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Halloween, Bran Castle (Writers' Expeditions - seven-day dinner party and photography adventure)

You’re invited to join our annual Vlad Dracula Expedition—a seven-day dinner party through Romania, celebrating both Halloween and then Day of the Dead, as we explore the life of Vlad the Impaler!

Expedition dates: October 28th – November 3rd, 2020 (we’ll be running this adventure again in 2021).

Maximum group-size for this expedition is 13.

 Scroll down past the itinerary for prices, inclusions, and the hosts’ biographies.

When we entered the cemetery in Sighisoara (the birthplace of Vlad Dracula) we were greeted by an Alfred Hitchcock sky. (Photo by Writers' Expeditions's photography host Christopher Campbell).
When we entered the cemetery, in Sighisoara (the birthplace of Vlad Dracula), we were greeted by an Alfred Hitchcock sky. (Photo by the Dracula Expedition photography host Christopher Campbell).

We’ve made all the reservations—you just need to pack a costume and your inner child (or demon) for this howling Halloween party across Romania. Our seven-day (small group) expedition includes attending the ultimate costume party on Halloween night, at Bran Castle (known as Dracula’s Castle, built circa 1377) which was owned by Vlad’s grandfather (Mircea the Old), and we’ll also be dining on Day of the Dead (November 2nd) in the chamber where real-life Dracula, Vlad Drăculea (known as Vlad the Impaler), was born in 1431. We’ll be sleeping that night, in a inn of similar vintage, just a few doors down from the home where Vlad was born, inside the (UNESCO) medieval walled city of Sighișoara. We were the first people (and are the only) to ever host a Halloween dinner party in the room where Dracula was born, and each year we barely make it through cocktails before we are regaling each other with spine-tingling experiences from our lives.

We'll dine in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
We’ll dine in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
The ruins of Poenari (AKA Dracula's Vulture's Nest) Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by our local Romanian guide and expert)
The ruins of Poenari (AKA Dracula’s Vulture’s Nest) Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by our local Romanian guide and expert)

Our Transylvanian guide (with whom I explored Romania extensively) and I have designed a journey that will take us to the best local haunts: medieval castles with gruesome history, torture chambers, moody cemeteries, all contrasted with one of the most beautiful times of year to visit Romania which will be glowing in autumn colours. And Christopher Campbell, professional photographer (Chatelaine, Food Network, HarperCollins), will be guiding you during our escapades to capture photos of a lifetime, whether you’re using a mobile device, point & shoot, or a DSLR with multiple lenses. Plus he’ll be providing you (throughout the expedition and when you get back home) with digital images of your adventures.

Corvin Castle. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Corvin Castle. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
You'll see horse wagons like this on our scenic drive through Transylvania's Carpathian mountains (Photo by your host, Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
You’ll see horse wagons like this on our scenic drive through Transylvania’s Carpathian mountains (Photo by your host, Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

We are offering an early bird rate. If you book now, save 100 Euros per person. Included in the price for this seven-day cultural adventure: all meals which you order from the full restaurant menus (you can go on a diet when you get home), 4 star accommodation, licensed Transylvanian (tour operator) guide and translator, all activities/entrance fees, some booze, pro photos, and our private vehicle and driver while on this phenomenal tour. The price per person for a double/shared room is  1590 1490 Euros (two twin beds, or double/queen available). Please note there’s a single supplement of 200 Euros should you be travelling solo and want your own hotel rooms for the entire trip. You can reserve your spot with a deposit of 300 Euros, which comes off the total. 

Keep scrolling for the itinerary, more photos, and full details on how to sign up.

The Beer Chariot, Bucharest. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, photography host for The Dracula Expedition)
The Beer Chariot, Bucharest. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, photography host for The Dracula Expedition)

Day 1:  October 28th  - Pickup at Otopeni Airport outside Bucharest (we’ll also greet you at the airport if you arrive a day in advance). Next door to our hotel are the ruins of the Princely Palace, the castle that Dracula built in celebration of his own greatness or evilness. In the evening we’ll explore the historic pedways of the old town of Bucharest which was first settled in 70 BC and by the 1400s was the wealthiest city in Eastern Europe. Then we’ll dine at The Beer Chariot, a dazzling 19th century restaurant which is always packed with locals and boasts an extensive menu of tasty Romanian dishes. - Dinner. Palinca shots. Overnight at Europa Royale Bucharest Hotel ****

2019's Vlad Dracula Expedition participants peruse the menus at The Beer Chariot. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
2019′s Vlad Dracula Expedition participants peruse the menus at The Beer Chariot. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

Day 2: October 29th - After a hot buffet breakfast in the hotel’s award winning restaurant, we’ll visit the Palace of Parliament, the heaviest building in the world (according to Guinness World Records), and it’s the second largest administrative building in the world (following the Pentagon) and a legacy of a more recent “Dracula,” the communist dictator Ceaușescu (executed in 1989). Then we’ll break out the treat bags for our scenic drive to Targoviste.

The Ottoman army returned to Constantinople when they encountered 20,000 impaled corpses outside Vlad's home, Targoviste.
The Ottoman army returned to Constantinople when they encountered 20,000 impaled corpses outside Vlad’s home, Targoviste.

The townsfolk of Targoviste were blamed by Vlad for their involvement in the assassination of his brother by the Turks. Vlad killed nobles and enslaved the townsfolk to build his castle at Poenari. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner - Overnight in Curtea de Arges****

A beautiful cathedral with a dark secret, at the monastery of Curtea de Arges. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
A beautiful cathedral with a dark secret, at the monastery of Curtea de Arges. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Day 3: October 30th – Dracula’s Fortress (where Vlad’s first wife plunged to her death off a cliff to avoid capture by an enemy army) and then to the mind-blowing Transfăgărășan! 

Crossing the Carpathians on the Transfagaras Highway. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
Crossing the Carpathians on the Transfagarasan Highway. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

The ruins of Poenari Castle (Dracula’s Fortress) are perched high on a rugged crag above the Arges river gorge. There are 1,480 stairs to Dracula’s “vulture nest.” One of our previous participants worked it out to being 100 storeys. Now, if you really think you can’t make the climb–there’s a lovely lodge and restaurant down the road from the first step. Following our hike, we’ll cross the Carpathian Mountains on the Transfăgărășan Highway. (Please note that last year we couldn’t do the stairs up to the fortress–some of you will be heaving a sigh of relief–because the area was closed due to bear attacks. Eeks! They have since put an electric bear-proof fence around the site and reopened. If bears are still an issue in 2020, we’ll see Vlad’s fortress from below, and will go to Făgăraș Fortress on this day instead–otherwise Făgăraș is on the 1st.)

