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

Moving into a New Apartment in Saigon

The first evening after Matty and I moved into our new apartment in Saigon I saw a dead rat and ate fried pigs skin. That may not quite conjure up the romantic image of a city laced in the faded grandeur of French colonialism, but then again on our first day in Nottingham we had a bike stolen – and trust me, it was not Robin Hood.

And so here we are. After almost seven months on the road, I now have a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and wait for it – a plastic tub to keep my make up in.

After unpacking our few belongings, which took no longer than 20 minutes, we threw our backpacks up into one (of the many empty cupboards) we have above our wardrobe in a triumphant ceremonial manner and stepped out onto our balcony to have a Bia Saigon.

Our new humble home is in “District Three” of this huge, bustling and to be quite frank, mental, city. We had two criteria when house hunting: firstly, to find somewhere close to downtown and not in an expat area so we could experience real Saigon life and secondly, somewhere that would not cost an arm and a leg. Because no one could do without them – especially when there are so many motorbikes to dodge in the streets here.

We viewed about four shoeboxes before finding what was to become our little pad on Nguyen Phuc Nguyen street – and no – I still can’t say it and make myself understood to taxi drivers. So I just carry it around on a little piece of paper like an evacuee hoping to get back there… at some point.

It has the finishing touches of a “bachelor’s pad” and we have our first ever TV in seven years. Matty loves it.

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Matty doing his black-leather-couch-pose

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I’ve never failed to fill a wardrobe before…

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The token kitchen – with street food at our doorstep for about 75p a plate, this is not going to see much action

But my favourite place in the apartment might just be the balcony. When the dodging of hundreds of motorbikes at any one junction all becomes too much, this is the place to hang out and admire the work of southeast asia’s finest electricians and smog artists.

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Stainless steel tables and plastic chairs are making a comeback. Fact.

 

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# A room with a view

Unlike the British high streets, the streets in ‘nam tend to sell just one ware. Take a left out of the door and you’ll find yourself on motorbike helmet and crockery street, take a right and you’ll find yourself on shirt street where there are racks of shirts to be bought for a few dollars. But take a right and left – or a left and right – and you’ll find dozens of street food stalls that from hereon shall be described as “restaurants”, clusters of small plastic tables and chairs that will be described as “bars” from now on, and a strangely high proportion of women walking the streets selling quails eggs.

And so it was that I stepped over a dead rat as we chose the “restaurant” that would serve us fried pigs skin.

“At least it’s dead,” said Matty, ever the optimist.

Yes – I think we will be happy here. Street food tales to follow x

 Travel Tips

If you’re looking to rent an apartment in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) on a short-term basis the best advice I can give you is get there and contact everyone you can find. Through the power of Google and Craigslist we emailed dozens of agents with our criteria and had viewings lined up for the next day – the situation changes every day and most of their websites are not uptodate. We said we were only interested in a three month contract so we can establish the area and what we want long term. Many agents were ok with that – but expect to pay a little bit more as a result. Within six days of making inquiries we had moved in. Here’s to hoping we find some work that quickly… 🙂

 

Song Saa private island, Cambodia

When I was a child my holidays were rather different to how I travel today. Back then I didn’t have to share my shower with baby frogs, nor did I think that efficiently killing a cockroach would be something I would look for in a man – but I did have to share a caravan with my snoring dad.

No, growing up I did not visit far flung places – instead we spent most summers at holiday camps on the south coast of England where we would enter dancing and fancy dress competitions in the club room in the evenings and spend entire days at indoor swimming pools. It was brilliant. And the highlight of every night came in the form of a pack of bacon-flavoured Frazzles and a glass bottle of Orangina. Or, if we won the dancing competition, two packs of Frazzles.

As I got older and ventured further afield the highlight of my holidays soon became a 50p bottle of local beer and bowl of curry at a bustling night market in a tropical climate.

But then I found myself on a luxury private island. And everything changed.

Accompanied by my dear pal Tanya, we boarded a speed boat for Song Saa island off the south coast of Cambodia.

This was, I must add, all in the name of ‘work’. In my role as a travel consultant for a London-based company I am currently touring Cambodia and Vietnam in search of the best places to visit before launching holidays here. And so it was, for that morning’s commute, we boarded a speed boat and enjoyed a complimentary diet coke.

