Tag Archives: travel

Eiger 101 Post 9 – Escape to Georgia

With a week off work, training to do and a strong desire to escape the relentless heat and humidity of the Middle East, especially with Ramadan taking place, I looked to potential destinations for a short trip away, with running being my key focus. The initial thought was to head back to Chamonix for some alpine running; a kind of appeasement to the heavy-duty hill-training gods that I have, to date, not been especially devout to. However, the combination of pricey flights, an abysmal weather forecast for the valley the week I intended to visit and a slew of trails that appeared, according to a couple of websites, to still be closed, I opted against it in favour of a destination markedly closer: Georgia.
Georgia, and it’s capital Tblisi, is a country that seems to be attracting a lot of interest, especially from tourists based here in the Gulf. For good reason too. I know scores of people who have visited and returned with nothing but glowing praise for the country, which at just three hours flight from Dubai with the local low-cost carrier feels like a no-brainer, especially given the promise of sensible temperatures whilst the Middle East bakes. Compared to Europe the cost of accommodation was also incredibly attractive and I was able to rent an entire two bedroom apartment in the picturesque and historic old town area of Tblisi for less than it would have cost me for a studio in Chamonix. Coupled with there being no need for a visa my mind was made: Tblisi, here I come!

As before in earlier posts I shan’t turn this into a lengthy travel-log, as to be quite frank there are scores of those online already, some significantly better than others. My focus for the week was really the running and it wasn’t clear until I actually arrived whether or not Tblisi was going to be an especially ‘run-friendly’ place. Of course I did some sight-seeing and the classic tourist things, such as join one of the ‘free’ walking tours – social pressure dictates that you tip the guide at the end, with the owner of the company retaining a healthy percentage of said tip, hence the inverted commas on the word free; a smart business strategy in my opinion – and indulged in the wonderful local cuisine and drink, specifically the wine, which Georgia is renowned for.
Another of the classically touristy activities I partook in was to get a sulphur bath and massage. Tblisi is famed for it’s natural sulphur springs and the supposedly healing qualities of the waters. Whilst I am glad I ticked that box I can’t say I especially enjoyed the experience. For starters it was relatively pricey, especially as the advice was to pay for a private room. This turned out to simply be two adjoined rooms, the first containing a couple of chairs, a table and not much else, with the second being the actual bath room, with a deep tub of hot, sulphurous water, a shower that provided more of the same water, and a marble slab upon which my massage and scrub was administered. There certainly was no focus on fine detail and grubby would be the word that I would use to describe the setting. True the spa I attended – one of the very central and more prominent establishments – did provide exactly what they advertised: sulphur water, but beyond that there was no attempt to refine the experience. I left after an hour feeling thirsty and aware of the vaguely eggy aura I had about me – remember, the shower in the room ran with sulphur water – and can’t say felt particularly rejuvenated. Still, it had to be done I guess, and the hot water was nice after the long run earlier that day.

So, back to the running. What of it? Well, road running was a challenge as a) the city is actually very compact, with very little in the way of reliable sidewalk availability. The longest stretch of continuous running I was able to do ended up being along the river as the sidewalk there did extend for about 8km before meeting a dead-end forcing me to about turn and head back to the city. The downside, however, was that it ran alongside a major road, with air pollution sadly being a constant feature. I’m not entirely certain how much health benefits there were to running that particular section as I was very aware of the fumes from the myriad engines as I ran. A real shame. One of the best areas, it transpired, to get some fresh air and some good, varied running in was the Botanical Gardens, tucked in the valley behind the castle and Mother of Georgia statue. Opening at 9am and costing just 2 Georgian Lari to enter, the gardens is more of an expansive national park, with a range of lovely trails, paved roads and a stunning central waterfall, framed by a picturesque bridge and a world away, it felt, from the hustle and bustle of the main city, whilst being mere minutes from the same.
An oasis in the city: the Tblisi Botanical Gardens
I can imagine that the rest of Georgia, with it’s expansive countryside and the mountains of the Kazbegi region, would be very good running territory and whilst I did not manage to venture out of Tblisi on this trip I would very much like to return to the country and do so. As a short break destination, Tblisi was wonderful, although as a running destination less so.

Eiger 101 Post 8 – Portugal Sun & Run

I have said in previous posts how much I love the fact that running is something that one can do anywhere; all you need, essentially, are a good pair of shoes, a sense of adventure and curiosity and away you go. Exploring a new city or area under your own steam on foot is often one of the best ways to truly get a sense for a place. That and the fact that most runners get up and pound the pavement or trails before the majority of the world has risen tends to mean that a completely different, more honest side of life is see in whatever locale one might find themselves.

LISBON

Picture postcard views everywhere in Lisbon
Lisbon was the destination for a long overdue boys weekend with a few old friends from university and balancing the demands of training with ensuring that I was able to join in the fun of a weekend away was not really as tricky as I perhaps imagined it might. The days of crazy nights out on the town are, truth be told, behind us and the latest we all stayed out was, to be honest, about 1am and that was due to us sitting in a restaurant enjoying good food, wine and conversation as opposed to painting the town red in a club. As such getting up and out early in the morning for some training runs was not as tough as I thought it might have been.

