Journey to Kazakhstan via Western China

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Train Station

Urumqi
I was super excited to finally be going to Xinjiang in China’s Northwest. I’d wanted to go to this province for quite a while. That was probably due, in part, to the many awesome days I’d spent in Shenzhen eating at Xinjiang restaurants, run by Xinjiang people. So of course, the first thing I did when I got off the plane was find myself some Xinjiang food!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Airport Xinjiang Food K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Airport Xinjiang Food in a Cup

Having some food in my belly made it a bit easier to face the northern Chinese accent. It’s definitely not my favourite accent and it’s downright impossible to understand at times. It’s widely known in China as ‘Err Speech’ because many words sound like they’ve had ‘err’ randomly added to them.

Unlike most other airports in China, the WiFi at Urumqi Airport requires a Chinese mobile number to connect. I’d imagine this would be super inconvenient if you’re just passing through and don’t want to go through the hassle of providing your passport details to register a SIM, which is how it has been done in China for a few years now.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Metro

There was a shiny new Metro system in Urumqi, so I thought I’d utilise it to get into the city. It only cost ¥5 (US$0.75) and it’s very clean and efficient, but only half of the planned stations are open. I went to the current terminus station, Balou. I was treated to a beautiful view of mountains behind the city as soon as I got out to street level. The next thing I saw was the police doing some riot drills with traffic cones. They were young and seemed to be enjoying it far too much.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park

I noticed a park nearby, called Children’s Park 儿童心園 and decided to have a look. As in many places in Xinjiang, there was a security checkpoint where you had to get your bags scanned before you could enter. I asked one of the security guards where the nearest cafe was, so I could get WiFi and charge my phone. He said he would let me use his hotspot. Another guy then came out of the little office on site and said I could sit down near the water cooler and charge my phone. How very nice of them!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park Ride

I walked around the park afterwards and found it quite interesting. It was full of statues, displays, man-made streams and rides

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park Statue K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park Stream

Then just as I was about to leave, I spotted the Great Wall of China!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park Great Wall of China

And a security guard near the exit on the other side of the park carrying an oversized baseball bat. Just what you wanna see in a kids park.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Children's Park. Security Guard with Giant Baseball Bat

I noticed a few interesting things while walking through the city. One of them was workers using a blow torch to clean a footpath. Then I spotted a horse statue in the middle of a major intersection that claimed Urumqi is the Top Tourist City of China. The place is lovely, of course, but with recent issues in the area, I think this claim may be quite dubious.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Horse Statue at intersection

If you’re not aware, the Xinjiang region of China is home to a large minority population of Uighurs descended from Turkic Muslims. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have cracked down on this minority by making it hard for them to show any outward signs of their faith. The city also seems to be separated into Uighur and Chinese zones. I saw one Mosque in the city that was beautiful and some police came along and told me I couldn’t take a picture of it. I got one anyway.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Blue Mosque

On my way to the station, I had managed to walk into a Uighur area. The city area right next to it was super developed, with large footpaths and marked lanes on roads, but the Uighur area had none of this. I had to walk on the road for several kilometres while passing through this section. The disparity between the ethnic groups here was painfully obvious. It’s also very worrying considering that the full name of the province, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, includes Uighurs, but the government is intent on excluding and persecuting them.

Train to Huo’erguosi
K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Train Station
Due to the perceived tensions in the area, security was tight everywhere. There was a passport check before entering the station area. Then a security check, including a free pat down for everyone, to enter the ticket sales area. Then there was one final check to enter the train departures area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi to Huo'erguosi Train Ticket

I was assigned a top bunk in the train, but then found out I could climb up there! I asked the other people in my room if they wanted to swap, but they were just dicks. The lady checking tickets even asked them and they were kinda mean to her. She informed me that there were no other lower beds, as the train was full. Luckily, a guy from another cabin overheard us talking and said he would swap with me. I ended up in a cabin with his workmates, who were actually pretty cool. We had a great time chatting, drinking, (yes, there was alcohol for sale on the train), and finding out about each other.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi to Huo'erguosi Train Bunk

The train ride was quite lovely. It was very smooth the whole way, so it wasn’t hard to get some sleep in. I’m glad I chose it over the bus, which takes the same amount if time, but isn’t nearly as comfortable. The train pulled into the Huo’erguosi station, about 6km out of town at 08:20. My passport was checked on the way out of the station and I made my way into the town to find a bus to Kazakhstan.

Huo’erguosi
K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Welcome to Huo'erguosi

There was a police checkpoint at the entrance to the town, where all cars were stopped and even people going through on foot or bike were halted. I had to show my passport again and it disappeared with one of the officers for about 10 minutes. I was a bit urked at having to wait so long, but was glad when I could finally leave.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Non-Chinese architecture in Huo'erguosi

The architecture of the Huo’erguosi didn’t seem very Chinese. Perhaps there’s a big Kazakh influence, being so close to the border. I had a bit of time and saw a park near the bus station, so I decided to check it out. Not only did they want to scan my bag, but they also wanted to see my passport. To enter a park! I decided I didn’t need to see the park that much and continued to the bus station.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Park

By now, you could probably guess that there was another passport check to get into the station. A guy who was standing outside the station escorted me inside, I presume because he gets some kind of commission for whatever ticket I buy. As I was at the ticket desk deciding which town I wanted to go to, I met a fellow Hong Konger. We both paid ¥70 for a ticket to Жаркент/Zharkent/Jarkent. We decided to stick together to try to work things out, as the station staff had given us almost no information about where to go or when the bus was leaving.

It turns out that the bus wouldn’t leave until it full. But conveniently, there was a waiting van that was willing to take us to Zharkent for an extra ¥20 each. We said we’d do that, but we wanted to go out and get some food first. There was a bit of confusion as to where the food place was because their northern accents were hard to understand. One of the guys ended up going out to some food for us and refused to take our money when he returned. Free food always tastes better!

Border Annoyances
About 5 minutes later we were in the building on the China side of the border. A building we didn’t leave for nearly an hour. The immigration part was easy and the lady stamping us out was quite nice. After clearing the immigration area, I was stopped by an angry looking guy who asked me if I had a laptop. I said yes and he told me to step into a roped off area to wait.

I tried to ask him why, in both Mandarin and English and he just decided to stare at me instead of answering. After 10 minutes of that ridiculous standoff, I was done. I approached the desk behind the immigration area to see what was going on. Luckily the guy at the desk was much nicer and said that they were waiting for female officers to be available to search me. Wait.. what?

I asserted that I had done nothing wrong, but they said it was the procedure in China. I pointed out that I’d never been searched at any China border, so they then changed their story. Apparently, they have to search everyone going through the border for the first time. I pointed out that they didn’t search my friend, who was also going through the border for the first time, so they went back to the ‘procedure’ excuse.

I was ushered into a room and they asked to look in my bag. I complied and opened it. One of the ladies must have been a trainee as she was happy to leave my bag packed and just feel around. The other lady told her that she had to check each item individually. She unpacked my entire freaking bag and slowly unfolded and patted down every piece of clothing.

Next, they wanted to check my laptop and mobile phone. Not just visually, they wanted to look at the contents, especially photos. Obviously, that’s a massive invasion of privacy, but it didn’t seem like I was getting out of there unless I complied. I watched the lady trying to find stuff on my laptop, but her lack of English proficiency or knowledge of the filing system on my computer meant that she didn’t know where to look. After 30 minutes of clicking she hadn’t even managed to open one file. I’d call that a fail on her part.

The other lady with my phone was having similar problems. She only managed to open a few Wechat messages and videos from travels I’d completed almost 2 years ago. The funniest thing in all of this is they’d missed an entire section of my bag which included another camera. They had essentially just wasted an hour of not only my time, but the time of the 6 other people waiting in the van that would take us through to Kazakhstan. For nothing.

Upon exiting the building, we got back into the van for a one minute drive to another passport check, because the 50 million so far weren’t enough, haha. That was the last check and we were finally out of China and wouldn’t have to worry about anymore unneeded security checks! All in all, Xinjiang is a lovely region, but the ridiculous security that has been set up to combat a situation that the Chinese government itself created is absolutely bonkers. Prepare to be annoyed and frustrated if you choose to travel there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Huo'erguosi Border
Bye Bye China!

Read my next post for my continuing travels onto Kazakhstan.

Travelling to Western China

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Travel Map.

After weighing my options I had decided to fly to Urumqi, in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, from Hong Kong, then take the train from there to the Kazakh border. It is possible to go by train all the way from Hong Kong to Urumqi, but it involves stops in intermediary cities to swap trains and would take 3 days. As the price for the flight (HK$1700) and the train (¥1500) was around US$217, I decided to go for the faster option.

