Monday, March 18, 2013

Word Vomit of where and what exactly I have been up to this last year and a half of travelling

Hello again everyone,

I woke up this morning realising just how big this journey has been. From what started as a trip in Asia has soon escalated to what seems to be a world trip. I spent almost a year in Asia and most of that time traveling overland from Hong Kong to England and now I wake up to find myself in beautiful sunny Cape Town, South Africa. Bit of a random change of plans that even I don't really understand. So I thought it was about time to write a lengthy "word vomit" of where I have been and how I somehow ended up here. I'll break it up into separate sections to make it more easily digestible. So here is my attempt to explain it to all of you...

The time has come for me to trade in my worn out shoes and swap them for some sea worthy legs! I about to set sail in a weeks time crossing from Cape Town to Brazil. Big jump as I was in Europe 3 days ago, wearing all the clothes in my backpack and now I am wearing a dress in sunny beautiful South Africa!

This past year and a half has been one big crazy adventure and I am looking forward to the next chapter. What started as a 5 month trip has escalated into a year and a half long journey (so far) where my main limits have been my imagination. If any of you had of told me even 2 years ago that one day you would visit Kazakhstan and Mongolia, I would have laughed and happily placed a bet against it thinking I would be rich!

Every day on the road I learn something new, and learn more about myself as well. 

My route has been rather spontaneous pretty much the whole time. I hate to plan and organise things and rather just let things move with the flow so to speak. So below I thought I had better let you all know just where I have been this whole time!


Indonesia- India- Nepal- Thailand- Cambodia- Thailand- Myanmar- Malaysia- Japan- South Korea- (here's where the land journey starts) Hong Kong- China- Mongolia- China- Krygyzstan- Kazakhstan- Russia- Georgia- Turkey- Bulgaria- Serbia- Hungary- Austria- Czech Republic-Germany- Netherlands- Germany- England- Wales- France- Switzerland- Italy- Austria- Czech Republic- Poland- Germany- Netherlands- England- Scotland- England- South Africa


I had never been curious about travelling the world and I distinctly remember telling my dad at a very young age "not to waste money on a holiday, when you could buy something that would be more permanent than memories," how I have changed! 

35 countries (depending on what you would call "technically" countries) and counting! 

Every morning waking up in a different environment, sometimes squashed in the back of a minivan with 20 other large Mongolians, in my tent pitched right next to beautiful Lake Karakol in Kyrgyzstan, in a hammock on the beach in Cambodia, in a makeshift tent in a carpark in Mongolia, in a train station in Japan, on a houseboat in Paris, on a cockroach infested bed on an island off the coast of Jakarta, in a monastery in Myanmar, next to a camel in the desert in India, in the heart of the Himalayas in Nepal, on a crowded train in China with 20 faces staring at you, vomit and chicken feet on the seat next to you, in a hot and stuffy train carriage with no English speakers in the middle of the desert in Kazakhstan, to a clown in Russia, next to amazing hot springs in Georgia, on an olive farm in Turkey, in the passenger seat of friendly Turkish truck driver's truck in Bulgaria, with a bad hangover after a few too many rakia shots in Serbia, on a boat party on the river in the beautiful city of Budapest in Hungary, to an amazing sunny day in Vienna, to a home cooked breakfast from a good friend in Czech Republic, with my amazing family around me for Christmas in England, with a broken tooth in Berlin, and many many more!

I have had some amazing experiences where I have never felt happier and also experienced some things that I would never wish upon anyone, but through the good and the bad I am always growing, experiencing and more importantly always learning.

After catching the travel bug whilst teaching English at an orphanage in Indonesia then travelling round South East Asia for several months I came home determined to get back on the road again. So I got a job, worked my arse of for half a year and booked my flights straight away.

First stop Indonesia. After teaching English there I have always had a soft spot for Indo, even though it may have a few too many Aussies there! The beach, the weather, the lifestyle all make you never want to leave. I was lucky enough to spend my couple of weeks in Indonesia with my family and good friend and travel companion, Daniel, getting in some quality family time before heading off on my adventure.

