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Rwanda | Reunion | Catalonia | Iran | Bolivia and more
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Soaring heights Easing into the last quarter of 2018, we focus on mountains for the issue. Whether you’re looking to enjoy the peace and quiet, or explore some heritage sites tucked in mountain valleys, this issue is for you. We kick off with a trip to Switzerland; from cycling in Valais’ Aletsch Arena to marmot-hunting in Graubunden and whisky trekking in Appenzell, there’s no shortage of varied things to do. Visit Spain’s Catalonia region, where you can ski in the Baquiera Beret region, explore UNESCO sites in Val de Boi, and even hike through the scenic Montrebei gorge. Closer to home, we explore some of Taiwan’s offshore gems – Kinmen, Guishan, and Lanyu islands. Each island is unique; Kinmen for its military background, Guishan for whale watching, and Lanyu is home to the Tao tribe whose traditional boats still play a big part of their culture today. If you like skiing and soaking in an onsen, Japan’s Nagano prefecture has it all – in addition to centuries-old sake breweries. For some serious off-the-beatentrack adventures, there’s the Karakoram range which is a magnet for mountaineers, while further west is the rarely-visited Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. If you prefer deserts, Iran has a number of unique mountain regions that are steeped in history. If you’re visiting Queensland, head inland from the coast to its hilly hinterlands where you can hike, sample wineries, or simply relax in a hippy town. We also explore Rwanda’s parks, including the Volcans which is where you can get up close with rare mountain gorillas. Nyungwe is a prime primate spot for chimpanzees, while for a Big 5 safari, head to Akagera National Park for a classic game drive. Just off Africa’s east coast is the French island of Reunion – majestic cirques make up much of the island, which are remnants of past volcanoes that created the island. We also check out the US’ Appalachian Trail which traverses almost the entire length of eastern USA through some of the most scenic mountain regions from Georgia to Maine. In South America, we tackle the Salkantay route Machu Picchu, and even cycled in neighbouring Bolivia along the notorious ‘Death Road’. 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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A great way to explore Switzerland is via the Grand Tour of Switzerland, which takes you all over the country for a driving experience that stretches 1,600kms long and spans 4 linguistic regions. This circular route hits interesting villages and towns along the way. You can check out the high altitude wonders of Valais, home of the Aletsch glacier, and get to the 2,106m-high Gotthard Pass. This connects to the famed Tremola road – the most daunting of all mountain roads – to Ticino, a beautiful region along the Riviera. Head further east towards Graubünden and explore the massive Swiss National Park along its myriad hiking trails. On your way back to Zürich, head north to Appenzell for a unique high-altitude whisky tour.
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EXPLORING SWITZERLAND VALAIS: Mountain Biking in Aletsch Arena With its unique and diverse landscape, Valais is a land of contrasts: to the north lie mountains rising to over 4,000m, with glaciers along the Rhone valley, while to the south are sprawling vineyards bordering Lake Geneva. A highlight of this region is the impressive UNESCO-listed Aletsch Glacier which is 23km long. The Aletsch Arena is a good base to explore the region, providing a box seat view of the Aletsch Glacier and the Valais’ prettiest peaks. Traditional Valais homes and chalets lend charm to the villages in the valley. The sun-drenched resorts of Fiescheralp, Bettmeralp and Riederalp – at an elevation of about 2,000m – offers hundreds of kilometres of hiking and mountain biking trails to explore.
From spring right through to autumn the Aletsch resorts of Fiesch, Fiescheralp,
MTB Routes The Aletsch Arena boasts 100kms of MTB routes with varying difficulty, catering to riders of all abilities. The leisurely Fieschertal Runde (11.5km, 1.5 hours) route passes idyllic hamlets like Lambrigge and Wichel, and crosses old Roman bridges along dirt tracks and forest paths. Beginning from Fiesch, it follows the old Kirchweg trail towards Fieschertal. Bettmeralp, Riederalp and Belalp offer beautiful high-altitude walks, glacier crossings and breathtaking views of the surrounding Alps. The village of Fiesch, where you can see typical Valaisian houses, is located at the entrance to the Fiescher valley. It is the ideal starting point for excursions into the area round the Aletsch Glacier, the Goms Valley, over alpine passes and into the town of Brig.
The demanding Fiesch-Freichi trail (46.5km, 4.5 hours round trip) is all about variety, with plenty of technical challenges, scenic landscapes, idyllic Valais villages, and a rapid descent at the end. From Fiesch, the ride takes you through the Twingi Gorge and the hamlets of Ze Binne and Binn. The best times to mountain bike are from June to October.
GRAUBUNDEN: Wildlife Hike in the Swiss National Park The Swiss National Park – the largest protected area in Switzerland – is in Graubünden. Founded in 1914, this is the oldest National Park in the Alps and central Europe, and remains the country’s only one. Along with colourful Alpine flora, the park is known for its variety of Alpine fauna like ibexes, chamois, marmots, northern hares, lizards and innumerable birds. Situated in lower Engadine, it’s only open in summer (June to October).
EXPLORING THE PARK
The entire park can easily be explored along the 80kms of hiking trails. There
are 21 marked routes of varying difficulty; as the park is mountainous – between 1,400m and 3,200m – many trails tackle considerable altitude differences and go above the treeline. The main entrance is at Zernez in the upper part of Lower Engadine. Hiking along the Inn River from Zernez to Lavin (17.4km, 3.5 hours): This is an easy hike that takes you along the flat terrain along the scenic Inn River. The scenery is of wild forests that alternate with green meadows that flower in spring, with the mighty peaks of the Lower Engadine rising around the trails. The trail starts from Zernez and heads towards the picturesque village of Susch, located at the foot of the Flüela Pass, which is home to many houses built in the Graubünden style. The trail ends in the village of Lavin, where there are rail services to Zernez. National Park Panorama Trail (14.4 km, 7 hours): The trail traverses the National
Park, with striking views from the top of the Murterpass down into the wild Cluozza Gorge. Starting from the secluded Vallun Chafuol, it involves a long, steep climb to Fuorcla Murter (2,545m) which permits clear views of the Piz Quattervals, the highest point in the Park, along with the pristine valleys on its flanks. The Cluozza-Tals valley crossing is the most beautiful section of the route. Around the midway point of the hike is the Chamanna Cluozza hut, a simple log cabin where you spend the night. The hike proceeds past steep valley walls, which require a head for heights, before arriving at Sarasinstein and ending at Zernez village (1,473m). Best hiked from July to September, there may be chances of snow on high-level sections. National Park staff lead guided trips every Thursday into the Trupchun valley (14km, 7 hours), which is an alpine region inhabited by deer, as well as marmots, chamois, and ibex. The guided hike starts from the National Park Visitor Centre in Zernez.
TICINO: Hiking the Sentiero in Cresta On the southern side of the Alps lies Ticino with its Mediterranean flair – palm trees, beaches and piazzas dominate this Italian-speaking region. However, the mountains are always close by, where the wooded hills rise to high peaks from the shores of Ticino’s lakes.
APPENZELL: Whisky Trek in the Alpstein Located amidst a landscape of rolling hills, the village of Appenzell is situated in a region known for its rural customs, colourful frescoed buildings, gastronomical offerings, and its profusion of hiking trails. German-speaking Appenzell benefits from a dense network of rambling trails, ranging from ‘experience trails’ like the barefoot trail near Gonten, to more punishing mountain hikes like Kronberg (1,663m). A cableway takes you to the Ebenalp (1,644m) – the gateway to the hiking region of the Alpstein mountains.
Switzerland may not be famous for whisky – it was first produced in 1999 by Locher, a local beer brewer – but it has won international awards due to the special barrels in which they are produced. There are 6 types of Säntis Malt whiskies, all made with soft spring water from the Alpstein mountains, and then aged in old oak wood beer barrels. The barrels are then hand-carried up the mountains to the 27 inns spread throughout the Alpstein. Thanks to the different height and climate situation of each inn, every whisky tastes different.
When you hike up to these mountain inns, you can reward yourself with a glass of whisky while enjoying the panorama. Every inn has a store of its own unique whisky, which are available in a glass or in small 100ml bottles which are signed by the cask keeper to ensure their exclusivity.
TACKLE THE WHISKY TREK
The Whisky Trek – the highest in the world at 2,502m – allows hikers to explore 27 mountain huts in the Alpstein to sample locally-made single malt whisky along the way.
Here, a multitude of activities can be had: hiking, skiing, canyoning, mountain biking.
Starting from the village of Appenzell, the Whisky Trek is not so much a preset route as it is a collection of mountain huts that you can visit. There are 2 versions available: the shorter one covers 9 inns of your choice plus their respective whiskies (CHF150), or the full tour which covers all 27 inns plus a collector’s box to hold all 27 bottles (CHF400). You can purchase booklets for the 2 tours, and get them stamped at the huts to claim your 100ml bottles. You can visit one mountain inn per day, or combine a few on a one-day hiking trip, although some hikes are easier than others. Some huts are also reachable by cable car or car.
Lugano is the largest town in Ticino; as a hub of transport, you can easily access many of the surrounding mountains via cable cars.
SENTIERO IN CRESTA HIKE
The summit of Monte Lema is both a destination and a starting point for numerous ridge hikes, as well as mountain biking and paragliding. While mountain bikers can enjoy the downhill trails and bike park further down the valley, those who prefer to explore the ridgeline will be rewarded with some of the most scenic views Ticino has to offer. One of the most famous routes is the Sentiero in Cresta (13km long, 5.5 hours), taking hikers from Monte Lema (1,624m) to Monte Tamaro (1,962m) along a ridge that is a classic among Swiss high altitude hikes, featuring panoramic views that stretch from Valle Levantina over the surrounding valleys
up into the Pennine Alps in the west and the Grisons Alps in the east. This hike runs almost exclusively along the ridge close to the Swiss-Italian border, and is best tackled between May and October. Access to Monte Lema is via cable-car from Miglieglia. Right from the start, you have Lake Lugano on one side, and Lake Maggiore on the other, both scenically embedded in the mountains of southern Ticino. This panorama remains a constant companion along the hike. At Monte Tamaro is the Capanna Tamaro hut, nestled close to the mountainside beneath the summit. Offering homemade specialties, stunning terrace views, and accommodation. Numerous hiking paths lead to all directions, including Indemini (930m), a typical Ticino village famous for its stone houses, slate roofs and wooden outbuildings. From Tamaro’s peak, it’s a stone’s throw down to Alpe Foppa (1,530m) which is famous as the site for the Santa Maria degli Angeli church. A gondola rail from here links travellers back down to Rivera, where buses and trains connect to Lugano (to the south) or the UNESCO-listed castle town of Bellinzona (to the north).
Built for camping trips, the Osprey Viva 65 is a highly adjustable pack for a week on the trail. The dual side compression straps provide load stability, and the back panel is made of mesh for ventilation. The peripheral frame transfers the weight to your hips where the hipbelt easily adjusts up to three inches for a custom fit, while the torso length has five inches of adjustment. The sleeping bag compartment (with wide mouth access) is separate from the main compartment, with removable external sleeping pad straps. There are two mesh side pockets, a front mesh stash pocket, and trekking pole attachments, while the bombproof fabric withstands the rigours of outdoor pursuits. Now available at Adventure Gear Post at S$265.
FLIGHT OF THE FEATHERLESS
For the environmentally-conscious (or those allergic to feather), Marmot Men’s Featherless Corkscrew jackets are made of synthetic insulation by incorporating 3M Thinsulate Featherless Insulation to deliver a jacket that matches the warmth and feel of 700-fill power down. This makes it ultralight, compressible, and environmentally-sustainable – best of all, it’s also washer and dryer friendly, making it easy to care for. The Corkscrew comes with features like a powder skirt, zip-off storm hood with brim, core vents, and a lot of pockets. Now available at Campers’ Corner at S$499. MARMOT Men’s Featherless Corkscrew STANLEY Mountain Vacuum Switchback Mug
PACSAFE Camera Backpack
For travellers who travel often with large, heavy DSLRs, the Pacsafe Camera Backpack is an ideal travel buddy for the avid adventurer and photographer. This long-lasting, sturdy pack is packed with anti-theft features that Pacsafe is known for, including an eXomesh slashguard fabric, a slashguard strap, and TurnNLock security hooks. It fits a 15-inch Macbook, has a hydration system, and internal pockets made with RFID-safe material. Now available in black at The Planet Traveller at S$273.
