Tag Archives: experiences of a lifetime

Home / Europe / Netherlands / Best food in Amsterdam | Affordable High Class Dinner at The Dylan

Best food in Amsterdam | Affordable High Class Dinner at The Dylan

Updated: April 12, 2016
By: Ian Yacobucci
OCCO Bar & Brasserie

Amsterdam, NL – OCCO Bar & Brasserie The Dylan Amsterdam (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

This incredible meal served by Michelin starred Vinkeles’ Executive Chef Dennis Kuipers affordable for anyone looking at a fancy night out on the town. Sure, the Netherlands multicultural mecca of Amsterdam offers up hundreds of food choices for your night out, but none of them can boast a five star experience at €39.50 per person.

During the customary high tea hours from 3:30 – 5:30 The Dylan has thrown dust to the wind and said goodbye to tea and hello to wine. Yes, that’s right, each meal is served with four half glasses of wine along side amuse-bouches food pairings from their Michelin stared ‘Vinkeles’ team.

For those unacquainted with fine dining, a one star Michelin ranked restaurant means it’s classified as, “a very good restaurant in its category” by the worlds most famous restaurant ranking, and the Vinkeles team does not disappoint.

Served in The Dylan hotel’s stylishly cosmopolitan Brasserie OCCO, each titillating bite of food is matched to sommelier selected seasonal wines from across Europe. High Wine at The Dylan Amsterdam is more than just an afternoon of wine and food, it’s a gastronomical experience meticulously designed to match each season.

The Dylan Amsterdam

Amsterdam, NL – High Wine at The Dylan Amsterdam gin tonic mocktails (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

The elegant ambiance of the OCCO does not go unnoticed as you’re seated by it’s professional and friendly staff. Once you’re comfortable you’ll notice that creativity and ingenuity is always at the forefront of The Dylan’s creations, and experimenting at the bar is one way they keep things exciting. Might I suggest a virgin tonic mocktail with house-brewed gin for a starter as you take in the rustic setting and wait for your first pairing.

As the High Wine experience at The Dylan is seasonal, each carefully selected wine and it’s exceptionally complimented dish is often changing. For our menu, we enjoyed the following four exquisite pairings.

 High Wine at The Dylan Amsterdam

The Dylan

Amsterdam, NL – Cod beetroot and watercress High Wine at The Dylan Amsterdam (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

First Dish: Hamachi with marinated daikon, cucumber and sesame
Impression: cold refreshing yet savoury and full flavoured. Paired with a smooth and crisp white wine exclusive to The Dylan, this dish is something uniquely delicious and textured with crunch as the cucumber and daikon soothes the palate
Wine: Made for Friends, Weisburgunder, Pfalz, Germany
Winemaker: Alex Pflüger

Second Dish: Cod with red beetroot, celeriac and a watercress sauce
Impression: Matched with a sweet wine, the layers of sauce match the savoury cod that melts like butter as it soothes your palate while the crispy skin fills out the sweet beet and watercress sauce
Wine: Mourgues du Grés, Costieres de Nimes, Rhône, France

Third Dish: Chicken breast, corn, little jam, pancetta and tarragon sauce
Impressions: The wine, served at temperatures between red and white, embodies a peachy flavor created with a blend of Grecian grapes that remains full bodied, smooth, and sweet. Along with farmhouse chicken that’s unstoppably good because you can’t stop eating it – maybe because we were three glasses in – is a fun main with a unique use of popcorn.
Wine: Ladybird White, Pella, Greece
Winemaker: Ktima Ligas

High Wine The Dylan

Amsterdam, NL – Hamachi main High Wine The Dylan Amsterdam (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

Dessert: Red cabbage tart with apple and Ceylon cinnamon ice-cream
Impressions: My mom would love something like this.  The tart has nice texture and flavor (not to sweet) that blends well with the sweet wine. With this dish, texture and temperature do not go unnoticed, everything is taken into consideration.
Wine: Seewinkel Spätlese, Sauvignon Blanc, Neusiedlersee, Austria
Winemaker: Weingut Tschida

After nearly two and a half hours of eating and drinking. My fiancé and I thoroughly enjoyed each exquisite dish paired perfectly to their wine. The variety and healthy portion of food left us feeling satisfied and ready for an evening stroll along the canals.

In the end, don’t let the miniature utensils deceive you when your treating yourself to High Wine at They Dylan; the pairings are layered with flavour and texture, the wines are unique and varied, the ambience is elegant and comfortable, and you’ll finish with the entire evening ahead of you.

For more information check out the OCCO Bar & Brasserie and High Wine at the Dylan Amsterdam

Home / Asia / Cambodia / Angkor Wat Tips| Help yourself tour Angkor Wat like a boss

Angkor Wat Tips| Help yourself tour Angkor Wat like a boss

Updated: March 9, 2016
By: Danielle Aniceto
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, CM – Arrive at sunrise to capture your perfect picture at Angkor Wat Cambodia (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

Showing up at the 6:00 am sunrise at Angkor Wat was not exactly what I expected it to be. Being a Lara Croft fan myself, I was hoping to have to swing down from a jungle vine into an undiscovered tomb and watch the sunrise from behind a mysterious untouched ruin. Instead, I arrived to a field full of people with the exact same idea. Having to fight for a place in the crowd for the perfect sunrise view, I couldn’t help but think what the rest of the day exploring would be like. It wasn’t exactly as I imagined it, but it was still pretty spectacular.

