Tournament of Shadows….. Kazakhstan

People have asked me what there is to see and do in Kazakhstan.  This proves a difficult question to answer, because there is no singular answer.  Perhaps because it’s the 9th largest country in the world, or perhaps because of rapid development in select pockets of the country; but Kazakhstan is diverse.  Very diverse.

Astana.  The capital since 1997 provides a skyline of lavish architectural oddities. This includes the world largest tent and a glass pyramid partially set below ground. The expansion and creative building construction in the city continues.  As the host of Expo 2017 the government invested $5 billion and controversially built what has been dubbed “the Death Star” in which to hold the event.

Crossing the seemingly never-ending steppe by train to the former capital, Almaty, took me 20 hours.  On arrival the mountainous backdrop creates a picturesque setting, though a layer of smog and the soviet era concrete block buildings nestling at the base are less ambient. Almaty is a decidedly more cosmopolitan and livable city with coffee shops, parks and a level of tourism.  It also interestingly boasts the world’s shortest metro system, with just nine stops.

As you’d expect with such a large country and population of 18 million it is mainly devoid of life, with vast open spaces.  This is a country on the infamous Silk Road, invaded during the reign of Ghengis Khan with many towns razed by his army. Resulting in a number of abandoned settlements eerily scattered in the Kazakh desert.  The wilderness also boasts snow topped mountain ranges, canyons and National Parks of great beauty.

Worth a visit?  Yes, but familiarise yourself with the 42 letter Kazakh alphabet or better still, learn Russian!

*for those interested parties (you know who you are!) the worlds largest tent is 150m tall and contains a shopping centre, a man-made beach and a roller coaster 

Categories: adventure, Asia | 1 Comment

Voodoo Central – Benin

One of my reasons for visiting West Africa was to witness voodoo at its height.  Ouidah, Benin, is where the voodoo religion started and it remains hugely popular throughout this region.  National Voodoo Day is when the largest celebratory festival occurs, and is when this small town sees scores of visitors – me being one of them.IMG_2435

The voodoo experience is not complete without a trip to the local market to hunt for the voodoo section.  This is typically tucked away from the main thoroughfare and takes some determination to find.  I eventually found it.  The potent smell should have been a giveaway.  Not for the faint-hearted this area was filled with dead animals in various states of decay, including skeletal.  I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the variety of animals was vast.  Sadly pangolin, which have recently been identified as an endangered species, were amongst the gory display.  This was the worst element of my trip and whilst I can appreciate the significance of animal remains in different religious practices, I physically baulked at the rarity of some of the species for sale here.

Like other religions, ceremonies and practices occur throughout the year.  But I am presuming it reaches fever pitch close to the designated Voodoo Day, as there was plenty of entertainment going on during my whole time in Benin.  It certainly wasn’t unusual to see religious processions with musical accompaniment, along with people dancing dress in elaborate costumes or adorned with body paint.

I shall say now that I am not exactly clear as to what was happening most of the time; or what certain dances and rituals meant.  But I will try to describe the three which I seemed to have a clearer idea on, I have named them in my own way:IMG_2361

  1. Goat Sacrifice – Again not for the faint-hearted. An important element of the religion is the sacrificing of a goat.  The practice here is to sacrifice the goat by slitting its’ throat and throwing it high into the air.  How the goat lands determines the future.

The throat of the lifeless goat is then placed between someone’s teeth.  The chosen individual then dances by spinning around and around in time to music.  The audience who absolutely loved this ceremony, were also dancing and chanting.  When the goat swinger tired or got dizzy, a new person stepped up for the honour of dancing with the goat.  Interestingly this was gender neutral, with both men and women taking the lead role.

The hashtag for this ritual must surely be #Beninforstrongteeth

  1. The Haystack Spirit – a large conical pyramid made of long grasses, spins continually around clockwise and then anti-clockwise, speeding up and slowing down in time to the drumming and singing. Their assigned trainer has a stick and seems to herd the haystack-like shape ensuring they remain within the circle of spectators.

