Arriving at the end of the world (plus a shoe review)

So, here we are now, in Ushuaia. (Concerned and confused about how to pronounce it? Click here for some sound bytes by native speakers 🙂 ).

We haven’t been here long, and Roman is a bit under the weather, so we’ve seen next to nothing of it, but still, I am soooooo excited to be here!

Stole this off the web somewhere but now I can’t find the link. Please forgive me oh internet karma!

Here, in Ushuaia, the southern-most city on the planet. Here at Fin del Mundo, the end of the world. The city is home to around 60,000 people. It’s made up of a clutch of cheerfully colorful buildings nestled between the Beagle Channel (the friggin’ Beagle Channel of Charles Darwin fame!!) and the Martial mountains.

The cold air smells of metal and snow. The white-capped mountains look close enough to touch. They are craggy and fantastical and imposing, like something straight out of fantasy novel or movie. Our hotel room is wonderfully warm and cozy. There’s a perfect balance of exhilarating adventure and homey comfort coexisting in my day today.

Arriving by plane yesterday already felt like a mini-adventure. The views were just unbelievable.

Not the best picture but is that an amazing mountain peak or what?

After flying over clouds and then blank ocean, we finally crossed over to land. Flat earthy-colored expanses gave way first to hills and then dramatic rocky peaks thrusting towards the sky, interlaced with fingers of chilly looking waterways. All illuminated in long, afternoon sunlight. The jagged edges of fierce mountains, topped in snow that glowed blindingly in the sun, sent deep periwinkle shadows running across the valleys. We descended lower and lower, coming closer to the mountains and channel. Wraiths of clouds stuck on rocky peaks were backlit in the sun, luminous halos of water and light. The channel was an expanse of gun-metal grey, pricked by points of white – choppy surf and low-flying sea birds gliding above the water’s surface.

There was nothing outside our plane window in any direction but this rugged, magnificent nature. No sign of humanity’s existence what so ever. The water came closer and closer and then suddenly we hit the tarmac. Ushuaia’s airport is right at the edge of the Channel and I think it is the most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen. It’s like landing at a ski lodge; all vaulting ceilings and light wood. And you step out the main doors and there are all those amazing mountains and the Channel right before your eyes. Such a stunning arrival!

Have you ever seen a prettier airport?

View from the airport

A bad picture taken from the back of our cab but a first glimpse of Ushuaia….

Today is a chilling/planning day. We’ve got a bit of time here and a big wish list of things to do, so we’ve got to get organized for that as well as for our onward travel to Chile. I may also try my luck finding long underwear here since there was none to be had in Buenos Aires. We haven’t picked up much specific snow gear since space is always an issue and we’re mostly hoping that layering will do the trick to keep us warm and toasty.

I did buy some boots while we were back in BA though, and I’m already really glad I have them. They’re knock-off Uggs, a type of boot I would typically never be into. The tread isn’t great and they’re as attractive as Uggs and knock-off Uggs can get (that is, not attractive at all), but they ARE warm and that is totally what I was going for.

I’ve been meaning to do an update about shoes, since I switched out my footgear during our pit-stop in the United States.

Gear check in – sneaker reviews!

For the first half of our trip, I was either wearing sandals or my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers. These sneakers were great and I was really happy with their performance. They are pretty versatile in terms of having decent breathability versus some water resistance, they are comfortable, they were totally fine for all the activities we did throughout India/Asia and they put up well with me wearing the crap out of them!

What they were not though, was small or light weight. For sure, they’re not huge, bulky hiking shoes, but when you’re traveling the way we are, cutting down on space and weight where ever you can is always a good thing. So I decided to switch sneakers.

This time I went for New Balance’s Trail Minimus. New Balance partners with Vibram, who provides the outsole in this shoe. From Amazon, “New Balance takes their Minimus line off-roading with the WT20 trail runner. Exceptionally lightweight and breathable, yet ruggedly capable where it counts, your every stride is as sure-footed as it is cool and ventilated.”

After my Merrells, the New Balances feel like I’m wearing nothing, they weigh so little. They’re also tremendously comfortable. No break in time required for these; it’s been like wearing slippers while walking around town since day one. They definitely have a lot less support than I was used to – that’s kind of the point of them since they’re designed to make your foot do more of the work. The woman at the shop I bought them from warned about this and said you should ease into wearing them since it takes a while for the body to adjust to less support. Of course I didn’t and all I noticed was that my calves were perhaps a bit more tired than usual at the beginning. Am doing fine now though.