Angkor Wat is full of tourists, but if you can accept the fact and use a little imagination, you can have a lot of fun. Here are the tips and tricks I came up with during my visit to get as much time with my inner Lara Croft as possible and the least amount of time avoiding being in someone else’s photograph.

Angkor Wat photo

Siem Reap, CM – Capturing sunrise at Angkor Wat Cambodia (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

1. Sunrise at Angkor Wat

If you are into getting that beautiful sunrise photo at Angkor Wat, I would recommend you still go but not exactly at sunrise. Google the time of the sunrise at Angkor Wat the night before (it will depend on the time of year) and plan to arrive 15/30 minutes after. This will guarantee the best light for photographs and ensure that most tourists would have already left.

Angkor Wat Mistake: Most people arrive too early and get sick of waiting in the crowd by this point.

2. Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat is definitely a splendor to witness. The only problem, once again, is that everyone else wants to witness it at the same time too. I would recommend trying to go off the beaten track for a more authentic and reflective experience. It can be done! Just avoid the flow of the crowds and explore the ancient temples for enjoyment, not to go where everyone else is.  Trust yourself and discover what other people are missing.

Angkor Wat secrets: Start at a less well-known temple in the morning. Such as Bayon or Angkor Thom. Large tour groups always start at Angkor Wat.

If you want to learn about the history of Angkor Wat, I would suggest hiring a tour guide. The books that are being sold all over the grounds for various prices, are also a good idea but may not provide the interesting and more intimate details that the well-trained multi-lingual guides do.

People at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, CM – Hundreds of people taking photos at sunrise at Angkor Wat (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

3. Bantaey Kdei

This temple complex takes up a lot of square footage and if you tire of crowds, it is one of the least busy temples in Angkor Wat. There are many passages and doorways to venture through and you can get that awesome picture beside a massive tree with fewer tourists to compete with.

4. Ta Phrom

The temple from the Lara Croft movie. The Tomb Raider temple was definitely a sight to see. However, it is also one of the most popular temples because of the allure of the large trees that grow throughout the complex.  If you’re not afraid to venture off you can find a space to get your photo but beware of the most famous tree from the 2001 film version of Tomb Raider.  You won’t get a moment alone there.

Ta Phrom secrets: After 3:00 pm, many tourists start clearing out of the temples. Perhaps the best time of day to get that selfie you were dreaming of.

Tomb Raider Tree

Siem Reap, CM – The famous Tomb Raider tree at Ta Phrom temple in Angkor Wat Tomb Raider tree Ta Phrom Angkor Wat (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

5. Angkor Thom

This temple is stunning and a lot of fun because there are tones of small temples throughout the forest in the surrounding area. This is a temple where you can really get off the beaten track and explore!  Remember the Angkor Wat temple complex is massive and if you’re willing to explore you’ll find hidden treasures that represent the spiritual setting these temples were designed to embody.

Angkor Thom secrets: Just don’t get stuck in the tall grass with the huge spider webs. I am still not sure what kind of spiders were hiding in those webs but I am glad we never found out.

As one of the most famous temple systems in the world Angkor Wat will far exceed your expectations.  Just remember that there are many temples to explore and all of them are several kilometers apart so be prepared to spend a lot of your day enjoying the jungle by tuk tuk (yes, you should definitely spend the little money it costs for a tuk tuk).

No matter how many times you visit you’ll always feel like you’re just scratching the surface of Angkor Wat’s mysteries.  So be kind to yourself and take my advice, get the three-day pass. It is well worth it, and with a little imagination and some childish enthusiasm, you can really make the experience your own.

Have fun and safe travels!

Home / South America / Ecuador / Ecuador dentist disaster a lesson in medical tourism dangers

Ecuador dentist disaster a lesson in medical tourism dangers

Updated: November 25, 2014
By: Ian Yacobucci
Eucador Dentist

GUAYAQUIL, ECUADOR – MARCH 2014 – CNA Dental office where I experienced what it’s like to visit a dentist in Ecuador (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

Lying back in the faded green 1970’s dentist chair I looked right and smiled at Laura and her mother, la signora, who were sitting across the room.   Next to them was an old green desk cluttered with a mini city of disorganized paper piles.   The dentists stood up from his desk and walked past them across length of the room. Watching him from my chair I decided there was no freaking way I was going to get any dental work done in this place, but it was already too late.

It all started during a dinner conversation the night before when the cost of medical work came up. Somehow it was mentioned that getting your teeth cleaned in Ecuador costs about thirty American dollars, and filling cavities ranges from twenty to forty dollar per filling.

Now, I’m not a medical tourist and I don’t travel to save money on medical procedures, but to save $200 for a teeth cleaning (the average cost in Canada) I decided to give it a try. It would be my second cleaning overseas, the first being a professional yet disappointing dental cleaning experience in Tokyo, Japan.

Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city with a busy population of about four million people. On the day we set out for the dentist, an early morning rainfall turned to light drizzle leaving the Sunday morning streets quiet and traffic free. Visiting the dentist and barber seemed like a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon so my Couchsurfing host family booked two appointments and brought me to the city centre.

Parked on a street lined with shops and low-rise apartments we walked towards the dentist office. As we walked, I pictured a modern dental office with snazzy new chairs, LCD screens, marble floors, and lavishly decorated with tropical office ferns. But soon after we started walking my pre-conceptions of a first class dentist in Ecuador were shattered when we turned left down a dark alleyway.

As the rain dripped from the decrepit and rusting tin awning above, I tried not to slip on the shadowed alleyway’s rust stained tile we walked along. After a few meters cautiously walking like a high beam acrobat we arrived at a stairwell, buzzed up, and entered the building.

