A Travellerspoint blog

Norway

By Johan

In the lead up to Norway, quite a few people had told us it was a beautiful country and boy did Norway deliver. Although the weather wasn't really playing ball and our exchange rate didn't really cope with the Norway prices, we thoroughly enjoyed our road trip through the land of fjords and Vikings.
Deborah and I met up in Oslo on the 25th of July. Deborah came in from Scotland after spending a few days in the northern highlands with her friend Fiona. I came in from the Netherlands after spending a few more days in holland with Rijk and Hanny while Maaike travelled ahead to Canada with Rijk.
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We had a simple plan for our road trip: travel to "Trolltunga" to get a taste of Norway's fjord lands and travel to the Lofoton Islands to see northern Norway in the artic circle. Between these points we followed some of the magnificent tourist drives, playing every day by ear camping at interesting places and driving on when the rain set in. The weather is certainly a factor when travelling in Norway. Of the 14 days there we probably had 2 days of blue skies, a few ok days where the sun would come out from time to time and the rest mostly overcast with regular drizzle. It didn't keep us from doing what we wanted to do but at times we did get a bit tired of the wet and clouds.
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The fjords are absolutely magnificent; with some stretching inland as far as 150 to 200km the landscape of South Western Norway is dominated by steep cliffs towering out of the dark tranquil waters. The shores are narrow and dotted with small fishing and farming villages. In between the fjords the roads rise sharply to the highlands which even in mid summer seemed to be stuck in winter with plenty of snow and half frozen lakes. The contrast of these two landscapes was mind blowing and presented an ever changing landscape. Deborah was like a child in a candy shop with more photo opportunities than you can poke a stick at. Literally every where you look there is a view or a detail that is worthy of lining up your camera.
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The Troltunga hike (10 hours return) was an absolute highlight. The first 4 kilometres are pretty steep and we were a little bit surprised that we had to hike through quite a bit of snow, but the weather was great on this day and the views superb.
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It has to be said that the Norwegians are the masters of road building; Especially tunnelling through solid rock. Never have I seen soo many tunnels - some as long as 25km. (That means you are driving in the dark for about 25 minutes!). More than once you exit the tunnel to find yourself on an equally impressive bridge cutting over one of the thousands of fjord tentacles. And if you can't go through the mountain you simply drive up the cliff face using large numbers of hairpin curves. Driving here is an absolute blast! And remember, when driving in the tunnels, don't be surprised to find under ground roundabouts and turn offs too!
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The second part of our road trip took us about 800 kilometres north to the Lofoten Islands. Although these islands are about 200 kms north of the artic circle, the climate is somewhat tempered by the Gulf Stream making it slightly warmer than other places in the world that are this far north. More importantly the combination of glacier, wind and ocean forces have created an island group that is very beautiful; especially the outer most Moskenes Island which almost solely consists of steep mountains, fjords and lakes, dotted with idyllic fishing villages and connected by some of Norways most impressive roading magic.
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In Borg, Lofoten we also encountered some of Norway's iconic viking heritage. We were lucky to visit Borg on the opening day of the annual Viking festival at the Viking museum. This meant the reconstructed Viking long house and Viking ship came alive with dozens of Vikings and Viking families demonstrating the Viking farmers way of life. A real "step back in time experience"; albeit a bit light on the raping and pillaging bit ;)
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Despite the somewhat dodgy summer weather we encountered and the high cost of living (to us with our NZ dollars exchange rate, almost everything including every day groceries is about 2 to 3.5 times more expensive than at home) we absolutely loved Norway's scenery, with Troltunga and Moskenes Lofoten as the two must see highlights.
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Posted by Vendrig 09:32 Comments (1)

Paris

By Johan

While we were in Europe with our kids I really wanted to give them a taste of Europe beyond the Netherlands alone. It was really cool we managed to fit in a visit to an old castle in Belgium to give them a small taste of the dept of history Europe has to offer and also to show them the history, charm and size Paris.

