A Day Trip From Vilnius to Kryžių Kalnas (Hill of Crosses)

One of Lithuania’s most famous and fascinating places to discover is in fact a site of pilgrimage. When I visited, as I approached the hill in a very eerie twist of events a burst of icy snow blasted my face before I was able to be awe-inspired and impressed by the sheer scale of crosses and monuments of Kryžių Kalnas.

I’m not a religious person in any way, but I can appreciate how this place is somewhere that people can receive comfort and even a sense of pride. This site has existed in various forms from approximately 1831 and was formed after the failed rebellion of the Russian Empire, as many people died relatives were unable to locate their bodies and instead started to put up crosses here in commemoration.

It has been destroyed several times during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, this was because they didn’t like that people were trying to showcase their heritage, religion and original Lithuanian identity.

Well that’s enough of a history lesson, how did I actually get there?

Here’s my exact itinerary from April 2017*

09:50 – Train from Vilnius

I must admit I was very impressed by the Lithuanian train system, it was fairly modern, clean and pretty efficient. After leaving a very snowy Vilnius I was pleased to see that this train appeared to be almost brand new and had free wi-fi!

Although scheduled to arrive at 12:01 we sadly crept in around 15 minutes late meaning I missed the earlier bus to Domantai, it was fine though because even on Easter Sunday the Rimi supermarket at the bus station was open for snacks.

13:10 – Bus from Siauliai Bus Station to Domantai

The bus station is an easy 10 minute walk from the train station, you don’t need to buy tickets beforehand but you can pick up a timetable from the one of the ladies in the ticket booths. When you arrive you’ll need to wait at platform 12, the bus driver we had was friendly and understood where we wanted to go. For the cheap price of €0.84 you can get to Domantai – the nearest bus stop to the Hill of Crosses.

Once you get off the bus you’ll need to start walking along a road called the 4033 for 2km and very soon see the magnificent and legendary Hill of Crosses in the distance.

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

15:02 – Bus from Domantai 

Although it might not sound very long to spend here you can catch the bus 2 hours later, there’s a bus stop on the opposite side to where you disembarked that’s clearly visible, once you get back to Siauliai you’ll have some free time to go and explore Lithuania’s fourth largest city. There’s a few cool sites to see including some funky street art…

Siualiai

17:25 – Train from Siauliai to Vilnius 

Sadly for me I didn’t realise I wouldn’t have the same brand spanking new train coming back, unfortunately it was a rickety old pile which was cramped and jam-packed with people heading home after the Easter holidays. There was another train soon after ours that left at 17:57 but I’m not sure if this uses the newer train, my advice would be to try that instead and stay a bit longer.

Oh…how the mighty have fallen :o(

How to Visit?

If you are travelling by train you can easily buy your train tickets on the day from Vilnius station, however during peak and holiday seasons these trains will get extremely busy. I was travelling to Trakai the day before and thankfully I booked all of my tickets together, most people speak some English in Lithuania but it’s always fun to make a fool of yourself by trying to local lingo.

The Lithuanian Railway website sadly doesn’t accept credit cards yet; however they do take some cards from several Baltic states and Scandinavian countries. A return second class ticket to Siauliai should cost just over €21, which given that it’s almost 200km I think it’s a bargain!

Driving here will likely take around three hours from the capital, there’s a brand new visitor centre and car park located opposite the site, although most people prefer to just park on the side of the road and avoid being charged. There’s no entry fee on to the site of the Hill of Crosses and you can freely roam around.

*Check local listings for updated train/bus times

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Sudan Travel: Guide to the Pyramids, Visa Rules and Khartoum

Sudan Diaries

Experience a country that has more pyramids than Egypt, that has no McDonalds but does have tourist sites that would make most countries envious!

Once the biggest country in Africa until the South went rogue, Sudan is not your typical holiday destination, but with ever-increasing tourism arrivals, could that all be about to change?

When asked where you are going on holiday, it’s highly unlikely you’ll say Sudan. Most people couldn’t point it out on a map, let alone tell you why you should visit. The general consensus is that I’m nuts, mostly because the mainstream media depicts Sudan as a dangerous and unsafe destination to visit.

Come with me on my journey around Sudan...

Come with me on my journey around Sudan…

My Sudan Diaries

So what’s it like to visit? It’s certainly a culture shock at first, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it has definitely encouraged me to see more of Africa. Whilst I was travelling in Sudan I was sadly only there for six days but I sure packed a lot in. Here’s what I got up to…

Sunday 19th February

I absolutely love the feeling of landing somewhere new and exotic, not knowing what to expect or whether you’ll even be allowed into the country. After flying from Manchester and having a short stop in Istanbul, I arrived very early in the morning a bit bleary-eyed and attempting to stay awake.