The wooden stairs that lead to the main landing were poorly lit and the light at the top blinked like a dying star’s last flickers of life.   As we walked up I noticed the old brow paint that covered the stairwell walls was peeling to reveal blotches of lime green hues beneath. Optimistically, with a traveler’s spirit, I resolved to at least follow through with the teeth cleaning and consider the cavities after. I mean, la Signora went to a lot of trouble to book my appointment and I didn’t want to be rude.

Dr. Boris met us at the top of the first floor, greeted me with a handshake, and guided us into the waiting room before gesturing us to sit. The tiny waiting area seemed normal with a small mahogany coffee table topped with a few magazines in the centre, and four leather sitting chairs lining the walls. Perhaps I was wrong to judge the alleyway.

As we flipped through the magazines la signora showed me pictures of things I should see in Ecuador by pointing at the images of volcanoes, mountains, and pristine beaches she recognized in a local travel magazine. In no time I was up. Dr. Boris led us from the waiting room and into the dental office as he said goodbye to his last client. Once we entered and the old wooden door closed behind us I finally confirmed my worst fears, this wasn’t Canada and I was not prepared for this.

The first thing I noticed was that there was no visible sterilization equipment. On the right side of the room were two worn out and faded dental chairs that looked like they belonged on episode of the walking dead rather than a dental office. Wishing I could turn around and walk out, Dr. Boris ushered me over to the far right corner of the room and into one of the decrepit dental chairs located next to to a large window that overlooked the street.

Once I was seated and comfortable, Dr. Boris sat down between the chair and the window then looked over at Laura and la signora who were sitting across the room. Not being able to communicate, Laura translated that I was interested in getting my teeth cleaned. Spinning his chair to face the window, underneath which his dental tools were located, I freaked! The lady who finished just before me had left the tooth gunk from her recent work sitting in a little bowl beside the chair I was sitting in. Not only that, but I noticed Dr. Boris had only one set of tools and there was no sterilization equipment in sight.

Calming myself, I realized that I was probably over thinking the situation so I gave Dr. Boris benefit of the doubt and tried to relax in the chair. Turning back around, Dr. Boris laid a piece of brown paper towel across my chest, picked up a water pic, and without any protective eye wear or that suction tube dentists use to get rid of access mouth water, pulled the overhead lamp above my face and started spraying.

Water and plaque sprayed in all directions as he cleaned. Like an innocent bystander standing too close to a street puddle, as an unaware car drives by, I got soaked. Every few minutes the water boarding would stop and I’d get a chance to spit into the bowl beside the chair with everyone’s tooth gunk looking back at me like frog eyes in a swamp..

Finally the torture ended as Dr. Boris walked across the room, giving me a chance to catch my breath and clean myself with the brown elementary school paper towel that absorbed the water like tree bark. Staring at the ceiling I wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into. Now that the he was done with the water pic I figured Dr. Boris was going to get sterilized dental equipment to finish cleaning the hard plaque that the water pic missed. Wrong! Instead he opened a black cabinet located across the room, bent over, and took out a tattered shoe-sized box that looked like it hadn’t been sitting untouched for a decade. Sitting back beside me he opened it and pulled out a giant silver gun that looked like the mini laser weapon Will Smith used in Men in Black.

“Don’t worry, it’s for teeth cleaning,” Laura translated in a thick Spanish accent. Comforting as those kind words were supposed to be I was not at ease. What was I thinking getting strangers to set up a dentist appointment in a country where I couldn’t communicate because I didn’t speak the language or had any idea of the medical standards. But it was to late, loading the gun from beneath he inserted a CO2 cartridge, handed me another paper towel, leaned over, aimed the weapon at my face and pressed the trigger.

A fine dust blasted my teeth dispersing a cloud of particles like a military flashbang into my mouth, nose, and eyes. I closed my eyes tight and held my breath hoping that whatever I was getting a dose of was good for my teeth and free of any long-term side effects.   Eventually, I cracked as the seconds passed and I took in a big breath of the powder that was suffocating me. There was no way of stopping Dr. Boris because I couldn’t communicate with the dust like chemical choking me, so I kept my eyes closed tight, tried to breathe as little as possible, and accepted it.

When it was all over he gave me a chance to brush the scratchy fine particles off my face before grabbing a dental mirror to check my mouth for cavities. When he finished searching Laura translated that I had I had four cavities and that two of them should be addressed immediately. After my traumatic cleaning experience I decided to politely decline any further dental work, paid my thirty dollars for services rendered, and headed off to a wonderfully uneventful haircut.

Back in Canada, first thing I did when I got home was visit the dentist where I paid the $200 for a professional cleaning, had x-rays of my mouth taken, found out that I actually had 10 cavities (5 of which needed to be filled) and that the four cavities Dr. Boris suggested I get filled were just stains.

In the end, I paid $1100 to get everything taken care of in Canada by a professionally licensed Canadian doctor and came out with an important lesson in medical tourism. If you’re planning on going overseas for medical procedures you should probably do some research, know whom you’re working with, and be able to speak the language.

Happy Travels,

Yak

Have you had any crazy medical experiences while overseas??

 

Home / Asia / Japan / Climbing Mt. Fuji in the off season

Climbing Mt. Fuji in the off season

Updated: November 15, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci
Descending Mt. Fuji

Snapped this pic on our descent of Mt. Fuji

Towering more than 3, 700 m above sea level and only 100 km from Tokyo sits Mt.Fuji. Incredibly, summiting the highest mountain in Japan is a feat that hundreds of thousands of people accomplish each year, and you can too. But getting to the summit without the crowds is the best way to experience Mount Fuji.

