About Jonny Scott Blair

Jonny Scott Blair

Jonny Blair is a self confessed traveling nomad. He sees every day as an adventure. Since leaving behind his home town of Bangor in Northern Ireland ten years ago he has traveled to all seven continents, working his way through various jobs and funding it all with hard work and an appetite for travel. His website Don’t Stop Living, a lifestyle of travel' contains over 1,000 stories and tips from his journeys round the globe. He wants to show others how easy it is to travel the world, give them some ideas and encourage them to do the same but most of all he aims to constantly live a lifestyle of travel. He is currently based in Hong Kong and on Twitter @jonnyblair.


Latest Posts by Jonny Scott Blair

Renting an Iranian Camel in the Mesr Desert

April 11, 2014 by  

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Camel riding on the edge of Mesr at the Dasht-e Kavir desert.

It was less than six months ago that I went camel riding for the first time on my travels. I was backpacking in Iran and we somehow ended up in a couple of remote settlements in the central desert – firstly in the town of Khoor and then we headed out for a night in Mesr. These remote towns are north east of Yazd and in a desert area called the Dasht-e Kavir.

Mesr is very remote – it’s as good as a “desert town” gets with nothing more than a few streets and a few camels, with a shop, a Mosque and a Primary School thrown in for good measure. Given that it’s so remote and not commercial, it’s a great place to rent a camel from one of the locals who own camels in the town, one smack in the middle of the Dasht-e Kavir desert that is.

mesr desert camel riding

To get to Mesr, there is no bus station, no train station, no garaj and no airport. It’s a bit far for a camel to walk as the nearest other town is Khoor, where we also stayed. Since Khoor has a bus station, it’s the best place to base yourself while you explore the area. And cars are not all that reliable in this part of the world.

We had some trouble starting the car in Mesr as well!

Amir and Rohab run this website: http://www.irandeserts.com/, which is worth checking out.

camel riding iran

We paid 50,000 Rials each so about $1.50 US Dollars to rent the camels, so nothing that will break the bank.

My view from the camel.

You can go out for as long as you want, but 15-20 minutes was enough for us.  

mesr backpacking iran

Out in the vegetated desert near Mesr, Iran.

mesr camel riding

 

 

The post Backpacking in Iran: Camel Riding in Mesr appeared first on Don’t Stop Living.

Behind The Beauty of Antarctica’s Top Islands

April 6, 2014 by  

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Antarctica still ranks as my number one travel adventure to-date — a pure Winter Wonderland and an untouched paradise.

best antarctic islands

Top 5 Islands in Antarctica.

I choose my top 5 Islands in Antarctica.

1. Deception Island
Try and ensure a visit to Deception Island is included on your trip. It’s a forever deceiving island and a former volcano. A narrow passage takes you through the opening in the letter “C” and you’ll spend a day inside the letter “C” shaped island. Notable places inside are Whaler’s Bay, Neptune’s Window, Pendulum Cove and Telefon Bay.

The magical Whaler's Bay in Deception Island, Antarctica

The magical Whaler’s Bay in Deception Island, Antarctica

There is also a disused whaling station and an airline hangar plus some graves in Whaler’s Bay.

2. Wiencke Island

Wiencke Island is not noted or recognized for its name, but for the significance of what sits on it – the British Base of Port Lockroy. This astonishingly proudly British quarter in Antarctica houses a post office, a museum and plenty more.

port lockroy antarctica

Arrival at the British Base in Port Lockroy in Wiencke Island, Antarctica

A tour of Bransfield House shows there’s even an old radio station here and British people live here all year round.

3. Cuverville Island
The magic of Cuverville will never leave me. I was in tears amidst its beauty. Imagine hiking to the top of a mountain through thick snow for a triumphant moment, while breathtaking views leave you breathless after you dive into its clean crisp snow.

4. Half Moon Island
Half Moon was the island where the sun shone down on us again and again. It was the island of penguins and seals that is shaped like a half moon.

antarctica half moon island

There is also an unusual Macaroni penguin to be found here – in amongst a load of chinstraps and gentoos!

5.  Barrientos
Last on this list but definitely not least is the little unknown Barrientos. A song which goes “it just don’t matter anymore” begins to echo over the boat’s speaker system as we dock in the group known as Aitcho Islands. It’s time to head to Barrientos.

As I stepped foot on Antarctic snow for the first time here at Barrientos, I was truly inspired. It was a life changing moment and one which I will never forget.

backpacking in antarctica

The beach and landscape at Barrientos Island, Antarctica

We also visited the Antarctic Mainland on our tour and cruised through a load of Antarctic waters and channels. I didn’t mention some of the other islands we visited on this post, but have covered them elsewhere, including Elephant Island, the Day we got caught in a Snowstorm and King George Island.

 

5 Things to See & Do in Dubai

April 4, 2014 by  

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I have toyed with Dubai and the United Arab Emirates a bunch of times on my journeys. We used Dubai as a handy stop over between Iran and Iraq.

backpacking dubai swimming pool

1. Dubai Creek

Dubai Creek is the old town part of Dubai. Proof that this sprawling skyscraping metropolis was once an insignificant port town (or perhaps significant – check the history). Walk along the promenade at Dubai Creek admiring the vintage boats that dart across the harbour. There’s also a museum, a cool market and some awesome restaurants.

Checking out the markets down by Dubai Creek, UAE.

2. The Palm Jumeirah

You can wander around at leisure on the famous Palm Jumeirah.  The hot day we walked across the bridge to the disconnected Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.

One thing to note though is – as amazing as this place looks when viewed from above – you just can’t see that when you are here. It is just a load of elaborate residential blocks with a brand name casino at the end of it! But worth checking out anyway. At the Casino and Hotel complex at the end of the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, UAE.

3. The Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is currently the world’s highest building. It’s entirely free to walk around its circumference on ground level. We managed to backpack our way up to the ninth floor for free as well. It’s free to get into the Armani Hotel and we get to say we’ve been inside the world’s highest building without paying a penny, entirely for free! I couldn’t believe it. There was a paying in section and we managed to get into the lift for the 9th floor and got out into some posh event.

