Monthly Archives: May 2015

Two Years of Travel in Pictures: Julie’s favourite photos of our trip (Latvia to Thailand)

When we were thinking about wrapping up our two years of travel it seemed like a good idea to have a round up of our favourite photos. To speed up the process we decided to each go through the photos that we took and compile our own selections. It hadn’t really occurred to me how long it would take to just physically look through the 42,485 photos that I had saved, never mind decide which 50 or so were the best. It was a lot of fun though and we found ourselves frequently stopping to share a photo and ask “remember this?”

I’d say that the most photogenic countries we visited were Mongolia for stunning landscapes, Bangladesh for its friendly people, Japan for its culture, and Uzbekistan for a mix of buildings and people as well as phenomenal weather (a bit of sunshine can make the difference between an OK photo and a good one).

It quickly became obvious that I wouldn’t be able to whittle my favourites down to 50, so here is the first of three long instalments…

20130326-104743.jpgThe reconstructed House of the Blackheads on our first evening in Riga, Latvia

Dried fish in Riga's marketA display of dried fish in Riga’s amazing covered market

20130326-105509.jpgPickled vegetables are a big part of the food culture in the Baltics and Russia and we got quite a taste for them. This stall is in Riga’s market

4Evangelic Lutheran Church in Sigulda, Latvia

5Sibelius monument detail on a grey and rainy morning in Helsinki, Finland

6One of the domes of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg, Russia

20130418-223439.jpgSt Petersburg’s Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood was one of my favourite sights in Russia, and the interior was just as spectacular as the exterior

8Cadets stand guard at the statue of the Motherland at Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St Petersburg where 420,000 victims of the Siege of Leningrad are buried

Fountains at PeterhofLooking through the Grand Cascade at Peterhof

Domes at PeterhofI loved the onion domes on the Russian Orthodox churches and these gold ones at Peterhof are particularly striking

Russian dollsNot buying myself a Russian doll is a small regret from my time in Russia though I probably would have been sick of carrying it very quickly!

Tsar Cannon in the KremlinThe huge Tsar-Cannon in Cathedral Square at the Moscow Kremlin has supposedly only ever been fired once

20130515-110123.jpgKomsomolskaya metro station in Moscow

Icon, Sergiev PosadAn icon and candles in the monastery in Sergiev Posad, part of Russia’s Golden Ring

River Yenisey in KrasnoyarskLooking up the River Yenisey in Krasnoyarsk

20130610-084624.jpgAs we moved into Siberian Russia, the landscapes got noticeably bigger and heavily forested. The view from the Stolby Nature Reserve near Krasnoyarsk seemed to go on forever

Snowy mountains above BaikalskoeSnowy mountains above the small village of Baikalskoe on the northern shores of Lake Baikal

Buryat sacred tree on Olkhon IslandThe Buryat people of Siberia practice animism, this sacred tree on Olkhon Island is tied with offering scarves

19On our first evening staying at Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal we watched a spectacular sunset

Rotten boat, Olkhon IslandA dilapidated old boat lies on the lakeshore in the north of Olkhon Island

20130701-211903.jpgLooking along the length of the train as we leave Russia

Monastery door handlesDoor handles at Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Young monks in UlaanbaatarYoung monks carrying a milk churn through Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar

Sunset at Erdene Zuu monasterySunset at Erdene Zuu monastery in Kharkhorin

Oogii our Gobi Desert guideOogii, the guide on our 9 day tour to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia

Tsagaan SuvragaA thunderstorm swept through as we arrived Tsagaan Suvraga in Mongolia, leaving us with moody skies and sunlight with which to admire the eerie looking rock formations

Mongolian roadA typical road in Mongolia stretching off into the distance with no other man made feature in sight

GersMore than half of the Mongolian population still live in gers

20130728-220113.jpgA huge full moon rising over the Gobi desert in Mongolia

Chinggis the dogThis dog decided to accompany us on a walk through Terelj National Park in eastern Mongolia. In honour of the great khaan we called him Chinggis!

Ovoo in eastern MongoliaOvoos, small cairns of rocks, are commonly found beside roads in Mongolia. Passing travellers add a rock to pray for a safe journey

20130829-085144.jpgActually this photo was taken on Andrew’s camera but I snuck it in as it always makes me smile. We found this public artwork in Beijing’s 798 District

Great WallChina’s Great Wall seen through a window in one of the towers of the Jinshanling section

Pingyao city wallIt was great to have my parents visit us for two weeks in China and I love this photo of them walking along Pingyao’s city wall

20130914-225210.jpgAt the City God Temple in Pingyao we happened upon a play performed twice daily

20130914-225222.jpgTemple visitors in China try to throw a coin into the pot for good luck

Terracotta warriors Pit 1The scale of Pit 1 at the Tomb of the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an took my breath away

Bell tower, Xi'anBell tower in Xi’an – we never saw the bell, but judging by the size of the tower it must be pretty big!

