Food Fun in Paris

Did you know that a real French baguette has to weigh at least 350g uncooked and 250g when baked, otherwise it’s not really a baguette? Also did you also know that a real French éclair must be filled with butter cream having the same flavour as the topping on the éclair (not just plain whipped cream), otherwise you can’t call it an éclair? Neither did I until very recently!

I spent 24 hours in Paris recently with some friends and we decided that rather than cram the day full of sightseeing, we wanted to wander around and sample the local food and wine. We joined an amazing food tour with Secret Food Tours Paris… and it was an incredible way to spend 3 hours.

The tour was based in the Montmartre region of Paris where our guide welcomed us with a bag full of fresh French pastries… what a great way to start the day! I obviously went straight for the pain au chocolat… I can’t resist a bit of chocolate!

Local café in Montmartre

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Aside from the obvious eating and drinking involved, the tour started with our guide giving us a brief history of the city of Paris and a quick stop at the wall of love.

Section of the Wall of Love

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We swiftly moved on to visit various local food shops… a local boulangerie with rows of freshly baked bread and mouth-watering pastries on display, followed by a charcuterie where we got to sample one of the terrines and sausages and then a local cheese shop (fromagerie) where we were given some history on how certain French cheeses were made.

Fresh bread waiting to be sold in the boulangerie

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Sausages hanging from the ceiling of a local charcuterie

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Fresh meat for sale

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Wonderful cheeses on display at the local fromagerie

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ParisCheese

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With our appetites well and truly whet by this point, we proceeded on to a local café where it was finally time to eat and drink! Our guide had picked up fresh produce along the way from all the shops we visited. He presented them to us one by one, giving us interesting explanations of how they were made. We got to sample about five different types of cheeses and a handful or different meats/terrines accompanied by different types of freshly baked baguettes. Aside from the delicious food, we got to taste some lovely French wines to complement different parts of the meal.

Some of my favourite cheeses were the full fat triple cream cow’s milk cheese with truffle… it had a woody smell and a very creamy and rich taste! I also enjoyed the two week old full fat sheep’s milk cheese as well as the the 3 year old Comté cheese… it has a very nutty flavour and went well with the accompanying Côtes du Rhône red wine. On the meat side, I absolutely loved the duck breast terrine… not something I would have ordinarily tried on my own but it was delicious!

After washing down the bread, cheese and meats with some lovely wines… it was time for the best part of the tour… dessert time! We got to sample some French crêpes with our choice of filling… I decided to try the chestnut spread rather than my usual favourite of Nutella! While it was nice, I’m not sure it would be a regular favourite of mine… a bit too sweet for me! Leaving the best till last, we finished the meal off with chocolate and coffee éclairs… I may have eaten the best chocolate eclair of my life! I don’t think I can go back to eating éclairs in London after this.

Local Crêperie

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The tour finished with a trip to a local chocolate shop where we were given a selection of handmade chocolates and macaroons to take away with us. A nice end to a wonderful afternoon.

Handmade chocolates made by owners of a local chocolate shop

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Although I’ve been to Paris before, I think this may have been my best visit yet!

Journey to Siberia

Leaving Mongolia behind, we boarded the trans-Siberian rail for the second time, just in time to watch a beautiful warm sunset as the train pulled out of Ulaanbaatar on its journey towards Russia – next stop Siberia and Lake Baikal!

The next train journey was around 30 hours in duration. Although there was no bogey changing required this time, it took many hours at the border crossing between Mongolia and Russia. We first stopped at the Mongolian border where we had to use the platform bathrooms to brush our teeth. Once the Mongolian border crossing procedures were complete, the train moved on to the Russian side. Things were a lot stricter on that side and took a lot longer… there were sniffer dogs on board the trains, we had to open up our luggage to be checked and we had video footage taken of us… nobody dared to smile for the camera!

Once we got our Russian entry stamps, we were allowed to leave the train for a few hours to explore the small town of Naushki in the Republic of Buryatia. It was a quaint little town with a couple of grocery shops (which didn’t stock very much) and a small café. The people there resembled the Mongolian people in terms of their facial features. We had lunch at the café where we also met a group of Russian soldiers who were on their lunch break… they were socializing with a different tour group while they washed their lunch down with shots of Vodka. The food at the café was delicious! It was possibly one of my best meals in Russia… either that or I was just really hungry for ‘proper’ food that was not junk or noodle soup! I had my first taste of Russian cuisine with Pelmeni (small doughy dumplings filled with meat) in a clear soup broth… I can still remember how good it tasted!

Delicious Pelmeni

Pelmeni

Naushki Grocery Store

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The temperature had risen considerably and it was around 40 degrees as we returned from lunch. We were boiling hot and some of the folks in our group had actually started to fall ill. Once back on the train, we tried to pass the time in the heat while fanning ourselves, playing card games and of course drinking tea… no matter how hot it was there was always room for tea (and cake!).

As the train moved further into Siberia, there was a noticeable change in the landscape… I could see beautiful rows of tall silver birch trees lining the tracks in the distance.

