It was my 10th experience in a yurt during my time in Central Asia when I checked into my last one (thus far) while up by Song-kul, on my last day of exploring the Kyrgyzstan countryside. Walking through the front door of a yurt, there’s always that element of curiosity-how big is it? Will it be cozy, cold? Where’s the tea? When the thick cloth blankets are pulled off the roof in the morning and you catch your first ray of sunshine.

I wasn’t sure if Kyrgyzstan was West or East. It seemed like a mix of both. Folk traditions of the Kyrg people are being embraced and reintegrated into society. New temples are being built. Some of the face of Russian Imperialism remains, just like the quality of the air. I actually read an article that said “…effects of global warming still aren’t apparent in Kyrgyzstan….”

Even though the grasslands and the wide-open spaces and national parks seemed North American, while the headdresses wore by women, the hospitality of the people, and some of the industrial towns were reminiscent of the spirit I grew to know and love about Asia. And typical of a country on the giant continent of Asia, things are open for development. Economic and investment opportunities are on the rise, and new ideas are being put in place. The people want to know more. But I could get sour cream with my dumplings, and dill sprinkled on my soup. If you spend any time in eastern Asia, or you live there, you know these delights are difficult to come by.

A Place in Transition

And all the while, things are changing in that country. Just like so many other places in this world. The capital is modernizing but the pace still slow. Mosques are under construction along the highway but statues of Lenin in the parks of Bishkek stand tall. Up by lake Song-kul, the second largest lake in the country, life is much more organic and I forgot which way was north. 

When all of the guests (for that day) sat down around the table we were served freshly whipped butter and strawberry jam in sparkly, what looked like imperialist-era glassware in a yurt in the middle of Kyrgyzstan by a beautiful Kyrg family. Guests included myself, Jean, our new friend Nadja from Germany, a retired German couple, two newlyweds from Bishkek, and our driver of course. We booked a tour in Kochkor the day before with a local travel agency. When traveling in Kyrgyzstan, this are all things I recommend doing once you get there. 

Rows of yurts are set up by the marine blue lake Song-kul. The hardcore adventurists (badass German mountain bikers) make the trek up to the 3,000 metre elevation from the town of Kochkor to Song-kul, where yurts are put up for the summer and locals farm and get back to nature, away from the more industrial cities. The rest are lots of Community Based Tourism camps where the lucky travellers who make it to Kyrgyzstan get to stay. The wander to and from the city to the mountain, I got to see some of the most breathtaking, peaceful scenery I’ve ever seen in this entire world.

Go Local

It’s worth it to go somewhere that you may think is the middle of nowhere. The rewards are there. It’s always the most life changing. Place with the lifestyle centuries old, the religion new, the food just cooked fresh for purchase. So many different levels of culture shock, and new things to learn about in so little time.

We spent just one night up by the lake, before taking the scenic 3-hour ride down to Kochkor before getting the bus back to Bishkek, with a stop at the Burana Tower along the way. We rode a donkey (somewhat unsuccessfully), rode a horse (definitely unsuccessfully), watched the family milk their cows after dinner, chatted with the other guests over dinner and tea inside the yurt when it got too windy outside. It was the middle of July and it got to a few degrees above freezing at night. The lake is uninhabitable most months of the year.

When You Just Never Know

One of my favourite travel moments from Kyrgyzstan was on the bus ride back to Bishkek. After Song-kul and lunch in Kochkor, Jean and I stopped at the well-known Burana Tower and then found a ride back to the capital city, on what was probably our 8th or 9th marshuka ride that week. I knew Bishkek had two bus stations, and that our hostel was next to one of them. I figured they were both a little far away from each other. Unfortunately I had just spent my last 5 som using the toilet at the bus station near the Tower. The bus needed to get us as close to our booked hostel in Bishkek as possible. I tried asking him which station we were going to, but I couldn’t.

Language Barriers

They speak a lot of Russian in the capital city of Bishkek. A few “hellos” and “thank yous” in Russian was all I could muster. A “One” and a “Two”. And a “Da” thrown in for good measure. So a few hundred kilometres later, as we rolled into Bishkek, the bus eventually stopped at the other station and let everyone off.

“Last stop. This last stop.” The bus man said.

“Um…west bus station?” I tried to pronounce the name of the street where we were staying of Jibek Jolu. I tried my pathetic lost soul face along with it. Nothing.

