Trans Siberian Rail Journey – everything you need to know

Firstly lets start with definitions. There are a few “trans” trains in this region that are used interchangeably, so to avoid any confusions these are the names you’d hear –

  1. Trans Siberian: this is the most famous one, partly owing to the movie and partly because it is the longest train journey on the planet. This goes between Moscow and Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia.
  2. Trans Mongolian: as the name suggests this branches out from the Trans Siberian and goes across Mongolia to Ulaanbataar and Beijing.
  3. Trans Manchurian: this goes all the way across China to Harbin and then to Beijing

Most people take the Trans Siberian and its branch Trans Mongolian all the way to Beijing and skip the cold of the Russian east coast. This is what we took, covering 6000km on rail.


How to book the Trans Siberian tickets

Unfortunately there is no official rail website where you can buy these tickets, you have to go through a Russian travel agent or a 3P website. I suggest you pick a Russian travel agent as it gives you a few advantages

  • You can customise the itinerary as you wish, getting off and on from different stations and spending as much time as you want along the way
  • Its MUCH cheaper than buying it from a local travel agent. We tried buying off some Singaporean agents and the cost was more than double. We met a Norwegian couple on the train and they had the exact same experience trying to buy from Oslo.

If you are planning on making some stops in between, remember that you can’t buy one ticket. It doesn’t work like a hop on hop off. You will need to buy as many tickets depending on the number of stops you make. We stopped in Irkutsk and Ulaanbataar, so we had to buy 3 tickets: Moscow – Irkutsk, Irkutsk – Ulaanbataar, Ulaanbataar – Beijing.


Our Trans Siberian Rail Tickets!!

Picking the right train

There are normal trains and express trains depending on the dates you pick to go. If you make stops in between in Siberia, you might end up in a normal train that doesn’t go all the way. This is not ideal because its slower and stops in many places. The normal trains don’t have first class. If your travel agent offers you first class on a normal train, that means he’s giving you a second class cabin to yourself.

Check out to get a detailed understanding of each train. We took train number 4 from Moscow to Irkutsk and train number 306 from Irkutsk.

There are also Russian, Chinese and Mongolian (run by Russians) trains. Depending on the flag of the train the staff will be from that country. Although neither really speaks any English, this is something to keep in mind.

Solely based on the two trains we travelled in, my biggest advice is to pick the Russian or Mongolian trains. They are newer, MUCH MUCH MUCH cleaner, better maintained with staff who were more professional.


The beautiful Russian train staff


The slightly annoyed at being photographed Chinese staff

Picking the right cabin 

You have an options of picking from

First class: there are two per cabin, although one is still a bunk bed. There is also one “shower” room between two cabins, so you have to share with your neighbours. This has a sink, tap and a shower. However, don’t attempt a full shower because the doors aren’t entirely sealed and it will start leaking into the cabins. Trust me, it happened to us. A damp carpet in your cabin is not what you want on the longest train journey on the planet. There are 2 toilets for each carriage, which usually has 16 people. There is enough storage for 3 big bags, 1 small bag and 1 back pack, very comfortably. The cabin also has a power socket for all your devices.


Inside the Moscow – Irkutsk Chinese Train


Our wonderful cabin inside the Irkutsk – Ulaanbataar Russian Train

Second class: this has 2 bunk beds for 4 people and can be a little bit cramped up.

Third class: I haven’t personally seen this, but everything I have read that one should not to take the third class cabin unless you are Russian.

When to go: Summer vs Winter 

Ah here is a question we mulled over for quite some time. Go in the summer when the sun is out and the temperature is comfortable or see Siberia like how we’ve heard all our lives – completely frozen. We picked the latter and I will personally recommend it, although I have no comparator. Winter is Siberia is bitterly cold, but with the right clothes, its beauty is beyond words. Miles and miles of monochrome landscape gleaming in the winter sun.


Siberian landscape as the train slowly rolled past

We did consider a middle ground in our typical compromising style and although I haven’t personally experienced it, some Russian friends advised us not to go there in Spring when the thaw happens. The melting snow slush makes everything cold and not so beautiful.



Where to go

The popular stops along the way are

  1. Yekaterinburg – if you want to see the remains of the last Tsar Romanov family or enter the heart of what was once the center of Russian organized crime.
  2. Irkutsk – to see the breathtaking Lake Bikal. Read about our stop over in the most famous part of Siberia here.
  3. Ulaan Baatar – enter the wilderness of the Steppes and Gobi desert through Mongolia’s capital

While on the train

The first thing to keep in mind is the time table on board the train. These timetables were made before smart phones and GPS and also keeping in mind the patchy connection in the middle of nowhere, so all times are in Moscow time. This can be a bit confusing at first especially because you cross about 5 time zones enroute, so it makes sense to have Moscow time on your phone.


The slightly confusing time table on board our train #4

The weird part is that when you stop at stations, the time shown on the station clock is also Moscow time!

Everyday the train will stop 3-4 times. Once in the middle of the night and maybe 2-3 times during the day. Each stop will be about 15-20 minutes but they start calling you back after about 5-10 minutes so you don’t get much time on ground. In any case you cant go too far, just in case the train leaves without you. You can hop off the train to stretch your legs or buy some essentials. In the winter we didn’t see many stores, but this could be different in the summer. The stores we came across had all the basic necessities – toilet paper (although your bum might scream in pain if you use it), cup noodles, bread, chips etc. We also came across some roast chicken, bacon and fried fish although its freshness is suspect.


Small stores on the platform selling food and basic necessities


Another quick stop at midnight. Weather: -20 degrees and light snow fall!


Fried fish being sold by vendors


Pro and his dad coming back with groceries

The restaurant car

There is a very warm restaurant car on each train. The food is very very mediocre and over priced. We had soup which surprisingly tasted fresh and good, but the roast meat and sandwiches were quite bad. The bread was stale and the meat was hard and chewy.


