Uncornered Market » Travel http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Fri, 12 Sep 2014 12:46:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 How Travel Is The Classroomhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/experiential-learning-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/experiential-learning-travel/#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 10:05:05 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19285 By Daniel Noll

I recently came across an article about experiential learning that featured a list entitled 12 Things You Might Not Have Learned in the Classroom. The principles were adapted from a book entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. The list was preceded by the phrase “Really educated people…” “Wow, that’s a pretty presumptuous […]

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By Daniel Noll

Dan in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia
Travel: the ultimate experiential learning environment?

I recently came across an article about experiential learning that featured a list entitled 12 Things You Might Not Have Learned in the Classroom. The principles were adapted from a book entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. The list was preceded by the phrase “Really educated people…

“Wow, that’s a pretty presumptuous lead,” I thought. Then I continued reading and found myself nodding in agreement through much of the list.

The beauty of the lessons and notions is that they are timeless and age-independent. They apply — from Millenials to Baby Boomers — to those, who whether they know it or not, are committed to lifelong learning. And they underscore an observation I have made in my own wanderings around the world: that travel can not only make us better, but it can also help us improve the world, too.

I felt compelled to add my own interpretation of how immersive travel offers the perfect experiential learning context.

Note: I’ve included Gatto’s original 12 entries in bold below, followed by my own thoughts.

1. Establish an individual set of values but recognize those of the surrounding community and of the various cultures of the world.

The phrase “finding our place in the world” suggests that we must first be grounded in who we are and the values we embrace in order to make room for the world and our position within it.

Audrey with Women Pilgrims - Paraw Bibi, Turkmenistan
Audrey is adopted by a group of women at Turkmenistan’s Paraw Bibi pilgrimage site.

The idea is not to be immovable or inflexible. Instead, understand that self-awareness better positions us to acknowledge and respect similarities and differences. This also suggests that you shouldn’t simply accept whatever opinions come your way. Instead, think critically, question heartily and consciously adopt new perspectives and practices as you test the ones you currently hold.

I’m reminded of what could have been a confrontation in Istanbul, Turkey.

2. Explore their own ancestry, culture, and place.

As we seek to better understand ourselves, it seems a natural progression that we will be better equipped to make room for others and their stories.

As for place and where we’ve come from, travel often helps us develop a deeper appreciation of all the things back home that we are tempted to take for granted. A change of place and context can often surface useful questions, stir productive (yet often uncomfortable) doubt, and help us carve out greater creativity and curiosity.

As for people and who we’ve come from, our stories are often more complicated than we imagine. Exploration of our own background can build empathy and also conspire to crowd out fear. In the absence of fear, we make room for more understanding.

I’m reminded of Audrey’s search for her grandfather’s childhood home in Qingdao, China.

3. Are comfortable being alone, yet understand dynamics between people and form healthy relationships.

Although some of our greatest achievements are those that we accomplish together, the place to gather the strength and perseverance to achieve these goals resides inside each of us.

Paradoxically, I find that being alone — do not confuse or conflate this with loneliness — is tremendously important to building confidence, clarity and security. With that foundation, we can better extend ourselves to others and appreciate our interdependent relationships with them.

I’m reminded of reaching out to build relationship bridges across cultures where traditional diplomacy doesn’t always work.

4. Accept mortality, knowing that every choice affects the generations to come.

The great irony of travel is that we often admire the cathedral, the bridges, the great works, the kingdoms and the vast networks and spans that took generations to build. But can our travels teach us what we, as individuals and as a society, need to do to build metaphorical cathedrals of our own?

What actions do we take today whose results will survive us, yet not be seen by us? This means taking action — and maybe even sacrificing — not because you will reap immediate benefit, but instead because you know the importance of your actions to future generations.

I’m reminded of our journey to Antarctica where we discussed the shrinking glaciers with an Antarctic scientist and veteran, and learned that our actions at home were doing more harm to the environment than the ships coursing through the region. John Oliver may take exception to that today.

5. Create new things and find new experiences.

Travel, particularly the sort that emphasizes engagement and participation in favor of consumption, can develop our creative and adaptive instincts. Even after all the places on earth are discovered, the possibility of authentic, meaningful experience is infinite — if we’re smart enough to recognize that it’s up to us to search ever more deeply for it.

To create more, to participate, to consume less. To engage fully, so that the mark of a place and its people are also left on us. This is the new travel.

This is not only the future of travel, but if we work for it, it will also be the future of our society.

I’m reminded of how travel helps us let go.

6. Think for themselves; observe, analyze, and discover truth without relying on the opinions of others.

If travel does nothing else, it provides endless opportunities to observe and experience for ourselves. That a place and its people can be so vastly different in person than we have been told by others — through news reports, opinions, travel articles — is the ultimate discovery.

Kurdish Truck Drivers at Road Side - Kermanshah, Iran
Meeting Kurdish truck drivers at a kebab truck stop in western Iran.

I travel so I can discover the world for what it is, not as it has been told to me. I do this for my own sake and vitality.

Opinions of others are often important, but forming and re-forming one’s own opinions through actual experience is where the greatest personal growth and progress is hidden — a transformation that displaces prejudice and preconceived notions. Travel continually reaffirms this.

I’m reminded of the main reason why we travel and how we find places so vastly different than the prevailing narrative on the news.

7. Favor love, curiosity, reverence, and empathy rather than material wealth.

Before studies told us that buying experiences provide more sustained happiness than buying products, our bodies and minds had been telling us the same thing. Material accumulation makes us feel heavy, it’s a quick hit; experiences on the other hand are light and have proven longevity.

But as we pursue experiences, maybe we can ask ourselves: “Why we do it? To what end?” I’d like to think that if we aim to draw the most from the world and our travel experiences in it, maybe we’ll do so in the pursuit of mutual understanding and respect. Not only will that make the world a better place, but it will make each of feel better and more connected, too.

I’m reminded of our realization of the value of experiences over stuff.

8. Choose a vocation that contributes to the common good.

The greatest art of all is the ability to enrich oneself while simultaneously enriching the lives of others. When one’s riches arrive entirely at the expense of others, I begin to wonder how bright that person is after all.

Travel the world, see the rich and the poor, and this will be laid bare. Then ask: “What is my purpose? Where can I contribute?”

I’m reminded of using our storytelling and photography skills to help microfinance organizations tell their story through images and vignettes to help raise awareness and funds.

9. Enjoy a variety of new places and experiences, but identify and cherish a place to call home.

Some of us have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and float almost ad infinitum, like lifetime nomads. Social networks have grown into our sense of what we call home. But we’re still human, of the flesh. And we need connection and touch. This means places — and more importantly, people — that are ours, that we can return to after our journey. They are “home” to us.

Open spaces, long horizon. A gaze, a beer, a sunset. A space 100 acres larger than New York's Central Park. Old Tempelhof Airport. A Berlin silhouette.
Tempelhof Park in Berlin, one of our favorite places in the city we now call home.

Home is also an important place for reflection, to take pause to absorb all that you have experienced and digest all that you have learned on your journey.

I’m reminded of a discussion about what “home” really means by way of a visit back to a former home of ours: Prague, Czech Republic.

10. Express their own voice with confidence.

Confidence is about finding our voice and allowing it to co-exist with the voice — disagreement included — of others.

When we’ve done that, I suspect we’ve really found ourselves.

I’m reminded of a twist on voice and purpose.

11. Add value to every encounter and every group of which they are a part.

Every person and place, every handshake and interaction can make a difference, however small. Travel teaches us this continuously, that we are all connected to and inherently invested in something much bigger than ourselves. Maybe that lends to us a sense that we should give back to the world around us and view that motivation less as a burden and more as an opportunity.

I’m reminded of a story that demonstrates we are all more connected than we think and the power of citizen diplomacy.

12. Always ask: “Who am I? Where are my limits? What are my possibilities?”

Travel can be the mirror to aid us in understanding ourselves and our potential. It helps us reframe who we are and what we are capable of doing. Travel experiences, by placing us in contexts that are unfamiliar and unknown, regularly press our boundaries and limits. They often force us to face our fears and appreciate the permanence of uncertainty.

This exercise at once helps us find our feet, and stretch our sense of possibility.

Step by Step to Thorong La Pass - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Facing up to the physical and emotional challenges to cross Thorong La Pass, Nepal.

I’m not suggesting the next time you have an identity crisis (I’ve had a few), that you hop a plane. Use your traveler’s eyes to explore your city in a new way. You can also reflect on your previous travel impressions and use them as creative fuel to define what is possible and which steps you will take to get there.

I’m reminded of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, just as much a mental challenge as a physical one.

This is not only about travel. This is about life. Seek it. Find it. Experience it. And most importantly, go beyond the cliche to figure out what’s really underneath all that inspiration. And don’t be afraid to have your ideas and perceptions challenged along the way.

This is how we become “really educated people.”

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Next Up: From Mines to Wines, Germany’s Rhinelandhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/rhineland-travel-germany/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/rhineland-travel-germany/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 16:42:02 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19340 By Audrey Scott

As we set off for Germany’s Rhineland this weekend, I think back to an exchange I had with a tourist from Stuttgart the other night. “It’s been really fun visiting Berlin this week. It’s like traveling to a different country from Germany,” he said. We laughed. We understood. This is often what we tell people […]

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By Audrey Scott

As we set off for Germany’s Rhineland this weekend, I think back to an exchange I had with a tourist from Stuttgart the other night.

“It’s been really fun visiting Berlin this week. It’s like traveling to a different country from Germany,” he said.

We laughed. We understood. This is often what we tell people when they ask us how we like living in Germany. We’ve found that we picked up a bit of the Berliner habit of forgetting that there’s a country to explore outside of the city limits of its capital.

It’s time to do a little something about that.

After two months of enjoying summer in Berlin, we’re heading out by train to Germany this weekend. We’ll be exploring Germany’s Rhineland — a new part of the country (for us). Our trip will include places like Essen, Aachen, Cologne and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

Here’s where we’re going and what we’ll be up to.


I never would have thought to visit an old coal mining facility, but my interest in Zollverein Coal Mine was piqued recently when Dan mentioned the name in connection with a novel he’d read entitled “All Light We Cannot See.” Beginning on the eve of World War II, the novel tells the story of a German boy — whose father died as a miner in Zollverein — and a French girl, both trying to cope with the horrors of war.

Zollverein Coal Mine at night.

In addition to once being a coal mine, Zollverein is now known for its Modern Movement in architecture — something we know admittedly little about, but whose appearance we are often visually drawn to on bicycle rides around Berlin.

So we’re looking forward to understanding the historical, industrial, and architectural layers that make up UNESCO-protected Zollverein and learning more about the Ruhr region.


Aside from likely being a candidate for a spherical panorama of its interior, the 1,200-year-old Aachen Cathedral has been on our Germany sights shortlist, as it’s been recommended so often by others.

We’re looking forward to finally seeing this interior for ourselves.

aachen Cathedral
Interior of Aachen Cathedral.

Cologne / Köln

Years ago when I lived in Estonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my Estonian friend, Sirje, showed me her faded photographs of the Cologne Cathedral. I’ll never forget it. Visiting Cologne was among her first travels outside of what was the Soviet Union; she described her impressions of being in the “West” with all the fancy cars and endless shopping options. For me, as an American, the photo of the Cologne Cathedral looked like something straight of a fairytale with its towers and Gothic architecture. It will have taken fifteen years for me to finally see the Cologne Cathedral for myself…and share with Sirje an updated photo.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral at Night. Wow.

Another Cologne icon that we’re interested in getting to know a bit better is Kölsch, a local style of beer that is light in color and is only served in thin, tall glasses (in fact, we hear that drinking Kölsch in a beer stein is considered sacrilege). This style of brew does not travel well, so it’s necessary to go to the source — or to the Berlin Beer Festival — to enjoy it.

Given all that we’re heard about Kölsch, we imagine that it may someday achieve its own UNESCO culinary status.

If you have any recommended places to drink Kölsch in Cologne please let us know!


This is where the road trip portion of our Rhineland travels begin. We’ll pick up a rental car in Cologne and use it to explore the castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust near the town of Brühl before heading further into the Rhine Valley. I’ll have an opportunity to exercise my newly acquired German driver’s license on both the autobahn and tiny village roads. Dan will have an opportunity to exercise his fatalism, as he’s the one who usually does the driving in our family.

He’s frankly terrified by the thought. This should be fun.

Augustusburg Castle
The Augustusburg Castle gardens in bloom.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley

As some of you may remember, we also never pass up an opportunity to taste and learn more about wine. So it won’t surprise you when we confess that we timed this journey to coincide with the Bingen Wine Festival, taking place in the first week of September. This segment of the Rhine Valley is smack in the middle of four German wine-growing regions: Rheinessen, Nahe, Rheingau and Middle Rhine. Although we have learned a bit about German wines over the years, we looking forward to a deeper dive by dropping in on the wine festival and by visiting a few wineries along the way.

This particular segment of the Rhine River has been a water trading route for over two thousand years, which is why it is dotted with castles across its various clifftops. Add to that its steep terraced vineyards that appear to fall right into the river and its almost too-quaint-to-be-true collection of villages that trace the river’s edge, and it’s no surprise that our parents have had nothing but great things to say about the region after their visits many years ago. My mother even made me promise to wave to the Loreley rock for her.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley
Marksburg Castle in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. What a view.

Although we’ll have a rental car with us, we’ll leave it behind for a spell to take a boat ride or two and to explore by bicycle the surrounding hills, from Bingen to Rüdesheim, Lorch, Bacharach, Koblenz and all spots in-between.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Itinerary Anchors

We confess, we have a mixed relationship with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

On the one hand, we find that tourists can sometimes approach them as places to “consume” or check off a box as if collecting, rather than experiencing. We find this approach can lend a little bit of tunnel vision to one’s travels — enabling visitors to ignore companion experiences or nearby areas that might help to round out their trip.

On the other hand, UNESCO sites have often pushed us to visit destinations we otherwise wouldn’t — often in the middle of nowhere — just because we’re curious about what makes that a place so special to have earned it official World Heritage status. It’s this curiosity that led us to UNESCO sites such as the Jesuit Ruins in Paraguay, Paharpur Buddhist Monastery in Bangladesh, Gobustan in Azerbaijan (and had to hitchhike back), or the Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al Hitan) in Egypt. We were even married at a UNESCO site in Italy. (Sadly, our fateful day had nothing to do with its earning UNESCO status.)

In this way, UNESCO sites can serve as itinerary anchors and can highlight an aspect of history or culture that a visitor would have otherwise never heard about (e.g., that Tantric Buddhism likely got its start in Bangladesh – who knew?!).

You may have have noticed that we’re anchoring our Germany trip around several of Germany’s UNESCO sites, taking us from a coal mine to cathedrals to castles to wineries along the Rhine Valley. And as much as we’re looking forward to seeing these sites, we’re just as excited for all the experiences that will happen in and around them — including getting lost.

How can you help with our trip?

If you have recommendations for places to eat and drink in Essen, Aachen, Cologne, and in and around the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, please send them our way! We’re looking forward to balancing out our historical and cultural learning with a bit of the culinary and vinicultural variety.

