..And Here’s A Quick Recap Of 2018
One year ago I said I wouldn’t travel as much in 2018 as I did in 2017. Turns out that would be mostly true. I spent slightly less time overseas (more than I intended to). I still managed to visit the same number of countries in 2018 (14 to be exact), but I hadn’t intended to visit as many. I went to only 3 continents (okay, technically 4 since Lampedusa is in Africa, continentally speaking) to the 7 I visited in 2017. I lead two back-to-back tours on one of my trips in 2018 that took small groups to Xinjiang (China), Eastern Pamir (Tajikistan), and Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Pakistan). The other trip saw me visit the ‘mainland’ of Afghanistan (my one, actual 100% vacation of the year) and finally completed the steps to me gaining dual Italian citizenship. I took a media trip to the Dominican Republic (most of you who read my blog regularly know that I very rarely take these), a mere week after I returned from Italy, it was a group trip– which was a first for me (the few I have done have always been independent or with a single fellow photographer or assistant). Oh yeah, and I’m still cleaning up from that earthquake that struck Alaska November 30th (don’t mind the fact that I’m a sloth when it comes to cleaning).
What Do I Have Planned For 2019?
2019 is already shaping up to be.. well, crazy. In March I will be co-leading trips to Socotra Island and Afghanistan with Matt from Inertia Network. After those, I am planning to make my first visit to Iran (which I have been dying to see). There was enough demand for the Socotra trip that a second trip is being opened for those who’d like to visit and hike + camel trek the island in late April. Then… I fully plan to be in Alaska for the summer (who wants to take bets as to if this actually happens?), that is until the next group trip I will be co-leading to Northern Pakistan– yup, we’re going back (with the help of my friends Ayub and Murad, who are some of my favorite people). At that point I fully plan to return to Tajikistan for another one of my long trips scouring more of the country– I still haven’t visited the Yagnob Valley or the Rasht Valley. There’s still bits of the northern end of the Bartang Valley up to Kök Jar and Karakul Lake I haven’t made it to, a much-needed return to the Fann Mountains, many treks in the Tajik Wakhan I still haven’t done (Pik Engels Meadow anyone?), and not to mention the overdue visits I need to pay to Munira, Lutfeeah, Tuchyboy, Jumaboy, Nazarbek, Guldar, Mama Erali, Haleema, Asli, Nurmuhammed, Saidali (there’s likely still at least 3,856 more friends I’ve made in Tajikistan that I forgot to mention here)…. and I still haven’t been to Zorkul Lake (that’s for you, Matt).
So What Were The Highlights Of 2018?
My whirlwind trip of Afghanistan
I went to the Wakhan Corridor in 2017. Did that help my curiosity about Afghanistan? Of course not, it only made it worse. The Wakhan is a world away from the remainder of the country. I was dying to visit ‘Mainland’ Afghanistan, and it turns out my friend Jolie was too… so we made it happen. We managed to visit Kabul, Bamyan, Band e Amir, Mazar e Sharif, Old Balkh, Takht e Rustam, Herat, and the Panjshir Valley with the help of Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan. You can read more about our trip on the post Two Dames Went to Afghanistan for Vacation. For those of you interested in visiting yourself, check out my gigantic Afghanistan Travel Guide. Need help with visas? I got a post about that too. Are you a woman (solo, duo, trio, or more) and wanna visit? Yes, it’s possible! Read about what it was like to Travel Afghanistan as a Woman, and for those interested in the Wakhan Corridor (as it’s widely regarded as the only safe part of Afghanistan), I’ve written a post about what it was like to travel the Wakhan as a woman.
I will be taking a small group to Afghanistan in 2019. There’s only a couple spots left. Check out more on the trip here.
