What a year 2016 has been! A roller-coaster for sure and many life changing events. Most of all, I can’t believe we have been on our round-the-world trip for four months already. Four months… How fast did it go…
January – Breaking Things
The year 2016 started with a bang, literally, when our beloved 1998 Subaru Outback died on us on January 1st. Well, technically it was on New Year’s Eve when the poor car started fuming an hour away from Lake Tahoe, California, and AAA came to tow the vehicle up to a garage in Truckee. The fatal news came on January 1st when the mechanic informed us the engine block was cracked and was beyond reasonable repair.ta
While one can say this is just a car, it was the first of a long series of changes in 2016, many ending and plenty new beginning. And we were sad to see our four-wheel companion of 15 years go. The partner of so many outdoor activities and long weekends in the snow, mud, sand, rocks and anything we could throw at it. The only consolation was that our Sub met her fate in the mountains, and not in an urban environment. Thank you, Sub, for so many years of tough rides in the countryside and wilderness.
January was far from being over when Bruno fell snowboarding in Diamond Peak Ski Resort end of January. A power day after three years of drought created an exciting outing. Bruno enjoyed a few hours of fluffy conditions, riding through the trees and jumping over snow-covered rocks and logs. The perfect winter weekend! But as stupid accidents happen, Bruno lost his balance over a tiny log, landed on his shoulder and broke his collarbone in pieces. A 2-hour surgery, 12-inch titanium plate and 13 screws later, Bruno was back on his feet, hopefully not on his way to compete with Wolverine. While this impacted our travel and weekend plans for the next six months – no snowboarding, no backpacking, no diving, no kitesurfing sessions – we were glad the surgery went well, and Bruno has seemingly no side effects from the accident.
June – Quitting a job
The warm month saw our first life-changing event when we decided to leave our comfortable California life to go and explore the world. Not sure if the snowboarding accident was the deciding element, and made us realize our bodies were not infallible. But travel is our passion, and we love outdoor activities requiring a good level of stamina and physical strength.
So it was time to make our dreams of traveling long-term come true. Bruno quit his job and joined me to start our digital nomad life of consulting and travel blogger on our blog Ze Wandering Frogs. This set many things in motion: deciding what to do with the house, defining our trip itinerary, taking care of our possessions, figuring out health and medical insurances, selling our cars… The list is long and kept us busy for about two months.
July – Our Wedding!
July brought the second life-changing event. We got married! Yes, after over 20 years together refusing to give to traditional marriage, we got married in five days. We made the decision on Sunday, asked our friends to be our witnesses on Monday, informed our parents on Tuesday, bought our license in Oakland City Hall on Wednesday, and exchanged our “I do” on Thursday! A short wedding preparation for a long honeymoon!
Our parents in France followed the celebration through FaceTime – a modern technology wedding! The date of our wedding was very fitting since it was also July the 14th, Bastille Day – the Independence Day equivalent in our homeland country France. The day was, however, saddened by the horrors of the terrorist attack on Nice, an hour away from my hometown and where I spent four years studying in my business school. A day to remember.
August – December: Our RTW Journey from Mongolia to France
Our round-the-world trip started on August 18th, 2016 when we boarded our plane from San Francisco to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. We will spend the next two months in this wonderful country, traveling in all directions and making unusual encounters. Our itinerary brought us next to China for two more months. The two countries could have been more different, and to some extent, opposite.
Our four months round-the-world trip by the numbers in 2016
- Total mileages: 6,360 km in Mongolia and 8,900 km in China – Over 15,000 km! 9,500 miles!
- Number buses: over 30, including Russian mini-vans
- Highest altitude: Yarchen Gar in the Tibetan Plateau, Sichuan Province, China, at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), driving over a 4,756-m (15,603 feet) pass.
- Lowest altitude: Turpan Depression at −154 meters (−505 feet)
- Coldest day: trekking in the Altai Mountains, in Mongolia, at -15 to -20 C degrees (5 F to – 4F)
- Longest train: 72 h (or 3 full nights) from Hotan, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China
- Longest bus: 33 hours from Arvaikheer to Olgii, Mongolia
- Number of tea cups: not enough 0s in the universe
- Mutton meat: twice a day, seven days a week, for two months = a full herd of sheep served with fried or boiled pasta
- Sick: 2 weeks with the flu, 3 days with altitude sickness, and a bout of “tourista”!
- Pee in the wide open field: enough times to forget the look of Western toilets
- Spiciest food: Sichuan pepper! Our first meal in Chengdu numbed my whole mouth, lips, and even throat. I initially thought I had an allergy to the food!
- Weirdest food: eating the eye of a mutton right out of his head
- Number of rivers crossed: between 30 to 40, including almost getting stuck in a sub-zero rushing water. Another minivan got stuck in the river and required a heavy duty machinery to pull it out (video coming soon!)
August to October: Mongolia
Rough. Authentic. Free. Big. Endless open space. Changing skies. Herds of sheep, goats, yaks, camels, horses. The country was mind-blowing through and through.
