Sunday, 8 October 2017

Travelling for a year: an FAQ

In our favourite country, Greece
If you're like us, listening to your friends talking about their travels ranks up there with doing the ironing.

With this in mind, we have listed our answers below to the commonest questions we've been asked. It takes away any obligation you may feel to ask us about our travels when we next meet you. By then we'll be up to speed on the conversational zeitgeist of London house prices, GoT and the health benefits of fermentation. 

Where did you go and for how long?

In 12 months we drove as far eastwards as Armenia and flew as far as Myanmar. 26 countries in all. A bit messy. Hopefully the map helps:

Which were your favourite countries?

In rough order:
  • Greece - beautiful at every turn, with the advantage that we repeatedly recognised places from Jason & The Argonauts and 300
  • Georgia - endlessly interesting because the history is rich and you know so little of it, astounding food, ditto re Jason & The Argonauts
  • Ireland - the perfect touring destination, Skellig Michael, ludicrous friendliness and the best Guinness available
  • Albania - glorious mountains and beaches, bonkers relics of the former North Korea of Europe

Least favourite?

Northern India. The unique food and sights can't compensate for the unique filth and noise, and the feeling that it doesn't have to be like this. Sorry.

 What would you do differently next time?

Take a tougher camera and laptop. Pack less. Occasionally set up home somewhere for a month. Don't go to northern India.

Were you ever scared?

Jo isn't fond of heights, and there were several instances of them. Dave developed a fear of London, about which we kept reading terrible things.

Where was the best food?

For a vegetarian, Myanmar was great and easier to deal with than Thailand. The food in India didn't disappoint. But the delight was Georgia which has a cuisine all of its own including Dave's favourite: Fried Aubergine Slices wrapped around Hazelnut & Garlic Paté.

Where did you stay?

Once, sustained by the prospect of two nights in a five-star hotel at the end, we camped for 26 days in a row. Otherwise we were mostly in Airbnbs or cheap hotels which were a flea's jump from backpackers'. It weren't luxury.

Did you have an epiphany?

Several. In order of significance:

  1. No country has yet worked out how to clean up after doing a Number Two. The water hose/pipe attached to eastern loos - how to put this? - dissolves but lacks the bulk removal facility. But then it dawned on us that Western loo paper doesn't do the dissolving. The squirty/blowy Japanese seat is scary because it's powered by mains electricity. We are hoping James Dyson is working on this.
  2. Everyone our age in most countries had lived through a horrible war. We are lucky.
  3. The UK is staggeringly wealthy and safe. This is not normal. Ditto.
  4. We realised we didn't want to live in London any more!

Did you get ill?

Dave had a fairly spectacular episode in a restaurant in Yangon, his big toenail fell off (the two are not related) and he cricked his back for a month in India. Jo sailed on with her cross-Viking/Hebridean super-genes.

Did you fall out with each other?

In a year, only three occasions that we can recall. No deliberate blows.

What was your best bit of travelling kit?

It's a toss-up between Google Maps and Laser Lite® LL1 ear plugs. On balance, the ear plugs.

Would you recommend others to do the same trip?

There's a masochistic side to this kind of travel and it doesn't suit most people. The Taj Mahal and Abu Simbel are one thing. Physical discomfort, long stretches of not being able to have a decent conversation with anyone (aside from each other but, y'know...), and constant surprises - not always welcome - are another. Add to that a giant collapse of income. You probably need to present the downsides first.

Why was there no blog post about the Brittany festival and Ireland?

It's no reflection on either. We just ran out of steam on this blog.

Are you going to send Nellie to the scrapheap now?

No! Especially as we've just spent a grand replacing some big grindy things underneath. Dave continues his endless war on the rust.

What are you going to do now?

Live in Wales for a while and get a job while we establish a long-term plan *cough*. Luckily for us, we quite enjoy change.

And finally, to save you from ploughing through all 4,500 of them, here are our top 50 photos

Phew. Excellent. See you in the pub.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Crossing the Black Sea

Nellie ready to board
Our excitement levels were high when we were told that we were booked on the cargo ship from Poti, Georgia. Destination: Varna, Bulgaria. 50 hours on the high(ish) seas to save poor old Nellie over 1000 miles of driving.

