Istanbul

Every time I go to a place like Istanbul I just wish I paid more attention in history lessons… Nevertheless, even without any decent history knowledge it’s impossible not to appreciate this breathtaking city.

I just remembered how dirty I felt once I arrived to Istanbul. It was a 24 hour stopover on the back to Scotland from Nepal. I spent 7 weeks wondering in the clouds of dust and getting my boots dirty and then over the sudden I was in this pristine place (at least it felt like it). My dirty (kind of) tshirts and shorts really felt awkward, although judging from all the attention I got from local guys, nobody even noticed my clothes.

I really didn’t have much time to see Istanbul. I made it to the Blue Mosque which was one the most beautiful places I have ever visited. It’s hard to show the beauty in the photos, but I heard people saying that if their church looked like this mosque they would spend every day there. Not being religious, I almost agreed.

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I then met some local volunteers who recommended visiting Topkapi Palace, a former residence of Ottoman Sultans. It’s an absolutely stunning place with loads of colours, patterns and beautiful items (like jewelry) and it was a proper history overload for my tired from traveling brains.

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The place kept me entertained for a few hours and I didn’t realise I missed the closing time of the Basilica Cistern – a largest of the cisterns in Istanbul, able to hold 80,000 cubic metres (or accoring to my calcs 32 Olympic swimming pools) of water. I am a bit of a water engineering freak so I was gutted to miss the place.

For some reason everyone kept telling me how chaotic transport was in Istanbul, I kept replying that they should see Nepal… 🙂 just to be clear, not just for the chaotic transport but also for its beauty!

I spent an evening catching up with my ex classmate. She was studying in Istanbul so it was a good occasion to meet up. She dragged me back to Asia, which I thought I escaped earlier that morning. No regrets, because on the Asian side of Istanbul I got introduced to a Turkish pizza, Lahmacun, which I’m still dreaming about and cannot find it anywhere is Scotland… ideas anyone?

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The next day I got up early thanks to jet lag. Had a wee wonder around the empty streets and headed back to the airport. It was time to come back to Scotland. I know one day I will return to Turkey, do my history research beforehand and eat Lahmacun for breakfast, lunch and dinner (maybe)!

Chitwan National Park

Nepal never really associated to me with elephants, rhinos, crocodiles but I got to see them all there! The south of the country is very different from the north and that was completely unexpected to me (you can even get malaria there!).

A bus ride to Chitwan National park from Kathmandu was one of the most unpleasant I got to experience in Nepal. The park is about 170km away from Kathmandu, however it will take you at least 5 hours to get there, depending on the traffic and luck. I think it took us about 7, but I know someone who was stuck in the bus for about 11 hours. The closer you get to Chitwan the hotter it gets and even the open windows don’t do anything when the traffic is moving slow. Actually, it’s even worse to have the windows open – the roads are in such a poor condition that there is always a cloud of dust in the air.

So after several hours in the bus I arrived in Chitwan all covered in layers of dust, unable to handle the scorching heat and having to deal with the super annoying taxi drivers who jumped on us with their offers as soon as we got out of the bus. We found a place to stay and ordered some food (pizzas) there, which turned out to be a huge mistake. Every weekend, after spending all week eating vegan curries, we were craving for something meaty or cheesy or both. Even in Kathmandu it’s easy to get a food poisoning, but we didn’t realise Chitwan was the hell for it. I have mentioned in my previous posts that the power is only supplied for several hours a day, so loads of places have their own generators. Ours didn’t, but I realised that too late.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the village and arranged a two hour canoe trip followed by three hour jungle walk for the next day. The village was peaceful and we even got to see a rhino and couple of elephants that evening.

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The bacteria from a cheesy pizza showed all the power at very early hours of the morning. The morning felt like an eternity and I really didn’t feel like going anywhere. Imagine my fear of getting into a canoe while being unsure whether my body can contain its own fluids…

I decided to be brave and got to the riverside. Four of us and two guides got into the wee wooden really unstable canoe and starting going down the river full of crocodiles. However, I didn’t have time to think about the dangers of doing it, since I had my stomach to worry about.

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Otherwise, the canoe ride was extremely peaceful – we started just before the sunrise, so there weren’t anyone around, it was so quiet and beautiful. There were loads of birds around and I enjoyed spotting loads of Kingfishers .

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I survived the canoe trip and then the jungle walk started. It was the rainy season so the grass was about 5m high. We were expecting some wild animals to jump out any moment, but nothing like it happened. It was starting to get hot and we had three hours of walking left… I started feeling better from my food poisoning, so that lifted up my mood a bit.

It was a cool walk. The thrill was always there and you could never know what might appear from around the corner. We spotted some rhinos, deer and wild elephants.

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I found a photo that really made me laugh… completely forgot that I went on a jungle walk in this fancy footwear 😀

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At the and of the walk we were exhausted. The heat was terrible and I never knew I could sweat so much! After the walk we got back and downed litres of water. No amount seemed to be enough.

Later on that day we got offered to go on an elephant ride and agreed to it. That was a mistake and I will never ever ride an elephant again. I didn’t do my research beforehand and never realised the problems related to this activity. The elephants were poorly treated and they were hit every time they didn’t want to do something. It really seemed like a cruel way to make money, but loads of people didn’t seem to have problem with it. I am just going to leave this photo here as a reminder than not everything that sounds exotic and cool is fair and the animals shouldn’t be mistreated for the sake of tourism and making money.

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We left the next morning to get back to Kavresthali. I didn’t enjoy Chitwan too much but I guess it was mostly due to the food poisoning and I didn’t really have too much time to explore the park. Maybe that’s why I kept delaying writing about this place…

Kathmandu

Kathmandu is a hot mess. A beautiful chaotic place full of unexpected things. I loved it some days and other days I just wanted to be out of there. I spent quite a bit of time exploring the city while I was doing some volunteering in Kavresthali near Kathmandu. Everytime I would go back to Kavresthali I would feel like I came back to a wee paradise and I would always come back a little bit different.

I have never seen capitals like this before. It felt like it was a labyrinth, with loads going on around every corner. The streets were crowded and every time I had to go somewhere it felt like a mission. It was never easy to get from A to B, having constantly to watch out for scooters, people, cows and trying not to get lost. It was almost like a game and I would be extremely proud of myself if I managed to do something what would normally take 10min in 20min.

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The chaos scared me at first but with time I grew more and more confident and started exploring the city a wee bit more. One day I left Thamel (the main tourist area) and walked to Swayambhunath which is also called a monkey temple.

It’s one of my favourite places in Kathmandu, with a huge stupa at the top, loads of colours and amazing views of the city. I am not a big fan of monkeys and they do scare me a bit, but I kept away from them and survived.

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The other place I really enjoyed was the Pashupatinath Temple. It’s dedicated to Shiva and is one of the most sacred places in Nepal. If I was Nepali and I died, I would want my body to be burnt there.

I think I wrote about death in Nepali culture in one of my previous post, so I won’t say much about it here. I loved the atmosphere in Pashupatinath, it felt like it was a mix of traditions, respect, sadness and celebration of life and death. I got a guide there who told me even more about the traditions than I knew before and that also added to the whole experience.

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Traditions are everywhere in Nepal. I really liked being exposed to this rich culture just by wondering around the streets. Once, I ended up in Durbar Square with loads of beautiful (although very much affected by the earthquake) temples. I couldn’t believe, but there were so many interesting people around – Sadhus (the holy men), a lady who was painting her body green, loads of various people who came to pay their respect to the gods. I loved the colours, the smells, the atmosphere…

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I know I will be back to Nepal one day. I think I appreciate my trip now when I am writing about it even more than when I was there. Being back to a “normal” country has its advantages – no more chaos, no more constantly upset stomach, no monkeys, no more of getting lost or being annoyed at the traffic, the air and the streets are clean…but at the same time, I’m missing the colours, the element of never knowing of what to expect and oh well, I do actually miss getting lost 🙂

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Third Weekend – Huang Shan

When I was researching things to do in China, Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) was one of the first things that I came across. It is a mountain range with over 1,000 peaks in Anhui province. For a person who grew up in a country where the highest point above the sea level is 294 m, mountains have always seemed to be really exotic. No wonder Huang Shan became one of my top priorities to visit in China.

It was the end of the third week of my exchange programme in China. For the first two weeks we were studying Chinese language and culture, but a few days ago we started design and manufacturing course, which wasn’t that much fun. A lot of classes were entirely in Chinese and the translation was poor, so we’d sit in the classroom for an hour listening to the subject in Chinese just to get a quick 5 minute summary afterwards on what was said. Yes, we were excited about the weekend!

Five of us decided to miss a class on Friday afternoon and instead jumped into the bus going to Tangkou. Six hour journey to Huang Shan was waiting for us! I got to sit next to a middle age man who could actually speak good enough English and we were chatting the entire time. He was going to his son’s wedding and of course he was really excited. He told me a lot about Chinese wedding traditions and his worries about the rhythm of life nowadays. Everything is too fast, too stressful.

It was already dark when we got to Tangkou. A random man got into a bus as soon as it stopped and started asking where we’re staying. We replied saying that we were going to Mr Hu’s hotel. He made a few phone calls and after a few minutes a big black car came to pick us up. It was Mr Hu himself! We said bye to the first three guys, thinking that we might not see them ever again. We were wrong. Mr Hu was a great guy and the stay with him was an absolute pleasure. Not only he picked us up from the bus station, but also the hotel was lovely and he helped us to get to and from the bus stop for Huang Shan.

On Saturday we woke up early in the morning, got into the bus, which took us to the starting point and started climbing. Huangshan is said to have over 60,000 steps and even though we definitely did not climb every single one, it did feel like a lot.

At the beginning we were just wondering in a very thick mist (or clouds, hard to say) and could not see much. I think some kids got bored of staring at the grey wall and formed a local basketball team. Of course we joined them as well.

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After a bit more time of wandering in grey we got to see the real monkeys! It was my first time seeing monkeys outside the zoo and I was more excited about them than Huang Shan.

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For a quick moment clouds cleared out and I was lucky enough to manage to take a photo quickly.

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However, after a while it turned out that that quick moment of beauty was not just a random one. The sky cleared out completely and the views were absolutely breathtaking.

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We spend a while wandering around. It was an absolutely great day and everyone was in a good mood. It was time to find the way out and catch the bus back to the hotel. And then it started raining! It was pouring so badly that within the seconds everyone was wet from head to toes. There was no point in trying to get a cable car down, as the queue was ginormous. We weren’t sure how to get down and we spent quite a while running around looking for the right path. It was getting dark and we were at risk of missing the last bus. For people like us who were absolutely soaked and with no food supplies, it was not the best option. We started panicking.

It took as a while to find the right path down. Remember those over 60,000 steps that I have mentioned before? Yes, the legs were refusing to bend and everyone was extremely tired. Going back to Mr Hu’s and having a hot shower was all we needed for the perfect end of the day.