Tanya riding out to Song Saa... speed boat for two dah-ling

Tanya riding out to Song Saa… speed boat for two dah-ling

The island came into view. Dense tropical jungle, pure white sands and water so clear that even snorkels are redundant. We gasped a little bit and refrained from doing our We-Have-24-Hours-On-A-Private-Tropical-Island-Dance that would, it transpired, come out later.

Instead we took a tour around the island with Ruth, the resident manager, gushing how surely she had the most amazing job in the world.

We popped into the bar and restaurant that sit on stilts over the water, checked out the isolated and serene beach areas, passed the water sports centre and took a brief look at the gym with floor to ceiling windows boasting magnificent views of the ocean.

Song Saa bar area

But then we reached our home for the night and suddenly I realised how people could visit this stunning island and barely leave their villa.

Tucked into the jungle foliage of the island but looking over the Gulf of Thailand we stepped into our villa to be greeted with a living room of giant proportions, decked out in beautiful woods, that felt like an extension of the island’s natural beauty.

The huge driftwood flower box that stretched the length of the living room was full of tropical plants, the colourful mismatched tin lampshade was made from old oil tanks at sea and a collection of canvas photo-prints of seaweed and driftwood in water (taken by the owner himself) were hypnotic. Every little detail was beautiful.

Song saa 2 bedroom villa

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But as I stared through the huge French doors that led out onto our private swimming pool and terrace area, the wall at the back of the living room was being pushed away to reveal a big shiny kitchen area. There was magic everywhere.

Song saa kitchen

On the side in our kitchen lay all the ingredients (and hand-written instructions) to help us make the perfect island mojitos (lemongrass infused vodka replaces rum here).

Mojito instructions at song saa

And on the other side sat glass bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and wine. Meanwhile the ‘mini bar’, a full length fridge and freezer was full to the brim of soft drinks, white wine and sparkling wine. There was nothing mini about it.

gin vodka whisky

Muttering incomprehensible words about mojitos, gin and lemongrass, we walked into our separate bedrooms. (I think this was Tanya’s personal highlight after spending the last couple of weeks fabricating stories of me being a bad-duvet-snatching-bed-partner).

In perfect symmetry, our over-sized bedrooms both led off from the lounge on separate sides. Cue more gasps.

bedroom song saa

Bedroom at song saa

Get this: Underneath my huge four-poster double bed, draped with what I’m going to tell you was probably silk (why not?), I found fairy lights. They were not visible at all unless you got on your back and crawled under the bed, which is what all VIP guests do on a private island I am reliably informed, but once under there you could see fairy lights. The result for the rest of the guests that don’t crawl under their beds? A gorgeous soft glow emanating from the ground below the bed.

I immediately wanted to drink mojitos under my bed.

Huge floor-to-ceiling old wooden doors led onto our bathrooms, which were perhaps my most favourite rooms in our new island mansion. One entire half of the bathroom was just glass looking out to the jungle and ocean beyond – with a huge sunken bath and three showers (one outside) to indulge in. Three showers each.

bathroom song saa

bathroom song saa cambodia

bathroom song saa

That means we had six showers between us and two huge bath tubs. I quickly worked out that we would need to be showering and bathing every few hours to use them all. And what a waste to not use them all.

My brain went: “Shower. Mojito. Bath. Pool. Mojito. Sit under bed. Shower. Mojito.”

Back in the kitchen, a beautiful leather bound menu sat on the work surface and my mouth started watering within seconds of flicking through it.

“Oh God, when am I going to have time to eat?,” I groaned to myself. My plan would need a re-think.

As if reading my thoughts, Ruth (with the amazing job) confirmed that all food and drinks, except the wines and spirits on their reserve list, were included.

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My eyes flicked to the gin, the lemongrass-infused vodka, the sparkling wine, the menu, the private pool, the bed… And I felt my anxiety levels raise. There was so much to do. So we did the only thing that made sense. And ran into our pool (with glasses of wine.)

