The other pyramids – a weekend in Meroe, Sudan


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My third trip with my new Trekkup family (yeah, yeah, I’m still a miserable introvert at heart, OK?) was to Khartoum and Meroë in (North) Sudan. Having visited Iran the week before and Iraq some years previously, my passport was certainly going to make any prospective visits to Trump’s USA problematic. But that’s a future bridge to cross.

Although Sudan is only a four-hour flight from Dubai, it is not somewhere I had previously considered visiting. Primarily because I am very lazy and somewhat introverted and it is a difficult place for a solo traveler – the visa requires invitation letters etc. and it is not a country, despite its impressive history, that courts tourists. This is one of the places where Trekkup come up trumps (sorry if recent posts seem like adverts for the company, but they really are brilliant). All we had to do was visit the Sudan Consulate with the paperwork (provided by Trekkup), two photographs and some cash and everything was sorted. The only downside? The fingerprinting process at the Consulate made me look like a criminal when I returned to school that afternoon.

We arrived in Khartoum at just past midnight to find that our driver had not arrived yet, giving us ample time to take in the sights, sounds and smells of this new country. One of the downsides of frequent travel is that new places rarely seem that new; it takes a lot for somewhere to truly feel fresh and strange. No matter how many times I visit, Kathmandu always feels different and exciting. And the area in front of Khartoum Airport also promised a fresh (if not fresh smelling) experience. There were people everywhere, from small children dressed in suits and ties to old men stretched out asleep on the pavement.


Khartoum airport

Once clear of the airport, however, Khartoum quickly quieted down. The streets, at this time, were largely empty apart from occasional stray dogs and somnolent singles presumably making their way home.

We arrived at the hotel and found, after quite some time spent sitting on their squeakily plastic-covered sofas, that despite the fact that we had the rooms booked and had specified a late arrival, they had decided to give the rooms to someone else. 1 am, and nowhere to sleep. Great stuff! Thankfully, Marion, our Trekkup leader, was on the case and we were shortly whisked off to the Acropole Hotel, which was much nicer than the first place anyway. It turns out that the Acropole (so-called as it is run by second generation Greek immigrants (much like the guesthouse I stayed in In Sighisoara, Transylvania! – We get everywhere!) is the oldest hotel in Khartoum and has played  a significant role in much of the humanitarian work that has taken place in Sudan since the hotel opened in the 1950s. Despite being resolutely old-fashioned, the hotel was utterly delightful.


A quiet Friday morning in Khartoum – from the balcony of the Acropole Hotel

A good night’s sleep and a decent breakfast later, and we were ready to see the Sudan National Museum. Our guide, Mr. Sugar (at least I think that’s what he said his name was) was gentle, sweet, extremely well informed and almost completely inaudible. I tried standing close enough to hear, but ended up wandering around the museum by myself. Sudan has an incredible history that goes hand in hand with its northern neighbour Egypt. And the museum has some fascinating exhibits. But all in all, it’s about 20 minutes’ worth maximum. And we were there a while longer. I’m sure with more (audible) explanations (actually, to be fair to Mr. Sugar, I am crap at listening – I need to read to understand and the exhibits had some written explanations, but not many) I would have understood more, but as it was I had ample time to wander the grounds and take photographs. Not particularly good ones, as it turned out.


Museum guards


Museum guides


Museum guide


Sudan National Museum

After the museum we headed to The Khalifa’s House museum, with 20 minutes to spare before its closing time of noon. Again, with a lovely but inaudible guide and very little signage, it was difficult to decipher what it was that we were seeing. But it related to General Gordon, whom I vaguely remember from my A-level history classes. Gordon was, by most accounts, a relatively decent member of the British Empire. He was fanatically anti-slavery and really did not want to be in the Sudan in the first place. Portrayed (somewhat less than faithfully) by Charlton Heston in the film ‘Khartoum’, he defended British interests (never a good thing) against the messianic self-proclaimed Mahdi (also never a good thing) Muhammad Ahmad (whose mausoleum we also visited).



The Khalifa’s House guide


Soldiers, The Khalifas House


The Khalifa’s House guard


Guide, Mahdi’s Tomb

The Khalifa’s House museum was also mildly diverting, but without a deeper-than-my-basic-1989-exam-revision knowledge, meant very little. There was a pretty cool 7 barrel Vickers horizontal machine gun in the courtyard though.

The next stop was the market. It was initially fairly quiet as Friday is the Islamic day of rest. Most of the shops and stalls were closed, but it appeared little different from most other MENA souqs. The shops that were mostly open were the more tourist-oriented ones, generally selling carvings and sculptures and stuffed (literally) animals, though as some pointed out, a lot of the wares were from Kenya or other nearby places. Notable here were the street vendors, selling improbably piled seeds and other snacks. Often a family affair, as often as not there would be two, maybe three generations behind the mountainous pile of food atop the cart.


Khartom Souq


Vendor, Khartoum Souq


Stuffed lizards, Khartum Souq


The seed seller’s daughter (sounds like the title of a novel…)


Downtown Khartoum


From the souq, we mounted the bus (whose interior was described memorably by Marion as coffin-like: much satin, many tassles) and headed out for the four-hour drive to Meroë and the pyramids – our main reason for being in Sudan.


Our bus driver

The journey was long and bumpy. And dusty. And fascinating. We were travelling through a landscape that has barely changed in centuries. The further we got from the twin cities of Khartoum and Omdurman, the more people relied on donkeys and mules rather than cars and trucks.



The present and the future…

We had a toilet stop at the sort of place that you do not want to use the toilets. Unless of course you enjoy nightmares about poo monsters rising from a hole in the ground. And a lunch stop with superb food – we found out shortly afterwards that we had our own catering team ahead of us in a Toyota Landcruiser, cooking for us whenever we stopped, providing for us at our campsite and following us back to Khartoum the next day – typical of Trekkup’s attention to detail! The food, lunch and all meals afterwards, was consistently superb. All fresh, all local, and all very. very good.


At the truck-stop for lunch

We arrived at Meroë an hour or two before dusk. Whilst the guides erected our tents, we took a sunset tour of the pyramids. Though they are not comparable in size to their Egyptian cousins, the pyramids at Meroë make up for it with exclusivity – we were the only people there. For those of you who have visited Giza, great as the spectacle indubitably is, have you ever been there with fewer than a thousand other tourists? Thought not. We were alone – no guides, no other tourists, no problem. It was just us and the camel touts who were, to be fair, remarkably good-humoured and patient.


Vendor’s children


Pyramids at sunset

After we had seen our fill of pyramids (which date from 400BC to 200AD) we headed for the campsite – here we had a choice of a $5 camel ride or a 15 minute walk. Having been repeatedly assaulted by a camel I had the misfortune to ride in India some half a decade earlier, I walked.



Our campsite

I wasn’t sure about camping – an activity I had enjoyed as a younger man, but, like so many other things, one about which I worried my old bones would protest. We ate well and then celebrated Marion’s birthday, with cake, balloons and fireworks, which all felt a little odd in the middle of the desert. Lovely, though, nevertheless. Then came a real treat – a group of local men set up a campfire and proceeded to spend the evening singing and dancing around it. I was assured that this was not a normal occurrence – nor was it a tourist activity. I was wonderful. Haunting. Incredible.


Marion’s birthday table (the following morning)


Singing and dancing







I slept well, considering I was in a tent and there was a very noisy donkey nearby.

The following morning, we toured the pyramids again. The vendors who had previously been by the gate to the pyramid complex had set up in a semi-circle around our breakfast table. Enterprising sorts.



The Trekkup Meroe group!


Pyramids at dawn


Pyramids at dawn



Meroe Pyramids ticket seller


Meroe Pyramids guide


Marion, our leader!

A few kilometres from the pyramid complex was the Royal City – a fairly fancy name for a few tumbled ruins in a grove of dusty trees. I dare say there is a great deal more there, and since 2014 the Sudanese and Qatari governments have been working together to excavate it (among other things). At the entrance to the area is a barracks-type building where archeology students from Khartoum University and others live while learning and excavating.


The Royal City, Meroe


The Royal City, Meroe

Then, the long haul back to Khartoum, (with another wonderful, catered, truck-stop lunch en route) where we headed to the confluence of the Blue and White Nile in the north of the city. A short trek through an abandoned amusement park (I always have time for abandoned amusement parks. I think I might be a Scooby Doo villain in the making) and we arrived at a scrap of land, at the end of which stood a lone fisherman. You could see the distinct separate colours of the two rivers where they joined. Which was much more incredible than it sounds.


Truck stop


En route to Khartoum


Re-entering Khartoum


Everywhere surrounding Khartoum there are drifts of rubbish; mostly plastic bags. It’s about time that Sudan followed Rwanda And Kenya’s lead and banned them.


The Nile in Khartoum


Disused fairground ftw


Disused fairground ftw


Disused fairground – and he would have gotten away with it were it not for those pesky kids…


The White Nile and the Blue Nile join


Confluence of the Nile


The Nile

Dinner was at a fish restaurant – no choice, just heaps of extremely fresh fried fish with fluffy bread and spicy sauce. Then, back to the airport where we sat on chairs and looked at a wall for a couple of hours until it was time to board the plane. Apparently, Khartoum International Airport doesn’t have a VIP Champagne lounge. Funny that.


A woman dusting the dust. Don’t ask me why.


Khartoum by night


Khartoum by night

So overall, how did I like the trip? It had its hardships (mostly of the toilet variety) and Khartoum itself was filthy and dusty and quite hard work. But it was nevertheless a great weekend and worth every penny and minute spent. Thanks again Trekkup!

The two-day trip cost 2800 aed (currently around £600, €700, $750) plus $60 US registration fee but that included absolutely everything (except tips and souvenirs).


Where ships go to die – a weekend in Chittagong


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Although I do love to travel alone, sometimes there are places that it is much easier to see as part of a group. So it was that I joined Trekkup, a Dubai-based Meetup group which specialises in otherwise hard-to-visit destinations and found myself at Sharjah airport at 1 o’clock on a Friday morning bound for Chittagong in Bangladesh.

Despite having the world’s longest beach not far to the south, Chittagong is not a tourist destination. It exists for one primary reason – shipping. As far back as the first century, Ptolemy noted it as being one of the largest ports in the East and that much still remains. It is a city of voyages, from boats setting out across the Karnaphully river to container ships setting out across the globe.

It is also a city where ships go to die – it is one of several major sites worldwide where ships sold for scrap are beached and then taken apart by the local workforce toting sledgehammers and oxyacetylene torches. The shipyards are dirty, dangerous and close to photographic nirvana.

Perversely, our first port of call (excuse the pun) was a ship building yard, albeit one that deals in wood rather than steel. Here, on the banks of the Karnaphully River, whole families live and work building traditional wooden fishing boats. The families here were as intrigued to see us as we were them – as already mentioned, Chittagong is not exactly a tourist hotspot.


Ship builder


Ship building families


Ship building families


Ship building families


Ship building families

On the opposite side of road from the boatyard, on the actual banks of the river, we found the fishermen themselves. At rest for the evening, the whole area was buzzing with men playing cricket, mending their nets and sitting round drinking tea and talking. The river itself washed around the moored boats, dark and rainbow-sheened with oil. The air smelled, somewhat predictably, of fish.