20130911-100943.jpgI would happily have spent hours watching the pandas at the breeding centre that we visited near Xi’an

Busker in YinchuanI don’t have many people photos from China, largely being too intimidated by the crowds I think, but I’m glad I stopped to ask this busker in Yinchuan if i could take his photo

Temple building at Summer PalaceSide building near the Temple of Buddhist Virtue and view down to Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Star Ferry in Hong Kong harbourThe Star Ferry which crosses Hong Kong’s harbour has a distinctly retro look

20130919-143608.jpgHong Kong’s skyline is justifiably famous. Every evening at 8pm there is a free light show

Mong Kok bird marketThe Mong Kok area of Hong Kong is famous for its markets including song birds which locals keep as pets

Incense coilA burning incense coil hangs from the ceiling in one of Hong Kong’s temples

Spring rollsWe found the world’s best spring rolls in a small restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam

Umbrellas in Sa PaWe joined a very rainy walk to some local villages along with an entourage of local ladies selling crafts during our stay in Sa Pa in northern Vietnam

Bathroom near Sa PaDuring a homestay visit near Sa Pa we took a traditional herbal bath in the house of the sister of our host family

20131018-160509.jpgAndrew having the first of many street-side haircuts, this one was in Hanoi

20131018-160155.jpgThere are far more varieties of noodles than I ever dreamed of for sale in Vietnam

Vietnam Museum of EthnologyOur friend Jo visited us for the first time in Vietnam. I was trying to brighten this photo which we took at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and really liked the effect I got by changing it to black and white

Ha Long Bay cruiseOne of our fellow daytrippers diving off the boat during our cruise around Ha Long Bay from Cat Ba Island

Silk lantern maker in Hoi AnA lady making silk lanterns at a craft shop in Hoi An

Wooden masks on a wall in Hoi An, VietnamWooden masks on a wall in Hoi An, Vietnam

Market display in Hoi AnGarlic and chillis are frequently used in Vietnamese cuisine

Shopper in Cai Rang floating marketThe floating market at Cai Rang was fascinating and we loved watching the locals’ standing up rowing technique

20131111-210141.jpgVietnamese boats have eyes…

Crabs for saleCrabs for sale at the Cai Rang land market

Bacon the Vietnamese pigBacon, the pet pig at Nguyen Shack homestay made very cute grunting noises when we scratched his back

MartiniOur trip was occasionally glamorous… To celebrate an incredible two weeks travelling through Vietnam with Jo we had cocktails in the rooftop bar of the Sheraton Hotel

Electric wires in Phnom PenhWe really felt for the guys who have to fix any faults with the electrical systems in China and Southeast Asia. This tangle was above the streets in Phnom Penh.

20131125-125238.jpgThe atrocities committed at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh during Pol Pot’s regime defy belief

Rush hour in Phnom PenhRush hour in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as seen from the back seat of a tuk-tuk

Playing pool in Phnom PenhAndrew breaking the pool balls in a bar on street 172, Phnom Penh

Rice fields near KampotPalm trees and rice paddies near Kampot, Cambodia

Calf near KampotA curious calf near Kampot, Cambodia

20131206-110943.jpgA man paddling across to collect a box from the boat we took from Battambang to Siem Reap

Sunrise at Angkor WatIt was worth getting up at 4am to see the sky slowly turning pink behind the iconic towers of Angkor Wat

Temple detail, CambodiaStone carving detail at Preah Khan temple, Angkor

Tree roots at Ta SomTree roots engulfing a gate at Ta Som temple near Siem Reap

Lizard, CambodiaA Changeable Lizard in the undergrowth at Bakong temple, Roluos Group, near Siem Reap

Bicycling boysThese Cambodian boys thought it would be a hoot to chase after our tuk-tuk on their bikes when we drove past!

Pad ThaiPad Thai was one of our favourite Thai street food meals

Buddha statue detail at Wat PhoBuddha statue detail covered with offerings of flowers and gold leaf at Wat Pho, Bangkok

Buddha statue, Chiang MaiBuddha statue at Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Buddhist monks, Chiang MaiReal monks checking out the spookily lifelike fibreglass models of their venerated predecessors at Wat Pha Singh, Chiang Mai

Street art eyeStreet art in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Monk collecting almsA young monk collecting alms at the annual alms-giving to 10,000 monks in Chiang Mai

New Year lanternsLanterns floating above the moat beside Chalyaphum Road in Chiang Mai to wish for good fortune in the New Year

Butcher's stallA butcher’s stall at the Tonlamyai market in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi SuthepWat Prathat Doi Suthep stands on a hilltop overlooking Chiang Mai and is notable for the amount of gold covering its monuments

White Temple, Chiang RaiThe intricate White Temple near Chiang Rai is full of popular culture references as well as traditional Buddhist iconography

Bundles of herbsBundles of herbs for sale in the market near the cookery class we took in Chiang Mai

20140208-144418.jpgWith my elephant Bunjun on our day as elephant owners

Stalagmite in a caveStalagmite in Mueng On Cave, north of Chiang Mai

20140304-064238.jpgBuddha at Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai

Elephant chedi detailImages of elephants are everywhere in Thailand, including surrounding this chedi at Wat Sorasak, Sukhothai

Grand Palace, BangkokThe impressive Grand Palace in Bangkok

Chinatown shopA shop in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Footsteps on Long Beach, Koh LantaFootsteps on Long Beach, Koh Lanta

Boat detailI especially liked this boat detail that I spotted in Koh Lanta’s Old Town as it looks like a J – I assume it’s actually a Thai letter

How to pack for a Two Year Trip

As we mentioned before we set off in our packing dry-run and what do you pack for a two year trip posts, there’s plenty written about what to take on this kind of extended world travel and why to take it. Once you’ve read your fill of those posts and made your kit decisions, here’s a post on how to pack that kit for epic adventures!

Our large rucksacks with space to spare from our packing dry run 4 months before we set off

Our large rucksacks with space to spare from our packing dry run about 4 months before we set off

We carried two rucksacks each – a small one for valuables and day trips, and a large one for everything else. The smaller rucksacks are great for carrying shopping when we visited markets, and for overnight trips like when we spent a few days in Chiang Rai from our base in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or as an overnight bag when we slept on the caravan sofa bed my brother and family hired in Amsterdam.