It was my first time flying with Shandong Airlines, a domestic Chinese carrier. The flight came with a one day stopover in the Shandong Province city of Yantai. I had never been there before and was looking forward to seeing a new city. On the 3 hour flight to Yantai no meals were served, only snacks. That seemed a bit weird, but they do things differently in China!

Yantai Transit
Yantai is a northeastern port city on the Yellow Sea about 750km southeast of Beijing. Even though it’s close to Beijing, it’s like a whole different world. For starters, the airport was shaped like a uterus and had potted plants everywhere in the arrival area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai Airport Map K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai Airport Pot Plants

The thing that really struck me about this place, is that besides the grunty security guard, everyone was really friendly. Like approach-you-and-start-chatting-to-you kind of friendly. In all my years of travelling to other cities in China, I’d never really encountered that before.

After purchasing my ¥20 (US$3) bus ticket to the city centre, I realised that a young boy was intensely staring at my hair. When I asked what he was looking at, he excitedly commented that my hair was very red and that he liked red. I asked if he liked purple too, then showed him the purple section underneath. He was totally enamoured. We ended up talking for 10 minutes about my bright hair and his favourite toys. I guess that’s how conversations with 6 year olds go in any language.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai Airport Bus Ticket

The bus ride was quite smooth, due to what looked like a shiny new highway into the city. It was a fairly empty highway, which is also not something I’d seen too often in other Chinese cities. Another thing I’d noticed at the airport and in the town, was a lot of directional signs in Korean. It must be a popular destination with Korean tourists.

When I arrived streets were fairly empty and eerily quiet. I put this down to the late hour, but the next morning things were quite similar. It seems that this town does things a little more quietly and slowly than other places, which was quite refreshing. It was a nice, clean city to walk around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Empty Street
Empty street

While walking around, I noticed they were going for an early 20th century feel with some of the street lights. There were also quite a few dockless bikes around, but I didn’t see many people riding them.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Street Lamps K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Dockless Bike

Possibly the best part of this city was the mountains surrounding it. One of them, Yantai Hill can be easily reached on a self-guided hike from the Zhifu District, near the city centre.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, City With Mountains

Like many Chinese cities, there were huge malls everywhere, but one thing that was different was that some of them didn’t have bathrooms. I only found this out when I drank too much tea at a cafe and had to walk a block to find somewhere to relieve myself. While in that cafe, I’d also had problems accessing the WiFi, so one of the lovely staff took time off her duties to help me figure it out.

Something that seemed to be unique to this city was moving repair shops. Some entrepreneurial souls had decided to put all their fix-it tools and know-how into vans and drive around town finding people that needed things fixed. If they found a place where they were doing particularly well, they would set up there for a while.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Travelling Fix-it Van

As I walked to the bus station to make my way back to the airport, some young guys approached me to try to sell me some miracle cleaning liquid. I was quite surprised by this, as normally locals wouldn’t approach foreigners in this way because they’d be afraid of the language barrier. I suspect they knew that I wasn’t going to buy, but it was an excuse for them to talk to me. It was kind of cute.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Corner Market
Corner Market

So I hadn’t really done much in Yantai besides walk around and chat to some locals, but it was lovely all the same. I’d definitely look into taking a longer break there at some point in the future. Back at the airport, I noticed many people carrying foam boxes full of cherries. It turns out Yantai is famous around China for its cherries and when people visit, they take as many boxes as they can back to their families.

The next leg of the flight was only 1 hour, but in that time a meal was served, even though only crackers were offered on the first and longer flight leg. One of the hostesses felt bad that I couldn’t eat the meal they served and came back with some dried fruit and crackers for me. The Shandong Airlines staff were quite lovely, but their English was either terrible or non-existent. I could understand them better when they spoke Mandarin!

Shijiazhuang Transit
The short flight was due to a technical stop in Shijizhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei. I can’t say that I know what a technical stop is, but we all had to leave the plane and re-board an hour later. We were even given a special card by the Shijiazhuang Airport to present to get back on the plane.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Shijiazhuang Boarding Cards

I can tell you that the Shijiazhuang airport is very nice. It’s also very spread out and there isn’t much there besides gimmicky souvenir shops and designer stores. During the 1 hour stop there I walked around to see if I could find some food. I did, but the cook was out and they said it would be a half an hour wait. With the plane re-boarding in 40 minutes and a 10 minute walk to the gate, that would be cutting it a bit fine. Maybe a ‘fresh’ coconut from a dispensing machine would suffice?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Shijiazhuang Coconut vending Machine

Check out my next post for the trials and tribulations of crossing into Kazakhstan via Western China

Adventures in Southern Peru

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mountain Rainbow at Machu Picchu, near Aguas Calientes, Peru

Race to the South
After a quick stopover in Lima, I was on a short flight to Cusco, edging ever closer to the ancient ruins of an Incan city I’d been waiting my whole life to see. As I was exiting the airport, I overheard someone at the information desk asking how to get a colectivo (shared taxi) to Ollantaytanbo. As I was going to the same place, we decided to join forces to get a taxi to the Pavitos Street Taxi Terminal. It was there that we would find the colectivo that we needed.

First, we had to make sure that the taxi driver wasn’t going to overcharge us, which is where my boss negotiating skills came in handy. I got the price down from 30 Soles (US$8.90) to 10 Soles (US$3), which was lower than the amount that the airport staff had told us to expect. Score! We got to the Pavitos Street Station and found the colectivo to Ollantaytanbo. We checked that the fare would be 12 Soles (US$3.60), as we had been told, then sat inside and waited for the other seats in the van to fill up.

K in Motion Travel Blog. On the road from Cusco to Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
View of the Andes on the road from Cusco to Ollantaytanbo

It wasn’t long before we were full up and enjoying the awesome views of the Andes on the 90 minute drive to the town of Ollantaytanbo, which serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. The colectivo dropped us off right in front of the train station. It was possible to buy tickets at the train station in Ollantaytanbo, but I would suggest booking online beforehand at Inca Rail or Peru Rail, as it makes the process a little bit quicker.

Ollantaytanbo

K in Motion Travel Blog. On Quiet Street in Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
Quiet Street in Ollantaytanbo

Although it has a name that might prove impossible to say when drunk, Ollantaytanbo is a lovely, quiet Andean town. We saw many people roaming around in traditional Peruvian attire, including this little 2 year old girl. She was so enamoured with the person next to me that she was only half-heartedly into the ‘give me money’ routine that her mother clearly made her perform whenever tourists were around. Using your daughter’s insane cuteness to get money out of visitors; well played mother.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Local Girl in Traditional Peruvian Attire, Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
Girl in Traditional Peruvian Attire

The centre of the town was essentially a huge walk-through market area with many stalls selling local wares. As pretty much the only access point to Machu Picchu, you can’t really blame them for trying to capitalise on tourism, can you? Opportunism aside, the view from anywhere you stood in the town was lovely. It would definitely be a good place to relax for a day or 2, if you weren’t on a tight schedule, as I was.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Town Centre, Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
Ollantaytanbo Town Centre

The views only got better on the train to Aguas Calientes, which is the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. The 30km train ride takes around an hour and a half and prices start from US$50. It is possible to purchase online up to a few hours before departure or get tickets at the train station in Ollantaytanbo.

K in Motion Travel Blog. View From the Train. Ollantaytanbo to Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo, in the Andes, Peru
View from the train on the way to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu Pueblo

Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo
The Spanish name of the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, literally translates to ‘Hot Waters’. It was named for the numerous hot springs in the area, but of course, I was more interested in the ruins above it. This town is pretty much built on tourism, so as you would expect, accommodation can get quite expensive. It is probably for this reason that most people only choose to stay there for one night, which means that although it’s right near a world famous tourist attraction, it’s not overcrowded. That makes it quite peaceful and lovely.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo Sign, in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo, in the Andes, Peru

I met some beautiful locals in this town. I got the feeling that even though many tourists pass through the town, not many locals can speak English well. I found this appealing as it gave me many opportunities to practice speaking Spanish. I definitely needed the practice. It was actually quite amusing when I needed to get a strap holder on my backpack replaced in the town. Finding the market that had the tailor wasn’t a problem, but trying to explain what I needed fixed was difficult when I wasn’t even sure how to say it in English.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo. Market Building, in the Andes, Peru
Market Building in Aguas Calientes

Suffice to say, I managed to explain to the lovely couple running the store what I needed, but they weren’t sure that they had any strap holders lying around. They said I could leave it with them and they’d see what they could do. It turns out they were miracle workers. Not only had they fixed the strap by the time I returned, but they had noticed another problem and fixed that too. All for just 10 Soles/US$3! I could not imagine getting a pack fixed that cheaply in many other places.

