juliamhammond

Independent travel

When to splurge while travelling

Over the years my travel routine has evolved and fits me now like a well worn cardigan. While I’m all for saving money where I can, there are a few things that I never scrimp on – sometimes you just need to splurge when travelling. Here’s where I recommend spending rather than saving.

Insurance

Insurance is vital. Though I’ve been to some pretty adventurous places, I’m actually quite risk averse, and the thought of travelling without insurance makes me very nervous. You can take all the precautions you possibly can, but no one can predict what’s going to happen, as the photo below shows (a tumble on a hike in Sweden a couple of years back though fortunately nothing serious). Generous medical cover is a must no matter what policy you take out. I don’t worry as much about valuables cover, as the high ticket items are covered by our house insurance policy, but it’s worth checking the small print if you plan to do the same. I have an annual policy which costs around £35 for worldwide cover with American Express (you don’t have to have one of their cards to qualify). Remember, you may need to up the budget if you need winter sports cover, or add-ons like scheduled airline failure, for instance. But however tight your budget, don’t be tempted to ditch the policy completely.

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Haggling

Though we all love a bargain, it just doesn’t sit well for me to haggle hard knowing that the person in front of me needs the money so much more than I do. Play the game, but work out what a reasonable price is before driving that figure down to a level where there’s almost no profit in the transaction for the trader. After all, that money might be needed for school books or much needed medical treatment.

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Footwear

Strictly speaking I guess this isn’t counted as part of the travel budget, but investing in a good pair of shoes or boots before you leave home is so important. There’s surely nothing worse than hobbling along city streets with angry blisters on your heels or trying to focus on the scenery during an amazing hike when all you can think about is the pain around your toes. Pay what it takes to get footwear that is going to be comfortable, supports your feet and isn’t going to fall apart before you come home. Caveat: if I have a pair of boots or shoes that are almost on their last, I don’t bring them home with me. The boots below fell apart on the Bolivian salt flats and ended their days in the salt hotel’s bin.

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First and last night’s accommodation

My husband likes to say he has a rule when travelling: “Never stay anywhere that’s not as nice as your own home”. Well if that was the case for me I’d miss out on a whole lot of places through lack of funds. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve stayed in fancy places (and not just when someone else is paying) but for the most part, I’d rather save money on my accommodation to free up that part of the budget for something a lot more fun. But then I’ve never been one for confining myself to a hotel. That said, I do try to book somewhere reasonably nice for at least the first and last night of a longer trip. After a long flight, having somewhere decent to get over any jet lag and rest properly can’t be underestimated. And if you stay somewhere lovely for the last night, that trip’s going to end on a high.

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Experiences

My final suggestion for would-be splurgers is to set aside a healthy chunk of the budget for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can’t remember the details of the hotel I stayed in when I went to Margarita Island in Venezuela in 1992 except that it might have been pink? But I remember vividly dismissing an excursion to see the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, by air. It was ridiculously expensive and the decision was probably a sound one given that it was likely to have been cloudy. But a piece of me has always regretted not going. Since then, I’ve tried if at all possible to sieze such opportunities. Hot air ballooning over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, taking a helicopter ride to the top of a New Zealand glacier and sharing a turquoise sea with the cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas are just three of the many experiences I’ve enjoyed. Those memories will last me a lifetime and I don’t regret a penny of the money I spent.

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If you’re now thinking you need to work out where to free up some cash, why not take a look at my last post, When to scrimp while travelling. And don’t forget, I’d love to hear your suggestions for scrimping and saving, as well as when you’ve splashed the cash with good reason.


When to scrimp while travelling

The secret to successful budget travel is about knowing when to scrimp when travelling. Here are six tried and tested ways of cutting costs without ruining your holiday in the process. I’ll be following this with a blog about when it’s better to splurge – together, you’ve pretty much got the guide to how I travel.

Scrimp 1: Choose your destination with care

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The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

Choose a good-value destination – and don’t be sucked in by the promise of a cheap flight if everything else is going to cost you a packet. Some destinations often throw up irresistibly low fares – for example I’ve seen flights ex-London to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik advertised today for under £20pp. But do a quick search online to see how much your accommodation is going to cost and if you have any excursions or must-do experiences in mind, what they’re going to add to the total. That’s not to say you can’t have a holiday in Iceland on a tight budget, but it does mean that you’re going to have to try extra hard to save the pennies and be prepared to skip certain activities on cost grounds. Instead, opt for somewhere much better value (Brits try Turkey, Eastern Europe or North Africa) where you can live like a king on a pauper’s budget.

Scrimp 2: Think carefully about when you want to travel

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Barbados – beautiful in the November sunshine

Travelling in peak season means peak season prices. I know just how much that can hurt: I used to be a teacher. Travelling to destinations when they’re not quite at their best can cut a lot off the cost of flights and shrink hotel bills. But be careful: extreme weather has a habit of slashing prices but also of ruining holidays. Shoulder season trips (that’s spring and autumn for summer-focused places) often come in at lower prices. That’s how I got such good value for my Barbados trip – switching out peak season December and January for the more affordable late November.

Scrimp 3: Use public transport where you can

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Taxis waiting at Dusseldorf Airport (Pixabay)

Airport taxis can be useful but often they’ll significantly eat into your budget. Aim to travel light (or at least with luggage you can wheel and lift) and in many places you can ditch the costly transfers take public transport instead. In cities where there’s a subway, express bus, train or tram connection direct to the centre, this is really straightforward and often quicker than sitting in traffic. Once you’re in the city centre, you can always grab a taxi for the much shorter distance to your hotel if you need to. Public transport is often very cheap and also provides the opportunity to meet local people. Check out day passes (not the expensive attractions passes) if you’re planning a city break and want to cut out the walking.

Scrimp 4: Download walking tour maps

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French Quarter architecture

Ditch the transport and walk. It costs nothing and you’ll often see much more than you would from an open top bus or back seat of a taxi. I’ve downloaded walking tour maps and used the suggested route and notes to save on the cost of a guided tour. This one has a good overview of Philadelphia’s historic attractions. GPSmyCity has lots of great maps and themed tours; check out this one on New Orleans architecture for starters. Print off or download before you leave home. Alternatively, borrow a copy of the relevant Lonely Planet from your local library – they often feature self-guided walking routes. I’d also recommend the walking tours offered by Free Tours By Foot; you decide on the tip you wish to give your guide at the end of the tour as I did when I used them in New York’s Lower East Side.

Scrimp 5: Find out what’s free when

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Bears playing in the Bronx Zoo

Check in advance whether the museums and attractions you plan to visit offer free admission at certain times of the day or week. For instance, Rome’s Sistine Chapel is free to enter on the last Sunday of every month. The Louvre in Paris always offers a free ticket to all under 18s and 18-25 year olds from the EU, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein; on the evening of the first Saturday in the month their generosity is open to all. In New York, regular tickets to both the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden up the road won’t cost you a cent on Wednesdays. Many of London’s top museums don’t charge visitors at all. Google where you want to go before you book your trip and plan accordingly.

Scrimp 6: Cut out the middleman

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Valle de la Luna, Chile

Booking direct and cutting out the middleman can save you a lot of money. If you book an organised tour, you can end up paying a premium (sometimes a hefty one!) for the luxury of leaving someone else to make your bookings and plan a route for you. Instead, browse tours on the web and get ideas for where you want to visit. Customise it to your own needs. If there are areas you’re keen to see that are hard to visit independently, book a group (or even a bespoke) tour for that part of the trip. Local operators can help with this and often you can wait until you arrive before booking anything. For example, when I visited San Pedro de Atacama in Chile a few years ago, I spent an hour on my first afternoon discussing and booking up tours to El Tatio and the altiplano, but during the same trip, opted to visit Easter Island without a package, saving a fortune in the process.


Travel in an Instagram world

Is travel about wanting to see the world, or wanting the world to see you?

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A couple of weeks ago, Facebook thought I might be interested in something called Shoot My Travel. Intrigued, I visited their website. Basically, the site connects travellers with a photographer and takes them on a tour of the city they’re visiting. The twist? The tour’s curated around spots that are the most photogenic and the traveller is the focus, with the location merely the supporting act. It’s not for me, but the marketing’s pretty savvy for today’s Instagram-obsessed world. In their “How It Works” section, they say:

Experience the city
Once everything is coordinated, it’s time to meet your photographer and start
the photo tour. Your photographer will guide you through the best spots in
the city while taking candid pictures of you along the way. Our photo tours
are a travel experience where you can learn from the culture, language
and hidden gems of your destination!

I’m a bit dubious. I can’t see how much you’ll be learning about the culture, language and hidden gems of a city when there’s a photographer fussing about getting the perfect shot. And of course, that’s going to be important, because client satisfaction depends on it. If you weren’t bothered about how you looked, you’d have signed up for a regular walking tour instead. It’s not cheap, either, with prices for a one location shoot typically between about $200 and $230. Stretch that to two locations and a “tour” lasting two hours, and the price jumps to over $300. Call me picky, but it’s not much of a city tour if you only visit one or two places, is it?

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A 2017 article in The Independent stated that finding an Instagram-worthy location was the most important factor in choosing a destination among millennials. The poll was carried about by an insurance company and surveyed 1000 18-33 year olds. Of course, questionnaires can be easy to skew, but the result (over 40%) seems high enough to be significant. A bit more digging and it would seem that hotels might be jumping on the Shoot My Travel bandwagon (or is it the other way round?) This Evening Standard article reports on the “social media butlers” provided by the Conrad Maldives Rangali.

So why does this bug me so much? Surely, a live and live attitude is the way to go? But travel to some of the world’s most famous landmarks has become frustratingly busy, and the queues to get a selfie (or several) a real turn off. Thanks to the internet, the more that post, the more that follow them. I now think twice about even booking somewhere mainstream in peak season – I just don’t have the patience, let alone control over my mouth, for that to be a good idea. It bores me to see numerous copycat versions of the same scene, when all that’s changed is the person in them. Diversity and creativity fall by the wayside in the clamour to be like everyone else. And don’t get me started about those gaze-into-the-distance shots where the person doesn’t even show their face – I can’t see the point of that kind of image at all.

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However (and here’s the hypocrisy) it’s a real buzz when I find a spot that I can enjoy by myself, though of course by promoting it in the articles I write and sharing it on my social media feeds I’m part of the problem.

So why take photographs at all? I’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures over the years and looking back through them is a wonderful way of reliving my travels. Memories blur with age and poring over an album from twenty years ago is a reminder of just what we forget. Of course, the really special memories are engraved on your soul, as are those want-to-forget moments, but it’s good to get a refresher of those that fall somewhere in the middle.

So I’ll keep taking snaps while I’m travelling, but the vast majority of them won’t have me in them. And I certainly won’t be paying hundreds of dollars for someone to photograph me while I do. What about you?

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Footnote:

All the images in this post were sourced from Pixabay, using the search term “Travel”.

 


Plastic not so fantastic

I have a confession to make: until now, I’ve not paid much heed to my use of single-use plastic. That’s a very selfish thing to have done – I’ve turned a blind eye to the impact of discarded plastic on wildlife and given little thought to where my waste will end up, beyond sorting plastic bottles for recycling by my local authority. Now I see the words on paper, I’m not proud of that. It’s time for me to change some of my travelling habits and I’ve been thinking hard about what I need to do.

Water in plastic bottles

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It’s easy to justify drinking water out of plastic bottles. Some of the places I’ve travelled in have less than satisfactory water systems and having had several nasty bouts of sickness over the years thanks to my consumption of ice, salad and ice cream, I’m careful not to drink water out of the tap like I do at home  to protect my health. So what to do? I’m not sure yet about the use of iodine tablets and filter bottles, so I’m trying a halfway house. I’ve invested in a 720°DGREE insulated water bottle that I can fill from reliable sources – such as airport water fountains and filtered water – and plan to test it out in Europe very soon.

Straws

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I don’t enjoy drinking through a straw, particularly when I’ve ordered a fizzy beverage. But what I haven’t been good at is communicating this to my server, instead waiting until my drink is brought to the table and then discarding the straw. I won’t be buying a stainless steel straw as I’d rather not use a straw at all. But to avoid unnecessary waste I will make a point of asking not to be given a straw when I order a drink.

Travel-sized toiletries

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Much criticism has been given to the wastefulness of travel-sized toiletries. In-room amenities and miniatures at airside stores are two cases in point. I’m a big advocate of downsizing toiletries to save on luggage, and will continue to be. However, the bottles I religiously refill before every trip were bought as Body Shop miniatures in the early 1990s and have served me faithfully ever since. Toothpaste is something I need to consider – currently I use up the little tubes that my husband brings back from business trips or save an almost empty full-size tube to finish off while I’m away.

Airline plastic wrappers

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Speaking of on-board amenity kits, I refuse the plastic-wrapped headphones that are handed out. I’m more likely to read or play Scrabble on my Kindle app, but carry my own set of earbuds when I feel like making use of the in-flight entertainment. If I’m organised enough, I have a fleece blanket that packs small enough to fit in hand luggage (bought in response to Norwegian’s policy of charging for blankets but used many times since then).

Street food 

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I’m a huge fan of street food: it’s cheap, tasty and often freshly cooked. But one thing you can’t get around is that many street food vendors serve using plastic plates, cups and cutlery. For once, my husband has led the way on this: he habitually packs what he calls his ice cream spoon so that he can pop into Walgreens when he’s in the States on business and buy himself a large tub instead of the individual serving that comes with a plastic spoon. Yes, greed is good in this instance! I’ve been looking for a set of packable cutlery and have settled on a Joseph Joseph set, which stores in its own silicone case. When I travel with hand luggage only I guess I’ll just have to take the fork and spoon.

Wet wipes

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Wet wipes have been my go-to travel item for at least a couple of decades. I’ve never flushed them down the toilet, but nevertheless, I wasn’t aware that they contained plastic until I read this article on the BBC website:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/44034025

I’ve found what I’m hoping to be a suitable alternative in Cheeky Panda’s 100% bamboo baby wipes, which are packaged using a material called PET1 (Polyethylene Terephthalate). Though plastic, it’s said to be 100% recyclable if disposed of appropriately.

Have you any practical suggestions for reducing single-use plastic while travelling? Please feel free to drop your recommendation in the comments.

Note: though I mention specific products in this post, I have not received complimentary samples. I’ll be reviewing how I got on with my attempts to reduce my single-use plastic consumption on my travels in a future blog.


How you can afford to travel more often

Travel has always been my addiction. Family aside, I’m happy to make a whole heap of sacrifices to be able to travel. I don’t smoke, drink only in moderation and have few vices. Let me share with you a few of my tips for how you can afford to travel more often.

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Set goals

I’m a compulsive list maker. Years of being a teacher conditioned me to having a structured day and to do lists enabled me to prioritise my non-teaching periods and knock out the admin efficiently. Since I quit school and turned my attentions to travel writing, that structure has gone out of the window. How I fill my day is no longer dictated by the bell. To an extent, I can do pretty much what I want, when I want. So those same to do lists give me structure. I still run a must, should, could list and ensure I deliver what I’ve promised on time, so that my clients are happy. Applying this method to travel plans also works. Each year I think about where I’d like to visit, formulating a rough list that usually contains one or two long haul destinations plus a number of European trips. I don’t stick rigidly to this plan, but knowing what I want to achieve helps me think ahead.

Do your research

Once I know roughly where I want to go, I start researching what those trips might cost. I’m fortunate that I receive invites for press trips, but there’s nothing better than the flexibility to do what I please, so independent travel is still my preferred option. Usually, the cost of flights is the biggest expense, so I’m always on the lookout for cheap fares. I’ve signed up for email newsletters with a number of airlines and this enables me to get wind of any flash sales before they’re announced to the public. I also follow Secret Flying and FlyNous on social media for their special deal and error fare alerts. Even though I don’t book the majority of these flights, it’s a very useful gauge as to what consitutes a cheap fare for a particular destination. If I do learn of a particularly good deal, I’ve found that you have to snap them up fast. Act decisively and you get a bargain; dither and someone else does. Often, though, a deal too good to resist comes up for somewhere unexpected, such as Uganda for just over £300, for instance.

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Fix a budget

Once I have transport sorted, I figure out what my total budget can stretch to. I know what my day to day living expenses are, how much my car costs to run, what purchases I need to factor in. Adult life is a far cry from my early twenties and the girl who blew her first pay packet on a holiday to Venezuela! Instead of being impulsive and extravagant, work out how to downsize your lifestyle – cancel your gym membership and go for a run instead; sell your car and take public transport; watch movies on TV rather than at the cinema. I’ve never been one to spend big on clothes, I rarely wear make-up and I don’t choose to get expensive manicures or facials. You’ve seen my picture; that should be no surprise. When I worked full-time in education, I made a packed lunch every day. Add up what you spend on that takeaway coffee each day – it will surprise you. But also think about what you are and aren’t prepared to give up. It’s all about what’s important to you. I’d rather have a budget weekend away than spend the same money on alcohol, but if the discipline required to save for these trips is taking the joy out of your everyday life, then you’ll need to rein in that travel addicition.

Now see how far that budget can stretch

The same principle applies to the trip itself. Over the years, I’ve saved thousands of pounds because I opt for independent travel over group tours. It’s often been considerably cheaper to go it alone and pay for local guides as and when I’ve felt the need. I enjoy the flexibility and I don’t miss the company. And for me, it’s the destination rather than some luxury accommodation that is the most important element of the holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fancy hotels as much as the next person, but if switching to a simple homestay or hostel is what I can afford, I’ll book that rather than not go. Ask yourself if you can cope with a dorm bed or if you need a private room, could you manage an overnight sleeper train (surprisingly cheap) or whether you’d accept a shared bathroom down the hall (though always check cleanliness reviews before you book!) Would it work out cheaper to stay slightly out of the centre and jump on the subway each day, or would you sacrifice time and come back a day earlier if it meant you could achieve a city centre hotel within your budget?

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Choose your destination with a view to value for money

Some destinations are hard to do on a budget. I spent a week in Barbados last year. I saved money on my flight by using air miles, travelled around by public bus, found a bargain Airbnb studio apartment and did a food shop at the local supermarket to cut the cost of restaurant meals out. (It might not seem like a holiday thing to do, but tot up the cost of seven breakfasts if you eat out and compare that to the cost of a box of cornflakes and a couple of pints of milk.) Even so, that trip cost somewhere in the region of £700 and that was with the many free admissions that come with a wave of my press card. Not expensive by Caribbean standards, but not cheap either. I could have saved on the cost of accommodation by travelling with a like-minded companion, of course, which would have knocked off about £200. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan offered considerably more value for money. In fact, I even brought cash back with me, things were so cheap. Typically, accommodation was a third of the price of the equivalent standard in Barbados, and food was considerably cheaper too.

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Explore ways of making your trip pay for itself

As a travel writer, these days I bear in mind whether a destination is likely to be marketable and factor that into my decision-making. While some trips, like the Tonga add-on I did last time I was in New Zealand, are an indulgence, others are much more lucrative. With some timely commissions, I made over £1000 on one week-long trip to New York last year. Iceland, New Zealand, Russia and Italy have worked out well for me too. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that I’m on the go more and relax a whole lot less – I won’t have much to write about if I don’t stray far from the hotel pool all week. If you want to see if you can sell an article, see if you’ve got what it takes and create a profile on a freelancer platform like Upwork. But you don’t have to be a writer to earn money from your travels. Perhaps a TEFL qualification would open some doors, or maybe you could earn money from photography if you’re skilled enough and work hard at pitching your talent. Working as a tour guide, taking on house or pet sitting, taking a job in a ski resort or working on a cruise ship are just some of the ways you can fund your trip.

