Ready to tick off year 1 of the 5 year plan (the travel one, not “Don’t get pecked by a kestrel”, which is also the 10 year plan), your 2 girls firstly need to get in 1 country. Fortunately for Susan the big big t big big initial flight was from her hometown of Dublin, so she got to have a relaxing preparatory night (read: running around like a lunatic trying to finish off work, get her hair done – thank heavens for having an amazing live in hair stylist, oh and packing would be a good idea) while Jill had to dash straight from work to the airport (and was very pleased with herself having managed to actually get on the right plane this time, so we’re 1 up already on the previous year’s progress!).
One of the few drawbacks of travelling from place to place (especially at the speed that we do) is that it often you fall so in love with a place and its people that it breaks your heart when you have to move on. The big killer for us though is the gorgeous stray dogs we meet on our adventures that we would love to let tag along for more of our travels, or in some cases Susan has actually started looking into the logistics of organising to adopt them and take them home to Ireland! Here are the top dogs that stole our hearts (and most likely some of our dinners):
1. Nob Island (Utila, Honduras 2013)
We met little Nob Island shortly after we got off the boat from La Ceiba to Utila. We had no accommodation booked but had decided on a hostel that unfortunately was closed when we got there. As we spent a bit of time outside knocking on all the doors/windows trying to get someone’s attention (it was the middle of the day), we entertained ourselves petting a lovely little stray scamp that was hanging around in the street. As we gave up and decided to find somewhere else, little Nob Island (named after our nickname for Utila – because our trip there unfortunately collided with US Spring Break, and it was therefore full of Spring Break nobs) followed us. She was our road companion for pretty much the whole day (us having resorted to the usual “we’ll go and have a beer and assess the situation” that usually happens when we haven’t found anywhere to stay), exploring the island and stopping off at various bars, sharing our nibbles and ordering her a bowl of water wherever we went. Susan was completely besotted, and was using anywhere with wifi to Google how to transport a dog from Honduras to Ireland. Eventually we decided on the apt sounding Hotel Margarita and went back to relieve ourselves of our backpacks, but on arrival the owner (the commanding Miss Carmen), took aversion to our little furry friend and chased her away with a broomstick. We understood her not wanting a flea-ridden stray dog in her nice clean rooms, but she could have just slept on the bench outside and there was NO NEED to hit her with a stick! It almost made us leave the hotel we were so annoyed. Despite much searching we never saw little Nob Island again and it breaks our hearts to this day. We do console ourselves with the fact that, lovely though Susan’s apartment in Dublin is (and right next to the park!) she would only have been disappointed when she was used to a beautiful Caribbean island.
2. Giant Mini Kiev Island Police Station (Kiev, Ukraine 2014)
Since we’ve already had this year’s trip planned since the middle of last year (as it was supposed to happen this March but couldn’t due to Nissan being unable to function without Jill for 3 weeks during that month and would have ended up making underpants instead of cars), we’ve been stuck in a weird kind of limbo this last few months – stuck between having to wait several months for this year’s trip, and not having to plan next year’s trip. Obviously our trajectory proposing fingers were getting itchy, so we’d already planned 2017’s trip during our “idle moments” (i.e. procrastinating when we’re supposed to be doing other things).
Susan’s creation of our world map this weekend has provoked the same “Oh shit! Look at all those places WE HAVEN’T BEEN YET!” reaction in both of us, so we’ve come up with the following Five Year Plan (all our usual around 3-week length trips unless something miraculous happens in between now and then i.e. Jill’s work realising the business won’t fall apart without her if she’s away for longer than that):
October 2016- “Bottom Right Africa”
Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania (and Zanzibar), Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland
This trip is pretty much all planned (a proper detailed itinerary and the usual route map to follow in the coming months), so we’re just filling in the blanks in the accommodation column and getting flights and safaris booked at the moment. And getting far too excited and impatient!
2017 – “North South America”
French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador (and Galapagos!)
This one is also pretty much planned, which happened during March when we consoled ourselves over not being in Africa when we should have been, by planning the next adventure! It has a good mixture of waterfalls, jungles, beaches, cities and cloud forests – which as every school kid knows, are the main food groups.
2018 – “Trans-Mongolian Train with Added Bonuses” (need to think off a more catchy name for this one methinks)
Russia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, More Russia, Mongolia, China and hopefully…BONUS NORTH KOREA!
