Day Two: Diskit to Turtuk to see K2*... by Bree von Bradsky

With sleepy eyes and high spirits we mounted our trusty Royal Enfields in the almost too early hours of the morning. The dusty streets were empty in the small town of Diskit and at the flick of a button, our engines abruptly filled the still air. Mission #1: finding a place with caffeine. Mission #2: Find petrol. With clear advise before our journey, we were mindful that petrol stations were rare, and we’d run out before Turtuk if we didn’t fill up.

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Today’s drive was the shortest of the five with only 90 kilometres until our destination. We had time on our side to explore Turtuk, a town that had been recommended my many and defined as the last town before Pakistan with a view of K2.  Having recently watched the documentary K2: The Siren of the Himalayas, I was exhilarated at the prospect of seeing this magical and monstrous peak.

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Within the first half hour we found petrol and caffeine. At a small corner shop ran by a woman we drank a few chai teas (they come in cups the size of a shot for those wondering why we don’t just drink one). An Indian man sat at the table next to us in noticeable discomfort. After a few glances at our table he asked if any of us had headache pills. Steph, having had a headache the day prior, was able to come to his rescue. It turns out he drove over Khardung-La pass early that morning and was stuck at the top for a half hour due to a rockslide blocking the passage down. As a result from this extended stay at over 18,000 ft, he was suffering from horrible altitude sickness.  I wondered what we would’ve done if we had been in that situation. Would we have turned back?

Not bothered with rhetorical questions, we continued onward.

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The drive was less demanding than the previous days ascent. We only had one more border stop and the correct paperwork on hand. The open roads winded through the ever changing landscape. We crossed over rapidly flowing rivers fed by boisterous waterfalls and passed by numerous Indian army bases. Delightfully, The HIMANK border roads organization sprinkled the sides of these mountainous streets with signs of both encouragement and caution.

 

After whisky, driving risky.

If married, divorce speed.

Life is like a photograph, it takes time to develop.

 

Whenever we passed by one we enjoyed, Eleanor would write it down in the notes of her phone so we could remember our favorites later on.

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The road’s infrastructure depleted the closer we got to Turtuk. From wide, paved roads to narrow bumpy hard packed dirt with rivers flowing through the streets, it started to feel like more of a challenge. Entering into a small village we received high fives from the kids walking to school that almost knocked us off our bike and big smiles from the adults. It’s not every day they see women driving motorcycles and we could see their excitement by the look in their eyes.

 

We still hadn’t had a proper breakfast,  and were all a little hangry by the time we passed through this village. With eyes wide open, there didn’t seem to be a place to stop and eat, so we carried onward with hunger increasing the speed of the royal enfield beneath us. When we entered Turtuk just a half hour later we stopped at the first place that mentioned food. Naïve, we should’ve known everything would be made fresh upon order so we sat there in a silent daze as we watched them pick the food from their garden to prepare. Normally I’d welcome this farm to table vibe, but at this point I just wanted food in my stomach, and so did the others.

 

Just as the day prior, we had no accommodation booked and went door to door looking for a place to stay. After climbing up and down a mountain in search of a bed, we ended up choosing a place and getting two rooms. The group was slightly filled with animosity as Eleanor and I pressured the others to go faster on the way to Turtuk in addition to making everyone wake up early. Simply we had two different agendas for the day and ours demanded too much from the group as a whole. When we finally had beds to crash on, Mollie and Steph took the opportunity in the early afternoon to take a rest while Eleanor and I headed on a hike to the view point to see K2*. On narrow paths, the trail led us past a local swimming hole filled with screaming kids, through a quiet green forest, and up a rocky mountain to a monastery.

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The view from the monastery was exhilarating. Golden farm land graced the foreground followed by a grey river flowing rapidly with mountain water. The background housed the Himalayan mountains, adding another layer that was so beautiful it could have been fake. In that mountain range we saw K2*, jagged, snow-capped, and picturesque. Eleanor sat there for a long while taking in the breathtaking scenery. We only left when we decided it was time for me to teach Eleanor how to drive a manual motorcycle.

 

(*It wasn’t until we returned to service 4 days later that we found out they lied and it’s K2’s sister mountain K13. Close enough?)

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Scrambling down the mountain on our motorcycle, I took Eleanor to a flat and semi paved road. I explained the clutch, 4 gears, the throttle and the break. Eleanor thought it’d be easier for her to learn without a passenger, and I agreed (for my safety) so I set her off on her own to do a loop. With each loop, she went a little further, and would always check back with me before heading off on the next. To kill time I climbed on some boulders nearby.

 

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It was the early evening when she felt comfortable enough on the bike- even let me ride on the back as we headed towards the village. The closer we went back to the mountain, the more rocky the road was. Eleanor was able to get us a decent amount of the way back before a man decided to walk in front of us and inevitably stalled. Gloria was a bit sketchy to start, and took time to get used to. This, with the pressure of men watching us on both sides of the street, we swapped places and we began up the rocky mountain where we had a place to park.

 

For someone just learning how to drive a motorcycle, in the Himalayas, on sketchy roads, and on a heavy bike, I was beyond impressed. Eleanor is a go getter and this is just one of the many things she has done to put everyone around her in a state of awe.

 

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The night finished with the four of us rekindling our friendship forgetting about time pressures and stress induced driving, sitting around a table enjoying our freshly picked mint tea. The cool air calmed our spirits and the thought of the next day’s adventure rejuvenated the soul.

 

I was excited to be a passenger the next day.

 

 

 

 

Leh to Diskit: The highest motorable pass, altitude sickness, and chai, lots of chai. (Part 2/6) by Bree von Bradsky

By 10:30 our permits were ready and our stomachs were full so we set off towards the highest motorable pass in India. To say I was nervous would belittle the immense anxiety I had for whatever the day would bring.

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I had been driving a 120cc Honda Win back in Ha Noi, and this 350cc Royal Enfield was monstrous in comparison; at least three times the weight and two and a half times the size. With every new bike, it takes an adjustment period to get used to both its sensitivity when changing gears and finding the sweet spot of the clutch. Even as a fairly new “biker” I was nervous that this adjustment period was about to happen while climbing up Khardung La, a difficult ride even for the most experienced featuring a combination of rough road conditions and high altitudes.