(Not before posing on all the furniture)

(Not before posing on all the furniture)

But Song Saa is not all about indulgence, it also does some fab work on Koh Rong, its neighbouring island where it works with some of the communities there. This corner of the world has huge issues with litter and the Song Saa Foundation have done incredible work in educating people about how to dispose of rubbish and keep their beautiful island clean. They support the local school there and even have a little nursery where people can get chilli plants and other start-up plants and flowers for their garden.

We spent a couple of fascinating hours over there before racing back over to Song Saa for some sundowners. Sparkling mojitos offset the sinking Asian sun perfectly as we chatted away to Ruth in over-sized bean bags on the edge of the ocean.

sunset at song saa cambodia

Dinner, breakfast and lunch were so good that they are each worthy of their own blog posts. Although if I did that I don’t think I’d have any friends left – so for now I’ll just say the red snapper was one of the juiciest I’ve ever sampled.

That night Tanya and I hosted a party in the villa. With different sound systems in each room, Tanya opted for 1970s rock and I went for a more eclectic electric vibe. We danced between the rooms, danced in our plunge pool and then danced in one of our huge oversized baths, which we decided could comfortably fit four people in.

We danced like we were children again. We danced like no one was watching. No one was. There were no Frazzles or Orangina in sight – but the sparkling wine and turn-down treat of cookies did just fine. It was magical.

 

Travel Tips

Song Saa is about a half an hour speedboat from Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia.

To enquire about booking a trip to Song Saa or about tailor-made holidays in Cambodia contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Battambang, Cambodia: The Bamboo Train

I must confess to being a bit of a train geek. I find everything about them rather fascinating; from the excitable atmosphere of busy stations, to the big clocks hanging from high ceilinged railway halls that make for strangely intimate meeting spots across the world – and the people, oh the people watching on trains is a favourite past-time.

My favourite train is the Eurostar, and so it felt like an appropriate way to begin our overland adventure to Vietnam six months ago. There’s something rather Parisian about the whole affair; champagne and air kissing under the huge arched ceiling of St Pancras – and when you cross through to departures you can’t help but feel like you’ve discovered a whole new side of the train station that is invisible to commuters.

It’s nothing short of marvellous. And don’t even get me started on the fact that really it’s like a giant submarine that’s hurtling along the ocean. If only they’d put a few windows in the tunnel for a spot of marine watching.

No train, I thought, could surely be better than the Eurostar. For no other train is taking you to the fairytale land of Croissants, bloody steaks and fine Bordeaux.

But, the other day I caught a train in Cambodia that forced me to re-evaluate.

Well I say ‘caught a train’ as if it was taking me somewhere but it wasn’t, not really. See there are no passenger trains in Cambodia. The streets are heaving with tuk-tuks and motorbikes but there is not a train in sight.

What do you mean this doesn't look like a train?!

What do you mean this doesn’t look like a train?!

Well, apart from the Bamboo Train that is. Hidden off the main tourist trail is a charming little town in the northwest called Battambang (not to be confused with the cake). No Battambang is far more delicious than Battenberg.

And rather randomly, its claim to fame is the bamboo train. The bamboo train is basically a bamboo raft with a lawn mower engine stuck to the back of it that hurtles down wonky train tracks that are kind of parallel.

You pile onto the ‘carriage’ and then sit back and let the ‘train driver’ do the work.

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And I can honestly say it was one of the most fun things we’ve done on the trip so far. I am actually a little lost for words – it’s just hard to sum up being ‘rafted’ across what looks like a disused railway at 50 mph.

Every now and then when the rails looked particularly rusty we would be jolted forwards and clutch the little piece of wicker carpet laid under us a little harder.

But then in the horizon we saw oncoming traffic. Hurtling towards us on the same narrow track was another little bamboo raft carrying some bemused tourists.

Oncoming traffic on Bambu Train battambang

Slowly we all ground to a hault and stared at each other slightly bewildered.

This was a bit different to the country lanes near my parents’ house where a hardball stare is enough to send the other car reversing 100 yards back to the nearest ditch. Just as I was about to give my best ‘back up, love’ look our ‘train driver’ motioned for us to get off.

