Obtaining visas – a chore or pure excitement as it takes you one step closer to your travels?

As we all seek to explore some of the most far-flung places, we have to increasingly check the visa requirements for our next destination. It goes without saying that for both of us we are very lucky. The British and Australian passports are two really good ones to have, meaning in a lot of instances visas can be obtained on arrival or better still, are not needed or are free.

Our Passports to travel!

For our most recent trip we not only researched the visa requirements for our adventure using various websites, but also by visiting the various embassy pages and via the Real Russia pages. We had plenty of pages left in our passport – phew what a relief as we were going to need a few visas!

For me, I’ve always enjoyed dropping my passport off at a consulate or embassy. In my experience the task provides you with the first glimpse of what to expect when you reach your final destination.

I remember back in 2005 when I was heading off to India, I trotted down to the embassy on Aldwych (this process and application procedure have long since been superseded). I duly queued for an hour before the allotted opening time and no sooner had the doors opened, the bun fight began. I think it’s fair to say India isn’t the most organised of places, and the slight chaos that greeted me as the embassy opened was good preparation of what awaited in India!

On another occasion I obtained my Ethiopian visa from the embassy in London and the quietly spoken ladies processed it without delay. The building was a little old fashioned, but none of that matters as long as the service you receive is good. Again, the embassy was a reflection of the place – I would later find the same gentle, softly spoken ladies in Ethiopia.

Sometimes it’s not possible to obtain visas before you go. We experienced this with our Myanmar visas. As soon as we arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, we headed out in search of the Myanmar embassy. No one quite knew were it was, but our taxi driver kept stopping and asking and eventually found it. Once inside the gates the polite and helpful embassy staff greeted us. The serene atmosphere inside the grounds and attitude of the staff were truly a reflection of the Myanmar people – polite, gentle and kind. We duly returned three days later (this time I directed the taxi from the back seat!) only to be given back our passports with some tourist information!

Above all one thing is for sure for us. When we get to an embassy to pick up our passports its a race to flick through the pages with excitement and see the new stamp. Our passports really are our one of our most prized possessions, and for us obtaining visas is all part of the excitement of travel!

– Natalie

London Zoo – tour some of the world’s most exotic animals in an afternoon

Zoos – they divide opinion and raise a range of emotions. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay, and the one in London is particularly famous.

London Zoo

London Zoo

London Zoo opened its doors in 1828 and is famous for many things including being the world’s oldest scientific zoo. The original purpose of the site was for scientific studies to take place and it only actually opened to the public in 1847. Since then it has grown from strength to strength and despite some financial concerns in the 1990s, it opens its doors daily for excited children and adults alike.

The zoo now houses over 750 species of animal, with an individual head count of well over 16,000 creatures. Not bad going considering its central London location. I first went with my parents as a child, and only returned today for the first time in about twenty years.

Now it’s about at this point I should probably be honest. Zoos are not my favourite place in the world. Todays visit was brought on by the opportunity to meet up with a couple of friends, both of whom where going with some lovely little ones in tow. On the rare occasions that I have visited zoos, the experience has not sat too well with me. Often the cramped conditions and pacing animals can be an unhappy sign of the bleak outlook of the residents. I do however appreciate that a lot of good work goes on inside zoos around the world, both in terms of research and breeding programmes. Breeding progammes are in place for well over 130 species at this particular zoo, for which I take my hat off to the dedicated staff there.

For me as I child visiting, a couple of memories stand out in my mind. The elephants, penguins, giant pandas and the statue of Guy the Gorilla! Whilst Guy is still there (in statue format!), several other statues have joined him and things have changed a bit to keep up with the more modern, interactive times we live in.

Fish in the aquarium

Fish in the aquarium

Elephants had been at London Zoo for over 170 years, when the decision was taken to move them to more spacious surroundings at the sister zoo, Whipsnade. This I can only support. This move was made in part to increase the elephant breeding and conservation programme in the UK, but also as it was widely accepted that the conditions for the elephants at London Zoo were no longer big enough (and in truth, never had been). As for the Giant Pandas, Ming Ming was the zoos last resident. Several attempts were made to breed her with a dashing young male Giant Panda who lived at Berlin Zoo. After these attempts were unsuccessful it was decided she would return to China in 1994, thus leaving the zoo panda-less.

The old penguin enclosure remains (it is a Grand 1 listed building), although these days its inhabitants have moved to a new penguin beachside location, and the black and white creatures swim and sun bathe quite happily. Viewers are treated to watching them swim underwater too thanks to a (sturdy!) Perspex screen. Previously seeing them swim was a sight awarded to me only when diving. At London Zoo it’s an everyday occurrence.