We arrived in Lisbon in the dark and so did not really get a true sense of the beauty of the city on the drive to our AirBNB in the Chiado neighbourhood. Our apartment, situated on the top floor of a classic Portuguese building down a narrow street close to the Convento do Carmo, was one of the best AirBNB experiences I have had to date, with our host showing us into a stunning abode that made a hotel suite look a little shabbily appointed, before giving an incredibly detailed overview of the city and drawing our attention to the welcome gifts of a classic Portuguese pastel de nata each and a bottle of port, which we promptly polished off following an incredible introduction to the cuisine of the city at an old monastery turned beer hall and restaurant, Cervejaria Trinidade, just around the corner. If the quality of the steaks and beer that we enjoyed on that first evening were any guide then it was set to be a well-fuelled weekend of training indeed!
Whilst my three friends slept in I did what any self-respecting trail runner does when in the presence of non-runners and crept around the house like a ninja, trying my best not to wake anyone up before turning towards the waterfront and spending the next 20km enjoying the freedom of stretching my legs as I headed off towards the Atlantic, passing under the Ponte de 25 Abril, the Golden Gate Bridge clone that spans the River Tagus, before turning around at the Torre de Belem to return home. Portugal enjoys almost year-round sunshine and that first morning was no exception, with azure blue skies, a light breeze and an unobstructed view of the city to keep me pushing on. The run along the waterfront took me past several marinas, museums and galleries, and with the water literally next to me the air was as fresh as it could possibly be, a rare treat after the increasingly stifling humidity of Dubai.

With the biggest run of the weekend complete I scaled the rather lengthy climb back to our apartment to find my friends all up and enjoying coffee. Perfect timing so that after a quick shower it was immediately into tourist mode and the vitally important task of the breakfast search, such are the difficult choices one has to make when on vacation.
The famous Tram 28 in Lisbon

Enjoying well earned pastéis de nata & ginjinja in Lisbon
Lisbon is a stunning city and to be honest it would be easy to spend the next twenty paragraphs waxing lyrical about what we saw, did, ate and experienced, but I shall resist the temptation. The highlights, however, included a fascinating tuk-tuk tour of the city that took in all of the key areas and sights, an option we jumped on following an aborted attempt to see the city via the famous tram 28. The food was exquisite, although there were two consecutive evenings that provided very different experiences of Lisbon seafood, the first involving cuttlefish. Suffice to say we finished strong, enjoying one of the finest meals I have had the pleasure of enjoying in a long time on our final evening in the city.
Incredible seafood was just one feature of Lisbon & Portugal

THE ALGARVE

Following the end of our Lisbon stay, the boys all headed back to the UK whilst I, having traveled a lot further to be in the country, had extended my stay and so picked up a hire car at the airport before striking out south to the Algarve. As such, the second half of my holiday in Portugal was a slightly different experience of the country, exchanging international city for picture postcard beaches, towering cliffs and seaside fishing towns.
Stunning clifftop running in Lagos & the Algarve
My base for the next few days was Lagos, about as far away from it’s Nigerian namesake as one can imagine, with my hotel being nothing more than a short stroll from several Instagram-worthy beaches, tucked into pretty little coves accessed by snaking staircases that wound down the vertigo-inducing cliffs that frame this part of the coast. The wealth of running options was extensive and my training sessions saw me criss-cross the narrow streets of the town itself, take in the fishing harbour and wide promenade that continued up the hill following the old city wall, whilst also getting some great training in by running the entire length of the expansive sandy beach that links Lagos and neighbouring Alvor. Nothing beats the sound of a gently lapping ocean against the soft repetitive rhythm of feet on firm-enough-to-run sand, with a refreshing breeze and the sight of families enjoying the amazing scenery and fun of the beach. It is moments like the ones I enjoyed running in the Algarve that make running such a pleasure.
Stunning coastal town of Lagos, Portugal
A truly Mediterranean vibe in Lagos
From the steady endurance effort of long, flat beaches to the more cardio-intense demands of the undulating cliffs that I also ran along, this part of Portugal really did feel like a trail runners’ dream-come-true. I had initially planned to get up really early one morning, still in the dark, in order to get my long run done and dusted before breakfast, but was very glad I chose to wait until daylight once I saw a) how incredibly steep and high the cliffs were, and b) just how perilously close to them it is possible to actually run. Combined with some strong gusts of wind it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine how easy it would have been to do an accidental lemming impression! Besides, the views were infinitely more impressive in the daylight. Talking of views, one of my primary reasons for choosing to head to the Algarve, in addition to the promise of some great running, was to do a few jumps at Skydive Algarve. Whilst I only did two jumps in total they were certainly worth my time as nothing was going to be able to top the view of the entire area that comes from being at 13,000 feet, especially when free falling between and through clouds in the process. Stunning. Just stunning.

Once again, I feel truly blessed to be able to don my running shoes, grab my passport and enjoy exploring another new place from the perspective of a trail runner. Looking forward to the next.

