Roadbook n°9 – The three little of the Caucasus

After 1 month in Iran, we are eager to begin our roadtrip in the Caucasus. It is Armenia, as small country as Belgium; Georgia, famous for its gastronomy and mountain range and Azerbaijan about which we have no idea, that are waiting for us on the other side of the border.

The quarrels that are taking place in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri region under the Republic of Azerbaijan by Armenians or on the other way around for the Azeris of course, are nearby. Despite this strong military presence, when the guards see that Quentin is French, they get their smile back and constantly refer with pride to “Charles Aznavour” (famous French singer with Armenian origin). It changes from the quotes of “Zidane” and singing a few sentence with them relax a bit the atmosphere.

At 3 am, we are on the other side, excited to discover these three new countries during the next two months. In thurst of civilization and the Internet, we head to Yerevan, the capital. Every morning we push our departure and eventually stay there for eight days. This capital fulfilled us. Its unique architecture made of huge pale pink stones that cover all the facades of almost every Soviet building is very strange at the first sight, it is also called “Pink City”.image But it offers a lot of charm in the end. And this freedom … Cafés in every corner, music in the streets, bars, museums, art galleries, jazz clubs, women drinking their coffee in a park with their friends and children unveiled, uncovered arms, jeans … it seems completely normal for you but after Iran, it’s back to “reality”. But putting our cultural-shock aside, Yerevan’s a beautiful capital that has nothing to envy from our European capitals, if not their sizes.

What did we like in this small country at the end ?

- Playing chess in the chess academy of Yerevan dedicated solely to this game. Chess is a lifestyle here. Everyone plays since 7yrs old. It is even a class in schools, such as yoga in India;

- Taste the Armenian “snickers”. Nuts covered with dried fruit pastry. Excellent, especially the pomegranate ones. We find the same in Georgia but bigger and more floury;
– Enjoy the many jazz clubs in the city, mainly the famous Jazz Club Malkass which resonated in our bones for more than 4 hours with two musician groups;

- Learn that the Armenian cheese can be as strong as the French ones, we have the feeling that we drink directly from the cow’s udder;

- Visit one of the oldest monasteries of the country where you quickly appreciate the sounds with heavy and powerful echoes when monks sing like “Moooohoooo hooooo oooooo oooooo … Amen.” Let’s not forget that Armenia is the first Christian state in the world. Founded in 303, today they have dozens of monasteries across the country. We don’t visit a lot since the one of Geghart really amazed us;

- Take “Marshutka”. It is the main mean of transport in the Caucasus. This term is so representative of this crowded mini-bus where some have to stand with the head bent due to the short interior height or if you have the chance to sit, you have to share your seat between cartons of chickens (in the countryside, not in town of course) or packages! And yes, the Marshutka works also as the post office. As in Africa by the way;

- Take a train to Gyumri, a city where there is nothing to see and do. But the ride in this old train that runs along the Turkish border offered us superb views and also the opportunity to buy herbs, radishes and salads from our wooden bench of another century. Mobile vendors in trains or at bus stations, it’s a whole love story. Sometimes they have such original concepts. We love them, especially when our stomachs are rumbling. We had beautiful and unpleasant surprises. Everything is possible, really. In Azerbaijan, a men was running around with a real display on wheels to sell sunglasses (like in an optician shop), just before taking a bus. It can always be useful… We do not continue the list, it is too long. In short, we arrived in Gyumri and were welcome for a home-stay. Another beautiful evening. The next day we set off to discover the ghettos of the survivors of the earthquake that killed more than 50 000 people in this small town. Even though it was in 1988, the situation has not really changed. Many still live in those crapy old containers or metal caravan/do-it-yourself houses. We were invited by a family to drink a coffee. It was good, certainly, but the living conditions were not.imageBefore leaving for Georgia, we try to go hiking in the North East but the weather was against us… For our last day, we walked for hours, carrying tons of mud sticked on our shoes. So at end of May, we are in Georgia with a nice stamp in our passport but no transport to reach the capital, Tbilisi. We jumped quickly into a marshutka in the morning but it only dropped off passengers at border points. Most travelers already prepared their transport but as organized as we are, we have nothing. We therefore decided to hitchhike, without success. But after 30 minutes, we are in a truck. It doesn’t seem like, but truck driver have a pretty comfy place up there in their cabine. We will have a panoramic view over the next three hours before the driver drop us off at the roadside before entering the city. Where are we ? Where are we going ? We have no Lari (local currency) … Solution: jump on the first public bus that slows down in the traffic jam, hoping that it is going in the city center. After all, all roads lead to Rome, right? At the bus station, we take out those famous Lari to pay our transportation but the driver invited us.

