On Heat and Humidity

We didn’t notice the heat until Ho Chi Minh City because it was raining all the time in Siem Reap, which helped modulate the relentless sun. In Ho Chi Minh, it didn’t rain. It was the kind of hot that made me want to peel off my skin in the hope that the albedo of my bones might provide some kind of relief.

Saturday, July 6

We arrived late in the evening on Friday and headed straight to bed. The next morning, we had a late morning and woke up around 7:30 to plan our time in Ho Chi Minh. After breakfast at the hotel, we decided to check out some of the local sights and then book a food tour in the evening. On a map, all of the major tourist destinations only looked two or three blocks away—easily walkable. We did not know that we’d be drenched in sweat by the time we reached each destination.

We started off by going to the War Museum. While the museum definitely did contain much propaganda, the atrocities of the war were depicted in massive gruesome detail. I had heard about Agent Orange and its victims previously, and one of the victims, a renowned blind pianist, was playing in the same exhibit.

Next, we headed to the Independence Palace. Due to the war, much of Ho Chi Minh was newly built, including the Palace. It was actually not too large and contained mostly meeting rooms. The next landmark was a small copy of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was actually closed. The façade was quite nice. Notre Dame was right next to the Saigon Post Office. Although you could still mail letters, hawkers selling tourist memorabilia took up the majority of the floor.

By this time, we were sweaty and tired and so headed to a local hipster poke bowl joint, Poke Saigon, for lunch. Although I’m usually wary of raw foods on vacation, the many reviews supported the safety of this venture. My mom was not a huge fan of poke, but I thought it was quite good. Also, I missed raw vegetables. Feeling a bit better after lunch, we headed to Ben Thanh Market to look around before heading back to wait out the heat until dinner.

I’d booked some Airbnb experiences before—massages and bike rides and things, but this was my first street food tour. A local student came to pick us up from our hotel for a walking tour. The tour lasted around 3 and a half hours and by the time we were done, I was stuffed. We had six courses of spring rolls, pizza, pancakes, juice, seafood, banh mi, and ice cream. It was really cool seeing the city at night though and walking around local markets. My mom and I also bought some longans and lychee. By the time we finished, I was in a food coma and went to bed.

Sunday, July 7

Our second day in Ho Chi Minh City, we booked a Mekong Delta tour with Deluxe Tours. Our day started off by meeting the rest of our group, which included a family from Frankfurt and a Dutch couple who worked for an international peace organization. We then began the multi-hour drive to the Delta, making a pit stop at a dragon-fruit packaging plant.

Two ferry rides later, we finally arrived at the island. Our main form of transport on the island would be on the backs of locals’ motorbikes. Our first three stops were at different local facilities: a coconut shucking plant, a broom weaving shop, and a roof weaving shop. Each of these shops used parts of the coconut plant in different ways and the latter two were in people’s houses.

After some coconut water to rehydrate and the distribution of some Vietnamese hats, we were ready to take a canoe ride down the Delta to our lunch. Our lunch was set outside at a local’s house and the food was fresh and delicious. After lunch, I took a nap on a hammock before we began the long trek back to the city.

For dinner, my mom and I headed to Chopsticks, a fancier place in the city. The courtyard was lit with multicolored lanterns. I thought my charbroiled chicken was amazing and the wait staff cooked my mom’s prawns tableside. Full, we headed back to the hotel to bed.

Monday, July 8

After breakfast in the morning, I had booked another Airbnb motorbike tour of the city with some local students. They took us to some local monuments, including the statue of the monk who burned himself in the Vietnam War, the oldest apartment building complex originally built for US soldiers, the Flower Market, and the 1000 Buddhas pagoda. While we had seen some of the sights previously, it was fun to explore the city on the back of a bike.

Also, we made a pit stop at a local coffeeshop. Vietnam is well known for their coffee, but it’s also quite potent. My mom and I decided to settle for tea and an avocado smoothie respectively. It was really fun talking to the students about their different home lives and studies. One of them was also a computer science major and told us that many students tend to go to Japan for work.

After the tour, we went to check out at our hotel. For the wait until our flight till Hanoi, my mom and I got massages and then vegetarian Pho nearby at Pho Chay Nhu. The diner looked a bit run down but the Pho was cheap and delicious. We paid around $3.50 for both of us.

