Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Eurovision 2015: The heroes of their time

Not many of us will recall that the first Eurovision Song Contest was held in Switzerland in 1956. With a few breaks here and there, this year’s European singing extravaganza celebrated its 60th anniversary. The show has swirled endlessly around Europe (and beyond), only to end up relatively near where it started, in Vienna. Austria won the right to host the 2015 contest following Conchita Wurst’s last year’s storming victory with Rise Like a Phoenix. It was Austria’s only second experience as a Eurovision host: the previous one was as long ago as 1967.

Eurovision 2015 is unlikely to be remembered for flawless organisation. Three countries were cut off during the voting, and connection was at times painfully slow. One would think Austria was still using the 1967 technology! The introduction of three female presenters – a first for Eurovision –hardly paid off either. The trio visibly lacked in dynamism and struggled to keep the commentary flowing. Conchita Wurst tried to save the day hosting the artists’ area backstage but was given unforgivingly little air time – a far cry from her last year’s triumph on the stage.

Not surprised, mate

Musically, this year’s contest featured relatively few surprises. Perhaps the only one was the participation of Australia as a special guest to mark the show’s jubilee. Unbelievably so, the Eurovision Song Contest has a strong following in Australia, as well as an added advantage of being a late-morning family entertainment programme thanks to the time difference. If Australia had won, it would have been allowed to participate again on a condition that the contest would be held in a European city of their choice. Perhaps luckily, Australia did not have to make any difficult choices in the end, finishing fifth with its catchy Tonight Again performed by Guy Sebastian.

On a less surprising note and as predicted by the bookies for months, Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw went home triumphant after his energetic Heroes scored an astonishing 365 points. Russia’s Polina Gagarina came second with 303 points (the first time a runner-up crossed the 300-point mark) and Italy’s Il Volo was third with 292 points. Måns’ victory was Sweden’s sixth in the history of Eurovision and meant that Sweden became the first country to win twice in the 21st century. While Ireland upholds its Eurovision title having won seven times – more than any other country to date – Sweden’s victorious streak means that this may not hold out for long.

Controversy remains

The show did not go by without controversy. Final results for every country are determined by a combination of the audience’s telephone votes and national juries made up (at least allegedly so) of music professionals. The jury vote was originally introduced to reduce the political bias of the voting. However, jury results are often subjective and some Eurovision fans believe that their opinions should be given less (if any) weight, as the two can differ dramatically. This year too, Sweden would have come third solely on the basis of televoting. Italy would have won – handy for a country which has not come first in Eurovision since 1990.

One could not but feel sympathy for Russia whose Polina Gagarina received widespread booing whenever the country was awarded top points. Following a similar situation last year, the Eurovision organisers deployed an anti-booing technology, blocking out the boos with pre-recorded cheering and applause. Unfortunately Eurovision still struggles to be an apolitical event and boos for Russia could be well heard, at some point reducing the singer to tears.

One participant that deserved little sympathy, however, was the UK. Represented by a duo called Electro Velvet, the country scored a meagre five points and finished fourth last. While the second anglophone nation, Ireland, failed to qualify altogether, Australia’s success proved that speaking English as a mother tongue need not go hand in hand with inability to sing. Perhaps the UK’s utter inability to make friends in Europe is to blame.

In comparison with the 2014 finals which featured only three non-English songs, 2015 saw a slight revival of national heritage: France, Italy, Montenegro and Spain performed entirely in their respective languages while Romania mixed theirs with English. Overall though, the situation still looked bleak – as did poor translations into English of some contestants’ songs. Many had won their national selections in local languages and should have arguably stuck with those.

On, on to nominations

The most daring dress award indisputably goes to Latvia’s Aminata who donned a massive red frock to perform her Love Injected. It must have helped – the singer went on to sing twice her petit size, finishing sixth and earning Latvia its best result since 2005.

This year’s contest dominated by unadventurous ballads, Israel’s Nadav Guedj admittedly had little competition to score my favourite lyric of the night. “And before I leave let me show you Tel Aviv” he sang cheerfully to music echoing klezmer influences, leaving no doubts about his ethnic background and scoring Israel a place in the Top 10. At 16, Nadav is among the youngest participants the adult version of Eurovision has ever seen. I was not surprised he kept calling for his “mama” throughout his otherwise cheerful number, Golden Boy.

The best-distraction-from-music award undoubtedly goes to Lithuania. Halfway through their otherwise unmemorable song, the country’s Monika Linkyte and Vaidas Baumila briefly pressed their lips together. And if a heterosexual kiss on stage wasn’t enough, the background dancers swapped partners for a same-sex version of the same. Whoever said Lithuania was a conservative country?

The too-much-effort award goes to Armenia which as much as formed a 6-member supergroup for the sole purpose of this year’s Eurovision. The members had been assembled from five different continents to represent the Armenian diaspora scattered around the world following the unfortunate events of 1915. The song’s original name Don’t Deny was deemed too political by the organisers and eventually changed to Face the Shadow. The resulting imitation of Andrew Lloyd Webber did not win many hearts, finishing 16th.

Finally, I must award Austria with the best-Coldplay-sound of the night (yes, most contests feature more than one). This will arguably be the only award the Makemakes will receive this year, as the Austrian entry officially became the only host country ever and, along with Germany, the first country since 2003 to score nil points at Eurovision. The fact that the Makemakes used to warm up Bon Jovi in the past is likely to remain the highlight of their musical career.

And so it is off to Sweden again

Lastly, I cannot help but applaud Sweden for its abundant Eurovision talent. Predictable references to ABBA aside, the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest finals featured not one but four songs composed by Swedish songwriters, two of which – Russia and Sweden proper – made the Top 2. While this is nothing compared to 10 Swedish-written songs in 2012, it is still a substantial achievement. A country with such rich musical tradition certainly deserves a sixth chance to host the contest – and, unlike many other participant nations, being able to afford it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

2015 Travel plan: Fewer but better trips

Last year I visited 25 countries and spent 65 per cent of my weekends out of London. Looking back at my 2014 travel itinerary, I feel excited at the amazing memories – yet just a little bit tired, too.