The castle of Bouillion in the south of Belgium was a surprise gem (thank you to Garmt for the tip). It's a beautiful old castle that sits on top of a couple of hills of solid rock connected with two bridges and protected with a number of towers, draw bridges and a natural moat in a form of a river that winds itself around the town. A really well laid out walk takes you through the many corridors, halls and towers and to top it off we were treated to a bird of prey show presented by two Belgium comedians dressed in traditional medieval costumes. A real delight. Deborah took a night photo of the town with the castle above it.
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We arrived in Paris around dinner time the second day of our Belgium/France outing and realised to our surprise (doh!) that this was the 14th of July, French Bastille Day. So despite the fact we were pretty knackered from the drive, we set of on the metro to the Eiffel Tower for the fireworks display at 11pm. And what a welcome to Paris this was; together with several hundred thousand Parisiennes and tourists from all over the world we witnessed 40 minutes of the largest fireworks I have ever seen. Paris was a-buzz until the early morning hours and after wading through the crowds after the show we arrived back in our apartment around 2:15 am.
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The next two days we visited the usual tourist spots including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, The Louvre and Arc de Triomph. The heatwave was in full swing by now and the 35 degree Celsius made it a bit too hot to venture too far from the shade. Despite the heat it was nice to suck in the atmosphere of the Paris streets by day and by night.
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On our way out, we drove in one day from central Paris, bypassing Brussels, through the centre of Antwerpen to the centre of Amsterdam. The traffic in and around these cities and the highways between them is truly huge and frantic. It struck me more this time than ever before how tricky driving in Europe has become with its constantly changing speed limits, tricky right of way rules, bicycles everywhere (and yes they do have right of way in many cases), little streets coming in from every angle, etc.. Truth be told, I actually really liked the driving here, you just have to take it easy and go with the flow. It is a tiring affair nevertheless; I can see why many just stick to a bicycle and the excellent public transport facilities.

Posted by Vendrig 11:51 Comments (0)

The Netherlands

By Johan

It's always a joy to be welcomed to my home country, especially when Hanny, my sister, is there to greet us at the airport. Flying in over the polders Maaike already concluded that it is indeed flat :) and there are canals everywhere.

It was great to see Hanny and her family again and of course we were also very excited to catch up with Joshua and Kaitlin who had arrived in Someren from New Zealand two days earlier. "Hotel Claessens" was as always absolutely formidable. The luxury of our own room ( we felt a bit sorry for Wilmer en Max who had to give up their rooms once again) and a beautiful barbecue in the back yard that evening kicked our visit to the Netherlands of with a highlight indeed. The forecast of a heat wave hitting the country for the next few days was simply a bonus.
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Josh and Max decided to make the most of the warm weather and went night fishing in one of the local ponds. Max showed He knows his stuff and they both caught some pretty impressive fish. Unfortunately they had to go back in the pond; something Deborah really struggled with :).
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The first week of our stay was filled with late nights, catching up with friends and family over a drink and of course biking the wonderful Brabants country side with its hundreds of kilometres of dedicated single track bicycle tracks through forests, moors and old small farming towns. It's an absolute must do for anybody visiting the Netherlands to get on a bicycle and explore the "knoop punten routes".

In addition to meeting up with Max and Wilmer, our kids also had the opportunity to meet some of their "Vendrig Cousins" for the first time. It was great to seeing them in person to add to the Facebook chatter of recent years. A big thank you to Hanny and Hans for organising this!
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Another highlight was catching up with our friends. They had organised a camping weekend with a variety of activities including mountain biking, a walk over "the peel", lots of volleyball and a great barbecue. A delight to be able to catch up with everybody in such a relaxed atmosphere and to get to know some of the kids as well. We thoroughly enjoyed the weekend!
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We stuffed in a lot more activities during the two weeks in holland including a visit to the Efteling ( amusement park similar too, some say better than, Disneyland Paris), the Beekse Bergen (wonderful zoo with large open enclosures and a great bird of prey show), Maastricht, Bokrijk (museum town displaying farming life in the early 1900's), the prehistoric open air museum that Wilmer works at in Eindhoven, Kinderdijk (polder landscape with lots of windmills) and of-course a visit to Amsterdam.
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Garmt en Germie kindly offered us the use of their house in Amsterdam while they were away on holiday. It was really cool to spend a couple of days as a family with the five of us before Kate and Josh had to leave us again for New Zealand.
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To top it off, we had a big surprise The final morning because Rijk and Willem arrived from Canada unexpected, just in time to still have breakfast with us at the airport before Josh and Kate had to fly out. Deborah, Maaike and I had the opportunity to spend some more time with them at Hanny's place in the next few days before we all had to go our separate ways.
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Between our time with Hanny en Hans in Someren, our visit to Cecile, E-J, Marleen en Jurgen in Berkel Enschot, our Camping weekend with friends and our stay in Garmt and Germie's house in Amsterdam our kids did get a really good taste of the Dutch life and as far as I can tell they really enjoyed every minute of it.
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Thank you soo much to every one for your hospitality and friendship. I already look forward to the next time I have the opportunity to pop-in and until that time I certainly welcome you to come and visit us in our neck of the woods down under.