Fagaras Fortress. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Fagaras Fortress. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

We’ll be spending the next two nights in the mountains near Bran Castle (“Dracula’s Castle”), at our guide’s rural, family-run inn, where we’ll have a bountiful, seasonal, home-cooked Romanian dinner. Tonight (for those who’d like an adventure) we’ll walk to a hillside cemetery with chained crypts (perhaps to keep people out – or perhaps to keep them in) to take night shots.

(A small sample of food on our expedition. We can cater to omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, vampires and carnivores.)

A typical salad in Romania is beyond typical. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)

Ribs in Sibiu, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Mushrooms and polenta, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Pasta at Werk, across from Corvin Castle, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Romanian pretzels in Transylvania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)The tomatoes in Romania are out of this world. (Writers' Expeditions)The tomatoes in Romania are divine. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Traditional soup in bread bowl - Romania. (photo by Christopher Campbell)Papanasi - Romanian dessert (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' ExpeditionsRomanian cabbage rolls and polenta. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Romanian beans - photo by Christopher Campbell - Writers' ExpeditionsHashtag sausages, Romania. (Writers' Expeditions)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast, lunch, dinner – tonight and tomorrow night are at our guide’s mountain lodge. The setting is rustic; the chalet is new (private ensuite bathrooms, wifi).

We'll be staying at our guide's family's lodge in Moecui, just 15 minutes from Dracula's castle. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
We’ll be staying at our guide’s family’s lodge in Moecui, just 15 minutes from Dracula’s castle. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

Day 4: October 31st – Halloween festival and costume party at Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle) – Wine is courtesy of Dracula tonight!

Bran Castle, known as "Dracula's Castle." (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Bran Castle, known as “Dracula’s Castle.” (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

After a hearty farm breakfast (or lighter if you wish) we’ll drive to Brașov where we’ll conquer the medieval ramparts, watchtowers, and Saxon churches (if they don’t conquer us). But best of all, this walled city boasts one of the narrowest streets in Europe. From Brașov our quest continues at Râșnov, the 13th century, breathtaking, mountaintop fortress, built by Teutonic Knights. Then we’ll return to the farm to dine, drink wine, and don our costumes for the night’s festivities.

2019's participants at our guide's mountain lodge before heading to the Halloween party at Dracula's castle. (Writers' Expeditions - The Vlad Dracula Expedition)
2019′s participants pose at our guide’s mountain lodge before heading to the Halloween party at Dracula’s castle. (Writers’ Expeditions – The Vlad Dracula Expedition)

Tonight is the ultimate costume party -  at Dracula’s castle. Adults of all ages come from around the world for this festival. Every year they decorate the castle differently. You’ll get to photograph some fantastic costumes. Whoever wants to stay to dance into the night is welcome to do so. If anyone would rather return to the inn, they’ll be driven back to Moeciu.

We'll go to the costume party at Bran Castle, AKA Dracula's Castle. (photo by our Romanian guide, Writers' Expeditions)
We’ll go to the costume party at Bran Castle, AKA Dracula’s Castle. (Photo by our Romanian guide, Writers’ Expeditions)

 Day 5: November 1st – ghosts and legends

We continue (after a little sleep-in this morning) on our Vlad Dracula Expedition, stopping in Sibiu, a town steeped in legend and named by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 most idyllic places to live in Europe. It was here that Mihnea the Evil, Dracula’s son, was murdered in front of the cathedral. We then plunge further west into Transylvania to Corvin Castle where Vlad Dracula was fugitive, or some argue prisoner. This is one of the largest castles in Europe and has been host to many paranormal investigative television shows from around the world. You’ll see why, or maybe some of you will feel it. - Breakfast, lunch, dinner – Overnight in Hunedoara ****

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Corvin Castle, Hunedoara. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Day 6: November 2nd – Hunedoara to Sighișoara – Day of the Dead – tonight we have our private dinner party in the room where Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was born in 1431!

Night shot on the medieval streets of Sighisoara, Romania. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, host of the Vlad Dracula Expedition)
Night shot on the medieval streets of Sighisoara, Romania. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, host of the Vlad Dracula Expedition)

After exploring Corvin Castle and the grisly torture chambers at its gates, we’ll take a picturesque drive to Sighișoara, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Medieval covered staircase leading to the spectacular cemetery, in Sighisoara.(Photo by Christopher Campbell)
Medieval covered staircase leading to the spectacular cemetery, in Sighisoara.(Photo by Christopher Campbell)

We’ll be spending the night of Day of the Dead inside this preserved walled town, in a medieval hotel, a few doors down the street from the house where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431, which is where we’ll be dining. After scaring each other with spine-tingling stories around the dinner table, we’ll also pay a nighttime visit to the cemetery. - Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Palinca tasting. Overnight in hotel which is over 500 years old!

Sighisoara, Romania. (Photo by our local guide and expert - Writers' Expeditions)
Sighisoara, Romania. (Photo by our local guide and expert – Writers’ Expeditions)

November 3rd: Day 7 – we’ll travel from where Vlad the Impaler was born to the island of his grave – then back to Bucharest

We’ll revisit the cemetery of Sighișoara by day and will explore the rest of the fortified Saxon town before heading away from Transylvania back to Wallachia, stopping for the climax of Vlad’s life – his death – and unusual burial wishes.

Farewell: We’ll then drop you off (near 6:00 PM) at the airport, or your Bucharest area or airport hotel, or the train station for the next leg of your journey. - Breakfast, lunch, return to Bucharest 

PRICES AND INCLUSIONS (FOLLOWED BY HOST BIOS): This trip includes tons, so please do scroll down to inclusions – it is 1590 (we’re taking 100 Euros off if you book by February 14th, 2020) 1490 Euros per person in a double/shared room for two (either twin beds available or queen/double for couples). If you want a single room and don’t want to share, the single room supplement (to have your own burp and fart space) is 200 Euros for the entire trip, which is nothing more than the extra cost to have that single room. A deposit (which comes off your total) of 300 Euros reserves your spot (Canadians and Americans can make the first two payments in dollars CAD and USD, at the exchange rate on the day you pay). Anyone from around the world is welcome, and you can check the currency conversion from Euros to yours in a quick google search. Please contact us with questions or to join the expedition at:  writers-expeditions@mail.com (and cc kirstenkoza@gmail.com). We respond quickly (if you don’t hear back within 24 hours, check your spam bin). You can also message us at our Writers’ Expeditions Facebook Page.

