For experienced riders only

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I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Was this really a good idea? Or would I regret this later? Or worse, even come out injured? It was a brisk but clear and sunny morning and I was standing next to “our” horses that would carry us across Northern Mongolia over the next seven days. And there were many of them. Ten in total. Six for us to ride on (Christian, myself, our tour guide Ashley, our cook Segi and our two horse guides Jagaa and Galaa) plus four pack horses. The horses looked restless, pacing back and forth in the realm of their ropes. Not very comforting that they were also kicking at each other once in a while! I hadn’t realized what “half wild” meant. Had that even been mentioned in the brochure when we booked the trip? I guess it must have been. My thoughts were interrupted as Jagaa, the main horse guide, called for me. It was time to get up on my horse.

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Several months ago, when Christian and I started to plan our big trip, we both had a few “must dos” on our personal wish lists. One activity on mine was a multi-day horse back trek in Mongolia. I was excited by the thought of traveling through the least densely populated place on earth – on a horse and only with a tent. That sounded like the ultimate sense of freedom and adventure (and something to do before we would have kids). I found a great option. A French tour company, called Randocheval, offered a 20-day Mongolia trip: two horse back treks (one seven days, one five days) in different parts of the country with ger camp stays, hiking and monastery visits in between. The only catch: the description said “for experienced riders only”. I felt a bit unsure. I had some horse back riding experience from three day-long trips I did over the course of the last 10 years. Christian was a bit more experienced than I was. However, the classification “experienced rider” would be a bold exaggeration for both of us. I dropped the tour operator a line and got back good news. As long as we were both healthy, physically fit and had been on horses before we should be fine!

So here we were at Lake Kovsghol (in Northern Mongolia very close to the Russian boarder) and I was wondering if my enthusiasm and romanticism of a horse trek had gotten the better of me when booking this trip. Ashley, our tour guide, gave us a few quick instructions. Well, three to be exact. #1: always approach the horses from the left hand side (otherwise they might freak out), #2: say “choo” if you want the horse to go faster (and do so loudly conveying control), #3: never let go of your reigns. Really, that was everything I needed to know? What should I say if I wanted the horse to stop? But there was no more time for questions. Jagaa helped me get up (from the left side) onto my new buddy for the next week. So far so good. My horse seemed to be fairly calm. Then another thought crossed my mind: “Horses can feel if you are nervous”. Isn’t that what people always tell you? Great. My horse was probably already working out a grandiose master plan on how to play me. I kept telling myself “this feels good”, “I can do this”, hoping to convey confidence. Suddenly my horse started moving, following the horse guides and the pack horses up onto our first hill. Off we were on our trip!

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Over the next two days I grew closer with my horse as we were walking and trotting along the lake over open meadows, passing through dense woods and seemingly endless valleys. Christian and I decided that our horses needed names. He named his “Pferdeknoedel” one of the first words he learned in German (the meaning is similar to “horse poo”). I baptized mine “Clumsy”. It kept tripping over stones, roots and there-like. It seems that horses can’t really see very well which is kind of scary to be honest. And Clumsy seemed to have a higher incidence rate of tripping than the rest of the pack which freaked me out at times (it feels like your horse might fall and you with it). Day 3 was a highlight, in more ways than one. In the morning Segi, Ashley, Christian and I took off, leaving the pack horses behind and cantered (kind of like a slow gallop) through a broad valley. It was a beautiful feeling (first time I cantered!) and it felt like I had made a big jump in my horse back riding skills. Just before lunchtime we were crossing a swamp with a small stream of water. I was on guard as our horses seemed easily scared by water (and anything unexpected that might be in it). I was right behind Segi’s horse, trying to make Clumsy cross the stream slowly. And then it happened. Segi’s horse got spooked and jumped back. Seeing this, Clumsy lost it. He made a leap forward, overtaking Segi’s horse. Then kicked both his back legs back before he jumped up in the air with his front legs up. It felt like riding a very aggressive bull. I was scared to death. Everything happened in slow motion (or so I believed, as according to Christian the whole episode probably didn’t take longer than six seconds). And I only had one thought in my head: “Don’t fall of the horse”. I was so afraid that I might break a bone or even have something worse happen to me… My dad got thrown of a horse when he was young and broke his collar bone. Even though he had been an experienced rider he’s never gotten back onto a horse after that. I must have somehow internalized that story. With my right hand I held onto my saddle as strongly as I could. After a few seconds I must have realized that I also still had the reigns in my left hand. In a moment of clarity I pulled back the reigns as strongly as I could and just screamed “brrr” and “stop” (that’s what riders say in Austria to stop a horse; stopping a horse in Mongolian hadn’t been part of the intro for this trip). The horse was still wild. After a couple of seconds it calmed down and stopped. I was in shock. I couldn’t move and was just sitting there until Jagaa arrived and got a hold of the reigns. I stumbled off the horse and realized how much I was trembling. But, I had not fallen off. Somehow my survival instinct had kept me on that horse. Everything was ok. It felt like a miracle.