After our late lunch, we headed to the airport for our 5 pm flight. Due to maintenance difficulties, we were delayed for two hours. We were notified after we took a bus to the plane and boarded, so we all had to disembark and then reboard a different plane. By the time we made it to Hanoi, it was around 10 pm.

 

On Rain and Rain and Rain

It was currently rainy season in Southeast Asia but I definitely didn’t feel that until I arrived in Cambodia. The next part of my travels was with my mom, which was a nice change of pace from traveling with friends.

Tuesday, July 2

I woke up at 4:45 to head to the airport for my 8 am flight to Bangkok. At Bangkok, I got a hot dog and small Blizzard at Dairy Queen for lunch before heading to Siem Reap to meet up with my mom. I landed around 3 pm and my mom and I headed from the airport to drop off my things at our hotel, Nita by Vo. I had seen it recommended online when I was researching the region, and my mom said that everyone was very nice.

We dropped off my things, and we headed out for dinner in town on the hotel tuk-tuk at Malis Restaurant. I randomly chose it out of my Google search results for “best places to eat in Siem Reap” but it turned out that Malis was considered one of the best and high-end restaurants in the city. We spent around $60 for the two of us. I thought the fried soft-shell crab, vegetables, and dessert were amazing and the rest was all right. Full, we wandered around Ankor Artisans Market, until it started raining. Then, we headed back to our hotel to shower and sleep.

Wednesday, July 3

We woke up bright and early at 6:30 am to try to beat the crowds to the temples. We had gotten breakfast at Nita, and I had the American eggs with hash browns while my mom got Asian noodles. Both were delicious and the croissants were freshly baked. I ordered some to go.

Our driver, Mr. Seung, picked us up and we headed to the ticket stand to get our three-day tickets. By stand, I mean massive building with many stalls and shops. Tickets acquired, we headed into the park. By this time, it had already started raining.

We took the opposite route of most tour groups. First, we headed to Bakheng, Banteay Kdei, and Ta Prohm. Since it was raining, Banteay Kdei had almost no one else inside and it felt like we were in a Lara Croft movie. Even Ta Prohm, which was more famous and the scene of the Tomb Riders, wasn’t very crowded.

We also saw Ta Keo, Thommanon, and Chou Sa Tevoda before heading into the main part of the city. Each of these temples was a marvel, with delicate carvings and beautiful designs.

My favorite temple of the day was Bayon, the temple of a thousand faces. It looks like a marvel rising out from the jungle and it’s incredible to think of what it would look like in its heyday. We visited some more of the sites in the central city before heading to lunch at a nearby restaurant, Neary Khmer. Their chicken curry was all right but the avocado shake was pretty good. Also the restaurant provided us shelter from the stronger rain.

After lunch, we decided to check out some of Angkor Wat before catching the sunrise the next morning. My mom had listened to a 20 podcast series about the region and so explained to me some of the delicate carvings on the walls. It’s incredible how well they are preserved after so many years. By this time, our feet hurt from walking and so we headed back to rest and shower.

At around 6 pm, we headed to Phare Circus, a famous local live show that also trains kids with tough backgrounds to become performers. We grabbed dinner at Phare Café. I don’t recommend doing so—the food was pretty bad. The circus was amazing though and the story incorporated rice as white gold in a beautiful way. Tired, we headed back to sleep for the night.

Thursday, July 4

We didn’t end up going to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat because it was already raining. Instead, we slept in until 6:30 (gasp) and headed out around 8. We started off at Angkor Wat, but I wasn’t able to climb the inner sanctum due to security not accepting scarves.

Instead, we headed out to see Preah Khan, Neak Pean, an old hospital, Tasom, East Mebon, and Pre Rup. It started to rain as we neared East Mebon and so the crowds at the last two locations thinned out. We went to Kruosar Khmer for lunch as the rain poured on outside.

After lunch, we headed back to Angkor Wat for the third time in two days. We were the last visitors able to climb the sanctum due to rain. Although the view was a bit obscured from the fog, it was still beautiful and we had the entire area almost all to ourselves. After we watched the rain fall for a bit, my mom and I climbed down.

Finally, we ended the day by going to Tonle Sap Lake. The name means “Large Lake” in Khmer and it is aptly named. The water was brown from sediment and from the middle of the lake it looked almost like a sea on the horizon. We saw some local fishing villages that raised alligators and then took the boat back to dock.

