Albania and the climb to Gjirokaster.

We took the ferry from Corfu over to Sarande in Albania. Albania isn’t high on a lot of people’s lists but it’s starting to make waves as an alternative to the ever popular Croatia.

Sarande is part of the Albanian Riviera along the Ionian sea, and known for white stretches of beach and turquoise waters.

I was excited to see these beaches for myself and experience a new country however on arrival it started to rain! We visited in late march so knew the weather may be against us, so after a little wander around Sarande we stopped and had brunch along the promenade.

Sarande is a small town, the beach is rocky and there’s only a few things to do, such as the old synagogue ruins, the promenade and Lekuresi castle on the hill overlooking the town, though it’s been turned into restaurant now.

Because of the rain and lack of sights we had to think outside of the box, and decided to visit Gjirokaster.

Gjirokaster old town is a UNESCO world heritage sight, dates back to 1336 as part of the Byzantine empire and has a magnificent fortress overlooking the town.

We walked over to the bus station in Sarande and bought a ticket from the office there before being pointed in the right direction to the bus. Buses leave every 30 minutes to an hour and it cost around €3.50.

The bus journey was amazing as we climbed up into the mountains and were rewarded with amazing views of the countryside. We crossed raging rivers and through beautiful flat plains as we approached Gjirokaster. Surrounded on both sides by looming mountains.

The bus took around an hour and 15 mins and drops you off at the main road, so we started our walk with our backpacks in the drizzly rain. It gave the whole place a mysterious vibe with the low clouds.

The first 10-15 minutes aren’t so impressive, but you soon find yourself on windy cobbled streets with beautiful stone buildings lining the road.

We reached the fortress and loved the views over the old town rooftops. The fortress itself costs Β£1.50 per ticket and houses some interesting statues, a tank and an old plane. A lot of it is in ruin but the main building is still impressive.

After wandering around the fortress and the old town a little more we checked out some cute historical buildings as we descended back down to the main town.

We got some amazing cake and traditional byrek from a little bakery to dry off and recharge. Byrek is a flaky pastry filled with cheese or meat. Even with all the walking Mum was having a great time exploring with me!

We took the bus back with no issues, and arrived back in Sarande in the early evening. We decided to walk along the main road and take a bus to Ksamil, where we would be staying. Unfortunately the bus didn’t turn up, I’m not sure if we got our timings wrong or if it just didn’t run in that hour.

Instead we stopped at a restaurant and had an amazing Albanian red wine and looked out over the bay. We took a taxi to our hotel, which took about 25 minutes and I think we were the only ones staying there! Two older Albanian men greeted us and proceeded to give us a lot of home brewed raki.

Needless to say we got a little tipsy from this, it was a funny experience as neither men spoke much English and we spoke no Albanian. They then drove us to a little kebab place where we ate tasty Greek salad and chips. Funnily enough we were soon sound asleep back at the hotel and looking forward to the next adventure!

48 hours in Kiev, Day 1.

Ukraine

Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, the 2nd largest country in Europe behind Russia. Located in Eastern Europe, it shares a border with Russia, Belarus, Romania and Poland. I wanted to visit Ukraine so I could enter the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and Kiev is the best place to do this from. I had also found cheap flights from Ryanair, unfortunately they cancelled these so I had to re-book with British Airways. There are some no go areas of Ukraine at the moment due to the annexation of Crimea by the Russians, so check the UK government website for up to date advice.

Kiev

It was founded in the 5th century, has a world heritage site amongst it’s many Orthodox churches, the world’s deepest underground railway line and it is where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to discuss them organisation of post WWII Europe! Unfortunately and much to my dismay the chicken kiev wasn’t invented here! Communist symbols and street names were outlawed here in 2015 to attempt to move away from Russia and the Soviet Union.