Within seconds our carriage (which rides the rails on a pair of dumb-bells in case you were wondering) was dismantled piece by piece and lying on the side of the railway.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP ONE: Remove the carriage from the tracks, piece by piece.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP TWO: Let the traffic pass and then get bemused tourist to try and put the carriage on backwards.

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STEP THREE: Haul carriage back onto track…

STEP FOUR.... And relax.

STEP FOUR…. And relax.

We were off again. Off where exactly I’m not sure. The tracks were laid in the 1930s in French colonial times but all the trains were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, which led local people to construct the bamboo trains using traditional methods to help get them into town easier. While the trains are still used by some locals today, they have been largely replaced by the growing number of vehicles on the road.

But for us it was definitely all about the journey rather than the destination, as we ended up an hour later where we had begun. But as far as train rides go I think this may just have been the most memorable.

A ride with a view.

A ride with a view.

 

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: Uzbekistan – Amazing Tiles and Yum Bread

When I mentioned I was in Uzbekistan to my friend Treebeard (her name is another story but for now I’ll allow you to believe she looks like a tree and has a beard), I got an excitable message in reply: ‘UZBEKISTAN!!! Enjoy the amazing tiles and more yum bread…”

Treebeard is the only other person I know who has visited this delightful little country, nestled between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In fact it is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world. But that’s enough of the facts, back to amazing tiles and yum bread.

At the time when I received this message I had not been in the country long and had spent much of that time largely been confined to the desert, hunting out a shrinking sea (that obviously does not connect to an ocean) and frankly had no idea what she was talking about. And then I left the desert and wow, the abundance of delicous hot, crusty, melt-in-your-mouth bread hit me like a sack of… bread.

And the turquoise and blue tiles that decorate the mosques, minarets and medrassas across the evocative cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara, caught me unaware like a magpie starved of diamonds. I should probably be telling you some fascinating tales of the impressive history of these cities, that are at the very heart of our Silk Road journey, but I think the pictures may just do it better.

So here’s to the amazing tiles, yum bread and much more of Uzbekistan…

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Death by Drawings: Noratus Cemetary, Armenia

I must start this post with a big apology for the long silence and lack of blogging. I’m going to blame being stuck on a boat for three days, spending a week in deepest darkest Turkmenistan and then camping by a shrinking sea. But I am now back (with plenty of material)! I say ‘back’ in the loosest sense of the word… We have entered a world where the food is meat and the wifi is slow. So slow it is almost impossible to blog at times. Nevertheless, I am determined to continue telling the world in words, so please bear with me if there are big gaps.

In the meantime, I have lots to tell you about. And I intend to start on a morbid subject. Sorry about that.

Rarely a day goes by when I don’t think about death. I don’t mean that I spend hours morbidly planning my own funeral or fretting how I will spend my last days, although, everyone indulges in that a little, don’t they?

I just mean that more often than not I’ll get a fleeting morbid thought. I blame the years of sitting in inquests as a reporter… the man who died after a candle melted down the back of his TV has left me suspicious of romantic lighting, the countless cyclists who sadly never made it home left me seeing even the smallest of vehicles as the biggest of threats when I cycled to work every day, and then there was the spot, outside a nightclub near my work that I passed too often, where a man died from a single punch.

But the other day, when visiting an Armenian graveyard, I was presented with an entirely new line of thinking on the subject. Let me put it to you.

If your gravestone had to tell the story of your life, or death, through pictures, what would it look like? Traditionally in Armenia when a loved one dies, the friends and family will gather together to think about how their story should be engraved on the gravestone – some choose to tell the story of their life, while others opt for death.

Visiting the Noratus graveyard in east Armenia, we were presented with a whole range of stories. From dramatic massacres to the mundane routines of life, the tales of the dead come alive on the gravestones. Two personal favourites, of such extremes, are the ‘wedding banquet’ stone and the farmer’s stone.

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The wedding banquet shows just that – a large, rectangular table, crowded with smiling people, clinking glasses and cheering the happy couple in the middle. But to the left of the party, coming through an open door, is a man brandishing a weapon. The gravestone shows the scene seconds before he slaughtered the newlyweds and all their guests at the table, our guide explained. The couple are buried underneath.

