Empowering women through travel is the ultimate goal of this blog. It gives tips for solo travel, offers resources and shares inspirational stories to help women feel like they can accomplish all of their travel dreams.
Some of my friends cringe as they near 50; others believe their eighties are their best decade.
For me, that magical threshold has always been 65, the ‘before and after’ dividing line, the day I become… someone else. The beginning of the end. Aches and pains. Pensions and discounts. Winding down. Becoming invisible.
So I approached 65 earlier this month with trepidation tinged with dread, expecting the world to split me off from my tribe and hurl me into that strange, unknown land called “seniors”. I prepared to fight this course correction with all my might, not because I don’t want to get old, but because I don’t want to be treated as old.
I waited and worried. Would my dogs stop barging into me, scared I might break? Would they even recognize me? Would middle-aged men relinquish their seats on the bus?
Obviously I had fallen victim to my own stereotypes – oddly so, since most of the women in my family were energetically flying around the world well into their eighties.
But it was a major milestone and some stocktaking seemed in order.
What I sensed was a life fully lived. A bit nomadically perhaps, with many childhood moves across oceans and grown-up changes in profession, but a life blessed by loving friendships and family and the freedom to make choices. As a writer, a journalist, a communicator and a development aid worker, I found my slot each time. I had access, opportunity and luck. (Except perhaps that one time during a journalists’ strike when I sold toilet seats in a commercial fair for several months.)
I went and saw the world, 86 countries of it (101 to go). I wrote about the places and people and documented their health and rights and, often, the disappearance of their traditions. I tried – and often failed to understand why some had so much and others so little.
I wandered, restless, but not discontented.
Each experience added to my list of joys and regrets, my major regret being a lack of “belonging”. Having greater stability and putting down some early roots might have anchored me more and given me a sense of place.
But then, I might not have quit my life as I knew it at 43 to backpack around the world. I might not have lost myself in the Amazon, fearing I’d never find my way out, or driven into a Mozambican minefield and tasted death. I would not have dined with royalty in the Emirates, a self-confident woman for once at a total loss about what to do or say. I might not have skimmed the Mediterranean in a helicopter to reach Beirut at the height of the war, seeing first-hand what happens when people hate one another to the point of killing yet find it in themselves to share small acts of kindness in the midst of horror. Nor would I have interviewed presidents and farmers, slept in silk sheets and in mud huts (not on the same trip) or eaten things I’d prefer not to identify.
Most of all, I would not have understood the extreme privilege I enjoyed, nor made a conscious decision to learn and write about the majority of people who did not.
But yes, life would have been different. I would have had dozens of friends from childhood, with whom I could recall kindergarten pranks and first loves. I wouldn’t panic when people ask me where I’m from, and I’d be able to point to a city, a street even, as my home.
Instead, I had to wait until my 50s for that stability, for the half-finished rural French farmhouse, a beloved partner, cats and dogs and home-grown watermelons and freshly cut grass. It was worth the wait, although I could have started sooner.
This is part of what I get to come home to… the river is a few minutes from my home.
My life hasn’t dramatically changed. I still travel plenty, and I live near several of my favorite cities: Lyon, Geneva, Annecy. I’m 45 minutes from an airport that can take me anywhere. But now, when I travel, I can come home, because I have one. I never knew how important that was.
Had I flown off to another planet 40 years ago and returned today, I might not recognize the world – cell phones, computers, information overload, government by social media (and its creeping incivility), bloated political egos, leadership by greed and pettiness and the shifting sands of our human rights. Sometimes I cheer our advances, other times I despair at our short-sightedness. Some say the traits I deplore have always been around and that we just have faster communication these days. I’m not sure I agree – being online has somehow given people licence to be despicable.
It’s not just the world but I’ve changed too, as we all do. I’m less bothered by little things, and I can stand back with a certain amount of perspective and know that whatever it is, this, too, will pass. Granted, I no longer leap lightly down the stairs (I’m not sure I ever did, actually). I avoid dorm rooms and party hostels, and spring for a nice hotel instead. And the ‘iron stomach’ I could boast about a decade ago is no longer as accepting of chillies and tabasco.
But major shifts and awakenings? No, not yet. Just many snippets of joy at friends from around the world who called to wish me Happy Birthday or who messaged me, as it’s done these days.
Scrape a little and I’m the same person I’ve always been. I’m still noisy and impatient and interrupt people when they talk, and the words ‘road trip’ have me grabbing my keys and running out the door with dogs in tow. And I still write.
The fact that I semi-expected a major shift at 65 shows I’m as easily influenced by my environment as anyone else. Thinking it through in writing allows me to change the way I see things when I need to. Whereas I’m usually too busy living to reflect, these moments allow me to question and reframe. I don’t want to be so taken with ‘life experiences’ that I end up missing the journey.
Still, time flies, and that’s the biggest change of all. I once waited interminably for birthdays. Now, they seem to tumble forward several times a year, and my to do list just gets longer. Family and dear friends pass on, and I can’t help but know someday it’ll be my turn.
But I have little time for those thoughts. This Taurean is already in deep planning mode for her 66th. A Camino walk, perhaps, along the Portuguese coast. (If my eternal diet fails, perhaps I can lose the pounds as I walk.)
So maybe I am a bit wiser, plumper, stiffer and more forgetful. And I have more wrinkles (but as long as my dogs still recognize me, that’s fine). I haven’t become invisible overnight – I’m far too loud and outspoken for that. Nor am I winding down: later this year I’ll visit Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine, Thailand and Cambodia. And that’s just what’s confirmed.
Rather than the beginning of the end, I would like to consider this the end of the beginning.
As long as I have a plan, a goal, an aspiration and enough good health, I’ll feel joyful, productive, alive. It’s when I stop planning that I’ll begin looking away.
As for now, I’m planning on celebrating with those homemade (love the sound of that word!) peanut butter cookies cooling in the kitchen. I’ll diet tomorrow.
If you thought you missed the chance to visit this iconic island after the recent clamp-down by the Trump administration, you might rethink. In fact, this might be an excellent time to visit Cuba simply because most Americans figure the door to individual travel has, once again, slammed shut.
Superficially, that’s true (sort of). But for those willing to do their homework and clear the bureaucratic hurdles, Cuba is still a very welcoming and attractive destination.
And, honestly, the bureaucracy isn’t that overwhelming.
Can Americans fly to Cuba for a vacation? No, and yes. You just can’t call it a vacation. You can, however, still fly to Cuba from the US. Delta, JetBlue, United, American, and Southwest all have direct flights from various American cities.
And while you can’t call your trip a vacation, the US State Department has created 12 categories of legal US travel to Cuba. These include humanitarian or religious reasons, journalistic activity (the category I chose), professional meetings or research, “support for the Cuban people,” and activities of private foundations, or research or educational institutes. Solo travel for educational reasons is no longer allowed, nor is the popular Obama-era category of people-to-people travel.
In order to travel solo to Cuba, you need to decide which category you might qualify for and try to conform your travel plans to it—at least nominally. For example, to qualify under journalistic activities, I tried to score a few writing assignments (this is one of them); I carried a copy of my resumé to prove I was a professional journalist; I kept a record of my daily activities as well as receipts from transportation and accommodation.
Requirements for each of the categories are detailed here. (Scroll waaaay down to subpart E—the 515.560 section for the exact rules for each category.) I found this dense tome of legalese helpful in making sure I at least understood what my category required—probably better than any border guard I might encounter.
All these categories qualify under the general license for Cuban travel. (There are specific licenses that are much more complex and difficult to obtain. You don’t want to go there.) No application or form is required for a general license. (There is no actual license, in other words.) Your travel activities just have to nominally qualify for your chosen category. I found examples of generic forms distributed by educational groups to their participants. Then I composed and printed off a document that sounded official, just in case someone asked.
No one did.
You will be asked for your category of travel many times—when you purchase a flight, every time you check in to a hotel or casa particular, and for some other, incidental reasons. So it helps to be confident that you’ve covered the bases for that category.
Because the Cuban military and government controls most of Cuba’s very lucrative tourist industry, the State Department has created a list of “restricted” entities that US nationals aren’t supposed to patronize. These include many hotels, marinas, and holding companies, such as Gaviota, a name you will see often.
To my way of thinking, this is no big deal. I’d rather stay with a local family in a casa particular than a resort hotel any day. AirBnB has hundreds of listings in cities throughout Cuba. Whatever you might think of AirBnB, Cuban families have been extremely enterprising in listing and interacting on that and other hosting websites—an endeavor even more remarkable since most of these people don’t even have internet access in their homes. For me, staying with local families was one of the highlights of my trip.
Americans visiting Cubamust have a tourist card or visa, which is good for 30 days. Half is stamped when you enter Cuba and the other half when you leave. (So don’t lose it.) I had read that you must also show proof of health insurance coverage, or you’ll be required to buy it there, but I was never asked.
Generally you buy the visa from your airline before you leave the US. It costs $50. In my case, an agent picked me out of line as I was waiting to check my luggage. She sold me the visa at check-in and instructed that I fill it out immediately. The visa and my passport and boarding pass were all required and inspected before I could board the plane.
Alternatively, you can use a third party to get your visa ahead of time for a fee. Make sure you fill it out legibly and without errors just like your second-grade teacher showed you. The Cuban government doesn’t like messy forms.
When you land in Cuba, you will first go through immigration. This is straightforward. The agent looks at your passport; stamps your Cuban visa. Your picture is taken. Then you go through another airport-like security screening. Then you might encounter a slapdash two-table affair where they check the generic customs form you fill out on the plane. I flashed my paperwork and they waved me through. Then you might have a very long wait for your checked luggage. I assume this is because it is being scanned, maybe searched. A lot of the plastic-wrap Cubans seem to love to protect their luggage in was in tatters.