The active volcanoes most popular hiking trail is known as the Yoshida Guchi trail. During the climbing season this trail is incredibly congested, so if you want to miss the crowds you’ll have to climb Mount Fuji during the beginning of the off season in September.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji from the bus!

This year was my second time working in Tokyo and I had one major goal in coming to Japan, climb Mount Fuji. The only problem was that the hiking season was over. Luckily, this did not mean that the mountain was completely closed.

In fact, there were still direct buses running from Shinjuki (the main train station in Tokyo) to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station. However, they were not nearly as frequent during the off season and they arrived on the mountain quite late (early bus at 10:30 am) and departed quite early (5:50 pm – or so we were told). This meant that you don’t get much time to acclimatize when you get there, and if you want to make it to the summit and catch the bus back you have to rush.

Not climbing Mt. Fuji this year was out of the question so my friends and I headed to the Fuji 5th station. When we arrived, the small village with a tourist centre, hotel, a few small shops and a restaurant were open, but this was only during the day. At night Mount Fuji’s fifth station is an absolute ghost town; completely deserted.

5th Station

Mount Fuji’s 5th station

It’s also important for me to note that during the off season outside of the 5th station during the day, everything is closed. This is especially important if you’re planning on staying overnight in one of the mountains guest houses because none of them are open.

Not one to be stopped by the thrills of drinking warm miso at every one of the nine or so stations lining the mountain face, I set pace for the summit. The mountain climb itself was spectacular, but not as easy as everyone made it out to be. There are some technical parts where you have to climb up rocky sections of the mountain side, but it’s certainly doable for any able bodied person and the trail is lined with chains to help along the way.

Ascending Mt. Fuji

On my way to the top of Mount Fuji!

With luck our eight our climb took place on a perfectly clear day where shorts on the way up were necessary. Although, it’s important to remember that Mt. Fuji is a mountainous volcano, and at more than 3000 m it gets cold as hell at the top, so you need to be prepared and bring warm clothes.

Summit

Summit of Mt. Fuji

On my journey to the summit I only encountered two problems. The first was a result of Mt. Fuji’s extreme change in elevation from sea level to over 3000m; a change that requires people to stay around the 5th station for at least an hour in order for the body to acclimatize to the change in altitude. Only thinking about our quest for the summit of the highest mountain in Japan, my friend Dave and I both got altitude sickness during our dissent. The dizzying effects of which slowed our progress considerably.

Friends on top of Fuji

Never-the-less, we still made it to the top and back!

The other problem was transportation. Since buses don’t run regularly and the tourist season is over, the 5th station was deserted. Finishing the eight hour climb in the dark, at around 7:30 pm, during the last weekend of September is not the greatest idea. But we were prepared and brought the phone number for the taxi. And when we called, it was out of service.

Cold, tired, and ready to get home we struck some good old travelers luck when a lone English speaking hiker met his Japanese friends at the 5th station. Luckily, they were able to find us the proper cab number and organized a cab back to Kawaguchiko station for us. If you were wondering, the total cost to get back to Kawaguchiko staion was 12900 yen ($129 USD) but at least we were three.

Kawaguchico at night

At least I grabbed this night pic of Kawaguchiko at night!

With that in mind all I can say is it was totally worth it. I climbed the highest mountain in Japan and there was virtually no one around. The best part about it was that I learned that you can do it too! Just remember to be prepared, and follow the tips and links at the bottom of this page. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to climb Mt. Fuji in the off season I can guarantee you’ll get it all to yourself.

Be safe,

Yak

TIPS

1. Detailed information for climbing Mt. Fuji during any season can be found on the Fujiyoshida website

2. Pre-book your bus tickets to Fuji 5th station by calling or getting online at:

• Keio Highway Bus Reservation Center 03-5376-2222(9:00~18:00)

• Internet Reservations (from Shinjuku) http://www.highwaybus.com/(24 hours)for the English site click here

Reservations may be made up to one month in advance.

3. Buy a one way bus ticket incase plans change

4. Call a cab to get home from Mt. Fuji 5th station if you’re planning on missing the bus back

• Phone #: 0555721077 (as of Sept. 2012)

• Cost 12970 yen ($129 USD)

• 5th station to Kawaguchiko station (train from there back to Tokyo

5. Don’t climb during the winter unless you’re an experienced, professional climber.

6. Have fun.

Directions and bus times for quick reference

(Please double check on official websites for more information)

SHINJUKU – MT FUJI 5th STATION (Direct Bus)

**SATURDAY and HOLIDAY Service only**

#This service is schedule to remain effective until November 4th.

From Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal

Located near Shinjuku Station Nishi-guchi (West Exit). You can find the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal outside of the West Exit of Shinjuku station. Once you exit the station turn left and walk about 100m then cross the street. Look for Yodobashi Camera, the station is right across from it. Or you can just ask someone.

Times and cost:

Price: 2600 yen (one way)

Departs Shinjuku Arrives 5th Station

7:40 10:05

9:40 12:05

Departs 5th Station Arrives in Shinjuku

13:00 15:25

15:00 17:25

Bus information taken from : http://www.city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp/div/english/html/index.html

 

Home / Asia / Kazakhstan / Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city of the future

Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city of the future

Updated: May 23, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci
Astana

Downtown Astana, Kazakhstan with the national concert hall in the background

One of the most unique capital cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, Astana offered a futuristic perspective on a new city designed for tomorrow.

