I dozed off immediately after I got into the car that was supposed to take me from Islamabad to Hunza Valley. I think it was the lunch that got me so drowsy – yet another helping of Biryani, a mound of rice with secret pieces of chicken hidden within it, that made me feel instantly doozy. I think I slept for a good hour, but given that the entire ride will take a whole day, it didn’t matter so much. When I woke up, Islamabad had disappeared. What was before my eyes was now glimpses of the Pakistan highlands – vast, mountainous, majestic. This was the view I had from the car for the next 22 hours.
Hunza Valley's view from Baltit Fort, a must-visit if you want to more about the valley's history and take in the amazing views from an elevation
Local shepherds with their herds - some are young kids who looked like they're pros already
That side of the world has always felt very intriguing for me. You know, ‘that side’. Not quite middle-eastern, at the foot of the most prominent mountain ranges on earth, and despite the bad-rep they always get from the media, remains mysterious and not quite well-known. Wasn’t it infamous for a Taliban-related attack not so long ago? Some Western news mass-generalized it as the place where women are oppressed – I never easily believe anything, so part of me wanted to go because I wanted to see this place for myself and feed my own curiosity.
Hunza Valley is located in Northern Pakistan. On Google Map it looks like a tiny dot of a place sandwiched between thousands of miles of snowy mountain ranges. To get there, I had to first get myself to Islamabad. From Islamabad, I had a few options – take the 1 hour flight to Gilgit, and then a taxi from Gilgit to Hunza Valley, take the public bus (a popular one is faisalmovers.com) to Gilgit, and cab my way to Hunza Valley as well, or rent a car with a driver, who will drive me right to the doorsteps of the hotel. I took the last option, and shared the fare with three other guys. After all, nothing says nuts like sharing a car with a non-English speaking driver and another stranger for a drive that takes a long time. Prepare copies of your passport because there will be a lot of military check points along the way. You’ll also be required to put up a night somewhere because the check point gates are closed after 5pm. For more info on traveling by road to North Pakistan, see here.
The end of summer is the season for apples, apricots and pears
Locals would offer you fruits from their farms for free
Gilgit is one of the main towns in the North and everything else pretty much branches out from there. I stayed at Karimabad, which was a smaller town about 1 hour drive from Gilgit, at the heart of Hunza Valley. And let me just say this first and foremost – Hunza Valley is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life, if not the most. No, I’m not overselling it. Tiny villages dot the area, surrounded by tall snow-capped mountain ranges everywhere you look. It feels like a place so isolated with its beauty remaining a huge secret. The people are so chill and friendly, no one wants to scam you and everyone wants to help you. The average lifespan here is around 95 years, and you can easily see why by looking at the lifestyle here. The land is so fertile and there are apple trees, apricot trees, peaches, pears, walnuts in everybody’s lawns, and you’re welcomed to help yourselves to as much as you want. I had my first taste of yak meat, which tasted strong and meaty, in local dishes comprising a lot of fat and meat, a common choice in this cold region. To best engross yourself in the area, take a nice long walk in the villages and watch people go about their daily routines, try local snacks, eat some fruits under the trees, and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
If you're not having at least one cup of chai per day, dammit you're not doing it right!
Attabad Lake with its blue waters, sourced directly by the glaciers
Mr Sultan, our jeep driver, with the jeep that took us places
To get the most out of Hunza Valley and its surroundings, you need to get a jeep with a driver. For the entire day you can get a rate of about USD40, and explore some sights at your own leisure. Horpar Valley is a place not to be missed, a small village reachable through an insane narrow road right next to gut-wrenching cliffs. There is a viewpoint in the village where you can get unspoiled views of the Horpar Glacier. It’s the fastest moving glacier in the world, at 5cm/day. Attabad Lake is also worth a visit, an eerie beautiful blue lake fed by the glacier water that resulted from a massive avalanche that drowned a highway and a village, killing 11 people. Passu is a great little area where you can soak your sights on the amazing Cathedral or Cone Mountain – a ragged mountain range that looks like a giant crown, and driving in and between these places is an experience by itself. Standing on the seats of my jeep and just feeling the rush of the wind through me with the sunshine in my face and looking across to the vast, euphoric scenery made me feel like I was in a scene of a movie about a girl who was on a quest for the adventure of a lifetime. It was liberating and joyous, a feeling that is hard to explain.
Walk around the villages, but wear proper shoes though. The pavements are mostly inclined.
Hunza Valley at night
If you’re looking for something more physical, like I always do when I’m traveling (I hate the whole sit-in-a-car-and-get-down-only-to-take-pictures motion), then boy do I have recommendations for you. I went hiking to the Rakopashi Base Camp, details of which I will share in the next post. It’s not for the faint hearted but I promise you it is absolutely worth it. I also went to Fairy Meadows, arguably one the more famous trails in North Pakistan (also infamous: in 2010 11 people were shot here by the Taliban). It takes 2 hours of Jeep Ride through the second most dangerous road in the world (yep) and an additional 2-hour horse ride or 3-hour hike to get there. But once you do, it’s just extremely breathtaking. The entire meadow oversees Nagar Parbat, one of the highest mountains in the world. Need I say more?