Inclusions:

  • All accommodation (the delightful inns are small and unique – four star, with private bath, and wifi)
  • All meals (don’t blame us if you gain weight – the food in Romania is fabulous, and you’re the one ordering what you want from the menus)
  • Some alcohol (see itinerary)
  • Photography sessions for those who wish
  • Professional digital images of your journey
  • Writing tips for any who wish (however, please note this is a roving dinner party and photography adventure, not a writing workshop)
  • All transfers and transportation on tours
  • English-speaking, Transylvanian guide
  • Our own driver and private vehicle
  • All entrance fees to castles and museums

Exclusions:

  • Airfare
  • Alcohol (unless listed on the itinerary)
  • Visa (not something for North Americans or Europeans to worry about)

Kirsten describes your hosts:

Christopher Campbell (professional photographer)Christopher Campbell: once again I’ve invited one of my favourite photographers (and one of the best travel companions you’ll ever meet) to lead our photographic adventures and share a lifetime of tips, tricks & technique. You have probably seen his images displayed on TV’s Food Network cooking shows or in publications as varied as ChatelaineSpa Magazine, or HarperCollins cookbooks–and most definitely in ads–he’s the one you can blame for making you crave Absolut Vodka, Kahlua, that dew dripping glass of Gordon’s gin, Florida oranges, late night fast food at Wendy’s or McDonald’s (blame him for that), or test driving a Mercedes—that’s Christopher Campbell’s fault too. This is Chris’s sixth year hosting our Dracula Expedition. He’s also been our photography host twice in Jordan and in Vietnam.

Kirsten Koza fKirsten Koza: I’m your host and expedition designer and am a professional adventure travel writer, author, humourist and journalist. I ruthlessly pretest the Writers’ Expeditions trips to find the best local guides, tour operators, and unique adventures, so you can have a great experience.  I’ve had more than seventy-five stories published in books, magazines, and newspapers around the world, on topics as varied as going inside the largest Syrian refugee camp, bullfighting, cannibalism, tornado chasing, mountain biking, dildos, dictators, Putin, gluten, mutants, and politics.  I’ve even made the front page of Kyrgyzstan’s national newspaper. I’m the author of Lost in Moscow: A Brat in the USSR and edited the Traveler’s Tales anthology Wake Up and Smell the Shit: Hilarious Travel Disasters, Monstrous Toilets, and a Demon Dildo.

And we leave you with some photos of Halloween costumes, food and fun from past expeditions (just click on images to expand) and a three-minute documentary made by a participant from a previous expedition. Turn up your speakers for it! The Dracula Expedition Video!

Bucharest police patrolling on Segways - Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Full moon over Bucharest. (Writers' Expeditions)Night falls at the cemetery in Sighisoara, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Halloween party goers at Bran Castle (Dracula's castle), Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)Transylvania, Romania, Heroes' Cross, Caraiman Peak (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Halloween 2016 food meat ballsA Roma tinsmith, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)We're invited into a gypsy home for fun and drinks. (Writers' Expeditions)Chris and Kirsten, your Vlad Dracula expedition hosts (Writers' Expeditions)Repeating pattern, photography tips, at Curtea de Arges, 2018 (Writers' Expeditions - Christopher Campbell)2017 Vlad Dracula Expedition participant in Sighisoara. (Writers' Expeditions)2018 Writers' Expeditions group shot after getting ready to go to the halloween party at Bran Castle.Halloween party 2017 group shot. (Writers' Expeditions)Papanasi, a donut-like dessert made fresh and served piping hot, in Romanian restaurants. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Autumn colours and snow capped Carpathians. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Halloween group shot 2016 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Bran Castle courtyard during the Halloween party (Photo by Christopher Campbell)2019 Dracula Expedition, SighisoaraSibiu, Romania. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Climbing the stairs to Dracula's fortress. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Writers' Expeditions, Sighisoara, (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Palace of Parliament, Bucharest. Stairs. (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)Bram Stoker's Dracula at Vlad Dracula's costume party with a 2016 participant. (Writers' Expeditions)Pink waffle truck, Brasov, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)2018 Vlad Dracula participants in their vampire costumes.Beer at the Beer Chariot, Bucharest. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)Romania, 2018, view from Rasnov. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)Outside the torture exhibit, Vlad Dracula Expedition. (Writers' Expeditions)Writers' Expeditions, Targoviste, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Picturesque drive in Romania. (Photo by Kirsten Koza of Writers' Expeditions)Palinca tasting in Sighisoara. (Writers' Expeditions)Horse wagons are a common in Romania (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Fountains in Sibiu - past Writers' Expeditions participants. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Kirsten Koza, your Vlad Dracula Expedition host, hanging with Vlad. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Dracula's "vulture's nest" (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Sighisoara, Romania - this medieval walled city is a UNESCO site (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)Our Vlad Dracula Expedition group, from 2015, getting ready for the Halloween party at Bran Castle, Transylvania. (Writers' Expeditions)Vlad Dracula Expedition, palinca toast, Writers' Expeditions, Bucharest. Local made Romanian cheese aged in tree bark. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)The menu called the dish fourskins. You can imagine the jokes. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)The Beer Chariot, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)In the town square of Sighisoara (Photo by Christopher Campbell, 2016)

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cropped UFO dancer risky or risque sark workshop version 1 (1)

Expedition dates: September 3 – September 8, 2020 (we can accommodate two more participants)

Writers of any genre of fiction or nonfiction: You are invited to leave your safety nets at home and join us for six daring days of creative madness that will culminate in your story being published in an anthology.

- scroll down for prices and expedition details 

La Coupée, Sark - a 100-metre causeway joining Big Sark to Little Sark (photo by Kirsten Koza, your writing expedition host)
La Coupée, Sark – a 100-metre causeway joining Big Sark to Little Sark. (photo by Kirsten Koza, your writing expedition host)

The setting for our writing adventure is 80 miles south of England, on the Isle of Sark⁠—a Royal fief with no cars, 600 inhabitants, Guernsey cream teas, French food (it’s closer to Normandy than England), palm trees, dark night skies, a headless horseman, a rugged coastline with clifftop trails, plus a history of pirates and Nazi occupation, resplendent flower gardens, orgasmic island-made chocolates, a dollop of Norman law, and the world’s smallest working prison.

Project Anthology: Together we’ll be creating a work of outlandish creative nonfiction—a book of true stories that will read like fiction. Our anthology will be professionally edited by two traditional-publishing house editors (bios below) and published by Writers’ Expeditions as an ebook on Amazon. You will be paid a share of royalties for your story.

You don’t have to have been published before, but if we’re not familiar with your work, you will need to provide a three-paragraph writing sample before joining the workshop.

Guernsey cream tea on Sark, at Hathaway's cafe, in La Seigneurie Gardens (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Guernsey cream tea on Sark, at Hathaway’s cafe, in La Seigneurie Gardens. (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Group-size: 9-12

Adults only: After all, the anthology’s theme is Risky or Risqué—and like in a game of truth or dare, we’ll explore the risks we’ve taken in life, take risks in our writing, and revel in a menagerie of risqué storytelling.