Once we got back to our hotel and relaxed for a bit, we headed out to dinner at Marun Restaurant. Marun is a training restaurant that helps underserved kids get into the culinary industry. My mom and I agreed that it was our best meal yet, if a bit on the pricy side. I definitely recommend booking before hand as we had to sit at table outside. We then headed back to shower and rest.

Friday, July 5

Our final day in Siem Reap started early again. After breakfast downstairs, during which I ordered a plate of just mango, we checked out and headed out for the day. We first drove an hour and a half to Beng Mealea, an old and broken down temple on the outskirts of the city.

Next, we drove back near to the city to explore Banteay Srei. It was apparently a retirement gift from one king to his trusted advisor and the carvings are the best preserved out of all the temples. It was definitely the smallest temple we went to but the carvings were beautiful. I posed next to a post that later my mom told me was a giant representation of a penis. Thanks mom.

After Banteay Srei, it had started to rain, so we headed back into town. We went to check out a local mall and then headed for lunch at TRY ME Restaurant. It was cheaper than any other meal we had this trip and was pretty good. You could get a solid meal for less than $8. After lunch, we headed back to the hotel to pack. Although we had already checked out, Nita allowed us to take up a free room to shower and repack. After a couple hours, we took a taxi to the airport to fly to Vietnam.

On Mopeds and Feral Dogs

We were chased home by feral dogs in Bali. That same night, I was almost run over by a moped when I was crossing the street as we headed home.

Friday, June 28

We began our day around 9, expecting to have brunch around noon. We had hired a driver to take us around for the day for 500,000 IDR. Instead, traffic meant that it took almost two hours to arrive in Seminyak from our villa in Sanur. By the time we arrived at Tannah Lot Temple, it was already midday. The temple was beautiful, sitting amongst the crashing waves. After we snapped some photos and were blessed by the priest, we headed back towards the parking lot.

One the way, Rajiv, who is a coffee connoisseur, and Jo-Jo wanted to try to luwak coffee at Black Eye. We were also able to pet an adorable luwak on the way. Our driver offered to show us a luwak production farm, where we learned about the process to make luwak coffee. Shelly posed with a couple of baskets and we all picked up some coffee as gifts.

Famished, we headed into Seminyak to go to Sisterfields Café. The café was super Instagrammable and the food was pretty good. I had eggs benedict and we all split a chocolate French toast. JJ and I then went shopping, when I spontaneously bought a really nice dress. Rajiv, Jo-Jo, and Shelly headed for the beach, where Shelly got knocked over by a wave.

I had booked massages for us the day before so we regrouped and headed to the parlor to relax. After massages, we had our driver take us back to Sanur and drop us off at Bunana, which sold Roti Canai. We were all stuffed on $10 of roti canai total. The roti was delicious as well.

We had planned on walking back to our Airbnb, which turned out to be a harrowing experience. I almost got run over by a moped as we crossed the street back to the house. Also, we got lost, my phone died, we were chased by feral dogs down a street, and some kind people at a café let us use their phone to call a taxi to take us two minutes back home. After such an eventful evening, all we wanted to do was rest.

Saturday, June 29

We woke up at 6 am in order to head up north. We first headed several hours to Lempuyang Temple—one of the six big temples of Bali where the incredibly Instagrammable Gates of Heaven resided. The line for that photo took over two hours and so we just walked around and headed out. The scenery around the mountain was definitely beautiful and we were able to take motorbikes down the mountain.

Our next stop was at Tirta Gangga, a local garden. There were fountains and massive koi fish in the pond that were definitely overfed. We bought three packets of fish food to contribute to this as I studiously tried to avoid falling into the water. After, we stopped by Tukad Cepung, a waterfall in a cave. The water sparkling through the rocks was beautiful.

By this time, we were pretty hungry and so we headed to Milk & Madu in Ubud, which Quinn had recommended. They had pizza and burgers and Shelly and I each got an acai bowl. Full, we wandered around Ubud downtown a bit. We had planned to head back up north, but decided it was too late and headed home. Jo-Jo took a nap and then Jo-Jo and I headed out to grab some JFC before heading out. Unfortunately, I got a little to lit and fell asleep before doing so. The rest of them headed out to La Favela for the evening, coming home around 5 am.

Sunday, June 30

We all woke up quite late and didn’t head out of our villa until 3 pm. We headed back to Seminyak to Ginger Moon, an Indonesian-Vietnamese fusion restaurant. The noodle soup definitely helped us come back from the dead. After our late lunch, Shelly, Rajiv, and I went shopping and Jo-Jo and JJ headed to a pharmacy to take care of Jo-Jo’s head injury from the night before.

