Xi’an, China: The end of the Silk Road

It all started on the stairs. The stairs of the great Constantinople walls in Istanbul.

These were not any ordinary stairs – these stairs were ridiculously steep and unfathomably narrow. There was room for your toes on each step but even the ball of your foot was left dangling off.

“It’s easy,” the Mongoose tried to assure me. “Just pretend its a ladder, climb it like you’d climb a ladder,” he said. But it wasn’t a ladder, it was a hard, brick staircase that screamed death.

“No,” I said. “There is no way I’m climbing those stairs. Not under any circumstances.”

Two minutes later my shoes were off and I was putting my right toes on the first ‘rung’ of the stairs. Matty was in front of me. The Mongoose was behind me. And slowly we made our ascent.

Before I knew it my knocking knees and I were standing on the top of the old Constantinople walls.


We turned and faced east – the road to China – the road I would spend the next four and a half months travelling.


We put our arms around each other. We took pictures of our feet. Our six feet that would travel more than 5,000 miles together. And we couldn’t imagine what the road ahead would have in store.


It was the beginning of the Great Adventures of the Three Must-Have-A-Beers. A throw away comment made by my dad as he bid his farewells to us in London, which quickly became our label – our motto – the sentence that made me do the things I was scared of.

“Come on Delia, we’re the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers, we have to do this together,” The Mongoose would say when I threatened to wait at the bottom of perilous mountains or treacherous staircases with the bags.

And that is exactly what got me up those stairs that day. Yes, I thought, I trust these loons, we’re in it together.


But that was some 7,000 miles ago now. Technically 5,676 as the crow flies but we certainly did not travel like crows – we zig zagged our way across the Silk Road like a trio of drunk moles lost in a forest. Up, down, across and up and down again we went in Kyrgyzstan. From Georgia to Armenia and back to Georgia again before Azerbaijan. No we did not travel like crows.

Although it often felt like we were flying. Or standing on the top of the world at least.

I had to remind myself I was not on Mars when driving across the desolate, high altitude Pamir Highway of Tajikistan, known as the “rooftop of the world”, I had to assure myself I would get back to Earth eventually when stuck at the top of a mountain in a flimsy tent during a 12-hour thunder and hail storm, and I had to pinch myself when staring into the burning fire crater of the Turkmenistan desert.

And after catching what must have been weeks of sleeper trains, days of buses and hours of taxis, we reached our final destination: Xi’an.
But our journey wasn’t complete the moment when our tired feets touched Xi’an soil after a long sleepless train from the west. No, our final destination was the Bell Tower in Xi’an.

And so we began the final walk of the Silk Road. We paced down a colourful Xi’an street before coming to a sudden stop at the end. For we knew that as soon as we turned our heads to the left we would see the end of our road, and we weren’t quite ready for that.

So instead we huddled together, put our arms around each others shoulders and shared a few words. The hugs got tighter, kisses were planted firmly on cheeks and then, with our arms still locked together, we turned the corner and saw it illuminated against the dark blue sky at the end of the road. The Bell Tower.



And it was more beautiful than I could have imagined. We slowly strode towards it, clutching our bottle of ‘Champagne’, and did not stop until our palms were touching the cool brick of the tower. We had made it.

We had completed the Silk Road. We had laughed, we had cried (well actually just me when I found out my friend’s baby had been born), we had travelled miles and miles together, without catching a single plane.

And it was with all this emotion that three of us placed our hands on the huge piece of wood swinging besides the large, ancient bell at the top of the tower, ready to create an almighty noise. But security stepped in and we were abruptly shooed away before some giant fluffy character took it in his hands while rolling cameras filmed him posing with it. Of course.


So instead we took pictures of our feet. And stared west – the road to Turkey – the road we had spent the last four and a half months travelling.



And after we climbed down the stairs of the bell tower, a far cry from those of the Constantinople Walls, we popped the Champagne and lit a cigar.

“To the adventures of the Three Must-Have-A-Beers,” we toasted.
“And to all that we’ve seen….
“And to all that we’ve overcome…
“And to each other…”

I love these loons.

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.

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

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.

Kyrgyzstan Food… and trekking in the Valley of the Flowers

It’s not very often you hear your boyfriend skidding down a sheer rock face.

I couldn’t look down, I was loosely gripped to the mountain myself and one false move could result in me tumbling down on top of him. Instead I gripped harder and yelled something nervously. I can’t remember what.

