Uncornered Market http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Sun, 20 Apr 2014 18:28:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 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 […]

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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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A New Look at Uncornered Markethttp://uncorneredmarket.com/new-look-uncornered-market/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/new-look-uncornered-market/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 11:24:36 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18660 By Audrey Scott

If you’re looking at this article on our website, either on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone you may have noticed that things are looking a little different around here. (And if you’re reading this via RSS or email, we encourage you to hop over to the actual website right now. Otherwise, the rest of […]

The post A New Look at Uncornered Market appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

If you’re looking at this article on our website, either on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone you may have noticed that things are looking a little different around here. (And if you’re reading this via RSS or email, we encourage you to hop over to the actual website right now. Otherwise, the rest of this won’t make any sense.)

Uncornered Market has been redesigned!

This has been a long, long process, including several fits and starts over the years. But now we’re finally here with a new look and more importantly, a much better engine.

Why the change?

We designed the original Uncornered Market site and built it from scratch as we traveled through Southeast Asia in early 2007, working in steamy internet cafes and siphoning off wifi signals where we could find them. Although the original Uncornered Market served us well for many years, internet technology, blogging and how people consume online content has changed considerably since then. It was time for a change.

What’s new at Uncornered Market?

That there is a completely new design is obvious. However, it’s the under-the-hood changes that we hope will make the experience on our site more enjoyable and accessible.

New Homepage, New Tagline

Uncornered Market Home
You’ll notice that the actual homepage (UncorneredMarket.com) has changed considerably. We also wanted to better highlight what the site is about through a new tagline: travel wide, live deeply.

We also wanted Uncornered Market to represent all that we do. This is why you’ll see a new homepage that highlights our consulting, speaking, and books (coming soon) in addition to the blog.

You’ll also find links to some of our most popular posts and article series (e.g., Beginner’s Guides and World Cuisine Guides), as well as the latest articles.

Faster, Lighter, More Responsive

This was at the heart of the redesign. We wanted to make the site fast, easy to load and readable on every kind of device. And to improve the readability of articles with bigger font, photos and titles.

We still use WordPress as our Content Management System (CMS), but are now using the Genesis Framework with a slightly modified Genesis child theme underneath. One reason for this is that Genesis 2.0 themes are built to be responsive and use HTML5. As technology improves and changes, our aim is to be able to easily keep up, even as we tinker with and change the look of the site.

Improved 360-Degree Panoramas

It used to be that our 360-degree panoramas were only viewable on a desktop or laptop. No more flash — now our panoramas are full HTML5 and are viewable on tablets and iPhones as well. Not only that, but the viewing experience (especially on the desktop/laptop) has vastly improved. Don’t believe us? Then take a look at this, this and this. Be sure to open them to full screen (four arrows on the control) and take a good spin around.

New Photo Gallery

photo gallery

Since it wasn’t difficult enough to just update our website, we decided to change our photo hosting and main photo gallery as well. We opted to use Smugmug. The reasons for this were many, including SEO, better flexibility with organizing and displaying photos, as well as the ability to instantly resize photos for this site. You can find our photos organized on a continent, region or country level.

The photo switch from Flickr to SmugMug in our articles was also a long haul. A huge thank you to David from Smugmug. Without his technical help we would still be knee-deep in this process.

Your Feedback and Testing

While we originally had plans for more bells, whistles and content to be packed into the new site, we decided to keep things simple with this release, especially since we wanted to get it out there before our next adventure — which begins in just a few days and takes us to places with limited connectivity. Now that we’ve switched over to a flexible theme, we look forward to iterative changes in the future. As we fixed the engine with this release, it’s likely you’ll see more experimentation, particularly in the typography/font and design departments.

As you poke and click around, please let us know if something isn’t working or if something isn’t as it should be. We’d also welcome your feedback and suggestions for improvement!

As always, thanks for your support and being part of this journey.