Net mending


Net mending



Next stop was a salt factory where incredibly lithe and sinewy men carried huge baskets of salt on their heads from the boat which harvested it to a corrugated-metal shed where older men washed it and set it to dry before it was bagged, ready for export. I must admit, that despite having used salt on almost every meal for over 40 years, this is the first time I had ever consider exactly how it got to my kitchen in the first place.

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Salt carriers


Salt carriers


Salt washer


Bookseller, salt wharf

Our evening continued with a sunset trip on the Karnaphully River, chock-full with moored shipping of all sizes, and a visit to a ship mending yard (we really did see the whole life-cycle of water-borne craft). At every step of the way, we were greeted by delighted locals, waving and shouting. The Karnaphully River really is the artery that keeps Chittagong alive – as well as the building, repairing, storing and scrapping of ships, the water was teeming with vessels, from freighters so full they were semi-submerged, to pleasure craft laden with delighted families out for sunset on the river, and the ubiquitous rowing boats, propelled by a boatman standing at the stern, oars in hand.


Karnaphully River


Karnaphully River


Karnaphully River


Karnaphully River


Karnaphully River


Karnaphully River -boat mending yard


Karnaphully River – boat mender


Karnaphully River

The next day we started our tour with a visit to a garment factory. Bangladesh is somewhat infamous for its sweatshops where children are exploited to feed the west’s hunger for cheap apparel – every so often the Daily Mail (I hate even typing its name)  will come up with an exploitation-porn story that allows its readership to feel outraged at how foreigners live without actually doing anything about it (and while still wearing the cheap clothes anyway). That isn’t to say such exploitation does not exist – it does and it is disgusting. But it is, sadly, a fact of capitalism and will not go away until the market for cheap goods and the promotion of profit over human welfare does. The factory we visited was not a sweatshop. The workers were all adults, it was well ventilated and there were clear fire precautions (albeit many of them not so clearly followed). My Cypriot grandmother was a seamstress and once, when I was a child, she took me to her place of work – a small room in Soho where Cypriot, Jamaican, Indian and Pakistani women hunched over sewing machines churning out clothing for Marks and Spencer. This was a similar affair, albeit writ a great deal larger. There was a degree of bitter irony in watching face-masked men and women produce t-shirts bearing prints about how much the wearer loved to drink wine or enjoyed partying (the first and only time I ever intend to use that word as a verb). But overall, the place was certainly cleaner and lighter than expected.


Garment worker


Garment worker


Garment factory


Wine t-shirts, garment factory

The fish sellers (and, presumably, buyers) at Chittagong fish market were, again, pleased to see us. The sights (and not to mention smells) of the place go largely unwitnessed by westerners, and the main problems we encountered were groups of men shoving each other out of the way to display their fish for the cameras. Again, this is not a place I would have even thought of visiting were it not for the wonderful people at Trekkup who had arranged for local tour guides to show us even this most unlikely (and yet photogenic) part of the city.


Chittagong fish market


Chittagong fish market


Chittagong fish market


Chittagong fish market


Chittagong fish market

The ship breaking yards are spread along 18 kilometres of the river north of Chittagong and employ over 200,000 men. They are notoriously difficult to get into – we later met  wealthy Dutch tourist who had been trying, and failing, for some time to get access (though if you are a Hollywood film crew it seems easier – parts of the film Avengers -Age of Ultron were filmed here). The conditions are so notoriously bad, both in terms of safety and pollution, that the owners would like them kept as a (fairly well known) secret. However, we had the advantage of being on a Trekkup tour and we gained access to one such yard by bribing the foreman. Heartbreakingly, the foreman did not want money – we gave him a box of hard hats for his men, safety being very much secondary to profits for the yards’ owners.









The scale of the ship breaking operations is difficult to describe without resorting to such near-meaningless clichés as ‘gargantuan’, ‘mammoth’ or (with questionable taste) ‘titanic’. Instead I will just present for your delectation some of the pictures taken in the shipyard.



One of the winches used to drag ships up the beach


The Hammonia Grenada was only built 7 years ago, but the global economic downturn coupled with the widening of the locks in the Panama Canal has rendered her obsolete. She is the youngest ship ever to be scrapped.

After visiting the ship breaking yard, we travelled to the dock in the town of Alekdia where we met some of the locals whilst waiting for the tide to come in.


When the tide was in, we embarked on another tour of the ship breakers, this time from the river.




As the sun set on the Karnaphully River again, we climbed back into our bus to head (via a handicraft emporium and a pizza stop at the new and very flashy Chittagong Yacht Club) back to the airport for our late flight back to Ras Al Khaimah International Airport (who even knew there was one?)


Chittagong bus station

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All in all, Chittagong was dirty, smelly and ridiculously crowded. And I loved it. It was a weekend that will live on long in both my memory and in my memory cards.

If you are based in the Gulf region, Trekkup is well worth a look – I have been on three of their weekend trips now (sadly my day job precludes me from going for any longer than a weekend) and will go on as many more as I can.

Total cost of the Chittagong weekend including flights, accommodation, tours and food (everything, basically, apart from tips and trinkets)- 2600 aed (currently £570; €660; $700) and worth every penny.

A flying visit to Jordan (part two)


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The following morning, we woke early to take photographs on the shore of the Dead Sea. The hotel had the requisite pots of mud for smearing on oneself before swimming, but neither of us had any intention of either smearing or indeed swimming. The day was looking considerably more stormy than the previous one, which made for a very different set of photographs than those taken on the more southern shores on the way to the hotel.


The Dead Sea


On the shore of the Dead Sea

Following a mostly mediocre hotel breakfast, we set out to see sights. Our return flight was not until ten o’clock that evening, so we were in no rush, and the roads were not busy, apart from occasional roadside camels.


Roadside camel, Jordan

We managed to find petrol at a nearby filling station, a place which showed the importance of using an actual interpreter when writing signs rather than relying on an internet translation. I assume that when accessing a computer network in Arabic, you ‘enter’ with your username and password…


Petrol station ‘entrance’ Jordan

First stop, Bethany beyond the Jordan. Not far from the bridge to Israel, this site is the purported (and there is much Biblical evidence in the guide leaflet to support the assertion) site of the baptism of Christ. It is not possible to tour the site in anything other than a guided group, so we awaited the bus that would carry us to the fabled River Jordan.


Greek Orthodox Church, Bethany beyond the Jordan

Fabled it may indeed be. Overwhelming it certainly isn’t; the river is little more than a greenish-brown stream with the opposite bank within spitting distance. This opposite bank was, the guide informed us, Palestine. And in my book, he was absolutely right, despite the Israeli flags flying over it. The actual site of what is believed to be the baptism pool is firmly on the Jordanian side. It doesn’t look particularly spectacular, but even a complete athiest-agnostic-mythologist like myself felt the weight of history. Or mythology. Or something. The incredibly noisy Korean group ahead of us seemed more to feel the weight of the opportunity to take selfies. TB, being Brazilian and not confined by pointless British ‘decorum’, shushed them in no uncertain terms. Never have I more wished that I weren’t British. (Edit – the Brexit vote a month later would soon surpass this).


The pool in which Christ was baptised

By the banks of the river itself, there is a baptismal font (replete with heavily armed guard) and steps down to the water.


Baptismal font


Down by the River Jordan

It is possible, on purchasing a cotton gown, to swim in the river. We didn’t. On the opposite bank, in occupied Palestine, things are more developed. Dare I say, commercialised. Groups of Christians from all over the world (or at least, from all over the southern states of the USA, from the volume and accenture of their voices) travel to be baptised in the holy, if slightly muddy, water. And there was much wailing and speaking in tongues. And, from me at least, a fair amount of giggling too.


Baptism in the River Jordan

Still, snarkiness and unbelief aside, Bethany beyond the Jordan is quite an incredible place and I would strongly recommend a visit.

Next on our list was Mount Nebo, the mountain top from which god revealed to Moses the extent of all the lands that would belong to his ancestors, thus condemning the region to millennia of internecine struggle. The road between Bethany and Mount Nebo is (much like the selfsame god of the old testament) both awe-inspiring and terrifying.


The road to Mount Nebo

The hire car was simply not powerful enough to get up some of the hills, resulting in us chugging along in first gear, threatening to stall, at 15 mph with drops of several hundred feet and frequent 180 degree switchbacks every few hundred yards. Exhilarating in a Ferrari, perhaps. Considerably less so in a Kia Picanto.

And when we got there, there wasn’t all that much to see. A monastery that was out of bounds. A dusty, ill-explained exhibition. A flock of very religious Americans. Oh, and the view. Yes. The view did indeed make up for the journey. And the Americans. Even without god telling me that it was my right to claim everything I could see for my ancestors, I could still see why Moses got so excited. And the names on the viewing post – Bethlehem. Jericho. Mount of Olives. They made me really want to explore the Holy Land. Except, y’know, it’s ‘Israel’. One day, perhaps.


Viewing platform, Mount Nebo


The view from Mount Nebo

As time was running down and TB was getting hangry, we decided against Mukawir. I had been before on my previous visit, and for the sake of the blog, it is worth the side trip if you can get to it. Although it is not far as the crow (or indeed, holy spirit) flies, the topography means it is a two hour round trip from the Dead Sea resorts. A long, narrow, meandering road (unusual for Jordan!) takes you eventually to a stony car park. A further walk up a dusty path and you emerge into the grounds of a ruined castle. On the face of it, not much to see. It is far enough out of the way and the ruins are not spectacular enough for it to be busy. There is no museum. There are no guides. There is not even a guide book. The ruins are little more than a tumble of stones. The view is, however, incredible. The  remains of the castle are at the end of a headland towering over the shore of the Dead Sea. And it is the combination of the views, the loneliness and isolation and, of course, the weight of history (again) that make Mukawir special. Mukawir is, you see, also known as Machaerus, the domain of one Herod Antipas and the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned, where Salome danced and where, consequently, the voice that cried out in the wilderness was finally silenced by way of decapitation. Some history.


Mukawir, where John the Baptised was imprisoned and beheaded

Instead, we made a beeline (necessary, thanks to the roads) for Madaba, the main town in the area. I had stayed here before, and I knew there was a restaurant catering almost entirely for relatively wealthy tourists that would lift TB’s mood. Madaba was nearly empty. The few people that were on the streets watched us closely as we passed. It had the feel of a Western at high noon. I am certain there was no malice intended, but nevertheless, it was not particularly comfortable. The restaurant, Haret Jdoudna, however, was. It was exactly as I remembered it; a warren of rooms on different levels based around a courtyard. It seemed a pure tourist trap, and I am sure there was an element of this to it, but the few other patrons (it was that awkward time between lunch and dinner) were all better-off locals. The food was very, very good. And cheap (to Dubai eyes). And there was plenty of it. Too much of it, if anything. Still, we had nothing if not time…

As we finally rolled out of Madaba, TB mentioned that is was nice that a little village like Madaba had such a good restaurant. Madaba, it turns out, is the 8th biggest city in Jordan.

