Driving in Switzerland without buying a vignette

Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe so for budget travellers it’s a difficult place to be. Petrol is far more expensive than in neighbouring countries and to drive on motorways you need a vignette.

This is a small sticker that is placed on your windscreen and costs €40 for one year. If you’re spending a bit of time in Switzerland this might be worth it but if, like us, you’re just passing through you can save yourself some money and see a lot more of the country by taking the smaller roads.

 

How to find toll-free roads in Switzerland

There are maps like this one here which show you where the toll roads are. But all you really need is google maps. If you type in your route and then use the options menu to select ‘avoid toll roads’ google will give you a route avoiding any major highways which require a vignette.

Ok without a vignette

Ok without a vignette

Vignette required!

Vignette required!

Pay attention to the signs. A green sign with a car on it is a minor highway and is fine. A green sign with two roads on it means major motorway and you need a vignette. Any other colour road is fine. But as I said, google knows!

What to expect on the toll-free roads

The roads we drove in were a mix of 2-3 lane motorways with very little traffic and speed limits of 100km/h and small country roads. Many of the smaller roads were windy and steep.

It takes considerably longer using these alternative routes so if you are in a hurry it may be worth investing in a vignette. Our routes showed that it was around twice the time using the smaller roads but since we have nowhere to be we didn’t mind!

It can be very steep! Of course, being in Switzerland, there are a lot of mountains around. Our van- Morrison- did a stellar job getting over the hills but some parts were a struggle. This is also added a lot of time to our journey.

It’s beautiful! Driving through little Swiss villages, through valleys surrounded by huge mountains and past herds of cows with bells clinking on their necks. We stopped hundreds of times for photos and to admire the views. May be that contributed to our extended time as well!

Avoiding toll roads in Switzerland is definitely a great way to see the country if you have the time. We've decided to adopt the same policy in Italy and Slovenia and love seeing all the small villages, local life and great scenery. 

 

Best Bookshops In Edinburgh

Living in a non-English speaking country I find myself deprived of opportunities to browse books. And when I say browse, I mean hold, stroke, smell and compile lists of everything I want to read. A list almost as long as 'places I want to visit'. But on a recent trip to UK my inner book-worm was left thoroughly satisfied as I dragged my friends through every book shop we walked past. Given we'll be living in a van for the next five months I showed incredible restraint and only purchased three books. Along with another two as I passed the bookshop in the airport and had a minor panic about it being my last chance to buy books! From hip bookshops of London  to the treasure troves of charity shops in Manchester's suburbs, I visited more bookshops than eating establishments in my week-long trip. But by far the best was a day exploring the beautiful bookshops in Edinburgh. So if you find yourself in this gorgeous city (and it should be on your list) here are the best places to browse, buy and love books of all kinds.

The Best Bookshops in Edinburgh (in no particular order):

Tills Bookshop

best bookshops in Edinburgh
best bookshops in Edinburgh

This cute, little second-hand bookshop is next to the Meadows on the Newington side. It has a great selection of fiction, especially science fiction. The shop is quite small but worth a browse, books were around 3 pounds. There was also a selection of comics, non-fiction and collectors books.

Golden Hare Books

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I always think you can judge a bookstore by its children's section. And this shop has a lovely one. Nestled in the back the shop with a beautiful selection of children's books and comfy cushions to sit and enjoy. They also do reading sessions for kids on weekends. There is a good selection of adult books too and they offer you free tea and coffee while you browse!

McNaughtan's

best bookshops in Edinburgh
best bookshops in Edinburgh

This shop is was more for just soaking up some beautiful book vibes. They specialise in collectors items, antique and rare books as well as art. It's actually the oldest second-hand bookshop in Scotland and is really magical to wander around. It's located of the street, down some steps so is easily missed when wandering past.

Edinburgh Books

best bookshops in Edinburgh
best bookshops in Edinburgh

This may have been by favourite shop of the day in terms of aesthetics. It was definitely one of the biggest with all kinds of small rooms and nooks lined from floor to ceiling with books. There is a staircase hidden in the corner which leads to a cave-like underground section of non-fiction books. At this shop you'll find everything from popular fiction to rare books.

Main Point Books

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A couple of doors down from Edinburgh Books, this place is smaller but has a great range. You need to spend some time searching but there is plenty to be found. The staff are friendly and helpful too.

Armchair Books

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Just along the same street is this cosy, little bookshop. Sprawling shelves of books in every variety line the walls. There is something for everyone here and the prices are really reasonable. Lots of great fiction and some beautiful, antique books too. We went here at the end of our day but I could easily have spent a lot longer perusing the great selection!

Charity Shops

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This is the ultimate way to top up your bookshelf. The charity shops in the UK have such a brilliant selection of books and they are usually no more than two pounds. And all the money you spend goes straight to charity! There are some organisations which have shops dedicated solely to books (Oxfam and Barnado's). The best places for charity shops in Edinburgh are Newington and Stockbridge where you can find 5-10 shops on the same street.

Old Town Bookshop

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A specialist shop of rare books, maps and art. Very small so not really for browsing but if you're looking for something rare or antique this is a good place to try.

Know any other great bookshops in Edinburgh? Please share in the comments!

Day Trips From Frankfurt

Now we all love little old Frankfurt but that doesn't mean we don't want to get away once in a while, or every weekend! Luckily, Frankfurt is perfectly located for exploring other areas of Germany and Europe. Paris, Amsterdam, Munich and Brussels are all within a four-hour train journey and there are plenty of other smaller places for a weekend away. Think Maastricht, The Alsace Wine Region, Stuttgart or Weimar. But you don't even need a whole weekend to get out and explore. In just a day (maximum 1.5 hours drive) you can get to lots of beautiful and interesting towns. Here are our favourite day trips from Frankfurt.

