The Favourites of James Finnerty

James Finnerty is a London-based traveller that has been travelling throughout his adult life. He is a big fan of bicycle touring as a means to travel and other forms of overland travel.

How many countries have you been to?

At present, I’ve been to 103 of the UN member states plus various breakaways and autonomous regions.

How many days have you approximately travelled?

Hard to estimate, but I’d say it’s probably in the 700-1000 range (2-3 years).

What are three of your favourite countries and why?

I love the food and the art and there’s no end of interesting things to see in the cities. Combined with the generous Rail Pass offered to tourists, it makes a great place to visit. I’ve always felt there are parallels between the UK and Japan, in the form of island nations that are both declining imperial powers and have a tendency for politeness.

Of all the cities in Africa I’ve visited, Kigali would be my favourite due to its ease of moving around and host of nightlife on offer. There’s a great mix of things to do in Rwanda as a whole, from hiking in the west through to Safari’s in the east and by being a relatively small country by African standards, it’s much more possible to see what the country has to offer during a short trip.

I’ve spent a couple of months in Iran over the years and have really come to enjoy the place. Iran is famous for friendly people and it’s inaccurate portrayal in the media. On top of their general friendliness, in particular, I found the people I’ve met there to not put up much of a social wall around themselves as most people tend to. It’s somewhere where interactions with people come much easier than the rest of the world.

Are there any countries you don’t enjoy travelling?

Not really any specific countries, but anywhere where tourists receive a lot of pressure to buy things. I tend to not spend much time in cities or markets that have a bad reputation for this.

What are three of your favourite cities and why?

Kiev, Ukraine
I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few times and I think it’s a great place. The monasteries, the ornate Metro, the affordable nightlife as well as the relative ease at which one can explore the cities underground river system.

Pyongyang, DPRK
This will seem like an odd choice, but I’ve had the chance to visit the city 10 times or so over the last decade and it’s interesting to see how it changes over time. I’ve also gotten to know some of the people I work with there really well and it’s always nice to go over and see them. As you might imagine, communication is also pretty business focused when communicating through official business email accounts/calls.

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Bukhara, Uzbekistan
I probably see the place with rose-tinted glasses, but the first time I visited it felt like an oasis after I’d just spent 5 days racing across Turkmenistan on my bicycle trying to beat the time limit on my 5 day transit visa. It’s nice to just get a table down by the Lyabi-Hauz and just have some drinks in the evening.

What are three of your favourite hotels or places you’ve stayed and why?

The Rookery in London, just for the extravagance of it. It’s a little boutique hotel in Farringdon with just incredible rooms and apparently the “most expensive” bathtub in London.

The Yldyz Hotel in Ashgabat. On most of my visits to Turkmenistan, I’ve stayed in more run of the mill hotels, but on one trip treated myself to the Yldyz. It’s always interesting to stay in these barely occupied giant luxury hotels and have the amenities to yourself. This hotel features the odd amenity of a snow room alongside its sauna and steam room.

The Mansoor Hotel, Berbera, Somaliland. The hotel itself is nothing to shout about, but, the novelty of being at a beach resort in Somaliland has yet to wear off despite three visits to the place.

What are the three worst places you’ve stayed?

Not a hotel, but whilst cycling across the deserts of Xinjiang province, China, I would camp in drainage tunnels under the road as they offered protection from the heat. Unfortunately, on the long empty expanses of road, many truck drivers like to use these tunnels as toilets. I’ll leave the rest to the imagination.

For discomfort, the Iron Ore train across Mauritania makes a strong case. I’m not sure I even really slept.

I once camped in a hunting ground in Austria by mistake. I was chased out of my tent in the middle of the night by a wild boar during mating season but managed to avoid being gored by constantly scaring it off with a flashlight. I ended up having to spend the rest of the night sleeping on a bench in the train station of the next town.

What are three of your favourite restaurants, and why?