Despite the leisurely meal, we made it to the airport with nearly four hours to spare. And yet still contrived to almost miss the plane. How? As we walked past the business lounge, the diminutive hostess mentioned that holders of Gulf-based Mastercards were accorded free entry. As we both possessed the requisite cards, we entered for free. And ate for free. And, in my case, drank rather a lot of Smirnoff Black for free. We arrived at the gate two minutes (literally) before it shut. And yet two hours before the plane took off. Why? An older Emirati lady in business class was feeling unwell. Rather than deplaning and go to hospital, her daughter insisted we wait until she felt better. There was much arguing and to-ing and fro-ing and, amidst increasing hostility from the rest of the passengers, the two women were finally ‘escorted’ from the plane. I will admit to this being the first and hopefully only time I have ever applauded on an aeroplane.

The rest of the journey was a dream. Literally. I can rarely sleep on aeroplanes, but this time, Mr. Smirnoff helped me along just fine.

All in all, Jordan is an incredible place and everyone should go at some point in their lives. Everyone. There is so much to see that a week or more would be ideal. But if you are pressed for time, it is indeed possible to experience the best of it in a weekend.


A flying visit to Jordan (part one)


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One of the real advantages of living in the UAE is the many oportunities for travel. Indeed, it is the prime reason I am still here after seven years. So when my travel buddy decided she might be leaving soon, we decided to see as much of the region as we could over weekends. First up – Jordan.

I had visited Jordan before, some years earlier with my parents when we had more time to explore. Hence I knew which parts of this fantastic country could be missed in order to be able to cram the visit into two and a half days. Wonderful as they are, Amman, Aqaba and Wadi Rum didn’t make the cut. Instead we arranged an incredibly compressed itinerary combining Petra, the Dead Sea, Bethany beyond the Jordan and, possibly, time allowing, Mukawir.

Following a full day’s work and a four hour flight, we finally arrived, collected the hire car and were on the road to Petra by 10pm. It was a brutal drive with high winds and terrible roads adding to the very long day we had already had. Thankfully, TB preferred to drive so I slid down in the passenger seat and, with several duty-free cocktails by my side, proceeded to act as encouragingly as I could. At one point driver fatigue led us to a roadside truck stop where I read as TB napped. Very atmospheric. Like an Arab Hopper painting.


Jordanian truck stop, 1am

We arrived in Petra at 2am, which meant 4 hours sleep before an early start to visit the Rose City. The hotel was not very good, but location is everything – we were less than 100m from the entrance to Petra itself.

Petra is without a doubt the prime reason for visiting Jordan. The prime reason for visiting the entire region. It is one of the few world class tourist attractions I have visited that is even more impressive in reality than either on the page or in the imagination. There is, however, a lot of walking involved. A lot. And it gets hot.

The initial trail from the entrance promises some of the most incredible scenery on the face of the planet. And it is a promise that is more than adequately fulfilled. The path descends to the kilometre long Siiq – a narrow passage through the rocks made famous (as with most of the site) by the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The rocks are a fantastic stratification of pinks and peaches and yellows. Note – it really pays to get up early. Not only is it much cooler (and even a brief tour like ours took 5 hours) but there will be very few other tourists about. The view of the Treasury – the most famous of the buildings – as you emerge from the Siiq is one of those you will take to your deathbed with you – I promise. Beyond belief and worth every mile flown, driven and walked to get there. And we only had about three other tourists and a handful of camels and site workers to share it with.


The view of the Treasury as you exit the Siiq


The Treasury


The Treasury

After the Treasury, comes a wide open walk past incredible tombs carved into the hillside, to the city centre – with the remains of houses and the impressive Grand Temple.


Tourists, Petra


The scale of Petra



Petra tombs


Petra ‘city centre’


The Grand Temple, Petra

From the city centre, it is another very, very long walk to the Monastery – the other primary point of interest. And thanks to the ticket office not accepting credit cards, we only had a single Jordanian Dinar between us – nowhere near sufficient to buy passage by donkey up the 850 or so steps to the top. TB was not impressed. At several points we came close to giving up. But even she, once we reached the top, admitted that the heat and the pain and the strain and the exhaustion were worth it. Just incredible. And, again, at this time of the day, we shared it with a few other tourists and a handful of Bedouin shepherds and their flocks. Definitely, definitely worth the effort. But you might want to ensure you have enough Dinar to ride up the steps if you are not of an athletic persuasion.


The start of the path to the Monastery


The hike to the Monastery


The Monastery


The ‘view’ from the top


The Monastery


The long walk down

Of course, having seen the Treasury, the Monastery, and everything else we wished to see in between, it was still nevertheless a good hour and a half’s walk back to the hotel, which was situated right by the main gate. As time was of the essence, with a long drive to the Dead Sea ahead of us, we didn’t climb to any of the tombs, or even stop for a drink in the world’s oldest bar by the gates. We had hoped that we might be allowed a late checkout to get a couple of hours sleep before the long drive, but no such luck.

So, by 1pm we were back on the road, this time heading for the Dead Sea. The journey was a long and arduous one, enlightened by some of the most incredible scenery. It was a Friday, the Muslim holy day, so almost everything was shut. Much as in Iceland some months previously, the only food available was from petrol stations. And then the petrol stations dwindled, leading to a nail-biting last few miles to the hotel, with the car running on fumes. The thing that struck both of us – long-term residents of the UAE as we are, was seeing Arab poverty. Jordan is not a rich country, and the few, fly-blown, dusty towns we passed through were very, very poor. The other thing that struck us was the locals. Again, being used to wealthy Emirati Arabs (who I am sure are probably lovely people once you get to know them but have a public persona of extreme aloofness), every Jordanian we met went out of his or her way to be friendly, welcoming, helpful. Even the ferocious looking soldiers at the frequent roadside checkpoints (necessary, sadly, in such a troubled part of the world) smiled and welcomed us to Jordan. Wonderful.

And the other thing, as already mentioned, was the landscape. Wow. Through the mountains of central Jordan we dropped down (and down (and down)), to the Dead Sea. All was incredible. Beyond incredible. The last stretch of the journey, along the banks of the Dead Sea to our hotel at the far northern end, involved frequent stops for photographs. And, as we were scared we were going to run out of petrol, we were travelling slowly enough to really take it all in. Beyond spectacular.


Jordan. Just beautiful


The Dead Sea

We finally arrived at the hotel just in time to sit on the balcony and watch the sun set over Israel (sadly, only literally rather than metaphorically) and to spend a well earned peaceful evening doing very little in readiness for the next day’s Biblical sightseeing epic…


The sun setting on the occupied Palestinian territories.


Iceland – a land beyond language (part 3)


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The day after driving the south coast and visiting the iceberg lagoon and astonishing ice caves, I was all set to tour the famous Golden Triangle – the tripartite tourist trail featuring the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir geysers and Thingvellir national park. I set out very early the next morning as it was a two hour drive to Gullfoss, where I would start the day’s tour. The sky was still overcast, with enough snow, both falling and on the ground, to slow my progress somewhat and to make concentrating on the road rather than the scenery the order of the day. I arrived at Gullfoss ahead of the majority of the tourist coaches (that being the plan!) and slogged through the knifing cold up some wooden steps to a vantage point. I didn’t see much on the way up as I was swathed like a mummy in as many layers of clothes as I had managed to fit on, leaving a burqa-style gap to look through. When I got the point overlooking the waterfall, the coverings came off. The cold and the discomfort were worth it. Once again, words failed me.


Gullfoss waterfall

For much of the 20th century, Gullfoss waterfall was leased to foreign investors. However, various plans to build a hydro-electric power-plant on the site thankfully came to nothing and the falls were returned to the care of the Icelandic government. It is now, unsurprisingly, a protected area. I walked and marvelled and photographed for as long as I could physically stand the cold, then returned to the car for the next leg.

Geysir is actually the name of a geyser, and, indeed, from where we get the word geyser. It is also the name used by the whole area, about 10km downstream of Gullfoss, where the geyser, along with other hot springs, is located. The first thing you notice getting out of the car, is the smell of sulphur. Like the surface of hell. Or the toilets of a particularly unhygienic restaurant. There was a short walk from the car park to the entrance to the hot spring area, incongruous for having to step carefully along a snowy and heavily-iced pavement while steaming, bubbling water ran down the gutter by its side. There are two active geysers here – Geysir itself which erupts up to 120m high, but somewhat infrequently, and Strokkur which only reaches heights of 30m or so, but does so every few minutes. At the time I was there, no eruption of Geysir was likely, the geyser instead being a faintly menacing, slightly simmering cauldron against a frozen landscape and a cast-iron sky.



Strokkur, however, was more obliging, and, without its larger brother for comparison, still pretty damn impressive.


Strokkur erupts


Strokkur geyser

After a few cycles of eruptions, I went to the visitor centre to fortify myself for the next,
(and more generally outdoors) part of the trip with some vastly overpriced lamb soup and a cup of coffee that looked like volcanic mud, and couldn’t have tasted a great deal worse.

Þingvellir (Anglicised as Thingvellir) was another hour’s treacherous drive through rapidly changing weather systems. But by the time I arrived, the squally semi-blizzards had given way to still air and relatively clear, blue skies. Thingvellir national park is a rift valley between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It is also the site of the world’s oldest parliament, the Althingi, which first convened in the summer of 930CE and continued every summer until a move to Reykjavík in 1800. Today, it is one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing sightseers, hikers and even scuba divers interested in exploring the massive underwater fault between the two continents. Needless to say, it was a little too cold for me to try my hand at scuba diving. And even if it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have. But the sightseeing and hiking were definitely on the agenda. First, a walk up to the visitor centre along a slowly rising, craggy path that, at its summit, gave unparalleled views across the national park.


Thingvellir from the visitor centre

Then a slow meander down the the houses and church and river, and a gentle stroll back to the car park. The sun was out enough to make shedding layers a requirement, and all in, it was one of the most gently pleasant experiences of my trip thus far.


Thingvellir national park

Thingvellir back to Reykjavík should have taken about thirty minutes, but once again, Iceland’s split personality stepped in. Within 5km of leaving the car park, I was down to 30km/h and very limited visibility. As the squall passed, I was able to pull into a lay-by and take some pictures of what I can only describe as the most prehistoric landscape I have ever seen.


Thingvellir, with a storm departing

Back in Reykjavík, I found a supermarket and an off-licence (such prices! Enough to make you weep) and returned to the same hostel as before and settled in with the lights off and curtains open to watch for breaks in the sadly incessant cloud cover through which I might glimpse a hint of Aurora Borealis. AB or not AB? That was the question. Not AB, sadly, was the answer. (I’m sorry! I’m an English teacher. I can’t help it!)

I had the whole of the following day to see Reykjavík (and the Reykjanes peninsular, if I so chose). I had already decided that I would not bother with the Blue Lagoon, however essential the various tourist guides said it was. I was not interested in swimming and didn’t much fancy paying a fee just to walk around. Maybe next time. So I prioritised the city itself, and set out at 11am to spend the entire day exploring it.

By 11.45 I was done.

I wandered down to the harbour, and wondered what to do next.