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Luckily this anxiety only fueled my immeasurable excitement for adventure. Let’s just say I was having all the feelings, and they were all strong. As the instigator of this ride, I only let my excitement be known to my girl gang, sweeping my anxiety off to the side to avoid anyone else’s anxiety levels to rise. I already didn’t know if they were going to hate me after this trip.

  Only time would tell?

 

Before being allowed to commence our ascent up Khardung La Pass, we were going to pass a few police checkpoints. This was a point of concern for me, as I, idiotically left my drivers license back in Vietnam. Eleanor, my trusty passenger and good friend, had never driven a manual motorcycle before and planned to learn whilst on this motorcycle trip in the Himalayas- that is what being a badass really is. Anyway, back to my point, although I didn’t have my license it was only possible for me to drive the first day, through all these police checks. The plan I dreamt up the night before? I had a photo of my license sent to me last minute from my lovely partner Coly, and I planned to lie. Yup, I’m not proud of it but I planned to lie unapologetically and declare my wallet had been stolen, showing them the photo evidence I do actually have a license. Would it work? There was only one way to find out.

 

We reached the first check point after rounding a rather treacherous, steep, unpaved corner. With my heart already racing due to the early dwindling road conditions, we showed the officer our paperwork and our passports and he proceeded to look up at us and back down to our paperwork many times. With my heart pounding, he eventually handed them back and told us to have a nice trip. Well that was easy.

The wide zig zagged road rapidly became narrow, steep, and rocky (yes, still zig zagging). The morning had been quiet without many other drivers on the road and it wasn’t until we reached the unpaved road that we were rudely welcomed by big trucks, stray boulders, and various other traffic including a female cyclist who must’ve started in the early hours of the morning. Besides from a few of Eleanor’s “woohooos” from the back of our bike, we were silent. Silence was the only thing that kept me from screaming out of fear. Even with the brisk air, I was sweating. Mollie was driving behind us, and I wondered if she felt similarly.

 

Nearing the top, the traffic got more congested due to trucks and workers trying to clear away the rock slides that had overtook the roads during the evening. I didn’t want to stop the bike because I still hadn’t figured out that sweet spot of the clutch and there were a lot of cars, trucks, bikes, and cyclists behind me. The inevitable happened, and we stopped on a wet, rocky, steep incline. A small river from the snow melting on the mountain above flowed under our Royal Enfield and off the cliff a few feet to our left. Little did we know that this would be the first of many, more demanding, technical river crossings. In this moment I realized the importance of having a heavy bike on these roads; it would be very difficult for any river to take us with it. Trying to start the bike again, we stalled. And stalled. And stalled again. There was a rather large rock keeping us in our place and it felt like we were going to be stuck there forever. It wasn’t until a man in the car behind us got out to give us a very necessary push that we were able to gain momentum over the rock and pass the frenzy of workers and trucks.

 

We reached the top of Khardung La Pass and parked near the vibrant yellow sign marking the highest point.  Every muscle in my body ached from how tense I was the entire ride up the mountain. That was the most mentally and maybe physically difficult thing I had ever done, but we were up and my worries faded as rapidly as they came that morning. In my mind we had just conquered the hardest part of our trip. I was elated.

 

Mollie and Steph parked a couple meters away from us which should have answered my next question. “How are you guys?” I muttered with energy fueled by adrenaline. I could tell by the look on their faces: not well.

ft. Mollie’s fake smile

ft. Mollie’s fake smile

How are we feeling gals?

How are we feeling gals?

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In all fairness, we were currently at 18,380 ft and we found out Steph had been feeling slight altitude sickness from the ascent. Acute altitude sickness in combination with a bumpy, stressful drive probably wasn’t the best blend and definitely not what the doctors would have prescribed. After the obligatory photo and a nice stretch, we prepared to leave the top to avoid the rest of us getting altitude sickness and for Steph to seek refuge at a lower elevation.

 

Before getting back to our ride, we watched as the solo female cyclist we passed earlier made it to the top of the pass and held her bike above her head to get a photo in the same place we took one moments before. All I could think was, “Damn, women are amazing”.

 

Wincing while I became aware of a blister that had developed on my hand due to my nervous grip, we took off down the other side en route to Diskit. High on life with the challenging part behind us, Eleanor and I were beaming, singing Beyonce and deliberating over what to name our motorcycle. It had to be after a strong woman, of course, to add to our girl biker gang, an oddity on these mountain roads. After naming many appropriate options, we ultimately chose Gloria after Gloria Allred. Before our trip to India, our Hanoi family watched Seeing Allred and fell in love with protagonist who has fought continuously for human rights. Eleanor and I agreed we needed to name our bike after a fighter to keep us safe throughout this trip and we thanked Gloria for getting us to the top of Khardung-la unscathed.

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When we reached the second police check, at a lower elevation, we decided to take a long break, each drinking two or three chai teas and scarfing down multiple packets of chips. Here we were able to recuperate and discuss our emotions of the difficult task we were faced with earlier that day. After realizing how badass we really are for doing that, we came to an agreement that even though it was testing, no one wanted to kill me just yet for making them do this trip.

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A successful police check (no questions about my license) and a few more hours weaving around the winding roads, we ended up in our desired destination ready to knock on doors for accommodation.

 

We were weirdly (conveniently?) greeting by a man who wanted to help us find a place to stay, suggesting to us what price we should pay for each place he brought us to. It was as if he was expecting us. The first homestay he led us to would let us four stay in one room for 1,600 rupees and wouldn’t let us bargain down. The room was average, with no view. The nice man we met declared that was too high and we could find cheaper, leading us to the next homestay. This one had a TV and wifi, surprisingly, so we stayed there for about 1,200 rupees and ate dinner there.