We’ve rented three exquisite stone homes from Mr. Hester for our workshop. If you’re passionate about horses, the name Hester might ring a bell, as Carl Hester is Sark’s Olympic dressage champion and medalled in Charlotte. Sark’s residents even painted the island’s postbox gold in his honour. (photo courtesy of Mr Hester’s peeps)

Mr Hesters Clos d'Iris, Sark

September 3 – ferry ride from the Island of Guernsey to the Island of Sark – the creative writing adventure begins

We’ll meet at the Sark Shipping Company ferry wharf, at Saint Peter Port, Guernsey. Then together we’ll take the 55-minute boat ride to the Isle of Sark where we’ll have our warm-up writing workshop over a spot of tea, or a pint, or a glass of wine, at one of the island’s cafes.

Before we move into our stone homes, you’ll be given time to do some grocery shopping (although there are a variety of restaurants on the island, from posh to rustic, should you prefer to dine out). And Kirsten can bring you to her favourite local bike shop to rent bicycles (if you decide that’s how you’d like to roll).

- another glimpse of the homes and island - keep scrolling for details and prices

The bike rented by your host on her research trip in Sark. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
The bike rented by your host on her research trip in Sark. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Mr Hester's bedrooms mostly have super king beds. There is one room with two singles available.
Mr Hester’s houses mostly have super king beds with ensuite bathroom & shower rooms. We do have one double room with two single beds in one of the houses.
A secluded beach on Sark (photo by Kirsten Koza)
A secluded beach, Sark.  (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Fish & Chips at AJs on Sark. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Fish & chips and mushy peas, at AJs. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
This kitchen almost makes me want to cook while I’m away. — Kirsten
Treacle tart and another spot of tea, on Sark. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Treacle tart and another spot of tea, on Sark. (photo by Kirsten Koza)

What to expect: Each day will begin with a riot of writing prompts designed by your host to get you in the mood for going on head trips not just day trips. You’ll explore the island with a treasure map of specific assignments that will inspire your stories. You’ll be able to meet on a one-on-one basis throughout the day with your editor and chief instigator. In the evening we’ll share our day’s work. Expect to laugh until you can’t breathe.

Aboard the Sark Isle ferry at St. Peter's Port, Guernsey. (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Aboard the Sark Isle ferry, Saint Peter Port, Guernsey. (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Our workshop will end during the afternoon of September 8th, and we’ll take the ferry back to Guernsey.

Kirsten Koza for Sark bioYour workshop host and anthology editor Kirsten Koza: is the author of the book, Lost in Moscow, published by Turnstone Press and dubbed by CBC radio Canada “the ultimate what-I-did-last-summer essay ever.” Kirsten edited the Travelers’ Tales (USA) humour anthology, Wake Up and Smell the Shit, and read thousands of stories for that book before narrowing it down to the 31 writers she selected for the volume.

She’s had over 75 stories published in books, magazines and newspapers around the world and has repeatedly been invited to speak at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in New York, on the power of social media for writers and making stories go viral.

Kirsten has taught both postgraduate and 3rd year acting at the University of East London and East 15 Acting School (famous for method acting), in England. She did her BA in theatre at Dalhousie University, in Canada, and her postgrad in the UK at E-15. Prior to becoming a professional writer, she worked in theatres across Canada and was the Artistic Director of Canada’s oldest professional summer theatre. Her theatre background has had a massive impact on how she writes, and she looks forward to sharing these methods with you in Sark.

You can read a couple of her adventures (published in books and magazines) by following these links, and you’ll probably surmise why the management at Travelers’ Tales publishing house affectionately call Kirsten “the Canadian lunatic”: “Chasing Tornadoes” published in the ninth volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing books, and “The Mountain Men Who Don’t Exist in Kyrgyzstan” published by Perceptive Travel magazine.

Kimmy Beach, editor (photo by Shawna Lemay)Kimmy Beach, copyeditor of your final draft (once you’re back home): Kimmy has edited over twenty published books, and the books she’s worked on have been up for nearly two dozen awards, including a memoir shortlisted for the 2019 Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction. She’s also the author of six books.

Kimmy has edited for multiple Canadian Presses, including the University of Alberta Press, Wolsak&Wynn, Turnstone Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Radiant Press, and Thistledown Press. She’s a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, the Writers’ Union of Canada, the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, and a past regional representative for the League of Canadian Poets. She also provides editing services to authors and offers a terrific e-course on editing your own work: kimmybeachediting.com (photo of Kimmy Beach by Shawna Lemay)

Prices for workshop and accommodation: £990 (GBP) for a single room and £890 per person for a double/shared room. We only have one double/shared room available (two beds), so you need to be close acquaintances in all other rooms for that double rate, as the other rooms have king beds. In the larger two houses the king rooms have ensuite bathrooms. In the smaller (but utterly delightful) house, which is just a two bedroom, the bathroom facilities are not ensuite.

How to sign up: email writers-expeditions@mail.com (and cc kirstenkoza@gmail.com) for the form or to ask any questions you might have. After you return the form (and your writing sample), if you’re accepted to participate in the workshop in Sark, you’ll be sent a link to pay a deposit of £300 (which can also be paid in equivalent US and Canadian dollars).

Exclusions: plane tickets – return ferry ticket (£31) – visas – bicycle rentals – food – alcohol – travel insurance

Story rights: The writers on this expedition maintain the rights to their stories but must agree not to publish their stories elsewhere until one year after the publication date of the anthology.

Sark path. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Sark path. (photo by Kirsten Koza)

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Sample of some of Kirsten Koza's writing

Prepare to Write Dangerously

I have been hired by The Writers’ Community of York Region (Newmarket, Ontario) to host a workshop (which is being offered to participants for free). If you are interested, you do need to register, though, as seating is limited. (CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS OR TO SIGN UP).

Also, for anyone in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond, who is interested in joining one of my writing workshops abroad, this is a great opportunity to get a taste for one of my writing adventures, in a three-hour binge-writing gulp.

So, leave your safety nets at home and prepare to write dangerously. We’ll be employing techniques used by method actors on stage, except we’ll be using our pens on the page, in a creative exploration of making nonfiction read like fiction. You’ll be improvising through genres to find the most exciting way to present the truth and your lead character—you. You don’t have to go on an adventure to take your readers on an action-packed head trip, and during this workshop we’ll delve into those head trips.

WCYR get creative with nonfiction

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Temple of the Four Winds, at Castle Howard, Yorkshire.

Decency Be Damned: a seven-day roving writing workshop across Yorkshire, England, hosted by Writers’ Expeditions and Exploring York – from May 25-31.

We are sold out for 2020, but we host Decency Be Damned annually, and if you’d like to be put on the waiting list for a cancellation or for next year, please message us. We are also offering  a new writing workshop, in September of 2020, on the car-free Isle of Sark (English Channel) – follow this link for details for Risky or Risquéor keep scrolling on this page for Decency Be Damned. The two workshops are vastly different.

(Scroll down for itinerary and prices for this year’s Decency Be Damned.)

The North Yorkshire Moors steam train we'll take to Whitby, where we'll stay in Lewis Carroll's Yorkshire home.
The North Yorkshire Moors steam train we’ll take to Whitby, where we’ll stay for a night in Lewis Carroll’s Yorkshire home, now a seaside boutique hotel with exotic themed rooms.