The Mongoose was below me and I heard him skid down to Matty, who it transpired was holding on by one rock. Somehow he managed to pull himself back on track and then it was my turn to try and shift my sweaty right hand onto another rock.

But I didn’t know how to move. The only two stable stones to my right held my right foot and right leg in place, while my left foot and hand refused to leave the comfort of their sturdy stones.

“Delia, move your left foot to where your right foot is and your right to the red stone to your right,” I heard the Mongoose instruct me.

It was like playing a really bad game of high-altitude, vertical Twister. But the mat was made of gravelly rock and it was constantly moving. Mini avalanches cascaded down the mountain below us with every unsure-footed step we took.

None of us could lose this game. We had to stay ‘in’ until the top. And so we continued to clamber (refusing to look down) – and a few times the Mongoose just sort of pulled me across grip-less sections.

Until suddenly we were at the top and the gravel beneath our feet turned into a more secure grass. We span in circles, we hugged furiously – and then we saw the clear, easy track to our right that we should have taken for this eight-hour trek. Mongoose muttered something about going back to orientation school.

But it was ok because we were in the Valley of Flowers, Kyrgzstan and it was BEAUTIFUL. Bizarrely, perhaps even more beautiful for the arduous route we had taken.


That’s me with the graze to prove it. (Yes, I’m wearing pyjama shorts on my head. That’s what happens when you forget to take a hat travelling).

And we were just about to eat the best packed lunch EVER. Mothers across the globe – take note: this is what a packed lunch should look like:



For the record it contained: A cheese sandwich, a salami sandwich, a hard boiled egg, a bag of cooked chips (yes, my friends I had egg and chips in a packed lunch), two pancakes, a delicious pasty filled with spiced mince meat and onions, a bag of nuts, raisins and sweets, a Milky Way, a cucumber, a tomato and a fruit drink.

That’s me with my egg and chips.

Oh, and some wonderful biscuits that tasted just like Rich Teas but looked much happier.


And then, sitting in this glorious spot with the sun beating down on my shoulders, it dawned on me just how much my life revolves around food. There I was in some of the most stunning scenery we have seen on the trip so far, and I was photographing smiley-faced-biscuits – and raving about a packed lunch.

That box of goodies had given everything a slightly rose-tinted filter (a bit like I was looking at the world through a cool Instagram filter). With that in my bag I could climb any mountain, reach any star, run at any flock of sheep (this might have happened – I blame the biscuits), I was invincible.

And so we scoffed our fabulous packed lunch at our fabulous picnic spot and then climbed another two peaks before heading back down to our yurt stay for dinner.





And I knew dinner was going to be great. As a significant addendum to my recent rant at Central Asian food, the grub in Kyrgzstan is bloody good. Clearly influenced by its Chinese neighbours, the traditional Central Asian dish of laghman (noodles, bland sauce, and unidentifiable pieces of fatty meat) has been transformed into a delicious tangy tomato dish, ladled with roasted vegetables and chunks of tender meat.


Plus, on every table salt and pepper shakers are joined by a delicious chilli and garlic paste that has the ability to make even the blandest dish come to life.


But in Kyrgzstan the food isn’t bland. This, my friends, is the flavour island in a bland ocean of slop and oil.

And some of the best food we’ve had in here so far has been at this fairly remote Yurt Stay in Valley of the Flowers, just 40 minutes or so away from Karakol. It was the folk here that whipped us up the fabulous packed lunch and where we were returning for dinner.

And if anything will get me back down almost 1,000 metres altitude in just one and a half hours it is this:


A delicious stew of vegetables, potatoes and tender beef steak cooked in a rich, spicy tomato sauce with a huge bowl of tomato-pasta soup on the side. Oh, and warm freshly baked crunchy bread on the side – and more happy biscuits.

And that is why I know tomorrow is going to be another great trekking day. I’ll be starting it with rice pudding (a common breakfast in Kyrgzstan – yet another reason to love this beautiful country), continuing it with another packed lunch and finishing it with a scrumptious hot meal back at the yurt stay.

And then I shall brush my teeth under the stars and dream about walking up salami and cheese mountains with cucumber rocks. I blame the biscuits.

Bibi Fatima Springs, Tajikistan: No Bikinis Alllowed

I’m not one of those travel bloggers with a “bucket list” (things to do before you kick the bucket, so to speak) and I have no desire to jump from a plane, swim with sharks or do anything particularly adventurous at all. Don’t get me wrong I have a growing list of places I’d love to visit, as well as plenty of dreams and ambitions, but I also much prefer life to be an open book than a list of things to do.

But there was something I wanted to do before turning 30. That’s right – this year I turn the dreaded 3-0 and like most landmark birthdays, it inevitably prompts a bit of soul-searching and question-asking to check life is in order and expectations have been met etc.

So after I little self-reflection and concluding that yes, life is pretty much on track and things are going pretty well (perhaps there will be more on this when the landmark is crossed), I realised there was one big gap in my 29 years and 10 months of life.

I have never been to a nudist beach. And I just sort of feel like that is something every 30 year old should have under their belt. Really, who cares how many countries you’ve visited or how many beers you can drink before your alter ego emerges? The big question is, how did you cope on the nudist beach? Was it liberating? Horrifying? Did you ogle at others or barely (pardon the pun) notice them?

But just five months before my nudist deadline, I began my land-locked adventure through Central Asia and suddenly it looked as if I would reach 30 with so many unanswered questions.

But then came Munich with its Englischer Garten. Just like a nudist beach… but a park, in the city centre. That’s right, this huge pretty park in south Germany is just full of naked people lolling around on their lunch breaks or resting between shops.

You know the scene… taking a naked lunch break with the girls over a bratwurst or two (no strap mark worries there), before bumping into your boss who has the same idea. Gulp.


So anyway, there we were at the Englischer Garten at the end of April when it was still quite cold and while I could spy see a few naked people, there were more people dressed in coats and hats than their birthday suits. Plus, we had just finished a city walking tour and I hadn’t expected this, I hadn’t packed for nudity, I had nothing to sit on you see.

Needless to say the boys would not even entertain the idea and somehow sitting naked, on a patch of cold grass, on my own in the middle of Munich seemed less like a lifetime ambition and more well, just a bit weird.

And so, with our clothes still in place, we walked on to check out the local beer halls instead. I accepted, somewhat reluctantly, that my nudist ambitions would have to remain hemmed in until after my birthday. After all, what opportunities could possibly present themselves in conservative Central Asia?

But then, in the deepest darkest Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan, we visited Bibi Fatima Springs. The natural hot springs attract women from around the country, as legends say the water boosts fertility – but after three days of trekking and staying at home stays with no showers even Matty wasn’t put off.
Travelling with a lovely French couple, Blandine and Florian, the boys went to one room, while Blandine and I were shown to another. Clutching our bikinis and towels we walked down a little path to a hut-like building that was attached to the side of the rock face.

Walking into the room, the hot air immediately steamed up my glasses, but I made out a long bench with hooks above it. Ahhhh, the changing room. And then there were some steps down into what looked like another room, where the hot springs must be.

The view from the changing room window.

We quickly changed into our bikinis but as we tried to walk down into the springs, a woman started talking to us, very fast in Tajik, shaking her head furiously and pulling at our bikini strings. We looked confused and she crossed her arms in front of her in a big X-shape, which incidentally is everybody’s favourite body gesture here, and we got it… No bikinis allowed.

The French are obviously infinitely cooler about this sort of thing than the prudish Brits and I was keen to not let the side down. So without so much of a “Ooh la la,” the bikinis were off and we strolled down to the springs, passing the same woman who nodded and grinned at us enthusiastically, happy to see us in our nude state.

As we walked in to the springs, behind heavy plastic sheeting, I was amazed to see we were now amidst the huge mountains that surround the building and gloriously hot water was pouring down the rock and spraying out, creating natural showers all around us. There were a few other women in there who greeted us with big smiles and encouraged us to sit down.

One of them put the “plug” in and soon the small room around the rocks was filling up like a big bath. More women came in, followed by more women, and just when our bath was full to the brim (with both water and women), more women came in. It was rush hour at the baths.

And so it was with this growing audience, that we were invited to climb into the “fertility cave” inside the rock wall, the very reason that Bibi Fatima Springs earns so many visitors from far and wide. The hole in the rock is about 50cm long and perhaps a little less wide, but it is a good metre or so from the ground.

We watched one woman easily pull herself up to the hole and fall in, agilely folding her body into two. Then it was my turn. Grunting determinedly, I managed to haul myself up legs akimbo, and managed somehow to crawl into the small space, before victoriously jumping out again. And only then, did I remember I was not wearing a bikini.

And now I feel ready to turn 30.

PS Sorry for distinct lack of pictures in this post… Didn’t seem right to get the camera out.

How to Ruin a Good Cuppa Tea

Now I don’t want to alarm you but I have some disturbing news. Maybe take a seat, pour yourself a stiff drink and take some deep breaths.

