Malaysia’s city George Town (Penang Island) is big on street art. We discovered this as soon as we had our first stroll around the city. Armanian Street seemed to be the place to be to catch a few of the most well-known murals, but really the whole city is fun to get lost into and to bump into the many different murals by accident. (Unless of course you prefer to have one of those helpful street art city maps by hand that guide you around as to not miss anything.) Without further ado, let me share some pictures of the artworks we found during our time in George Town.
There are of course the famous pieces of artwork like these:
And the murals that are not so well-known but nevertheless nice to be surprised with:
Apart from all the murals, the tourist information around the city is also worth mentioning. They are all in the form of eye catching iron cast structures, also known as Marking George Town. They explain stuff about the street or area they are at in a fun and attractive way.
Sidenote: we found lots of walls decorated with street art in the other places in Malaysia as well. In Malacca, for example, there were many big wall paintings, especially along the riverside. But unfortunately, I failed to take pictures for you to see because it was either too dark to take pictures or too hot. Sorry! Same story for Kuala Lumpur: there was similar art scattered around the city and its walls. But again I failed in taking a good amount of pictures. Damn you, tropical heat! (But I’d say, if you’re really curious: Google images is your friend!)
We are walking on one of the main roads of Luang Prabang, Laos.
We are hungry.
We are looking for a place to eat.
We pass by a bikeshop.
A guy comes out of the shop.
He is on a bike.
I look at him.
He is looking at the bike. Checking it or something.
He bikes towards the direction we are walking.
My friends and I keep on walking.
I see him riding away.
He has dreadlocks.
“This is not the capital, Vientiane. This is Luang Prabang. It can’t be him”, I think.
I keep on walking.
The guy on the bike turnes around and bikes back to the shop.
I see his face.
“He got married. He moved to China. It can’t be him”, I think.
“Didn’t he always bike to the bar? He loves bikes! Could it be him?”, I ask myself.
“He looks different. The world can not be this small. Nah. It can’t be him!!” I make up my mind.
I keep on walking.
One of my friends stops to buy something. I don’t know what. I didn’t hear what she said.
It feels like my troat is blocked.
I swallow hard, but it doesn’t help.
My friend is back.
I’m staring in the direction of the bikeshop.
My friends start to walk again.
“Wait! … I think I saw Noah…”, I say out load.
My friends immediately know who I’m talking about. And their faces change. They look worried.
We walk back to the bikeshop.
I enter the shop.
The guy with the dreadlocks is still there.
“Hi… Can I ask you something?”
“Is your name Noah?”
I swallow hard.
I blink my eyes.
My heart is pounding! My hands are shaking!
“Wait. What??? I didn’t expect him to say ‘yes’. Shit. What now?”, I think.
I’m most probably staring at him like a dead fish right now.
I see his lips move.
Listen Ien!! Focus.
“I remember you! We met, a long time ago, in Vientiane. You were having a really hard time”, he says.
“Yeah”, I say. And then: “I never thought I would ever see you again.”
“No. Me neither. But it’s good that we do!”, he replies with a smile.
And then he said something about going for a drink after he finishes work. Something like 4.30. Same place.
I agree and walk away.
It’s a blur.
We had food.
I had tears in my eyes.
Last time I was in Laos my friend was missing, so I didn’t really feel like being social and making friends. Furthermore, I was living in a hostel where all the faces changed every couple of days.
I made one friend though, Lambert, but then, he too, kept travelling.
Lambert and I went to this bar once. Cool bar. Cool staf.
When I found out that Debbie was found, dead, I had absolutely no one or nowhere to go to. So I stumbled to the bar.
When the bartender saw my face, he said: “Wow. Look at you. Did somebody die?” … “Yeah” … He gave me some rum, poured one for him too, we cheered, spilled a bit on the floor ‘for Debbie’, and drank it as a shot.
He talked to me all night, gave me a hug when I most needed it, … He was the one telling me that one day – one day! – things would be alright again.
He didn’t even know me!!! And he didn’t expect anything in return. But he was there for me that night. And the next day. And the day after.
His name was Noah.
Two days later I left. And I never thought about asking contact information. All I knew was his first name, that he had a Chinese girlfriend, and that he would move to China soon to marry her. That’s it. There was no way I could ever get in touch with him. And here I am. Super fucking grateful for what he had done for me, but I never really had the chance to thank him.
I always said that if I ever have a son I would name him Noah.
I wished a million times that I would run into him again. Never ever have I thought that that would actually happen.
And then it did!
Once more, Noah, a million times more: THANK YOU SO MUCH!
It takes a long time to cook sarma, and since the sauce tastes better when there is some wine involved (or beer or anything you can find) the chefs are shitfaced by the time the dish is ready.
2. My signature dish. Spaghetti bolognaise.
Mostly because when I ask the others what to make, Charlotte will always look at me with her puppy eyes and ask for this one. So after a year of travelling we’ve had quite some memorable spaghettis.
– At Rachid’s place in Isfahan, Iran: buying ingredients for twelve people and ending up with an Iranian dinner for twenty people. Everybody was sitting on the floor, bringing a bowl to the neighbors, and having a great Iranian family experience.
– Hanis guesthouse, Iskashim, Tadjikistan: The Afghan market was closed due to a bomb that exploded in Kaboul, but we already promised a whole bunch of people to make spaghetti. Iskashim’s market didn’t have a lot of good alternatives. The ‘bolognaise sauce’ ended up being made with lentils and a bit of meat cubes, pickled tomatoes, two carrots and one onion. The ‘spaghetti’ itself was so sticky you could glue your shoes with it. Oh, and then there was a power cut. And then two Italians arrived and they wanted to taste it. But hell yeah, I got their approval. It tasted good!
– Sakura guesthouse, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: It was Charlotte’s birthday, so I made an effort… A lot of vegetables, fresh tomatoes, letting the sauce simmer for hours,… the best spaghetti ever! And then Charlotte got drunk. Our friend Lucas had to help her to aim the pasta into her mouth and not on the floor or on her clothes. Very memorable indeed.
