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Petra candles at night, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)

We’ve made the reservations, and you just need to bring your appetite for our epic epicurean adventure crossing the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, from the Dead to the Red Sea and back. Petra, Indiana Jones, Wadi Rum desert, Lawrence of Arabia, jeep tours, camping with Bedouin, night photography, camels, a hot air balloon ride, floating in the Dead Sea (you couldn’t sink if you tried), scented spice markets, an orgasm of food, hookah pipes, wine & something far stronger–this is just a taste of what you’ll be experiencing.

Scroll down for full itinerary, prices, and your hosts’ biographies.

Expedition Dates: November 6-13, 2019

Group Size: maximum 12 (there are just two spots left)

You’ll get pro photography tips from Christopher Campbell (Chatelaine, Spa Magazine, Food Network TV). He took this photo while at the Dana Biosphere Preserve on our 2014 expedition and where we’ll once again be hiking and spending the night in 2019. (Writers’ Expeditions)
Royal tombs at Petra, Jordan (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Royal tombs at Petra, Jordan (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
A giant platter of Jordanian mezze. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, your photography host on this expedition)
A giant platter of Jordanian mezze. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, your photography host on this expedition)
Jordan: you'll feel the history as you walk through the siq leading to Petra. It might look like a film set, but it's not, however, Indiana Jones fans will remember the scene shot here. (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Jordan: you’ll feel the history as you walk through the siq leading to Petra. It might look like a film set, but it’s not, however, Indiana Jones fans will remember the scene shot here. (photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Raiders of the Last Platter – Jordanian food adventure – itinerary

Wednesday, November 6, Day 1: Welcome to Amman! After you’ve checked into our hotel in the heart of downtown Amman, at the very edge of the historic old town, we’ll start our epicurean adventures in the suq at a restaurant famous for its falafels and hummus, followed by indulging in kunafa at a long-time family-run sweet shop, and then we’ll venture into an infamous hookah/shisha lounge to smoke pipes (or if you’d prefer, you can just take photos of your new friends smoking) and to enjoy Jordanian wine and sample potent Araq (or you can just have tea or coffee)–but we’re not done yet, because then we’ll be going to a bakery so we can counteract the effects of the potent Araq. We’ll be swimming in the Dead Sea tomorrow, but don’t worry; you can’t sink.

Dinner, Tastings, Overnight in Amman*** (with 4.5 star reviews, wifi)

Jordanian sweets. (Photo by Christopher Campbell Writers' Expeditions)
Jordanian sweets. (Photo by Christopher Campbell Writers’ Expeditions)
 (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Citadel ruins – located downtown Amman, Jordan (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

November 7, Day 2 – Dead Sea and Petra – for someone somewhere this is a day of multiple bucket list items to be ticked: After breakfast we’ll drive to the Dead Sea, of which the surface and surrounding shore are about 1,400 feet below sea level. This is the lowest place on land on the planet. We’ll change into our swimsuits to float and soak in the salty waters. The water is 9.6 times saltier than the ocean making a human being insanely, hysterically, buoyant like a cork.  We’ll lunch at the seaside before driving to Petra, stopping on route for a baklava break.

The Dead Sea, Jordan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
The Dead Sea, Jordan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

We’ll check in at our hotel right by the entrance to Petra, the sandstone, rose city, which is far more vast than you probably anticipate, since many have only seen a few of the most famous buildings on documentaries, in books, and in movies– Petra, an archaeological wonder, is about 60 square kilometres. Before our candlelit adventure into Petra at night, we’ll have a hands on culinary experience using local fresh ingredients. For millennia Petra was the heart and soul of the spice trade, and this evening a family of local chefs will guide us.

Breakfast, Lunch, Baklava, Dinner, Overnight Petra*** (pool, wifi) – we’ll be spending two nights at this hotel

We'll experience Petra by candlelight and will get to experiment with night photography. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
We’ll experience Petra by candlelight and will get to experiment with night photography. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

 November  8, Day 3 – Petra: This morning we’ll time our walk through the siq to catch the perfect light for photos.  You’ll quickly realize why this ancient city is a World Wonder. We’ll have lunch at one of the restaurants within the Petra site. If anyone gets tired during the day, you can hire a horse or camel or donkey to get out of Petra and re-visit after a nap.