After displaying the spirits’ agility, strengthen and skill at length they stop the dance routine.  The haystack is immediately laid on its side displaying a hollow empty space underneath.  Where is the person who was surely controlling the spirits’ movements?  Gasps of surprise emanate from the spectators, while the performers grin with delight at showing their voodoo magic.  The shape is placed back the correct way and upended again, this time a small plant is on the ground.  This is done again and ta-dah the plant has grown in size.

I am unsure what this represents, perhaps the birth of new life?   IMG_1884 (2)

  1. Tag on Speed – This could be the most intense and fun of all the voodoo events. Individuals dressed as spirits parade through the street with musical accompaniment.  Observers get as close to the spirits as they can, whilst keeping a small distance away.  Because those who are in the audience need to get a head start, in what could be the scariest moment of their lives.

At a random time during proceedings the spirits spin around and start to chase the onlookers.  Pandemonium breaks out.  People scatter in all directions, but they don’t go too far as they want to watch what happens.  However they are running for their lives.  For if the spirit touches you, you will die.

How crazy, scary and fun?  The voodoo religion simply has it all!

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture | 1 Comment

Let’s go to Togo

The 124th smallest country in the World doesn’t have much of a tourism infrastructure, and being sandwiched between more popular destinations (Ghana and Benin) it appears to be overlooked as somewhere to visit in its own right.  Playing transport roulette away from the key arterial roads, and a need for basic French makes this a more challenging and yet rewarding destination.img_1197-2

The countryside is beautifully unspoilt, and zipping around experiencing the rural side of West Africa was a joy.  So much greenery and full to bursting with a variety of crops.  On a hike through small villages in the hills I saw too many to name, but I will call out the loofah plant, which is part of the courgette (or zucchini) family.  Surely loofahs are underwater crops?  No, apparently not.  Who knew?

Once abundant with wildlife numbers have sadly dropped, though this doesn’t appear to apply to snakes.  The dangerous mamba continues to thrive, and indeed there was a green mamba on the path during my hike.  I have to admit whilst the guide was urging me forward for a closer look, I did think that freezing on the spot was the best option.  Or perhaps my legs just forgot how to move….  There was no way I was getting my face close to a green mamba!!

As always it would be remiss if I don’t mention a few interesting snippets:

  • Travel is typically in shared taxis. Not so unusual.  However the seat you pay for isn’t

    Baby pineapple

    what I would actually call a seat, it’s more of a tiny portion of a seat.  In the front of a normal sized family car there are two passengers, and the back seat holds four passengers.  Add in the driver and overload with luggage which may, or may not, include wildlife.  Then cue a rather uncomfortable journey for the next two or three hours.

  • Palm wine is terrible. Enough to make your eyes water.  This didn’t stop people buying it at the bus station from an entrepreneur with a plastic jerrycan full of the noxious drink on the back of his motorbike.  It was not yet 10am!
  • Every year around Christmas time, the change in wind direction blows sand from the Sahara desert across the southern part of Western Africa. This dusty orange phenomenon is called the Harmattan.  During this time the sun is barely visible behind the thick dust, and distant features are hazy.
  • And lastly, pleasingly the government has recently launched an environmental scheme to reduce the amount of waste. They are advocating recycling to tackle the litter problem, particularly the plastic strewn along the roadside.  Great news!

Oh and voodoo is followed in Togo, though in a lesser extent than in Benin.  So I will cover this most interesting spiritual belief in my next blog.  Stay tuned…

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Africa for beginners…..

Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment.  English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.


Talc coffin

Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence.  Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.

One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement.  So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.

I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death.  I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins.  In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.

On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever


Slave fort

recorded – the slave trade.  It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships.  Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas.  A very poignant place to visit.

There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana.  Sounds good I hear you cry.

  • People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
  • A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words.  But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips.  One to practice for next time I think!


    Christmas Day drumming

  • I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly.  As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
  • This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
  • Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles.  They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.

*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture, people | 1 Comment

West Africa next…

Less than four weeks until I head off a new adventure.  This time West Africa. voodoo

Whilst I am in Benin it will be National Voodoo day, a religion practiced by 60% of the population.  My plan is to attend one of the many festivals here; where the roots of this truly cultural celebration began.  Away from the sensationalised films I am keen to see and understand how the locals celebrate the largest religious day in their calendar.