The afternoon and next morning were interesting. We continued the trek. There would have really not been any other option, plus, getting back up on the horse immediately seemed like the best way to get over this incident. Jagaa and Galaa were impressed that I had managed to stay on the horse and manage to calm it down. So the good news was that I had been able to deal with the situation despite my limited horse back riding skills. The bad news: what if it would happen again? I must admit that I lost trust in Clumsy. What would freak him out next? A fly on a random meadow? So I decided to exert more control. I was alert every single second, held the reigns tight, kept scanning the ground for any stone or hole that might trip him up and steered him around it. It was exhausting and not very much fun. Clumsy didn’t like it much either. Neither did Christian as I turned into a tense and somewhat unhappy companion. So what should I do given we still had three full days ahead of us? The more I thought about it the more I realized that being on guard every second wouldn’t change much. What had happened was serious and I learnt from it but one can’t really foresee such incidences. Plus, I had shown that I at least have a chance of dealing with such a situations. So that made me feel a little bit better. Secondly, the incident had nothing to do with my horse in particular. Mongolian horses are half wild so they are by nature a bit more uncontrollable. So I tried to change my mindset and relax my rules of “controlling” the horse the next morning. It worked. Clumsy was much more calm and I was able again to enjoy the experience and take in the wonderful scenery.

Reflecting on our time in Mongolia, I’m really glad that we chose to do the trip. The incident was dangerous and rattled me. That said, we achieved what we had envisioned when we set out to do this trip. We got our fair dose of adventure. We had a true feeling of freedom. And I also took my horse back riding skills to the next level. In the second leg of our horse riding trip around the Amarbayasgalant Monastery we actually spent most of our time cantering and galloping! That said, I wouldn’t call myself an “experienced” rider quite yet 🙂


Snapshots of Mongolia


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What we learned on the history

Our visit to the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar was the perfect way for us to get a great overview of Mongolia’s rich history. From there, our Lonely Planet and our tour guide, Ashley, were able to fill in many more of the details. Here’s what we learned:

For thousands of years (and even today), the Mongolians have been nomadic people. The nomadic lifestyle defines many aspects of Mongolian culture from the food they eat (based largely on the meat and dairy products of the animals that can travel with them) to their incredible hospitality to strangers (a necessity to ensure mutual survival as people traveled across the vast country).

Over the course of history, there have been 3 major dynasties in Mongolia that have extended beyond their own country. The first was the Hun empire which began around 200 BC (the famous Attila the Hun of 5 century AD was from this lineage). The second major dynasty was the Turkic dynasty which began in 6 century AD. And the final dynasty was the largest, and most renowned, the great Mongol dynasty of Chinngis Khaan in the 13th century. From a small nation with a relatively small army, he was able to conquer the greatest armies of his era. The empire he created was one of the largest in history stretching from China to Hungary and from India to Russia. Although renowned for being merciless in battle, he is better known in Mongolia as the great law giver. One major factor that facilitated the success of his vast Mongolian empire was from the laws he established from religious tolerance, to free-trade zones to diplomatic immunity.

In more recent times, Mongolia has gone from communist republic to a thriving democracy. In 1924, Mongolia’s desire for independence from China saw them siding with the Russian Bolsheviks and embracing communism. During this time, the Soviets imposed a huge degree of influence over Mongolia. One positive byproduct was the standardization of education and increase in literacy, which before communism was lower than 5% and by 1990 was greater than 95% (hence why Mongolia today uses the Cyrillic alphabet).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s, Mongolia went through its own transition away from communism to a democratic republic in 1990 and has since then gone through a period of rapid modernization. We experienced the modernized side of Mongolia in the capital Ulaanbaatar, seeing the new building constructions, getting caught in intense traffic and tasting the polluted air. However, it was only a short drive out of UB that showed us how the majority of Mongolians live on the country side, many in Ger tents, with strong ties to their nomadic heritage. This was the most interesting side of our Mongolian experience.


Lake Khovsgol and Horesback Trekking Part I 

Picture a seemingly endless, dark blue lake surrounded on one side by steep, grey rocky mountains and green, rolling meadows full of Edelweiss on the other. Sounds like the Austrian Alps and the Sound of Music, doesn’t it? Well, I’m actually talking about Lake Khovsgol in Northern Mongolia and the place we spent the first 7 days of our adventure (and yes, Mongolia is covered in Edelweiss!).

Our typical day looked something like this: horseback riding throughout the day across a scenic landscape (including some scary moments with our horses), camping in the wild without anyone in sight (except the nomads and their livestock of course, who are the main inhabitants in this region), getting the run down on Mongolian history from our guide Ashley over dinner while enjoying a meal of potatoes, noodles, rice, fresh cucumbers and canned/ jarred vegetables (and all the possible combinations thereof), learning how to play Mongolian card games during down times (and a few Mongolian words, however, Cyrillic pronunciation is really hard to remember), listening to scary camp-fire stories about shamans (the main religion of most steppe and taiga tribes) and wolf attacks (not helpful if one needs to sneak out of the tent in the middle of the night to go the “bathroom”), cuddling up in our tent (wrapped into multiple layers of clothes to weather the freezing temperatures at night), waking up over breakfast with instant coffee mixed with milk powder (not like our beloved espresso, but hey, thank god we have coffee!), packing up camp, saddling our pack horses and off we go again.