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Not such a happy scene after all. We were swiftly moved onto the farmer’s stone, that read more like a comic strip sequence of pictures. The first engraving showed the farmer leaving his house in the morning, the second showed him hard at work in the field and the third showed him coming home to a big Armenian barbecue cooked by his wife. Because that was his life. Day in, day out.

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I looked at the big plate of food being carried by his wife and concluded his story was definitely a happier affair than that of the poor newlyweds. And as I walked across the field of story-telling stones, I couldn’t help but wonder what my tale would be. It had to be about life surely, not death, because it is life that should be celebrated.

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I looked at the old women, knitting scarves and mittens to sell to tourists in the scorching 30 degrees sun, and wondered what their story was. What had they lost, what had they gained, what few pictures would sum it all up?

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I turned to Matty as we gazed at the stone of the drunk fisherman who got bitten by a snake while he slept, and asked him what our story would be. He looked thoughtful for a minute.

“Wine, smiles and air miles,” he concluded.

And I decided that yes, the good times, the smiles, the laughter and travel would make for a very pretty picture in the graveyard. And suddenly it all felt a little less morbid.

Climbing to Gergeti Glacier, Kazbegi, Georgia

Almost a month into our big journey across central asia, I have learnt three things about travelling with boys:

1) Boys like climbing things.

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Matty on a rocky crag in Ani, Turkey

2) Boys like shooting things.

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The Mongoose even found something to shoot at the top of the Citadel in Budapest

3) Boys are not as good as girls at asking for things.

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I was brave enough to ask this girl selling carrots in a club in Budapest for a picture. And now we have a picture of a girl carrying carrots... see, never hurts to ask.

In sum, this means I have asked more favours from strangers, and climbed more walls, steps and mountains in the last three weeks than I did in the one year I travelled with my dear friend Carly after university.* I’m not sure how the shooting thing comes into it yet, I’ll keep you posted on that one.

Crumbling city walls, that I would have once regarded as no more than a ‘lovely backdrop’ for a picture, have become giant playgrounds for climbing and walking, while steep, ghastly looking stairs that would normally pass me by have become one of the first things I notice when visiting beautiful old ruins. For those that remember my previous scaredy cat confessions of, well, most things, including stairs, I hope you are impressed.

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And this was precisely how I found myself climbing up to the Gergeti Glacier, in Kazbegi, Georgia.

A beautiful, mountainous region of Georgia, we had always intended to do some long walks in Kazbegi, including a climb to a 14th century church, perched above the town on an isolated crag at 2, 200 metres above sea level.

However, it did not take the boys long to realise that this was really just the first stop on a much more arduous (‘but rewarding’, they promised) climb to a glacier at 3, 000 metres above sea level. I enthusiastically (but slightly anxiously) agreed, and we pledged if one of us felt unable to continue we would all return back to the village together.

And so we set off. The Three ‘Must-have-a-beers’ (as christened by my dad when he said our farewells to us at St Pancras) and Dog. We accidentally picked up Dog, a big giant beast of a dog, in the village when buying bread for the trek. We clambered through some forest land, with Dog faithfully trotting by our side, and paused at an information board about local fauna and wildlife.

There it was in black and white, among a long list of indingeous creatures… the Brown Bear.

‘Bears?!’ I shrieked, loud enough for even Dog to cast a cagey look to his right, into the woodland. I had been worrying a bit about the altitude, about whether Dog would suddenly turn on us to get our bread half way up a mountain, and even twisting an ankle or two. But bears?

So the remainder of the trek up to the Tsminda Sameba Church was largely spent coming up with a bear plan. We decided the boys would throw rocks at the beast, while I would throw the bread in the hope that Dog would fight him for it… or I would play dead and let the boys deal with it all. Travelling with boys has its uses after all, I concluded.

But such fears were soon forgotten as we made our approach to the stunning church, sitting amid low-lying clouds, because Dog started terrorising the cows. There are cows everywhere in Georgia and as a huge bovine fan, I am in my element on a daily basis. They are not even skanky cows like in India. The Georgian cows are beautiful beasts with deep, rich coloured coats and happy faces. But Dog started chasing a couple of the idly grazing cows beside the church, causing them to charge in fear at startled tourists, who tried to run out of their way. So we pretended not to know Dog and focused on the beauty of the church instead.

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Looking down at the village of Kazbegi, where we started the climb.

From the church we began the ascent to the glacier, minus Dog. Although by this point we had picked up New Dog, a smaller little creature that treated cows with more respect.

We started the long and cumbersome climb up hills scattered in wild flowers, over mountain ridges and more hills… and hills, and hills. As the altitude increased we found just a few energetic steps could leave us out of breath, causing us to pause… and reach for the chocolate.

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Even New Dog (who got crazier the higher he climbed) got tired and stopped for a snooze.

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But as soon as I got my breath back and looked around me, I felt overwhelmed by the views around us. The church soon went from being a tiny speck below us to disappearing completely, and was replaced by towering mountains and deep cut valleys that suddenly emerged over the ridges as we climbed higher.

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As we approached our final destination, we discovered we were unable to reach the glacier due to wet, melting snow which came up to our waists. Instead we sat looking out to Mount Kazbek and the glacier and ripped open our bread, cheese and chocolate for a picnic that might just win the best location award yet.
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And as we silently chomped away, at a spot that I would never dreamed of perservering to find, I concluded that travelling with boys – well these boys at least – is not so bad after all.

*This might be a slight exaggeration. Carly and I after all tackled many things including the great muddy hills of Laos’s jungles in nothing more than a pair of flip flops, which no other boys were daft enough dared to do.

Travel Tips

It is easy to travel to Kazbegi from Tbilisi – regualr marshrutkys (mini buses) run, taking about three hours and costing 10 lari (£4). You can also get taxis, costing about 90 lari – although we got a cab for the same price as the marshrutky as it needed to return to Tbilisi anyway, so worth asking around.

The journey is worth the visit in itself. Known as the Georgian Military Highway, it’s incredibly scenic if not a little terrifying as you take corners on the mountain edge – seeing an overturned lorry on one stretch was a tad unnerving – but the drive really is beautiul.

Where to stay in Kazbegi?

We stayed at a guesthouse called Nunu’s where she lovingly cooked for us every evening after we came down from the mountains. The beds were a little hard and there was no heating but we couldnt ask for better hospitality – plus the showers were hot! She’s very central – you can email her at gvanci9191@gmail.com or call +995558358535.

Cappadocia, Turkey: Where Fairies and Pigeons are One

I can think of only one thing worse than kissing a frog to find a prince… and that’s kissing a pigeon to find a fairy, but that’s just how things roll in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Having fostered a strong dislike for pigeons over the years, I found this tale especially hard to come to terms with. Pigeons (aka rats with wings) litter town centres across the UK with their filthy excrement while flying dangerously low, as if scoring points with their mates in the sky every time an elderly lady shrieks in fear or a gaggle of teens duck unnecessarily. They are ugly, menacing and downright dirty. And, unlike dirty burgers, dirty birds are not good.

But in the beautiful, fairytale region of Cappadocia in Turkey, which boasts huge swathes of deep-cut valleys with phallic boulders and hills that resemble Mr Whippy ice cream, the pigeon is of upmost significance. Or at least it was.

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In a land where people created homes and communities in the caves they dug through the hills and inside fairy chimneys, pigeons were kept, loved and cherished. Little holes can be found across the hills where the pigeons were kept.

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The story goes that once upon a time humans and fairies lived together in Cappadocia, but alas, they did not see eye to eye. However, against the odds one man fell in love with a fairy and they were determined to be wed.

The humans were angry, livid… Outraged. They cried things like: “How did that big, hairy oaf manage to pull a dainty little fairy?” and: “This must be stopped, their children will look like a cross between Tinker Bell and Chewbacca.”

So the horrid humans hatched an awful wicked plan to kill all the fairies. They organised a fake wedding for the pair and sat all the fairies together so they could be easily killed. But just before the genocide was about to take place the fairies, realising something was amiss, all turned into pigeons and flew out of the windows.

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The horrid humans, on reflection of their ghastly behaviour, felt ashamed and embarrassed by their actions. So they built homes for the pigeons and looked after them very well… Until the tourism industry took off in the 1950s, that is, and then the pigeons sort of fell by the wayside.

