Photo Â© Mattias Nutt (www.mattiasnutt.ch)
MCI (P) 012/05/2016 SEP-OCT 2016 Free
Tajikistan | Switzerland | Chile
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Above It All
Our Team Editor-in-Chief May Lynn Writer Konrad Clapp Creative Director Lynn Ooi
Welcome to the shoulder season – while it’s technically in between two of the most popular travel periods, it means cheaper travel and less crowds no matter where you go. Another plus side is that it’s also a season for a change, when verdant green hillsides turn into fiery hues of reds and oranges – it’s probably the best time of the year for mountain travel if you’re into scenic beauty. We kick off our Mountain issue with a quick lowdown on Nepal. Its high altitude mountains have always attracted adventurers seeking enlightenment and a good challenge – and there’s no better time that now to support a nation that needs tourism to rebuild their infrastructure after the devastating quake of 2015. Chiang Mai brings a different experience, where soft adventure and cultural highlights come together for a great short break. We then check in on Taiwan’s famous Teapot Mountain, offering spectacular hikes – and views – of the north coast’s varied landscape. Also in the area are Jiufen’s incredibly scenic old teahouses, gold mines and colonial coal towns. We then head into the heart of Central Asia, dropping by Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan for an adventure like no other. Here, one can experience wide open spaces, soaring mountains and especially hospitable locals that welcome visitors in their yurts and villages whether you’re high in the mountains or in the middle of a barren desert. Getting between the three countries is an adventure in itself – dirt roads and empty highways lead you to soaring mountain passes, high altitude lakes, and settlements that pop out of nowhere. We briefly highlight some of South America’s gems in Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, before diving into Europe. Here, we feature the soaring Swiss town of Zermatt as a base for some spectacular hikes and skiing in winter. In neighbouring Italy, the Dolomite region is a great base to combine via ferrata (which originated here) and cultural treks that include wine tasting in autumn.
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Contributors Lis Hug, Mattias Nutt, Tsalina Pang, Yihui Sim
Special Thanks TAT TVA and many, many others!
Most might not realise how mountainous the Balkan region is: in Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, and it’s not difficult to see high altitude mountains no matter where you go. Scenic hikes to mountain villages, historic towns with Byzantine and Ottoman influences, and rafting down deep gorges are just some of the attractions in the region. Visit our website for our blogs, or drop us a line if you want to give us some feedback or contribute a travel story! Until then, happy trails!
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Qatar Photography Challenge
HOW TO ENTER Simply submit three of your own photos representing Singapore, along with a caption of 50 words or less, explaining your view of a different side of Singapore. Itâ€™s that easy.
From the sand dune home of the Arabian Oryx and ancient forts to the bounty of its seas, Qatar brings together old world hospitality with cosmopolitan sophistication, the chance to enjoy a rich cultural tapestry, new experiences and adventures. Explore the rich heritage of Qatar through your own eyes, as we invite five Singapore-based photographers of all levels to participate in this unique glimpse into this fascinating Gulf state.
Selected winners will be notified on or before 30 October 2016, and must be able to travel between 7-12 November 2016. Contest opens from 19 September 2016 (12:00PM SST) to 19 October 2016 (11:59PM SST) and is open only to Singapore-based individuals (inclusive of Singaporeans, PRs, foreigners), who are minimum 18 years of age or older (as at the date of entry). Multiple entries will be void. Only finalists will be notified, and must be available for a personal interview, date of which TBC by the Organiser. Only one entrant (the photographer) will be eligible for the trip; no addition of travel companions allowed. Winner(s) must be responsible for any and all mandatory travel prerequisites inclusive but not limited to having a passport with sufficient validity, obtaining the necessary entry visa where required, etc. For detailed terms & conditions, visit http://bit.ly/qatartc.
After the devastating earthquake in 2015, foreign tourism to Nepal dropped by 85%. For a country that relies heavily on the tourism industry, this figure created even more strife for an already crippled community. More than a year on, the rebuilding progress for the Nepalese has been debilitatingly slow, especially since the recent monsoon flooding. While remnants of the quake are still evident in many places, major highways suffered limited to zero damage, communication has been restored, and only 2 of the 25 listed trekking routes remain closed.
the rich forests to Phulchoki (2,800m), the highest point on the valley rim. This gorgeously rural side-valley, with small rock gardens, is popular as a downhill singletrack that hugs the ridgeline. Another popular downhill trail is from Nagarkot to Bhaktapur – both damaged by the quake – through small villages, tea shops, forests and terraced farms.
Cycling through the medieval streets and alleys of Kathmandu, you’ll navigate through the living history that cloaks the capital. While the famous Durbar Square was destroyed, you can explore the many backstreets lined with bustling ancient temples and tiny workshops.
The Scar Road is one of the most well known and challenging rides in the Kathmandu Valley. Starting with a 34km climb on a winding paved road, it offers spectacular views of the Himalayan mountains. Once in the national park, the trail in the jungle becomes narrow and technical with fast and furious sections, ending with a downhill towards Kathmandu.
The capital and Nepal’s most vibrant city, Kathmandu is an ideal locale to get acquainted with the spiritual nature of the Nepalese culture. Unfortunately, the area also bore the brunt of the devastating quake, leaving many of its treasured monuments and ancient houses destroyed, and thousands of lives lost.
There is a trail from Kathmandu through
Thankfully, tourism numbers are improving – up 13% since last month – and that’s good news as it’s essential to restoring the livelihoods of the Nepalese.
NEPAL ON TWO WHEELS
There are direct flights from Singapore to Kathmandu. From there Pokhara is a 30-minute flight away, or a 6-7 hour bus ride. A more scenic option is on a whitewater rafting trip along the Trisuli River, stopping by resorts and campgrounds en route. A number of outfitters offer cycle tours of Nepal, with popular itineraries taking cyclists from Kathmandu Valley to Pokhara, taking in majestic views of the Himalayan ranges along paved and dirt roads, taking around 10 days. The best season for cycling is from the end of September to mid-April, when you can expect clear skies and comfortable weather. Temperatures drop from December to February, with rhododendrons blooming between March and April.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
the Rapti River in a traditional dugout to observe the birds and animals that head to the river’s edge for a drink, or go for an elephant safari that will allow you to get close to the wildlife (especially the rhinos).
Sitting at the foot of the Himalayas, it’s home to one of the last communities of the Greater one-horned rhinoceros, in addition to other protected wildlife like the Bengal tiger, the mugger crocodile and a large concentration of birds (over 500 different species).
Accommodation can only be found outside the park zone.
Once hunting grounds for the blue bloods of Nepal, Chitwan National Park (932 km.sq) is now a rhinoceros sanctuary as well as Nepal’s first national park.
Another location unscathed by the quake, you can hike the Chitwan Chepang Hill Trail Trek that takes you along the grasslands and hidden marshes of the park, or explore villages tucked away in corners of stepped hills. You can also canoe down
06 Devi’s Falls which cascades through a series of karst formations. Trekking trails abound, including the Annapurna Base Camp and the Royal Trek, an easy hike past lakes and spectacular mountain views, once undertaken by Prince Charles. You can also visit the World Peace Pagoda (one of 80 dotted across the world) that overlooks numerous lakes and the lofty Annapurna region. A scenic way to get there is by renting a doonga and rowing your way across Phewa Lake, and take a 7km uphill trek through the forest.
Nestled in the second largest valley in Nepal, Pokhara is a scenic ancient city lined with 18th century Newari houses, complete with decorative red brickwork and ornate wooden windows. Unlike Kathmandu, Pokhara emerged unscathed by the quake. Considered the adventure capital of Nepal, it’s surrounded by glacial rivers, waterfalls, caves and forest-covered hills backdropped by the omnipresent Himalayan mountains. Here, adventures include zip-lining and paragliding from peaks like Poon Hill, and kayaking or rafting down the Kali Gandaki River. Caving enthusiasts can look to the south of Pokhara, as it’s home to a cluster of caves, from the Chamare Gufa (Bat Cave), an underground cavern that’s home to horseshoe bats, to the sacred Gupteswar Mahadev Cave that leads to
The Annapurna circuit – which lies in the western part of Nepal – is dominated by Himalayan peaks, and has long been considered one of the finest treks in the world. While the single-lane roads open up the opportunity to adventurous cyclists, bikes have to be carried for parts of the way. Cycling through the region involves tackling plenty of high-altitude paths that go up to 5,500m. Many cycling tours that cater to the Annapurna region kick start their routes from Jomsom in the Mustang district, and itineraries of the Annapurna portion alone would require around 10 days to complete. The Annapurna circuit is snaked with plenty of single-tracks, and as a day
of acclimatising is needed (usually at Manang), most tours will begin by weaving through the numerous tribal villages dotted along the road, passing through scenic landscapes of majestic oak forests and glacial lakes along the deep gorges of Marsyangdi and the Kali Gandaki Valley. The most arduous ascent is the Thorung La pass (5,416m), which gives cyclists a breathtaking view of the Himalayan peaks that dominate the area. Climbing through a series of dramatic panoramic zones, this tough trip involves long sections of carrying and pushing (sometimes through snow), weaving between two 8,000m-high peaks: Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. After this, it’s pretty much downhill. The descent then takes you down to Muktinath, a sacred place for Hindus and Buddhists dotted with numerous shrines and temples, and further down through the jeep tracks of the breathtaking Kali Gandaki Valley.
