Sunday, April 14, 2019

Kathmandu

In Kathmandu: the colors are vibrant, with bright red and blue beads hanging from shops in the market, and multi colored beans in large sacks sitting on the ground. The streets are crowded, clogged with people and motorcyclists sharing the road, requiring constant attention to your toes to be sure they don't get run over. There are well fed but poorly groomed dogs sleeping on the raised steps in front of the many small temples scattered through town. The smells are mouth-watering, reminding us of Indian spices. Other times, the smell of sewer is strong. The weather is ideal, with fairly constant sun but a breeze to keep you from breaking a sweat, and an occasional shower storm to keep the dust down. The prices are our favorite; a plate of 10 Momos (dumplings) from a ma and pa joint costs around 150 rupees, or $1.35. The people are helpful, and kind. And foruntatley, those who work in tourism speak English.






























The task of finding our hotel was typical of the start of one of our trips. We flagged a taxi, negotiated the price down slightly, and then enjoyed his commentary of his town as we made our way towards our hotel. Similar to other countries traveled, Kathmandu doesn't have addresses, simply districts, so all we had was a hotel name and a zoomed out map. We gave the driver the ok to drop us off at a spot that appeared close to our hotel, and began our walk. It took us close to an hour and five friendly locals to find our hotel that was less than 3 blocks away. We took advantage of the first of many complimentary masala teas that our hotel offers, any time of day.


Total time from Portland home to Kathmandu Boutique Hotel was 41 hours, 3 of which we may have slept. I took a quick snooze before we wandered the streets in search of our first Nepalese meal. A restaurant with 5 tables was our choice, with a couple working the small kitchen on the other side of a half wall. We ordered a set Nepali meal that included the traditional dish Dal Bhat (steamed rice and a lentil purée soup), chicken curry, and a veggie dish similar to collard greens. A plate of Momos complimented that perfectly. Momos are dumplings that can be prepared steamed, fried, or Kothey (pan fried) with your choice of chicken, veggies, or buff and served with a chutney dipping sauce. We assumed buff was their misspelling of beef, but turns out it is water buffalo. And it's our current favorite.



Despite the 12 hour 45 minute time difference, our exhausted bodies slept hard the first night and didn't leave the bed until 9am. Included in the $16 per night accommodation fee is a complimentary breakfast. It's been a bit redundant to eat every morning, but the American style toast and eggs served by young, polite locals has been a wonderful start to each day. Following our breakfast, we threw our passports and cash in a day bag and began the walk towards a few business offices. Our errands all consisted of preparing us for our trek, the reason we decided to have a 3 week long layover in Nepal. After some debate between Micah and I on whether starting our 3.5 month backpacking trip with the most physically challenging activity we've ever tackled was wise, we acknowledged it wasn't wise but we were going to do it anyway. Reading travelers' blogs and travel agencies sites aided us in settling on hiking Gokyo Ri. We would start our trek in Lukla, hike the first 2 days of the Everest Base Camp trail, and then veer to the east to the less popular route with our final destination being the highest freshwater lakes in the world. To accomplish all this, it is required to register for a TIMS hiker permit, a park pass for Sagarmatha National Park, book travel to and from Lukla, and rent the gear that we chose not to pack from home.


Our first stop was the Tourist Service Center, where we paid 3,000 rupees each ($27 USD) for the Park Pass, and were told that we'd have to purchase the TIMS registration card at the first checkpoint on the trail. We crossed a few pedestrian bridges over busy roads to find the Nepal Airlines office in
hopes of purchasing a plane ticket that would take us to the short, scary runway on the side of the

mountain in Lukla. Word on the street was that there was construction of the domestic runway at the
Kathmandu airport and therefore, trekkers must bus 5 hours from Kathmandu to Manthali, then a 25 minute flight to Lukla. We were hoping to find an airline that was still flying out of Kathmandu but
we failed. We have since handed over 76,590 rupees to the travel agent at our hotel to book our flight, plus a taxi to take us to the bus at 2:30am on Tuesday.


Once our to-do tasks were completed, we strolled the popular streets of Thamel. Lunch was spring rolls and Momos, followed by a few quiet hours at the hotel. We made our way back out in search of a noodle dish for dinner, remembering we are only 75 miles away from China.


