Switzerland and Austria: the crossroads of Europe

With all the times I’ve visited Europe, I’ve actually never been to Switzerland and Austria. Well, except for airport transfers and one brief rental car mishap. So as I was heading to Prague to meet up with Chris, I decided to go overland through these two beautiful countries. With such multi-faceted cities and ages of history within each, I barely had time to get more than an overview of the places I visited, and make a list of things to see next time I’m there. Here’s my favorites for each.

History lurks behind every corner here in Switzerland

Zurich

It was cool and rainy in Zurich, but not actually raining yet- perfect weather for a walking tour in my one full day in the city. My favorite part of sightseeing Zurich was the overall charm of the city center- 1200 drinkable fountains, cobblestone streets, small shops, community gardens, and the smell of roasting coffee everywhere.

Just one of hundreds of small squares throughout the city

Basel

I headed to Basel specifically to see an old friend, even though it was a bit out of my way (I will always make a detour for a friend!). Happily, I arrived there on the day that Art Basel began, a sort of scavenger hunt for 20 contemporary art pieces scattered throughout the city. It was a great way to spend the day there.

“Study for Stairs for a Theater” by Caitlin Keogh

Bern

The next day, Adam and Anna and I took a train to visit the town of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, although still a very small city. We saw the bears, took selfies with Einstein, and had Raclette for dinner. Best of all, it was a day spent with friends.

In front of St Peter and Paul church

Munich

Okay, so I didn’t actually visit Munich, but my bus from Basel to Salzburg had a transfer in Munich. I hopped to it, and in my two hour layover, I was able to visit the Hof Brau Haus and have a Bavarian beer.

That smile pretty much says it all

Salzburg

I enjoyed seeing Mozart’s birthplace and various scenes from The Sound of Music, but to tell the truth I was feeling pretty run down and fighting a cold. My favorite thing that day? Eating this soft pretzel covered in dark chocolate. That, paired with a Viennese coffee, got me through the morning.

It was a tough choice but chocolate always wins

Linz

Salzburg was crazy crowded because of the Mozart 100 race (who in their right minds want to run 100 km? Up and down three mountains, no less?) so I headed to Linz to seek a little more peace and quiet. It was here, between the beautiful churches and along the Danube River, that I finally learned how to ride a Lime electric scooter. Sight-seeing game changer!

Now I totally want to buy one of these

Vienna

In one of life’s ironies, I booked an AirBnB just 200 meters from the main train station. And then I wound up arriving at the west train station and departing from the international bus terminal. But the good news was that, in addition to seeing the churches, palaces, National Library, and gardens of the city center, my accommodations were just steps away from the Belvedere palace and their beautiful grounds. I enjoyed walking through their gardens each morning and evening I was in Vienna.

I spent a fair amount of time imaging what life would be like living in this palace

With Europe’s amazing travel network, such as Ryan Air (my flight was 19€), hundreds of trains a day, and the ubiquitous FlixBus (Vienna to Prague 14€), there’s an excellent chance of passing through one of these cities again in the near future. From one day to one week, I’d recommend any of these for a visit!

Failing On the Camino de Santiago

I had a few weeks’ time to fill in May, so I decided that I would hike the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. My husband Chris had done it two years ago, and he said it was great, I’d love it, after our Nepal hike it would be a breeze. So I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Burgos and got started.

A dawn start from Burgos with my new friend Araceli

The Camino can be started at almost any point in Europe- some paths start from Germany, France, or even Rome- although generally peregrinos start it in St Jean Pied de Port, at the border of France and Spain. From there it is 800 kilometers to Santiago de Campostela, and it takes around 5 weeks. This year approximately 22,000 pilgrims are estimated to hike the trail.

Heading west

I only had three weeks to spend hiking, so I decided to start in Burgos and hike 500 km to Santiago. I was issued my credencial, a passport-like booklet, and told to get at least one stamp a day, and two stamps a day in the last 100 km. The only requirement to get a certificate at the end is that you walk the last 100 km, so the Camino can get quite busy with people doing that final stretch.

It’s fun watching the credencial fill up

The first few days went pretty well. I made some friends along the way, I listened to the birds chirp in the mornings, and the weather was nice- crisp in the mornings, warm in the afternoons. I had Spanish ham at almost every stop, wine or beer in the evenings, and creamy cafe leches every morning. Since we stay in alburgues with restaurants each night, there’s no need to pack a tent or cook your own food. And since we’re hiking four to seven hours a day, we can pretty much eat whatever we want and still burn those calories. It’s a win-win situation!

