Crumbling Tbilisi, how I hope you'll be protected from gentrification!

Wow, I can't believe spring is already over (and much less so if I look outside to see the perpetual northern English drizzle - more like the rest of Europe in March rather than June!). 
After a really busy March and April, May and June have been more relaxed as we caught up with work and studies... three weeks ago, I finished my final exam with the Open University, which means (unless I failed it!) that I'll soon have the much desired degree from an English language university. This will also be my last foray into academia - as much as I love science, reading and learning, it's not a way of learning or working I enjoy, and I am glad I dropped out of high school and chose an apprenticeship (a very common thing to do in Germany) at age 17. 

Anyhow, before this exam, April held some gems of travel with us visiting three countries I've been longing to see for a long time.

Ukraine

I fell hard for this country, although I have to admit we only visited the three major cities. Kiev is amazingly beautiful and full of history, unlike anywhere else I have ever been (nope, Ukraine is really much like Russia). Lviv, a formerly Polish city, reminded me of a rougher version of Krakow, but I dare say both the food and cultural scene was much better! We also visited Kharkiv, the country's working heart in the east. Nope, it's not a war zone, but a vibrant and quite young and trendy city, very livable, although there aren't many tourist sites. I got the chance to visit one of my major, long term clients, which was fantastic (I hope they agree!). Visiting Ukraine was one of those moments that made me realise that even us Europeans don't really know much about our continents and get fooled by the media a lot. 

 And then it was time to leave Ukraine and visit a country I had been longing to see for a long time...


Georgia


street art in Tbilisi
Yes, all the clichees about Georgia are true, except the one with the hot blooded Caucasus men (this is a prejudice every Ukrainian seems to have ;)): Georgians are incredibly hospitable and helpful to guests, and I was baffled that even the border control lady at the airport started chatting in German with me at 2 am! We flew into Kutaisi, which is currently mostly under construction, but we had some great food and it was easy to organise a private driver to show us around. We then spent a week in Tbilisi, and I absolutely fell in love with the city! We had meant to spend more time in the Caucasus, but had to cut our trip short. As flights from Tbilisi back to western Europe were super expensive, we spent a few days in Armenia before flying back from Yerevan to Germany. 

Armenia

I hadn't given Armenia any thought at all until we stumbled accross Beirut's Armenian quarter, food and history last summer. We only spent four days in this breathtaking country that is quite different from its neighbour Georgia - people are more somber, things seem to be regulated better, many things seem more middle eastern, some more European than in Georgia. It's a very small country, but we managed to see quite a bit of it, using Yerevan as a base for day trips. Still, this was waaay to short of a time and I can't wait to get back!

Just your random phone snapshot from our trans-causasus trip...
Germany

My family lives just a few miles from the Dutch border, and many other friends live just an hour's trip away, so we spent some time in Duesseldorf, where I held my first proper job ever and which is full of Japanese food, pubs, parks and lovely people :) 

Housesitting in the Netherlands

Our first housesit in a small town 20 km south of Amsterdam went extremely well. We lucked out on location, a fantastic dog + cat, a maybe even more amazing house and family... so much that we'll be back for 5 weeks this summer! While we won't become full time housesitters, I am so glad that we explored this option, which is particularly useful for spending time in western Europe, North America and Australia. In all honesty, I find it hard to get excited about the locations most housesits are in, but I love having a dog for a few weeks. Dogs were a big part of my childhood and teens and the one thing I miss not being able to fit in my current lifestyle. 

England

After a very very short stopover in London for my exam and some repacking, and meeting up with a friend in Bristol, we spent 10 days in Liverpool, essentially working and eating. Liverpool is definitely my second favourite place in the UK! Although this time, I did get lost while running a few times and saw its uglier sides, beyond the recent restauration and investment that made the city center a lively hub of activity (I remember visiting Liverpool 15 years ago, when the city centre was not somewhere you wanted to hang out, either). 

Right now we are in the historic (Roman + Tudor) town of Chester on our second housesitting job... which deserves its own post. 

We are leaving the UK in a few days, which I am mighty glad about due to the current political situation here. As my life and business and has been based in the UK for the last decade, the referendums result was very saddening to me and I'll still be grieving for a while (and hoping it all won't turn out too ugly). 

Next week, we are off to Switzerland, with a small trip to Italy for a lovely friend's wedding, and some surprise destinations in Europe coming up for July - September! As much as I feel home in Europe, though, I am already itching to get back to Asia... 


Beirut street art - Can you feel the danger?
Japan two months after the Fukushima disaster. Turkey. Lebanon. Tunisia. Sarajevo. Belfast. Georgia. Romania. Ukraine.

What do these places have in common?

They are perceived as dangerous, due to political upheaval, civil unrest, decades or centuries of conflict, poverty. These are the places your foreign office does not want you to visit. The places that are in the news all the time, full of rebels and dangers lurking at every corner. Or at the very least, people get very worried when they hear where you are going and suddenly become experts on that countries' politics, history and culture, not to mention geography. Without ever having been, or having informed themselves beyond the grasp of mainstream media. You must be crazy for wanting to go there.