Situated in the foothills of Northern Thailand’s famous mountains which stretch well into neighbouring China and Laos, the city of Chiang Mai is known for its walled city, with cool weather and numerous ancient temples. Crisscrossed by a network of trails, Chiang Mai’s vast hinterland makes an ideal place for trekking, rafting or mountain biking. WITHIN CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai boasts more than 80 beautifully-adorned temples, some right in the centre of town. These are not only places to worship, some offer meditation classes and even ‘monk chats’ where you get face time with these saffron-robed men. Some of the best include Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in the city dating back to the 13th century and houses 2 venerated Buddha figures; Wat Phra Singh, dating from 1345, located within the city walls is a fine example of a classic Lanna-style temple; Wat Si Keut where visitors can partake in meditation and massage classes; and Wat Chedi Luang that is dominated by a large Lanna-style chedi which was destroyed in a 16th century earthquake, so only two-thirds of it remains. Some of Chiang Mai’s best action is found at the famous Night Bazaar – the city’s hub for street food and cheap goods. The Sunday Evening Market happens weekly at Rachadamnoen Road – the main street in the historical centre – which focuses on local handicraft and food with street entertainment, while a handicraft market along Wua Lai Road opens every Saturday evening.
BEYOND CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai’s surrounding hills have many attractions, depending on your choice of activity and range of time.
CHIANG MAI & SURROUNDS Chiang Dao There are many options for biking tours, particularly around the hilly Chiang Dao – an area that boasts deep valleys, fast rivers, authentic hill tribe villages, limestone massifs and caves. This landscape offers intense off-road trails as well as asphalt cycling. There is a loop trail that takes in a spectacular view of the limestone karsts of Doi Chiang Dao (2,175m).
The base is home to a venerated temple, which leads you into an extensive cave system that houses an important Buddhist temple where you can go for a lantern-lit tour through the passages of stalactites, stalagmites and ancient Buddhist statues. You can also cycle past rural farming areas dotted with some small hill tribe villages – like Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, Akha and Palaung (who originated from Burma) – where you can meet some of these tribespeople. Riders sail through fields
of banana, corn and rice, all thriving in the fertile farmlands at the base of the limestone karsts. Doi Pui Suthep National Park Home to more than 300 species of bird and numerous mammals including the sloth bear and wild boar, the area is also home to a large population of Hmong tribespeople, with the largest village located just off the park’s main trail. Chiang Mai Hike organises free weekly hikes along the park’s various trails, and mountain bike tours are regularly offered within the park’s singletracks.
Dating back over 600 years, the ancient Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple sits majestically at 1,070m, half way up the slopes of Doi Suthep mountain, overlooking the entire city below. One of Thailand’s most holy sites, getting there requires climbing 306 steps, unless you opt for the cable car. Every year in May, thousands of people make the pilgrimage here from Chiang Mai University.
Flight of the Gibbon For an alternative view of Chiang Mai’s forest, strap yourself to a zip line (flying fox) and literally glide through the forest canopy to see the local inhabitants: gibbons. This “Flight of the Gibbon” in the village of Mae Kampong (37km from the city), is situated within a 1,500-year old rainforest with 30 viewing platforms and sky-bridges that connect over 5km of zip lines. Proceeds from this venture go
towards the rehabilitation of gibbons and provide employment to the villagers.
with skinny poles for punting down the shallow river.
Whitewater Rafting The rugged Mae Tang Valley is 90km from town, near Chiang Dao Nature Preserve, and is an area full of ethnic tribal villages and pristine forests.
Elephant Sanctuary The Elephant Nature Park (60km from the city) is home to about 30 pachyderms who have been rescued from abusive owners. Visitors can opt to help the elephants take their afternoon bath and watch a feeding session while learning about their plight.
For an exhilarating whitewater rafting trip, head to the Mae Tang river where there are options for full-day or overnight excursions. Rafting is best from July to March, when the rivers are flowing with endless Grade III and IV rapids.
You can also stay overnight or volunteer for a period of time.
For a more relaxing paddle, you can head for a 2-hour bamboo rafting excursion in the Mae Wang river. Operators provide basic bamboo rafts about 8m long,
CHIANG MAI MARATHON (18 DEC 2016)
The 11th Chiang Mai Marathon takes runners along the city’s flat roads, passing Lanna temples set against the backdrop of the Doi Suthep mountains. With cool temps of 1218ºC, you can book full, half, and 10k runs with www.42race.com which organises marathon travel packages to Thailand throughout the year (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Loi Kratong (Yi Peng) Festival (usually November) is when thousands of floating banana-leaf containers with flowers and candles are set adrift down the waterways of the city, along with thousands of sky lanterns (khom fai) which are launched into the air. Songkran, a Thai New Year festival celebrated from 13-15 April, is also known as the festival of water. Each January, the village of Bo Sang (15km from the Old City) holds an umbrella festival where you can go for food, parades, markets and handmade goods.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to bike in Chiang Mai is from December to March, with its cool evening temps and dry daytime weather. Shoulder season (end-September through October) is the tail end of the rainy season, but there are less visitors and villa offers abound.
Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Singapore via direct flights, taking about 3 hours. The airport is 3km from the city centre, or a 10-15 minute taxi ride. For more, visit sg.tourismthailand.org.
It’s almost impossible to say the words “Afghanistan” and “tourist” together without raising as many eyebrows as doubts. But there are exceptions to every rule – in this case, the Wakhan Corridor – a narrow finger of land wedged between China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. It’s still Afghanistan, but worlds away from the dangers of Kabul or Kandahar.
PHOTOS AND SELECTED TEXT BY Yihui Sim
A geopolitical oddity, the Corridor dates from the “Great Game”, when Imperial Russia and England battled for supremacy in the remote hinterlands of 19th century Central Asia. Meant as a buffer between their domains, the Wakhan is a narrow corridor stretching over 350km from Afghanistan to the edge of China, hemmed by Tajikistan’s soaring Pamirs to the north, and Pakistan’s vast Hindu Kush range to the south. While the well-documented situation in Afghanistan means the Wakhan remains virtually unvisited by outsiders, its history dates back centuries as part of the Silk Road. Marco Polo is said to have travelled it, with Victorian-era explorers being relative latecomers to the area only a century ago. The Wakhan runs from Ishkashim, Afghanistan in the west, to the Wakhjir Pass (4,923m) on the Chinese border, which due to unrest in Xinjiang remains closed, making the Wakhan a cul-de-sac. The corridor is extremely sparsely populated. It’s home to just 10,000 hearty souls, including the native Wakhi farmers
at lower elevations, and Kyrgyz shepherds at higher altitudes. The Kyrgyz and Wakhi have historically followed Ismail’i Islam, and look to the Aga Khan, meaning much of the infighting and extremism of mainstream Afghanistan are virtually unknown here.
Despite poverty, poor health care (Wakhan has high infant mortality rates even for Afghanistan), and its neartotal isolation from the outside world, it remains one of the most welcoming, and certainly the most visitable place in the country.
Isolated as it is, the road to Wakhan isn’t via Kabul, but neighbouring Tajikistan. The Pamir Highway connects the Tajik capital, Dushanbe to the Afghan border town of Ishkashim, situated at the entrance of the Wakhan. The “highway” itself is one of the most rugged and highest-altitude in the world, with numerous river crossings and frequent landslides as it passes through Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan. Leaving Tajikistan, the road crosses a simple bridge over the Panj River, marking the border between the Tajik town of Ishkoshim and Ishkashim on the Afghan side – it also marks the mental boundary for most travellers between remote and terra incognita.
Trekking groups generally take the opportunity to see Ishkashim for a day, stocking up on supplies and registering with local officials; there’s a famous Saturday market that many travellers do as a day-trip, crossing in from Tajikistan. Ishkashim itself lies at nearly 3,000m, with the town made up of dozens of small farming villages.
idyllic villages en route are starkly at odds with most people’s assumptions about Afghanistan. Heading east from there, the road leads on to Wuzed, and the trail leading to Kosh (3,900m), just north of the Pakistani border. It’s something of a baptism by fire,
While the entire corridor is incredibly scenic (and remote), the main destinations for virtually all visitors to Wakhan are the Big Pamir and Little Pamir.