We then all headed together to Potato Head. We had to finish some drinks outside, where we met some friendly Australians who corrected us on our Australian pronunciations. Upon arrival, we all had dinner again at the Indonesian restaurant upstairs. Our pork belly kebabs and friend rice were divine. We then all chilled by the pool for a little bit, sharing a pitcher, and wandering to the beach. Since the waves were too strong and the water too cold, we couldn’t go into the ocean.

When we headed out from Potato Head, it was already almost midnight. We tried to go to a club, but the boys didn’t have the right shoes. We also tried a rooftop bar, but they were closing. Instead, we just headed back to talk and sleep.

Monday, July 1

Today was JJ’s last day with us. I headed out early to make a stop at the Bali consulate office to see if I could get a temporary passport since my passport was running out of pages. It turned out I had to wait four weeks, so I headed back. We meant to go to Celuk, the silversmithing village before JJ left, but didn’t have enough time to do so. Instead, we walked to Kayumanis Sanur for lunch. The restaurant was in an isolated street but very nice inside.

The food was exactly the right portion, and, after we ate, we bid goodbye to JJ. Shelly, Jo-Jo, Rajiv and I then headed to Celuk. While the pieces in Celuk were hand-made, the first place we went to just wasn’t our style. We did pick up some silver studs for JJ. I picked up some fashionable rings for Melissa at Japa Silver. We were trying to catch the sunrise at Uluwatu, so we hurriedly took a Grab back south.

The Grab driver told us that Grabs were not really allowed to be around Uluwatu and so we might have a difficult time getting back. This foreshadowing did turn out to be true. While the temples were nice, the most beautiful part of Uluwatu was the view of the ocean. We watched the sunset and headed back before we could be attacked by the amassing monkeys. These monkeys were quite aggressive and I saw several people lose their glasses, as the monkeys chomped on them happily.

It turned out that we had to take out some more money to get a taxi to take us to Manu, a taco joint a bit further from Uluwatu. It was worth it though. Even though dinner did take a while to come out, the food was delicious. We had the restaurant help us call a taxi back to Sanur. When we got out, all I did was shower and then pack for my 8 am flight the next morning. I also tried to sleep for a bit.

On Dark Days and Lit Nights

The two days we spent in Kuala Lumpur were the only two days all seven of us were together for this trip. We definitely made them count—traveling to the Batu caves during the day and staying up at night.

Wednesday, June 26

We woke up at 4 am to catch our flight to Kuala Lumpur. Once there, we met up with Jo-Jo, who had been waiting for several hours already. Everyone else got Soraya smoothies to rehydrate from Boost while I went to get some passport photos taken and grab some cash. Jo-Jo also went to McDonalds.

After dropping off our things at our Airbnb and cleaning up in the lobby bathroom, we headed out to Batu Caves for the day. The Batu Caves was a Hindu temple placed into a cave in the side of a mountain. The stairs leading up to the caves were incredibly colorful, as were the temples at the foot and top of the mountain. Hundreds of pigeons and monkeys scavenged for food. I even saw a monkey reach into a tourist’s backpack!

We grabbed a Grab back to the city and ate at Nasi Kandar, a similar Indian food cafeteria. We ordered many dishes of food, and as we were eating, Rhea told us about how the Indians in Malaysia tended to be poorer than the Chinese migrants since the Indians were brought by the British. After lunch, we checked into our Airbnb officially and most of us took a nap. JJ, Jo-Jo, and Rajiv headed out to pick up some drinks for the evening.

After a quick visit to our infinity pool on the top deck of our apartment complex, we showered and prepared to go out for the evening. We first stopped by dinner at Opium, where we had a selection of dishes that I remember being quite good. We ended the night at Koy, which was a nightclub in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Thursday, June 27

We headed out late in the morning to the KCC buildings. After a late lunch at Din Tai Fung, which was halal, we decided that it was too much effort to head to the top of the building. Lunch was wonderful though—I had taro xiao long bao for the first time, which was a bit strange but tasty.

We then made our way to the airport, where we said goodbye to Rhea and Quinn. The immigration line took awhile, and so Jo-Jo and I went on ahead to grab Burger King for everyone before racing to the gate. It turned out that our flight was several hours late and so we had no need to worry.

When we arrived in Bali, we headed through immigration and picked up some more drinks at duty free. Our Airbnb had hired someone to pick us up. Our driver offered us dinner at an empty local restaurant but we decided to go to Laota instead and he kindly drove us. Our villa was beautiful and we crashed immediately.

On Skinny Dipping in the Pacific

We skinny-dipped after dark amidst slow waves in warm water.

Sunday, June 23

I arrived late in the evening in Penang after 40 hours of straight traveling and 24 hours of fasting when Urumqi airport wouldn’t take my American credit card. The chicken burger I had at the airport was the best burger I have ever had. I waited for five of my IMSA friends at the airport for another hour and a half, before we called a Grab to our Airbnb. Unfortunately, only Rajiv had Grab downloaded and so the driver was kind enough to call us another.

By the time we fumbled our way into our twelfth floor apartment, it was past midnight, and so all of us just took turns showering before crashing.

Monday, June 24

We woke late the next morning—around 11 am. We were quite hungry and so after washing up headed into the downtown area of Georgetown to stop at Hameediyah Restaurant that Quinn found. It was an Indian diner that served up platefuls of food from massive platters on display. JJ and I shared cause the plates were absolutely massive. Stuffed, we walked around until we hit upon a cute coffee shop, Rabbit Hole.

The opening to the shop was this rotating class wall. At first we thought the shop consisted of just a single counter, but it turned out that the fridge actually led to a two story sit down area! We also had the best thai tea ice cream I have ever tasted. After, literally, chilling for an hour, we headed back outside to brave the heat. JJ needed a local SIM card and so we headed to the nearest mall. He wasn’t able to get his SIM cause he didn’t have his passport, but Rhea picked up three cute pairs of shoes.

By this time, it was around 4 o’clock and so we headed to the most famous temple, Kek Lok Si. Our Grab driver laughed at us because the temple closed at 6. Still, we powered on and hopped on the very last furnicular up the mountain to the massive Buddha statue at the top. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to walk down, so, after buying some prayer ribbons and incense to pay respect to our ancestors, we started on the trek down. It ended up only taking 15 minutes.

After a final bathroom run, we caught a Grab back to the city. We had the intention of trying street food, but after Rhea saw a massive rat the size of a small cat, we headed to the local eatery Yeap noodles instead. The noodles Quinn and I originally ordered were so spicy they were inedible. Overall, I was generally unimpressed with the establishment.

After dinner, we got dessert at a small dessert café nearby. While the ambiance was cute, the apple crumble and brownie we ordered were a disappointment. After a sequence of culinary disappointments, we headed to Wheeler’s for a night out on the town. Alcohol tends to be quite expensive in Malaysia, and we had just hit happy hour. Between the six of us, we ordered three towers of cocktails and played Uno with soggy Uno cards. Altogether, the cocktails were terrible but did their job. This was the first time we were all really able to catch up as a group and it was super fun hearing about everyone’s experiences in college and reminiscing about high school.

A quick run to the grocery store later, we headed to the beach to just chill. After we moved away from the lights of the nearby restaurants, Rhea suggested skinny-dipping and so almost all of us decided to do so. The water was actually super warm and the sand was super soft and we so just floated and talked before heading to bed.

Tuesday, June 25

We woke up super late today with the intention of going to the beach. The restaurant we initially wanted to go to actually closed for lunch and wasn’t open until dinner and so we headed to the nearest establishment, Rubin Mardini, which actually had a higher rating on Google. The server was super nice, as we ordered salad, juice, lentils, chicken and lamb. He even offered us free tea after. Everything was very delicious.

Stuffed, we began our original itinerary of just hanging out at the beach. Some hawkers tried to sell us jet-skis at American prices and we declined. After a couple of hours of fooling around and attempted acrobatics in the ocean, we took a Grab to Penang Hill Station. Although we had meant to watch the sunset, by the time we arrived, it was already dark.

Still the view from the top was spectacular. We took some photos and had dinner at David Brown’s Restaurant. The ambiance was amazing and the food was alright but definitely overpriced. Almost all of us ordered pasta. After a slow dinner, we headed back down the furnicular and took a Grab home. We then headed to bed for our 6 am flight the next morning.

On Zoos at Night and Slipping through Mud

Although we meant to go to Bishkek the day after our yurt trip, we decided to extend our trip in Almaty by one day because Slava wanted to see some friends. We also wanted to see Metea, which I thought was a lake but was incorrect.