PS. Some of the Dutch toilets are craftily designed to fit in small corners of older houses. Some have decorated walls with niknaks and family photos - on the photo below try and spot the little bit of "kiwiness" Deborah added to Garmt and Germie's throne of clogs in their house Amsterdam.
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Posted by Vendrig 11:35 Comments (0)

Kyrgyzstan

By Johan

It's been a while since our last blog so time for a quick catch up.
At the end of our adventure in Tajikistan we arrived in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The original plan was to travel up to Bishkek to get our visa for Uzbekistan and then visit Samarkand and Bukarah. After more than 2 months on the move we were a bit weary of rushing through both countries in the 9 days we had left before flying to Europe from Almaty in Kazakhstan. Instead we decided to take it easy for a while and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of Osh.

Kyrgyzstan is a cool place. On the way in from Tajikistan we had already noticed that due to its lower altitude the country is much warmer and greener than Tajikistan. I guess as a result of this the land seems more fertile and the farming richer. Immediately after entering the country the desert like highlands of Tajikistan made way for the lush green mountain pastures of Kyrgyzstan, dotted with Yurts and "thousands" of horses.

The country side life style seems similar to Mongolia and although we did not trek through the centre of the country the travel guides suggest that the nomadic lifestyle of families travelling from place to place with their life stock and family Yurt resembles that of the Kazakhs and Mongolians living in Mongolia.

Osh is a very relaxed town. Near the end of June the summer had already set in with a vengeance and the 30 degrees Celsius was a good excuus to find a pool to hang out in. We got a good deal at the Nuru Hotel so we just lazed around for 7 days; visiting the markets in the morning and swimming in the afternoon. The markets were big and colourful and I really enjoyed moving from stall to stall with some loose change in my pocket to gather our daily groceries.
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There isn't a lot of sightseeing to be done in Osh but we did visit mount Solomon which lies in the centre of town. It is one of the main Muslim pilgrimage places because the profit Mohamed spent some time here. Despite its prominence in the Muslim religion it was very quiet but the track to the top does provide a wonderful view over the city. Although Osh is one of the oldest cities on the silk route there is surprisingly little (or hardly any) old buildings around.
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Although the mountain road from Osh to Bishkek comes highly recommended, we didn't feel like another 10 to 12 hours winding through mountains in a jeep or minivan when the plane tickets are the same price or less. It was a quick trip from Osh to Bishkek airport, a taxi to the Western bus terminal and a minibus from Bishkek to Almaty in Kazakstan. The border crossing from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakstan was very easy; you walk through the two check posts while the minivan waits for you on the other side.

By now we were looking forward to the European leg of our journey. After soaking up some more of the 35 degree heat in Almaty we caught our plane to Amsterdam looking back at a fantastic central Asian adventure. I loved the scenery, the relative simplicity and relaxed lifestyles of the nomads. The hospitality of the Kazak and Kyrgyz people was genuinely heart warming.

Posted by Vendrig 22:02 Comments (1)

Tajikistan

By johan

I must admit that I was a bit nervous in the lead up to our trek trough Tajikistan and the Pamir mountains. After all, both the NZ and UK government travel advisory web sites list this country as "high risk" and advise essential travel only. Furthermore a very large part of our trek was (literally) less than a stones throw from the Afghanistan border. Based on the reassuring words of our guides (Pamirguides, Murghab), we agreed to go ahead anyway promising ourselves we would bail at the first sight of any trouble.

The trip was a absolute blast; amazing scenery and very friendly and hospitable people we met on the way and in the various home stays.
Turns out we never saw any trouble and in fact we felt completely safe the whole trip. The only 'dodgy' bit seemed to be the many police stops around Dushanbe which our driver handled very well (even if I think he had to make a few extra "toll" payments by tucking in a few small banknotes in with the car registration papers.)

