Saturday, 14 January 2017

2017 travel plan and resolutions: Let the globe-trotting continue

Happy New Year to everyone!

Just two days ago I returned from a very busy 16 days in New Zealand. The journey took me from Auckland to lakeside Taupo, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Napier and Wellington, where I met Alan. We then crossed the Cook Strait together to South Island and embarked on a very rushed journey south: from Picton, we travelled to Nelson, Greymouth, Franz Joself and Fox glaciers, Wanaka, Cromwell, Tekapo and Pukaki lakes, Mount Cook (Aoraki), Queenstown, Te Anau, Doubtful Sound and Invercargill. We then flew all the way back to Auckland to catch our two long-haul flights back to London. Let’s just say it was busy!

Striking a ridiculous Instagram-inspired pose near Mount Cook, New Zealand

In short, despite my earlier promises to take it easy in New Zealand and limit myself to only one of the country’s two main islands, I (perhaps unsurprisingly to many) failed this miserably.

And the same can be said about my aspirations, exactly one year ago, to slow my travels down during 2016 (read my last year's travel plan here). It was perhaps the massive amount of work I was facing at the time that led me to dream, subconsciously, of an easy year. I had been almost buried under the intense pressure in my day job and was seriously considering slowing my travels down dramatically.

However, I quickly learned (yet again) never to let my personal life be dictated by work. Early into 2016, I was moved to another position at work, with substantially less demanding hours and much more flexibility to travel for leisure. It came with numerous disadvantages (which I will not discuss here in detail), but I did appreciate the reduced pressure.

This year brings a lot of uncertainty in my day job. A certain separation scheme for staff was announced a few days ago, and some ongoing operational "improvements" are likely to change the scope of my work yet again. As tempted as I am to give up, I am ready to fight for a little bit longer – as well as incredibly curious about what the near-term future will bring. Sometimes it is exciting to be part of an organisation at the time of crisis and falling staff morale.

Rather than dwell on the inevitable, I have decided to make 2017 my most active year ever – both for travel and self-improvement in other areas. In travel, I plan to put a conscious effort into visiting over 10 new countries this year, bringing my tally to over 90 countries and closer to my intermediate goal of visiting at least half of all the countries in the world. And as for other aspects of life, I would like to remember 2017 by working on the skills I use in my hobbies: foreign languages, photography and writing.

But let’s start with the travel bit! Below is the list of some places I would like to visit in 2017, in no particular order, followed by some non-travel resolutions for the year.

TRAVEL PLAN

1. Pristina, Kosovo: I have explored former Yugoslavia in depth, spending several holidays in the region and visiting six out of seven ex-Yu countries to date (read about my shenanigans in ex-Yu here). Yes, you have guessed it: I have visited all ex-Yu countries (some not once and not even twice) except Kosovo. I am not sure why I never got around to popping just that far across the border. It was possibly influenced by the many people who persuaded me tirelessly that Kosovo had absolutely “nothing to see”, or the fact that, unlike across the border, I could not practise my Serbian language skills in Albanian-speaking Kosovo. The fact remains, however: Kosovo is among only four countries in Europe that I have never set my foot in.

The closest I have been to Kosovo to date - having Macedonian salad in Mavrovo, FYR Macedonia

And it is high time to change it! In late February, I will fly to Skopje in FYR Macedonia and hop across the border to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, for a weekend. I will not claim to have explored the country in any sort of detail – but I hope to have gained at least some understanding of its history and culture. I have heard that Pristina continues to be understated in that it lacks any sort of architectural beauty. I have also heard from native Skopjans that food in Pristina is superior to that of their own and definitely deserves a try. Come late February, I will find out for myself.

2. Europe’s micro states: You might remember from my 2016 Newsletter (read it here) that my favourite weekend of 2016 was spent in a country no other than Liechtenstein (view some photos here). A tiny sovereign state sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland, it turned out to be surprisingly fun. In fact, I was so impressed by Liechtenstein that I have decided to cross off the only two of Europe’s micro states remaining on my list: San Marino and Andorra.

Panoramic view over Vaduz, Liechtenstein: a perfect view

In mid-March, I hope to fly to Bologna in Italy and make my way immediately to San Marino for a good night’s sleep. I have been told, repeatedly, that there is absolutely nothing to do in San Marino after approximately 16 minutes. I stand up to this challenge and have booked a lovely room with a patio in the very centre of the old town. For one whole day and one night, San Marino will be mine to discover: and getting bored would only mean that I have truly discovered it.

And somewhere in July, I am going to fly to Toulouse in France and catch a bus to Andorra. I have heard mixed reviews about Andorra, but remain open-minded. On the plus side, Alan has vouched to be there, and I rarely get bored with him around.

3. Seychelles and Madagascar: That is a big one! My first big adventure of 2017 will take me to lands unknown in southeast Africa. I will fly a combination of Etihad and Air Seychelles to, erm, Seychelles and immediately catch a boat to La Digue island. I hope to spend three days doing little else beyond sampling local coconut curries, exploring the island on foot and enjoying its beaches. And if some snorkelling is thrown my way, I might, just might, agree.

My only Sub-Saharan experience of Africa (besides RSA): Deadvlei, Namibia

At this the “easy” part of my adventure will be over: I will fly on to Antananarivo (best known to locals as “Tana”) in Madagascar and embark on an epic 12-day discovery of the island’s lower half. Having sought bids from several local agencies, I have settled on Ramartour for arranging a driver for my trip (my holiday time is too limited to try and negotiate Madagascar's public transport). After exploring Tana and several sacred hills around it, I will fly the (legendarily unreliable) Air Madagascar to Morondava in the country’s west, where I will explore the Kirindy Forest Reserve and drive down the famous Baobab Alley. By car, I will then continue to Antsirabe, Ranomafana and Isalo National Park before enjoying a day’s break in the chilled seaside town of Ifaty. I will fly back to Tana on Air Madagascar (leaving myself a whole day in case the notorious national airline plays up on me) and depart the way I came.

I know, I know: it should hopefully be an incredible trip.

4. More Greek islands: You are probably tired of hearing me blabber on about the Greek islands by now. As a fluent Greek speaker and someone who has visited 42 Greek islands to date, I have sort of promoted myself to the position of an expert when it comes to that particular part of the world (read here about the six lesser-known Greek islands I recommend all to visit). In reality, there are many islands to go through before I have visited them all, while some islands I have visited deserve a lot more depth than I could give them at the time.

