Saturday, 25 February 2017

Russia and Lativa

After a ten hour border crossing we finally made it into Russia, and after our second night on the train we pulled into Irkutsk for an early morning start. A lack of time and the ridiculous temperatures led us to book a tour, which took us through the foggy city to see a few sight before heading out towards Listvyanka. On the way we stopped at the Siberian village museum, where we managed to completely ignore the area's architectural history and spend some worthwhile time on the snow slides and swings. 
Listvyanka sits on the edge of Lake Baikal, the world's third largest lake which completely freezes over in the Russian winter. We spent some time on the ice, with Sammie complaining that her eyelashes had frozen and her feet were numb whilst I saw how far I could slide on my knees. We finished the tour in the fish market, where the taste of the fresh Omul was good at the time, but not worth our clothes stinking of fish for the next few days. 
After a night in the house of a Russian woman who was a little eccentric and more than a little racist, we were back on the train for the longest leg of the trans-Siberian. The four day journey began well, with more beautiful landscapes and our discovery of Russia's litre tins of beer. Eventually despair set in when I was washing three days worth of grime off my body in a sink next to a blocked toilet. This despair only increased after another day of living on powdered smash potato and cup noodles, whilst genuinely worrying that muscular atrophy was withering our legs away. 
Eventually we arrived in Moscow, walking to our hostel from the metro at 5.30am after passing a guy slumped in a corner with a face full of blood. We trekked out through some pretty heavy snowstorms into the heart of the city, checking out the Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral. Sammie was trying to avoid going to another set of unnecessary churches and museums, whilst I was trying to convince her that the Kremlin was pretty essential viewing in Moscow.  We went to the Gulag museum before finding out that it has recently changed location, so we tried again the next day before finding out that it is closed on Mondays. 
After nearly missing our overnight bus to St Petersburg despite arriving at the station four hours early, we managed to make it to our new hostel in the centre of the Old City, surrounded by lavish buildings and churches. We spent the first day here exploring some very impressive cathedrals and sites around the city, before treating Sammie to some traditional Russian canteen food for valentines day. 
For the final day in St Petersburg we walked around the Hermitage Muesum, 399 extravagant palace rooms filled with art and culture. After feigning interest at some of the Picasso's and Da Vinci's on show, we soon lapsed into laughing at the genitals on centuries old statues. 
A night bus out of Russia meant that we had only spent 3 of the last 12 nights in a stationary bed, with that we were both getting a bit run down and sick. We headed to Riga and met Matty and Laura for the weekend, where I considered the perfect antidote to my worsening stomach bug to be a few pints and a couple of cheeseburgers. I spent the next day in bed whilst the other three explored Riga, a city where art seemed to consist of putting human breasts on animal bodies. 
The rest of the weekend we spent exploring a few nice bars and restaurants, before visiting the infamous Riga Hat Museum and heading to a cracking game of ice hockey. At this point we decided to cut the trip a couple of weeks short, with the pair of us a bit run down we decided to save some money and head home. 

And so, with our last big trip finished we headed home permanently for a life of mortgages, careers and mild depression. We've been lucky enough to see some amazing things and meet some amazing people in our time away, and we're hoping we can read back through this in a few years time to relive some of our favourite moments. I hope you've enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