It had been a dream of mine for a long time to ride the tran-Siberian rail and one day go to Siberia. However, when I used to think of arriving in Siberia, I always imagined it as an extremely cold, uninhabited place covered in forests of tall trees, with snow everywhere and huskies roaming freely. I’m not sure if it’s ever really like that (possibly in winter) but I was greeted with a very different sight in the middle of summer… stunning landscapes, beautiful lush green trees, lots of sunshine and no snow, ice or huskies in sight.

The train arrived in Irkutsk after almost 30 hours where we transferred via a beautiful scenic bus ride to our guesthouse near Lake Baikal in Listvyanka. Our guesthouse was very pretty with small homely bedrooms. Unfortunately we only had a day to spend in this town so we headed for a boat ride on the lake, taking in the gorgeous views of this massive body of water and the craggy mountains in the backdrop. It was a beautiful sight but nobody was brave enough to go for a swim in the freezing cold waters!

Beautiful Lake Baikal

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Boat Trip on Lake Baikal

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We also had time to briefly explore the town of Listvyanka. It was nice to walk around, go on a short hike, explore the local markets and sample some of the local cuisine such as smoked Omul fish. I also really liked looking at some of the houses in the town… quaint and colourful wooden houses lining the streets.

Smoked Omul Fish

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Wooden Houses in Listvyanka

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Hiking around Lake Baikal

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We spent one night in the guesthouse before it was time to return to Irkutsk for a tour of the city and then jump back on board our train for the next 48 hours… it was going to be a long ride! It was great that they managed to accommodate our whole group in the same house overnight. We had a really fun and memorable evening; playing games, laughing, forging friendships, sampling local vodka and generally having a good time. These are some of the moments I’ll never forget!

Mongolia – the Land of Blue Sky

After a month in China, I was ready to leave the crowds, pollution and humidity behind (and let’s not forget the squat toilets) and was really excited about travelling to Mongolia. More than just being eager to get there, I was looking forward to the train journey ahead of me… all 30 hours of it! This was the first part in a series of long train rides that form the trans-Siberian rail journey from Beijing to Moscow. It had been a dream of mine for a long time to go on this train journey but it was one of those dreams that I never thought would actually come true!

I had joined a new group of travellers in Beijing that I was going to travel with for the next three weeks all the way to St. Petersburg. We set off together from Beijing Railway Station and lugged all our bags on board to start the first of many train rides together.

All aboard… ready with all my luggage!

Backpack

The train journey was a great experience… and a pleasant surprise. After my overnight train journeys in China, I was starting to wonder what I’d let myself in for and how I’d survive 30 hours on a train! Thankfully, the trans-Siberian trains were a lot better… we had more space and windows that opened, I could actually sit up in my bed and we had cabins with a door (I never thought I’d be so excited about doors before!). Once we set off on the journey, the train attendant delivered fresh sheets to each passenger and there was an endless supply of boiling water so it was time to make our beds and crack open the pots of noodle soup.

Cabins on the trans-Siberian train (2nd class)

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An hour or two into the journey the landscape started to change dramatically. Leaving behind the smog and grey city buildings, we started to see beautiful greenery, wild flowers and more of a rocky and mountainous landscape. As evening drew closer, we were lucky to see a beautiful sunset over Inner Mongolia and were treated to a complementary dinner in the train’s restaurant car.

Landscape and views from the train ChangingLandscape

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Sunset over Inner Mongolia

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One of the highlights of this particular train ride was the bogie (wheel) changing at the Chinese-Mongolian border at Erlian. The whole process of border crossing and wheel changing took several hours! The train wheels needed to be changed because of the different track gauges used by the Chinese and the Mongolian/Russian railway networks. After going through customs and immigration, we elected to stay on the train for the bogie changing. The train moved off into a shed where the carriages were decoupled, the bogies detached and then the carriages lifted up by a hydraulic lift while the bogies were changed. It was an interesting process to watch from inside the raised carriage and we were all pushed up against the cabin windows looking out to try and glimpse what was going on. The only drawback was that it was late into the night and we couldn’t use the toilets at all for about 4 hours since they shut the toilets every time we approached a station or when the train was stopped.

Bogie changing in the shed

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I woke up the following morning and the train was traveling through the Gobi desert. I was really excited about this part of the journey and had imagined it in my head many times. I’d always imagined the train chugging along the tracks surrounded by golden sand dunes as far as the eye could see and camels dotted all around. I must admit I was a little disappointed with the sight that wished me good morning. I jumped to the window and instead of beautiful and smooth sand dunes I saw yellow gravel-like sand, a pretty flat vista and a few shrubs dotted around… welcome to the Gobi desert! I got over that pretty quickly though as the landscape kept on changing.

The Gobi desert

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Leaving the desert behind, we started to ride through the Mongolian steppe… it was very beautiful and matched some of the images of Mongolia I had in my head … a vastness of both flat and hilly grassland with wild animals roaming freely and ger tents scattered around the place.