Just slice off some of that ham and hand it over
A frosty Cerveza- at ten am- is not uncommon, even with a backpack still on

On the third day I developed a blister on each foot, and a sore knee. Blisters are the most common peregrino problem, so I wasn’t too worried. I bought some blister care, and a knee brace at a pilgrim store (they have everything a hiker needs, and there’s one in every so-many towns). Life was good again. Then a couple of days later, I developed a second set of blisters, and ankle pain. When I stopped after a particularly long day (29 km), my ankle was super swollen.

Rows of hiker shoes and boots line an alburgue entryway

I made it to Leon- I had hiked 170 km in a week- and took a rest day. I saw a physiotherapist, who massaged it, taped it, and recommended that I take it easy for a few days.

Getting my ankle looked at- but still smiling

I wanted to finish in the three week time frame I had given myself, and I wanted to try to mostly stay with a group of friends I had made that would all be finishing around June 5 as well. Finally, with a heavy heart, I bought a bus ticket that would speed me 40 km up the road. From there, I’d hike a few half days, and then hopefully be strong enough to get back on schedule and finish.

The bus becomes part of my Camino

I felt like such a failure taking the bus that day. I had set out to walk 500 km on the Camino, and after only 170 km I was facing the choice of dropping out completely, or having to skip sections in order to finish.

The Camino provides me a timely reminder

After the bus dropped me off in Astorga, I walked just 10 km to Santa Catalina de Somoza. I walked slowly, mindfully. No music, no podcasts. I thought about the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James. After Jesus’ death, his disciple James came to Spain, and preached the Gospel in the province of Galicia. He died and was buried here, and in the 9th century, a shepherd had a dream and discovered the bones of James. A cathedral was built, and pilgrims came from across Europe to receive a blessing, pay penitence for a sin, or to show their righteousness. The thing is, it is said that in the time James preached in northern Spain, he only converted eight people. Which made me wonder, did James consider his endeavor a failure, or did he call it a success for getting it started in the first place?

The seashell, it’s shape like an open hand, is a sign of the pilgrim

In fact, many of the people I knew on the Camino felt like we “failed” in our own way, by having to take a bus, having to fly home for a family emergency, or getting ill and having to radically change plans. I choose to think that James, with his eight converts, and all of us with our grand plans and less-grand results, are a success. It is better than not trying at all. I may not have been able to do the whole Camino, but I was able to do My Camino. And that’s all any of us can do.

Arriving in Santiago… 409 km hiked in 20 days

Ultreia. Beyond.

The Camino de Santiago

Kazakhstan

There’s a saying where I come from that “everything is bigger in Texas” but I’m betting that most Texans have never been to Kazakhstan. The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is quite large, and a large proportion of that is gently rolling steppes that Continue reading “Kazakhstan”

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan: The Pamir Highway

A trip through Central Asia would not be complete without a drive through the Pamir Mountains on the M41, one of the highest roadways in the world. Winding its way from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Highway is a must-do for travelers who want to see the best of the ‘Stans.

The breathtaking Pamir Highway

Dushanbe

Chris and I flew direct from Tashkent to Dushanbe for $75 on Air Uzbek, and immediately upon arrival, the airport ATM machine ate my debit card. Luckily we have another one, so we got a cab and got settled in to the Green House Hostel for the next few days. Happily, we contacted the bank, and were able to pick up my ATM card two days later at their main office in town.

Dushanbe

Our friend Christian was in Dushanbe on business, so while we waited to link up with a driver and/or other riders for the Pamir Highway, we hung out with him at his fancy hotel, enjoying the wine and snacks there while swapping expat stories. We also spent a couple of days walking around town and seeing the monuments in the capital city. Dushanbe is small as far as capital cities go, but with lots of parks and the native tulips were blooming everywhere.

The views of Dushanbe from the top of the hotel

Pamir Highway

Using some travel forums (Carivanistan is a good one), we linked up with a driver who was available for the week-long trip. Mid-April is still a bit early for the high season on the Pamir Highway- summer is more popular due to warmer temps in the high mountains- but the roads were clear so we were good to go. We spent the first day driving from Dushanbe to Qalai Khumb, a cute little town at the junction of the Khumb and Punj Rivers.

