Tag Archives: Trekking

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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Surfing the Crisis

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Nina and I have been in Greece for six weeks now, certainly longer than we expected. True to our travel design we are keeping spending to an absolute minimum – the only way to prolong the trip. People have been asking how we afford to travel for so long, it will soon be six months since we left England, and how can we afford to travel in Europe especially. Greece has been the perfect example of how.

We paid for our first 3 nights in Greece when we arrived in Corfu from Italy. It was €64 in total, about £50. Since then we have not parted with a penny for a bed. Maybe we are bad tourists, given Greece’s current financial situation, spending on average £1.20 a night for accommodation during our 42 days here. We had the good fortune of friends with an empty house for two weeks, we camped between trekking days, we were offered a free room in a hotel and we slept under the stars in our sleeping bags when we missed the last bus out of the city. But how did we have four days seeing the sites of Athens, four days in Greece’s second largest city and the same amount of time in the student hub of Ioannina without parting with a single euro cent? Enter our remarkably kind and trusting new friends that we met through Couch-Surfing.

Greece has been the first place that Nina and I have bounced from couch to couch. It took a bit of forward planning, mostly by Nina, but the experience has been totally humbling. If you are new to the Couch-Surfing concept then I will explain quickly – firstly sign up on their website then once you know which places, cities or towns you are visiting search the database for like-minded (or non like-minded, if you are interested in a more eye opening experience) people and contact them to ask if their couch is free. Their profile states the type of couch. sometimes you get your own room or it could just be a space on the floor. The point really is not about the standard of accommodation but the fact that complete strangers are willing to take you into their homes. It’s an exchange network with the purpose of helping out budget travellers and making connections and friendships whilst learning about local culture.

Nina and I have had nothing but warm, kind, trusting welcomes into to each of the homes that we have stayed in here in Greece. We have been hosted by some very interesting people and learnt a great deal about Greece, the current “crisis” and home traditions, mostly involving food.

Xenofan and Maria were our first Couchsurf hosts in Greece. Both psychology students in the cosy and vibrant lake-side city of Ioannina. They were busy with studies but made time to show us around with a visit to the local produce market and a fundraising event for the immigration support team that Xenofan works with. We cooked together and planted their balcony garden with our expanding collection of seeds taken from various wwoof hosts and seed swappers. Self catering is also high on our priorities. It makes our cash go further and all the Couchsurf hosts we’ve stayed with so far have let us use the kitchen, it’s been a real place to connect and share.

We hitch-hiked (free transport) from Ioannina to Thessaloniki where we were welcomed by Spyros, a professor of political science at the university, active politician with Greece’s far left anti-euro party, writer of books on eco-feminism and public speaker on anti-facism. Spryros’ apartment was a haven for anyone interested in ism’s. Floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with English written books on everything from anarchic primitivism to eurocentrism. We spent the first evening talking about the financial situation and trying to understand what it actually meant to people on a street level. We were joined by a friend, an independent journalist and felt very removed from their struggle yet very welcome in their home. We would have liked to have spent more time with our host but he was tied up with public presentations and lectures most of the time. He very trustingly gave us a set of keys, apologised for his absence and wished us a nice time exploring the city. I’m glad we got to exchange pdf books and documentaries over lunch before we made way to Athens. You can read Spyros’ latest article for the Guardian here.

We arrived in Athens after a sleepless night train and were kindly met at the station by our host Mitsos. He had offered to come and collect us at the crack of dawn on his day off and drove us to his apartment where we met his partner Emily. This was our third back-to-back Couchsurf and we were becoming overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Greek people. We rested for a while before setting off to a beach a little drive from the city. That evening Mitsos and Emily had a family bbq and we met friends, drank home-made red wine, sat up late and put the world to rights. It felt like we had known them for years. If it wasn’t for our hosts we would have never found cafe bars in the city, making use of abandoned buildings in a sort of pop-up cafe, festival way. Emily worked in the tourist area and on our second day she whisked us round the famous landmarks and helped us get a sense of the huge city, 5m in total, half of the Greek population. Emily also worked for a theatre group who happened to be presenting a one man show of Socrates Now on our last evening. It followed a debate and brainstorm about what to do in Greece’s current “crisis”. I thought about what Cuba did when their imports were severed. Made me wanna stand up and quote Geoff Lawton – “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”.

Solstice in Heaven

Today is the longest day of the year, summer solstice, and according to Nina’s trusty journal it’s also the 150th day of our travels. It seems like a life time ago that we left England, the many changing landscapes that we have passed through adding to the fortunate yet artificial feeling of ever lasting adventure.

