The Wild West

(July 2020)

When we started planning this trip, the thought was to take advantage of the cheap deals many of the camper van companies were running, trying to ignite some business as they were suffering without international tourists.  Unfortunately, or as it turns out, fortunately, I could not get a booking as they were quickly sold out … so, instead of a budget campervan, we ended up staying in a wonderful (but way less than budget) 2 bed apartment (more about that later).

This was definitely a real win for us.  If you are a regular reader, you will know that I often travel on my own, but other times with my partner, friends or other groups.  Even then, I am happy to go off and do my own thing – we don’t always have to do the same thing all the time right?  This is where the campervan may have been an issue as when I want to head off early for a morning walk, and my partner wanted to sleep in, I would have had to drag him out of bed to buckle up for the journey.   A less than ideal situation, for us anyway.

And so we left home and headed off in the sunshine toward the great divide (otherwise know as the Southern Alps).  It was a beautiful morning, and the mountains were looking stunning.  A quick stop for another one of those ‘world famous in New Zealand’ pies at the Sheffield Café – if you have not picked up on it, Kiwis love a good pie lol.

As we neared the mountains, the clouds started to roll in and by the time we reached Arthurs Pass village it was snowing!  I had spent some time deliberating whether we needed snow chains or not, and finally erred on the side of caution.  It was definitely the right decision as we would not have been able to go any further if we did not have them.

BUT … putting them on was another matter lol. When I had picked up the chains in the morning before leaving, the person had the shop had quickly showed me how to do it and thank goodness I had decided to video it!!  Even still, it was massively challengingly putting them on in the snow and after much struggling, we got them on and headed off slowly into the mountains.

We didn’t actually have to drive very far before we could take the chains off again (which turned out to be equally challenging but we got there in the end) and we could head down towards the west coast … through rain and then out in to blue skies again. 

The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef (our destination) is around 5.5 hours and so we arrived around 2pm and checked in to our amazing room at the Rainforest Retreat.  As it was a birthday trip (for me), we had splashed out a deluxe room – 2 rooms, 2 bathrooms, living area and, the ‘pièce de résistance’ was our private hot tub on deck with a beautiful view of the mountains.  It was amazing to be able to lay in bed in the morning, watching the first sun hit the mountain tops.

Situated in the ‘Glacier Region” a UNESCO World Heritage area, Franz Josef, the town, is not surprisingly named after the nearby glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, which in turn is named after Franz Josef I of Austria by Julius von Haast.  Von Haast was a German geologist who explored and mapped much of the South Island in the mid 1800’s.  More recently, the official name of the town was changed to Franz Josef /Waiau.

The town is home to under 500 people, possibly less now given that its existence is based around tourism, but they struggle on, trying to fill the 3000+ tourist beds in the town.  I was glad that we were able to do our bit and support the hotels and restaurants in the area.

The next morning, we drove the short 30 minutes to nearby (and even smaller) Fox Glacier – another town named after it’s nearby glacier, this time named after Sir William Fox, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1869 to 1972. 

Just passed the town is Lake Matheson, one of the ‘must see’ sites in the area.  On a beautiful day like this one was, there are great reflections of the mountains in the lake.  The lake is surrounded by a beautiful reserve, with well maintained pathways and on this still, icy morning we were not disappointed – the reflections were AMAZING.

I may not have got to see Mt Cook a few weeks early when I was in the Mackenzie Country, but we got a perfect view on this day – of both Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.

After a coffee at the lovely café near the lake, overlooking views of the glacier and mountains, we headed back to Fox Glacier (the town) for some lunch – again, trying to spread our spending around the small businesses.

The afternoon took me to Ōkārito, 25 km from Franz Josef, in search of a sunset.  Now if you think Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are small towns, Ōkārito has a population of only 30 people today, though it was once a booming town with a population of 4000 people during the gold rush in the mid-1860s.  It’s hard to imagine what you see now as a bustling town, but I imagine it was something like the towns depicted in “the Luminaries”.

After a short walk up to a lookout point and along the beach, I made my way to the lagoon. During the spring/summer it is home to many species of wading birds, including the kotuku or White Heron (this is one of the few breeding areas in New Zealand). The Ōkārito wharf is a stunning backdrop to many photos I had seen and it did not disappoint. It also has a small display about the town in it’s heyday which was worth a look. There are also wild kiwi in the area, so I definitely think I need to come back for a longer visit to see some of the stunning birdlife.

Back in Franz Josef and we passed the busy restaurants and headed into Snakebite Brewery which for some reason was almost empty.  It was a shame as the food was great, the music was great, and the snakebites (a mix of Beer and Cider) were as good (or bad lol) as I remember from when I use to drink them in London in my youth lol. 

For our final morning in Franz Josef, I wanted to see the glacier (which you can barely see from the township), so I was up early and drove the short distance to the car park.  Unfortunately, I could not get very close as the river was too big to allow people to cross it, I so only saw from a distance. If I was 100 years earlier I would have been able to walk right up to the face of it and it was sad to see how much it had receded in the last 100 years or so.  Hard to believe that 18,000 years ago (really just a short time in geologically terms), the glacier extended to the sea, 19kms from today’s terminal face.

The Maori name for Franz Josef Glacier is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere or The tears of Hine Hukatere, after a tragic love story.  From

Hine Hukatere was extremely strong and fearless and loved climbing in the mountains. She persuaded her lover Wawe to climb with her. Wawe was less experienced in the mountains, but enjoyed accompanying his beloved.

An avalanche hit the lovers as they were climbing, and Wawe was swept from the peaks to his death. Hine Hukatere was heart-broken and her grief caused her to cry rivers of tears, which flowed down the mountain and were frozen by the gods. Her frozen tears of aroha (love) stay as a reminder of her grief and give the glacier its name – Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere (The tears of Hine Hukatere).

We had a late check out (12 noon is apparently West Coast 10am 😂 – ‘West Coast time’ is clearly similar to ‘Island time’), so there was time for one more quick soak in the hot tub (when you pay for the luxury of having your own personal hot tub, you use it at every opportunity right?) before packing up and hitting the road again.  We had planned to fill up on petrol before leaving Franz Josef but the fuel prices were almost 50 cents a litre more expensive than back home so we only put in enough to get to our next stop, Hokitika, where we hoped it would be cheaper – thankfully it was.

As we left Franz Josef, we picked up a hitch hiker – a girl from America who had been working in Auckland when lock down started. She was made redundant just after lockdown so decided to stay and travel rather than go home (though as I write this, she may have made it home). She had been waiting for about 1.5 hours (as there had not been much traffic) so glad we picked her up and she made it to Greymouth in time for her train back to Christchurch👍🏻.

The final night of our wild west mini break was spent in Hokitika – another town founded during the 1860’s gold rush when it was an important river port.  Today it brands itself as a ‘Cool Little Town’ – nothing like being your own cheerleader lol.  We had a lovely ocean view room, overlooking the wild coastline and of course a perfect viewing point for the sunset. 

The town has several heritage buildings around the town, but the most it’s most famous site, is the driftwood Hokitika sign along the waterfront.  I visited it at numerous times of the day to attempt to get the ‘perfect’ shot and I imagine it would be crazy if it was busy with the normal number of tourists.  As it was it was busy enough for me and somewhat annoying with families allowing their kids to climb on the fragile structure, breaking it in the process – though I am sure it is not the first time it has been broken!!! 

After dark I drove a few minutes out of town to Glow worm dell – to be honest it was somewhat of an anticlimax 🥴 – I guess it was technically a ‘dell’ and there were glow worms, but it was a tiny area, just off the main road with what appeared to be a handful of worms!!  If you have not seen them before, then perhaps it might be worth it, but if you have been lucky enough to see them in all their glory (as is possible elsewhere) then it is probably not worth the visit.

Our final morning was spent walking along the wild beach, it is beautiful in its wildness with wonderful views of the mountains on one side, and the Tasman sea on the other.  A great way to clear the cobwebs before the 3 hour drive back through the mountains – thankfully snow free this time lol.

What a great break and glad we could get out and support the local businesses who are struggling with a lack of tourists.

Exploring my big backyard

(June 2020)

Finally, I am writing about 2020 (just a week or two short of the end of the year lol) – I am sure I will not get so far behind in future!!

And what a year it has been, no one could have predicted that when I returned to New Zealand in early February, it was to be the last time in the 2020 that I would be out of the country!  Still, I am not mad about it.  As everyone is probably aware, New Zealand went “hard and early” when it came to our COVID-19 response.  We had a very hard, 5 week lockdown starting at the end of March, much harder than I have seen in other countries, and after a few weeks of lesser restrictions we came out the other end of it towards the end of May.  Since then, life has almost returned to normal and we have been able to move around the country relatively freely (and mask free).

We have had a few blips along the way with some community transmission in small numbers which has resulted in some localised lockdowns and mask requirements (mostly in Auckland) but I for one am enjoying exploring my own backyard.

I was fortunate to have lots of wonderful family camping holidays exploring New Zealand growing up but there are so many places I had not visited since then, so it seems 2020 was the year for re-exploring this wonderful country I am so fortunate to call home.

Of course, I am not the only one ‘stuck’ in New Zealand, and I discovered Venus Adventures ( through an ad on Facebook.  Julie, the founder, is a Kiwi who now calls Egypt home and arranges tours for woman around the world.  She had been in New Zealand visiting family when COVID hit and she was stuck here.  When lock down finished, she looked at ways to keep her business going in this new world and came up with the idea of small group short getaways in New Zealand.

I joined one in June to the beautiful MacKenzie Basin, just a short 3.5 hours drive from Christchurch.  Of course, I could have easily gone there for a weekend on my own (or with friends), but I know I would have missed out on some of the quirkier activities we did so for me, it was definitely worth it. 

And so I joined Julie and a couple of other ladies from Christchurch on the road down to Twizel which was to be our base for the long weekend.  Our first stop was in Geraldine, a small town founded in the 1840s.  Fun fact, Geraldine was a ‘dry’ town until 1950 – that means no alcohol could be served!  Today it has grown up from its small farming beginnings and now has a population of just under 3,000 and is a hub for artists and artisans including some great cheese and chocolate (two of my favourite things 😊).

Back on the road and our next stop was in Tekapo.  Tekapo is one of the main stops on the normal South Island tourist route and it is normally packed all year round, mostly with international tourists.  It was eerie to see it almost empty. No tourist buses and campervan filling the overflowing car parks.  No queues of people waiting to take photos of the ‘insta-favourite’ The Church of the Good Shepherd, overlooking the lake.  It felt wrong not to stop and take a couple of snaps in these strange times.

We had a quick photo stop on the shores of Lake Pukaki.  It was a beautiful clear day and we could see all the way down to Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,724m.  We were heading back down this way in a couple of days so hoped to see it again then.

Sunset was on its way by the time we arrived at our accommodation on the shores of Lake Ruataniwha, just outside of Twizel, in the heart of the MacKenzie Basin.

The MacKenzie Basin (also known as MacKenzie Country) was named after a Scottish sheep thief.  He was imprisoned, escaped and recaptured numerous times and was admired as a rebel who challenged the wealthy land owners of the time.  The area is an outdoor adventurers dream, full of mountains, braided rivers and lakes.   Due to the extensive network of hydroelectric schemes in the area, there are also a number of man-made canals – often controversial, the hydro dams have altered the landscape, changing existing lakes and creating new ones.

As the temperature dropped, the moon rise was stunning from the house, and the morning was just as beautiful as the sun came up over the snow-capped mountains.  I made an effort to get up and out early to take some photos of that wonderful ‘golden’ hour and I am so glad I did as within 1 hour the clouds had closed in and it started to snow – and boy did it snow!

We started our days activities having a quick look through the small town’s shops (and avoiding the snow) and thankfully the snow had stopped in time for us to head off for our sightseeing.  First stop was the High Country Salmon Farm (  Interesting to see the how the farm works, but I seem to have taken more photos of birds than fish lol.  Firstly, because it was far easier and secondly because they looked amazing on the crazy bright turquoise water.   Many of the lakes and water ways in the region are this colour (or similar) due to the glacial flour (extremely fine rock particles from the nearby glaciers) content – when the sun hits the surface at the right angle, it reflects off the particles transforming it to a brilliant blue.

We drove past a couple of the Hydro power stations (and lakes created by them), including Waitaki Power Station (built in 1928-34 and is the oldest of 8 stations on the Waitaki river) and Lake Waitaki and onwards to the small town of Kurow, just 8 kms from the power station.  A little known fact, Waitaki and Kurow are considered the birthplace of the world’s first social welfare system.  Doctors in Kurow developed a system to provide free medical treatment to the power plant workers and their families if they paid a small amount in to a ‘fund’.  Two of those doctors who were material in the creation of the ‘fund’, later became MPs and the national social welfare scheme was based on this in 1939.

Today Kurow has a population of just over 500 (when I said small town, I meant it!) and we were here to visit Ostler Wines (  According to their website, “wine is liquid geography” and the wine grown in the Waitaki Valley is “38 million years in the making”.  As we entered the old Kurow Post office on the main drag, we were greeted by Commander in Chief Jim Jerram (an ex-doctor) and his wife Anne.  We were lucky enough to taste a number of their beautiful wines and enjoy one of the best platters I have had and it was clear just how passionate Jim was about his wines.  Such a gem to find in such a small town (give them a call in advance if you want to stop by just to be sure they are open).