Writers of any genre of fiction and nonfiction: You are invited to leave your safety nets at home and join us for a rollicking week of writing across Yorkshire, where you’ll be encouraged—and enabled!—to go beyond the bounds of decency. You’ll acquire techniques and exercises used by actors on the stage and apply them to the page. With your pen or keyboard, you’ll improvise, method act and perform dangerous feats. Inspiration will be gleaned from the activities we’ve planned and places we’ll stay. We’ll brave a ghost walk in Europe’s most haunted city, devour an orgasm of chocolates, and hunker down in the very hotel where Agatha Christie hid during the national manhunt for her. We’ll plot mayhem at the Guy Fawkes Inn, sample beer made by sixth generation brewers, and feast on the exploits of the Vikings and Romans—of course, all the while, delighting in English countryside, seaside villages, and stately homes.

Writer’s block be damned! Decency be damned! This workshop is a daring adventure of storytelling and writing!

The Stoker is one of the themed rooms at La Rosa boutique hotel (formerly Lewis Carroll's Yorkshire home). The view of the sea and Whitby Abbey (seen from that bed) inspired Bram Stoker to write "Dracula." (Photo courtesy of La Rosa)
The Stoker is one of the fabulous themed hotel rooms (and we’ve booked them all) at La Rosa boutique hotel (formerly Lewis Carroll’s Yorkshire home). The view of the sea and Whitby Abbey (seen from that bed) inspired Bram Stoker to write “Dracula.” (Photo courtesy of La Rosa)

(Scroll down for itinerary, prices, and hosts’ bios. If you contact us, please know that we respond quickly by email: writers-expeditions@mail.com, and if you don’t hear back, either we didn’t receive your email, or our reply is possibly in your spam bin. We can also be messaged from our Writers’ Expeditions Facebook page, which seems to work without fail.)  

Yorkshire tea. (photo taken during our 2018 expedition by your workshop host, Kirsten Koza)
Yorkshire tea (Photo taken during our 2018 expedition by your workshop host, Kirsten Koza)

TOUR ITINERARY 

Monday, May 25th, 2020

2:00 pm: check in at our hotel (owned by Hilton) at Monk Bar, which is a 14th century gate (not a bar) and is also the largest and most ornate entrance to the walled city.

Afternoon & Evening: meet & greet at our warm-up writing workshop, in the hotel bar (an actual bar and one with an extensive gin menu), before we head to dine at the Guy Fawkes Inn. This medieval inn is the birthplace of the infamous plotter, Guido Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes painting by Henry Perronet Briggs (c. 1823) titled Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (public domain)
Guy Fawkes painting by Henry Perronet Briggs (c. 1823) titled Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (public domain)

9:00 pm - Ghost Tour: York is home to some of the world’s more notorious ghosts. It was named the most haunted city in Europe, and tonight our guide promises to give us the creeps as he reveals York’s spooky secrets around each dark corner of the cobbled streets.

The Shambles, at night, York (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Our 2019 participants strolling The Shambles, at night, on our private ghost tour of York. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

(Dinner, Overnight in York)

Tuesday, May 26th

Morning: After enjoying an English breakfast (or something lighter if you prefer), our guide will take us on a tour (imbued with quirky trivia) of York Minster, the world’s third largest medieval gothic cathedral and York’s most acclaimed historical site.

Statue of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, York Minster.
Statue of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, York Minster

Then we’ll indulge in York’s Chocolate Story. Chocolate has resulted in renown and fortune for York for near 300 years. We’ll learn the art of the chocolatier and how to eat chocolate too – yes, we’ll receive a chocolate eating lesson. (Free time for writing and lunch.)

Yorkshire rarebit, in York. (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Yorkshire rarebit, in York (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)
Yorkshire Fat Rascals (Photo by our local guide and expert Matthew Greenwood, Exploring York)
Yorkshire Fat Rascals (Photo by our local guide and expert Matthew Greenwood, Exploring York)

Afternoon: We’ll meander the  streets and alleyways of the walled city with our guide. Roman York became the birthplace of Western Christianity, but the Romans’ achievements were brutally exsanguinated when the Vikings transformed Jorvik into an international trading hub centuries ahead of its time, making Medieval York the capital of the North. We’ll visit the Jorvik Viking Centre, where we’ll ride a Jurassic Park-like theme ride through a life-size diorama of Viking Jorvik, complete with an authentic whiff of Viking life and ending in a museum of artifacts, including entire skeletons that are visibly afflicted with the ailments of the era, and a ginormous Viking coprolite (as in a fossilized Viking poop that has been compared to the crown jewels for its significance).

Cocktail Hour Writing Assignment:  free time for dinner, to explore more of York, and to write.

(Breakfast, entrances to the Minster, Chocolate Story and tasting, and Viking museum, Overnight in York)

Wednesday, May 27th (pack your steamer trunk this morning, because today we take the steam train to the seaside where you’ll be writing yourself into scenes from Dracula and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass while staying in Lewis Carroll’s Yorkshire home)

Goathland's train station was a film location for the train station at Hogwarts. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Goathland’s train station was a film location for the train station at Hogwarts. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Whitby, Yorkshire (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Whitby, Yorkshire (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Morning: breakfast – and then we’ll take the steam train along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway from Pickering through Goathland (film location for the Hogwarts Express train station at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry), and of course we’ll discuss the success of J.K. Rowling – the whys and hows – and how this relates to stories going viral on the Internet, and then we’ll continue our train ride to Whitby.

Afternoon: We’ll visit the coastal town of Whitby, the birthplace of Captain Cook. But, also, it was while visiting Whitby, after an exhausting theatrical tour, that Bram Stoker got inspiration for Dracula. Then it’s down (or should we go up?) the 199 steps from Whitby’s gothic abbey, culminating in the reward of award winning fish and chips (gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan options available).

Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire. (photo by the fabulous George Hodan)
Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire (Photo by the fabulous George Hodan)
Cod & Chips at The Magpie (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Cod & Chips at The Magpie (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Then we check in at La Rosa boutique hotel where they describe themselves as “more boudoir than boutique.”

Evening: You’ll be given a writing prompt for the evening, and then you have free time in Whitby to dine, explore, and write.

(Breakfast, Steam Train, Lunch, Whitby Abbey Tickets, Overnight at La Rosa in Whitby)

La Rosa, another one of the themed boudoirs at the hotel (Photo courtesy of La Rosa Hotel)
La Rosa, another one of the themed boudoirs, with a sea view, at the hotel. (Photo courtesy of La Rosa Hotel)
And just one more themed room to tease you and show you how varied they all are - this is the Lewis, inspired by Lewis Carroll's study. (Photo courtesy of La Rosa Hotel)
And just one more themed room, with sea view, to tease you and show you how varied they all are – this is the Lewis, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s study. (Photo courtesy of La Rosa Hotel)

Thursday, May 28th

Morning: breakfast will be delivered to you in a hamper in your room this morning! Then we’ll check out of our hotel and travel through the countryside to Castle Howard where you’ll be given a “Decency Be Damned” writing assignment.