First, some general tips on packing rucksacks:

  1. Put everything in separate carrier bags – this is to make the contents waterproof. They want to be no more than ¾ full so the top of the carrier bag can be rolled or folded over. If it’s electrical: cables, batteries, camera memory cards, or made of paper (books, leaflets or entrance tickets) use two – they’re light and take up no extra space.
  2. Put the heavier stuff at the bottom – this will make it easier to lift, easier to carry, and its better for the spine too.
  3. Have a place for everything – it might take a few un-packs and re-packs starting out, but 3 months in we had our systems down to a fine art. The benefits are not just being able to quickly find stuff when we needed it, but we knew we had everything before we left because we got used to the order everything had to be packed in!

How to pack a rucksack

Basic rucksack packing guide

Basic rucksack packing guide. The photo was taken outside the Hostel Hospital in Sabile, Latvia near the start of our trip

Top Pocket: Handy stuff we might need in a hurry: raincoat, hat, scarf, gloves, toilet roll

Side Pockets: More space for handy stuff! We’d typically put things like mugs, forks and spoons, suncream and mosquito repellant and padlock and chain-lock to deter opportunist thieves in the side pockets.

Starting at the bottom, here’s how we’d pack an empty rucksack..
Bottom: Heavy, bulky stuff at the bottom and towards the back (i.e. closest to the spine when it’s worn): Spare shoes, flip-flops, clothes in separate bags. I bought dry sacks, but carrier bags will do just fine. One bag for underwear, one for trousers, bottoms and swimwear, another for t-shirts and tops, and don’t forget a bag or two for dirty clothes or laundry – I try to find a colourful bag for laundry so it’s easy to spot.
Middle: This is the area hardest to reach as most rucksacks have openings at top and bottom. Here we put things we think we won’t need while we’re moving between places, such as souvenirs or books we’re not currently reading. This is also the place for toiletries. It’s worth having a wash bag (yes, even for the guys!) as it’s so much easier to carry toothbrushes, toothpaste, shower gel, shaving gear and deodorant to shared shower rooms down the hall from hostel rooms if it’s all in one bag. I took a medium-sized LifeVenture washbag which was perfect, but a carrier bag worked just as well on occasion.
Top: Anything we might need first when we arrive at our destination: Charging cables, any food provisions we had left over such as bags of pasta, tea & coffee, stock cubes and seasonings, sweeties, etc.

Side note.. on the pros and cons of rucksack liners:
Julie used a big waterproof rucksack liner, and on the whole would have preferred separate smaller bags for the single reason that invariably the thing you need is at the bottom which means unpacking your entire bag. That said, on the one occasion of our trip where our bags were completely soaked, everything of Julie’s stayed dry and our guidebook, which was in my rucksack but not in a plastic bag, took 4 days to dry out properly!

Given our experiences, we’d avoid rucksack liners in favour of carrier bags and smaller dry sacks because of the convenience. It’s a pain having to completely unpack when in dorms or we’re only staying somewhere for a few nights.

Day sack: On the move..

1 year in, Joypurhat, Bangladesh

1 year in. 17th March 2014, Joypurhat, Bangladesh – waiting for a bus to Paharpur (photo credit: Roman, a very kind student we met on the train)

When we were moving we’d have a quick think about what we were likely to need and pack that in our smaller rucksack, such as our sleeping bag liners, toothbrush and toothpaste and earplugs if we were on an overnight train. We’d always keep the most important things in our smaller day sacks as they’re much easier to keep with us or close by, and they’re easier to secure with a padlock.

A document wallet is the best place to keep passports, pre-purchased travel tickets, copies of travel insurance, spare SD-cards for digital cameras, emergency cash (in USD), and driving licences. Together with a document wallet each, we’d also carry our sunglasses, digital cameras (and spare camera lenses), iPads and my laptop in our day sacks.

Day sack: Out and about..

Andrew with a baguette in Dijon, France

The full french experience – carrying a fresh baguette through the markets of Dijon, France

If we were staying in shared accommodation we’d put all of the important stuff in Julie’s larger day-sack and padlock it, then put it in a locker or leave it with the reception in their luggage room. My smaller day sack was perfect for carrying the stuff we needed while we were out sightseeing or heading to the markets.

If you have any packing tips for long-term travel, please share them in the comments!

Two Years of Travel in Review: Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve met so many wonderful, friendly people on our travels. Some have become good friends who we’ve kept in touch with and even visited on our way home, and others like shopkeepers and market vendors we just got on really well with. As we got talking there were some common questions asked of us, especially when they enquired about how long our “holiday” was.. it usually went something like this:

Inquisitor: “Great, so how long are you here in [insert city / country]?”

Julie or I: “about a week/month.. we’re on a pretty long trip”

Inquisitor: “really? how long?”

Julie or I: “about two years”

Inquisitor: Astonished smiley

Inquisitor: ..

Inquisitor: “Wow!”

Q: What’s your favourite country?

This is usually the first one and a really difficult question to answer because it’s so hard to choose! Our answer through Mongolia and most of China was Russia as our experiences were still fresh, but 19½ months and 25 countries later we now reply with “different countries for different reasons“..

Q: Which country did you like the least?

The first time we were asked this we really had to think hard about it, and even then we didn’t really come up with an answer – everywhere we’ve visited has had so many overwhelmingly positive traits that the odd negative things hardly register. As we found we were asked this question more frequently, we thought about it some more and came up with 2 for pretty much the same reason.. first was Singapore – we were only there for a week with the intention of recovering from the beautiful sensory overload that was Bangladesh, and we couldn’t have picked a more contrasting country to follow. Singapore was sterile, sensible, and spotless to our eyes. We enjoyed our time there, but it just doesn’t stack up against the other countries on our list for the kind of adventurous backpacking travel we love.
The second is on Andrew’s list for its initial impression having just arrived from Japan.. and it’s South Korea – this time the perfection of the Japanese, well, everything, had raised my expectations and South Korea was a little disappointing. But, it was a slow burner and the combination of Korean hospitality, history, culture and food won me over about a week or so into our month there. Would I go back? In a heartbeat!

