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Once a Northlander, Always a Northlander: Part 2

By Rachel Stainton, Mar 05, 2019

Northland Project Manager, Mike Vinokurov shares the story of his year abroad.

A little over a year ago, we had the opportunity to interview Mike Vinokurov before he embarked on his open-ended adventure traveling across the world. Today, Mike is back at Northland once again and we couldn’t wait to ask him about his travels, lessons learned and what his plans are for the future now that he’s returned home.

What countries did you visit during your travels?
I started out in Armenia, visiting a friend for his birthday, who connected me with an art mogul friend of his. She introduced me to a bunch of art shows, and that was incredibly interesting. I was also there during their peaceful, political revolution. After that I went to Georgia, spent some time in the mountains there, then made my way to Turkey.

Turkey was the first place I felt like it was an adventure, because in Armenia, I was jointed to my friend’s network. In Georgia, I felt like I could get around because it was very European and most of the people spoke Russian, which I speak, if they didn’t speak English. Turkey was the first time I experienced a foreign culture, foreign language, I didn’t know anything, and didn’t know anyone. So, it was the first time it was a real trek. I saw a lot of the country by backpacking and walking along the Mediterranean coast for miles. I eventually got pretty close to the Syrian border, and there were a lot of checkpoints, police, and armed guards, but it felt very safe. The people were very nice. I met a lot of Syrian refugees and they were some of the nicest people I’d met. I met a group near a shipyard who offered me tea and we sat and talked.

A lot of people actually mistook me for a Syrian fighter. I’m Russian and part of my background is Siberian, so I look a lot like someone from Uzbekistan or central Asia. One waiter I met at a restaurant told me I look like an Al-Qaeda fighter, which made me initially laugh, but the waiter didn’t think it was funny. He was serious. I realized this is probably why I was having a hard time connecting with locals in Turkey. When I told people I was from California, they often looked at me bewildered, so it was kind of a mixed bag of impressions.

After Turkey I passed through Lebanon and made my way to Egypt. At first, Egypt was very trying. I speak no Arabic, and after learning Turkish for 3 weeks, switching to Arabic was very challenging. The culture was also very different from what I had experienced so far, and the environment was more stressful. The air quality in Cairo was awful, the buildings were very run down, and there seemed to be a culture of trying to swindle tourists.

I was able to travel to Dahab, which was like the Egyptian version of chilled-out, laidback beach town on the Sinai Peninsula. I enjoyed Dahab a lot, because it was much calmer. I initially wanted to go to India on my trip, but after Egypt, I decided I probably wasn’t ready to handle the bustle of India.

After Dahab, I made my way to Israel and crossed into the border by land which is not a common way to enter the country, as Israel’s neighbors are enemy countries. There was one border crossing that was open, and luckily enough I was able to bond with my interrogator and pass through relatively easily. My Brazilian friend I was traveling with wasn’t as lucky and was questioned for quite a bit longer. The interrogator asked him, “How long will you be in Israel for?” and he responded, “Three weeks.” She then said, “What are you going to do in Israel for three weeks? There’s not enough to see here for three weeks!” It was pretty funny. I also happened to be in Jerusalem during Christmas, which was pretty cool.

Then I flew from Israel to Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I was traveling by the seat of my pants, so I flew into Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, no hotel or hostel booked, and I was super sick. So, I was walking around Bangkok sick, 50lb pack on, new climate, new time zone, trying to figure out where I was going to stay that night. Thankfully I found a cool hostel run by some awesome Thai people.

I spent about a week in Bangkok, and then took a train up to Chiang Mai, eventually making my way to Pai. I crashed a motorcycle there and got pretty badly scraped up. I’d never driven a motorized scooter before and asked the guy I rented it from for some advice. He said, “It’s really easy, just don’t use the front brake.” So, when I was coming back from visiting a waterfall, I was coming around a corner and thought to myself, why is that? Why shouldn’t I use the front brake? So, I did, and it didn’t turn out very well. The good news is I was not going very fast, but thanks to my injuries I couldn’t really do anything fun. Instead, I got to stay at a Theravada Buddhist monastery for a week. It was very peaceful, quiet, and gave me the time to chill out and heal my wounds for a bit.

After that I went to Mae Hong Son where I had my visa extended so I could go back to Chiang Mai and do Muay Thai for a month. I have practiced Muay Thai in the past, so I thought this would be a great experience to get back into that and start training again. At the end of my month-long intensive camp, I broke my ankle. Thankfully it happened at the end of the camp, but I had a boot and crutches on backpacking through Thailand, Laos, taking a slow boat down the Mekong river and then crossing into Vietnam.

The first town I stayed in was Điện Biên Phủ. That town has very few tourists and is mostly known for being the site where the Vietnamese defeated the French during the First Indochina War. That victory directly led to the split between North and South Vietnam, then the Vietnam War. Most locals there assumed I was French, which I think is because maybe it’s more of a historical place for French tourists.

I flew to Hanoi after that. Architecturally it was really interesting because there was a mix of building styles: East Asian, French, and even Soviet styles all clashing in the same city. From there, I took a bus to Cát Bà island and saw Ha Long Bay.

Then lastly went down to Nha Trang, which was very interesting to me because so many people there spoke Russian. I think it’s because there was an American airfield that was given to Russia after the end of the Vietnam War, so maybe Russian soldiers who were there told their friends about it back home and when the borders opened up in 91’ everyone visited or went back. There were Russian advertisements, they had banyas with the oak leaf branches that Russian spas use, even Russian food. It was strange to be in Vietnam speaking to each other in Russian.

Nha Trang is where I gave up, after limping around for a few weeks. On my way back I flew through Incheon, South Korea. I learned there that Incheon has a fondness for Americans, and even have a statue of General MacArthur, commemorating where he landed his massive counterattack against China and North Korea.

After that I visited my sister in Seattle, saw some of Southern California, then twiddled my thumbs for a few weeks and job hunting.

Read more in part three.