Coffee Worshipping in Zona Cafetera, Colombia

Coffee. Oh coffee. You are the first thing I reach for in the morning, the first smell to tickle my nostrils, the first flavour to waken my tastebuds. Oh coffee, mornings without you are distinctively worse off.

I don’t sit on the fence with this one. So, it came as no surprise to me when the guide at a beautiful coffee farm in Colombia announced, “Of course, coffee has a story of its own.” Of course it does, I thought to myself – how could anything smell that good and not have a damed good story too?

And so, ladies and gents, pour yourself a steaming cup of the strong stuff and get ready to ogle at the beautiful bean and its lovely story.

Coffee was not born in Colombia or Italy or any of the countries we today associate with its loveliness. No, no, coffee was in fact discovered in Ethiopia by a group of humble goat shepherds. For anyone who doesn’t know – the coffee bean is found inside a deliciously sweet red cherry that grows on luscious green plants. The fruit of the plant is very sweet and tasty – which apparently is also what a bunch of Ethiopian goats thought after discovering it some 500 years ago. But, after eating the best part of the sweet fruit on a bunch of coffee plantations they began to act a little unusually. It is said they ran much faster that afternoon – as if dancing. Then the night fell and no sleep came. The shepherd looked onto his strange dancing goats in confusion and wondered what could possibly have stopped them from sleeping…

The next day he decided to try the red berry for himself when the goats all trotted back towards the coffee plants. A few berries later and he too started to feel a the effect of the bean – and he decided to take the mystery cherries to the local monastery to seek advice from the monks. Well, the monks had a field day – it was said they would purposefully eat the little red berries late at night and then stay up praying to God all night – they felt it enhanced their connection and made them better monks.

But one day the chief Abbott decided enough was enough. You can just imagine the scene – hundreds of monks praying in a jittery fashion with bad breath – so he took control of the situation and grabbed a whole bag of them and chucked them into an open burning fire. The monks were horrified to see their precious red berries go up in smoke but then they started to notice something – or smell something I should say – as the beans began to roast. Suddenly their sweet tasting berry had turned into the most delicious aroma their nostrils had ever encountered. It is said they then removed the beans from the dying embers of the fire and crushed them before adding hot water. And coffee was born.

Coffee on the tree and in its more recognised roasted form in Zona Cafetera, Colombia...

Coffee on the tree and in its more recognised roasted form in Zona Cafetera, Colombia…

I was already madly in love with this little brown bean but hearing this story sealed the deal for me. Also, I should add that while I was more than aware of how good it tastes and smells – I had no idea how good it looks in real life. Take a trip to the Zona Cafetera in Colombia and you will be greeted with miles upon miles of rolling hills covered in a luscious greenery that on closer inspection you realise is actually coffee.


The view from the back garden at Hacienda Venecia where we stayed in the coffee region…

And so we spent the next four days drinking coffee, smelling coffee and admiring coffee for mile after mile. There were some hammocks and hummingbirds thrown in for good measure and Matty and I swore to find a way to run away and become coffee growers, because really, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by this kind of beauty?!

PicMonkey Collage1

PicMonkey Collage2

PicMonkey Collage3

The good news, for at least those of you who have no immediate plans to visit Colombia, is that the Colombians export all their best stuff and keep the leftovers for themselves. So great if you’re shopping in Waitrose in London but not such great news for the locals (and travellers) here. We stocked up on the good stuff during our weekend away and are now spending most of our evenings dancing like mad goats. Well, that’s our excuse anyway!

Happy Christmas.






Travel Tips

We stayed at the lovely Hacienda Venecia near Maizales in Zona Cafetera (which is just a 4 hour bus ride away from our present home in Medellin). The Hacienda is picture-perfect setting, surrounded by rolling coffee hills and greenery as far as the eye can see. There are two accommodation options – the main house that still belongs to the coffee-making family today, and the hostel, which is in the same style as the main house. We stayed in the hostel and got a nice double room with breakfast for just £10 per person – not too shabby when you think it has a swimming pool too!

After a couple of nights at the Hacienda, where we took a brilliant coffee tour, we moved to the picturesque town of Salento, where the locals play a game called Tejo – where you throw a metal ball at a selection of gunpowder triangles across the room for points. Beer and gunpowder! What’s not to love? Be sure to visit the Los Amigos Bar for a genuine and unforgettable tejo experience!

