Year in Pictures
2019 was certainly calmer than its predecessor travel-wise.
Some might say my travel schedule this year was less hectic and far less daring than the year before. I may be getting old, but I have enjoyed taking it slower. I have spent the year craving easy trips to places which I knew and where I didn’t need to worry about personal safety. This was perhaps the reason I travelled to my home city, Riga, a total of eight times, and visited the Greek islands on four separate occasions rather than forced myself to explore far beyond the well-known.
It certainly hasn’t been an uneventful year though. I explored several corners of Algeria to conclude, with relief, that not all North African countries had to end up at the bottom of my favourites’ list. I travelled along vast areas of Pakistan in a rush, ever amazed by the country’s stunningly photogenic locals – some of those portraits look so alive that I want to reach out and touch the person – and its incredible mountains. I spontaneously hopped on a flight to Corfu on my fourth – and best yet – visit to this Greek island, unique and unforgettable no matter how touristy it may seem. I ticked off my 100th country over an unexpectedly fun weekend trip to Kuwait. Above all, I had the best of times travelling to Russia on my first holiday there in over 30 years: my mother is Russian, and I found reconnecting with my family in the country a most meaningful experience.
This is not hijab: I am wearing a tagelmust, traditional Tuareg headdress, near Tamanrasset in the south of Algeria
Before curtain falls on 2019, I will have visited 13 countries, of which four will have been first timers. In case you are wondering why on earth I am (weirdly) using Future Perfect tense here, I still have one more country – new country – to travel to in 2019: Bangladesh! It is safe to say that Bangladesh isn’t on many people’s travel radar, especially for the Christmas holidays. I hope to encounter something unspoilt, something inspiring, something new. Make sure to follow me on Instagram and Twitter for more real-time updates and photos.
And… drumroll! Let’s scroll through a few illustrations to my 2019.
Winter in Pictures: Eritrea, Moldova and Latvia
1-5 January: I started the year in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, easily scoring a prime spot in a central café outdoors to watch the festive passers-by dressed to their nines. New Year’s is a lesser occasion in Eritrea compared to Christmas, and I didn’t see a single set of fireworks go off, though the rumour was that some fireworks had been spotted in another part of Asmara. From the capital, Alan and I continued to sights near the border with Ethiopia, including the quaint settlement of Adi Quala and its round Coptic Church of Madonna, the sleepy border town of Senafe and the ancient city of Qohaito against the striking mountain setting. I may have gained a few pounds from that nutritious Eritrean food, but it was the wonderful Asmara Beer that I was most sorry to leave behind.
~Asmara, Adi Quala, Qohaito, Adi Keyh, Senafe / ERITREA
This sweet girl in Foro village not far from Massawa was so mesmerised by the camera that she didn’t notice the flies landing on her face
Staring down from Mount Metara in Senafe near the border with Ethiopia
And – what else – the most recognisable symbol of Asmara, the Fiat Tagliero petrol station
Throughout 2019: My home city of Riga is just pure joy to visit. I usually find myself in Riga every few weeks, and 2019 was not an exception: like the year before, I visited Riga a total of eight times. One major improvement to my 2019 was the enhanced flexibility to work from home: I based myself in my lovely bright flat in Riga every Monday following my weekend there all year, which left plenty more time for family and, importantly, cheaper dentists. Besides Riga, I also paid a visit to my wonderful aunt Vera in another part of Latvia, the port of Ventspils. My entire family joined in, and it was a blast – from cooking plov on an open fire to morning dips in the nearby Venta river, from long, increasingly slurred talks over vodka to steamy sauna sessions, it made me feel incredibly grateful to have such a crazy, no-nonsense family. I shall be making these visits a yearly tradition!
~Riga, Ventspils / LATVIA
Flying over the Daugava river towards the Riga TV and Radio Tower, the tallest tower in the EU
No tall buildings here: this is a small ‘dacha’ settlement by the Venta river where my great-aunt Vera owns a summerhouse
Top of the Victory Memorial to Soviet Army, a controversial monument in Riga the authorities are always threatening to tear down
16-17 February: It was such fun to visit Moldova, my last remaining European country, back in 2017, that I found myself on the plane back to Chisinau soon into 2019. I came much better prepared this time, having planned a tour of the Cricova wine cellars and noted down a serious number of new restaurants to try out. I also succeeded in navigating my way around Chisinau enough to locate the right bus terminal to board a worn-out marshrutka to Comrat, the main urban centre of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia. It wasn’t as surreal as my past visit to Transnistria – I did not cross any borders, for a start – but it was fun nonetheless. I took plenty of photos of the mandatory Lenin statue and wandered aimlessly around Comrat’s main streets looking for the other (few) remaining Soviet artefacts. Spoiler alert: I will be visiting Moldova again in 2020. It is that good!