Tjornin pond, Reykjavik

In the end I narrowed it to either a 4 hour whale-watching trip around Reykjavík bay, or returning to the hostel to collect the car and then driving round the Reykjanes peninsular. By a happy accident, lassitude won out: there was a warm coffee shop to sit in while waiting for the cetaceous tour and it was a long, cold walk back to the hostel. Great decision. I loved the whale-watching tour. Having tried similar in Mirissa, Sri Lanka only to be stymied by the tail end of a monsoon, I thought I was a jonah. I wasn’t expecting any degree of success. As a miserable introvert, I do tend to ascribe failure in any particular endeavour to a weakness in my own personality. Hey! It’s what us miserable introverts do! In addition, the various online sources said that this wasn’t the best time of the year to see whales. But I paid my money and boarded the ship with at least a little hope.

It was going to be cold out on the water. It was cold everywhere, of course. But it was going to be even colder. The downstairs salon of the boat (the largest whale-watching ship in the harbour, the ticket-seller proudly proclaimed – true, but it was exactly the same design as most of the other whale-watching ships in the harbour) was filled with racks of thermal onesies. I dutifully found one my size and clambered in. It fit, after a fashion. Basically, it kept me warm but I had a choice between standing up straight or the possibility of fathering children at some point in the future. But not both. Comfortable it was not. Once the boat set out though, dear god and by odin’s beard was I glad I had it on. Much like ‘incredible’ doesn’t even begin to explain most of the Icelandic scenery, ‘fucking freezing’ doesn’t come close t0 the experience of standing on deck for the first hour of that journey.


All set for whale watching

Once we were clear of the lee of Reykjavík bay, things got a little better. There was enough sun to lower the hood on the onesie, but for four freezing hours, that was as warm as it got.

There were several other whale-watching boats nearby, but we seemed to have the best (or luckiest) captain, as most of the whales that breached, did so closest to us. Much like a safari I once did in Kenya, I wasn’t expecting the extent of the emotional impact of being close to these creatures. I know that sounds wanky, and that anyone who knows me would say that, yes, I am wanky, but definitely not in a cooing over animals sort of way. But if you don’t believe me, when I say it is something else, I can only suggest that you try it some day.


Humpback whale


Whale-watching boat


Reykjavik from the sea

Back on dry(ish) land, I returned to the hostel by way of HallgrÍmskirkja – the church whose 73m high tower dominates the city. Construction began in 1945 and took over 40 years to complete. It is an incredibly striking building. As a lover of both modern ecclesiastical architecture and concrete (and there is a big overlap in the venn diagram there) Hallgrímskirkja is something else. An attempt to develop an idiomatic Icelandic architecture, the building is designed to mirror the hexagonal basalt columns formed by lava flow in many parts of the country. And, at least to my eyes, it is just beautiful. Amazing. Incredible. See? Even for the man-made parts of this fantastic country, I don’t have the words.


Hallgrimskirkja church tower

The tower is also scaleable, and, even better, has a lift. Eagerly, I handed over the entrance fee and waited in line at the lift doors. Just as the lift arrived and I boarded, the attendant placed a sign outside the doors – we were the last group up for the day before it closed. Talk about serendipity! The views from the top were predictably stunning.


Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church tower

As I had a very early start the following morning, I returned to the hostel. First things first, I had the hottest, longest shower I could to wash the cold from my bones. After drying off, I found I had locked myself out of my room. I called the hostel manager (who happened to be one of the most beautiful women I had ever encountered) and she came up to unlock the door. As my room was right by the bathroom, I had a moment of utter, nauseating embarrassment when the bathroom door swung open and the stench of rotting eggs billowed forth. I was about to explain that I’d only had a shower when she smiled and told me that the hot water was geothermal and always smelled like that. This was a relief, as I had indeed also had a poo.

So, packed in readiness, I lay back and reflected on my holiday. I hoped that the 3am drive along the Reykjanes peninsula back to Keflavík airport might yield one last spectacular showing of the northern lights. Alas, this would not prove to be the case, despite clear skies. It would have been lovely, but as it happened it didn’t matter so much. As I lay there on my small, single bed, four hours before I was due to leave, I looked out of the window to see a single, sinuous tendril of phosphorescent green extend across the sky, like an exploring tentacle, before withdrawing again. I leapt out of bed, clambered into my clothes and grabbed my camera and tripod. Outside was the crispest, coldest, clearest night you can imagine. Above: a few stars and the occasional cloud, but no more aurora. It didn’t matter. I know what I saw.

I saw the northern lights.

My summary – Iceland: impossible to summarise. Beyond belief, beyond language. Just go there.


Iceland – a land beyond language (part 2)


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Not far beyond the village of Vík, where I had spent the previous night lies the Eldraun lava field. At first it looks like mile after mile of low scrub, green and somewhat bushy. But it is in fact rock. Basalt; borne of lava from the Laki volcanic eruption of 1783-4. This was an incredible event, even for a country where the landscape seems so frequently to be doing its best to shrug off its inhabitants. The eruption lasted for 8 months and killed 22% of Iceland’s population and 60% of its livestock. The ash cloud affected the whole of Europe; the consequent continent-wide crop failure led to the French Revolution. The visible remains of the eruption are, like pretty much all of the rest of the country, spectacular. The landscape looks like something from the cover of a lurid 1970s science fiction paperback. What look to be thousands of cairns – man-made pyramids of small stones – were actually created naturally by lava bubbling up through the swampy coastal land. And the rest of the land is covered in that globular, green basalt. Again, the photographs I took show small portions of this, but my lens is not quite wide-angle enough to take in 40 miles of it…


Eldraun lava field


Eldraun lava field

The next stop was Kirkjubæjarklauster (you can imagine how much fun it was trying to type that into the semi-responsive screen of the sat-nav with frozen fingers) to look at another waterfall and to stop at another petrol station to buy another smoked lamb and three bean salad sandwich and to eat another chocolate bar which I would yet again discover halfway through had had liquorice slipped into it. Seriously people, liquorice is not a sweet. It is the byproduct of the manufacture of tractor tyres.


Stjornarfoss waterfall

Then, a long drive across the black, glacial-sand plain of Skeiðarársandur to Jökulsárlón. The landscape was still incredible enough to make stopping at every picnic area to take photographs an absolute requirement. At one point, after crossing what seemed to be a temporary metal bridge (which, given that my car had snow tyres with little spikes on, made a sound like an air-raid siren in a washing machine) I stopped at a wide lay-by with what I thought was an incongruous but nevertheless quite striking, modernist sculpture – two enormous steel beams twisted around one another. It turned out to the the remains of a road bridge destroyed by icebergs calved from the Skeiðará glacier which melted following the eruption of the volcano Grímsvötn in 1996. Seriously, I can see why they have kept the bridges temporary ever since.


The remains of the Skeidararsandur road bridge. In the background is the Skeidara glacier which destroyed it.

I arrived at Jökulsárlón about an hour before my ice cave tour was due to depart, which gave me ample time to walk up and down the lagoon and take photographs. Jökulsárlón is a glacial lake at the foot of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier which, thanks to the glacier retreating, is growing in size year by year. The lagoon is famous for icebergs, which break off the glacier and float slowly towards the sea. It is the deepest lake in Iceland – as it would need to be given that 90% of each iceberg is submerged. There was one iceberg of notable size in the lagoon that day along with a few seals.


Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon


Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon

I arrived at the cafeteria – the muster point for the ice cave tour – in plenty of time. A bus full of East Asian tourists and a handful of Americans were also waiting. When the tour guide showed up I proffered my ticket to be told that I would be with a different company who were yet to arrive. I waited and waited but no sign. Fifteen minutes after the appointed departure time, I phoned the number on the ticket to be told that tour had been cancelled and that I should have received an email a month or so ago. Naturally, had this been the case, I said, I wouldn’t have been waiting in a freezing car park. It might be an idea that, for a trip that for which people cross continents, I added, to ensure that such emails were received, or to phone if no response were forthcoming. My words may have been a tad more earthy than that, but that was the gist anyway. By a stroke of incredible luck, the other tour had not yet left and they had space for one more, if I could pay in cash. By a further stroke of further luck, I could.

The delay, it turned out, was due to the fact that the caves that we were supposed to visit were a touch too melty (the reason the other company had cancelled) which would have involved squeezing through tiny, tiny gaps whilst waist-deep in freezing water. As I am intensely claustrophobic, this at least stopped tour groups from two different continents seeing me crying like a terrified child. Instead, we set off to see another cave.


The ice cave tour bus

Ingmar, the tour guide was small but incredibly strong looking. Thankfully he also seemed incredibly cheerful. The drive to the starting point was across a ridiculously rocky field of moraine. As the huge-wheeled truck in which we rode jerked from side to side, up and down (at one point I could only see the ground through the windscreen) Ingmar, who was driving, had a cup of coffee. And he didn’t spill a drop. Such nonchalance may well have been calculated. But, hell, I was impressed.

After parking the truck, Ingmar proceeded to pass harnesses, carabiners, helmets and crampons out. I did not like the look of this. My only previous experiences of caves involved leisurely strolls through caverns with a guide using her torch to point out stalactites and stalagmites that looked humorously like elephants or penises or wheels of cheese (d0n’t ask – Derbyshire is a very strange place). It turned out we would have to undergo a “little” hike to get to the cave. I strapped on my harness and crampons and, grim-faced, set off. It turned out to be an incredible experience. Even though there was a narrow, handmade, wooden bridge across a chasm god only knew how deep and I am as scared of heights as I am of enclosed spaces. I was brave though, and hardly cried at all.


Hiking towards the glacier


The very scary bridge

The cave, when we reached it, was small but even more astonishing than expected. The light passing through the millions of tons of ice above turned the whole place an incredible, eerie blue. Ingmar pointed out that the stratified lines of grey we could see in the walls were volcanic ash from eruptions hundreds of years previously. A stream of water ran through the cave – water so pure, he said, that it would not quench your thirst as it lacked the minerals that the body craved. We stayed there longer perhaps than we should have, given that there were two more tour groups waiting outside. But hell, who cares?


Inside the ice cave


Inside the ice cave


Inside the ice cave

As we re-crossed the scary bridge and scrambled across lumps of ice the size of small bungalows on our way back to the truck, we came across a lone, very grumpy looking tourist with an enormous backpack full of cameras and tripods. It seemed that the size and weight of his photographic equipment prohibited him from crossing the bridge and getting to the cave. In fear of missing the perfect shot, he failed to get any shots at all. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I was too busy feeling smug about choosing the much-smaller-but-still-pro-quality mirrorless Olympus EM1 over a DSLR to figure it out.

We dismounted from the truck back at the Jökulsárlón cafeteria. Next came the Jökulsárlón ice beach – another black sand beach, but this time studded with stranded chunks of iceberg. Again, spectacular is not enough of a word, but it is the closest I can get.


Jokulsarlon ice beach


Jokulsarlon ice beach

By the time I had finished photographing the beach, it was 4.30pm. That night’s hostel was at least a 4 hour drive, so I set out hoping to make good time and get there before sundown. The weather, however, had different ideas. Bright and sunny, though still cold, with clear skies at first, the moment I rounded the outcrop that signalled the end of the Skeiðarársandur plain, clouds came down and snow started to fall. By the time I reached Vík, the snow was heavy and the road treacherous. I stopped at the now familiar Vík petrol station for what had become my usual Icelandic meal, and the weather worsened still. The twenty or so miles after leaving Vík were the most terrifying drive of my life. As the road wound up into the mountains, a full-on blizzard developed. Visibility was negligible and my speed was not much higher than walking pace. There was a pair of headlights behind me and I think without them, I may have gone crazy. It wasn’t like anything or anywhere I have ever experienced. And that was driving a VW Polo. I have nothing but the utmost respect for those crazy bastards who set out across Siberia or aim to conquer the North Pole on a dogsled or a pogo stick or whatever.

