waterfall

Armenia: Day Hikes From Dilijan National Park

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After hearing tales of an 'Armenian Switzerland', we were compelled to visit the Dilijan National Park, a fast becoming go-to hiking destination. It would soon join up with the epic trans-Caucasus trekking routes (TCT), linking up with trails in both Georgia and Azerbaijan. The plan, to create a network of hiking trails that boot-clad walkers can use to traverse the beautiful Armenian landscapes of the Caucasus.

 

Clearly, it's an awesome idea and one day it'll be great but the Armenian section of the TCT, as of summer 2018, isn't really finished. There's plenty of literature written on the developed Georgian and Azerbaijani sections but at the time of writing, the Armenian part of the trail has some way to go before it will become a tourist friendly, easily accessible and properly signed trail of the TCT. That said, it's a beautiful place and with a sense of adventure there's fun times to be had in Armenia's best known National Park. 

Hiking down the hill from the Dilijan loop

Hiking down the hill from the Dilijan loop

The TCT

A week before we boarded a marshutka (minivan) to Dilijan, we found a USAID sponsored booklet with 11 Dilijan walking trails in, the book was hidden in our Yerevan hostel! Upon closer inspection it became clear that the guide was a pretty basic resource with unreadable maps and long prose of text to describe the trails. We assumed the resources were one of many medias that hikers’ could use to navigate the national park. Unfortunately not, the booklet is the only resource available to hikers who want to explore the National Park, the one we found under a bed in a hostel.

Before trying to follow any of the trails, we checked in with tourist information in Dilijan and they certified that the booklet that we had accidentally found, was the only guide available to tourists. They didn’t even seem to have any copies of the booklet at the information centre, so it was pure luck we discovered it. What I’m trying to say is that there is very little administration or organisation of the nature reserve right now. We sense that an adventurer's spirit would be necessary to enjoy the hikes, we weren't wrong either.

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2 Decent Walks

So, we attempted two of the walks from the booklet, which we’ll talk you through below, and found one to be a short warm-up hike from Dilijan centre and the second a long loop from the old town of Dilijan up to the highest mountain peak in the area and back into town. There are many other routes in the booklet but they all include taxi drop-offs and pickups, I personally hate having to drive somewhere to start a hike, it goes against my whole ethos of walking in nature, so we avoided any routes that included driving.

The remaining 9 hikes routes have been photographed and displayed at the bottom of the post.

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General tips

  • The main tip given by our Airbnb host was not to walk in the woods at night because packs of wolves have been known to roam, apparently they can be heard in the evenings too! Fun but a little concerning if you're out there wild camping.

  • We read there were many bears in the reserve but local people believe that they live much further in the forest.

  • Take enough water because once you hit the nature reserve you won’t find any shops.

  • As always, pack for wind, rain and shine.

  • Pack lunch for walk 2 because you’ll be out all day.

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Walk 1 - Dilijan Roundabout To A (Very Small) Waterfall 

Difficulty: Medium - Due to slippery rocks that must be ascended to reach the waterfall

Time: 3 hours at slow pace

Equipment: Waterproof walking boots recommended

Here's Ali wondering down Dilijan's disused train line

Here's Ali wondering down Dilijan's disused train line

Description: What makes this an interesting walk is that it leads you along a disused train line, defunct power station and generally tired ex-Soviet warehouses that are ripe for some exploring. The path goes upstream aside a river becoming a standard up and down hike where the path can be hard to follow. It’s worth noting that there are two sections where you’ll need to clamber up wet rocks. This is a bit slippery and there is a risk of putting a foot into the stream (see picture below). We would only recommend this section for physically fit hikers. If you don’t fancy a potentially wet climb then you wouldn’t miss much by heading back to Dilijan at the first slippery rocks. 

Climbing down the slippery rocks

Climbing down the slippery rocks

Route:  

  • The hike will start from the roundabout where you’ll need to head north on the road leading to Ijevan but don’t worry you’ll soon be on a green, albeit industrial, train line with the sound of the road just a faint hum.

  • Follow the road from the roundabout for about 0.8 km until you see the sign for the Dilijan tourist information centre where you can pop in for a chat. When you’re finished head the opposite way up a small track (walking away from town) where you’ll see the train line running alongside the base of the nature reserve on your left.

  • Follow the track for 1.5 km, remember to enjoy the disused soviet train buildings and power station, until you spot a petrol station on the road below. Look left, you will see a path and some nondescript signage running along a stream, follow that stream.

  • When we walked the route in April 2018 it wasn’t clearly signed, just some labels on the trees. As more people walk the route I’m sure it will be better trodden. You may need to create your own path at times by walking through medium length grasses, always following the river upwards.

  • Early on the river will split, take the left-hand stream.

  • Remember to carefully ascend the two sets of slippery rocks that the river runs down, you’ll need to carefully climb up the rocks, this is where your waterproof boots are necessary! You might be able to climb over the sides but these look steep and just as treacherous.

  • After 1.5 km you’ll approach a sign that symbols the end of the walk and you’ll set eyes on the smallest waterfall ever! Enjoy the serene overflowing flora and head back to town for some fresh matnakash (bread) and butter with a glass of the local red.

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Walk 2 - Dilijan Loop

Difficulty: Hard -  Due to long climbs to the peak

Time: 6-8 hours at a medium pace

Equipment: Walking boots recommended, download ‘Maps.Me’ for reliable offline routes

Supplies: Bring food and water for whole day trek, this can be bought from Old Dilijan as you pass through in the morning.

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Description: The official guide supplies the most awful description on how to get there, I can only assume it was intended for driving because it was the longest possible way to get to the start of the walk. Use our simplified route below or Maps.Me to navigate the many upward roads out of Old Dilijan (or Upper Dilijan) to start off the hike. This walk is great, passing through farmland, streams, forest, open plains and mountains. It’s a long, and at times tiring, hike that leads you through some beautiful landscapes right to the highest mountain in the area. We didn’t see a single soul the entire walk, which was pretty cool considering that walks in most countries are very busy. The majority of paths are very clear and some even have TCT labelling, making the trail easy to follow.

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Route:

  • If you intend to walk the whole route then you should start your hike from the roundabout where you’ll need to head south east on the road that leads up to Old Dilijan, sometimes called Upper Dilijan. This route will zig zag up the hill eventually going north east, passing shops, schools, restaurants and the interesting hubbub of everyday Armenian life. Pick up affordable bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables, plus any sugary treats :-)

  • Look out for Kamarin Street on the right and then take the first left up Ordzhonikidze street. This road will take you close to the start of the trek. Be aware that it’s uphill and will take around 20 - 30 minutes.

  • When the road ends, turn right and you’ll spot yellow gas pipes snaking around the road like a frame. Keep walking upwards until the road becomes a dirt track, you’ll spot a tired looking sign that marks the start of the walk, with the hike starting on the left.

