Wandering Monks of Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, China

A group of kids are running and skidding down an alley way, kicking a football high into the air. The ball flies over the wall and they briefly shout in protest before one of them runs round to try and find it.

An ordinary situation – I could be anywhere in the world, I think. But these aren’t ordinary teenage kids. Instead of sporting the latest Nikes and skinny jeans, these boys are wearing red wine coloured robes and their hair has been shaved. They are monks in training, or monklets as I like to call them.


Welcome to Xiahe, a Tibetan town in China, that doesn’t really feel like China at all.

It was a tricky journey here, I won’t lie. A sleeper train from Dunhuang and two buses later we arrived, bleary eyed, hungry and a little confused. A monk passed me on his mobile phone, another was clutching his shopping while laughing with his friend and a third just silently chanting to himself as he walked through the busy high street of Xiahe (pronounced sheeya-huh in case you were curious).


Why aren’t they living in caves or fasting in the monastery, I can’t help but wonder, as I wander the streets. Clearly I am out of date with monks. The irony that I share their name is not lost on me. But if anywhere is going to bring you up to speed with the life of the Tibetan monk it’s Xiahe, which has been completely built around the Labrang Monastery.

Sitting proudly at the end of the town’s busy, colourful, horn-honking high street, you will find everything from woollen shawls and prayer beads to cans of Coca Cola as you make your way to the monks’ extensive complex. Oh and the town has a resident goat.


But once you enter the narrow streets and winding paths that snake around the monastery’s buildings, a new sense of quiet emerges and you find yourself almost tip-toeing past the muttering monks.


A 3km horse-shoe shaped path takes you around the key buildings. Lined almost entirely with brightly painted prayer barrels, it has become a significant pilgrimage path, as monks, nuns and locals walk the circuit, spinning the barrels as they pass, chanting, praying and genuinely lost in thought.



“Oops, sorry,” I bumble apologetically as I accidentally elbow a praying monk who is mid-barrel spinning. But the monk barely notices, he is about six barrels down by the time I finish my sentence.

Labrang Monastery is a hypnotic place. The devotion of those around you is infectious and it isn’t long before I am completely under the spell. The temples are decked out in a dizzy array of colours – what look like multi-coloured silk ties (the garish kind your teachers might have sported on non-uniform days) hang from the pillars while huge, gleaming gold Buddha statues drape sheets of golden yellow silk down to smaller gold Buddhas at either side. Brightly coloured Buddhist tales are depicted on the temple walls and white space is scarce.

Sadly no pictures are allowed inside but here’s a taste of the colourful exterior…





The incense fills your nostrils, as does – more bizarrely – the huge candles that appear to be made out of yaks butter that nevertheless, give the temples a wonderful flickering, soft light.

And then there are the monks. Often found sitting against a wall in the temples, chanting, singing and praying or banging huge drums and golden cymbals, they are, without a doubt, the star attraction of the monastery.


Their chanting turns into laughter as I walk past them and I self-consciously glance round to a line of big, grinning faces. I grin back. I don’t understand them but I instantly warm to them.

And so as when the monklets’ football rolls towards Matty’s feet it feels like the most natural thing in the world for him to kick it back their way. They grin and shout their thanks before carrying on their game. It could be anywhere in the world I think, but I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

Singing Sand Dunes, Dunhuang, China

The great desert sand storm. Even the hardiest Silk Road travellers feared it, the camels could tell it was coming, and many never survived it.

As if there weren’t enough perils on the road already; vagabonds and thiefs, tireless Turkmen tribes that guarded the sandy desert plains like ocean pirates, suspicious kings and emperors who could throw you into a pit of snakes as soon as you enter their city walls (true story), and then there was Mother Nature herself.

If you survived all of the above, and you didn’t die of dehydration, then the winds could get you yet.

Men who travelled the Silk Road hundreds of years ago gave horrendous accounts of sandstorms. Tales described how the wind would suddenly accelerate and change course, throwing huge fistfuls of sand at the exposed traveller, who was forced to hide under a heavy blanket and sit it out. Some would come round to find themselves half buried in the desert, for others it became their grave.

And ever since I gave the nod to travelling the Silk Road, I couldn’t help but fear the worst. The Mongoose kindly bought me some Silk Road non-fiction books for my birthday last year. There was a terrible scene with the wind, sand and a traveller in the Taklamakan Desert in China that made me put the book down in terror and pick up a map in fear. My worst conditions were confirmed; we would be crossing the Taklamakan Desert in China (aka desert of death), and it was HUGE.

“It’s different these days,” Matty tried to assure me.
“They have air conditioned buses and trains going across the desert, it will be no different to travelling any other terrain.”