Q: Which country surprised you the most?

As well as having our preconceived notions completely reset by Russia, the other surprising country was Japan – we expected it to be all skyscrapers and neon lights but that’s really just some districts of Tokyo – the country is so much greener than we were expecting. Like us, the Japanese love the outdoors so we did plenty of hiking followed by thermal onsen baths!

Q: How big are your bags / how much stuff are you carrying?

We read a lot of other travellers’ experience and advice about what to take and how much to take, and the oft-quoted wisdom that came up again and again was this:

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” – Susan Heller, NYT

And it’s sage advice. We didn’t quite adhere to Heller’s suggestion, and between us we carried 2 big rucksacks (65ltr, 65-75ltr), 2 smaller day sacks (35ltr, 12ltr) and Julie had a small handbag. We wrote about the kit we set off with, and I also did a quick review after a year or so, but in hindsight we could have travelled lighter!

Q: How many countries have you travelled to?

The total number of countries we visited on this two year trip is 25. Of those, 19 countries where new to us, and it brings our individual totals to 39 for Julie and 40 for me. If you like numbers, we have a full post of them you might want to check out!

Q: Haven’t you killed each other yet?!

We’re both pretty easy going (“yeah, right!” – Julie), but being in each other’s pockets 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for two years meant we were bound to rub each other up the wrong way now and then. And they’ve been the things most couples usually argue about, like money; deciding between us which activities, museums and side trips we really wanted to do; how often we wanted to eat out; and just generally which countries to visit, which sights to see, and which routes to take through those countries. In hindsight we think we’ve disagreed very little during the trip and one of the main reasons for leaving our often more-than-full-time jobs to travel in the first place was so we could spend more time together :o)

Q: Which places that you’ve visited would you like to live in?

We like this question, and our friends half expected to receive a postcard from some far-flung place saying that we’d found paradise, bought a beach-house and if they wanted to see us again they’d have to jump on an aeroplane! It’s also a question we’d often ask ourselves of cities and countries as we walked around – “would we live here?” – and, of all the wonderful places we’ve experienced, a few stand out as having our perfect combination of culture (history, museums, theatres, street life and architecture), weather, and of course, food! In trip order, our ideal settling cities are:

  • St Petersburg, Russia – a relaxed version of Moscow, with great museums, and a European influence of varied cuisines and fresh produce
  • Hanoi, Vietnam – amazing food, Bia Hoi (fresh beer), and I’d love riding a scooter everywhere in the mayhem of Vietnamese traffic!
  • Anywhere in Japan – amazing food, fascinating culture and history, beautiful countryside, everything runs to the second and Tokyo had the fastest internet access we’ve experienced!
  • Palermo, Sicilythe freshness of the produce at the markets (can you tell that food is important yet?!), the language was easy to pick up and fun to speak, and it’s surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea so the weather’s warm too
  • Bern, Switzerland – now that we’ve found Julie’s winter sport, we can add Switzerland to our list! Cheese? Wine? Stunning mountain hiking in the summer? And we’d see more of our long-time friends Heidi & Olivier.. Yes please!
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands – we loved the architecture, the Dutch trading history which influenced the diversity of the food, the liberal, pragmatic, tolerant attitude towards everything, the museums, the Belgian-like beers and the cycling everywhere!

Q: Have you ever had anything stolen, or had anything bad happen to you on the road?

Of course! Even though we were pretty seasoned travellers before we embarked on this two year trip, we were still caught out by professional scammers or the odd con-artist now and then, and of course stuff goes missing and things don’t always go according to plan. Our previous experience has been that even though they’re unpleasant at the time, the bad circumstances often make the best stories! Here are a few mishaps and mis-steps from our trip..

  • Missing our flight to Bangladesh – We booked our flight, turned up at the airport in Kuala Lumpur with a little over 2 hours before our original scheduled departure of 7pm to find that the Bangladeshi airline we’d booked with had rescheduled the flight to 6am that morning, without telling us! – no notification, no email, nothing. Apparently it’s a regular trick that particular airline pull, as we were told by the girl at the desk of the only other airline running a flight out of KL to Dhaka that night, which fortunately for us still had seats available!
  • Scammed by a money changer in Uzbekistan – The exchange rate from US Dollar to Uzbek Som was ridiculous. We changed all of our money on the black market which meant standing in public counting fistfuls of money. To their credit, we were never rushed at all by any of the money changers when we insisted on double-counting each pre-bundled house-brick of notes. We’d gotten pretty adept at counting quickly and at our last money change in Fergana I had also gotten a little complacent with the changers as I handed a counted bundle back to the guy to hold and he must have creamed a little from it while we counted the last bundles. Oh well!
  • Stolen? Or just misplaced?From the kit we took, we only lost or had stolen Julie’s penknife and a necklace, my beat up metal Sigg water bottle, and a pair of socks with “Friday” written on them that didn’t come back from the hotel laundry!

Q: What was the hardest or most challenging country to visit?