  • Begin by walking up a rough stone path for 100 metres until it forks, take the right path. Soon after, the path splits again into three, take the centre route (the right path is where you’ll return via at the end of the trek)

  • Walk for a few km passing picnic benches and farmland, the trail is actually a road used by agricultural vehicles and jeeps so it’s easy to follow.

  • That said, you must leave the road when you see a very small pond on the left, next to one of the farmers dwellings. We were lucky the lady in the farm pointed us the way, it was easy to miss so keep your eyes peeled. The trail heads right as you arrive at the farm with the pond and it passes upwards following a dry ravine. Keep walking up until you see a well trodden trail develop on the left, it may also be found on Maps.Me (but I don’t remember checking).

  • Once you’ve found the trail you will follow a well established path, follow it for about an hour or so; you’ll see TCT signs stapled to the trees the whole way, it’s very clear. When you reach a rocky stream you should follow it along o the left and take the established path up on the right. You’ll see that some people have clambered up the steep ledge, which we didn’t fancy!

  • The trail will pass through sparse forests and zig zag upwards, opening up at a large open plain with an awesome view of the mountain ahead that you’re about to climb.

  • Continue along the jeep tracks ahead of you, until you get to the base of the mountain.

  • The next bit is pretty obvious, climb the beast ahead of you. There’s no one way to climb up, we walked up the centre path and then up to the left and followed the ridge to the top. There’s a trail of sorts but you can easily freestyle.

  • It was chilly at the top so we had a quick lunch break and then carefully walked down the long grasses to find the well trodden path leading back to Dilijan, it was a clearly marked trail that the farmers still use.

  • You’ll walk for around an hour or so downwards, remember to check Maps.Me to make sure you’re walking towards the Old Dilijan start point, you can see the entire loop on the app.

  • With Dilijan in view the whole way it’s easy to navigate a route back to the town and you’ll get a nice vista too.

  • Success! You’ve arrived back in town, why not celebrate with some food in the lovely cafe no.2 near the roundabout?

Cafe number 2, Dilijan

Cafe number 2, Dilijan

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9 other walking routes in the Dilijan National Park

Did you find our hiking advice useful? Or perhaps you discovered your own trekking route in Dilijan? Have some top tips that you think we missed?

Let us know in the comments box at the bottom of the post...

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Laos: The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers

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Laos, the popular backpackers destination in South East Asia, well trodden since the late 90s.  A country of mountainous jungles, locals in traditional dress and cities so chilled out you may never want to leave.  The country is landlocked, making it slightly more expensive than its neighbours, but it’s still a great place to travel to if you are on a budget. 

Laos

We spent 3 weeks there, covering the 2 main cities Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and then moving onto the hilly countryside in the trekking capital Luang Namtha, the jungles of the Nam Ha National Park, the mountainous Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi village.  We have put this itinerary together for a 2 week trip, but if you have more time then you can definitely space it out over a 3 week trip like we did.  We hope you enjoy our itinerary and let us know if you use it! We would love to hear how it went.

 

Day 1-2

Vientiane 

It’s likely that your flight will come into Vientiane as it’s the capital of Laos.  However, we wouldn’t recommend spending much time there, especially if you are planning to head to Luang Prabang which is a lot more scenic.  Vientiane is known as one of the most chilled out and least populated capital cities in Southeast Asia, and that it is, but it’s also pretty unloved, very touristy and we didn’t find it particularly interesting.  

One of the nicer bits!

One of the nicer bits!

Get your hostel to book your sleeper bus to Luang Prabang on the evening of day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  Tickets cost around 180,000 kip (£15.50) per person for a VIP bus which is a lot comfier than the regular bus.  There's no point in slumming it when you can go VIP for a couple of pounds more!

 

What To Do There

We have written up the bits that we did enjoy in the article below in case you do find yourself mooching round Vientiane…..

Laos: Top Things To Do In Vientiane

Our favourite things were learning to weave in the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women, drinking the delicious Laotian coffee, and exploring the city on bikes.  There are quite a few markets you can visit, with the most famous one for tourists being set up every evening by the Mekong river.  The Mekong River is also known for its stunning sunsets, so make sure you get down there one evening with a beer in hand.

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in Ali Backpackers which was perfectly fine, basic and very cheap compared to other hostels.  The location was where most of the touristy cafes and bars are situated.  It cost 133,000 kip (£11.40) per night with breakfast included.  The staff are friendly and can arrange your onward journey but boat or bus.  It wasn't the most inspiring of hostels, but a cheap find in the capital.

 

Where To Eat

We ate in Phakhao restaurant which specialises in traditional Laotian and Thai food.  All dishes were really tasty and actually the stand-out one was a cooked Laotian sausage served with raw garlic, chilli and ginger slices!  We would never munch on raw garlic at home but when teamed with sausage it really was a dream. There are loads of French-style bakeries to grab a coffee and fresh croissant in, and we stopped off in Le Banneton which did delicious pastries.  For true Laotian coffee, just look out for the condensed milk cans stacked up on the street vendors stalls and you will find yourself a punch-packing cup of sweetened coffee.

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

 

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Day 3

Luang Prabang

Take an overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang on day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  The overnight bus takes around 10-12 hours.  The journey is pretty tough for those prone to travel sickness, the roads are incredibly windy and we had a driver that was heavy on the accelerator and break pedals.  If you opt for the VIP bus then you get your own sleeping chair/pod and it’s 3 people spaced out across the width of the bus.  Check out the neon lights on this bus!

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Have a hostel booked for when you arrive in Luang Prabang so you can head straight there early in the morning.  There are lots of tuk tuks outside of the bus station ferrying people into town, but we decided to walk because it was only a few kilometres away from our hostel.  Remember to haggle if you choose to catch a ride.  Before you leave the bus station, try to book a minibus for the next morning going to Luang Namtha.

Luang Prabang is a really popular city with expats and tourists and it’s easy to see why.  It’s chilled out vibe and location next to the scenic Mekong river is a clear pull for lots of travellers, and it has something for everyone.  Those wanting to enjoy a bucket or two will find lots of cool hang-out bars tucked away in the side streets, and for the more adventurous it’s possible to trek straight into the jungle from the city.  Although we thought Luang Prabang had a nice feel to it, we found it very touristy and in places it was difficult to see any local culture because it’s so developed with western-style bars.  We would still recommend going though, and it’s a much nicer place to be over it’s ugly sister city Vientiane.  For now just spend one night in Luang Prabang because you will be coming back here at the end of the trip.  If you weren’t able to book a mini van to Luang Namtha whilst you were at the bus station then get your hostel to book it for you. They will take a bit of a commission but a tuk tuk will be included to get you to the bus station.