From Salento, which has a smashing ‘wild west’ feeling to it we did a wonderful 5-hour trek into Valle del Cocora – also known as the valley of the Palm Trees where hundreds of sky-high palm trees (the tallest I’ve ever seen) tower around you. It is incredible and well worth the journey 🙂

Walking the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Once upon a time (16 months ago to be precise) four good friends exchanged some hearty hugs, some slaps on the back(pack), and wished each other Bon Voyage. For the four friends were going in two very different ways – two (who we shall now call Marcito and Coggleito) were bound for a South American journey while Matty and the Monk (that’s me – I’m now talking about myself in the third person – awkward) were embarking on our Silk Road journey.

But all four carried something in common as they trotted in different directions across the globe. For in the depths of their backpacks each had a small sandstone rock, swaddled layers of cling-film and buried in clothes. The rocks ‘may’ have come from behind the urinal of their favourite Nottingham pub, which is built into the sandstone caves of Nottingham. It may just have been removed by one of the four friends who, armed with his Swiss Army knife, cut it from the wall before being breaking it into four mis-shaped pieces, already crumbling in his pockets, to give to his three friends before they went their separate ways. That might be where the rocks came from, but obviously I can’t be sure, nor can I be held to any account regarding any of the rocks’ complicated and ambiguous history.

As they hugged and put their heads together, the rock-cutter cried: “This is not goodbye, the rocks will soon be together again.” Matty and the Monk went east. Marcito and Coggleito went west.

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

—————————————————————–Fast forward 16 months-———————————————————

After many eastern adventures and a hard summer of working in Europe, Matty and I finally made it west. Specifically Ecuador. And we were not alone. Our much-anticipated reunion with Marcito and Coggleito had been a frantic one as Matty and I rushed to the airport to surprise them (cursing at the local bus as it slowly chugged up the high altitude hills of Quito as if oblivious to our imminent reunion) but also an emotional one as we caught them at an ATM machine at arrivals.

A couple of days later of sampling the local beer, route planning and squealing, and we were on the road; headed for what is known as the Quilotoa Loop – named after the beautiful high-altitude Quilotoa Lake.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We walked for about an hour or so around the lake in an anti-clockwise direction before somewhat begrudgingly leaving the beautiful view and entering what felt like an isolated sand-dune scene looking down into the valley below. The wind picked up and Coggleito, who had chosen the exact same moment to run down the sand dune, found her legs being carried by the wind until she found a grassy patch to slow down.


The Coggleito pre-sand storm

We spent the next two days climbing down into valleys and up out of canyons, passing dusty small Andes villages and doe-eyed cows as we trekked over green, luscious hills, crossing snaking springs and gushing rivers. It was one of the most varied landscapes I’ve ever encountered and made all the more pleasant by our much awaited reunion with Marcito and Coggleito (who are actually called Marc and Gemma by the way, but when in Rome…)

The boys being turist... ahem.

The boys being turist… ahem.


Another beautiful valley only marred slightly by knowing we had to cross it.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Coggleito and me hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito and I hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito's 'camel pack' was much appreciated by the locals

Coggleito’s ‘camel pack’ was much appreciated by the locals


And when I said crossing rivers, I meant walking across precariously high logs.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Our guide book warned that dogs can give walkers a bit of trouble on the route and sure enough as we passed remote farm houses we were greeted with barking and aggressive looking dogs that sent us scrabbling in the dusty ground for rocks and sticks to arm ourselves. Apart from the time when Matty was growling on all fours brandishing his stick at a particularly ferocious look dog that had been following us, we emerged relatively unscathed.

After two long days of trekking we checked into a hostel that felt more akin to a luxurious ski chalet in the Alps than a backpackers pit-stop in the wilderness of Ecuador. Tired and weary after taking two wrong turns on the six hour walk, we climbed up the last mountain to reach the Llullu Llama hostel in the tiny village of Isinlivi. A friendly Swiss couple who were volunteering to run the place at the time, greeted us with  big grins and proudly pointed out the hostels’ namesakes – two happy-looking, fluffy llamas that were trimming the grass outside.

Our brief tour of the hostel revealed the cosy dorm room, which had beds set into the rafters of the roof; cosy, bright and clean double rooms; a sparkling clean bathroom boasting a hot shower and a log-cabin-like communal room with a burning fire and huge dining table from which we were to eat a delicious feast of mammoth proportions a few hours later.

But better yet, in the grounds of the hostel, which is perched on the side of the mountain we had just climbed up, was a spa fully equipped with a jacuzzi hot tub, sauna and steam room. We could not think of a finer way to relax our aching bones and immediately went for a pre-dinner soak (not before a scenic beer of course).

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.


The next morning we woke, feeling refreshed and scrubbed clean, and set off for the last section of our walk, a 14km trek back to the village of Sigchos to catch a bus to Latacunga, where we had begun the journey three days earlier. As we scurried down dusty donkey trails and across green pastures, we continued to catch up on the last 16 months and exchange tales of travel and adventure.

