The Nearly Neutral Cup ๐Ÿ†

On our last overnight train in Kazakhstan a couple of weeks ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a first class compartment, a few beers and an argument, all in honour of the Football World Cup. I should explain – we thought we’d have a go at a knockout tournament of our own to see whether we could decide where was our favourite overnight stop on our trip to date.

Very solemn preparations

In preparation, we:

  1. Listed all the villages, towns and cities we’d visited since leaving London (only where we’d stayed at least one night and not including overnight trains and ferries)
  2. Secretly noted our top picks, which remained tightly sealed in envelopes until we’d finished the tournament (and by tightly sealed envelopes, I mean the notes apps on our phones)
  3. Used a random number generator to build the two sides of the draw and decide which destinations would face each other in the first round
  4. Cracked open our beers and snacks
  5. Got ourselves fired up for a really good argument (using phrases like, “You always do this!”) – just kidding, we didn’t need any warm up ๐Ÿ˜‰

What follows is a highly subjective, completely arbitrary and totally unreliable (it turns out we don’t always agree with ourselves, reading the results back!) view of our favourite places between London and Almaty.

๐Ÿ…and the winner is…

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre!

This was one of the first places we visited on our trip, and it feels like a very worthy winner, combining the most stunning coastal scenery, charming villages, excellent hiking, delicious food and an epic kayaking argument.

The draw

For brevity, we’ll just show the final 16, although there were 41 destinations competing in the first round of the tournament.

Our sealed top picks

After weeks of secrecy and suspense (not really), we’ve just compared notes on our top picks. It was surprisingly difficult to select these and anticipate what might progress to the final, but it turns out we had quite a lot of overlap.

Matera, Italy ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡นCinque Terre, Italy ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น
Cinque Terre, Italy ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡นYerevan, Armenia ๐Ÿ‡ฆ๐Ÿ‡ฒ
Meteora, Greece ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ทLucca, Italy ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น
Yerevan, Armenia ๐Ÿ‡ฆ๐Ÿ‡ฒAstana, Kazakhstan ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

Between us, we reckon we’ve got a pretty comprehensive view of our top faves (because I also loved Matera and Meteora, and Oli also loved Lucca and Astana). Of course, our liking for any place is as much down to the weather, our moods and how many things went wrong that day as anything really to do with the destination, so I’m sure we could revisit all of our stops between London and Almaty and come up with a totally different list.

Meteora Monasteries, Greece


We decided before we started that if we really couldn’t agree, we’d flip a coin. We only needed to do this once, in the tie between Batumi and Istanbul after we’d debated for absolutely ages. Oli’s preferred option of Istanbul went through, but on balance I probably preferred Batumi, where we ate delicious khinkali, drank in a Soviet beer hall, explored the old town, walked the promenade, rode the ferris wheel and cable car, and generally just had a lovely time. Istanbul was good but perhaps my expectations were just set too high and it felt very ‘European’, which was a bit of a disappointment.

Batumi, Georgia

I’m still a bit bitter that Matera (one of Oli’s top picks) knocked out Astana (one of my top picks), but I think he just shouted louder than me! Matera was absolutely gorgeous, but there wasn’t a lot to actually do there.

Matera, Italy

Finally, it might seem a bit surprising that Athens knocked out Matera (one of Oli’s top picks), but we both suddenly remembered how much we had enjoyed Athens! As a big city, it had a lot to offer.

Athens, Greece

Overall, though, we both picked out Cinque Terre as a highlight, so in my books that makes it a worthy winner. Of course, none of the above nonsense constitutes useful travel advice, but we had a lot of fun revisiting our journey so far and so thought we would share it! We’ll get back to normal scheduled programming in our next post with a diary of our temple stay in Gyeongsangbuk-do province.

Kazakhstan round up ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

We arrived in western Kazakhstan by plane from Yerevan, and continued overland by train into Uzbekistan. Our original plan had been to cross the Caspian Sea by ship, but since Azerbaijan’s land borders were still closed, flying from Armenia was our best option.

