In Search of the Lost City of the Incas 

The cloud kissed Andean mountains were magical. As much as I wanted to move them away in favor of blue skies, there was something mystical about following the ancient Inca footsteps in this magical setting.

The train slowly moved along the cactus liner river banks. The Urubamba river was gushing through much faster than our train but we didn’t mind, this view was to die for!

Peru Rail was well equipped to take millions of tourists each year in search of the lost city of the Incas. We boarded from Ollayntaytambo after our sacred valley trip and it took us 1.5 hours to get to Aguas Calientes the entry point to the much awaited Machu Picchu.


That night we rested and woke up before dawn. There are two ways up the mountain to see the ancient ruins. You can either take a bus from town or hike up. We chose the former and were glad we did when we saw hikers red faced and almost passing out on our way there. We needed all our energy to get through that day and the bus offered the same dramatic views as the uphill hike.

We were touching the sky, above the clouds. Literally the clouds floated below us. With dramatic drops of the sacred mountains all around us and the Urumbamba River screaming below it was easy to see why the ancient Incas chose this place. There was magic all around us. Pachmama (Incan god Mother Nature) ensured that every element and detail of this landscape was perfect.

From the entrance we hiked about 15 minutes to get our first view of Machu-freaking-Picchu. There it was, standing majestically below us, holding all the secrets of the Incas. There it was, the Lost City Of The Incas.

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I had to pinch myself. This was not a dream. I was standing above this hallmark of a great civilization. A place I had dreamed of seeing, a place that had been on my bucket list for a long time, here it was, and here I was.

I would have taken a 1000 pictures, each one more perfect than the one before. Machu Picchu was only some 500 years old. Many countries had historic marvels much older than this Incan city, including my own country, but it was this setting, the stories behind it, the mountains, the mist, the clouds that made Machu Picchu a little bit more special than the rest.

Of course there was also the architecture and technology that shouldn’t have existed 500 years ago that the Incas were using. Their obsession with the sun, the moon, the stars made it all very mystical. Incas were obsessed with the number 3, they had 3 rules for life, 3 principles, 3 gods, 3 of everything. Each building had 3 sets of windows.


  

There are many stories about what Machu Picchu really was. Some say it was an ancient retreat for the Incan empires – but could this be true? Incas believed in equal treatment and no social class system, so would they then have a retreat for the selected? Another theory is that this was an ancient university. Our guide Fernando was convinced on the fact. However, I’m personally not so sure about it. Machu Picchu was heavily guarded, there was many secret trails leading upto it guarded well by many guard posts set high in the surrounding mountains. Don’t forget that the Spanish conquerors never found this place. Why would university students need so much security? Also where were all the classrooms or lecture halls? There were no structures or rooms big enough for the purpose. The third theory is that this was an administrative and political capital of the empire. Now this made more sense to me. But the Incas died together with their knowledge of what this place really was. So one can only assume.

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We spent hours walking around the ancient ruins – from the sun gate way up in the mountains, to the main entrance, to the sun temple and the moon temple, to the living quarters of the empire and the empress and the high priest and those of the common man, to the terraces where the grew crops to the sun dial and the temple of virgins. Machu Picchu was jaw dropping at every turn.

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Something about Machu Picchu makes you want to physically exert yourself to earn the right to be there. Some hike the Inca trail (which is closed in February every year so we missed it), some hike up to the sun gate, some upto Machu Picchu. We chose Wayunapicchu – the familiar mountain that stands over the city of Machu Picchu. This is where the ancient astronomers of the empire lived, high up in the mountain to get a closer view of the stars and planets in the night sky. Legend has it that they kept their eyes closed during day and trained themselves to see better at night and that they could see upto 5 planets with the naked eye! Like I said, legend has it.

Everything about the Incas was larger than life. Apparently they were as tall as 180 meters and could run all the way to the coast and back in 45 mins. We could barely make it up Wayunapicchu! We literally dragged ourselves up the slippery path and at some points we crawled, on all fours! It was not an easy climb. Fernando had more faith in us than we did. He assured us it would take us only 45 mins up the mountain, it took us just over an hour but it felt like 2.