The Treasury, Petra. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
The Treasury, Petra. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
A Bedouin kid at Petra. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
A Bedouin kid at Petra. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

We’ll freshen up before dinner and then we’ll head out to a local restaurant, and for any who aren’t totally wiped after we dine, we’ll go to the oldest bar in the world which is inside a cave that is a 2000-year-old Nabataean tomb!

There are 850 steps leading to the monastery at Petra. It's optional, but we do recommend it. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
There are 850 steps leading to the monastery at Petra. It’s optional, but we do recommend it. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
Looking down on Petra's treasury. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Looking down on Petra’s treasury. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Overnight Petra Palace

November 9, Day 4 – Dana nature preserve – hiking and camping:

Dana reserve, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Dana reserve, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Today we’ll transfer to meet our local adventure guide at Feynan and will hike and scramble over rocky terrain along the rim of Wadi Shagg al Kelbe, and round the steep slopes of Wadi Dana. The trail leads into the terraced gardens of Dana Village, where villagers cultivate fruits and herbs, and where you can see old Ottoman houses and traditional lifestyles. Tonight we’ll camp in the 380 square kilometre biosphere.

Our 2014 participants and local host, at the camp in Dana, roasting marshmallows around the fire. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Our 2014 participants and local host, at the camp in Dana, roasting marshmallows around the fire. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
Maqluba is a traditional dish in Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Maqluba is a traditional dish in Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Overnight camping

November 10, Day 5 – Wadi Rum, glamping with Bedouin -  eat like a sheik – it’s Lawrence of Arabia time: This afternoon Salem and his team will greet us in Rum village and will drive us across the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum to to their camp where we’ll be spending the next two nights. As we drive across the desert sands it might remind you of the majestic sweeping landscape shots from Lawrence of Arabia because that’s exactly where we’ll be, in the footsteps, or camel tracks, of Lawrence (and Peter O’Toole too).

Our Bedouin campsite is at a secluded location deep in the desert. We’ll settle down and will feast on dishes such as ‘Zarb’—a traditional Bedouin dish of meat and vegetables cooked in a sand oven. We’ll gather around the campfire, banter with our hosts and will become acquainted with the extraordinary people who are the Bedouin of Wadi Rum.

This is how we'll roll in Wadi Rum. That's Salem, our Bedouin host leaning out of his truck window. And that's Chris, your photography host, wearing his red and white keffiyeh in the back. (Photo taken by Kirsten Koza, your expedition host, standing in the back of another truck.)
This is how we’ll roll in Wadi Rum. That’s Salem, our Bedouin host leaning out of his truck window. And that’s Chris, your photography host, wearing his red and white keffiyeh in the back. (Photo taken by Kirsten Koza, your expedition host, standing in the back of another truck.)
We’ll explore and play on the sand dunes of Wadi Rum. (photo by Kirsten Koza, adventure travel writer)

Sleeping in the desert: you’ll have the option of snoozing in your traditional Bedouin tent made of goat hair, or you can take your mattress out for a night under a starry sky with zero light interference.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Overnight in Bedouin camp

Bedouin tents made of goat hair at magic hour - you'll get to take some beauty photos at Salem's camp. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Bedouin tents made of goat hair at magic hour – you’ll get to take some beauty photos at Salem’s camp. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
Night photography outing at Wadi Rum. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Night photography outing at Wadi Rum. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

November 11, Day 6 -  camel trek and traditional lunch with Bedouin family at their home:

Your camel awaits - Wadi Rum. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Your camel awaits – Wadi Rum. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

After breakfast we’ll ride camels to Rum village where we’ll partake in an authentic lunch experience. This is going to be full-on cultural immersion, and it’s an honour for us to have been extended this invitation.

Wadi Rum, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Wadi Rum, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Overnight Bedouin Camp

November 12, Day 7 – hot air balloon ride over Wadi Rum, swimming in the Red Sea, old suqs of Aqaba: 

One of our Bedouin hosts leaps on this natural Wadi Rum rock formation. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
One of our Bedouin hosts leaps on this natural Wadi Rum rock formation. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

We will rise early this morning for our hot air balloon adventure.

Inside the massive hot air balloon as it fills. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
Inside the massive hot air balloon as it fills. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)
Setting up the hot air balloon in the early morning - Wadi Rum. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Setting up the hot air balloon in the early morning – Wadi Rum. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Then we’ll drive to Aqaba to swim in the Red Sea.

The Red Sea - boats with eyes. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)
The Red Sea – boats with eyes. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers’ Expeditions)

Then we’ll lunch and sniff our way through spice shops in the old suqs of Aqaba before heading to ancient Madaba and to your host’s favourite restaurant in this town once ruled by both the Roman and Byzantine empires.