Penguins, Wallabies, Galapagos Giant Tortoise and London Zoos Silverback Gorilla

Penguins, Wallabies, Galapagos Giant Tortoise and London Zoos Silverback Gorilla

As for the gorillas, well they are still there in the relatively newly built ‘Gorilla Kingdom’ but the sight of them did make me quite sad. I was lucky enough to see these magical beasts in the wild in Rwanda. It is a costly exercise (but worth every penny), and one that I appreciate most people are not fortunate enough to have. When I saw them they were surrounded by space and greenery – grass and trees galore. One of the Silverbacks in the group charged at us and put on a show, whilst the babies played inquisitively. It was one of the single most amazing things I have experienced travel wise. Today’s sight was by comparison, a big contrast.   A giant Silverback hung lazily in a hammock and gasps of excided visitors looked over. Other gorillas were around in the inside enclosure. These amazing animals could have gone outside, but I didn’t blame them for staying in, as by this point it has started to rain. Breeding programmes of captive gorillas have been very successful and huge attempts are being made to improve enclosures for these majestic beasts. For endangered species like these, the conservation efforts are vital. For me it did bring on a chance to reminisce, however it was with mixed emotions that I admired their splendor.

Into Africa… from Lemur to Giraffe

Into Africa… from Lemur to Giraffe

The grounds of the zoo are very pleasant, and a day trip there is fulfilling for everyone. Whether you chose to go into the aquarium or walk through the bird or monkey enclosures, there are hours of entertainment ahead of you. We walked through the ‘Into Africa’ area where I watched with fascination how the pygmy hippopotamus waddled around. After that there was the ‘Tiger Territory’. Having spent days searching for these great creatures in the wild I had finally seen one. I’m sorry London Zoo but I not sure I agree that ‘tiger training’ is the correct name for the activities that take place. It was more like tiger performing, but the waiting crowd did appreciate seeing the large male finding his food. Other enclosures such as ‘The Outback’ or B.U.Gs take no introduction. Every corner of the globe is covered. The zoo is full of listed building and historical facts, including how the under ground tunnels linking the two sides of the park were used as bomb shelters during the World War two. We did almost need a mortgage for lunch, so my tip is to take a packed lunch, although of course you could argue that spending your hard earned cash helps to support the conservation projects taking place.

Tiger Encounter

Tiger Territory

Above all, a visit to the zoo reaffirms in my mind how incredibly incredibly lucky I have been. I’ve seen gorillas in Rwanda, elephants and giraffes in too many places to list, lions and cheetahs galore, tropical fish in many of the world’s great oceans, lemurs in Madagascar, Penguins in Antarctica and the weird and wonderful creatures in the Galapagos. I have been spoilt, and to see so many wonderful animals behinds bars reminds me that each and every time I go on the trail of finding animals in future, I must appreciate how lucky I am to be seeing them in their natural habitat. I have been truly lucky and for those people who are unable to travel, at least they have somewhere they can go to see a small snippet of what amazing animals share our world. Hopefully with the help of these breeding programmes some of these special species will be here for many years to come.

With a wild Silverback

With a wild Silverback

– Natalie

Remembering Sarajevo

Following on from our blog last week, this week we are continuing to look back at the commemorations of the Great War.

Saturday 28th June marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, by the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb national Gavrilo Princip.

The Roman Bridge Franz Ferdinand's car was driving across in 1914

The Roman Bridge Franz Ferdinand’s car was driving across in 1914

Over the years the assassination has been widely overlooked as focus has been placed mainly on the battles and horrors the combatants suffered through. However the importance of Princip’s actions should not be glossed over. There has been much written about the consequences of those bullets that killed Franz Ferdinand have had, to the point that even many conflicts today and most conflicts throughout the 20th Century can be traced back to that fateful day in 1914.

The plaque on the street corner of Sarajevo where Princip fired his gun from

In Sarajevo there is a plaque on the street corner where Princip pulled his revolver and fired into the Archduke’s car and a small museum dedicated to the 28th June 1914. There are planned commemorations as well as Sarajevo remembers being the centre of the European Political Universe on that fateful day.

In Vienna, the Heeresgeschitliches Museum or military history museum has a whole room dedicated to the assassination called the Sarajevo Room. Amazingly as we approach the 100th anniversary the WWI and Sarajevo exhibitions are currently closed, they are not due to open until the 29th of June, the day after the assassination. According to the front desk the exhibitions were in an urgent need for repair!

Part of the Arsenal complex that houses Vienna's Military Museum

Part of the Arsenal complex that houses Vienna’s Military Museum

The Military museum is one of Vienna’s least visited, as tourists tend to flock to the palace of Schonbrunn, the Belvedere or the Fine Arts Museum. Even for those not interested in Austria’s military involvement throughout the ages the museum is worth a visit for the amazing architecture.