Day Trips From Frankfurt

Heidelberg

Day Trips From Frankfurt
Day Trips From Frankfurt

This is a student town located on the Neckar river and, let's face it, rivers are essential in picturesque towns. There is an impressive castle with relaxing gardens and views over the old town. The cobbled streets of the old town make a great place for a wander and there are plenty of bars, cafes and shops. The town is a bit of tourist destinations so it may be very crowded on summer weekends. Try a nice weekend in Spring or go on a weekday if you can. Heidelberg is about a one hour drive directly South of Frankfurt or you can take the train.

Limburg

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Located on a river - check(the Lahn)! Pedestrianised old town - check! Cute, timber-framed houses -check! Beautiful, old cathedral - check! Hundred of Italian restaurants- ahh check! Yes, Limburg is everything you could possibly want in a little, old German town. It also has a comical amount of Italian restaurants, we couldn't figure out the connection but pizza is always good! It is free to go inside the cathedral and the maze of streets in the old town are filled with cafes and restaurants. The train to Limburg takes 30 minutes from Frankfurt Hbf.

Taunus

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This is a larger area covering the mountains to the North of Frankfurt. It is a great area for cycling and hiking. Some highlights include the Great Feldberg which is the highest peak (881m) and the lookout tower located a short walk from the small village, Treisberg. Another great stop is Hessenpark, one of the largest open-air museums in Germany. It contains many historic buildings and displays as well as temporary exhibits. All the towns in the area contain authentic German restaurants.

Miltenberg

day trips from frankfurt
day trips from frankfurt

Another cute, traditional German town by a river. There is a castle with views out over the Main and lots of lovely architecture to see. We happened to be there during the annual fair and there were great parades through the old town.

Marburg

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Is a university town which stands on two levels. An elevator transports people to the upper town where there is a large market square. Further up the hill is a magnificent castle which now houses a museum. The city itself has a very laid-back, liberal vibe with lots of cafes and student bars. There are regular trains from Frankfurt Hbf which take around an hour.

Rüdesheim

day trips from frankfurt
day trips from frankfurt

If you're into wine this is the place for you. Located in the vineyards by the Rhine are plenty of lovely walks to do in this area. There is a cable car up to the view-point and lots of great wineries to visit. We had a lovely stay at Magdalenenhof Hotel and enjoyed great food and wine.

Rheinsteig

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Continuing on from Rüdesheim the whole area along the Rhine makes for some wonderful hiking and wine. The Lorelei is a large rock supposedly named after the spirit of a maiden who would sit on the rock and sing to sailors, causing them to sink their ships. It is a stunning viewpoint and the surrounding area is home to many interesting castles. There are also boat tours along the Rhine.

Mainz

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Mainz is small city. It has a nice old town and is located on the Rhine river. In June there is a huge street art festival and many walls around the town are painted. They remain on display for the year and are then painted over during the festival the following year. Well worth a trip out there to check it out and spend some time exploring the city. More info about the festival is available here.

For more information about public transport to and from these areas check out the Deutsche Bahn website or RMV.

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Eco-Friendly Travel Accessories: Travel Green

In the lead up to our long-term trip I've been searching for some eco-friendly travel accessories to help reduce our impact on the planet as we head off to explore it! As probably-a-wise-person-but-I-only-remember-it-from-an-old-t-shirt-my-mum-had once said 'take only photos, leave only footprints.' As we get older and more independent we've started to think more carefully about the products we use and food we buy. Back when I was a poor student organic food was always in the 'too expensive' basket and I didn't think twice about cleaning products and toiletries as long as they left me with enough money for beer.  Don't get me wrong, I've always been a big fan of recycling and second-hand clothes make up a large percentage of my wardrobe. But it's really in the last couple of years that I've become more concerned about the environment and have started consciously making more eco-friendly decisions.

So here is a list of some pretty great and actually useful eco-friendly travel accessories that we'll be packing!

Soap Nuts

Ok this is a hard sell because I was so sceptical of these before we tried them. They simply sounded too good to be true. You buy a bag of these 'nuts' (a natural product grown in Asia), pop 4-5 in a small bag and throw them in with your washing. No powder required. Each nut lasts around 30 washes and a kg (around 300 washes) only costs €10.

The best part is, they really work! We washed two identical sports shirts, one with powder one with the nuts, and couldn't work out which was which. They don't smell like flowers or anything but the smell is completely neutral. And because they are a natural product there are zero harmful chemicals in the water!

WASH BAG

We are planning on hand washing most of the time to save water and also because we will be living in a van. As an effective way to do this we've bought a waterproof washing bag. There are expensive ones on the market with scrubbers inside and a drainage system. But the ever-budget-minded traveller in me opted for the €8 bag which can hold around 20L. Throw in the clothes and some soap nuts and voila!

 

 

STERIPEN

Another item that the sceptic in me is weary of but we were recommended it by a friend who is a scientist and they're always right! We used our steripen for two weeks in Kazakhstan and seem to be still alive. Basically when the 'pen' comes in contact with water it shines a U.V light for around 1 minute which kills all the bacteria in the water. It can be recharged using a phone charger and lasts for 5000L of purifying. That's a lot of plastic bottles!

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Aluminium Drink Bottle

This goes with our steripen and saves us having to buy plastic bottles anywhere we go. It's light and durable and has a wide neck which so we can fit the steripen in. I'm sceptical about all the health risks of drinking out of plastic bottles but this eliminates those issues too.

REUSEABLE SHOPPING BAGS

We've always used linen bags at home but I recently bought a small fold-up one to keep in my backpack. I've already used at least 50 times and would never travel without it now! Always useful for extra purchases, an emergency rain cover or something to sit on. And it saves the world from a few more of those dreaded plastic bags!

