I am late publishing my 2019 travel plan this year.
I mean, it isn’t a good sign if the first trip in the list is almost due by the time the said list sees the light of day.
Ever since returning from Eritrea, I have been dreading embarking on all those pending blog posts. The Year in Pictures, which I postponed by a few weeks and, miraculously, eventually published for those of you that continue to care. The massive narrative of my Eritrean adventures, for which I have prepared a tonne of notes but haven’t even selected the photos yet. The humorous post about how I became a hated figure on Twitter after quoting a well-researched theory that Pushkin’s great grandfather (random, I know) may have come from modern-day Cameroon rather than Eritrea – some Eritreans were ready to eat me alive. The update to my existing Falkland Islands post in response to the archipelago landing on some “places to visit” lists this year and to reassure many of you that travelling there does not need to involve selling a kidney.
I will be glad if I manage to hit half of the above before my next big adventure. And, in case you are wondering where that will be, I have good news for you – my travel plan for 2019 is finally ready! The summary of the places I hope to visit this year follows below. Let me know if you are headed the same way!
I may have been screaming about it from every rooftop for weeks, but here goes a spoiler alert: I will be returning to Afghanistan in 2019
FEBRUARY 2019: MOLDOVA
Towards the end of 2018, I realised that I could really do with more weekend trips to no-nonsense Eastern European cities. Whilst I do visit Riga – my home city – very frequently, a lot of my time there is consumed by catching up with family rather than researching Riga’s hidden treasures. I also really enjoyed my two weekends in Romania last year, in the (very different) cities of Sibiu and Constanta, and was keen to repeat the experience in 2019. My only two criteria were that the Eastern European city of choice would be, first, very cheap and, second, not particularly touristy.
Where else but Chisinau? Moldova remains the least visited country in Europe (excluding some, but not all, of the continent’s microstates) and, last time I visited, amazed me by how glaringly cheap everything was. I am aware that this is because many locals make incomes that would be considered laughable in the West and is a tragedy of sorts – but nothing stops me from popping across for a weekend of pumping my hard-earned banker cash into the local economy. I haven’t made any specific plans yet but would like to visit a winery (or two), something I failed to do on my first visit to Chisinau. There is also a pretty high chance of me ending up at the Smokehouse beer bar every night sampling their phenomenal craft beers (recommended!) – I even made sure to book a hotel in the vicinity. I might also pop out to shoot more photos of Chisinau’s gorgeous circus building or pay Transnistria another rushed day trip. Who knows, maybe a form of a blog post might even come out of it: Moldova could definitely do with more coverage in the blogosphere.
MARCH 2019: KUWAIT
Having visited every country in Europe (in its traditional definition, anyway), I have long since run out of new countries within a reasonable distance from London for a quick weekend visit. Incidentally, with my recent trip to Eritrea I reached 99 countries visited, making me extremely tempted to hit the big 100 sooner rather than later.
Enter Kuwait! It turns out that the small Gulf state has direct flights to London with a flight time not exceeding 6.5 hours. It is ridiculous that I consider something like this a reasonable weekend destination these days, but here goes: in mid-March, I will descend upon Kuwait for two days of doing… well, not exactly much. I will probably take a look at Kuwait Towers, the National Museum and the souk in Kuwait City and stroll along the Gulf promenade in Salmiya. I also happen to know exactly two people living in Kuwait, and both have promised they will be around – lucky, as I doubt I will ever be returning to Kuwait in a rush. Reaching the centennial milestone of my travels, it is ironic that I will not be able to celebrate the occasion with a drink – Kuwait is strictly a dry country – but worry not, I am planning to fly back via Dubai. With lounge access.
APRIL 2019: PAKISTAN
On to my first big adventure of the year! Having visited all of Pakistan’s neighbours – though, emphatically, not anywhere near the border areas – it was only a matter of time before I added another “’stan” to my enviable collection. Given the many similarities to several countries I love, it is not a surprise that I have wanted to visit Pakistan for a very long time.
And this is officially happening! All my various flights are booked: I am in touch with a local travel company to arrange my visa, and, if everything goes according to plan, I will be spending two weeks in Pakistan over Easter. Starting from a relatively simple itinerary covering only the north of Pakistan, my plans eventually morphed into a madly rushed monster of a trip across the entire country. Is that even news to anyone at this stage? I will land in Karachi and immediately head north to Lahore with overnight stops in Hyderabad and Larkana. Lahore is actually the only place where I will spend two consecutive nights (seriously, who planned this?) before continuing to Islamabad, Besham, Gilgit, Hunza, Chilas, Swat and Peshawar, returning to Islamabad and flying out to Dubai for a blissful day of chilling by the pool, cold beer in hand. Given the crazy itinerary of the Pakistan leg of the trip, I am shamelessly looking forward to Dubai a fraction more.
Not sure what a typical Friday evening looks like in Pakistan, but in the nearby Kabul it means watching kites fly from Bibi Mahru Hill
MAY 2019: IRAQI KURDISTAN
Remember my last year’s post about overcoming depression? I did write there that I would try to revisit places I loved rather than continue chasing new countries at a great expense and detriment to my mental health. Life really is too short to kill oneself over questionable goals few people end up even caring about.
With my depression firmly in the past, I will kick off this resolution in early May with my second trip to Iraqi Kurdistan! Many of you will remember how deeply the region touched me on my first visit. I found Kurds infinitely welcoming to a solo foreigner and took countless portraits of locals – something I enjoy most in any country. I loved seeing very few tourists around – perhaps thanks to the brutal August heat, I saw precisely one fellow traveller during the entire time I was in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was moved to tears by the memorials to horrors inflicted on the Kurds by Saddam’s regime as well as by the locals’ inability, to this day, to live in a state of their own. In short, I can’t wait to go back! I will base myself in Erbil for a long weekend of covering whatever I missed the last time. Travelling with the same guide, my good old buddy Sardar, I hope to corner many a good-looking Peshmerga fighter – fully decked out, naturally – for that perfect portrait. Wish me luck!
SUMMER 2019: GREEK ISLANDS
I know, I know… few of you had any doubts that I would again end up visiting swathes of new Greek islands in 2019. Despite reaching my nice-looking goal of 50 Greek islands last year, I still have heaps to see before I can reset my count and start all over again – the day that, I hope, never comes.
I will start my Greek escapades with a long weekend on the island of Milos, one of my favourite Greek islands that I already visited in 2013. This time I will be coming with an advantage of being able to drive, and, hopefully, won’t end up having to rely on flagging down rare public buses, walking crazy distances across the entire island and falling off hired bicycles on Milos’ steep unpaved roads. I swear I even ended up getting a lift on the back of a truck after a local driver took pity on my destroyed state. Driving is an advantage!
For my proper 9-day summer break, I am very excited to announce that I will be visiting two of the more remote Greek islands in the Dodecanese archipelago, Leipsoi and Arkoi. Flying to Samos – my beloved Samos – for a day of catching up with my favourite people in the pretty port of Pythagoreion, I will jump on a speedboat to the said two islands to spend a blissful week in the forgotten corner of the Aegean. I have been hearing good things about Leipsoi for a while, but learning that Arkoi exists was a surprise to me – despite being obsessed with all things Greece, I never looked closely at that corner of the map. It would also be perfect if I could somehow make my way to the island of Marathos nearby: populated by precisely one family, it sounds like my epitome of Greek happiness. Like any Greek would, I will keep things chilled: definitely expect a post here on my experience on Leipsoi and Arkoi.
Do you recognise this timeless view? Just kidding, this Greek island, Antikythira, is one of the least visited out there. Do visit!
AUGUST 2019: RUSSIA
Another country I will be revisiting in 2019 is the country of my ancestors: Mother Russia. My mother was born there, lived a period of her childhood there and visits family there regularly. Despite this, I have not been to Russia since 2008, and that was all on crazy investment banking business not usually involving more than a red-eye flight, half-asleep ghosting at a meeting and a prompt flight back. In fact, I haven’t spent more than a couple of days in Russia since the early 1990s, and, mind you, it was not a good time to be in Russia.
And so, in case you haven’t already guessed, this year I hope to rectify my lengthy absence from Russia. I will dedicate several days to catching up with the various family members I haven’t seen in over two decades, the journey that will take me to a small village of Urshel in the Vladimir Oblast. I will also spend a few days admiring the gorgeous medieval architecture in Vladimir proper before backtracking to Moscow (for such a massive country, Russia is surprisingly low on regional airports) and flying all the way to Irkutsk. Visiting Lake Baikal has been a dream of mine for a while; I plan to spend a few days there before catching a train to Ulan-Ude, Russia’s capital of Buddhism, and from there to Chita, a provincial town known for precisely nothing. I only have two weeks to explore a fraction of the vast country that is Russia, and will not pretend my experience will equate to anything meaningful. I do look forward to seeing the family I have all but forgotten I had though.
I was last in Russia in 2008. Can’t wait to be back in the country where everything is signposted in my mother tongue.
AUTUMN 2019: AFGHANISTAN
I had originally reserved my free week in the autumn for a Baikonur rocket launch in Kazakhstan, but this will have to wait. Once again, I find myself drawn to Afghanistan, where, despite visiting twice last year, I still have one place (of the limited lot that are relatively safe for tourists, that is) never visited.
