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Pictures from the road...

Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific


Jul '12

Meet Gobi Bear


Gobi Bear relaxing after a tough ride

There are X species of bears in the world… Only one lives in Mongolia, however, is endemic to the Gobi Desert. Because it’s [endangered/whatever], we thought the chances of us seeing one were nonexistent. But the Gobi works in mysterious ways, and during a grueling day of biking through drifting sand, I found this little guy half-buried at the side of the jeep track. He joined our little expedition as a mascot and maidenhead. Interestingly, his coloring suggests that he may have some Gummi in his lineage.


Gobi Bear helping me up a long climb

We love you, Gobi Bear!

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Jul '12

These are a few of our favorite Mongolians


A young sports fan at the Naadam. Swear to god, he’s only a couple of years away from competing.


A nomadic herder we met on the steppe. He was with his sheep, his horse, and his dog. Pretty sure there’s a country song in there somewhere.


The hippest guy in Mongolia.  He took us to the airport twice. His interests include looking awesome, rocking out, and not giving a damn.


The nerdiest guy in Mongolia. We nicknamed him “AV Club”. Robin loves him.


The President. Oh hey, did we mention that we saw the President of Mongolia?! He’s the little guy in the gray suit. He arrived at the Ulaangom airport just as we were leaving (on the same all-coach plane that he came in). We have him to thank for us getting a jet instead of a prop plane, though.


The gold-medal wrestler of the Naadam, who was on the same flight as the President. People were way more excited to see this guy. Think of him as the Mongolia Michael Phelps, only five times bigger.


Mongol Android.  He has a new hat! Cutest Android ever? Probably.

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Jul '12

Equine dreams

“Our songs are about the same things that everyone else’s songs are about: Lost love, and somebody stole your fastest horse.” –Mongolian singer 

Horse riding in Mongolia isn’t a hobby. It’s transportation, a survival skill, a job, and a sport. Horse milk is used to produce a favorite Mongolian alcoholic drink. While I found it an acquired taste, it is a taste Mongolians have acquired.

“Move over this way, as quickly as possible.”  Our guide’s voice betrayed no fear, which surprised me, because from what I could see, a Mongol horde on horseback was descending on us. It’s now very clear to me why the Mongol hordes were so intimidating: they shriek across the steppe at enormous speeds, leaving a massive dust cloud behind them and shaking the ground as they run. The riders, faces rock solid in concentration, push the horses at speeds of up to 70 km/hour.

Last-minute practice

Last-minute practice

That is… their faces were rock solid in as much concentration as they could muster, but this Mongol horde was a group of kids about eight years old. Many of them were riding bareback. Cars with horns were warning us (the only people around) out of the way. A minute later, they reached their starting point, turned around, and the horses took off so fast that their hundreds of legs were a blur of speed and dust. I barely knew what was happening before that Mongol horde was over the horizon and out of sight.

We had stumbled across a practice run for the upcoming Naadam, the Mongolian festival of the three manly sports:  horse racing, archery, and wrestling. The sports didn’t seem so manly to me, since the archers were both men and women and the horse racers were kids no older than thirteen (and as young as 5). But the Naadam festival is the biggest sports event of the year in Mongolia, and these kids had to be ready, lest they fall off during the incredible 13-19k race. It’s all about the horse here, though, and even a riderless animal that crosses the finish line can win.

Luckily for us at the actual Naadam race the finish-line audience stood behind barriers, which helped limit the feeling of being descended on by a Mongol horde… a little.

The hordes approaching

The leaders approaching


The fight for the finish

The fight for the finish

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Jul '12

Will the real Siberia please stand up?

Until now I had believed incorrectly that Russia consisted of two parts: Moscow and Siberia. The area around Moscow and St. Petersburg was the populated west, and the rest was Siberia. I believed it strongly enough that I told many of you that we were going kayaking in Siberia. But let me set the record straight. Siberia is a vast expanse of sparsely populated land in between the Ural Mountains and the Lake Baikal watershed. East of that is the Russian Far East which extends to the Pacific Ocean and includes much of Russia’s Arctic coastline. The Kamchatka peninsula and Vladivostok both fall firmly in the Far East. Since we told you we were going, Will and I headed to Lake Baikal, in the real Siberia.


Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal from Listvyanka. The opposite shore (which you can’t see) is 70 KM away.

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. At just over 5,300 feet, it’s bottom is nearly a mile away and it averages over 2,000 feet deep. It has 1,700 different species of plants and animals, and one underwater neutrino telescope.  It’s almost 400 miles long, and  has more than 600 inlets but one massive outlet. That single river, the Angara supplies all the water to nearby Irkutsk. The volume is so great that even my ultra-sensitive stomach was happy drinking it.  But the irresistible draw was the nerpas. I could just stop there. I mean, “nerpa” is an awesome enough word that I shouldn’t need to go on. But if I don’t explain, then I might lose you with the even more awesome word: “nerpanarium.”


