-  An 8500km Trans Siberian Expedition


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Our first stop was Beijing, China. The trip kicked off with trying to locate our hostel in the early morning hours. This was after realizing there are no hostels in the area or at the address we were given. After wondering through the Hutongs (side alleys of the city), trying to ask those still on the street for directions, we eventually found our accommodation at 3:45 am.

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The main reason for visiting China was to get our Mongolian visas (which you can’t get directly in South Africa) and starting our Trans Siberian journey from one of the most eastern points possible. While waiting on our visas we decided to explore the urban jungle. The city itself and its people didn’t impress me much. Overall I felt a sense of claustrophobia between the thousands of tired-face people, cars, skyscrapers and polluted smoggy skies. Our highlight however was - after an almost six hour journey trying to get out of the city, involving two bus rides, getting lost, being dropped off in the middle of nowhere and hitch hiking the last stretch – hiking up a secluded section of the great wall and spending the night in an old watchtower.

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To our surprise our visas were approved within three days, but now we still needed our train tickets for the first stretch to Ulaanbaatar. We wanted to play it safe and wait for the approval of our visas before buying them. But then, another curveball… In Beijing, you can’t buy tickets online, unless it’s a minimum of six days prior to your trip. After some severe frustration and untranslatable cussing, someone, on the other side of the world, finally heard our cry for help. We hopped in a taxi, with our tickets and our visas, exhausted and ready to finally get out of China and on this train.

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The following morning we were seated in our compartment, our home for the next two days. The engine kicked to life, and so the journey of two sporadic travelers through the railway universe began. The train rolled out of the big city, past the skyscrapers, the slums on the outskirts, into the mountainside where snow started falling from the sky; through old tunnels, pass lakes and rivers. The big coal plantations and factories obscuring the natural vistas were a sad sight, but this passed as we neared the endless Gobi desert. The snow covered landscapes turned into a semi-desert land that took me back to road trips through the Karoo in South Africa. The first thing we learnt on the train was that the restaurant cart only takes cash in the form of Chinese currency, which we no longer had and the few snacks we had on us didn’t last very long. At around 08:30 pm we reached the Chinese-Mongolian boarder where strict security procedures were followed. Then, a one of a kind procedure took place until 02:00 am; each carriage is separated and jacked up to have its bogies (wheel sets) changed from the Chinese gauge to the Mongolian/Russian standard gauge. Afterwards we got our passports back and we were on our way again, officially entering Mongolia.

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We woke up to a sunrise over the endless nothing of the Gobi desert. The nomadic tribes in their yurts, with small herds of animals in the distance. Small villages with colourful roofs started appearing as we approached the capital. With our arrival in the city that afternoon, the first thing that caught my eye was how modernized the city was. It was not quite the Mongolia I was expecting. In a way it was quite tragic seeing such a unique and far-off world loosing its originality and authenticity by trying to become another metropolitan - a business hub between Europe and Asia maybe - and trying to compete with the rest of the first world cities. With this came a lot of other tragedies, such as pollution, on the ground as well as in the air. Most of it from all the coal generated heating and electricity. The amount of either abandoned or half constructed buildings was an unsolved riddle to us. One thing was for sure; we were finding ourselves in a very different world than what we were used to.

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There was a drastic change in temperature, as we were walking around in snow with temperatures as low as -13 °C. We booked into our hostel and went for our first local meal. It consisted of rice, potatoes and a lot of meat. It was clear that meat was their staple food here. In Mongolia, our main objective was to find one of the nomadic tribes outside of the city and to spend some time with them; observing and documenting their every day life and how they go about living such simple lives especially now with Mongolia clearly going through some sort of transformation. However, most of these tribes were living 600-1000km out in the desert and getting there would be a lot harder than we thought.