After just arriving on Gilli Trawangan (a beautiful island just off the coast of Lombok) after a long bus-bus-boat-bus-boat journey taking over 12 hours we finally arrived ready for some relaxing before hitting hectic India in a weeks time. But stupid me, I had naively thought that I could get an Indian visa upon arriving and so had not organised my visa beforehand. It was after just happening to get into a conversation with a nice lady about India and the tricky visa situation that I realised my complete ignorance. 

The conversation went something along the lines of…
Lady (casually):  “Oh so you’re going to India, what visa do you have?”
Me (acting cool): “Not too sure, ill just see what they give me when I get there”
Lady (confused): “Umm, what do you mean”
Me (still cool, yet slightly impatient at having to repeat myself): “I’ll just get a visa when I arrive on the border, easy”
Lady (assuming the expression one has when they have to deliver news of a loved one’s death): “You need to get your visa before arrival, it takes some time”
Me (hoping she can’t smell the fact that I was soiling my pants): “Shit.”

Slight change of plans, as always happens when you travel, and regardless of a stressful few days of multiple flights to and from Jakarta, begging the lady at the embassy to cut the processing time for visas in half because, as we explained, we were “incompetent naive travelers.” Waiting round wasn't so bad considering just where we spent our time which you can see here. We finally had our visas in hand and were ready to quickly board the next flight to Bali to meet with our booked flight to India. But not before a quick haircut.

Possibly one of the more stupid things I had done. A little scared of India and the reputation the men had over there of groping women etc etc I decided to do the smart thing and swap my long hair to a more unappealing length to “make me look more like a boy”, as I explained to the rather confused hairdresser. So feeling a little bare and self conscious I boarded the plane ready to go to India clutching the bag of hair that once belonged on my head between my fingers.

India for me was an assault on all my senses. The smells, the sounds, the colours, the people. You taste some of the sweetest and the spiciest things of your life, you see the most beautiful colourful scenes, and some of the most dark and depressing ones as well.

We arrived in Mumbai shocked, scared, yet very excited, still clutching onto that bag of hair (which I ended up giving to a charity in India and I still wonder what on earth they could have done with it!). One of the first conversations with a local (and as we found out, professional con artist) left us feeling a little bit worried, and under-prepared. He smoothly took us to a chai shop and told us that without a proper armed security guard and driver, we would most certainly be killed. And well, we are both alive today and thankfully decided to do things our own way whilst travelling through Rajasthan.  

Spent time eating as much Indian food as we could possibly fit into our stomachs for just $1 per plate, and then practising the squatting position an hour later wondering “why-oh-why did I eat from that street vendor with the kids shitting beside it”.  Spent many hours on overcrowded Indian trains getting groped by men (the haircut didn’t work), riding on camels in the desert near the Pakistani border, visiting forts, camel festivals, rattemples where it is “good-luck” if the thousands and thousands of rats decide to scurry over your feet, volunteering by washing cutlery in a Sikh temple that feeds 10,000+ meals per day, going white water rafting, learning yoga, climbing mountains next to the Dalai Lama’s home, learning sitar, dodging fireworks at diwali festival, sampling bhang lassis, attending an intense meditation course and somehow getting swept into Indian hospitals, visiting the burning ghats, eating the world's largest Masala dosa and of course losing a lot of weight due to India’s awesome eat food-get food poisoning diet.

I felt I constantly had to be on guard in India with everyone there with getting ripped off and things stolen. but luckily out of the two months I was there, the only mildly scary thing that happened was when I was in Pushkar. We were walking through a very busy market square and someone suddenly pointed out to me that my bag had been slashed. Through my calico bag there was a very clean cut big enough for my wallet and other valuable to fall out. Luckily though upon inspecting the objects of my bag, nothing fell out! 

Upon departing India I was also told a nice little piece of information, that I would love to share with every other woman; “when they find a prostitute in India, they cut off their hair to show everyone what she is.” Hey, everyone makes mistakes- mine just made me look like a foreign prostitute!

