Ten reasons to travel to Kyrgyzstan

The Stan countries are a fascinating part of the world that not many people consider travelling to. If you are considering your first Stan country to visit Kyrgyzstan is a great choice and here are ten reasons why.

1. It’s visa policy is friendly

Many of the Stan countries are difficult to travel to as their visa policies are restricted.

Kyrgyzstan on the other hand is eager to welcome you in! When the USSR collapsed Kyrgyzstan was left high and dry so this tiny little country turned to tourism. Tourism is done differently in this country, and what you will find will astound you.

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2. It’s got fascinating historical sights

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There is petroglyphs, remnants of the Silk Road, ancient Turkic gravestones just to name a few. One of the best things is you’ll have these things all to yourself to enjoy.

 

3. The country has a great community based-eco tourism network (CBT)

Arrive into a new town and ask for CBT and you’ll be directed to a local who has a homestay, or a local who can take you on a hike, or a local group that can organise a horse trek and yurt stay for you. Best bit is you know that your money is going straight to the Kyrgyz families who need it.

 

4. There is lots of outdoor activities 

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A visit to Kyrgyzstan is all about the outdoors. Its cities don’t have a lot to offer but its mountains do. The most popular things to do are overnight hikes and horse treks. The opportunities are endless but two worth mentioning are Song Kol lake where you can stay in a yurt with a shepard family and Altyn Arashan where you can swim in hot springs.

 

5. The scenery is spectacular 

There are no words to describe how incredible the landscape is so here are some photos to tempt you to go and see for yourself.

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6. The people

Not many people speak English but it doesn’t matter because they are some of the friendliest people in the world. The people are trustworthy and honest which is great! Spend some time with a local, it’ll be a highlight of your trip!

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7. Karakol Sunday Animal Market

Its worth trying to being in the town of Karakol on a Sunday just to see this market. Some people travel for days just to be at the market to sell their animals. It’s a fascinating place where country meets city. You will have never been in one place with so many cattle and horses. It’s an eye opener.

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8. 

Six Reasons You Should (or shouldn’t) Travel to East Timor

East Timor may not be the first country you think of travelling to. But if you are the adventurous type this is a fantastic destination. Here are six reasons that you might find this tiny and very new country appealing.

1. It is very mountainous 

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The mountains surrounding Hato Builico

Legend says that a giant crocodile was transformed into the island of Timor. The mountains of the island are the ridges of the crocodiles back. If you’ve ever seen a crocodiles back you’ll know that this means this country is mountainous! This is fantastic if you like trekking as there is heaps of it to do here. You can climb Mt Ramelau, at 2986m above sea level its the highest mountain in Timor. At the base of this mountain is the village of Hato Builico where there is more walks to do, you could spend quite a few days here alone. http://hatobuilico.com

On the flip side it means that vehicle travel is full of twists and turns on the windy roads through the mountains. This requires patience and lots of it. You won’t get anywhere quickly in this small country.

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Mount Ramelau

 

2. Public transport is an adventure

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A truck load of people

Lets be honest, travelling around East Timor on public transport is some of the most adventurous travel you’ll do. Whether its packed like sardines on a mikrolet in Dili, standing for hours on a crammed truck or sweating away on a rickety old bus you’ll build some fabulous memories from your unique experiences. It’s going to take a long time to get anywhere, and yes you could hire a 4×4 with air-conditioning, but travelling like a local with the locals is one of the highlights of being in Timor. And if you ever get stuck, flip out your thumb and hitchhike! There is always someone willing to give you a ride.

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An East Timor bus

 

3.  You’ll feel really tall

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You’re going to make friends in the country. They are really friendly people. They’re also tiny! So you’ll feel quite tall…

4. The roads aren’t great

I’ve already mentioned the long, windy roads on old rickety buses. But seriously, your bum will be bruised, your patience tested, and its dam hot too. The transport is slow because the roads are in shocking condition, especially once you hit the mountains or get into remote areas. Which of course are the best places to go! Take every ride on these roads as a chance for an adventure and you’ll be fine.

 

 

 

 

 

5. The people

You often hear that its the people that make a place. This is certainly true for East Timor. There is little tourism in this country. The people are excited to have you visiting, they want to chat, they want to help and you’ll make many new friends. I had locals take me on tours of their villages, invite me to a funeral, lead me up mountains and drive me back to the closest town (4 hours away) on their motor bike… and not one of them wanted a cent. It was all about interaction with another human being. Isn’t that beautiful?!

The local school teacher who I stumbled across in the village and offered to guide me up Mt Ramelau

 

Toby used the little english he had to explain what was happening at a funeral I was invited to

Maryo spent the day guiding me around his remote village, and then dropped me back to town, 4 hours by motorbike. Legend

 

6. There is some really interesting history

As an Australian East Timor is a fascinating country to visit. If you haven’t heard of the Balibo Five. Well, then you need to visit Balibo in East Timor!

This country is young, really young. It is really interesting learning about its history, how it has got to where it is today, and visiting locations where significant things have happened.

 

Enjoyed this post? Well, do yourself a favour and travel to East Timor. You will absolutely love it!

 

 

Newcastle Overnight Cycle

The Newcastle Overnight is a 172km cycle from Sydney (Observatory Hill) to Newcastle (Newcastle Baths). It’s semi organised which means there is a planned date/time/place of departure, a small registration fee and two designated tea and snack stops. Other that that there is no support van, bike mechanic on hand or any other luxury you’d like. This is what makes the cycle one of a kind. (And when I say one of a kind I mean it’s inspired by the UK version Dunwich Dynamo)

I first did this ride in its first year, 2012. Everyone that turned up had no idea really what we were in for or what to expect. It was a real eye opener. I learnt my body can do amazing things even when I don’t want it to. I experienced the kindness of a stranger. I understood the value of having someone by your side during a tough time (even if you don’t know their name).

