Uncornered Market » Travel http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Wed, 30 Jul 2014 12:34:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 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 on a Cliff's Edge to Daniel Korkor Cave Church - 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 plan a comprehensive guide on it soon, 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. Stay tuned.

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 will soon publish 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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The Joys and Pains of Getting There (Kashmir to Ladakh by Bus)http://uncorneredmarket.com/kashmir-ladakh-bus-joys-pains/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/kashmir-ladakh-bus-joys-pains/#comments Fri, 13 Dec 2013 08:57:33 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14145 By Daniel Noll

How a two-day 258 miles bus ride through Kashmir served as my price of entry to Ladakh. Each time he coughed, a fog of rancid death gripped my seat. From the vapors, I imagined blackened teeth and gray tongue and was reminded that the mouth is purportedly a much dirtier place than the anus. As […]

The post The Joys and Pains of Getting There (Kashmir to Ladakh by Bus) appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Kashmir to Ladakh roadtrip. Mind-spanning landscapes from Sonamarg to Drass, the world's second-coldest inhabited village.
Mind-spanning landscapes, Kashmir to Ladakh roadtrip.

How a two-day 258 miles bus ride through Kashmir served as my price of entry to Ladakh.

Each time he coughed, a fog of rancid death gripped my seat. From the vapors, I imagined blackened teeth and gray tongue and was reminded that the mouth is purportedly a much dirtier place than the anus.

As I turned an eye back behind me, I noted the culprit, a man sitting behind me wrapped in a pheran, scarf and other bits of South Asian alpine exotica apparel that appeared not to have been washed in their several decades of existence. I wondered where he’d come from, where he was going. And Why? What was his story?

Then, I smelled his breath again. And I wondered, “Why am I here?

The Super Deluxe Bus

It’s a difficult journey. You must have Super Deluxe,” the attendant urged. According to the signs behind the ticket desk at the Srinagar bus station in Kashmir, there were three distinct levels of service to Leh, the provincial capital of Ladakh: Super Deluxe, Deluxe and — by process of elimination yet not explicitly offered — Squalid. The Super Deluxe two-day journey cost 1050 rupees ($17) each. At a premium of only a few dollars, this seemed the wise option. In these parts, a little luxury and deluxe-ness can sometimes go a long way.

It’s a very good bus.” Given that we were not only in India, the land of dubious bus journeys, but further still in Kashmir, the only word of his I trusted was “bus.” We had a ticket with a seat number and this alone constituted victory as we imagined what the scrum would look like the following morning as the bus doors were flung open.

But our ticket read a foreboding seat assignment: #13.

The following morning at the bus stand a young middle-class Indian couple from Mumbai, also on their way to Ladakh, stood waiting. “Do you know which is our bus?” they asked, pointing to a collection of ramshackle, wheeled heaps strewn amidst a sea of passengers, hawkers, bystanders, and passers-by.

That one, I think,” Audrey pointed to the bus marked “Super Deluxe” whose appearance was neither super nor deluxe. But it was the only one headed to where we wished to go, Ladakh.

But they told us it would be super deluxe,” our young Indian friends echoed a sentiment we’d held fast to only 30 minutes earlier. We’d since moved on, accepting our fortune and embracing that it was now our turn to help others — even Indian tourists who ought to know better — to accept their fate.

I almost hugged them and said, “It’s OK. We’ll get through this together.

Flat Tires and Samosas

In the world of transport, troubling is no better defined than by a stop ten minutes into a two-day journey in order to hammer a shabby panel of sheet metal onto the undercarriage of one’s vehicle. As our co-pilot banged away in the dirt outside of a dilapidated service station, I noticed that our bus was precariously perched atop a small rock at an angle, leaving him one slight wrong move or one good gust of wind away from being flattened under the weight of our bus.

What is life if you refuse to live it on the edge? I imagined a t-shirt sporting such inspirational words. I turned away and noticed one of the passers-by from a local village wearing instead a shirt that read, “If you’re bad, I’m your dad.”

After all the passengers, men and women, peed at the edge of the irrigation canal along the rice fields out behind the garage, it was time to hit the road anew.

Thirty minutes later, we paused again, this time to fix a flat tire or perhaps to reinforce the spare.

Can anyone see anything super or deluxe about our "Super Deluxe" bus? Our chariot from Kashmir to Ladakh (Srinagar to Leh), 1050 rupees ($17), 240 miles, 2 days, approximately  20 hours inside trundling. Glacial (most photos along the ride were hand-crane
Our Super Deluxe Bus, 2nd stop to fix the tires.

Either way, I bore the pause no ill will as this service station included two young men hovering over a wok encrusted with ancient mustard oil. They dished out samosas and offered us bottles of cake-grit, windblown hot sauces.

We ordered two samosas, drowned them in red and green hot sauce, knowing full well this would set us either on the path to digestive hell via the bacteria inside, or digestive heaven due to the prophylactic effects of hot peppers and spice that would annihilate anything inside of us.

Then we ordered two more.

I could feel the fresh little microbes cruising around my guts. They would have to do battle with the guys that had just entered from Mumbai. I pitied the ones from the sushi we’d eaten in Japan only days before. They didn’t stand a chance.

Pakistan is Near

After meadows and green fields rapidly yielded to ever-growing mountains, that’s when the hills came alive — alive with men, men in fatigues and big automatic weapons creeping and lurking in the shadows of trees. While crouched Indian soldiers in the hills left me vaguely unsettled, the other passengers appeared totally unfazed.

I looked down at my map; we were right next door to Pakistan. Places like Skardu made famous as a site of a school (and a bridge) in Greg Mortenson’s now somewhat disgraced fictive memoir Three Cups of Tea were only some 110km away as the crow flies. Meanwhile, towering peaks and unrelenting landscape placed it more than six times further away, 725km by passable road.

Kashmir, at times, tricked us into thinking we were in Switzerland. Nanoseconds later, we realized just where we were...India, not far from the Pakistan border.
Kashmir, at times, tricked us into thinking we were in Switzerland. Nanoseconds later, we realized just where we were…India, not far from the Pakistan border.

The song Kashmir by Led Zeppelin crept into my head. You know, it’s not a song at all about Kashmir, but rather about Morocco — or as many other Led Zeppelin songs probably are, about something we’ll never know.

As we approached the village of Sonamarg, mountains yielded to meadow and dried open plain. Dust kicked up and the number of vehicles grew around us like a crowd. We were no longer alone.

Why do you think those shepherds have so many horses?“ Audrey asked pointing out the window at gatherings of scarf-bedecked gypsies leading their steeds in circles.

The horses, it turns out, are ready-made for leagues of Indian tourists who descend on the region in summer and like to ride out to the glaciers on horseback. The flocks are aided in part by an Indian government program that provides Indian military families and government workers all-expense paid trips to Kashmir as a benefit of their service.

