This is a long post. I'm sorry. If you get to the end of it, I applaud you. But there are lots of pictures and some stories mixed in. Pull up a pint of beer or ice cream and get to it. Most of it's about Central Asia (think Borat and donkeys and guys in weird hats), but there are a few other places scattered in here or there. This is by no means a detailed account of what happened, but more of the highlights. Enjoy :)
Video of my Alaska climbing trip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihon2ijSL4Y
Video of Central Asia/Entire Summer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Uu204yuW0E
Embarassing Let it Go rendition: http://vimeo.com/98200604
After climbing and fishing in Alaska, I had a few days in California to visit friends, climb the Hulk and relax in the sunshine.
|The Hulk in all its glory. Also check out my new tights.|
My climbing partner, that I met over the internet, turned out to be a yo-yo master. Here he is practicing his skills at the summit of the Hulk.
And yes, I am fully aware that if I ever got lost, that the color of my outerwear would attract every helicopter in sight.
Then it was a quick stopover in Boston to interview for my Masters degree, distract my friend Nate from spending 18 hrs a day working on his startup (http://www.irisvr.com: you should check it out, it's wicked cool technology), and to eat my first lobster EVER under the watchful and careful direction of the born-and-raised New Englander. Thanks Nate :)
Another reason you should check out IrisVR is because this photo is hilariously awesome and they're based out of Burlington. How many startups do you know of in Vermont? Yeah. Didn't think you could name one either.
|Cover of the next boy band?|
FIRST LOBSTER EVER.
|Seattle, as always, greeting me home in style. How can you not love the West Coast?|
Adorable. First time both of them have been in the US before or have tried an avocado. They also decided they don't like papayas, but that mangos are delicious. Welcome to the USA.
I made friends with a turtle I named Charlemagne. We bonded.
Also underwater cameras take some fantastic photos nowadays. Look at Charlemagne's fashionable swimming style:
I spent some quality time with my sister who is starting High School and XC this year, and is basically the best adventure buddy ever. She's my Hobbes :)
Granddaughters and our turning-80 grandfather who is still working as a professor and writing textbooks in Moscow. You can't make a hard worker stop working.
More about how awesome my sister is: she's a scuba diver, a climber (well now that I've taken her out she is), and the chillest 14 year old I know.
Post Hawaii I had one of the longest flights of my life (with layovers) to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. 55 hrs from takeoff till landing. Dushanbe has the biggest laying Buddha in the world. Here it is:
|Some guy's head in the capital near the library and the second hand bookstore where I purchased a guide to capitalist country war planes, helicopters and missiles from 1965.|
Staring at the road from the trunk of a jeep I hitched a ride in. 8 hrs in some pretty cramped quarters, bouncing with some watermelons, grapes and swallowing dust. Traveling the way I do is often not the most glamorous thing in the world.
Imagine waking up to a huge cow chewing on your sleeping bag. Terrifying at 4am when you're disoriented and thought you were alone. Some Russian alpinists I met rented a donkey for a day to do a big push up a wall. I think they ended up carrying the donkey because it refused to cooperate.
Here are a few of the Russian big-wallers I ran into, fighting with some knives over the carefully cut sausage. Terrifying.
Gorgeous scenery, not too hot and total time off from climbing.
Most of my friends won't believe it, but I happily took these 2.5 months off from climbing. Yup. Not a single crimp was crimped, not a single sloper was pawed. I wanted to go fast and light in Central Asia without the burden of carrying any climbing gear. Just a small backpack and two pairs of shoes.
Although I always keep in mind these words of wisdom from some climber (can't remember who): Sometimes fast and light turns out to be frozen and fucked.
|Hospitable Russian climbers letting me make myself at home.|
Someone recently asked me if I 'had any transformative experiences'. Looking back, I did. Smarter people than I have put these things into words. I'll intersperse their wisdom throughout my jabbering.