I loved the Serifos island in Greece last year

That said, I have decided to take a couple of weeks off in June to add three entirely new Greek islands to my portfolio: Kythira, Antikythira and Ikaria. Kythira is relatively unknown to foreign visitors: Aegean flies there several times a week but ferries are very scarce even in high season. Kythira’s satellite island, Antikythira is virtually impossible to reach in a rush. I have managed to find a slot to visit there for a couple of days, but the ferry from Kythira is anything but convenient. As for Ikaria, some of you may know it for its population's longevity records. It is listed among only five small areas in the world where the population regularly outlive western standards by around a decade: Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia, the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California – and Ikaria. I hope that a few days on the island will give me at least some insight into this mystery!

5. Iraqi Kurdistan: I often complain about no longer being able to enter the US on a visa waiver programme despite having two eligible passports. The problem is that I have visited two of four countries that the US government finds suspicious (Iran and Syria, to be precise), which automatically forces me to apply for a full-blown visa before visiting the US.

I made the best of my time in Iran

And, as if to make my US visa chances even worse, in 2017 I plan to visit the third country in the list: namely, Iraq.

If you are about to throw your arms up in the air and exclaim how crazy I am, then I rush to assure you that I am not going anywhere remotely dangerous. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the north of the country, well known for its political stability, democratic order and better gender equality than elsewhere in Iraq. At the end of August, I hope to fly into Sulaymaniyah (famously Iraq’s most liberal city) and travel overland to Erbil. It should be a fascinating destination to visit: I look forward to chatting to locals, haggling for Kurdish mementos at local bazaars, catching my breath in beautiful parks and – of course – drinking lots of tea al fresco.

6. Turkmenistan: Having previously postponed Turkmenistan indefinitely due to mandatory organised tour visits, I have finally warmed up to the idea. I have not exactly prioritised the “Stans” in my travels, having only visited Uzbekistan to date (view my photos here). Nevertheless, Turkmenistan has always fascinated me with its rather closed character and, as a result, a relatively low number of foreign visitors. The time is ripe to go and find out for myself – and Alan has even agreed to join me!

Uzbekistan: the only "Stan" I have visited to date

I have been recommended Travel Notoria, and so far have had a great experience planning our trip with them. Alan and I plan to stop over in Dubai for a couple of days and then fly on to spend 14 days in Turkmenistan. We will start in the surreal capital of Ashgabat and travel overland to Turkmenbashy on the Caspian Sea, visiting Koy Ata and Balkanabat on our way. We will then backtrack to Ashgabat by air and travel to the sites of the ancient cities of Merv and Gonur, before backtracking to the capital once again and visiting the jewel in Turkmenistan’s crown: the Darvaza Gas Crater. We will camp on the edge of the crater overnight and visit Kunya Urgench on our way back to Ashgabat. I am quite excited to have this trip shaping up nicely so long in advance.

7. Moldova: Come October, and Moldova will officially be the only European country I have never visited. Luckily, Wizzair flies direct from London Luton to Chisinau at convenient times for a weekend’s visit. I have even already made good use of Wizzair’s sales to book my ticket.

Not sure what photo I should put here: that of Timisoara, Romania?

My plans in Moldova are quite modest. I will take a good look at Chisinau’s hideous Soviet apartment blocks (if there is something else to see, do give me a shout!), enjoy Moldova’s wine and, possibly, cross over to the disputed republic of Transnistria. If I do make it to Tiraspol (currently I don’t see why I wouldn’t), I hope to photograph some quirky Soviet statues and relive the feeling of pure nostalgia of the world long lost in my own former Soviet country, Latvia.

8. Indonesia and Timor Leste: I have nothing booked for this year’s winter break yet, but it is looking likely that I will finally visit Indonesia. I have greatly missed spending the middle of European winter in an Asian country for two years now (having instead visited Colombia and, recently, New Zealand). Frankly, Asia is my favourite place for a winter break and I should stop trying to go elsewhere. Indonesia has fallen off my radar for a long time, and I would love to discover its diverse culture – as well as its warmth and affordability of simple things in life.

I have no plan for Indonesia at this stage, and any recommendations are welcome. For all I know, I would like to avoid Bali altogether. I would also like to discover some of the country’s wildlife, and might visit Tanjung Putting National Park. I would not mind visiting the temples of Yogyakarta, which look truly incredible on other people’s photos. I just need to sit down and plan my visit in detail.

Cartagena, Colombia! It was superb but I did miss Asia at New Year's

And, since I will be so near a whole new country anyway, I very much hope to pop across to Dili, the capital of Timor Leste. A quick look at Lonely Planet’s recommendations for places to see in Dili revealed a list consisting mainly of hawker stalls and various other eateries. I just hope to find a good crafts market to continue filling up my home with too, too many travel trinkets.

NON-TRAVEL RESOLUTIONS

And that's the travel plan! But my life isn’t all about travel (unbelievable, I know). I have a number of other hobbies and hope to take some of the skills involved in those to a new level in 2017.

Languages: I am always trying to learn another foreign language (read here about my long history of language learning) and hope that 2017 will bring an improvement to several of them.

First, I may be fluent in Greek but I still have another level to achieve before I can call myself fully proficient. Last year, I passed the C1 level in Greek with flying colours, but will I be able to achieve C2? I am not so sure but would like to put every effort before early May to prepare myself for a whole new era in my knowledge of Greek. I want to speak the language without the flaws I have today - and I think I can make it happen. Enter a phase of non-stop Greek homework!

Second, I have been taking Arabic lessons for pretty much three years now but am still quite clueless about the many nuances of the language. This is simply ridiculous: I must sit down and straighten out the gaps I still have in the Arabic material I have studied to date. I have booked another term of Arabic learning with SOAS and hope to take my knowledge to a whole new level. I hear we will have a brilliant new teacher (from Lebanon, no less), and look forward to tuning into a new Arabic dialect (my last teacher was Egyptian).

Third, as I have announced on this blog before, I am starting to learn Japanese very soon! I have visited Japan a total of three times to date, and got truly inspired by seeing westerners command the language beautifully. I hope to master the basics of Japanese in Q1 2017; and, should it go sufficiently well, I will sign up for more. I am hugely excited about learning Japanese.

Finally, there are several languages which I used to speak, to varying degree, in the past, and have now hopelessly forgotten. There is German, which I follow wonderfully but stumble upon simple words. There is Serbian, which I should be much better in given I used to write business emails and conduct business meetings in it. And then there is Norwegian, which I studied relentlessly and finally built up confidence to speak in simple life settings, but now got too shy to use. Foreign languages is a great source of pride to myself and I really should command them better. This is my promise to 2017.

