5 days in Toronto

In this blog I’m going to talk about what we’ve experienced and some things I’ve learned from being out here in Toronto.

We visited the Eaton centre which is a gigantic shopping mall with pretty much everything you can think of. It reminded me of New York City with the types of shops they have in there. It’s a must for shopping lovers.

A little tip for you foodies, a traditional dish out here is called Poutine which tastes so good. You can get it with all kinds of toppings. A must while your in Canada. Also try Canada Dry it’s better than 7’Up or Sprite, we’re hooked.

On one of the days we went to the Distillery District where they had the Toronto Christmas Market on, which was so cosy. If you visit around Christmas time definitely come here but don’t waste your money on a drink like we did, (we got a hot chocolate with Bailey’s that cost $9 and it was a small cup).

On route there, I noticed something, in Toronto you could be walking down a nice neighbourhood, then five minutes later you could find yourself in a rough one without even turning a corner.

On another day we went to High Park which has the big maple leaf on the grass and it was beautiful. I learned that they have black squirrels in Canada (which are adorable by the way, and seem to like to pose for my camera) as well as the one’s I’m used to seeing in England. I’ve been to some beautiful parks in England but they never have warning signs up for coyotes and poison ivy so that was a first but don’t be scared off, there’s plenty of people around, just make sure you like dogs because you’ll see a lot of them there which reminds me, (poodles seem to be the dog of choice here). I definitely recommend going to High Park if your visiting Toronto as it gets you out of the city for a bit and into nature. Across the road from a section of the park is a sea front which is also lovely to take a stroll along.

We visited Nathan Phillips Square with the big Toronto sign, and it was so Christmasy this time of year with a big Christmas tree up and all of the lights. They have an ice rink in front of the sign which was packed, but we didn’t skate on it. While we were there we tried another traditional Canadian treat called Beavers Tail, (no it’s not an actual tail of a beaver) it’s a desert which again you can get with all kinds of toppings. It’s delicious and perfect on a cold winters night.

We went to the movies out here too which was different to the UK. Behind the counter they only served salted popcorn which you could pour butter over using the dispensers. They had other flavours in packets too obviously but cheese flavour was not one I was expecting to see. The auditorium as they call it was smaller than what we’re used to and you don’t have assigned seats. It was also a lot busier than back home, all the seats were virtually gone and at the end of the movie everyone clapped, now I don’t know if that’s a thing out here or it was just because the film (CoCo) was great but I thought it was cute.

We ended our last day here with Niagara Falls. Wow. It’s the most incredible waterfall I’ve seen in my life. The falling water is mesmerising. You have to go to Niagara Falls.

Overall my impression of Toronto was great, for a city the people are very polite I say that because usually in cities you’ll find people are a bit more rude than outside because everyone’s always rushing but you could get on a bus and the driver will ask how you are in Toronto but in England sometimes they don’t even acknowledge you. Canadians also seem very grateful towards common curtesy, if you hold a door open for someone they will really thank you for it!

This has just been my experience anyone reading this might have had a different story to tell. Let me know in the comments if you do, I’d love to hear about it or if you have any questions or need tips I’d also love to help!

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Day 3: Iceland

We finished Iceland with a “free” walking tour of Reykjavík booked through City Walk. I say free with quotation marks just as they advertise it because you are actually supposed to give some money at the end. There is no set price for the tour you pay only what you think it’s worth and trust me it’s worth it.

We walked on a frozen lake afterwards which was really weird because part of it was water where geese and swans swam and the rest was ice where people walked and slid around. Our tour guide Tomas told us people ice skate and even play football on the frozen lake.

Something I seem to do in most countries I go to is visit the locals places of worship, so we went to a church which was as beautifully white on the inside as the snow on the outside.

I didn’t know Iceland was known for its hotdogs until I got here so we decided to see what all the fuss was about and went to Reykjavík’s most famous hotdog stand (thanks to Bill Clinton) and I can say that it really is nothing special the best bit about it for me was the crunchy onion but that’s about it.

All in all Iceland has been amazing and I definitely plan to come back here in the future.

(More photos to come)!

Day 2: Iceland

I experienced the coldest weather I’ve ever endured on my second day in Iceland. It was -8 degrees, so cold that our iPhones were malfunctioning.