BIG PAMIR – LITTLE PAMIR
Named for the same word in Kyrgyz, Tajik and Wakhi, a pamir is a U-shaped valley surrounded by mountains. The two large valleys of Big Pamir and Little Pamir dominate the narrow geography of the corridor. Big Pamir lies midway down the corridor, bordered to the north by Zorkul Lake (4,130m), while the Little Pamir continues further east, nearly to the Chinese border. In between, they’re separated by the soaring Nicholas Range (named for the last Tsar), whose summits top out over 5,800m. The route between the Pamirs takes 2 weeks, crossing high-altitude desert and numerous passes over 4,000m high. From Ishkashim, there’s a single main road heading east through the corridor, along the Wakhan River Valley, bringing you 200km in 2 days into the central Wakhan and the main trailhead at the village of Khunded. While the road itself is extremely hard going, the seemingly
with the first day involving both a surging, chest-high river crossing on yak back, as well as the route’s first high pass, Wuzed Pass (4,400m), before arriving at Kosh. Leaving Kosh, the route continues climbing towards the small yurt settlement of Mulungdan (4,200m), where a small, nomadic village of Wakhi live during the summer, on the edge of the Big Pamir – which is surprisingly green and lush, considering its altitude. The route eventually makes another major yak-back river crossing before reaching Bulou Pass (4,500m), and descending to camp at Jelmarcet (4,330m). From here on, the route remains above 3,500m, meaning trekkers occasionally
spot rare high-altitude herbivores like the Marco Polo sheep, easily recognisable by its large, curving horns, and the Ibex, which in turn means an occasional glimpse of the Pamir’s apex predator, the snow leopard. As the route continues to climb from Elgonok (4,200m) to Mula (4,350m), the population becomes predominantly Kyrgyz, who maintain a seasonal yurt settlement on these aylaq (summer pastures) grazing their flocks. As the last village before crossing the Showr Pass (4,895m) and into the Little Pamir, Mula is fairly remote even by Wakhan standards, cut off from the outside by two major yak-back river crossings and the soaring Showr Pass.
BUZKASHI – ORGANISED CHAOS
Dating back 1,000 years or more to ancient Turkic nomads, Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s national sport involving horsebacked teams of 5-10 riders per side who battle to score goals with a headless goat or sheep carcass (sheep are preferred as they hold up better). Played in two 45-minute rounds, the unmarked field covers roughly several hundred square metres. Injuries are frequent, as literally anything goes, short of deliberately knocking opponents off their horses. Locals regularly organise Buzkashi matches on Fridays to bring together the surrounding villages as a way to lessen the seclusion these villagers face. The game is popular especially in Mula, which is isolated from the rest of the world by rivers and high passes.
THE RETURN JOURNEY
Mula serves as a base camp for crossing the imposing Showr Pass, with many groups opting to camp next to an azure glacial lake at the foot of the pass. Most groups rise early to “summit” over Showr, pushing through to the Wakhi yurt settlement of Chapdara (4,050m) on the other side. The route that leads down from the Little Pamir (about 3,500m) crosses a few final mountain passes (topping out at 4,700m), before the long, 2-day descent to
Sarhad-e-Broghil (3,200m) along the Wakhan River. Situated in a tectonically active corner of the region, Sarhad-e-Broghil is well-known for its small hot spring, which has been popular with weary climbers for centuries. From Sarhad-e-Broghil, the road along the river valley leads back to the village of Khunded and eventually to Ishkashim.
Among the Central Asian “stans”, Tajikistan is something of an anomaly. Unlike its vast neighbours, it’s comparatively small, and one of the most mountainous countries on earth, with the more than 25 major ranges crammed into an area less than half the size of Malaysia, including some of the world’s tallest mountains outside the Himalayas. Nestled among the soaring peaks are deep valleys that shelter local cultures and communities that have lived a life virtually unchanged for centuries. What’s more, the culture has more in common with its fellow Farsi-speakers in Afghanistan and Iran than its traditionally nomadic, Turkic neighbours like the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. One of the most scenic ways to get to the heart of Tajikistan is by crossing over the border from Uzbekistan (Samarkand) into Panjakent. From this town, with its UNESCO sites and rich history, it’s a stone’s throw from the ranges of Zeravshan, where travellers can explore the mountainous region from the small village of Shing. PHOTOS AND SELECTED TEXT BY Yihui Sim
TAJIKISTAN’S ZERAVSHAN VALLEY PANJAKENT
Situated near the Uzbek-Tajik border, Panjakent’s history stretches back thousands of years. A fact attested to by the 6,000 year old UNESCO-listed ruins at Sarazm – an ancient centre of Zoroastrianism, which sees surprisingly few visitors. Over the millennia that followed, Panjakent became a key stop en route from Samarkand along the Silk Road. Fast forward to modern times, as Tajikistan’s fledgling tourism industry has grown, Panjakent has become the gateway for the popular Zeravshan Valley.
ZTDA Homestays The Zeravshan Tourism Development Association (ZTDA) is a small co-op based out of Penjikent which runs a grassroots accreditation programme for local family-owned home stays across the Zeravshan Valley. They assist local families in making a critical alternative source of income through certifying and marketing guides, equipment rentals, local transportation and a network of 20 home stays in 13 villages, with prices ranging from roughly US$10/ person/night. Visit www.ztda-tourism.tj/en for more information.
Tucked between the Zaravshan Range to the south, and the Turkestan Range to the north, the Zeravshan River valley forms a natural east-west corridor through the rugged Pamirs, linking Tajikistan Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan along its 300km length. Named “the River of Gold”, Zeravshan’s source starts high in the Pamirs to the east, cutting a fertile strip through the region’s arid mountains, due west all the way to Panjakent before eventually dying out in the Uzbek desert. The fertile river basin is dotted with farming villages along its length, making it an ideal access point for treks into the surrounding side valleys and beyond. Shing The small village of Shing is located 40km (1.5 hours) east by road from Panjakent, and is a hub for home stays and hikes in the surrounding Zeravshan mountains. Shing is best-known for its 7 famous lakes, the so-called “Seven Beauties of Shing”, Mijgon (1,640 m), Saya (1,740 m), Gushor (1,770m), Nofin (1,820m), Hurdak
(1,870 m), Marguzor (2,140 m) and Hazorchashma (2,400m), which according to legend are the tears of 7 lost sisters. The first 6 are reachable via 4WD from Panjakent, with various home stay options on site including the villages of Nofin and Padrud, from where, the final highest lake, Hazorchashma is a strenuous but stunning 11km (4-hour) hike uphill. Alternatively, the lakes can be explored as a very long 1-day, or leisurely 2-day trek from Shing, following the cascading Shing River that feeds the lakes, tracing 1,000 vertical metres back up its course through remote villages and rugged countryside. From Shing, it’s a 4-hour hike to Padrud village, located between the fourth and fifth lakes, with most groups breaking for lunch at Nofin village on the fourth lake. There are multiple ZTDA homestays in Parud, making it an ideal overnight spot for the following day’s 8-hour hike up to Hazorchashma and back.
Running 300km across northwest Tajikistan, between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz borders, the Zeravshan Valley is accessible from multiple points, including domestically from Dushanbe (6 hours) via the infamous Aznob Tunnel (aka The Tunnel of Death), as well as internationally via Samarkand, Uzbekistan and Batken, Kyrgyzstan. The hiking and home stay season in Zeravshan is from June-October or later depending on the weather, as Panjakent
Other than their stunning scenery and opportunity for tranquil home stays, the lakes’ allure lies in their different, distinct shades of blue and turquoise, which change throughout the day and across the seasons; Marguzor is particularly popular with locals, thanks to its road access and its amazing alpine setting. The Seven Beauties around Shing are just some of the 30 or so high-altitude lakes spread across the Fann Mountains. Other popular lakes for home stays and hiking include Iskanderkul to the north, which has been turned into a nature reserve and is an important rest stop for dozens of rare migratory species of bird, and the famous double-lake of Alauddin to the east, connected via the Alauddin Pass to neighbouring Kul-i-Kalon lake – another key habitat for rare birds.
itself is often cut off from the rest of the country during the winter. Dushanbe often gets a bad rap, given its 1990s civil war image, but much has changed and today the city’s undergoing a fast-paced development. The city is connected to its regional neighbours via the Pamir Highway, as well as various regular flights to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bishkek, etc. In addition to ZTDA for Zeravshan, another useful resource for bookings and general information on travel in eastern Tajikistan is www.meta.tj.