Ahh India. Crazy place where events and experiences just form out of nowhere. Where, when you are there, at times you want no more than to leave and escape. Yet when you leave, you want no more than to return.

And so after 2 months in India it was time to move onto the next destination, Nepal. 

Nepal was almost like a holiday in comparison. Still very much alike in many ways, yet less “intense.” Blessed with amazing scenery, for those who love mountains and hiking this is the place to be. After a horrifyingly winding and dangerous drive with a crazy driver, who didn’t seem to know quite how important brakes can be, we had made it safe and sound to Pokhara.

Pokhara is a beautiful lake side town, shadowed by the amazing Himalayan mountains nearby. It was here that we not only fed Egyptian vultures mid-flight but also got ready to trek the Annapurna circuit, against the advice of pretty much every we spoke to. Some words of encouragement included “enjoy your last days, you may not return.”

We had indeed chosen a bad time to do the trek, December being smack bang in the middle of winter, but, we had also just “survived” India, so nothing was impossible for us. It did turn out to be a little impossible upon climbing that mountain. Surprise, surprise, the locals knew their stuff. The beginning was easy (well easier I should say), trekking through rainforests, over bridges, through valleys. Simply amazing. But I remember when it all started to get a little harder. New years eve I saw my very first snow fall. Super exciting, until you realise the next day that this fun stuff called snow, is what you now have to wade knee deep through for the entire day. Not so fun.

We managed to press on, even though both our shoes were very totally unsuitable for such conditions. Mine were not water proof, meaning my feet would turn into large iceblocks that I would have to carry. And Dan’s, which were waterproof, had gaping holes in the toes. Not so great for -25C.

Luckily when we arrived in a little town, where most shops were closed, I managed to ask a local to open a store especially for us to see if they had any boots for me. They had one last pair of boots in the store, my size. Miracle. So on we trekked, Dan still with his iceblocks and I with my brand new boots giving me something new to complain about, blisters.

Whilst climbing we began to see more and more people returning back to Pokhara, defeated, unable to make the high pass crossing, but we pushed on. The day before we tried to make the pass we were sitting out looking at the vastness of the mountains, thinking of how small we were in comparison and how isolated we were. In the distance we heard the terrifying sounds of small avalanches and signs of trouble. Heading out early the next morning we thought, despite our odds and the danger involved, we would try and make the mountain pass, but the weather prevented us, so we returned back down the mountain the same way we came up. Oh well something for me to complete next time I’m in Nepal!

Next stop Thailand. Not my first time there, and I am sure it won’t be my last. Here I met with 3 gorgeous girls (my best friend Emily, sister Ariane and her friend Clemy) which was so nice to see them after spending time away from home. We then carried onto Cambodia where we saw the beautiful Angkor Wat, stayed in tree houses on remote islands, tried “green” pizzas, drunk far too much home brewed Absinth and discovered the crazy life in Phnom Penh.

I was addicted and didn’t want to leave Cambodia. It has this energy, it had opportunity, awesome weather and great people. Here I stayed for almost 3 months busying myself looking into opening a hostel, organising buildings, business plans and other ideas. But just before signing the lease the travel vibe got the better of me and I knew I had to move on, saying farewell to Daniel, the greatest travel companion anyone could ask for, and embarking on my own journey, where I wasn’t certain where I would end up, but excited at the possibilities.

And so I chose my first stop to be Myanmar. A place I knew nothing about, apart from (and this time I got it right) having to organise a visa beforehand, and the only way in and out of the country was by flying. So I boarded the flight and arrived in Yangon, an intriguing place indeed. It has a very diverse mix of old colonial British architecture, Indian street food stalls, ancient Buddhist pagodas, Chinese restaurants and intertwining back alleys with colourful markets selling things from sex toys to animal brains.

I had an interesting introduction to Myanmar where on my second day there I rode the local train round the city, trying to see more local life. The train suddenly stopped and everyone climbed out, inspecting the cause for the disruption. I followed behind. Under my carriage was a man who had chosen to end his life on those train tracks. This was probably the most shocking thing I had seen up till then. But what I found more sobering was how accepting the locals were of this, almost as if it occurred every week. The children jumped off and poked the body, the women stood around inspecting it, all before the train conductor rolled the body off the tracks, and the train was on its way once again.