To be perfectly honest I arrived in Astana with no expectations. I knew I wanted to see the country, I knew where it was located, and I knew it had one of the coolest flags, but I didn’t know that its capital city was going to be one of the most interesting cities I have ever been too.

Located 15 hours by bus from Omsk, an often travelled city on the Trans-Siberian railway, Astana is well worth the trip. Although you need a visa to enter Kazakhstan, which is a minor inconvenience, but once you’re there the people are friendly, there are enough English speakers to get you by, and the architecture in Astana is mind blowing.

Chilling downtown Astana, Kazakhstan

As a young capital city Astana is booming with an influx of money from the government who, due to the abundance of natural resources, has made the development of Astana one of its priorities. Filled with a half dozen malls, all within a few kilometers of each other, massive squares lined with obscurely designed buildings, and a display of mega structures filling the empty space that was once open countryside the 12 year old capital is certainly something to see.

To warn you, Astana is not a cheap place to stay, but if you can handle grinding it out in a hotel room that rivals some of the cheapest Indian accommodations the bus station hotel is one of the most reasonable options in the city. It’s not a nice place but it’s cheap considering the mega hotels whose prices are set at hundreds of dollars per night. If you can handle the mice and the subpar sleeping arrangement the $20 UDS price tag is well worth it.

A newly planned city with Baiterek Tower in the centre Astana, Kazakhstan is a true architectural gem

I spent the better part of two days wandering the city streets of Astana marveling at the architecture that appears as if it was designed using the computer game Sim City. Everything in the city appears to be brand new and the buildings have a futuristic design that forces you to pull your camera out every time you see one.

Yet, as I walked through downtown Astana I was overcome by a sense of awe and eeriness. The city seemed empty. Although it was filled with magnificent structures, on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in April, there seemed to be few people around. I couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was as I walked across the open space filled with 10 lane roadways, only a car or two passing by every minute, dozens of brand new apartment complexes, and massive parks with no one in them.

Only a few cars can be seen driving on these thoroughfares in Astana, Kazakhstan

Around the presidential palace only a few skateboarders cruising around the open brick courtyard in front of the building and several police officers could be seen. The white marble building towers over the brand new park filled with freshly planted trees, behind it. The isolation of the building towering over the empty space around it reinforces that sense of emptiness the new capital projects.

A sole skateboarder prepares for a kickflip in front of the presidential palace in Astana, Kazakhstan

Perhaps it was a work day but I had the feeling that the city was more show than function, a city being built for the future. The malls however were a different story. Inside the malls were filled with shoppers looking at all the latest products from Adidas and other popular companies that have made the Kazak consumer their new priority. For me the malls were a cheap place to grab a bite to eat and offered wifi throughout their complexes.

Kazakhstan’s presidential palace is dwarfed by these two golden towers in Astana, Kazakhstan

I loved visiting Astana because of its architectural beauty and modern design. The fact that there were few people around gave the sense that my friends and I had the capital all to ourselves. Of course, I spent most of my time in the new city whereas the old city is more populated and its structures are densely built. The people in Astana were incredibly friendly and English there seemed to be far more prevalent than that of Siberia. In fact during my time here I was invited out to spend a Saturday night with some locals, but that’s a story for a different day.

Home / Europe / Finland / Celebrating Vappu, Finland’s biggest party of the year

Celebrating Vappu, Finland’s biggest party of the year

Updated: May 18, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci

Celebrating Vappu in Helsinki, Finland

On the first of May, everyone in Finland fills the streets and parks of the country to celebrate graduation and the coming of spring.  Lucky for me, I arrived just in time to join the celebration.

Each year on the first day of May, thousands of people dressed in sailor caps fill Finland’s streets and parks to celebrate graduation and the coming of spring. It’s also common to see students dressed in university jumpsuits or costumed in outrageous outfits while enjoying a few beverages.

It’s important to prepare for vappu so don’t forget to stop by the super market before heading out. I stocked up with a few national brews, baguette and cheese from the local S-Market before hitting the party. It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at Koff Park and the party was just getting started.

Kaivopuisto Park filled with people eating and drinking for Vappu

For people celebrating Vappu it’s legal to drink alcohol in the parks of the city as long as you’re pick-nicking. Sitting around drinking glasses filled with sparkling wine, beer and spirits the young of Helsinki began the biggest party of the year. This festival lasts about two days starting early afternoon on the last day of April and finishing with massive pick-nicking events throughout the country on the first of May, a national holiday.

Always looking to practice their English, it’s easy to find people to hang out with and share a drink. I was invited to spend some time with a group where one of the people had brought some sandwiches and desserts from work. The late evening snack was delicious as I stuffed myself with ham sandwiches, tiramisu, cheese cake, and blueberry cake.

Sunset on the eve of March 30 while sharing food and drink with new friends for Vappu in Helsinki, FInland

Once the sun sets most people head to the bar to continue the party and sample some traditional Vappu beverages. With our couch surfing host Harri my friends and I enjoyed some local brews, and of course some Salmiakki, a black licorice flavoured drink that’s very popular in Finland.

May 1st is the main celebration day, although some students use the last week of April as an excuse to party. My friends and I lucked out as our hosts prepared a pick-nick to enjoy at the portside Kaivopuisto Park with 30, 000 others. On this day, the streets were filled with what seemed to be the entire city of Helsinki, everyone dressed in their graduation caps and enjoying the sunny spring day.