There is one final checkpoint to collect the customs form. Nothing to declare? Welcome to Cuba.
For the next three weeks, I wandered from one end of Cuba to the other, having a delightful time. It was all a part of my “journalistic” business. Occasionally, I thought about my return to the US with a twinge of anxiety, but Cuba is endlessly distracting.
On my last day, I walked to the international terminal from my casa particular and joined the very long queue through security. Disconcertingly, I was plucked from the line, my passport was taken, and I was led through the security scan. Then, my carry-on was hand-searched with particular attention paid to the notebooks and folders. I was treated to a special scan—front, back, and both sides—while visions of sonic attacks on diplomats in their hotel rooms danced in my head. I have no idea whether I was chosen at random (peculiar choice—an older single woman) or if it had to do with my journalistic activity category. I do know that the Cuban government tends to keep tabs on people.
Passport restored and apparently of sound mind and body, I then had only to get through the gatekeepers back in my own country. Thus, in fear and trembling I approached the burly agent in US immigration. I had my resumé. I had my made-up general license. I had my writing assignments and my journal and a handful of receipts.
The agent looked at my passport. He looked at me.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Cuba,” I said.
“How long were you there?”
“Three weeks,” I muttered.
“Welcome home,” he said handing back my passport. He never cracked a smile. He never looked at a thing.
And that was it—the most uneventful border crossing ever. My friends, who traveled under the humanitarian general license, had a similar experience entering through Charlotte, North Carolina.
As with all things political, the situation with Cuba is amorphous and evolving. Yet, as my experience demonstrates, it’s both possible and worthwhile, but you have to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops and maybe take on a little extra risk to tilt the scales in your favor.
Alternatively, you could sign on to a group tour like those offered by Road Scholar or Insight Cuba. These outfits attend to all the legal fine print so you don’t have to. Or, if you’re determined to travel solo, you could enlist the help of a group like Viahero, which pairs you with a Cuban local to help plan your trip and attend to the legalities. I found this page on the Viahero website especially helpful.
Cuba is every bit as entrancing as you’ve heard. It’s well worth the effort to experience the country now while American tourists are mostly staying home.
What every American Woman on the Road needs to know about travel to Cuba
Bring all the incidentals, like batteries, medications, toothpaste, shampoo, that you’ll need for the trip. These items are expensive and hard to find.
Bring sample packets of soap, shampoo, lotions, pens, and small items for kids. I was approached many times by people asking for them. Apparently, they’re hard to find for the locals, too.
Street food vendors are rare, and snacks are hard to find. You can get the ubiquitous Cuban pizza, but snacks for a long bus ride—not so easy.
I reserved and paid for all my bus travel and lodging in advance (through AirBnB) in order to minimize the cash I’d need to bring. American credit and ATM cards don’t work in Cuba.
The Cuban government charges a 10 percent fee to exchange American dollars (even though the Cuban dollar—the CUC—is pegged to the American dollar.) So I brought mostly Euro to exchange. Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos would also avoid this fee.
Internet access is as inconvenient as you’ve heard, but I also found that I couldn’t access any of my financial information or pay bills using Cuban internet connections.
The Canadian Arctic extends its endless tundra until it reaches the sea, a jumble of snow and ice in winter and permafrost in summer, punctuated by the occasional Inuvialuit settlement dedicated to hunting or fishing, with a smattering of government officials or oil workers. The most far-flung are so distant they are forgotten for months at a time, when the ice roads melt and become impassable, or when weather prevents the occasional flight from landing.
Perched on the edge of the Beaufort Sea of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Tuktoyaktuk – you can call it Tuk – is a hamlet so small you’d probably consider two passing cars a traffic jam. It is also one of the most isolated.
Tuk is used to living with the seasons. In summer, it is only accessible by an expensive flight in a light plane. In winter, the road solidifies to ice and allows transport to get through. You may even have seen it on Ice Road Truckers, or through photographs of giant 12-wheelers slowly sinking during an early melt.
Fast forward to November 2017, and that seasonal pace is over. Tuk’s 965 inhabitants are on the cusp of major transformation and life in this quiet Arctic hamlet may never be the same.
The predicted invasion of Tuktoyaktuk
During that month, on 15 November to be precise, Canada inaugurated a new gravel road that allows drivers to reach Tuk all year round. This ‘road to resources’ took decades to plan. It was supposed to energize oil activity but the Trudeau government banned on offshore oil development.
The new road will make it easier to get supplies all year round, like food, and will likely push down prices since transport will no longer be limited to the five months between mid-December and mid-April.
And the road will also open up the region to tourism.
Tuk is expecting up to 40,000 visitors during the summer of 2018. They will come from all corners of the globe, hoping for an adventure, the explorer spirit rekindled, wanting to be among the first to reach the town at the top of the world. They will undulate across the gravel in their 4WDs, RVs, motorcycles and bicycles. Some are even planning to walk.
They will bring in money to the community – they have to eat and sleep and all the other things we travelers do. The people of Tuk are waiting with welcoming arms.
But wait – Eat where? Sleep where?
“We encourage people to visit Tuktoyaktuk, but we’re concerned about facilities,” said Annie Steen, Economic Development Officer for Tuk. “We are doing some aggressive planning but we don’t yet have hotels, campgrounds or traditional restaurants. Whatever waste is brought in will have to be taken out, because we have nowhere to put it.”
And until now, there was nothing to buy to commemorate a visit.
Tuktoyaktuk: a personal take
And this is where this story becomes personal.
First, my family – despite its Mediterranean origins – has had a long love affair with the Arctic. My father built airports there, my brother was stationed there with the Canadian Air Force, and I earned school tuition by working in Labrador, slightly below the Arctic but close enough to feel like the Arctic some months of the year. (The water hole melted for a few weeks in August and young people thought it fun to push people in to see, you know, if they kept breathing.)
The second reason this is personal is because said brother – a designer and filmmaker turned adventure motorcyclist and ham radio operator – also wants to be one of the first to ride his motorcycle there. But being the activist that he is, he didn’t want to turn up empty-handed.
A thread on a motorcycle forum was asking, “What can we do for Tuk?” Many believed visitors should arrive with respect and realistic expectations. Some suggested helping build a hotel, another suggested toys for the children.
Cemil jumped on the phone and talked to Tuk.
“There was art to sell to tourists but little else, so I offered to design, print and deliver several thousand stickers and embroidered patches. The money from sales could then go into infrastructure and into making tourism to Tuk sustainable,” Cemil told me. “Money for the community, and something visitors could buy that meant something. Win-win.”
(Click here to see the Thanks, Tuk! sticker crowdfunding page and please donate, even a little – it’ll help preserve this Arctic village while giving us an amazing environment to visit.)
The sun represents Tuk’s 24-hour summer sun, the Midnight Sun. The thinning ice under the polar bear represents the thinning ice due to climate change. And the slogan – bragging rights! Few people can claim traveling the Dempster, and even fewer all the way to Tuk. Design: Cemil Alyanak
Like Tuk itself, it’s a small idea with huge potential. the money will be invested into sustainable tourism that will give visitors a great experience while ensuring Tuk isn’t overwhelmed in the process.
On the road to the top of the world
Until the new road was built, the gravel stopped at Inuvik, 138km (86mi) to the south. That road, known as the Dempster Highway, already drew adventurers and dreamers to its challenging twists and turns.
This final extension, known as the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, makes Tuk the only Arctic community to be connected to the rest of Canada by road. The country is now truly connected from sea to sea – to sea!
As the daughter of a civil engineer, I appreciate the feat. The builders had to make sure they didn’t disturb the tundra as they carved through the land, so they used a special fabric to protect the permafrost, piling rocks and gravel on top. Of course they had to bring up all the heavy machinery, and working this far from… well, from anything… was a challenge.
The road cost CDN$ 300m (that’s around US$ 235m) and took four years, and while it will bring tourists, some worry it might also bring crime or drugs or environmental damage – the latter being the riskiest scenario. Officials say worries about crime and drugs are unfounded, since the problem hasn’t manifested itself in winter, when the road is open for business. Why should that change in summer?
A bit of history
For centuries, people have been making a living here harvesting caribou and beluga whales. Oil and gas exploration expanded and dragged the hamlet into the 20th century, and it was on the front lines of the Cold War for a while, an important part of the supply route on the Distant Early Warning, or DEW Line, which monitored air traffic and potential Soviet movements during the Cold War.
These low-rising pingo hills can dominate the horizon in this flat region. The hills grow and collapse over centuries and exist only in a permafrost environment. Tuk has about a quarter of the world’s pingos
Things changed with oil, but since that is now at a standstill, tourism may be the next major transformation the hamlet undergoes. There is already tourism to Tuk’s eight Arctic dome hills, or pingos but the road will of course take that to another level.
Formerly known as Port Brabant, it was the first community in Canada to revert to its traditional name, officially Tuktuyaaqtuuq, which means “it looks like a caribou.”
Don’t worry though, no one will mind if you just call it Tuk.
Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way counts itself among the world’s longest defined coastal routes.
Beginning at Mizen Head, the southernmost point of the island, the WAW stretches north for 1500 miles (2500km), hugging the rough and jagged coastline of western Ireland. Its endpoint is Malin Head, the northernmost tip on the Inishowen Peninsula.
This past August I set out to bicycle from point to point.
Most people who ride the WAW do so in small sections for a week at a time. It’s rare for someone to cover the whole thing in one swoop; in fact I couldn’t find a single tour company that did so. That didn’t stop me, of course, it just meant doing it on my own.
I gave myself a month to complete it and planned at least one rest day between each 70-100 mile ride.
For this trip I built a framework of basics (daily destination itinerary, sleeping arrangements found on Booking.com, and bicycle rental) and created bike route maps on Ride With GPS, a popular cycling app.
