The 10 Coolest Things I Did In 2013

Every time I travel overseas, each experience is exponentially better; the last 6 months I have felt like I have lived an entire lifetime. What I saw, who I met & what I did is now just a distant amazing memory – I take with me these experiences & slowly compute them brain to understand what this world is about.

I ended up visiting 13 countries this year, 10 of which I have never entered before. In no particular order, here are the coolest things I have done in 2013.

1. Night Boat Cruise of Victoria Harbour (Hong Kong)

One of the most memorable experiences of my entire year was on a boat in the middle of Victoria Harbour. I returned back to Hong Kong after almost 18 months and was ecstatic to see one of my best friends; the coolest Hong Konger I know and my old housemate; Jess. Her personality bleeds hospitality and organised a night cruise in the harbour with a bunch of her friends. This experience was also shared with a good mate from Australia, Greg.

It was a warm summer night and the beers & rum were flowing before we jumped on board the boat. The party started at dusk and what we saw in the next few hours is hard to describe. Hong Kong is sheer accomplishment of mankind – it’s a city of skyscrapers and at night time the 360 degree view when illumination is beautiful.

The skyscrapers just dont stop in Hong Kong; they just keep on going as far as you can see on both HK island and on the mainland. It’s my favourite skyline in the world – trumps Tokyo & Shanghai hands down.

2. Hong Kong to Lithuania by Land

It took 200+ hours (train time) over 6 weeks across 6 countries… I travelled from Asia to Europe without catching a plane. It was an epic journey with 2 best mates that involved a myriad of adventures.

I remember leaving Hong Kong and spending 25 hours being bathed in food delights from the 5 other Shanghaiese women in my cabin. Catching one of the fastest trains in the world from Shanghai to Beijing; every 15 minutes there was another built up Chinese city with millions of people.

Other memorable moments involved long & eventful border crossings into Mongolia and Russia. The single most longest trip was across Russia and was 50 hours, I was stuck in a cabin with a middle class Russian family that did not speak a word of English and my Russian only extended to adjectives to describe which type of beer I wanted. 

The most daring of Russian adventures involved running out to small towns to find vodka whilst our train stopped for 6-7 minute breaks.

The Trans-Mongolian rail journey is an amazing journey and was the craziest travel adventure I have ever had. I strongly recommend that you find a few close friends and start researching how to get visas. The rest of the journey just seems to work out.

3. The Great Wall, Forbidden City & T-Square

Shanghai was awesome, don’t get me wrong. But Beijing is a tourist city with a horde of famous things to do all within an hour of the city.

The Great Wall

The most famous is the Great Wall. Sure it’s was overcrowded with dozens of buses full of domestic Chinese tourists but once you see the wall for the first time, you just enjoy the moment.

The section of the wall that we climbed was very steep and it was humid. We were 3 young fit guys and struggled to climb up to the third ‘tower’ within an hour. We were drenched with sweat and exhausted. But it was worth every second.

The Forbidden City

After a late night of pubcrawling & with waters in hand, we were able to gather the strength to visit the Forbidden City. We spent about an hour wondering around what we thought was the City and we were considerably underwhelmed. Upon leaving this ‘city’, we were able to realise that we were actually in the Garden of the Forbidden City. The City itself was next door.

It’s hard to describe the size of this place… it wasn’t just a couple of temples and rooms – the entire place is almost a square kilometer with thousands of room. This was in the centre of Beijing!

It was very cool.

Tiananmen Square

The Tourist centre of Beijing is just full of rich history and famous land marks. T-Square sits right across the road from the Forbidden City and is heavily fortified by the Chinese police. To enter the square you have to walk underground and go through security checks.

Notice how foggy/polluted Beijing is?

I enjoyed Beijing more than Shanghai and also my experiences in GZ. BJ is cheaper, rawer and has a wealth of interesting activities. Yes, it’s also polluted – but so is the rest of China/Asia.

4. Camping in the Mongolian Wilderness

Do you know anyone that has ever been to Mongolia? I didn’t.

The country has been growing at 15% for 5+ years due to foreign mining of their vast resources. The capital Ulaan-Battor; is fast becoming a modern, populous and lively city driven by a new wealth.

For the first time in my life I was beginning to feel like I had left Asia (although physically I hadn’t). The language is more a Russian dialect and the script is Cyrillic.

My 2 friends and I spent 3 days and 2 nights out in the Mongolian wilderness about 2 hours out of the capital. After leaving China it was nice to be in a remote and sparsely populated region of the world.

We lived in Ger camps & it was awesome.

The scenery was incredible & the locals were friendly – we were so isolated that we had no worries in the world.

In true Mongolian spirit – we spent some time riding horses.

A rich Mongolian also built a 40 metre statue of Ghenghis Kahn – it was clearly visible from 20 kms away against the flat Mongolian Steppe.