I am talking about Kandahar: Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the largest Pashtun-majority city in the country, it rarely features on the itineraries of the few leisure travellers that make it to Afghanistan. Fortunately, Kandahar is relatively safe, though the same cannot be said about the areas surrounding the city. I plan to spend a couple of days in Kandahar before flying to Herat, my favourite city in Afghanistan where I hope to revisit the same sites as I did last time, including checking up on the old Sufi with the kindest smile at the Shahzadaha Shrine. I then hope to spend a couple of days revisiting the spectacular Bamyan, the jewel in Afghanistan’s crown, before departing. Having been to the country twice, I look forward immensely to returning to Afghanistan and putting those Farsi lessons I have been taking to good use.
OCTOBER 2019: ALGERIA
In case you were wondering how much holiday I really had, I have more up my sleeve! I already spoke above about finding it difficult to hit new countries within a reasonable radius out of London. Thankfully, precisely one country in the Southern Mediterranean remains unscratched on my wall map; I am talking about Algeria.
Having been discussing the trip back and forth with a local travel planner for weeks, I will say one thing: do not try to see all of Algeria in a measly five days. Algeria is actually the world’s 10th largest country (and Africa’s largest) and seeing it in a rush is bound to end in failure. Which I will be able to experience very soon! I will only have time enough to explore the capital of Algiers for a day before flying to Tamanrasset on a red-eye flight, sleeping for around two hours and zooming around the area like crazy for two days. I will then catch another red-eye flight back to Algiers, pop out of the airport to see the Roman ruins of Tipaza and return in time for the (not red-eye this time) flight to Ghardaia. I will only spend one day there before backtracking to Algiers and hanging around the Algiers airport through the night to fly back to London… on a red-eye flight. I think we are sensing a theme here.
No, I do not have any better photo to illustrate Algeria than this sunset shot from Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia
DECEMBER 2019: INDIA AND BANGLADESH
Come December, I hope to travel to India, the country I used to visit several times every year but haven’t set foot in since 2015. I really miss strolling along the Marine Drive in Mumbai, shopping for new salwar kameez outfits that come in so handy in conservative countries and, well, simply enjoying being in the dynamic roller-coaster that is India.
I still have to work out whether I will make it to the North-East of India or, lazily, just hang around Mumbai and Hyderabad before the next part of my winter getaway… Bangladesh! The country’s relatively easy visa policy is certainly tempting, and hopping there once I am already in India shouldn’t be a big feat. As for exact plans, I haven’t yet worked out if I will stick to Dhaka or venture out into more rural parts of Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar – featuring the world’s longest natural sea beach – and Chittagong are also possible additions to my Bangladesh itinerary. Remarkably, my father almost visited the ship-breaking yard of Chittagong a few years ago to bid farewell to the retiring ship he was on at the time. A solid reason to visit, if you ask me!
India, the country of endless photo moments. I can’t wait to be back in India… and to visit Bangladesh!
OTHER PLANS FOR 2019
Travel-wise, I also expect to pay several visits to my beloved home city of Riga – I visited there eight times in 2018 and plan to continue the trend. This year, I have decided to prioritise family, and, besides paying that long-overdue visit to see near-forgotten relatives in Russia, I will also extend my visits to Riga by a day each. My work has a flexible remote working policy, and there really isn’t a reason for me not to take advantage of my Riga flat and Latvia’s phenomenally fast Internet (as we all know, the UK’s is tragic in comparison).
Partly thanks to my promotion at work last October, I am going to see a change in some of my responsibilities in 2019. I am taking on a bunch of my bank’s existing portfolio projects in the power sector as project leader, in countries I have never worked on before, and hope to see more business-related travel as a result. I plan to start with a short trip to one of my new projects in Jordan in early February: here is hoping it will all go uphill from there. My previous role involved close to no business travel, which, albeit perfect for a regular gym schedule and language classes, left a certain void in my career. I hope that 2019 will bring a welcome change to that.
Finally, I hope for other major aspects of my life to stay on track in 2019. At least for the first half of the year, I have signed up for my usual language classes – Greek and Japanese – as well as prepaid a bunch of Farsi lessons with an Iranian teacher over Skype. I plan to remain an avid swimmer, a massive aerial yoga enthusiast and a half-hearted cyclist in London (I just really, really dislike the Tube). And, as much as this blogging business consumes a bulk of my free time, I hope to continue posting here regularly. As you know, I do not earn a penny from this blog – your words of appreciation and messages to thank me for advice are motivation enough. At least for now.
And those are my plans for 2019! What are yours?