4. Dubai Mall
The Dubai Mall is completely free to enter and walk around. It is quite simply the world’s biggest shopping mall.

dubai free sights the mall

 5. Mosques

Mosques are the obvious one and you knew that was coming. When touring the Middle East you end up visiting a load of Mosques and it does become all a bit repetitive and commonplace. However I dived into a few to check them out. The main one is by Dubai Creek – it’s massive, but there are a few other scattered Mosques. Take your shoes off, dress appropriately and if there’s no photos inside, then respect it.

backpacking in Dubai mosques

 

99 Things To Do in Pyongyang, North Korea

March 19, 2014 by  

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You’re thinking I’m kidding here and I’m not. With the DPRK having it’s annual day on the 9th September (thats 9.9), 99 seems to be the most appropriate number so here I present 99 things to do in Pyongyang, North Korea.

what to do in pyongyang in dprk

I was just in awe of the sheer quantity of things to do and places to go hence I thought I’d whittle it down to a top 99. You don’t get a moment’s rest when you travel in North Korea – be ready for an intensive week of endless activities. For a start get your tour booked with Young Pioneer Tours, not only do they provide the cheapest tours to North Korea, but they have the coolest staff – the best bunch of people. Here’s the hit list of 99, in no particular order…you’ll do well to tick 75 of these off, as I did.

1. Kim Il Sung Square

99 things to do pyongyang

The main square in the city is not to be missed. Kim Il Song Square. Good views and typical communist buildings. When parades are on this is “where it’s at”. The rest of the time, it’s one of the least busy or commercial squares in a capital city in the whole world.

2. Watch the Sunset

Pyongyang isn’t quite the land of the rising or sinking sun, but sunsets here are still immense. Down by the river is the best spot. Sip a cold beer – nobody bats an eyelid.

things to do in pyongyang

3. Drink in “The Brewery” Bar

While this is an easy one to tick off (it’s on the second floor near the reception of the Yanggakdo Hotel), they brew their own beer so you can authentically say you had a pint of the local stuff in “The Yang”. Reasonable price too at 22 RMB a pint.

4. Talk to the local kids

Even on a guided tour, you’ll still get the chance to chat to the locals. I found the best spots for this were in the Kaeson Park and in the shops and bars.

things to do pyongyang

5. Watch the Mass Games

I covered it fully on my Mass Games in Pyongyang National Day review but don’t miss it! This is quite simply the second biggest show on earth (after the World Cup Final).

fifa world cup

Got to catch the Mass Games – the world’s biggest spectacle, after the FIFA World Cup!

6. Arc de Triumph

Whether this is a gimmick or a mimmick of the French or Laos one, I’m not sure, but it’s worth getting off the bus to check out. Pyongy’s AdT also has its own underground station.

7. Pyongyang Metro System

I loved it. We did the Revival to Glory route and my full report on riding the Pyongyang metro is worth checking out.

pyongyang metro system

9. Eat Cold Noodles

The saying goes that if you get close to a girl in North Korea some will ask you “have they had your cold noodles yet?”. Must be some kind of euphemism in these parts…saucy indeed but the noodles themselves are average when you finally try them. In fact, I won;t eat them again – wasn’t a fan.

10. Sing Karaoke

Koreans love their karaoke and whether it’s North or South that doesn’t matter. Sing and drink your heart away at night in one of the many karaoke bars.

karaoke pyongyang

Singing Karaoke in Pyongyang, North Korea.

11. Visit Pyongyang International Airport

For citizens of the USA this is a given as there is no land border open for you guys. We flew into Pyongyang and left by train. This was because I wanted to experience the actual airport in Pyongyang as well as the excellent North Korea to China border train.

12. Get the Train from North Korea to China

The train out had to be done. Great views, relaxing travel and a few beers to say farewell to a great time in North Korea. The first city in China you see is Dandong, a bridge separates it from Sinuiju. We turned it into a party train.

pyongyang to china

The party train from Pyongyang back to Dandong in China!

13. Visit a Bookstore

There’s a decent one in downtown Pyongyang not far from Kim Il Song Square. Worth checking out for propaganda posters, postcards and all sorts of books. Especially the English translations of the DPRK history. Most of these books aren’t available outside the country.

pyongyang north korea

A book store in Pyongyang, North Korea.

14. Visit a Department Store

Ragwon Department Store in Pyongyang is worth a look. It features food and household goods downstairs. The upstairs is more bizarre as you can buy Arsenal football shirts, washing machines and top of the range TVs.

shopping in pyongyang

TVs in Ragwon Department Store in Pyongyang.

15. Talk to an Army Dude

They’re humans don’t forget and talking to an army dude may well be your highlight. It’s unlikely they’ll speak much English, so if you’re good at Korean, give it a go.

Posing with a North Korean soldier.

Posing with a North Korean soldier.

16. Get on a Local Bus

You have to get on a local bus and experience daily life with the locals at rush hour. Most of the time however you will be on a tour bus, but you can request a private tour to include this.

north korea pyongyang bus

A packed local bus in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea.

17. Buy Some Souvenirs

You’ll get a few opportunities to buy some souvenirs on your travels in North Korea, including postcards, ornaments, stamps etc. I admit that the stamp shop in Kaesong is better than Pyongyang, but you’ll still pick up some cool souvenirs here.

souvenirs pyongyang

Pick up some North Korean souvenirs.

18. Head to the top of Juche Tower

For views of  the river and beyond pay 5 Euros and head up the Juche Tower.

pyongyang juche tower

Juche Tower, Pyongyang, North Korea.

19. Relax by the Taedong River

We found time to chill out by the river. Locals were intrigued and came over to chat while we watched some badminton.

20. Fruities/Pokies

Try your luck on the fruities or pokies. Lots of machines about! They’re’s not really a scene for them here – play it in the hotel!

pokies pyongyang

Playing with the fruities and pokies in Pyongyang.

