I finally have more or less solid travel plans for 2020.
It was the first time in ages that I entered a new year with only a vague idea of where it would take me. In the past, there were years when I knew exactly where I would be travelling up to the following winter holidays – a bit extreme, I know – but, on the first day of this new decade, I only had a couple of return flights to Riga in my calendar. An insane amount of work and stress in the run-up to yearend were most certainly to blame. I was so drained I hardly had any wanderlust left.
But the two-week holiday in Bangladesh over Christmas helped me crawl back into sanity and slowly get back into planning mode. My travel plans for 2020 are reasonably final now: 2020 will take me to three continents and 15 countries, of which at least five will be first-timers. I look forward to returning to the Caucasus region and exploring Azerbaijan at a leisurely pace, admiring Baku’s modern architecture and sampling its celebrated cuisine. I cannot wait to head to Ghana – my first country in Western Africa – where I will be hitting fabrics markets and tailor stalls in the hope of taking some striking new creations back to London. I will be taking my husband on his first trip to Russia where our big ambition is to witness Kamchatka in all its autumnal glory. And I look forward to celebrating the 75th anniversary of Victory Day in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova known for taking all Soviet-era festivities extremely seriously, with pomp to match.
Why am I revealing it all already though? Read on for more details!
Bright smiles from the Sreemangal tea region of Bangladesh: I cannot wait to tell you more about that fabulous recent trip
FEBRUARY 2020: ALBANIA
Within days, Alan and I will jump on a flight to Tirana for a quick but eventful weekend in Albania, the country where I have only been once before. I have only vague memories of Tirana having spent the majority of my short time there in a meeting room (it was a business trip), and never ventured anywhere else in Albania.
It is time to change that: besides exploring some of Tirana, Alan and I will be renting a car and embarking on a short road trip. My original idea was to head to the country’s increasingly celebrated Mediterranean coast, but it is one of Albania’s lakes that won: we will be heading to Pogradec on the shores of Ohrid for a peaceful afternoon. I hope the weather cooperates enough to allow Astrapoula (my drone) an amazing over-water flight or two.
MARCH 2020: SAUDI ARABIA
I surprised myself when I finally booked a trip to Saudi Arabia. I feel passionately about women’s rights and equality – where the country’s record is nothing short of abysmal – and have bad memories of Saudi men catcalling me all over central Bahrain. I have mentioned in the past that Saudi was near the bottom of my travel wish list, and paying through my nose for an expensive faux-business trip – the only sure way of visiting Saudi until recently – was most certainly off the cards.
But… famous last words, eh? Saudi notably relaxed its notoriously stringent visa policy last September, allowing foreigners from selected countries to obtain e-visas through a pain-free online application. Curiosity won: my e-visa was approved in exactly 10 minutes, and I will be landing in Jeddah one Saturday morning this March. Jeddah is known to be the most diverse and modern city in the kingdom, something I plan to put to the test by going hijab- and abaya-free. Another of Saudi’s recent measures to boost tourism was to replace the mandatory abaya with a looser requirement of ‘modest’ clothing for foreign women. Despite this, recent female visitors to Saudi reported widespread harassment when they ventured out in anything but an abaya. Salwar kameez to my rescue.
No photos of Saudi Arabia yet (obviously), but here is one of my ‘happy place’ in Dubai in the nearby UAE
APRIL 2020: GHANA
This Easter, I will be heading somewhere I have never set foot before: Western Africa. Not speaking French, I have never found myself particularly drawn to this mostly francophone region, but there are notable English-speaking exceptions among them – specifically, Ghana. I am still working on my 10-day itinerary in Ghana and deciding which parts of the country to focus on during my very limited time there. I will likely be tempted to spend a few days exploring the fishing villages and beaches around Cape Coast and Busua. I would also love to visit the Ashanti crafts villages to fill even more of my shelves with wonderful Ghanaian woodcarvings and textiles.
Speaking of textiles, the main reason I am attracted to Ghana actually has nothing to do with travel. For the past year or so, I have developed a keen interest in fabrics, and West African countries are indeed celebrated for their colourful designs. I have never learned to sew myself, but I have experimented with bringing fabrics into countries known for tailoring and having local tailors copy my favourite dresses. So far, I have had dresses made in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Western Africa is really a logical next destination. I have numerous Marimekko fabrics I would like to put to good use, and of course I also plan a mad shopping spree at Accra’s fabrics markets to add to my collection.