And on one of the days during our trip we had the luxury to camp next to a hot spring. Wash day for us and our clothes!


Reindeer People

One day we visited a family of Tsaatan people (Reindeer people). In contrast to the other nomadic ethnicities with their livestock, the Tsaatan live off reindeer. We were welcomed into their yurt (which is a tipi-like tent and different than the round ger tent that other nomadic tribes live in) and were struck by how bare bones it was. No beds (one of the sons was sleeping on the floor while we were there), no stools, no stove… really nothing. The family came down south to Lake Khovsgol in the hope to earn some additional income from tourism. They sell hand-made bags and souvenirs. Tourist camps pay them to stick around the area as a tourist attraction in the summer season (that said, we’ve unfortunately heard that coming so far south is to the detriment of their reindeers). One of the unanticipated highlights of our meeting with the Reindeer people family was kicking around a ball with their 4-year old son. He was a little bundle of energy and happiness.


Amarbayasgalant Monastery and racing horses across the steppes

Amarbayasgalant monastery is one of Mongolia’s national treasures. Built in 1737 and fortunate to have survived the former communist regime, the monastery is a beautifully designed Buddhist temple in a remote and spectacularly beautiful setting deep in the steppes of Mongolia.

We arrived here at the start of the 3-day annual prayer festival, where thousands of prayer goers flock and camp nearby (seeing the camping and the procession of cars entering along the dirt road kind of reminded us of Burning Man!). Lonely Planet said that this was the best time to come to the monastery; however, this is one occasion where I have to disagree. Once the festival was over, Christine and I really got to experience the awe of the place which is accentuated by its remoteness and peacefulness.

Starting from the monastery, we began our second horse-riding adventure. And while we would have thought Khovsgol would be hard to top, this was by far and away our best horse-riding experience. Each day we spent literally hours racing our horses, cantering and galloping through the beautiful steppes. It was simply exhilarating. At times we got concerned that we would wear out our horses but our horses never seemed satisfied to just walk or trot, and our horse guide, Zorig, assured us the horses could handle it. I guess they bring them up tough here in Mongolia!


Nomadic living

Nomadic living is the hallmark of Mongolia. While it was born out of necessity to sustain ones life, many today chose the freedom and independence as a lifestyle (over urban life in the capital city Ulanbaatar). Christian and I got to experience this first hand, spending a day and night with our horse guide Zorig’s extended family. Nomads have a summer and a winter camp, so the place we camped at was their summer residence (their winter places have more stable, wooden houses than their ger tents and better shelter for their livestock).

We were put to work immediately. Our first task: rounding up baby cows and bringing them back to their stable and collecting dozens of dispersed sheep and goat (so that they don’t mix with livestock of neighboring nomad families). This was really fun and a good way to test our newly acquired horseback riding skills. Next up was milking cows. Sounds straightforward but isn’t. Well, Christian seems to be more of a natural talent on this one. The next morning we helped prepare the milk for further processing which meant aerating the cooked milk to get rid of bacteria. Dairy is a crucial part of the nomadic diet and milk finds its way into every meal. After that it got dirty: collecting cow dung and piling it up for drying (the dried dung will be used for fire during winter). Admittedly not my favorite activity 🙂 Many times during the day I had to think of my mum who grew up on a farm herself.

In our breaks we kicked around a ball with the kids or observed them trying to capture squirrels. They were on summer break and typically stay at a boarding school during school time.

If I’d summarize our observations from the day, I’d say: nomads work hard (and we have a new appreciation for all the work that goes into every cup of milk tea or curd chip we were offered), they are incredible hospitable and live by a mantra of helping one another out, and despite having a very simple lifestyle they seemed very satisfied and happy.




Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia

IMG_3413 (Small) One of the famous things to do in Cappadocia is a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Christine and I had high expectations for this excursion and we can honestly say that those expectations were exceeded. It was really a magical experience. We had to get up at 4am on the day of the ride (which isn’t as bad as it sounds since we have generally been woken up at around 5am each day in Turkey from the muslim prayers that are blasted through the loudspeakers on the miniarets). After a bit of admin to pay and get sorted into groups we then were transported to the site where the balloons took off from. It was still dark at the time we arrived so seeing these massive balloons glowing as they were getting heated up was quite stunning.