As we drove back towards Twizel the scenery as stunning.  The combination of the magnificent lake, surrounding peaks and wide open skies are a dream for photographers and pose the difficult challenge of capturing the grandeur of the ever-changing landscape.

We also stopped briefly at Lake Benmore (New Zealand’s largest manmade lake), a lake created by the Benmore Hydro Station and Dam (New Zealand’s largest earth dam).  This power station alone generates enough electricity each year to power almost 300,000 homes and Hydroelectric power currently accounts for 57% of total NZ electricity generated, so you can see the benefits of these hydro systems.  We stopped for afternoon tea in a small park by the lake and took a few minutes to read all about the local hydro systems as described in a mural – from the construction of the dam and lakes through to the conservation efforts of Meridian, the company that operates them.

Another cold night, lead to another stunning morning – and I mean stunning, so of course I was out early catching the frost on the ground and the now more than snow capped mountains 😉.  It was beautiful day in Twizel as we headed out along the canals towards Lake Pukaki (another lake filled with that glacial flour) but as we neared Mt Cook National Park the cloud came down.

Our first stop in the National Park was the small but perfectly formed visitor centre.  It has a beautiful picture window looking out to Aoraki Mt Cook (or it would if it wasn’t covered in cloud lol) and also some stunning stained glass windows of native flora and fauna.  It was really interesting to see displays of early mountaineers (both Maori and European) and the outrageous outfits they used to wear for their mountaineering.  I guess some day our outfits will be displayed in a similar way and people with think them outrageous too!

From the warmth of the Visitor Centre and Café we headed up the valley and started out on the Insta-famous (made famous by Instagram influencers) Hooker Valley Track.  Despite the snow and the cloud, the walk was still stunning but unfortunately in our action packed day, we did not have time to do the whole walk.  We did however make it up to the Aoraki Mt Cook view point – of course we could not see it but to be honest, in this instance, it did not really matter as the journey was just as worthwhile.  Yet another place that is normally crowded with mostly international tourists, but today is almost empty. Driving back along Lake Pukaki, the cloud had cleared and the lake was that stunning blue again.

We had a picnic lunch in the Department of Conservation kitchen facilities at the start of the track before heading to Omarama – yet another small town (population of around 260).  Despite it’s size it is home (or near to home) to a couple of must see sites.

Next up were the Omarama Clay cliffs – now I had never heard of them, but apparently they are one of these wonderful sites we love to describe as “world famous in New Zealand” lol.  The ‘cliffs’ are on private land and there is a small donation box as you head into the carpark and it is then just a short walk before you are in amongst the spectacular and somewhat other worldly weather pillars – a quick geology lesson.  They clay cliffs considered “Badlands” terrain, pillars developed by deposits of grey and white sandstone and claystone formed in an ancient lake, and yellow and brown river silt from an ancient river.  Over the years (thousands or even millions of them), wind and rain have eroded the pillars to leave the formations we see today.

There are no specific routes or tracks, which mean you can wander amongst them as you desire, but don’t forget to also take in the view down the valley which is just as picturesque. I did get somewhat distracted by trying to take a photo of a fantail 😉 I love fantails and just can’t resist the way they flip around, catching insects on the fly and photographing them is such a challenge lol.

After a day out in the fresh air we headed back down to Omarama for a soak in the amazing Hot Tubs ( They are filled with fresh water (replaced after every use) and heated by a wood-fire and each group get a private tub.  We had 1.5 hour to enjoy our BYO wines as we enjoyed the amazing view as the sun sets! It really was the perfect way to end the day.

On our final morning, Julie had arranged for us to visit Tasman Downs, a small farm on the shore of Lake Pukaki.  The farm is well known in The Hobbit fan circles as the location for some of the scenes in the movies, however it is perhaps more infamous for the “Quirky Farmer”, Ian Hayman.  Ian is known for his fabulous fashion and his shoe Ferris wheel – yes, that’s right, a Ferris wheel for his shoes (of course it plays “Blue Suede Shoes” as it rotates).  Ian took us on a tour of the farm in his equally quirky car, showing us around the farm, regaling us with stories of life on a movie set and that of a high country farmer – albeit a quirky one (how many times can I say quirky in one paragraph? Lol).  You too can visit Ian through his “Quirky Farm Tours” (ok, just one more ‘quirky’ lol.) (

All that remained for the weekend was the drive home, via Fairlie for a famous Fairlie pie (another ‘world famous in New Zealand’ if I am not mistaken.

It was definitely a great start to my year of re-exploring my big backyard.

Romanian roaming …

(December 2019)

  • Currency – NZ$1 = RON2.85 (Leu or Lei)
  • Population – 19.4 million

(Apparently, the Romanian currency, the Leu means Lion in English.  At one time, they used to use the Dutch currency, which had a picture of a lion on it – so they started to refer to money as Lion or Leu.)

I have finally made it to the end of the big year that was 2019 – it only took just under a year to finally write up all my trips!  Last but not least was a weekend in Romania which got off to a more successful start than previous trips as my pre-arranged taxi pick was actually there to pick me up! 

Being early December, Bucharest was already lit up with Christmas lights.  It took me a little while to work it out, but many of the lights were footballed themed  😂, in recognition of the upcoming European cup that was to take place in the city – of course we did not know at the time, but the Euro 2020 was not going to happen!  Lights on the trees, lining the streets and on the buildings. (Terrible photos sorry as they were taken from a car!)

Sadly, I had spoken or should I say written too soon when I said things had got off to a more successful start as I was left standing outside the hostel for 20 minutes before being let in!  At 12.15 am that is precious minutes I could have been in bed!!! Not to mention it was 0 degrees and I was not really dressed for it!!!  When I finally got into the hostel, I was sharing a room with 3 German guys, nice enough guys but at 12.30am they were awake and drinking in the room. Thankfully not long after I got in, they shut everything down and went to sleep.  Hostels are a great budget choice but sometimes I do wonder if I should just pay more for my own room 🤔.

As I am always trying to maximise my limited time, by alarm went off at 6.30am on Saturday morning (sorry boys lol) for my day trip to explore a tiny bit of the country.  It turns out that the group consisted of me and 7 Spanish girls! I would like to say I could converse with them in Spanish but they spoke so fast and with such Spanish accents (rather than the South American ones I am use to). I got the odd word but not much more 🤦🏻‍♀️. I did try though with a little Spanish when I spoke to them 👍🏻

We drove around 1.5 hours out of the city through the freezing fog (not as cold as Kiev was a couple of weeks but still pretty cold) until it cleared and turned in to a beautiful day as we drove across the plains and past what would be fields of wheat, canola, sunflowers, corn in the spring/summer months.

Our first stop for the day was at Peleş Castle, near a town called Sinaia, in the Carpathian Mountains.  It is a neo-Renaissance building, built initially between 1873 and 1883 with additions being added up until 1914.  It was built for King Carlo I. 

(It may look familiar to you, it did to me … and after much brain racking I realised it was from a movie – The Christmas Prince (a Netflix Christmas movie) and it sequels are all ‘based’ here.)

King Carlo was actually born Prince Karl from Bavaria but when Romania found itself without a ruler (because the noblemen had expelled the last one), they went on the hunt around Europe for a suitable candidate.  No need for them to be Romanian, they just needed to be someone who would do their bidding.  Prince Karl was not their first choice but was recommended by Napoleon (first president of France and nephew of the other Napoleon).  He became “reigning Prince” or Domnitor on April 20, 1839.

The castle (or palace as it more accurately is) was built as a hunting preserve and summer retreat and was the first castle in the world that had electricity, all produced by a local Hydro dam.  Interestingly, all the beautiful fireplaces were just for decoration and the castle had central heating!  So, although it was built as a summer palace, you could live here all year round.

Carlo I had called the castle the “cradle of the dynasty, cradle of the nation’ and to some extent this was true as not only was it occupied by King Carol 1, and his wife Queen Elizabeth, but also his successor King Ferdinand and Queen Marie and King Carol II was born there in 1893.

When King Michael was forced to abdicate after World War II (as royalty is not recognised under communism) the castle was nationalised and turned into a museum and although it was returned to the Royal family in 1997 after the fall of the communist regime, they agreed it should continue in the capacity of museum.

Oddly, the ‘photo tax’, the extra charge you had to pay to be allowed to take photos inside the castle was as expensive as the entrance ticket, but I paid it anyway – so of course I had to take lots of photos to make it worthwhile lol.

Once we had put on our stylish shoe covers (to avoid damage or dirt of both) we were allowed to enter the castle which was truly beautiful.  The interior is primarily baroque in influence, with each room ornately carved and beautifully decorated.  That said, many of the rooms are decorated with a different cultural influence e.g. German, Italian, Moorish, Turkish.  The attention to detail is incredible.

The castle houses a massive armoury (over 4,000 pieces), a retractable glass roof, the first movie theatre in Romania and lots of secret corridors where one can stealthily move between rooms.

After a guided tour of the castle and some free time to wonder around the beautiful grounds, it was time to head off, just as a number of large bus groups arrived.  I anticipated that we would get more of this as the day progressed and the guide told us that not surprisingly, it gets extremely crowded in the summer months.

Back in the van, we continued through the Carpathian Mountains and into Transylvania where our next stop was located – Bran Castle.  Probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) of the Romanian castles due to its links (real or fictious) to Vlad the Impaler and Dracula!!

Bran Castle started life in 1382 and was originally a medieval fortress built on the border of Wallachia and Transylvanian and was used in defence against the raging Ottomans before becoming a customs post between the regions. 

Next up came Vlad III – probably known as Vlad the Impaler to you and I, but was actually called Vlad Țepeș or Vlad Drăculea – Vlad the Dragon in medieval Romanian (hence the name for the fictional character – but more about that later), the Wallachian ruler between 1448 and 1476.  Despite being intrinsically linked to the castle in modern folk law (for want of a better name), in reality it seems he did not have a significant role in the history of the castle beyond passing through the region a number of times.

That said, he is often considered a national hero and was one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history.  Infamous for his battles against the Ottomans and his cruel and brutal punishments (hence the Impaler moniker).

In more recent history, after the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and the return of Transylvania from Hungary to Romanian, the castle became a royal residence.  As you can image it took some work to turn what had been military fortress into a home worthy of a Queen, but that they did and it became the favourite home of Marie of Romania and was inherited by her daughter Princess Ileana. 

As with Peleş Castle, it was seized by the communist regime at the end of WWII but in 2005, ownership was returned to heirs of the von Habsburg family – the American son of Princess Ileana.  The Habsburgs refurbished the castle and reopened it as a museum.   Unlike Peleş, where much of what you see is original, over 80% of the artifacts in Bran Castle are replicas and of course, being a medieval fortress at heart it is no where near as beautiful inside as it far more modern cousin.

That’s all very interesting, but what about Bram Stoker’s Dracula I hear you say?  I am sad to say this is purely fictional (but of course this does not stop them raking in the money from tourists who come to see Dracula’s castle).

Whilst doing research for a book, Bram Stoker (an Irish man who had not been to the region) came across the brutal exploits of Vlad Dracula in the region and used his name and exploits as inspiration for his book.  Now I have not read the book, but apparently there is actually no direct referral in them to Bran Castle, and the description does not even match it but in the 1970s, the Romanian government made some very broad statements to market it as the “real Dracula Castle” to encourage tourism!  Who knew it was all an elaborate communist plan to get us to visit lol.

Around the base of the castle, there was a small market where I enjoyed hot wine and local smoked cheese 👍🏻 before getting back in the van for the short drive to Brașov, the main city in the region. 

We were dropped in the centre of the old town for some free time before our afternoon walking tour and being December, they had a lovely Christmas market in the beautiful square.  The guide had recommended a local restaurant but looked like all tour guides recommended it and it had a queue of tourists out the door, so I walked down the street a bit a had a delicious Italian pasta lunch (oops 😂) before having some time to explore the streets around the main square and wander through the Christmas market.

Our walking tour started at the Black Church, over 600 years old and one of the most iconic monuments of the city as well as being one of the biggest medieval churches in this part of Europe.  The church, built in 14th century, was originally called St Mary’s but in 1689 a fire raged through the walled city destroying most of it, leaving only the blacken walls of the church.  Subsequently rebuilt, from then on it was known as the Black Church.

Rope Street, one of the worlds narrowest streets, was built in the 15th century as a route for fire men to pass quickly from the city walls to the heart of the city. 

Catherine’s Gate, also built in the 1500’s, is the only original city gate that still survives from medieval times (although documents say it was originally a wooden structure)!  Apparently during Saxon times, this was the only gate Romanians were allowed to enter through and they were forbidden to own property inside the city walls.

The Neology Synagogue was built between 1899 and 1901 as a prayer house for the Brasov Jewish community which was formed in 1826 with just four families.

By this point it was much colder and we were glad to get back in the van and head back to the city.  A nap on the way back made the journey much quicker lol.

Back in the city, passed those odd football themed Christmas lights again, I made a bee line for the Christmas market.  As with Kiev, the fountains in the city centre have been drained for the winter, but here in Bucharest, they have replaced the water with Christmas lights which I love lol.

The Christmas market, located in Constitution Square, was rammed with people – even pre-covid I have never really been a fan of big crowds, so I did not plan to stay too long. I had a quick walk around and bought a couple of cute Christmas decorations before wandering back towards my hostel, stopping off for a semi traditional dinner of skin less sausages or Mititei.