I handily was unable to take part in the second year due to work commitments. I was thankful though in the end as it was torrential rain for the entire night. I heard it was…wet and cold…but many finished!

This year was the third annual Newcastle Overnight Cycle. The registration fee was a new addition but I didn’t mind paying a few dollars to support the two original guys who got this cycle happening. They are still at the cycles core, but they now also get the support of Audax Club of Australia!

The night was clear, warm (but not too warm) and there were 200 of us ready and raring to go. (An increase on the 80 or so who did the first one!) I came across a couple of guys I met on the first cycle. They all mentioned reading the blog I’d written about it. People read my blogs?! One guy even apologised for leaving me when I got a flat. He’d been feeling bad for two years! I now feel bad about him feeling bad…

You may be wondering what this cycle is really like? Let me give you an idea…

When the cycle starts you soon begin to find the people you have a similar pace with and its likely (but not always) you are going to see their faces a lot more as the evening progresses.

The Pacific Highway out of Sydney is not a highlight of the journey but once you get onto the Old Pacific Highway it’s dark, empty and there’s lots of opportunities to fly down hills…and climb mountains of course! Word of caution: be careful flying down the hills it’s dark and things can go wrong. Word of advice: embrace the mountains! They are an achievement.

At the top of Mount White is the first designated stop where cakes, biscuits, bars, lollies, fruit, tea and coffee await. A small donation is appreciated. Volunteers man these stops (and when I say volunteers the organisers have roped in friends and family) out of the goodness of their heart. Gorge your face, you can never eat enough! Fill your water bottle and get going again.

It’s a long night. Some people fly off at the start but the faster you go the earlier you get there and its not a race! No use turning up at 3am. No one will be at the cafe to welcome you with a coffee and the first train is hours away. This journey is about taking in the challenge, feeling the pain, taking the time, and its also about the people around you. It’s always interesting to hear why someone is doing the cycle. Take the time to chat with others. You’ll find yourself making new friends around every blind corner. Literally! Every now and then you’ll come across a bike on the side of the road. A fellow cyclist in need perhaps?! Always worth stopping and asking. If it was you you’d want that too. They may need help with a puncture! Or some encouragement to keep on going.

You’ll also find yourself alone a lot of the time. Well at least I did. There is something special about cycling through the darkness with the stars above you, the blackness of the bush on either side of you, and your thoughts inside of you. So much time to think and ponder. I value this time greatly. Its not often I’m pondering life at 3.30am on a bike in the middle of nowhere. Make the most of your alone time!

There is also something special about doing this journey with a bunch of strangers. You’re all in this together but don’t know each other from a bar of soap. But you are there for each other; encouraging, supporting, helping and celebrating. When you find yourself alone you can be assured that there is someone behind you or ahead of you who knows exactly what you are going through. And if you need them they’ll be there for you. How amazing is that?! Talk about community! The encounters you have with people during this journey may surprise you and even make your night.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s not suppose to be! Its a 172km cycle through the night what do you expect! From my experience when you rejoin the Old Pacific Highway near Lake Munmorah things take a turn for the worse. It’s long, ugly, boring and at this stage you’ve been on your bike for 6-8 hours. The sun is rising and you’re thinking ‘I haven’t even been to bed yet!’

Then you hit the Fernleigh Track a gorgeous cycle path built along an old railway line. Thing is by now you’re so over it you just want it all to end. But let me tell you when you cycle into Newcastle Baths and see lots of friendly faces smiling back at you, the pain and horror of it all will quickly fade. You’ll be proud of your achievement and so glad you did this adventure. Maybe you’ll even sign up again next year. I did! This year I did it in 10.5 hours. And ill be there again next year. I’m hooked. Its the highlight of my year.

 

Travelling to and in Somaliland

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Somaliland doesn’t officially exist. I wouldn’t blame you though for mistaking it for a country. It has a population of people who live in Somaliland and do not call themselves Somalians (in fact they are quite offended if you do so). They are from Somaliland. They have an embassy in Addis Ababa, London and the USA. You have to get a visa as a foreigner to visit. They have an airport, a capital city, hotels and businesses. Everything that a country has Somaliland has, yet it is not officially recognised. If you want to know more about Somaliand click here

This post is about travelling in Somaliland and in particular my experience of the place. I hope it might help those of you thinking or planning to travel to Somaliland.

I was intrigued by Somaliland as soon as I heard it existed. I have to admit I’d never heard of it. It was only because of my impending trip to Ethiopia that it came into my radar. Somaliland was an unrecognised country where foreigners had to travel around with armed guards. I was hooked at the mystery and adventure this little country could offer me.

My trip to Somaliland began in Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia. I had to get a Somaliland visa. Note: the current Lonely Planet does not have the correct address for the embassy.

To get to Somaliland Embassy in Addis Ababa: Head South along Bole Road till you reach KZ Hotel (one your left); turn right off Bole Rd and follow this road past CA’DE BURGERS (on your right) till you reach Igloo Icecream (on your left). The embassy is well signposted from Igloo.

Once I found the embassy it was a simple process. I filled out a form, gave them a passport photo and $40US and was issued the visa on the spot. I was ready for Somaliland!