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A beginner’s guide to Kyrgyzstan

The love child of Switzerland and Mongolia, blessed with snow-capped mountains and hospitality like you wouldn’t believe, Kyrgyzstan makes an easy introduction into the ‘Stans. If you’re not sure where it is, you’ll find it on China’s western border – go halfway across Russia and then down a bit. The country’s attractions haven’t yet reached the radar of many travellers, and when the Border Force officer quizzed me on where I’d flown in from yesterday, he thought I said Kurdistan. Yet, it scored a mention on the Lonely Planet’s must see countries for 2019. So what can you expect of Kyrgyzstan?

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Getting there

There are no direct flights to the capital Bishkek from London, and in fact the country’s airlines are off limits, featuring on the EU’s “not safe to fly” list. Given that an indirect flight was necessary and Kyrgyzstan was to be my sole Central Asian destination (for now at least!) I flew with Pegasus Airlines via Istanbul. They operate out of Stansted which is convenient as that’s my closest airport. Book well ahead and they’re pretty cheap too. My flight cost £337. Though there are plenty of options for the first leg, flights to and from Bishkek are limited to one a day. Schedules change, as they did for me between booking and date of travel. What had been a three hour layover on the outbound journey changed to a five hour layover.

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That had the minor advantage of arriving at a more convenient 7am, but Sabiha Gokcen Airport isn’t close enough to the city for between-flights sightseeing unless you have a seriously long layover, so I holed up in Starbucks instead. If you’ve never been to Istanbul, pick an early flight out of the UK into the city and kill time sightseeing until the second flight departs at 11pm. It takes about an hour on average to get from the airport to the city, but allow time for traffic-related delays.

Another option might be to use Air Astana and combine Kyrgyzstan with a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Bishkek and Almaty are little more than a couple of hundred kilometres apart. Air Astana has direct flights from London for a similar price. Check your visa requirements before you book.

Getting around

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Depending on what you plan to do and how ambitious your itinerary is, you could make use of the country’s network of public minibuses, known as marshrutkas. These bear the name of the destination on the front windscreen but you’ll need to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve always found it helpful to memorise the first or last few letters of a place name so that it’s a simpler process to clock which bus is yours. Bishkek for instance shares the same last three letters so look for “kek” at the end of the word. If you plan to loop Issyk-Kul, the country’s largest lake, you shouldn’t have a problem finding transport. Note that these minibuses go when full and won’t stop along the route if they have their full complement of passengers, so plan accordingly.

If like me you want to cover more ground and head a bit further off the beaten track, it’s worth considering a car and driver. I found Advantour to be very helpful at the initial email stage, with prompt responses and useful suggestions about whether what I was planning was doable. Marat and I bounced ideas and refinements back and forth a few times before settling on an itinerary that covered the places I wished to see at a budget I could afford. Including accommodation, I paid about £800 for my week’s activities. You’ll see from the itinerary below that it represented excellent value for money.

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Another option, particularly if you have a little more time to play with, is to make use of the CBT organisations that are spread across the country. Community based tourism is a big thing in Kyrgyzstan and these helpful offices can sort you out with somewhere to stay, transport and the full gamut of activities. Each town has its own, and some even have several competing CBTs. They can hook you up with local guides, hiking packages, horse riding treks and more. I also liked the fact that they’re big on interactive experiences and will arrange cooking classes, felt-making demonstrations and more. This casual insight into Kyrgyz culture is great for the first-time visitor. Many of the bookings that Marat made for me were via the CBTs, but it’s useful to know you can cut out the middleman.

How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan

Day 1

The advantage of arriving on the night flight is that you have an extra day to play with. The downside of pushing fifty is that sleeping fitfully on a five hour flight doesn’t refresh you enough to permit morning sightseeing. The good news is that many of Kyrgyzstan’s hotels and hostels offer an early check-in for 50% of the room rate. I opted for the budget-friendly Apple Hostel for my first night and a half, which came in at about £30 for an ensuite double for sole occupancy. Its edge of town location was good for a rush hour arrival as we didn’t get caught up in any traffic and took just twenty minutes to get from the airport. The taxi transfer, arranged by the hostel, cost about £7. There’s a cheaper shuttle bus which runs more or less during working hours.

 

I had a much-needed nap and then had Marat send my driver over for noon. After a brief detour to his office to pay for my tour, Adyl drove me to nearby Ala-Archa National Park. This beautiful park is only about a half hour drive from the city and is centred around a dramatic canyon flanked by mountains. In late May, there was still a slight chill in the air, but blue skies meant that it was perfect hiking weather. A tarmac path takes you along the river bank. That trail ends at an outwash plain where graded cobbles and streams of water can be forded to continue the walk. You can hike for 18km though I settled for a shorter walk. A couple of red squirrels were very friendly when I got to the benches.

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Day 2

I was keen to ride, and had read that one of the best places to do so was in the Chong Kemin valley, a few hours east of the capital. Marat suggested I’d need to get almost as far as Karakol today to be able to complete my wish list, so I opted for a two hour ride. My guide was the chatty Beka, who’d gone to Bishkek to study English and French before returning to his beloved valley. My request for a helmet was an initially misunderstood, as he fetched me a cap to wear. The second attempt was a bicycle helmet which I figured was better than nothing.