Then I let the rest unfold in real time.
Solo travel broadens us. It makes us braver. And my affinity for under planning, I tell myself, just adds to that.
TIP! Get an unlimited international data plan for you cell phone if you plan to use apps like Ride With GPS, Strava and/or GoogleMaps. They use a lot of memory. A portable battery charger will also come in handy while you’re out on the road for long stretches.
The squiggly pink line on the map above shows the entirety of the Wild Atlantic Way including every nook, cranny, peninsula, and offshoot. One tip I took to heart from the WAW website was that it is unnecessary or perhaps overindulgent to think you’ll actually follow every one.
Along the way, I picked what looked most interesting and admittedly took some inland shortcuts when the never-ending peninsulas became redundant. So while I did start in Kinsale, County Cork at the red star on the bottom and end in Londonderry, County Donegal at the top, this was ultimately a rough trajectory of my actual route.
TIP! A common decision for cyclists is to journey from south to north. This is due to wind resistance.
With the help of Paul Kennedy, owner of Wild Atlantic Cycling based in Belfast, I arranged to rent a bicycle from Northern Ireland and have it shuttled to my starting point down south in Cork. This service incurred an additional fee but it solved my need for a one-way rental.
I rode a sturdy frame Ridgeback touring bicycle with a back wheel pannier rack and saddlebags on each side packed with clothes, toiletries and my Macbook Air laptop.
The rental (known as ‘bike hire’ in Ireland) came with a puncture repair kit for under the seat, and I brought my own small handlebar pack to hold my phone and snacks. Other than the cycling kit, shoes and helmet I wore, that was everything I had on me for the month.
TIP! Brakes on European bikes may be opposite to what you’re used to. In the US, the right hand controls the rear brake but in Ireland it’s the left one that does so.
You’ll cross through nine counties along the Wild Atlantic Way and no matter what time of year you go, you’re guaranteed to be in for some high winds and rain—they just come with the territory.
On Day 3 in Baltimore, County Cork after a particularly blustery ride, I looked out the window at violently flapping flags and saw a canopy almost ripped off its frame.
I said to my innkeeper, “At home we would call this a hurricane but to you guys it’s just Thursday.”
Her response was polite but to the point. In her thick Irish accent she replied, “Well we don’t call it the Wild Atlantic Way fer’ nuthin’.” Touché.
Most days the sun will peek through for a bit, but be sure to pack lightweight, brightly colored rain gear.
My bike rental also came with yellow waterproof pannier covers, which were great for visibility. July and August are the warmest months, which translates to mid-sixties Farenheit (around 20℃), and this does make a big difference when you’re wet on a regular basis. Soaked through, sure, but at no point did I feel cold. The near-constant climbing will also help keep you warm. Overall elevation gain averaged 3,000-6,000ft (900-1800m) per ride.
TIP! Don’t forget you’ll be riding on the left side of the street! Take caution at every intersection by looking all directions before crossing, especially until you get comfortable with the opposite traffic flow. After about a week I felt confident, but I still remained cautious in busier downtown sections and would occasionally find myself drifting towards the right shoulder on the longer, emptier country roads. Stay alert!
The narrow, twisting road through Allihies on the Beara Peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way
On Day 6 I arrived in Killarney for a rest day and got my first real taste of traditional Irish music at the Killarney Grand Hotel. From the outside you’d never think to give it a chance, but the locals know this is the place to be for the best music in town and it’s regularly filled beyond capacity.
“Trad” is common shorthand for “traditional” which you’ll see on pub signs and posters. Irish Trad is often a quartet consisting of fiddle, guitar, accordion or concertina, and bodhrán, a handheld drum played with a wood or nylon brush beater.
The Irish are very cordial, particularly on the West Coast where one feels catapulted back in time. Taking in the community vibe as everyone dances around the musicians is an experience not to be missed. Kick back a pint of Guinness or Murphy’s and you’ll likely be welcomed to join in.
Solo female travelers with a level head and a saddlebag full of common sense are unlikely to encounter danger here. It’s more of a piqued interest and confusion you might find from the many friendly strangers who will want to say hello.
“Why in the world would you want to come here alone?” was a common question I received, though I never figured out if they were stressing here or alone.
It can make for a great conversation starter.
Innkeepers, bartenders, farmers—everyone you meet will show an interest in your story and tell you fun ones of their own. Irish people are an incredibly self-deprecating lot with a charming touch of hopelessness mixed in with their otherwise cheery disposition. Every day of my journey was met with at least one overly courteous and obliging B&B owner or a flock of clueless sheep. On the West Coast, rush hour is accepted to be the time at which a farmer herds a flock of sheep across a narrow country road in front of your car (or bicycle).
Sheep in the road, a very common sight all over the West Coast of Ireland
By Day 9, I was cruising out to Dingle Bay, where the sheep count did not disappoint. Dingle itself is a bustling tourist-friendly village, but the rest of peninsula is an emerald patchwork of farms with bright white sheep dotting miles of hills that roll dramatically into the sea.
The country’s largest Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region—don’t worry, everyone also speaks English—this area is full of history and the ruins of ancient clocháns, also known as beehive huts. They’re thought to date back to the 12th century and seem to have been used for shelter from the biting wind and rain that blasts the coast from the Atlantic Ocean.
Slea Head Drive out to the Blasket Islands makes for an absolutely stunning ride, just be mindful of the many tour buses you’ll encounter along the way. Take a tour of the Blasket Centre while you’re out there to learn more about the history of the Irish language.
Downtown Dingle has built itself up in recent years to become home to a thriving arts community. Penny’s Pottery is a great place to find handmade ceramics. Strand Street, the town’s main harbor thoroughfare, is lined with gift shops to fit every tourist’s needs from Aran wool sweaters to handmade music instruments and everything shamrock.
Colorful shops line every street in downtown Dingle
Even Fungie, the local bottlenose dolphin who lives in the bay, is so popular he warrants his own booking office.
Incredible Irish fiddle playing can be found just off the main drag at O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub, a bright teal blue building located on The Mall. You’ll have to take a few turns off the main drag to find this gem and it’s worth it! O’Sullivan’s rivals the Killarney Grand for best Irish Trad any day of the week.
Counties Clare and Galway
There is no denying the tea and scones in Ireland. A word to the wise here: eat the scones. Every. Chance. You. Get. Especially when you’re burning so many calories on the bike!
Mist over the Mamturk Mountains, County Galway along the Wild Atlantic Way
For the best of the best, be sure to ride through the village of Liscannor as you make your way to the Cliffs of Moher and search for the Copper Pot Artisan Bakery.
A little further up the road you’ll find the seaside village of Doolin where you can take a perfect day trip by boat to the Aran Islands. Stepping off the gangplank into the harbor of Inisheer, the closest and smallest of these islands, will feel as though you’ve stepped into an old world. O’Brien’s Castle, believed to have been built in the 14th century, is can be reached on foot from the harbor or you can hire a traditional pony and trap driver to show you around.
On the far side of the island visit the Plassy Shipwreck. A trawler run aground at Finnis Rock in the 1960’s, the boat is wedged into rocks and rusted through.
On the way back from the Aran Islands your boat will cruise past the infamous giant Cliffs of Moher. Taking them in from the sea is a fantastic way to avoid the crowds and buses up top at the visitor’s center. As one of Ireland’s top tourist destinations, the cliffs receive around a million visitors per year.
From there your next stop is Galway. Home of the National University of Ireland, Galway boasts a lively downtown with shopping, art exhibits and festivals, and a gorgeous bay. After weeks in the quiet countryside convening with cows and sheep, it will be a breath a fresh air to experience the urban environment of Ireland’s fourth largest city. An easy walk around town will bring you to 300 year-old Eyre Square, Spanish Arch, the Galway City Museum and more.
The Latin Quarter comes alive at night with street performers on every corner.
On Shop Street you’ll find an array of inviting pubs featuring a never-ending lineup of traditional Irish musicians. Don’t miss a chance to catch a performance at Quay’s Bar. Galway’s quintessential pub has been entertaining locals and tourists for almost 400 years!
After Galway get ready for County Mayo, Ireland’s jewel of the north.
Long, almost empty stretches of road will lead you through dramatic verdant landscapes that meet the ocean with Ireland’s highest cliffs.
TIP! Grocery stores and food options are sparse in this area. Plan ahead with ample sustenance for the ride.
Achill Island is a holiday destination for many Irish families. The winds are strong out here, which makes it a top pick for world-class kiteboarders. While on the island you can visit the stunning turquoise water at Keem Bay. Relatively quiet overall, the small village of Keel has a few cafes and art galleries. Cyclists are made to feel very welcome at Pure Magic Lodge.
Achill Island, County Mayo
On your way out of Achill Island you’ll be back in sheep country.
As you continue to ride north, you can hook up with the Great Western Greenway. Even though trucks and buses are uncommon in the northwest corner, this 26-mile (42km) hard pack gravel bike path is a welcome respite from the open road. It cuts through existing farmland winding its way through sheep pastures really bringing you up close and personal with the roaming herds!
TIP! Sheep are neither bright nor inquisitive. They stand still and glassy-eyed until you get close, at which point they startle and run in whatever direction you’re going. Better to dismount and walk through an unattended flock.
The ancient Céide Fields are on the north side of County Mayo in Ballycastle.
Buried under the bog lies the world’s oldest known system of walls dating back to the Stone Age. This historical site has a café and an award-winning museum offering in-depth walking tours. A little further east, take a left at Downpatrick Head. A narrow twisting road leads you through cow pastures to a parking lot. From there walk up the hill and cross the open field until signposts warn about the cliff edge. Almost as if it rises up to greet you, you’ll see the 350 million-year-old Dun Briste Sea Stack topping out high above the sea.
Overall, the Wild Atlantic Way is well marked and easy to follow and directional signs show the WAW logo.
In the end, I made it from point to point and completed just over one thousand rugged miles on the bike.
This is a great time to visit the Wild Atlantic Way because it is still finding its feet as a major tourist destination. Pubs, coffee shops, museums and galleries are popping up everywhere, yet it’s still not crowded. Marketing campaigns have brought an uptick in visitors in recent years and this is bound to continue due to increased advertising by the Irish board of tourism.
Should you choose to take on this journey you will be challenged to your limit with elevation gain and unforgiving weather. Rising up to the challenges will be well worth it considering so much of your journey will look like this.
Jennifer Lynch is a travel writer and memoirist living in Boulder, CO. This past fall she published her first book, FUCK CANCER: A Tale of Love Pouring in from Every Angle. Her work has been featured in elephant journal, Boulder Daily Camera, and Colorado’s 5280 Magazine. Follow Jennifer’s next cycling adventure through the Spanish Pyrenees from Girona to Bilbao at Travel Cycle Write or on Facebook.
I am a “mature” undergraduate, which is in itself an adventure. But last summer life surprised me with another great adventure: I received a scholarship to study abroad, which made me an exchange student at age 53. In Cusco, Peru, once the heart of the Inka Empire, I studied the Quechua language. There I discovered that being a solo traveler and a student is a magical combination.
In the rooftop dining room, the early morning sun glows through a yellow Plexiglas ceiling.
Pigeons scuttle overhead, their yellowish shadows crossing the table. I finish off my avocado sandwich and mango juice and thank my host mother for breakfast. Then I hurry down 5 narrow, spiraling flights of stairs, out the front door and into the bright, cold morning of a tropical mountain winter.
Stepping over a threshold strewn with marigold petals (an offering to Pacha Mama—Mother Earth—I’m told later), I follow the dirt road to its end, skirting a pack of feral dogs nosing through bags of garbage someone left during the night.
Because I live halfway up a mountain, I must climb two flights of iron stairs to the street above on my way to school. I turn onto a cobblestone street laid centuries ago for foot or perhaps llama traffic. Timeworn buildings crowd the sidewalks, and several times I must flatten myself against aged stone as cars squeeze past.
Soon I emerge into the bright Plaza San Blas, where old women in braids gather on the steps of a 500-year-old church for morning mass. A young artist intercepts me with his portfolio open, insistently offering paintings of red-roofed houses, snowcapped mountains, and babies peeking out of shawls on their mothers’ backs. “No, gracias,” I say, and keep moving.
A little farther, a gaunt, dusty woman steps in front of me and holds something so close to my face I have to blink it into focus—a small gourd covered with minutely etched Andean scenes. An unexpected, stunning work of art. But “No, gracias,” I say and keep moving.
A few steps later a grizzled, hungry old man carrying an armful of knitted hats begs me to buy as I squeeze past. “No, por favor,” I beg back and keep moving. I shouldn’t be short with the poor man, but every morning it is the same gauntlet of “No gracias.”
At the corner I turn steeply downhill and the oldest houses in the city rise like cliffs on my right and left. This is Cuesta San Blas, the most famous street in Cusco, where first the Inka and then the Spanish rulers made their homes. Colonial mansions squat atop Inka foundations of massive, squared boulders. Though the mansions are decaying, the stones below have preserved their regal, timeless perfection.
I pass a woman dressed for a festival that won’t be happening: She’s wearing a disc-shaped red hat, a matching jacket, and a fantastically embroidered skirt. Next to her on the stone sidewalk is her miniature—a tiny girl with a very runny nose and the same festive garb. The little girl holds the rope of a baby alpaca resting beside her, and her mother invites me, “Una foto?” They will wait all day to pose with tourists; this is how they earn their living.
It is still early for the ubiquitous tour groups, but I pass clusters of people speaking French, Japanese, and something Slavic. Two steep blocks below, I see that the Inka (or rather, the man who dresses like the emperor who ruled this place half a millennium ago) is already out. Also waiting for photo ops, he stands protectively by the most famous bit of wall in Cusco, the 12-angled stone in the Inka foundation of the Archbishop’s Palace. Every single tourist will stop and admire that special stone, 12-angled because it has been masterfully fitted among its neighbors in a wall of carefully shaped boulders each weighing many tons.
Soon our modern Inka will be surrounded by Europeans with cameras, and he’ll be shouting “Don’t touch the stone” in 3 languages and glowering imperially for pictures with men in shorts and new knit hats, their arms thrown around his shoulder.
Before I reach the Inka I duck into a small door cut into a huge one, high enough for a Conquistador on horseback to enter. It fills a stone archway still faintly etched with Moorish-Spanish designs; a sign above announces its modern identity: the Wiracocha School. Suddenly it is quiet; I am in a courtyard garden. The peace of hundreds of passing years permeates this place as if the busyness just outside is a dream.
Although it is winter, roses and fruit trees are abloom and giant black bees, their wings a cobalt blur, are beginning to visit them. Through another archway and courtyard I find my tiny classroom. Bundled up with coats, hats, and lap blankets, our breath visible between us, my teacher and I sip hot coca tea and converse in beginner’s Quechua. I am an exchange student in Cusco, Peru. I am 53 years old.
Back to school
How does a middle-aged mom become an exchange student? First she becomes a college student. I was looking at colleges with my 19-year-old daughter when I ran across a degree program that worked for me. Before long I was in school again, 31 years after dropping out. That alone has been an adventure, but sometimes one great adventure begets another.
For me that greater adventure was foreign study. Until recently I thought students abroad had to be twenty-somethings (and wealthy), but in fact there is no age limit and there are scholarships available for the less wealthy. I applied for one and six months later was on my way to Peru to study Quechua, the Native American language of the Andes.
Quechua may sound like a random choice, but I am a language nerd with a special connection to Peru: I adopted my son from there 14 years ago and Quechua is the language of his ancestors. There are still millions of native speakers in Peru, and millions more in the five other Andean countries that span South America from top to bottom.
With a few obscure books and a smattering of online resources I’ve been trying to learn that language ever since. Over the years I’ve wrested a basic understanding of the outrageous (from my linguistic perspective) grammar, but it’s hard to pick up conversational Quechua in Chicago, where I live.
My scholarship took me to a school in Cusco for four weeks, with four hours of private instruction per day. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like fun to you, but I was in paradise. My teacher and I (very fortunately) hit it off, and the hours, days, and weeks passed quickly. I’m now able converse with anyone patient enough to wait—and wait—for me to construct every word in my mind before I say it.
Construct, I say, because Quechua is very much like Lego. It is an agglutinating language, which means any wordy problem can be solved by adding a suffix. Need to say “in the house”? Just add a suffix to “house.” Need to say it’s your house we’re in? Add another suffix. Need to say oh dear, it’s not your cute little house we’re in? Add 3 more suffixes. The words can get quite long and terribly meaningful.
Besides the constant peril of mispronouncing one tiny sound and saying something insulting or obscene, there are popping consonants to contend with. Cusco’s Quechua dialect has three different ways to say Q, and one of them seems to involve gagging (the others sound like water being flicked into a skillet of hot oil). There are three Ts and several Cs, Ps, and Ks.
My Cusco neighbors probably thought I was crazy, because I practiced the more difficult consonants out loud on my long walks to school. Q’. Ch’. Chh. T’. P’. Qh. K’. I must have sounded like a stuttering squirrel. With a cough. Though I may never master those sounds, I comfort myself remembering I’m one of very few people in this world who speak Quechua with an American accent.
A city crowded with history
When I wasn’t in class I was free to wander. After 21 years of parenthood, it felt decadent to step out of my school alone and ask myself—only myself—how I’d spend the rest of the day. Cusco is crowded with history, much more than you can see in a month—what possibilities!
One day I hiked out of the city with a fellow student, up, up, up to a branch of the Inka highway, which was once a 20,000-mile road system that ran from modern-day Colombia down to Argentina. The way is unmarked, and we had to ask directions from farmers we passed on the grassy, stony road. Those who succeed in finding this lonely place are free to wander; there is no one taking admission and visitors come and go, scrambling over the rocks or sunning themselves while imagining what the temple was like when it was teeming with religious workers and pilgrims.
The Temple of the Moon presides over a wilderness of scrubby grass and giant boulders, and at first sight doesn’t seem manmade. A beautiful fusion of nature and engineering, its stair-step walls and mysterious niches and platforms are built into and around natural rock and caves, as if the boulders had gathered themselves and taken shape on the mountainside.
Across the valley below, the Inka highway disappears into faraway hills where families, tiny and distant, can be seen leading their llamas down to water. The wind whips the tops of tall eucalyptus trees and hawks soar in the wide sky above them. Over my six weeks in Peru I visited many ruins, most considered more important than this one, but I loved the Moon Temple best for its wild, windblown solitude.
Another day I walked into the heart of the city to visit the Moon’s brother—Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, which rises out of grassy gardens bordered by busy streets. Perhaps the most spectacular temple in the Americas, its walls were said to be covered with gold. Now they are mere rock, but what magnificent rock.
Five centuries ago Spaniards demolished as much of the temple as they could, shipped the gold to their emperor, and crowned what was left with a temple of their own, the Church of Santo Domingo. But under its roof remain six Inka chambers which were incorporated into the Spanish construction, revealed not long ago by an earthquake. Inside, it is dim, quiet, and magical with the blending of ancient and more ancient, Spanish and Inka commingled. Outside it towers proudly over the city, and though the church above is itself huge, the immense foundation seems to rule over it.
A satiated falcon and a water paradise
Another day, I took a bus to the famous ruins above Cusco: first the temple complex of Sacsayhuaman, whose name means, inexplicably, “falcon that has had enough to eat.” From the sky you can see that this “falcon” is shaped like the head of a puma, and its toothy walls, a crazy quilt of massive stones, zigzag to the horizon. Most likely a place of worship, it was used as a fortress in the last, brutal and hopeless, battle against the Conquistadors.