The first 4 days of the trek took us by 4WD from Dushanbe to Langar via Khalikum, Khorog and Yamg along the border with Afghanistan. This is one of the best, if not the best, mountain and canyon drives I have been on. The Panj and Whakhan river valleys are spectacular with some pretty impressive and sometimes scary mountain roads. Although the road is wide and paved in some areas, other parts are very narrow, steep and rocky. On top of that the road is part of a major trucking route between China and Tajikistan so there are many big 18wheeler trucks in both directions as well as lots of smaller old rickety local trucks.
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Afghanistan is on the other side of the river and in fact most of the photos we took were from the Afghanistan villages that are dotted along this route. The Afghani side of the river has a little track also. It seems mostly constructed by hand - winding up and down the walls of the canyons and valleys and mostly used to move small herds of cattle with donkeys and the odd motor bike. If Afghanistan ever becomes safe enough that's the road I would like to bike!
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From Langar we went north, over the Khargush Pass (4344m) and the Koitezek Pass (4271m) to Bachor into the Tajikistan Pamirs. This gave us the first taste of the altitude of the Pamirs and the Pamir highway. Most of the country is above 3000 meters and in this area it really shows. Trees are virtually non-existent and the scenery becomes almost desert like.
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In Bachor we traded our trusted Toyota Land Cruiser in for a couple of donkeys to carry our bags for the first hiking part of our journey. The hike would take use along the Yashikul Lakes from an altitude of 3400 to 3800 meters. We coped well with the hiking at altitude but the river crossings were very very cold. We camped at a few pretty awesome places alongside the river and the lake with snow peaks all around.
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We managed to create our first "yak-poo" fire. As was the case in Mongolia, people use dried yak poo as fuel for fires because there are no trees to provide firewood. Therefore it is common place to set up your tent or yurt and then roam the area to look for dried yak poo. After collecting a big pile we even used a flint to start the fire just to see if we could! The guide just couldn't believe we didn't want to use his bottle of petrol and box of matches; crazy tourists...
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Clearly no bathrooms here and although we were already used to "finding a pile of rocks" to pee behind for some time, the close to freezing lake water for our hair wash and bath was a new frontier we had to over come (again the guide thought we were crazy not to wait for the hot water a few days away).
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The final day of the hike presented us with a genuine sand storm which appeared out of nowhere to sand blast our lunch. The final river crossing was a real challenge with some of us opting for the donkeys to drag us across; pretty impressive how those donkeys can cross the river with two people or lots of bags on their backs. (Photo below shows Deborah crossing with the remainder of the sand storm in the back ground)
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Our support vehicle wasn't so lucky: Our driver tried to be helpful by driving his car across the river the night before so we could use it to cross back. He under estimated the currents and didn't make it across. Although he got his car out of the water with the help of some local farmers and their old army truck, it took him several days to get it dry and running properly again.
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Despite the spluttering engine the car did manage to get us back south from Alchor to the Belairyk valley where we stayed in a home stay for the night. It was snowing most of the afternoon which made us a bit nervous for the next day's hike which would take us over the 5015m Bel-Airik Pass! The weather gods were kind to us and the next morning we woke up to a beautiful clear sky. The hike up to the pass was beautiful. We used the car for the first bit and then used yaks to carry our luggage up the valley.
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Hiking into the snow was pretty cool but unfortunately the final kilometre became quite steep with deep snow. Although the deep snow wasn't a problem for us, the heavy yaks sunk deep in the snow to the point where they couldn't go any further. Although we had our bag packs the other gear (tents, cooking gear, food, etc.) couldn't be easily carried without the yaks so we decided to leave the yaks and our gear behind and hike up to the top of the pass anyway. Although you do notice it's tougher to hike at this altitude, the hike is very doable and well worth it: a magnificent view at the top. Instead of crossing and going down on the other side we turned back to pick up the yaks and our gear and head back to the home stay.
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The last few days of the trip we visited Zorkul Lake and went to the hot pools at Gartigumbez. Our driver and guide decided to stop by a small river between the lakes to do some fishing. We were pretty sceptical about their efforts to fish without any fishing gear until the driver put a sock on his hand and starting grabbing fish from under the rocks. He pulled out about 14 fish in no time! Yes we were impressed!
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The next day we visited our tour organiser Saidali from Pamirguides in Murghab. There isn't a lot to see or do in Murghab but the Erali guest house was great and talking to Saidali was inspiring. He is really trying to lift the game of tourism in Tajikistan for the benefit of the local people. We are more than happy to recommend his services to intrepid travellers that want to visit this beautiful country.

The final leg of the trip took us via the Akbaitai pass (4655m), Karakul lake and the Kyzyl-art Pass (4282m) to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. In Karakul we caught up with a group of cyclists biking through the area. 4 guys from the Czech Republic doing a 'quick' three week trip along the Pamir highway, a Pakistan guy from Germany who was taking 6 months to bike from Germany to Pakistan whilst avoiding Afghanistan and a 67 (!) year old Japanese guy who was biking from Bukhara Uzbekistan to Dunhuang China. Although I missed my mountain bike often during this trip, I am not sure I would enjoy biking these roads. Some of these passes are an absolute killer. The photo below of the Japanese guy about 200 meter from the top of Akbaitai (4655m) says it all. If you want to do some soul searching, biking this area would certainly do it. Hats off to those that do it.
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Absolute fantastic part of our journey.

Posted by Vendrig 10:45 Comments (0)

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