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To watch the sunset before watching England in the world cup, we climbed to the large buddha that watched over the town foregrounding the beautiful, white monastery tucked in the face of the mountain. Fascinatingly, this monastery was visited by the Dalai Lama only a few days later. Happy to be walking and not sitting on the bike, I quickly found difficulties with this hike as it look a lot of energy trying to keep up with the speedy Eleanor. It was clear I hadn’t fully acclimated yet. When we reached the top, I simply sat and basked in the beautiful quietness of the Himalayas while fending off my nausea and headache.

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We ended the day just as it began, with happy bellies and a giddy sense of excitement for how the next segment of ride would turn out.

With day one done and four more days on the road, there were many unknowns coming our way and we were eager to find out what they might be but weary of the hardships that may arise. We set our alarms early so we could face whatever the next day brought and still have time in the afternoon to explore our next destination: Turtuk.

 

 

 

 

 

The Adventures of the Bullet Babes: A motorcycle ride through the Himalayas (part 1/6) by Bree von Bradsky

Four women, two Royal Enfields, and one barely planned trip around the Himalayas.

It was the second week in July; hard pressed for time and left with minimal budget options, we hired a driver to take the four of us from Pushkar to Delhi airport, navigating the chaotic roadways in the middle of the night. At 3 am we found a spot in the airport to uncomfortably sleep under an absurdly efficient air conditioner while we waited to board our 8 am plane to Leh.

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Refusing sleep, I observed from a birds-eye view a sight I have been fascinated with seeing ever since I learned about them: The Himalayas. The only airport in the Ladakh area is located in Leh and belongs to the army.  After being stuck in a car and then an airport for the previous 14 hrs, the fresh air and beautiful surroundings practically smacked us in the face as we descended out of the plane. Despite temptation, we abided the strict advise not to take photographs until we left the airport.  

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The four of us, Mollie, Eleanor, Steph, and myself welcomed the cool breeze that surrounded us as we walked out into a sea of taxi drivers fishing for their next patrons. Leh has become a ‘tourist’ destination since it is now easily accessible by plane and many busses. Taking a plane is likely the safest option since mountain roads can be difficult for busses to traverse. The only thing we needed to be mindful of was altitude sickness since we had gone from Delhi (728 ft in elevation) to Leh (11,562 ft) in an hour and a half plane ride. The voice on the plane’s loudspeaker, our accommodation’s owners, and the internet all advise that after taking the flight we let our bodies acclimate for at least 24 hours before doing anything strenuous. Running on little sleep, we embraced this lack of physical activity and took a long, 4-hour nap immediately after our arrival.

 

We had eight days till my flight back to Delhi and no plan other than to bask in the brisk air we’ve been missing in Ha Noi, and to explore the beautiful landscape the Himalayas offer in every direction. Over a couple orders of the best Momos on the planet, I selfishly sputtered out the suggestion of hiring motorcycles and touring around the Ladakh area on our own. Bad ass or just ignorant to the potential risks of driving a motorcycle on the unpaved Himalayas roads, I’m not sure, but the others didn’t shoot down the idea. Another option was to hire a car and a driver; expensive but we would still have the freedom to choose where we went. Lastly, we could take a bus to the other tourist destinations in the area and cut off most of our freedom to roam the less explored.

 

After letting the momos sit in our happy bellies, we walked slowly (remember no strenuous activity) and confidently door to door asking every place that rented motorcycles their prices and advice. Just past the end of the street, we spotted the Bullet Café around the corner foregrounding a monastery on a hill. Oddly named because they didn’t have much for sale or even a toilet, but they did have motorcycles to rent. Four women, unaccompanied by men, we thought we’d be given trouble, or at least questions of our ability. To the contrary, the men at Bullet Café did nothing of the sort, in fact, I believe they really convinced us this was the right choice, dulling our concerns. By the time we left their shop after test driving the available 350cc Royal Enfields, we had decided that instead of just doing a three day trip and taking a bus to Pyangong Lake, we were going to do a five day trip and include all the places we wanted to see. This included some more less travelled roads, which meant more exploration to us.

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Despite our already bought data plans, our phones didn’t work in all of Ladakh without wifi. “How are we going to find places to stay?” says the group millennials who use their phones for everything. “Just show up in the town and knock on people’s doors” they said. It’ll be fine they said… And well, it seemed like the only option unless we wanted to spend a fortune on the accommodations in the area that had wifi and a website. Moreover, not having a place to sleep at night didn’t bind us to making it to any town just in case we got into any motorcycle trouble along the way. We were essentially free to whatever the trip would bring our way. Without service, the only reason we would use our phones was for the downloaded maps.me to keep us on track and, of course, to take photos. Mollie especially didn’t mind this since she was already on a social media cleanse and now we too were happily forced to talk to each other instead of using our phones.

 

The only thing standing in our ways from setting off with the wind in our hair was the requirement of a permit. It was now the late afternoon and the place that grants these permits was closed for the evening. They opened the next morning at 10am so the generous guys at the Bullet Café finished all the necessary paperwork and raced there in the morning to make sure we could have an earlyish start. The rules of traveling on a motorcycle in the Ladakh area: you have to have a valid driver’s license (although I left mine in Ha Noi by accident), you have to be traveling with at least one other foreigner- permits are not given to individuals (not sure this rule makes sense, because if you’re with an Indian passport holder who doesn’t need a permit, but you yourself need a permit, you need to find another foreigner to get this permit with, and thirdly, we needed a written declaration that the bikes belonged to us and therefore were not stolen. There were going to be checkpoints along the way and if we didn’t have the necessary permits, we would not be allowed on our way.

That night we packed very few items in a couple of backpacks. Eleanor and I had one bag and Mollie and Steph to another. The rest of our stuff we planned to leave at the homestay we were at because we booked another night there for when we returned from our adventure.

I'm back by Bree von Bradsky

Hello. It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, and for that I apologize.

I moved abroad in November of 2016 with the intent of traveling alone for however long I could financially and emotionally support myself. I wanted to emphasize and share with others that women can and do travel to the far ends of the earth. Despite my lack of posting, I want everyone reading this to know that the former statement is a capital t Truth. Over the past year or so I have made tremendous friendships with incredible women from all over the world, each with their own inspiring story.  