Like all of its neighbouring stans, Kyrgyzstan is rugged, landlocked and mountainous. With its soaring summits and alpine lakes, it’s been called the “Switzerland of Central Asia”. It’s also a place where the nomadic way of life is alive and well, with entire villages making the same annual migration their ancestors made for millennia, moving from high summer pastures to the low valleys with their flocks in winter.
PHOTOS AND SELECTED TEXT BY Yihui Sim
KYRGYZSTAN’S NATURE AND CULTURE PAMIR HIGHWAY
Stretching over 2,000km, the legendary Pamir Highway links Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Considered one of the world’s most dangerous roads in parts, in Kyrgyzstan it’s one of the most scenic, crossing the Taldyk Pass (3,615m) and Chyrchyk Pass (2,402m). From Tajikistan, the route heads north into Kyrgyzstan’s southern town of Sary-Tash, a mountaineers’ base to acclimatise before tackling Peak Lenin on the Alay Range, which is part of the Tian Shan mountains. Lying on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, Peak Lenin (7,134m) is the second-highest summit in either country, and widely
acknowledged as one of the easiest 7,000m summits in the world. Almost all of the hundreds of annual ascents come via the Kyrgyz side, due to better routes and access, versus Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan region. From Sary-Tash, the highway then heads north until Osh near the Uzbek border. Osh Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s oldest city, dating back over 3,000 years – it’s been a key trading centre for centuries, first on the Silk Road, and now as a major transport hub for flights, buses and taxis to the rest of Kyrgyzstan. To its west is the vast Fergana Valley – a highly fertile strip first
conquered by Alexander the Great over 2,300 years ago. To its east the snowy summits of the Pamirs give Osh an imposing 4,000m backdrop. Osh is home to the UNESCO-listed Sulaiman-Too (1,115m) which rises like a pillar from the valley floor. A beacon for ancient travellers en route to Osh, it’s thought to be the legendary “Stone Tower” marking the midpoint of the Silk Road. Revered by locals for millennia, it’s home to dozens of sacred pre-Islamic, Tengrism sites and ancient petroglyphs, along with two 16th century mosques which are still in use. It’s free to enter and easily accessible via a short climb from within the city centre.
Karakol Lying on the far eastern end of the lake, the quiet provincial town of Karakol sits at the foot of soaring Peak Pobeda (7,439m) and Khan Tengri (7,010m). Not surprisingly, there’s ample hiking routes in the surrounding mountains.
Situated in eastern Kyrgyzstan, Issyk-Köl is the world’s second-largest salt water lake (after the Caspian Sea). Meaning “warm lake” in Kyrgyz, it never freezes despite being 1,600m above sea level. It covers an area 8 times bigger than Singapore, with numerous towns dotted along its extensive 670km of shoreline.
Issyk-Köl is accessible by highway from the capital Bishkek to Balykchy (180km, 2.5 hours), the main town on the lake’s western edge. A slow, scenic train also plies the route during the summer. A former industrial town, Balykchy is mainly an access point for Issyk-Köl’s other, more scenic destinations.
Issyk-Köl is at its best both for weather and culture in summer. Activities vary among the dozens of communities along its coast, but include eagle hunting festivals and buzkashi – the Kyrgyz version which is played with a dead horse’s head and is far less violent than the Afghan variety. Issyk-Köl is also popular for swimming, with daytime summer water temps reaching 23ºC.
Bokonbayevo (Bökönbaev) Situated on the southern shore of the lake, Bökönbaev is the jumping-off point for multi-day treks into the nearby Terskei Ala-Too range, home to both hot springs and Kyrgyzstan’s tallest waterfall, Chasha Manasa. There are numerous yurt home stays in the area, both on the lakeside and further inland near the mountains.
Apart from the Issyk-Köl itself, Karakol’s most famous site is the Jeti Oguz Canyon, situated 25km west of town. Its name means “seven bulls” in Kyrgyz, named for its seven striking red sandstone cliffs’ resemblance to bull heads. Situated in a highly geologically striated area, other nearby geo-sites you can hike to include Dragon’s Valley and the Broken Heart, with various yurt camps and home stays available in the area. Karakol is also famous for its Sunday morning cattle market, where locals trade a huge array of cows, horses and sheep.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Like their brethren, the Kazakhs and Mongols, the yurt holds a key cultural significance for the Kyrgyz as a symbol of their nomadic past. The all-important tündük, or “crown”, at the top of the yurt’s wooden frame is represented symbolically everywhere, including on the national flag. There’s no better way to experience (and understand) Kyrgyzstan, than a homestay in a traditional Kyrgyz yurt with families on the jailoo (summer pasture). In fact, a large number of Kyrgyz, especially in the north remain nomadic herders to this day. The Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association (CBT) operates as a nationwide co-op, facilitating travellers booking directly with locally-owned, independently run homestay and tour operators, with profits going directly back to host families and for collective group marketing. For more on CBT, visit www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg.
Compared to other ancient Silk Road cities like Samarkand or even Osh, the capital Bishkek is relatively young, featuring a czarist layout of wide boulevards and Soviet-era apartment blocks. It’s the hub of connectivity for the country’s main air, road and rail routes. Situated at the northern end of Kyrgyzstan, it links to Osh (and the Pamir Highway) via the well-maintained M41 motorway, and is the gateway to Lake Issyk-Köl. Kyrgyz roads are by far the best in the region; drivers often go too fast due to the smooth conditions, and get into accidents. Tajik roads are hit-or-miss, while Afghan roads tend to be slow going (river crossings, rock falls, construction by Chinese companies, etc), making drivers ironically more cautious. You can fly into Bishkek from China, Turkey, Russia, and the rest of Central Asia.
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Taiwan is famously mountainous, with soaring ranges stretching all the way from the northern tip to the south. This means that no matter which city you choose to base yourself in, you won’t be more than an hour from the nearest mountain (and a great hike). In Taipei, for instance, you can easily access the popular Yangmingshan National Park with its numerous trails that criss-cross the mountainous landscape, as well as the Four Beast Mountain which is actually located within the city. If you’re willing to venture just a little further, northeast Taiwan offers more than just mountain hikes – there’s the dramatic geological formations along the scenic coastline, there’s the old gold mining town at Jinguanshi, and there’s Jiufen, a popular tourist area that’s famous as the Japanese teahouse setting for Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. The popularity of these sites ensure that there is a steady stream of tourists, so the best – and most scenic – way to take it all in is from atop the nearby mountain ridge between Teapot and Banping Mountains. The hike is not excessively high or long, although it can be challenging at various points along the way: the hike contains many roped scrambling sections that can be a bit tricky to navigate. However, it’s a great way to escape the bustle and experience a thrilling ridgeline hike just metres away from the crowd, as these two peaks feature craggy hills and green mountains that tumble down to the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.
HIKING TEAPOT MOUNTAIN TEAPOT MOUNTAIN
Situated in the mountainous area of Jinguanshi not far from the popular tourist street of Jiufen, Teapot Mountain (600m) gets its name from the rock formation (boulder, rather) at the top that most people agree looks like a teapot without a handle.
hike to the top of Teapot Mountain and back that takes about 3-4 hours at a leisurely pace with lunch en route, or a longer trek that continues past Teapot Mountain to neighbouring Banping mountain and ends at Jiufen in about 5-6 hours.
The trail to the ‘teapot’ on the mountain is a popular hiking route thanks to its easy access from Jinguanshi’s Gold Ecological Museum (accessible by car or bus) that’s only an hour from Taipei. There is no entrance fee for the museum, which is an outdoor park containing exhibits, restaurants, and an old mining railroad.
To The Teapot Beginning from the signposted trailhead at the Gold Ecological Museum, the route to Teapot Mountain involves climbing 2 sets of well-maintained stone stairs, with 2 small pagoda rest-stops en route. If hiking in winter, blooming cherry blossom trees line the path, complementing the striking ocean views.
The trailhead to Teapot Mountain starts from the back of the museum, with 2 ways to tackle the hike: the in-and-out
It takes about an hour to reach the ‘teapot’ at the top of the mountain along the well-marked trail. There is a rest stop here
which some people consider the end of the trail before turning back – it overlooks the beautiful cliff and the rest of the North Coast, with the boulder-strewn Teapot Mountain at the back. For most hikers, getting to the top of the ‘teapot’ is the ultimate goal, and the most fun aspect of the hike. At the end of the trail is the mouth of a cave with a hole at the top – this is the inside of the ‘teapot’ – so you have to climb up via fixed ropes and scramble over rocks to pull yourself through to the top. On the walls of the cave, there is some evidence of sulphur – this is a volcanic area after all – so at some point in the past long ago, the ‘teapot’ would have expelled real steam.