View of Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang

 

What To Do

There are loads of things to do in and around Luang Prabang depending on what your interests are and how much time you have.  We were happy not to do much when we were there other than to just soak up the atmosphere and wonder around a bit.  You can do jungle trekking from here on organised tours, trips down the Mekong river by kayak or boat, cookery classes, visit numerous exquisite Buddhist temples, mountain biking, a trip over the rickety bamboo bridge, visiting the handicraft night market.  You could easily spend a week there exploring what it has to offer and relaxing.  There is also the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls which is a lovely trip for a morning or afternoon.  The turquoise coloured waters are absolutely stunning and if you bring your costume you can go for a dip!  Again your hostel should be able to arrange transport for you, expect to pay around 40,000 kip (£3.40) for a minivan return journey.  Entry to the waterfall is an additional 20,000 kip (£1.70).

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in ThaViSouk hostel which was ok.  The staff are really friendly and helpful, but our dorm room wasn’t the most comfortable because it was baking hot at night.  It cost 54,000 kip (£4.65) for a dorm bed per person per night, and that seemed to be the cheapest we could find online, and double rooms in Luang Prabang were generally much more expensive.  When we came back to Luang Prabang later on in the trip, we opted to splash out for a few nights over Christmas in a place called Frangipani.  This guesthouse is wonderful, the staff are really sweet and the room we stayed in was very pimping with its own balcony and view of the Mekong.  This set us back 332,000 kip (£28.50) per night, but that was an inflated price over the festive period.  We would 100% recommend staying there!

 

Where to Eat

There is honestly hundreds of restaurants and cafes you can eat in, so choosing a good one would not be so difficult.  We opted for quite a few meals in local Laotian noodles kitchens, and other outdoor eateries where you can pick up a Thai curry with rice for as little as 25,000 kip (£2.15).  At the west end of the night market, there are lots of food stalls selling pre-plated dishes for the bargain price of 10,000 kip (85p) each, and you can choose from fried rice, noodles, spring rolls and also bbq’ed goods on sticks which cost a bit more.  There are lots of fresh juice and smoothy stalls for 10,000 kip (85p) a drink, and the Redbull Bar (sports bar) offers 2 draught beers for 15,000 kip (£1.50) which was the cheapest we saw.  Our favourite cheap eat however was a Chinese noodle kitchen we found on Khem Khonsu road at the Kitsalat road crossover where you could get a delicious tasting bowl of noodles, meat and fresh vegetables for only 20,000 kip (£1.70).  We must say that the Chinese noodles are a lot tastier than the Laotian equivalent! For a bit of a splash out meal, we would recommend the local Riverside BBQ Restaurant on Khem Khong road which is an all you can eat buffet and cook it yourself restaurant.  The food was incredibly fresh and you could opt for a whole array of ingredients from fresh prawns to 4 types of mushroom. It was 65,000 kip £5.60 per person which is an amazing price when you think about it!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

 

Day 4

Luang Namtha

On the morning of day 4 take a minibus out of Luang Prabang and head for Luang Namtha, the trekking capital of Laos.  Again the roads are pretty tough, winding round hills and the surface can be pretty bad.  It takes approx 8 hours with a fast driver and costs 130,000 kip (£11.15) when booked through a hostel.

Luang Namtha has just one main strip of shops, hotels and tour operators, so when you arrive late afternoon just head to one of the tour operators to look into treks. 

 

What To Do

Luang Namtha itself isn’t anything special, but it is the gateway to jungle treks in the stunning Nam Ha National Park and lots of other outdoorsy activities such as kayaking, zip lining, mountain biking etc.  Depending on how many days you want to trek for and what your budget is, you will be able to find a tour that suits you.  After doing some research online we heard that you really get what you pay for and it’s not worth going dirt cheap.  We chose to do a 3 day tour with Laos Forest Retreat because their reviews were the best on Trip Advisor and we would say from experience that they did deliver.  On signing up for the tour, we didn’t know if anyone else would be joining us, but luckily another 3 people signed on and we were ready to go the next morning with 5 people.  It cost $105 each for 3 days including everything from food to kayaking, to guides and accommodation.  There are definitely tours cheaper than this available with other companies, and the more people that sign up the cheaper it is.  A good thing to do is to visit each of the operators and find out what tours people have already signed up for.

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Where To Stay

There are loads of places to stay in Luang Namtha and we would advise just turning up and booking it there and then for the best deal.  Prices of rooms can be negotiated down and we managed to get a double room with our own bathroom and aircon for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night down from the first price of 80,000 kip (£6.85).

 

Where To Eat

The best place we found to eat for budget travellers was at the night market, where you can find a bowl of Laotian noodles for 10,000 kip (85p).  The eateries at the front closest by the entrance seem to be the most expensive and the cheaper ones are at the back.  They also have stalls for bbq’ed banana with coconut inside and crepes, but we found both of them dry and a bit disappointing!  The food however on the jungle trek was so amazing, fresh and tasty.  It was probably some of the best food we ate in Laos!

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

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Day 5-8

Nam Ha National Park

We opted for a 3 day trek through the national park with a morning of kayaking through one of the rivers.  On the morning of day 5, we headed to our tour operators office first thing for breakfast and then they drove us an hour out to start our trek in the national park. Trekking in the jungle is amazing and is very different to all the other treks we have done previously in mountainous regions and countryside.  It feels really wild and is a lot of fun! 

Day 1 one of the tour was mostly trekking and eating some delicious food our guides had prepared.  That night we stayed in a homestay at a village in the middle of the jungle and got a glimpse into jungle life.  

Day 2 of the tour was a morning of kayaking down a river, tackling a few rapids and stopping off at some remote villages along the way.  We would thoroughly recommend a bit of kayaking in your tour package.  The afternoon was spent trekking up to a viewpoint and then back down to our next village for a nights rest. We watched the guides cook some food on the fire including frogs they had caught from the river! 

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

Day 3 was the most challenging of treks and we walked for quite a few hours until we got to picked up and taken back to Luang Namtha by our guides.  We have written up our experience of the jungle which you may helpful...

Laos: 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle, by Studio Mali

When you get back from the tour, spend one more night in Luang Namtha before heading to Nong Khiaw the next morning.  You can book your minibus ticket to Nong Khiaw from one of the tour operators on the high street.  It costs around 65,000 kip (£5.60) per person with a transfer to the bus station included.

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Day 9-10

Nong Khiaw

On day 9, take a minibus early to Nong Khiaw which is 6 hours drive away.  Nong Khiaw is a beautiful sleepy town set on the Nam Ou River with the backdrop of the lusciously green limestone mountains.  It is the perfect place to unwind for a few days, with the option of exploring the area by boat or foot.  It doesn’t feel as touristy as Luang Prabang or Vientiane, but there are enough small restaurants and cafes that cater to western tastes.

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

 

What To Do

There are many organised treks that you can do from here including the popular 100 Waterfalls Trek which is a day trip.  We booked this through Tiger Trail for 200,000 kip (£17.20) per person and there was 6 people in our group.  We had a fun time doing the 100 Waterfalls trek, and ended up facing some fears after getting a bit piddled on jungle juice.  Read about our experience here...

Laos - Jungle Juice, Waterfalls And Facing Fears In Nong Khiaw, By Studio Mali

Our personal highlight in Nong Khiaw was climbing up to the 360 degree viewpoint which overlooks the town and landscape.  It’s a 40 minute accent if you are fit and used to trekking, and we would highly recommend heading there for sunset.  We heard that the steam room and massage place on the way to the viewpoint was good, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit, maybe next time!  You can also do a trip out by boat to another small town called Muang Ngoi which we will chat about later.

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

 

Where To Stay

There is loads of accommodation in Nong Khiaw and some can be found at very good prices.  We would say just turn up and find something there and then.  We chose to stay about a ten minute walk from the station in our first guesthouse which was nice because we got a river view bamboo hut overlooking the town on the other side of the water.  The hut had its own balcony which caught the afternoon rays. The second place we stayed at was on the other side of the bridge, again close to the water but the view wasn’t quite as good and it didn’t get the afternoon sun.  Both rooms cost 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night and were basic bamboo huts with WiFi and a hot shower.

 

Where To Eat

You must eat at Delilah’s for breakfast.  They have an incredible menu to choose from of pancakes, porridge, cooked breakfasts, baguettes, granola and nearly everything is homemade including the bread.  Breakfast range from 20,000 kip (£1.70) to 35,000 kip (£3.00).  They also have some very tasty homemade cakes that are served all day till 11pm including apple crumble with coconut ice cream and banoffee pie.  For dinner, we would recommend eating at Coco’s, the food is fresh and tasty and the setting is nice.  We opted for river weed, river fish and yellow curry all of which were very good, but the stand out dishes were the papaya salad and mango coconut sticky rice for pudding.  There is also a tasty Indian restaurant on the other side of the bridge on the left hand side which is worth a visit.  

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

 

Day 11

Muang Ngoi

Catch the 10.30am boat to Muang Ngoi from Nong Khiaw boat station.  The trip takes about 1 hour 20 mins on a local boat and costs 25,000 kip (£2.15).  The boat ride isn’t so comfortable, but the views make up for it.  Mango Ngoi is a scenic little town further along the river, and is much less developed than Nong Khiaw.  There aren’t any cars there, only bikes, and so it’s a very peaceful place to walk around.  Again, it’s set against the backdrop of the stunning limestone cliffs, and the dirt roads running through the village make you feel as though you’re stepping back in time.  We stayed for only one night here, but really it is probably better to stay for 2, because you only really get a half day to explore the surrounding area.  When you awake the next morning, you need to get down to the boat station for 8am sharp to make sure you book your tickets that morning for the return boat to Nong Khiaw.  It was really busy at 8am when it opens and you don’t want to risk getting stuck in Muang Ngoi.  The boat leaves at 9.30am, and is 1 hour 20 mins back to Nong Khiaw.

Muang Ngoi

Muang Ngoi

 

What To Do

There are plenty of walks to do from the village.  A popular one is to head towards Tham Kang Cave which takes 40 minutes, and then onto a much more remote village called Bana where you will be greeted by smiling locals (a further 30 minutes).  The walk takes around 3 hours total there and back with some time spent in the cave and village, so will take up most of the afternoon.  There is a viewpoint you can ascend which is a sweaty 1.5 hours up, we didn’t get a chance to do it but we heard it was a stunner.  You can also hire bikes to explore more of the surrounding villages, including Bana, Huay Bo and Huay Sen.  Muang Ngoi is a quiet village, but there are plenty of restaurants and bars catering to westerners, so if you are happy to relax in a bar for a few hows enjoying the sunshine then you will have a great time here.  The locals are a little unfriendly but hey, you can’t have everything!

 

Where To Sleep

As soon as you get off the boat you will be approached by many locals trying to offer you a room for the night.  You can either follow one of them, or you can continue walking straight ahead into town to try and find your own place to stay.  We weren’t really that fussed where we were sleeping (as long as it was cheap) so we followed one of the local ladies to Aloune Guesthouse where we stayed in a wooden bungalow for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night with a river view.  You can’t get much better than that!  We also read online that if you are after an even cheaper room for the night then if you ask around to the owners of restaurants then sometimes you can bag yourself a double room for 20,000 kip (£1.70). When looking for a room, you just need to find out if they have hot showers, electricity, a mosquito net and wifi if you want it.

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

 

Where To Eat

The Bee Tree Restaurant at the very end of the highstreet does amazing food and cocktails, and every day from 5pm they do a happy hour.  The setting is really lovely, they have a cool hang out space in the garden and they get a fire going later on when it gets a bit chilly.  We opted for the Laos Laos Sours, which were 2 for 25,000 kip (£2.15), and a few hours down the line we had gotten through 5 each, recorded a Christmas quiz for our friends at home, and had munched on some Laotian curries which went done a bit too well!  We wish every town had a Bee Tree restaurant.  We also saw a place on the main strip that did wood fired pizzas but it wasn’t open that evening for whatever reason.  Breakfast in Riverside Bar and Restaurant was also nice, we opted for a fruit porridge made of rice, pineapple, banana and coconut, and we think condensed milk because it tasted so naughty!  We saw there was an all you can eat breakfast for 20,000 kip (£1.83) if you book the night before just on the main strip, but didn’t get a chance to visit.

 

 

Unique designs, that you can’t find on the highstreet….

Day 12

Nong Khiaw 

Take the 9.30am boat back to Nong Khiaw which will take around 1 hour 20 mins.  Enjoy the last boat ride down the very scenic Nam Ou river, it’s very James Bond in places.  If you want to at this point, you can head straight to the bus station and take a minivan or tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang, but we chose to stay another day in the chilled out Nong Khiaw.

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

 

Day 13-14

Luang Prabang

First thing in the morning, make your way over to the bus station in Nong Khiaw.  Your options are to either get a 4 hour ride crammed in a tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang (which sounds like our idea of hell), or to get one of the mini vans which take only 3 hours in much more comfortable seats.  The first minivan starts at around 7.30am, and everything gets booked up pretty fast! As soon as a tuk tuk or van gets filled, it will just leave regardless of what time it was scheduled in for.  So the last minivan for the day was scheduled in for 1.30pm, but actually it left at 11.30am!  Both cost between 40,000/50,000 kip (£3.66-£4.57) and sometimes they may make you pay for empty seats if you want to leave earlier then the scheduled time.  

Whatever you fancy doing on your last couple of days in Laos you will be able to find it in the chilled out traveller haven of Luang Prabang.  

