With the year drawing to close, I thought I would sit down and take stock of some of the highlights (and lowlights) I have experienced during my travels this year.
In truth, there are so many inspiring, amazing and interesting things I have seen, so it has been had to hard to pick “winners”. I also have a fairly high threshold for problems when travelling, so you can also be assured that the “worst” section are truly execrable.
I’ve only mentioned places below that were new to me this year; so some old favourites have been overlooked. Fundamentally, though, have just written this for fun – so don’t take it too seriously.
Best landscape – Svaneti, Georgia
Those who know me well won’t be remotely surprised to see Georgia – or rather, a region of the country – occupy this position. When I first visited the country about five years ago, I never could have predicted what a love affair it would turn into. From the narrow lanes of Tbilisi Old Town to the coastline of Abkhazeti to the modern piazzas of Batumi, Georgia has never once disappointed me – and I’m just getting started when it comes to getting to know the country.
The Svaneti region of Georgia has an almost mythical, biblical quality to it. Located more than ten hours by road from Tbilisi (or a far more civilised ninety minutes by prop plane), the region is comprised of soaring peaks, unconquerable glaciers and enough history of chivalrous, warrior-like behaviour to scare off even the most fearsome of invaders. Georgia’s Soviet occupiers were just the latest in a string of wannabe conquerors that has included the Mongols and Tsarist Russians that were unable to fully bring the region under their control.
In many ways, the region is frozen in time – with the same gritty-minded independence and traditional practices held dear by the locals hundreds of years ago remaining the same today. As a case in point, compare the photo of the region’s capital of Mestia in the 1800s to how it looks today. Little has changed.
Enough about the culture, though.
To spend a few days in Svaneti is to expose yourself to some of the world’s most stunning scenery.
Mestia itself is well worth seeing, with its collection of amazing “Svan towers” standing proudly above the town to provide a vantage point to identify and warn off invaders.
A couple of hours walk from Mestia, one reaches Hatsvali where you can take a cable car to the summit of Mount Zuruuld. When you reach the top; stop, relax, order a cold beer and take in the surroundings.
Visiting the Svaneti region, you should also not even consider missing out on a trip to Ushguli – the highest inhabited settlement in Europe. From the village, it is possible to walk for hire guides to take you to the impressive Shkhara Glacier.
I’d like to think I’ve demonstrated why, in 2014, Svaneti was the best landscape I encountered.
Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan – Once a prominent Soviet tourist destination, Lake Issyk Kul is now well and truly off the beaten track. Indeed, when I visited at the beginning of July the only other visitors appeared to be late middle-aged Russians and tourists from other parts of Kyrgyzstan. In terms of tourist facilities, the Issyuk Kul region and its main town Cholpon Ata have relatively little to write home about. The restaurants are fairly poor and local hotels haven’t been upgraded since the Brezhnev era. It’s the scenery that makes the place, though, with the ice-blue water of the lake sitting beautifully between the Tian Shan and Ala Too mountain ranges. There’s few places I’ve ever felt more isolated yet relaxed in than Cholpon Ata – and I’d love to go back.
Budva, Montenegro – As a regular Balkans buff, Montenegro has long been a bit of a blind-spot of mine. At the start of the year, I vowed to change that and jumped on a cheap flight there. I’ve written about my experiences in Podgorica, the country’s small, charming and undeniably Yugoslav capital city, yet haven’t had a chance to put any thoughts down on the coastal resort of Budva and its surrounding region. Budva itself is an attractive little town, with a beautifully reconstructed Old Town and picturesque harbour but its real charm lies in the 10km coastline that leads to the island of Sveti Stefan. Even though my entire four day trip to Budva was marked by near-perpetual rain and cloud, the walk was no less stunning. I will be back.
Kindest gesture – Vice-President’s security detail, Somaliland
Most people thought I was mad to visit Somaliland. I always knew it would be fine (and it was) but nevertheless, as a hat-tip to the concerns of my friends and family, thought I’d better arrange a car to pick me up at Hargeisa International Airport to take me to my hotel. Rather predictably, the car didn’t turn up – and I was left sitting in the arrivals hall wondering how I would manage to make my way the 15km or so to my hotel. As my fears began to mount, I was approached by a gentleman from the Vice-President’s security detail who offered me a lift to town. I was pretty sure he was kosher, so accepted. Minutes later, I found myself in an armoured jeep, accompanied by a rather humourless armed guard, zipping through the dusty, Mosque-lined streets of Hargeisa towards my hotel. I never did get a chance to specifically thank Vice-President Abdirahman Saylici for his team’s help…
Most memorable building – Norovank Monastery, Armenia
There isn’t even a contest for this one. The 13th century Norovank Monastery is the most memorable building – or rather collection of buildings – I have seen this year. Comprised of the Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Karapet Churches and located not far from the city of Yeghegnadzor in Central Armenia, it’s an incredible sight.
Armenians do religious buildings well – and Norovank really does have it all: atmosphere, architecture and poignance. The complex itself is perched on a rocky hillside overlooking a narrow river gorge with spectacular views over red-brick cliffs and lush valleys stretching out into the distance.
If you visit, you’ll have to be virtually pulled away by your guide.
Most moving experience – EuroMaidan, Kiev, Ukraine
This one really needs no further explanation other than to note that, just days after this photo was taken, Viktor Yanukovych’s henchmen launched a wave of indiscriminate sniper attacks against civilians on the square that led to more than 100 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Yanukovych is, of course, now a figure of the past and much has changed in Ukraine recently with the election of the brave new President Petro Poroshenko and a new, pro-western coalition government. Ukraine will, however, remain a fragile stage for years to come.
Best meal – St George Restaurant, Bucharest
Back in early January, I headed to the Romanian capital city of Bucharest for work in order to have a couple of meetings. While I my overall impressions of the city were very good, I was a bit disappointed to see that many of the city’s restaurants – particularly in the main business district and tourist areas – appeared to be fairly generic western-style places knocking out pizzas and gourmet burgers rather than traditional Romanian food. Some of these places were downright bizarre; the biggest culprit being a pizzeria with fake palm trees called “Coco Loco” (or something like that). On a beer level, I actually gave up attempting to find a local Romanian brew after inquires at many bars simply resulted in the owners proudly informing me they “only serve premium beers like Stella”. Gah!
After wandering the streets of Bucharest for an hour or so, looking for somewhere pleasant-looking to eat, I spotted a cosy-looking restaurant on the edge of the Old Town – the St George Restaurant. It was absolutely the right choice – warm, welcoming, intimate and entertaining.
Operated by ethnic Hungarians from the Transylvania region of Romania, the food was simply superb. I started with a serving of chicken-filled “Hortobagy” meat pancakes, which were the perfect fuel to warm me after a protracted period of walking in cold, mid-winter Bucharest. My main course, “Szegedi” mutton stew with strapacska was tender, flavoursome and tasty. Accompanied by a bottle of Romanian red from the Urlati region, it made for the perfect dinner.
I am tempted to go back to Bucharest for the sole purpose of eating in this restaurant. If you’re in town, don’t miss it.
Hajdučki Konak, Zvečan, Kosovo/Serbia – Located about a ten minute drive north of the bridge that divides the ethnic Albanian-populated south of the town of Mitrovica from the Serb-run areas to the north, Hajdučki Konak provides Serbian hospitality at its very best. The food is pretty simple – grilled meats, fresh fish, home-made bread and salads. The building is a half stone-half wood cabin with a riverside garden in which to sit in summer and a cosy dining room with a roaring fire in the winter. Chomping on delicious ćevapčići and sipping on home-brewed Rakija, it’s easy to forget Kosovo’s problems as soon as you walk through its doors.
Mozaik, Pristina, Kosovo – If I had to pick a “winner” solely on customer service alone, there would be no contest: Mozaik would be the victor. Set on a quiet side street (so quiet taxi drivers usually have no idea where it is), Mozaik is the brainchild of local chef Lorik who honed his English skills in the years following the Kosovo war. Stepping into Mozaik, you are transported from the gray monotony of the streets of Pristina to a cosy, mahogany-panelled dining foom where delicious meat dishes and tasty stews are the order of the day. I have been to the restaurant several times now and have never seen a menu – Lorik recommends, I accept, I eat and I’m happy. I even called ahead one evening when I was arriving in Pristina at 11pm and he specially kept the place open for me and my friends. Not to be missed.
Saba, Hargeisa, Somaliland – Located on the outskirts of Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa, Saba is a real gem. Owned and operated by a family of Yemeni immigrants who moved to Somaliland many years ago, it is an incredibly simple affair based around a shady courtyard filled with white plastic tables. The menu is purposefully small, containing a limited range of traditional Somali and Yemeni dishes – all of which are delicious (my favourite being the incredibly tender lamb stew with the home-made roti-style bread). The flavours are delicious, the mildly chaotic surroundings endearing and staff endlessly pleasant – albeit unable to speak a word of English. The only downside is that Saba, like everywhere else in Somaliland, is dry. At roughly $5 a head, though, it’s hard to complain.
Surprise standout – Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Tajikistan was, if I’m being honest, a bit of a last-minute add on to my trip to Central Asia. It was a country I knew – and still know – relatively little about that I ended up being quite taken with.
There’s no point rehashing what I already wrote about the country’s charming capital city Dushanbe in this blogpost. More broadly, though, my experience of Dushanbe has led me to explore more options for exploring Tajikistan next year – most notably, the mountainous Gorno Badakhshan region on the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Watch this space…
Worst hotel – Nondescript “motel” above a petrol station, Mitrovica, Kosovo
When I’m in North Mitrovica, I usually stay at the excellent Hotel North City. It’s clean, convenient and secure. Regrettably, it’s also quite popular with the foreign government and NGO community – especially when there’s an election on.
Having exhausted all possible options for accommodation in North Mitrovica, I looked across the other side of the ethnically divided city to the South. As a result of a block booking by the OSCE for their election observers, all the rooms there were gone too. Instead, a local cabbie took me to what appeared to be a petrol station somewhere on the main highway between Mitrovica and Pristina.”
After much fumbling on the part of the petrol station attendant, I was taken down what looked like a bin alley shown to an unmarked door at the top of a set of stairs bearing the word “MOTEL”. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “beggars can’t be choosers”. Well, in a way, they can: they can actively choose to either accept accommodation offered to them or sleep on the streets. On reflection, part of me wishes I’d chosen the latter.
The room I was taken to in the “motel” was lacking in any form of central heating, had threadbare (albeit clean sheets) and a bathroom (cleanliness status: undermined) where the means of both having a shower and flushing the toilet appeared to come in the form of a garden hosepipe hanging out of the wall.
I didn’t change out of my clothes that night. Nor did I shower. I still have no idea what the place is called; nor do I wish to remember. Learn my lesson: book hotels in Kosovo prior to travelling.
Most unpleasant government official – Customs Team, Addis Ababa Bole International Airport
When I first landed in Addis Ababa from Istanbul, I was incredibly impressed with the speed and efficiency with which I was issued a visa. The whole process; from landing to completing my paperwork to getting in a taxi to my hotel took less than ten minutes. Surely, I thought, it would be just as easy when I returned from Somaliland. No. No, no, no, no, no.
The first sign there may be complications with my visa to re-enter Ethiopia came when my flight from Hargeisa landed at the terminal designed to deal with Ethiopian domestic flights. Clearly, a domestic terminal does not have the ability to issue visas so, upon approaching the counter and enquiring as to how I could obtain one, I expected some solution to be found. Instead, I was told by the surly border guard that I had to head to the international terminal. Given that the two are not connected, this required waiting two hours for the official in question to deign to arrange a minibus to transfer me and the passengers that had arrived from the newly-born Republic of South Sudan (who were in the same boat) to the international arrivals hall.
Easy? Done? No. While the South Sudanese delegation were waved through, I was then subjected to a further five hour wait by customs officials who would only opaquely tell me they needed to “investigate” why I wished to enter Ethiopia. After my fourth hour waiting in the airport, I asked to speak to the British Embassy, only to be told I would be arrested if I asked again. Charming!
Eventually, I was admitted to Ethiopia after an interview (without coffee) with the chief border guard – a woman possessed with the charm of Vladimir Putin and build of Cyril Smith. She never did tell me what concerns they had about me entering the country…
I made my way into Addis Ababa and plonked myself down in the first restaurant I could find. To my dismay, it was a dry restaurant. Defeated; I was too tired to go anywhere else.
Most crooked taxi driver – Astana, Kazakhstan
Astana is a strange city. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully appreciate the place unless you have been to Dubai and seen the gaudy, soaring structures that dominate it’s impressive skyline. I have a theory that President Nazarbayev was quite taken with Dubai and decided, in the style of a true, vainglorious dictator, to spend a chunk of his recently-acquired oil money on trying to create a rival version of the place in Central Asia. He hasn’t been successful; I found it to be a city almost entirely devoid of charm.
My first introduction to the place was my taxi driver. Being a man of a certain confidence and a certain build, I don’t generally have too many problems with rip-off merchants overseas – but the incident on my arrival in Astana really takes the biscuit.
To start with, the taxi driver attempted to persuade me that the airport was 120km from Astana. It is in fact – as I knew – roughly 30km. Upon realising I wasn’t entirely clueless, he quickly performed a volte face and declared he knew a “shortcut” that would, ta da, indeed mean the journey would be 30km. (This “shortcut” rather closely resembled a main arterial road).
Having thought I had avoided the worst of the Kazakh cabbie’s gombeenism, I had a treat to look forward to. Pulling up outside my hotel, he attempted to jack up the fare to five times the amount on the meter. As I remonstrated with him, an English-speaking security guard from the hotel came out to find out what the fuss was about. Rather than accept he was not going to get away with ripping me off, he launched an audacious defence. The fare, he claimed while flashing a kindly-looking smile, was so high because he had taken me on a “photo tour” of Astana. In reality, I had wound down the window and taken a couple of blurry photos from the car as we drove along the motorway.
I handed him the fare on the metre and, aided by the hotel security staff who blocked his path towards me, took the lift up to my hotel room. He apparently remained in the lobby waiting for me for a further hour until they forcibly threw him out. Crook.