“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.” – Anatole France

Our train stopped at the Mongolian border in the dead of night.  Each car was separated, lifted off the track and wheels replaced (the gages are different sizes) while we all sat quietly aboard for hours.  This is called the “bogie exchange,” and is a remnant of a past security system used to ward of potential invading armies.

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We spent a few dreary days in Ulaanbatar and wondered when we stepped outside if we would be pelted with snow or freezing rain as we jumped over giant puddles that flooded the roads.  UB is a strange city.  Old soviet era architecture mixed with a thriving music scene and international cuisine – one night we even went to the opera.   It’s a modern city in the midst of an unforgiving climate.

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The last of the world’s wild horses, the Takhi.

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Being fiscally responsible (I prefer this to cheap) and refusing to be on another tour, we jumped on a bus south towards the Gobi desert.  The roads quickly disappeared and it was the first of many off-roading experiences in a rickety old bus.  I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy and laugh as sand splashed up over the windows in waves, and camels stood by witnessing the spectacle that for them is common place.  Once in town we met up with a driver and tried to chicken scratch out a plan for the next couple days.   With minimal understanding of what we agreed to, our guy came over early in the morning and walked into our room without knocking (it’s a mongolian thing – one custom that I never got used to).  He doubled the price and was as drunk as a skunk.  At one point he picked up an empty beer can and shook it, presumably looking for a rogue swig.  The guy was harmless, but needless to say, we decided to thank him and pass on his service!  Long story short we ended up finding a great driver who took us to stay in gers and explore the Gobi in all its glory – sand dunes, dinosaur fossils and an ice-filled gorge. We even tried camel’s milk, which was very sour.

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Back to “off-roading” on a bus heading north now to Khovsgol lake.  I’d like to mention on our way we found an overturned SUV at dawn, in literally the middle of nowhere. Every single male on the bus (including proudly smiling children) got off and collectively pushed and heaved and righted the massive vehicle.  Then hopped back on and away we go.  Just another overnight bus in Mongolia – no big deal.

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We ventured on a 6 day horseback trip around Khovsgol lake, otherwise known as “the Blue Pearl.”  My horse had two speeds: painfully slow and stopped.  Being in a national park, a guide was obligatory, and our Mongolian was better than his English.  Trust me, this does not mean much.  Mostly his communication was to say ” yum yum” every time my horse refused to lift his head from the grass, he’d grab the reigns and pull us forward.  My horse would just as soon this annoying foreigner get off his back so he could resume his “yum yums.” As the snow turned to freezing rain the riding became a bit miserable. Being a nomadic culture, many gers were not set up for the season and so camping at some places was our only option.  Our guide brought only a couple bags of biscuits and an extra coat.  We gave him our extra blanket and would joke at every meal, “what will he have for lunch today?”  And invariably we knew it would be our food or a dry biscuit.

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We celebrated our return to town with a few australians and a guy named Serge who drove down from Russia on an ATV.   We drank vodka from glasses balanced on the crook of our arm and followed it up with many pickles.  We never did determine what Serge was doing there, because he spoke to us in Russian, and spoke to us like we all understood Russian.  We had long conversations with him where not a single word was understood on either side, that is, until Ezra finally broke out Google Translate.   It was a fantastic way to return to civilization.

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At the airport I felt ready to leave.  I was a bit tired of being cold after all these months and was anxious for some warmth.  But it wouldn’t have been Mongolia if leaving was so simple.  Waiting for our flight a woman confirmed my name and asked me to follow her – down, down, we go into the depths of the baggage claim.  Some serious-looking men with their serious-looking dogs pointed at my bag and ordered me to unpack it.  At the bottom was our Buddha.  I was then led to an office where I was told over and over it was impossible for me to leave with the statue.  I didn’t have a receipt proving where we had bought it and I didn’t have a license proving that we didn’t buy/sell this Buddha in Mongolia.  In hind sight, it really was time for me to leave Asia as I later realized I was bribing and arguing with the very people who had the power to let me leave their country.  I offered to “buy” a license and frustratingly raised my voice and said “the Tibetan print (on the newspaper it was wrapped in) was my receipt!”  Just as I was starting to lose my cool I was told once again it was impossible and I was sent on my way.  Meanwhile a few floors up Ezra was worried.  I was gone a long time and our flight was leaving.   I was telling Ez what happened and he mentioned this was a good lesson in unattatchment.  I was trying to remember equanimity but my heart was still racing.  I can be so ridiculous – the whole point of having the Buddha was to remind me to work on my afflictive emotions.  At that moment, the original woman reappears, I get rushed back downstairs, and a higher authority gave me the Buddha back.  All of a sudden everyone became very apologetic.  I was sweating and flushed as I raced to stuff everything back in to my already overly-stuffed bag, and ran back upstairs barely making the flight.