 

 

FRUIT AND VEGETABLE BAGS

Along the same line are reusable fruit and vegetable bags for shopping at supermarkets and markets. We plan to do this a lot on our adventure so the less of those little plastic bags we can use the better!

 

ECO-FRIENDLY TOILETRIES

Having minimised my shower products down to just shampoo and soap I make sure to choose eco-friendly varieties. This is especially important while we are living in the van and will be showering outdoors or maybe even washing in rivers! I've also switched to bar soap instead of shower gel to reduce plastic bottles and it lasts longer.

There is a great range of organic soaps available here in Germany (and I'm sure in the rest of the world). I'm also addicted to LUSH cosmetics shampoo. Their products tick all the boxes as they are natural, handmade with minimal and recyclable packaging and not tested on animals.

 

BIODEGRADABLE TOOTHBRUSH

I'd never really thought about toothbrushes but of course, they are more plastic waste. I now own an eco-friendly travel toothbrush which has replaceable heads rather than throwing the whole handle away every time. Another great option is a bamboo toothbrush toothbrush but the price of these is still a factor for me. At around €5 a pop I wouldn't want to replace my toothbrush all that often!

 

REUSEABLE UTENSILS

We bought a knife, fork and spoon all in one. It's relatively flat and easy to slip into the front pocket of the backpack. Again, more useful for van and budget travel. We plan to use them for supermarket food picnics and turning down plastic utensils at street food stalls.

Menstrual Cup

Ok males and family members you can tune out for this part! I've started using a menstrual cup in order to reduce the amount of tampons both in landfills and in my backpack. I don't want to go into too much detail but it's definitely a good cost-effective and eco-friendly option. There are lots of different varieties so do your research and give yourself some time to get used to it!

 

solar charger

This will be useful when we park the van somewhere for a few days and have no electricity. Also good for on the go when your phones dead and you forgot to save the address at your next destination. We've all been there!

 

 

Other ideas for eco-friendly travel

  • Shop local- go to markets and local restaurants.
  • Pack less- lighter planes mean less fuel. Here are some ways to save space in your backpack.
  • Look out for recycling bins - lots of cities are introducing separate rubbish bins for recyclable items.
  •  Invest in good quality clothing and shoes that will last your whole trip.
  • Travel overland - hitchhiking is a great way to reduce carbon emissions but just about any overland transport is better than a plane!
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Ultimate Almaty City Guide: Adventures In Kazakhstan

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During our recent trip to Kazakhstan we spent 10 days in the Almaty region and were thoroughly impressed with both the city and the incredible nature surrounding it. We set ourselves up at a friendly and comfortable hostel and used this as our base for exploring. The city isn't very big so we got to know our way around pretty quickly. So here is our ultimate city guide to Almaty. Everything you need to know for your trip.

Need to know

Population: 1.7 million

Currency: Kazakh tenge (330KZT≈ €1)

Language: Kazakh and Russian. Some English spoke in restaurants and by younger people. Some menus in English.

How to get to Almaty

Almaty is extremely close to the border of Kyrgyzstan and there are buses and shared taxis to and from Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) which take around 6-7 hours.

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We arrived by train from Astana. There are a range over overnight and long distance trains. There is also a small international airport with regular flights from Europe and Asia.

Where to stay

We had a great stay at Amigo Hostel Almaty. The room was big and comfortable and the staff spoke some of the best English we experienced in Kazakhstan so they were great for helping organise things. There are lots of restaurants, a supermarket and the metro all within easy walking distance.

There is a good couchsurfing community and a variety of other hostels and hotels on bookings.com. Most accommodation is very affordable and within a reasonable distance of the city centre.

What to do in Almaty

Panfilov Park and Zenkov Cathedral

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This park is a memorial to Almaty soldiers who died in WWII. The centre piece of the park is the stunning Zenkov Cathdral which is made entirely of wood, including the nails! Entrance to the church is free. On a sunny day it is busy with local life and makes a great place for a wander.

The Medeu

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This is the highest ice skating rink in the world and is a busy place to be year round. It can be easily reached by taxi or bus #12 which leaves from opposite the Kazakhstan Hotel. In summer the rink is closed but the surrounding area is great for hiking and getting out the city for the day. Gondolas also go from just below the rink to the ski fields. We didn't do this but the views would have been stunning and people were enjoying a day of skiing in t-shirts in April!

In winter you can hire skates or watch one of the many events which take place in this arena. Info and pricing can be found on their website.

Green Market

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This is a maze of shops selling everything from clothing and pots to jewellery and fruit. This was one of the few places in the city that we found souvenirs but even if you aren't looking to buy anything this is an interesting place to get lost and people watch. There are some excellent little canteens located around the market which sell cheap, local food.

Kok Tobe

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This is the highest point in the city and you can get there by gondola, taxi or bus followed by a shuttle. We took the gondola up which was 1000 KZT per person, one way. At the top is a small park which features amusement rides, cafes and small zoo. The views are brilliant, with the snow-capped mountains to one side and the city out to the other. Apparently sunset is a good time to go but we were hungry so we left earlier!

Central Park

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We were there at the start of spring, just at the flowers were popping up. Given another couple of weeks this park would have been really beautiful. Popular with locals and visitors, it's a lovely place to relax and enjoy the sun.

Museums

We were lucky enough to have great weather most of the time in Almaty. But had we not we might have tried one of the museums in the city. The three most popular are The Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, The Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments and The A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts.

Eating

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As budget travellers we are always looking out for affordable, authentic, delicious food. We really enjoyed the mix of Asian and Russian cuisine in Almaty from dumplings and noodles to blini and borsch. We frequented Kafahat, a canteen style restaurant where you grab a tray, point at anything and everything you want to try and pay before you sit down. These are located everywhere in the city (we saw at least six) and are very cheap, we averaged around €4 for two meals and drinks.

