Trekking The Himalayas

The Annapurna Circuit

 

Okay so you’ve made it all the way to Kathmandu, Nepal, and you’re ready to get some serious bragging material under your belt. Is there anything cooler than starting a conversation with “This one time when I was trekking the Himalayas”?

Rhetorical question, the answer is obviously ‘No’. So if you’re ready to add this line to your vocabulary then take the road (or mountains) less traveled and trek the Annapurna circuit in the HIMALAYAS!

Lets not kid ourselves; there is a reason that line is the coolest opening in the English dictionary. This isn’t going to be a stroll in the park (excuse the pun). This is an intense trek and should not be underestimated. Some serious thought should go into the preparation of this quest, as you will be sure to face some harsh climates, real low oxygen levels and some extremely steep terrain! Additionally this won’t be a trip you can pump out in a week or even two, this trail has an estimate time frame of three weeks even with a steady eight hours of trekking each day.

It is possible to shave off a few days, however there is only so much altitude you can climb each day before you get seriously sick, so just because your body can climb it, doesn’t mean your brain can.

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If you’re continuing to read this, then I haven’t scared you away. Continue to hang in there because the best is yet to come. This trip is truly a once in a lifetime experience; you will continue to tell the story of the Himalayas for many years to come. In 50 years when we’re all driving flying cars, walking around with micro-chips in our brains and fighting the war against computers you will still be throwing that amazing line into your stories.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves; you actually need to do the trek first. There is a number ways to do this circuit depending on your fitness level and the experience you want to get out of it.

 

Guides and Porters

Three weeks of clothing, toiletries, emergency medical equipment, and the extremely necessary Gopro, Selfie stick and the cliché travel guide can get rather heavy, even with out considering the unpredictable terrain, altitude and exhaustion, so to literally take some weight off your shoulders there are porters. Porters will carry your pack for around $20 a day.

Additionally a guide is highly recommended, they will also cost around $20 a day, however you can get a guide that will also be porter and carry your pack for you.

The guides are very experienced and understand the mountains better than most. Altitude sickness is a real and serious threat, and a guide will know and make sure you stay safely within the correct levels. I would recommend meeting your guide/porter first as I met people whose porter was very young and could not a carry the pack.

Don’t Do What I Did!

Take it from someone how tried going it with no porter or guide and just a map, GET A GUIDE!

I was under the impression that I was a tough, independent woman who needed no help and was well and truly proven wrong within the first few hours.

You maybe able to carry your own pack, but the directions along the trail are next to non-existent, and using a map is basically impossible.

I was lucky enough to met some awesome Canadians, that basically shared their guide with me, and if it weren’t for them, I would have either died or had to turn back. As for my choice not to get a porter, I suffered the entire 3 weeks with a terribly sore back, blisters and throw away things I actually liked, as I couldn’t bare to carry it any further.

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Don’t Abuse your Guides or Porters

I’d like to add, that it is important to be kind to your guide and porter. Don’t force them to carry ridicules weights or risk their own health pushing their bodies to climb vast altitudes each day. They have been told not to report any signs of attitude sickness they may be suffering with, and will continue to do the their job, despite there condition, furthermore they can get very ill, and can not afford the health care and medication we take for granted.

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How to get started

PERMITS! Your guide is likely to take care of this, or accompany you in this process, but if not here’s what you’ll need to do:

You will need two permits: In order to obtain these you’ll want to visit the Nepal Tourism Board to get a Trekker’s Information Management System card (TIMS) and the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP). It is a relatively easy process and shouldn’t take much more than an hour. With these permits you will be required to check-in at various checkpoints every few days along the trek, so the Nepali government can keep note of where you were last if you to go missing.

What you will need for the permits:

  • 4 passport photos (2 for each permit)
  • $20 or 2000 Rupees (cash)
  • Document paper work (provided at the Tourism Board)

 

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What to Pack

Before you pack your bag remember that whether it’s you or your porter, this stuff will be carried up a mountain. So lay out everything you think you will need and ditch half of it, you don’t need your hair straightener, laptop or collection of cute trekking hats.

Bring the bare minimum:

  • 1 pair trail boots (can be hired/purchased from Kathmandu or Pokhara)
  • 1 pair fitness pants
  • 1 pair of hiking pants
  • 1 winter jacket
  • 1 long sleeve shirt (preferably light material)
  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 1 pair pajamas
  • 6 pairs of socks
  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • Sun hat
  • Gloves
  • Trekking pole (hired in Kathmandu or Pokhara)
  • Backpack
  • Camera and charger
  • Mobile and charger
  • Powerbank (the cold drains the battery a lot faster)
  • Power plug adapter
  • Below 0° sleeping bag
  • Silk liner (These are great!)
  • Map
  • Water filter/purifier or water purification tabs
  • Water bottle (1 liter size)
  • Passport & Permits (you’ll be asked for these at every checkpoint)
  • First aid kit (the guide may be able to provide this for you)
  • Towel
  • Cash (there aren’t ATM’s alone the way)
  • Book/journal (e-book is best)
  • Toiletries

 

You can wash your clothing in the sinks along the way and hang them to dry on your backpack as you walk.