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To our luck, the hostel’s clerk had a friend with family living in a village in the mountains about two hours drive from the city. We arranged with the friend to pick us up the following day, take us through to the village and pick us up again a day later. En route, we were barely out of the city when the landscape turned into semi-desert. Roads were practically non-existing with patches of tar and gravel here and there. Traditional Russian music was playing over the car’s stereo with camels running past in the distance. Driving was frantic, without lanes, dodging potholes and incoming traffic. Signs reading “resort” and massive half-build hotels in middle of nowhere was distorting my world view of the forgone land and raised a lot of concerning questions within.  The snow covered mountains and yurt villages started to appear in the distance. Before heading down into the valley, we pulled over and waited for a Mongolian man on horseback who later showed up and indicated we should follow him. He wasn’t very friendly and I was wondering if he was the “head” of the family in the village. We followed him down into the valley and met the head of the family we would stay with. Still there was no way of understanding each other. In broken English the horseman explained we could use his horses in the morning to ride into the mountains to the Buddhist temple. The rest of the day we explored the village and surroundings. Fur coated cattle grazing around while Siberian husky’s barked in the background – merely guard dogs for these people – This was Jack London’s world and there was very little emotional attachment towards animals. Temperatures were dropping quickly, now even below -13°C. Suddenly a gush of snow blew over the mountaintops. We were struggling to feel our hands and I decided to visit the family in their yurt where the mother was already preparing dinner in a big pot on a stove, that doubles as a heater in the middle of the yurt. The yurt was surprisingly warm and cozy inside. They had two daughters, one of about three years of age and the other seven months. We observed and smiled and laughed, while she poured us another cup of hot tea and later explained to us that she was a champion wrestler in her day. That night the temperature dropped to -20°C and Dewald and I had to take shifts to keep the stove fire going, occupying ourselves with some card games. 

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The next morning we first had to chop some wood for our fire to warm up again, after which I went for a stroll with some of the locals to the nearby forest to help them gather more wood. The grumpy horseman later returned with the horses and together with the head of the family we horse backed through the village and forest all the way up the mountain towards the temple. The wind was painfully cold and at some stage I was trying to manage steering my horse while sitting on my hands just to keep them from going numb. We left the horses at the foot of the temple and climbed for what felt like a few hundred steps towards the top of the ancient, beautiful, bright red and yellow structure. At the top, an old monk opened the door and led us in. There was a definite sense of mysticism in the air. I was awe struck with this world we suddenly found ourselves in.  

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With our arrival back at the village later the afternoon, the horseman, along with our driver was already waiting our return. We had a last lunch together with the family while the grumpy horseman sat in the corner with a frown, refusing to eat. We finished up, greeted and thanked the family for their hospitality, gave them a tip and walked out to horseman eagerly awaiting his money. I gave him the amount we shook on the previous day, he counted it and angrily replied “No! No! No!” He now suddenly wanted a ridiculous amount (which we didn’t even had on us). We firmly told him we had an agreement and would give him no more, but he refused to take the money. Problem now was, without any way of communicating to anyone, he made us look like the crooks and told our driver not to drive until we gave him more money. The back-and-forth arguing went on for more than an hour. He then ordered our driver to follow him to a hill for cellphone reception to call the hostel clerk to translate for us. I explained the situation to the clerk who immediately realized this guy was a crook and explained it to our driver. Suddenly our driver changed his attitude towards us and we were not the bad guys anymore. He took the money from us, gave it to the horseman and told him we’re leaving. But the horseman got more worked up, to such a point that his horse got a fright and ran off. He then sat on the car's hood and started phoning people for backup. Our driver realized that things were getting quite serious and that we needed to get away as soon as possible. He jammed the gear in first and sped off, dust flying. Around a mountain pass, over the solid line into incoming traffic, looking more in his rare view mirror than at the road. My heart was racing along. I tried to explain to him that he should slow down and get back in his lane, but he looked terrified and explained we were being followed.

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The car chase went on all the way till we were back in the city and safely at our hostel. If there was anyone behind us our James Bond driver thankfully outran them. For the rest of the night and following morning, up until we were back on the train and moving, I felt like a wanted man with a bounty on his head.