Hostel life 🤦🏻‍♀️ why do I do it you ask? I have done so many weekend trips this year I don’t think I could have afforded it otherwise. Generally, I have been lucky and but unfortunately in this one I was clearly on a different schedule than my room mates who were sound asleep when I got back from my day out at 8.30pm.  Then they got up and started drinking in the room at 9.30!  Thankfully they went out around 11pm – but of course that meant they came crawling back at 3am, 4.30am and 6am – no, not all together!   And so I had to pack in the dark at 8.30am 🤦🏻‍♀️

For my final morning I joined one of the free walking tours,  I got a little lost but am always early so had plenty of time to find the right meeting spot … there were so many people there, but thankfully many of them were Spanish speakers so by the time the groups were divided up, the group I was in was fairly small. 

We started in front of the Palace of the Parliament, or as in front of it as you could get with the Christmas market set up right in front of it 🤦🏻‍♀️  obscuring the best view of it.  The building is not only the second largest administrative building in the world (the Pentagon in the USA is the biggest one), it is also the heaviest building in the world – weighing over 4 million tonnes!

The ‘Palace’ was ordered by the last President of Communist Romania, Nicolae Ceausecu and it is known for being very ‘fancy’ inside.  It was constructed over a period of 13 years, starting in 1984 with construction continuing after his execution (along with his wife) in December 1989 having been convicted of economic sabotage and genocide after the Romanian Revolution.   

Today, the ‘Palace’ houses the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Despite this, and being used for conferences and other events, it costs over $6 million per year to heat and light it … and it is still on 30% occupied!

The Palace of Parliament is strategically placed at the end of the Boulevard Unirii, a copy of the Champs-Elysees in Paris but apparently it is 1 m wider!!   They also have a copy of the Arch de Triomphe earning the city the nickname of “Paris of the East’ – the cities architecture is varied, with Soviet buildings and North Korea inspired apartment blocks neighbouring beautiful French style architecture.

The French inspired Palace of Justice, built between 1890 and 1895 is located on the banks of the Dâmbovița river.  King Carol I himself attended the official opening.  Upon the fall of Communism, all the leaders of the communist part were judged here, beginning sentenced to death, labour or jail.

As our walk continued we passed the beautiful Stavropoleos Church.  Built in the early 18th century as part of the Stavropoleo Monastery by a Greek monk, today it is surrounded by much taller buildings which shadow the tiny Church.  The church is ‘Brancovenesc’ style (after Constantin Brancoveanu) which in reality is a blend of styles – local, Oriental, Byzantine and Italian renaissance.

Situated on Calea Victoriei or Victory Street, CEC Palace (yes, yet another palace) was built in 1900 as the headquarters for the CEC bank (Romania’s oldest bank), which it still is today.  Apparently the glass dome still contains the same glass as when it was built – an amazing feat considering the battles the city has been through.

The next Palace is the Palace of the Post Company which is now houses the National History Museum.  Once the site of an Inn which was demolished in 1856 but parts of the cellars still survive and are visible below the street level.  The ‘Palace’ was built around 1894 at vast expense.

Through the covered arcade street – Macca-Vilacrosse Passage.  Lined with restaurants – I which I had explored a little more last night as there seemed to be some nice (less touristy) places.  The highlight of the passage is the beautiful glass roof which apparently has still has the original glass from 1891.  The passage is fork shaped, as the owner of the hotel in the centre of the land where they wanted to build the passage did not want to sell, so they built around it!

Lipscani Street/district was one the most important commercial areas in the city from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century.  Interesting it got its name from the city of Leipzig and the traders who came to the city to sell their wares.  It had been severely neglected until 2013 when many of the buildings started to be restored and again today it is an important trading street.

As I have previously mentioned, at the end of WWII, the ruling Communist party forced the King to resign and leave the country.  Many people loved the King, and some referred to him as the ‘King of Everyone’ and during the war the royal family saved the lives of many Jews.  The Communist party tried to completely erase the Monarchy from history by removing that part of the country’s history from the school curriculum.

We paused outside the beautiful Church of St Antony (or Anton), the oldest church in Bucharest (after a number iterations but still retaining its Wallachian 16th century style).   Being a Sunday morning, there were services in most of the churches, and the singing was beautiful.

My final stop on the walking tour was at St George New Church, the burial site of Constantin Brancoveanu.  The church was built in 1707 and is called “zero kilometre” of Romania.  The centre of Bucharest and the point from which all distances in the country are measured.  Brancovenau was an important ruler who refused to convert to Islam under Ottoman rule – as a result he was beheaded, along with his sons.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the walking tour before the end – and more than 30 minutes of that we’re taken up in a cafe, where all the groups go, so there were long queues!!  I would rather have been walking and seeing things and could have sat in a café in my own time!

That said, my early departure was to meet someone for lunch – I am so used to spending my busy weekends rushing between sites I rarely have time to meet people so it made a pleasant change to meet a colleague of my uncle (who is an architect that specialises in cultural heritage and conservation architecture).  Through his work he had spent some time working in Romanian and Dumitrita is a colleague of his.  It was lovely to get an opportunity to meet her before heading back to the airport for my flight back to the UK.

Roaming ramblings and other thoughts – Part 2

Remember back in the day when we could travel – visit places, meet friends?  Ah, good times.  It was during these good times when I still lived in England, I had some great weekends away, and opportunities to attend events …. I bring you Roam Ramblings Part 2 (if you recall, there was a Ramblings Part 1, back in August 2019.

Cambridge outings – June 2019

Flambouyant Flotilla – As I continued to make the most of my weekends when in Cambridge I braved the torrential rain to witness Cambridge’s first Pride event.  Instead of a Pride parade like other cities, they had a Flambouyant Flotilla lol.  I was surprised it actually happened given the rain and despite planning to stay long to listen to some of the live music I decided not to!  I had driven because of the rain so could not even enjoy a quick drink in the rain!

Sir Michael speaks – Another great event that month was seeing Sir Michael Palin speaking.  He had recently published a book on the HMS Erebus – was an incredible story of Antarctic exploration which I am always interested in.  The first half of the event he spoke about the book, in the second half he spoke about his life and career including his time in Monty Python and his travel programmes which was really interesting.  I really enjoyed the cheap accessible theatres and shows in the city and went as often as I could.

Yay for friends with planes –  I was lucky enough to get an unexpected flight after work with a colleague who has his pilot’s license and a ‘timeshare’ in a small aircraft.  It was just a 2 seater and more like a closed in microlight, but it was great fun, flying up over Norfolk, Sandringham, over the beautiful coast.  We saw seals on the beach and the sun starting to set which was so beautiful.  We even heard a B52 do an emergency landing at a nearby airforce base!  I am really so very lucky.

Chepstow – June 2019

It was lovely to have my parents to visit the UK whilst I was there, though oddly they did not plan to visit me in Cambridge (lol) so I decided I would drive to Chepstow, on the border of England and Wales to visit them at the my uncle’s place.  It was 4 hour🤦🏻‍♀️, all weather drive and I was glad to finally arrive. 

I haven’t spent much time in that part of the country so it was nice to get an opportunity to explore a little.  We headed across the Severn River into Bristol and visited the Concorde Museum (definitely worth it if you are in the area) and had a lovely walk in the hills, overlooking the surrounding countryside and Tintern Abbey, which dates back to the 1100’s.  We finished off the day with a drink in the sun by the River Wye.

The next day, we had a walk around the lovely town of Chepstow.  It is an odd little town, which straddles the border (actually the river Wye) of England and Wales.  One side of the river and you are in Wales, cross the bridge and you are in England!  Unfortunately, this quirk does cause some issues.  All the emergency services are on the Welsh side and don’t cross into England, so they have to rely on services from Gloucester, almost 30 miles away.  The fire department on the other hand is a volunteer one, made up of many who live on the English side of town so they don’t mind crossing the river to help out!

Today Chepstow has a population of just over 10,000 and it was an important port in the Middle Ages for the import of wine and the export of timber and bark.  It is thought that the Castle in the middle of town is considering the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain with construction beginning in 1067. 

It was a great little get away and a lovely chance to catch up with family.

Continued Cambridge outings – July 2020

Bumps & Open Studios – After a couple of weeks home in New Zealand, I was back and ready to make the most of the UK summer and I started with an evening out at the Open Studios.  A Cambridge wide event that show cases artists and artisans in gardens around the city.  There were some lovely things on show and for sale in the gardens of a beautiful house near the river and coincidentally it was the evening of the “Bumps”.

 The Bumps is a type of rowing racing where the boats chase each other and try and bump the boat in front.  I must admit I did not really understand what was going on but there was certainly lots of frivolity despite the weather (did I mention it was pouring with rain again) with the crews singing and drinking beer along the river 😂👍🏻.  I sat on the river bank under a tree to avoid the worst of the rain, but still got wet. At least it wasn’t cold!

Bat Safari – My next outing was one I was rather excited about – a Bat safari!  Run by one of the Punting companies, you take a punt from the city to Grantchester staring at dusk, with a ‘Bat Man’ from the local Bat Conservation Trust on board to tell us all about the bats that we saw.   We all had ‘bat detectors’ and the ‘Bat Man’ could tell what kind of bats they were based on the frequency and sound. 

It was so peaceful floating down the beautiful tree lined river as it got dark and there were lots of tiny Soprano bats (about thumb size).   Did you know that all bats and their roosts in the UK are protected?  I certainly didn’t!   

When returning to the punting yard we were surprised but an amazing fireworks demonstration – turns out they were from nearby Kings College, celebrating their graduation.

Saffron Walden – July 2019

How did we ever go anywhere before the internet? These days I just have an inkling of where I want to go, look it up on the internet and find a walking tour of a suitable length with directions and info on the history – so good! This weekend was a 4 mile around Saffron Walden – a historic market town from 1144.

It was a lovely walking trail that first took me through beautiful fields of wild flowers and through the grounds of Audley End House.  Starting life as Walden Abbey, built in 1066, was, in the 17th century, one of the largest and finest in the country but today is much reduced due to crippling debt.

I passed through the picture perfect village of Littlebury with a beautiful old church and house and beyond to stunning golden fields of wheat before returning back to Saffron Walden.  A beautiful walk on a beautiful day.

London –July 2020

It was about time for another visit to London (I definitely did not get there often enough during the year), and this time to enjoy some culture.  On Friday night, it had a Kiwi vibe and I attended a show put on by the Modern Maori Quartet  – not surprisingly (given the name) they are a group of 4 Maori men who perform a combination of music and comedy.  A night of great kiwi entertainment.

I had planned a walk along the canal the following morning but the torrential rain was against me – so instead I walked the shorter distance from my accommodation to the British Museum.  Thankfully I got there early, just before it opened and walked straight in.  By the time I left, the queues at the entrance were massive!!! Finally the rain stopped and I continued my walk through the city, passed Neal’s Yard, down The Mall and passed Buckingham Palace on my way to my next event for the weekend – the wonderful musical Hamilton (for which I had had to book tickets months in advance).  Definitely worth the visit to the big smoke

Stratford upon Avon – August 2020

Stratford Upon Avon is a pretty market town in Warwickshire, inhabited since the early 1100’s but most famous for being the birthplace and finally resting place of William Shakespeare. Being a couple of hours drive from Cambridge, it was a great spot for a weekend getaway and a chance to catch up with an old travel buddy. 

After an evening of lots of chat and almost as much wine, we were up early to follow a walking tour route around the town, taking in the main sites of the town, many of which date back to the 1500s.  Sadly, the great British summer was in full force and it was cold, windy and wet, but we preserved lol.

We rounded off day one with a Shakespeare play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – where better to see a one.  We saw Measure for Measure and it was excellent.  When you see Shakespeare plays performed well, it is incredible how relevant some of them are today, despite the olde world language.

Day 2 and the weather was a little better and we drove a short way out of the town to visit another couple of historic houses.  The first was Anne Hathaway’s childhood home.  Anne was Shakespeare’s wife – they married in 1582 when she was already pregnant and some historians speculate that it was a ‘shotgun’ wedding. 

The house was built in various parts between the 14th and 17th centuries and is situated in beautiful cottage gardens with so many flowers and busy bees.  I must admit I was a little obsessed with taking photos of the bees and flowers lol.

Our next stop was Mary Arden’s farm – the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother.  Not so much of the original 16th century farmhouse is left as most of it is Victorian or Edwardian and was actually lived in until 1968!  Today they have many displays of historic animal breeds and farming activities which we were enjoying until the rain started again (about 20 minutes after the photo with blue sky was taken)– hard and fast!!  Just right for the drive home including a detour through Melton Mowbray sample one of their famous pork pies.

Probably worth noting that one ticket gets you in to most of the historic Shakespeare sites, including Shakespeare’s birthplace in town (beware there can be long queues to get in to this one), Mary’s farm and Anne’s house.

December 2020

After an incredible trip to Central Asia (many other blogs written about this lol), an extended trip back home to New Zealand and a couple of other European getaways (blogs already on the way about these too),  I was lucky enough to have work trips to Paris and Vienna in December.  Now there is not too much to say about either of the trips as I was working during the day, but I did manage to get out a explore a little of both cities in the evenings and I also took advantage of the approaching festive season to enjoy the Christmas markets.

