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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Wales at easter

Pete with pretend-to-be cossacks Nicola, Lola and Nell love to travel but stay off planes to keep their carbon footprint down. Here's how they satisfy their passion for travel, this time using one of the oldest ways of getting around - on a horse
Wales used to be the UK’s best kept secret. It’s got the most gorgeous scenery, rolling hills that are steep enough to make you puff just looking at them; castles; activities, coastline and those green, green valleys. It’s got great poets, Taliesin(s) and lyrical Dylan Thomas to heroes such as Glyndwr and that girl from the Mumbles (no, I'm not thinking of Charlotte Church).

It’s also wooed and won a lot of my friends so in order to make a visit to Llanidloes we were happy to housesit a combination of geese, hens, cats, horses and seedlings while our hosts took a mini break in their camper van from housesitting her mum’s place while she’s off working in Lesotho. A complicated bit of house swapping to organise (as a friend of our hostess also moved into our house in London), but five horsy days for me and the kids doing country stuff.
For Lola the highlight was bareback rounding up of sheep (!). Nell was delighted to go on her first hacks, have the big dog lick her hand and watch her mum treat geese as nervously as if they were a herd of rhinos. There scarier in fact.

A real treat was to saddle up the horses – grey Herbie and liver chestnut Rosie who was born on the farm – and take the girls for a ride up over the hills. It was hot and the last few lambs were popping out in one field which inspired lengthy discussion about why sheep don’t eat their placentas (much), how many placentas twin lambs create and human connected fact of life questions.

And then it was time to trot to the moor and Lola lent forward, clutching the mane, imagining herself as Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame) galloping bareback On the Shores of Silver Creek. While Nell was being a Nellie – find out which you are at the cute quiz site Are you a Nellie (spunky) or a good natured Laura, http://www.littlehousebooks.com/fun/nelliequiz.cfm

Content as I was, riding out with my two girls – who I’ve taught to ride despite their London address (a miracle really but it may come in handy come the fossil fuel cutbacks as this is the original renewable way of getting around until the bike was introduced) - I couldn’t resist dreaming of other horse nations where the mum would stick the kids on the GGs to make getting around more fun, and a great deal quicker. And within seconds the beautiful 360 degree skyline of wind farms and bleatingly busy ewes disappeared so Lola, Nell and I could cross the old soviet steppes Cossack style on our way to summer grazing. And as we looked for finger posts taking us along the National Trail my imagination was ticking off the horse-lovers Stans – Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's a bit like TV Alexandra Tolstoy's rides with horse people of the word (see what the Guardian makes of her show here).

But less posh - because back in 1985 visiting a uni friend, Nicky, whose family were based in Islamabad, Pakistan I went to the North West Frontier Province, after a bumpy flight from Peshawar up to Chitral, which is very close to the Afghan border. I remember being aghast at the number of kalashnikovs slung over men’s shoulders, and stunned by how many Afghani refugees were forced to make new lives in an area that looked so bad for crop growing – although maybe I visited in the wrong season as this part of the silk road is famous for apricot orchards.

Dressed up in shalwar kameez (and sun glasses which rather ruined the common touch) Nicky and I looked at the sites, ate the delicious apricots and debated maternal health until we were invited to watch from the Prince’s dias (well he said he was) the amazing game of buzkashi played (in Uzbekistan it’s called uloq). Buzkashi is a kind of polo with a goat carcass used as the ball.. It’s very fast, only men do it (I think only men watch it but I guess Nicky and I were treated as honorary man) and at that particular contest a clarinet and drum band beat out a rider’s signature tune whenever they were on the ball.
It was a surreal afternoon – English polo has never seemed so exciting again, even when it’s injected with Argentinian verve and skill.

Now even the simple pleasure of a morning ride with my daughters surprises me. It's not just that we live in central London, or that Nell's asthma is made worse by the beasts, or the cost (although all are relevant) it's the surprise of having got to be old enough to hack out with my own children. The Welsh views may distract eco-bunny me - we counted enough wind turbines to provide energy for nearly 7,000 households but I'll have to check this - but when I'm around horses I feel just as I did as an eight year old out for a ride: happy, ready to canter and in touch with the place I am.
Horsiculture is maligned for being elitist, pricey and a little bit obsessional - so as a part time riding coach I'm delighted to see that a few environmental writers, specifically Mark Lynas and Sharon Astyk, have suggested horse transport may be the way to go. I don't for a moment think they were serious, but it's a good reminder that everyone used to be able to get around without using any fuel save grass, hay and oats.

Cycling via Tashkent

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love to travel - but they don't want to hike up their carbon emissions by taking the plane. Here's how they stay home and satisfy their passion for travel


A month ago I was returning a borrowed bike to my sister-in-law in Hertfordshire the lazy way… ie, I wheeled it on to the Stansted Express train from Liverpool Street station, London to Bishop’s Stortford - knocking 30 miles off my pedaling. I probably could have been picked up in Hertfordshire but it was a lovely spring day so at Bishop's Stortford I got off and cycled the 7 miles to my old home near Little Hadham as happy as a cyclist with the wind behind them, and light panniers, can be.

The train journey was fun too as I had a long chat with the barista (if that’s the right word for the guy who runs the trolley service of hot drinks and snacks) who came from Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan (and once far better known in the West as it was a main stopover on the Europe to China silk road). The barista was a brilliant ambassador for Uzbekistan – he didn’t just give a check list of where to go (Samarkand obviously…) he also summarized what the place is like.

For example the autocractic president is head of state, and head of government – so no room for dissent. Indeed President Islam Karimov is already on his 3rd stint in office (only legal to do two stints according to the constitution). Interestingly he was raised in a Soviet orphanage which must have been tough. His Harvard-educated daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is maybe the one to watch. She secured popular support with her music video releases (using the stage name GooGoosha), groovy enough – listen at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qd8BVcmj0B8&feature=related

Karimova is not just a wealthy woman – from her businesses and her divorce from Mansur Maqsudi, she’s a fashion designer, chicly dressed and my coffee-serving friend admires her hugely, calling her “clever”. From what I can see on the web she’s Islam Karimov’s heir apparent too…


Instead of watching the Lea Valley go by (you could do the same at the cycle ride here), I got a black coffee and a potted history of politics Uzbekistan-style. Lucky me. And to think I’d written off the Stansted Express as a rather expensive whiz to my old home with little chance of getting a seat as it’s so often packed by minibreakers (careless of their carbon footprints) flying dirt cheap to Scotland and Sweden – and a few other Euro airports. You can see why that's bad if you watch The Age of Stupid...