Exploring Northern Pakistan
Pakistan made for the last country that ended in ‘stan I had left to visit, and I had been drooling over photos for a while. Pakistan ended up being the pinnacle of hospitality and one of the most fun trips I’d ever had. Not to mention I’ve made friends that I talk to nearly every day (thanks to WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram). I managed to visit Hunza Valley, Ishkoman Valley, and Yasin Valley and the trip was so good that another Pakistan trip is in the works for 2019. For those of you interested in visiting Northern Pakistan check out the Gilgit-Baltistan Travel Guide I wrote to share helpful information. If you want some visuals, check out my Gilgit-Baltistan Photo Essay, and for those wanting more information on crossing the Khunjerab Pass border crossing between Pakistan & China you can read more here (I’ve now done the crossing in both directions).
Making new friends in the East GBAO
As part of the expedition I helped lead to the Eastern Pamir in Tajikistan we met countless kind and amazing locals and nomads along the way. One family living in the yurt settlement of Sary Goram (just a few kilometers off the Afghan border and just over the Little Pamir from Chaqmaqtin Lake where some of the world’s most isolated people call home) took us in for the night. One of the daughters of the family (her name is Guldar) I met here talks to me via WhatsApp nearly every day (when she’s back studying in Murghab and has cell-phone coverage of course).
Then there was that sheep-boil/dance-party/pop-up yurt-dental-clinic we managed getting an invite to just by merely driving by and saying hello to the family as they butchered a sheep for the next day’s celebration. Their daughter had just graduated from high school and she along with her classmates and friends would be arriving to join the party at the family’s yurt camp high in a jailoo just a few kilometers away from Sary Goram. We arrived the next day just before all the teenagers arrived. Soon after carloads of kids arrived packing out giant speakers and setting them up outside the yurt where a dance party erupted amongst almost everyone in attendance. The father of the family had a toothache and before I knew it we had a makeshift chair set up inside the yurt where I checked his tooth, and soon after two of his daughters teeth (needless to say, Dad’s tooth problem was going to require a trip to Osh or Khorog for treatment and the two daughters problems would eventually work their way out on their own). After all the teeth and dancing it was time for the gigantic meal which included every bit of sheep (I ate sheep lung and intestine among many other things).
See why I love Tajikistan and Central Asia as a whole? It’s one of the few places left where you can either meander on your own or in this case take a group of travelers without an itinerary and have these experiences pop up naturally.
Stumbling across Castelmezzano
When Tay, Dan, and I made way on our Southern Italian Road Trip we ended up making a detour for Castelmezzano and were surprised that it’s not packed with tourists. It’s a beautiful little mountain village that sits right next door (and a zipline away) from Pietrapertosa. Castelmezzano sits in the Lucian Dolomites in the little-visited Italian region of Basilicata.
Basking in the sun in Lampedusa
One place I had been wanting to visit for quite some time in Italy is the island of Lampedusa. Lampedusa is a tiny island off the coast of Tunisia, in fact, it’s so far south it actually sits on the African continent. It’s home to some of the most gorgeous beaches of the Mediterranean, and tourism numbers have dwindled after the headlines Lampedusa made when boats carrying refugees from North Africa began popping up worldwide. Curious enough to visit Lampedusa too? Check out my Lampedusa Travel Guide.
Mopedding around Kinmen Island
On my way home from China this year we had a whole day layover in Xiamen. It turns out Xiamen is a short ferry ride away from Kinmen Island. Kinmen Island is officially a part of Taiwan, although China still maintains Kinmen Island as a part of the PRC. It’s a political anomaly with the visit out to. It’s home to some beautiful 20th century traditional Chinese architecture, delicious food, friendly people, interesting history, and countless temples. We spent a day cruising around the island on electric mopeds, which is probably the best way to explore Kinmen Island. Oh, and I forgot to mention that pretty much every museum and sites are absolutely free. Learn more about Kinmen Island in the Kinmen Travel Guide.