We did the Golden Circle excursion which was incredible. We started at 8:30am and the sun hadn’t yet risen. It didn’t rise in fact until around 10am.

The whole journey to the sights consisted of 360 degree views of snow and mountains. It was beautifully white all around.

Our first stop was the Gullfoss waterfall, if you go there in the winter be sure to take a leaf out of our book and get a hot drink from the little shop there before you actually go near the waterfall itself as being closer to water you feel the cold more so in temperatures that low it was definitely a good idea. It’s also a good idea to buy some cookies from the local supermarket beforehand like we did and enjoy some biscuits and tea with a stunning view. Be sure to drink it fast though, it didn’t take long to get cold.

We headed to the Geysers after this, the lake-like water running through was 80-100 degrees and you could see the steam ghosting over it. One of the Geysers went off every few minuets which was amazing, and allowed for plenty of opportunities to capture a shot or video as well as the chance to more importantly enjoy it through my eyes rather than through the lens of a camera.

We finished by going to Thingvellir National Park, which has made it onto my list of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The water was part frozen and crystal blue, an hour was not long enough for me here.

I’d recommend doing the Golden Circle if your time here in Iceland is limited because you get to see so much in one day.

(More photos to come)!

Day 1: Iceland

We arrived in Iceland on little to no sleep due to the time of our flight which made the start of our journey a bit of a haze.

It didn’t take long to snap out of this though, when we reached Keflavik airport we were waiting for our driver near the automatic doors which opened anytime anyone went near them. This meant that the snow which was falling down was being blown at us every time the door opened by the wind that came with it.

Our journey to the hotel was an experience in itself, due to the snow the roads were a bit icy, which meant our shuttle bus swerved a little here and there but the driver was so relaxed about it, it didn’t unnerve us. After all, as he said himself they are used to these kinds of conditions.

One of my favourite things about travelling is being able to learn things you wouldn’t know unless you actually went out there and there not always things anyone else knows just because they’ve been to the same place because everyone has their very own experiences.

Here’s some things I learned on my first day in Iceland:

-Walking in the snow is like walking in water just with less resistance.

-Iceland is VERY expensive.

-You CAN budget out here if you are willing to do some walking and make your own food bought from cheap supermarkets (Bonus is the one we went to).

-If you aren’t use to the snow, what you consider layers, double it.

-Icelandic people are pleasant and polite.

-There are Subway restaurants everywhere.

We spent most of our first day relaxing and exploring our surroundings so there’s not much else I can say but tune in tomorrow for day 2!

Top 5 food destinations based on the countries I’ve travelled to

I want to start by saying that this piece is strictly from my own personal experience. You may have visited some of these countries and liked them more or less than me or you may be from one of them, whichever it is do not get offended.

Number one on my list is….

  1. Persian: I’m not being biased I swear. I grew up eating this food but even if I didn’t I’d still say it was the top of my list because it’s simply amazing! From saffron to pomegranate to rose water and pistachios, everything about the ingredients in these dishes is luxurious. Recommendations: My favourite is Khoresht Bademjan, but I’d also recommend Kebab Koobideh with traditional bread for first timers.
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    Kebab Koobideh                                                                           Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi
  2. Greek: My experience of Greek food was exquisite. The dishes are very similar to Persian food, which is probably why it’s up there for me. Recommendations: Mixed meat Gyro because it’s simple yet delicious.
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    A Gyro in Santorini, Greece.                                                      Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi
  3. Thai: Thai street food is great, so great that I occasionally found myself eating some of the rice or noodle dishes for breakfast. They whip it up so fast you’ll find yourself wondering how they got so many flavours into one dish so fast. Recommendations: Any of the curry dishes, you can’t go wrong.
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    My breakfast in Thailand.                                                         Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi.
  4. French: I’m not choosing French cuisine based on traditional meals, I am basing this decision on the patisseries out there alone which says something. Wow, that’s the only way to describe the taste of some of there pastries. I can’t eat a Pain au Chocolat in England anymore now that I know what I’m missing out on. Recommendations: Chocolate and almond Croissant. Just wow.
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    Pain au Chocolat in Paris.                                                           Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi
  5. American: American food makes it onto my list because everything is bigger out there! Ridiculously bigger. I had a kids meal in KFC and it was equivalent to an adults in England. Recommendations: Wendy’s, purely for the lemonade, I mean damn! That’s what I call lemonade!
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    Wendy’s lemonade in New York City.                                       Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi

Chicken Reza

The first time I ever boarded a plane was when I was nine years old. It wasn’t to go to Disneyland or Spain or anywhere else you’d typically expect a first holiday to be; it was to go to my father’s motherland, Iran.
It was unforgettably hot when we stepped out of the airport and were greeted by a cousin, I’d not met. He drove us from the airport to an area in the South of Iran called Ahvaz, where my father had grown up. At first, I was overwhelmed by the amount of family members who were there to greet us on our arrival. I thought that they had all come together just to welcome us, as it was the first time that my dad had been back in years but I later found out that they were always together like this, every day. That wasn’t the strange part though, the weirdest thing about it for me, was that nobody seemed to have any pets. In fact, I think that I was the only person there to have ever owned a pet during my one month stay. It wasn’t the most usual of pets either for a nine year old girl; it was a cockerel I had named ‘Chicken Reza’ after my cousin Reza; who was not in the slightest bit flattered by this gesture.
I hadn’t gone out with the intention of bringing a pet chicken back to my grandmother’s house, it just happened.
My father and I were out shopping one day for some chicken to have for dinner, and I was half expecting there to be a supermarket with already dead chickens in ready for us to buy, but where we went, looked more like a pet shop to me. There were loads of these chickens cooped up in cages outside of this store, and how it worked was, you picked one out alive, they chopped its head off in front of you, and then they would put it into a machine which removed all of its feathers. I had another idea however; I saw this one cockerel, pure white with the reddest comb of the bunch, and instead of looking at him and seeing food I looked at him and saw life. I decided to save him, which my grandmother was not happy about to say the least when we had returned with this chicken who walked freely around her home like a dog.
Unfortunately her mentality was not the same as mine when it came to seeing him as more than just something to eat, because after a couple of weeks of having him, he mysteriously vanished. My dad told me that Chicken Reza had flown away but it wasn’t until years later when I learned that chickens don’t actually fly, that I questioned him and got the truth. My grandmother had cooked Chicken Reza for dinner.

The Falklands: The Island that’s more British than Britain itself

In the South Atlantic Ocean located around 300 miles away from Argentina and 8000 miles away from the United Kingdom lays an old England otherwise known as the Falkland Islands. The Islands were discovered by English explorer, John Davis in the fifteenth century. Many would assume that the Island would have more cultural influences from Argentina due to its close proximity to the country, but Roderick May, who was born and lived on the Falkland Islands until he reached his twenties, says that it is more British than Britain itself.
Most of the residents there are English, but before the war in 1982 many of them had never even visited the United Kingdom. It could be argued that it is in a way, an old fashioned England due to some of the values that still remain. Falkland Islanders still follow a lot of traditional English ways that some of the people residing in the United Kingdom have simply forgotten about. Such things include ‘smoko’ time which is a break that is taken in the morning at precisely 11am, where everybody stops to have a cigarette and a cup of tea. Another break is taken at 4pm for tea and cake.
Roderick grew up on the Islands when there was only electricity in the main town and on the larger farms. They didn’t have light bulbs, they used tilley lamps and one of the earliest forms of electricity on the Island that he remembers was a twelve volt battery system and wind charger. He sheered sheep from the age of sixteen until he left the Island at the age of twenty three. Most of them relied on the income of the wool industry as many of them lived on farms, but it wasn’t like the farms most people imagine. This was because they didn’t have much livestock due to the lack of vegetation on the Islands which is still an issue today. It may be very English in its values but visually it isn’t anything like England. There are very few trees, because of the harsh wind and soil, and animals such as penguins are as common to see over there as pigeons are in London.