A perfect conflict juggernaut, I thought. Kashmir, wrapped in beauty and insecurity, will likely prove to be one of the world’s key — yet forever geopolitically misunderstood — flash points.

Fear Boulevard and the Ice Penis

As much as our bus moved forward, it also lurched. Like a ship in a storm, it swayed to the road’s swells, axles bending but thankfully never snapping, much like you’d expect of a well-constructed building in an epic earthquake.

The road out of Sonamarg could for me be named Fear Boulevard and ascended quickly on the approach to Zoji-La pass.

The rapid elevation gains not only boggled the mind, but also deprived it of much-needed oxygen. That such a narrow road, scraped off a mountain face and in a seeming state of constant erosion and rubble could be engineered — should be engineered — gave me wonder. 3500-foot drops stagger the mind and challenge the photographer to communicate the extreme. You know you are in thin air. What you don’t know is exactly how to capture it. And the whole thing lasts for a slow drip of about 20-25 miles.

Kashmir to Ladakh roadtrip teaser. Bus got stuck in a traffic jam overlooking this jaw-dropper.
Stunning view from the traffic jam, Sonamarg to Drass.

Not only was this road long, perched and precarious, but it was also packed with vehicles, sometimes three and four abreast, which through the winding was a cause for genuine concern. At one point, we found ourselves above the valley by what looked about 4,000 feet. No guardrails. The roads (a term of generosity) were in horrendous moon-like shape — boulders strewn, ditches cut, water running from one steep pitch over and through our path and off the cliff. I imagined our bus becoming one with those rivulets and sliding right off the mountain face.

Coincidentally, we would hear news days later that a six-person jeep fell off a similar road across the region, taking with it the lives of three people. Spine-tingling, yet thoroughly unsurprising and reasonable.

Jeeps sped around us, threading the needle-like chain of supremely colorful “Goods Carrier” trucks. Many of them featured Muslim prayers — prayers timely and ironic as death by accident feels fresh, close at hand. The so-called Border Roads Organization (BRO) responsible for maintaining these feats of man, placed signs along the way that imparted such wisdom as “Be Mr. Late, not Late Mr.” and “Darling I like you, but not so fast.” But no one heeded them much attention.

Mountain Roads in Kashmir, Tight Passing - India
Not a lot of room to pass and it’s a long ways down.

At one point, amidst stunning landscape, our bus pulled to a long halt behind a traffic jam. Audrey got out to enjoy an absurdly edge-loving closer view of the sheer drop, something she does not only because she enjoys it, but also because she secretly knows it terrifies me. Almost immediately, the co-pilot adhered himself to Audrey, as he did anytime when I was the safe distance away of more than one meter.

He explained that Armanath Cave, a holy Hindu place, was located in the valley below, just beyond the white speck tents in the distance. “In a couple of weeks there will be 10,000 or 15,000 Indians here each day for the pilgrimage. They go to the cave to see the ice lingam inside.

I shook my head trying to imagine 15,000 people on these roads. Apocalypse.

Then, I imagined the ice lingam. Or, for the uninitiated, a penis-shaped ice stalagmite.

This is no ordinary ice phallus, however. It’s a supposed representation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. And it’s one that attracts scores of pilgrims, to the tune of over 600,000 each July and August. But due to lack of preparedness and acclimatization and miserable road conditions, over 100 of them on average die annually along the way.

The entirety of what I’d just considered allowed me to reflect again: we humans are an interesting lot.

Now it was now our bus’ turn to thread the needle of traffic through the cargo trucks. As I admired the full motion video of peaks and drops, I realized that one of my internal organs had been shaken loose. Maybe it was my pancreas. My palms were sweating. Were it not for the beauty, I would damn my eyes. It is an astronomically long way down.

This, I tell myself, is the price of adventure, the price of passage through Kashmir, the price of entry to Ladakh.

We like our road trips to be peppered with mountains -- raw mountains, up close and personal. This is Kashmir.
Raw mountains, up close and personal. This is Kashmir.

Crossroads in the Middle of Nowhere

Drass is said to be the second coldest inhabited place on the planet. Regardless of the verity of this claim, bleakness and crispness of air seem to prevail, even in summer. Parachute tents stand nearby at the ready all year round. Drifting shepherds look as windblown from afar as they do windworn up close.

I feel slightly bad for people that live in Drass, not so much because it is cold, but because the name of their town expresses such grimness to me. Drass.

We stop for a tea break. The shops in Drass look like wooden boxes turned on their sides, strung with the latest produce from the last passing truck. Up here, this high, this cold, this remote, bananas seem a luxury. But everyone needs energy, especially the shepherds emerging from far-flung hills and gorges.

Women Wait in a Village, Kashmir to Ladakh
Kashmiri women wait on the side of the road near Drass.

Drass is the sort of place that underscores that Kashmir is a crossroads culture. Traditional trading routes have split hither and yon; they invite the willing, the needy, and the courageous to enter this region and to cross its unforgiving landscape. From Persia, the Mughal Empire to Hindustan and Tibet, Kashmir has taken them all. You can see the net of this migration and interbreeding in some Kashmiris: the lightness of the color of their eyes, the shade of their skin and also the tint of their beards.

This place has seen its share of traffic.

A landscape carved into quadrants, the never-ending bends of Kashmir.
Following the river from Drass through fields with shepherds living in parachute tents.

Kargil: A Place to Stop for the Night?

Kargil is a way station, the likes of which I imagine will someday serve as backdrop for a space age film telling of the post-apocalypse. Kargil is gritty and basic; it looks like a trading post, bartering at the end of days.

We pass by all manner of shops. Pots and pans are well represented. The Kargilis liked to cook apparently. Either that, or Kargil serves as the Great Mall of Kashmir and Ladakh.

It was also our stop for the night.

The first item of business: to find a room. As a gaggle of men engulfed upon our exiting the bus, we defensively partnered with the young Indian couple from Mumbai. They could speak the language, and he offered to maneuver and negotiate for us. Secretly, I think they also felt safer with us. They were a long ways from home, too.

We headed up the hill into the streets of Kargil, backpack-laden, following a middle-aged local man who ran a cheap guesthouse. He led us into a courtyard and up the stairs of a building that seemed mid-construction, cinderblocks stacked up on the side of the second floor in lieu of a wall.

It doesn’t look unhygienic,” Kiran, our friend from Mumbai, offered optimistically as he entered the first hotel room.

I had to laugh. It was possibly one of the most unhygienic holes I’d seen in seven years, maybe only outdistanced by the huts in the Sikkim hills where rats fell from the rafters onto our shoulders as we slept.

Not unhygienic?!” But I was tired and feeling ill. Who was I to argue?

I can say with almost complete confidence that the bed sheets, in their uncountable years of service, were never once washed. In the bathroom, a painfully dim fluorescent bulb dangled from a ceiling wire and cast the place in the pall of a horror show sanatorium. Atmosphere teetered between bleak and grim. I’d have to go with grim on TripAdvisor.