~Chisinau, Comrat / MOLDOVA
The wonderfully brutalist-looking Cosmos Hotel in Chisinau… and a guy on a horse
Church of Sankt Ioan Botezator in Comrat after the grey clouds finally cleared up
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War in Comrat
Spring in Pictures: Kuwait, Pakistan, Iraq and Greece
16-17 March: I was admittedly acting against my best judgement when I booked a not-inexpensive flight to Kuwait to stay only 36 hours… but questionable achievements came first. Kuwait became the 100th country I had ever visited (I count 197 world countries in total), and I cannot say that I felt in any way rushed in Kuwait despite my very short time there. My absolute highlight was running into a professional photoshoot of Kuwaitis in national dress on horseback, in which regular members of the public – myself including – were invited to partake; what phenomenal luck! I also greatly enjoyed meeting local Kuwaitis whom I knew through common friends or social media. Kuwait is without doubt my favourite Gulf country at the moment.
~Kuwait City, Salmiya / KUWAIT
The photogenic Salah Al-Amir, a Kuwaiti man well known for starring in similar patriotic photoshoots
Just how incredibly lucky was I to run into those striking gentlemen? Stunning!
Dipping feet in the Persian Gulf with a view of the Kuwait Towers
13-27 April: A very different adventure was on the cards when Alan and I travelled to Pakistan for our first major holiday of the year. Having committed to a killer itinerary crossing the country overland over two weeks, I was soon wishing I had devised something less strenuous. Landing in the southern city of Karachi, we continued by car to Hyderabad and Larkana, hitting several of Pakistan’s UNESCO sites along the way, before catching an overnight train to Lahore in the north. Barely having any time to look around the city and admire the Wagah border closing ceremony, we rushed to Islamabad and on to the jewel in Pakistan’s crown, the mountainous north. The landscapes accompanying our road trip to Gilgit and Hunza took my breath away, making me wish I had dedicated my time in Pakistan to that region alone. Looping back to Islamabad through Swat Valley and Peshawar, we flew out to Dubai to rest, marvelling at the beautiful new country we had left behind but exhausted by the insane rhythm of our journey.
~Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana, Lahore, Islamabad, Gilgit, Hunza, Swat, Peshawar / PAKISTAN
The best-looking Pakistani I will ever meet, the unforgettable Latif of Frontier Constabulary in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
Silly headwear, exaggerated gestures – it has to be the Wagah Border Closing Ceremony
Getting blessed by a Sufi at Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta, Sindh
4-6 May: Not giving settling back into our daily routine a chance, Alan and I made a short visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. I was thrilled to be reunited with Sardar, my guide and friend from the first visit, as well as finally to see Lalish – a sacred Yazidi site – properly in daylight. Erbil looked even more like a European city than two years before; we loved wandering through its souk and hanging out in the Christian neighbourhood of Ankawa in the evenings. We were also fortunate enough to spend a few hours in the part-destroyed city of Mosul outside the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, which, we were pleased to observe, had begun its gradual return to normality.
~Erbil, Lalish, Rawanduz, Mosul / IRAQ
A traditionally dressed Yazidi man makes a very modern phone call in Lalish
Striking landscapes in Rawanduz
And destruction in Mosul, with a mosque and a church side by side
24-27 May: A few weeks later, I was desperate for a more ‘normal’ kind of a break and flew to Greece. This was my second trip to the Cycladic island of Milos, though the first trip when I could drive and no longer had to rely on buses or hitched rides to get around. I hired a scooter and cruised the island to distraction with my recent purchase, a Mavic 2 Pro drone that I nicknamed Astrapi (Greek for ‘lightning’). Gorgeous Milos with its striking hilltop main village of Chora became a perfect starting ground for my first attempts as a drone pilot. I would go as far as stating that Milos is now my favourite Greek island thanks to those superb aerial views!
~Milos / GREECE
Gorgeous Chora of Milos not long before sunset
Sarakiniko beach is among the best-known in the Greek islands: those amazing shapes in the volcanic rock have earned the beach comparisons with the moonscape
Milos’ main port of Adamas was founded by refugees from Crete after a failed rebellion against the Turks, in 1835
Summer in Pictures: More Greece, Finland and Russia
22-30 June: Come late June, and I was on my longer pilgrimage to the Greek islands – this time to the Dodecanese archipelago. Passing briefly through my much-adored pretty port of Pythagoreion on Samos, Alan and I headed to two new islands for both of us, Leipsoi and Arkioi. Both were all about our usual holiday activities while in Greece, mainly consisting of hiking to places where cars wouldn’t pass, eating a tonne of fried kalamari and swimming galore. Arkioi was particularly interesting as, with fewer than 50 inhabitants, it became the least populated Greek island I have ever visited. Most visitors to Arkioi arrive as day trippers from larger nearby islands, but Alan and I loved staying for entire three days while getting to know many of the locals.
