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Buzkashi, Mazar e Sharif Buskashi, Nowruz Buskashi

It’s been 3 months since I’ve written one of these. If you remember at the end of February I told you guys I was leaving to lead a couple of tours and go traveling for a bit. If you’re new here: Hi I’m Nicole and I really suck at blogging.

So here it is everyone, the post all three of you were waiting for….

What The Hell Has Nicole Been Doing Since February 28th?

Part 1: Paris

So remember where I left off last saying au revoir to Alaska and gleaming about the great day I was going to have in Paris after my first crappy visit in 2010?

It didn’t happen.

Was it missing luggage? A flight delay? Some kind of horrible but mildly hilarious debacle? Nope, none of these.

The 32-year-old writing this is here to say that though I’m approaching middle age (or am I already middle age? I’m not quite sure) I am very much mentally a teenager who can sleep impressively long amounts of time and managed to sleep through literally every alarm I set to wake myself up. Long story short I decided to take a quick shower and nap at my airport hotel after I arrived and ended up sleeping all day, through three alarms.

Part 2: Avoid Ukraine International Airways At All Cost

You’re welcome.

But if you insist… I’ll tell you why

To hop over to Cairo from Paris I flew Ukraine International Airways, via a stop in Kyiv. I boarded my flight from Paris with two small bags of camera gear (as in total the two bags combined are smaller than the usual carry on allowed on), no problem. In Kyiv it was a different “policy”. As I handed over my ticket I was informed that I’d need to pay 80€ (in addition to the money I’d already paid to check my backpack).

You have got to be fucking kidding me

“It’s our policy, only one carry on allowed. Additional carry-ons are 80€ per bag.”

“But one is my personal item and the other is my carry on. Combined they’re both smaller than the allowance.”

“It’s our policy. It’s new.”

“It’s asinine.”

“Well, its the policy.”

Okay, motherfucker. I bent down and using the straps began tying my two bags together. There was quite a bit of pleading with me to stop and insistence that this still wasn’t allowed because it’s two bags. Ok fine- watch this. I unzip the top of both bags, face the openings to each other and began retying knots to make a point.

At this point, I think it was realized that I will stop at nothing, no matter how petty I have to get to not have to pay a (extortionate) fee that should not in any way be allowed to be charged. The booking info I had for the flight even said that one carry on of specified dimensions was allowed and a personal item, any checked bags would be an additional fee– so it’s not like I was trying to play stupid.

But either way- I won.

And fuck Ukraine International Airways.

(ps: I still love the country of Ukraine, though your flagship airline is an embarrassment)

Pyramids of Giza, Giza Pyramids, Giza, Egypt, Cairo, Pyramids
Sorry I haven’t processed any photos from Egypt, here’s the Pyramids of Giza

My Tahini Addiction Unfettered

We kicked off the Socotra trip from Cairo because the once per week flight to the island departs and returns there. So naturally, we (as in me and Matt from Inertia Network) spent a couple of days exploring Cairo with the group that would visit Socotra with us. We did the main things you’d do in Cairo- Visited the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Islamic Cairo, Coptic Cairo, blazed shisha in the bazaar and all. But my two favorite things in Egypt had to have been 1) tahini and 2) Saqqara, and yes, in that order.

Saqqara was fascinating with the stepped pyramids and better yet the colorful paintings and learning about the constant new discoveries being made out here by Egyptologists and archaeologists. But tahini was the highlight for me. I shamelessly ate bowls upon bowls of tahini. (My tahini addiction is so bad I almost paid a little more for my return flight home just to have a Cairo layover to eat more tahini… almost)

middle east travel guide, Wadi Dirhur, Firmin Forest, Dixam Plateau, Dixam dragons, Socotra, Socotra Island, Yemen, Socotra Archipelago, Dragon Blood Tree, Dracaena Cinnabari, Yemen travel

Back In Socotra 5 Years Later

After 5 long years I was finally headed back to my favorite island in the world, only this time instead of alone I had group tagging along… Matt & Nicole’s mildly terrifying adventures commenced.

I’ll keep the stories in Socotra short as I do plan to write about them later in a post dedicated to just that, but first a few highlights…

Arher Beach Socotra, Socotra Island, Yemen, Arher, Arher Beach, Socotra bioluminescence, bioluminescence
Playing in glowing blue bioluminescent plankton at night
Socotra, Socotra Island, Yemen, Dragon blood tree, Dracaena Cinnabari, Firhman, Firmin, Firmin Forest, Firhmin Forest
Love games. This was hands down one of the funniest Q&A’s I’ve ever witnessed and it got entirely inappropriate, sexual and even some light racism was thrown into the mix #whathappensinthewadistaysinthewadi
Socotra, Socotra Island, Yemen, Socotra Archipelago, Dragon Blood Tree, Dracaena Cinnabari, milky way, Milky way dragon blood tree, milky way yemen, milky way Socotra
Staying up all night in a forest of Dragon Blood Trees to get my dream shot
Socotra, Socotra Island, Yemen, Detwah Lagoon, Detwah
Taking in the views at Detwah Lagoon, note that this is my friend Matt the purveyor of all things logistical I’m too lazy to deal with, and not me
Socotra, Socotra Island, Yemen, Hadiboh, Hadiboh doors, colorful doors, Socotra doors, Hadiboh door, Socotra door, Yemen door
Finally getting the Socotra handshake on film (err, I mean SD card), which is not pictured here because I am too tired to walk 100 feet and get my hard drive out, load it on Lightroom and process it on my extremely slow Mac that has made me lose all faith in Apple products, but that’s a first world problem for another day… Here’s some nice colorful doors for the time being

If Socotra is an interest of yours check out these two posts I’ve put together since I’ve returned home

And for those of you not wanting to deal with arranging a trip there check out Inertia Network’s upcoming planned departure in November (they also can help arrange private/group trips as well).

Afghanistan Tour, Afghanistan Travel, Afghanistan travel guide, Afghanistan, Mazar e Sharif, Mazar i Sharif, Balkh, Blue Mosque, Blue Mosque Mazar e Sharif, Blue Mosque Afghanistan, Shrine of Hazrat Ali
A normal day at the Blue Mosque

Happy Nowruz From Afghanistan!

Next up after Socotra was a quick stop in Cairo (let’s be real, mostly to shower and do some laundry), followed by a short layover in Dubai and finally off to Afghanistan with the goal of celebrating Nowruz in Mazar e Sharif.

Did we meet that goal? Yes. Did we meet it easily? Hell no.

Our trip started off in Kabul and then with a small change to the itinerary up to Panjshir Valley next. Afterward, we would drive to Bamyan and this is where things first started to unravel…

The morning we woke up to go to Band e Amir it had snowed in Bamyan and so much so up in the pass that they shut the road to Yakawlang down. After spending the morning visiting different sites around Bamyan (even some I hadn’t visited before) we went back to the police checkpoint toward Yakawlang. The road had been cleared and we were on our way. As you climbed further into the mountains you could see that the area received a huge dump of snow the night before. Even locals were out skiing on hills off the side of the highway. We did eventually make it to Band e Amir, but it wasn’t without near disaster. Long story short– on the way out we got stuck several times all the while Noor was on the search for a member of our group that seemingly vanished when everyone was standing in awe of Band e Zulfiqar in the canyon below. It took several hours, a horseman and hitching a ride on a remote road that was walled by snow that was well over my head to reunite the remainder of the group… and a drive down the Yakwalang-Bamyan highway in the dark of night.

When we planned the trip the Kabul-Bamyan flights had resumed, allegedly. This, of course, wasn’t the case by the time we arrived, and seeing that Kam Air was hellbent on us still using the Kabul-Mazar e Sharif leg of the journey we decided to drive in the morning from Bamyan to Kabul and then catch the flight to Mazar at noon so that we would arrive the day before the Nowruz celebration.