It is bad taste to complain about the privilege that is travel but I would be lying to say I enjoyed every one of my last year’s trips. While most places I visited were fantastic, the whiney little person in me found, say, Lyon in France fairly dirty and impossibly buried in dog poo last October. It then failed to get the point of the pompously royal and expensive Luxembourg in March. And, in the same month, it was slightly uninspired by Poland’s freezing, empty city of Gdansk.

I see two reasons for my failing to appreciate the places most people would be grateful to visit. Firstly, I visited them in the colder months. The backdrop of bare trees, rain-washed buildings and grey clouds is unlikely to tilt anyone’s scales to a positive impression. Besides, as a keen but amateur photographer, I feel coldly about long hours of darkness when I can make little to no sense of my camera’s manual settings.

Secondly, I simply crammed too many destinations into a short time. My visit to Spain in October was followed by Portugal and France in a matter of two weeks. While I greatly enjoyed Santiago de Compostela and Lisbon, by the time I reached rainy Lyon I was burnt out and uninterested – and would rather have just stayed in London in retrospect. As a result, I did not do France’s second largest city the justice it deserved.

That brings me to obvious conclusions and resolutions for 2015. I plan to travel less on weekends, especially less so to places that turn gloomy and lifeless in the winter. Larger gaps between travels will do me good and give me the time (and budget!) to plan individual trips better as a result. I definitely do not need to exceed the count of 20 countries every single year, either.

In a word, while I will of course continue planning my big holidays with the same zeal and excitement – and as annoyingly long in advance as always – I want to slow down my weekend travels. I am slightly bored of Western European cities and will take a break from them in 2015. It is my resolution to visit as few as 10 countries this year, with not more than four as first-timers.

To compensate for lower numbers, I hope to approach each of my destinations with longer preparation time and deeper understanding. I hope that this will all lead to infinitely better quality of both my travel and my everyday life at base in London.

With that eloquent speech in mind, here are only some trips I have planned for 2015.

(1) First-timer in Bratislava, Slovakia (March)

Bratislava may not sound that exciting until one is reminded that Slovakia is among three three European countries I have never set my foot in (the other two are Kosovo and Moldova). Please don’t ask how I have managed to miss Slovakia and not any of its five neighbours; this will soon be rectified. On a weekend this March, I hope to explore Bratislava’s charming Old Town and perhaps take a day trip to one or two castles nearby. Since it will be cold, I very much count on Slovakia making something similar to Polish mulled beer. Regular beer will of course be welcome, too.

(2) Unveiling Iran (April)

Iran will be my first major trip of the year. Leaving a few days before Easter, I will fly to Iran’s north-western city of Tabriz, from where I will make my way to Shiraz using overland transport. I have not crystallised my itinerary yet – and various sanctions make it cumbersome for me to pre-arrange hotels from London – but I am unlikely to miss Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan and Yazd along the way. If I were to visit Na’in and Kerman too, I would be most pleased.

The preparations for my trip are already in full swing. Obtaining an Iranian visa is a multi-stage process: I have so far used a travel agency to get an authorisation number from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have asked them to take my passport to the Iranian Consulate in Frankfurt (the one in London is still closed and the one in Dublin is tiny). Yes, I currently have no travel document besides an EU national ID but hopefully my passport will be coming back, duly stamped, in a few weeks’ time. Meanwhile I try on my Indian salwar, kurtis and dupattas daily to find the best combination – an Islam-friendly dress does not need to mean inelegant!

My Iranian visa photo had to feature head cover

(3) Couple’s retreat on the Andaman Islands, India (May)

Not long after Iran, my boyfriend Alan and I will fulfil our long-standing dream to visit India together. We have been to India only separately before, and Alan’s last time was over a decade ago. Needless to say we have picked an entirely new place for both of us: the Andaman Islands.

This archipelago lies much closer to Burma than India and can only be reached by boat and plane from the Indian mainland. We plan to spend a couple of days saree-shopping in Chennai (luckily for me, Alan is even more enthusiastic about buying colourful sarees for me than I am) before flying to Port Blair, the principal town on the Andamans. From there, we will catch a ferry to Havelock island best known for its heavenly beaches, a resident elephant and absence of any form of telephone reception. May is not the best time to visit the Andamans (even less so the sweltering Chennai), but we plan to make the most of it.

(4) Long weekend on Agistri island, Greece (May)

My love for the Greek islands has been widely advertised in this blog. To date I have visited 33 of them – that is 33 ahead of my boyfriend. Yes, Alan has never actually been to Greece despite his lovely lady sporting semi-fluent Greek on every occasion and making yearly pilgrimages to the country’s rustic villages and sparkly Aegean.

Time to correct that then – in May, we will spend a long weekend on the Greek island of Agistri in the Saronic Gulf. It is one of Greece’s smaller islands and just an hour’s ferry ride from the port of Piraeus. I have heard only good things about Agistri and there really isn’t one Greek island not worth visiting. We hope to spend three heavenly days in the village of Skala and everywhere else they could fit in a seaside taverna serving iced ouzo. Opa!

(5) Ascending Kjerag, Norway (July)

I first visited Stavanger in 2011 when I followed the trail to Preikestolen, a famous 600-meter flat-topped cliff on the northern side of Lysefjord. While Stavanger did not become my favourite Norwegian city, Lysefjord – named “light fjord” for the hazy blue light shining out from its core – certainly beat all the odds to become my all-time favourite fjord.

The good news is, the Stavanger area is famous for other spectacular trails. In July, I hope to do a rather challenging hike to the top of the 1,084-meter Kjerag peak amid what promises to be breath-taking scenery. I am not sure if I will venture all the way up to Kjeragbolten, a round rock in a mountain crevice made popular by hikers posing on it – but, given that a mere thought of doing it sends my stomach plummeting to the ground, the chances are low.