Eventually the snow lessened and the visibility improved and I was able to speed up a little. By the time I passed the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, I was making good time once again.

The hostel I had chosen that night was in a village called Gaulverjaskóli, deliberately chosen for its rurality (still hoping to see those damned elusive northern lights) and for being close to the Golden Circle, which was the bulk of the following day’s itinerary. Gaulverjaskóli is near the coast on a narrow, fertile strip of land between the Ölfusá River (Iceland’s largest river by volume) and the Þjórsá River (Iceland’s longest river). The drive along the banks of the Þjórsá was, again unsurprisingly, incredibly beautiful. The river was part-flowing, part-frozen with clusters of small icebergs jostling at the banks. The road itself was like something out of a rally stage – more potholes and mud than tarmac. And as I was in a rush to get to the hostel and as it was a rented car, it was great fun! All my Colin McRae fantasies played out against a backdrop of extreme natural beauty. There was not enough time (or light), sadly, for much photography, but I did manage to stop by one of many clusters of stocky Icelandic horses sheltering stoically against the wind and the cold and the occasional flurries of snow.


I reached the hostel just before dark, and it really was in the middle of nowhere. Even in a country where a village the size of Vík is an important settlement, this was something else. There was a school, a farm, a t-junction with a road sign and the hostel. The hostel itself was great – the woman who owned it lived with her family in an upstairs apartment. She was incredibly friendly, showed me around and then left me to it – shutting her apartment door behind her. Perfect. The only slight downside was that the walls were heavy and thick against the climate and thus the wifi was negligible. The only router was in the owner’s apartment. She had indeed mentioned that I might need to move around the middle part of the building to get a signal. As there was only one other guest, who had already gone to bed, I had the place to myself, so I managed to get the only spot where the wifi actually worked. I settled down to upload some pictures, disturbed only slightly when the owner’s son came out of their apartment and tripped over me squatting on their doormat.

Again, I slept with the curtains open hoping for some Aurora action. Again, I was stymied by clouds filled with snow. But the bed was comfortable, and I had a spare smoked lamb and three bean salad sandwich tucked away for breakfast so, once again, life was good. Very, very good.

The next day I set out to see the Golden Circle – Iceland’s much (and quite rightly so) lauded triple-whammy of the Geysir and Strokkur geysers, Gullfoss waterfall and Þingvellir (Anglicised as Thingvellir) national park, which, along with Reykjavík, will be the subject of my next blog post. See you there!

Iceland – a land beyond language (part 1)


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Engorgeoningly magiferous

It is fractionally over 50 kilometres from Keflavík International Airport to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík. It took less than 5 of these kilometres to make me realise that, despite being a teacher of language and literature, I was going to struggle here. To co-opt the words of Jaws’ Chief Brody: you’re gonna need a bigger vocabulary. Stunning. Doesn’t cover it. Magnificent. Goes without saying, but it only tells part of the story. In the end I decided that I would have to follow the wonderful Icelandic band Sigur Rós’s lead here and invent a new language. You see, any extant word in the English language has already been used to describe something else. Iceland is so singular, so unique, that it needs specific words; words that have never been used before. Thus it was that I decided on ‘engorgeoningly magiferous’. However, to save you the pain of my smart-assery, I will try to describe the rest of the trip using regular English. It won’t be easy, but here goes…

I am not sure for how long I had actually wanted to visit Iceland – a long time, though. Also, I am not sure why I had not visited earlier. But when the opportunity came up for a six day Easter jaunt there, I could not say no. The chance arose due to a cheap flight showing up – Dubai to Reykjavík for around £200. Too good to turn down. The reason it was so cheap? A 22 hour layover in Helsinki. But, with the layover starting at 10.30am, this would not be a problem. I booked a room in a Finnish hostel and figured on seeing more of Helsinki than I had managed in a three and a half hour stop there a few years previously. And it was…OK. There is not a whole lot to see there at the best of times and a sub-zero Good Friday is not the best of times. Helsinki was very cold and mostly closed. The cold, I thought, would acclimatise me for Iceland – a pressure chamber, so to speak, between the desert and the tundra. And that worked fine, on paper. As I would discover the following day, however, nothing prepares you for Iceland, even in ‘spring’. It is not just the cold (it didn’t drop much below minus 4 centigrade all the time I was there) – it is the wind. The terrible, nerve-flaying, excoriating wind.

By the time I arrived at the guest house in Reykjavík, I was already frozen. Despite the administrations of the hire car heater and the many, many layers of cold-weather clothing. The guest house itself did not look promising – a peeling concrete council house on the edge of the city. I rang the doorbell and the owner told me over the intercom that the keys were in the room and proceeded to buzz me in. And that was all the human contact I had. Perfect. And the location? It looked like a not very nice estate, but it was a hundred yards from the main city art gallery in one direction and the city centre itself in the other. Really, given the price (€45 for a single room with a shared bathroom – which is very, very reasonable for Iceland), it could not have been a better choice. I wandered into the tiny heart of the mostly-closed city (I was fine if I needed Icelandic wool jumpers or puffin key rings, but it took a while to find food) and stocked up on picnic supplies. Not that I expected to be eating outside at any point in the coming week.

It was clear from the heavily overcast sky (not to mention the online forecasts) that there would be no northern lights in the Reykjavík area that night, and I wasn’t comfortable enough with the hire car to drive out into the country (I am very good at excuses), so I decided to have a drink and programme the satellite navigation system (I am soooo glad I decided to add this to the car hire!) for the following day. Top tip – if you are heading for Iceland and enjoy a drink in your hotel room, there is a duty free shop by the baggage carousels at the airport. Stock up – booze is at least 3 times as expensive in the off licences once you are through customs!

I slept with the curtains open, hoping that any the aurora might wake me, but it was sunrise that eventually did so. Consequently, I was on the road by 7.45am, heading for Vik on the South Coast by way of numerous other sights. Not only was it 7.45 am, it was also a Sunday. And not only was it a Sunday, it was Easter Sunday. So I was the only person on the road. The astonishingly spectacular road. The first thing that struck me was a sense of frustration, a feeling that would become uncomfortably familiar over the coming days. The landscapes of Iceland are unremittingly amazing. Again, I’m afraid these words don’t really do it justice. They are other-worldly. Iceland was the 72nd country I had visited and I had seen nothing even remotely like this. Every 200 yards I would round another corner and be faced with a view that would almost have me weeping in awe and in gratitude that I was there to witness it. However, Icelandic roads are almost invariably narrow with no hard shoulder and nowhere to stop. Putative photograph after putative photograph passed me by, each one more glowing in my imagination than the last. Wherever there was a possibility of stopping – turn-offs to farms, lay-bys, picnic areas, I did so and took shot after shot. But there were still hundreds of (in my mind) award-winning photographs that got away. The next thing that struck me was how out of place the common-place seemed against such incredible scenery. Anything normal, a JCB, or a petrol station, say, seemed surreal against such a primeval backdrop. It had me both amazed and at times giggling. I giggled a lot that first day. More than anything else, I don’t think I knew quite how to react. Yes, Iceland really is that beautiful.


Icelandic petrol station

My first stop was Hveragerði, a town famous for its geothermal vents used to heat greenhouses. It was closed. The whole town. There was little to see apart from a few steaming vents in a small park the other side of some chicken wire. Anywhere else, it may have been impressive. Here though? Not so much. I ate a sandwich in the car and pressed on.



The landscapes changed as I drove, though they certainly did not diminish. From the snowscapes and mountainous backdrop inland from Reykjavik, the land flattened out, giving views across a black volcanic plain leading down to the distant, pewter shine of the sea. The next stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which was massively impressive in reality and, as with much of Iceland, almost impossible to capture photographically in any way that didn’t diminish it enormously. Given the amount of freezing spray generated, I was glad that my camera is weatherproof, though when it came to review the photos I had taken, most were indistinguishable blurs, the camera having focused on the water droplets on the UV filter in front of the lens. There was a flight of metal steps leading up the side of and eventually behind the waterfall. They were iced and slippery. I managed to get about halfway up fearing for both my ankles and my camera should I slip. And given that I once managed to badly break an ankle eating a kebab, I decided that halfway up was as far as I should go.


Seljalandsfoss waterfall



The drive to the next stop – Skógafoss (another waterfall) took me across the Eyjafjallajökul glacier and the volcano that erupted with such a terrible knock on effect to air travel in 2010. Skógafoss was even more impressive than the previous waterfall, and just as impossible to capture photographically. The final stop before that evening’s resting place, was the black sand beaches of Reynisdrangar and Vík – both mightily impressive – landscapes unchanged since paleolithic times.


Skogafoss waterfall


Vik beach. This is a full colour photograph.


Reynisdrangar beach


Reynisdrangar beach

The beaches and their associated headlands were stunning. Again, the words fail the experience. If you could stand there and see what I saw, you’d realise that the photographs and the writing and everything else just doesn’t work.

I arrived at the hostel into which I was booked in Vík in the late afternoon. Vík is a tiny village, yet one of the major south coast points of reference. The first thing everybody notices is the church, way up on a crag, high above the town. I only found out a few days later that the town regularly has evacuation procedures given that, in the not-massively-unlikely eventuality of a volcanic eruption, Vík would be underwater in minutes, and the church is where they run for. Might have been nice to know this before hand. Just saying…


Vik church, sunset

Vík itself was closed. It was the Easter weekend (in fact, it was Easter day) and the only shop – a small supermarket, was shut for the duration. This left me with a nearby petrol station (and, confusingly, a factory shop selling very expensive outward-bound clothing) as my only source of sustenance. I ignored the forty-euro gloves and instead stocked up on sandwiches, crisps and chocolate, a diet that would become familiar as, as it turned out, I would have another three days where petrol stations were to provide the only food. Incidentally, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the smoked lamb and three-bean-salad sandwiches available at all Icelandic petrol stations are INCREDIBLE.

Thereafter, it was time to settle down for the night. The woman at the Vík Hostel smiled at me and looked me up and down. “If it’s not to0 personal a question,” she said, “how tall are you?” We established that a hair under six feet equated to 182cm. She shook her head sadly. “Damn,” she said. “We tell them that the single room is only good for 180cm or less but they don’t let us put it there.” As it turned out, she knocked 25% off my bill for the inconvenience, and the room turned out to be pretty much perfect. It was, indeed, tiny. Harry Potter under the stairs tiny. But I fitted. Just about. And the bed had a window right by it so I could leave the curtains open for my usual (by now) Aurora Borealis survey. The room opened straight onto a common room, and I had been told that the hostel was full that night. My fevered imaginings of having to face down a whole hoard of over-jolly and far-too-noisy guests, however,  proved entirely unfounded. Unlike places such as Thailand, Iceland is civilised: the different groups of guests have no desire to acquaint themselves with one another. And we all slept peacefully. Uninterrupted by the northern lights, at least. Which may, or may not, have been present behind the total cloud cover responsible for the heavy overnight fall of snow.

