Tag Archives: horse

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

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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)

Ulaanbaatar

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!

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

Horse

Skógafoss waterfall

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Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Waterfall

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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NorthernLights

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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IceBeach

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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