21. Wave to the locals

You’ve got to embrace the locals. The younger generation take more kindly to waves than the older. Give them a wave and you’ll get a few back.

locals in pyongyang

Wave to the locals.

22. Drink Guinness (an Irishman’s given)

I brought some of the Irish Stout with me just to say I’d had a Guinness in Pyongyang. Devoured it and gave some to my tour guides. One day I’ll return and open their first Irish Pub. As well as a tin in my hotel room in Pyongyang, I also necked a Guinness with Robert at the DMZ.

23. Ride a Rollercoaster

Take Ronan Keating’s advice and get on a rollercoaster. The big “superman rollercoaster” in Kaeson Fun Fair costs 3 Euros and is worth it.

superman rollercoaster pyongyang

Riding the “Superman” Rollercoaster in Pyongyang, North Korea.

24. Visit Kaeson Fun Fair/Theme Park

The theme park which includes the “superman rollercoaster” demands a visit at night. Buy candy floss, meet the locals and get on the rides! It’s one of my top 10 night time activities in Pyongy.

amusements arcade pyongyang

At the entrance to Kaeson Fun Park in Pyongyang.

25. Dance with the locals

You might embarrass yourself, as we did, but it’s worth it. Koreans love to dance. Join them!

dancing locals north korea

Panny and I walking off after our spot of dancing with the locals!

26. Eye Up the Pyongyang Traffic Ladies

While it’s an idea to eye up the very pretty Pyongyang Traffic Ladies, please remember not to be a total pervert. Check them out, take your photo and on you go…they don’t want to add you on Facebook, nor do they want tagged in your holiday pics. This isn’t a beach holiday for one night stands, let me remind you. Lads – don’t get your “yang” out here – or you’ll get “pyong-ed”.

Eye candy with the Pyongyang traffic ladies. Don't get your Yang out or you'll get Pyonged!

Eye candy with the Pyongyang traffic ladies. Don’t get your Yang out or you’ll get Pyonged!

Guys will drool over these sexy traffic ladies but be careful – these girls are hard as nails, they control the traffic system for their capital city!

pyongyang traffic ladies

A Pyongyang Traffic Lady.

27. Eat in a Revolving Restaurant

Head to the revolving restaurant on the top floor of the Yanggakdo for a splendid view of a city without adverts.

28. Conflict – Those Warnings…

It’s supposed to be a “strict country” so get a warning. Make it mild or you’ll get banned. My solitary warning on the entire trip was for spilling some suncream at Kim Il Sung’s House. A genuine mistake. Oops…

kim il sung house

I got told off for accidentally spilling sun cream at Kim Il Sung’s old house! ea.

30. Pyongyang Casino

There are a few casinos in Pyongyang. Photos were banned inside but I got one of the front of Pyongyang Casino.

31. Go Ten Pin Bowling

Pyongyang has a load of ten pin bowling alleys – it’s a pretty hectic busy life when you’re backpacking in North Korea so just get down to the alley in your hotel and play away.

32. Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is a must. It’s the Mausoleum that houses the bodies of Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il. No cameras are allowed inside and the entire visit can take up to 4 hours. Be ready for lots of queuing and paying respect to these two leaders.

33. Stick Your Head Out the Bus Window

You’re here as a tourist so act like one. Stick your head out of the side of the bus window as you drive through the streets.

bus tourist pyongyang

Being the tourist by sticking my head out of the bus window through the streets of Pyongyang.

34. Eat Barbecued Duck

Duck is famous in all of Korea, not just the north, but the barbecued duck restaurants are excellent.

35. Drink from an Ancient Well

The well at Kim Il Sung’s childhood home is perfectly clean to drink from. The water is pure enough. We tried it.

pyongyang water well

Drink from the fountain of youth and never age again – a well in Pyongyang.

36. Moran Hill

At the top of Moran Hill you’ll get another great view of the city of Pyongyang and can chill out with locals in the park.

moran hill pyongyang

View over Pyongyang from Moran Hill.

37. Moranbong Theatre

Those with an interest in the theatre may want to ask about shows that are on (they will all be in Korean of course). We passed by the theatre only.

38. Play Pool

I played pool down the Diplomatic Club with the foreigners and a few locals. A top spot on a Saturday night, same the world over really, though I did win at pool ;-)

playing pool in north korea

Saturday evening pool down the Diplo in Pyongyang with the lads.

39. Play Hula Hoops in a Car Park

This might be unique to our trip only as we were joined by hula hoop expert Marawa!! She taught us all how to play with hoops in the park!

hoopla north korea

My girlfriend impresses the locals in the park by doing a hula hoops performance, inspired by Marawa.

40. Go Clubbing

Get your dance shoes on and head to the nightclub district for a mega night out. OK, so we only made it to the Diplomatic Club and boogied to Abba for half an hour, but still. No bouncers on the door, no happy hour but a good vibe!

diplo pyongyang

Partying in a nightclub in Pyongyang – the Diplo!

41. The Chollima Statue

There are a load of statues to see in Pyongyang and as a tourist it does get confusing as to which one is which. This one is high and has a horse on it.

chollima statue

The Chollima Statue in Pyongyang.

42. Mansudae Art Theatre

This Art Theatre is one of about 4 or 5 elaborate buildings in a park off Mansudae Street.

43. Visit the Famous Ryugyong Hotel

This is often known as a “white elephant” – the hotel that looks amazing from the outside but is apparently lacking in actual decoration inside. At night, it’s rarely lit up, but it’s a stylish building so make sure you at least view its exterior. It’s the defining building of Pyongy’s impressive skyline.

44. Victorious Fatherland Monument

This monument is at the Victorious Fatherland Museum which commemorates and celebrates the Korean War.

victory statue pyongyang

The Victorious Fatherland Statue.

45. Check out the American Air Force Captured Planes from the Korean War

There’s a display of planes and weapons that were captured from the US during the Korean War. Worth checking out for historians and plane fanatics.