There were a few for different reasons:

  • Mongolia was difficult for the kind of independent travel we like to do because the people are nomadic which means there’s little infrastructure outside of Ulaanbaatar because there simply isn’t the demand for it. While there are busses to the centre of every aimag or province to and from the capital Ulaanbaatar, and local busses from each of those to the other towns in each aimag, Mongolia is still very difficult to navigate and travel independently of organised tours or private hire drivers. That said, we managed a couple of short trips from Ulaanbataar to Kharkhorin and Zuunmod under our own steam, even hitching a ride on a bus full of French pensioners to get to a campsite!
  • Bangladesh was easier to visit from a planning and getting around point of view, but we missed a few creature comforts like clean running water, non-smelly toilets and pavements! Despite these, or more likely because of them, we absolutely loved it.
  • Finally, China was challenging for communication. Our dear friends Isaac and Rebecca from Beijing did their very best to teach us some Mandarin as we bounced along the Mongolian steppe, but outside the capitals we found the Chinese to be very shy about speaking English when we’d try to ask for directions in patchy Chinese – so much so that even if they could they’d often prefer to shake their heads and duck away rather than try. That difference in culture is the reason to travel, but it makes asking for directions tricky! Also, the pronunciation is hard – we tried to buy train tickets at the English counter for Zhangjiajie and they had no idea what we were saying! (We tried to say it as we would read it in English, whereas it’s actually pronounced “Djang-Jar-Jay”!).

Q: Did you ever get homesick?

Yes and often. Missing family events and gatherings was hard, such as weddings, Christmas, and the birth of our niece Emma, and we both lost loved ones while we were away – those were some of the emotionally toughest times of the trip because we wanted to be home to share the comfort and the grief. We imagined the conversation with our dearly departed when we pondered the question “should we go back for the funeral?” only to hear them in our heads tell us in no uncertain terms to keep following our dreams.

Q: What’s the most exotic thing you’ve eaten?

We like to think we’re pretty adventurous eaters, and I don’t think we passed up the opportunity to try anything we saw or were offered on our trip. The most exotic things we tried would be silkworm larvae and crickets in Matsumoto, Japan, pig’s trotters in Chengdu, China, insect essence from a female water beetle used to flavour a dip for a steamed pancake wrap in Hanoi, Vietnam, and we’d read about a local speciality which we tried to ask for in Korean, but ended up with a bowl of boiled sheep’s intestines instead in Suwon, South Korea. I must confess that I tried the intestines but I left most of them and drank the broth.

Q: What’s the strangest place you’ve stayed?

While the capsule hostels in Japan were quirky, and the container hostel in Kuala Lumpur stands out, the winner goes to one of the first places we stayed in – the Hostel Hospital in Sabile, Latvia! As Norman commented: “that’s more Urbex than hostel :D”

Q: Did you get tired of living out of a suitcase?

Yes! That was a factor in our deciding to slow down our travel, taking a month or more in Thailand, Tokyo, Malta, Rome and Amsterdam.

Q: When are you going to write a book?

Even before we set off we were asked if we’d write a book! Let’s just say that while it’s not in our immediate plans, we haven’t ruled it out either. One question we’d have about writing a book is this: what would we put in it? We’ve already written about our travels here on this blog! (Answers on a postcard, or in the comments please!)

Q: Where are you going next?

We think we’re going to need another two years to catch up with our family and friends up and down the UK! In our first two weeks we’ve already been to London, York and Gateshead, and next week we’re off to Nottingham! Travel-wise, we’ve come back with a list just as long as when we left, from talking to other travellers.. but right now we’re enjoying hearing all of the news we missed from our loved ones ;o)

Reflections and observations from two years on the road

As we’ve travelled through Asia and Europe for two years, we’ve learnt a lot. I think that some of it can probably be called general life lessons whereas other things are more pertinent to travelling. Here they are, a mix of our thoughts and travel tips…

Us setting off from Newcastle train stationReady to board our first train at Newcastle Station, excited about what the next two years would bring

