Tag Archives: travel

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

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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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How To Greet A Penguin

With less than a week to go until I begin my South American adventure, I’m a little nervous but mostly just incredibly excited.

When I think about all the amazing places I’ll get to see, the people I’ll get to meet and the food I’ll get to taste, the most exciting thought is the prospect of standing on the ice-covered land of Antarctica, with hundreds of penguins waddling around me. Leaving aside thoughts of packing, itineraries and flights, and questions such as ‘what if I freeze?’ or ‘do I have enough money?’, the foremost thought in my mind right now is… ‘how do I greet a penguin?’.

If you’re interested in seeing photos, hearing travel stories or just reading my random ramblings as I travel… watch this space…