From there I went to Tambo Machay, an idyllic country resort (from tanpu, an inn or resting place) a thousand feet above Cusco. Also called the Inca Baths, it is celebrated for its sophisticated system of aqueducts, and its springs are thought to heal the sick and turn women young and beautiful again. I admit I filled a small bottle for myself. Though it is a little hard to catch one’s breath, here is birdsong, a breeze, and a sense of peace, refreshing after the imposing, violent mysteries of Sacsayhuaman.
Wandering Cusco, studying, and wandering some more, I felt as if I was being filled up inside and out. What a rich way to know a place: roaming its ancient constructions, majestic even in ruins; walking among its descendants and breathing the same (thin) air they breathed; and learning to use their very words.
These gifts from my time in Peru will be my treasures forever.
About my scholarship
The Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, offered by the U.S. Department of State, made this trip possible for me when it seemed completely out of reach. It is a grant program designed to increase the diversity of Americans who study or intern abroad by “supporting students who have been historically underrepresented.” If you’re a U.S. citizen and an undergraduate student who receives a Pell grant you may be eligible for the Gilman Scholarship, even if you’re a middle-aged mom.
Every year they award almost 3,000 students up to $5,000 ($8,000 if they study a critical-need language) for terms of study ranging from two weeks to a full academic year. Gilman Scholars have studied all over the world—maybe you will join our ranks.
A former police officer and travel industry professional, Susie Khalil’s American life changed dramatically in 2007 when she followed her Saudi husband back to his homeland. She now lives in Jeddah, a seaside city, learning first-hand about a new culture which isn’t always friendly to women. Her award-winning blog Susie’s Big Adventure was once banned. Susie is now part of the Saudi women’s human rights movement. Women on the Road caught up with her a few years ago and decuded to republish this interview, given the changes now taking place in Saudi Arabia – such as women finally being allowed to drive!
What was your first impression of Saudi Arabia?
I felt like a kid going on a very exciting adventure and I hardly slept a wink on the long flight. When I was looking out the window of the airplane as we were approaching Jeddah, I thought it looked awfully brown, with not much vegetation. I was moving here from Florida which is very green, so it was a visual jolt.
I arrived during Ramadan. It was 10 or 11am on a weekday. There was absolutely no traffic on the streets at all and the businesses were all closed up! I thought it was really strange, but I learned that since it was Ramadan when all Muslims fast during the day, everybody sleeps late and many businesses are closed all day and open up later in the afternoon and stay open quite late.
I was welcomed warmly by my husband’s family and I think that had a lot to do with all the positive energy I have felt here. I found the mix of the old and the new here to be remarkable – in architecture, in dress, in culture and in technology. The older areas of the city and just the whole ethnic feel reminded me a lot of Mexico.
And what are your impressions a few years later?
I’m still amazed that I am here because I never thought it would happen. I still feel like a newcomer here and I’ve been told that I see things differently from other women ex-pats who have been here much longer. I think maybe I notice many things that people who’ve been here a long time take for granted and just don’t pay attention to.
I still find wonder in many things that others would consider mundane, but to me are fascinating. Jeddah blooms with magnificent artwork all over the city – I don’t know that most people here really appreciate it the way I do. I still find so many things here remarkable, but after a year or so, that euphoric honeymoon phase wore off and more of that in-your-face reality set in.
I can see that things could be so much better here with some small changes. Like for example, the trash and rubble I see all over the city, even right next door to a beautiful villa. Foreign workers are brought in to clean up the place, but people aren’t concerned about dumping their trash wherever. To me, it makes no sense. There’s also a lot of graffiti, which initially surprised me because of the stiff punishments here for crimes. But I realize there is graffiti everywhere – I just didn’t expect it here for some reason.
Susie Khalil, an American who has made Saudi Arabia her home
Saudi Arabia gets really bad press in the West: is it deserved?
Yes, and no. For the most part, the population is made up of warm and lovely people. I do think that because Saudi Arabia is such a closed society, there is so much mystery surrounding it, and there are a lot of misconceptions and generalizations made that aren’t necessarily true. I think that the West has gotten a bad impression about Islam, Muslims, and Saudi Arabia because of 9/11 and other unfortunate events.
What the West needs to realize is that those responsible for the terrorism are no more representing Islam than Tim McVey represented Christianity. Extremists exist everywhere.
That being said, I think that in many ways, Saudi Arabia doesn’t really help its own image. Some of the legal cases, verdicts, and sentences that are handed down are impossible for the West to understand or agree with.
Take, for example, the case of a 75-year-old Syrian widow who was sentenced to 40 lashes, four months in prison, and deportation. Her crime was that she received two 25-year-old male visitors in her home who were not related to her and were bringing her bread. They were doing a good deed and trying to help out an elderly widow. But they were all charged with immoral behavior because they were alone in her home together and were unrelated members of the opposite sex. How can Saudi Arabia expect anything but bad press for a story as absurd as this?
And this is just one example. I could give you many more that are equally ridiculous. Blaming a woman for being gang raped and sentencing her to lashes and imprisonment. Upholding as perfectly legal the marriage of an 8-year-old child to a man in his 50s as payment for a debt her father owed. In other countries, this is considered child molestation, but not here. I think that the cultural and religious extremism here does a lot to damage the reputation of Saudi Arabia, but the weird thing is that they don’t really seem to care.
As an American, how do you cope with the lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia?
This is a very difficult issue for American or other Western women to deal with here. Luckily I have always been optimistic and tend to focus on the positives instead of dwelling on the negatives. I am able to go with the flow and I am a very flexible person. However I have never in my life had to bend as much to conform with the rules as I have here.
The vast majority of women do not work, and at this point in my life, I guess I am ready for that. I was a career woman all my life back in the States. I was very independent. Here women are forced into a position where they are very dependent on the men. I have to remind my husband that I am not a Saudi woman and I never will be, and I must stay true to myself. Just because we have moved a different continent doesn’t mean that I must change who I am as a person. I can still have respect for the culture and traditions but remain true to my own beliefs and feelings.
One issue that has come up recently has been covering my hair with the hijab. I don’t object to covering my hair when we are out in public. I have blond hair and I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I don’t mind covering my hair in front of my husband’s family because that is what they do. But I do have a problem understanding why my husband insists that my hair has to be covered in a small private social setting where other women are not covered. My husband knows that I am not comfortable wearing the hijab. Not only that, I truly dislike wearing it. It makes me hot and makes my neck itch.
On two different occasions recently, he insisted I wear the hijab when the other women did not. I conceded and wore the hijab to please my husband because it was his wish, but I voiced my objections and unhappiness about the situation. I am feeling now that if another occasion arises like this, either I will stay home or he will. He is not willing to compromise for some reason on this issue, and I feel I have compromised enough by wearing the hijab when out in public and in the company of his family. I went for 55 years of my life with my hair uncovered and it wasn’t a problem, and I don’t see the point in covering it now when I don’t feel it’s necessary.
What do you miss most from America and what do you appreciate most in Saudi Arabia?
Of course I miss my family and friends back home. I don’t so much actually miss driving (Ed: the law changed in 2017 to allow women to drive), but I miss the freedom of being able to just grab my car keys and go whenever or wherever I feel like it. I miss going to the movies (there are no movie theaters here either). Since there is strict segregation of the sexes, I miss simply socializing in mixed company. I miss going out with my girlfriends shopping or to dinner.
What I appreciate most in Saudi Arabia would have to be my husband’s family. They have been nothing short of amazing toward me and my son. I’m sure if it weren’t for them welcoming us with open arms, our experience here would be totally different. I am grateful for feeling safe here when I thought it might be a bit scary before I came. Modern technology is something that I am thankful for each and every day because without it and my hobbies, I would likely go stir crazy because there is really not much for women to do.
I also appreciate how much cheaper it is to live here – food, medicine, and clothing and other things are cheaper. I’m thankful that my son is being exposed to his own Saudi heritage, is learning to read and write Arabic, and I hope that one day he will appreciate it.
What does the future hold for you?
Honestly I don’t know. Some years ago there was no way I ever imagined I would be living in Saudi Arabia. Right now I cannot see myself living here long term. I have met Western women who have been here for more than 20, 30 or even 40 years. I cannot imagine that, but who knows?
My true desire is to live in a cooler climate because right now I am feeling doomed to living in hot places all my life – Arizona, Florida and now Saudi Arabia! My husband does not want to move back to the States, but he is open to living in another country. So, for now, we are here. I hope that the future holds happiness and contentment for me and my family, wherever in the world we may be – but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!
As the wind whistles down the mountain and the few remaining leaves are whipped off their branches, it’s time to order the holiday fowl. This year, it’ll be a Bresse chicken, the softest, most tender bird one can find in France. Or, as the French would have it, in the world.
Is it only me or is time running by more quickly? I feel I’ve barely let 2016 go and yet, here I am, plotting 2018.
As I sit down to write, I realize I’ve made a capital mistake: I read last year’s entry. To my horror, most of the things I was going to write this year – about finishing the renovations on my farmhouse, losing weight and getting healthy, taking more time for friends/family/life… all those were last year’s goals!
So what does that leave me with for 2018?
First, let’s put last year to bed.
I traveled the world…
At times I hardly bothered unpacking my suitcase. I just pulled out the dirty laundry, replaced it with clean clothes, and took off again. My travels this year carried a good deal of emotion with them – they were often linked to friends, to beliefs, to things I consider important. They were less about seeing and more about being.
I spent two weeks in South Korea, a country I had never even thought of visiting – and probably never would had my long-time friend Sandy not been working on a screenplay there. The combination of unknown lands and strong friendship was magnetic (as was the incredibly cheap ticket I was able to get from Geneva). Seeing Sandy brought back sweet memories of my early reporting days in Montreal – 40 years ago.