Finally making it to Portugal
My dear friend Dan who I’ve gotten to road trip Southern Italy and Oman with moved to Portugal last year. When I was awaiting the last step in gaining Italian citizenship (non-renounce verifications from the US consulates with jurisdiction over my where my family had/has resided, to be exact), I hopped on over to Portugal to visit Dan in his new home. I loved Portugal. I only had time to explore a little of Lisbon (one day we got completely rained out and had to scrap it), and a few days in the Algarve… but it was enough to see and understand why everyone has been flocking there in the last couple years. This is a place I will definitely be back to… and probably as a road trip (Dan, you have so many road trip ideas for someone who still doesn’t have a driver’s license!).
A flawless press trip in the DR
I was a bit nervous about setting off for a group press trip with 5 Instagram influencers/bloggers. I’d only ever done independent media and press trips or joined trips where I was on assignment but the others traveling in the group were tourists who had joined the trip on their own right (examples: Antarctica and Merzouga, Morocco). The press trip to the Dominican Republic ended up being a high note to end my 2018 travels on. The agency who arranged it was a dream come true to work with and the influencers (Travel Lushes, Cherrie Lynn, Amy Seder, The Wanderlover, and Ana New York) were all a fun and kind bunch who seemed to all bring a different twist to the table. Oh and I forgot to mention the trip was an absolute blast, I learned, ate, and saw so many things in the DR that it definitely will bring me back again in my personal travels. Before I left for the trip all I knew about was the tourist haven of Punta Cana, but I left with a better understanding of the diverse culture, landscape, and story of the island. The areas we visited were Puerto Plata, La Vega, Santo Domingo & Boca Chica.
Nothing was too horribly bad this year, but here are a few rough points, and nightmares at the time that are hilarious now…
Sick AF in the Philippines
I have no idea how I caught it, but I experienced a two-part run-in with complete innards cleanse in El Nido & in Manila. We all know I can’t seem to go a single year without shitting the bed.
Getting my passport back 6 hours before leaving the country (Round I)
I had mailed off for my Chinese visa (with more than ample time) before I went to the Philippines since I knew it would be a huge time crunch to get my Chinese and Pakistani visas after I returned home from the Philippines and took off again for the China, Tajikistan, Pakistan trip. The day we were supposed to fly out to the Philippines I was sweating bullets because I thought I was going to have to fork out heaps of money to delay the ticket. Thankfully the envelope with my passport arrived just in the nick of time (at 5:30pm to be exact).
Intercepting my passport in Seattle and getting it back 3 hours before leaving the country (Round II)
How can this happen twice in one year to one person? Well, it did. Jolie & I had sent off our passports to the Afghan Consulate in Washington DC about a month before we left to Kyrgyzstan for World Nomad Games (via a brief stop in China). A couple of days later we received confirmation that the passports had arrived and that we could expect them to be processed and mailed back in 10-14 days. Well, I didn’t pay attention to the calendar, nor did they ever or their webpage (and all the social medias along with it) mention that they’d be closed for over a week for the Eid al Qurban celebrations. We were frantic trying to get in contact with no avail and already trying to figure out plan B, C & D options. The afternoon of the day before we were to fly out we got a call from the man who processes visas at the consulate (we were to fly out at 6 am the next day). He was printing them right then and was about to run out the door to mail them off and checked to ask what options we may have to get them in time. Thanks to our foresight we knew that there was no possible way that the passports would make it to Alaska in time for our departure, even with same-day delivery. We had him Fed Ex them to my Aunt who lives nearby to Seattle and with an intercept to hold them at the Fed Ex facility at SEA-TAC.
The next step in the process was to plead with Alaska Airlines to allow us onto the first leg of a China-bound itinerary without visas (or passports). We managed to finagle our way onto the flight, but with the stipulation of having to re-check in with Hainan in Seattle. Once in Seattle it was a mad dash to grab a taxi and head over to the Fed Ex facility where our passports had arrived about an hour prior. We were reunited with our passports and it was happily ever after, right?