Mongolia was once a truly global dominant empire and it was great to learn about their rich, warrior, nomadic past inside this museum.

There was plenty to reflect at the Ger camps, there’s actually very little to do but chill out, drink vodka and throw stuff at things with the Mongol kids.

This was the sunset on the last night.

My attitude to Mongolia can only summarised by my complete and utter moment of depression the moment we boarded the train bound for Russia. Even though I knew I was entering Russia I still had a severe moment of sadness to be leaving Mongolia. My desire to return to this country is still very strong. 

5. Visiting the World’s Largest Freshwater Lake

When you think of Siberia you think of -30 degrees & shit weather – well for 3 weeks of the year, East Russia is actually a sunny 25 degrees & we had time it perfectly.

We took a bus about an hour out of Irkutsk to Lake Baikal.

It was incredibly peaceful and it didn’t take long for 3 Australians to stand out among the local crowd and make friends with 3 Russian dudes. What happens when 3 Russians make 3 foreign friends on a 25 degree day overlooking a gorgeous lake? They brought out the Vodka.

Afternoon over.

We ended up disappointing our Russian friends and had to decline their offer of banya back in Irkutsk.

6. A Birthday in St Petersburg

My 2 friends and I, rendezvoused with 2 other friends in St Petersburg. There were 5 good mates all congregating in the 1 city for 3 days – it was mayhem.

St Petersburg a stunningly beautiful city designed around canals. The city also has amazing bars and night clubs.

When you have a birthday overseas (this was my second) you are truly on top of the world. Nothing can spoil your mood and you don’t care about anything.

St Petersburg is on my list of places I want to return to. I want to live in this city for at least 1 month.

 7. Parisian Summer

Wow. It’s hard not to adore this city, it’s absolutely stellar – my summer in Paris stood out as probably the best months of the years; for a few reasons -

Paris is now the city in which I have lived the longest overseas (3.5 months, it overtook Hong Kong). There’s a reason that this city in the number one tourist destination in the world – the centre of Paris is a giant collection of world renown monuments, buildings etc. Every corner you turn there’s some famous landmark.

I must have visited half a dozen Basilicas, each one is 2-3 times older than my entire country & elaborately decorated.

Paris is highly populated (actually, one of the densest cities in the world) – everywhere you look it’s just a maze of 6 story Haussman architecture… you turn down every corner and it looks like the same street you came from with similar boulangeries, brasseries, boucheries, fromageries etc.

The subway system? Fuck. That tunnel system must be the most complex in the world.

I lived in 3 different apartments with a range of interesting Francais housemates – I have a really good understanding of everything droite de la Seine (North of Paris).

The first place I lived in had the best view from the North looking back onto Paris.

I also got some time to make it out of Paris and into the county side – here’s a Château about an hour out of Paris.

To give you an idea about how much there is to do in Paris; I was there for more than 100 days and I didn’t make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower nor did I enter the Louvre.

I have a great group of friends in this city and I claim it as my European home.

8. Living in a City which NATO Bombed 14 Years Ago

The communist country adventures continued with 1 month living in Serbia with one of my best friends Luke. In fact, Luke is almost solely responsible for my current work-travel live – for over a year I would Skype him everyday from a Hanoi Hostel or the beach in India. It was an unspoken promise that we would live together in some part of the world – we’re fortunate that that time came in October.

Belgrade is grungy; let me show you with a few images -

Ubiquitous street graffiti (some more artistic than others).

Abandoned, rustic building were the norm (and became excellent night  clubs).

Radio station that was (accidentally) bombed by NATO in the last 90s when Serbia was doing bad things to their neighbours (don’t get me wrong, they got fucked up as well).

We lived in a local district (there is no tourist district in Belgrade…) that was about 10 minutes walk from the centre of the city.

After coming from Paris, it’s easy to assume that the culture is bland especially with a past communist ideology. Digging deeper into the city, whether it’s a Pljeskavica (the best late night beer food) or dancing to traditional accordion music – you find a certain charm to Serb culture.

The locals are extremely friendly & intelligent about their country’s past transgressions but are focused on rebuilding their country. They also love to party.

Leveraging the grunge architecture; there are huge warehouse clubs and tiny small niche bars – we went to one place which was just a small door down an alley way, and it was basically a house that had been turned into a club.

9. Visiting the World’s Newest Country

We jumped on a local Serb bus and cruised down towards the Kosovo border, leaving Belgrade things were fine, we even stopped at a shrine to Tito (former Yugoslav dictator), so everyone could get out and kiss the statue.

We moved on toward the border; the roads, the houses were developing – we were expecting the worst when we crossed into Kosovo. Customs was a breeze, no stamp on leaving Serbia but on one entry to Kosovo – we were in. The newest country in the world.