Eiger 101 Post 7 – The City of Runners: Boston

I love to run in new places as it is often one of the very best ways to get to explore a new location and observe those little details that make it fascinating. I have already had the pleasure of running in Spain recently and so it was with excitement that I packed up my running gear once again, including the much needed cold-weather layers, and jetted off to Boston, USA. My primary purpose for a visit to the city was to speak at a Virtual Reality conference, specifically on the subject of VR in Veterinary, but I extended my stay for the week in order to explore it fully. It has long been on my list of places to visit, appealing as it does to my inner nerd, what with such prestigious landmarks as Harvard and MIT representing the epitome of geeky culture. It is, of course, also the setting for one of the premier running events of the calendar, namely the Boston Marathon. As such I knew that it was bound to be a runners’ city and I was not disappointed.
During the planning phase of the trip I looked into both suggested runs in the city, with the classic Charles River loop coming out on top, and also sought out some groups that I might be able to join for one or two runs, thus injecting a little social experience into my pavement pounding. The group that caught my attention was the Heartbreak Hill Runners, an enthusiastic and, as I soon discovered, large group of runners of all levels that meet for regular sessions, congregating out of one of the group’s several shops. The session I joined in with was their weekly Saturday morning long run, which happened to coincide nicely with my own training schedule mandated long run. Bonus! Getting out to the start point was a bit of a mission as it was located in the suburbs of Boston, specifically Newton, and for some reason the metro that morning was on super duper slow mode, with a replacement bus having to be used for part of the journey. Instead of being super early, as had been my intention, I ended up having to jog from the final metro station to the shop, although we didn’t actually set off for a little while longer.
Situated on a corner, the Heartbreak Hill Runners shop was modest in size but packed with not only an impressive array of running merchandise but was crammed with people! I had not expected there to be quite so many in attendance and was even more impressed when I was given a wristband after registering – this apparently entitled me to make use of the aid stations that were put on – and had the option to leave my bag in a secure part of the store while we all ran. All very organised indeed. After a briefing from head coach and owner Dan – most people there were in the final weeks of training for the Boston marathon – we were encouraged to shuffle outside, find our respective pacers and to get going. I was expecting just a casual small group run but what it seemed to be was a very well organised mass event – this truly did seem to be the city of runners, an impression that was further reinforced by the fact that there were clearly lots of other groups out training as well, in addition to loads of other aid stations, complete with cheering spectators and supplies. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that even the supporters seemed to train for the Boston marathon!
The looped course took us up Heartbreak Hill, along the edge of the nearby reservoir and past Boston College, before taking in another long, steady climb and a relatively flat, fast return to the shop. Many of those running were due to do 3 hours of continuous running, meaning multiple loops. As tempted as I was to join them in this pursuit I only had a half marathon distance pencilled in and so after scaling Heartbreak Hill and reaching Boston College for the second time I about-turned and returned to the shop. Feeling buoyed by my efforts and loving the general atmosphere of the shop, the team and the whole morning I felt compelled to purchase a couple of awesome T-shirts, designed there in Boston by a couple of runners, snapped a couple of pics and even had the honour of making it onto their famous wall of mugshots 🙂
Having experienced the feeling of being a runner in Boston on a normal week I can only begin to imagine how electric the atmosphere must be for the annual marathon. Who knows: perhaps I shall be back someday to find out first-hand.

Eastern Exploits

What do you do when you find you have an unexpected week off work? There are a hundred and one ways that I could have easily occupied the time in Dubai and yet I also feared that I would probably fail to truly maximise the time and so turned my thoughts towards doing some exploring. But where?

Since arriving in the Middle East, a perfect jumping off point for the Far East, all of my trips have basically taken me back West, something that I have realised on numerous occasions feels like a missed opportunity. So, my thoughts headed east and specifically to both Singapore and Hong Kong, where I am fortunate enough to have friends in both cities. For a short period I did consider playing out the true jet-set image by taking in both during the same trip, especially as I was keen to visit INSEAD’s campus in Singapore, but concluded that the schedule would be too crammed and the additional time spent in transit a poor use of a limited number of hours that could be better directed to actually exploring and relaxing. Given that I had visited Singapore once before, albeit many years ago, and had never been to Hong Kong I opted for the latter and so booked the flights. Decision made.

Its strange that in spite of living in an age of ample online sources of information, including video footage and Google Maps data, my imagined ideas of the place and what I actually experienced in person were so different. I took an overnight flight, relishing in my luck at having an entire row of seats to myself thus affording me some – but not enough – sleep as I headed east and landed at Hong Kong’s airport, perched at the far end of Lantau Island, a 30 minute metro ride from the city itself, and built upon reclaimed land, a technology that has revolutionised and transformed Hong Kong over the years. With a return airport express ticket in hand, facilitated by the incredibly helpful attendant who I swear spoke better English than I do, I boarded the train all the while amazed at just how few people there were. Anywhere. I told myself that I must have simply arrived at a bizarrely early hour and that the city was yet to wake as I had been expecting to grapple with throngs of people from the moment I arrived.

SPCA Hong KongIt was especially overcast and cloudy as I arrived and the first glimpses of Hong Kong were dark, dreary views of construction over the bay, and nondescript high rises as we approached Kowloon. Views of the famous skyline itself would have to wait as we went from Kowloon station to Hong Kong station, my final stop and from where I was advised to grab a cab for the short journey to Wan Chai and the SPCA, my home for the week and where my friend Matt, a fellow vet, and his girlfriend, Thea, lived. The first thing that struck me was actually how relatively small, geographically speaking, Hong Kong truly is. The island of Hong Kong, and the city that everyone knows, starts at the edge of Hong Kong bay, approximately 1km narrower now than it once was on account of the degree of reclamation that has taken place, and quickly climbs steeply to hills covered in lush vegetation before sweeping down to the opposite coast, where small coves, bays and exclusive settlements like Stanley are situated. The fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on the planet is thus down to the engineering miracle that is the high-rise, with impossibly tall buildings clinging to slopes that would make some ski resorts giddy. Just how some of them were built amazes me!

In spite of grand plans to grab the day by the horns and make the most of my time in the city, I confess that my “quick nap” turned into an all-day snore-fest and it was the early evening, once Matt had returned from work, that I emerged bleary eyed and ready to sample some of the local cuisine. Food plays a big role in Hong Kong and it is delicious, with a classically local dim sum joint being our destination, after a couple of cheeky beers in one of the many bars. Matt had advised me to pick up a pre-paid 4G SIM card for my phone and a quick stop at one of the small street-side vendors saw me instantly connected to the network and thus able to function as any digital citizen of the city.