Thankfully for me I was travelling in a group so I felt safe in the fact that if something went wrong there’d be someone there to help me out. Be sure to collect an arrival card before you proceed to passport control or you will be sent to the back of the queue. As it happens I was the first one through security so I had plenty of time to acclimatise and people-watch at the airport. Whatever you do, don’t take photos in/around the terminal!

You’ll certainly see some sites at the only International airport in the country; I saw people randomly walking in and out of the “secure” areas and even some falcons that a rich Emirati had brought with him.

Good morning Sudan and Sudan Airways - a rare sighting at an airport as they are banned from flying into the European Union.

Good morning Sudan and Sudan Airways – a rare sighting at an airport as they are banned from flying into the European Union.

Whilst preparing for Sudan I was advised not to bring sterling and instead only bring Euros and Dollars, thankfully I ignored this advice as I was able to exchange Great British Pounds at the airport. Using XE.com I was advised that the official bank rate was 8SDP to 1GBP, but for some reason I was offered more than double this and was given 19SDP! This helped make my trip to Sudan one of the cheapest I’ve ever experienced.

After a long journey some shut-eye was required; thankfully I awoke with a desire to go exploring. Khartoum is a strange mix of old vs new, some streets are clean, others are a rubbish dump. It’s quite difficult not to be affected by the dirt and sand in the air so make sure you take nasal spray.

One of the first places I came across was the Corinthia Hotel a.k.a Burj Libya. I’d heard many stories about this place, it’s the most luxurious hotel in the country and was built using Co. Gaddafi’s money. At the time I visited it costs $279 to stay for one night, far more than your average Sudanese can afford (or me for that matter). After ordering ice cream and waiting 45 minutes for it not to turn up I cancelled my order and opted to buy a 25p cone from a local seller outside instead.

Corinthia Hotel a.k.a Burj Libya

Corinthia Hotel
a.k.a Burj Libya

Having previously visited Egypt and sailed down the Nile on a felucca it was only right that I do a boat trip again in Sudan. Head to the Corinthia Hotel and next to the river you’ll be asked if you’d like to take a boat ride, thankfully the Sudanese weren’t pushy but you will need to haggle as you’ll be offered different things so be sure you know what you’re getting into. There was four of us and we paid a total of 300SDP for one hour to see the confluence of the Nile and also Tuti Island. Amazingly we were even offered life jackets!

One thing you must obtain on the first day of travelling in Sudan is a photo permit. They are free and you can get one through a travel agent or hotel representative but without this you’ll be subject to scrutiny if stopped by police. Similar to other countries, many locals don’t want their photo taken but if you strike up a conversion you’ll be amazed at the friendliness of the Sudanese.

Was I in love with Khartoum? Sadly not, it didn’t leave me with the best impression but thankfully I needed plenty of beauty sleep before leaving the capital.

Typical views of Khartoum

Typical views of Khartoum

Monday 20th February

Catching up on my sleep makes me a happy traveller, as does having a shower to make me feel refreshed. Sadly for me the morning that I was travelling to the desert my hotel appeared to run out of water. Hurray for wet wipes!

I was thankful that I was finally able to escape the dirt of Khartoum, sadly for me it was only to discover that many parts of the countryside are also a plastic bag wasteland. There’s a huge business opportunity for anyone brave enough to educate people on the art of recycling.

Naga Archeological site

Naga Archeological site

Naga Archeological Site

Naga Archeological Site

I’ll admit that other than the famous Meroe pyramids I didn’t know anything else about any other tourist sites in Sudan. Thankfully for me this meant I was pleasantly surprised when I was travelling around. After veering off the main tarmacked road, it was incredibly bumpy and bone-shattering 45 minutes to reach the Naga (or Naqa in Arabic) archaeological site. I’d personally never heard about this place but it turns out it’s one of the largest ruined sites in the whole country, if this place was in neighbouring Egypt it would definitely be overrun by tourists!

After a really long day I was absolutely gutted to arrive too late to see the sunset over the Meroe pyramids, so my alarm was set for a very early morning to capture the beauty. Sadly for me the only other thing left to do was camp out in the desert, the tent wasn’t really suitable for two people so I ended up the back of a pickup truck in a sleeping bag. Thankfully, it turns out I probably got the most sleep out of everyone in my group as most of their tents collapsed during the night because of the wind.