The room next door was the same size, only it was home to about ten men, all lingering under one lone light bulb.

My imagination kicked in. This looked like the sort of place where outlaws gun-running for the mujahideen might hole up for the night before making their way eventually to the mules waiting at the Khyber Pass.

This was a smugglers hotel. A flophouse. The stuff of lore. And I was living it.

Of Bed Bugs and Morning Ablutions

I awoke the next morning to the unsettling beep-beep-beep of the alarm at 4AM. Instantly, I knew I’d been food; my waist and back were lined with bedbug bites. I know, I know: bedbugs are hygiene agnostic, they enjoy filth as much as they do luxury.

But I know: smugglers and gunrunners across the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush, they must all be bedbug infested.

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 4:30AM, but as all good schedules in this part of the world go, it was missed generously, offering us the opportunity to watch closely as the man with bad breath performed his morning ablutions in the bus parking lot. With the aid of a small tin of water, and an inventorying of his nostrils with blackened fingers, he expelled an astounding amount of sputum into a small puddle on the ground.

In Kashmir, the land of desiccation, it was the only moisture for miles. The ground devoured it almost instantly.

The Bend in the Road at Buddhism

Later that morning, we found inspiration in the village of Mulbekh, a crossroads within a crossroads. It’s low-slung skyline set against the hills and bends in the road tells a story of a region that has known many religions in its history. Mosques and Buddhist temples coexist, as do the Muslims and Buddhists who visit them. Appearances begin to shift. Wide faces with high cheekbones replace the darker, more chiseled features of the Kashmiris.

Why subject yourself to a 2-day ride through Kashmir on a crumbling bus? Simple: views like this one.
A few fields emerge in the midst of high desert and mountains, Kargil to Mulbekh.

Breakfast, too, lifts our spirits: a simple yet dazzling truck stop thali. Giant cauldrons stew egg curries and lentils and greens; three dishes with rice run us a cool 60 rupees ($1.20 or so). It was the egg that cost extra.

Landscapes shift into moonscape rocks. Our environment now looks like the Ladakh I’d had in my mind. Lamayuru, a town inset in mountain stone served as foundation to monasteries built on top of the hill. My imagination stretched to consider what it must have taken to build this place.

Tibetan Prayer Flags and Lamayuru Monastery - Ladakh, India
Lamayuru Monastery built up on the hill. Mind-boggling when you think that some parts are almost 1,000 years old.

From the side of the road, we picked up a Buddhist monk wearing black, wide-rimmed, photo-gray glasses. He looked like a young Dalai Lama. It didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that he could have been a close relative.

We dropped him off an hour later in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a narrow dirt road snaking nowhere discernible into the hills.

A slice of light in a storm over the Lamayuru "moonscape" en route Kashmir to Ladakh
Moonscape, a road runs through it.

Where are they coming from? Where are they going? I wish I knew.

Leh: My Why, My Way

The bus entered Leh, the capital of Ladakh. It had taken two days to advance 258 miles (416 km). I felt on top of the world and also, because of the nature of the journey, very much deep inside of it. Srinagar to Leh via a wobbling bus was my gateway through worlds, from one to another, unto each other.

As we turned into the Leh bus terminal station, the man behind me seemed to let out a gasp as if to close the trip, to bookend it with one last hack. As much as I cursed the roads, the bus, the bed bugs, and the bad breath of the last two days, I wouldn’t have traded any of it for the ease of an hour-long flight.

An experience such as this defies a flyover. It also fit as the final segment of a quest, one that began over fifteen years ago in San Francisco with a photo on a neighbor’s wall.

Though the road was rocky, it was the journey that mattered – because it helped me understand where I was and why I’d come all this way.

The post The Joys and Pains of Getting There (Kashmir to Ladakh by Bus) appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Our Ireland Road Trip: Itinerary and Recommendationshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ireland-road-trip-itinerary-recommendations/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ireland-road-trip-itinerary-recommendations/#comments Wed, 04 Dec 2013 13:33:20 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14107 By Audrey Scott

When we originally announced our Ireland road trip, we hinted at disclosing all the details of our Ireland itinerary and recommendations. Here it is. All that’s fit to print. Day by day, we give the complete Ireland itinerary that took us all the way around the circumference of the island. We also share recommendations of […]

The post Our Ireland Road Trip: Itinerary and Recommendations appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Capturing the essence of the contour of light and land...this is road trip Ireland. #dna2ireland
Ireland road trip, country roads.

When we originally announced our Ireland road trip, we hinted at disclosing all the details of our Ireland itinerary and recommendations.

Here it is. All that’s fit to print.

Day by day, we give the complete Ireland itinerary that took us all the way around the circumference of the island. We also share recommendations of places to linger, eat, grab a pint, and stay overnight, and we point out places or activities we would have added to our road trip had we more time.

Admittedly, we covered a lot of ground in a week, in retrospect moving a bit too quickly for our taste.  This brings us to planning an Ireland itinerary and properly estimating the amount of time it actually takes between Ireland destinations, and incorporating time to get lost and make random stops. Our recommendation is to take a similar itinerary and spread it out over two weeks. Alternatively, if you have a week or less, consider focusing on only one segment or region in the itinerary.

We’d like to thank everyone from our blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram communities who provided us with recommendations along our Ireland road trip, many of which we wouldn’t have found on our own.

Skip ahead to the section of the Ireland road trip itinerary that interests you most:

Google Map of our Road Trip Route Around Ireland

Our Ireland Road Trip Itinerary, Day by Day

Day 1: Dublin -> Newgrange /Bru na Boinne -> Mornington Beach -> Dundalk

Dublin Recommendations: Before you begin to ask for Dublin advice, we have to admit that we sadly cannot give much. We were in Dublin to speak at TBEX, a travel blogging conference, and unfortunately didn’t have much time to explore outside of the conference events. However, we can recommend:

  • The Guinness Storehouse: A cool, interactive museum that will answer any question you might possibly have about Guinness. You can even take a class in how to pull the perfect Guinness. Absolutely essential to understanding one of the reasons why Guinness in Ireland is terrific.
  • Cliff Townhouse: If you’re a fan of oysters, Cliff Townhouse offers a selection of different types of oysters from around Ireland. Our favorites included the native and Galway oysters. Big thanks to Mariellen for sharing her oyster feast with us!

Newgrange / Bru na Boinne
Of the two ancient burial sites found in the area, Newgrange and Knowth, we only visited Newgrange. It was surprisingly impressive! An estimated 200 tons of stones, some carried from 40-50 km away, were used to construct this 5,000 year-old ritual and burial site. Even more impressive is the corbelled staggered stone roof and sun entrance, perfectly placed on a rise above the main door to allow a stream of light to shine through the tunnel all the way to the ritual chamber — only at sunrise on the Winter Solstice. During the tour, our guide performed a simulation of this and it was still remarkable.  Must be incredible to see the real deal on December 21.

