Traveling is not always fun. Not all experiences are pleasant. Things don’t always go to plan. And funnily enough, these are usually the things that you remember most vividly, and make for the best stories. Here are the ten things that happened on my trip that you couldn’t pay me to do again.
Eating natto, Japan
Natto is the name given to fermenting soy beans, strangely considered edible in Japan. My room mate in Japan was half Japanese. He had grown up eating natto and was a big fan, so there was always some around. I’ll try anything once, so I held my breath (the stuff is pretty stinky) and managed to put a couple of slime covered beans into my mouth. Salty, sour, mushy, and definitely an acquired taste. Never again.
Standing ticket on an overnight train, China
I was in a hot, sweaty, dirty, nowhere city in Western China and I wanted out as quickly as possible. The only available tickets on the overnight train were standing room only. I took what I could get. This meant fighting a surging, pushing crowd of locals for whatever spare room was available. I spent twelve hours attempting to sleep in a standing position in the square foot of space I managed to claim at the end of the carriage which also served as a smoking area.
Beijing nightlife, China
For some reason, lots of bars in Beijing employ awkwardly bad, tone deaf singers as nocturnal entertainment. Their repertoires inevitably consist of tacky love song covers, sung in engrish, amplified at full volume and directed into the street, presumably to attract would be diners and revelers. Often you get ten or fifteen of these locales in a row, all promoting their particular ‘musician’ by trying to amplify louder than the fellow next door, until you get a woeful layered mashup of auditory pain. For some reason unbeknownst to me, the bars always looked deserted.
Eating dried yak cheese, Mongolia
A nomadic herder offered a bowl of these traditional delicacies when we visited her ger out in Terelj National Park. Not knowing what they were, and not wanting to be rude, I took a handful of the cream coloured, grub shaped chips. Turns out these were dried, sour, yak cheese chips. As the first taste hit my tongue, I tried to hide my discomfort with difficulty. I slipped the remainder of the chips into a pocket for later disposal.
Drinking the free drinks in a Bolivian nightclub
Lesson learned: beware the freebies. They were handing out trays of free, radioactive coloured shots at a halloween party in Sucre. I don’t know what was in them but whatever it was left me feeling ill for the next two days. If it is being given away for free in Bolivia, it cannot be good.
Potosi silver mines, Bolivia
This was an eye opening experience, but one I would be happy never to repeat. Visiting an operational mine in Cerro Rico, Potosi, is an occupational health and safety officer’s worst nightmare. Claustrophobic, structurally unsound tunnels, gaping, uncovered shafts, noxious fumes, dripping water, exposed electrical cables, runaway mine trolleys. After two hours down there, I was never so happy as the moment that I emerged from the darkness and was able to stand up straight and take a deep breath of fresh air.
Overnight bus down death road, Bolivia
This was by far the most white knuckle ride I have ever been on. The notorious road is a single lane mule track carved into the side of jungle covered mountains, descending four thousand vertical metres in a series of hairpins and switchbacks with no edge barriers. Doing the eighteen hour trip in a battered Bolivian bus driven at speed by a sleep deprived bus driver with a mouth full of coca leaves adds to the rush. I needed to come back the same way but decided to fly instead. Doing this road once was enough.
Amazonian wasp nest removal, Bolivia
During my time in the Bolivian Amazon, I volunteered at an animal rescue park. I was tasked with removing a nest of wasps that had decided to locate themselves on a branch right next to a rope that one of the pumas played with daily. Every time she pawed the rope, she and the handlers would get stung. Three of us headed out there to see if we could move the wasps on. The nest was about eight metres up, much higher than the broom stick we had brought along could reach. So we gathered some rocks, and took aim. We unexpectedly landed a direct hit on our first attempt, catching us off guard for what happened next. The nest detached, fell to the ground and exploded in a swarm of angry wasps, which came after the only moving things in the vicinity - us. We bolted through the jungle like Indiana Jones, followed by the buzzing swarm. And despite our long sleeves and face nets, the angry wasps found ways past our defences to take revenge on our bare skin. We all got stung several times. I guess we may have deserved that one. I’d be pissed too if someone came and demolished my home.