“Whenever he was en route from one place to another, he was able to look at his life with a little more objectivity than usual. it was often on trips that he thought most clearly, and made the decisions that he could not reach when he was stationary.” -Sheltering Sky
|Local Tajiki herder philosophizing on life.|
So you may be like. 'Woah, woah, woah Natalie. Slow down. You're getting into the details, but why did you even go to Central Asia? Last thing I remember you were studiously doing math somewhere in some random New England town in the woods.'
Well the short story is that I tried to get some people to come with me, but most of my friends had obligations to attend to or weren't interested in this bizarre travel plan I had (more like no plan at all, so I don't blame them for being skeptical).
|So many sheep. EVERYWHERE.|
|A local Tajik herder reading syllable by syllable how to say my name while making some lamb stew over the fire.|
Plus I wanted to scout out locations for future, planned climbing expeditions, because there is first ascent potential everywhere (for those that read this that are interested in the silly activity of climbing rocks).
|Russian climber showing me the heavy metal they use for anchors. Rammstein anyone?|
So about 3 weeks before leaving, and with no friends in sight that wanted to come with me, (I wonder why that would be...) I booked my one way ticket to Dushanbe with the general plans of making my way through the 'Stan countries and into Russia with a 2.5 month time limit.
|The road situation left something to be desired.|
Here's a view of the shower and bathroom situation in the Fan mountains at one of the higher camps. Not too shabby, but a bit depressing in a post-apocalyptic way.
I walked a lot on this trip. Like a lot. I'm surprised my shoes made it. I also met some bizarre characters.
The day Ramadan ended I was high up in a shepherd's village in the middle of Tajikistan. The locals slaughtered a couple of the sheep wandering the hills and made some lamb stew. They also polished off about 2 gallons of moonshine.
The local Tajiks being very hospitable while it rains outside by providing me with tea and crackers and pretty disgusting lamb fat that I had to swallow as they looked on expectantly.
Local Tajik boy that was a master at splitting wood and stoking fires.
In case you lost track, I'm still in Tajikistan at this point. Below is the Russian alpinist program's doctor. He had some horror stories about people breaking legs in crevasses and doing heinous multi-day rescues. The takeaway: Russians can survive a lot of shit.
The fruit. Oh wow the fruit. Melons, watermelons, grapes and peaches were unbelievable. I won't rave about them for more than these two sentences, but it's worth going to Central Asia just for the melons.
Cautiously approaching a climber's camp in the Fan Mountains in the dark after a long day route finding my way through some 4,500+ meter passes.
There's a tunnel through one of the mountains in Tajikistan that's over 7 km long and is known as the Tunnel of Death. Not a very inspiring name. There's no ventilation and there are regular cave-ins that happen. If you break down inside (mostly from overheating because it's boiling inside), the tunnel is backed up and there's nothing to do than sit, roll up the windows so as not to die of CO-poisoning and pray that you'll make it out alive through this pit of hell very reminiscent of Dante's inferno.
|Notice how exhausted the driver looks. This is just the first hour in the tunnel.|
One of the old 60+ former Soviet climbers I met let me photograph his highly-detailed maps of the Pamir region. I love maps.
Anyway, from Tajikistan I walked across the border with an Australian photographer into Uzbekistan. We'll call him 'S'. The only reason we got across the border as quickly as we did, was because 'S' didn't speak a word of Russian and was a tall, loud impatient Aussie. I acted as his translator, and the border patrol whisked us through, so that the only two foreigners for 500 miles would shut up and leave them in peace.
|In case you didn't know, Uzbekistan has some badass architecture|
|Look at all the patterns in this mosaic.|
|Taking a dip in a fountain outside the Rejistan|
A note on currency exchange: all of these 'Stan countries use a different currency. My mental math abilities are now on par with the best bookie with all the dividing by 3.5 and 1300 and 74 (to convert to dollar amounts that I could understand). If you change $100 to Uzbek money, you get a million in the local currency. To buy a car, people bring a car trunk of money to pay for it.