3. Green, creamy risotto.
When you go to the market while travelling you see ingredients you’ve never seen before. At Dodo’s place in Tivat, Montenegro, I ended up cooking with something green, something cheesy and lots of local wine. Best risotto I have ever made.
4. Shaslik on the bike trip around Issyk Kul.
Biking makes you hungry. Juicy, bbq’ed chicken on a stick while the fat is dripping of off your hands… Heaven does exist.
5. I love camping cooking.
In general. On the portable stoves of friends or on open fires, breakfast or lunch or dinner, in the rain or in the burning sun, the struggle to keep the fire going when there is a lot of wind, the challenge to make your limited fuel last until you can refill again, just heating up canned food or luxury meals with fresh veggies,… Experimenting with and learning about food. I absolutely love it! The Issyk Kul biking trip with our Italian friends, trekking in Chok Tal with our Israeli buddies, Yasmin and I going camping near Khovskul Lake,…
6. The unexpected luxury diner in Munich with Ben.
Sunday evening and we hadn’t thought about grocery shopping. We only had some carrots and rice left, so we figured a very plain carrot risotto would be it. While cooking Ben and his girlfriend came home, and since ‘sharing is caring’ they also had more then just a salad and some soup. A red beet soup, the carrot risotto got pimped with fresh herbs and nuts, and a crazy salad was our Sunday night treat.
7. Georgian family diner in Goga’s family, Dushanbe, Tadjikistan.
Goga, sweet Goga and his lovely parents. They cooked delicious food for us and always made sure everything was gluten-free. Every meal was accompanied by buckets of Georgian style wine made by Goga’s dad. The wine was so good and so strong that after every diner we needed to take a nap.
8. Ice cream for lunch, seven scoops per person in Kashan, Iran.
We’ve eaten a lot of ice-cream during this trip, but it must be said, those Iranians sure know how to do it right. When my boyfriend Willem was visiting us we had another ice-cream lover among us, and we indulged in the frozen creaminess for lunch.
9. ‘Love goes through the stomach’ is a very wel known saying in Dutch.
When we’re couchsurfing, for example, we tend to show our gratitude by cooking for our hosts. Homemade lasagna, ‘Gentse Waterzooi’, typical Belgian farmers food, more spaghetti bolognaise,…
You name it, I’ll make it.
10. Gluten-free bread and hospitality.
Being gluten intolerant and on a world trip, it is very difficult to find gluten-free alternatives for bread. But some of our hosts and/or friends surprised me with fresh bread I can eat. Stef and Audrey in Austria, Jean-Paul and Darvin in Turkey, and Saba in Iran. I can not even begin to explain how good bread tastes if it’s been months since you’ve eaten it.
6 visitors we’ve had so far (Christiane, Theo, Yasmin, Yorick, Willem, Ferah).
7 lost drinking bottles.
8 new stickers in our passport.
9 broken hearts left behind.
10 extra wrinkles from life experience.
11 kilos of bullshit talk every day.
12 months on the road.
* Where and when in numbers? *
5 weeks in Europe – November / December 2014.
6 weeks in Turkey – December / January 2015.
6 weeks in Iran – January / February 2015.
5 days in Turkmenistan – March 10th till 14th 2015.
15 days in Uzbekistan – March 14th till 28th 2015.
1 month in Tadjikistan – March 28th till April 25th 2015.
2 months in Kyrgyzstan – April 25th till June 19th 2015.
20 days in Kazakhstan – June 19th till July 8th 2015.
6 weeks in China – July 8th till August 16th.
9 days in Mongolia – August 16th till August 24th.
1 month in China – August 24th till September 24th.
2 weeks in Hong Kong – September 24th till October 8th.
1 month in China – October 8th till November 5th.
12 days in Laos – November 5th till November 16th.
15 days in Thailand – November 16th till November 30th.
* One year without plane, which route, which transport? *
65 long distance buses and minibuses.
61 private cars.
23 taxis and shared taxis.
10 hikes: Vitosha mountain in Sofia, Ilhara Canyon Cappadocia, Nemrut Dagi in Turkey, Alamut Valley in Iran, Ala Archa, Chok-tal and Jeti-Oguz in Kyrgyzstan, Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan, Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, jungle trek in Laos.
3 ferries: Porto Montenegro, Bosphorus, and Van Lake.
3 bike rides: around Issyk Kul, around Erhai Lake, around Guilin.
1 boat: Luang Prabang – Houay Xay.
An uncountable amount of metro rides: many many rides in Tehran, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. A few in Almaty and Munich.
An uncountable amount of city busses.
You want details? Here we go!