Our entry into the capital made us quickly think of Budapest, the city of Agota. Between its majestic buildings (in this case a monastery more than 80m high) on the hill and across the other side of the river, the old city center. It is a total delight! This capital will remain one of the most beautiful of our trip, even better than Yerevan, but obviously not better than Budapest. We shall returned to it 3 times to get our Azeri visas that were constantly postponed. And the ultimate day, the officer did not want to give back the passport of Quentin. He thought it was another person with his long hair and bear. Since our departure, everybody think he is Israeli (most of the time), Mexican, Brazilian, Turkmenistan… Never French as long he doesnt speak.5mn later, we finally have it. imageBetween these multiple returns, we left for a week and half towards the Black Sea in to Batumi and did our first trekking in the Caucasus. Then another week in the North to do other hikes in the Caucuses, again and always. The last will be in the Kazbegi region, where we have pushed our limits.

On our map, we see a base camp at the foot of Mount Kazbek (5000m). Why not going there? The guides and fellow travelers that we met told us that the ascent takes 7 hours, there is a lot of snow and the rooms at the base camp are very basic. We rented two large sleeping bags, 3.5kg each hanging on both sides of our small backpack (we left our big ones as a caution because we did not have our passports), mountaineering boots and waterproof gaiters to join the camp because we will have to cross a glacier. Don’t imagine a glacier as in mountaineering films! It is all covered with snow anyway, but we still had our dose of thrill thanks to some crevasse and the sound of breaking snow of the avalanches on the other side. After 4 hours of walking, we believe that we are halfway. But the hardest is yet to come. Thick fog settles for hours on our way. We did not see further than 5m and walked like ants on the side of the mountain. This white paradise will turn quickly into a nightmare. The sliding of Agota between two mountain sides for 25m will scare us even more. Every time we thought we get to the camp but we were wrong. We were too slow. We spend more than 3 hours to cover the last 2km. The fresh, powdery snow climbed up to our knees, even thighs often. The ascent is endless. We saw the base camp on and off between the movement of two clouds and some sunlight – but with our mammoth walking, it seems like it doesn’t get closer to us. And the lack of oxygen begins. Physical and mental fatigue is rising above us. imageTo be honest, it was not really smart to go without technical clothing and trainings. Lack of sport on the road (not easy when traveling to keep in shape) will cost us, again. But we were closer to the end than the beginning, and then we had the most important: good health, good shoes and a big desire to finish quickly. It did not take us an additional 4 hours of walking but 7 so total 11 hours to reach this goddamn base camp! Literally exhausted, we crush down by the side of the fire in the common room and the guides, who quickly understood what we had to endure by looking at our face, took care of us. One, two, three … seven shots of homemade vodka to heal our feet, singing Georgian songs with a guitar. It feels good! In this old Soviet meteo station converted into a mountaineering base camp, there are no “tourist”, only professional or amateur mountaineers who all want all to conquer Kazbek. We are the only young (besides the guides), only couple and Agota the only woman who came up to say hello. We are quite proud to be honest! At 9pm, after a very light meal, our bed are calling us to regain strength before going down the next day. Not easy to fall asleep with all these stories of disappeared hikers who attempted the peak of Mount Kazbek or to join the camp at the wrong time… Sad reality! The next day we are more careful and take advantage of the views that the Caucaus is finally offering us. It took us 6 hours to go down but less than 15 minutes to devour huge kachapuri dishes, salads, beers, etc.

After this adventure, we make a stop in the region of Svaneti, very famous town for their traditional wines. Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world, maybe even its cradle. The first traces of viticulture dates back to 8000 years ago with production patterns of kveri (large underground jar). We would have stayed in this province a little longer, but the clock is ticking. Margaux, Quentin’s sister is joining us in less than 20 hours 600km away. It is time to take our sleeper train to arrive in the early morning in our last Caucasian country, Azerbaijan.

In Baku, the capital, we get our package from Lille :) We will change nothing regarding our travel style with her. Lose a day in transport for many reasons, taking hours here and there (especially market) to spend time with the locals, eating a little ears of corn and a packet chips for lunch, take public transport by squeezing tight on each other, walk 1 hour with our backpack to reach a hostel instead of taking a taxi to keep fit and watch our budget, sleeping in home-stays, etc … this is our life since 9 months. She will be the only person who understands our daily backpackers life, what we lived and how. She is the only person who can really understand what it means to “tcheu tcheu?” and all the circumstances that follows. Brackets of travel philosophy is over! So what have we done in Baku? Not much. Indulges in the city, smoking a shisha in a local cafe playing cards to catch up time, spend an evening with Azeri friends of Margaux to learn more about this country we’ve never heard about and its people so honest and good hearted!