Top Sights of Kiev

I arrived late into Kiev and took the sky bus found in front of terminal D and B to the main station. This took almost an hour, I didn’t see much as it was already dark by the time I got there. There is now a train that runs twice an hour and only takes 40 minutes to the City. I stayed at irisHotel right by the station for a couple of nights, then changed to the Fire Inn for the last two nights. Both were cheap, comfy and clean, the Fire Inn was in an old fire station which was pretty cool.

I started my tour of Kiev by heading to the Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War. I had just visited one in Belarus and it was so interesting seeing how the two nations portrayed the war so differently, especially how they perceived Russia/The Soviets.

It’s another really interesting museum even if you don’t have much interest in history or WWII. The most impressive part of the museum is outside where you can view the Motherland Monument.

Standing at 62 metres tall it dominates the skyline above the museum. It was finished in 1981 and has been exempt from the decommunisation law because of it’s WWII significance. It looks like something out of a sci-fi film and it’s one of the grandest statues I’ve ever seen.

There’s also a monument to the UN, the founders of Kiev and a load of cool tanks and a nice park area around the museum. You can walk straight from here past a few cafes and shops to the next big sight, the Pechersk Lavra.

A monastery with a huge cave complex underneath it with several saints and religious figures reported to be buried there, it began in 1051 and the complex now consists of several pretty orthodox churches and you can visit the catacombs for a small fee. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the catacombs but are free to wander around the rest of it and take as many pics as you like. It’s definitely one of the best things to do here.

There are a couple of museums and art galleries nearby but I didn’t visit them, instead heading to the Holodomor Genocide museum, here you can learn more about the famine caused by Stalinist policies such as collectivisation in the early 1930s that killed an estimated 7.5 million Ukrainians.

It’s a harrowing tale, especially the propaganda used such as spreading tales that the peasants were hoarding food for themselves instead of giving to the wider collective of the USSR. Just along from here is a memorial to the Unknown Soldier.

Next up was the Mariyinsky Palace, completed in 1752 it’s the official residence of the president of Ukraine in Kiev and is joined to the parliament of Ukraine. It was built in the baroque style and the first royal figure to stay here was Catherine the Great! It was badly damaged in WWII and has had a couple of major restorations since then.

It’s a beautiful building and the adjacent park is lovely to wander around too. You can check out the old Dynamo Kiev stadium before walking over the park bridge and enjoy amazing views over the river Dnipro and to the East of Kiev.

I followed the walkway past the Museum of Water and stopped for a picture with a big bronze frog, you throw a coin in it’s mouth for good luck.

It was starting to get a bit dark and walking through the parks was so nice as they were all lit up, and if you follow on from the frog you get to the Friendship of Nations Arch.

Another throwback to Soviet rule it was completed in 1982 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and 1500th anniversary of Kiev. It’s a huge 50m diameter rainbow shaped arch made of titanium, with a bronze statue of russian and ukrainian workers underneath.

During eurovision it was lit up in rainbow colours and renamed the arch of diversity however after 3 weeks it went back to normal. It was supposed to be removed and replaced with a memorial to soldiers fighting russian rebels in the East of the country, but it still stands as far as I’m aware!

I was starving now as I had only had a cute little hotdog from a place in one of the subway stations, it was delicious but I needed something more substantial. After a quick google I headed to Veterano Pizzeria, I liked the name and I adore pizza!

The decor was so cool inside, with army memorabilia on the walls and table tops made from bullets. The food was really good too and I had a couple of beers to go alongside the pizza and cheesecake.

I spent the rest of the evening wandering down Khreschatyk St, a huge avenue runnning through central Kiev, it was stunning!

All the buildings were lit up and it was almost like Vienna in it’s grandiosity. So far Kiev was nothing like I was expecting, and I was super impressed. I stopped at Independance Square, where there was a huge mural of chains saying ‘freedom is our religion’, an I love Kiev sign and some cute statues.

I had walked so much today in the cold but I had enjoyed every moment. I would have missed a lot of things that I found by mistake if I had taken the underground or taxis/buses. I also thought it was amazing that half of Kiev seemed to be out, drinking coffee from little huts on the pavement all wrapped up. It was very European. On my way back to the hotel I passed this stunning building called Volodymyr’s Cathedral, I couldn’t wait to explore the rest of Kiev!