[186 km] Belgium – Eupen: train
[20 km] Eupen – Monschau (border Belgium to Germany): blablacar
[32 km] Monschau – Aken: bus
[73 km] Aken – Cologne: train
[252 km] Cologne – Heidelberg: bus
[343 km] Heidelberg – Munich: bus
[32 km] Munich – Dachau: car
[32 km] Dachau – Munich: car
[313 km] Munich – Villach (border Germany to Austria): blablacar
[35 km] Villach – Bad Kleinkirchheim: car
[80 km] Bad Kleinkirchheim – Bled (border Austria to Slovenia): car
[54 km] Bled – Ljubljana: car
[143 km] Ljubljana – Zagreb (border Slovenia to Croatia): bus
[410 km] Zagreb – Split: bus
[168 km] Split – Mostar (border Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina): bus
[69 km] Mostar – Konjic: car
[58 km] Konjic – Sarajevo: bus
[58 km] Sarajevo – Konjic: bus
[69 km] Konjic – Mostar: bus
[131 km] Mostar – Grab: hitchhiking, 4 cars
[23 km] Grab – Herzeg Novi (border Bosnia-Herzegovina to Montenegro): hitchhiking, 1 car
[15 km] Herzeg Novi – Kamenari: bus
[1.6 km] Kamenari – Lepetane: ferry
[5.2 km] Lepetane – Tivat: car
[11 km] Tivat – Kotor: bus
[86 km] Kotor – Podgorica: bus
[430 km] Podgorica – Belgrade (bordee Montenegro to Serbia): sleeper train
[94 km] Belgrade – Novi Sad: train
[94 km] Novi Sad – Belgrade: train
[395 km] Belgrade – Sofia (border Serbia to Bulgaria): bus
[384 km] Sofia – Bucharest (border Bulgaria to Romania): bus
[267 km] Bucharest – Varna (border Romania to Bulgaria): bus
[451 km] Varna – Istanbul (border Bulgaria to Turkey): bus
[570 km] Istanbul – Kusadasi: bus
[23 km] Kusasasi – Kusasasi mili Park: minibus
[23 km] Kusasasi mili Park – Kusadasi: minibus
[67 km] Kusasasi – Bafa Lake: minibus
[67 km] Bafa Lake – Kusadasi: minibus
[406 km] Kusasasi – Antalya: bus
[528 km] Antalya – Nevsehir: bus
Getting around in Cappadocia: at least 4 minibuses a day for 5 days
[81 km] Nevsehir – Kayseri: bus
[429 km] Kayseri – Adiyaman: bus
[74 km] Adiyaman – Karadut: hitchhiking 2 cars
[11 km] Karadut – Narince: 1 car
[16 km] Narince – Kâhta: hitchhiking 1 minibus
[168 km] Kâhta – Malatya: minibus
[291 km] Malatya – Diyarbakir: bus
[93 km] Diyarbakir – Mardin: minibus
[93 km] Mardin – Diyarbakir: minibus
[230 km] Diyarbakir – Tatvan: bus
[96 km] Tatvan – Van: ferry
[173 km] Van – Dogubayazit: bus
[173 km] Dogubayazit – Van: bus
[959 km] Van – Tehran (border Turkey to Iran): sleeper train
[147 km] Tehran – Qom: bus
[111 km] Qom – Kashan: bus
[216 km] Kashan – Isfahan: bus
[323 km] Isfahan – Yazd: bus
[441 km] Yazd – Shiraz: bus
[60 km] Shiraz – Persepolis: taxi
[60 km] Persepolis – Shiraz: taxi
[932 km] Shiraz – Tehran: bus
[201 km] Tehran – Chalus: car
[269 km] Chalus – Qazvin: car
[104 km] Qazvin – Alamut Valley: shared taxi
[104 km] Alamut Valley – Qazvin: shared taxi
[476 km] Qazvin – Tabriz: sleeper train
[632 km] Tabriz – Tehran: sleeper train
[77 km] Tehran – Dizin Ski Resort: car
[77 km] Dizin Ski Resort – Tehran: car
[881 km] Tehran – Mashad: sleeper train
[194 km] Mashad – Sarakhs: bus
[1 km] Sarakhs – Serakhs (border Iran to Turkmenistan): walking
[342 km] Serakhs – Ashgabat: hitchhiking 1 car
[598 km] Ashgabat – Dashoguz: shared taxi
[96 km] Dashoguz – Konye-Urgench: bus
[17 km] Konye-Urgench – border Turkmenistan: taxi
[1 km] Border Turkmenistan – border Uzbekistan: walking
Wow, this is crazy… One year of travelling, one year of moving around like a nomad. One year without seeing my mom, my dad, my Bonne-Mamie, my aunt Evelyne, my uncle Alex, my cousin Megan, my sister Marie. For me this is the most difficult part of the travel. Not being surrounded by the people that I unconditionally love and that unconditionally love me: my family.
It’s not as if we are a big family, or like we see each other every week, but we are there when we need each other the most, and that’s what counts. My aunt is like a second mother, my uncle like a second father, my cousins Megan and Yorick like my brother and sister. My dad lives in the south of France, but he is there for me ANYTIME. I’m so proud of him, taking care of my sister all by himself. You’re the best, dad! My mom is sad every day about me being gone, but she knows this is what I want, what I like to do. She also knows that I miss her every single day, that I love her, and that time is relative and that we will be reunited soon. In the meanwhile she does everything she can to make the distance between us as bearable as possible: Skype, e-mail, sending presents,… Thank you for everything, mom.
During the first weeks of the trip I was very lucky to meet Stef and Audrey for the first time. Stef is the son of my mom’s aunt, and we visited him and his wife Audrey in Austria. The moment my mom was informing him about my travel plans, months before departure, he and Audrey said that my travel buddies and I would be welcome anytime. So we stayed with them and we had new temporary parents for a few days. Davy, Ien and I felt all the same about our stay with them: how incredibly amazing can people be? What a hospitality, what an instant ‘welcome home’-feeling, what a love. Stef and Audrey, the family I didn’t know a year ago, but the family I felt I’ve known for years!
Recently I also met some family in Luang Prabang. My cousin Perrine (the daughter of my mom’s cousin) gave me the contact inormation of Alex when she heard we were heading to Laos. Alex is the cousin of her husband Surya. Family far away, but family is family, and it was fun to meet each other. Thanks for everything Alex, the Mekong cruise with your company (shompoo cruise) was an incredible experience!
And of course, when I talk about family, this also refers to my travel buddies Davy and Ien, and since recently also Yasmin. I don’t know if I will ever experience as many adventures with anyone else as I did with them. We had such an intense time together so far, it’s insane how close we’ve become. There are no boundaries anymore, everything can be talked about, no taboos. Just a look, just one sign, just one word, and we know what the other wants to say. We end each others sentences like we are reading each others mind. It’s freaky, but it’s cool. My travel buddies, no more words, because you know already how I feel about you guys, thanks for one year of madness!
What makes this travel so awesome, so much more enjoyable is the constant support from my family. They all think that what I’m doing is awesome, and they follow and approve of every step I take. This makes this trip so much easier! Recently my cousin Yorick came to visit me in China, and for me it felt like he represented the whole family back home. He gave me new energy to continue and to not be sad about the home-stayers. Just a few more months and I will settle down in Australia for a while, and all of them promised to come visit me. I can’t wait to see them again.