  • Having a guidebook to the country you’re visiting is really helpful. Of course all of the information is available online somewhere, but to get an overview of a place and its layout the guidebook is a good shortcut. We’ve also found that we prefer a paper guidebook rather than the ebook version as it’s easier to flip between maps and attraction information. Accommodation and restaurants are the exception, for the former we look online (TripAdvisor or the reviews on booking sites), for places to eat we just follow our noses!
    20130330-092357.jpgWithout our Lonely Planet guide we might never have found out about the open air Pedvale Sculpture Park in Sabile, Latvia
  • Walking a city is the best way to get your bearings and get a feel for distances between landmarks as well as being a good way to spot places to eat or drink.
    Tallin Old TownGetting an overview of Tallinn’s old town from the city walls
  • We thought giving up our jobs to go travelling for two years was pretty adventurous but we were constantly meeting people far more adventurous than us, from the German vet who arrived in Mongolia, bought a horse and just set off, to the Japanese man who after travelling for a while bought himself a bike in Bishkek, Krgyzstan to continue his journey to Scotland by pedal power.
    Canoeists on SuomenlinnaWe’re nowhere near adventurous (crazy?) enough to go canoeing in the icy sea like this group that we saw at Suomenlinna in Helsinki
  • It’s quite possible to have an hour long “conversation” with someone even if you don’t have a shared language. Tourist charades, odd words, photos and even drawing pictures help a lot. If a random stranger tries to strike up a conversation with you in a language you don’t understand, the most likely correct answer to their first question is England (or whatever your country of origin might be). It’s really helpful to learn it in the local lingo – in Russian it’s Anglia.
    Vasily and Andrew on a Russian trainAndrew with Vasily on the train from Krasnoyarsk to Severobaikalsk. Despite only having about ten common words in a mixture of English, Russian and German they found out quite a bit about each other.
  • Carry a ziploc bag of toilet roll in your daypack. You might carry it for ages without ever needing it but when you do you’ll be glad.
    20130806-154358.jpgMongolian toilets are not the most luxurious that we’ve encountered during the two years but they do have the best views
  • It’s pretty easy to find familiar brand names everywhere you go – Coca Cola is omnipresent, and Starbucks and McDonald’s almost so. I was surprised how easy it was to find our usual brands of toiletries – Pantene shampoos, Sure deodrant, Colgate toothpaste, etc. Of course the packaging is in a different language but I found the familiar styling to be reassuring. The only place we struggled was in Japan where anti-perspirant seemingly doesn’t exist.
    Chinese SpriteSure it’s in Chinese, but you know that it’s Sprite don’t you?
  • It’s surprisingly easy not to buy stuff (clothes, souvenirs, “wow that’s cool” things) when you know you’ll have to carry them for months and months. It’s a bit like being on a diet, less willpower is required for a blanket ‘no’ than for limiting your intake. It’ll be strange to readjust to buying things again but we’ve both come to appreciate how little “stuff” we actually need.
    20130924-204321.jpgI was very tempted at the jade market in Hong Kong, but managed to resist the urge and left with only a photo
  • Smile at people. The response you get will definitely vary according to cultural differences but it will always be positive.
    Banh Mi seller, HanoiVietnamese street food vendor, we got some of the broadest return smiles here.
  • Waterproof the contents of your bag, we learnt this the hard way on a boat trip in Cambodia. Although a lot of our stuff was in plastic bags or didn’t suffer from getting wet we lost a couple of books and about half of our med kit.
    Boat from Battambang to Siem ReapOur boat from Battambang to Siem Riep in Cambodia before the rain clouds rolled in
  • Carefully chosen tours are worth the money. Although we generally prefer the flexibility of travelling independently there are some things that can’t be done alone or are well worth doing as part of a tour. Good examples are getting out into the countryside in Mongolia, a street food tour in Hanoi, visiting the DMZ in South Korea, and seeing the remains of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.
    20140208-151228.jpgIt was expensive, but one of the most memorable days of the trip was our day as elephant owners in Chiang Mai
  • We’re pretty relaxed about where and what we eat believing that a large part of the joy of the trip comes from the food. We’ll eat street food, ice and salad as long as we follow the rules – are locals eating there, is there a fast turnover of food, is it freshly cooked.
    Satay street stall in Kuala LumpurA vast array of satay skewers to choose from at a street stall in Kuala Lumpur
  • People are essentially the same all over the world. Their priorities are just like yours – they love their family, they want to earn a living, and they’re curious about why foreigners are in their neighbourhood.
    Being mobbed for photographs in Natore's rajbari. For the Bangladeshi tourists, we were often the main attraction!That said, Bangladeshis definitely win the prize for most curious nation!
  • With that in mind, there’s no need to expect that everyone you meet wants to mug you. Sure you need to be aware of your surroundings and take sensible precautions (like padlocking your valuables inside a bag when you’re out of your hotel room) but there’s no need to be obsessive, for example we don’t wear money belts.
  • I used to be surprised by how many people chose their own bed as their luxury on the radio programme Desert Island Discs. That was before we slept in 199 over the course of two years and realised how crucial a comfortable bed and especially pillows can be in getting a decent night’s sleep and not waking up as twisted as a windswept tree.
    Airbnb bedroom SingaporeThe blissfully comfortable bed that we found in our Airbnb room in Singapore, especially good after some uncomfortable nights in Bangladesh [photo credit: our host Diana, via Airbnb]
  • History is much more interesting when you’re learning it where it happened rather than from a book, and it’s fascinating to see a different side of the story, e.g. Vietnam in what they know as the American War, Russia’s losses in WWII (the Great Patriotic War), and the consequences of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
    Cenotaph and A-bomb dome, HiroshimaThe humbling peace memorial at Hiroshima in Japan
  • I love the adrenaline rush that I get on the first day in a new country – the assault on the senses of what is different, listening to the rhythms of a new language and trying to figure out how things work.
    Hangover soup and side dishesOne of our first meals in Busan, South Korea; completely different to anything we’d had before, especially all those kimchi side dishes
  • Flights account for huge chunks of budget and we’ve enjoyed travelling overland wherever possible. Taking overnight trains is a great experience and saves on the price of a hotel while getting you from A to B.
    Chinese sleeper trainSettling in on a sleeper train in China
  • Practice your mental arithmetic. Finding a simple way of converting to your home currency prevents nasty surprises later when working out how much something cost.
    The awards for most ridiculous currency: Vietnam had the most obscence exchange rate with £1 = 33,000 dong, but for sheer unusability the Uzbekistan som with £1 = 5000 som and the most common banknote at 1000 som, meant that we had to pay for everything with notes worth 20p and needed to carry a hefty bundle to cover the day’s expenses.
    $100 US Dollars exchanged on the black market to 300,000 Uzbek Som!Andrew with the equivalent of $100 (~£60) in Uzbek som!
  • A sarong is a surprisingly versatile piece of kit. Mine has only rarely been used as a sarong but it has served time as a scarf, pillow, blanket, seat cover, headscarf, hot water bottle cover…
    In Istanbul's Blue MosqueWearing the sarong as a headscarf while visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
  • Write a blog or keep a journal. We love reading back through our posts and reminiscing about where we’ve been, what we did and who we met.
    Blogging in MaltaJulie at the kitchen table of our apartment in Malta on a blogging day – leaflets, guidebooks and plenty of coffee at the ready
  • If you’re on a budget, keep track of your expenses. Every day. We use a notebook to jot things down during the day and then enter it into a spreadsheet each evening. It doesn’t take long but it gives us a sense of whether or not we’re on track before things get out of control.
    Siracusa marketMarket in Siracusa, Sicily. It’s especially important to keep a note of spending in markets where lots of purchases and few receipts are the order of the day.
  • Not having a postal address isn’t easy, banks don’t like it for a start. Many thanks to our parents for being our post offices.
    Posting on the roof of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican CityUs sending postcards from the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City!
  • Kit is important but it’s not at all important to have everything new. My 12 year old rucksack has functioned perfectly well and while I have occasionally been envious of the front opening zip panel on Andrew’s it is only slightly more effort to unpack.
    Sledging at GrindelwaldIn borrowed salopettes and ski jackets in Switzerland (thanks Heidi and Olivier for letting us raid your wardrobe!)
  • It’s very easy to be lazy if you speak English. There’s no need to be afraid to travel because you don’t speak the language. It’s nice to learn a few words of the local language – hello, thank you and numbers should be at the top of your list – but it’s quite possible to get by with a combination of English and tourist charades. Remember, if you want to eat or buy something, the vendor wants to sell you something – you both want it to work.
    French bakeryDifferent kinds of baguettes in a French bakery. We were surprised how quickly the French we learned in school came back to us.
  • Know that on arrival in a new country you will reflexively say thank you in the previous country’s language for several days while you reprogram yourself. It is shocking how quickly we forgot even the few basic phrases we learned.
  • The more we travel, the longer the list of places we’d like to visit gets!
    Cathedral spires, Luxembourg CityCathedral spires on Luxembourg City’s cathedral. A late addition to our list of stops.
  • We’ve become very confident when crossing the street. In many countries pedestrians do not automatically have right of way, even on a zebra crossing with a green man. Checking the opposite direction is a good idea too as motorbikes and bicycles generally ignore even the scant road rules.
    Amsterdam rush hourCrossing the road in Amsterdam requires you to be aware of bicycles and silent electric trams as well as cars
  • Adopt a football team. When we told people that we were from Newcastle we often got a response of “Newcastle United – Alan Shearer!”
    Asterix and Friends comic strip wallAsterix and friends chasing after a mouse, not a football, on a comic strip wall in Brussels