Wednesday, July 19 – Almaty

We woke up early to head to La Tartine, a local French bakery, for breakfast. I had an almond croissant and orange juice. The croissant wasn’t crispy enough in my opinion. We then headed to Metea, which was the top touristy thing to do in Almaty, according to Google. Metea consisted of 842 steps, leading to what I thought was going to be a lake.

Half the steps were closed due to construction and when we got to the top, there wasn’t a lake. Instead we started walking along the road to look for it. Several miles later, we learned that the stairs actually led to the dam and the ice rink was at the foot of the stairs and closed.

Instead, we headed back to the city on the bus, since taxis were too far away. Since dinner wasn’t until 8 pm, we stopped by for some juice and sandwiches at a local café. Joanne and I also picked us some gummies at the grocery store next door.

Everyone had told us good things about the Almaty Museum near our apartment and so we decided to go there next. They had promised us an English-speaking tour guide but she had decided not to come in that day. The first couple rooms were historical, but the last few were all about Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President. The info screens were all extremely flattering, very different from the Wikipedia article we pulled up on our phones.

Before dinner, in order to kill some time, all of us, but Slava, headed back to Madlen to order lemonade and sangria and to play crosswords. For dinner, we met with Slava’s friend Olga, who he had also never met before but knew through the Korean Kazakhstani community. She proposed a Georgian restaurant.

It was my first time having Georgian food and I thought it was great. There was this cheese pizza dish without tomato sauce, salads, dumplings, fried chicken, and, of course, tons of lemonade. At the end of dinner, another friend of Olga’s came too. It turns out that Olga’s boyfriend called him when it turned out there wouldn’t be enough cars. I couldn’t believe how hospitable they were despite not knowing us, or even Slava, at all.

We drove up to the amusement park on the mountain where there was a zoo, with around 100 different types of chickens. Despite the fact it was past midnight, there were many small children around. Slava climbed a climbing wall and Joanne and I rode this two person swing, which actually went quite high. Although Olga and her friends offered to take us somewhere else, we didn’t want to impose further and were all tired, so we headed back to pack.

Thursday, July 20

We woke up early the next morning for our many hour trek to Bishkek. The drive to the border took around four hours. In the middle of the third hour, our driver saw another driver whose car had broken down and pulled over to help. It turns out, we would end up towing this second car to Kyrgyzstan after another hour of futile effort.

As we drove south, the temperature also got warmer. There were many flies in our car, which was unfortunate. Luckily, the border crossing didn’t take too long at all—there was only a massive line in the opposite direction—and we were able to make it to our Airbnb by early afternoon.

After dropping off our things and washing up, we headed out to meet with Slava’s other friend from MIT who worked in Kyrgyzstan. He was one of the first engineers at B12, a startup for business consulting based in New York, and his company ran a branch from Bishkek at a coworking space. I’d never been to a coworking space before and it reminded me of a hip café.

We spent awhile speaking with some of the engineers about Kyrgyzstan and what they did before heading off for dinner before the free walking tour Linh booked. Although we were originally planning on going to Chicken Star, the original, we passed by another Korean place, Cooksoo, a block away, and, on a whim, decided to go there instead.

I had teokbokki and some iced tea. After picking up some cash, we tried to find our walking tour but were unsuccessful. Instead we walked around the main park, reading about and imitating statues. We also rented out two bike carts and raced around the park, trying not to run over children.

Finally, we were pretty thirsty and had run out of water so we went to Neman grocery store and bought many liquids, including a massive jug of apple juice, three yogurts, strawberry milk, fermented milk, and water. We then went back to our Airbnb to rehydrate and sleep.

Friday, July 21

We woke up early the next day for a hike to Ala Archa national park with an English-speaking guide that I had booked. The national park was around 40 minutes away from the city, and as we drove, Aigul told us about some of the history and recent political events of the country.

As Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are relatively new countries, it’s hard for me to image what it would be like trying to establish a democracy or undergoing periods of political turmoil or revising the Constitution. Aigul had studied in the US and was very well traveled and we had a lot of fun talking to her.

The plan was to hike to a waterfall and back. All of us weren’t wearing hiking boots and part of the trail was quite steep, so we were all slipping and sliding over the trail. Each of us fell at least once, and, with my sore foot, sometimes I just gave up and slid on my butt down some parts.