We traveled all around Mongolia. North to the Murun and Lake Khövsgöl to meet the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders. East to horseback ride through Gorkhi Terelj National Park. South in the Gobi Desert. West to the old capital Kharkhorin. Even further west to the Russian border where we trekked the Altai Mountains, watched the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii, and stayed with a Kazakh family, participating in their nomad life and helping to their livestock winter migration.
Because we arrived mid-August in Mongolia, we had to travel fast to stay ahead of the colder months. This meant a non-stop itinerary from one place to another. Because Mongolia is a vast country with little infrastructure and few public transportation buses, traveling outside the main roads can be expensive as one needs to rent a minivan or a guide. To keep the costs down, travelers usually try to find fellow travelers to set up a group and travel together. This takes time and energy, especially as we needed to find people that wanted to visit the same things and to travel the same duration we wanted to do. We were lucky to meet folks with the same itinerary and wishes and made new friends every time.
Guesthouses and hostels were great places to meet people, and let us stay within budget. We did do a few days in a lovely AirBnB apartment in Ulaan Baatar, camped a week in the Altai, enjoyed a homestay with a Kazakh family and with Tsaatan nomads, slept in gers and under the stars, and everything in between.
Mongolia’s nomadic life is not a marketing ploy. This is it. Thousands of livestock heads. Cows, yaks, sheep, goats, horses, camels, reindeer to a lesser number. Living in ger or yurt. Moving regularly through the year. Following the grass. Ahead of the weather. A modest and even poor lifestyle in many cases. And they live free. No boundaries of the land. Riding horses like Genghis Khan in time past. A land of wonder, and wonder we did.
We loved: the big sky, the nomads, the open space, the traditions, the warm welcome of the Mongolian and their constant happy nature, their “nothing is impossible” nature.
We struggled: the lack of infrastructure and the rough roads that made for tough, bumpy travel, the Cyrillic script (though we had help from apps), the limited culinary options where mutton and noodles were our daily choices.
Because we followed a fast pace, we had almost no time to work our blog Ze Wandering Frogs. We managed to squeeze one blog post in September when we took three days “off” traveling” in Ulaan Baatar. After that, we were on the road constantly and had no time besides posting a few photos on Facebook and Instagram. This was somewhat frustrating, but we need we had no choice to keep ahead of winter. It was the right choice as we had snow several times during the last two weeks in Mongolia when we trekked through the Altai mountains and stayed with the Kazakh family.
October to November: China
We crossed into China via the Bulgan border. After yet another overnight bus and a last cup of tea, we left rural Mongolia and right away met China’s development. Paved roads, street lights, tall buildings, construction trucks, mines, power plants, cars after cars, barbed wires and fenced fields. Our itinerary would take us through Urumqi and the entire Xinjiang province – Turpan, Kashgar and Hotan – and then to Chengdu and the Tibetan Plateau in the Sichuan Province. We initially planned on visiting Tibet, but it was getting too late in the season, and by the time we would have gotten our permit, many places would have been snowed in.
Bruno and I decided to forego Tibet but instead skirt the Tibetan Plateau from Hotan to Goland, Xining, Tagong, and Chengdu. As we were in Hotan, I received the surprising news that I was invited by the Indonesian Consulate in San Francisco to travel to Indonesia. Crossing by bus through the so-called Southern Route was to be very hazardous timewise since we would have to bus-hop all the way. We decided to track back and head to Chengdu by train, an exciting 72-hour journey.
A week after we arrived in Chengdu, I left China for one week in Indonesia. Bruno stayed in Chengdu, studying Chinese and processing our photos from Mongolia. This was an incredible trip where I got the opportunity to visit Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Bali.
We mostly stayed in guest houses in China, and a few non-foreigner local hotels. While again a good way of making friends, it was less than ideal for digital work. Many advertised wifi but in many cases, this was barely strong enough to check the news, let alone being to be working. Add to the misery the need of VPN to accessing many social media sites like Facebook, Instagram or managing our media on Google Photos in a place where the whole connection is constantly restricted.
We tried to connect with local people via Couchsurfing but without luck – I guess a new profile without recommendations is not very appealing to hosts. The people we contacted through AirBnB did not reply, many of the owners’ profiles in Chinese only probably indicating language issues. We would have loved a tiny place for ourselves, where we could have cooked and worked at our own pace, and with of course a proper internet connection!
We loved: the Sichuan food, the surprising Uighur culture in Xinjiang, the layback feel of Turpan, Chengdu despites the pollution, the Tibetan culture in the Kham region, the yak jerky with Sichuan pepper, incredible life of Buddhist monks at 4000+m high! Finding a beloved Chinese culture almost 20 years after our time living in Taiwan.