Spice merchant in Aqaba. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)
Spice merchant in Aqaba. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers’ Expeditions)

Breakfast, Hot Air Balloon Ride, Lunch, Dinner, Overnight in Madaba (pool, wifi, beautiful bar)

November  13, Day 8: - Breakfast, then farewell, and if you are leaving Jordan today we will transfer you to the airport. The hotel is about twenty minutes from the airport.

Prices, Inclusions, and Exclusions followed by your hosts’ bios

Price per person is US$2660 in double room accommodations. Single price supplement for solo travellers requesting a private room is US$160 (so if you snore, or are a light sleeper, or get farty from falafels, it’s money well spent).

A $350 USD deposit per person reserves your spot and can be made by credit card. This of course is subtracted from your total. The payments are broken down into three instalments.

Please contact us with questions or to make a booking at: writers-expeditions@mail.com (and also CC kirstenkoza@gmail.com to make sure we get it). You can also reach us in a private message from our Writers’ Expeditions Facebook page. We respond quickly so if you don’t hear back from us, please check your spam bin.

Inclusions:

Accommodation: 4nts in 3-star hotels, 2nts in a Bedouin camp, and 1nt in an eco camp

Meals: all meals while on tour – 7 Breakfasts, 6 Lunches, 7 Dinners – plus treats throughout the trip

Guides: licensed English-speaking Jordanian guide throughout the trip, local hiking guide in Dana, local Bedouin guides in Wadi Rum

Digital professional photographs of your adventure and assistance with yours

Transportation: in a private air-conditioned bus, by camels, hot air balloon, and open-air military-style Land Cruisers in Wadi Rum

Entrance Fees: Dead Sea beach access, Petra 2-day pass, Wadi Rum, Aqaba beach access

Activities:  photography, sightseeing, tastings, camping, hiking, swimming, culture, cooking class, hot air balloon (should weather be unsuitable for a hot air balloon ride this will be refunded), and for anyone interested in travel or memoir writing – your host is always available to give you tips

Exclusions:

Flights to Jordan

Jordanian visa (single entry) which you obtain at the airport and is 40JD (about 56USD)

Travel Insurance

Drinks (except where listed in the itinerary)

Tips to local Jordanian guides

Your Hosts and Expedition Designers Described by Kirsten

Kirsten Koza at "Wake Up and Smell the Shit" book launch at Book Passage, in San FranciscoKirsten Koza: I’m your host and expedition designer and am a professional adventure travel writer, author, humourist and journalist. I ruthlessly pretest the Writers’ Expeditions trips to find the best local guides, tour operators, and unique adventures, so you can have a great experience. I’ve had more than seventy 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.

Christopher Campbell (professional photographer)Christopher Campbell: once again I’ve invited one of my favourite photographers (and one of the best travel companions you’ll ever meet) to lead our photographic adventures and share a lifetime of tips, tricks & technique. You have probably seen his images displayed on TV’s Food Network cooking shows or in publications as varied as ChatelaineSpa Magazine, or 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 the seventh photography expedition he’s hosted for Writers’ Expeditions and his second for us in Jordan.

Rakan Rakan Mehyar: After first doing a Dead to Red Sea mountain biking tour with Rakan Mehyar’s Jordanian company, and falling in love with both the place and his team, I then asked him to organize an epic eating fest and expedition (with no bicycles), which we first ran in 2014. Rakan received his training at the Cesar Ritz in Switzerland and thus was the perfect man to arrange our activity packed adventure.

And we now leave you with some more images from our past adventures in Jordan and hope you can join us in 2019.

Salem, your Bedouin host, Wadi Rum. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)

Chasm at Petra. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Jordanian sweets. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)At Petra, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Our 2014 participants having a picnic in Wadi Rum. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)

Street food, Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Dead Sea, Jordan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)A cup of cardamon coffee. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Dates in Jordan. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Driving across the sands of Wadi Rum. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)The King's Highway, Jordan (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Setting sun reflects off the dunes in Jordan. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)

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Writers' Expeditions annual Vlad Dracula Halloween expedition cover photo 2019

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

Expedition dates: October 28th – November 3rd, 2019 (SOLD OUT – if you’d like to be put on the waiting list in case of a cancellation (it sometimes happens), please let us know. We’ll be running this adventure again in 2020)

(Maximum group-size for this expedition is 12 – reserve by February 14th, 2019, and save 110 Euros per person – getting 2017′s price for your 2019 adventure.)