We will stay just a day to the capital to focus our time in the countryside. Baki, as the locals call it, is a very cosmopolitan city (its history with black gold and the two neighbors dragging into it made it so). It is changing at Speed with capital S as it can be seen from the top of the legendary Maiden Tower with a 360 degree views over the city and the coast. On one hand, the city center, which has hosted the F1 race late June when we were there, is elegant with its old, aristocratic buildings of the Soviet era hosting luxurious boutiques on the ground floor. On the other, the beautiful old town center is enclosed by fortress walls from another century, viewed by this trio of dancing glass towers of 180m, called “Flame Towers” to refer to the country. We are on the “land of fire”. Behind we can still see the old port, off-and on shore oil drills and along the corniche modern malls, one of them reminded us to the theater of Sydney.

Afterwards, we will enjoy the virtues of a charming small town in the North, Seki. We walk to the foot of the mountains to admire the sunsets when the shepherds bring back their herds, playing OK-game with locals in a cafe, do our grocery shopping to enjoy all this strong and fresh herbs, look for sheep cheese, fresh bread, as we can not always find this in restaurants. They mainly offer meat or super oily dishes. But we were surprised by this dograma, cold soup of herbs which recipe we sent to our donors for their reward regarding our crowdfunding campaign last year! But that was only the beginning, a warm-up for Margaux. We reserved her a little surprise after.

At the foothills of the mountain Caucasus, some villages of few hundred inhabitants are living in autarky. Their Middle-Age lifestyle compared to the rest of the country made it a proud region for its values ​​and traditions. After 2 hours drive starting from a small town northeast of the country, we finally arrived in this village, its name we not reveal. Here, we speak Azeri and that’s it. With our little phrase book offered by the tourist office in Seki, we began a conversation with some guys who spend their time by checking how their watch is ticking, smoking their cigarettes with their hot chai (tea) in their hand, in front of the only “store” of the village. With body language and beautiful drawings, we seek a home stay for 3 nights. 30 minutes later, we think we got along to make it clear as our new friend Raouf was keeping repeating “no problem” and welcomed us in his home with brother. This decision is one of the most rewarding of our trip. These three days homestay, how rich in encounters and discoveries, will remain engraved in our memories forever. It was the best home-stay of the whole trip.image

imageLocated more than 2200m above sea level in the heart of a mountain range, this village is so charming with its well-built wooden houses, metal sheets and stones, including a shop, a mosque, a school and a games/party room. But how to summarize our days while we were living in slow motion, only walking around the village, playing with children, sleeping, eating, drinking like kings, bathing in a basin used for making cheese, driving in the sheeps, milking cows, etc. The photos of our photo gallery herebelow speak for themselves!

The next few nights were less comfortable. The first was on the little “couches” of Baku airport since our trio must split at 5am and it was impossible to find housing during the F1 race; the second on cartons of Pizza Hut and Costa coffee to protect us from the cold marble floor of Dubai airport waiting for our check-in 10 hours later. The third was under a mosquito net in a motel located in the middle of a carpenters market who built beds day and night. It was in Kampala, capital of Uganda.

The last roadbook (about Africa) will be sent from Europe. Today, we still have three weeks. The countdown starts!