What really happened…

We split into two vehicles to fly under the radar better (it’s Afghanistan after all). Well, car #2 (thankfully Noor was in that car with half the group) was stopped at one of the many police checkpoints with accusations that foreigners weren’t allowed to travel by road via this route. Several cups of chai, fistfuls of baksheesh, a sign off by the provincial mayor, and a police escort later they were back on the road again, of course, to be stopped numerous times at checkpoints (somehow my car wasn’t stopped once) before arriving on the outskirts of Kabul. Then disaster struck. A car slammed into them in the chaotic Kabul traffic (don’t worry, no one got hurt as Kabul traffic seems to always be so bad in daylight hours no one can actually get moving that fast anyway). This debacle, of course, involved more baksheesh, police, and arguments before they finally arrived at the Kabul Airport. At this point, I was still hopeful that we would make the flight (it was only 10 minutes til departure) and domestic Kam Air flights rarely leave on time in my experience.

Except for today

Noor was stood there eyes wide, the look of defeat on his face with his hands cupping the sides of his head. The flight would leave without us. There weren’t any seats until the following afternoon, which would mean we’d miss the Nowruz celebrations at the Blue Mosque in the morning.

In case of any of you reading this have plans to visit Afghanistan, just know that plan A and plan B aren’t enough, not for Afghanistan anyway. You’ll likely need to whip plan c, d, and e, and you may as well have plan f mapped out too because you never know when you’ll have to go that far…

I looked at Noor and he already knew my plan c. We gotta drive.

After nearly emptying the vending machine in the Kabul domestic departures hall for snacks to feed everyone until we could make a quick stop for snacks on the outskirts of Kabul we set off. To make a long story longer, we drove over the Salang Pass at dusk (epic) and continued the drive till we reached Mazar. By the time we had formulated a plan and executed it we were on the road out of Kabul by about 1:30p and arrived in Mazar e Sharif to a huge dinner at 1:00a (because Afghan hospitality is truly of legend, you know). But the fun doesn’t end there guys…

We had to be at breakfast at 5:00a and on our merry way to the Shine of Hazrat Ali (Blue Mosque) by 6:00a and don’t worry– this also didn’t go as planned. Before we even got out the door we all came face to face with a repulsive woman staying at the same place as us who I feel 100% confident in labeling the worst tourist in the world (seriously if Guinness had a record for it this moron would win by a landslide), she said possibly one of the most racist things she could have to one in our group without even introducing herself (more on her later, I think I can put up a whole blog post about her).

Next up was getting into the Blue Mosque, which finally all my high school experiences in moshpits prepared me for. It was absolute insanity trying to get in– and this was at the women’s entrance. Each of us actually held a special entrance permit that was supposed to get us on stage for all the speeches and stuff that was to go on onstage, including a speech by the President of Afghanistan- Ashraf Ghani (but don’t get too excited, word on the street is the Ghani was only there to save face after the recent clashes in Mazar e Sharif just a week prior between police loyal to the recently ousted provincial governor Atta Mohammed Noor and Interior Ministry forces brought in after Mohammed Ishaq Rahgozar was appointed to the post– so really more of an Afghan pomp and circumstance on Ghani’s part if you will). Needless to say, the guy guarding the women’s entrance to the stage wouldn’t let any of us with permits through, so we watched the whole celebration from on the ground on the women’s side (except the two men in the group who were on the male side with Noor). In my opinion, staying on the ground was way more fun with women and girls excitedly taking photos with each of us (not every day you run into tourists in Afghanistan).

So after about 4 hours of chaos, flag-waving, speeches, military helicopter flyovers, and canon explosions the testosterone finally exceeded average quantities and the male side finally went wild and jumped the gates onto the stage and off to the women’s side, then began chasing the women back to the entrance/exit gate– all the while female police fended them off with batons. Needless to say, it was an exciting morning to be followed by an equally eventful afternoon running from stampeding horses shooting images from the playing fields of the Nowruz Buzkashi match (if you’re new here and haven’t heard me speak of buzkashi– its a brutal Central Asian version of polo played with a headless goat torso– or on Nowruz in Afghanistan played with the “beef” otherwise known as a headless cow because a cow’s dead carcass would hold up better on such a heavy Buzkashi day such as Nowruz.