We struggled: the constant smoking from everyone, the pollution, adapting to the high altitude in the Tibetan plateau, the recurring flu and feeling of being tired, the frustrating slow internet and Great Firewall of China, finding a solution to repair our brand new Sony camera…
Since we did not have time to work on the blog during our time in Mongolia, we were committed to taking a break from actual traveling and dedicated many days to our new digital nomad status. That, and the fact our new camera was broken, we spent most our time in Urumqi taking care of blog-related issues. And trying to get over a budding cold. And waiting for the wifi to work, and the VPN to kick in. That would, unfortunately, become the regular pattern in the next two months. We managed to visit several places like Turpan, and Kashgar, but our time in Hotan and Chengdu was spent being sick and managing to send one email and posting two photos in a day’s work (well, I am exaggerating, but this is how it felt…).
As I returned from Indonesia, and after a week in Chengdu working on content following the FAM trip, we decided we needed to make a better use of our time. Trying to be a digital nomad in China was pointless. It was frustrating. We were not discovering much of this millennia-old country, and we were not making much progress on the blog. Something had to change.
We headed to Tagong in the Kham region of the Tibetan Plateau and from there, we explored the Tibetan villages, admired a Buddhist festival in Garze, and monk monasteries in Yarchen Gar. As it turned out, the high altitude of 3,700 meters ( 12,139 feet) of Tagong – higher than Lhasa – knocked me down with altitude sickness. For three days, I would be good for nothing, and spending a full day in bed, and eating nothing than broth for two days. Those who know me will understand how unlike me these are! This put a damper on our plan of trekking higher altitude places, but the festival and monasteries were breathtaking and helped us feel we were back to traveling. And we loved it, every second of it.
These were fantastic months, regardless of some of the challenges. Time flew so fast; it’s crazy. Many time we would not know which day it was. Staying in hostels were great to meet people which we now call friends. We made friends also with Kazakhs and Mongols, with Tibetan monks and Chinese students.
As strangers ourselves, residents were always kind to us. A stall owner did not want us to pay our dinner. A man on the bus offered me fresh bamboo shoot, and another paid our fare once when we did not have the right change. A kind father and son found us and brought us to a hotel in Hotan when we could not find any. And the scenery… Mongolian steppes and taiga, Tibetan mountains, Buddhist monasteries, Muslims architecture, Chinese temples. No wonder we have over 25,000 photos and hundreds of hours of videos. Simply put: we want more.
I was invited by the Indonesia Consulate in San Francisco for a FAM-Trip early November. Such trips allow travel bloggers, travel agents and other travel related professional to discover a new region or country and become FAMiliar with it.
The goal is of course for these professionals to become knowledgeable about the region and in turn, promote it to their readers or customers. On this trip organized by the Consulate, we first visited Mini Indonesia Park and Bogor Botanic Gardens in Jarkata.
Our second stop led us to the Prambanan and Borobudur Temples, and Taman Sari Water Palace in Yogyakarta. The last part of our trip took us to the Tegalalang rice fields, Pura Agung Besakih Temple, and finally the beautiful beaches of Bali.
Nice views of the #Tegalalang Rice Terraces north of Ubud, #Bali, #Indonesia. Small but very pretty, the lush green…
It was a fantastic week, packed with amazing sites and fantastic food, and we are grateful to the Indonesia Consulate in San Francisco for the opportunity. I am very much looking forward to discovering more of Indonesia when we returned in 2017.
We are spending December in France celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday in December, Christmas celebrations, and Bruno’s dad 80th birthday in January. We are enjoying seeing our friends and families, as well as gorging ourselves on smelly cheese, fresh baguette, and a whole list of French food we composed our last week in Chengdu. The list is getting smaller, though, as we are crossing out meals every day. Yesterday were crepes. Today gambas, gnocchi, and Provencal vegetables. Christmas presented itself with its decadence of food and drinks. Tonight is the New Year’s Eve, the end of 2016 and the beginning of a new year and new adventures.
We are also spending a lot of time to work on the blog, writing new posts, fixing issues on the technical sides, writing new collaboration posts, and promoting the site through social media. Plenty to keep us busy! We were also pleased to see some of our articles published on the Huffington Post and Dave’s Travel Corner.
2017 – Where Next on our Round-The-World Trip?
Our trip will resume in early January as we head out to India. We will focus our time on discovering Rajasthan. The initial itinerary included many more places but given what we learned from the last four months; we know we need to make the adjustment in how we travel.
January & February: India (Mumbai, Pune, Rajasthan, Kerala)
March: Sri Lanka (Kitesurfing!)
April & May: Indonesia
June: India (Trekking)
June to September: Stans (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan)
November & December: Greece
We can’t keep the pace we had in Mongolia over time. We don’t want to be stuck working in infeasible conditions with no result like we did in China. Right now, our thoughts are to travel for about a month, and settle somewhere nice for maybe two weeks and focus on working during that time. We will see how that goes.
Off with 2016 – On with 2017! May the New Year bring joy and good health, happiness and lots of travel!
Click here to read about our Mongolia experience and our Chinese trip. Interested in our next adventures? Check our upcoming itinerary for the beginning of 2017: India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia should keep us busy until mid-year. Or register to our newsletter to receive our latest posts as we publish them, right into your mailbox. We are also on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube.