Monday, 17 February 2014

Aksu-Zhabagly Canyon – Freezing Cold and Incredibly Beautiful

{that’s me in the middle, contemplating a skinny dip}

Our second night in Kazakhstan was spent camping in the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve.  One of the joys for me of overlanding is the camping. It usually means you're staying somewhere incredibly pretty where there are no other accommodation options.  It usually means some down time and it usually means sitting around a campfire late into the night, looking at stars and sharing stories and moments.

Aksu-Zhabagly NR is an example of this. We could have spent another night in the nearby homestay with a day trip to the park but we wouldn't have been the same.  We wouldn't have had the opportunity to hitch a ride from Uzbeki farmers in their big old Kamaz log trucks. That’s probably a story for another time though.

The title of this post could be a little misleading though. After unseasonably cold weather in Kyrgyzstan (ie. an unexpected foot of snow), the little pocket of Kazakhstan we were in was gloriously warm. T-shirts and shorts warm in fact.

After riding up top into the park and setting up camp, there was nothing but free time.  Most of us opted to hike down into the canyon and we were well rewarded for our efforts. A select few of us even decided to have a dip in the river. A swim in a snow fed river. I'm pretty sure those that didn't venture into the canyon could have pinpointed the moment we first jumped in, such were our shrieks. Heck, you could have probably heard us wherever you were.  That said, we jumped in and out several times, shrieking as we went.

Moments like that are just good for you right? Any favourite pictures?

{looking east from the top of Aksu Canyon}

{looking west from the top of Aksu Canyon}
{Down in the canyon, the frigid water}

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Kazakhstan–a Welcome Detour


I popped into Kazakhstan back in 2012. I say popped in because it was such a brief detour, for only two nights.  Whilst Kazakhstan neighbours both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it's not part of the Silk Road and wasn't initially on the itinerary for the trip I booked.  With some unrest in the Fergana valley on the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border, the route we took went north into Kazakhstan, spending a night at a homestay in Zhabagly and a night camping under the stars at Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve.

Crossing over from Kyrgyzstan didn't prove difficult but it was hardly quick either.  Travelling in a group can slow this down some but equally, having someone who has done it before can make things easier. For this border crossing, it was me the group were left waiting for. The immigration officer I had on the Kazakh entrance was particularly personable. Smiling and stamping those before me, Borat (not joking, that was his name) became obsessed with the idea of me meeting his brother. Apparently his brother would love some Australian children. Eventually though, once he'd had enough of practicing his English and trying to arrange an introduction (also not joking, he kept trying to call his brother), he stamped my paperwork and I was allowed through to Kazakhstan. Our driver, who was waiting patiently with me, was equal parts amused and frustrated. Frustrated for the unnecessary delay, amused at the cause.

We arrive at our homestay in the small village of Zhabagly just before sundown so after quickly making use of the facilities, a few of us headed out on a walk and wonder, stopping for very many photos.  These photos are what you see below.  Zhabagly, a small village, lies a the foot of the West Tien Shan ranges where an life exists at a slower pace and smiles were never too far away.

After the walk, we were treated to a delicious multi course meal at the homestay.  Like Kyrgyzstan, community based tourism (CBT) is prevalent here. It often means paying to stay and eat in people's homes and I can't recommend it enough.

Have you ever had any interesting border crossings? or thought of heading to Kazakhstan? I’d love to head back one day and see more of the country, especially Almaty. And any positive detours? I love it when things don’t go to plan but work out even better than you could imagine.


Monday, 10 February 2014

Quiet Weekend Days

Housemates in Devon
{Kate and I with Jason, the third housemate, on a weekend in Devon back in 2011}

The weekend past was a quiet one but that's really my cup of tea at the moment. Some work on some projects at home (think hanging pictures, painting furniture), a spot of shopping (think gorgeous rose gold leather flats, heavily discounted), the Fine Design Market and baby cuddles with a friend (market with her, cuddles with her 4 month old) and then finished it off with some holiday planning and chocolate milkshakes down by the river. Not a bad one my friends. Maybe not one I'll remember in a year but enjoyable during every moment.

I'm busy at work but then that's the norm and the weeknights pass by without being marked so the weekends are really when I feel like I get things done. I've got some really great things coming to look forward to though, and in the vein of Kyria's post, here's me, looking forward:

This week - Dolly Parton, Blue Smoke tour. I saw her back at the O2 a few years ago and thought she was incredible. That night felt like a dream so to get to see her once again is still a bit surreal.

This weekend - visitors! A housemate from my London days, Kate, is now calling Sydney home (she's a London native) but her and her current housemate are visiting this weekend. We've no set plans other than Saturday night (they'll be seeing King Kong, I opted out) but loose plans for plenty of cheese, plenty of bubbles and plenty of talking. I've not seen Kate since mid 2012 and I'm just a bit excited. She's one of my people. You know those people you meet and click with pretty instantly? So excited. Did I mention that?

This month - a weekender! It's not as easy to travel from Melbourne as it was from London but I'm trying. I'm heading up to Sydney in a few weeks to see some friends, Kate included. Sydney's a city I've spent an ok amount of time in for work and visiting and I've seen the touristy things. My time there will be spent with an old colleague, old travel buddies, an old housemate and a school friend. It will be spent with them, doing their things. Coffees, brunches, normal things. No sights to rush between, just time to be.

This quarter - ok, that makes me sound like an accountant or something, doesn’t it? Aside from Sydney, I've got a few more weekends away in March and then a trip to Malaysia for Easter (10 days in total). I've seen so little of South East Asia and I'm really excited by this trip. I'm going with the boy and so far all we've booked is flights in and out of KL. The plans are for a few days there, a few days on a beach, a few days in Penang and maybe a hike or two if we can swing it. I'm excited to be back amongst a different culture where everything feels new and seems exciting and more than a little bit excited about the food. A few colleagues have suggested Redang Island for our beach time but it looks a little honeymooney to me.

This year - well, I haven't really got anything planned beyond Easter but I'm excited for the year ahead, and the ability to continuously plan more fun things. I'm also excited to spend more time with the people that matter to me. I've not done a great job of it so far this year but there's hope yet.

What are you looking forward to and do you have any Malaysian beach recommendations?

Friday, 7 February 2014

Zanzibar–the Other Part

{this water is rougher than it looks!}

Whilst Zanzibar was amazing, I don't want you to think everything was perfect. Something that's not often talked about on travel blogs (but is very often talked about when travelling) is getting sick.

Zanzibar was my sickness sweet spot.

Zanzibar is where I found myself at the hospital wearing a maxi skirt (modest dress required in Stonetown), standing over a squat toilet and peeing into a cup. I should probably mention that I couldn't find a hand basin either so I had to wash my hands in a shower. Some labs and an ultrasound and $57 later, it was confirmed I had a kidney infection*. The prescription? Some stronger antibiotics and plenty of fresh coconut water to restore my ph levels. 

I still laugh thinking back at having to fill that sample cup. And I'm still grateful for the quick and efficient service I received at the hospital and the relatively low cost of it all. My local guide (he was present for parts as a translator) ensured I had fresh coconuts with room service delivering them reasonably frequently. And I was grateful that it didn't take much longer to start to feel better either. 

Zanzibar is also the first time I've ever actually been seasick (rather than just feeling seasick).  A few days after the comical hospital visit, we went on a day long snorkelling trip. Sailing in a dhow, we seemed to find and ride every swell and wave which left me feeling green. Thankfully, it wasn't too long before we get in the water and start snorkelling. I'd assumed that once I was off the boat, I'd start to feel better in no time. I was partly wrong and it was whilst snorkelling and being buffeted by the swell that I succumbed. And you know what? The rumours are true. Fish love that stuff!

What can you do but laugh? I was sick in paradise but as far as I was concerned, I was still in Paradise. Have you ever been sick on the road?

*I've had one before and this one followed the same course so I wasn't particularly worried, just glad to get it sorted before the next leg of my travels.

Looking Back – Making it to Zanzibar


I'm playing this game with myself at the moment. I sit at my desk at work and think back to where I was this time last year.  It's not that work isn't busy or keeping me entertained, but lets keep it real. I work as a business analyst at a decently sized financial institution. This is what the beginning of 2014 looks like to me.

The beginning of 2013 was all about travel. I probably don’t need to say that again. I was overlanding through Africa last year.  Today specifically, I was in Zanzibar. 

Zanzibar had long been a dream destination of mine. I remember seeing it on a travel show in the late eighties perhaps. I remember seeing the turquoise water of the island and hearing about the spice market, thinking it so exotic and telling Mum I was going to there one day. I can't date the memory exactly but we were in the grown up lounge room of a house we moved from in September 1990. 

Twenty-three years later (and twenty two after Mum passed away), I made it there. I've seen so many awe inspiring things, even just in the months leading up to Zanzibar and had so many wow moments but this one was the most emotional.

I didn't see as much of Zanzibar as I would have liked, or spend enough time there (I'm pretty sure I could stay forever) but it was as incredible as I'd dreamed of.

Some time (too little) spent in Stone Town with its narrow twisting lane ways, the regularity of the call to prayer, the history in the buildings and it churches to a time of slavery, the night markets with some of the best and freshest seafood I've had and the assault on your senses that is the spice markets (true story, i find the smell of bananas far more horrific than that of fresh fish). The pictures below are all from Stone Town. 

A few days were then spent on the white sand beaches at Nungwi, snorkeling, swimming and kicking back in the hammocks and the Indian Ocean. The few photos I took from that part of the trip are above.

Have you ever been to Zanzibar or dreamed of it? Or is there somewhere else you've wanted to go since you were little? What is your favourite picture of Zanzibar?