Wan Chai, Hong KongDetermined to make up for the loss of the previous day, although I clearly needed the sleep, I got up relatively early the next day, starting out with a run that saw me weave through the neighbourhood of Wan Chai, through and around Victoria Park, a short distance from the apartment, around Happy Valley, the famous racetrack, and back along the waterfront, stopping off for some delicious BBQ pork buns for breakfast Hong Kong style. Feeling somewhat reenergised and taking the advice of Thea, I packed up a few things in a daypack, hailed a cab and headed up to Parkview and the start of a hiking trail known as the Wilson Trail, and specifically a section of it that took in the Twins, two peaks that ultimately brought me down to Stanley on the other side of the island. It was a very overcast day and as we climbed into Parkview, we entered an eery world that felt almost dreamlike such was the effect of being up in the clouds. The hike initially involved a steep ascent of multiple stone steps before winding along a narrow hilltop track that saw me above the cloudline and, as such, without the views that I knew would have been spectacular. I did have sounds though, with various birdsong intermingling with the distant clang of construction, growing louder as I approached Repulse Bay, the source of the building din. Being in China I could not help imagine that the bangs, grumbles and clatters were in fact a giant dragon, hidden from view by the cloak of cloud that kept its presence secret.

Stanley Beach, HK
An overcast, soggy Stanley Beach

I know that Hong Kong is a very humid, and thus wet, place but it seemed that I had elected to head out during a particularly wet week, although Dubai didn’t fare too much better as it turned out. As such, in addition to getting soggy via the humidity and exertion required on the hike, I also found myself caught in a thunderstorm. All told, I arrived in Stanley feeling as though I had walked there via a hot, steamy shower! My initial plan had been to do a training swim in the sea off Stanley’s beach but given the rather grey day, the fact that I was actually pretty tired and keen to return to Hong Kong itself in order to make the races and the fact that I had read all about the sharks that do populate the waters around the area, I opted to keep my soggy feet on dry land.

Stanley_HK

Refuelled and souvenir in hand, I hopped on one of the minibuses heading back into the city and enjoyed views of Clearwater Bay, Repulse Bay and Ocean Park, a theme park nestled up on a headland opposite Repulse Bay, before we drove through the Aberdeen Tunnel and emerged back into Hong Kong proper. A swift turnaround back at the apartment and it was off out again, this time with brolly in hand, to grab some dinner and check out the races, a hugely popular activity on Wednesday night in Hong Kong.

Happy Valley, view from hotel
Packed with Wednesday night punters. $100M is bet here each week!

The Happy Valley racecourse sits in, well, a valley and was actually named somewhat tongue in cheek on account of the fact that when it was first settled, the marshy environment, and the legions of mosquitoes that came with it, meant that many of the settlers died, with the area being turned over to numerous cemeteries, gravestones visible as they climb the slopes like dull, grey, geometric creepers. Once inside the racetrack, the mood was one of a much more jovial nature, with throngs of racegoers all enjoying the food, booze and music on show, in addition to waging a fortune on the outcome of the various races being run that night. Apparently more than $100M is bet each week alone, if the book I read is to be believed. A staggering amount of money that makes the Jockey Club one of the biggest contributors to the city coffers out of anyone. I, for one, am not that keen on betting and so after watching one race, I headed out and toward a nearby hotel where I was certain I would be rewarded with a stunning elevated view of the entire course, in addition to it being dry. Randomly, during the walk from the track I passed Vernon Troy, of Austin Powers’ Mini Me fame, out for an evening with his friends. Dubai, it seems, is not the only place for random celeb-spotting.

Thursday was spent closer to home, and took Matt and I over the bay via one of the very many ferries that zip around the harbour to Kowloon, with the New Territories and China beyond. We checked out Chungking Mansions, a labyrinthine multi-level building of stalls, restaurants and many other services alike, before taking in the Hong Kong skyline from the harbour. Much like in Dubai, construction is everywhere in Hong Kong, with the city constantly growing and changing. The energy is one of high velocity growth and optimism and feels so at odds with what I experienced during my brief visit back to the UK.

Mid Levels escalator, Hong Kong
The closest thing there is to a Stairway to Heaven… the Mid Levels Escalator. Commuting ease in physical form.

Returning to Downtown via the incredibly efficient metro, we headed up to Lan Kwai Fong, the (in)famous bar and restaurant region of the city, where Matt suggested an awesome Brazilian grill for lunch. More walking, including checking out the awesome Mid-levels escalator – yes, Hong Kong actually has an escalator that goes up the hill! That is just THE BEST! With Hong Kong being so dense it is actually pretty straightforward to explore much of it quite quickly and with this sense of curiosity I headed off independently for the Peak tram and to see whether the views would be kind enough to come out and play. They did and they were worth it!

Hong Kong, The Peak
The view from The Peak is one of the highlights of a trip to Hong Kong

The tram that takes visitors from Downtown up the incredibly steep slopes to the Peak, and the 360-degree viewing platform, was well worth the ticket price, with the clouds thankfully clearing for my visit and permitting spectacular views over the city, the bay, Kowloon and beyond. Any visit to Hong Kong simply has to include this on the itinerary and once I had exhausted my inner photographer I took advantage of my 4G to Skype the folks back home and share the experience and view with them. A great day of touristy fun all told and topped off with a fantastic Chinese meal with my hosts and a variety of their friends at a Wan Chai restaurant.