The journey to Somaliland begins in Harare, Ethiopia. Ready for an adventure I made my way to the crazy bus station and the journey began. It cost me 12 Birr to get a minivan from Harare to Bibele. In Bibele the driver dropped me at another bus that was heading to Jijiga. The bus was packed to the brim with people, luggage and animals. I was the talk of the town. I decided though I wasn’t in Somaliland yet, I’d put my headscarf on. The bus from Bibele to Jijiga cost 30 Birr + 10 Birr for my bag. They always get you with the supposed ‘bag fee’. Don’t fight it unless you want a long fruitless argument with an Ethiopian. In Jijiga it was time to pack onto another bus finally destined for the Ethiopia-Somaliand border, Wachake. The bus from Jijiga to Wachake cost me 30 Birr + 20 Birr for my bag. (Yes, ripped off for the bag fee. Dam it!)

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 Crammed onto a bus with a bunch of locals

As we approached the border check points started to occur every 1km. Everyone had to get out of the bus, have their ID checked and get back on the bus. This happened every kilometre or so. The checkpoints were checking for Somalians from neighbouring Somalia. The terrorist group Al-Shabab has, in the past, committed terrorist acts on these routes. So if you don’t have an ID then you aren’t allowed back on the bus. As annoying as these check points were getting on and off the bus, I was thankful for the thoroughness and safety measures taken.

At the border after stamping out of Ethiopia it was time to cross no mans land. The space between Ethiopia and Somaliland is barren, desolate and polluted. A few people are scattered rummaging through the garbage or crossing the border. It’s is eerie and exciting at the same time. You really feel like you are leaving Ethiopia behind and entering a new and mysterious frontier. The plastic bags strewn in the foliage is one of the most noticeable immediate differences in Somaliand to Ethiopia. That and its friendly people!

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No mans land between Ethiopia and Somaliland

I entered the Somaliland Immigration building and a young Immigration Officer smiled at me widely exclaiming, “Hello, and welcome to Somaliland!!” Friendliest welcome I’ve ever had to a country! My passport was stamped, photo taken and taxi driver found. You can change money at the border. Look for the yellow cages with piles and piles of cash. You can use US dollars in Somaliland and you will be given Somaliland Shillings as change. I’d been advised it was hard to spend the shillings but I didn’t find that. I changed $10. That was plenty. Somaliland is cheap.

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Money Changer

It was time to go to the capital Hargeisa. A shared taxi cost $7US +$2 for bag, or 400 Birr. A shared taxi means a shared taxi. In our station wagon style car we had a lady in the front seat, 4 of us in the back seat and a group of five women crammed in the boot. Lets just say it weren’t comfortable! But it was fun thats for sure! We knew we’d arrived in Somaliland when we were coming across checkpoints every few kilometres where an guard would yell at us for not having an armed guard. It is a requirement of foreigners to travel with an armed guard in Somaliland. This is not something to be concerned by. Rather, Somaliland is very cautious about maintaining the safety of their foreign visitors. They must keep up a positive image to the international world so that they can get recognition as a country. I didn’t travel from the border to Hargeisa with an armed guard. When questioned by the guards I would say I was going to the capital now and would get a guard there. They didn’t like it, but they let the taxi through each and every time.

The entire journey from Harare to Hargeisa took over seven hours. So prepare yourself for a long day.

In Hargeisa, I stayed in a great little hotel called Siraaj Hotel opposite Jama Mosque. The most well known hotel is the Oriental Hotel but this hotel has Lonely Planet syndrome and I was glad I didn’t stay there as when I ate at their restaurant I found them quite rude. Whereas the staff at Siraaj were friendly and accommodating. The hotel has sweet, simple little rooms and it will cost you $10US.

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Watermelons for sale and the main market place in Hargeisa

Walking around Hargeisa is a treat. If you’re a female you must wear a headscarf. Somaliland is a strictly Muslim country. People will notice you but you won’t be hassled. The locals are excited to see a foreigner. There aren’t that many that venture to their small home. Feel honoured and privileged that you are one of the few that have done so. You don’t need an armed guard to walk around Hargeisa. (Though you will be told you do, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.) But if you want to leave the capital then yes you will need an armed guard. The place to organise one of these is the Oriental Hotel. Its expensive. A day trip to Las Geel will cost you $100 for the car (and when I say car I mean, an old falling apart vehicle you normally wouldn’t step foot in), driver and armed guard + $25 for the Las Geel permit. An overnight trip to Berbera, including Las Geel will cost you $189 +$25 for Las Geel permit. The Oriental offers longer trips and they get even pricier. Unfortunately I didn’t have long in Somaliland so I only did the day trip to Las Geel. The trip was well worth it though.

Getting through the check points with your armed guard is smooth and simple. The drive to Las Geel is a couple of hours with some of it off road. Las Geel is simply amazing. You have to see it to truly understand how incredible these ancient rock paintings are.

 

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Las Geel entry office and Las Geel painting

I can’t give any advice on eating as I was there during Ramadan. There were no restaurants open. If you are in Hargeisa during Ramadan note that the Oriental Hotel will open its kitchen for you and make you meals. The service is terrible and the food is average. I can tell you the meals at the Oriental average $5US per meal. Interestingly for Ramadan the locals don’t eat all day, then in the evening the men group together in restaurants to eat deep fried delicacies and watermelon. The deep fried delicacies didn’t look appealing.

I hope this has helped with any practical questions you might have had. Somaliland is fantastic and well worth the effort to visit. Be friendly, open minded and arrive with your spirit of adventure and you’ll have a great time.

Attending an East Timorese Funeral

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Atauro Island

See that island in the photo? That is Atauro Island. You’ll find it 25km north of Dili, East Timor. It’s 25km long and 9km wide and about 8000 people live there. It has an interesting past. On August 11, 1975 the Portuguese Governor (East Timor was Portuguese ruled back then) fled to Atauro. On the mainland there was a coup occurring led by the Timorese Democratic Union to halt the ever increasing Fretilin party. The chaos eventually resulted in the Indonesian occupation which led to some of East Timor’s darkest times.  These days the tourists that East Timor receive (which isn’t many, in 2010 they had only 40,000) will venture to Atauro Island for that relaxation and beauty that a tropical island offers. The visited part of the island is a village called Beloi where Barry’s Eco Lodge is a favourite of travellers.

I on the other hand was at the last minute offered the opportunity to attend a funeral on the island. In fact the way it was phrased to me was, “How would you like to go to Atauro Island with a dead body?” My reaction was one of confusion and intrigue. “Is that an option?” I asked. I’d met an Australian family you see and a local friend of theirs had lost their young relative to a brutal bashing. This young man in his 20’s had died earlier in the week from this horrific event and the funeral was happening in his home village over on Atauro Island.

So, 5.30am I found myself on a small boat with a group of East Timorese people I didn’t know and I was the only foreigner in the group. Hardly anyone spoke English, but a guy called Tobias would eventually take me under his wing and try his best to fill me in on what to do, where to go and answer my many questions with his limited English.

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Picking up the coffin from the shores of Dili

The boat ride out to the island took 3 hours and was rough. The locals were throwing up, I was trying to not watch in fear of doing so myself and we were all drenched from the large waves crashing into the boat. I was relieved to finally arrive at the island. As we approached the shore I could see that the entire population of the little village (around 100 people) were waiting for us on the beach. I could hear wailing, see people crying and as we landed our little boats on the sand we were swamped by grief stricken friends and relatives. I felt unsure of what I should do, where I should go or how I should react. A group of men picked up the coffin carrying it high above their heads. The villagers continued to wail, moan and shriek as they followed the men with the coffin up the beach and into the village.

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Carrying the coffin up the beach to the village

I followed Tobias into the village where I saw that the coffin had been placed in a straw hut and the villagers were packed in and spilling out the doors. This was the viewing of the body. With so many people crowded around the coffin I couldn’t see anything. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. I had no idea what to do with myself. The reaction of the people was intense. People were crying. A few young guys were very visibly upset and were removing themselves from the hut to howl and weep with a friend. I was completely overwhelmed.

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Hut for viewing of the coffin

After about half an hour of viewing the body it was time for a tea break. Tobias led me to someones house where I was offered tea/coffee, bread and biscuits. Everyone was quietly chatting away and everyone was giving me a little smile. I’d been told that the locals will wonder why I (a white person) was at the funeral and that they would probably think I was some sort of dignitary. Tobias asked me if I’d like to go for a walk along the beach. Tobias and I strolled along the rock and coral strewn beach. Tobias in bare feet walking freely and me in thongs walking in agony at the sharp and jagged terrain. We attempted to talk to each other and I tried to ascertain what the rest of the funeral would be. Alas, our communication was very limited and I was to be left wondering.

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Tobias

After our walk in was time for lunch. I was fed a gristly meat. I’d been told that the villagers on the island ate dog. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was what I was eating. I never found out.

After lunch it was time for resting. Tobias led me to a room that he said would be mine. I couldn’t help but think I was taking someone else’s room. It was simple – straw hut with a straw platform to lay on.

Hut I stayed in for two days

I rested for two hours escaping the extreme heat. At 4pm I heard wailing which I took as a sign that the funeral proceedings were starting again. Back at the hut it was time to view the body again. I noticed that the villagers were taking photos of the deceased. I noticed a gap in the crowd so decided that I would move forward to view the body. I wanted to see who it was we were saying goodbye too. Tobias noticed me and pulled me into the crowd taking me next to the coffin. The young man lay in the coffin dressed in a suit. He had typical Timorese features – large nose, full lips and fuzzy hair. Tobias indicated for me to take a photo, I politely declined as that did not feel like something I should be doing. I took one last look at the body. It looked like wax figure. I haven’t seen many dead bodies in my time. He looked peaceful though and I was glad to have seen him. During this viewing a different group of people were becoming overwhelmed with their grief. I found myself absorbed by the atmosphere that was being created by such real and raw sadness. Their honesty and public display of heartache was admirable. No one was ashamed of crying. There was a real sense of community grief and support.

When it came time to carry the coffin to be buried the simple wooden box was wrapped in a traditional Timorese tai. A wooden crossed with the young mans name carved into it was carried at the front of the procession and the entire village accompanied the coffin to the cemetery on the beach. A prayer led by the village paster was spoken, a song was sung and each person placed a rock into the grave. The grave was then filled in and the family placed flowers on the grave. Everyone was silent bar the people wailing with grief.

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Grieving friends and family

The last thing to be placed on the coffin was a large blue flower wreath. The family turned to me and pointed. I awkwardly placed the wreath on the grave. I felt honoured but also slightly uncomfortable at being seen as someone important enough to do this. Candles were then lit and placed around the grave. We all stood around the grave which looked out onto an incredible view of the ocean.

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Burying their loved one

The funeral had been very confronting. The grief of the loved ones had been public, loud and upsetting. I’ve been conditioned to be quiet and solemn at funerals. In the west we are taught to keep our emotion inside. Crying is for the privacy of your home. Why is that? When we loose a loved one why do we hide our grief? This funeral challenged my thinking on how to deal with grief. I saw a village come together, support one another and allow each other the space to be as loud and as distressed as they felt they needed to be. I’d watched as people had fallen apart with grief; screaming, crying, not being able to stand, faces covered in mucus. These same people would then eventually become calm, quiet and peaceful. Their grief realised, shared and expressed. I’ll be forever grateful for being invited into this experience. The funeral was beautiful, eye-opening and confronting. I’ll never forget it.

Saying goodbye

Jordan – Herodus Spring (swim in the Dead Sea for free)

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Before travelling to Jordan I did a bit of research about the Dead Sea. I wanted to visit it but I didn’t want to pay big dollars to float around in it with a hundred other tourists. I’m not one for touristy ventures but floating in the Dead Sea just had to be done! So I tried to find if there was anywhere to do it for free. Most people pay the resorts to access their beach and use of a shower. A google of swimming for free in the Dead Sea came up with a place called Herodus Spring. Apparently it was 10km south of the resort area at the Dead Sea. I wrote down the details: Herodus Spring, 10km south of resort area. I was set.

In Amman, we hired a car and braved the intense traffic of the city. Once we got out of Amman the roads were empty, wide and the scenery was spectacular.

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Sandy hills spilled out to the horizon. The landscape was so different to home. I was in awe at the vastness of the land and how empty it felt. The sense of freedom was overwhelming and I loved every minute of it. I just kept reminding myself, ‘Drive on the right! Drive on the right!’

When we got to the Dead Sea area we had to stop at a place where the local officials asked us where we intended to go. “Herodus Springs!” I said to them, hoping to get some directions from them. “Huh?” one of the men said. “Herodus Springs?” I tried again. The men looked at each other in confusion until one finally said, “Ok yes, this way.” We drove on not feeling particularaly confident. But I had the information from the internet that told us it was 10km from the resorts. So as we passed the resort area we took note of our odometer so we’d know when we had gone 10km. We looked for signs, access to the water but nothing looked like it. So we kept driving and driving. We had gone passed the 10km mark and nothing looked hopeful. Instead of continuing on clueless we stopped to ask some locals on the side of the road.

“Herodus Spring?” I asked.

“What?” the local man replied.

“Um, Herodus Spring?” the mans face remained blank and I was starting to question whether this place existed or if we’d ever find it.

“What is this?” the man asked.

“It’s a place to swim in the Dead Sea for free,” I replied.

“For free?!!” the man cried excitedly.

“Yes!”

“Oh, yes swim for free. It is just one minute up the road, just there!” he pointed to a turn in the road.

“Thank you thank you!” I cried.

Driving down to the turn we parked the car, grabbed our gear and ventured down the hill to the sea. When I saw a natural spring bursting from the hill I knew I was in the right place. Then I saw locals in the water. We had arrived at the elusive Herodus Spring, finally!

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Down at the waters edge the first thing I noticed was the build up of salt on the shore. The Dead Sea is 427m below sea level making it the lowest point on earth. It has 32.4% salinity which was obvious by the build up of salt and the fact that people were floating around so easily. I couldn’t wait to get in.

 

As soon as I got in the water I bobbed to the surface. It was the most bizarre feeling. You really do float. That’s about all I can say. The rest you have to experience for yourself!

After floating around for a while and taking the token Dead Sea photos I started to notice the skin on my face starting to sting! 5-10 minutes is the limit you can be in that water until your body starts to tell you to get out! Now all I wanted was to wash the salt off.

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I was excited to wash in the natural spring and as I started to head up the hill a local noticed me looking for the spring. He was very enthusiastic. He took us to the spring came into the spring with us and even started massaging my shoulders..hmmm. The spring itself was warm and refreshing. Getting that salt off was a fantastic feeling. I just ignored the rubbish we were surrounded by.

 

Experiencing the Dead Sea at this local swimming spot was, in my eyes, the best way to do it.

1. It was free

2. It’s how the locals do it

3. Instead of rinsing in a shower you rinse in a natural spring

I can highly recommend it.

Here is a photo of the section of the road you’ll find it. If you have trouble….ask a local for the free swimming spot! They’ll point it out to you. Just don’t use the name Herodus Spring, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.

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Travelling in Bangladesh – Eight ‘Must Do’ Things

On the surface it might seem like there isn’t a lot to do in Bangladesh. Don’t be mistaken. Bangladesh is a country teeming with culture and opportunity for new experiences. There is no organised tourism industry for foreigners. You’ll have to get down with the locals and do it like they do. If you’re keen to think outside the box and view your trip to Bangladesh as an adventure I promise you’ll have an eye-opening and fun-filled trip. Here are eight ideas of things to do.

1. Seven Layer Tea

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The seven layer tea was invented by Ramesh Ram Gour. The real seven layer tea made by Mr Gour himself can only be found at the Nilkantha Tea Cabin in Srimongal. Though there are imitation teas in the local area none beat the original. Made from black and green teas mixed with various spices this tea is one of a kind. It’s delicious!! At 75 taka this tea is the most expensive in Bangladesh by far. But it’s totally worth it.

 

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2. Meet Mahmud

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If you’re going to Bangladesh and haven’t yet come across Mr Mahmud then please let me introduce you! Mahmud is your answer to everything. He is a business man who is passionate about his country. He is especially enthusiastic about assisting those who travel to his home country. He isn’t after your money. He doesn’t charge a fee. He does everything he does out of the goodness of his heart and his passion for Bangladesh. Mahmud can help you organise bus, train or boat tickets (a must in Bangladesh as they are often sold out!). He can give sound advice on your itinerary. He can organise pick ups for you, accommodation and so much more. He is a frequent visitor to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum (this is where I first met him). I was lucky enough to even stay at his house and go on a four day Sundurban boat cruise with Mahmud, his wife and son AND thirty of his Bangladeshi friends. A trip to Bangladesh is made so much easier with Mahmud. Utilise him! And if possible meet up with whilst you are in Dhaka. It’s a must do! http://www.mahmud.bigbig.com/

Update 2016: I have been advised of Mahmud passing away. This is a great loss to his family, friends and the Bangladesh community as a whole. I feel blessed to have met him.

