juliamhammond

Europe

How tough is the hike to Chalaadi Glacier?

The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.

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You don’t have to walk all the way

Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.

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Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.

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Allow time to enjoy the hike

Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.

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You won’t get lost

A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.

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The uphill bits were a bit of a slog

Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.

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The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.

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You have to cross a boulder field

About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.

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You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier

Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.

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Is it worth it?

That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.

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Travelling the Georgian Military Highway

It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti.  My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village.  The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag.  The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.

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I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border.  The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery.  I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa.  He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day.  From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.

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Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi.  It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages.  The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.

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We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats.  Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.

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It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting.  Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules.  Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes.  When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.

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While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one.  I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat.  With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top.  Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live.  These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack.  The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.

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Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass.  Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.

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Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off.  Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.

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Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti.  Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast.  First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali.  Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed.  All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes.  Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras.  They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left.  Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.

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A hike had been planned.  The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi.  Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down.  A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up.  Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe.  The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.

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I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience.  Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length.  In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether.  At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft.  I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks.  How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know.  That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.

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The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day.  Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church.  Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day.  The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus.  Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.

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For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:

http://www.envoytours.com/tours/embracing-georgia/


Just back from: a day in Ibiza

This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.

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Amongst other words of caution, it said:

• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.

For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.

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Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.

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The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.

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This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.

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Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.

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Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special.  This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.

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But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.

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Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.

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This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.

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The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.

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The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.

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It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.

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For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.

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Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.

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In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.

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Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.

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The details

Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)

Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.

Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
http://juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/BLOG.html


The value of trip planning

I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different.  The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas.  I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/off-to-texas-with-traveleyes/

It’s outside my comfort zone.  Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel.  I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary.  Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.

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The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus.  I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week.  This is firmly within my comfort zone.  This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.

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The former is a departure from my usual travelling style.  Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport.  There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy.  I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip.  The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research.  I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas.  Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.

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In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging.  I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read.  I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka.  I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms.  I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal.  I really must look that up.  A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too.  I’m happy.  Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.

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It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas.  Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place.  It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen.  And that’s a shame.


Essex Belongs to Us

Earlier in the year I was lucky enough to be selected for the Essex Belongs to Us project.  A book has just been released featuring a selection of Essex-based authors writing about their county.  Whether you’re local and want to reminisce, or live further afield and know little about one of the UK’s most misunderstood areas, the book will prove to be a good read.  Here’s a brief taster of what I had to say about Salcott – but to read the rest, you’ll need to buy the book.  Details of how to do so follow at the end of this blog post.

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Fish out of water

I swear out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a unicorn.

I’d dozed off in front of the telly and awoken to the sound of agitated voices.  A few months ago, I’d have slept right through the commotion, part and parcel of living on a main road in a big town.  But my husband valued silence over convenience and home was now Salcott-cum-Virley, a small village on the Essex marshes.  Ensconced at the deadest part of a dead end road, tucked away behind five huge oak trees, it was about as quiet as Essex got.

Instead of the scream of motorbikes and the rumble of lorries, I now awoke to birdsong – and an infernal wind that sometimes blew so hard it drowned it out.  With the gales of spring, fence panels popped like champagne corks.  After retrieving the dog from the neighbours’ garden for the third time in as many weeks, we hired a man to build us some wind proof fencing.

But we were in the habit of leaving the gates open, and things had a habit of wandering in, causing great excitement.  At first, we would run to the window each time, interrupting whatever we were doing to marvel at pheasants strolling across the front lawn or ducks making their raucous way across the sky out the back.  All this wildlife was a novelty.  We’d once had a squirrel visit our small back garden in Rayleigh but the dog had soon seen him off.  Whether we liked it or not, we were going to have to share our garden with the local residents: the pair of wood pigeons that roosted in the dead apricot tree in front of the kitchen window and the quarrel of sparrows that nested in the blackberry bush that had long since conquered our garage wall.  You didn’t live in the country, you shared it.  Boundaries were arbitrary, there for the purposes of officialdom only.

And so it was that when the neighbour’s small white pony escaped, I awoke to find it at the patio door and in my somnolent state, confused it with a unicorn.  It was soon joined by another and, then, several men trying to round them up, startling me out of my slumber.  It wasn’t long before they were all heading back out of the gate.  They seemed almost practised and I had a strong suspicion this had happened before.

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The rest you’ll find in the book.  You can order a paperback here:

STOP PRESS: You can buy Essex Belongs To Us – the book and e-book based on Essex’s biggest ever creative writing project – here

It costs £8.99 plus a pound for postage and packaging.  Alternatively, the e-Book is much cheaper.  You can download it to your Kindle via Amazon for just £1 here:

 

And if you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of the book.  Was Essex what you expected it to be?