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It was a bittersweet farewell having to leave the country, as we realized we only saw the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the beauty of this land. At exactly 03:20 pm, as indicated on our ticket, the train’s wheels started turning. As we pulled out of the station a sigh of relieve left my body. The train had a definite impact on our emotional state and I could see we were both different people, more at ease, more relaxed. Part of the beauty of the train was the community and brotherhood it created despite race, religion or age. We were sharing the cabin with a young timid man from Mongolia studying in Siberia, who later came down from his bunk to join us for a game of poker, betting with peanuts and pieces of chocolate.

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Around midnight we neared the Mongolian boarder and a similar procedure as in China followed. Our passports were stamped and we rolled out of the desert country and into the Siberian forests. Our first stop was the town of Ulan-Ude. We arrived at 05:30 am as the sun was casting a golden glow around the fairly grey and white Siberia. Our hostel was on the outskirts of the town and looked like an old Hollywood wild-wild-west set that was left half-abandoned. Old wooden structures, deserted streets with dogs marking their territories, contrasted against a beautiful blue and white, golden cooped Orthodox Church. Unfortunately it was a Sunday, so except for the food market, most of the places were closed and not much was going on.

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We took the first train out early the next morning, heading to our next Siberian destination. Navigating our way around the banks of the world’s oldest and deepest lake, Lake Baikal, towards Irkutsk, from where we made our way down to the small lakeside town, Listvyanka. The train’s interior (and the majority of the passengers) changed again. As we started moving out of Ulan Ude the landscape changed even more; endless white vistas of snow covered pine forests on the one side and the wide, frozen stretched out lake - nearly impossible to distinguish land from sky - on the other. It was quite surreal riding past this infinite white space that felt like it stretched on towards the ends of the earth.  A few countryside villages with smoke puffing out of brown-sooted chimneys flashed by. From the Irkutsk station we took a tram into town from where we took a minibus to Listvyanka. A very bumpy but beautiful ride through snowy forest landscapes, arriving at the lake just in time for an awe-striking sunset and a lukewarm beer at a small tavern on the dock.

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20 km From Listvyanka was the small village of Bolshie Koty, only accessible by foot or in summer months by boat. The plan was to hike there, across the mountain, spend a night and hike back along the shore. It was very risky as snowfall was still thick with average temperature at around -10°C. As we sipped our morning coffee, staring outside while snow lightly started falling on the rooftops, Dewald decided that he’s going to sit out on this one, rather exploring Listvyanka. Myself on the other hand, (always eager for the unknown and the road less travelled) decided to proceed as planned. I packed the backpack, with tent and all, stopped at the corner store for a last few snacks and started making my way towards the mountain. On my way I picked up two Chinese business partners who wanted to go for a day-hike on the mountain and followed me for the first 5 km, until the trail started fading and the tracking through the snow became more difficult. They stared at me in disbelieve as I decided to continue. Keeping track of direction became more difficult and at some stage there was no existing trail anymore. I was hiking at a very slow pace, inclining through knee-deep snow. It was up and down peaks and valleys until the all-too-familiar horror struck me again – I was completely lost. I went back down into the valley following a frozen stream with the idea that I would eventually reach the lake and shore, but time wasn’t on my side and I realized with no spot to pitch a tent I could be in serious trouble once night falls. I sat down on a log for a while to get my breath back and re-evaluate my situation. I decided best will be to follow my footsteps back until I’ve reached the trail again and head back to where I came from. For me that was one of the most difficult decisions to make when hiking; it was a sign of failure, just returning to the same spot you started the morning. What I’ve learned from similar situations in the past; accept your mistake, turn around, go back and learn from it. Very carefully I tracked my own footprints all the way back to civilization. It was past 06:00 pm already and the temperature started plummeting rapidly. My feet were soaked from all the snow that came into my boots, playing with the odds of frostbite.