Captured planes and helicopters from the US Army, taken during the Korean War.

47. Kim Il Sung’s House

This is the place where it all began for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Check out his house which is now in an area of vast trees and a few murals, on the edge of the city.

house kim il song

Kim Il Song’s House.

48. Look for Google

I went surfing on the internet checking for the likes of Google, Yahoo and the Northern Ireland Football website.

49. Read a Book in the Grand People’s Study House

The most elaborate library complex you might ever see, the Grand People’s Study House is fantastic. Rumour has it that the people in there are not really studying. Not sure I “buy all this crap” but certainly when we pumped an old 12 inch vinyl of Don McClean’s “American Pie” on, things became a bit weird!

50. Update Your Facebook Status

People will never admit it but they get jealous of these things on Facebook and they refuse to “like” it or comment on it. In fact, one of my Facebook updates from North Korea got zero likes. Revel in it, my friends!! This is better than your “Amazing. I’m in Ibiza with $3 cocktails” (who cares). “Just having a beer walking round Pyongyang”.

facebook in north korea

Update your Facebook status from Pyongyang North Korea.

51. Post a Postcard

I send my kid brother a postcard from everywhere I go and yes the North Korean one made it back safely! You can post them from the hotel reception, you can also buy stamps from some of the shops.

52. Drink Soju

Oh come on – having a shot or two of Soju is a must in Korea, North or South! Personally I hate the stuff, but out of good manners I always take the free shot.

dprk soju drinking

Soju time in the DPRK!

53. Explore Yanggak Islet

We stayed on an island called Yanggak Islet and you can wander around and explore it. Admittedly it’s just a mini island, but remember you are in one of the safest countries in the world for backpacking in.

54. National Football Stadium

North Korea beat Italy 1-0 in the 1966 World Cup, and they also led Portugal 3-0 in the Quarter Final before losing 5-3. In 2010 they also made the World Cup but conceded over 10 goals, and scored just 1. Still worth a look!

pyongyang north korea football stadium

Outside the National Football Stadium in Pyongyang.

55. Taedongmun Cinema

Check out the cinema in Pyongyang, but don’t expect James Bond to come on. It’s all in Korean as well. Of course.

pyongyang cinema

Taedongmun Cinema in Pyongyang

56. Mansudae Fountain Park

A very quiet park near the People’s Grand Study House and Theatre. Decent for a stroll but not busy and not really much to do there.

The Mansudae Fountain Park.

The Mansudae Fountain Park.

57. Dine in a Floating Restaurant

Down by the river there are a few floating restaurants where you can dine out.

A floating restaurant in Pyongyang.

A floating restaurant in Pyongyang.

58. Fire a round at Pyongyang Golf Course

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy might not be sauntering in to play in the Pyongyang open, but who cares. Get your clubs out and fire a round. Par is important in this country.

Fancy a round of Golf in the Yang? Par is important in this country.

Fancy a round of Golf in the Yang? Par is important in this country.

59. Korean Revolution Museum

More museums than you’d imagine in Pyongyang and I didn’t do them all. The Korean Revolution Museum is very anti Japanese.

60. Korean Central History Museum

This museum was another one that we didn’t go into. Things get left off your itinerary and I didn’t really miss it to be honest. Even the Lonely Planet Korea (Travel Guide) doesn’t rate this museum.

61. Pyongyang Art Gallery

North Koreans are VERY talented artists. The main art gallery has a load of top notch paintings. You can also buy the originals to take away with you. Not on my backpacker budget, but the option is there.

62. Spyship USS Pueblo

This Spyship the USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans and is now based on a river beside the Victorious Fatherland Museum. You can get a guided tour.

63. Taedong Gate

Ancient history and architecture hasn’t been destroyed in the modern day North Korea. Taedong Gate is proof of this – and it’s also one of North Korea’s monuments that is known around the world. I even saw a miniature of it at Shenzhen’s Window of the World.

Taedong Gate in Pyongyang - probably the only monument from North Korea featured in world theme parks like the Window of the World in Shenzhen.

Taedong Gate in Pyongyang – probably the only monument from North Korea featured in world theme parks like the Window of the World in Shenzhen.

64. Victorious Fatherland Museum

This museum doesn’t allow photos inside. I’m not sure why as it’s a very insightful and detailed look at the Korean War. It is very anti American – but then of course it should be – it wasn’t the Koreans who invaded the USA was it?! I actually enjoyed the way the North Koreans look down on the Americans and how their role saved the “Korean nation” – it’s just sad that the South has been so influenced by the USA.

With a female DPRK soldier outside the Victorious Fatherland Museum.

This is a really insightful museum about the Korean war, the defeat of the USA and a whole load of conspiracy theories are thrown in. You hear every thing from the North Korean perspective so get ready for some strong opinions.

65. Watch the locals play football down the park

We got a unique chance to watch some local North Koreans playing football. This was less than a year after I watched North Korea retain the Unofficial Football World Championship by beating Hong Kong 4-0 away.

local football north korea

Watching the locals play some football down the park.

66. Drink North Korean Blueberry Wine

If you read my previous Thirsty Thursdays on North Korean Blueberry Wine, you’ll know I loved the stuff. Completely the best alcohol you will try in the DPRK!!

67. Fly the North Korean Flag

It has to be done – I bought one for the trip and flew it often.

68. Tower of Immortality

This tower is so obvious in the city of Pyongyang. Distinctive and looks quite original. You can’t miss it and you will see it a load of times.

The Tower of Immortality in Pyongyang, North Korea.

The Tower of Immortality in Pyongyang, North Korea.

69. Eat food from your Own Country!

What? You went all the way to the DPRK only to eat your own food?? Yes, I munched a packet of the Northern Irish snack Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps while touring central Pyongyang. Wouldn’t it be nice if Tayto gave me some free crisps or advertising the amount of publicity I do for them!

