How not to take a train in India

After three weeks in the Himalayas, flying into Varanasi was a bit of a shock to the system for Steve and I. We went from a part of the world where yaks and people take the place of cars and technology straight into rush hour in an Indian city of over a million people. If you’ve not been to India, rush hour – or any other hour, for that matter – is exactly as chaotic as you would imagine it to be.

Fortunately, our hotel proved to be a haven of calm overlooking the river Ganges. After navigating Varanasi’s back alleys because our taxi from the airport was far too big to fit, we found some much needed respite watching the sunset over the mighty river, the far bank shrouded in haze (or smog…).

Sunset over the river Ganges in Varanasi, India

Smog, or haze, or a mixture of the two made it easy to look straight at the sun as it set.

The “thing to do” in Varanasi is to take a rowboat tour at sunrise, and indeed boatmen throng the banks of the river looking for customers. Our first bit of haggling in India went fairly smoothly – one advantage of the competitive availability of tours – and the boat proved another world apart from the bustle of the Ghats, the riverside districts of the city.

Ghats by the river Ganges in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

An elderly man watches the world go by at Bhadaini Ghat.

The river is the focal point of activity in the city – everything happens here. People wash themselves and their clothes, drink, poo, swim, play, and cremate their loved ones – and all these things happen within a few metres of each other. Unsurprisingly, the river is horribly polluted, although our rowing guide was very keen to convince us that it was perfectly clean. To demonstrate, he took a few big gulps of river water and encouraged us to do the same; we politely declined.

Ghats by the river Ganges in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Beautiful, ramshackle temples line the riverside – one could spend a long time just visiting them all to find out what’s going on inside!

Unfortunately, Steve was not as restrained during the rest of our time in Varanasi. His downfall was a glass of orange juice, lovingly prepared by a street vendor – with water straight from the Ganges.

A few days later, as we prepared to board our overnight train to Agra, where we would visit the Taj Mahal, his stomach uttered its first grumbling complaints. He shouldered his bag happily enough, though, when the announcement board showed a platform number for our train. Our bunks were five carriages apart, as we had managed to snag the last couple of tickets for the sold-out train. I was not surprised, therefore, to find a man complacently sitting in my space. He was adamant that it was his bunk, though, and after some manic gesticulating it transpired that this was not, in fact, our train; it had simply stopped at the platform where ours should have stopped.

I hopped off and ran along the train to tell Steve to get off – I found him sitting hunched over with his head in his hands. My panicky yelling got his attention, but so did the fact that the train had just started moving. There was nothing left to do – with the train picking up speed every second, an increasingly sick Steve would have to jump off and hope for the best.

And jump he did – at the last second. Missing a vendor’s cart carrying a precipitous stack of pears by mere inches, he made it without falling – although he did not look happy. The next train had better be the right one…

Taj Majal Mosque, Agra, India

A young couple sit by the Taj Mahal mosque.

Fortunately, the next train was indeed the right one, and Steve was lovingly looked after by an Indian grandmother. Noticing how miserable he looked, she gave him one of her own blankets for the night and even tucked him in.

As the sun rose in the morning, we were rewarded with this view from the a roof terrace after a bumpy taxi ride from the station. I sipped a cool lassi, although Steve was in no condition to be consuming anything by this point. Unsurprisingly, I had to visit the Taj by myself that morning…

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The Taj Mahal on a hazy morning.

Have you had similar train snafus, in India or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about them!

Hidden spots around Vienna: a walk in the woods

The Wienerwald, or “Viennese Forest”, covers the foothills that separate the Viennese basin from the eastern fringes of the Alps proper. It transitions smoothly into Vienna’s northwestern vineyard and Heurigen districts, which I’m fortunate enough to have grown up near – unsurprisingly, these are some of the city’s greenest parts.

The woods loom large in the Viennese collective consciousness – Johann Strauss, one of the city’s best-known and most iconic composers, named one of his most beautiful waltzes after it.

As the first snows of the year laid a soft white blanket on the city, therefore, I headed out to the woods with a few friends – they’re barely 10-15 minutes’ drive from my doorstep. As the roads snake higher into the foothills, increasingly scenic views of Vienna can be glimpsed from the many meadows and clearings in the forest. This time, though, the sky was still heavy with clouds from the recent snowfall and visibility was low, so I focused on nearby subjects instead.

Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), Austria, in winter with snow.

Bits of snow cling to the tiniest things.

Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), Austria, in winter with snow.

As darkness fell, it quickly got every bit as chilly as it looks.

Without my hiking boots, I had to rely on old, wrecked street shoes that very quickly became waterlogged – our walk in the woods was therefore a short one out of necessity. But days like this one don’t come about too often and I wasn’t keen on heading home just yet, so I went for a little walk around Türkenschanzpark, my local park.

Sunset at Türkenschanzpark, Vienna, Austria

An impressive sunset frames trees drooping with the fresh snow.

Sunset at Türkenschanzpark, Vienna, Austria

For some reason, this one brought to mind the white walkers from A Song of Ice and Fire…

Snow makes for tricky shooting, very different due to the lack of contrast in white-on-white areas – but there’s just so much opportunity to discover beauty elsewhere, and to be outside when few others are. Of course, a vibrant sunset helped, too…

Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), Austria, in winter with snow.

Entmoot in the Vienna Woods.

Hidden spots around Vienna: “Pawlatschen” Courtyards

Even after more than seven years of living abroad, I am awed by Vienna’s inner city whenever I return to visit. The grand dignity and baroque beauty of the “Innere Stadt“, with each building in impeccable condition, blow me away every time. And despite its small size, there is always something new to discover for the visitor who roams with open eyes and an open mind.

Beneath, between and beyond the spectacular theatres, churches, museums and palaces lie the little hidden gems that make Vienna’s inner city a real pleasure to wander. Take, for one, the inner courtyards found in many old buildings within the district. Known colloquially as “Pawlatschen” after the Czech “pawlač”, an open entrance to a house, these squares are oases of green and calm. While these are not in short supply in Vienna more generally, these courtyards do offer a welcome respite from narrow streets often thronged by tourists – and from the sun, which can be merciless on a hot summer’s day.

Vienna's Inner City: Pawlatschen Courtyards. Austria.

A Pawlatschen courtyard, leading on to another courtyard at the back. The sign reads “1st courtyard”.

From the courtyards – or the corridors that connect them – residents can access the stairwells of their houses in relative privacy, and the large number of inwards-facing flats and rooms makes for much quieter living. Of course, these are among the more desirable places to live in Vienna, so I’m sure prices are according! Still, I enjoy the fact that these courtyards are open for anyone to wander; unlike the driveways of blocks of flats in places like Kensington, which are walled and protected by fierce-looking spiked fences, they are a part of the city, if one rarely glimpsed by the casual passer-by. 

Vienna's Inner City: Pawlatschen Courtyards. Austria.

Blue skies and a breath of green, just a few metres separate me from the bustling streets outside, but the two places seem a world apart.

The dangers of hot chocolate: Struggling to Ama Dablam Base Camp, Nepal

Since the end of my seven months of travelling in June 2013, I have never once stopped thinking about doing it all again – just more professionally. And I can’t help but feel that the highlights-reel style of my blog posts from back then – which I have now imported to this blog – doesn’t quite do the memories justice. I thought I’d home in on some of my most treasured recollections and put them into a more detailed format. The upside of this concept is that I get to garnish my memories with pictures, which I have finally selected and begun to process to make them look their best.

The first such recollection is from the trail in Nepal, as Steve and I were on our way to climb Island Peak. At 6,189m (20,298ft), it is nearly twice as high as anywhere either of us had ever been. On our way there, we would visit Ama Dablam Base Camp, where we would leave extra gear for those members of our team who would go on to climb this significantly higher mountain.  This little stop would also lighten the porters’ loads and give us time to acclimatise at 4,600m and to practice our rope skills on a boulder near camp.

Ama Dablam in Nepal's Khumbu Himalayas

Ama Dablam in all its glory, towering above Tengboche Monastery.

In the above picture, base camp is just out of sight behind the orange-coloured hills to the right. We would walk in from Tengboche Monastery, which looks tiny in the foreground and sits at 3,800m. However, we had to descend to about 3,300m before ascending to Base Camp, making this by far the single most arduous day’s walking with the exception of our summit day on Island Peak.

Near Tengboche Monastery, on the way to Ama Dablam, Khumbu Himalayas, Nepal

Our tents at Tengboche in the evening. This is where the bugs multiplied inside me…

Unfortunately, my body chose this very day to let me down quite comprehensively. I went to bed happily enough the evening before, after a tasty dinner and some hot chocolate at the Tengboche “German Bakery”. Under no circumstances were we to eat cake, which due to its cream content is liable to produce rather, er, effusive bouts of food poisoning – but hot drinks are generally fine.

