2013 will soon be bidding us farewell. This year will certainly not slip by unnoticed – as eventful as its predecessors, 2013 is notable for the balance it has brought to the life of anjči. It was an interesting, versatile year: not solely dominated by travel, it saw me continue to learn languages, practise dance routines and attend artistic performances in the United Kingdom, my much loved home and base. It was also the year when I made multiple trips to Riga for frequent reunions with my parents, reviving the connection with my home city. Last but not least, my social life has not exactly been dormant in 2013, either – and my day work duly kept its pace. 2013 has been a busy yet a well-balanced year.
This has once again meant that this blog has not received the time it perhaps deserves. In the grand scheme of things though, it may well be that 10-12 posts a year (down from my personal peak of 50 in 2010) is exactly the balance it needs given my other commitments. Time will only show.
To continue the tradition developed in 2011 and 2012, I have recapped the highlights of my departing year in pictures. While these are all related to travel, stay tuned for my annual newsletter for more personal life developments in 2013.
Somehow my silk saree seemed festive enough to open this post
1-6 January: Same as a year ago, I welcome the new year in India. This time I find myself 1,600 km south of my last year's new year venue: the state of Kerala where the city of Kochi celebrates the calendar change by burning a (rather ugly) massive effigy of Santa Claus. Only ashes remain when I continue my journey around Kerala, visiting the intensely green tea plantations of Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary with its stunning elephants, the serene backwaters of Alleppey and the bustling Kovalam beach. Everything culminates in a shopping spree in Mumbai before my flight back to London – truly India never lets me down.
Watch that Santa burn below: shortly past midnight, only the metal frame remains
Munnar is famous for its stunningly green tea plantations
Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary houses an elephant reserve and a tiger reserve
A local woman waits for a passenger boat in Alleppey, Kerala
The backwaters of Alleppey are the most popular tourist attraction in Kerala
Palm trees forming unexpected symmetry in the backwaters of Alleppey
Indian babies rarely leave their mother's side
Locals enjoy a camel ride on the Arabian Sea coast of Alleppey
The Alleppey beach could look quite exotic... were it not for the crows
A young Keralan lady poses for me on the Alleppey beach
9 February: It has been eight years since I last visited the Netherlands. I rush to rectify this, paying brief visits to The Hague, Scheveningen and Delft. It is my trip to Amsterdam though that stands out most, as the city welcomes me with the heaviest snowfall I will see this entire winter season. I forget that I have come to Amsterdam to see Anne Frank's house – the queues are prohibitively long, too – and snap away at the playful snowflakes.
Typical canal houses get snowed in in Amsterdam
A couple walks under a heavy snowfall
Unable to get inside Anne Frank's house, I spend the whole day wandering around Amsterdam's canals
Winter sun shines over Scheveningen, the beach with the Netherlands' most unpronounceable name
Nieuwe kerk rises on Delft's Grote Markt (Central square)
2-3 March: An old tradition lives on as I spend the first weekend of spring in Spain. The Las Fallas festival is in full swing in atmospheric Valencia. During thunderous explosions of the Mascletà, I think a war might have broken out while I was asleep; it all ends up very much peaceful though. I continue to Tarragona where a friend has already planned a sightseeing trip to Castell Monestir d'Escornalbou in Catalonia. Spring is in the air! The weekend flies by all too quickly.
~Valencia / Tarragona, SPAIN
Valencia welcomes me with glimpses of spring and brilliant blue skies
A pleasant sight to visitors, wild Valencia oranges are somewhat sour
Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia was founded in 1913
My first sight of cherry blossom this year is in Valencia. Much more is to come in Japan!
Castell Monestir d'Escornalbou heralds spring in Catalonia
Sveta & Co go to great lengths to entertain yours truly in Spain. And succeed!
16-17 March: This is my first accompanied trip in years; I won't even mention by a male person. Predictably, the choice falls on Paris. I will never understand why so many people consider it romantic, but eccentric and captivating it certainly is. I climb endless stairs to Arc de Triomphe, the gentleman in question holds the umbrella over me as I take pictures – the scene is blissful in its peculiar way. Not even the recurring hail and icy wind mar things.