Follow along with our Germany adventures

We will share all that we see and experience during the trip on our various social media channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus – using the hashtag #welterbegermany.

Feel free to engage with us there and share your own tips as we explore this new-to-us part of Germany!

Photo Credit: All photos above are courtesy of the German National Tourism Board.

This trip is supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the opinions expressed here are our own.

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Gorilla Trekking in Uganda: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/gorilla-trekking-uganda/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/gorilla-trekking-uganda/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 12:30:13 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19232 By Daniel Noll

I followed just behind our lead mountain gorilla tracker. In the hush of the moment under the canopy, I remembered our guide’s advice earlier that morning: “On your way to the gorillas, don’t forget to enjoy the sound of the jungle. There’s nothing like it.” My focus had been on climbing through the tendrils, on […]

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By Daniel Noll

I followed just behind our lead mountain gorilla tracker. In the hush of the moment under the canopy, I remembered our guide’s advice earlier that morning: “On your way to the gorillas, don’t forget to enjoy the sound of the jungle. There’s nothing like it.”

My focus had been on climbing through the tendrils, on getting there. I could feel the heat around me, the sound of swarms of bugs above my head.

Then our tracker pivoted and pointed my attention to the right, just past the thickness from which we’d emerged and into the clearing.

Suddenly, it was just me and a mountain gorilla.

Pensive Gorilla - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Our first encounter with a mountain gorilla.

His name was Kakono, the silverback leader of the Mishaya family we’d managed to find. He sat just a few meters away, only a group of leaves and the floor of the jungle between us. I stared for a few moments, following his every slow, deliberate movement. Then I came to and realized I might want to capture the moment in pixels. A photo may be worth a 1000 words — I don’t know — but this moment seemed to require a few thousand more.

He had massive hands, blocky, like a catcher’s mitt. Inky black and leathery, too, with rough patches and texture. “A manicure,” I thought.

Kakono got up. He was huge — shockingly so. Fluid and graceful. Majestic and peaceful. He knew no hurry. The deliberate nature of his movements seemed almost oddly incongruous with his size.

I tasted a bit of fear – fear I now know was misplaced. Stereotypes of gorillas are so entirely off the mark. All those images we’re fed – King Kong, American Tourister luggage commercials and all the false clichés of violent Hollywood-styled apes — faded into the buzz of the jungle.

Despite what their size might suggest, mountain gorillas are vegetarian. Take that when you imagine they might devour you. Besides, they are peaceful, almost zen-like in a way we humans might never be able to comprehend. Maybe that’s what sitting and eating in contemplation does to you. That, and give you a big belly.

A connection, they look like us in another age, with more hair, more wrinkles.

A look into their eyes. Simple wonder. What do they think? What do they see? If they could, perhaps they might ask, “What do you people with those things around your necks find so interesting about me? Please, get a life.”

This is our world, together. But we were clearly in theirs.

For many travelers to Uganda, gorilla trekking is the anchor activity. To encounter mountain gorillas not only carries some expense, but it also takes planning and preparation to make the most of your outing.

In this beginner’s guide we share all you need to know to prepare for and get the most out of you gorilla trekking experience in Uganda.

Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Approximately 900 mountain gorillas live in the shared-border forests that extend into Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After decades of decline due to poachers, civil war and diminishing forests, gorilla populations have begun to pick up in the last couple of years. In some respects, the growth of gorilla tourism may have helped protect these animals as the government receives funding for conservation and sees the economic benefit of protecting the animals and the national parks that serve as their homes.

Today, around 400 gorillas call the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park their home. Of these, nine gorillas families (each family usually consists of 10-15 members) have been habituated, meaning that although they are still wild they have become accustomed to humans and are unlikely to attack.

Gorilla Teenager with Belly - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Teenage male, ready with a big belly for when he becomes a silverback leader.

When to go gorilla trekking

It is possible to go gorilla trekking all year round, but you may face rain or more crowds during certain times of year. The high season is June-September and December-February when Uganda has its dry(er) season and Europeans have their holidays. Even during this time you may experience rain in the forest. Trekking permits will be a bit pricier and more in demand during these times.

Low season is considered March-May or October-November rainy seasons. When trekking during this time you may experience more rain in the forest, making for a muddier, more slippery climb. However, during this time gorillas may be more likely to hang out in the low lands since food is abundant during the rainy season and they don’t need to search long and wide for meals. This means that your treks into the forest to find them will be shorter, often under two hours.

Our Gorilla Trekking Guide Waits for Information - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Our gorilla trekking guide waits for information from trackers on the location of the gorilla family.

We went in May and lucked out with our weather. It rained the day before and the day after, but on the day of our trek it was sunshine the whole time we were in the forest and with the gorillas. For cost and crowds, we’d recommend trekking in either the off-season or shoulder season.

Obtaining a Gorilla Trekking Permit

Gorilla trekking permits are a hefty expense at $600 per person for most of the year, with April and May at $350 per person (2014 prices). The maximum number of visitors per day is 72, divided into groups of 8 persons maximum. Each group visits a different habituated gorilla family. The permit assigns you to a gorilla family and allows you to spend one hour with the family once your group finds them.

Our gorilla trekking permit and organization was included as part of our G Adventures tour in Uganda. This means that they took care of the paperwork as well as transport to and from our accommodation to the park. Each gorilla family is in a different area of the park, so your accommodation should be coordinated with the park entry point for that particular family. All we needed to do was show up and be prepared. Made for a very stress-free experience.

Even if you travel independently, it makes sense to find a local tour operator to help you secure your trekking permit and arrange transport, accommodation and other logistical support. The reality is that Ugandan tour operators purchase the majority of trekking permits so it’s very difficult for individuals to buy them directly from the National Park. If you want to go during the high season (June-September) you’ll need to organize everything months in advance to be sure you can get a permit.

And while there are no guarantees of mountain gorilla sightings when you set off, the tracking procedures in place at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park virtually ensure you an unforgettable encounter.

Gear: What to Bring With You Gorilla Trekking

Everyone’s gorilla trekking experience will be different depending upon the weather, the depth of your forest hike, where the gorillas are hanging out, and other factors. It’s important to be prepared for anything so you can focus your time on enjoying your jungle walk and time spent with the gorillas, rather than being worried about your gear.

Gorilla Trekking, Just Before the Forest - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Our group lines up before heading into the forest.

1. What to wear when gorilla trekking

Note: It’s likely that you’ll be trekking through mud and covered in dirt by the end of your trek so consider bringing clothes that you won’t mind ruining.

  • Trekking pants. If you have waterproof pants with you, carry these in your backpack in case of rain. You will also be recommended to tuck your pant legs into your socks to prevent nasty creatures from crawling up your legs.
  • T-shirt and long-sleeved shirt. We recommend a t-shirt with a light long-sleeved shirt over top to protect you against sun exposure and bugs (of which there are A LOT in the forest and jungle).
  • Waterproof jacket. Keep this handy, especially in the wet season.
  • Fleece or light jacket. The park is above 2,000 meters (6,000 feet). It’s unlikely that you will be cold when trekking in the humid forest, but you may become chilled waiting around for word of the gorillas’ location or when stopping for lunch.
  • Trekking shoes. For climbing hills, good traction on your shoes is essential. Even better if your trekking shoes are somewhat water-resistant.
  • Hat. Sun protection when trekking outside the forest.

2) Food and Water

  • Two liters of water per person. While this may sound like a lot, this amount is recommended in case it’s a long, hot hike. Better to have too much water than too little.
  • Lunch and snacks. Bring snacks that you can munch on along the way to keep your blood sugar and energy high before lunch, which will usually consist of a sandwich and fruit. Depending on how long it takes your group to find the gorilla family, it can sometimes be a while before you eat lunch.

3) Other useful gear for your gorilla trek

  • Small backpack. Be sure this is comfortable, as you’ll need to carry it for hours en route to and inside the jungle.
  • Walking stick. Do not worry about bringing your own. Wooden sticks are available to borrow at the park entrance.
  • Cameras and rain protection. It might be a bit overboard to carry a dry sack for your camera (although we did), but do carry a plastic bag or similar water resisting protection to keep your camera protected in case of rain.
  • Sunscreen and bug spray. Travel staples in this part of the world.

Note: If you’d prefer to enjoy your trek unencumbered, you can hire a porter to carry your small bag and assist you up hills and through the challenging parts of the forest. Just tell your guide that you’re interested in hiring a porter and he’ll find one for you at the National Park entrance. The fee is $15 per day (May 2014 prices).

What to Expect on the Gorilla Trekking Day

Your Team: Guides, Scouts, Trackers

Don’t forget to bring your passport with you as officials at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park office will need to verify your trekking permit against your identification. After a quick briefing on safety measures and what to expect during the day, you will be assigned to a group of a maximum of 8 people for your gorilla family search and visit.

Each group consists of a main guide and two scouts who carry AK-47 guns and walk before and after the group. We were told that the reason for armed scouts is for protection in the forest against wild elephants or angry, unhabituated gorillas. The scouts are trained to fire shots into the air first in order to scare away the animals. We’ve never heard of anyone coming across these wild animals, but we understand that the policy of the National Park is to be safe rather than sorry.

Gorilla Trekking Guide, Scouts and Trackers - Bwindi, Uganda
Our gorilla trekking team of guides, scouts, trackers and a porter.

Your group will also have a pair of trackers who will have been sent out in the early morning (prior to your arrival in the park) to find the location of your specific gorilla family and to assess where they may be headed. Trackers communicate the gorilla’s movements to the guide so that he can decide on the best approach to meet the gorilla family.

Trekking to Find the Gorillas

The length of your overall experience and the amount of time it will take to actually meet your gorilla family is said to vary widely. It may take as little as 30 minutes to find your family and as long as five to six hours. The day we went, we spent about an hour looking for the gorillas while another group spent three hours searching in thick jungle.

The forest is lush, humid and damp and there are no discernible trekking paths. The terrain is full of hills and steep slopes where you will be required to pull yourself up steep jungle grades by grasping onto branches, plant roots, bushes and more. Follow the lead of the guide as to the best path and form to take.

Gorilla Trekking, Climbing Through Forest - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Climbing hills in the lush Ugandan forest.

If you need a break, let your guide know. The worst thing that can happen is if you overexert yourself or don’t hydrate enough and are forced to leave the park before you find the gorillas.

Quality Time with the Gorillas

Once your group finds the gorilla family the clock starts: you have an hour to spend with them.

Now is when you want to stay quiet, move slowly and avoid sudden movements. I found that just sitting, enjoying being in the gorillas’ presence was the best experience.

Up Close with Kakono, the Silverback Male Gorilla of the Mishaya Group - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Joining the mountain gorillas for their breakfast feast.

It’s not a problem to look a gorilla in the eye, but if he begins charging you, hold your ground but lower your eyes to indicate that you do not want a confrontation. Photos and videos are fine, but no flash.

Ideally, you’ve found several gorillas together in a clearing on the ground. This provides you easy visibility and you can just sit and observe. In other situations the gorillas are up and moving around — in the trees, behind bushes, or walking around through dense brush. Follow the lead of the trackers and guides and stay close as they move around to find other gorillas.

The trackers will often clear the brush with their machete so you can get a clearer and closer look at the gorillas. It is incredible how graceful and peaceful these animals are, especially considering their incredible size. You’ll be amazed when you see the silverbacks (mature males) get up and move around.

Huge Silverback (Male) Gorilla from Behind - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Gorilla moon. Amazed at the sheer size and bulk of the silverback mountain gorilla.

Sustainability, Respect for the Gorillas

Gorilla trekking permits exist to limit the number of visitors and thereby reduce the stress on the gorillas. Our individual behaviors can also help to reduce the anxiety that our presence may effect, too. Give the gorillas the space they deserve.

Do not aggressively pursue them if it seems as though they are becoming annoyed and constantly moving to higher branches or behind bushes. Some of the most entertaining actions and displays (e.g., peeing or pooing on you from a tree, or chest beating) are usually an indication that a gorilla feels threatened. Good thing is, those displays are also a gorilla’s way of communicating “Keep your distance. I’d like to avoid resolving this with a fight.

Some travelers may ask: Are mountain gorilla encounters sustainable and ultimately beneficial to the mountain gorillas? On one hand, the visits are clearly an invasion. Imagine a bunch of photographers coming into your home at approximately the same time every day. You might tire of it, no?

At the same time, to the extent that gorilla treks provide motivation to protect the gorillas and their habitat from encroaching land development and farms, it’s not only worthwhile — it may be the only thing keeping human beings from driving to extinction what few mountain gorillas remain.

With that in mind, respect the gorillas as the wild yet sentient creatures that they are.

Kakona, the Silverback Gorilla - Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Up close and personal with Kakono.

As you stare into the eyes of a mountain gorilla you’ll likely feel a connection, one unlike you’ve ever experienced before. A connection of peering into the eyes of an exotic creature that looks and acts quite a bit like we humans do.

It’s a difficult feeling to articulate. We hope that this guide helps you experience it for yourself one day.

Disclosure: Our tour in Uganda was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Uganda & Gorillas Overland Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Africa Tours with G Adventures

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Travel to Rwanda: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/rwanda-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/rwanda-travel/#comments Fri, 08 Aug 2014 07:52:27 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19211 By Audrey Scott

Rwanda.  A country where the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name: the horrific, tragic genocide of twenty years ago. When we mentioned that we were looking forward to visiting Rwanda, we weren’t entirely surprised by the confused looks and cocked heads: “Why?” We weren’t headed to see the mountain gorillas as most people visiting Rwanda […]

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By Audrey Scott

Fishing Boats on Lake Kivu - Kibuye, Rwanda
Another day comes to a close on Lake Kivu, Rwanda.

Rwanda.  A country where the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name: the horrific, tragic genocide of twenty years ago. When we mentioned that we were looking forward to visiting Rwanda, we weren’t entirely surprised by the confused looks and cocked heads: “Why?

We weren’t headed to see the mountain gorillas as most people visiting Rwanda purely for tourism might do. We’d read about trekking, volcanoes and lakes, but mainly we were curious and wanted to see the country for ourselves. Atrocities should not be forgotten, but we know that people and places are resilient and they evolve, that life moves on. As interested as we were to learn more about the Rwandan genocide and its causes, our focus was to understand better Rwanda’s present and the future it hopes to build.

So what did we find? What surprised us about Rwanda? Read on.

If you’re looking for travel tips and recommendations for independent budget travel in Rwanda skip ahead to: Rwanda Travel Tips. If you want more photos, you can find our Rwandan photo gallery here.

1) Rwanda = The Switzerland of Africa?

The “Singapore of Africa” or “Switzerland of Africa.” Whichever analogy you choose, the meaning is clear: order, cleanliness, calm, rules enforced. To a surprising degree.