As we paused on a  bridge to frolic for the camera, the rock-cutter cried: “Rocks reunited!” We all reached into our backpacks to pull out our cling-film wrapped nuggets of sandstone. Carefully unwrapping the stones, sand spilled from the wrappers, as if each grain had its own story – of another bump in the bag, another bus ride, another adventure.

We held up our somewhat shrunken rocks and were amazed they still fitted together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw. It was perhaps a little bit like the four travelling friends – yes, time had passed, stuff had changed, adventures had been had – but they were still all cut from the same rock, so to speak.



Travel Tips

The Quilotoa Loop is the name that is given to the villages and towns that loop around Quilotoa Lake in the Andes, Ecuador.

We started at Latacunga, where we stayed for a night and left our main backpacks. The next day we caught the bus to Quilatoa, which runs from 9am in the morning. and takes a couple of hours It is only a short walk to the lake from here (be warned, it’s extremely windy and cold up here as it’s at 3,914metres above sea level and very exposed). At the lake we walked anti-clockwise and followed the trail to Chugchilan, which took about four and a half hours – here we stayed at a lovely hostel called Cloud Forest, which cost $15 for a dorm bed with dinner and breakfast.

The following day we walked to Isinlivi and stayed at the wonderful Llullu Llama hostel ($21 for a double with dinner and breakfast per person or $18 for a dorm bed). It cost $7.50 to use the spa for an unlimited time and was worth every penny.

On our last day we trekked to Sigchos, which although was the furthest distance (14km) it was the shortest trek as there were more flat stretches. We left at 9am and then caught the 1.30pm bus to Latacunga to be reunited with our belongings and complete the circuit.

Most hostels offer packed lunch for the following day’s walk but we stocked up on tins of tuna and snacks in Latucunga and then bought the odd boiled egg and bread rolls from hostels.

The terrain is mixed an incredibly beautiful – wear decent walking shoes as there are plenty of steep uphill and downhill stretches. It’s quite easy to get lost on the route but most hostels have trekking instructions and maps available – don’t set off without these! Look out for the red marks on stones but we didn’t really notice these on the first leg of our journey.

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: 0777718334

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.

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.

Walking in the Debed Canyon, Armenia

Does it sound strange if I admit that during my time in Armenia I asked our guesthouse host if she knew anyone with sheep and cows who I could go and hang out with for the day? No, I don’t think so either. It was a perfectly legitimate question.

The thing is, in Armenia you don’t just see the occasional field scattered with a smattering of farmyard animals, you literally find them in their hundreds, being herded down the road like a massive army of floating woolly jumpers by a charismatic looking man carrying a crooked stick. And I just kind of wanted to hang out with him and his animals. And squeal and take pictures.

So it was in this vein that I found myself asking Irina, our wonderful host at Iris guesthouse in Debed Canyon, if she could set me up with a shepherd for the day. She seemed a little confused by the request and as I tried to explain myself, Matty and the Mongoose just sat back in silence, smiling as I dug myself deeper into a crazy-sounding hole.

A glimmer of hope appeared when she started dialling a number, explaining she had some friends with sheep, but then the whole thing was suddenly forgotten about and people started talking about monasteries or something.

So, instead of spending our last day in Armenia with a shepherd or cow herder, we opted to do a 7km walk from Haghpat Monastery to Sanahin Monastery in the Debed Canyon instead. And it wasn’t that I was disappointed with this decision as such, it’s just that we had already seen our fair share of religious sites and I just fancied hanging out with the locals, and their animals.

But as we approached the monastery even the voice in my head, that had been threatening to just get out of the taxi if I saw a cow herder and insist on spending the day with him, fell silent. Because it was very pretty indeed.


And after a quick look around, we left the monastery behind us and clambered down the hill to begin the walk.


We had scant details of the route but with an air of boy scoutishness about us, we crossed a gurgling river, climbed up a huge hill, found an ancient, neglected fortress and clambered over huge rocks that made me feel like Tarzan.



And then finally, after crossing an entire gorge and climbing up the other side, we reached what can only be described as a riot of flowers. A wild meadow of flowers, right up to our knees…




The flowers seemed to go on for miles and miles, as if multiplying in front of our eyes as they swayed in the wind. At first we tried to be careful not to tread on them but as they got thicker across the fields it became impossible not to.

After having a hearty skip through the daisies (well, Matty and the Mongoose that is) we reached a small village that had that reassuring smell of cow pat. What is it about cow pat and horse manure that instead of screwing up your nose in disgust as you do on train toilets, you simply fill your lungs with the stuff and sigh contently?