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This is not for the faint hearted and definitely not for the unfit. But once you are up there the views are completely worth it.

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But remember you have to come down as well. Usually coming down would be easier, but Wayunapicchu was strange in a sense that we had to climb down first before climbing up, which meant that the last stretch of the trek was uphill.

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We almost made it with zero casualties, but somewhere down the slippery slope Sandi twisted his ankle. The macho guy refused help and almost ran the rest of the way to make the last for a shorter time. He might have been inspired by the Incas, who knows!

After coming down we walked back to the exit. I kept looking over my shoulder taking one last glance after another of the magnificent Machu Picchu. There really wasn’t anything like it. The Incas may have been simple people but this lost city was beyond imagination, it really was a trip of a lifetime. And nothing sealed it better than an official Machu Picchu stamp on our passports.

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Before I end my somewhat dreamy narrative, here are my top tips on this Incan marvel

1. Visit it. You must. If you see just one thing in your life, then it must be Machu Picchu.

2. Hire a guide, it really makes a difference. A huge difference. Without a guide Machu Picchu is a beautiful stone city, with a guide is a mystical marvel of human history

3. The weather is unpredictable and it can rain anytime. But don’t worry about it, the rain and the clouds are a part of the charm

4. Skip the sun rise. You can’t see it anyway because of the clouds, so why bother dragging yourself out of bed and battling the crowds? Go a little later in the day. The best time is in the late afternoon when most of the crowds have left

5. Some may not agree, but don’t hike up to Machu Picchu. Do the Inca trail by all means, but on the day you see this ancient wonder, save all your energy for it

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When to go where..a quick travel guide for each month of the year..

Whenever people ask me for travel recommendations one big question they fail to ask is “when to go where”. Timing can have a huge impact on how your trip goes and what you will be able to do. A very good friend of mine was once stuck in Myanmar in the height of summer! It was 50 degrees and she had to spend the whole day in the hotel room! She had only 3 hours in the day when she could bear to step out. Another friend visited Maldives during the rainy season and didn’t see the turquoise waters at all!

So given that it’s the start of a brand new year, here’s my recommendation on 12 countries to visit in the 12 months

January in Sweden – the best time of the year to see the northern lights. Brave the cold and head to the arctic circle to see natures own fireworks. If your luck runs out, its still a perfect winter wonderland!

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February in Brazil – be a party of the biggest party on the planet! There is nothing better in life than the carnival in Rio, sipping caipirinhas on copacabana and doing the samba down the street!

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March in Japan – by far the best and most magical time to visit Japan is during the cherry blossom bloom. Head over to historic Kyoto and enjoy the Sakura bloom clad in Kimonos.

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April in Thailand – catch the Songkran water festival and enjoy the highlights of Thailand in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai

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May in Phillipines – go to the best Labour day party in Boracay. It’s even got a name #laboracay! Enjoy the pristine blue waters and soft white beaches, by far one of the top 10 islands in the world

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June in Singapore – there is one main thing to do in Singapore and that’s shopping! There is no better time for it than when the whole island goes on sale for the Great Singapore Sale

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July in France – enjoy a romantic summer standing beneath the Eiffel Tower. Head further south to Provence to enjoy the French countryside with lavender blooming, butter croissant baking and wine aging..

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August in Kenya – head over to Masai Mara to witness the breathtaking wildlife migration. Spot the big five in dozens and learn the ways of the tribal people living as one with nature

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September in China – wait till the end of the treacherous Chinese summer and rush to see the Great Wall in Beijing, the terra cotta warriors in xian, the bund in Shanghai and the pandas in Chengdu before the cold winter sets in

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October in New York – head over to the capital of commercial holidays to celebrate Halloween. Shop for the scariest costume and go trick or treating in the concrete jungle and be a part of the NYC Halloween Parade!

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November in Myanmar – it’s the “cool season” in the ancient kingdom which was closed to outsiders till very recently. Take a hot air balloon ride over the 4000 temples in Bagan and let your jaw gradually drop!