Emerging from the eastern end of Uzbekistan, we travelled from Shymkent to Almaty via Astana. While it would have been shorter to travel via Almaty and end this leg in Astana (rather than vice versa), this would have drastically reduced our onward flight options, and crucially ruled out direct flights to South Korea.

Throughout Kazakhstan we were amazed at how modern everything was. I’m not sure whether our shock was just due to naivety or the stark contrast with Uzbekistan, but it certainly made getting around relatively stress-free.


Our 1 hour flight across the Caspian Sea emitted nearly as much carbon as our train travel throughout Kazakhstan, despite us travelling nearly 5 times further by train than we did by air. We also enjoyed travelling by train a lot more, given that a night spent on a sleeper train was a whole lot more comfortable than a night spent on a flight.

We travelled 4,400 km across the Caspian Sea and through Kazakhstan – our longest distance travelled in any single country so far. This goes some way to explaining why Kazakhstan also tops the carbon leaderboard by a significant margin.


Kazakhstan was pretty affordable, with us spending almost as little per day as in Georgia. It’s also unsurprising that a large proportion of our expenditure was on transport given that we took our first flight of the trip to get there, as well as travelling the longest distance overall.

In general, we found Kazakhstan to be a very tourist-friendly country. However, our one annoyance was Kaspi – the Kazakh electronic payment system which was pervasive throughout the country, yet completely inaccessible to foreigners. This was brought most painfully to light on a bus journey back from visiting the ALZhIR museum just outside of Astana. Despite paying by cash to the driver on the way, a conductor boarded the bus on our way back who wouldn’t accept our cash, and instead pointed us towards the Kaspi QR code on the wall that everyone else had used to pay. In the end, a couple of kind fellow passengers paid our fares by Kaspi, but then wouldn’t accept our cash in return, and instead wished us all the best and to “stay safe and enjoy Kazakhstan”. This moment was both excruciatingly embarrassing and totally heartwarming in equal parts.


Sadly, Kazakhstan has taken Italy’s spot with the lowest cat density of any country we’ve visited since leaving London, with only 1.6 cats per day. To be fair, it was incredibly cold when we visited some Kazakh cities, so who can blame the cats for sheltering inside?

Still, we did see some exemplary cats (and an honourable mention) during our two-stage visit to Kazakhstan.

๐Ÿ… Floofiest floofer award

At least this chap knew how to dress for the Kazakh winter!

๐Ÿ… Best aerial display

While the cat on the left was a little unexpected, we almost missed the owl chilling in a tree outside one of the crypts near Aktau – he was so well camouflaged! Although he didn’t make a sound, his one open eye did watch us everywhere we went.

๐Ÿ… best behaved kittens

These cuties were told to “stay put” in the dry while their Mum went off to hunter-gather some dinner outside a restaurant in Aktau. At first we thought they were alone, until we heard their mother padding about on the roof above our heads!


We ate really well in Kazakhstan, although admittedly this was mostly international food. We’ve already talked about our experience with Kurut (Kazakhstan’s national snack), but our train friends also recommended that we try Beshbarmak (the national dish). This comprised of horse meat and sausage in broth, on a bed of wide, flat noodles with a lone boiled potato as the centrepiece. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Beyond Kazakhstan, our first choice would have been to continue overland through China, but it’s still not possible to get a tourist visa at the moment. Our backup plan was to fly to Southern Asia, but India’s e-visa system was still suspended for British citizens and we weren’t keen to surrender our passports for a full visa. Instead, we settled for a slightly longer flight to South Korea, the home of K-pop and kimchi ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

Almaty, our final stop in Central Asia

Our route to Almaty took us back south towards the Kyrgyzstan border, retracing much of our route from Shymkent to Astana.

For the first time on our trip, we treated ourselves to a first class (2-berth) compartment on the overnight train. This was super-cosy, and allowed us to accompany our instant noodles with a few beers while we debated our favourite cities of our trip so far via a “world cup” style knock-out tournament.

Once again, the overnight journey ate up the vast distance and we were back in southern Kazakhstan in no time, where Astana’s pervasive snow drifts and sub-zero temperatures were replaced with slushy pavements and the re-appearance of autumn.