The Hall of Field Marshals in the Military Museum

The Hall of Field Marshals in the Military Museum

Originally built as an Arsenal to house weaponry for the defence of the city, some of the rooms resemble more of a palace than an armoury. They even hold classical music recitals in the main hall room on the first floor.

Entrance to the upper floors of the museum

Entrance to the upper floors of the museum

When the WWI exhibition reopens on the 29th of June the showpiece will surely be the room dedicated to the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Situated in the room is the car the Archduke was riding in during his visit to Sarajevo as well as his blood stained tunic he was wearing that day. The room details the lead up to events, black and white photos including the last photos taken of Franz Ferdinand before he was killed and also photos of the would be assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Amazingly the most famous photo of Princip is not even Princip himself, it is of an innocent-bystander grabbed off the streets a man called Ferdinand Behr!

The ornate interior roof of the Military Museum

The ornate interior roof of the Military Museum

The museum also has a fantastic collection relating to the 30 years’ war that decimated much of Central Europe in the 1600’s and a vast collection of weapons plundered from the retreating Ottoman Turks after the Siege of Vienna.

For anyone who has a keen interest in Military history and particularly WWI history the Heeresgeschitliches Museum should be high on your list of things to visit in Vienna, even if to stand and stare at Ferdinand’s car and tunic and think what if…

– Dean

A Glimmer of Hope in Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row…

– John McCrae

This year marks the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War, the war to end all wars.

Sadly the Great War was not the conclusion of hostilities but rather the beginning of one of, if not the bloodiest centuries in World History.

The next four years will see major battles remembered, historical debates reignite, blame and finger-pointing intensify, because for many countries WWI was a defining point in their history.

Gallipoli, the Somme and Flanders are all spoken with a deep-seated respect and reverence as thousands laid down their lives, often in appalling conditions fighting a war that no one could comprehend but felt compelled to participate in.

The battles in Flanders were some of the worst, soldiers fighting in waist deep mud and freezing conditions during the winters of 1915-1917.

The Iper Cloth Hall, home to the Flanders Fields Museum

The Iper Cloth Hall, home to the Flanders Fields Museum

However during this dark time, a ray of light, a glimmer of hope sprang from the small town of Poperinge. The village is situated about 12 km from the town of Ypres, today know as Iper and during the war as ‘Wipers’ by the Commonwealth forces.

The front facade of Talbot House

The front facade of Talbot House

This glimmer of hope was called Talbot House. Talbot house was founded as a ‘every mans’ club by army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton. It was set up without discrimination of rank as a respite from the horrors of war. Men could shower and sleep in a clean bed often for the first time in months. Even if only for a short time, Talbot house was designed to allow men to forget the war and atrocities associated it, like Tubby Clayton said, it was “An Oasis in a World gone mad”.

 

Talbot House from the rear gardens

Talbot House from the rear gardens

Now days Talbot House is not only a museum but also a guest house with nine rooms in the original building and three rooms in the garden block. Staying at Talbot House truly gives you a very unique experience and a historical link to your Battlefields visit. The staff are very friendly and incredibly knowledgable and more than happy to sit down with you and help you plan your visit to the surrounding sites. Their hints, tips and advice all designed to ensure you get the most from your visit of the region, and it certainly helps getting some insider knowledge of out of the way places, monuments and cemeteries.

Talbot House is a great base to explore the region. From Poperinge you can easily visit the Tyne Cot Cemetary, largest in the region, or the Canadian Memorial commemorating the first use of mustard gas. Not far from Poperinge are some intact German trenches where Adolf Hitler served and was almost captured by Canadian troops and numerous other cemeteries and monuments.

One of the many Commonwealth War Graves around Poperinge

One of the many Commonwealth War Graves around Poperinge

Most convenient of all is the proximity to Iper which houses the stunning In Flanders Fields Museum and the famous Menin Gate. No visit to the region is complete without attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. At around 8:00pm every evening the Last Post has been played uninterrupted, (except during the Second World War) since 1928 and is an absolute must if in the area.

The Menin Gate in Iper with 54,896 missing soldiers names engraved on it

Vancouver Corner Memorial to the first ever mustard gas attack

Vancouver Corner Memorial to the first ever mustard gas attack

The next four years will be a sombre time for reflection and remembrance for the thousands of lives lost many of which perished in the mud of Flanders Fields. However while it is important to remember the tragedy that was the Great War, we should also remember men like Neville Talbot and Tubby Clayton and celebrate what they did to help alleviate the suffering of those weary soldiers. By basing yourself in Talbot House you are honouring their efforts, in a special way you are remembering those who fought and most importantly, you are keeping this amazing piece of history alive.