Rakaposhi Base Camp
The Jeep road up to Fairy Meadows is the second most dangerous road in the world, and rightfully so.
One with Nagar Prabat mountain, shot in Fairy Meadows. Nagar Prabat is one of the highest mountains in the world.
Horseback riding for about 2 hours to reach Fairy Meadows
If you ask me, I’ll tell you this; North Pakistan is extremely underrated. A local told me that once, the place was a bustling tourist area, but after 9/11 the whole industry collapsed and with it, the economy of the locals. These days North Pakistan is largely safe. You’ll see many military check points and a lot of police and soldiers around, but it’s just a safety measure to ensure that what happened many years ago will not occur again. If you manage to brave the roads, the unpredictable public transport and the occasional “sorry there’s no electricity or hot shower because the generator went off throughout the entire village”, then I can almost guarantee you that Pakistan will be the voyage to remember. Definitely one for the books.
A sample of the Northern cuisine, top and clockwise - a variation of the potato salad with coriander, chilis and onions, local bread stuffed with yak meat, yak meat cooked in yoghurt, spices, coriander and soaked bread, and local cheese sandwiched between local bread.
Often you'll see dishes like this chickpea curry. Locals have a knack of using simple ingredients like lentils, beans and veg and turning them into delicious simple curries to be dipped with warm local bread.
Dumplings stuffed with minced meat. As you get closer to the Chinese border you begin to see influences in the local dishes.
What To Eat: the Pakistani palette is a must-try! I had one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever eaten here, called Chicken Karahi – chicken pieces cooked in spices and yoghurt until the meat falls off the bone and you mop up all the sauce with some homemade bread. Yak meat is also worth a try in the Northern regions, commonly prepared with a lot of cheese and bread. There are also endless possibilities when it comes to beans, lentils and veggies, mostly cooked in a version of local curry. These are absolutely amazing with hot, fresh parathas. And please, please, please do not forget to indulge yourself with a tall glass of freshly blended apricot juice. They literally go out to the lawn and pick out the fruits from a tree and chuck them into a blender - it doesn't get any fresher than that.
If you’ve never been to Hawaii, then the Hawaii that you’d know (that is, through movies, music and pictures), is most probably of the Oahu Island. Hawaii is an archipelago of islands, and Oahu is perhaps the most famous one yet, home to Honolulu, the capital city of Hawaii. A popular vacation spot for famous people and the usual filming location for various Hollywood movies has blossomed the island into a busy, well-developed and touristy place for everyone to enjoy. Contrary to Big Island, Hawaii that you could read about here, Oahu is a much more modern take on what it means to have an island adventure.
Here are some of the things you can look forward to if/when you visit Oahu, Hawaii.
1. Hang out at Waikiki Beach and its beach city strip
Look, if you didn’t check out Waikiki, were you even in Oahu? If the Beach Boys sang about it, then there has to be a reason for its hype. The beach city strip has everything to offer, from the hotels, restaurants, shopping, yoga studios and bars, all set along the wide, surfing-friendly Waikiki beach. There’s even a Tesla showroom, guys. Certainly overcrowded with tourists, but the upside is you can pretty much everything in one place. I particularly enjoyed the late evenings here, as you get to chill by the beach while watching surfers emerge around the large rolling waves, and as the sun set you get the feel of the city in a whole different light.
Waikiki - A surfer's paradise, but you can also go to the North Shore to see more surfing action
The beachside city strip is well developed and has something for everyone
2. Check out famous movie sets
Jurassic Park. 50 First Dates. Lost. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Hawaii Five-O. These are only some of the few of our beloved movies and shows shot here in Oahu. Most of these are around the Northern area of the island near Kauai Ranch, where the landscape is much more scenic, giving a faraway-in-a-distant-island vibe. I particularly enjoyed a visit to Hukilau Cafe from 50 First Dates, arguably one my favourite rom-coms. Some of the locations require an entrance fee, but if you ask me, you’d enjoy the free ones just as much.
Hukilau Cafe, 50 First Dates
Forgetting Sarah Marshall filming location
Perhaps my real glimpse into Oahu is from the TV show 'Lost'
3. Go for a hike at its many, many nature trails
There are no less than 20 official hiking trails in Oahu, thanks to its rugged, volcanic terrains. They are not as vast as the ones you’d find in the Volcano National Park in Big Island, but they’ll provide sweeping views of the island. One of the more popular ones is the Diamond Head trail, and easy climb that will reward you with a beautiful view of Waikiki. There is even an old lighthouse at the top.
Aside from hikes, the island also has various other physical activities, such as diving, paragliding, surfing, sky diving and lots more. A quick visit to one of the island’s many information centers will give you more than enough reference for the things you would like to do.
The Diamond Head hiking trail
4. Have a Hawaiian gastronomic experience
Now we’re talking! Brace yourself for some good old American food fiesta, with a dash of tropical zest of Hawaii. Something that is rather popular here and seems to have garnered a cult of its own is the garlic shrimp movement. Sold in food trucks everywhere, they are basically garlicky, juice fat shrimps cooked in butter and served with either fries or rice. The most famous of them all is Giovanni’s Garlic Shrimp, located near the North Shore. You’ll find it easily by spotting the truck with the longest queue. They are certainly worth the hype for me.