The train conductors cooked their own momos!!! and luckily for us shared them with us

Each carriage has a hot water dispenser where you can get unlimited hot water ranging around 80 degrees.


Pro’s dad filling hot water into the flask provided by the train

Be ware that some trains do not have restaurant cars. The one we took from Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar only did that leg and since it was just a day and a half, there was no restaurant car on the train. Imagine our surprise heading for dinner! But the staff onboard did sell tea, coffee and snacks. The coffee came in very fancy crystal mugs!


Coffee served in fancy crystal mugs and metal holders

What to pack

Food – since the food onboard is limited and there isn’t much to buy from the train stations, we packed most of the food we needed. This included

  • Cup noodles
  • Cup soup
  • Tin fish
  • Cheese
  • Salami
  • Beef jerky
  • Instant rice (Dont judge, us Sri Lankans cant go long without rice)
  • Some packeted Sri Lankan food – seeni sambol, pol sambol, fried sprats
  • Vermicilli (since its easy to cook – you only need to dip in boiling water)
  • Fruits
  • Tea
  • Instant coffee
  • Milk powder
  • Ready to eat Quinoa mix from Jamie Oliver
  • Biscuits
  • Chocolate
  • Nuts
  • Whiskey
  • Vodka (we were in Russia after all)

We had also taken some cutlery

  • Disposable plates
  • Forks, knives, spoons, scissor
  • Cups
  • Flask: so that we could easily take the hot water back into our cabin

Other than that we packed

  • Toilet paper
  • Wet wipes for the body
  • Lip balm
  • Enough moisturizer
  • Swiss army knife

We borrowed a pot from the staff and cooked rice!!!

How to pack

We had arrived in Russia with two big suitcases on wheels. But since the cabins are small and room to manoeuvre is minimum we also took with us some foldable duffle bags. The clothes and toiletries we need on board was packed in one duffle and the food was packed in another. This was Pro’s ingenious idea and worked brilliantly for us.

What you get onboard 

You will get a bed sheet, duvet, blanket and mattress cover, pillow and pillow cover. They also give you a plate and a hot water flask – its cleanliness is questionable so we didn’t really use these.

The Toilets

This is a stress point for me and I couldn’t find much online. So if you are finicky like me, here are the deats.

Moscow-Irkutsk (Chinese Train) – We were in first class and only 6 people including ourselves were using the toilet. It was a metal toilet, with a flush peddle that you had to step on. Overall it looked clean, although I didn’t dare sit on that toilet seat. From time to time it smelled a bit bad, but there wasn’t much choice.

Irkutsk onwards (Russian Train) – The toilets were in great condition here! the set up was exactly the same as the train before, however it was MUCH cleaner and regularly cleaned. There was fresh toilet paper and hand towels as well as liquid soap.

Border crossing

If you take the train all the way from Russia to China or vice versa, you will experience 2 border crossings and therefore 4 check points as you cross each country. This is what you need to know

  • The train stops and immigration and customs officers board the train and will come to you to do the check. You are not allowed to get off the train or wander about inside the train until all checks are completed.
  • You also can’t use the toilet (since its stopped in a station) till the checks are completed. So remember to finish all your business before the train stops
  • You will receive an immigration and customs declaration form from the train staff before the check point so remember to fill them up as soon as you get it
  • Keep your passport and forms ready to be checked when the officials board the train
  • Also keep your luggage ready to be checked. If you have any bags kept in the luggage space on top, bring them down and keep them ready

Mongolia border check


Russia border check

We haven’t answered all your questions? Leave a comment and we’ll respond.


Siberia’s Frozen Nothingness

Siberia – that word in itself sends a cold shrill down my spine. Known for being probably the world’s bleakest, inhabited, vast land of frozen nothingness. As I type this out, sitting in a train enroute to Mongolia, I look out of the window and see the frozen Lake Bikal – an expansive large white mass with distant snow covered mountains.


Pro loves trains and ever since watching the movie Trans Siberian, he had wanted to do the world’s longest train journey. Something about whizzing past a vast land area with nothing, doing shots of vodka with strangers that don’t speak the same language appealed to him. So it made it to our bucket list.

The first big pre trip decision we had to make was whether to do the train journey in winter or in summer. Do we brave the sub zero temperatures (remember its always +30 degrees where we come from) or go in sunny summer when we can perhaps stay out for extended periods without the risk of frost bite. In the end, the decision was simple – we had to see Siberia the way we had heard it. The way my mum described it written in Doctor Zhivago, the way the movie Transsiberian showed it, the way we expected it to be when we walked into a cold room with a centrally controlled air con and said “jeez this feels like Siberia”. So winter it was.


Close to midnight on a cold winter day, we hopped on Trans Siberian Train #4 from Moscow. Read all the logistical details about our trip here.

After settling into our cabin which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson movie (Thanks T for the apt reference) we journeyed through the center of Russia for 4 not so long days.


I had expected to be bored, so my kindle was equipped with 6 new books, I was armed with my laptop to write and of course had my camera to snap every passing scene. But to my surprise the days on the train were pleasantly eventful. Time just whizzed past in us playing house – preparing our meals, tidying up, washing and cleaning dishes; making friends – having that occasional vodka shot with strangers, befriending the conductors who fed us with freshly made momos (YUM!); getting layered up to jump off the train in -20 degree weather when it make a couple of short stops each day.



Siberia was pretty much exactly how we expected it to be – a vast landscape covered with snow, dotted with a few evergreens. With each passing day the landscape changed. We woke up to a misty mornings where everything was pretty much…white. The scene outside our windows seemed to be in the inspiration for Monet’s Magpie. As the hours passed and the winter sun rose, blue skies framed the landscape and the powdery snow glittered. The sun dipped early making everything almost monochrome in the early evening and after that, pitch black.



