World in Pictures: Whale spotting in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

I’ve never been a great ‘spotter’. From failing to read the blackboard at school to desperately trying to see a leopard, which had taken a deer up into the trees to eat, on safari in Sri Lanka; I’ve just not had much luck. Everyone else in the jeep was squealing as the leopard devoured its poor prey in the trees while I scanned leaf after leaf with the binoculars trying to find the camouflaged beast.

And so it was with some trepidation I embarked on a whale-spotting tour off the coast of Puerto Lopez in Ecuador. Despite having been told by fellow travellers that the whales were everywhere I couldn’t help but think I would be the one crying ‘whale’ at a big wave or speeding boat. It’s just how my eyes seem to work.

We piled onto a small boat and whizzed across the sea towards Isla de la Plata, where the whales are said to gather, and spent the whole time squinting over the waves, trying to see something black and moving. I might have shouted ‘whale’ at a passing bird at one point but then suddenly something huge, black and shiny appeared right by our side. Even I couldn’t get it wrong – a mother and her baby were swimming right beside our boat.

Together the humpbacks glided through the water, their huge but surprisingly graceful moves completely synchronised, as they disappeared underwater before resurfacing a few moments later. It was completely mesmerising. We followed them for a while before spotting others in the distance.

The captain allowed us to climb onto the top of the boat as we made our way to the other whales, giving us the perfect 360 degrees view. As we approached the new whales we could see they were playing and slapping their giant fins against the water. Then they gave us the show we hadn’t dared hope for as they breached out of the water – their entire bodies coming out of the sea before falling back in just seconds later.

While I was too busy clapping my hands and squealing in excitement – and generally having a ‘whaley’ good time (groan), Matty was doing a rather wonderful job at taking some photos. Enjoy x

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World in Pictures: 2013 Through the Lens

2013 started with a bang. Surrounded by our loved ones in Nottingham at our friend’s cocktail bar, we enjoyed free-flowing spirits and a help-yourself beer fridge (which is where Matty’s head spent most the night). With a few hours kip I found myself at work covering the New Year’s Day news (also know as murders). My head was banging.

And now we intend to see the year out with a bang… quite literally, as we watch the fireworks over the river from a Ministry of Sound party in our new ‘home’ of Saigon, in Vietnam.

It’s certainly been one of the more exciting years in my young 30 years of life so far. In our mammoth overland journey from the UK to Vietnam we visited 17 countries, took dozens of trains, taxis and buses, and probably ate hundreds of pieces of unidentifiable meat.

So as a fitting tribute to one of the memorable years yet, I’ve selected a few of my favourite pictures from 2013.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

And so our journey began... Like these fellas our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

And so our journey began… Like these fellas, our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

One of my fondest memories to this day was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

One of my fondest memories was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

.... And fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

…. And many fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got 'stuck at sea'). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got ‘stuck at sea’). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread - I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread – I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Inside one of the magnificent  mosques of Uzbekistan.

Inside one of the magnificent mosques of Uzbekistan.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile...

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile…

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

In China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi'an, China.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi’an, China.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway. Ninh Binh was a personal highlight for me.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular... taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular… taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

More lovely people.... And more lovely people.

More lovely people…. And more lovely people.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

But none of it would have been quite so special if it wasn't for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that's what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

But none of it would have been quite so magical if it wasn’t for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that’s what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

World in Pictures: Halong Bay, Vietnam

The other day I stayed in a hotel that was plastered in photographs of Halong Bay. This was not particularly unusual in itself. The hotel was in Halong Bay after all. But the thing that confused me, and stopped me in my tracks, was the fact that every single photo was in black and white.

“But, what…?” I sort of spluttered to myself (this is what happens now I’m travelling solo – I have simply replaced my audience of Matty and The Mongoose with… myself).

“How can they turn these beautiful photos into black and white images, stripped of their colours,” I continued ranting to myself.

For the water in Halong Blay is not blue, or turquoise or any other standard water-colour. Oh no. It is green, emerald green. The water is coloured by the huge limestone karsts that tower out of it, which are also decorated in greenery as luscious shrubbery and trees sprout from the rock face.

It is a green beauty. And surely green beauties cannot be stripped of their colour I argued (to myself).

But then I couldn’t stop staring at the photos, each one captured another side of the bay – its alluring and mysterious side, the side that only looks more dramatic and impressive in thunder storms and fierce rain, and the side that intimidates me with its sheer size.

And suddenly it seemed so right that, that side of Halong Bay was being depicted that I walked straight back into my room and stripped all the colours from my pictures too.

“Why didn’t I think of this before,” I muttered to myself.

