Journey through three ‘Stans: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan

Registan Square, Samarkand

I have just spent six days on the Golden Eagle – a private train travelling along the web of Silk Road routes, from Almaty in Kazakhstan though Uzbekistan and to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

I’ve long wanted to visit the ‘Stans, but as the song goes, it was just that the timing was wrong. So the chance to visit aboard a luxury train couldn’t be passed up.

Travelling along the Silk Road, my journey from Almaty to Ashgabat.

Of all the stops on this journey – Almaty, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Ashgabat, the winner of the beauty prize is Samarkand.

Its Registan Square, pictured above, is just so big, and so awe inspiring, it’s almost overwhelming to try to take in all its beauty in one day, let alone in one photo.

However, it was the quieter, more secretive streets of Khiva that possibly caught my attention. Even though its historic Old City isn’t lived in anymore, it just seemed to have more life. Maybe it was the fact it had more scarf and textile shops, each tucked into a picturesque niche lined with Uzbekistan’s trademark turquoise tiles.

This part of the world is no stranger to travellers – these oasis towns have been receiving new ideas, cultures, languages and religions since time began.

But they’ve slipped off the radar in recent decades, only to be coaxed back on by new, more lenient visa requirements and our desire – and ability – to explore further, with international flights now into all the major cities.

A few details:

I flew into Almaty and out of Ashgabat via Dubai with its low-cost carrier, fly Dubai.

The Golden Eagle is a luxury private train that started its great rail journeys on the iconic Trans-Siberian route across Russia, www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

 

 

Healthy hiking holidays: from Patagonia to Tasmania and Spain’s classic Camino

Hiking in Patagonia, Chile

Last month, I found myself hiking along a section of Chilean Patagonia’s most famous walking route, the W.

The route curls around the Paine Massif, a majestic family of jagged peaks, whose tops were shrouded in cloud and cloaked in snow. Condors hunted between their teeth, and the air jolted to the sound of avalanches, hundreds of meters above me.

It all taps into the recent story I wrote for Prevention magazine, a women’s health publication, about five great hiking holidays. In it, I included the W, but also Tasmania’s new Three Capes Walk and the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Northern Territory, as well as the Kumano Kodo in Japan and the Spanish classic ultra-long walk, the Camino de Santiago.

Why do we walk? To get fit? To slow down? To go on pilgrimage?

The benefits include better health and spending time in nature, while some walks, like the Kumano Kodo and the Camino, were very deliberately designed to create time to clear your head and sift and sort through the bigger problems in life,  says Di Westaway, founder of Wild Women On Top.

“Finishing a trek that takes you outside your comfort zone is a confidence-building exercise. It might be really arduous at high altitude, with plenty of “OMG, what was I thinking?” moments, but that exhilaration and achievement afterwards is a huge personal lift,” Diane adds.

You can read the story online, or you can just pull your hiking boots on now…

How to… give alms respectfully in Laos

Laos alms ceremony

Each morning in Laos, Buddhist monks receive alms from laypeople, traditionally rice. It’s a simple religious ceremony called the Tak Bat, says Brian Lingham, of Luang Prabang’s Buddhist Heritage Project, see buddhist-heritage.org

By giving alms, you are giving something of yourself, he says. However, many Tak Bat ceremonies in the major tourist areas are being bombarded by poor behaviour – using flashes in front of monks’ faces, crowding their route, talking loudly throughout, with little respect for the solemnity of the occasion.

Brian offers a brief guide to attending the ceremony respectfully, from maintaining silence to only making an offering if it does, actually mean something to you (and not just as a photo op).

You can read my full article, which appeared in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. Click here, and enjoy!

Rise of the regions: new hotels in rural Australia

Rural retreat hunters are spoilt with a swag of stylish new properties away from the bright lights.

We take a look at Kimo Estate in rural NSW and Mt Mulligan Lodge in far north Queensland, where back roads are back, and slow travel establishes as one of today’s key travel trends in a world that never hits the off button.

With plenty of sparse spaces across the country, Australia’s regions have responded to the demand for dalliance – click here to read on for the Rise of the Regions, first published in Essentials Magazine.

What to expect when visiting Cairo Airport’s Terminal 2

Cairo Airport review

Over the past decade, I’ve watched Cairo Airport change and grow – definitely for the better – from the raucous taxi chorus and decaying bathrooms of the old Terminal 1 to the snappy design of its newest expansion, Terminal 3.

If you’re coming through the Egyptian capital any time soon, here’s my take on Terminal 2, which sees the major Middle Eastern carriers, Etihad and Emirates, passing on through.

What to remember: security is paramount, and there are plenty of screening points. What to forget: Facebook, as wifi is but a beautiful dream.

Far better to grab a seat and watch the parade of fashions, from central African men in patterned jellibiyas (traditional robes) and matching kufis (caps) to women from the Gulf states in well-cut abayas and heels. You can identify the rare Antipodean by their khaki zip-off pants. If you want to hang with the locals, they’re in the smoking rooms.

Click here to read my full review, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s Traveller section.

How to do Abu Dhabi with kids

Play Batman, colour in, or get cool in the pool – Abu Dhabi ticks all the boxes for travelling with kids.

I did a test-run with the 7-year-old in the United Arab Emirate, which is a natural stopover for Australians en route to Europe (or pretty much anywhere else in the world). With eight hours, three days (or even more) up your sleeve, there’s plenty to do in this super family-friendly town, even in the height of summer.

The highlights for us included the new Warner Bros Movie World, hot laps around the F1 circuit (for the teen in our gang), riding camels in the desert, and plenty of pool time at the five-star Saadiyat Rotana hotel.

If you’re after some pointers (or even a few tips for if travelling without kids), take a look at this feature I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age Traveller section, and enjoy!

http://www.traveller.com.au/abu-dhabi-childrens-edition-h1fii4

Hilton Manila hotel review

Hilton Manila

Manila’s traffic is so bad a whole city of airport hotels has sprung up to service airline passengers coming into the city on their way to and from the Philippines’ fabulous islands. Newport City includes a Marriott and a Savoy, convenience stores and coffee shops, casinos and shopping malls, and now the city’s only Hilton, which opened in October 2018.
It’s the end of a tropical holiday, so of the five dining venues, it must be the swim-up bar for a lunch of mango mai tais, hot fresh pizza with buffalo mozzarella and fresh fish fingers for the small fry. Service is super-chatty and super-friendly, though not speedy, as the hotel is still polishing its act. Madison Bar & Lounge near the entrance is easy to overlook but chocophiles note: its patisserie serves excellent chocolate croissants. There’s also a well-stocked gin bar with knowledgeable staff and a jazz singer who croons into the wee hours.

Click here to read the full review, which was first published in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

How to pack – a guide

I love a good ‘how to pack’ story, I really do. I love those one-pagers in glossy magazines that have a shirt, hat, watch, book and other pieces of travel euphemia scattered about the page, organised into geographic locations:

waterproof pants and binoculars for Antarctica.
Foldable sun hat and cats-eye sunglasses for southern Italy.
Cigarette pants, black loafers and reusable coffee cup for Melbourne.

They may be cliched, but for me, they encapsulate a destination.

I chatted to uber-packer Cathy Perry, who tells me you really can pack for two weeks with just hand luggage (ok, maybe not for Antarctica). She talks up the trans-seasonal trench coat, the joy of pairing fashion runners with dresses and the rules on getting organised.

Check out my interview with Cathy, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Sunday Age’s Traveller section.

Cairo in a nutshell

I’ve been poking around the back alleys and the big-ticket drawcards of Cairo for a decade now (How did that happen? One minute I was setting up this blog on a tiny little Juliet balcony in a pensione in downtown Cairo, the next minute, it’s 10 years later!)

In that time, Cairo’s fortunes have flowed, ebbed, and are now flowing again, after revolutions, currency flotations, elections and a whole vortex of world events that have shaped the old traditions and new fashions in this maniacal city of 20 million (give or take a few million).

It still blows me away, every time I visit. There’s the City of the Dead, which may be home to as many as a million undocumented (living) souls, the rock-carved cathedrals of Mokattam, the wild nights of horseriding around the Pyramids beneath a full moon, and the Nile. There’s always the Nile.

It scratches only the surface, but here are 10 of my tips on visiting the City that Sleeps In Shifts, published in this weekend’s Traveller section in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

 

The mighty Murray spins a winning yarn

I’m so pleased to say that my yarn about boating through the backwaters of the Murray River, in South Australia’s Riverland, has won 2018 Best Australian Story under 1000 words at Saturday’s Australian Society of Travel Writers’ pomp-and-glitter awards in Bangkok. It was an equal first, I’m sharing the award with Andrew Bain, whose work is damned fantastic.

My story was published in Fairfax’s Traveller section, and while I was there, my host Rick Edmonds, from The Frames asked me why the tourism boards don’t promote the mighty Murray as an Australian icon, as they do Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef.

I don’t have the answer, but at a time when rural Australia needs our support, I hope that can change, and the Murray receives its due recognition. Thank you to Tourism Australia for sponsoring this award, and for supporting the ASTW. In the words of another Aussie icon, the immortal Jeff Fenech, I love youse all.

Murray River at sunset. Photo: Belle Jackson

You can read the story here: http://www.traveller.com.au/murray-river-cruise-along-the-h…