“What’s so special about Mongolia?” they all seemed to ask. “I’ll let you now when I get back” I replied. Surely that’s the reason we travel… to find out why a place has intrigued us from afar? I had seen images of open grasslands, sweeping vistas and of eagle hunters who slept in yurts and herded great swathes of livestock. I’d seen big men in bright briefs wrestling on grass and elegant archers in pointed hats. Quite simply, I wanted to see it for myself. So I joined a World Expeditions tour and did it!
For many years, people I know have been urging me to go and explore Vietnam. Finally I made it this year. Initially I thought that 3 weeks of travel time would give me adequate time to get to a good range of sites and regions – until I started to do my research! Vietnam, like many countries, has its set of ‘go to’ traveller picks. It is easy to fall for the easy option when planning journeys and stick to the places that always hit the top of the lists on generic itineraries. But this is always something that I seem keen to sidestep in some way. A little of that is travel snobbery – it’s true, can’t lie! – and a lot of it is that desire to see a more authentic side to a culture. However, if you are like me and don’t have endless months to sit and soak up a place at whim, there is always the restriction of time. Alongside that is the fact that, whilst I am brave enough to travel solo, I don’t like to go without good plans in place. So how did I choose where to go when I am plotting a future journey?
Struggling to calibrate my dragging body sensations of altitude (compounded by an incredibly early start to my day!), I rallied my thoughts to acknowledge just ‘where’ in the world I was currently travelling. I was on a bus in far northern Chile; only a few kilometres away was Bolivia! This was not a time to feel feeble and to close my eyes to the world outside. As we bounced along dusty, rutted roads I began to take notice of the landscape outside.
When a friend asks for recommendations on a trip they have planned, the natural thing is to search back to those feelings & sensations of the time that you visited that same place. In reliving the best parts of a holiday or journey, we find the things that made it special and we start to travel again by memory. Just that has happened a week ago, as a treasured travelling friend is planning a visit to Helsinki and asked my advice. Spurred on by the excitement I felt in recommending this glorious city, I decided to add to my musings on what makes it so very special.
Last year I had an opportunity to spend a day in London town catching up with treasured friends who were visiting from Australia ever-so briefly. In a moment of serendipity, I read something somewhere the week prior that made mention of a venue in the big smoke that sounded intriguing. What I do remember is that the article was in an Interior design publication, speaking of a recent classy renovation of a library that is accessible to the public. My curiosity was piqued.
I had a few moments of doubt as to what I had let myself in for, as I arose in the dark before 4am on my first full day in San Pedro de Atacama. My little hotel was out on a dusty road at the edge of town and the rickety corrugated iron gate looked like it would not budge. A mild, unwarranted, travel-fear induced panic came upon me as I fumbled in the pitch black with my torch. With a bit of slow breathing and logical thought, I was soon out onto the ‘street’ ridiculously early. Panic over. I was soon joined by other folk as we all wondered why we were doing this. Two minibuses came and went (along with 45 minutes) before one finally arrived with my name on their list. I could have slept for another hour!!
The beginning of my recent, incredible journey through Sth America saw me landing on the edge of the Atacama Desert in far northern Chile on the border of Bolivia. The greatest physical challenge here is altitude. This is the commencement of nearly 3 weeks above 2400m. My first point of call was the vivacious little town of San Pedro de Atacama which sits at a healthy 2408m above sea level, overshadowed by Volcan Licancabur and surrounded by red dirt. What a place to adjust?!
The start of a journey into the unknown, especially as a solo traveller is always a little easier if one can arrive in the new place and feel a sense of connection. Reflecting on the beginnings of my recent trip to Sth America, I got off to one of those starts! Right from the landing in Chile, all set to head north into the highest desert of the world and across into the wilds of the Bolivian south-west, I felt at ease.
At the age of 52, I have just returned from a trip that felt like the biggest I have done for a very long time. I took myself from the Chilean Atacama across into Bolivia to trail across the desert and the salt flats up to the highest capital in the world, La Paz. From there I ‘turned left’ and headed for Lake Titicaca into Peru and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Machu Picchu was a life goal. Unable to resist the relative proximity, I tacked on an 8-day cruise through the West, Central & Eastern islands of the Galapagos archipelago; stopping in Quito on the way.
At the end of August, I was back in Ilminster profiting from a few simple days staying in the holiday cottage of dear friends. It was my second visit. The first time saw me discovering a wealth of local gardens & NT properties to keep me busy and active during my stay. I spent a happy morning at Lytes Cary last time, before heading to the austere Barrington Court even closer to ‘home’. On this visit, I took the opportunity to further my discovery of the latter, having only toured the gardens and grounds so far.
I am so glad that I returned.