When I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on December 4th, 2016, I did not think I’d still be here come the 26th of March 2018. The fact is, is that I still remain in this beautifully chaotic cultural hub and it overjoys me. Last year during Tet Holiday, I went on vacation to Laos with my best friend and housemate, Alyssa. At this point in my travels I had been away from home for three months and I wasn’t sure if I should stay in Hanoi for a bit longer, move on to another country, or even, go home. I really did not know what to do; I wasn’t happy, a lot people weren’t. Trump had just been inaugurated, I wasn’t able to attend any women’s march, and I had been waking up each morning to the news alerts reporting on the egregious events that happened during his first week in office. In a lot of people’s lives this was a tough time. I didn’t know where my place was in the protest if I couldn’t physically be in the US to march for the cause (s). In a conversation with an old college professor of mine, she told me it was important to be abroad; to share with others that Americans can be good. Since then I’ve changed my method of protest to that, well that and writing postcards to my legislatures every once in a while, to tell them what’s up.   

Looking back to my journal I kept in Laos, my internal struggle and I wrote a new list every day: things I need to accomplish before going home, pros of leaving, cons of leaving, places to travel, food to eat, this list of lists could go on. In the end my lists did not bring me any closer to an answer, what did, was spending two weeks in Laos getting reacquainted with the travel bug. This two-week, plan as we went, trip ultimately led me to realize my time abroad was not over. Living in Hanoi is what you make of it, and I came back with a refreshed sense of adventure ready to take on life abroad and I’m so happy I did. Two weeks later I met my, now, partner who allowed me to experience Hanoi again with fresh eyes and so I stayed.

Well, here I am, one year, two months, and twenty-two days later, sitting on the couch of the apartment I share with Coly (my partner), inspired to write again. Not necessarily about the nomadic solo life abroad I originally made this blog about, but about finding a home in a place so far away from my roots, observing the world around me, the projects I'm working on, and of course, the wonderful people I meet.  

Stay tuned for my next update on what I’ve been doing and working on this past year. xx

 

White Knuckles by Bree von Bradsky

In a previous blog post, I discussed my desire to travel to Northern Vietnam leaving Ha Noi behind after my return from Laos in February.  I’m not sure if I have completely changed my mind, but I have found ways to challenge my comfortability and stability while in Ha Noi and leaving for an extended amount of time is no longer on the top of my list.


I’ve been in Ha Noi for a month and a half and traveling in total for three months. Now having “mastered” my semi-automatic bike, I’ve been able to travel in and out of the city. This story, White Knuckles, is about a motorbike trip I took a little over a month ago with a group of 10 to go on an overnight camping trip.

Similar to many other events, I heard about the possibility of going on a camping trip from a friend who heard about it from a friend. I had been wanting to travel to Ba Vi, a national park about an hour and a half out of Ha Noi, via motorbike to go hiking for awhile now so I suggested to Alyssa, my housemate, that we go on her day off. Also wanting to leave the city for a bit, Alyssa agreed to come. Alyssa then heard from our friend Lisa that she was going to go camping with a couple people overnight, and invited us to join. Not knowing the destination for this camping trip I naïvely assumed it was Ba Vi and agreed to go.

Waking up at 9 am Sunday morning, I looked at my phone and didn’t have any texts from Alyssa or Lisa regarding our estimated time of departure, so I went back to bed.  An hour later I woke up again with a text from Alyssa saying that we were meeting everyone at a café in the Old Quarter at 1 pm. Time to pack. Springing out of bed I ran down three flights of stairs, put on a pair of sandals over my wool socks, and walked to the fruit and vegetable alley to pick up some snacks for our trip.  Traveling down the road passing by many women set up with fruit and vegetables displayed in front of where they sat, I arrived at my usual egg lady (I needed breakfast). Her and her friend who’s set up next her greet me with big smiles since I’ve now become a frequent and loyal customer.  I then went to the lady who I buy oranges from and then my banana lady. All set.

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Returning home, I quickly scrambled three eggs, scarfed them down in seconds, and retreated up the three flights of stairs to my room to begin packing. Time check: 11:30 am. We were only going for one night, but I know from my experience camping that I would need layers and lots of them. Additionally, I had to bring my camera gear…  which meant I had to securely pack my camera, tripod, GoPro, and extra batteries. Got it. Now what? A FirstAid kit, a multi-tool, toilet paper, a rain coat, and sunglasses.  I put everything in my trusty Osprey backpack and that was that.

After cramming 8 of the 20 bia Ha Nois Alyssa bought into the small compartment in my motorbike, we were ready to go.

We finally got to the café after filling Alyssa’s tank with gas at 1:25 pm to meet Lisa and the others, but we were the second ones there so we didn’t feel bad about being late. It was only an hour and a half long ride and therefore we’d still get there before nightfall, right?

Wrong. Very very wrong.

Others started to show up and what I thought was going to be a small group of five of us turned into a group of 10. There were 6 motorbikes going. 4 of them had two people on them and 2, including myself, rode solo.  “So how long should this take?” I asked hoping for some reassurance since it was close to 2 pm..  Their response only discouraged me further: 3 hours.

Where are we going?

This was when I was informed that our one-night camping trip an hour and a half west of Ha Noi in Ba Vi, was in reality, a “3-hour” trip northeast of Ha Noi in Dong Cao.

This was my first long distance trip on my motorbike and I was driving amongst some very skilled and very fast motorbike drivers and I had to keep up or else I’d get lost. After driving over the hectic and unforgiving Long Bien bridge, we made our way to a highway. The speedometer on my bike wasn’t working so I’m not sure how fast we were going, but it was faster than I had ever gone before. We made our first stop about an hour in at a gas station. I was the last to fill up my bike and when I turned around everyone was gone. Fear kicked in and so did my throttle. Zoom. I sped so fast until I caught up with the rest of my bike gang, I thought I was going to either get pulled over or worse, crash.

5 hours later we were on smaller roads, traveling in and out of villages in the dark, dodging cows, chickens, buses and potholes.  At this point, I believed I’d never regain feeling in my hands or my shoulders from all the stress I was carrying. We kept stopping for directions and thank the goddesses we were with four Vietnamese women because they were able to do all of the questioning. 6 hours into our ride with very little gas left in my tank we reached a mountainous region. This is not a good sign for someone who is in the red for petrol.