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Itsukushima Shinto Shrine on Miyajima Island, Japan [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/itsukushima-shrine-miyajima-japan-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/itsukushima-shrine-miyajima-japan-panorama/#comments Thu, 03 Apr 2014 09:51:43 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14338 By Audrey Scott

Miyajima, a sacred island in Japan. So sacred in fact that its famous Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (now a UNESCO site) was designed very cleverly 500 years ago. You see, the raised boards provided a way for pilgrims to visit the island without actually touching sacred land directly. The purity of the island was kept in […]

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By Audrey Scott

Miyajima, a sacred island in Japan. So sacred in fact that its famous Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (now a UNESCO site) was designed very cleverly 500 years ago. You see, the raised boards provided a way for pilgrims to visit the island without actually touching sacred land directly. The purity of the island was kept in check for hundreds of years. (Another feature of the design is that it look like the shrine is floating on water during high tide, which is pretty cool.)

Once at the shrine we gazed out over the water to the famous “floating” vermillion Torii (gate), only to find scaffolding and construction work obscuring the iconic structure. Disappointment.

But then something began happening in front of us – a traditional Japanese wedding, complete with a Bugaku Court Dance. The main dancer, dressed in heavy, colorful cloth with a wooden mask obscuring the face, was deliberate with every single movement, even the slightest. tai chi precision brought to dance. We later learned that this dance has been performed, with this same precision, in Japan for over 1,200 years. I can imagine.

I’ll trade you a missed photo opportunity of a torii for this – watching the dancer and the excitement on the face of the perfectly coiffed Japanese bride – any day. It was an experience we would keep with us and remember for much longer.

Open the panorama to full screen and take a spin around the outside of Itsukushima Shrine. Although the Bugaku dancer is gone, you can see the wedding party in the distance coming from their staged photo shoot (some things are universal). And if you look closely, you can see the torii out in the distance, all covered up. Maybe next time we’ll get to see it in all its vermillion glory.

Panorama: Itsukushima Shinto Shrine – Miyajima Island, Japan

panorama directions

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Being Present in Travel: 6 Reasons Why, 4 Ways Howhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/being-present-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/being-present-travel/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 04:41:34 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14590 By Audrey Scott

Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness—the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you. – Robert Kaplan It’s de rigueur to speak of “creating memories,” particularly when it comes to travel. This tendency has only been intensified by and through social media […]

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By Audrey Scott

travel being present

Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness—the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you.

Robert Kaplan

It’s de rigueur to speak of “creating memories,” particularly when it comes to travel. This tendency has only been intensified by and through social media and online sharing. Similarly, we’ve written about creating a story-filled life, the idea being that experiences rather than material goods are what truly shape who we are. While I still believe that implicit underlying premise to be true, something happened recently that nudged me to consider the idea of creating memories in a different light.

Before sharing that story, two questions occurred to me:

1. What if in our quest to create memories, we inadvertently sell the actual experience short or diminish its importance as it happens? That is, we forsake the experience for the metaphor.

2. How can we be more present during our travels so as to savor those experiences for what they are in the moment while also deepening how we might recall and share the memory of them later?

What if accessing memories isn’t an option?

Last month, I returned to the United States to spend time with family, including with my stepfather who now suffers from Lewy Body dementia, an Alzheimer’s-like disease. He’s led an incredibly full life, one flush with experiences that span growing up in small town Arkansas to serving as an ambassador in Africa, with all manner of storied twists and turns along the way that were both a function of who he was and also made him whom he came to be. He could fill a room with his stories and presence; he kept everyone laughing, wondering which story might come next.

He’s pretty far along in the disease right now, so it is unclear if he still accesses his memories since he is no longer able to share them.

In spending time with him recently, I realized that in our interaction with one another, what really mattered was what happened in the moment. The experience was about being together, the power of touch, and presence – or perhaps more precisely, presentness. All the while, the world outside of me and my stepfather moved along at pace with its typical rapidity.

As this unfolded, I was struck by the realization: being present is about slowing things down enough to truly feel, experience, and sense them – to grasp them in full. To think of it another way: to slow things down so that life begins to feel a little like one of those film reels where the bullet from the gun is slowed to such a speed that it might be plucked from the air by the human hand.

That kind of attention. That kind of grasp.

In full disclosure, none of this was easy or comfortable for me to process. As I focused on trying to be present with my stepfather, the urge to “escape” the situation by considering my to-do list or pulling out my phone to check my email was difficult to resist.