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As I entered a deserted looking back road leading into town - cold, exhausted and disappointed - I passed an old wooden house with an old lady sitting outside; glasses resting on nose and fur covered hood over her head. I greeted (not expecting anything back as the people of Siberia were generally as cold as the landscape) but her face lit up, she waved and indicated for me to come in. I put my bag outside, apologized for my muddy feet and entered her cozy wooden home. “Brrr” she said as she looked at my wet feet. The language barrier was still there, but I could make out a word or two. The one room was like an art gallery full of paintings and the next room a display of wardrobe and cutouts form European fashion magazines. She handed me a printed-out paper of her biography written in English. Turns out Svetlana Kaniskaya was a famous fashion designer in the 70’s and has come to retire peacefully with her modest living in the Siberian woods. There was something about this world she created and the way she views the world that I could understand. She wrote about her art - “When you look at the pictures, they can deeply affect you, but eventually you find out that this form of art is a kind of opportunity to understand and to love the world and people. All the pictures are full of passion for this understanding; for life, for harmony with the constant flow of nature.” The whole day’s struggle was suddenly all worth it, even if it was just so that my crooked little path could cross the one of Svetlana. Svetlana offered me a meal and a place to stay for the night, but I explained that I would find my way home from there. I made my way down to the shore, where underneath the docks, I threw down my pack, took out my gas stove, brewed myself a coffee and watched the sunset over the endless frozen body of water.

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The following day we explored the rest of Listvyanka and the Lake Baikal surroundings. There was an old observatory on a hill in the forest outside of town that I wanted to get to. Walking through town I past a small market, most of the locals selling the popular smoked fish - fresh from the lake - and a few Matryoshka dolls. Making my way trhough town I was founding myself in the run-down neighbourhood side, with eerie, gloomy streets, occupied by Siberian locals spending their time gathering and chopping wood, smoking fish and kebabs and others just sitting around drinking vodka. The most tragic site of all was the small cage in one of the backyards enclosing a Siberian Wolf, caught in the forest. It always boggles my mind, why men have this need to oppress nature. I left the town behind and started my way through the forest to the top of the hill via the little mountain path. On my way I walked into a fellow traveler from Chile; a timid and polite young man and on the same mission finding this observatory. We eventually reached the top where the structure stood, looking more like a soviet grain factory. The view was incredible though, but the doors were locked and a guard dog barking voraciously woke up the caretaker who chased us away. On the way back we both agreed on skipping the strange neighbourhood section and rather navigating our way back to town over the frozen lake. Over the frozen Baikal we made our way back to town to the small bar at the docks, where we met up with some other travelers for the traditional smoked fish and beer.

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Before leaving the lakeside town back to Irkutsk for our train to Moscow - the big stretch - I had one more adventure on the agenda. Howard, a fellow traveler from New Zeeland who we met in the bar the previous day - told me about these Russians who can take us scuba diving underneath the frozen lake. He immediately got my interest and the next morning the two Russian men with their fur hats picked us up. I assured them I had a diving license, but this didn’t make any difference to them as this was Howard’s first ever dive. They gave us an indemnity form to sign, all in Russian of course and just explained “Diving is very dangerous, you sign.” We drove 2 km out of town where the ice started cracking. We put on our dry suits (except for our thin gloves and hood) and diving gear and we entered the nearly -4°C water. Even though 80% of all living organisms found inside the lake are only found there, most of them were micro organisms and very hard to see, non the less an unforgettable experience. Victor, our underwater guide, even showed us how to walk upside down on the ice from beneath the icy surface. After about half an hour we started loosing feeling in our face and hands and decided to head back to shore.

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We got a ride back to Irkutsk with a backpacker from Holland, Martijn, who was on the same route with us all the way to Saint Petersburg. As we stepped onto our third class cart, we realized this is not the same third class situation anymore and we made a big mistake. We were about to leave on our longest stretch yet, four days straight all the way to Moscow. Our compartments now looked a bit different, it was all open plan, like one big dormitory. Already we realized the first thing we should get used to is people being in your personal space and unfamiliar smells. The two Siberian men - shorts and T-shirts, covered in tattoos - opened their 2l. plastic bottle of beer and a bag full of fish. If I can give you one piece of advice out of this whole journey, it is when travelling within Russia with the Trans Siberian, spend a little extra and don’t go third class. We were unfortunate enough to get the top beds of the bunks as well, where we were packed away like luggage. Suddenly I didn’t feel like the tough and rugged traveler I thought I was aymore. The locals next to us, one of them honestly explaining he is an ex-convict, were very generous and offered us some of his fish and beer.  