It’s all about friends and family while pick-nicking for Vappu in Helsinki, Finland

It was a unique holiday to witness everyone celebrating and proud of their education, as it was not only students wearing their caps but older couples as well, their white caps faded and stained yellow with years of Vappu celebrating under their belts. There are not many countries where so many people would go out to celebrate an achievement such as this, and to be there for me was a great way to start my Finland adventure.

It was insightful to witness a culture proud of their educational roots, as thousands filled streets and parks of the country. I had a great time meeting new people, learning about Finland, and enjoying the biggest pick-nick in the world. So until next year, Hyvaa vappua!

Home / Europe / Russia / Travelling on the Trans-Siberian to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal

Travelling on the Trans-Siberian to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal

Updated: April 17, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci

Ian standing on Lake Baikal in Listvyanka, Russia

If you want to know how to get to the largest deepest fresh water lake in the world than my trip to Lake Baikal will help you find your way.  This stop is a must see if you’re travelling on the Trans-Siberian.

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and if that doesn’t impress you it is also the biggest fresh water lake in the world. I grew up along the shores of Lake Ontario visiting Niagara Falls, Lake Erie, Superior and Michigan, but they didn’t prepare me for the magnificence of Lake Baikal.

Perhaps it was the fact that I had been travelling on the Trans-Siberian, passing through Siberia’s desolate frozen countryside and Mongolian deserts for the last two weeks. Maybe it was that I lucked out and got there while it was still frozen, but when I arrived and saw mountains lining the horizon of Baikal, a back frozen ice mass glistening in the sunlight, I knew I was at one of the world’s natural wonders.

Getting to Listvyanka from Irkutsk is pretty easy and most tourist information maps have the location of where you can find the direct mini buses. The mini buses to Listvyanka usually leave every hour and cost 100 rubles each way, 200 return. The ride takes about 50 minutes and often stops to pick people up along the way.

When you arrive in Listvyanka you don’t have to worry about catching a minibus back. If you time your stay correctly you can get another bus back at a different time, and once again these usually depart for Irkutsk every hour.

I arrived in Listvyanka early on an April afternoon and was ecstatic to find it frozen with a few people walking on it. The frozen ice, a deep blackish blue hue, stretched to the horizon and mountains surrounded the beautiful lake. My friend Johnny and I decided to follow a few others out onto the ice so we could grab a couple pictures and slide around.

Standing on Lake Baikal Listvyanka, Russia

Johnny had read that you can drink the water in the lake so we filled a bottle and took a few sips out of the makeshift river that meandered along the icy shore. Refreshingly cold the fresh lake water was a treat after all the bottled water we’d been consuming, and with a few pictures on our cameras we decided to head to the market.

Lake Baikal is not only a Unesco world heritage site famous for its size, it is also well known for a smoked delicacy known, in Russian, as Omul. Omul is smoked white fish found in Lake Baikal and can be purchased in the marked for about 70 rubles a fish.

Eating Omul at Lake Bailkal Listvyanka, Russia

The fish is absolutely delicious and also comes in a preserved salted version. If you’re trying it for the first time I recommend the freshly smoked fish which is kept warm in a wooden steam box. The smoked flavour of the fresh fish is not overwhelming and compliments the natural texture and flavour of the fish nicely. The best part of eating Omul is that you get to use your hands to peel off the skin and bite size morsels.

Eating Omul with bare hands at Lake Baikal Listvyanka, Russia

My friends and I devoured our Omul as we looked out over Lake Baikal, and after a short stroll through the town, a single street of restaurants and shops, it was time to head back to Irkutsk to catch our train to Omsk. For me Lake Baikal was a Trans-Siberian highlight and if you’re travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway I suggest a stopover in Irkutsk with visit to Lisvyanka and Lake Baikal.

Tips:

1. If you go in the winter dress warm. Winds of the lake can be quite frigid.

2. Visiting Lake Baikal in the summer may allow you to catch a glimpse of its famous fresh water seals.

3. If you’re planning on staying in Listvyanka overnight try to book your accommodation ahead of time because the town is quite small, and if you’re there during tourist season it may be difficult to find a place.

Tally (as of April 2012):

Bus from Irkutst to Listvyanka (return) 200 rubles – $6.50 USD

Omul (per fish) 70 rubles $2.50 USD

Home / Asia / Mongolia / Mongolian Shamanism: experiencing an ancient ritual deep in Mongolia’s Mini Gobi Desert

Mongolian Shamanism: experiencing an ancient ritual deep in Mongolia’s Mini Gobi Desert

Updated: April 13, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci

Mongolian shaman at the family prayer stand the morning after his ritual

Read about my experience staying with a Mongolian Shaman in the Mini Gobi Desert.

In the middle of the mini Gobi Desert a dust storm began to form outside the ger my two friends and I were staying in. It was just after dinner as we were enjoying a game of cards with one of the children that his brother, a shaman, became possessed by two spirits. Little did we know that on this full moon, as a dust storm pounded the outside of our ger, we were going to become a part of a shamanist ritual.

Experiencing Mongolian throat singing was a treat but finding out your host family’s son was a shaman and possessed by two spirits is something completely different. It was just after dinner when we heard a drumming sound from outside the ger. With a full moon and a dust storm building outside we were surprised when the families 16 year old son came stumbling in from outside. Quickly ushered to the side of the ger by our guide Solyolo we were told that the boy was a shaman and would be performing a spiritual ritual.