On our trek, we met a nice Indian man who told us about how he climbed Kilimanjaro at age 61. I do wish I have that kind of stamina at that age. He advised us to walk slowly and to hydrate often. The waterfall was beautiful and we did the mannequin challenge at the base of it. After we made it down the mountain, we were all pretty tired and dirty.

Once we made it back to our Airbnb, we all showered and consumed all the juice. We then walked to dinner at Bukhara, a local Kyrgyzstani restaurant. We ordered a plate of kebabs and some fried lagman. The meat was really well cooked and tender. We also had some shots of vodka each and so were slightly tipsy on the way back. Since it was my last night and the others were leaving shortly after, we picked up another bottle of vodka to drink and talk. I went to bed around 2 am for my 9:30 am flight the next day.

Saturday, July 22

I woke up at 6 am to take a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver tried so hard to get my Instagram that, while he was using the translator app, he ran into another car in the parking lot. That driver got really angry and started yelling as I paid and made a beeline for the airport. After several hours of sitting and waiting for check in to open, I retrieved my boarding pass and began the forty hour journey to Malaysia.

On Glamping in Yurts

We were awoken by the aggressive mooing of cows. When we first talked about camping in a yurt it was a bit of a meme. We imagined a tent covered with animal hides, staring at the stars in the middle of nowhere. In reality, it was quite nice, lighted, and had Wifi we forbid ourselves from using.

Monday, July 17

For our first day, we woke up early to grab breakfast from the grocery store and meet with our tour guide from Campit, a local tour company. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak much English so Slava was tasked with much of the translation. We headed off early for our 4 hour long drive to our first destination, Charyn Canyon.

Charyn Canyon is known as the smaller sister to the Grand Canyon. It’s also massive, but not quite as deep, with large orange striated rocks. Apparently the river had flooded only two weeks ago, but the only remnants of that were some toppled rocks and traces of mud in the shadows.

We hiked down to the camping town and sat by the river for a while. On the way back, Marie, our guide, asked us if we wanted to do a slightly more difficult trek. This trek turned out to include some climbing of rocks. With my ankle, I was a bit scared of falling, but luckily it wasn’t too long. The views from the top were absolutely worth it.

Next, we headed to the town where we would be camping for the evening. We ate lunch in the largest yurt, polishing off milk tea and seven dishes with ease.

Full, we headed out for our afternoon at Kolsi Lake. Although we were expecting a hike, we were pretty much driven to the lake. We rented out three row boats and rowed around the lake for an hour. It turned out that a couple had paid $500 to make a pre-wedding video that same day and so there were drones and camera equipment all over the docks. For Kazakhstan, that’s a fortune.

Once the mosquitos started arriving, we drove back to Saty village for dinner. We ate outside the yurt, with a beautiful view of the nearby mountains and rivers. Once full, we headed back to our well-furnished yurt to go to bed.

Tuesday, July 18

The next morning we awoke at 8 am for breakfast, although several of us woke up earlier due to the aggressive mooing. The bread and raspberry jam and milk tea were delicious. We each added so much sugar to the tea that it tasted like boba.

Full on sugar, we packed into a older, hardier truck to begin our drive to Lake Kaindy. Good thing we didn’t eat too much because the drive was super bumpy through rivers and over mountains on unpaved paths.

Once we arrived and got our footing, we headed to the lake. The lake had been created only recently after an earthquake flooded the valley. The trees that had been in the valley remained erect in the lake due to the oils they secreted. The resulting lake looked like it had sharp spears protruding from the turquoise water.

We also took a hike to see the same lake from above and from the river that flowed into it. Michael tried to jump to this log in the lake, but ended up getting his shoes, and much of himself, wet. We hiked back to the parking lot and ate some snacks before heading back to Saty village to change cars.

After a nice two-hour nap later, we drove up to Black Canyon, which is the start of the Charyn Canyon. Instead of being orange, the stones were black. We were unable to hike or get too close to the edge because the stones were quite loose. Maria told us a harrowing story of a tourist who tried a picture too close to the edge and died.

After another two hour nap, we arrived to a Urgu restaurant. Urgus are minorities in many countries throughout Central and East Asia. The bathroom next to the restaurant was probably one of the smelliest I have ever been in, comparable to the squatting toilets in rural China.

The food was amazing though. We got three different types of noodles—lagman, fried, and boiled. They also came out super fast. Since we decided to make this dinner as well, we double ordered our portions. Full, we began the three-hour drive back to Almaty, where we all showered and went to bed.