Interview: Irina’s Travels

“Sometimes, you have to take one step back, in order to move forward”, writes our photographer Irina in the account of the first part of her travels through Eastern Europe, Russia and North- & Central Asia last year. After a short break, she will continue her journey this spring. Travel destination this time: Alaska. Read more about her travels in our interview.

Photo: Irina Muschik

Hi Irina, tell us a little bit about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

I grew up as a real country kid in Westphalia, Germany. For a long time, I didn’t want to leave home. That’s why I decided to start training to become a digital media designer in the neighboring place after I finished school. And that’s also how I came to join Photocase back then. But working in a small and very conservative advertising agency soon didn’t offer any future perspectives for me any more so I decided to start over. At that time, someone gave me the advice to become what I dreamed of as a kid, which was (apart from the wish of becoming an artist) animal ethologist. This was the job title of Heinz Sielman, whose nature documentaries I loved when I was a kid. Without further ado, I studied biology in Bochum and my childhood dream really came true! In my final thesis I studied the domestic behavior of raccoons in the Müritz National Park. The study of wild animals and/or nature conservancy is definitely where I see my professional future. That’s where I feel at home.

How did you come up with the idea for your journey?

The wish to do a long journey grew and grew over the years. I guess the foundations of that dream already formed during the time of puberty, but the actual, worded wish is about 7 years old. The longing for faraway places and the urge to experience the loneliness of nature was mainly generated by adventure or travel literature which I devoured. Books have always been a trigger to see certain places for me and have shaped many of my decisions. Later, nature documentaries further nourished that dream. I waited a long time for the right moment to fulfill that dream, I thought of tactics and made plans. In the end, it was again a career-related dead-end (failed doctoral thesis plans) that made it possible for me to start over. This time with a journey, an old dream, that was to be turned into reality. The travel destination was set right from the start: to the East, through Russia and finally to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Why did you decide to travel East, why Russia?

A lot of people ask themselves where they are coming from and start digging into their own roots. At the end of my school years, that’s exactly how I felt. My whole name is russian (or slavic) – Irina Muschik, but in my family there were only Germans. Even my grandparents were born here. They also weren’t able to tell me anything about our ancestors. I tried coming closer to the disclosure of the secret of my name by learning Russian. My first chance to travel to Russia came in 2006 and that’s when I fell in love with this country. I felt comfortable, I just loved the simple way of life, the melancholic songs and the nature. Today Russia means endless wideness, terrific landscape, megalomania, ingenuity, gruffy divas, melancholy, cordiality, total schizophrenia, absurdity, simplicity, freedom and so much more to me. Because of this fascination, I initially planned to stay in Russia for a whole year but thanks to hard-core Russian bureaucracy, I only got a 3 month visa and was forced to knock over all of my travel plans.

How do you travel & which means of transportation do you use?

First and foremost I travel as an ordinary backpacker with a very low budget. In my backpack there’s a tent, a sleeping bag, a camping mat, a Glock army knife, a camping stove (an old “Juwel 34” from GDR times) and some cookware, camera, a small laptop, binoculars, GPs, a compass, a few clothes and fewer toiletries. I think that should give you get a pretty good impression of me. 🙂 The main means of transportation I use are buses, the second most important are trains and ships and during my time in Russia I hitchhiked quite a lot. I will only have to use the plane at the end of my journeys, on my way to Alaska. Because my budget is really very low, I decided right from the start to go without any hotels or other paid accommodations. I’ve been an active couchsurfing user for almost 4 years now and I just love the possibilities this hospitality network offers. You meet locals or expats and get a much closer look into the country you’re visiting. That’s why the sleeping-places on my journey are almost always on other peoples couches. Or I lay down in my tent, as long as I’m in non-urban areas and the temperature is above -10°C. Up until now, I only used paid accommodations five times and in summer I was camping for almost 2 months.

Which countries have you traveled so far on your journey?

I started from Germany in February 2012. The first destination was Cracow. From there, I went to the High Tadras, crossed the Carpathians through Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. At the Danube Delta I reached the Black Sea and circuited it traveling through Bulgaria and Turkey to get to Caucasus. I lived 6 weeks in Georgia where I had my base camp at a biologist’s place in Tiflis. After that I treveled through Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan. I spent 2 months there, including a short trip to Kyrgyzstan from where I crossed to northern boarder to Russia. During my 3 months stay in Russia, I visited the Altai mountains, the Lake Baikal and it’s western sourroundings and finally the region Primorye, northeast of Vladivostok. Afterwards, I took a ship to South Korea, where I spent one month – during the high time of Gangnam-Style. Due to the status of my finances, I was forced to take a break from traveling which will probably last till end of March.