Four days of gentle rocking on the train stopped when we got to Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Bikal the world’s largest fresh water lake. It was half the size (without exaggeration) of Sri Lanka! Imagine that.


This was the perfect place to finally experience the real Siberia, after seeing it outside our window for days. It was half past 7 when we jumped off the train, but it was still very dark and foggy in Irkutsk. We got off to a snow covered platform lit by 19th century lamp posts and watched our train engulfed in the mist, while the conductors were herding the moving passengers.


From here we drove off to the complete wilderness of Siberia – Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Bikal. Given its geographical positioning, Olkhon was thankfully isolated from most of civilisation that had creeped in on Siberia. And given the extreme winter weather, we had the place almost to ourselves and the 1000+ locals who lived on the island. Olkhon was a mystical place of significance to the Shaman believers.


But for us, the magic was in the lake. Around the island, the water is so pure that when it freezes in winter, the frozen lake is completely transparent. Imagine that you are standing on a glass on top of a 1500m depth – thats the feeling you get standing on the frozen Lake Bikal. The water is frozen solid for a good 2m and is completely strong. So much so that the only way in to the island from the mainland is to drive above the ice.


At first I didn’t get this – I’ve seen frozen lakes before that resembled skating rinks and were white as snow (yes yes, because of the snow). But Bikal was different – partly because of how pure the water was and also because of the micro climate on the island, as cold as it got (way past -20) it doesn’t snow much! All of this made the lake so magically (and a tad bit scarily) transparent. Yes its all a bit confusing and hard to imagine, but look at these pictures..




For the most part I was half expecting some white walkers and the ice breathing dragon Viserion to just come by. This landscape looked eerily like something north of the wall. Or maybe they had just been here and hence this scenery.


We spent as much time on the ice as our tropical loving bodies would allow it. Peeping through the ice to see if we can spot any fish below the frozen surface (spoiler alert: we didn’t, we did however see the rock clad bottom of the lake it some shallow places), playing a game of ice foot ball (or ice foot block), exploring ice caves and munching on icicles (yes, Pro did do that).



While the lake is for the most part frozen and safe to trod on, some parts, particularly whats known as the “big sea” can be a bit dangerous. The lake freezes in parts starting from the top. As the still liquid waves keep rippling up, massive slabs and blocks of ice forms one on top of the other. Some of these were about 10ft tall! This can also then create cracks and crevices in the ice curving along for a few kilometres!


When we got to the “Big Sea”, Anatoli our driver sped right over the ice touching 100kmph and came to a screeching halt next to an area with massive and beautiful blue ice slabs (think colour of the White Walkers eyes) and a long crack.



We jumped off the jeep and while I was capturing the breathtaking aqua blue scenery, Pro started playing with the ice slabs. Seeing that there was a thin layer of water on top of the long crevice surrounded by ice blocks, his curiosity got the better of him and he started throwing smaller blocks in an attempt to make a splash.


Thats when we heard a heart wrenching sharp, thunderous crack sound emitting from the lake! At first I thought it was thunder, then I realised it was the ice, and the floor beneath me was vibrating ever so slightly. I wasn’t sure if I should run for my life, and if so in which direction or if I should cling on to the largest ice block I could find or just let my fate be decided by the great Shaman powers who possessed the lake. In the end I think I froze (no pun intended) while watching a mammoth ice plate move and change its resting position.


As we rushed back to the jeep (to get the hell outta there) Anatoli was calm and implored for us to stay longer on the ice (no way in hell.) and as he did this, he told us the story of how his brother died when the frozen lake gave way and opened up, right here on the big see and pointed to a grave site on top of a mountain (was he for real?!) While we thought we escaped a near death experience, here he was calmly telling us of his loss, one that happened in a very similar situation to what we thought was unfolding then and there.


In the end we of course made it out to live another day, enjoy the reflection of the setting sun on the legendary Lake Bikal ice and to later sit beside a warm fireplace eating honey cake.


It was a good reminder that the lake specifically and mother nature in general was precious and jaw droopingly beautiful, but it needs to be handled with care.


Cappadocia, the real Flintstones! 

Cappadocia deserves a book, but I’m going to try and manage with a blog.
When the wheels of our plane touched down, I wanted to cry. It was gloomy as hell with a slight drizzle. I was dreaming of weird rock formations and blue skies. I guess we’ll have to manage with chunks of angry looking clouds.

We had plotted our destinations for the next two days, and after getting picked up from the airport, our first stop was Deverent Valley. It turned out to be more of a pit stop to fill ourselves up with all sorts of nuts and dried fruits. Apricot seeds easily mistaken for almonds was the highlight. Of course the camel shaped strange rocks were cool too.


Next we were off to the little town of Avanos, popular for its pottery. Given the landscape and geology, one would expect the entire valley of Cappadocia to be popular for pottery, apparently Avanos was particularly popular.


We walked into one of the many potteries – is that what you call them? Or pottery houses? – and the folks were kind enough to give us a demonstration of how to make pieces of art out of clay. We were also served Turkish tea, apple tea and wine from an interesting decanter; Turkish hospitality at its best!

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Much to my delight and that of the 10 family members I was with, I was asked to have a go at moulding clay and of course I did! So under the watchful eye of a master potterer (is that what they are called?), I made a bowl and painted it!! Of course the moulding in some parts of the process was looking a little x rated, but a cute little bowl emerged at the end, so all good. I might have an alternative career here, if all fails.

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There was a gallery full of beautiful painted pottery to buy, most of which were not allowed to be photographed. The price tag was quadruple that of the ones at the grand bazaar, so we gave it a miss, although we spent enough time walking around and admiring.


Our next stop is probably one of the most iconic in the valley – the fairy chimneys of Pasabag. This beautiful site has obviously inspired many fairy tales. It is not just weird rock formations; people actually lived there. There were reminiscence of a church, kitchen with a tandoor and bedrooms.