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There are an abundance of small bakeries selling various pastries filled with meat, cheese, spinach etc. Each costs around 80c and makes a great, cheap lunch on the go!

Our favourite Kazakh foods were Manty (Kazakh dumplings) and a noodle dish made from thick, round noodles with a variety of vegetables and beef. Horse meat is popular too.

Public Transport

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Almaty has very cheap public transport. The metro system is clean and easy to use with signs in English. It costs 80 KZT (around 25c) per journey and trains come every 10 minutes. There is only one line but it takes you all through the city.

There is also a complex but extensive bus system in Almaty. We only used this once or twice as the metro took us most places we needed and was a little more user-friendly. But at 25c you can give it a go and reach almost anywhere in the city. For detailed information about routes and stops check out this helpful website.

Almost every car in Almaty will become a taxi if it's heading in your direction, just stick your hand on the side of the road and negotiate a price. This can be quite complicated if, like us, you speak no Kazakh or Russian. We used Uber and found it very cheap and easy.

Cafes

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Wow, who would have thought that coffee would be such a key feature of a trip to Kazakhstan?! Every cafe we walked into in Almaty was gorgeously decorated and served amazing barista coffee. It wasn't cheap (around €3-4 for a cappuccino) but it was well worth it and soon became a much-anticipated part of our days. We enjoyed great selections of snacks and cakes too.

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Make sure you go to the toilet at these places too as the bathrooms are just as gorgeous and the exteriors.

Our favourites were Honest Coffee, Aroma, United Coffee and Sova (owl) Coffee.

Day Trips from Almaty

Almaty is located in a crazily beautiful part of the country. Within a few hours you can be skiing, hiking in a canyon or enjoying stunning lakeside views. We spent a couple of days outside of the city enjoying these sites.

Charyn Canyon

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Having never visited a canyon before, I really enjoyed this trip. The views are stunning and the walk through the canyon is an easy-going hours walk. You end up at a river and a yurt camp where you can stay for the night and enjoy amazing views of the stars.

We went here with a tour from our hostel but you can also arrange your own transport or try hitchhiking. We paid 3,500 KZT per person including park entrance fees, just to give you a ball park figure. The entrance to the canyon is about a 3-4 hour drive from the city.  It's on the way to the Kolsai lakes so in hindsight we would have combined these two trips.

Kolsai Lakes

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This is a really stunning national park with some amazing hikes. In summer it's a popular destination with homestays and a yurt camp by the first lake. You can reach the park by tour or shared taxis and hitchhiking from Almaty. A little more difficult in the off-season but still doable, read the details of our adventure here.

Big Almaty Lake

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We didn't end up going here because we went to the Kolsai Lakes instead. But this lake is also meant to be spectacular and a little easier to get to. Just an hours drive from Almaty, it can easily be enjoyed as a day trip.

Almaty and the surrounding region are well worth exploring for at least a week or two. In April the weather was warm and comfortable. It would be great to go back in summer when everything is a little greener! If you are heading to Almaty and have any questions feel free to get in touch!

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Getting to the Kolsai Lakes in the Off Season: Adventures in Kazakhstan

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As soon as the Kazakh boy in my class learnt to speak some English he prefaced almost every sentence with 'in Kazakhstan...' After spending some time there I can only begin to sympathise with his frustration at trying to explain this country in only a few words. I can also see how he managed to connect Kazakhstan with almost every topic we discuss. With its huge mix of cultural influences, growing wealth and natural beauty, Kazakhstan really does have a bit of everything. And while we weren't even close to seeing it all, our latest adventure showed us a very different side of the country.

After the towering, modern buildings of Astana and the busy streets and hip coffee shops of Almaty we headed off in search of the Kolsai Lakes. Famed for their beauty, the lakes are a highlight of the Almaty region. We had high hopes for the trip and decided to do it ourselves. We read and reread Lost with Purpose's article about getting there but it wasn't far into the trip that we realised that doing it in April would be a very different experience!

If you're going in the high season (May-Sept) then use their brilliant guide. If, like us, you have restricted holiday times then here is our story and advice for getting to and enjoying the Kolsai Lakes in the off season.

The Route

We planned to take a taxi to the turn off shown on the map and then hitchhike to Saty, stay the night and then find a way out to the lakes the next morning. We wanted to stay one or two nights in the yurt camp by the first lake.

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Getting to the Kolsai Lakes in the Off Season

Almaty to Saty

In the pouring rain in the car park of the Almaty Sayakhat Bus Station we negotiated a taxi. There were no other people around to arrange a shared taxi with so we ended up paying 4000 KZT (1000 KTZ ≈ €3) to be taken to the turn off from the main road, about a three-hour journey. The car broke down and after waiting an hour for the driver to attempt to get it started we switched rides. We jumped in with four old Kazakh men and a woman who delighted in showing us videos of belly dancers, we still haven't worked out the relevance.

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There was some confusion about where we had agreed to be dropped. So to avoid being left in the rain on side of the highway we began some desperate negotiating involving international sign language, google map pointing and a call to someone who spoke English.  For another 2000 KZT we were on our way to Dzhalanash!

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From there we managed to hitchhike one town further with an old couple and their adorable grandson. We were now just 20 minutes drive from our final destination of the day, Saty. By now the sun was setting but the end was in sight so we stuck out our thumbs and within 10 minutes two local boys offered to take us for what we thought was a very cheap price.

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Negotiation Issues

Turns out they actually wanted 10 times the price, about what we'd paid for the last hour and a half of driving. We still haven't worked out if it was a miscommunication or if they intentionally conned us but we began the negotiation process. We offered them half the price but they weren't budging. At one point one of the boys snatched Max's phone from his hand and refused to give it back without payment.