Irinas ReiserouteIrina’s travel route

What’s your plan after this break? Where are you planning to go next?

I’m going to visit my 2 main travel destinations, both long-awaited places of aspiration: Mongolia and Alaska. Finally, China is on my traveling plan. I will spend two months in Mongolia to visit the rim of Gobi, Karakorum, the Mongolian Altai and the North to meet reindeer nomads and and and… Afterwards I will go to China for one month. And finally 10 weeks in Alaska, where I will reach my final destination, the Aleutian Islands. Maybe I will fall on my knees, tears rolling down my face when I’m there. After that, I want to see Kodiak Island, Denali National Park and the North of Alaska. I hope to still find some life in Dead Horse before I ultimately return to Germany in September.

Do you document your travels photographically? Which cameras accompany you?

Yes, I take photos. However, I decided to take only one analogue camara with me. A simple, fully mechanical SLR named Revue ML, which is of doubtful quality but functional robustness. It’s mainly of emotional value to me. As well as only one lens, a 50mm 1.8, a polarizing and red filter. Initially, I was planning to take my Vrede Box camera with me at first but it turned out to be too heavy, unfortunately. In Krakow, someone gave my a 8 year old crappy digital camera as a present (!), which was fully functional till Georgia. Along the way, I asked other travellers or couchsurfers I met for photos and in Russia I was able to use the digital camera of my travel visitor for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, my old Revue (despite it’s robustness) suffered a little on the road: lens damaged, focus impaired. For the second part of my journey I decided to bring my Canon AE-1 plus a digital compact camera and I hope to find a way to charge the batteries out there in the pampa once in a while.

Thanks so much to all the users here in the forum for there support beforehand. I received films and filters and lots of friendly words and wishes. I think that’s pretty overwhelming and incredible. Special thanks to Bratscher, aussi97, Nanduu and leicagirl!

Is there a blog or something similar where people can follow you along your travels?

No, only indirectly. During my travels I started this project called, where I publish interviews with wild life biologists and environmentalist I conducted on my journey. There you can encounter people that I met on the way, their projects and their hospitality I experienced. The website is still in progress and in the near future I also want to write about National parks and institutes I visited or plan to visit.

In addition to my own project, I also participated in a project that brings together adventurers, travelers and scientists. As a result, I gathered data for different scientists during my journey, for example mud samples for climate reconstruction at the Caspian Sea and data about pikas in Central Asia. You can read more about that in this blog post.

There’s also a small account of my journey coming up about the city of Tiflis that I wrote for the inital issue of a German magazine called Stadtaspekte ( It will be available as an online aricle and even contains some photographic impressions.

I only wrote about my personal experiences to friends in emails. You can find some extracts of these travel notes here in the forum (in German). A small update is coming up soon. Maybe I feel like writing about my travels for a wider audience some time in the future but right now, working on a blog or even a book seems like too much work for me. But let’s see, what the future will bring….

And here are some photographic impressions of Irina’s travels and the story behind them:

A photo by Irina Muschik

Try typing “ferry Baku to Aktau” into Google and you will soon find out, that it’s quite a hassle to get onto that ship in order to travel across the Caspian Sea. But I can tell you, it’s doable! In my case, I just had to drink vodka with Azerbaijan harbor policemen, tell a few cock-and-bull stories, discuss the topic of raccoon population in Caucasus with the border official along with the question why you need to carry a Glock army knife with you. I boarded the quite modern ferry in the middle of the night. Apart from the beer-saturated crew, a couple of train coaches and a bunch of Caucasian workers, there was only one other German girl and me aboard. Our cabin was awesome, we were well taken care of, enjoying the the privilege of fools and the sunrise the next day was mind-blowing! All in all it was more than worth it.

A photo by Irina Muschik

In Kazakhstan, I absolutely wanted to travel to the surroundings of the Ustyurt Plateau. The only way for me to get there was to join a Muslim pilgrimage. Together with 10, mostly female pilgrims in an old UAZ, we drove across the incredible beautiful landscape to the graves of Shopan Ata und Beket Ata (an important prophet). I must say, this day was one of the best of my whole journey. I participated with hundreds of other people in all the rituals, ate with them, was getting blessed and got presents. Later, in the golden evening light, we drove back through these magical landscapes. The photo shows an old gravestone on the graveyard near the grave of Shopan Ata.

Спасибо, Irina! We’re happy that you shared your experiences with us. All the best for the second part of your journey!

Here are two more of Irina’s travel wisdoms:

It’s always the right decision, as long as it’s your (true) own.

Tell people that they are good and they will be good (to you).

That’s all, folks! Stay curious! 🙂

Fotos: Irina

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