Saturday was devoted to a self guided walking tour of Durbar Square, or old Kathmandu. Although there was evidence of damage from the 2015 earthquake, the open-air architectural museum of magnificent medieval temples, pagodas, pavilions, and shrines remains. The historic center was once occupied by Nepal's royal family and is home today to the Kumari, Kathmandu's very own living
goddess. Kumari, meaning princess or virgin, is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The child
deity is chosen through a thorough, and strange process; she must possess certain physical
characteristics, including "black eyes, hair, and eyelashes like a cow. Plus, twenty unbroken teeth and body like a banyan tree." Her horoscope must also match that of the king. Once selected, the young girl has to spend the night alone in a courtyard with the severed heads of animals. And, if she showscourage and fearfulness during such frightening times, then she becomes eligible to be the next
of Nepal. She will hold this position until she suffers some kind of injury or illness, or until
her first menstrual cycle. The current Kumari is 5 years old, lives a secretive and isolated life in the Kumari Bahal temple within Durbar square, and is rarely seen by the public. Micah recognized her
home temple and we strolled in the small, open doorway to check out the small central courtyard.
And there she was, standing on the balcony, with an emotionless (bored maybe?) look on her face,
while a crowd of 60 people stared up at her for the few seconds she appeared. It is believed that she
bestows good fortune upon those that see her; we plan to cash in on that good fortune during our trek.








































Another lunch of Momos and Dal Baht was consumed on our way back to the hotel. The sunny
afternoon was enjoyed in the peaceful courtyard of our hotel, drinking complimentary masala tea, and discussing our travel plans with the agent. We have definitely found a comfortable routine in Kathmandu, generally waking early, playing the tourist role in the morning, finding a small meal for lunch, and then back to the hotel for some down time in the afternoon before dinner. With our Momo expertise increasing, we returned to a previous restaurant that had the best Momos we'd had yet this trip, along with chicken butter masala.

Initially, we had discussed leaving for our trek on Sunday. Our minds were easily swayed when we
learned that Sunday was Nepal's New Year and there would likely be a celebration. Also, Saturday is their "rest day" where businesses close, and we needed to do a bit more prepping for our trip. Continuing to make our way everywhere by foot and simulatenously train for our trek, we found a shop to reserve two sleeping bags for the hike, then walked to the airline office to book onward tickets to Bangkok. On our way, we encountered the beginnings of the New Year celebration in the form of what appeared to be a thin Christmas tree on a float with large wooden wheels. We'll come back to that later. For lunch- Momos.


<<additional pictures and better formatting will occur in the very near future. The app and the internet are not being friendly at this time>>


Sunday evening, we ventured out in hopes of finding some celebratory fun and dinner. Our ears led us towards Durbar square. To avoid the 1000 rupee entrance fee to the square, we explored the back streets of old Kathmandu. Once inside the square, we were touching shoulders with locals while bands- consisting of handheld drums and cymbals- made a lot of noise. We walked down the narrow street with three story houses on each side, and spotted the large Christmas tree float and a lot of commotion. As we got closer, we noticed more policeman. They began pushing people to the sides of the road to clear the center. Then the float began to move, pulled by 15 humans, on 6 foot diameter wooden wheels. It teetered side to side and we questioned our safety, pinned against the wall on the side of the street. It would move a few feet at a time and then stop. Every time it started moving, the police seemed more concerned and demanding, and the crowd seemed to scream louder with excited fright. As it neared us, we bolted for a safer spot to watch. It passed, and before attempting a sharp corner near the temples, a young man climbed to the top of tree which stood at least a story taller than the buildings, and unraveled cloth banners. After we felt content with the New Year celebrations, we returned to our hotel for dinner.

Today started with a hike to Swayambhunath Buddhist Temple. The "monkey temple" soars above the city on a hilltop, providing views of the sprawling city, and a challenging stair climb to get our trekking legs under us. The temple lived up to its nickname, as monkeys ran across the stairs, played with the souvenir stands, and swung from trees.