Local villagers joined the nonsensical argument with them speaking no English and us no Kazakh. There was a translator called, threats of the police and fists waved. Max dealt with it all very calmly while I stood next to him shaking in my boots! In the end we handed over another 2000 KZT, less than what they had asked for, got the phone back and left pretty quick smart!

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It was now dark and we were feeling a little shaken from our altercation. So we went to the guest house we had seen on the way into the village and asked to stay. There were surprised to have visitors so late but welcomed us, gave us warm milk and biscuits and a room for 5000 KZT (including breakfast the next day). We slept like babies.

Saty to Kolsai Lakes

The next day we got out our trusty thumbs and were up at the lakes for free in 30 minutes. This was probably a bit of luck as there was very little traffic heading up that was at this time of the year. At the entrance gate we paid 727 KZT each for entry to the national park. The woman at the gate shattered our dreams by telling us all the guest houses were closed! This meant no yurts and we would have to do the hike that day.

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When we reached the little village by the lake we found one house with people inside and asked if we could leave our big pack with them while we hiked. Turns out they also had a guest room and would let us stay for 4000 KZT per person including dinner and breakfast. It wasn't a yurt but it would have to do.

kolsai lakes in the off season
kolsai lakes in the off season

Enjoying the Kolsai Lakes in the Off Season

The Hike

We decided to do the hike to the second lake that day despite the less-than-ideal weather. We followed our instincts, rough google maps location and some incomprehensible Kazakh signposts through mud, ice and snow. It sounds like a movie and I honestly felt like a hobbit for most of the journey.

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It was tiring but we had a lot of fun and felt pretty awesome getting to the top. It's a 9km walk from the first lake to the second and the path is often steep. Lots of the path was covered in snow and we were a little under-prepared in just our running shoes. If you're going at this time of year I would suggest hiking boots and a good rain jacket!

The second lake was almost completely frozen and there was a lot of low hanging cloud. Having seen some gorgeous pictures of the lake the views were a bit of a let down but this was definitely a case of 'it's about the journey not the destination'. There was only two other groups in the park that day so we had a lot of time just us and the forest.

kolsai lakes in the off season
kolsai lakes in the off season

Tired and muddy we made our way back down to the house, passing our host who was fishing for our dinner. We enjoyed a well-earned meal and some very disjointed attempts at conversation with our hosts and headed to bed exhausted. The next morning the sun was shining and we got some stunning views of the first lake before the clouds began to roll in.

kolsai lakes in the off season
kolsai lakes in the off season

Getting back to Almaty

Max did some negotiating to get our hosts to drive us back to Saty that morning as getting out of there otherwise would have been a bit of a mission. Tourists (if there are any) leave in the afternoon and there is very little local traffic.

From Saty it was an easy trip back to Almaty, especially compared to the way there. We got a ride with some communications workers who needed to check the phone lines in each town. One would do the checking while the other 60-year-old man stayed in the car and very proudly showed us funny meme-like images on his smart phone. We laughed appreciatively but after about the tenth image we were desperately hoping for the other man to get back.

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They dropped us at our fave town of Dzhalanash and from there we tried  to hitchhike but found a taxi that took us all the way to Almaty for 5000 KZT. If we'd waited a bit longer we might have saved a bit of money by finding a series of free journeys. But with the ordeal of the trip out there and our desperate need for a shower we took the easy option.

kolsai lakes in the off season
kolsai lakes in the off season

The Kolsai Lakes are incredibly beautiful and if you have the time you should definitely try to see them. Once we were safely back in Almaty we were able to laugh and reminisce about the whole experience. But there were some stressful moments and some things we wished we'd known in advance. So if you enjoyed our story and are still crazy enough to visit the Kolsai lakes in the off season here's some pointers.

Tips

  • Once out of Almaty it's easy to pick up shared taxis along the main road. If you try to hitchhike most people will ask for payment.
  • After the turn off hitchhiking is easier but there is much less traffic going to Saty and the lakes at this time of year.
  • Make sure you negotiate the price clearly, even write it down. We had another driver try to charge us double, claiming that the price we negotiated was per person.
  • Bring snacks. There's not a lot of shopping options in Saty.
  • The guest houses might be closed. We were lucky the couple we stayed with were there but they might not be all year round. Most accommodation, including the yurt camp, opens in May.
  • The second lake is frozen and it rains almost every day. Don't let this put you off though, the rain is mostly drizzle and the lake is still beautiful. The hike itself is a good experience.
  • There are no showers and only long drop toilets at the guest houses. Take toilet paper and wet wipes.
  • Start early. It ended up taking us over 7 hours from Almaty to Saty and everything took just a little bit longer than we planned for.
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Things to do in Astana, Kazakhstan

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Astana is the newest capital city in the world. What was previously a little known city in the North of Kazakhstan has been built up into an ultra modern home of the elite. Over the last 20 years the city has been filled with impressive architecture and huge apartment blocks to become an up and coming world capital. The city itself feels huge but with a population of just 800,000 it is still in beginning phases of its young life.

We were there a few months before the World Expo for 'Renewable Energy' which will be Astana's first major appearance on the world stage. Evidence of Expo advertising and preparations were visible on every corner and many buildings were being repaired or constructed.

Astana left us feeling a little culturally confused due to the influence from Kazakhstan's many neighbours. The inner city was what I imagine some of the Middle Eastern capitals to be like and Islam is the predominant religion. But there was definitely a strong Soviet feeling with the cyrillic signs and Russians making up about a quarter of the population . The culture and cuisine around also has a distinctly Asian flavour.

We spent four days in Astana and really enjoyed exploring the city and getting to know Kazakh culture and food. If you're planning a trip to this part of the world or you just want to know what we got up to (Hi Mum!) here's our top things to do in Astana.