With little ado, we then jumped into the basket of our balloon. There basket was divided into 5 sections. One for the “driver” and 4 other sections that fitted 4 people each. Our driver quickly explained what we should do for landing while he periodically released hot air into the balloon. Shortly after, we felt the balloon start to move, and then when we looked down we saw we were no longer on the ground but a few inches up. And then, very smoothly, we lifted up, up and up. Before long we were 700 metres up in the sky! I’ve done hot air ballooning once before in Melbourne (which I loved), but I have to say that this experience was a whole lot more special.

First of all, there are probably 50 or so hot air balloons that take off every morning, so the air is littered with all of these balloons. It is just breathtaking to see. I actually said to Christine at one point that I thought we’d been transported back to Tomorrowland because it had that similar Alice in Wonderland kind of magical feeling.

The other reason this hot air balloon experience was so special was because of the landscape. Cappadocia, with its other-worldly rock formations and cave homes is a truly incredible place to experience from the ground, and even more incredible from the air.

The ride went for a little over an hour before we softly touched down in a small field. We toasted the experience with a glass of bubbly (apple cider) and then were shuttled back to our hotels where we were able to get a quick nap in before getting on with the rest of the day.

If you’re ever in Cappadocia, I highly recommend doing the hot air ballooning. It’s magical.


Making new friends

IMG_3492 (Small) One of the goals of our year-long trip is to get to know people around the world and hear their stories. Turns out that Cappadocia was a great place in that regard. We had booked a day-long tour to visit some of the main sights in the area (called the “Green Tour” that hits the Derinkuyu Underground City, Ihlara Canyon and the Selime Monstery). Upon boarding our mini-bus outside of our B&B, the Rose Valley Guesthouse, we saw a couple jump in right after us. After only five minutes on the bus, the guy turned around and asked where we are from. Turns out he, Greg, is from Australia, born in the same district of Sydney as Christian, studied opera singing and will get married this December at the same church that Christian’s parents got married at. What are the odds! Only after a few minutes of chatting, I knew we would get well along with the two of them. Hannah, who is originally from the UK but has been living in Australia for the past seven years, works in social media marketing. Greg is a teacher. Both seemed easy going, cracked jokes, shared their own stories about life and were really interested in what we were up to. What I initially expected to be a rather touristy and theory-packed day (in general, I’m not a big fan of group tours) turned out to be really fun and interesting. Not only was the tour much better than I thought (thanks to our upbeat tour guide Dennis who shared many stories about Turkey’s history and culture but also made an effort to introduce the whole group to each other) but sharing this experience with others and making personal connections made a real difference.

Even without making concrete plans to meet up again (that said, the four of us were living in the same B&B), life had another encounter planned for us! The same day after dinner in the village, Christian and I were passing a little restaurant (well, one could say it was more of a cave/barn) I saw someone waving in the corner of my eye. I almost ignored it, thinking some local wanted to lure us in for dinner or to sell us some other goods. Fortunately I did take a closer look, as it was Greg sitting there with Hannah! What was intended as a quick hello, turned into a true Turkish cultural experience. Ali, the owner of the place called “The World of Kebab” couldn’t speak much English. But turns out he had spent 30 years of his life in Germany so we were able to communicate in German (plus, Greg, who’s really into languages, speaks German as well). Ali had returned to Cavusin (the little town we stayed in next to Goreme) about five years ago. While he was ready to move back to Turkey and be closer to his family after three decades in Germany, it sounded like he was still trying to re-integrate in his little village. Having grown up in a small town myself, I can see how hard it must be to come back to a place with a well-knit community where everyone has grown up with each other. That said, Ali seemed to focus on the positive side of things. He proudly showed us how he had built a baglama (also called saz), a Turkish guitar. And a few minutes later there we were: listening to his guitar play and singing, passing around a drum so that all of us could showcase our musical talents. Curious to learn what Ali had planned with his restaurant, he showed us two adjacent cave rooms that he was renovating (formerly used as stables for animals). Not only was he going to redo both rooms by himself, he also decorated them with his own wall paintings and sculptures. It struck me that Ali was (and probably needed to be) completely self-sufficient to make his dream come true. Very inspiring to see him with such energy and enthusiasm as he was building out his small business! At the end of this special evening, we took our “running into each other” destiny in our own hands and Greg, Hannah and we decided to meet up again for a sunset dinner picnic the next day (yay, I love picnics!)

The next day we met Greg and Hannah at 6pm and assembled the last delicatessen for our picnic feast. Turns out we came up with a good spread of nuts and dried fruit, local cheese, some bread, savory pancakes (think ‘wrap’), a chicken sandwich and, of course, some local red wine. A short, steep ascent later, we were on top of the “old city” of Cavusin (ancient caves that were built into the stone walls of the hill). It was a beautiful and fun evening, enjoying a great conversation over local food while watching the sunset. We learned that Greg and Hannah just got engaged (one week after our wedding!) and are about to move to Hong Kong to “try something new” (where we may try to meet up again when we visit our friend Shilpa in September). Lots of our conversation centered on learning languages. It’s really fascinating. The topic of language learning and how to best go about it keeps coming up on our journey. So does Duolingo, an online language learning app, which seems to already have gained widespread use around the globe. If you are interested in learning a new language, stay tuned. Christian will soon write a blog post on his insights while learning German.

Cappadocia, thanks for introducing us to Greg, Hannah and Ali. I felt like I got to know the more personal side of the little village of Cavusin and made friends that we’ll hopefully meet again on our journey around the world.


Surviving my first Hamam (Turkish Bath)


OK, I’ll admit it. I was kind of freaked out about going to a Hamam (Turkish Bath). After hearing from several friends that it was a somewhat horrific experience, I initially had decided that I didn’t want to do it. Christine, however, was very keen for us to try it because she figured it would be good to experience a unique, traditional practice. After some back and forth, I reluctantly agreed to go through with it. Having now come out the other side and lived to tell the tale, I can say that it wasn’t all that bad, and I might go as far to say it was a good experience. Wouldn’t rush back to do it again, but I’m glad I did it.

The quick run down on Hamams are that they are bath houses that have been around in Turkey for centuries. Back in the day people didn’t have their own bathroom in their home so they went to a bath house to get bathed. In Turkey, the Ottoman’s were apparently very fond of their bathhouses so you have hundreds of them all around Istanbul, of which around 60 are still active. The side of bathhouses that some people find a little “stressful” today is how you actually get bathed. What was described to me was having a massive old Turkish guy scrubbing me down so that my skin is raw and then manhandling me with all his weight… as I said, I wasn’t really up for it at first.

Looking through Tripadvisor for the best Hamam to go to, it was clear that there isn’t really a Hamam that everyone likes. For all the Hamams there were people who were quite traumatized from their experience (not accounting for high-end Hamams that give you a luxurious yet less authentic spa experience). The one Hamam that seemed to fare slightly better than the others on Tripadvisor was Cemberlitas Hamam so we settled on that. Cemberlitas was originally built back in 1584, making it one of the oldest Hamams still in operation. Upon arrival, Christine and I were given our tokens and wash cloths and then we were quickly separated into the men’s and women’s Hamams (no couples treatments in Hamams!). I was told to strip down and cover myself with a towel, then come back to the entrance of the men’s Hamam room. After doing so, I was greeted at the entrance by a slight, smiling, older Turkish guy who took my token and grabbed my hand. Now, there really wasn’t any turning back.

When we walked through the Hamam door we came into this outside area littered with running taps and releasing water into marble sinks. I was then guided from here into the central Hamam chamber. I quickly recognized this place as what you see in the photos when people talk about Hamams. The room was warm and steamy. Overhead was this beautiful domed ceiling with many large round holes that allowed the sunlight to pierce through. Under the dome was a large roundish flat marble stone, probably about 6 metres in diameter.

Other than me and my attendant, there was only one other guy in the room, who looked like a customer, lying down on the marble stone. I was then told to also lie on the marble (to be clear, my guy didn’t speak all that much English so it was a mixture grunts, pointing and a few broken words). Shortly after lying down a bucket of warm water was dumped on me. And then the attendant left. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at this point, but figured I would just lie there and see where things went. I felt quite relaxed in the Hamam. Great temperature and soothing with all the steam. And the beauty of the old structure added to the ambience. To think that for hundreds of years that men have been coming here to bathe, it felt very cool to be going through this experience (which to Christine’s credit is exactly what she had intended). The silence in the room was broken when a big burly Turkish guy entered the room. My heart sank. My first thought was that this guy is going to destroy me. I then breathed a sigh of relief when he approached the other guy in the room. A few minutes later, the smaller guy who had originally brought me into the room reappeared. “Ah I get it, this guy is my bather.”

He started off by grabbing my wash cloth and using it to scrub me down. This was kind of like an exfoliating process. Fortunately, it didn’t feel as rough as other people had described. Kind of soothing actually. He also mixed in a bit of a massage here and there. After a few minutes, he had pretty much exfoliated my whole body. He then rinsed me again and moved onto the soaping phase. At this point he put soapy water into the washcloth and somehow this created a ton of foam which he lathered all over me. The whole part of this washing process probably went for about 8 minutes. All in all, it wasn’t as rough as I had expected. There were a few times when I felt like he was a being a little “too thorough” with his cleaning coverage of my body parts, and I certainly wouldn’t describe him as gentle, but really not all that bad.

After being rinsed down again, I was then led back to the outer room I had seen when I first entered. Here I was given a short massage, rinsed down by slightly cooler water and that was it. My guy then took me back into the main Hamam room where he told me (again through grunts and broken English) that I could stay here and relax and that I should tip him on the way out.

So that was it, my first Hamam experience. As I said, I’m glad I did it. I know that other people have had pretty horrendous experiences so it sounds like it can be quite variable, probably also depending on the bather you get.

Finally, a big thank you my beautiful wife for convincing me to go through with it. You always know best :).


Experiences in Istanbul

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Christian and I spent about four days in Istanbul. Enough time to hit the main sights and get a glimpse of some of the neighborhoods. But by no means enough to explore the nuances of this vast city where 11 million people are spread across 39 districts. Here are a few of our impressions and experiences.

  • What we learned on Istanbul’s history: Istanbul came to prominence when the Roman Emperor Constantine established it as one of the capitals of the Roman Empire under the name Constantinople in 330 AD. Since Constantine had converted to Christianity, Constantinople became one of the most important Christian cities, outside of Rome. Soon after, when the Roman Empire split in two (east and west), Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire. For the next several hundred years, Constantinople was the biggest metropolis of the Western Hemisphere. Islamic influence in the region increased and by 1453 the city became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest Islamic empires in history, spanning through until the early 1900’s. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire emerged the modern day Turkish Republic in 1923 and the capital was moved to Ankara. Initially the population of Istanbul was decimated in half but structural changes and the modernization of the city together with an influx of people looking for work steadily increased the population. Today Istanbul is a unique combination of old and modern, East and West, and Islam and Christianity (and other religions).
  • “Must sees” in Sultanahmet: The main sights (most of them are in the Sultanahmet district) are definitely worth a visit, even though they are very touristy.
      • The Hagia Sofia specifically reflects the influence of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It’s an Orthodox Church, turned mosque, turned museum. So as you can imagine it is a pretty unique combination of Christian and Islamic architecture, art and symbols in one building.
      • The Blue Mosque is also a grand building with beautiful interior tile work (most of it with blue tiles, hence the name). It is an active mosque, therefore only a small part is roped off for visitors to go through and admire the interior. I’ve read in a blog post that it’s worth visiting some of the other big mosques in town that are equally impressive in order to avoid the crowds.
      • The Topkapi Palace. Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit this grand palace that was the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans. But I had the chance to visit it a few years ago. Back then I was impressed by the imperial harem (i.e., the Sultans private apartments with more than 400 rooms).
      • The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar: You can truly get lost in the Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 61 streets! Lots of good souvenirs to buy there. But be ready to bargain. It’s part of the game. We took our time to stroll through and explore and after getting lost (as expected) we found ourselves in the book bazaar. That said, we behaved and didn’t buy anything as our carry-on only luggage is already close to its limits :). Also worth making a stop at the spice bazaar with its incredible number of spices, sweets and many other goodies.
      • Get lost walking around town: Satisfied to have seen the main attractions, Christian and I spent most of our time exploring the different neighborhoods. Our guesthouse (Hotel Nomade) was located in the main tourist area Sultanahmet. While incredibly convenient (and a nice place to stay at, especially with its amazing rooftop terrace and direct view on the Blue Mosque) we would probably pick a different neighborhood next time. We loved to walk around Karakoy or Galata (the broader Beyoglu district), getting lost amidst the cobble stone streets and observing what locals were up to. Istanbul is a city of contrasts. You walk down a street that seems to fall apart, then turn around a corner to find an art gallery next to a hip coffee shop where locals hang out. Taking the ferry over from the European to the Asian side was a great call as well. Not only did we get great views onto the Topkapi Palace but we mingled with locals on their daily commute. Over on the Asian side we explored Kadikoy, more of a student-like, alternative area with lots of bars and cafes, where locals were enjoying their Sunday afternoon teas or beers. A small but true taste of the local culture!
      • Enjoy the Rooftops: Istanbul has amazing rooftop restaurants and bars. Once you are up there you have a totally different impression of the city. Some of the hipper restaurants are hidden, so worth doing some research beforehand to find them. We enjoyed a romantic dinner at Leb-i-Derya. Modern Turkish food with incredible sunset views!
      • Cats are everywhere: You can’t spend a day in Istanbul without noticing cats. They are everywhere. On the roof deck of our B&B. In train stations. In every single neighborhood you’ll go to. Even in some restaurants. I must say I’m more of a dog person. Therefore, I was very surprised not only about the sheer number of cats “living” in this city (these cats are not owned by a single person but rather roam around freely) but also that the Turkish people love to pet and feed them. Most cats looked well taken care of and didn’t really bother anyone. And the more days we spent in Istanbul, the more the cats seemed to be an integral part of the city.
      • Eating traditional Turkish food at Ciya Sofrasi: We ate well in Turkey but this place stood out. Thank you to my friend Matthew Rascoff for the recommendation! The owner’s, Musa Dagdeviren’s, vision is to preserve traditional Turkish recipes. There are actually three restaurants in the same street. Two of them offer kebab, grilled meats and fish. The other one “Ciya Sofrasi” prepares what was typically the “home cooked” food with an incredible spread of mezzes (spreads and other appetizers), lentil and yogurt soups, meat balls in cherry sauce, lamb sausages, eggplant stews and many other tasty dishes. Here is a link to a 2010 New Yorker article that gives you the whole story!
      • Cooking traditional Turkish food at “Cooking Alaturka”: Christian and I love new experiences. Plus, we both love good food and cooking. So what would be a better birthday present for Christian than to do a cooking class in Istanbul? Making our way through a thunderstorm and pouring rain we arrived at Cooking Alaturka, Istanbul’s first cooking school. We spent the first three hours in the kitchen cutting, stirring, sweating and laughing with Feyzi, the chef, and Mara, the host and sous-chef. Preparing Turkish food is really labor intensive, especially all the cutting of vegetables that need to go into the soup, spreads and sauces! Our work paid off. We had prepared a 5-course meal: Red lentil and bulgur soup, green runner beans cooked in an olive oil base, zucchini patties with herbs and cheese, lamb stew in tomato sauce and smoky eggplant puree, and walnut-stuffed figs in syrup. Not only did we get to enjoy these great dishes, but what we cooked was also served to the other guests at the restaurant that evening! What a great way to end our Turkey experience. Highly recommended!