 

3. Go cycling in Srimongal

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The countryside surrounding Srimongal is some of the most tranquil in Bangladesh. Gone are the swarms of motorbikes, buses, cars, rickshaws that suffocate Dhaka. The roads up here in the north of Bangladesh are quiet with an occasional rickshaw or car passing by. The area is covered in tea plantations and cycling through these is beautiful. Passing through small villages the locals are excited to see you and will most likely invite you in for tea.

4. Have tea with a local

 

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You won’t be able to avoid it. The Bangladeshis will be amazed to see you and inviting you into their house for tea will be the first thing out of their mouth. I encourage you to go for it! You will meet some amazing people. Bangaldesh tea is very sweet so if you don’t have a sweet tooth try and ask for no sugar or milk.

5. Befriend a westerner if you can find one

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There isn’t many westerners in Bangladesh. In fact when you see a white person you’ll find your jaw dropping open as much as the locals. It doesn’t take long to get use to only seeing Bangladeshis. You’ll see a handful of foreigners and most likely all of them will be volunteers or expats. But if your lucky you might stumble across an intrepid traveller just like you. I met Mats. That’s him above. He is from Switzerland. We shared a seven layer tea together and the rest was history. We spent the rest of our time travelling with each other. In a country where everything is so foreign having another person to talk things over with is a blessing!

6. Visit the Shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal (Dargah Gate)

This is a large complex that comprises a mosque and a tomb that is visited by pilgrims from all over the country. If you’re a woman don’t even try to attempt to climb the stairs leading to the mosque or tomb as you’ll be turned away. I know from experience, I hadn’t even gotten my shoes off before I was abruptly told, ‘No!’. There is however a separate prayer room for women. This is part of the parcel of travelling in Bangladesh. It’s a mans world and respecting the rules is strongly advised.

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Everyone however can visit the shrines pond and legend tells us that the sacred golden catfish is the former black magician of Govinda of Gaur. The hordes of people that visit wash themselves in the ponds water. Many parts of the body are washed; feet, legs, arms, face including ears, up the nose and inside the mouth. Be aware though that there are many beggars that hang around and when they see you they won’t leave you alone. In fact, if you stand still for just a moment you will end up with a crowd of people around you taking photos of you on their mobile phones. Once again…I’m speaking from experience.

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7. Take a rickshaw over Kean Bridge in Sylhet

Rickshaw is the most common way of getting around the city of Sylhet. Taking one over the Kean Bridge is a fantastic experience. The bridge has a steep incline which means that the rickshaw wallahs need some assistance in getting themselves over. Groups of young men stand around to offer their helping hands by pushing the rickshaw up and over the bridge. They get paid a few taka for their efforts. Even just walking over the bridge is worth it. It’s crowded and full of life. Fantastic.

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8. Eat cucumber

There isn’t a lot of choice in food when you travel through Bangladesh. One thing you will notice very quickly is lots of men (young and old) walking around with big round bowls of green things for sale. They are cucumbers and are one of the Bangladeshis favourite snack foods. The cucumber comes comes with some salt and pepper as seasoning. Try it.

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Ten reasons you should or shouldn’t travel to Bangladesh

Bangladesh is not for the fainthearted. It is confronting and challenging. If you’re the type of traveller who wants resorts with pools, restaurants with pizzas and well established tourism then Bangladesh is not the place for you. But if you’re the type of traveller who craves the chance to see a country for what it is then Bangladesh doesn’t hide anything and it might be just the place for your next trip. As long as you’re up for a bit of dirt, chaos and bad traffic. Bangladesh is a fascinating country filled with friendly people and interesting culture. If you crave adventure, getting off the beaten track and going somewhere that isn’t the norm…then I can highly suggest Bangladesh. A trip to this country will open your eyes to a whole other world.

Here are ten reasons you should or shouldn’t go to Bangladesh

1. Its population is 160 million

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. With most people living in the big cities this means there are people, cars, motorbikes and rickshaws everywhere!

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Arriving into the capital Dhaka is, in two words, completely overwhelming. There are over 10 million people that live in Dhaka but still you have to see it to believe it. The traffic in Dhaka is officially the world’s worst. Traffic stands still for up to seven hours a day. This means that getting from one side of the city to the other is atrocious. Every vehicle has a cracked windscreen and at least a handful of dings. There are no apologies in this city you just beep your horn and go. It’s as simple as that. Makes for a very loud city though. My advice is get out of Dhaka as soon as possible. The rest of the country is completely different.

2. You will be famous

Everyone in Bangladesh is Bengali. Everyone. During my time the amount of white people I saw I could count on one hand. It fascinating to travel through a country and know that your basically the only one of your kind around. This means you are noticed. People see you and want to say hello, ask where your from, say thank you for coming to Bangladesh, invite you for tea (aka cha) and take your photo. If you stand still for a moment you will end up with a group of Bengali locals standing around you…staring. They aren’t being rude or intrusive they are simply…fascinated. People will put their phones in your face taking your photo as if you are a movie star they have spotted. Groups giggle together whispering in your direction as they stare in awe at you. It’s a unique experience.

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3. It is a land of rivers

Bangladesh depends completely on water. The rivers are the economic backbone of the country. They are also incredibly beautiful. A must do is the Rocket Launcher from Dhaka to the south. This trip allows you to witness with your own eyes the life of the rivers. Sitting on the deck on the Rocket you can watch all sorts of things happening. Transportation of goods, fishing, transportation of people and so much more.