We got a ride back to Irkutsk with a backpacker from Holland, Martijn, who was on the same route with us all the way to Saint Petersburg. As we stepped onto our third class cart, we realized this is not the same third class situation anymore and we made a big mistake. We were about to leave on our longest stretch yet, four days straight all the way to Moscow. Our compartments now looked a bit different, it was all open plan, like one big dormitory. Already we realized the first thing we should get used to is people being in your personal space and unfamiliar smells. The two Siberian men - shorts and T-shirts, covered in tattoos - opened their 2l. plastic bottle of beer and a bag full of fish. If I can give you one piece of advice out of this whole journey, it is when travelling within Russia with the Trans Siberian, spend a little extra and don’t go third class. We were unfortunate enough to get the top beds of the bunks as well, where we were packed away like luggage. Suddenly I didn’t feel like the tough and rugged traveler I thought I was aymore. The locals next to us, one of them honestly explaining he is an ex-convict, were very generous and offered us some of his fish and beer.  

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The next four days (and possibly all the vodka with the locals) got to me. I felt mentally exhausted and my soul felt weary. We drove through old Siberian towns and villages; pale, neglected and grey. Dead leafless forests painted a somber picture outside, until we passed a small mountain village in-between green pines with snow sprinkled colourful rooftops that lit up the world again. Our conversations with those around us were limited as no one understood or spoke a word of English, except for Martijn. We later started speaking in a mixture of Dutch and Afrikaans to each other as we realized, when you speak English the locals associate you with Americans and closed off even more towards you. As time progressed we could slowly see how the people around us started changing their attitudes towards us. We learned how to communicate and read body language, how one can learn quite a lot from someone else without speaking a single word.

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The cart was like a little village on wheels. We lost all perception of time as we travelled through numerous time zones. At the quick small station stops were small kiosks where you can refill on snacks, bread, eggs and cheese. It is incredible how the body can adapt to any kind of situation and make the best of it if only you take control of the mind. As the old saying goes, adapt or die (or have a horrible four days on a train). By the last evening we were craving a hot shower (no shower facilities in third class), a proper meal and solid ground. We were up before 05:00 am anxiously awaiting our arival in Moscow. An hour later the train came to a holt in the big Moscow Railway station as the sun rose over skyscrapers, slowly casting its light on the streets and city go-ers.

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It was exhilarating to be back, not just in civilization, but in an European-like city. For the first time on this journey it felt like we were in a first world country. We had a coffee in the square opposite our hostel and just observed the people and the world around us. Everyone so beautiful and fashionable, especially the woman. Coming from where we came the last couple of weeks, everything still felt a bit surreal at that moment. We strolled through the streets all the way to the infamous Red Square, where the Colourful St. Basil’s Cathedral stood on the one side and the Kremlin to the other. We took a tour through the majestic cathedral - Nearly 463 years old, decorated from wall to wall with the most beautiful icon art dating as far back as the 16th century.

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For the next few days I explored some of the most incredible museums. First on the list was the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum. The Tretyakov Art Gallery was another highlight, despite the long, wet and cold walk in the rain getting there. The gallery dates back to 1856 when they started with a collection of some of the best Russian artist of that era. It now contains more than 130 000 exhibits with some of the most extraordinary works by the greats such as Karl Bryullov, Tolstoy and even the magnificent Trinity by Andrei Rublev. I though to myself, maybe this is our purpose; to try and leave something behind, that is not necessarily relevant or understood in your current time, but years from now can tell a story and leave someone standing in awe. Moscow, much like any European city, had a lot of nightlife to offer and we enjoyed a last night out at the local bar Beer Garden where you had the choice of over 20 different beers. Before we knew, it was our last day in Moscow and we were making our way to the station again for the train heading to Saint Petersburg – Our final stop in Russia.