My first experience of Lysefjord in 2011 was unforgettable

(6) Fabrics shopping in Mumbai, India (August)

In August, Alan and I will recycle our Indian visas for a fleeting weekend visit to Mumbai. The official reason is to shop for beautiful fabrics for the flat we recently bought in Riga; the more fun reason is that we both absolutely love Mumbai – undisputedly India’s most exciting city. We plan to visit the major sights (Haji Ali tomb, Chowpatty beach and Dhobi Ghat all spring to mind) and dedicate the rest of the time to shopping (of course), drinking masala chai and visiting my dear friends, the Mehtas. We may even squeeze in an hour or two of sleep.

Exploring Kamathipura: I could not have had a better time in Mumbai in 2012

(7) Off-season trip to Nisyros and Tilos islands, Greece (September)

Let us not be deceived by this subtitle – September is less of an “off-season” and more of a “Scandinavian pensioners’ season” in Greece. It has obvious advantages though: the beaches are decidedly quieter than in high summer, the Aegean becomes almost velvety in its warmth and softness and my favourite fig fruits fill the air with their dizzyingly appetising scent.

And so it is official – for the first time since 2008, I will be visiting Greece in September this year rather than in the summer. I will avoid Athens by flying directly to the touristy Kos in the Dodecanese archipelago and escape the crowds immediately by crossing over to smaller Nisyros, best known for its volcanic origin and a fully blown caldera. I will then continue to Tilos where I hope to visit as many of its eerie abandoned villages as possible before returning to Kos for my return flight.

Milos is the closest to being my favourite Greek island ever; will it ever be beaten?

(8) 10-day cultural discovery of Bhutan (October)

I have finally learned to balance my travel budget enough to take my most expensive trip to date – to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The country is among the world’s least visited and one of the few which require foreign tourists to travel exclusively on guided tours. I have only ever done a guided tour in North Korea before; another heart-stoppingly expensive country to get into, it nevertheless seems a bargain now that I have seen Bhutan’s price tag.

Since I am taking a private tour, the itinerary will be tailored to my interests, but I hope to travel from Paro to Bumthang valley via Thimphu, Punakha and Gangtey. In Bumthang, the highlight of my stay will be the Jakar cultural festival, which is supposed to be a great way of getting a taste of Bhutan’s folk traditions. I am desperately trying to get excited but can barely believe I have voluntarily signed up to pay three thousand pounds for 10 days in one country. It better be good.

(9) Winter craze in Colombia (December)

All of the above brings us to December, my favourite time of the year for remorse-free holidays. I originally planned to visit New Zealand (again), but simply could not wait another year to experience the land of fun that is Colombia.

My tickets are already booked: I will fly from London directly to Bogota where I will linger for a day before continuing to the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia. After returning to Bogota, I will travel by bus to Villa de Leyva, Barichara and Santa Marta where I hope to meet Alan arriving from Europe. Together, we will explore the Tayrona National Park and transfer to Cartagena for some New Year’s fun and paradise seaside surroundings. Call us lazy, but there is close to zero excuse for rushing it in a country like Colombia.

And there goes the plan! I promise to make every effort to reflect some of these upcoming travels in this blog – that failing, I seem to be much better at posting the photos to my Flickr page so take a look there, too. Have a wonderful year ahead!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

2014 Newsletter

And here we are again! It seems that 2014 started only yesterday, but 2015 is already knocking on the door.

One year ago, I stood under the skies of Chiang Mai, watching the hot air lanterns and fireworks interlace in their midnight darkness. This year's New Year's Eve is still a whole three weeks away, but I already have a plan: this Friday I will board an overnight flight to Burma where I will explore for two weeks before travelling to Sri Lanka. It is in Colombo where I hope to be joined by the wonderful man in my life for the wedding of our friends Sharoni and Rovendra on 30 December – followed by New Year's celebrations a day later. I really could not wish for a better way to welcome 2015.

The departing year in the life of anjči was special for at least two reasons. Firstly, after taking eight months' worth of driving lessons (travel schedule permitting) I passed my driving test with flying colours and was issued a beautiful pink licence last September. The world is truly my oyster now – I will not be constrained by public transport and lifts from good (and bad) looking male strangers again. Secondly, in May I considered myself worthy to apply for UK citizenship. It must be a great honour to join the ranks of other British citizens; sadly, the Home Office was plagued with massive delays last summer and I am yet to hear their decision. Whatever it is, I am relieved never to have to take the Life in the UK test again.

This year will also be remembered for the unique travel experiences it has brought. I learned to put up and fold a tent (a double one at that) single-handedly in Namibia, the place whose starriest of skies I will struggle to forget. I spent several ecstatic hours zooming around the freezing Seoul on a short layover, vouching to return over and over again. In awe, I looked down the Besseggen ridge in Norway at the stunning view of the Gjende and Bessvatnet lakes. I stood, flabbergasted, at the end of the Laguna de los Tres trail in Argentina, admiring the country's magnificent natural beauty. I would gladly revisit every single one of these places.

In numbers, by the end of 2014, I will have visited 25 countries, nine of which will be first-timers. Thankfully, I have not had to count Scotland as a separate country to reflect my visit to Orkney; the recent independence referendum still did substantial damage to my nerves.

Before telling too much too early, let me take you through the main events of 2014.

My most enjoyed view of 2014 goes to Laguna de los Tres near El Chaltén, Argentina


After celebrating the arrival of 2014 in Chiang Mai, I continued to Bangkok to catch my flight back to London. It was my second visit to Thailand's capital, which, albeit a lot of fun, was bursting at the seams with foreign visitors. It literally seemed like half of Europe, India, Korea and Australia had rocked their way over to Bangkok. Entry to many sights hopelessly prevented by the queues, I spent my time in massage parlours and the streets of Bangkok's Chinatown snapping street scenes on my trusty Nikon. Great success: the time flew by faster than one could say “mainstream tourism”.

My return to London was quite eventful. Asiana landed me in Seoul for a few hours and, not needing a visa, I dashed for the passport gates to get a glimpse of the city I had long been curious about. I even brought a warm hat and gloves for the occasion, and wisely so – winter temperatures on the Korean peninsula turned out to be substantially lower than in Southeast Asia. Still freezing, I ran through Seoul's traditional Insa-dong neighbourhood, the Gyeongbokgung Palace (just in time for the changing of the guards ceremony) and down Sejong-daero back to Seoul station. South Korea remains very high on my travel wish list, and I hope to spend longer in Seoul next time.

Well-wrapped guard at the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul did not succumb to my provocations

Back in the UK, I unnecessarily loaded my schedule with all sorts of evening classes until early spring: Arabic on Mondays, driving on Tuesdays, Greek on Wednesdays and Indian dancing on Thursdays. At least I had Friday evenings off, though certainly not when I had to head to some airport to catch a flight!

As always in the beginning of the year, my travel schedule was relatively light. I visited my parents in Riga, good friends in Norway and, together with my other half, my lovely “in-laws-to-be” (they can't escape) in South Lincolnshire's happening town of Spalding. Even more interestingly, my boyfriend and I met up in Paris one weekend for a short trip to… Dijon, which he had carefully handpicked from a long list of France's other exciting cities. Needless to say that we loved the mustard.

My last trip of the winter was a quick business one to Istanbul where I got the pleasure of sitting at a big table in front of anonymous hydro developers until the wee hours of the morning for two days. Thankfully, the meeting room on the 19th floor provided a fantastic view of Istanbul's business district of Levent. A yellow rubber duck which I adopted from my hotel and brought back to London is also a heart-warming memory.

In January, I wore several Asian outfits for a photoshoot by a talented friend


Finally March came and brought with it long-awaited signs of life. Or it almost did: I spent the first two days of spring freezing in the Polish city of Gdansk and the nearby seaside town of Sopot, infinitely thankful for cheap mulled wine and beer served abundantly in both. I was jealous to see that Gdansk's amber products put my own country's feeble selection to shame. If in need of amber, head to Gdansk! Until the sanctions are lifted on Kaliningrad, anyway.

The first half of March was eventful as I passed my driving theory test with full marks and dragged my boyfriend to a Stranglers gig in Hammersmith (in that order). During the month, I gradually phased out Arabic and dancing lessons to win back some of my free evenings. This of course meant increased travel activity – April had barely started and I had already spent weekends in each of Latvia, Catalonia, Luxembourg and France.

Catalonia was my excuse for seeing Svetlana and her cheeky little men, but Luxembourg and France were once again the idea of my wonderful other half. He continues to toil away in Germany during the week, and we are on a constant lookout for new midpoints to meet in. Located bang half-way, Luxembourg was a natural choice – resisting the temptation to follow the locals in creating complex tax schemes everywhere imaginable, we walked ourselves to distraction in the cute little capital and even took a return trip to Wasserbillig on the border with Germany.

Our luxurious train arrived in Pau early in the morning

The road to Pau, France, was paved with some, erm, railways as we reached it on an overnight train from Paris. And, while it could well have been my most memorable train journey in Europe – the “buffet car” was actually a vending machine – the mountainous little Pau turned out to be a real treat. Even the newly elected mayor met us to shake hands!

In April, months of cramming British history paid off as I passed my Life in the UK test and applied for UK citizenship. With these important matters duly off my mind, I boarded the flight to Argentina. I spent the next 10 days zooming around the country: from the never-resting Buenos Aires I flew south to Patagonia where I explored the area around El Calafate and El Chaltén amid the most beautiful scenery I have seen anywhere in the world. I then flew to Salta for a day's worth of a very different indigenous culture before continuing to the Iguazu Falls. I found the latter touristy and über-organised, especially on the Brazilian side. In hindsight, I should have skipped the falls altogether and spent a few days in the remote Ushuaia instead.

The utter vastness of Patagonia was difficult to believe

Few people would call Romania a central meeting point between the UK and Germany, but we turned it into one in early May. We had a wonderful time in the Viennese inspired city of Brasov and the quirky capital of Bucharest. Shortly after, Conchita Wurst of Austria went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest with much fanfare. Spring was coming to an end, marking the start of my biggest adventure of 2014…


…to South Africa and Namibia! I had long wanted to visit the sub-Saharan parts of the African continent and finally planned a camping trip from Cape Town to Windhoek. After spending four unforgettable days in and around Cape Town – Cape Point, Western Cape wineries and Table Mountain all being the highlights – I left the city on an impossibly rainy day and continued to South Africa's border with Namibia along the Orange river. In Namibia, our overland truck travelled some 2,500 km to Fish River Canyon, Sossusvlei, Solitaire, Swakopmund, Spitzkoppe, Kamanjab, Etosha National Park and, finally, Windhoek. My only regret was that we could not visit the ghost town of Kolmanskop near Lüderitz which, unfortunately, lay out on a limb from any major routes of this incredibly vast country.

The monumental dunes of Sossusvlei stand up to 325m high

The trip through Namibia was entertaining for two other reasons. Firstly, I broke my front tooth shortly after departure (not intentionally) and was soon looking positively African. Secondly, I was bitten by a tick in London mere days before leaving for South Africa, and of course the tick was a malicious Lyme disease carrying one. I remain highly grateful to Namibian healthcare: as soon as the civilisation of Swakopmund appeared on the horizon, I was able to get my tooth magically reinserted (don't ask how) and my lovely bull's eye rash treated with super strong antibiotics. Thankfully, the latter were not known to react with alcohol and I remained cheerful throughout.

My next holiday was just around the corner. After a fortnight of camping in wintery Africa, it was a nice change to return to a consistently warm place – my beloved Greece. I spent several days on Karpathos, a Dodecanese island I had long wanted to visit, before continuing to the smaller nearby island of Kassos. Albeit quite developed, Karpathos boasted many paradise beaches (Achata and Kyra Panagia left me speechless) and quiet inner villages (I could personally live in Pyles and Mesochori). The jewel in Karpathos' crown truly goes to Olympos, a dramatically set traditional village in the north of the island. In comparison, Kassos does not see the mass tourism of its bigger neighbour. I loved sitting at the same tavern every single night chatting to the same old crowd: my Greek notably improved.

Until recently Olympos could only be reached by boat, but now a road connects it with the rest of Karpathos

In late July my boyfriend and I enjoyed a test match between England and India at Lord's. Hampers were duly served and the sun was shining! The downside of such bliss was that it totally outstaged the next day – my birthday – which, in comparison, was decidedly low-key. We got up late, caught a train to Stamford, got completely soaked under dire downpour, hid in an obscure pub and, finally, ate the leftovers of our Lord's hampers at the chilly train station. Unreserved thanks to my other half for making the day so special otherwise.

Out came August and its three last trips of the summer. First was Iceland where we paid fleeting visits to Reykjavik, Þingvellir, Gullfoss and the wonderful F338 dirt road in the middle of nowhere. After my last visit to Iceland amid the dramatic eruption staged by Eyjafjallajökull, not having to harmonise our travel schedule with a volcano was certainly a bonus.

I then headed to Norway for three days where I checked into a log cabin with 13 strangers and coin showers across the road. There was precious little choice in the Jotunheimen National Park though, and I made sure to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Thankfully, the scenery was absolutely priceless; I hiked around Gjendesheim and over the Besseggen ridge from Memurubu. The latter was rough for the first three hours – even my magic Norwegian waterproofs started leaking in interchanging rain and sleet – but the view over the lakes of Gjende and Bessvatnet was more than worth it in the end.

Gjende lake (left) lies 400m below Bessvatnet (right)

Lastly in the summer, I flew to the Scottish archipelago of Orkney to campaign against the “Yes” vote. Just joking – Orkney would hardly have needed that. My intentions were purely tourism driven, and I had a wonderful time visiting the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, the Ring at Brodgar and the breezy harbour of Kirkwall. I also celebrated the last day of the summer with the best fish and chips ever.


Autumn was off to a great start as I passed my driving test on 2 September. After two awful instructors brought out yours truly's worst human qualities, I remain forever thankful to my wonderful third and final instructor, Leon. Another major piece of news was the purchase of our first ever property with my boyfriend: a lovely 3-room flat in Riga due to be finished next summer. No, we aren't planning a move, but having a place to call our own in the city we often visit sounded like a great idea. It was much more affordable than London, too.

Autumn was the quickest season in the life of anjči this year. Between September and October, I visited Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Lisbon in Portugal, Lyon and Annecy in France and the Greek island of Corfu. I especially enjoyed Lisbon where we devoured impossible amounts of garlic shrimps and were kept awake well into the night in the bustling neighbourhood of Bairro Alto. Corfu, too, was a wonderful break from reality and provided those much-missed Greek salads and bathing opportunities off-season.

Corfu town on the namesake island had a distinct Venetian feel

After briefly sporting a hard hat at a construction site in Slovenia and collecting yet another 1st prize in the photo competition held by my bank (all in a day's work), I was off to Asia: Hong Kong, Okinawa and Taiwan. My boyfriend and I had a great time riding all kinds of public transport and enjoying the urban buzz in the massive Hong Kong. We then flew to a totally different world of Okinawa, a remote Japanese archipelago, in time to see hundreds of school children have their group photos taken at Naha's Shuri-jo Castle. We also visited the city of Nago in the north, passing many a US base along the way, and the nearby Zamami island with its pristine beaches. Okinawa was the place whose food I enjoyed most in my entire travel history. Good for longevity, they say!

It was however Taiwan that came out as my clear favourite of the three. Taipei and Kaohsiung with their diverse cultures simultaneously reminded me of Vietnam, China, Japan and India, and I shall certainly be revisiting Taiwan very, very soon. After I am done with Burma, Sri Lanka, Iran, the Andamans, Bhutan and New Zealand, that is.

Like this Hong Kong lady, I'd like to end 2014 with a victory sign

ENTER 2015

As 2015 is getting closer, I want to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year. May the arrival of the brand new year find you in the place of your dreams, be it the cosy company of your family, a wooden mountain cabin surrounded by your best friends or a quiet beach holding the hand of that one person you love endlessly. Here is to a great 2015!

(View my Flickr photo albums and my 2014: Year in Pictures photographic highlights of the year)

Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Happy New Year!

Monday, 8 December 2014

2014: Year in Pictures

2014 has seen me visit a uniquely diverse list of countries. I have camped under the stars in Namibia, hiked the Argentine Patagonia’s breath-taking trails, enjoyed massive steak servings in Cape Town, perfected my Greek in Karpathos, criss-crossed Lisbon to distraction, enjoyed the absence of tourists in Romania’s gorgeous city of Brașov and – last but not least – flew from London to Hong Kong to Okinawa to Taiwan to Hong Kong to London in just a week. I have been lucky to be joined on some of these trips by the wonderful man in my life who has brightened every such experience endlessly.

And the best comes last! In mid-December I will fly to Burma for two weeks before meeting my boyfriend in Sri Lanka where our good friends are getting married on 30 December. The two of us will welcome 2015 together in Colombo. It will be a wonderful end to yet another unforgettable year.

Take a look at my traditional 2014 newsletter where the happenings in the life of anjči over the course of 2014 are described in more detail. Here though, without further ado, I present you some photographic highlights from my most memorable trips in 2014. Burma and Sri Lanka will be added here when I return to London in early 2015.

Chiang Mai welcomes 2014 with myriads of hot air lanterns and fireworks
1-4 January: The sight of Chinese lanterns soaring up in their thousands to Chiang Mai’s darkening skies on New Year’s Eve is still fresh in my mind as I board a bus to Bangkok on 2 January 2015. Thailand’s capital greets me with millions of tourists, and, for a moment, I think that the entire world has decided to spend their winter break here. It is my second visit to Bangkok and, after enjoying multiple massages and not as much touristy activity as the first time, I escape to the quieter town of Ayutthaya. The ruins of many temples, once clearly a breath-taking sight, are the main attraction of this former capital of the Siamese kingdom.
~Chiang Mai / Bangkok / Ayutthaya, Thailand

Young woman in traditional clothing laughs in Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple near Chiang Mai

Buddhist monks collect alms early on the first day of 2014 in Chiang Mai

Sun sets over Lumphini Park in Bangkok

5 January: On my return journey to London, I have a short layover in Seoul, the city I have madly wanted to visit for years. Dashing through passport control to make the next airport train, I soon find myself strolling down the Insadong-gil Street in Seoul’s traditional neighbourhood of Insa-dong. Stopping at the only shop open this early on a Sunday to get warm (Seoul is decidedly colder in winter than Southeast Asia), I continue to Gyeongbokgung Palace where the changing of the guards ceremony under Seoul’s crispy blue skies nearly brings me to tears. South Korea is exactly as I have imagined and I am dying to explore more – but it is time to return to the airport.
~Seoul, South Korea

Changing of the guards ceremony unfolds at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Guard sports a fake moustache at Gyeongbokgung Palace

18 January: On a weekend visit to my home town of Riga, I ask a friend – an unbelievably talented photographer – to take some quality photos of myself. I bring along a few Asian outfits (which I make no secret of purchasing at every opportunity) to create several “Asian” looks. The result exceeds all expectations. I especially love the red cheongsam.
~Riga, Latvia

The author poses in several Asian outfits: the Chinese cheongsam (qipao)…

…and the Japanese yukata

8-9 February: Best known for its mustard – most of it actually originates elsewhere – Dijon is not a typical tourist destination in France. After walking every street in the city’s old neighbourhood and stopping frequently for a snack, we nevertheless find it rather charming.
~Dijon, France

Mustard with a long list of unexpected flavours awaits tourists in Dijon

Central square of Dijon’s old town stands nearly empty on a Sunday

12-13 February: There is little of Istanbul I manage to see on this business trip. Luckily, the meeting room where we spend many hours of those two days has a fantastic view over the city’s business district of Levent.
~Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul looks surprisingly green from that particular angle in Levent

1-2 March: Born and bred in another city on the Baltic Sea, I have always dreamed of visiting the Polish Gdansk. And I am not disappointed: the Hanseatic architecture of Gdansk’s Old Town – even if mainly rebuilt post-war – reminds me endlessly of Riga, the amber is likewise everywhere and the local beer is almost as good as back in Latvia. And they make a mulled version of it, too!
~Gdansk, Poland

Visitors and locals freeze together on Gdansk’s Dluga Street

22-23 March: My boyfriend continues to work in Germany while I slowly climb that career ladder in London – what else to use as an unexpected midway meeting point than Luxembourg? I try my first serving of horse meat (unless Tesco has previously sold me some unaware) and cross into Germany by foot. Only to come swiftly back, of course – all Luxembourg’s borders are wide open. Did you know Schengen is actually a place in Luxembourg, too?
~Luxembourg, Luxembourg

The nucleus of Luxembourg is dramatically made up of the Lower and the Upper towns

There is obviously something to see in Luxembourg

29-30 March: I fly to Catalonia for an annual reunion with Svetlana and her family and am briskly put into a car and transported into the beautiful mountains near Tarragona. We finish the day over delicious home-made tapas and vermouth, arguing about the world politics (could it actually get more Spanish than this?). The following day is rainy and I walk myself to distraction sightseeing in Tarragona, eventually stopping in a central café to dry over an Irish coffee. At least I know how to order one in Spanish now.
~Tarragona, Spain

A small waterfall streams down in the mountains near Tarragona

The old town of Tarragona empties out on a very rainy day

5-6 April: One Friday evening in April, my boyfriend and I board a night train from Paris to Pau, expecting the level of comfort we encountered a year before on a trip from London to Cornwall. But the “first” class compartment is the same as the regular class (just that no-one occupies the other four berths), a “food car” is really a vending machine somewhere along the train and the bed-linen is a thin brown sleeping sack rolled up at the head of your berth. We are grateful we have brought a bottle of red Georgian wine along! Laughing off the experience, we greatly enjoy the hilly Pau itself.
~Pau, France

We arrive at Pau station around 7am

Later in the day, the city begins to look a little friendlier

18-27 April: It is the time for Easter and my first long-haul trip of the year! I head for Argentina – landing in the capital city of Buenos Aires, I explore its safest corners on foot before heading south to Patagonia. The village of El Chaltén, also known as the country’s “Trekking Capital”, becomes my gateway to viewing the Fitz Roy peak amid the most magnificent scenery I have ever, ever seen anywhere in the world. From El Calafate further south, I embark on a day trip to Perito Moreno, Argentina’s best known glacier and a stunning sight. I then fly diagonally across the country to Salta in the north-west – only for a day, as I continue to Iguazu Falls, visiting both the Argentine and the Brazilian sides.
~Buenos Aires / El Calafate / El Chaltén / Salta / Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Laguna de los Tres near El Chaltén provides a great view of the Fitz Roy peak

The hike to Laguna de los Tres runs through a varied terrain

Perito Moreno is the best known glacier in Argentina

3-5 May: I had originally planned to spend my expiring Lufthansa miles on a trip to Kiev; however, the protesters there had other plans. We instead travel to Romania, flying into the loudly pulsating Bucharest and continuing to the beautiful, hill-bound Brașov in the centre of the country. The city has a distinct Austro-Hungarian feel (if an Eastern Orthodox version of it), and we stop at a Hungarian restaurant for dinner to enhance the first impression – may my Romanian friends forgive me.
~Bucharest / Brașov, Romania

Council Square (Piața Sfatului) houses Brașov’s Council House

The Fortress (Cetatuia) overlooks the Brașov city

Albeit run down after years of neglect, Bucharest’s Old Town boasts a distinct character

24-27 May: I have originally envisaged Cape Town as a convenient stop-over on the way to Namibia, not much else – but I soon end up longing for more time in the city. There seems to be no end of things to do in and around Cape Town. I enjoy magnificent views from the Table Mountain, travel to the Cape of Good Hope for some amazing seascapes, join an eye-opening visit to several townships in the Cape flats, taste delicious wine around the pretty town of Stellenbosch – and indulge myself in sumptuous steaks wherever I go. My overland camping trip to Namibia departs from Cape Town four days after my arrival in the city – it is pouring heavily the day I leave, but the sky gets bluer and the air warmer as we approach Orange river, South Africa’s natural border with Namibia.
~Cape Town, South Africa

Table Mountain is Cape Town’s best known landmark and offers fantastic views

Dutch Reformed Church in Franshoek, Western Cape, is built in the old Dutch style

Orange river separates South Africa and Namibia

28 May – 8 June: By the time we cross into Namibia that sunny Friday morning, I have already become a camping pro, putting up and breaking up my tent single-handedly (if a bit awkwardly). I have also lost a front tooth and make rather a funny sight. But Namibia takes my breath away completely with its eerily empty, diverse landscapes. We cover over 2,500 km in an overland truck, stopping at Fish River Canyon, Sesriem, Sossusvlei, Solitaire, Swakopmund, Spitzkoppe, Kamanjab, Etosha and Windhoek. In Sossusvlei, I watch the sun rise out of starkly orange sand dunes, in Kamanjab I visit a Himba tribe, in Etosha I photograph multiple zebras, giraffes and even lions on a 2-day safari… and in Swakopmund, a magic dentist fits my front tooth back in. Which just about becomes the highlight of the entire trip.
~Fish River Canyon / Sesriem / Sossusvlei / Solitaire / Swakopmund / Spitzkoppe / Kamanjab / Etosha National Park / Windhoek, Namibia

Deadvlei (“dead marsh”) in the Namib-Naukluft Park is one of Namibia’s best known sights

Himba women cover themselves in “otjize”, a paste mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment

A lion yawns as his mate looks on sleepily in the Etosha National Park

28 June – 6 July: Just three weeks out of Africa, it is time for the annual pilgrimage to my summer paradise, Greece. I pick the remote island of Karpathos in the Dodecanese archipelago. Famous for the number of Greek American descendants it has given to the world, Karpathos has plenty of other things to boast about. I marvel at the well-preserved traditional village of Olympos in the north of the island, immerse in perfectly turquoise waters of the beaches of Apella and Achata, nearly walk myself to a sunstroke in the villages of Pyles, Othos and Mesochori, and enjoy the night buzz of Karpathos’ namesake capital. I also spend two days on a smaller nearby island of Kassos – a completely different world void of tourists and public transport where nearly everything is within walking distance. Soon done with the touristy things – visit to the Monastery of Agios Mamas – I go on to learn the names of many locals in Fri, the island’s harbour and main village, and even establish my “favourite” local restaurant. Definitely a place to come back to… if you speak Greek.
~Karpathos / Kassos, Greece

Buildings in the village of Olympos, Karpathos, preserve their original layout and colour

The road descends steeply to Adeia beach in Western Karpathos

Monastery of Saint Mamas on Kassos enjoys a dramatic setting

16-17 August: My boyfriend and I pay a whirlwind visit to Iceland. In contrast to my previous visit, no volcanoes are erupting (or at least not as dramatically as Eyjafjallajökull), the sun is shining and we have hired a 4x4! We drive from Reykjavik to Þingvellir and to Gullfoss, from where we loop along the obscure F338 dirt road (do not attempt without a proper off-road vehicle) back to Þingvellir and on to the deserted industrial town of Akranes. The rental car having been well rinsed in the streams we have crossed on the way, we spend our few remaining hours in Iceland exploring the cosy little Reykjavik.
~Reykjavik / Þingvellir / Gullfoss / Akranes, Iceland

The area’s most active geyser, Strokkur, erupts every 5-7 minutes

The alternative F338 road from Gullfoss to Þingvellir offers some surreal landscapes

The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates share a border in Þingvellir

23-25 August: The August bank holiday arrives to the UK but I have long since left the country. A 2-hour flight and a 5-hour bus journey later, I find myself in Gjendesheim – a cluster of wooden log cabins used by visitors to Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park to hike its multiple trails. I settle into a dorm with 13 strangers (no-one promised a 5-star hotel) and set off to explore. The Besseggen ridge hike is reportedly attempted by 30,000 people every year and I join their ranks on an impossibly misty, chilly Sunday morning. The trail ascends steeply into the cragged hills, looping in an out of rain and sleet – heavily demoralised, I persevere and climb the ridge. Suddenly the mist drops and the most breath-taking view unfolds in front of my eyes from the height of 1.7 km – that of Gjende and Bessvatnet lakes in emerald green and dark blue colours, respectively. It has strangely been worth it.
~Jotunheimen National Park, Norway

The Gjende lake has a distinct light green colour

Sheep graze near Gjendesheim cabin

Besseggen ridge offers a spectacular sight onto the Gjende (left) and the Bessvatnet lakes (right)

30-31 August: With the Scottish referendum approaching, I briefly visit one of Scotland’s strongholds of the union, the archipelago of Orkney. Of course I really visit for other reasons – such as the all-penetrating fresh Atlantic breeze, a stunningly well-preserved Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae and the magnificent St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall. Not forgetting the gorgeous fish and chips I successfully defend from a massive seagull amidst all the sight-seeing.
~Orkney, Scotland

St Magnus Cathedral is the most northerly cathedral of the British Isles

A well-preserved archaeological site, Skara Brae is known as “Europe's most complete Neolithic village”

Cows stare at the photographer near St Margaret’s Hope village

13-14 September: With my lovely man, we enjoy a weekend together in my home town, Riga, where a friend of a friend (everyone obviously knows each other in Riga) takes a few decent photos of us. Note the importance of the event – 99% of our photos are usually selfies taking from a distance the length of my right arm.
~Riga, Latvia

Apparently I like petting my boyfriend’s cheeks

Two people in love grin to the camera

A stone wall in Majori, Jurmala, provided some wonderful texture

27-28 September: Most people spend days and even weeks hiking there – but I opt for a high-speed train instead. I arrive in Spain’s Santiago de Compostela well rested and ready to fight my way to the city’s famous Cathedral through hordes of sweaty backpackers. Kudos to them for walking all that distance.
~Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Those hiking for weeks must have been disappointed to find the Cathedral all scaffolded up

San Fructuoso church gets outstaged by the Cathedral

4-5 October: We fly to Lisbon for a weekend with a single goal in mind: to try garlic shrimps at as many local eateries as possible. Shockingly, we manage to see a whole range of unrelated sights as well, including the Castle of Sao Jorge (the outside of it, anyway), the Belem Tower and the Prazeres Cemetery. As interesting as they are, I still prefer the shrimps.
~Lisbon, Portugal

Garlic shrimps are the main reason we will be coming back to Portugal

Lisbon must be Europe’s prettiest capital

Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument in Belem celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery

11-12 October: It is not a great start to my weekend in Lyon: the flight is hopelessly delayed and I risk spending a night at the airport. Thankfully, a gallant Frenchman gives me a lift to the city centre and the weekend is saved! I take a day trip to the pretty lakeside town of Annecy, then taken over by a farm fest and singing country groups. Lyon itself is plagued by omnipresent dog poop – like any other big city in France – but certainly has something going for it.
~Lyon / Annecy, France

Sailing boat glides along the Annecy lake

Palais de l'Isle in the Thiou river in Annecy was built in 1132

Fourvière hill in Lyon houses the Tour Métallique de Fourvière

25-26 October: I miss Greece too much to wait until next year and pay a quick visit to the island of Corfu, better known in Greece as Kerkyra. It proves to be unexpectedly wonderful: Corfu Town may well be the only pretty city in the whole of Greece and the Ionian Sea is still warm enough for frequent dips. I have forgotten my bikini in London but it doesn’t stop me – thankfully, there aren’t many other people on Greek beaches in October.
~Corfu (Kerkyra), Greece

The New Fortress of Corfu offers the best views of the namesake city

Ipsos beach in eastern Corfu goes quiet in October

Motor boat in Kassiopi plays in the waves in the distant backdrop of Albania

15-17 November: It is November and Europe is cooling off mercilessly, so the two of us set off to the very edge of Asia for some balmy weather! Hong Kong is our first stop, and we spend a few wonderful days zooming around this vibrant city. The Victoria Peak offers some amazing bird’s eye views of Hong Kong’s modern skyline; the island of Cheung Chau is popular with local fishermen and tourists alike; the beautiful fishing harbour of Sai Kung provides a lovely refuge from Hong Kong’s urban life (and typhoons, apparently); lastly, Hong Kong itself turns out exactly as expected: a massive city at the crossroads of multiple cultures, with the buzz quite simply unmatched anywhere.
~Hong Kong

The whole of Asia poses like that… why can’t Hong Kong

Sun sets in the haze of the harbour of Cheung Chau island

Hong Kong island’s skyline looks timeless on a clear day

18-20 November: From Hong Kong we head to a very different world of Okinawa – a Japanese archipelago actually located closer to Taiwan rather than “mainland” Japan. At first we wonder if the place has been deserted, so deafening is the silence we have lost all habit of in Hong Kong. But it all livens up upon our encounter of hundreds of local school children having group photos taken at the Shuri-jo Castle in Naha. We take day trips to the island of Zamami nearby and Okinawa’s northern city of Nago, enjoying lovely weather, scenery and – most importantly – the best food we have had anywhere in the world.
~Okinawa, Japan

Japan could just make the cutest shop signs on earth

School children in uniforms go wild at Shuri-jo Castle in Naha

Ama beach on Zamami island presents an idyllic sight

21-23 November: I am initially taken aback upon arrival to Taipei – I expected to see something resembling Seoul or Tokyo (don’t ask), and the reality is much more colourful than that. I quickly warm up to Taiwan though: its streets simultaneously remind me of Vietnam, China, Japan and India while retaining their very distinct character. We enjoy Taipei’s hot springs in Beitou and the Shilin Night Market before transferring to the southern port of Kaohsiung where the Qijin island and the Lotus Pond equally take our breath away. First an underdog, Taiwan comes out as my definite favourite on this trip.
~Taipei / Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Dragon and Tiger Pagodas at Lotus Pond in Kaohsiung are a popular destination for visitors

Local boy waits for the Gushan-Qijin ferry in Kaohsiung

Surfer enjoys a late afternoon dip off the Qijin island in Kaohsiung

13-26 December: I call it a year at work on 12 December and jet off to the exotic Myanmar: the country which soon becomes my favourite ever visited. I gasp at the colonial beauty of Yangon, mingle with the locals on the 15-hour train ride to Mandalay, enjoy a chilled Irrawaddy river voyage to Bagan, see gazillions of temples there, have the most amazing time exploring Inle Lake and have my all-time-best paradise beach experience in Ngapali. The country may have multiple human rights issues but I am still in love beyond words.
~Yangon / Mandalay / Bagan / Nyaungshwe / Ngapali, Myanmar (Burma)

The ancient city of Bagan looks spectacular at sunrise

A Burmese lady wearing thanaka sits opposite me onboard the Shwenyaung-Thazi train

Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon offers spectacular sunset views to Shwedagon Paya and Karaweik Hall

28-31 December: I arrive in Sri Lanka in time for the wedding of two very special people: my old friend Sharoni and my boyfriend's even older friend Rovendra. And they didn't even need us to meet! Saree-clad, I dance the night away.
~Colombo, Sri Lanka

The author gets all dolled up for a Sri Lankan wedding. How I'd like to look for the entire 2015!

A very Happy New Year!

Here is to many more unforgettable flights and experiences!