We continued to prepare for our trek the rest of the day. Picked up our rental sleeping bags, our clean clothes from one of the souvenir shops that also offers laundry services, hit the ATM to load up our pockets with rupees since we won't have access to ATMs on the trek, and filled our bellies with more Momos and a great Chinese dinner. We expect to eat Dal Baht and drink tea primiarly during our trek. Our bags are packed- the smallest two carrying clothes to shield us as we ascend over 8,000 ft and experience a 30+ degree drop in temperature, and the largest bag to be stored at our hotel. We are prepared with medication for altitude sickness, a water filtration system, toilet paper, and a deck of playing cards. As much as we've enjoyed the culture, food options, and socializing that Kathmandu has offered us, we are ready to get out of the city and into the mountains. The Himalayan Mountains!


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Working My Way Back To You

As the previous post points out, we spent some money over the summer in just a slightly more extravagent fashion than normal. It was our "Honeymoon", so the splurge was warranted, but it did deplete our bank account. Thus the following will describe how we replenished in Portland, OR and are currently sitting in an airport in Doha, Qatar. 

We returned from Europe at the end of September and immediately ventured out to Baltimore for a wedding between some good friends of ours. It was a fun few days and a lovely ceremony.

We settled back in Portland, taking advantage of my Dad's kindness and unoccupied basement. Julia had already lined up work covering a maternity leave for a clinic in the SE part of town and we knew we would be around at least through the holidays. I began to look for seasonal jobs to fill the time and bank account. When Julia was offered more work that could last into March, I got a seasonal job at Danner, a footwear company about a mile from my Dad's house, that wanted someone to help process returns until April. Things were lining up nicely; Julia could easily drop me off at work and I could walk home or call my Dad for a ride.

So we both worked. Things were kinda normal for those 6 months; pottery classes, hiking, disc golf, Julia running her Rodan + Fields side business like a boss. We took short weekend trips when we could and got to attend multiple family and friend gatherings. One notable change was Julia's sister, Angie and family, moving back to the United States from Nicaragua in the fall. The political unrest of 2018 severely hurt the tourist industry and their business, so they decided this was a good time to try life where the Pacific waters are a little colder. The counter weight to that joyous arrival, was that we both lost some dear relatives to cancer during those months, something that is becoming all too common.

Beach trip

Pottery Class Production

Zoo Lights

iFly w/ Hoelter kiddos                           Hiking up Multnomah Falls

Angel's Rest hike in the snow

Quick trip up to Seattle & Tacoma for some work and some play

       
Enjoying some Portland March sunshine 

There is not much else to say. As the paychecks kept coming in, we let ourselves buy plane tickets to the backpacking destination that we feel we need to do while one of us is still young. In a few hours a plane will take us to Nepal, where we will test our physical limits and oxygen intake. From there we will fly to the heart of the SE Asia backpacking circuit and see as much as we can see before coming back at the end of July. As sad as it is to say, working for 6 months straight has been rough but also a good way to acclimate for the eventual full time jobs we promise we will settle down and get someday. Thanks for reading, this should be fun.


Sunday, April 7, 2019

Price Tag

     Below are the statistics from our 2-month European Honeymoon Extravaganza. We enjoy keeping track of these numbers on a daily basis and posting them to help you budget a potential trip of your own. If you have any travel questions about the areas we have explored, please feel free to reach out to us and we will do our best to come up with an answer we think you will like.
     A few brief notes to help you consume the data below. About 60% of our travel was during the high tourist season. Prices for lodging and car rental dropped significantly once the calendar turned to September. The other major factor in the numbers is that we covered a lot of ground and spent few nights most places. The country most affected by this was Kosovo, where we only spent 1 night but drove through on 3 separate days, thus an extremely high "average cost per day" when calculating by # of nights slept. Same could be said for Macedonia, where we slept 2 nights and drove through on 4 separate days. Both of these country's "overall average cost per day" would fall more in line with Albania and Serbia, if we spent more time there.