70. Visit a Market

The trend of markets in Asia has made its way to Pyongyang, but on a much less obvious scale. You’ll do well to find a market, we found a mini market with some stalls late afternoon one day and went for a walk.

pyongyang backpackers hostel

Spot the foreigner backpacking through a market in Pyongyang!

71. Go Backpacking at Night

Pyongyang houses over 2 million people yet is dead at night! This is really crazy. After dark there is literally nobody about. It’s all a bit strange!

72. Party Founding Museum

For those really really into politics and the history of the DPRK this is the museum for you.

The Party Founding Museum in Pyongyang gives an insight in the beginnings of the DPRK.

The Party Founding Museum in Pyongyang gives an insight in the beginnings of the DPRK.

73. Ancient Tombs

Not strictly in central Pyongyang, but the tomb of Tang’ Un is worth a jaunt out too in the countryside. That said, we didn’t go there on our trip as we had already seen the King Kong Min Tombs near Kaesong. But at least we got to see some ancient tombs. Korean ancient history is fascinating.

74. Eat Dog’s Willy (Dangogo Gukjib)

Dogs may have small dicks but the North Koreans find meat on them, cook them and eat them. After my first experience trying dog in South Korea, I actually declined to put the dog’s dick in my mouth.

Something to do in Pyongyang - eat dog - and even worse - eat their penis.

Something to do in Pyongyang – eat dog – and even worse – eat their penis.

75. Watch a Rock Gig!

OK so it’s not going to be Bon Jovi, R.E.M. or the Smashing Pumpkins. But you can get some live local music in. We headed to the Lamb Restaurant one night and they had live music on for us. I asked one of our guides if he had ever heard of the Beatles. I don’t if he was lying or not, but he claimed no. He also hadn’t heard of John Lennon. I was slightly baffled.

Live Music in Pyongyang was a lot more low key than an R.E.M. concert...

Live Music in Pyongyang was a lot more low key than an R.E.M. concert…

76. Shooting Range (Chongchun Street)

Get some guns out and go shooting in North Korea? Great idea! Many tours organise this and ours didn’t. I’ve done some shooting before on my travels, and indeed in my home town years ago with the Boys Brigade. But this would be something else. Photo Credit: American in North Korea.

Shooting range in Pyongyang (Photo Credit: American in North Korea).

Shooting range in Pyongyang (Photo Credit: American in North Korea).

77. Barbecue Your Own Lamb

We enjoyed the experience of the barbecued lamb restaurant in Pyongyang. The food was really good! Friday’s Featured Food: Barbecued Lamb in Pyongyang, North Korea

78. Read the local newspaper

You can pick up a copy on the flight, you can ask the guides for one, or you can simply read it in the metro stations. They have English versions of some newspapers and magazines.

Read up on the local news in Pyongyang.

Read up on the local news in Pyongyang.

79. Sauna/Jimjilbang Visit (get naked)

I remember back to my time in the “Jimjilbang” in Seoul, South Korea. You just walk around naked. But men and women are separate. It’s quite an odd experience to be in a sauna in Korea. Pyongyang would be even crazier, I’d say – how often have the North Koreans seen a foreigner naked? This wasn’t included on our tour – slightly higher budget needed…here’s a photo of the one south of the border instead I did…

A Jimjilbang in Seoul, South Korea. Didn't make it to the gym on my trip to Pyongyang.

A Jimjilbang in Seoul, South Korea. Didn’t make it to the gym on my trip to Pyongyang.

80. Get Change in North Korean Won

You have got to get some local currency as a souvenir!! Foreigners are only really meant to use Euros, RMB or US Dollars. We stuck to Chinese RMB as we didn’t spend much there and always in small quantities. It was nice to be able to get some local won to take home though!

spending north korean won

My North Korean Won.

81. Party Founding Memorial Tower

Yet another monument and another tower in Pyongyang! We actually did some dancing in front of it!

82. Three Charters Reunification Monument

This monument represents the three charters that North and South Korea agreed on in the year 2000. These are:

1. Independently Achieved Reunification

2. Peaceful Reunification

3. Promotion of the Reunification

The three charters Reunification Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea.

83. Italian Pyongyang Pizza Restaurant

Just because you’re in the DPRK doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a bit of bread with cheese and tomato. OK, so there’s only one Italian Pizza Place at the moment, but it’s a start. You can get a Guinness with it too!! (BUT you have to bring it in yourself like I did)

pyongyang pizza

Pyongyang pizza delivery with a pint of Guinness…not quite available yet though there is an Italian Restaurant!

84. Watch a Military Parade

We had the opportunity to watch the fantastic National Day Parade. A proud nation with a massive army. The parade seemed to last forever!

national day parade 2013 pyongyang

At the National Day Parade in Pyongyang.

85. Find Coca Cola

Rumours that North Korea doesn’t have Coca Cola will be destroyed on your first lunch. They have all this. They have Hennessey, they have Johnnie Walker, they have Nescafe. Don’t believe the media bulldog you hear. But yeah, there ain’t no McDonalds or Starbucks…

A fridge in a restaurant in Pyongyang - all the "normal" stuff including 7Up, Coca Cola etc.

A fridge in a restaurant in Pyongyang – all the “normal” stuff including 7Up, Coca Cola etc.

86. Mansudae Monument

You have to visit the Mansudae Monument. It’s a given, it’s mandatory and an essential part of every tourist trip to North Korea. It’s imprinted into the itinerary. SO get ready to walk up some steps and salute to the heroic leaders of North Korea – Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

87. Learn Korean

I suck at languages. I tried studying Spanish in Uruguay, I picked up a bit of Cantonese, I checked out the language hacking guide and yet all I could remember was:

“Gamsa Hamnida” (Thank you).

Take the hint and learn the language. The locals will love you more.

88. Make a Phone Call

You will be allowed to take your mobile phones into the country but they probably won’t work. If you really want to make a phone call, head to the reception in your hotel and ask.

There are phone booths for international calls in the hotel lobby.

There are phone booths for international calls in the hotel lobby.