For me though; camping out overnight sleeping underneath the stars – perfect.

Sunrise at the Pyramids of Meroe

Sunrise at the Pyramids of Meroe

Tuesday 21st February

I’m incredibly lucky to say I’ve seen some of the world’s most memorable tourist sites, however waking up to a sunrise over the Meroe pyramids has to be right up there with one of my favourite experiences. It gave me a feeling that I’d stepped back in time, although sadly the pyramids aren’t quite as abandoned as I initially imagined due to being located just off the main highway heading north.

The reason most tourists will visit Sudan is simply to experience the “less touristy” pyramids. Sudan has far more than Egypt, yet far less tourists. The Pyramids of Meroe are situated in a perfect spot for an ancient city, residing just east of the Nile River. Some of the restoration works left a lot to be desired, however I understand that with limited resources and money the Sudanese have been doing what they can with what they’ve got.

Sunrise at the Pyramids of Meroe

Sunrise at the Pyramids of Meroe

I felt like I'd stepped back in time when I visited Meroe - amazing experience!

I felt like I’d stepped back in time when I visited Meroe – amazing experience!

After leaving Meroe I ventured to yet more pyramids, this time discovering that the site of Nuri belonged to Nubian kings. I strongly suggest making a trip here, the pyramids have been far less damaged and the restoration is much more in keeping with what the original pyramids would have looked like – in my opinion.

Only 10km away is Jebel Barkal, a relatively small mountain – something I wasn’t expecting to find in Sudan as for some reason I thought it was completely flat! Once again, this UNESCO World Heritage site was a complete surprise for me, I was able to explore a recently discovered temple that was undergoing a live archeological excavation. This was an exciting opportunity and one I’m extremely grateful to the archeologists for allowing me to enter Mut Temple and step back in time.

Top L-R: Nuri Pyramids and Karima Pyramids Bottom L-R: Jebel Barkal and Mut Temple

Top L-R: Nuri Pyramids and Karima Pyramids
Bottom L-R: Jebel Barkal and Mut Temple

After becoming a bit templed-out for the day I thankfully arrived in the early evening to my accommodation for the night at a typical Nubian homestay. It wasn’t quite as expected, but after sleeping in the desert the night before and not having a shower even just the thought of a cold shower was enticing. The reality – a shed in the garden along with a bunch of spiders, mosquitos and other lovely creatures as shower guests. It did however help me remove the sand from every orifice!

Wednesday 22nd February

Another day, another archeological site. This time it’s the vast El-Kurru complex, this place was used by the Nubian royal family and houses some of the most fascinating and intact paintings inside the burial tombs. Thankfully excavations are still taking place and no doubt in years to come there will be far more things for travellers to see and experience including the tomb of Tanwetamani and King Shebitku.

El-Kurru

El-Kurru

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Tomb of Tanwetamani

After leaving El-Kurru, the rest of the day didn’t involve a huge amount of exploring, but thankfully for me I’m one of those sad people who can’t sleep on long journeys so I simply peered out the window, staring at the endless emptiness of sand with only a few glimpses of life by nomadic people with their camels and donkeys. At a pitstop along the way we saw a local minibus picking up passengers, in the form of a goat that was tied to a roof! Only in Sudan.

This goat will definitely have the wind in his hair...

This goat will definitely have the wind in his hair…

The emptiness certainly didn’t last long when we arrived back in Khartoum. Big cities often endure crazy traffic and manic driving but this place was something else, I’m just glad it wasn’t me who had the responsibility of getting us through it all safely. Thankfully though there’s method in the madness and somehow it all seems to work but for this relatively poor country just surviving is all you can hope for.

Many Sudanese still live a nomadic lifestyle, this little boy was collecting water for his family.

Many Sudanese still live a nomadic lifestyle, this little boy was collecting water for his family.

Thursday 23rd February

The one good thing about being back in the capital is that Wifi is freely available and you can connect with the outside world again. I thought that with Sudan being a relatively closed country the internet would be far more restricted but to my amazement I was freely able to access my typical Social networking sites, but hilariously Sky News was blocked – in your face Rupert Murdoch!

Khartoum used to be a sleepy city with few things to do or explore, this is slowly starting to change but thankfully there’s still a few abandoned dark tourism sites to visit including the Mogan Family park. Oddly enough this site is still tended to but most of the amusement park is now derelict, however the guard will let you freely roam and explore where you like. Make sure you venture all the way to the end as you’ll come face to face with the mighty Nile River, directly at the confluence where the Blue and the White Nile meets.