MIXED LIGHT ON THE GO
The Decathlon ONnight 700 headlamp is a budget alternative for hiking or mountaineering. It has a range of lighting modes including Ambient (60 lumens), Bright (130 lumens) mode, and Boost (250 lumens), in addition to 2 red modes (flash and ambient) and lock. With a maximum range of 75m, the 2 peripheral LEDs create a wide beam, while the powerful middle LED focuses the light to see at a distance. It lasts 35 hrs in Ambient, 17 hrs in Eco, and 7 hrs in Bright mode. It’s resistant to water splashes, and is available at Decathlon Singapore at S$22.90 (incl. batteries).
Made for moderate terrain and light loads, the Vasque Mantra 2.0 GTX has a leather upper and thick Vibram outsoles to provide excellent grip and protection against rocks and stones on trails. It’s ideal for hikers who prefer protective low hiking shows, and it’s one of Vasque’s most stable and supportive hiking shoes. The upper consists of waterproof nubuck leather and abrasionresistant mesh, with outer sole grip provided by Vibram Nuasi with XSTrek Compound. Now available at Outdoor Life Plaza Singapura at S$269.
VASQUE Mantra 2.0 GTX
At 400g, the BPA-free stainless steel Stanley Mountain Vacuum Switchback Mug (16oz) is portable enough to carry anywhere. It has an overmolded finger loop for easy carrying with one finger and for easy clips onto packs, with double wall vacuum insulation to keep your beverage at the temperature intended for longer. The push button lid lets you open, drink, and close with one hand, while the clear grit guard cap snaps tight to prevent leakage and dirt from getting in. Now available at S$58 at all gearaholic.com.sg and all leading departmental stores.
The Mammut Neon Gear 45L is made for climbing, designed to easily access all your stored gear whenever you need it. The huge back zipper and large flap zipper provide direct access to the main compartment with its huge internal mesh pocket, while the flap compartment has an internal and external pocket, as well as a rope fixing strap. There is also an integrated rope bag which can be removed and spread out so your rope remains clean and tangle-free. Comfort is provided by its 3D EVA foam back with air channels, and a padded, removable hipbelt. Now available at Adventure21 at S$173.40.
TAIWAN’S GUISHAN, LANYU, AND KINMEN ISLANDS GUISHAN (TURTLE) ISLAND
Volcanic activity was a major force in shaping the landscape of Taiwan when it was in its geological youth – eruptions spewed lava and rocks, creating many of Taiwan’s mountains and offshore islands like Green Island and Lanyu (Orchid Island). While fumaroles still dot Yangmingshan, Taiwan’s only active volcano lies beneath Guishan Island.
Before this currently uninhabited island opened to the public in 2000, it was once home to a handful of villagers until it became off limits in the 1970s when it became a military base. Situated 10km east of Toucheng Town, Guishan is Yilan County’s largest island and so-named because of its resemblance to a turtle from certain angles. Thanks to its active undersea volcanic vents (it’s Taiwan’s only active volcano), the sea around the island bubbles with thermal water at 110ºC, and despite the large amounts of sulfur and acid, there is a wealth of sealife. You can take a boat tour to Guishan, and you are guaranteed to see dolphins, various types of whales, as well as flying fish.
The island itself is blessed with a hilly landscape – the highest point is 398m above sea level – which is carpeted by blooming wildflowers like lilies in the
latter half of April. Visitors to the island can see traces left by the fishermen and soldiers who once lived here, like small shrines, an army fort, and a former school, as well as the picturesque Gui Lake, which has a boardwalk. Practicalities To protect its natural environment, Guishan is only open between March and November – which coincides with the whale watching season – with strictly limited visitor numbers, and overnight stays are prohibited. Apply a couple of weeks in advance to secure a spot during weekends or the peak summer season. Several boat operators in Yilan offer tours of Guishan Island – including island tours (2-3 hours), and combined island and whale watching tours (4 hours). Visit www.necoast-nsa.gov.tw for more.
LANYU (ORCHID) ISLAND The Kinmen islands lie just 2km from mainland China’s Xiamen. For 50 years, it has played the role of a military outpost since the 1950s when it was heavily fortified with barricades, forts, and tunnels. Today the islands boast abundant historical monuments ranging from Minnan-style houses to military fortresses, and western-style villas. Kinmen is also famous for its Wind Lion God statues which were originally installed to prevent wind damage to the island. Over time, these colourful lion-like statues have evolved to have individual personalities and accessories, and are dotted all over the island. A great way to learn about Kinmen is simply to wander around the five townships and its historic villages. You can take advantage of several themed cycling routes or buses that take you past historic sites. Military From old forts and army barracks to underground tunnels, these have become monuments that tell the wartime stories of Kinmen. Landmarks include the three-storey Juguang Tower, built in the classical palace style, where you can learn about Kinmen’s history and culture, and the decorative Deyue Tower which offers sweeping views of the surrounding village. Underground tunnels litter the island, like the Qionglin Tunnels with
12 exits that connected all the island’s villages, and the Zhaishan Tunnel, which at 100m long can accommodate 42 military boats at anchor. Other military instalments like The General Fort, Yongshi Fort and Warrior Fort are also worth visiting. Thanks to its military history, Kinmen is famed for its knives which are made from the thousands of old bombshells. Settlements Jincheng Township is the most populated town which showcases Minnan and expatriate culture. Walk through Mofan Street for its redbrick Japanese-style buildings of the Taisho period, or visit the picturesque village of Shuitou which is a tapestry of Westernand Minnan-style houses.
to mark the annual flying fish season (February to May). During the Flying Fish Festival is when men sing and pray in their traditional garb: loincloth and sometimes a metal conical helmet.
Jinsha Township is located at the windward side of Taiwu Mountain, and boasts the largest number of wind lion gods in Kinmen. It’s also home to Shanhou Village with its 18 southern Fujian-style old houses with their ceramic wall ornaments, sculpted arches, and narrow entrances.
Floating about 80kms off the southeast coast of Taiwan, Lanyu is yet another island formed by volcanic eruption. Surrounded by pristine coral reefs – which attract schools of fish and green sea turtles – it’s a great destination for snorkelling, diving, and even fishing (especially for flying fish).
Practicalities Comprising two islands, the larger Kinmen Island is home to four townships which are small enough to explore on foot; get between townships via public bus, scooter or bicycle. The main town is Jincheng where the majority of attractions are. Just off Kinmen’s western shore is Lesser Kinmen, which is also dotted with historic sites, accessible via regular ferries (30 mins) from Shuitou Port.
The humid, rainy climate has cloaked the mountainous interior of the island with a thick rainforest cover that houses numerous tropical plant species – like the orchids that inspired the name of this island (although they are harder to spot today).
Because of the rough weather that the island occasionally experiences, the Yami people traditionally live in semi-underground houses. You can see these stone-and-wood homes today in Langdao and Ivalino villages. There are also caves dotted throughout the island, and the Five Hole Cave – a series of caverns – has been repurposed to house a popular church.
Culture The island has always been the home to the Yami (Tao) people, who have primarily depended on the sea for their livelihood, heading out to sea in their richly-decorated canoes called tatara (these are visible everywhere on the island). In fact, one of their most important ceremonies is a boat launch
Nature Lanyu is pretty rugged, with an interior of steep slopes that reach 551m high, covered in dense undergrowth. Hiking is possible on marked trails, like the steep one leading to the beautiful Heaven Lake (90 minutes each way) which is nestled in thick forest about 350m above sea level.
The main mode of transport to Kinmen is by air; it’s 50-55 minutes from most cities in Taiwan like Taipei and Kaohsiung. Visit http://kinmen.travel for more. October to December is the best time to visit Kinmen when the weather is comfortable and sorghum fields are in bloom; March to May is the fog season which is not ideal for flights.
There are also plenty of coastal walks where you can appreciate the stunning coral and rock formations; some famous ones have names like Old Man,
Battleship, and Dragon Head, where sunsets are stunning. Practicalities There are six villages on the island, all connected via the coastal ring road (38kms) which can be explored by scooter or bicycle. The administrative centre is Yeyou Village, and Kaiyuan Harbor on its outskirts is the island’s gateway where the ferries from Taitung arrive. Lanyu is about 2-3 hours by ferry from Taitung port, and it’s best visited between late spring and early fall when the weather is more agreeable. A flight from Taitung to Lanyu takes 20 minutes, and has to be booked well in advance. For more, visit https://tour.taitung.gov.tw.
and rules for visiting the gorillas that live within an altitude of 2,500 and 4,000m. Here, trekkers of all ages and abilities are segregated into groups of 8 hikers per guide, each assigned to one of 10 gorilla families which they are guaranteed to see.
Rwanda is also known as ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’, which is an apt description of the country’s rolling, hilly landscape. This relatively small country wedged between Uganda and Tanzania does house plenty of unique wildlife that live in pockets of jungle nestled within the country’s highland areas. While Rwanda’s poster child may be the majestic mountain gorilla, this small landlocked country is also home to a rich variety of African wildlife as well, making it a very convenient place to spot more animals in a smaller land area.
Each family of gorillas is unique; the Susa group has the most members at 38, while the 17-member Sabyinyo group – the easiest to find – is led by the park’s largest silverback, Guhonda who weighs 220kg. Then there’s the Amahoro group, with 19 members led by a gentle giant called Ubumwe. Groups are then driven to their respective trailheads (each gorilla group inhabits a different mountain area) accompanied by two armed guards to protect from wild elephants and buffaloes (encounters are rare). Porters can be hired at the trailhead (US$10) – in addition to pack-carrying, they help identify stinging plants which you’ll want to avoid.
The country hosts three national parks, each with its own unique wildlife and safari experiences. The most famous is perhaps Volcanoes National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorillas, nestled in the misty mountains of the volcanic Virunga mountains. In addition to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda has two other parks: Nyungwe National Park, which is home to chimpanzees and colobus monkeys; and Akagera National Park, a classic safari park that’s home to the Big Five.
The Trek The terrain consists of thick jungle, open grassland, shady bamboo groves, dotted with stinging nettle bushes. There are no real trails – most of the time, rangers would hack a jungle path with machetes.
RWANDA’S NATIONAL PARKS
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK which the gorillas have not escaped unscathed – visiting these gorillas requires an extensive trek through thick volcanic forest.
Volcanoes National Park, also known as “Parc National de Volcans” in Rwanda, is situated in the Virunga Mountains with its eight ancient volcanoes, along the border shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While a visit to the mountain gorillas is often at the top of the to-do list for any visitor, the dramatic landscape also offers thrilling hiking and visits to the fascinating golden monkeys. When it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it’s hard to beat walking into a gorilla den, and spending an hour in the life of these magnificent creatures. Thanks to the effort and research by the late Dian Fossey, the plight of mountain gorillas has reached the world stage. These gentle, lumbering giants are now the poster children for tourism to Rwanda, home of some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.
a drunken state. This is where the experienced trackers come in handy.
Volcanoes National Park lies to the north of Rwanda, about two hours’ drive from the capital, Kigali. Most visitors spend the night at Kinigi, where a number of lodges – including luxury options – cater specifically to gorilla trekkers. Located at an altitude of over 1,500m, nighttime temperatures can dip pretty low, so most of these lodges feature rustic fireplaces. Tracking Gorillas With a population of about 800 members scattered across Volcanoes National Park which extends into neighbouring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – an area that has sadly seen a lot human violence from
The briefing Tracking gorillas may take anything from 3 hours to a whole day depending on where they forage, and each hiking group is allowed to remain with the gorillas for up to 1 hour. Guides give a pre-trek briefing on specific protocols
At times, you may find huge silverbacks charging at each other to assert dominance – it’s adrenaline-charged moments like these that make the encounter so special. Thankfully, no visitor has ever been harmed by gorillas in the 20+ years they’ve run this gorilla trekking programme.
Each gorilla group has a team of dedicated trackers who spend much of their time in the presence of their charges, protecting them from potential poachers, and informing guides of their locations. As gorillas love eating bamboos, it’s no surprise that they can be found in thick groves. The park guides will lead groups right into the heart of a gorilla den where you can spot gorillas of all ages everywhere you look. They may be grooming, sleeping, feeding, or simply playing around. All the gorilla groups in the park are semi-habituated to human company, making it safe for visitors to gawk at them up close. While you can get close (the rule mandates a 7m distance), touching them is strictly prohibited.
You can trek with gorillas year round, although during the wet season the terrain becomes a series of muddy trails. In addition to sturdy hiking boots, it’s recommended to wear long trousers and shirts when hiking to avoid nettle stings (it’s a common occurrence). A gorilla trekking permit (US$1,500 per person) requires booking in advance, as only 80 hikers are allowed per day. Once you’ve done the gorilla programme, you can also hike through airy bamboo forests to find the charming Golden Monkey (cost: US$100), or take a beautiful yet challenging hike to 3,000 meters up the slopes of Mount Bisoke along the ‘Dian Fossey Tomb Trail’ (cost: US$75).
Young males boast their strength by snapping tough bamboo stalks as easily as you’d snap a toothpick. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a drunk young male gorilla charging towards you from the bushes as he thumps his chest. Apparently, when gorillas eat bamboo, they get into
The term ‘silverback’ only applies to male gorillas when they reach the age of 13 when the hair on their backs turn white, hence the term. When you have a number of silverback males in a group, it’s inevitable that there would be a fight to be the top, or a fight to take a handful of females to form a separate group. This is how many of the gorilla groups have formed – with males separating from their former packs to form their own group of 10 or so apes. As each group is heavily monitored, newborn gorillas are celebrated annually at the park, during a ceremony called Kwita Izina (held in September) when they are given official names.
NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK
To get a real sense of the scale of Nyungwe, try East Africa’s highest Canopy Walk (Cost: US$60 per person) with a metal bridge suspended 50 metres above the forest. You can go hiking or even biking the beautiful terrain, tracking chimpanzees, spotting beautiful birds, or simply relax by the waterfalls. Primate Safari While there are 13 species of primates here, the most popular are the chimpanzees. Nyungwe is home to one of East Africa’s last intact populations and boasts two wild chimp communities that welcome guests (one in Cyamdungo and other around Uwinka). Tours start very early, with chimps tracked in groups of 8 hikers, and one hour is allotted with these primates once they’re found. Chimps are harder
Forest Hiking and Birdwatching The Park has over 130kms of hiking trails that last anywhere from one to eight hours. These include the 1-hour Igishigishigi Trail that leads to the Canopy Walk, and the 6-hour long Bigugu Trail that leads you to the park’s highest mountain at 2,950m.
In the southwest corner of Rwanda, Nyungwe Forest National Park is a vast untouched tropical rainforest with a high, dense canopy. It is a vast tropical rainforest that includes the largest swathe of remaining montane forest in East and Central Africa. This dense forest is filled with tall mahoganies, ebonies and giant ferns harbouring a spectacular biodiversity including hundreds of bird species, and over 75 different species of mammals – including 13 primates (about a quarter of all Africa’s primates).
With over 300 species, it’s not too difficult to spot the park’s birdlife, including giant hornbills, great blue turacos, and the red-breasted sparrowhawks. There are 27 birds endemic to this section of the Albertine Rift Valley.
to track than gorillas, as they often remain in dense forest; however it’s slightly easier to find them during summer when the park’s trees are in full bloom. Other primates include the l’Hoest’s monkeys, which can be seen ambling along the roadside on the way into the park. You can also go trekking to see grey-cheeked mangabeys and the Rwenzori colobus monkeys, which can be found in troops of hundreds. The black-and-white colobus monkeys favour the forests surrounding the tea plantations that the park borders.
Park entrance fees into Nyungwe National Park are US$40 per person per day, with chimpanzee tracking fees at US$90 per person.
AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK Akagera National Park is located in the north east of Rwanda along the border with Tanzania. Complementing the habitats of Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe National Park, Akagera is the only protected savannah in Rwanda. Bordered along Lake Ihema, the park consists of scattered grassland, swamp-fringed lake, and rolling hills of acacia and woodland. The park is the only refuge for plains game, including the savanna elephant, zebra, giraffe, impala, topi, oribi, and eland. Primates like olive baboons and vervet monkeys are common, while the blue monkey is more secretive. In addition to wildlife watching, visitors can also take part in sport fishing on Lake Shakani where you can spend a relaxing day fishing off the lakeshore and then cook your catch over an open fire at the campsite. Akagera is the only home in Rwanda for the Big Five, featuring the world’s biggest mammals which were historically sought after by traditional hunters for their meat, hides, and skins. The Big Five include elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions, and leopards; seven lions were introduced in 2015, and 18 eastern black rhinos were re-introduced in May 2017. Wildlife Watching There are 2 main ways to explore the park: a game drive and a boat trip. The park management has vehicles available to hire for game drives that come with their own driver and guide,
and a choice of half day or full day drives. You can also go on a self drive around the park – guides are available for hire to accompany your drive. The game drive will take you across the park, crossing a variety of habitats where you can catch sight of a number of antelope species, as well as zebras and elephants. One elephant in particular is well-known across Rwanda: Mutware is the grumpy old man of Akagera – at 50 years old, he can be calm but can also be anti-social and your guide is likely to change direction should you encounter him on a drive. Night drives yield sightings of bushbabies, while birding safaris are tailored to birdwatchers who may spot up to 500 bird species – especially waterfowl –
that call this park home. Boat trips on Lake Ihema take you past hippos and large waterfowl colonies, making it the easiest way to spot cormorants, maribou storks, cranes, and fishing eagles. It’s definitely a must for birdwatchers – you may also spot the elusive shoebill stork. It is, however, not difficult to see hippos taking a dip along the lakeshore.
Entry fees for the park are US$35 per person per day, and US$7.50 per car for a self-drive safari. Guided safari drives – which includes the vehicle, driver and guide – cost US$175 for a half day (5 hrs) and US$275 for a full day. A one-hour boat trip on Lake Ihema costs US$30 (US$40 for evening ride).
PORTILLO, CHILE Imagine a bright yellow hotel next to an emerald lake with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains: this is Portillo. With limited lodging on the mountain, skiing at Portillo feels like an exclusive getaway. The terrain caters more to the advanced skier with its steeper slopes. Sitting at about 3,000m above sea level, you have to go easy on your first day to get used to the thinner air. Portillo is 2 hours away from Santiago and has the ultimate ski in ski out accommodation at almost 10,000 feet. Beginner Friendly: 2.5/5 | Snow: 3.5/5
Whether you’re a beginner hoping for a first ski experience, or an experienced skier looking for new destinations, here are some ski destinations that may not be on every major skier’s map. From new and unknown to those under-the-radar, here are some ski resorts you can explore.
ÅRE, SWEDEN Scandinavia is widely known for its long winter nights as it is close to the Arctic Circle (you can see the Northern Lights), and there’s nowhere else better to go skiing than at its largest resort: Åre. Boasting more than 100 years of history, Åre gives you a sense of the Alps in Sweden without the altitude problems. It caters to skiers of all levels across four areas: Duved, Tegefjäll, Central Åre, Åre Björnen. The easiest way to get to Åre is via Trondheim, Norway (170kms); you can drive or take a train, both of which take around 3 hours.
Three hours away from Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, lies the Yabuli ski area. Like all other Club Med resorts, it is all-inclusive. Therefore, you have activities lined up, buffets for each meal and a limited group to share the slopes with. This is also the primary training venue for the Chinese national ski team, and the host of the 1996 Asian Winter Games. Beginner Friendly: 2.5/5 | Snow: 2.5/5
ZAO, JAPAN Located 400 km north of Tokyo, Zao has three main attractions: skiing, onsen and “snow monsters” (snow covered fir trees). This is a medium sized resort, with terrain that’s well suited for beginners and intermediates. Zao is also an ideal location for culture seekers as it retains a traditional Japanese feel. Originally an onsen resort town, the hot springs are said to cure all sorts of ailments and injuries, which makes it the ideal après-ski activity.
Beginner Friendly: 2.5/5 | Snow: 3.5/5
Beginner Friendly: 3.5/5 | Snow: 3.5/5
CERRO CATEDRAL, ARGENTINA Cerro Catedral, named for the granite spires that resemble a gothic church, boasts incredible views with vistas across Lake Nahuel Huapi. Being one of the most well-developed ski resorts in South America, skiers have lift access to 1,200 hectares of terrain – more than enough for skiers of all abilities. The food and accommodation can be relatively inexpensive, considering the proximity of Bariloche, a major city in Northern Patagonia. Bariloche is a 2 hour flight from Buenos Aires. Beginner Friendly: 2.5/5 | Snow: 2.5/5
POIANA BRASOV, ROMANIA
GULMARG, INDIA ANDORRA Hidden in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, Andorra is a mountain kingdom (smaller than Singapore!) blessed with abundant snow and sun. There are two large ski areas: Grandvalira and Vallnord which make up more than 300km of ski runs. If that’s not enough, Andorra has become host to many ski races where you can catch a glimpse of the pros in action. Andorra is about 2.5 hours from the nearest international airports: Barcelona (Spain) and Toulouse (France). Beginner Friendly: 4.5/5 | Snow: 4/5
If the rest of the resorts featured here sounds too normal or you’ve been there before and are looking for something unique, Gulmarg is for you. A combination of big mountains, high altitude (up to 4,000m), culture, and sparse tourist infrastructure makes Gulmarg a real ski adventure. To enjoy Gulmarg, you should be an advanced or expert skier comfortable on off-piste terrain. The nearest major city is Srinagar (1 hour), itself a 90-minute flight from Delhi. Beginner Friendly: 1/5 | Snow: 3/5
Other than Transylvania and Dracula’s Castle, Romania has the Carpathian Mountains which is home to Poiana Brasov – one of the best value-formoney ski resorts in Europe. For its size, it’s ideal for a quick ski trip while in Eastern Europe or for beginners who are on a shoestring budget. It’s a 3-hour drive from Bucharest and half an hour away from Dracula’s castle. Beginner Friendly: 4.5/5 | Snow: 3/5
Tucked in the eastern corner of Spain, Catalonia is geographically closer to its neighbours France and Andorra than to its capital. In this autonomous region, there is an undeniable sense that Catalonia is different from the rest of Spain wherever you go. It has its distinctive cuisine, fiestas and traditions, and Catalan, rather than Spanish, is the main language.
FOR THE OUTDOORS The original Ten Essentials list was assembled in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, an organisation for outdoor adventurers, to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. Back then, the list included a map, compass, sunglasses & sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp, first-aid, fire starter, matches, knife and extra food. Over the years, the list has evolved to a “systems” approach rather than including individual items.
1. NAVIGATION: Contemporary navigation tools include five essentials: a topo map, compass, altimeter watch, GPS device and personal locator beacon (PLB). A PLB or satellite messenger will work in remote locations where a mobile phones don’t have a signal. 2. SUN PROTECTION: Always pack with you and wear sunglasses, sun-protection clothing and sunscreen. Not doing so can result in sunburn and/or snow blindness and potentially skin cancer and cataracts. For prolonged travel on snow or ice, you’ll need extra-dark glacier glasses. Sunblock that blocks UVA and UVB rays are essention, and needs to have an SPF of at least 15 (SPF 30 is recommended). 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 waterproofcoated, 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: Being able to find your way through the wilderness at night is essential, so you always need to have a light source with you. A headlamp is the preferred choice because it keeps your hands free for all types of tasks, whether that’s cooking dinner or holding trekking poles. 5. FIRST-AID SUPPLIES: There are plenty of first-aid kits for backpacking; while antihistamines (for bites, allergies), treatments for blisters, bandages, adhesive tape, disinfectants, and painkillers are the norm, also consider vaseline and hydration salts. 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. 6. FIRE: Fire is essential not only for providing much-needed heat, but also for cooking and emergency survival. It can be a butane lighter or matches, and a waterproof container.
While Catalonia’s entire east coast is lined with some of the most stunning beaches in Europe, its northern region is dominated by soaring Pyrenean peaks and valleys; this hinterland is where nature takes over, where countless peaks, forests, valleys and rivers tempt you to go cycling, hiking, mountaineering, kayaking, skiing, climbing, canyoning, and more.
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:
On a high-altitude snow or glacier climb, it’s hard to find firewood so it’s advisable to carry a stove as a heat and water source. 7. KNIFE AND REPAIR KIT: Knives are handy for gear repair, food preparation, first aid, making kindling or other emergency needs. Common repair kit items include duct tape, cords, zip ties, safety pins and repair parts for a water filter, tent poles, stove, sleeping pad, crampons, snowshoes and skis. 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: It’s crucial to carry enough water and have some method of treating water, whether that’s with a filter/purifier, chemical treatment or a stove for melting snow. Most people need about a half litre per hour during moderate activity in moderate temperatures (2L daily is ideal). Water bottles or hydration packs are essential to any hike. 10. EMERGENCY SHELTER: Have some type of emergency shelter to protect you from wind and rain in case you get stranded or injured on the trail. 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 (or even a large plastic trash bag) also helps in case of any emergency.
Tucked in valleys and mountains are countless hilltop villages, medieval monasteries, ancient churches and watchtowers.
Montgarri, Val d’Aran
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. 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.
CATALONIA BY REGION
Barcelona is by far the most populated region of Catalonia. Its landscape is also the most varied, ranging from the Pyrenean range to the coastal plains. Just 35km northwest of Barcelona within the jagged mountain range of Montserrat is one of the Catalonia’s most important religious pilgrimage sites. Montserrat is easily accessible by train and cable car or funicular (1.5 hours) from Barcelona, so it can get crowded during the weekends, and choir sessions. The highest point of the Catalan lowlands (1,236m), it’s home to the
monastery housing the figure of La Moreneta (Black Virgin). It is one of the monasteries along the 140km-long Way of Saint James pilgrimage route which leads to Santiago de Compostela; those wishing to undertake the pilgrimage can obtain a pilgrims passport (stamped by each monastery along the way), which you will need in order to access accommodations at the monasteries along the route. To get away from the crowds, the funicular takes you further up the mountain, where several hiking trails lead you to quiet paths, meditation caves or to the highest point on Montserrat (Sant Jeroni).
The geography here consists of intriguing rock towers and pinnacles, making Montserrat a mecca for rock climbers. There are over 2,000 rock climbing routes, including some of the best multi-pitch routes in Spain ranging from 200m-300m long, with characteristic hanging belays.
VALL DE BOÍ, ALTA RIBAGORÇA
Tucked in the shadow of the Pyrenean Alps is Vall de Boí, a village that contains the densest concentration of Romanesque architecture in Europe, dating back to the 11th century. Situat-
AIGÜESTORTES I ESTANY DE SANT MAURICI NATIONAL PARK, PALLARS SOBIRA
ed in the commune of Alta Ribagorça at the edge of the Pyrenees, it is home to the 9 UNESCO-listed churches in villages that dot this mountainscape.
The commune of Pallars Sobirà stretches from the Collegats gorge to the base of the Pyrenees, following the course of the river Noguera Pallaresa through snowcapped mountains and green valleys.
These historic monuments are well known for their bell towers and murals. While, sadly, most of the murals have been removed – and currently on display in a museum in Barcelona – you can still see the characteristic architecture of the area. At Sant Climent in the village of Taüll, you can see what the murals would have looked like thanks to a unique projection mapping project.
Most of this region is a protected nature reserve, which include the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, the only national park in Catalonia. Ranging in elevation between 1,600m and 3,000m, the park has montane and alpine vegetation that is home to wildlife like the Pyrenean chamois, marmot, roe deer, as well as birds like the gigantic lammergeier and golden eagle. It’s a picturesque landscape of rivers and lakes surrounded by jagged, snowcapped peaks. Park guides are available for nature or birdwatching tours (with snowshoe tours available in spring).
The Romanesque Route 1 is a mountainous walking trail that connects many of the villages in this valley along a 16km loop. Along this route, you can see some of these Romanesque churches, including Santa Maria de Taüll, San Joan in Boí, and Santa Eulàlia in Erill la Vall.
BAQUEIRA-BERET, VAL D’ARAN the river, giving you breathtaking views of the surroundings. The easiest way to start is from the village of Masieta in the north – the trail crosses 2 suspension bridges. Once you’ve covered the entire canyon wall you’ll see another highlight of the trail: the aerial walkway.
MONT-REBEI GORGE, PALLARS JUSSÀ
Straddling the province of Lleida and neighbouring Aragon is the stunning Mont-Rebei Gorge (Congost de Mont-Rebei). This land is a transition between the Pyrenees mountains and the flatlands of Lleida, where rivers have carved out spectacular gorges and 3 Montsecs (dry mountains): d’Ares, de Rúbies and d’Estall. Covering an area of 600 hectares, Mont-Rebei Gorge was carved by the river Noguera Ribagorçana. The calm, blue waters of the Noguera Ribagorçana is also popular for kayaking, and the vertical rock faces are a magnet for rock climbers (avoid climbing from
The aerial walkway – a set of wooden stairs and planks anchored to the vertical rock wall – zig-zags you down to the banks of the river and back to the GR trail. The walkway takes you down 80m from the top of the canyon wall to the riverbank; it’s exposed in parts and narrow, and not for the faint of heart. December to June as vultures and other rock birds nest during this time). There is also a popular via ferrata route that starts from the base of the Mare de Déu de la Pertusa, and once on the top, the tiny chapel provides an amazing panorama of the entire canyon. There is no road, railway or electricity line inside the area, and the only access is via a mule track dug out of the rock face. Part of the 1,200km-long GR1 hiking trail, it traverses this entire canyon (which is about 4km long). This spectacular trail is hewn out of the narrow canyon walls, dug about 500m above
You can opt to make a loop of the gorge (turning back to Masieta), or arrange for a river pickup anywhere after the aerial walkway section.
Catalonia’s northernmost outpost, Val d’Aran (or the “Aran Valley”) is located at the western end of the Pyrenees, with 3,000m-tall soaring peaks. Few visitors make it as far north to this region, but its relative isolation – it is only accessible by road – is a major part of its draw. Part of what makes Val d’Aran different from the rest of Catalonia is that it’s a region with Provençal roots (the locals speak Aranese, and have their own cultural traditions), and is influenced by an Atlantic climate. Dotted with plentiful historic sites, quaint hilltop villages and mountains, Val d’Aran is also home to Spain’s biggest, trendiest ski resort. Situated between altitudes of 1,500m and 2,510m, Baqueira-Beret is the only Spanish ski resort located on the north-
There are over 200kms of historic trekking trails – called the Camins Vius, or ‘Living Paths’, that date back to medieval times – that join the 6 valleys, 3 mountain passes, and their villages throughout the park. The paths can be covered in 7 or 9 one-day stages, with each stage ending at a village where you can appreciate the area’s rich cultural heritage. The trans-Pyrenean GR11 footpath also traverses the park from one end to the other. The Carros de Foc (Chariots of Fire) route is a circular tour of some of the refuges in the area; 4-5 days is ideal to appreciate the route.
ern slopes of the Pyrenees, guaranteeing an abundance of quality snow until early April. Located 13km from Vielha (the capital of Val d’Aran), Baqueira-Beret actually consists of 3 interconnected ski resorts: Beret, Baqueira, and Bonaigua. The resort is the most prestigious in Spain, patronised by many celebrities, including the Spanish royal family. Even so, the prices here are generally lower than at Alpine resorts.
either blue or red. Ski safaris – on the red, blue and black pistes – range from 2 to 4 hours long, taking advantage of the easy connectivity between the 3 mountains.
The base at Baqueira is an upmarket resort area with plenty of accommodation and off piste options, while on the slopes, cafes and other facilities ensure that you don’t need to descend to base for almost anything. With over 180km of piste, it’s the largest ski area in Spain that caters to all levels of skiers and boarders. The lift system at Baqueira-Beret is able to transport an impressive 60,000 people per hour up to the slopes. Beginners have ample space to practise, while experienced skiers have the run of the entire resort, as many of the runs are
Of course, skiing isn’t the only activity on the cards. Snowshoeing is popular here, with plenty of trails that lead to quiet forests, frozen lakes and isolated mountain huts. For a more relaxing – yet exhilarating – way to glide around the white landscape, you can also go dog sledding from Beret to the mountain hut of Montgarri. If the skies are clear at night, you can zip through the dark forest with the milky way spread out above you, and the silence broken by paws padding through snow.
There is an infamous stretch of road in Bolivia which has become both popular and infamous with mountain bike riders. Its spectacular, exciting, but best of all, it’s all down hill. Built in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan Prisoners of War, this narrow winding mountain road was then the only connection between the northern Bolivia and its capital La Paz, so many had no choice but to brave this mountain pass despite how many lives it claimed. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank surveyed roads across the globe for insurance purposes. What they found in
Bolivia, just a short drive from La Paz, was a single-lane gravel road, the North Yungas Road between La Cumbre and Coroico, which witnessed between 200 and 300 vehicle fatalities per year – the highest recorded anywhere in the world. Thus, the road became known as “Camino de La Muerte”, or “The Death Road”.
The full day tour starts in La Paz at around 7am when you’ll board a bus to the starting point, at 4,700m. Just breathing is a little challenging at this high altitude. At the starting point, bikes will be unloaded as final checks and adjustments are done on each rider. Before hitting the road comes the essential Pachamama ceremony, where each rider appeases Pachamama, the Bolivian Earth Mother, and asks her to keep them safe by taking a sip of Singani, the national liquor, and splashing a dash of it on ground.
In 2006 a new, wider and more modern North Yungas Road was built after 20 years, and most of the traffic has been diverted that way. However, the original Death Road still gets a few curious cars passing through, but most travellers are thrill-seeking cyclists looking to tick off that bucket list item.
TEXT BY Linda Cash
BOLIVIA’S CAMINO DE LA MUERTE BREAKING DOWN THE CAMINO
From La Paz, the Death Road climbs to around 4,700m at La Cumbre pass, before gradually descending to 1,200m at the town of Coroico. This huge difference in altitude means travellers experience both the chilly Altiplano highlands weather and the hot humid conditions in the rainforests below. The Death Road’s infamous downhill mountain bike ride has two distinct sections. The first leg starts at La Cumbre, at an altitude of 4,700m where you are surrounded by snow-covered peaks, and consists of 31kms of dual-
lane sealed asphalt road descending to an altitude of 3,300m. This section of the road remains in use, but the vehicular traffic is light and there is plenty of room for bikes and vehicles to pass each other.
in the area. The only traffic you are likely to encounter on this section is other mountain bikes and support vehicles of other mountain biking outfitters, meaning the Death Road is relatively safe from general traffic.
The second and more challenging section consists of 33kms of single-lane gravel road winding along the unfenced cliff edge through the jungle, dropping over 2,200m on the descent from 3,300m to 1,100m. This section, whilst remaining open to local traffic, has been bypassed by a new sealed road, which is now used by almost everyone
The preparation starts a day or two before your ride at the office of your chosen biking company in La Paz, where participants are fitted for bikes, helmets, gloves, etc, and the obligatory waivers to sign in order to participate in this ride down the infamous road.
Part one The first half of the ride – the sealed road section – gives riders the opportunity to gain confidence with their bikes and brakes before the real challenge begins. Several stops are made along the way to ensure all riders are comfortable with their bikes and the ride, and to take photos of the spectacular mountains, valleys, tiny villages with their grazing llama and alpaca, and inevitable selfies. Just before the end of this section, the group crosses through the drug security check point which straddles the road and acts as deterrent to local traffickers. Part Two The ride then turns off the sealed road into a jungle clearing where you can pause for a break overlooking the second section. The narrow dusty gravel track winds away below, clinging precariously to the edge of impossibly steep mountain cliffs.
As you gather speed on the steep, straight stretches, there are plenty of hairpin bends – these take you through a cloud layer or past jungle-smothered cliffs – that force you to slow down and take it easy. If it gets tiring, there are always opportunities to stop for a snack or break. You can tear down the road on the tail of the lead guide, with dust flying, tyres scrabbling for purchase, and your heart pumping as you corner just inches from the cliff edge with water spraying as you splash through the streams. Or you can cruise slowly down the road with the tail-end guide, taking it easy and enjoying the wonderful views with plenty of stops for photos and rest.
The experienced guides are always on hand for on-site instructions – they’ll tell you to keep control of the front wheel by releasing the front brake so you don’t slide out, go hard on both brakes before corners, keep the outer pedal down to maintain ground clearance, and flex your knees to keep your balance while spreading your arms to absorb the vibration and maintain steering. Whatever you do, don’t look over the edge at the spectacular 1,000m vertical fall or you might just lose control.
This is a ride to suit all tastes and most ability levels, and plenty of time is allowed for all riders.
There are plenty of things to keep you occupied along the road – hairpins aside. Waterfalls spill onto the road from the cliffs above, while breathtaking panoramas of jungle valleys and towering vine-covered cliffs vie for your attention off the road.
The ride ends with everyone dusty, hot, and tired, in the warm and humid jungle valley at Yolosa where you will be met with a cold beer (or juice). Dinner will be provided before a bus drops you back in La Paz around 9pm, ending what is a very full and adrenalin-filled day.
Some confidence in cycling on gravel surfaces is recommended, since most of the ride is down a steep and winding gravel road. If you find yourself tired, becoming wary of the next stage, or just fancy a rest, the support vehicle is always right behind the group and you are welcome to jump on and off the bus as often as you like.
The Death Road stretches roughly 64kms, taking the average group about 4-5 hours to descend. There are several companies in La Paz offering Death Road MTB experiences, offering a range of options in bike quality, safety gear, inclusions, alternate cycling excursions, and price.
At about 3,500km long, the epic Appalachian Trail (or AT) is one of the USA’s most famous long distance hiking trails. Traversing 14 states in the eastern United States, it stretches all the way from Mt. Katahdin (Maine) to Springer Mountain (Georgia), passing countless national parks and forests. The trail traverses the Appalachian Mountain ridgeline, ranging from alpine zones along the Presidential Range (New Hampshire), to sub-alpine regions of the Shenandoah National Park (Massachusetts).
HIKING THE AT
The AT is a popular trail that is typically hiked from south (Georgia) to north (Maine). Thru-hikers usually begin their treks in the busy spring period and finish by September. The entire length of it is marked by painted white blazes (the ‘official’ trail preferred by purists); there are also blue blazes (using shortcuts) and yellow blazes used by hitchhikers. The AT has over 250 shelters and
campsites along the trail, ranging from New Hampshire’s huts (operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club) to the Fontana Dam Shelter (North Carolina), providing full-service lodging. While a majority of the trail is in the wilderness, hikers will also pass many roads and towns along the way, including Hot Springs (North Carolina), Hanover (New Hampshire) and Monson (Maine). These are ideal stops for restocking supplies; some towns also offer hiker-oriented accommodations.
Virginia Much of the AT traverses Virginia, and the terrain varies from easy hiking to difficult scrambling, as hikers cross back and forth from isolated wilderness to busy parks. Generally, the well-graded southern portion of the state provides solitude. Southwest Virginia is popular for its
rhododendrons and azaleas in summer. In central Virginia, the AT parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway and features unusual rock formations, high summits and mature timber. The busiest portion is the 170km trail through Shenandoah National Park, which has well-maintained trails, lower elevations and abundant wildlife.
The northern Virginia portion follows a notorious undulating portion near Snickers Gap before it hits West Virginia’s town of Harpers Ferry, the midway point of the AT. Maryland - Pennsylvania With low elevations, Maryland’s 66km of the AT runs through parts of Greenbrier State Park for an easy 3-4 day trip. Following the mountains east of the Alleghenies, the 300km+ trail in Pennsylvania is notorious for its long section consisting of foot-stabbing stones. However, the southern portion has easy, gentle grades.
The AT is accessible from many points along the eastern USA. The best way to get to the trailheads is by driving (there are hundreds of carparks along the AT), with Harpers Ferry (WV) and Pawling (NY) offering direct rail services to the trails. Some areas along the AT are also serviced by buses, with the New England portion having the most connections.
New Jersey - New York The rugged portion along the Kittatinny Range is very remote, and abundant with wildlife (like black bears). The elevation is moderate, with the trail crossing bogs and wetlands and the picturesque Delaware Water Gap.
THE ROUTE: SOUTH TO NORTH
The elevation along New York’s portion vary from relatively flat to short, steep rocky pitches, and while quite remote, it does get crowded at the Harriman-Bear Mountain State Park.
Most hikers start from the south, and follow the warm weather on the way north. The trail can also be done in sections. Georgia Traversing the Chattahoochee National Forest, the 121km of trail rambles over many steep ups and downs, including Springer Mountain (1,000m) and Blood Mountain (1,360m). This portion gets very crowded in spring with thru-hikers, with the quaint alpine village of Helen providing a great stop for all hikers. A spectacularly scenic 120km portion in north Georgia traverses rhododendron forests, grassy peaks and oak hollows. North Carolina - Tennessee The trail through North Carolina passes the southern portion of the Smoky
Connecticut - Massachusetts The short portion through Connecticut
Mountains, including breathtaking portions of the Nantahala River with some of the best-graded high elevation trails. Running just over 100km through Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it traverses high ridge lines, including the highest point of the AT – Clingman’s Dome (2,025m). Rhododendron gardens and panoramic views of grassy ‘bald’ mountains are notable here.
meanders across the Housatonic River Valley and the Taconic Range, running along river banks in many sections. This mostly flat terrain provides lovely pastoral views. The Berkshire Plateau in Massachusetts provides a gently undulating hike through pleasant wooded hills and valleys, offering views of Mt. Greylock and Mt. Everett, and passes several small New England towns. Vermont - New Hampshire The Vermont portion follows the southern Green Mountains’ high, rugged crest along the famous ‘Long Trail’. Parts of the AT approaches the treeline, requiring strenuous ascents through forests of birch and pine. Avoid hiking here during the spring ‘mud season’. The highlight of New Hampshire’s portion is the beautiful White Mountains, specifically the Presidential Range.
Topped by Mt. Washington (1,920m), the Presidentials are among the highest ranges on the entire AT. The 140km portion through the White Mountain National Forest feels like a hike through the Arctic tundra, with majestic views of lakes and valleys below. Due to its elevation, hikers can expect severe weather conditions, and regular snowfall on Mt. Washington. Maine Maine’s 452km of trail leads to the AT’s northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Moose and loons are a common sight, thanks to the abundance of lakes, streams and bogs. This portion is considered the most difficult to tackle, even for experienced hikers. The western section’s 1,200m-high mountains are arguably the toughest portion of the entire AT. The central section is the least strenuous, and crosses the trail’s historic route across the Kennebec River using free canoe ferry services. The eastern section (or ‘Hundred Miles’) comprises disconnected mountains with challenging climbs, and tricky stream crossings.
Despite what you may gather from many travel websites, you don’t actually have to hike to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu. You can catch a train, or even a taxi, from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, then catch the many buses which take visitors to Machu Picchu.
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Many say that the journey is often more important than the destination. In this case however, with Machu Picchu being the destination, perhaps it would be better to say that the journey is as important as the destination.
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HIKING THE INCA TRAIL
With its storied past and impossible setting, high in the Andes the lost city of Machu Picchu is unquestionably one of the world’s must-see destinations.
A typical 7-day itinerary combines the cultural highlights of the Sacred Valley where you can interact with locals at a women’s weaving co-op and check out the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo.
While it used to be remote, it remained undiscovered by the invading conquistadors for over a century, today its perfectly preserved ruins are reachable via the iconic Inca Trail. One of the most popular trips in the region is the four-day Inca Trail trek, which rises to nearly 4,200m through stunning alpine scenery, high above the Urubamba Valley. After cresting at Dead Woman’s Pass (4,198m) the trek descends to the aptly-named Sun Gate at dawn, taking in Machu Picchu amidst a morning sea of clouds for the ultimate photo; after that it’s a scenic mountain train ride back to Cusco.
Trains pass herds of llamas, clustered villages and rivers that cut through the highlands, before reaching Machu Picchu. The one-way journey takes around 3.5 hours. The most luxurious option is the Hiram Bingham Orient-Express, which evokes the glamour of a bygone world with its antique fittings. Next is the new Sacred Valley service from Urubamba to Machu Picchu (2.5 hours) which transports passengers in an elegant 1920’s Pullman style train.
TAKING THE TRAIN
PeruRail has a variety of train services from Poroy (Cusco) to Machu Picchu, chugging past citadels and churches before hitting the steep valleys and mountain tops of the Sacred Valley.
This is followed by the Vistadome, which is on vintage 1965 German Ferrostaal railcars, with large side and overhead windows allowing views of the mountainous terrain. Finally, the Expedition train offers basic services at a lower price (from US$45).
SALKANTAY TREK: THE BACK DOOR
The traditional hike to Machu Picchu is of course the classic Inca Trail. However, due to high demand the Inca Trail can be very busy, even though numbers are now limited. This means you may be walking in a stream of many trekkers, or may not be able to obtain passes for the dates you’d like to trek. Several trekking companies offer alternative trekking routes through the surrounding mountains with the terrain varying from high glacier-filled mountain passes to steamy jungle river crossings. The Salkantay trek is one of the alternatives, offering small groups a 5-day trek to Machu Picchu from Cusco. This trek takes you to the base of the spectacular, sacred, snowcapped, 6,270m Salkantay mountain – the “Guardian Spirit of the Andean.” The group size varies depending on the trekking company you choose, but is usually between 4 - 8 trekkers, and your group is often the only people you see for much of your trekking time. Each group has a dedicated hiking guide, as well as the support crew of horsemen and chefs. Trekking companies pride themselves on providing large portions of quality meals: think carbohydrate-rich meals like nacho stacks topped with fresh guacamole and local cheeses, followed by flambé desserts or crème brulee are just examples of what to expect.
This trek has temperatures ranging from -10º to over 30º, so use layers of thermals rather than heavy jackets. Down jackets/vests and pants with zipoff legs are handy. Plan for a few days in Cusco before your trek to allow your body time to acclimatise to the thinner air, sampling the local coca tea to aid the process; altitude sickness can ruin your plans.
THE TREK: DAY 1
Most outfitters will pick you up from your Cusco accommodation for the 4-hour drive to the trailhead at Soraypampa (3,750m), passing through several small villages. The trek begins by selecting a stone from the river bed to be carried as a gift to Pachamama when the peak is reached. The first day’s walking is a gradual climb from 3,750m to 4,180m over 4-5 hours, through traditional shepherded llama and alpaca farming land. You will also encounter wild chinchilla scurrying between the rocks along the way. The first night’s camp is near the base of a glacier where you can hear occasional avalanches that occur throughout the night.
Dawn on the second day at this altitude is likely to be a little chilly, around -10Cº in July. The trek continues with a steep climb past the glacier field in the shadow of Salkantay. The Andes Mountains offer steep, high, and often cold challenges, but all the time rewards you with fantastic vistas.