Newgrange Ancient Burial Site - Ireland
Newgrange ancient burial site, rediscovered after 4,000 years.

Newgrange practical details: Tickets are on a first come, first served basis at the Bru na Boinne Visitors Center (€6 for Newgrange transport and tour, plus visitor center exhibit). Plan for additional time in your itinerary in case the tour times are booked when you first arrive.  Brambles Cafe at the Visitor’s Center actually serves quite good chicken mushroom and Guinness beef cottage pies if you arrive around lunchtime.

Recommended spots near Newgrange:

  • St Mary’s Abbey in Duleek: About 10 kilometers from Newgrange near the town of Duleek is St. Mary’s Abbey, a rubbled medieval church and cemetery. The original church is estimated to date back to the 13th century, while some of the Celtic cross tombstones may go back even further. Cemetery lovers delight: a pleasant and atmosphere to linger and get a feel for Ireland’s religious history. Worth a quick stop if you have the time.
  • Mornington Beach: As the weather was absolutely spectacular on the day we visited, a Dublin-based friend suggested a picnic out by the coast and we ended up on Mornington Beach near Drogheda town. Wide open beach, waves, stone walls to stroll along, fishermen, and families walking their dogs. If the weather is good, this is a beautiful stretch of beach to breathe in your share of Irish Sea air. Although we didn’t have time to stop in Drogheda, it looked like it might be a fun place overnight, perhaps more personal than Dundalk.
Mornington Beach, Climbing on the Rocks - Ireland
Late afternoon walk along Mornington Beach.

Day 2: Dundalk -> Belfast -> Giant’s Causeway -> Donegal

Northern Ireland and Belfast: There’s no border crossing to enter Northern Ireland, but you’ll know you’ve crossed once you begin seeing Union Jack signs and flags flying. That, and all prices have turned to British pounds. We had limited time to stop in Belfast.  So upon return, we’ll book a Black Taxi Tour (recommended by a friend in Dublin) for a closer and grittier look at Belfast past and present.

Giant’s Causeway: We drove north through inland Northern Ireland until we hit Ballycastle (where there’s a cute little church and cemetery), then west along the Coastal Causeway route, stopping at lookout spots and villages along the way until we hit Giant’s Causeway.  While we only walked along the upper route to look down on Giant’s Causeway from above, but we would recommend beginning with the lower route and also paying a visit to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.  Giant’s Causeway Entrance Tickets: £8.50 (including parking fees).

Giant's Causeway - Northern Ireland
Giant’s Causeway, looking down from upper route.

Dunluce Castle (near Bushmills): This is an almost too perfectly placed rubbled seaside castle from the 15th-16th centuries.  Definitely worth at least a photo stop and to walk through the fields for another gander at the island’s rugged northern coast.

If we had more time:

- Port Rush: Recommended to get a drink or coffee by the harbor
- Derry: Walk the walled medieval town

Donegal, Harvey’s Point Hotel: Our stopping point for the night along Lough Eske outside of Donegal town.  Get away from it all and enjoy local big bottle Kinnegar microbrews (try the Scraggy Bay IPA!) in front of the fire.  Then tuck into a meal that will wind you down for good. We enjoyed an artfully prepared venison loin and some local monkfish fillet.  Finish your evening leather chair-bound in front of the fire with a Connemara or Bushmills Irish whiskey sip.

Day 3: Donegal -> Westport

O little town of Donegal. Strips of color to brighten a gray morning. #dna2ireland
Colorful Donegal town on a gray morning.

Donegal Town recommendations:

  • The Blueberry Tea Room: Cute little café with fresh salads and sandwiches. Goat cheese salad is highly recommended. Cash only.
  • Donegal Abbey: Just past the Tourist Information office is the Donegal Abbey, a rubbled abbey and cemetery that is worth a quick explore.

On the drive between Donegal and Westport our suggestion is to turn down a few of the side roads that don’t appear anywhere on your map.  Head to the coast and take a walk. This was where we began our journey along the Wild Atlantic Way, a driving route that follows the Atlantic coast from North to South. Also, the stretch of road through Sligo County is filled with stone farm houses – some still active and many abandoned lush fields and landscape.  If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a rainbow like we did.

The beauty of an Ireland road trip: the little things. Am a big fan of old Irish farmhouses dotting, gracing the hills with their bits of red roofs, rusted and rustic. County Sligo #dna2ireland
Old Irish farmhouses dotting, gracing the hills with their bits of red roofs, rusted and rustic en route from Donegal to Westport.

Westport Recommendations:

  • J.J. O’Malley’s Pub and Restaurant: Westport has a lot of pubs and a lot of restaurants, but there were not many options for pubs that have their own restaurant. J.J. O’Malley’s fit that need. Recommend getting the local salmon — fresh and nicely cooked — along with a bowl of mussels in white wine cream.  All goes perfectly with — you guessed it — a pint of Guinness.
  • The Porter House: Cosy pub with a good selection of microbrews on tap, as well as the requisite Guinness. Staff are friendly and live music plays most nights. We began our night here with a few pints and the first set of music and popped next door to finish off the evening.
  • Matt Malloy’s: Recommended to us by a few of our Facebook fans. We were so glad we listened.   The owner is a musician himself and there is live music every night of the week. Grab a pint on your way in, and find a spot in the back room where the music magic happens.  Fun!

Day 4: Westport -> Louisburgh -> Clifden -> Connemara -> Galway -> Ballyvaughan

Louisburgh: Following advice from the bartender at The Porter House in Westport, we took a few turns outside Louisburgh aiming to get lost along the coast. Louisburgh itself is worth as stop.  It’s a cute little town — a tidy town perhaps — with its share of coffee houses, butchers, surf shops and pubs.

Kylemore Benedictine Abbey: Somewhere between Louisburgh and Clifden, you’ll see this incredible building – like something out of a Harry Potter movie – across a lake. Resist the urge to pull over into the forest to take photos as there will be a proper parking lot a few hundred meters away. We admired the Benedictine Abbey and its gardens from afar, but if you have time, friends tell us it’s worth paying the entrance fee to get up close.

Kylemore Abbey - County Galway, Ireland
Kylemore Benedictine Abbey.

Clifden: Stop by Guy’s Bar for lunch or dinner. Doesn’t have all the decor trappings of a classic Irish pub, but this is a genuine local joint featuring a steady stream of regulars. Fantastic (and huge) fish and chips. And very good Guinness. Clifden is a cute Irish town and a great stopping off point in Connemara. If you have more time, consider spending the night here.