A Luang Prabang sunset

A Luang Prabang sunset

 

Other Things To Note:

Chilly Nights

It can get really cold in Laos at night times, especially out in the countryside, so make sure you take some warm clothing and maybe a sleeping bag if you tend to get very cold at night.  Many nights it was around 3 degrees when we were sleeping in bamboo huts and in the jungle, so make sure you aren’t freezing like we were!

 

Land Mines

Laos is surprisingly the most bombed country in the world and there are still thousands of unexploded land mines scattered across the landscape.  It’s not necessarily something to worry about but something that you should be aware of.  Just make sure that you always stick to the trekking paths and always go with a local guide.

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

 

Grub

We wouldn’t say that the Laotian food is the tastiest ever but there are plenty of authentic Thai dishes to choose from at tourists restaurants.  You can’t go wrong with a Thai curry!

 

Tourist Central

If you are looking for somewhere to travel to that is quiet of tourists then this isn’t the place for you.  There is such a traveller hub in the cities that sometimes it can be hard to see the local way of life.  Although we liked Laos and thought that the countryside was very stunning, we have preferred travelling around other neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand. It sometimes feels as though the Laotian way of life has stopped for the tourists, which is a bit sad.  

 

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Yubeng: A Hidden Retreat Where Time Stands Still

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It’s quite hard to describe what a haven Yubeng is. The quintessential sanctuary in the mountains that takes days to reach by coach with the last hurdle of the journey having to be completed on foot. It separates the tourists from the explorers and for that reason it is a sacred place in the Chinese tourism machine. Getting there is not a walk in the park, more so a walk up the peak, but logistics aside this is a truly special place and we will long feel privileged to have such fantastic memories of this secluded mountain getaway.

 

Yubeng At A Glance

  • Recommended time of travel is October/November but we visited in early December and the snow added a magic tough to the treks.
  • You will need to get yourself to Deqin via a 5 hour coach journey from Shangri-La.  You can travel to Shangri-La by bus or plane.
  • Shangri-La To Deqin bus costs 150 yuan pp (£16) and the return journey is the same.
  • Most people stay in Feilai Si for one night for its views of the Meili Mountain Range, our Shangri-La bus driver took us to Feilai Si for an extra 10 yuan pp (£1.10)
  • Our hotel organised a driver who took a carpool of walkers to Ninong for 22 yuan pp (£2.50) 
  • At time of writing we could only enter via the village Ninong but historically most enter by the neighbouring village of Xidang and then exit down to Ninong. Dec 2017 - Farmers closed the Xidang route to Yubeng due to a tax dispute with Yubeng residents!
  • Take the walking path route with water pipe and go left, follow for 15km until you reach Yubeng.
  • We booked accommodation in Lower Yubeng on arrival, as most trekkers do. There is also accommodation in Upper Yubeng, further up the hill, if you have enough energy.
  • Bring all weather equipment, pack light and bring walking snacks to keep costs down.
  • Walking poles are helpful in icy weather.
Tibetan flags on the way up to the waterfall 

Tibetan flags on the way up to the waterfall 

Enter Into Deqin

Before we could get to the shabby mountain village of Deqin, we had to come through Shangri-La which steals/ borrows the name from James Hilton’s literature of the 1930s Lost Horizon. In reality Shangri-La is a colder and less populated Lijiang which is definitely worth a day of wondering around, but don’t expect the earth shattering wilderness described in Hilton’s book.

Although..... you might find this mountain oasis on the Tibetan border in the secluded village of Yubeng! Start by boarding a morning bus to Deqin and expect to arrive mid afternoon. A group of us were looking to get to Feilai Si and our driver said he would take us another 10 minutes up the road for 10 yuan each, signalled to us through a wave of a note and a finger towards a mountain - how could we resist?  The views on the way to Deqin are pure mountainous bliss and the road is new so no loose rock cliff edges to fear! 

Sunrise on the Meili Mountain range from Feilai Si

Sunrise on the Meili Mountain range from Feilai Si

Feilai Si And The Meili Mountain Range

It’s not advised to stay in Deqin as it has little to offer tourists, so make your way to Feilai Si where you will find outstanding views of the Meili Mountain range and the monstrous Khawakarpo peak. To view the Meili range you’ll be asked to cough up a rather steep 60 yuan pp (£6.60) for the privilege of stepping onto the photo friendly wooden pavilion. The ticket allows you to enter the space for 3 days but most people stay in Feilai Si for just a night, it’s probably worth the price for the chance of a great sunset and sunrise. If you’re travelling on the cheap you can follow the hideous view-blocking brick wall down the road where it recedes, here you can get a free view. Our hotel, which cost only 90 yuan (£9.90) for a double room, kindly organised a friendly faced Tibetan man to pick us up at 8.30am the next day. The late start gave us time to brave the minus degrees and watch the sun rise on the Meili range. It was a stunning start to the day.

Ninong village next to the Mekong River

Ninong village next to the Mekong River

Day 1: Feilai Si To Ninong 

Anyone with a 2015 Lonely Planet will read that the recommend route into Yubeng is via Xidang but as of December 2017 the route from Xidang to Yubeng has been closed due to a dispute between villages, it’s all very parochial! The Ninong to Lower Yubeng route is more challenging than the Xidang route so make sure you’ve had your Weatabix, or rice porridge! Our drive from Feilai Si to Ninong took 45 mins and passed through Deqin. The drive passed smoothly and safely until the last part where our carpool of 7 was taken off-road down a mountainside track. Lumpy bumpy, to and fro, the road zig zagged down until we reached the walking entrance where an unofficial looking local asked us for 80 yuan (£8.80) each. We got a paper ticket which you’ll definitely need when entering Yubeng, so discard at your costly peril.

A view on the way up to Yubeng

A view on the way up to Yubeng

Day 1: Ninong Village And A 15k Trek Up To Yubeng

The trekking route up to Yubeng made us realise why so few people were there. It’s a relatively long route up made worse because you need to carry your kit and supplies, this makes the last few hours very draining. Don’t worry about vistas, the landscapes change a lot across the day. It starts dry and arid but as soon as you pass into the gorge the landscape becomes lush and green, the gorge expanding at every turn. I truly felt like I was back on the Torres Del Paine in Chile. The trek is well signposted all the way up, any splits in the path meet up again later, they are normally shortcuts for motorbikes. We carried all of our backpacking equipment which could have been an error. We could have left it in a hotel in Deqin and picked it up on the return. The heavy bags made it a leg wobbling final climb up into Lower Yubeng, I know that sounds paradoxical, but all the pain was worth it. Yubeng sits at 3.2km above sea level and we felt mild altitude sickness, which was mainly shortness of breath on the last ascent into the village. 

The view from our guesthouse window

The view from our guesthouse window

Day 1: Where To Stay? Lower Or Upper Yubeng?