In defence of her advice, I do have pretty good body awareness from yoga and all that and try to be conscious about my form when I walk and run so I tend not to slam my heels down on the ground – something that a thicker sole will cushion somewhat and an action that is not particularly kind to the skeleton – knees especially.

Anyway, I absolutely love these shoes and am already toying with buying a second pair since they’ve already come out with newer line that is narrower, and my happy yoga toes like to have more space.

My cute NBs in the Australian sunshine! 😀

The New Balance have been fine for everything we’ve done so far in Australia and Argentina. NB – we haven’t encountered much rain and although I’ve not tested them I know they will not keep my feet dry like the Merrels.

They also don’t provide as much warmth as the Merrels. Thus the Ugg knock-offs. Please forgive my fashion faux pas but I’d rather be weirdly dressed than lose a toe to frost bite (or just have cold feet which would be the more likely scenario. ;-)).

Ugg….

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Tiger leaping gorge: my two cents

This is a post for any normal person wondering whether they should hike the gorge or not. If you’re regular trekker and know what you’re doing, you probably don’t need this advice. 🙂

Wondering how challenging hiking the Gorge really is? So were we…

Roman and I may have been living in Switzerland, but neither of us are serious hikers. But I’m crazy about mountains and we love the outdoors so were interested in doing the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge in the northwest of Yunnan province. Lonely Planet raved and was encouraging about it but also had this to say about the hike:

“The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a work out… A few people … have died in the gorge. Over the last decade, there have also been cases of travellers being assaulted on the trail. As always, it’s safer in all ways not to do the trek alone.”

This advice gave us pause and we decided to do some internet research to see what we were potentially getting ourselves into.

We found a lot of info and blog entries; none of it made things any clearer. Some people made the hike sound like the biggest challenge and a life-changing event, others painted it as a piece of cake.

Having hiked it myself now, I’ll jump into the muddle and add my own, hopefully helpful, perspective.

The bottom line

Just to paint the picture, Roman and I are in our early thirties. We are healthy and in decent shape but not massively fit or sporty. (Going into the hike, I even had a cold.) For us, hiking the Gorge was totally manageable.

There are a couple of challenging sections but we paced ourselves for those and were fine. There were also a lot of flat, easy-going sections. There were some bits on the second day that made me glad it wasn’t raining. That would have been do-able even if it was slick but doing it safely would have made for slow, muddy hiking.

We shared parts of the trail with a lovely French couple. I would guess they were in their sixties and they often out-paced us (I blame my cold! 😉 ).

So if you are considering doing the hike and are reasonably fit I would totally encourage you to do so.

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Some bits of the trail are wonderfully flat and totally easy

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Some are more of a scramble. This is looking up after just coming down the steep, rocky path. Ok when it’s dry, would have been tough if it was raining…

Things that might be helpful to know

We did the hike in October, so my advice is based on doing the trail in autumn. Other advice might apply to spring and summer. 🙂

– It is possible to hire guides but the trail is clearly marked with blue and yellow signs and spray painted arrows and advertising from the various guesthouses along the way. We had no problem finding our own way – just keep your eyes open and you’ll be fine.

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Signs along the way on the trail, each of them with the same spelling mistake 😉

– We were told that the drive from Lijiang to the start of the trail would take about an hour; it ended up taking two. The later start meant that it would have been tight for us to reach the halfway point before dark. We weren’t bothered by stopping at an earlier guesthouse, but some people might want/need to get to the halfway point on the first day. You DON’T want to hike the Gorge in the dark.
If you are there at a time of the year when there are fewer hours of light in the day, make sure you start early enough. The drive from Zhongdian/Shangrila was also about two hours. (Maybe both drives will go faster for you, but it’s China – when we were returning from Zhongdian the bus ride between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang actually took closer to 2 hours 40 minutes when we had to stop for a half hour at one point for no apparent reason…)
I’d also agree with LP’s advice – don’t hike the Gorge alone. Better to be safe than sorry.