In this life, it’s far too easy to buzz around, to drift into the busy. This racing around grants me the permission to not focus on what’s in front of me. It also provides a retreat from possible productive discomfort, something I must face if I ever hope to sort this world.

This experience caused me to wonder: What if amidst the noise, the din, the speed, we could slow down and be more deliberately present — with our life experience, our travel experience?

Being Present in Travel: Why?

Being present and practicing presentness is hard. So why burn cycles trying to do it, especially while traveling? After all, travel is supposed to be unadulterated bliss, no?

My first answer to this is: “Because it’s a ‘good’ for us, of course.” But I realize that’s not a particularly convincing argument so I dug a little deeper.

Here’s my why.

1. To create calm or peace in an overwhelming (too) fast-moving world.

This is one of the reasons why many of us travel in the first place, to get away from the day-to-day “busy-ness” of our lives, to recharge creatively, mentally.

So then what’s the point of “getting away” only to re-create the same circumstances from which you were hoping to escape?

A walk on the beach, a reflection, a perfect afternoon on Rabbit Island (outside of Nelson) today's New Zealand #nofilter special
A walk on the beach, a sustained breath of fresh air. Rabbit Island, New Zealand.

2. To avoid missing the present by constantly pondering the future.

If we are busy “collecting memories,” something inherently future-oriented, are we truly immersed or fully engaged in what is happening around us during the actual experience? Once we begin to measure or capture an experience, we give away fragments of it in exchange for its capture.

Sure, you can make the argument that capturing the experience is in fact part of it. I’ll buy that to a limited degree.

3. To find deeper connections with people and place.

It takes time to fully grasp a place and its people, to push through the confusion and difference and discord that first greets us upon our arrival — all so that we may depart with greater appreciation, connection, empathy and something even stronger: care.

Dan with Honey Vendors - Zugdidi, Georgia
What began as confusion ended with pure generosity. An impromptu market feast — Zugdidi, Georgia

4. To judge less, to be more open.

I’d argue that simply observing and being present actually tones down the rush-to-judgment tendency of the human brain. If we take things in as they come instead of trying to evaluate them all against our preconceived notions and measuring sticks, maybe we’ll make more room for others and for ourselves.

5. To deepen our observation, to heighten our awareness.

Being present surfaces previously unseen details. It also exposes the depths. Presentness gives us a chance to connect heart and mind in a way that no photograph, no matter how well composed, can ever capture.

Lao Food Fixings - Luang Prabang, Laos
Beautiful details are easy to miss. Luang Prabang, Laos.

6. To build patience for learning and reward.

If you’ve ever tried yoga or experienced very slow movements of the body in physiotherapy, maybe you’ve understood how coming to terms with a little pain or discomfort is necessary to make progress. It’s also not surprising that exceptionally slow body movements can paradoxically make us feel disoriented or even ill. Same thing applies with slowing down the world around us. It forces us into a different mode of operation and to deal with new and sometimes uncomfortable data and circumstances.

4 Ways to be Present in Travel

If you’re still with us (and we’ve hopefully convinced you of the benefits of being present), here are some ways that may practically help you put this all into play while you travel.

1. Just sit, be and observe for a while.

Be perfectly still — for at least five minutes, taking in all that is around you. Don’t try to judge or make sense of what you’re seeing, but notice and appreciate the details, the once insignificant.

Let it go by.

Audrey Takes a Rest at Market - Bandarban, Bangladesh
Pulling over to the side of the market in Rangamati, Bangladesh.

In urban areas, I like to find a bench in a park or busy city street. Or I’ll lean against a street corner wall of a market to watch without attracting attention. Like being in the middle of it without being the center of anyone’s attention. Perhaps like a fly on the wall.

Later I engage and I find that my engagement is more informed, more connected.

If I feel over-stimulated by a place (e.g., the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh or Mumbai, India) I find that this approach helps me to to better take in the big picture so I’m not as overwhelmed by the action, the sensory overload that comes with immersion.

In nature, this means finding a spot to sit. Give this one at least 15 mintues, longer if you like. All day even. You may be overwhelmed not only by the greater range of sights, smells, and sounds available to you, but also their intensity. Why? Because you’ve begun to notice and pay attention to what has always been there, yet was somehow deprived of your attention.