Animals roaming in the wild

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Some of my best moments on the train were just sitting by a window with music playing through my headphones, camera in hand, admiring the stunning landscapes and watching the world go by… just me and my thoughts.

As we drew closer to Ulaanbaatar and the train was winding through hills and around bends, we started to see picturesque settlements with quaint bright coloured houses. The main thing that jumped out at me was the beautiful bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds scattered around… it had been so long since I’d seen such beautiful clear skies that I just couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Beautiful blue sky and coloured houses close to Ulaanbaatar

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Not having researched Ulaanbaatar at all before I arrived, I was surprised to see how built up the city was. The main highlights for me were sampling local cuisine (varieties of dumplings and Mongolian lamb) and visiting the Gandan monastery where we were able to witness the monks performing some of their daily ceremonies. I also really enjoyed a Mongolian cultural show in the city where we got to see musicians playing local instruments, dancing and singing… one of my favourite parts was listening to the Mongolian throat singing.

Ulaanbaatar city (on a rainy day)

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Prayer wheels at the Gandan Monastery

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Mongolian throat singer and dancers

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Aside from the train ride, the highlight of the trip for me was spending time in Terelj National Park, hiking and sleeping in a ger tent for the night. The national park was stunning and pristine and it was a welcome change of scenery after days of being in built-up cities or being confined to a train carriage. There were rows of ger tents with a backdrop of grassy meadows, stunning rock formations and pine-covered mountains.

Ger camp at Terelj National Park

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Hiking in the national park was fun (although a little scary and slippery at times)… my only bad memory of the place was being constantly chased by swarms of flies during the hike! We walked up hills and through pine forests, across narrow pathways and to stunning viewpoints. Along the way we passed beautiful wild flowers, horses and even some gorgeous owls awake during the day.

Stunning views along the hike in Terelj National Park

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Monastery located on the side of a mountain

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Beautiful owl spotted during the hike

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Dinner at the camp was delicious… homemade and freshly prepared Mongolian food… and very welcome following the afternoon’s hike. The evening was filled with archery lessons followed by games and lots of laughter with fellow travellers. The ger tent was our home for the night and was a lot more spacious, comfortable and warmer than I had imagined… once I got over the grasshopper and beetle that were hiding in the tent I actually managed to get some sleep!

On the way back to Ulaanbaatar we stopped to see the huge monument of Genghis Khan and learnt more about the history of the country.

Genghis Khan statue

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Soon we were back at the train station and it was time to jump on board the train again… for the next 40 hours… to Russia!

Pandas, Noodles and Squat Toilets

When I first decided to visit China, I was slightly overwhelmed with the size of the country and worried about getting around without knowing any Mandarin. I was tossing up between travelling solo and taking my time or travelling with an organized group, which would be more fast-paced but smoother. In the end I’m glad I went with the group option… it was a lot easier to get around with a local Mandarin speaker… little things like ordering in restaurants, buying train tickets, finding a toilet and getting a taxi all become much more difficult when you don’t know the language!

In total, I spent a month travelling around China and Hong Kong. It was an extremely interesting, insightful and cultural experience. I have some fantastic memories that I brought back with me and also some not so great ones, but it was definitely a worthwhile trip. I was able to see some breathtaking sights, such as the Great Wall of China and Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Army. I also met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travellers, but also had some really challenging moments.

Some of my fondest memories are sitting by the Shanghai Bund at night watching the bright lights of the skyline; riding on a bamboo raft along the Li river  surrounded by stunning limestone karsts; learning Tai Chi in the early morning in a local park; watching cute, cuddly yet incredibly lazy giant pandas chewing bamboo; and watching the sunset out on the deck of the ship while cruising down the Yangtze river.

Shanghai Bund skyline at night

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Bamboo rafting on the Li river in Yangshuo

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Early morning Tai Chi class

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Pandas at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu

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Sunset on the Yangtze river

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Other vivid memories (not as fond though) include sitting on a five hour public bus ride with a sack of live animals next to me (it turned out they were chickens but I let my imagination run wild); having our group stalked by a local lady in the Chengdu market and trying to lose her; and disturbing images of cats and dogs hung up for sale in the local Yangshuo wet market.

The trip started in Beijing in the north of China. It took me a few days to get used to being there… the new language and distinct lack of English anywhere; the noticeably higher levels of pollution; the humidity; the squat toilets, a lot of them extremely filthy; people spitting on the streets as they walked past me; and let’s not forget chopsticks! When I arrived I couldn’t even pick up a dumpling with a chopstick but I’ve finally mastered the art of eating with them… I didn’t really have much of a choice!

It was an amazing experience for me to climb parts of the Great Wall of China… twice… because once is just not enough! The climb to actually get to the wall was challenging… it felt like I was on a never-ending staircase leading to nowhere, but I eventually made it up to the wall. Local people along the way kept greeting me and asking to take pictures and selfies with me… I felt like a bit of a celebrity! Climbing the wall was challenging but also very humbling when I thought about the people who built the wall and what they went through as they had no proper pathways or stairs to climb with the materials and worked throughout the year in all conditions. The views from up on the wall were breathtaking… I’d always seen pictures of this architectural wonder but couldn’t believe I was actually standing on it!