– There are different versions of maps of the Gorge – ask your hotel if you need a copy. Most of them list the same hiking times between different points. We found the times listed to be accurate, based on our moderate pace (which included breaks for photo ops ;-)). (I’ll add a photo of the map to this post later)

– Pack as light as possible! I’ll include our packing list below. Lonely Planet advises to bring 2 – 3 liters of water per person. We found that 1.5 liters per person per day was more than enough, but we were hiking in cool, overcast weather. I will bet it gets plenty hot when the sun is out.
There will be spots along the way where you can get drinks and snacks but some stretches you’ll be walking for a while with nothing in sight but the beautiful nature, so it’s definitely good to err on the side of caution with water and I’d have at least a Snickers (sold everywhere in and around the gorge) or some fruit with you in case of and energy lull.

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Gorge views, day one. Overcast but still lovely!

– Accommodation in the gorge is simple but fine. We stayed at the Tea Horse Guest House. For RMB 60 we could have gotten the basic room, which is just a room with a bed. We sprung for the deluxe room at RMB 180, which came with an en suite bathroom (western toilet, shower, sink), soap, TP, towels, hangers and a lovely view. I used the public toilets at the Halfway Guesthouse the next day and while the view was as stunning as Lonely Planet mentions, the smell of it made me REALLY glad that we paid extra for the bathroom at Tea Horse. 🙂

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Arriving at the Tea Horse Guest House. Check out that gorgeous vibrant red Bougainvillea!

Food at the Tea Horse was simple but good and the portions were massive. The electricity cut out briefly a couple of times so it may be a good idea to have a flashlight or mobile phone with a light on hand after dark. 🙂

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Our room at Tea Horse

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Our view at Tea Horse – not bad! 🙂

What to pack

Roman and I each carried our daypacks. Aside from the aforementioned food and drink, here’s what we needed:

• Layers. It was definitely cold and wet at different points during the hike but I also worked up a sweat during the more challenging sections. You’ll want to make sure you can keep warm enough and dry too if you have to hike in the rain like we did. The guest houses in the gorge provide electric blankets but are not heated so having a (dry) long sleeve shirt to sleep in is good. In addition to my base layers I traveled with my fleece, raincoat and scarf which were essential. I had extra clothes as we were continuing on to Zhongdian – I didn’t mind having my warm vest when it was time to eat dinner outdoors at our guesthouse! 🙂
• A side note – keep your clothes and other sensitive things dry by storing them in plastic bags in your pack.
• Sunscreen and lip balm – it can get dry and windy. We didn’t need the sunscreen the first (wetter) day but I was happy to have it the second.
• Tissues. I needed tons because of my cold but these are always a good thing to have on you – never know when the toilet you’re using won’t have TP.
• Basic toiletries only. You’re gonna get sweaty and dirty anyhow…
• Only the essentials of our valuables. We kept the laptops at our hotel back in Lijiang with no problem. Of course you have to feel comfortable with the hotel that’s keeping your stuff…
• Camera – worth the extra weight!

Things we didn’t use but were good to have along just in case:

• Hats and sunglasses – the sun made an appearance only during our last hour in the Gorge but then it was plenty powerful!
• A change of clothes – our rain coats did the trick and kept us dry but it would have been pretty miserable going if our clothes were really wet.
• Basic travel meds – you never know!

I’ve gone into greater detail about my backpack and other gear in earlier posts if you want to know more.

One thing I don’t think I’ve talked about before is socks. I have a couple of pairs of Smart Wool socks. I didn’t use them tons in SE Asia because of the heat, but for mild to cool weather, they are brilliant. Your feet stay dry and warm – never too hot – and they are comfy as heck. Love them!

If you’re thinking about visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge, I hope this info is helpful. Happy hiking! 🙂

One Beerlao for the road

There’s still more Laos back-filling to do on this blog, not to speak of Thailand and even Myanmar, but for now I want to look forward to our next stop.

Tonight’s our last night in Laos. We’re currently at pretty much the southern most point in the country, a cluster of islands on the Mekong river called Si Phan Don (the four thousand islands).

We’ve had a lovely day and a half here, enjoying Laos up to the last moment our visa remains valid. Bike and boat tours have brought us even closer to, a figurative arm’s reach away from, our next destination: Cambodia.

Tomorrow morning we’ll board a bus that will take us across the border and on to Kratie, our first stop in the new country.

Travel homework

I’ve always tried to do a bit of reading ahead about where we’re going to next, at the very least picking my way through the introductory chapters of the Lonely Planet. But I knew just enough about Cambodia’s recent history to realize I needed to know more before we got there. I wanted to be an informed visitor, but, having heard about people’s impressions of places like the genocide museum and killing fields, I also wanted to know how much I might need to brace myself.