But I was unconvinced. Something inside me just knew we would get to the train station to be told: “I’m sorry sir, we have no trains today, just camels. Have you a thick blanket to hide under?” (In Chinese, of course, which we would spend the next hour trying to understand before realising the horror of the situation.)

But it turns out Matty was right, kind of. We were thrown onto an old, hot, hectic, cramped train where we were to sit for 26 hours, watching the desert out of the window. Occasionally the carriage would fill up with dust and sand and everyone would rush to pull the windows down.


The conditions were deeply unpleasant but not as bad as riding a camel I reminded myself.

So, by the time we reached the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang I forgotten all about my fear of being buried in sand. I was going to see some singing sand dunes, it would be nothing short of magical I thought, while also wondering what they would sing.

Only 3.5km from the centre of Dunhuang in western China, we decided to cycle to the sand dunes on some vintage bikes that we hired for 50p an hour. Doesn’t the Mongoose look impressed?


And then, suddenly, at the end of the long straight road we could see huge, towering mountains of sand. It looked both magical and unreal, as if I had accidentally walked into a Disney set.

This feeling was somewhat compounded by the ridiculous commercialisation of the dunes, which cost an almighty £12 to ‘get into’ and have a huge ticket office and landscaped car park that puts Euro Disney to shame.

But even that couldn’t detract from the marvellous scene before us, and I had to pinch myself to remind myself it was all real.


With tickets in hand, we made our way to the base of the dunes that just rise out of the ground suddenly, as if just dropped there by mistake. We kicked off our shoes and felt the familiar, comforting sensation of warm sand under our bare toes as we began our ascent.

It reminded me of those frustrating times in life… Two steps forward, one step back as my feet fell ankle-deep into the thick sand. I watched kids huffing and puffing before just giving up and rolling down the side.

What fun! The five year old inside me wanted to get involved while the 20-something exterior (yes I can still say this for three more weeks) shuddered at the thought of getting that much sand in my hair.

So we kept climbing, and sinking. And climbing, and sinking.




And then we found ourselves at the top of this giant sand dune just as the sun was making its goodbyes for the day. We found a quiet spot and bid our farewells to the wonderful burning ball of fire (I could have been a pagan sun worshipper easily, I think.)





And just as as we held our arms out to the sinking sun as it disappeared behind another dune in front of us, it happened. The wind said hello.

Without even so much of a warning, it just pelted sand at us. The tiny, innocuous grains almost felt like back of someone’s hand, stinging as it hit our backs.

“We have to get down,” cried Matty as he slid down one side of the dune for shelter. But the wind found us there too, throwing sand in our eyes, our noses and our mouths.

“The camera,” I cried, looking down at our SLR that was now covered in sand before shoving it in my bag quickly, trying not to think about it.

The Mongoose cleverly pulled up his Afghan scarf over his mouth and nose, while I messily spread my hands over my face as we raced back down the sand dune. The wind didn’t give up and the sand just felt stronger and harder with every gust.

But soon we we back on hard ground with shoes on our feet once more, talking about what dishes to order at our new favourite Szechuan restaurant in town. And as we clinked our ice cold beer bottles half an hour later, it felt only right that the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers got a taste of the almighty desert and its powerful wind.

Now we really are Silk Road travellers.

PS Our “Silk Road” journey is soon coming to an end, in just a few days time we shall find ourselves in Xi’an – the final, ancient port of trading in the east. But fret not, this blog will continue to tell our tales as we journey down south and begin a new chapter of our lives in Vietnam next month… I promise to keep you posted 🙂

PPS The sand dunes didn’t sing for me but apparently they are called so because as sand grains shuffle down the slops they produce a deep, groaning hum that can be heard for miles. Clever, huh?!

Travel Tips

Visiting the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang is an absolute must if you find yourself in this corner of the world.

I recommend you do it either first thing in the morning or later in the day to avoid the burning sun that would make climbing the sand dunes bare foot all a little too painful! We were told that the hottest time of the day at the Singing Sand Dunes is in fact at about 4 – 5pm, not mid-day as you might expect.

We set off from town at about 6pm, which was perfect for watching the sunset.

We hired our bikes in Dunhuang from Mr John’s Information Cafe, and they cost 5Yuan an hour.

How to order a great (Chinese) meal in China

I’ve met plenty of people who have visited China and returned home a little disappointed.

They walk back into their local, order a stiff gin and tonic, and talk in dark tones about people spitting on the floor, the lack of dragons, people not abiding by society’s great leveller (the queue) and worse yet, the food not living up to expectations.

“You know China Town in Soho,” they ask. Everyone nods expectantly. “Well it’s NOTHING like that,” they reveal to the sounds of gasps of horror from around the table.

All sorts of ghastly tales then follow about eating mystery meat, strange broths and missing dogs.

Now I have been in China for less than one week but I can confirm the spitting is disgusting, the queues need working on and I’m still dragon hunting. The food, however, has been nothing short of fabulous.

I have come to the conclusion that the reason behind bad food experiences in the Middle Kingdom is purely because it is impossible to read the menu. Instead of pointing at the pretty but indistinguishable letters that say ‘Szechuan chicken’ you point at the equally pretty but unreadable letters that say ‘dog soup’. Easy mistake to make.

But I have a solution. Allow me to present the ultimate five step guide to ordering the best food in China*. Drum roll please.

Step one
Buy a ‘hard seat’ ticket for an unthinkably long train journey. We took one for the 26 hour journey between Kashgar and Turpan, which worked out just perfectly.


(The Mongoose, as pictured on the left eating a banana, was particularly impressed).

It is imperative the journey is both long, uncomfortable and full of small children and babies with no nappies on. You will be forced to get ‘close’ to those around you as the naked babies are passed around and your rubbish is thrown out of the train window by smiling strangers before you can say: “Wait no, save the world!”

Step two
Make a nice Chinese friend who can speak English. The above conditions will bring you together in a way that a posh, private ‘soft sleeper’ bed would just never do.

It is important your new friend is nice as you’ll be spending a bit of time with them from now on (see point three). We opted for a lovely girl called Jialil, who also went by the English name of Annie.


Obviously your friend does not have to be a girl, a boy would suffice, but we all know girls are more resourceful (see point four) and generally better than boys in every way so I recommend going down the female route.

Step three
Kidnap them. There are a number of methods for this but it is essential they do not feel like they are being kidnapped, perhaps let them believe you are inviting them to join you on your journey, or that you are in love with them. Whatever it takes.

Once kidnapped treat kindly.


See, we took Annie out to Gaochang old city and everything.

Step four
Now this is the big one, the whole reason you got on that filthy train carriage in the first place and kidnapped a nice Chinese woman. This is crunch time, it is time for step four: gently suggest your new friend chooses a spot for lunch and/or dinner and that they go through the menu and select the dishes for you.

We struck gold. Annie chose a grape-adorned cosy spot besides Grape Valley in Turpan. And while she ordered the food, I was fed juicy, sweet grapes. Heaven I tell you, heaven.


Step five
Eat. It is time to reap the rewards of your hard work. With any luck, your table will soon be covered in an array of lip-smacking, spicy, Chinese fare. We lucked out, in fact I will be so bold to say it was the best ‘local meal’ of the trip so far.

First up was a dish that we have come to know as Plov from our travels in Cental Asia, but goes by the name of shou zhua tan in this neck of the woods. A huge plate of fried rice with soft onions and sliced carrots tossed through it, topped with small pieces of tender lamb that fall apart in your mouth on first touch with the teeth. It works, as I’ve mentioned once or twice before.


Food shots should always be glamorous.

As we were swooning and groaning over the huge dish placed before us, with four spoons standing erect in the rice (I love being able to use that word now I no longer work for a newspaper), the second dish made its arrival.


I want to call this dish a ‘sort of black bean sauce-based green bean and chilli delight’ but that does not do it justice. Because, you see, it didn’t actually taste of black bean sauce (the kind that comes thick, sloppy and too rich in most Chinese takeaways back home) – but you just sort of knew this had black bean roots.

Let’s start at the beginning. The green beans were chunky broad beans, fried in a delicious marinade that saturated their skins in flavour and turned them wrinkly while retaining their crunch – all in the same bite. Tossed with tender slivers of beef, there was a ‘black bean’ flavour, a huge chilli sensation, a garlic kick and eventually my taste buds just sort of collapsed and stopped trying to figure out the ingredients. The Chinese call this dish jiang dou chao mou.

My chopsticks could not move fast enough. This is both a wonderful and terrible reality. Great for the digestion, not so great for the Guts in me. (Guts is an alter ego who rears her ugly head when good food is around, she creates a right scene, makes me eat like a pig and occasionally takes it to such lengths that I have to retire to bed for the evening. I fear she may have her hey day in China).

While my chopsticks were busy trying to answer to Guts’ endless demands, the next two dishes were delivered. Lamb kebabs and an egg and tomato dish. But this is lamb, tomatoes and eggs like they’ve never been seen before.

The kebabs (yang rou chuan), were heavily spiced but beautifully tender. Inevitably there was the typically Central Asian huge hunk of fat that sat on each kebab, inevitably pulled off by us and left on the side, but the rest of the meat was delicious.

And finally, the eggs and tomato: The dish I almost turned my nose up at when it was placed in front of me. “Eggs?!” I felt like crying, “I get eggs at home, take them away!” Fortunately Guts was more in control at this point so she just dug her chopsticks in and gobbled away.


I was rewarded with what was essentially a richly seasoned omelette, dripping in the sweet juices of ripe tomatoes, salt, pepper and garlic. I might have licked my chopsticks a little too keenly.

Oh sorry, I sort of forgot I was writing a five-step guide then, I got a little lost in it all. But yes, I suppose that brings me to the end of the guide. Anyway I hope it is as successful for you as it was for me (and Guts), please excuse me for the time being… I have friends to make.

*Disclaimer: Some people just like dog broth and I can take no responsibility if your new friend is unfortunately that way inclined. Bad luck. Try again.

World in Pictures: Kashgar, China

Walking around Kashgar, China, I felt like a five year-old who had just been given her first camera. I wanted to point it in every direction and snap away. Any thoughts on composition and framing went straight out the window as I gazed at the sights before me, completely unaware of how to capture them through a lens.

The smoke that wafted through the narrow, windy streets from the endless men cooking marinaded meat kebabs over flaming coals had the ability to make you hungry after a full breakfast. The women who whizzed past on silent, electric mopeds dressed in colourful swathes of material and sparkly headscarves seemed at odds with those that walked on by with thick, brown blankets thrown over their faces without as much of a slit for their eyes. The men that banged drums and sang their hearts out from the back of pick-up trucks that circled the streets provided the perfect theme tune for the city.

But my camera could capture none of this. So I put it down.

For my first 24 hours in Kashgar, my first 24 hours in China after the dramatic border crossing from Kyrgyzstan over the Torugart Pass, I just walked around with my mouth slightly ajar, taking it all in.

Still very much Central Asia, but not Russified like the ‘stans, Kashgar proved to be the Silk Road city that my imagination dreamt up before leaving the UK. It was intoxicating, overwhelming and like nowhere else I’ve been before.

The next day I picked up my camera again and tried my best to capture it. But really, you will just have to visit yourself.




(Take note of what’s being carried on the back of this bike).












Instagram Images: First Impressions of China

Ever since crossing into China 24 hours ago something strange has happened.

I have had a strong desire to send out a bazillion Facebook updates about every small thing in my line of vision. A bit like a social networking eye spy if you will.

I’ve got this far, four months in fact, and I like to think I’m not the person who on Monday mornings posts status updates about this new, amazing and totally undiscovered beach they are lying on (mainly because there haven’t been any). But since I got to China that’s all changed.

I crossed the border and immediately uploaded a picture of the first road I saw and, minutes later, a picture of the first chopsticks and the first teaspoons I came across.




This morning I wanted to write: “This is the most amazing hard bread I’ve ever tasted,” with a fairly uninspiring picture of a circular loaf I picked up in Kashgar. (It tastes like cumin infused crackers in case you were curious.)

Then, just an hour later, I wanted to post a picture of the text message from my Chinese phone provider which looked so pretty yet unreadable, or the writing on the stairwell of my hostel, and the script over the shop doors.


This afternoon I wanted to write: “Just went for a run around Kashgar. It was tricky because the animal carcasses that line the pavement sent me skidding into the electric-moped lined streets.”

It was about then that I realised that I was going to become one of those awful people that update their statuses throughout the day on stuff, that to be quite frank, is of zero interest to anyone else.

But I must confess I am completely overwhelmed. I am totally intoxicated with this new, alien culture that I can’t quite get my head around, and after four months on the road it’s exhilarating.

Nobody can understand me and I understand nothing. People point at me in astonishment and I point back in amazement.

I walk down the street with my mouth slightly ajar as I take in the smells, the sights, the sounds. I try to say thank you and everybody laughs.

The first city I have entered feels like a world waiting to be tasted. I will eat my way through this stupendously large country, I vow. I will munch my way past millions and millions of people, and will slowly get used to the sheep sliced up on the ground and ignore their blooded and matted wool.


Tomorrow I will stand on the roof top terrace of my hostel for too long and watch the people below. I will probably let my coffee go cold and my beer get warm. And then I will post something about watching a woman ride on the back of a moped, side saddle, while eating noodles.

Just bear with me. I’ll be back soon and will take some ‘proper pictures’.

Horse Riding in Kyrgyzstan: Lake Song-Kul

I galloped wildly across the Kryrgyzstan plain on horseback, with my hair fanning out behind me.

Ok, I might not have quite meant the horse to gallop, a canter would have been sufficient, and my hair might have been tied back. But nevertheless, I felt like a hero out of a Wild West film… or Chinggis Khan himself.

I had been talking about going horse riding in Kyrgyzstan for weeks, months, maybe even years. As soon as I discovered that I was visiting Kyrgyzstan I opened our big coffee table book on the world (it has a double spread on every country, and is great) and saw a massive picture of a nomad on horseback. Horse riding was the ‘must do’ attraction of the country, it added.

There was lots of squealing and exclamations at the time, shortly followed by a commitment to have some horse riding lessons before we left the UK as I haven’t ridden since I was about 12.

Matty, who has been on a pony once, was less than convinced.

“If you don’t have horse riding lessons we’ll have to stick you on a little pony that will refuse to even trot, while we gallop into the distance,” I threatened him. (The Mongoose had assured us he was an “accomplished horseman”.)

But somewhere in between trying to rent our house, get ready for the trip and buy travel insurance we forgot about the horse riding lessons. And so it was that the three of us found ourselves travelling to Lake Song-Kul in Kyrgyzstan to go horse riding with no real clue of what we were in for.



We reached our yurt, threw down our bags and ran out to meet the horses. Matty mentioned something about them having seen better days but they looked beautiful to me. There were three horses.


Here’s two of them…

“And a guide?” I tentatively asked.

“Guide?!” the smiling man before me with wind-burnt cheeks asked, somewhat amused by the request. “1,200 COM,” he added.

“Yes, yes, fine”, I said, dreading to think what the consequences of horse riding would be without a guide after almost 18 years out of the saddle.

He galloped into the distance and returned with a fourth horse for himself.


We were each gruffly shown to our horses. I gave mine, a pretty black mare, a good nose stroke and flank pet before mounting her, to help with the bonding you see. Mongoose got on board his large, chestnut horse and Matty, funnily enough, was given a little grey horse that was the smallest of them all.


And off we set. The reins were ropes, the stirrups were odd lengths and the saddle was covered in a big rug but it immediately felt natural to be back on a horse. Within minutes the Mongoose galloped past me clutching onto his saddle for dear life. His horse galloped off to the right in circles while our guide tried to bring it to a halt.

Meanwhile Matty’s little horse was refusing to even move.

Kicking as hard as he could and shouting: “Chou” at it, which is the command for go faster, the horse refused to move. Having brought the Mongoose’s horse to a halt, our guide galloped back to Matty with his whip in hand.

And we were off again.

We broke into a trot and I soon rediscovered the old “rise and sit” rhythm, and then a few kicks later, we were cantering across the plains. Past grazing cows and dozens of wild horses, through the valley and along the river. It was exhilarating.



I presumed we were all having an equally fabulous time until we saw the Mongoose pull hard on his reins, rearing the horse’s head right back and shouting: “When I tell you to stop, you stop you stupid f**king nag,” in the most stern voice I’ve heard him use… Ever. They were not getting on well.


After an hour and a half we stopped at a waterfall and stretched our cramped muscles that we felt like we were using for the first time.


And then it was time to head back. The horses, seemingly knowing they were on their way home, were even more spritely than the first leg of the journey.

It was when the yurts and lake were once again in sight that my horse began galloping across the plains. It felt incredibly fast but strangely safe and wonderfully exhilarating. Luckily, my horse was responsive so a small tug on the reins pulled her back into a canter and trot.



Matty was experiencing a similar elation – when suddenly he felt his saddle slipping and found himself falling, in his seat, down the side of the horse. Fortunately the horse slowed down as he tumbled off unhurt, before getting right back into the saddle to finish the ride.

Meanwhile the Mongoose was seen cursing violently at his “nag” that would either refuse to move or refuse to travel slower than a gallop. He dismounted and declared a hatred of all horses.

It was far from perfect – a combination of stirrups on ropes, wearing three quarter length trousers and no riding boots left the sides of my calves red raw with a sizeable amount of skin missing. But I can honestly say it was one of the most magical and exhilarating moments of the trip so far.

That night, as we snuggled down beneath multiple quilts in our yurt, we decided to watch Django Unchained on our tablet. Set in the Wild West in slavery days, I watched in awe as Jamie Foxx galloped across the dusty land, with his gun in his holster and head framed by an oversized cowboy hat.

That’s what I looked like, I told myself. Kind of.

Travel Tips

We travelled to Lake Song-Kol from Kochkor, Karakol. We arranged it through the CBT in Kochkor – a return taxi (taking three hours each way), and a yurt stay with dinner and breakfast cost 6,000 COM (about £80) between us.

The horse riding is arranged by locals around the lake but the CBT told our driver to help find us good horses. It costs 200 COM per hour (about £3), you have to pay an additional 400 COM per hour for a guide on horseback.

The CBT office is at Pioneerskaya 22a or you can call/email them at:
cbt_kochkor@rambler.ru 0777718334

World in Pictures: Almaty, Kazakhstan

We visited Almaty, Kazakhstan for three reasons:

1) So that The Mongoose could do his finest Borat impressions and cry: “It’s nice, I like,” at all key attractions.
2) So that I could cry: “Oh Matty, in Almaty!”
3) For a slice of ‘normality’ (aka European shops, cafes and restaurants).

And we were not disappointed. From the moment we crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan The Mongoose was living the Borat dream, I was crying: “Take Matty to Almaty,” at random taxi drivers, and Matty, meanwhile, demanded that we went straight to the pub to make it all a bit more bearable.

What we were not expecting however, and what our guide book completely failed to warn us of, was the hideous Soviet monstrosities at every corner. After spending more than three months travelling the ‘stans of the former USSR, I have to say that I think Almaty may have just come out with the rawest deal.

It is a sprawl of concrete tower blocks, low-rise linear patterned buildings and ugly mistakes. In saying that, many of them spill out onto the pavements as restaurants and bars offering the finest cuisine and nightlife we’ve seen since Budapest. It was both ugly and beautiful – and very expensive.

So without further ado, here’s a sample of the city’s architecture.













But if Soviet architecture is not your thing, here’s a few snaps of the boys to, ahem, inspire you.





What do you think of Soviet architecture? Love it or loathe it?

Travel Tips

Where to stay in Almaty?

We stayed at the brand new Almaty Backpackers, which was wonderfully clean with great facilities -it had a nice spacious kitchen for guests to use, and good sized dorms with en suite bathrooms (with great showers).

On the other hand we got a knock on the door from the manager at 11pm on the second night asking for money and telling us to go to the cashpoint as we didn’t have any on us! I’ll put this down to not yet having a payment system (either asking for money beforehand or at the end of the stay) and hopefully not something that will continue.

Rooms cost 13 Euro per night per person. The address is: 46A Markova Street.

How to get about in Almaty?
Taxis are extraordinarily expensive for Central Asia – expect to pay 1,000 Tenge for an inner city journey. Your best bet is to wave down random cars (expect to pay 500) or use the city’s good bus network.

Coffeedelia, Almaty Kazakhstan

When I was growing up I always wished I had a more ‘normal’ name – like Laura, Sarah or Emma – something that was on the plastic badges at theme park gift shops. All I wanted was a big plastic Minnie Mouse sign that said ‘Delia’s room’ like my best friend Laura had.

I would eagerly rush to the gift shop on school trips, in vain hope that something would have my name on it. As all the other kids queued up, proudly clutching their ‘David’ warrior badge or something I would buy another pencil with some museum name on it.

I remember one year my mum got a carpenter at a garden centre to solder my name on a piece of wood to stick on my door. He drew a frog next to it. And that was as good as it got.

As I got older it became less of an issue, I enjoyed not having to identify myself with a surname – Delia is almost always enough. And as a journalist it’s actually quite nice to have a name that stands out.

But imagine my surprise, when walking down one of the main roads in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to see a coffee shop with my name on it. Coffeedelia. The five year-old who never got her plastic, glittery name badge came flooding back. I almost jumped on the spot while pointing at it excitedly, crying: “That says Delia. It’s called Coffeedelia it has my name, it has my name! We must eat here, we must drink here, I need a picture of me with THAT sign,” and so on.

Even Matty tweeted about The Big News.


Decked out in fluorescent, vivid lime green and bright orange, Coffeedelia feels like the kind of place that gives you a big, huge dollop of summer with your cappuccino. I was instantly drawn to the minimalist white tables outside and the slightly orange haze to the world that the large canopy provides.


The menu, decked out as a vintage magazine, was huge and it said my name on every page.


In fact, in addition to its fab name, there are so many things that Coffeedelia gets right it’s hard to know where to start. Excuse me while I make a brief list…

1) They serve alcoholic coffees – everything from Irish coffees to orange infused brandy coffees with a cheeky Baileys number in between.

2) Their selection of cold coffees is almost as extensive as their hot coffees and their tea list is simply ginormous.

3) They sell tea with vanilla syrup in it and whipped cream on top. Why not, I hear you cry.

4) They serve thin crust pizzas including one with spinach, mushroom and pesto on it. All coffee shops should sell this.

5) All pizzas are served with a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the side. Nothing short of genius.