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December in Germany – have a fairytale like white Christmas in the popular Christmas markets in Germany. Cross over to Austria if you have a few extra days. Wander around collecting little tinsels, sipping eggnog and snacking on cinnamon rolls

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So there you go; my top 12 destinations for the 12 months of 2016!

Interested in visiting any of the above destinations? Get in touch and we’ll handcraft your holiday thetravelled@outlook.com or click here

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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The best part about landing, the champagne breakfast.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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! 

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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! 

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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 boy..you 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. 

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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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There is one thing you need to know if you want to enjoy dog sledding – do not sit in front of the sled. Those dogs fart. ALOT. And they poo throughout the ride. Not a pleasant sight or smell. Other than that everything else was perfect. DSC_0353  DSC_0383

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. 

Untouched Timor Leste

Landing in Timor’s capital Dili was exciting! You tend to wonder, who in their right minds would venture out here – a war torn nation that’s merely 10 years old which seemingly lack the most basic modern comforts like running water, electricity and paved roads! Apparently there aren’t many crazy globe trotters like Pramodh and I.

Entry visa for all nationalities can be obtained at the airport – Whoop! Whoop! – this usually never happens to Sri Lankan passport holders, hence the jubilation. 

Waiting outside to pick us up at the airport was Ali, our driver for the next 5 days.

Dili is a small city, with no high rises and traffic. Glimpses of Timor’s troubled past is still visible in some buildings decorated by bullet holes. The UN has just left the country but there were still a number of NGOs and aid workers who are not very welcome by the locals. Lets just say the hefty salaries and hardship allowances that exapts get paid can create some animosity. There was a slight feeling of tension as we drove around Dili visiting some of its tourist attractions like Christu Rei and the Tais market, but this is a country awakening, trying to find its identity after years of war, so it deserves some leeway.

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We drove east of Dili to Baucau, Timor’s second largest city on a breathtaking road – for the most part it’s by the sea or on cliffs overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. There seemed to be so many sea bathing or snorkeling stops and fishing villages, which I could have photographed forever, but of course Pramodh refused to stop.

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3.5 hours later we arrived in Baucau and spent the night at Pousada de Baucau an old very pink Portuguese mansion now turned hotel. Baucau’s surrounding beaches are beautiful, but we were here only because it was the mid-way point to our ultimate destination.

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The next day after breakfast we set off to Tutuala the entry point to Timor Leste’s crown jewel – Jaco Island, but not before running into someone who seemed to be the mayor or some VIP of Baucau. His armed guard with their very visible weapons and back up ammunition were our breakfast companions!

Our 5 hour drive was eventful to say the least. To give you a summary, here is my list of incredulous and spectacular things that happened:

1. We were given attitude from a herd of goats on the road – yes goats! Seeing animals blocking the road is not a new sight to me, but it’s never been like this – this heard of goats formed a line in front of our car and just refused to let us move!

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2. We witnessed some amazingly constructed traditional Timorese houses. These houses are built on stilts with high roofs adorned with beautiful ornaments and decorated with wood carvings. Why houses on heels? To protect people from crocodiles! Did I forget to mention the crocodile infestation in Timor? My apologies, apparently there are many salt water crocs in the surrounding waters. Timor even has a folklore of how a the island in the shape of a crocodile!

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3. Paddy fields on the beach – this may not be weird in some countries, but coming from Sri Lanka both an island and a place filled with rice plantations I had never seen one on a beach, right next to the gushing sea waves.

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4. The road from Tutuala to Valu beach – or the lack of it. There is an 8km stretch which is pure jungle! We met a convoy of 3 land cruises just before Tutuala and followed them all the way to Valu beach. There really was no road and if not for the invention of 4WD, we’d probably have to walk through thick bushes and jump over large rocks. The ride was bumpy and there were areas that didn’t seem to support a vehicle, however, eventually we got there in one piece and were rewarded for our troubles. As we reached the edge of the jungle, there waiting to greet us was this breathtakingly beautiful view.