89. Film Studio, Tongdaewon

While North Korea might be “propaganda central” there is a film scene on the go and some tours can be incorporated into including a visit to the film studio at Tongdaewon. Same location as the Cinema.

90. Pyongyang Main Train Station

If you choose to get the train in or out, you will get to visit the main train station in Pyongyang. It’s actually a lot nicer than some stations in China. This was the place we said goodbye to our North Korean tour guides before heading north to the border and back into China.

91. Ryugong Health Complex

This health complex is state of the art – featuring all the usual stuff – gyms, weights, saunas, swimming pools and an ice rink. You’ll need to pay a bit more to get this one in on your tour.

92. Pyongyang Maternity Hospital

People get born here too. Of course. Somehow Pyongyang Maternity Hospital has made it onto some of the scheduled tours. Baffling but one of the 99 all the same.

Pyongyang Maternity Hospital!

Pyongyang Maternity Hospital!

93. Eat Kimchi

Got to be on the list – you’re in Korea!! Kimchi, thankfully comes with most meals in the country. Love the stuff!

kimchi north korea

Another meal, another bit of kimchi!

94. Watch the Football on the Telly

I admit that on the Saturday night and the Tuesday night that we were in North Korea, I didn’t catch the football results as easily as normal. It’s a bit harder to do that in North Korea than in South Korea or China. But I did check all the channels on our TV in the hotel room just in case. Low and behold BBC world news had the results on! Amazing.

do they have bbc in north korea

This is a real photo – I got BBC in my room in Pyongyang.

95. Martyrs Cemetery

A glorious and elaborate martryrs memorial on the edge of the city. As well as paying homage and sparing a thought to these martryrs, check out the views of the city.

backpacking in pyongyang

99 Things to do in Pyongyang – Martryrs Memorial.

96. Look for the lights at night

Pyongyang isn’t quite like New York – this city does sleep. Even the lamposts turn off at night in some of the neighbourhoods. Have a wander round and soak in a city that doesn’t do things by the book. Maybe they’ve got it right. We should all be asleep at night, right? Count the streetlights – they’re good at saving unneeded energy here for sure.

pyongyang by night

Pyongyang by night – a few scattered lights. Electricity saving or what!

97. Toiletry Shopping

The toiletry aisles were completely dead – like no customers! I didn’t buy anything but worth a browse. Either these places are only open to show tourists they know the meaning of a “shop” or the posh locals really buy their toiletries here. One thing I noted – North Koreans are squeaky clean and proud of their appearance.

Toiletry shopping in Pyongyang.

Toiletry shopping in Pyongyang.

98. Take a taxi

Pyongyang taxis are on a meter and easy to spot. Hail one down and tell him where you’re heading. Yes, you’ll need to be with your guide to do this.

pyongyang taxis

Hail down a Pyongyang taxi – they’re yellow and green!

99. Eat a 99!

Ice cream stalls lurk in Kaeson Park, and also down the street from the Arc De Triomph. Have a 99 as one of your 99!

Fancy a 99?? Get an ice cream from this wee stall near the Chilsong Restaurant.

 

5 Quirky Sights & Things To Do In Tokyo

March 18, 2014 by  

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While I admit Tokoyo didn’t rope me in or make me love it, there were some completely odd, random and quirky things I noticed when I was there. I thought I’d share my 5 random sights with you.

1. The Dog Statue, Shibuya

This dog statue has a crazy story behind it. The dog waited for its owner to get home from work every day apparently at Shibuya station. The owner always came home. One night, the dog was standing there and the owner never appeared. The dog waited, and waited, and waited. The owner never came home. A bit sad. The dog died in this spot.

2. Love Hotel Street Hill, Shibuya

Also in Shibuya, this bizarre hilly street features a load of “love hotels”. Local Japanese girls and guys get together for one night stands by booking a bed or a room for a few hours. They are all squeaky clean.

love hotel tokyo

One of many “love hotels” on Love Hotel Street Hill in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

3. Sumo Wrestling Museum, Ryokoku

I admit that on this trip we were a bit disorganised, as we missed out on the chance to attend the actual Sumo Wrestling Championships. We didn’t get in early enough for tickets and so it sold out. Crazy crazy busy time, consolation prize came in the form of a museum, which was too busy to let us in.

At the Sumo Wrestling Museum in Tokyo.

At the Sumo Wrestling Museum in Tokyo.

4. Tokyo Metro

I had an absolute laugh to myself getting lost on the Tokyo Metro. It’s a great beast to negotiate! This was one time in life when I was the obvious tourist!! How is the Tokyo train system a random sight? It just is, trust me.

tokyo metro

Drinks on a night out in Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan with Suzuki and Neil.

On the metro even if you get lost and get off at the wrong stop, you explore completely off the wall parts of Tokyo, which is how we ended up in Roppongi and some outer suburb I can’t recall! I even bumped into a follower of my blog and got “spotted” in Tokyo. I love this recent video from the Tokyo Metro – it only lasts a minute and shows the experience of being on the Metro in one of the world’s busiest and craziest cities.

There’s more on the official site: http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/

5. Cooked Food from a Machine

What? Yes – what? Cooked food from a machine? Even the likes of Hong Kong, Taipei, London and Sydney haven’t grasped the concept of a machine that cooks food for you. Is it for real? Yes – Japan and Tokyo are so futuristic that Marty McFly even looks out of place here on a hoverboard. Indulge yourself in the type of “fast food service” McDonalds wish they had invented.

tokyo japan vendors

Random street vendor in Tokyo Japan. Instant pizza!

 

Top Ten List for Northern Ireland’s Newtownards

March 17, 2014 by  

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ards northern ireland

Life may take you on many roads and to many towns and cities around the world but one fact is true: you can only have one birth town. You are born in one place and we must try and be proud of our roots. Welcome to Newtownards in Northern Ireland.

Despite sounding like a modern day metropolis due to its misleading name, the little town of Newtownards is quite the opposite. This unknown gem is where I started my journey around this planet and it never loses its appeal or its sparkle to me.

backpacking in newtownards

Molly Browns pub, which used to be called the Whiskey Haw, Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

newtownards conway square

Local shops in Conway Square, Newtownards.