Additionally I am also hoping to learn the skill of retro-running, or in layman terms running backwards.  Ghana seems to excel at this, holding the World record of 13.6 seconds for 100m.  Perhaps though I need to improve my forward running first….

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Wonderful wonderful Copenhagen……

So the 1952 song goes.  This was my first visit to a Nordic country, and what a beautiful introduction to this part of the European continent.  Cobbled streets, tall slim colourful houses and an abundance of bicycles gave a step back in time vibe yet this is a country at the forefront of future thinking.2170

Denmark is simply leaps and bounds ahead of the game.  It is the World’s happiest nation, the most eco-friendly in terms of power production and boasts the highest gender equality rate to name but a few accolades.  Their Royal family are also often seen out and about enjoying the city, and attending festivals; I actually saw Princess Mary attending a fashion event during my short trip.

In terms of electricity generation Denmark holds the world record with a whopping 42% of their electricity being provided through wind power.  Each year the amount generated increases, enabling them to continually beat their own record.  Having now visited Denmark this fact is not a surprise, it was permanently gusty throughout my stay.  Not a destination for toupee wearers!

On the flip side there is a grittier, more interesting human edge to the city.  Roads were randomly closed and covered with grass to host a party including a DJ and free beer.  Skateboard competitions complete with camera crew whizzed past dangerously and one of the most beautiful city parks is actually a cemetery.2508

To understand more about Copenhagen and its inhabitants, I suggest you look towards the drawcard of the Little Mermaid statue.  It has recently been voted the third most overrated and disappointing landmark in the world.  For the record Manneken Pis in Brussels was first, which to be fair is definitely oversold.  Danish locals are unimpressed and believe that there is more to see in their capital city than this statue and right they are.  However being a tourist I just had to see the famous statue.

Continuing on with the Little Mermaid, she has had a rough time since being installed in 1913.  Often being the victim of vandalism, and on occasion used as a vehicle for political statements.  She has been decapitated twice, had an arm amputated and been blown up by explosives.  She has also been dressed in a burka, and on numerous times been dowsed in different colours of paint.  I wonder what Hans Christian Andersen would say….  Although apparently he was rather an interesting character himself.

And now for the more macabre but fascinating.  The worlds’ best preserved human remains are courtesy of Danish peat bogs.  I visited the body of Graubelle Man, who died in the late 3rd Century BC and was thrown into a peat bog.  Yes, over two thousand years ago!  He is however extraordinarily well preserved.  His skin and hair have survived the passage of time and all his features are clearly visible as is the sacrificial wound of his slit throat.  Scientists have even managed to take his fingerprints and analyse his stomach contents.  Amazing is what I say.

I definitely need to visit more of this region.  But firstly I need to save up, as it’s not a shoestring destination and secondly I need to invest in some warmer clothes!

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Expats beware!

Yet another survey in relation to travel, or more precisely living and working overseas. The Worlds most expensive places for expats to live…..images

I have never looked at this survey before, believing that Sydney must be at the top, or close to it.  But no. Sydney fails to even make the top 10, as does any Australian city.

The number one pricey place for expats to live is Hong Kong, where it costs an average of US$7.80 for a coffee and US$128 for a pair of jeans.  Hong Kong leapfrogged the regular title holder of “The Most Expensive Place for Expats to Live” – Luanda, Angola.  Who now stand second in the survey.

For those interested in all of the cities which make up the top 10.  In order of expensiveness they are:

  • Hong Kong
  • Luanda, Angola
  • Zurich, Switzerland
  • Singapore
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Shanghai, China
  • Geneva, Switzerland
  • N’Djamena, Chad
  • Beijing, China
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More Colombian insight

My love of Colombia was evident from an earlier post, so I am writing more to entice you to go…..

Covering an area of 1.1m square kilometres my three and a half weeks just wasn’t long enough but I did manage to immerse myself in the chaotic festive spirit over the holiday season, which now seems oh so long ago.IMG_9279

A Christmas tradition for some people is to dress as the devil or a demon, and along with musical accompaniment dance through the streets.  It seems the original festive role of this legendary character was to whip bad children to make them good.  But as with all things Colombian it just looks to me like another reason to party in the street!

Sadly for brave spectators, in 2015 the New Year tradition of setting mannequins packed with fireworks alight at midnight was banned by the Government; this was due to several serious injuries occurring each year.  I have seen this celebration in Mexico and it was crazily dangerous but fun!  Colombians create effigies of famous people who haven’t


It’s a scream…

performed well during the year, this is typically sport stars or politicians but can just be a relatively blank canvas.  These life size figures take pride of place outside houses and in the street for the week leading up to New Year.  The burning of the mannequins and erratic explosion of fireworks symbolises goodbye to the celebrity for last year and welcomes in the New Year with hope and promise.  The concept is a great one, perhaps more health and safety focus required though….


Whilst in Colombia I also discovered a host of interesting things, and here are just a few:

  • Smart(?) thinking means that one of the best places to pick up a prostitute is outside church.  That way you can repent and pay for sex at the same time.
  • Bogota’s gold museum is simply dazzling.  Home to a huge collection of gold made into exquisite accessories and ornaments it is the glittering jewel of an edgy capital city.
  • In 2015 Ariadna Gutiérrez Arevalo, representing Colombia was crowned Miss Universe.  Though the elation only lasted for a matter of moments, as the host realised he had accidentally crowned the wrong finalist and she had to pass back the crown.  The country erupted…..
  • The majority of non-South American cannot spell the word Colombia, confusing it with a US city.  This to the locals can only be described as annoying.IMG_8811b
  • The World’s largest necropolis, in San Agustin was founded by an ancient civilisation pre-dating the more renowned Inca’s.  Not much is known about this race as all that remains are numerous stone statues of people, animals and deities.
  • Cosmetic surgery is in serious abundance for the ladies.  I saw some of the most outrageously and dis-proportionally curved women that I have ever seen!
Categories: adventure, culture, South America | Leave a comment

Happy Days!

Now less than three months until my next trip to the happiest country in the World – pastriesDenmark.  Looking forward to the best bacon sandwiches and pastries known to man……

Oh and of course being a tourist and visiting the Little Mermaid.

Categories: culture, Europe | 2 Comments

If I get asked one more time….

… “have you seen Narcos”?  This is the most frequent question when I mentioned visiting Colombia.  Though this is a country working hard to dispel the violent and drug-riddled IMG_9046image left by one Mr Pablo Escobar*, and it is slowly succeeding.

I have to say outright I absolutely loved Colombia.  The sheer variety of things to do and see, as well as unbelievably friendly people made this country a joy to visit.  Yes getting a bus ticket was a challenge, yes Bogota felt ropey, and yes there was an exponential increase in the number mangy stray dogs after crossing the border from Ecuador.  But wow was it worth it!

The scenery is breath taking, each bus journey opens up new vistas across the mountain ranges including the Andes, and wide sweeping rivers.  The Amazon rainforest encroaches into Colombian territory, and there are beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coast.

The pinnacle of my trip was doing a four day, intense 44km trek to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) high in the Sierra Nevada.  This stunning walk through land previous claimed by IMG_9324the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), entails steep ascents and descents.  It also throws in several cold water crossings, no bridges here and note that river depth is seasonal!  This of course is all traversed in the sweltering jungle heat.

On arrival at Ciudad Perdida there is very little left of the city which was formed around 800AD.  Only a series of terraced platforms, several of them hidden in the dense wilderness, remain.  It’s eerily silent sitting on the platform looking out across the jungle stretching far below.  So beautiful.

I have much more to write about Colombia, a place I really want to share with you.  So stay tuned for the next blog instalment.

*for those not familiar with Pablo Escobar he was an infamous drug lord.  In true high profile fugitive style Pablo was shot dead whilst fleeing across the rooftops of his home city, following an intensive manhunt.  And no, I have not seen Narcos!

Categories: adventure, people, South America | 2 Comments

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