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After our previous four-day stretch we decided to spend the extra money and upgrade ourselves to second class. We were back in a compartment and lucky enough to get the lower bunks again. We drove out into the night as day faded away. It was a beautiful and pleasant evening. Enough time to do some reading, writing, and get some sleep in before arriving in Saint Petersburg the next morning. I was excited to explore this new city, known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with an atmosphere that felt like a mixture between Paris and Amsterdam.

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The following day was cold and rainy, ideal to spend it in the Hermitage Museum. Once a palace and now the world’s second biggest art museum. Founded in 1764, consisting of over three million art pieces and the biggest collection of paintings in the world. It features some of the world’s most famous art works such as, Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, Da Vinci's Madonna, several artworks of Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and my personal favourite, Van Gogh.

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Our last day in the city was a mild and sunny spring day. We went over to Hare Island opposite the mainland where the old fort was still standing. In the middle of the ford the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, with its unique yellow coloured coating and extra long clock tower (the world's tallest Orthodox clock tower). It is the first and oldest landmark in Saint Petersburg constructed in 1712.

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The pleasant weather however meant everyone was out on the Sunday afternoon buzz on the main street that suddenly felt like Time Square. While trying to make my way through the streets and hordes of people I went and sat on a bench next to Alexander. Alexander was a struggling artist in his 60’s, born and raised in the city and now working half of the year in Germany. I rolled each other a cigarette and listened to his stories; how he was disheartened by the overall lack of support towards art, especially being raised in an environment where it thrived at some stage, and how he witnessed how the rich get richer and the poor poorer in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. As far as he knows he is the last remaining member of his family and is only left with a few close friends back in Germany. I realized how easy it was to blind yourself for the brokenness of the world by the glamour and beauty of first world cities.

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From Saint Petersburg, Dewald and I parted ways and I did the final stretch to Finland on my own. But before we I made me way to the station one last time, we got up at 05:00 am to do a last photo mission through the enchanting city (a very unique experience as this is the only time when nearly everyone is still asleep).

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By late afternoon I rolled into Finland, the timid little country where nature and natural wilderness still has the upper hand; most of the land covered by forests and lakes, hidden in between the dark red and yellow wooden houses. My main purpose was to visit some family and spend my days hiking though the wilderness. Finally giving my soul some rest after all this so called “living” we were doing in the cities. 

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Spending time in solitude in the forest was enriching; the silence was suddenly screaming. What an encounter to all of a sudden realize all you hear is the sound of the trees, birds and your own hidden thoughts. Being even more north now, the days were still cold and the nights even colder, making it almost unbearable to sleep even with my thick sleeping bag. But how can we enjoy the bliss and comfortability of the world if one never experiences the uncomfortable.

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Jumping into icy lakes at the end of a long day of hiking gave my soul and body an exhilarating kick, like mother nature herself embracing you. The world around me evergreen, lined with pine trees and mossy scrubs. Patches of snow still covered the earth. For my last night in the forest I pitched my tent on a cliff side on top of a hilltop next to a lake. There are few things in this world so simple, yet so beautiful, that can bring one’s soul so much calm and bliss as a serene sunset.

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Finland Apr '18 (Ektar100) by Willem van

One day I would look back in reminisce and think of that afternoon, lying on my back on top of the hilltop staring at the trees and the sky, knowing all this is enough. Dark clouds rolled over and rain fell from the sky. As I hiked out the next morning, the world around me was transformed in a mythical magical place, with raindrops hanging like crystals from leaves in between the foggy mist rising from the forest surface and tranquil lakes. I nostalgically thought back about the past month and suddenly realized what a life-altering journey this was. And what an ending, something I wish everyone can experience at least once; to seclude yourself completely from all of “life” and society and experience so much emotion so intensely and meet your deepest true self out there in the unknown.

Finland Apr '18 (Ektar100) by Willem van
Finland Apr '18 (Ektar100) by Willem van
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Myself and Dewald would like to thank our partners who helped us make this journey possible; HumanWrit.es for our journals to document every day, Cape Film Supply  South Africa’s number one film supplier who helped me capture these moments and D1MILANO watches who kept us on time for our trains.

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