So a little bit about 'S'. Interesting character that I traveled with for a while. My Russian skills and his protection were both win-win situations. I say 'protection', because yes, as much as it may appear, I'm not a naive, young solo, female traveler (well, one of those is not true), and I realize that traveling or at least appearing to travel with a male companion was beneficial for my safety.
|Sunset on the Silk Road. Notice the awesome lions on the front mosaic.|
I wore a wedding band that I borrowed from my aunt for the entirety of the 2.5 months. I only felt safe taking it off once I got to Ukraine and Russia. The 'Stan countries are relatively calm compared to other parts of the world, but the patriarchal, male-dominant part of society is still in full force here. They see female solo travelers as 'wild women' that need to be coraled (and told me as much). If a woman is not with a man, there is something wrong. It's not something they're accustomed to. The wedding band helped some, but not always.
|Uzbekistan was one of the less conservatively dressed countries. But skirts were still mandatory.|
|So many carpets everywhere.|
|Local, married Uzbeki girl with 2 kids already.|
|Aren't the mosaics mesmerizing? Love the turquoise color, especially in the desert-landscape|
"We keep passing unseen through little bits of other people's lives" -Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
|Patterns on patterns on patterns. A mathematician would have a field day here analyzing them.|
|Modernity meets ancient mosques.|
Here is a photo of a mailbox in Uzbekistan. I mailed postcards from places like this with about a 10% chance that they'd actually make it to their intended recipient. Surprisingly, within about 2 months, they all made it.
I met an investment banker from Switzerland while I was in Uzbekistan (pictured below sampling the local beer and tomato selection), who doubles as an international hockey referee. We bonded over shitty local beer and hockey-talk.
While crossing the border back into Tajikistan from Uzbekistan, I crossed at 9pm at night, so all the taxis had left till the morning. The only thing I could do was sleep at the border in a patch of dusty shrubs on top of my backpack while some dogs wandered around and I got eaten by mosquitoes because I didn't bring a tent. Not one of the best nights I've ever spent outside, and the surrounding truckers were a bit intimidating.
I caught a taxi back to Tajiksitan the next morning with an Uzbeki family. They piled 5 of us in the back. There was no air conditioning (most cars in this part of the world), so we suffered through 10 long heinous, bumpy dirt road hours of torture.
|The cab driver piled 5 people into the back of his small car. Then everyone fell asleep.|
|On the Road again.|
|I WANT ONE.|
Standing on a UNESCO site of Alexander the Great's fortress. If you look behind me you can see Afghanistan and the white mountains are Pakistan's Wakhan Corridor.
“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Lots of empty, wide open spaces on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Anyway, I've done a bit of soul-searching. When you travel alone, there's not much else to do. Could I live a life like 'S'? He has no home, he's absurdly ridiculously wealthy (his car collection, the only thing he admits to having a weak spot for, is so, so absurd. Think Batcave-esque garage), doesn't worry about money and travels through the world at his own pace. Country by country. It's in theory the perfect life, but it's not something I want.
|Hitching onwards to Kyrgyzstan|
I can travel for up to 2 months at a time in this transient way, with only general plans, seeing where the wind or next cab/bus will take me, but then I start wanting to get back to work, a community, my friends and family. Even a month is more than enough sometimes.
|A stoic looking transient Brit and a very stoic-looking cat. I think the cat beat him here.|
I'm not like the other transients that I've met that can travel continuously for months and years. I think my parents (hey mom, I know you're reading this) are quite happy about this :)
|Notice me in red looking very small compared to this large canyon. Those are Kyrgyz mountains in the background.|
“I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”-Fitzgerald
"On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again
And I can't wait to get on the road again... "
People asked me when I returned from my summer how was Central Asia. It's hard to describe, so I typically just show them pictures and hope they get some idea.
"The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things." - Rainer Maria Rilke
I wore the traditional Tajik dress, which helped me avoid unwanted attention and blend in. It's also super comfortable and keeps the dust off the skin and hair. Below is the typical bathroom situation in the wide open spaces of the Pamir Mountains.
I was rarely alone, even though I was traveling as such. As a traveler you're more receptive to meeting people when you're by yourself.
“And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.” ― David Foster Wallace
The way they fill up petrol here is through funnels and dirty gallon bottles.
Sleeping on the roof of a local herder's home during a full moon.
“How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” -Sheltering Sky
Afghani Bactrian camels. Notice how they have two humps. I was psyched, having never seen a wild camel before.
The Afghani and Pamiri people have beautiful eyes. It's no wonder the iconic NatGeo cover of the woman with the piercing eyes was Afghani. Almost everywhere I looked I saw beautiful, truly soul-crushingly amazing eyes.
Not the highest resolution photo because I had to capture it quickly before this Afghan man at a market changed his mind, but notice how blue his eyes are.
The overall takeaway though is: Afghanistan is one hell of a fascinating, cool [and yes dangerous] place. Women had to travel with a male escort, so I hired a Brit to be mine.
And as overused as this quote is, I think it's a good one:
“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, "It might have been.”" - Kurt Vonnegut
More camels, because why not.
They sell beer by the plastic bottle around here. Here's a 6' 8" Dutchman shotgunning a beer in front of some Pakistani mountains.
Traveling like this you become more receptive and you gain perspective. That paper you needed to write that you've been agonizing over or that difficult conversation you needed to have a while ago, all of a sudden seem trite and simple. Traveling makes the rest of my life easier.
“This is how I feel, I can't name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?-- this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it's perilously close to 'Do you like me? Please like me,' which you know quite well that 99% of all the interhuman manipulation and bullshit gamesmanship that goes on goes on precisely because the idea of saying this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene.” - David Foster Wallace
The cows were everywhere.
The tire of the jeep we were driving one day flew off, so we went careening off the road into a ditch. The tire bounced 45' and off into the desert. Here are the two locals retrieving it.
Here the driver and his pals are fixing the car very Top Gear style. Using a hammer and some old rusted bolts they found rolling around in the trunk.
Lake Karakol is stunningly beautiful. Turquoise blue with a 7000m peak framing it.
Probably one of the most picturesque places I've ever been. A very vibrant tourism business could be developed here. Maybe a second New Zealand. The 'adventure capital' of Central Asia.
You can bike here from Dushanbe in about 2.5 weeks. That's definitely an adventure on the docket for the future when I get an actually decent bike.
Hitchhiking my way out of the desert. Successful but only after a few hours of waiting for a single car or vehicle to pass.
The scenery when I crossed (once again over land) into Kyrgyzstan was unbelievable. FYI, over 100 countries don't need visas to Kyrgyzstan. Yes, even Americans. You can just fly to Bishkek (the capital) and get a stamp in your passport and that's all you need. No paperwork, no hassle.
The only climbing I did on the trip was to scale this awesome ram sculpture and then get promptly yelled at by the border patrol guards. They couldn't quite explain why I wasn't allowed to climb the sculpture, but they were adamant in stating that it was definitely not allowed.
In Osh, Kyrgyzstan there is an old USSR passenger plane just chilling at a theme park. Kids play inside it.
Witnessing these animals catch rabbits was out of some documentary film. I half-expected David Attenborough to start narrating the scene.
It was like christmas had come early to hang out and hold these birds.
The look of 'don't mess with me or I'll sic my eagle on you'. A valid threat in these parts.
I arrived in Kyrgyzstan right during berry-picking season. A pound of wild raspberries cost me about $0.25.
Some random war memorials with some fighter planes.
Standing on the Kyrgyz version of Wall Street in Bishkek, the capital, which is 30 minutes away from spectacular mountains and trail running/mountain biking.
The trail running was superb. And a 20cent, 30 minute taxi ride outside the city. Just look at those trails in their backyard.
The Kyrgyz rock n' roll cover club featured much ridiculousness.
Entertainment with pens and napkins and candles at the club.
Witnessing a bizarre tug-of-war scene between some Kyrgyz women.
I got pulled into an arm-wrestling match with a Kyrgyz woman. Defending American honor one match at a time.
Typical lamb heads being sold at the markets.
I went diving in Lake Issyk-Kul by renting some old Soviet gear for the day for about the equivalent of $20. I survived, and that's what matters.
So I know you're thinking: 'damn natalie, this is a long blog post'. Well you know what? It was a long summer and it took me a while to get to this. Just two more countries left and then I'm done. From Kazakhstan I flew to Ukraine.
So I know that seems a bit irrational. Dangerous even. I was there about 4 weeks ago, right when Russian forces were moving in, NATO was going crazy and the whole world seemed to be insane. In my mind, flying through Kiev (on to Moscow) was $200 cheaper than if I had flown on a direct flight. So that's my excuse.
Wandering through Kiev at that time was a bit surreal. I mostly kept to myself and didn't experience any negative feelings from the populace, but I was on my guard the entire time.
|Local Ukrainians putting up the National flag in front of their store.|
There were political slogans and graffiti on every inch of wall space available in Kiev. Many Ukrainians, after finding out that I was Russian (I didn't mention the American bit), were actually surprisingly courteous and non-hostile towards me. Probably because I was traveling alone and looked like I was 18 years old.
There was also a very distinct military presence in the capital. This is the only picture I dared take covertly. I'm not into journalism and never wanted to be one, so I took the safe road when it came to taking pictures or videos in sketchy situations.
A cute couple walking through downtown. Even in war, people carry on living their lives.
"The Party of Irrational Numbers". Some dark humor graffiti on the ground in Kiev that I ran across and couldn't help but smile. Zeb, this one's for you. Can you please start your own Party of Irrational Numbers in Utah?
|Pinecone honey-jam bizarreness|
Having an oven and a kitchen after 2 months of eating whatever was available from street vendors, was a great luxury. Apple strudel and sushi made some appearances in our dining room.
I love wandering around Moscow. I don't feel like a stranger or that I have to be on my guard all the time, and I know I have a home to come back to in the evening.
Bankers and oil execs looking very grey and depressing.
Making the rounds at the standard Kremlin/Red Square hot spots.
It was like witnessing gymnastics on a moving horse, while highly patriotic music played inthe background.
Dusk in Moscow is my favorite time to roam.
I never realized how red everything in Moscow is, until I started posting these photos. #relicsofcommunism
The camo dude on the left yelled at me for walking on the fence. Typical Russia for you.
An old tractor from the Soviet times that was built by one of my friend's granddads. And it still runs. Soviet engineering made things that lasted.
Inside one of the main Christian churches:
I spent most of my time in Russia decompressing at our summer home in the countryside about 40 minutes outside Moscow. Here's a view from our porch. It's the perfect place to write a thesis, relax or just catch up on life and read some Russian novels (or re-read all of Harry Potter....)
Our home :)
There's a sauna as well.
The attic is huge and has thousands, upon thousands of books. Tucked away in every little corner amongst the Pravda newspapers from 1918 and old medical equipment dating to the 60s.
Glass syringes and medical supplies used during the war. Now stowed away in our attic apparently.
Seriously, my grandparents collect the weirdest things. A slide rule for example, or there are about 10 different cameras including this projector stowed away.
I also found about 15 different stamp books, carefully organized from Soviet times. Who knew any of this existed.
My room. With a sunrise view. Happiness in a picture.
Also thought you guys would enjoy this childhood picture of me in a trenchcoat and sandals sporting an 80's ponytail.
Also found some Rubles from Napoleon's time. This one is from 1846.
And then.... after 2.5 months of overseas travel, I flew back to Seattle in order to take my little sister to her first day of High school.
|Oh yes we snapchatted this.|
Thanks for reading guys, for those of you that actually made it to the end of this long saga. I'm in Hanover, NH now doing my M.S./B.E. at the engineering school. Come visit please :)
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” - Oscar Wilde