The highest pass on this trek takes you up to 4,570m where you’ll be gasping for breath as you pause after only five steps or so. You need to take your time at this altitude and guides allow plenty of time for the climb. Upon reaching the peak altitude of the pass, you are rewarded with the view of a crystal blue glacial lake nestled between the snowcapped mountain peaks of Salkantay and Umantay. It’s time to place the small rock you picked up at the start of the hike onto one of the ever-increasing piles at the pass to thank Pachamama and the mountain spirits, Apus, for your safe passage. Now you begin descending and the trail narrows until it reaches a stone-flanked portal marking the entrance to the Peruvian jungle. Passing through the portal into a broad valley, you descend through the cloud layer and the scenery changes rapidly. Orchids and bromeliads fill out the lush vegetation while humming birds flit about the stands of bamboo. Overhead is the territory of the Condor – you may see them high in the sky on the look out for fallen animals on the mountain slopes.
You are now well in the jungle at 2,950m and will be descending to 1,850m through a jungle rich with tropical birds. The trek follows a river valley and winds along steep cliff edges punctuated by cascading waterfalls, before leading to your campsite at the village of La Playa (the Beach) – the rocky shores of the
Rio Urubamba where you can take an optional tour to the hot springs in Santa Teresa – after three days of hiking, the 38ºC hot spring water will feel fabulous.
The fourth day of the trek is the last hiking day and is a pleasant change from all that downhill hiking; it starts with a steep climb to the Llactopata pass at 2,700m, following part of an ancient Inca trail. The lower slopes of this section are coffee growing areas, so the track winds through stands of coffee trees
and mixed tropical crops. Local families will offer their freshroasted and ground coffee – you can even roast and grind it yourself. Llactopata is an Inca site located across the valley from Machu Picchu, and is an ideal lunch stop after a challenging climb, rewarding you with a stunning view across the valley – and of Machu Picchu. After lunch, it’s a long descent to the train station where you catch a train to Aguas Calientes for your hotel night.
The final day of the “trek” starts around 5am; you catch the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (the only way to walk all the way into Machu Picchu is on the classic Inca Trail trek), arriving at Machu Picchu in time for sunrise – but most importantly – before the day crowds arrive from Cusco. Most treks include a guided tour of Machu Picchu, and the opportunity to climb Huayna Picchu (2,720m), claimed to be the residence of the high priest.
CROAGH PATRICK, IRELAND
Part of the Trans-Himalayan mountains in Tibet, Kailash remains sacred to 4 central religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bon. Rising to an altitude of 6,714m, Kailash’s 4 sheer walls denote the cardinal directions of the compass – and from Kailash flows 4 rivers that travel to 4 different parts of the world.
Considered the most sacred mountain in Ireland, Croagh Patrick, or “the Reek”, is climbed by pilgrims every year on Reek Sunday (the last Sunday of July) – a ritual dating back over 5,000 years in honour of Saint Patrick. More than 25,000 pilgrims undertake the annual pilgrimage on Reek Sunday and on Garland Friday (last Friday of July); some walk barefoot or on their knees on the way to the summit where there is a small chapel (built in the early 1990s) open in summer. You can see Clew Bay and County Mayo’s countryside as you climb Croagh Patrick – at 762m high, it is one of the highest mountains in the west of Ireland.
No pilgrims climb Kailash (it’s considered a sacrilege) – rather, pilgrims of all four religions walk in a clockwise direction around it – one round (a kora), is believed to remove the sins of one’s current life; 108 koras help one to attain Nirvana. Some pilgrims also perform body-length prostrations for 54km – the distance of one kora.
MT. ATHOS, GREECE
BADRINATH, INDIA Known as one of the 4 sacred sites of the annual Char Dham pilgrimage, Badrinath towers over the state of Uttarakhand at a height of 3,100m. Badrinath is known for being the seat of Shiva thanks to the Jyothirlingam (symbolic form of Shiva) it holds; it’s the most significant of all the 12 Jyothirlinga located in various parts of India. Open only from the end of April to the beginning of November, the temple and the town get very crowded during the pilgrimage season. Although the temple is accessible by road, you can also hike to Badrinath from Kedarnath (another temple along the Char Dham route) or from the famous Valley of Flowers.
MT.RAMELAU, TIMOR LESTE
Restricted to only male travellers since its early days, Mt. Athos has been an Orthodox spiritual centre since 1054. Deeply rooted in Greek mythology, Mt. Athos is currently home to about 20 monasteries (with 1,400 inhabitants) which cling to the steep rocky slopes around the Chalcidice peninsula facing the Aegean Sea. Backed by beautiful chestnut and Mediterranean forests that rise to 2,033m, Mt. Athos is a showcase of orthodox monastic architecture and agrarian lifestyle. Travel to Mt. Athos is only possible by ferry, and men (no women and children allowed) require special permission in the form of a Byzantine Visa written in Greek, with Orthodox Christians given priority.
Since time immemorial, mountains have been regarded as sacred sites, thanks to their high altitudes which kept them close to the skies – the perceived abode of the Gods. Year after year, these sacred mountains are climbed by pilgrims, devotees and other curious souls, thanks to the spiritual energy – and a sense of peace – that surrounds these landscapes.
The tallest mountain in Timor Leste, Mt.Ramelau (popularly known as Tatamailau), is revered by the Timorese and is considered sacred as it is believed to be the abode of the souls of Timorese ancestors.
MT. SINAI, EGYPT Situated in the Sinai Peninsula, Mt. Sinai (2,2,85m) is cited in the Bible, Quran and Torah as the place where the Ten Commandments were received, making it an important landmark for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Mt. Sinai can be climbed via two routes. The first, Sikket Saydna Musa (Path of Moses), passes numerous chapels and structures honouring saints and the Virgin Mary, and involves climbing 4,000 steps (3 hours) – to reach the top where Moses’ Cave is located. The longer, less scenic Siket El Bashait has a camel-riding option. At the summit is a mosque and a Greek orthodox chapel (closed to the public).
On its summit stands a 3m-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, which was erected in 1997. Towards the end of March, pilgrims make the trek up the mountain for the Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin Mary. There are 2 routes to the top: via Hato Bulico (4 hours) and the more scenic Aimeta (6 hours). Camping is possible at the summit plateau, and wild horses can sometimes be seen galloping around the area.
Set adrift in the vast Indian Ocean, Réunion Island – which belongs to France – is actually closer to Madagascar (and Mauritius) than it is to anywhere in Europe. And as an island destination, its selling point is not about sandy beaches or stilted chalets above the water – this is because Reunion has what most other islands lack: adventure.
Salazie is also home to the pretty village of Hell-Bourg, a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (‘The most beautiful villages in France’). Surrounded by rugged mountains, this village consists of restored pastel-coloured Creole villas, complete with verandahs and quintessential Réunionnais details. There is also the remains of an old thermal spa not far from town.
When approaching the island, it’s easy to see why – rugged cloud-covered mountains blanket much of the island, relegating most of the human habitation towards its coastline. And it’s these mountains that basically provide much of the adventure, whether you’re hiking along its steep trails, rappelling down its waterfalls, or canyoning along its rivers.
CIRQUE DE MAFATE
The most remote of Réunion’s cirques, Mafate is surrounded by jagged remparts, criss-crossed with deep ravines, and studded with waterfall ridges. Thanks to its topography, there are no roads here; the sprinkling of hamlets that are scattered in this giant extinct volcano are only accessible on foot (or helicopter). Hiking There are more than 140 km of hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty. All of Reunion’s long-distance hiking trails – GRR1, GRR2 and GRR3 – as well as a number of hiking paths encircle Cirque de Mafate’s ridgeline at different points. A number of gîtes are also available along the trails for overnight options, and needless to say, you can spend a couple of hours or even a week on the trails in Mafate alone.
LAND OF THE CIRQUES
The easiest way to see the true majesty of the island is from a helicopter (Corail; €210, 25 mins) – as you rise to the mountain ridgeline, nothing can prepare you for that first glimpse of this geologic wonder. From the air, you can actually see that much of Réunion Island owes its creation to volcanoes, with the most impressive being Piton des Neiges (Réunion’s tallest mountain at 3,071m) that created 3 breathtaking cirques (bowl-shaped craters) in roughly the centre of the island: Salazie, Mafate, and Cilaos. These 3 interconnected cirques look like a 3-leaf clover from the air, each encircled by a ridgeline of tall cliffs (remparts). Rugged mountain scenery is interrupted by the occasional canyon where waterfalls reside, and isolated vil-
lages sprinkled onto random plateaus. These hamlets were established mostly by slaves who managed to escape in the late 18th century. Unsurprisingly, a great way to explore the cirques is via a number of footpaths and hiking trails, where hikers can fuel up and overnight in gîtes (dorms) along the way. From casual afternoon walks to multiple-week treks, Réunion has no shortage of trails. In addition to a number of footpaths, there are 3 long-distance trails: the GRR1 loops around all 3 of the cirques, the GRR2 traverses the entire island from St. Denis in the north to St Philippe in the south (traversing all 3 cirques and skirting Piton de la Fournaise along the way), and the GRR3 which encircles Cirque de Mafate.
Hiking in Mafate involves steep hikes, but the the jaw-dropping scenery – kilometre-high waterfalls, tiny villages perched on plateaus, and row upon row of jagged mountain peaks – are worth every calorie.
CIRQUE DE CILAOS
There’s also a sprinkling of hamlets in Cilaos, but unlike Mafate, its main town is accessible via the RN5 – a major road that snakes steeply up to the cirque from the coastal town of St Louis, taking you around over 400 twists and turns for an unending stream of impressively scenic views. The town of Cilaos itself is a mountain resort at 1,200m above sea level, and a unique spa town since the 19th century. These days, it’s focused on tourism – particularly hiking and canyoning – as well as agriculture. There are two tiny villages within the cirque –
Îlet à Cordes and Bras-Sec – which are popular hiking destinations; the former is known for its lentils which have been cultivated here since 1835.
Canyoning Salazie is also the wettest of the 3 cirques, which makes it ideal for canyoning trips. The picturesque canyon of Trou Blanc near Hell-Bourg is Réunion’s most iconic canyoning spot. Beginning with a narrow gorge, the aquatic canyon opens up to a magnificent scenery.
Hiking Cilaos is a popular starting point for over 80kms of footpaths that snake around this cirque, ranging from easy trails around the cryptomeria forest, to more difficult ones involving a climb to the top of the Piton des Neiges, as well as the long-distance hiking paths of GRR1 and GRR2.
CIRQUE DE SALAZIE
Salazie is the easiest of the 3 cirques to access by road, and the journey offers vistas of soaring cliffs sliced by rivers and thundering waterfalls, like the scenic Cascade Blanche.
The abundance of natural slides and jumps – with names like ‘Washing Machine’ and ‘Vavavoum’ – culminate in a final abseil of 20m down a narrow waterfall.
FIRE AND EARTH
While Piton des Neiges is dormant, Réunion’s only other volcano happens to be one of the most active in the world.
Occupying a large chunk on the east of the island, the Piton de la Fournaise is a large shield volcano (basically, one that emits fluid lava rather than just ash) that last erupted in January this year; to get an idea of its volatility, it erupted in 2015, 2010, 2008, 2007 and 2006. When it isn’t active, however, the area is a haven for hikers.