Connemara: It’s a beautiful drive between Clifden and Galway through Ireland’s Connemara region.  This area features moody weather, green hills, wooly sheep dotting those same green hills, lakes, and more.  Time permitting, head into Connemara National Park for a hike.

Connemara Driving - County Galway, Ireland
Driving through misty Connemara.

Galway: Our visit to Galway was far too short, just for dinner. In our very brief time in Galway, we enjoyed the feeling of the city, one of a lively university town.   If we had to do it again we would have spent a night or two here. We also heard from several Irish folks we met that the music scene in Galway is great and it’s hopping every night of the week.

Aniar Restaurant in Galway: If food is important to you and you have a little room to splurge on a Michelin-starred restaurant, this is the place.  Terrific, thoughtful flavors, outdone only by the presentation and further outdone by careful culinary explanations.  The menu is all based around what is fresh that day at the market, sometimes changing within the day. We each enjoyed the tasting menu and shared a wine pairing for taste (65€ for 5 course tasting menu, €95 with wine pairing).

Day 5: Ballyvaughan -> The Burren Coastal Drive -> Doolin -> Cliffs of Moher -> Ferry from Shannon -> Killarney

We spent the night at Gregan’s Castle Hotel just outside of Ballyvaughan and in the heart of The Burren.  A really warm and pleasant property.  We have to admit that it was difficult to leave in the morning. After a late evening arrival, we awoke to a beautiful view over the gardens and fields that reach to the coast.  Breakfast is also lovely here, as the menu gives the name of the farmers from whom all the food is locally sourced. Some nearby farmers also offer walking tours so you can learn more about the living and natural history of the area. If you are looking to splurge on accommodation for a night, this would be a great place to do so.  Be sure to check out their “Things to do nearby” menu.  A terrific list if you want to sample The Burren experience.

The Burren Coast Drive: The drive along the coast from Ballyvaughan to Doolin through The Burren was one of our favorite drives in the country. Harsh, rocky landscapes shaped by brisk winds from the coast.

Audrey on the Cliffs of The Burren - County Clare, Ireland
Audrey almost gets blown off the cliffs of The Burren.

Doolin: Stop off in Doolin for lunch.  If the weather cooperates, consider taking a boat ride out to the Aran Islands or to see the Cliffs of Moher from below.  Boat departure times depend on tides, weather and how rough the seas are so call ahead to be sure that there is indeed a boat departing when you want to go. We’d planned to take a boat ride to see the Cliffs of Moher with Moher Cruises, but the winds and seas were quite rough. The owners were very honest about conditions and how they could affect the enjoyment of the trip.

Cliffs of Moher: The Cliffs of Moher is one of the most visited sites in Ireland, so expect to see the big tour buses and groups here. Don’t let the crowds put you off. Enjoy the view of the cliffs and appreciate the remarkably strong gusts of wind. If you are a photographer (or photography is important to you), consider timing your visit to the Cliffs of Moher in the morning. When we arrived mid-afternoon we were shooting into the sun, which was a bit tough. Entrance fee: €6/person

Cliffs of Moher - County Clare, Ireland
Cliffs of Moher in the late afternoon light.

Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk: A new walking path has just been built that connects Doolin with the Cliffs of Moher and goes all the way down to Liscannor. If you are a trekker, this would be the best way to enjoy the coastline as you’ll have most of the path to yourself.  Check public bus times so you catch the bus back to your car at the end of the hike. Alternatively, hitchhike back to your car.

Shannon Ferry, Killimer to Tarbert: From the Cliffs of Moher to Killarney, you have two options. Take the ferry from Killimer to Tarbert (what we did) or take the highway through Limerick. We didn’t intend for our ferry ride to be a sunset trip, but timing made it so.And it was really pleasant to get out of the car and enjoy the 30-45 minute ride as the sun set over the Atlantic ocean. Shannon Ferry Cost: €18/car

Sunset Shannon Ferry Ride  - Ireland
Sunset on the Shannon car ferry.

Killarney Recommendations:  Killarney is clearly and firmly on the traditional Ireland trail, so the center of town is quite touristy.  A pretty town with no shortage of shopping and live music at night.

  • Courtney’s Bar (Plunkett Street): Another pub recommendation from our community.  Thank you! Killarney is full of pubs and live music, but some of the options feel a tad less than local.  Although Courtney’s also had its share of tourists (like us), it felt more personal.  Live music was good, too. Courtney’s also features one of the most extensive beer menus we’d seen in all of Ireland. Not a bad whiskey list, either.
  • Lane Cafe Bar at Ross Hotel: Technically, Lana Cafe is bar food, but the quality and creativity of the dishes we tasted here go beyond standard pub fare. Really excellent Dingle Bay Mussels with chorizo and chickpea tomato broth and the fish of the day. Both were great, and the prices are very reasonable given the quality and quantity of the food. Highly recommended.  The Cellar One Restaurant (closed the day we were there) is supposed to be even better. The Ross Hotel itself is very nice and right in the city center.  Awesomely accommodating staff with tons of information about the region.

Day 6: Killarney -> Dingle Peninsula -> Ring of Kerry (West) -> Cliffs of Kerry -> Portmagee

Dingle Peninsula: On your way from Killarney to Dingle you’ll want to pull over repeatedly to take photos of the almost too perfect sheep farms overlooking the coast. There aren’t as many pull-offs as there ought to be, so it is best to drive slowly and enjoy.  Break up your drive at Inch and take a walk along the beach (Inch Beach is two miles long, by the way!). If you go  in summer and you’re brave, you can take surf lessons. At the end of the peninsula, Dingle town is absurdly cute, loaded with colorfully painted shopfronts and pubs. If you have time, we’d recommend spending the night here.

Dingle Town in All its Color - County Kerry, Ireland
Colorful little town of Dingle.

Ring of Kerry (West): Killarney to Portmagee is yet another fabulous Ireland drive. We found ourselves pulling off into villages and taking side roads across this route. There are some exceptionally picturesque farms and old farm houses along the route. Take a stop in Cahersiveen and enjoy the view across the bridge and at the marina.

Ring of Kerry, twists and turns, back roads and a hidden marina. Cahersiveen, County Kerry #dna2ireland
Ring of Kerry, twists and turns, back roads and a hidden marina. Cahersiveen, County Kerry

Cliffs of Kerry: As you approach Portmagee, you’ll begin seeing small brown signs on the side of the road for “The most spectacular cliffs in Kerry.” We admit that the marketing worked. We followed the signs all the way past Portmagee to a small driveway with a cafe. Go inside and buy a ticket (€4/person) and walk out to the cliffs. You won’t be disappointed.  And we had the cliffs all to ourselves – we were the only people there. Spectacularly beautiful.  We can recommend visiting around sunset.

Cliffs of Kerry at Sunset - Ireland
Cliffs of Kerry at sunset.

