Bicycle Vagabond – Dave Stamboulis

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Dave Stamboulis was born a traveller. Born in Greece, raised in Berkeley and on the road taking pictures and notes for most of his life since then. He  rode his bicycle around the world and his narrative of that trip Odysseus Last Stand won the Silver Medal from the Society of American Travel Writers. Dave lives in Thailand and is a featured contributor here at Vagobond.com. His books, articles and photos will blow your mind when you check them out at DaveStamboulis.com or at Flickr.com/photos/davestamboulis

Vagobond: What’s your first memory of wanting to travel? What about the first time you realized you wanted to capture the world on your camera?
Dave Stamboulis: I can’t say I really have much of a first memory of wanting to travel, probably because my parents took me traveling from a young age. My mother always had a great story about me that I thought explained it all. When we crossed from Greece to the US a year after I was born, the boat we were on ran into very rough seas. All the passengers were lying inside, all prone and sick as dogs. But I was out on deck crawling around. I guess it was a sign of things to come!
Vagobond: On your website, there is a great quote by Rudyard Kipling “There are basically two types of men in the world. Those who stay at home, and those who don’t.” What’s the hardest part of being one of those who don’t?
Dave Stamboulis: The hardest part of being a constant traveler is missing the time and energy necessary to put into relationships at home. Close to that would be a few other things, such as people, even friends, being jealous of your lifestyle, and subsequently dealing with those feelings, and also the fact that travel, when it becomes a lifestyle and living, is no longer exactly the fantasy and pleasure cruise that it once was.
Vagobond: Riding your bike  around the world is one hell of a way to break into travel writing – what was the most difficult part of that journey?
Dave Stamboulis: The most difficult part of riding a bicycle around the world was actually finishing at the end. I never intended to spend seven years wandering when I set out, it just happened. And in year six, riding across Central Asia as winter set in, with bursitis in my knee and endless days of frigid frozen sleet out on the road, I could find nothing enjoyable about what I was doing. In every way I wanted to stop, but I was pretty dedicated to the finish line at this point, so I put my head down and ground it out.
Vagobond: Did you ever expect that Odysseus Last Stand would get the acclaim and praise that it did? How much of that was part of your vision for it?
Dave Stamboulis: I had absolutely ZERO idea that Odysseus would do as well as it did, and basically launch my career as a travel writer and photographer. I basically wrote the book because when I returned home, I wanted to figure out what had happened to me and to somehow gracefully lay seven years of travel to a peaceful rest. Further on, I just wanted to share my adventures with friends and family. Then, once I had a 130,000 word manuscript that took over two years to write and edit, I figured it wasn’t going to be much of an endeavor if it just sat on a shelf taking in dust. In retrospect, I did put a huge amount of time and energy into it, and I researched and followed all of the proper steps in trying to become a first time publisher, and I guess it paid off. But I never expected it to do as well as it did.
Vagobond: Are you a goal setter? How much planning do you do to get your trips to go the way you want them to?
Dave Stamboulis:  I am a goal setter, but my goals are more like whims or dreams that aren’t necessarily overly concrete. I finished a cross country US bicycle trip that changed me quite significantly, and after that I wondered what could be next. A world trip came to mind, but the only real goals or aims of the trip at the time were to get to Tibet, India, and across the Himalayas, places I’d always wanted to go to. Once I got to Japan and started saving a lot of money working, then the planning got a bit more concrete, but most of that was based around weather patterns, monsoons, hot and cold seasons, and trying to avoid extremes wherever possible.
Vagobond: On a related note, how do you start your day? Do you have morning rituals?
Dave Stamboulis:   I guess I have always had morning rituals. I did yoga for many years, I did Zen meditation for a spell. While traveling, starting the day at a cafe, drinking a good cup of coffee and writing my notes became something to cherish. These days, being based in Bangkok, I usually get up and watch an NBA basketball game online in the early morning while having my coffee! (being a lifelong basketball fan and having the night games come on in the early a.m. here is a great way I find to warm up the day before I start working.
Vagobond: I was in Bangkok back in 2001 – it was obviously on the rise and from what I’ve heard, is now one of the most comfortable cities in southeast Asia in a Western sense…what challenges do you face living there?
Dave Stamboulis: Bangkok, in 2011, is probably 100 times more comfortable to live in than 10 years ago. I live 5 minutes from the Skytrain, so I virtually never deal with the infamous traffic, my nearby mega-supermarkets stock products from around the world, and I can find just about any kind of camera or computer gear that I need for work at reasonable prices. On the other hand, the Thailand that I fell in love with, the Thailand where people never honked their horns, smiled all the time, and just took it real easy, has drastically changed. It has become far more like the west or developed world in terms of stress, crime, greed, and focused on money rather than on anything else, and this is a very sad thing in my opinion. Also, given the decline of the dollar along with inflation, Bangkok is no longer the bargain paradise that it once was.