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A penguin braces itself in the harsh Falkland winds                            Photograph by: Roddy May

The grass is more of a white colour than green, and it is rare for anyone in the Falkland Islands to get fruit. Such things have to be shipped over from countries such as Uruguay because they’d be impossible to grow on the Islands. Even with fruit being shipped over, it is still rare for anyone to actually get any of it as by the time it reaches its destination it is either rotten or inedible.
The soil is too acidic and can be compared more too as peat because it is decayed matter rather than actual soil and contains little nutrients making it difficult to grow anything. It was a shock for Roderick when he moved to England because of how green it was in comparison. When he grew up there, there was only around ten miles worth of road, with the rest of it being dirt tracks. This meant that cars often got stuck and it would take around four hours to drive just forty miles on it. Since then, more roads have been built but there is still a way to go. This resulted in many people walking everywhere instead of driving, meaning that they didn’t often venture too far away from their homes. “When I moved to Southampton, I was surprised at the amount of people who drove instead of walked.” He says widening his eyes. He was also surprised at the fact that there was such things as sliced bread as in the Falkland Islands most people made their own.
Despite the differences, he didn’t find himself getting homesick and this was because of the British people. For him it was just like being at home in that respect, but one of the biggest differences, was the amount of people. The Falklands has a population of around two thousand people whereas Britain has a population of around sixty four million.
Despite it being thousands of miles away, the food there is also English influenced. The mystery behind how they have managed to remain British without interference from other cultures is partly down to the wealthier Islanders. They would travel over to the United Kingdom for six months and return, bringing with them the latest fashion and gadgets. Roderick recalls this happening from his childhood, when a lot of them would travel to Britain by boat which could take up to a month. This meant that they were usually a bit behind the trends in England.
Many of those who move from the Islands reside in the city of Southampton as it is the main port that they arrive into. Despite being classified as an overseas British territory, Roderick had to obtain a visa when he first came to the United Kingdom because both of his parents were born in the Falklands. He ended up staying as an illegal immigrant for a while after his visa had expired because of the war which made him reluctant to want to return. War had broken out between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Islands, as both countries were trying to claim it as their own. “It was scary because my family was still over there but they allowed me to stay in the country luckily.” Since the British won the Falkland war however the Islanders are now able to travel to and from England without a visa.
Curiosity was what brought him to Britain in the first place with an initial two year planned stay, but it was war that kept him from returning. He ended up building a life and family of his own in England which meant that he didn’t return for a further ten years, and when he did go back he found it to be near enough exactly the same as it was when he left. To his surprise everything that had once been destroyed in the war had been rebuilt.

The land of the falling lakes

There’s more than just ‘looks’ to Croatia’s largest National Park.

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Croatia, Plitvice Lakes                                                                         Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi

Founded in 1949, it is not just one of the oldest parks in Southeast Europe but it is the oldest park in Croatia and it is the country’s largest.
Visitors would find it hard to believe that Plitvice Lakes had any involvement in the civil war which took place in Plitvice on March 30 1991. The park was torn apart and taken over by rebel Serbs who took control of its headquarters. It was kept by the rebels for the entire duration of the war and was not regained back by the Croatian army until 1995. Despite this however, the park looks untouched and so it is believed that it healed itself naturally over time.

As a result of its cultural and physical significance, the national park was included on the UNESCO list of World Natural Heritage sites in 1979.

It is located halfway between the capital city of Zagreb and Zadar on the coast, but no matter where you are staying in Croatia, the lakes are a must see. This is why there are excursion coaches going from all over the country to the national park, no matter what the distance.
I travelled from the city of Pula to see the National Park which was a three hour coach journey. The journey to Plitvice Lakes was just as beautiful as the National Park itself, with acres of tall trees surrounding the bendy roads. There were locals on the route selling goods to passersby, each with their own unique stories to tell. One of them was an elderly woman who sadly lost both her husband and son to war. She was standing behind a stall selling jars of homemade jams, marmalade’s, honey, cheese and liquors, offering tasters to those who stopped. Her stall has become so popular that excursion coaches stop for tourists to have tasters and make purchases. She was stood just a yard away from another local who was also selling homemade goods.
Tourists travel from all over the world to see the mystical beauty that is Plitvice Lakes, giving the locals the opportunity to give tourists a real taste of Croatian hospitality. This makes the journey to the park all that more enjoyable.