Agota and Quentin

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Roadbook n°8 – Iran

“Dear customer, your flight to Tehran was canceled.” What could be better! We were still waiting the results of the Quentin’s biopsy. These two additional days in Abu Dhabi enabled us finally to know what lies behind this Indian stomach-bug after two and a half weeks of test. And yes, India still, we love you and hate you, remember?
On the 13th of April we finally set foot in Iran without a visa. It was impossible to do in the United Arab Emirates as we are non-residents. But do not panic, Iran is a country that is opening and we had no problem getting the visa at the airport. No need to do the “mandatory” paper work before as recommended by the embassies in Europe. You will know for your next stay!
A few minutes ride from the Tehran airport and we feel in France in the ’90s. It’s raining, cold and there’s that old Peugeot 309 and Renault 19 everywhere. We spent a few days in the capital to see friends, explore the palaces of Shahs and walking in the bazaar where over 600,000 people pass by each day. The Bazaars in Iran is like our “shopping malls / supermarkets” in Europe! It is an important center of life. The Silk Road boosted them. They represents 8% of GDP.
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The first two weeks were rich in cultural heritage but also in meetings. The Persian empire revealed its charm first in the heart of Iran. Small cities like Kashan or an oasis town in the desert as Yazd, through the artistic hub in Isfahan…we were amazed by its hammans, timches in the bazaars (lobby), mosques, each of them more astonishing then the previous.
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Or even to see the 800years old bazaars still full of life where the Persians carpet sellers make us the pleasure of showing their pieces as works of art that can sometimes cost up to hundreds of thousands of euros …
Afterwards,we learnt more about the Persian culture and the way of life of its inhabitants thanks to all those Iranians who welcomed us as brothers and sisters. All began in Kashan, where an old man started to talk to us over his bike:
- Hey you! Where are you from?
- Hungary and France.
- Oh oh Welcome in Kashan, my city! I love tourist. I want to help ‘em. It is my duty. What do you want?
- Thanks Sir. Well, do you know a good kebab place?
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And he brought us in a small shop of 6m2, where a man had cooked us the best kebab of Iran. He offered us the meal, gave us a lot of advice and continued his journey 1h later as if nothing had happened. There were plenty of other meetings and kind gestures …
Omid, we met him at the Agha Bozorg mosque in Kashan. He took a whole day and did not even go to work one morning to show us his city, his neighborhood, mosque, religion, share ideas, his vision of Islam, Iran, Europe, etc.
Hamid, we asked him some help for direction on the street. 5 minutes later we had his number and the next day we met for an “Iranian” picnic with his wife. They also made us discover Isfahan and its neighborhood during evening time!
Mostafa and his surprising invitation. He met Agota in the guesthouse and asked where is she from. The answer “Hungary” seemed so exotic that he immediately invited us to his home! Another beautiful evening!
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And all the others who have invited us for a tea, a meal (cooked of course by their mothers hehe) or sleeping at home. What a joy to get closer to the Iranian culture. Although sometimes, we must admit … it’s enough. All this generosity and hospitality to know what you think of Iran, why, etc. Those are interesting exchanges but it is repetitive and pointless at the end. These discussions and invitations here and there to constantly try to improve Iran’s image are tirening after 4 weeks. They are convinced that we see Iran as an extremely dangerous country in war and difficulty. And it seems that we are not alone in this opinion. Furthermore, the  importance of religion in the government is palpable. Their policy has significant impacts on the daily lives of Iranians and tourists. In short, Iran is a country full of contrasts.
To discover another facet of this country, we thought outside the box and turned towards the Northwest for a trek and let time run in small, remote towns and villages along the Caspian Sea.
We were more than ready to start this last two weeks in Iran as we were lucky to be cleaned like never in our lives, in Yazd, in a very old hammam. Ali and his daughter do massage and our body was washed on the floor for 1 hour. Agota had the privilege, in his little private room of 5m2, to be washed … fully naked, just as the masseuse!
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After 12 hours of train, 4 hours of nap on a bench and 3 hours of crazy drive, we finally arrived in Gazor Khan. In this small village, we did some babysitting with little Amir Hossein, son of the house-mama, we cooked with her, ate honey straight out of the hives, and left for a trek of 2 days to visit the in-laws of our guide, Ali. The landscape looks like a postcard from Switzerland (without lakes). We are no longer in Iran during this short stay in the mountains of Elbrourz. We only saw the amazing sight the next day because our first day was rainy, muddy and foggy. We arrived in this village exhausted. We took some strength with delicious kebab of wild dear shot that morning. We wonder how this small stocky man was able to carry this carcass far from the mountain… This grilled meat on ash, fresh cheese of the goat bleating in the backyard … We can not taste more local food!
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At the end of May, we took the road to skirt the Caspian Sea. The beaches are “superb” as many Iranians say. But in fact, they are gray / black and cars can cruise around. At the Persian Gulf sea in the south, the beaches are better. Too bad for us, but eventually we enjoyed playing backgammon with a good qijab (Iranian water-pipe) in small coffee shops and prepared our way to the Caucasus ahead.
Agota & Quentin
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Roadbook n°7 – From the Himalaya to Wahiba desert

After our week of yoga, reading and exploring the area with the legendary Royal Enfield (Indian motorcycle), we finally started to conquer the Himalayas. We started with a full-day drive to Auli. With two guides, four other trekkers and 4 horses we will hike 4 days to reach the Pangarchula peak!

