Continuing from the long-gone Part 1 of the series, I am writing this while snuggled up in a very comfortable bed with a springy mattress and silky bedsheet, in a beautiful house with a swimming pool, courtesy of my host in Harare, Zimbabwe. I will deeply treasure this moment, for life on the open road is unpredictable. Tomorrow night, I could be curled up and shivering next to my backpack on a dark and lonesome streetside. Fair share of good times and bad times.
1. Insect hub with a 5-star view (Bartang Valley, Tajikistan)
The original way to Geisev Valley was destroyed as a result of a bridge being washed away by the floods. We attempted an alternative route by trekking over a mountain ridge to reach the valley. As this route was only used by locals who grew up around these mountains, there was no clear path leading to our destination. Before we embarked on that day of trekking, we were told by a local in the previous village that there would be a river along the way where we could fetch drinking water. So we listened to him and brought along only 2 liters of water with us – 1 liter each.
After a whole morning and half an afternoon of trekking on a completely barren mountain with no trees for shade, under strong high-altitude sunlight with not a trace of cloud in the sky, we were exhausted. We climbed some steep and rocky cliffs and nearly finished all of our water. Yet, no river in sight. To keep us going, we forced ourselves to believe that once we crossed over the ridge, there would be a river which would lead us to the lakes in the valley. We kept dreaming about our paradise which was only a mountain pass away. But soon, one hilltop appeared after another and the way seemed neverending. We were kind of lost, and I got so dehydrated I started having illusions and almost fainted. We started sucking juice from the mulberries we picked from a tree the day before, and savoured every lick of the last few drops of water still left in the bottle cap. But most importantly, we had to keep walking. We were in remote Tajikistan, probably the only two stupid foreigners in those mountains, and we would receive no immediate help if anything bad happened.
By late afternoon, we found some company – a few cows huddled over each other next to a cliff. Upon closer look, they were drinking water from a small pit on the ground! Extreme thirst overtook me and before I knew it, my legs were already half dashing and half sliding down the slope towards the pit. We chased the cows away and out of desperation, we immediately dug our head into the pit and drank – that first sip of water was still the sweetest water I had ever tasted in my life.
As that was the only water source we managed to find in those mountains, we decided to camp there for the night. But we were next to a steep cliff and there was no flat ground on which we could pitch our tent. So, that’s how we slept – together with hundreds of unknown bugs.
Perched on a cliff overlooking Bartang valley, honestly, the view was unbeatable. Yet, what we got in return was, nearly 200 insect bites on each of us the next morning.
2. Ant colony (Monkey Bay, Malawi)
Lake Malawi was fabulous and relaxing, especially after a vomiting three-day ferry ride across it as detailed here. Although we stayed at a very nice location on a secluded bay in the southern part of the lake, being very close to nature also means that you are at the home of a wide array of animals and insects. In addition to a “crocodile chilling pit” just outside the gate of our hostel, and the sound of hippos groaning all through the night, the rooms are also infested with tens of thousands of ants.
While I was lying in bed with a book, I had an ant crawling along in between the lines following my reading. I swept it off, and within a few seconds came another one. After sweeping off several more ants, I peeped through the gap next to my bed and the wall and found a hundred ants crawling on the floor under my bed! I thought they would just stay on the floor. But while sleeping in the middle of the night, I felt a bite on my back or shoulder every few minutes. I brushed an ant away after every bite, till I couldn’t stand it anymore and shone my torch on the bed. WOAH! A colony of ants ON my bed!! I literally jumped off my bed in fear. The other beds in the room were fine, they were only on my bed! I had no food on my clothes, I took a shower on that day – how come?
I barely slept at all the rest of that night…
3. Train floor (Cairo to Luxor, Egypt)
To save some cash, I went for ordinary seats on a train from Cairo to Luxor, which was only one-third the price of a ticket for the tourist train. The guy at the ticket office told me I could just get any seat I found once I got on, and I could pay for my ticket on board. Typical for any ordinary seating on a train. He also told me that, in case the train was full, many people would get off at a stop which was only an hour from Cairo, so at the worst I would just need to hang around in the train with no seat for an hour.
So I listened to him and got on the train at the scheduled time. When I got on, the train was full. So I sat on the floor and waited. One-two-three-four-five hours passed and the train was still full!! I ended up having to sleep on the floor between two train carriages for most of that night. Till about two hours before the train arrived in Luxor was there a vacant seat for me. I totally passed out in that seat.
I looked completely exhausted in the picture…
4. It’s a still (and hot) life (Rawapindi, Pakistan)
After having spent some time in Africa, power cut almost came as a daily routine for me. Whenever the power went off, I would instinctively fetch for my torch – no panic, no rush. Luckily, sub-Saharan Africa is blessed with pretty moderate climates so evenings are still breezy and comfortable. That was not the case in Rawapindi, Pakistan. At over 40 degrees, inside a hot and stuffy room with no window, the power got cut off nearly every hour – so the fan stopped working as well for over half of the time. I kept being woken up by the heat throughout the night, till it became so unbearable I actually had to pour water over my body in the bed in order to cool myself down.
5. Talibans will kill you! (Rumpur Valley, Pakistan)
I was travelling around the Kalash Valleys near the border to Afghanistan with a few others. Half trekking and half hitching, we finally reached Rumpur Valley. As the local police were concerned about the safety of foreigners in that region, we were required to have a police escort, even though we had previously signed a consent form confirming that we didn’t need any guide or escort, and accepting any risk that would arise on our visit to the region.
Our escort was immediately alarmed when we said we were trying to look for a place to camp. “No sleeping outside here! It’s dangerous! The Talibans will kill you!! Bang-Bang-Bang!!” (with hands in a gun-shooting gesture) There were many local Kalash people living there peacefully and we didn’t think there was any real danger. And if there was any real danger, the police escorts would surely be better armed than a flimsy foot-long wooden stick… I think we were even better armed than our escorts! So we insisted on camping out.
The police finally decided to let us camp on the ground in front of the police station. The night was warm, the stars were bright and we all slept outside the tent. During the night, the police kept walking back and forth and shining their torch on us. I felt like they were on a night safari – and we were the animals. The next morning, we were woken up by a bunch of Kalash kids, staring at us and laughing – clearly entertained by four strange looking people sleeping on the floor inside a blanket that looked like a bag. They were watching and laughing at every movement we made, how we brushed our teeth, how we brushed our hair. Seeing them laugh, I exaggerated my movements, which made them laugh even more.
Then a higher police officer came and told us that we really had to sleep indoors the following night. So we went to an eatery and persuaded the owner to let us sleep there. It worked and there we slept – on a raised platform where local Pakistanis normally sat and ate. Apparently the eatery was also the only place in the whole village with a TV, so many people hung out there in the evenings to watch TV. We had to wait till their daily screenings were finished before we could go to sleep.