Nurzol Boulevard

things to do in astana

This area is the centre of the new Astana stretching from the Presidential Palace to the Khan-Shatyr Entertainment Centre. Walking along this 3.5km pedestrian area will leave you feeling pretty awestruck by the size and grandeur of some of the buildings. We were there right at the start of spring but a few weeks later and the area would have been blooming with neatly planted gardens and blossoming trees.

Oogle the Architecture

Astana has some of the most impressive architecture I’ve ever seen in a city. Everything huge and some kind of feat of engineering. From the largest mosque in central Asia to a glass pyramid and the world’s largest tent. Some notable buildings to walk by are the Monument of Peace and Reconciliation, The Astana Opera House, the Velodrome and Astana Arena. Many of the buildings in Astana are also eco-friendly and use a range of modern technologies to be energy-efficient.

Bayterek Tower

things to do in astana

In the middle of the new town stands Astana’s icon. A 97m high tower featuring a golden sphere at the top. Usually tourists can take a lift to stand inside the sphere and view Astana from above. Unfortunately it was closed for construction in preparation for the Expo while we were there but the views would be stunning.

Khan-Shatyr Tent

 

As I mentioned, Astana is home to the world’s largest tent and it’s really amazing. The tallest point is 150m high and the area underneath is the size of 10 football pitches. The transparent ‘tent’ keeps the interior at a consistent temperature throughout the year. Inside is a shopping mall, food court, mini theme park including a monorail and a beach club complete with sand and palm trees! There are a good range of affordable restaurants inside and it’s definitely worth seeing.

 

National Museum of Kazakhstan

This is an interesting museum if, like us, you knew very little about Kazakhstan before you decided to go there. It's only 500KZT entrance (around €1.50) and you can easily spend a couple of hours wandering around. Highlights for us were the real yurt, the sound and light show in the entrance hall and the 'making of Astana' exhibit which includes miniatures of all the major buildings. It was hard to gather the schedule for these 'shows' but they both played twice in the time we were there.

We paid an extra 1000KZT to visit the 'Hall of Gold' because we were so enthralled by the name. It wasn't really worth it when you consider it's twice the price of the rest of the museum. But it doesn't really break the bank so if you're not on a budget check it out.

Stop for Coffee

Kazakhstan provided some of the best coffee I've had in a while. Astana is home to many hip coffee shops but you have to look carefully. Lots of cafes look rundown and closed from the outside but contain comfortable, quirky interiors with amazing coffee! Our favourites were Traveller's Coffee and Hot Spot Coffee.

Astana by Night

things to do in Astana

Don't listen to your mother, make sure to go out after dark. We had amazing views of the city from our hostel room but it was more impressive to wander the central city and see it up close. From a 50 storey screen to the colour changing buildings it was a real spectacle to see. We found Astana to be completely safe at night.

Need to Know Astana

Population: 800,000

Currency: Tenge (about 330 to €1)

Langauge: Kazakh and Russian equally, very little English spoken

Get Around: Uber is cheap and very easy but you need wifi. Walking distances are long.

Where to Stay: We enjoyed great hospitality and brilliant views at HOSTEL Astana.

Read: If your interested in learning more about Kazakhstan pick up a copy of: 

 

Heading to Astana? Pin this for later!

 

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How to Save Money for Travel

Money is often something people are too scared to ask about but it is an essential part of travel. I think it's really valuable for travellers to be open about their savings and budgets in order to help others decide what's realistic and possible for them. So here is an honest account of how we save money for travel and our plans for sticking to a budget on the road. In preparation for our world trip we have, of course, done a bit of saving! Our online research has told us we should expect to spend roughly €1000 per month per person. Obviously this will change depending on our location, mode of transport and motivation to stick to a budget! So we set ourselves the target of €15,000 (each) before we leave. After almost two years we have safely made that and are hoping to have closer to €25,000 each when we set off.

The best part is we didn't even change our lifestyles too dramatically. Over the last two years we've still travelled to Cuba, Russia, the USA, New Zealand, Kazakhstan and many other countries around Europe. We still eat out at restaurants and spend nights out with friends. So how did we save over €20,000 in two years?

A bit of luck

Saving money for travel
Saving money for travel

We are both really lucky to have decently paid jobs. I teach in an international school and Max is a social worker. Both jobs also come with decent holidays, especially the teaching! We live in Germany which, although not cheap, has a very affordable cost of living compared to many countries. I still have a student loan which I'm drip feeding but mostly ignoring and Max reaped the benefits of being German and has no student debt!

Shared Living

It's not glamorous and if we weren't saving we would probably have our own place. But it does save us a huge amount of money, we would be paying at least double in our own place. We moved into a pre-established flat so also saved a lot of costs for kitchen items etc. Our furniture we bought second-hand or found on the side of the road (sounds strange, but it's very common in Germany to just leave unwanted furniture outside your house for rubbish collection.) Our place isn't perfect but it's spacious, warm, close to town and, most importantly, cheap.

Preparing Food

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Another bit of luck is that mine and Max's work both provide us with food. But before they did I took my lunch to school with me everyday. We (*read: Max) cook at home most nights and eat the leftovers on weekends. Supermarket shopping is very affordable in Germany and with some culinary creativity we can live off just €50 a week between us. We still go out for dinner and coffee often but try to limit to once a fortnight.

Small Change Jar

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Germany is a cash based society so we end up with a lot of small change. We made a rule that we would put anything under 50c in the jar. Ok we didn't save millions but for no effort and barely noticing we now have around €200 in our 'petrol fund' for the van.

Lack of Material Things

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This is something that is really not for some people. But with years of being a student, having poorly paid jobs and travelling I've managed to detach myself from a lot of material things. I don't own hundreds of pairs of shoes, lots of jewelery, a DVD collection or all the nick nacks that accumulate over the years. I've moved around so often that all of my possessions fit into a backpack. I need to do some downsizing after two years in Frankfurt but I don't feel an emotional attachment to most of my stuff.