Piton de la Fournaise Also known (aptly) as The Volcano, Piton de la Fournaise last erupted in January this year, and has produced more than 150 recorded eruptions since the 17th century. Situated within the UNESCO-protected Réunion National Park, the most impressive aspect of this region is its drastically different landscape – Piton de la Fournaise is reminiscent of a red-earthed moonscape which is dotted with craters of different sizes and heights. To get a glimpse of this expansive landscape, follow the forestry road all the way up to Pas de Bellecombe (2,311m), situated over the caldera rim cliffs, for an expansive view of the northeast part of the caldera. There is a snack shop and a gîte here. All hikers start from the car park at Bellecombe where plenty of hiking trails originate – it’s better to arrive early in the morning to avoid the thick fog that shrouds the area by noon. A hike in the caldera begins with a stairway path that descends from the rim to the caldera floor where the surrounding crater walls loom around you. A number of routes are marked by white paint on rock, and a hike inside the crater takes about 5 hours. The first site is the tiny 18th century Formica Leo crater, followed by Chapel Rosemont, which is a large mound of lava. From here, the trail forks: the right leads to the steeper Crater Bory (2,631m) which takes 45 minutes to hike to; to the left you’ll encounter some stunning scenery while you spiral the flanks of Crater Bory as you continue towards Crater Dolomieu (1.5 hours).
Le Grand Brûlé When Piton de la Fournaise erupts, the lava flows through the plain of Le Grand Brûlé before hitting the ocean. The lower parts of the Grand Brûlé can be visited from the coastal N2 highway, which has signs documenting the lava flows in the area. Here, the surrounding landscape is a mix of barren black rocks of hardened lava, dotted with portions of greenery (volcanic rock is very fertile). Erupting lava will cut across the N2, so it has to be rebuilt after each incident. You can also visit the bowels of the earth, following the route of the lava as it flows from Piton de la Fournaise to the sea. There are a number of lava tubes in the area, and the most recent one open to the public is one from the 2004 eruption. A number of tube tours
Nagano prefecture is sometimes referred to as ‘the roof of Japan’, thanks to its location in the Japanese Alps. It is one of the rare places in Japan where the sea doesn’t dominate local culture – instead, the truly unique way of life here is focused on the bounty of the forests and mountains, and shaped by the unusual inland climate. Every season has its highlights – skiing in the winter, cherry blossoms in the spring, festivals in the summer, and autumn foliage. Nagano has plenty to offer every traveller; there are sacred mountains, ancient cities, quaint hamlets, and soothing onsen.
are available, ranging from 3-hour ‘discovery’ visits (about 1.6km) to 6-hour ‘sporty’ excursions.
NAGANO AT A GLANCE Located in the middle of Honshu island, Nagano has seen its fair share of real-life historical drama over the centuries. The well-preserved architecture of its historic sites speaks volumes about the changes and power struggles that took place here in earlier eras. Matsumoto Castle, for instance, passed through many hands after it was first built in 1504. It was constructed with a comprehensive defense system -- a triple moat, a fortified five-tiered donjon,
a turret, and low ceilings and steep stairs to slow down intruders. These were useless in Matsumoto Castle’s final battle, against Meiji era developers who wanted to demolish the beautiful black-and-white donjon and turrets. Fortunately, the town rallied together and successfully petitioned to save their iconic castle, which you can now visit. Togakushi (literally “hiding door”) shrine,
located at the foot of Mt Togakushi, is a less visible but equally precious Nagano landmark. The shrine’s founding was, according to legend, caused by some deities attempting to lure Amaterasu, the sun goddess, out of the cave in which she was hiding. One of the deities, as the story goes, grabbed the door to the cave and deposited it deep in a Nagano forest (where Togakushi now sits), forcing Amaterasu to reveal herself.
SAKE: NAGANO’S NECTAR Nagano is set in some dazzling mountain ranges. These mighty ridges are so imposing, both physically and culturally, that they tend to overshadow another one of the prefecture’s important features: abundant, high-quality fresh water. If you pay close attention, you’ll see that water flows through all parts of Nagano, whether in the form of natural mountain springs, snaking streams, or hot springs in town. Thanks to this natural gift, Nagano was settled as early as the Paleolithic era, and the first inhabitants went on to form powerful kingdoms. Abundant water, quality rice harvested within the prefecture, and a pristine brewing environment have combined to make Nagano a great sake producer throughout history. The prefecture is home to 72 sake breweries, the second largest number in Japan after Niigata, brewing domestically and internationally acclaimed sake.
SKIING IN NAGANO Fantastic quality snowfall, grand mountain ranges and a long skiing season in Nagano make for an unforgettable winter holiday.
What makes Nagano’s breweries distinctive, aside from their great-tasting brews, is their rich cultural history. For instance, Shusen Kurano, the prefecture’s oldest brewery, was founded in 1540. Takeda Shingen, a famous Sengoku-period warrior, sipped sake here during one of his many battles. Another brewery, Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, founded in 1755, is known for hosting Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s best-known ukiyo-e artist, who produced some great works in Obuse (where the brewery is located). Sake brewers and well-informed fans are closely attuned to the seasons. Every year, when brewing starts after the rice is harvested in autumn, sake
Hakuba Valley, in northwestern Nagano, is a favourite of winter sports enthusiasts from all around the world. The 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted here, and the valley is home to no less
enthusiasts get restless with anticipation for the very first brew of the season, or shinshu. It is truly a seasonal specialty — the fresh brew is available only between December and March. Winter weather calls for some warm sake. Sip it alongside a big batch of hotpot stew on a cold night, and you will feel as if you are bundled up in a comfortable blanket! For a relaxing, poetic experience, set up a table by the window, and enjoy the evening snowfall while savouring your sake; yukimi-zake (literally “snow-viewing sake”) is an elegant Japanese tradition. Local winter delicacies are great when paired with sake. Nagano’s mountains are the source of some unique local products: instead of the saltwater fish you might usually associate with Japanese cuisine, look forward to delicious freshwater trout, tasty game meat, and a wide variety of mountain vegetables.
SOAKING IN ONSEN People everywhere know how great a hot bath can feel, especially on a cold winter evening, but Japan is one of the few places today where the enjoyment of baths is a revered cultural institution. Nagano is home to some of the most unique onsen towns, where visitors can soak in the wonderful history of this bathing culture. Bessho Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest onsen, is packed full of designated “national treasures” and historic shrines. Its hot springs and bathhouses
have appeared in many important works of classical Japanese literature, and the water here is purported to leave your skin feeling soft and smooth. Nozawa is perhaps the most famous of Nagano’s onsen. The village has been around since the 8th century, and its 13 public bathhouses range from modern (Nozawa Onsen Arena) to ancient, like the magnificent Oyu bathhouse. Here, you’ll find remarkably well-preserved examples of the wooden templestyle architecture that characterised traditional bathhouses.
than 10 ski resorts. Visitors will enjoy more blue sky days here than at any other Japanese ski area, and can try out exhilaratingly steep slopes as well as plenty of beginner slopes, tree- and backcountry runs. If you’d rather travel by snowshoe or snowmobile, there are hundreds of trails in the area that lead you through an-
cient forests and past hidden shrines – perfect for hours of exploring. At the end of a busy day on the slopes, you have some great après-ski options. Try out the restaurants and bars dotting Hakuba Valley. Or spend a cosy evening indoors with good friends and an even better bottle of Nagano sake, while the snow falls outside.
SNOW MONKEYS The Jigokudani Monkey Park – located in the monkey’s natural habitat in the forests of the Jigokudani valley in Yamanouchi, not far from the onsen towns of Shibu and Yudanaka – offers visitors the unique experience of seeing wild monkeys bathing in a natural hot spring. The park has one manmade pool around which the monkeys gather, located a few minutes’ walk from the park entrance. Although the park is open all year round, the bathing monkeys are particularly photogenic when the area is covered in snow. There is usually snow in the region from December to March, and the best timing for a visit is January and February.
This last campsite is not actually on the glacier itself; it’s a historical campsite – established by the Duke of Abruzzi in the early 20th century – located on a grassy slope high above the Baltoro and commands one of the most intense mountain views in this world: down the Baltoro and up the glacier towards Concordia.
DAY 5 DAY 2
Being in the soaring Karakorum, merely going from one valley to another – despite how near it may look – requires a hard day’s hike.
Situated between Pakistan and China where the Baltoro Glacier and the Godwin Austen Glacier meet in a natural amphitheatre, Concordia offers a 360° view of four of the world’s 14 peaks above 8,000m within a 21km radius. Access to this chain of mountains – known as the “throne room of the mountain gods” – is best done from Baltistan, a mountainous region with an average altitude of over
A significant portion of the route is on fine white sand, which is not the easiest surface to trek. Another common sight from Day 2 onwards are the army outposts along the Concordia route, the first of which you pass on the way to Paju camp (3,380m), a tree-lined oasis that marks the next night’s halt.
3,000m, on the border of Pakistan and India in the Karakoram mountains just south of K2, with Xinjiang to the north and the Kashmir Valley on the southwest.
The view from Paju takes in multiple peaks over 6,000m tall, while just an hour’s hike brings you to the base of the Baltoro Glacier. Ascending the uneven moraine to one side you will traverse the glacier – with astounding views of the Baltoro pinnacles and Paiyu peak – before descending to the opposite valley wall with loose rocks where the glacier has pulled away in recent years.
Baltistan was originally an ancient mountain kingdom inhabited by the Balti. While a majority of the population follows Islam, millenniaold Tibetan culture, customs, and language still exist.
This extremely mountainous area is accessible via the famous Karakorum Highway (Pakistan’s National Highway 35) which heads north via Chilas, or south from Xinjiang, China. There are also flights to Skardu from Islamabad (to take this option, you’ll need to apply for a tourist visa prior to arrival and would require a letter of invitation from a Pakistani host or tour operator).
The best way to get to Concordia is to hire a local guide, due to its remoteness and the ever-changing trail on the Baltoro Glacier. Operators are available at Skardu, or via onlinel tour operators.
Gasherbrum I and II and Broad Peak – stand proud alongside hundreds of unclimbed peaks up to 7,000m. From here, porters and mules can be hired for the next 2 weeks.
From Skardu, it’s a 4WD ride through the Shigar Valley to the town of Shigar, where mobile reception – along with tarmac – disappear. From here on, it’s a bumpy dirt track through the Braldu Gorge all the way to the trailhead in the town of Askole.
Askole (3,000m) is the last settlement, with a population of 500, before a trail leads to an alpine paradise where four of the five 8,000m peaks – including K2,
From Goro 2, it’s an easy day’s hike to Concordia (4,650m), following the Baltoro to its confluence with the Godwin-Austen Glacier, where views open up with the final surprise being soaring K2 (8,611m) peeking out over Marble Peak (6,256m) on the left, just before reaching Concordia. After almost a week of hard hiking, you arrive at the “throne of the mountain gods”, with the reward being expansive views of four of the 8,000ers (Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I & II, and K2), as well as a view down the glacier you’ve covered.
Alternatively, the next campsite is a 3-4 hour trek to Urdukas (4,050m) crossing two glaciers en route before ascending high above to a terraced campground overlooking the icefield.
TACKLING THE HEART OF THE KARAKORUM STARTING POINT
At Goro 2 (4,250m), you’re camping on the glacier, so it’s a struggle to find a comfortable, or even level tent site among the moraine and ice. However, you are rewarded with excellent views of Masherbrum (7,821m), which was once thought to be the highest mountain in the Karakorum range, otherwise known as K1.
This route brings you to Liligo, and onwards to the overnight spot at Khorbutse (3,930m) on the far side of a lateral glacier flowing into Baltoro. It’s a spot with excellent views of Uli Biaho, a soaring pinnacle over 6,000m high.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY Kaixiang Liang
Skardu, capital of Baltistan where the Shigar River meets the mighty Indus, is the main staging point for expeditions to this part of the Karakorum Range.
Leaving Urdukas, you head towards Goro, or “little rocks” in Balti, an apt name for the glacial debris you must cross as you hike along the Baltoro. In the lead-up to Concordia, the summit of Gasherbrum IV (7,925m) grows on the horizon over successive days.
There’s also a good view of Muztagh Tower, an enormous rock tower with four sides stretching steeply into the sky; it’s perhaps the most difficult technical climb in the Karakoram.
From Askole, the course follows the Braldo River towards Korophon – a forested area and campsite at the terminus of the Biafo Glacier. From there, the route meanders to the junction of the Dunlordo and Biaho rivers, passing through thick patches of wild edible sea-buckthorn berries, before reaching Joula (3,190m), the first overnight halt.