From Qalai Khumb, we followed the Punj River southeast, through the Whakan Valley, with Tajikistan on one side and Afghanistan on the other. All day we could see farmers working in their fields on both sides, shepherds watching over flocks of sheep and goats, and small settlements dotted every so often along the river.

As we gained elevation into the mountains, we continued to parallel the Afghanistan border for the next two days. We stoped at a 3rd century mud fortress, and two hot springs for a soak in the hot waters. The days were cooler and the nights were crisp when we stayed at Khorugh and Ishkashim.

At the hot springs, where I stripped down and met three nice local ladies

On the fifth day, we left the Afghanistan border and turned north, getting into the really high mountains. Here the lakes were frozen and there was snow on the peaks and slopes of the mountains. We were very grateful for the guest house owners at Langar and Murghab who had electric space heaters for us- and sad when we had to brave the freezing nights to go to the outhouse!

A caravan of goods traverse the mountains

The last two days of the drive were at very high elevations. The Pamir Highway is often called the “Rooftop of the World” and it requires going over the Ak-Baital (White Horse) Pass at 4655 meters (15,272 feet). We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan at 4200 meters- the 2nd highest border crossing in the world. Yay for free visas for many nationalities! It snowed the night we stayed at Sary-Tash- our tiny, one-element heater could not stave off the cold- and we awoke to a white wonderland. Thankfully we descended 1500 meters that day, and suddenly the hills were green again, and filled with herds of horses and new ponies eating the spring grasses.

Still snowing at the high pass
Green hills and horses

Osh

The Pamir Highway ends in Osh, and after our driver Nuraly got us situated at a guest house there, we said our goodbyes. He was a great driver- very safe- and super knowledgeable about the whole area. We were lucky to have him.

Lunch, Tajik-style

It was Orthodox Easter weekend in Osh, and the first truly warm weekend they’d had all year, so everybody was out and about the town. We walked through a spring carnival (and rode the old Soviet-era Ferris wheel), and hiked Suleiman Too, the small mountain that overlooks the city. Via Twitter, we hooked up with a local who wanted to show us around town- we had a delicious shashlik (kebab) lunch and a walk through the bazaar. He also explained the fascinating tradition of bride-kidnapping here!

Hikers of all ages were up on Suleiman Mountain this weekend

Bishkek

After a 12 hour shared-taxi minivan ride up and over a mountain pass, we arrived in the capital city, Bishkek. Originally a fortress established in 1825 to control trade caravans, by 1868 it had grown into a medium-sized Russian settlement named Pishpek. In 1925 it was declared an autonomous oblast in Russian Turkestan, then as the capital of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic was renamed Frunze after a Bolshevik leader, and finally in 1991, it became Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. Got all that?

I think every city in Central Asia has these signs now!

We met up with two friends-of-our-friend Sharon, and they took us hiking for May Day our in the Ala-Archa National Park. With lots of rain in the past few weeks, it was a muddy and fairly challenging hike (for me at least). There were tons of Kyrgyz people out, celebrating the holiday and a rare day of sun (this month has apparently been way more rainy than usual). At last we finished hiking and went to eat a delicious shashlik dinner, combined with Georgian khachapuri bread- a personal favorite of mine. It was a great reward after several hours of hiking!

May Day hiking

The next day, we went on a city walk with a guide we found on IndyGuide. She showed us all around the city, all the monuments, theaters, universities, and governmental buildings. We met up with our two friends for dinner again, eating at a great steak restaurant named Obama’s- a fantastic steak and red wine. Thanks Chris and Brian for such a great dinner!

Monument for revolutions for freedom

Next up for us: Kazakhstan 🇰🇿!

A Journey on the Silk Road: Uzbekistan

While we were planning our trip to Turkmenistan (where you need to either be with a tour company or limit your stay to a transit visa), our tour company offered us an option that combined both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It was a great itinerary and a pretty good deal, so we decided to take the package for both countries and really travel down the Silk Road in style.

After a week in Turkmenistan, we walked across the border into Uzbekistan and met our new driver. We passed through the city of Nukus, stopping at the Savitskey art museum en route, as well as an old mud fortress in what used to be called Karakalpakstan. Along a very bumpy road, we made our way to Khiva, and settled in at Meros Guesthouse inside the fortress city.