Photography: Many of you enjoy the pretty pictures posted in this blog, but few know that I am actually quite clueless about photography. Despite owning a Nikon D300s and a string of compatible lenses, I regularly end up shooting in automatic mode and have no idea how to adjust most of the manual settings.

This ends now: I have signed up for several classes at the London School of Photography and am determined to be able to lose that automatic mode when necessary and still come out on top. I yearn to understand more about photography and believe the time is right to get on that path.

Exercise: Fitness has become a massive part of my life. I exercise at least nine times a week (of which five are normally swimming, two Anti Gravity Yoga and two Body Combat), and strive for more. I often receive compliments on my command of Anti-Gravity Yoga routines and have started thinking that I could, one day, excel as an instructor. I would very much like to take an instructor training course in Anti-Gravity Yoga in 2017 to broaden the scope of my future pursuits just that much more.

Work: I think it may have slipped through my posts just how unhappy at work I was these days. My promise to myself in 2017 is to be strong and "own" the system to the extent that my being in my day job becomes at least bearable. I used to love my job (in fact, I still love many aspects of it), but certain circumstances have made my work life close to insufferable in the year gone by. In 2017, I hope to have achieved one of two things: (i) accepted my fate and embraced the suboptimal situation I find myself in, or (ii) turned the situation around actively to reach new horizons. I have a feeling that it will most likely be the former.

And such are my 2017 plans! What are yours?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 Newsletter

‎It has certainly been an eventful year. Between waking up in Colombia on 1 January and getting ready to depart to New Zealand as we speak – where I will ring in 2017 – I can hardly believe the 12 months of 2016 are about to come to an end.

I will always remember 2016 for the very important events in my personal life. In April, I got married to my soulmate, Alan, and registered our marriage in the Falkland Islands, the location we had both wanted to visit since we were little. In June, Alan and I enjoyed a fantastic bridal photo shoot in the Greek islands, again fulfilling a long-standing dream. And in October, my much adored father turned 60; his modest celebration featured only the four of us in an understated venue but was wonderful fun. And he still looks so well for his age!

Alan and I as we do our best to freeze in an unnatural position on Paros

I will also remember 2016 as the year of some of the most interesting travels I have done in my life so far. I spent two weeks in April discovering Chile, which quickly became one of my favourite visited countries to date. In August, I returned to South America and enjoyed exploring Bolivia despite all the altitude challenges. And in November, I was infinitely charmed by the Japanese archipelago of Yaeyama – so little known outside Japan yet endlessly rewarding to every visitor.

Jumping in Uyuni Salt Flat with my cool travel companions: a happy moment

2016 wasn't all rosy, however. For a number of reasons, back in spring I took on a far less popular role in my day job. The following months were sometimes hard and often unbearable, making me question, almost daily, the point of keeping the job which made me so intensely unhappy. On days like this, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and "thought of Chile" – namely, reminded myself of all the holiday allowance and free time I get with my job that I can spend doing something I truly love: learning languages and travelling. That alone is worth sticking around for a little longer.

On the whole though, 2016 was a brilliant year. I got married to the most wonderful man in the world. I stayed healthy and exercised plenty and regularly. Alan and I have made great progress on our flat in Riga, including completing the kitchen and making the first steps towards it feeling more like a home. And every day in my job makes me stronger and patient beyond any belief, despite possibly shortening my total lifespan disproportionately.

As you can see, our bedroom in Riga is my shrine to Marimekko

And travel – the travel!‎ I will have spent 120 days outside London before 2016 ends, visiting 18 countries in total including the UK. I fell well short of my previous records on new countries, only managing four in 2016 including, imminently, New Zealand. One of those new countries, Liechtenstein, was however an important symbolic achievement, as it took my total number of visited countries to 80. It is very modest by all standards, but a nice personal achievement nevertheless.

Without further ado, please join me for a more detailed overview of the departing year, presented below.

WINTER

Alan and I rang in 2016 in Colombia, with an amazing view of Cartagena's Clock Gate (Puerta del Reloj), arguably the best view point in town. The fireworks were going strong, the famous old town was all lit up for the occasion and we could not have been happier to have such beauty in front of our eyes. We spent the next couple of days photographing Cartagena's impossibly colourful doors and windows, drinking fresh mango juice and generally wishing we did not have to leave. Cartagena was one of my brightest memories of the departing year.

What a privilege it was to welcome 2016 to this timeless view of Cartagena

Cartagena agreed with us greatly

The weather all grim and wintery back in London, I was glad to have an exciting business trip coming up in January. I spent four very busy days in Aswan and Cairo in Egypt, during which I, luckily, managed to make several short escapades to explore both cities. I was never a big fan of the sprawling Cairo but Aswan was a completely different story – picturesque and historic to distraction. And I even got to stay at the legendary Old Cataract Hotel on the Nile River with, possibly, the best view I have ever enjoyed from any hotel. Banking jobs do have their perks sometimes.

Aswan on an early morning: the view over the Nile from Old Cataract Hotel

I do not usually travel much in January and February and the rest of the winter was very quiet travel-wise. In the last days of February, I hopped across to Bari, Italy, for a weekend (you can tell I am running out of low-cost weekend destinations). The city itself was lovely, and I managed to explore two other locations in the Apulia (Puglia) region, Alberobello and Lecce. The former's beehive-resembling houses ("trulli") could have descended straight out of a fairy tale!

SPRING

Quite the opposite of winter, spring was ridiculously busy. It started on an extremely low note, with multiple issues at work on which I will not elaborate here: let's just say that I was finding my new, notably less interesting, position extremely boring and my work life generally hell. The stark contrast between the unbearable office life and the rosy developments elsewhere in my life was especially hard to stomach. I have never come so close to quitting my job (and even drafted a few applications) but convinced myself to give it another try in the end. Anjci does not give up so easily.

Here I am having lunch at my desk on a happier day in the office

On the brighter side, March was spent in preparations for Alan's and my wedding day in the Falkland Islands, which was quickly approaching. Although we were not having a ceremony (or any guests, for that matter – read here about the other marriage myths we mercilessly ignored), there were still numerous documents to prepare beforehand. And, since the Falklands were so ridiculously remote, even DHL took two weeks to deliver anything there!