Aside from this, other delicacies you should not miss is Hawaiian Haupia pie, a delicious coconut-based cream pie, pancakes at iHop (everywhere in the US actually, but hey, the pancakes make this place worth a mention), and the Hula chicken, which is a roast chicken variation marinated in pineapple juice. I would also like to make a special shout out to a place called Grylt, where I had the best Tuna wrap in my life. The tuna was perfectly seared so it was still juicy and red in the middle, and the whole combo was just something I would remember in a long, long time.
Giovanni's garlic shrimp - we sampled a couple of food trucks, and this is probably the best
The Haupia Cream Pie can be found in a lot of places, but this is the most popular
Perfect seared tuna wrap with chimchurri in a wrap sprinkled with salt flakes
5. Bask in some Hawaiian history
Hey, have you heard of Pearl Harbour? It’s here on this island, and you’d miss out if you don’t check it out and enjoy the free boat tour around the place of the infamous Japanese attack during the height of the World War. You might also catch a distant sound of Faith Hill’s ‘There You’ll Be’ playing somewhere in the background (ok I’m kidding).
But the island’s history is so much more than just the World War 2. The Hawaiian history dates back way beyond that, and during the height of the Polynesian civilisation, there were civil wars between the tribes and the rise and fall of Hawaiian royalties to immerse yourself in. Be sure to get to know some of them, as they would give you a much better appreciation of the archipelago and the story of its people.
You can find a lot of historical sites around the island
It's a different feel without Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett
6. Shop at Waikele Premium Outlets
Shopping is my least favourite thing to do when travelling. But I suppose if there is giant factory outlet with a 70% discount on all items, you’d be a fool to not take advantage of it. Waikele Premium Outlets is so huge that it is impossible to cover in a single day, so much so that it has a map so you won’t get lost or pee on yourself from not being able to locate the nearest lavatory.
Hanging out here is a great option especially if it's raining outside, as much of everything else to do around the island is outdoorsy.
I did a little solo trip to Ubud, Bali recently, on a mission to write the third book. No, it’s not really an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ thing, given that I wasn’t there for 3 months and the travel wasn’t exactly a ‘voyage’ – Bali is only a 3-hour flight away from my city. Bali is close by, fairly easy in accessibility, has amazing food scene and lots of yoga classes. I stayed in Ubud, the epicenter of hippies, environmentally-conscious communities (and some borderline fanatics), and Yoga-loving, clean-eating, chakra-aligning enthusiasts.
Although not a vegan, I absolutely love vegan food done well, and I took the opportunity to hunt and try out some vegan spots in Ubud. Now I will not say that I’ve tried all of the vegan restaurants and cafes in town, but of all of those that I did try, here are my Top 3 recommendations if you should ever feel like indulging your inner vegan-self when you are in Ubud, Bali.
1.) Moksa Plant-Based Restaurant
Puskesmas Ubud II, Gg. Damai, Sayan, Kec. Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia
In a nutshell, if you only have time to go to one vegan restaurant, then say no more. This is the place. Set in a higher elevation from the rest of the town which provides a beautiful breeze, Moksa is a farm-to-table concept restaurant – meaning that they have a farm just next to it, and pretty much everything you consume there is grown organically next door. The ambience is chill, the hospitality amazing, and I found myself sitting there for almost four hours eating non-stop while writing on my laptop, set in the beautiful green garden.
Now let’s talk about the food. Lead by Chef Made Runatha, the menu is enticing, imaginative and extensive – think lasagna made with cashew cheese, burger patties made from jackfruit (the ‘vegan’ meat, as they call it), eggplant rendang (if you’ve never had rendang, you’re missing out on life), and vegan ‘ribs’ and mash (made by juicy, flavourful tempeh). I started off my meal with a tall cold glass of coconut water, and had a plate of the vegan ‘ribs’. The tempeh was braised in home-made BBQ sauce, retaining its juicy interior and barbecue-y taste. They temped slices were served on a bed of creamy sweet potato mash and a side salad.
I also ordered a plate of jackfruit crepe, which is a naturally-colored green crepe stuffed with a filling of sweet ripe jackfruit, goji berries and coconut. It was amazing. I wish I had the stomach space to eat more from the menu.
Price-wise, my total meal of coconut water, tempeh ribs, dessert and iced coffee came up to about RM48, which is considerably very appropriate given that it was all organic and very, very filling. I honestly can’t wait to go back again.
PS: They also have morning markets every Wednesday and Saturday, as well as yoga classes (you can check the schedule on their official website)
Tempeh 'ribs' - slathered with homemade BBQ sauce, with a side of sweet potato mash and salad
Pandan crepe stuffed with jackfruit, goji berries and coconut, eaten with coconut ice cream, berry sauce and strawberries
The restaurant is next to its organic farm
2.) The Seeds Of Life
Jalan Gautama No.2, Ubud, Gianyar, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia
If you want to take it up a notch, why not try a vegan, raw restaurant? Yes, you read that right. Nothing is cooked over fire in this cosy little place (the concept that the more raw it is, the more nutrients the food retain), but despite that, the menu is exciting and extensive. They have a whole separate menu for jamu (health shots made from fresh herbs and spices) and drinks, and then a whole menu for meals. And let’s not forget the dessert counter with so many delicious, raw and vegan delicacies such as the raw chocolate tarts, so many types of energy balls, carrot cake and vegan cheese cake.
How nice can a vegan meal be? One may ask. The key to why the food is so good here is that they are inventive. In fact, it’s so inventive that I came here 3 times just so that I could try a little bit of everything, from the breakfast menu, to brunch, and lunch. I had a dehydrated papaya crepe stuffed with ‘nutella’ which was such a treat, a vegan version of the classic breakfast made of scrambled corn ‘eggs’, stuffed mushrooms, marinated spinach, eggplant 'bacon‘ and live bread, a plate of raw lasagna made from cashew cheese, avocado, mango, tomato, beetroot and spinach, and cauliflower ‘buffalo wings’ which was served raw, slathered with spicy harissa and vegan cheese sauce.
I also had some of the desserts and a couple of juices, and none of these things were not good. Another upside to this place is that it is located right in the center of town, so it’s not hard to find.
If you’ve never tried eating raw before, The Seeds Of Life is definitely a place to start.
Raw caulifower 'buffalo' - slathered with harissa, dipped in vegan cheese dip
Mushrooms stuffed with scrambled 'eggs' made from corn with black salt, topped with spinach, tomato salsa and eggplant 'bacon'. Served with raw bread.
A twist on the 'lasagna' - layers of beetroot, spinach, tomatoes, mango, cashew cheese, zucchini and avocado
Dehydrated papaya stuffed with raw cocoa and hazelnut cream - tastes like Nutella!
Jl. Nyuh Bulan No. 1, Banjar Nyuh Kuning, Ubud
Before we get to the food, let’s talk about the interior and setting. It’s away from town, in a small building painted white and sapphire blue. Kind of like something you’d see in Santorini. There are large windows which means it’s not stuffy inside, and the seating style is cozy, making full use of the nooks and crannies of the building.
Sage doesn’t necessarily boast a long list of menu like Moksa, but it certainly has a delicious line of vegan options to choose from. The ‘pulled pork’ jackfruit burrito seems to be a fairly popular choice from the blogs online, and so that was what I ordered. It was delicious. The jackfruit was somehow cured to give it a different, spicier taste, and the texture was sturdy, almost like very soft meat. The burrito was stuffed with rice, cashew cheese, tomatoes and cilantro, served with a refreshing homemade tomato salsa and nut cream dip.
I also had a small shot of a jamu (health shot made from ginger, turmeric and other fresh herbs). It was pretty intense in flavor, although there is a warm feeling in the stomach after, which I guess is a sign that the jamu is good for your digestion. After the meal I tried out a cold glass of coconut milk latte, and although I’m not really a coffee fan I’d say that it was a great pick-me-up especially in the hot midday Bali weather.
Sage also serves dessert, and although I didn’t order any because I was full, the girl who sat at the table next to me claimed that their coconut cake was the best she has ever had, and she has been eating them almost every day for 2 weeks despite the fact that she was not a dessert person to begin with. I consider this a pretty good testimony.
Jamu - there are many variations, but this one is made with tumeric and ginger
Burrito stuffed with rice, herbs, tomatoes and pulled jackfuit 'meat'. Cashew cheese and salsa dip.
Note: There are many other vegetarian cafes/warungs/restaurants around Ubud that you would be spoiled for choice. I had a plate of local Indonesian mixed vegetarian platter at Café Wayan, which was amazing and cheap. I also had hotcakes with fruits at Watercress Café, and although it was fluffy and delicious, I thought it was a bit pricey. Ubud Raw Chocolate Bar makes amazing raw hot cocoa, and I also had a bowl of raw chocolate smoothie with fruits and granola at Radiantly Alive Café – it was very good and filling.
Balinese vegetarian platter - so much good flavours and textures in a single plate!
Smoothie bowl of cacao, banana, coconut chips, strawberries and granola
What do you think of when you think of Hawaii? I’ll start – I think of surfer dudes. Incessant music from the Beach Boys playing at every corner of the beach city. Coconut bras. Overtanned tourists walking about in ridiculous colourful outfits that are supposed to make them look ‘tropical’ (and coming from a tropical country myself, this is NOT how we dress). Majestic volcanic eruptions. Endless flows of seafood in every restaurant you go to.
Well, some of them are true.
The National Park, a must-go if you're in Big Island
It turns out that a good number of people do not know that ‘Hawaii’ is actually a cluster of islands. That is to say, you’d need to be specific to which island you’re going if you’re going there. Most airlines would go to Oahu, arguably the most famous island of the whole lot. You can take inter-island flights to move to the rest of the islands. Ferries seem like an invalid option.
View at Highway 250
So which island should you go to? In this particular post I would be writing about the Big Island, the largest of the chain of Hawaiian archipelago. It is the Hawai’i. It’s pretty safe to say that a common main reason one would choose this island as opposed to the more popular Honolulu is for the Volcano National Park. The island still has active volcanoes, and the last eruption occurred in May 2018. If you’re dying to see lava flows as far as your eyes could see (and beyond!), this is the place to be.
A different planet? Kalapana Lava Field, last eruption in 2018
There are many spots that you could go to and see volcanic fields (after all, it’s an island made from volcanic eruptions, so the remnants are literally everywhere), but a particular spot worth mentioning would be the Kilauea Lava Field. It’s a large, vast grey space of frozen basaltic flows, and you can spend ages there marvelling at the frozen pillowy structures and the curves of the uneven surface of shiny, hardened magma, that would make you feel as though you’re on a different planet. Is it Earth? Is it Mars? It’s an exhilarating feeling to be right in the middle of it. It would be nice if you could take an aerial shot of the whole deposit using a drone, but it gets very windy around here so be warned.
Waterfalls drape through the uneven structures of volcanic deposits
The Big Island is a properly planned tourist attraction, so there are plenty of routes and trails and stops for you to enjoy the most out of this beautiful volcanic island – Waipio Valley lookout, Palolo Valley lookout, and so many others especially if you’re within the National Park area. However, as always, I’d say that some of the gems are not as loudly advertised as others. For example, the drive along Highway 250 of the island might actually be one of the most scenic drives you would ever have had. You’ll pass volcanic landscapes from a high viewpoint (great for pictures), gorgeous private homes set among the lush greens growing from the fertile soil, sakura trees (yes! Sakura trees) lining the pavement that walks up to a gorgeous old church, rainbows at the edge of fields, and vast green landscapes that spreads out until the sea meets the earth. I’d recommend driving around here in the late evening, when the sunshine is the right colour and the clouds hang low so that you could see the top of Mount Mauna Kea.
So many volcanic craters, Mauna Kea
Sunset At Mauna Kea
Speaking of Mauna Kea, did you know that it snows on the island? Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano, but with its peak at more than 4200 meters (which you can hike up to, by the way), it’s common to snow around the mountain during the colder seasons. That being said, you’d be smart to visit the Big Island with a proper jacket if you plan to visit high elevation sites such as this. Mauna Kea is also considered to be one of the best spots in the world for astronomical evaluation, due to its stable airflow and location. There are about eleven telescopes housed here, and there is even a center owned by NASA where you could go and check out or purchase cool astronomical merchandise which also includes space food that real astronomers consume when in space (alright, fine. I might have bought a bunch to take home. So what? We all know I won’t be going to space any time soon, and I want a taste of it).
Pohoiki Beach, a young beach of 8 months old (formed during lava flow)
Road completely blocked by a recent lava flow
But of course let’s not forget the beaches. This is Hawaii after all. It would be a crime to not speak about the seaside where the volcanic sands meet the Pacific Ocean. It isn’t hard to find a private beach where no one is bothering you, with only the sounds of waves and the wind rustling through the trees. I wouldn’t need to describe this at all – we all know the paradise that is the sandy haven with the sun in your face and the frothy seawater bubbling around your feet. But an interesting beach here would be the youngest one of all. The Pohoiki Beach, formed only 7 months ago today, is a black sand beach, and here you would see how the lava flow completely covered the old beach and formed a new one, at the same time trapping some pools of sea water into little natural swimming pools. At the parking lot of the beach you’ll see something just as fascinating – a lava flow had crossed a large road, and just like that, the road is blocked and no longer in use. In a weird way, it kind of paints the façade that everything on the island is temporary. Forever changing. Forever shifting according to eruptions that are frequent.
Local avo, halved, salted, drizzled with Hawaiian lemon juice (sweeter), enjoyed.
In the spirit of honesty, I wish I could say that dining on the Big Island is a major gastronomic affair. However, it seems like not even a place like Hawaii was able to escape the junk/fast food avalanche that it America. The popular food around the island are mostly the fast food chains, with these spots being jam packed with people during lunch and dinner hours. ‘Local’ food comprises of immigrant food – Chinese takeouts, Mexican taco joints, maseladas (Portuguese donuts) and Italian restaurants. For a country that seemed to be constantly on the verge of immigrant-rights issues, it sure does take a lot from these different cultures to make it its own.
The local produce are, however, wonderful to sample. The island has its own local macadamia farms, and in return macadamia milk is something you should definitely try here. I daresay that it rivals as perhaps the best nut-based milk I’ve ever tasted. If you visit the morning markets you’d see an array of avocados of all shapes and sizes. Enjoy one simply dashed with some salt and a good drizzle of olive oil to really taste its difference from your usual, generic imported avocados in grocery stores.
So is the Big Island more than just a beach paradise? You bet it is. If you’re looking to go, be prepared with more than just your pair of coconut bra and stereotyped Bermuda pants.
The view of Nafplio from the fort.