Portmagee: Whether you’re staying at The Moorings (recommended) or staying elsewhere in Portmagee, get yourself down to the pub at The Moorings for dinner.  The pub has a great feel, sweet staff, a nice fire, fine Guinness and a blend of travelers and locals. But the real star here is the seafood chowder with homemade soda bread. The best of both we’d found in Ireland. Also recommended: the fish & chips, but beware that the serving will feed a small extended family.  Sharing is wise.

Day 7: Portmagee -> Skellig Rocks (boat trip) -> Ring of Kerry (East) -> Cork

Skellig Rocks: If the weather is good and the seas aren’t too rough, book a boat trip out to the Skellig Rocks. This was one of the highlights of our entire trip. Boats leave from the Portmagee marina around 10:00AM and will get you back around 2:15 PM. You’ll be dropped off at Skellig Michael and have around 2- 2.5 hours explore the island and the medieval monastery. That might sound like a lot of time, but it will go by very quickly, particularly if the weather is nice. Take a picnic or snacks with you to eat on the island. 

Steps leading up to the medieval monastery on Skellig Michael.

We went with Pat Joe Murphy’s Sea Cruise (087 6762983/087 2342168) and had a great time. Call ahead to be sure there’s still a spot for you. We can also highly recommend following the boat ride with another bowl of seafood chowder and a pint of Guinness from The Moorings while sitting by the fire.

Ring of Kerry (East): We wish we had more time for this section of the trip as there are several small towns (Sneem, Templenoe, etc.) along the way between Portmagee and Kenmare that looked like fun places to roam, get lost and have a pint. If you’re going to take the boat ride out to Skellig Rocks in the morning, consider spending the night in one of these towns that evening, instead of going all the way to Cork.

Ring of Kerry (East) Landscapes - Ireland
Ring of Kerry (east), landscapes en route from Portmagee to Cork.

Cork at night:

  • Concert at Triskel Christchurch: We arrived in Cork just in time to see an Irish folk music concert by Paddy Casey at Christchurch. Both experiences are highly recommended. Paddy Casey is not only a great singer and songwriter, but he’s also hilarious. And, Christchurch is a very cool concert venue.  It’s a converted church so that you’ll be sitting in pews while soaking up the acoustics.  You can even drink a beer while seated in the pews. Drinking in the pews — there’s something fitting and ironic about that in Ireland.
  • Long Valley Bar (Winthrop Street): If you’re looking for a laid back pub with live music on weekends this is a great choice. We thank Katrina Stovoid who lives in Cork for inviting us out with her friends and sharing this pub with us.

Day 8: Cork -> Dublin

Cork English Market: I have to admit that I had my doubts about the English Market. We figured it to be really touristy and full of overpriced gourmet foods as it appears at the top of every “What to do in Cork” list. But to our surprise, the English Market on a Saturday morning was filled mainly with locals going about their weekend shopping at the butcher, fishmonger, vegetable stands and other local and international food shops.  Some of the butcher shops go back over a hundred years and get passed down through the family. If our experience is any measure, the Irish certainly know their meat and value a good butcher.

English Market, Seafood Vendor - Cork, Ireland
English Market on a Saturday morning, Cork.

It was impossible to cover everything in Ireland in the course of a week, but this itinerary gave us a good overview of the island and an idea of where we’d like to go deeper.  We look forward to a return trip.

Where do you recommend we go next visit to Ireland?


Disclosure: We thank Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland for supporting our trip to Ireland and this road trip around the country. As always, all experiences and opinions above are entirely our own.

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What Makes A Real Irish Pub?http://uncorneredmarket.com/irish-pub/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/irish-pub/#comments Wed, 20 Nov 2013 22:45:13 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14077 By Daniel Noll

I set my watch 15 minutes fast. That way, when I die I’ll sneak into heaven before the devil figures out I’m dead. – words of wisdom from the local dispensary, a spry gentleman one Guinness down in Westport, County Mayo In almost every country we’ve visited around the world, with perhaps the exception of […]

The post What Makes A Real Irish Pub? appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

I set my watch 15 minutes fast. That way, when I die I’ll sneak into heaven before the devil figures out I’m dead.

words of wisdom from the local dispensary, a spry gentleman one Guinness down in Westport, County Mayo

In almost every country we’ve visited around the world, with perhaps the exception of Bangladesh and Iran, we seem to stumble across an Irish pub. The problem with many of them: there’s usually something dubious, something un-Irish about them.

Possibly the food. Maybe the owners. Definitely the accent.

There’s even supposedly a do-it-yourself (DIY) Irish pub industry, whereby companies in Ireland offer an “Irish pub in a box” – so when you open one of your own, you’ll have all the requisite Guinness bar mirrors, typical Irish pub name signs (Murphy’s or Mulligan’s) and kitschy faux-finished knickknacks to tuck in the windows.

It tarnishes the Irish pub industry so unnecessarily cliché.

One of my lasting “Irish” pub memories was of a brawl that broke out while a friend’s band performed. As chairs sailed across the bar, the band soldiered on, slowing things down with a rendition of All You Need Is Love until tempers eventually cooled.

After all of life’s misdirection, we had the good fortune to visit Ireland this year. And I’m not just talking Dublin, but the Ireland outside of the capital city, what some Irish friends dare to call “the real Ireland.”

Irish Pub Guinness Sign - Donegal, Ireland
Guinness toucan outside an Irish Pub.

While there, we found ourselves in a few Irish pubs.

Well, maybe more than a few.

At least once a day.

OK, more like twice a day.

And through our visits, we learned something of the ebb and flow of Irish life — and what it means to be a real Irish pub.

The Public House, The Local Living Room

Outside of a neighborhood speakeasy growing up where one could get 5 cent drafts in the town next door (don’t ask me how, or how old I am), I’ve never been anyplace where the drinking establishments felt more consistently like living rooms than they did in Ireland.

Irish Pubs in Westport, Ireland
Irish pubs in Westport, Ireland

We related an incident to our friend John from Galway: “We ate at a pub in Clifden for lunch, but it didn’t look to us like a typical Irish pub. There was a steady stream of people coming in to sit at the bar, some to eat. The bartender offered help to a woman struggling with the latest update on her iPhone, people greeted one another by asking about how the family was doing. From moms to granddads, they were all there together.

Oh, that means you found a real Irish pub,” John clarified.

Pub is short for Public House. Many pubs in Ireland remain a gathering hub where people of all ages and lots in life come not only to drink, but also to take in the latest news about town.

As we sipped a Guinness and pecked away at a plate of fish and chips, we observed a stream of local humanity in a hum of news about family and friends.

On special days, say a Sunday afternoon, you might even find several older men lined up tables side-by-side enjoying their Sunday dinner. You can imagine that they are there every Sunday afternoon, in the same spot: their spot.

And don’t worry if you arrive alone. You’ll be part of the conversation, some conversation, before you depart.

Guinness: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

The wheels of those conversations, they are greased in great part by Guinness.

