I can hardly believe that 2019 is coming to an end.
It has certainly been rather a stressful year at work. The first full year in my new position since my promotion had my workload grow suddenly and continuously, and, while it did not necessarily mean much longer hours, it meant having to stay on top of multiple, diverse matters without much junior help and learning to be significantly more efficient. This ended up draining me, leaving less time and energy for the extracurricular activities I so love, like this blog, language classes and travel. I ended up skipping the language classes altogether in the autumn term and was heart-broken not to return to my well-established groups of Greek- and Japanese-cramming enthusiasts for the first time in years. This respite did, however, give me some breathing space towards the very hectic end of the year at work.
In light of this, it isn’t surprising that I haven’t been travelling at quite the same pace as in the preceding few years. At the close of 2019, I will have spent 106 days outside London, which is some 2-3 weeks less than the yearly average of my recent past. And it is fair to say that I have not been as adventurous in my exploits: exhausted by constant work pressure, I have, on many occasions, found myself craving the well-known and dreading the unfamiliar. I travelled to my home city of Riga eight times in 2019 – admittedly, the same as in 2018 – and visited the Greek islands a whopping four times. Of the six Greek islands that I visited, four were repeat visits, and those who know me well will understand the tragedy (or a personal triumph, depending on how you look at things) of this.
But it wasn’t all about the well-trodden paths: here I am exploring somewhere new in Iraqi Kurdistan on my second visit
I haven’t exactly been idle in my travels this year though. I spent two weeks in Pakistan, marvelling at this photogenic and vibrant country but, unable to shake off my mental exhaustion, not ending up enjoying Pakistan as much as I had hoped. I was thrilled to revisit my much-loved Iraqi Kurdistan, and incredibly lucky to venture just beyond the Kurdish-controlled areas to see at first-hand the devastation wrought on Mosul. I had a blast exploring Algeria, finally feeling like I was on a real holiday, the country that quickly earned the title of my favourite in North Africa. And I was glad to have ventured into Kuwait for merely 36 hours for the questionable honour to clock off my 100th country.
Above all, I had a truly meaningful experience reuniting with the Russian side of my family for the first time in over 30 years, travelling to my mother’s birthplace of Urshel, a sleepy hamlet in very rural Russia. Life there is still sustained entirely by a massive glass factory, albeit with activities notably scaled down in the last couple of decades. I was touched to listen to my remaining relatives’ simple stories, particularly that of my great-aunt Lida who, having effectively been evicted from her own home by her granddaughter, has nowhere to go and lives in a mental asylum where she helps the nurses with their patients.
But why am I going into detail already? Read on for a more nuanced recap of my news in 2019!
Of all places, Alan and I welcomed 2019 in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Christmas is celebrated on a far larger scale in Eritrea than New Year’s, and not a single set of fireworks was noticeable as we sat at Bar Impero on the central Harnet Avenue, having easily scored a prized seat outdoors. Dressed to their nines for this festive promenade, locals giggled as they walked by, somehow entertained by the sight of two foreigners nonchalantly sipping Asmara beers as Christmas music incongruously played in the background. Let’s just say that it was an unusual way to enter the New Year.
During the four days of our stay in Eritrea that fell in 2019, we visited the areas of interest adjacent to the Ethiopian border. I was most impressed by our hike to the top of Mount Metara, during which I had to challenge myself to carry on: I suffer from rather serious vertigo and I am most proud that I not only didn’t give up, but went on to climb the rusty cross at the top. It might have been a questionable decision, but the views more than made up for it.
I barely had the time to settle into my everyday life back in London when I received my first share of additional projects at work to look after, more than doubling my responsibilities. On the bright side, this meant a quick business trip to Jordan, a very welcome development that allowed me to collect the exact number of Avios necessary to reach Gold with British Airways. I am slightly embarrassed by how excited this made me feel, but it was my first ‘elite’ status with any airline – for what it’s worth.
My last major escapade of the past winter was to Moldova: I had such a stellar time there some months before that I went back for more. And it was even better than the first time: I visited the Cricova wine cellars, took 38 thousand steps in a single day chasing Chisinau’s many brutalist structures and even found the time to travel to the autonomous region of Gagauzia. Despite its rather sleepy feel, Gagauzia’s main town Comrat endeared me with its Soviet-era monuments, including a mandatory one of Lenin.
I started spring anticipating Brexit on 29 March and went full-on into packing mode. Don’t worry: I haven’t left London, but, planning to do so in the future and fearing increased scrutiny of my many souvenirs and plants at the hard border, I hurried to ship many of those to my flat in Riga ahead of Brexit. I packed and sent 20 boxes across and am pleased to confirm that they had successfully made it on time. Of course, one cannot say the same about Brexit… yet.
