Seeing as we’ve been on the road for a year, I feel it’s time to write about some of the highlights. Some of these were written about when they happened, but some are little things that didn’t necessarily register as worthy of a mention at the time. In no particular order:
Best dining experiences
- A long, drawn-out meal at a tavern in Bansko, Bulgaria. Taking recommendations from the waiter and enjoying the best food we had in the country as we sipped our ice cold beer.
- A hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Sokcho, South Korea. It could do no wrong and I still drool over the yukgaejang (spicy beef soup) that I had there. It was so spicy it made me cry but just had the best flavour.
- Ottoman era cuisine in Istanbul, Turkey. The restaurant has researched traditional dishes served in the Ottoman court and recreated them.
- Red wine looking down over a Roman theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
- Multiple meals next to the ice rink in Brasov, Romania. Mulled wine, kürtős, white sausage and pfeffernüsse biscuits as we watched people skate around and enjoy themselves.
- Christmas Eve dinner in Brasov, Romania. Fantastic food in a cosy restaurant where we were even given a music menu to select our background music.
- Cafes and outdoor mulled wine in Lviv, Ukraine. Many cafés had themes – we went to one decorated like a Ukrainian Insurgent Army bunker, one dedicated to the inventor of the oil lamp and one remembering the life of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man after whom masochism is named.
- After walking several hours from the nearest road in the Geisev Valley, Tajikistan, we found a village house to stay in. The old lady asked if we wanted gretcha (buckwheat) or “macarone” (noodles) for dinner. We answered gretcha and that’s what we got. Just gretcha. Breakfast was the other choice. Sweet and hilarious at the same time.
- All you can eat cabbage in Kanazawa, Japan. A small themed restaurant harking back to the good old days (when I suppose they had all you can eat cabbage?). Nice atmosphere and good, cheap food.
- Rice triangles and sliced fruit in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Sticky rice triangles served on a small plate and smothered with honey, eaten while standing on the street and people watching. Then washing them down with a slice of fresh melon, cut off for us by a man with a smile almost as big as his knife.
- Sweet shop where we overdosed on backlava in Istanbul, Turkey. We went back so many times they knew us by name.
- Hello Kitty Love Hotel in Osaka, Japan. So wrong, so hilarious.
- Yurts in Tash Rabat and Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan. A fantastic opportunity to experience traditional nomadic life.
- Temple stay in Haeinsa, South Korea. Spending a night at a UNESCO listed temple and being shown around by a monk.
- Random person’s house in Kadji Sai, Kyrgyzstan. We didn’t share any language but he welcomed us into his home when his neighbour (who had a guesthouse) wasn’t home.
- Back seat of a minivan. Somewhere in Tajikistan. We didn’t plan to spend our 6 month anniversary on the road but it just happened (see best journeys)
- Jeti Oghuz Sanitarium in Kyrgystan. Crumbling ex-Soviet health retreat.
- Tajik policeman’s hat. We bought it in a store, honest officer. I had to smuggle it out of the country after the post office told me it could not be posted and should not be taken out of the country.
- A 5kg piece of rock that I thought was jade and became unnecessarily attached to after carrying for 3 months.
- Fuse of a WW1 bomb that I bought at a dodgy flea market in Riga, Latvia.
- Ostrich egg pysanky. Traditional Ukrainian egg painting on a massive scale.
- Bread imprinters from Xinjiang. They’re used to press designs into the large round flat bread that you see everywhere.
- DMZ, South Korea. The line separating South and North Korea where we stepped foot on North Korean soil. Interesting for the history as well - a war I knew very little about.
- Kashgar Sunday Market, Xinjiang. At the animal market fat tailed sheep, cows, donkeys and horses are put on display and haggled over in a dusty, chaotic spectacle. The rest of the Sunday market sprawls over an incredible area and traders from the surrounding countries sell anything you could possibly want.
- Chernobyl, Ukraine. The site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster is now open to visitors as long as you don’t get too close to reactor 4. Interesting for the abandoned town nearby. The nuclear plant was in operation until the year 2000.
- Rila Monastery, Bulgaria. The refuge of Bulgarian culture during the rough years and a religious centre since the 10th century, the monastery is in a beautiful setting and has an incredible feeling of peacefulness. That’s before I even start raving about the beautiful frescoes of its main church.
- Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre, Ukraine. A stunning building with almost nightly performances of high-quality shows at reasonable prices. What’s not to love? We paid $10pp for our own private box seat.
- Ephesus, Turkey. Overall the best preserved and excavated Roman city we’ve seen. Though other places have small parts which equal it, Ephesus really gives a good feeling of the city as a whole.
- Bran Castle, Romania. Also known as Dracula’s Castle though it would be an attraction without the tenuous link. We visited it on a quiet day and had the twisting corridors and small rooms almost to ourselves.
- Peles Castle in Sinia, Romania. Truly exemplifying luxurious excess, this royal villa was one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.
- Glinnoye, Transnistria (Moldova). We went to see where Brett’s ancestors lived when they left Germany and before they moved to the USA. It was an appallingly cold day with wind and snow and horrible temperatures but we were welcomed into the nearby school and I communicated with the German teacher as best I could.
- Aphrodisias, Turkey. For not having our own transport Aphrodisias was a little out of the way, and that made it all the more intriguing. The only time we’ve seen a stadium and some incredible carvings beautifully displayed and explained in the museum.
- Ferry from Tokyo to Kita Kyushu (33 hours) with the boat almost to ourselves and vending machine sushi.
- 55 hour bus ride from Khorog to Dushanbe in Tajikistan (600km). It was only meant to take 12 hours but we ended up spending 2 nights on the way and had 8 flat tyres. Eventually we bailed (the locals had given up before us) and hopped into another car.
- Norway in a nutshell. Train, bus and ferry trip through the fjordlands of Norway. Beautiful.
- The Lycian Way, a six day hike along the Turkish coast. Walking through olive groves, along cliff lines and past villages.
- Entering Transnistria after having read about all the different scams and shakedowns we could expect and having the border guard ask us how much money we were carrying. Managing to get into and out of the country without paying a single bribe (apparently a very rare occurrence).
Other worthy mentions
- Our visit to the police station in Aksu, Xinjiang, when the police officer told us that everything was back to normal a day after the 5 July Urumqi riots had started. This despite the fact that there was an encampment of army troops in full riot gear in the same room and that a prisoner with wrists shackled to ankles had shuffled through the lobby under heavy armed guard. In total at least 200 people were killed and Xinjiang still remains without internet access.
- Walking back to our guesthouse on our first night in Istanbul as it snowed and seeing the flakes fall on the blue mosque (to our right) and Aya Sofia (to our left).