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I don’t know why they gave it back, maybe being a Buddhist country themselves they were worried about collecting bad merit.   It definitely was not from my skills of negotiation.  But I realized it didn’t matter and I would be surprised if I got him home anyway.  We had yet to go through borders in the Middle East and still get him through US customs – which would probably be the most difficult.



xi’an & beijing

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” -Confucius

After our time in Tibet I was not feeling very warm towards China as we headed off to Xi’an.  But there we were heading to China anyway.  Meanwhile, I was consciously trying to hold onto my grudge – which is neither a very attractive nor enlightened response.  Of course we immediately met the nicest bunch of Chinese people who helped me get over the chip on my shoulder.  (Shame on me.)   Ezra stayed up for hours practicing Mandarin with his new friends and people kept forcing food on us.  Alright, but the government it still not forgiven.

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We were making our way to Mongolia and thought the Trans-Mongolian railway sounded fun. We’ve been romanticizing train travel since we first saw the Orient Express in Istanbul – afterall, who isn’t a fan of Agatha Christie?  (Are Ezra and I the only ones who read detective novels and Victorian mysteries?)  We decided to make a couple stops through China first.  A few days in Xi’an were spent in the old Muslim quarter, stuffing our faces with delicious street food, and seeing the Terracotta warriors.  Also of note, we stayed in a fantastic hotel which Ez found for a steal at $20, and living in that luxury made me worried I would quickly forget all my lessons of simplicity and living without.  All of a sudden I really wanted a bathtub and a teapot.  What’s a girl to do.

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Onto Beijing, we wandered around the old Hutong neighborhoods.  The rest of our time is best not worth mentioning. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our stay, we were horrible tourists.  We had great plans to see the Forbidden City and did wander around Tiananmen square, but I will not bore you with excuses.  Instead I thought I’d slip in a few pictures from our last visit, but considering it was 10 years ago, I though you may notice we look different.

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the boys with chairman mao


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chairman Z & B

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When we were just kids…

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the land of snow

“There is a Tibetan saying: ”The more you travel, the more you see and hear.’ At a time when many people are not clear about what is actually happening in Tibet, I am very keen to encourage whoever has the interest to go there and see for themselves. Their presence will not only instill a sense of reassurance in the Tibetan people, but will also exercise a restraining influence on the Chinese authorities. What’s more, I am confident that once they return home they will be able to report openly on what they have seen and heard.” -H.H. Dalai Lama

Auspiciously on March 10th we booked our tour to Tibet.  This happened to be the anniversary of the 1959 uprising.  We saw a marked difference that day in Nepal with extra police force in the streets armed with riot gear.  It was a bit unnerving. We wouldn’t actually leave for Tibet for over a month but it was a warning of what was to come. DSC05661 - CopyIMG_6165 - CopyDSC05723 - CopyDSC05707 - Copy We started our journey to Everest Base camp by driving through lunar-like landscape in the world’s highest plateau.  I grew up hearing stories about climbing Everest and it was a bit surreal standing there and trying to absorb her greatness.  After our time trekking in Nepal I have a greater appreciation for this massive undertaking, if only understanding what challenges the altitude and cold must present.  I happened to be reading Into Thin Air (I know I’m about two decades late jumping on that bandwagon) and couldn’t help but imagine all the triumphs and tragedy. Only days earlier 16 sherpas were killed in an avalanche as they were readying the high camps.  It definitely has a certain magnetism for the adventurous and crazy alike.  DSC05884 - CopyDSC05886 - Copy DSC05903 - CopyDSC05910 - CopyDSC05939 - CopyWe’ve all heard about the conflict between Tibet and China, if only seeing the Free Tibet stickers.  So we did not decide to visit lightly and gave considerable thought before going. We heard that Tibetans were having an especially tough time at the moment and the reality of this trip was quite shocking.  Monks were protesting the only way they could, by lighting themselves on fire.  This was controlled by punishing the already empty monasteries and their families.  As a tourist you felt the tension and you saw fire extinguishers everywhere.  Our permits were checked multiple times a day at checkpoints, and we’d have to wait outside town for our designated time to enter the city.  We were also on a tour, something we’ve never done before, and our only access to visit this fine country.  Our guide Bai Dom gave little information and occasionally away from cameras and microphones (the car was even bugged) she gave us little tidbits of information about the Dalai Lama and the difficulties they endure, such as not being issued passports. (She dreamed of going to India or Nepal.) Not wanting to get her in trouble we didn’t ask our questions and resigned ourselves to our fate.  We didn’t want her to be “finished” as she eloquently put it. I tried to use these weeks as an opportunity to experience what it must feel like (which I can’t begin to imagine) losing your freedom of speech and all those “rights” us Westerners hold so dearly and so righteously.