The Kelpies

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Steve was proof they’re built of sterner stuff up in Scotland.  While I was cocooned in a thick winter jumper and padded coat, he went bare armed as he rounded up his tour group outside the visitor centre.  I couldn’t help but comment.  His eyes crinkled at the edges as he told me that the building had underfloor heating and his body was as efficient as a storage heater.  He assured me he’d be warm throughout the tour.  I was convinced, however, that I’d see a goose bump or hint of a shiver at some point.  After all, you don’t come to Falkirk in February for T-shirt weather.

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And it most certainly wasn’t T-shirt weather.  Dark concertina folds of cloud crowded the sky and a brisk wind ruffled my hair.  I wasn’t too upset.  If anything they added drama to an already impressive sight.  The two horse heads that formed The Kelpies stood over 30 metres tall.  Coming from Glasgow, the first glimpse from the car was as in your face as it got: a massive horse’s mouth emerging from a clump of trees by the side of the motorway.  I’d known little about The Kelpies before I’d visited and was taken aback as to how large they were.  Excited, I pulled into the Helix car park and was delighted to find it was free.  No National Trust price hikes here; this is a community run project and consideration is given to such matters.  On a bleak February Saturday, it felt like my willingness to risk the weather had been rewarded and that put a smile on my face.

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I had a few minutes to kill before the tour began so I kicked around the site with coffee in hand.  What was immediately apparent was that this was as much a community resource as a tourist attraction.  Dogs happily chased balls and the kids had brought their scooters.  For those wishing to wander along the adjacent Forth & Clyde canal or around The Kelpies, no charge was made.  I decided to invest in the £7 required for the tour, keen to find out more about this unique sculpture.

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There was plenty to learn.  Steve was an enthusiastic guide and worked the small crowd well.  “In the three or so years since we’ve been open,” he said, “ten people have fallen into the water.  Nine of them were adults!”  He grinned and the kids in the group took the bait, ribbing their parents.  The shallow moat around the base of The Kelpies wasn’t likely to drown anyone, but given the number of people walking backwards with their eyes glued to their camera screens, it was easy to see how the tally had been achieved.

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I’d last visited Falkirk back in the mid 1990s.  It hadn’t left a lasting impression.  Steve acknowledged that I wasn’t alone in holding such a view.  “I’ve lived here for twelve years,  Before, when I was asked where I came from I’d say Falkirk.”  He muttered into his beard and the name was lost on the wind.  “Now, because of The Kelpies, I’m proud to say I’m from Falkirk.”  Falkirk Council shared his passion, it would seem.  Securing Lottery funding to the tune of around £23m, they and several other interested parties match-funded.  The timing of the project wasn’t great, coinciding with the recession, but despite opposition the planned project went ahead.  Visitor numbers are looking healthy – an estimated 2 million people have come here since the construction finished in late 2013 and around 200,000 have taken the tour.  What was good to hear was that many of those that came were repeat visitors from the local area.  Profits from the attraction were ploughed back into local amenities such as local library funding.

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The story behind The Kelpies project was fascinating, blending mythology with industrial heritage.  The Scottish Kelpie that I’d worn on my Brownie uniform  was a little red pixie-like character.  “We’re the little Scottish Kelpies, smart and quick and ready helpers,” went the rhyme we chanted.  But this sweet image, it would seem, was a con.  Of all the Brownie creatures, the Kelpies were the nastiest – malevolent, shape-changing aquatic creatures that commonly took the form of a horse.  They’d entice people in their equine form before dragging them underwater to an untimely death.  If the media had got hold of that story in time, someone at Brownie HQ would have been fired for sure.

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Artist Andy Scott was responsible for the Kelpies at Falkirk and he’d focused on the power and endurance of the beasts rather than their malevolence.  The canal-side location was an appropriate setting; horses would have been a common sight, pulling the barges upon which Scotland’s industry relied.  In a clever twist, the idea of using the Kelpie reinforced how much the landscape had been transformed too.  When choosing a suitable horse to model, Scott took the local Clydesdale breed as his inspiration, with the two muses being Baron (head up) and Duke (head down).  The original sketch had been of the entire animal, the water line sketched in and then cropped to ensure the sculpture’s proportions were accurate.

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The resultant sculpture is magnificent.  The second largest equine structure in the world, they’re beaten in scale only by the monument to Genghis Khan in Mongolia.  That stands 40 metres tall, but then Genghis is on top and he’s the star attraction.  I’ve seen it, and it’s impressive, but, well, a bit too shiny.  The Kelpies would probably be even more of a distraction for drivers on M9 if they had such a sheen, but the matte finish looks more tasteful.  Sorry Mongolia, 1-0 to Scotland.