The picture above is of a cup of tea.

I know, I know, I can already hear you screaming: “What? How? What pollution is this before my eyes? What sadist is responsible for such a creation? How was this allowed to happen? WTF?”

Just keep breathing, it’s not going to get any easier I’m afraid.

Allow me to set the scene. We are travelling along the Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan, a beautiful and remote area of huge, towering mountains and glistening lakes, and the previous night, after some arduous trekking, we had eaten a strange meal of frankfurters, spaghetti, garlic and onions.

Now it is the morning and in the same hotel we are served rice pudding for breakfast (which makes for a surprisingly good start to the day) alongside the regular green tea. Tea here comes green or black, but never with milk. The green tea is fabulous and we have been known to drink pots of it, one after the other, like it’s Stella or something.

But then suddenly out of nowhere, our driver Deesh was poured a cup of what looked like English breakfast tea with milk. I stared in fascination, instantly craving the Saturday Guardian, and a bacon butty to go with it.

But then he did something I will never forgive him for. Never.

He added spoonfuls of yak butter. And salt.

He put yak butter and salt in his tea. And then he stirred it.

And then he drank it.


This is the said madman.

Somewhat unconsciously, I let out a small cry of horror and started shaking my head furiously. I think I murmured: “No, no, no, no, no,” repetitively as I searched his face for some explanation, some reason, for his absurd behaviour.

But instead of any justification, I just heard laughter from the local women around me, who were also stirring their buttery tea.

And just when I was at my most vulnerable, trying to take it all in, I was unknowingly poured a cup of the filth myself. Butter and salt were added before I had time to say: “Milk, no sugar please,” and the bread was pushed my way.

I looked to Deesh, in disgust, for some guidance. He ripped off some bread and dunked it in his tea – all nonchalant as if it was a bloody Rich Tea or something.

I bravely tore a piece off myself, muttering oaths to Yorkshire Tea under my breath, and dunked.


I brought the sloppy bread to my mouth and bit down.


The warm, wet bread dissolved too easily in my mouth, overloading my tastebuds with a greasy tea flavour that tasted neither of tea nor butter.


Note: This is not the tastebud equivalent of drinking a cup of tea with a slice of buttered toast.


It tastes more like bread that has been slobbered on by a dog before being drizzled in dripping.


But I knew, to really know what this “local delicacy” was all about, I would have to drink it in its pure, defiled form straight from the porcelain cup.




And quite frankly, it was alarming.


It was downright dirty.


It horrified me to my core.


The subtle flavours of tea were washed out by a greasy, buttery sensation that stuck to my teeth and the roof of my mouth like glue.


So I should have just brushed my teeth and left it at that. But I wanted to ruin your day too.

(PS Picture credits go to the Mongoose who took great pleasure in documenting the ghastly affair).

Walking in the Pamirs, Tajikistan: A Trek from Darshai

The problem with trekking, you see, is I’m not very good at it. I thoroughly enjoy it (except the scary, sheer, steep parts that always make me feel slightly outraged they didn’t come with prior warning) but largely, I throw myself into it enthusiastically.

I think the main, and most logical, problem is that my feet are a bit too small to keep me upright. I hold my size 4 feet largely responsible for the scars on my knees and general skidding of stones that goes on around me as I eye up Mountain goats with envy.

The other problem is that I often struggle to keep up with Matty and the Mongoose. This gets blamed on a whole range of factors – my short legs, their long legs, the altitude, my picture-taking, their long legs and their legs etc.

In fact, in the time it took me to amble around the base of a mountain in Uzbekistan, Mongoose, aka Mountain Boy had run up to the top and down again.

But now I have found a solution that makes trekking a wholly more enjoyable experience… Piling Mountain Boy up with extra luggage. Specifically my luggage.

That’s right, if I pile enough kilos of make-up, wash stuff, mirrors, hair straighteners onto his back then he walks at my pace. Genius or what?!


I discovered this on a recent two-day trek in the Pamir mountain range in Tajikistan, which incidentally is stunning. But more on that later.

We set off from Darshai to embark on a 20km hike along a gorge where we planned to stay in a yurt overnight before heading back. Sadly Matty, who had been up all night with a dreaded dose of the Central Asian Gruesome Guts Syndrome (Caggs), was unable to come along and so on this occasion the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers became two, joined by the lovely French couple Florian and Blandine who are travelling the Pamirs with us.

And there was so much to take. Huge sleeping bags (borrowed from the homestay), warm clothes, cool clothes, 6 litres of water, lunch, dinner, breakfast, snacks.

