It's hard to pin down a list of 'best' things: I struggle with music, so doing so with a topic as culturally divisive and memorable as travel is always going to be a thing that's entirely in flux. If you checked out yesterday's blog, you'd see that my most life-changing moment wasn't actually staring over some great site, or exploring some wonderful cultural dimension (okay, maybe a little of that latter one with the monks), but there are definitely elements of that which have really stood out. Today's top five is certain to be different to tomorrow's, but here's how things stand right now, with an un-numbered selection of moments I won’t forget until my memory begins to fade entirely:
Crossing the border to North Korea, twice. Throughout the five years since I set foot on North Korean soil, I've had countless heady expenses that have battered by bank account, but I've always, without exception, made sure I have the finances accessible to get on the first plane over should the unlikely occur, and North Korea opens its borders to free exploration. I visited twice, back in the days when crossing the South Korean border into the north was an option under carefully monitored circumstances, and as far as experiences go, this is really, really hard to beat. North Korea can be described as a little like going back in time. In some ways it's utterly beautiful: Kumgangsan (the Diamond Mountains) in the south west are one of the most stunning spots I've ever set foot, and I could get used to a world without advertising. Bowing down before Kim Jong Il (compulsory, but done with tongue firmly in cheek by most visitors), eating lavishly in a display of 'wealth' that feels awkward and traveling along streets where soldiers monitor your actions every fifty metres for many miles is not so positive. I still have the English translations of North Korea's version of history, which make for fascinating reading, and I'll never forget tucking into a north-of-the-border Soju, enjoying a North Korean 'spa' experience or the regulations surrounding the use of cameras, passports (all fake anyway) and communication with locals. A true 'appreciation for what you've got' situation.
Safari in Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, Tanzania. This was my 'honeymoon proper' (we couldn't afford anywhere too extravagant the first time after paying for the wedding), and my first experience of Africa. I found Tanzania (and my brief experience of Kenya) to be both frustrating and beguiling in equal measure: the pushiness and dishonesty of the cities frustrated me, but the beauty of the countryside quickly flipped my opinion on its head. We visited the immaculate Ngorongoro Crater, where thousands and thousands of animals roam around the watering holes, and all of the pick five can be spotted within half an hour of each other on a good day (we got a good day). Then we drove to Serengeti, watching a mass migration pass in the direction of Ngorongoro, featuring so many animals filling a 360 degree view that the entire colour of the landscape changed from musty yellow grassland to the darker brown of the dominant wildebeests. We dropped in on the Maasai Mara, sharing a traditional English Christmas pudding (they're meant to mature, so they keep well!) with the confused locals after we joined in with their traditional dance and took a glance at the modest hut accommodation. We slept in tents, got stuck in muddy tracks in the middle of nowhere (temporarily, fortunately), and ate possibly the worst food I've ever paid money for, before it reappearing shortly afterwards. Sure, safari with a tour company isn't exactly the wild experience some off-the-beaten track travellers might go for, but I still found the experience utterly mind-blowing.
Animal Rescue in Thailand. Five weeks in the WFFT, and isolated Thai animal sanctuary on the grounds of a monastery near Hua Hin, in central Thailand. Along with my closest friend, I spent my time feeding monkeys, cleaning bear cages and generally assisting in the upkeep of a huge range of animals freshly rescued from poachers across Thailand, with the ultimate aim of returning the animals to the wild. The site was beautiful, but this was one of those trips that the people made special: there were around 20 volunteers at any one time, and we went on to travel the country in groups, and in many cases form lifelong bonds (the aforementioned friend is now married to someone we met here). There's the feel good factor, of course, but we can't deny having a bit of a party, too, not least after the market evenings, where we frequented the only local bar and sung karaoke along to their 'carrot song', the only (and absolutely awful) English song on the jukebox. Weekend trips to isolated beaches for sublime, affordable seafood and the occasional much hyped night-out in Hua Hin went down well, too.
Walking the Langtang Trail in the Nepalese Himalayas. I was trying to pick out a single Indian experience (regular readers might already be thinking of my heavy obsession with the southern town of Hampi, which I’ll admit was a hard one to pass up), but when it comes down to it, Langtang wins out when comparing like for like. The entire trek was a gamble: off season, in the company of an unofficial guide and shortly after being in really quite poor condition health wise, but it was just breath-taking. I've always had a thing for mountains, and standing at 5,000 metres in the Himalayas alongside a herd of yaks and a pile of prayer flags, still staring another 2,000 metres above you is pretty unbeatable. I finished up with blisters having walked a full downhill marathon to get out of the valley due to avalanche risk on the final day, but the sites on the way up: raging torrents, tiny traditional mountain communities fuelled heavily by valley-sourced material (largely from yaks), a yak cheese factory and the glaciers running alongside the trails were sites that I'll simply never forget.
South Korea's Festivals. This is cheating in a sense, as it's not really one event, but if I had to pick out a single grouping that really stood out for me about my second home (third home now, allowing for Ireland? Oddly I probably still feel more of my heart lies in Korea), it'd be the festivals. If something stood out amongst those, it'd be the fantastic ice festival experiences at Hwacheon and Taebaek. China and Japan are perhaps more famous for their ice sculptures and escapades, but with parts of Korea regularly hitting -20 at winter, there are plenty of chances to lap it up here, too. Hwacheon is a huge community event, based around ice fishing (including catching salmon with your bare hands), outdoor BBQs where locals eat live minnows, ice karting and the odd truly stunning igloo/ ice sculpture. Taebaek is a little more commercial, and includes snow-shoeing up a mountain, as well as a few old traditions and an entire field full of ice statues. We tied paper good luck charms to lines in the middle of the lake, where they sit until the following year, made bread dough with a huge wooden mallet and drunk soju in an igloo, before exploring everything from buildings to transformers immortalized in ice. Korea also has a few top-class music festivals (especially at the dance end of the genre spectrum), a glorious mud festival (see my Travbuddy profile picture, taken in Daejeon) and festivals of fireflies, traditional masks and the parting of the sea across to a small island (really). All in, absolutely top class.
Photos by James Hendicott.