Ngong Ping, Giant BuddhaBy this stage I was getting into the tourist swing of things and so looked to check out one of the ‘Top Ten’ that a friend, Rosee, had suggested: the Giant Buddha. A relatively short metro trip back out west to the tip of Lantau island and the town just next to the airport saw me connect with the cable car that takes visitors up and over the hills to Ngong Ping, site of the Po Lin monastery and 34m high bronze Buddha that sits breathtakingly atop a hill. The more energised visitor has the option to trek up the lengthy trail, something I elected to pass on although would consider as an awesome training run one day if I ever return. The short stroll from the cable car station towards the Buddha and monastery took me through the somewhat touristy village, complete with shops selling various momentos, snacks and other paraphanalia, before passing through an impressive stone arch and onto a large, circular area, with the monastery to the left and, up a long flight of stone stairs, the Buddha himself.

Giant Buddha, Hong KongThe monastery was serenely peaceful, beautifully gilded, with incredibly intricate and ornate decorations adorning both the inside of the temples and the exteriors, and it was easy to find a sense of peace as I idly wandered around, with cows nonchalantly sidling past in search of a quiet patch to solemnly chew the cud and consider the tourists enthusiastically snapping away. I confess that I was one of those same tourists and all three cameras – Theta (360-degree), SLR and iPhone – were called upon to capture various aspects of the visit. Completely aware of the fact that I was playing the perfect tourist I slipped into one of the tea houses as I left, enjoying a delicious pot of jasmine tea and some almond cookies, before taking the chilly return cable-car back to the train and Hong Kong.

Wan Chai, Hong KongWith Matt and Thea off on holiday that day, I had arranged to catch up with some other Hong Kong based friends over the weekend, meeting them at a rooftop bar at the International Finance Centre mall, with views back out over the bay to Kowloon. Our initial destination that evening was to check out the Taste food event, one of which is held in Dubai each year and, I believe, other cities around the world. As much as the small amounts of food I got to taste were undeniably delicious, I did rather find the event overpriced, overhyped and despite spending a reasonable amount left feeling just as hungry as I did upon entering. It may have been this lack of complete saiety that saw the rest of the evening unfold as it did, with the four of us piling into a taxi for a trip over to Wan Chai and the start of an evening of drinking and clubbing, culminating in me being the last to spill out of our final nightspot and find my way back to the apartment only after initially having to correct course as I found myself walking uphill as opposed to down towards the bay! I was certainly grateful that Hong Kong is fundamentally easy to navigate at that point, otherwise I have no idea where I might have ended up.

It is a sad truth that there must be balance in the world and so it was that a heavy and lengthy night must be paid for with the loss of the following day. The sofa was my friend for pretty much the entirety of Saturday, feeling as devoid of energy and drive to move as I must have surely looked. Through the collective will of the group and facilitated via the steadily growing crescendo of Whats App pings, a plan to meet up for some food was actioned and another evening commenced, this time starting at a delicious BBQ restaurant in SoHo. Bellies full and heads a little less swirling our evening took in a couple of the bars in the Mid Levels area of the city, with one serving the saving grace of the evening, Espresso Martinis, that saw us all make it through to watching the Six Nations rugby match between England and Wales. Another great evening in a truly energetic city.

One of the last things I did in Hong Kong, at the advice of my friend James, was to get up nice and early, head over to Kowloon and enjoy breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s dining room on the 103rd floor of the International Commerce Centre. The breakfast was standard high-end hotel fare but the real attraction was the view, this time back across the bay to take in the entirety of Hong Kong island itself. Beautiful! Busy! Burgeoning! From this vantage point it is possible to appreciate just how active the bay is, with boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing along, zipping across each others’ paths as they headed off on whatever business they were on, whether it be collecting and delivering cargo or ferrying passengers around the bay and city. Hong Kong truly is a spectacle and testament to the engineering expertise of humans as well as our drive to keep growing and changing. It is a city that I had preconceptions of but found myself surprised by, pleasantly so. It is one that I could imagine myself living in, despite the fact that the summer months are just as hot and muggy as any experienced in Dubai, and for anyone seeking an exciting city escape, but with the option to head out into nature as well, then Hong Kong is the place to go.

 

Hong Kong, Harbour 2016 from Chris Queen on Vimeo.

Pet Sitters in France

18 Alpacas, 12 Cats, 6 Dogs and 2 Turtles Later

James with Alpaca
James with one of the eldest of the Alpacas, Jessica.

Last July my partner (Jemma) and I set off on an adventure to go off and live in France. Since then, we’ve had the pleasure of looking after all of the animals mentioned in the title and no doubt there are plenty more opportunities on their way, although I’m not sure if alpacas will ever crop up again.

Don’t think I’m writing this to make you jealous about all of the wine and cheese I’m eating; cheese-envy is completely natural and something that can’t be avoided. I’m writing this because it recently occurred to me that what I’m doing (as someone who isn’t a vet or has any intention of becoming one) could be a fantastic opportunity for anyone who did want to become a vet.

So what am I doing?

I’m housesitting. Basically when pet owners go away they need someone to look after their pets. They then post an advert on a housesitting website like Trusted Housesitters. As a housesitter I keep an eye on their list of housesitting jobs and whenever one pops up, bingo, I apply. I don’t get paid for housesitting (although some people do charge for their housesitting services) instead I use it as a source of free accommodation to travel.