Mogan Family Park

Mogan Family Park

A short walk away is The National Museum of Sudan; housing the largest and most important archeological sites in the country. Although it could do with some improvements they’ve definitely made an effort overall and I found it informative. I’d advise you to visit this place last on your trip because you can visit the actual sites around the country and then complete your tour here and hopefully everything will fit in to place and make sense.

I’m not sure if you are like me but postcards are still a must when I’m travelling; especially the more exotic locations. However in Sudan you’ll struggle to even find a post office, in fact there are no post boxes in the whole country so try to head to main depot in Khartoum. I was easily able to find postcards for China and Hawaii randomly but you’ll struggle to find any decent postcards of Sudan; a definite business opportunity for any locals reading this!

Goodnight Khartoum

Goodnight Khartoum

Friday 24th February

Sadly today is my last day, it has been a very short trip to such a large country but the lasting impression of waking up at the ancient Pyramids of Meroe will stay with me forever.

If you fly into Sudan it’s likely your flight will be an early morning one, mine was scheduled for 3am so it was an incredibly early start. My advice would be to make sure you leave at least 2 hours to get through the airport as it can be a rather beaurocratic process. There are currency exchange desks before you pass through security, make sure you change any additional currency as there isn’t any other opportunities afterwards. I ended up buying a coffee pot that I didn’t need simply to get rid of my last remaining 100SDP.

Any adventure traveller will tell you about the various times they’ve become ill whilst travelling, sadly for me once I returned to the UK I spent the following week in my sick bed getting over contracting an infectious disease called Chikungunya that I’d caught during my time travelling, what a way to end my trip.

The joys of adventure travel!

sudanvisa

My Sudan visa and trusted Bradt Guide book.

Visit Sudan

Inspired to visit? It’s surprisingly easy if you join an organised group tour as they’ll arrange a sponsor in the form of a local company; once this is received you can then apply for your visa. I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer tours to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea. As I no longer live in London the embassy thankfully accept applications by post making it easy to get a visa.

What do you need to include?

  • One passport photo
  • Original Passport
  • Completed and signed application form
  • Yellow fever certificate – not required but would be advantageous
  • Postal Order for total of £55
  • Return special delivery envelope (including postage)

For more information please visit the Embassy of Sudan in London.

Your adventure awaits...

Your adventure awaits…

Travelling to Sudan

Would I visit again? It’s unlikely, but not for any bad reason, mostly just because I don’t go to the same place twice. Khartoum isn’t somewhere that would feature on my list of beautiful cities and the Sudanese need a serious lesson in recycling and not filling their countryside with plastic bags and rubbish. However the archeological sites more than make up for these downfalls and I’d strongly recommend visiting soon before your typical tourists find out about this place.

What will you need to take? Here’s a brief list of suggestions for items to take with you;

  • Toilet roll / wet wipes
  • Anti-bacterial hand gel
  • Nasal spray
  • First Aid kit
  • Long trousers (do not wear shorts due to strict Sharia Law)
  • Mosquito spray/net
  • Microfibre travel towel
I'm proud to travel to countries where I can fly the LGBT flag. Will you follow in my footsteps?

I’m proud to travel to countries where I can fly the LGBT flag. Will you follow in my footsteps?

LGBT Travel to Sudan

Let me point out the obvious; Sudan isn’t the first country you’d think of when you think of organising a holiday for an LGBT traveller but intrepid types are exploring, despite the risks. Let’s just say, don’t put it about! I didn’t receive any animosity, but then I would also say don’t make it hugely obvious either as this could land you in some hot water. If you’re an LGBT traveller and would like some advice or a chat about my trip here please contact me.

Further information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Top 10 Countries To Visit In 2017

Where should you be exploring in the new year? No ideas yet? Don’t worry, I’m here to provide you with some hints and top tips for the top 10 countries to visit in 2017.

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1. United Kingdom

This entry is sure to confuse many of you, however due to Brexit and the Great British currency crash, a trip to the U.K is now more affordable than ever for International visitors. I bet you are thinking that the U.K isn’t a very adventurous destination? Well, time to think again, there’s many off-the-beaten track places to see in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • When to visit: April or August/September
  • Top Tip: Don’t just visit London!
  • Must see destination: Whitby, Shetland Islands, Tenby or Derry

Check out my articles about a staycation in Liverpool, walking in the Lake District and discovering the historical food culture of London.