Avenue Matignon is one of six avenues radiating from Arc de Triomphe
Traffic around Arc de Triomphe is usually much busier than this
Just in case anyone has any doubts, this is the EIFFEL TOWER
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris clothes itself into pink sunset colours
Weather in Paris succeeds to remind me of London that day
23-24 March: I have been trying to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp for years; the expectations are high but the reality is even more powerful. Fresh snow having covered the earth lavishly the night before and the sun shining in perfectly blue skies, the site could not have looked more idyllic – bar the "Vorsicht" signs around and the notorious "Arbeit macht frei" shield overhead. Deeply moved, I spend the following day in Krakow to recover: the city's fascinating Kazimierz district, Wawel Royal Castle, wintery main square and incredible Wieliczka salt mine – one of the most unearthly sights I have seen to date – almost make me forget the sharply negative temperatures. Almost.
~Krakow / Auschwitz, POLAND
This sign is a replica: the original was stolen, recovered and placed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Rails run to Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp
A barbed wire fence dotted with watchtowers surrounds the Auschwitz I concentration camp
The Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Hill are the most significant historic site in Poland
Krakow's famous St. Mary's Basilica is built in the Gothic style
30 March – 14 April: It is my first big adventure of the year and what better way to celebrate spring than with plenty of cherry blossom in Japan? In 16 days, I dash from sleepless Tokyo to mountainous Takayama, blossoming Kanazawa, serene Miyajima, sombre Hiroshima, unexpectedly versatile Nagasaki, peripheral Kagoshima, overcrowded Kyoto, spiritual Koyasan, picture-pretty Hakone and seaside Kamakura. Deep breath – did I mention these were only a few of the places I visited? Personal highlights include crossing paths with an authentic geisha in Kyoto, attending a Buddhist fire ceremony in Koyasan and photographing the sunset over Mount Fuji in Kamakura. Japan was fabulous beyond words – let's hope my planned trip to its Okinawa island works out in 2014.
~Tokyo / Kanazawa / Hiroshima / Nagasaki / Kyoto / Koyasan / Hakone / Kamakura, JAPAN
A local woman multitasks in Tokyo
The Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa district is one of Tokyo's famous tourist attractions
"Fishing is prohibited" according to this sign in Tokyo's Ueno Park
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower and second tallest building in the world
Early spring (cherry blossom season) is a popular time to get married in Japan
Shinjuku Gyoen is one of Tokyo's most celebrated spots for cherry blossom
Tokyo's Harajuku district is a bit of a hangout for fashion-conscious teenagers
A far cry from Tokyo: Takayama offers a great view over the Japanese Alps
Kanazawa-jo (castle) is Kanazawa's main tourist site
Kenroku-en gardens house Japan's oldest fountain and over eight thousand trees
Many Japanese mothers stay at home to care for their young children
Itsukushima Shinto shrine is best known for its floating torii gate off the island of Itsukushima (Miyajima)
The Genbaku Dome stands as a silent monument to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima
Shoes undone, eyes focused on the book... now at least that sewage hole is covered
Mount Inasa offers the best view over Nagasaki
Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto simply overwhelms with its throngs of visitors
This chance encounter of a geisha in Kyoto made my whole 2-week Japan trip
It may be warm downhill but snow falls on Mount Koya
Observing an early morning Buddhist fire ceremony is an undisputed highlight on Mount Koya
The Hakone region is well frequented by Tokyo residents on weekends
I end up in Kamakura by chance (my flight is delayed): Mount Fuji poses for this sunset shot
These typical lanterns are the final mental image I take home from Japan
27-28 April: I should perhaps start by shaking uncontrollably and screaming to the whole world that I bumped into Novak Djokovic in Monaco. Except that was by no means the only highlight of this visit to the French Riviera – both Nice and Cannes are worth a trip in their own right. I especially recommend walking up the Castle Hill in Nice for a panoramic view over this seaside city.
~Nice / Cannes, FRANCE and Monte Carlo, MONACO
The architecture of Nice is typical to France's Mediterranean coast
Empty in April, this beach in Nice reportedly gets endlessly crowded in peak season
It is not a wonder few choose to swim in Nice this time of year
The celebrated Cannes beach looks serene under rain
Le Suquet makes up Cannes' old town
Never mind the expensive yachts: I doubt anyone would describe Monte Carlo as beautiful
Novak Djokovic needs no introduction
4-6 May: Allegedly the outermost region of the European Union, the Portuguese island of Madeira lies as far as a thousand kilometres from the European continent. It is certainly not a forgotten place though: the main city of Funchal looks as developed as Lisbon, massive cruise ships make daily stops in the harbour and brisk construction works aspire to turn the island's perilous pebbly beaches into a shielded sandy paradise. Shocked by the abundance of activity in a place I have imagined much more tranquil, I rush off to Porto Moniz in the far northwest. It is calm enough and Madeira is restored in my eyes; I doubt I will be back in a heartbeat though.
Funchal has been the capital of Madeira for over five centuries
A local wears traditional clothes for a parade in Funchal
Poppy seeds are a key ingredient to lemon & poppy seed Madeira cake
Young Madeira girls sit in a traditional toboggan sledge
Lizards are a common sight on Madeira
The town of Porto Moniz provides a much needed break from busy Funchal
Igreja do Colégio in Funchal houses a Jesuit school and church
11-12 May: Just a couple of months after Paris, I am back on the Eurostar, this time headed for Belgium. Somehow I had imagined the country to excel in cider, but there is none to be found anywhere. Thankfully, Belgian dark beer fully compensates – I am not surprised to see a very merry monk laughing off bottle stickers of one brand.
~Gent / Oostende, BELGIUM
Gent looks unchanged from the last time I visited back in 2001
The International Kite Festival of Oostende takes place on the second weekend in May
Oostende's summers are cooler than inland in Europe; nevertheless it survives as a resort
June / July: The first two months of the summer prove fruitful as, foreign lands aside, I embark on a little discovery of our very own UK shores. The journey takes me from "bugger" Bognor to white cliffs of Dover, a sleeper train to Penzance and – yes, really – the "Brighton of the North", Scarborough. A clueless Londoner in me is pleased to discover so many worthy places elsewhere in the UK.
~Bognor Regis / Dover / Penzance / Scarborough, UK
Night falls on Middleton-on-Sea near Bognor Regis
Unlike in Hove, beach huts of Bognor Regis are all painted in the same style
The White Cliffs of Dover face the European continent
South Foreland Lighthouse near Dover went out of service in 1988 and now belongs to National Trust
Penzance means "holy headland" in the Cornish language
The Large Blue butterfly is a protected species in the UK
The English coast near Land's End is rugged and picturesque
Don't be fooled by this: there surely are more refreshment houses on the Isles of Scilly just across the water
Easily borrowed from a booklet on the Mediterranean, this beach is nevertheless in Cornwall
An intense rainbow points towards the fishing town of Newlyn, Cornwall
My return trip from Penzance to London involves a forced stopover in Plymouth
One has to be English (or Baltic) to swim off Scarborough South beach
10-13 June: It has been a long break in my business travels, but the one that comes along makes it worth the wait. I spend four days zooming around Cairo – mostly in and out of offices and helplessly stuck in traffic, I finally manage to meet a friend, Ahmed, and set off for an exploration of nighttime Cairo. The Khan el-Khalili market is as bustling as the Tahrir Square is empty; not for long though – the sense of the looming revolution is already in the air and Cairo is abuzz. Needless to say none of us linger too long.
A local woman clutches a teddy bear as she crosses the road in Cairo
Most people in crowded Cairo live in such buildings
A local man hands out posters promoting the army in Cairo days before the June 2013 uprising
Some office buildings in Cairo present great panoramic views down the Nile
It is never easy to find a free seat in El Fishawy cafeteria in Cairo's Khan el-Khalili market
15-23 June: Summer in the life of anjči very much means Greece. I make my escapade early in the season and enjoy the wonderful tranquillity on the Cycladic island of Milos. The cosy port of Adamas, the pretty Plaka with its celebrated sunsets, the picture-pretty cliffs of Kleftiko, the surreal Sarakiniko beach with its lunar landscapes, the undiscovered left "wing" of the butterfly shaped Milos, the stunning Tsigrado, Fyriplaka and Provatas beaches – they all speak for themselves. Milos may well have been my best Greek island experience to date. Don't forget to visit the much smaller (but no less prettier) nearby island of Kimolos, too.
~Milos / Kimolos, GREECE
A hilltop church in Plaka is a popular sunset viewing spot in Milos
The Aegean sparkles with its intense blue colour
Some say the fishing village of Klima is the Milos island's prettiest
This moonscape on Sarakiniko beach reportedly stems from the volcanic origin of the island
Such windswept views are well familiar to any visitor to the Greek islands, especially the Cyclades
This cheerful gentleman in Adamas introduces himself as Captain Milton and goes on to pose for me
This could well be your most typical sight on the tiny island of Kimolos
The island of Kimolos is mostly hilly
A local "yaya" (Greek for grandmother) waits for a bus in the port of Adamas, Milos
29-30 June: I leave Greece behind to return to London, but not for long – my summer soon continues in sunny Malta. Together with the same trusty fiere who accompanied me to Paris and Gent, we rush through Malta's key attractions: medieval fortifications of Mdina, cobbled streets of Valletta and colourful fishermen's boats of Marsaxlokk. We even find the former Royal Navy Hospital of Mtarfa where my companion was born many years ago – the building is used as a school these days but little seems to have changed since the British times.
~St Julians / Mdina / Valletta / Marsaxlokk, MALTA.
A local man sits down for a drink in Mdina
A medieval fortified town, Mdina sits on a hill
Mdina is an old capital of Malta
Perhaps thanks to its quiet stone paved streets, Mdina is often called the "Silent City" by its natives
The Dingli Radar lies on the western coast of Malta
These colourful fishing boats are unique to the village of Marsaxlokk
11-14 July: "So much for not planning to return to India so quickly then", I hear myself say as, one fine Wednesday evening, I board a Mumbai-bound plane. There is ample reason to return though – my friend Nandini is getting married in Bangalore! I enjoy dancing in my only saree so much that I get two more made, while the rest of the shopping barely fits in my travel pack. I think I may be well equipped for a year's worth of Indian clothes; Bangalore itself is nothing to die for though.
Nandini smiles brightly on her wedding day
Beautifully dressed guests arrive at a Keralan wedding in Bangalore
Boys will be boys: while adults eat, three boys kill time after the wedding ceremony
Slum children love posing for the camera in India
A Muslim local of Bangalore smiles as he poses with a mango in his hand
Motorcycles are a popular means of transport in Bangalore
A young boy looks behind his mother's shoulder
Local women walk past posters promoting a film in Kannada language
A little girl is shy as her parents encourage her to smile to the camera
20 July: Time has flown by all too quickly. After fretting about the fact for a good few months, I suddenly turn 30 one windy Saturday in Riga. Fancy celebrations aren't really for me, and my mother and the same old travel companion provide all the entertainment. Highlights include indulging in a whole glassful of kvas on the Saulkrasti beach and devouring pork ribs in a Latvian country restaurant. Life will never be the same again.
The Saulkrasti beach often gets too windy to walk, not to mention swim
I utter a forced smile as ice cold water conquers my feet
1-4 September: I expect absolutely nothing from my few days in Beijing – after all, the city is merely a stopover on the way somewhere else. Perhaps this is exactly why the Chinese capital wins me over almost instantly. Instead of dull concrete blocks and polluted streets, I discover beautiful Chinese gardens in Jingshan Park, the mesmerizingly historic Tiananmen Square, the bustling Nanluoguxiang hutong and the vast walkable areas around Summer Palace and Kunming Lake. Not to mention that the impressive Great Wall of China is just a stone throw away – and that Yashow market with its top floor foot massages is always there should the walking prove too much. The smog is seriously despicable though.
A local man reads a newspaper in one of Beijing's hutongs
Jingshan Park is popular with the locals for an early morning exercise
A policeman guards the Tiananmen Square shortly before the lowering of the flag
Beihai Park in Beijing is a former imperial garden and boasts many temple structures
A simple photo prompts this gentleman to cycle over and offer me a balloon
Chinese lanterns decorate the busy Nanluoguxiang hutong
The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu features a strenuous 2x3km hike and 26 watchtowers
The product of the one-child policy looks back over his father's shoulder
Kunming Lake and Summer Palace of Beijing manages to look pretty even in the rain
Laundry is drying in one of Beijing's hutongs as a family rides past on a motorcycle
Locals paddle along Nanhai Lake in the dusk of Saturday night
5-13 September: Beijing bears little resemblance to communism as I know it, and I head to the place where the ideology has stood still for over 60 years. I land in Pyongyang and spend the following week exploring the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea. A lot has been written about it in this blog; the highlights include the Arirang Mass Games with their tens of thousands performers, the National Day military parade swarming in flags and Kims' images, our "Alcatraz" of a hotel isolated to an island in the Taedong river and the demilitarised zone sealing the border between North and South Korea for decades. A week-long abstinence from the internet is healthy for all of us, too.
~Pyongyang / Nampo / Pyongsong / Kaesong, DPRK
Locals make their way to work on a Saturday, a working day in North Korea
Mansudae Grand Monument features two massive statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il
A North Korean boy wears a military uniform and carries a toy gun; we cannot figure out why
The Arirang Mass Games are performed by some 100,000 artists per show
The local guide to the Party Foundation Monument opens an umbrella over me as rain drops fall
Local women wear traditional choson-ot dresses while paying tribute at the Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang
A North Korean bookstore worker poses in front of Kim Il-Sung's and Kim Jong-Il's portrait
North Korean troops take part in the National Day parade commemorating 65 years of the DPRK
The Juche Tower in Pyongyang symbolises the Juche (self-reliance) idea and is 170 meters tall
Top floors of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang offer stunning panoramic views over the city
Traffic lights often failing, Pyongyang relies on its much photographed traffic ladies to regulate the roads
North Korea is a vastly agricultural country that strives to home-grow as much of its food as possible
We may be excited to watch the students' Mass Dance but a local little girl looks bored to tears
A local young lady is supported by her mother as she poses for many foreign cameras
An officer at the DMZ gets cross having his photo taken but, magically, I manage to avoid having it deleted
Some anti-US postcards are on sale in the Kaesong stamp shop
23-29 September: September is a busy month: having barely adjusted from Beijing to British time, I backtrack three hours to Georgia. This turns out to be my most memorable work trip to date. Besides visiting three construction sites (arguably an acquired taste), I explore the capital of Tbilisi, the mountainous Stepantsminda in the Kazbegi region, the wine country of Kakheti and the remote, hydro-rich Paravani. The food, the wine and the people are my favourite in the whole world; Georgia is truly the closest I have yet been to paradise.
~Tbilisi / Stepantsminda / Kakheti / Paravani, GEORGIA
The Dariali Monastery on the Tergi river is minutes away from the Russian border
Gergeti Trinity church and Kazbegi peak gradually open to the morning light
Pig crossing! Not many humans are up this early in Stepantsminda, but at least some pigs are
A glorious view over the Kazbegi mountain opens from Stepantsminda
Surrounded by world-class wineries, the Alaverdi Monastery in Kakheti makes its own wine, too
Saperavi is one of Gerogia's best known grape varieties
The Bridge of Peace was inaugurated only in 2010 and has already become one of Tbilisi's landmarks
A local family sells groceries on Gonashvili street near Avlabari, Tbilisi
The old town of Tbilisi is my favourite in the entire world
A local boy is sulking in front of his mates as I snap a photo
5-6 October: If you think Guernsey is nothing but a tax haven, you couldn't be more mistaken. The UK-controlled island in the English Channel boasts history far disproportionate to its small size and offers numerous exploring opportunities. Its capital, St Peter Port, is a pretty settlement with a picturesque harbour and lovely pubs selling Rocquette, a delicious local cider. It is the omnipresent observation towers from the days of the German occupation during World War II that captivate me most though.
St Peter Port is the capital of Guernsey
Vazon Bay in the west of Guernsey is a famous sandy beach but features plenty of rocks, too
After World War II, some 15 characteristic German bunkers remain on Guernsey
7-9 October: On a business trip to Budapest, I escape the hotel one morning for a quick dash around both sides of the Danube. The views from the Royal Palace on the Buda side are so picturesque that I end up running late for work. A proper weekend trip may be in order soon.
Early morning welcomes me on the Danube
I look towards the Danube over the rooftops of Buda
Budapest, the Danube and Szecheny bridge surround themselves with autumn tones
The Royal Palace in Buda is undergoing serious rennovation; at least the horse has been spared
12-13 October: It drizzles endlessly through my weekend escapade to Bordeaux; my return flight is delayed, I miss the last train from Gatwick and take hours getting home, eventually reaching there in the early hours of the morning. In-between though, I discover what is probably my favourite French city to date – perhaps its distinct British feel is to blame. The celebrated wine helps, too.
A boat stands moored on the Garonne river in Bordeaux
The rooftops of Bordeaux strongly remind me of those in the UK
Panoramic Bordeaux opens itself from Pey-Berland Tower
Another spell of rain has just fallen onto the Bordeaux embankment
This is the closest I will ever get to Grand Hotel de Bordeaux
7-8 December: I arrive in Stockholm convinced I will spend the next two days exploring the city's Christmas markets and completing whatever sightseeing I missed on my previous 20+ visits. Instead, I find myself drawn into late night conversations, hour-long coffees and replays of past years' Melodifestivalen (Swedish national Eurovision selection) – the company of good friends is indeed superior to any sightseeing.
Daniel, Anya, Yessenia and Nina grin in front of Petite France cafe in Stockholm
Thanks for scrolling down my year! Stay tuned for my 2013 newsletter – online soon, it will describe the main events of the year in greater detail.