Traveling on a “road” that was maybe 5 feet wide up, down, and around mountains, I began to get a feel for riding in the dark. Despite my new found bad-ass confidence, all I wanted to do was get off my bike. Additionally, three out of our six bike squad skidded out in this last hour of riding. One was because of a random sand dune, and the other two because of loose gravel going around a turn. No one was seriously injured, but everyone was ready to get to our destination.  

Still lost, a woman, our savior, from an ethnic group found us, waved us down and then hopped on the bike of some man’s motorbike and ushered us to follow. We did. She brought us to this roadside house and told us to park our bikes here, it’d only be 10,000 VND for them to watch our bikes over night.

With all of us waddling after sitting on our bikes for 7 and a half hours, we grabbed our gear and followed the woman into mountains. We had no idea what surrounded us because it was pitch black. We immediately set up our tents and started a fire so we could cook our dinner. At 10 pm we feasted: corn, chicken, rice, mushrooms, and beer.

Only getting a couple hours of sleep, we woke up at 6 am to watch the sunrise, but we were in the clouds and couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of us. Alyssa, Lisa, and I started up the fire again, cracked open a beer, and waited for the clouds to lift so we could hike before we had to head back on our treacherous ride back to Hanoi. Once we were able to see a bit more, we noticed the egregious amount of trash that blanketed the ground. With Alyssa back asleep next to the fire, Lisa and I along with a couple of the Vietnamese women found trash bags and gloves and began to pick up trash. With more trash than we’d ever be able to pick up, we were able to fill 4 large trash bags and hoped other travelers would do the same.

Our 30-hour trip, mostly spent driving, sitting next to a fire, and sleeping, with only an hour of hiking, was enough of an adventure for me to fall back in love with my life in Hanoi. I was no longer itching to leave.


I have now returned from Laos, and have decided to start applying for some English teaching positions that will help sustain my life abroad for a bit longer.

Ayat Abourashed, Fulbright ETA, Indonesia by Bree von Bradsky

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"I grew up always moving. But I was sheltered. I didn’t have my own experiences since I was always moving with my family. I wanted to develop my own opinions, and the only way to do so was by getting out of my conservative Egyptian household. The only way out was to travel alone and go somewhere far and unknown. Indonesia seemed like a pretty good place to be isolated a bit and embrace my introspective self. Funny thing is, I picked the most extroverted place in the world to try and be an introvert." - Ayat Abourashed

I met Ayat in Hanoi after being connected through our mutual friend, the one and only, Ryan Kertanis (seems like a trend these days). The two of them had stayed connected after meeting during a Fulbright event/ training in D.C. over the summer. When Ryan heard that Ayat was traveling to Hanoi he knew we had to meet. Well we did, and it was great. I spent my Christmas Eve with Ayat in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, exchanging stories of our travels. I learned a lot from listening to the highlights and hardships that she spoke about in terms of traveling. Ayat is another recipient of a Fulbright ETA, and therefore she'll be teaching English in Indonesia for a year- and maybe longer. 

I have now had the experience to meet Fulbright ETA's from both Mongolia and Indonesia. Although they are a part of the same program, their experiences seem to differ tremendously due to the varying challenges present in their respective countries. 


I admittedly might have lost track of my intention to post about women during my travels... I got so caught up in the "making friends" part that I forgot to start asking them to be involved in my women travel blog. With the inauguration having just passed and the tremendous turnout at women's marches around the world, wiped off my sunken shoulders and thought "duh, I can do something too from Vietnam." So don't worry, I remember now, and I will be posting about many women in the weeks to come.

I leave for Laos with my housemate, Alyssa, in a couple days. Unless I find a computer to use there, please expect a lot more posts about inspiring women upon my return to Hanoi. 

xoxo,

Wander Woman

 

Resisting Comfort in Ha Noi by Bree von Bradsky

I’m afraid I’ve returned to my comfort zone, and for that, I must plan my escape.

For the past two years, I have dreamed about nothing but returning to Ha Noi. The food, the people, and the café culture are all things that have made going back to Ha Noi irresistible. I wanted to live here, start a life; make friends; find a job and become a regular. I truly believed that’s what I wanted. Turns out, I’m already going stir crazy in the city, yearning for the countryside. I’ve been swept into the life of a foreigner living abroad at ease in a large city and I’m not sure that is what I came here for.

Life here is wonderful and I am not complaining. I love Ha Noi; Ha Noi feels like home. Ha Noi has everything I need to live happily and it certainly doesn’t hurt that I was welcomed back with open arms. Vietnamese friends that I made two years ago have reached out, spent time with me at cafés, taught me how to ride a semi-automatic motorbike, taken me to new food joints, tutored me in the Vietnamese language, and have comforted me in moments of doubt.  In my first week in Viet Nam, I had two interviews, found a house, and made new friends with people from India, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa. I used the Vietnamese language. I bargained. I ate many meals alone. I roamed back alleys, busy streets, and parks. Three weeks later, I’m living in Ba Dinh, a district of Ha Noi that is new to me. I have an egg lady, a pineapple lady, and a tea lady. I found a great place for Bun Cha and many Pho “restaurants”. I’ve returned to the same café on my motorbike almost daily, and have been recognized by other locals as someone living in Ha Noi rather than a tourist. This what I wanted, right?

 

As a result of retreating back to Ha Noi and starting a life quite successfully, I feel comfortable. If you know me at all, comfortability and stability scare me.

This past Friday, December 23, I met a South African man with a relaxed demeanor, wild hair and glitter all over his face for holiday spirit.   While we talked outside the ‘expat’ bar, sitting in a circle with other foreigners until 3 am, he explained his life as a hitchhiker. He “hitched” from Singapore through Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos to Vietnam and is now in Ha Noi. He's teaching English to make some money while contemplating his next move north to China, Mongolia, and Russia. I admired his adventurous spirit.