Hiking the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China

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Another highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Terracotta Warriors in person. This was something I had read about before and seen photos of on the Internet but they don’t come close to what it looks like in person. I was surprised by the sheer size of the army and all the detail that had been put into each individual warrior… it was an incredible sight and I’m sure my pictures won’t do it justice!

Terracotta Army in Xi’an

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Warriors still undergoing restoration

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Over the course of the trip, I took three overnight trains in China. Memories of the overnight trains are bittersweet for me… I loved them and hated them all at the same time, but I’m glad I experienced them! I had some fun times with fellow travellers and friends… playing cards, chatting away, watching movies together, eating countless pots of noodle soup and building friendships over cups of tea, cans of beer and sometimes shots of Chinese ‘firewater’! But it wasn’t all fun, games and laughter… sharing a 6-bunk ‘cabin’ was challenging with some beds that you couldn’t even sit up straight in. I say cabin in the loosest sense of the word as there weren’t really any cabins… the whole carriage was open plan and without any curtains arounds beds for privacy. I still remember my first train ride where I hardly slept because there was a super loud snorer on the bunk next to me (I’m talking deafening snores!) and another guy who wanted to play loud games on his phone! After finally falling asleep in the boiling hot carriages, I awoke at 5.30am to find a random stranger eating breakfast at the end of my bed… he was slurping away at his noodle soup while I was asleep! I have to admit I found that a little creepy! Aside from sleeping arrangements, the hardest part was the squat toilets… not just because you had to squat but because toilets on the trains are probably some of the dirtiest I’ve ever seen (I won’t go into graphic details!).

Playing UNO on the train

Uno

Another of the highlights of the trip for me was a two-night stay in a monastery in Emeishan. The monastery was beautiful and although the rooms we stayed in were simple they were a lot nicer than what I was expecting… in my mind I pictured us all sleeping in one large room with mattresses or blankets on the floor. We could only use communal showers between 5.30pm and 9.30pm and I had to go on spider kill and cockroach hunt a few times. Nonetheless it was an amazing experience. I especially loved waking up at 5.30am to the sound of the monks chanting… it was very peaceful and a great way to wake up.

Monastery in Emeishan where we stayed

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Candles lit in the monastery

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We spent one of the days in Emeishan hiking in the area surrounding Mount Emei. I used to think I was pretty good at reading maps but apparently I’m not to be trusted hiking on a mountain – I’ll get lost! At least I wasn’t alone! While hiking, I got separated from most of the group except one person. The two of us continued alone following our maps… we ended up seeing sights that weren’t on our planned route (albeit beautiful sights), climbed what felt like hundreds of steps, and got horribly lost! When we finally got out of the national park (without making it to our destination of the monkey zone), we walked almost 5km in the wrong direction and then found out that a monkey had bitten one of our friends! We tried to hitch a ride back to the monastery on a motorbike that wasn’t big enough for two, ended up walking back the way we came and then got told off by a bus driver in Mandarin because we didn’t listen to him the first time when he tried to give us a lift! All in all it was an eventful and tiring day… we got lots of exercise and ended up walking around 22km in total… but we made it back in one piece!  If I never see steps again it’ll be too soon!

Hiking around Emeishan National Park

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Lost outside the national park

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Aside from the major attractions and great outdoors, China has some wonderful local markets. I really enjoyed strolling around the bustling market in Shanghai, haggling and bargaining for things… it was more for the experience rather than the 20p it saved! The local food market in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an was also really great. It was colourful, vibrant and full of food stalls with interesting smells. I really enjoyed sampling the different foods there… one of my favourites was a yellow sticky rice cake with fresh dates.

Local market in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

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Sticky rice cake and meat burgers in the local food market

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XianMarket

The foodie in me really came out to play in China. I truly enjoyed the variety of food and drink on offer and the different flavours from different parts of the country. From the succulent Peking duck in Beijing, to mouth watering dumplings, to the fiery hot pot in Chengdu… the food was delicious! I’ll never feel the same about eating duck and hot pot back in London! I even got to try and make my own dumplings in a cooking class… they didn’t taste too bad for my first attempt!

Peking duck in Beijing

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Duck shaped dumplings at a dumpling banquet in Xi’an

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My very own homemade dumplings!

Dumplings

The trip ended in Hong Kong with the highlights of the beautiful Victoria Harbour and stunning views from the top of Victoria Peak.

View from Victoria Peak

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Then it was time to say goodbye to new and dear friends; it’s funny to think we started as a group of people who all stood in silence as we rode the elevator together when we first met! It was time to head back to Beijing to meet new travellers, revisit the incredible Great Wall, sample more duck and get ready for the journey west… into Siberia.

Morocco – the country of contrasts

I spent an incredible few weeks travelling around Morocco in North Africa. This country wasn’t originally on my list of places to visit when I decided to go travelling, but I picked the trip because the duration, budget and distance all fit my criteria when looking for a small adventure to fill the gap between other travels… and I also wanted to fulfill my dream of sleeping under the stars in the Sahara desert! Having said that, I’m really glad I went… I came across some beautiful and historical places, had some fun and amazing adventures, made some great (hopefully lasting) friendships, got acquainted with Arabic music (Zina!) and some useful phrases… I’ll never forget ‘Yallah, Yallah’!

Morocco is a beautiful country and full of contrasts… you could be standing in the arid desert while at the same time being able to see snow capped mountains in the distance; there are large malls and western shops with fixed prices and a few kilometers away there are old bazaars and markets where bargaining is a huge part of the experience; there are centuries-old kasbahs and a short distance away modern cafes and satellite dishes everywhere; there is poverty on the one hand with people (including children) begging for money on the streets and nice buildings and expensive cars across town; and there’s a huge diversity of languages…. Berber, Arabic, French, Spanish.

We travelled around the country starting from Casablanca in the west and heading north to the city of Tangier. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and rainy day so we were unable to see Spain in the distance. However, I do remember the walk through the colourful streets of the medina, stepping in puddles, watching locals run their businesses and kids paint football badges onto walls, and smelling the scent of freshly baked bread.

Following Tangier, we headed south to the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen. This was one of my favourite towns in Morocco… full of charming streets and spectacular landscapes! I really enjoyed walking through the winding and seemingly never-ending streets of the medina… a lot of the walls were painted in varying shades of blue and had splashes of other colours added to the mix. There were locals running their businesses inviting you in to check out their wares, kids playing in the streets and stray cats trying to keep out of the sun. The market in Chefchaouen was also very vibrant… I ate some of the best strawberries there that I’ve had in my entire life!

Panoramic view of the city of Chefchaouen

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The medina of Chefchaouen

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Leaving the blue of Chefchaouen behind, we visited the stunning ancient roman ruins of Volubilis, the imperial city of Meknes and the medina of Fes. The trip was very educational and I also learnt about different marriage ceremonies in Morocco… but don’t worry I didn’t get married while out there!

Ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis

Volubilis

Tannery in the medina of Fes

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FesTannery

The journey then went further south to Merzouga and the Sahara desert after which we ventured back west across Morocco to the incredibly scenic UNESCO world heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou and then headed into the High Atlas Mountains.

Ait Ben Haddou

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Some of my highlights were riding out into the heart of the desert on the back of a camel, singing and dancing with new friends at the Sahara Bedouin camp and sleeping outside under the stars and the light of the near full moon. I hardly slept because of the cold, mosquitoes and fear of desert creepy crawlies but it didn’t matter because I was completely mesmerised by the sky filled with stars… another one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments!

Camel ride into the Sahara desert

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Nomad family and their camp in the Sahara desert

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Sunrise in the Sahara desert

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Another highlight was hiking up to and around the village of Aremd in the High Atlas Mountains and getting to spend the night with a local family there. It was such a beautiful place… we hiked around the valley, crossed streams and took in the beautiful views and fresh mountain air! It was also refreshing to have no wifi!

Aremd village in the High Atlas Mountains

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As we travelled from North to South, the landscape changed dramatically from lush green vegetation to barren desert landscapes to snow peaked mountains. At points in the North, it was hard to believe we were actually in Morocco… I didn’t expect to see so much green! Leaving the Atlas Mountains behind, we went off to the coastal town of Essaouira and then ended in the bustling city of Marrakech. The sights, smells and sounds of Djemaa El-Fna put me into sensory overload! I also managed to visit Jardin Majorelle… the beautiful botanical gardens created by Jacques Majorelle and owned by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. The garden contains hundreds of exotic plant species and trees as well as several ponds and streams. You can hear the sound of birds chirping around, see turtles swimming in the pond or just sit on one of the shaded benches and take some time out of the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Sunset in Essaouira

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The medina of Marrakech

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As with most trips, the food and drink is always memorable and I believe it’s a big part of the travel experience. Over the weeks I spent in Morocco, I became reacquainted with mint tea and probably consumed gallons of it! It was interesting to also learn about the process of making mint tea… it was more involved than I thought! Food-wise I really enjoyed sampling the different types of tagines… my favourites were kafta and egg tagine and lemon chicken tagine. I also came across Msemen, which is a Moroccan square shaped fried pancake (delicious for breakfast!), Harissa (a hot chili paste) and Lemon Fanta (so refreshing on a hot 39 degrees day!).

Mint tea making ceremony

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Kafta and egg tagine

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So with a week to go until the next adventure begins… you may ask ‘where to next?’… wait and see!

Back on the road

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old familiar pillow” ~ Lin Yutang

Having been back home for almost 2 months, I’ve realized that I’ve become addicted to travel! It’s funny how when I’m away I miss home and when I’m home, I’m already thinking about where and when to go next. Being back home has been great, as it’s given me a chance to catch up with family and friends and take some time out to think about my past trips and really take in the things I did, saw and experienced, not to mention trawling through my thousands of photos.

But it’s time to decide…where to next? It’s a great feeling when planning the next set of trips… sitting with a blank page and a world map and being able to pick out where I’d most like to go!

WhereToNext

So it’s back to my trusty old friend and travel companion… my backpack… wherever I go, he goes with me 🙂

Next stop on my travels… Morocco… time for some North African adventures!

In Search of the Northern Lights

I’m a bit behind in terms of this blog post… but as the saying goes… better late than never! I spent an incredible week in Iceland on a photography trip at the end of February… it was wet, wild and out of this world! The weather was extreme and challenging and the days were long, but it was totally worth it… I got to see and photograph some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen!

I was initially attracted to this trip because of my love of photography and also my excitement at the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights… something that’s been on my travel list for a long time. But I got so much more out of the trip than that… I came face to face with gorgeous horses roaming around in the snow, gushing waterfalls with rainbows emerging, gigantic glaciers with deep crevasses, beautiful blue lagoons, volcanic black sand beaches and much more.

Icelandic horse playing in the snow

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Skógafoss waterfall

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Seljalandsfoss waterfall

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Vik beach

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People are always asking me why I keep visiting cold places… Patagonia, Antarctica and now Iceland… what can I say… sometimes you have to brave the elements to discover some of Earth’s natural beauty… and boy was it beautiful! Iceland is truly a photographer’s paradise. Rather than trying to describe it to you though, I’ll let you look at some of the photos instead… even they don’t do it justice!

Ripples and reflections in the water at Stokksnes

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Stormy day at Svínafellsjökull glacier

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Svínafellsjökull glacier covered in fresh snowfall

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Jökulsárlón lagoon

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Fjallsjökull glacier

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I have a bit of a reputation for being accident-prone when I’m away on trips but this time I think I outdid myself! Despite being warned, I was toppled over by giant crashing waves on Vik beach and nearly lost my camera, lenses and tripod all on the first day! I also managed to fall over a few times on the ice (very graceful!) and even got stuck in the mud while desperately trying to photograph the Northern Lights and stop my camera from flying away at the same time! But I came back alive, with all my gear, beautiful memories and lots of photographs… so it was worth every moment!

One of my best and most memorable moments was getting to walk out on to the Beiõamerkerkurjökul glacier and into an ice cave…. it was incredible… definitely something crossed off from my bucket list! Being able to photograph inside the cave (although probably the coldest I’ve ever been in my life) was an extraordinary experience!

Inside the ice cave in Beiõamerkerkurjökul glacier

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We spent a lot of time on Breiðamerkursandur (the ice beach) where pieces of ice of all shapes and sizes from the icebergs in the  Jökulsárlón lagoon were washed up on to the black sand. It was great photographing at that location, looking at different pieces of ice in different lights and how they contrast against the black sand… the beach never looked the same on any two days. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long looking at (read stalking) a piece of ice… it was so beautiful I could have stayed there all week!

Waves crashing over ice on Breiðamerkursandur

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Ice on the black sand of Breiðamerkursandur

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Close-up of the surface of a piece of ice

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One of the things I really wanted to see on this trip was the Aurora Borealis (a.k.a the Northern Lights)… unfortunately my luck there wasn’t so great as most of Iceland was covered in cloud for the whole week. We managed to get a very brief sighting at around 1am on our last morning in the south of Iceland…. it wasn’t the most extraordinary Aurora sighting but I was over the moon just at getting the chance to see and photograph it! I’m definitely not done with the Northern Lights yet though… a lot more to see and many other beautiful destinations to visit where I might see them! I think I’ve used up my cold quota for a while now… so next stop… hopefully somewhere warmer!

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) at Hali

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The river runs through it

Leaving Thailand behind, I spent just over two weeks in beautiful Laos and Vietnam. It was an amazing two weeks of adventure, fun, new friends, new (and unusual) foods and trying lots of new things for the first time… kayaking in the Nam Som River, holding a python round my neck, swimming in a freezing cold waterfall, riding on a water buffalo at sunset, eating deep fried worm (yes, I said worm!) amongst many other things… some of these things I’d never imagined I would ever do!

Kuang Si waterfall south of Luang Prabang

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Riding a water buffalo in Hoi An

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After crossing the border from Thailand into Laos, we spent two days sailing along the mighty Mekong River. It was a beautiful ride with cold mornings, sunny afternoons and being surrounded by gorgeous hills and mountains all around. We passed various villages and fishing boats along the way and several cows and elephants too. We spent the night in a rustic lodge in the small village of Pak Beng located on the Mekong River… staying in wooden cabins with very little hot water and lots of geckos for friends, it made for an interesting night as the only sounds I could here were those of nature.