Running parallel to the Dalmatian coast, each season brings its own beauty to the park, reshaping according to the time of year. In the winter it is a white wonderland that is unrecognizable from its appearance in the summer. The colour of the water goes from clear blue to grey but the snow topped woodland that labyrinths around the pools makes the park look just as stunning. Some of the native animals struggle to survive the harsh winters that hit Plitvice Lakes, but the strong waterfalls battle the cold and continue to flow.
It is a kingdom ruled by water and in the summer the first thing to be noticed is the colour of it. The water can only be described as crystal blue, with sixteen pools of lakes connected up by the waterfalls that attract millions of visitors every year.
The colour of the lakes is said to be ever changing, depending on the angle of the sun and the amount of minerals that are in the water which is dependent on the weather. It has however, been described as azure, green, grey and blue during different seasons.
The park is recognised for its picturesque waterfalls that keep the water flowing from pool-to-pool, and the formation of these cascades is just as fascinating as the sight of them. The ongoing biodynamic process of tufa formation which happens under specific hydrological and ecological conditions is the reason for the waterfalls. Tufa is a porous carbonate rock formed from the sedimentation of the calcium carbonate in the water, which builds barriers in rivers and streams. This formation is a constant process that happens at all times of the day. To the ignorant eye, one waterfall may look like the next but every single cascade is different. Taking new routes, the water picks up its speed and as temperatures change, new travertine barriers are formed, making it ever changing.

Surrounding the lakes, are woodlands, where tour guides do not usually venture. This natural phenomenon is home to bears, fish, deer, birds and other forms of wildlife including wolves and otters. Although the Park attracts millions of visitors every year, there is little human interference with the wildlife in the forest. Ancient trees lay where they fall and it is rare for tourists to see certain animals on a visit.
The woodland area has been referred to as the ‘land of the wolves’ after it was recorded a decade ago that the number of wolves there had increased.
According to studies, the wildlife within the park consists of 321 recorded species of butterflies, which can be seen flying over the 18km footbridges and pathways that lay over and across the beautiful water. There are 161 recorded species of birds, 21 species of bats, 1267 species of plants (including 75 endemic plants and 55 different species of orchids).
The number of brown bears (Ursus arctos) is currently unknown and sightings of bears are unheard of, as they tend to stay within the woods. There is enough food within the forest to keep the animals where they are, and with lakes flowing through, it makes it the perfect home to many species. However, with an increase in the number of wolves, there is an imbalance of the predator and prey ratio in the woodland areas, meaning that they are turning to eating rodents as well as larger animals such as wild boars.

The park has a surface area of 294.82 km² and it takes an estimated time of around six hours to explore the lakes alone on foot. This can be cut down however, by making use of the free boats and buses that take you to the different entrances of the park. A half day in the park is not enough time to see everything, so a full day is recommended. Having a good standard of physical health is also worth mentioning as there are a lot of steps to climb.
Tourists are not allowed to get into the water in case of pollution and disturbance of the natural habitat but they are welcome to walk the wooden footbridges and pathways that snake around the lakes. In fact, the only human contact allowed in the water is on the boats which are used to take visitors from one area of the park to another. Rowing boats are also available for tourists to hire out if they wish to.
Some of the foot paths are narrow and so there have been cases where visitors have fallen over so care is required when venturing around the beauty. Tourists are advised to follow the rules and stick to the footpaths, so that they do not disturb the animals or put themselves in danger to potentially dangerous wildlife. This is also advised to ensure that tourists do not find themselves getting lost. With the many visitors that go to the park, it would be difficult to seek assistance if you are not with a tour guide as visitors have the option to go with a guided tour or on their own. Due to the sheer size of the park, it would be easy to get lost, as it is divided up into seven sections, known as the upper lakes, the lower lakes, the Plitvica stream, Korana river, Supljara cave, Karlovci and Corkova Uvala.
There are small cafe’s and food stalls located in certain sections of the park and tourists are allowed to sit anywhere they wish, as long as they do not leave any litter. They are welcome to sit in front of the water where boats pick visitors up from to enjoy the view of the hungry ducks that swim not too far away from the tourists, hoping for a crust of bread. Tourists are of course advised not to interfere with any of the animals by feeding them.
Due to the fact that the park is so beautiful, it is against the rules to damage the trees in any way, or to pick or damage any of the flowers.
Tickets to enter the park can vary anywhere from 55 kuna to 180 kuna, depending on the time of year, with the summer months being the most costly. A percentage of ticket proceedings are put towards the protection and maintenance of the park.
There are hotels located nearby and camping spots for those who love the outdoors. These camping spots are not located within the park itself.
No matter how long your stay is in Croatia, Plitvice Lakes will be one of the highlights of your trip. It may also be one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see in your life.