View over Almaty from our apartment

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan by some margin, and was the nation’s capital for 55 years before it moved to Astana. Almaty’s milder temperatures put outside activities back on the agenda, and we headed straight to Medeu – the highest ice rink in the world, at 1,691 metres above sea level. We’d seen the rink described as a host of “mass skating” which didn’t sound too appealing until we witnessed its size – it’s essentially a speed-skating stadium with space in the middle for a cafe and ad-hoc skating.

While the setting was stunning, as always it was the general carnage on the ice that provided the most entertainment.

The following day, we spent some time acquainting ourselves with Almaty via a walking tour. Our route started in Panfilov Park, which contained a typical memorial statue, along with a brightly coloured cathedral built entirely from wood – even down to every nail! We were also taken by some of the park’s resident red squirrels, who had ridiculously long fur on their ears. The route continued through the city past the Opera and Ballet Theatre, backed by the beautiful Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range. We also paused to admire the mosaics representing traditional Kazakh life and myths on the walls of the Hotel Almaty.

Our walking tour ended with a cable car ride up to Kรณk Tรณbe Park – a small amusement park perched on the side of a mountain above Almaty.

While the amusements themselves looked passable, the views over the city were the real reason for visiting. Although there wasn’t much of a sunset to speak of, we did enjoy watching the lights of Almaty come on as dusk fell.

As the evening arrived, we rushed back down the mountain to catch England’s first World Cup game against Iran. Rather than watch the game from our apartment, we found an English pub called The Shakespeare, and happily watched England trounce Iran over a British-Indian curry, surrounded by a fairly well-behaved crowd of England fans.

It was pouring with rain on our last day in Kazakhstan, but this didn’t matter too much as we had grand indoor plans to visit the Green Market and the Arasan baths.

The market was a collection of huge halls of fresh produce connected by a labyrinth of tunnels, some of which went underground through what felt like a military bunker! Despite a snack of deep-friend dough strings, our stomachs were still rumbling as we toured the stalls. We settled on a tiny restaurant overlooking the dairy and meat stalls, at which we devoured two huge bowls of Laghman (meat, vegetables and noodle soup).

Our next stop was the Soviet-era Arasan baths. These were built in the 1980s, taking inspiration from bathhouses as far away as Baku, Yerevan, Leningrad, Moscow and Budapest. The result is a vast complex of domed plunge pools, scorching saunas and communal treatment rooms. We’d read that a popular treatment included being whipped by a professional with birch branches, which we saw for sale outside. To be honest, this felt like something I’d need to be paid for rather than the other way around.

One Google review had rather concerningly summarised the bathhouse as “very authentic, very clean and very naked”, though Sara assured me that everyone would be naked and I’d get used to it in no time, so we parted ways in the bathhouse’s grand atrium into the separate male and female areas. However, after removing my clothes and storing them in a locker, I realised that everyone else around me had changed into swimming shorts, and was not naked at all. I started to panic and concluded Sara had (unintentionally?) set me up. It was only as a very naked old dude walked past that I realised that there seemed to be an idealogical divide – the men older than me were naked while the men younger than me were in swimming shorts. I relaxed a little and proceeded into the baths.

Sara and I met up again two hours later to exchange experiences. It turned out that the nudity was absolute in the women’s area, so she hadn’t thought anything of sending me in au-naturel. I told her about the friend I’d made in the bathhouse who actually complimented the bath sheet I’d rented to cover my modesty. Apparently, covering yourself to below the knee (when not swimming) was the proper way of dressing in a Kazakh bathhouse, as opposed to modern swimming shorts. This seemed a surprising detail given the general nudity, but I was relieved to have got something right.

With the Central Asian section of our trip coming to an end, the far-eastern leg was about to begin. We were sad not to be able to continue overland, but with China still largely closed to foreign tourists since the pandemic, we opted to fly from Almaty to Seoul. The abundance of Korean food throughout Astana and Almaty had already whet our appetite, and little makes Sara as excited as endless rice and noodle options. South Korea here we come! ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท