bye to our bikes
Time to say good bye to our bikes
Rainfall one more time
Rainfall one more time

We arrive at the airport and need to spend here a few hours before taking off early in the morning. A security officer at the entrance to one of the airport’s zones scans my luggage, at some point he seems to be concerned, “Sir, what did you put in your bag?” – I look at the x-ray screen and inform that it is my bike lock and rack (I might mention that in my second bag there is a machete and it does not raise any of officer’s suspicion). Instead he continues, “Oh, so that implies that you do not carry any bullets or firearms?”“No, sir”, I reply – “OK, then I have to trust you.”

To put all these thousands of happy, colorful and vivid experiences shortly I will say: I love Africa!

Sunrise over Indian Ocean
Sunrise over Indian Ocean