Us in St. Pancras, LondonOn the platform at St Pancras station in London. We’re home – old and wiser perhaps, but not looking too different to the day we departed.

Two Years of Travel in Apps: Our recommended travel apps

It is getting increasingly easier to travel, the wealth of information from bloggers like us has made researching and travel planning a quick search away. Timetables and bus routes are generally easy to find for all but the least touristed destinations, and translation apps are arguably taking the fun out of ordering meals in restaurants – though you still have the choice to use them, and we never did!

Andrew's 64GB WiFi iPad Mini

Both our iPad Minis have been invaluable in preparing, planning and travelling around Europe and Asia for two years

Here follows a few mobile apps, websites and resources that we’ve used during our trip – are there any you’d add? Let us know in the comments!

Kayak - flights

Kayak – Getting there

We tried to travel overland as much as possible, but on the few occasions we needed to fly we consulted Kayak. It’s our favourite app (and website) for finding destinations and checking routes because it shows lay-over times clearly and has easy filtering for the number of connections.

Rome2rio - travel planning

Rome2rio – Getting there and getting about

Do any kind of search of the format “how do I get from Place A to Place B” and Rome2rio will rightfully be in the top results. It quickly became invaluable to us in planning our movement around Europe and Asia on our two year trip. It shows trains, busses, ferries, and flights on an interactive map and it’s an excellent starting point for finding out possible routes and rough pricing.

BlaBlaCar - car sharing
Bla Bla Car

Bla Bla Car – Getting about with the locals

A late entry to us but an easy recommendation that we’ll be using after our trip is BlaBlaCar – a car and journey sharing website! Introduced to us in its French language version – – it was especially handy in Europe as some of the train journeys would have really eaten into our budget, plus we got to meet new people!

AirBnB - staying with locals or entire apartments

Accommodation – Finding somewhere to stay

Throughout our two year trip we’ve generally booked our accommodation about 2 weeks in advance, except for major capital cities and well, pretty much everywhere in Japan where we had to start booking about a month in advance to get the best deals.

For longer stays we prefer to rent private apartments or stay in apartment hotels so we can shop at the local markets and cook for ourselves. We’ve used a combination of fellow traveller recommendations, other travel blogs and accommodation booking websites, and our favourites (in order) are these:

  • AirBnB – Our favourite for booking homes and rooms around the world. We’ve had some truly amazing hospitality when staying with families through AirBnB, and its often been cheaper than hotels or hostels! We tend to seek out the new hosts – those recently registered, with few if any reviews but good descriptions and photos.
  • – The first app or website we checked when looking for shorter stays.
  • – Great when we started out, but over the two years we’ve been away the prices, especially in Europe, have rocketed up. It tenuously maintains a place on our list as a resource of last resort as I can’t remember the last time we actually made a booking through it. Oh, and there isn’t a secure way to log in to the website.
  • – AirBnB-like rival that we’ve used occasionally when we haven’t found anything on AirBnB.

No CouchSurfing on our list? We did stay with friends 5 times on our trip which would qualify as CouchSurfing experiences, but we arranged them with people we met on the road as we went, or who we already knew. - essential offline maps – On the ground

We’d usually pick up a map from the hostel, hotel or local Tourist Information office as they’re quicker to consult and easier to carry, and in some poorer Asian countries we didn’t want to be flashing expensive electronics around. However, there were a few times in some of the smaller towns when it was difficult to ask directions where proved invaluable. Note that you need to download the maps for the country or region in advance, and they’re often a few hundred MB so remember to save the remoter destinations before you depart!

XE - currency exchange rates
XE Currency

XE Currency Exchange Rates – Knowing what stuff costs

Not an app that we used often, but essential nonetheless as we used it to work out a rough exchange rate to our home currency we could carry in our heads. It also works offline too. - weather forecast – Planning around the weather

Once we had our list of sights to see, activities to experience and restaurants or cafes to visit we’d have a quick check of the weather forecast. Oftentimes we only had a few days in a place, or other constraints like opening times or museum closed days would dictate the order of our travel itinerary more than the weather, but when we had flexibility we’d plan the outdoor things for the better days. We’d often do the outdoor activities sooner if we knew the weather was going to be good.