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Lets get Trekking!

Talk you your hotel/hostel or guide about getting a bus to the base of the trek. There are a few options on where to start. Pick a date and time that works best for you. The bus from Kathmandu is very long and bumpy; as such don’t expect to do much walking on your first day. It is likely that you wont arrive at your starting point until 4.00pm or 5.00pm in the afternoon. Pick a guesthouse and get bargaining on the price. Accommodation is super cheep and can be as low as $2-$3 a night, however you are require to eat at the same guesthouse and will be ‘fined’ if you do not. Food is where they make their money and will cost you around $10 for a chai, dal baht, and apple pie. The price of food will climb as you do, as porters have carried this food up the mountain, (I purchased a Mars Bar for $10 at 18,000ft).

 

Now, meet the people you are likely to trek with over the next few weeks, get a good nights sleep, and start walking.

 

Happy Travels!

Where to find the best coffee in Toronto (trust me i’m Australian)

 

Take it from two Aussies arriving in Toronto who strongly live by the mentality of ‘death before decaf’. After a painstaking 30hour flight, a strong amount of caffeine was the only thing that could break us through the jet lag. We had heard the rumors and knew the Aussie standard would be hard to come by and therefore opted to ask some local Canadians that confidently directed us to try Canadians famous Tim Horton’s. I don’t even know where to begin in reviewing this beverage, I refuse to call it coffee, unless you can classify dirty bean water, and sugar as coffee. Additionally I made the mistake of ordering some food to company this disaster. And was served a plate (cardboard box) of calories, carbs and what may or may not have been a vegetable, this yet to be determined.

Don’t, go here, just don’t.

 However before you subject your taste buds to the torture of repulsive imitations of coffee I have endured over the past few weeks, there is hope found in a handful of cafes. Below are some of our favorite cafes in Toronto that not only supply consistently great coffee, but fun hangout areas you’ll want to stay in all day.

 

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Jimmy’s Café

Get yourself downtown into one of the 6 ‘jimmy’s’ cozy cafes and surround yourself with inspiring walls covered by rap legends and Historical figures, the design layout changes from store to store.

The Blend,

Now lets get a little technical and dive into Jimmy’s many coffee blends, you have a few choices from the blend hall of fame, each is named after a famous “jimmy” from jimmy Hendricks to James dean. Combine that with a pretty unique drink list, including such delights as the Purple haze, Goth Latte or JVO (Jimmy’s very own). You’ll find your classic cappuccino a bland beverage in comparison to these awesome specialty mixes. Additionally no one likes coffee that drains your pockets even if its good coffee, and lucky for you, this isn’t as issue. The prices are descent for Toronto standards and leveled by the amount of shots per coffee.

To top it off the staff are very warm, if not a little eccentric and are always up for a chat. You can find one of these little gems everywhere from our local Baldwin Village location as well as Kensington, Gerrard, Queen west, McCall and Ossington.

 

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Dark horse

The dark horse also has 6 cafes within Toronto, with one situated right in the heart of Chinatown and located right next to a funky record store.

This place is cool, everything and everyone in there is super modern with a quirky, rustic edge. It has a awesome contemporary interior with wooden flooring and a large communal table that looks designed precisely for the purpose of whipping out your laptop and Mooching off the hour of free Wi-Fi (it’s okay we all do it). Decoratively vaulted ceilings, exposed old brick and elaborate polished metal, bordering the espresso bar gives this café a unique character and style. Additionally is front is complete with large elongated windows that allow you to watch the chaotic street go by while you relax with a hot cup of chai accompanied by some trendy folk music.

The Blend

This is a specialty café with beans from Detour and 49th Parallel to give their customers a seasonally diverse and interesting espresso. You will have to expect to pay a little extra for a good cup of coffee here, however if you craving a little afternoon delight, swing up after 3pm and treat yourself with a baked goods at 50% off. These treats looks so gold you could but on a kilo just looking at it, but with 50% off, it’s worth it.

 

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 Crafted bean Coffee

Crafted bean is along Dundas West Street, amongst half a dozen private art galleries and opposite the famous Ontario Art Gallery.

This is where I grab purchase my vital morning caffeine dosage after a run. I love the charming staff, atmosphere and the beautiful printed designs that is printed onto each coffee (check out the pictures below). Additionally there is a large range of delicious Tea’s and student discount. This café is never super busy so you would have to wait long for your coffee, and finding a table for you and your laptop is easy.

 

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De mello palheta Coffee Roasters

De Mello Palheta is only a short walk from my house, situated by Young and Eglinton, it was originally recommended to be by a local, however this place is listed at the top of almost every coffee review in Toronto.