In Paris I enjoyed an evening walk along the beautiful Seine.  Most of the markets in Paris don’t start until much closer to Christmas but I managed to find one near Place de la Concorde.  It wasn’t too busy and I enjoyed some mulled wine and delicious food before the beautiful (but long) walk back along the river to my hotel … oh and don’t forget the beautiful sparkly Eiffel tower (the lights go on once an hour) – just wonderful.

A couple of weeks later and I was in Vienna and the Christmas markets there were in full swing.  My first evening and I visited one at Schönbrunn Palace, once the main summer residence of the ruling Habsburg family.  Once again I enjoyed plenty of delicious mulled wine or Glühwein as they call it.

The following day I went with colleagues to a market in the centre of the city … and it was snowing – it was truly a magical Christmassy moment that we certainly do not get in New Zealand. It was extra special as the next day I was leaving at 4am to head back to London and straight on to New Zealand for a summer Christmas.    

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A trip to the dark side – Chernobyl

(November 2019)

What do you think about so called ‘dark tourism’ – going to see things and places that have less than happy stories to tell? Chernobyl is one of those and despite its dark history – it is part of history and therefore something of interest to many – including me.

That said, is visiting an abandoned city really ‘dark’ tourism? Sure, we know why and how the city was abandoned but is it truly any different to visiting Machu Picchu or one of the great Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala or Luxor in Egypt even?  Don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing the incredible Mayan or Egyptian architecture to that of the Soviet Union in the 70s but is the premise still the same – visiting an abandoned city 🤔🤔? Either way all are equally fascinating to me – a snapshot in time of a civilisation that lived there.

Since the recent TV show depicting the events of the Chernobyl disaster, it has become incredibly popular, though I had booked my trip before the programme came out. Learning about the world and it’s civilisations – good and bad – has always interested me.  Perhaps in the hope that we learn from the mistakes of those before us.

I had time to take a quick walk around the Kiev city centre before I headed to the meeting point for my tour – despite the -8c I was glad I did as it was beautiful with the sun coming up and the changing colours over the monuments.

I then heading to the meeting point for my day tour to Chernobyl. I was quickly allocated my group, guide and van.  There were probably 7-8 vans, each with 10-12 people heading off for the day – I can only imagine the mayhem in the height of the tourist season.

Before I go on, I had better give you a brief history of Chernobyl and the reason I and thousands of others visit (just in case you have been living under a rock).   On Sunday, April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant exploded during a safety test (oh the irony) and it is still considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.  The explosion and subsequent fire released vast amounts airborne radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which drifted over much of the USSR (as it was at the time) and into Western Europe.  USSR did not admit the accident until high levels of radiation were recorded in Sweden.   Ultimately up to 16,000 deaths can be attributed to the disaster across Europe however only 31 deaths have every been reported as a direct result of the disaster.

We were issued with our ‘Visa’ for the Chernobyl zone, which we were to show with our passport at the police check points and then given an initial run down of the health and safety rules:

  • Don’t eat in the open air
  • Don’t remove anything (and therefore spreading radiation) – you can be given 7 years in prison for this!
  • Don’t put anything on ground or sit on ground
  • Don’t go inside buildings – most are in bad condition and some falling down
  • Don’t pat stray dogs – they are very friendly but contaminated due to the ground and the water (this one was the hardest for me lol)  

We passed a fair few Ladas on the drive towards the Chernobyl zone (and if you have read my previous blogs of my trip around Central Asia you will know I am a fan of them) and when we reached the first check point, we were given our personal dosimeter to measure the dose of external ionising radiation we receive during the day.  During the day, we should receive less than 0.003 microsieverts – you would get more radiation on a flight between the New York and the Ukraine.  The dosimeters get returned at the end of the day and the statistics shown to the Government on a regular basis.

Did you know there are three types of radiation:

  • Alpha – the weakest
  • Beta – which is dangerous to the skin (this is the most difficult to manage in the summer when people don’t want to cover up)
  • Gamma – which destroys DNA and can be the cause of cancers for you and/or your future children.

Our Guide was biotechnologist and had a lot of information to share as the day went on.

Although then day started off at -8 in Kiev, it seemed even colder now we were in the country side it was absolutely bitter and the problem with wearing so many layers to keep warm outside, is rapidly get them off when you get inside the warm van! 

The Chernobyl Exclusion zone covers an area of almost 2,600km2 in the Ukraine with restricted zones marked at 10km and 30km.  Surprisingly a small number of people live within the 30km zone. It is also now considered a nature reserve as nature has fully recovered with many bear, lynx, moose and wolves living in the area.  In the initial years after the disaster, there were a lot of mutations as you would expect, but due to evolution and survival of the fitness, those died off and only the healthy animals remained.  Although it is expected that some of these still have less obvious internal mutations, the populations continue to thrive.

Our first stop after the check points in to the exclusion zone at the Kopachi village kindergarten and its small war memorial just a few kilometres from the power plant.  Here we were given the instruction to “break the rules carefully” as our guide let us go inside the building.  He could not join us as he had to wear a GPS tracker 🥴.  Obviously there has been much deterioration over time but it was clear it was left in a hurry with shoes, toys and books just left – all very eery.  All the other buildings in this and many other villages in the area were bulldozed and buried.  Sadly, this was not such a good idea as the ruins seeped radioactive isotopes into the groundwater!  They built new roads, with new asphalt which they refer to as “safety tunnels”.

There were 15 villages within the 10km zone, and all were destroyed and buried after the disaster.  Despite the explosion happening on April 26, the villages were not evacuated until May 3rd, nor were they given iodine pills.  The heavy particles in the atmosphere (e.g. plutonium) destroyed their immune system – as a result many who died of other things (due to their compromised immune systems) were not considered in the death toll.  There was also a lot of blindness (as eyes absorb radiation easily).  No one can live in this area today and no one can stay more than 6 hours at one time. 

The Chernobyl Nuclear power plant was planned to have 12 reactors in total.  The accident happened in No. 4, and all further building plans were abandoned leaving No. 5 unfinished and the other reactors were closed over the following years (No. 3 closing in 2000).   Not surprisingly, water in the runoffs in the area are still highly contaminated.

Reactor number 4 is now covered with a safety shield or Sarcophagus.  The current one was built in 2012 and was the biggest and heaviest structure moved in the world, as it was built 300m away and then moved into place – 36000 tonnes of steel in total.

In front of the sarcophagus there is a monument to the ‘liquidators’ with an inscription “To those who saved the world”.  “Liquidator” is a general term used to describe the civil and military personnel who dealt with the consequences of the disaster.  Liquidators roles varied greatly; power plant workers on duty at the time of the explosion, fire fighters, Soviet Armed forces who removed contaminated materials, female janitors who had to remove food from abandoned homes, hunters who exterminated domestic animals left behind, coal miners who dug a protective tunnel, helicopter pilots …  These people and many more (it is estimated that around 60,000 people were involved) are generally credited with limiting the immediate and long term damage from the disaster and those who still survive today finally have veteran status, even if they were civilians, having fought for many years to have their participation officially recognised.

Our guide had spoken to an engineer who was on duty the morning after the explosion.  He had said that no one could believe the core could or in fact did explode and for many hours they continued to work in disbelief.  They were initially evacuated but Kremlin engineers made them go back in to continue pumping water into the core – which was now non-existent!

Our next stop was in the town of Pripyat, the location of many of the eerie photos you see of the disaster aftermath.  Just outside the town we came across some puppies – all dogs are supposed to be sterilised but clearly not! A US organisation look after the stray animals in the area and thankfully we could play puppies 👍🏻 (as they are too young to be particularly contaminated) – they certainly looked chunky and healthy.

Prypriat was a good city, purpose built in 1970 by the best designers, with all the best infrastructure – Amusement park, Palace of culture, cinemas, schools etc, connections to railway, bus and boat stations and a massive medical complex.  Everything was provided – health care, housing, education etc.  On top of that, good jobs were available at the nearby Nuclear Power plant, just a few kilometres away.

Although there was an estimated 50,000 people living in the city, there were only 4000 cars as the city was so easy for people to walk around.

Gear from firefighters on first night still in the basement of the medical complex.  They had no radiation protection and people did not understand symptoms of radiation related illnesses.  Nurses, doctors, visitors were all contaminated as they touched exposed workers and their clothes with no protection.  Once the extend of the contamination was understood the Government issue a law that all pregnant women in the city had to have their babies aborted and many children from the city were sent to Cuba for rehab (a friend of the USSR with good medicine).

Next, we headed to the River boat station – there were boat connections to Kiev and Belarus, and the boats were a popular way of travel.  Much more popular than crowded Soviet buses with no AC!  The cafeteria here had beautiful stain glass windows, and apparently it served the best ice cream in the city.  An old vending machine remained – your choices were water, sparkling water and lemonade. 

It really is a snapshot of a moment in time and straight out of an episode of Abandoned Engineering – fascinating if you like that kind of thing, which I do lol.  The interesting thing is that the town was not damaged by the disaster, it was just abandoned, but of course age and environment (and apparently in some cases military training including live ammunition training leaving bullet holes in buildings) has worn it down over time.  I was particularly intrigued by the photos our guide showed of the buildings we were visiting pre-disaster, filled with happy people going about their normal lives.

Both the cinema and musical school was adorned with beautiful unique mosaics, made of aluminium.   This time the guide abandoned his GPS tracker and took us in to the music school 👍🏻 to see the crumbling auditorium where musical performances were once held.

As we wandered through the empty city, we passed a Government building (the centre for Nuclear Energy), the hotel where people brought in to clean up the explosion initially stayed, through the central square and across the football stadium.  Did you know the international nuclear symbol symbolises the 3 types of radiation coming from 1 core?

Our final stop in the city was probably the most famous site, the amusement park.  I think most people have seen photos of the abandoned Ferris wheel or dodgem cars.  Not many people know that the park was brand new and was due to have its grand opening on 1 May 1986, but this was cancelled after the explosion.  Some say it was opened briefly on April 27th, one day after the explosion as a distraction for the locals but before the town was evacuated but this has not been confirmed. 

The announcement to evacuate the city came on the afternoon of April 27th and the whole evacuation (of the almost 50,000) took only 36 hours. People were told that they were back in 3 days, so to pack light – of course they never were to return.

We left Pripyat and headed back to the Administration area to have lunch in Cafeteria No 19, built for Chernobyl workers to eat Soviet workers cuisine 🥴.  Some of the 6,000 people who still work on site (it was 15,000 people when in operation) still eat here.  To enter you had to pass through a radiation detection machine and then thoroughly wash your hands before reaching the dining room. (Good hand washing practice for the future COVID world – who knew!)

Our Soviet workers cuisine consisted of a small plate of salad with some kind of cold sausage and lots of cabbage.  A Boursk – a traditional soup, and some kind of grain with a chunk of pork!  The dining room was busy and by the time we go to eat there were no knives left so I just had to pick it up and bite it!  Thank goodness for my clean hands lol.  It was not amazingly flavoursome but ok 🥴. The coffee was not much better, but worth it for the cup lol.

Although Reactor number 4 and Pripyat were the main reasons for the visit, the next stop at the once top secret Soviet Cold War base fascinated me.  Hidden deep in the forest and after a short walk we arrived at the Duga radar – a Soviet over-the-horizon radar (Duga literally means “arc”), which was part of the Soviet missile early warning radar network (to spot ballistic missiles fired from the USA) and the last one left intact.

It operated from 1976 to 1989 and broadcast over shortwave radio bands.  Unfortunately, it often interfered with broadcasts on radio, tv and sometimes aviation communications with a clicking sounds gaining it the nickname the Russian Woodpecker.  That said, most people annoyed by the interference never actually knew where it was coming from!  Apparently even the Ukraine officials were not aware of it!

It is huge 700m long and 150m high structure made up of made up of hundreds of huge antennas and turbines and is hugely impressive when you stand at the base of it.

We exited the 10km zone with another radiation check and this time the minibus also got checked before we were free to head to the town of Chernobyl.  The town used to have a population of about 14,000 but today the town around 1,000 people live there and is often the overnight base for tourists who take a 2 day trip. 

At the entrance to the town, they have an exhibition of robots and vehicles assembled for the 25th anniversary of the disaster.  The vehicles were bought from various countries to use in the clean up on the roof of the reactor and in the surrounding area, including a copy of moon landing vehicle!  Unfortunately, none of the vehicles/robots could last longer than 13 hours on the roof in the extreme radiation before their circuitry died so they had to resort to using people – or biorobots as they were referred to!!!   More than 70% of those men are now dead.

By this time, it was 3pm but the sun had started to set already which made for some cool photos and a dropping temperature, dropping from the balmy -4 to -8!

Further into the town we came across the court where those blamed for the accident were tried.  In reality they were just scape goats of an attempted coverup of the entire event, and although initially convicted, they were soon released after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The courthouse is still overlooked by a large statue of Lenin – apparently the last remaining Lenin statute still standing in the Ukraine! 

Nearby there is a poignant memorial to all the villages which were destroyed after the disaster.  An ‘avenue’ of village signs, one for each abandoned and destroyed village in the exclusion zone both in the Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.  Nearby is the “Monument of the Third Angel” – inspired by a Biblical passage, Revelations 8:10-11:

“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter”.

Some speculated that this passage predicted the disaster, as Chernobyl was named for the Ukrainian word for wormwood!

