From one paradise to the next

After a much longer than expected 4 days sailing to Ziguinchor in the Casamance, a beautiful river region in the south of Senegal, on a boat which I’d hitched from Dakar, I walk into a beautiful camp site surrounded by palm trees where I can see endless days of lying in a hammock. Only some 10 minutes later, I receive a phone call. Gabor, another boat hitcher from Austria calls on behalf of Isreali Captain Alon. A spot has opened up on on Alon’s boat, due for a transatlantic crossing in a few days. Destination:  Barbados. After over two weeks of waiting in the Dakar sailing club I thought I may never find a boat in good time for this crossing, particularly when it seemed more hitchers than boats were arriving. So no sooner have I arrived, it is time to find transport back to Dakar for this next stage of my journey. It might sound like an amazing opportunity, and it is… but the four days just spent on the yacht where I travelled no more than 200 miles with an old French skipper was far from easy sailing, a story on its own. A new perspective of what lies ahead for the traverse across the Atlantic has dawned on me. This is more than just a cheaper or more romanticised way of travelling across the ocean. It’s an adventure with some serious risks. Approximately 3000 miles of unknown. So I leave you with farewell as I prepare to take the same voyage taken by millions of Africans sent across the Atlantic between the 14th and 19th Centuries, with the fortunate difference of a tropical paradise waiting for me at the other end, and some more of that stuff we call freedom. Adios amigos! Live your life!

In the distance, Fisherman remove their dugout canoe after a days work in Ziguinchor

In the distance, Fisherman remove their dugout canoe after a days work in Ziguinchor

Palm tree trimming along the Casamance river, Ziguinchor

Palm tree trimming along the Casamance river, Ziguinchor

Cruising up the Casamance river towards Ziguinchor

Cruising up the Casamance river towards Ziguinchor

Azerbaijan – Land of Fire

Entering the first Caucasus country from the west will take you to the little known Republic of Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country with a lingering soviet past. Apart from its appearance as hosts for the 2012 Eurovision finals, the country is most known for its massive oil reserves under the Caspian sea, responsible for some impressive economic growth, and the transformation of the capital city of Baku where modern architecture now blends eloquently with the medieval old town, Icheri Sheher. The abundance of oil under the sea is evidenced on land, with hundreds of unusual baby mud volcanoes which expel mud bubbles of methane gases. These made world news in 2001 when they erupted in flames and burnt for several days. The country plans to make further headlines with an ambitious Dubai like $100B project, the artificial Khazar Islands, an archipelago of 55 islands and the world’s tallest building, Azerbaijan tower – at 1050m.

The Icheri Sheher (old town) with the Flame towers in the distance

The Icheri Sheher (old town) with the Flame towers in the distance

Bizare baby mud volcanoes south of Baku

Bizare baby mud volcanoes south of Baku

The ubiquitous Lada, parked outside a shop selling Şeki halvasi

The ubiquitous Lada, parked outside a shop selling Şeki halvasi

Kazakhstan – You will never get out, la la la la la

Still feeling the effects of its Soviet ruled past, don’t be surprised if while touring Kazakhstan, you are treated like a criminal. Constant passport checks by police, requests for bribes to avoid “problems”, and sometimes a need to register your location with police every five days rather than just once, can get you in sticky situations such as where a phone is handed to you with an English speaking Kazak sternly informing you that you require an “attorney and translator”. After a ridiculous amount of paper work, visits to a lawyer and the case decision formalised by a police chief, followed by payment of a fine to a government bank account, all because you did not register your accommodation a second time as you could not read the immigration card written in Kazak, you learn that there is no flexibility with the Law here, and that the safest thing to do is just get out of the country as soon as possible to avoid overstaying your visa – a crime that results in jail or deportation, and an even larger fine. Of course it is difficult to exit the country when the police hold onto your passport for days due to the horribly slow process of a simple administrative fine, while at the same time telling you that you must leave country to avoid overstaying. Do not expect common sense here.

With much time spent waiting for available transport across the country, days spent in the Migration Police offices, further days spent sorting out a visa for the proceeding country to enable escape, and searching for accommodation that is not four times more expensive that the rest of Asia, all the while eating mediocre food, it’s understandable why tourists who visit do not always have glowing reports (and why there are no good photographs to share). It’s not all that bad though, many of the locals can be extremely accommodating, and intriguingly Kazakhstan has some of the most beautiful women of any nation. Unfortunately there are no photos of beautiful women to post, so please accept this image as a summation of Kazakhstan, a Mercedes Benz mustering a herd of Kazakh horses (one of their most popular meats).