My first major trip in March saw me hop on a 6-hour flight to Kuwait, for reason no other than crossing off my 100th country. Believe it or not, for me Kuwait was indeed the nearest yet unvisited country connected to London by a direct flight where I did not need a pre-issued visa. And it turned out great fun: I was incredibly fortunate to be showed around by a very charismatic gay Kuwaiti, which gained me access into local homes for my first glimpse of how liberal Gulf locals live. My bout of luck continued as I walked right into a patriotic photoshoot involving Kuwaitis in national dress on horseback posing for professional photographers. A few of us passers-by were encouraged to join in, leaving me simply screaming in excitement. Thank you, Kuwait, for putting up this special show for me!
My favourite time of year to travel – Easter – arrived, and Alan and I flew to Pakistan where I had planned an ambitious itinerary through nearly the entire country over two weeks. Travelling from Karachi to Hyderabad and Larkana in the south, we jumped on an overnight train to Lahore and continued by car to Gilgit-Baltistan and on to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa before looping back to Islamabad for our flight out. It was admittedly rushed: we only stayed in the same place for more than one night twice and spent long hours in a moving car every single day. Pakistan amazed me with its vibrancy and the overwhelming kindness of many people we met, but it wasn’t without its downsides. I have written about the filthy hotels, the overwhelming stares wherever we went, the never-ending selfie requests and even a groping incident in my post for this trip.
READ MORE: PAKISTAN: NOT A GREAT FIRST DATE
Hilariously, I was later interviewed about my trip on national television, after a friend of mine connected me with a reporter for Pakistan’s ARY News in London. Even more hilariously, all my suggestions for improvements to Pakistan’s tourism were cut out, leaving the story to focus on the good looks of a Pakistani officer I met on my way, a comment I made in passing during the interview. I know – I, a happily married woman, appeared on Pakistani television with a story about how I was struggling to get over a hot local in a uniform. You couldn’t make this up: see the interview for yourselves here.
You all know what he looks like by now, but any excuse will do: here is Latif again, looking a million dollars
We barely had the time to recover from this insane junket (a short stopover in Dubai on the way back helped), and it was time to make our way to my much-loved Iraqi Kurdistan. I was thrilled to be reunited with Sardar, the local guide from my first trip that really became a friend, and to show Alan around one of my favourite parts of the world. We were left amazed by the sacred Yazidi site of Lalish, the mountainous area of Rawanduz and the buzz of Erbil – but it was our trip to Mosul that truly stood out. Not in possession of Iraqi visas, we were nevertheless lucky to pass all the checkpoints uneventfully and cross into the Iraqi territory outside Kurdish control. We found old Mosul still heavily ruined, but rebuilding itself slowly as businesses were being set up and rubble cleared away. The pre-Ramadan atmosphere in the city even felt somewhat festive, strangely so amid the many carcasses of empty, crumbling structures lining the dusty streets – the silent remnants of a very brutal fight to free the city from IS vermin.
We climbed a half-destroyed mosque in Mosul and even ventured to the top of this very minaret for the panoramic view
Reaching the end of spring and ready for a much easier getaway, I made my first trip of the year to the Greek islands. I chose Milos in the Cyclades archipelago, an island I had already visited a few years ago and loved. This time I could drive and zoomed around the island on a scooter for four very fun days. I also had an important family addition – a Mavic 2 Pro drone that I named ‘Astrapi’ (Greek for ‘lightning’), or ‘Astrapoula’ in diminutive – that I had brought for a good fly-around. Milos proved to be incredibly scenic from above, and I could even proclaim that I am close to start calling it my favourite Greek island.
Compared to such an action-packed spring, my summer was decidedly slower-paced. In early June, Alan and I had a fantastic reunion with my entire Latvia-based family (fewer than 10 people for anyone imagining a crowd) at my great-aunt Vera’s dacha near Ventspils in Latvia’s west. We took turns in the sauna, cooked plov on the open fire and downed many a shot of vodka as the conversation flowed. I also enjoyed fighting with the current during dips in the nearby Venta river. It was most relaxing to spend a couple of days in the calm of the Latvian countryside.
At the end of June, we set off on our annual week-long holiday in Greece. Flying back into Samos for an excuse to revisit a picture-perfect seaside village of Pythagoreion, we hopped on a catamaran to the island of Leipsoi in the Dodecanese archipelago. This small and remote island was made famous in 2002 for the dramatic arrest of Alexandros Yotopoulos, the ringleader of the Greek terrorist group November 17, in a police helicopter commando raid. These days the island stands peacefully and the pink villa, Yotopoulos’ former hideout, has been repainted white. We enjoyed driving the blissfully short distances on Leipsoi, swimming in perfectly turquoise waters, flying Astrapoula galore and hiking to less accessible beaches and a hillside monastery.