It is an absolute hipster haven, and an undisputed crowd pleaser.

The beans are roasted in store and distributed to some fine-dine coffee establishments like Sorry coffee co., Neo Coffee Bar and Toyko smoke.

The masterminds behind this concocted creation are two Melbourne born Aussie brothers (like I said, Aussies know their coffee).

I have even read reviews by Californians who order their beans hear in bulk and have them shipped over.

When walking into De Mello you will be welcome by inviting and fun décor and friendly and attentive staff with excellent customer service. You will find that only after a few visits they will have remembered your name, coffee and ask how your aunt Mary in hospital is doing.

If you’re after a non- douchey or pretentious staff that genuinely make you feel like an extended family member visit De Mello Palheta . Don’t just take my word for it, get off your computer, jump on the TTC and come up to the best part of Toronto; Eglinton (totally not want to be bias, but this is my neighborhood and it’s the best part of the six).

 

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Bicerin Espresso Bar

Bicerin has taken over the coffee scene within Baldwin village offering free wifi, comfortable seating and of course that great coffee. Freshly roasted single origin beans make for great tasting coffee, and if like me you prefer a healthy alternate milk, you have the option of soy, coconut milk and my favorite; almond milk. One of my favorite aspects of this coffee joint is that it feels very personal with close wooden tables that are often shared with 2-3 people, plus friendly staff that make it very easy to strike up convocation.

 

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Café plenty 

A chic nook along Dundas west and a new recently opened store in the Financial district. Fall in love with the modern blanc white layout and the smooth coffee taste. There is a huge range of pastries, paninis and salads that makes this a already popular brunch/lunch stop, so don’t expect to get a seat at lunch time unless you’re ready to fight for it. The paninis will cost a steep $10 but they serving sizes are huge and come with a complementary side salad, and for the vegan and gluten-free species out there you have not been forgotten, there is plenty of item on the menu, you’ll be sure to fall in love with. Go ahead while yourself and support a small growing business.

If you know any great cafe’s in Toronto that I haven’t listed please let me know in the comments below 🙂

Bonappetit!

 

 

Mongolia and the Gobi Desert

Mongolia is one of the last truly nomadic countries left on our planet, this absolutely breathtaking expanse entails vast, rugged and fiercely wild wonders that will enlighten the raw nomadic sprit in all.  Mongolia’s ancient land delivers experiences, adventure and uncut beauty unobtainable anywhere else. You cannot help but feel a primal, humbling and emotional connection to this awe-inspiring terrain.22883966_1582272258501768_802089740_o

So, in order step foot in this remarkable land 9 out of 10 times you’ll be entering through Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, as there’s not much you can do to avoid this. Don’t let this city discourage or cloud your impression of the country, as the real Mongolia and the best of it is yet to come. Try not to spend much more than a day here, and if you have to, take a tour or hire a driver to take you out of the city and to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and The Giant Chinggis Khaan statue. Its well worth a visit.

Keeping it cheap.

If you have looked into flights, accommodation and tours you have probably learnt that this is not going to be a cheap destination and unfortunately your not wrong, however as I have done this exact trip I can offer an insight on how you can experience an amazing trip and save a few bucks here and there. Sorry I can do much in the area of flights and unless you’re coming through China by Bus or Russia by train (both of which, you will need a visa), there’s going to be pretty pricy airfare, as Mongolia only has the one international Airport- Chinggis Khaan International Airport.

However as for accommodation and a Tour of the Gobi desert I have an excellent alternative to the inflated prices listed online.

Where to stay

First off, your going to want to book a room at The H7 Hostel in Ulaanbaatar, this place is basically an apartment so you wont have to worry about walking into a party hostel with 12 beds to a room and the constant fear of being robbed. There are only private rooms so you wont be sharing a room with anyone, additionally there is a kitchen at your disposal, the location is perfect, and it is very clean and modern. Although, even with all this in mind, the best part about the Hostel is the owner; Namjil. He is a super nice guy that goes well out of his way to meet your every demand. Namjil organised an absolutely amazing trip for my sister and I that allowed us to see the best parts of the country and truly get a feel for the real Mongolia. We spoke to him about our desire to explore the Gobi and he devised a tailor made trip, calculating the cost of a driver, fuel, food and accommodation in a different area and Ude each night. This met we knew exactly what we where paying for and that there was no hidden commission.23023399_1581224855273175_1953735191_o