For more photos of Plitvice Lakes, please click on my photography page on this website to see more!

The black tongued dog

The history behind the Chinese Chow Chow & how it came to having it’s unusual tongue colour.

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Photograph by: Mehrnaz Karimi

One of the most ancient dog breeds known to man is the Chow Chow.
Often compared to a bear or a lion, the Chow has a number of characteristics that makes it stand out from other dog breeds, one of which is the blue/black tongue. There are only a few dog breeds in existence that share this unusual trait, one of these is the Shar Pei, but even this dog is related to the Chow and is often referred to as its cousin. So what is the reason behind this phenomenon that has so many of us fascinated?

When Chows are born their tongues start off pink and don’t start to change colour until around eight to ten weeks of age. They usually start off by having a blue spot which spreads, eventually covering the entire tongue.

Markings in Chinese pottery dating back to the Han Dynasty reveal the dogs originated from Northern China over 2000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest dog breeds known to man.
Chinese emperors and merchants used them for working purposes including hunting, pulling sleds and guarding.
The Chinese believed that the reason behind the colour of their tongues was for warding off evil spirits and as a result of this they were used as guard dogs outside of temples in China.
Others believe that at the beginning of time when God was painting the sky blue, a Chow licked up the drops that fell from the brush.

Whatever the reason behind this trait may be, the first thing that needs to be examined is the dogs blood line.
The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but there is a theory that they are descendants of the Simocyon, a now extinct animal which scientists have confirmed is related to the red panda. The Simocyon has also been compared to a lion just as the Chow has although it is believed that they were the same size as a mountain lion. This draws suspicion because of the size difference between the Chow and the Simocyon but it could explain why the Chow is so often compared to a lion with their proud manes. The exact colour of the extinct species tongue is unknown however which suggests that even if it is a blood relative of the Chow, it is not necessarily the animal they inherited their tongue colour from.

The colour may seem unusual because of the fact that most canines have pink tongues but there are a number of other animals that share the blue/black characteristic. Could the Chow be a descendant of one of these? Other animals to have this feature include the polar bear, giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard.

The next to be explored is the science behind how these animals have come to have such a distinctive similarity. Research into why some animals have evolved to have tongues this colour suggests that it is because of the fact that they contain melanin which is the same pigment that causes a human’s skin to darken when in the sun. (Their dark tongues have more melanin in to protect them from getting burnt by the sun.) This makes sense for giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard because their natural habitats are in hot climates but for the polar bear and the Chow whose natural habitats are in freezing conditions it does not. However, those who are familiar with snow sports such as skiing and snowboarding, will know, it is just as easy to get sunburned in the snow where the sun’s rays reflect back onto the skin causing the same effect as it would in a hot country. This makes more sense because everything about the Chow shows that it has evolved to withstand freezing conditions, from their excess skin to their thick fur. The weather in Northern China, where the dogs originate from can reach sub-zero temperatures after all. Despite many of them now living in various types of weather conditions, their blue tongues are a trait that has remained throughout the generations of the breed. It is a gene that is clearly dominant as the majority of other dog breeds that are mixed with Chow’s often retain the tongue colour.

It is not just the physical form of the Chow that makes them stand out; it is their personalities which are very different to any other dog breed on the planet with characteristics that many owners compare to domesticated cats. Their behavioural traits include aggression and they have been found to be quite territorial, which could also be linked with their guarding backgrounds. Chow’s are not recommended for first time dog owners due to their unique characteristics, they can be trained but patience is a must as they will typically only do ‘tricks’ for treats. They are not recommended for owners who have small children but like any dog if they are raised right, they will behave right and can actually be great family pets. Don’t except to play fetch with a Chow Chow, they are generally quite laid back and are not particularly active. They do require regular walks however and can become quite restless if they are not appropriately exercised.

All that is known for now is that Chow’s share a great similarity to bears and extinct animals. The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but through further research into the bloodline of the Chow, it won’t be long before the mystery is solved.