This promised to be no standard passenger ferry experience. How exciting!

This sentiment soon dissipated when we realised how slowly time passes on a huge cargo ship travelling at the breakneck speed of 12mph.

That line across the middle
It transpires that we were the only passengers wanting to sail from Georgia to Varna and Nellie was cargo item #3 of 3.

It was like being on a ghost ship, crewed by 40 friendly Bulgarians.

This is a big ship. Having walked the length of the cargo deck on numerous occasions I can testify that it is 233 paces long. Try counting this out the next time you are out for a walk and you'll get a sense of its size.

1033, 1034, 1035...
The primary entertainment is meal times and for the meat eater this is indeed a rare moment of excitement. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for a vegetarian - cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thank goodness Dave isn't lactose-intolerant.

So what does one do to pass the time? Here's what we came up with:

  • Walk all decks several times a day. The lower deck being 490 paces in circumference so three circuits of that soon adds to the step count, which is the maximum tolerable before you collapse from engine-fume asphyxiation.
  • Have numerous showers a day hoping that with each use the towels become pliable. Cargo ship towels are a natural exfoliant and scrub away your hard-won tan with every use.
  • Peace after the storm
    Instead of a razor, use tweezers to remove leg hair. Stop when one half leg later you finally appreciate the ridiculousness of this activity (Jo's leg, not Dave's).
  • Watch four episodes of the infuriatingly plodding The Handmaid's Tale. Then give up in preference for a quiet few hours of Solitaire or staring at the wall.
  • Read. Read. Read.

A violent thunderstorm kept us, and the crew, awake for the entire second night, which helped to mix things up.

And so we arrived safely, and relatively sane, we think.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Europe's strangest furthest corner

Beyond the Black Sea: Tbilisi
We met a young Londoner on a walking tour of Skopje, Macedonia. He said he had nearly finished visiting every country in Europe, having just returned from Armenia. Not wishing to look stupid, I didn't blurt out, "But Armenia's not in Europe my young friend, it's on the far side of the Black Sea, between Turkey and Iran", but straight after the conversation I of course cranked up Google.

Armenia had figured in our travels already. In cities everywhere including Calcutta, Rangoon and Colombo, we noticed that the oldest churches - unimpressive to behold but obviously ancient - were Armenian. All originating from a sliver of a country thousands of difficult miles away. Why? 

A genuinely great read
I found the answers in a celebrated (it transpires) travel book, The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians, which intrigued me so much that we changed our entire itinerary to visit the country.

So what did we see?

Well, first of all, the road sent us through the country next door, Georgia, and that was another revelation. In fact, ironically, we spent far more time there than Armenia.

Georgia has mountains as high as the Himalayas. It is so green that the Russians regard it as the original Garden of Eden (perhaps why they illegally squat on a quarter of its land). It has its own delicious cuisine, including sublime grilled aubergine slices folded around a walnut/garlic filling. It invented wine - and its wines are unusual to say the least. Despite Soviet baggage it's an economic success story.

Armenia's icon, Mount Ararat, sadly part of Turkey these days
capital city, Tbilisi, is quirky and beautiful, if collapsing in parts. The famous polyphonic singing is mesmerising and beyond description. And it has the worst driving we've ever seen, including in Africa. So, exactly the things you go travelling for.

We stayed there for longer than planned because the car's front differential was chewing itself to bits and needed fixing (as previous blog post). But then we headed south to the border.  

Two things to know about Armenia: one, it was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity (301 AD) - hence all the churches from the world's first missionaries; two, its people are tough as old boots with a fierce sense of identity. As such, and surrounded as it is by huge non-Christian nations, it has suffered enormously over the centuries. But it has survived, even if many of its people now live elsewhere. Sadly Kim Kardashian is the most famous, but there are many others. If you ever see a local business with "Ararat" in the title, it's run by Armenians.