Firstly, how bloody expensive has the Trans-Mongolian got these days? We were looking about 5 years ago and it was around £200 one way, second class but now you’re looking at £555 for the same ticket! That’s some inflation! Secondly, we’ve stuck Abkhazia and South Ossetia in there as we are dying to get the Life Achievement that is “Visiting All Former Soviet Breakaway States” and due to logistical/us being retarded with visas issues we unfortunately had to miss them out while visiting Georgia last year. We’re having a few stops along the trans-Mongolian route, in dubious Siberian Russia and Mongolia, and also a side trip down to Kazakhstan, before we get to Beijing. And THEN hopefully we can get a guided tour to North Korea for a few days (you can only go there when accompanied by an official guide, whom you can do nothing, not even leave your hotel, without!) if Jill can manage to avoid having unkempt hair or she won’t get in (yes that is one of the regulations “No ripped jeans, sandals or unkempt hair”. As Jill’s travelling hair looks like a bag of ferrets have been dead on it for a few months, this may be the highest logistical challenge we have yet had to face).
2019 – “Far East Far East”
China (continued), South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, possibly more TBC
The jury is still out on this one, as we had decided on it earlier but Susan is now gagging for more Africa here instead. Jill has never been to the Far East and is desperate to go on this trip so we’ll see what we end up agreeing on!
2020 – “Left South South America”
Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina with added Antarctia jaunt (probably King George Island)
The main highlight of this trip for us will be ALL THE WINES! And Susan wanted to spend her 40th in Antarctica but we ended up at the (amazing) Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan instead, so it feels only right that for Jill’s 40th (2020) we should go there! For Susan’s 50th she is determined to go to the moon.
2021 – “West Far East and the Himalayas”
Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan and maybe Iran
This was literally decided five minutes ago-
Jill: What can we do in 2021? A five year plan sounds better than a four year plan…
Susan: Aye it does. Maybe we will want to go to India by then.
This week, Pinge and Wanglions, we have been busy little bees buzzing around the social media hive and making sweet networking honey! We’re really trying to up our game on the blog front and boost our following a bit – for all we love our little gang of friends and family who make up our loyal tribe on Facebook, we need to start casting our net a bit wider and interact more with other travel bloggers and the internet at large! We’ve been delving deeper into WordPress as well as trying to get to grips with Twitter – we’ve had an account for ages, but have posted next to nothing on it apart from sharing our blog updates – and have twat our tits off for the last few days and are rather starting to enjoy it. Not enjoying it though, is Jill’s boss who cannot grasp that she is trying to multi-task her day job with blog promotion duties and is constantly giving her the evils when catching her looking at her phone. Selfish is what is!
Our driver to Nagorno-Karabakh, Albert, arrived bright and early and we said Goodbye to our cheerful little hostel room. Albert was an elderly gent (80 if he was a day) and our carriage for the next couple of days was a battered and drafty old Russian saloon. Albert was from Karabakh and couldn’t speak any English, so we couldn’t really communicate (other than our bits of chut chut Ruski), but he did however understand our needs and wants and stopped at all the roadside shops saying “Piva (beer), toilette (toilet)” and taking photos of us with any particularly stunning vistas.
We had come well prepared with our packed lunch, leftover dinner (from the restaurant the previous night) and a selection of alcoholic beverages for the long drive ahead. As we drove out of the city and up into the mountains the weather got continually worse, starting with a sprinkling of snow and ending up in a total white out blizzard by the time we got to the highest point! It was pretty scary, especially as the roads were so potholed it was impossible to drive on your correct side of the road all the time (and Albert didn’t much seem to care about such formalities as lanes anyway) and there were a few times swerving to avoid oncoming wagons by a hair’s breadth, we really did think we were goners! We stopped off at a little service station right in the mountains, full of truck drivers huddled around a little gas heater. We bought Albert a coffee, replenished our beers and got told off by the truckers for wandering around outside in the snow taking photos because we’d get sick.
We had a nice whole luxury day in Almaty, and we had two main objectives to achieve. Firstly, we needed to find somewhere where something was likely to be going on that night for St Patricks’ Day – it is now a tradition of ours to hit up the Irish/ex-pats bars (i.e. the places we usually avoid like the plague) wherever we are in the world on Paddy’s Day. Secondly, we wanted to buy some Kazakhstan ice hockey jerseys to wear at the next IIHF world championships, so were on the lookout for some kind of sports/merchandise shop. We’d asked at the hotel reception about the latter, but they looked at us like we’d just vomited up a live cat and said they didn’t know.
We got a couple of beers from the shop near the hotel and sat on a wall in the sun, trying to formulate a plan of action. Looking in the Lonely Planet, the most likely candidate for the first objective was The Shakespeare – a “pub” themed pub that was popular with ex-pats. It looked about a mile away, but the route cut through the main shopping streets so we figured that we’d have a leisurely wander by that way and hopefully come across some shops selling ice hockey jerseys on route.
