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Yurts with T-Rex (Photo by Kirsten Koza, T-Rex added with Efexio)

Mare’s Milk, Mountain Bikes, Meteors & Mammaries

 A nipply night in nomad’s land.

By Kirsten Koza

(First published in the book, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 8: True Stories from Around the World)

“Oh, no, Kirsten!”

My Kyrgyzstani guide’s warning came too late, and stepping in poo had never felt so good. My cycling shoe sank into the dreadful yet luxurious warmth of fresh animal dung. I was chilled to the point where I was actually lingering ankle-deep in feces, by choice.

Yena shone the light of her cell phone, its only feature that was still working, onto the molten mound enveloping the bare skin of my lower leg. The droppings looked like something a brontosaurus might have deposited. A meteorite seared across the night sky, so close that you could actually hear it crackle as it hissed down the vertical gorge to the Chong-Kemin valley.

Perseids - meteor showers (NASA image)
Perseids – meteor showers (NASA image)

The point of light from Yena’s phone caught me in the eyes. When I’d first met her, yesterday, after traveling thirty-six hours from Canada, I’d told her that I had two irrational phobias. The first one—fear of the dark—I fabricated as an excuse for not wanting to climb the unlit, steep, winding stairs of an eleventh-century minaret. I wasn’t worried about the lack of lighting; I was being lazy. The second phobia—which I’d added to brighten the mood after she looked disappointed that I didn’t want to go up the tower—was real: I was terrified of meteorites. I was seriously scared of being struck by a shooting star. I’d lie in bed at night imagining them out there in space.

Burana tower, an 11th century minaret, Kyrgyzstan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Burana tower, an 11th century minaret, Kyrgyzstan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Now here we were on a mountain, in the dark, unable to make it across the pass with our bikes because a fresh rockslide had strewn unstable boulders and scree for several kilometers in every direction, including on the slope directly above us. We’d had to turn back and were descending on foot from an altitude of four thousand oxygen-deficient meters above sea level, as night smothered Chok-Tal Mountain. The blinding dark was being shredded by the Perseid meteor shower—shooting stars so close it seemed I could even smell their trails of smelting iron and sulfur. I snuggled into the poop.

“Yena, why did the old Kyrgyz nomad ask me if I was afraid of wolves?”

“I no know why. Is very strange.”

It was weird. It was the only thing he’d communicated, as we’d left his family’s yurt in the afternoon to head up over the mountain chain. He had a wind-whipped and sun-lashed face, a riding crop, a long white moustache, and a traditional white felt hat that made him look like he was wearing a small yurt on his head.

Yurt, Chong-Kemin valley, Kyrgyzstan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
We stopped for fermented mare’s milk at this family’s yurt, before heading up and over the Tien Shan mountains. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

“I’m not scared of wolves,” I said to Yena as she skidded away down the rocky trail beside her bike.

“I know, you say dis already.” Just a few feet ahead of me, and she was invisible.

Suddenly, she shrieked. A clatter of falling rocks started above us and immediately bounced and slid past on all sides. Stone and shale tumbled over the sheer precipice.

I screamed. I didn’t know what was going on, but screaming felt right.

“A horse!” Yena cried.

“Oh, God. Did it go over the edge?”

“It go off.” My guide was somewhere near the edge of the gorge. I couldn’t see her.

“It went off the edge?” All I could hear were the glacial rapids roaring thousands of meters below.

The light from my twenty-two-year-old guide’s phone darted around the nearby mountainside. There was nothing to see in its beam but rocks balancing on good will.

I was too old for this.

Wait, did I seriously just think that? I was furious with myself for even entertaining such a thought. I was not too old for this. I was forty…something. Mid-forties. I’d been lying about my age, saying I was older than I was, for so long that I’d actually need to do the math to figure out my real age. I had never understood why movie stars claimed to be younger than they were. If you lie up in age, then people are amazed by how good you look. But today’s mistakes were those of a twenty-two-year-old. I’d made such errors in judgment decades ago and there was no excuse for repeating them at forty-five-ish.

