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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Microstate of Liechtenstein

When I took a month off to travel, pre-pandemic (ah those were the days) I made it my mission to visit Liechtenstein as it was my final European microstate that I had to visit.

It was a destination that had flummoxed me a few times, as I had been to or near to towns in Austria or Germany that appeared to be on a train line close by, but in actuality it wasn’t as simple as I had initially thought, and I never quite made it.

But, in 2019 I gave myself 2 weeks to travel across Europe, visiting a few new places, ending up at a music festival in Spain, so I had the luxury of time to plan a trip specifically to visit Europe’s 4th smallest country & I am so glad I made the effort.

I took probably the easiest route in, which involved a train from Zurich with gorgeous views of the lakes and mountains, (definitely get a window seat if you can). Taking just over an hour, you get off at the Swiss border town of Sargans, minutes from the border. There is only 1 train line in Liechtenstein, but it doesn’t pass through the capital, it crosses further north, starting in Buchs, Switzerland over to Feldkirch in Austria.

The 12 E bus was perfect for me, you get it outside Sargans station, and takes about 15 minutes to get to Vaduz the capital, costing about £2 if memory serves.

Once I arrived in the capital, it was a short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the one and only Youth Hostel in the country, taking in the stunning mountain views all around.

 

Once refreshed, I set back up the road to explore the capital, feeling a little tired from my journey I took it easy for the rest of the day, exploring the shops, cafes and trying the local beer. I would leave the popular castle for day 2 & made an obligatory stop at the tourist information centre to get a local map. It was nice not to have much of an itinerary, but wandering, taking photos, window shopping (its an expensive country!) & constantly gawking at the incredible surrounding scenery.

Being on a budget, and only a few days into my 2 week journey, dinner was bought at the local supermarket and cooked at the hostel. But this tiny country sitting between Austria and Switzerland is surrounded by breathtaking mountainous views, which I could luckily enjoy from my hostel window, so I most definitely could not complain.

That evening, I picked up a walking trail close to the hostel and headed South towards the Swiss border. I found myself at the famous Rhine River, which acts as a border between the two countries and I had a lovely walk as the sun started to set. I crossed over bridges between the two countries, with a line marking the spot of the border half way across the river. Of course I couldn’t resist getting a couple of photos of me standing in both countries at the same time.

I had pretty much a full second day in the capital, as I was catching the night train to Slovenia at around 9PM that evening. Once I had checked out of the hostel, I stored my rucksack in the lockers located in the centre of the town. I can’t quite remember exactly where the lockers were, but they were on the east side of the main road right in the heart of Vaduz.

My first stop was up to see Vaduz castle, I headed there first, as its location on a hilltop, is 120 metres above Vaduz, so thought it best to avoid hiking up in the midday sun. A fortress initially in the 12th century, it gradually expanded to become a proper residence, with the royal family moving there in the 1700’s. Although it did become abandoned many years later, the royal family renovated it and moved back in and still live there today, meaning that you can’t actually visit inside. Don’t let that put you off making the trip though, the hike up is lovely, with some incredible views all around.

If you have had your fill of window shopping and cafes the Kunst Museum is an airy, interesting, artistic space. Built across two levels, the museum houses both modern & contemporary art from worldwide artists, a cafe and of course the all important gift shop. If an entire art gallery is too much to handle, you can still get your fill of cool, unusual sculptures dotted around the city centre, like the Colombian Reclining Women.

Next up was the Neo Gothic Vaduz Cathedral or Cathedral of St Florin. Quite a simple, peaceful place, I had it almost to myself, I must have timed it just right. It had some lovely stained glass inside, and made for a cool, quiet rest stop.

Due to the mild climate and south west facing slopes, vineyards are a common sight along with the ever present mountains, so it’s no surprise that there are many companies offering wine tasting trips. That wasn’t something I had the time, money or inclination to do, but I still had a wander out of the main centre and into the countryside to explore the rows of grapes vines, and I even came across some grazing goats.

It was another supermarket late lunch, as not only are the cafes and restaurants expensive, the plant based options were limited, but I didn’t quite mind as I found a bench in the shade, and took my last views of the surrounding landscape.

Although my night train onward wasn’t till late, I fancied a look around the Swiss border town of Sargans, which is where I boarded the bus to Vaduz and would be boarding the train to Slovenia. So, feeling refreshed, I grabbed my rucksack and only had a few minutes to wait to get the bus back over the border to continue my adventure.

Would I return, actually yes I would, it’s a bit of a faff to get too, and the only way in is via expensive Austria or Switzerland, so it’s never going to be a cheap trip. But if I got the opportunity, I think I would fancy Schaan, the largest city in the country and this time I would bring my walking boots and head up some of the many walking trails. You can never get enough of those incredible mountain views and fresh alpine air.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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