Tomorrowland: Boom, Belgium, 2014

untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-375 (Small)I can only recall a handful of times in my life where I’ve experienced a kind of sensory overload that has made me feel like I’ve been transported to another world (previous occasions would probably be my trip to Kolkata in 2006 and Burning Man in 2011). But that is what I felt at the Tomorrowland music festival in Belgium last week. It was another world.

In normal circumstances, Christine and I probably wouldn’t have signed up to fly to a 3-day long music festival in Belgium. Generally we prefer to spend our precious few vacation days doing romantic trips together more akin to our Sardinian honeymoon. But now that we’ve embarked on a one-year long around the world trip, when our close friends Teeba and Basel suggested we join them for Tomorrowland this year, we found ourselves saying “why not?!”

Quick background on Tomorrowland for the non-initiated (which included me as of a few months ago) is that it is one of the world’s largest (if not “the largest”) electronic dance music festivals, with 180,000 attendees. Established in 2005 by a couple of Belgian party dudes, it quickly grew from 10,000 people coming to a one day event to 180,000 people coming to a festival that spanned 3-days. Each year they sell out within a couple of hours (or sometimes only minutes) of making the tickets available. Part of the attraction is the ability for the event to attract the entire lineup of the world’s most well-known DJs (think Above and Beyond, Paul Van Dyk, Tiesto, Moby etc.). However, I’d be selling Tomorrowland short to say it is all about the lineup, because it really is much more than that. The setup of the stages, the art installations and chill-out areas are beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a music festival before. The best way I can think of describing it is to say is that it felt like Disneyland for adults (with apologies to my friend Jaime who I know would cry out “Disneyland is for adults” if he were to read this…). There’s a YouTube clip of the 2012 Tomorrowland festival that captures the spirit well that has had over 115 million views! Worth checking out.

In case that clip made no sense to you, let me explain what we got up to. Having finished our honeymoon in Sardinia, Christine and I flew to Lisbon to meet our friends Teeba, Basel, Shilpa and Jessica, along with our new friend, Rahul, who Shilpa had brought along from Singapore. While it may have been a more direct flight to go straight from Sardinia to Brussels (near where Tomorrowland is located) the reason we went to Lisbon was so that we could take the special Tomorroland chartered flight out of Lisbon (they set up several of these out of many cities from Europe. Lisbon was the only one we could tickets to).

The party plane lived up to it’s expectations. Shortly after take-off, the window shades were lowered, the cabin lights turned off, beer trolleys came out and dance music was turned on. What ensued was a dance rave at 30,000 feet. When we landed in Brussels 2.5 hours later, we all were not sure where the time went.

From Brussels we were transferred to the aptly named town of Boom where Tomorrowland is located. We commented to each other that we expected that the residents of this small town must hate having their home invaded every year by so many people. However, we were pleasantly surprised to see locals coming out of their homes as our buses passed by to smile and wave to us, many also waving the distinctive Tomorrowland flags. Later in the festival I had the chance to meet a local and asked her what people really thought. While she said not everyone was thrilled with the event, that many people did embrace it and that the organizers invested a lot in winning over the locals, including giving them free day passes to come to the event.

After the short 30 minute bus ride, we arrived at the location on Thursday evening. While the majority of attendees stay at a location outside of Boom (e.g. in a hotel in Brussels), about a third of people stay onsite at Tomorrowland in the camp grounds called Dreamville. In our case, we opted for an upgrade and stayed in the Dreamlodges in Dreamville. They were described as pre-built tents, but in the end way exceeded our expectations. Having been diverted away from the masses that went to set up their own tents at the camp grounds, we arrived at the check-in counter of what felt like a tropical island resort. We were then guided to our cute canvas tiki tents where two flowers awaited us laid upon the mattress of our comfortable beds. Having expected to be somewhat roughing it in tents, I was very pleased to know I’d have a bed I could look forward to return to each day! (TOMORROWLAND TIP: splurge a bit and do the Dreamlodges. They’re worth every penny).