The Path to Machu Picchu

K in Motion Travel Blog. Inca Trail at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru
Inca Trail
Before you start your journey up, you’ll need to stop in at the Direccion Regional de Cultura Aguas Calientes Office, also know as the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre, near the town square, to grab your park entry ticket. This will set you back around 150 Soles or US$45. The Ministry of Culture has a website where you can book in advance, but I had problems paying through this website. I explained my problems when I went to Cultural Centre and they let me pay by credit card, even though they normally only accept cash. They say they also require a passport, but they accepted my government issued national ID card.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Aguas Calientes. Welcome to Machu Picchu Pueblo Sign, in the Andes, Peru

There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, depending on how energetic you feel, or how much money you want to spend. There is a shuttle bus that regularly runs from Aguas Calientes and back between the hours of 7am and 3pm. When I was there it cost 70 Soles/US$21 for a return trip, but as of 2019 it has gone up to 80 Soles/US$24. The bus is comfortable and airconditioned, but as the road is very windy, it takes about 40 minutes both ways.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo The Windy Road to Machu Picchu, in the Andes,
The Windy Road to Machu Picchu

The other, more adventurous option is to hike up. This way is actually shorter, as it cuts across the road at many points. The trail is probably a bit more challenging than your average trail because it is fairly steep and at a high altitude, but certainly doable if you are relatively fit. I also think this is the best way to go; the views are freaking amazing and you can stop to really appreciate them.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Sign at the Start of the Hiking Trail From Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Machu Picchu Ruins in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Start of the Hiking Trail From Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Machu Picchu Ruins in the Andes,

The trail up took me a little less than an hour and I passed a few people that seemed to be struggling with the altitude, so I guess it could take up to 2 hours for some people. Now, this is about the point where I bombard you with photos because it’s hard to choose just a few to sum up the wonder of this place.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Llamas Hanging out at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru
Llamas Hanging out at Machu Picchu

To say the place was amazing would be an understatement. It’s quite hard to get a true idea of the scope and extensiveness of the ruins until you see them for yourself. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen beforehand, you’re still likely to be awed when you get there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tree, Ruins and Mountain at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Ruins and Terraces at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Ruins and Tree at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Ruins and Mountain from above at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru

I was lucky enough to go there on a rainy day, which meant I got to see more than a few rainbows, which made it even more surreal.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Machu Picchu, Rainbow to Ruins, in the Andes, Peru
Rainbow to Ruins

I even walked a bit of the Inca Trail that ended behind some of the ruins which gave me the chance to see yet another awesome view.

K in Motion Travel Blog. View of the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. View From the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru

After refilling my water and getting called muy bonita by some of the park staff near ticket checking point, I was feeling a bit excited and managed to get back down to Aguas Calientes in half the time it had taken me to climb up. When I got back to my accommodation, I was greeted by some drunk Chileans who were super disappointed when they found out that was leaving the next morning. They tried their hardest to convince me to stay an extra day so I could drink with them, but settled for promises to keep in touch.

Cuzco/Cusco
I think I was so tired that I may have napped for most of the trip back to Cusco, or Cuzco in Spanish. This southeastern Peruvian city was once not only the capital of the Incan Empire, but the historical capital of Peru. Now it serves as the capital of the Cusco Province. With under 500,000 people living there, it’s by no means a large city, but it certainly has a lot of character.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

The centre of this Andean mountain town is roughly shaped like a puma, as indicated by maps and pavement slabs around the town. The Puma is said to represent the power of the earth, with a fortress at the head built to protect the city from invaders. It ultimately failed at it’s job, since the Spanish Conquistadores invaded and took control of Cusco in the 1500s

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tiger Map in the Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Tiger Pavement in the Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

Cusco was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1983 and it’s not hard to see why. There is a lot of history in the town, from Incan, pre-Incan and colonial Spanish societies. I was told that the Spanish mostly built on top of existing Incan structures, so there are still a lot of Incan buildings in the city underneath or behind the colonial buildings.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Colonial Building Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

It’s also a vibrant city with a lot going on, including random carving competitions and art displays in the streets.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Carving Competition Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Art Display Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

And of course there are Alpacas.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Alpacas Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

But perhaps my favourite thing about this city is the traditional culture and how willing folks are to share it.

I stumbled upon this performance in the centre and it was amazing! All of the instruments this guy used were hand made. The sounds that came out of them were divine. He had everyone’s undivided attention!

After he’d finished, he invited everyone watching him to have a look at his instruments and try them out. He made it look so easy, but when I tried, I just looked like an idiot. Not that I minded, because it was really fun to have a go.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Traditionally Dressed Man Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

I thought I could sneak out of the area without anyone noticing while people were having their photos taken. The performer foiled my escape plan and insisted that I put on some traditional cloth and have my picture taken with him. So here’s the cheesiest photo I’ve ever been in.

I ended my trip on a high note with a free Peruvian cooking and cocktail making class in a quirky little hilltop pub. Nothing beats looking over a beautiful town whilst eating and drinking things that you’ve made yourself.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Cooking Class in Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Quirky Hill Top Pub in Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

Have you had an amazing experience in Peru? I’d love to hear about it! :o)

Tumbes – Northern Peruvian Frontier

K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Mangrove Tour. Line of Boats.

I had taken an overnight bus to get from the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador to Aguas Verdes, on the Peruvian border, but the checkpoint was closed when we arrived around midnight. The bus company had not mentioned this until we got to the border and the bus driver seemed to be surprised, so maybe it wasn’t normal. With no other options, I waited in the bus and tried to sleep a bit. I groggily arose from slumber at 3am to join a crazy long line that had developed while I was sleeping. Awesome.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Crazy Line at the Aguas Verdes Border Between Ecuador and Peru
Crazy Line at the Border

The line started moving slowly around 3:30am and although it seemed like much longer, it probably only took 30 minutes get to the entrance to the immigration area. Luckily the room was small, so once I’d made it to that point, there wasn’t much more of a wait. The interesting thing about this border was that both the exit from Ecuador and the entry to Peru were processed at adjacent counters, which made things pretty quick.

I was running against the clock by this point, as I’d been more captivated by Ecuador than expected. This meant I didn’t have time to travel overland all the way to Cuzco as I’d originally planned. So I’d found myself a last minute flight to Cuzco out of the tiny northwestern Peruvian city of Tumbes, just over the border from Ecuador. Never heard of it? Neither had I. It’s a pre-Incan settlement named for the native tribe of the area, the Tumpis.

With a population hovering around 100,000, it’s fairly small as far as cities go, which was why I was so surprised when the people from the bus company insisted that the place was dangerous. They tried very hard to convince me that I shouldn’t walk around by myself, but I couldn’t see anything about this town that indicated someone was going to jump out of nowhere and mug me, as people had suggested. Still, as I normally do, I kept my wits about me and had no problems.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Mangrove Tour. Dog on a Beach K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Mangrove Tour. Swampy Island

I didn’t get far on my walk before a worried Tuk Tuk driver insisted that I ride with him, even after I told him that I wasn’t going to give him any money. He decided to drive me around the town and take me on a mangrove tour to an island with a crocodile park, for free. I, of course, asked him a thousand questions about life in Peru and came to the conclusion, after he offered to pay for my flight to Cuzco, that Tuk Tuk drivers make the big bucks.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Mangrove Tour in a Little Blue Boat K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Mangrove Tour. Crocodile Park

Rax, the Tuk Tuk driver had to get some maintenance done on his vehicle, so he dropped it off at the Tuk Tuk repair place. He didn’t know how long it would be before it was ready to drive again, so he said that he wanted to organise a lift to the airport for me. I declined as I’d reached my limit for sitting down by that point. The airport was only 5km away, which is a comfortable walking distance for me.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Tuk Tuk Workshop.

Little did I know, that this walk was the start of a whole new adventure. As happens in many places, I had taxis and Tuk Tuks stopping to offer me rides, which I politely declined. After a little while, I came across a roadside stall, run by a sweet older man, selling all kinds of homemade Peruvian treats and refreshments. He was the first person I’d met in the town who hadn’t told me it was dangerous. He was actually quite interested in how I’d ended up there.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Sculpture/Building in Central Tumbes, Peru
Building on the walk to the airport in Tumbes

When I told him I was walking to the airport, he said it was 10km away, which was weird, because my map was saying it was only 3. He suggested that I should get a taxi, but after I informed him that I wanted to walk a little more, he wished me luck and I went on my way.