Playing host to jungle parasites, Bolivia
I’m all for picking up hitch hikers, but this was taking it a little far. After a few weeks volunteering in the Bolivian Amazon, I emerged to discover I had acquired a couple of stowaways. The day I looked down at an infected mosquito bite on my arm and saw a little white worm coming up for air was a surreal moment. On top of this I also discovered that a botfly larvae was busy making my scalp home. Several trips to the clinic in La Paz evicted my guests and left me with a scar on my arm as a reminder.
New Years Eve in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is a great city but New Years Eve is not the ideal time to visit. Most of the population escapes to the seaside or to the mountains, leaving the metropolis feeling somewhat deflated over the festive period. I asked around in the days leading up to New Years only to discover that it is a relatively low key affair in the capital. Most of the locals who stick around celebrate the evening at home with family or friends. Who would’ve guessed that this party capital doesn’t really party on New Years?
These were the moments that left me in awe of the wonderful and diverse planet that we inhabit. Funnily enough, most of these (but not all) happened to me whilst I was amongst nature, often alone, and during a moment of quiet solitude. These are listed in the order in which they occurred. I would be hard pressed to rank them, as they were all quite different epiphanies.
Snowboarding in Rusutsu, Japan
After a one metre dump of fresh, dry Japanese powder overnight, myself and five buddies headed out to Rusutsu the next morning to tear it up. Gliding between the trees through untracked, chest deep snow was so awesome that we didn’t stop for lunch. We rode hard all that day, to the point where I could barely stand up afterward. It was so good that I decided to end my winter season that day, as there was little chance a day like that could be topped as March began to fade. Epic.
Soaking in an outdoor onsen while it snows, Japan
An after an epic day of snowboarding, what better way to relax than to soak in a natural hot spring? Sitting alone in an outdoor onsen, it began to snow. Big, fluffy Japanese snow flakes that silently floated down and melted into the rising steam. Hot water. Cold air. Quiet. A definite moment.
Wandering the steppe in Terelj National Park, Mongolia
I woke up early one morning and headed out of the ger we were camped in to have an early morning wander across the steppe as the sun was rising. A soaring landscape, wide open rolling grassland with clear air that allows you to see for miles around in every direction. Peaceful with an overwhelming sense of freedom.
Snorkeling down the Rio de Prata, Bonito, Brazil
This was amazing as it was a surprisingly unique experience and different to anything I have done elsewhere or seen offered elsewhere. Snorkeling down a river in the middle of the biggest swamp on earth doesn’t sound so appealing in theory and so this came as a surprise. But the waters here are crystal clear, and the visibility incredible. This means you get to float downstream amongst tropical fresh water fish in their thousands. Kind of like a big natural aquarium. Pretty cool.
Machu Picchu at dawn, Peru
After a four day slog to get there, watching the ancient ruins appear from behind a shroud of mist from the Sun Gate at dawn was pure magic. There was something timeless about this moment, like taking part in an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries.
Mountain biking down death road, Bolivia
This gets in purely for the adrenalin rush. After being holed up in La Paz for five days getting jungle worms removed from my arm, this was the perfect action antidote. A 3,600 metre descent in a couple of hours, practically without having to peddle. On a high for the rest of the day afterward.
Rockclimbing and sleeping under stars at Piedra Parada, Argentina
I wasn’t much of a rock climber beforehand, but after a week out here, it is something I am keen do more regularly. This experience was so great because it was truly off the beaten trail, and we were practically self sufficient out in the Patagonian desert for a week. Getting naturally high climbing each day, followed by a swim / wash in the river, and then sleeping outdoors under a sky ablaze with stars. A simple, but rewarding existence.
