Tag Archives: Desert

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)

TrainCabin

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

InnerMongolia

Sunset over Inner Mongolia

InnerMongoliaSunset

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

MongoliaBogieChanging

MongoliaBogieChanging2

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

MongoliaGobiDesert

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

MongoliaSteppeAnimals

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

MongoliaUlaanbaatarSettlements

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)

Ulaanbaatar

Prayer wheels at the Gandan Monastery

MongoliaGandanMonasteryPrayerWheels

Mongolian throat singer and dancers

MongolianThroatSinger

MongolianCulturalShowDancers

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

MongoliaTereljNationalParkGerTent

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

MongoliaTereljNationalPark

Monastery located on the side of a mountain

MongoliaTereljNationalParkMonastery

Beautiful owl spotted during the hike

MongoliaTereljNationalParkOwl

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

MongoliaGenghisKhan

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!

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

ChefChaouen2

The medina of Chefchaouen

ChefChaouenSquare

ChefChaouen3

ChefChaouen6

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

FesTannery2

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

AitBenHaddou1

AitBenHaddou4

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

SaharaCamelSafari

Nomad family and their camp in the Sahara desert

SaharaNomads

Sunrise in the Sahara desert

SaharaSunrise

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

HighAtlasMountains1

HighAtlasMountains2

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

EssaouiraSunset

The medina of Marrakech

MarrakechMedina1

MarrakechMedina2

MarrakechMedina3

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

TeaCeremony

Kafta and egg tagine

Tagine1

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

Where Heaven Meets Earth

After leaving Peru, the last couple of weeks have taken me through Bolivia and into the Atacama desert in Chile… and I’ve had the time of my life with an amazing group of people!

We started off in La Paz, a very unique city with hustle and bustle, people everywhere, car horns constantly beeping and dead llama foetuses hanging outside stores in the Witches’ Market. I haven’t seen another place like it… a few days there were enough for me but it was definitely a place I had to experience (together with all its roast chicken)! We then moved on to Sucre for dinosaur footprints, salsa dancing and partying Bolivian style!

La Paz

LaPazCity

Llama foetus hanging in Witches’ Market

LlamaFoetusLaPaz

The highlight of my trip was the three day  journey in 4 wheel drives starting from Uyuni and ending up at the Chilean border. Visiting the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) was an incredible experience… with the clouds so low it sometimes felt like they were touching the ground… an absolutely breathtaking place! Taking funny photos in the Salar was quite entertaining!

Salar de Uyuni

SaltFlats

Funny photos in the Salar de UyuniSaltFlatsElephants

SaltFlatsFunnyPhotos

It’s difficult to describe the sheer amount of natural beauty I’ve seen over the past few weeks. Natural wonders such as volcanoes, lagunas and geysers were mesmerizing as was the wildlife along the way. Some of the memories I’ll take away with me forever are watching the sunset in the freezing cold with volcanoes, lakes and flamingoes in the foreground, walking through Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the Atacama desert, and above all, sitting in a natural hot springs looking out at the horizon with volcanoes and natural geysers in the distance.

Sunset on Salar de Uyuni tripSaltFlatsSunset

Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaMoonValleyAtacama

Laguna Colarada

LagunaColoradoa

Hot Springs in the Bolivian AltiplanoHotSprings

It wasn’t always fun and games… it was painfully cold during the night, no light in the ‘hotels’ in the Salar… no hot showers in some places… stale bread at times for breakfast… and altitude sickness… but all that was worth it for the amazing places I got to see!

Having arrived in Santiago and saying goodbye to my tour group, my next stop is Argentina and the vineyards of Mendoza! This is the one country in South America I most wanted to visit… I can’t wait!