I panicked in haste. Iceland has got snowfall covered (of course they have, it’s not England!)…
I don’t want to speak too soon, but it looks like Plan A is back on!
Knowing that Iceland has had a fair bit of snow recently, this morning I decided to look at the road conditions. Uh oh…..
First thing this morning, the ring road from around Breiðdalshreppur to Myvatn was labelled as ‘impassable’, although that has now been reduced to ‘extremely slippery’ and ‘difficult driving’. It seems they work really hard to get the roads cleared and open, but we may need to have a backup plan in case we can’t drive through the north east. Drats!
At the tender age of 16, whilst at drama college, I met and became friends with the beautiful and incredibly talented Anita Briem. Anita hailed from Reykjavik and often used to show me photos of where she grew up. From that point, I desperately wanted to visit Iceland!
Fast forward 15 years, and I now find myself just a few days away from what I’m certain will be one of the most epic trips I’ll ever take.
I am travelling with my friend Irene who, like me, has wanted to go to Iceland for a long time, with her semi-recent move from Canada to London making it much easier!
We travel to Iceland on Thurs 30th April, returning on Tues 5th May meaning we have the best part of 6 days. We initially talked about just doing the southern half of the country but subsequently decided to attempt the entire ring road. A lot of people suggested that this will be too much to cram in, but thankfully Irene shares my love of a challenge, not to mention organisation and planning and we both agreed that we’d rather try and see as much as we can and scale back if we need to, rather than finding that we could have seen more but didn’t have a plan! We spent many hours agonising over our itinerary, but we finally came up with this:-
- Day 1
The Golden circle, including:
Thingvellir National Park;
Geysir & Strokkur;
- Day 2
Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Centre;
DC Plane Wreck;
Dyrhólaey & Vik
Skaftafell National Park.
- Day 3
Lake Myvatn, including:
Krafla Lava Fields and the Viti Crator;
Pseudocrators at Skútustaðir.
- Day 4
Cave exploration at Lofthellir;
- Day 5
- Day 6
Head home – sad times!
Although some people have managed to squeeze the Western Fjords into a 6 day Ring Road itinerary, Irene and I decided that it might be a push too far so we actually have a bit of wiggle room on days 4 & 5 if we end up a bit behind schedule.
We initially looked at booking hostels/guest houses along the route, but soon realised that would be quite restrictive and put pressure on our already tight itinerary, so we got in touch with Campervan Iceland and have hired a Campervan Play which is basically a Renault Kangoo kitted out with a bed in the back. The van also comes with a table & chairs, sleeping bags, pillows, a camping gas stove, as well as pots, pans & kitchenware. Iceland has a law of survival which allows you to to camp/sleep anywhere for a night, meaning it is totally acceptable to park up and sleep right next to some of the worlds most amazing natural sites and landscapes. During our trip, Iceland will be averaging around 17 hours of sunlight each day, with the sun rising at around 5am and not setting until 10pm, so we hope that will help us to keep going on the road that little bit longer.
I have been determined to pack light for this trip and so far my backpack includes:-
- 3 x thermal base t-shirts;
- 2 x fleece sweaters;
- 2 x thermal base tights;
- 2 x thermal leggings;
- 1 x waterproof windbreaker jacket;
- Underwear & swimwear;
- Hiking boots;
- Small washbag with essentials;
- Microfibre towel;
- SJCAM & accessories;
- Canon 1000d with 50mm & 85mm prime lenses.
Write up about my luxury trip to Dominican Republic with my friend Scott to follow.
Write up about my trip to Ibiza with my sister Sammie to follow.
When booking my flights, I had the option of either a 3 hour layover in Beijing or a 20 hour layover, so I chose the latter and promptly went about trying to plan a ‘see as much as I can’ trip.