But it wasn’t just the smell, there was something else… a sound. A sound not dissimilar to that of the Mongoose tucking into a medium rare steak, I might add. As the boys walked on ahead I peered over a fence on my tip toes, to find something that made me positively squeal with delight.


And this:


And then, just when I thought my discovery couldn’t get any better, I looked to my right and chanced upon two baby calves. Just sitting there all doe eyed with their gangly little legs tucked under them.



By now the squealing and frantic photography had reached a great crescendo and a bemused woman stepped out of her house, confused to see an excitable blonde girl cooing over her calves.

“Awwww, look at the little runt,” I cried in sympathy, pointing at the little brown piglet that attached himself to his mum too late for a decent position, still trying to get some milk from here teats after the others had long sucked her dry.

The woman smiled at me, she understood. She opened the pen gate and the little runt came flying out, oinking squeakily as he scattered across the road as if still a little uncertain on his legs. The woman ushered me into the driveway of her home and starting filling a little saucer of milk, which the little piglet scampered up to and started lapping up.



I wanted to stroke him, but I’m not sure if it’s socially acceptable to stroke pigs in rural Armenia so instead I just continued to coo in excitement. The woman, by now probably thinking she had stumbled across some mad city folk that did not get out much, asked us if we would like a coffee.

I jumped at the opportunity (it had got to the point where I probably couldn’t hang out with the animals for much longer without getting to know their owner) and the Mongoose had that caffeine haunted look in his eyes.

She led us through a door into a small room that seemed to be the living room, bedroom and kitchen in one. She pointed on the bed for us to sit on, while she poured ground coffee and water into a small pan, which she then placed on a single gas ring in the middle of the room.

Sweet, soft bread was torn into pieces and placed on a plate on the table pushed against the back wall, which we ate with strong, soft sheep’s cheese, which was probably produced by a neighbour down the road. (I made a mental note to find the sheep before we left.)

She spoke no English but we communicated in pidgin Russian, body language and smiles. We did not need a common language to understand that she was kind, had nothing but offered us everything, and for her to understand that we were very, very grateful. As we bid our farewells, she pulled me in, held me tightly and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.

It was splendid. One of those rare days that grabs all your wishes in one big bag, as crazy as they may seem, and just dumps it on you. But as we started walking home, just when I thought they’d all come true, we heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on a stony path and saw the crooked stick of a smiling cow herder…




Travel Tips

Where to stay in Debed Canyon?
We stayed at Iris guesthouse, run by the lovely Irina Israyelyan and her husband. The accommodation is exceptional – the three of us were given two bedrooms and a huge adjoining lounge with two balconies overlooking the lush, green valley.

The couple were extremely attentive, cooked delicious meals for us each evening and on our last morning with them, Irina even baked us a beautiful cake that was deliciously syrupy. We were quite spoilt.


A room costs 8,000 Dram per night including breakfast, plus 3,000 (a total of about £17). You can call Irina on +374 (253)23839 or email her at

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.


Matty on a rocky crag in Ani, Turkey

2) Boys like shooting things.


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.


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.



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.




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.


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


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.





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.

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 or call +995558358535.

Climbing Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest volcano

I am going to make a confession: I am a massive scaredy cat.

There, I’ve said it and now the whole world can see me for who I am. It’s true, I get scared about every day things most people don’t even think about – I find lifts terrifying, and stairs aren’t much better (I always see myself tumbling down them) and don’t even get me started on cycling. Despite cycling to work every day I am always convinced that every white van driver is out to mow me down or every school kid I pass will throw rocks at me.

So there you have it, a big old scaredy cat. But I refuse to let the cowardly cat inside me dictate my life. Instead I repeatedly sign up to things that terrify me.

And that is partly why I climbed Bali’s highest volcano Gunung Agung on Tuesday.

Gugung Agung is, according to our guide book, ‘Bali’s highest and most revered mountain’, the Balinese believe its peak houses ancestral spirits so it is regarded as the spiritual centre of the country.

Naturally I was terrified. Of everything. I doubled my asthma inhaler dosage the day before ‘just in case’, packed extra water ‘just in case’ and started regretting never having mastered the SOS code. I was even scared about trekking in the dark as we were to start the walk in the pitch black at 2am in order to be at the summit for sunrise.

Our guide picked us up from our hotel in Sidemen (which is beautiful valley in rice paddy land in east Bali) at 1am and began driving to the temple at Pura Pasar Agung, where we were to start our climb.

By 2am I had a headlamp fixed to my forehead, my feet firmly strapped into my new, waterproof walking shoes and a look of determination across my face. I was going to do this.