I’ve been reading Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley.

(Side “gear” note – most books I read are on my iPhone – although it will never be the same as reading a physical book, you just can’t beat that for portability! The other downside – the limited selection and not always being able to preview books in Apple’s online store. There may be better books on Cambodia out there, but this seemed to be one of the most recent, and most relevant to what I wanted to learn about.)

I’m well more than three-fourths of the way through at this point. So far it’s provided an overview of the country’s history – ancient, the events leading up to and during Khmer Rouge times and, foremost, what’s been happening since then. One of the book’s main thrusts seems to be that the massively corrupt government has been and continues to be enabled and condoned by the international community for multiple reasons. Throughout the chapters runs a litany of horrific crimes committed against the Cambodian people – post the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m more or less up to 2008 in the chronology and I’m beginning to give up my hopes for some sort of “happy” ending to the book.

Homework round 2

I know though it’s always best to take everything with a grain of salt (just take a look at all the comments about Cambodia’s Curse in the link), and reading all this has only made me more curious to see the country and its people for myself. Brinkley makes comparisons between Cambodia and Myanmar (a country with an even worse rap than Cambodia that we are SO glad we visited) and Thailand and Vietnam feature regularly in the book, but Laos is hardly ever mentioned.

Laos has had its own share of hardships – it’s been eye-opening to learn about the bombings that took place here during the Vietnam war (apparently it is the most bombed country in the entire world. See some quick facts here.) – yet most of the Laotians we met have been among the most welcoming, easy-going folks we’ve encountered on our trip so far and while there is no doubt it’s a poor country, it has felt, to us at least, safe and not without its dignity, despite the poverty.

So, I wanted to get some additional context beyond the utterly bleak picture painted in the book. Statistics may be flat compared to the stories Brinkley recounted – and I don’t in any way discount the suffering he describes – but it was still interesting to learn that in terms of figures, Laos and Cambodia seem to be running a tight race.

Just the facts

Both countries have a very young population (a median age of 22.9 in Cambodia, compared to 21 in Laos) with a similar life expectancy of around 62.5 years – the lowest among all their neighbors, including Myanmar. Both countries also have higher infant mortality rates than their neighbors (Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

In fact both countries are by and large markedly worse off than those neighbors, except in certain areas where Myanmar is in similar or worse shape (i.e. unemployment – 5.7% in Myanmar versus 3.5% in Cambodia and 2.5% in Laos. Myanmar also tops the list of the largest chunk of the population under the poverty line – 32.7%. No wonder since their GDP per capita is also the lowest, at USD 1,400 per year. In Cambodia it’s USD 2,100, in Thailand USD 8,700).

Literacy in both places is the lowest of the five countries at around 73% (the neighbors are at around 90% or higher). Cambodia provides safe drinking water to more of its population than Laos; Laos has got Cambodia firmly beat for sanitation facility access however. Around 87% of Laos’ roads are unpaved; in Cambodia it’s around 92%.

(PS – thanks to the CIA World Factbook for all those figures.)

So what

I am no statistician and can’t and don’t want to read too much into those figures. But I’m glad I’m aware of them if only for the reason that they are reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open. If the figures for Laos are so poor and yet this country and the people we’ve met here have been so beautiful and uplifting, what can expect of Cambodia? We’ll see how it goes once we’re there, but I suppose the (informed) answer for now is: nothing and everything.

In the mean time, farewell for now Laos, and thanks for all the beer! 😉

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Our last Beerlao in Laos!

Gear check in

A technical post for any interested fellow travelers. 🙂

Going home gave me the chance to switch out/augment some of my travel gear; the rainy season in Laos is affording us the opportunity to test some of our stuff’s durabilty/imperviousness. Here are some notes/reviews.

Back packs

Roman and I both bought the Osprey Waypoint 65 for the trip. It comes with a large, main pack and a smaller day bag that can strap on tot he back of the larger pack.

So far I am satisfied with the large pack, but I’d been getting frustrated with the day bag. It’s ability to attach to the large pack necessitates some compromises in terms of access and space. It’s a function I’ve never used – the one time I tried it I felt like I about to teeter over at any moment because of how it skewed my center of gravity. I’m traveling with a camera, and once the camera bag is in the day pack, there’s basically no room left for anything else.

So when I was home, I ditched the day bag and picked up a new back pack – Eastern Mountain Sports’ 20 liter Fen (women’s), and I’m really happy with it. It fits tons more than the Osprey day bag and is really comfortable. (Although it is definitely a women’s pack – Roman finds it much less comfortable.) It also did a decent job staying mostly dry during the rainiest sections of our bike trip – although I’d recommend putting anything you really want to keep dry in plastic.

Shoes

I’ve also ditched my Naot sandals. As light weight and comfortable as they were, I could never adjust the velcro strap as tightly as I would have liked and I came too close to twisting an ankle too many times – they had to go. They’ve been replaced by my cheap as chips H&M flip flops. Less arch support, sure, but boy are they portable. 🙂

Still loving my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers, although even they were no match to the weather we encountered on the road trip. They are currently caked in mud and drying out in the low-land sun in Pakse; we’ll see how well they recover!

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Our mud-splattered bike, shoes and legs after one of the more slippery patches of road. Will our shoes ever be the same again? 😉

Bottoms

We shouldn’t encounter too much cold weather any time soon, so I got rid of my layering leggings and a couple of other items of clothing. My bottoms currently consist of my original Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (still love ‘em. They got totally soaked as well during the bike trip and dried out most times even as we were still on the bike), a second pair of EMS brand capri pants (also really good!), the lovely orange and brown sarong I bought in Thailand and a pair of shorts for when I can get away with them (in some cities and tourist spots I feel comfortable bearing knees. :-)).

Rain gear

The advent of the rainy season means I finally have a chance to use the fancy pants rain jacket I’ve been carrying around for months. It was one of the more expensive items I invested in for the trip so I’m glad it’s getting put to use! It’s a Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (which I affectionally call the froggy), and I’m pretty well pleased with its performance. It’s the only reason there were still some dry patches left on my body after biking through the rain on the Bolaven Plateau – no small feat considering the amount of water we were up against! Although if you own one please note that the pockets must be fully zipped or else they will leak if you are driving into the rain as we were. I zipped but didn’t double check the first time and ended up with a wet belly as a result. It also does a good job as a wind breaker if, for example, you’re biking in cooler temperatures.

Girl stuff

I won’t go into detail, but another bit of gear I can recommend to women travelers is the Diva Cup. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a Godsend for long-haul flights, endless bus journeys with minimal stops and situations where you have to deal with questionable bathroom situations. 🙂 Also good for the environment!

Ok so I am a wimp, and other travel notes

This is a more technical post, just notes following up on the last post and on travel gear and things like that. Updates on where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to to come later…

Off roading

The trip from Agra to Varanasi was uneventful; running late by over two hours it was simply long. So after 15 hours on the train we were looking forward to arrive at the hotel.

Teerth Guest House is the name of our first non-Lonely Planet hotel. The staff has been friendly and helpful; even with the crazy delay there was someone waiting at the station to meet us (with a chicken scratched piece of paper with my name on it, charmingly held upside down 🙂 ).

We are staying in the heart of the old town, which is a maze of narrow alleyways, so the rickshaw could only take us so far and we had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Thank goodness the place provides pick up service or it would probably have taken us five times as long to find the hotel as it’s really hidden away at the dead end of one of the smaller alleys.

At 550 rupees a night, it is on the cheaper end of what we’ve been paying. And it shows. The room is a good size and the floors are relatively clean, but the walls and linens are particularly shabby and dirty. This isn’t too bad (hurrah for sleeping bag liners and my pillow cases from home! 😉 ), but we were bowled over by the smell (I am telling myself it smells like spoiled strawberry milk; I’d rather not think about alternative explanations) and the first squat toilet we’ve encountered in a hotel.

We borrowed air freshener from the (overly chatty) manager and that’s helped somewhat, and I’m sure it will be fine for the short time we are staying here, but even Roman mentioned at dinner that he could handle the smell or the toilet, but after such a long journey, adjusting to both was just a bit much. 🙂

The location is good though, and maybe we’ll find other redeeming features over the next few days. And in the mean time, I am doing a decent job cultivating amused compassion for the (wimpy) diva in me who is arching her eyebrow in distaste at the questionable stains on the wall and the bugs that keep landing and ants that keep crawling on the bed. 🙂

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The room at Teerth

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Squat toilet!

