Our A-Z of highlights (A short list of nearly everything)

Without further ado, here’s a shortlist of some of the things we loved on our trip around the world in 389 days.

Ascending the Tokyo Skytree for sunset over Mount Fuji ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต

We went up a lot of high things. This was undoubtedly top of the pile!

๐Ÿ“‹ Tokyo, revisited (part I)

Braving the snow in Astana ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

The coldest (and coolest) city we visited on the whole trip. So glad we made the journey up to 51 degrees north.

๐Ÿ“‹ Journeying to Astana – the ‘Singapore of the Steppe’
๐Ÿ“‹ Astana: So good they named it six times

Cycling the temples of Angkor ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ญ

So. much. cycling. And so. many. temples! But beating the crowds and experiencing sunrise alone in Angkor Wat was a genuine life highlight.

๐Ÿ“‹ Sunrise at Angkor Wat (but without the crowds)

Driving around the South Island in our little camper van ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

What an incredible place – we just loved NZ so much.

๐Ÿ“‹ Ridiculously good views from the summit of Te Tapu-nui, Queenstown
๐Ÿ“‹ The roadtrip begins! Cruising on Milford Sound, the eighth wonder of the world
๐Ÿ“‹ Joining the Great Coast Road
๐Ÿ“‹ Glaciers and gold on NZโ€™s west coast
๐Ÿ“‹ Pedalling the West Coast Wilderness Trail
๐Ÿ“‹ Driving to the very end of the road (Punakaiki and Kohaihai) ๐ŸŒด
๐Ÿ“‹ Dophins and waterslides (not dolphins on waterslides!)

Escaping to the desert island paradise of Ko Adang ๐Ÿ‡น๐Ÿ‡ญ

Just like The Beach, except with far fewer drugs and murders.

๐Ÿ“‹ All of our desert island fantasies fulfilled on Ko Adang

Floating above the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia ๐Ÿ‡น๐Ÿ‡ท

Expensive, nervewracking and very, very cool.

๐Ÿ“‹ Flying high above Cappadocia

Going To The Sun in Glacier National Park ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

Over a million acres of beautiful mountains, lakes and bears beginning in a remote corner of Montana and stretching all the way up into Canada, accessible on the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road.

๐Ÿ“‹ Eating like a grizzly in Glacier National Park ๐Ÿ—ป๐Ÿป๐Ÿฅง

Hiking in the Cinque Terre ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น

Not exactly niche, but definitely worth the hype.

๐Ÿ“‹ Hiking in Cinque Terre

Ice skating on the world’s highest rink in Almaty ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

Kazakhstan in general was a lot of fun and as always, watching people wobble around on ice skates didn’t disappoint, but this was also a truly spectacular setting in the mountains above Almaty.

๐Ÿ“‹ Almaty, our final stop in Central Asia

Joining the Silk Road in Khiva ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

Our first taste of Uzbekistan’s section of the Silk Road had the biggest impact on us.

๐Ÿ“‹ Rejoining the Silk Road in Khiva

Kayaking in Lan Ha Bay ๐Ÿ‡ป๐Ÿ‡ณ

Paddling (somewhat) serenely through one of Vietnam’s most iconic and otherworldly seascapes.

๐Ÿ“‹ Kayaking between the limestone mountains of Hแบก Long Bay

Living like a monk on a Korean temple stay ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

Probably the most baffling 24 hours of our entire trip, but we wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

๐Ÿ“‹ A Secret Diary of a Temple Stay, by Sara aged 13 ยพ

Meeting the hiking dogs of the Caucasus ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ช

Making friends with some gentle giants while hiking in the spectacular mountains of northern Georgia.

๐Ÿ“‹ Scrambling in Svaneti

Night skiing in Niseko ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต

Genuinely the most (and best) snow we’ve ever seen. SO GOOD!

๐Ÿ“‹ Chasing the powder in Niseko

Observing the New Year festivities at the Hokkaidล Shrine ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต

A very different New Year for us, but we loved embracing Japanese traditions and learning our fortunes for the year.