From Beijing we boarded the Transmongolian train, ready for 27 hours in our otherwise empty four bed coupe. The border crossing into Mongolia lasted from 10pm to 3am, with each carriage having to be disconnected and then rammed back together again to change the wheels. It was like trying to sleep through minor car crashes at regular intervals.
The landscape had gradually changed from the sprawl of Beijing, into mountainous northern China before becoming the increasingly empty, snowy vastness of Mongolia. We rolled along for hours without seeing trees or much more than a couple of houses completely alone in the countryside.
Mongolia's capital Ulaanbator has over half of the country's 3 million people, with most of these warming themselves with coal fires inside their homes. This gives the city a dense covering of smoke, a hazy carpet that can be seen well before any buildings.
After a night in the city sorting out train tickets and doing a little exploring, we were up for our trip into some more rural parts of the country. We spent the morning looking through some monasteries and a huge rock that looks a bit like a turtle, before heading for lunch with a nomadic family.  After eagerly using my newly learnt welcomes on the family, the guide revealed she had taught me to say 'I love you' rather than 'hello' to the burly, pretty angry looking Mongolian bloke's wife.
We rode through the snow on some fluffy Mongolian horses before heading to a Kazakh family to spend the night. The local cuisine seemed to be mixing everything with salty milk tea, the main was noodles and milk tea, the dessert was butter and milk tea. The milk tea by itself wasn't even very nice.
We spent the night in our Ger, playing some traditional Mongolian games with sheep's ankle bones. I developed a vendetta against one of the Kazakh family who turned out to be very competitive and a terrible cheat. After a nightlong rivalry I felt slightly embarrassed when I found out he was only 17. I still smashed him in an arm wrestle though.
At midnight it was -35 degrees, the stars were filling the sky and the vodka had been flowing. The temperature was so cold that the toilet, an outdoor drop pit, had frozen its contents into an impressive brown tower. To finish a wonderful night Sammie decided to drop my phone ten feet down into this shit pit. After a fruitless hour trying to retrieve the phone with some improvised poles, the 17 year old lad decided to pull out the floor and scramble to the bottom of the sculpture to retrieve the phone. I let him off for the cheating after that.
The next day we headed around some more beautiful snow covered monasteries and to the giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan that towered over the countryside. Our Mongolian guide and driver had us laughing throughout and after a couple of months (27 years for me) without finding anyone we clicked with, we found a German girl willing the put up with us for a few days.
Our final day was fittingly spent walking round the black market looking for gloves and hats. After this we boarded another train, leaving a lightly snowing Mongolia behind. Our peaceful coupe was short lived, two blokes who struggled to breath quietly when awake, let alone asleep came to wreck the calm. 11 hours later, after a night wide awake contemplating what I'm actually doing with my life, we were pulling up to the Russian border.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hong Kong and China

A short flight on Christmas Eve took us to Hong Kong, where we were expecting an elaborate airport welcome from our holiday host Dave. Once again we were disappointed. There were no banners or flowers, we had to wait half an hour until he even turned up.

After two years of pretty grim Christmases away from home we were treated by Dave and Yoonji to a proper holiday experience, with a house full of people and a full Christmas dinner, including potentially the best parsnips ever made. Sammie looked pretty contented with her glass of wine and Christmas hat, I was just happy we had agreed not to buy presents.

After the festivities we started to explore Hong Kong, a maze of crowds, big buildings and expensive shops. We viewed the skyscrapers from a distance across Victoria harbour and atop the Peak, then spent an afternoon travelling through the centre on a double decker tram. We couldn't miss out on indulging in the height of Hong Kong culture, sampling the local trampoline park for an hour of flips, sweat and being 20 years older than everyone else in the building. The rest of our time was spent hiking, eating and playing an unhealthy amount of FIFA.
From Hong Kong we took a train into mainland China, stopping overnight in Guangzhou. With only half a day to explore, we headed straight for a romantic walk down the river. Here we spotted 21 dead fish, a dead cat and a bloke skinning alive a snake he had just caught, all this was seen through foggy smog so thick that you couldn't see the skyscrapers a hundred feet down the road. We had arrived.
After the delightful Guangzhou we took the train to spend some time split between the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. In Yangshuo we rented bikes and rode out of the city to the River Li, where vertical mountains dotted along the misty river, perfectly replicating how we imagined rural China to look. This tranquility soon ended when we were back in the city down West Street, where neon lights surrounded western restaurants and an excessive amount of strip clubs.
We ventured out to have a look around the exotic fruit and veg in a local market, which was going well until we hit the meat section and saw the cages full of cute little cats and rabbits, with their mates already skinned and hung up. It was all pretty inhumane, they could at least have some decorum like in England, and do it on an industrial scale behind closed doors.

Our main reason for being in Guilin was to see the Dragon's Backbone Rice terraces, which we were told would have looked like an endless panoramic view of staggered stairs of rice flowing down mountainsides. The fog made it hard to see our feet, let alone the view. Our strict budget was seeing the usual successes and failures, with a lunch of delicious noodles and dumplings for 20¥, before a Haagen Daaz ice cream for 71¥.