Vagobond: Back to that Kipling quote – what about family life? How does a man who goes build relationships? Or does he?
Dave Stamboulis: It is very difficult to sustain intimate relationships as a road junkie. I have had my share over the years, and have even cut down on my trips and time away during the times I have had steady companions. But I think it is tough to share the lifestyle, and probably the only way I think it really works is if you end up with someone who is in a similar line of work or way of thinking, perhaps another writer or photographer. I saw a documentary recently about Lemmy, the zany singer of Motorhead, and he was basically saying that as a touring rock star, there was just no way a relationship with anyone other than another musician was going to work out, and I think that is somewhat true. Artists tend to be rather committed to their passions, often at the expense of partners and friends in their lives.
Vagobond: Can you offer three travel tips that Vagobond readers may not have heard before?
Dave Stamboulis: I don’t know that I have any new tips, but
1) as I have gotten older and more “comfortable and convenient” I have resolved to take myself out of my comfort element at least once a year, it usually is rather life changing and reaffirming to go get on a rustbucket bus on a potholed road in the middle of nowhere with few amenities. It is humbling and reminds oneself just what real travel is all about.
2) Try going precisely to the places that don’t interest you. Years ago I didn’t have any strong draw to spending time in Africa, as opposed to Asia or S. America, whereas now, for me, Africa is somewhat the last great place to adventure in.
3) I think it is pretty important to combine some sort of project or focus with just a relaxing escape. I actually no longer really enjoy the “motion” part of travel. Too many hours on bad buses in bad hotels eating bad food without any of the comforts of home. But going on trips with the purpose of taking photos and gathering material for articles, it gives me a focus and gets me through those bad moments.
4) And I am sure this has been said, but I can’t stress the importance of it: TRUST PEOPLE. 99% of the people in the world are good, and if you open yourself up to them, you will be rewarded with amazing kindnesses and great memories.
Vagobond: Your forthcoming piece on the Kazakh Eagle Hunters (here on Vagobond coming Monday!)  was the kind of travel piece that I used to eat up when I was a kid. I would dig through 80 years of my grandmother’s National Geographics to find stories like that – what are some of your other awesome adventures?
Dave Stamboulis:  Probably the best adventures to me involve a bit of physical hardship. In Mongolia, it might have been the extremes of temperatures and landscape, a million miles removed from home in a harsh landscape with no amenities. One of my most outstanding adventures was a crossing of the back side of the polar ice cap in Fitzroy National Park in Argentinian Patagonia. I was with a climbing friend and we had finished several months of trekking and climbing throughout S. America and I was really spent and ready to go to Buenos Aires and go sit in cafes and read books. And my friend basically pressured me to do this final trip, which involved slogging huge amounts of gear across highly crevassed ice completely away from civilization. The trip was very hard, but the scenery, solitude, and sense of adventure was enormous.
Vagobond: I’m not going to ask you how many countries you’ve been to or which one is your favorite – instead, if aliens appeared and told you that you had to spend the rest of your life in just one place (let’s assume it has to be on Planet Earth) – where would you pick?
Dave Stamboulis: Put it this way, for most of my life, I always thought of places in the world to be a bit like stations on a train journey. Some stations merited getting off and staying in, some worth more time than others, but eventually, one would have to get back on the train and enjoy the ride. Well, Thailand changed that for me. This was the first place I ever said to myself, “I will die here,” meaning it as a place I felt based in and very at home. The other place in the world I have a very strong connection to is Nepal. I spent several years living there, teaching there, cycling and climbing there. I loved the people, the culture, the landscape. I went back for the first time in 12 years a few years ago, and actually had as much of an enjoyable time as the first time. The mix of friendly people along with the Himalayan landscape and culture is something I love.
Vagobond: What does the future hold for Dave Stamboulis?
Dave Stamboulis: The future? Given continued decent health, I am sure I will do more of the same, getting out and seeing the world, and trying to keep an open and fresh mind. On the one hand, it is horrible to go back to places that were paradises 20 years ago and see them destroyed by tourism and development greed, yet on the other hand, travel exposes one on a daily basis to lots of wonderful human interest stories, far more hopeful than the garbage we tend to read and be spoon fed on a daily basis on the internet, newspaper, and television.