About 2 minutes later, I was stopped by 2 people who were sitting in a stationary car in a bylane of the main road. They did their best to assure me that they were the good guys and they weren’t going to hurt me, not that any thoughts like that had even crossed my mind. It turned out that they were off duty police officers. They showed me their police IDs so that I would know they were genuine. By that point, I was getting the idea that locals think there are a lot of dishonest people in their city.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Monument in Tumbes, Peru
Monument on the walk to the airport in Tumbes

When I told them my plan to walk to the airport, they said it was 10km away, just as the man at the stall had said. I was still puzzled by that, as my map had never steered me wrong before. Maybe Peruvians have no concept of distance? They insisted that they would drive me and they simply weren’t taking no for an answer. Less than 2 minutes later, we were at a gate which serves as the entrance point to the airport compound. Yes, the airport is in a compound.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Tiny Airport in Tumbes, Peru
The tiny Tumbes Airport

We arrived at the airport building shortly after and it was tiny and empty. The car park was empty except for a security guard walking around with a gun. A gun? I wasn’t sure whether to feel safe or scared. He asked to see my flight confirmation then told me that I needed to quickly go inside because it was dangerous outside.

K In Motion Travel Blog. The Only Cafe in the Tiny Tumbes Airport, Peru
The only cafe in the tiny Tumbes Airport

There were only 2 shops inside and they were both closed when I got there. The place was almost completely empty except for some cleaning staff. It was then that I found out that the airport only has 2 flights in and out each day, then it’s closed for several hours in between. I had gotten there a tad early because I wasn’t expecting a lift, but it wasn’t long before the cafe reopened and I was able to grab some food. Unfortunately there was no WiFi, so I’d have to catch up with the real world on my stopover in Lima on the way to Cuzco.

Check out my adventures in southern Peru in my next post :o)

Baños – A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador

K in Motion Travel Blog. Outside of Banos, Ecuador

Having had an enormous amount of fun exploring Quito, it was time to head south. I had originally planned on going straight to Guayaquil, but on a whim, decided to take a 1 day detour to Baños. Why? Because someone told me there was a swing there. True story.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Welcome to Banos, Ecuador
Welcome to Baños

It was possibly also because Baños was only a $4 bus ride that was 4 hours away, compared to 8 hours for Guayaquil. I’d been travelling overland for quite a few weeks by that point and wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of spending the whole day on a bus. So I left Quito in the afternoon and got into the Terminal Terrestre Baños, a little bit north of the town, in the evening.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Night In Banos, Ecuador
Where to now?

This small Andean town was named Baños de Agua Santa, or Baths of Sacred Water, due to the numerous hot springs in the area. It was very quiet at night. Although it wasn’t that late when I arrived, it seemed like everyone had already gone to sleep.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Empty Street at Night In Banos, Ecuador
Where is everyone?

It was fairly easy to find my hostel because, like Quito, this town had a grid-like set-up. So Baños was turning out to be quite lovely, but it was only when I entered my accommodation, that I realised it was also a little bit quirky. I do love quirky!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Quirky Hostel Signs in Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Quirky Hostel Sign in Banos, Ecuador

Semi-Planned Adventures
The next day, I decided to walk around the town for a bit to see what was going on. It wasn’t long before I was in the town centre and looking at barbecued Guinea Pigs. Yes, Guinea Pigs. Apparently, they’re a local delicacy so of course, I had to try one. It may have looked a bit freaky. I mean each one on the grill looked like it was about to attack, but it tasted like chicken.

K in Motion Travel Blog. BBQ Guinea Pigs In Banos, Ecuador
Would you give it a try?

While walking around, I spied many random performance spaces, as well as several companies that specialised in adventure tours. Everything from mountain biking and ATVing, to rafting and paragliding near the Tungurahua Volcano. I later found out that Baños was known as the adventure capital of Ecuador; as if I needed another reason to like the place.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Performance Area In Banos, Ecuador
Random performance space

I took the last spot on the paragliding tour for that day without thinking that the tour finished too late to get the bus out to Guayaquil. It seems my 1 day stopover in Baños was turning into a multiple day stopover. I was not bothered by that at all, as it was turning out to be a very interesting little town.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tungurahua Volcano, Outside of Banos, Ecuador

After about an hour of driving on some pretty windy mountain roads, we ended up at the site where we would start our paragliding adventure. What an amazing view! The clouds seemed to be framing the Tungurahua Volcano perfectly that day. Our guide was a bit worried about the wind strength and advised us that he wanted to wait about 45 minutes to see if it would die down a bit.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tungurahua Volcano, Outside of Banos, Ecuador

None of us had any problem with waiting, because the view was absolutely breathtaking! We watched the windsock in front of us intently and would get excited when it dropped a bit. Our guide was still playing it safe though. Just when we’d all lost hope of being able to get up in the air, he announced that the adventure was on!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Welcome sign near Tungurahua Volcano, Outside of Banos, Ecuador

I swear you’ve never seen people get changed into horrible jumpsuits more quickly than we did that day. In that afternoon, we definitely spent more time waiting or in transit than we did in the air, but that 20 minutes where we did get to ‘fly’ was freaking awesome!

Unplanned Activities
Owing to it being New Years Eve, it seems the town was in full party mode by the time I got back. There were traffic jams being caused by kids holding ropes across the roads to stop cars. The children would only put the ropes down to let cars pass after the occupants of the car had made a donation. Then I noticed there were men driving around town dressed as women. First there were only 2, but then they multiplied.

K in Motion Travel Blog. 2 Weeping Widows. Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Carload Weeping Widows. Banos, Ecuador

I asked a local what was going on and they advised me that these guys were dressed up as their own interpretation of La Llorona or the Weeping Widow. La Llorona is a folktale that exists in most of Latin America, but the Ecuadorian version has its own twist. In Ecuador, La Llorona was driven mad after being abandoned by her husband and now wanders the earth cutting off pinky fingers. These guys had something a little different in mind –

Out With the Old, in With the New
So remember those paper mache figurines mentioned here? It turns out that they are made to be a representation of everything bad and evil from the proceeding year. What do you do with all the bad stuff? You get rid of it, right? But how do you make sure it’s completely gone and will never come back? Stack it and burn it!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Evil Cleansing Bonfire. Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Evil Cleansing Bonfire 2. Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Evil Cleansing Bonfire Ashes. Banos, Ecuador

Then how do you ring in the new?

That’s how they do it in Baños!

Swing on The Edge of The World
This was the reason I’d initially made the detour to Baños, so now that the craziness had died down, it was time to do it! There are a few ways of getting to La Casa Del Árbol, or The Treehouse, which contains the ‘Swing on the Edge of the World’. Some people might chose their transit method depending on how bad their hangover is, I guess. A round trip in a taxi would cost about $15, or there’s a public bus that goes up for around 50¢. It only departs about 4 times a day though. You could also walk the 10km up the windy mountain road, but I chose to take a hiking trail that I found behind the town!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Banos from the hiking Trail to Casa del Arbor, Ecuador
Baños from the hiking trail to Casa Del Árbol

The trail was actually quite steep, as it goes almost directly up the side of the mountain. Although I didn’t see a single soul on the trail when I went up, it was obvious that the trail has become popular with visitors to the area. I came across a few makeshift tin sheds or wooden shacks labelled as bars on the way up. Only one was open, but I presume they’re all open during the busy season, to fulfill your refreshment needs.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Bar on the hiking Trail from Banos to Casa del Arbor, Ecuador
Bar on the hiking Trail from Baños to Casa Del Árbol

There were also many farms and greenhouses on the way up and at one point, the trail became the dirt road that the residents use to access their properties. Not that any vehicles were using it at the time. It was very quiet and peaceful actually. I finally found my way to the car park for Casa del Árbol, where there were signposts to help me on my way. There is a large area at the top which has been cordoned off, to make sure that people pay their $1 entry fee. Inside that area are some small ziplines and play areas for kids, but my eye was on the prize!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Casa del Árbol

I wouldn’t say that the area was super crowded, but there were certainly a few people there. That of course meant that there was a bit of a line. I reluctantly joined the end of the line because what else was I going to do after going all that way? Some people were freaking out about the fact that they were about to swing over the edge of the mountain. I offered my support to calm them down while I waited for my turn. It turns out the whole thing is quite serene. It probably feels more like floating than anything.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Egde of the Mountain at Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Edge of the Mountain at Casa del Árbol