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This towel will never be white again

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This guy and his friend love hanging out on the beds

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Air Wick to the rescue! 😀

Transportation booking

For anyone considering traveling in India, I wanted to mention the website Cleartrip (thanks for the tip Kay!). We’ve been using it to book all our trains and flights within India. It’s very easy and convenient and has some nifty features like SMS notification and automatically syncing flight/train info onto our calendars. We had to change some plans today and cancelling the flight we had booked on the site was easy as pie; we even were able to get back most of the cost of the flight. The site also has hotel booking, but the selection is limited and I’ve found the prices are better when I’ve gone direct to the hotel site. But for air and train transport in India, it really is super. http://www.cleartrip.com

Gear check up

11 weeks into the journey, here are some reflections on some of what I’m carrying with me.

As mentioned above, the silk sleeping bag liner is an absolute Godsend. For cleanliness but also for warmth – Teerth for example provides no blankets what so ever so it’s doubly good to have them.

The Osprey packs have been mostly great but I’m disappointed that the zipper tabs on mine have come off less than two months in. It’s probably a reflection of my heavier packing that Roman’s pack hasn’t had the same happen to it, but I don’t think my load is unreasonable… (Roman may disagree 😉 )

I have mixed feelings on my Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) clothes. The underwear sizing is much smaller than the clothing sizing, so the expensive high-tech underwear I got is all on the tight side. The tech wick shirts are fine, but they feel too big for me – between the large cut and the plastic-y look, they just don’t feel like me so I find that I don’t wear them much. The EMS Compass Pants are great though – comfortable, light, versatile. Love ‘em.

Love my Merrill shoes as well – they have been totally comfortable from day one, no breaking in necessary. An update on footwear – Roman brought me a pair of light, simple flip flops from home and I am loving this extra luxury. They are my ‘inside shoes’, to be worn only when my feet are clean (I have given up ages ago on the notion that my other sandals are at all clean – they have been through way too much) and only in places where there is no dust, mud, cow poo, etc. to walk through. It’s a little thing but I love having “clean” shoes. 🙂

Another new luxury that we have bought here in India is a small set of Phillips speakers. They are travel size but have really decent sound and it’s just great being able to play our music at the hotels – really enhances the ambience of any place we are.

More thoughts on/reviews of gear later…

Switching gears: Accommodation

The group trip that started my journey in India was a fully organized package, with most expenses paid. It was extremely well organized and it cost a pretty penny. We stayed at a range of hotels but most of them were pretty darn nice and a couple of them were even seriously awesome luxury hotels. In my life I have done some short term travel before, but nothing at all like this. It’s the first time that I am really experiencing living out of a backpack, figuring out where to stay on the fly and budget accommodation. I’m also still trying to get my head around the value of the Rupee in India, so I’m curious to compare cost against value/experience/etc.

The first two nights here in Mcleod Ganj we stayed at the Green Hotel. It’s in Lonely Planet as a budget hotel. We were paying R800 (approximately USD17.50) a night, plus extra for WiFi. The room was simple but relatively clean, on the second story with a nice balcony with a lovely view, plenty of light. Budget apparently means ,bring your own…’ because there were no towels, toilet paper or soap. What I guess is a pretty standard bathroom around these parts – sink, western toilet and a shower fixture but nothing to seperate the shower from the rest of the room – practical although so far I seem to tend to get water absoultely everywhere when I shower; I wonder if there is some sort of technique to keep the splashing to a minimum. There were the remnants of some bugs squished onto the walls but very few actual bugs which was nice. 🙂 Over all it was a really nice room, and the biggest plus was that it was right next door to the Green Hotel Cafe, which has become our favorite hang out as it’s cozy, great for people watching and has got a small library of books to enjoy while you’re there, WiFi and the best honey lemon ginger tea and cakes that I have found in town so far.

The place was fully booked out for the duration of the Dalai Lama’s stay however, so we visited nearly all the budget places and even some of the higher end ones listed in Lonely Planet but without luck. We had just left another hotel when someone called out to us from the side of the road asking if we were looking for a room, which is how we ended up here at the Annex Hotel (up the road from the Surya Hotel where we stayed during the group trip).

We’re paying R1,000 (approximately USD22) a night (which includes decent but not consistent WiFi). It’s a ground floor room but the hotel is constructed into the side of a hill so we still get a nice balcony and lovely views. The room isn’t as clean as at Green, and we are sharing the space with more six- and eight-legged friends. But there is more furniture, including a fan (although it’s been cool so we haven’t needed it) and a non-working TV, and this place has got toilet paper, soap and towels (although I will admit here that I am a bit of a wimp – I cand handle dirt and smells and stuff, but I do like „home“ to feel clean and I am pretty particular about smell. The hotel towels smell like mildew and I’m happily opting to use my travel towels instead. 🙂 I’m also really happy to have my silk sleeping bag liner! So, big thanks to everyone at Man for those things! 🙂 ).