Buzkashi, Mazar e Sharif Buskashi, Nowruz Buskashi
Get the beef…

I think I’ve yammered on enough about Afghanistan at this point (don’t worry– this will all get shared one day eventually). But following Mazar e Sharif, I spent more time in Kabul than on my previous trips, went to Herat with the group then after their departure continued on to Kandahar and then returned to Herat to cross the border into country number? (who am I kidding, I gave up counting a long time ago)…

Now For My Vacation: Iran

I finally put that Italian passport to full use and headed off to Mashhad, of course only after a breakdown of the shared taxi at the border after I’d technically exited Afghanistan. So naturally, we re-entered Afghanistan illegally (no one cared or noticed) to return back to Kumisarit to where a friendly Pashtun mechanic named Jabar fixed the car while proudly showing off his English skills to me. Before long we were back on our way bound for Iranian immigration and customs and eventually on to Mashhad later in the evening. I won’t go into a lot of details about Iran in this post since I plan to do it later (mostly because I’m tired, also because this post is ridiculously long and I know most of you don’t care to listen to me talk about myself for this long). In the end, I visited Mashhad, Kalouts Desert, Bandar Abbas, Hormuz Island, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd, Esfahan, Kashan, Tehran, and Tabriz. I’ll save you all the long-winded stories and what not and sum it up as: I absolutely loved the rainbowy island of Hormuz, made some amazing friends in Shiraz thanks to Gael that traveled with us on the Socotra & Afghanistan trips and I didn’t fall in love with Esfahan (don’t read that as disliked though).

Shiraz, Nasir al Molk, Nasir al Molk Mosque, Pink Mosque pink mosque Shiraz, Fars, Iran, Solo female travel Iran
Nasir al Molk

So far I’ve only hammered out one post on Iran, but there will be heaps to follow. Check out Solo Female Travel In Iran (and don’t worry there’s a few things in there that men would find helpful too, you just don’t have most likely won’t have to deal with the occasional proposition for sex at a mosque and a stealthy maneuver I call the selfie-turned-boob-grab).

The Perfect End In Iraqi Kurdistan

I knew flying back to the US on a booking that originated in Iran probably wasn’t the best idea seeing the US and Iran (politically) have been at each other’s throats longer than I’ve been alive, so I decided that exiting to a third country would have been wise (though I’m not sure how wise a choice an Iraqi territory is when you have options like Turkey instead). Option a) Get a Turkmen transit visa (A place I truly want to revisit) and then head up to Uzbekistan to spend a few days before heading home, option b) go back to Armenia because Armenia was the best random stop I’ve ever made or option c) go somewhere new and visit Iraqi Kurdistan. Needless to say, I forced myself out of my comfort zone (my comfort zone these days seems to consist of ex-Soviet republics, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan) and went to Iraqi Kurdistan for a visit before I flew home from Erbil. To get to the point: I’d have to say the highlight of the trip was hanging out with Kurdish people and visiting this ridiculously pretty place called Gomi Felaw. I have about half a zillion (okay really about 10) posts on deck about Iraqi Kurdistan so you’ll hear more about this leg of the trip and the helpful things I figured out along the way. But so far I’ve written a Quick Guide to Iraqi Kurdistan Travel if you’re interested in going yourself (or just to see what it looks like).

Iraq, Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Gomi Felaw, Gomi Felawe, Felaw, Felawe, Choman, Iran-Iraq border
Gomi Felaw

What I Wrote In…

March

April 

May

Tavasang, Tavasang Pass, Tajikistan

What Next?

Well, I’ve actually been home a month at this point (and supremely lazy so I didn’t try to write this post sooner). I’m mostly working (as in scarping dirty teeth) in Alaska till August, though I do have a week-long trip around AK next month with a friend, and of course writing here as well as working on other behind the scenes projects (speaking of projects… if you’ve made it this far in the post and happen to be flying Alaska Airlines in June, flip through their inflight magazine- one of my photos made it in there!).

In early August it’s off to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to do a little work and then I’ll be headed back to Tajikistan to take on some really out of the way places like Rasht Valley, Yagnob Valley, and more (and of course trekking some more in the Fanns and visiting friends in Khorog, Khujand, Murghab and more.

(ps: sorry for using the same photos from the last few previous posts, but I’ve honestly been too sick, exhausted and busy (in that order) to do anything about that…)

Need Travel Insurance?

Start shopping plans over at battleface, my go-to travel insurance choice, or over at World Nomads.

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