Savings Account

This may seem obvious but I make sure my money goes to a separate savings account. I transfer a certain amount every payday so when I'm looking at my 'available' spending money for the month I see the amount I can actually spend after saving. Any money left at the end of the month also goes into savings. All my flights, travel and purchases come out of this spending money each month. Once money is in my savings account it doesn't come out!

Beauty Regime

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Again, this is more suited to some people than others. I've never been much of a girly girl but over the last few years I've reduced my beauty regime to the bare basics. I use shampoo (I stopped using conditioner last year)and shower gel  in the shower. I wear mascara and sometimes eyebrow pencil to work and have a SPF30 moisturiser for summer. And that's it. I cut my hair once a year, have never had my nails done and don't own foundation. Sure, I'm no glamour model but I work with kids and they're impressed by my colouring skills rather than my looks. Not for everyone but for a few extra days travel it's worth it for me.

Saving Whilst Travelling

We also plan to travel on a budget to extend our trip as long as possible. So here are some ways we're going to try.

Van Travel

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We invested in a van a while ago and plan to spend the first five months of our trip living in it. This obviously saves us money on accommodation and potentially transport. It also gives us the freedom to visit smaller towns where things are often cheaper.

Couchsurfing

We have been hosting couchsurfers at our place over the last few months and plan to use this amazing network when we're on the road. Staying with friendly people, hanging out and enjoying local knowledge. And all it costs is the willingness to share the kindness with other travellers when you have the chance.

Cooking

Once we get to India or South East Asia this plan becomes a little redundant as it is cheaper to eat in a local restaurant or grab some street food than cook at home. But while we are in Europe and perhaps in some bigger cities we can cook in the van, at an Airbnb or in a hostel kitchen to save some pennies.

Slow Travel

Save money for travel
Save money for travel

Spending longer in each place generally makes the trip cheaper. The costs that go with moving around every couple of days, getting used to a new place and wanting to try everything before you move on can really make a difference to your budget. We plan to have plenty of days lying in the sun reading, wandering with no real aim and eating at the same place multiple times.

Cheaper Countries

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The countries we've chosen to spend time in also happen to be incredibly cheap for travel. Think Eastern Europe, India and South East Asia. These are countries we're really interested in seeing but also provide us with more bang for our buck. We can either travel on very little money or travel with a bit of luxury and it still be affordable for a longer trip.

So now you know all our deepest, darkest saving secrets. Hopefully they were helpful and/or interesting and even if you don't think you'd want to live as frugally as we do perhaps you can try one or two to help you save money for travel. So start planning that next trip!

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Round the World Travel Itinerary

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Telling people you're heading off on a round the world trip leads to a lot of questions. When we tell them we plan to go for at least 18 months and don't know if we'll ever settle down again we get a whole lot more. In all honesty we've got no idea what to expect and where we will end up. But we've been thinking about this for at least a year now and have some rough plans in mind.  So this is for all our family, friends, future friends, adoring fans and anyone who is planning something similar. I give you the very-rough-may-not-work-out-but-we're-going-to-try-anyway round the world travel itinerary of Rohan and Max.  

Phase 1- Van Life July-November

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We have our van which we plan to travel in for the first 5ish months. During this time we will travel through Eastern Europe (Slovenia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria)before finally crossing in to Turkey. We plan to spend a bit of time driving the North coast of Turkey before entering Georgia. At this stage we aren't going to risk doing Armenia due to the potential issues then getting into Azerbaijan. Once we get to Baku we need to find a way to get rid of the van. This may be more complicated than it sounds but we're going to let our future selves deal with that!

We have no set route. Our first destination is Verona as we have tickets to a concert. From there we will just go with the flow. This is the only part of our journey which is under time constraints as we need to escape Europe before winter hits. Especially if we are sleeping in the van! Our goal is to be in Iran by November.

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Phase 2- Overland Through Asia

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We want to spend at least a month in Iran before getting a ferry to Dubai. Pakistan became too complicated as the border to India is not easy and nor is the Indian visa situation if you have been to Pakistan. From Dubai we will fly to India. My parents are currently choosing between Kerala and Sri Lanka and will come and meet us for Christmas. It will have a been a year since I last saw them when I was home for Christmas in New Zealand.

We'd really like to spend a lot of time in India and Nepal as these are places we've always wanted to visit, they're cheap and there is so much to do and see! I would love to see Bhutan but I don't think we'll be forking out the $200USD a day for the compulsory tour. There are also no land borders between India and Myanmar so this will be another flight. From there the travel is pretty easy going. Zig-zagging through South East Asia, island hopping through Malaysia and Indonesia and just when we're nearly back to New Zealand.....

Phase 3 - Africa

travel itinerary round the world trip
travel itinerary round the world trip

Budget and enthusiasm permitting we would really like to see the entire world. Obviously this is a little ambitious but we're going to give it a crack. From somewhere in Asia we will fly to somewhere in Africa...and that's about as detailed as our plan gets at the moment. We would love to spend some time volunteering and will most likely focus only on a few countries rather than a big tour. Ghana and Kenya are top of my list at the moment.

Phase 4 - South America

round the world trip travel itinerary
round the world trip travel itinerary

Max has spent a lot of time in this part of the world but I've never been. After a few weeks in Central America last summer and hearing so many amazing stories it's somewhere I'm convinced I'll love. We would also consider living there so might size up some cities for quality of life and availability of jobs in the future.  Hopefully we will have enough left in our budget to spend around six months here. Leaving just enough for a flight back to NZ. We will most likely settle there for a while so I can show Max my beautiful home country, introduce him to family and friends and replenish our savings.