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Jaco is a sacred island on the eastern most tip of Timor Leste. Timorese believe in an ancient legend in which a young boy saved a crocodile’s life and in return when the crocodile died, he turned into an island (Timor) to create a home for the boy. The head of the crocodile is Jaco Island which makes it sacred for the local people. The easiest access point is Valu beach on the mainland. Since it’s sacred, no one lives there and you can only visit it during the day. Valu beach itself was amazing, we couldn’t wait to cross the small straight to get to Jaco.

There were fishermen with boats lazing on the beach and for $10 one of them agreed drop us off in jaco and come back to get us a few hours later.

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Jaco by far is the best beach that I have seen. Ever. Period. It is the definition of pristine. The sort that you see on travel brouchers but can only be obtained after heavy photoshopping, but this was the real deal. The only visitors here are the expats who make the occasional weekend trip from Dili. We had the entire island to ourselves with the most perfectly long stretch of beach and aqua waters. 

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I was sceptical about getting in the water, what with all the crocodile stories, but I ignored the images of Lake Placid that were flashing in my head and got into the true blue waters and snorkelled for hours. You don’t need a lot of gear to see corals and fish, just peer into the water and you’ll see plenty.

When visiting Jaco, however, there aren’t very many accommodation options to select from. There are two very basic guesthouses that offer a roof over your head, a much needed mosquito net and some basic food. There is no running water and I wasn’t brave enough to explore the toilets, the sea had to do. I was somewhat mentally prepared for this, so we didn’t mind it.

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We spent the day lazing around, reading, taking long walks on the beach, collecting shells, star gazing and waking up to a stunningly gorgeous sunrise.

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The treacherous road back to Dili awaited us, but the beauty and peace of Jaco was well worth our troubles.

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The trip to Timor was an eye opening one for us. Coming from a country ravaged by war, I felt for the Timorese and their struggle. Yet it’s a country with immense natural beauty and culture waiting to be discovered.

Hope you’ll let the world discover you Timor Leste, hope you heal.

A word about Koreans, who made our trip special

After our trip to Seoul, I was really inspired to write a piece about Korean people. I’m not sure if my experience was a typical one, but we came across so many amazing people that I think it’s worth writing about.

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I was delightfully surprised to find how friendly Koreans were. As a group of 6 brown people we stood out like sore thumbs, so it was easy for people to know we were tourists. Most people were curious to find out where we were from, others wanted to offer us their help to ensure we knew where we were going and others just wanted to welcome us to Korea. Of course most of this was our interpretation of their sign language since most people didn’t speak English.

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Here are some of the people and instances that stood out

Sign language subway lady

We took the express train from the airport to Seoul station which is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city. We then switched to the city subway to get to our hotel. Here we met a lady who tried her best to ask us if we knew where we had to get off. It may have been a simple act, but had never happened in our travels before. So it was a great start to our trip and a very nice way to make a foreigner feel welcome.

Coffee ladies – mum & daughter

Berkleys is a small coffee shop in Bukchon. It really is very small and can seat only 5 people, but while we were there we realized it was quite a popular place to grab a coffee on the go. It’s run by a mum and her daughter. While we were contemplating whether to enter the place, they greeted us with a “hello, we have great coffee, wanna try?”. Who’s going to say no to that. Not only do they serve great coffee they make the best sandwich (yes, singular, they have only one option on the menu).

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While we were munching our breakfast they explained the interesting process of cold brewed coffee and offered us some free samples to taste. It’s random seemingly simple conversations like this that made a difference.

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Director, Cameraman

We visited Changdeokgung Palace and it’s beautiful secret garden. Fall definitely is the best time to visit Korea, the foliage was amazing. Tesh and I wanted a typical touristy “jumping picture” with fall colours as our background. While we were attempting the perfect shot, a gentleman with a very professional looking camera walked up to us and started directing how we should pose and jump. All of this was in Korean (which we didn’t understand) and sign language. We tried several times and each time he explained how we could do it better and by the end of it we were surrounded by 5 other cameramen photographing two girls attempting to jump, not so gracefully may I add.