~Samos, Leipsoi, Arkioi / GREECE
Turquoise blue Aegean near Platis Gialos, Leipsoi’s best-known beach
The sprawling main village and port of Leipsoi at sunset
Flying over Tiganakia, the star attraction of the small Arkioi island
10-11 August: July was relatively uneventful (what did I even get up to?), and I looked forward to my annual trip to Helsinki in August. This is the city where I studied for my master’s degree over a decade ago, and I have returned most years since. There is always something to do in my beloved Helsinki: I enjoyed seeing old friends during my once-yearly church attendance and spent a small fortune on Marimekko fabrics that I plan to turn into striking dresses. The rest of my time in Helsinki passed quickly over overpriced beers, which I was able to afford by eating only once a day: at Hesburger, no less.
~ Helsinki / FINLAND
The Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral sits on the Katajanokka peninsula, on a small hill overlooking the city
Flying over Suomenlinna, an archipelago and fortress a short ferry ride away from central Helsinki
Overlooking the Hakaniemi neighbourhood just north of central Helsinki
24 August – 8 September: My biggest adventure of the year finally arrived at the end of August, when I boarded a flight to Moscow. The main reason for my two-week visit to Russia was to reconnect with family on my mother’s side: I spent three days in her home village of Urshel listening to locals’ stories and paging through musty photo albums as the vodka glass in front of me magically kept refilling itself. I then flew to Irkutsk and continued overland to the Olkhon island on Lake Baikal. I spent a few blissful days there, exploring during the day and listening to the wind near the Shamanka Rock as the sun began to fall every night: it was hands down the highlight of my entire stay in Russia. Backtracking to Irkutsk, I caught two Trans-Siberian rides to Ulan-Ude and on to Chita where I had a chance to contrast the glitzy, uber-developed Moscow with Russia’s visibly more unkempt periphery.
~Moscow, Vladimir, Urshel, Irkutsk, Olkhon and Lake Baikal, Ulan-Ude, Chita / RUSSIA
Buryat dancers rehearse for the city festival in Ulan-Ude
Postcard Russia: Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir, Russia’s old capital
Timeless Baikal at sunset
Autumn in Pictures: Ever more Greece and Algeria
19-22 September: Every year I end up craving more and more time in my cultural haven, Greece, and, with some leave still unplanned, I headed back to the Sporadic island of Skyros. Alan and I had already visited Skyros a year before, staying only a couple of days so I could clock off my 50th Greek island. Skyros differs from other Greek islands or comparable size as it houses a large Hellenic Air Force base, the scale of which is impressive even with not one military jet in sight.
~Skyros / GREECE
Skyros’ main village perched dramatically against a rock
…and the same, at spectacular sunset
Fishing boats in the village of Molos
5-13 October: Inspired by concreteandkitsch’s visit to Algeria earlier this year, I almost booked the tickets immediately. Originally planning to limit my visit to Algeria to a long weekend and save a longer holiday for my third visit to Afghanistan, I changed my mind when I realised just how large Algeria was, cancelling Afghanistan with a heavy heart – but Algeria more than made up for it. Unlike in the other North African countries, I did not experience any street harassment and found Algerians very different from locals elsewhere in the region. Besides the pretty capital of Algiers, Alan and I visited the Roman ruins of Tipaza, the striking city of Constantine and several walled villages in the M’zab valley, as well as spending quality time in the southern city of Tamanrasset and its mountainous desert surroundings. Highly recommended!
~Algiers, Tipaza, M’zab valley, Tamanrasset, Constantine / ALGERIA
A Tuareg man sports his tagelmust near Tamanrasset – many would not go without this headdress in public
Some insanely beautiful sunrise as viewed from the Assekrem plateau in the Hoggar mountains
This walled city (‘ksar’) of Bounoura is part of the M’zab valley pentapolis and currently closed to visitors
26-27 October: Finding myself on a new level of low towards the end of October, I for once decided to be spontaneous in my travels and flew out to Corfu at barely a few hours’ notice. It turned out to be among my best travel decisions all year: the weather on Corfu was unprecedentedly warm, in stark contrast to increasingly gloomy London. It was my fourth time on Corfu – the island is the easiest one in Greece to visit on a weekend trip from London – but, like on Milos, this time I could drive and had a drone. Astrapoula followed me around to my old favourites in Corfu such as the seaside village of Kassiopi and the traditional village of Lakones rising above the spectacular Paleokastritsa. I also discovered new parts of Corfu and can particularly recommend the Chalikounas beach, a narrow band of sand between the Ioanian Sea and Lake Korrision.
~Kerkyra (Corfu) / GREECE
Nicely arranged fishing boats in the village of Ipsos
My new discovery on Corfu, the Chalikounas beach, with Lake Korrision to the left and Ionian Sea to the right: a double beach!
Flying towards the gorgeous (if overdeveloped) Paleokastritsa from the Lakones village
Stay tuned for my annual newsletter for 2019 in a couple of days – as well as for my adventures in the new year, where I have tentatively planned another trip to Russia, a solo trip to Azerbaijan, weekends in Tirana and Saudi Arabia, as well as partaking in the Victory Day celebrations in Transnistria.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR!