MONGOLIA “Land of the Blue Sky”

If Mongolia is not on your travel to-do list, it should be. The landlocked country positioned between nation-giants China and Russia is an outdoor-adventure-lovers’ dream. Open to tourist since 1990, travel books are sparse and bold globe-trotters are rewarded with the ever fading opportunity to experience remote, wild landscapes, commune with nature, and engage with the country’s nomadic inhabitants. If you are like my Dad, a huge fan of Jackson Hole Wyoming and all of Montana, you will love Mongolia.   

The capital, Ulan Batar (Ulaanbaatar), is home one million of the country’s three million populous and has similar offerings to many metropolitan cities. Not to be missed are the beautiful temples and monasteries, and Grand Chinggis Khaan Square, previously known as and still commonly referred to as Sükhbaatar Square; the official name was changed in 2013 to honour the founding father of Mongolia. End the day with drinks at the Blue Sky Lounge situated on the top floor of the Blue Sky Hotel and Tower. For a little shopping visit, fair traders Mary and Martha and be sure to buy some Mongolian cashmere, known as the best in the world. 

Ulan Batar is the starting point but one doesn’t journey to Mongolia and stay in the capital. Venture out into the open land where generations of equine-centric nomadic herders keep the rugged country virtually undisturbed. Mongolia is immense, and has limited transportation and extreme climates – the average annual temperature in most of the country is zero; summer extremes can reach 90°F (30°C) in the Gobi Desert to minus 50°F (-45°C) in winter. Most of Mongolia is remote, meaning no-wifi, no running water, no electricity, no phone! No plumbing! The main diet in rural Mongolia is mutton or sheep. A nomad might head out with his gun, shoot a marmot, and then cook it in hot stones in it’s skin without a pot —  I saw this happen. Did you book your flight yet? 

My Mongolian experience was part of a yoga retreat: Jivamukti yoga, vegan meals, chanting, meditating, and sunset fireside kirtan (folk-song-chant-off with the locals). We hopped on the once a week Trans Mongolian Railway from Ulan Batar to Gobi (Mongolian word for desert). Just a few days in the desert reminds you that transcendence is possible as you stare at the immense sky, and gaze at the Milky Way. No words. Awe-struck. No roads, No people. Total silence.  

A ten-hour drive to reach the other retreat destination, Jalman Meadows which is located on the Upper Tuul River within the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and the strictly protected area of Khentii. The park offers some of the richest landscapes in Mongolia: rocky formations sculpted by erosion, pine tree filled mountains, plains scattered with wild flowers like edelweiss, vast rivers and lakes, and the glorious steppe.  

If you do not like horses I question your humanity however you are going to want to skip over this section, it is for horse-folk only. Mongolian horses are a bit wild, they roam free when not “working” and go where they please. They have an owner, the horseman, who is very protective and risk-adverse. He determines your riding ability before letting you near his horses as Mongolian herders are expert riders — if you are injured in Mongolia, you may be hundreds of kilometres from medical aid, and you might get an ambulance which may be a minivan: medical evacuation insurance is advisable! That said, riding in Mongolia is on the Top 5 best experiences of my life (so far) – exploring over mountains, wading through a rushing river up to the haunches, and taking off my helmet to gallop full-out across the meadows, in what can only be described as boy-racing with the guides. Pure freedom and joy. 

Mongolia is not for the faint of heart, but nonetheless a rewarding life-detox, removed in every way possible way from taken-for-granted mod-cons. My experience still classifies as “Mongolia for beginners” because the yoga retreat provided a chef, beautiful ger (traditional felt yurt) accommodations, eco-toilets which were a short walk from the camps, and two beautiful yurts for showers (water for showers was collected from a nearby river, carried by camel and yak cart, heated on a fire and placed in an overhead bucket). For me Mongolia was a place to think and just be, to observe traditional life amid the vast, stunning landscapes in quiet calm. A place to remember how dependent and non-self-reliant we truly are, while humbling sitting under the stars. Leaving Mongolia’s extraordinary isolation and natural beauty, I felt a bit heartier, and happy to have escaped the madness, even for a moment.   