Genghis Khan’s greatest weapon

The Mongolian Horse
23770886841_77d0d9e4cd_bA Mongol without a horse is like a bird without its wings.

Riding horses to Mongolians is like breathing, they are said to be born in the saddle and raised on horseback. They are taught to ride from the tender age of two, by being literally tied into the saddle.
The Mongolian horse is just as important to the country today, as they were generations ago during the times of Genghis Khan. They have been described as largely unchanged since these times and are sometimes mistaken for a pony due to their small size. Their size however, didn’t stop them from carrying Mongol warriors across half of the world. They were paramount in making it possible for Genghis Khan and his soldiers to create an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the centre of Europe. This could be one of the reasons why they have been referred to as Genghis Khan’s greatest weapon.
In western society, Genghis Khan is remembered as being a ruthless barbarian but in Mongolia he is a national hero, with a 131ft 2in tall statue of him seated in the saddle of a horse just 54km east from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
The Mongol Derby recreates the trail taken by Genghis Khan and takes place every year, with around forty competitors all trying to win the Derby crown. The race is undertaken by professionals, semi professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. It has been regarded, as being the toughest and longest horse race in the world. The race requires riders to weigh no more than 85kgs which includes the weight of their clothes due to the small size of the horses. They are even encouraged to travel light with just 5kg of essential survival equipment. The horses which are used for the race belong to local nomadic herding families and breeders. Fourteen hundred of them are selected in the months prior to the race and they are then put through training to prepare them for the derby.
As well as the famous derby, Mongolians compete in family horse races which are considered to be a big deal amongst the Mongols’, attracting people from miles away who arrive with their families and ‘best horse’. These race meetings can happen up to four or five times over the summer. Children are the ones who ride the horses in these races as the Mongol’s believe that the smaller the jockey the faster the horse. Before the race, each horse has to be blessed with milk taken from the mares known as Irag which is stroked onto them by women using spoons. It is believed that singing Buddhist Mantra helps give the horses speed. The family of the winner is rewarded with a valuable horse, while the runner up is given a sheep and although the other participants are given smaller gifts, everybody gets something.

Mongolians have kept in tradition since the times of Genghis Khan, where the horses are concerned, as they still use metal studs that are located on the wooden saddles which sit on the horse’s backs. These metal studs were originally put on the saddles all of those centuries ago, to encourage men to stand up whilst riding.
The journey that these horses went on to reach Europe shows just how tough they really are and this toughness has not worn down over the years. The native horses survive extreme temperatures of minus forty degrees in the winter and over thirty degrees in the summer with little interference from humans. They survive on the natural sources around them, eating hardly anything but grass and drinking water wherever they find it. The natives around them rarely provide extra food for the animals. They are also seldom shod due to the fact that they naturally have very tough feet. Mongols’ only seek veterinary care for their prized horse, with the outlook of ‘survival of the fittest.’
The male horses are used for transportation and racing while the females (mares) are rarely ridden as they are used for milk and breeding.
Although it is said that Mongolians see horses the same way that people in other societies see cars, these horses are more than just transportation for Mongolians. They are also used for their resources, such as their milk which is used to make a drink called ‘Irag.’ The milk is also used in traditional Mongolian dishes. It is difficult for them to grow fruit and vegetables so the milk is their only source of Vitamin C. In the summer, the horses are milked every two hours (up to six times a day) and this is only done by the women.
In the western society horses are taken care of and kept secure in fenced fields and stables, but in Mongolia they are merely left to leave if they wish to. They are treated with such respect by the Mongol’s, it is said, that they choose to stay.

Having a large number of horses is seen as a symbol of wealth and status amongst Mongol families. The older and quieter horses are usually ridden by the children and women. Children are also put on the backs of foals and weanlings to help break them in for work. Some Mongol’s tie the foals to a line where their toddlers can help ready them for human interaction. Many of them are herded from birth so that when it comes to riding them, the process is sped up. Despite this, they are still considered to be free and wild animals which could be why the riding style varies greatly from western horses. Mongolians do not expect to have complete control over the animals, and put their trust in them to complete tasks themselves. This is why westerners who ride Mongolian horses are advised beforehand to not expect full control over them as this will result in the horses rebelling.