The living quarters got more elaborate on our next stop, Cavusin village. Imagine this – a whole village inside a rock!

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Not entirely sure how people got in and out of this village on a daily basis. Maybe they didn’t. The highlight of course was the church which still had coloured frescoes on its walls. Although there was evidence of burning inside, someone clearly tried to destroy this religious structure and what was left was black tainted walls.


Our last stop for the day was the Goreme open air museum. This isn’t a museum as much as it is an enormous monastery with countless churches. This is where the history of Cappadocia became clear to us. Early Christians came here to meditate, pray and practice their religion in solitude. They couldn’t do it in the busy big cities and the caves in Cappadocia was a perfect refuge. That’s why there are countless churches in the valley. It’s a humongous complex, but one can rest and grab a cuppa at one of the quaint cafes inside.

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A drizzle set in and it got too cold for our tropical bodies to bear, so we called it a day, especially because we had big plans at dawn the next day. It was only natural that our abode for the night was a cave hotel, we were in fact visiting the real Flintstones! Bedrock Cave Hotel was an old cave dwelling turned into a hotel. The rooms were beautiful, the floors were covered with earthy coloured carpets and the uneven rocky walls made the whole experience very primate. If u ever visit Cappadocia you must must must stay in a cave hotel.


The next morning our alarms went off before dawn but we didn’t mind struggling off the bed and layering up because we were taking flight to see Cappadocia from above. Hot air ballooning is one of the highlights of Cappadocia and it’s right on top of many best hot air ballooning locations around the world.


My mum is not too fond of my good friend adrenaline. Standing in a flying basket controlled by a balloon and hot air was exactly the kind of thrill seeking adventure she didn’t enjoy. So although we assured her it was completely safe and there was nothing to fear and she put on a brave face, I could see she’d much rather be enjoying the view from where her feet can touch the ground. A minute into our flight there was an almost inaudible sigh of relief just as she began to love the experience.


Around 200 balloons take flight everyday so it’s considered a daily festival, our pilot Emrah informed us. He expertly guided us right around the rose and red valleys, through clouds and above mountains. The view from the ground was perfect enough and imagine, from the sky it was spectacularly splendid!

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The sunrise as it most often is was spectacular. Seeing other balloons drifting in front of us shadowing the rising sun was a picturesque sight.


At one point we felt whiteness surrounding us and we couldn’t see the ground anymore. We were inside a cloud! It was magical!

We flew for about an hour, this was easily the highlight of our trip. This coming from someone who had been on a hot air balloon twice before. So don’t fuss over the money you will have to spend, Every. Penny. Was. Worth. It.

Emrah was a master pilot and a bit of a show off. When it was time for landing he told us he was going to land directly on the truck that was waiting to transport the basket back. And he did. He expertly maneuvered the balloon to stop right where he wanted it to – the back of a truck. He was also quick to point out how some of the other pilots landed on ground and some who tried to land on their trailers but needed a tremendous effort from the ground staff to do so. Kudos Emrah, we were very impressed!


The best part about landing, the champagne breakfast.


A splendid breakfast and yet another gorgeous view of Goreme and its outskirts was awaiting us back at the hotel. Tummies full and eyes well feasted we set off to explore more of this mysterious valley.

Our first stop was the Goreme panorama. It only takes 5 mins, unless you drool over the view like we did, but it’s completely worth a stop. It’s most popular to view the sunset, but autumn brings with it grey clouds so we stopped by during the day.


A gazillion photographs later we set off to Ortahisar rock castle, a colossal rock turned castle. We were advised not to climb it for safety reasons, a group of foreigners had fallen some time ago, but lots of people braved it and we could see tiny humans all the way on top. We only admired it from the bottom.


Talking about admiring from the bottom, our next stop required admiring the underground – Kaymakali underground city. We picked this over Derinkuyu because the entrance and exit was different so you didn’t have to retrace your steps. The guy at our hotel advised us to take a guide and preferably “uncle mustafa”, the oldest guide there (73 years old we found out later) who also happened to be bald. Once we got there, the boys set out to find uncle mustafa. Now every guide at Kaymakali is named mustafa, but uncle mustafa is special. Unfortunately the uncle wasn’t around so the boys contracted a toupeed mustafa instead. We all gathered at the entrance, collected our tickets and made our way inside. Pro’s mum suddenly turned to a respectable looking old gentleman in a suite and a cap and demanded he took his cap off! The old gent surprised and confused obeyed. He happened to be bald and yes, here was uncle mustafa! She demanded that he accompanied us as our guide, but of course he couldn’t because we had contracted someone else. But no one says no to her, so toupeed mustafa huffed off and uncle mustafa gave us the tour. He really was the best.


You need a guide in Kaymakali, otherwise it’s just a maze of rooms and corridors. Uncle mustafa was so knowledgeable and had a knack for storytelling, so the whole place came alive. How the early settlers hid inside the city during war times, how they closed the doors and guarded themselves, how they cooked, how they let the kitchen smoke out without anyone above ground noticing, how they made wine! Such fascinating stories. The most impressive part was the ventilation system! These guys were proper engineers back in the day!

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Apparently the city has 8 underground levels, only 4 are open to the public. 3500 people lived here! I would have gotten a little (a lot) claustrophobic, but I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. Plus this place was cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

We then went to Uchisar to have a long lunch and taste Cappadocia’s famed wine. Uchisar is a quaint little village filled with cave houses, wineries and cute little shops. We picked a restaurant named Sira with a gorgeous view of the valley and just sat there for hours. This is the good thing about being with family, the conversation flows just like the wine and no one wants to move.

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We had to drag ourselves off our chairs as there was more to see. The Pigeon Valley was our first post lunch stop. As the name suggests this beautiful was full of pigeons!


Apparently pigeons were used as an essential form of communication and their droppings were used as fertilizer. So the early settlers started breeding pigeons. Each house carved into the valley had a pigeon hole! (Now I know where that phrase came from).

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Some houses even had beautiful houses made just for pigeons.


The Uchisar Rock castle, one of the most iconic landmarks of Cappadocia stood in the background of the pigeon valley. Rock castles are fascinating! These people were smart enough not to build from scratch but use nature’s own structures to create utility for themselves.

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We drove back to Goreme and looked for things to do to kill time before taking our flight to Izmir. Oh what oh what oh what can we do…oh what oh yes oh ATV! Perfect sunset activity. We hired ATVs and drove off road to the rose valley.


With the Uchisar castle in the background and the red rocks of rose valley on other side, this was a perfect ending to a perfect weekend spent in Cappadocia that can only be described as breath-taking.


So here are my top tips for Cappadocia, if you ever consider visiting

  1. Two days is perfectly enough to explore the region. It would be ideal to spend two nights because you can wake up to see the hot air balloons in the sky one morning and take a flight the next
  2. Don’t miss hot air ballooning for obvious reasons. If the pictures in my blog doesn’t convince you, take a leap of faith.
  3. Go wine tasting. Cappadocia has the perfect climate to produce wine, and it shows! The French may not agree, but its true. Try the wines made out of the local grapes which is a little bit more special than the Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon you can find anywhere.
  4. HIKE! this is something I missed because our group was too big and not fit enough for it. But the beauty of Cappadocia is in its surroundings. One can truly appreciate it only if you just explore..on foot.
  5. Stay in a cave and feel like the Flintstones!


A Turkish delight

Turkey is a smorgasbord of scent, sound and taste. Something about its old name Constantinople had left an image of mysterious allure in my mind. Not that I had visited before, but history lessons can do that to the mind of a teenager. When my sister suggested Turkey as a possible destination for her wedding, I must admit that I was a little biased and may have steered the course to ensure it was finally picked. Turkey is infused with the character of two continents. It may not be the only country to have that charm, nor the only country to have two continents within its boundaries, but there was so much history and stories, I couldn’t wait to get my feet exploring. Good thing there were shoe polishers at every nook and corner had my feet gotten dusty!

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We had 9 days planned that took us across the ancient trade capital of the world, Istanbul; the curious rock formations in the valley of Cappadocia; the capital of Alexander the Great’s empire, Ephesus and the travertines in the white cotton castle of Pamukkale. This post is only about Istanbul, had I tried to fit in the other 3 cities I may never have made it to the end, or worse; you would have gotten bored.


An overnight flight brought us to Istanbul and an hour later we were in the historic Sultanhamet. You probably won’t get the most spacious and luxurious rooms, but staying within the area of Sultanhamet was the best decision we made as most of Istanbul’s prized attractions were only a very short walk away. We had enough time left on our first day to cover one of the city’s highlights, the Hagia Sophia, once a catholic church later converted into a mosque, it is now a museum. Its insides are covered with beautiful paintings, but underneath those paintings are the most breathtaking mosaic designs of the church it used to be. The main dome is said to be covered with 30 million gold tiles forming stunning Christian art.

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Although a museum Hagia Sophia still has prayer recitals 5 times a day, to which they receive a response from the Blue Mosque across the street. It’s quite an interesting prayer dialogue that almost sets the background music to Istanbul’s old city. Our next stop was the Blue Mosque but we were too late and it had already closed for prayers so we called it a day and went to feast our taste buds on some mouthwatering Turkish cuisine.


On day 2 we started off where we left off, the Blue Mosque. The blue morning sky and palmyra trees gave this imposing figure a stunning background. It’s officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but is nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that adorn its interior. There is only one main dome to see and to enter women have to cover their heads since it’s actually a worship site. An hour admiring the blue tiles later we crossed the road to the mysterious Basilica Cistern.

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Ever since reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, I have been curious about this underground water storage and it didn’t disappoint. It’s remarkable for both its practical and artistic value, not to mention the magical feel inside.


At the end of one side there are two pillars with Medusa’s head. One curiously upside down and the other tilted. All this coupled with dim light inside, definitely adds a mysterious touch.

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Back up on ground level we walked for 5 minutes to reach the opulent Topkapi Palace, which was home to many sultans for centuries. It’s huge, I mean colossal. Be ready to spend hours here if you want to see half of it. It’s crowded and there are queues to see the most popular attractions, like an 80 carat diamond in the treasury! But it’s worth it, as this might just be the epitome of Ottoman riches and architecture. What you just can’t miss is the Harem. You have to buy an additional ticket to see this area, worth every penny spent. Every wall is covered with either mosaic or traditional blue and white tiles.

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Walking from room to room of where the Sultan and his harem actually lived, I kept picturing beautiful Turkish woman clad in their riches, surrounded by their many servants walking the same corridors that was all part of their home. I did wonder if I was alive back then and if I dipped into the massive swimming pool or looked out the ornate windows into the vast empire. Apparently 4000 people lived here at a time, so there may be a chance that I was one of them.

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We had to call it a day earlier as today was the big day! We all rushed to get dressed and later that night sailed down the Bosphorus making merry and toasting the newlyweds. We sailed from Europe to Asia and all the way to the Black Sea and back. Here is a glimpse of the beautiful couple..


Day 3 in Istanbul and the skies decided to have their own party! But a little pitter patter didn’t stop us, as we hopped on the tram and then the bus and made our way to the Chora Church. Definitely a little less popular of the many attractions in Istanbul, but its paintings and the mysteries they revealed made it worth it. The interior of the Church is entirely covered with frescoes and mosaics detailing out the Christ’s life and various miracles he performed. One of the most intriguing frescoes was the one which showed that Joseph had a family including a son before he met Mary. I’m no historian nor a Christian so I can’t comment on the story, but it certainly was a version of the story I hadn’t heard of before.  Among the mosaics and the frescoes are the stories of how Jesus cured a leper, turned water into wine and multiplied bread.