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After the shoot and once the crowd dispersed I wanted to take a shot lying on the leaves on the grass. While Pramodh was taking this picture of me, the same director/cameraman gentleman walked back. He started once again directing the scene. He even collected handfuls of leaves and handed it over to passers-by to sprinkle it on me to get that perfect, natural shot! Lol

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Summer

We spent two nights in a traditional Sopoong Guest House, a Korean Hanok. Summer was the bubbly girl who came every morning to clean the place. We got talking, she was extremely interested in where we were from and what we did. We even managed to induct her to some famous sights in Seoul she hadn’t yet been to before we took a gazillion Polaroids.

Polaroids with Summer

At the end of a long chat on the second day she offered to accompany us to lunch. She took us to a local restaurant, which served the most amazing food, it was definitely one of my best meals in Seoul. We walked about a kilometer from our Hanok along tiny streets and alleyways to get to this place. We would’ve never thought of eating here nor would we ever have stumbled upon the place while exploring the ancient Bukchon area. We only realized how popular the place was seeing the long queue stretching all the way along the narrow winding alleyway. The pepper pork bulgoggi was their specialty (to die for), their bibimbap was also out of this world (worth rising from the dead to die for again).

Summer with the Spicy Pork Bulgogi

Back to Summer..she decided to give us Korean names judging by our personalities and the vibe we gave her. I was named Ji Hei, which meant wisdom; what a very perceptive girl 🙂 The hotel had given us postcards which we were very excited to send back home. She was so helpful and even offered to mail our postcards for us.

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Bubbly Jemma

Given its reputation for great food we thought it would be a good idea to take a food tour. Tripadvisor had great reviews for O’ngo so we decided to try that on our second night in Seoul. Jemma, our guide was one funny, friendly, bubbly person. She gave us a great intro into Korean cuisine and ensured we were all well fed and taken care of throughout the tour.

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We chatted the whole night, well after our tour was scheduled to end.One might say that all tour guides are chatty, fun and helpful, but I’ve been around too many to know that Jemma was one of a kind. She had 20 min conversation with this lovely Latvian couple on our tour to help them find envelopes (yes envelopes are apparently almost extinct and they couldn’t find it for 3 whole days despite searching high and low). DSC_0565

It was hard to pin point what it was about Jemma that made her extra special, it might have been that she seemed to be talking to everyone at the same time about different topics, it could have been how she ensured we all knew what we were eating and more than enough to stuff ourselves or maybe it was because she took a personal interest in each one of us and definitely because she taught us how to take photos “the Korean Style” – i.e. covering half your face with the peace sign to look thinner! Either way, Jemma really made an impression. DSC_0583

Antique hair ornament lady

We spent an afternoon in Insadong, the old artsy area in Seoul. Seeing some beautiful antiques I walked into a store. The owner seeing me exploring her merchandise, grabbed my arm and surprised me by sticking traditional hair ornaments into my hair and taking pictures while giving me a detailed explanation in Korean (did I mention I didn’t understand the language?). I was completely caught off guard; and if it weren’t for Tesh who was with me and explained what was happening, I would have been a little worried.

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Free hug people

Insadong is full of interesting performers, people in costume, promoters of the word of god and tourists. We met a great group of people giving free hugs! It kinda was like a goodbye hug on our last day in Seoul. The hug was accompanied with an interesting chat about everything from where we were from to walking on fire! I suspect they thought all brown people walked on fire. We didn’t mind the generalization, I wish I could walk on fire!

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There were countless others who stopped us to randomly ask where we were from and were generally helpful. I wish I had stopped to take a few pictures with them. It was the people that really did make Seoul special. Farewell souls of Seoul, till we meet again.

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.

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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.

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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.

Breakfast

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

The red mineral rocks

Roussillon

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

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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

Volcanic Adventure – Mount Bromo & Ijen

Visiting one of the many volcanoes in the region was on my bucket list before leaving south east Asia, so our pick both in terms of natural beauty/diversity and ease of climb was Bromo. We took a 2 hr flight from Singapore to Surabaya, Indonesia’s next largest city and the closest airport to Mount Bromo. It takes 3 to 4 hours from Surabaya to get to Bromo. So plan for this especially if u are landing at night and planning on climbing the next morning.

We got to our hotel, Java Banana by 11pm and got 3 hours of sleep before leaving the hotel at 3 am for our adventure.

You need to 4wd to get there. It was very dark and we couldn’t see the road at all, it was only lit by the hundreds of other jeeps making the same drive, but my body definitely felt ruggard road.

45 mins later we jumped off the jeep to trek abt 5 mins to the sun rise viewing point. Yes it is 3 am but the shops here are in full swing selling tea, coffee, banana fritters and corn on the cob. The sun is only set to rise just after 5am, so we kill time drinking tea in a shop. Just past 4 we walk to the viewing platform already full of people and find ourselves quite a great spot facing east. And there we stood for the next hour and a half freezing till madam sun shone her face.

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It’s cold, very cold. We were both wearing a few layers but that wasn’t enough so we had to dance in one place to keep warm.

The three volcanoes are on the west side directly opposite to where the sun rise is. Here’s a tip, while the sun rise, any sun rise is spectacular there is nothing extra special about the one here, so perch yourself facing west so you see the volcanoes through the clouds and most making them look almost mystical. Don’t forget to walk around the platform as there are many breathtaking angles for pictures

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A hundred or so photos later, snapped under near freezing temperatures we set off to get a closer look of Mount Bromo. On the way down there is yet another great spot to take pics of the three destroyers called lovers hill.

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The geography surrounding Bromo is quite spectacular. Volcanic ashes and sand have created what is known as the sea of sand right around the mountain making it almost separate from the rest of the world. You can walk or hop on a horse to cross the sea of sand. We paid 80k per person and opted for the latter. I’m not sure we got the best price as our guide did the talking, but it was 6am and we were cold so a few dollars here or there didn’t matter.

Sea of sandOn horse back
The horses take you all the way up to a very steep staircase to reach the crater. There are enough rest areas along the stairs so it’s not too bad.

Horse drop off point

The stairs
Once we reached the top we couldn’t help but we wowed by nature. Bromo is still an active volcano and last erupted in November 2010 (just ash). When you peer into the crater you can see clouds of smoke coming up from within while your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable smell of sulfur.

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Some people do the 3km crater rim walk, but our guide promptly said “crazy people”. I suspect the path isn’t very stable.

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That morning after breakfast at the hotel we started our 6 hour journey to Banyuwangi where Ijen is. We stayed overnight at Ketapang Indah, a hotel by the sea overlooking Bali. Now it made sense why most tours of these two volcanoes ended up in Bali.

Our adventure to Ijen started at 1am. We left the hotel thinking it probably wasn’t going to be as cold as bromo, boy were we wrong. I fell asleep going there and coming back so u have no idea how long it took, but the drive itself was at least over an hour. Our guide had packed breakfast for us, so after munching that down around 2 maybe 3 am we started our 3km hike to the top of Ijen. But first we had to buy entrance tickets 150k per person sold by a shivering man in a tent in front of a mini bonfire.

The start Buying tickets from the "counter"

The trek started off easily on flat ground and then it became steeper and steeper. It’s pitch black with only the moon and stars above you so don’t forget a torch. We hiked for what seemed like forever making small stops and then reached the half way point marked by a shop (closed at that hour) and this sulfur collection point. We rested there for a while sitting in the cold admiring the starry night and once again began our journey. All at once it got a whole lot more difficult and then much much easier. Just remember of walk on your left, the right is a dead drop which u may not see in the darkness. Dawn was almost approaching when we got to the top, the view seemed spectacular but it was too dark to see.

We now had to make our way into the crater, 800m down. If you thought the first 3km was bad, oh dear…there is absolutely no pathway to get to the bottom so you just have to balance on the rocks, cling on to dear life, pray that you don’t fall and give it ago. It takes about 45 mins to get down. We could almost see some blue flames from a midway point but very very sadly once we got to the bottom it was too lit up that we missed the fire. What a pity, laboring this whole journey to see it and missing it by maybe 30 mins. So my advice, leave early (maybe midnight) and take shorter breaks on the way up and plan to be inside the crater by 4am.
Blue flames
It was dark all this while and the climb down was dangerous so I never bothered to look around. Once at the bottom and you’ve had a moment to catch your breath and for me get over the disappointment of missing the flames you look around and realize that you might as well as be on the moon. The surroundings were mostly grey with bits of yellow to mark the sulfur. I was 800m deep inside a volcano! It was quite an amazing sight. The crater lake was bright green surrounded by yellow sulfur rocks.