The Eagle Hunters of Mongolia – Photo Essay by Dave Stamboulis

Just in case you missed it yesterday, you should check out the incredible story about the Kazakh Eagle Hunters of the Mongolian Steppes which was published yesterday – the images are stunning by themselves, but when you combine the sensual imagery of the text, it is truly something special. Click on any of the images below to see the photos in a larger size.
The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Central Mongolia
Photos by Dave Stamboulis



The Kazakh Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia

Eagle hunters of Mongolia

Story and Photography by Dave Stamboulis

(Check back tomorrow for Dave’s photo essay on the Kazakh Eagle Hunters)

I am perched on top of a cliff on a small crag looking out over the arid Altai mountain chain of western Mongolia. In this remote corner of the globe, population density registers less than one human being per square kilometer, roads into the region are nothing but dusty tire tracks, and temperatures during the eternal Siberian winters regularly plummet into the minus 40 and 50’s. One rarely spots an airplane overhead, nor for that matter many Russian vans or Suzuki 4WD jeeps lumbering through, but what is striking out here is the complete absence of sound. All I can hear from my perch, other than the wind, is the beating of wings, coming from a large golden eagle who sits beside me, scanning the horizon for prey.
Eagles inhabit the vast grasslands and mountains of the Central Asian Steppe, from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and on into Mongolia. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, the forbearers of the modern nomads, had thousands of hunting birds, and their falconry expeditions were detailed by Marco Polo. It is also thought that berkutchi, as the art of eagle hunting is called, has been in existence on the Steppe for some 6000 years.
In Bayan Ulgii Province, which straddles the Kazakh, Russian, and Chinese borders, there are over 200 golden eagle hunters, all carrying on the ancient tradition of their forefathers. Most of the actual hunting takes place during the winter, when the birds are lean and hungry, but a large festival takes place in the province at the end of autumn, where the ethnic Kazakh hunters gather to show off their skills and talents, as well as compete in traditional Kazakh games such as kokbar, in which a tug of war with a goat or fox pelt is played while on horseback; kyz kuu, which is a romantic flirting game involving horse racing between women and men; or tenge alu, in which horse riders attempt to pick up tokens laying on the ground without getting off of their mounts.
kazakh eagle huntersThe bond between hunter and eagle is a strong one, as the eagle is a fiercely independent creature, and in order to create trust, it must be trained from an early age. The eagle hunter I am staying with, 50 year old Bikbolat, tells me that females make the best hunters, as they are more aggressive due to protecting offspring, as well as tending to be a third heavier than their male counterparts. Training young chicks can be preferable, as they are tamer, and won’t harm children or sheep, but birds that are a bit older are actually better hunters and have the killer instinct needed to bring down wolves and foxes.
Bikbolat tells me that the eagle chicks can be obtained by finding nests on the mountain tops during hatching season, but that to get older birds they have to resort to setting out traps baited with fresh rabbit meat, or tethering an accompanying eagle next to an animal carcass which will provoke a flying eagle into a jealous fit of rage if it occurs in a space they consider their territory.
Once trained, the eagle goes out with the hunter on horseback, riding on his left arm. The bond can be so close between veteran hunters and their birds that the slightest change in talon pressure on a hunter’s arm alerts him that his bird has picked up the scent of a prey. Some Kazakh hunters have antiquated Russian rifles which they can use to pick off hares, but most of the hunting is left to the eagles, as their vision is eightfold that of a human, and they can spot a fox or wolf several kilometers in the distance. While their main victims are marmots and corsac foxes, prized for their pelts which make excellent insulation, the physically powerful eagles also take down owls, wolves and even rare snow leopards. While not out on a hunt, the Kazakhs tend to keep blindfold hoods known as tomaga on their raptors so that they will remain calm.