Caru’ cu bere in Bucharest is definitely up there. It’s a beautiful place with great food, and to top it off the prices are good too.

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I can’t recall the exact restaurant, but, I once ate at a Teppanyaki place in Kobe, Japan, and it’s got to have been one of the best meals of my life. I don’t think you could go far wrong eating anywhere serving beef in that city.

Huset, Svalbard. I was initially just attracted by the novelty of it being the world’s most northerly fine dining restaurant, but it certainly lived to the hype with an Arctic themed tasting menu. This being Norway though, it will hurt the wallet.

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

Pitcairn Island
I really enjoyed visiting Pitcairn Island. It had been a dream for a long time, and after the long journey to get there it was amazing to wake up on the supply ship and see the island for the first time. But what I really enjoyed was meeting and getting to know some of the islanders. I have a fascination with remote communities and enjoy learning about the unique ways things end up being done. Pitcairn offered quite a unique opportunity in this regard as it’s the only remote community I’ve visited so far that is English speaking.

London to Shanghai by bike
At the end of my trip cycling from London to Shanghai, I finally reached the Bund after a year on the road. It was an odd moment, both huge elation and also a bit depressing in a way, as what I’d been working towards completing for so long was now complete and I had nothing else to focus on.

Road of Bones, Siberia
Driving the length of the Road of Bones in Siberia as well as visiting Oymyakon during the winter. I’d always dreamed of visiting many of the places along this route from Yakutsk to Magadan as well as experiencing the harsh cold of the environment.

What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?

Police car, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Being forced into the back of a police car in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, by 4 corrupt police officers trying to extort money out of me was a pretty grim experience. Luckily, after playing stupid for what must’ve been 30 minutes, they got bored and finally let me go.

Cold camping in Armenia
Camping in Armenia when a sudden cold front came through during the night. I awoke to it being -13c and I had equipment that was only really good for down to -5c or so. Everything was frozen, bread, pasta sauce etc. I had a small amount of water in a bottle that I’d kept inside my sleeping bag. After putting my camp away with numb hands I made it to a roadside cafe where I managed to warm up.

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Snowstorm in Iran
I was caught out in a snowstorm in Iran whilst cycling over a mountain pass, the weather had been supposed to be clear but a freak weather front had come in. I was frozen to the core, water coming over the road was freezing so fast I was unable to change the rear gears on my bike. I’d never been happier to reach the next town where I holed up for a few days after somebody put me in the local football stadium’s away team dormitory. In a way this actually led to a wonderful experience being helped out by the locals, I even made the news after the local mayor dubiously told them he’d “saved my life”.

What are three of your best travel tips?

If flying with any special gear for a trip that cannot be easily replaced, always take this in the cabin on a plane and not hold luggage in case your bag gets delayed or lost. For example, I’ll always wear my hiking boots on the plane, and pack my trainers away, as finding good boots is not always easy. This paid off massively for me when leading a tour to climb Erta Ale in Ethiopia, my suitcase was lost on route and I ended up hiking in a fake football shirt and tracksuit bottoms I got in the market in Addis Ababa, but at least I had my proper boots with me.

Further to the point above, travel light and ideally with hand luggage only if you can.

Spread your cash and bank cards around your person/luggage. So that if any of it is stolen, at least you still have access to some money for the rest of your trip rather than being totally stuck.

Do you have any little known travel tips?

A handy one for doing hotel room laundry when travelling light. Once you’ve wrung out your clothes to get rid of most of the water, lay them out on a spare towel and roll the clothes up in the towel. Then wring the towel, or fold it up and stand on it, and this will remove even more water from the clothes allowing them to usually dry overnight.

Don’t over plan, or feel the need to visit all the famous sights. Genuinely one of my favourite things to do in a city is to visit an outdoor cafe and sit with a drink and a book and just watch daily life go by.

Links: James’ websiteJames’ Instagram.

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