What isn’t serene is what’s on the other side of the mountain. That’s probably where the thrillseekers would want to be. You see, some enterprising soul has decided to capitalise on the popularity of the treehouse by creating a ‘Swing to Heaven’ behind the treehouse. While it may not be everyone’s idea of heaven, for $4, it’s a pretty cheap thrill.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Swing to Heaven at Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Swing to Heaven

🇪🇨Ecuador Summary🇪🇨
In a few words – surprising and crazy
Language – Ecuadorian Spanish
Currency – United States Dollar (USD)
WiFi availability – 📶📶📶📶
All hostels/hotels seem to have pretty decent WiFi. In smaller towns, you could easily walk back to your accommodation if you can’t find WiFi elsewhere
Transport – 🚗🚗🚗🚗🚗
🚍 Intercity coaches run regularly and generally end up costing about $1 per hour of travelling
🚐 Buses run regularly in cities/towns and cost around US$0.50 per ride
Roads – 🛣🛣🛣🛣🛣
All roads were sealed and in good condition, although some mountain roads were quite narrow.
Scenery – 🌳⛰🏞🏖🌳
Ecuador is very green, with mountains, waterfalls, rivers and forests inland, then beaches in coastal areas
Prices – 💰💰
Ecuador is a budget travellers paradise! Accommodation is fairly cheap and a meal from a street vendor will rarely put you out more than $4
Border efficiency – 🛃🛃🛃🛃
Aside from a little bit of a wait on the way in, immigration officers seemed to be on-the-ball and processed visitors fairly quickly
Overall – 👍👍👍👍👍

A Journey to the Middle of the World

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador

After a wonderful week in Colombia, I had been on the road from Cali since early morning, so I wasn’t quite paying attention to the time. I know I got to Tulcan on the Ecuadorian side of the Rumichaca border crossing, sometime in the afternoon. The border was crowded and the line snaked outside the immigration area for several metres. It looked like it would take an hour just to get to the building entrance.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Ecuadorian side of Rumichaca border
Ecuadorian side of the Rumichaca border

Most people crossing here seemed to have suitcases. Many suitcases. There was a family of 4 that had 10 suitcases between them! I felt like I’d missed a memo while I waited in line with my carry on sized backpack. Despite the obvious delay, everyone was cool, calm and collected. I even noticed a cat, just hanging out in a bag.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Ecuador, Rumichaca border Bag Cat
Border Bag Cat

Once I finally got to a counter in the immigration building, things were moving a lot faster and it was pretty hassle-free. I didn’t even have to fill in an arrival card and the officer seemed kind of amused and sort of flattered that I’d tried to speak to him with my absolutely horrid Spanish. Upon exiting the building, I was treated to a lovely view of a river in the valley below.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Ecuador, Rumichaca border River
River after immigration

I had booked the bus all the way through to Quito, so I was able to get back on the coach after passing immigration. I was a bit worried that I had taken too long, but it turns out that there were still people from my bus that hadn’t made it through yet. I took the opportunity to change my remaining Pesos into US$. There are many people wandering around offering currency exchange services, so as long as you know what the rates should be, you won’t get taken advantage of.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Hills on the road to Quito, Ecuador
Hills on the road to Quito

From the border, it was still another 250km or 4-5 hours to Quito, but there was some lovely scenery to look at along the way. I arrived in Quito after dark. As I’d been travelling for the whole day to get there, I made a beeline for my accommodation in the old town. The old town looked absolutely lovely and the people at the hotel were extremely patient and helpful when answering my 30 million questions. I walked around the old town for a bit after I checked in, because I wasn’t quite ready for bed. What I saw was beautiful, quiet and peaceful. I couldn’t wait to explore the city in the daylight!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old Town, Quito, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Old Town, Quito, Ecuador

Quito
Quito has 2 claims to fame, it is the closest capital city to the equator and it is the second highest capital city in the world. Besides that, it is a city with an amazing amount of character. The old town is awesomely well preserved, owing in part to the fact that it was one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites to be declared by UNESCO in the 70s. It truly feels like you’ve stepped into another time!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Old Town, Quito, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Old Town, Quito, Ecuador

It is a fairly low rise, sprawled out mountain city with a hill in the centre. El Panecillo, as the hill is known locally, is home to a 7000 piece aluminium statue called Virgen de el Panecillo. This monument looks like an angel looking over the city and can be seen from almost anywhere in the old town. It is even lit up at night!

While Quito may be a decent size city, it feels more like a big country town. Everyone there is so laid back, friendly and helpful. The grid-like construction of the city makes it very easy to find your way around. As much as you may want to, it’s almost impossible to get lost there. Another element of Quito’s charm is its copious amount of green spaces. Among the several parks in the city is Parque La Carolina. A huge inner city park between two roads that form a partial border between the new town and the old town.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Lit Up Fountain, Parque La Carolina, Quito, Ecuador
Parque La Carolina Fountains

Aside from being where all the cool kids get their exercise on during the weekends, it’s also somewhat of a cultural area, with regular art exhibitions and performances happening. It was a great place to sit and reflect, but probably my favourite thing about this city is that there is chicken everywhere! It’s also quite cheap!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Cheap Chicken in Old Town, Quito, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Open Grill in New Town, Quito, Ecuador

Walking around the city, in both the new and old town, you will find that hole-in-the-wall stores like this one, as well as open grills under canvas shelters are quite common. They also seem to trade until quite late, so you could never go hungry in Quito.

Middle of the World
As I mentioned earlier, Quito is the closest capital city to the Equator. ‘Ecuador’ is actually the Spanish word for ‘equator’, so as you could imagine, calling the spot where the equator runs through the country ‘Ecuador’ could get confusing. The locals prefer to call it Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador
Mountains in the Middle of the World

Getting to the middle of the world is easy. Quito has an extensive network of buses that can get you there within an hour. The first part of the journey involves catching a bus from one of the raised bus platforms along one of the city’s main roads. That bus terminates at the Ofelia depot, where you can catch another bus to the road in front of Mitad del Mundo. Your bus driver can indicate where to alight if you ask nicely, but if you’re keeping an eye out, it’s pretty obvious where the site is.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador
Very cheesy welcome banner

Knowing that it’s a bit of a tourist attraction, the city’s government has of course capitalised on that and built a kind of middle of the world theme park around where Latitude 0º0’0″ was originally calculated. Unfortunately, that means that you need to pay to enter. The fee is US$2 if you just want to get inside, or $5 if you want to see the museum dedicated to indigenous history and culture located inside the monument.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Monumento Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador
Monumento Mitad del Mundo

You may have heard that this is not the actual equator, as the method used to locate it predated GPS. The advent of GPS has shown the actual equator to be around 200m away. If you want to see this ‘real’ Mitad del Mundo, you can walk a few minutes down a dirt road and pay $4. But considering that my GPS often shows me 100s of metres from my current location, can it really be trusted?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Equator Line, Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador
North or South?

The area you pay the entrance fee for is manicured and aesthetically beautiful. There were almost no other people around when I was there, so I was able to have a look around with no annoyances. There are some souvenir and craft shops in the area, as well as some Llamas, just hanging out.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Llamas at Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador

Back in Quito, people had set up their own roadside markets where they sold some curious looking paper mache figurines. Some were downright freaky, while others were stylised as superheroes.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Freaky Paper Mache Figurines, Quito, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Superhero Paper Mache Figurines, Quito, Ecuador

Do you know what they’re for? Find out in my next post, where I continue my journey to the south of Ecuador.

Couchsurfing Like a Pro

K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing

So you’ve registered on Couchsurfing, because you’ve heard it’s a great way to meet locals when travelling. It absolutely is, but it can be a bit daunting working out the CS system. I’m here to help you navigate this strange new world and get you on your first Couchsurfing experience in no time!

Verified; To Be Or Not To Be?
In short, paying for verification will not help you get hosts or surfers in the beginning. References are what will help get you hosts or surfers. Admittedly, it can be easier for hosts to pick up their first surfer, especially if they live in an area that doesn’t have many other couchsurfing hosts. If you host a verified couchsurfer and get a positive reference from them, you will earn a temporary verification, which can be extended by hosting more verified couchsurfers.

So you’re not ready to host yet, but want to find a couch for an upcoming trip? No problems! There is still hope. Keep reading to find out how to maximise your chances.

Profile
When you’re starting out, your profile is your most important commodity, so treat it as such! Make sure that you’ve included at least one picture, but 3 to 5 is better. It’s vital to fill out every section, as this is what people will use to gauge if you’re the kind of person they want in their space. It’s where you need to let your awesomeness shine through!

In the ‘Countries I’ve Visited’ section, list all the countries that you’ve been to and update the list as you go. If you’ve been to a variety of countries, people are more likely to want to meet you. If you’ve been to a country off the tourist radar, hosts will sometimes want to meet you to hear your fabulous stories and ask you for advice about it. It’s also a commonly held belief in the Couchsurfing community that well-travelled people make better surfers, as they’re more aware of how to carry themselves in many different situations.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing

Getting References Before You Surf/Host
If your profile is your greatest commodity in the Couchsurfing world, then references are the currency. This is one of the major hurdles you need to overcome as a new member, because without references your chances of finding hosts are significantly lower. Luckily, Couchsurfing has two kinds of references; hosting/surfing references and personal references.

Any member on Couchsurfing can leave a reference for another member. So if you have friends using the platform, ask them to leave you a character reference. What if you don’t have any friends on the platform? Get yourself to a Couchsurfing event, either at home or abroad. These are held regularly in cities around the world and will show up on the website. If you hit it off with another Couchsurfing member, ask them to give you a personal reference on the platform. These are not as good as surfing or hosting references, but they can increase your chances of finding surfers or hosts.

Finding Your First Host
You’ve poured your heart into your profile and gotten some personal references, now it’s time to find a host. I have to be honest with you at this point and advice you that some hosts will flat out refuse to host some surfers. I think this is ridiculous in the 21st century, but I guess they have their reasons. If you are male, female hosts may refuse to host you, due to ‘safety concerns’. I’d strongly suggest that, unless you can see a history of references from both males and females on a prospective host’s profile, don’t send them a request.

Through the app or the website, you can do a host search by location. You can also use filters, such as date, languages, age, etc., to narrow down your search. It’s always best to search for the exact dates that you need, to make sure that only hosts that are available on your dates will come up in the search.

Requesting a Couch
Once you find someone you’d like to host you, you can send a couch request by pressing the ‘Request to Stay’ button. This will send you to a screen where you can type your introduction message. You need to sell yourself here. Don’t cut and paste from your profile. Pick something specific in that person’s profile that makes you think you might get on well. Maybe you both love science fiction, or you have both been to Bangladesh. Whatever it is, find some common ground.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing

Also, let them know what you can offer them. Can you teach them a language? Can you cook some traditional food for them? Can you tell them crazy travel stories? Can you bring them a unique souvenir from your country? Can you provide them with experiences they have mentioned in their profile?

One thing to keep in mind is that you can only send 10 couch requests a month. If you don’t travel much, that’s fine, but if you’re on a bigger trip, you might be better off messaging someone first so as not to waste your requests. If the person you’re talking to agrees to host you, you can easily send the couch request through later.

Offering a Couch
This is a fairly similar concept to the one above, but this time, sell the wonders of your local area as well as yourself. Are there traditional temples in your area? Nature parks? Something different and quirky? Does it have awesome transport links? Great nightlife? Think about what amenities you would love to have in an area and how your area can provide them. Again, don’t cut and paste from your profile and try to focus on something your perspective surfer has mentioned that they like in their profile.

Public trips
Another useful feature on the site is the ability to create a public trip. Your public trip can be seen by hosts in and visitors to your target area. This means that, aside from helping you find a host, this function could also help you find a travel buddy who’ll be in the same place at the same time as you! I’ve used public trips for most places that I’ve travelled to and have had unforgettable times with wonderful people.

When hosts see these public trips, they can send an ‘offer to host’ if they like your introduction and think that you’d be a great surfer. There is no limit on the number of offers someone can make to host people, so often you can end up with many offers using this function.

Final Thoughts
Couchsurfing is an amazing platform for connecting like-minded people all around the world. The knowledge of a local is invaluable and can take your trip from great to super awesome. I’ve used Couchsurfing for years and some of my most fabulous experiences, from the South Pacific to Africa and everywhere in between, have been a direct result of it.

I cannot recommend it enough! Even if it seems difficult to begin with, just stick with it! It will enrich your life in ways you never would’ve imagined.

Solomon Islands

Where’s the WiFi?
Upon landing in Honiara, I had hoped that I could find some Wifi at the airport to book some accommodation. The lack of internet access in PNG had made it impossible to do so there. Unfortunately, there was no WiFi to be found in this tiny airport, so I figured I’d have to try my luck in town.

I asked a nice lady working at a small cafe how to get into town and she indicated that I could catch a ‘bus’ from the road outside the airport. Okay, that seems easy enough. What I realised when I got out to the road, was that there was no bus stop. The opposite side of the road was lined with many small stalls, selling various items. As I was about to cross the road to ask a seller about the bus, I noticed a group of people on my side of the road, standing around like they were waiting for something.

That seemed promising, so I approached and asked someone in the crowd if they were waiting for a bus. After checking where I needed to go, they confirmed that I was in the right place and chatted with me while we waited. A minivan pulled up a short while later and my new friend indicated that I should hop on board.

There was a young boy onboard who collected fares from everyone. It was only 5 Solomon Island dollars, SB$5, which is roughly AU$0.90. Bargain! As an added bonus, the value of the currency was almost on par with my home currency, so I didn’t have to waste time calculating! Someone had suggested that I could get WiFi at the Tourist Centre in town, so that’s where I got dropped off.

Upon entering, I was greeted by a lovely gentleman named Nelson. I explained my PNG phone saga to him and therefore my need for internet to reinitialise my phone. He said I could stay and use the WiFi until the centre closed. How wonderful!

Honiara, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands
By the time I got outside..

As the internet on the Solomon Islands is a bit slow, it was about 2 hours before I realised that closing time had come and gone. Nelson was working late and had decided to leave me to it for a while. Luckily I had almost everything I needed for the phone to function reinstalled by the time he was done. Being the awesome person that he is, he then made some calls to find me the cheapest hotel, using his industry discount.

His kindness didn’t stop there either. As the hotel wasn’t too far from the centre, he graciously offered to walk me over, to make sure I got settled in okay. Not only are the Solomon Islands lusciously green, but the people are pretty awesome too!

Walking Around Town
I realised after checking into my room that I hadn’t eaten for a long time, so it was time to go hunting! It took me an hour to find food. Not because I got lost, but because almost everyone wanted to chat with me. After dinner, as I was trying to cross the road, a man named Manu, who worked at the port, started talking to me and offered to walk me back to my hotel. Seems like that’s a thing in Honiara!

Manu then decided to stay and have a chat in the hotel bar. He enquired about my plans in Honiara, so of course, I told him that I wanted to go to the Tenaru Falls! I hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to do that yet, but that was a tomorrow problem. I realised I was pretty tired by that point and as we parted ways, Manu said that he would get his friend to drive me to the waterfalls the next day. At this point, I was wondering if the whole town had received a memo telling them to look after me. Honiara had certainly welcomed me the right way.

Adventures Beyond Honiara
Just as he said they would, Manu and his friends arrived to pick me up at around 8:30am. We then headed for the Tenaru Falls, which it turns out were a very long drive from Honiara. Mainly because the road is terrible. It’s still passable without a 4WD though. It seems Manu’s friend, Joei, was a taxi driver who I later found out had taken the day off work to use his taxi to drive me around. Wow.

There was another person in the car named Joylee, who I’d presumed was Manu’s friend. I found out after talking to Joylee for a while that she had never met Joei before. It turns out that he had picked her up on the way because he felt bad that I was going to be the only female in the car. Not that it’s something that would worry me, but it’s a nice thought, I guess.

On the Way to Tenaru Falls
On the Way to Tenaru Falls

Manu and Joylee were using the long ride to drink and chain smoke. That ride got fairly uncomfortable for me rather quickly. Luckily, them seeing me use my inhaler slowed the smoking down a bit.

After we passed a gate that a local came out and opened for us, an old man approached us from the side of the road said that he could take us to the falls. As no one else in the car was exactly sure how to get to the falls, they indicated for him to get in the car. He directed us to the start point of the trail, which didn’t really look like much of a trail at all.

On the way to Tenaru Falls
Tenaru River

We followed this man for about 20 minutes, by which time I’d started to get the feeling that he didn’t really know where he was going. He had us zig-zagging across a small river. It was at this point that he mumbled something about bad spirits and disappeared into the forest. We decided our best course of action was to head back to the car and try to find another way to the falls.