 

The next two hours were a pleasure, taking a leisurely ride through rolling hills and fording occasional streams (more importantly, learning to recognise the signs that your horse is about to take a bath with you on his back). Beka interspersed nuggets of Kyrgyz heritage and history with tales of his own somewhat chequered love life. Aside from my horse almost bolting after being startled by the air brakes of a lorry as we got back to the village, it was a most relaxing ride.

 

From there, we drove east, doubling back to stop for lunch in the Kyrgyz equivalent of a motorway service station midway through the Boom Gorge. Food’s cheap: you can have a proper meal for about 150 som (£1.50). Following the north shore of Issyk-Kul from a respectable distance, we pulled off the highway at Tamchy for a photo stop on the beach itself. We were a few weeks off main tourist season, so the place was deserted save for one lone paddler. The neighbouring resort of Cholpon-Ata is very popular with Russians in summer. From what I could tell, it had a lot in common with the Black Sea resorts they also favour.

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Our overnight stop was at a charming guesthouse, Reina Kerch, not far from Karakol. Set off the main road, it boasted panoramic views of the nearby canyon, but was also a working farm. Herds of sheep and cows pottered in distant fields but it was the horses I was keen to see, as the farm prided itself on thoroughbreds. The best competed in trotting races and I was able to watch one of their most successful stallions impregnate a mare. A tour of the stables followed. Next up was a boorsok-making demonstration. Boorsok is a fried dough cut into ravioli-like pieces. The dough was already made but I helped roll, cut and fry. It was salty and delicious. Dinner was excellent, making good use of the farm’s homegrown produce.

 

Day 3

Staying just outside Karakol on a Sunday, it was hard to resist a visit to the animal market on the edge of town. Scotski Bazaar isn’t the country’s largest – that honour goes to Tokmok’s weekly market which we’d passed the day before. The action starts in the middle of the night, but at around nine, it was still busy enough to be worth a visit. Sheep are traded nearest the entrance; those hoping to sell tie them to car bumpers with string leads. Further in are the cows and bulls. I was told a decent cow could go for $700 or $800. At the rear are the horses. I was made to feel very welcome.

 

Next up was Karakol itself, for a brief visit to the Dungan Mosque, which looks more like a Chinese temple than a regular mosque. That’s no surprise: the Dungans are Chinese Muslims who fled across the border in the 19th century. The colourful timbers and ornate pictures on its exterior were bright and cheerful. I wasn’t allowed in, but was invited to peer through the door. Around the corner was a charming wooden Orthodox Church, which replaced an earlier stone church that was felled by an earthquake in 1890. It didn’t have the glittering domes of other Russian churches I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan and beyond but it was a delightful sight. Mass was taking place, so I contented myself with a glimpse through the door.

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From Karakol, we followed the southerly route around Issyk-Kul. The Jety-Oguz valley was a short but worthwhile detour for its beehives as well as the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations. As we drove out of the valley, the weather took a turn for the worse and we drove through some heavy squalls. The spectacular mountain backdrop was a damp squib, obscured by thick cloud. The foreground scenery was stark also, nowhere near as pretty as the panoramic views I’d enjoyed thus far.

 

No matter, just after the scruffy town of Bokonbaevo we pulled off the main highway to reach an Alpine meadow, where we had an appointment with an eagle hunter. He produced a magnificent pair of golden eagles from the boot and back seat of his car – they couldn’t travel together as they would fight, he explained. His display was both captivating and, when he produced a live rabbit as bait, horrifying. However, I tried to rationalise the sacrificial bunny as nature’s pecking order. Nothing would be wasted, said the hunter, bundling the kill into a sack to take home. It would feed both eagles for the rest of the week. The thrill of watching a skilful bird such as this home in on its prey was, I reluctantly admitted to myself, impressive. If you’ve no stomach for hunting, you might choose to skip this, but such a tradition has been a part of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries.

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Back on the road, through more heavy showers, we reached Kochkor. Late afternoon, I was treated to a shyrdak demonstration. Felt-making is another important Kyrgyz tradition and my tutor was as skilled as she was smiley. Once again, active participation was expected and I found myself making the reed mat and stitching fabric together. A full sized carpet, I was told, takes five people two years to make. A single square can be knocked out in ten days. And I’m pleased to report there was no hard sell for either. Accommodation tonight was at a very plush homestay on the edge of town, affording magnificent views of the Tien Shan Mountains when the sun finally made an appearance.

Day 4

After the previous day’s storms, a dumping of snow on the mountains wasn’t the best for our ride up and over the Kalmak-Ashu mountain pass (highest point 3447m) to Son-Kul. This lake is smaller than Issyk-Kul by some margin, but its remote location ringed by snowy peaks makes it breathtaking. Late May is very early in the season to be up there at all, and the road had only been open for two weeks.

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We climbed steadily above the tree line. The road was wide, but it wasn’t long before we were driving alongside snowdrifts two metres high. The reward at the top for being one of the few to attempt it was a pristine meadow of snow which I left with two long lines of footprints. There was also a snow filled long drop toilet. This far into the tour, it had become something of a joke between Adyl and I that I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a toilet break.

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The approach to Son-Kul was just as wonderful, descending to emerging spring grass and fields of yellow buttercups. A few yurts were open for business, but at 3016m the lake is a summer destination. After crossing the Chu River, the lake’s only outlet river, we attempted to off-road to the lakeshore but the ground was still too soft for this to be possible.

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After a few failed attempts we bailed and drove down the spectacular Thirty Three Parrots Pass. A series of dramatic switchbacks carries you down the pass, and at each hairpin bend I caught my breath. I was glad to be the passenger! It’s surely up there with one of the world’s best drives though, if you have the head for it. A French traveller in a camper van had got cold feet halfway up and was trying to pick up courage to complete his ascent. A family of nomads in a small lorry, yurt in the back, made light work of it and waved enthusiastically.

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Before we headed into Naryn, Adyl invited me to try kymys, fermented mare’s milk which has a rather unpleasant sour taste to those unused to it. I managed a couple of sips, which was more than can be said for my attempt to drink a cup of Maksim, another popular sour milk drink which is just about the most vile thing I have ever tasted. Bustling Naryn was a bit of a shock to the system after a day’s solitude but Datka’s Guesthouse was comfortable and clean. At about £18 for an ensuite room with TV and hairdryer, breakfast included, it was a steal. She throws in dinner too for an extra 350 som (£3.50).

Drinks

Day 5

A much easier drive of around an hour and a half took us to Tash Rabat. This caravanserai is centuries old – no one knows quite how many – with metre-thick walls and atmosphere in spades. A lady emerged from one of the yurts opposite to unlock and collect the 100 som entrance fee (about £1, a bargain!) I was fortunate to have the place to myself for the first half an hour or so, wandering from room to room trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay in such a place. Some rooms had long benches of rock, others were square. All had skylights open to the elements which let in shafts of light. I emerged from one side chamber to give a recently-arrived Korean tourist the fright of her life (unintentional).

 

Outside, the way that Tash Rabat was engineered means that it’s pushed right up against the hillside. Climbing onto the roof and gazing down into the skylights is a peculiar sensation. The Korean had hiked up a nearby hill, so once again I had the place to myself until a bus load of Kyrgyz pulled up. The kids in the party scaled the walls with ease, chucking tiny stones down to their parents which, given the tone of voice, earned them a scolding.

 

My overnight lodging was within sight of Tash Rabat. Sabyzbek, a 62 year old maths teacher turned farmer, had a small guesthouse and a collection of four inviting yurts. Located in the quiet Kara-Kojon gorge, the road crossing the river and enabling access by car had only been built five years ago, transforming tourism in the valley. He was keen to show me both, reminding me several times that at 3200m and with a chill wind barrelling down the valley, the yurts would be cold once the sun set. Temperatures would fall below zero, he said, though I couldn’t pin him down to exactly how far. I decided to risk it for the adventure, figuring that I could pile on the spare bedcovers and every fleece I’d brought to stave off the overnight cold.

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Just before lunch, a wander around the farm led to another confronting sight. This time, the local vet was castrating a stallion. Judging by the horse’s wide eyes and blowing nostrils, accompanied by the ropes holding him down, the operation was performed without the use of tranquillisation. Potassium permanganate was used to sterilise the area and a hot poker cauterised the wound. It was uncomfortable to watch, but again, part and parcel of nomad life. Such lack of censorship is both the joy and the pain of visiting somewhere unused to mass tourism. I left as the second patient was being led to his fate.

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The afternoon was a pleasant one. Though the wind was biting, once you were out of it, the sun was rather nice. I tucked myself into a natural hollow, two woolly jumpers keeping me snug as I felt the warm sun on my face. Farm life carried on around me: a cow mooed insistently, chickens clucked over and pecked at the discarded balls of the morning’s business and horses pottered about. Every now and then, a car passed, bound for Tash Rabat, but by and large, it was quiet enough to hear birdsong. After dinner, I chatted with Sabyzbek’s daughter Tuzsun about Kyrgyz life, expectations and change. Dusk fell late; a pink sky soon clouded, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing when it came to how warm the yurt would be. A fire was lit in the coal burner, started by dung, just in case. I was toasty – so much so that I spent half the night with one leg stick out of the duvet resting against the cold slats of the yurt in an attempt to cool off.

Day 6

It was a long drive back to Bishkek and an early start was in order. The fire had kept me toasty inside the yurt but there was a frost on the ground outside. A bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of hot tea later, we were on the road again, retracing our steps to the capital. Bishkek’s sultry heat was a shock after several days in the mountains. I took a stroll from my centrally located hotel to Ala-Too Square. Its tall flagpole is no match for those in other Central Asian capitals, but impressive nevertheless. Nearby are several leafy parks offering the temptation of plenty of shade, as well as the presidential palace known as the White House. After a cold drink, a so-so pizza and a chat with a waiter keen to practise his English, it was time to go and pack for the following morning’s flight home.

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Would I go back?

Absolutely! Kyrgyzstan was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some. I’d love to stay in a yurt at Son-Kul and revisit the delightful Sabyzbek and his family at Tash Rabat. Osh and the Fergana Valley would also be on my wish list for a second visit. I’d definitely use Advantour again. Marat’s suggestions were invaluable and his organisation faultless, well worth the money I spent!

A few observations

The Kyrgyz are hospitable and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I asked one hotel owner why. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I’d suggest learning a few phrases in Russian as many people speak very little English. Having a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to hand so you can figure out lone words is also a good idea.

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Kyrgyzstan is a cheap destination and your money will stretch a long way. Even my smart hotel in Bishkek cost only $95 for a luxurious and very central room. Most comfortable guesthouses come in at around a quarter of that cost. It would have been possible to do the Ala-Archa and Issyk-Kul trips by marshrutka for a fraction of the cost of a car and driver. Likewise public transport to and from Kochkor and Naryn was plentiful.

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If you intend to self-drive, the roads are for the most part in excellent condition. Aside from the gravel roads up to and down from Son-Kul, there were none that would challenge an average driver and there were very few potholes. However, road signs are sporadic in places so it’s best to take a good map. Traffic police are everywhere: watch your speed if you don’t want to be flagged down and fined. Watch out for herds of livestock being moved between pastures and the occasional suicidal marmot.

Travelling in the shoulder season, you’ll have many places almost to yourself. I visited in late May and the road to Son-Kul had been open for two weeks, though snow still lined the Kalmak-Ashu pass. By mid-June, there’ll be plenty of yurts set up to receive visitors and off road trails down to the lakeshore will be safe to drive. By September, the season’s pretty much at an end unless you plan to ski.

It’s customary to take off your shoes when entering a house, and the same applies to homestays, guest houses and yurts – in fact the only place where it wasn’t expected was the fancy pants hotel in Bishkek. Do as the locals do and opt for footwear that can be easily slipped on and off, rather than have the bother of unlacing hiking boots each time you want to go inside.

Toilet

Toilets, save for posh hotels and the airport, are almost universally of the squat variety. Some are much cleaner than others. Those I encountered at the Kalmak-Ashu pass were full of snow. Have a stash of toilet paper handy but note that it needs to go in the bin as Kyrgyzstan’s plumbing can’t cope with paper.

English readers, everything seems to come in Morrison’s carrier bags. It’s very odd receiving a plastic bag featuring the distinctive M from a few years back and even more bizarre when it happens over and over again. I’ve yet to get to the bottom of this mystery (it’s been 12 years since this design has been used in the UK) so if anyone who’s reading this knows why, do leave a comment!

Mor


My pick for Room 101: solo bookers who call themselves solo travellers

Apologies in advance: I’m feeling very grumpy this week. As such, it’s the perfect time for me to pretend I’m a guest on the popular BBC TV show Room 101. If you’ve never seen it, guests get to argue the case for putting something they can’t stand into the proverbial Room 101 and get rid of it for ever. Room 101 is a reference to the torture room in George Orwell’s novel 1984. (Orwell is said to have taken his inspiration from a conference room where he sat through interminable meetings while working for the BBC.)

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Items banished to Room 101 include people who call you ‘mate’ when you’ve never met them before, though coming from Essex we are rather used to that and quite honestly I wouldn’t like to see that go. Other observations include the frustration of being saddled with a waiter who pours a little bit of wine into your glass (totally agree with that, utterly pretentious). People who say “have a nice day” (sorry America, I don’t know why that winds some people up) and people who don’t pick up their dog’s poo (can’t argue with that) are two more. Travel-related good riddances include the prohibition of mosquitoes and expensive water in hotels. Yes and yes! The list is as eclectic as it is fascinating.

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So here’s mine. I’m a huge fan of solo travel and without wishing to sounding like a travel snob, solo travel by its very definition means travelling alone, without anyone else. The whole point of travelling solo is to get away from everyone else and give yourself space to explore your new surroundings. Google it, if you don’t believe me. I just did and this was the top result:

Solo travel means you’re going somewhere else alone, where you will spend a significant chunk of time alone once you get there.

Thank you Quora.

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Now call me thick if you like (though please not to my face, had about enough this week and need a dollop of nice, thank you very much), but how does that sit with someone making a booking for a group tour? My inbox and social media feeds are awash with travel suggestions that involve a solo booker joining a singles holiday or a group tour with other lone travellers.

Let me just stress, I have no problem with anyone who wants to do just that. It’s a great way to make friends and to share the experience of visiting a new country. But there’s a distinction between someone who books a single place on a tour and someone who deliberately seeks to distance themselves from a tour at all costs. The former’s a solo booker. The latter’s a solo traveller.

And they’re two different things.

Do you agree or would you send something entirely different to Room 101? I’d love to find out what your pet peeves are when it comes to travel. But if I’m a little slow in responding, that’s because I’m off to the remote Kyrgyzstan countryside for a week – solo of course.

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