Category Archives: Health

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

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Into Laos

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It’s been nearly a week since Nina and I dropped down from China into Laos on the bus. The difference in the feel of the country was instant. China was developed and overpopulated right up to the border and as soon as we crossed into Laos small thatched shacks on stilts started to appear in the landscape with only a sprinkling of people in ramshackle villages along the main road.

First stop was Luang Namtha, 60km from the frontier. Seems that many tourists come here for the jungle adventures that northern Laos has to offer and we were subtly shocked by the amount of “felang” (foreigners) in town.

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We found ourselves a cheap place to stay and grabbed a feed at the night market. We’re into sticky rice territory now, along with new and unusual tropical fruits. The next morning we stockpiled our fruit stash at the market and treated ourselves to pink custard apples, bananas and pawpaw. The array of fruit was incredible, laying side by side with dead bats and songbirds, all local delicacies.

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In the afternoon we hired bikes (80p per day) and cycled a loop to explore some local villages and the old and new stupas. The original 1658 stupa had been bombed by US planes during their epic airstrikes of the 60’s and 70’s. Laos is the most bombed country in history with more bombs landing here than in Germany and Japan put together. Today a new stupa stands next to the remains of the old. For a more in-depth insight into the CIA led tragedy The Most Secret Place on Earth is a must watch.

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Later on Friday evening we booked ourselves onto a 3 day trek and kayak through the Namtha National Park. A kind of treat to celebrate 1 year on the road, 10,000 website hits and a new country all rolled into one.

We chose a joint Laos/Kiwi adventure specialist called Forest Retreat Laos who assured us that at least 32% of our money goes directly to the village who will host us on our first night. They have used recent donations to build a new temple, clinic and school. £51 for an all inclusive 3 days trek/kayak with food, drink, guides and accommodation seemed very reasonable to us.

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We set of early on Saturday morning in a tuk-tuk. 3 Brits, an Italian, a Spaniard, an Ozzy and a Dutchy plus 2 Laotian guides and a roof full of kayaks. A 40 minute drive brought us to a small village on the banks of the Namtha river where we off loaded and filled our rubber kayaks with air. The locals looked a little bemused but we were soon out of their way and off down the river on a 20km paddle. Lunch was prepared on the banks half way along and after an exerting but satisfying day we rocked up at a riverside village and a purpose built shack for sleeping.

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It gets dark around 6pm here. Pon showed us around the village then a boiled fish dinner came at about 7pm and I think we were pretty much in bed by 9pm.

A day and a half of trekking followed with a overnight stop in the jungle. We were told that the bamboo structure we slept in along with the toilet shed and guide accommodation was built by a team of locals in 2 days. The whole structure built from bamboo and vines… it made me want to learn more about how to construct with this extremely versatile material.

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Our group had been joined by 2 ladies from the village for the trekking. Along the way we were shown various plants that locals use from the jungle. Joy even scraped bark from a particular tree when he heard Nina’s tummy was a little dodgy. Within an hour 2 days of discomfort were cured – amazing.

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On saturday night we had a beautiful jungle meal which included rattan starch, banana flower, jungle mushrooms and wild greens – so so tasty! A similarly good breakfast set us up for the final trek to the river, trousers rolled high, boots around the neck and across the water for the tuk-tuk ride back to town. Even a puncture on the way home couldn’t bring a frown to an amazing 3 days in the jungle.

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The Patch – Remote Permaculture Maintenance

Greetings from a far

One of our big concerns once our food forest was planted, and knowing that we would be leaving the country for an unknown amount of years, was how would our little fruit trees and bushes survive the encroaching grass, blackthorn and volunteer plants.

We had no idea at the time. There was no design element that we could think of, other than expensive, non natural sheet mulching techniques. We didn’t give that a second thought. Here’s where I believe design can happen organically, not necessarily at the offset, but when an idea comes to mind due to necessity.

Winter was fast encroaching and so was my 35th birthday. I am in China. I thought everyday about how our mulberry, cherries, apples, pears and sea buckthorn berries needed tucking in for winter. A cosy, thick bed of mulch to keep them roots warm and stave of the early grass growth of 2013.

I plucked up the courage and boldly requested my family to help with the “M” of OBREDIM – Maintenance. “If we can get a farmer to drop off 20 big bales of straw I’m sure it can be done in a half day” I asked squeamishly. Mum was keen and she asked that I email through some detailed instructions…

On my birthday, December 17th, I woke in China to check my emails. Not only had Mum written a great account of their “beautiful day” at the Patch but Clare had attached a whole photo album of the proceedings. We were so happy to see that the food forest had been mulched but more importantly Mum, Dad, Clare, Ethan and Phoebe confessed that they had had a really fun and enjoyable day.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR ENTHUSIASM TOWARDS OUR ONGOING PROJECT AT THE PATCH. PLEASE FILL YOUR BOOTS WITH FRUIT IN 2013

The Family on there way...

The Family on their way…

Clare checking out the walnut

Clare checking out the walnut

Ethan on the pile of bales

Ethan on the pile of bales

Keen niece and nephew

Keen niece and nephew

Greetings from a far

Greetings from a far

Couldn't ask for a better birthday present

Couldn’t ask for a better birthday present

Dad handing out instructions

Dad handing out instructions

Phoebe loads a bales

Phoebe loads a bale

Relaxing in the sun

Relaxing in the sun

They're on it now!

They’re on it now!

Mum shifts the bales around

Mum shifts the bales around

A beautiful day at the Patch

A beautiful day at the Patch

Tea break

Tea break

Hot elderberry cordial

Hot elderberry cordial

Birthday message

Birthday message

Bit of maintenance on the tanks

Bit of maintenance on the tanks

A well earned rest

A well earned rest

Mulch it!!!

Mulch it!!!

Nice and thick!

Nice and thick!

A winter bed...

A winter bed…

Mum mulches the native hedge

Mum mulches the native hedge

In full mucling swing...

In full mulching swing…

Clare looks satisfied

Clare looks satisfied

Spread it about!

Spread it about!

Perfect job

Perfect job

Native hedge mulched

Native hedge mulched

Ethan relaxes (in mulch)

Ethan relaxes (in mulch)

Phoebe joins him

Phoebe joins him

Beauitful

Beauitful

Nearly done..

Nearly done..

Perfect, thank you so so much

Perfect, thank you so so much

The Redeye Express

Another stop

We’d crossed the border into the north west of China after a 22 hour overnight sleeper bus which was quite pleasant. However all we wanted now was a train ride, you get a bit more space and it’s generally a more comfortable ride than the buses. I stared up at the display board in the main train station. It didn’t take much deciphering to realise there were no seats or beds on any train heading south. It was a muslim holiday and everything was booked for 5 days ahead.

Another sleeper bus seemed the only other option for the 2900km journey south. We scouted around for a bus and after trying a couple of different stations in opposite sides of the city we were finally sold a ticket for a sleeper bus and told the journey would take 26 hours. We went for some food, pumped water through our filter and boarded the bus a few hours later. There were no beds on the bus and there was no way to take back our tickets. We wanted to head south and this was our only option. A translation from another passenger hinted at 38 hours and after sitting for 2 hours in the station we hit the road, bitter that we’d been lied to, bouncing in our unfixed seats above the back axle of a very ropey looking bus!

The most arduous, weirdest, smokiest, longest and coldest journey of our overland trip was underway. Within a few hours we were driving across the desert in a sand storm. Everyone looked a little scared as the bus was thrown around, creeping forward when visibility allowed. We soon had to pull over and for some reason once the passengers got out the driver locked the door leaving us all to avoid the sheets of metal being blown around outside, covering our faces and huddling together. We still don’t know why he wouldn’t let us back on the bus???

No sooner had we got going again we were stopped. This time for 5 or 6 hours. Next came the snow storm and the frozen highway. It was becoming clear that however long this journey was supposed to take, we should double it and add on an extra few hundred hours. The no smoking rules had been chucked out the window, and outside it was too cold to open them to let the smog clear, Nina’s feet were swelling as we’d been sitting so long. One ten hour delay seemed to melt into another…

We started counting the hours between broken sleep.

“Hey guys we’re coming up to our 48 hour mark”

It was Sam’s birthday and we spent the whole day and night in a traffic jam watching the local’s eat chickens feet whilst we went hungary, hoping we would soon get going again and stop somewhere for food. The spitting continued all around us, a quick go on the ipod every few hours helped to forget where we were. If only there was something interesting to look at out of the window, but it was bleak.

On day three we started to enter into landscape with people and houses and later that day we were driving through Sichuan with high pastures, tibetan cowboys on horseback, yaks and traditional houses. We were delirious by now and kind of settled into the journey.

We arrived in Chengdu on the forth day morning, 83 hours after boarding the bus in Urumqi. It was hard to feel anything but delirious. Sleep was slim pickings since the first night but we’d made it and we can probably thank the other passengers for their contentment. It must have rubbed off on us.

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Read more about the journey on Nina’s blog – proverbial chicken’s foot: a bus ride from Urumqi to Chengdu

Another Day in Tbilisi

I woke this morning to the sound of a crying baby and her yelping mother. These two have been relentless since the day we stepped foot in “Katuna’s Homestay”. The cheapest place in the city, use of wifi (important whilst searching for new information on how to apply for our Kazakhstan, Russian and Chinese visa’s), a comfy bed and access to the stove (essential to Sam’s coffee needs).

We are here in the Georgian capital for our third bed-down since leaving the relaxing city of Batumi 10 days ago. It’s visa application time and so far it has been a mixed bag. The next few countries on our journey require differing types of visa’s and application processes. Throw into the mix that we cannot get one without the other, erratic embassy opening hours, chinese holiday closures, Georgian election day, payment in different currencies, language complexities and a general lack of information on the internet. We’ve read the advice about getting visa’s in our home country but due to the nature of our journey it was not possible. So we are here in Tbilisi at the mercy of the above.

We submitted our Kazakhstan visa last Monday with a 5 day wait for collection. I had prearranged for us to do some volunteer work at Georgia’s only registered Wwoof host during our waiting time. A welcome break to spend 3 days in the gorgeous Georgian countryside with Jean-Jacques and Inken on the Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm. A couple of hours by minibus from Tbilisi, Jean Jacques is growing his own biodynamic wheat for sourdough bread which he will sell in the city markets, along with ample veg and animals.

Sam and I spent the first day helping to build the new bread oven, emptying tonnes of sand from the inside mould and building a supporting wall. Nina worked with Inken in the garden, biting her lip, hoeing weeds and breaking cracks in the soil created by sun and lack of mulch. Day 2 saw us all making new raised beds for the commercial salad crops and our last day was more building for me and Sam, a new chicken run, while Nina and Inken made jars of jam and compote for most of the afternoon and evening.

We returned to Tbilisi on Friday and collected our Kazakhstan visa. It seemed quite straight forward once we had it in our hands. We returned back to Katuna’s Homestay knowing that on Monday we could now make our way to the Russian embassy. Our Kazak visa is proof enough that we will only be transiting through Russia. Nina and I went to the puppet theatre to see an interesting performance about Soviet Georgia. The weekend was hotting up in the streets. Voices eager to be heard before election day.

On Monday we headed to the Russian Embassy and were surprised to find that Nina’s form had to be submitted in Russian (because she’s from Australia – figure that one out) but there were plenty of administrative staff on hand to help (20 Georgian Lari). After some misunderstanding about the costs and some disappointment at hearing that processing time would be 10 days (more time back at the farm) we were surprised to hear the gentleman ask if we would like to keep our passports while they process the application.

“Maybe you want to go to Armenia while you wait?”

“No thanks we don’t really have the money for that” we responded.

We left the embassy happy that another application had been handed in and we could return to the farm for another weeks volunteering and some free living…

“Guys. Hello. He just offered us back our passports! What does that mean? Chinese visa!”

We walked to the Chinese embassy for more information, forfeiting our minibus back to the farm, thinking we could go back to the Russian embassy, ask for our passport back, apply for the Chinese visa in time to get back our passports ready for presenting them to the Russian embassy on collection day next week (a 2 hour window). The Chinese Embassy was closed – National Day. Open again in two days. Another stay at Katuna’s Homestay. We returned back yesterday with our tales between our legs, another 2 nights stay, a bit more screaming and yelping with the added excitement of street celebrations on what is now voting day.

Today we will try to gather information on applying for a Chinese visa here in Tbilisi but it doesn’t look so good – we are not Georgian, nor do we have a Georgian resident ID card – two of the requirements. I will be glad to rejoin work at the farm tomorrow.

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Heading East


I write from a shared room in Batumi, Georgia after crossing through 4 countries in 4 days with our new recruit – Sam. After veering north into Romania, a slight diversion to our projected route to Australia but well worth the detour, stacking functions with DJ sets at the festival in Bulgaria and our first permaculture teaching experience, we are back on track and more east than we have been so far.

I think we proved that travel can be cheap(ish). I’m not sure what it would have cost to fly from Romania to Georgia but we certainly managed it on a shoe string; Beclean to Bucharest on the overnight train (no bed) for £15. We killed a few hours in Bucharest then hopped on an overnight bus to Istanbul for £28.60. Not much sleep on that one and a strange sense of being persecuted for being smelly! Enough time in Istanbul to stock up on dried fruit and lukumi before departing to Ankara on a five hour bus ride – £8.50. We learnt a good lesson in Ankara and made our train by a matter of minutes. We boarded the Dogu Express for a 22 hour journey along the Euphrates river at 7pm two days ago – £16.00. Our last night in Turkey welcomed a full on slap up meal – tastey – before bus, bus, minibuses all the way to Georgia!!! £13.70.

So all in all our 4 day, 2538km journey cost a total of £71.70. Not sure if a flight would be cheaper but we have had a great time so far. Georgia has been kind on entry and the food is fantastic…

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Ermitaj

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A few days ago we finished a two week Permaculture Design Course at the Ermitaj in North West Romania. I have experienced this course as student, host and now as part of the facilitating team. It has been a very rewarding, challenging and eye-opening experience. Nina and I joined Pascale, Sam and Judith to form a teaching team in a friendly and supportive environment, the perfect place to start my teaching in Permaculture.

The Ermitaj is run by Philippe and Adriana in a lovely valley. It’s the third PDC they have hosted and we had a full international crew and students along with a healthy Romanian contingent. A jammed packed two weeks full of Permaculture ethics, principles, methods and practical sessions including building a synergistic garden, rocket stove, 18 day compost, jams, tool care, natural plastering, contour mapping, soil tests, pizza night and plenty of design time.

The course was finished off with a talent/no talent night and we received some great feedback before certificates were handed out and fairwells to new friends. Many thanks to a great team, great students and a great host.