We had no water, food, supplies, flashlights, or gear of any kind. Everything we needed was in our support vehicle with our driver, Alexey, and my Kyrgyz cultural guide, Cholpon. Everything that could save our lives was on the other side of this snowy mountain range, a six-hour car ride away—if we had a car. When the sun vanished, the temperature had plunged below freezing, and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I’d suggested turning back hours ago, when I’d begun to suspect that I’d misunderstood the plans for the day; I didn’t want to get caught high in the mountains at night.

Chok-Tal Mountain, above Chong-Kemin, in the Celestial Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I didn't want to be caught up here at night.(Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Chok-Tal Mountain, above the valley of Chong-Kemin, in the Celestial Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I didn’t want to be caught up here at night. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

“Hello, Alexey, hello….” Yena tried her useless walkie-talkie and her useless cell phone for the hundredth time. I knew she was just putting on a front for me. She was fully aware that there was no cell service here, and the transceiver radios were only good if you had a line of sight with the other person. “Hello…” Static.

There had been a tense fight last night at camp between my guides. Alexey had said—in English, for my benefit—“The lady is tired and she has come from living at sea level. We are too high in elevation. Change tomorrow’s ride. Do a small ride, Yena. Don’t cross the mountains.” I agreed with Alexey. Then the arguing continued in Russian, the common language of the three guides supporting my bike trip across Kyrgyzstan.

I didn’t normally travel with a team of babysitters. I’d hired them all before arriving in Bishkek, back when I assumed I’d have a group of cyclists accompanying me. But it turned out nobody else in the world wanted to come to Kyrgyzstan, mostly because of a recent revolution and government overthrow and killings. I’d even received death wishes from an Arizona prison guard on an online mountain biking forum for daring to invite Westerners to a Muslim country. He’d lusted for guns pointed at my head.

I didn't normally travel with a team of babysitters. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
I didn’t normally travel with a team of babysitters. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Maybe Yena hadn’t understood Alexey’s English when he said we shouldn’t cross the Celestial Mountains. She spoke Russian and French. I could barely understand a word of her English and none of her French, and I was beginning to think she didn’t understand my English, either. Or perhaps she’d won the argument, and nobody thought to tell me. But when we’d left so late in the day, and when I’d watched her hand two bottles of water back to Alexey, complaining they were too heavy – these two clues had indicated we were doing a shorter, easier ride, and not crossing the mountains. She’d even thrown out our food, at which point I was completely certain we’d just be doing a quick jaunt.

Four hours later, when I was vomiting horse milk, clambering over rockslides, carrying, pushing and dragging my bike continually upward, I realized we were doing the full mountain crossing.

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

Now, one foot in front of the other, defeated, we were feeling our way back down the mountainside, trembling with cold and muscle fatigue. The incline was so vertical that I was using my bicycle brakes to help slow my pace. I winced as a rock tore the skin off my shin, and again as a shooting star whizzed in front of me. I didn’t make a wish. I wasn’t superstitious. I was just fully freaked out.

The nomads, though—they were superstitious. The Kyrgyz woman who’d served us fermented mare’s milk and bread with jam and clotted cream in her yurt this afternoon had stared at my upside-down bread on the table and shot me a look of horror. I’d also pointed with my foot at her adult son. I was showing him the hardware that attached my shoe to my bike pedal. He’d jumped back and protected his face with his hands. You’d have thought I was going to kick him in the head.

Before traveling to Kyrgyzstan, I’d been sent a warning list on how not to offend or upset the nomads. One of the items on the list said, “Do NOT put your bread upside down on the table,” and the other said, “Do NOT point at anyone with your foot.” I’d cursed the Kyrgyz family with bad luck and brought the devil into their yurt and now I’d startled one of their horses to its death. Maybe they wouldn’t notice. They had lots of horses.