South Korea, on the other hand, screamed New! Savvy! Quirky! Cool! I have no idea what I expected but I fell in love with the country – and its food, because no, I had never tried Korean food before. Three days in the country’s gastronomical capital, Jeonju, had me flitting from dumpling to dumpling. My one holdout: kimchi. I just can’t seem to a appreciate its pickled sourness.
Friendship was also the theme of my second trip of the year, to Portugal’s Douro Valley where three Taureans – Manuel (Portuguese), Tony (Australian) and I – met up for our birthdays in early May. We stayed with Manuel’s cousin in the most impossibly picturesque country home north of Porto.
In the mornings, as a pack of dogs rushed past my window for their breakfast, I would look past the orange groves at the boats plying the river. An antique dealer, Cousin Pita’s house was extraordinary – my biggest challenge was not tripping over works of art.
For several days I did things I wasn’t used to – I talked, breathed, relaxed, gazed into the distance, meditated, and simply did no work. If ever there was a lesson, that was it: I can spend a few days away without working or writing about it. But only a few days because soon I was anxious to get back to my keyboard…
We ended our Portugal trip over the border in Spain, driving through the pouring rain to Santiago de Compostela, a city that keeps calling me back, for its spirituality or its tapas, I’m never sure. It rekindled my desire to walk the Camino de la Plata, the route that starts from Seville in southern Spain (flatter, fewer people, less popular – perfect for me). I thought 2018 – when I turn 65 – might be a good time to try this.
My 18-year-old niece, who lives in Washington DC, dropped in and out of my home in France several times this summer as she made her way through Europe on her first independent journey in a time-honored manner, by train. Since my brother moved his family to the US, I haven’t seen enough of them so a visit, any visit, is to be cherished.
It also reminded me of my own youthful trips here and there, although young people these days are ORGANIZED. They have plans and apps and numbers and friends. Back then, we had Europe on $5 a Day (yes, really!), which was considered revolutionary – so detailed, so encouraging, so cheap! I would fly standby (go to the airport, find a flight with an empty seat, buy an incredibly cheap ticket) and land somewhere unexpected. Amsterdam. Mexico City. London. Bangkok. No plans, no reservations, no apps. Not better than now – just different.
Writing about rights
This was the year my freelance writing turned the corner and allowed me to earn a (borderline) living. Most of my travel writing doesn’t pay (I tend to write right here, for Women on the Road) but I do work as a writer for various organizations that let me write about issues I care about – public health, the environment, human rights.
Human rights took me to Kenya and Colombia.
I had visited Nairobi a number of times in the past and frankly, I disliked it. This time was the opposite. Not only did I like the city, but I was reintroduced to the Kenyan sense of humor, surely one of the most contagious on the planet. I was there during the election furore, when votes were being nullified, Supreme Court judges assailed and streets filled with loudly demonstrating crowds. Part of my work involved writing about the electoral situation, which allowed me to see sides of Kenya – slum areas, human rights defenders, environmental damage – I hadn’t witnessed yet. And I got to take a picture of the iconic tusks in Mombasa…
Somewhere between my trip to Kenya and preparations for Colombia, the strangest thing happened: I redeveloped a fear of flying. I say “redeveloped” because I was once terribly scared of flying and got rid of that fear, so I cringed when it came back years later. The thought of small Colombian planes and airports wrecked me and I sought help. It worked, and I flew about a dozen flights in the space of ten days, somewhat apprehensive, but far from fearful.
Colombia was eye-opening as a country in transition can be. With peace barely a year old, this is a country in the dual throes of hope and skepticism, with one foot in the future and the other in uncertainty. Much will depend on how the government manages to bridge the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, and on whether politicians keep their promises. After more than 50 years of internal conflict, Colombia deserves peace.
Of course I visited the coffee region and sipped my way through every possible brew, learning that coffee has some 800 distinct characteristics, compared with wine’s 400. Since I don’t drink alcohol, for once I felt knowledgeable.
I fell hard for Colombia, its joyful people and incredible beauty. A few weeks aren’t enough – I’d suggest two months. I met coffee farmers and former guerrillas, gold miners and ranchers, politicians and priests. I stayed in hotels and rural guest houses and once, in a coffee farmer’s home when the narrow road to get off the mountain was cut off by a bus with a broken axle.
Rarely have I felt so welcomed by people who had so little and yet were so happy to share it with me. And even Colombia was about friendship – I was able to get together with a Colombian friend I hadn’t seen since we’d worked together back in… 1993.
My health surprised me somewhat. I started the year in bits and pieces; I have heel issues and was beginning to think an operation would be the only cure for the pain; my back ached so much I gave in and bought a new mattress; and my diet – well, my diet. What can I say about it that hasn’t been said…
The mattress and regular physio fixed my back, and all the walking on my travels seemed to get rid of the foot pain, so I’m incredibly grateful for the lessening pain.
What’s left? That perennial resolution I seem incapable of keeping: losing weight and getting into shape. Sound familiar?
So I won’t commit – I’ll just lightly throw it out there, hoping that it will magically happen (you know, like losing weight because you’ve read a diet book?)
And of course there’s Women on the Road. I didn’t post as much as I would have liked, but I did do quite a bit of work behind the scenes – things that make this site go faster or help you find information more easily or update old, very old content (as in “I celebrated ten years online” old). I usually make predictions about where the site will go the following year, except I can’t. Because I have no idea. Do I keep writing about the same things? Do I move into different directions? So many bloggers have branched out that I can’t help but wonder… So I’ll just hand it over to the universe and see if a pattern emerges.
What I do know is that this year, things whipped past me too quickly. I barely had a chance to take a breath and perhaps that is a distinct sign of age, when time becomes telescoped. I know I need to stop working 18 hours a day. I know I need to read great writing. I know I need to write things that I love. I know I need to take time off to be with my partner, to play with my dogs, to call and visit friends and family.
Having decided to choose a word to guide me in 2018, I choose the word CLARITY. I need a bit of that.
Curious about previous years? Have a look at 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012, the first year I started writing about… the year.
Clothed in a dark velvet gown, she glides down the passageway, a flash of metal escaping from beneath her cape.
She holds her breath before sliding open the compartment door, as if anyone might hear a tiny squeak over the thunder of rolling track. She silently pulls out her knife.
That’s more or less how I remember the scene from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a train onto which I was bundled at the tender age of five weeks by a globetrotting mother.
That Paris to Istanbul voyage was the start of my traveling life, in an era predating low-cost airlines and multi-lane highways. In those days, steam and soot crept through the windows, the scent of exotic woods and cigar smoke mixed in the dining car air and a menu, usually handwritten, offered up exotic dishes clothed in magical names.
As a child – I grew up in Spain – we rode everywhere. Along with the engine’s foghorn-like bellow, I remember the acrid smell that announced a train well before it came into sight.
Madrid’s old Estación del Norte, where trains from the North – including from my town of Valladolid – used to end. These days it’s a shopping center and subway stop. Eduardo Siquier Cortés via Flickr CC2.0
Getting to the train station was an expedition. Picnics would be prepared, Sunday clothes spread out on beds, and the excitement of ‘going somewhere’ – even at an age when the ‘where’ mattered little – would all combine into a sleepless night of anticipation.
As children we would run up and down the aisles under the benevolent gaze of adults, too busy munching on tortilla and chorizo and crusty bread to pay much attention to a few overexcited kids.
The train station itself was a major destination, its café a place of wonder, the bar too tall to reach but heaving under tapas and churros and many other wonderful concoctions. A forlorn plate held a few mealy-tasting croissants, a delicacy the Spanish have never mastered the art of making.
Unless you’re flying, this is where you’ll be coming into and leaving from if you’re walking the Camino de Santiago. It has been in operation since 1873 and while not visually stunning, it is the point of dreams for thousands of pilgrims.
Even now, when I travel, I try to do it by train. It may be cheaper to fly but trains are faster on short routes, they deliver you downtown, and trains have huge historical homes, cavernous and intricately designed stations that are a nostalgic antidote to antiseptic and overwhelming airports.
Train stations are the stuff of adventure, of encounters and mysteries. They protect their hidden corners and underground secrets, especially if they were built before function began superseding form.
Even the most modern structure can dazzle, if it whispers the names of far-off places or transports you to an epoch when the journey was as important as the destination.
This collection of train stations exemplifies the unique, the unusual. Some are historical monuments, others are gleaming and gorgeous and yet others are ordinary buildings that tell extraordinary stories and carry the memories of generations.
There’s just something about them.