“How are we going to carry all of this?” I cried.

“I’ll carry it all in my big rucksack,” Mountain Boy offered.

“Oh no, I couldn’t let you do that,” I protested. “Ok, if you insist.”

And that is how the genius solution to all my trekking woes came about.

After 15 minutes of setting off on the trek and climbing a good few metres (having started at an altitude of 2,500 already) Mountain Boy was almost as breathless as me. Brilliant.

Admittedly I still tripped and stumbled across the paths but I haven’t figured out a way of shrinking his feet yet so that’s jut something I’ll have to live with for now.

Led by the lovely Gul Mohammed from our Darshai homestay and his dog Jacques (pronounced with violent kicking k in a Russian accent), we climbed up the side of a gorge and walked across it.




Some bits were very steep and when I tentatively offered to swap bags, Mountain Boy gave me a stern no.


And I’ve never been so glad to hear that two letter word. I mean look at that drop.

And so we ambled along, gradually climbing up to about 3,500 metres altitude, at this wonderful pace. Chatting, climbing, skidding (well me anyway), and pausing when we got out of breath.

We also kept a keen eye out for Ibexes, huge mpuntain goats with big old beards and horns, but sadly we only came across their body parts, which were cast aside on the ground and hanging off trees.


We crossed bridges made from just stones and branches, precariously balanced over the fierce flowing, icy cold river below.


As I kept my eyes on the broken ground in a bid to remain upright, I was distracted by the sparkling stones that looked like quartz and glistening soil. It was as if someone before us had scattered the ground with glitter glue.


Occasionally Gul would sprint ahead and start a little fire by a stream to boil up a pot of chai – and a smoke on a Cuban cigar that Mountain Boy had donated him.

But, alas, we didn’t have cups. He looked gutted, as he choked away on the cigar he insisted on inhaling, and we were mortified that we a) could not translate he should not inhale the smoke and b) had no cups. Soon I was drinking tea out of an old tuna pot.


And then, just as our feet began to ache and our bellies turned the rumbking up a notch, we reached our lovely home for the night. Truth be told there was no real dinner to come and the yurt was freezing, but it all looked good nevertheless.



Later that night, to conclude our dinner of bread, biscuits and raisins, I decided to eat half my Snickers bar, saving the rest for that all important energy kick at breakfast.

As I passed the half-eaten bar to Mountain Boy to put in the food bag, I saw a wicked glint pass his eyes and before I could grab it back, the whole thing was in his mouth, which was simultaneously breaking into a smug grin.

“Rucksack tax,” he simply said, once the chocolate had cleared his vocal chords.

“What you going to do? Write a blog on it?”

Travel Tips

We have hired a jeep to travel the Wakhan Valley and Pamir Highway of Tajikistan, shared by five people (us three, plus Florian and Blandine.)

We organised the jeep and driver thought the agency PECTA (Pamirs Ecotourism Association Information Centre), based in Khorog. They are just inside the City Park or you can call them on 22469.

They were absolutely wonderful, spoke amazing English and made all sorts of suggestions we would never have thought of including this trek. The Land Cruiser jeep we have hired costs 0.75 cents per km plus $20 per day for the driver.

We are taking the jeep from Khorog to Murgab over seven days, although we also have to pay for his return mileage, which is standard. It will cost us about $23 per day (for seven days) for the driver and jeep.

The Lonely Planet tells you all homestays provide sleeping quilts etc and this has been true except in this yurt! We ended up borrowing massive, bulky, but quite thin sleeping bags from the homestay to take with us, but were freezing all night. Also, there is a little stove in the yurt but no food so you need to bring your own.

What is the weather like in the Pamirs in July?
Lovely! It’s about 30 degrees (C) or hotter during the day but does get a bit chilly in the evening so take warm fleeces and jackets etc. At 8am in the morning when we were returning on our trek it was 12 degrees Celsius, but it felt colder than that.

What do I need to pack for the Pamirs?
Take water purification tablets! Shops rarely sell water because locals drink from the springs but there are lots of animals grazing around them so best to be safe! Fortunately Florian and Blandine had plenty of these tablets, which we gratefully borrowed! Also, be sure to pack a torch and buy enough water and snacks to last you however long you plan to be on the road – you can just load the jeep up at the bazaar in Khorog, so it’s not really a problem.

If you have a small, warm sleeping bag it’s well worth packing but apart from the yurt we have been well provided for in terms of quilts and blankets.