View from the bottom Sulfur fumes Liquid suflur

We saw a few miners on the way down but right at the bottom there was one guy stationed inside the volcano.There are miners and then there are entrepreneurs. This guy was collecting liquid sulfur and pouring it in different shaped moulds to make souvenirs! You can buy bits of sulfur shaped as hearts, animals, flowers, you name it. Liquid sulfur once in contact with water freezes up. So he pours in the dark yellow liquid and drops a bit of water to make his masterpieces. I was afraid my whole house will smell like rotten eggs, the infamous sulfur stench so didn’t bother buying any.
Making sulfur sovenirs
The sides of the crater full of sulfur was emitting smoke that the wind took to the top. At first there was a bit of smoke on the lake but it soon cleared up and then suddenly the whole place filled with smoke. Sulfur dioxide! My eyes were burning and my lungs were coughing up. For a moment I thought I would pass out. The guide grabbed my hand and said “let’s go!!!”. With involuntary tears pouring down we made our way back.

A fellow traveller The crater lake At the crater lake

Solidified sulfur
It’s a very difficult very scary journey up to the top. You can easily slip and break your neck. To add to the difficulty of the path I was now tearing coughing and sneezing!!! Most people around me were clearing their throats and spitting out. Not the most hygienic conditions. Even though I could hardly breathe the photographer inside me stopped several times to take in the scenery and snap a few shots. Every time we came across sulfur baskets that miners had left behind I couldn’t help but stop to snap it.

Making their way back up Sulfur collected

The trek up

45 more mins of clinging on to dear life and we were back on top. Only then did I notice a sign that said visitors are not allowed inside the crater for safety reasons, oh well!

Apparently you arent allowed to go down The view from top
Even the top of the volcano was filled with smoke so we didn’t wait to see the view from the top but made our way down. After a while the smoked cleared up and we could enjoy the beautiful scenery that we had missed on the way up.
Walking back

Sulfur on a backdrop of more volcanic mountains
We met a few miners down at the collection point, but today was a public holiday and most of them were not working. Each miner carries about 70kg of sulfur at a time up the crater to the collection point. 70kg!!!! And they do it 2 maybe 3 times a day! Suffocating through the inevitable smoke. Now I know why this particular job was classified as one of the worst in the world. The health risks are imminent but apparently the government has a insurance scheme, not sure how much that helps! They sell 1kg of sulfur for merely 1000idr which is just about $0.10.

We met a miner with his collection and Pramodh tried to give a shot at carrying it. He could only manage it for a few mins, god knows how these guys do it every day!
The miners Hard at work The minors
Going down the path was a hundred times more difficult than climbing up. It was completely slippery and we had to walk sideways like crabs. Some parts of the path had ditches so we walked in them to prevent ourselves from tumbling down. My legs were giving way, but managed to make the 3km journey back.

Ijen was difficult, in any standard. If you want to make the trip there are a few essentials: 1. A proper mask with filters, not the small surgical one, but the heavy duty type. 2. Proper shoes for the trek and climb 3 proper clothes to stay warm 4. Some form of gloves partly because of the cold but mostly because you have to grab hold of the volcanic sulfur rocks when climbing up or down the crater. 5. Ideally some foam of goggles, at least carry them in your bag so that you can put them on when the smoke sets in. I had only number 3, 4 and partly 2 and trust me I regretted it.

The adventure part of our trip was complete and now for the charity part. We had brought with us clothes to give away to the miners. We stopped in a factory to give those away. They were highly excited to receive this gift especially on a religious holiday. Our next stop was an orphanage to give away books and stationery that we had bought. The kids were super curious but shy. The brave few managed to ask us where we were from and what we were doing there. They were grateful too and thanked us with the little English they knew.

With our new miner friends Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage

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