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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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Cambodia, sunrise over Angkor Wat (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Exquisite Adventure – Vietnam and Cambodia – Writing Workshop (November 9-18, 2018)

Stay in Luxury – Write Dangerously

Writers of any genre are invited on a creative adventure in Southeast Asia. You’ll explore local food and nightlife in Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap while motoring on the back of vintage Vespas; you’ll write and luxuriate at a five-star French Colonial resort (on a Vietnamese Island, off the shores of Cambodia, in the Gulf of Thailand); you’ll speedboat up the Mekong Delta to lunch at the house of a master hooch-maker; and you’ll travel by tuk tuks to behold the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Scroll down for writing workshop details, prices, your workshop host’s and tour operator’s bios, trip itinerary, and inclusions. If you have questions please email kirstenkoza@gmail.com or message us at our Facebook Writers’ Expeditions Page. This workshop takes a maximum of 10 participants.

During the “Write Dangerously” workshop 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. Besides the group sessions, we’ll also cater to the individual writer in one-on-one sessions. On this workshop, we ask all writers to leave their safety nets at home, because we’ll be exploring risk and truth with wild abandon.

You'll write and luxuriate at La Veranda, a five-star French Colonial resort.
You’ll write and luxuriate at La Veranda, a five-star French Colonial resort.
La Veranda boutique resort, on a Vietnamese island, off the shores of Cambodia, in the Gulf of Thailand.
La Veranda boutique resort, on a Vietnamese island, off the shores of Cambodia, in the Gulf of Thailand.

Day 1, November 9, 2018

Welcome to Vietnam! You’ll be greeted at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (Saigon), and our driver will transfer you to our boutique hotel and spa, in a centrally located, bustling market and café district. Our adventures begin at six in the evening, when our Vespa drivers will pick us up at the hotel, for an all-you-can-eat (with free-flowing-drinks), four-hour foodie extravaganza through various local neighbourhoods, sampling Saigon’s best street food and nightlife (the nightlife ranging from Vietnamese French cabaret, at a historic coffee house, to a series of talented live bands at a trendy back-alley bar).

Airport pick-up, Dinner, Drinks, Overnight in Paradise Saigon Boutique Hotel ***

Vintage Vespa food and nightlife tour in Saigon (Photo by Writers' Expeditions photography host, Christopher Campbell)
Vintage Vespa food and nightlife tour in Saigon (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
Street food tour, Saigon, Vietnam (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Street food tour, Saigon, Vietnam (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. — Mark Twain

Day 2, November 10

After an early breakfast buffet with a panoramic city view, our guide will escort us to the pier to board a private speedboat for a journey into an area of the Mekong Delta few tourists see. A light breakfast will be served aboard the boat should you wish to sleep a little longer in the morning. We’ll see the fascinating backside of the city and then slip up the lush green tributaries and canopy-covered canals, stopping along the way at a Cao Dai Temple (a religion that worships Victor Hugo), a riverside market, and a Buddhist Pagoda. We’ll travel the expanses of the Delta of Nine Dragons, we’ll lunch at a traditional farmhouse and sample Mekong whiskey. Our exact route this day is dependent on fluctuating water levels.

Mekong Delta, locals with sampan boats. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Mekong Delta, locals with sampan boats. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Riverside market, Mekong Delta, Vietnam. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Riverside market, Mekong Delta, Vietnam. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Return to Saigon – free time for dinner at your leisure

Vietnamese coffee often comes with a complimentary cup of tea. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Vietnamese coffee often comes with a complimentary cup of tea. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Breakfast, Lunch, Overnight Paradise Saigon Boutique Hotel 

Days 3-7, November 11-15 – Flight to Phu Quoc Island -  the writing adventure begins

We’ll enjoy a buffet breakfast with a wide selection of Asian and Western dishes: from dim sum, noodles, and exotic fruit, to custom omelettes, bacon, and croissants. Then we’ll visit the war museum before boarding our flight to Phu Quoc Island, our primary workshop destination.

La Veranda, the five-star boutique resort where you will journey on head trips and write your hearts out.
La Veranda, the five-star boutique resort where you will journey on head trips and write your hearts out.

THE WRITING WORKSHOP:

Stay in Luxury – Write Dangerously

Whether you write nonfiction or fiction, on this writing expedition you’ll be exploring risk and truth with wild abandon. And because even the Guardian newspaper says the personal essay is “booming,” you’ll also have the opportunity to create a daring personal story. From idea to page, you’ll go on madcap head trips, embrace your inner daredevil, and will improvise with pen or laptop. We’ll use multiple genres and characters to engage the creative part of nonfiction writing (to play with tone, mood, and tension). We’ll experiment with just how far we can go, and we’ll use techniques used by actors as a catalyst to take our true stories down unexpected paths. You’ll be doing all of this while relaxing at a small but sumptuous five-star French Colonial resort on an idyllic island. At the end of our creative adventure, should you wish, you’ll be guided towards specific publishers, so you can submit your story to appropriate editors and paying venues, whether it be book anthologies, magazines, or competitions (some with substantial financial awards).

Previous Writers’ Expeditions participants have had stories they worked on during the workshops published.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go. — T.S. Eliot

La Veranda, five-star boutique resort, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.
La Veranda, five-star boutique resort, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.

