Mongolian Adventure – Part 1 – UB life.

Top of my bucket list for 30 years, maybe before I even really knew what a bucket list was, was Mongolia. Why? Well, I remember seeing a travel programme in my teens, I think it was a Michael Palin one, and the desert, the gers, the camels, the smiling singing faces, I never forgot it. As I grew up and my interest in travel increased, I always connected with any documentary or book on this far away country of just over 3 million people, landlocked inside China and Russia.

For many years it was just a dream, too far away and too remote to see in a week, it would take planning and a longer than usual break from work, not to mention the expense. With limited public transport and vast swathes of desert and countryside to navigate, it’s a brave (or stupid person) who would try and navigate the roads and tracks without a local guide or expert driver. But in 2019 all the stars had aligned, I had booked myself on a tour, got my flight booked via Beijing, and with the visa in my passport, I was off on one of my greatest adventures to date.

I arrived a bit overwhelmed, I was finally here! Plus, the time difference and the fact that my luggage was still in Beijing didn’t help. So after finally getting advice and translation from a man in the American peace corps, I was reassured that if I returned the next morning, my bag should have arrived on the first flight in from China. There was nothing else to do, but get to my hotel in the centre of the capital, and go and explore.

It was early evening once I was ready, so I made it to enormous Sükhbaatar Square, in the heart of the capital, decorated with large statues erected in honour of many notable Mongolians, with the most famous and largest statue of all being the founder of the country, Genghis Khan. With benches all around, I just sat and took it all in, not quite believing I had made it, it was then I realised I had to get some money and sprung up to find an ATM. Although the Mongolian currency the Tögrög, isn’t a closed currency, most banks around the world don’t stock it, so it’s highly unlike you will be able to get your hands on some prior to your arrival. The capital is full of banks and ATM’s, both on the street and inside shops, it took me 3 goes, but I finally found one that recognised my UK card and dispensed some cash, there are also lots of currency exchanges too, so you could just bring your own money from home, if you don’t want to rely solely on your bank card. Feeling tired but with money in my pocket, I bought the most vegetable based snack I could find, well it was green coloured, and slowly meandered the streets, mentally making notes of places to visit the following day, before returning to my hotel and collapsing into a deep jet-lagged sleep.

The next morning, I pretty much jumped in a taxi and headed straight back to the airport to collect my newly landed rucksack, and then only getting slightly ripped off by a taxi man, returned back to the city centre. With a couple of hours before my hotel check out, I had enough time to change my clothes and head out to find some breakfast as I suddenly realised how hungry I was. I needed something hearty and vegan if possible and a quick internet search took me to Millies Espresso for black coffee and some stodgy carbs, perfect to keep me going for the rest of the day. Then I returned to collect my bags and dropped them off at the hotel that was to be the start of my Gadventures tour that evening.

The official start of the guided tour was the following morning, but we were to have a meet & greet that evening, so I pretty much had the full day to hit the main sights of the capital and do a few museums that I knew weren’t covered in the itinerary.  Ulaanbaatar is a fast growing city, with old and new merging as more people move away from the nomadic ger dwelling life, for city living instead. You have the Sükhbaatar Square with its proud statues of its past, but with new skyscrapers towering down above it, you can visit temples and a monastery, alongside shopping malls and hipster coffee shops, as well as watch a performance of traditional throat singing, or experience the laid back sounds of the UB Jazz club. It can be quite chaotic, noisy, overwhelming and frustrating, and sometimes all at the same time, but that in itself it’s part of its charm.

I already had the itinerary of where day 1 of my tour was visiting in the capital, so I decided to visit the main places not featured, as well as just some general wanderings to get a feel of the city, before we escaped out to the countryside. I stumbled upon some cool street art that I had to get a selfie with, to remind myself that it wasn’t a dream, but I had absolutely made it after all these years.

I then found myself across the street from the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Mongolia, instantly recognised due to the pink neoclassical building and white pillars, as well as another UlaanBaatar sign to get a photo with of course.

From here, it was only a short walk to the Choijin Lama Temple, its no longer a working temple, so you are free to explore the whole grounds inside and out, which includes 5 temples, statues, a stupa and traditional thangka paintings, it was a lovely tranquil place, to take a little respite from the busy city centre.

Next up, it was time to hit the National Museum of Mongolia pretty much a must see, even if you aren’t a fan of national museums, I would absolutely recommend this place as a history 101 of the country. You really get a sense of the incredible story of the country and the journey of its people so far & its got a good gift shop too, with inexpensive local crafts and postcards complete with stamps.

Starting to feel a little hungry, I ventured down Peace Avenue to Ulaanbaatar Department Store one of the largest shopping malls in the city, which along with loads of shops, has a number of cafe’s and restaurants inside, so I sat down to rest my feet, hydrate and grabbed a late lunch.

One of the more unusual sites you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Mongolia, is a statue of Liverpool’s finest, The Beatles. It’s only a short walk from the department store to a little square where people used to gather when the country was communist, to listen to music and discuss politics. For someone who has both lived and worked in Liverpool, it was a must see.

CC8BC77F-9D7A-44E3-B330-4118F2956D79

The remainder of the afternoon, I window shopped, explored a few gardens & squares with interesting statues and people watched over coffee, fighting my jet-lag before my evening meeting with my fellow travellers officially started. That evening, not all our group had arrived, heavy winds had delayed some of the flights in from China, so a bunch of us went for dinner and a beer in the hotel, before all getting a decent sleep, excited for the adventure ahead. UB Part Two to follow . . .

8869C4C8-2F2C-4E62-B7BD-B9F1CCA9D9B8

 

 

 

Skipton – castles, cafes & canals

The other week, as the year slid towards the middle of August, with no Sunday plans, and a dismal weather forecast, I still couldn’t face staying indoors and needed some adventure to temper my wanderlust.

A West Yorkshire town called Skipton had been a place I’d wanted to visit for a few years, always half arranged with someone or for some unspecified time and never quite making it happen. At around a 1hr 10 minute drive away, it was pretty much one decent podcast and maybe a couple of my favourite Parquet Courts songs, and before I knew it, I was pulling up to the long stay carpark round the back of the medieval castle, known as Bailey Carpark.

I arrived just as the clock was striking 10am, which conveniently enough is the time Skipton Castle opens it’s doors. There was a quite fumble of mobile phones, as the castle still requires an online booking prior to entry, and so myself and a group of women ahead of me, had to quickly log onto the castles website and book ourself in. It only took a few minutes and then with our barcodes ready, we were good to go. It’s paid entry only and there isn’t really a garden or grounds you can explore for free, so if you want to pass through the big stone gateway and imposing watch towers, you need to pay just under £10 to get in. The stone sign at the top reads ‘Desormais’ meaning Henceforth! A reminder of its French Norman history.

4BAFE181-5720-4514-BE09-4DBABF4E65F2_1_201_a

Once I was in, with my free map, I avoided the main entrance of the castle where the other early arrivals seemed headed, and veered left to peer inside the 700 year old St Johns Chapel. This stone building with large arched windows was pretty atmospheric as the morning sun streamed through, casting shadows on the cold floor, I was glad I had it all to myself.

I then headed back towards the castle, via the toilets (I have a weak bladder, what can I say) and climbed the Lady Anne’s steps to enter. It took maybe around 45 minutes to fully explore each room of the castle that is spread over 2 floors, with the exception of the east wing that’s still a private residence.

The castle is said to be one of the best preserved and most complete mediaeval castles in England, and at over 900 years old, there’s lots to explore. All the rooms are clearly labelled, and with the free illustrated map you get on arrival, you could probably spend longer if you really wanted to absorb yourself in its history.

There is a dungeon, the pretty cobbled Conduit Courtyard and lots of small stone staircases leading into interesting rooms. Highlights included the Lord’s bedchamber, the north fighting chamber, the beer and wine cellar, the curing room with large kitchen & the mediaeval long drop toilets, which gave me flashback to many a festival nightmare.

The withdrawing room, where Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner for a while, was another highlight, this particular room has a large north facing window, out of which Mary could look towards her homeland of Scotland. And look out for the purpose built crossbow slit window located in one of the fighting chambers, I can only imagine the gory chaos that it must have caused.

crossbow

So for even someone like myself, who’s not that well versed in this particular period in history, its still super interesting and due to its well preserved state, you really get a sense of what it must have been like when it was a busy, noisy fully functioning castle.

It was just after 11am once I was ready to leave and head down the main high street, after a quick look in the gift shop of course. There are loads of little independant shops selling local crafts, chocolate and walking gear. A few places that stood out were Ellie Warburton Cakes, Steep and Filter (a coffee shop with a zero waste refill centre), and Lighthouse Lane on the main street, full of quirky, local, Yorkshire themed gifts, of which the main photo of this post was taken from.

But for coffee and cake, I had my eye on Kibble Bakery, a dog friendly bakery and coffee house, with both indoor and outdoor seating, selling both human and dog friendly bakes, as well as dog accessories and tote bags (yes, I bought one). Of course I travelled alone, so had to make do with talking to the many dogs who turned up with their families, whilst I ordered their delicious plant based chocolate cookie with an oat milk cappuccino complete with adorable chocolate pawprint on the top.

