Monday, 16 December 2013

2013 Newsletter


All good things must end. 2013 will, too, soon be taking its leave. Within a matter of days, I will be boarding a flight to Southeast Asia to welcome the arrival of 2014 in an exotic time zone far away from home. Before I depart, I would like to share with you the happenings of the year past – given how bad my memory is becoming with one million things to remember at any given time (I blame the age, too), these newsletters have grown to be really useful as personal reminders.

After a relative lull of its predecessor, 2013 saw me pull back to my usual travel tempo. I spent 126 days outside the UK in 2013: three weeks above the level of 2012 and a couple of days fewer than in 2011. Given my plans to seek UK citizenship next year, such regular absence could have been a problem had the authorities not been only counting the nights abroad. Just for the authorities' sake, I am pleased to confirm that the number of such nights is much under 126.

Between 1 January 2013 and the close of "business" on the last day of 2013, I will have visited 24 countries. Among them, six will have been first-timers: Japan, Egypt, China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Cambodia and Laos. Add my two visits to India in 2013 and the plan to celebrate the New Year in Thailand in just a fortnight, and it is only appropriate that the departing year in the life of anjči be marked as the year of Asia. Indeed I have not visited more Asian countries in any other year to date.

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Personal travel record: seven Asian countries in 2013, including India

I will also remember 2013 as the year of France as I took three trips there in the last 365 days: about three more than in my average year. It is certainly a welcome development as I had persistently treated France as a "no-brainer" destination in the UK's backyard rather than a fascinating country in its own right. The 80 million tourists that visit France every year cannot be wrong though: there is a plethora of things (I won't even mention wine varieties) to explore there and I certainly plan to be back soon.

Personally, 2013 was possibly my busiest year so far. After a slow start to the year, the pace of work quickly picked up and rarely subsided since. I continued taking Arabic and Greek language classes, additionally joining an Indian dancing class, beginning driving lessons and doing my best impersonation of that lucid image of a Decent Girlfriend. Albeit frequent and time-consuming, my travel photography remains at a rather amateur level, which I plan to rectify through a photography course in 2014. My greatest time investment is still personal travel planning: last week alone I booked hotels for my Easter trip to Argentina, selected an overland tour itinerary for a trip in Namibia a month later and settled on a Greek island for my annual summer escape next year. Thankfully, the time that this research inevitably takes is usually worth it.

Without further ado, let us embark on the recap of this year's events in order.

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I frequented France in 2013: pictured here is the spectacular Nice beach

2013 IN REVIEW: WINTER

Like the year before, I welcomed the New Year in India. This time I found myself in a very different part of the country some 1,600 km south of my preceding New Year destination – in Kochi, state of Kerala. I had not planned anything for that important midnight moment; thankfully, the locals had planned it for me instead. In a mix of horror and amazement I watched a massive effigy of Santa Claus (erected on the Kochi beach on the day) explode in dozens of fireworks before burning down to its metallic frame – all accompanied by the enthusiastic cheering of the locals. I can only wonder about the origin of that "custom".

With Santa's ashes safely left behind, my journey in Kerala continued to the tea plantations of Munnar, the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary (where I had a chance to spot two elephants roaming in the wild), the serene backwaters of Alleppey, the busy state capital of Thiruvananthapuram and its popular adjacent Kovalam beach. I finally flew to Mumbai to mark the end of my holiday with a serious shopping spree. India continues to hold the title of the only country where I enjoy to (and do) go shopping.

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Tea plantations of Munnar provided a much welcome break from the humidity in the rest of Kerala

Backwaters are the main attraction of Kerala

The rest of the winter saw a couple more short-haul weekend trips: to Norway and the Netherlands. My day trip to Amsterdam brought the heaviest snowfall I saw during the entire 2013 winter season. I had actually booked the weekend in the Netherlands (my first in eight years) specifically to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, but the queues were prohibitively long; I will have to work on Plan B very soon.

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Amsterdam gave me the most intense snowfall of 2013

2013 IN REVIEW: SPRING

Following on the tradition of the previous few years, I welcomed the first weekend of spring in Spain. The Las Fallas festival was on in Valencia and the roaring explosions of the Mascletà daytime fireworks (don't ask) had me believe a war had suddenly broken out. My next stop was Tarragona where Sveta and her two munchkins took me on a short trip to Castell Monestir d'Escornalbou. March in Spain always makes a nice break from the still wintery feel of the UK. I can already confirm though that my first spring weekend next year will be spent in Gdansk, Poland – albeit breaking an old tradition, I will try to visit Spain on another occasion in 2014.