Fuck no, this is me we’re talking about…
We got checked in again and through security at Seattle Airport and celebrated with not one, but two champagne flights each before boarding our flight to Beijing. We were on one of those Dreamliners with the fancy windows that dim and change colors to Beijing, except our window had a crack in it and wouldn’t dim…. which didn’t bother us but bothered all the other passengers who thought we were just being assholes blasting them all with midday sun. The staff offered to move us, but the window didn’t particularly bug us enough to warrant the move, so they taped a newspaper over the window.
….and this nicely segues into…
Naked & Afraid at World Nomad Games
We arrived in Ürümqi, China at about midnight… only to find that our bags did not make it. We spent half the night scanning passports, boarding passes and exchanging info with staff at Ürümqi Airport to try and locate where the bags ended up. We ended up not even going to a hotel in Ürümqi we had booked for the night because it didn’t seem worth the hassle to get a taxi at that point, just to need to return in about 3 hours to board our flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (which was a separate booking). We napped in the airport and made it to Bishkek in the morning with nothing but the clothes on our backs and my camera bag. Luckily the bags had been located in Beijing, and it would be a few days before they would make it to Bishkek… which it turns out would be just in enough time for us to grab them and fly to Kabul (see what I meant by Afghanistan being the most relaxing part of the trip?).
A whirlwind shopping spree at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek was soon underway so we at least had a change of clothes at WNG (and also so that I could pick up another Kyrgyz vest and a bottle of that honey-scented Nivea lotion I only seem to be able to find in Kyrgyzstan.
Navigating the stupid intricacies of the Italian public transport system (calling it a system is laughable)
Getting around by train in Italy is a fairly straightforward process, albright more and more unreliable the further south you head. Now taking the bus in Italy? That’s an experience all on its own. I was staying in Terracina while I was in Italy. Terracina only has a defunct train station, making getting around by bus really your only option when you realize you no longer have your IDP in your possession on top of it probably being expired anyways so renting a car probably isn’t a good option. Things that I learned about taking the bus in Italy:
- You cannot buy tickets on the bus
- There isn’t a machine or anything of the sort at bus stops in which to buy tickets from
- You must buy bus tickets at a tobacconist (a tobacco shop), or sometimes a café/bar
- Not all tobacconists, cafés or bars sell bus tickets
- Almost everything in Italy (outside of the usual tourist havens) shuts down from 12:30 pm-4:30 pm, so good luck buying a ticket
- In general people wait in the road in front of the bus stop, hurling their bodies into oncoming traffic to ensure the bus actually stops to pick them up (I actually missed a bus to Itri for an important meeting because I hadn’t been well-versed in this tactic yet)
- There is a bus schedule and even an app. Don’t expect things to run on time, or sometimes at all
Almost getting blown away in a tornado
On October 29 two tornados ripped through Terracina. You may recall worldwide headlines about Venice being underwater (because American media seems to think Venice and Rome are the only two places in Italy), it was the same day as that… as well as many areas in and around Rome shutting down due to flooding, and people being killed by falling trees in Naples and Terracina. I was walking over to catch the bus to Priverno-Fossanova in order to hop on the train to Rome to meet Dan and Tay. I just thought they were having a bad storm. Turns out most of the giant trees that line the main street in Terracina were toppled over and a few roofs were lost. What I returned to a week later looked eerily different.
Returning home after a massive earthquake
On November 30 there was that earthquake that stuck just a short distance from where I live. I’d seen the photos and reports rolling in on Facebook as I checked it right before going to sleep (I was headed home the next day). My house didn’t fall over, but I am still finding broken glass. I’ve also decided to use this mess wisely since everything has been shook out of closets and off walls to effectively get rid of nearly everything I own.
What I Wrote In December
What To Expect In Januaury
I have a gigantic list of post ideas, but I haven’t managed to write them all out… because I suck, I get distracted and life, in general, is kinda busy/a pain in the ass. I’m hoping to get more content out on the Dominican Republic, Afghanistan, Malta, Italy, and Turkey… but you’ll have to return here to see what actually makes it out there!