To book a Mongolia yoga holiday or for yoga retreats in other locations, contact my friend Jools Sampson at Reclaim Yourself ~ or for information about other types of Mongolian adventures visit Nomadic Journeys or Mongolia Tours. 

Until next time, thank you / bayarlalaa / баярлалаа.

Vatican City (Città del Vaticano): Travels with my Mother

Confessions of a delinquent travel writer.

I have been traveling a lot which is quite possibly the only marginally acceptable excuse for neglecting my writing. And confessions are appropriate, as this post recounts Vatican City and travels with my Mother.

Arriving in Rome, the Eternal City evokes memories of the past mingled with a present-day chaotic vibrancy that imprints on you every time you visit. However this trip was more Rome adjacent as my uber-Catholic Mother marshalled us on daily excursions to Vatican City, yes daily, and size does not matter to the smallest sovereign state in the world, the mighty HQ of Roman Catholicism.

St. Peter’s Square: The plaza directly in front of the basilica can hold crowds of up to 400,000 people. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to illustrate the extended arms of Mother Church embracing the world, at the centre of elliptical-shaped square is an Egyptian obelisk flanked by two granite fountains. The massive semi-circular Tuscan colonnades, formed by four rows of Doric columns that optically converge into one when viewed from the foci (look for the marble disks in the cobblestones), are testament to Bernini’s architectural and geometric wizardry. The sculptor and his students also created 140 statues of popes, martyrs, evangelists and other religious figures that stand on top of the plaza. Sense the grander, wealth and power of the Church if you enter from Via Della Conciliazione, the wide avenue running from the River Tiber to St Peter’s Square.

St. Peters Basilica: With capacity for 60,000 worshipers, the basilica is bursting with thousands of pieces of art, including Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s four-posted, solid bronze canopy over the main altar. You will not find a single painting though, only mosaics, images created by arranging tiny pieces of glass. For a 360 degree view of St. Peter’s Square and the city of Rome, climb the 551 steps to the top of the cupola (dome) designed by Michelangelo. Don’t forget to descend into the grottoes, the vast underground crypt housing tombs of many popes including John Paul II.

Of course my Mom wanted to attend Mass, offered at many alters in the basilica, and celebrated in various languages including Latin. We opted for an Italian mass at the Alter of Saint Joseph.

The Vatican Museum: The museum is enormous with plenty to offer lovers of art, sculpture and history – Egyptian mummies, Etruscan bronzes, classical statuary and modern paintings. The collection is displayed in 54 galleries and along ornate hallways and corridors. Do not miss the Gallery of Maps with 40 topographical maps of Italy showcasing the art of cartography, or Raphael’s frescos, commissioned as wall decoration for the Papal Apartments, particularly the School of Athens depicting the greatest thinkers of antiquity. And then the Sistine Chapel, home to Creation ceiling and the Last Judgement altar wall, where the College of Cardinals gather and new Popes are made. Personally I prefer landscape art and nature scenes but a few man-made achievements you must see with your own eyes. Whether you label it genetic-genius or God-given talent, the frescoes of Renaissance master Michelangelo that adorn the Sistine Chapel make that list.

Pope Francis: Assuming the Pope is in residence, visitors may opt for Sunday’s Papal Blessing or Wednesday’s Papal Audience, both are free although the later requires tickets. On Pope-day, enter the Square with match-level security, anticipation heightens, chanting begins, “Padre! Padre!” until, from his private apartment, the curtains flutter and the Pope emerges. He opens with a greeting in multiple languages, and upon hearing your own “good morning,” more frenzied cheering. Hysteria befitting a pop star, the Holy Father carries on in Italian with the crowd drinking in every word, until he closes with the Angelus prayer and a blessing. You do not need to be Catholic to appreciate the experience, although if you are devout like my Mother, you may go delirious with joy.

Where to stay: One of the best hotels in Rome, Hassler Roma is located at the top of the Spanish Steps offering luxurious accommodations, 5-star service, beautiful rooftop views and a Michelin-star restaurant, Imago. Your own inner sanctum in the heart of the city; I do not want to stay anywhere else.

We did manage one evening stroll around Rome, and the obligatory coin into Trevi Fountain to ensure our return.