Unable to get the stories of his daring travels out of my head, I began to doubt my own experience these past three weeks in Ha Noi. Thinking back to my term abroad, I am reminded of some of the most influential experiences I had… and the majority seem to have taken place in the North. In a month, I plan to go on a two-week holiday to Laos with a housemate of mine during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, but upon my arrival back to Ha Noi in February, I will pursue moving north. 

In the meantime, I'll explore the city of Ha Noi further with the intent for the city to remain my home base.  

People Are Good by Bree von Bradsky

Lets get this straight.

My previous post about my twelve-hour bus ride to Choibalsan was not meant to scare or deter any woman from traveling. Women, get out there- travel, explore and learn through experience… just don’t be ignorant to potential risks.

I have been living this nomadic life for a little over a month, and while I’ve experienced some interesting exchanges with strangers, that bus ride was the only negative one so far. 

Traveling alone is magical. Truly. It puts you in a vulnerable position that inherently opens you to others. Think about it. If you were looking for someone to talk to in a restaurant/ café/ bar; whom will you approach? A group of people who seem to all be friends or someone who is standing/sitting/dancing by themselves? Probably the latter, right? Additionally, and especially when you’re in the company of locals, people are likely to help and look after you.

On the 12-hour bus ride back to Ulaanbaatar from Choibalsan, I was the only foreigner- again. This was a night bus, so we left Choibalsan around 8pm and we were to arrive in Ulaanbaatar at 6am. Still without a phone, I told Ryan via Bea prior to leaving not to worry and that I’d wing it to get from the bus station to his apartment. I did come here for an adventure, right? I sat on the bus, seat 14, next to the window, but this time, it was an older woman who sat next to me. Despite her hacking up a lung and her little interest in who I was, I felt comfortable falling asleep next to her. The bus stopped about an hour and a half in and some people got off the bus. I wasn’t sure if this was a food stop or a bathroom break so I remained in my seat. About 5 minutes later I decided, either way, it’d be good to stretch my legs so I got off the bus and walked aimlessly in the dark with my head up: stargazing. I returned to the bus and wrapped my scarf around my face to warm up a bit. A woman a little older than myself ran onto the bus and walked to my seat. “Have you eaten?” she said in perfect English. With a smile, I nodded, still full from the PB&J I scarfed down before leaving Bea’s only a couple hours before. She smiled and retreated off the bus again. It was with that quick exchange that I knew I had a friend on the bus and all my built up anxieties melted away.

Many hours later we arrived at the bus station in Ulaanbaatar at 5am: an hour early. My plan to walk off the bus and down the street to catch a cab that would be cheaper than any of the ones waiting to rip off foreigners at the bus station was immediately ruined when I fell victim to the first taxi driver I made eye contact with. I was tired, I guess, and all I wanted to do was get to Ryan’s and sleep. In a bed. The taxi driver led me to his car and I got in the back seat. With the map out on my phone and the little Mongolian I learned from riding around the city with Ryan, I tried to explain where I needed to go. It wasn’t working. At that point, a man had ran after me and opened up the cab door. “Where are you going?” He asked. I tried to give him the same explanation as I did to the taxi driver, but he too did not know where I was going. “Let me get my bags, we’ll ride together,” he said. While waiting for this man to get his stuff from under the bus, the taxi driver pulled out his phone and began showing me pictures of his family. His son-in-law too, was a foreigner.

The man returned with his stuff and got into the taxi. As I directed the cab towards Ryan’s, the man sitting next to me asked me about my travels and learned that I was headed to Vietnam to find a job. “Vietnam? I can give you a job in Choibalsan!”… I didn’t take him up on his offer, but I thanked him for catching a ride with me, even though it was in the opposite direction from where he was going. With the help of this man, and my new friendship with the taxi driver, I didn’t get overcharged. Helping me with my bags, the taxi driver gave me a hug and we parted ways.

I’ll continue to repeat this again and again: People are good. 

Tales of Female Nomad. Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman by Bree von Bradsky

My parents sent over a book and I could not help but immediately share the Preface. 

I am a modern-day nomad. I have no permanent address, no possessions except the ones I carry, and I rarely know where I’ll be six months from now. I move through the world without a plan, guided by instinct, connecting through trust, and constantly watching for serendipitous opportunities.

People are my passion. Unlike a traditional nomad, when I go somewhere, I settle in with the locals long enough to share the minutes of their days, to know the seasons of their lives, and to be trusted with their secrets. I have lived with people in thatched huts, slept in their gilded palaces, and worshiped with them at godly ceremonies and dens of black magic. I have also cooked with women on fires all over the world.

I’ve been living and loving my nomadic existence since the day in 1986 when, at the age of forty-eight, on the verge of a divorce, I looked around and thought: There has to be more than one way to do life.

There is.

12 Hours to Choibalsan by Bree von Bradsky

I woke up at 6am on Monday morning to finish packing for my 72 hour trip to Eastern Mongolia to visit Bea, the Fulbright ETA I posted a quote from earlier. Namjaa, the same woman who picked me up from the airport, arrived outside Ryan's building promptly at 6:45am.  The bus to Choibalsan was to leave at 8am and I still needed to buy a ticket. Yes, I made the decision to go on this trip at about 1am Saturday night/ Sunday morning so my planning was limited. When we, Namjaa, her son and myself, arrived at the bus station Namjaa parked the car, got out and took ahold of my arm, walking me inside to buy my ticket... "Passport." she said, motioning at me to get it ready. There's no such thing as lines in Mongolia and she was ready to cut in front of everyone. I couldn't make out anything she said to the woman on the other side of the glass, except, Choibalsan. Next thing I know she grabbed my arm again, giving me back my passport and a pink slip of paper and walked me outside to where the busses were parked. First bus- not mine. Second bus- not mine. Third bus- mine. Namjaa received a nod of approval from the three men outside the door and walked me onto the bus, and down the narrow aisle to seat #23, a window seat. With a big hug, she said goodbye and quickly retreated off the bus. I was alone. Not just in the sense that I traveling without a buddy, but at 7:20am I was the only one on the bus.