– Dean

“In all my experience I have never known a place so vital to morale as Talbot House”

– General Sir Herbert Plumer, 1928

The Magic and Wonder of Prague’s Charles Bridge

The ancient splendour and beauty of Prague, a city beyond compare, left an impression on my imagination that will never fade

–       Richard Wagner

Walking the Castle District or the Old Town of Prague is like walking through the streets of a fairy tale. Colourful facades, a stunning mix of architectural styles it is easy to see why the city is the Central European Hollywood. Every turn leads down a picturesque alley way or beautiful square that could easily be the scene from a movie. In fact over the years Prague has starred in Mission Impossible, XXX, Amadeus, Ghost Protocol and Casino Royale but to name a few.

Somehow every visitor to Prague is drawn to one spot in particular, as if by a force of gravity, and that spot is the majestic Charles Bridge.

Charles Bridge as seen from the River

Charles Bridge as seen from the River

Now like any good fairy tale or folk story the Charles Bridge is shrouded in myth and legend, much like the thick mists that can envelope the bridge itself during winter. This fact and fiction is easily blurred when talking about Prague’s tourist showstopper.

Charles Bridge has two faces, the hustle, bustle and energy of the day and the magical and mysterious by night. During the day the bridge is packed. Tourists and locals alike jostle for position for that perfect photo of the Castle, or peruse the myriad of artists plying their wares. You will find hand made jewellery; caricature artists and some amazing painters and photographers lined either side eager to help you spend money. Not only that but it is not uncommon to find jazz bands, Dixie bands and soloists all eagerly entertaining passers by hoping for a generous coin or two thrown into their hat.

Artistic creations  galore adorne the bridge by day

Artistic creations galore adorne the bridge by day

At night however the bridge really comes alive. Towering over the bridge the illuminated Castle looks more like a giant painting or film set than the seat of the Czech Government. The towers and statues illuminated at night throw an eerie light over the bridge and you can feel the myths and legends enveloping you from all sides. While the Charles Bridge is great fun during the day to get a real sense of the true magic of the bridge you must visit it at night.

Prague Castle at night from Charles Bridge

Prague Castle at night from Charles Bridge

Now as we said what is fact and what is fiction can be hard to separate in Prague but as the saying goes, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ here are a couple of our favourites and the most famous ones.

First is the construction date, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was not only devoutly religious but also believed heavily in numerology. So to construct the bridge he consulted his numerologists to find the perfect date to lay the foundation stone. That date? The year 1357, 9th day of the 7th month at 5:31 am in the morning, or a pyramid of odd numbers

9

7   7

5         5

3                 3

1                       1

Fact or Fiction? Actually fact!

Second legend states that as the bridge was being built a number of the arches would continually collapse when one day there was a huge crash of thunder and strike of lightening and the devil (who thanks to the Simpsons will forever look like Ned Flanders for me) appeared and offered to help. The Devil promised to help the young architect complete the bridge on the provision the first soul to cross it was the Devil’s reward. One the day of completion the architect thought he could out smart the Devil and bought a rooster down to the bridge. Little did he know however that while he was mustering up the rooster the Devil had gone to the architect’s home and told his wife that she was desperately needed at the bridge. When the architect arrived at Charles Bridge he saw his wife rushing across the bridge and realised the Devil had won their game of wits!

Fact or Fiction? I think we better say fiction on this one, but the Devil does appear a lot in Central European and Germanic mythology so you never know!

Third legend believes that Charles IV insisted that every village in his Kingdom supply him with a horse cart full of eggs so the egg whites could be used in the mortar to hold the bridge together.

Fact or Fiction? Fact! Egg whites were also used in the construction of St Vitus Cathedral as well. As the story goes one village supplied the Emperor with a cart of boiled eggs. Now if the architect had of released the rooster over the bridge it begs the question, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Poor old Jan of Nepomuk, Patron Saint of Bridges

Poor old Jan of Nepomuk, Patron Saint of Bridges

The final legend relating to Charles Bridge is based around the most famous statue on the bridge, that of Jan of Nepomuk. He was the court priest to Wenceslas IV the son of Charles. Wenceslas was a quite a horrible man, he would often walk around the markets of Prague in disguise and if a merchant sold him under weight good he would have the merchant nailed to his scales, and he allegedly had a chef roasted alive one evening for ruining his dinner!

Now Wenceslas confronted Jan and demanded to know what the Queen had told him during her confession. Jan refused and as punishment the King had Jan’s tongue cut out, he was tied up in a sack and was thrown off the Charles Bridge into the heaving Vltava River below! Jan’s body then floated in the same spot for several days and when it sank a ring or crown of five stars circled the water where his body disappeared. Amazingly Jan of Nepomuk is now the Patron Saint of Bridges!

 

Relief one, rub for good luck

Relief one, rub for good luck

 

Relief two, rub to return to Prague

Relief two, rub to return to Prague

The Charles Bridge’s most famous statue is of Jan and below it are two reliefs. The one on the left shows a solider patting a dog and represents loyalty and the relief on the right shows Jan being thrown into the river. Rubbing the relief of the solider is supposed to bring you good luck and rubbing the relief of Jan being thrown from the bridge means you will return to Prague. A little further down the bridge is a small iron framework with a depiction of Jan floating below the bridge. This is the exact point where he was thrown to his death; it is also good luck to rub this one.

The site where Jan was thrown to his watery grave

The site where Jan was thrown to his watery grave

Fact or Fiction? Well a little bit of both. Jan was thrown to his death off Charles Bridge but it is believed because the Kind didn’t agree with the new Archbishop Jan was going to appoint. Lets be honest, the confession story is far more exciting.

There are many more myths and legends about the bridge but also about Prague itself. The foundation of the city, the Astronomical Clock in the Old town are all steeped in scurrilous rumours, magical stories some with a hint of truth but many passed down from generation to generation from medieval times.

The famous Astronomical Clock, also surrounded by myth and legend

The famous Astronomical Clock, also surrounded by myth and legend

One thing is for sure, like Richard Wagner said the legends of Prague and experiencing Charles Bridge in all its glory is something you will never forget.

Do you have a favourite myth or legend of Prague? If so leave a comment or link below.

Das Schnitzel Kaiser

Walk into just about any restaurant, pub, or beer hall in Germanic Europe and there is sure to be one staple on the menu, the schnitzel. In fact the schnitzel and its various incarnations can be found all around the world. Veal, pork, chicken, turkey even fish and vegetables can all be given the schnitzel treatment.

In Australia it takes the form of the mighty chicken parmigana, a breaded chicken fillet, covered in Parma ham, tomato sauce and melted cheese. In the USA there is a hotdog chain called Wiener Schnitzel, but for the real deal or as I like to call it,  “Das Schnitzel Kaiser” or ‘The Schnitzel Emperor’ we have to head to the source where it all began – the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Now before we dive in and devour our schnitzel it is worth mentioning there is some controversy over the schnitzel’s origin. Most agree that the schnitzel recipe was bought to Vienna by Austrian General Joseph Graf Radetzky, a man more famous for the musical piece composed bearing his name by Johan Strauss Senior than any military victory he ever achieved. While down in Milan he discovered the Cotolleta alla Milanese and upon his return to Vienna the Emperor Franz Joseph, asked for the recipe.

Another story believes it originates from the Byzantine Empire, where in the 800’s Emperor Basilieios insisted on eating meat covered in sheets of gold! As you can imagine this practice was frightfully expensive so the sheets of gold were replaced with the golden coating of breadcrumbs. Regardless of the origins, Vienna is where one must head for the perfect Wiener schnitzel.

Wiener Schnitzel is the national dish of Austria, and the term Wiener schnitzel is rigidly protected. To call your schnitzel a Wiener schnitzel it must be veal, any other meat and you may refer to it as the Wiener Style, the Wiener Art or the Wiener Escalope, but not, repeat not a Wiener schnitzel.

This way to schnitzel heaven

This way to schnitzel heaven

Just like the Emperors of old, there is one Vienna institution that towers above all others in the culinary world of the schnitzel, a restaurant called the Figlmüller. In this small little restaurant nestled in the back alleys of St Stephens Cathedral, Figlmüller has been dishing out world-renowned schnitzels since 1905. So popular has it become that literally just around the corner a second restaurant was opened in the early 2000’s and every night people hungrily wait in line to try this enormous piece of history.

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Painstaking attention to detail and schnitzel pride come to the fore to feed the starving masses a schnitzel that is the size of a pizza. Every cut of meat in hammered out by hand with a mallet until it is wafer thin and roughly 30cm in diameter. It is then shallow fried in three different pans until a golden colour. So particular are the chefs at Figlmüller only one type of bread roll is used to supply the breadcrumbs. It is served, hanging off the plate with a slice of lemon and that’s it! If you have room the traditional accompaniment is either a small green salad or a side dish of delicious Germanic potato salad, but again only if you have room.

