Rome: In Pictures

St Ambrose said “If you are at Rome, live in the Roman style.” Good advice. I spent the last few days of my round the world trip eating well, drinking well and sleeping well. There was some sightseeing too.

COLUSSEUM

It was one of those perfect evenings when you walk around familiarising yourself and suddenly stumble upon the iconic landmarks you’ve only seen on screen. It’s not difficult to do that in this city.

ALTARE DELLA PATRIA

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A huge yet minor detail of the Fountain of the Adriatic Sea.

PANTHEON

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The sun casting a heavenly image upon the ceiling. It rains inside the church too.

GELATO

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More flavours than I’ve ever seen. Yes, those labels do say ‘Celery Cream’ and ‘Gorgonzola’ (which actually tasted quite nice).

SPANISH STEPS

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I don’t know how people find each other at this ‘popular meeting place.’

CAFFÈ GRECO

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This was nearby. It was a real treat having coffee and canolli in these beautiful surroundings. Back in the day, the café was frequented by the likes of Byron, Keats and Casanova.

BOCCA DELLA VERITÀ

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A Hepburn moment. Couldn’t help it.

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Moscow: In Pictures

Bold, cold and decadent. Here’s a snapshot of my short stay in Moscow:

RED SQUARE

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Beautiful. Even at -8c.

GUM

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The food hall at Red Square’s famously luxurious shopping mall. It’s an odd juxtaposition – row upon row of top designer brands opposite Lenin’s Mausoleum.

KREMLIN

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Joseph Stalin is buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

METRO

Palaces for the people. The architecture and lighting on Moscow’s underground are stunning.

There are sculptures too:

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This is a bronze of a frontier guard and his dog at Ploshchad Revolyutsii station. Everybody rubs its nose for luck. I even saw a man leap off the train for a quick touch and get back on again.

AFTERNOON TEA

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The interior at Cafe Pushkin is a feast for the eyes, let alone the cakes.

ARBAT STREET

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Every souvenir you can imagine can be found on this street – one of Moscow’s oldest. Lots of cool bars and cafes too.

VODKA

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A tasting session at the Baltschug Kempinski Hotel. Purely educational.

Six Time Zones in Six Days: The Trans-Mongolian Train

imageFour months ago, I didn’t think I’d be here. I thought all hopes of getting back to Europe via the Trans-Mongolian had been dashed. When I planned my round the world trip, the agency told me I could apply for my Russian visa on the road. Not any more. No country between Ecuador and China would allow me to do that, because I wasn’t a citizen of that country. So, I took a gamble. Whilst in Australia, I couriered my passport back to London and used my driver’s license to get between Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin. It paid off. I was on my way to Moscow from Beijing.

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This was my home for the whole 7,621 km – a 2nd class 4 berth cabin. It wasn’t as cramped as I thought it would be. The two top bunks are pushed up during the day,

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I stored my rucksack under one of the bottom bunks, which are the day seats

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and I was given sheets, blankets and a pillow to make a bed at night. Once we reached Siberia, I was very glad I’d also brought my sleeping bag.

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You’re never without a hot drink though. There’s a coal fired samovar at the end of each carriage which provides constant hot water. There’s also an insulated jug in each cabin. The fresh coffee bags I bought in New Zealand came in handy. I’d also stocked up on instant soups from Australia, porridge from Indonesia and noodles from China. It was almost exotic. There’s a restaurant carriage that serves hot meals for about $10, but it runs out of things very quickly. Here’s the Mongolian menu to give you a taste of what’s on offer:

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The menu changes when the restaurant changes at each border crossing.

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The wood carved interior of the Mongolian one takes you right back to the times of Genghis Khan. It’s decorated with bows and arrows and paintings of wild horses.

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The Russian one is like an ’80s disco bar with lots of chrome and plastic seats. It also has a tuck shop next door where you can buy biscuits, crisps and chocolate. At some stations, there are ladies on the platform selling shopping trolleys full of snacks. Most stops last around 20 minutes, which gives you time to hop out.

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This was a bogie change just before the Mongolian border. It was the start of an exhausting few hours. The work begins at around midnight and after that, there are customs and immigration checks – loud knocks at the door, lights on and a lot of shouting, all at 3am. Spare a thought for one passenger though who was stranded at a station in his pyjamas for two hours. He mistimed the loo break and had to wait until we returned from the bogie change at the depot.

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At 1030, I pulled back the curtain and woke up in the Gobi. I was staring at this landscape for miles and miles. Suddenly, I felt very hot. “The heating’s come on quickly” I thought to myself. I then noticed the flames lapping against the window next to my face. For a moment I thought the train was on fire, but we were actually travelling through a series of small fires right on the tracks. Mongolian farmers were carrying out some controlled burning. I think it got a little out of hand.

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An hour later, we spotted this giant Bhudda keeping a watchful eye over a cemetery in the middle of nowhere. This is what makes train travel so special. When you go cross-country, you never miss out.

That night, another border crossing beckoned. This time, we were welcomed in by the Russian authorities. Our luggage was searched, the air vents were checked and sniffer dogs pulled their handlers up and down the carriages. All routine stuff, but quite unsettling when you’re half asleep in your pyjamas.

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On the second morning, we woke up beside Lake Baikal – the oldest lake in the world.

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Through the rest of Siberia and beyond, we found ourselves in the middle of a winter wonderland. These were my favourite mornings. There’s nothing better than being wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a hot drink in one hand, a book in the other and looking out at that.

The snow made carriage-hopping more fun too:

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Getting to know your neighbours helps pass the time.

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Meet my first roommate Lucy from the UK (bottom left) along with Alex and Tyler from Australia and Arthus from China.

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Here’s my second roommate Erkhembayar, from Mongolia. Who knew that you could spend hours talking about family and work using only pictures and the power of mime? His sister spoke fluent English and he phoned her all the way in Bahrain, just so that we could establish a line of communication. It turned out that she studied in the city where I live.

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The Trans-Mongolian was undoubtedly one of the best parts of my round the world trip. The people you meet and the sights that you see are what make this train journey so special. Being rocked to sleep under the stars and waking up somewhere completely different is another experience I won’t forget. The time passes surprisingly quickly and yet when you look at the map, you’ve almost carved your way across half the world. It was the best way to start my journey home.
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GENERAL ADVICE

Safety: I didn’t feel threatened travelling on my own, but you can try and get a cabin next to the guards – as long as you don’t mind them singing, smoking or frying eggs in the morning
Power: Don’t rely on your electric device for reading books. None of the sockets I tried in any of the second class carriages worked
Hygiene: Be prepared for a music festival toilet experience

WHAT TO TAKE

1. Toilet roll, baby wipes and antibacterial gel
2. Dollars in small denominations. They’re accepted in the restaurant / tuck shop if you run out of local currency
3. Indoor shoes
4. Actual books (see above)
5. A travel mug, cutlery and instant foods for back up

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I’m dedicating this post to Helena Crummet Lee – my friend’s Great Grandmother who, as a woman in the early 1900s, was more adventurous than me!

The Mistake I Made with China

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It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. I was hiking along the Great Wall of China – a huge dragon spine criss-crossing the mountains between Jinshanling and Simatai. I knew it would be breathtaking, but not on the scale I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting the silence either, or the autumn colours which helped paint this storybook scene.

It was also damn hard:

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We climbed 22 of these towers to reach Simatai. In some places, I thought my boots were going to slide back down the stoney slopes. It was Qin Shi Huang who rebuilt the wall to protect his Empire. He wanted to protect himself too – in the afterlife:

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The Terracotta Warriors are a formidable sight. They even have different expressions. Some of them look quite fearsome and are already drawing their bow and arrow.