6) They have a mouth-watering selection of cakes, eclairs, maceroons and ice creams.



7) Their toilets are beautiful, I hung around in there for a while. This is not weird. I’ve been travelling Central Asia for three months. I have not seen a nice toilet in three months. Coffeedelia has the best toilet in Central Asia. Fact.

8) It’s all so photogenic, so I got to eat, drink and take pictures. All my favourite things. Here’s some of my Instagram shots:


So after leafing through the menu for some time, it was decision time. Being early in the morning (well 10am) I opted for a Cappucino and the scrambled eggs breakfast.

We ventured inside to make our order. It operates an order-at-the-till-but-have-your-food-brought-to-you-by-a-waitress system. With dozens of staff around we ordered quickly and the drinks were so speedy that by the time I’d absorbed the funky interior and taken a few shots, they were already waiting for us.




The cappuccinos were spot on. The perfect blend of milk, froth and espresso, the medium sized drink (that felt more like a large) transformed the morning from a sluggish to a spritely one, in one steamyl sip. It was strong but not bitter. Just how The Mongoose likes his men.



Next up was the breakfast. I was tempted by the porridge with fruits that was only 500 Tenge (about £2) but somewhat craving the comforts of home, I ordered the scrambled eggs as it came with bacon, sausage, toast and fried tomatoes. Yes, I was getting a Central Asian fried breakfast. Matty opted for fried eggs but The Mongoose failed to even get out of bed so he was destined to a breakfast of fried dough on a bus later that morning.



I am sure three or four eggs must have been used in the production of my breakfast. Fluffy and scrambled, the eggs reached far and wide on my plate. With a generous smattering of pepper (from me) they were the perfect accompaniment to the salty, streaky bacon and juicy tomatoes.

The sausage was a frankfurter and while I had obviously been craving a coarse, Lincolnshire number (that just don’t exist on this side of the world), it was actually surprisingly good.

In fact the only disappointment was that I didn’t have room for dessert – I know, shame on me. But we did return for pizza and iced coffees (a wicked combination) the next day so all was not lost.

As we made our exit from our funky surroundings, to proceed with our self-guided walking tour of Almaty, I paused to thank Andrei, the owner.

“Why did you call it Coffeedelia?” I asked him.

“Because it’s like psychedelia,” he said glancing around at the deliciously psychedelic exterior.

Of course. Psychedelia. Now that’s something I really need to get on a badge.

Fact file

The verdict: Coffeedelia might just be the best coffee shop and cafe in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The price: Almaty is an expensive city compared to elsewhere in Central Asia – but Coffeedelia is reasonable. We paid the same price for pizza here (160 tenge/£7) as we did at a street stall. Two breakfasts and two cappuccinos costs about 3,500 tenge (£14).

The directions: We caught the number nine electric bus to right outside its door on Kabanbay Batyr (just beyond the junction with Furmanov Street.) Check it out.

PS: Oh, and make sure you order the Dr Fredo Classic iced coffee… Vanilla syrup, cream and crushed ice, it is nothing short of divine.

A Video of a Silk Road journey: The tale of the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers

Matty has made a video of our trip so far… It’s been on his website for a little while now but I wanted to share it with those of you who don’t follow him too. So, without further ado, in the words of Matty himself…

Here it is. The ups and downs of the last three months have finally been cobbled together into 3.5 minutes of celluloid gold.

It’s been gritty.
It’s been emotional.
But it has, quite simply, been the time of our lives.

Trekking from Karakol to Ala-Kol, Kyrgyzstan

I want to see the world. Follow a map to its edges, and keep going. Forgo the plans. Trust my instincts. Let curiosity be my guide. I want to change hemispheres. Sleep with unfamiliar stars and let the journey unfold before me.

I do, I really do. Although I started to question it as the thunder clouds rolled in, I challenged it as the lightning illuminated the sky and then, when we realised we had lost our way up the mountain, I wanted to rip up the map and go back home for a cup of tea.

You see I was taking part in what turned out to be the most gruelling 48 hour trek of my life – to the high altitude lake of Ala-Kol in Kyrgyzstan. And, carefully folded up in a waterproof folder in the depth of my soaking wet bag, was a single sheet of A4 paper that carried a pledge with the words above written on it.

It is the manifesto of Maptia, a new organisation which plans to help people create their own personal maps of the world, and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to sign it. And, by a rather strange coincidence, I used to wait on tables with one of the founders of the group… almost proof that the world is small and I can follow it to its edges.

So, off we set on our two day trek from Karakol in Kyrgyzstan to lake Ala-Kol, equipped with a hired tent, roll mats, sleeping bags and everything. The sun was shining.