The Gobi

Najil took us to the bus station the next morning, helped us by tickets to Dalanzadgad, in the south of Mongolia, this cost less than 10 dollars and took around 8-9 hours. The bus is nothing flash but comfortable enough making regular toilet and food breaks. Najil also sent us up with a sim card each with unlimited calls and data for FREE! So with spottily, Netflix and Angry birds the trip was over before we knew it. Once in Dalanzadgad we found a man holding a sign with our names on it; our diver; Baggy. Baggy did not speck English but was very accommodating and went out of our way to make our experience an enjoyable one. He drove us to a local store where in order to keep within budget we purchased 7 days worth of instant porridge, two-minute noodles and plenty of snacks. We were then taken to the Ude we would be spending our first night in. Here our host family greeted us with a home cooked meal of Horse and rice. Yes, you read that right … Horse. The Mongol people love their horses; they provide them with company, transport, milk and meat. As I am always eager to try something new and ‘when in Rome’ I tried my luck with it. It’s a rather tough meat, and the milk; very, very sour. All in all I’m glad I’ve given it ago, but won’t be ordering this from my local butcher or supermarket any day soon. We then retired to our Ude for the night.

Ude’s!!!

An Ude or Ger is a traditional dwelling distinct in Central Asia and have been in use since the Mongols began their nomadic life with animal husbandry 3,000 years ago. It is very portable and assembled and dissembled easily, aiding to their nomadic lifestyle. They consist of a wooden frame and wool cover, usually sheep or camel, with a fire at its centre. However Keep in mind the fire will not burn all night, and depending on season you choose to go in, it can get very, very cold. I found my self there in the heart of winter and found sleeping very difficult. I hid firewood under my bed to feed the fire at night with, and on one particularly cold night (-10°C) lit my toilet role on fire in order to get the fire started again as the wood had frozen solid.23107361_1582272171835110_762364324_o

I wont lie, the cold made for a rather uncomfortable sleep, but now its all part of the experience and didn’t come to the Gobi desert for the hotels, so took it all in my stride.

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The next morning using a camper stove provided by Baggy we prepared noodles and coffee, packed up our things and Baggy drove us out to Yolyn am to explore the mountains and frozen Ice Rivers among wild horse and marmots.22882284_1581235561938771_1721087503_o

Then back to the road, or desert rather as I did not see a road once during my stay in the Gobi. We spent most of our time in the car with Baggy but found we were never bored. The desert is constantly changing, we saw many herds of camels, horses, and goats, and even hairs and gazelles. That night we visited a new host family, eat horse and noodle soup and spent another night in an Ude.23113000_1583260571736270_1443501732_o

This became our new routine; Baggy driving us to a new and interesting location each day, and then to our new host family for the night. We climbed sand dunes in Khongoriin Els, stood on the windy cliffs of Bayanzag, and explored the beautiful colourful rocks of Tsagaansuvarga, rode Horses and camels, and played with their babies (that where taller than us), watched shooting stars and developed a new appreciation for central heating, flushing toilets and showering.

22883832_1582275135168147_733365536_oTo get back to Ulaanbaatar Baggy aided us in purchasing bus tickets, loaded us on the bus, and Najil was there waiting at the other end.

Cost

All in all the cost of my 2 person trip broke down to:

  • Driver + Car -$100
  • Fuel   – $150
  • Week of horse dinners (for 3, drivier inc) – $180
  • A weeks accommodation in Ude’s (for 3, driver inc) – $ 180
  • Activities i.e. horse and camel ridding – $40

Total = $650 for 2 people!

 

Mongolia isn’t a holiday destination; you won’t be finding the Hilton in the Gobi desert nor a McDonalds or KCF. However if your after a real adventure and okay with outdoor holes for toilets, sleeping in sheets that may have NEVER seen soap, no showering for a week, and the probability of eating horse meat and drinking hose milk, then this is the trip for uou; get booking!

Happy Travels!

The best spot to see the Northern lights

Lapland, Finland

Lapland Is an absolute must for all, I cannot stress this enough. Whether you’re a hard-core backpacker, or a senor citizen after a scenic holiday. The sights are truly unique and not to be missed.

 

First of all, if you’ve heard it can be rather pricy, you’ve have not been fooled; Scandinavia has a great economy resulting in high prices. However do not loose hope, like most of life’s rules, there are ways around this. First, plan ahead! If you want to get the best deals and make the most of your trip trust me PLAN AHEAD. Prices literally triple in a matter of weeks. For some more tips on how to save check out my ‘How to travel cheap’ page.

 

So lets get booking

You have 2 options, air or rail. I figure I don’t need to explain how you book a flight, so ill leave that one for you, although I must point out that getting a flight to Rovaniemi can be rather costly. Though as I did you can find reasonable flights to Helsinki and take the train from there, here’s how to do it and why you’ll be glad you opted for this option

 

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Take the scenic route and jump on the Santa clause express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi passing through the magical wilderness of Finland.

 

It sounds like a line from a children’s fairytale, right? But no, this is an actually train and its just as amazing as it sounds.

 

So you can either book a seat, this is the cheapest option and for a reason. It is more or less a busy commuter train. The train stops often allowing people on and offs this results a lot of notice, disturbances and constant light. This will set you back around 50 euros, however if this isn’t your cup of tea we have option 2.