Sunrise at Mt Fitzroy, Argentinian Patagonia
Watching the sun come up and illuminate these incredible mountains is an existential experience. The peaks glow violet, mauve, pink, orange, red. Watching the show from the comfort of a sleeping bag with a hot cup of tea completes the epiphany.
Zodiac cruising in Iceberg Alley, Antarctic Peninsula
There were many unforgettable moments down in Antarctica, but this particular zodiac cruise wins hands down for the most memorable. Cruising amongst enormous wind and water shaped icebergs was like visiting nature’s sculpture garden, and a humbling experience in itself. When a curious leopard seal approached the zodiac, playfully baring its teeth and showing off his moves, the experience became surreal. There was a moment when I stared straight into his eyes, and he straight back into mine. There was some kind of mutual acknowledgement between us.
Sunrise over the Cordillera del Paine, Chilean Patagonia
Okay, so I am addicted to Patagonian sunrises. After five days of trekking around the national park with hundreds of others, I managed to escape the crowds on the final day and retire to a quiet corner of the park. I awoke in the dark, climbed the nearest hill, and watched the landscape light up in silence. Truly awesome.
These were the ten outstanding culinary delights of my sixteen month odyssey around the globe. All of them are local specialties, usually from small, intimate local eating houses. I would happily go back to any of these places just to eat these foods again. I wish I had photos of all these dishes to show you, but alas, sometimes, I was just too busy eating.
Sashimi in Otaru, Japan
In sushi obsessed Japan, the fishing port of Otaru on the Sea of Japan is famous in particular for the freshness of its sushi. There is an entire street - Sushi Street - dedicated to devouring it. Watching the chefs deftly prepare the fish in front of you is part of the entertainment.
Miso ramen in Sapporo, Japan
Sapporo is sometimes called ‘The City of Ramen’, hosting over one thousand restaurants dedicated to this particular type of soup. The local specialty is a miso flavoured broth with noodles, topped with sliced pork, beansprouts, butter, sweetcorn and seaweed. On a cold winter day, this cannot be beaten.
Xiao long bao in Shanghai, China
Shanghai style soup dumplings, a steamer of sixteen for about a dollar. Cheap and tasty, available all over the city.
Peking duck in Beijing, China
Crispy skin roast duck, sliced and rolled into pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce. Dericious.
Baguette, fromage, and pastry in Paris, France
Simple, cheap, delicious. I spent a week in Paris, and this combination served as lunch practically every day. With the variety of different cheeses and patisserie delights on offer, I don’t think I could ever get bored. France is truly cheese heaven.
Fresh grilled seafood in Porto, Portugal
Matosinhos is a whole neighbourhood infused in the aroma of seafood grilling on street side barbeques. We picked a restaurant at random and sat down to a feast of fresh grilled sardines and octopus drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Simple and scrumptious.
Tirelli fagioli in Montenerodomo, Italy
This is one of my favourite meals of all time. You won’t find it in any restaurants because it is the local specialty of my father’s region in Abbruzzo, Italy. It was originally a peasant dish, made from basic, locally grown and sourced ingredients. A tomato and onion flavoured soup, with home made pasta, kidney beans and crispy bits of pork crackling. Buonissimo!
Pizza margherita in Rome, Italy
You would think that finding a good pizza in Rome would be an easy task. Unfortunately, most of the obvious pizzerias cater to the tourist hoardes, and the quality of the pizza is usually disappointing. The Trastevere area caters more to the local taste, with pizzerias serving up traditional Neapolitan style, thin crust, wood oven pizzas with basic toppings. I believe that when pizza is done right, you don’t need more than a margherita.
Ceviche in Cuzco, Peru
After months of mediocre South American offerings of beans, rice, corn and hot dogs, ceviche was a culinary godsend. Raw white fish cooked in lime juice, this dish is fresh and bursting with flavour.