Although being far away, they are the only certitude in my life right now. When I wake up in the morning I have no idea how my day will look like. Where will I be next week? Where will I be next month? Which people will I meet on the road? Will I see them again? Travelling is the unknown, it’s the adventure, and that’s probably what I like about it so much. New stimulations, new vibes every day. Unknown people, unknown food, unknown languages, unknown habits… Unknown cultures in other words. In this unknown worldwide world it’s good to have at least one certainty: the fact that my family will always be there for me. They got my back. I want to have a talk, or I’m in trouble, or I get sick, no matter what, they will do everything they can to help, or I could just return back home anytime and they will be there, like they always have been. That’s why travelling as I do (and this is the situation for the majority of other travellers) is very easy in a way. When I’m done, or when I get in trouble, I’m in the luxury position to decide to go home. I can go to any family member, and they will give me shelter, food, and they will take care of me, like they always have done. Yes, I would eventually have to find a job and my own apartment, but that’s it. Even if would be broke I won’t have to live on the street, because they are there for me. I don’t know if travellers that are in the same position as me realize this, but it’s a privilege not everyone has, and we have to cherish it.
Travelling also means having many temporary homes, families and friends. The people that have hosted us were like our temporary families who offered us temporary homes. And you do need people that tell you: “just feel like home” the moment you cross their doorstep. It started in Cologne, thank you, Johanna! Then in Heidelberg, thank you, Eric. Then in Münich, thank you, Ben! Then in Bad Kleinkircheim, thank you, Stef and Audrey. Then in Ljubljana, thank you, Silva! Then in Split, thank you, Ljubromir! Then in Montenegro, thank you, Dodo! Then in Bosnia, thank you, Jelle! Then in Sofia, thank you, Jelle! Then in Bucharest, thank you, Anca and Paul! Then in Varna, thank you, Nikolay! Then in Kusadasi, thank you, Jean-Paul and Darvin! Then in Adiyaman, thank you, Murat! Then in Diyarbakir, thank you, Serdem! Then in Isfahan, thank you, Rachid! Then our Teheran group, thanks Nima, thanks Ali, thanks Masoud, thank you Mahbod! Then in Dushanbe, thank you Anna, Goga and your parents! Then in Astana, thank you, Omka! Then in Almaty, thank you, Oliver, thank you Kos and your mom! Then Jimmy in Ili, thank you! Then in Xi’an, thank you Choi and thank you to your parents! Then in Beijing, thank you, Cai, thank you Bill and Fish! Then in Ulaanbaatar, thank you, Edi! Then in Shanghai, thank you, Tim, thank you Jason! Then in Hong Kong, thank you, Hang! Then in Chiang Rai, thank you Eek!
Thanks to all of you for letting me, letting us, in your house, in your cocoon, and for being a temporary family. Sometimes for just one night, but often for several nights, sometimes one week, sometimes even two or three weeks. (Golden medal for Tim, we crashed his place in Shanghai for about three weeks, he’s a survivor!) You trust us, you let us be ourselves, you let us do our thing, you give us a safe home to stay. Shelter and food, two basic human needs, you provide them, and this creates an immediate connection. I, we, will never forget what you did for us, and we will be grateful for the rest of our lives. It’s only because of you that this trip can happen, that it is what it is.
Of course the people we meet on the road, in hostels, while hitchhiking, while climbing mountains, while being anywhere … (we call them our new friends) they too are incredibly important in making the trip what it is. But the idea that the friendship we’ve built, the connection we have, is only temporary is difficult. Because of some people we’ve met, we know they would have been our best friends if only we could have hung out more. We would have lived even more adventures together. But we are nomads and continue our travels, and that’s where it ends. Some new friends you do meet again a bit further along the road, but some go the opposite direction, or they go home to settle. We will never meet the majority of these friends again. Or at least not any time soon. This is part of the game, but it’s hard. Some people you really want to get to know better. You want to hear more of their stories, because you want to hear more of their vision on life, because you want to enjoy their positive energy just a tiny bit longer, because you want to make more shitpies with them, because you want more drunk nights with them, because you want more laughing together, because you want them to hug you another time, because you want them to kiss you another time, because you think you could settle down one day, if only those people could surround you. Again, it’s part of the game, it’s part of the adventure, you know it in advance. Not that being aware of it makes it easier. Travelling is goddamn hard emotionally. If you’re not ready for it before you leave, trust me, you will learn fast, you will learn the hard way, you will cry a few times at first, but you will move on, and you will learn to block your emotions for others really fast. You have to, to protect yourself and to continue hitting the road in peace with yourself.
And in the end, when you move on, you know why you did so: because you want to meet even more awesome people, because you want to hear other sounds, because you want to experience other tastes and other smells. You want to stimulate your senses over and over again, in different times and spaces, and it’s easy to get addicted to this. Hell yeah, travelling is addictive! And that’s why I keep going, I keep moving, I keep rolling… for one year already. Let’s see what the upcoming days, months will bring!
In 2012 I arrived in Laos after having lived and travelled in Nepal. The plan was to work in the north of Laos for an unlimited period of time, but something very bad happened. Not in Laos, but during the time I was in Laos a very good friend of mine got missing in Nepal. Eventually her body was found. It’s a long story and a not very pleasant one to hear or tell, but after about a month I returned to Belgium. I needed my family and friends close to me.
Laos as such has actually nothing to do with my friend’s death, but I experienced all the nasty emotions in the streets of Vientiane, in the hostel where I received the devastating phone call. And I promised myself I would never go back.
In the beginning of this trip I asked my friends to skip Laos. They could go if they wanted to, but I would find a way around it.
Now, another year later, I suggested myself to visit Laos after all. It’s on the route, so it made sense to go, and more time has passed by. I’m fine with passing through Laos. I still don’t want to wander around the streets of Vientiane, but here I am… in the north of Laos, driving scooters and doing fine.