Dan Brown eat your heart out
We only spent four days there but we saw earthquake-cracked towns (from the ten-second jolt that killed 25,000+ in 1988), we wandered into the world's oldest, and probably smallest, cathedral, we smiled at the dippy statues in the capital, we drove across dreamily broad green steppes, and we scarcely believed that was the snowy top of 16,900ft Mount Ararat, not clouds, looming over Yerevan.

It's a frustrating country to describe because its culture and history are so much bigger than the place itself. It's said that all European medieval architecture derived from here, that significant mathematics and philosophy were born here. And let's not get started on the seminal language and script.

So there it is. In some ways we enjoyed this part of our trip more than any other. That's because we learned so much, and because we feel particularly lucky to have visited.

Click here for more of our photos
Thanks to this chap for the tip-off

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Brittany or bust, literally

Getting used to the new owners, 2003
At the age of eight, our car Nellie* was taken from her Fulham mews, jacked up an inch for extra clearance, weighted down with bull bar, snorkel and big tyres, and sent to Africa. It must have been a shock.

A few years later we bought her - and sent her around Africa again.

Her 24th birthday is next week, there are 206,000 miles on the clock, she's just travelled to Armenia, which is nearer to Delhi than it is to Paris... so it's no surprise she's suddenly gone down with a sort of automobile bronchitis: two weeks ago in Turkey as we turned a bend, she shrieked and her front axle started to emit a sorrowful howling noise, as it continues to do.

Splashing around in Georgia
Having been a companion in our year's adventure she has now become its main focus.

A little drama will ensue: in 10 days we need to reach our Breton campsite to attend the InterCeltic Festival and to rendezvous with friends.

But with every kilometre we travel, the teeth of something in the axle grind the teeth of another part into smaller stumps, until one day only a gummy grin will remain, and the wheels will stop turning.

Armenia: Lada Niva country
The ex-Soviet countries around here don't know what Land Rovers are, and the few garages which might be able to help are booked two weeks ahead.

So our strategy is this: drive her like Miss Daisy with a light foot, at a maximum 55mph to soften the grinding. And make a beeline for Brittany to reduce the kilometres she has to cover.

We're in Brittany for a week and hopefully we'll find a mechanic who can make the repair. We will of course subsist on gruel for the next six months to pay for it.

Very sadly this means missing visits to friends in Austria, Germany and France, as well as bypassing several planned countries.
Making friends in Bulgaria
If we don't make it we will assemble a Plan B, but so we won't tempt fate, not before. This is a first-world problem we know but still... wish us luck!

*Full name: Lady Nelson II. There is a story....

Friday, 21 July 2017

Why we went east again

Mondays off, comrades of Sofia!
Travelling doesn't exactly make you lazy but it does slow you down. Its pace has led me to realise that the 9-5 working day, especially the 9 bit, is quite inhumane. But that's for another time. I'm just making an excuse for the two-month delay in updating the blog.

As we may have mentioned before, we cut short our trip through India in March to return to the UK, via two special weeks in Jordan. A holiday from our holiday if you like, and it was a great month.

Supping at the tourist trough of London
Restored by hugs, cheese and Old Brewery, we then flew down to Athens and a happy reunion with Nellie in her tangerine packing factory. Her only deterioration was the big hole in the bonnet's insulation via indeterminate creatures which I hope died slowly of fibreglass poisoning.

So where to next? We were drawn to the fossilized republic of Transnistria in Moldova, on the Ukrainian border, the only country still sporting the hammer and sickle.

Macedonia. Not just a pretty flag
But as usual good food and wine, nice weather and lovely people got in the way: after zigzagging through gentle northern Greece we popped out in Macedonia - a beautiful, cheap, pocket-sized country with a great flag (which stopped it joining the EU - long story).

Then east to Bulgaria, which is the same, minus flag (like Greece they detest the Macedonia flag - another story) but plus a great Land Rover mechanic and the best beaches on the Black Sea.

Also the driving in Bulgaria was unusually good. I thought this might be because of EU membership but then remembered the Belgians, so it remains a mystery.

Blinking Balkan loveliness
These weeks reinforced our opinion that all the Balkan countries are magnificent, and everyone should visit, now.