On arrival in Yubeng we were gifted with placid views of grazing animals who outnumber the locals 5:1, a stupe, temple and guesthouses. It felt like we’d just gone back in time and that this place was far more deserving of the name Shangri-La.  This haven would be our home for the next 4 days.  China’s recommended time to visit is Oct/Nov but we reached Yubeng in December as the snow was starting to turn the landscape white and magical, who doesn’t love looking at snow capped mountains? There are two treks to complete from Yubeng village, one to a waterfall from lower and the frozen lake from upper. It makes sense to stay in the lower part to avoid carrying your bags for a further 40 minutes to Upper Yubeng. So with that sentiment we stayed in the first guesthouse on the right as you enter Lower Yubeng. Dorms were 30 yuan (£3.30) and a double is 200 yuan (£22). The food is great, all fresh and visible in the fridge but the star of the show is the huge pots of yak butter tea, 20 yuan (£2.20) for a medium and 30 yuan (£3.30) for a large. They have freshly cooked flatbreads for 10 yuan and supplies if you need them. Dinner was 90-100 yuan per night for 2, and was a meat dish, 2 veg dishes and rice, which was much cheaper and tastier than the tosh on Huangshan mountain. 

Yak butter milk tea and freshly cooked bread

Yak butter milk tea and freshly cooked bread

Day 2: Rest day

We checked the weather forecast on arrival with rain and snow forecast for Yubeng in a weather attack that would last all day. So we opted for a rest day to escape minus 5 temperatures! We sat in bed with our electric blankets on as the rooms had no heating. It was so cold the windows were frozen but somehow the internet in the mountains was lightning quick so we could feel clever watching TED talks. A leak in our bathroom meant that we had to wade through water every time we wanted to go to the loo with squelching slippers. In a place this beautiful you have to take the rough with smooth.

Mark in awe of the flags and the view

Mark in awe of the flags and the view

Day 3: Tibetan Flags And Frozen Waterfalls

Lower Yubeng to the waterfall and back takes about 5 hours. This is a magical walk through Tibetan flags up to the waterfall view point. As it had snowed all day on our rest day we awoke to fresh white stuff but with crisp sun and a clear view of the mountains. We endured a few hours of uphill trekking, with the altitude causing some shortness of breath. As we reached the waterfall the snow was melting making the climb very slippery. Without walking poles, Mark would have been like Bambi on ice. The waterfall itself had frozen over but the spectacle of Tibetan flags, snowy mountains and occasionally chunks of ice/snow crashing down from the waterfall was epic. On our decent we noticed a temple tucked away in a cave, which made the return journey more interesting. We celebrated the day with a round of yak butter milk tea and homemade bread, the perfect treat.

Ali in amongst the Tibetan flags

Ali in amongst the Tibetan flags

Day 4: Slippery Climb To An Icy Lake

This is a longer trek, an 8 hour route up and back down that has been made much tougher because of the freezing weather. The path from Lower to Upper Yubeng follows a stream which had flooded, the whole path was black ice so we passed with caution. The route from Upper Yubeng starts by passing a big stupe and lots of yaks before making our way through some woodlands on flat ground.  A big chunk of the next hike is uphill through woodlands, the snow and ice have frozen over so acrobatics are needed to jaunt trees around the frozen water. All the hard work is rewarded with an outstanding view of the Meili Snow Mountains and a glacier.  Here it’s downward for a short while until we reached a meadow, which could undoubtedly be camped on in the summer. From the meadow we are guided to the left to access the glacier lake but it’s so snowy and slippery it's nearly impossible to get up.  At 3900m high and the potential for twisting ankles, we are concerned about being able to get back down again safely and so will need to find another route or risk some off-piste skiing.

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Day 4: Frozen Aqua

After a difficult last stretch we reach the glacier lake, which is a stunning solid frozen mass surrounded by mountains and glaciers above the peaks. It’s a sacred lake and many people have braved the difficult climb to drink the water and walk around it three times clockwise for Buddha. We walk around once looking for another route down that avoids the dangerous icy path we just came up from, deciding to follow the rushing river down by scrambling over the many chunky rocks either side. It’s a fun route and loads safer than our way up, but Mark gets a little cocksure and accidentally dunks his foot into the ice cold water! Squelching downwards, we spot a curios chipmunk who is very interested in us (and our snacks).  Before walking through Upper Yubeng we sit and enjoy the view of lush lands, grazing yaks and bright sunshine.  It is total bliss here. The animals have bells on which creates a simple and relaxing music to our experience. As we are sitting eating a snickers, a donkey comes right up to Mark and puts his face next to his. The donkey continues his journey and we start thinking about butter tea again...  it's just so good!

A cow on the road, just don't call her daisy!

A cow on the road, just don't call her daisy!

Day 5: Descending....

We don’t know how long the exit will take so we leave at 9am with speed in mind. It’s lucky we left early because half an hour before leaving there is a power cut. We're prepared we’ve just had our coffees, pot noodles and charged up our electronics! Yubeng returns to dark ages just as we escape back to reality. We had a real stand out moment on the high pass back to the entrance as a curious goat walked with us for around 15 minutes. He was like our shadow, a jumpy little friend who would accompany us most of the way back to the Mekong River. 

.... And Exiting

We literally zoomed down to Ninong, arriving at 12pm as the route is downhill the whole way. Even luckier still, there was a cab waiting to go that costs 150 yuan (£16) for a 7 seater (which is pretty expensive) so we decide to wait for another walker. Luckily a lady turns up 10 mins later and we get on our way to Deqin, splitting the fare 3 ways. The cab lady tells us that the last bus to Shangri-La leaves at 2.40pm, which gives us an hour and a half to buy tickets and grab some lunch in Deqin.

Day 5: The Road To Shangri-La 

The return coach journey is the worst ever as the driver bangs on his favourite Chinese house tunes, it’s so obnoxiously loud. We escape to our memories of Yubeng, imaging the locals gearing up for winter, storing their hay, drying out foods, looking after their animals.  Every building is like a farm.  As you walk down the cobbled streets between Upper and Lower Yubeng, you are joined by wild donkeys or horses carrying supplies, cows grazing. As we sipped our favourite buttery tea 4 chickens came into the restaurant and clucked around.  Later we gaze out the window watching the pigs waiting at the gate of our guesthouse to be fed. This place has all the drama!  One afternoon we saw a piglet get pushed off the side of the path about a meter drop into the pond... wet swine!

Walking down to Yubeng.... oh how we miss you!

Walking down to Yubeng.... oh how we miss you!

Yubeng is so simple, modest and beautiful.  It’s truly the closest we’ve been to finding the real Shangri-La. We would love for everyone to experience this place.  It’s a long journey to get there, but worth every magical second.