Not Ghana, but I am wearing a dress made from a wax print fabric sourced in Africa – an example of what I will be looking for at Accra’s markets
MAY 2020: MOLDOVA AND TRANSNISTRIA
I love Chisinau. While it may seem dull and grim compared to other European capitals, I was not once bored on either of my previous two visits. I love that Chisinau sits in the centre of Moldova, making day trips to other parts of the country extremely easy. I have so far been to Tiraspol and Bendery (both in the breakaway entity of Transnistria), the picturesque hilltop monastery of Old Orhei and Comrat, the administrative centre of the autonomous region of Gagauzia.
This time though, I have planned something truly special. Not only will I be returning to Transnistria, but also, remembering the region’s deep pro-Russian sympathies, I will be timing my visit with the 75th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War’s Victory Day. I expect the usual over-the-top festivities of the Soviet era to include a military parade, red flags and tanks. Come 9 May, you will probably be able to spot me in the front lines of a cheering crowd in Tiraspol, armed with my camera and the best of my lenses – and, hopefully, delivering plenty of killer shots.
MAY 2020: AZERBAIJAN
I planned a visit to Azerbaijan once before in 2018, but ended up rushing back to Afghanistan, the country I had fallen in love with months before. Not having visited the Caucasus for several years, I am excited to be heading back to the region and dedicating my entire time back to Azerbaijan. Many of you are surprised how I can be planning an extended visit to the country when I have not yet set foot in the neighbouring Armenia, but worry not: I certainly will not be giving Armenia a miss.
In short, it will be great returning to the former Soviet Union and putting my Russian skills to good use. I look forward to photographing what will feel like all of the capital city of Baku – its old, modern and glamorous sides – before travelling to the mountain village of Khinaliq and the Silk Road city of Sheki. And, like last time, I do not plan to leave without visiting the landlocked exclave of Nakhchivan bordering Iran, Turkey and Armenia but not the main territory of Azerbaijan – exactly the kind of remote place I know I will love.
SUMMER 2020: GREEK ISLANDS
Selecting new Greek islands to visit is becoming harder every year, as I have already been to over 50. Luckily, Greece has over 200 inhabited islands, and I am nowhere near running out of choice. This year I plan to finish visiting the inhabited islands of the so-called Small Cyclades subgroup of the Cyclades archipelago. Flying into Astypaleia – where I have only spent two days in the past – I hope to explore some more of the island before catching a ferry to Irakleia and Schoinoussa. I loved my short spell on the other two inhabited Small Cyclades – Ano Koufonissi and Donoussa – a decade ago and Cyclades generally is my favourite archipelago in Greece. My itinerary will consist of walking around aplenty (luckily, each of the Small Cyclades is easily walkable in a day if you love walking) as well as getting to know the locals, to the surprise of absolutely nobody.
I have also booked my second visit to the island of Naxos shortly after Orthodox Easter. It is the largest island in the Cyclades archipelago (and 10th in Greece overall), and I barely scratched the surface on my first visit. Armed with my driving licence and a very talented drone – both of great use on an island celebrated for its beauty – I plan to see much more of Naxos this time.
A seagull takes off on the Small Cycladic island of Donoussa – about as eventful as it gets on a typical day outside the high season
SUMMER 2020: CROSS-CONTINENTAL SWIMMING IN TURKEY
Turkey has never ranked high on my travel radar, but I have found a fantastic reason to visit not once but twice this year: open-water swimming races! I have registered for two such events – the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim and the Hellespont / Dardanelles Swim – both of which involve swimming between Asia and Europe over an effective distance of 3-4 km. I will quite literally be travelling from one continent to another on water, using nothing but the strength of my own body.
Wait… what? Did I just casually drop that I will be entering open seas and paddling to the other side – to another continent, no less?
Worry not: while I have no experience of open-water swimming races, this certainly will not be my first long-haul swimming experience. I may have never mentioned it in this blog, but I have been a passionate swimmer for almost two decades and swim nearly every day. So important is swimming in my life that, while a penniless student in Finland that collected plastic bottles after school for extra income, never did I even consider cutting my swimming budget (EUR 18 per month in case anyone is wondering). And swimming alongside some two thousand fellow enthusiasts in two utterly iconic – and challenging – crossings is something I am absolutely ecstatic about.