After Guilin we went on our first overnight train, 26 hours on triple decker beds surrounded by people who didn't seem even slightly embarrassed about passing wind or groping their partners. Our destination was Chengdu and as soon as we got there we headed straight for the panda breeding center to spend a day watching some funny little bears rolling around. The next day we headed to Leshan, to see the 70 foot 1200 year old giant Buddha carved into a cliff. A few attempts to get a picture of the two of us in front of the Buddha left me questioning the Chinese's photography ability.

As a birthday treat for Sammie I'd arranged a two day, 64km hike up a 3099m mountain in -11 degrees weather. The first day we hiked 17km up continuous steps to stay in a Buddhist monastery with no heating and some fairly aggressive monkeys who took a real shining to our backpack. The next day, despite hiking 47km, was probably the best day of the trip so far. We were all alone walking in a snow covered winter wonderland, with the moon lighting up our path. By the top we were above the clouds, overlooking outcrops of mountain peeking out from below. I even treated Sammie to a snickers when we were back at the base.
From Chengdu we took an 11 hour train to Xi'an. Here we explored the Muslim Quarter, where craft markets were serving up jewelry, fresh fruit and sheep's heads. After visiting the city's encircling walls and pagoda we headed to see the Terracotta Army, where warehouses were filled with rows upon rows of warriors built to protect an Emporer's tomb from the equally sizable rows of pushy tourists competing for the best selfies.
After Xi'an we spent a couple of days wandering around Shanghai's skyscrapers, markets and dragging an insolent Sammie around a museum. We then headed on a 350kmph bullet train to our final stop in China, the capital Beijing.
Strangely enough the quietest spot we found in China was also the most famous, a group of 8 of us hiked 7km along the Great Wall, only passing about 4 locals. The wall meandered endlessly over the distant mountains creating a beautiful scene. Surely we need more leaders willing to invest in beautiful border walls like this.
The Forbidden City truly lived up to its name, with our two attempts to enter both resulting in failure as the 80,000 person daily capacity had already been reached. This was after queuing for hours in wind so cold that people were actually walking down the street backwards.

The rest of the time in the capital was spent eating some amazing food and visiting markets and palaces. Chinese New Year was an interesting experience, with kids down every street lobbing firecrackers about and setting off fireworks which were designed for loudness rather than looks.

After a worrying start China turned out to be pretty easy to get around and full of friendly people. After being warned off by so many people, the country more than exceeded our expectations.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016


After 24 hours of trains, taxis, planes, buses, layovers, delays and ferries we managed to make it from Tokyo to a tiny island called Malapascua, on the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines. On the way we'd flown through a progressively worrying lightning storm, and once we landed it hadn't taken long to realise that it wasn't appropriate weather for snow boots.

The contrast with Japan was immediately noticeable, electronic toilets had been replaced by bowls where you had to use a jug to flush away any contents left by yourself or previous users.

Our first real glimpses of the country came from our taxi ride to the bus station, weaving between ridiculous traffic and hoards of people. The radio was blasting out an interview of a government official screaming about the country's war on drugs, before the news reporter told of extrajudicial killings by the police. We decided at that point to stay clear of narcotics.

Once in Malapascua we settled into a routine which even the most talented writer would struggle to make interesting for a blog. Early nights, early mornings, eating, drinking and laying in the sun. I settled into a week long gym routine which lasted 13 minutes of the first day, with my only other exercise consisting of poking Sammie with a stick every 30 minutes to make sure she was still breathing.

The island was beautfiul, we were staying in a basic little wooden shack on the beach only a few yards from the water, with the sound of breaking waves sending us to sleep every night. This was all very soothing until a storm hit one night with the water nearly up to our door and the flimsy wooden walls threatening to fly off into the night.

We managed to escape our daily routine only once, going on a boat trip around the island to some snorkeling sights. We hadn't managed to make it onto our boat before Sammie once again impressed with her ability to locate and stand on sea urchins, this time managing to fall into a hole in ankle deep, clear water. After a good day swimming around some coral reef and through a shipwreck just off the island, we were rushing back for happy hour and our £1.15 cocktails.

Another day of travel started as we left Malapascua to head back to mainland Cebu. Our 30 minute boat ride took well over 2 hours, with half the passengers having to unload onto dinghies before we left because we were stuck on a sandbank, followed by a long wait at the other end as we couldn't make it to the pier in the low tide. Once across we took a couple of buses to Moalboal at the opposite end of Cebu.

Our time here promised to be a bit more energetic, with plenty of activities to try and lure Sammie away from her sunbed. The first of these was Kawasan falls, a series of waterfalls and turquoise lagoons which looked like something out of a Peter Andre music video. We spent the day here swimming, playing on rope swings and arguing when Sammie forgot to press the button to record me jumping off a waterfall.

The next morning we were up at 5 to head across the island to Oslob, where whale sharks had been lured towards the coast for tourists to queue up and swim with. It was an amazing experience, swimming a couple of meters away from fish which looked like they could swallow you whole. The staff were pretty strict, making sure that you kept your distance and didn't touch the sharks. Riding one was out of the question.

Back at the hostel we rented a couple of snorkels, the decision to save a tiny amount of money by renting from a local woman backfired, when what she gave us were basically oversized straws. We were staying on panagsama beach, where virtually as soon as you step into the water you can see coral reef and colourful fish. About 20 meters from the beach there's a steep drop, where millions of sardines swim together, making huge black clouds in the water. After spending some time swimming with the sardines we spotted a huge green sea turtle slowly gliding along below us. In my excitement to get near him I sliced my foot on some coral, cancelling any plans for our last day in Moalboal.

That was about it for the Philippines, we took a taxi back to Cebu City to get some sleep before an early flight. The country exceeded our expectations, it was completely laid back which was a refreshing change after Korea and Japan. I'd recommend for everyone to visit, particularly if you're old, fat, white and male as they seemed to have a real knack at finding young, slim, attractive Filipino women. Dirty old bastards.

In our taxi to the airport the driver created a festive atmosphere, singing along to 'Santa Claus is coming to town' before nodding off at the wheel. Merry Christmas.

Friday, 16 December 2016


After a year in Korea we were back on the road again. We left our apartment in Hwamyeong and caught the metro to Busan’s airport, after a short flight we were boarding another train into the heart of Osaka.

An old city port, Osaka is a city thriving with a blend of traditional Japanese culture fused with culture brought in from the port. We thought we’d take advantage of this mix by heading to the one of the city’s hidden gems, Universal Studios Japan. Here we managed a pretty good ratio of five hours of queuing for every four minutes of rides, with Sammie walking around Harry Potter World looking ten times happier than when I proposed to her.

That night we headed into the downtown area of the city, Dotonbori, where the streets were lit up with multistory neon lights and ridiculously crowded with people. We made our way round the alleys to find some street food, before spending a good amount of time trying to find the area’s famous ‘running man’ sign, which it turned out that we were stood directly under.

After Osaka we headed on a surprisingly cheap train to Kyoto, a nearby city famous for its 400+ shrines. We had a picnic lunch on the riverbank listening to an elderly Japanese man playing some oriental sounding music on his flute. After that we spent our time in the area visiting several shrines that seemed to be dotted along every street, climbing a couple of mountains and endlessly searching for cheap food and beer.

A popular theme in Kyoto, and the rest of Japan, was trying to get a decent picture of the landmarks whilst surrounded by hundreds of tourists trying to do the same thing. This was particularly true in the bamboo forest, where the natural beauty of the area was ruined by the line of people who looked like they were queuing to get out of there.

However next to the forest was a national park, where the peak of a mountain was home to hundreds of monkeys. They had a good system in place where people where kept inside a cage and the monkeys roamed free outside, sticking their hands through the wire to grab some peanuts or banana from you. The whole area was made even more beautiful because of the autumnal leaves which turned the hillsides different shades of red and orange.

After a good few days in Kyoto we were gently broken back into travelling life, with a 5am rise for a 7 hour bus to Hiroshima. This wasn’t too much of an issue due to the absolute luxury of Japanese buses and because we’d been going to bed around 8pm every night to watch Making a Murderer. I think our partying days are a distant memory.

Despite going to Hiroshima almost solely to see the city’s history, it turned out to be our favourite place in Japan, alongside Kyoto. The city had a really laid back atmosphere, everything was easy and everyone was friendly. The city was great to walk around, with rivers, castles and a good mix of traditional Japanese areas alongside a modern centre. The Christmas songs and twinkling lights were enough to keep Sammie smiling and it was only infrequently that she told me she hated me for keeping her away from home for Christmas.

Miyajima island is a major tourist hub and just a short tram ride and ferry from the centre of Hiroshima. We got their expecting a floating shrine and similar architecture as we’d seen throughout the shrines in Kyoto, but we were amazed to find the island swarming with deer. They were everywhere, stealing people’s maps, nicking people’s food and making kids cry. You can’t have a bad day when there’s deers about.

After filling an SD card with deer pictures, we headed on a walk over a mountain to the far side of the island. Here we saw some pretty waterfalls and learnt that even strong looking tree branches can’t hold the weight of an 80kg adult male.

On the final day in Hiroshima we visited the area directly below where the atomic bomb exploded, which had been turned into a peace park to commemorate those lost and educate people about the dangers of these bombs. In the centre of the park is a museum, which gave us eyewitness accounts of what happened on the day, alongside mangled steel, burnt roof tiles and bloodied school uniforms. It was all pretty graphic and disturbing, but something we’re glad we saw.

On the banks of the river in the peace park is the Hiroshima A-Dome, a building which miraculously was left standing despite being 160m below the point of detonation and surrounded by rubble. This was a great example of Japan’s history and present, where a strangely beautiful building with such a grave history could still be a wifi hotspot and surrounded by fairy lights and a Christmas tree.

After a serious day we were soon back to reality, heading to the bus station on a tram which had us both crying with laughter because the sound it made when it stopped sounded like a fart. Once we were at the station we composed ourselves and caught a 13 hour night bus to Tokyo. The next morning friendly people from the country’s capital were trying to greet us and have a chat, after a night and morning without brushing our teeth and shrimp crisps for breakfast, we decided it would be less offensive to ignore them, rather than talk to them.

On arrival we caught a train from what we’ve been told if the world’s busiest train station to our hostel in a slightly more chilled area just outside the centre. Tokyo was another place where the best thing to do seemed to be just walk around and gawp at the tall buildings and neon lights. This took us to a street which was filled with multistory buildings selling games, magazines and posters of fairly provocative looking female animation characters. We slipped away from the hoards of creepy looking old men to grab a beer, where our Japanese translation let us down and we ended paying an extortionate amount for a glass of mainly froth.

A day of high action was kicked off with a trip round a lake on a peddle swan boat which Sammie insisted would be worth the money. After this we headed to Maricar, where you get to race through the centre of Tokyo in go-karts whilst dressed as characters from Mario. Unfortunately you needed an international driving permit to drive the karts, Sammie didn’t have one so I was forced to to decide whether I’d enjoy the experience enough for both of us.

The go-karts were amazing. I drove with a bunch of Korean guys through the busiest areas of Tokyo, with people waving and stopping to take pictures of us. I can see how fame goes to people’s heads, as after a few minutes I was beeping my horn at everyone and slowing down to high-five strangers.

The morning before leaving Japan we decided to take one more trip out, to a scenic spot where Mount Fuji could be seen towering in the distance over the skyscrapers of Tokyo. The viewing point was down a little alley in an old part of the city, so you had the old area, modern centre and Mount Fuji all in one beautiful shot. Unfortunately recently a huge apartment block has been built at the bottom of the alley, limiting your view to about 10 meters.

That was about it for our time in Japan. We managed to eat most of the local dishes including some delicious ramen and sushi, and our obsession with counting steps (and my unwillingness to pay for transport)  meant that we walked 110 miles there. If there’s one thing we’ll remember from our time here its the toilets. Japan is so futuristic that the toilets lids and seats go up and down at the touch of a button, the seat is always heated, there’s a suction button to consume any unpleasant smells and a loud music button to maintain your dignity when nature calls. And back in England we’re still sitting on cold plastic like cavemen.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Mozambique and Egypt

After a few warnings about corrupt border officials and refusal of entry into the country, we boarded a bus from Johannesburg to Maputo. We had a surprisingly smooth crossing through the hectic border controls and rode through onto Mozambique soil. After some interesting driving, avoiding potholes by sharing lanes with oncoming traffic, we made it to the capital and settled down for the night. 

The next day was spent walking round the coastal city for a good few hours. Again warnings of corruption and danger in Maputo appeared unfounded, as we wondered around the laid back and friendly city. I could tell Sammie had spent a fair while in Africa as she said how chilled and pretty the city was as she stepped over a pile of rubbish floating in stagnant water. 

The next stop was Tofo, 10 hours north on the east coast, with a packed bus playing the ever popular game of stopping every 50 metres to let somebody on or off. Upon arrival we found a hostel on a beautiful beach stretching on for miles. The first night we thought we had come to a bit of a dull place, we were the liveliest at the bar and we playing scrabble in silence. Fortunately there was a few arrivals the next day. 

Realising that leaving this place would mean 2 full days on a bus, we decided to settle in and spend the next 10 days relaxing here. We soon established a daily routine, nipping to the market in the morning to get our fresh bread, tropical fruit and vegetables. We then spent the days at the beach, with surfing and volleyball breaking up some long stretches of sunbathing. In the evenings we cooked our meals in the communal kitchen, often eating some of the catches the boats bought in that morning. One night a big group of us chipped in to buy lobsters in bulk, with my 4 costing me £3.54. It was delicious. 

Leaving Tofo we headed on a bus back to Maputo, then a second bus back to Johannesburg. Here our hostel had double booked a couple we were travelling and the owners proceeded to call me a little boy who knows nothing and told our entire group that we were the wrong crowd and they didn't want us staying there. They then kicked us out and left us in the centre of Johannesburg with no transport, phone or accommodation. Sammie was the angriest I've ever seen her, she slightly raised her voice and said 'I think you're very rude'. She was furious. 

After finding expensive new accommodation we settled here for a day to relax after the bus journeys. We then took a long flight to Abu Dhabi before our connection to Cairo. Here we stayed in Islamic Cairo, where dirty, winding, cramped little streets were lined by stray dogs, street stalls and beautiful architecture. The area was bustling with life and you could quite happily lose an hour or two walking round and watching the life around you.

A busy first full day here was spent visiting the famous Giza pyramids and the Sphinx, riding round on camels and bribing police so we could climb the first few steps of the pyramid. We then visited a couple more pyramids across the other side of the city. In one of these we climbed the 1600 steps down into the tombs at the centre of the pyramid, before a power cut caused a complete blackout. It was like a scene from The Mummy. 

In the evening we went on a pretentious sunset cruise down the Nile which we thought would be a chilled event but everyone else turned up in suits paying £7 for a beer. Fortunately a belly dancer turned an awful night into one of the best of the trip. For me anyway. 

We explored the rest of the city, visiting the citadel, mosques, churches and synagogues. Here guards asked to take pictures with us, but wouldn't let me hold their guns, which was pretty unreasonable. The Egyptian museum showed us some amazing treasures retrieved from the tombs of the pyramids and the local bazaars made us happy as the sellers called us Rambo and Shakira. 

After 3 great days in Cairo we took the 40 minute flight to Sharm el Sheikh and spent the next week doing nothing in an all inclusive hotel. Sammie was happy as she got to spend all day roasting in the 45 degree Egyptian sun. The only entertainment here was a few games of volleyball and watching the friendly Russians compete to see who could get the most horrendously burnt. 

This signalled the end of the trip and after a flight home and a night slept on the floor of Birmingham airport we went home to surprise some tearful family members. 

After 10 months of amazing experiences and learning about a completely misunderstood continent, we both feel lucky to have had the chance to see so many beautiful and diverse places. The people we've met have virtually without exception been friendly and welcoming, with none of the danger so many warned us about before coming. The whole thing has been amazing.