Later that evening they had a welcome event for everyone staying at Dreamville (which in itself was a bigger concert than many I’ve been to before), however we decided to not go too big this night knowing that we had some big days ahead. Also, the performance of the DJs was not as good this evening. Too much unnecessary chatter coming from the DJs which kind of interrupted the flow. Fortunately the performances at the actual festival were all much better!

After a refreshing nights sleep, we awoke to the hum of dance beat sounds in the distance. Tomorrowland was officially beginning. We continued to feel convinced that we had made the right call to do the Dreamlodges when we saw the breakfast buffet (once again more akin to what you’d see at a luxury resort than at a dance festival) and this feeling was yet again reaffirmed when our tickets allowed us to skip the lines at the entrance to the festival.

Once inside Tommorrowland, we were all taken aback as to the sheer enormity of the place and the attention to detail of the organizers in creating an environment that truly felt out of this world. I will try to describe it here but no doubt will not do it justice. The festival is inside a park that covers about a 1 squared km space. Scattered throughout the park are 13 stages, each with its own theme. Between the stages are lakes, paths, bridges, food stands, chill out areas, rides and some of the most incredible installations you’ll ever see. Much of it felt like it was shaped around an Alice in Wonderland theme with big brightly colored toadstools, big mirrors and even a couple of DJs who looked liked Mad Hatters (more on these guys later). There were hedge mazes, installations of scores of Barbie dolls attached to long-stemmed flowers, bridges with hundreds of thousands of messages inscribed on the wooden slats (attendees were asked to send their messages prior to the event), light shows beaming across water installations, a massive ferris wheel that looked in proportion to the London Eye… Added to these sights, you had the sounds of the world’s best DJs coming at you from all angles along with the incredible energy of the 180,000 strong crowd. What was also amazing about the crowd was the incredible international representation. I read that more nationalities were represented at Tomorrowland than the 2012 Olympics. And it felt that way with the sheer number of flags people had brought it. And I was proud to see that, as usual, Australia was well represented (in fact, other than Belgium, I think I saw more Australian flags than any other nationality. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!).

Over the course of the 3 days, the group of us (Basel, Teeba, Shilpa, Rahul, Ardy, Jacques, Jessica, Pato, Eyal, Tamara, Rawan, Rasha, Christine and I) wandered from stage to stage, danced, smiled, laughed and generally soaked up the experience. Too many highlights for me to mention in a single blog post, but if I were to choose one, it would be what occurred on Saturday evening mid way through the festival. After spending several hours in a dark tent dancing to trance music, the group emerged for a wander around the grounds and stumbled across the Grand Theater stage, which we were to later christen as “Happy Land.” The stage was one of the smaller ones at the festival, situated on a platform in the middle of the lake. The DJs playing were called Bart & Baker. None of us had ever heard of these guys and they looked a couple of decades older than any of the other DJs playing at the festival. But they were fun. Really fun. And as I alluded to before, these were the guys kind of dressed up like Mad Hatters. The tunes they played were kind of like a mix of Loony Tunes cartoons, upbeat jazz and electronic dance music. Across from the stage was a small chillout area (also on a platform on the lake). A few of the group peeled off to this area to dance. What then ensued was somewhat of a dance off (or perhaps a better way to describe it was “follow the other side”) where people would dance funny moves from one platform and the people from the other platform would copy. So much fun. It kept us entertained for hours :).untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-368 (Small)

Some other notable highlights from the 3-days to mention were being introduced to Nervo, two DJ sisters from Australia (I’ve clearly been away from home too long), participating in the 8-hour marathon trance session with Markus Schulz followed by Paul Van Dyk, and getting to see my favorite DJs right now, Above and Beyond, on main stage (although the downside of mainstage was that they probably didn’t take as many risks as they would have had they been on a smaller stage).

Fast forwarding to the end of day 3, on Sunday evening at 11:30pm (30 minutes before the official close of the event) Christine and I sneaked away from Tomorrowland and made our way back to the bar at our Dreamlodge. We arrived minutes before the beginning of July 28th, my birthday. Since everyone else was celebrating the final few moments of Tomorrowland, we had the bar to ourselves which gave Christine the opportunity to collect 34 candles from all of the other bar tables to make me a mini birthday celebration for me. That along with a nice drop of red wine was how my 34th year began :).


The next day, we stumbled out of bed early at 7am to make our flight to from Brussels to Lisbon. For the first time in days we had some heavy rain (we heard they use sound canons at Tomorrowland to keep the storms away…) which appropriately matched the mood we felt as we dragged our heavy legs to the bus and bid farewell to the little town of Boom. We imagined the residents must have let out a sigh of relief to have their town back. Similarly, we felt relief to be returning to “normal” life in the real world. Tomorrowland exceeded my wildest expectations. A friend asked me at the event if I’d do it again. While I couldn’t imagine mustering up the energy to do it again next week (or even next month), in a year’s time (or in several years) I can definitely imagine coming back.


SPECIAL THANKS to Jessica Postiglione for providing most of the photos for this post!