The first night we camped at 2500m in green highlands. But the following morning, surprise, our tent disappeared under couple of centimeters of snow, which fall during the night. The environment changed… The landscape was breathtaking and the adventure began in earnest. Indeed, this paradise fallen from heaven made the trek even more difficult. We walked during the coming days with snow until mid-thigh, which slowed our pace. And our poor mattress did not protect us from suffering during the nights with -5 degree on the snow.

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Our first victory was the Kuari pass, a peak of 3800m. We reached it together and returned to celebrate with plain noodles and tea at the base camp. The next day, we were only 3 trekkers. Weather conditions and lack of acclimatization (+ 3000m in 3 days) put our bodies to the test. Quentin left with Raul, Greg and two guides to the peak of 4500m. From 4000m, the lack of oxygen and headache could be sensed quickly and the rather weak health state in which we started the trek did not help. The last two hours were not easy, but like for everyone else, the mental overrode it. What a joy to get up and let the Himalayas to unveil their charm! After the return, it was still difficult to talk especially for Quentin – the lack of air could be felt until the following morning but the stars in the eyes what this trek offered us will stay much longer.

On the 13th of March, we left India, finally! After 2.5 months of traveling in this crazy country, we still cannot explain it, really. It is an adventure for its strong human dimension, culture and culinary. We can only tell you, like many other travelers wevmet on the road that “India, you love it and you hate it” But we all wish to return …

A few hours later, we were on another continent: the Middle East. We started the Arabian Peninsula in the Sultanate of Oman. In Muscat, the capital, we left one of our backpack at the airport to travel light because we were about to camp the next two weeks.

In fact, traveling in Oman is complicated and expensive. One night in a hotel (hostel does not exist) costs twice more then our daily budget together. We read on the Lonely Planet website that “Oman is not at all a destination for backpackers”. Public transport is virtually non-existent or extremely expensive (taxi or car rental) but we really wanted to discover this country! Nothing is impossible! So we bought a tent and all the gears, which we left later in Abu Dhabi at Agota’s parents. Inshallah, we will succeed with our legs and thumb! For your information, Oman is a leading destination in the region for camping. Most tourists opt for the 4×4 option + tent to make the most out of this great area of ​​freedom, as big as Poland.

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We particularly remember for our night in the desert. After a short hitch, the first dunes started to be drawn on the horizon. They dropped us to the next village and we started walking for 2 hours through the dunes, each getting bigger and bigger then the previous. Once at the top, we continue our way to be completely cut off from any sign of civilization, to immerse ourselves in this “Bedouin life” during the night. There is nothing around us. Just a sea of ​​sand and the hiss of hot wind that cut these huge dunes. We put the tent and started cooking our special camping food: moutabal or humus for appetizer, then canned Saudi beans for main course. But the wind began to rise, the sand was attacking us from all sides and the horizon got dim. None of us wanted to believe it but we had the impression that the sandstorm was coming right at us. We packed everything and jumped into the tent for circa 30 minutes, then we went out. Calmness. Not a sound and a superb full moon illuminates our new little home. Not much change but all the dunes have a little different shape, impossible to find our footprint on the ground and our tent is covered with sand (great night!).

Three more nights will also be recorded in our memory, including our police affair. The first two are going deep in the wadis. It is a small river in the canyons that can come out of its bed in a few hours during/after heavy rain and mess up nearby villages, but it’s beautiful! At night, when other tourists finished their swim, we were alone. We felt lost during the night in middle of the large canyon… Magnificent!

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And last night, we were not far from the downtown and apparently camped in the wrong place, despite the owner’s consent. The police took us for interrogation but we were released three hours later and the funniest is that we even got our hotel paid! After a small misunderstanding they said “Omani Police takes good care of tourist.”

href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/133676062@N02/albums/72157666291455392″>OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We tried to decline the offer but could not change their opinions. Frankly, we enjoyed having a shower, a real one!  And also we savoured the Sakuri dates from Saudi Arabia which we bought in the morning at the great souk of Nizwa. The best we tasted in our lives!