Why it might be useful for you

Looking after animals and practicing as a vet are obviously two completely different things, however the first reason it might be of interest to you is that as a vet, you’re likely to be an animal lover like myself. If you are looking after people’s pets might have an appeal for the sole reason that you like animals.

Secondly, as a student you’ve probably got ambitions to travel. No I’m not saying that housesitting will add to your CV, but I think should you decide to take a year out, having spent that year looking after other people’s animals rather than say working in a bar in Melbourne will do more for your CV.

Working with alpacas, which admittedly was a housesitting rarity and might be more common on a wwoofing  website, also gave us several weeks of daily herd animal experience, something that’s often hard to come by.

What kind of experience can I expect?

Before we started out as housesitters, we expected most housesitting jobs to mean walking the dog and feeding the cat, but we’ve found an increasing number of the pets that we’ve looked after have needed medication and treatment. We’ve worked with cats that have needed pills and syrups at specific times throughout the day and alpacas that have needed cream rubbed on their testicles (not my favourite experience) or infections cleaned out (which we actually worked alongside a vet to do). It’s not something we mind doing, but no doubt most pet owners are cautious leaving that kind of responsibility in the hands of just anyone; as a veterinary student or graduate you would no doubt be welcomed with open arms by pet owners whose animals were in these kinds of conditions.

Just a thought.

James

Elephant Hills – Vet School experience

Jess Quinlan is currently studying veterinary science at Nottingham University and has also contributed, along with her dad, to previous editions of my book, Vet School. Jess recently spent some time out in Thailand working with elephants at the Elephant Hills centre, and here she offers her insight into this amazing experience.

 

elephant spraying water“We had been planning to undertake our 4 weeks of optional Animal Husbandry work experience at Elephant Hills, Thailand so a bit of a break from the norm. We had been really excited for ages about going but were also really worried. Our second year exams had been incredibly tough and even though we had worked as hard as we possibly could; we were still worried about the possibility of having re-sits in August.

9th July came and our results were due out at 10am. We were both terrified, not just for our own results but also for each other. I logged onto the university portal and although I couldn’t quite believe it at first, I had passed! Within two minutes I found out that Grace had also passed and that was it, we were going to Thailand!

We had only given ourselves two days to pack and get ready but before we knew it, we were on the plane and on our way into the middle of the jungle! When we arrived in Phuket, the transfer van picked us up and after five hours of travelling through extensive jungle, we had finally arrived!

Our first impression was stunned. We looked out over the restaurant to be faced with a vast expanse of trees and mountains, it was absolutely gorgeous! They gave us the day to settle in so we went to our tent and used the pool. In the evening, we were able to join the tourists. We watched the children from the local schools who showed us their traditional Thai dancing; followed by a cooking demonstration and dinner. Traditional Thai food for all (with a few chips for the kids)!

The next day we started the real work. We had to be up by 6…incredibly early even for an ex-lamber but the ten minute truck journey allowed us a chance to wake up a little! We arrived into the elephant camp a little stunned and with no idea what we were supposed to be doing. We soon discovered that in addition to this, nobody could speak English and so unsure as to what to do with ourselves, we picked up a broom from the corner and went to help some of the mahouts clean the area around their elephants, their condo.

After a few days, we had managed to develop a routine and also learn lots of words in Karen, the local language spoken by the mahouts and used only by members of the Karen hill tribe. We would help to clean the elephants’ condos in the morning and then we would walk the baby elephant through the jungle. This is probably one of the best things I have ever done in my life and definitely what I looked forward to every day. When we got back to the camp, we would chop up and prepare fruit for the tourists to feed to the elephants in the afternoon. Every two or three days, we would measure baby Haha in order for the managers of Elephant Hills to keep an eye on her weight progress. This was another favoured activity because this baby elephant loved to play! As soon as we got into the pen with her, she would chase us around and try to knock us over. When the tape measure was out she would grab it with her trunk, step on it or just take it off us all together. We had to measure her feet, heart girth, flank girth, elbow height and overall height. These measurements would be placed into a computer programme to give us an estimation of her weight, very important for tracking the health of a baby elephant. In the afternoon we would help the tourists who would come to the camp to feed and wash the elephants.

On our last day they also took us to the Elephant Hospital which is the only one that is present in the south of Thailand. It was there that we realised just how well looked after our elephants were. It was also really interesting to see some of the operations they were doing such as wound cleaning, as well as the elephant version of a cattle crush…it is huge!

We spent four weeks with the elephants and their mahouts and I can honestly say it is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We became really close with all of them and as we left, the head of the mahouts told us we’d been like their little sisters in their big jungle family.

After we had finished at Elephant Hills, we spent three weeks travelling around Thailand. It was amazing and I’m so glad I was able to travel and have fun whilst incorporating work from the Vet School at the same time. It is one of the reasons that I wanted to become a vet; to see and be able to get so close to so many amazing creatures and I would definitely recommend it to anybody who wanted to do something a little different for their Animal Husbandry EMS.”

 

For more information, please follow this link showing the newsletter the managers of Elephant Hills created about our visit.

http://www.elephant-hills.com/news.php

I want to be an overseas vet

planet earthYou know how you keep being told that a career in veterinary is a passport to the world? Well, it is true and the fact is that for many of you the idea of working outside of the UK, even if only for a short period of time, will become an increasingly attractive idea, for a range of reasons. I know fellow vets who have opted to work in Australia and New Zealand on a short-term, ‘working holiday’ visa, to those who have navigated the gauntlet of the North American registration system on account of a) wanting to work in what is without dispute the most advanced veterinary market in the world, and/ or b) personal reasons, such as a partner being based over there. Whatever your reasons may end up being, it is important to know what you need to do in advance, especially as the process for being allowed to work as a vet in some countries is not at all straightforward and can take a decent amount of time to complete.