The man at our Bulgarian beach campsite was a lorry driver in winter and it's his fault that we forgot all about Transnistria and continued east, via friends in Turkey, to Georgia and Armenia. We thought the borders and military situation would be too tricky but this gentleman drove there every other week. And we had an itch to go: we had noticed that the oldest church in almost every country we had visited, including Burma, was Armenian, and we wondered why.

So that's why we kept going east instead of circling up and round to head home.

But at last we are westward ho. As for Georgia and Armenia, and the Black Sea ship I'm writing this on, they deserve their own blog posts. Ditto photo albums on Flickr. All coming soon. Ish.

And 40th Happy Birthday to our biggest fan!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Jordan versus the United Kingdom

The Dead Sea vs Rutland Water, the Desert Highway vs the M25 - it's a classic battle.

So, some random criteria to compare these two delightful countries, starting with the bottom line:

(If you think this is a lazy, rehashed  way of covering two months' travel, cf Egypt vs Sri Lanka, you'd be right)

Tourist costs

The Jordanian Dinar is worth more than the British pound - a recurring surprise to Dave - and Jordan cost us more than most other countries we visited. In Petra we paid £7 for a beer. But then car hire was £18 a day, and a day snorkelling in the Red Sea was a fiver.

Blighty meanwhile seems to have tripled costs since we left. The bus from Inverness to Skye for two suddenly cost more than a week's car hire. Coffee was £3.50, an average pint £4.50. Daren't look at hotel costs. What just happened, or are we stuck in a Dixon of Dock Green netherworld?

Winner: Jordan


Wadi Musa makes everyone look good
To be clear, we're talking sedimentary, metamorphic etc, not Monsters Of, and both countries have great examples.

The UK wins for range, from the jagged Cuillins to Dorset's Jurassic cliffs, with much else inbetween.

Jordan is less varied but it has the top bit of the Great Rift Valley and Martian mountains exploding from the desert. Cool.

Winner: a tie

Old stuff

Getting bored at Jerash
Jordan has the bit of the river where Jesus was baptised. It has Petra's huge temples cut from cliffs. And an ancient Islamic hotel sitting weirdly on its own in the desert. And Roman cities and Crusader castles and other things that tested Jo's patience to the limit. But not a lot between those eras and now.

While the UK obviously doesn't have anything Biblical or Greek, it has Stonehenge and a million tumuli, castles, churches and stately homes up to the modern day. Something for every century, though don't expect to see Jo hanging around.

Winner: another tie


Average Jordanian food seems to be Middle-Eastern Lite. Nothing stood out, even the allegedly finest falafel in Amman.

But it was a welcome change from Indian, especially as Dave would go green just hearing the word, "Paratha", which Jo for some reason would often sprinkle into conversation.

Average British food. Enough said.

Winner: Jordan

Berneray Beach  ©Coralbox 


Britain has 11,000 miles of coastline while Jordan has sixteen.

Jordan's coast has a view onto Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is original. It's a nice temperature there in winter but stupidly hot (Dave yes, Jo no) in summer. The stretches of sand are just that.

The beaches in the Hebrides have white sand, blue sea, green islands and no people. Put your toe in the water and it also goes blue (see below) but nothing beats the view. And the UK has 1000 other beaches to suit every mood.

Winner: UK


Dave. Dead Sea. Slightly sad
We can confirm that the Red Sea is warmer than the North Atlantic. Jordan also has the best snorkelling in the Red Sea 20 yards offshore. Certainly better than our experience in Egypt's Hurghada in December, which involved a long uncomfortable boat trip.

You can drink the tap water in both countries.

And then there's the Dead Sea, so buoyant you can't swim because your legs and arms are jacked in the air like a flailing beetle. Love it.

Winner: Jordan


Being sensible

We spent two weeks in Jordan, the right amount of time. In April, the best month. And we hired a car, the best way to get around.

After India, it was like a huge champagne bath and we just loved everything. But with hindsight we can still say that Jordan is safe and fascinating and one of the top five countries of our trip.

