My 2015 Review

Yes, I know, everyone’s been doing reviews of the last year. Well, I thought it was about time I did one too, especially as I had a notification from WordPress that I started this blog exactly a year ago today. And looking back, it was actually a pretty great year.

I began the year in Cambodia with two good friends and ended the year in Thailand with my sister, partying the night away in Koh Phangan at the New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party (see my guide to it here).

In between I did many amazing things. In February three friends and I went to South Africa for our friends’ wedding and made a trip to Botswana while we were there, which was amazing. I saw the sights in and around Cape Town – Table Mountain, Robben Island, a tour to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, Simon’s Town and The Boulders penguin colony, wine tasting near Stellanbosch, a tour of Langa and Khayelitsha townships, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and the V&A Waterfront. The four day trip to Botswana was stunning. We stayed in an all-inclusive resort (because there wasn’t anything else, we were in the middle of the Okavango Delta) called Khwai River Lodge and did two safaris every day during which we saw pretty much every animal you could see there. To name a few: hippos, wild dogs, giraffes, elephants, baboons, warthogs, vervet monkeys, tree squirrels, lions, impala, red lechwe, zebras, hyenas and many different types of birds. The highlight was seeing a mother leopard and her two cubs! We were very lucky. The last part of our trip was spent in and around Johannesburg, where my friends were getting married. As well as the amazing wedding day and spending time with friends and family, a large group of us also went to stay at a resort called Sun City via an elephant sanctuary. Whilst there we did a safari in Pilanesberg National Park where we saw rhinos – the only one of the ‘Big Five’ that we hadn’t seen in Botswana. For something completely different I also had the chance to do the world’s fastest zip line – two kilometers long and speeds of up to 160kph – it was awesome! (And completely got rid of my hangover!)

If you’d like to read more about my travels in South Africa and Botswana, check out my other blog entries here: Africa Adventure Summary, Cape Town, Botswana and Johannesburg and Sun City.

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I spent the summer travelling by train on the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railway from China to the UK via Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and France. I’ve written three blog posts about my summer travels so far – Beijing, the Trans-Mongolian Railway and Mongolia – but not completed the rest of them yet (they’re on my list!) because of the next thing that happened…

In addition to all this, I also got accepted as a writer for BASEDtraveler (B.emusing A.dventure S.ought E.very D.ay). This has involved a lot of work and it’s been a steep learning curve, but I’ve enjoyed it all! I’ve got my website all set up – BasedTravelerShenzhen – and I’m gradually getting the hang of all this social media and networking malarky. I’m also working on the Shenzhen Primer, a book with all the key information someone moving to Shenzhen would need, which was something I very much could have done with when I first moved here. I’ll keep you posted about my progress and when it’ll be published – hopefully around the summer!

For the October holiday I went to the Philippines for the third time, which was a nice chilled out and relaxing holiday, making the total number of countries I visited in 2015 the grand total of 15! Maybe I should aim for 16 this year?

 

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Summer Adventure part 2: Mongolia

Mongolia was surprising, a mix of big city and vast plains, hard living and great vegetarian restaurants. The people are friendly and generous, happy to welcome you into their homes and to share their food, despite the language barrier.

The only city in Mongolia, Ulaan-Baatar has around half of the country’s three million-strong population in its grasp. The city is busy, with numerous cars and trucks adding to the dusty roads. Many people move here from the countryside, hoping to earn more money, hoping to develop a different lifestyle. Less and less young adults are willing to take over their family’s nomadic traditions and livelihood. Perhaps one day the only place you will see a ger (the traditional circular fabric and wood tents that Mongolian nomadic families live in; often known by their Russian name ‘yurt’) is in a museum. In the city, strange letters decorated shop signs interspersed with occasional English words: Edinburgh Scottish Pub; Sod Classic Shop; Singer on a huge mural of a sewing machine. After less than a day, myself and the two friends I was travelling with (Emily and Louise) set off to experience life in a ger for ourselves.

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Only an hour or so after leaving the city, the landscape was dramatically different. Vast swathes of myriad hues of green covered the land; plains of grasses mingled with flocks of trees; occasional cows or villages added other shades of colour. Mountains emerged from the ground, adding their magnificence to the natural splendour surrounding us.

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The nomadic family we stayed with consisted of an older married couple, a young woman who was a cousin of some sort, a young boy about three years old and a pet sheep. We were told that the couple’s children were grown up and married and lived in the city. The small boy was their grandson who had come to stay with them for the summer; the dozen or so other children who we saw around and playing had also been sent to the encampment to stay with nomadic family members for the summer. This gave both the parents and children a bit of a holiday whilst the grandparents could spend precious time with them and teach them some traditional processes.

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One of these was milking the cows, which we all had a go at! This was done morning and evening every day, regardless of the weather (it rained the evening we were there so they milked the cows a little later than usual, once the rain stopped). I think I did an okay job of milking, although it wasn’t easy and I only did it for a few minutes. By this point it was quite chilly outside with a bitterly cold wind; I was very glad I’d bought a fleece in Ulaan-Baatar the day before as I’d forgotten to bring any kind of jacket or jumper on my travels!

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The family’s primary income was from dairy farming and produce, so we also got to see (and taste) a couple of other products: sour curd which is dried in the sun on the roof of their outdoor seating shelter next to a dead bird so that the live ones wouldn’t eat it, and a butter-type spread. To us it was very strange because almost everything tasted or smelled a little like sour milk, and some things (like the tea) were much more salty than we were expecting. In Mongolia it is traditional to add salt to tea and milk; our guide and translator told us that she preferred tea that way as that’s what she’s used to. I personally didn’t really like it, but that’s not to say I couldn’t become accustomed to it if I had to. (Although I hope I never have to! I’m very typical English when it comes to tea drinking.)

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Facilities were very basic. They had some electricity from solar panels on the roof, enough to power lights in the evening and a tiny television and satellite dish. The toilet was the other side of the cow field and was a shed with a long-drop. People washed themselves and their clothes at the nearby river. This was their summer location. In the autumn they would pack everything up and take themselves, their belongings, their gers and their cows to their winter location a few kilometres away. I have so much respect for these people; they have such hard lives and we just had a tiny taster of it.

Back in Ulaan-Baatar the next day we went on a city tour of the key historic and important areas, including the National Museum. One of the most impressive was a huge monument to Chinggis Khan (or as we know him, Gengis Khan) overlooking the central square. Bordering on another side was the National Theatre where we saw a traditional show including an orchestra made up of all traditional Mongolian instruments, a contortionist, dancers, fantastic costumes and – the best part – Mongolian throat singers. It was amazing! I would definitely recommend seeing it if you ever go there.

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Mongolia was a really interesting contrast to Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and I found out lots of fascinating things about Mongolia, its history and its people. Four days was at the same time too long and too short – too long for staying in the city, too short for exploring the stunning National Parks and meeting the people who live in them. My recommendation would be spend one day in the city and much longer (if you have time) exploring, although make sure you check that the standards of where you’re staying match your preference, as they can range from the very basic (which we had) to complete luxury (along the lines of ‘glamping’).

Our next train took us about 38 hours to reach our destination, and as it was very similar to the first one I’m not going to write a separate blog post about it! You can read about it here if you’d like to.

Next stop: Irkutsk, Russia.