Halong Bay Vietnam

Halong Bay Vietnam

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Halong Bay Vietnam

Treasure Junk in Halong Bay Vietnam

 

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Halong Bay Vietnam

 

 

Floating village in Halong Bay Vietnam

Woman on bamboo boat in Halong Bay Vietnam

 

If you’re not convinced and are feeling a little colour-robbed then check out the originals on my Flickr stream here.

World in Pictures: Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, China

I love green. I decided green was my favourite colour a few years ago and am now the proud owner of a number of green t-shirts, dresses and jumpers. I don’t have any green trousers yet, that’s on my ‘to do’ list.

I love the dark green glass of wine bottles, I adore the sight of olives – whether eating them or painting my walls in their very same shade, and I cherish the bright little slices of lime and cucumber that decorate my gin on sunny afternoons.

Green is an amazing colour and I love almost every shade it comes in. So imagine my delight when arriving to a huge area of rice paddies in China to discover lush greenness as far as the eye could see.

China is surprisingly rainy at the moment. I say surprising because I never checked what the weather was supposed to be like in September but naively expected sun, which has been the staple of our trip so far. Instead, China’s been the victim of huge downpours and floods that have left many homeless and others worse still.

But for the rice paddies of northern Guangxi, near Guilin in South China, the results of the rain are remarkable.

Rising up over 1,000 metres, the terraces of rice paddies are broken only by small villages of wooden buildings that blend beautifully with their surroundings. The tribal women that live in the villages have shiny long black hair that has never been cut and is piled up on their head like a glistening black hat. It is a sight to behold.

There is only one thing to do here: slowly meander up the terraces, observe the local village life and take in the astonishing panoramic sights around you that seem to get better with every step. The misty fog that engulfed us during our stay only served to make it all a little more magical and the greenery prettier still.

Here’s a few of our favourite pictures:

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Travel Tips
We stayed in the village of Darzhai during our stay at the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. It is easy to catch a bus from Guilin (outside the train station) and it takes about three hours. When you are dropped off, it is a 45 minute climb through the terraces up to the village – a beautiful walk in itself.

We stayed at the Dragon’s Den Hostel, which had a fabulous communal space downstairs although as it is completely made from wood there is nothing in the way of sound proofing! Their website is www.dragonsdenhostel.com.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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.

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

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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.

Through the Keyhole: A typical Kyrgyzstan city flat

As I walked into the hallway of a four-storey block of flats in Osh, Kyrgyzstan I was instantly transported back to Nottingham – specifically to a run down estate in the St Ann’s neighbourhood where I had been sent as a reporter to find the owner of a dangerous dog.

“Errrrm, is the dog still alive?” I remember asking my newsdesk at the time.
“We’re not sure,” was the reply, with an encouraging off-you-go-then-nod.

I remember walking up the concrete stairwell, trying not to breathe through my nose to avoid the stench of urine seeping in, wondering if a huge beast with a frothing jaw lay behind each door as I tentatively knocked it. I tapped a tad lighter on those with the ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs.

The memory flashed vividly as I walked into the Osh building, only this time it was minus dog threats and urine stains. But the chipped paint of the bare hallway, the rickety, tiny lift that left me running for the concrete stairwell all smacked of a British council estate.

We were staying at Osh Guesthouse, on the top floor. Three days later, in an almost identical building, we were staying at Bishkek Guesthouse, on the seventh floor. Fast forward three days and we were staying in our very own apartment in Bishkek, in yet another low rise block of flats.

But it was this apartment, that inspired me to launch a new ‘Through the Keyhole’ picture series on this blog. Because once we left the communal concrete lobby of the seemingly soulless building, we entered a new world of wonderfully kitsch, retro decor.

A world where the windows are framed with carpet lined hexagon borders, where the shower is really a ‘mini swimming pool’ with steps going down into it, and the ceilings are wooden panelled.

And that is what makes blocks of flats so intriguing to me (as previously mentioned here). They are like big boxes of drawers – each one holding its own stories, secrets and style when opened.

And that’s what Through the Keyhole is going to be all about… Just as Lloyd Grossman did all those years ago, I hope to show you little nuggets of life behind doors across the world.

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Travel Tips

If you a backpacker or travelling and want to rent an apartment in Bishkek for a short-stay then contact Zaqir at Bishkek Guesthouse at bishkekguesthouse@gmail.com or call +996552152207.

This apartment, as pictured, is very centrally located at 41 Manas Street, Bishkek. It has a double bedroom, a very large lounge with another double bed in it, a bathroom, kitchen and ‘smoking room’ (!). It cost 1,900 Kyrgz Com per night between us – about £25.

Instagram Images: Sun City outdoor swimming pool in Bishkek, Kyrgzstan


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