Views sailing along the Mekong River

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Buddha statues in the Pak Ou caves, a stop along the Mekong River boat trip

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Finally we arrived in the town of Luang Prabang… this is a beautiful town located along the Mekong River and one of my favourite stops on the trip. It’s a laidback and serene town even though there are a lot of tourists visiting. Some of the highlights for me (apart from historical or religious sights) were the bustling night markets (and the bargaining that comes with them), street food vendors selling mouth-watering dishes, strolling along dusty side streets, rising at dawn to watch the saffron-robed monks receiving alms, and the lively morning market with a variety of unusual eats! I saw a lot of interesting and strange foods in the morning market including deep fried mice/rats, frogs, snails, squirrels, budgies and cobra… I wasn’t brave enough to try any of them!

Mice, rats and snake found for sale in the Luang Prabang morning market

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Monks collecting alms in the early morning

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Sampling street food was definitely a highlight for me… from scrumptious spring rolls to delicious dumplings and, my personal favourite, banana and Nutella crepes that I bought along the sidewalk.

Luang Prabang Street Food

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Home-cooked Laotian meal including laap and deep fried aubergine

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Aside from this, I was also lucky enough to spend a morning with elephants… the highlight for me was ‘bathing’ them in the Mekong River… in actual fact they were just splashing about with us in the river rather than actually bathing but it was an incredible experience with these gentle giants… a dream come true for me because of my love of elephants!

‘Bathing’ elephants near Luang Prabang

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Leaving Luang Prabang behind, we continued on to Vang Vieng for a day. Here I got to try kayaking for the first time… I was quite nervous at first but it was an amazing experience kayaking along the Nam Som River with the hot sun beating down on my skin. Along the way my group decided to stop at one of the infamous river-side bars… they are pretty cool with loud music blaring, people dancing, drinks flowing, BBQs burning on the side and awesome hammocks hanging around for people to catch some rest and shade from the strong sun.

That evening I sat along the riverside with a BeerLao beer in hand and watched the world go by… boats sailing, flocks of birds soaring through the sky, locals having a BBQ around a fire on the sand and the golden red sun setting behind the grand mountains… it’s one of those serene and breathtaking moments I’ll never forget.

Vang Vieng sunset

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After leaving Laos, we headed to Vietnam where the first stop was Hanoi. This is one of the most bustling, vibrant and chaotic cities I’ve ever seen, especially in the old quarter. There were people and motorbikes everywhere, horns beeping, power lines dangling, street vendors galore, amazing sights, sounds and smells everywhere and dozens of streetside ‘bars’ selling the cheapest beer in the world, Bia Hoi (for the equivalent of 24 cents)! There seemed to be no concept of traffic rules or personal space in Hanoi… you couldn’t walk anywhere without being bumped into or beeped at or nearly run over by a motorcyclist! The thing I found the most strange however is how such a vibrant city completely shuts down at midnight… it’s like it turns into a pumpkin… the streets become empty and lonely, all the sounds disappear and there is just quiet all around.

Streets of Hanoi

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BBQ dog for sale in Hanoi

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One of my highlights in Vietnam was an overnight stay on a junk boat in Ha Long Bay. I had an absolutely incredible time there… apart from getting scared half to death by monkeys when visiting a local beach… but don’t worry, we came away unscathed (just about!). I had another of those ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments when watching a spectacular sunset on the top deck of our boat with a glass of merlot in one hand and my faithful camera in the other… and coming back after dinner to star gaze in the beautifully clear night sky! These are some moments I’ll never ever forget!

Ha Long Bay

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Aside from Ha Long bay, I really enjoyed my time in the city of Hue. I was lucky to be able to take a slightly non-conventional city tour… I got to ride on the back of a motorbike for the day to see all the sights. It was an incredibly fun and insightful experience… riding through big highways, small back alleys, rice fields, cemeteries, past peoples homes, businesses and schools… it was a great way to see the city as I felt I got a much better insight into the real Hue and the way people live there.

Motorbike tour in Hue and meeting local people en route

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Leaving Hue, we stopped for a few nights in Hoi An with it’s charming streets, many stalls, restaurants, cafes and shops. Some of the highlights here were a noodle making class (it’s harder than it looks!), a cycle tour through vegetable gardens and rice fields (and getting a little lost) and the opportunity to ride a water buffalo.

The final stop for me was Ho Chi Minh City. Before getting ready to go home, I took a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels formed an underground network used by the Viet Cong army during the Vietnamese and American War. It was quite an emotional tour and very thought-provoking listening to our guide who was a real war veteran as he told stories of his days during the war and in the re-education camps.

Cu Chi tunnels

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Unfortunately all good things must come to and end… and so it was time for me to leave Southeast Asia and come back home.  However, not long until the next adventure… from thirty degrees heat straight into sub-zero freezing cold… Iceland here I come!

Land of smiles

Sawasdee kaa from Thailand! I arrived here after 18 hours and no sleep (thanks to crying children and really loud people on the plane) but it was definitely worth the trip!

My first stop was Bangkok – the densely populated and bustling capital city. The first thing that hits you when you step outside the airport is the heat and the high pollution levels in the air… it looks likes it’s always cloudy but it’s actually smog. Behind all that is a fascinating city with a lot of culture, fabulous food and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.

I spent a great couple of days in the city, exploring temples, pagodas and palaces and even managed to photograph a few monks (‘monk stalking’). The cultural highlights were Wat Poh where I got to see the huge reclining Buddha and the Grand Palace (it is pretty spectacular!) with the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It was interesting walking the streets of Bangkok, with stalls full of mouth-watering street food, people selling fake designer handbags/watches/scarves and crazy traffic everywhere… I managed to survive a tuk-tuk ride on the wild roads and even did a little bit of shopping (no surprises there!). It was also a lot of fun taking a long-tail boat ride along the canals of Bangkok and interesting to spot local fauna and see how some of the local people live in houses built on water and sell goods out of small boats.

Reclining Buddha and other Buddha statues at Wat Poh temple, Bangkok

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Vendor on a boat in one of Bangkok’s canals

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Water monitor in one of Bangkok’s canals

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I met up with my tour group in Bangkok, ready to explore new parts of Southeast Asia. Leaving Bangkok behind, we took an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. The sleeper train was a new experience for me… it was a lot cleaner that I expected and the meals served were pretty decent. Unfortunately my backpack wouldn’t fit below the seats so I had my entire luggage with me on the upper bunk bed… I looked like a hamster in a small cage!

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city and a nice change after bustling Bangkok. There are less people on the streets, less traffic and less pollution and the city has a beautiful mountain backdrop. We visited the Doi Suthep temple out on top of a mountain in the Chiang Mai countryside and saw the beautiful golden stupa that enshrines a Buddha relic. It was interesting just standing and watching people coming to pray and seeing some of their rituals as well as observing the chanting of the monks. We were lucky to be there at the right time to also watch a beautiful sunset over the mountains.

Golden stupa containing Buddha relic at Doi Suthep

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Monks praying and chanting at Doi Suthep

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Candle lit at Doi Suthep

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One of my favourite parts of Thailand is the food! I was fortunate to be able to participate in a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai where I got to learn how to make some of my favourite dishes – Thai Green Curry and Mango and Sticky rice. It was a lot of fun and the food even tasted pretty good… so friends and family beware… you will be subjected to my cooking when I’m back! 🙂

Shopping for fresh ingredients at a local market in Chiang Mai

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Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai

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Leaving Chiang Mai, we travelled along winding roads for 5 hours to a town called Chiang Khong, which is very close to the Mekong river and the border with Laos… so close that we could see Laos across the river while having dinner! En route we stopped off at Wat Rong Khun, which is a spectacular dazzling white temple… it’s a breathtaking sight and very fascinating to see… it’s different to any other temple I have seen and has interesting and very alternative artwork on the walls and some gothic elements around.

Wat Rong Khun – dazzling white temple

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Hanging heads at Wat Rong Khun

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After dinner in Chiang Khong, we had a treat in store for our last night in Thailand… it was a special moment that I’ll remember for a long time… we got to light lanterns, make a wish and release them up into the sky above the Mekong river. It was beautiful to see the orange lights floating up in the dark sky and a nice way to say goodbye to Thailand.

Lighting and releasing lanterns over the Mekong river in Chiang Khong

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Next stop… the Mekong River and Laos, which I’m told is a stunning gem of a country!

New year, new travels

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”  ~ Jawaharal Nehru

I started off my travels last August with a plan to go and see parts of South America, travel alone, meet some penguins and have an adventure… and what an adventure it was! When I set off from Heathrow, I was filled with part excitement, part anticipation and a whole lot of nervousness. There were so many questions/doubts in my mind… ‘would I enjoy it?’, ‘would I meet new people and make friends?’, ‘would it be safe to travel alone?’, ‘would I get lonely/homesick?’, ‘how would I get around?’, ‘what if I hated it?’ etc. etc.… it took me several weeks to get over the nervousness and really start enjoying the trip and having fun… and after that I never looked back. I discovered a whole lot about myself along the way and most of all I realised that I’m smitten with the world and I’ve been well and truly bitten by the travel bug! In the words of Michael Palin… ‘once the travel bug bites, there is no known antidote’… you just need to ride it out!

This blog started as a way for me to record my adventures in South America and my rendezvous with penguins (hence the blog name!). Since I’ve been back, I’ve been asked by people what my plans are and when I’m ‘settling down’ again… the short answer is ‘not just yet’… for now, I’m not done. My next trip, albeit shorter, takes me to the other side of the world – South East Asia. I’m planning to keep this blog and, if I haven’t bored you yet, continue sharing my travel stories and photos (although I’m sorry that they won’t be penguin related!).

One thing I really craved in South America (those of you that know me won’t be surprised) was spice! I tried various concoctions of chilli but nothing was fiery enough. That certainly won’t be a problem in South East Asia! So off I go, in search of spice and to greet some of my favourite animals in the whole world… elephants!

With a week to go before I set off again, I’m back to my passport, visas, packing, anti-malarials and the most important thing… my travelling companion… my trusty backpack!

I’ll end by wishing you all a very happy new year and I wish you good luck and courage to seek out and follow some of your dreams in 2015!