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Russia: Arshan - An Escape To The Siberian Mountains

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A beautiful Buddhist town at the foot of the Sayan mountains, this stunning backdrop has an aura of tranquility and an unbeatable charm.  The brightly painted houses in hues of blue and greens spectacularly contrast with the crimson and yellows of the autumn leaves, and the pot-holed dirt tracks give an air of decay and timelessness.  On the cusp where Russia meets Mongolia sits this sleepy village, which is a strange cultural mix of people, traditions, architecture and food, that all interestingly intertwine to form this uniquely special place.  Take some time to get to know the friendly locals, the stunning setting, and you will be pushed to find a more welcoming place to visit.

The sleepy mountain spa village of Arshan

The sleepy mountain spa village of Arshan

Top Things To Do

 

Drink From The Buddha

Walk up the market strip just to the East of the river and just as the stalls start to thin out you can see a shrine in the woodlands and thousands of coloured ribbons tied to the trees.  This is probably one of the most special places we have visited, incredibly spiritual, and not forgetting serene.  If you wonder through the woodlands towards the river you should be able to spot a few locals filling up their water bottles from the Buddha, which is actually a natural mineral spring. The taste of the water is quite extraordinary!  The iron and minerals really come through, it's very rich and almost tastes carbonated.  So fill up your bottle here and enjoy the natural scenery.

 
Natural mineral water from the spring

Natural mineral water from the spring

 

Relax In a Mineral Bath

Just a small amount of time in the natural mineral bath is wonderfully relaxing, and if you are wild camping like us then you can get a sneaky wash in…. bonus!  At the same end of town as the Buddha spring, there is one of the indoor hot spring spas, and on the opposite end of town is the other. They are sort of health centres so do other things like physio and massage in the same building.  It costs 250r (£3.20) for a hot mineral bath which lasts about 10 mins. The mineral water is naturally exfoliating so expect to shed a bit of dead skin in the tub!  We thought that the 10 minute time limit may be to do with the fact that any longer and you might not have any skin left!  Wear a swimsuit that you don't care for much, as it does end up a bit red from the iron in the water.

Mark bathing in the hot mineral bath

Mark bathing in the hot mineral bath

Trek Up The Mountain of Love

This is Arshan’s treasure, an accessible mountain with a stunning view of the vast valley below.  The trek takes around 6 hours up and down, and requires a good level of fitness.  We would say the trek is ‘challenging’ because it's a constant steep incline, but if you are willing to put in the hard work then the views are well worth it. Maybe reconsider in wet weather though as the ground is crumbly in places.  The trek starts from the top of town after walking through the public park. If you stick to the main gravel track through the park towards the mountains then after about 5-10 minutes you will get to the beginning of the hike. It's not very well signposted but you can tell it's a route because the ground is well trodden and people have tied ribbons on the trees.  Enjoy some of the best views we have ever seen from a mountain!

A scenic trek up the mountain of love

A scenic trek up the mountain of love

Visit The Waterfall

It is a pretty woodland walk in the valley up to the waterfall with coloured ribbons tied to the trees that dance in the wind. This is a lovely place to pitch up for a spot of lunch and is only a short wander from the town.  Someone may or not be there on the way up to collect a 50r (60p) fee for entry.  Look out for wildlife here, we were lucky enough to see chipmunks, woodpeckers and black squirrels.  

 
The waterfall in the valley

The waterfall in the valley

 

Hear The Singing Monk

The Buddhist monastery on the West side of town is a must-see for any traveller.  It is a place where locals come together to practice Buddhism with their leader, and the temple itself is beautifully located at the foot of the mountains in the woodlands.  Follow the dirt track up through the woods just to the West of the river, after about 5-10 minutes you will see some ribbons tied to the trees and hundreds of rocks balanced on top of one another.  Carry on down the path and you will find the temple in an open clearing. On our visit to the temple was a monk sitting at one of the staggered tables in the centre of the room, chanting a ritualistic song that he was reciting from his pages below. The tables were decorated with brightly coloured silk fabrics, all layered and stacked on top of one another, and small instruments were carefully arranged as part of the practice.  We took a seat at the side of the room and watched the monk chant his daily tune!  

 
The Buddhist Monastery

The Buddhist Monastery

 

Camping & Accommodation

We found a spot to pitch our tent in a wooded area next to the Kyngyrga River and quite close to the road because the ground was flatter, but if you want a bit more privacy then you can follow the river down a bit further. The spot we chose also had a section of denser tree coverage which is perfect for toilet stops!  Even though we were camping in quite an obvious place, no-one bothered us other than a local once asked for a cigarette.  The cows were the only ones that came over to say hi in the night time. Having said that, we would recommend taking any valuables with you when leaving the tent.  There are lots of signs of people having fires there, just remember to keep it contained because you are in woodlands.

Camping in the woods by the Kyngyrga River

Camping in the woods by the Kyngyrga River

Another great option for accommodation is to do a homestay.  Any building that has the sign outside can offer a room for the night at a great price. If you get approached by women as you get off the bus trying to offer you a room it's worth knowing that the price is high and can be negotiated down. They start pitching at 1500r (£19) per night and within a couple of minutes it may drop down to 350r (£4.50). I believe you can get it even cheaper if you hunt around at other local places.  

 

Food & Drink

There are plenty of supermarkets to pick up supplies and ample places to eat out from, so there really is no need to bring food with you.  Dinning out is super cheap, hearty, and a main dish will set you back around 100r (£1.30).  We ordered 2 mains, a side dish, a huge bowl of 10 dumplings, 2 beers and our bill came to 460r (£5.80)….. bargain!  We would recommend trying any of the local beef dishes, pastries and pancakes with condensed milk.  The local beer is also a winner!  It seems as though you can get away with having a drink on the street here because it is a very quiet town, but that it not the case in all areas of Russia so be careful of where you choose to drink.  If you get caught with a beer on the street in Irkutsk then you can get arrested on the spot, eek!

Local supplies from the corner shop

Local supplies from the corner shop

 

When To Go

We visited at a wonderful time of year in mid September because it is coming into autumn and the trees are turning brilliant shades of yellow. The weather is also pleasant at this time, sunny most of the days and not too hot. At night time it can get a bit chilly going down to about 3 degrees, so be prepared if camping. It's also just nearing the end of the tourist season so everywhere is quiet and most places have closed up for winter. It means that you get to enjoy everything in peace and share the experience with the locals.  Summer is an obvious time to visit given that the weather will be much more balmy, but the small town may be busy with tourists so will feel a bit less zen.  

 
The Autumn leaves

The Autumn leaves

 

 

How Long To Visit For

We had 2 full days here and 2 half days which was a good amount of time, but you could probably cut that back to 2 full days and you will have seen all of the key bits.

 

Getting There and Away

From Irkutsk, if you head to the Central Bus Station at 8am then you can book a coach journey to Arshan for 8.45am for 400r (£5) per person at the kiosk. You can get them to book the return journey there also. The bus leaves Arshan daily at 2pm so just note down the date and time you want to return on a piece of paper if you can't speak Russian and they will be able to arrange it for you. You will get given a paper ticket for each journey with the date and time on so just check it before leaving.  Expect the big coach to take between 4-5 hours which includes a few stop offs for food and toilet breaks.