It’s a Quokka thing, Rottnest Island.

Today was a big surprise! We were headed to Perth for my Birthday, unfortunately the flight was delayed by about 5 hours so we arrived late. This left us little time to explore one of the most isolated Cities on earth, as we were only here for 2 nights and the main day was for Rottnest Island!

We arrived at the airport and took a taxi to our Hotel Rendezvous we dumped our stuff and headed out to find food. We headed straight to William Street where I had read about some cool sounding restaurants, and after wandering about for a bit we settled on this cute little Italian called Francoforte Spaghetti bar.

It was some of the best pasta either of us have ever had! We had the pasta broccoli and the eggplant sugo, and we just feeling very happy. Obviously we needed to follow this up with dessert so we headed to Whisk Creamery. This place is a pudding palace! I got a salted caramel cronut with vanilla soft serve. Craig opted for a fish shaped green tea ice cream Taiyaki.

The next day we were picked up at our hotel and whisked away to the Northern port at Hillary’s. We were given our bikes here while we waited for the ferry. It takes around 45 minutes to cross to the island and it was a very choppy sea that day!

You land on the Western side of the island and immediately have free reign to do whatever you like. The only cars on the island are maintenance vans and passenger buses so it’s super easy to cycle around.

We checked out the map and decided to try and do a full loop of the island after grabbing some refreshments, we set off. Starting off South we passed a few buildings and then we were out on our own, I was desperately trying to cycle and look for Quokkas, the reason we had come to the island.

Quokkas are small Marsupials that can only be found on Rottnest Island in the wild because of invasive species on the mainland. They’re also one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. Balancing on the bike I spotted movement in the undergrowth and came screeching to a halt, I moved as stealthily as a 6″1 man can, and spotted a little Quokka! I was so happy and the little guy wasn’t bothered by us at all.

Continuing on we stopped at a couple of nice beach areas, and did a bit of rock climbing as I looked for sharks. They are often seen around Rottnest and the Western Australian coast. There’s a cool website you can use to see where the most recent sightings have been. We also stopped to look for Quokkas in the bush to no avail.

As we continued to cycle on we got a little lost, then the heavens opened up above us and the rain came pouring down! Without coats we got absolutely soaked, but we didn’t care as the sun came back out it seemed like hundreds of little Quokkas suddenly emerged from the undergrowth. One took a real shine to Craig and we got some great pics.

Totally happy despite our soggy clothes we cycled on to the big lighthouse in the middle of the island, it’s not free so we didn’t climb up, instead we sheltered from the next wave of rain next to the toilets.

Carrying on towards the South West we had some amazing views of the island, and more Quokkas! This time one decided I was very interesting and came hopping over to give me a sniff, we got some great selfies with him and started to dry off as the glorious sun came out.

Finally we reached the furthest tip of the island, and it was so worth it, the rock formations in the sea were incredible. We sat and had our little lunch and enjoyed the waves crashing through the rocks. This had taken us a few hours with stops along the way so we thought we better start the journey back.

On the way we saw more Quokkas, making my excitement at seeing the first little one a little over the top. The cycling started to get a little harder as I’m not the fittest, and even though it was mostly flat there are some steeper hilly bits, just don’t be too proud to stop if you need to! Again we stopped at a couple of nice points, it was a shame the weather wasn’t a little warmer as the beaches looked amazing with the white sand and clear blue waters.

As we neared our destination we passed a huge lake which smelt pretty eggy, like sulphur, with loads of different birds who didn’t seem to mind the smell one bit. Once we arrived back to the main area we had about an hour till our ferry. At first we were going to continue cycling but it started raining again so we settled for a couple of beers.

There were even Quokkas near the shops and restaurants! It’s probably harder to miss one than find them. We took the ferry back, and it was just as rough, I was in hysterics watching Mr Bean while Craig was trying his best not to be sick along with most of the other passengers. Soon we were back on dry land, handed our bikes back and back in Perth. After all that cycling we were ravenous, we thought we’d head back to William St but on our way we noticed that a burger chain called Grill’d were doing vegetarian night!

Feeling like it must have been a sign, in we went and ordered a classic veggie burger along with a beyond meat burger and 3 types of fries, including zucchini which were delicious! We sank a couple of beers, and then headed back to the hotel. It had been such a fun day out, those little Quokka are everything!

Mingun and the cracked pagoda.

I was up early again today, knowing that my bus to Bagan was booked for 2pm I deliberated on what to do. I went down for a breakfast of noodles and fruit and spoke to the reception for help. I wanted to know if I could make it to Mingun, an area North of Mandalay, and back by 2pm.

Luckily for me if I left in the next ten minutes I could make the 9am boat up the river, so with the help of the hostel staff I was racing there in the back of a tuk tuk.

After sitting around from 8:45 the boat was acually ready to leave for 9am so myself and 4 other tourists walked a very unsteady plank of wood up to the boat and we sped off up river. The journey took around an hour and it was great, I spent it bird watching and looking for river dolphins, unfortunately I didn’t see any of the latter.

Once you arrive in Mingun you pay a small tourist fee, and decide if you want to walk around yourself or let a local latch on to you and take you around with the expectancy of a tip at the end.

A young guy latched on to me and I let him take me around as he promised me some thanaka paste. It’s a traditional paste made from a tree, they rub the bark onto a flat stone with some water to create it. Then apply it to areas at risk of sun damage.

Thanaka’d up the first sight was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a huge unfinished pagoda, first the king who was building it died, then it was hit by several earthquakes. It’s very impressive even unfinished and it’s cool seeing the huge cracks going down through it.

Next up is the Mingun bell, the second largest in the world and the largest uncracked bell. I got to stand in it and listen to people striking it with a huge piece of wood before I had a go myself.

The 3rd sight is the white pagoda, almost blinding to the eye in the sunlight. Hsinbyume pagoda is striking with its wavy design and golden pagoda at the summit. I wandered around here in awe.

I stopped for a drink as it was getting pretty hot at this point and chatted to my guide. Then we went to see a small pagoda with some interesting Buddha inside. One was made completely from one teak tree, another was stone and another made from metal. It was nice but probably not a must see.

The huge traditional boat just outside was pretty cool, again being carved from one huge tree. The last stop were the huge lion sculptures that are now missing their heads. I thought they looked more like elephants but was assured they were lions. At this point I went my seperate way from the guide, giving him 5000 for his troubles. He started asking for US dollars and I think was a bit disappointed I didn’t have any.

I spent the next hour wandering around checking out all the fried goods and trinkets lining the main street. Then it was back on the boat and back to Mandalay. I took a motorbike taxi back to the hostel with 30 minutes to spare till my bus.

Then it was a 6 hour, 96 Mile journey of stopping every 10-15 minutes to let people on and off. Even when I thought the little mini bus was full they pulled out plastic stools for more people to sit on. I was super excited to get going to Bagan, it’s probably the main reason people head to Myanmar.

I arrived at the station around 7:30pm and had to take an expensive taxi -12,000 kyat into New Bagan where I was staying. There are 3 areas you can choose from, the others being Old Bagan and Nyaung-U. It’s pretty same same with anywhere you stay as they kind of surround the main temple area. You have to pay 25,000 kyat for a 3 day pass to the Bagan area. About Β£12 which I didn’t mind at all if it allows them to keep the temple complex in good shape.

I checked in and immediately headed to a vegetarian place I had heard of called Moon (Be kind to animals) it was a 15 minutes walk from the hotel and I saw my first pagoda in the darkness just off the main road. The food at Moon was amazing, I had a tea leaf curry with rice, it tasted so fresh and garlicky. I couldn’t wait to try more on the menu.

Heading back I was up early (again) to rent an E-bike, am electric motor bike at 5am to go see the sunrise from one of the pagoda.