They had lots of horses. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
They had lots of horses. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

“We leave the trail, now. Here. Here. See light. Is yurt. We go there.” Yena pulled my handlebars to direct me off the trail toward a wavering speck of light in the far distance.

“What? No.” Leaving the trail was insane. Bad things happened when you left the trail. Besides, if we stayed on the trail it would lead us right back to the yurt we were at today. Unless the light was coming from the first yurt we’d stopped at earlier in the day, not the second one.

Yurt toilet, nomadic life, Kyrgyzstan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)At the first yurt, a nomad woman had made cheese balls with her bare hands, and I could see her dirty handprints in the sour cheese. My stomach turned at the thought of putting it in my mouth. I pretended to enjoy my golf balls of cheese but palmed them into my pocket, intending to drop them in the outdoor toilet. But when I went to the squat latrine, I realized my cheese balls would be visible to anyone who looked in the shallow hole, so instead I feigned washing my hands in the stream and ditched the cheese there. They instantly sank to the bottom and stayed. The nomads had probably found my cheese after I’d left. They’d know it was my cheese. I didn’t want to go to the first yurt, but then I’d insulted the nomads at the second yurt as well. Plus, there was the issue of the horse.

Following Yena, I stepped off the trail onto an impossible incline of slick wet grass. I turned my bike wheel sideways, as not even the brakes helped stop the downward slide. My front tire suddenly plunged straight down and stopped.

“What’s that?”

I was going to die by marmot. Marmot drawing, Brehms Tierleben. (image Public Domain)Yena shone her cellphone light. It was a marmot hole. She cast her light over the slope. Between where we stood and the far-off flicker from the yurt was a minefield of marmot holes, all just several feet apart. Before leaving for Kyrgyzstan I’d learned that the marmot was the second deadliest creature known to man, but that was because the marmot carried the flea responsible for the Black Death, or Bubonic Plague—not because their holes were waiting to trap and snap your leg bones like twigs.

Using my bike like a senior citizen’s walker, I inched my way down the hill as slowly as possible. It was still too fast. A compound fracture out here would mean certain death. I wasn’t going to die at the hands of Muslims, as the Arizona prison guard had been desperate to prove—I was going to die by marmot.

Just then I became aware of motion, black moving against black, and far too large to be a marmot.

“Yena, what’s that? There’s something out there. No, not something, lots of things.”

We were being surrounded. Large shapes were closing in on us.

“I no know,” Yena whispered.

“Oh, it’s just cows,” I said, relieved.

Except that right then, we heard a deep, guttural, angry growl above us on the mountain. A T-Rex-sized beast was roaring and approaching fast.

Yurts with T-Rex (Photo by Kirsten Koza, T-Rex added with Efexio)
Yurts with imaginary T-Rex (Photo by Kirsten Koza, T-Rex added with Efexio)

“Bull,” Yena cried out in dismay.

The bull circled. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear its hefty hooves impact the soil. It started to paw. It was going to charge. Yena and I made a barricade with our bikes. I heard myself panting—tight, short, breaths that sounded exactly like The Blair Witch Project whimper puffing. People really did make that silly noise. I couldn’t stop doing it. The Minotaur was bearing down on us. We’d be gored.

In a split second, the bull rounded our makeshift bicycle-fence. We were now on the same side of the bikes as him. Yena fumbled with her phone and the weak ray hit the bull’s eye. He charged. We scrambled around our bikes and held them in front of us, sidestepping with them, our bikes locked together in a panicked tangle of handlebars and spokes. I closed my eyes, bracing for impact. He thundered past and around us again. We were an awkward, gasping, four-legged matador.

“Call the nomads to help us,” I begged Yena.