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What’s also special about this exhibition is that you’re walking around a working excavation site. Equipment’s left out and there are markers to show what archaeologists have discovered, like the remains of this war chariot:

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Getting to the museum in Xi’an was an experience in itself:

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The bullet train reached speeds of up to 305 km/h. It was super efficient. The guards on the platform shouted at us through loudhailers, ordering us to stand in line at an exact spot. It was like herding hundreds of cattle – but it worked. The door to my carriage stopped right before my feet (which I was told not to put too close to the edge and was ushered back).

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Welcome to the Forbidden City. I didn’t fully appreciate the size of it until I got this view from the top of Jinshan Park.

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At the inner court, you can peek through the windows of the private chambers. There’s thick dust lying on top of these exquisite silks and carpets – as if they haven’t been touched since the end of the Qing dynasty.

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At the outer court, you see where the official ceremonies took place. This is Hall of Supreme Harmony where emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties were enthroned and married.

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108 paces per minute, with 75cm per pace. This is the People’s Liberation Army taking part in the daily flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. When I went through the security check, hundreds and hundreds of excited people were rushing to get a good view. It was a real spectacle. As crowds huddled together and smiled for the camera, it was hard to watch their happy expressions. The news reports you associate with Tiananmen Square remind you of what took place 25 years ago on the spot where they were standing.

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My visit was over. The Trans-Mongolian train was waiting. I was sad about that. When I planned this part of the trip, I was wary – friends’ visa applications had been refused and it was hard for me to envisage an entirely different culture and having to speak a language I couldn’t even read. Subconsciously, I think that’s why I didn’t schedule a longer stay. I wish I had.

Singapore: A Trip to the Hawker Centre

The Hawker centre is a theme park for foodies – old favourites and things you’re afraid to try, for fear of being ill.

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Welcome to Maxwell’s in Chinatown. The idea is to grab a seat (I used a t-shirt to reserve mine, but if you have a child that’s even better) and then line up at one of the dozens of food stands to order what you want. It’s busy, it’s shouty, but it’s quick – the freshest fast food you’ll ever eat.

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There was too much to try, so I went for a variety of snacks instead of a sit down meal. This plate of spicy tofu cost $1 SGD.

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Next up, a couple of savoury bean cakes. Red and green. They have the consistency of a bean burger, but are pale on the inside and not very flavoursome. They were filling though. $1 SGD each.

I then went for a stroll to find something sweet but was distracted by a queue of about fifty people outside this chicken stand:

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A couple of the customers showed me what they’d bought:

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Combined with dishes from other stands and fresh fruit juices too, all six of them had prepared a feast for less than $50 SGD.

Finally, I spotted a sign for carrot cake:

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Sadly, they’re pieces of grated radish, water and flour (is that the cake part?) that are stir fried and mixed with a spicy sauce.

The porridge wasn’t what I expected either:

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It’s like a fishy hot rice pudding. Frog porridge is a popular version too.

Names and colours really can play tricks on your mind:

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These are only hard boiled eggs with food colouring, but it puts you off, doesn’t it?!

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In my search for something sweet, I did try one of these – a cempedak fritter. For me, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Although the juice tasted sweet, it had a really chewy, slimy texture and smelled like urine. Thankfully, the stall also sold banana fritters, so I took one of those as well. $2.40 SGD.

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Not all the fruits here are deep fried. There are stallholders who’ll happily stuff as many as you’d like into a liquidiser. Their menus will explain why certain fruits (and vegetables) are good for you too. I chose a simple ‘ABC’ – apple, beetroot and carrot for $2.50 SGD.

It was a good way to round off lunch. If you’re hungry for variety, a Hawker Centre is the place to go. If you’re not, just stroll around and watch what’s going on.

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This man was making dumplings at the speed of light. Every single one was exactly the same size and shape with a delicate twist at the top.

Tempting, aren’t they?

“It’s Just like Canary Wharf – Only Hotter”

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In some ways, my friends back home were right. A Friday night at Marina Bay is swarming with expats letting off steam – bankers, PR professionals and on this occasion, an unkempt backpacker who hadn’t been a part of this world for a very long time. Due to the generous hospitality of these working folk, the globetrotter travelling machine temporarily malfunctioned.