๐Ÿ“‹ New Year in snowy Sapporo

Paddling through the rice paddies of Luang Prabang ๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

Making friends with Susan the water buffalo and learning how to grow sticky rice. Who knew it could be so fascinating?!

๐Ÿ“‹ Ten steps to the perfect Lao sticky rice

Quaffing wine in the vineyards of Marlborough ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

Gorgeous weather and a whole day of NZ wine. Perfection!

๐Ÿ“‹ Marlborough by tandem, fuelled by wine

Riding the Otago Central Rail Trail on two wheels ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

Four days of spectacular cycling through a wild, arid and sparsely populated corner of NZ’s South Island.

๐Ÿ“‹ We actually finished something! Cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail

Soaking in a snowy onsen in Tazawako ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต

Bathing in the forest while surrounded by deep snow drifts was a magical experience.

๐Ÿ“‹ Beef tongue and snowy onsens in Honshu
๐Ÿ“‹ Japan in 12 hot baths

Taking the slow boat down the Mekong river ๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

An incredibly peaceful few days drifting along the Mekong River through Laos.

๐Ÿ“‹ Messing about on the Mekong

Urb-exing the sanatoria of Tskaltubo ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ช

An afternoon exploring a spa town full of crumbling sanatoria near to Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi. Fascinating and unnerving in equal measure, and totally different to anything else we did on this trip.

๐Ÿ“‹ Urbexing the abandoned sanatoria of Tskaltubo

Visiting Meteora’s mountaintop monasteries ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ท

We loved exploring these precariously-perched monasteries in mainland Greece. The area is apparently one of Greece’s biggest tourist destinations (except that no one seems to have heard of it!).

๐Ÿ“‹ Walking the mountains of Meteora

Wading through the travertines of Pamukkale ๐Ÿ‡น๐Ÿ‡ท

A weird and wonderful landscape unlike anything we’d seen before.

๐Ÿ“‹ Wallowing in the Cotton Castle

eXploring Singapore by night ๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฌ

(Please forgive the shoehorning of the letter X in here – if only we’d had the foresight to do some xylophoning on our trip.) We do love a free activity and Singapore’s supertree light show didn’t disappoint.

๐Ÿ“‹ Celebrating the finale of our Southeast Asian leg in Singapore

Yodelling our way around Salzburg ๐Ÿ‡ฆ๐Ÿ‡น

Salzburg way exceeded our expectations – another city to add to our list of places we’d happily live.

๐Ÿ“‹ ๐ŸŽถ The hills are alive with the sound ofโ€ฆbeer halls ๐Ÿป

Zooming across Japan on a bullet train ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต

Japanโ€™s rail network has got to be the best in the world, and boarding a Shinkansen felt more like getting on an aeroplane than a train. What a way to travel!

๐Ÿ“‹ Getting buried alive in Ibusuki
๐Ÿ“‹ Christmas in Hiroshima and Osaka
๐Ÿ“‹ Four together again in Tokyo
๐Ÿ“‹ New Year in snowy Sapporo
๐Ÿ“‹ Itโ€™s called Hakodate, mate*
๐Ÿ“‹ Beef tongue and snowy onsens in Honshu
๐Ÿ“‹ Memoirs of a geezer (in Kyoto)

We realised two things writing this post:

  1. We experienced way, way more than 26 highlights during our nearly 13 months away
  2. Fitting even 26 highlights neatly into alphabetical order was really quite difficult!

But you might also notice that there’s very little mention of food here – we had to make this a rule, or else all 26 entries would have been about what we ate! We might just have to write a food highlights post too. It’s making me hungry just thinking about it…

Returning to London (Thomas awaits! ๐Ÿˆ)

In one long travel day, we made the journey from Cologne to London by train (although when I say long travel day, I should probably clarify that most of our time was actually spent in Brussels, eating waffles ๐Ÿง‡ and drinking beer ๐Ÿบ). We’d previously taken the Eurostar many times but had only really considered it a feasible option when our end destination was in the same country as where the Eurostar terminated, but actually, the whole journey was remarkably straightforward and I’d definitely choose this over flying to most places in Europe in the future.