Our Jordan photos and videos

Thursday, 18 May 2017

India - some good bits

Backpacking in northern India is not for the faint-hearted. We cut short our intended stay from three months to five weeks for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with pollution, filth, poverty and constant loud noise. To be fair, there was also probably an accumulation effect from three months in Egypt, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Lest you think that we hated India, we really didn’t; here are some random highlights:

The nectar of the sub-continent

The best tea is behind bars, Jo says
The first encounter with Indian tea can be startling, especially if you are of the PG Tips and no sugar persuasion.

Chai is served in small cups that look mean compared to the stout British mug. But your first sip confirms that the amount is just right. It is extremely sweet, very milky and spiced. It is often made with no water at all, making it essentially a hot, gingery, tea milkshake. And it is a wonderful thing, particularly on a freezing morning in the Himalayan foothills: one slug provides enough mojo to get you dressed, out the door and headlong to the first Buddhist temple.

Enter the dragon

Calm, calm...
The Taj Mahal was built as a homage to an adored woman. Ironic then that entry into the complex seems expressly designed to infuriate… women.

Waiting over 40 minutes in their queue, their eyes narrowing, the women watch the men blithely sauntering to the front of the men-only queue.

When the ladies finally get to the front, the mystery is laid bare: the men have five security booths, the women, one.

Only after a good ten minutes venting to your husband about the ludicrousness of this scenario can you gaze in wonder and fully appreciate the grandeur of the Taj Mahal which – clichéd but true - no photo can capture.

All is forgotten, if not forgiven.

Corpses on fire

The sacred cows like to warm themselves by the flames
There is a positive side to this. Bear with us.

Over 200 bodies a day burn down to ash by the Ganges in the city of Varanasi. They are on wooden pyres open to view by everyone, and if you choose to look you will see everything imagineable.

It is horrific at first, but our tour guide artfully set it in context, and by the time we left the city we appreciated the practical Hindu take on the mortal coil. There’s nothing like seeing a son set light to his mum’s corpse or stokers snapping an errant leg back into the flames to understand that these really are empty shells. The important bit has clearly died or gone elsewhere.

OK, not the greatest fun, but as memorable as it gets.      

Fun with trains

Jo wisely hogging the bottom bunk on the train to Agra
A friend insists that the trains are the best thing about India – and indeed they are funny in a Mr Bean kind of way. Glossing over their punctuality, here’s some entertainment they provided us:

We learned not to assume that the B1 sleeper carriage you’ve been assigned is actually the right B1. There can be more than one. So before you turf out the poor sleeping occupants of your bunks, best to walk the length of the train and find more B1 carriages... maybe even yours.

If you have bagged a coveted lower bunk, be prepared in early morning to find a stranger from an upper bunk casually sitting beside your feet waiting for the rest of his family to come and join him and sit on you.

Snacks and chai are continuously, vocally on offer. At the start you shy away from the exotic options and stick to what you know: bags of crisps. Familiarity and overconfidence eventually tip you to bolder choices: "Yes sir, I will have two old newspaper cones of that weird crispy thing with onions, tomatoes and lime all mixed together by your fair hand." Which leads neatly on to…

Dave’s dodgy constitution

Dave re-enacts that first night, at the Chandigarh Stone Garden
Dave got a bit ill. Delhi Belly crept up on him in the dead of night and remains lurking within him to this day.

Fortunately we have a friend well read in diseases which target careless travellers and he supplied a hit-list of suspects to eliminate. It isn't food poisoning. It isn't giardia. It isn't amoebic dysentery and, Dave insists, it is not hypochondria. The investigation continues.

On its own this condition would be handicap enough but it coincided with a sudden onset of what the Beano would describe as Lumbago, caused by bending over to pick up a shoe. Doubly unfortunate because the event coincided with embarkation on a 13-hour, very bumpy bus ride.

The upshot of all this is that Jo is now even shorter, her spine compressed two inches by the valiant job of carrying both 15kg rucksacks from bus/train to station over a two-week period while Dave healed. Another reason Dave loves her.

Too much to report

We wrote more diary entries here and took more photos than in any other country. India is as astonishing as people say.

But there’s no point trying to relay everything we have seen and done in a blog post, and certainly not over a pint. It’s all memories primarily of interest to us, which we will more than happily share with you when you decide to go!

Go here for our best photos and videos