We arrived in Rwanda after a long bus ride from Kampala, Uganda. Even at the border, we could sense a different feeling crossing into Rwanda – greater calm, slower movement. Streets were wide and clean, with little to no trash to be found. Motorcycle taxi drivers wore helmets and safety vests. Honking was almost non-existent. There was none of the frenzy of humanity and movement we’d become accustomed to in Kampala. This order isn’t reserved for cities, either. As we trekked through villages in Musanze district, we found front yard gardens and paths there were also well maintained.

This is an image of Rwanda vastly different than most people imagine — with genocide, chaos, and lawlessness still in mind. After speaking to both locals and expats who had lived there for a while, the emphasis on order began to make sense. To rebuild a country after an atrocity like the genocide, where 100 days in the spring of 1994 left more than one million Rwandans dead (approximately 14% of the population), a society that hoped to recover at all might need a sense of security and stability. In some cases, order and rules can help achieve this.

With stability –- and an eye to human rights as a basis of discourse — reconciliation and rebuilding can occur.

2) Ubiquitous Rwandan genocide reminders

Our visit this year to Rwanda coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The calendar year is packed with events for remembrance, Kwibuka in the local language of Kinyarwanda.

Throughout the country, we found memorial signs that read Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew.  Signs were everywhere, in big towns and small, serving as a reminder that every village and every person was affected by the genocide.

We visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali to learn more about the conditions that led up to an environment where such systematic killing could occur. It very well done and provides the historical and socio-economic background of the Hutus and Tutsis, as well as the propaganda and psychological games that were used to motivate ordinary people to kill their neighbors. The narrative is also quite damning of the role of the Belgian colonial powers in actively fomenting distrust between Hutus and Tutsis. It shines a light also on the fact that the international community turned a blind eye to the events even as United Nations officials working in Rwanda called for help. Although some may argue the exact figures, it’s estimated that as few as 4,000 U.N. troops sent in at the beginning could have prevented the slaughter that unfolded over the next 100 days.  

All that said, the memorial’s message is as even and even-handed as one could imagine emerging in the wake of such an atrocity. If you visit Rwanda, we highly recommend spending a few hours there.

We didn’t make any special trips to other genocide museums or memorials, including those that marked mass graves or churches where people were slaughtered. Quite honestly, there was only so much we could digest emotionally.

3) Rwanda, more than mountain gorillas

Most travelers come to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park and leave, often to nearby countries as part of a broader trip in the region. This is really a shame as the country has some incredibly beautiful landscape, including lakes, volcanos and mountains. Not to mention the opportunity to visit local markets and villages to get a feel for everyday life in Rwanda. Note: We did not go mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda as we were fortunate to see them in neighboring Uganda.

Rwandan Kids - Musanze, Rwanda
Playing games with school kids on their way to class.

We focused our time in Rwanda on three areas – the town of Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu, Musanze district in the north and the capital city of Kigali. Although we could have explored other areas such as Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest, we were traveling with our friend, Shannon, and found ourselves content to take our time and relax after being on the road for a heavy travel month in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Our first stop in Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu with a peaceful (and cheap) guest house run by the Catholic church overlooking the lake was just what we needed. I’m almost embarrassed by how much time we spent on the balcony gazing out over the lake, watching the light play games and absorbing the changes in the sky as the day progressed.

Mid-morning light, the deck outside our peaceful little perch ($12/night) above Lake Kivu -- near the Congo border in Kibuye, Rwanda. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1qMXH32
Early morning view of Lake Kivu from our room.

Lake Kivu, Calm Before the Storm - Kibuye, Rwanda
Late afternoon clouds move in on Lake Kivu for a sunset storm.

In Musanze, the jumping off point for Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda’s gorilla treks, we took a couple of day trips by jeep and on foot to see the twin lakes (Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo), the nearby volcanoes, and a scattering of local towns and villages.

Audrey & Dan Goof Off at Mount Muhabura, Rwanda
Deciding not to take on Mount Muhabura, the extinct volcano behind us.

Lake Burera, One of the Twin Lakes Near Musanze, Rwanda
Farms and homes on the hills, Twin Lakes near Musanze district.

If you’re curious about the practical travel details for Kibuye, Musanze and Kigali, we’ve provided them at the end of this article here.

4) First country to ban plastic bags

Open your bags, please,” the Rwandan official asked at the land border crossing with Uganda.

While this is not an uncommon request at borders around the world – officials often search for contraband like alcohol, drugs, banned fruits and vegetables – Rwandan officials hunt for something more curious, plastic bags.

Border officials rifled through our backpacks. When they found a plastic bag, they would force us to remove its contents and hand it over. A bit of an inconvenience, but I was happy to forfeit a few bags for a worthwhile cause. If you’ve ever seen a landscape swamped in plastic bags, you’ll understand what I mean. And you’ll understand why Rwanda takes the approach they do.

So it is that Rwanda is the first country in the world to ban plastic bags (2006). And they take it seriously.

Even attempting to understand the world takes effort, more than a passing glance. And sometimes we get stuck, observing and unlocking. Rwanda, a walk through a village yields simple homes, yet well cared for. No trash & tended gardens. "There are rules here" said one Rwandan man, while another looked out and said "maybe this country aims to be the Singapore of Africa." This is just a little girl, the brightness of a future that knows different than the past. Taken near Red Rocks, just outside Ruhengeri / Musanze. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1jE7seT
Village scene near Musanze in northern Rwanda, plastic bag free.

As you travel through the country, you’ll notice that it is remarkably — and quite beautifully — plastic bag free. And when you buy something, the store provides you a paper or woven bag instead.

A nationwide plastic bag ban. It’s possible, and it’s an inspiration.

5) Inimitable African head-carrying balance

It’s not as if we’d never seen women carry things balanced on their heads before, but in Rwanda this practice seems to be taken to an entirely new level of artistry and color. A common scene on the street: four or five women walking, talking, laughing and gesticulating dramatically — all while keeping their necks perfectly erect and large baskets of food or agricultural tools on their heads steady.

The posture, strength and beauty of it all — incredible.  Would make the top models in the world jealous.

Balancing Baskets on Head - Kibuye, Rwanda
No hands needed, Rwandan women show off their posture and strength.

6) The slow food movement is taken literally in Rwanda

One feature that struck us in Rwanda was the glacial pace of food preparation and restaurant service. As in, you often must invest hours and plan ahead for meals.

First off, there is no street food in Rwanda — for hygienic reasons, we’re told. So options for a quick bite to eat are slim to none. So we often ate in restaurants, avoiding buffets where food had been sitting around, and ordering items a la carte.

We have no idea what was happening in those kitchens. At times, something as simple as beans and rice, fried chicken or pasta would take an hour or two – or sometimes several – to appear. This happened consistently, independent of the price level of the eating establishment. It progressed to the point where we were forced to strategize food ordering schedules several hours in advance to avoid becoming ravenous and gnawing on our hands.

I’m all for slow food and fresh ingredients, but Rwanda took it to a whole new extreme.

7) Overnight language switch from French to English

Parlez-vous français? Do you speak English?” This is how I approached everyone in Rwanda. I wasn’t linguistically schizophrenic. Rather, I just wanted to cover all communication bases. Older Rwandans often responded in French. Younger folks, English. Here’s why.

Until 2008, Rwandan schools and classes were administered in French language. Then one day, the government declared English the country’s official language in schools. Poof.  That was it.

The reasons for the switch are many: English is more of a universal business language, most of Rwanda’s neighbors are English-speaking, and shared business language promotes trade and exchange. Not to mention, the switch further distances the country from Belgium and France and its colonial history with them.

Laughing Kid on Fishing Boat - Lake Kivu, Rwanda
A smile and wave, the universal language.

However, the sudden switch meant linguistic confusion as instructors accustomed to teaching in French were suddenly expected to teach in English. Sink or swim, I suppose. As time passes, the level of English will improve as more English-speaking teachers are integrated into the school system. For now, however, it’s an advantage to speak a little French while traveling in Rwanda.

8) Umuganda: Community Days

On the last Saturday of each month, all Rwandans are called upon for Umaganda (meaning “contribution”), a national day of mandatory community service. Rwandans are expected to show up to contribute to public projects, to help build and clean. If you don’t show up, you can expect a fine. (Expats we spoke to told us they are exempt, however. At least no one seems to pursue them should they choose not to participate.)

In addition to helping to keep the country clean and organized, community service days are also meant to strengthen social ties by encouraging all members across society to work together, to know both your neighbors and local government officials better. While this practice has been in place for over a century, it now plays a particularly important role in promoting unity and cooperation in Rwanda’s post-genocide culture and society.

The road to Mt. Muhabura, now an extinct volcano. Seen on today's Rwandan real life drive. A little bit of red road, plenty of green, kids waving hello (and yelling "mzungu!"), everyone carrying all manner of stuff on their heads...and a whole lot of color. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1jVlhB4
Tidy roads and village in and around Mt. Muhabura

We didn’t have a chance to witness these community days in action, but I rather like the concept and appreciate the leadership and commitment required to maintain the practice.

9) Heavy influence of foreign aid

Although we’ve seen our share of foreign aid during our travels in the developing world, Rwanda stood out. In Kigali, our ride from the bus station to our hostel alone was striking. We were amazed by the shiny new buildings one after another, each owned and run be an aid organization — international, multinational, religious. Shiny cars, fences, fresh paint all stood out.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the international community contributed heavily to help rebuild the country. Much of this aid was based on need, but it was also doled out in part to assuage the guilt of the international and religious communities who didn’t do more to halt the genocide in the first place. Although the Rwandan government invests in education and infrastructure to help the country become a center for trade and business, aid still plays an outsized role in the country’s GDP (40% of it in 2011).

The effects of heavy foreign aid, both good and bad, are clear as one travels throughout the country. We rarely saw huts or shacks. More sturdy cement homes with shiny new tin roofs were the norm. Schools were in good condition and roads were sealed and so far in good shape. On the down side, one also felt an undercurrent of expectation on the side of local people that foreign money and resources will always be there – a stroke against self-reliance. Begging, even amongst kids wearing clean school uniforms, was the norm as they looked to foreigners for handouts. My hope is that that over time circumstances might conspire so that the Rwandan people believe more in themselves than in others, particularly when it comes to developing their own country.

10) Markets are where the action is

Although Rwanda may aim to be the Switzerland or Singapore of Africa, it’s still Africa. And its markets are where you can still find some action and lingering bits of refreshing chaos. Piles of everything from beautiful multi-colored broad beans to carved chunks of cassava root stir the senses.

Cassava for Sale at Kibuye Market - Rwanda
Learning about how to eat cassava at the Kibuye market.

In the open air markets we visited, we found people weren’t especially accustomed to seeing or interacting with wazungu (the plural of mzungu or “white person”). At first, locals appeared a bit wary or uncertain of us, but once we asked a few questions about what they were selling and how they consumed or used them — herbs, root vegetables, beans, sorghum, etc. -– they opened up and the fun ensued.

Note: Knowing how to speak a bit of French definitely helps, particularly among the older crowd.

Rwanda Travel Photo Gallery

Rwanda Budget Travel Tips

From our experience it seems as if most travelers in Rwanda are on a packaged tour and the country is aiming for a non-budget traveler crowd. It is possible to travel on a budget and arrange things independently, but it may take some extra time and effort. While public transportation between towns is efficient and reasonably priced, off track and independently arranged transport can by surprisingly pricey.

Here are our budget travel recommendations from our visit to Rwanda.

Kigali Travel Recommendations

For anything that you might want to know about Kigali – restaurants, bars, markets, shops, excursions, etc. – Living in Kigali is the first place to look. The founder (and our friend), Kirsty, has been living in Kigali for several years already.

Accommodation in Kigali Not a lot of good budget accommodation options in Kigali. We stayed at Discover Rwanda Hostel our first night, but thought the price ($42) was a bit high for a double room with a shared bathroom. On our return trip to Kigali, we were fortunate to stay with a couple of English teachers we met in Kibuye.

Food in Kigali: The highlight of our eating experience in Rwanda was Indian food at the restaurant of Blueberry Hotel in the Nyarutarama neighborhood. Highly recommend the paneer hadee and chicken kalimichi. Not cheap at $8-10 per dish, but portions are huge so it could last two meals. The menu was unusual and extraordinarily deep, and our dishes were nothing short of spectacular and featured a level of flavor and heat we often hope for in Indian restaurants but rarely find.  Also recommended is Republika for carafes of wine and grilled meat.

Motorbike taxis: The best (and cheapest) way to get around the sprawling city of Kigali is on the back of a motorbike taxis. Every motorbike driver will have a proper helmet for you. Most rides will cost you a couple of dollars, but be sure to bargain and note that the first price given is usually the mzungu (white person) price.

Chili Peppers at the Nyamirambo Market - Kigali, Rwanda
Chili pepper still art at Nyamirambo market in Kigali.

Lake Kivu – Kibuye Travel Recommendations

We chose to base ourselves in Kibuye over Gisenyi as we heard that Kibuye was less developed for tourism and was more laid back than Gisenyi. And that it was. Highly recommend spending a few days in Kibuye to relax.

Accommodation and food: We highly recommend staying at Home Saint Jean, a simple guesthouse connected to the Catholic Church on a hill overlooking the lake. A great laid back feel. There are rooms for all budgets. We took a double room with shared bathroom for $12/night. Bigger rooms with en suite bathrooms directly overlooking the lake are more like $20-$35. We also ate all our meals here. Good, but slow going (see #6 above). Tel: +250784725107

Transportation: Buses connect Kigali and Kibuye regularly (about 2.5 hours), departing on the half hour. We took the public boat from Kibuye to Gisenyi that leaves from a pier near Hotel Golf on Tuesday and Friday at around 1PM (depends on when the boat arrives from Cyangugu), takes around 2 hours and costs 2500 Rfw ($4). We recommend this option instead of the long, winding bus ride.

Musanze / Ruhengeri Travel Recommendations

This town and area are the jumping off points for gorilla trekking and excursions into Volcano National Park, so there’s a decent tourism infrastructure here.

Accommodation: We stayed at Amahoro Guesthouse – $30 for a double room, including breakfast. It’s in a good location downtown so you can easily walk to things. The caretaker of the house, Muhoozi, is very friendly and welcoming and takes good care of you (including, cooking your beans should you buy them from the market like we did).

Restaurants: La Paillote was our favorite place in town as it had a solid menu of pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and fish plates for reasonable prices ($4-$8). It also serves up good coffee. Many of the cheaper restaurants in town serve up buffets, which we weren’t so keen on.  We prefer our food to be cooked fresh to order.

We also cooked our own meal by picking up beans, rice and vegetables (like pumpkin squash) at the market and cooking them in the guesthouse kitchen. Terrifically tasty with the few of the local spices, curry packets and a dash or two of Ethiopian spices thrown in.

Musanze Day Tours: We took two separate day tours with Amahoro Tours, organized at the guesthouse. The first tour was a jeep ride out to Lakes Burera and Ruhondo (aka, the twin lakes), driving through villages and communities along the way. If you do this tour, ask the driver to open the sun roof so that you have good photo opportunities and have fun waving at kids and people along the way. Cost: $80 total for half-day tour, maximum of six people

The second day trip we did was the mountain hike of Rugalika that begins from Red Rocks Guesthouse on the outskirts of Musanze (hop on a motorbike taxi to get there). It goes for several hours up into the hills to a school and then through a couple of villages and rural communities on the way back out. It was a good walk through rural areas, but if you only have time for one we’d recommend the jeep trip to the lakes. Cost: $20 per person.