Google Translate icon

Picking up the lingo

We always try to learn a few words of the native language and it really helped build rapport when ticket sellers, market vendors, shopkeepers and waitresses heard us making an effort. Not everyone speaks English and nor should they!
This involved a quick online search for the common phrases before we arrived, such as “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank You”, “Sorry” and the first few numbers. If we were staying longer we’d make more of an effort to learn the most common questions and our answers. We’d occasionally use Google Translate but it was often easier (and more fun) to watch people decipher their language written by us or to draw pictures in a little note book.

TripAdvisor icon

TripAdvisor – What to do when you get there

We took it in turns to do the majority of the planning each month, an idea we got about sharing the workload from a post by travel bloggers Warren and Betsy. Guidebooks and longer-form travel articles form the starting point, but then we’d do typical “Top 10 in X” searches and cross-reference with TripAdvisor to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. With the latter we found it’s important to read the most recent reviews as often the bad reviews complain about things that either aren’t relevant or don’t bother us – don’t just use the star rating! Good reviews often contain tips for visiting, e.g. best time to visit, how to skip the queue or join a free tour.

In no particular order, here’s a list of travel blogs we follow for inspiration or consulted often..

  • Legal Nomads – Jodi has a wonderful writing style and fantastic posts for South East Asia, especially Vietnam. We stayed at the Nyugen Shack in the Mekong Delta because of her post!
  • Never Ending Voyage – An inspiration for us when we started researching at home as they’re a young couple from the UK like us. Their photos are amazing and Erin’s posts on Thailand accommodation are excellent. We happened to be in Chiang Mai at the same time and we tried to meet up but they were too busy!
  • Married with Luggage – Warren and Betsy have created a great archive of travel writing, though more recently they’re about helping others find the good life through travel and the “how” rather than the “where”.
  • Ottsworld – Sherry Ott’s one-woman adventure-seeking is inspiring travel writing, and she also takes stunning photos.
  • Uncornered Market – Daniel and Audrey have put out a wealth of information and inspiration that convinced us to visit Central Asia. They’ve covered most of the planet and remind us to be more adventurous!
  • Amateur Traveler Podcast – Chris Christensen interviews people about the their recent travels. His entire back catalogue is available and we’d often listen on trains, busses or over dinner to tales about the next country or city on our itinerary. See if you can spot the names of guests from the links above!

While we’re researching, we make notes of places that interest us as we find them on paper, in Trello or in spreadsheets, which we then go back through to look into further: reviews, how to get there, opening times, etc

Dropbox icon

Dropbox – Documents backup and photo sharing

We planned for the worst – lost or stolen baggage, technology, and travel documents – and we kept photocopies of passports, passport photos, visas and insurance documents in Dropbox. It’s also great for sharing photos with fellow travellers when we were in places without internet access as we could swap email addresses and upload and share them via a shared folder later. If you sign up with this affiliate link we’ll each get an extra 500MB of space!

WiFi Photo Transfer icon
Photo Transfer

WiFi Photo Transfer – Simple, local photo sharing

We’ve often wanted to transfer photos between our iPad minis, onto the laptop, or with other travellers we’ve spent the day sightseeing with. This amazing free app is really handy for transferring larger numbers of files, but its killer feature? It shows photos in albums by default so we could quickly organise then transfer just the photos we wanted!

Skype icon

Skype – Keeping in touch

We kept this blog for two reasons: we wanted to write about our adventures as a reminder for ourselves, and to let our friends and family back home know what we’ve been up to. In addition we’d always send our families an email or text message with our travel plans such as flight numbers, accommodation etc, but there’s no substitute to actually seeing and hearing those we missed most. I talked to my Mum about this and we agreed that just the first few seconds of a Skype call are enough to reassure us that they’re alive, well, and enjoying themselves – and that goes both ways! Our Christmas presents to both sets of parents before we left was setting up their computers with webcams and a quick Skype training session :o)

Rain, Rain icon
Rain, Rain

Rain, Rain – Help getting to sleep

The soothing sound of rain on all manner of surfaces helped us get to sleep by blocking out the noise of other travellers on trains or in hostel dormitories. My favourite sound is the rain on a tent, but Julie preferred listening to podcasts (which she’d then have to listen to again as she’d often missed the endings!)

Trainyard icon

Games – Idle entertainment

We found we couldn’t see sights every day for weeks on end and remember everything – sometimes we just needed a break, and a favourite way I like to relax is playing games. When there wasn’t anyone to play cards or boardgames with, like the time we played cards with a bunch of Mongolian students on the train from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar, we’d play the occasional computer game. Ones that work offline are obviously the best.

  • Mahjong Solitaire Epic – Classic tile puzzler
  • Flight Control HD – Cute traffic controller-style simulator that’s also one of Julie’s favourites. I like to play it on flights
  • Extreme Road Trip 2 – Dukes of Hazard meets Paperboy in this go as far as you can stunt racer
  • Asphalt 8 Airborne – I love racing games. Asphalt has amazing graphics, beautiful cars, and enough upgrade management to keep it interesting
  • Trainyard – Clever twist on the routing puzzle game, with coloured engines. A good game for train journeys!
  • Reckless Racing 2 – Lovely top-down racing games with plenty of sliding and drift
  • Letterpress – a very clever word game that Julie usually wins because she plays strategically whereas I try for impressively long words. This one needs internet access.
  • Clash of Clans – Saw this advertised everywhere in South Korea and became addicted. I now lead a clan named after Penny Arcades D&D exploitsAcquisition Inc (#RG98U9P) – and we’re recruiting! This one also needs internet access.. :o)