After one final check point to measure our radiation exposure (0.002, less than 0.003 allowed so all good 👍🏻) we were on our way back to Kiev after what was a fascinating yet sobering day.

Chicken Kiev in Kiev

(November 2019)

I set off on the 3 hr flight to Kiev (Kyiv) the capital of Ukraine  (what a joy living in the UK again, albeit briefly, to be able to take trips like this in just a weekend.)  Unfortunately, the trip did not start too well as the transfer I had booked did not show up and waiting for it for 20 minutes meant all the official taxis were gone!!   (A quick side note, the country used to the called “the Ukraine” but dropped the “the” after independence.)

It was late and cold, and I had no intention of hanging around any longer, so I got in what I could only describe as a dodgy ‘taxi’.  I was on edge the whole trip, we were going over 130km/hour (which turns out to be the speed limit on the highway but it seemed very fast) and I was messaging back and forward with my partner back in NZ so someone knew where I was lol!!  I also used the wonders of modern technology to follow along the route we were taking on my app (a godsend when you don’t have internet coverage on your phone) to ensure we were going in the right direction – which thankfully we were.  I was probably completely ripped off but it was less than I was going to pay for the transfer that did not turn up (which thankfully I had not paid for in advance) and I made it in to the city in one piece.

Next challenge was the dodgy alleyway leading to a dodgy looking hostel I had booked!  Thankfully they had sent me photos showing how to get in, otherwise I would not have been so bold as to walk down the dark alley into the dark courtyard!!   The hostel was nice enough inside and very quiet, probably because it was very small – just 4 rooms off a small main entrance area where you clearly hear everyone coming and going.  Thankfully it was not busy at this time of year, so it was ok.

I had an early start on my first day for my day trip to Chernobyl, but that is a whole other blog post (it was all going to be in this one but it was just going to be too long)!

Back in Kiev late afternoon and had a quick walk around my hostel to find somewhere to eat.  Despite its dodgy appearance, the hostel was pretty central, just of the main street of Khreshchaty, which was great as I did not have much energy so settled on somewhere close to my hostel for Chicken Kiev (it has to be done – didn’t it?) and it was delicious.  For dessert I kept it local with cottage cheese pancakes with sour cream and berry sauce 👍🏻.  All well deserved after such a busy day.

Day two and my last morning (the problem with such short trips), I could have a more relaxing start before packing up and heading out for another busy day.  I had enjoyed the cottage cheese pancakes so much the night before (they are way better than they sound) I went back to the same place again for breakfast – this time I had them with banana and toffee sauce!  Highly recommended.

Ready for a history lesson? Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova.  Today it has a population of approximately 42 million and shares the same history as many of its neighbours’ including the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and of course the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.  It had independence briefly between 1917 and WWII as the Ukrainian People’s Republic and then again in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As with other former Soviet states, it has had its problems since independence.  Ukraine declared itself a neutral state, trying to establish relationships with Russia and NATO, however in 2013 the President tired to align more closely with Russia rather the European Union which resulted in escalating demonstrations and the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.  The President tried to end the protesting with violence, backed by Russia, whilst the EU and USA backed the protesters.

My first walking tour of the day was an Ancient Kiev walking tour which met in Independence square, otherwise know as Maidan Square in the heart of Kiev. It has been part of the landscape of the city since the 10th century.  It has also been the site of all major revolutions, including the 2014 Ukrainian or Maidan Revolution which resulted in around 130 deaths in clashes between protests, riot police and sharp shooters positioned in overlooking buildings. The revolution ultimately lead the removal of President Yanukovych who fled the country for exile in Russia before being sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason.

This all lead in a round about way to Russia invading Crimea (then part of Ukraine) and the shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in July 17 2014 – but that is a whole other story!

Towering over Independence Square is the Independence Monument or Glory to Ukraine momument.– a victory column commerating the Independece of Ukraine, built on the 10th anniversary of independence in 2001.  It’s 61 m tall and is topped by a figurine of Berehynia (a Slavic goddess) holdings a guelder rose branch in her arms. 

We crossed the road to the other side of the square, to admire the reconstruction (built in 2001) of Lach Gate, topped with archangel Michael the spiritual patron of the city and who was believed to fight of evil and witches!  The gate was original located in the Polish quarter on the east side of the city and was one of three main gates of medieval Kiev – we will see one of the others (the Golden gate) later in the day.

As we left the square we passed a number of interesting art installations– “Street Lamp Lovers”, apparently if you meet here, your love will last for ever, and “tree with chairs”. It turned out these would be the first of many quirky art works we would see around the city.

A short walk later we arrived at the beautiful St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral, a working Ukrainian orthodox church originally built in the 11 century.  After multiple Mongol attacks, the church rose from the ashes and it was repaired in the 15th century. In the 18th century, the exterior of the building was refurbished in baroque style, while the interior remained Byzantine.  Despite the beauty of the church, it was destroyed in the 1930s by the Soviets who opposed religion, so what we see today is a reconstruction based on old photos and the original foundations, built in the 15 +/- years after independence and is now one of the most impressive architectural monuments in the city.

Being Sunday, there was a service going on so we could not take photos inside, so you will just have to take my word that the interior was as beautiful as the exterior!  Worth noting that there are no seats in an orthodox church, the parishioners have to stand for the 2-3 hour service!

Not far from St Michaels was the columned Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, built in 1934 by the Soviets when the capital was moved to Kiev.  Despite it standard, imposing Russian design, it is built in a semi circle.  Apparently it is easier to protect from attack as bullets can’t shoot around corners!!

It was originally the Ukrainian Communist Party headquarters so it is adorned with a hammer and sickle but now proudly flies the independent Ukrainian flag – blue for sky and gold for fields of wheat.

Next was another beautiful baroque style church, sitting on a hill above the street – St Andrews.  Apparently, St Andrew the Apostle came to Kiev and walked to the top of the hill and proclaimed that “on the mountains of Kyiv, the grace of God will shine, a great city will grow, and God will put up many churches.”  

St Andrew’s was built in the 18th century by an Italian architect and is sometimes referred to as a cathedral.  Interesting the church has no bells, legend has it, their noise would cause flooding! 

The church towers over the historic district of “Andriyivsky Spusk” or “Andrew’s Descent” which it lent its name to.  It’s a 700m paved street dating back to 1711, running from the old part of the city to the more modern, lower part.  It is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian Monmarte, after the area in Paris as it is normal filled with artesian stalls selling their arts and crafts.

Also just below St Andrew’s, is another quirky sculpture called “Chasing Two Hares”.  It is based on characters from a famous Soviet film, part of which was filmed in the area.  According to the story,  the lead character was going to marry a rich, but ugly women but he loves a beautiful girl who doesn’t like him – the moral of the story being that if you chase after two ‘hares’, you will not catch any!  Apparently depending on where you touch the statue, you will find money, or love … or both??

We continued on to Sofiyskaya or Sophia Square, a beautiful square surrounded by beautiful buildings, including the 11th century St Sophia Cathedral which was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  It was one of the city’s best know landmarks and the first site in Ukraine to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage site. 

In the centre of the square there is a large statue of Bodhan Khmelnytsky, known as the leader of the Cossacks.  In December 1648 he lead his Cossack’s regiments in to the square, through the Golden Gate after they had defeated the Polish Army.  Interestingly the square was dominated by a large banner on one of the surrounding buildings #FREEMARKIV.  Our guide explained that it was protesting the imprisonment of Vitalii Markiv, a former Ukrainian solider who is in an Italian prison for allegedly be responsible for the death of a Russian and an Italian journalist in during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.  Many believe the conviction was unfounded and based on false testimony and are still fighting for his release.

On the way to our final sight for the walk we passed yet another quirky art work, and one of the city’s favourites – “Hedgehog in the Fog”, from a famous Soviet cartoon in the 1970s.  Apparently, it is dressed up depending on the seasons, so in November it was adorned with a ‘necklace’ of autumn leaves.

Finally we reached the Golden Gate, which has been referred to a few times during the walking tour.  Another key landmark of the city and a reminder of its medieval past, dating back to the 11th century.   It was original built by Kievan Prince Yaroslav the Wise, upon his victorious return from battle.  It was named the Golden Gate after the golden domes of the church on top on top of the gate.

As with so many places I have seen this year, the gate was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century and subsequent builds were reduced to dust until the 18th century when the ruins were excavated.  Full reconstruction took until 1970 though there is no real evidence that the current Golden Gate is the same or even similar to the original one!

Next to the Golden Gate is a statue of it’s founder – Yaroslav the Wise.  In his hands is the Sofia cathedral (which he was also responsible for building)– or is it?  Some say it is actually a statue of a waiter, holding a Kiev cake???

Just when I thought it was all over, there was yet another interesting statue – this time a cat, in a small park.  The cat, named Pantyusha, lived in a nearby Italian restaurant and was popular with all its customers.  One night in 1997 there was a fire in the restaurant and legend has it the cat saved the family before dying itself.  It was buried in the park and staff and customers donated money to erect the statue.  Apparently, it is lucky to touch his ears or tail.

I said goodbye to the guide and small group (only 5 of us) and walked back down towards Indepdence Square to get something to eat.  I had heard about a ‘hidden’ restaurant called Ostannya Barykada, or the “Last Barricade”.  It is fair to say, if you did not know it existed, you would not find it!

In the shopping centre under the square, there is a hidden level in the elevator.  Once you have found the floor, you head down what looks like a dead end, but when you utter the password (it would be cheating to tell you what it is), a secret door opens and you gain entrance to a corridor with a wall of hands, signifying the years Ukraine spent under Russian rule, before another door opens in to a huge cafe/restaurant!

The restaurant is dedicated to the revolutions – the Student Revolution in 1990, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan revolution in 2014.  That’s a lot of revolutions in a relatively short period of time!  The restaurant only serves Ukrainian food and while it is relatively expensive by Ukrainian standards it is totally worth it (and still cheap compared to similar places in central Paris for example).

For the last proper meal in Kiev, it was great to have such a selection of local food and drinks and after a discussion with the waitress I chose to have a Baked Cheese and a local sausage dish.   To accompany it I had a Sea buckthorn and ginger drink – sour but quite tasty.  I rounded it all off with a Kiev cake (layers of meringue with hazelnuts, butter cream and chocolate glaze) – just like the one Yaroslav the Wise is holding.  I had asked if having both the cheese and suasage dishes was too much (considering I also wanted cake) and the waitress had said no – she was wrong – they were both huge!

But never fear, I got through it all and it was all delicious but I was glad that I had plenty of time to eat them and that I was doing another walking tour in the afternoon.

The next tour was called a “modern Kiev” tour and again it started in Independence Square at 3pm.

We left the square by a different route, and our first stop was to see some street art – a small painting commemorating those who died in the 2014 revolution, known communally as Heaven’s Hundreds, and the one of the many art works in one of the pedestrian tunnels under the road.

It is always interesting when you have different guides on these tours in the same area, as you often get slightly different stories – this guide told us that the almost everything we were seeing in the city centre rebuilt after World War II as the Russian army destroyed it as they retreated so the approaching Nazis could not prosper from it!

Another one of the main symbols of the city is the People’s Friendship arch.  It was built in 1982 to commerorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and more importantly the 1,500th anniversary of the city of Kiev, as a gift to the city from Moscow.  Its 50m in diameter, made of titanium with a bronze statue beneath it showing a Ukrainan and Russian (the burlier of the two) with their arms raised in solidarity!  Given Russian/Ukraine relationships this days, it is a surprise that it is still standing!  That said, in 2018 someone added a sticker that looks like a crack in the middle of the arch!  Oddly no one has tried to remove it.

As we continued our walk through Kreshchatiy Park, the sun started to set and the temperature dropped, it was getting so cold it was hard to stand in one place for too long so we quicken our pace!  This part held yet more quirky statues – the Tree of Wishes.  A forged iron tree where you dreams can come true if you leave a note in the hollow.  The sign says “Dream, and your life will be full of miracles!”. And secondly the Monument to the Frog, also know as the Money Toad – a 6 tonne bronze sculpture with faces in its mouth! As with many of the other sculptures, this too can bring you luck or fortune by rubbing its nose, or throwing a coin into the slot in his mouth.

Further on in the park is the Bridge of Lovers, in contrast it is also known as Bridge of Suicides!  I think you can probably guess the reasons for both names.  People who invested money to build the bridge could write whatever they wanted on the planks, apparently one of the sections says “I love soup”!  Now that is some commitment to soup lol.

The sunset from here was also beautiful over the city and the government buildings (built in 1936-39) – half circle again (so you can’t be shot from a corner)!

Through the park, we came to Mariyinsky Palace, built in 1744 by Russian Empress Elizaveta Petrovna.  Unfortunately she was dead before it was finished, and it was subsequently used by Empress Catherine II (you may know her as Catherine the Great), and has been the residences for numerous Governor Generals. 

By 1870 it was in ruins after a series of fires, and Alexander II of Russia commissioned the reconstruction of it, using old drawings as a guide – it was then renamed after Empress Maria Alexandrovna and it was used by visiting members of the Imperial family until the Russian revolution in 1917.  Damaged again in WWII it has been restored a number of times since then.  Today it is used by the Ukrainian President and visiting head’s of states

By the time we reached our final stop it was well below zero degrees and dark and I must admit my interest was waning – my note taking was definitely suffering as I could not type on my phone with my gloves on lol!  Our final stop was the “House with Chimaeras” or “Horodecki House”, an art nouveau building in the historic district of Lypky.    Built by a Polish architect in 1901 as an apartment for himself – it even had the first elevator in the Russian empire (apparently). 

The architect was a fan of safari hunting so the building was decorated with images of exotic animals and hunting scenes – hence the name, the “House of Chimaeras” – chimaera being an architecture style which has animal figures as decoration.

The architect fell on hard financial times (some say due to all the money he spent on hunting) and the house was rented out room by room and changed hands multiple times before being occupied by the Communist Party until the early 2000s.  Today it is used as a presidential residence for official and diplomatic ceremonies as it is just across the street from the Presidents office.

It had been a long and interesting day, but I was definitely ready to head home – although the Metro was cheap and really easy to use, I was far to exhausted to catch the metro and train to the airport – Uber it was!!! 

27 hours in Shanghai

After only 48 hours back in the UK, I had to make a quick dash back to New Zealand when my Mum became ill.  I had a shorter trip planned for a few week’s time so could thankfully use the same flights and just amend the dates.

On my return to the UK, rather than just transiting through Shanghai, a city I had never been to, I decided to spend a day having a look around.  I have been to Bejing and Xian many years ago, but never Shanghai.  I had a busy day planned to make the most of my short time, and it started a mere 3 hours after my plane was due to land (wishful thinking? Thankfully not)!

I was already calculating my plan B as I stood in the short but very slow immigration queue, but I finally made it through and found my way to the Shanghai Magnetic Levitation (or Maglev) train – only the third commercial maglev line and the oldest one still in commercial operation – having opened in 2004.  At a cruising speed of 430km/h it is the fastest commercial electric train in the world and it connects the Shanghai airport to Longyang Road Station, a distance of 30km, in less than 8 minutes.  My train only got up to about 300km/h and I was already worrying about making by 10am walking tour … I was certain those extra 100km/h would have made all the difference.

What is a Maglev train I hear you ask?  It’s a system where trains float over guidelines (rather than wheels on tracks) using the principles of magnets.  They rarely touch the tracks so there is far less noise and vibration and the lack of friction means they can travel at high speeds – lesson over lol.

After a quick stop off at my hotel, where I could thankfully get into my room to change and drop my bags, I set off at a trot to the meeting point, arriving just in time.  As it turns out I did not have to rush as we ended up waiting around for at least another 15 minutes – I could have got that coffee I was craving!

Shanghai is China’s largest city with a population of over 24 million (a staggering amount for my brain to comprehend).  What started off as a fishing village on the Huangpu river (a tributary of the Yangtze river), is now the busiest container port in the world.

I won’t bore you with the centuries long history of Shanghai but perhaps just a brief, more recent history which lead to the diverse city we see today – namely the Opium Wars.  The first was fought in 1839-1942, between the Qing dynasty and the British which started in part because of the dynasty’s campaign against the opium trade which was extremely lucrative for the British Empire (through the British East India Company). The second in 1856-1860 against Britain and France.  The Qing dynasty lost both due to their enemies more advanced military technology and they were forced to grant favourable tariffs, trade concessions and territories, not subject to Chinese laws.  (One of these territories was Hong Kong which ended up being a British territory from 1841 to 1997.)

The first stop on the walking tour was an odd ‘fake’ street 🤔 – a model of a 1930’s Shanghai street called Shanghai Old Days or 1930 Folk Street – underneath the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre.

 It is almost like something out of a Las Vegas hotel, where they have tried to make you feel like you are in Venice (the Venetian), Rome (Caesars Palace) or Morocco (the Aladdin) with false ceilings painted like skies and cobblestones floors.  There is also mannequins wearing the eras clothing and a life size street car (or tram).

We next stopped at the People’s Square – prior to 1949, it was home to the Shanghai Race club and it’s horse racing course.  Racing and gambling stopped during WWII and was never allowed to resume. 

The clubhouse buildings became the Shanghai Art Muesem, while part of the race track became People’s Park, a public park.  These buildings were soon joined by the Shanghai Museum (shaped like a Chinese cook pot with a beautiful floral display in front of it), the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the City Hall (celebrating the 70 year anniversary of the governing Communist Party).  Our guide told us that the new buildings built in the area were built big and heavy, in order to push down demons from graveyard that was next to racecourse!

People’s Park used to only be open to foreigners, but is now sometimes referred to as ‘Old People’ Park as there are many older people in the park exercising or taking their birds for a walk (in their cages of course lol).  Worth noting that people retire relatively early – men at 60 and women at 55, so these so called ‘old people’ are not necessarily that old!

One of the other major activities that now takes place in the park today is the Marriage Market.   Kind of like a Chinese tinder, but here it is parents trying to match make their children – by advertising their details on umbrella!  Hundreds of umbrellas advertising people and apparently, 99% of parents are doing this against their child’s knowledge or without the children knowing!!!!  They provide details about their child’s height, weight, education, job etc. but it is almost as important that the whole family gets on, not just the children!  The parents take this very seriously and they are there every weekend, all day, until they make a suitable match.

Through the park and we continued on East Nanjing Road pedestrian street.  The full street is 5.5 kilometres long with big western brand shops interspersed with local shops.  The east part of the road is the busiest commercial part of the city and apparently there is a saying that goes “’you have not ever been to Shanghai unless you go to the Nanjing Road’.

Constructed in 1851, the road ran from the racecourse to the Bund (by the river) and was widely called Great Horse Road or “Da Malu” in Chinese and it was the city’s first modern road.  A kilometre of the road was converted to a pedestrian street in 1999.

We turned off this modern, western street and we were immediate immersed in a something a little more traditional.  Narrow bustling streets, full of small local shops, lots of little food shops and full of mopeds and people and it was time to sample some real Chinese food in China – I had a couple of pork buns, only 2 yuan each (about NZ 45 cents) and they were amazing!  I also tried by first bubble tea – I may be a little late to jump on that band wagon.  Thankfully there were a couple of American girls on the walking tour who had been living in China and were familiar with how it all works as it was all in Chinese and there were a number of choices that had to be made – tea type, flavour, sugar level etc.  I tried the traditional one and I can say it certainly will not be the last time as it was good.  To date I have not really found one quite so good, I guess in NZ the concept has been westernised but I am still enjoying them.

Back on the main street, we stopped to admire a statue, taking pride of place along the pedestrian street – A woman carrying a small child and pushing a pram.  Looks pretty innocuous but it in fact was a propaganda statue for the Chinese one child policy!  This has now been changed to a two child policy, but in the past there were great penalties for having more than one e.g. the loss of their job and not being able to get another one.   It was also prohibited for people to know the gender of the baby until birth so they did not abort girls. 

A side note, in some jobs, people only get 5 days annual leave a year, although on the upside they do get to retire earlier.  Still, I definitely could not survive more than 40 years of one week holiday a year! Thank goodness I am not Chinese!!!  

Shanghai is such a city of contrasts – old and new, rich and poor, modern and traditional.  Our next stop was more on the traditional side, the Shikumen or stone gate houses.  These houses date back to the end of the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900’s and are made of thick wooden boards with stone door frames (hence the name).  These houses started off as largish European style apartments off narrow alleys, but subletting (sometimes several in the same apartment) meant often people had about 4.5 square metres per person, with public kitchens and bathrooms – resulting in crowded and disorderly living conditions.  Some people still live like this but many of these alleys are being demolished to build modern buildings whilst others have been completely refurbished for modern living whilst keeping the more traditional design.

We then made our way to The Bund (Waitan in Chinese meaning Outer Beach), one of the most popular tourist sites in the city and the waterfront area along the bank of the Huangpu River. 

The word ‘bund’ actually comes from the Persian word “band” which means embankment and was named as such by Baghdadi Jews who settled in Shanghai.  Today the area is a protected historical district and is within the former Shanghai International Settlement and there are 26 colonial buildings from the 1920’s-1930’s when it was the powerful centre of the foreign establishment in the city.  It has been known as the Oriental Wall street and in fact, even has a bull sculpture.  It was made by the same designer as the New York Wall Street bull, but they asked for it to be twice as big as its New York counterpart, but it is not quite!

All the colonial buildings that once flew the British flag, now fly the Chinese flag, every single building lol  😂

30 years ago, there was almost nothing on the other side of the river, today the area is filled with modern skyscrapers and is probably one of the most recognisable scenes of the city.  One of the skycrapers is the second tallest building in the world – it may only be the second tallest building, BUT, it does have the world’s fastest lift and the highest observation deck.  Unfortunately I did not have time to visit the other side of the river, but hopefully next time. 

Oddly, Google (the company) has 3 floors of the ‘Bottle opener’ building (at vast expensive) but the use of google is banned in China (even google maps!) – now that’s a head scratcher 🤔 Perhaps they are preparing for a change of law in the future I guess?

It is still an active river and port today and boats ploughing up and down – large Chinese barges, container ships and cruise ships alike.

After almost 5 hours of walking, I left the group and headed to my hotel which was just around the corner for a quick ‘nana nap’ before heading back to the Bund.  They was still the haze of pollution and even more people than earlier in the day. I guess that’s China for you 😂

As the sun went down, one by one the buildings across the river came to life and then the almost full moon rose over the buildings –  it was beautiful but I could not stay too long as I had to jump on the metro to meet up with my food tour guide.  The gardens were beautiful as well, with moving butterfly illuminations – photos do not do it justice.

By this time (around 5pm) there were soooooo many people and clearly I was going the wrong way – sometimes there where so many people going towards the Bund I could not fit on the footpath!

When I finally made it back the metro and realised there was a much more direct way to my meeting point so of course I was there 30 minutes early – I could have taken at least another 20 completely unnecessary photos of the Bund as it got darker 😂

Thankfully the metro system is an easy way to get around this vast city. I bought a ticket that included 1 maglev ride and 24 hours on the metro for 55 Yuan (around NZ$12).  That was a couple of hours short to be able to include my return to the airport but a single ticket on the metro was not expensive.  There was airport style security checks to get in to the metro stations but once in, the metro maps have English translations as does the announcements on the metros themselves saying which stops are which so that made life so much easier (at the same time taking away the challenge of working out in a completely foreign language) – and they are air conditioned 👍🏻.

The meeting point for my evening food tour was just outside the South Shaanxi Road metro station next to a large modern shopping mall full of design shops.  Sadly, given my short time in the city I did not get to see much of the old or traditional (hopefully another time) part. The one good thing about all the high end shopping centres is high end toilets!!  And I mean really fancy, so I took the opportunity to use the facilities before I meet up with the group.

The food tour was arranged through Lost Plate Food Tours.  They pride themselves in taking small groups (8 in my group) to local, family owned restaurants, off the normal tourist routes.  Many of them only specialise in one dish which means they are experts in it!  For US$65 you could have unlimited food and beer on this tour that took us through the former French concession.  The best thing was that if you were not finished your beer when we were ready to move on to the next restaurant, we could just take it with us.

We headed off to our first restaurant through a beautiful park, many people were out dancing and enjoying the balmy evening.  Historically, the park was only allowed to be used by French children!

We quickly reached Round one – Pot stickers and Shanghai soup dumplings and Suntory beer.  All delicious and quickly consumed. Of course we had to be reminded that we had numerous more courses to go so not to fill up at the first stop lol.

Round two was a small place that used to be a house (most of the places we visited were like this).  We were seated in a small upstairs room which used to be a bedroom and here we had Shallion (or Spring Onion) Oil noodles which are considered Shanghai comfort food and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Our noodles were washed down with a yellow wine made from wheat called Huangjiu and a Tsingtao beer.

Round 3 took us to a much larger restaurant and we had a massive private room –  room number 888 = rich rich rich in the Chinese culture.  Here the food was much more fine dining but unfortunately it is here my notes fail me – the first course I have described as “Fresh?  Shrimp, egg, bamboo – it’s so fresh I lose my eyebrows? 😂”  Now I have done a google search and all it brings up is beauty salons in Shanghai were I can get my eyebrows shaped!!  So I really have no idea what eyebrows had to do with this dish but it gave me a good laugh 10 months on lol.

Thankfully I had a little more detail noted about the next dish – “Moonlight shining on lotus pond” but not much and I assume it is a signature dish of the restaurant as again not find much about it lol. Judging by the photo it had Chinese yams, capisicum, lotus roots, snow peas and black fungus (probably nicer to say a type of mushroom lol).

We had a delicious ground pork and mushroom dish which you wrapped in a small flat bread, and then the final course was their famous braised Pork Belly, which not surprisingly was delicious.

Next up was dessert at a “hole in the wall” store, mango flavoured coconut milk with sago which we ate on the street and it was amazing!  All the food was great but this was probably my favourite.

Our final stop on the food tour was a roof top bar and craft beer brewery for our final beer – lots of different choices and some great fruity beers.  It was a great tour.  Not only tasting some amazing food but learning about the cultural idiosyncrasies of food and drink in Shanghai.

Not suprisingly, my final stop for the day was back at the Bund to check out the lights at night which of course were still pretty spectacular.  And so ended my 18kms of walking for the day! 

The following morning and I was ready to head back to the airport.  Clearly people in Shanghai are not early risers – my fears of getting caught up in their rush hour commute was unfounded. Even Starbucks was not open at 7.30am on a Monday and the metro was not rammed as I had imagined. I got a seat after a couple of stops and settled in for the 50 minute journey on the subway to the airport.