I spent my month long visa in Myanmar visiting Bagan and its thousands of Pagodas, travelling in karaoke buses, watching the enchanting fisherman on Inle Lake, enjoying bon fire parties on the beach, jumping off a bus halfway to my destination and then trekking the rest of the bus ride, celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election victory at a karaoke bar with locals, being invited off the streets into local’s homes and being treated to home cooked meals big enough to feed their whole family for the whole week.

For me Myanmar has many beautiful sights that are world known attractions, but that wasn’t why it has become (one of) my favourite countries I have visited. It was the people. The locals are so generous, so friendly, so optimistic and genuine. I once left my wallet at a cafĂ© with more money than they could earn in half a year of working (as you have to carry all your money on you, due to no ATMs) and yet a few steps down the street I turned around to see the shop owner running after me, clutching my wallet with all my money inside it. Simply amazing.

Next stop, Japan. Not the most usual of travel routes, I admit. But Japan not only had mystic, curiosity and well, bizarreness (is that even a word), but it also had my parents who I hadn’t seen in months. Japan I must say is probably the best place in the world to crash your parent’s romantic holiday. Not only is it a great way to save money (thanks guys!) but it is a place where you feel so alien and out of any reality you know, that it is nice to be able to share the experience with someone as confused and hopeless as myself.

It is simply an amazing country. If someone was to offer me a flight to anywhere in the world, Japan would probably be my answer. It was so different to Myanmar in a lot of ways, the weather, the food, the sights, well in every way imaginable, but they did have one thing in common- the generosity of the people. If you looked lost you would never have to ask anyone for help, there would already be a little circle of people willing to do anything to help you.

I remember once I was running late and trying to catch a train to meet some gorgeous friends (Shige and Veronica) in Osaka. These two guys came up and asked where I wanted to go, bought me a ticket, food, carried my heavy backpack for an hour jumping between trains and then escorted me to my destination, only to jump back on the train to take them back to where they met me. Amazing.

I had many other experiences such as this, but one other really stood out. I had just arrived in a remote little town called Matsuyama a little lost. A kind man approached me and asked where I was going, drove me 30 mins away to the ferry and booked my ferry ticket across to the next island for me! The only problem was that he had booked me the wrong ferry ticket and I had arrived quite far from my originally organised destination.

And so after just over a month I said goodbye to Japan, its’ amazing cherry blossoms, 100 yen shop, sushi, okonomyaki, tempura udon noodles you can buy from a vending machine, incredibly relaxing Japanese onsen, Mt Fuji, karaoke clubs, sleeping in train stations and getting caught by the police, cycling across 6 islands, 7 bridges covering 70kms from one of Japan’s major islands to the other and hello to South Korea.

South Korea will always have a very soft spot in my heart. And like the other countries it all comes down to the people. I had been recommended Ed House guest house from a fellow traveler (thanks Arek!), and this recommendation changed my experience in South Korea. He welcomed me in with open arms and immediately adopted me as one of his own family. It was here then that I spent almost 3 months in South Korea helping out at the guest house, visiting North Korea (for five steps), eating bimbimbap, going on pub crawls in Hongdae, and soaking in South Korean culture.

The farewell was one of the hardest I have had whilst travelling, my dear friend Ed was so lovely and welcoming that it was like saying goodbye to family. But my feet were itching and I had to move on. Next stop Hong Kong.

Stay tuned for part two next...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Hannah,
    Your Mum forwarded me your blog and what interesting reading it makes...
    You have certainly caught the travel bug, which as you would well know by now, is with you for ever. Any savings you may accumulate will immediately be spent on your next journey.
    This will be the reality for the rest of your life!
    You have been warned by a 63 year old who caught her first plane as a teenager and still loves the entire experience and spends a good deal of her thinking time imagining the next trip !
    Safe travels, smooth sailing and keep writing - you bring it all to life for us.
    Love, Joanna x