Emerging from the cave, you’re essentially standing on the large pile of boulders that forms the top of Teapot Mountain, with spectacular views of Jiufen, Jinguashi, Jilong Mountain, Bitou Cape, the Yin Yang Sea and the Northeast Coast. On a sunny, clear day views extend as far as Keelung and maybe Taipei 101 as it peeks out over the mountains. From here, the option is to return along the same trail, or push on towards Banpingshan – this portion is more difficult and the trail is more exposed, so check the weather before proceeding.
From Teapot Mountain, after scrambling past some giant boulders, there is a trail that leads uphill to the neighbouring peak of Banpingshan (713m). The trail is flanked by tall silvergrass – often head-high – which can be overgrown especially in summer, so it may be difficult to discern the path; hikers may want to wear long sleeves and pants here so as not to get cut by the thick grass. Alternating between dirt, grass, and rocks which can get slippery, the trail is a narrow single-track that leads to a steep, narrow cliff section to be climbed. This almost-vertical ascent is aided by the presence of sturdy ropes. The reward for reaching the summit of Banpingshan is a stunning 360 degree view of northern
Taiwan – to the west is Taipei, to the north is the eastern coastline, and to the south is the rolling mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Pushing on, the trail continues to undulate with fixed ropes installed along the steepest sections. Some sections are only a few inches wide, and require some scrambling. The trail will then steeply descend through silvergrass before reaching a saddle that marks the end of the trail. From hereon, the rest of the journey – either back to Jinguanshi or towards
Jiufen – is on tarmac roads. As this is a mountainous area, the roads zig-zag, and traffic can be tricky. Turning right takes you along the curving, switchback roads until you reach a junction: turning right again will bring you back to Jinguanshi, while turning left will take you towards Jiufen along Route 102 (the main road). A recommended route (if you don’t need to return to Jinguanshi) is to end up in Jiufen Old Street – once you pass a cemetery, get off the road and follow the set of stairs downhill towards Jiufen’s windy maze of stairways.
Golden Waterfall The area around Jinguanshi (including Jiufen) was once a major area for gold mining during the Japanese occupation. While there isn’t any more gold in the area – you can explore the Jinguanshi’s Gold Ecological Museum for more explanation – there are interesting ruins of the abandoned gold mining factory.
Jiufen Old Street Jiufen Old Street consists of a series of old tea houses that seem to tumble down from the mountainside. Here, you can relax in one of the many tea houses that overlook the dramatic north coast – arrive before sunset for the best views (and before the crowds arrive). Jiufen’s hodgepodge of teahouses line the main thoroughfares of Jishan Street and Shuqi Street, which runs up the hill in a jumble of stairs. These traditional teahouses feature classic Chinese architecture, complete with latticed windows and carved balconies, all of which face the dramatic backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Serving premium Taiwanese tea, visitors can partake in a tea ceremony or simply enjoy the views. Come the eve-
ning, rows of red lanterns light the main thoroughfare like an ethereal scene right out of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Once a haven of inspiration for Taiwanese artists and authors for its atmospheric setting, you can enjoy tea at Jiufen Teahouse which is still equipped with steaming iron kettles nestled in a long fiery bank of coals.
The Golden Waterfall isn’t very big, but it’s quite attractive and runs off into the ocean in an area known as the Yin-Yang Sea, where the normally blue water is turned murky brown due to the run-off from the gold mines.
Houtong A small coal mining town originally built during the Japanese era, Houtong was once a thriving community. After the 1990s, when the coal industry died, the residents moved away. In 2008, a local began caring for abandoned cats in the village, and from there, Houtong’s new identity as a cat haven attracted enough tourists to turn it into a cat-themed village filled with cat houses, cat sculptures, cat murals, and plenty of cat-themed items. Today, the village is home to some 100 cats – they can be seen everywhere, even at the train station (which is along the famed Pingxi Line).
Teapot Mountain – as well as Jiufen and Jinguanshi – is easily accessible from Taipei. No matter which mode of transport you take, the travel time is roughly an hour. You can get there by bus, car, or a combination of train and bus. The Gold Fulong Shuttle Bus (http://en.taiwantrip.com.tw/line/32) takes you from Jiufen to Jinguanshi and Golden Waterfall, stopping at other attractions before terminating at Fulong Beach. For more info, visit eng.taiwan.net.tw.
SHORT BREAK: INDONESIA
SURABAYA Surabaya is Indonesia’s second biggest city, and the gateway to Central Java. Despite its sprawling size, it packs in a quaint mix of culture and history, including the historic Arab quarter, colonial Dutch architecture and one of Indonesia’s biggest Chinatowns. It’s also the stepping stone to nearby Mt. Bromo, the UNESCO site of Trowulan, and the island of Madura.
SURABAYA: Arab Quarter and Chinatown > Known locally as Ampel, Surabaya’s Arab Quarter is home to the city’s oldest, most famous mosque and a bustling covered market that could pass for a Moroccan medina with its warren of alleys and shops selling perfumes and dates. Situated just next door is one of Indonesia’s biggest Chinatowns, while further out is the Chinese-themed mosque of Masjid Cheng Ho, dedicated to the Chinese-Muslim admiral – and the first and only of its kind in Indonesia. Night Markets > Given its huge population, Surabaya’s bustling night markets and warungs boast a wide range of traditional dishes like pecel (a Javanese version of Indonesian gado-gado), as well as local Surabayan specialties like rawon (nutty-brown beef soup) and semanggi salad. BEYOND SURABAYA: Madura > The nearby island of Madura (linked by Indonesia’s longest bridge), is just a short drive away. It’s most famous for its local bull racing tournament, the karapan sapi, where jockeys drag-race bull-chariots at over 40km/hour; races are held most weekends from July-October. Trowulan > At about 60km from Surabaya, the UNESCO-listed 14th century Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit capital of Trowulan was discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. There are several archaeological ruins, mainly constructed of red brick, including Candi Brahu with its manicured lawns, the elegant gate of Candi Bajang Ratu, and Candi Tikus (“rat temple”) with its sunken, rectangular bathing pools once used by nobility for ritual cleansing. Mt. Bromo > One of Indonesia’s most famous landmarks is Mt. Bromo (2,329m), an active volcano with conical tips that continuously spews white sulphurous smoke. It’s also one of Indonesia’s most hiked mountains, thanks to its proximity to Surabaya 70km away. Situated within the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park which is home to a collection of volcanoes, Mt Bromo sits inside the massive Tengger caldera with a diameter of about 10km, surrounded by the Laut Pasir, a ‘sea’ made of fine volcanic sand.
Getting to Bromo’s caldera involves a 1-2 hour hike across the sea of sand, followed by ascending a set of stairs up to the steaming crater. At the base of the mountain is Poten, a Tenggerese Hindu temple that sits on the sea of sand. Another popular vantage point for Bromo’s sunrise is from the top of neighbouring Mt. Penanjakan (2,770m). The sun rises at 5.30am, and the hike up to the first vantage point takes about 1-2 hours. You can then trek down Mt. Penanjakan and towards Mt. Bromo across the 4km sea of sand (you can walk or ride a horse) to the base of Mt. Bromo and then hike towards the caldera summit. The nearest villages are Ngadisari and Cemoro Lawang, where accommodation can be found. If you have time, you can explore the many Tenggerese villages that dot the area. Mt. Bromo is not only an active volcano – it last erupted in November 2015 – it’s also significant to the Tengger people who throw food and livestock into the crater of the volcano to the appease the gods during the annual Yadnya Kasada festival which happens in July-August according to the Javanese calendar. As the Hindu devotees toss their offerings into the crater, nearby villagers will actually position themselves dangerously inside the crater with nets to catch whatever they can. Madakaripura Waterfall > The powerful Madakaripura is situated between Surabaya and Mt. Bromo, and is the biggest waterfall in East Java. The 7-tier waterfall cascades from the dense forest at 200m above, creating a mist of cold pools at the base deep in a canyon. To get to the canyon where the waterfall is, you’ll need to hike along the river and under 4 other waterfalls. The falls are about an hour away from Mt. Bromo. >GETTING THERE There are 5 direct flights per week (2.5 hours) from Singapore to Surabaya on Tigerair. Use promo code SUB15 to enjoy 15% off with all-in return fares from S$119. Promo code valid from 19 Sep - 31 Oct 2016. For booking, visit www.tigerair.com.
FOR BACKPACKING Heading into the wilderness requires a lot of planning, especially the further away from civilisation you’ll be. Before you step into the backcountry, even on a day hike, you should start with a good packing list of the Ten Essentials – even if you don’t end up using all of the items. You’ll only realise their importance once you actually need them. Here are the 10 must-haves for safety, survival, and basic comfort: 1. NAVIGATION: A map – with protective case for if the weather turns – together with a compass are essential guides. Learning how to read a physical map is a good outdoor skill to have. While you can use GPS (either on your phone, watch or a tracker) and altimeter, technology may not live up to the punishing wilderness, not to mention you’ll need to recharge them. 2. SUN PROTECTION: Sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat should be essential. In alpine country, sunglasses are critical to prevent snow blindness – they should filter 95100% of UV light (if your eyes can easily be seen, the lenses are too light). The ideal sunscreen should block UVA and UVB rays. 3. INSULATION: You should always pack some form of insulation like jackets, vests, gloves, etc., because you’ll never know what the weather will bring. This applies even if you’re in a sweltering tropical jungle.