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2. Uzbekistan

As of 1st April 2017 (no it’s not an April fools joke), you’ll be able to enter Uzbekistan without applying for a visa in advance. This is a huge step forward for the Central Asian nation famous for its red-tape visa rules and bureaucracy, I’m in no doubt that it should kick-start a spike in tourist arrivals and an interest in the fascinating history of the Silk Road. I’m hoping to squeeze a trip to Uzbekistan into 2017, anyone else with me?

  • When to visit: March or September
  • Top tip: Try the train from Tashkent to Samarkand or Bukhara
  • Must see destination: Samarkand

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3. North Korea

What I hear you say! Why on earth would you visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)? Well, I’d say that with Donald Trump soon to be in charge of the White House you’d better get here pretty sharply.

If you like being ushered around and having no freedom to do anything on your then North Korea is for you! However, you’ll get to see one of the most isolated countries on the planet and have a completely unique experience, I’m really intrigued but sadly haven’t yet been able to venture here. The country is attempting to open up by creating International marathons, golf tournaments and event a ski resort to attract investment and foreign tourists…all in the name of cold, hard cash.

  • When to visit: April – July
  • Top tip: Fly with Air Koryo to experience the world’s only 1 star airline
  • Must see destination: Pyongyang

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4. Georgia

I’m finally going to be visiting Georgia in 2017 and I can’t wait! As a country on the far edge of Europe, this place has a huge amount to offer including some of the best scenery, food and wine in the region. Georgia lies along the eastern edge of the Black Sea in the heart of the beautiful Caucasus Mountains, if you really feel like stepping off-the-beaten track then you should visit Georgia’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

  • When to visit: Best in Summer but if you like skiing visit in Winter
  • Top tip: Georgian wine is some of the best in the world, try it!
  • Must see destination: Gori (home of Stalin)

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5. Senegal

A unique blend of French and Middle Eastern influences, Senegal has never truly shined when it comes to its tourist market. However, this is a tragic shame as there’s fascinating beaches, tasty food to sample and even some of the most unique wildlife to see in its tropical forests.

  • When to visit: November to May
  • Top tip: Learn to deal with the constant pestering
  • Must see destination: Casamance Delta region

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6. Japan

If the fact that you can visit not only a cat cafe doesn’t tempt you enough, how about an owl cafe?! I’m sold, when can we go?

Sadly for me it’s unlikely that I’ll visit in 2017, but with a country that’s as uniquely modern as it is historical, Japan has a huge amount to offer a travel geek like me. I have a list as long as my arm of things I’d like to see or do here including travelling on the Bullet train, standing in the middle of Tokyo at rush hour and feeling the buzz whilst discovering a traditional Japan in the streets of Kyoto.

What you waiting for?! Don your kimono and wooden shoes, grab a samurai and discover the quirky, unique nature of Japan.

  • When to visit: Any time but March is a good time to see the cherry blossom
  • Top tip: Buy a railway pass to travel around this amazing country by train
  • Must see destination: Kyoto

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7. Mauritania

Most visitors to North Africa wouldn’t consider Mauritania as a place to visit, however you’d be surprised at how easy it is. I’ve discovered that the country recently relaxed their visa rules and you can now receive a visa on arrival, what better excuse do I need?! Although there isn’t many major tourist sites to see, the country is really unique and is just waiting to be explored. Make sure you check out the world’s longest train and the vast Sahara desert.

  • When to visit: December to March
  • Top tip: Take an adventure of a lifetime on the world’s longest train
  • Must see destination: Adrar

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8. Armenia

A country steeped in history and said to be the birthplace of Christianity, Armenia is slowly starting to appeal to Western tourists and open itself up. Armenia is another country that I’ll be getting to visit in 2017, flying into the capital Yerevan will be an experience in itself as I don’t expect any luxury, but the beauty of adventure travel is I may be pleasantly surprised.

  • When to visit: May – September
  • Top tip: Don’t mention anything about Azerbaijan, the country’s are both still at war
  • Must see destination: Dilijan (a.k.a Little Switzerland)

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9. India

Regularly featuring in many must-see lists, India surprisingly doesn’t receive as many visitors as you might think. Only 7.5m arrived in 2014, that might sound a lot but given that over 1 billion people live here, India certainly has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. Even though I’ve included it as one of my top countries to visit, I’ve not had the best experience having recently tried to apply for an Indian visa but unfortunately due to the awful system I was unable to pay and therefore missed out on gaining an e-visa.

  • When to visit: December to May to avoid monsoon seasons
  • Top tip: Prepare yourself for an assault on every one of your senses, expect the unexpected
  • Must see destination: Darjeeling

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10. Mozambique

Fast becoming one of Africa’s must-see destinations, Mozambique is somewhere that I’ve had on my must-see list for several years now that the horrendous war is over and the country is finding its feet. Whether you’re interested in seeing incredible beaches, tea plantations and even rare wildlife such as rhinos and giraffes. Unfortunately I won’t make it there this year, but if you visit I’d love to hear your stories.

  • When to visit: August to October for seeing Humpback whales or November/December for the key bird watching season
  • Top tip: Visit now before everyone else discovers the natural beauty of Mozambique
  • Must see destination: Quirimbas Islands

 

Further Information

If you’d like to read my recommendations for 2016 and 2015 click on the year to discover unique adventures.

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from any of my trips please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

Explore Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital and city of the future

Kazakhstan might be best known for its vast barren landscapes but since 1998 when Astana became the capital city, it has rapidly developed into a city of the future. Known as the Dubai of Central Asia, Astana is growing at an alarming rate but is it always for the best? Let’s find out…

astana

Exploring Astana:

Most people have probably never even heard of Astana but believe me in the future you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more about it. Thankfully I visited in the summertime when it was a beautiful 26 degrees, however this city is officially the second coldest capital city in the world, after Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.  

The only way I can describe Astana is odd, one minute you’ll be walking past a gold, sparkly new 5* hotel and then directly next door is a run down house that has been there for years and is about to fall down. However this city has some of the most futuristic buildings that I’ve ever seen and for that I’ll always remember it fondly.

Here are some of my favourite places that I visited:

Bayterek Tower

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The jewel in Astana’s tourism crown, standing at over 105m the Bayterek (meaning popular in Kazakh) Tower provides a picturesque panorama over the city and to the steppe beyond. Amazingly it only costs 500 Tenge (Approx. £1) to visit, so it’s incredible value-for-money. Sadly someone decided to tint the glass yellow and therefore your photos from inside will end up looking slightly odd.

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Complex

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This crazy tent-inspired structure is the largest marquee in the world! Designed by British architect, Norman Foster, it should be far more famous but sadly most people have never even heard of it. I found it similar to the shopping malls of the Middle East as the whacky Khan Shatyr houses its own water park, indoor river, monorail and even an indoor beach with sand specially imported from the Maldives!

Hazrat Sultan Mosque

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After completion in 2005, the Hazrat Sultan Mosque is now the largest in the whole of Kazakhstan with the ability to house more than 10,000 worshippers. In a country where 67% of the population identify themselves as Muslim, for me it was nice to see that the Kazakh people are tolerant of other religions and thankfully it also isn’t illegal to be gay here. There’s still a long way to go but I’m pleased that I was able to visit and roam freely.

Kazakh National University of the Arts/ Shabyt (aka the Dog Bowl)

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I’ve worked at several Universities in London and I can easily say that none of them looked like this! Please can I get a job here?!

Metropolitan Circus (aka the Flying Saucer) 

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Wow! The aliens have landed and built a flying saucer for a circus, well weirder things have happened. As one of the most futuristic-looking buildings in Astana this place certainly catches your attention. It simply looks like a UFO just landed, all credit must go to President Nazarbayev, who came up with the initial idea.

Duman Entertainment Complex 

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This place is just insane, at over 3,000km away from the nearest ocean, it houses the world’s largest oceanarium that’s furthest away from the sea! With sharks, turtles and even local Kazakhstan fish you’ll be amazed at the wonders of the deep. Oh and although it’s mostly for kids, there’s even a mermaid who comes along every hour or so and dives in!

Once you’ve had enough of the fishes you can also check out the 5D or 8D cinema or maybe even the fake jungle. Quite literally like nothing I’ve ever seen, advanced isn’t the word.

Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall

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What would a concert hall be if it wasn’t shaped like the layered petals of a rose? Well Astana has built just that and it houses some of the most prestigious classical music and dance performances.

There are several other incredible buildings/structures that sadly I didn’t get chance to visit but these include a musical fountain, an entire suburb called Family Town designed specifically only for couples and their children and even three amazing apartment buildings called the Northern Lights that illuminate the sky at night inspired by the Aurora Borealis.

Travelling in Astana

Sadly when the town planners got involved in making Astana a city of the future they failed to factor pedestrians into the equation as many of the pavements that should be there, well aren’t! The distances between things are also pretty far so you might want to hire a car or take taxis everywhere, however you’ll need to speak a bit of Russian to avoid being ripped off.