But beyond the bars and in the cold light of day, there’s more to Singapore than you might think. Take a look at these Peranakan houses:

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And shophouses:

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They’re a colourful reminder of Singapore’s cultural history. So is this:

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Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple is the oldest in Little India. It turned out to be the most welcoming too. As I wandered around, staring up at the statues, a man thrust some greaseproof paper into my hand. A few seconds later, it was filled with rice and spicy lentils. A kind gesture towards a non-Hindu.

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For a taste of the country’s colonial past, a friend and I sipped a Singapore Sling at The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. Two of those signature cocktails came in at around $60 SGD but that’s the price you pay for putting yourself in Ernest Hemingway’s shoes. I wondered if his own feet kicked around the monkey nut shells that were scattered around the floor. The bartender told us it was a tradition. The bar used to be the only place in the city where you wouldn’t be punished for such a crime.

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Singapore does have its rules. Look at this line for the MRT. There are coloured arrows on the floor – red for waiting and green for alighting. You can also get fined for drinking or eating anywhere at the station, or on board.

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It’s the most orderly and the most opulent city I’ve visited so far. Never before have I seen shoppers use a boat to get from one luxury store to another. This is a mall at Marina Bay Sands. You can get a fantastic view from the top of the complex (there’s an infinity pool there too, of course).

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A real Wheel of Fortune. I spotted it as I was peering into the Bhudda Gaya Temple and with only one month left of my trip, why not take a random guess at what the future might hold? You’re told to place your finger at the animal which corresponds to the year you were born. Then, like a telephone dial, you spin it around – ladies go left, gentlemen go right. Mine stopped at number 4. This is what is said:

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I’ll settle for that. Next stop – China.

10 Reasons Why I’ll Go Back to Bali

I get it. I understand why travellers love Bali. It’s beautiful, it’s spiritual and everybody smiles – even while they’re being knocked down by a scooter. It’s probably the hippiest happiest place on earth. It’s also the place where backpackers can afford mani-pedis and a restaurant lunch with a five star view costs less than an M&S sandwich.

 

1. BREATHTAKING LANDSCAPES

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This is the Tegalalang Rice Terrace. No wonder Bali’s unique irrigation system is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

 

2. FOOD

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Spicy food, healthy food and comfort food. Nasi campur, a macrobiotic meal at Bali Bhudda and a rice pudding my neighbour brought round for breakfast.

 

3. UBUD

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It’s all about art. Beautiful works by Lempad in the Puri Lukisan (above) and the Neka museum. A small collection of Walter Spies’ paintings at ARMA.

 

4. HIKING

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This is the view at 1,717m from Mount Batur. Mount Agung is on the other side of the lake. To its left, you just make out Mount Rinjani over on Lombok.

 

5. CEREMONIES

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I came across these ladies on my way home one day. They were taking fruit offerings to the temple.

 

6. A LITTLE THANKS

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I’ve found an offering outside my front door every morning. Sometimes there’s even a little cracker or some rice. The trouble and care that goes into these makes them very special indeed.

 

7. TEMPLES

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Tirta Empul. The waters here are said to come from a holy spring, which is why thousands of people use the fountains for spiritual purification.

 

8. THE BEACH

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This was a real treat. Nusa Dua was very laid back. Amed is also on my list for next time.

 

9. MAKING FRIENDS WITH YOUR ENEMIES

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A quick game of hide-and-seek at Monkey Forest in Ubud. When your breakfast has been stolen by these critters, it’s hard to like them. I tried.

 

10. LOCAL ENTERTAINMENT

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There are always plenty of opportunities to see Kecak, Barong or Legong dances, but shadow puppet shows are few and far between. I love them – the combination of the live gamelan music and the narrator screeching his way through an often violent story, is really captivating.

 

The thought of returning to Bali one day is something to keep my spirits up as this amazing twelve month journey reaches its final stages. Next stop – Singapore.