Almaty was a very lively place, and much more cosmopolitan than any of the cities we’d visited so far this trip. It was however, still very much the sprawling soviet style with huge blocks, massive roads and official looking buildings. Oh how we yearned for a nice little cobbled old town with windy streets and courtyard bars! We eventually found it after walking for ages, discovering that the Lonely Plant map had the pub on the wrong corner and having to use the wifi from somewhere to finally get there.
Today we were supposed to be waking up in a little private cabin on the beautiful Chopin Alta lake then horse trekking up in the mountains before heading off to spend the evening in Tian Shan observatory in Ile-Alatau , Kazakhstan (another gorgeous mountain lake) but due to the mugging incident in Osh we were a day behind and had to miss out on our 2nd lake of the trip! However we refused to get down about it and were still elated from finding Jill’s passport and bag buried in the woods so decided to make the most of enjoying our bonus sunny day in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.
We got up at quite a respectable time (for us), went for a wander around Bishkek and somehow seemed to find ourselves in some kind of bizarre hardware district, where all the shops and market stalls were only selling light fittings, scrubbing brushes, paint etc.! On the off chance we asked one of the stall owners (in our chut-chut Ruski) if he had any plastic cups, as we’d been sans cups for too long and we’d come to the conclusion that maybe this was the root of our recent misfortune. He brought out two plastic kids mugs, one with Winnie the Pooh characters and one with Disney Princesses on – perfect! We grabbed a bottle of beer at the nearest little kiosk and headed off to find Zhirgal Banya, which for once proved pretty easy as it stuck out from the rest of the environment by resembling a pair of large bosoms. We sat on the wall drinking beer out of our shiny new cups – we figured that we needed to at least have a little bit of beer in us if we were going to get naked in front of a loads of strangers!! Despite the snow the previous night, the sun was cracking the flags today and we had a nice bit sit, watching the world go by and Susan made friends with a fly who was getting drunk on the rim of her cup (Pooh) and tested the macro lense on her new camera (the Olympus TG-3 tough – highly recommended and bonus still hasn’t been stolen yet like her last 2!) before we finished the beer and worked up the courage to go into the banya.
It certainly wasn’t what we were expecting! We were thinking it would be like the public baths in Budapest where there were lots of hot pools to sit around in, but it was actually just like a big communal shower room full of ladies having a wash! We had been concerned that it was going to be full of hot skinny Asian ladies who would put our saggy, out of shape, pasty English bodies to shame, but it was mainly big babushkas so we felt a lot better about that. Jill had brought some conditioner so she claimed a shower and began the lengthy task that is the weekly de-tangling of her travel matted hair. Susan, having noticed that all the ladies seemed to have a plastic bowl and sponges to wash themselves with, decided that she was just going to get straight among it, grabbed herself a spare bowl and sponges and got down to business. After she had finished, she came back over to Jill and whispered:
“Jill! I think I’ve just washed my face with another woman’s bum sponge!”
“What? No way!”
“Yeah, they were sniggering a bit when I was washing my body with it, but then they were totally pissing themselves laughing when I started using it on my face! But then I was like “well I’ve started now so I might as well finish!””
So we laughed at our bad banya etiquette, Jill decided it would be for the best if she avoided the bowls and sponges and we had a sauna (complete with sticks to hit each other with) which was far too hot to stay in any longer than a couple of minutes – yes, we know that’s the idea but this was a HIDEOUSLY hot sauna! The plunge pool was actually the entirety of the right boob (men’s was left boob) so we dove in and had a bit of a laugh with our fellow naked ladies over our screeching about the cold. Afterwards we wandered up to get a massages and were surprised to be ushered into a single room with only 1 masseuse where we had to sit and awkwardly watch each other get rubbed down. Despite the initial unease it ended up being amazing as you could get a lovely massage AND have a laugh with your wife at the same time! Susan was a gentleman and offered Jill first go but it was actually a ploy to suss things out on Jill and not have another bum sponge incident. The massages themselves were SO GOOD (best of the trip for muscle relaxation)! The masseuse was amazing and used those nice hot stone things, and we came out of it feeling both nicely relaxed and energised at the same time.
After the banya we went to a little restaurant nearby that was simply called “Bistro” which served mainly pizza and pasta, was very cheap and full of locals enjoying a nice lunch. We went got a pasta, a pizza and a salad to share – the pizza was gorgeous and the salad came in what seemed like a massive dorito!