My newest happy place, the balcony with the best view over the mind-blowingly pretty Pythagoreion in Samos
From Leipsoi we continued to an even smaller nearby island of Arkioi. Most visitors to the island come as day-trippers on sea excursions from neighbouring islands: they may stop for lunch or a swim off Tiganakia, Arkioi’s best-known beach, but never linger. In contrast, Alan and I were happy to stay for three entire days, during which we probably got to know all the local population. We hiked on what can best be described as goat paths to the Italian stronghold predating World War II, swam off one of the island’s three beaches and spent long hours talking to locals. Because of the day trippers, it isn’t a surprise that there are three tavernas and one café, seemingly an overkill for such a small island: we particularly liked the company of Manolis, aka ‘Tripas’ from a namesake taverna which he runs with his equally life-loving wife Katerina.
Summer rushed on as I was drowning in work. I managed to sneak away to Helsinki for a weekend in August, on my annual visit to the city where I once studied, spending a small fortune on Marimekko fabrics – nothing new there – and reuniting with my church friends on my visit to my old community at St. Nicholas. I may never tire of those incredibly expensive but fun weekends in Helsinki.
At the end of August I embarked on my big solo adventure of the year. For some time I had been wanting to revisit Russia properly, as, despite travelling there on a series of business trips in my previous ‘life’ (at UBS), I had not had a holiday in Russia for over 30 years. My mother and great-aunt Vera joined me on a visit to Urshel, their home village in the Vladimir Oblast where my mother lived until the age of nine. Time in the village has stood still: the large glass factory still hummed in the background as we paid visits to the few of our remaining relatives. The most tearful reunion by far was with my great-aunt Lida, Vera’s sister – once a heavy alcoholic, she was tricked into gifting her flat in central Vladimir to her granddaughter, who proceeded to move Lida to a mental asylum, ‘for a couple of days only’. Six years later, Lida is desperate to leave her unwanted residence; she is free to do so but has nowhere to go. I was heart-broken to hear her simple but tragic story.
Leaving family behind, I flew to Irkutsk and continued to Lake Baikal – my long-standing dream destination. Baikal turned out far, far more impressive than the grandest of my expectations: I spent several days on Olkhon Island, the lake’s largest, exploring during the day and winding down in time for sunset. I then hopped on my first ever Trans-Siberian ride, to Ulan-Ude – the cultural centre of Russia’s Buddhist community and the capital of the Buryatia region. Once again luck smiled at me: I was ecstatic to walk into the wonderfully quirky rehearsals for Ulan-Ude’s anniversary celebrations that featured a policewoman pushing a Christmas tree strangely symbolising spring (?!), an army-like manager pouring out instructions in a shrill voice and a massive head sculpture of Lenin – the world’s largest, apparently – silently presiding over it all.
READ MORE: TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE: GOING BACK TO MY ROOTS
In mid-September, Alan and I were back in Greece for a short visit to Skyros – an island in the Sporades archipelago that we had already visited the previous year. The summer ended the day we arrived, erupting in a massive storm and wrapping us back into our thermals. Luckily, summer was restored after this short disruption in service. Skyros does not enjoy the overwhelming popularity of the nearby Skiathos or even Skopelos and felt blissfully empty outside the summer season.
In October, once again in the company of my beloved husband, I was back on the African continent. Algeria went on to become my favourite discovery of 2019. I hadn’t expected to like the country much before I arrived – I had thus far failed to fall in love with a single North African country, having visited all except Algeria – but I was wrong. Algeria was fantastic, offering none of the touting or the intensity or the harassment of its neighbours and, thanks to its sheer size, drowning in attractions. We loved the vibrant capital of Algiers, the seafood in the seaside village of Tipaza (the nearby Roman ruins, however, as always left me indifferent), watching the sunset in the Hoggar mountains near the southern city of Tamanrasset and the city of Constantine dramatically built on a plateau surrounded by a deep ravine. We also got a chance to visit three of five walled cities (ksar) of the M’zab valley pentapolis, although the seeming seclusion of local Mozabite women left me deeply shaken. I couldn’t recommend Algeria more.
Before going into my self-imposed travel detox until Christmas, I finally got spontaneous and booked a weekend trip to Corfu at only a few hours’ notice. Corfu is incredibly easy to visit from London even in late October, for that last breath of Greek air, and it was my fourth visit there. Like on Milos, I rented a scooter and spent 36 blissful hours cruising Corfu and seeking out the best spots to fly Astrapoula. Spoiler alert: I found many.
A few increasingly stressful weeks at work later, it is finally the time to wrap up and wish you all a very happy festive season. Alan and I will be spending it in Bangladesh – a new country for both of us where we (perhaps naively) hope to find as few other tourists as possible. I very much look forward to reconnecting with many of you in 2020. Thank you for your readership!
Stay tuned also for next year when I have already pencilled in a trip to Ghana – my first country in Western Africa – as well as a weekend in Saudi Arabia, Victory Day celebrations in Transnistria and what is promising to be a fun solo visit to Azerbaijan.