I initially looked at group tours, but found that they were quite restrictive, so after a bit of research and talking to a few people over on the Tripadvisor forums, I got in touch with a chap called Simon Xiao who organises private tours. Simon used to work for luxury hotels in Beijing and organised many trips for their guests, but then set up on his own. There were plenty of people on the forums that had used his services and were really happy so I popped him an email to see if he was free. Sadly he already had a tour booked in on that day, but he put me in touch with a friend of his called Henry who was only too happy to help. I sent Henry the details of my flights and he promptly replied with a full day itinerary.
My flight took off from Bangkok at 1am and landed in Beijing at 6.30am. After disembarking, I made my way to the “72 Hour Visa-Free Transit” desk which meant I could go out and explore without having to have had to apply for a visa in advance. As soon as I got through the doors, there was Henry holding a sign ready to collect me – fantastic!!
Once we arrived, Henry organised my entry ticket and showed me the way in. There really are no words to describe how awesome it felt being on the Great Wall of China. I stood looking at it in admiration for a while, feeling quite awestruck, before going for a bit of a walk. I’m aware I’m stating the bleeding obvious here, but the Wall stretches for miles and miles and miles. As you look in each direction, it snakes out before you for what seems like forever. It was still pretty early so there weren’t many tourists around, but those I did meet all seemed to share the same look of amazement at standing on something so incredible.
Henry had told me to spend as long as I wanted on the Wall so I went for a fairly long walk along it, exploring some of the watchtowers and turrets. Every so often there would be a stall selling refreshments and memorabilia. At one of the stands I got coaxed into buying a ‘I’ve conquered the Great Wall’ medal which was inscribed with my name and date. The lady was dressed up in an army style uniform and then proceeded to put me into some kind of Kung Foo hold for a photo – I’ll post that on here another time!!
Eventually I reached a point where I thought it might be a good time to start walking back only to find that there was an easier way to exit….
I’m not even fucking joking! The way to exit the Mutianyu stretch of the Great Wall of China is via a Luge/Toboggan. Shut the front door!!!
I soooo wish I had a GoPro with me to film the experience, but I didn’t so instead I’ll share this guys footage from YouTube:-
By the time I got to the bottom, a bunch of stalls selling tourist tat had been set up. Before leaving on this trip, my brother had asked me to bring him back a silk kimono (don’t ask!) and lo and behold, there was a stall selling them. I spotted one I thought he’d like; a Black & Red reversible number with a dragon embroidered on the back. No sooner did my eye flicker on to her wares, the stall holder pounced on me giving me the hard sell. She told me the kimono was real silk and cost 1000RMB (around £100). There was no way I was spending that much so started to walk away, but she grabbed my arm and asked me how much I would pay. I told her it was for a small gift so I was looking for something MUCH cheaper. At that, she told me I could have it for 700RMB. Still too much I politely declined and tried to walk away but she was having none of it. In quick succession it was 600RMB…500RMB…400RMB but that was still more than I wanted to spend. It wasn’t about the product and I didn’t want to insult so I made my excuses (needed the toilet) and managed to break free. However, she followed me to the toilet!!!!!!! Oh my god, she actually followed me to the toilet. I was scared!! Henry spotted what was going on and came to my rescue, ushering me into his car and telling her I didn’t want it but in a last ditch attempt, she told me it was mine for 200RMB. So we went from £100 to £20 in the space of 15 minutes….I couldn’t believe it. Fearing she might actually follow us in convoy if I didn’t buy it, I handed over the cash. I was probably still paying waaaaay over the odds, but I figured it was safer for all involved!!!
The next stop was a fleeting visit to the National Centre for Performing Arts which contains the Opera Hall, Music Hall and Theatre Hall. The building was incredibly futuristic and visually beautiful to look at.
The Centre was just a few minutes from Tiananmen Square which was the next stop on the agenda. Tiananmen Square is one of the largest city squares in the world and has been the site of many important Chinese events. It is also home to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The Square is just a short walk away from the Forbidden City which I headed to next.
