Why you need to see Kazakhstan now!

This is a country I never really expected to visit, and only really did because of its geography; basically it was in the right place at the time. Although having said that, I’m so glad I did. This was the first “Stan” I had visited, but would defiantly not be my last. This diverse country sparked a new fascination, interest and curiosity in this part of the world that I did not posses before my visit.

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Astana

I flew into Kazakhstan’s capital Astana from Russia, as I had previously read it was relatively easy to get a Mongolian Visa from here. Have a look at my ‘Getting a Mongolian Visa in Astana, Kazakhstan’ post from details on this.

Getting around.

Astana is a large city, as such many of its attraction are rather spaced out, I’d recommend taking advantage of the public transport. Even without speaking the country’s native tongue catching the local buses are relatively easy and super cheap, the standard fare converting to less than 0.30c. There is also the classic ‘Hop on Hop off’ Bus. If you’re tight on time these are a great option, allowing you to view the best parts of the city and its attractions as well as hear about its history all in a matter of hours.

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Chimkent

I was eager to get a real feel of the country and escape the mundane of a city, after a few hours of searching Kazakh tours I found myself communicating with a local guide I found through ‘Indy Guide’. Convincing me to take the 12-hour train south to Chimkent was easy after a quick Google image search. The south region of Kazakhstan has absolutely breathtaking natural landscapes that I was eager to get amongst, and boarded a train the next day.IMG_7044

I shared a cabin with a young woman and her two cheeky kids, an hour latter I found my self baby-sitting the 2 and 5-year-old boys while she had took disserved nap. None of us understood each other, however they soon came to refer to me as ‘Apa’, meaning sister. After a bumpy nights sleep I found my self swapping phone numbers and Facebook’s with my cabin buddies and saying good bye, as I jumped off the train and into the dusty hot air of the south.

I spent the day exploring the city and the night in a creepy looking hostel. The next morning the adventure began.

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To be entirely honest my guide was rather annoying and never seemed to know when to shut up, but undeniably loved his country and knew where the best place to visit where. On top of that he knew almost every fact, story and spiritual meaning for everything from the many amazing Mausoleum we visited to Carpet, like seriously this guy spent a good part of the afternoon taking me around a caplet factory and explaining the origin of Kazak carpet, the guy could not get enough of it, and confessed that his home was covered in it, floor, walls and roof???? (True story). During my week with him I was taken everywhere from the steps of the desert, to the mouthman’s and even spent a few nights with a local family in a small village with their 7 children, and couple of horses, cows, chickens, sheep and donkeys. Here I was spontaneously brought to the local school of 160 students from 5-18 to teach a lesson of English, as even the English teachers could not speak it, there was also a whole school assembly to show me of as a westerner, with a Q and A season.

In this village I also tried Horses Milk a delicacy of the area and many Kazak sweets as the locals believed that western people loved sweets would offer them to me constantly. I trekked a mountain and had a picnic at its snowy peak, explored ancient ruins, rode a rather grumpy horse, picked fruit from wild apple trees and watched men squat with a baby camel on their back (apparently it’s a traditional sport)

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After a crazy, weird and adventures week it was time to move on, and the city of Almaty seamed as good as any. I boarded yet another train and 13hours later I was wondering the streets in search for my hostel. After asking a handful of people if they spoke English, I found a woman with her mother in the park, that not only called the hostel for me, but helped me but walked me to it, and helped carrying my overly packed front-pack.

 

The city of Almaty has some unique and beautify sights; however just beyond its rim is untouched beauty that deserves to be on everyone’s bucket like. As I was to be spending my birthday in this city, I made a point make my time here memorable and found that to challenge. I organised a tour with some others in my hostel a few of Almaty’s best natural locations, including the famous Kolsi Lake, Charyn canyon and Kaindy Lake all of which are bewildering, exceptional and astonishing there own remarkable way. It took several hours in a craped car, on some of the bumpiest roads I’ve travelled on, with a guide that spoke next to no English, however he did spit out “Kangaroo”, when I told him I was from the land down under.IMG_7083

Before I know it I had spent over a week in Almaty and almost a month in Kazakhstan. And as my visa was due to expire I was to move on, next stop Mongolia. If you’re humming and Harring about visiting Central Asia, I’m hear to assure you. You will not regret exploring this antique part of the globe.

Happy Travels!

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Why I love Soeul – South Korea

Welcome to a Disneyland like paradise, where the lights only shine brighter when the sun goes down…. Seoul, South Korea

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Stepping off the plane and into the airport, and you’ll already know you are somewhere very special and very very….. Different, to say the least.

If like me the first thing you do once you get off a long flight is find the closest restrooms, then prepared to be amazed, South Koreas high tech toilets are about to blow your mind. You will be greeted by systems with a button for everything from playing music, and heating the seat, to an oddly enjoyable water squirt directed certain points of the rear??? So, now you’re sitting there listening to the relaxing waterfall sounds and finish up your ‘duty’ (Pun intended), wave a hand over the sensor and receive a precisely measured amount of toilet paper, once you stand up the toilet flushes automatically and then begins to clean its self with sanitized, as it bids you farewell.

If this isn’t enough to freak you out, then take a casual stroll down the road and checkout the k-pop street performers, the girls dressed as dollish anime characters and the occasional Owl, Raccoon or poop café.IMG_7837.jpg

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Take a deep breath in and guess what you’ll smell? Korean BBQ of course, what were you thinking off ? That’s right BBQ!

Korean BBQ is a whole new interactive experience! Take a seat at a table witht a giant woke style BBQ at its centre. Let the waiter know what you fancy and a few moments later some raw meat and veggies will be delivered. Don’t go blaming the cheff if you food is over cooked, because now you’re the chef!!

A little nervous? Its okay because even an idiot or a baby could do this, I know because I can sometimes be both. Let the sizzling magic begin with a bottle of typical Korean beer Mekju.

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Seoul is one of my favorite cities to date, its not just for the unexpected, strange and futurist sights that make you know you’re a very long way from home, but the culture and people. I found that even though Koreans are always moving forward in technology and business, they have managed to maintain and live by their old traditions creating a buzzard and beautiful balance between the two.

Being a young girl who always finds herself lost in a big city, it’s life saving to have multiple strangers stop and offer help, even when I wasn’t in need of any. On one particular occasion a few Koreans actually caught the train with me just to help me get to my destination.

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Koreans are polite and respectful, so much so that even on an empty street and 4am in the morning, they will wait for the little green man to tell them when to cross, or during peak hour on a Monday they will line up to board the subway.

I could write on for pages how beautiful this city is, but really its one to discover on your own.

Happy Travels!

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!

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