So why would you want to work overseas? Well, I think the answer should really be, “why wouldn’t you?” Life is short, the world is big and yet more accessible than it ever has been before, and we are members of a profession that can, in theory at least, ply our trade and leverage our skills in many locations around the globe. The main reasons I can personally identify for considering even a short foreign period of employment overseas are:

  1. Travel & immersion in different cultures. Working, and by extension, living somewhere is often vastly different to the experience you get when simply visiting somewhere as a tourist. An extended period of stay in one location enables you to fully immerse yourself in the local culture and to really get to know ‘the locals,’ from whom many new and lifelong friends are likely to be made. Travel really does open your eyes and enable you to see things differently, including from a professional perspective, and is reason enough to take the plunge.
  2. A new life. Just because you were born in, grew up in and studied and graduated in the UK doesn’t necessarily mean that you are meant to remain in the UK. I know many friends who went travelling, with every intention of returning permanently to the UK, only to find that they found their true home, the place they felt they belonged, during their trip and subsequently stayed.
  3. Improved salary & other lifestyle considerations. Vet salaries are ok in the UK but they’re better in places such as the US, with the added advantage of pet owners knowing and fully appreciating the full cost of healthcare. Friends of mine who moved to the US make more as vets there than they would have done here in the UK, and claim to enjoy a much higher standard of living in the process. Oh yeah, plus they have the cool additional perk of being referred to as ‘Doctor!’

The list could go on but we have to get onto the detail of how to go about working overseas. The countries I am going to consider here are Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Much of what is included here is based on an excellent post by Zoe Belshaw, of Nottingham University, who is a member of the BVA Overseas Group.

Australian flagAustralia

If you are registered with the RCVS, which you will be if you graduate as a vet in the UK, then you’re sorted. Each state does have it’s own board, which you will need to be registered with in order to practice there, and you are likely to have to apply for a couple of additional licenses: a state radiation license, and a microchip implanter license if working in either Queensland, Victoria or New South Wales.

More info at:

Australasian Veterinary Boards Council

Australian Veterinary Association

New Zealand flagNew Zealand

As in Australia, RCVS registration counts but you do need to be registered with the Veterinary Council of New Zealand and hold a current practicing certificate.

More info at:

Veterinary Council of New Zealand

USA flag United States of America

So you want to work in the US? Sure? Really sure? Because the process is long, tough and far from cheap. My personal recommendation to anyone considering working as a vet in the US is to seriously consider applying and completing the registration process either during your final year (you’re revising hard anyway, right?!) or shortly after graduation. This is for two reasons: a) you’re examined across all of the species and disciplines, meaning that this knowledge is likely to be at its freshest in your mind at the end of vet school, before you head out and specialise as most of us do; and b) you are more likely to be focused on really nailing your application, before you become settled in practice and comfortable with a nice, regular paycheck.

If you graduate from an AVMA-accredited university (Glasgow, Dublin, Edinburgh and RVC) then lucky old you, as you have completed stage 1 and can proceed straight to applying for the NAVLE, which is the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Everyone else has to start from stage 1 and follow the whole process through.

If you apply to work in a US university (eg as part of an internship scheme) then you will not need to worry about any of this as you’ll be covered by the university. It does, however, mean that you will not be allowed to do anything of a veterinary nature outside of the university.

Ok, so the process is as follows:

Stage 1: Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates certification program

(NB: There is an alternative route, PAVE, run by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards, with the stages appearing to be similar to those below.)

This is comprised of four stages and should, in theory, take no more than 2 years to complete. The stages are:

1. Enrol, provide proof of graduation and pay the registration fee, which is approximately $1000, and is valid for 2 years.

2. Provide proof of your English language ability. This can be in the form of a letter from your secondary school, although it is worth checking regularly as this may be subject to change.

3. Basic Clinical & Scientific Knowledge. This is a 225-question, multiple choice exam (BCSE) testing everything from anatomy, to pathology knowledge, and preventative medicine. There are a number of centres in the UK at which you can apply to sit the exam, and they run at regular times during the year. The cost at the time of writing was about $80 plus an additional $40 for sitting it in the UK. This can be resat as many times as you like, but it will incur an additional charge each time.

4. Clinical Proficiency Examination (CPE). This is a test of hands-on clinical veterinary and medical skills, and is conducted over the course of about three days in the USA. This covers entry-level skills across species and disciplines and is administered at a number of sites across the US, of which you can state a preference but with no guarantee of being booked at that centre. The cost is a whopping $5000, which is non-refundable, and if you fail 4+ out of the 6 sections then you have to resit the lot, otherwise it is possible to resit the individual components at about a $1000 a pop.

Stage 2: North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). This exam consists of 360 MCQ’s and can be sat in the UK between November and December each year, or for a limited period in April, depending on the state that you’ve specifically applied to become registered with. The cost is $550 plus whatever the specific state fee is – you’ll need to check the state fees, requirements and application deadlines independently.

Stage 3: State exams. Some states may require additional exams to be sat before you can be eligible to work in them.

Stage 4: Work Visa Application. Once you have your NAVLE all sorted, your prospective employer will need to apply for a work visa on your behalf through the US Immigration Department. As such, you will need to have a job lined up in the USA and they will need to be willing to fill in several forms on your behalf.