Castle Howard
Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

This Yorkshire stately home is one of Britain’s finest. It’s resplendent in world famous art and opulent architecture. You might recognize Castle Howard as it was used in both the TV and film adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s book Brideshead Revisited.

Writing time outside on Castle Howard’s spectacular grounds or at one of its indoor or outdoor patio cafes.

Temple of the Four Winds, at Castle Howard, Yorkshire.
Temple of the Four Winds, at Castle Howard, Yorkshire

Afternoon: We’ll take our private mini bus to the Yorkshire Dales National Park, where we’ll be dining and spending the night at The Buck Inn, in the perfect picture-postcard village of Malham. At this evening’s workshop, if you have bladder issues, you might want to wear Depends, because you’ll be laughing so hard you won’t just be crying.

The Buck Inn, Malham. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
The Buck Inn, Malham. We’ve booked the entire inn for Decency Be Damned, again! (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)
Malham Cove was a film location used in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and is in walking distance from our lodgings.(Photo by George Hodan)
Malham Cove was a film location used in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and is in walking distance from our lodgings.  (Photo by George Hodan)

(Breakfast, Dinner, Castle Howard Entrance, Overnight at The Buck Inn/Malham)

Friday, May 29th 

We have an exciting creative adventure planned for you today. Our writing workshop will be held in the courtyard of Richard III’s ruined castle.

Middleham, Yorkshire, So English (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Middleham, Yorkshire – so English (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

We’ll have lunch at a country pub, and (in our private mini-bus) we’ll traverse the limestone scenery and the unique valleys known as dales. You’ll see stone-built villages, field barns, drystone walls, Swaledale sheep, flower-laden meadows, plus the Aysgarth Falls (you might remember these waterfalls from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), and the North Yorkshire village of Kettlewell (of Calendar Girls fame).

Kettlewell, Yorkshire (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Kettlewell, Yorkshire (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Evening: We’ll check in at the Old Swan Harrogate which is surrounded by idyllic English gardens and is just a three-minute walk from the spa town’s centre. Our hotel “combines Victorian splendour with contemporary luxury.” It was here where Agatha Christie hid in 1926, resulting in an 11-day national manhunt for her.

Our views of North Yorkshire. (Photo by George Hodan)
Our views while exploring North Yorkshire (Photo by George Hodan)

Free time for writing and dinner in Harrogate. Your hosts are both foodies and will happily make recommendations.

(Breakfast, Overnight at the Old Swan in Harrogate)

Saturday, May 30th

Morning: breakfast in the Old Swan’s glass-ceilinged Wedgwood dining room – and then we’ll travel to a secluded valley to explore Fountains Abbey, one of the biggest and best preserved ruined (which sounds like an oxymoron) Cistercian monasteries in England.

Yorkshire, Fountains Abbey (photo by George Hodan)
Yorkshire, Fountains Abbey (Photo by George Hodan)
Fountains Abbey (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Fountains Abbey (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

 Afternoon: pub lunch – followed by battle of the breweries in Masham. We’ll pitt the beers of Black Sheep against T&R Theakston in our own private tasting with our guide, so we can enjoy the bitterness of an internal family feud along with their brews.

2019's participants at the 2nd of the breweries. There was a definite winner, but we're not going to reveal. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Some of 2019′s Decency Be Damned participants at the 2nd of the breweries. There was a definite winner of our battle of the breweries, but we’re not going to reveal. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Evening: three course dinner in Harrogate, and readings back at the Old Swan.

(Breakfast, Beer Tasting, Dinner, Overnight at Old Swan in Harrogate)

Sunday, May 31st

Morning: breakfast in the Wedgwood – followed by our farewell writing workshop in the library.

(Breakfast)

BIOS OF HOSTS – FOLLOWED BY PRICES

Kirsten Koza at "Wake Up and Smell the Shit" book launch at Book Passage, in San FranciscoKirsten Koza (writing workshop host): is the author of the book, Lost in Moscow, published by Turnstone and dubbed by CBC radio Canada “the ultimate what-I-did-last-summer essay ever.” Kirsten edited the Travelers’ Tales (USA) humour anthology, Wake Up and Smell the Shit, and read thousands of stories for that book before narrowing it down to the 31 writers she selected for the volume. She’s had over 75 stories published in books, magazines and newspapers around the world and has repeatedly been invited to speak at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in New York, on the power of social media for writers and making stories go viral.

Kirsten has taught both postgraduate and 3rd year acting at the University of East London and East 15 Acting School (famous for method acting), in England. She did her BA in theatre at Dalhousie University, in Canada, and her postgrad in the UK at E-15. The final production of her postgrad was staged in Yorkshire. Prior to becoming a professional writer, she worked in theatres across Canada and was the Artistic Director of Canada’s oldest professional summer theatre. Her theatre background has had a massive impact on how she writes, and she looks forward to sharing these methods and other tips with you on the Decency be Damned writing workshop, in Yorkshire.

You can read a couple of her adventures (published in books and magazines) by following these links, and you’ll probably surmise why the management at Travelers’ Tales publishing house affectionately call Kirsten “the Canadian lunatic”: “Chasing Tornadoes” published in the ninth volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing books, and “The Mountain Men Who Don’t Exist in Kyrgyzstan” published by Perceptive Travel magazine.

Matthew Greenwood of Exploring YorkMatthew Greenwood (your local guide & expert): created his tour company, Exploring York, in 2004, out of a love for his native county of Yorkshire and his lifelong passion for travel. He has guided a wide variety of groups ranging from policemen from Sudan to venture capitalists from New Mexico and adores showing visitors from around the globe his home city and county.

When Matthew was a child he wanted to be a hotel manager and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of international hotel chains. His interest in all things travel continued through life. He says the reason we embark on journeys is for the unknown, to make discoveries outside our realm of imagination. His own travels have circled the planet. A chance-meeting with a charity worker led to a lifetime dream-trip to Rwanda where he walked among the mountain gorillas, something he couldn’t have imagined coming true when watching Gorillas in the Mist as a child. That trip also fed Matthew’s appetite for learning about war and atrocities and how humanity can endure and overcome. This passion has led to him taking self-study trips (what he calls holidays) to Bosnia, Serbia, Cambodia and Vietnam, where he and Kirsten met in Hanoi outside Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

Matthew has a keen interest and knowledge in all aspects of history, British and American politics and world affairs.

PRICES AND INCLUSIONS: prices include hotel accommodations – full breakfasts daily – three three-course dinners -  one lunch – daily tours and transportation while on tours – private guide – tastings – and writing workshops.