After lunch and a few beers it was getting late (nearly 5pm) so we thought it best to head for the marshrutka to Almaty as it’s a four hour journey and we didn’t want to be arriving in the middle of the night, so off we went via a little shop for some vodka and grapefruit sock for the road.
There was an Almaty marshrutka parked up when we got to the bus station at Osh Bazaar, so we got on, bagsied the back couple of seats and poured ourselves a vodka. It was a nice posh marshrutka with a TV in it, playing a Russian drama series that of course we couldn’t understand but we tried our best to figure out the plot. At the border we were kicked out of the minibus and had to walk through and meet them at the other side. There were hundreds of people standing in a massive queue that didn’t seem to be moving in the no-man’s land between the Kyrgyz side and the Kazakh side, all with huge wheelbarrows of goods. Thankfully we managed to squeeze past them, got through Kazakhstan immigration no problem (we were wondering what else could go wrong for us at this point – maybe we were wrong with our research that Kazakhstan is trialling a visa-free system for UK citizens this year?) but then once we got out the other side we had no idea where our minibus was! There were a few minibuses there but we had no idea which was ours! Luckily we spotted someone we thought was on our bus (he had a bright red leather jacket on) and headed towards the group of people waiting there, and a lady who had sat just in front of us on the bus and who spoke good English recognised us and told us the bus hadn’t come through yet but we should just wait there. She was called Kundis and was really lovely (she even paid for us to use the toilet as we didn’t have any Kazakh money)– she was from Kyrgyzstan and was on her way to Almaty from Bishkek to pick up her friend from the airport. We asked her about all the people queuing with their stuff and she told us that it was people bringing things from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan to sell as things are so much cheaper due to them importing a lot of goods from China – apparently the gates would open up for them at around 3am to let them all through. It was freezing cold and we felt very sorry for them stuck there all night!
Eventually the bus turned up, we all got back on and we continued our journey, vodka sock drinking and viewing of the quality Russian TV show. We told Kundis our theory on what the storyline was and it turns out we were right on just about everything! For the rest of the journey she made sure we knew what was happening – it was great stuff. We want to watch it with subtitles on at home – she said it was called “The Long Way Home” but we haven’t been able to find anything by that name that isn’t about war or Paralympians. We were sad to leave Kyrgyzstan as it’s so gorgeous.
We arrived in Almaty at around 11pm, so due to the lateness of the hour and since an update from Vita said she had still had no joy getting through to the observatory, we decided that we’d just stay the night in the city (damn it – LAKE DENIED AGAIN!). We’d booked quite a nice hotel (Hotel Kazzol) for the next night to suffocate in a bit of luxury, so we decided that we’d stay there and have a luxury TWO NIGHTS IN ONE PLACE. Imagine that? Not having to pack all your stuff and move about for a whole day? Unfortunately the Hotel Kazzol was fully booked that night, but the similarly luxurious looking hotel next door had a room for us. We were sure that we could cope with moving our bags one building away the next day and the nice boy who carried our bags was eager to help after we a) made him laugh at us a lot, b) gave him a big tip and c) The Pickwick Papers. The room was nice enough (lovely comfy bed, thorough guide on how to tell if an earthquake is approaching by observing the behaviour of various animals…) and we just dumped our stuff and headed straight out for a nightcap. There wasn’t much round by our hotel that was open, besides “Esperanza” – a huge neon lit nightclub complex about 10 minutes’ walk away. There was a strip bar, a karaoke bar and a “retro disco” so we headed down to the latter where we were searched on the door before having our hands stamped (no cover charge – whoo!). The place was HUGE and quite busy for 2am on a Monday night. The dance floor was full of stunningly gorgeous, glamorous and aloof Kazakh girls dressed very much in a Russian style (short skirts, high heels, TONS of makeup), wiggling and pouting with THEMSELVES. IN THE FULL LENGTH MIRROR. If we were that gorgeous we might be able to kill a bit of time checking ourselves out in a nightclub mirror, but I’m sure after 5 minutes we’d be wanting to do some shots or dance to Boney M or have some craic with people like normal folk to on a night out. But no, these lasses obviously could not get enough of their own reflections! Not that you could tell they were happy about it like as it also appeared not to be the done thing to crack a smile.