In a way it’s good to be back. It’s good to see that it’s not this country that did me wrong. It’s good to see the beauty of today and not the ugly dark history that my mind automatically connects with the name “Laos”. It’s good to set things right!
I’m having a good time here. Maybe I’m a bit more emotional, though. I think about Debbie a lot and how she would have liked this trip too. I think about all the things we did together in Nepal. I think about all the people that have loved and still love her. I think about her parents and how no parent should have to go through this kind of thing. I think about many things… when I’m on that scooter… driving around…
Travelling has thought me some things again. It maybe healed some wounds. As time does too, but travelling does it faster.
When on the other side of the world, on an ancient continent, in a giant leading historical country, things might go different from what you are used to in your place of birth. During our several times extended story in this amazing part of our blue globe, we’re summarizing some differences we got to witness ourselves.
Some things might seem weird… Be warned, but we got to appreciate the wonderful Chinese people so much, we are sure you will too, after enjoying these scenes.
If you don’t know that there is something going on between me, Charlie, and pandas… Then that probably means that you are not a close friend of mine – sorry. But this is a story of real love…
Carrying the panda hat I got from my cousin with me all around the world, I began to pose with pandas everywhere. Lets maybe start off with some graffiti in Istanbul:
After exactly eight months of travelling, Davy and I made it to Chengdu – aka Panda town – to experience the real thing. On day one in this amazing city, it was time to get ready to see some real pandas the next day. This is how we prepared ourselves for this marvelous event:
… We went to the panda IKEA. (No, not with panda meat balls!*)
(* Editor’s note for all the Swedes out there: köttbullar!)
… Eating bamboo in a monastery…
… Trying on some panda paws…
… Finding a cool outfit…
… Watching two sleepy pandas in front of the panda gadget store…
… Being a fat panda…
… Trying to find the big panda sculpture in town…
… Oh, there it is!
On day two in Chengdu, we decided we were ready to see the alive and kicking pandas. So we followed the panda footsteps…
… all the way to the ‘Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center’.
We bought a ticket to happiness…
… and followed the arrows.
We read some wisdom from Tolstoy…
… respected the rules…
… and finally saw our fluffy friends in real life!
Lowa hiking boots for the cold days, Teva sandals for the warmer ones, and some socks. That’s basically all you need for your feet when you leave on a world trip. Not really fancy, but who cares about being fancy when you’re in the mountains in Kyrgyzstan for example? Well… maybe… I know someone… Meet Davy and his super fancy Nike Air’s.
During Davy’s little Belgian detour, he found his ‘dream shoes’. Perfect color, sporty yet classy, hip,… very fashionable indeed, but… maybe half a size too small? Davy fell so in love with the shoes that the size didn’t even matter anymore. They fitted enough, and gave him some nasty blisters – some with and some without blood – but if you want to be fashionable, you have to be willing to suffer.
After arriving in Bishkek, his feet needed a little break from the torture, and it gave Davy some time to think about a solution: “How can I stretch these precious beauties without hurting them?” And so it happened. A plastic bag filled with water was placed in each shoe and then carefully put into a freezer. The – pretty clever – idea was that the water that freezes expands and slowly stretches the shoe. Not bad… if the plastic bag is hole free, at least. Haha. Well okay. Let’s not dramatize. It worked with one shoe! In the other one, the bag kept on breaking, but it was worth every attempt, because every time somebody in the hostel opened the freezer and saw the shoes… their very puzzled faces were priceless! Meanwhile, the second shoe still needed some fixing, and after Charlotte’s advise, Davy walked around the city with a soaking wet shoe for one day. After three days of stretching and another day of drying in the sun, Davy’s awesome shoes now finally had the perfect size.
And there he was, strolling around the city, being all fabulous and hip, proud of his shoes and – I shouldn’t forget – his matching T-shirt! But this was the easy part, this is city life. We travel around, visit the countryside, hike mountains, do bike tours, walk trough muddy fields, walk trough fields full of cow/sheep/goat/donkey and horse shit. Oh, how Ien and Charlotte cracked up when they saw Davy struggling to get trough a little mud pool without ruining his shoes, and even more so when there was fresh shit involved 🙂
Luckily for Davy, it is a basic rule to pitch your tent near water. You need the water for cooking, washing up, doing the dishes,… and in Davy’s case, cleaning shoes! So this is what happened: maybe not every night, but at least every second night, you could find Davy next to the river or the lake or whatever water source with his ‘waslapje’ (a specific piece of fabric) carefully cleaning his beloved shoes.
Written by Ien
As in every country, there is a big difference between ‘the people’ and ‘the government’. We have heard the saying: ‘All people good. Government different,’ many times before. This difference struck us the most in Turkmenistan.
We crossed the Iranian-Turkmen border in a bus full of local people. They were all very busy bringing their freshly bought Iranian goods from Iran to no-man’s-land and from no-man’s-land to Turkmenistan in a million plastic bags. (Sorry, but this didn’t seem very ecological nor handy to us. Maybe think about using a trolley next time.) These people gave us a first impression of the country. They were warm, colourful, always smiling, relaxed,… You get the point. We likey! At least every five minutes, we had to get of the bus again for another identity-/safety-/who-the-fuck-are-you-and-where-are-you-going-/what’s-your-age-cause-I-want-to-marry-you-/what’s-your-age-cause-maybe-you-can-marry-my-son-/… check. All this commotion definitely created a connection between everyone in the bus. From now on, we were BBF’s: Best Bus Friends.
Our first plan was to go to Merv, but since we were not allowed to go there because of our ‘transit visa’, we ended up in Ashgabat for our first night. Note: when you are in transit, you are only allowed to cross the country in one straight line. This means that you cannot make any detours what-so-ever. There are fines up to 450 US dollar if you ignore this regulation, which was made very clear to us by the border police.
