Dubai

 

In the second to last post I mentioned there would be a vague chronology to the rest of the trips being written about. Having slept on it and considered that as there’s still 10 more to write up from the last 5 years (even though I’ve finished 17 of them to date) then a faster way of doing this will be to simply write about anything I’m in the mood to write about – whether that’s a tour from five years ago or five months ago. Today, I’m feeling Dubai, so here it is.

Dubai was a four day trip sandwiched in-between my trip to India and China (see previous post) last year. To be precise, it followed straight on from India in March and was a stop over to unwind on my journey home. I’d heard a lot of mixed reviews from people who had been to the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, it was a marmite experience; either you loved or hated the place. Those who loved it said they quite enjoyed the flashy side, the good weather, the fact they felt safe etc, and those who hated it hated it for those exact reasons – fake, not authentic enough, too rich, too hot…

Personally, I enjoyed it. Yes, the place is quite flashy but I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of culture too, particularly in the old quarter of the Al Fahidi Historical District. In addition to this, there’s an interactive museum which tells of Dubai’s history. It probably helped that the hotel (Zabeel House mini Al Seef) I was staying in was absolutely amazing. Totally young and hipster, but I’ll let you in on a secret – I’m also young and a bit hipster on occasion so it was fine. And the Burj is very touristy, but sometimes things are touristy for a reason – the views up there from the 125th floor are simply amazing. There’s no denying you’re standing at the top of the tallest building in the world and looking down; everything is absolutely ant sized, almost as if you’re viewing it from outer space. Whilst you’re by the Burj, see if you can get combined tickets to the vast Aquarium in the shopping mall next door, which is a deal I found online beforehand. It’s not everyday you can stare into a fish tank and see Versace in the reflection. Once you have done this you will also conveniently be in the area to take pictures of the giant fountain display outside the mall.

While you’re in Dubai don’t forget to check out another tall structure – luxe hotel Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, which is located on a man made island jutting out into the water. The beach surrounding it is pretty impressive too, and if you’re in the mood then there is the Wild Wadi Waterpark.

When I rocked up at the airport I grabbed the first taxi going, and it looked and felt like I’d just got into a Mercedes Benz. The drive to the hotel only took about ten minutes, and my cab driver helpfully pointed out all the lit up sights. “That large square outline there,” he said, “The one that looks like a picture frame, is an art gallery. If you go to that area then you will also be able to see the light display in the park.” His English was spot on.

There is no simple way of describing this hotel – the lobby was absolutely huge, all open plan, there were swings hanging down from the middle of the room, a large bookcase with neon giraffes sat in one corner and red sofas with colourful cube cushions dominated another. A huge sign screamed RESTAURANT —-> CAFE ——> and more neon signs on the lifts informed you where the bar, gym and sauna were. The rooftop bar, meanwhile, came equipped with a pool, swinging egg seats and the obligatory blow up flamingo. Free nuts too with your cocktail.

The rooms themselves, well. Sensational. A colourful map of Dubai had been painted on the ceiling above your bed, where two brown monster soft toys with teeth were perched. The TV was blaring futuristic music with a big welcome sign on screen and your name in a warm exclamation after. A Nespresso machine, no less, had been set up waiting for your arrival whilst a hardback book on rock music draped itself over a stand and soap on a rope sat in the bathroom. Plus, free ipad!

The cleaner found me again the next morning – “Are you still here?!” She laughed. “Go out and explore!”

“I’m going I’m going!” I protested jovially. “This hotel is too nice!”

I figured that I’d done pretty well price wise booking this package with a tour company, although it must be said that you can easily do Dubai yourself independently. I found that you didn’t really need the extra trips to places that they included, (and they managed to mix those up anyway, so I didn’t even get to go to the desert ;)) It worked out well though, firstly because I’d already been to the desert four times before – in Chile, Namibia, Morocco and Egypt, and secondly, the city tour that I got thrown onto with the golden oldies amused me so much that I ended up enjoying it after my initial horror on discovering I was the only young one.

We covered a fair bit on this city tour, seeing both the old and new quarters as well as religious monuments such as the Jumeirah Mosque. After our wander around the Al Fahidi district (I had been twice so I left the oldies to the museum while I sat at a cafe and had a drink) we caught an Abra boat over to the gold and spice souks. These are worth an explore, but they’re very crowded and beware if you’re white and female, you’ll probably get a pashmina thrown over you with a cry of ‘Shakira!’. Don’t forget to stop by a tea house and try a cold lemon tea, they’re really good. Incense is also a bargain, so if that’s your thing be sure to stock up here too.

It’s impossible to miss the Al Seef waterfront as this is where most of the boats leave from and the little town beside it will stand out for being recreated from 19th century Dubai – it is absolutely covered in shops, restaurants and quirky cafes.

To be honest Dubai is a fairly small place to cover in square mile terms, it just feels bigger because of the massive buildings and expensive everything, and it’s unlikely you’ll need more than a few days there. Enjoy!

China – The Beginnings

 

Firstly, and it must be said – if you’re planning a trip to China then for goodness sake give yourself plenty of time to get the visa. They say a month but I gave it a month and it still wasn’t enough so make it two to be safe. The first time I attempted to get to China was in March last year (2019) and this was intended to be on the back of a trip to India. Didn’t happen. India and a brief four day stay in Dubai still happened, but I had to postpone China to October that year. This turned out to not be a bad thing, as I met some great people on tour (like most tours) and managed to combine another trip to Nepal straight after.

Like the visa I needed for Russia, the visa application for China was a tedious process. You need to fill out ten pages online, including your previous trips in the last ten years, full employment details, your parents background, what you had for breakfast, yada yada. And you will also need to book everything first – flights, accommodation et al. Once you have filled all this out online and uploaded a passport photo of yourself; note, the background must be white – just use a bit of photoshop if it isn’t – then it’s time to book your in-person appointment. This is exactly the point I got screwed over. Realising that there weren’t any free slots in time before I left for India (they need to take your passport) I rage quitted the whole trip and postponed, trying to get as much money back as possible for the flights and accommodation I booked. It would be useful if the Chinese embassy could offer you a list of available appointments at the beginning of your application, so that you don’t go through the pain of booking everything only to find it was futile.