I have two words for you – Before Midnight.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of the movie series. I love all the filming locations as much as the script themselves. The final movie of the trilogy took place in Greece, but more specifically, the filming location was in Peloponnese, a region in Greece. And when I got there, I knew exactly why this place was chosen as the spot to conclude the story of Jesse and Celine. The emerald green waters against the beautiful white coasts, the portside town with a maze of cobbled, narrow old streets, ancient Greek monuments up on the hill where you can climb up to see the sweeping views, and of course, the food. If ever there is a place to go to for someone to walk aimlessly and reflect on their life, Nafplio must be one of those.
It’s always the history that makes a place beautiful. Nafplio was no exception. Once ruled by the Byzantines, Franks, and even the Ottoman Empire, you can look around and see the marks of these conquers by the different styles of building around town. The ones with domes are Ottoman. The ancient walls of the forts are from the Venetians and Franks. Everything else? Unmistakably Roman.
This was the last leg of my Greece travels, and after so many days of driving around the country, I was ready to spend my last remaining days just eating, walking around and doing nothing. Nafplio was the perfect choice. You can almost walk everywhere you need to go to, and it’s such a popular weekend town for the Greeks that the streets are filled with beautiful restaurants, gelato stands, bookshops, cafes and hangout spots. In the morning you can visit the fresh food market, something I always make a point of doing whenever I’m some place new. It’s how I get a feel of what the people and the energy is really like, what they eat, how they interact, and what’s in season.
Some of the fresh produce at the morning market - artichokes, greek honey, oranges, sardines
After grazing your way through the market (be friendly, and lots people will let you try lots of things they sell), perhaps a great idea is to venture into the old town square. You’ll get lost in the turns and corners, but don't worry. To get lost is a great way to explore something new. The streets are small and narrow, but the locals seem to maximise this by putting up tables for people to eat, and stalls for you to rummage through old books, postcards and souvenirs. Before noon is also the best time, weather-wise, to climb up the old fort, the Acronauplia, on the hill to check out the scenery. Nothing says Greece quite like a full sunny day with sweeping views of old rooftops, white pebbly beaches and sparkling green sea. And unapologetic locals in the skimpiest bathing suits imaginable, even that old 80 year-old uncle with super tight speedos one could fully visualise his Grecian glory, if you know what I mean.
View of the Agean sea - plentiful in the Pelopponese region
Lunch must not be taken lightly. This is a portside region, so do yourself a favour and indulge in the local produce. During one of the afternoons I had a lunch I’ll never forget – fresh sardines filleted and grilled with some local oregano. You’ll find oregano in almost all of the dishes in this country. And with it I had a bowl of blanched chard drenched in glossy, green extra virgin Greek olive oil, with a squeeze of lemon. Speaking of which, it was the orange season at the time, and I had some of the best oranges I’ve ever had here.
Grilled sardines, de-boned, with oregano
Blanched chards in extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice
As advertised, you won’t have an actual goal in Nafplio. You sit around the cafes and write postcards. You chat with some other people sitting at the table next to you. You check out the old railroads that have been there since 1886. You try out some gelatos which are great to compliment the balmy weather. If you have a car, you can drive up to Corinth Canal and watch the boats pass by the 6km long waterway. The canal opens up to the Aegean Sea (which is also the sea Achilles once sailed in to travel to Troy). It sounds blah, but it’s rather interesting to see actually.
The Corinth Canal
At night the main town changes its façade and becomes a beautiful glittery place with music, candlelight and even more delicious food. Sometimes the main town square, called the Plateia Syntagmatos, would have fun events to watch. I managed to catch a school choir competition, which turned out to be rather fitting, listening to beautiful gospel singing echoing through the streets of this beautiful town.
You sit in the middle of the crowd of happy people, eating a scoop of pistachio gelato, in the air that smells of the sea and the sounds of guitar and Greek music that you can’t understand. You feel like dancing. You cheer on with the crowd even when you have no idea what the commotion is all about. You feel like you’ve seen Greece the way you really want to see it – offbeat, local, and with a full stomach.
That’s why you come to Nafplio.
Travel means differently to different people. For some, it means stepping into a temporary gratification of the luxurious – think fancy hotels, a butler, room service. For others it’s an excuse to throw the rules out of the window and eat with zero conscience. For the rest it means adventure, away from our daily, mundane routines.
I like all of these reasons. I’ve done it for all of these reasons. But so far, here is the best reason I like to travel; it’s the feeling of arriving someplace, a new place, where nothing is familiar, and you think to yourself, “Where the bejesus am I??”
I love this feeling. I’m addicted to this feeling. It makes me feel that the world is so strange but wonderful but vast but beautiful. And that was exactly the feeling I had when I arrived in Zagori Village, Greece, about six hours’ drive away from Athens.
Rainy days, long roads, in Ioaninna
A view of Zagori Village from the hotel
I have never driven that far in my life, let alone in a foreign country on the opposite side of the car. But the drive to the Ioninna region of Greece is beautiful, past Greek landscapes of mountains, olive farms, small narrow roads past villages, sheep, working horses, and the Aegean sea. I arrived at the small hotel called Kipi Suites, a large mansion on top of the hill surrounded by the small Zigori Village, after a long drive through lonely roads that did not seem to lead anywhere.
Kipi Suites - a small hotel, please please please go here
I want to tell you more about Zigori Village. But first, have you ever read an Enid Blython book? In her books she often describes magical villages surrounded by beautiful green woods and quiet rivers, with stone houses, slate roofs, and tiny lanes that are cobbled. Well, that’s Zigori Village. People are nice, the local tavern serves amazing food, the village dogs love you, and if you’re lucky you come across the mountain turtles who sometimes visit from the woods.
The village roads are quiet and cobbled
This region of Ioninna is located near the borders of Greece-Albania, and it was once occupied by the Turkish Empire. As a result, you see a lot of their architectural influences around the area, such as the many, many, many beautifully designed bridges crossing the emerald green rivers with icy cold waters. I went for long walks through the woods, which lead to quiet, pebbly riverbanks, and all the pathways are made from cobblestones with weeds growing in between (I’m starting to sound like I’m describing a Disney village, aren’t I?).
Cheese pie with olives, homemade jam and local mountain tea
Misty mornings around the village
Life here is quiet, and so I seemed to emulate this energy as well. I woke up early to watch the sunrise from the balcony of the hotel (there was no one else occupying this hotel, this is how remote the village is), and sheets of morning fog uncovered the whole village and its surrounding landscape. The lady who hosted the place (who is also the cook, receptionist and housekeeper) made a cheese pie for breakfast, which is basically baked feta cheese in filo pastry with olives. Then I wrote for about an hour, and after that set off to hike for Vikos Gorge, the second deepest canyon in the world. I went for the Beloi Viewpoint to see the entire canyon, and saw some wild deers. The national park is gorgeous, a Mediterranean stone forest with gorgeous sunshine, and the gorge itself was a view to behold.
Vikos Gorge, at the borders of Greece-Albania
I lost track of how many slabs of feta cheese I've been eating
After that it was a late lunch at the tavern, complete with the neighborhood dogs trying to get the plate of meat patties, and of course, a generous plate of Greek Salad. This area houses around 45 small villages, so you can imagine the amount of sightseeing one could get by walking around. I packed some water, snacks, and a good jacket, then off I went on long walks. I just remember feeling so happy as I walked, and the air smelled like old leaves and pine trees. I was so far away from everything I knew, and somehow this made me feel free.
This part of Greece is famous for it's medieval bridges
Ioninna is a place that reminded me why I liked to travel. The roads are not popular, the villages are modest. You won’t find any designer shops here. People wear sensible shoes and clothes, and no one is in a hurry or trying to fish out as much money as possible from you. Lives are simple, and nothing is touristy – the natural wonders are there, quiet, beautiful, undisturbed.
Where the bejesus was I? Nowhere, and it was spectacular.
Landslides, a common occurrence in the Himalayas
Last day of hike. We started off rather early, and it was a pleasant and relatively easy route, passing dense jungles, flatlands and small rivers. My main motivation today was just to go to my hotel and shower the shit out of myself. I miss shampoo. I miss soap. I miss smelling and looking like an actual woman. Being out there for days on end with no shower has successfully turned me into some kind of ape form.
Throughout the hike today I was very relaxed and spent the time just reflecting on the whole experience. I loved every minute of it. I love the exhilaration, the adrenaline and the views. I’m pretty sure I would be doing the Everest Base Camp hike at some point in the future, hopefully better prepared with what I’ve learned. And I’ve learned so much during this trip. About what I’m actually capable of, new skills of the outdoorsy living, other people, and other lifestyles.
Getting to the top at the Base Camp was an accomplishment, sure, but what I will remember most is days and days of the journey itself. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was easy, other times it was hard, and others times it was a little overwhelming. And how you experience it all depends on how you perceive these things – if you choose to complain and whine, that’s what they will all just boil down to. A miserable experience. But if you choose to take all of them with stride, you’ll end up feeling pretty happy with the whole package deal. You see many types of people during this expedition with many types of personalities. The complainers, the ones who are determined, the ones who are reflective, and the ones who always look at the glass half empty.
Me? I’m just very happy to be everywhere I have been.
Also I’ve just taken a long, well deserved shower. Civilisation is the bomb, son!
I underestimated: The power of positive thinking
I overestimated: my ‘vegan’ abilities. I ate a pile of meat when we came back.
Tips: Learn to always find happiness even in tough situations.
Freshly picked mushrooms and potatoes, but really I just wanted to eat an animal
Beautiful Aisyah with beautiful prayer flags!
What a trip it was. Unforgettable.
Morning sunshine at the Himalayas!
Locals rebuilding the bridge destroyed by the avalance last night
Weather: Damp. Wet.
Because of the setback we had with the avalanche, today we had to make up for the delayed trek. What this basically translated to was the longest hike I’ve done yet, leaving the guest house in Deurali at 7.30 am and reaching the next guest house at 7.20 pm. I had the chance to witness the villagers build a new bridge to replace the destroyed one, and the Nepalis really are a bunch of resilient folks. A new bridge was constructed in almost two hours, and we were able to continue our journey back.