As we departed Tengboche and wove our way through rhododendron forests to the bottom of the gorge, my stomach started complaining more and more loudly, until I dry heaved while crossing the wire bridge across the river. Steve repeatedly offered to carry my bag, but I declined, being mortified at my own weakness. Thanks to our porters, we only carried water, a jacket and cameras anyway – surely I couldn’t fail to carry my own?! But after I refused several times and slowed down more and more, Samira, one of our guides, commanded me to hand over my bag to Steve.

Near Tengboche Monastery, on the way to Ama Dablam, Khumbu Himalayas, Nepal

Lovely rhododendron forests near Tengboche – Hata-san walking briskly ahead.

As we began to ascend again, with well over 1,000 vertical metres between us and our destination, things started getting ugly. While I never ended up throwing up, I felt nauseous and so weak that I could only take a few steps at a time before having to stop, and after a while I developed a headache because I couldn’t bring myself to drink anything. These being the standard symptoms for the onset of altitude sickness, I was naturally worried – although I was reassured by the presence of Chris, our other guide, who stayed behind to bring up the rear with me. A veteran of many expeditions on 8000m peaks, I trusted his assessment and considerable experience fully, and he consistently nudged me to go on, to stand up again and to keep moving.

Worrying about altitude sickness, I was on the verge of turning back at many points during the slog up to Base Camp. In the end it was Chris’s gentle insistence that kept me going and helped me stumble my way to Ama Dablam Base Camp. Of course, he turned out to be correct – after I wheezed my way into camp well over an hour after everyone else and collapsed into my sleeping bag, I was out for a couple of days with nothing but a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Ama Dablam in Nepal's Khumbu Himalayas

Our tents at Ama Dablam Base Camp. At this point, it started to get really quite chilly before sunrise and after sunset.

It was just as well that we had a full rest day scheduled, which allowed me to start to recover – although from this point onwards, I was always among the slower members of our team. But I made it up Island Peak with the slow-and-steady approach, which is all I could have asked for.

The Lord Mayor’s Show

Central London often goes into lockdown for various events, with the London Marathon and the Tour de France coming to mind as recent examples. But every now and again, these events are far more bizarre; the Lord Mayor’s Show is a case in point.

Lord Mayor Alan Yarrow at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

Alan Yarrow, the new Lord Mayor. He’s also a top-level investment banker.

The Lord Mayor of the City of London is a title that dates back nearly eight centuries – this year being the 799th incarnation of the event – to a time when London was a small town separate from surrounding locations such as Westminster. Today, he is the head of an archaic, incredibly convoluted political system relevant only to the City, the financial district of London. He is elected by the businesses of the area – a vibrant mix of trades until a few decades ago, but dominated by financial services these days.

Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

These chaps seem to be having a great time waving to the masses…

The City of London is sometimes accused of using its unusual political structure and powers beyond those of other local authorities to turn the area into a tax haven for its businesses. As such, it seems particularly poignant that a tiny group of almost unbelievably privileged people spend a day every year marching through London in the traditional dress of their positions. I don’t feel like these images contribute to a particularly humble or inclusive image.

Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

A man of the people, there can be no doubt of that!

Thousands of people line the streets for the Lord Mayor’s Show, presumably to see the fantastical outfits and costumes on show. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the ceremony looked an awful lot like plebs cheering their betters as they parade the spectacular wealth that they represent – and which most of us will never benefit from.

Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

Maybe one of the most poignant pictures I took on the day.

Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

This picture, too, speaks more than 1,000 words.

Fortunately, though, obscure City officials are just a small part of the show. Charities, youth organisations, military divisions and a few local businesses all had floats or marching bands. This part of the parade had a far more relaxed feel to it, with lots of interaction between parade and crowd. Of course, most military participants were in full recruitment mode, but it was nice to see an aspect of life that most of us don’t normally get to see. One of the most photogenic military groups was the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army, who rode on the Battle Bus, one of the last surviving London buses that were converted to carry troops to the front in World War I.

Sikh Regiment on the Battle Bus at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

The Sikh Regiment on the Battle Bus.

Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

A tank commander – not a common sight on London’s streets these days!

And, coming just a year before the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, huge numbers of historical re-enactors took part to practice for their big show next year.