Set in the historic centre of Porto, Portugal, is São Bento train station, one of Europe’s most exquisitely decorated. São Bento often tops the list of things to see in Porto, and once you step inside the halls it is clear why: large-scale white and blue azulejo panels adorn the walls and depict important events from Portuguese history, allowing you to lose yourself in the past – and lose track of time. Contributed by Yoga Wine Travel
The enormous Neo-Gothic or Neo-Renaissance style building of Amsterdam Central Station was built between 1881 and 1889, in tandem with other important public buildings like the Stadschouwburg (City Theater), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam Philharmonics) and the Central Post Office (now the Magna Plaza shopping mall). Called Amsterdam Centraal or simply CS by locals, the station was designed by Dutch architect Petrus J.H. Cuypers, who also designed the Rijksmuseum. Cuypers was first and foremost an architect of churches (the Sint-Bonifatiuskerk in Leeuwarden was a career highlight). So don’t be surprised if Amsterdam Centraal reminds you of a church! Contributed by Flip Flop Globetrotters
One of the most memorable train stations in Poland is an abandoned railway station in Bialowieza Forest. It was built for the Tsars of Russia in 1903 so that they could travel to their hunting mansion in style. The station is now a hotel and restaurant decorated with original furniture from that period. The one train still standing on the tracks was transformed into a luxury sleeping coach with independent double apartments. A truly unique way to feel like a Tsar. Contributed by Where Life Is Great
Once known as Victoria Terminus, this major landmark was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) in 1880, in honor of a 17th-century Hindu warrior king. Frederick William Stevens designed the station in line with the fashionable gothic revival in England using Indian craftsmen, materials and climate. This resulted in a unique style, known as “Bombay Gothic.” In November 2008, two terrorists armed with AK-47s entered the passenger hall of the CSMT, opened fire and threw grenades, killing 58 people and injuring 104. That didn’t deter local Mumbaikars and the station was reopened the next day. Contributed by Castaway with Crystal
Any listing of notable train stations has to include the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Europe’s largest crossing station. The giant convex glass structure is also the continent’s most modern connecting station, with photovoltaic cells in its roof to help power the station during daylight. Handling about 1,000 trains daily on two separate levels, it was completed in 2006 after over a decade of construction. Contributed by She Escapes
How many train stations can brag about having their own ballroom? Flinders St station in Melbourne certainly can! Australia’s first train station was built in 1854 and the ballrooom, originally a lecture hall, hosted lively dances in the mid-20th century. Major renovations now underway include plans to restore the ballroom, which for now is accessible by invitation only, and rarely at that. Today, the station remains one of the city’s iconic buildings and consistently ranks in top things to see in Melbourne. Contributed by Traveling Honeybird
The V-shaped iron and glass structure of Saint Lazare station in Paris hasn’t changed much since it was painted by Monet. Inaugurated in 1837, it was the departure point to trendy beach suburbs to spend the weekend. The station’s architecture symbolized speed and industrial progress and was painted often by Impressionists. Today it is a busy hub but also a meeting point for billiard players in the clubs outside the station. Meantime, musicians frequent the Rue the Rome, famous for its lute-makers – who can be seen at night fine-tuning their instruments – and specialist music bookstores. Contributed by World in Paris.
Rome’s main train station, Roma Termini, didn’t get its name from “ending, terminating” but from Diocletian’s thermal baths nearby. The initial project was submitted to Pope Pius IX in 1860, when Rome was still under Papal rule. Located on Esquilino Hill, a temporary station opened in 1863 and was replaced by a more permanent one in 1874. Plans to rebuild it began in 1937 but were interrupted by World War II, so the new station wasn’t inaugurated until 1950. Its modern incarnation features a winding concrete platform roof Romans like to call “the dinosaur”. Contributed by Rome Actually
City Hall Station in New York City is one of the most beautiful stations in the world… but not many people know about it since the train doesn’t stop there! The station opened in 1904 and closed in 1945. Luckily for us, you can still see it from the inside of a subway car. Take the 6 toward Brooklyn Bridge and stay on the train after the last stop. The City Hall station serves as the turnaround point, and if you sit on the right side of the train, you can peek through the windows into the time capsule of days gone by. Contributed by The Sweet Wanderlust (Photo: City Hall IRT Station (disused), New York” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Matt Blaze
The train station in Lviv, Ukraine, is one of the most spectacular examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Central Europe – and much of it remains unspoilt. At the turn of the 20th century, stations built across the Austro-Hungarian empire were built with particular care and Lviv Station was architecturally influential. Shortly after it opened in 1904, architects from other parts of Europe visited, using the inspiration to build other stations in cities such as Prague or Vienna. Contributed by Kami and the Rest of the World
King’s Cross in London was built in 1852 and is the main station for trains coming from Northern England and Scotland. It is now famous for Platform 9 ¾ where Harry Potter boarded the Hogwarts Express that would take him to the school for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Many Potter fans queue along the concourse to have their photo taken pushing their trolley through the wall. Contributed by Yorkshire Wonders
With 36 platforms, 200 exits and over 3.5 million daily passengers, Shinjuku Station in southwest Tokyo more than earns its place as one of the busiest train stations in the world. For years, the tiny closet-sized yakitori restaurants of Memory Lane, next to the station, have served food and beer to waiting passengers. A few hours on Memory Lane provides a fascinating glimpse into daily Tokyo life. Contributed by The Whole World is a Playground
Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan has more train platforms than any other station in the world (44), along with 35 dining options and 68 shops. It is famous for its ceiling (which depicts the zodiac – backwards) and clock (the world’s largest Tiffany clock), but fewer people may know about the whisper gallery (an acoustic anomaly carries sound throughout) on the lower level – let alone its hidden bar, the secret room (used for clandestine operations in WWII) or, yes, a tennis court. Contributed by Two Traveling Texans
Helsinki train station might seem small or insignificant – unless locals are in a playful mood and try to dress up the two now famous statues that peacefully guard the entrance. They were once dressed like the band Kiss!, an event noteworthy enough to make them international news. Contributed by Pretty Wild World
London’s St Pancras railway station is both a feat of engineering and a Victorian gothic revival masterpiece. Built almost 150 years ago in 1868, its single span arched train shed was the largest ironwork structure of its kind. Left to decay after sustaining considerable damage during both world wars, St Pancras was saved from demolition in the 1960s and revitalised in 2004. Now the terminal for Eurostar connections to Paris, it is one of the most recognisable buildings on the London skyline thanks to its distinctive design by architect George Gilbert Scott. Contributed by Untold Morsels
Don’t miss your train here – you could wait a month for the next one! Tiahuanaco is not only home to the most celebrated pre-Incan ruins in Bolivia but also to one of the world’s least busy train stations. On the second Sunday of the month, a tourist train leaves the mountain town of El Alto for a return trip to Guagui on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Along the way it stops for 90 minutes at Tiahuanaco – passengers can visit the museum and archaeological site, along with the train station that was built to get them there. Contributed by Living la Vida Global
Antwerp Central Station, built by King Leopold at the turn of the 20th century, is an architectural jewel whose eclectic style defies definition, ranging from Gothic to Neo-Baroque. Designed by Louis Delacenserie, it is one of the city’s treasured landmarks and survived severe bomb damage during World War II. By mid-20th century the building had deteriorated and demolition was considered. Saner thoughts prevailed and the station was restored, its structure strengthened and it was thoroughly modernized to allow high-speed trains. It is considered one of the world’s most beautiful train stations – and one of the most romantic. Contributed by Nomad is Beautiful
Not many people have heard of the city of Slavutych, Ukraine, near the Belarus border. It was built by the Soviet Union specifically for those affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The residents of Pripyat, where Chernobyl is located, were moved here and while many were retrained into new careers, about 3,000 people are still employed by the nuclear power plant. Several times a day, a train leaves Slavutych station to ferry people to work in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Slavutych was the..
I was 30,000 feet above the Sahara when I saw her.
Plodding in the opposite direction, she had wild red hair and was bent over with the weight of a heavy backpack.
I blinked and looked again and she was gone.
She had been in my mind only. But she looked uncannily like me.
A life of constant travel
I began life as a traveler. At five weeks old my mother dragged me across Europe on the Orient Express to meet my father in Istanbul. At 15, I ran away from my then home in Spain to North Africa, to sip mint tea in the casbah while my father frantically searched for me – I was eventually found.
At university I graduated on a Friday. I began my job the Monday after.
No gap year for me.
Yet it gnawed at me, that missing bite at carefree living. The world traveler I had once been had become buried under promotions and paychecks and professional obligations. I became unfree.
Yet life was not bad – it just wasn’t spontaneous, or exciting, or challenging. My job paid me far more than I needed but put me to sleep. My relationship caused me more pain than joy and the prospect of being on my own kept looking better and better.
As I sat in my office watching the peacocks in the garden (yes, there were!) my mind would drift to places far beyond my window. With a casbah or temple or market tantalizingly within reach, my eyes would sparkle.
My restless soul was in search mode.
Until that day, flying back to Europe over the desert, I knew.
I knew what I had to do.
Fighting off the crazies
Leaving a life behind isn’t a simple thing, even if you’re relatively single.
My work colleagues thought I was crazy. After a decade in journalism, I had landed a coveted job at the United Nations in Geneva in which I could sit in until retirement. I’d never find work like that again, they warned.
My friends were critical or jealous and I could count those who congratulated my decision on the fingers of a hand.
My family was devastated, partly by worry but mostly because they would miss me. In the early 1990s, almost pre-Internet, most people didn’t have email, let alone cellphones or Skype.
But my biggest enemy was… ME. I was terrified. Deep down, I agreed with every single criticism others voiced. I’d never find a job again. I’d lose my friends. I’d be alone and hate it. My bus/plane/train would crash and I’d be raped/kidnapped/killed. Every one of these things would happen in quick succession and my family wouldn’t even know where to look for my body. I was in my mid-forties and was being utterly irresponsible. I was about to ruin my life.
So I did the only thing I could: I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town.
I never wrote the book
For more than three years I traveled around Africa and Asia and Latin America, at first writing in my journal and for my friends, then freelancing and finally as a newspaper foreign correspondent.
I watched the sunrise over Great Zimbabwe, slept in a brothel in Malawi and tracked gorillas in Uganda. I ate lunch in a nuclear plant in the Baltics whose sell-by date had long passed, crept around to meet with dissidents in Cuba and barely dodged a coup in the Philippines.
And I (almost) never regretted it.
Not when I had to haul water a mile uphill in the heat of the Upper Zambezi just to cook dinner – or go hungry.
Not even when I confronted so much poverty and illness I thought my heart would break.
And when I finally came home to Geneva, it was almost by accident.
My sister-in-law was about to give birth and having missed her and my brother’s wedding, I thought I could at least show up for my only niece. A few health complications kept me from leaving (all was fine and my niece eventually emerged strong and healthy) and, as things happen, I stayed. And stayed. Geneva, the land of the $5-coffee, made sure I looked for work.