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The second half of the day was something I was really looking forward to since the day we landed, the shopaholic in me was screaming, the Grand Bazaar, the grandest of them all was awaiting exploration. I’d read of many horror stories of people being robbed, cheated and lost inside this ancient maze, but I was not deterred and armed with a map downloaded from the net – which one doesn’t need by the way – we began our adventure. I must say the grand bazaar is a great shelter from the rain and the overtly friendly Turkish salesmen ensured we were fully occupied for 3 whole hours. You can spend much more, I mean it is the grand bazaar after all, but we spent 3 fruitful hours and exited with a beautiful Turkish kilim and some Turkish pottery. A day well spent if you ask me.

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However, the day was not over yet, we had a session booked in a Hamam to scrub away our tired bodies and any worries of all the money we spent. Hamam is the Turkish name for the famed Turkish bath; usually the spa is split by gender, but we managed to find supposedly the only Hamam in Istanbul where couples could go through the treatment together. The Suleymaniye Hamam is a 10 minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. When we walked through a door dated 1557 into a traditional and lavish living room I knew we made the right decision.


The price for the treatment is a steep 40 euros per person, but the whole experience is worth it. After changing into our spa outfits, we started off in a hot (very hot) room where we lay on an ancient (I hope) marble slab sweating our lives away. After a while we were ushered into the smaller rooms inside the hot room and properly “exfoliated”! I must admit I was expecting it to be a lot more painful than it actually was, so having gone through the experience, I can fearlessly recommend it to anyone, even people who are pain intolerant like me. After being scrubbed, soaped and bathed by a male masseuse, we were escorted outside where we dried ourselves before being wrapped from head to toe. And that was the end of the hamam treatment. On a rainy afternoon, I’d go again!

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Our last day in Istanbul before flying off was spent in the Spice Bazaar. My Sri Lankan, spice loving senses had a field day! This was the place to buy anything from spices (obviously! as the name suggests) to tea and coffee to especially mouthwatering Turkish delights and other sweet Turkish delicacies. We were advised not to buy anything from inside the bazaar as it’s overpriced and vendors and known to cheat! But we had to walk inside and feast our eyes on the pyramids of multi colored spices, lines of dried chili and tomatoes hanging from the shop ceilings and an array of sweets with tasting samples (the boys made maximum use of those samples, much to my embarrassment). Once outside the bazaar we zeroed in on one store from which we bought all that we needed – spices, Turkish delight, pistachios and dried fruit. Our bags were now a few kilos heavier than they should be!

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We had purposely skipped the attractions on the more developed side of Istanbul like Taksim square to spend enough time feasting our senses in various nooks and corners of the old town.

I left Turkish food right to the end only because had I mentioned it earlier you may have rushed out hungry and not read this in its entirety. Turkish food…oh…Turkish food…I can sing about it and I can dance for it. Heaven on a platter. A pottery seller in the Grand Bazaar summed it the best, “Turkey may not have the most beautiful sites, the richest history or the best people. But it has the best food and no other country can compete.” I may not fully agree with his exaggeration, but Turkish food was simply delightful. You must try everything – the meats, the vegetables, the warm breads, the dips, the pickles, the tooth numbing sweets. If it looks weird, don’t be afraid, looks and taste have no correlation. Everything is fresh! Everything has a distinct flavor that explodes in your mouth. My all-time favorite was grilled paprika (OMG! Yummmm…) which sometimes comes in the mezze platter and…….wait for it…Kozde Patlican! Grilled eggplant, oooooozing with butter and garlic, heart stopping! As a pure non vegetarian I’m a little bit surprised that no meat dish made it to the top, let’s blame it on the extra fresh Mediterranean vegetables.

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I must mention that both my favorite dishes were from the same restaurant. The Old Ottoman Café, an unassuming little place down an alley in the Sultanhamet is well worth the mention.

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Turkey has a notable tea and coffee drinking culture. Turkish tea & Turkish coffee, of course! its not for the faint palatted. A tiny cup of Turkish coffee is half filled with ground coffee powder, you can obviously only drink the liquid sitting on top, which is just half the cup. But with a scrumptious little Turkish delight, this is the perfect night cap (for those like me who’s sleep is not afraid of caffeine).

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And then there is the whole drama around Turkish ice cream. Sometimes annoying, but mostly fascinating, these guys really make you work for your ice cream!

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Our time in Istanbul was up and we boarded a plane to Cappadocia. That story is for next time, till then here are my top tips for Istanbul:

Must buy – I’m sure you will buy everything from pottery to carpets to spices and sweets, so I’m not going to waste time advising on those. The definite buy for me was pomegranate juice-ish, vinegar-ish substance. You know the amazing combination of olive oil and balsamic when eating bread or in salads? Replace that with the pomegranate substance, heaven!

Must eat – yes you will eat every type of kebab and lots of meat. But if like me you notice the many empty half foil covered pots outside every restaurant you must try the pottery kebabs. The taste of course differs depending on where you eat it from, but the fanfare and drama around it is well worth ordering this dish. But like I said before grilled paprika & Kozde Patlican were my absolute favorites.

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Must do – the hamam of course! Some may think it’s a little pricey, but most places I checked offered a similar rate. You can find a hamam in every nook and corner. It’s a purely Turkish experience, not to be missed!

Must see – the view from the top. Istanbul has a beautiful skyline. So whether you see it from the top of one of the many rooftop restaurants or the top of the Galata tower or even from on board a boat on the Bosphorus, it’s a magnificent sight.


An Arctic Adventure in Search of Aurora Borealis

“Arctic?!? No way!! You guys are crazy” was pretty much the response we got from any and everyone who heard of our trip. There were moments when I wondered myself if I was crazy, especially when we were buying clothes to prep for the trip. We are islanders. Period. 30 degrees, sun, sand and sea – that’s how we lived all our lives. So venturing out to almost the North Pole was bordering on crazy. But there were too many once in a lifetime things which can happen only that north, so we had to do it.