The Numbers:

Total nights in Europe = 58
... countries visited = 16

Different places we spent the night = 30
# of free nights thanks to credit card points = 6 
Average lodging price per night = $49.09
... in Italy = $93.80 (4 nights)
... in France = $53.14 (4 nights)
... in Greece = $51.40 (4 paid nights, 10 actual)
... in Bosnia = $29.61 (6 nights)
... in Hungary =$55.69 (3 nights)
... in Slovakia = $45.72 (3 nights)
... in Poland = $57 (3 nights)
... in Czech Republic = $49.67 (4 nights)
... in Austria = $88.10 (1 night)
... in Slovenia =$56.50 (2 nights)
... in Croatia = $46.20 (9 nights)
... in Montenegro = $32.22 (3 nights)
...in Macedonia = $41.36 (2 nights)
... in Albania = $29.53 (2 nights)
... in Kosovo = $24.50 (1 night)
... in Serbia = $28.08 (1 night)

Most expensive lodging = $93.80 (Levanto, Italy)
Cheapest lodging = $23.80 (Banja Luka, Bosnia)

Average spent on food per day = $31.75
... in Italy = $46.23
... in France = $55.68
... in Greece = $31.30
... in Bosnia = $14.20
... in Hungary =$30.28
... in Slovakia = $21.70
... in Poland = $25.45
... in Czech Republic = $33.29
... in Austria = $42.68
... in Slovenia =$32.28
... in Croatia = $37.21
... in Montenegro = $27.25
...in Macedonia = $33.84
... in Albania = $16.27
... in Kosovo = $26.51
... in Serbia = $19.47

Most expensive dinner out = $71.49 (Marseille, France)
Cheapest dinner out = $9.23 (Banja Luka, Bosnia)
# of Gyros/Schwarma consumed = 16
# of Gelato servings = 23
Free breakfasts with lodging = 11
Servings of alcohol given to us by hosts = 7

 Average transportation cost per day = $44.31
... money spent on Trains = $223.23
... money spent on Ferries = $181.59
... money spent on local public transport/taxis = $215.63

Days with rental car = 39
... transportation cost per day with rental car = $51.39
Total kilometers driven = 6,517
... average kilometers per day = 167.10
... average daily cost of gas = $14.68
Money spent on tolls = $99.14
Money spent on parking = $33.21
Money spent on parking tickets = $7.80

Total spent on Souvenirs = $287.99
Average price per magnet = $2.74
# of tattoos = 1
Time spent on tattoo table = 7 minutes

Overall average cost per day = $132.47
... in Italy = $186.06
... in France = $171.95
... in Greece = $100.83
... in Bosnia = $90.56
... in Hungary =$160.71
... in Slovakia = $111.75
... in Poland = $136.90
... in Czech Republic = $155.55
... in Austria = $252.07
... in Slovenia =$146.62
... in Croatia = $143.86
... in Montenegro = $126.74
...in Macedonia = $119.62
... in Albania = $88.31
... in Kosovo = $139.89
... in Serbia = $73.45

Total European Honeymoon Cost =  $8,854.27
(including plane tickets)
 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Take Me Home, Country Roads

We are back in the USA now, slowly transitioning to a normal lifestyle. I will see what I can remember and try and write about the last few days of our European Honeymoon Extravaganza. This will be fairly brief... I think.

Macedonia:
After Meteora, our destination was the Tikves wine region which coincided nicely with the upcoming anniversary of Julia's birth. She likes wine, for those of you who don't know her. Using the birthday as an excuse, we booked a room at the Popova Kula Winery. Upon checking in, Julia got her first and only "Smetana" star treatment of the trip. The receptionist inquired about her last name, and when told of the connection, she was overjoyed and shook Julia's hand as if it was famous. Julia had hoped the name would get her a reaction while in Eastern Europe, but did not expect it to be in southern Macedonia.

The day was spent wine tasting at the nearby Royal Winery Queen Maria, before returning to Popova Kula to gaze at our vineyard view and to enjoy a multi-course dinner with wine pairings. It was nice using the birthday to splurge a little in a country with affordable luxury. The breakfast buffet in the morning was amazing as well.






Before leaving Macedonia, we spent an hour walking around the Roman and Byzantine ruins in the Stobi archeological site. There were some cool things to see, especially the intricate frescoes (floor and wall paintings), and there was just 1 tour group to avoid.