I paid 2,500 Tenge from the airport to my hotel and as a general rule anywhere south of the river costs between 500 – 1,000 Tenge or north costs up to 1,500 Tenge.

There are city buses but every time I saw one they were completely full with people squashed against the windows, however they are cheap at only 90 Tenge per journey.

I couldn’t resist but add this to my article, during my time travelling in Kazakhstan I discovered there’s an airline called Scat! You just can’t make this sh…tuff up.

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Visit Astana for yourself

I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Astana.

Click here using this link!

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions.

Explore Kazakhstan’s former capital city Almaty in my previous blog article here.

You can also visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

The Ultimate Guide To Visiting Iran

iran

Tipped as one of the must-see destinations of 2016, it’s no surprise that the Iranian tourist industry is booming right now. With record numbers due to visit over the next five years is it time to let go of the pre-conceptions?

Interesting facts about Iran

  • Iran has one of the only condom factories in the Middle East (like you didn’t already know?!)
  • Iran is one of the few places where you can get married temporarily, even for just a few hours
  • Google has been described by a police chief as a spying tool (sounds pretty accurate to me!)
  • Iran has conducted more sex change operations than anywhere else in the world, second only to Thailand.

My Iranian Adventure

Persia (Iran) has always intrigued me, ever since I first saw Aladdin with its magic carpets and exotic spices, but did it live up to expectations? After visiting recently this is my ultimate guide to visiting Iran.

When Westerners think of Iran they often think of people burning flags, sanctions and nuclear programs. There are very few positive stories in the Western media depicting daily life here. However opinions couldn’t be more wrong, Westerners generally fascinate Iranians and they are keen to find out more about you. “Where are you from” and “Welcome to Iran, you are welcome” are two things you will hear from almost every friendly local you come into contact with.

Something that was evident to me is how naturally beautiful the people are. Both men and women take great care of their appearance and always dress smartly. A famous fact about Iranian people is that many people have corrective surgery on their noses. Don’t be surprised if you see people with huge plasters or bandages covering their nose, it’s like a status symbol.

All over Iran you'll see absolutely stunning mosques, both inside and out equally as beautiful.

All over Iran you’ll see absolutely stunning mosques, both inside and out equally as beautiful.

My journey to Iran took a rather strange route; I flew from London to Istanbul then to Doha and eventually arriving into Tehran 24 hours later. This wasn’t ideal as I arrived completely tired and needing rest but sadly no rest for the wicked, I left Tehran as soon as I arrived and was driven to Kashan.

Across most of Central Asia, the Middle East and even some European countries the time around Easter is their time to celebrate the Nowruz festival (Spring time). Currently in the media being a Muslim can often be depicted as many different things, unfortunately what is rarely shown is actually how kind and generous the people are. During this period Iranians offer free tea, coffee, juice, sweets and other items to random people in the street as their way of celebrating. This is most certainly not how most people would assume an Iranian would be to a British person, which to me proves just how controlled we are by the media.

My first stop on the tour was to Kashan, a place famous for its merchant houses and beautiful old city, sadly many tourists often miss out this place in favour of travelling straight to Esfahan.

Sadly due to being sleep-deprived I don’t remember a huge amount about this place except for the unique accommodation. A mix-up meant I ended up sleeping in a local homestay where the bathroom was outside in a courtyard and I woke up to the sound of a chicken crowing. It was certainly a great way to start my Iranian adventure.

One of the must-see places in Kashan is the Khaneh Abbasian, an enormous complex that was completed in 1893 and was designed by a former tea dealer to provide accommodation for his daughter.

Royal Square, Esfahan

Royal Square, Esfahan

Esfahan is the third biggest city in Iran; it’s promoted as a Cultural Capital and has some of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This sadly also makes it one of the busiest places in terms of tourist numbers.

Although Esfahan was initially Jewish, it quickly established itself as a majority Muslim city. Known for its impressive Maydan-e Imam square, one of the biggest in the world, this was a place I absolutely loved getting lost in. Every turn in the Bazaar meant a new discovery, whether it’s a new souvenir or a sweet pastry that had to be sampled, I simply fell in love with this place.

Whilst visiting Se-o-Se Pol Bridge, I was stopped so many times. Not by the police, but by locals wanting photos with me! For me personally, this is why I love to visit places that aren’t necessarily known for being tourist-friendly, simply to prove people wrong. If only I was able to walk around freely and alone without my guide I’d probably end up with thousands of photos of me with Iranians.

Everywhere in Iran you'll meet friendly locals eager to learn English and welcome you to their country.