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There’s something about the workmanship of The Kelpies that draws your attention and keeps it transfixed.  Inside, out of the wind, it’s easier to concentrate on the structure itself.  Each of the horse heads used 464 manufactured plates in its construction.  Every one is different.  They were transported on 150 lorries from Sheffield and took ninety days to be fitted together, in what must have been like an ultimate marathon game of Tetris.  At night, they’re lit by LEDs, an energy efficient method costing the equivalent of a pot of tea every night.  Now that’s an achievement in itself, don’t you think?

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My one disappointment was that it wasn’t possible to climb the structure, though looking at the access ladder for the maintenance crew, you’d need a good head for heights to do so.  No matter; the tour’s a must, even at ground level.  For more information and to pre-book a slot to see The Kelpies with a guide, please visit the website here:

http://www.thehelix.co.uk/


A beginner’s guide to the Trans-Siberian

I love a good train trip and the ultimate in rail journeys has surely got to be the Trans-Siberian in some form or another.  If you’re thinking of crossing Russia by train, I’d suggest doing some background reading beforehand to get your head around what seems like a complex trip but in reality is more straightforward than it looks.

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What is the Trans-Siberian?

Some people wrongly believe that the Trans-Siberian is one single luxury train.  It’s not.  It’s one of several long distance routes that stretch across Russia.  Generalising a little, there are three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian.  Following each of these routes, it is possible to travel on a single train, but most people stop off along the way to explore some of Russia’s great sights – and see something of Mongolia and China as well, perhaps.

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Trans-Siberian route (Courtesy of Ertmann and Profil CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia)

How long will I need?

To follow the classic route from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east without stops will take 6 days.  If you plan to do this, you’ll need to book the Rossiya train (number 1 or 2 depending on the direction you take).  Extending your journey , you could begin (or end) in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, which are connected by an overnight train taking about 8-9 hours, or the high speed Sapsan train which covers the distance in about 4 hours.  Personally, I’d allow at least a couple of days to scratch the surface of Moscow or St Petersburg, though it’s easy to spend more time in either.  To cover the whole route with a few meaningful stops, it’s best to allow a couple of weeks, more if you can.  And of course, you can do the whole trip overland with connecting trains via Paris and a route that takes you through Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk.

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What was my itinerary?

Mine is, of course, by no means the definitive tour.  On these three routes, it’s easy to tailor your journey according to your own personal preferences.  I flew from London City airport to Moscow as at the time I booked, this worked out cheapest.  When I planned my trip, I’d already been to Beijing, so I opted for the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, leaving the Trans-Siberian on the map above at Ulan-Ude and heading south to the border.

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I stopped at Vladimir (for Suzdal and the Golden Ring) and then Perm (to visit one of Stalin’s notorious gulags).  I skipped the popular stop at Yekaterinburg for reasons of time, though I’d like to visit next time, making the journey from Perm to Irkutsk in one go (a little under three days and over 3000 miles) as I wanted to experience a multi-night trip.

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I had a couple of days at Irkutsk so I could visit Listvyanka at Lake Baikal before reboarding a train to cross over into Mongolia.  Having seen a little of the Mongolian capital and surrounding countryside, I then retraced my steps to Ulan-Ude from where I caught a flight back to Moscow with budget airline S7 – a six and a half hour domestic flight which gives you some idea of the country’s vast size.  This worked out considerably cheaper than finding a single leg fare to Moscow and home from UB.  In all, the train tickets cost me about £500, with flights adding about £350 to the total.

Is it easy to do as an independent traveller?

Yes and no.  I’m a big fan of independent travel, not only for the cost savings, but also for the flexibility it gives me to tailor the itinerary to suit my exact requirements.  But I’m also not a Russian speaker and I felt I needed support with the booking process to ensure I ended up with the right tickets for the right trains.  As you can see from the ticket below, it’s not at all easy to understand not only a different language but a different alphabet as well.

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Due to the complexities of the railway ticketing system plus visa considerations, I decided to use a single specialist travel agent for those two aspects of my trip.  As is my usual style, I booked my own flights, accommodation and most of my sightseeing myself; the exception was a private tour to Perm-36 Gulag which I also outsourced.

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The company I used at the time was Real Russia.

http://realrussia.co.uk/Trains/Trans-Siberian

Their website has a dedicated Trans-Siberian section which enables you to check train times, suss out possible routes, check prices and order visas.  It’s clear and in my experience the support offered by the team was excellent.  All my tickets were sent in good time with English translations, the visa process was uncomplicated and every aspect of the trip that they’d arranged went according to plan – which was more than could be said for some of my own bits:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/lost/

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Since switching careers, I’ve done a lot of work for Just Go Russia, another London-based agency specialising in Russia, and they are always extremely efficient.  If you’re looking for a tour, they do offer a wide range of options.  You can find them here:

http://www.justgorussia.co.uk/en/transsiberian.html

Even if you don’t end up booking a tour, it’s a good way of getting an overview of the route and whittling down the options about where to stop off.  Another source of information is The Man in Seat 61, my starting point for every train trip I’m planning outside the UK.  There’s a good overview here:

http://www.seat61.com/Trans-Siberian.htm

What’s it like on the train?