Ashgabat, the thriller
It was eleven o’clock at night. We had not eaten anything yet. We were waiting for the bus and it was cold outside. We picked a hotel from Lonely Planet, but upon arrival, we found out that the hotel was already fully booked. And this is Turkmenistan: couchsurfing is not allowed. So knocking on a random door would not have helped us out, nor would have our tent, because camping is not allowed either. We needed to find a hotel… We figured: let’s ask the police. Even in the middle of the night, you can apparently find them on every corner of every street. Oh, this city is going to be so much fun! The police let a random car stop, and they told the poor guy to drive us to the cheapest hotel in town. Well, cheap… It was the cheapest one, but price/quality wise… well, judge for yourself, here come the facts: double rooms at $50, single rooms at $35, the receptionist was very euhm… rigid, the boss of the receptionist was impossible to negotiate with and kept just sticking to the government rules, beds were Charly’s size, the mattresses outworn, there was no internet (important detail!), the atmosphere had a lovely communistic warmth to it (imagine the movie ‘The Shining’; yes, that bad), the mice in Davy’s room told him that pets were allowed, breakfast was Oliver Twist-style,… Need we say more? I guess not.
After a good night’s sleep, Ien mentioned that her phone was acting very weird. It kept switching on and off and on again for no apparent reason, and this had never happened before. But we will come back to this.
So yeah, we went to town, walked around a bit, Ien took some pictures with her phone… We were just, you know, being a tourist. All of the sudden, we bump into this big square, surrounded by extremely beautiful and majestic GOVERNMENTAL buildings. We were amazed. What was this? It looked like some kind of paradise. Everything was so perfect. Too perfect. White, shiny, clean buildings; not even an old chewing gum to be found on the pavement. There were dancing fountains and green grass – wait, was this not supposed to be a dessert? Oh well, I must be mistaken then…
But let’s take a selfie! Ien took out her phone, and within seconds, a cop told us that pictures are not allowed. Okay then…
So we walked a bit further along, and Ien took some sneaky pictures anyway. We wanted to see more of this city, and we were also looking for the Sofitel (because we heard that was the only place in town with WiFi), so we turned into a random street…
‘Pppppppppffffffffffttt‘, the whistle of a cop! ‘You’re not allowed to walk in this street!‘ Ohw, well, okay then…
A little bit taken by surprise, we continued our walk. About 200 meters after that, we wanted to check our city map, so we stood still to have a better look. ‘Pppppppppffffffffffttt‘, the whistle of a cop, again. ‘You’re not allowed to stand still here!‘ … Uhu, hu? This is getting weird, guys… But we kept going towards our goal, and while doing so, Ien checked the pictures on her phone. Or at least, she tried. There seemed to be no pictures at all. She maybe didn’t press the button properly? Uh… Weird. We kept walking.
All three of us noticed that except for policemen, there was absolutely no one in the streets. (Note that there are one million people living in this city!) We got told that we cannot enter a specific street on multiple occasions.
Ien and Davy succeeded in entering the Sofitel, but not without promising that they were in fact not journalist, but just regular ‘transits’. Meanwhile, Charlotte was heading to the bank. We planned to meet up again at 2pm in the Sofitel lobby. After reporting to our parents and friends that we were still ‘alive and kicking’, Davy and Ien strolled around the city some more. Ien tried to take some more clandestine pictures, but at some point, she realized that the pictures kept disappearing from her phone. We then understood that Ien’s phone was acting weird that morning because they fucking hacked it! (Wtf?) And now, they were deleting pictures while her phone was not even connected to the internet. (Wtf?) A little intimidated, she cunningly saved a couple of pictures in a hidden folder; pictures of a seemingly dead city where no citizens are to be found. The benches in the park have plastic covers so you cannot really use them, and if you do try to sit on one, it takes about two minutes before a policeman turns up and tells you to move on. As said, everything looked shiny and sickly new. Unused, one could say.
Charlotte arrived at the Sofitel around 1pm, but she was not allowed to go inside. She tried to explain that she was meeting her friends there, but no no no: she had to leave. A random cop told her that she could not even wait in front of the hotel. He also casually mentioned that she had lived in Washington, D.C. for a while… How the hell did he know that? She headed to the park in front of the hotel and asked her cousin in Belgium to inform Ien and Davy on her whereabouts, and to tell them that she would be waiting for them in front of the statue – not on a bench, of course, because of the plastic covers, remember? A couple of minutes later, another policeman commanded her to leave. She explained why she was there, and he told her where to sit. Around 2pm, she wanted to stand up and walk to the meeting point, but the cop told her to stay seated. Ten minutes, later he told her it was time for her to go. So she walked to the entrance of the Sofitel, but another policeman who was standing over there ordered her to leave. Stupefied, she returned to the hotel with the mice.
At 2.10pm, Davy and Ien arrived – a little late – at the Sofitel. This time, it is them who were no longer allowed to enter the hotel. They asked about their friend Charlotte, and the receptionists just said she had left. Ien and Davy turn on their WiFi and saw the message from Charlotte’s cousin. Apparently she was waiting near the statue, so off they went. But Charlotte was not there. ‘Maybe she was early and went for a little walk? Let’s wait here for half an hour.’ They waited. And eventually also returned to the mice-hotel.
The three musketeers got reunited in the crappy hotel! Charlotte was drinking a cold, well-deserved beer, and we dicided to leave that same day. This place freaked us out! It felt like 1984-George Orwell-style. Big Brother is watching you.
Seven hours up north and close to the border, we felt safe again. While waiting for our bus to travel from Dashoguz to Konye-Urgench, we experienced the friendly spontaneity of the local people again, just like we did upon arrival.
In the end, we have only spent five nights in Turkmenistan. It was a short visit, but we figured it all out. This was the weirdest country we have experienced during the trip so far.
A couple of days ago when we got hungry, we were wandering the streets with a quest: to find gluten free food. We entered the first cheap looking restaurant we found and asked for rice. Obviously, this place didn’t serve any rice, since it was actually a sandwich bar, but one of the customers saw our hungry faces… (Did I already mention we were very hungry and that there was no sugar in our brains anymore in order to make them work?) So this man kindly decided to join our crew and to guide us along our quest. We assumed he was going to lead us straight to ‘the Holy Grail of Gluten Free Restaurants’, and then spend another two hours asking us about whatever random shit you can think of. No offense! But this is more or less what happens quite often…
We were so wrong! Well, we were right about one thing. He did in fact lead us to a ‘Holy Gluten Free Restaurant’ – not everything was gluten free, but there were a lot of options. It was a kind of hot spot for business men having their lunch. And it was a buffet system, so no difficulties explaining what you want and like. You merely point at the yummy looking things, and they hand it over. On top of that, we had a local by our side explaining what everything was, ’cause we ourselves don’t know ‘what-is-what’… Aaaahh, heaven 🙂
But the best was yet to come. He mentioned for several times that he had ‘invited’ us. We weren’t exactly sure what that meant, and to ask something like: ‘Do you mean you will pay?’ would have been very rude, especially if this wasn’t his intention. But once at the desk, it appeared that paying the bill was indeed what he implied. This man – whom we had met only five minutes before – not only took his time to help us out – he guided us around his hood, showed us a cool local place to eat – but he also paid for us, wished us a nice meal, and then left for his office again. I mean… We were overwhelmed. This was so random, so unexpected, so sweet,… and so yummy!! Thank you very much for treating us to a great lunch and for making our day. Mister Masoud Farid, you’re truly awesome! Written by Ien, a ‘gluten free bitch’
Istanbul, our first stop and the most beautiful city in Turkey. What an introduction this city was to this marvelous and big country!
Upon arrival, late in the evening, we were very impressed by the size of this place. (NYC? What’s that?) We arrived at our hostel after getting lost in the public transport system. But losing our way was just fine, because it meant we got our first impressions of the city in the meantime.
‘Soho’ hostel was perfectly located: very close to world famous Istiklal and right next to the well-known Taksim Square. We were so happy! Not wanting to loose precious time, we dropped off our bags, freshened-up, and hooked up with Ien and her parents who had also just arrived at this wonderful city to visit us – or, more precisely, their daughter.
The next day, our adventure that this journey is continued. Exploring Istanbul, one of the most ancient cities in the world, felt epic, and we also began to realize that we were getting really far away from home.
As the days passed by, we met some local people who became our friends, and we also awaited the arrival of our Belgian friends who were coming to Istanbul to celebrate New Year’s Eve with us. Basically, we knew that Istanbul was going to be the last city where we could party hard, so that’s what we did. (Maybe a little bit too much though, haha.) All six of us got invited by our new friends to join a house party at NYE, which was perfect for us since we were told that the Taksim Square was going to be packed with men who can’t keep there hands to themselves and who are hunting for women to grab, and because the bars and clubs were going to be too expensive for our tiny budgets.
Five days after the beginning of the New Year, we left Istanbul and our new friends with heartache. We now were off to Kusadasi, where fellow Belgian Jean-Paul and his son Darvin were awaiting to host us in his beautiful house right at the Mediterranean Sea. Jean-Paul moved to Turkey about twenty years ago, which made him the perfect guide for the area. He used to be a tour guide in a lot of different countries, so he had a lot of interesting stories to tell. He took us to the ancient city of Efese: nothing but ruins now, but it used to be a great and thriving city during the Greek and Roman Empire. JP’s explanations and knowledge were perfect and left a deep impression on us.
Belgians vs. Bafa Gölü, and Belgians vs. Kusadasi milli park: a good combination! What a beautiful sights these places have to offer! Plucking mandarins right off the trees… Who needs a fruit shop around here? We were so impressed by it all, and we were able to see Greece in the distance! After a couple of days of enjoying JP’s hospitality and what nature has to offer, we said our “see you again’s” and took off to our next stop: Antalya.
Our Austrian hosts, who are friends with the owner of the place we stayed at in Antalya, arranged us a free hotel room. Thank you so much Stef and Audrey! We are so lucky, really! Although our room was perfect, the weather was not. We had two rainy days, and I do mean pouring rain. We did not really get a chance to do anything without getting absolutely soaked, so we decided to leave one night early, sadly. But hey… life does not always go the way you want it to. And we had something really nice to be looking forward to: Enchanting Cappadocia.
The magic of Cappadocia
Oh my god, where are we?! Is this real? Driving through valleys, driving on hills, ancient homes carved out in the sandy rocks everywhere you look … Cappadocia is marvelous. This whole region used to be a refugee for Christians during the 10th, 11th and 12th century. For hundreds of years, this area, hidden from Islamic raids, was inhabited by families who found it to be a safe haven. They were hidden in the cut-out houses. It was so stunning, so clever, and so huge. We watched over many of the landscapes and never failed to be impressed by the architecture, many churches and chapels, carved deep out of the rocks. Oh, did I mention the underground cities? Yes, underground cities! They housed up to 30.000 people, and provided everything the inhabitants needed under the ground. Stables, storage rooms, sleeping quarters, wineries, churches, burial rooms… Everything.
Sunrise and sunset in the Cappadocia region are really beautiful as well. Oh right, that’s the other thing this place is world famous for! During our last day at Cappadocia – after exploring the depts of the underground cities and wandering trough the above ground cities in the rocks – we went up to the highest point in the area: a steep rock with a castle on top. It spoiled us with a magnificent view that was perfect to end our stay at this fairytale-like place with. The fairies living here are long gone, and our time has come too. Other epic locations await us: Nemrut Dagi, and the surrounding cities of Kayseri, Adiyaman and Karadut.
Driving from Ürgüp (where we stayed for a week in Cappadocia) to Kayseri, we were lucky again. The bus (dolmus) we booked wasn’t able to take our big and heavy backpacks along, so without even thinking twice, some locals decided to give us a ride with their luxurious Mercedes-Benz van that had leather interior, LED lights and a mini fridge. We are truly blessed. Kayseri was only an in-between stop where we spent one afternoon, but it was memorable, especially because of the local restaurateur: for hours, we played Pictionary in his restaurant while waiting for the bus to Adiyaman where Murat was going to host us.
In these area’s, tourists or travellers are more uncommon, so the local’s eyes easily drifted our way, which made us feel like animals in a zoo. We were soon aware that that’s something we will have to get used to the further we go. Murat earlier explained to us how to get to where he works – the local Adiyaman university – where he was going to pick us up. Upon arrival, security refused to let us enter the building, but after two minutes only, we were already socializing and drinking our beloved Turkish ‘çaj’ altogether. Our sporty host arrived shortly after with his rough mountain bike and welcomed us to his house. We repaid his hospitality by letting Ien cook us pasta bolognese, which he higly appreciated… a guy on his own… !
Murat took us to the recently discovered site of Perin, a hill packed with ruins that are mostly still under the ground. In ten years, this will probably be a touristic hot spot. Guess we are pioneers then, right? After one night in Adiyaman with an amazing host, we are heading to our actual destination in this area: Mount Nemrut in Nemrut Dagi Milli park. We hitchhiked to the small mountain village of Karadut, where we stayed at a little cosy hotel right at the foot of the mountain. A perfect start for an unbelievable adventure! Are we crazy? I guess we are. Are we really going to do this? I guess we are. We are going to climb it. By ourselves. Off-season. There are closed roads because of several meters of snow. But we are the Planeless Travellers. We can do this! 😉
We took off, ‘packed and stacked’, marching through the deep snow. Left, right, left, right… For hours and hours. Suddenly, we realize we are not going to make it. It’s getting dark, and there’s no path anymore. ‘Safety first’ is our motto, so we decided to head back down. A little bit big disappointed though… But along the way back down, we decided that this is not going to be it. We are here to climb this legend, and we will!
Next dawn, we left again around 5.45 am, tracing back our steps from yesterday. Is it still far, girls? My feet are sore. My feet are soaked. My feet are freezing. We were not giving up, we already made it too far this time. This is a situation where you shut down your brain and use your basic instinct. Just keep going. Left and right. There it is! The top, the pyramid! The godly heads watching the sun! We made it! It was emotional. I wonder, has anyone ever been here in winter? Has anyone ever hiked up like we did? I guess we are pioneers again, haha. What a magnificence. I was so glad we did not give up. This was definitely one of the craziest things we have done so far. Tired but satisfied, we waved our hands at our conquered friend.
Diyarbakir, Diyarbakir. This was a perfect stop on the way to our next destination. Van gölü. This city was a gamble. Most people told us not to go there, because it is supposedly dangerous, and little kids were bound to rob us and harass us for money. But we took a wild card and decided to go anyway. At least, Charlotte and I decided to do so, because Ien, well… she had other plans. She was meeting her lovebird Willem in Trabzon who had flown all the way from Belgium to be reunited for a few days. Ien took a 14 hour long busride to go and find love, while Charlotte and I, the remaining Planeless Travellers, continued the journey. This lead us to our next host Serdam, a jolly fellah from Izmir living in Kurdish Diyarbakir.
Yes, this is ‘Kurdistan’ within Turkey. Think of it like the situation between Flanders and Wallonia, kind off… I think… but then concerning religious aspects. We were planning to stay for just one night, but we ended up staying three and gained another friend far away from home with it. Did you know that the second longest city wall is located here? It’s wonderful. Where does it end? And yes, it was different around here. Like people said: little kids were harassing us, and we saw burning tires in the streets. But as usual, it all looks and sounds worse then it really is.
Oh, do you remember the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris? A protest march was going on in Diyarbakir on this topic. A local who spoke English told us the march was a voice to the world saying they, and Turkey, did not agree with such an occurance. Later that day, we discovered via the news that they were actually supporting the assassins of the massacre, saying nobody should mock their religion or their prophets. Okay… this is scary. We, Westerns, were right in the middle of it.
But after all, Diyarbakir was a nice place. We left with a good feeling, and so did our happy host. He left to Belgrade, another legendary place we had also travelled to before.
The biggest lake in Turkey is Van gölü. We would not be true travellers if we did not go there. Besides observing the absolutely stunning nature that this part of Turkey has to offer, we also planned to cross this lake by train. Yes, a train. A train on a boat. Shocked? So were we. But we did it anyway. We crossed a lake on a train on a boat. It still sounds epic. We again were – and we began to like it very much – the only travellers/tourists. Pioneering, rings a bell? We kind of fell out of tone amongst the crew, so it didn’t take long before they invited us to join them in the crew’s mess and cantina to offer us a free meal. #turkishperfecthospitality They showed us around, and while the boat left and I fell asleep, they invited Charlotte to the machine room where she drank their whole supply of çaj.
Four hours later and at the other side of beauty, we arrived in Van, the last big city before entering Iran. So many cities have a castle that I have lost count how many we’ve visited so far, but they’re all special in their own way. And so was this one. What a view on top of the rock! Another sunset to cross off the checklist. After a week of absence, we were meeting up with Ien and our new but temporary traveller Willem (by the way, it’s ‘Wiwi’ for the friends) in Doğubayazit, just before the Iranian border. We wanted to climb (at least partially) the highest mountain of Turkey, mount Ararat. A 5900 meters high bitch! Still not recovered from her cousin Mount Nemrut, we informed how to get up there. We were told we needed a guide, supplies, and carriers, which was going to be $100 and more per person. Disappointing! This was waaaay over budget for our tiny backpackers wallet.
But there was a ‘harem palace’ at the foot of the mountain, so this promised to get interesting after all. Tons of stunning rooms, once filled with women. I am pretty sure these women had a good life in this huge and beautiful mansion.
With having encountered women who filled in the needs for entertainment and pleasure, we ended our 38-day stay in Turkey, a country we almost called home.