My final stop was a walk along the Springs Canal, which you can easily access if you head left past the Holy Trinity Church. There is definately a lot more to explore here, and you could probably carve out a day just for walks in the area, but my main visit this time was for the castle and town centre, and as the rain started to come down just as I was leaving the coffee shop, I didnt venture too long up the towpath.

Luckily I wasnt too drenched by the time I got back to my car, and so I headed back west, into Lancashire. With the weather improving, there were some gorgeous views of the countryside, so I popped on another podcast and gradually made my way home.

4FF3A7D0-3ABB-4E45-A035-8FA6E605BAF1_1_201_a

 

Day trip to Prizren, Kosovo

The 2nd largest city in the country is over in the West, close to the Albanian border and is said to be the cultural capital. Although the main language here is Albanian, you will also find Serbian and Turkish dotted around too, making it an ethnically rich and vibrant place to visit. Only a 2 hour bus ride from Pristina for €4, I couldn’t resist a visit.

Buses leave the main station in Pristina starting from 07.20 and there’s a new one every 20 minutes, so even if you miss one, you wont have a long wait before the next. Although the bus service may have changed since Covid and quite possibly has been reduced.  You could travel in from N Macedonia, with buses taking around 2hr 20 from Skopje and around 3hrs from the Albanian capital of Tirana as well.

There is definitely enough to do for a day trip here, there is the gorgeous River Lumbardh which divides the city in two, with cafes and shops lining both sides and stone bridges to cross over and explore.

The main square is called Shadervan a stone piazza surrounded by cafes, restaurants and bars, it was here I got my bearings and mentally ticked off a place to return to later for some lunch, as well as picking up a couple of souvenirs and postcards to send back home.

CEFA8B09-9797-4F7E-8CBA-8958EF56C41E

There is a UNESCO protected monastery here too, the Our Lady of Ljevis. Unfortunately you could only see the outside, as the building was locked and I believe you can only enter as part of a group with advanced bookings needed (because it has been broken into a number of times and many of the ancient artefacts have been stolen). So if you turn up unannounced like I did, this will be the closest you will get to it. Still . . . it’s an attractive, impressive building.

Overlooking the main part of the city, you cannot fail to miss the Mosque of Sinan Pasha which has been designated a monument of cultural importance. Built in 1615, its large dome and minaret are an integral part of the cities skyline, and although weather and time have damaged the building, and there was a call to turn it into a museum, UNESCO donated some money for renovations and to preserve its religious heritage, and so 400+ years later, its still standing proud.

525A6A43-69EC-4102-AFB0-F931397CE3FA

Another interesting religious building in the area is the Roman Catholic Cathedral known as Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Succourwith an impressive clocktower built by a Croatian monk in the 1870’s. It was open too, and has some cool frescos to explore.

4FDC6694-A15B-451F-9D1A-A73B74590CF6

The highlight for me was the walk up to Prizen Castle and Fortress. You may want to grab lunch first, as its a bit of a steep walk, taking about 15 minutes to get up to the site, but the views are absolutely worth it. It’s really easy to find the path as its well signposted around the city centre, look out for the orthodox church and there will be a road and signpost upwards.

History goes back as far as the 1100 BC up here on the hillside, with records of a fortress being build a little later in the 6th Century. There’s lots to explore with information boards to give you an idea of what it would have been like when it was a thriving fortification. But best of all, the view is spectacular (and a bit windy up top too) you can see across to the Albanian border and the Šar mountains with the city of Prizren and River Lumbardh below.

And that was pretty much my day trip to Prizren, being plant based it was as struggle to find a lunch that suited, so I ordered vegetarian & made a few switches, added a diet coke and I was fully replenished before the bus ride back to the capital.

3E2B359C-73AA-40A1-A3CE-9811B354FA16

Weekend in Mostar

fullsizeoutput_838
Bosnia and Herzegovina or BIH to those in the know,  was a place that I had been curious about ever since I developed an interest in the Balkans. It’s also a place that I associated with terrible news stories of the Bosnian war which appeared on the TV news in my late teens. On my return from Montenegro last year, myself and mum started looking at other countries in the region, and before we knew it, we had booked flights into Croatia and buses onward to this beautiful, mountainous war warn country.
ARRIVALS If you are planning to travel from the UK then you will have to get creative, as there are currently no direct flights into BIH from any airport in the UK. Sarajevo Airport has a number of daily flights from Istanbul, Munich and Vienna among other places, so you could go via there, the smaller but developing Mostar Airport has flights coming in from Dusseldorf and Stuttgart with more destinations being added soon I believe. Most people will travel overland like we did, coming in from the neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia. The country is set up well for bus travel, with many daily options available from popular places such as Dubrovnik, Kotor and Llubjiana. You will be crossing land borders, so make sure you have some spare change if you want to put your bag in the hold and have your passport ready for the border crossing. I have used Get By Bus a number of times now without any problems and this was no exception. On this trip we based ourselves in Mostar, which is not too far from the Croatian and Montenegro borders, we took the bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar for €16 taking 3 1/2 hours (not including the 2 hour delay on departure) and then went home via Split in Croatia (it left on time!) which took just over 4 hours. Trains are limited in BIH, but it is possible to travel between the capital Sarajevo and Mostar, rail cc website is probably your best bet for further research. Both the train and bus stations are a short 10 minute walk from the old town.

 

HISTORY BIT Phew, well, its complicated that’s for sure, and I am definitely no expert on the region. Visiting Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia prior to this trip I have learnt many different perspectives on who did what and why regarding the recent wars and I’m still pretty confused even now.  Located along the Balkan peninsula, the Bosnia Herzegovina area has had settlements here since 10,000 BC, its been part of the Roman and then Ottoman Empires with Germanic and Slavic tribes all laying claim at some point. It was in 1929 that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed of which Bosnia and Herzegovina were a part of, and remained until 1991 when the country started to fall apart and the many resulting conflicts started. The Bosnian war lasted from 1992-1995 and from what I can tell speaking to locals and visiting a few museums in the area, the Serbians and Croats both tried to lay claim to the region with the Bosniaks stuck in the middle, a peace agreement was finally agreed and signed in Paris at the end of 1995.

There is still a complicated political structure set up today, and while BIH functions as one country, its kind of divided up into 3 provinces with the 3 presidents rotating duties every 8 months, or at least that is the current situation but elections are due later in 2018, so it could all change again.
SIGHTS The star of the show has to be without question the Stari Most or the Old Bridge, rightfully it has been given UNESCO world heritage status and is the reason for the name of the city as ‘most’ means bridge. Originally built in 1557 this stone bridge took 9 years to build, connecting the two sides of the Neretva river with massive towers or ‘bridge keepers’ flagging either side. An iconic image of the country, in 1993 the Croatians blew up the bridge and it became an even more important landmark once it was rebuilt in 2004, using the traditional Ottoman techniques with local stone. We walked over the bridge many times on our explorations of the town, taking care not to trip over the staircase like steps that are built into the walk way and the views of the valley and surrounding hills are stunning. There are many restaurants and bars that line the side of the river, affording great views of the bridge day and night as well as a great picture and vantage point a short walk south on the west side of the river. We got stopped by an ‘official guide’ on our first morning, who showed us his tour guide laminate, so he must have been official right? He took us to a scenic photo spot, gave us some ‘facts’ about the bridge, took our picture and then promptly wanted about £20 from us, luckily my mum firmly told him no, gave him some change and he reluctantly walked away, next time we should just bring our selfie stick! That was the only time on our trip to BIH that we ever had any issues, everybody else was friendly, welcoming and not trying to make a fast buck. There is also a Museum of the Old Bridge which is spread over 5 floors inside the Tara Tower on the east side of the river, covering the stories of both the original and restored bridges.
The Old Town of Mostar is just a joy to walk around, full of history, beautiful repaired buildings, lots of cafes, restaurants and shops selling lavender, clothes, pottery and gorgeous copper tea sets. I really had to resist my usual restraint of not buying souvenirs, but did weaken to buy a BIH Football shirt, which I am wearing proudly as I write this. There are lots of restaurants and cafes serving inexpensive local dishes and the most amazing thick Bosnian coffee which you can drink right by the river as you take in the breathtaking views and soak up the atmosphere.  Whereas some popular tourist spots rip you off for having the experience of a glass of wine or coffee right in the heart of the action, the cafes and bars along the River Neretva especially those with great views of the bridge were all decently priced and we never felt rushed to finish up and move along. Just wandering along the cobbled streets, drinking coffee and chatting to the local shop keepers was a real highlight of our trip.
You cannot fail to hear the many calls to prayer that calmly ring out across the city 5 times a day from the 30+ mosques in the city.  The most prominent and largest being the Karogoz Bey Mosque which is open to the public, as is the 2nd largest Koskin-Mehmed Pasha with a tower you can climb up for epic views across the city. Although we managed a good look around the grounds, the mosque was closed for prayer when we arrived to climb the tower and we didn’t get time to return, at least on this visit . Both mosques are situated in the old town and easy to get too by foot, just a short walk from the bridge.
fullsizeoutput_6f7
However you enter Mostar, via train, car or bus, one thing that is bound to catch your attention, are the war torn ruins of the many buildings that have either so far failed to be rebuilt or are purposely left as a stark reminder of the war that only finished less than 30 years ago. It makes for a thought provoking walk that’s for sure, there are free walking tours that can take you to many of the important sights, but you only need to walk a few streets away from either side of the river to get a good idea of just how ravaged this beautiful town was not that long ago.
Sniper tower is hard to miss, a former 8 storey bank, this pointed granite building looks out across the city, look for the hole blasted into the wall right at the top, this was the snipers look out point. Across the road from the tower is Spanish Square, now a popular meeting place, it was built in remembrance of the Spanish troops who died in the war, the impressive Moorish gymnasium on the corner of this main street provides some colourful relief from the other burnt out buildings nearby. A few streets back from this busy intersection is Santica Street which was the front line of the Bosnian war, Croatians on one side of the street and the Serbians were on the other, there is evidence everywhere of the full destruction of the past, but it also shows just how far this country and its people have pulled together to rebuild.

Biscevic House is one of many traditional Turkish Ottoman houses of which there are many throughout the region. This particular house is held in high regard in the country and even mentioned in poems and songs.  Dating from the 1600’s this house is now a museum and national monument and open to the public daily, we missed the opening times due to a packed Bosnian schedule, but its on my list if I am lucky enough to return some day.

Crooked Bridge As you wander through the town, look out for the mini Stari Most, which was built as a prototype about 8 years before the main bridge.  Overlooking the Radobolja River, locals set up stalls nearby and there are some nice little bars and cafes alongside it, it’s the perfect place to stop and chill.

If you fancy some more history about this wonderful country, its archeology, costumes and customs, then head to the Museum of Herzegovina open daily until 2pm. I have yet to visit a traditional Hamam (maybe when I finally make it to Turkey?) but if you want to learn more about this Turkish tradition of bathing, then the Hamam Museum is the place to do your research (closed on Mondays).

Coffee and Cake. Our first morning we sat outdoors at the Koski Basta Caffe in the fresh morning light right by the entrance to the Old Bridge as a sign advertising ‘Bosnian Coffee’ caught our eye. Located on the west side of the bridge, we were served the most delicious thick coffee with a small pastry, on a traditional copper serving dish all for about €3. Our second morning in the town we were tempted by the ‘sweet bosnian breakfast’ on the menu of Moon Star Cafe and Pizzeria right by the Hamam Museum. It was delicious, and a little cat came to join us for some of the bread we were eating. It had comfy outdoor seating with great views of the hills in the distance. For cake, on our first night we visited Caffe Amir as it was close to our hotel on the south end of Adema Buca Street. A lovely family run cafe that has been there since 1978, they do a great selection of coffee and teas and an amazing array of cakes with lots of outdoor seating, it was a great introduction to Mostar life.

 

Eats Our first nights choice was given a glowing report by our Herzegovina tour guide who used to work there, so we headed over to Hindin Han. This restaurant is based inside a restored mill, with an outdoor terrace overlooking a little stream. They offer local Mostar beers and wines and a great selection of cheeses served with delicious bread, there is a good selection of traditional dishes and its inexpensive and friendly, it was a good decision. We also visited Restoran Lagero this place has an outdoor terrace looking over the River Neretva with a great view of the Stari Most, we ordered a bottle of Bosnian wine and had home made date cake, although rather rich, it didn’t stop either of us from eating the lot.

Extras If you like an adrenalin rush (so not me then!) you can pay €25 euros to dive off the Stari Most, or if you just prefer watching other people doing daft stuff, then Red Bull hold a bridge diving competition in Mostar every year. Mostar is surrounded by hills, many accessible by road, Hum Hill is easily spotted from all across the town as it’s the one with the large cross on the top and can be hiked if you have the stamina. We were lucky to be driven to the top of Hill Fortica by our Herzegovina tour guide, which I will write more about in my next post, but the views back down to Mostar, the historical significance of the hill top and hair pin bends up the side of the mountainous road where rather unforgettable as was the whole Mostar experience and I can’t wait to return.

IMG_6179

Always be polite ‘Thank You’ – ‘Hvala’  ‘Hello’ – ‘Zdravo’ ‘Please’ – ‘Molimo vas’ ‘Beer’ – ‘Pivo’