  Napoleonic Association at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London           Napoleonic Association at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

Over the years, these people gradually assemble more and more parts of their respective period’s uniform – some are foot soldiers, others are officers. Many wives and girlfriends also join in – during the parade they acted as camp followers, handing out flyers and sweets. They’re certainly a photogenic lot!

Napoleonic Association at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

Colours…

Napoleonic Association at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

…and paraphernalia complete the look. What an outfit!

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Lord Mayor’s Show – on the one hand, it seems like a fun occasion for a parade, making for a good day out in a car-free City. But on the other hand, only a very select few people actually get to dress up, and the outfits only reinforce a social divide that seems as unbridgeable as ever these days. What do you think?

Napoleonic Association at the Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

A final couple of pictures to show…

Lord Mayor's Show 2014, City of London

…the social contrasts the Lord Mayor’s Show seems to embody.

I open at the close: Seoul, Korea

My seven-month adventure ended nearly 18 months ago – but now that I am finding some time to actually go through the thousands of pictures I took in some detail, I feel increasingly compelled to actually finish off my blog that I kept so faithfully for most of the journey. Until the last few weeks, that is – when the realities of heading home started to crash home and blogging was replaced with job applications.

I spent about a third of my 4 weeks in Korea in Busan, and wrote about it here. I stayed with my friend Dan, who was teaching English there at the time, which made the transition into this wildly unfamiliar country a lot easier. It was with a little bit of trepidation, therefore, that I headed to Seoul, the very final stop of a 210-day odyssey.

Fortunately, my trepidation was unfounded. I’d booked myself into a dorm at Mr Kim’s guesthouse for the miraculous price of just £6 a night and managed to find it on just the second attempt. Like Tokyo, Seoul is a warren of ever smaller nameless alleyways once you leave the main roads, so I was fairly pleased with my navigation efforts. Through a happy coincidence, I was also close to Hongdae, the entertainment district surrounding Hongik University. I spent my days and evenings wandering the city relatively aimlessly, looking to get a feel for it without just sticking to the main attractions.

That said, I did visit the standard attractions, as well – and my little photo essay below will aim to introduce a few of them.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea - Changing of the Guards

Here, I arrived at Gyeongbokgung Palace – Seoul’s equivalent of Buckingham Palace – just in time for the Changing of the Guard. I quite like this far-Eastern version – much colourful than the London counterpart!

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

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Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

The whole event seemed more approachable, as well – rather than taking place behind thick wrought-iron gates and fences, the public simply clears the required space around the courtyard. That said, I’m not sure I’d want to push my luck getting in the way of these guys, fanciful uniforms or no…

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the GuardsGyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

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Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

Musical accompaniment.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also visited a more modern staple of Korean culture. E-sports tournaments draw a considerable – admittedly mostly male – audience in Korea, and the top players earn millions. Essentially, gaming is on the same level as professional sports – or other professional sports, I should say. On this occasion, I watched a game of League of Legends. The teams are arranged on either side of the audience in lit-up glass boxes, with teams of Korean and English-speaking commentators prominent on stage.

e-sports tournament, Seoul, Korea

League of Legends on the big screen. The audience was loving it, and there was some serious cheering!

e-sports tournament, Seoul, Korea

A cheeky picture with the hostess – no points to her for the dressing-up effort, but I guess that’s not really the point here. My hoverhand is because I wasn’t really sure what the etiquette is…

Finally, Dan and I made the obligatory “pilgrimage” to the border with North Korea, just a few miles north of Seoul. Tours of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) are a dime a dozen, but still extremely worthwhile. Where else can you simply wander into what is technically still a war zone?

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

Contrasts in life…

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

…near the DMZ.

It’s a weird place – the South Korean side is busy with tourists, and even North Korean tours feature their side of the DMZ. There are also signs that South Korea is simply waiting for the conflict to end, such as a train station at the border that boldly announces that the next stop on the line will – one day – be Pyongyang.

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

One day…

North Korea dug several tunnels in its attempts to invade the South over the years, aiming for Seoul. Some of these simply failed, while South Korea discovered others. One of these is now accessible for tourists – so much so that there is even a train from ground level for anyone too lazy or frail to walk down the long, sloping corridor. It’s a slightly ghostly place – hard to imagine being the North Korean soldiers blasting their way through the rock, hoping against hope to avoid discovery…

Demilitarised Zone South Korea / North Korea

All aboard for a 30-second ride!

