This year has been one of the best in travel for me in my whole life. I’ve gone on four separate trips, all of them memorable in their own way, with each of them giving me fond memories for me to look back on. In all, I went to three out of four of my planned destinations at the start of 2017, which was not bad going at all, and the changed destination worked out very well indeed.
Being away to four separate and very different countries did much to remind me that travel is a privilege, not a right, and those who are able to partake in it are very fortunate to do so. I know full well that there are plenty of travel bloggers out there who travel full time, and I understand how all too easy it is to envy them.
But there are far more people out there who just can’t travel at all, and who are equally envious of people like me. It’s something that keeps me grounded and level-headed as I find myself pining for the next open road adventure, or wistfully wishing I could just visit those places on my ever-growing bucket list already. So where did I go in 2017?
I started by accompanying my School to Iceland in February. The ‘land of ice and fire’, as it is known in many quarters, and with very good and justified reason, as the two geological extremes can be found here. There are volcanic eruptions and soothingly hot geothermal lagoons at one end of the scale, and magnificent glaciers at the other.
All combine to form a stunningly beautiful landscape of near mythical, ethereal proportions; settings fit for Game of Thrones among many others. I also had the good fortune to witness the eerily beautiful natural phenomenon that is the Northern Lights; not, perhaps, on the scale you see on National Geographic and the like (we were in a semi-urban environment), but beguiling all the same…and, yes, I was fortunate indeed to see them.
Peru was up next. I would be lying if I said that the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu wasn’t the most anticipated highlight of the trip, and the experience did not disappoint, although it was touch and go whether we would be able to actually see the legendary ruins thanks to relentless rain from day two of the trek onward. Thankfully it cleared in time for the obligatory postcard shots!
But it wasn’t all about that, and I certainly don’t want to sell the rest of the Peruvian experience short. Lake Titicaca is another astonishing highlight, with a reminder of how one can engage in traditional, simple living off the land. Other scenic highlights could also be found in the likes of the Colca Canyon and the Sacred Valley, both of which are located near interesting cities in their own right.
Mongolia is an achingly beautiful country, and another with its own, unique aura, largely inspired by Genghis Khan, but also by the simple, nomadic lifestyle of its sparse population. Much of the pristine, unspoiled nature of its scenery means you can go for days without seeing a soul, be that in the vast sweep of the lush steppe or the harsh, desolate beauty of the Gobi Desert.
For all of that, though, my highlights all pretty much came in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Here, I volunteered – another great, and contrasting, stint of teaching following on from that in Uganda several years prior – which provided me with a true, beneath-the-surface glimpse of the Mongolian lifestyle. And then I experienced the awesome Naadam festival as well as, oh yes, a North Korean restaurant…
My original plan was to visit Australia and Malaysia for my last trip of 2017, but this fell through, and I instead found myself in Poland, which was not a bad late substitute! I haven’t got round to blogging about it yet, but suffice to say here I also got to experience both urban – Warsaw, Krakow – and rural, in the form of Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains, gems.
For now, all I will say is that one experience here absolutely stood out above all others: that at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. It’s very difficult to sum up what visiting here is like in a few words without sounding flippant. Suffice to say that it’s an important place to visit, as it shows what human beings are capable of. All it takes is demonization of one or more groups of whole people to begin an agenda of murderous racism…something against which we must remain ever vigilant.