The best insulation should ideally be waterproof-coated, and quick-drying gear is preferable. Fleece makes for good lightweight insulation that’s slightly waterproof, while wool is a good choice for socks. 4. ILLUMINATION: A flashlight or headlamp (for hands-free) can be lifesavers when it’s dark or if exploring caves – LED lights are ideal. 5. FIRST-AID SUPPLIES: There are plenty of firstaid kits for backpacking; while antihistamines (for bites, allergies), bandages, disinfectants, and painkillers are the norm, also consider vaseline and hydration salts. 6. FIRE: Fire is essential not only for providing much-needed heat, but also for cooking and emergency survival. Be sure to have matches or lighters and tinder, and a waterproof container.
7. REPAIR KIT AND TOOLS: To repair tears or boots, duct tape is very versatile and hardy. It’s also advisable to bring along a Swiss army knife or a similar tool for first aid, food preparation, repairs, and climbing. 8. NUTRITION: For short trips, a one-day supply of extra food is a reasonable emergency stockpile. The food should require no cooking, be easily digestible, and store well for long periods. A combination of jerky, nuts, candy, granola, and dried fruit works well. 9. HYDRATION: Water bottles or hydration packs are essential to any hike (2L daily is ideal). For longer hikes, water filtration systems (and UV treatment or iodine tablets) lessen the load. 10. EMERGENCY SHELTER: You can choose between a tent (for more than one person, or if snow is involved), a bivy, or a waterproof tarp to build a shelter. A space blanket also helps in case of any emergency.
MOUNTAIN SPECIFIC If you’re planning to head into the mountains, you’ll need extra gear to make the trip easier. Here are some extra essentials to consider: Trekking poles: They are great for balance, and lessen the load on your knees especially if the hike involves plenty of downhill portions. Emergency signals: If you’re planning to snowshoe in the backcountry, carrying an avalanche transceiver (plus a
probe and a shovel) may make the difference between life and death if an avalanche occurs. Whistles are also very handy to have: use it to signal for help or to locate someone. Extra protection: These days, it’s also a good idea to have bug protection (ie. DEET) against critters like disease-carrying ticks and especially mosquitoes. If hiking in the American backcountry, bear spray is essential. If you’re travelling to high mountains, consider adding specific medication in your first-aid kit.
Additional heat: On a highaltitude snow or glacier climb, it’s hard to find firewood so it’s advisable to carry a stove as a heat and water source. Ice Axe: An indispensable tool on snowcovered terrain and glacier, it’s also handy for travelling in steep heather, scree, or brush; for crossing streams; and for digging sanitation holes.
SOUTH AMERICA Long romanticised as the continent of superlatives, South America is a wild landscape that is home to the world’s biggest rainforests, the highest mountain range (outside of Asia), huge deserts, icy landscapes, high altitude lakes, and plenty of other breathtaking natural attractions. In addition, the region has seen some of the most incredible marks left by man in the form of ancient civilisations – like Machu Picchu – and indigenous villages that are only accessible via some of the oldest, most formidable mountain trails in the world. In South America, nowhere is more scenic, or diverse than the Andean spine stretching across Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.
BOLIVIA Laguna Colorada Known as the Red Lagoon, it’s a shallow salt lake in the southwest of the Altiplano of Bolivia. Located at an altitude of 4,200m within Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and close to the border with Chile, it is one of many lagoons that is famous for their bright colours thanks to the presence of minerals in the water. Laguna Verde is emerald green, while Laguna Colorada is the only red lagoon in the reserve. At less than 3 feet deep and dotted with white islands of massive borax deposits, the plankton-rich lake of Colorada attracts a large number of endangered James flamingos.
ARGENTINA Route 7 from Mendoza to Aconcagua Aconcagua (6,960m) is the tallest mountain in the Americas, and is popular with trekkers year-round. Located near the Argentinian town of Mendoza, the scenic Route 7 (part of the Pan-American Highway) takes you from urban architecture to rolling vineyards and eventually mountain peaks as you near Aconcagua Provincial Park 185km away. Along the way are villages like Las Cuevas, Poterillos and Puente del Inca – a rock bridge over the Vacas River where Charles Darwin once visited.
Map by Free Vector Maps
PHOTOS BY Tsalina Phang
PERU Choquequirao Hike The 15th century site of Choquequirao is an Incan city located 3,000m above sea level in the Cusco region, and is often compared to Machu Picchu since they both have similar structure and architecture. The trek to Choquequirao is far quieter, and while it doesn’t require a permit or guide like the Inca Trail, it is challenging yet incredibly scenic. Most treks start from Cachora and takes 2-3 days to reach Choquequirao, with grandiose views of Rio Apurimac below.
CHILE Torres del Paine The Patagonian steppe is home to ancient forests, glaciers, lakes, rivers, fjords, and the soaring 2,000m-high granite pillars of Torres del Paine. Once a huge estancia, today the Torres del Paine National Park is home to the hugely popular W Trek, which navigates up and down the mountain valleys that are home to guanacos, foxes, pumas, and birds like the rhea and Andean condor. The typical ‘W’ takes 5-7 days, with 5-8 hours of hiking per day, boasting a lot of the park’s must-see attractions: Los Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Frances, Paine Grande, and Glacier Grey. The well-established infrastructure here means that the trek can be done in a variety of ways, from rugged camping to full room-and-board in refugios.
Situated at the southern end of the Matter Valley, deep in the mountains of Canton Valais near the Italian border, the small village of Zermatt is one of Switzerland’s oldest and most famous destinations. Home to what’s possibly the world’s most recognisable summit – the iconic Matterhorn – it’s been synonymous with mountaineering and skiing since the 1860s.
THE VILLAGE OF ZERMATT
Zermatt itself is car-free, and offers direct access to over 400km of trails in and around the Matter Valley. These lead to lakes, alpine meadows and an astounding fifty summits over 4,000m, including Switzerland’s highest peak, Monte Rosa (4,634m). Together, these transform Zermatt into Europe’s most famous winter destination, and also the largest summer ski region in the Alps.
The Matterhorn The Matterhorn towers physically and symbolically over Zermatt. While its 4,478m summit makes it only the twelfth tallest mountain in the Alps, its ominous, leaning silhouette has captivated wouldbe climbers for generations. History remembers British mountaineer Edward Whymper for kicking off the climbing craze in Zermatt, following his successful ascent in 1865; the expedition wasn’t in fact much of a success, as more than half his party perished. In the years
IN AND AROUND ZERMATT
that followed, as climbers from across Europe started flocking to Zermatt, the village became one of the Alps’ first real modern tourist destinations, with climbing in summer, skiing in winter and hotels and trains year-round. Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn) If the Matterhorn sounds intimidating, there’s always its aptly named smaller sibling on the other side of the Theodul Valley. Home to the highest point in Europe that you can reach via cable car, the 3,883m summit overlooks the Theodul Glacier, forming Europe’s largest yearround ski region – Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. On clear days, you can see Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps) and all the way to the Mediterranean. The neighbouring peak, Breithorn (4,164m) is regarded as the Alps’ easiest four-thousander ascent, as it’s only a 2-hour climb from the cable car on the summit of Klein Matterhorn. Alternatively you can ride a piece of history on the famous Gornergrat Bahn (GGB), which in 1898 was Switzerland’s first cog railway. Today, it’s a modern, eco-friendly train that uses recovered energy from the descent to power its ascent, climbing 1,469m from Zermatt Station to the summit of Gornergrat (3,089m), from where you can see 29 four-thousanders, including one of the most famous views of the Matterhorn.