You can opt for the eco second-class bunk this accommodates two passengers in a bunk bed style cabin. This is honest the greatest train I have ever been on. Its super modern with everything from free Wi-Fi, power sockets, air conditioning, a toilet and a shower!!! Yep, that right, you have not read this wrong, there is private showers, with hot water and all. They’re nothing better than steeping out of a steamy shower and watching snowy wilderness passing, and if you love to bath in the envy of other, then why not tack advantage of the free Wi-Fi to face-time home and show your jealous friends and family how beautiful Finland is live. (After you’ve gotten dressed from the shower of course, don’t scare them with the image of your naked body, nobody wants to see that, nobody).

This beautiful double deck train will take about 10-11 hours; there is also a restaurant carriage accessible. Remember when I mentioned planning ahead, this is why; you can reserve this amazing journey in for as little as 75-100 euros, however you can be sure that the prices of this will climb significantly with time if not sell out completely. Visit https://www.vr.fi/cs/vr/fi/etusivu to score your seat NOW. As I personally flew into Helsinki I booked a train that departed Helsinki Airport, this meant I had to board a regular commuter train to Tikkurila and then change for the train to Rovaniemi. I book both these trains as a hole through the link VR website linked above.

 

Rovaniemi

Now, you’re in Rovaniemi! But still not in the Arctic Circle, so we need to continue heading north.

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Before doing this I recommend spending some time in Rovaniemi there is so many unique activities to do in Lapland you could easily spend a week here and never do the same thing twice. Go hunt for the Northern lights, or go on a snowmobile safari, visit a reindeer farm and a play with Huskies, go ice fishing or Arctic swimming!!! ????

 

The Santa Clause Village and the Arctic Circle

And once you’re ready to cross the Arctic Circle, spend a day at the official Santa Claus Village. This is a real place where its Christmas 365 days a year. No matter your age you will feel like a kid at Christmas. Upon entering The Santa village find your self in a truly magical place, the Arctic Circle, and its coordinates are printed on the floor so make sure to get a picture as you cross over it. This place is sure to keep you entertained for hours. There is shopping, the snowman village (ice skating and tobogganing), Elves in the toy workshop and of course you get to MEET SANTA CLAUS and MRS CLAUS and take a photo to prove it!

 

Getting there

To get to this enchanted land visit the Tourist Information store in the town centre of Rovaniemi. They will provide you with all this information you need to catch the bus, such as times, prices and your closest stop. It’s super easy and takes only around 10 to 15 minutes. They will drop you off at the same place it picks you up from, so getting back to Rovaniemi centre is easy.

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The Arctic Snow Hotel

If you’ve come this close and if you’ve got the money, DO IT! This place should really be on everyone’s bucket list. You have the option of staying in a private glass roofed Igloo or in the Ice hotel. The Igloos are complete with heating, a heated shower, a glass roof that offers the chance to view the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed, however if your after something really different, I recommend the Ice Hotel. Neither of these are cheap but they’re truly one of a kind, with the ice hotel melting down at the end of the winter season only to be built again from scratch once the weather gets cold enough. As there is only a handful of Igloo’s and the one hotel these book up quick so book early, or you may miss out.

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To get here book the $30 shuttle bus through the hotel to pick you up from Rovaniemi. DON’T get a taxi, it is not a short drive (one hour) and can cost you a whopping $80.

We opted for the Ice Hotel, and did not regret it. The entire hotel is Ice, the roof, walls, flooring included. There is also an Ice bar, drinks served in ice cups, and an Ice restaurant with ice seats, and tables, your dessert is even served on ice plates, an ice chapel you can even get married in! And every room is carved differently complete with an ice sculpture.

The hotel is kept at a constant -5ºC, but don’t worry you will be provided with excellent a sub 0ºC sleeping bag and a heated shared bathroom. You are also provided with a locker, in a heated room so your belongings wont freeze. If you worried you will miss the amazing Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) don’t be. You can opt to turn on the Aurora Borealis alarm. If the lights are spotted by ‘The official Northern lights spotter’ (Yes, that a real job) you will be woken, and server hot berry juice will you watch them float by above. Additionally the hotel has a heated lobby and dinning room (with breakfast included), a sauna, and day activities.

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I absolutely loved this trip and have a greater love and appreciation for this country. I really hope this inspires your next trip to Lapland, if so let me know below in the comments.

 

Happy Travels

HOW TO GET A RUSSIAN VISA

Getting Into Russia can feel pretty overwhelming when it comes to getting your hands on the all important and vital VISA. But have no fear it really doesn’t need to be as difficult and many of the websites may make you think.

You can apply for the visa no more than one month is advance. However it is possible to complete in as little 2 weeks. I recommend you give yourself the month; you will save your self a lot of unnecessary stress, if you come across any hiccups. Before any application can begin there are a few documents you will need to have in order.