But nevertheless for years, pigeons were the pride and joy of the people here – they were used to carry messages between communities, their excrement was mixed with other ingredients to make a paint to decorate frescoes in the cavernous churches, and they were even used as a bargaining chip in marriage. (I know, can you imagine?! Daughters up and down the land crying: “Dad, am I only worth two pigeons to you?”)

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So as we wondered, cycled and climbed up the dusty paths surrounding the hilly caves, I tried to come to terms with the suggestion that pigeons might just be fairies. I tried to imagine their diseased feathers turning into pink, glittery wings and their crooked little feet with missing toes transform into dainty, tiny fairy feet.

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And the more I walked, and climbed, and looked, and saw, the easier it became to believe. Because after all, nowhere can be quite this magical and not have been filled with fairies at some point.

So perhaps next time I am in Stevenage town centre surrounded by pigeons, getting dangerously close to me in the hope I may drop a smidgen of food, I will remember this story and see them in a new light. I don’t think I will kiss them though. After all, a fairy in Stevenage would not last long at all.

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Travel Tips

Where to stay in Cappadocia?

We stayed at the cavernous Shoestring Hotel, which has an amazing cave-dorm where a bed will set you back a mere 25 Lira (£10). Bargain. But more importantly, the staff are wonderful. They helped us organise our onward travel and made quite a few phonecalls for us to save us from the terrible if-I-speak-louder-maybe-they’ll-understand-me scenarios.

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How to get to Cappadocia?

We took the night bus from Istanbul to Cappadocia – run by a company called Metro. You can book it online but make sure it stops at Goreme (some will stop before that but provide a shuttle service – just be sure onward travel is included!) It was not clear online so we ended up booking one through an agent in Istanbul. It cost the same price as online – 65 Lira (about £25). It departs at 8pm and 10pm and also has a day service. The 10pm bus is quicker, and took about 11 hours. The buses are comfortable, and the seats recline quite far back… I slept well at least! There is also a hilarious ‘bus steward’ dressed in a dickie-bow who feeds you cake and pours tea for a midnight snack.

The best street food in Istanbul: The Islak Hamburger

Sometimes you visit a city and need to tell the world about its crumbling city walls, stunning churches and mosaic mosques. Other times you need to eulogise about its food. Specifically a hamburger.

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The Islak hamburger may only cost £1 and look like a heart-stopping combination of soggy bap and dirty meat, sold on unreliable street corners across Istanbul – but allow me to dispel such myths.

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After purchasing said burger from a kind looking man at a stand on Taksim Square (where it had been sitting in a hot glass tank for longer than is probably worth thinking about), I was delighted to discover how soft the bread was. Biting into the warm, soft bap, a rich meat infused tomato sauce oozed out.

A few bites later, I was into the heart of the burger… a herby, spiced lamb mince pattie that made me make inappropriate noises and earn unfavourable looks from passer-by’s.

The Islak Burger is, my friends, the burger of kings, the king of burgers – the burger that looks down at Burger King from his hot, glass tank and mocks their dry baps and spiceless meat.

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The pictures of me actually eating it are not suitable for public viewing but here’s me being all excitable by the stand.

However, if you are after something a little more fresh tasting then I can also heartily recommend making your way to the Gelata Bridge (that crosses over the Golden Horn) to one of the stalls where the fish is grilled fresh from the fishermen’s net. Meaty mackerel (or whatever the catch of the day is) is thrown into a crunchy baguette, drizzled in fresh lemon juice and topped with giant rocket leaves and crunchy onion slices, with a slight sprinkle of salt and paprika.

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This will set you back just £2 – which means you can definitely go back for seconds.

Istanbul is a street food lover’s haven… We drank the juice of three freshly squeezed oranges (costing 50p) every day and munched on giant sesame seed sprinkled pretzels, costing about the same.

But it is the rows of dirty looking burgers that is the real secret gem in the city’s street food scene. Trust me*.

PS If you want to know more about the highlights of the city then take a look at my picture-led post from when Matty and I first visited Istanbul a couple of years ago.

*The hamburger was tried and tested after about four pints of Turkey’s finest Efes lager.