SEPTEMBER 2020: RUSSIA
I had a fantastic time exploring Russia last year. So good was my trip that, come September, I will be directing my steps back to the country of my ancestors, this time bringing Alan along on his very first visit to Russia. Moscow amazed me with its glitz last time, and I hope to spend much more than just a couple of days running around its main sights and tasting local beer in popular drinking spots. I might also head back to Urshel, my mother’s home village, to shock Alan with its incredibly primitive living conditions and the sheer amount of vodka consumed on an average day.
My big ambition for Russia though is to head to the Far East. To save time, I will not be taking the Trans-Siberian Railway but flying straight into Vladivostok – a city I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Tamara, yet another of my maternal great-aunts whom I have never met, lives in Ussurijsk near-ish to Vladivostok, and I would love to meet that side of my family. That done, I hope to take Alan even further east, to the Kamchatka peninsula. Spending any time in Kamchatka seems to carry a massive price tag as the best way to see its stunning nature invariably involves a helicopter. I do not have any firm plans yet, but my primary objective for the year is to do as much as possible of independent, low-budget travel precisely to be able to afford to see Kamchatka properly.
NOVEMBER 2020: NEPAL
With seven days of leave still to take after accounting for everything else, I will most likely head to Nepal in early November. It is a relatively easy country to visit with a liberal visa policy, and frankly, a no-brainer compared to some of my more challenging recent destinations. Nepal is also my second last South Asian country to visit before the straightforward Maldives.
It may be hard to believe, but I am scared of flying and turbulence, and will be avoiding flying into Lukla, a gateway airport for Everest trekkers that is widely dubbed as the world’s most dangerous. That pretty much leaves me with southern and central Nepal: I hope to explore the bustling capital city of Kathmandu before continuing to Chitwan National Park and Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. If I have time, I will incorporate a few days of trekking around Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, in view of some spectacular snow-covered mountain peaks.
Typical mountain scenery in the nearby kingdom of Bhutan: I am keen to compare the two Himalayan countries
DECEMBER 2020: URUGUAY AND FALKLAND ISLANDS
Finally, at Alan’s special request for our next winter holidays, we will be returning to the Falkland Islands. This is the place where we got married in 2016 that still holds a very special place in our hearts. We have been discussing heading back for our fifth wedding anniversary since our first day as a married couple, and I am glad that this looks to be working out – despite hardly being able to believe how quickly the time has flown by!
A few changes have occurred in the Falklands in the past few years. Most importantly, a second air bridge to the South American continent has been introduced, and, in addition to the relatively out-of-the-way Punta Arenas in Chile’s south, there is now a weekly flight to the megalopolis of Sao Paolo with hundreds of flight connections all over the world. This makes life for the islanders and travel planning for tourists significantly easier. Our plan is to visit at least three of the Falklands’ outlying islands renown for wildlife watching and epic landscapes. So far, I have pencilled in Carcass Island, West Point Island, Sea Lion Island and Bleaker Island: do give me a shout if you have a good recommendation! We also plan brief spells in Chile and Uruguay on the way to and from the Falklands.
OTHER PLANS FOR 2020
Looking at my non-travel plans for last year, I am entertained by how many of them did not quite go as expected. I started 2019 in a more senior role hoping to do more business-related travel, but this died after one short trip to Jordan; convincing my management to part with me for even a couple of days proved an insurmountable task. While I remain a staunch supporter of the many good things my organisation does to improve lives, I cannot help rolling my eyes at every newly created bureaucratic hoop I have to jump through to do the same job that used to be perfectly doable without it. I have become increasingly sceptical about my job and would love to find a new role in my organisation, one that better fits my character and helps break this scepticism for an employer I really do like, in 2020.
This time last year, I was planning to progress my languages through evening courses, but instead suffered burnout within months and put the majority of them on hold. Being physically tired and mentally numb, I resented having to cycle somewhere other than home after work and sitting through group classes late into the evening. I only left Farsi lessons in the mix because they were via Skype, making it significantly easier for me to cope with mentally. Remote learning from the comfort of my home or elsewhere is how I would like to experience all my language studies in 2020, at least until my mind heals.
But enough of this gloom – I am also entering the new decade full of hope and new goals! I am ecstatic about my two swimming challenges in Turkey this summer and have already started working on my technique and speed, aiming to complete the Bosphorus Swim in under 70 minutes. Wish me luck! Every second I spend swimming, I imagine doing so under Istanbul’s Bosphorus bridges, surrounded by fellow racers: to say I feel inspired would certainly be a euphemism. I also really look forward to returning to Russia where I had an incredible time last year, and showing Alan this side of my heritage.
And those are my travel and other plans for 2020! What are yours?