Volcanoes National Park Treks: Our original plan was to do some trekking in Volcanoes National Park, but as the weather was iffy (cloudy and rainy) and the costs were high we opted for the day trips above instead. In addition to the park fees (usually $75 per person for day treks), you also need to arrange private transport from Musanze to the park entrance ($80/day). Any guesthouse can help you with this.

Transportation: Musanze is a well-connected spot, so you should have no problem getting in and out. It took about an 1-1.5 hours by bus from Gisenyi (Lake Kivu) and then 2.5 hours by bus to Kigali.

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Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg?http://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 15:03:05 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18913 By Audrey Scott

We paused along the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a view over the hills outside of the Ethiopian town of Lalibela. Moments later, a boy of about four years ran up. He was shepherd to his family’s goats on a nearby hill. His clothes were torn, he […]

The post Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg? appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

We paused along the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a view over the hills outside of the Ethiopian town of Lalibela. Moments later, a boy of about four years ran up. He was shepherd to his family’s goats on a nearby hill. His clothes were torn, he poked curiously around us foreigners, using our guide as an interpreter.

One of the people in our group began pulling a toy koala bear out of her purse to give to him.

No. Please don’t,” Fekadu, our Ethiopian guide, implored. “There are other kids around. He will tell his family and the others will hear that he got something from a faranji (the local term for “foreigner”). This is how the begging cycle begins. It used to not be this way. I don’t want this for my people, my country.”

To his point, within a matter of minutes, the hills were literally crawling with kids, palms upturned, echoing the words pen, money and candy. By this point in our journey, we’d faced this situation countless times. Some of the kids were plain curious, while others clearly expected stuff.

If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country, you’re probably familiar with this scene. Maybe you find it uncomfortable. Maybe your heart aches since the kids around you appear to have so very little. Maybe the contrasting privilege that carried you to the country is not lost on you.

Giving is a good thing, right? But is it a good idea to give money and pass out things to children who beg? Will it really help those kids? Will it help their community?

A recent visit to Ethiopia and more generally to East Africa reaffirmed and crystallized my thinking on the topic. The answer: No.

Here’s why we believe this, followed by a few ideas how you can engage with kids and give responsibly to help and support children and families where you are visiting.

This Article Includes:


The Don’ts: 7 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Give to Kids Who Beg

Here are a few reasons why we discourage giving handouts to kids while you are traveling. The big takeaway: our actions may have consequences unseen, ones we cannot even fathom. There are times where direct distribution may be appropriate. Travelers handing out stuff indiscriminately on the streets isn’t one of them.

This list is compiled from our own experience, including conversations with local people, organizations, and well-informed travelers from Latin America to Asia to Africa.

1) Contributes to a cycle of begging and continued poverty

Kids learn quickly. If one begging encounter yields success, why wouldn’t others? When children hear that foreign travelers give away money and stuff, why not give it a try? And why wouldn’t parents who are poor take advantage of this and send their kids to beg or sell goods on the street? Watch this short video from ChildSafe that explains the cycle even better.

Not to mention, it furthers a culture of sympathy tourism and dependency, for which there is no productive place. [Editors update: To further explain, our definition of "sympathy tourism." Sympathy is defined by "feeling pity for someone" and put into action it is when organizations and people engage in earning money with the technique of trying to get pity from travelers. We first heard this phrase used in Uganda after a discussion about being approached by numerous people supposedly representing NGOs and orphanages.]

2) Begging success = no school?

If a child makes too much money begging or selling, his parents might not send him to school. File this under the Law of Unintended Consequences. Now what traveler would intentionally try to prevent a kid from going to school? None that we know of. That’s why awareness of this issue is so important.

Young Students in Rural School - Nalbata, Bangladesh
Travelers should be supporting education for children, not unknowingly hindering it.

3) Reduces tourism to a transaction

The greatest disservice in all of tourism: reducing two people to a transaction. Begging dehumanizes, it objectifies. It turns the traveler into a walking dollar bill and transforms the begging child into a walking collection box, thereby stripping everyone involved of his dignity. It erects barriers behind which there might otherwise be a connection. It takes the human-ness out of travel. It creates a stereotype of all of us, robbing us of our humanity.

4) Food money = drug money?

When a traveler gives money or stuff to kids, does she imagine the gift being used to get high? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

While traveling in Uganda, we heard about GI-ASCO, a small home for runaway kids, in the town of Jinja. The founder of the home, Gerald Wandera, tells of children ending up in Jinja solely to beg from tourists and get enough money to buy their next hit — usually sniffing glue or petrol (gas). If travelers knew the child recipients of their generosity were using it to get high, would they knowingly contribute to this practice?

5) Creates an imbalance in the local community

The thing to note about children living in poverty: quite often the people around them live in similar conditions. Giving to some children creates a situation of imbalance where, by nothing other than luck, some have more than others. This can also contribute to bullying to even the score.

6) Supports begging mafias.

If you don’t know what a begging mafia is, read here. The concept was also brought to light by the film Slumdog Millionaire and the novel A Fine Balance. Begging mafias also exist outside of India and are more prevalent than most of us are aware. The exploitation of children alone is tragic enough. To make matters worse, mafias kidnap, blind or otherwise injure and disable children so that they may earn even more money. The developed world isn’t quite free of it, either. A well-established begging mafia used to exist in Prague, Czech Republic when we lived there.

7) Contributes to other unforeseen dangers

When we were in Ethiopia we saw kids dancing in the middle of the road. “Cute!” was our first thought. The problem was that they were doing this to get money. They were consistently putting themselves at added risk on already dangerous roads. The same principle was at work in Uganda where we witnessed travelers throwing pens and pencils out of an open overland truck window. One wrong move by the driver or one of the kids and you have another unnecessary casualty on your hands.

The Do’s: 7 Ways to Give and Engage Responsibly

The desire to give and to give back to the places we visit is a good thing. It’s something that ought to be encouraged, but we need to find the appropriate outlets or channels to give effectively.

What does “giving effectively” really mean? It means giving in a way that supports a set of behaviors and expectations that may someday obviate the need to give. Call it the Teach a Man to Fish precept.

So it’s not only that you give, but how. Here are a few ideas for effective and responsible giving while traveling.

1) Give directly to an organization

Find an organization that you can trust, one whose work is paired with long-term values such as furthering education, providing opportunity and promoting self-reliance. You might be able to find such organizations through a recommendation from your tour operator. Or if you are traveling independently ask around where you are traveling or do some research in advance to find out about organizations operating in the area. Then give money or supplies to these organizations directly. This might include donating from home (e.g., online) or perhaps finding a way to visit the organization as part of your trip.

Likewise, do not shy away from asking tough questions to find out how an organization uses its money and resources. The sad thing is that some people (locals and foreigners alike) have begun creating organizations to earn money from sympathetic travelers. Throughout Uganda, “sympathy” orphanages whose business model seems to run on referrals from local itinerants and opportunists seemed a popular choice. A few questions about the organization usually served to dispel any notion of legitimacy.

Finally, do not underestimate the collective knowledge of your social networks and be sure to reach out on social media channels (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) to gather information and recommendations.

2) Seek out and frequent social enterprises

A social enterprise is an organization that is run like a business, but whose profits go to community projects that address a social need. Social enterprises will often train and hire disadvantaged single mothers or street kids, providing them employment and skills they wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain.

This could mean that as you enjoy lunch or a coffee at a social enterprise restaurant, your money is supporting that organization’s projects. Same goes for when you buy handicrafts from a social enterprise. When the right organizations are involved, it can really be a win-win situation for everyone.

Women Learn Crafts at Give a Heart to Africa - Moshi, Tanzania
Adult women’s education classes at Give a Heart to Africa teach handicrafts. The products are for sale in shop.

During our recent trip to East Africa we found the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre in Kigali, Rwanda providing walking tours and selling crafts as a way to fund the organization’s women’s training programs. In Moshi, Tanzania we also visited a new project by Planeterra and Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA) whereby the proceeds from a local crafts shop and spa go to supporting a local women’s education and development program. We also recommend checking out the Grassroots Volunteering worldwide database of social enterprises before setting off on your next trip. Update: We also saw that ChildSafe has a good list of social enterprises for Southeast Asia on this page.

3) Find out what organizations actually need instead of giving what you think they need.

These may not be the same thing. Many people are apparently under the impression that kids need pens at school. Maybe so, maybe not depending on the school. If you buy goods and supplies, try to buy them locally instead of buying them at home. Not only will this strategy further contribute to the local economy via your purchases, but your bags will weigh less.

4) Engage with kids as kids

Play games (juggling or magic tricks work great), kick a ball around, practice English, ask questions, or just be present. It may not always easy, but creatively turning the uncomfortable into fun is an art we can all benefit by learning. It also humanizes the interaction and your travel experience.

Audrey Plays Soccer (football) with Kids in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Audrey jumps into a game of pickup football (soccer) in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

5) Invest in a meal

If you really feel you must help a child who appears to be hungry, consider buying him a meal or giving him some food that he can consume on the spot, so that there’s no opportunity to trade it for something else.

6) Learn a few words in the local language that respectfully communicate no or no money and say them firmly

I found that worked effectively in Ethiopia. Once children realized I wasn’t going to give them anything, they began engaging me as a human being again.

7) Ask permission for photographs and show the images

If the child is particularly young, ask the mother or father if it’s OK to take the photo. If it looks like money might be expected, ask permission and clearly say “no money.” Be sure to show the kids their image in the viewfinder. In most cases, that’s what they’re interested in. Then enjoy the giggles that ensue.

Having Fun with the Kids of the Garo Village - Srimongal, Bangladesh
Kids all over the world love seeing their image in the viewfinder. Srimongal, Bangladesh

How the Tourism Industry Can Better Educate Travelers on Begging and Giving

We can’t assume that everyone traveling has the knowledge and experience required to understand the local context and the right thing to do. The tourism industry and all its players should aim to provide travelers with locally-relevant, practical advice on how to engage responsibly with children (and adults, for that matter).

1) Hotels and accommodation providers

Provide guidelines on DO’s and DON’Ts in the local community as part of the information packet in each room and in the lobby area. Kudos to Simien Lodge in Ethiopia for including an explanation as to why they recommend their guests not give pens and money to kids they meet on nearby hiking trails. Lodge management then provided an alternative where travelers could donate money to help outfit local schools with much needed furniture and supplies.

2) Tour operators

Include a section in the tour notes for applicable destinations regarding responsible engagement with local children. This information should be reinforced in the introductory tour briefing. For example, G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation are working with ChildSafe to create a training webinar for their guides on child safety and traveler interaction with local children.

3) Local tourism offices

In addition to having written information displayed in the office about the local situation and best practices for responsible engagement, staff should be trained to talk about this issue and answer travelers’ questions.

4) Restaurants and cafes

If you run a restaurant or cafe that’s popular with tourists, congratulations! Could you also consider prominently displaying a laminated page or poster with the do’s and don’ts of engaging with local kids — as you see it. Ideally, your public service poster could also include a list of local, respected organizations where travelers can contribute supplies, time and money.


Conclusion: Travel Giving and Altruism

If your goal is to truly help others while you travel, think twice about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Don’t confuse a good feeling of giving with doing what’s best for the recipients of your gift and their community. For you may just be doing what’s best for you while doing a disservice to the very people you are seeking to help.

As travelers become more aware locally and globally, we can better align our giving decisions with our values and our hopes for making an impact and contribution. We can maximize the good we do, especially when we do it effectively.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have any suggestions of other ways to give responsibly and effectively when traveling?

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Travel to Ethiopia: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopia-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopia-travel/#comments Mon, 02 Jun 2014 13:42:55 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18753 By Daniel Noll

When I was growing up, I remember Ethiopia having a long run on the nightly news. Unfortunately newscasts all pointed to the grim. Newsreel images featured fly-ridden babies with distended bellies, drought-ruined landscapes and a ravaging famine made only worse by civil war. Sounding familiar? Prior to our visit, we figured some distance between the […]

The post Travel to Ethiopia: First Impressions appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Audrey around the bend, on the edge of the cliffside, a few inches from a long way down (about 500m / 1600ft). Worth the terror, slowly facing fears. Backdrop = Gheralta, Ethiopia. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1n7MchY
This is Ethiopia? Yes. A land of many surprises.

When I was growing up, I remember Ethiopia having a long run on the nightly news. Unfortunately newscasts all pointed to the grim. Newsreel images featured fly-ridden babies with distended bellies, drought-ruined landscapes and a ravaging famine made only worse by civil war.

Sounding familiar?

Prior to our visit, we figured some distance between the Ethiopia of the 1980s and the Ethiopia of today — yet not quite to the extent we’d found. If our visit to Ethiopia proved nothing else, it proved this: though countries remain themselves at heart, they can emerge from perilous circumstances. When they do, stereotypes can slowly be cast aside and the historical, cultural and natural contours – which had always existed yet never been highlighted – can more clearly be revealed.

As we shared photos of unexpected castles, remarkable mountain landscapes, ancient churches and colorful plates of local food during our trip, readers would ask: “Is that really Ethiopia?

Yes it is.

Our unpacking of our travels in Ethiopia begins with a few first yet lasting impressions of the country.

There be castles in Ethiopia. This 17th c. one: Fasiladas' Palace in Gondar. I'm fast realizing I knew little of the depth of this country's history. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1lzMDQn
There be castles in Ethiopia. This 17th century one: Fasiladas’ Palace in Gondar.

1. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Living History

Before our trip to Ethiopia, we were aware in a book sense that it was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity (in 330 A.D.). We did not imagine how pervasive and well-documented this historical vein would be, nor could we appreciate how much the country’s present would be connected with its past through ritual.

Church of St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century. Ethiopia's signature historical sight...remarkable. Note the tiny people, right. George slew the dragon. For this, Ethiopia named a beer after him and a country was named after him, too. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1i6tp1b
St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century.

Whether they are rock-hewn or tucked far into the hills, Ethiopia’s churches often feature original paintings and frescoes from as much as 1000 years ago or more. Ancient texts and relics remain in use by today’s priests who bless all those willing by rubbing large ancient metal crosses over afflicted areas of the body.
Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World). Waiting for a Blessing - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Women await a blessing at Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) in Lalibela.

In the Gheralta Mountains of Tigray province, churches were carved out of natural mountaintop caves as long ago as the fourth century. Why build so? The idea: hide your churches from invading armies while bringing yourself that much closer to heaven.

Climbs were steep then, just as they are now — even for young mothers who carry 40-day old babies on their backs in hopes of peak baptism.

As we followed a 78-year old monk around a cliff’s edge to the 6th century cave church of Daniel Korkor, we could imagine a staggered line of devout Ethiopians making that same journey, wrapped in the same white cotton cloth, over the course of hundreds of years.

Following the Monk to Daniel Korkor Church - Gheralta Mountains in Tigray, Ethiopia
Careful steps behind a 78-year old monk to the cliffside 6th century monastery of Daniel Korkor.

Ethiopia feels very much like a case study in living history. An experience that is as much about feeling an energy as it is about seeing the relics and remnants of an ancient history.

2. Land of Legends

The story goes…

Ethiopian history blends fact and myth almost seamlessly. (Some may even say shamelessly.)

Favorite ancient doorway candidate #32. This one literally buried in a cave, at the 12th century Yemrehanna Kristos church in the northern Ethiopian hills. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1jcHCy9
What’s behind the 12th century Yemrehanna Kristos church near Lalibela? A legend.

So much of Ethiopia’s identity is connected to its history, a history passed on orally which traces its roots back four thousand years to the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant. For over a thousand years, Ethiopian kings claimed to be direct descendants of the line of Solomon, living connections between their country, its history, and the Holy Land.

Amidst all that, stories and legends circulate in a fog akin to a long-running historical version of the telephone game. Historians may argue as to the validity of any and all prevailing accounts, but as our guide suggested, “If you believe, then it is true to you. And we believe this is our heritage.”

Belief, it seems, trumps all.

3. Mountains and Desertscape Interactive

Until this visit, we never really considered Ethiopia for trekking and adventure, but our experiences in the Simien Mountains and Gheralta Mountains of Tigray set that straight.

Simien Mountains in Ethiopia
Audrey takes in mountain layers while trekking the Simien Mountains.

Some of our most enjoyable moments and context: the Gheralta Mountains near the town of Hawzia in Ethiopia’s Tigray province. Not only does the area surprise and stun with its Utah-reminiscent red rock backdrop and outcroppings, but treks to 1500-year old cave churches like Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor leave no adrenaline untapped as they force challenging climbs up sheer sandstone walls and precarious walks along narrow cliffs.

Not for the faint of heart or for those unwilling to press deeply into their fear of heights.

Late afternoon descent, Gheralta heights. Phenomenal hike and rock climb to the hilltop monasteries of Maryam Korkor. This is peak Ethiopia. #skyporn via Instagram http://ift.tt/1nICdC1
En route to the hilltop monasteries in the Gheralta Mountains. Look familiar?

4. Ancient Language, Ancient Civilization

In and around the ancient sites that make up the modern day northern town of Aksum, stone tablets dating back thousands of years will often be inscribed in three languages: Greek, Arabic, and Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language that predates Ethiopia’s present-day regional languages. Giant stone obelisks stand, lean and have fallen. While most recognize the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Rome and Greece among the greats, few know of the similarly advanced Aksumite civilization which made its name in trade across the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia from 400 B.C. to 800 A.D.

It’s thanks to Ge’ez, a long-standing written language, that we now know so much about Ethiopia’s past.

Old Ethiopian Religious Books in Ge'ez Language - Ashetan Maryam, Lalibela
An Ethiopian religious book written in Ge’ez on goatskin parchment.

All monks and priests are required to learn Ge’ez and services are still held in this ancient language. In the early hours of the morning, Ge’ez chants and melodies echo through the hills. Eerie, beautiful and sleep-challenging, especially during the high holidays.

With over 200 symbols, Ge’ez– a mesmerizing spaghetti of symbols to the uninitiated — now serves as the phonetic alphabet for Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

5. Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

There’s nothing more disappointing than a coffee-producing country that does not actively consume and appreciate what it grows. No worry of this in Ethiopia: they not only grow the beans, but they also carry a proficiency in roasting, so much so that coffee roasting seems a rite of passage for young women across the country. Unsurprising considering that Ethiopia’s Kaffa region is where coffee is said to have originated.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Aksum, Ethiopia
Frankincense burning during an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is deliberate, a process that has been handed down through generations of Ethiopian women for centuries. It has an almost magical way of seeming to slow time, if not stop it altogether.

Coffee is central to Ethiopian life and pace. You’ll find coffee ceremonies taking place throughout the country in cafes, on street corners, in markets and most importantly in homes. Fronds and greens scattered on the ground, frankincense alight and in a pot, young green coffee beans roasting in a small pan over a charcoal stove, a delicate passing of water through the grounds until the ideal strength is achieved.

Coffee drinkers rejoice. All others, just behold.

6. Ethiopian Food

In our experience, Africa rarely garners an “Ooh, awesome food!” distinction. Ethiopian cuisine is an exception, one of the great cuisines of the world, I’d venture. In any event, it stands out against its neighbors with an array of rich and spicy stews.

Our Easter Feast, Ethiopia style. A soshabie (like a thali) to break the Ethiopian Orthodox 55-day Lenten fast. A mix of tasty stews served atop injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread. #yum via Instagram http://ift.tt/1r4SGQ8
Our Ethiopian Easter feast – injera covered in various meat and vegetarian stews.

Ask an Ethiopian the most important part of any meal and she’ll answer injera, the spongy, stretchy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia). Injera forms the foundation of every Ethiopian meal. You’ll often find a round of injera spread out like a natural platter atop which a variety of spicy stews made from lentils, meats and vegetables blended with spices blends like berbere (ground chilies mixed with upwards of 15-20 ingredients) are piled.
Making injera the traditional way over a fire.

Although the presentation and flavor hints of an Indian thali, the Ethiopian table is very much unto itself.

We’ll reserve further comment on Ethiopian cuisine for now, as we have written a comprehensive guide on it, from how to eat it to why you should consider a deep dive during the vegetarian fasting season or avail yourself of its raw beef specialties during the remainder of the year.

7. Traditional Music and Eskista Shoulder Dancing

Think “dancing in Africa” and you might appropriately imagine hips and butts moving and shaking in ways that blow the mind of those not of the continent. But in northern Ethiopia, the shoulders and upper body are the stars of the dancing show in something called eskista.

Traditional night clubs usually feature a group of professional dancers, but even better than those are the impromptu “dance offs” between two club-goers who try to out-shoulder one another. The beat, the energy, the atmosphere — all superbly infectious.

Even we got into the act.

Next up to make the leap from local music to the world stage: Ethiopian.

8. Kids, Kids

Our bus pulls off for a potty break in bushes or trees (a “bush stop” in local travel parlance) in what most might consider the middle of nowhere Ethiopia. Even here, the children appear out of the woodwork, from the hills up, the valleys down.

Where do all the children come from?! I won’t bore you with a lesson as to how those children are conceived, but population estimates in Ethiopia hover around 95 million, with projections topping 120 million in the next 15 years or so. Staggering.

Surrounded by Kids at a Road Stop in Ethiopia
As always, we attract a crowd at a roadside stop between Gondar and the Simien Mountains.

Note: Kids and pens? We have published another piece on the unfortunate practice of tourists indiscriminately giving pens and money to kids in developing countries — a practice that has slowly but surely “trained” them to beg.

9. Ethiopian Roads Overflow with Life

Much the world over, vehicles take first priority on the roads. Not so in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Road Scenes, Camels and All
Ethiopia’s roads, often a condition between disorder and mayhem.

From village lanes to full-fledged highways, the Ethiopian road is ruled by a fog of people, animals (sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, camels), lean-tos, funerals, weddings and more. Cars and buses get out of the way of what was happening on the street, not the other way around.

If you remember the video game Frogger, this is the live version. One unfortunate result: road carnage. Heaps of tarp-draped remains of horrifying wrecks stand testament to a country coming to grips with the old ways of doing things converging with the unappreciated power of new vehicles on paved roads.

10. Market Days are Social Days

“Markets are not just for buying and selling. They perform an important social function. Most Ethiopians work in the fields, so market day is when people have a chance to meet, share news, and even find the person they will marry,” Fekadu, our guide, explained.

Debark Market Day - Ethiopia
Spices, roots and families at the Debark village market.

You can always tell market days in rural areas. For kilometers on end, roads are clogged even more so than usual with people from all neighboring villages carrying their goods to market – sheep, goats, wares, foodstuffs. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have to sell: any and all are clearly welcome.

And they’re coming.

Ethiopian traditional markets are sprawling affairs with goods arranged accordingly: all the peppers here, all the green coffee beans there, homeopathic treatment for the cows somewhere in an open field in the distance.

Beyond the sale, these markets bind this primarily agrarian society. They provide an essential social focal point — not just for the trade of goods, but for the trade in life.

And in Ethiopia, there’s certainly no shortage of that.


Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.


Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Ethiopia Highlights Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Africa Tours with G Adventures

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Up Next: A Journey to East Africahttp://uncorneredmarket.com/east-africa-journey/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/east-africa-journey/#comments Sat, 19 Apr 2014 12:14:29 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18691 By Audrey Scott

Our journey to East Africa, just about underway. What follows includes not only our itinerary and a call for your recommendations, but a personal note and a couple of back-stories including $100 given to us with a purpose on a ship in Antarctica. As you read this, we’re on our way to Ethiopia to begin […]

The post Up Next: A Journey to East Africa appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
Simien Mountains under a misty cover, Ethiopia.

Our journey to East Africa, just about underway. What follows includes not only our itinerary and a call for your recommendations, but a personal note and a couple of back-stories including $100 given to us with a purpose on a ship in Antarctica.

As you read this, we’re on our way to Ethiopia to begin a six week journey through Eastern Africa. We expect the journey to take us from Ethiopia to Uganda, Rwanda and finally Tanzania.

We’ll have an opportunity to visit 1000-year old rock-cut churches in Ethiopia (and of course dig deeply into Ethiopian food), seek out mountain gorillas in Uganda, hike the volcanoes of Rwanda and learn more about social entrepreneurship in Tanzania.

Tanzania aside, these countries have known their share of famine, war, and genocide in the last couple of decades. And while we hope to learn more about that history, our ultimate goal is to better understand their people, where they stand now, and get a glimpse into their future through their eyes.

Our East Africa Itinerary


Lalibela Churches
Ethiopia: Lalibela Churches Cut from Earth and Stone

In the mid-1980s, when I was a little girl, my Aunt Betsy worked as a nurse for a year or two in Ethiopia at a feeding station. For Ethiopia, it was a time of drought and famine. I recall sad images, nothing short of devastating. However, my aunt had a first-hand experience of the famine, and despite the suffering she witnessed day-in and day-out, she also shared stories of the warmth and spirit of the Ethiopian people.

Count this among my first learning of the lesson, “there’s more to a place and its people than what you see on the news.”

We will explore Ethiopia with the G Adventures Highlights of Ethiopia Tour. We chose this tour specifically for its itinerary. Take a look below and you’ll see why.

  • Bahir Dar with a visit to the local market and Blue Nile Falls
  • Gondar with exploration of the castles and Debre Berhan Selassie Church whose interior is covered with angel faces and eyes.
  • Hiking in the Simien Mountains. Take a look at the lead photo of this article. Enough said.
  • Lalibela. This segment of the trip might count as the one we’re most looking forward to. I’d heard about the underground medieval churches carved into the mountains, but this recent article took my curiosity to a new level.
  • A drive through the Sekota and Alamata Mountains with a stop at 3,000-year old Hawzien.
  • Ancient city of Axum, Ethiopia’s oldest city of almost 2,000 years.
  • Although we won’t have much time in Addis Ababa, we do hope we will be able to visit Merkato, the largest open market in Africa.

Ethiopian food, you ask? We’ve had our share in cities around the world, but now it’s time to taste it at the source. To say that we are excited to eat: understatement. We expect to consume plenty of Ethiopian coffee and experience a coffee ceremony or two.

Uganda and Rwanda

Lake Bunyoni, Uganda
Lake Bunyoni, Uganda. We’ll trek here in search of mountain gorillas.

We’ll begin our travels in Uganda with a G Adventures gorillas overland tour. Our trek will take us to the forests near Lake Bunyon to find mountain gorillas. Friends who’ve experienced this have described a feeling unimaginable, if not unmatched. We must manage our expectations, however, as we know there are no guarantees that we’ll actually be able to spot gorillas.

That’s the thing with wild animals. True to their description, they are indeed a wild and unpredictable bunch.

Our trip will also include trekking in search of chimpanzees at Kalinzu Forest Reserve and a rafting experience along the Blue Nile near the town of Jinja, all before returning to Kampala.

After our tour, we’re free for the next two weeks between Uganda and Rwanda and we’ll piece together an itinerary (with the help of your suggestions) as we go. At the moment our Rwanda plans include spending some time in the Parc National des Volcans and Lake Kivu for some volcano trekking and perhaps a visit to Nyungwe Forest National Park before winding up in Kigali.

As the 20th Anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has just passed, it strikes us as an appropriate time to visit to reflect on what happened and through the eyes of others, understand how the country copes and looks towards the future as it continues to come to terms with its past.

We could use your help. If you have suggestions of places to visit, what to do, organizations and people to connect with, or anything else that comes to mind regarding Uganda and Rwanda please email us or leave a comment below.


Masai Kids at the Door of Hut - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Maasai children shyly guarding the door to their hut in a village near Lake Manyara, Tanzania.

Some of you might remember our visit to Tanzania a few years ago when we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, got up close with wild animals on safari and relaxed on the beaches of Zanzibar.

This time, our visit to Tanzania will feature something a bit different. We are working with Planeterra, G Adventures’ foundation, to learn more about two new projects it runs in and around Moshi: a clean cookstoves project in a Maasai village and a women’s cooperative in Moshi that provides business skills and training to local women.

What makes these projects unique to traditional NGO projects is that G Adventures’ passenger traffic — and the market access that provides — are tied in to help make these projects financially sustainable. For example, G Adventures tours to the Serengeti use a portion of tour fees to serve as contribution to the purchase of a clean cookstove. Additionally, travelers have the opportunity to visit the village to learn more about how the stoves work and what it means for quality of life. Those G Adventures passengers in Moshi will be able to stop by the women’s cooperative center to engage with the women involved and to purchase their goods.

Our goal: to understand the local organizations and people involved. And to see firsthand how this sort of partnership model actually works on the ground.

$100 in East Africa: A Backstory

A little more than four years ago, aboard our ship to Antarctica, we were asked to give a talk about our around-the-world travels. As we shared stories from Central Asia to Central America, we shared all sorts of travel stories, including some of what we had seen in the way of micro-finance projects along the way. We mentioned to the audience that we hoped to travel in Africa next. After the presentation, a well-traveled British woman came up to us and placed $100 in my hand in twenty dollar bills.

When you get to East Africa, give this money to five good organizations you find, to people who are really making a difference in their communities. I spent many years working with projects in this region, and specifically Uganda and Rwanda. But now I’m too old to travel there. I want you to bring part of me with you when you go.

I asked for her name and email address so that I could follow up with her and inform her as to where and to whom we gave her money, but she didn’t want any of that. She told us that trusted us; she believed we would do the right thing.

Although it has taken longer to getting around to make it to the full of East Africa in order to fulfill her wish, we are now on our way.

One Final Personal Note on this Trip

A week ago I received news that my stepfather, Larry, passed away. Amidst the sadness we felt, we also found ourselves deciding whether to cancel the trip and when to return to the U.S. to honor him.