โฐ 09.30: Cologne HBF to Cologne Ehrenfeld

We joyfully packed up our bags one last time, with me telling Oli that I finally felt like I’d nailed my speedy packing in the last few weeks. He brought me down a peg or two by pointing out all the things that weren’t in my already-zipped bag and I realised that actually I hadn’t got better, I’d just become more cavalier!

A quick walk to the station and a pretzel later and we were ready to board our first train: a quick hop from the central station to the out-of-town high-speed station. Here, we waited patiently while our long-distrance train was nowhere to be seen – either on the platform or any of the departure boards. At least we weren’t in a hurry – another British couple approached us for a chat and they were on edge because their Eurostar connection left them only 35 minutes between trains, and check-in closes 30 minutes before departure. We made our best attempt at sympathy, but seriously, who would book that tight a connection?!

โฐ 09.55: Cologne Ehrenfeld to Brussels Midi

The InterCity Express arrived in the end (only 10 or so minutes late) and we hopped on. We’d decided to save a few pennies by not reserving seats (this costs extra in Germany), and although the train was busier than we’d hoped, our bet still paid off when we found seats near one another. We didn’t need to chat, anyway – trains are strictly for blog writing or napping! Less than 2 hours later, we pulled into Brussels. It was such a smooth journey that there’s not much to mention other than the train’s impeccable 10/10 toilet score!

โฐ 11.35: Waffle and beer consumption

We thought we might as well give ourselves an afternoon in Brussels before boarding our final high-speed train of the trip, so we left our bags at Brussels Midi station (making sure to get an XXL locker so that we wouldn’t jam the lock with our bag straps – our debacle in Seoul still haunts us!) and hopped on a local train into the city centre. After much Googling, we think that this journey was included in our Eurostar tickets, but as no one checked we never found out for sure!

Once there, we paid a quick visit to the Grand Place (beautiful but no match for Salamanca’s amazing Plaza Mayor) before getting onto the serious business of eating and drinking.

At my request, our first stop was Le Roi de la Gaufre for a Belgian waffle. We knew we’d come to the right place when the lady asked if we had a few minutes so she could make us a fresh one, despite having a huge pile of cooked waffles in front of her. She then smothered it in dark chocolate and it was well worth the wait – as you can probably tell from the picture below, I was quite excited!

At Oli’s request, our next stop was Delirium Cafรฉ, which is a Brussels classic where you can choose from a literal book of beers – over 2000 of them! Sadly, we only had time for one round so we didn’t get too far through the menu, but there’s always next time…

โฐ 18.50: Eurostar to London St Pancras

We then headed back to Brussels Midi with plenty of time to spare to wrestle our backpacks from the storage locker and find something convenient to eat on the train for dinner. Then, we headed through security (where the Swiss Army knife was scrutinised one last time but ultimately returned to us), exited the Schengen Area and passed through the UK border before hopping on the train. In less than 2 hours, and after 389 days away, we were back in London!

โฐ 19.45: Gah! A rail strike

We still needed to cross London to reach Oli’s parents’ house (aka Thomas’ billet ๐Ÿˆ) so we were delighted to learn that there was a rail strike in progress ๐Ÿ˜ฉ. At least this gave us an excuse to take the Elizabeth Line, which got fully up and running while we were away, but the long and busy bus ride was less welcome.

But really, the journey was all worth it when we arrived back and were greeted by our best friend in the whole world, Thomas. He was home alone as Oli’s parents were away on holiday, and we were relieved to find he hadn’t forgotten us at all in the year we’ve been away. What a little legend!

Crossing Germany on the home straight

From the Austrian Tyrol, we took a short train north across the border into Bavaria for a couple of days in the beer capital of Germany, Munich. We’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Oktoberfest (which, controversially, mostly falls in September!) for a long time, but couldn’t quite make the dates fit this time. No matter, I think that visiting big beer halls is a legitimate pastime here anytime, so we made it work!

Our apartment was perfectly located next to the Englischer Garten in what was described as a student neighbourhood (as an aside, this lovely area did make us wonder what on earth international students at Southampton must think when they end up living in Portswood!), so on our first evening we headed into the park to our first beer garden. Having had very hot weather ever since we arrived in Lisbon 6 weeks ago, we didn’t realise at first how unseasonal this was for Munich, and the gardens were absolutely buzzing with people sunbathing, playing ball games, floating down a lazy river – there was even a choir rehearsing!

Once we got to the beer garden, we began our usual confusion while we tried to figure out how things work – there’s always a system but they are never the same! At length, we managed to order ourselves some food and drinks, with our only slight error that we accidentally bought three dinners between the two of us. To be honest, neither of us were that upset by this…

We chomped on our roast pork, macaroni cheese and currywurst while enjoying watching the diverse range of people spending time in the beer garden – from the groups playing cards, those having a quick catch-up, to those who were clearly many rounds deep. We loved that it is apparently perfectly legitimate to buy beers but then eat your own picnic on their tables – some people had pretty elaborate set-ups including tablecloths, crockery, serving boards and many, many tupperwares! The only downside of our evening was that the Lonely Planet had promised we would be “showered by the strained sounds of possibly the world’s drunkest oompah band,” but sadly they were nowhere to be heard while we were there.

The next day, we dutifully set out to explore the Aldstadt (old town). We saw the genuinely impressive Rathause (town hall), which looked extremely Bavarian (funny that) and the former royal palace, the Munich Residenz, before deciding that it was far too hot and decamping to another beer garden.

This time, we went to Hofbrรคuhaus Mรผnchen, which was described by the Lonely Planet as the “mothership,” which every visitor should try at least once. We enjoyed our beers under the horse-chestnut trees (these seem to be a common theme of lots of beer gardens), before deciding that it was too hot even for beer and heading back to the Englischer Garten.

We’d returned because we wanted to see for ourselves where people surfed on the Eisbach river. We’d read about this the previous day and were really sceptical until we started to notice the sheer number of people cycling around the city with surfboards tucked under their arms – this couldn’t be a coincidence! It wasn’t, and it was totally mesmerising – we watched for ages as people took turns to drop into the artificial wave and ride it back and forth as long as possible before falling off the back and being sent down the river at alarming speed. What a way to cool down on a hot day!

From Munich, we caught two trains north to our 157th and last (!) overnight stop of the trip, Cologne. The weather here finally broke, so we battled heavy rain showers on our last day – good preparation for returning to the UK! We began at Cologne’s most famous sight, its enormous cathedral. When it was completed in 1880, it was the tallest building in the world, despite having been built according to plans from 600 years previous. That’s quite some ambition!

Between rain showers, we also explored the old town – but there didn’t seem to be very much of it! A bit of reading gave us the answer: apparently Cologne was the unlucky recipient of a Nazi makeover, during which they tore down many of the oldest buildings to replace them with new stone and stucco buildings. This had been the plan for all old towns in Germany, but thankfully they didn’t get that far. After the Second World War, the old town was rebuilt again, but this time in a faux-medieval style. As a result, there was a little less atmosphere than we’ve experienced in other towns in Germany, but it’s hard to blame Cologne for this, given its history.

Our final stop was (surprise, surprise) another beer hall. This time, we wanted to try Cologne’s signature beer, Kรถlsch, which comes with a whole new way of ordering and keeping track of what you’ve consumed. The servers circulate with trays of narrow, 200 ml glasses, which they plonk down in front of you and mark your tally on a beer mat until you beg for mercy by popping a beer mat on top of your empty glass. At least, this is how it’s supposed to work, but somehow we ended up in a situation where every other table was being plied with beer while we were a dry little island in the middle, failing to attract anyone’s attention. Eventually, the waiters had an argument about who was supposed to be serving us (which seemed somehow our fault) and things improved, but it was a baffling experience! At least our dinner was more successful – Oli had pork knuckle (a beer hall classic) with red cabbage and roast potatoes, and I had spit-roast pork with broad beans and roast potatoes. The potatoes were SO good, it made me very excited to return home and eat a classic Sunday roast!

This concluded our time in Germany, and the following day we were truly on the final stretch, heading back to where it all began in London…