Here you can read more about our backpacks, our van and (very soon) our savings!

Our World Trip Bucket List

Here are some things we want to do at some point on our round the world trip. If you have any 'must-do' experiences in any of the places we're going please let us know in the comments!

  • Hike in the Himalayas
  • Work for our accommodation using workaway or WWOOFing
  • Learn to cook local food
  • Camp in a desert
  • Go on a safari
  • Take the train in India
  • See the Taj Mahal
  • Get involved in a meaningful volunteer project
  • Meet up with friends who live overseas
  • Stay in a bungalow on a quiet beach
  • Go to the Maldives
  • Stay in places long enough to have a 'local' cafe or bar
  • Sleep in novelty accommodation e.g boat, tree house etc
  • Go on a yoga retreat
  • Make a friend in every country we visit

We don't really know how long our money will last and we know we can always stretch it by staying in one place, working for a while or trying to increase the small income we make from this blog. We may never settle down again, simply finding ways to live in other parts of the world and constantly travel. Or we might get sick of it and decide to make a permanent home somewhere in the world. Either way it will be one hell of an adventure!

Join us for the journey by following us on facebook or instagram to get updates on where we are in the world!

Best Versatile Shoes for Backpacking

Shoes are one thing that take up a lot of unnecessary space in your backpack. It can be very hard to find shoes that fit the huge array of activities, temperatures and occasions covered in any one trip, let alone long-term travel. For me it is about doing away with shoes that only fit one purpose and investing in some versatile shoes for backpacking.

Now, I don't consider myself to be a fashion guru but I do like to find a balance between comfort, practicality and not looking like an 80-year-old or a hiking enthusiast going for a walk in the city. A travel shoe must be able to walked in all day, light, durable, washable and at least a little bit cool.

For long-term travel we plan to only take 40L backpacks so shoe choice is pretty important. My plan is a pair of waterproof sandals, sports shoes and comfortable flats for day and night wear. I'll probably throw a pair of flip-flops in the van too.

SKECHERS GO WALK

Pros

  • Supportive. Something I used to scoff at when my mother told me it was important. Just the 4687th time my Mum knew best.
  • Washable
  • Comfortable, and I'm talking 'walk around alllllll day without the slightest problem' kind of comfortable.
  • Super lightweight
  • Covered
  • Durable. I wore mine all over South East Asia for a few months and then on and off for the next couple of years and they're still going strong.

Cons

  • Smell. The material isn't so breathable so after a day walking around they start to smell but you can always throw them in the washing machine.
  • Heat. I have them in black and the material is similar to a wetsuit so they can get quite hot in the height of summer.

TEVA SANDALS

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable. Mine are a new purchase but they took no wearing in and are some of the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn.
  • Can be worn in the water. This was important as I wanted something I could wear for activities like going through caves or bush walks.
  • Simple and can be worn with anything.
  • Huge variety of colours and styles. I went for plain black and white.

Cons

  • Not very fashionable. They look a little bit adventure-traveller for my usual tastes but I'm willing to adopt that look for the comfort and versatility.
  • I'm worried that the velcro might wear out after wearing them long-term.

BIRKENSTOCKS

Pros

  • Comfortable and breathable
  • Sturdy and provide more support than flip-flops
  • These are very fashionable at the moment so you can wear them around cities without standing out as a tourist.
  • Slip on and off so they are great for camping and beaches.

Cons

  • Heavier and more rigid than some of the other shoes mentioned here which makes them harder for minimalist packing.
  • Made from leather so they aren't very good at getting wet.

ECCO SANDALS

Pros

  • Look nicer than normal travel sandals
  • Comfortable and supportive

Cons

  • Made of leather so they aren't great for getting wet
  • They are quite covered so they can get hot and sweaty
  • As a result they get smelly and it's hard to clean leather shoes!
  • Ecco is quite expensive.

HAVAIANA FLIP FLOPS

I can't believe I've started referring to these as flip flops! (In NZ we say jandals.) But whatever they're called you can't travel to hot places without them. Perfect for beachwear and anything involving water including showering. I've owned 2 pairs of Havaiana's in my life and both have lasted a good few years of constant wear. They are extremely comfortable, good quality and come in a huge range of colours and patterns.

CONVERSE

Surely this one is self-explanatory! Doesn't everyone own a pair? The perfect all-weather (except rain), all occasion, all colours, trendy looking shoe.

NIKE RUNNING SHOES

Pros

  • Great for all active endeavours but also fine for walking around cities. I like to pretend I'll go running while we're travelling.
  • Incredibly light and flexible.
  • Range of styles and colours
  • Can be fashionable when paired with an active looking outfit.

Cons

  • Can be unfashionable when worn with jeans or dresses.
  • Can get hot it summer.

I've never tried these but I would love to and have heard good things.

ALL BIRDS MERINO WOOL SHOES

A New Zealand company making shoes from what we have in abundance- sheep's wool. I'm really tempted to invest in a pair of these as my Nikes are getting a bit old. These look insanely comfortable and I have a thing for merino wool  Unfortunately they only ship to the USA and New Zealand.

TOMS

Basic, comfortable and colourful. I haven't owned a pair of these before but as I was researching this article I saw their entire range. They also offer more sophisticated looking flats in a range of colours. Plus for every pair sold TOMS donate a pair to a child in need.

ROTHY'S

Made from recycled plastic, they look comfortable, light and easy to wash. They would be perfect for walking around all day but also going to a restaurant in the evening. However, they are really expensive and only ship to the USA so I don't think I'll be getting them any time soon. Let me know if you've tried them!

So there's my picks for some great versatile shoes for backpacking. I will update this about some of my new purchases when we get on the road!

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This post contains affiliate links. This means if you buy something through one of the links, I will make a small commission. This doesn't cost you any extra. Thanks for your support!