There I was, in seat #23, awaiting everyone else's arrival, nervously contemplating my journey ahead... without a working phone. I wasn't worried about this until the night prior to my leaving when Ryan and myself, joined by Will, an archaeologist, Adriane, another Fulbright ETA, and two Max Planck researchers, ate dinner at Marc's apartment. After catching wind of my trip the following day, the group, minus Ryan, began to inform me of the horrific Mongolian bus rides they had taken. "Not loving this conversation," I muttered as they boasted on about their drivers drinking vodka to stay awake, someone eating a snickers bar with the wrapper still on due to intoxication, and their 12 hour bus rides turning into a 24 bus rides. I shook it off knowing that people like to exaggerate stories to make their experiences, and life, seem hard. 

As Ryan and I were leaving, Marc asked if I had a phone. "No..." I said, already haven written down numbers with the intent to use someone else's phone if anything went wrong or if I was going to be delayed. Since being in Mongolia, my charades skills had improved and I felt confident enough to try to get someone's phone to use. At that point, the expression on Marc's face showed one of worry. Will chimed in, offering me his old Mongolian phone, as he was leaving Mongolia that Wednesday. All I would have to do is fill it up with 5 USD of credit and I'd be fine- so I took him up on his offer. 

7:45am. Still without data on my two phones (a smartphone and a dumbphone), I sat there hoping for the best as Ryan assured me that the couple bus rides he went on were perfectly fine. At this time, others started to arrive with babies, boxes, and bounties of luggage; I guess that is what you do when you leave a large city to return to the countryside. 

8:00am. It was noticeable that I was the only foreigner on the bus to Choibalsan, and everyone's stares were not discrete. Ryan gave me a tip before I left, telling me that if I brought a 'shareable' snack, people would look after me. Well, I soon found out my gender alone was going to play a large role in how people looked after me, particularly the man sitting next to me, so I ended up not sharing my shareable snacks. 

Three times my size, manspreading like his life depended on it, taking up half of my space crammed next to the window, with DIY tattoos, and no skills of the English language, I admittedly stereotypically defined this guy as 'tough'. Now, these descriptive factors do not matter and I know that my initial judgement based on his physical features could not be correlated to his character or personality, but looking back with 20/20 hindsight I should have noticed the signs early on. To be honest, the first hour of the bus ride I was quite pleased with who I had to surround myself with. The man across the aisle offered me pinenuts (a sharable snack) early on, so I knew there was a sign of potential bus 'friendship'. 

An hour into the bus ride I was asleep, and so was everyone else. The seats were quite comfortable, they even reclined and because I was next to the window, I was able to use my scarf as a pillow, although, I did hear that resting on your neighbor's shoulder is right of passage on long bus rides in Mongolia. 


12:00pm. 4 hours in we stopped at a rest station to eat. As I walked, following the others on the bus into a roadside restaurant, a bit confused, I immediately realized I didn't know how to read Cyrillic and therefore, I could not read the menu. Think. Think. Think. I remembered how to say one word: pronounced " tsoy-vyn". I didn't know if it was on the menu but when I got up to the cashier I blurted out the sounds of the dish and the woman seemed to understand. What she did not understand was why I wasn't ordering any tea or drink with it- I guess I fooled her enough for her to think I knew how to say anything else in Mongolian. 

I sat down with my "tsoy-vyn" at a table in the back corner with the men in my aisle of the bus. The two had seemed to either have been friends before getting on the bus, or they made friendship quickly- perhaps it was the snack sharing. I sat across from the two of them, scarfing down my meal without a drink. I tried to finish quickly because I was unsure how long we had at this bus stop. A couple of laughs later as a result of awkward exchanges, I got up and headed outside to get on the bus again. Only issue- there were two busses now and I had not paid attention to what the outside of my bus looked like at 7:20 that morning. I waited, carefully and ever so slyly observing, to see which bus someone I recognized got on, and then I followed. 

12:30pm. Back on the bus, with 8 hours to go I put one of my headphones back in and held the other in my hand. This way I could hear both my music and parts of the Mongolian TV show that was being played on a rather large flat screen in the front of the bus. I guess this was a symbol of an open invitation to listen to my music because the man sitting next to me took my earbud from my hand and put it in his ear, no questions or awkward exchanges had. It just happened. Well, I thought, I hope he enjoys Norah Jones because I'm not changing my music.

As I stared out the bus window; herds of hundreds of horses grazing on the steppe passed by quickly. Rare sights flying by, only to be held on to by memory. Frost consumed the window, but I was able to use my sleeve to wipe off enough for me to peek through to the outside world.  It was a surreal moment, but that moment ended quite rapidly by the unwelcomed hand of the man sitting next to me grasping my thigh. "Is he asleep?" I asked myself. I moved my thigh closer to the window to let him know this was not something I wanted, but his hand moved with it. At that point I shoved his hand off my leg and pretended to stretch and reposition. I went back to looking out the window, thinking nothing of it, until it happened again. This time, I knew he was not sleeping. His thumb affectionately rubbed my leg and so I shoved his hand off, again, and gave him a 'do not do that' look, but he was pretending to be asleep. I pulled out my book, placed it on my lap and began to read. This way my neighbor's access to my thigh was blocked, so I was in the clear. 

It began to get dark and I was car sick from reading. Leaving my book closed on my left thigh with my hand on top of it to hold it in place as an effort to reinforce the message that I did not want to be touched, I leaned up against the window to try and get some shut eye. Moments later the man repositioned and the jacket that he'd been using as a blanket spilled over, covering my hand, my book, and my leg.

Shit. 

His hand moved from his stomach to my hand in an effort to hold it. My hand, laid flat on my book, not giving him any reason to think I was enjoying this. I quickly pulled my hand away and his arm retracted. Phew. 

I put my hand back on my book to hold it in place when it happened again. His hand on top of mine. I was fully awake now. Wide-eyed, nervously recognizing that I was without a phone and one of the only people I felt comfortable asking to use theirs to call Bea, was touching me where I did not want to be touched. 

He started having a conversation with the man across the aisle. They would occasionally look at me at the same time and retreat back into conversation. What were they saying?