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

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

We’ve made all the reservations–you just need to pack a costume and your inner child (or demon) for this howling Halloween party across Romania. Our seven-day (small group) expedition includes dining on October 31st in the chamber where real-life Dracula, Vlad Drăculea (known as Vlad the Impaler), was born in 1431. We’ll be sleeping that night, across the square, in an inn of similar vintage, inside the (UNESCO) medieval walled city of Sighisoara. We were the first people (and are the only) to ever host a dinner party in the room where Dracula was born, and each year we barely make it through cocktails before we are regaling each other with spine-tingling experiences from our lives. We’ll also be celebrating Day of the Dead, on November 2nd, at the ultimate costume party, inside 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)
We’ll dine in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
The ruins of Poenari (AKA Dracula's Vulture's Nest) Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by our local Romanian guide and expert)
The ruins of Poenari (AKA Dracula’s Vulture’s Nest) Transylvania, Romania. (Photo by our local Romanian guide and expert)

Our Transylvanian guide (with whom I explored Romania extensively) and I have designed a journey that will take us to the best local haunts: medieval castles with gruesome history, torture chambers, moody cemeteries, all contrasted with one of the most beautiful times of year to visit Romania which will be glowing in autumn colours. And Christopher Campbell, professional photographer (Chatelaine, Food Network, 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.

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

Included in the 1490 Euro (regularly 1600 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. (You can reserve your spot with a 250 Euro deposit.)

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

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)
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 2: October 29th - After a hot buffet breakfast in 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 treat bags for our scenic drive to Targoviste. The townsfolk of Targoviste were blamed by Vlad for their involvement in the assassination of his brother by the Turks. Vlad killed nobles and enslaved the townsfolk to build his castle at Poenari. Breakfast, Lunch, DinnerOvernight in Curtea de Arges****

Vlad the Impaler was a master at psychological warfare. The Ottoman army returned to Constantinople when they encountered 20,000 (or possibly more) impaled corpses outside Vlad's home, Targoviste.
Vlad the Impaler was a master at psychological warfare. The Ottoman army retreated back to Constantinople after they encountered 20,000 (or possibly more) impaled corpses outside Vlad’s home, Targoviste.

Day 3: October 30th – Dracula’s Fortress (where Vlad’s first wife plunged to her death off a cliff to avoid capture by an enemy army) and then to the mind-blowing Transfăgărășan - The ruins of Poenari Castle (Dracula’s Fortress) are perched high on a rugged crag above the Arges river gorge. There are 1,480 stairs to Dracula’s “vulture nest.” One of our previous participants worked it out to being 100 storeys. Now, if you really think you can’t make the climb–there’s a lovely lodge and restaurant down the road from the first step. Following our hike, we’ll cross the Carpathian Mountains on the Transfăgărășan Highway.

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.

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

Papanasi - Romanian dessert (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions

Romanian beans - photo by Christopher Campbell - Writers' ExpeditionsThe tomatoes in Romania are divine. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Romanian cabbage rolls and polenta. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)A typical salad in Romania is beyond typical. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)

Mushrooms and polenta, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Ribs in Sibiu, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

Pasta at Werk, across from Corvin Castle, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)

 

 

Romanian pretzels in Transylvania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then plunge further west into Transylvania to Corvin Castle where Vlad Dracula was fugitive, or some argue prisoner. This is one of the largest castles in Europe and has been host to many paranormal investigative television shows from around the world. You’ll see why, or maybe some of you will feel it. - Breakfast, lunch, dinner – Overnight in Hunedoara ****

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

Day 4:  October 31st – Halloween – tonight we have a private dinner party in the room where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431! After exploring Corvin Castle and the grisly torture chambers at its gates, we’ll take a picturesque drive to Sighisoara, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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

We’ll be spending the night inside this preserved walled town, in a medieval hotel, across the square from the house where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431, which is where we’ll be dining this Hallows’ Eve. After scaring each other with spine-tingling stories around the dinner table, we’ll also pay a nighttime visit to the cemetery. If anyone doesn’t think they can take that, they can head to Club B (we think the B stands for blood). - Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Palinca tasting. Overnight in hotel which is over 500 years old!

Day 5:  November 1st (more fabulous food and night photography in a rural hillside cemetery)

Sighisoara, Romania. (Photo by our local guide and expert - Writers' Expeditions)
Sighisoara, Romania. (Photo by our local guide and expert – Writers’ Expeditions)
Medieval covered staircase leading to the spectacular cemetery, in Sighisoara. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)
Medieval covered staircase leading to the spectacular cemetery, in Sighisoara. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

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

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)

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).

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)

Day 6: November the 2nd – Day of the Dead! – costume party at Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle)

After a hearty farm breakfast (or lighter if you wish) 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 to Prejmer: also an UNESCO site. It’s the largest fortified church in Europe and although was besieged some fifty times was only taken once.

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

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

Breakfast, lunch, dinner – we spend the night again at our guide’s mountain chalet. Wine is on Dracula tonight.

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)

Day 7: November 3rd – (we visit Dracula’s grave in an exquisite monastery, on an island)

We’ll have an easy morning (so you can sleep a little longer and have breakfast later) before visiting Rasnov, the 13th century, breathtaking, mountaintop fortress, built by Teutonic Knights. We’ll then drive back from Transylvania towards Bucharest, stopping for the climax of Vlad’s life – his death – and unusual burial wishes.

Farewell: We’ll then drop you off at the airport, or your Bucharest area or airport hotel, or the train station for the next leg of your journey. - Breakfast, lunch

PRICES AND INCLUSIONS (FOLLOWED BY HOST BIOS): The regular price for this trip is 1600 Euros, but if you book before Feb. 14th it is discounted to 1490 Euros per person for a double room – the single room supplement (to have your own room) is 200 Euros for the entire trip, which is nothing more than the extra cost to have that single room. Whether you book a single or a double, you save 110 Euros per person if you book by Valentines Day. A deposit (which comes off your total) of 250 Euros reserves your spot (Canadians and Americans can make the first two payments in dollars CAD and USD, at the exchange rate on the day you pay). Anyone from around the world is welcome, and you can check the currency conversion from Euros to yours in a quick google search. Please contact us with questions at:  writers-expeditions@mail.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)

Kirsten describes your hosts:

Christopher Campbell (professional photographer)Christopher Campbell: once again I’ve invited one of my favourite photographers (and one of the best travel companions you’ll ever meet) to lead our photographic adventures and share a lifetime of tips, tricks & technique. You have probably seen his images displayed on TV’s Food Network cooking shows or in publications as varied as ChatelaineSpa Magazine, or 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 fifth year hosting our Dracula Expedition. He’s also been our photography host in Jordan and Vietnam.

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

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

Beer at the Beer Chariot, Bucharest. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)Bat boots on the cobbled streets, Vlad Dracula Expeditions. (Writers' Expeditions)Fountains in Sibiu - past Writers' Expeditions participants. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Picturesque drive in Romania. (Photo by Kirsten Koza of Writers' Expeditions)Sibiu, Romania. (photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Romanian cheese dish. (Writers' Expeditions)A trio of sister participants from our 2018 expedition at Bran Castle's Halloween party. (Writers' Expeditions)One lei note, Curtea de Arges. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)2017 participants outside at Dracula's Castle. (Writers' Expeditions)Romania, 2018, view from Rasnov. (Photo by Kirsten Koza, Writers' Expeditions)Is that Gary Oldman at Dracula's party, Bran Castle, Transylvania? (Writers' Expeditions)Glasses of palinca, Bucharest. (Writers' Expeditions)Bram Stoker's Dracula at Vlad Dracula's costume party with a 2016 participant. (Writers' Expeditions)Just another awesome seasonal fresh salad in Romania. (Writers' Expeditions)We're invited into a gypsy home for fun and drinks. (Writers' Expeditions)Romanian flag at Poenari. (Writers' Expeditions)Outside the torture exhibit, Vlad Dracula Expedition. (Writers' Expeditions)Hashtag sausages, Romania. (Writers' Expeditions)Just another awesome dessert, Romania. (Writers' Expeditions)The tomatoes in Romania are out of this world. (Writers' Expeditions)Night falls at the cemetery in Sighisoara, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)2017 Vlad Dracula Expedition participant in Sighisoara. (Writers' Expeditions)Palinca tasting in Sighisoara. (Writers' Expeditions)Repeating pattern, photography tips, at Curtea de Arges, 2018 (Writers' Expeditions - Christopher Campbell)Our Romanian guide (left) and a gypsy artisan we visit every year for drinks in his family's home. (Writers' Expeditions)Autumn colours and snow capped Carpathians. (Photo by Kirsten Koza)Romanian grilled veg and stuffed chicken. (Writers' Expeditions)Pink waffle truck, Brasov, Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Our Vlad Dracula Expedition group, from 2015, getting ready for the Halloween party at Bran Castle, Transylvania. (Writers' Expeditions)Climbing the stairs to Dracula's fortress. (Photo by Christopher Campbell, Writers' Expeditions)Bran Castle courtyard during the Halloween party (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Bucharest police patrolling on Segways - Romania. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Chris and Kirsten, your Vlad Dracula expedition hosts (Writers' Expeditions)Transylvania, Romania, Heroes' Cross, Caraiman Peak (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Halloween group shot 2016 (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Local made Romanian cheese aged in tree bark. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)Halloween party 2017 group shot. (Writers' Expeditions)Sighisoara, Romania - this medieval walled city is a UNESCO site (Photo by Christopher Campbell for Writers' Expeditions)2018 Writers' Expeditions group shot after getting ready to go to the halloween party at Bran Castle. A Roma tinsmith, Romania (Photo by Christopher Campbell)2018 Vlad Dracula participants in their vampire costumes.

Full moon over Bucharest. (Writers' Expeditions)

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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 20-26, 2019. 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 and we’re sold out for 2019, but there’s always the chance of a cancellation, so if you’d like to be informed of a cancellation, should it happen, message us. If you contact us, please know that we respond quickly by email: writers-expeditions@mail.com, and if you don’t hear back, either we didn’t receive your email, or our reply is possibly in your spam bin. We can also be messaged from our Writers’ Expeditions Facebook page, which seems to work without fail.)  

Yorkshire Tea (photo taken on our 2018 expedition by your workshop host, Kirsten Koza)
Yorkshire Tea (photo taken on our 2018 expedition, by Kirsten Koza, your workshop host)

TOUR ITINERARY

Monday, May 20th, 2019

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

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

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

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

York, Shambles
York, Shambles

(Dinner, Overnight in York)

Tuesday, May 21st 

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

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

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

Afternoon: We’ll meander the  streets and alleyways of the walled city with our guide. Roman York became the birthplace of Western Christianity, but the Romans’ achievements were brutally exsanguinated when the Vikings transformed Jorvik into an international trading hub centuries ahead of its time, making Medieval York the capital of the North.

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

Cocktail Hour Writing Workshop: in the hotel bar or courtyard patio and then free time for dinner.

(Breakfast, Overnight in York)

Wednesday, May 22nd  

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.

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

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 down (or should we go up?) the 199 steps from Whitby’s gothic abbey, culminating in the reward of award winning fish and chips (gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan options available).

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

Free time this evening back in York to dine, explore, and write.

(Breakfast, Lunch, Overnight in York)

Thursday, May 23rd

Castle Howard
Castle Howard

Morning: breakfast – then we’ll check out of our hotel and travel through the countryside to Castle Howard where you’ll be given a “Decency Be Damned” writing assignment. This Yorkshire stately home is one of Britain’s finest. It’s resplendent in world famous art and opulent architecture. You might recognize Castle Howard as it was used in both the TV and film adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s book Brideshead Revisited.

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

Driving through the Yorkshire Countryside in the Spring (photo by Kirsten Koza)
Driving through the Yorkshire Countryside in the Spring (photo by Kirsten Koza)

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

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

Malham Cove was a film location used in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” (photo by George Hodan)

Friday, May 24th

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Breakfast, Overnight at the Old Swan in Harrogate)

Yorkshire Dales (photo by George Hodan)
Yorkshire Dales (photo by George Hodan)

Saturday, May 25th

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

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

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

Beer Tasting (photo by George Hodan)

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

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

Sunday, May 26th

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

(Breakfast)

BIOS OF HOSTS – FOLLOWED BY PRICES

Kirsten Koza at "Wake Up and Smell the Shit" book launch at Book Passage, in San FranciscoKirsten Koza (writing workshop host): is the author 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 – three three-course dinners -  one lunch – daily tours and transportation while on tours – private guide – tastings – and writing workshops.

The price per person based upon a twin shared room is £1665. If you prefer a single room – there is a £150 single supplement for the entire trip duration.

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

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

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

2018's participants reading their indecencies at the Old Swan. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
2018′s participants sharing their indecencies at the Old Swan. (photo by Kirsten Koza)
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)

 

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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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TwitterFacebookGoogle+PinteresttumblrRedditEmail