Lake Baikal attained Unesco World Heritage Site status because of it’s 1,700 different species, two thirds of these are found nowhere else in the world, including the nerpa. I was told the seals were cute, but I was going to have to find out for myself, potentially only because getting a close-up look necessitated a visit to the nerpanarium in the lakeshore town of Listvyanka.


For those of you who remember the dolphin show at the New England Aquarium, that’s exactly what the nerpanarium was like, although we stood right at the edge of the tank. Photos weren’t allowed inside, which I support because we were so close to the animals that flashes would have really bothered them. So you’ll have to settle for my photos of the lake and other people’s photos of the nerpas. I am, on the other hand, thrilled to report that the nerpas are as squee-inducing adorable as you would imagine, with huge black eyes, large whiskers, and flippers that look enough like hands to distress anyone trying to deny evolution.



“Nerpanarium” Inside was a tank with three trained Baikal seals.

We got a few more glimpses of Lake Baikal from the trans-Siberian railway train car as we headed out of Russia. It took hours to pass by its giant southern coast. And then the train turned south, heading us toward our next country: Mongolia.

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Jun '12

The adventures of Oktai and Paulina across the fifth dimension

Our most surprising teammates deserve a special mention — Oktai and his mischievous sidekick Paulina.


Oktai, the very proud bear dog.

Oktai was a Siberian husky with a mission. He had identified his nemesis, the brown bear, and he was going to get them. Oh yeah, he would annihilate any bear he could get his paws on. That much was clear the first time a brown bear wandered near our camp, because Oktai didn’t just bark or growl.  He took off on a ballistic rampage running at the bear and barking with all his might, which was not insignificant. Oktai didn’t like bears, and no bear was going to hang out in his camp. Since the brown bears of Kamchatka are known for their huge size, and I wasn’t interested in being a midnight snack, Oktai was a camp mate I was thrilled to have along. When Oktai wasn’t barking ferociously at a bear, a kayak, or a particularly threatening pile of grass, he was a cuddly, friendly pooch who liked to hang out with the big kids around the campfire.


Oktai, bravely protecting us from the helicopter monster.

Oktai performed tirelessly and bravely for our entire expedition.  He stayed awake at night on bear-watch. During the day, he slept on our supply raft. And there were a few close calls.  Once, a rock nearly made it into our campsite, but thanks to Oktai’s quick reactions, no harm was done.

Everyone in Kamchatka keeps dogs to alert them to the presence of bears, and when we pulled up to a remote fishing cabin one night, the ruckus of barking that greeted us was deafening. Our guide Olaf told us that we should not approach the new dog;, they could be aggressive if they felt threatened or cornered. After all, they were prepped to fight a bear. So Will and I pulled up to shore and made no motion toward the dog  that approached us, waiting quietly instead. Little did I know that our kayak made a great escape boat, because in a moment a giant white Siberian husky had jumped into our boat, pushing us off from shore and pinning my paddle under it’s body so there was nothing I could do about it.


Paulina, practicing her skills at making new friends.

We later learned that this beautiful dog’s name was Paulina. In her first moment on our kayak she developed a codependency complex that would lead her to chase us down the river for several desperate miles the next day, and in a suicidal bid for our love, jump into the river and swim up to our supply raft. We couldn’t convince Paulina to go home. We took her to shore. We shooed her away. We told her we didn’t want to get in trouble for dog-napping. It didn’t make a difference; our only option was to take her with us, and figure out a way to get her back to her owner after the fact.

So on we went with Oktai and Paulina, paddling the rest of the way to the Bering Sea. On our first night at Ocean Camp, some workers from the fish processing plant on the opposite shore dropped in. Their first words?  “Oh, this dog again.  This is at least the third time she’s done this. We’ll take her and bring her home… again.” For a husky in Kamchatka, apparently, a fish processing plant is a dream worth pursuing.

And thus ended the amazing adventures of Oktai and Paulina, the bear dog and his sidekick. The end.


Oktai and Paulina on the supply raft. Paulina is wet after her suicidal swim. Oktai wonders how that got here.

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Jun '12

Geopolitics in pictures


A funny thing happened on the way through North Korea…


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Jun '12

No shit, there I was…

Some locations are so exotic that their names take four syllables. Even in Vladivostok, Russia, best known as the terminus of the trans-siberian railway, 9289 kilometers from Moscow, the hotels and commercial flights still ring of the familiar. But as we looked through the small round helicopter windows, signs of humans quickly gave way and were replaced with dense birch forest, volcanoes, and snowfields covered with ash. Will said out loud what I was thinking.  “Shit just got real.”

On the Zhupanova river, the shit hit the fan.

Kayaking a calm section on the Zhupanova river.

The Zhupanova river runs for over 200 kilometers through the volcanoes of Kamchatka. We paddled the last 110 kilometers through the mountains and out into the Bering Sea. We loaded our gear into the boats on June 11th and set off. The river was swift and the water high. We were getting used to the boats. We knew the water was cold. We navigated carefully in the very fast water. We had only been on the water for a few minutes when we heard our emergency signal – a loud, shrill blast of a whistle.

I looked over my right shoulder and that’s when the shit got really real. From downstream I saw the bottom of a kayak pinned by a strainer, perpendicular to the flow. If you’re a kayaker, that’s all I have to say. If not, a strainer is an obstacle, often made of tree branches, that partially blocks fast moving water. Water flows quickly around the branches just like it flows through the holes of the strainer in your kitchen. But the surface of a kayak is large. With the water flowing fast, the kayak can get pinned against the branches by the water pressure. A person in the kayak could be powerless against the water pressure.

Will and I switched into emergency mode. The first rule of any wilderness emergency is to ensure your own safety so the situation doesn’t get worse. We saw a large eddy on the right side of the river, and, hearts pounding, pulled ourselves into the still water as one of our companions floated down stream out of her boat. We wouldn’t be in any position to help until we were out of the too-strong current ourselves. On the other side of the eddy, Richard was in the water. The pinned boat was a double, and both people were out of it. One person who had tried to help had flipped. As far as we could tell, everyone else was on a river bank. It was raining and the temperatures were in the 40’s.  it had snowed the previous night. The river was snowmelt. The potential for disaster was very real. Our guide Olaf  barked orders.

Because of the terrain, Will and I couldn’t get out of our boat, so we stayed closely rafted up to the small crew of people who had chosen the same eddy. After several minutes, Tom, one of the people from the boat that flipped, was brought over to the eddy and I gave him my thermos of hot water. Everyone was out of the water and our guides were working to free the boat. Four people had been in the water, two were hypothermic, one badly.

Olaf found us in the eddy and instructed us to cross the swift current. There was a fishing cabin on the far side of the river, and we would use it to take care of our teammates and regroup.  I had to steel myself to cross the current.

The fishing camp where we warmed up after our too-adventurous day on the Zhupanova.

In the camp which consisted of some small cabins with wood stoves, we dried our gear and regrouped. The accident had everyone rattled. But it isn’t the good days that define you as a person or a team. We had been scared, but we came through. No question we were on the brink of a disaster — far, far too close to catastrophe.  That’s a place I’d never go by choice. But on the other side, our team resolve had hardened. We made it to the worst place and back, and we shared an experience we wouldn’t lose. No one else will ever know what it was like on the Zhupanova that day, and I will always have a special bond with everyone who was there as a result. I know that they feel the same.



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Jun '12

Happy Birthday Kev-Bo!

Kevin and his Uncle Dave were on the same flights as us to Kamchatka, so we got to get to know K-Bear, a recent college graduate from Oregon, and his Uncle Dave, the Almond King of Bakersfield, even before our expedition started. As you can see from this rad photo, Kevin is quite the badass. What you can’t see is that explaining the term “badass” to our Russian guides and crew produced much hilarity. Sadly, this is one of the last photos of Kev-Bo from the trip. His Uncle Dave broke his ankle on the last day of the trek. After sticking it out for two more full days, Dave had to be evacuated and Kevin went too. The wilderness is a tough place to be with an injury — just getting to the bathroom or the dining tent can involve some tricky ground. Amazingly, Dave stuck it out with that busted ankle for two days before he decided that he needed to get flown out and get some proper medical attention. It was the right call, but we missed Kevin and Dave a lot after they left.


Kevin, looking like a “bad-ass” (a tricky phrase to translate into Russian)

Kevin’s birthday was June 15th, and celebrated in tribute from the shores of the Zhupanova. Our chef-cook Sasha produced a white cake layered with jam and covered in pink strawberry frosting. Our lead Russian guide Artyom (who also had a birthday during the expedition) told us that he always wished that for his birthday someone would present him with a giant bag of sweets, and he pulled out just such a giant bag of sweets in celebration. We nominated Artyom as Kevin in absentia to blow out the birthday candles.


Artyom (whose birthday we also celebrated during our expedition) blowing out K-Bear’s candles.


You can see from the look of us that it was cold, raining, and it had been a hard day on the river. But nothing was going to stop us from rocking it out in honor of Kevin.  Happy Birthday!

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Jun '12

Karymsky Lake

Karymsky Lake, the crater lake of the greater Karymsky volcano. It was once one of the world’s largest fresh water lakes, but as a result of a recent eruption, toxic gases turned this into one of the largest acid water lakes. Bubbling into the stream behind us was a hot spring that was too hot to touch.



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Jun '12

“Vulcanologist Station” (always said with a thick Russian accent)

Our semi-abandoned vulcanologist Station in the shadow of Mt. Karimsky. We ate our meals packed into the crumbling main room of this lovely shack, listening to the jet-engine sounds of the volcano above us.


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