“No. No. Last stop.” He said again. He pointed outside at the afternoon traffic of the city. 

So I just pointed to the paper where I wrote down the street name and the west bus station written in Kyrg. Then I just looked at him and said, “please?”

He turned around, shrugged his shoulders, and took off again, with only Jean and I in the car. We drove a few kilometres until we eventually reached recognizable territory and I could see the west bus station approaching. I knew how to maneuver through the touts and marshukas and make our way around the corner to Apple Hostel. The bus driver nodded, smiled and let us off the bus without charging us any extra som. He even watched us for a few moments making sure we were safe in the crowds of Bishkek.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

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If you’ve met me somewhere in Europe last summer, or spoken to me since I’ve been back in Montreal, I have probably told you about the magical place that is Georgia the country. I feel a deep desire to specify Georgia as a country, because initially when many people (that I know) hear the word Georgia they think of a southern U.S state with funny accents and lots of peaches. Georgia the country is thought of second. Or not at all. “Oh yeah, somewhere near Russia, right?” “Isn’t it dangerous there? Wasn’t there some political unrest?” “What’s it like?”

No, no, no and THE BEST PLACE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD! You know when you’re worried about over-hyping something to ruin it for somebody yes? Well that doesn’t scare me when it comes to Georgia (the country). From cute and cosmopolitan cities, to the golden countryside, to the most well-placed church in the entire world, to breathtaking mountains and mouthwatering food, it takes every bit of my soul not to move to Georgia the country right now. And the locals. I forgot to mention the locals. The locals with soul, smiles and such welcoming hearts. 

Hidden somewhere in the middle of Eurasia, with a seaside, snow-peaked mountains, grassland and dry land, with a bit of sad political history thrown in for good measure, I can’t think of a better place to step foot in. I don’t usually play favourites. I don’t usually list countries as good or bad. Every country has it’s specialities. Every person is unique. But Georgia (the country), is the best country!

Did you know that people still cross themselves (the Orthodox way) whenever they pass a church? And there are a lot of churches, in Georgia the country. Each one more special and beautiful than the next. Whether it be up in the Caucasus mountains or on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, the churches light up in ways I’ve never seen in any other part of the world.

Did you know that Georgia’s big city of Tbilisi is the new hot spot to travel to? It’s like Prague a few decades ago; cheap and undiscovered (by mass tourism standards). Still warm and welcoming. Open to backpackers with a few artsy guesthouses and budget hostels (only a handful so far) available. Hip veggie cafes, soul food, wineries and tiny art galleries in the old town. What other kind of combination do you need?

Did you know that they have some of the best cuisines? Eggplants, spinach, cheeses and freshly baked breads, specialty wines and juicy, plump dumplings called khinkali are things you can eat everyday for the rest of your life and never crave anything else for as long as you live. Ever heard of khachapuri? It’s a giant piece of bread with a cooked egg in the middle. So big, so cheap, so perfect. Georgia satisfies. I might write a post just on Georgian food. 

My second Sunday in Georgia I found myself hiking up to a chapel in Kazbegi, the biggest town in northern Georgia and localted along the Russian border. My friend and I were amongst the beautiful Caucasus mountains as we got off our marshuka, checked into a little guesthouse run by a sweet Georgian woman and made our way up the hill to one of the world’s most photogenic churches. A lot of families were out that day, hiking up to a centuries-old church to pay their respects, spend some time together and pray to one of the 20 (or was it 30?) saints and icons hanging in the chapel. They make a lot of beeswax candles in Georgia, the country. There are a lot of saints to pray to.

Kazbegi is about a three-hour bus ride from the main bus terminal in Tbilisi. The views along the way don’t disappoint. Grab a snack at the bus terminal, a bottle of that famous Georgian sparkling water (apparently it was Stalin’s favourite) and enjoy the ride. There are a few  modest guesthouses in Kazbegi as well as mountain lodges. It works as an overnight trip or you can spend a few days, taking in the unbeatable scenery and going on a proper hike up the Caucasus mountains.
If you just want to spend a night and see the Gergeti Trinity Church, I recommend staying at a guesthouse near the bus terminal and starting the walk up to the church on the mountain. The hike is about an hour and a half each way. It serves as a good day-trip!

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My second morning in Mawlamyine (formerly known as Moulmein, in the country formerly known as Burma) was a little surreal. I was having breakfast on the patio of a 100 year-old house-turned guesthouse with about five other travellers and one of the Burmese house owners.

As we sat around the wooden picnic table, sipping our tea or 3in1 coffee mix, with a boiled eggs and toast our host began to talk to us about Buddhism.

“In Myanmar, it’s the Buddhism that is traditionally from India. In East Asia it has been adapted from the original Buddhism.” He continued to give us a brief rundown of the history of his religion. He then spoke about how the town of Mawlamyine was a hub for meditation.

Having lived in Korea and China, and my heart was looking to return there, I knew what he was talking about. Monks in Korea wear grey. The tiled roofs look different. There aren’t as many monks in the morning begging for food. But this wasn’t Korea, or China. Or Japan. I was in Myanmar.

I remembered how I met a traveller from San Francisco a few years prior, somewhere in the middle of China when I took myself on my first real wander with my backpack. The guy told me how he’d just finished a three-month meditation retreat in Burma. My eyes lit up in awe. His backpack was smaller than mine. He had no plan after the middle of China. I felt like an amateur as we walked to a local noodle joint on a busy road in Changsha and he continued to tell me about South East Asia. I felt a little better about myself when I was greeted by the restaurant owners who remembered me from the day before, and I could stomach our spicy Hunan-style vegetable soup a little better than my San Francisco friend.

And there I was, two years later, sipping tea and no specific plans (and the same backpack) I felt a little more hardcore, a little more figured-out.

One tip I have for everyone is to approach strangers; people who seem inspiring. People who do scary things, people who are out of your league and people with stories to tell. By surrounding myself with some of those people sometimes, it helped me get to where I am today (which is still confused, and that backpack is now on it’s last legs).

“…..the Buddha say…” our host continued as all us travellers were soaking it all in. I’d spent a few years in Asia at that point, on and off. I thought about how my friends at home must think my mornings must be everyday in Asia. Breathing in balmy air, looking out at palm trees and people on motorcycles rushing by while I sip tea and an elderly local teaches me about the ways of the Buddha.

But it was a first time for me, and the travelling couples around me. I sat alone, but that gave me the chance to talk to our hosts in more depth. One of the brother’s I learned, was Catholic. His English name was Anthony (after St.Anthony). He spoke of the global village and his hopes for Burma. I wasn’t sure if he was 60 or 95. He was skinny, sweet, and full of life. He did the books of the Breeze Guesthouse so diligently.

In Myanmar in the summer of 2014, there weren’t many desktop computers. The train stations didn’t have them, the wi-fi was very slow, and hotels and hostels checked you in the old-fashioned way, by writing in your name (with a pencil and everything). The big notebook with graph paper must have been a few years old, with every guest who’d walked through the doors of his guesthouse filling the pages. He added each one in small print, to save as much space as possible.

Anthony told me about how his family’s guesthouse was originally built for a British shipping engineer, over a hundred years prior. The decor on the second floor, where guests were allowed to dine was reminiscent of 19th century England. Beautiful wooden picture frames hung on the wall; well-kept over the years. Dark hardwood floors that shined and creaked a little, as Anthony little grand-niece crawled around. Some of the most beautiful buildings I walked into that summer, with the exception of all the temples, had been turned into guesthouses. This seems to be the way of the new world. But I still recommend staying in one; it sure beats staying in a boring, concrete hotel. Why give money to the big names when you can support Anthony and his family? And I swear, their home has one of the best views in Mawlamyine.

I learned a lot that summer in South East Asia, and especially my few weeks wandering around the backroads, temples, markets and trains in Myanmar. A country that is in the process of figuring their shit out is the perfect place for an individual who is on the road doing that very same thing. If I don’t say it enough: Thank you, Burma.

I realized that too many options doesn’t mean happiness. It means chaos. I think I’m more of a simple girl. I’m happy with one job and one group of students to take care of. I’m a one-on-one person, and I help people best when there’s more attention to detail.

I spent the beginning of 2016 thinking and thinking and then worrying about what to do next, and here I am a year later doing the exact same thing. Will my time in New Zealand ever come true? When will South America come into my life? When will I be in the big city again? There’s always Maldives.

My modest plans for the year are to read more books (maybe even write some of my own).

And Plan B? Maldives. Or Antarctica.

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