Each of the trains I took was a little different.  I “warmed up” on the short leg from Moscow to Vladimir and this was a regular seated train.  From Vladimir heading east, some of the long distance trains leave in the middle of the night, so I opted for one departing early evening which arrived after lunch the following day.  The overnight trains varied considerably in terms of speed and quality, something that is reflected in the price.  Another thing to factor in if travelling in Russia’s hot summer is that the air-conditioning is turned off when you stop at the border and the windows of such carriages don’t open; more basic trains have windows that can be pulled down to let in a breeze.  (In winter, in case you’re wondering, the trains are heated.)

Some compartments featured luxury velour seating, others were more basic, such as the one I travelled on from Perm to Irkutsk.  In my opinion, that didn’t really matter as I followed the lead of my compartment companions (all Russians) and stretched out on a made bed all the way rather than converting it back to a seat.  When I did the Irkutsk-UB leg, the train was more luxurious, those sharing the compartment were all tourists like me and we all sat up during the daytime.  To be honest, I liked the native approach best.

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In all cases, I opted for second-class tickets which provided comfortable accommodation though no en-suite facilities.  The logic to this was that as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to be alone in a compartment with a single man and the first-class compartments came as two-berth not four-berth kupe.  I shared with three men from Perm to Irkutsk but as everyone sleeps in their clothes nothing untoward happened and actually I was well looked after by one of them in particular, a Russian army officer heading on to Chita.

What should I pack?

As you are likely to sleep in your clothes then picking something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a loose T-shirt is a good idea, though clearly you won’t win any fashion awards.  Who cares?  I found it helpful to pack changes of clothes (socks, underwear and T-shirts) in a day pack so I could store my suitcase under the bed and forget about it.  In terms of footwear, most of the locals seemed to favour blue flip-flops with white socks. Slip on shoes of some form are convenient to help keep your bedding free of dust picked up from the floor.

When I travelled, the bathroom facilities were pretty basic so I would definitely recommend taking lots of wet wipes and also a can of dry shampoo.  It’s amazing how clean you can get yourself in a small cubicle with just a small sink.  These days, most Russian overnight trains have a special services car with a pay-to-use shower which would have been great.  You do need your own towel, but I use a special travel towel which folds up small and dries fast.  I won mine in a competition but you can get something similar here:

http://www.nomadtravel.co.uk/c/261/Travel-Towels-and-Wash-Bags

In terms of sustenance, each compartment has a provodnitsa, a carriage attendant who keeps order and makes sure the rooms are hoovered.  She also keeps a samovar boiling from which you can get hot water to make tea, noodles or soup, so I packed some of these too.

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There’s a restaurant car as well and at station stops, despite the queues there was often enough time to nip off to buy food from the platform vendors, so carry enough small change for these kind of purchases.  Finally, it’s a long way.  Although batteries can be charged (though sometimes in the corridor on older trains) I’d pack an old fashioned paperback to read or carry a pack of cards to entertain yourself.  It’s also true that a bottle of vodka can break the ice though some compartments sounded more raucous late at night than others – the luck of the draw!  I also had a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (as opposed to the Lonely Planet which I would usually take) because the level of detail about what you’ll see out of the train window was much better.

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Anything else I should know?

One of the things I was most worried about before I set off was missing a train or missing a stop.  In the event, neither of these were an issue.  At the station, huge signboards helped identify where the train might pull in and showing the ticket and smiling a lot got me escorted to many a carriage door.  The trains run on Moscow time which can be a little confusing at first, but there are timetables up in the corridors and even on the longer legs I usually knew roughly where I was.  A phrase book helped me decipher the Cyrillic; my technique was to focus on just the first two or three letters rather than trying to remember the whole name.  Thus Suzdal became CY3 etc.  The train provodnitsas were very good at giving their passengers plenty of warning when their stop was imminent and so I managed to get across Russia without incident.

I never felt unsafe during my trip but I would say that you need to be a bit savvy when it comes to your valuables.  Keep your passport and money with you, don’t flash around expensive cameras or laptops but equally, don’t get too paranoid.

Would I do it again?

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Yes!  The scenery at times was monotonous but that was missing the point.  The adventure was in the interactions with people on the train; the sightseeing came after I alighted at the station.  Next time I think I’ll begin in St Petersburg, detour to Kazan and make that visit to Yekaterinburg before heading east to Vladivostok.  Now where did I put that Trans-Siberian handbook?