PHOTOS BY Mattias Nutt (www.mattiasnutt.ch)
HIKING ROUTES AROUND ZERMATT
With its easy access to Zermatt’s high-altitude uplands, the GGB connects to numerous hiking routes, including the easy Aussichtsweg (2km, 40 mins) or the taxing glacier trek on Monte Rosa (7.5km, 4 hours). The valley’s extensive network of gondolas and lifts leads to dozens of other hiking routes just above Zermatt. These include the 2.5-hour Täschalp – Sunnegga trail which is the highest hiking route in Europe taking you up to the Oberrothorn (3,415m); and the trail to Stellisee, one of the Alps’ most picturesque lakes. Blauherd-Stellisee-Fluhalp The route starts with a funicular to Sunnegga (2,288m), before continuing via gondola to Blauherd (2,571m), from where it’s an easy walk to Stellisee (2,537m), and a further short hike to overnight at the Fluhalp mountain hut (2,620m). An alternative, longer route up from Zermatt goes via Findeln (2,020m), taking roughly 3 hours.
face – which is stunning on clear, starry nights, with the only way to readily access it being to overnight at Fluhalp. Eggishorn-Gletscherstube Another easy, rewarding hike in the area starts from the cable car station just below the summit of Eggishorn, at Fiescherhorli (2,893 m). The 1.5-hour route offers uninterrupted views of the massive, 23km-long Aletsch Glacier (the largest in Europe), as well as the whole of the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it winds its way down to overnight at the historic Gletscherstube hut.
The Haute Route One of the most legendary trails is the famed Haute Route (12 days/180km), connecting Zermatt to Chamonix (France), and the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. The Route can be walked from spring to fall, or skied year-round; the 12day walking route is entirely above 3,000m, but with no specific technical skills or gear required. The famously difficult ski route, however, requires a high level of skill and fitness, as well as climbing skins, crampons, etc.
As it’s only a 10-minute walk from Blauherd, the Stellisee can get busy during the day, but where it really impresses is after sunset – with its famous reflection of the Matterhorn’s fierce north
Guests can overnight in Fluhalp from late June to October, with accommodation and half-board available; all rooms offer stunning views of the Matterhorn. Gletscherstube (open from July to October) offers only dorms, while its restaurant boasts views all the way to Jungfrau and is just a 30-minute walk from the Aletsch Glacier. Visit www.fluhalp-zermatt.ch and www. gletscherstube.ch for more. Zermatt is just 3.5 hours from Zurich Airport by train, changing at Visp to board the historic cog train into the valley. Passengers can check their luggage (including skis) directly to Zermatt from the airport. Zermatt is also accessible via the famous Glacier Express from St. Moritz, Davos and Chur. For more on Zermatt, visit www. zermatt.ch. For more on all-in-one Swiss travel passes inclusive of train, cable car, boat and bus travel, visit www.sbb.ch.
Comprising 7 countries including Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia, the Western Balkans is one of the oldest settlements in the continent, and ironically home to some of the newest countries in Europe. This mountainous region is home to dramatic karst landscapes – and some of the deepest canyons and caves in Europe – sluiced by fast rivers and dotted with glacial lakes. The pristine coastlines are outshined by incredible walled cities and pastel-coloured old towns that hark back to Roman and Ottoman times, while the imposing mountains cradle yet more majestic towns, brilliantly set against teal rivers and lakes. There may be nowhere else in the world where you can see such a seamless blend of natural and cultural beauty.
MONTENEGRO, KOSOVO & MACEDONIA BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
GETTING AROUND THE BALKANS
This mountainous region, once inaccessible to visitors, is now linked via long-distance hiking trails, including the 192km-long Peaks of the Balkans Trail that connects Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro using shepherd paths through high passes, mountain villages, and amazing landscapes. While hiking off-grid is a powerful draw, try to stick to marked paths, as some areas in the Balkans are still home to extant – and active – warera land mines, particularly along the Kosovo-Albania border. While hiking in the mountains, particularly in sheep grazing areas of Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, you may encounter a large, furry breed of dog called the Šarplaninac (Yugoslavian Shepherd Dog) – guardians of their flock, they may be aloof with outsiders, and calm until a threat to the flock presents itself.
KOSOVO Kosovo is Europe’s newest country – after the Kosovo War of 1998-1999, it spent almost a decade as a UN protectorate and only gained independence in 2008. While there’s still some conflict in the border areas in the north, it’s one of Europe’s most exciting travel destinations. A landlocked nation, its geography is defined by a central valley bordered by high mountains.
Kosovo is dotted with UNESCO-listed churches, and Serbian and Ottoman medieval architecture; a great place to start is from Pristina, its lively capital city that is known for its thriving cafe culture. Nearby is the village of Gračanica, home to one of the most beautiful examples of a Serbo-Byzantine style monastery. Sharr Mountains of the South Kosovo’s real cultural draw is in the soaring Šar (Sharr) Mountains to the south; situated at the foot of the mountains close to the Rahovec
(Orahovac) wine region is the medieval city of Prizren. The castle-topped hill town of Ottoman hammams, mosques and 14th century basilicas is a walkable historic district lined with a labyrinth of terracotta roofs, minarets and cafes. It’s a great base for hiking; explore the wineries of Rahovec along the ‘wine trail’, or head into the Šar Mountains to explore its wellmarked trails, like the scenic Dragash area that’s filled with wild medicinal plants. While many remote villages in the Šar are abandoned, the picturesque town of Brod, with its Ottoman houses and cobblestone streets, is thriving. As the heart of the equestrian Gorani people, the key activity here is exploring the developed, scenic mountain trails on horseback or on foot. Not far away is the ski resort of Brezovica with its steep slopes and deep powder. This aging resort – currently down to only 1 operational ski lift – is due to have a multi-million dollar overhaul very soon.
Western Kosovo Situated in western Kosovo is Peja (Peć), with its narrow streets, old-style Turkish houses, mosques and spectacularly frescoed churches. Known as the “City of Tourism”, it’s also a good base to explore the Rugova Gorge with its high canyon walls, and the rugged Accursed Mountains National Park, home to the highest point in Kosovo (Gjeravica, at 2,656m). In addition to the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, other hiking and mountain biking trails abound; you can also find via ferrata, zipline, caving or rock climbing adventures in the Rugova region. There is a small ski resort near the village of Boge (1,400m), nestled in the Rugova Valley.
A number of airlines from Europe and Turkey service Prishtina International Airport. There are also rail connections between Pristina and Skopje (Macedonia). Entry into Serbia from Kosovo is only possible if you entered Kosovo from Serbia and are going back; entering Kosovo from elsewhere and then continuing to Serbia is prohibited.
MACEDONIA Also known as FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), Macedonia has a fascinating past that incorporates rich Greek, Roman and Ottoman history. Like Kosovo, it’s a landlocked nation with a rugged central valley – formed by the Vardar river – that is framed along its borders by scenic mountain ranges over 2,000m high. Three large lakes – Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran – lie along the frontiers with Albania and Greece. The capital, Skopje is an intriguing city where old meets new – a historic hilltop fortress overlooks the never-ending series of modern constructions that sit next to the Old Town’s maze of streets that hide quaint courtyards and cafes. Heading west from Skopje is the popular attraction of Canyon Matka – a lake which is surrounded by the steep walls of a dramatic gorge. The area boasts 10 caves, including the impressive Vrelo Cave, the deepest underwater cave in Europe.
November and April. In summer, the slopes reveal a large lake which is popular for boating and swimming, as well as for the submerged St. Nicholas Church (built in 1850) that was purposely flooded in 1953, but has since become partially exposed. The Bistra mountain range is great for hiking, as it is dotted with countless mountain villages that you can explore via scenic hiking trails. The village of Lazaropole (over 1,350m) is one of the highest settlements in Macedonia, with 400 houses and several 19th century churches. The most famous village in the area is Galichnik (Galičnik), home to over 500 traditional houses and the Galichka wedding ceremonies that occur between July and August – the 3-day fest involves traditional costumes and dances, like the “Teškoto” which is performed by men to symbolise overcoming the difficulties of life. Galičnik is also known for its Kashkaval cheese, served with kačamak (maize
reveal gems like a Roman amphitheatre, castle fortress, and church with 11th century frescoes. Hike up the hills to the multi-domed Byzantine-era Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon Church, and the massive turreted walls of the 10th century Car Samoil Castle – both offer fantastic views over the town and lake.
Still largely unexplored by tourists, the rest of Macedonia may have scant tourist infrastructure. Mountains are omnipresent, making mountain biking and hiking a great way to explore the terrain. You can fly into Macedonia from various points in Europe into either Skopje (Alexander the Great Airport) or Ohrid Airport.
Bistra Mountains Further west is the Bistra mountains, the largest mountainous part of the country – and home to Mavrovo National Park – where vast meadows and pastures, forests, natural springs, and large herds of sheep are common. Bistra also boasts the highest peaks in Macedonia, making it a popular place for skiing at Zare Lazarevski between
porridge). A great way to get to the village is via a scenic, but steep mountain trail from the nearby village of Janče about 2 hours’ hike away. Lake Ohrid South of Mavrovo lies the glimmering Lake Ohrid and its historic town dotted with terracotta rooftops. Ohrid is a UNESCO site, set beside the beautiful lake with narrow, winding streets that
MONTENEGRO Unlike Kosovo or Macedonia, Montenegro is mostly made of mountains, where the high ranges of the Dinaric Alps abruptly end along a narrow coastal plain. Throughout its history it has always sat on the borderline between east and west and its rich cultural tapestry – from Roman villas and flamboyant Orthodox churches to elegant mosques and imposing medieval fortresses – is complemented by its spectacular natural beauty where mountains jut sharply from crystal clear waters. Ancient walled towns cling to looming rock faces, while scenic coastal towns line the narrow strip of shoreline. Not surprisingly, it’s these seaside towns – like the ancient walled cities of Budva and
Kotor – that seem to attract the most visitors while its capital, Podgorica is touted as the “least visited capital in Europe”. You can easily get off the beaten track in the rugged mountains deep in Montenegro’s backcountry.
Kotor and Bay Even within Kotor – with its narrow cobblestoned streets and picturesque plazas that are fairly untainted by tourism – you can easily escape the crowds by hiking the steep trail to the Castle of St John at the top of the mountain, where there are stunning views of the town below. The best way to explore the Bay of Kotor, however, is to tackle the Ladder of Kotor – a trail that descends from the 940m-high Krstac pass to Kotor following an old Austrian military route, featuring more than 70 switchbacks and breathtaking views of the entire Bay of Kotor. Most excursions start from either Cetinje (Old Royal Capital) or Njeguši village, from where you can hike or cycle down the trail (it has better views than the ascent) to the city of Kotor, passing by the deserted village of Spiljari and the venetian fortress of San Giovanni. Durmitor National Park In Montenegro’s soaring hinterland lies the Durmitor National Park, home to more than a dozen sparkling glacial lakes, and three breathtaking canyons including the wild Tara Canyon which is Europe’s deepest gorge (1,300m). Rafters and kayakers can enjoy a unique thrill on the 68km-long whitewater run along the Tara River through the canyon’s
impossibly steep walls, passing Ljutice falls and the 165m-high Roman bridge. Ice and water have carved this dramatic landscape from the limestone, with over 40 peaks that soar over 2,000m. Žabljak (1,450m), at the eastern edge of the range, is the park’s principal town and home to a major ski resort from December to March. In summer, it’s a good base for hiking the many trails in the park. You can reach many of the peaks and return in a single day; most trails begin at Crno Jezero (Black Lake), a 40-minute walk from Žabljak. Nature in the East The jaw-dropping Prokletije range to the east of the country is another hiker’s paradise. The grandiose mountain massif is home to Lake Plav and a collection of karst wells; the town of Plav is famous for its 17th century watchtowers, as well as monasteries, churches and mosques. Other great national parks include the primeval forest of Biogradska Gora, one of three preserved virgin forests in Europe that is also home to Montenegro’s ski resort at Kolašin (1,450m); and the birdwatcher’s paradise of Lake Skadar, a vast freshwater lake that’s surrounded by dramatic karst mountains and home to over 260 species of birds.
Montenegro has 2 International airports: Podgorica (inland) and Tivat (on the coast), serviced by airlines from the rest of Europe. It’s also possible to arrive by boat/cruise into Kotor.
The region of South Tyrol is located in the northernmost point in Italy, bordered by Austria to its north and Switzerland to the west – it is the only region in Italy with trilingual road signs (Italian, German and Ladin), and most locals actually speak German. Mountains dominate this landscape, including the Dolomites and Ortler Alps. Its lush fertile valleys are dotted with apple orchards and vineyards, as well as hundreds of medieval castles and churches. There are over 20,000kms of well-marked hiking trails, 1,200kms of ski trails and hundreds of biking trails and climbing routes.
At 265m above sea level and surrounded by mountains, the city of Bolzano (Bozen) is the capital of South Tyrol. The city has an Italian-Austrian character, enhanced by its narrow cobblestone streets, Habsburg-era churches and bilingual signages. Located along one of the most important routes running from the Mediterranean to northern Europe, it is an ideal base for exploration of the South Tyrol region. Bolzano is home to the famous Ötzi, a well-preserved frozen mummy of a man who lived around 3,300 BCE, now housed in the South Tyrolean Archeaological Museum in town. It’s also home to renowned mountaineer Rheinhold Messner who’s conquered all seven summits. He’s since built 5 Mountain Museums scattered around South Tyrol – the
closest to Bolzano is in Firmian, set dramatically within the ruins of Castle Sigmundskron.
Hiking The hills surrounding Bolzano are excellent for walks and hikes, and there are plenty of themed walks to choose from. The hills above the city are crowned with pathways bordered by Mediterranean vegetation, interspersed with plots of apple orchards and vineyards. Walkers can participate in Törggelen – an autumn tradition along the “wine road” (Weinstraße) that involves long walks from farmhouse to farmhouse, tasting new wine and local delicacies. An interesting trail is the Keschtnweg (Chestnut Trail) which connects Bolzano to Bressanone across the Valle Isarco
(Eisacktal Valley) and up to Renon mountain above Bolzano, and into the valley as far as Castle Roncolo (Runkelstein). The route passes many traditional mountain inns and old, sweet chestnut (castanea sativa) groves along the 60km trail; the trail can be hiked in individual sections ranging from 2-4 hours long. The best time to hike is in autumn during harvest (and Törggelen) season. The 2-hour long Ritten Theme Walkway traverses the Renon (Ritten) plateau, an area famed for its summer retreats. This easy walk is accessed from the village of Soprabolzano (Oberbozen), which can be reached by cable car or bus from Bolzano, and gives walkers an insight into the characteristics of the high plateau, from fascinating earth pyramids to the old Emperor’s roads. The earth pyramids are soil erosions, resembling mud spikes that protrude from the forest, creating a geological
feature that is unique in Europe. The Emperor’s roads are forest paths characterised by huge stone slabs, created when the original settlers (the Rhaetians) moved to this area, and over the years have become the passage for over 60 Imperial processions to and from Rome.
Cycling Over 40kms of bicycle paths radiate out from Bolzano via 8 principal bike trails from where plenty of secondary trails begin. Almost all the townships lie in the Valle Isarco (Eisacktal Valley) or along smoothly sloping hills through the orchards and vineyards of the surrounding foothills and up into the Alps. A variety of trails are available, from easy trails like the South Tyrolean Apple Bike Path that takes bikers through 40kms of
apple orchards between Algund and Bolzano, to challenging trails in Trudner Horn Nature Park, the Dolomites and the Sarntaler Alps. The best season for cycling is during spring (April to May), especially in the orchards. Bicycle rental is easily available in Bolzano, in addition to guided and self-guided tours.
Bolzano is well-served by rail; there are regular train connections between Bolzano and Milan, Rome and Venice, as well as Germany and Austria. Short flights connect Rome to its local airport. Bolzano is well-connected by bus within the region and to the rest of Europe, and is an inexpensive way to access isolated mountain villages.
THE DOLOMITES AND BEYOND
The Bolzano Bozen Card is a 3-day pass that offers free public transport, admission to museums and castles, as well as bicycle rental and guided tours. It costs €38 (or free if you stay 3 or more nights in the area). Visit www.bolzano-bozen.it for more on Bolzano. For more on South Tyrol, visit www.suedtirol.info.
Just north of Bolzano is the holiday town of Val Gardena, gateway to the legendary Dolomite range. The landscape – a formidable collection of sharp fingers of grey rock protruding from the valleys up to 3,000m high – was once a fierce battleground for WWI troops who invented a vertical path of iron hooks and stairs (the via ferrata we know today) to get behind enemy lines.
Today, it is a mecca for adventurers, who come here to hike, climb, ski, and tackle the famous via ferrata routes. Throughout the mountain range, mountain huts and WWI relics like mountain trenches and tunnels add to the charm. Summer
A number of long distance footpaths – labelled from 1 to 8 – traverse the Dolomites. These ‘Alta Via’ (high paths) require at least a week to complete, with food and accommodations provided by the numerous mountain huts that link these paths. A majority of visitors come to climb the via ferrata routes, as the Dolomites has not only the most number of routes in the world, but also the most interesting ones in terms of scenery and history. The eastern Dolomites, characterised by the Sella Massif, has many via ferrata routes that range from easy (mainly scrambling) to difficult (requiring experience) climbs. A mountain guide is needed to tackle the Dolomites, and you can hire one at €230 per day from the Association of South Tyrolean Mountain Guides in Bolzano. Winter
The Dolomites is home to the Dolomiti Superski, the largest ski area in the world – it encompasses 12 ski resorts within the Dolomites, giving skiers access to 12,000kms of slopes (including the tallest mountain in the Dolomites – Marmolada). One skipass gives unlimited access to hundreds of slopes and ski lifts in the entire area, from €46 for a day-pass. Visit www.dolomitisuperski.com for more info. The ski season is long (till May), thanks to the glacier at Marmolada.
Published on Sep 20, 2016
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