Check out my bag. At least 20 kilos we think.*


And the boys carried a few bits too.

We strolled along a raging river, surrounded by lush green hills dotted with horses and cows, and after about four hours or so, stopped for a tuna, cheese, bread and biscuit lunch that we felt quite proud of.


Wiping the crumbs from our mouths, we set off again (with Matty’s bag two whole tuna-tins lighter). It was here we began the ascent. Over the two days we were to climb (and then drop) 2,000 metres, reaching a maximum altitude of 3,900 metres.

Inevitably the higher we climbed, the shorter of breath we became. I staged plenty of: “Wow, look at this scenery,” stops so I could catch my breath.


And it was pretty spectacular.


But it was after about seven hours of trekking (three hours of climbing), when we were on the side of a bare, rocky mountain, that the drizzle started. At first it was just a smattering of inoffensive rain drops, not worth shaking an umbrella at, but they soon started to fall harder and faster.

Lunch felt a long time away, Matty’s feet had begun to resemble something of a dead person’s (take note: bring waterproof shoes for this trekking malarkey), and as the temperature dropped dramatically, I lost all sensation in my fingers.

We looked up to the rocks above us that we still had to climb, blinking away the freezing raindrops from our eyelashes. I put my white fingers under my armpits in a desperate attempt to warm them up, and even The Mongoose (aka Mountain Boy) seemed to jump from rock to rock with less enthusiasm.

I’m not sure what came first, the huge clap of thunder or the four small words from the Mongoose’s mouth: “We’ve lost the track.” Both filled me with an immense sense of dread and a strong urge to cry.

The rain turned into hail and as I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head tighter to shield my face from the hard pellets of ice falling from the sky, Mongoose ran up a few different rocks in a bid to find some red painted stones that might indicate we were back on track. He would return to us, shake his head and try another route.

Headlines ran through my head. None of them were good. I tried to focus my efforts on warming my hands up instead.

And just as I found a small piece of grass, jutting out form the mountain that may just have served as a campsite for the night, I heard, “I’ve found it, the track is this way.”

The Mongoose was standing at the base of a steep, gravelly route up the mountain with solid rock to his right that he was gripping onto. We still had a way to go. An hour to be precise – although I didn’t know it at that point.

I gave my hands one last rub and began the steep ascent to the sound and light show of the Gods above us, muttering darkly under my breath. I don’t remember the detail. Only that my feet went numb, the peak felt endless, the thunder got louder and the rain got heavier.

And then suddenly I had reached the top and the lake came into view. And the rain stopped.


And it stopped long enough for us to take this picture, get our tent up, and get dinner going on the stove.


These chilli super noodles tasted better than anything I’ve had in a long time. Yes, we even chopped up frankfurters for a bit of protein. Get us.

And as we layered up in our remaining dry clothes and huddled in the huge (and now slightly wet) goose down sleeping bags we’d* hauled up the hill, the rain and thunder began again. Our tent was one of those odd ones where the metal roads are on the outside of the canvas, making for a perfect lightning conductor.

While we slept the rain fell heavily and the wind blew furiously – but somehow, in the morning we were all still there. But so was the rain. We woke to a fearsome storm that appeared to have got angrier as the night progressed.

So we sat in our little tent, waiting for it to pass. By this stage I had written the entire front page of our tragic demise. The boys handed me my Kindle and told me to be quiet.


They ventured out to inspect the situation when the rain quietened.


There is a lake beyond that mist I promise.

Eventually at about 10.30am we made a run for it. The rain had eased a little so I strapped socks to my hands and with an air of (perhaps dampened) determination we left the comfort of the tent.

We had our final climb of the trek to complete from 3,500 metres (the height of the lake) to 3,900 metres across the lake and over the mountain behind it – before beginning a long descent.

(Me and Matty having a morning pep talk).

Then, just as we turned a corner, which revealed the rest of the previously hidden lake, the sun came out.

And as it shone down on the lake below us, illuminating the icy glacier behind it, it was as if it also opened my eyes for the first time since the rain had begun. It was stunning, it was beautiful, it was so isolated and rugged and I was incredibly privileged to see it.


The Mongoose turned around and grinned. “Nobody said it was going to be easy,” he said with a wink.

No, travelling a map to its edges is not meant to be easy, I thought as I unfolded my Maptia manifesto. But it’s going to be beautiful.



*That isn’t really my bag, that’s Matty’s (although it does contain a lot of my stuff). I might have carried a 7kg day pack instead… for reasons discussed here. Oh, and for the record (because this blog speaks only the truth), Clinique moisturiser is an essential trekking item.