A German friend once told me there are two ways to tell if you have the perfect schnitzel. Firstly, when you cut into the schnitzel there should be a small air pocket between the breadcrumbs and the meat, and secondly believe it or not, is to place a napkin on your schnitzel and then sit on it! That’s right, if you sit on your schnitzel and no oil soaks through the napkin you have the perfect meal. If you do decide to test this theory out on your next visit to Vienna, don’t blame us if you are asked to leave!

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

Whether you get oil on your trousers or not, Figlmüller regularly wins awards for it’s schnitzels, and the huge lines every night come rain or shine to try Austria’s National dish can’t be wrong. Figlmüller truly is ‘Das Schnitzel Kaiser’.

– Dean

The bare essentials – packing for backpacking!

It’s something that is a cross between a chore and fun. A bit of a challenge as you seek to ‘break’ your own last ‘lightest weight’ record. The necessity of packing ahead of any trip is something that we can’t escape. For some it helps the rising crescendo of pre-trip excitement, for others it’s the last hurdle before departure.

All set and ready to go!

All set and ready to go!

Now we’ve all heard the rule of thumb: lay everything out and halve it. But how many of us do it? Ironically I find it much easier to pack for longer trips. With a long trip you accept that you will need to do washing en route (often a tricky task and when you hand over ALL of your clothes whilst hoping the passers by don’t realise you are stood in your pajamas, you pray to the Clothing Gods that your diminishing supply of socks will all come back). With a short trip you can attempt to raid your underwear draw and stretch it so you have enough pairs of pants to last for the whole trip. Whatever your style of packing, I think there are a few ‘must takes’ for every trip.

Washing line, sink plug, water bottle carrier, packing cells, multi country adapter, carabena and the best travel item ever - my buff!

Washing line, sink plug, water bottle carrier, packing cells, multi country adapter, carabinas and the best travel item ever – my buff!

For me my must takes are practical. For others they are luxury items. For example the hair straighteners don’t make my list, but I know from the questions I get asked at work they are important to some people.  They are not very practical when you are bush camping in the middle of nowhere though!  Some people have lists, others throw in what they remember at the time. For us, it’s a bit of a mixture of both.  To a certain extent it depends on where we are going, but most of the below go with me on any big (and often small!!) trip.  So here we go with my backpacking paraphernalia:

Buff – These multi wear headscarves are the best invention ever!  For me I wear mine as a scarf or a hat, or over my mouth when its dusty but above all I use it to cover my face when I’m on planes.  The modern version of an eye mask as it is so multifunctional.  Well worth the investment

Scarf for ladies (but a sarong can double for this too) – I bought a couple in Morocco that now go everywhere. Particularly good for ladies to throw over their shoulders, head or wherever necessary to cover up a bit more

Dean wearing his buff and me wearing my scarf.

Dean wearing his buff and me wearing my scarf.


Travel skirt
– I have one trusty skirt (if you have ever travelled with me you will know exactly which one!).  It covers my knees, is super lightweight and dries easily and packs into nothing.  Great to dress up or dress down.

Packing cells –  The modern day carrier bags!  We each have a set of three – one for tops, one for bottoms and another for undies.  They keep everything together and so your bag doesn’t quite explode to the same extent when you stop.  Before I invested in these I used to use different colour carrier bags so I knew what I was pulling out!

Multi country adapter: One adapter works in most places.

Small sewing kit – Running repairs will be necessary on any trip when you have limited clothes to wear.  My tip – pick up a sewing kit from the hotel if you splurge one night!

Sink plug – whilst the travel ones are not quite perfect, they are good enough to keep enough water in the sink to do some washing. Handy to wash the three-day old socks out!

Peg-free washing line – This handy piece of elastic hangs between bushes, showers and anything you can improvise with. Just DON’T hang it off the sprinkler system!

Sleeping bag liner – sometimes in the nicest looking place outdoors, you find the bed sheets a bit suspect indoors. Always handy to have in case you don’t trust the sheets or just need a bit of extra warmth. To all those people at work who ask me if they can hire sleeping bags… this is essential!

Sarong – doubles up as beach towel, skirt for a night out and drying tool when your real towel is in the wash

The sarong in action during a break in diving

The sarong in action during a break between dives


Travel towel
– These are an acquired taste, but once you are used to them they are handy and take up less space than your conventional towel

Havaianas / waterproof flip-flops – A must for a lazy day pair of shoes and to wear in the shower

Water bottle carrier – I bought a simple small fabric bottle carrier in Peru and its proved invaluable. Great when you need to take water with you but don’t want a bag

Carabinas – Great for hanging off the front of your bag in case you need to ‘dangle’ anything backpacker style! The simple answer to packing when you are running late (or have too much stuff!)