All days spent at the five-star resort include breakfast

Day 7, November 15 (fly to Cambodia)

After our morning workshop, we check out from the resort. We’ll head to the airport to fly back to Saigon and then will take a connecting flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we’ll be greeted at the airport and chauffeured to our hotel close to the Night Market. The hotel has a rooftop pool and spa, where you might want to treat yourself to a very affordable Khmer massage this evening. Free time to explore and dine.

Breakfast, flight from Phu Quoc to Saigon, and then flight from Vietnam to Cambodia, overnight City River*** (hotel, spa, and restaurant)

Amok is a drool-worthy traditional curry in Cambodia. (Photo by Kirsten Koza who is drooling over the memories as she uploads this.)
Amok is a drool-worthy traditional curry in Cambodia. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Early morning inside Angkor Wat (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Early morning inside Angkor Wat (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Day 8, November 16, Angkor Wat, full-day tuk tuk adventure

We’ll witness the sunrise over Angkor Wat and then will return to the hotel for a buffet breakfast before heading back (by tuk tuks) to the 210-hectare UNESCO world heritage site, to explore this 12th century architectural masterpiece in greater detail.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Sunrise over Angkor Wat (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Ta Prohm is recognizable as one of the film locations in "Tomb Raider." (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
Ta Prohm, with the massive tree roots enveloping buildings like octopus tentacles, is recognizable as one of the film locations in “Tomb Raider.” (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

We’ll also visit Ta Prohm where the ancient structures are embraced by jungle creepers and enormous fig tree roots. Then we return to the city for an evening of free time.

Breakfast, Lunch, tuk tuk tour to Angkor Wat, Overnight at City River

Day 9, November 17, Writing Workshop during day, Vespa food tour of Siem Reap in the evening

After your buffet breakfast, the writing workshops today will be catered to meet the needs of the participants, and writing time will be given to those who want to polish their stories. We’ll also have a session discussing pitching, going viral, photographs, submissions, and contracts.

City River hotel room, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
City River hotel room, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

Our day will climax with a Vespa food tour of Siem Reap from six until ten-thirty in the evening. Once again this is all-you-can-eat with free-flowing drinks. And we’re riding pillion again, so don’t worry about those drinks, which will include sampling rice wine infused with bouquets of herbs and spices. Cambodian street and market food in the evening is thrilling, but we’ll also make an evening wish at a temple, and will have a picnic in a special spot.

Breakfast, Dinner (Vespa street food tour), Overnight City River

Day 10, November 18

Buffet breakfast, followed by a farewell workshop which we hope you can attend before checking out. If you are departing today, we will drive you to the airport.

Info about your workshop host and tour operator, followed by prices and inclusions:

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. 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 in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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.

Minh Ninh, Vietnam tour operatorMinh Ninh: is a local tour operator in Vietnam with over ten years experience in the tourism and hospitality industry. It was her passion for travel, discovering new lands, hearing new stories, and meeting new friends, coupled with her love for her homeland of Vietnam, that drew her into a career in tourism. Living in Vietnam has offered Minh an ideal jumping off point to repeatedly explore Indochina, so she can expertly share her part of the world with you. This is the third time she’s collaborated with Writers’ Expeditions.

Minh and her team specialize in high quality, custom tours, in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. They organize unique trips and take travellers to both the most famous places and the less-visited destinations, to reveal authentic cultures and exotic landscapes.

Prices and Inclusions (this workshop is for six to ten participants only):

This ten day writers’ workshop and adventure tour in Vietnam and Cambodia is $2950 USD per person, for a shared (double occupancy) room. It includes three in-tour airplane flights (two in Vietnam and one from Vietnam to Cambodia). The single supplement is $798 USD, should you not want a roommate (this is due to staying five-star). A deposit of $400 reserves your spot and of course is subtracted from the total. Exchange rates for other currencies to US dollars are calculated on the day you make the payment. Canadians can pay the deposit in Canadian dollars (exchange rate will be calculated on the day you make the payment). If you have questions please email kirstenkoza@gmail.com or message us at our Facebook Writers’ Expeditions Page.

Inclusions

  • Writing workshops
  • Private writing tutorials on projects of your choice and geared to individual needs
  • Hotel accommodation
  • In-tour airplane tickets: Saigon to Phu Quoc, Phu Quoc to Saigon, and flight from Saigon to Siem Reap
  • Private tours with English-speaking guides in Vietnam and Cambodia
  • A/C transport on all transfers including airport pick-up
  • Entrance fees to sites and museums
  • Meals as indicated
  • Night food tours on Vespas in Saigon and Siem Reap
  • Private speedboat trip to Mekong Delta

Exclusions

  • International flights to get to Vietnam and fly home from Cambodia
  • Visa stamps upon arrival of $25 USD per person (for Vietnam) and $30.00 per person (for Cambodia)
  • Meals not mentioned
  • Tips & personal expenses
  • Travel insurance (which you need to obtain if you don’t already have it)
    Vietnam (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
    Vietnam (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
    Vietnam (Photo by Kirsten Koza)
    Vietnam (Photo by Kirsten Koza)

    Can’t wait for November for a creative adventure – we have room for just one more participant on “Decency Be Damned,” our rollicking writing workshop across Yorkshire, England, this May. Click here for full details.

 

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dracula expedition cover photo 2018

(SOLD OUT) The Vlad Dracula Expedition 2018 – a seven-day dinner party through Romania – is sold out for 2018, but we will be hosting this adventure again in 2019. If you’d like to be informed regarding 2019, or would like to be put on a waiting list should there be cancellations for 2018, please contact us.

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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