As I spoke to both family and friends that knew Larry, it became clear — with an imagined motion of his hand — that he would have wanted us to go. Everyone agreed he would have said something like this:

“Go. Explore. Meet people. Tell good stories. And be sure to share stories from people and places that don’t usually have a voice. And have lots of fun, too.

Good advice for us. Good advice in general, I’d like to think.

You see, East Africa was one of Larry’s favorite regions in the whole world. He spent years living, working and traveling in Tanzania and Kenya as U.S. diplomat. And although he also served in other parts of Africa — including an ambassadorship to Gabon and a nice, posh placement in London along the way, East Africa was and always would be the place that stole his heart.

Stepping back, spiritual or otherwise, one might find the coming together of this trip — to be able to spend the next six weeks in an area Larry loved and knew well — as beyond mere coincidence.

Follow Along with Us in East Africa

We hope you’ll join us on this journey! As much as is possible, we will post photos and real-time updates to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’ll use the hashtag #dna2EAfrica to digitally gather the content from this trip. A search for #dna2EAfrica on each platform should return all available related photos and updates from our trip.

And please don’t forget to share your advice for Uganda and Rwanda by email or in a comment below.

Photo credits: Rod_Waddington, Henrik Berger Jørgensen, amateur_photo_bore.

Disclosure: Our tours in Ethiopia and Uganda are provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Capturing the Essence of a Place (Or, A Long Weekend in Strasbourg)http://uncorneredmarket.com/strasbourg-essence-of-place/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/strasbourg-essence-of-place/#comments Thu, 13 Mar 2014 16:49:17 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14571 By Daniel Noll

A few thoughts on how to find the essence of a place, and I suppose ultimately the essence of life — told through a long weekend in Strasbourg, France. It’s about how a fully cooked itinerary might actually get in the way of getting what I really came for in the first place. A few […]

The post Capturing the Essence of a Place (Or, A Long Weekend in Strasbourg) appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

La Petite France Canal and Architecture - Strasbourg, France
Peering down the canal. La Petite France, Strasbourg.

A few thoughts on how to find the essence of a place, and I suppose ultimately the essence of life — told through a long weekend in Strasbourg, France. It’s about how a fully cooked itinerary might actually get in the way of getting what I really came for in the first place.

A few weekends ago, Audrey and I traveled to Strasbourg, France — a town ostensibly in France, but Germanic under the skin. An Alsatian town. We’d been there twice before for the same reason we’d come for this third time: a wine exhibition featuring 600 independent vintners from across France. (More on that soon.)

There were no specific items on our itinerary other than the wine tasting event. Perhaps previously we would have carried a short checklist of must-sees. I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the place Strasbourg, but this time our visit inexplicably seemed to defy the need for such a thing.

Or maybe we’re at the point in our lives where we can extract meaning and pleasure, joy and satisfaction by admiring the little things, those tiny details of life that whoosh, drift and tick by in inimitably local ways.

Such as it was in Strasbourg.

Soft light and fading chill, skies free and crisp, cotton and blue. Strasbourg.

Strasbourg Wakes Up

When we first arrived in town, it was by way of an early morning train from Basel, Switzerland where we’d flown in on inhumanely early flight from Berlin. Upon landing, we’d hopped a bus to the local train station and caught the regional train. At the Strasbourg main train station, we were welcomed by the bouncy little signature tune of SNCF (the French railway) over the PA system. Kids hummed the earworm, so did we.

The whole thing was terribly French. I don’t think any other country could pull off this tune with a straight face.

From the train station we stumbled out onto cobblestones and light rail lines carving themselves through the city. Early morning gray, people cycled. And yes, bad things sometimes happen: an older woman on a bicycle got caught in one of the rails and fell over as she tried to escape the clutches of an aggressive street sweeper. Passers-by yelled, children cried. Early morning drama!

Meanwhile, women exited cafes boulangeries with several baguettes clutched tightly under their arms, men too.

Stores began to open, as did shutters. Ah Mediterranean shutters. So French. Old, wooden, splintered, often beautiful if not sometimes muted colors. Vegetable and fruit shops and vendors slowly leaked out onto the sidewalks, filling their bare shelves with wintery European root vegetables complemented with crates of tropical fruit, much of which came from former French colonies in Africa.

Traditional French Pharmacy - Strasbourg, France
Fading shutters and a classic drug store in Strasbourg

The sense of style in these shops overwhelmed. Everyone appeared stylish. It was important to them, even in the smallest of ways. Maybe not to own a lot of clothing, but to have a few — even if a little expensive — items that were to them worthy of wear.

And then there is the French institution of the sidewalk cafe, the place where all chairs and tables are turned in the direction of the street, of passers-by, of life — so that customers sit on one side of the table while they unabashedly spy, ogle and visually deconstruct the flow in unimaginable ways as they quaff their morning warmth. This is the daily beat, an easing into the day, one where your place, your connection to the environment around you is confirmed.

Yes, this is so totally French.

Marche Rue de la Douance - La Petite France, Strasbourg
Saturday is market day in Strasbourg, streets steeped in French history and culture.

A little bit of Germany in France

Meanwhile the buildings in the center, in old town and a little neighborhood where we’d find ourselves called La Petite France, would look something German. The wood plank siding and whitewash with a splash of color here and there. (I would later learn that this architectural style is referred to as half-timbered.) Terra cotta and painted tile rooftops that survived for centuries (they avoided the war, clearly) buckled and sagged slightly, perceptibly.

Buildings were just impossible to photograph with a mind to straight lines, for there were no straight lines. I imagined, wondered: were the buildings built off-center? Or had they slowly settled to the their positions today from hundreds of years of sinking into the ground? A little bit of both perhaps?

This — this appreciation — was not really on the itinerary.

Strasbourg Canals and Architecture - France
A view from my croissant and café au lait. La Petite France, Strasbourg.

We made our way further into the center, along walkways, bridges and locks. The views, even under cloud cover and muted sky were abundantly beautiful, charming, romantic.

Strasbourg was built along waterways for function, for safety and protection, but much like Amsterdam actually, it could be said that it must have been built to capture our sense of romance.

Strasbourg, this place, struck me as an almost perfect spot to dose oneself with a little French culture, a little German culture. A little taste of each, cleaved along once firm borders.

Cafes, Blood Sausage and Pornographic Plates

Just down the street a little cafe decked in chartreuse and metal folding chairs with wood slat seats and back panels seemed to say, “Please admire me, the way I look.”

This is France. It wasn’t on the itinerary.

Guidebooks don’t tell you to look for this, because frankly it’s beyond the grasp of lists. The feeling, the moment transcends the bullet point. In fact, the more you focus on the list, the more likely you are to miss it. Resonance does not belong on a checklist, but if you don’t make note of it, you miss it. And you’ve missed something you should have come for all along. You’ve missed your opportunity to catch and to articulate the essence of the place in details, in tiny waves that spin the head and leave a sense nothing short of small wonder.

Like any good patisserie or cafe, this one had run out of croissants early that morning. Once you get your first taste, you’ll know why. It’s bad for me, it’s addictive, it’s drug-like. I don’t care. For joy, I’m going to bathe in it for a short while. I missed my butter and flaky layers for the moment, but I knew it would yet be delivered.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral, France
Strasbourg Cathedral, a building clearly constructed to make those in its shadow feel small.

For lunch, we ducked into a bistrot decorated in local bits and bobs, ochre walls, bright red chairs. It featured a hand-written (more like scribbled) sign in the window showcasing that day’s lunch menu, one that was reasonably priced.

In La Choucrouterie (connected to Théâtre de la Chouc’routerie), we ordered the daily specials — German blood sausages (don’t judge until you’ve tried it), shallot gravy, scalloped potatoes (the latter two I now associate with France more than ever) and delightfully fresh apple sauce. German at the heart, finished by France. Strasbourg.

Our fish pasta, while abundant with fish, wasn’t amazing, but when finished with a dose of the Alsatian Pinto Gris recommended by the waitress, I couldn’t find a lot of fault. I felt it. I couldn’t bring myself to do dessert, even for the mere 1€ extra. I felt a bit guilty.

But the real star of the meal was what we found on our plates when we finished our food. A French sense of bawdy humor polished with a bit of German-inspired light obscenity. We could not make this up if we tried.

La Choucrouterie Restaurant, Strasbourg
A surprise at the end of our meal at La Choucrouterie.

Finding Place in a Local Bakery

The following morning we went looking for breakfast, but the bakery on our street was closed. Where would we get our morning croissants?

In France a quest and question of utmost importance that borders on panic.

We poked around a corner through an alleyway, past some colorful Strasbourgian homes whose windows were thrown open, duvets and pillows folded over the sills, spilling out to air.

Air the bedding, this is Europe. This was not on the itinerary.

Only one of the two bakeries on the street was open. Inside it was simple, delightful. Mille Feuille. A million leaves. Croissants, pains au chocolat, pear and chocolate stuffed. Claw-like baked goods pumped with cream, another with nutella. The smell of butter and nuts, apples and fruit simmered in the upper airwaves.

The bread, beautifully crusted and dusted stood at attention. Customers, one after another, came and went. Hands empty in, hands full on the way out. Maybe to buy a coffee, but always for a baguette. Maybe one of the special baguettes shaped like a bird of paradise.

Now this was a simple neighborhood bakery, one that isn’t in any travel or foodie guidebooks. It’s not a place like Paul with it’s dazzlingly fancy spotless windows and design that you see in malls and contrived on shopping boulevards the world over. I have no problem with it. No, this one was just a local, family-run boulangerie.

As I looked around, the woman who ran the bakery was probably in her 50s. Although she maintained a bright disposition and was very friendly, she moved quickly and was dusted from work, giving you the sense that she’d hardly had a break. The kitchen and ovens were going full bore, for every time the pains au chocolat ran out, she’d pull a few more from a space behind the door, as if mysteriously. Baked goods emerging from a place of never-ending joy.

I wonder when this woman retires, to whom she’ll pass the baking torch. And I wonder as we lose our sense of the art of creating baked things and food and all that we take for granted, who will make the croissants the next time we visit.

We emerged with six pastries (I’m so glad we took the final pear and chocolate croissant, for all its many calories it made my day) and a coffee for €7.50.**

I hope, artisanal or not, we continue to know how to work hard to create things of simple beauty like this.


We departed Strasbourg with a sense that even without an itinerary, we didn’t miss a beat. We found the essence of the place, this French town on the German border, in the details.

What are the moments and details that help you grasp the essence of a place?

**Author’s note on gluttony: Those six pastries above were not only for the two of us, but to be shared between us and two other friends in our apartment.


Strasbourg Travel Tips

Strasbourg Food and Restaurants

Boulangerie Artisanale JF, 14 rue Finkwiller, Strasbourg: Our favorite local bakery mentioned above. In a quiet neighborhood near La Petite France.

La Choucrouterie Restaurant, 20 rue St-Louis, Strasbourg: Fun restaurant serving Alsatian food that is packed at lunch and dinner with locals. Lots of fun — and funky — quasi-pornographic art hanging on the walls. Lunch menu changes daily – good value, reasonably priced (around €8).

Le Bistrot du Boulanger, 42 rue de Zurich, Strasbourg: For high quality classical French food in a relaxed setting, it would be hard to beat this place (kudos to our friend, Kathleen, for finding it). We had a wonderful meal here in the evening of magret de canard flambé set ablaze at the table with Alsatian whiskey (watch your eyebrows and hair!) that we paired with a Vacqueyras, and fish served with creamy polenta and a semi-dried tomato coulis that we paired with a Viognier. The coulant tout chocolat is deadly. Not cheap, but very high value, the menu changes regularly. Note: This restaurant also offers a reasonably priced lunch menu, from €9-€15 Euros.

Magret de Canard Flambé - Strasbourg, France
Duck on fire!! Magret de canard flambé at Le Bistrot du Boulanger.

La Corde à Linge Restaurant, 2, place Benjamin Zix, La Petite France, Strasbourg: A popular restaurant in La Petite France with a solid menu of Alsatian, French and Continental fare. For dinner, be sure to make a reservation. Portions are large, so consider sharing one main dish between two people or ordering starters. Audrey and I enjoyed a nicely prepared steak tartare (yes, that’s raw meat) and we heard rumors that the spätzle was also quite good.

Maison Kamerzell, 16 Place de la Cathédrale, Strasbourg: We strolled by Maison Kammerzell early in our visit and dismissed it as a touristy restaurant given its location and decor. But then we met François, a Strasbourg local we struck up a conversation with at the wine salon insisted we go for the two-for-one special choucroute featuring three types of fish draped over a bed of sauerkraut. Note: this special is offered from January to April every year. How could we resist? For other Alsatian, we might recommend someplace lower profile and more personal.

Strasbourg Markets

Markets take place across Strasbourg throughout the week (take a look here for a listing). We enjoyed the Saturday market that was one part flea market on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Poissons and another part fresh market on Rue de la Douane near the L’Ill river. Lots of fresh produce, friendly vendors, some tasty nibbles. What’s not to like?

Saturday Market in Strasbourg, France
Saturday Market along Rue de la Doune, Strasbourg.

Where to Stay in Strasbourg
We don’t claim extensive knowledge of Strasbourg and its neighborhoods. However, we enjoyed the location of our apartment rental on Rue des Glacières, just across the river from La Petite France and the center of town. It was a quiet, local, and not far from the action. When you’re seeking Strasbourg accommodation, consider this area.

Getting to/from Strasbourg
Direct flights to Strasbourg airport were pricy when we searched, so we flew instead into nearby Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport as it was quite a bit cheaper (e.g., €75 round trip on EasyJet from Berlin). From the airport, hop a local bus (€2.50) to St. Louis railway station. From there, it’s about an hour by train to Strasbourg (€22.50). Trains leave around every 30 minutes in the morning and evening.

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How to Pack For A Trek: The Ultimate Trekking Packing Listhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-pack-for-a-trek/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-pack-for-a-trek/#comments Thu, 27 Feb 2014 16:25:11 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14432 By Audrey Scott

How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground? After receiving numerous emails, queries […]

The post How to Pack For A Trek: The Ultimate Trekking Packing List appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Packing List Trek

How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground?

After receiving numerous emails, queries and comments asking about trekking gear and how to pack for treks, especially when the trek is incorporated into a longer trip, we decided to assemble our packing advice for treks, short and long.

By way of background, during the first six years of our journey we carried all that we needed in our backpacks so as to be prepared for just about any kind of climate or activity, from beach to glacier. In retrospect, we made some silly decisions in those early days. As a result, we schlepped a few bits we never used. But through experience and experimentation and after about a dozen multi-day treks across all continents, we got smart not only as to what gear to carry with us, but also what to buy locally or rent.

And we figured out how to do all this while on a budget.

We’ve created two pieces of content for you. The first is below and includes thorough explanations of what to bring and why. We realize it’s extensive. That’s why we’ve also created a simple one-page downloadable trekking packing checklist to help make your next packing experience smooth and easy.

Packing Checklist Trek

Note: The following advice applies mainly to multi-day treks where your sleeping and eating arrangements are taking care of already (think guest houses, lodges, huts, tea houses, or home stays). If you are camping, then you’ll need to add food, camping, and cooking gear to everything below.

Skip ahead:

Trekking Packing Myths

1. You must purchase the latest and greatest trekking gear.

It’s true that some trekking clothing technology is especially useful for lightness, wind-resistance, waterproofing and wicking (GoreTex, fleece, Polartec, etc., come to mind). However, we suggest focusing on the trekking basics: clothing that is comfortable, breathable, light, easily layered. You’re not climbing to the peak of Mount Everest here. (If you are, that’s for a future article.) For a little perspective, watching locals breeze by you in flip-flops might make all your pre-purchased fancy gear seem a little unnecessary.

So there’s no need to overspend. Go for good quality, but resist the shiny bleeding-edge trekking toys. I know it’s hard. Outdoor stores are dangerous shopping vortexes for us, too.

2. You need to bring EVERYTHING with you.

For every trek we’ve undertaken, there’s been ample opportunity to rent or buy gear to supplement our trekking kit. For example, it’s just not practical for us to carry around bulky waterproof pants in our backpacks when we only need them a tiny fraction of the time. Same goes for walking sticks and sleeping bags. Do your research and find out what is available on the ground and at what cost. Ask the tour company you’re going with or reach out to other independent travelers who’ve experienced the same trek. When you land on the ground, shop around for the best price.

Audrey with Kilimanjaro Glaciers - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Decked out in rented trekking gear on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we’d traveled through Bali, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Jordan and Thailand — all from the same gear in our backpacks throughout. So it was more than worth the $65 I spent in Moshi, Tanzania to rent a sleeping bag, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, walking stick, gaiters and more to get me to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Dan even rented hiking shoes for $15 which offered a little more ankle support and stability than the ones he’d been wearing. When we departed for our safari just after the Kilimanjaro trek I could just drop all that stuff off at the trekking shop and continue with my regular light backpack.

3. Real treks require camping.

This is all subjective. It’s true that camping and carrying all your own gear may give you a greater sense of independence and accomplishment and allow you to dive deeper into nature. However, we take issue with the assertion that camping equals a better trekking experience. In fact, some of our most memorable treks (e.g., Annapurna Circuit, Markha Valley Trek, Svaneti, Kalaw to Inle Lake in Burma, etc.) have been memorable precisely because of the local culture and human interaction dimensions surrounding our accommodation and food arrangements.

It’s the combined experience of nature and people (and the human nature that responds to the surrounding environment) that we find truly soul nourishing.

Packing for Your Trek: First Principles

1. It’s all about the layers.

This is true in all types of travel, long-term and short, but especially for trekking into high altitudes. Temperatures can very drastically during the course of a day. I always prefer to have an extra layer in my bag than to go cold.

Dan at Ganda La  Pass - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Layers. The key to preparing for a freak Himalayan blizzard in June.

Even if the days are warm at low altitude, nights may still be chilly. On summit days you’ll often need to pile on everything you have to get to the top, only to peel it off layer by layer as you descend.

2. Rest and sleeping clothes.

I learned this from the folks at Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales near Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. They called the yucky, stinky clothes you’ll find yourself wearing every day until the very end your uniform. In light of this — and even if you are going minimalist — try to include an extra set of night clothes to change into at the end of the day. These clothes will be dry (quite important if you’ve hit snow or rain that day), comfortable and relatively clean. I usually pack an extra t-shirt, pajama pants and socks. I’ll further layer other clothes on top to stay warm at night. Regardless, the layer closest to my skin is dry and relatively fresh.

Oh, the little joys while on the trekking trail.

This technique also gives your wet and stinky clothes a chance to dry and air out overnight. The next morning you can slip back into your trekking clothes — yes, your uniform — and you’ll be ready to go.

3. Never skimp on sun protection.

As you advance higher in elevation, the sun becomes scary strong. So even if you tan beautifully on the beach without any sunscreen, be sure to pack ample and strong sunscreen. Carry a hat that will protect your face from the sun (think rollable foldable sun or jungle hat — we don’t need to look pretty while trekking). Trekking with sunburn — head, face or hands — is miserable. And if your sunburn is bad enough, you’ll almost feel flu-like. Not good for peak performance.

Also be sure to have sunglasses with quality lenses that protect your eyes. Otherwise, they too will become burned and sore.

Trekking gear: Bags and Clothes to bring on a multi-day trek

Backpacks and Bags

Small backpack: You’ll be carrying all your stuff on your back up and down mountain passes so the size, fit and comfort of your pack is important. Aim to carry a pack that is big enough to hold the essentials, yet not too big that it will weigh you down. The size will depend on how many days your trek is and whether or not you will camp. Don’t forget to bring a rain cover to protect your backpack in storms.

We’ve often repurposed our Crumpler laptop bag and rented backpacks from trekking agencies. They usually did the trick, but they were not always entirely appropriate and thus kind to our back and shoulders. This may be something you want to invest in before your trek.

Trekking in Ladakh with Crumpler - Markha Valley Trek
Repurposing our Crumpler laptop backpack for the Himalayas.

Camera bag: If you’re carrying a DSLR camera and multiple lenses consider packing a separate camera bag to protect your gear and to allow you easy access to it. We use a camera bag with a waist belt that allows the bag’s weight to rest on the hips rather than on the shoulders. We can still wear a backpack or daypack on top.

Dry Sack: You never know when it’s going to rain or snow, so prepare for the worst — particularly if you have gear that must remain dry. We carry a dry sack with us in order to protect our gear against freak storms or inadvertent submersions while fording rivers.

Dan Takes in the Mountain View - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Dry sack to protect camera and electronics against rain.

Trekking Clothes, Jackets and Shoes

Clothes: For a seven day trek we each carry one pair of trekking pants, thermal underwear (top/bottom), 3 t-shirts, 1 long-sleeved travel/trekking shirt, pajama/sleeping pants, underwear (what you’re comfortable with), 3 pairs of socks. I love my silk long johns as they are warm, comfy and take up almost no room at all.

If you are going on a shorter trek then you can cut back, but if your trek is longer you can still carry the same amount of clothes or even less. You’ll just need to “recycle” them more or find a way to wash them along the way. By recycle, I mean turn things inside-out, air them out, wash them. Whatever the best mechanism you have available to give it longer life and whatever your tolerance level might be. The most important thing is not whether you stink (there’s a good chance you just might), but that you are dry and comfortable.

As mentioned above, my approach is to carry and maintain separate trekking and sleeping (or relaxing at night) clothes.

Outerwear (jackets and waterproof pants): I always prefer to have the option to remove layers than to not have enough to put on when I’m beginning to chill as I head over a mountain pass or through a storm.

For jackets, we each usually bring a fleece jacket, thin windbreaker and waterproof outer jacket. We usually borrow or rent waterproof pants (and sometimes jackets) from a local trekking agency.

Hiking Shoes: Shoes may be the most important thing you bring with you so if you invest in one thing in advance, invest in a solid comfortable pair of hiking shoes. And break them in. Your shoes can literally make or break a trip. Ask in advance whether you need mid- or high-cut hiking shoes for ankle support as this may influence your purchasing decision. We don’t find ourselves often needing high-cut boots. However, if your ankles are weak or susceptible to turns and sprains, more support is better than less.

We wore Vasque Scree Low Ultradry Hiking Shoes for over a year and really like them not only because they are supremely comfortable shoes, but also because they are waterproof and quick drying (which we tested hopping across and into streams on our Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh). Vasque stopped making these shoes for women last year so I’m now using the Mantra GTX Hiking Shoes.

Flip flops or river shoes: At the end of a long day of walking you may want to take off your hiking shoes and give your feet a rest. But you’ll still need something on your feet to go to and from the outhouse or nearest bush. That’s where flip flops or river shoes worn with socks (yes, ignore the fashion police) are perfect. Outside of these situations, you may find river sandals either useful or required for crossing or fording rivers. Depending on the bottom surface of the river and the depth, we’ve also just managed in bare feet or with our waterproof hiking boots, given some time to dry.

Other Trekking Gear

Headlamp: Lights the way and keeps your hands free. If you’re staying with families in guest houses or home stays, you may find they are without electricity at night or in the bathroom/outhouse, a most unfortunate place to trip in the dark. If you’re camping, headlamps are of course absolutely essential.

Quick-Drying Travel Towel: Always good to start and end your day by washing your hands and face. Don’t expect hot showers on treks, nor running water of any kind. But on a few occasions we’ve been able to get a couple of bucket baths that were really, really nice.

Silk sleep sack: Arguably non-essential, but nice to have. Whether staying in home stays with provided bedding or sleeping in a rented sleeping bag, you sometimes wonder when the last time anything was properly laundered. And you may also wonder about bed bugs and other critters. That’s where a sleep sack with a pillow wrap comes in to provide a clean layer between you and everything else. Prophylactic!

Note: We do not carry a sleeping bag with us. If we need one for a trek or camping, we rent one locally.

Reusable water bottle: We carry a reusable liter water bottle on us and refill along the way. A CamelBak type water bladder in the backpack also works really well. Even if the trek has bottled water to sell, resist the urge to buy bottled water, as plastic bottle waste is an enormous problem at elevation and in villages around the world.

Water Purification: Some treks will provide you with clean, boiled water as part of the service (e.g., Kilimanjaro, Markha Valley). Sometimes there will be a program of UV (ultraviolet) purified or pass-filter cleaned water services in villages where you can refill your bottle with clean water for a small fee. Hop on it, maybe even pay a little extra. It’s worth it to you, the village, and the environment.

On other treks it’s up to you to somehow purify or clean the water you source from mountain streams or village taps. We suggest carrying a combination of a SteriPEN and sterilization tablets or drops. The SteriPEN uses ultraviolet (UV) light and technology to purify the water which does not affect the taste. The sterilization tablets or drops may make the water taste a little funny, but it won’t make you sick. We find water sterilization drops to be a little easier to abide and stomach than sterilization pills.

Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses: Bring the highest SPF sunscreen you can find and wear a hat at all times. The sun’s rays are exceptionally powerful at altitude and you’ll find yourself especially exposed when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Moisturizing skin cream and lip balm (with SPF): Creams and moisturizers may sound extraneous, but they can make a difference. Many mountain treks involve high desert where you will not only be exposed to lots of sun, but also arid conditions. Your skin and lips will dry and crack to discomfort if you don’t keep them moist. Treat them nicely: moisturize! And be sure to carry only a tiny lightweight container, not the original 32 oz. tube!

Walking stick: Highly recommended on most treks, especially for downhill sections. If you don’t bring a walking stick with you, then keep your eye out for a tree branch or limb that can be carved for the purpose. Two walking sticks or one, you ask? We’ll rent or purchase a set and share the set between the two of us so each of us uses one stick.

Snacks: Even if your meals are provided to you on a trek, it’s sometimes nice to have a little something to nibble on between stops. We usually bring a small stash combination of Snickers bars, granola/power bars, a jar of peanut butter and crackers. You’ll want a little bit of both salty and sweet foods.

Peanut Butter, Snack of Champions - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Peanut butter. Helped us up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Hand sanitation gel and soap: One of the best ways to avoid becoming ill: wash your hands thoroughly and often. If you feel a little obsessive compulsive with the hand cleaning, that’s a good thing.

Toilet paper: One roll, used sparingly. Better to be self-sufficient here. No explanation needed.

Medicines: You may be miles or days away from any doctor so be sure to have some basic medicines with you in case you (or others) fall ill. On our treks, we’ve picked up sinus infections and helped others who have picked up the wrong kind of gut bacteria. Having the basics with us allowed us to deal with medical issues immediately and to keep going.

We recommend packing: band-aids, aspirin/Tylenol, Cipro (or other stomach antibiotic), Amoxicillin (or other basic antibiotic to treat sinus infections), rehydration packets, anti-flu powder (a packet that dissolves in water that breaks fevers may work better than a pill if someone has been throwing up), and duct tape (magic in preventing and managing blisters). For a full list of travel medicines and how to use them, check out these travel health tips.

Note: You can easily stock up on medicines at pharmacies in many developing countries. Basic medicines such as the ones listed here and in the article above will likely be astonishingly cheap and will often not require a prescription.

Earplugs: A good night’s sleep on the trekking trail is supremely important for your condition. And although you may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere, there are still noises from roosters, howler monkeys, birds, lions, and not least other trekkers that will all conspire to keep you up. That’s where earplugs come to the rescue and help shut it all down to silence.

Batteries, memory cards: It’s usually better to assume that you won’t find electricity along your trekking route. If you do, consider it gravy. Be sure to ask your trekking guide or agency, or other route-experienced travelers (either in forums or once you are on the ground). Ask them all once, then again for good measure. Bring extra memory cards for your camera so you have ample space to snap away or record video.

This means you should try to bring extra batteries for your camera, headlamp, and anything else that’s battery-powered. If you’re carrying your smartphone with you consider bringing an extra battery pack and putting your phone on Airplane Mode to preserve battery life. If there’s electricity along your trek and you’d like to recharge, by all means bring rechargers. We do. But it’s just something else to pack — and something you must prioritize when the final bag stuff begins just prior to setting off.

What did we miss? What are your go-to items for trekking?


If you want all of the above in a nifty 1-page PDF checklist, then click below.

Packing Checklist Trek

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Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ladakh-trekking-beginners-guide/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ladakh-trekking-beginners-guide/#comments Thu, 30 Jan 2014 15:06:06 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14411 By Audrey Scott

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — […]

The post Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Prayer Flags and Mountain Views Greet us at the Top of Gongmaru La Pass - Ladakh, India
Prayer flags at the top of Kongmaru La pass (5130 meters/16,800 feet). Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — technology, social media, blogging — and reconnect with nature and ourselves.

Last year’s trek of the Markha Valley in Ladakh in India’s high Himalayas was one of our favorite treks of all time. We had dangerously high expectations, having dreamed of this region for over a decade. Fortunately, what we found in Ladakh and on our trek far exceeded what we had imagined, not only in terms of the stunning landscape but also the Ladakhi people.

Having fielded numerous questions about trekking in Ladakh — which trek to choose, how to find a trekking agency, when to go, how to get there, and more — we’ve created this Ladakh Trekking Beginner’s Guide. We hope it encourages you to make the long journey to Ladakh overland from jumping off points like Srinigar, Kashmir. You won’t be sorry.

Dan and Audrey Begin Markha Valley Trek - Zingchan, Ladakh
Ready to hit the trails. Day 1, Minute 1 of our Markha Valley Trek.

Short attention span warning: This is a long post. The reason: it contains all we wished we’d found when we researched our own trip to Ladakh. Although we bought the Lonely Planet chapter on Ladakh, we found it lacking in many of the details and practicalities we needed. Here is my attempt to put together all you need to know to choose, organize and then enjoy a trek in Ladakh. If questions remain, let us know!

If you’d like to skip ahead:

Choosing a trek in Ladakh

There are loads of trekking choices in Ladakh. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have, how remote you’d like to go, and the difficultly level you seek. Some of the more remote treks require special permits as they may go into sensitive border areas, but trekking agencies can easily take care of this for you within a day or two.

Hankar Village and Mountain Views - Ladakh, India
Room with a view from Hankar village along the Markha Valley Trek.

There are endless variations of treks you can take in Ladakh, with many taking you to remote areas and can go up to three weeks. You can find a full list of Ladakh trekking options here.

Some of the more popular treks in Ladakh include:

  • Markha Valley Trek (6-7 days): This is the one that we chose because it combined hiking and landscapes with people and culture by incorporating homestays with families in villages along the way. For us, this combination is ideal and resulted in a trekking experience that exceeded our expectations. The Markha Valley Trek is also the most popular Ladakh trek and we’re told it can get crowded in the high season (July and August). If you travel to Ladakh during high season, take this into consideration and perhaps choose a less popular trek to avoid crowded trails and home accommodations.
  • Hidden Valleys of Ladakh, Zanskar Range (5-6 days, but can be extended): This trek takes you into the Zanskar range and through small villages throughout the valley area. Camping gear is required as it’s not possible to do homestays for the entire trek.
  • Nubra Valley (2-3 days): This trip doesn’t include as much trekking, but features more of a ride, trek and camel ride experience. We’ve heard it’s quite beautiful so it might be a good add-on if you have extra days in the area.
  • Kharnak trek (15 days): Begins like the Markha Valley trek but continues further south for another week. A Ladakhi trekking guide told us this is one of his favorite treks.
  • Rumtse to Tsomoriri (7-8 days): This was another favorite trek from a guide we spoke to because of the beauty of the lakes and the joy of interaction with shepherds along the way. This trek is on the short list for when we return.

To trek independently or with a guide?

Some treks require a guide due to the difficulty of the trail or local regulations. Other routes like the Markha Valley Trek can be done independently (e.g., without a guide) because the trail is pretty well marked and there are villages to stay in throughout the way. You then have the decision of whether to go on your own or hire a guide. Factors include: budget, your trekking experience, skill at reading trekking maps, and weather. Let’s examine these.

Although our Markha Valley trek could have been done without a guide, we were thankful to have one. Having a local guide provided us with the peace of mind that we were always on the right path (as some of you may remember, we have a history of getting lost in mountains). As luck would have it, we crossed our first Markha Valley trek mountain pass in the middle of a snow storm. Without our guide, we never would have found the correct approach. Two guys trekking independently with us said they would have turned back that day if it weren’t for our guide to help them find the path. Word to the wise: It pays to hitch a ride with Dan and Audrey…if they have a guide!

Our local guide also provided local context and culture (e.g., Ladakhi Buddhist) to the experience. We asked him many questions about his life growing up in a remote village in Ladakh and the changes he’d seen in his short lifetime. He served as an interpreter, providing us the flexibility to have conversations with families we stayed with or ask questions of people we’d met along the way.

Ladakhi Women, Mother and Daughter - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Friendly mother and daughter running a tea house where we ate lunch.

So while trekking Ladakh independently may save you some money and perhaps allow you a little more flexibility, our experience proved to us beyond a doubt that the benefits of having a guide in this region far outweighs the costs.

Ladakh Accommodation and Sleeping Options: Camping or Homestay?

Some treks will give you the option of either camping or homestays (staying with Ladakhi families in villages). Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Camping: The primary advantage of camping (if you are going with an agency) is that it includes a horse to carry your bags so you don’t have to haul your stuff on your back up to 5,000+ meters and back down again. Another bonus: you can sometimes camp closer to passes, making for easier ascents. A perhaps obvious disadvantage of camping: sleeping in a tent when it’s rainy and cold or blowing snow can be unpleasant. In addition, this option is usually more expensive as you’ll need your own cook and horse guide in addition to your trekking guide.

Homestays: If the trek you choose offers the option of homestays, we suggest taking it. Staying with Ladakhi families in villages throughout our Markha Valley trek was absolutely one of the highlights and delights of the experience. The people, culture and tradition ground you. Food (see below) is also a fun facet. Not to mention, homestays are typically less expensive than camping.

Grandfather Takes Care of Baby - Skyu, Ladakh
Proud grandfather in our homestay in Skyu.

What to expect in a Ladakhi homestay:

  • Home-cooked meals: All food is vegetarian, which is better and safer for the digestive system, particularly at altitude. Alert the trekking agency, your guide and host families in advance if you have any food allergies. Dinner is often quite hearty and is either a traditional Tibetan/Ladakhi meal like momos (Tibetan dumplings) or temo (twisted bread dumplings) with daal (lentils) or greens from the garden. All our dinners were made freshly for us and were very tasty. Breakfast, a little less remarkable, usually consists of Indian flat bread (chapatis) with butter and jelly, while lunch is some sort of bread with packaged sliced cheese, hard boiled egg and some snacks.
  • Sleeping area: Sleeping in homestays usually consists of mattresses on the ground with lots of blankets piled on top. If you’re trekking in the high season you might need to share your room with other trekkers. For us, we had our own room most nights. Take a sleep sack with you. Sheets looked pretty clean, but it was unclear when the last time blankets were cleaned.
  • Toilets: Expect bleak. Outhouses or compost toilets are usually attached to the house or just outside. They do the trick, but don’t expect any luxury here. Bring a headlamp so you don’t, um, accidentally slip and fall.
  • Common room: Some of the best memories at the homestays come from hanging around drinking tea around the traditional stove in the big common room. The bedroom is for sleeping, but this common room is where you should spend most of your time during a homestay.
Fisheye View Inside Ladakhi House - Yurutse, Ladakh
Traditional Ladakhi house with a big common room and stove.

What to look for in a Ladakhi trekking agency and guide.

Book a tour in advance or on the ground?

We did not make any bookings or inquiries for treks before arriving in Leh. We figured that we would use the two to three days acclimatizing in Leh (absolutely required if you plan to enjoy your trek) to research all our options and book our trek. Since we traveled in shoulder season, this provided plenty of time to make our arrangements.

If you decide to travel during high season (July-August), you may not have the same flexibility. Consider sending a few email inquiries in advance to be certain that agencies are not already at capacity with their guides and tours.

Choosing a trekking agency in Leh

You will see trekking agents everywhere in Leh. Many of them will have signs outside advertising their treks, as well as notices if they are looking for more people to fill treks with specific departure dates. The idea here is that the more people who trek together and share a guide, the lower the per-person cost should be. We originally hoped to join one of these treks, but the timing didn’t work out with our schedule.

Lake Reflections of Kang Yaze Peak - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Lunch break with a view of Kang Yaze Peak. Markha Valley Trek, Day 5.

We walked around Leh for an afternoon visiting various agencies asking questions about trek options, costs, departure dates and flexibility to add on stops. Most of the trekking agencies gave us a similar price range so our decision was made based on the feeling we got from the agency (e.g., did the agency feel like a middleman or were they actually responsible for their own guides and tours), their patience, and their flexibility to accommodate special requests.

We chose Ecological Footprint in the end because we liked how the owner, Stanzin, explained all our options and was flexible to work with us to create a trek that met our needs, not just one that fit into a prepackaged box. In addition, Stanzin is Ladakhi and knoww the community well. All the tours he operates use local people and aim to invest back into the communities. So while the tour was slightly more expensive than what some of the other tour agencies were offering, we felt that the price was worth it for the quality of the experience. We believed that our money was well spent.

We can also highly recommend our guide from Ecological Footprint, Dorjee Tondup. He is young but wise beyond his years (21 at the time of our trek) and dispenses bits of perspective and peace everywhere he goes. His respectful approach to local people opened doors for us everywhere. His approach to everyone he met served as a lesson for life. He guides on all the major Ladakh trekking routes.

Our Ladakhi Trekking Guide, Markha Valley Trek - Ladakh, India
Our guide, Dorjee, enjoying a moment along the Markha Valley Trek.

Choosing a guide

Although you may or may not have the option to choose a specific Ladakh trekking guide, we offer a few questions and suggestions to help you find a good match.

1) Ask to meet the guide before you leave on your trek.

This is something we usually do before any trek to give us peace of mind that we’ll get along well with our guide. We’ve never had to change guides, but if you do think that the guide assigned to you will be problematic then ask for a change. Remember, it’s a long journey. It will be particularly long if you must spend it with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Not to mention, you’ll want someone you feel comfortable with and trust in the case that weather or health turn south. We know this firsthand because a guide from another agency who trekked alongside us in Ladakh annoyed absolutely everyone, including his own client. We spent energy trying to avoid him.

2) Ask for a Ladakhi guide.

During high season in Ladakh, demand for guides is high and so people come from all over India to guide for the summer. We don’t want to discriminate, but we feel that you’ll have a better experience with someone who is a Ladakhi guide because of the knowledge of local culture and language. Our trekking companions had an Indian guide, and while he knew the mountain trails, he didn’t know the families running the homestays or the Ladakhi language and culture.

3) Explain any special needs to the guide.

This goes for medical needs, as well as any other idiosyncrasies you might have. For example, we take a lot of photos so we stop a lot on the trail and slow things down. Alerting the guide in advance of this behavior lets the guide know not to worry when it takes us a while to go from point A to B. He can adjust his pace accordingly. One of the women trekking at the same time as us had back issues, so her guide would often carry one of her bags for her when her back ached. The idea: help your guide help you.

Estimated Costs for Markha Valley Trek (2013 Trekking Season)

Our total costs for our Markha Valley Trek (6 nights/7 days) including a guide, accommodation (homestay), food and transport to/from the trek was 13,000 rupees ($220) per person. This also included a stop at Hemis Monastery on the way back to Leh. (Not all trekking agencies offer this, so ask about it. We really enjoyed the additional stop on the return and recommend it.)

Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Why it’s worth stopping at Hemis Monastery on the return to Leh.

This was slightly cheaper than some of the other trekking agencies who had a standard fee of 2,000 rupees ($34) per person per day. A few places offered bare bone prices at 1,600 rupees per person per day. Understand that you typically get what you pay for.

Homestay costs on Markha Valley Trek:

If you do decide to do the Markha Valley Trek independently, find out in Leh what the official rate is for homestays that year. The official rate is a standard amount set every year by the homestay association so that the families all charge the same amount and don’t try to underbid each other (thereby causing tensions in the community). During the 2013 trekking season, the standard homestay rate was 500 rupees ($9) per night per person. This included dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. Update: The 2014 homestay rate is 800 rupees per night and 1,200 rupees for the tent at Nimiling.

When to Trek in Ladakh?

The trekking season in Ladakh really begins to take off early-to-mid June and runs until September. The high season is July and August with August being the busiest month. Rains usually start late August to September. If you can time it, we recommend going early in the shoulder season in June. Note that weather is always the wild card, however.

Chortens in Skyu - Day 2 of Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Chortens in the village of Skyu, Day 2 of the Markha Valley Trek.

Our trek was mid-June and there was hardly anyone (6 people) along our entire Markha Valley route. This meant that the homestays were not crowded and there were no traffic jams on the paths. We experienced a surprise snowstorm on our second morning at the first pass, but that just added to the excitement and meant that all the mountains around us sported a beautiful covering of snow.

Acclimatization in Leh before Trekking

No matter which trek you choose, be sure to spend at least two days acclimatizing in Leh (or wherever the setting off point of your Ladakh trek happens to be). Take a walk through the old town up to Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa. This helps get the blood pumping and the legs moving. It also gives you some experience climbing hills at altitude.

Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa - Ladakh, India
Good acclimatization walk in Leh = climbing up to Namgyan Tsemo Gompa on the right.

If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider taking even more time to acclimatize in Leh. Your hike will be more enjoyable and successful for it.

Food recommendations in Leh:

Summer Harvest: Best momos in town. We feel confident in this statement as we sampled momos in four different restaurants and kitchens in town. Be sure to ask for the homemade hot sauce. We never ventured beyond momos (they were that good), but other dishes emerging from the kitchen looked tasty as well.

Best Momos in Leh at Summer Harvest Restaurant - Ladakh, India
Fried momos from Summer Harvest Restaurant in Leh, Ladakh.

German bakeries: Don’t ask me why, but Leh is bursting with German bakeries. They don’t all have their own ovens, so it seems like they get their baked goods from a central German bakery source. If you’re craving a cinnamon roll or some quasi European pastries, stop by one of these and enjoy with a chai. Quality is mixed, but when you consider how remote you are, you’ll be grateful.

Lassi guy: In the alleyway just to the right of the mosque on Leh Bazaar is a tiny place with this friendly guy making and selling yogurt and paneer (Indian cheese). For a few rupees he’ll create a fresh sweet or salty lassi for you and invite you in to enjoy a seat while he explains how he makes it all. Highly recommended.

The lassi man of old town Leh. His secret sits in the blue bowl: freshly made yogurt every AM. #phenomenalassi #Ladakh
Making Lassi in Leh.

Transport: How to get to Ladakh

Unless you have your own set of wheels (or wings) there are three main routes to get to and from Ladakh.

By Bus to Leh:

Srinigar to Leh: You have the option to take a two-day “Super Deluxe” bus (overnight in Kargil) or a 12-hour shared ride in a private jeep (with 6 other passengers). Both leave from the same area in Srinagar. Please note that the roads are only open for a short period each year, usually from May – September.

We flew from Mumbai to Srinagar and then took the bus up to Leh and a shared jeep for the return leg to Srinagar. If you have more time, consider taking the train from wherever you are in India to Jammu and pepper in a few strategic visits and stops along the way to Srinagar.

Our Super Deluxe Bus from Srinagar to Leh - India
Taking the “Super Deluxe” bus from Kashmir to Ladakh.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to the bus and jeep. While the bus ride from Srinagar to Leh is long and not particularly comfortable, you are able to take a lot of photos out the window, as the pace is glacial, snail-like for much of the way. It’s also an experience to travel with locals (e.g., Buddhist monks hopping on and off) and fellow adventurous travelers. Suggestion: try not to focus on the missing guardrails along the way. A dose of fatalism may also help.

Cost: Bus tickets = 1,050 R/person. Jeep price depends on your negotiation skills, but usually costs between 1,500-1,800Rs/person.

Manali to Leh: This route from the south also features the option of a 2-day bus trip vs. 16-20 hours in a shared jeep. We didn’t take this route so can’t speak to it firsthand, but we met several people who did. The roads seem to be in worse shape than the Srinagar route, but you go over four large mountain passes which are supposed to be stunning. If you’re coming from Delhi, this is the more direct route. The roads are usually open for a few months of the year, again from June – September.

By Plane to Ladakh

Flying into Leh is certainly more expedient, but you’ll miss the beauty and adventure of the roads. The views from the skies in the mountains are supposed to pretty spectacular, however. Be sure to leave buffer days in your travel schedule if you fly as flights are frequently canceled due to bad weather.

Most planes fly from either Delhi or Srinagar. Try to book your tickets early as prices go up very quickly.

Note: Originally we were going to put our trekking packing list here, but as this article was already rather long we decided to publish it in a separate post. Here is the Ultimate Trekking Packing List with all the details on what to bring with you on a Ladakh (or any other) multi-day trek!

Still have questions about Ladakh and trekking there? Ask away in the comments below!

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