Scrabo Tower (also known as the 1857 Memorial Tower)
This is far and away the main attraction. Scrabo Tower (in local dialect pronounced Scrabbatar) sits on the top of Scrabo Hill.  I have reason to believe it’s official name is the 1857 Memorial Tower but nobody calls it that.

Scrabo Tower sits high and proud and is visible from most of North Down and was built in 1857 as a memorial to Charles Stewart, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry who was one of the Duke of Wellington’s Generals during the Napoleonic Wars. The Third Marquis, or “Warring Charlie” as he was also known, inherited the title and family seat of Mount Stewart after his brother, The Second Marquis, committed suicide.

backpacking newtownards

Scrabo Tower offers incredible views across Strangford Lough over Newtownards and even over to Scotland on a good day. The Tower contains two floors of displays and a climb of 122 steps to the top open viewing level. Scrabo Country Park is always open, however the tower is currently closed so please take note.

backpacking in newtownards

Awesome view of Newtownards, Northern Ireland from the hill at Scrabo Tower.

Conway Square (Ards Square)
Every Northern Irish town has a wee square. Newtownards is the same. Ards is proudly British. The Union flag flies here and rightly so, given the obvious Unionist presence in this Northern Irish stronghold.

backpacking ards

People fought and died for Britain and Ireland during the two main wars of the last century. Conway Square is the centre point of Newtownards and is bang in the town centre. The main building in the town square houses Ards Art Centre and also has the town clock.

ards art centre

Ards Art Centre and the town clock in Conway Square.

It’s worth checking out the Blair Paddy Mayne statue too. Blair Mayne co-founded the SAS and was a highly regarded member of the British Army. His statue sits in the main square too.

blair paddy mayne

They often have markets and festivals on here too since the town is mostly about kids and family.

Ards War Memorial

As sad as it is to say it, but Northern Irish towns all have War Memorials and I recommend visiting them on your tour. I’ve been to some conflict zones on my travels, such as Palestine, Iraq and Venezuela and I find it important to respect those who fought and died for our freedom today. I hope the Protestants and Catholics of Newtownards can live in peace for eternity – make it a proud wee Northern Irish town. The war memorial however commemorates those who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars.

Ards War Memorial, something to ponder.

Ards War Memorial, something to ponder.

The Somme Centre

The battle of the Somme was a major battle during the First World War and this centre is a really really insightful place.

ards somme

Avalon Guitars

While Irish Music is famous the world over, Newtownards boasts Avalon Guitars. From this tranquil town, guitars are made and sold all over the world. The likes of James Morrison and Bruce Springsteen have used Avalon Guitars down the years. Visitors and welcomed to their workshop and showroom! Something unique and random to do when you backpack your way here. Avalon Guitars Newtownards.

Avalon Guitars, Newtownards.

Avalon Guitars, Newtownards.

Knotts Bakery
I’ve been around the world and drank coffee in many places, but my favourite place for a morning coffee and scone is still Knotts. Sitting noticeably on Newtownards High Street, this charming coffee shop ain’t changed in years. And it has no reason to. Top Irish breakfasts are served to perfection. Homemade scones and cakes come in good varieties and you just sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and forget about the world.

Ark Open Farm

Opposite the Somme Heritage Centre on the other side of the carriageway to Bangor is the Ark Open Farm. It’s been there for years and is popular with families and school children. The farm has sheep, cattle, poultry, llamas, donkeys, which offers kids a great opportunity to hand feed animals and experience Ards farm life.

backpacking in ards

Wardens

I’m including Wardens on here as it’s a Newtownards institution. Famous for generations, this is a traditional big town department store in a small town. It does the town proud. It’s for buying home decorations, furniture and appliances. For a backpacker, it provides you with an insight into what Northern Irish people do on the weekends when they’re not down the pub. “Aye the locals love a wee bit of shopping so they do”.

ards backpacking

“Woolco” (Ards Shopping Centre)

Locals call it Woolco, at least I hope they still do as this was always the local shopping centre in the area. PAsda, Boots, Easons etc. Northern Irish people love a good bit of shopping and you can see it all in action here.

Take a wee dander or a browse round Ards Shopping Centre.

The Spirit Merchant/Ards Wetherspoons

Take my advice and don’t turn up in a Celtic shirt. In fact, you won’t get in.

spoons ards

 

 

 

Sighnaghi, Georgia: The Notorious City of Love

March 15, 2014 by  

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My first stop off in Georgia on my return to the country was in the city of love, Sighnaghi. We had only been absent from Georgia for 10 days backpacking in Azerbaijan. After crossing the border from Zaqatala to Lagodekhi we headed west. Don’t be fooled by thinking Sighnaghi is “off the beaten track”; it’s not and there area  lot of tourists in the area, but truth be told, most of them are Georgian, Azerbaijani and Russian. Population wise, the town of Sighnaghi boasts a mere 2,000 residents. Expect that to double on days in the busy summer months.

sighnaghi in georgia

Excellent views from the city of love – Sighnaghi, Georgia.

The selling point for Sighnaghi is its views. This is like a lofty medieval town which looks down on sparse, remote and flat countryside.  

georgia sighnaghi panorama

A panoramic view of Sighnaghi in Georgia.

Views are simply tremendous, including the balcony views from most of the hotels.  You can wander at leisure around the old city walls, which date back to the 18th century and are well restored.

view of tsnori georgia

From the walls you also get some incredible views down over the region, which includes the town of Tsnori, Alazani Valley and the Caucasus mountains, and down to the Azerbaijan border.

sighnaghi walls georgia

The walls of Sighnaghi, Georgia were built as a means of defense, and they span around 4 kilometres in circumference. Apparently there are 23 towers and 6 gate entrances.  

jonny blair sighnaghi walls

Hiding in one of 23 towers on Sighnaghi’s walls.