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

Dan is 6’5” – he struggled in this tunnel made for people of average North Korean height in the early 80s!

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

This is the underground border to North Korea. Photographs aren’t allowed here, so I snuck this one with my little camera – across from the viewing window is a full-on North Korean military installation.

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

Above ground, too, there are plenty of reminders that despite the bustling nature of the place, the conflict is far from over.

In hindsight, I’m annoyed with myself for not making more of an effort to explore Seoul properly in the weeks I had there. But once home was within reach, once my thoughts had turned from the moment to the immediate future and beyond, it became ever harder to motivate myself to go and wander. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to rectify this mistake sometime sooner rather than later!

Across Transylvania like the wind

Romania is a curious place. Evidence of its EU membership is rarely apparent outside Bucharest; even motorways are thin on the ground. Instead, dual carriageways with liberal sprinklings of potholes snake through small towns and villages, and people sell apples, cheese, honey, brandy and other homegrown/homemade/home-brewed goodies on the roadside. Compared to western Europe, hitchhiking is a common way of getting around, and not just for backpackers.

But the countryside is enchanting, particularly as we leave the southeastern plains of Wallachia and head into the Carpathian mountains that separate this part of the country from northwestern (and better-known) Transylvania. Helena and I are visiting my Dad, who is taking us and my half-brother, Aram, on a three-day whistlestop tour of his native Transylvania.

Sighisoara, Romania

An interesting shot of Aram looking thoughtful. I’m not sure where the light came from to make this photo turn out the way it did!

Our first stop was in Sinaia, a skiing resort straddling the main pass through the mountains. My recent skiing and hiking forays to France and Nepal were dominated by regions above the treeline, so it was a lovely change to go for a wander through Sinaia’s rich pine forests with Helena. Through the trees, we caught a glimpse of the gorgeous Peles Castle (whose grounds were sadly closed), built by the Romanian king Charles I; clearly, he was as taken with the area as we were.

Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

Peles Castle, coyly hiding behind the trees.

Further down the hill, we found Sinaia monastery, the old compound around which the town has gradually grown. Having arrived mid-week, it was wonderfully peaceful, and the simplicity of the buildings along with the quiet and crisp mountain air made for a rather pleasant change from London’s smelly bustle and a 3.30am start to get to Stansted Airport.

We also made the acquaintance of Romanian food – summarised briefly, it contains a lot of meat, cheese and polenta, and plenty of flavour. Unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan…

Sinaia Monastery, Romania

Sinaia Monastery, a picturesque home to about a dozen Orthodox monks.

With just 3 days in the country, we swiftly moved on the next morning, and made our way to a town called Sighisoara (apparently called Castrum Sex in Latin – who knew?!), on the other side of the mountains. The dilapidated industrial belt we initially drove through did not look promising, but we soon pulled into what turned out to be an almost impossibly quaint little medieval walled town restored to look clinically – almost, dare I say it, a little too perfect.

Sighisoara, Romania

High Street Sighisoara…?

On a hilltop overlooking the old town, we came across a small museum housed in a former school. It looked like it was lifted straight out of the 19th century, but to my great surprise they only stopped teaching in the only classroom in 2010. I caught Aram looking generally unimpressed with the situation…

Sighisoara, Romania

Apparently the desks and benches were used all the way up until 2010 – what a different world!

Helena and I stayed in the biggest hotel room I have ever seen – it wasn’t far short of cavernous. It fit perfectly with the character with the rest of the old town, although a healthy dose of early-20th-century luxury and faded grandeur added hugely to its charm. Upon walking into the room for the first time I immediately lost my key, prompting a good 20 minutes of frustration and ill-suppressed swearing – I’m still getting used to being around a four-year-old…

Hotel Room in Sighisoara, Romania

Our enormous room – behind the door is our antechamber (yes, I *will* call it that).

Before heading up to the mountains to my aunt and uncle’s house to spend time with them and my cousins, we made a brief stop at Bran Castle, better known in the west as Dracula’s Castle. Associated with Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, it is located on a spectacular outcrop overlooking one of the main old roads through the  mountains. The ever-expanding warren of stalls hawking tourist rubbish does little to diminish the castle itself, which I imagine would be even more imposing in less friendly weather.

Looking out from Bran Castle, Brasov County, Romania

Looking out along the old toll road as the sun begins to set.