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While our interactions were severely inhibited by the government, every experience we had was so positive with the Tibetans we met (whether in Nepal or Tibet).  A new friend Tsering gave us good luck amulets as we set out on our journey, which we wore every day. This exemplifies the kindness of character we encountered. This also gave me great ammunition for teasing, as Ezra started wearing four amulets at once. Did he need so much protection? But then he started pointing out my clothes were from a “free box” and my “wife beater” was pilling. Was I really one to talk about being stylish? Touché.

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DSC07202 - CopyBai Dom explained that to make a Buddha statue holy you must take it to a monastery to be blessed and filled with holy objects.  We bought a statue and she took us back to the Jokhang (the most important pilgrimage site in Tibet) where the monks agreed to fit us in.  Sometimes the wait is weeks. They seemed amused and walked by watching and smiling as we prepared our Buddha by beating out all the plaster inside. The next day we returned to collect our “true Buddha,” blessed and now our daily reminder to work towards being more compassionate.  I carried him off in proud arms – aware that my pride is something to work on.

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This was a difficult trip for a number of reasons.  We did not go thinking it would have the same spiritual heart as years past, but I was troubled at times as to whether we should have gone at all. I feel it would be disingenuous to say it was awe-inspiring without mentioning the turmoil, as it would also be untrue to say it was all negative without pointing to the beauty. As Ezra put it, “there was such a pervasive dichotomy between spirit and oppression, hope and sadness, faith and sterility, storied culture and cultural revolution.  In spite of myself a strong sense of melancholy and sardonicism pervaded the trip for me, as we saw (and read between the lines) the oppression the Tibetans have experienced and continue to experience. It may sound hackneyed, but freedom in all its forms is something you take for granted until you visit a place like this. Maybe Tibetans are blessed to have such strong faith in a religion that teaches non-violence, believes right and wrong actions don’t go unnoticed, and feels that this life is ultimately only a stepping stone to the next.” DSC07693 - CopyDSC07731 - CopyDSC07739 - CopyDSC07916 - CopyDSC07936 - Copy 7758_10152931763820284_940766489_nDSC07781 - Copy




“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”

We arrived into Kota Kinabalu and found a cheap hotel which we were a bit surprised to discover was in the parking garage of “Asia City.” We spent some nights here planning our travel around Borneo and had plenty of opportunities to watch B-rate movies. Every night “Red Dawn” played, we must have “watched” it five times. I wouldn’t recommend doing this.



Obviously shared bathroom did not mean shared shower.

We flew south to Kuching and stayed in a little Chinese guesthouse that quickly felt like home, and it wasn’t in a parking garage -score. We indulged in egg banjos (sandwiches sold on the street for $1), admired all the cat statues around town (Kuching means cat) and walked along the riverfront. We could have gotten stuck here for a month, but hanging out in cities is not why you go to Borneo.

IMG_5079DSC02010DSC01988DSC01685DSC02030 So we headed to Bako National Park to do some hiking and see wildlife (green pit vipers, lemurs, stick insects) and get harassed by monkeys. I did not take the posted warnings serious enough and had Macaques jumping on me trying to steal my plastic bag – they know food is usually inside. One morning, one jumped on our table and ran away with our bag of coffee and powdered milk. We saw the little devil on the roof covered in white powder, obviously the coffee was not to his refined tastes. DSC01982DSC01954 DSC01809DSC01776DSC01745DSC01737DSC01735DSC01691 Next we had a week at Mulu National Park which is known for an extensive cave system. So what did we do? We saw caves – lots and lots of caves. Including an adventure cave, which was as advertised – climbing up and down ropes, watching out for bats, snakes and spiders, and squeezing through small holes. We also did a canopy walk on some rickety little walkways that were a little scary for me, but overall pretty incredible. Ezra did a hike up to the pinnacles, which the park is known for, with our new friends Heinrich and Christofer. And we all did a hike to a gorge which basically meant wading upriver through rapids and floating back down. Best. Hike. Ever. Unfortunately I have no pictures to show for it. DSC02710 DSC02692 DSC02687