Food in the Square

Georgia plays up its cheese and bread and be sure to try the Khachapuri when backpacking through the country. While my favorite Khachapuri was the Adjarian Khachapuri in Batumi , Sighnaghi also was high on the list. A cold beer and khachapuri in the square is a great lunch option here.

One of 6 gate entrances into the lofty town of Sighnaghi, Georgia.

georgia sighnaghi backpacker

Festivals

There were three big events happening while I was there.

1. Break Dancing Competition in the Street!

sighnaghi festival

Random Festivals on in Sighnaghi the time we were there.

2. Azerbaijani Food Tasting!

Random free Azerbaijani "food tasting" session, on the day we had just arrived from Azerbaijan!

Random free Azerbaijani “food tasting” session, on the day we had just arrived from Azerbaijan!

Random free Azerbaijani "food tasting" session, on the day we had just arrived from Azerbaijan!

3. Live Music in the Square

Churches

Georgian towns and cities have lots of churches in them, naturally. Signaghi has a few really beautiful churches, and we visited two of them.

1. Sighnaghi Stepantsminda Church:  This church is up at the top of a hill in the old poky streets:

georgia church

The Stepantsminda Church in Sighnaghi, Georgia.

2. Tsminda Giorgi Church: This church is on a hill in the lower part of Sighnaghi. It dates back to the 19th Century and is well worth a visit.

tsminda giorgi church sighnaghi

Walking around Sighnaghi at your leisure will allow you to also take in the museum, a pretty square and fountain, a clock tower, some unusual statues and monuments. 

church sighnaghi

georgia sighnaghi

Quirky random stuff on the streets of Sighnaghi, Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Chongqing China & Why You Should

March 14, 2014 by  

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It was in last summer that I first visited the city of Chongqing in China. It was a childhood dream of mine, and when the moment finally arrived, I was just in awe of this astounding monster. I bring you my story of not just visiting Chongqing but the journey that took me there and the reasons why. 

While some of us tend to put Sydney Opera house, the Taj Mahal, the Dead Sea and some of the more classic destinations on our must travel to bucket list, my choices are a little more obscure. Despite my longing to visit this gem in China, I kept Chongqing out of my travel plans for a long, long time. In fact, I had been to China more than ten times before I finally stepped foot in this beast. So finally, last summer, I made the journey to Chongqing – China’s hidden monster, alone.

First up, the hard truth: CHONGQING is the biggest city in the world. Chongqing is an almost secret, hidden, mega metropolis in China’s countryside. The entire Chongqing Municipality area officially houses between 29 – 33 million people.  Chongqing is the largest direct-controlled municipality in China, and comprises 19 districts, 15 counties, and 4 autonomous counties.

 

The official abbreviation of the city, 渝 (Yú), has been in existence since 1997.  Its abbreviated name is derived from the old name of a part of the Jialing River that runs through Chongqing and feeds into the Yangtze River. Chongqing has a significant history and culture and serves as the economic centre of the upstream Yangtze basin. It is a major manufacturing centre and transportation hub and in a July 2012 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, was named as one of the 13 emerging megacities, or megalopolises, in China.

 

chongqing skyline china

Chongqing is actually classed as a separate Chinese Province, from Sichuan Province where it was traditionally part of, and even the Lonely Planet China (Travel Guide)has a separate section on Chongqing. It’s mammoth, it’s massive, it’s mega, it’s a monster and….the skyscrapers don’t seem to end.  

chongqing skyline

I was on the metro for an hour out of the city and it was a constant display of people and skyscrapers, out every window, at every station. And bear in mind that the metro here isn’t as busy or well known as Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei etc. I took a few buses out of the city too and they were the same – insanely busy, crowded and sprawling.  

chongqing metro system

On the metro system, the madness is clear to see.

Michael Palin of the BBC was one of my early travel heroes. I watched his 1908s series Around the World in 80 Days as a child and we later watched Full Circle. It was on Full Circle that Michael Palin arrived by boat along the dreamy Yangtze River into what he described as “the town of Chongqing”. (quite the understatement to class this place as a “town”. He then went on to walk through the old town as the TV shots focused on a seemingly magnificent metropolis sunk deep into countryside amidst polluted air and the waft of Chinese cuisine. From that moment, I was intrigued and it was on the must visit bucket list every since then.

chongqing metro china

Chongqing Metro System, China.

I flew direct from Hong Kong Airport. Life had been busy. I worked on a Monday in June at our Kindergarten Graduation End of Year event. It was held at Tsuen Wan Town Hall, and was a marvellous spectacle. It was the second time I had been to a K3 Kindergarten Graduation event in Hong Kong (2012, 2013). Also on that same Monday morning, I was in Guangxi Province of China, at Guilin Airport flying to Shenzhen (within 20 hours I’d have visited 4 airports in China, spanning 4 provinces and worked a full shift in a school). We had toured Yangshou and Guilin for a few days, then I was back in Hong Kong to do this graduation for a day before flying to Chongqing. Manic. 

You could call it “taking advantage of my China Visa while I had it”, but then again, I’ve had another two Chinese visas since!

chongqing graduation

From the graduation event in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong to flying to Chongqing, China.

I left work at the graduation in Tsuen Wan town hall in Hong Kong, and headed straight to Tung Chung on the MTR and then a bus to Hong Kong international airport. I was still in my shirt and tie at check in, got through immigration and security and checked into my Chongqing flight. I was buzzing.

murphys beer hong kong airport

Checked in and time for a quick beer on route to Chongqing.

I was the only foreigner on board my flight and I tend to get sentimental when traveling alone. Hong Kong Airlines includes water, snack, tea and a Tsingtao beer.

hong kong airlines chongqing

chongqing china backpacking

When I landed in Jiangbei International Airport in Chongqing, it wasn’t quite the elaborate Yangtze River Cruise entrance that Michael Palin had done years before, but I was buzzing at the thought of being there.   But sprawling and enormous it is.

Top and bottom photo credit: Wikipedia and globeimages.net.

 

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