 

Documents

Number one, needless to say you need a valid passport, with at leased 6 months left on a free page.

Next, you’ll need insurance that covers your entire stay. You should really get this no matter where you decide to go, it’s a no-brainer. There are 101 different travel insurances that you can easily purchase. Make sure to give the company a call and insure they will cover Russia and all the activities you intended on doing.

 

Now, the invitation letter.

This is a letter from the hotel you are staying at that states you have a booking with them, which dates, and all their details. Technically this is the place in which you are required to stay for the entirety of your stay, however the visa will NOT have this address printed on it, so moving from the hotel, and city is not a problem. You will only need this invitation letter for the Visa (basically the Russian government just wants proof of where you are staying), once that is obtained you can cancel your booking (make sure you make a refundable booking with the hotel or hotel provider), and stay where ever you please. The easiest thing to do is pay a hotel or company to send you this invitation letter, while well aware you have no intention on staying there. I found the cheapest hostel, booked it for the month and cancelled it after I obtained my visa, getting a full refund. (Everyone does this)

Please note there are scams, so do your research. I used Fortuna Travel, and they where great. For €9.99 (single entry) or €14.99 (double Entry) you can have your invitation letter in minutes, I cannot recommend them more. Follow the link https://visatoruss.com/ and they will walk you through the process with ease.

 

So you’ve got your invitation letter, now its time to fill out your visa application form at https://visa.kdmid.ru/PetitionChoice.aspx. It is a long for but pretty straight forward. You will need to print this and stick a passport-sized photo to it.

 

It is now time you get all your documents in order, print them off and head to the Russian consulate. This includes: Your passport (and copies) proof of address (either a bank statement or copy of your drivers licence). Your invitation letter, a copy of you hotel booking, your insurance policy stating you are covered for the duration of your stay. The application form signed and with the passport photo pasted on. And off course your payment. The price depends of your country and wether it is a single or double entry visa and the processing time. A single entry with 10 days processing will set you back around €90, some consultants only accept “postal money order”, check the consulates website.

Take all this to the embassy, an appointment should not be necessary, but again check the consultants website. Hand in your documents, make the payment and leave your passport. They will give you a slip of paper, and tell you the date it will be ready, come back on the date with the paper (with this paper, someone else can pick up your passport for you, if you cannot make it on the day) and collect your passport and VISA. Check your Visa, there would be nothing worse than to be knocked back at the border for something as small as spelling.

Now, its time to explore Russia. Check out my Crossing the Border into Russia Page to see exactly what to expect when entering Russia.

Crossing the border into Russia

 Forget anything you think you know about Russia, and GO! Russia is well and truly like no place else. And every town from Moscow to Vladivostok is completely different, and well worth the visit. The Trans-Siberian-Railroad should be on every backpackers bucket list, and I cannot erg you enough to get it ticked off.✓

 

Lets start from to beginning: How do we get in??

First you’re going to need to visa, for this you have two options.

Option number 1: You can pay (a lot) and get a travel agent to do it for you. If you’re tight on time and have the money to spend, I recommend this option. Getting the visa is a long and somewhat complicated process, so if you can afford it, save yourself the stress and visit a travel agent.

Option 2: So, you’re a tight-ass or too stubborn to ask for help because you’re ‘a real backpacker’. (I am also a ‘tight-ass/real backpacker’ and therefore have all the first hand answers you need, I am essentially your Google, ask me anything).

For this I recommend you check out my ‘how to get a Russian visa’ page. Here I have stet out step by step on how you can obtain a visa all by yourself, because you’re “an independent human, and you don’t need no help from no one”

 

Now you have the visa, what’s next? …. The train

There are 101 different flights arriving in and out of Russia that are available and easy to arrange, but as we’ve already establisher we’re ‘real back packers’ and therefore we don’t do ‘easy’, right?

So in order for you to truly brag of how you travelled across the entire country of Russia, 9656.064 kilometres, and 11 times zones all by train you need to make sure you actually travel to entire thing by train. There are loads of train roots that lead into Russia, whether it be all the way from London, Victoria, or as close as Latvia, Riga. I personally caught the train from Riga and will explain exactly how I did it.

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Riga to St Petersburg by Train

Okay, I know it’s a little scary, like your going to Russia, who does that?

Have no fear, I have crossed the border and lived to tell the tale, disappointingly I had no run-ins with Russian spy’s, the mafia, or AK 47’s, and wasn’t thrown into Prison for twerking (Women were actually arrested for twerking in front of a Russian war Memorial, you have been warned…)

Russia is truly a safe country to travel to, and if you truly are a ‘real backpacker’ then you do your research, hence your reading this so my point made. Know your stuff and keep smart, and you’re going to learn to really love and respect this country and will honestly not regret exploring all the wonders it has to offer.

Back to the train, you can catch a direct train from Riga to St Petersburg; you can book that at https://travel.ldz.lv/en, it should only take 7-8 hours, I recommend booking a overnight train and doing this at leased a week in advanced, trains fill up fast, the prices get higher as time passes and you only have a months visa for Russia and you cant afford to looses even a day. This cost between 30-40 Euros.

The Train station at Riga provides Lockers at the station so, if your hostel check out is early and your train is late, go ahead and leave your bags at the station, it should only cost 5-10 euros for the day.

The train can appear to be a little confusing as the train you catch will say Riga to Moscow (Москва), as the train split once you cross the boarder, half the train going to Moscow the other half continuing on to St-Petersburg (Sankt-Peterburg). There are many help counters and desks you can visit, if like me, you feel the need to check that you are going to the right platform and boarding the right train 4 times.

In order to board the train you will need your passport, and printed ticket. After presenting this you are free to board and find your bunk.

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1st, 2nd or 3rd Class???

So I’ve tried them all, and each have their pros and cons.

  • 3rd class is obviously the cheapest option. There are open cabins (no door) with two sets of bunks on either sides, and an additional bunk across the isle. Note: the top bunks are cheaper, but require a climb.

People will be walking back and forth through the isle getting to the bathrooms and there beds, so noise and traffic is unavoidable, this also means that if you go to the bathroom, you either have to leave your belongings unattended, or take them with you. I cable tie my luggage to the bed frame and padlocked my bags, however it only takes someone with a pair of scissors to walk past and your stuff is gone. Friendly reminder: Never leave your passport unattended!!! Replacing that is next to impossible.

  • 2nd I will never again take a door for granted, they’re great, and are extremely underrated in the modern world!

2nd class consists of 2 sets of bunks in a mall cabin and a small table in-between. I almost always opted for the top bunk, its cheaper, harder for people to climb up and steel your belongings (I hide them in my pillow case while sleeping) and no one is going to sit on the end of you bed, which is what many commuters do if they are only catching the train for a short distance, and do not require a bed.

  • 1st class is nice but quite frankly unnecessary; here you will be placed in a cabin with either one or two beds. The privacy is great, but in the end you’re still subjected to sitting on the train for hours on end with little to no entertainment, possible delays, bumpy roads and boredom, just like everyone else.

 

Evidently I recommend 2nd class, it’s more comfortable, you have a door, its reasonable priced, and it’s quieter. Your doing this trip and on this train for the experience, so stop being a pampered privileged kid, get amongst the locals, and share some Vodka and Caviar. However in saying this, you are essentially locked in a cabin with three strangers for an extended period of time. I met another solo traveller that said they prefer to 3rd class as they did not safe feel being locked in.

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If like me you have an in-depth fear of starving and require a constant supply of ‘emergency snacks’ then now’s you chance to stock up. There is little no food on most the trains, however you have at your disposal an endless supply of hot water. I am now well educated on the variety of food that can be prepared with nothing more than a little hot water. E.g. noodles, mashed potato, rice, porridge, cous cous, soup, tea, hot chocolate and coffee. I hope these tickle your fancy, as this will become your primary diet over the next few weeks.

 

You’re on the train. Next stop the Border…

Crossing the boarder is done in two parts. First you will leave Latvia , your passport will be checked and stamped, then about an hour later you will enter Russia. If you have opted for an over night train this process is done in the middle of the night, additionally you are unlikely to find any English speakers to help you, and will more than likely feel very intimidated by the numerous uniformed police, and custom officers, but don’t be fouled this is an act and if you don’t cause any trouble you wont be stuck any.

You will be given two small immigration entry cards to fill out, they will ask general information, such as your name, D.O.B, Russian accommodations, and a visa number. The custom officer will stamp both keeping one for there records and returning one to you. Don’t loose it! You are required to have this on your person for you entire stay in Russia and must present it when exiting the country. Crossing the boarder is a lengthy process and will be sure to give even the calmest of people some serious anxiety.

 

Sample of the entry card  ↓

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You did it! Congratulations your in, now what?

Now get some sleep, you’re soon to arrive in St Petersburg Russia, and the adventure continues!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting in Kyiv, Ukraine

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We laced up our boots, backed our bags and took to the sky’s, our first Spot Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine is a complicated country, still struggling in the tug a war between Russia and the European Union, and recovering from the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant disaster of 1986. None the less the City of Kiev is thriving and shows little evidence of the struggles the north of the country is experiencing due to the ongoing war.

Kiev is bustling with unique culture and history and has an abundance of attractions, sure to keep any tourist happy and busy.

Getting in: 

If you’re an Aussie like me, you’ll need a visa, luckily enough you can get one on arrival, unfortunately, this is not quite as simple as it seems. After a delayed flight, I did not arrive in Kiev until 10.30pm. I then lined up at the customs desk where I was asked to present my visa; I explained I had intended on getting one on arrival. I was then told to wait at the back of the room with a few others in my same situation. After 30 minutes when the other passengers from my flight, the ones with Ukrainian or EU passports had all gone through another customs officer again asked for my visa and told him the same thing, he was not happy about this but return after another 30 minutes with another customs officer which then proceeded to process each person and provide them with the visa.

I was required to show proof of my accommodation, fill in a form with various details such as my address, occupation and phone number, have a photo taken and then pay the equivalent of €80, the whole ordeal took around 3 hours.

costomsThe visa processing office closes at 7pm, and then opens up again at 9am the next morning, and it is not uncommon to be told you must wait until morning and sleep on the floor or seats while you wait, I can only recommend you get a flight that lands in-between their opening hour and save your self the possibility of spending an uncomfortable night in the airport.

Cost:

Although Ukraine’s economy took a rather significant dive due to the ongoing war it is recovering and the market is growing little by little every day. And Kiev being the capital is at the forefront. Yes, it is cheaper many of its neighbours such as Poland and Lithuania and certainty cheaper than Western Europe, but it is slowly catching up.

  • Accommodation, depending on your standard can vary from a dorm in a hostel from €4 -€12, to private rooms in hostels at €10-€20, to 5-star Hotel suits at €300 per night. I found a private room in a hostel for around €15 a night, was perfect for me.
  • A cup of coffee sat at around €2-€3.IMG_4797 2
  • Meals ranged from€3 pizzas to €6 Chicken Kiev (a must try!)
  • Attraction entry rarely climbed above 50 Ukraine Hryvnia (€1.60).

All in all Kiev is a great destination for budget travellers

                                                                                   Safety:

Yes, Ukraine is at war, but away from the boarded, and in the capital Kiev, it is in my option was very safe. Nights like in most cities became seedy, and thieves and petty crime was evident, however during the day and in the city centre, I felt relativity safe the entire time. The key is to be aware and smart.

Communication: 

Keep in mind English is not Ukraine’s mother-tongue, nor is it commonly spoken, so there’s is going to be a language barrier stronger than most in capital cities as tourism has been slow due to the recent conflicts with the north. But don’t let this deter you, it is surprising how much can be communicated through hand signals. And to make things even easier the 21st century has provided us with a number of incredible apps, that I have now couldn’t travel without including Triposo and Google translate. Check out my Must have Travel Apps post for more apps and details.

Travel:

By foot. Depending on your accommodation and where you wish to visit, walking from one attraction to the next is relatively easy. Walking provides an arrange of benefits as you are able to see more of the city, save money and find lots of secret gems hidden in back streets and down wrong turns. Although though if you stuck for time, am visiting sites further out or just a lazy person, the metro if just what you need.IMG_4821.JPG

The Metro. For a mere 5 Ukraine Hryvnia (€0.16), you can catch the metro across the city with ease. The ticket operator will be unwilling to attempt communication, and seems so respond for nothing other than money and will only then replying by flicking a blue token at you. Then slip the token into the ticket gate and follow the signs to your platform. There are Metro maps at every station and on the metro, however, it is best to count your stops, as the audio, although in English and Ukrainian is difficult to understand, and the names of each station is not written on the platform, making it difficult to know whether or not you have arrived at your stop.

Option number 3 UBER. Ordering an Uber in Kiev proved to be very quick and easy, with most cars arriving within minutes. Uber provides the safety of knowing exactly who is driving you, where you are, and how much it should cost. There is no need to argue, over price, or worry you are being taken around in circles or worse, kidnapped to be later murdered and left in a ditch. You can also share your trip details with a friend for extra security. Language shouldn’t be too much of an issue as they can see clearly where you wish to be taken. And if you’re needing to transport heavy luggage, this is the easiest option, however, keep in mind Kiev traffic can become an issue around peak hours so give your self-plenty of time, especially when travelling to the airport, again Uber should provide you with an estimation on how long your trip should take. From the city centre to the airport should cost no more than €13.

Now it’s time to

 

 Explore the amazing sights Kiev has to offer!

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Be a tourist and make sure you get a cheesy photo with the “I love Kiev” at the square of independence.

Because after all what’s the point of going to such an odd destination if you can’t brag about it on social media? However keep in mind if you want a picture which out a dozen other tourist posing with selfie-sticks around you, get in early!

 

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Pechersk Lavra . Caves Monastery. This amazing UNESCO world heritage site cannot be missed. First Founded in 1051 by the monks, and said to be the holiest in Ukraine, you’ll surely to want to spend a few hours exploring this amazing place. 50 Ukraine Hryvnia will by you entirety, from there you can pick and chose further Monastrys and museums to by entrance too.

Make sure to climb The Great Lavra Bell Tower, to view the city and Monasteries in all their glory.