During our first night in Dublin, a cab driver advised us on all we needed to know for a first trip to Ireland: “You must wait for Guinness to settle. It tastes better that way, trust me.”

I’ve enjoyed several Guinness in my life, but in this one much-too-short visit to Ireland I believe I may have quintupled the count.

The texture smooth and subtle, and the taste – surprisingly variable across pubs yet always satisfying – seemed complementary to just about every meal from oysters to beef cottage pie. (And yes, we tried Guinness’ competitors Beamish and Murphy’s – preferred in that order — but it was Guinness that kept us coming back.)

Fish and Chips at an Irish Pub - Portmagee, Ireland
Guinness, the a perfect match for fish and chips.

I’ve always considered Guinness as it technically is, a stout. But a visit to Ireland, pubs and all, convinced me that Guinness in fact belongs to a beverage class all its own.

A real Irish pub knows a true Guinness pour, a five-step: 1) Tilt the glass, pull the tap forward for a carbonated beer blend; 2) Fill just below the harp symbol near the top of the glass; 3) Wait for stage one to settle; 4) Tap back, stage two, top it off with pure beer just below or at the rim of the glass; 5) Wait for the rising stream of bubbles to settle to the top. The head should settle just right, perhaps a millimeter or so above the rim.

Then it’s time to enjoy.

Note: We have since tried Guinness in London and most recently in the United States, where – GASP — steps #1, #3, and #4 are sadly ignored. A real Irish pub will learn you better.

Music: Intimate and Collective

To grease the wheels further, we need sound above and beyond the din of conversation, the sort of sound that resonates in the head and heart.

Live performances in Ireland were intimate. Musicians would sit in a corner booth or table, alongside the rest of us. They were part of the crowd as much as they were what the crowd had come to enjoy. At Porter House, we enjoyed at quick-pick banjo and guitar. Music as meditation.

Matt Malloy’s in the town of Westport, too, captures the music scene in an Irish pub. Towards the end of the night the lead musician, a fiddler, asked one of the regulars in the crowd what they ought to play.

Matt Malloy's Pub, Irish Music - Westport, Ireland
Live music at Matt Malloy’s in Westport

Let’s play something for the Americans.

We, among the few Americans in the crowd, were taken aback by the request delivered warmly and tenderly by a graying man in a green sweater vest and wool trousers.

He went on to sing a tear-jerking rendition of “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Tony Bennett would be proud. San Franciscans, too.

It didn’t matter whether one was a tourist or a local. We were all there together, welcome.

As goes touristy things to do in Ireland, the live pub music we experienced transcended contrivance. Music and community – from the heart – tends to do that.

Bartender: Master of Ceremony (& Unofficial Tourist Information Office)

Bartenders in Irish pubs, as in many stations around the world, hold position as unofficial masters of ceremony. They set the pace, not only controlling the flow of drinks by masterfully pulling each Guinness and lining it up to settle but also the stream of conversation and people around those pours through an almost imperceptible orchestration.

Do you have your own car? Do you like to explore?” asked the bartender at Porter House in Westport. It had taken him a nanosecond after we’d opened our mouths to realize that we were visitors.

We nodded.

Ok, let me suggest a few places for you to get lost tomorrow. Back roads you should turn down towards the coast, a coffee shop with strong coffee.

As he reeled off the name of one village after another, Audrey struggled to keep up, thumbing the transliterated Irish English into her iPhone. That getting lost was synonymous with exploration was endearing, fitting.

The following day we managed to match a few of the phonetically spelled names with what we’d found on our map.

In one of those “get lost” areas, we turned off on a dirt road, landing at the edge of a harbor pointed to the Atlantic Ocean – like land’s end, the middle of nowhere. Some fishermen stood on the pier trying their luck. As we walked to a more open view of the water, one of the casters strolled past us and smiled: “You were at the pub last night, weren’t you? I sat near you.”

Getting Lost in County Mayo - Westport, Ireland
Getting lost on a bartender’s recommendations.

It’s a small, small world.

So too in Ireland. So too in an Irish pub.

You can find Irish pub recommendations in our Ireland road trip article.


Disclosure: We thank Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland for supporting our trip to Ireland and this road trip around the country. As always, all opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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24 Hours in Johannesburg and Sowetohttp://uncorneredmarket.com/johannesburg-soweto-24-hours/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/johannesburg-soweto-24-hours/#comments Wed, 23 Oct 2013 12:19:21 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13795 By Audrey Scott

To suggest that one could experience Johannesburg and Soweto properly in 24 hours is almost patently absurd. But you do what you can, you make the best with the time you have. That’s what we did. And here’s how we did it. Nighttime in Melville 7 PM: Stroll around Melville at Night and Find a […]

The post 24 Hours in Johannesburg and Soweto appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

To suggest that one could experience Johannesburg and Soweto properly in 24 hours is almost patently absurd. But you do what you can, you make the best with the time you have. That’s what we did. And here’s how we did it.

Nighttime in Melville

7 PM: Stroll around Melville at Night and Find a Book Lover’s Heaven

Johannesburg is vast and varied, so one of the big decisions you’ll have when visiting is where to stay. We knew we’d be visiting downtown Johannesburg and Soweto the next day, so we opted to spend the night in one of Johannesburg’s neighborhoods. We chose the suburb of Melville as we heard it had a good creative scene, was laid back and had some fun restaurants, bars and cafes.

Most of the action in Melville is along 7th Street. In addition to checking out some of the cafés and restaurants, consider taking a side trip or two down 4th and 5th Avenues to see a taste of traditional Melville and its old school style butcher and barber shops.

But our favorite find of the night was the Book Dealers of Melville on 7th Street. A reader’s dream, visually attractive, too. Stacks and stacks of books, story upon story. There’s a risk you might emerge over-stimulated.

Our dream living room. Or, Book Dealers of Melville, Johannesburg #sendfoodimnotleaving
Inside Book Dealers of Melville.

8 PM: Drinks and Dinner on 7th Street in Melville

Ratz Bar (#9 7th Street, Melville): One part dive bar, another part throwback 80s lounge, Ratz Bar attracts a cross-section of local humanity and makes for a fun hour of people watching and chilling out.

Ant Café (#11 7th Street, Melville): We were drawn to this place during our walk around Melville as the inside looked homey and warm, full of people and lively conversation. Although the thin crust pizza at Ant Café is good, it’s the atmosphere and the owner’s sense of humor that you’ll remember most. It’s also very affordable (i.e., around $12 for two pizzas and half liter of South African wine).

Daytime: Melville, Johannesburg, Soweto

8 AM: Morning Walk and Quick Breakfast in Melville

Café de la Crème (corner of 7th Street and 4th Avenue, Melville): We didn’t have time for a long breakfast so we just grabbed coffees, a croissant, and a pain au chocolat and ate standing up in the bar section of this café. The pastries were surprisingly good and inexpensive. The breakfast menu was vast. Plates emerging from the kitchen looked really good, so we’d recommend spending some time and getting a full breakfast if you can manage it.

Shop Fronts in Melville, Johannesburg
Street scene in Melville, Johannesburg

9:00 AM: Johannesburg: A History Lesson and Street Art in Newtown Cultural Precinct

Johannesburg has been — and still is — South Africa’s business center. The foundation of the city itself was based on the discovery of gold and other minerals in the late 19th century. To the point, Johannesburg’s downtown area has mining museums and monuments dedicated explaining that dimension of the city’s development.

We chose to spend our time focused on street art instead.

Street Art in Johannesburg, South Africa
Johannesburg Street Art.

Sophiatown Jazz Bar in Newtown Cultural Precinct:
Location: Intersection of Jeppe and Henry Nxumalo Streets
The entire area of Newtown in Johannesburg is filled with public art – wooden statues of heads line the sidewalks, murals and paintings take over city walls. If you stop by the Sophiatown Jazz Bar you’ll get a crash course by way of all the photos and memorials to Johannesburg’s great jazz artists. On the brick wall nearby you’ll find portraits of famous South African artists from the 20th century.

Johannesburg jazz wall, Newtown Cultural Precinct #streetart
Newtown Cultural Precinct, Johannesburg.

10:00 AM: Mandela & Tambo Law Office

Location: Chancellor House, Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets
A stop at the Chancellor House tells the incredible story of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo and how they represented thousands of people from this Law Office between 1952 and 1956. They used the word of law to defend people who otherwise had no voice against the apartheid regime and who were accused of “crimes against the state.” Mandela’s and Tambo’s experience gained here set the foundation for a fight against apartheid they would carry out for most of their lives.

The actual office where Mandela and Tambo practiced is still closed to the public, but the history and photos are displayed across the ground floor windows. Definitely worth a visit.

11 AM: Apartheid Museum

We have a mixed relationship with museums, but the Apartheid Museum is a near-requirement during any visit to Johannesburg. When you enter, you are given a pass indicating whether you’ll experience the entrance hall of the museum as a white person or a black person. Your corresponding walk will indicate the privileges and discrimination afforded your race. A jarring, disturbing, and creative way to communicate the metaphor and split life in South Africa that was apartheid.

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg -- the non-white entrance. #SouthAfrica
Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

It’s easy to get lost in the museum and spend hours reading through the exhibits and watching films. During our visit, there was a in-depth exhibit on Nelson Mandela’s personal life that will likely be replaced later this year. Each time I read the story or see photos of Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey for Rugby World Cup final in 1995, I choke up. I remember working in London at that time and hearing news of this. I had no concept then of what it all meant. Only years later when I read John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy did I begin to understand. Such a powerful story demonstrating Mandela’s strength, creativity, and faith in humanity and his country.

1:30 PM: Lunch in Soweto, Sakhumzi on Vilakazi Street

Vilakazi Street in Soweto is unique in the world. It’s the only street where two Nobel Peace Prize winners called home. And so it was on the historic street — where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived — that we took lunch at Sakhumzi Restaurant for a crash course in South African food.

South African Food in Soweto - Johannesburg, South Africa
South African food, an overview at Sakhumzi Restaurant.

At Sakhumzi, the buffet offered a chance to try pap (a porridge made from ground maize), umngqusho (boiled maize kernals mixed with beans) and our favorite, chakalaka (spiced cold salad with Indian and Malay influences). As Soweto is so diverse with various South African ethnic groups and immigrant groups from across Africa, it seems a fitting setting to highlight the country’s food and its backstory diversity.

My daughter is six years old and speaks four languages. That’s just how it is in Soweto; people come from everywhere and you want to communicate. If you learn a language you get insight into their culture, too.” TK, our guide’s son said amidst his response to our barrage of questions about Soweto.

2:00 PM: Soweto Bicycle Tour

Soweto. Just the name features a certain ring or mystique. We think of people fighting for freedom, uprisings under the apartheid regime – even a dangerous place.

But what of Soweto today?

That’s what we were hoping to find out in our Soweto Bicycle Tour. Our bicycle tour guide began with a historical overview of Soweto.

Soweto Views, Orlando Power Plant - Johannesburg, South Africa
Soweto skyline.

Soweto, news to us, is an abbreviation for South Western Townships. It was set up in the 1930s as a place for black workers to settle. It was also the site of the famous Soweto Student Uprisings in 1976 and a hotbed area for anti-apartheid and union worker demonstrations in the 1980s. Surprising to some, Soweto is actually more populous than Johannesburg (3.5 million vs. 2 million people).

Another thing that may also surprise: Soweto, to a certain degree, appears rather ordinary today. There are residential areas, shops, restaurants, bars, big roads, small roads, and people going about their daily business. Sure, certain parts of Soweto are much better off than others and poorer areas still suffer from a lack of public services (e.g., running water and electricity). But life at its most basic looks like something familiar; this perspective is something that the bicycle tour attempts to show.

We even visited a shebeen (local drinking hall) in one of these poorer areas to get a feel of the difference from one side to the other. In a lesson in contrasts, while the shebeen was dark and full of men drinking, the areas surrounding it were filled with kids playing on their way home from school.

Smiling Kids in Soweto, South Africa
Soweto kids and smiles.

Our visit ended with the site of the Student Uprisings in 1976 and a look at Nelson Mandela’s home. Joe, our guide, told stories about his own role as a leader in the student uprisings and the anti-apartheid movement. Our visit was grounding, as it afforded an opportunity, however quick, to see where it all happened — and to contrast it all to the relative peace on local Soweto streets today.

Faces of Soweto. Seen on the street, tin graffiti. #SouthAfrica
Soweto street art.

When we asked Joe later about integration today in South Africa, he said, “It will come, more and more, with each new generation. My grandchildren go to school with all sorts of children. They just see them as other children to play with, not as black, white, or colored. It’s through this and through investing in education that real change will come.

5 PM: Johannesburg Airport

Since traffic is notoriously bad in Johannesburg we got an early start to the airport to catch our flight. Joe, as unassuming as he was, mentioned off-hand that he was set to pick up Miss America the following day.


We haven’t tricked ourselves into thinking that we’ve even begun to remotely understand Johannesburg and Soweto, but we’re glad we took the opportunity when we had it.

If you happen to be traveling through South Africa and you have even the whiff of opportunity, check out Johannesburg and Soweto, even if for a short time. They’re an important part of South Africa’s past and present.

A word of thanks to our guide, Joe Motsogi, for not only sharing his knowledge of Johannesburg and Soweto history, but for sharing his personal stories of being a leader in the student uprisings and anti-apartheid movement.

Disclosure: This campaign is brought to you by the South Africa Tourism Board and is supported and managed by iambassador. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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