Ayoz Kala, built 2000 years ago

Khiva

Khiva is billed as Central Asia’s only open-air museum city- the entire town inside the reconstructed fortress walls is a living museum. Originally an independent khanate, Khiva was a literal oasis in the desert, the next stop along the Silk Road for traders buying and selling silk, spices, slaves, and cotton. The beginnings of the city date back to the beginning of the Christian Era. One legend states that it was Shem, a son of Noah, who found the city of Khiva when he was digging for a well and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet taste of the water there. Using original 10th century foundations, the city was rebuilt in the 16th century after being conquered and destroyed by Persians.

Chris And Deah, in Khiva

Inside the fortress walls, the minarets, mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums have all been restored, with brilliant blue, green, and white tiles and delicate alabaster etchings. Dozens of small buildings, living quarters and courtyards are renovated and accessible, and inside are old photos and artifacts from days gone by. Visitors can purchase a ticket that allows entry to all sites (100,000 soms/$12 or 150,000 soms/$18 if you want to add a few minarets and towers).

Poi Kalon Complex

Bukhara

Bukhara is in the middle of three deserts, yet green mulberry trees are planted everywhere throughout the city. That’s because Bukhara was one of the centers of silk production in the Middle Ages. Even today, silk scarves, tunics, even silk paper are for sale here in the domed trading bazaars, to tourists and to wholesalers. Dozens of families in the area still make their living from silk production, using centuries-old techniques.

Silk production with natural dyes

Like Khiva, Bukhara has a legend associated with a well- it is said that Job discovered a well in this spot and founded the city. The city later fell under the control of Alexander the Great, and later still it was said that Bukhara was second only to Baghdad for its beauty and its intellectual scholars. Genghis Khan sacked the city in 1221. Over 100 years later, Ibn Battutu passed through in his travels, and the city was still in ruins. Eventually the city became a colony of the Russian empire on the 18th century. Later, as an independent Soviet Republic, then absorbed into the Uzbek Soviet Republic, the city was reconstructed to an approximation of its former glory.

Site of Ayoub’s (Job’s) well
Artisan knife makers, Bukhara
Masjid Kalon

Samarkand

The fast train only takes 90 minutes to reach Samarkand from Bukhara, where we met our next guide. Samarkand is the pearl of the Silk Road, and Registan Square is majestic in its beauty. The heart of the Timurid dynasty, the square is framed by three madrasas, forming a square where royal proclamations were read, visitors were received, and executions were carried out. In 1924, women burned their traditional face-covering veils here in the square, as Islamic traditions were forbidden by the Soviets.

Registan Square

Timur, or Tamarlane as he was known in the West, was born here, and he and his grandson Ulugbek expanded and ruled the empire for nearly 100 years. Fascinated with both Islam and with science, Timur built mosques and madrasas for learning knowledge, while Ulugbek built an observatory that measured and named over 1,000 stars.

Timur the Lame
Chris And Deah in Samarkand

Tashkent

Largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, Tashkent was completely rebuilt by the Soviets, who had moved the capital of Uzbekistan here in 1918 in an effort to secure the Fergana Valley as part of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. The city is a fairly modern one, with upscale hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, and a metro. One of the ancient highlights of the city is the Khazrati-Imam, an architectural monument named after a 10th century imam (later a saint). Here visitors can see one of the first written copies of the Koran, in ancient Kufic script, dating to the 8th century- it was penned less than 100 years after Mohammed’s death.

Uthman Koran, Tashkent. No photos allowed on site, so this pic is from Wikipedia. CC by SA3.0

We visited the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, a huge market where absolutely everything from horse meat to underwear is for sale. We explored the underground metro- very 1970s Soviet style- and enjoyed lunch with our driver at a local working man’s restaurant- total price $5 for the three of us.

Chorsu Market
Cosmonaut Metro Station
A local dish called “plov”- rice, vegetables, mutton, with raisins and chickpeas

And then our tour was done and it was time to head to Tajikistan. We really enjoyed our trip to Uzbekistan- we learned so much history, ate delicious food, and had great weather the whole time we were there. The people who live there are very welcoming, and curious about foreigners and excited to meet Americans. A surprising (to me) number of European and Asian tourists travel there- I hope in the future more North Americans will find their way along the Silk Road as well.