Small Handbag / Man bag – This might seem like a luxury item, but I have a small handbag that I keep all my electrical chargers and cords in.  Then if I have a night out I empty them all out and use the bag!

Small head torch – hands free lighting is handy. You might look like you are going down a mine, but you don’t have to wear it on your head. You will be grateful for it when navigating to and in and out of a long drop toilet in a snowstorm via the light of the moon (I speak from experience!)

Tiny hairbrush – I would actually argue you could leave this one out really…

Waterproof jacket – not only good as a waterproof layer, they also act as a wind breaker and help keep you warm as part of a layering system. Layers, layers, layers…. The key to warmth!

Down jacket for cold climates – These keep you so toasty and warm, are light weight and  pack down to next to nothing.  Fantastic inventions!

Warmth at a fraction of the space

Warmth at a fraction of the space

In amongst all of this I usually take about four tops and four pairs of bottoms of varying sleeve and leg length. Before every big trip at least one person has asked how I pack for so long. In truth it’s simple – get the above items in and the rest is easy. Above all, we all like to buy souvenirs en route, so isn’t forgetting something important? If only as an excuse to go shopping on holiday!

Happy Packing!

–       Natalie

P.S I don’t have a weight record as such, but if you think this list is long, before the last trip I went away prepared for -30 degrees with 12.5kg of luggage. Not bad going! Don’t ask what I came back with…

The Butler did it… Or did he? 

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson

Well Ralph was not wrong! When locals and tourists alike discuss the London West End theatre scene, there is one performance that towers above all. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

Murder at The Mousetrap

Murder at The Mousetrap

Now this is not because of its incredible sets or the stunning choreography of an Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece, but for the plays sheer longevity.

This year The Mousetrap celebrates 62 years of performing in London.  This makes it the longest running play, not only in the West End but the entire World!

So with this in mind and as we continue to discover our amazing home town we decided it was time to pay our respects to this London institution.

Within minutes of the theatre darkening and the cast of characters being introduced, you could feel the tension and mystery build as if a thick cloud had descended over you. As with any Agatha Christie story The Mousetrap cast consists of an assortment of misfits and shady types, all with a hint of murder in their eye.

A worthy commemoration in the heart of the London theatre district

A worthy commemoration in the heart of the London theatre district

The first half builds up to its intriguing peak, and like any good soap opera or drama series you are left hanging as the curtains fall and the theatre ice cream sellers tempt you with their treats for you to ponder over.  As you see the ‘to be continued’ sign, you hear  your mind start whispering different conspiracy theories.

Unlike the good natured musicals that normally appear in the west end, intermission at The Mousetrap is totally different. Groups huddle together discussing in hushed tones who the likely murderer is and the case for and against each of the characters. As if accomplices to the murder itself, there are uneasy looks around the theatre, suspicious stares and the occasional “it has to xxx” wafting over the audience. The intermission almost adds to the rising intensity with the dark cloud of murder hanging over Monk Manor (the setting).  With ice creams finished, everyone quietly and watchfully takes their seat to see whodunit.

The second set is faster paced and even more tense than the first, with you sitting on the edge of your seat until the murder is revealed. Whodunit? Well we can’t say (and if we could, we wouldn’t as we want you to go and find out for yourself!).  At the conclusion of the performance the audience is sworn to secrecy to ensure the mystery of The Mousetrap lives on, but I can tell you it wasn’t the Butler!

Sure there are better shows out there, larger sets, bigger names and famous songs but there is something mesmerising about The Mousetrap. Others have tried, but no one had succeeded.   In Agatha Christies’s case she ‘built the better mousetrap’ and 62 years and over 25,000 performances proves that!

– Dean

The Mousetrap performs Monday to Saturday at 19:30 in Martins Theatre and afternoon performances on Tuesday (15:00) and Saturday (16:00).  Click here for more details. 

 

Chapter 14: Statistically speaking

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
― Dr. Seuss

So with bags to unpack, friends and family to see (and us being more keen on one of those activities than the other!) we’ve found ourselves with time to reflect on the last six months. Originally we’d planed to head off somewhere else for a few days before work beckoned, but it turned out we felt there was ‘no place like home’ to help settle us into every day life.

Part of these ponderings have led us to numbers… Along the way we tried to keep track of a few statistics. Some were easy as they printed them on tickets (I.e mileages) some harder. For example we were going great guns with keeping a tally of the number of religious establishments we’d been in… Until we got to Myanmar and we hit hundreds of temples (almost) a day so this one is a bit of a guesstimate!! But here we go with the more random account of our time away:

Total time away:  133 Days, 5 hours, 30 minutes and 15 seconds

Total time smiling:  133 Days, 5 hours…… the rest of the time was spent re-planning when our second train was part cancelled!