On the way to Tenaru Falls
Old man guiding us to the Tenaru Falls

We drove to Paringiju Lodge, which is run by Manu’s cousin Freida and her husband. By the time we got there, Joylee was passed out in the back of the car from drinking too much, so we left her there and went into the lodge. Freida gave us some cold water and offered to take me to the falls.

On the way to Tenaru Falls
Trail to Tenaru Falls

I followed Freida down a trail which started off nicely enough, but then became exponentially more difficult. This was partly because it got fairly steep and partly because it was muddy and slippery. I was struggling with hiking shoes, but Freida, who’d left her flip flops at the beginning of the trail, was just flying along with bare feet. My feet slid out from underneath me on a few occasions, but I managed to grab hold of nearby trees before I ended up on the ground. Unfortunately, there were no trees around on my last slip and I landed flat on my back. It did not feel good and caused me to limp all the way back to the lodge.

Near Tenaru Falls
View from the lodge

To add insult to injury, my camera had decided to be temperamental while on the trail, so I wasn’t even able to take any pictures of the view I’d worked so hard to see. Back at the lodge, everyone except Joei seemed to have drunk themselves into an almost comatose state. This meant that it was a mission to get them to the car, but we were finally loaded and ready to go about 30 minutes later.

Back to Honiara
Palm trees rushing past on the way back to Honiara

I was a bit worried that Joei had been drinking while I was hiking, but his car was my only option for getting back to civilisation. He drove a little faster on the way down than he had on the way up, but then he drove like a maniac once we hit the sealed road again. All I could do was hope to get back to town in one piece.

Back In Honiara
Manu said that he’d organised a hotel room for me for free through his company. I was surprised, as I had not asked for that. I had made it clear that I was capable of getting my own room and I would not be ‘trading’ anything for it, but he was very insistent that I take it. After we got food, he came into the room and said he had been waiting his whole life to meet someone like me. He also professed his love for me, but how can you love someone you’ve only known for one day? It may have been the alcohol he’d imbibed talking, but it was getting a little too awkward for me.

I went to the hotel’s reception to see if I could change to another room. As that was getting organised, Manu came out to apologise and beg me to reconsider, but hotel security were a bit worried and approached him to tell him to move away from me. As he walked back to his room, I decided it might be better to leave the hotel for a while and sort the room out later, so I left my things at reception and made my escape.

Earlier that day, I had arranged to meet Nelson, the man from the Tourist Centre. Being the kind man that he is, he had offered to drive me around to show me some of the town. It really helps to get to know a place when the person driving you around works at the tourist centre! I’m sure I now know more about Honiara than most of the locals do. If I forget the craziness at the hotel, it was a pretty awesome day, all up!

The next day had a bit of a weird start when I tried to pay for my hotel room, but no one knew how to use the credit card machine. About 2 hours later, we’d figured there was either a bank problem or a machine problem, so the staff just gave up and said I didn’t have to pay. Well, that’s nice.

Discovering Honiara
After all these adventures, I’d decided that I was just going to walk around by myself for a bit. The island of Guadalcanal had played a huge part in World War II, so of course there is a huge memorial in Honiara. It also happens to be on top of a hill and I do love walking up hills.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Solomon Islands Peace Park Memorial, Honiara, Guadalcanal K in Motion Travel Blog, Solomon Islands Peace Park Memorial, Honiara, Guadalcanal

The place is kept in perfect condition by the caretaker, who invited me into his little booth when I got stuck in the very open memorial area as a huge storm came in. He told me that the storm would take a while to pass. He was right, I think it was over an hour, but it seemed like only 10 minutes because of the great company.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Solomon Islands Peace Park Memorial, Honiara, Guadalcanal
Storm over Honiara

He told me that he has been the caretaker there for over 20 years. He tends to the gardens to keep them looking beautiful and fresh. He makes sure that the grounds are always clean. He clearly does a good job, because the place was immaculate. He does it because he believes that the people that lost their lives in the war deserve it. What a lovely man.

Once the storm finally passed, I headed back out onto the road to continue my walk. I ended up finding the Mataniku River, which essentially separates the city into 2 areas, with the only access point being a not-so-stable looking bridge. I can’t say it was the prettiest river I’d ever seen. In fact, there seemed to be a lot of rubbish in an around it. The Tenaru River I’d seen a few days before was much nicer.

K in Motion Travel Blog, Mataniku River Honiara, Guadalcanal
Mataniku River

Time For a SolBrew?
After all my adventures, I’d figured a quiet drink or two was in order. My first mistake was thinking that would be possible in Honiara! It seemed that everywhere I went, locals were insistent on buying me drinks. I mean, they would ask if they could buy me a drink, but the drink would be in front of me before I finished answering. The good thing was that the happily tipsy men and women in the pub were happy to tell me their fascinating stories about life on the islands.

I ended up back at the Tourist Centre later, where I met and chatted with Nelson and more of the crew that works there. One of them, I’m ashamed at this point that I can’t remember his name, told me that I must join them at the yacht club later. Who was I to refuse? I made my way there a little after the agreed time, because I was on island time. I couldn’t find any of crew when I first walked in, but a well-known local was worried that I had no one to talk to and insisted that I sit with him and his friends. I must’ve been talking to them for hours before I finally met the people that I’d originally gone there to meet!

We might’ve stayed there until near closing time, although I have no idea when that was. No one was ready to call it a night, so we all sat around chatting at the Tourist Centre. Clearly I got very little sleep, but it was probably the best way to spend my last night in the Solomons.

🇸🇧Solomon Islands Summary🇸🇧
In a few words – beautiful people
Language – English and Solomon Pijin
Currency – Solomon Island Dollar (SBD)
WiFi availability – 📶📶📶📶
Wifi was available at hotels and some cafes, but the cafes had very short opening hours. It wasn’t the fastest, but probably better than some places
Transport – 🚗🚗🚗🚗
🚐 Buses, or more accurately, minivans run regularly around town and cost SB$3 to go anywhere in town and about SB$8 to and from the airport
🚘 Taxis are available from the airport to the town for around SB$100
Roads – 🛣🛣🛣
Main roads were mostly smooth and sealed, except for several kilometres where roadworks were taking place. Roads in more remote places weren’t sealed, but still drivable without a 4WD
Scenery – 🌳⛰🏞🏖🌳
The Solomons have a diverse range of scenery, with mountains, waterfalls, rivers, forests and beaches
Prices – 💰💰💰
As seems to be the case in a few places where tourism isn’t a huge industry, accommodation is quite expensive. Everything else in the Solomons is quite cheap though
Border efficiency – 🛃🛃🛃🛃
The international airport is tiny, which means entering and exiting can be pretty quick. There’s almost no chance of another plane arriving/departing at the same time as yours!
Overall – 👍👍👍👍👍

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is probably a place you don’t see on many people’s travel itineraries, but I’d been itching to get there for a very long time! You could say the country has had a troubled history and is still trying to find its feet as an independent state. This can make things very interesting for travellers.

Upon arrival at the airport, I had to join a long line for immigration clearance, which gave me a lot of time and to contemplate if I had all my documentation in order. The immigration officer that processed my entry was very friendly and wished me well. After that, I had to clear the customs area, where a man just took my filled-in form, without even looking at it, and waved me through. I was finally there!

Welcome to Port Moresby
As I was trying to exit the airport, a lovely man named Harold stopped me and asked where I was staying. When I told him, he said that the area wasn’t safe and that he would help me find lodging in a safer area. He ended up driving me around a fair amount of the city in his company’s vehicle, while I presume he was supposed to be working. He took me to a few guesthouses that were run by Christian missionaries. These guesthouses were prohibitively expensive considering what was on offer; a single room with shared bathroom facilities and no WiFi.

The problem I had was that, because I’d already booked and paid for my accommodation online, I hadn’t brought enough cash with me to pay the ridiculous prices they were asking. Harold took me to a few more places, until we ended up at the Rehoboth Transit House. The owners of this guesthouse were lovely. After I explained the situation to them, they asked me how much I could afford and agreed that I could just pay that amount. I was glad to have that sorted and now that Harold knew I would be safe, he headed back to work.

While Harold was driving me around, I had noticed that almost all private properties and some businesses had really high perimeter fences with barbed wire on top of them. Then the owners of the guesthouse informed me that it wasn’t safe for me to go outside by myself. The explorer in me was devasted. A big part of the way I travel involves wandering around aimlessly until I stumble upon something awesome. The owners did say that either they themselves, or their security guard, could be at my disposal whenever I wanted to go out, but still.

