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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?