Once all that’s done then you’re ready to hop on a plane and get working in the USA 🙂

There are, of course, other countries that you may wish to work in as a vet and I am sure there will be further posts on these in the future. Please feel free to make suggestions or provide info to this effect. Thanks and happy travelling.

Una vista de Madrid

plaza de la cibeles, MadridMe gusta mucho España y tambien viajar. For those of you with some knowledge of the Spanish language I daresay you probably agree. For those of you wondering what on earth the first sentence even means, it translates as “I like Spain very much, and also travelling.” I have just landed back after a short trip to Madrid in Spain, a city that has long been on my list of places to visit, and was suitably impressed, enthralled, charmed and generally won over by the city, it’s vibrancy and the amazing people that both live and visit there.

The guidebooks all talk about Madrid being one of those cities that kind of creeps up on you, especially given the fact that it doesn’t perhaps have many of the “world wonder” type sights as say other major cities (eg Paris, London, New York). This, however, means that instead of having a few ‘must sees,’ Madrid has vista bonita after vista bonita round every corner and above every Metro stop. I traveled with my dad, who despite not speaking any of the language, has become as enthused about the Spanish culture and country as I have, and we were happy to spend a lot of our time simply meandering around the city, including it’s beautiful park, taking in the atmosphere and breaking up such jaunts with regular stops for tapas and a couple of cheeky little drinks, whether it were a refreshing Spanish cerveza, a rich, full-bodied wine or sherry, or just a sedate coffee. In fact, eating and drinking your way around Madrid is not only insanely easy to do, it feels like it would be wrong not to, given the incredible number of phenominal options available to do so.

The main highlights of our trip, I would say, were the following. It would interesting to hear what your experiences of the city have been as well, especially as I know for a fact that it has heaps more to offer than the little we managed in just a few days, and it would be great to be able to start compiling the ultimate Madrid ‘to-do’ list in preparation!

  1. Flamenco & Tapas – we were fortunate enough to get our fix of both on the very first evening, with one of the best places in the city to see amazing flamenco being Casa Patas, near the Tirso de Molina metro station. The initial meal was outstanding, served in the stunning main restaurant, complete with hanging jamóns (hams) and photograph after photograph of flamenco stars both past and present. The actual performance itself was held in an intimate room adjacent to the bar, creating a dark and intense atmosphere for what was an equally intense performance. I have seen flamenco before but never with such a level of passion being evident from the musicians, singers and dancers alike. The result is that you find yourself instinctively joining in with the cries of “Olé!” that often accompany parts of the performance, and wanting to buy yourself a pair of flamenco shoes, move to Madrid, change your name to José and devote yourself to the art. Having said that, I think that may just be a reflection of the reaction I feel to most great gigs. Definately one to check out though.
  2. cochinillo, madrid, el restaurante de san botinSuckling pig at the “world’s oldest restaurant” – one thing that it seems is most definately on the list of ‘things you should do in Madrid’ is to eat suckling pig, with el restaurante Sobrino de Botín, close to La Plaza Mayor, recognised as one of the best places in which to do so, likely due to the fact that they have been doing it well for the longest. Since 1725 in fact! After a gentlemanly haircut – it’s what one does when on holiday in such a fine city – it seemed the natural thing to do was to pop next door to sample one of the culinary delights of Madrid – and there are many! We had been expecting the cochinillo to arrive at the table in it’s entire, full form, as per the pictures shown in various guidebooks but the fact that it didn’t (we each had a leg, roasted to perfection) was a blessing, as the amount of food it would have represented would have required us to fly the rest of the family out to help finish it. We were told that another thing to try at the same restaurant is the roast suckling lamb, so it seems a return trip has already been factored in.
  3. Parque del Buen Retiro – one of the things I personally love about capital cities, London included, is the access to incredible areas of parkland that is possible. The main park in Madrid is clearly a strong draw for both locals and visitors alike, from people simply enjoying a leisurely stroll, often with their dog, or kicking back and taking in the cool, calm air with a book, all the way through to the more active recreationists, with running, cycling and even a spot of rollerblade-ultimate-frizbee being played. It made me wish I had taken my training gear with me, but then there is always the next time!
  4. mercado de san miguel, MadridEl mercado de San Miguel – this charming covered market, which sits just beyond Plaza Mayor, was one of those places that you end up happening upon by chance, as opposed to actively seeking out, and ended up being somewhere we returned to several times during our stay. Both modern, in terms of it’s light, open design, with glass doors and windows all the way around, yet traditional, with a plethora of incredible stalls selling everything from beautifully crafted and presented chocolates and cakes, to fresh seafood and meats that were about as fresh as it possibly could be without them jumping out at you, to an amazing array of fine Spanish wines, beers and, one of our favourites, sherries. A popular draw for both tourists and madrileños alike to meet up with friends and chat over some tapas and a drink, the market was certainly a favourite of the trip.
  5. La facultad de Veterinario – yes, we did. Although officially on holiday, I had said to myself that it would be really interesting to head over to the university and, if possible, check out the vet school and adjoining hospital. In spite of not managing to pre-arrange a visit and thus simply ‘turning up’, we received an incredibly warm and hospitable welcome, and were given a fantastic tour of the facilities at the vet school. A rare treat and one that will be the subject of a blog post to follow soon.

As alluded to earlier, Madrid is such a rich city in terms of culture, heritage and charm, that to list and describe every highlight would fill many books. Suffice to say that if you’re looking for an exciting destination for a city stay, whether it be for a quieter, more relaxed experience, or one offering a vibrant party scene, then Madrid definately is one to put near the top of the list.