The Fun Begins
As I’d realised my options for getting around Port Moresby were limited, I had decided to go rural. My destination was the small town of Sogeri, where the Kokoda Trail begins. The security guard from the guesthouse, Sam accompanied me. We headed to the bus stop across the road from the guesthouse to wait for the bus to Sogeri. As the bus was pulling up, I noticed a teenage boy running from the opposite side of the road. I figured he was just running for the bus. Nope, he was running towards me, using the distraction of the bus to steal my phone!

Being the fight back kinda person that I am, I decided to chase this little shit as he ran back across the road with my phone. Sam also joined the chase, but told me to wait at the road when the boy entered his community. He continued to chase the boy, while I waited and hoped that he would come back with my phone. An elder from the community approached me from a crowd to tell me that he saw the whole thing, he knew the boy and he would get my phone back.

Sam reappeared from the community a short while later, apologising for losing the offender. Would you believe, at that very moment, a police car was passing, so we flagged it down. Sam and I relayed the details to the officers, but they said they couldn’t help. I was surprised, considering we were standing right outside the community. So as I was about to give up, the elder from the community came over to say he wanted to help catch the boy. That changed everything!

We were all loaded into the police car for a drive to the boy’s house, in the community. Of course, the boy had not gone back there yet, but his brother was there and seemed really pissed off at his brother. Apparently, the boy has done this kinda stuff before and the family was getting sick of it. They felt bad and also wanted to help me get my property back. They asked if I would give them a day to find the boy and return the phone to me, before making an official report to the police. I agreed.

With that kind of sorted, I decided that I may as well continue with my plans, because there wasn’t really much else I could do at that point. I went back to the guesthouse to get my back-up camera, because every good traveller has one of those! Sam and I went back to the bus stop and were soon on our way to Sogeri. This whole time, Sam had stayed very close to me, so I was surprised when he said I could have a wander around by myself when we got to Sogeri. It seems the country areas of PNG are a lot safer than the capital.

Exploring Sogeri

The bus had dropped us off near a lodge at the start of the Kokoda Trail, which was still a little bit outside of the town. It was there that we met Ranger Muxsie and his friend Robert. The ranger then organised us a lift into town with the owners of the lodge. Once we got into town, there was a big volleyball game going on at a school, which also doubled as a sports ground. There were many makeshift stalls set up along the road outside, selling all kinds of locals foods and fresh juices. All of the stall holders were very friendly and many offered me free samples of their foods and drinks.

Across from the school was some kind of memorial and behind that was a trail that we could hike along. Ranger Muxsie said he would like to guide us, but he had to do some work, so he said his friend Robert would accompany us to make sure that we didn’t get lost. As we were walking along, Robert commented about how ‘strong’ I was for being able to keep up a decent pace in the PNG heat. I guess other visitors don’t handle it so well.

The trail actually ended up being a dirt road for most of the way. It meandered through memorials for people whose names I can’t pronounce, missionaries and local farming villages. We even had to do a small river crossing, over pipes! It looked like some of the people living in the villages survived by preparing materials for recycling.

After our little adventure, we returned to the town. Robert left us there and we met back up with Ranger Muxsie. We had to walk a couple of kilometres uphill to get to the pickup point for the bus back to Port Moresby and Muxsie had decided walk with us. While waiting for the bus, we all exchanged contact details and Muxsie said I should call him if I’m ever back in the area.

Police and Black Market Supply Chains
Back in Port Moresby, the community elder had been unsuccessful in locating the boy or my phone, so we made our way to the police station to file a report. Then we waited. I was not holding out much hope by that point, as it had already been 2 days. That made it all the more surprising when the police contacted us the next day and asked us to come into the station. They had 2 of the 3 people involved in the black market supply chain in custody!

My hosts had hilariously given them all nicknames; The Rasta, The Fatman and The Chinaman. Sounds like some kinda terrible detective show that I’d watch the hell out of! Anyways, The Rasta was still at large, but they believed him to be the one who took the phone from the thief. The Fatman was believed to be the middle man and the ‘Chinaman’, who was actually Filipino, was on the receiving end of the stolen goods.

The best part of this whole saga was that the police had retrieved my phone! That was way more than I’d ever dared to hope for. Unfortunately, the phone had been wiped and the memory card and SIM cards were gone. This presented a whole other problem. By this point, I’d had no phone or internet to contact the outside world for 4 days, after entering a ‘dangerous’ area. I needed internet to let people know I was okay and reinitialise my phone, so one of my hosts and I went for dinner at a restaurant with WiFi.

Luckily I had brought my laptop to the restaurant, so I was able to get online that way, but because the WiFi required a web login instead of a direct network login, I couldn’t reinitialise my phone. Apparently, that’s how PNG does WiFi, so I was going to have to wait until the next country to have a working phone. Who needs an alarm to wake up for a flight anyway?

One Last Trip to the Police Station
The police contacted us again asking us to come to the station. When we got there, they informed us that they still hadn’t caught the thief, but they wanted us to go to the community with them to talk to the family. The mother of the thief wanted to tell me herself that she was allowing the police to arrest her and keep her in custody to bring her son out of hiding. Wow. It worked.

Most of my trip was spent dealing with that one issue. Although it’s a crappy thing to have to deal with while travelling, the way that people came together to help a stranger tells me all I need to know about this country. Despite my ordeal, I’d highly recommend going there.

🇵🇬Papua New Guinea Summary🇵🇬
In a few words – Intense, but friendly
Language – English and Pidgin English
Currency – Papua New Guinean Kina (PGK)
WiFi availability – 📶📶
Wifi doesn’t seem to be widely available and even when you can get some, it’s slow and disconnects you all the time
Transport – I’m not sure about transport in PNG as I got driven everywhere
Roads – 🛣🛣🛣🛣🛣
Most roads look like they’re well maintained
Scenery – 🌳⛰🌳🏞🌳
Green everywhere!
Prices – 💰💰💰
Accommodation is ridiculously expensive for something very basic. Food is quite cheap, even imported goods seem to be cheaper in PNG than they are in the country of origin
Border efficiency – 🛃🛃🛃🛃
Both the entry to and exit from the international airport in Port Moresby were quite smooth.
Overall – 👍👍👍👍

Jakarta

As it was New Year’s Eve, this leg of the trip started with a lovely serenade of Auld Lang Sine by airport staff, just before the gate was open for boarding.

In order to get back home in time for the first work day of the year, I had to opt for a one night stop over in Jakarta. Knowing this, I had gotten in contact with some locals beforehand and one of them had generously volunteered to pick me up from the airport and show me around.

Jakarta was certainly a lot different to the cruisy little Indonesian island I’d just left. For a start, the roads were much bigger and had a lot more traffic on them! I guess that makes sense when you realise that Indonesia’s capital city has a population that is more than 5 times bigger than the population of the whole of West Timor. The traffic seemed to get more intense the closer we got to the city. When I commented about this, my friend advised that it wasn’t normally that bad at that time of night. Apparently, everyone comes out of hiding on New Year’s Eve!

That, of course, meant that the place was bustling. Every time we stopped at a set of traffic lights, someone would walk in between the lines of stopped cars trying to sell all kinds of things, from fireworks, to hats and scarves, to glow in the dark stuff and newspapers. Again my friend assured me that this was just a sign of the season and not an indication of how things normally are in Jakarta.

The festive mood also meant that copious amounts of food stalls, that would normally close earlier, were still super crowded, even at 1am! These roadside food stalls were quite simple. Many had only been constructed with tarpaulins, ropes and metal poles. I guess that means they can move to an area with more people if business is slow. They also only offered a small variety of foods, but still proved to be a blessing for all the hungry people roaming around before, and after, celebrating the start of the new year.

Party Like It’ll Be 2019!
Eventually, after an epic mission to find parking, we found our way to a rooftop party at a hotel in central Jakarta.

Rooftop party

I spent the last few hours of the year talking to many interesting strangers from around the world while watching drunk people dance hilariously. Seeing as it was the middle of the wet season, there was also a bit of rain lurking. At the beginning of the night, every shower sent people scattering inside, or to the limited amount of shelter outside. As the night went on, however, people seemed to have given up on trying to dodge the rain and just kept doing what they were doing.

Things went on like this until just before midnight, when everyone realised that it was almost time for the countdown to the new year. Things went silent for a short while, until everyone started shouting excitedly. Despite the shouting and general mayhem, the sound of fireworks exploding all over the city could be heard. It seems that many people, including some of the attendees of our party, had bought fireworks from a set of traffic lights. So as you can imagine, it got loud!

Happy New Year!