Last year in winter, we did an interview with our photographer Irina about her journey towards east, through Russia, up to Alaska. At that point, she had already traveled Poland, Slovakia, the Ukraine and Romania. All by herself, she was equipped with a backpack, camera, courage and an open mind. She was in Bulgaria, Turkey, Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, East Russia and finally in South Korea, before she took a short break from traveling back home in Germany. You can read all about it here. We recently started wondering what she’s been up to since, thinking about what adventures she might have experienced, so we decided it was time for a second interview.
Irina in Mongolia (Photo: Irina)
Hi Irina! How was your break from traveling and what happened since?
During my 4 month break, it was hard for me to get back into normal everyday life. I felt like being on a journey through and I kinda actually was. However, after those 4 months, it was as hard to start again and continue. It was a strange phase and I will always think of it as part of my journey.
After the final end of the travels in August 2013, I felt full of energy and wanted to start full speed with my PhD about raccoons in Georgia. Well, it didn’t happen and in those grey November days, all the motivation faded away quickly and my lack of work and perspectives seemed endless. But just then, I received a absolutely unexpected job offer: interviewing Chinese students at the Academic testing center of the German Embassy in Beijing. Ok?! Totally insane, but an absolute lucky find to me. My job there even brought me to the German Embassy in Ulan Bator/Mongolia and will hopefully lead me to Vietnam in November and after that for a couple of months to China again. In between job assignments I travel of course. And so I am on my way back from Mongolia to Germany at the moment. As always backpacking, traveling by bus and couchsurfing.
Please tell us which countries you traveled to during the 2nd part of your journey and what you experienced there.
The second part of my “world trip” led me from April to August 2013 at first 2 months to Mongolia, after that I spent one month China, followed by one month in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon territory. And I would say that this part of my journey was probably the best. I experienced so many great things and met great people. Especially Mongolia turned out to be the dreamland that I had imagined – just like Alaska and Yukon. I found that China was not a suitable travel country for me. I almost only visited cities. But, it was nonetheless interesting and it’s a culinary wonderland – the best food on my whole journey.
In Mongolia, I contacted all wildlife biologists and was pushing an open door with my interview project (www.greentrousers.org). I got lots of info about ongoing projects and was even able to work with WWF Mongolia on their snow leopard project. And so it happened, that I had the incredible chance to see a wild female snow leopard from 20 m distance and look her in the eyes. This was probably one of the happiest moments of my journey and it still feels surreal. Equally beautiful were the Gobi desert and the vastnesses of Mongolia that appeared to be endless.
In Alaska and Yukon, it went on with postcard sceneries and animal sightings, including a grizzly, a black bear, migratory salmon, a humpback whale, caribous, a polar fox and moose. That’s why this part of my journey belongs also to my personal highlights. But it’s also the part where I had the best human encounters! I traveled together with 2 boys from Israel the whole time and the sun was simply shining for us, there’s no other way to describe it. After that I continued my way hitchhicking, and ended up with dinner, a few drinks in several bars and an overnight stay on a yacht! And the most exceptional Couchsurfing bed was at the coastal rain forest in Alaska near Haines in a small, open tree house. Oh and I have a new favorite city: Dawson City in Yukon. The gold mining town sparkles with adventurous spirit, there’s an incredible atmosphere. Especially when it’s summer and the sun still hasn’t disappeared beyond the horizon and you’ve already been to every one of the 15 bars and saloons. I had a great time there. I even crossed the arctic circle and had fresh caribou steak with some First Nations people.
I could talk endlessly about this part of my journey and I hope that I can do that live and in person with some of you in the future.
In Beijing there was even a Photocase user meet-up, right? Please tell us, how it was and how it came about.
Yes, that was totally funny. I read in the forum, that steffne and his girlfriend were planing a short trip to Beijing. I was there in the meantime because of my job at the testing centre. And so we met two times shortly before easter. One day, we walked around the Bell Towers quarter, equipped with our cameras and breathing masks against the smog. The second time, we watched down on the Forbidden City in the dusty evening light from a hill and had very hot hot pot after that. We had a good time.
Photocase user meet-up in Beijing
Did you stay true to your way of traveling? By yourself, with backpack and mostly by bus, train or ship?
Yes, I do still prefer this style of traveling. I want to be as close to the natives as possible and share their way of moving around. I still use the traffic system in place and that can mean sitting in a rickety bus for 2 days with no legroom and extremely bumpy “roads” but super interesting people. On the way to the Mongolian Altai for example, we were playing cards, sang Kazakh songs and cheered for the bus driver, when he overtook another bus. I love those moments and stories and wouldn’t like to trade this experience with a comfortable 3 hour flight. To Alaska, I had to fly, however. I’m sure, there are ships too, but those were unaffordable.
What about photo equipment? Do you travel with a digital camera now? And how does that work out “on the road”, when there’s not always a power outlet around to charge your batteries. Do you have any tips or tricks?
Yes, I actually got myself a digital camera (Panasonic Lumix LX7). I sometimes do miss my analogue cameras, but not their weight. I will keep on using the analogue ones on short trips and at home (where ever this will be). Charging the camera batteries turned out to be not such a big problem at all. Mine lasts quite long and when it’s down, you can always find shepherds or other people with power outlets. Only recently two Russian guys helped me out. I hitchhiked with them and we had to stop to make a delivery. They knew the cook at the local Stolowaya (snack bar) so that I could charge my camera there and we all filled our bellies. Conclusion: Just speak to people and ask – you will most certainly get help. From time to time I asked myself if it would work out like in Germany too.
What’s next on your plan? Where will you go and what will you be up to there? Any new places of desire?
As already mentioned, I’m traveling again at the moment – on a land route from Ulan Bator to Berlin. I already crossed the Mongolian and Russian Altay and now I’m basically on my way to Moscow and St. Petersburg for some cultural program. After that, a friend will pick me up with his motorcycle in Tallin and we will ride across the whole Baltic States and Poland back to Berlin. Fyi, I will be in Berlin for a short time end of July. After that I will fly to Israel to visit the two boys that I met in Alaska. I will be back in Berlin for a few weeks by the end of August. In November, I will go to Vietnam to work and then China again during winter.
I don’t have new places of desire, but there are still enough old ones that are waiting for me. I would like to visit Iceland, Greenland, Chukotka and Kamchatka, Scotland, the Scandinavian polar region and I still haven’t been to the Aleutian Islands yet…
Thanks to my job, I can still do travels that last several months. But I don’t know if I want to keep on doing this for the next 10 years or so. It’s also nice to have a place you can call your home. But I haven’t found this place yet…
Here are a few photos from Irina’s journey:
This photo was taken in a small oasis village in the Mongolian desert Gobi, in the south west of the country. Actually, it’s a black & white photo. I took it with a box camera and photographed it digitally afterwards through a window in Bochum with the evening sky in the background. The colors that have been added this way give the place exactly the atmosphere that characterized it: warm, sandy and sometimes shimmering dusty, somehow lonely and lively at the same time.
“Mongolia Hiking” by Irina
When I was still at Caucasus, I had quite a fear of heights. But during my work with the WWF, I had to climb up and down slip rock hills that were up to 2500 m high, searching for snow leopards. It was physically demanding to keep up with my Mongolian colleagues and in addition to that I felt quite uneasy at the sight of such drop-offs. But after two days my fear of heights was gone. Maybe it was because my Mongolian colleagues always seemed so calm and also treated their environment that way, that it spread on me.
Thanks, Irina! This way to her user profile.
Photos: Irina, steffne