Lomo de chorizo from practically any parilla in Argentina
Barbequeing is a national obsession in Argentina, and that’s coming from an Australian. They know their cuts from head to tail, and the building of a fire, from structure to wood type, is an art form. They cut their steaks thick, grill them slow on low until tender, and devour with relish.
The most memorable ways of getting from A to B, with the added bonus of some interesting scenery in between. This is about moving from place to place for the sake of the experience, rather than for the sake of speed or comfort. Listed in the order that they happened.
Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China
Spectacular mountain scenery on this two day hike along one of the deepest gorges in the world. Also one of the only places in the China I visited that had fresh air and wasn’t completely overrun with crowds, making it a very welcome change.
Trans-Siberian from Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia to Moscow, Russia
The longest railway in the world is memorable simply for its sheer length. A great way to get a grasp of the distance being covered as you pass through it at ground level, traversing some of the largest countries on the planet. I also found it interesting to observe the subtle changes in landscape, people and culture while crossing such a vast distance from East to West.
The Camino Norte from Irun to Ribadesella, Spain
I still maintain that walking is the best way to travel, bar none. The Camino Norte was great for slowing down and simplifying my life for a few weeks. The morning coastline scenery was gorgeous, the afternoon water temperature refreshing, and the evening seafood scrumptious.
Cruising the Rio Paraguay on the Aquidaban, Paraguay
A memorable journey primarily because the Aquidaban is a cargo ship and a form of transport for local people and their goods. Which meant this three day trip provided an authentic glimpse into the lives of the communities living along the river.
The Inca Trail, Peru
Firmly established on the gringo trail and completed by thousands of people each year, the four day Inca Trail was spectacular nevertheless. Mystical Andean scenery, swathed in dense jungle, rollings mists and dotted with crumbling ruins, all worthwhile sights in themselves. Arriving at Machu Picchu on the final day just happened to be the added bonus.
Southwest Bolivia by 4WD
A truly mind boggling corner of the world, with surreal landscapes that defy belief. The only way to access this remote area is on a multiday 4WD trip that passes salt flats, high altitude deserts, volcanoes, geysers and mineral tinted lakes dotted with flamingos. It is as close to interplanetary travel as you will get on this earth.
Hitch hiking Ruta 40 from Cachi to Angastaco, Argentina
A great journey because it was off the beaten track, and navigating the route was left somewhat to fate. A patchwork of irregular local buses and hitch hiking, I was lucky enough to score a ride with a water delivery truck on an unserviced stretch of back road. The desert landscape through here was wild and spectacular, and we were practically the only ones driving through it.
Trekking Los Glaciares National Park, Argentinian Patagonia
This five day hiking and camping jaunt truly satisfied my cravings for tranquillity in the company of nature and a couple of good friends. I always find it rewarding to head off into the outdoors and be completely self sufficient for a few days, having carried all the necessary supplies on your own back. A spectacularly beautiful park, it also happens to be free to enter and free to camp in - a rare combination. And despite the park being a popular destination, it never felt overrun or crowded, making solitude easy to come by.
Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula
The beauty, uniqueness and overall intensity of cruising the pristine end of the world for a twelve days will stay with me for a long time. Taking a ship is the only way of reaching this remote polar region. It’s expensive, but worth every dollar. The ship was luxurious, comfortable, educational and entertaining to be on, and a nice change after months of budget travel. Outside, abundant wildlife accompanied us as we navigated spectacular, life affirming landscapes. My appetite for wild places has been well and truly whet.
Trekking the W Circuit, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia
Crowded it may be, but for good reason. The mountain landscape here is outrageous. And once again, I find heading out into nature and being self sufficient for a few days greatly rewarding. The five day trek is tough in parts, especially when lugging a twenty kilo pack, but watching a Patagonian sunrise light up the Torres is well worth the effort. Just hope and pray that the notorious Patagonian weather plays nice.