2. Have a destination in mind to allow “productive” wandering.

This may sound like an oxymoron, but stick with me on this one. Choose a destination (e.g., bakery, cafe, temple, sight, etc.), but free yourself from the expectation that you must actually arrive.

I find that some of our best experiences are the unexpected ones, ones that happen when en route we’ve allowed ourselves to stop, get lost, follow our curiosity and in some cases, granted ourselves the freedom to never even arrive.

Game Time at the Market - Kathmandu, Nepal
Stumbling upon a street market while getting lost on the way to Durbar Square, Kathmandu.

However, while setting off to wander without purpose may work for some, for others it can result in a feeling of pointlessness. Having some destination in mind, even if loosely, allows us to focus less on where we’re going and enjoy a little more of what’s around us.

During our recent trip to Strasbourg, we found that some of our most satisfying moments of exploration and immersion occurred en route (usually to something food-related), in the little things.

3. Put down the device, for a few minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, photographing and documenting a place, an experience is important to many of us. If anyone can appreciate that need, that impulse, we can. Very much so. Consuming an image-memory is also satisfying.

However there’s a difference between taking things in from behind the lens and engaging with them barrier-free with our senses only. Recognizing that difference seems crucial to our maintaining our humanity, our human-ness.

Looking Out Over the Water at Dusk - Koh Samui, Thailand
Being taken away by what is. Koh Samui, Thailand.

Blink. Take a photo with your mind. What you observe will be more, different.

When we were invited to an evening Ramadan gathering in Kyrgyzstan, we resisted the urge to pull out our camera and take photos, despite the spectacular uniqueness of our circumstance: a gritty, candlelight meal in a yurt. We aimed not to break the atmosphere of our welcome and treatment as one-part honored guest, another part family. There were many unusual moments during that meal, including being handed the jawbone of a goat to gnaw on, but enjoying the experience without escape delivered a deeper connection with the place and the people around us.

Furthermore, if you embrace this, you just might find your photos appearing strangely three-dimensional when you view them later. That other dimension? It was formed and informed by the depth of your connection to the experience.

4. Go light on the itinerary.

I’ve found that in most parts of my life, the concept “less is more” reaffirms itself with each new experience. In travel, definitely so. The flip side: this one is strenuously difficult to put into practice.

In the face of limited time and resources, it’s tempting to try and pack it all in, to shoehorn the Top 10 list from your favorite guidebook into your itinerary — because it’s what you ought to do to maximize your experience. Been there, done that. While checking the boxes may provide some satisfaction and a series of photo ops, the question you might consider asking yourself: Will I really come away feeling refreshed, recharged, exhilarated, renewed?

And: What is my unique story to have emerged from all this?

Our advice, just as it is with packing: put everything you want to do on a list and then prioritize the top half. Then begin to let go of even more. Try to plan only a visit or two a day and leave room for those in-between times lounging at a café, sitting on a park bench, diving into an unexpected conversation. Take in the people and place, the living history around you.

Breakfast Tea - Xiahe, China
Stopping for tea is almost always a good idea. Xiahe, China.


Just as it’s easy to find ways to be busy in our day-to-day lives, a similar temptation exists while traveling. Despite all our own travel experiences, Dan and I continue to struggle with this.

It’s difficult to fully be where we are and to appreciate the simplicity of the moment. There’s fear of missing out (FOMO). Ironically, this fear may stand in the way of some of the most rewarding experiences travel has to offer.

Being present is not only key to accessing experience and memory creation, but it’s also an end in itself.

How do you remain present in your travels?

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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 […]

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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 water may 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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Prague Astronomical Clock [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/prague-astronomical-clock-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/prague-astronomical-clock-panorama/#comments Tue, 18 Feb 2014 09:56:27 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14344 By Audrey Scott

As the top of the hour nears in Prague, crowds gather in front of the Astronomical Clock on Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) and wait for the show to begin — all in a ritual that’s happened almost daily for six hundred years of the clock’s life. The first attention goes to the twelve apostles […]

The post Prague Astronomical Clock [360-Degree Panorama] appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

As the top of the hour nears in Prague, crowds gather in front of the Astronomical Clock on Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) and wait for the show to begin — all in a ritual that’s happened almost daily for six hundred years of the clock’s life.

The first attention goes to the twelve apostles that emerge from the little window at the top. They go around in a circle as if to bless the hour. One level down in the zodiac section of the clock the skeleton rings the bell to measure our lifetime, indicating that we have one less hour of life. Around the skeleton, other figures representing the sins of vanity, greed and extravagance shake their heads, a humorous indication that they are not ready to go, ready to die.

But our personal favorite part of the Prague astronomical clock show occurs at the very end.

(SPOILERS) The golden rooster, who presides over the whole thing from his his roost, finishes off the show with a mighty crow. A new hour is upon us, providing hope, and for the crowd below, a moment of levity and laughter.

Not a bad way to start the hour.

But Prague’s Old Town Square is much more than its Astronomical Clock. Open up the panorama below to take in the atmosphere in and around the Old Town Hall, with Tyn Church in the distance and an almost-too-perfect melange of medieval buildings all around you.

Hint #1: And if the crowds around the clock get to be too much for you, head up to the rooftop terrace of U Prince for a cocktail (better than their food, wine, or beer options) to take in the scene from above.

Panorama: Prague Astronomical Clock on Old Town Square

panorama directions

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10 Ways Travel Helps You Let Gohttp://uncorneredmarket.com/10-ways-travel-helps-you-let-go/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/10-ways-travel-helps-you-let-go/#comments Mon, 10 Feb 2014 16:32:26 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14461 By Audrey Scott

Travel. It places us in situations we couldn’t otherwise imagine. It often spurs us to do things we thought we couldn’t do. It provides perspective on our lives and our place in the world. Amidst all this, travel also offers freedom. Among those freedoms, the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to let go. Sounds […]

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By Audrey Scott

Some say our story is written for us, when in fact it is ours to write.
Travel. A Journey.

Travel. It places us in situations we couldn’t otherwise imagine. It often spurs us to do things we thought we couldn’t do. It provides perspective on our lives and our place in the world.

Amidst all this, travel also offers freedom. Among those freedoms, the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to let go.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? But what does “let go” really mean?

Letting go, it’s a release. If you’ve ever taken a vacation to escape or to relax, you’ve experienced this to one extent. But beyond decompression on a beach, travel provides an even greater opportunity for liberation.

When we choose to go deep within a travel experience and ourselves, we can find remarkable opportunities to realign, break through barriers and jettison emotional baggage. In doing this, we make an exchange. As we expose ourselves — yes, there are heaps of vulnerability involved here — we also open ourselves to create space for freshness and learning to enter our lives.

But how does travel enable this to happen? And how do we take advantage? Here are a few of the ways we’ve experienced how travel helps us let go.

1) Let go of control

The world is going to do what it’s going to do, often regardless of how you feel about it or what you attempt to do about it. It will rain or snow when it wants, strikes will happen when it’s least convenient, buses will break down, restaurants will run out of your favorite dish, stores will close for hours in the middle of the day, and the government will even shut down when you most need it.

This isn’t an invitation to feel powerless and to respond by giving up. Instead, it’s an invitation to constructively deal with what is and to identify and focus your efforts in areas you can control: your approach to people, how you respond, your ability to problem solve, your situational creativity — all in an effort to actively craft the style of experience you want.

Audrey Rides Bike Through Srimongal - Bangladesh
Cycling in Bangladesh. Now that was out of control!

2) Let go of who you “should” be

Sometimes we adhere to notions of who we “ought” to be, often based on some internal chatter regarding what we imagine others think of us.

Sounds tangled, doesn’t it?

The beauty of being on the road: nobody knows who you “should” be. All they know is who you are then and there. Experiment: give an audience to those little voices inside encouraging you to do something new, something that might even surprise your friends at home. Let go of who you should be for who you’d like to be (within limits please, don’t be a jerk or be hurtful).

Dan Learns Juggling Skills at Tlacolula Sunday Market - Mexico
Dan embraces his inner clown near Oaxaca, Mexico.