First Impressions
All of a sudden there were large modern buildings along with thousands of new houses all along the country side. All the commercial buildings were your average paint shops, pump guy, furniture store etc. Billboards started going up with ads for businesses like “Vienna Insurance Group” etc. Currency switched to the Euro.

We drove for an hour and landed in Priština (prish-tina), the roads were modern the bus stop was nicely labelled in English, all the Cyrillic signage stopped. Luke even mentioned it reminded him of Las Vegas & some elements were reminiscent of a new Chinese city.

Party Scene

Everyone was extremely approachable and engagingly friendly. 50% of the people in the capital are under 25 – so there’s a tonne of kids everywhere. They are dressed in trendy European clothing with slick haircuts and have a mild American accents. Also a couple of guys were rocking out baseball caps, baggy pants and would just come up and go “Yo man, where you from bro?”

The Locals

I cant express how nice the Albanians were to us (everyone is Kosovo is a Muslim Albanian – although very liberal religiously). We were walking home and really needed water, so asked some local dudes – they not only walked us to the convenience store, they also paid for hte water and bought us chocolate bars. There were multiple times we would have a cafe or beer and the staff would start chatting to us, and then refuse to take our money.

The Politics
All these kids are intelligent / knowledgeable about what has happened to their region of the world – they’ve lived in a war zone for half their lives. I was blown away speaking to a bunch of 18 year old to hear about some of their stories and to see how they’ve pulled it together to be living in quite a functioning society.

The level of Americanisation was evident straight away. I asked a few people about this, the response was something like “look at us, we have our independence and individualism – much rather an Americanisation than a Serbian or Russian rule”.

The whole society is prospering from an accelerating injection of capitalism… and from the surface everyone is fairly happy. The main street there are kids kicking balls, families eating meals, this was an environment which was hard to find in Belgrade.

The 2 Sides

So cool and interesting to hear and live with both sides of the Serb-Kosovo conflict. Serbians warned us a few times to seriously re consider out need to travel. Kosovo was far safer and Albanians are warmer and genuine to hang out with.

10. Watching it Snow For The First Time

It’s been 20 years since I touched snow, but it wasn’t until I visited Iceland in which I saw it snow.

It was awesome – we had 3 or 4 days in a row with soft snow flakes falling for hours on end. I even made a snowman (it turns out it was harder than expected).

I flew into Iceland in early December to be confronted with temperatures well into the negatives (another first for me) & also lived through the winter solstice (4 hours and 7 minutes of daylight).

Reykjavic is beautiful – the world’s most northern capital.

Here’s a picture from the coastline looking back onto a mountain? (?). This location is the equivalent of Glenelg in Adelaide.

Turns out taking photos of anything + snow is picturesque.

Even a house looks cool!

Iceland is a modern, clean, safe and efficient country. Quite a contrast from Paris in which you have to watch around for gypsies every time you check your phone.

The country has an abundance of geothermal and hydro energy, so you energy is cheap and you can ‘waste’ it (wasting energy is only a concept when it’s scarce, this doesn’t exist in Iceland – take a 60 minute hot shower, leave your TV on and go to the pub… it’s all the norm here).

It’s possible to leave your wallet and phone on a bar and go down the street for a burger, come back 30 minutes later and your belongings are still there.

It wasn’t a week long camping trip in the Icelandic wilderness until my mind was blown away by Iceland. The scenery was breathtaking.

I stayed in a cabin a few hours of of Reykjavic with a bunch of eclectic backpackers. The beers flowed the the food was delicious – there was also a hot tub.

Every time I took a photo I had an amazing shot.

We visited plenty of scenic waterfalls.

And even a trippy glacier 

It was an incredible experience to finish off the year – a totally new world that I explored.

Iceland is a fantastic place to travel.

Honorable Mentions

It took no effort to get to 10 items on this list – there’s still 6 countries that I have visited that did not make a mention on this list – Singapore, Latvia, Lithuania, England, Wales, & Belgium.

A quick browse though my Instagram feed over the last 6 months will be a good insight into the world through my eyes.

What Happens In 2014?

For those that know me well have a clear understanding that I don’t plan that far ahead – I have no idea what I am doing next week. Next month? Next year? Je ne sais pas, putain!

I am sure of a few things.

Wherever I am & whatever I am doing I am going to continually search out new life experiences that bring happiness. The more I travel the more I learn about what brings pain, discomfort & joy to everyday people on this world. I have eaten at the home of the Vietnamese Villager, partied with the Tokyo businessman, worked alongside Filipino call centre employees, camped with Kazak nomads, witnessed 20 yr old Kosovo-Albanians cry to me when explaining what has happened to their country; the list is endless.

I take with me these emotions & iterate them in my own life in the pursuit of a better life.

The is the only way to live.

A sincere thanks to everyone who has been with me on my travels this year; you are all fucking awesome.