The following morning, early on, I cleared the car of snow and, shivering mightily in my many layers (and only slightly missing Dubai) set off for the long drive to the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon and the ice cave glacier hike, the undisputed highlight of my trip!



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Hungarian Parliament building, Budapest

Budapest may well be one of my very favourite cities. An introvert’s dream, the city streets are safe to wander at any hour of the day or night. Unlike Prague (which was only bombed once, and then purportedly by mistake), Budapest was severely damaged during World War 2. The Siege of Budapest (December 26th 1944 – February 13th 1945) left 80% of the City’s buildings reduced to varying degrees of rubble and all seven bridges over the Danube destroyed. Nevertheless, Budapest was rebuilt sympathetically – a Dresden rather than a Coventry or Plymouth, and it is still a city of diverse architecture: a beautiful mish-mash of Art-Nouveau, Gothic, Romantic, Classical, Renaissance and Ottoman buildings, not to mention a fair few post-war, brutalist concrete masterpieces.


Budapest walkway

Budapest is an incredibly atmospheric city. Walking the streets alone at night, it is very easy to imagine yourself at the heart of a cold-war thriller. Particularly as this, my second visit to the city, was in winter. Hence, rain. In the fifteen years since I quit smoking, Budapest at night is the only time I have really missed it. Not for the nicotine, but for the effect. To make matters worse, I was travelling, as is my wont, hand luggage only. Which meant no space for either a trench-coat or a trilby. Also, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to become black and white. Needless to say, many of my photographs were.

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House of Terror

Of particular interest to the dark tourist is Budapest’s House of Terror. Far from being a sensationalist name added to a museum to try and drum up drama, the House of Terror was the name given to the building by the Communist government in order to strike fear into the populace. A seemingly normal townhouse, the building housed the headquarters first of the Nazi (and homegrown Arrow Cross fascists) and then the Communist secret police. Situated on the high class shopping street of Andrássy Street, one of Budapest’s major thoroughfares, one can only imagine the fear instilled in passers by knowing of the cells situated mere feet away, or the anguish of the prisoners, most destined for the gallows (kept in the building’s courtyard) as they saw the shadowy forms of the free pass by on the street outside.

The first time I visited Budapest, during the 2014 World Cup, I borrowed an apartment from a very generous friend. This is, of course, probably the best way to see a city – we had a few days crossover so she showed me the more interesting bits of the city (of which there are many) and then I had two weeks where there was no reason whatsoever to speak to another human being. That, plus the fact that the apartment in question, was in the very heart of the city, one street off Váci utca, Budapest’s main shopping street. Another reason that Budapest is so seductive – one can live in relative luxury on a teacher’s salary. (The only downside was that the apartment building had a bar on the ground floor – in the heat of the summer I had to keep the living room window open and (being an introvert) I preferred to watch the World Cup alone on a live feed on my laptop. During Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil, the match on the outside TV of the bar downstairs was ahead of my live feed by about 30 seconds, meaning I could hear the patrons cheer every time Germany scored. In the end I had to close the window, put in headphones, and sweat like a bastard. Ah, the perils of being an introvert!) This time, however, my Travel Buddy and I were staying in the Sofitel by the Chain Bridge. Hey, just because I’m an old goth, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a little luxury from time to time…



Chain Bridge, Budapest


The Liberty Statue, Gellert Hill

The Sofitel Chain Bridge is in a modern building right on the banks of the river. Our very late arrival and the fact that Budapest in February is cold precluded a look around the area until the following morning. I rose bright and early, ready for some Golden Hour photography only to be stymied by the fact that clear morning skies are something of a rarity in the Hungarian winter. Instead, I walked down to the river. The first thing most people think on looking at the Danube is “Strauss was full of shit”. Usually followed shortly by “the Danube is full of shit”. A broad, turgid avenue the colour of milky coffee, the river separates the city into its two, constituent sub-cities. On the left bank is craggy Buda, with Gellért Hill (up whose flanks the intrepid wanderer may clamber to visit the citadel and the Liberty Statue) and Buda Castle (accessible by funicular) and the Fisherman’s Bastion, all of which afford wonderful views across the city and allow for spectacular sunrise photography. Y’know, on those days you can see the sunrise. On the right bank is Pest, the ‘main’ populous part of the city, with the Hungarian Parliament building, all the main shopping streets, Heroes’ Square, the Opera House, the Jewish Quarter and so on.


Filming at Buda Castle


Pest, the Elizabeth Bridge and the Danube from Buda Castle


Hungarian Parliament building, Budapest

First order of the day: the Parliament Building tour. The Parliament building is the largest building in Hungary, and the tallest in Budapest. It stands on the banks of the Danube, just north of the city centre – on the #2 tram line, or easily walkable. The first time I was in Budapest, Parliament tours were free, but available only one a first-come first-served basis, with a limited number per day being distributed at some ungodly hour of the morning. I didn’t go. Nowadays, you have to pay, but you can book online or pay at the ticket office for whatever tour is next available, all through the day. In this instance, I really do not mind paying. It costs 2000 HUF (£5; €6.50; $7.20) for EU citizens, 5200 HUF (£13; €17; $18.50) for non-EU citizens. The tour is concise, informative and done via wireless headsets, thus minimising human contact. Double thumbs up! And well worth the time and money.


Hungarian Parliament entrance hall


Budapest tram


Budapest tram

Public transport in Budapest is fantastic – a network of trains, trams, metro, buses and trolley buses that covers pretty much everywhere you could want to go. A 24 hour pass costs 1650 HUF (£4.20; €5.40; $5.90) and is well worth the outlay. Tram #2 is perhaps the most famous, running along the right bank (Pest) of the Danube from well south of the market hall to just north of the Parliament building (from where you can get to Margaret island, if swimming in open air hot springs is your thing and you want a little more space than the Gellért or Széchenyi baths). But it is a great delight just to set out and take whatever bus, tram or metro train first arrives. How much travel has changed since the advent of Google Maps – it’s a hell of a lot harder to get lost these days.


Budapest Great Market Hall

Notable places to visit include the aforementioned thermal baths (the former on the ground floor (though with a separate entrance) of the imposing Gellért Hotel, the latter in the Heroes’ Square region). Also accessible by tram (#2) or metro (Fövám tér station) is the Great Market Hall. Located where Váci utca meets the Liberty Bridge, it is an imposing, turn of the century (19th to 20th centuries, that is) Art Nouveau masterpiece of a building which houses, as you may have guessed, the main Budapest market. The basement and ground floors are given over mostly to food and drink, with the first floor being a gangwayed tangle of souvenir shops and small cafe/restaurant booths selling a wide variety of sausages, Hungarian pizza, beer and, of course, the omnipresent goulash. A wee but touristy, but, hey, I’m a tourist. And I liked it.


Fovam ter metro station ceiling

The metro itself is worth a look as well. The Blue Line (line 3) is the line you are likely to use most and has the feel of an old spy movie with its Soviet rolling stock and 1970s signage and fittings. The yellow line (line 1) is the oldest line in Budapest, having been in continuous operation since 1896. It is narrower that the other lines, and the subsurface infrastructure is minimal, meaning you need to use different entrances (usually on opposite sides of Andrássy Street, which the line follows) depending on the direction you wish to travel. This is the line to take for Andrássy Street, the House of Terror, the Opera House and Heroes’ Square. The Green Line (line 4) is my favourite – being a connoisseur of modern building styles. It is the newest of the lines, completed only in 2014, and its stations are a testament to what can be done with modern building materials – each one its own concrete cathedral.

Budapest is a haven for the hungry or thirsty introvert. Many of my favourite (actually, perhaps this is why they are my favourites) bars and cafes are very introvert friendly. First on the list has to be the famous ruin pubs.  These started out round the turn of the millennium, pubs and bars built into abandoned buildings and courtyards, often furnished from skips and flea markets. There are currently 22 ruin pubs, of which I have visited maybe 20. Three particularly stand out.

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Szimpla Kert

First, and most obviously, is Szimpla Kert, the grandaddy of them all. Rated by Time Out as the third best bar in the whole world, it is easy to see why. Szimpla is a warren of rooms and corridors with numerous different bars and food serveries. There is a cinema, a weekly farmers’ market and frequent exhibitions. Although a major tourist attraction, it is a great place to spend an evening alone with a book and a series of drinks (very good local draught beer is £1.50; €2; $2.50 a half-litre). There are numerous tables, many nooks and more than a few crannies too. You may find yourself sitting on a bar stool, a snowboard, the back seat of a Trabant or a Mini, who the hell knows. One tip for the solo drinker – as with everywhere else, take something to mark your territory when you have to go to the bar or toilet – I find a scarf/headscarf works well (see my travel kit recommendations).

As well as Szimpla, I am very fond of Corvin tetö, though this is definitely one for the summer months. Set on the top level and rooftop of an old, Soviet era department store (the titular Corvin), it is a retro-lovers paradise. I would also recommend KisCsendes near the museum: a surreal interior decorated with artistically arranged skip-finds, the atmosphere here is always convivial. Plus they have table service – always welcome for the solo drinker making it easier to keep one’s place. It should be pointed out that Hungary has a nationwide smoking ban, so unlike Prague, you can enjoy these wonderful places without either suffocating or stinking. If you are a smoker, then the easiest thing to do would probably be to QUIT YOU MORON. Failing that, Szimpla has an open air smoking section, you’re fine on the roof terrace of Corvin and at KisCsendes, you’ll just have to go outside.

In addition to the boozy side of things, I can also recommend Molnar’s Kurtoskalacs on Váci utca. As this is on the main shopping street and is the number 3 rated Budapest cafe on Trip Advisor, it’s not exactly a secret find. The kurtoskalacs (a pastry horn, freshly cooked and dipped in either chocolate, almonds, cinnamon or a variety of other toppings) are utterly delicious and the seating arrangements are stools facing a narrow shelf: perfect for the sweet-toothed introvert about town. I also enjoyed the Central Kavehaz – a glorious art deco grand cafe. I ate there more than once alone and never felt uncomfortable. A coffee, a cake and a glass of Tokaji (world renowned Hungarian dessert wine) is the perfect end to a day’s sightseeing.


Opera, Erkel Theatre, Budapest

For the cultured introvert, Budapest is a haven. On this trip, we managed to get tickets for the opera. Bearing in mind that opera tickets in London, Paris, Vienna or Verona can easily set you back a hundred Euro or more, we bought the most expensive seats in the house for a modern-day interpretation of La Boheme. And it’s not like this is some amateur production – this is the Hungarian State Opera. The cost? 3600 HUF (£9; €11.50; $13). The cheapest seats in the house go for the princely sum of 300 HUF (75p; €1; $1). As in Prague, opera is not seen as the preserve of the elite but culture and entertainment for everybody. As it should be.


In conclusion, Budapest is just fantastic. So much to see, so much to do, so many atmospheric black and white spy movies to pretend to be starring in. And another big plus for the globetrotting introvert – the people in Budapest are not at all friendly. They are not rude, they just don’t smile, rarely attempt small talk and always, ALWAYS dump your change onto the counter, even if you are standing there with your hand outstretched. Just perfect. My kind of place, my kind of people.

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Atmospheric Budapest


Liberty Bridge Budapest


Elisabeth Bridge, Budapest


Gellert Hill, Budapest


Georgia and Armenia


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I am not a religious man. (Except, of course, when it comes to travel). Nevertheless, when the opportunity to travel to the oldest Christian country in the world over Easter was presented to me, I didn’t hesitate. Praise the lord. My interest in Armenia, however, is both more political and much more recent than anything that happened in the levant 2,000 years ago. My maternal family are Greek-Cypriot and, thus, somewhat anti-Turkish. In the same way that Osama Bin Laden was anti-western. Without going into historical detail, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus left 1619 Greek-Cypriots missing. And they are still unaccounted for. The island is still divided – Nicosia being the only city left still bisected by a wall. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, and all. Consequently, I have always been pro-Kurdish, and pro-Armenian. And all this despite the Kardashians. The Armenians, of course, were the people that the Turks attempted to wipe from the face of the earth back in 1915. Over a million killed in a systematic pogrom, one that gave Hitler ideas. And I’m not kidding here. Disgustingly, despite much international pressure, Turkey still refuse to admit that anything happened, let alone apologise for it.

Speaking of systematic genocide, the same trip would afford the opportunity to travel to Georgia and visit the birthplace of one J. Jughashvili. Otherwise known as Joseph Stalin. I only had a week to visit both countries, so decisions had to be made. In the end, I opted for Easter in Georgia (even though it is Armenia that is the world’s oldest Christian country) and then on to Armenia afterwards. The reason? This meant I could be in Yerevan for April 24th – Genocide Memorial Day. And there was no way some piffling minor Christian festival was going to stop me from experiencing that.

Tbilisi is an easy, 3.5 hour direct flight from Dubai. The main problem, once arrived and out of the bilingually-signed airport, is the language. Specifically, the alphabet which is entirely different from the Latin alphabet. Whilst I can, at a push, read Greek and Russian script (though not necessarily understand either), here I was at a loss. Luckily, I had arranged to be collected from the airport  by the hotel at which I had booked. I had chosen to stay at the Silver Hotel – and my first worry was that it was a bit too homely. In that it kind of felt like somebody’s home. Whilst I am aware that for many people this would be seen as a good thing (hence the hotel’s excellent customer rating on both and Trip Advisor), for me it is something of a no-no. Being a miserable introvert, I much, much prefer the anonymity of big, impersonal hotels. I needn’t have worried. Even though the owner was very friendly indeed, it never crossed my own invisible (and for most people strangely positioned) line into over-friendliness. Through the hotel, I was able to book a tour of Georgia as well as to procure a map of Tbilisi and some idea of what to see. The hotel itself was situated perfectly for me – although it is in a tangle of tiny streets that is initially quite hard to navigate, it is right in between the old town with its churches, bars and restaurants, and the new town where you’ll find the shops and the museums.

I ventured out into the new town first – traversing the length of Shota Rustaveli Avenue (the city’s main thoroughfare), from Freedom Square right by the hotel, all the way up to the Rustaveli metro station at its far end. It was pleasant enough, with interesting views of the major administrative buildings, the museums (musea?) and the opera house. Though if that was all there was to Tbilisi I should probably have been somewhat disappointed. It is, after all, just another shopping street, with branches of the same shops you see on pretty much any other major shopping street (Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan being one exception). There was one place definitely worth the walk though. At first difficult to find, down a not-very-well-signed alley and in a courtyard, Prospero’s Books and Caliban’s Coffee is an oasis. And I mean that in a welcome-drinking-hole-in-thousands-of-square-miles-of-desert way, not in a fairly-crappy-band-from-Manchester way. It is a sizeable English-language bookshop with a very pleasant coffee house attached. The weather was mild enough to sit at one of the tables in the courtyard and digest some quality fiction along with a very fresh Americano. Worth the trip!


Georgian sweets being sold in the old town

The old town was my favourite part of Tbilisi – a jumble of houses, a mix of gentrified buildings and old houses with sagging roofs and rotting wooden shutters. It is where you will find the city’s two cathedrals, most of the bars and some of the best khachapuri you will ever eat. Ah, khachapuri. I knew nothing about Georgian cuisine before I arrived, but by the time I left, I was in love. Khachapuri, if you don’t know, is the Georgian national dish and is, if I may oversimplify things enormously, a catch-all term for about 15 different types of melted-cheese-on-bread type dishes. And who doesn’t love melted cheese on bread? (Incidentally, if you answered no to that, please stop reading now. Leave my site and never return. I’m sorry, but we simply cannot be friends). My favourite was khachapuri adjaruli, a sort of canoe of bread filled with melted cheese, butter and eggs. I’m pretty sure that after a few weeks of eating nothing but khachapuri adjaruli (which I think I would if I lived here) it would kill you, but, hell, what a way to go.


Khachapuri adjaruli


Mtatsminda Park

Also, high above the old town, is Mtatsminda Park, or the park of the TV tower. A cable car runs from near Liberty Square to the TV tower at the very top of the hill. The park contains a small fun-fair (which didn’t interest me, as, clearly, I do not like fun) including a ferris wheel. Which I stupidly allowed my travel buddy to persuade me to board. Not only, as it turns out, were the capsules magnifiers for the springtime sunshine, leading to the feeling of being in a gently swaying sauna, I also very quickly remembered just how terrified I am of heights.


Erekle Street and its immediate environs, are at the heart of the old town. All pedestrainised, the narrow streets are crowded with pavement cafes and bars and shisha places. Definitely the place to be of an evening. It is in this area that you will find the Peace Bridge, an amazing footbridge over the Mtkvari river. It is an elegant amalgam of steel and glass and it truly shines at night. Unfortunately, the fact that it looks something like a sanitary towel has led to it being given a new, unofficial name – the Always Bridge.


Tbilisi old town – note the Peace Bridge (which definitely does not look like a sanitary towel) at the centre of the picture


Easter celebrations at Sioni Church

In a remarkable stroke of luck, towards the end of my evening strolling the streets of the old town, I stopped off for a beer in a small bar overlooking Sioni Church, a 14th Century building of some note. As I settled into my book, there was a sudden eruption of noise – cheering and clapping – from the church and the bells started to ring. I checked my watch – just after midnight on Easter Sunday. Much like the Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations that I had witnessed as a small child in the early 80s, at midnight, the priest shouts Christ has risen! and the celebrations begin. A pure fluke, but a very serendipitous one.


Easter celebrations at Sioni Church


The Georgian country tour I had arranged seemed quite ambitious in its scope. We would travel all the way across the country, stopping at famous churches, a Kakheti vinyard (Georgia is widely held to be the birthplace of wine making), the city of Gori to visit Stalin’s birthplace museum, the cave city of Uplistsikhe, the Caucasus mountains and various other attractions. Actually, as it turned out, Georgia (despite having 6 of the 7 recognised geographical countryside types) is a very compact country, and our guide, both friendly and very knowledgeable, was able to show us just what an incredible country Georgia is.


The house in which Stalin was born, Gori


With Uncle Joe

The high point of the trip, for me, was definitely Gori. As both a dedicated dark tourist, and something of a history geek, getting to see Stalin’s birthplace was something else. The first thing that the guide told us completely blew me away. Stalin’s birthplace is there – a small hut with his father’s shoemaker’s workshop above the family quarters. It is now protected by a new, external roof, but it is possible to approach the building and look inside. So far so good. However, having his birthplace preserved was not good enough for Stalin. He also ordered Gori to be demolished and rebuilt three miles to the west in order to make the house in which he was born stand at the very centre of the city. In the grounds of the attached museum is, what I am led to believe is the only statue of Stalin still standing anywhere in the former Soviet Union. And thus, one would guess, possibly the only statue of Stalin still standing anywhere in the world.


Stalin’s personal railway carriage

The museum itself (guided tour only, no photos allowed) is a large, gloomy building full of memorabilia of Stalin’s life. The amazing thing here was that the lugubrious and thoroughly-depressed-seeming guide did not once mention anything negative about the man. Quite a feat even for the most ardent of Stalin’s admirers. Also, in the grounds of the museum, you get to board the heavily armoured railway carriage that Stalin used to travel wherever possible, given that he did not like to fly. Overall, it would be hard to recommend visiting Georgia and not going to Gori. If you have the time, take the trip!


Speaking of railway carriages, the tour guide dropped me and my travel buddy at Tbilisi station at about 6pm, ready for our overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia. I must admit, there is something about transport – about trains and ships and planes, that brings out the kid in me. I had never been on a sleeper train before and I was almost pathetically excited. The overnight train from Tbilisi to Yerevan runs every second day, leaving at 8.20pm and arriving just before seven the next morning. There are three classes of carriage – open sleeper (£9; €11.50; $12.80), second class four berth compartments (£14.25; €18.40; $20.25) and first class two berth compartments (£20.50; €26.50; $29.50). Needless to say, we booked a two berth. In fact, were I travelling alone, at those prices, I would have bought two tickets just to get a first class compartment to myelf.

Tbilisi station is not in the most salubrious part of town. I had read that there would be no catering on the train, so I set out, alone, to try and change my remaining Georgian money to Armenian Drams and to find some food. It was a little bit scary – it was dark, the streets were not well lit and there seemed to be many drunks with collectively few teeth. It took a while to find any kind of open shops, but (although the money changing was unsuccessful – despite the wealth of money-changers in the region of the station, none had any Drams), I managed to amass a veritable feast of stale-ish bread, questionable crisps, chocolate and assorted fizzy drinks. Not the healthiest of evening meals, but needs must and all that.


First class sleeper carriage for the Tbilisi – Yerevan journey

The sleeper carriages were old. Former Soviet rolling stock, the compartment was dark and dusty. And incredibly comfortable. I am something of an insomniac at the best of times, so wasn’t really expecting to sleep. However, a combination of the gentle rocking motion of the train and the deeply sprung and well upholstered bench-beds, and the next thing I knew, I was startled awake into a mini-flurry of breadcrumbs, chocolate wrappers and crip packets by a taking-no-shit hammering at the compartment door. 11.30 pm: we had reached the border. A terrifyingly stern looking guard, the sort whose very stare fills you with a formless guilt and a need to apologise without knowing for what, took our passports and disappeared. Having been a transit passenger at nearby(ish) Baku airport several times before, I didn’t panic at this as much as I might otherwise have. Par for the course in this part of the world, I thought. And I suppose I was right – thirty or so minutes later, the same guard returned the passports. A couple of miles further down the line we stopped again. This time the stern-faced guard in the impossibly resplendent dress uniform was Armenian, and took our passports for the purpose of entry, rather than exit. Eventually, we were back on our way, and having lucked into falling asleep before (the day’s travel round Georgia must have worn me out, I figured), I resigned myself to a further seven or so hours of wakefulness. The next thing I knew, I woke up as the train slowed into Yerevan. One of the best nights’ sleep I have ever had!


Republic Square, Yerevan

Even at 7 am in the cold, Spring drizzle, Yerevan was noticeably more wealthy a city than Tbilisi. The ATMs at the station furnished me with sufficient Drams to be going on with and the metro (avoid the unlicensed station taxis!) into the centre was clean, cheap and easy to use. My hotel was basic, but inexpensive by Armenian standards (ie double what I had paid in Tbilisi), clean and a stone’s throw from the impressive Republic Square. Again, the hotel managed to be friendly without being what I would consider intrusive, and again I booked a day-tour of the country through the owner.


The day tour took in Vokhchaberd, a village with fantastic views of Mount Ararat, a mountain sacred to the Armenians but annexed by Turkey (so unlike them!) in 1920, and Garni, a temple built to the pagan god Mithra in the first century CE. The highlight of the tour, for me, was the final stop at the medieval Geghard monastery. The monastery itself is interesting enough, partly built into the cliff at whose foot it stands. But what really blew me away was the the cave behind the monastery. Specifically, the four-person choir that was singing liturgical music therein. The acoustics of the cave and the beauty of the music were truly breathtaking. I was able to capture a small excerpt of the singing on my phone’s voice memo recorder, but nothing can do justice to actually experiencing such a thing.



The Yerevan Brandy Company

Yerevan itself was also worthy of a couple of days’ exploration. It is a lot more westernised and less post-Soviet than Tbilisi, and there is plenty to see and do. The first place I chose to visit was the Yerevan Brandy Company  distillery, where Ararat brand brandy is produced. Though clearly not as famous as French brandy, Armenian brandy is every bit its equal. It has won all sorts of awards down the years and gained all sorts of admirers, including Agatha Christie and Frank Sinatra. Winston Churchill would drink no other sort of brandy, and after the war, Stalin ensured that the erstwhile British politician received a lifetime’s supply. The tour of the brandy factory, which lies an easy walk (apart from having to cross the crazy ring road) from the city centre is on of the definite must-dos if visiting Yerevan.


Greek Coffee at Jazzve

The city is also incredibly pleasant just to walk around. The streets are broad, and often tree lined and there is a wide variety of places to stop for coffee, beer or food. The Jazzve chain of coffeeshops can be found all over the city and offer good coffee and reasonably priced food. Also worthy of a mention is the wonderful Green Bean cafe – the organic coffee and the cakes make this place definitely worth seeking out. The opera house stands at the centre of a park full of semi-outdoor cafes, and is the start point of the Cascades – an ascending set of steps with museums, sculptures and assorted other diversions. The view from the top is wonderful. There are, purportedly, lifts and escalators to assist with the climb, but none seemed to be working that particular day.

Arm cascades

Yerevan from the top of The Cascades


Genocide memorial march

The opera house was also the starting point for the real reason I had wanted to visit Yerevan at this specific time. On the evening of 24th April, I was able to participate in the Armenian genocide memorial march. Beginning with some rabble-rousing speeches (naturally in Armenian), and the ritual burning of the Turkish flag, the parade then wound sombrely through the streets of the capital, ending up at the Armenian Genocide Memorial just outside the city. Very moving. And in this day and age I am still shocked and outraged (though not at all surprised) that Turkey refuse to even acknowledge the genocide, let alone apologise for it. Bastards.


Armenian Genocide Memorial

My only regret about the visit to Georgia and Armenia is that I didn’t have more time to see more of both of the countries. I will definitely be going back. Even if just for another go on the sleeper train…

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A romantic weekend in…Iraq?


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Now there are some place names to conjure with…

A romantic weekend in Iraq, you say? Hard not to lead with that line, especially as it was the one I used to tempt my then travel buddy into accompanying me to Iraq. Turned out (spoiler alert) it wasn’t all that romantic. Which was OK as I didn’t like her all that much anyway.

No matter. An impromptu weekend in Iraq. Is it even possible? It was then, though since the advent of the so-called (I hate this ‘so-called’ bollocks. They are not Islamic. They never have been Islamic. They are tiny-dicked wankers mewling about how the world isn’t the way that they think it should be) Islamic State and the expansion of the war in Syria, Erbil is now out of bounds. Back then, though, it was an easy FlyDubai flight away. And as Erbil counts as Iraqi Kurdistan, I didn’t even need a visa.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, my maternal family are Greek Cypriots. Thus, we are inclined to dislike Turks. Or, at the very least, disinclined to like them. As they ‘vanished’ nearly 2,000 of our people in 1974 and have refused point blank to discuss the matter. In the same way that they have refused point blank to discuss the matter of the million Armenians they tried to wipe from the face of the earth in 1915. So, when I come across a group of people who do not like the Turks, naturally, I am sympathetic. Cue the Kurds.

By and large, the Kurds are the most welcoming, friendly, open people you will ever meet. They have their own elaborate customs regarding hospitality, which boils down to the fact that if you are friendly, you will never, ever feel more welcomed. If you are not friendly, however, you are royally fucked. This is a small, culturally homogenous group of people who have never tried to fuck with the world, and yet who have had the two largest regional powers (Turkey and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) try their best to wipe them from the face of the earth. This is a country (and if they are not a country in legal standing the they are in every other fucking way) that responded to so-called ISIS with their women volunteering for the front line as the ultra so-called Islamic ‘fighters’ don’t get to go to their pathetic so-called heaven if they get killed by a female. In short, you do not fuck with the Kurds. Let me reiterate: YOU DO NOT FUCK WITH THE KURDS.

Having said that. I had a lovely time in Erbil. And the Kurds I met were absolutely delightful. But then again, I did not try to fuck with them.


Erbil airport was perfectly nice. Not a phrase you would normally use in travel journalism, but heading for Iraq, I really did not know what to expect. I got the all-important Iraq stamp in my passport, courtesy of unsmiling but nevertheless pleasant border staff. Taxis were easy to come by, and, thanks to a booking sheet provided by the hotel in Kurdish, we got to where we needed to be without any problems at all. The hotel itself was…OK. Very OK. not cheap, but not expensive, it was on a par with many places I have stayed in Eastern Europe that have heard what needs to be done to be a decent hotel, but have never actually experienced one. The owner met me at reception, and, obviously very proud, went through the different things the hotel provided. Which amounted to breakfast from the bakery downstairs and the possibility of booking tours. As I wasn’t there for long enough to book a tour, I held high hopes out for the breakfast.

Erbil now is, sadly, a no-go zone. Back then, it was a safe enclave, even though it is less than 40 miles from Mosul and Kirkuk. Kurdistan was not a central part of the war in Iraq. However, now the Kurds find themselves at the front line in the battle against ISIS or Da’esh or whatever the fuck those psychotic shit-for-brains and rocks-for-souls want to call themselves. It is even sadder given the aspirations that the Kurds were showing when I visited. As already mentioned, Kurdish hospitality is second to none. Before the war in Syria boiled over, they were really trying to make this hospitality into the foundation of their economy. In the course of my visit, more than one person told me that Erbil was to be the new Dubai. Without being aware that I had just flown in from Dubai. There were signs of this everywhere – much like Dubai, a lot of Erbil was building sites. And building sites, in this instance, denoted ambition. Hotels. Malls. Casinos. Restaurants. The Kurds were really trying to turn their capital city into a luxury resort. And given their singleminded drive (not to mention that hospitality!) I am certain that, if shit in Syria hadn’t overflowed, they would have made it.

However, at the time, the people I met were fountains, geysers of enthusiasm about their great future. But their present – well, their present was pretty much a building site. You could see how things were going to take shape, but for the time being, there was not a lot going on.


The Qaysari Bazaar – the oldest souq in the world

The hotel was a brief walk from the city centre. The first evening, I wandered in for a look around. There was a bright and lively covered souq: Qaysari Bazaar, which happens to be the oldest souq in the world. And, as is the case with most souqs in the Middle East, a place where you can buy pretty much anything. There is also the main city square: a wide and impressively Arabic-looking space with cafes and fountains. And, dominating everything, the Citadel towering over the town. I took some photographs, had something to drink and returned to the hotel via a liquor store (well, there really is only so much hospitality a miserable introvert can take, after all) and that was that.


The Citadel by night


City square and fountains. Oh, and the Citadel.

The next morning, there was the breakfast. For which, as already mentioned, I held out high hopes. And I was right to. It was basic – feta, peasant bread, yoghourt and boiled eggs. But, wow, it was incredibly fresh. And in that way, as good as any buffet 5 star breakfast I’ve ever had. I’m a sucker for really fresh bread, and I swear that these big, pillowy flatbreads had been dough not quarter of an hour before.


Signage at a local mall

That day was my only full day in Iraq. After breakfast, I went straight into town. It was somewhat sleepier than the previous evening, so I made my way immediately to the Citadel. The Citadel is really quite something. I knew before I arrived that it is a UNSECO World Heritage site – continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years. It towers over the city, not built on a hill but on seven successive layers of civilisation. It has over 600 houses split into three areas. And it was even more impressive in real life – craggy and imposing, the butter-yellow walls sheer at the top of their cliffs. It was quite a climb to the entrance gate, at which I arrived, out of breath and steeled for ancient splendour.

Only to find it was closed.

It was still possible to walk a short way down the main street, but the houses were all cordoned off and barriers prevented me from seeing much. It was, in effect, a 7,000 year old building site. As that is exactly what they were doing – rebuilding and renovating at a massive cost ready for those good times just around the corner.


The main thoroughfare in the regrettably closed Citdel


Ahmadi Gate – the entry point to the Citadel


The site of a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. That’s some history!

The Erbil Civilisation Museum is worth a visit too. Probably. It was also closed. Undergoing renovations. At the time, I cursed myself for not visiting a year or two later once this shining new metropolis was open for business. Now, however, I just consider myself lucky that I had the chance to visit when I could.

That evening, following internet advice, I got a taxi to the Mamounia Skybar at the Noble Hotel on the edge of the Ainkawa area. Being from Dubai, land of ridiculous skyscrapers, I scoffed a little at the place being called Skybar and being on the 7th floor. But it was pleasant enough. It had a shisha terrace (covered and heated, but still a little chilly) and the food (generally western cuisine – it is an expat hangout after all) and the beer were OK. If that seems like damning with faint praise, well, I suppose it is. Again, my expectations of soi-disant ‘swanky’ places has been somewhat wrecked by living in Dubai. But then I generally don’t travel in order to visit hotel bars. It was just that in Erbil I couldn’t seem to find much else to do. And, please, this is much more a comment on my own introverted lack of adventurousness than on Erbil itself – I am certain that there are thousands of wonderful local places that serve fantastic Kurdish food and are overflowing with warmth, conversation and laughter. But I didn’t know where to find them. And I didn’t like to ask.

Hey, it’s who I am. Read the blog’s strapline, OK?

I left Erbil hoping that one day I might get to return and see it in its newly-minted luxury-resort glory. Or at least get to return when the Citadel was open. And, indeed, I still hope that. And although I am a miserable introvert, I was thankful for the welcoming reception I got from the Kurds that I met. God (sarcasm) only knows they have every right to distrust foreigners, but by and large, they don’t. Above all, though, I hope they stay safe. Every single one of them. Even though I know, with the heaviest of hearts that that cannot be the case. If any nation (and it is a nation, whatever your maps might say) deserves some sort of divine protection it is Kurdistan. Unfortunately, as history has shown (and as current affairs continue to show) it has long been very much a case of the opposite.


The Kurds. Even the statues are welcoming.