Then, don’t abandon this newly developed dimension of yourself when you return home. Try to incorporate the behaviors into your daily life. If that requires making changes in your life that others can’t quite understand, then so be it.

3) Let go of time

Buses, trains and airplanes depart and arrive on their own schedule, not yours. Punctuality knows wildly different meanings and manifestations around the world. People move, act and react at varying speeds. Travel demonstrates that time is a construct and its importance is relative.

Drop-off Point - Svaneti, Georgia
Letting go of time…when a 5-hour journey takes twice as long in the High Caucasus Mountains, Georgia.

This may be among the most difficult release to embrace. After all, many of us have ingrained in us the idea that “time is money.” It’s our vacation, our holiday and there’s an itinerary, there’s stuff to do, there are places to go and see and be.

Herein lies the freedom, the freedom to accept that the schedule of the world around us is not always tied to our needs. Plan accordingly as best you can. Then leave some space.

You just may find that some of your best experiences happen there.

4) Let go of fear

Travel can serve up situations that are uncomfortable — sometimes physically, but more often emotionally. While traveling you usually have no choice but to work through the discomfort.

This process can be painful, but the rewards are almost always worth it.

Fears run from the primal fears of physical harm to the more mundane, yet no less damaging, fears of looking stupid by doing the “wrong” thing or asking the “wrong” question. For the first, let go of the fear and replace it with awareness. For the second, confront your fear of exposing your ignorance by asking the silly question anyway.

Then watch your fear slowly be replaced with wisdom.

Travel also teaches us that some of our greatest stories and greatest memories are accrued when we dip our toe into the pool of fear and realize that it really wasn’t that scary after all. Our fears, though seemingly very “real” are by definition mental. That is, they exist entirely in our heads. Tap into them, get amongst them and surmount them by succeeding in something that previously seemed frightening or impossible.

5) Let go of living in the future (that is, be present)

It’s easy to live for the future, putting your head down now to achieve something one, two or ten years down the road. There’s no denying it’s important to have goals and plans. However, in their pursuit, we sometimes forsake the beauty of the present moment — what is — for the future, what could be.

There’s a balance to be struck. And travel can help us strike it.

Travel grounds us in the present, for it’s all about observing, learning and savoring the moment. The better your full absorption of the moment, the more vivid your memories and stories you can tell. Travel helps tune our senses so we may better appreciate our experiences.

Travel also underscores that the moment is fleeting; if you don’t savor it now, you won’t savor it ever.

Audrey in the Pink Mosque - Shiraz, Iran
Savoring a moment in the Pink Mosque — Shiraz, Iran.

6) Let go of perfection

It’s almost guaranteed that you will make mistakes when you travel. We can almost assure you that you will make mistakes. Accept this now and you’ll avoid perfection paralysis and your fear of screwing thing up, doing something the wrong way.

And you’ll learn.

Maybe you didn’t plan things “correctly” — that flight could have been cheaper, you should have stayed in X hotel instead of Y.

And that’s only the beginning. Perhaps you won’t speak the local language or give a handshake when another gesture is more appropriate. You’ll use the wrong utensils. You may even feel foolish. It’s OK.

Although I wouldn’t know firsthand, I suspect that being perfect is overrated.

Dan Tries to Work the Shrak Dough - Ghor al Mazra'a, Jordan
Dan, far from perfection as he tosses Jordanian flatbread…but he’s having fun.

And most of the time, particularly with the innocuous transgressions, those around you rarely care as much as you probably do. And when they find out that you are humble and well-intentioned, your misdeed will evaporate and you’ll find yourself laughing with someone about it.

Ditch perfection. Ditch buyer’s remorse. Perhaps make a brief note of what you might improve next time and move on. Enjoy what is; it can be fleeting.

7) Let go of stereotypes and prejudice

Have you ever traveled to a place that is considered dangerous back home, and yet upon your arrival you are smothered with genuine kindness and generosity? Or you’ve visited a country that is of the “developing world”, yet it features more sophisticated mobile phone networks than back in your first world paradise?

It’s easy to imagine how countries and people “are” by absorbing the news, watching TV and movies, or reading books and articles. It’s another thing to actually see and experience the reality firsthand, on the ground.