I need to be honest, in all that walking, I really did not see anything traditional. Shanghai was a real surprise to me – well certainly the part I spent the day in. Modern, clean and shiny – but next time I need to dig a little deeper for the traditional Chinese part of the city … or stay for 48 or even 72 hours!

Ashgabat – it’s hard to say goodbye

And so to my last day in Central Asia and the forecast for the day was a toasty 39c!!! As with everything else, the weather has been such a contrast from the cold steppes to the sweltering city of Ashgabat!  Thankfully it is not even the hottest time here – just imagine that!  Apparently, it can be 50+ at the gas crater and with the heat of the fire even hotter! 

Fun fact for the day, did you know what was once called the Caspian Sea, is now official called the “Caspian water body”.  The “water body” is incredibly valuable due to all the oil and gas and sturgeon (the fish that produces the most expensive caviar) and seas and lakes have formal rules as to how the resources are divided, which the surrounding countries didn’t want to follow. After a large forum, the outcome was to call the former sea a ‘water body’ and define their own rules  – 20 km from the coast line for oil and gas, another 10 km for fishing and then no mans ‘water’.

Our first stop of the day was the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque (Spiritual or Golden Mosque) – one of the biggest mosques in Central Asia.  The Mosque is just on the outskirts of the city in what was the village of Gypjak, the hometown of Niyazov’s (the first president) hometown and contains his family Mausoleum where he was buried after his death in 2006.  Tragically his father died when he was 3 years old and his mother and two brothers were killed in the 1948 earthquake when he was 8 years old. From then he was brought up in an orphanage.

The mosque was built in 2004, funded by rich businessmen from the Arabian Peninsula who wanted to get a leg up in the oil & gas industry in the Caspian region and it has been the centre of some controversy. Not only are scriptures written in Turkmen/Latin alphabet rather than Arabic (which is very rare), but scriptures from the Koran are interspersed with quotes from Ruhnama – many Muslims were upset as this seemed to imply that the Ruhnama is placed as an equal to the Koran!

This mosque, not surprisingly, is a Friday mosque that can accommodate up to 12,000 people and is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia.  It is the largest single domed (a dome that is completed covered in gold leaf) mosque in the world and has the largest eight pointed star, one piece carpet in the world!  (Another one of those interesting world records!)  This is particularly important to the Turkmen people as they are famous for their rug/carpet making – there is a Ministry of Carpets and the Turkmen carpet making techniques are included on the “Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” as of 2019.  Examples of rug patterns are even included on the country’s flag – one pattern for each region (5 in total).

But I digress, back to the mosque … numbers are always very important so here we see minarets that are 91m tall, representing the year of independence and 48 windows representing the year of the great earthquake!  It also has incredible acoustics and underground parking for 500 cars and 100 buses!

Despite the opulence of this mosque, Turkmenistan is officially a secular state.  The population are predominately Sunni Muslim or Christian but there are no religious schools to avoid extremism.  People can go out of the country to religious schools; however, they must receive government approval to do this.

Our next stop was Old Nisa, an ancient Parthian settlement on the outskirts of Ashgabat and it has been considered the residence of the Parthian Kings and the capital of the Parthian empire which dominated the region from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.  The fortress was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. 

Old Nisa was a major trading hub, situated at the crossroads of multiple trade routes of the Parthian empire, which was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world, rivalling Rome itself.

Excavations have revealed substantial buildings including temples and palaces, and walls 8m tall.  They have also found many Hellenistic art works as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, some encrusted in gems (we had seen some of these yesterday in the museum).  Apparently, this is the only place rhytons made of ivory have been found.

The Parthian’s were known for their very heavily armoured horses and strong mounted archers, have you heard of the Parthian shot (I think it is sometimes mistaken for a ‘parting shot’)?  A well-known military tactic where the riders would feign a retreat and whilst still galloping away, would turn their bodies and fire their arrows at the pursuing enemy!  Apparently, a Parthian smile is a smile that is not from the heart 🤔.  I think the key take away here is don’t trust a Parthian!

Our guide at the site was a historian and archaeologist, often referred to as the ‘last King of Nisa’. He regaled us with stories of Old Nisa in its prime.  The site covers over 14 hectares and only 35% has so far been excavated.  With wide corridors for aristocrats and narrow ones for servants, dried brick from the 3rd century BC and baked brick from the 2 century BC. 

When discovered in the 19th century, the Russian’s believed there was a royal necropolis here – as yet it has not be founded, however they have found an underground passage and are yet to explore it, so who knows what ancient treasures and secrets it holds.

From the ancient city we head back into the new city and the grand Memorial Complex – built as a memorial to the victims of great events in history e.g. Great Patriotic war (WWII to you and me) where approximately 90,000 Turkmen soldiers dies, the Russian invasion of Goek Tepe in 1880, the war in Afghanistan and the 1948 earthquake.

The complex is vast (650,000 Sq Metres) and has a different monument or memorial for each event.   One of the most striking is for the victims of the earthquake – known as Monument Ruhy Tagzym.  A 10 metres high bronze sculpture of a bull with a globe balanced on its horns.  Ancient Turkmens believed that the earth is held on the back of a giant bull.  The earth is heavy and every now and then the bull shifts it legs and moves it shoulders – hence earthquakes!  (A similar story is also known in Islam where the cosmic bull carries on its back the angel that shoulders the earth!)

Our final stop for the morning (yes, it was still morning!) was at the Wedding Palace, an oddly shaped building on a hill overlooking the city.  The building has 3 tiers (somewhat like a wedding cake), topped with a globe (with the image of Turkmenistan on it), surrounded by 8 pointed stars.  Symbolism is again important – the building has 4 entrances, symbolising the four directions and the 8 pointed stars symbolising the 8 gates of Islam and the nomadic 8 directions of the world.  Inside there are 6 rooms for marriage registration and 2 large wedding halls and 7 banquet rooms!

After lunch at a local restaurant we headed about an hour out of the city to Geokdepe to see the famous Turkmen horses called Akhal Teke.  These beautiful horses have long thin legs and very short silky hair which makes them look almost metallic – they are built for endurance.  They are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world and one of the major symbols of Turkmenistan.  There is a National Horse day and is even a Ministry of Turkmen horses in the government (the only country in the world to have this).

The stud farm we were visiting was over 300 years old but had been closed down during the Soviet period as people were not allowed to run private businesses.  Many of the horses were killed for food by the Soviets (totally against Turkmen beliefs who consider them holy and bury them like people when they die). Thankfully this family farm managed to keep a number of their horses hidden so they could keep the bloodline going.

I enjoyed my time watching the beautiful horses and feeding their two very cute baby camels. 😘

Back at our hotel in the city we had a lovely last dinner reminiscing on the amazing trip we have had. It has been truly been a surprising and eye opening experience.  It was so sad to say goodbye to Aijan who had been amazing guide throughout the 3 weeks, and I hope I will see her again.

My pickup was 12.15am for the depressing journey back to England but not before the final surprise Ashgabat had to offer – we had seen the airport on the way into the city, shaped like a hunting falcon.  Incredibly at night, the lights make it look like the wings are moving up and down in flight – incredible!  And when you get inside, the inside of the roof looks like the underside of the wing feathers.  They have really thought of everything lol.

And so, just over a year from the start of this incredible journey, I have finally managed to write about it all (I am thankful for my obsessive note taking 😂).  There are too many adjectives I could use to describe the trip and experiences – eye opening, interesting, educational, beautiful, spectacular, amazing, incredibly.  Truly a trip of a lifetime … but places I hope I can make it back to in the future.

If you are reading this and thinking about taking a trip to Central Asia (one day in the future when we can travel freely again), I would highly recommend getting in touch with Kalpak Travel ( – you can join one of their scheduled small group tours, or Luca and Aijan can help arrange your personalised itinerary. Not a sponsored ad, just a recommendation based on my amazing personal experience.

Las Vegas + Pyongyang = Ashgabat

After a night’s sleep in a tent near the Darvaza Gas Crater, I got up early to watch the sunrise, with the company of the lovely Alabai dog who had just come off his nightshift lol.  (I forgot to mention that an Alabai was the mascot of the Asian Games held in Ashgabat in 2017!).

Too soon we were back on the road towards our final destination of Ashgabat, but not before a few stops on the way.  It is worth noting that the Darvaza crater is not the only crater in the region and there have been numerous other cave ins of drilling sites.  We stopped at a couple along the road, neither as large as the Darvaza, or burning.  One had a very distinct sulphur smell to it, and the second was full of water.  Apparently, they continue to get bigger.

This stretch of the road continued through the Karakum desert (80% of the country is desert) with many more camels along the road – and a road sign warning of them (I am loving this ❤️❤️❤️).   Most of the camels we are seeing are dromedary (one humped camel) despite them being native to Arabia.  The original camels of the region were Bactrian (double humped) but as Arabs moved into the region, following the Silk Road over 4,000 years they brought with them their camels.  The camels bred with the native Bactrian camels and their dominate genes meant the resulting offspring were predominately single humped, almost wiping out the local Bactrian population.

After a quick dune toilet stop (not always easy to find a bush big enough to hide behind in the desert lol) we stopped at a small semi-nomadic village.  Most of the people who live here still continue with their nomadic way of life and breed camels for wool, milk and meat.  Camels can be worth between $5-6000! That said, these semi-nomadic villages are pretty well set up these days with running water, gas and electricity, schools and medical centres.

Do you know why camels’ are always looking haughty??  Legend has it, Allah has 100 names, 99 are known by mortals, but the 100th name, a very scared and holy name, Mohammed told to his camel – so they are always looking down on us because they know something we don’t know!

Back on the road, passing more camels along the way (have I mentioned that I am loving all the camels lol), of course our next stop was the car wash – a large industrial place where all the vehicles entering the city could get washed.  As with Dushanbe, dirty cars were not allowed into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Clearly, they did not care so much about dirty people as we were all pretty dirty by this stage. 😂

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to our jeeps and drivers and the amazing time in the desert and move on to our final days in the incredible city of Ashgabat. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, being conquered by various armies and empires, including Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC, the Parthian Kingdom (who’s capital was Old Nisa where we visit later), Arabs (bringing Islam in the 7th century AD), the Seljuk Empire, Genghis Khan, Temur and many more until Tsarist Russia invaded in the 1880’s under the guise of freeing Russian slaves. 

After numerous bloody battles, Imperial Russia took control in 1894 and through to independence, Russia followed by the USSR exploited the countries mineral resources. Still today Russia has a monopoly over gas from Turkmenistan – allegedly they buy it for cheap and sell it on as Russian gas at a higher price.

There have also always been tribes of horse-breeding Turkmen who drifted into the area and whose ancestors remain today – again, more about these men and their horses later.

As with other USSR states, Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991 and today the country is considered a sovereign state. It was ruled by ‘President for Life’ Saparmurat Niyazov until he died in 2006.  After his death, it was decided that his successor would be selected through public elections and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was elected (although apparently the election did not meet international standards).

The country remains with limited contact to the outside world, with most popular social media sites banned (e.g. Facebook, Instagram etc.) unless on a government sanctioned domain and the government has full control of all media outlets, however more recently the Government has started to rewrite its legislation with a goal of meeting international standards.

I also mentioned in my previous blog, farming is still managed along the Soviet lines of collective farming, as is most of the economy with industry almost entirely dominated by government-owned entities, including all the incredible construction we see in Ashgabat.

And so, to Ashgabat, were to start … today Ashgabat’s population is around 1 million people although how it got there was an interesting story.  Not so long ago, the population of the city was 400,000.  Apparently, they were awarded the Asian games, but then realised the city was supposed to have a population of over 1 million to host the games … so they just expanded the city borders almost overnight, so the population was big enough!

As we entered the city, we passed another area of government built housing (they all have green roofs so are easy to spot!) and then we were in to the beautiful wide (and almost car free) boulevards and white marble buildings.   Apparently, the president had wanted the ‘whitest’ city in the world – white marble buildings, white lamp posts, white cars (are preferred).  Apparently, Turkmenistan purchased so much white marble (from Turkey and Italy) during the construction, the world price went up by 30%.  The city even made it into the Guinness Book of World records in 2013 for having the highest concentration of white marble clad buildings!  Almost 600 in the city centre.  Lonely planet describes the city as Las Vegas meets Pyongyang and they are not far wrong though I think Dushanbe comes a close second 😂

Most of the city was destroyed in a massive 7.3 earthquake in October 1948, the extent of it was not widely reported by the USSR, but it is believed that more than 110,000 people were killed.  The USSR were also pretty cash poor at the time (due to the funds spent on WWII), because of this, they quickly built an area of cheap, temporary housing with the intention of replacing them when they had more money.  Not surprisingly this rebuild never happened!  This means it is really a city of two parts – the old (built in the 40s-50s) and the new (built in the 90s).   

These days, most people live in the older part of the city and don’t come out till after 6pm because of heat (today is only 33 and it is autumn!).   Although life may seem somewhat controlled based on our ‘western’ opinion it is worth noting  that their life is not so bad … they have very low taxes and cost of living, all forms of public transport is subsidised, free health care (mostly) and utilities (gas, electric and water) costs $16 per year!  Rustam explained that if you have 6 children or more you get given a free house!!! He was on child number two and had great hopes for the future lol.

We arrived at our beautiful hotel, right across the road from the Presidential palace – such a contrast from the night before, spent in a tent in the desert!  Unfortunately, photography of the presidential palace and some other key buildings, as well as uniformed police and or military is forbidden.

With very little time left of our trip, after a brief break for a much needed shower we headed out on some afternoon sightseeing, starting with the National Museum of History which showcases the concise history of the country back to BC3000!!

Here we were introduced to Rhytons – ancient drinking horns, often elegantly carved and sometimes made from ivory like those we see in the museum that were found in nearby Old Nisa (more about that later).

Just outside the museum is what is now the 5th highest flagpole in the world, proudly displaying the Turkmen flag.  It was once the tallest but has now been overtaken, even by the flagpole in Dushanbe which comes in in 3rd place!

Our next stop was at the Arch of Neutrality (not technically an arch lol).  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkmenistan was left without any support or protection and with Afghanistan and Iran just over the border (Ashgabat is only 15 minutes to the Iranian border) and people were scared.  So, in 1995, the government declared the country in a state of permanent neutrality to contribute to the “peace and security in the region”.  Ultimately the intent is that no other country can send troops into the country and if they do, it is expected that the UN will defend them, if they are attacked. 

The country is very proud of their neutrality and even prouder of their Arch of Neutrality.  A 75 metre tall rocket shaped tower topped with a gold statue of the first President – the icing on the cake is that the President’s statue rotates so his face always faces the sun.

Our final sightseeing stop for the day is Independence Park.   Beautifully manicured flower beds, marble stairs (of course there is marble), pathways lined by five headed eagles, fountains and statues of national heroes.  Of course, the centre piece is the Independence Monument – the lower part of the monument is shaped like a huge yurt and at the top of its 118m tower is a crescent moon with five stars representing the unity of five Turkmen tribes.

Also, in Independence Park we found a huge statue/model of a book – “Ruhnama (The Book of Soul)”.  This book was written by the first President and is apparently a combination of spiritual/moral guidance, stories and poems, information about Turkmen history and traditions and the definition of “moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmens”.  

The book was initially rolled out in schools and libraries, but then its teaching actually became part of the driving test and potential government employees (FYI the government is the largest employer in the country) were tested on it at job interviews!!  In 2005, part of the book was launched in to orbit so that it could “conquer space” and it is expected to orbit the earth for 150 years

In 2013, the book was removed from the school curriculum and people were no longer tested on it and despite it having been translated in to many (depending on sources somewhere between 45-75) languages today you can’t find a copy anywhere 🤔🤔🤔

Despite the fact the wind brings sand and dust from the desert into the city, the city so sooooooo incredible clean (as of course you would expect from Central Asia lol.

We had dinner in a restaurant with an amazing view  of the sunset and then the neon lit monuments and buildings – it was a beautiful warm night and I would have loved to stay longer as it was technically the last night of my holiday but sadly as no one else wanted to so I had to head back to the hotel and was in bed by 9.30pm again!  One of the down sides of group tours – especially when everyone is so much older!  And apparently, I was also foiled by an 11pm curfew in place in the city (this is normal practice), but to be honest I would have been happy with 11 instead of 9 🥴😂

Stan No. 5 – Turkmenistan

Day 19 of our tour and the day started with immigration documents at the hotel in Khiva as it was only 1 hour drive to the border.  We were also given a briefing as to how to behave at the border!  Turkmenistan is still a fairly closed country and the only one on this trip that we had to get an ‘invitation’ prior to being allowed to request a visa at the border.  Apparently, people are often declined, including Aijan, our Krzygz guide – this was the first time she was given approval so it would be her first time in the country as well.  The instructions were “don’t get in trouble and act like a tourist”. 😂

The road to the Shavat-Dashoguz border crossing was not a good one but fringed by cotton fields being harvested – it looks like back breaking work 🥴. (I have probably mentioned before but cotton is an important commodity in Uzbekistan and we would go on to learn Turkmenistan.

At the border we had several procedures to go through to leave Uzbekistan.  Firstly, we had to hand in the accommodation slips we had been collecting to show where we stayed, followed by 3 passport checks and finally an immigration office to official exit us from the country.  We then caught shuttle bus (an old soviet bus) across the 1km no mans land to reach the Turkmen border.

Getting into Turkmenistan was a little more time consuming and it took about an hour to get our visas issued – thankfully our new local guide, Rustam, did most of the work and we just had to sit around waiting! 

Part of the process included what I wrote at the time as “some weird temperature test with a little gun pointed at our forehead 🤔🤔”.  Of course, writing this 10 months in the future and these ‘weird’ temperature guns are a regular part of our lives – how things change!

The final step was to pay our fee – I had to pay US$100 while all the Australians only paid US$70 – maybe I should have had my NZ passport 🤦🏻‍♀️.  As we passed through, the immigration officer was very cheerful and friendly despite the warnings we were given and all he said was ‘welcome to Turkmenistan’.   The final leg of this amazing trip.

  • Currency:  Turkmenistan New Manat (TMT) US$1 = TMT3.5 (but there is a big black market which has an exchange of more like US$1 to TMT 10 so we did not actually use any cash)
  • Language: Turkmen
  • Size: 491,000km2
  • Population:  6,031,000

Our local guide Rustam took us over to 6 jeeps which were going to be our transport for the next couple of days.  My driver was Dimitri, he looked very Russian (or what my image of what an Russian looks like) and his muscle bound body was completely decked out in desert camouflauge.  We found out later than he was a medal winning ex-Soviet decathlete – having represented the USSR in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He clearly still worked out from time to time lol.  Luckily, he spoke good English which meant we could chat along the way.

Turkmenistan is still untouched by mass tourism, with only 25,000 tourists arriving annually – unlike it’s neighbour Uzbekistan who gets over 5 million a year!  Tourists cannot come to Turkmenistan without arranging a tour through one of the 5-6 tour companies who are closely monitored by the Government.   Of course, we need to bear in mind these numbers were all in a pre-covid world and who knows what impact that will have on future numbers given tourism was already less than 1% of Turkmenistan’s income!

Our first stop was in Dashoguz, a small town not far from the border where we stopped for lunch.  The first thing we noticed was all the school children in their matching traditional uniforms looking incredibly smart.   School children were wearing green whilst university students were wearing red.

Our lunch restaurant was clearly near a university as there were several students there having their lunch in their lovely uniforms.  We were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us and they were more than happy to chat and pose for photos.

Interestingly there were guards on the street in the small town, apparently to control the ‘order of the city’ 🤔

From Dashoguz we drove around 100km to Kunya Urgench, passing collective farms along the way.  Apparently the collective farming system still operates in Turkmenistan today.  The Government owns the farms and farmers rent the land for 49 years, apparently a similar but more liberal version of the communist collective farms.  The farmers struggle in the area as the fields have a lot of salt in them – a legacy of Aral Sea which is infamous for the fact that it has almost complete dried up!

Kunya-Urgench (of Konye-Urgench as it is also know) is home to two of Turkmenistan’s three  UNESCO World Heritage sites which were once part of the ancient town of Urgench, situated on one of the most important Silk Road cross roads between the east and the west. 

Dimitri (our driver) entertained us with his Russian music – initially I asked if it was Turkmen music and his reaction was ‘you can listen to Turkmen music on the tv – 7 channels, 24 hours per day, why listen to it in the car’ lol

The buildings we see today date between the 11th and 16th centuries but earliest records of the town are from an oasis town between the 5th and 4th centuries BC created by united Nomad tribes who made the most of the nearby river  … before it was conquered by the Arabs in 712.

Much money was spent on infrastructure in the 10th century and it was apparently a very beautiful city until 1220/1221, when the city was destroyed by the Mongols in what was considered one of the “bloodiest massacres in human history”.  Rustam told us that 360 holy men, many famous scholars were killed or taken captive. 

Despite the devastation the city was rebuilt to its previous glory, until Temur attacked in 1373.  Initially the ruler of the city, and the short lived Sufi Dynasty, Yusef Sufi surrendered to Temur, but 6 years later he rebelled which ultimately resulted in Temur razing the city, killing most of its population and destroying its advanced irrigation system and dam.  (Apparently, he did save the lives of the master architects, builders, stone masons etc and took them back to Samarkand with him.)

The city never really came back this second attack and it started to decline in importance until eventually the regional capital was moved to Khiva.

There is no real town layout left to see, just a few stand alone monuments around the area and our first stop was a small complex with 3 mausoleums – Najm-ad-Din al Kubra, Sultan Ali and Piryar Vali. The mausoleum’s range in age from 13th-16th centuries and are so different to the reconstructed beauty of Uzbekistan but no less fascinating 

One of the buildings (from the 14th century) was designed by an architect who was an astronomer and as such there are a number of special touches – 4 windows relating to the 4 seasons, 12 columns for the 12 months and 360 geometrical patterns, one for each day of the year.

Despite them being called mausoleums, this has been brought into question as there appear to be no on buried in them!  Another theory is that they called the buildings mausoleums so that the Mongols would not destroy them they as they worshiped ancestors.  Who knows what the truth really is.

There were more local visitors than there were tourists, and they were praying and walking around the buildings touching the bricks as the sites are now considered holy shrines where the women pray for good marriages (particularly at the one considered to be for a princess).  These old mausoleums appeared to have not had much recent restoration.  There we not many tiles remaining on the outside and many pigeons making homes on the inside – oh the smell 🤦🏻‍♀️!

In the second part of the site, there is much excavation still to happen (currently being done by a group of Italian archaeologists) and many of the structures are covered with 2-3 metres of sand!  What remains are excavated are far less reconstructed and fit in to three eras – ancient, pre-Mongol and post-Mongol.

One of the structures used to be the tallest ancient minaret in Central Asia.  It was 60-61 metres tall and had been covered in blue tiles and with a gold bell.  The bottom was built in the 10th century whilst the top is dated back to the 14th century – in its glory there was a bridge connecting it to a nearby mosque – incredibly 70% of what we see today is original!

It was interesting to see some of the pre-Mongol buildings have a conical dome, there are not many like it in Central Asia.  According to the archaeologists, they have discovered ancient inscriptions in some of the buildings but unfortunately there is not good enough technology in the country to work on them as yet.  It will be exciting to see what they discover in the future.

As this is also a site for local pilgrims and there were a number of beautifully dressed local women and families also visiting the site and Rustam taught us a few phrases in Turkmen to greet them – ‘Hello, let Allah receive your charity’ (phonetically “Salam Kabul balsoon”) and ‘thank you and goodbye’ (sagbol).

Did I mention it was hot!!  Hot, hot, hot – especially exploring around these ruins in the desert!

As we left the Kunya Urgench area, we set off on what is considered the worst road in Turkmenistan!  This continued for about 80 km, passing a brand new 6 lane bridge – it looks very out of place is it has no real road leading to or from it yet 🤦🏻‍♀️lol.

We passed a random 1st century BC fort on the side of the road (crazy how you can just pass something like this as if it is commonplace!), before finally reached a better road – with still 200km to drive it become clear that it was likely we would miss the sunset 😟 which was disappointing.

I took the opportunity of a quick toilet stop in the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert to explore the amazing patterns in the sand and lizard tracks but only saw 1 tiny lizard …. next up was a camel on the roadside but we could not stop to take photos as we were now in a dash to get to the camp before dark!!

We finally reached our destination and camp for the night – the Darvaza Gas Crater, probably the best known spot in the country.  Despite our doubts, we made it just in time for sunset and it was spectacular.

In 2019, mineral fuels (including oil) was 94.5% of Turkmenistan’s total exports and the country possesses the world’s 4th largest reserves of natural gas, along with substantial oil reserves.  This of course leads me to the background of the Darvaza crater that has been burning constantly since 1971!

The site was initially discovered by Soviet engineers as an oil field site and they set up operations to drill.  Unfortunately for them, they ended up finding a natural gas pocket, but it was not long until the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed into a wide crater, swallowing everything around it.  To avoid the release of any position gases, they decided to set the escaping gas from the massive crater on fire to burn it off, expecting it to burn out in a few weeks.  Almost 50 years later, the crater is still burning!

The sunset was lovely, but the darkness made the crater look even more spectacular.  And then the moon began to rise … just like the sun over the near by hill. Sitting in the campsite (which had already been set up for us) watching it was so special.  Being outside in nature is truly my peace!

We were kept company but a massive Turkmen sheep dog (a breed called Alabai or Polar Bear dog as I named him) named Tsar.  His job was to keep wolves and other predators away from livestock, and in Tsar’s case, also to protect us!  Apparently, their clip their ears and tails so they cannot be grabbed when fighting wolves!   – I would sneak him food as I decided he needed to build up his stamina for his night shift 🤦🏻‍♀️.

(Just an aside, did you know that Australia does not have hedgehogs???  I didn’t!!  The Australians in the group got so excited when a very cute hedgehog ran through our camp during dinner, they didn’t even know what it was??  Oh, the unexpected things you learn whilst travelling 😂)

Before arriving, Rustam had told us to expect a ‘lot’ of people (it is all relative!) at the crater as it is the most popular tourist site in the country but as it turns out there was hardly any really, just a hand full of people  – apparently he had expected 300 people not the 20 or so that were there.  Great for us to have such an incredible site almost to ourselves and after a few drinks we settled in to our tents for the night.