I am writing this from the city of Kharkiv in the East of Ukraine, which is not without its problems, but nothing like what many countries’ travel advice for the “Eastern Ukraine” would make you believe. Life goes on pretty much as usual for the hundreds of thousands of people who live here.

Terror attacks happen in major western cities, too. Nobody talks about the fact that Thailand has been a military dictatorship for years now. That it's probably not the best idea to venture out by yourself in much of East Germany, including large parts of Berlin, if you aren't white. People get mugged in Barcelona, clubbed to death in the Munich subway, raped in upscale London neighbourhoods. You can in fact live in a peaceful Swiss mountain town and get mowed over by the public bus as you try to cross the street, a little tipsy. 

the wild Caucasus!
Yet there is no travel advisory again travel to London, Paris, New York or Brussels.  Why? Because that would be inconvenient in terms of political relationships and the truth about the world governments and media try to sell us. Because we are easier to control when our world is separated in black and white, good and evil places. This way, we don't have to learn about what's really going on, how manifold issues and in fact, humans, their ideas, attitudes, hoped and dreams are.

Danger is everywhere, every day. We don't have to submit to it.

The places listed at the top are also the places I have enjoyed visiting the most in the last years, mostly for the intense learning experience they offer in a way that no happy go lucky destination ever can. We learn that the world is not so simple, that even a single person can be split over an issue. That our way of thinking about an issue is completely diametric to that of the people who are actually IN that situation. More often than not, we learn that places aren't actually that scary or dangerous - at least not for a visitor. The media loves to blow up situations, because 'Girl had a great time and tasty hummus in Beirut' doesn't sell as well as a headline as 'Protesters clash again, tourists injured'. Even if the positive experience is a much more frequent outcome.

Actually, even in places renown for tourism, it's the dark side of history, social issues, economy and politics that interest me more than ticking off the sights. I understand that this is not a popular approach to travel and many will find it downright depressing.

'Why are you always looking for the bad things?'

I travel to places like this not for sensationalism or a feeling of being a 'more authentic' traveller. Not for any kind of rush - I would never visit an actual war zone on purpose. I travel because I want to learn about the other side, or the many other sides, that are not represented in the media.
one of many peaceful spots in Ukraine...

 And because I believe that visiting another country, talking to locals, trying to understand each other or just supporting the local economy a little can help make things better. Probably not in the altruistic sense, but on a very human level, in small everyday gestures.


By travelling to places that have been distorted by the media, meeting people whose lives have been reduced to a snazzy headline, we humanise the dehumanised, which makes our world much more balanced and civilised. Does that sound too idealistic? I don't think so. We don't need to agree with somebody's views or support their ideals. We probably don't make a big difference. But we should look at the world in an unfiltered way every now and then.

I might be looking at the bad things, but don't find them depressing. It's the darkness that we learn from. The difficulties that we face in life make us who we are. By dealing with the uneasy, ours and that of other people, we grow, broaden not only our minds, but also open our hearts.

Dealing with troubled thoughts is not your idea of a great holiday? That's fine. But please, think twice the next time you judge a place or people you only know from the news. 


You desire a dark and creepy bamboo forest experience? Read on.
When visiting Kansai and Osaka, it’s easy to think of the whole region as a purely urban conglomeration. Which it is to a degree, but large parts, especially outside Kyoto, Nara and south of Osaka, are very peaceful and rural. Add the great transport connections to this and you have endless opportunities for day hikes!

I’m not a big hiker, but do enjoy long walks and easy hikes every now and then (and I hate mountains!). I had been meaning to hike the Kisen alps for a long time, but heard reports of the bad state of the trail and decided not to go by myself. I’m so glad I didn’t, as this turned out the scariest hike I’ve ever taken. It was easy enough to find the trail from Yamanakad station, and the instructions provided on the Hiking in Japan Website were on point… to a certain degree.

After a very steep initial climb up, the trail was in very poor shape, with a lot of warning signs about slippery slopes and other kinks in the road. One we reached what the website described as a large park, we were indeed rewarded with some great views across Osaka bay and Kansai airport as well as further into Wakayama Prefecture. As it was already 4 pm at that point, we decided to go for the shortest route towards Kii station… from where the path got even worse. We ended up having to virtually slide down the last mile of bamboo forest during dawn, which in retrospect is the funniest, but also scariest experience I’ve had in Japan. There was construction going on at the end of the trail, so we had to walk through a really creepy tunnel to get to the station in the end. If we hadn’t met other hikers along the way, I would have sworn the path had officially been closed.



choose your way out!

Was it scary? Yes, but an experience I won’t ever forget. Absolutely go for a hike here when you’re staying in Osaka! From current updates, it sounds like the trail has been reinstated a month or two after our experience. But do go early in the day, make sure it didn’t rain the day before, and do wear proper gear. Trainers and shorts or a skirt will not cut it here. It’s an easy hike on a physical level, but you do need some proper boots and trousers in case you end up on your behind at some point. You should be able to read some survival Japanese or bring someone with you who can. The warning signs are definitely not to be ignored and there is absolutely no signage in English… you absolutely must be able to read the names of the places you are going. Also, this is not for the arachnophobes! There were lots of spider webs on the way.


However, if you want to rural Japan with a touch of eeriness like out of a Ghibli movie, this is probably your best chance in Kansai.


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