A few days in Stockholm, acclimatizing ourselves to sub zero temperature, we boarded a flight to Lulea to start our adventure – one that would help possibly tick two items off our bucket list – 1) see the elusive Aurora Borealis and 2) spend a night on ice.

We spent the first night in a hotel with tree houses for rooms! After checking in, we hiked 500m to our own unique little house up on the trees. We had picked the breathtaking mirror cube.


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There was also the not so blue ‘Blue Cone’, ‘the UFO’, ‘the Dragon Fly’, ‘the Cabin’ and ‘the Bird’s Nest’ in the vicinity.

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A group of journalists from the French Channel 5 were doing a documentary on the hotel and found out that a group of Sri Lankans had ventured out into the arctic. Their curiosity got the better of them and we were interviewed, filmed and featured in their travel program! We were feeling like celebrities and it was only day 1!

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After our near famous encounter with the French journalists we decided to take a cat nap in the early evening because there was unfortunately very little hope of seeing the northern lights due to extremely cloudy skies. As we were drifting into a peaceful slumber we were woken up by the shrill of the phone – it was the reception saying that the lights were out. We rushed to layer ourselves and dashed out of our tree houses. But there was nothing visible except for some light white clouds. It was then that I remembered a blog I’d read some time ago that said they saw the northern lights as white clouds but long exposure photographs revealed the elusive green lights. So we tried that and sure enough, there it was – the traveling streaks of Aurora Borealis.


But there wasn’t much to see to the naked eye, was that it? Was that what the fuss was all about? Slightly disappointed we went off to sleep after dinner. It was then that we got the second call saying the lights were out and it was very strong. We only had to open our doors to see the green hues in the sky all around us, behind the pine tree forest. One look skywards and my heart stopped. The northern lights were out in all it’s glory and put on a show of a lifetime!

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We stood for hours in sub zero temperature admiring natures own fireworks. It had no sign of stopping, showing off hues of green, purple and red. After a while the cold got to our bones, so we called it a night.

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The next day we woke up to a bright and sunny winter day and took a 5 hour train ride to Abisko, a little village up in the arctic mountains known for it’s light shows. The train crossed into the arctic circle and we whizzed past miles and miles of snow covered forests. At first they were thick forests and gradually the trees became short and sparse and vanished all together. All that was left was miles and miles of mountains and nothingness that reminded me of the ice planet in interstellar.


We arrived at our mountain lodge set up on a small hill on the banks of Lake Torneträsk. This ginormous lake apparently ensured that clouds didn’t stick in the sky and this increased our chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

After having reindeer for dinner (forgive me Rudolph) we wore a gazillion layers and trekked our way up to the foot of yet another mountain to take a chair lift up to the Aurora Sky Station. A viewing deck set up just to monitor and see the northern lights. They gave us warm overalls that weighed a ton, and given our primal fear of the cold we wore it and made our way up the lift looking like mini yetis.


The ride up the chairlift was cold and eerie. The clouds covered the top of the mountain and everything was pitch black. Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t see how far down the ground was, I’m not entirely a fan of heights.

We spent 3 good hours in the sky station, freezing our ***** off waiting against all odds for the clouds to clear and the lights to start. Unfortunately for us the cloud cover was so thick, there was absolutely no chance of seeing the lights that night. We had the option of spending the night in the sky station and taking the chairlift back in the morning when it started at 8am expecting the lights to show. But we opted to sleep on our comfortable warm beds back in the lodge. Good call, since the clouds never cleared.

Day 3 morning started with meeting Peter, our guide and hopping into his snowmobile drawn sled before heading off on our own snowmobile adventure. Pramodh and I got a snowmobile to share and of course he drove first. We made our way into the Abisko National Park, we rode through the forest, over creeks and across lakes before lo and behold it started snowing. Oh what beauty. This was the first time I was experiencing a proper snow shower.



I immediately fell in love with the white flakes falling from above. This was perfection. I could almost forgive the clouds for blocking the aurora last night.


It was my turn to ride. What an amazing experience, the wind in my face, semi frozen fingers and no complains. The forest opened up to reveal a beautiful frozen lake and we rode right across. I may have exceeded the speed limit here, but I couldn’t help myself.


We took a break for a hot cuppa, made snow angels and attempted to make a snow man before riding back to the village through the wilderness.



That night we were meeting the folks from Lappaland Media for a Aurora photo course. We hiked down towards the lake from the lodge and set up camp right in the middle of the frozen Lake Torneträsk to learn the basics of Aurora photography. Nikalas our instructor had built a cute little igloo so we started taking test shots of it when her majesty Aurora Borealis decided to make an appearance (yes! Twice in three days). It wasn’t as strong as the first day but it danced all over the sky and gave us a great show. 


Standing in the middle of a frozen lake in temperatures waaaay below zero looking up at the sky and admiring this light show was truly humbling. For all the man made marvels and advances in science, nature does have a way of making you feel small. 

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The next morning we set out to explore our surroundings while the sun was still out. We discovered a frozen river, a dead drop cliff and a Sami village. 

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Not bad for a few hours of wandering about. And that afternoon we caught the train and headed south to Kiruna and checked into the Ice Hotel! 


Don’t ask me why sleeping on ice made it to my bucket list, but it did. So here we were, in the banks of the Thorne River, the site of probably one of the greatest living art projects – the Ice Hotel

The Ice Hotel is built up from scratch every year using ice from the Thorne River. When spring comes the hotel melts and flows back into the river. A perfect cycle. I would have probably gotten bored and given up in year 3, but the artists behind this amazing creation have been doing it for 25 years! 