FYI the process for an Indian visa is incredibly straight forward. You apply online for an E-visa and get it literally the next day or two in an email.

Once you’ve passed this first hurdle and secured an appointment at the Chinese Embassy, which I managed on the second attempt, do not forget to bring a printed copy of both your leaving and return flights. Neither forget an invite letter from the organisation/hotel you’ll first be staying at or the tour company you’ll be travelling with. Because I was extra paranoid that there would be something I forgot, I also got the tour company to send me a detailed list of our itinerary and accommodation, which came in useful. The website reminds you to bring some things, but not everything. It does not tell you to print out flight details (which are already in your application anyway) so of course, that was the one thing I forgot, and I had to rush out from the embassy and go to the nearest Ryman’s to print them. There was a queue, and when I got back I had to have another number reissued and wait another hour to see someone.

Just when I thought all was clear and the guy had checked everything and nodded, I handed over my passport ready to collect with the – hopeful – visa in four days time. At this point he asked me ‘where your other passport?’ NOTE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, if you are dual nationality then they want to take that passport too, even if you are not travelling on it – so do not forget to bring that either, because again they do not warn you of this on the website. Too exhausted to be angry by this point, I got the twenty minute train back home, retrieved the offending second passport and returned to the embassy. Finally, my application was processed and I got told to come back in four days.

I can happily report that the application was a success and I got the visa. Phew. It lasts for two years, which is pretty good. Painful story over, and if I haven’t put you off China, it’s time to hit the road…

To summarise, our nearly two week journey would see us start in Beijing for a few days, with an impressive checklist of sights to get through. The first, most prominent, would be the Great Wall of China (talk about starting on a high), a visit to the tombs of the Ming Empire, trips to both the Silk Market and a Cloisonne (metalworks) factory, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, rickshaw rides through ancient hutongs (backstreets) and last but not least the trendy, graffiti filled 798 Art Precinct. All of this alongside plenty of crispy Peking Duck dinners and night markets such as Wangfujing.

After this we would board the overnight train to Xi’an for a couple of days and nights to check out the famous Terracotta Warriors, practice our calligraphy at the TangBo Art Museum, head out on our bikes over the ancient city walls, watch a Tang Dynasty Show and break our Chinese nightlife virginity.

Next up would be a drive to Chengdu, visiting the giant panda sanctuary and exploring this bustling city of teahouses, night markets and cooking classes before hopping on a flight to Guilin with a scenic drive to the countryside of Yangshuo. Ah, Yangshuo! This underrated place should feature more highly on tourist itineraries, because it is simply stunning. Think of scenery like something out of Avatar, thanks to the towering limestone karsts and flowing Li river. It’s also the place where some of us watched an incredible light show at night and further explored the night life of this memorable village town. Our second day here offered a chance to unwind with an early morning Tai Chi class in the park and a climb of one its hills, followed by, of course, a traditional Chinese massage and acupuncture. I was amazed by how much the Chinese smoked, but no place surprised me as much as the inside of a massage parlour.

Our last flight, and sadly, last stop of the trip; was to the grand, glittering lights of Shanghai. Shanghai, most notable for its breathtaking skyline at night, had a lot in store for us. On the very first evening we arrived (after the 3am start) we headed straight off to watch an acrobat show, before venturing off to the City God Temple complex in the morning. After stuffing ourselves full of dumplings and doing some souvenir shopping we took off to the Shanghai Silk museum, the Bund area for the famous daytime skyline pictures and a whizz up the Shanghai Tower.

The fantastic trip ended with a Chinese feast, whiskies in hip bars, a visit to Disneyland, and unemotional goodbyes to squatting toilets…see you in the next entry.

 

China, Nepal, Europe and a Few Glorious World Wonders

 

I know, it’s been 9 months since my last blog post, and I’m happy to report that 5 years, 6 continents, 80 countries and meeting thousands of people later, I finally achieved one of my lifelong dreams – to visit all 7 man made wonders of the world! As well as being proud of this accomplishment, I’m also feeling incredibly relieved it’s done, which I guess is normal when you spend years working at something. Also I reckon the planet will be better off if I take less flights now 😉 This doesn’t mean that I won’t ever travel again, of course, but my life won’t be just about that now.

The road here has been a blast, but it has not been easy; if travel taught me anything, it’s that despite all the good it can do you, all you see, learn and experience, amounts to very little long term if you haven’t learnt to properly face your demons. Coming home and attempting to live a ‘normal’ life again, whatever that means, has been very hard. I feel like everything I previously knew has been rewritten. Circumstances, situations and people have shifted in five years and I no longer really recognise anything of my old life, save the place I live in. (even half of the stuff in that is gone after the big clearout) I’m miles ahead of people in some respects, and way behind in others.

If I’m perfectly honest approximately every five years of my life I have something like a life stage crisis.

This has led me to a big dilemma – what next? I don’t know. I feel like that’s what life is really – what next what next what next, constantly moving and changing and evolving. I would love some permanency. Right now it’s just to finish writing about everything that’s happened. I’ve never felt so alone, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been honest like this. Neither have I been on social media in half a year, but think it’s good to have a detox sometimes. What is also good about this situation is you seem to end up reading a lot more books. Well, I have anyway. Think I must have read about 40 or 50.

Something has happened in my psyche which I won’t discuss here because it’s too personal. But it’s a good time to reflect on all that’s happened, and if anybody is reading, well, I managed to get up to date on my other WordPress blog recently, http://www.bellasecretlondon.wordpress.com

To recap, my last posts on here were about the adventures in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, South Africa, Namibia and India. 2019 saw one of the best years for travel with the giants Africa, India, United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, Nepal and a few European countries completed. Of Europe; France, Germany, Austria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, only half of which I’d visited previously.

I’ll explain briefly about the blog posts which I’m going to be covering over the next couple of weeks. The first upcoming post is about China, which I visited more recently in October (2019) to check off the last man made wonder that everyone knows; The Great Wall of China.

The second post will be about Nepal, which I visited straight after to see Mount Everest, one of the seven natural wonders. It made sense to do so while I was out there as it was only one country across. I’ve seen four of these natural wonders over the course of travelling, but usually purely through coincidence, not active planning to get there. 

FYI: Man made wonders:- Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal in India, Petra in Jordan, Colosseum in Italy (the only one I had seen previous to this challenge) Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru and finally the honorary, Great Pyramids in Egypt (one of the originals)

Natural world wonders:- Rio Harbour in Brazil (seen), Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe/Zambia (not seen but nearly), The Northern Lights (typically in Scandinavia, not seen unfortunately) Great Barrier Reef in Australia (seen), Paricutin Volcano in Mexico (I know, I’d never heard of it either, not seen) Grand Canyon in USA (seen) and of course, Mount Everest in Nepal/Tibet (obviously seen).

Then there are the list of ‘new’ natural world wonders which I also won’t attempt to see all of, on account of the fact that I’ve already been incredibly privileged to have seen the 7 man made wonders, not to mention I’ll be broke if I do 😉 These are:-

The Amazon Rainforest in South America (seen), Ha Long Bay in Vietnam (seen), Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina (seen), Jeju Island in South Korea (not seen), Komodo Island in Indonesia (not seen), Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines (not seen) and Table Mountain in South Africa (seen). So also without intending to, I’ve seen four from this list too.

Third write up will be my trip to Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Poland and Germany (phew) that I embarked on with my friend Tommy last July. Fourthly, a brief visit to Munich and Saltzburg with a different friend. Fifthly, the failed but also equally awesome three day trip to Finnish Lapland to see the Northern Lights just before Christmas 2019 (we didn’t). This is the second time I’ve missed the lights, as the first was in Iceland years ago, so maybe it’s a case of third time lucky one day?

While I’m on the big topic of Europe, next I’ll be taking a trip back in time to firstly two years ago, with a Balkans tour to Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Hungary. Then, finally rewind even further to five years ago, where it all began with my very first tours. You might be amazed that I can remember the daily itinerary from back then, and so am I. These will cover Greece, Turkey and some Islands, the other failed trip to Iceland, some of the countries mentioned above plus The Netherlands, Italy and Czech Republic, and last but definitely not least; Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Enjoy the ride, and see you soon in China.

Egypt, Israel & Jordan Part 2

 

 

Day 4 – Aswan to Edfu

There’s something quite special about waking up and opening your curtains to see yourself cruising down the Nile, past a varied selection of moving desert, palm trees, camels and mosques. After a lovely breakfast further enjoying the views, it was time to head out and see some more sights. To be honest, for once I can’t really remember half of the week that’s how much we saw and what a whirlwind it was.

Our first stop was at Abu Simbel’s incredible Unesco World Heritage Site, the two Temples of Ramses II. As well as being monuments to the King and his wife, they also celebrate Ramses victory in battle. At 1264 years old and shimmering in the hot sun, it is quite a spectacle to behold. The rock temples, with their seated statues, have been carved into the surrounding landscape and inspire images of other similar notable endeavours in the world, namely Petra in Jordan or even Mount Rushmore. On the border with Sudan, they are huge and part of the “Nubian Monuments.” You’re allowed to go inside, but like with many monuments in Egypt, photo taking is strictly prohibited. This doesn’t stop people though, as our tour guide pointed out, if they are able to without being caught, most people will be tempted by a ‘Sneaky peeky’.

Arriving into Edfu later on in the afternoon, we headed over to the perfectly symmetrical town of Kom Ombo, the Temple of Two Gods. This temple is dedicated to the God of Crocodile and the God of Falcon.

At some point on this trip, but I can’t for the life of me remember where we actually managed to cram this in, we did some traditional Egyptian shopping. The first was a visit to a perfumery where we secured a deal to take some home. I still have three medium bottles, of which the liquid never seems to diminish, even seven months later.  The second place was a hand made papyrus workshop where we could buy art. I got a glow in the dark chariot scene which I didn’t realise changed to two outlines of figures making out when the lights are turned off (also discovered six months later when I finally mounted the artwork on my wall) Wherever you go and whatever you do, there sex is. It made me think of my most recent trip to India when we went around the supermarkets looking for a deck of cards and one of the girls hilariously asked a shopkeeper in a loud voice ‘Excuse me, do you have the Kama Sutra?’

 

Day 5 – Edfu to Luxor

The morning’s activities included another temple visit and history lesson – this one the Temple of Edfu, built between 237 and 57 BC – before sailing off again to famous Luxor. We were due to have a ‘bit’ of time in Luxor tomorrow as well so luckily didn’t have to cram all of Luxor’s activities into one afternoon. No, that day we were able to focus on the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a grandiose display of Sphinx heads carrying on for 3km. The site also has many hieroglyphs carved into the walls, and it was useful having our guide around to translate some of them. I actually ended up buying a book on hieroglyphs at the airport going home, because there is a hell of a lot of information to take in at one time, and I wanted to understand them better. “Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs” by Janice Kamrin, comes highly recommended, not only for educational content but realisation that there a lot of rude and weird symbols to keep you occupied and laughing for the plane ride home.

 

Day 6 – Luxor to Hurghada

Super busy day the next day. Rising at dawn, an excitable group of us got ready to take a hot air balloon flight over Luxor. I’ve been in a balloon once before, during my trip to Australia’s outback, and I can safely say as amazing as that was, this was a hundred times better. Jaw dropping ancient scenery, multiple balloons taking off at once and a bumpy landing in a green field of crops, tractors and surrounding balls of colour was extremely memorable. Our guides got really into filming the whole thing, and a celebratory dance off and drink happened after landing in the crop field. It was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was 15, and it didn’t disappoint. Another tick off the old bucket list.

However (after a brief stop at the Colossus of Memnon along the way) no visit to Luxor is complete without a visit to the legendary Valley of the Kings, otherwise known as ‘City of the Dead’, and the Pharaoh mummy tombs. They’re pretty incredible. Again, authorities open the tombs on a rotational basis and yes, Tutankhamun’s tomb was open and yes, I lost my ticket to get into that particular one and the guards weren’t feeling generous. Apparently I didn’t miss much, as people reckoned the other tombs and carvings we saw were better, but I’m not sure if they were just being nice. By way of revenge of the guards I managed to get in some sneaky peakies.

Later that day, and being right by the Nile, it was easy to head straight off the boat and onto another animal for a ride through a local village. Some people picked tiny little mules, a few free standing and some with carts, whilst a few of us picked camels again, laughing at how low down everyone else was. We visited a local home and saw its inner and outer workings before handing out sweets and bubble wands to the village children, who couldn’t get enough of them. Eventually we were virtually running back onto our boat to escape the hordes!

Our last port of call for the day was a night-time visit to the Temple of Karnak. It’s fantastic seeing such ancient complexes lit up at night, I really recommend it. There’s still people there, but the crowds are less intense too.

Finally we cruised into Hurghada, checked into our sailor themed accommodation, enjoyed some food, drinks, shisha and music in the hotel’s huge garden complex, and slept very well that night.

 

Day 7 – Hurghada back to Cairo

Hurghada, a pretty little beachside town with crystal clear waters for snorkelling and dreamy golden beaches, didn’t disappoint. Our group as a whole decided to go on a day cruise of the Red Sea, where we could jump on and off the boat at whim, swim, snorkel, sunbathe, eat, drink, play music, dance, chat idly and all the other delights that go with bobbing about on the waves.

It was lovely to be able to relax again and be in one place for a while before our last journey back to Cairo, and the hotel where the adventure began.

Egypt was amazing, and I would of course recommend to go, but please give yourself at least 2 weeks there 😉

 

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JORDAN AND ISRAEL

 

You’ll have to forgive me for this one, as I have done a hell of a lot of blogging lately and feel quite burnt out with writing, so this last one will just be a summary instead of a day to day account!

It was merely one week later, having barely touched down and arrived home, than I had to turn back around and head to Jordan for my next adventure. I say ‘had to’ – of course I wanted to, but in all honesty I’d reached a point of physical and mental exhaustion and in retrospect think more travel was probably not needed right then. I’d seen so much of the world in such a short space of time that the wow factor was diminishing and famous sites were just becoming ‘yet another building or mountain’, a blur. This was the total opposite of what I want to feel while travelling, and not, I would imagine, what anyone wants to feel. It defeats the purpose in the first place.

Seeing Petra was incredible enough that it did lift me out of my jaded travel funk though, and this is why I would probably recommend it as the best world wonder. Or maybe the second, I don’t know, as Machu Picchu is damn out of this world too. What most people who haven’t visited don’t realise about Petra, is that it isn’t just all about the famous Treasury that you see images of in guidebooks and on Instagram. There’s a whole city to explore. We spent an entire day there, climbing and exploring ancient tombs, the Monastery and an alternative view of the Treasury, but you could easily spend several days. Take into account that it is scorching hot, each hike takes an hour or two at least (depending on your fitness level) and also factor in climbing and stopping time, as well as drinking plenty of water plus shooing away sellers at every corner.

The views you get and the sense of archeological achievement as echoes of history ripple through a ruined city will leave your spine tingling. Nothing will ever quite compare to the original 40 minute walk to get to the Treasury, towering caverns of rocks around you as you head ever deeper into the mystery – before the Treasury finally opens out to you from between a gap in two rocks. I’ll never forget the expression of sheer wonder and delight on a frail old man’s face as he was being driven by a donkey cart and saw that view for the first time. Tears actually welled up in my eyes on seeing his emotion.

Night time is also an unmissable time to visit – we went the night before our day visit, when the entire trail was lit by lanterns, hundreds of people sat on the sands and a man went around in the dark playing a beautiful instrument. There was something about the whole performance that was so peaceful and hopeful – and then at the end, the Treasury was lit up in a multicoloured light display to many surprised cries of wonder. Unforgettable. Even writing about it now, reignites a normally buried playback and makes me smile, remembering it properly again. 

Other sights you absolutely need to see and or experience in Jordan are floating in the Dead Sea, which lies at the lowest point on earth. Still reeling some from that high altitude trip to Bolivia or Tibet? Come here as an antidote 😛 Technically a salt lake bordering Jordan and Israel, it is at least 9 times as salty as the ocean and it is this very salinity which will help you float and bob around with no effort. Sit or lie awkwardly, stick your limbs out, roll over, try to thrash around and still – you will not sink. Even deliberately try to sink yourself, and you will feel an invisible oily force push you upwards and almost out of the water. It is a very bizarre, but very pleasant sensation. You may even want to buy some beauty treatments with the minerals from these waters afterwards in the shop, but be warned they are naturally pricey.

We started and ended up in the city centre of Amman – which is pretty uninspiring – apart from the massive Roman Amphitheatre to see and climb, not to mention the King Abdullah Mosque (be prepared to get covered, both ladies and gentlemen).

Far more interesting are the sites to see near the outskirts of Amman – the ancient site of Madaba, views of the promised land from Mt Nebo and the Crusader Karnak Castle, with additional explorations of great Roman ruins in Jerash. There’s quite a bit to walk around here, from a Greco-Roman hippodrome for chariot racing, to the Citadel, to a moderate museum on site. Consider Amman as a base to hop to Petra and Little Petra and from there, to Wadi Rum. As the Wadi Rum desert is obviously going to be in the middle of hot nowhere, and it is fun camping overnight in Bedouin tents, be warned if you bore easily because there really is not much to do at camp. A highlight of your stay here will be the 4×4 jeep drive out into the desert, where you get to visit famous movie locations, climb sand dunes and rocks, explore caves and race downhill in your guides vehicle. A really fun few hours with stunning sunset.

Aqaba, which is Jordan’s only coastal town and sits by the Red Sea, is also worth a visit for some R&R and good quality diving or snorkelling at the end of your trip. If you truly want to relax though, hire a private space like a beach or hotel where you can wear your bikini and not get stared at like a dirty being from outer space.

If you are lucky enough to be able to head onto Israel, I really recommend the trip, and it seems quite appropriate that I’m writing this at Easter. It’s a bit of a bore getting through security to Israel and you’ll probably get questioned, but hopefully it won’t take you too long to make it through to the other side.

Despite any political and historical tensions, it is an incredible country to visit for its esteemed religious sites and pilgrimages, whether you are religious or not. I liked Jerusalem, considered a Holy place by both Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which meant people of different faiths living side by side together and therefore all places of worship equally respected. The Western Wall (or wailing wall) is really interesting to witness, despite there being separate sections for men and women, everyone can write a wish on a piece of paper and insert it into the wall. Other well known and must see sights are the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus spent time the night before his death), King David’s Tomb, the glittering Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (the Holiest place in Christianity, the site where Jesus was tragically crucified and also the site where his tomb is)

It is definitely worth checking out Bethlehem after, and isn’t too far away to reach at all, a mere half hour drive, in-fact. Visit a real life Nativity scene, buy some souvenirs and tuck into a falafel wrap, before visiting the astonishing political graffiti all along the West Bank. Some incredible works of art there with very strong and powerful political messages.

Once you have tired of religious sites, it’s high time to head to coastal Tel Aviv, one of the party capitals of the world with fantastic nightlife. You can see why. The place has an incredibly different feel to it, as much of a difference  as between, say, Amman and Jerusalem and Bethlehem and there. It is also very liberal, with a popular gay and trans community.  You’re more likely to see half naked people rollerskating down the beach promenade than anything else there, and hanging out in one of their lively, trendy side streets like we did – well, you could be in Shoreditch, London, to be honest.

So! Both Jordan and Israel, blew my expectations out of the water. Isn’t that why we travel? I don’t think any country I’ve ever been to has been exactly as I anticipated, and that’s the fun of it. This brings me up to date with my blog, finally. Well, nearly. I’ve got a trip planned to Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland this summer so I’ll be refocusing back on Europe and really digging back in time to when I began travelling around the continent. Until then…

 

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Lonely Planet’s Top 500 Places in the World

 

Thought I’d do a recap of all the top places I’ve visited according to the esteemed travel company, Lonely Planet. Obviously I haven’t been to all 500; this is a list firstly to try and digest everything, and secondly to see whether there is any demand for me to write about a particular place. If you’d like me to expand on some of the following, then I’d appreciate any feedback 🙂

 

Temples of Angkor

Great Barrier Reef

Machu Picchu

Taj Mahal

Grand Canyon National Park

Colosseum

Iguazu Falls

Alhambra

Aya Sofya

Fez Medina

Petra

Tikal

British Museum

Sagrada Familia

Fiordland National Park

Santorini

Galapagos Islands

Yosemite National Park

Dubrovnik Old City Walls

Salar de Uyuni

Pyramids of Giza

Piazza San Marco

Acropolis

Chateau De Versailles

Djemaa El-Fna

Hanoi Old Quarter

Uluru

Charles Bridge

Abel Tasman National Park

The Louvre

Eiffel Tower

Pompeii

Habana Vieja

Table Mountain

Prague’s Old Town Square

Bay of Kotor

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Pantheon

Tate Modern

Notre Dame

Kakadu National Park

Sydney Opera House

Edinburgh Castle

Anne Frank Huis

Jokulsarlon

Stonehenge

Berlin Wall

Halong Bay

Pao de Acucar

Mezquita

Lake Bled

Chichen Itza

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier

Valley of the Kings

Hoi An Old Town

St Peter’s Basilica

Dome of the Rock

Pyramids of Teotihuacan

Blue Lagoon

Lake Wanaka

Abu Simbel

Cimetiere Du Pere Lachaise

Gamla Stan

Golden Gate Bridge

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Empire State Building

Budapest’s Thermal Baths

Topkapi Palace

Stari Most

Vatican Museums

The Peak

St Paul’s Cathedral

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Daibutsu (Great Buddha) of Nara

National Museum of Anthropology

Geirangerfjord

Ephesus

Tulum

Tsukiji Market

Sintra

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

Blue Mosque

Gion District

Koya-San

Shibuya Crossing

Valle de Vinales

Moraine Lake

Roman Baths

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Royal Mile

Cristo Redentor

Prague Castle

Kinkaku-ji

Gullfoss Waterfall 

Egyptian Museum

Amber Fort

Xochimilco

Karnak

Gardens by the Bay

York Minster

Van Gogh Museum

Rynek Glowny

Wat Phou

Mont St-Michel

Erg Chebbi Dunes

Vasamuseet

Times Square

Sossusvlei

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Vigelandsparken

Canterbury Cathedral

Reichstag

Malecon

Museo del Prado

Lago de Atitlan

Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle

Rijksmuseum

Real Alcazar

Singapore Zoo

Wadi Rum

Luxor Temple

Natural History Museum

Old Delhi

Bosque Nuboso Monteverde

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Burj Khalifa

Silfra

Rhodes Old Town

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Itsukushima-Jinja Gate

Valle de la Luna

National September 11 Museum & Memorial

Athabasca Glacier

Volcan Arenal

Whakarewarewa

Memento Park

Death Valley National Park

Te Papa Tongarewa

Underwater Sculpture Park

Dead Sea

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Parque Nacional Tortuguero

Capri

Cu Chi Tunnels

Gros Piton

Wat Pho

Beit She’an

Majorelle Garden

Tian Tan Buddha

Lisbon’s Alfama

MuseumsQuartier

Glacier Skywalk

Sedlec Ossuary

Ait Benhaddou

Fatehpur Sikri

Geysir

Teatre-Museu Dali

Kalemegdan

Museu Picasso

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Diocletian’s Palace

Isla del Sol

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields

La Boca District

Etosha National Park

Jungfraujoch

Cementerio de la Recoleta

Zwinger

Zocalo

Brandenburg Gate

Ipanema beach

Sea of Galilee

Si Phan Don

Mt Fuji

Tower of London

Trinity College

Camp Not

Grouse Mountain

Plaza Mayor

Wawel Castle

Isla Mujeres

Oslo Opera House

Grand Palace

Namibia to South Africa Part 2

 

 

Day Eight – Swakopmund to the Namib desert

 

Time to leave our civilised oasis of accommodation and head back out into the wilds of the Namib desert today, with a long day of driving through sand to reach the epic Sossusvlei and one of the dunes named ‘Dune 45’ and ‘Big Daddy’ – the latter of which we stared at unblinkingly with no intention of climbing. We left early in the morning, but unfortunately our plan of arriving at the dunes to climb before the heat became too much was thwarted when our Lando broke down in the middle of nowhere and had to be carted off for full maintenance. This meant, after some stoic hours of waiting around in a cafe hut by the side of the road (with frustratingly slow wifi) and attempted repairs, that our beloved Eddy “Medicine man” had to eventually admit defeat, leave our tour and rejoin us further down the road. We inherited a new driver (who was a bit weird) and a new bus for the second half of our tour. It just wasn’t the same. Ansie was a little more philosophical “This happens on most trips” she shrugged.

We reached our destination by lunchtime, by which point the heat was almost unbearable as we bravely headed up Dune 45. Seriously, I consider myself fit until I realise that walking uphill in sand during 40 degree heat cardio is not my strong suit.

Seeing double and wheezing slightly, we reached the top for incredible views and pictures out over the Namib desert. While the Atacama desert is the driest in the world and the Sahara the largest, this is the oldest – but all my experiences of these deserts have been similar – long, sandy and/or scorching hot. After Dune 45 we had some much needed pasta salad made up by Ansie at the side of the road, and then our group split into two as we caught a jeep to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei contained within it. Literally meaning ‘Dead end marsh’, I realise this place sounds super cheerful, but actually it is stunning. A salt and clay pan surrounded by high orange red dunes, and Deadvlei being the crowning glory. With its stunning panorama of scores of 9000 year old dead trees that stand like skeletons in the pan, you feel like you’re entering a scene from another planet.

After our jeep decided he could only be bothered dropping us part way to this spectacle, we had to walk and climb to earn our prize at the end. The jaunt was gruelling and we were buggered beyond recognition at this point, but eventually we made it and gasped in amazement as the 180 degree vista appeared, shimmering like a premonition in the distance. Walking closer, the skeletons and enveloping pan got larger and larger as we could almost hear the silence and echo of the past surrounding the trees that seemed to have been there since the dawn of time. I have never been, and wonder if I will ever be again, anywhere else on earth that seems so entirely devoid of life.

In the evening, back at camp, and a local guide drove us out into the next stretch of desert for a talk on the bush/san people. It was a very interesting and informative talk, but at two hours, seemed to go on forever and I think most people just wanted to veg out by this point.

I can barely remember the accommodation of that night, that’s how heavily we slept. Something tells me it was the place on someone’s private property with the thin chickens, endless tortoises, strange bar area and a child size paddling pool that didn’t look spectacularly clean. I’m pretty sure that it was also the second night we had sleeping out under the stars, and this time us original tent goers didn’t even care about being exposed to potential snakes and scorpions. A bonus to not sleeping in a tent though, meant a lack of mantling and dismantling – and checking underneath for critters.

 

Day Nine – Namib desert to Fish River Canyon

 

What time we had spent yesterday on our feet, we spent the following day rising at 4am and then sitting on our arses, as the bus drive out of the Namib desert and into Fish River Canyon took around 10 hours.

Fish River Canyon? Well, what can I say. There is a reason it is the second most visited tourist attraction in Namibia. Stunning, superb, many superlatives. It is the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon, and has a number of walking trails. We walked around the rim and stopped at a viewpoint with benches where we set up drinks and snacks to watch another memorable sunset. I really recommend going at this time, as you actually beat a lot of the crowds and luckily we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Our accommodation that night was good – a lovely simple little camping site containing a nice (adult sized) pool, with decent showers and bathrooms. Entertainment that evening had returned to the usual poker and Monopoly cards – how I miss those Monopoly cards.

 

 

Day Ten – Fish River Canyon crossing the border to South Africa and visiting Orange River

 

The next day would see us crossing the border back into South Africa and encountering a power

hungry border control bloke. After this, we relaxed and looked forward to spending a bit of time on the Orange River, canoeing, swimming and mellowing out. Our campsite was ideally located nearby to the river, so after a BBQ lunch and (just a few) beers, we cheerfully headed out onto the river in our canoes, carrying a bottle of gin with us. Two of our canoes had a bit more gin than the others and this showed, with our hysterically slow paddling and laughing uncontrollably as we tied our two canoes together and jumped in the water to try pulling the rope on our vessels to go faster. A lot of fun for us, frustrating for some others 😉

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Day Eleven – Orange River to Cederberg

 

Cederberg was next on the cards, not that we really needed anymore alcohol in our systems, what with this being vineyard central and all. But after an eight hour journey on the road – goodness these countries are sizeable – we arrived and certainly felt like some wine tasting. Some of us were overjoyed to find out that we had the option of upgrading our accommodation, and with the Rand excellent value for money my roomie Megan and I decided to take advantage of this. With our accommodation consisting of stunning cottages looking out over the seemingly endless fields and vineyards of the wine territory, with individual wine names on each door and a pool a mere ten feet away, we felt we’d hit the jackpot.

It definitely helps when wine is served by a cute South African man with dreamy eyes, and we struggled to listen to what he was saying about the individual wines as we giggled and pretended to be really into that, plus the wooden cheese, cracker and grape boards that were being passed around.

Later on we had an excellent meal cooked up by the staff and then some dancing, karaoke and games of pool. I finally won against ten people at Monopoly cards. A successful penultimate night I reckon. So good I forgot to take any photos, oops. 

 

Day Twelve – Cederberg to Cape Town

 

It was suddenly our last day on the road we were quite sad to realise, as we wound our way to Cape Town. However we were really anticipating exploring this renowned city, and with just a couple hours driving left, I think secretly we were pleased 😉 I for one, was definitely looking forward to having a few extra days here after the tour ended and catching up with my friend who lives there.

The tour would officially end the next morning but with some people having late night flights back home later that day, we had to start saying goodbye and celebrating our incredible trip with a last farewell dinner, as is custom. Our cool hostel was a good base to start from, with a floor thudding pre-drinks beats bar and reception area with multicoloured furniture. In fact my room was right above this bar for the next four nights, but it didn’t matter too much because I’d be spending most of the days sightseeing and then just getting back and crashing out.

 

Day Thirteen and onwards – Cape Town

 

Quite a few of us had booked extra nights in Cape Town as it came advised, so the remainder of us spent the next day or so hanging out together and investigating the sights. But where to start? There is enough to keep you occupied for weeks, let alone days. After our free coffee and croissant breakfast, we split into smaller groups and headed off for a mixture of several different sights.

Most of us of course, at some point, headed for Table Mountain and The Cape of Good Hope for the stunning views on top (forget the walk up though, we took the cable car, which I would advice if you’re short on time anyway) Flavia and I headed for Boulders Beach, the penguin colony and Simon’s Town on the first day, as she only had one day and unfortunately for her, it was too misty to see Table Mountain. Top tip from a local taxi driver; don’t bother paying to get into Boulders Beach to see the penguins, as you can see them from just one beach over where it is empty of throngs of tourists. That, plus being able to pass along the walkways around the perimeter of the beach allows you ample views plus lots of opportunity to snap the gorgeous surrounding rock and mountain scenery as you go.

In Simon’s Town, just a short walk away, there are many good cafes, restaurants and shops – we headed for recommended fish and chips for lunch, followed by a strong caffeine hit. Damn, do the South Africans know how to do a cracking cappuccino.

The next day, with Flavia gone, Ali G and I jumped on an excellent value for money hop on hop off tour bus and set off to see multiple sights in one fell swoop (well, that was the intention at least, before we were due to meet up with the others to see Table Mountain) Another top tip: easily allow yourself all day to do this and as you are allowed three stop offs for free – use Hout Bay as one of your stop offs as they don’t check tickets 😉 We also checked out the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, definitely worth a visit, and on another day I went back to the Bird Sanctuary and wine tasting in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. The colourful town of Bo Kaap and shops of Bree street are also not to be missed.

By the weekend most people from the tour had gone and my friend was off work, so we hung out, mostly on Camps Bay beach and the surrounding wine bars., just chatting and catching up. She told me about yet more things to do, including Lion’s Head mountain trek, and various different extreme sports. Then there is, of course, the esteemed Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Why does the world have to be so big? What a shame – I’ll just have to come back one day in the not too distant future.

So my final thoughts on Africa, safari’s and camping in general, despite my initial reluctance of the latter? Great fun, wild and free. Any positives far outweigh the negatives of being in the great outdoors, so please go and check it out while you can.

 

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India Part 2 – Udaipur, Mumbai and Goa

 

Day 8 – Udaipur

Last night was a bit of a blur (however, a fun blur) due to our bus party shenanigans, which lasted several hours and saw several bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and most notably rum, consumed. Our unforgettable tour guide, Kuldeep, providing most of the latter. I’ll always have this image of Kuldeep, standing at the front of the bus in his shades, grinning and clutching a brown paper bag, from which he would produce an unusual form of Rum or Whiskey. The offending bottle would then be passed around the bus to cries of either ‘What the **** is that?’ To silent grimaces as the hot liquor slid down and burnt oesophaguses.

I remember arriving into Udaipur and our hotel, thinking ‘Oh yeah, pretty hotel’ desperately needing the bathroom due to aforementioned alcohol and leaving half my luggage on the bus. Somehow I managed to drag myself to dinner, which was a short walk (?) bus (?) ride away and had lovely views (it was night time) leading out over a dry river bed. Apparently it was dry, but in my inebriated state I thought the river was full of water and kept waxing lyrical about how wonderful it was before attempting to get on a public bus while some of our group stopped me.

Luckily, once again, the expected hangover was pretty non existent due to extreme heat and simply sweating it out. Our morning was filled to the brim of course, with a walking tour of Udaipur and a visit to some of the historical sites, before a visit to the city’s markets and souks. Udaipur is supposed to be relaxing, and it was – compared to other Indian cities like Delhi and Agra. I would not describe Udaipur as relaxing overall. There’s still noise, beeping, picture taking and staring wherever you go. Be warned – as amazing as India is, it’s an adventure, not a holiday.

One of the most jaw dropping sights was walking over a bridge in the city and seeing a young woman standing on a podium and washing her hair in the river. The river didn’t look very clean, but I supposed this must be a normal thing here. Our first stop was at the incredibly carved Jagdish Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the city dating from 1651. Just by the Royal Palace – which we would be making a stop at afterwards – we ascended the super inclined 32 marble steps, marvelling at the beautiful three storied stone carved building with its nearly 80 foot high steeple towering above us. With its seemingly endless and perfect carvings of humans, gargoyles, elephants and horses, I wondered just how long this masterpiece took to complete. Not that that mattered back then, no wifi, so there wasn’t much else to do no doubt 😉

The palace didn’t disappoint either, with its fantastic views out over the city, gorgeous tiling, stained glass and intricately sculpted designs, it even came with its own “disco room”; a room full of multicoloured glass mosaic squares cut into the windows and consequently letting in multicoloured light to the room.

Afterwards we had a brief break before getting a tour around the markets, so three of us decided some refreshments were in order first. It was here that Cheryl and I had our first experience of a ‘pasta pesto’ pizza – carb on carb, really not something to eat if you’re watching your waistline. Then we hopped in a rickshaw and joined the others at a jewellery store for a browse. I fully intended not to buy much after splashing out on a carpet previously, so ending up getting a couple of silver rings for £40. Bargain. Someone, without naming any names 😉 spent considerably more on a ring…

All shopped out, most of decided to head back and check by the hotel pool. The hotel was gorgeous, with the feel of Greek courtyards and open white spaces lending a touch of the Mediterranean to India. Plus decent WiFi for a change. This just goes to show – we are all influenced by each other’s styles and designs to some degree, wherever we are in the world.

Sadly, despite witnessing an amazing Indian street wedding in the evening, with all the colourful dancing, celebrations and fireworks from the rooftop of our hotel, it was our last time with Kuldeep – so we made the most of it with more drinks. I had to retire a little early to go and be sick, yet this was just due to heat and alcohol, not the dreaded Delhi belly which literally everyone else but me and one other guy in our group had picked up. We considered ourselves lucky.

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Day 9 – Mumbai

Chance to sleep in today as our flight to Mumbai wasn’t until the early afternoon, and it was to be our last final push of energy before getting to relax for good in Goa. Well, semi relax, more stories there. True to form, the day was a bit of a whirlwind as we arrived into glittery, sticky Mumbai, met by our new local tour guide and told to wait in a specific area for an hour for our bus driver. Eventually, we clambered on with all our luggage and began the driving tour of the city, which included the Gateway of India as well as movie inspired locations of Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat (world’s largest outdoor laundry) and the famous train station, Chhatrapati Shivaji (where they filmed the dance off to “Jai Ho” in “Slumdog Millionaire”.

Lunch was in a charming restaurant where tourists had previously been shot dead in a terrorist attack, the walls still contained bullet holes, toilets were disgusting and service was slow, before racing off to our Bollywood dance class. We didn’t have time to change but this didn’t really matter as we were already kitted out in comfortable ‘plane wear’ and the fun lesson lasted an hour. However, if you ever thought Bollywood dancing looked easy, then please give this a go. You will have a newfound respect for what you consider easy in future.

Dinner in the evening was free ‘walkabout’ time, so some went out, some ordered room service and some stayed in with their roommates getting Tropic facials and playing silly mobile games (ahem).

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Day 10 and 11 – Goa

It was to be a whirlwind one night stop in Mumbai before hopping on another plane to the last destination of our trip (two planes in 24 hours!)  – Goa, the beach filled Odyssey of India. Something like that. A very pretty place, and you could tell the town centre definitely catered more to tourists, but with no less staring by locals, as we found out when sunbathing by the pool in our hotel the following day.

As we arrived to Goa quite late, we just walked into town for dinner at a restaurant that pretty much catered to every dietary request (and was also the first place that we had come across which served beef, I noticed) attempted some karaoke at a nearby bar (the karaoke system was broken) before finally chilling in the gardens at the hotel after.

Our first full day of doing whatever started with a great early morning yoga session on one of the beaches. It involved an early morning wake up (5am) but I’m getting quite used to and enjoying these early rises as it feels like you get more done, like you’re cheating time somehow. A pack of dogs barked ferociously at us as we waded through sand, carrying our mats, before setting up in rows beside a beach cafe with our instructor. Love it.

The markets weren’t open that day so it was back to the hotel to do, well, pretty much nothing. Many of us had booked in hour long massages, all of us lounged by – but mostly in, as it was that hot – the pool, swigging on beers, chatting and playing games. It would have been incredibly relaxing the whole time were it not for the creepy men hiding in the bushes, phones out, taking pictures and videos of us in our bikinis. Eventually we properly kicked off at the staff, who had already put out a warning cone as a deterrent (it wasn’t much of a deterrent, as it turned out) and to their credit, they did get rid of them all. Which was just as well, as it was 36 degree humid heat, nerves were running high and we were pretty exhausted by this point and just wanted to chill. This is one of the unfortunate sides of travel that everyone has to deal with and not everyone is willing to discuss – the heat and exhaustion – and the unfortunate side of things that us girls have to deal with as female travellers, pretty much everywhere outside of Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia.

The last evening when we would all be together had to be celebrated in style, so we did just that, at a massive boozy dance off at a beach restaurant. Even the local dogs and an eccentric grandma joined in the festivities. It was a great high to end on, as the next day was the last day, which meant a hundred different goodbyes, seeing most of our group drift off at various times to catch planes home 😦

Those of us that were left for the last night headed out again for one last dinner, and we happened to pick a great little joint with a glam gran crooning out tunes from the 50s, 60s and 70s. To give her her dues, she was exactly the kind of mellow we needed that night and definitely a memorable singer.

I ended this life changing, whirlwind trip to India with fantastic people that I’ll never forget, sitting by the pool with a drink and reminiscing on life. There is also a wedding on the cards next year which we are looking forward to attending, so it’s comforting to know we’ll all be reunited then 😀 A simply fantastic trip with awesome people and one of the best tour guides I’ve had, so thank you!

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