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Unfortunately for this country flooding is a huge issue. In the rainy season each year floods are common and tragic. It is advisable to visit the country outside of the rainy season. Though be warned this means it will be H O T instead.

4. English is not widely spoken

Outside of the large cities it will be difficult to find anyone who speaks English. Although if someone in the area does speak English and sees you they always make their way over for a chat. Therefore you are almost never left in tricky situations as there is normally someone tugging at your sleeve eager to practice their English on you. Travelling around can be a challenge though as communicating is difficult. You’ll need to invent some sign language and then just hope that one English speaker in town is around. But you’ll be fine.

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5. There are tigers

Though you’re probably not going to see them. But the Bengali Tiger does live in Bangladesh and for the villagers that live on the edge of the Sundurban Mangrove Forest tigers are a real and present danger. I suggest you take a 3 night/4 day trip into the Sundurban in search of the tiger. This is one of the few types of tourism activities you will find in Bangladesh. It is set up for domestic tourists so try and join a boat with them. It’s a fantastic experience spending 4 days on a boat with a group of Bengalis!

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6. It is a predominantly Muslim country.

Bangladesh is the fourth largest Muslim population in the world. This means you will hear the call to prayer coming from the many mosques. Out on the streets it is predominantly men (this is very noticeable). As a female it is advisable to wear the Shalwar Kameez and a head scarf. Though not essential it is more respectful and you will attract less attention. Well…okay you won’t attract less attention but it might take people a second longer to realise that you are a foreigner.

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7. Hartals are common

The stability of Bangladesh is questionable. It is amongst one of the poorest countries in the world. Its sordid history is not well known in the western world. Before I travelled there I knew nothing about it. Bangladesh was previously East Pakistan and reading up about the Bangladesh Liberation War is well worth it. Many people died, were tortured and raped. This is something than many people in Bangladesh still remember as it was only the 1970’s when this occurred. The scars are raw and this is evident. During my time in Bangladesh the country was in the middle of protesting about War Criminals from the Liberation War and wanting their execution. You see, many of the men who committed these atrocities during the war ended up becoming leaders and powerful people in Bangladesh. The Bengalis have been seeking justice. Therefore, while I was in the country hartals, otherwise known as strikes, were happening weekly. A hartal stops the country. No public transport. No shops open. No one on the streets (it’s not safe). What are usually bustling streets becomes a ghost town (see photo below). I wouldn’t say it’s a reason not to go to Bangladesh. But it is definitely something to be aware of. You can get stuck in a location if a hartal is called and there is no transport for three days. It is a good idea to have a current idea of what is going on in the country and avoid certain areas. For example, one political party derailed a train I was planning to take the next day. I opted for a bus journey instead. The same political party closed a highway exiting Coxs Bazaar and Bangaldesh tourists were left stranded. I didn’t visit Coxs Bazaar. It’s important to remember that for you as a traveller a hartal is an inconvenience. But for a local Bengali a hartal effects businesses and reminds them just how difficult life can be in their small, beautiful and yet sometimes unsafe country.

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8. There is no hygiene

Bangladesh is amazing. But the levels of hygiene are….different to what you may be use to. Be flexible and try to put aside your cleanliness standards because otherwise you are going to struggle. This photo is of a toilet in one of the villages. I saw fisherman fishing ten metres away as well. I think that explains it all.

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9. The roads are dangerous

There are many countries that can fight for the award of “Worst Roads and Drivers” and trust me when I say Bangladesh is a serious contender. I’d been in the country only a few minutes when I realised my biggest threat in this country was the roads. It was 10pm at night, I was on the back of a motor bike that had no lights and we were dodging potholes, people, buses, rickshaws, taxis, cars and cows. The rest of my time in Bangladesh was no different. The buses are scary journeys and frustrating. Frustrating because they are constantly beeping their incredibly loud horn. And if the journey is eight hours it makes for a very challenging ride. The driving is crazy! The buses come up so close to the vehicles in front of them and overtake beeping their horn as a warning. I’d seen that most buses had big cracks in their windscreens. One journey I found out why; my bus driver drove up so close to the truck in front that as he passed the truck the bus hit the side and I heard the loud crack of the windscreen. Every journey in Bangladesh is an adventure.

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10. There is no western food

Apart from Pizza Hut and Gloria Jeans in the capital Dhaka there is no western food in Bangladesh. Your only option will be to eat what the locals eat. This is one of the best ways to get to know a country. Although food in Bangladesh is not varied. It’s roti and dhal in the morning and rice and a meat curry for lunch and dinner. With a side serving of slice tomato, cucumber and carrot. There you have it. Thats the diet. So get used to it. Oh, and good luck finding it. Once you exit Dhaka nothing looks like anything! Sometimes it can be a challenging figuring out where the food restaurants are. But thats half the fun!

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So if you’ve made it all the way through this blog and found that these ten points excite you then I suggest you go and buy a ticket to Bangladesh now! It’s a fabulous country. One of the few places in the world that allows you to see it for what it really is, warts and all. The people are incredibly friendly and helpful. A trip to Bangladesh will be a highlight of your life. I promise.

If you cringed at this blog, then maybe Bangladesh isn’t for you. Like I said at the beginning Bangladesh is not for the fainthearted. But for those who do venture there you’ll find yourself 160 million new friends who are so happy to hear you have come to their country to simply see it. Never underestimate the impact your visit can have on a local. By going on holiday to Bangladesh you are telling them they are worth it. And they are – the scenery, the people, the culture … its all worth it.