Bran Castle, Brasov County, Romania

The inner courtyard shows off the randomised architecture of the castle, designed to confuse attackers, nicely.

Bran Castle, Brasov County, Romania

A staircase beautifully lit by the late-afternoon light.

“Skye? Not remote enough!” – a day trip to the Outer Hebrides

The previous post was all about dramatic hilltop vistas of a landscape torn apart by the forces of tectonics. I spent my next night just a handful miles away, and yet in a completely different world. After briefly popping into the village of Uig to fill up my empty bottles (and to go to the bathroom, in case you were wondering…), I left civilisation behind again in search of one of the several gorgeous waterfalls I had passed on my way down from the Trotternish Ridge.

I found my ideal spot in a “field” of cows and sheep – although on Skye, a field is more a vague chunk of undulating land enclosed by cliffs than the rectangular, hedgerowed affairs we know as fields down in southern England.

Waterfall on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

One cute little waterfall just upstream from my tent…

To my delight, I quickly found a campsite near not just one, but two waterfalls. The upper one made for a nice bit of white noise to fall asleep to, while the bottom one was rather more dramatic, its greater noise muted by its height. Trying to get good angles of it took some daring footwork in the dark at 4.30am! I was keen to showcase my tent for scale, as well – has it worked out? You tell me…

Waterfall on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

…and a much bigger one downstream. There was little point trying to include the sky in these photos as sunrise was right behind the waterfalls and made the sky far too bright.

Waterfall on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

An earlier shot. The sun was rising behind the waterfall, leaving this side in deep shadow. I pointed my headtorch at the waterfall for this 30-second exposure, but this rough-and-ready solution overexposed the foreground flowers…

Sunrise photography is hungry work, of course, and I was pleased to find that I had finished packing up my tent and backpack just as the rising sun started to light up the eastern sky. I’d had no idea just how nice a warm breakfast is after a night in a tent, and the combo of instant porridge and being in the middle of nowhere on a gorgeous island made for a great start to theday.

Breakfast by a waterfall on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Not quite your average Instagram food photo!

I wasn’t to spend much more time on Skye, however – at 9.30am I boarded the ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy on the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. I had no specific plans for my day trip to the island, but I grew a little apprehensive as the sun rose into a brilliant blue sky: the midges would be out in force. Luckily, I got talking to Isaac and Susana, two friends from Spain who were driving around Scotland and who kindly offered to take me along for their day of exploring the island.

North Uist is spectacularly empty, even more so than Skye. It is a different emptiness – while the landscape is much less rugged than in Skye and generally flat, marshy and close to the water, this somehow adds to its feeling of being completely removed from the world. Far fewer tourists venture out here, and the cottages that pop up every now and again are welcome signs of habitation in a magnificent desolation rather than tendrils of a bigger chunk of civilisation nearby.

Cottage on North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

A haven in the desolation. Not sure I could live there – not right now, at least.

We had only vague notions of what to expect from the Outer Hebrides, and what we found just a short drive later flew in the face of anything we could have imagined. With the sun now high in an ever more blue sky, we discovered that North Uist boasts some absolutely stunning white-sand beaches on its Atlantic coast. Next stop, Canada!

Beach on North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Isaac and Susana.

Cottage on North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Sand dunes flanking a crofter’s cottage. As strange combinations go…

We spent a good few hours marvelling at the Caribbean feel of the beach, and even went for a cheeky swim in the Atlantic. I never thought I’d actively worry about sunstroke when at nearly 60 degrees latitude at the northwestern extremity of Europe, but this is one of those unexpected turns of events that I love about travelling!

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Dip in the Pool. A big, big pool.

Algae on North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Algae in the intertidal zone.

Following my initial annoyance at myself for abandoning my initial plan of walking the whole Trotternish Ridge, I ended up having a far more varied holiday and got back into the gap-year hitchhiking vibe a little bit. I can’t wait to get out again!

Cullen Skink at Loch Alsh, Highlands, Scotland

A bit of Cullen Skink on the shores of Loch Alsh before getting on the train home. A piper was playing for a stag do party nearby – as Scottish an afternoon as I could ask for!

How not to pitch your tent

My long-weekend trip to Skye in late August was to be my first experience of solo wild camping, and a bit of an escape into the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, the Isle of Skye is an even bigger faff to get to than I thought: an overnight train to Inverness and another tiny, two-carriage train through the Highlands only take you to Kyle of Lochalsh, just across from Skye on the west coast of the Scottish mainland.