Nomadic family ger in the Mini Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Sitting along the side of the ger we watched the boy, as if drunk, stumble around the ger almost falling into the centrally located wood burning stove several times. During this tirade his father, who is also his sponsor, rushed to help him put on his costume; a vibrant emerald green outfit embroidered with gold Mongolian symbols, wolf skin topped with an eagles scull, and maroon hat with a yellow stitched face its black strings flowing down to covering the shamans face.

During the ritual two spirits entered the shaman; the first was an old man. After a dance like enactment the shaman sat down at the back of the ger while his father prepared a cigarette for him. Talking in a low hoarse growl like tone the boy invited his family members over to talk with him as he smoked. The cigarettes were put into a cigarette holder and the first one he had seemed to disappear in a single breath.

Periodically as the ritual progressed the shaman would rise from his sitting position at the back of the ger hunched over and struggling as if he were a hundred years old. Once on his feet he would use a wooden shaft to beat an animal skin drum as he spun in circles in a dance like trance. The purpose of this act was to channel the other spirit; an old woman.

The landscape around the ger located in the Mini Gobi Desert, Mongolia.

She was different from the first spirit and spoke in a raspy high pitched voice that made it seem old. Again different family members were summoned by the shaman and kneeling in front of him he spoke to each of them in an ancient voice. As he spoke different drinks were prepared for him including vodka and at one point boiling hot milk, of which he chugged a bowl.

Several times during the ritual he became sick and on a few occasions spoke in tongues, a language that only he and his father could understand. After the ritual we were told that he was telling his family members how to live good lives and advice for their future. When the ritual finally came to an end the boy took a red hot iron tool from the stove and quickly touched it to his tongue several times before dipping it in water.

Solyolo informed my friends and I that the spirits were ancient family spirits of the past and had possessed the shaman boy several months back. Visits by these ancient spirits are unplanned and even the shaman doesn’t know exactly when to channel them. As Solyolo said, we were lucky to witness this ancient ritual. A religious ceremony that Chenggis Khan would have witnessed as he too was into shamanism, a religion that Solyolo told us has recently been gaining more popularity in Mongolia.

Mongolian nomadic family. The shawman is wearing a gold outfit posing in the middle of the picture

For the family, this boys calling to be a shaman was important as it caused his alcoholic father to quit drinking in order to focus on his job of being a good sponsor to his shaman son. For us it was a glimpse into an unfamiliar religion and an ancient Mongolian practice that dates back to the days of Chinggis Khan.
That night when the nearly two hour ritual was over our hosts prepared mats for us on the ger floor and my three friends and I settled for bed as the winds of the dust storm howled outside. Unfortunately, the central part of the roof ripped off causing dust and cold to fill the one room house. Meanwhile, the shaman boy slept on a bed next to us groaning and calling out into the night as he did when the spirits were leaving his body at the end of the ritual. It certainly was a night to remember.

Home / Featured / Sufing Indonesia why Batukaras is a real surfer’s paradise

Sufing Indonesia why Batukaras is a real surfer’s paradise

Updated: April 1, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci

Ian surfing the reef in Batukaras

Trying to find the best beaches in Indonesia? Look no further, Batukaras is the sun, sand and surf paradise you’ve been looking for.

Surf, sun and relaxation is Batukaras. Forget the crowded over travelled beaches of Bali and head to Batukaras, West Java’s surf paradise, if you want to experience true Indonesian surf culture. This small fishing village located only hours away from Jakarta is a hidden gem when it comes to travelling.

Most who visit this special place end up staying for longer than planned and some never leave. So if you’re planning to travel to West Javas soon to be hot spot than make sure you leave yourself time to explore the areas unspoiled beaches and surf. You won’t be disappointed.

I had heard the name Batukaras only twice on my travels so I knew this place was somewhere worth checking out. Seemingly off Indonesia’s all too popular backpacker trail, Batukaras is a place that few travellers know about. For those adventurous enough to find their way here the rewards are enormous. With only a few homestays and a couple of restaurants this West Java surf village and its surrounding beaches are paradise.

When I first arrived I was reluctant to find that Batukaras is growing. No longer a simple fishing village this once secret surf spot is slowly developing. Luckily, it’s location and the allure of Bali surf has created the perfect getaway here in West Java a result of the new amenities without the big crowds. Whether you’re into surfing or just want to relax on the beach Batukaras is a great place to enjoy the sun and sand that has made Indonesia a popular travel destination.

It’s easy to get used to life here in West Java. For surfers, both on and off season are good times to visit although the waves are bigger and more consistent in the summer months.

The best way to explore the surf around Batukaras is to rent a motor bike and ask the locals where the best surf will be. In Batukaras there are two main surf spots the reef and the point. If the swell is big enough both long and short boarders can share these waves with the locals and have some fun.

On a deserted surf beach in Indonesia how could you not strike a pose

If the waves in Batukaras aren’t doing it for you hop on your bike and head down the winding roads, along rice fields and ocean vistas, to Legok Jawa’s beach break or just beyond that to the all popular Baluk Benda reef break.

Just near an hour drive away, these two surf spots are found on pristine beaches with only a few fishermen out hunting for the days catch. In the off season, you can expect only a few people out in the waves and often you’ll find that you’re the only one.

When there are no waves in the forecast there are dozens of beaches to explore and the area’s green canyon is a magical place that should not be missed. Time here soaking up the sun, surfing, or chilling out with the locals near the Batukaras surf club seems to fly by, and once you’re here it certainly is hard to leave. So forget the craziness of Indonesia’s touristy spots and head to Batukaras before it’s too late.