My days of roaming slid to a standstill. I found meaningful work in fighting AIDS, I finally met that special someone, and life – happened. But my nomadic ancestry would never allow me to sit still for very long.
For years during my travels I had taken notes and I hoped to compile them into a book. Instead, the Internet happened so perhaps, I thought, I could write a… web?
I had to learn all the complicated things that went with publishing a website, at a time when you couldn’t just head over to YouTube for a quick tutorial. I expanded my newsletter, which during my travels had been emailed home to my one friend with email. He then printed and stuffed it into envelopes, dispatching to my less technical acquaintances via snail mail. Surely it must be one of the oldest online travel newsletters in existence.
I learned that I had information other women wanted. Let’s not forget that back in late 2006, when this online adventure was being planned, women were barely a footnote in the mainstream travel guides, a short paragraph labeled “Women Travelers” with basic advice usually proposed by men. The number of solo female travel blogs would have fit into a Volkswagen Beetle.
Fast-forward to Women on the Road
That was just over ten years ago so yes, this is a birthday post.
Had I not taken the plunge and followed my soul to Africa, none of this would have happened.
I would not have launched Women on the Road, my work of passion.
I would have far fewer friends, since many of my best relationships were initiated and nurtured online.
My world would have been so much narrower. I would not have realized how fortunate I was or acknowledged the luxury of being able to make the decisions I made – and how much better off I was than 99% of the world. All of this was hugely humbling.
I would still be seeking a creative thread to follow, because I’m first and foremost a writer. What better way to be forced to write than by having to feed a blog?
I would have missed the deep satisfaction of sharing my travels with the thousands of women who have crossed my path and encouraging them to take that step and get out and see the world, even if they had no one to travel with.
I might even be a blue-rinse retiree, tending my garden and feeding my cats. Instead, at 64, I’m traipsing around the world, most recently to Kyrgyzstan and South Korea, and running this massive property Women on the Road has become. (And let’s face it, without WOTR, how could I possibly justify spending all that money on travel?)
Rather than slow down, I’m keeping on top of social media trends and emerging technology, researching discoveries and destinations and reaching out to hundreds of individuals a week, around the world. (And this from someone who still remembers the arrival of the electric typewriter, let alone the computer.) Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the creaks and groans that come with “increasing maturity”…
I’d like to think the adventure is just beginning.
After a decade, Women on the Road remains my passion project. I may wander away periodically, but I always find my way back.
The joy of loving what you do is just being happy doing more of the same.
I’d still like to write that book, the one I never wrote because I built this website. Perhaps I should retrace my route from Cape to (almost) Cairo – I was stopped in my tracks by the war in Sudan – and contrast and compare? All I know is that I have a book in me.
I’d like to walk the Camino. And I just might offer it to myself as a 65th birthday present next year. Not the northern Camino but the route from the south, the Ruta de la Plata that starts in Seville. I won’t do it all – it takes more than two months – but I’d love to walk a month of it. All will depend on whether I need a foot operation for a condition that has now got me limping when I walk.
I’d like to visit a few dear friends scattered around the world: Maria in Cuba, Gigi in Mexico, Eamonn in Myanmar, Manuel in Argentina (there be penguins!) and I’d like to see my family more (my brother moved to the US five years ago).
I’d like to learn a few more languages – Turkish, my father’s language (if I weren’t so irate with that government I’d probably have started already); Thai (which I have spoken and forgotten but which sings to me); Russian, whose Cyrillic alphabet fascinates me and which I can read out loud – but not understand; and German, which I’ve started and stopped so many times.
And I’d still like to lose that weight I keep claiming is so recent.
While I plot and plan, all I can feel is a tremendous amount of gratitude for what I’ve been given, and for the hopes life allows me to nurture.
Like that redhead trudging across the desert with her backpack, I’m determined. I may not be certain of my destination, but I have no doubt at all about my direction.
That’s me on the road, looking very serious as I pretend to be able to see what’s on my screen without my glasses
Most countries have a list of “sights” – see this, see that, move on.
Kyrgyzstan is different: you can see it, of course, but you really should experience it, putting all your senses into play and delving into the country like you would into a luscious cake.
Yet it’s not a destination that comes naturally.
It isn’t that simple to reach, its infrastructure is frail, distances and changes in altitude are significant, and many creature comforts will be a distant memory once you’ve spent some time here.
Yet these challenges are rewards in themselves, knowing you’ve pushed beyond your boundaries and visited a country unknown by so many.
Because yes, Kyrgyzstan is a special experience.
1. Your house will come down every year
A yurt – known locally as a boz ooi – is what many Kyrgyz call home, especially during the warm summer months in the mountains; in winter, they pack it up and head home to their village. Staying in a yurt will give you a powerful nomadic experience: the outdoors, sleeping on mats on the floor, and in some cases, lending a hand in building one. Mealtimes are collective and a wonderful opportunity to exchange a few words with locals. Beware, though, very little English is spoken. I made my way with the Google Translate app, quite good in Kyrgyz, but having a guide who can interpret will give you a much deeper insight into local culture, one based on hospitality.
Top: It can take several seasoned yurt-builders half an hour to put the structure together. Bottom: And that’s what the interior will eventually looks like.
2. Things roam wild and free
The low population density of Kyrgyzstan makes it a haven for wildlife, which roams unfettered and safe through mountains and valleys. Look up and you’ll see an eagle. Or many. Look sideways and you might spot bears, wolves or lynxes (they are usually smart enough to stay away from people, though). Among the rarer animals are the glorious Snow Leopard, Marco Polo sheep with their twisted antlers and the Siberian Ibex.
The incomparable Snow Leopard (Photo: Pixabay)
3. High altitude sensations will chase you through the Pamir and Tian Shan
Kyrgyzstan could be synonymous with mountains. More than 80% of the country is above 1,000 meters and nearly half of it soars higher, to more than 3,000 meters. It makes sense to try climbing some of them if you love mountains and if you have a professional guide, then you might tackle one of the three soaring summits that break the 7,000-meter barrier: Lenin Peak, Pobeda Peak and Khan Tengri.
4. Cycle the roads of Kyrgyzstan
For those accustomed to hilly rides, cycling across Kyrgyzstan can be a paradise of high mountains, little traffic and sandy lakeside beaches along which to relax after a rigourous journey. If you enjoy being challenged, cycling in Kyrgyzstan will not disappoint you. Nor will the sweeping panoramas and majestic gorges you’ll be slicing through.
5. Watch them ride – not your everyday game
Kyrgyzstan loves its games and you haven’t experienced the country’s essence until you’ve spent an afternoon watching a goat carcass being thrown around like a polo ball by men galloping on horseback. It’s a rough game and you’ll shrink from it more than once – but there’s no denying the excitement of a horse racing at you head on. Called kok boru, it is similar to Afghanistan’s buzkashi and was central to the 2016 World Nomad Games.
6. Drift along the quiet magic of Lake Song-Kul
Kyrgyzstan has many areas of great beauty but few are as stunning as Lake Song-Kul, a huge patch of crystalline water that sits 3,000 meters above sea level. Reaching it takes time, whether by car, horseback or on foot, but every dizzying curve and climb is worthwhile. Once there, the utter flatness of the mountain plain belies the lake’s altitude. It is a place of calm, where you can hike into the distance with little chance of meeting another human (or of catching a phone signal, for that matter).
7. Immerse yourself in history
Kyrgyzstan has faced sweeping historical change for centuries. In the era of Mongol invasions it was a key link on the legendary Silk Road from China to the West. It eventually fell to a domineering Russian Empire, which later morphed into restrictive oversight by the Soviet Union until independence in 1991. Unlike in some neighbouring countries, signs of the former Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic still dot the landscape, an era the young are happy to forget but the older generations regret. “We were less free, but we were more stable and rich,” as some have put it.
While most former Soviet states have rushed to destroy anything that reminds them of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan embraces every facet of its history. Here, some beautification.
8. Bargain in the bazaars
Many people hate haggling (I don’t!) but you don’t have to bargain. Kyrgyz merchants are perfectly happy to take your money as is but if you feel like haggling, go right ahead, though I’m not sure you’ll get very far. Mountains of spices and mounds of dried fruit vie for space along alleyways so narrow they could be washed away in heavy rain. Sometimes, in far-off corners of the country where people can’t travel easily, mobile markets take the place of permanent ones. Pick up a round of bread or chat with merchants (and don’t forget your Kyrgyz download of Google Translate!)
A typical market in rural Kyrgyzstan
9. Hobnob with artisans of the past
One of the more traditional crafts of Kyrgyzstan is the making of felt. Not only do Kyrgyz men often wear traditional felt hats, but the women (yes, it’s always women) also produce two types of felt carpet, the Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdaks that keep yurts warm and colourful. As is too often the case, this traditional practice is endangered; it is now protected as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.
Traditional Shyrdak felt carpets can take up to a year to make
10. Let’s go on a Kyrgyz road trip
Kyrgyzstan isn’t crowded. In fact, in some parts of the country you can almost go days without seeing anyone. That makes the roads more relaxing than usual. With a sturdy vehicle, every corner of the country can be uncovered, discovered and explored, from unequalled vistas to occasional old-fashioned villages with that ‘old time’ feel.
Kyrgyzstan is a country that overwhelmed my senses: the glorious sights of summits and lake shores, the scents of fresh pine and even fresher meats grilling on a spit, the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people, the unexpected plushness of a yurt bed… a truly experiential destination.
Going off the beaten track often requires experienced guides and a robust infrastructure. I partnered with World Expeditions and their #WEVentureOut campaign for this post. World Expeditions have high-quality teams on the ground and offer well-organised campsites, unique itineraries and local knowledge to make sure your experience is as authentic as it can be.
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