Albania:
From Stobi, it was a long drive north and west to the mountains of Albania. The route took us through Kosovo and we had our first minor hassle at a border. Apparently our car insurance isn't good there so they required us to buy 2 week Kosovo insurance for 15€. A little annoying. We based ourselves at Aste Guesthouse in Tropoje, an affordable and well reviewed place about an hour away from the heart of the Albanian Alps. They offered free breakfasts and home cooked dinners for 5€ a person, along with great views of the mountains.




As you might guess, we came out this way to do some hiking. The most popular route is a trek between the villages of Valbone and Theth that takes you over a stunning mountain pass. Most people hike across with loaded packs, stay the night, and find transport onward. We had limited time so we parked at the trailhead in Valbone, hiked to the top of the pass, and then returned back to the car. Some interesting things happened during the hike, so I will give you some more details along with pictures.  

The first 3 kms of the trail follows a road along a dry riverbed. We walked about 1km before a truck rolled up, honking it's horn. It stopped and a young couple in the back told us to hop in, so we did. We braced ourselves for the bumpy 2 km ride to the end of the road and thanked our driver who told us to buy the young couple a beer. They had stayed at the driver's house the night before and he offered them a ride. 



The young couple were on holiday for a few weeks in Albania. She was from Israel and he was a German living in Switzerland. They had interesting stories and were fun to hike and talk with. We made good on buying them a drink with coffees at a cafe along the trail. It was a popular stop for hikers and one of the guides from another group had a coke bottle full of rakia (a local fruit brandy). He offered us shots and looked disappointed that we didn't take it all down in one sip so he could refill. Feeling the buzz from coffee and the rakia, the last stretch of the hike to the top of the pass went quick. We ate salami, crackers, and fruit for lunch with awesome views from the top down multiple valleys.








 The young couple were continuing on to Theth, so we exchanged contact info and said auf wiedersehen. On the hike back, we encountered a herd of sheep grazing across the trail. No ride for us along the riverbed this time but we did see some local transport trucks full of people bumping music as they bounced by. I don't remember how long the hike ended up taking us, but I can tell you that the total distance out and back was about 10 miles, the elevation gain was about 2,600 ft, and it was very enjoyable.



Kosovo:
We had a couple more home cooked meals at our guesthouse before driving the 10 kms back into Kosovo the following morning. There aren't any major tourists draws in the area so we tried our best to get a taste of Europe's newest country during our short visit. Along our route was a medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery founded in the 14th century called Visoki Dečani. The site is guarded by KFOR troops (peacekeeping group called Kosovo Force led by NATO) due to numerous somewhat recent attacks by Kosovo Albanian insurgents who dislike the monasteries association with Serbia. The Kosovo War is still on people's minds and Serbia continues to not recognize the independence of their neighbor. We had a peaceful visit and were very impressed with the elaborate wall paintings on the inside of the church. We also bought some of their cherry wine.




We spent the night in the mid sized town of Peja, and had to drive down a walking street to get to our hotel. We also enjoyed walking on the walking street and wandering the market streets that seemed to only offer jewelry and clothes. That night we found a highly rated restaurant and got some great food at a bargain price. Instead of complimentary bread to start, it was complimentary flatbread pizza with dipping sauce. We were happy.




The next day, on our way out of town, we visited another guarded Serbian Orthodox monastery called Gračanica. This one was equally as impressive as the other, sitting in a beautiful river valley just a few kilometers outside of Peja.




Serbia:
With our departure quickly approaching, our stops have been based on convenience. We needed to return our rental car the next day in Sarajevo, so Mokra Gora, Serbia (just 3 hrs away) made sense. To get there from Kosovo, our route took us on a scenic drive through the mountainous eastern Montenegro. Crossing into Serbia was easy and we followed rivers the whole way north past rolling green hills. In Mokra Gora, we stayed on the top floor of a farmhouse down a gravel road and enjoyed the peaceful views and complimentary beers on our deck. Besides hiking, the only tourist draw in the area is a fake traditional village built in the early 2000's by director Emir Kusturica for his film Life Is a Miracle. It is now home to a resort and shops, and hosts an annual film and music festival. We strolled the site as the sun was going down and ate dinner there (mostly because it seemed to be the only place open within miles).  Overall, a nice quiet little taste of Serbia, which is most known for assassinating Archduke Ferdinand and starting WWI, it's electronic dance party scene in Belgrade, and it's tall men.   