We had a few drinks and smoked the ridiculous skinny girly tabs that Jill had got from the bar (they had obviously offered her the choice from the girly drawer instead of the man drawer – “I WANT SOME FAT ONES FROM THE MAN DRAWER PLEASE!”), a random man kept sending us over shots of tequila and we had a hoot doing shots and dancing with a lots of the fellas who seemed to be over the moon to have some girls to cut their mad shapes with. We even ended up awarding a prize to the best one but unfortunately for Kazakhstan their best dancer was from Armenia! We got some tips from him on where to dance in Armenia before finally admitting defeat from our long day and wandering back to the hotel via taking amusing photos of us sitting on some giant plastic dogs we found at the roadside.
6th March: LIFT OFF!!
The Pinge & Wang (and friend!) news team will assemble at Gatwick Airport (Susan and Vita flying over from Dublin and Jill getting the train down from Sunderland) to catch the 13:10 Easyjet flight to Moscow, arriving at 20:00 Moscow time. There we have a long eight hour wait before our flight to Ashgabat (at 01:30) so will check ourselves into the lounge to enjoy the complimentary drinks and snacks for a bit, while we use the time wisely trying to get Vita to teach us Russian (she’s fluent – score!).
7th March: Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
We land in the Turkmen capital at 07.15 and will be met by our tour guide who will be taking care of us during our time in Turkmenistan. We were reluctant at first to book a proper “tour” package as we always pride ourselves in being able to organise and implement our own logistical plans without any outside help, but in Turkmenistan an organised tour is a necessary evil that you need in order to get a visa. We specified our own itinerary though and the price was quite reasonable, so it didn’t end up too much of a hardship. We are staying in the Hotel Paytagt – the cheapest, most central hotel we could find (accommodation in Ashgabat is surprisingly expensive and there are next to no hostels!) – so hopefully we can dump our stuff, freshen up and head out to explore the city. We don’t need the guide to accompany us in Ashgabat, so we’ll probably have a leisurely wander (interspersed with taking in some local booze) as we head to the main attraction for the day, the Turkmenbashi Tales – a theme park based on Turkmen fairytales! We’ll probably be knackered after the lack of sleep (hopefully we’ll catch a few hours on the Moscow-Ashgabat flight If we’re not too hyper and excited) but we will soldier on and attempt a shot at the night life.
8th March: Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
We will spend the morning horse riding at Alaja farm (just outside of Ashgabat), who are famous for their strong and graceful Akhal Teke horses (the Turkmen people love their horses even more than their vodka!). Susan, who was a horsey child, is really looking forward to this but Jill has serious reservations as her only horse based encounters have involved falling off them, usually into something spiky. In the afternoon we will visit Kow Ata – an underground lake in a cave (also just outside of Ashgabat) that is always around 30 degrees (due to sulphuric gases from the rocks) for a nice swim and to see Central Asia’s largest colony of bats that also live in the cave! Another evening and night in Ashgabat.
9th March: Erbent Oasis, Gas Crater (Turkmenistan)
We have a driver for this part of the tour (luxury!) and will be leaving Ashgabat by car and travelling into the Karakum desert, stopping at the Erbent Oasis where we will hopefully see some nomads, milk some camels and touch some of their beautiful Tazys (traditional Turkmen hunting dogs that are quite similar to Afghans). . From there we will continue North via the mud and water craters then spend the night camping next to the Gates of Hell gas crater in a yurt, celebrating Susan’s birthday at midnight and hopefully avoiding getting bitten by Caspian Cobras. We really can’t wait for this – it’s going to be epic!
As you no doubt know, one of our favourite travel activities is finding grotty little dive bars in which to talk the toot to drunk old men. The grotty dive bars thing has long been a tradition (as we would rather stay away from the touristy places and get to know some of the locals), and we didn’t really give much thought to the old men part until we were in Estonia earlier this year, reading through the “In Your Pocket” guide to Tallinn and noticed “Vaali Bar”, a “small and stinky local institution” promising “cheap drinks and unusual elderly regulars” and thought that sounded right up our street (declaring “I love talking shit with old men!”, “I love talking shit to old men too!!!!”) and our great night there with our new friend Aaaaaaaarrrrrrnie, that we decided that we should make more of a conscious effort to meet more old men and make it part of our mission statement and core values.
Looking back, we’ve had some of our best craic with old men! Drinking beers in a record shop in Tulum (Mexico), driving around the castles of Transylvania (with beers, obviously)…and our favourite occasion when, after being warned that the men in northern Albania were dangerous and would kidnap us, we happened upon a hut halfway up a mountain near Thethi where the old mountain men within greeted us warmly, offered us beers and we had a fabulous evening drinking, playing dominoes and chatting in broken English/Albanian – these are some of our greatest old men times! So, we thought we’d put together a list of reasons why old men are the best.