Herding horses - Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve

Herding horses – Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve

If you want to enjoy some of Kazakhstan for yourself, it’s safer, cheaper and easier to just rent a copy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s film “Borat”. It may not even be filmed in Kazakhstan, but it is suitably politically incorrect, and far more entertaining – and yes, bride kidnapping is still a reality here. Alternatively, visit beautifully rugged western Mongolia where many Kazakh people fled to during soviet rule, and as a result maintain a traditional Kazakh life with little soviet influence.

Kazakhstan-Astana-flower-bed-mosque

The out of place capital of Kazakhstan – Astana

China – Xinjiang province, middle Earth

Heading west directly from Mongolia into Kazakhstan is not possible overland due to roughly 50km of a China-Russia border. A Russian transit visa to traverse the north side of this border would be the quickest route across, but heading through the recently opened (to tourists) border crossing into Xinjiang province takes to you an unusual part of China not often considered by most. A place of extremes, Xinjiang province is roughly the size of Alaska, contains the furthest point on earth to any ocean, has the second lowest depression in the world at 144m below sea level and consequently has the hottest temperatures in China. The province is culturally and ethnically characterised by the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group, rather than the usual Han majority group. Instead of chow mein and dumplings, it’s mutton pilaf and kebabs.

China, Xingjiang province, ethnic Uyghur man dancing in square

Uyghur man dancing in Urimqi’s Nanhu green square

Squares in China often full of activites, Urumqi

Evening times in Urimqi’s Nanhu green square

Night food markets in Urumqi

Night food markets in Urumqi

Night food markets in Urumqi, bbq

Night food markets in Urumqi

The tranquil Kanas lake in the Altai Mountains

The tranquil Kanas lake in the Altai Mountains

Hiking around Kanas lake in the Altai Mountains

Hiking around Kanas lake in the Altai Mountains

China ruins, Xingjiang province

Jiaohe ruins in the Yarnaz Valley Xinjiang Province

old ruins, china, xinjiang province

Jiaohe ruins in the Yarnaz Valley Xinjiang Province

Gaochang Mountains, soaring temperature in the Tian Shan Mountain range

Hottest part of china, showing 67°C in the sun, Flaming Mountain/Gaochang Mountains

Mongolia – Heading West

As the world’s least densely populated country, Mongolia is a country of vast open spaces, nomads and mutton. At the countries center, along the Trans Mongolian railway lies the coldest capital city in the world, the rather bland Ulan Bator. Venturing out of the city is where you discover Mongolia’s rugged beauty and great hospitality. To the south lies Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi, which is constantly growing further into the north of China. Heading into Western Mongolia gives an immense sense of isolation. Here you find Kazakh nomads who fled Kazakhstan because of the “Russification” since 1920, and set up permanent residence in the Bayan-Ulgii province. To see the best of the country it’s suggested to tour the country using your own vehicle (or a guide), however attempting to master your own way around on public transport can be an experience in itself.

Gobi desert from the Trans Mongolian railway

View of the Gobi desert from the Trans Mongolian Railway enroute to Ulan Bator

Officer waves in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulan Bator - Mongolia

Military procession in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulan Bator

Mock fighting in Sukhbaatar square, Ulan Bator Mongolia

Mock fighting in Sukhbaatar square, Ulan Bator

Munks cleaning dishes in Gandantegchinlen Ulan Bator Mongolia

Munks at Gandantegchinlen, Ulan Bator

Women mongolia black market ulan bator depressed

Women waits at her packed up stall in the black market, Ulan Bator

Terelj National Park Mongolia

Terelj National Park, outside Ulan Bator

Overview of Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Sunset over Terelj National Park, outside Ulan Bator