Everywhere in Iran you’ll meet friendly locals eager to learn English and welcome you to their country.

You can’t beat watching a bunch of men get a bit hot and sweaty for a good hour or so; in Esfahan (and in fact all across Iran) men use gymnasiums to practise and train for wrestling. Thankfully these days tourists can even go and watch, after seeing a group of eight men (including one who looked like Super Mario) warming up and using what looked like skittles they were then subsequently replaced by younger versions. These guys used a variety of equipment whilst during the whole time someone sat singing Iranian poems and banging a drum. A unique insight into an ancient tradition that still lives on to this very day.

One of my favourite memories of Esfahan that I will always remember is how children were able to play freely in the street.  One of my fellow tourists even played football with several who then politely proceeded to ask if their mum could video them interviewing him in English on their mobile phones so he could show his teacher at school. Such a sweet experience and one that you’ll rarely encounter anywhere else in the modern world.

Absolutely adorable, I hope this kid goes far in his life as he was so friendly and loved having his photo taken :)

Absolutely adorable, I hope this kid goes far in his life as he was so friendly and loved having his photo taken 🙂

Yazd used to be a desert city, although these days it’s a bustling place that’s often described as one of the most tourist-friendly cities in Iran.  After discovering the old city I realised that it is the second most preserved city after Venice, pretty incredible given how many times Iran has been invaded.

I arrived in Yazd on not only International Women’s Day but also Independence Day; this is when Iranians celebrate the day of the Islamic revolution. This was a huge turning point in Iran’s history, however even with Western sanctions the country has flourished and continues to attract tourists from all over the world intrigued to get a glimpse into the magic carpet world of Persia.

As I’m not religious I’d never heard of Zoroastrianism, however Yazd is famous for once having a thriving community here. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam and focussed on the uncreated god, Ahura Mazda, creator of all things. Sadly after the Islamic revolution the Zoroastrian population is now less than 10%.

Yazd Old Town

Yazd Old Town

Persepolis – the jewel in Iran’s tourism crown and probably the most famous site in the whole country. Tourists thankfully don’t know about this place yet, but adventurous travellers have been venturing here for ages to discover a unique side of Iran that’s still relatively unknown in the mainstream travel industry.

With 2016 due to be a bumper year for Iran’s tourism industry, I’m in no doubt that this place won’t stay hidden for long. Currently French, German and other European tourists dominate whilst Brits, Americans and Canadians make up a relatively low number, more than likely due to the visa restrictions.

If you plan to visit Persepolis, definitely aim to get there early as once the crowds gather it’s difficult to get the perfect shots and can get extremely hot in the summer.

Persepolis - The jewel in Iran's tourism crown

Persepolis – The jewel in Iran’s tourism crown

Naqsh-e-Rostam is only a few minutes drive away and was only discovered thanks to carvings in the rocks at Persepolis.  This fascinating ancient burial place was once the final resting place for Iranian kings who would be placed inside the open tomb and left for nature to take its path.

This place really reminded me so much of Petra in Jordan, it’s incredibly well preserved and should definitely feature highly on your list of places to see if you decide to visit Iran.

Shiraz is the third biggest city in Iran; situated in the south of the country I had been prepared for this place to be warmer but thankfully this made exploring all the more comfortable. There’s so much to see here, including my favourite place in Iran – the Pink mosque. It’s probably the most famous image you’ll see of the country but most people wouldn’t guess it’s located here. I happily spent a good hour there just absorbing the wonderful colours.

At the Qu’ran Gate I met a very lovely local who was super excited to meet me, although I was restricted by time she wanted to know where I was from, when I was leaving and whether I could come and have dinner with her and her mum. So sweet! Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity but if I head back to Iran I’ll be sure to take her up on that offer.

Two of the lovely ladies I met in Iran who were so friendly, welcoming and generally just intrigued to chat. Love it!

Two of the lovely ladies I met in Iran who were so friendly, welcoming and generally just intrigued to chat. Love it!

If like me you can’t survive a week without your Facebook fix then you’re going to need to use a VPN in Iran.  This way you can bypass the Government restrictions that are currently in place, and have been for the past 7 years. Facebook/Twitter and most Western media is not accessible without a VPN, if you try to access it you’ll be confronted by a rather angry looking screen, all in Persian – naturally.

After spending eight days in Iran I can easily say this is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. Being sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan can certainly cause its fair share of problems, but none that you’ll likely encounter if you decide to visit.

Visit Iran

Fancy following in my footsteps? I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer tours to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.