The Omani hospitality…we feel it all along our journey. These people are so big hearted, always ready to help. One of our most beautiful experience was in Sur, on the coast 170km away from Muscat. We met Ali and his friend Mubarak. We can say that this mathematics teacher and businessman know well how to entertain guests! As the Bedouin tradition for Omanis dictate, they have to nourish/accommodate/entertain the travelers arriving in their oasis city for minimum three days. Loyal to and proud of their roots, they truly followed the tradition. For three days, they made us discover their city like none else! They really made their best so we don’t feel bored in their small town of 70,000 inhabitants with its small fish market and dows (traditional boats). We spent hours and hours in their cars cruising around the streets like gangsters talking about everything and nothing. The car is their second home. We jumped from teashop to teashop in between snorkeling and swimming (at one of the wild beach we saw the bones of a shark just before splashing in the water … reassuring?) Visiting villages, discovering the Turtle Beach or just laying on the hills over the  city or on the beach, digesting the freshly caught and cooked tuna or kingfish…

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Omanis are very proud of their country. They are the “Real Arabs of Arabia” as they say. We learnt a lot about their lifestyle, whether that of today or the Bedouins only a few decades ago. We also broadened our knowledge of Islam, primarily through Hafid, a volunteer from the Islamic Information Centre at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. A wonder! He and his colleagues give their time to the tourists to deepen their knowledge of Islam, its differences and similarities with other religions. They have a bunch of tools, books and booklets – funded by the Sultan – to help us understand their religion and demystify the prejudice that the media can sometimes convey. What a great initiative!

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Otherwise, for the fun side, there are three stories that made us laugh in Oman:
- Public transport (shared minibus) can be found on the highway or at the exit. Fortunately, it is not very complicated to stop them but it is better to have sharp eyes (90% of cars are white and minibuses have no signs) and there is no concept of “bus stop” – you can hail them anywhere!
- All the cafes without exception are called in the same way: “coffee shop”
- No Omanis get out of their cars to get their tea. Horning, a hand gesture and it’s done. Moreover, their green tea with zataar (Arab spices) and cardamon is excellent!

Agota and Quentin

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Roadbook n°6 – “Incredible India”

The 29th of December, 8 o’clock in the evening, we arrived at Kolkata Airport and got into the legendary “ambassador” car of politicians and bureaucrats of the 60’s, used as taxis nowadays. On the road, we quickly recognized the rich parade of artwork on four wheels. The motives, signs and letters hand-painted on each taxi, bus, truck and rick-shaw from another century are mind-blowing!

The next day we discovered this vibrant city with its 17 million inhabitants. There is constantly something to watch, hear, smell and taste. The horns of the bus and camions just like the Nokia 3310 ringtones, so laud that it breaks your the eardrum; the traditional Indian clothes so colorful and captivating; the beautiful colors and font of stores or posters just as beautiful as a street-art works in Paris; the chaïwallahs stands that still sell their tea in a terracotta pot of 5cl; the elder man still carrying rikshaws sometimes barefoot; the street-food restaurants offering so rich and intense tastes that we never knew it existed; the street dogs fighting to eat or sleep in a bin; the butchers who blindy cuts neck of live chicken with a cleaver, etc. Honestly, it’s difficult to describe India. It’s a country that you have to feel, to live!

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But for the new year, it was the opposite… There is nothing to “feel” or “live” at all! Hindus obviously do not follow the Georgian calendar but still in 2016 they celebrate it by walking along the main streets with Christmas decorations while watching the traffic and that’s it. The streets are packed with people but there is no countdown, no shouting, no fireworks. The two of us wished “Happy New Year” in silence …

Our week in Kolkatta was marked by meeting our microfinance partner STEP, going to theaters*, concerts, Bollywood cinema*, art galleries and museums. We dived in this rich culture, and we were in the right place! Bengal is a region well-known for its history, heritage and artistic hub. We also encountered this cultural richness in Malda, a small Muslim townear the Bangladeshi border, and in Shantiniketan, a town where Literature Nobel Prize winner Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore established a university in 1921 so as to open India to the world. Afterwards, we ended our Bengali stay in Darjeeling, nearOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Himalaya. The worldwide known tea plantations, the strong Tibetan influence, the importance of mountaineering, the delicious cuisine, amazing view over the third highest peak in the world (Kanchenjunga – 8586m). We also discovered that the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar book was created by a Hungarian, Alexander Csoma de Koros, and how much we missed isolation, this beautiful invetion, when it was -20degree during the night.

* It was in Hindi. Fortunately the talents of Indian actors / dancers / singers allowed us to follow the story … Watch the trailer of “Hawaizaada” or “Dilwale”, you will not be disappointed.

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We left for Gaya on the 18th of January by night train. At each stop, street vendors started walking and shouting along the corridors offering everything and nothing. But the most surprising are these portable kitchen with numerous cans and some herbal oil, and the masseurs. photoQuentin could not resist…The old man laughed at the idea of ​​massaging such a curly “sheep hair”. It began by spraying a doubtful, dark green paste, and he rather rubbed his head like a dog scratching his ear with his feet. And the show finished his ancestral techniques of twisting arms, fingers and back.

We woke up a few hours later and realized that our train do not stop at our station. a serie of questions is pumpting to our mind, as during the rest of the trip. Why did we have to stop at a random train station half-asleep at 4am, catch a tuk-tuk to join another station 20km away so as to jump into merchandise wagon of the general class *? Why do trains have 2 to 6 hours of delay on average? And if we shift it to everyday life: Why do you receive a free fan when you buy a TV? Why do men piss on bended knees in the street? Why can you weight yourself at a tourist spot (Castle)? Why is there a bottle opener in the middle of the bathroom door? So many whys … Our answer is that there is none. Just “This is India”.

* This is the class where the the doors are left open, Indians hang out and pile up; where you are literally crushed against each other; where the smell of the toilet’s just poking your nose during the 5 hours journey because there are never free seats; where your memories of the Parisian subway at 8 am on weekdays, are sweet moments.

Our next stop is Varanasi, the holy city, where we planned to spend two days. Eventually, ended up in two weeks. Few days stucked in the bed and 1,5 weeks of volunteering kept us busy. We photo 1taught and helped the development of an educational center for disadvantaged children and their program for women empowerment. The Indian education system is very different from ours. The morning starts with an hour of yoga; if you finish earlier a mathematic class the teacher throws her phone with music in the middle of the room and everyone’s dancing. More free and creative, we saw another India and got the chance to celebrate with them the Republic Day where kids sing poetry, scream all together “Mahatman Gandi, Indira Nehru,…” and dance on Bollywood music. Thank you again for Money, Prem, Ritu, Sunnita for the hospitality and joie de vivre!

Regarding Varanasi, it was incredible. We were woken up and fallen asleep by the songs of ceremonies along the Ganga or the wedding in the streets. The famous ghats of Varanasi are a space of unique life – the crazy architecture style allows them to be a dock, public space, steps, districts, etc. The energy that is devoted and released here between life, death and Hindu gods is tangible. The kids are playing cricket next to the cows trying not to loose the ball in the Ganga; the babas looking for the divine state of spirituality by meditating for hours; the body of pilgrims are burnt public; the family rituals on the stairs during day & night…

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On the 5th of February, we rushed to New Delhi to pick up the family of Quentin. We crossed Rajashtan together for 10 days. One of the most beautiful parts of India! Unfortunately, Agota spent part of the trip in hospital (Indian food did not spare her stomach… But everything is good now). Meanwhile, Quentin made a Skype with the students of the Catholic University of Lille, as part of their micro-finance course to answer their questions. A super interesting exchange!

Lately, we took the road towards Uttarakhand. A mountainous region where we let the time went on. Agota was doing yoga in an Asram twice daily for sunrise and sunset; reading; writing; preparing the two next challenges: climbing to an Himalayan pic at 4700m and wild camping in Oman for 2 weeks.

Have a good week,
Agota and Quentin

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Roadbook n°5 – Myanmar

On the 2nd of December, we left Thailand very curious about the idea to discover Myanmar, a country cut apart from the world since the takeover of General Thein Sein in 1962. 50 years later, following the international sanctions and the rise of the party of Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel Peace Prize in 1991), the military junta weakened and decided to open doors for the foreign investors and tourists.

A few days after crossing the border, we were already in love with the country. The Burmese are so curious, smiling and welcoming. Their smiles, their stories, their habits, their invitation to drink a tea or play Chilo (Burmese national sport:a mix of football and volleyball), etc. Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 14.03.34Throughout our trip, our encounters got always more and more riche and intense. These moments with Anthony, Santos, Mama, Peauty, Tan Tan, Damkalay, the Salt brothers and all others whose name we already forgot, we will never forget.

It is Malawiyine that everything started. Along the streets, you could see hundreds of weird bright red spots. We quickly reconciled it when we saw that half of the city was constantly spitting juicy liquid. Curiously, we asked a seller:

- What is it?
– Kunja! Tobacco, this, this, this and this!
– Can I try?

For 100 Kyats (0.07 €) Quentin ate this betel nut rolled in a leave with tobacco and a kind of liquid that is used to release the stimulant effects of the sheet and salivate profusely. The taste is sour and soily, with an aftertaste of sweet medicine. It’s disgusting! After a few minutes, his tongue felt a bit numb and started to spit this pretty brown-red juice for the pleasure of moto-taxi drivers and merchants who laughed at the idea to see ​​a Western eating their “Kunja”. We saw these red spots “decorating” the ground all over Burma during our stay, but the South is ahead of all the places we have been.

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Three days later, we made a stop in Hpa-an, a small town in the middle of the campaign that got us some surprises in store: crossing a busy bat cave in complete darkness for 1,5 hours with the light of our smartphone, and magician/hobo enjoying to put the foot of a child on his cobra or to make him dance with his wooden flute a few centimeters away from the crowd … We left this city, with a head full of pictures, towards Loikaw in Eastern Myanmar in the state of Kayah but it was 700km away! We arrived at 3am in Taungoo, a city midway, ready to sleep well to hit the road the next day but we wanted to confirm the schedule of the bus.

- At what time is the bus tomorrow to Loikaw?
– Loikaw. 6am
– No bus in afternoon or night?
– No. Loikaw. Only one bus. 6am!
– And how long is the ride approximately?
– 12hours.
– ****

We took a short nap in a poor guesthouse along the road before starting our journey. After the 24 hours of transportation to reach Loikaw, we were exhausted but it was worth the effort! We had the chance to visit the vanishing ethnic group of Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 09.49.02Padaung, more known as giraffe women. We usually see these characters on the pages of National Geographic or in the reports of Arte. Today, we talked to theem. We saw their “necklace”, which easily weights 3kg. Between their legends and the research of anthropologists concerning the purpose of their necklace (and also around their calf), we do not know who to believe… Before leaving this magical area, we offered a scarf to our guesthouse “manager”, a warm-hearted Mama, who helped us during our 3 days stay. A few minutes later, we heared in the corridors “Look, this is my gift from the tourist! I am so happy! Look! From the tourist, a gift for me!”. She knocked on our door to give both of us a Burmese traditional dress, the laungy. Charming!

To reach the well-known Inle Lake, we cruised up the river Salween for 7 hours between the rice bags and engine in the carved wooden boat, the ride punctuated by stops in floating villages and temples for other passengers. The next day, we went directly to Kalaw for a 3 days trekking along the hills and valleys of the Shan state.Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 09.51.28

It is through fields and hills of wheat, sesame, chili, avocado, corn, rice etc and our night at a homestay that we discovered the lives of farmers and their children, whose childhood is much more “rock ‘n’ roll” then ours. Until approx. to 4 years, they play around the chili fields, at 7 years, they play naked in the dirty pond to ride the buffaloes and at 10 years, they begin to work hard in fields …Working children in Burma, it is commonplace. Sad reality.

We also had the opportunity to sleep in a monastery perched in a hill where the chants of the novices (the “monks children”) woke us up at 6am … Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 09.55.02A week later, it was the crowing of the cocks, the grunting of the pigs and the shooting of the hunters to wake us up. A bit less magical but equally interesting. It was around Mindat, in a small village lost in the slopes of mountains in eastern Burma, where we trekked for two days and we were lodged in a hunter-gatherer family for one night.

The day before, our friend Tantan invited us to e opening of the new restaurant of his friend to discuss the trekking program. During the conversation, we talked about our MCMA project and our volunteering with our Travelwithamission.org partner in several countries. His answer:

- I have an volunteering organization too, guys. Want to help us?
– Yes, sure! When?
– Tomorrow,at 8am. Are you in to clean the city by collecting garbage with us?
– Why not?

During a morning we helped Tantan and the community to clean the city. We were happy to take part for many reasons. Mostly because we recognized that in South-East Asia, locals often devote too much respect for tourists. We wanted to break up their ideology of white man = rich / influential man. We Europeans also clean our cities, our hands can get dirty just as everyone’s else. Our gesture was greatly pleased by the people of Mindat. They were all proud to post a picture of us on Facebook and showed us that they had more 550likes! Afterwards, we were invited to a wedding of one of our fellow’s friend. We also visited the city and discovered its exceptional traditions: a legendary woman who makes the flute with his nose and the mostly mid-aged women with face tattoo (believed to enable them to make their way to heaven after their death.

Our five days in Mindat were very rich but seeing those scattered temples of Bagan were just fascinating. We saw many pretty temples in Asia but those of Bagan are extraordinary. We are amazed, like all the other tourists with the beauty, the architecture and the paintings which are so well preserved over more then 800 years. We have nothing to say except to invite you to watch our photos on Flickr to make you want to come!

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On the 24th of December, we visited our first Micro-Finance Institution, Sont Oo Tehtwin (SOTH) in Yangon, the old capital of Myanmar. Our meetings with the staff and the micro-entrepreneurs we supported was our Christmas gift for 2015! What else could we ask for? We were waiting for this moment for over a year! Our days with them were very enriching. We cannot wait to tell you all on video this time!

Stay tuned,
Agota & Quentin

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