Nina and I are trekking in the Vikos Aoös National park, Epiros, Greece. It’s the north western region of the country, up close to the Albanian border. It’s another place we’ve landed in due to the kind hospitality of friends. We were invited to stay at Angelo and Birgitte’s house in the small village of Paleochlori nestled in forested hills, inland from the port of Igoumenistsa. After two weeks there our attention turned to the national park a couple of hours away. Nina plucked this little gem out of the Lonely Planet, hearing that not many people visit the region and that it’s filled with natural beauty, including a third of Greece’s flora, together with traditional villages and monasteries.

Leaving our most heavy items in Ioannina, we donned our backpacks, sleeping bags, tent, a bit of food and set off for 3 days trekking and camping with a rough itinerary of connecting ancient hamlets, traversing the world’s deepest gorge (according to the Guinness Book of Records’ depth/width ratio), visiting a monastery or two and plenty of swimming, much needed in the 30 plus heat.

Four days ago the bus from Ioannina dropped us in Monodendri, one of 45 villages in the Zagori region. The old houses here are all made from local stone, as are the streets, walls and churches. It has the quaintness of a Cotswold village yet more dramatic in it’s isolated setting. We walked to the 15th century monastery, just outside the village, from where we could look down into the gorge we would walk the next day. Close by we found a nice spot for the tent and, with a little concern about the wild boars, snuggled up for a good nights sleep.

We woke at the crack the dawn, packed down the tent and set off excited by what we may find. The first task was to descend nearly a kilometre down onto the gorge floor. It was already becoming hot but luckily there was plenty of tree cover. The old paths here were used to connect villages before roads were put in more recently. The gorge itself is 20km long. We joined it a little way along and walked around 12km along it. We’d heard that there were bears and wolves here but hadn’t really taken seriously the possibility of seeing one. It took an hour or so to descend and on reaching the bottom we stopped for some breakfast on the dry, rocky river bed.

The walking from here was not difficult, although challenging. The path had to climb to avoid rock faces that descended into the river below. The sheer scale of the gorge was breathtaking and the diversity of plants and habitats made every step of the way interesting. There were plenty of frogs, lizards and beetles. The whole place was humming with insect life. We even stopped to take in a family of weasels playing on the rocks and the only other people we saw that day spotted a small brown bear on the path. We read that there are 1750 recorded plant species in the national park and it feels like a very stable eco system. Geologically though, this is not the case, with the occasional sound of rocks pitching themselves into to ravine below, though not every rock finds the bottom.

Half way along the gorge we came to the source of the spring fed river that continued ahead. The mountains here are caustic which means they hold vast amounts of water within. In winter this forms glaciers inside the mountains and throughout the year they melt to produce the most stunning aqua coloured watercourses. Unfortunately though, this means that they are also extremely cold. Nina managed a five second swim but I only just got my feet wet. The river that we were to follow from here just added more beauty to the already picture perfect surroundings. Rainbow trout now added to the flora, a sub species that have adapted to the extreme water temperatures by spawning all year round.

Our path split from the gorge after a few more kilometres and we begun the climb up and round more forested mountains, clinging to the hillside, before opening out onto flower meadows and eventually the small village of Mikro Papingo. We’d made it to civilisation after a very hot 17km. A welcome fountain greeted us and we cooled down before enquiring about a spot to camp in Makro Papingo – the next village. A barman in the local restaurant pointed us to the village football pitch and we set up camp in the dark.

Yesterday we went easy on ourselves. First stop was the incredible rock pools between the two villages we’d found last night. Nina was keen for an early morning swim but once again I only managed a rinse off in the super cold waters. A small human intervention made a beautiful pool from an otherwise trickling stream through the rock.

We hitched a lift the next 7km to a village where we were hoping to wwoof. The Zissis brothers ran a hotel and restaurant there using their own organic veg. They were the only wwoof hosts in the region and we had contacted them a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately (but in the end fortunately) they had nothing much to do about the place. They instead offered us a free room for the night and lunch, drinks and dinner with the family. Greece already has that welcome feeling that we experienced in the villages of Morocco. We explored the village on foot before a well needed bed.

This morning we walked down the hill to join the Voldomatis river as it continued it’s path from the gorge. We are in awe of the beauty of this region and the unspoilt wilderness. Today we followed a path 10km or so along the river edge. We met one other couple, seasoned Aussie walkers, who obviously knew all the worlds best places to walk. We couldn’t argue that this was one of them. Nina swam again. I chickened out again. We sat and looked at the amazing scenery around us, happy that we are here but sad that to think that most rivers in the world are polluted by industrial and human waste or bad agricultural practices. We’ve been drinking the water from this river for three days, we’ve walked it, we’ve watched the trout, the birds and the dragonflies. The banks are covered in trees, to the waters edge. Nobody is messing with this landscape and that’s why it’s thriving!

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