Swirling bat exodus from cave

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Heinrich was the real deal, the closest I’ve ever met to a real traveling minstrel. He’d been hitching and walking around with his ukulele and living with aborigines for the past two years.  He was only 20 but was grounded and humble about his experiences. Christofer was from Denmark and was smart, funny and compassionate. He was traveling and volunteering with his girlfriend and was also in his early twenties. I look back at my own youth and cringe a bit. He taught us about J-day in Denmark, which is basically a holiday that is centered around the debut of the holiday beer. This is a major event apparently and we spent hours talking about it. When I go to Denmark, which I fully intend to do after chatting with him, it will be for J-day!


So basically no ninjas or knights allowed aboard

And then there was Clara. The sweetest little girl we first met with her parents in Kuching and then showed up in Mulu. We took to each other right away and she would come up to us and tell us stories about her friends and ballet studio, giving us hugs and bits of food from her plate. We became friendly with her folks and they joked we were her new parents. I always find it inspiring to see families traveling with young kids. It was sad to say bye to the little darling. IMG_5254 Our last week we wasted some days in a town called Miri and then headed back to Kota Kinabalu via bus and ferry through the Sultanate of Brunei. A Finnish couple (another awesome duo we met caving) warned us that a day there was plenty. When we arrived we found they were right. With alcohol illegal, we had only tea and coffee to lubricate our weary bones, and since we weren’t interested in shopping, and everything was closed on Friday…we heeded their advice and got out of town. Only about 24 hours in this little country,  it might be a new record. I can honestly tell you almost nothing about Brunei. It has a beautiful mosque, a stilted water village, huge mud skippers and lots of shopping malls. That is all I can tell you. I’m sure its wonderful, but it also wasn’t cheap, so we needed to flee. DSC02829 DSC02817 DSC02790


“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

We thought it might be fun to be in Manilla for Christmas and partake in some festivities and then leave after a couple days.  However we got sidetracked by all the malls and food.  Instead of going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve as planned, we went to movies and crashed long before midnight. Christmas day we ordered pizza and holed up in our hotel room.  ‘Tis the season?

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We took a freezing overnight bus to north Luzon (the island Manilla is on) and saw some rice terraces and then headed on to the town of Sagada which is known for their rice wine, oatmeal cookies and hanging coffins.  We participated in all three activities but the rice wine was definitely my favorite.  We spent new years here eating free food, watching fireworks rocketed off in the street and drank beers around the bonfire (ie: wood just being burned in the road) with our new friend Ryan.  We also watched and participated in the gong playing that went on for hours.  I was told that I was holding the gong sexy by a man who’d had more than a few too many drinks. I didn’t know you could hold a piece of string sexy, but apparently you can and was taught how to hold it strongly.  Whew, glad that was cleared up.

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The north was beautiful (and cold) but we were excited for our flight to the island of Palawan. Our good friends  Armanita and Bill (from All Hands) were there and joined us for a couple days in the quiet little town of Port Barton. It was an adventurous ride there with our Jeepney getting stuck in some nasty mud, and impressive watching them haul it out with only a rope and a metal stake. I think the cold overnight bus did me in and I ended up lying in a bed with a fever for a few days. It was the perfect excuse to relax and recuperate. We took a nice walk and did yoga and qigong on the beach, read books and wrote in our journals.

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We headed to the town of El Nido which has beautiful limestone karsts. The sea was rough and the coast guard wouldn’t let any boats out for sightseeing, which was a little disappointing, but secretly I was happy. I wasn’t feeling well and the last thing I really wanted to do was swim. So we just enjoyed the beautiful scenery and it felt like a real vacation.

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Last stop we went to the “granddaddy of all festivals” called Ati-atihan. We had an interesting flight.  Our plane was too heavy to take off and so we waited aboard while luggage was rearranged. We take off finally but the plane is shaking and making strange noises.  Feet from landing the pilot shoots the plane back up and says there’s too much wind.  His voice is shaking too.  As people are vomiting thru turbulence and hail I can’t help but think, “well I’ve had a good run.” Second go at landing was rough but met with hugs and applause. Unfortunately our bags were left in Manilla due to the weight problem.


The rest of the weekend was great with lots of drumming, colorful outfits and drinking everywhere. The city was in full party mode. One night we met some nice people and hung out on the street drinking beers. One of our new friends ended up being a hooker and was nice, but we weren’t all together sure she wasn’t trying to rob us. Not your typical Saturday night.

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