Number of Countries visited / passed through on this trip (look out for the ‘how to celebrate 100 countries blog in the future!):  16 – UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Nepal, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Australia, Philippines

Hottest Temperature:  38 degree Myanmar

Coldest Temperature:  -28 degrees Mongolia

Total mileage by train (excluding Metro / Underground systems): 19, 585km or 12, 170 miles

Total time on trains:  315 hours, 24 minutes or 13 days, 3 hours and 24 minutes

Total mileage by plane:  37, 192 km or 23, 110 miles

Total time in planes:  52 hours, 13 minutes (including flight with my Father-in-law)

Total mileage by bus / coach:  2768km or 1720 miles

Total time on coaches / buses: 63 hours and 45 minutes or 2 Days, 15 hours and 45 minutes

Total mileage driving through Mongolia and on The Friendship Highway in Tibet:  1245km or 774 miles

Total time on boats:  10 Hours Diving + 36 hours Yangtze Cruise + 1 hour on a rowing boat in Nepal

Cheapest Subway / Underground ticket:  7p – Delhi Metro

Cheapest Train Ticket:  75 Rupees (74p) – Gorakpour to Varanassi Junction (9 hour slow train!!!!!)

Cancelled Transport:  1 Plane,  1 train

Total time under water:  13 hours, 48 minutes (828 minutes)

Number of modes of transport:  14:  Car, Taxi, Train, Tuk-tuk, Bus, Coach, Hot Air Balloon, Paraglide, ATV (Quad Bike), Aeroplane, Metro / Underground, Boat, Horse and Camel

Number of temples visited:  122

Number of Churches visited:  21

Number of Monasteries visited:  33

Number of tigers spotted:  Zero!

Number of hours spent looking for tigers:  20 hours!

Number of falls on snow and ice: Dean 3, Natalie 1

Number of Delhi Belly attacks: Dean 2, Natalie 5

Number of parcels sent home:  Three

Number of Lonely Planets used:  Seven – Trans Siberian, Mongolia, China, Nepal, India, Myanmar, Philippines (yes very heavy!)

Number of currencies:  10 – Euro, Russian Ruble, Mongolian Tugrik, Chinese Yuan, Nepalese Rupee, Indian Rupee, Malaysian Ringt, Myanmar Kyat, Australian Dollar, Philippine Peso

Most expensive public loo:  ‘GUM’ Centre, Red Square Moscow – £2

Cheapest public loo:  Monkey Temple, Kathmandu – 3p

Great Train challenge UNO winner:  Natalie 56 : Dean 50

Weight of my rucksack:  13kg to start, 21kg at the end!

Best glass of champagne:  Moet and Chandon!

Number of photos taken: Don’t ask! (Dean was somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000)

Highlight of trip:  Mongolia, Tibet, Myanmar, our 2nd Wedding and diving in the Philippines… ok thats more than one!

I think it is fair to say that whilst these stats look fairly impressive here, anyone who has ever been on a long trip will tell you they all really merge into one over-arching thought when you get home.  It’s something I call the ‘Heathrow effect’.  This means that as soon as you touch down and walk through through arrivals doors, your whole trip dissolves into one big dream.  But what a mighty good dream it was….

– Natalie

Lights, Camera, Action!

Stop press, makeup! We are ready for our close up!

The Smart Way Round are on the TV!

It almost feels like forever ago we were riding through the wintery barren but stunningly beautiful landscape of Siberia aboard the world famous Trans Siberian Railway.

For those of you who followed our journey from the beginning you may remember we met Jean-Francois Belanger the Canadian CBC Moscow correspondent as we travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk. He was filming several short pieces for the lead in to the Sochi Olympics about life in Russia.  We spent a few days together talking about our travels.

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

As a journey progressed and we entered India the Winter Olympics began and we continually looked back at our time on the train and relived many of the stories. During this period we had some wonderful messages and emails from friends in Canada who had seen us on CBC and had started to follow our adventure, however we had yet to see our cinematic debut.

It is amazing how quickly times change and no sooner had the Olympics finished than the crisis in the Ukraine, along with Russia’s involvement, escalated. We couldn’t help but wonder just how hectic Jean-Francois’ life must have been over the last few months with everything that has been taking place.

So it was with great excitement that we received an email from him last week with a link to the short documentaries he filmed.

Jean-Francois and his Cameraman Alexi have done an incredible job of capturing what life is like aboard the Trans Siberian, not just regarding some of out experiences but also for those who work aboard. We hope you all enjoy it.

http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/russia-train/ch1/ – The CBC page about the piece

Look out Hollywood here we come!

– Dean