By far the biggest highlight of the departing year was my 3.5-week jaunt to Chile and the Falklands in April. I descended upon Chile like a storm, squeezing as many locations as possible in my (very tight) itinerary. From the understated capital city of Santiago to the surreal Easter Island – the closest I may ever get to visiting the mysterious Pitcairn – and on to the rugged beauty of Patagonia, Chile was diverse and intensely fascinating for a traveller. I was particularly pleased with myself for booking a 2-day visit to Puerto Williams, a settlement in Chile's extreme south in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, which turned out every bit worth it.

I was among the first hikers to reach Mirador Los Torres that cloudy morning

Even simple sights like this at Torres del Paine National Park were spectacular

From Chile, Alan and I continued to the Falkland Islands with an important mission in mind. I was almost screaming with excitement as our plane landed in the place where I had wanted to visit since I remembered myself. The Falklands turned out to be as amazing as I had hoped: the highlights included driving around the East Falkland island for two days (encountering little else beyond stark wilderness) and flying off to Pebble Island for a couple of days of disturbance-free existence and wildlife watching (read more on our Falklands visit here).

We entertained multiple gentoo penguins on Pebble Island in the Falklands

The Falklands turned out to be surprisingly sunny

And oh! We got married in Stanley's registry office on 12 April 2016. Our witnesses were the assistant registrar and Norman Clark, a retired British marine who doubled as our photographer. The whole process barely took 10 minutes: it was a perfect wedding (read a more detailed account here).

Our first (albeit hopeless) selfie as a married couple

The rest of spring went by in a flash. In May, Alan narrowly missed his flight to Greece, but caught up with me in time to celebrate Orthodox Easter on the island of Angistri. I sat a ridiculously difficult Greek proficiency exam for the C1 level later in May, and, miraculously, passed. And even later in May, I wrote my annual summary on the Eurovision Song Contest (Ukraine won: read it here), had it reprinted by my employer's weekly paper and almost caused a political crisis among my Ukrainian colleagues who chose to take offence; I am still not entirely sure what offended them most.

SUMMER

I welcomed summer in the most suitable of locations: Greece, where I visited the Aegean islands of Serifos, Paros and Antiparos. I chose Paros because Bernard Pretorius, a talented wedding photographer, was living there at the time. Serifos turned out much more than a convenient stopover from Piraeus (it has landed among my top 5 favourite Greek islands of all time) and Antiparos, Paros' "satellite" island (hence the name), was unusually peaceful at this time of year. Meanwhile, Alan and I had an absolute blast stuffing our faces with fried squid and feasting on the combination of Greek salad and ouzo almost daily.

Spectacular view towards the harbour from Serifos' main village

One of many little chapels in Antiparos

But of course the biggest highlight of our visit to Greece was the photo shoot with Bernard. Alan had convinced me to buy an actual wedding dress for the occasion (at Amanda Wakeley's, no less) and had a kilt made for himself (for which we took a day trip to Edinburgh earlier in 2016). My tight bridal shoes nearly killed my feet during the 3-hour shoot, but the result was incredible. Why oh why do people still get married and have bridal photos taken on the same day? Pleasures like this should be extended.

In case not everyone is tired of these, here is one more bridal photo of us in Greece

The rest of the summer consisted of weekends away, plenty of theatre visits in London and, unavoidably, working to finance it all. I travelled to Riga a whole of three weekends to track the progress on our kitchen (never, ever try to get any construction work done in the summer!). It was eventually completed to reveal a fantastic, modern kitchen where we could finally unpack all the Iittala items I had previously purchased to fulfil an old dream as a broke student in Finland. It feels great (and different!) to be able to afford pretty things and put them in the property you own.

In June, I was extremely lucky to embark on (what was probably my last) business trip to Slovenia. I combined it with a weekend's stay and visited an entirely new part of this small but sight-rich country: the Istria region on the Adriatic coast. Istria's history is closely intertwined with that of Italy, and both Italian and Slovene languages are official in the province. I visited the cities of Piran and Izola, and was spoilt with amazing food, excellent Venetian architecture and sunny skies.

Piran's main square: Slovenia's coastline is short but well worth visiting

I spent more time in London than usual during the rest of the summer, dedicating plenty of time to cultural and sports events. I absolutely loved the open-air performance of Jesus Christ Superstar musical at Regent's Park, and my single favourite day in London last summer was the day out at Lord's Cricket Ground, watching England's third day of test match with Pakistan and enjoying a massive hamper thoughtfully ordered by Alan. Few things can beat a sunny day out at the cricket!

Watching England vs. Pakistan live at Lord's was one of my best memories of 2016

Amid all the unicorn existence though, two major dampeners occurred last summer; one immeasurably more serious than the other. First, LOT officially became my least favourite airline after ruining my (free, booked for miles) weekend visit to Greece. I had to cut my visit extremely short but did enjoy a wonderful few hours on the island of Poros (my 42nd Greek island visited to date) in the Saronic Gulf.

And the second? Brexit. I still shudder to think how many futures changed overnight after that unnecessary voting exercise. And the purchasing power of my pound-denominated income shrank dramatically abroad. Thanks a bunch, Little England.

AUTUMN

Autumn was arguably my favourite season of the departing year. At the end of August, I flew to Bolivia for a 2-week adventure-filled holiday. I travelled from the massive city of La Paz to the quiet shores of Lake Titicaca, the architectural jewel of Sucre, the harsh climate of Potosí, the picture-perfect cowboy landscapes of Tupiza and – the best part – Bolivia's vast Altiplano region full of endless high-altitude lakes, steaming geothermal fields, surreal rock formations and timid llamas. I have written about Bolivia extensively on this blog (view the series here). The photos do not even begin to do justice to the country's spectacular, diverse terrain and beauty.

Before and after visiting a silver mine in Potosí: not my favourite experience

I was obsessed with taking photos of llamas in Bolivia

No matter how good, I was also extremely grateful when my time in Bolivia came to an end and I was able to cross the border to the (infinitely more superior) comforts of Chile. My visit to San Pedro de Atacama was short – only two days – and, in this short time, I felt most lucky to watch the sun set over the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) and rise over the El Tatio Geyser field. I dream of Chile almost daily and hope to return in the near future to visit everything I have missed.

Selfie Number 50 with the Chilean border sign: something tells me I was happy to be there

The activity of El Tatio Geysers is best observed in the early (and chilly) morning

Back in London, I reunited with Alan and immediately fled as soon as the weekend arrived. We flew to Alderney – our third ever Channel Island – on a tiny Trislander aircraft, where I got to wear the co-pilot's headset and nearly scream with excitement. We loved the relative remoteness of Alderney and managed to walk almost the entire island in two days. It was spectacular.

My favourite memory of 2016: flying to Alderney on a Trislander

In early October, we flew to Riga to score another bridal photo shoot, this time in a decidedly autumnal backdrop. With the wedding dress and the kilt being rather expensive, I was determined not to limit myself to only one set of wedding photos! We also celebrated my father's 60th birthday in a cosy family setting (at Lido on Krasta iela - I mean, where else?).

Working hard to make that wedding kit worth it

Celebrating Dad's 60th with my favourite men (incidentally, husband and Dad)

A string of fantastic weekends away followed. First, I was off to Romania for a quiet weekend of late autumn sun and effortless beauty in the multi-cultural city of Timisoara. The following weekend Alan and I visited Liechtenstein where we walked almost the entire length of the country by foot and posed for photos in the middle of the Rhine river (which marks Liechtenstein's border with Switzerland). Finally, I flew to Corfu in Greece for my third (and probably last) ever weekend there; I have now visited both northern and southern parts of the island and infinitely preferred the former.

Vaduz Castle is perched on a hillside above the Vaduz City

I got very lucky with the weather in Corfu

Come November, and it was time for another long-haul holiday. Alan and I took our first ever flight on the massive Airbus 380 (where we got to sit on the top floor, though sadly not in Business), to our good old Hong Kong. It is by far my favourite city in Asia, and I could well see myself living there one day. We managed to visit Lamma island and the historic neighbourhood of Stanley before flying a short distance to a relatively unknown part of the world…

Yet another emotional selfie from Hong Kong (as always, featuring beer)...

...and a quintessentially Hong Kong shot of a junk boat floating on Victoria Harbour

… Japan! Well, not Japan proper but a small drop of its territory much nearer Taiwan: the Yaeyama archipelago. This group of islands lies the farthest from "mainland" Japan and is known for its distinct culture, language and unusual (for Japan) subtropical flora. We stayed on the main island of Ishigaki and visited three outlying islands of Iriomote, Taketomi and Kohama. It was definitely a feast for our stomachs: the archipelago is celebrated for its soft beef and exotic fish. This trip greatly inspired me to sign up for a Japanese language course starting January 2017. One day I would like to return to Ishigaki and write a book on its cuisine and restaurant scene - hopefully understanding some Japanese along the way.

Ishigaki's north coast is full of empty paradise beaches like this

This could be the world's most ridiculous pose (but I like it)

My last weekend trip before New Zealand was to Granada, Spain. I used to spend weekends in Spain on a yearly basis, ticking off individual low-cost destinations, but Granada was my first visit to the country in two years. I loved the city's superb Moorish architecture and Arab heritage, and even managed to book a visit to Alhambra Palace at an extremely short notice. I was also lucky to meet Nellie Huang, whose travel blog WildJunket I have followed for years (hopefully I will no longer feel like a stalker now that we've met!).

I was smiling so hard in Granada my eyes almost disappeared

Finally, towards the close of December, I remembered I was really a banker and signed my first solo-led lending project. Symbolically, it was for a small hydroelectric power plant in my favourite country to work in, Georgia. Hopefully this marked the beginning of a brighter future in my day job (2017, I am looking at you!).

TRAVEL "AWARDS"

To whoever made it this far, I am pleased to present my first ever "travel awards" - my best (and worst) travel experiences of 2016 across several fairly random categories. I hope this list can be entertaining, if not particularly useful, to someone.

  • Best weekend away: The competition was tough, but it has to be Liechtenstein. The autumn colours were intensely photogenic and the forest hikes were superb in mid-October – and we were in an entirely new country after not even managing to notice an international border had been crossed! I recommend visiting Liechtenstein from Zurich as the nearest international airport.

Everyone should visit Liechtenstein, if only for that cute donkey

  • Best swimming spot: I could award this to anywhere in the Aegean by default, but would be lying to myself. My best swim in 2016 was off the Star Sand Beach ( 星砂の浜, Hoshizuna-no-hama) on the island of Taketomi, Japan. The Yaeyama archipelago's waters are often extremely shallow at low tide, and I was nearly singing with joy to discover the paradise-like Star Sand, perfectly swimmable in the late afternoon hours. Numerous fast boats serve Taketomi from Ishigaki; beware of the extremely strong underwater currents.

Myself being swept away by currents of ridiculous speed: not pictured

  • Best meal: This was a very close call (Mitora restaurant 三虎 in‎ Ishigaki being the runner-up), but creativity won: my top meal of 2016 goes to Djapa, Hong Kong. The restaurant opened relatively recently and has already earned accolades for creating a superb fusion of Japanese and Brazilian ("Nipo-Brasileiro") cuisines. Highly recommended! Wan Chai is the nearest MTR station.

On Djapa's first floor: graffiti is supposed to symbolise the art of Brazil's favelas

  • Surprise discovery: ‎When I visited Slovenia for work in June and spent the weekend in the country's Istria province, I never expected to like it quite as much as I did. Although the sea was rather unimpressive for swimming, I couldn't speak more highly of Piran's stunning old town and superb Mediterranean cuisine (I particularly recommend the Pirat restaurant where, hilariously, I befriended the chef!). Piran is a 2-hour bus ride away from Ljubljana.

Seriously, could Piran look more Italian?

  • Best travel decision: Back in April, I was torn between visiting Chile's north or spending a couple of days in its extreme south. I chose the latter, travelled to Isla Navarino and ended up falling in love with Puerto Williams – possibly as far south as one can go in the world without giving up modern comforts. You think that Ushuaia is the "end of the world"? Puerto Williams is even further south and claiming the title of the world's southernmost city. Fly there aboard DAP from Punta Arenas.

On top of Cerro Bandera near Puerto Williams: across the water is Argentina

  • Worst travel incident: After infamously getting my drink spiked in Colombia at the end of 2015 (read about it here), I have, admittedly, been spared big incidents this year. My worst travel experience of 2016 would have to be something relatively mundane: my award LOT flight from London to‎ Athens via Warsaw was over 5 hours delayed in July, I missed all sorts of connections and had to spend the following day catching up with my itinerary. And instead of 40 hours in Greece, I only got 30 (first world problems, I know). Here goes the undisputed truth: when in a rush, always fly direct.

I smile with relief as I finally reach Poros mere hours before leaving again

  • Single best moment: I used to be scared of flying, but managed to overcome this fear just in time for two of the most scenic flights I have ever taken, both in 2016: Stanley to Pebble Island in the Falklands on an Islander aircraft in April and Guernsey to Alderney aboard a Trislander in September. The latter was probably my best ever travel experience: I got to wear the co-pilot's headset and cried with excitement as our destination emerged closer and closer. The Aurigny airline ("Aurigny" is actually the French name for Alderney) flies to Alderney from Guernsey.

Those ecstatic eyes of a co-pilot won't lie

  • Soundtrack of the year: I cannot believe I lived 33 years on this planet before hearing Soda Stereo. The trio no longer plays together (their frontman is in fact dead), but Soda Stereo remains Latin America's most famous band ever. I first heard a song of theirs play on a car transfer to Calama airport in Chile, and suddenly every passenger (but me) was singing along! Soda Stereo's songs have been lightening up my life ever since – yes, it is that serious.

On this positive note, I would like to wish everyone a year of superb travel and personal experiences! May all your cherished dreams come true in 2017.

Stay tuned next year! I already have a few exciting trips planned, including a road trip across Madagascar (with a stopover in the Seychelles en route), a long weekend discovering Iraqi Kurdistan, ticking off the micro states of San Marino and Andorra, spending some quality time in the remotest of the Greek islands and, hopefully, finally reaching the long-coveted Turkmenistan (more details coming soon). I am also currently in the process of giving this blog an entirely new look (including migrating to Wordpress and a sexy new logo!) so do revisit next year.

For less text and more photos, take a look at my annual 2016: Year in Pictures post. As always, all photo albums from my travels can be found on Flickr @anutele. I also try to post regularly on Instagram @anjciallover.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Monday, 19 December 2016

2016: Year in Pictures

One aspect of my life in which 2016 absolutely excelled was travel.

Travel-wise, 2016 was one of the best years of my life. In January, I was lucky to go on a business trip to Aswan, Egypt, where I admired the vast history around me and my best ever view from a hotel room. In April, I embarked on a 3.5-week trip of a lifetime to my dream country - Chile - followed by one week in the Falkland Islands where, conveniently, Alan and I got married. In June, I spent a blissful week in Greece where we took our dressy wedding pictures and filled up on fresh seafood and ouzo. In August, I was off to Bolivia where, amid the altitude struggles, I did my best to explore La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Sucre, Potosí and the Bolivian Altiplano. I also crossed the border to Chile, with which I managed to fall in love during my first visit earlier in 2016.

The view to which we welcomed 2016: stunning Puerta del Reloj, Cartagena (Colombia)

I then spent most autumn weekends out of London, briefly exploring several exciting destinations including Timisoara (Romania), Corfu (Greece) and Liechtenstein, which became my 80th country ever visited. In November, Alan and I were back in Hong Kong - our favourite Asian city - before continuing to the Japanese archipelago of Yaeyama. We embraced the local history and culture during our short visit; I was indeed so inspired by Yaeyama that I have signed up for Japanese classes in London starting in January.

Finally, in mere days I will depart to New Zealand where I will travel from Auckland to Napier via Tongariro crossing and Taupo, and on to Wellington to reunite with Alan. Together we will celebrate the arrival of 2017 in New Zealand's capital, cross to South Island on New Year's Day and explore the west coast by car, including such unquestionable highlights as Doubtful Sound, Fox Glacier and Te Anau Glowworm Caves.

But that's next year! For a more detailed account of the departing year (and fewer photos), please take a look at my annual 2016 Newsletter. As always, all photo albums from my travels can be found on Flickr @anutele. I also try to post regularly on Instagram @anjciallover.

Without further ado, let's recap my favourite travel moments from 2016. It was a great year!

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1-2 January: Hand in hand, Alan and I welcome the arrival of 2016 in Cartagena, Colombia. The rooftop of our hotel overlooks one of Cartagena’s best known landmarks, Puerta del Reloj, and fireworks are going off all around; the view is magnificent. We wander around the city for the next couple of days, soaking in the last vibes of the Caribbean living before returning to the wintery bleakness of London.
~Cartagena, Colombia

Movich Hotel has some of the best views of Cartagena (we only stopped for a drink!)

Cartagena's colourful doors are uniquely photogenic

Conveniently, our favourite view in town was from NH Hotel Cartagena, where we were staying

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11-15 January: I fly off to Egypt on a business trip and have a fantastic time. It is my first ever visit to Aswan, and I love the city’s dramatic setting on the Nile, its hundreds of sailing boats and its incredible historic artefacts in a sheet desert environment. A privileged banker, I get to stay at the legendary (and luxurious!) Old Cataract hotel, once frequented by the likes of Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill. A night time visit to Philae Temple’s sound and light show becomes one of my brightest travel memories of all time. This is not a holiday though: I also visit a patch of chocking desert near Aswan and run from meeting to meeting in the madness of Cairo – thankfully also managing a couple of evenings at large to explore this busy city.
~Aswan / Cairo, Egypt

This morning view from Old Cataract Hotel over the Nile took my breath away

A tiny sliver of the moon shone on a clear night as I waited for my boat to Philae Temple

Crazy Cairo looked almost timid (and traffic-free!) on early mornings in Zamalek

~~~~~~~
27-28 February: On my only weekend away of the month, I travel to the city of Bari in Italy’s south. Strangely outside the standard list of Italy’s highlights, the Bari old town looks very charming. I do not linger here though and visit two more destinations in the Apulia region: the town of Alberobello with its superb traditional “trulli” buildings and Lecce – also known as the “Florence of the South”, it is full of striking examples of baroque architecture.
~Bari / Alberobello / Lecce, Italy

Castello Normanno-Svevo (Swabian Castle) in Bari was built around 1132

Alberobello's cute "trulli" buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage site

Piazza Sant'Oronzo in Lecce, the city often nicknamed the "Florence of the South"

~~~~~~~
25 March-8 April: My most eagerly awaited holiday of the year arrives! I almost shake with excitement as I land in Chile, the country I have been dreaming of visiting for years. The following two weeks take me from the unpretentious capital city of Santiago to Easter Island (very aptly, during Easter), Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. I am left speechless by the solemn “moai” figures on Easter Island and tire myself out cycling around the entire island in a day. As last time in Argentina, Patagonia amazes me with its spectacular natural beauty. I hike the “W” circuit of the Torres del Paine National Park and find magnificent landscapes (and fellow hikers) almost at every step. Finally, I fly to Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, Tierra del Fuego archipelago, for some sheer remoteness – yet with a surprising amount of comfort given the logistical challenges in transporting anything here.
~Santiago / Easter Island / Punta Arenas / Torres del Paine / Puerto Williams, Chile

The walk to Isla Navarino's eastern lighthouse from Puerto Williams was ridiculously windy

Ahu Tongariki is the largest ahu (stone platform) on Easter Island and has 15 moai

Mirador Las Torres is possibly the best known landmark of Torres del Paine National Park

Intrepid hiker takes a panoramic shot from Mirador Britanico, Torres del Paine

Clouds reflecting in Lake Pehoé, Torres del Paine

~~~~~~~
9-16 April: Alan catches up with me in Punta Arenas, and we are off on our most coveted flight of the year, to Mount Pleasant airport in the Falkland Islands. We spend a week in the archipelago (not at all dictated by the once-weekly flight schedule, of course) and squeeze in many kilometres of road tripping around East Falkland island and a short flight to Pebble Island in the north. Most importantly, we get married at the Registry Office in Stanley, the archipelago’s main settlement, and get treated to pints of the local Peat Cutter brew all night: what a perfect wedding day.
~Stanley / East Falkland / Pebble Island, Falkland Islands

Yorke Bay beach near Stanley is pretty but remains out of reach due to mine scare

There is a large gentoo penguin colony in New Haven, East Falkland island

An Argentine "Dagger" fighter jet crashed on Pebble Island during the Falklands war

We watched a striking sunset from Pebble Island at the end of our Falklands visit

Cape Pembroke Lighthouse stands on the easternmost point of the Falkland Islands

~~~~~~~
21 May: I join Alan for a sunny day of fantastic beer and juicy sausages in Duesseldorf (where Alan works most of the time), the capital of the North Rhine-Westphalia region. We visit my favourite restaurant, called Eigelstein; shamelessly, it serves Kölsch, a beer brand from Cologne and the fiercest rival to Duesseldorf’s Altbier.
~Duesseldorf, Germany

Three creative buildings in Duesseldorf's Neuer Zollhof have been designed by Frank Gehry

~~~~~~~
28 May-5 June: It is time for another holiday and I travel to my favourite summer destination of all time, Greece (where else!). Serifos becomes my 40th Greek island ever visited and definitely lands in the top 5 of Greek islands I have enjoyed most to date. I then meet Alan in Paros, and we have a superb time driving around the island in search of deserted beaches. We also have our wedding photos taken, with excellent results (see below). Finally, we travel to Paros’ satellite island of Antiparos where we visit the world famous cave and otherwise leisurely conquer the small island by foot. As always, Greece is spectacular.
~Serifos / Paros / Antiparos, Greece

White dove atop Serifos' Kastro fits in perfectly with the colour palette of the Greek islands

Serifos' main village ("Chora") could be the prettiest in the Aegean

Spathi Lighthouse sits on the southern tip of Serifos and provides great views towards Sifnos

This former windmill in Naoussa (Paros) has been converted into a home

The Cave of Antiparos is the island's biggest attraction

~~~~~~~
2 June: This deserves a separate entry! We have been preparing for this day for a very long time, and finally enjoy our bridal photo shoot with the talented Bernard Pretorius (who took all the below photos). Needless to say that getting photographed as a bride in the stunning backdrop of the Greek islands is many a girl’s dream. I am so happy that Alan (i) convinced me to buy a proper wedding dress and (ii) wore a kilt himself. We were quite popular on Paros that day!
~Photo shoot with Bernard Pretorius / Paros, Greece

Alan and I pose in Lefkes, an impossibly pretty mountain village in central Paros

The church of Agios Ioannis at Monastiri beach provided a fantastic spot for photos

~~~~~~~
25-26 June: I need to check up on my favourite power plant in Slovenia (work stuff!) and use the weekend to visit an entirely new part of the country for me: the Adriatic coast. This region’s culture is inextricably linked to that of Italy, and Italian is an official language alongside Slovene. I absolutely love the historic coastal cities of Piran and Izola: their narrow streets and pretty tiled roofs instantly give away Venetian influence.
~Piran / Izola, Slovenia

The Walls of Piran provided a breath-taking view of the Old City and the Adriatic

~~~~~~~
16 July: Alan and I enjoy our top summer day in London: where else but in the self-proclaimed “Home of Cricket”, at Lord’s Cricket Ground! England is bowling against Pakistan on this third day of the test match, the hampers are overflowing, our neighbours are jolly and the sun is plentiful. Few English pleasures top a sunny day out at the cricket. The next day we play tourists in London and finally ride the Emirates Air Line cable car.
~Lord’s Cricket Ground / Royal Docks, London

Lord's Cricket Ground in St. John's Wood (London) is over 200 years old

The Emirates cable car link in London is an exciting alternative mode of transport

~~~~~~~
23-24 July: I use my expiring Lufthansa miles to fly to Greece for a weekend. Unfortunately, the outbound leg is with LOT Airlines, who live up to their (not exactly stellar) reputation by delaying my flight by an ever-increasing number of hours amid a total lack of updates. I miss several connections but eventually make it to the island of Poros for exactly 20 hours. I minimise my sleep and make every minute in my Greek paradise count.
~Poros, Greece

I arrived in Poros to this sunset over the Peloponnese, precisely 12 hours later than planned

Poros Town is located mere 200 meters away from the Greek mainland

Poros became my 42nd Greek island ever visited

~~~~~~~
13-14 August: Alan and I decide to travel to Somerset, visiting Taunton and (for some strange reason) Weston-super-Mare. A beautiful county town, Taunton comes across a little melancholic in the evening hours, and we retreat to a pub for far-too-much of Somerset’s celebrated cider. The next day, we visit Weston-super-Mare, a supposedly resort-type place and leave puzzled; let’s just say that Hastings looked posh in comparison!
~Taunton / Weston-super-Mare, England

We stopped at this rustic little pub in the backdrop of St. James' Church in Taunton

Birnbeck Pier in Weston-super-Mare is in various stages of disrepair and stands abandoned

~~~~~~~
27 August-8 September: It is time to return to South America! I land in La Paz and instantly feel the burden of the 4km altitude – something that accompanies me for most of the two weeks in Bolivia. From La Paz, I travel to the mysterious Lake Titicaca and walk the entire length of Isla del Sol, encountering stunning views and ancient Inca sites along my way. I then fly to the capital of Sucre and absolutely melt in its gorgeous colonial architecture (and its lower altitude). The journey takes me on to the mining city of Potosí where I am left gasping for breath after visiting a working silver mine. I then battle the absence of road traffic in the entire country on the so-called “pedestrian day” to reach Tupiza, from where I embark on a 4-day jeep trip to Uyuni through the Bolivian Altiplano region. The views en route are some of the most incredible I have ever seen: the Altiplano’s alpine lakes, geothermal fields, stretching salt flats, volcanoes and rainbow-coloured hills are beyond magical.
~La Paz / Isla del Sol / Sucre / Potosí / Tupiza / Altiplano / Uyuni, Bolivia

I was excited to meet this baby llama in Yumani, Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca

The capital city of Sucre is renowned for its stunning colonial architecture

Greeting the sunrise on Isla Incahuasi in Uyuni Salt Flat was a unique life experience

Striking a mandatory silly pose with my companions in the Uyuni Salt Flat

Laguna Colorada in the Altiplano has a large flamingo population

~~~~~~~
9-10 September: As pretty as Bolivia is, I cry the tears of joy as I cross the border to enter Chile and its notably superior comforts after days of traipsing around showerless in the Bolivian Altiplano. During my all-too-short 2-day stay in the postcard-pretty town of San Pedro de Atacama, I watch the sun set over the Valle de la Luna, and rise over the El Tatio geyser field. Chile is my favourite country at the moment, and I cherish every second being back. Most importantly, it is on the transfer to the nearest airport in Calama that I first hear the music of Soda Stereo – Latin America’s biggest rock band ever – which has hardly left my playlist to this day.
~San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Made of adobe, the Church of San Pedro de Atacama is the second oldest in Chile

Valle de la Luna is so named thanks to its resemblance to the surface of the moon

El Tatio geyser field has over 80 active geysers and is the world's third largest

~~~~~~~
17-18 September: Reunited with Alan, I travel to our third ever Channel Island – the tiny Alderney a short flight away from the larger Guernsey. It is the northernmost island in the archipelago and, as such, the nearest to both Britain and France. The low-altitude flight to Alderney on a tiny Trislander aircraft becomes one of my top travel highlights of all time, and we love exploring the rugged island on foot.
~Alderney, Channel Islands

Flying from Guernsey to Alderney aboard a Trislander was unforgettable

~~~~~~~
1 October: One can never have too many bridal photo shoots. We travel to Riga for another set of wedding pictures, wearing the same kit as in Greece and introducing the autumnal setting so prevalent in this part of the world, this time of year. The weather cooperates: see for yourselves! (photo below by Julia Usovich)
~Riga, Latvia

Here we are posing in a (fairly creepy, but pretty) forest in Riga

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8-9 October: I jump on a low-cost flight to Timisoara, ever so grateful for the abundant cheap weekend destinations from London. Timisoara is Romania’s third largest city and sits at the great crossroads of cultures, histories and languages. Albeit somewhat neglected, the city is strikingly beautiful.
~Timisoara, Romania

Unirii Square in Timisoara has great baroque examples

~~~~~~~
15-16 October: I meet Alan in Zurich, promptly board a train to Sargans and connect with a bus to Vaduz, Liechtenstein. The international border crossing is amusingly understated and it takes us a while to realise we are in another country! Visiting Liechtenstein is a treat: we walk up the hill to admire the eye-pleasing view over the capital city of Vaduz and Vaduz Castle, the living quarters of the local prince. We also have the most delicious dinner in the company of local fire corps orchestra and walk to another city – Schaan – on a strikingly sunny day. Oh, and Liechtenstein becomes my 80th country ever visited.
~Vaduz / Schaan, Liechtenstein

Vaduz Castle is unfortunately closed to visitors

~~~~~~~
22-23 October: I no longer even remember when I last spent a weekend in London! I embark on my last visit to Greece this year and, as always, Corfu is the easiest weekend destination as far as Greek islands go. The island’s bus service greatly reduced for the winter, I am forced to walk 20km from Agios Stefanos to Palaiokastritsa (gorgeous), visit the south of Corfu for the first time (disappointing) and feast on traditional Greek fare at Pergalos, my favourite taverna in town (as always, top marks).
~Corfu, Greece

Lakones village in northern Corfu provides excellent views of Palaiokastritsa

~~~~~~~
5-7 November: And it’s off to Hong Kong, my favourite city in Asia! Alan and I are beyond thrilled to travel on an Airbus 380 for the first time, and get to sit on the top level (albeit not in Business). It is our second visit to Hong Kong, and we get to stay in Wan Chai this time. I absolutely love the street market and the numerous eating options, including my favourite meal of the year, at Djapa (Japanese Brazilian fusion) in Wan Chai. We also visit Lamma island and the historic neighbourhood of Stanley, and do the mandatory crossing of the Victoria Harbour aboard a Star Ferry… twice!
~Hong Kong, China

Central and Western District Promenade is a popular spot for locals to exercise and relax

Local couple poses for wedding photos in Tsim Sha Tsui

Distinctly Hong Kong: sunset view of the Hong Kong island from Kowloon

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9-13 November: From Hong Kong, we travel to Yaeyama archipelago, remote Japanese islands that lie much nearer Taiwan than “mainland” Japan. We explore the pretty Ishigaki by bus and foot, amazed by how undiscovered the north of the island is. The local cuisine is fantastic to the degree that I decide to return here one day and write a food guide to Ishigaki. We also visit three outlying islands: Iriomote (with its wild jungle), Kohama (with its two viewing hills and long stretches of deserted beaches) and Taketomi (with its irresistibly cute narrow streets lined with stone walls). Japan never disappoints.
~Ishigaki / Iriomote / Taketomi / Kohama, Japan

Hirakubo Lighthouse on Ishigaki's north-eastern tip is a well-known landmark

Orion Beer is relatively unknown in Japan but is widely popular in Okinawa and Yaeyama

Beautiful Yonehara beach is a popular snorkelling spot in Ishigaki

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3-4 December: On my last weekend trip of the year, I visit Granada, Spain. Despite recovering from a cold, I find the time to admire the city’s well-preserved Moorish heritage and manage to get into the world-renown Alhambra Palace at very short notice. I also meet Nellie Huang of WildJunket for the first time – what a treat!
~Granada, Spain

Granada's best known attraction, Alhambra Palace looks out to the historic Albayzín district

Here goes to many more travels and adventures in 2016!

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