The Kyle of Lochalsh line from Inverness just might be the most scenic rail journey I have ever undertaken. It snakes through dramatic lochs, hills and untouched Scottish highlands for two hours before emerging on the coast to stunning blue skies, and the hazy outlines of the Western Isles on the horizon. It is no wonder Michael Palin dedicated an episode to the line in his 1980 documentary, “Great Railway Journeys” – the trip is absolutely spectacular.

End of the line at Kyle of Lochalsh. Just across the water awaits the Isle of Skye!

End of the line at Kyle of Lochalsh. Just across the water awaits the Isle of Skye!

From Kyle, the new Skye Bridge has made the old ferry obsolete: just a quick couple of buses to the trailhead…right?

The Skye Bridge spanning Loch Alsh, soon to deliver me to the start of my little adventure.

The Skye Bridge spanning Loch Alsh, which would soon deliver me to the start of my little adventure.

Well, only technically right. The winding roads of Skye are not easy to navigate by bus. Particularly beyond Portree, the main village on the island, the large bus was comically unsuitable for navigating the single-lane-with-laybys road snaking its way up the Trotternish peninsula, Skye’s northernmost one. Highlights include a 9-point turn to get around one of the hairpin turns. Having arrived in Inverness at 8.30 and at Kyle of Lochalsh at 11.30, it took me until nearly 4pm to actually reach the start of my trek. But I won’t blame the bus completely for taking so long – I did also underestimate the size of Skye. When you look at it on  a map, it doesn’t look at all like it’s nearly 50 miles long and 25 wide!

Looking back down to where I started, near the coast.

Looking back down to where I started, near the coast.

And from here on, the vistas only got more dramatic. A huge landslip runs the length of the Trotternish peninsula, which I was planning to follow for part of my walk. At the fault line, huge cliffs separate West from East and make for a spectacular route – more so because there is no path here. I made plenty of good use of my map, although the weather was so good that I didn’t need my compass.

Climbing towards the top of the ridge, my companion for the next 24 hours.

Climbing towards the top of the ridge, my companion for the next 24 hours.

I came across very significantly more sheep than people; a very nice change to London! They just graze across the island with minimal enclosure, and each owner spray-paints a colourful mark on his sheep to distinguish them from others.

Nobody lives on the ridge – just sheep; a very nice change to London. They graze across the island with minimal enclosure, and each owner spray-paints a colourful mark on his sheep to distinguish them from others.

More sheep. They were very kind for arranging themselves so photogenically!

More sheep. They were very kind for arranging themselves so photogenically, although they were liable to bolt if I wasn’t careful…

I’d planned on finding a prudent campsite away from the ridge – but once evening came and I reached ever more spectacular hilltops, I simply couldn’t resist pitching my tent right on top of one of the high points of the ridge.

I could absolutely not say no to camping here. What a view!

I could absolutely not say no to camping here. What a view!

It started drizzling just as I finished pitching. Very pleased with myself and this fortuitous bit of timing, I crawled inside – and then regretted my decision to camp just a few feet from the cliffs in one of the most exposed spots of the entire ridge as the wind and rain picked up, and up, and up, and battered my tent. It took me until about midnight to into a fitful sleep.

Maybe if I'd turned around, I would have noticed the less-than-perfect weather coming in for the evening...

In hindsight, the less-than-perfect weather didn’t exactly sneak up on me…

Fortunately, I next awoke at 3am to clear skies and complete calm, so I seized the moment and tried to get a few good shots of the night sky. Skye, after all, is known for having one of the darkest skies in Europe – the effect was spoiled only a little by my elevated viewpoint, which meant that lights from the village of Staffin were visible in the distance.

An effort to get my tent and the night sky into one picture. Trickier than one might think on boggy ground!

An effort to get my tent and the night sky into one picture. Trickier than one might think on boggy ground! Sunrise was not far off, either. (Click image for bigger version – stars don’t show here!)

In the morning, I found that my tent had held up to the wind and rain admirably – although I was glad to have used all the guy-ropes. And a view like the one below as I crawled out of my tent made it all instantly worthwhile!

Exuberant and pleased after a breakfast with this view!

Exuberant and pleased after a breakfast with this view!

More on my adventures in Skye will follow shortly. I have far too many photos worth sharing (I hope you’ll agree…) to squeeze into one post.