Despite the hardships of life in rural Mongolia, the Kazakh hunters and their families remain tightly knit and enterprising. Bikbolat, who has also trained his first son Asentai to go hunting with him, lives in a traditional ger (yurt) for 4-5 months a year, and then in a small wood home on the edge of the grasslands during the colder months. Ever smiling, he proudly joked with me that he had 70 sheep, 50 goats, 40 cows, 20 horses, but only one eagle and one wife! His wife and daughters spend the day cooking, sewing, and preparing an endless array of dairy and bread products to supplement the mutton that feeds the family year round (not to mention their beloved eagle, which needs around half a kilo of raw meat a day to stay nourished!).
One could say that with enough livestock, hunting is superfluous, and mainly done for sport. However, the warm coats, cloaks, and hats that the hunters wrap themselves in during the severe winters are made entirely from the furs they get. Additionally, the practice of eagle hunting still serves as a rite of passage for Kazakh young men as well as a time honored tradition and highly refined art form that has been passed down for generations eternal.
Overgrazing of Mongolia’s rangelands has impacted the wildlife available for hunting in recent years, not to mention that with the arrival of tourism and its sponsors, pressure for wildlife preservation has also made inroads into the traditional way of living of the Kazakh eagle hunters. Yet eagle hunting requires a blend of force and tenderness as well as a profound respect for the natural world. The birds are treated with reverence and honor by the Kazakh hunters, and are always released back into the wild after ten years or so (eagles normally live to around fifty). And Bayan Ulgii Province is thousands of kilometers removed from the bureaucrats in Ulaan Baatar.
A Kazakh proverb sums up the hunters’ lives out in one of the world’s most remote places, saying “fast horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakh people,” and from my mountain perch, my view is almost as good as the birds.
Travel Tips:
Mongolia can be reached via Air China, which has daily flights to Ulaan Baatar via Beijing (http://www.airchina.com/th/en/index.shtml).
To reach Bayan Ulgii, the new Eznis Airways has domestic flights every other day and is the most comfortable way of reaching the remote west of the country (http://www.eznisairways.com/).
To set up visits with eagle hunters or tour anywhere in Mongolia, local outfitters Kazakh Tour are recommended (www.kazakhtour.com)
The Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii usually occurs during the first several days of October each year.

Black Robed Kaffir: Adventures on the other side of Pakistan

Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisI am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.

However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.

To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisThe international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.

Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.

The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.

In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!

The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.

Pakistan by Dave Stamboulis

In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.

There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.

Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisKhan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”

I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.

The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.

 

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.

The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.

 

Travel Tips:

From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.

Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.

In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: ingeneerk@yahoo.com).

 

 

 

 

 

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