The price per person based upon a twin shared room is £1695. If you prefer a single room – there is a £150 single supplement for the entire trip duration.

deposit of £300 reserves your place. Canadians and Americans can pay the deposit in dollars (CAD and US) – the currency conversion will be calculated on the day you make the payment.

The group size for this trip is just 10 participants! Please email Kirsten at  writers-expeditions@mail.com (and to make sure we get it please cc kirstenkoza@gmail.com), or message from the Writers’ Expeditions Facebook page with any questions you might have. We respond quickly, so if you don’t hear back from one of those, please do try an alternate, and please check your spam bin for our reply.

EXCLUSIONS: international flights and transportation to and from the first and last hotels – alcohol except where listed in itinerary

Bettys Cafe Tea Room, and that's not a typo - Bettys has no apostrophe however much you'd like to add one (photo by our guide, Matthew Greenwood, Exploring York)
Bettys Cafe Tea Room, and that’s not a typo – Bettys has no apostrophe however much you’d like to add one. (Photo by our guide, Matthew Greenwood, Exploring York)
2019's Decency Be Damned participants on the steam train. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Some of 2019′s Decency Be Damned participants on the adult version of the “Hogwarts Express.” (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Yorkshire Dales (Photo by George Hodan)
Yorkshire Dales (Photo by George Hodan)
2018's participants reading their indecencies at the Old Swan (photo by Kirsten Koza)
2018′s participants reading their indecencies at the Old Swan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Decency Be Damned participants during our ghost walk in 2019 (Photo by Kirsten Koza).
Decency Be Damned participants during our ghost walk in 2019 (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Driving through the Yorkshire Countryside in the Spring (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Driving through the Yorkshire countryside in the spring (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

 

 

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I realized we were doing the full crossing of the mountain chain. Tian/Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

There’s a Plunder of Uranium in Them Thar Hills

story and photos by Kirsten Koza

(first published in Perceptive Travel Magazine – USA)

My travel insurance provider said Kyrgyzstan was a “no-fly zone” due to the revolution. Sergey, who’d been organizing my mountain bike ride across the Tian Shan Mountains, looked out his window in Bishkek and declared he couldn’t see a revolution. Regardless, media showed it to be gruesome, so nobody from North America would join me. My Kyrgyzstani cycling guide and I had spent the first two days cut off from our support vehicle and supplies by rockslides. We felt lucky to be alive and were now reunited with our driver and translator.

 Nearing Chok-Tal Mountain and 13,000 feet above sea level in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Alexey turned the 4×4 onto a dirt track but Kyrgyz nomads surrounded us, blocking our path. The nomads’ Mongol features were all malformed, faces too narrow, impossibly close set eyes; one of them in a crisp white shirt and tweed vest surely had Down syndrome. He shoved his head through Alexey’s open window and inspected my petite, blonde bike guide in the passenger seat and then, Cholpon, my pretty, young, Kyrgyz translator in the back beside me. His small eyes finally seized me. These men weren’t leering; they were sizing up livestock at a market. I hid my middle-aged breasts behind my knapsack and reached for my camera. If something was going to happen, I wanted to capture it. I was still haunted by the parting words of a magazine editor a few years back who’d threatened me as I left for Easter Island with, “No picture; no story.”

“No, don’t,” Cholpon covered my camera. “Alexey, please put up your window.” She transitioned from English to Russian to talk to Alexey and Yena and then back to English. “There’s something wrong with these men. They only speak rough Kyrgyz—they have just a rudimentary knowledge of language.” Kyrgyzstan had formerly been part of the USSR and most people spoke Russian, but these men didn’t, and apparently they barely had a grasp of Kyrgyz.

Alexey revved the engine. Alexey had grown up in Soviet times. His parents were rebels, so, instead of speaking to him in Russian when he was a baby, they only spoke to him in English. Two nights ago, between vodka shots, he’d asked me to imagine his first day at school—a Russian kid from Kyrgyzstan, in the USSR, and English was his first and only language.

Alexey had grown up during Soviet times. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

The nomads ignored the urging from Alexey’s engine.

Cholpon was panicking. “Please, let’s get out of here. They’re primitive.”

This wasn’t just primitive. Why would every single one of them have obvious mental and physical afflictions? We were in the middle of nowhere Kyrgyzstan.

“Alexey, we need to go!” Cholpon hissed in my ear.

Two of the men banged the hood. They wanted us to take a tire up the mountain. Alexey indicated that the Toyota was packed with our camping gear and bikes and said “no.” He coaxed two deformed heads out of the window with the automatic window button. He nudged forward, pushing them and then gunned it leaving the primitive men and their wheel.

Ak-Köl, Lake of Secrets

Cholpon babbled about how terrifying they were as we drove through streams and gullies and swamps and headed up the tricky track until we reached a mind-blowing emerald, turquoise, and copper-green lake. Lake Ak-Köl hadn’t been on any of my maps, so Alexey marked it for me. The water shimmered like a chameleon as it reflected both the sky and the red, mineral-laden mountains that were dotted with trees. There was a plunder of riches in these hills. As we rounded the lake we came upon a ghost town of matching, dilapidated wooden houses with boarded windows. Alexey made a U-turn, and we headed back a short distance to set up camp on a patch of grass at the water’s edge.

Lake Ak Kol, Kyrgyzstan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)As we unloaded the gear, Cholpon seized my hand with an eagle claw grip. She pointed speechless with her other hand. Where had he come from? Marching past, looking dead ahead, in his crisp white shirt and tweed vest was the man with Down syndrome. He hadn’t even broken a sweat climbing the mountain on foot as fast as we had done in a 4×4. We all stared. His shirt still looked freshly ironed. Cholpon pleaded with Alexey and Yena that we leave. They told her to stop being silly.

I decided to take photos of the lake and find a bush to pee behind while my guides argued. Alexey and Yena were irritated with Cholpon. They said she was overreacting. Cholpon was assigning supernatural powers to the man with Down syndrome. I didn’t like how he’d suddenly appeared. It should have taken him hours. I peed and looked across the lake as the distinct feeling of being watched crept along my arms with a gaggle of goose pimples. Then I heard voices from the far shore. No, maybe closer. There was laughter. I struggled to pull up my pants. I used my camera like binoculars but couldn’t see anyone.

Kyrgyzstan, Cholpon chops chicken at Lake Ak-Kol  (Photo by Kirsten Koza)I rushed back to camp. Cholpon was crying and chopping up a chicken. Alexey was pumping up his air mattress in the van. Yena was erecting the tents. I poured myself a glass of wine and grabbed my laptop. “Yena, what’s up with Cholpon?” I asked.

“Pfft,” Yena dismissed. “She thinks she is going to be kidnapped bride, like her sister.” I pictured Cholpon being carried away by a village of deformed men.

Cholpon had told me about her sister just minutes after she and Sergey had met me at the airport. Cholpon’s sister had attempted suicide to escape the family of nomads who’d kidnapped her. The nomads thankfully had brought her to a hospital which was how she got away. Sergey had seen my concern and assured me I had nothing to worry about because the nomads liked docile women (not me) who could also make kumis, fermented mares’ milk, and I couldn’t even milk a horse. He was kind not to point out that I was also too old.

Two men approached from the abandoned mining town, which I was suspecting, although boarded up, was far from abandoned. I hadn’t seen a sign of a woman. But they had to be here—doing laundry maybe? I wondered if they all shared the same mother and how many generations of incest this was. The men were asking Alexey for cigarettes. I took a photo.

“No!” Yena whispered motioning me to put my camera down. “And hide your laptop.” She dropped her jacket on my equipment.

The men stumbled back to the village. They looked like they’d been imbibing in something stronger than horse milk. They were met with whoops and war cries.

“Have you ever seen the movie, Deliverance?” I asked my guides. Alexey had a huge stack of DVDs of international films which he watched in the van while Yena and I biked. None of them had seen Deliverance. Dueling banjos dueled in my head. “It’s about a camping trip that goes wrong.” I chose not to tell Cholpon about the sodomy scene.

We ate, and Cholpon wiped a steady stream of tears from her face and actually drank some of my wine, which she didn’t do normally, being Muslim. This rule didn’t seem to apply to Kyrgyz men. Many embraced the Russian tradition; if you open the bottle of vodka, you finish the bottle of vodka.

Darkness devoured the landscape. And soon as it did the howls and cries of mounting excitement from the ghost town started to move in the blackness. We heard wolf cries and then lights flickered—lanterns had been lit as if on cue and were bobbing as they were carried from the village in single file along the far shore. Another line of lights snaked towards us. They were going to surround us. Maybe someone would be killed and then I’d have something to write about. Did I just think that?!

A Night Escape

“We’re going!” Alexey was pulling tent pegs. I could stop him. Sergey had said my guides were to do whatever I wanted. The villagers were circling. If I gave the order to stay, I’d definitely have something to write about. What would happen? Rape, murder? Cholpon was sobbing. She threw pots in boxes. A sensible wave of terror swept over me. What was I going to do, just stand there and take photos of a massacre on a mountain? Yena and I pulled down a tent.

“Hurry,” Alexey panted. “Don’t remove the tent poles. Throw it in the van. We’ll deal with it later. Don’t worry about the garbage!” That wasn’t like Alexey. “Fucking leave it for them.”

Their screams and lights were all around us. Yena and Alexey jumped into the front and Cholpon and I had to lie on Alexey’s air mattress in the back with the chaos of tents and gear. He spun the tires. We frantically locked the doors.

“Don’t get stuck, Alexey,” Cholpon cried and held my hand. That was my big fear too. We’d made our way through rivers and sucking mud in the daylight. This was treacherous at night. Nobody else knew where we were. We’d changed our route because of the landslides. There wasn’t cell service. Cholpon whispered in my ear, “Do you think they’ll rape us?” Yeah, I actually figured that might be the best case scenario. It was the murdering that had me even more worried.

I was exhausted the next morning. I sat with my feet in icy rapids. The water here too had a mineral rich hue. I’d hardly slept. Even though Alexey assured us we’d driven far enough from the not-so-abandoned mining town and its horror film of inhabitants, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the man with Down’s could appear from nowhere. Maybe there were shortcuts they knew. Yena handed me a cup of coffee. “Yikes,” I looked at the curdled artificial creamer.

Kyrgyzstan, river near Kyzyl-oi (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

“Yes, I don’t know why it do this,” she said.

It looked disgusting, but I drank it anyway. I was still perturbed by my dangerous urge of last night. I’d actually fantasized someone dying for writing fodder. Sure, there was a lot of competition out there for an exciting story, and not many of us were unfortunate (or fortunate) enough to have to hack off an arm to survive, or be taken hostage in Afghanistan, but for me to wish for something like that was as gross as the paparazzi who took photos of J.K. Rowling’s crotch when she was enjoying a day at the beach. No, maybe not that gross, because I’d never take a photo of a children’s author’s privates…perhaps John Grisham or Dan Brown in a Speedo—but not to sell.

I went for a second cup of coffee. I sniffed the powdered creamer. Could anything even go wrong with the stuff? I spooned it into the cup of instant coffee. It curdled. I sipped it again. It tasted okay. Perhaps it was the PH of the antifreeze-green water. Cholpon had filled our water containers at Ak-Köl.

“Nobody Lives There”

Map of Kyrgyzstan on t-shirt (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Yena and I had been biking all day along a two-track. We were lost. Somehow we were going to have to find Cholpon and Alexey with no cell service. Just ahead was a red Mercedes and several generations of Kyrgyz males packing up their fishing tackle. They agreed to give us a lift. As we took the wheels off our bikes to fit them in the trunk, they wanted to know where I lived in Canada and why I was here during a revolution.

Asking for directions (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

One of the men was an executive at a Belgian mining company. Yena told him about Ak-Köl. He kept saying, “No.” The rest was Russian. I looked at Yena to translate.

“He said nobody lives at Ak-Köl. He said it’s closed. The lake is contaminated with uranium.”

Visions of my curdled coffee swirled before me. I’d been drinking uranium while imagining taking dirty photos of John Grisham and Dan Brown.

Four years later, Cholpon, Sergey and I are sitting in an exotic, tented restaurant in Bishkek. The white fabric billows in the summer breeze which carries the scent of grilled meat and fresh bread. I’m back. I’m here to photograph Kyrgyz nomadic life—the horse games, eagle hunters, markets, yurts, and food.

Woman milks a horse. I was back in Kyrgyzstan to take photos of nomadic life (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

“When I teach tourism classes in the winter, I always tell the story of Ak-Köl.” Cholpon hands me a skewer of sheep meat. “Nobody believes me.”

“That’s weird,” I agree, “because when I’ve told the story, I’ve had people deny that anyone lives there and even say there is no such lake. Maybe I should return. The lake is killing people. That’s got to be why they’re all deformed.”

“You can’t,” Sergey says. “It’s forbidden. It’s closed. Nobody lives there.”

I have the distinct feeling that people do still live there. My pulse quickens. They are hiding in the hills, camouflaged like their toxic chameleon of a lake.

 _____

Kirsten Koza is an author, humorist, and journalist. She edited the Travelers’ Tales anthology Wake Up and Smell the Shit: Hilarious Travel Disasters, Monstrous Toilets and a Demon Dildo, and she is the author of Lost in Moscow: A Brat in the USSR. Always looking for her next adventure, Kirsten has covered topics (for newspapers, magazines and anthologies worldwide) such as tornado chasing, cannibalism, insect eating, mummies, Putin, gluten, and body disposal. See more at www.kirstenkoza.com.

 

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