Travelling in Bangladesh – The Sundurbans


The Sundurbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world stretching over Bangladesh and India. Home to the Bengal Tiger it was definitely a place I wanted to visit during my travels in Bangladesh. Through a new found friendship with Mahmud, I found myself on a three day Sundurban boat cruise with Mahmud, his family and 35 of his Bangladesh friends. Though international tourism is almost non-existent in this country, domestic tourism is popular and I was to find mostly Bangladesh tourists roaming the Sundurbans on these organised boat trips.

Mahmud and his wife

It was a privilege to be asked by Mahmud to join this trip he had organised with his friends. I was excited to not only see the Sundurbans but to spend time with Bangladeshi people! As I hopped onto the boat that was to take us out to our home for the next few days I could tell straight away I was in for an adventure. The Bangladeshis were excited; laughing, snapping photos of each other and joking around. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

 

We picked up our armed guards (seeing as the Sundurbans is tiger territory every boat must have armed guards) and we set off down the river. There was nothing to do but sit on the roof and idly watch the scenery float by.

 

 

 

I was obviously with a higher class of Bangladesh people than I’d been passing on the streets and in the slums. These people had SLR cameras and iPads. About half of them spoke English and spoke it well. It was fun to finally have people to talk to! I’d spent so much of my travels so far silent as not many people do speak English on the streets of Bangladesh. Spending time with these locals was a highlight. At night we all released lit lanterns into the black sky whilst standing on the roof of our boat. I was in the middle of the Sundurbans a long way from home but with all my new friends I felt blessed, content and grateful.

 

 

The trip wasn’t all about lazing about the boat though. We stepped off the boat a few times for some ventures into the Sundurban jungle. The Bangladeshi people were excited to visit the Bay of Bengal. For most of them it was their first visit to the ocean. They all ran into the sea, fully clothed, splashing around and having a wonderful time.

 

 

We also went on the hunt for the infamous Bengal Tiger. We didn’t see a tiger in the flesh but we did spot paw prints which was a huge highlight for me.

 

 

I think one of the highlights for the Bangladeshi would have to be playing in the mud. The first guy jumped off the boat onto the shore and sunk waist deep into the mud…the laughing didn’t stop for a long long time.

 

A trip to Bangladesh must be complimented with a three day journey in the Sundurbans. It was beautiful – the fireflies sparkled at night, the birds soared during the day and the boat chugged along immersing one deep into the jungle. If you love nature then the Sundurbans is well worth it and if you can manage to find 40 Bangladesh locals to do the trip with, even better.

Travelling in Bangladesh – The People You Meet

One of the best things about travelling through Bangladesh is without doubt the people. As the country is not well travelled by white people, the sight of one is the highlight of peoples year…literally. Once spotted by a local that local will do one or all of the following things; stop and stare, cry out, “Hello! What country?”, offer their assistance. There are a two particular people that stick out from my journey through Bangladesh.

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Milon (3rd from the left) met me on the street and helped me out for the afternoon.

I arrived into Khulna tired, hungry and disorientated. I’d had a long day. After departing the Rocket launch I’d caught two buses to get to Khulna. I hadn’t eaten all day, I was exhausted and I was finding Khulna very confusing. Nothing looked like anything! There was no place that was noticeably a restaurant, in fact nothing looked familiar. I desperately wanted to find food and internet so I ventured out into the streets in search of these two things. It didn’t take long at all to be noticed. Milon walked towards me,

“Hello, excuse me,” he said ” can I speak to you?”

“Um, yes,” I replied, although my stomach grumbled at me.

“I am a university English student and I would very much like to talk to you.”

I saw this as a chance for some local interaction and also a speedy way of finding the two things I desperately needed. “I’m looking for food and internet,” I told him.

He looked at me with joy. “Yes! I can help? Can I just change? My house is right there, come with me.”

Next thing I knew I was walking into a small, cramped, dark Bangladeshi house. My new friend, Milon, told me nine people lived in this house.  A few of them were home, and while Milon got changed I chatted to them. Mainly about cricket and Ricky Ponting.

Milon took me to a local restaurant, which I never would have found without him. I stuffed my face full of curry and rice while Milon watched on proud to be sitting with a white person! He then took me to an internet cafe, which once again never would have found without him, and he eagerly asked to become friends on Facebook…how could I say no.

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Hanrey with his stamp and coin collection

I met Hanrey on the side of the road. I’d just found my way out of a tea plantation in Srimongal where I’d been cycling without a good idea of where I was exactly. When Hanrey saw me he said, “Don’t go in there. Dangerous. Murder. People go in and never come out.” It was a little shocking to be told this so abruptly. I hadn’t felt in danger in the tea plantation but I was glad to be out if what he was saying was indeed true. Hanrey soon asked me to his house for tea. I was soon to find out I’d stumbled across a interesting person. Hanrey and his parents are the only Christians within miles from anywhere. He was excited to hear that I too was a Christian. Hanrey brought out his stamp and coin collection. It was incredible! He had stamps from close to 100 countries!

 

Hanrey’s stamp collection book

His coin collection was the most interesting thing though. Not only did he have coins from many countries but he also had a small tin of coins from Bangladesh when it was under British rule. What an amazing thing to own! It was fascinating. I realised just how much this collection meant to him when I said I had some Malaysian coins on me and that I would send him some Australian money when I returned home. His face lit up and I knew that for this sweet man who lives a simple life here in Bangladesh this was his passion. I was honoured to help him build his collection with a few more coins.

 

Old Bangladesh coins from the era of British rule

When travelling it pays off to meet locals and spend time with them. Its a great way of seeing a country and understanding its people that little bit more. And in a country like Bangladesh, you will make that locals day. Don’t be afraid, make a new friend!