After climbing the 280 steps to the temple (that was the easy bit) our guide Gung Bawa asked us to turn our torches off and look up. The sky was alight with hundreds of thousands sparkling stars. While we gazed into the night sky, the sweet smell of burning incense wafted through the air as Gung prepared his offerings for the Hindu Gods. I was grateful. I needed all the Gods I could get on my side.

We began our slow, steady climb up the volcano. It began in woodland with tree roots and large stones providing some grip to the dusty ground. It was bizarre trekking in the dark, my eyes were transfixed on the spot of light on the ground that my headlamp provided, but I was otherwise oblivious to my surroundings.

We paused after 15 minutes or so. Gung’s wonderful wide smile lit up the night and he asked us if we practised yoga.

‘This is just like yoga,’ he explained
‘You balance yourself, you walk with your left foot, your right food. You breathe deeply. You enjoy every step.
‘If you get scared remember to enjoy every step and believe in yourself, what you put in is what you get out. If you believe you can do it, you will.
‘And smile, keep smiling’.

I felt inspired. There was something about our kind faced guide that just reassured me and silenced the scaredy cat within. We were in safe hands.

As we continued to climb through the forest, he would pause every time he sensed we were tired, he would inspire us with his words and pull some biscuits and sweets out of his big backpack. And he gave us regular altitude reports.

We soon emerged out the forest and were climbing up the hard, rocky surface of the volcano, which last erupted in 1963. Clambering across solidified lava, we gripped onto large smooth stones that jutted out form the volcano’s surface with our hands and feet.

We were more than 2,000 metres above sea level by this point with a sheer face of rock and woodland below us.

Looking up I could see the peak, it seemed so close but in reality we were still more than an hour away from our sunrise breakfast. As we scaled higher and higher, it became steeper and steeper and at one point, when I was clinging to some rocks with a seemingly vertical drop beneath me, the scaredy cat started talking. One wrong step and it could all be over, the cat said. It almost made me whimper.

Almost. Instead I smiled. Under my deep, calm breaths, I quietly chanted ‘enjoy every step, enjoy every step’ and I looked to Gung’s wide smile for further inspiration. I found some and managed to cross what felt like an impassably smooth part of the volcano that left my hands and feet with almost nothing to grip onto.

We reached a ridge in the rock and Gung motioned us to sit down. For the first time since it had got lighter I found the courage to look around me. We were high above a dense, green forest where some clouds were staring to gather and looking to the east, the horizon was a thin rainbow of colours as the sun started to make its entrance for the day.

We watched the small orange dot break through the colours of the horizon and grow bigger and brighter, illuminating everything around us. It was a moment I will never forget.



This is the wonderful Gung Bawa

We made our way up the last stretch of the volcano and as I stepped onto the lip of the volcano’s crater, at 2,800 metres above sea level, I hugged everyone around me. I’m not sure what came over me, it was like passing my driving test all over again. Only this time I’d done it on the first attempt.

We strolled around the rocky surface, and looked down into the 500 metre long crater while Gung prepared our breakfast. There was even a shrine perched on the summit, scattered with offerings.


Gung prepared a mighty fine breakfast of freshly cooked pancakes drizzled in a delicious sweet syrup, that were the envy of every other trekker on the summit. He also handed out his mother’s home cooked banana fritters and poured us steaming hot coffee from his flask. It was a breakfast for kings, only slightly marred by my fears of getting back down.


See? Long way down!

But actually I needn’t have worried as Gung expertly led us down via a different route, which was much more manageable. Of course I still struggled and inched my way down the mountain like a three-legged foal.

With the sun now burning down on us, I longed to get down into the clouds which we could see lying above the verdant forest. In many ways the trek down was much harder than the way up and once we entered the woodland, it took a great deal of concentration to stay upright on the seemingly never-ending dusty path, which left me skidding in all directions.

By the time we back to the temple stairs, where it had all begun 10 hours earlier, my feet and legs were throbbing, I was caked in dust and my shoulders were sunburnt. I had that strange heady, dizzy feeling of complete fatigue but an overwhelming sense of achievement… I had put scaredy cat back in her box, for now.

We did it! (Me with Gung and the two lovely German girls we climbed with).

Travel Notes
There are a lot of places to stay when climbing Gunung Agung, Sidemen was perfect because it’s stunning (think Ubud rice paddies but even more remote and beautiful) and it has a lot of accommodation. Most hotels will offer you a guide as well.

We stayed at Sawah Indah, which was stunning, with attentive staff and beautiful rooms.

A room with a view!

If you want Gung Bawa to be your guide, you can email him on

Happy climbing!