After spending a few hours walking around and exploring the many halls, towers and gates of the Forbidden City, it was time for a spot of retail therapy at Silk Street. To be honest, I didn’t want to buy anything, nor did I have room in my backpack for anything else, but it was fun to watch the bartering. The mall was covered in signs reassuring you that the shops only sold genuine products but I suspect that was part of the facade! Anything you could buy on Bond Street, you could find at Silk Street but at 10% of the cost, providing you were prepared to spend 20 minutes going back and forth on the price!
Next up was the Acrobatics show at the Chaoyang Theatre. You know when you watch one of those insane acts on something like Britain’s Got Talent which leaves your jaw on the floor. Yeah, this show was an hour and a half of that, with the finale being how many roaring motorbikes can you squeeze into a giant hamster ball, all circling at the same time!
Finally, Henry dropped me off at a restaurant where he was keen for me to try Beijing Roast Duck. I was interested to see just how much the food differed to Chinese food that we get in restaurants in London and I have to say, it was pretty similar (although obviously depends where you go in London).
I woke up on my last day in Thailand with real mixed emotions.
On the one hand, I was looking forward to going back home, seeing my family & friends, and getting back to normality, but on the other hand, I felt desperately sad that doing those things would put an end to the nomadic life I had become rather quite accustomed to over the last 17 days.
My time in Thailand, especially, had been a real wake up call. I found myself questioning why I do things, why I live my life in a certain way, why we all seem to conform to a similar kind of life schedule, and who it was that even dictated that life schedule. I have a great job in London which I really enjoy, but it can be incredibly stressful at times and over the last 2 years, my health has suffered as a result. But why do I work? Why do I put so much focus on building this career for myself? What do I get out of it? What will I take from it in the long run? Obviously money pays a part, but during my time in Thailand I found myself asking whether I would be just as happy living a more hand-to-mouth existence; working just enough to pay for the essential things I need whilst putting more focus on enjoying the here & now.
Feeling ever-so-slightly melancholy, I packed up my bag and checked out of my hostel. They were happy for me to keep my stuff there for the day until I needed to head to the airport so I locked it up and then headed to the beach where I bought a Longtail boat ticket to Railay.
Longtail boats don’t tend to run to any schedule; they leave when they are full, but thankfully I only had to wait for around 15 minutes before we were ready to set off. The journey was nice – I’d bagged myself a spot under the canopy which was just as well as it was proving to be an incredibly hot day. However, the boat was noisy and quite smelly (gasoline) so I was glad I stood my ground on Koh Phi Phi and got on the bigger boat for the Island Tour!
After a short stop to let a couple off, we pulled into Railay Bay which was insanely beautiful. The sand was spotless and the water crystal clear, all surrounded by cliffs, lush trees and greenery. In the middle of the beach was a small clearing with a row of shops and restaurants as well as public toilet so I decided to test out the amenities and then grab some brunch.
The food was nothing to write home about and was on a pricier side for Thailand, but the lack of choice meant it was like it or leave it. I had scrambled eggs with toast which filled a void and would keep me going until I hit the airport later in the afternoon.
It felt like one of the hottest days I’d had in Thailand so far, at least 35°C, quite possibly higher. Now, I can be a bit of a sun worshipper when I want to be but even I was struggling, so for the next hour I managed a fine balance between laying in the sun, and running into the sea to cool off. After around 2 hours and with very little shade available on the bay, I had to admit defeat – it was just too hot for me. I spoke with the Longtail Boat guys and around 30 minutes later I was back on a boat making my way to Krabi.
I had a few more hours left before I was due to be picked up for the airport so decided to shower, get changed and then offload some of my stuff to anyone who wanted it. Some girls who had been travelling for around 8 months gladly snapped up my spare toiletries and seemed very grateful for the Boots suncream I gave them. Another girl relieved me of my beach towel and another took my pak-a-mac thing as she was spending another few months in SE Asia during the rainy season. It felt good being able to share stuff among people rather than simply waste it.
Before I knew it, my bus had arrived and I was waving goodbye to everyone at the hostel and facing a flight back to Bangkok, followed by a flight to Beijing….