Woman Tying Head Scarf - Tolkuchka Market, Azerbaijan
Getting a helping hand in Turkmenistan, a place I once feared visiting.

Travel allows us the ultimate opportunity to experience for ourselves instead of passing our impressions through the filter of others, including popular media.

When we experience for ourselves, we can come to our own fresh conclusions.

8) Let go of the facade

Especially when things are tough and the chips are down, travel has a way of pulling away the facade. (Honestly, sometimes it feels like a rip, like that bandage stuck to a dry wound.) Trust me, it’s hard to look pretty and put on a forced smile for others when you’re hugging the bowl or are otherwise compromised.

Travel teaches us a great lesson: we are human. It helps us comprehend who we really are, including strengths we didn’t know we had. Oh, and perhaps a few weaknesses, too.

When we let go of the façade and understand ourselves better, we become more accepting and less judgmental of the people around us and voids that we once felt become back-filled with empathy.

9) Let go of “I can’t do that”

How often have you heard yourself say: “No, that’s not possible. I’m not a climber/singer/dancer/artist/athlete/fill in the blank.” I’m guilty of this. I have my opinions on my identity, as well as ideas of what I am capable of doing.

Travel will put you in situations where you have no choice — or perhaps where you are strongly encouraged — to do that thing that doesn’t quite fit your definition of what you can do.

When you do that thing you “couldn’t do,” you’ll realize that those limitations and constraints were mainly in your head.

After which, you may even end up with a new hobby and possibly a new outlook on life.

Learning to Surf in Raglan, New Zealand
Overcoming an “I can’t surf” moment by embracing our inner surfers in Raglan, New Zealand.

10) Let go of “the right way”

What do you mean, “Soup for breakfast?!?!” Breakfast is supposed to be eggs and toast! Breakfast is supposed to be cereal! Travel will challenge your assumptions and beliefs regarding what is proper.

Breakfast is clearly the innocuous example. Beyond that, take for example how people interact, how they greet one another or answer the simple question, “How are you?” Perhaps you’ll find yourself judging cultural norms, saying “that’s strange” or “that’s not right.”

But before you do, take a step back, let go and realize that our cultural norms, our approaches to life are simply different from one another. Understand that the “right way” is almost always subjective.

The more you begin to open yourself to and interact in other cultures, the clearer this distinction becomes. You may even come to enjoy some of those new things, incorporate them to your life, and find yourself embracing a new “right” way of doing things.


Has travel helped you let go? How?

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Sunrise Towers: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-panorama/#comments Wed, 05 Feb 2014 13:35:04 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14436 By Audrey Scott

Our alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 4:30AM. We were huddled together trying to stay warm against the freezing temperatures of the night in a rented tent that wasn’t quite meant for people of Dan’s height. The temptation to turn off the alarm and roll over instead of heading out into the frigid […]

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By Audrey Scott

Our alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 4:30AM. We were huddled together trying to stay warm against the freezing temperatures of the night in a rented tent that wasn’t quite meant for people of Dan’s height. The temptation to turn off the alarm and roll over instead of heading out into the frigid pitch of pre-dawn was difficult to resist. Under these circumstances, there’s always a danger that each waits for the other to make the first move.

It was the final morning of our trek in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. The previous five days, we’d survived wind storms that forced us to cling to mountainside shrubs. I’d suffered a mysterious spider bite that made my eye look like I just emerged from a heavyweight boxing match.

We were worn. No pain, no gain, they say. Fortunately, we’d been rewarded with mind-opening landscapes and trekking camaraderie that more than made up for it all.

And this morning’s trek would cap off six days’ effort with a sunrise view of the namesake towers, the Torres del Paine.

I don’t recall which one of us made the first move, but we motivated one another to pile on layers of clothes, switch on the headlamps and hit the trail. The weather didn’t appear promising. There were ominous clouds that suggested coming rain, but we hoped it could all change in the couple of hours it would take to reach the towers.

Open the panorama to full screen to see what we found when we reached the towers. Early morning wake up calls can be painful, but usually they’re totally worth it.

Panorama: The Torres (Towers) at Sunrise – Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

panorama directions

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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 — […]

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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.

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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