I walked mostly with two other male friends, and they were positive and upbeat so this kept me motivated. Despite the fact that my nose was blocked from flu, I smelled like garbage because I hadn’t showered in days, and my shoes were damp. Sunset hit us around 6 pm, and towards the end the trek was pretty tough. We climbed up with headlights, and it was very misty so the visibility was only around 7 meters ahead.
In the dark, it was quite a strange, spiritual, surreal moment, walking in the Himalayan range in the stark, misty darkness with no one around and only the headlights to show the way. Sometimes I find it a challenge to be in the moment, my mind always quick to wander to other places and other things. Not tonight though.
To be completely honest, I decided to join this Annapurna Base Camp on a whim a few months prior. I guess I was driven with the whole idea of wanting to live this year absolutely spontaneously. I trained hard before coming here, and I’m glad I did. My energy levels were right, and I experienced minimal muscle or joint pains throughout the whole expedition. This allowed me to just really enjoy my hike and the views, without spending too much time wallowing in exhaustion.
I am so happy to be here.
I underestimated: The importance of dry socks. The make or ruin your hiking experience
I overestimated: Nothing. It was an exhausting day, but I got what I expected
Tips: Train. Seriously. Especially if you’re not naturally athletic. The effects show in your energy level, hiking pace, and joint/muscle endurance (which translates to the enjoyment of the whole experience). I trained almost everyday, focusing on running, yoga and kickboxing to build stamina and condition muscles.
Raging rivers in the rainy season
My biggest nightmare - a very long hanging bridge
I love walking in this weather.
The ever-exhuberant gang
Annapurna South in view
Macchupuchre peak at 6.30 am
Weather: Sunny at first, and then it pours like nobody’s business.
In the morning the sky was clear, and from the base camp I was able to see Annapurna 1, Annapurna 2, Annapurna South, Macchupuchre and Himchuli, all the peaks for the main mountains on this side of the Himalayan range. Annapurna is literally translated into ‘the shape of harvest’, which describes the shape of the mountain. Macchupuchre is literally translated to ‘fishtail’, which is what the peak looks like.
But the day quickly turned sour as we made our way back where we came from. It started pouring rain again. Although this is one of the hottest month of the year here, it is also one of the wettest. As we hiked and approached Durali, the large waterfall ahead of us began having an avalanche. I had never seen an avalanche before in real life, and to be honest it was quite terrifying. The otherwise peaceful waterfall turned into a gush of large rocks and sediments, and with it the avalanche destroyed the bridge we were supposed to cross to get back.
I felt a little panicky, and tried to remain calm as my anxiety began. Ok I don’t want to be one of those people in the news who died from a freak of nature.
As a result, we had to put up a night in Deurali until the weather calms down and the villagers were able to rebuild the bridge. My waterproof shoes were soaking wet because the water level of the river we passed has raised, and it came right above my ankles, causing me to have to walk the rest of the way in squishy, soaking wet shoes in the cold and rain. It was awful.
At night, there is never a lot to do at the guest houses. It’s cold so most people hang about in the common area, nursing hot drinks while chatting or playing card games. As for me, I quite enjoy the silent time to write.
I underestimated: The severity of the avalanche
I overestimated: My ability to walk across rivers without getting soaking wet.
Tips: Have things to do at night time. A book, a journal, music, playing cards etc
Rainy weather, sunny spirits
Journalling every night before bed
Around the base camp grounds
At the arrival 'gate' of Annapurna Base Camp - the dog is not as excited as I was
Everyone so relieved to finally make it!
Weather: Freezing cold and wet
Alright. Imagine walking outside in a vast open space with barely any trees, just grassy lands. It’s a steady, cold shower, of about 2 degrees and the grounds are slick, muddy and wet. The wind is strong, and because it’s an open space, there is nowhere to get some shield from, so there you are walking in the middle of nowhere for hours next to a large river of icy waters, with your left eyeball not completely covered so you have to wear foggy reading glasses instead. And now you have to pee.
But on the upside, the view of the grasslands and valleys are magnificent. Honestly, why do I work in an office all day?
Eventually, there it was. We reached the Annapurna Base Camp, the holy pilgrimage destination all of those who hiked there were really coming for. The minute I saw the signboard looming in the distance, “Welcome to Annapurna”, my spirits quickly picked up and I literally ran for it.
I can’t describe the feeling. Exhilaration, gladness and a punch of adrenaline. Two dogs greeted us by the signboard, and I was just as glad to see them as they were glad to see me. It was definitely a moment I won’t forget, just being there, in the middle of nowhere, deep in the Himalayan wilderness, a place so foreign and lonely and distant from everything I have ever known. There are times in your life when the present moment surpasses your ‘real’ life – momentarily you forget about your problems, your obligations, and your past. This was one of them.
I will always love adventures. I hope it will always love me back in return.
I underestimated: The cold. It was numbingly cold.
I overestimated: My susceptibility to cold-weather illness. I feel flu coming.
Tips: Bring wet wipes. You won’t shower for a few days.
Locals going up and down the Base Camp route with their chores
So many flowers and wild berries growing around
A small temple in the middle of nowhere