I like my cities buzzing, cosmopolitan and creative. For me, a great city is determined by the people, culture and ideas that reside within it, much more so than its appearance. Thus, a beautiful natural setting or architecture helps, but is not crucial. In my eyes, a truly great city is a place that is exciting and enjoyable to actually live in, not just to visit as a tourist.
Here are my favourite ten cities I visited on this trip, in order. These are cities I would happily go back to on another visit because they are dynamic, ever changing and always interesting. More importantly, they are cities I would love to reside in for a longer period of time, to explore in more depth. Cities where the cultural offerings, creative scene and quality of life on offer appeal to me.
Still my favourite city in the world, but I am probably bias as I have lived there previously and have spent more time here than any other city on this list. International, creative, exciting, liberal, tolerant, open minded and budget friendly with a laid back pace. This is a city in constant flux, with an intriguing history and an exciting future. Plus it is the home of good friends and great memories. Berlin is a magnet that is always trying to pull me back.
A beautiful city to look at, matched with an easy going atmosphere, tolerant attitude and friendly locals. Not too big, and not too small. A cutting edge, sustainable design epicentre. Plus the best place in the world to be a cyclist.
A true multicultural melting pot, London is like the world in miniature, an ethnic stew with ingredients from all corners of the globe. Enormous in size but with small manageable pockets of village atmosphere, and some great local pubs. The city truly has something for everyone, including an avant garde creative scene. In the words of Samuel Johnson, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.
Gorgeous with effortless style, and an intellect to match. Another buzzing multicultural melting pot which places enormous value on the arts, philosophy and the germination and incubation of ideas. More museums, galleries, monuments and culture than I could squeeze into a short week there. Lots of great neighbourhoods to explore, each with their own distinct personalities.
5. Rio de Janeiro
A wonderful natural setting with a pleasant climate and a tropical buzz. Carefree, smiling locals who love to surf, swim, skate, sunbathe, samba, and party with passion. A city of optimists. What’s not to love?
6. St Petersburg
Gorgeous to look at, a city of palaces, gardens, boulevardes, canals and intellectuals. Great for history and culture buffs, and definitely the friendliest metropolis in Russia. I actually saw people smile here. It also has a healthy, creative alternative culture bubbling away just beneath the surface.
7. Buenos Aires
Arguably South America’s most intellectual metropolis, BA has a thriving local scene of artists, designers and creatives. It also has a gritty, delapidated old world charm that I love. Plus some wonderful antique stores.
8. San Sebastian
A small but buzzing coastal city with beautiful beaches and beautiful weather, and a cosmopolitan feel surprising for its size. Compact old town with great bars serving delicious tapas, accompanied by that infectious Spanish festive spirit.
A cute, compact city with a thriving alternative scene, still emerging from the dusts of the Soviet collapse. Not unlike a miniature Berlin.
Beautiful, cosmopolitan city with a laid back Mediterranean vibe, and a healthy local creative scene.
In sixteen months I have bussed, trained, sailed, hitched, walked and wandered through buzzing cities, sleepy villages, humming jungles, silent deserts, sweeping steppe, jagged mountains, rambling rivers and narrow fjords. I’ve seen ancient ruins, strange creatures, pristine beaches, smoking volcanoes, creaking glaciers and the frozen continent. I’ve weathered tropical thunderstorms, winter snowstorms, heavy seas, upset stomachs and jungle parasites. I’ve reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. I’ve covered over eighty thousand kilometres, mostly overland, through twenty four countries on five continents.
And you know what? It’s good to be home. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience all these wonderful places and cultures, and to be able to come home to a safe and prosperous country.
The end of this wandering chapter in my life also signals the end of this blog. I will post again when I hit the road again, though I’m not sure when that will be. Hopefully not too long. In the meantime, I hope I have provided a bit of insight into the wonders of the world and a bit of inspiration for doing some wandering of your own.
Thanks for following.