Terelj National Park Mongolia, horse riding

Terelj National Park, outside of Ulan Bator

Terelj National Park Mongolia, horse riding

Terelj National Park, outside of Ulan Bator

Food stop on the 36hr bus journey from Ulan Bator to Khovd

Food stop on the 36hr bus journey from Ulan Bator to Khovd

Car swap, mongolian policeman, enroute to olgii

Confusing situation with police enroute to Olgii in the far west

Bayan-Ölgii Province, snow capped mountains and fields of grass

Remote landscapes of the Bayan-Ölgii Province

Eagle flying in front of mountains western Mongolia

Eagle soaring in the far west of Mongolia

Green grass, russian van, mongolia, transport

Driver stops in the middle of a field to swap some of his fuel for alcohol

russian jeep arrives on dirt rd at sunset in Olgii Mongolia

Arriving in the far west of Mongolia, Olgii

Outdoor pool in the sun, black markets Bayan Ölgii Mongolia

Playing pool at the black market in Ölgii, Mongolia

Horse by the river through Tsengel, Bayan-Ölgii‎ Mongolia

Riding along the river towards Tsengel, Bayan-Ölgii‎

Khurgan Nuur (lake) in Bayan-Ölgii Mongolia

Khurgan Nuur/lake in Bayan-Ölgii

Cow dung fire, cooking fish from Khurgan Nuur, Mongolia

Mardan lights up some cow dung to cook freshly caught fish from the Khurgan Nuur

Black and silver horse tied up to a post, mongolia

Horse waits patiently near the Khurgan Nuur

Goat milk, khurgan nuur Mongolia Bayan-Ölgii

Milking goats by the Khurgan Nuur

Khurgan Nuur (lake) in Bayan-Ölgii Mongolia

Khurgan Nuur (lake) in Bayan-Ölgii

Cooking a goat and cooling it off in the Khurgan Nuur

Kids pose while a cooked goat is cooled off in the Khurgan Nuur

Curious kids observing me eat by the Khurgan Nuur Mongolia, sunset

Curious kids observing me eat by the Khurgan Nuur

Mongol kazak kids playing at khurgan nuur mongolia

Kids playing around by the Khurgan Nuur

Kid playing on a hill by the Khurgan Nuur Mongolia

Kid plays with rocks by the Khurgan Nuur

Three Kazak-mongol men walk along the Khurgan Nuur

Kazak Mongolian men stroll along the Khurgan Nuur

Mongolian ger/yurt, their living room, kitchen and bedroom

A family inside their ger, camped around the Khurgan Nuur

Horse reflection in waters above the Khurgan Nuur Mongolia

Drinking from the Khurgan Nuur

Horses play around the Khurgan Nuur lake, Mongolia

Horse love along the Khurgan Nuur

Man on a silver horse with a purple sunset in Mongolia Khurgan nuur

Kazak-Mongol man on his horse by the Khurgan Nuur

Man plays with a goats head after cooking

Head from a cooked goat, Khurgan Nuur

Sunset in Khurgan Nuur lake

Sunset enjoyed by five kids and one baby wolf, Khurgan Nuur

Dog howls alongside the Khurgan Nuur, Altai Tavan Bogd

Dog howls alongside the Khurgan Nuur

Goats and kids on a hill in the Khurgan Nuur lakes region

Kids and goats fool around near Khurgan Nuur

Altai Tavan Bogd, women cooking along the Khurgan lake

Kazak-Mongol women cooking by the Khurgan Nuur

China – Guilin to Beijing

A month long tourist visa is barely enough to see even a fraction of Chinas many highlights. From its incredibly diverse cultures, amazing food, spectacular mountains and cities that sprawl seemingly endlessly in order to contain the world’s largest population as well as the second largest economy in the world, there’s a lot to enjoy. A fairly straight forward route when arriving from Vietnam can take you through the popular tourist region of Guilin, then onto some seriously stunning mountains and national parks, before heading to the modern Shanghai, the most populated city in the world, and then onward to the history and culture rich Beijing. From Beijing there is of course the mandatory trip out to the most iconic symbol of the country, the Great Wall.

Yunyang rice fields

Yunyang rice fields

Yangshuo town

Yangshuo town

Yangshuo lookout

Yangshuo lookout

Kid waving the Chinese flag at Tiananmen square

Kid waving the Chinese flag at Tiananmen square

Street games in Shanghai

Street games in Shanghai

Skyline in Shanghai

Skyline in Shanghai

The Shanghai Bund bull

The Shanghai Bund bull

Rickshaw driver in Beijing

Rickshaw driver in Beijing

Rickshaws in Beijing

Rickshaws in Beijing

Not quiet a pet shop...

For sale

Mt Lushan town

Mt Lushan town

Mt Lushan three step waterfall

Mt Lushan three step waterfall

Mt Lushan three step waterfall

Huangshan – “Yellow Mountain”

Huangshan "Yellow Mountain"

Huangshan “Yellow Mountain”

Huangshan "Yellow Mountain"

Huangshan “Yellow Mountain”

Huangshan "Yellow Mountain"

Huangshan “Yellow Mountain”

Huangshan "Yellow Mountain"

Huangshan “Yellow Mountain”

Great Wall of China under moonlight

Great Wall of China under moonlight

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

Rafting past the Dragon bridge, Yulong river

Rafting past the Dragon bridge, Yulong river

Wedding business - Bejing

Wedding business – Bejing

Flag burning prevention - Tiananmen square

Flag burning prevention – Tiananmen square

Testing the boundaries - Tiananmen square, Beijing

Testing the boundaries – Tiananmen square, Beijing

Blind busker in Bejing

Blind busker in Bejing

Bamboo writting

Bamboo writting

Yangshou

Boating down the Yangshuo river

Vietnam – DnButterfly (Video Post)

To mix up the usual photo posts, here’s a video of some butterflies in Cuc Phuong National Park dancing to the unlikely sound of Drum ‘n Bass. A few minutes into the video you’ll see a slide show of some existing photos, with a few new ones thrown in as a hint of what’s to come. Enjoy.

Click HERE to watch in HD (720p)

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