The bathroom is a bit grim – no window and somehow it reminds me a bit of a jail cell, and there is this bizarre, coffin shaped mirror just outside the bathroom door. The floor is also amusing – wood colored, wavy linoleum. 🙂 But the decor is all right and the amount of light, the view and the balcony are just great. Upstairs there is a simple but lovely rooftop cafe with even more spectacular views. And the neighborhood is also more quiet – there was a pack of dogs living outside Green who kicked off a nightly party around 11. It’s closer to the temple here – this morning I woke to hear the monks chanting prior to the Dalai Lama’s talks which was lovely.

Another plus is that the staff is friendly and helpful – they were great in capturing and removing a particularly large spider from the room (we needed their help because the thing was too big to fit in the glass we had. I’m happy to report that as helpful as the guys were, they were just about as freaked out as I was by the thing! 😉 ).

So this is what the lower end of midrange looks like in Mcleod Ganj. I know it’s possible to pay much less (R150 – R500 for a room); I think it could be good to find out what true budget is like but at the same time, I’m not complaining that all the budget hotels were booked out. 😉

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The coffin mirror

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Budget bathroom

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Small spider friend – big spider’s baby brother

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Lovely light room though

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Rooftop cafe

Packing for the unknown

What do you bring with you when you don’t know where you are going, what you’ll be doing or how long you’ll be traveling?

This has been the fun mental exercise the past month or so. Roman and I spent probably a total of 8 hours picking the brain of the (very helpful!) assistant manager at EMS in my hometown with these and more questions which has helped me feel a bit more prepared. but I still feel like I’m doing one of those corporate training day exercises where they ask you what tools you’d take from your crashed plane to survive in the desert. For all the apparent logic applied, when you go round the room for the answers, inevitiably you find your judgement has led you astray and you end up with plenty of items that are totally pointless and missing something that would have really helped with your survival. While I’m not nervous, I am curious to see how our projection of what we need lines up with reality.

For my future amusement therefore, here’s an overview of some of the stuff we’re taking.

Travel nerd stuff (some, not all)

Eastern Mountain Sports Tech Wick T-Shirt (2)
Eastern Mountain Sports Tech Wick Long Sleeve Shirt (1)
Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (1)
Eastern Mountain Sports Techwick Bikini Underwear(3)
Moving Comfort Alexis Sports Bra (1)
Naot Rachel Sandal (1)
Merrell Moab Ventilator (1)
Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (1)
The North Face TKA 100 Long Sleeve Masonic Hoodie (1)
Stuff Sacks
Sea to Summit 100% Silk Lightweight sleeping bag liner
MSR Ultrasoft Travel and Sports Towel

We also picked up nifty Osprey packs – hope I end up loving mine as much as I think I will. And non-tech clothes, electronics, meds and some other bits and pieces haven’t made the list.

In case you didn’t catch that – that’s two pairs of shoes I’m traveling with. The options have gone from high heel, low heel, no heel, dress up, dress down, old school, new school, does it match my outfit or do I just love them to two: hot or cold. Makes me uncomfortable while being totally liberating at the same time. 🙂

Toiletries are also down to a minimum; my ego is currently in convulsive death-throes over the lack of multiple types of wrinkle-fighting creams, etc., but I suspect these will be forgotten pretty soon too. I was always a tom boy growing up. I’ve embraced the whole dress up, make up thing since I started at my first corporate job, but I really think it will be amazing to wake up in the morning, simply shower (when possible!!) and have breakfast and more or less be ready for the day. Like being a kid again. To be able to spend more time looking out at the world than thinking about how the world might be looking at me.

For comfort

One physical book, a novel in German I’ve been battling with for years now
Plenty of books and music and other entertainment in electronic form (a library of 50 books in the palm of my hand – saving grace!)
A guardian angel pendant from my mother
A small book of photographs of people I love
A silk scarf gifted by a friend years ago that will be making a return visit to India
My own pillowcases
A cloth easily-fold-able yoga mat
And of course my boyfriend (talk about a saving grace!)

I think that’s it. But I’m sure I’ll collect other things along the way. Hope it’s enough to help create home where ever we are.