Bosnia and Herzegovina:
The car had to be returned by 11 AM at the airport (we didn't fly out until the next day), so we woke up early to hit the road. The drive through eastern Bosnia left a lasting impression and further fueled the idea that we need to return to this area someday. From the town of Višegrad, you drive though the Drina river canyon and it's green waters. Many times we wanted to stop but we were on a tight schedule.

In Sarajevo, we quickly checked in to our apartment for the night and dropped off our bags, before driving the few kilometers to the airport to return the car. It was a nice sense of accomplishment when we handed the keys over, knowing we had a smooth 6 weeks of driving in Eastern Europe. It also felt good to be back on our feet for that last day of exploring. From the airport, we inquired with a taxi driver about the cost of a ride back to our apartment and when he said it would be about $20 for the short trip, we were shocked. So we decided to see what we could do while walking.

After listening to Rick Steve's podcasts, we had one more sight we wanted to check out in Sarajevo, the tunnel museum. During the Siege of Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian war in 1993, Serbian forces had surrounded the city and the United Nations had taken control of the airport. A tunnel was secretly constructed under the airport to connect Bosnian-held territory with the capital city in order for supplies and weapons to enter and civilians to escape. The tunnel is mostly collapsed now, but the museum has a refurbished section and some interesting maps and videos from the war. It was an easy 4 km walk from the airport, plus it was on the way back to our apartment. During the walk, we passed by the small cemetery seen below in the middle of a neighborhood. The slender white headstones are a common site around Bosnia and these small cemeteries are a result of the high death toll during the war. Locals were forced to bury the dead where ever they could and give them a simple marker.  



One last note about the Bosnian War; the picture below shows a Sarajevo Rose, which is a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell's explosion. A local artist began filling the numerous scars around the city with red resin to make them a more pleasant sight. Most of the roses around the city have now been removed due to construction but a few still remain. This one was at the tunnel museum.




Back at our apartment, we briefly contemplated taking public transportation to the downtown area, but the 1 hour transit time seemed like too much to tackle on the final afternoon of our trip. We instead walked to a nearby park area where we found a great little restaurant to get our last fill of traditional Bosnian food, which we have grown to love. Below; I am eating Ćevapi and a drinking a local beer.

Our flight the next day departed shortly after 9 AM, so we were up early to catch a previously arranged ride with our host, or so we thought. Out on the curb with our bags at 7 AM, we waited and waited. Julia tried sending our host a text message and email, but no response. At 7:30, we decided we couldn't wait any longer and walked toward the main road to try and catch a cab. The airport was 5.6 kms away, which would take us just over an hour to walk to. With no cabs in sight, we walked toward the airport with our thumbs out and heavy packs weighing us down. For 35 minutes and 3 kms, we wondered if we would miss our flight, but we approached a busy intersection and felt optimistic. As we contemplated the best place to catch a cab, I noticed a car flipping a u-turn ahead of us by driving up on the sidewalk. I laughed a little and continued to look around, when I heard a man yell something. I turn back to see him waving and initially think someone noticed our need and was offering to give us a ride. It turned out to be our host who was very apologetic and hurried us into his car. As he sped the last 5 minutes to the airport, he explained that he had to take his daughter to school and for some reason he didn't mention this the day before. At the airport, he parked in the middle of the road and grabbed Julia's bag and ran it into the airport. We followed and laughed a little, knowing it was unnecessary. We had made it with just under 1 hour till take off. The small airport made check-in and security a breeze and we had 20 minutes to spend the last of our local currency and sit around until boarding started.    



It was a nerve racking end to our trip that we can now look back on and smile about. Our flights were all well timed and comfortable, traveling through Zurich, Washington DC, and finally to Portland. We watched movies, did puzzles, and totaled up our travel expenses which we meticulously kept records of. There will eventually be a blog post outlining all of our travel costs, but I wont make any promises of when that will be. Up next for H3J2; a wedding in Baltimore and 3 months of work in Portland for Julia. After that is unknown, but another international trip may be in our future. Što možeš danas, ne ostavljaj za sutra.