Me: Take my picture? Mom: Ok [all photo bursts!].
walking along Tiber River

That’s all for now, Ciao!

Getting Christmas-y in Prague

Germany and Austria reign supreme among Europe’s best traditional Christmas markets, however Prague is consistently a top ten pre-Noël destination in part for its atmosphere, market food, and Bohemian crafts, but more-so for the quaint picturesque city that has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ever since I saw Tom Cruise dashing through Prague’s postcard framed streets in the film Mission: Impossible, I planned to visit the city that seemed to have captured an aura of romance, elegance, and beauty of a by-gone era. Prague does not disappoint.


The Czech Republic has a variant and tumultuous history for such a young European country. For quasi-historians like myself here is a very brief romp across the centuries. The area known as Bohemia was settled by and named after a Celtic tribe called the Boii. From early Slavic dynasties to the fourteenth century’s Golden Age, Prague developed into an important cultural centre and capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars, upheaval, Catholic Church versus Protestant Reformers, and the subsequent 300 years of Austrian-Habsburg Emperors. After World War I Czechoslovakia became an independent country in 1918 however the freedom of this first Republic ended abruptly in 1939 with German occupation. Nazi Protectorate then post-war communist Republic until 1968 when political liberal reforms known as “Prague Spring” (and I thought CNN coined that phrase this year) resulted in Soviet invasion and occupation. Not until 1989’s Velvet Revolution did Czechoslovakia’s dissidents defeat communism and democratic presidential elections followed. After an amicable “Velvet divorce” from Slovakia on 1st January 1993, the Czech Republic was born – the country is not old enough to legally drink alcohol in the US.


Six million tourists a year visit the Czech Republic. According to guidebooks (Lonely Planet’s Encounters by Brett Atkinson was my favourite this trip) Prague has something for everyone – history, culture, art and architecture, music, clubs, and the famous Czech beer. Despite Prague’s recent reputation for a bit of debauchery, wild stag and trashy hen nights courtesy of cheap beer and budget airlines, it is not seedy and being mistaken for a working girl by taking a solo late-night stroll in Wenceslas Square is easily avoided. The four quarters that comprise central Prague each have a distinctive character; the historic Castle District (Hradčany), Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město), and New Town (Nové Město). Buildings, bridges, and spires aplenty paint the town Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Everything is accessible via bus, tram or metro, but provided you have decent walking shoes it is better to wander through the cobblestone streets and explore hidden alleyways on foot.

Prague Christmas Market

Spring and summer are probably stunning and mid-winter with a blanket of snow must be magical but take the city centre– a European Norman Rockwell meets Thomas Kinkade painting– add decorative lights, Christmas trees, festive market faire and you have the charming Christmas markets in Prague. There are two main markets, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas came out on the feast of Stephen” (oh you know it) was in fact a Duke and a Czech patron saint. Hum that tune for a minute and already you’re in a festive mood. Shops and stalls sell all kinds of local crafts in varying levels of quality as you’d expect. I bought multi-coloured Bohemian crystal wine goblets and several bottles of Becherovka, a bitter-sweet herbal drink served as an aperitif or liqueur. If you like duck or pork based dishes, you are in for a real treat in the Czech Republic; roast pork served with dumplings and red cabbage is a national favourite. I opted for street stall dining; dinner for two cost less than £10.00 at the Old Town Square –including grog and mulled wine. For dessert a tubular sugar-crusted cake called trdelnik or trdlo. This special pastry is made by ever-so-carefully wrapping dough around a long wooden pole or “trdlo” and then roasted golden brown over an open fire. The hot tubes of crispy-outside-soft-inside baked cylinders are then rolled in a mixture of almond, sugar, and cinnamon powder. For an extra ten crown you can have Nutella spread around the inside. Delicious. To end the day, many churches and venues like the Municipal Building host classical concerts during the holiday season. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

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Enjoy a little of Prague at home – Have a Pilsner Urquell. Czech’s consume more beer (pivo) per person than any other country. Listen to Mozart and wish for someone to invent time travel. Mozart himself conducted at the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787 and the legendary Casanova attended. Wish I was there. Be inspired to read or re-read The Trial by Franz Kafka, a Prague hometown literary hero.