There are also lots of guys outside the Central Bus Station who will be filling up minivans to Arshan and will approach you before entering. The only thing with these guys though is you may not be able to secure a return journey and I think the coach is slightly cheaper because it's slower (and safer as a result!).

There is plenty of snacks to munch on at the cafes at the bus stop offs.  Most of the baked goods are laid out on the top counter so you can just point to which one you want and they will heat it up for you. It's always fun trying to guess what each one is, most of the time though it does tend to be pastry with some sort of minced meat in it.  The cabbage filling is always a bonus, and one time we got a salmon fillet with a grated potato rostie on top which was delicious. 

Leaving for Arshan, there wasn't another tourist in sight and for the first time we were on a bus with only locals.  Suddenly you feel as though you are out in the wilderness and it's really exciting!

For the return journey, the bus will pick you up where it dropped you off in the top of town. You get given a bus number on your ticket so you can always double check that if you are unsure.  On the return journey, we were picked up in a minivan rather than a big bus which ended up taking just over 3 hours, so I guess they just arrange the right size vehicle for the number of people.

It is possible to hitchhike around this part of Siberia if you can communicate a little Russian. We had read online that the local people expect to be paid well for hitchhiking, about $20 per hour, but from what some travellers said that actually did it, the locals didn't expect any money and actually ended up giving them gifts. We think it's a nice idea to have a small gift available as a thank you for a ride, maybe some vodka or chocolate goodies.

There are also daily buses that go to and from Ulan Ude which take around 7 hours.

 

Tips

None of the locals we spoke to there spoke any English, so basic things like ordering food is always fun! Maybe save a few words beforehand or download google translate to help with menus etc.  Everyone is super friendly and really does try to help. Lots of people tried to chat to us in the street and even when you say you can’t speak Russian to them they continue to jabber away in good spirits!  The locals are also very generous, a couple we spoke to got given a huge chunk of smoked salmon, some pens and a pack of postcards from a stranger at a bus stop!  You really won’t find a friendlier bunch of people if you tried.

There are some village dogs, we take it they were strays rather than pets, but they were no problem. Always friendly and didn't bother us too much even when camping. One even followed us up to the top of the mountain, he was like our sidekick for the day! All other trekkers at the top gave him a bit of their lunch and so he had a lovely day out of town.

Our furry friend

Our furry friend

You can’t get a map of Arshan in the town so try to get a map before you come if you want one. To be honest though, it’s such a small place that it’s fine to navigate without one.

There are a few midges around at this time of year so get some insect repellent spray and some sun cream for those sunny days where the sun is still strong.

If you are looking for great place to visit for a couple of days either side of your Trans Siberian adventure then Arshan is on the top of our list along with Olkhon Island on the stunning Lake Baikal.  You can read about our trip here to the biggest and deepest freshwater lake in the world!

 

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Norway: Eplet - Paradise on the Fjord

 

Our visit to Eplet came from a dear friends recommendation, so we already knew a little about this hidden treasure before arriving. We travelled from Lom via local bus (this took around 3 hours) waiting patiently until we heard the call for Galden. From here a downward 3km walk was required to find the hostel nestled in the beautiful fjordside town of Solvorn. Boasting above average temperatures and microclimate that makes it perfect for growing produce; Solvorn is a little paradise.

 
 

Eplet has space for around 15 averagely sized tents with ample facilities for all the camper's needs at 110 Nok / £11 per person per night. Whilst over in the main building there are over eight rooms for those in need of hard walls and warm beds. For those that require a little hybrid of B&B and camping, two yurts are available with bedding supplied. The site is beautiful, we woke every morning to the misty summit across the fjord, the mountain changed hourly as the weather see-sawed between wind, rain and shine. 

Solvorn from a tent

Agnethe and Trond were great hosts; super friendly and full of great tips for making the most of local area. We stayed for 5 days and we only scratched the surface of what the Sognefjord has to offer.  What we found really inspiring is how they ran both an eco hostel and a successful fruit juice business at the same time. Supporting them were a team of teenagers from across Europe who tended to the groves; picking fruit for the Eplet juices 8 - 5 everyday. Victorian, maybe, but it was great to see young people in and around nature and loving it.  

 
 

Eplet grow much of their own produce. A really neat touch was their 'weeding for free vege' idea. Guests were able to take a some organically grown vegetables from their grow boxes in return for five minutes weeding. We took a courgette and lettuce and popped it into out nightly pasta dinner, the fresh vegetables was greatly appreciated! Running relatively wild were four 'happy' sheep, free range chickens supplying eggs and acres of raspberries, apples & pears grown to make the juice, they press 15,000 litres of the stuff each year. We tried the raspberry juice and it was delicious, an energy boost that can be enjoyed hot or cold.

Weed for feed

Weed for feed

There are many activities to get involved in and around the Sognefjord. The first day we chilled in Solvorn and took two coastal walks in the morning and evening, the fjord almost looked tropical in the evening sun (see photo).

Sognefjord

 

The next day we upped the ante and cycled towards the tallest mountain in the area, Molden. To get there we had to endure an hours uphill cycle, poor Ali's little unprepared legs were suffering, as you can see from the speed of her manoeuvres in the video.

The top of Molden provided some excellent views and meant we had a downhill cycle most of the way home. This allowed us to try out our first bit of off road mountain biking down a muddy rocky track, exciting and scary.  We also voyaged out on the bikes the next day, by ferry across the fjord to the Unesco site of Urnes. Here we found Norway's oldest Stave church, an epic wooden structure built in the 13th century. This church is special for defining the rise in Stave architecture which can now be found all over Norway's churches. 

 
 

Further along the Sognefjord, the second longest waterfall can be found. Although we misfired and stopped at a smaller sibling waterfall (stopping 5km too early!). We heard from the other guests that it was pretty special, I think we'll have pop back one day to see it ;-). Here is a photo of us by the smaller one. LOL!

Lastly a trip to the Nigardsbreen Glacier is a worthy excursion, billed as the mostly accessible glacier in the world it offers walking routes, boat journeys and actual trips onto the ice with crampons etc. We got rained on pretty heavily but seeing the huge mass of a glacier is something everyone needs to see.

 
 

Surrounded by beautiful scenery it was very easy chilling in the hostels relaxed spaces; cue Skandi furniture, ambient jazz and a steady internet connection from which to write this piece.

 
 

As with everywhere in Norway, getting places takes time and includes many buses but Eplet was definitely worth the journey.  If you would like more detailed information then you can visit their website here.

 

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Norway - Eplet - Paradise On The Fjord, by Studio Mali
 

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