Tips
1. Surfboard and scooter rentals can usually be arranged through your homestay or by one of the local surf club members.
2. If you’re looking to find the best way to leave Batukaras ask around to figure out your best options and prices.
3. Bargain – Often you’ll be able to swing a deal whether it’s saving 10,000 on a scooter by getting renting it for a week instead of per day or getting an AC room for cheap by giving up the controller, when only those rooms are available.

Tally – calculated in Indonesian Rupiah as of winter 2012
Surfboard – 50,000 per day
Motorbike – 50,000 per day
Food – 10 – 30, 000 per meal
Getting there and back – 150 – 250, 000

Home / Asia / Republic of the Philippines / Diving with whale sharks in the Philippines

Diving with whale sharks in the Philippines

Updated: February 20, 2012
By: Ian Yacobucci

Donsol is considered the best place to spot whale sharks in the Philippines, but only snorkeling is allowed. So Ian heads to Oslob, Cebu, where scuba diving is permitted, and he sees not one, but two whale sharks.

Scuba diving with whale sharks is a luxury many divers don’t get to experience. Lucky divers usually only get to glimpse these gentle spotted sea giants when one silently wisps by them on a dive. Fortunately, scuba diving with whale sharks in the Philippines is a unique opportunity that has developed off the coast of several island locations.

You’d think it would be easy to spot the largest fish in the sea but these ocean creatures are a newer addition in human history. The most famous location for swimming with these ocean creatures is in Donsol, where whale shark spotting and snorkeling is extremely popular.

The best month to see whale sharks in the Philippines is in February, and it being at the top of my list of things to do an see, I was disappointed that visiting Donsol wasn’t in the cards for my most recent visit to the country.

Imagine my surprise, when I arrived in Dumaguete, to learn that whale sharks were one of the newest dive attractions in the area. Just 45min away in the shallows of Oslob, Cebu a group of 6 whale sharks had recently been discovered.

Although most would consider this a once in a lifetime opportunity, snorkeling and scuba diving with the whale sharks in this area is not without controversy. Little is known about the whale shark and, although special precautions have been taken by the fishing community and government in the area to ensure the sharks safety and protection, activists are not convinced that enough is known about the creatures to allow for these activities.

On one side of the debate, snorkeling and scuba diving with the whale sharks prevents them from being fished off the Filipino coast to be used in shark fin soup, one fin often fetching tens of thousands of dollars. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the way in which the sharks are being attracted to the area.

Tourists who wish to swim with the sharks are required to pay a sanctuary fee in order to protect the fish, but more so to subsidize the cost of the fisherman who are feeding the whale sharks in order to keep them in the area. Currently, not enough is known about how these human interactions will affect the whale sharks in this area and some speculate that it could have negative effects.

The debate is multi-tiered. On the one hand you have new economic stimulus in the form of tourism helping the impoverished fisherman who make less than a dollar a day. It also helps protect the sharks from being fished.

On the other hand, there are a lot of unknowns related to how feeding and scuba diving will affect this whale shark community. Tourists are often not told how to behave around the sharks and unknowingly touch the creatures which destroys the mucous membrane on the fish’s skin, and the effects of feeding them is unknown.

Up close and personal with a whale shark in Oslob, Cebu.

Regardless of which side of the debate you take, the opportunity to scuba dive with whale sharks is something that’s difficult to pass up. In most places that have established whale shark tourism, tourists are only permitted to snorkel with them.

Although there is no location-specific research that supports the theory that scuba diving negatively affects whale sharks, only snorkeling is permitted in Donsol. Luckily for me and other scuba diving enthusiasts that can make it to Oslob, this is the only place where you can scuba dive with the whale sharks, and what an awe-inspiring experience it is.

Whale sharks can reach up to several meters in length. For the month of February 2012, there were several sharks to spot, most of which were between 5 to 8 meters in length. Scuba diving with whale sharks allows divers a unique experience to observe these creatures in a dynamic ocean environment.

My dive buddy Mikkel, a Danish friend I met in Dumaguete, decided we wanted to scuba dive and take a few pictures with the whale sharks. When I told Mikkel I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dive or snorkel, he replied, “diving is always better.” So we opted out of the snorkeling and, armed with an underwater camera and two air tanks loaded with 2000psi of air, the two of us descended into the murky waters for our glimpse of these rare creatures.

The current was strong and we had to fight our way to the location where the fishermen were entertaining the sharks. As we swam, our guide pointed up and we spotted our first giant. Feeling like we were a little too far away, the two of us decided to ascend from our position 20 meters under so we could get a closer look.

As I ascended while looking for Mikkel with the camera, I suddenly found myself floating between two massive whale sharks. There was only a meter between myself and the two sharks on either side, and I could see them perfectly.

I watched in awe as they effortlessly cruised against the ocean current. Remembering the episode of BBC’s planet earth, I observed some of the whale sharks characteristics, spotting the life that lives off the fish. It was magnificent being so close to these creatures in the wild, and I spent my entire time diving alongside them.

Scuba diving was the right choice. I was able to view the whale sharks from a variety of view points.

In the end it was an experience not to be forgotten. We snapped a few photos, swam with the sharks, and spent what seemed hours mesmerized by the gentle movements of these rare and mysterious ocean creatures.

No one knows if they will be back next year, or what will come of this small whale shark community. All I know is that scuba diving with whale sharks in the Philippines was the best part of my visit, and although their future is uncertain, I hope these magnificent creatures will survive.