She cried out in Russian, shouting her pleas toward the swinging lantern that marked the safety of the nearby yurt. Then all of a sudden, Yena let go of her bike and ran at the animal—all eighty pounds of her, shrieking threats as she waved her arms over her head and hurtled toward the horned mass of muscle.

I heard men’s voices to my right, speaking in Kyrgyz.

“Help us,” I whinnied.

Where were they? I was still making that pathetic whimpering-huffing noise.

A shepherd whistled a command. A lantern was lit. Dogs. Dogs and nomad men. Muslims. Muslims with guns. I was so happy to see Muslims with guns.

We were ushered into the family yurt. It was the second yurt.

“Kumis?” The mother offered me mare’s milk that had been fermented in a smoked goat’s stomach, again. I’d been up-chucking her kumis all day. Even in my dehydrated state, there would be no swallowing horse milk; the alcohol content was too low to be worth the risk.

I declined politely as Yena spun our adventure to the nomad woman who poured me the traditional half-full cup of tea, which I drank in one gulp. This happened ten times in a row. I wished she’d just pour me a full cup of tea. I wasn’t superstitious.

Her eldest son, whom I’d pointed my foot at earlier, eyed me from under his pile of colorful quilts. It was midnight, and the family lay on the floor, shoulder to shoulder. Where would we sleep? I wasn’t entirely comfortable wedging myself between the nomads on the ground; maybe I could spend the night huddled with the manure-burning stove and the teapot.

“I tell her about rock slide,” Yena said. “I tell her we cannot cross the pass and she say she know this. The same thing happened with Germans on bikes. They come down the mountain last night and sleep here.”

The nomad woman smiled at me with her gold teeth.

Kyrgyzstan
The lady gave me kumis (fermented mare’s milk) and smiled at me with her gold teeth. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

“Why didn’t she tell us that this afternoon?” I asked.

“I know. I no know. Is strange,” Yena replied. “We go now. They make bed for us in barn yurt.”

I was so thirsty. I hadn’t had nearly enough half-cups of tea, and as I followed several nomads back out into the freezing night, to the “barn yurt,” I was shaking with the beginning stages of hypothermia. My teeth rattled in my skull. Yena wrapped her icy, spindly arms around me. I don’t like being touched, but I could feel the warmth from her heart on my back, so I didn’t pull away. We shook together as nomads kicked the dogs out of the barn yurt and moved saddles, boots, and riding tack.

“I d-d-don’t mind d-dogs,” I chattered. The dogs ran off into the darkness in a barking frenzy, chasing something unseen.

Yena was handed a lantern, and we stepped into the yurt. I took off my poopy shoes—not that it mattered in the barn, but the nomads were superstitious about shoes—and one tipped over on its side. That was bad luck, too. Now I’d brought bad luck to the barn, as well. I quickly righted my offensive cycling shoe, but not before it was noted by the old man.

On the ground was a mat for us to share. Yena snuffed the lantern, and we crawled under the mountain of handmade blankets on the felt mat and spooned for warmth, feet of course pointed to the flap of the door, for luck. I heard the flap move, and then something else.

“Something is in the tent with us,” I whispered.

“No,” Yena answered.

Something sat down. “Maybe a dog came back,” I suggested.

The dogs responded by barking maniacally in the distance.

“Yes, something is in here,” Yena agreed.

We heard scratching. “Dog,” she sighed.

I suddenly had the feeling that it wasn’t a dog. It was the wolf. But I wasn’t afraid of wolves, I told myself.

Then I coughed. It was a horrible racking cough. Yena rubbed my chest.

No, she was rubbing my boobs. Yena was rubbing my breasts.

O.K., this was worse than wedging in with the family. Did she think I was paying for this service along with her guiding skills? It was beyond awkward.

“Yena,” I coughed, “I’m not scared of shooting stars anymore.” I barked painfully.

“Dis is good.”

“Yeah, now I’m scared of pulmonary edema.” I could feel my lungs filling with fluid. I choked on mucus. Yena rubbed my boobs again.

Day one was over—I hoped. But there were three more weeks to go.

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

________

Kirsten Koza is an adventure writer, speaker, and the author of Lost in Moscow. Her articles and photographs have been featured around the world in books, newspapers and travel magazines. Kirsten has mountain biked (badly) across twenty countries, was rewarded with a ham for the first mountain bike ascent up Romania’s Mt. Cocora, has driven the intercept vehicle tornado chasing for 19,900 kilometers, kayaked inches from alligators, was held at gunpoint in Honduras for twelve hours, was tattooed by a Rapa Nui tafunga, and has put testicles and penis and many other unusual food items in her mouth. To see pictures and read more about Kirsten’s misadventures visit www.kirstenkoza.com

*I have spelled Elena, Yena, throughout, as that was how I was instructed by her to pronounce her name. Alexey pronounced it Lena and Cholpon said it like Elena.

T-Rex added with Efexio.

The Best Women's Travel Writing, volume 8

This story was first published by Travelers’ Tales, in the 8th volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, a series of anthologies edited by Lavinia Spalding. (Click here to see the book on Amazon.)

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Turkistan, Kazakhstan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

I was interviewed by Dave Fox on The Globejotting Travel Show Expat Radio (France) about hunting for the skeletal remains of ships in the desert (that used to be the Aral Sea) in Kazakhstan. I also raved about salad in Kazakhstan (I don’t normally rave about salad anywhere – it bordered on psychotic raving, but they really do have fabulous salads in Kazakhstan). On the same trip I also got to do one of my favourite things on the planet – photograph kok-boru in Kyrgyzstan, again. That’s the nomad horse game which is a bit like rugby on horseback except they play with a decapitated goat instead of a ball. You can listen to the audio from the show from the host’s website by clicking on the audio link there, plus he has more of my pics and other info in his show notes (CLICK HERE TO LOOK OR LISTEN).

On a ship's deck in the desert of Kazakhstan, formerly the Aral Sea (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
On a ship’s deck in the desert of Kazakhstan, formerly the Aral Sea (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Kok-boru in Kyrgyzstan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Kok-boru in Kyrgyzstan (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
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dracula expedition cover photo 2018

The Vlad Dracula Expedition 2018 – a seven-day dinner party through Romania: we just had a couple have to cancel their reservations for 2018, so there is now space for a couple more participants (either double or singles) on this adventure. Also, we we will be hosting the Dracula Expedition again in 2019; please contact us if you are interested in the details for 2019.

We’ve made 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 dining on October 31st in the chambers where real-life Dracula, Vlad Drăculea (known as Vlad the Impaler), was born in 1431. We’ll be sleeping that night, across the street, in an inn of similar vintage, inside the (UNESCO) medieval walled city of Sighisoara. We were the first (and are the only) to ever host a dinner party in the room where Dracula was born, and our 2016 group didn’t even make it through cocktails before we were regaling each other with spine tingling experiences from our lives. We’ll also be special guests at the ultimate costume party at Bran Castle (known as Dracula’s castle, built circa 1377) which was owned by Vlad’s grandfather (Mircea the Old) and was attacked by Vlad in 1460.

We'll dine in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
On Halloween night we’ll dine in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

Our Transylvanian guide (with whom I explored Romania with 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, Harper Collins), 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.

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 a screaming Alfred Hitchcock sky. (Photo by Writers’ Expeditions photography host Christopher Campbell).
Vlad Dracula’s wife jumped to her death from the 100 storey high cliffs at Poenari to avoid capture by invading Turks. (Photo Writers’ Expeditions)

Included in the 1590 Euro 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, activities/entrance fees, some booze, pro photos, and our private vehicle and driver while on this phenomenal tour. Kirsten Koza Adventure Travel Writer Writers’ Expeditions Host: info@kirstenkoza.com and kirstenkoza@gmail.com (we respond quickly, so if you don’t hear back, please try the other email address or message us on Facebook) Day 1:  October 26th  – Pickup at Bucharest airport. -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 1400’s was the wealthiest city in Eastern Europe. Then we’ll dine at The Beer Chariot, a spectacular 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 ****

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)
Papanasi, a donut-like dessert made fresh and served piping hot, in Romanian restaurants. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Papanasi, a donut-like dessert made fresh and served piping hot, in Romanian restaurants. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Day 2: October 27th (Drinks are on Dracula tonight – costume party at Bran Castle) After a hot buffet breakfast at the hotel’s award winning restaurant, we’ll visit the Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world (following the Pentagon), and a legacy of a more recent “Dracula,” the communist dictator Ceausescu (executed in 1989). Then we’ll break out the Romanian treat bags for our scenic drive to Transylvania.

Transylvania, Romania, Heroes' Cross, Caraiman Peak (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
Transylvania, Romania, Heroes’ Cross, Caraiman Peak (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

We’ll be spending the night 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 meal before we change into our costumes (as simple or elaborate as they may be) and head to the Halloween festival in Bran and the party at Dracula’s Castle.

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)

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 3: October 28th After a hearty breakfast at the farm we’ll drive to Brasov 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 Brasov it’s to Rasnov: where we’ll explore the 13th century, mountaintop fortress built by Teutonic Knights, and then we’ll return to Moeciu for another Romanian farm feast. - Breakfast, lunch, dinner  - overnight at mountain lodge

Brasov, Romania (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Brasov, Romania (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Day 4: October 29th – Dracula’s Fortress – where his wife plunged to her death 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.

Climbing the stairs to Dracula's Fortress in 2016 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
Climbing the stairs to Dracula’s Fortress (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
Dracula's "vulture's nest" (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Dracula’s “vulture’s nest” (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

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.

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.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Overnight 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 5: October 30th

Today we cross the Carpathian mountains on the mind-blowing Transfagarasan Highway.

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

We continue on our Vlad Dracula quest, 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. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Corvin Castle. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Day 6: October 31st (Halloween – Tonight we have a private dinner party in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431!) We take a picturesque drive to Sighisoara, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We’ll be spending the night inside this preserved walled town, in a medieval hotel, across the street from the house where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431, which is where we’ll be dining this Hallows’ Eve. - Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Palinca tasting. Overnight in hotel which is over 500 years old!

We'll be spending the night inside the medieval walled city of Sighisoara, across the street from where Vlad Dracula was born. (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)
We’ll be spending the night inside the medieval walled city of Sighisoara, across the street from where Vlad Dracula was born. (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers’ Expeditions)

Day 7: November 1st – Dracula’s grave Our driver will take us across the Carpathian mountains to Snagov Monastery. In 1476 Prince Vlad Dracula was assassinated, and the monks of Snagov recovered his headless body and buried it inside their church, on an island. Breakfast, lunch. Tour ends around 4:00 PM.  Return to Bucharest. Airport/hotel/train station drop-off. 

Autumn colours and snow capped Carpathians. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Autumn colours and snow capped Carpathians. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

PRICES AND INCLUSIONS AND HOST BIOS: The price is 1590 Euros per person for a double (the single room supplement is 190 Euros for the entire trip).  A deposit (which comes off the total) of 250 Euros reserves your spot (Canadians and Americans can make the first two payments in dollars CAD and USD at the equivalent value). Anyone from around the world is welcome, and you can check the currency conversion from euros to yours in a quick google search, or by clicking here. Please contact us with questions at:  info@kirstenkoza.com (we respond quickly, so if you don’t hear back in 24 hours, please try kirstenkoza@gmail.com). 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
  • 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)

Christopher Campbell (Writers' Expeditions - photography host)Kirsten describes the hosts: 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 Harper Collins 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 third year hosting our Dracula Expedition. He’s also been our photography host in Jordan and Vietnam. kirsten halloweenKirsten Koza: I don’t always look this good. 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 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 and a three-minute documentary from a previous expedition. Turn up your speakers for it! The Dracula Expedition Video!

Halloween party goers at Bran Castle (Dracula's castle), Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)
Halloween party goers at Bran Castle (Dracula’s castle), Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers’ Expeditions)

You can expand the thumbnails by clicking and scroll over for caption. A nice light meal - Romanian style. (Photo by Horia Matei)The menu called the dish fourskins. You can imagine the jokes. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Salad in Romania The castle courtyard during the Halloween party (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Out group from 2015 getting ready for the Halloween party at Horia's lodge.Our photography host photobombs strangers at Dracula's castle. (Photo by Kirsten Koza) We met people at the costume party who looked like Hollywood special effects artists had worked on them. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Some people go all out and some buy their costumes at dollar stores. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Bran Castle Halloween (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Nobody knew we were travelling with the Grim Reaper until Halloween night at the castle. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)In the town square of Sighisoara (Photo by Christopher Campbell, 2016)Some of our 2016 group in Sibiu (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Halloween group shot 2016 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Night falls at the cemetery in Sighisoara, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell) Horse wagons are a common in Romania (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Medieval covered staircase in Sighisoara. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)A Roma tinsmith, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)         (Did you know that Bram Stoker got inspiration for writing Dracula while staying in Whitby, Yorkshire, England? Follow the link to see the details for Decency be Damned, our seven day rollicking writing workshop across Yorkshire, in May 2018.)

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Condor, Colca Canyon, Peru (photo by Kirsten Koza)


In a land where the Catholic conquistadors conquered and subjugated the native Incas, a small band of Peruvian neo-Nazis have found a way to blame all their troubles on the Jews.

The weirdness started when I ordered the wrong soup in Nazca, Peru. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, except that every two or three years I fly all the way from Toronto to Lima and then rent a 4×4 at the airport to drive to Nazca for a bowl of parihuela at La Encantada. I always tell people that I’m going to Peru for other reasons, for example, this time, the reason was to mountain bike down a 19,872-foot ultra volcano… Click this link to read my full story which was published in Perceptive Travel Magazine.

An accidental backwards swastika, or... (Photo taken by Kirsten Koza in Huambo's bullring, Colca Canyon, Peru)
An accidental backwards swastika, or… (Photo taken by Kirsten Koza in Huambo’s bullring, Colca Canyon, Peru)
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Writers' Expeditions Castle Howard Yorkshire, England

Decency Be Damned: a seven-day roving writing workshop across Yorkshire, England, hosted by Writers’ Expeditions and Exploring York – from May 21-27, 2018.

SOLD OUT and completed for 2018, but please do contact us if you’re interested in joining our 2019 expedition. Details are just being fine tuned.

Hogwarts Express York England

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!

(Scroll down for itinerary, bios of hosts, and prices. This workshop takes a maximum of 10 participants.) 

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)

TOUR ITINERARY

Monday, May 21st, 2018

2:00 pm: check-in at the Monkbar Hotel (newly owned by Hilton), overlooking York’s medieval city walls.

Afternoon: meet & greet at our warm-up writing workshop, in the hotel bar, before we indulge in York’s Chocolate Story. Chocolate has resulted in renown and fortune for York for near 300 years, and this afternoon we’ll learn the artform of the chocolatier and how to eat chocolate too – yes, we’ll receive a chocolate eating lesson.

Free time to write, nap, or visit the pub before our nighttime adventure.

Shambles, York, England
Shambles, York, England

8:00 pm - Ghost Tour: York is home to some of the world’s most 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.

Overnight at Monkbar Hotel, in York

Tuesday, May 22nd

Morning: after enjoying an English breakfast (or something lighter if you prefer) and a writing workshop, 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.

