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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
2014 IN REVIEW: WINTER
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
2014 IN REVIEW: SPRING
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…
2014 IN REVIEW: SUMMER
…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.
2014 IN REVIEW: AUTUMN
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
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!
Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Happy New Year!