"How old are you" the man across the aisle asked. "30".. I decided that no one would want to sex traffic a 30 year old. "Have you been to China?" "Do you have your passport on you?" "Who's meeting you in Choibalsan?" These, all normal questions, except for when the man next to you was making unwanted gestures only moments before. At this point, I may have been reading into things too far, but I could have sworn that if Bea wasn't at the bus station to pick me up- I was going to be in trouble. 

7:00pm. The bus had made a couple stops after lunch, but the man next to me did not get off at any of them and I was too scared to leave my stuff, including my passport, behind with him. Therefore, I did not go to the bathroom or stretch my legs for 8 hours. 

7:30pm. My nerves had settled because it had been a couple hours since the last move made by my neighbor and I knew I'd be arriving in Choibalsan shortly. I had complete trust that Bea would be there waiting like she said. All I could do was sit, listen to music, play with the frost on the window, and wait. 

8:30pm. 12 and a half hours and many grey hairs later, I arrived at the bus stop in Choibalsan. The bus doors opened and people began to pile out. I was one of the last people off the bus, but Bea was standing right next to the door in a sea of taxi drivers aggressively awaiting their next customer. I took in a large breath of relief and felt the weight melt off my shoulders. Just before getting off the bus, the man who sat next to me turned around and shook my hand. With a head nod, we were on our separate ways.

I'm not sure why this situation happened, nor do I know the intent behind the acts made by this man, but I do know that this would not have happened to Ryan, or any of the males who had boasted about their horrid bus rides the night before. So I leave my questions open. What has his life been to have shaped his brain to assume that was ok? That those acts were warranted? Has he done this before? Should I have yelled at him? Should I have gotten others on the bus involved? 

It's in the past now, but it's smart to acknowledge the obstacles I may face in the future due to my gender.
 

 

 

Thanksgiving and Frostbitten Toes by Bree von Bradsky

The other day I attended a talk at the American center given by my friend Ryan on Thanksgiving. He shared with those who were there, almost exclusively Mongolians, the contested history of Thanksgiving; supplying them with information regarding the history of the holiday and the traditions both good (family/ friends/ giving thanks) and bad (overconsumption/ capitalism- black Friday/ betrayal of NA). Leaving room for questions at the end, one person asked what the American Dream was, which led me to ponder what the American Dream meant to me. We have all heard about the land of equal opportunity and the Horatio Alger, rags to riches story. And well, perhaps the dream is still alive for those who fit the mold, or choose to work in certain professions, but I feel at least generationally, the dream has changed, or, is no longer my only option.  Like I said in my ‘about me’ section, life is not linear and for now, I’m happy to say my path has taken me on a journey that counteracts the need for stability. I hope to continue chasing new horizons for as long as I can.

So here I am, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, celebrating Thanksgiving by cooking a chicken in a toaster oven. Life is a bit different over here in sub zero temperatures, which consequentially has limited my exploration of this beautiful country. Because walking outside for too long is not high on my list, to get around the city I constantly take busses and ‘cabs’. The cabs here are what we, in America, would consider hitchhiking. The process is as follows: walk to a place where a car can easily pull over, stick out your arm directly in front of your body slightly angled down with your palm faced towards the ground, look away from on coming traffic so no one knows you’re a foreigner, and wait for anyone to pull over. Once someone stops- hop in their car and hope for the best. Luckily I have friends here in Mongolia who speak enough of the language to get us from point A to point B. Another special aspect of these cabs is fixed price: 1 km = 1,000 tögrög (MNT). With the conversion rate of 1 USD to 2,400 MNT, the constant use of ‘cabs’ is very affordable- especially when splitting the cost.

 

Two weekends ago I was able to escape the city, seeking solace in the Mongolian countryside while horseback riding.  What was originally supposed to be a two day trek with many others, turned into a one day, two and a half hour horseback ride with only four of us in weather as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. By hour two I could no longer feel my toes due to frostbite, and decided it was time we made our way back to the ger camp. At one point Gaby, a Swiss dentist who helps run the horseback riding trips, rode towards me, immediately asking me if I was OK and I responded with a quiet “yes” accompanied by a smile (I was NOT ok). She replied: “You have frost on your face!” so I answered by informing her that she too had frost on her face. It was time to go home.  Ending our ride around 5:30 pm we were able to soak in the final hours of sunlight, watching the orange glow that consumed the sky radiate from the large orb of the sun setting as we crested the top of our final hill before descent to the ger camp.  That evening the three of us slept in a ger, warmed by coal and condensed wood, accompanied by our two pups, Tsagaan Sawar and Agari.  During the night I never got cold, but by morning my toes had not fully recovered; I lost feeling in the tips of my toes on my right foot, and have still yet to regain full sensation two weeks later. Because of this slight hiccup, I made the decision to stay at the ger camp to film the following day while Ryan and Gaby, decided to brave another ride: They only lasted an hour.

We went horseback riding the following weekend in much forgiving weather, a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Many others joined us on this excursion, including our friends Sondra and Dustin, and four German women. For this ride we went up a different hill, gaining a new vantage point of the pristine, and practically untouched, land that surrounded us. With the ground covered in snow, our guide was hesitant to let us gallop until he deemed the land suitable. This happened towards the end of our ride, but the wait was worth it. Galloping towards the ger camp, I was ecstatic to have experienced riding in the Mongolian countryside for another time.

Oh.. I almost forgot- we saw two camels on this ride. I’m afraid I do not have any photos, for our guide was nervous and wanted to get us away from the large animals creeping up on us. This was due to the fact his horses had never seen a camel before and was unsure of how they’d react. Thus, we quickly crossed to the other side of the river leaving the camels a spectacle to view from afar.  

Beatrice Garrard, Fulbright ETA by Bree von Bradsky

Bea

Bea, a recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship, is currently working as an English Teacher in Choibalsan, Mongolia. 

"I like to think I inherited my love of travel from my grandmother. She was an unemployed classics scholar, a widow with seven kids. Every summer she piled her family into an old VW bus and drove where the road took her—all forty-nine states you could get to by car. She died before I was born, and forty years later, I travel farther afield than her generation ever did. If I told her I was going to live in Mongolia for a year, however, I imagine she would take it in stride."