Trekking the Balkan’s Tallest Peak: A Glimpse into Bulgaria’s Brilliance (Rila, Bulgaria)

Rila national park is one of few Bulgarian protected regions. And unlike many other national parks, the Rila region is more than natural beauty that accumulates with the highest point in the Balkans, Musala peak, coming in a few meters shy of 3000m; it has a rich cultural history as well.

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Back to the USSR, Don’t Forget Who You Are: Russian Humor (Russia, Siberia)

A month spent in the wilderness of Siberia taught me much about Russian mentality. The most important aspect of Russian culture a foreigner must grasp to feel welcomed and comfortable amongst their Russian hosts is that of Russian humor.

When I arrived in north Baikal to start my volunteer work with the Great Baikal Trail, the first thing our team leader said was, “Put tents up fast; snow in four hours.”

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Lake Baikal’s Magical Island (Olkhon, Russia)

“There’s an erergy to that island. It’s magic. You have to go to Olkhon.”

That’s all I kept hearing from Siberians when I arrived in Irkutsk. This ain’t hockey so why fight these pesky Russians?

Actually, one thing I learned from being in Siberia and the Baltic states, Ukraine – places that continue to have Russian influence, at least in language – is that a Russian is very much like an African: an over simplified term that can refer to hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups.

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Visiting Siberia’s Wilderness: Eco-Tourism at Lake Baikal

Originally Published for Dispatches International

“Lake Baikal is not such a good place for a restful vacation or a place at the beach because it snows [every] four hours, it’s cold enough in the morning, and mosquitoes [are] everywhere,” says Vladimir Hidekel, a professor of ecology at Irkutsk State University. “[But] it’s good for people who understand the beauty of wild nature.”

Sunset at Ayaya Bay

In addition to his work as an ecologist, Hidekel is an outdoorsman. He works as a project leader for the Great Baikal Trail (GBT), an ambitious project that aims to develop the first environmental trail system in Russia. “People need access to the wild nature and beautiful places,” Hidekel says about the trail network.

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Everybody Must Get Stoned…or for my many Quebecois/Estonian friends: Eesti Callise (Tallinn, Estonia)

So I borrowed this post’s title from one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, and one of the best Quebecois idioms. Not that it really applies much to what will follow. I wasn’t cursing when I arrived in Tallinn, though it was pouring rain and I got drenched the moment I got off the pier. I didn’t get stoned either in Estonia, nor did I find Tallinn to be backwards like, you know, something from the Stone Age. (Ok,that was forcing it).

Like I said, it was raining pretty hard when I got off the ferry from Helsinki. It was wet, cold and grey. I was thrilled! This is what I thought my first visit to the Baltic’s should be like. A miserable chill to the atmosphere, suffering. Suffering, but not in vain. This is what freedom earned through perseverance, non-violence, and endured captivity must look like.

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Westward on the Trans-Siberian (Train Station Observations, Beijing, UlaanBaatar, Irkutsk)

The trans-Siberian train is a dream trip for some, an escape across continents for others, and just a normal passenger train for the majority of people who make a living working abroad, as migrant workers, or by trade between China, Mongolia, and Russia. My motives fell somewhere between the first and second as I took the train the non-traditional route, westwards out of Beijing.


Now, coming from the west there are a few different routes: two from Vladostok on the Russian pacific, one that traverses all of Siberia north of Lake Baikal called BAM that cuts the transit time, the other south of the lake; and then two from Beijing, one via Mongolia and the other through Manchuria.

I was leaving Beijing and opted for Mongolian landscapes out my window. My destination: Irkutsk, Russia. Some say, as my mom told me, that Irkutsk is the Paris of Siberia. But when I got there the locals didn’t really care for this comparison. They were also much kinder to me than Parisians, and I speak French! I didn’t feel the similarities with Paris, though Irkutsk is beautiful and especially on a grey night with a light mist. Anyway, I digress.

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