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

Afternoon: guided tour of York Minster, the world’s third largest medieval gothic cathedral and York’s most acclaimed historical site.

Evening: dinner and writing workshop at the Guy Fawkes Inn. This medieval inn is the birthplace of the notorious plotter, Guido Fawkes.

Breakfast (B), Dinner (D), overnight at Monkbar Hotel, in York

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

Wednesday, May 23rd

Morning: after breakfast we’ll set out on the York City Treasure Hunt – our quest will take us puzzling along the quirky-named streets around the city’s fascinating landmarks.

We’ll spend the afternoon at Castle Howard – tour and lunchtime writing workshop.

Afternoon at Castle Howard: this Yorkshire stately home is one of Britain’s finest. It’s resplendent in world famous art and opulent architecture.

Writing workshop at Castle Howard.

Free time for dinner at your leisure back in York. Our guide will happily make recommendations.

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)

B, overnight at Monkbar Hotel

Thursday, May 24th  (we change hotels today)

Morning: breakfast – and then we’ll take the steam train along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway from Pickering to Goathland (film location for the Hogwarts Express), 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.

Afternoon: we’ll visit the coastal town of Whitby, the birthplace of Captain Cook. Also, it was while visiting Whitby, after an exhausting theatrical tour, that Bram Stoker got inspiration for Dracula. Then it’s up the 199 steps to Whitby’s gothic abbey, culminating in the reward of award winning fish and chips.

Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire. (photo by the fabulous George Hodan)
Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire. (photo by the fabulous George Hodan)

Evening: 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.

Dinner: in the glass-ceilinged Wedgwood Restaurant, at the Old Swan – followed by writing workshop

B,L,D – overnight Old Swan

Friday, May 25th

Morning: after enjoying another English breakfast (or something a little less hearty and meaty if you prefer), we’ll explore Fountains Abbey, situated in a secluded valley. Fountains Abbey is one of the biggest and best preserved ruined (which sounds like an oxymoron) Cistercian monasteries in England.

Afternoon: bottoms up at the Black Sheep Brewery in the quaint market town of Masham. Black Sheep has been at this for six generations. They brew cask, keg and bottled beers and have a great reputation for their experimental brews.

Our brewery tour and tasting is followed by going to a pub for lunch, where we’ll have a writing workshop.

Beer tasting. (photo by George Hodan)

Free time for dinner in Harrogate.

B, and beer tasting – overnight Old Swan

Saturday, May 26th

Yorkshire Dales (Photo by George Hodan)

Yorkshire Dales National Park: we’ll spend the day exploring the limestone scenery and the unique valleys known as dales. You’ll see stone-built villages, field barns, drystone walls, and flower-laden meadows, plus the Aysgarth Falls, Swaledale sheep, and the perfect picture postcard village of Grassington—the location for the film Calendar Girls.

Our daytime workshop will be in a secluded spot in the Yorkshire Dales.

Dinner: Wedgwood Restaurant – Old Swan Hotel – and after dinner writing workshop

 B, D – Overnight Old Swan

 Sunday,  May 27th

Morning: after breakfast we’ll have our farewell writing workshop and check-out. (B)

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 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 few 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, “The Mountain Men Who Don’t Exist in Kyrgyzstan” and “Hiding the Cannoli in Sicily” both 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 – 3 dinners –  1 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 £1500. If you prefer a single room – there is a £150 single supplement for the entire trip duration.

A deposit of £460 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 6-10 participants! Please email Kirsten at info@kirstenkoza.com or kirstenkoza@gmail.com, or message her from the Writers’ Expeditions Facebook Page with any questions you might have.

EXCLUSIONS:

International flights and transportation to and from the first and last hotels

Yorkshire, Fountains Abbey (photo by George Hodan)

(We also have a writing workshop in November, 2018. “Stay in Luxury – Write Dangerously” is our creative adventure in Vietnam and Cambodia. Click here for the sumptuous details.)

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