Mid-March brought a surprise weekend in Paris where my companion and I alternated between curling up indoors and braving the steps of Arc de Triomphe for a spectacular view of the French capital. I then flew to the Polish city of Krakow with a sole mission of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, a former Nazi concentration camp. I was endlessly touched by the somber reality of the relatively recent historical events and wholeheartedly recommend a visit to everyone – if only for educational purposes. Needless to say there are plenty of happier things to see in and around Krakow, too.

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The top of Arc de Triomphe in Paris offered a splendid view onto the city

In 2013, I finally reached the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland

My most significant springtime trip came next as I spent 17 days around Easter in the exotic world of Japan. The journey started in the quirky capital, Tokyo, and continued to the mountainous Takayama, the blossoming Kanazawa, the tranquil Miyajima, the solemn Hiroshima, the wonderfully picturesque Nagasaki, the unassuming Kagoshima, the touristy Kyoto, the holy Mount Koya, the picture-perfect Hakone and the heritage-rich Kamakura. Such was the pace of my trip that I was decidedly glad to return to London and park my backpack for a while afterwards; running somewhat ahead though, I hope to revisit Japan – its Okinawa island, namely – already in 2014.

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The cherry blossom season in Japan is widely celebrated by locals and visitors alike

My early morning walk in Kyoto brought an encounter with a geisha

The other half of spring involved four smaller trips. First, I embarked on a short self-guided tour of Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo, where, as my mother puts it, "Novak Djokovic was lucky enough" to bump into me. I think I certainly looked more excited than Novak though. I then flew to the Portuguese island of Madeira for three days in May – having imagined a paradise of tranquillity, I was instead rather taken aback by a very developed piece of land so far away from the continent. I did find a few quiet corners on Madeira but would now like to hope that the Portuguese Azores islands – still on my travel wish list – are somewhat more secluded.

Another surprise weekend awaited me shortly after as the same old companion and I were back on the Eurostar, this time headed for the Belgian cities of Gent and Oostende. Unfailingly though, the second half of May in the life of anjči tends to be more about Eurovision than anything else. Denmark won this year while the rest of the contest featured enough eccentric moments to keep the Eurovision freak in me entertained.

2013 IN REVIEW: SUMMER

I jumpstarted the summer with my first business trip in over a year (these just forget to happen sometimes): to Cairo, Egypt. In-between lumbering through the city's notorious traffic from one client's office to another, I had the utmost pleasure of a guided tour around night Cairo by Ahmed, an old friend. A repeat revolution was already in the air as images of the Egyptian army officials were handed out in the streets; I doubt I would be trotting around the Khan el-Khalili market quite as nonchalantly any time soon.

Cairo was still fresh in my mind when I set off on my annual pilgrimage to the world's greatest summer destination – Greece, of course – where I spent nine days exploring the islands of Milos and Kimolos. Milos' port of Adamas, sunsets of Plaka, Kleftiko cliffs, Sarakiniko beach with its lunar landscapes, stunning beaches of Tsigrado, Fyriplaka and Provatas all spoke for themselves. Truly there is not a Greek island I would praise more highly than Milos.

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This row of fishermen's houses on Milos is called "σύρμα", Greek for "wire"

Sarakiniko beach is among the Cyclades' most photographed sights

Another visit to a sunny destination – much shorter, admittedly – was to Malta where my (by this time fully official) boyfriend was born years ago. We had come prepared enough to locate the former British Navy Royal Hospital where this important historical event had been recorded; the building itself is now used by a local school.

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Marsaxlokk village in Malta features many such traditional fishing boats

Possibly the most memorable event of the summer (and indeed the whole year) was the wedding of my Indian friend Nandini, which took place in Bangalore in mid-July. I had dreamed of attending an Indian wedding for years – my last chance had been carefully prevented by my former job in investment banking – and finally caught my lucky star. The wedding was truly spectacular: I got to show off my silk blue saree purchased in Kerala just months before and, most importantly, dance myself silly at the sangeet function. Apparently it had all been captured on video which Nandini periodically threatens to unearth, but not before I am famous enough to regret it. The good news is that it may never happen.

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Attending Nandini and Sid's wedding in Bangalore: likely my top 2013 event

I visited Riga a whole of three times in the summer, on one of which occasions I managed to turn 30. Somehow I had used up all my imagination for the 29th birthday though, so the day was decidedly low-key – may my investment banking friends forgive me. Another personal milestone of the summer was clocking the seventh anniversary of my one-way flight from Riga to London in 2006. Life has certainly changed a lot as a result!

Less importantly but very notably, the past summer saw several excursions around what has become my home and base, the good old Albion. All of the four places I visited lie on the coast: Dover impressed with its White Cliffs, Bognor Regis equally amazed with a sheer number of Eastern European food stores, Scarborough looked surprisingly liveable while quiet Cornwall provided a great refuge from the bustling London.

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I explored more of the UK than usual in 2013: pictured here is Penzance, Cornwall's main town

2013 IN REVIEW: AUTUMN

I fast forwarded six time zones to catch the first glimpse of autumn nowhere else than in Beijing, China. Having expected to see an uninteresting gateway to my actual destination – the DPRK – I instead fell in love with Beijing almost instantly. Was it for the beautiful Jingshan Park, the historic Tiananmen Square, the busy Nanluoguxiang hutong, the pretty Summer Palace or the easily accessible Great Wall of China? All I know is it certainly wasn't for Beijing's notorious smog.

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It took me 2-3 hours to reach the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu from Beijing

Not long after, I found myself on a flight to Pyongyang in the DPRK (better known as North Korea) where I spent one week zooming around the country. Those of you who have read my blog series on North Korea probably couldn't hear any more of the DPRK highlights; for those who have not, I best remember the grandiose Arirang Mass Games, the military parade on the National Day and the demilitarised zone marking the North and South stand-off for decades. Even your everyday seemingly mundane things had an entirely different twist in North Korea; it was undoubtedly my most mind-bending trip ever.

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The DPRK troups paraded on 9 September, the country's national day

Local women laid flowers at the feet of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il statues

Seeing young pioneers was a flashback of my childhood in the USSR

Freshly back in London, I was off again – this time on a business trip to the faraway Georgia in the Caucasus. The work part involved seeing three construction sites (arguably an acquired taste), while the leisure part had me explore Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi, mountainous Kazbegi region and wine country of Kakheti. It was like being sent on a mission to paradise: the food, the wine and the people of Georgia remain my favourite in the whole world.

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Apparently it is incredible luck to see the Kazbergi peak due to weather conditions

Tbilisi is one of my favourite cities in the world

The rest of the autumn brought two more work visits – to Budapest and Ljubljana – as well as two personal trips to Guernsey and Bordeaux. Both of the latter were fascinating: Guernsey for its WWII legacy and Bordeaux for its strangely British feel. By this time though, I had been completely travelled out and longed for nothing more than some quiet time at home, only interrupted by language learning, dancing and driving, as well as my boyfriend's fortnightly visits. Yes, one of the less exciting happenings of the autumn was his transfer to Germany with work. Which is arguably still better than unemployment.

Also in the autumn, I was incredibly pleased to win the first prize in the staff photo competition held by my employer. My shot of the Vukovar water tower from 2010 somehow won in the "25 Years of Change" category. Every year has me wonder why one or another undeserving photo ends up winning; this year the "undeserving photo" was my own, so I did not mind.

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Guernsey was a hidden gem: watch out for more Channel Islands in 2014

SO LONG, 2013

On this positive note we find ourselves in December, at the close of another wonderful year! The year which I will always remember for Nandini's wedding in Bangalore, my 30th birthday and that "once-in-a-lifetime" visit to North Korea. It was also the year when I travelled to as many as five places in somebody's company and survived to tell the story. I still prefer to travel solo (especially long-haul), but am seeing it as a huge breakthrough that travelling with a boyfriend can, too, be a tolerable experience.

As we approach 2014, I want to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I profusely thank everyone who found the time to see me, host me and entertain me in those numerous countries visited in 2013. Thank you for your continued friendship and presence in the life of anjči. Here is to a great 2014! I hope that we can keep in touch and see each other very soon.

(View my Flickr photo albums and my 2013: Year in Pictures photographic recap of the year)

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

3 comments:

xing yue said...

I'm surprised no one commented.
Just found out your blog on tumblr and I think you're really amazing!
Thanks for willing to share your pictures and bits of your adventure to everyone.
Have a blessed year ahead! :)

anjči said...

Thank you so much, Xing Yue! I rarely expect comments directly here on the blog as I post the links on Facebook and send them to friends via email ~ so most of the comments are provided to me there and in person. It really is just meant as a yearly summary update for myself, my future children (if any) and my friends, not an invitation for comments. I am so glad this was interesting for you as well.

Thank you again and have a wonderful year ahead.

Tourist said...

Just seen your picture wearing a saree in India, I am surprised, how did you learn wearing a saree?
Further I have to say that while working in a Bank how do you manage to get leave for travelling worldwide, as you you have traveled all over the world.
Thanks & Regards
Tourist

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