Valbone Bunker, Valbone, Albania

Bear Maulings, Taliban’s Most Wanted & More Wild Events from 2023

Happy New Year!

Here’s to hoping 2024 isn’t a bigger catastrophe than 2023 was (or was that just me?). 

I’ve realized I haven’t done one of these since February, oops. 

So, as you can imagine, things went off the rails, as per usual. 

So I’ll play some catch-up here and share the new projects I’ve been working on, a few of the crazier things that happened to me in 2023, and posts that I wrote that I neglected to share since I haven’t written one of these in nearly a year.

Safar Expeditions

Safar Expeditions is the travel company I started, seeing that over the years of me poking around in places I shouldn’t be, I’ve gained an invaluable skillset and a propensity to make what many think is the impossible happen. It’s not that new, I had (officially) started it back in spring of 2022 but I’ve been working to get things rolling more consistently. Anyway, I have been 100% sucked into a platform migration for the site and it’s been all-encompassing but the new site is finally live and I’m just wrapping up the final touches. 

I will likely always organize trips in difficult and remote destinations, but I have been working to add some more options that aren’t so left-field, such as Morocco, Albania and the Balkans region, and South America.

So far I have the following on the books for 2024. The trips are linked in for those who are interested. If you’d like to join an email list for any of the departures below, email me and let me know which ones, and I will add you to the email update list.

Also, those of you who want to book any of the expeditions listed and want to pay via wire transfer or ACH will get a sizeable discount from the prices below, so email me if you want to go that route and save some $$$.

The 2023 Shitshow Reel

2023 has not been the best year, so that means 2024 can’t be worse, right? 

Let’s hope not, anyway.

My First Bear Mauling

Vrang-Pass, Shokhdara Valley, Tajikistan
a few kilometers away from where I posed as a bearrito one night

I, a born and raised Alaskan got Mauled by a Bear in Tajikistan 

Yes, you read that correctly. You can stop rubbing your eyes. 

The upside is that for a first-timer’s bear mauling, it went quite well for me anyway. My tent on the other hand has a newly installed skylight. 

What was I doing out there you ask? A warm-up trek over 5000 meter Vrang Pass in the Pamir in preparation for a 6075 meter summit up Peak Moskovsky Pravda. 

On my first night of camping on the trek near the foot of Vrang Pass, I pitched my tent a little downriver from a family’s shepherding camp. I had dinner with the family of 6 that evening, before lying down to sleep around 10 pm. 

The attack happened around midnight and the strangest thing was that I woke up moments before it happened- I could hear something walking around outside the tent, which I didn’t find concerning considering this was a camp with dairy cows, so a safe assumption was that someone got up for a midnight snack. 

Suddenly something heavy was on top of me and soon after I was being dragged downhill rapidly. 

At no point did I think I was going to die, I was kicking and screaming and trying to figure out if it was a bear, a wolf, or one of those elusive snow leopards that had me. Thankfully, I heard voices and barking and could see a glimmer of light flashing. Soon the movement stopped.

After a few moments of trying to even find the door of the tent, I found the zip and left myself out, emerging to the equally confused couple who had rushed to my aid. 

My first question to them was the obvious: what was it? 

The couple looked at each other and then at me and said “kherss” (this is the Tajik word for bear) as Dima traced the pathway of the bear up the mountainside as his dog chased it off. 

We started packing up my torn tent frantically amidst a cloud of feathers spewing from my sleeping bag when I realized that the whole event had made me nearly piss myself. It wasn’t until I went to pee and had to pull my pants down that I realized that I had two deep gashes in my hip. 

I couldn’t find my emergency kit in the chaos when I went back to finish packing up but did find a pantyliner, which had to suffice as a makeshift bandage. 

Broken tent
Stitching and taping the new skylight in my tent shut about a week later

I spent the next couple of nights inside the shepherding house with the family before I felt okay enough to limp back roughly 18 km with a 55 lb rucksack with my full mountaineering kit in it from where I had started the unsuccessful trek. 

The homestay owner whose home I had stayed in the night before I began the trek spotted me as I arrived back to Rubot. He was confused but mostly concerned to see me again. I explained what happened and showed him the holes in the side of my hip. He grabbed a Nokia circa 2003 out of his vest pocket and called Rubot’s one doctor, a man who arrived wearing a 1990s Adidas tracksuit and a bucket hat, with his medical kit stuffed in a small matching Adidas duffle bag. He cleaned me up to hold me over until I could get into a clinic in Khorog, which was supposed to be the next day, but owing to the marshrutka breaking down the next morning, held me in Rubot an extra day.

I did eventually get back to Khorog and go to the hospital there where I shit you not, my entire medical bill was less than $10 including a visit to an orthopedic specialist, a full x-ray and ultrasound of my hip, and meds to break up the giant hematoma in my hip. 

The resulting puncture wounds healing up weeks later, I’d consider lucky given the situation

Moral of the story: Getting mauled in Tajikistan was more fiscally responsible than sustaining a minor injury at home. 

Taliban’s Most Wanted

Minaret of Jam, Ghor, Afghanistan, Ghorid architecture
The Minaret of Jam

When I was a kid the one thing I did know, which owing to my at times nearly crippling indecisiveness (or as my friend Reana would call it #TeamLibra), was that I wanted to lead an interesting life. You know, one where one day I would be a wirey-haired old lady telling a bunch of grandkids about my past life and it would be so fascinating they would be entirely captivated.

Well, pump the fucking breaks, I didn’t mean that interesting.

So, to get to the point, I was visited by the FBI. Why, you ask?

Because my name was found on a list, a list of people the Taliban government wants to get their hands on. No one knows what I did to land myself on the list, though I have my few suspicions (none of which are even bad). So needless to say, I was warned to not return, because I would more than likely be detained indefinitely of course, if I returned.

In all honesty, I’ve always known my days were numbered in Afghanistan. It has become increasingly difficult each time I’ve gone to get yet another visa. 

Moving to Salt Lake

Pink Lake Utah, Spiral Jetty, Rozel Point, Utah, Great Salt Lake, Pink Lake
Did you know that the Great Salt Lake has a couple of pink bays?

This one’s not the most enthralling of the bullshittery that ensued in 2023, but more of an explanation as to how I ended up in SLC.

I’d been living in Colorado for a few months by this point. I was in Cairo at that moment- Terminal 1 of Cairo Airport, to be exact, about to board a flight to Aden, Yemen in 30 minutes when the culprit of my initial move to Colorado called. He told me we were moving to Salt Lake in March- it was late January. It didn’t sound negotiable, with good timing on his part considering I was to be mostly out of communication for about a week leading an expedition in Socotra. Well played.

So when I got back, we packed everything up and drove to Salt Lake. I prefer Utah to Colorado so far but do factor in that I’ve only actually spent about 2 months out of the past 9 there. For obvious reasons, I’ve not got much to comment on here, but there are heaps of things to do around here (as you’ll likely see in some of the upcoming posts I have for early 2024.

And Utah isn’t quite as Mormon-y as you would think (at least not these days and not in larger towns and cities) but for full context, the little town in Alaska I’m from has a disproportionate number of Mormon families(case and point, I grew up across the street from a Mormon church). So I’m not really a stranger to them either.

Conflicts & Dictators will Destroy your Plans (& Income)

Fallen Stalin Statue, Gori, Georgia
Speaking of dictators- did someone go ‘Stalin-tipping’ outside of Gori?

I went home after I led the Fann Mountains expedition in Tajikistan, following the bear mauling. I had realized in the Fanns, I needed to let myself heal as the ligament that had been damaged in my hip wasn’t mending as quickly as the doctor and I had thought it would. This forced me to bail on the Afghan Wakhan expedition that followed directly after, but I organized for the group to continue without me in good hands. 

But this time home was short-lived as I had been requested to lead a tour of Turkmenistan for another company (a bizarre and fascinating dictator-led nation) and then a recon trip to Lebanon with a female guide I’m still planning to work with.

I headed out from Salt Lake to London to base myself between trips at a friend’s flat for the autumn. Of course, on arrival in London, in typical Turkmen fashion, letters of invitation started getting declined for no apparent reason, when it was finally announced that their government decided to shut the border for a week willy-nilly for Independence Day. Of course, this fell over 7/10 days of the trip so it was canceled. 

So I opted to stay in London a little longer before heading to Albania (I know what you’re all thinking, London? How unlike her). 

The next foiled plan, on that same trip overseas, was Lebanon. I was headed to Lebanon following my time in Albania to meet with Pia, the above-mentioned Lebanese guide to work on and run through trekking itineraries out there. The Israel-Hamas battle had already begun and was all everyone was talking about by mid-October and I knew that Lebanon might get swept into the mess owing to proximity and Hezbollah having gotten involved.

I’m no stranger to conflicts and war zones, but the prospect of Lebanon getting stuck in the fight wouldn’t scare me off (case and point, the Talibs want me). 

But I received a frantic message from Pia when I checked my phone on my layover in Athens between Tirana and Beirut. She essentially had said to abort the mission and bail in Athens if I could. That things had gotten really bad and that she was worried if they were to shut the airport while I was there that I might get stuck in Lebanon. For context, this was the night of the giant clash with protesters outside the US embassy in Beirut.

I weighed the option of being stuck in Lebanon (I’d have eaten well at least, because Lebanese food), but ultimately it would have been a pain in the ass to get out of if Pia’s worst fears came to fruition because Lebanon’s only two neighbors are Israel and Syria. That, and I’m not a strong enough swimmer to make it to Cyprus’s Karpaz Peninsula.

So, that I did. I asked for my checked bag and wandered out to the Athens Metro and into the city with no plan, no accommodation booked, but thankfully a UK sim card that allowed me to data roam in Greece and figure things out.

Picnics with Talibs & my very First IV

Parun, Cricket Pitch Parun, Nuristan, Afghanistan
The mountains of Nuristan

Back to Afghanistan, my first return since the Taliban “government” took over, was this past summer. I hadn’t intended to go back, I was sent back to do research for a book. 

I haven’t had a chance to write anything about my most recent visit to Afghanistan but plan to, eventually (I am completely and utterly swamped right now). Needless to say, it was interesting. And I did make it out to new places, with the Minaret of Jam and Nuristan being my highlights as I’d never thought I’d get to see them (and now it turns out, maybe never again).

But most of the weird and the wild happened in Nuristan. One of which was an invitation to a lunch in a remote valley with the local Taliban commander and his family (men-only, of course). Was it awkward? Yup. 

The only reason I took up the offer was that we were researching a trekking route to get from Nuristan to Badakhshan, and it turns out, this valley is the highway (not a highway in a literal sense but a valley heavily used by shepherds bringing livestock back and forth or to pasture.

And then a few days later, food poisoning struck which resulted in a mass panic amongst the people I was around and prompted an IV. Did I really need it? I didn’t think so, but everyone else did (I also learned on this trip that being thin, or thin-ish is a legitimate health concern amongst Afghans, and as I am fairly small these days, they thought I was near-death).

So there I was, with a bag of fluid hanging from a coat hanger in my guesthouse room getting my first IV. I will say, I felt 100% about an hour later. I see why hungover people go to those IV places now.

And that’s About all the Excitement I have for 2023

Hanrapetutian Hraparak, Republic Square Station, Yerevan, Yerevan, Metro, Armenia
Hitting all the stations of the Yerevan Metro in Armenia

At least that I can type up right now, and really, about the most interesting things that happened.

On the front of personal travels that were not work (or a disaster) were March and June trips to Georgia (the country) and Armenia.

Articles Written Since the Last Time I Did an Update
(Many Moons Ago)

What’s Coming Up in 2024

To be honest, I have no clear plan, but it’s already shaping up.

In terms of articles I’ll be writing here, I have a list of hundreds of ideas, and now that I’m finally about over the hurdle with the Safar Expeditions site migration, I’m going to start cracking away at writing some of them up.

So far for 2024, I’ve gotten some articles on deck for destinations in the US and Europe, and a couple of pieces regarding one of my favorite things -wine, or more specifically, wine destinations but don’t worry there’s more variety to come.

I am hoping to remain here in the States until April when I’ll run the group trips I mentioned above to Socotra and Yemen.

After that, I think it will be a landslide of chaos as I plan to run the Albania itinerary, the Fann Mountains and Pamir Highway, and then have watersports trips I’m researching for Western Sahara and the Canary Islands, and hopefully, a break after that as I will not be leading the Afghan Wakhan trek in August given my status as some kind of fugitive in Afghanistan (though I do have a couple of people in mind who may run it in my place).

In the later fall, the plan is to run a trek in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains, a journey along Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Cities, all the weird and wild that a Turkmenistan itinerary could offer, a trekking expedition of Socotra’s Haggier Mountains, followed by a Socotra Highlights trip, and then finally, I am hoping to offer the amazing Iran itinerary I piloted back in 2022.

So we’ll see how 2024 unfolds, and hopefully, I will try and send out one of these end-of-month, or in this case severely delayed updates.

So happy New Year and thanks for sticking along on this wild ride, some of you for nearly a decade now as next month it will be 9 years ago that I started this blog.

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