From the outside its a bit disappointing because all you see is a short building with reindeer skin covered doors. But when you open those doors, oh step into the most amazing frozen castle, like something out of the movie Frozen. I could be Elsa and live here! 

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Every bit of the castle is carved to perfection – the ice chandeliers, the long beautiful corridor, the seats and tables – stunning! 

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And then there are the Art Suites! Each one different from the other, each one created by a set of artists with a story to tell. 

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After admiring this epic art project we hit the bar! So this, ladies and gentleman marks the first time I was intoxicated; in front of my in laws no less! I blame it partly on the cold and partly on the very handsome swede who served the drinks. When I picked my first drink his comment was “oh that’s a rare choice. Only a strong few can handle the spice!” So how was I to back down from there. Drinks were served in ice glasses that melted away bit by bit with every sip. There might have been 3 maybe 4 shots that followed..oh well..I was a light drinker and badly needed the dinner that followed. I could only pray that no one noticed me accidentally dropping my phone into the gravy three times. What’s a girl gonna do if her phone decided to test gravity!?!

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After dinner we made our way to the hotel’s dressing room and equipped ourself with everything we needed to survive the night – a sleeping bag made for -40 degrees although it was only -5 inside, hats to cover our heads and scarfs to cover our faces and thick socks. Clad in our thermals as adviced we carried our gear and walked to the hotel. That’s when the lights decided to come out for the night with a show almost as strong as what we saw the first night. Of course Pramodh by this time had seen all he wanted to of the northern lights, especially after the first night’s epic show; he didn’t want to stand outside freezing in his thermals. So we rushed inside and made our way through the ice corridor and found our room. 

The ice bed in the centre had reindeer skin and a soft mattress. We set up our sleeping bag and jumped inside. I wasn’t sure if I would survive the night. I woke up a few times and had serious doubts. But we had each other and the thick sleeping bag for warmth, so we did in fact make it through the night. When the staff woke us up with warm Lingonberry juice the next morning, not only was I happy to be alive (and not frozen), I was also very proud of myself for braving the cold. 


As a reward we all went dog sledding! A sled drawn by 11 Alaskan huskies was waiting for us by the river. What beautiful dogs! They absolutely loved running and did not want to stay still. So till we got on to the sled and they got the signal to go, there was a complete ruckus – non stop barking, jumping and pulling. 

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It was a thrilling experience once again speeding through forests, across frozen lakes and rivers, watching the dogs eat ice every few mins while running in perfect formation. 


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Our last adventure before heading back to the tropics was an encounter with a herd of reindeer who lived in a Sami Village. We got the chance to pet and feed them before saying goodbye to the Arctic.

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We got pretty lucky, the Aurora Borealis danced for us 3 out of the 4 nights we were out in the arctic, we raced snowmobiles while it was snowing, lived in a tree house, got featured on the French Channel 5, survived a night on ice and rode a dog sled through the beautiful arctic landscape. There aren’t too many other things that come close to this adventure. 

Provençal charm – Lavender fields and much more

Have you seen these pictures of the lavender fields in Provence? If you have and you don’t have it in your bucket list, we can never be friends.


We chose the end of July to visit France, just so that we can see the Provençal summer and see lavenders in bloom. After carefully mapping out a route to give us the best that Provence had to offer we were on our way. We took an early morning train from Paris to Avignon and hired a car from one of the many rental companies at the station. We spent that night in St. Remy, a slight diversion from our route, but probably one of the best decisions we made.

Saint Remy de Provence is an idyllic French village with tree lined streets, amazing villas, cafés surrounded by vineyards. We had booked a place via Airbnb, our first time using the site. This probably was the second best decision we made! Our room was in an amazing French villa, Chambre Sous la tonnelle, one seemingly out of a magazine.


Our hosts Marie Annick & Roman were everything we wished for and more! They served us home made bread, jam and pies for breakfast before we set off on our road trip.




So why did we pick this seemingly random village? They have a very famous market on Wednesdays that sells everything from olives to cured meat to soap to lavender! This is what I call paradise. If Pramodh hadn’t dragged me – almost kicking and screaming – I think I’d still be walking from store to store inspecting every bit of merchandise and tasting every free sample. We bought door knobs, lavender soaps, mini lavender filled cushions and an amazing array of sauces and dips – olive, sundried tomato, artichokes, chili, and everything in between..Mouth-watering!!

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Finally we were on the road in search of those picturesque lavender fields. Our first stop – Gordes. This beautiful village set on a cliff welcomes you with a jaw dropping view. You have to have to stop at the viewing point to breathe it in.


Gordes seem to be a holiday resort for the rich and famous. We made a quick stop and left in search of the lavender dream which we were yet to see.



Our next stop did. not. disappoint. Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque merely 15 mins down the cliff from Gordes. If you google lavender fields in Provence you will most definitely see this picture. Well not this picture because I took this, but a picture of this very same landscape.


Monks in this abbey have over the years cultivated the seemingly most photographed lavender field, god bless them!


After snapping a gazillion pictures and almost being stung by bees in the field we were on the road again. You can enjoy the view of the lavender fields on each side of the road as you drive past. Those google pictures don’t lie. Just pray your timing is right and you are there when the flower is blooming just before they are harvested, which happens to be around mid July to mid August.




In between vineyards and lavender fields the countryside was decorated with sunflower patches. Never realized that these flowers were enormous, bigger than my whole face!


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Our next stop, the interesting little town of Roussillon. The mineral rocks in the area used to build the town are red as is the whole town.

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Our final destination for the day was Aix-en-Provence. But before that we had to stop for a very late lunch in Loumarin, we were famished! This is as idyllic as a Provençal town can get – beautiful sandstone buildings decorated with colorful windows adorned with running vines – I could photograph them forever


I’m adding Provence to my list places to retire in, if I earn enough to buy a villa in a vineyard on a cliff overlooking a lavender field with my own patch of sunflowers