THE RETURN JOURNEY
From here, there are a few optional day trips to K2 base camp (5,100m), Gasherbrum base camp (5,050m) or Broad Peak base camp (4,850m). On the return trek, there is the option of going over the Gondogoro La pass (5,940m) which brings you around to Hushe (however, there have been periodic restrictions on crossing this pass). Alternatively, you can return the way you came and experience the route back with a different perspective over 3-4 days.
Located between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is situated at the crossroads of east and west. The geography of this vast nation includes spectacular coasts, unending deserts, deciduous forests, undulating hills, and snow-capped peaks, offering a huge range of stunning landscapes. Iran is also home to one of the oldest civilisations in human history. It boasts cultural sites spanning the last three thousand years. Persepolis, the 5th century BC seat of Darius the Great’s Achaemenid Empire, continues to fuel contemporary imaginations of the ancient world, while the city of Isfahan, the erstwhile capital of Persia under
for embodying both water and fire. These natural elements underpin the key beliefs of Zoroastrianism, once the state religion of Sasanian Persia and still protected today under Iran’s constitution.
the Safavids, houses what many Iranians believe is the most beautiful public square in the world. Yet recent travellers have paid scant attention to this country, due to its seemingly erratic and unpredictable policies and practices. Perhaps the most unspoilt landscapes that Iran has to offer are its mountains. The Alborz mountain range that snakes across northern and northwestern Iran consists of some of the highest peaks in the Middle East, where some of the best preserved historical sites are nestled.
THE ZOROASTRIAN FIRE TEMPLE
UNESCO-listed Takht-e Soleyman (“Throne of Solomon”) is an archaeological site situated within the rolling hills of the mineral-rich northwestern province of West Azarbaijan. Its primary attraction is a 6th century Zoroastrian fire temple, erected by the Sasanian Empire and partially restored in the 13th century by the Mongols. Designated a sacred site in ancient times for its artesian lake and volcano, this site is full of symbolic significance TEXT BY Darren Wan
VALLEY OF ASSASSINS
On the western reaches of the Alborz range lies Alamut, a valley that separates the dry plains in the south from the fertile forested slopes facing the Caspian Sea, a popular spot for domestic tourism that Iranians refer to affectionately as Shomal (or ‘north’). The dramatic contrasts in landscapes within Alamut make it one of the best, most varied sites for hiking. In the 12th century, the Alamut valley was the home of a group known in the West as the “Assassins”, a sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims that were at odds with the Sunni Seljuk Turks who ruled the region then. Having captured and fortified these remote mountain castles, the Assassins controlled the valley for
about 150 years, until they valiantly held the last line of defence against the Mongols that by the mid-13th century had swept across the rest of Persia. The ruins of these fortresses – the two most popular of which are Lambsar Castle and Alamut Castle – not only reveal the ingenuities of medieval architecture, but also boast magnificent views of the mud-brick hamlets and lush rice terraces that line the valley floor.
ride to Alamut from Qazvin offers stunning vistas over the agrarian lifestyle of villagers within the fertile valley, a sharp contrast to life on the barren plains of Qazvin and Tehran.
The craggy curvatures of the mountains that encircle the Alamut valley are suitable for casual trekking day trips. Getting to Qazvin, the nearest major city to Alamut, takes a two-hour bus ride. Most taxi drivers in Qazvin offer full day trips to the valley, depending on duration of stay at the castles. Short 20 or 30-minute treks will take you from the end of the road to the ruined ramparts of Lambsar Castle and Alamut Castle situated atop narrow peaks. The scenic
This short hike can easily be extended with climbs up some of Alamut’s highest summits, including Siyalan (4,190m), or even the sheer rock faces of the second highest peak in Iran, Alam Kooh (4,850m), a climb which requires technical mountaineering equipment and preparation. Since there is little climbing traffic in this region, guides are strongly recommended and can be arranged at agencies in Tehran or Qazvin.
For more serious hikers, the most popular overnight routes across the Alborz range start from the village of Garmarud, situated on the lip of a picturesque canyon, and end across the rugged mountains in Yuj, two to three days’ hike away. At Yuj, you can hop on a minibus that leaves every morning for the Caspian coast at Tonekabon, a town 50km away with ample connections to major cities like Rasht and Tehran.
THE PEAK OF IRAN
Standing at 5,671m, Damavand is the highest mountain in the Middle East. Located just 66km northeast of Tehran, it provides an imposing backdrop resting on the gentle foothills of the Alborz.
If scrambling Damavand’s craggy slopes does not appeal, or if you find yourself in Tehran during the height of winter, you can visit the many ski resorts on slopes near Mt. Damavand.
It is the subject of much pre-Islamic Iranian folklore, narratives of which are still familiar to most Iranians today. Scaling the heights of Mt. Damavand is best done in late summer, and a guide can be arranged in Tehran. The trek to the summit, with its perennial snowcap and sulphurous fumaroles, takes four to five days.
Dizin, Shemshak, and Tochal are the most popular ski resorts located within an hour from Tehran, offering picturesque snowscapes that provide a welcome refuge from Iran’s bustling capital.
The easiest way to get to Takht-e Soleyman is hiring a taxi (US$30-50) from the town of Zanjan, itself a 4-hour bus ride from Tehran. The nearby Zendan-e Soleyman (“Prison of Solomon”), an ancient volcano with a 100m-deep crater, is also worth a scramble, with the remains of shrines dating from the first millennium BC situated on its summit.
While visa requirements vary by nationality, Singaporeans can get a two-week visa-on-arrival. Trips lasting longer than two weeks require visa applications in person at an Iranian embassy, the closest of which is located in Kuala Lumpur.
Located in western Iran in the Zagros mountains, Mt. Bisotun (2,794m) boasts craggy rock faces that make it a prime spot for avid rock climbers. With over sixty different routes, Mt. Bisotun can accommodate many climbers, and comfortable huts located on the ledges at various points along the mountain allow for climbers to scale the summit over the course of a couple of days. In fact, the biennial International Festival of Mountaineering and Climbing has
been held in Bisotun since 2010. Apart from its value as a prime destination for climbing, it is also UNESCO-listed for the Bisotun Inscription, a bas-relief and trilingual cuneiform inscription of 1,200 lines located 100m up a limestone cliff on Mt. Bisotun’s southeastern face, which documents Darius the Great’s reign of the Achaemenid Empire.
HINTERLAND TOWNS outpost with a general store and a very popular Japanese-run cafe.
Queensland’s hinterland towns are known for their beautiful wooden Queenslander-style houses, which can be found along a scenic route from Ipswich to Toowoomba, both established at the turn of the century during the rail boom. Springbrook NP © Tourism Australia
These are all easily accessible from Murwillumbah, a hilly town which houses many Art Deco buildings.
NSW also has a few notable towns with heritage architecture, including Chillingham which is known for its colourful store. The laid-back town of Mullumbimby is known for its meditative experiences and the weekly Mullumbimby Farmers Market as well as the eclectic annual Mullum Music Festival. A number of quirky small towns are scattered across Wollumbin National Park, including Nimbin, Australia’s most famous hippie destination; Uki, a thriving arts and crafts village with a general store and post office; and Federal, an
Tamborine NP © Tourism and Events Queensland
The one thing that most people don’t realise about Australia is its vastness – in size, it rivals the USA (although it has one of the lowest population densities in the world by space). It is, after all, the world’s largest island and home to a range of ecosystems, with tropical rainforests in the northeast, mountain ranges in the east, and dry desert in the middle. Most of the population lives within 20km of the ocean, occupying a suburban, southeastern arc from southern Queensland to Adelaide.
Lamington National Park Home to the famed O’Reilly’s Tree Top Walk (180m) which takes you through a rainforest canopy from 15m above ground; comprised of 9 suspension bridges and 2 observation decks it’s the first of its kind in Australia.
Its harsh outback interior has forced much of Australia to become a coastal country, and for most visitors it has become a land of endless summers known for its great outdoors coupled with a thriving beach scene and casual friendly culture.
One of the most popular destinations is the Gold Coast, which straddles the border between Queensland and New South Wales. This strip of land between the mountains and the impossibly long coastline is home to lively cities, beautiful surf beaches, and a chain of national parks packed with wildlife and stunning mountain views. The coast is a virtually unbroken 40kmlong strip of beach, stretching from South Stradbroke Island to Surfers Paradise and Burleigh Heads, and continues down to the New South Wales border at Coolangatta.
In spite of being known as the ‘Glitter Strip’, there are plenty of things to do that won’t cost you a cent. From the beach to the mountainous hinterland, markets and music festivals, there’s bound to be something to check out.
century towns and villages dotted throughout the rolling farm landscape, where farmers rub shoulders with city slickers, and a strong hippie vibe can be felt in towns like Nimbin and Mullumbimby.
NORTHERN NEW SOUTH WALES
You’ll also find lush farmlands – with grazing cattle – interspersed with tracts of World Heritage parks.
Providing a buffer between New South Wales’ big cities to the south and Queensland’s Gold Coast to the north, the North Coast of New South Wales offers an altogether quiet and varied escape. Here, you’ll find cute little turn-of-the-
Whether you’re looking for a quiet surf beach, meals made with fresh local produce, awesome hikes in the hinterlands, or a psychic reading, you can get it all here along this stretch of coast.
The National Parks are where you’ll find the views, flora and fauna. You can trek through ancient rainforests, walk under waterfalls and swim in mountain streams. There are plenty of bushwalking trails and clubs to help you navigate the terrain. Most of these trails lead to amazing look-outs that show off the coastal skyline, beaches or hinterland. Springbrook National Park Not far from Gold Coast, Springbrook is where you can tackle a hiking route, like the Purling Brook Falls (1.5 hours; 4km) with its pretty rock pools, or simply admire the view from any of its lookouts, like the aptly named ‘Best of all Lookout’ in Mudgeeraba or the Canyon Lookout where you can see two waterfalls and the main strip of the Gold Coast off in the distance. Another highlight is the Natural Arch – a breathtaking waterfall in a cave where glow worms hang out.
Other hiking trails take you to Moran’s Falls (4.6km), Pat’s Bluff (5.4km), or Elabana Falls (7.6km); you can overnight at O’Reilly’s Guesthouse to tackle the 46km-long Border Track that takes you to Binna Burra. Approaching Lamington is Canungra Valley, where you’ll find a couple of vineyards and cellar doors. Tamborine National Park While it has walking tracks in six sections of the mountain, most are short, like the Curtis Falls track (1.1km) that takes you through towering eucalypt and gum forests along a creek. The Skywalk (1.5 kms) is a combination of forest trails, 300 metres of steel bridges through the canopy, and a 40m cantilever bridge at 30m above the creek and rainforest below. The main draw on this mountain are the numerous wineries (and one quirky Tudor-styled distillery), in addition to a plethora of dining options. In addition, numerous lookouts provide
vistas all the way to the ocean. Wollumbin National Park Located between the Gold Coast and Byron Bay, Wollumbin National Park (formerly Mt Warning National Park) provides the perfect base to explore the cosy mountain villages, lush rainforests, towering waterfalls, golden beaches, funky craft markets, hidden art galleries and the coast. Many visitors come to conquer Mt Warning (1,157m) – an 8.8km (5 hour) return walk that culminates in breathtaking 360º views around the ancient caldera with coastal views stretching from The Gold Coast to Byron Bay. The track passes through subtropical rainforest and shrubland, and ends with a challenging rock scramble before reaching the summit.
BIG PAMIR – LITTLE PAMIR
inantly Kyrgyz, who maintain a seasonal yurt settlement on these aylaq (summer pastures) grazing their flocks.
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, 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.
PHOTOS AND SELECTED TEXT BY Yihui Sim
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 idyllic villages en route are starkly at odds with most people’s assumptions about Afghanistan. Heading east, the road leads on to Wuzed, and the trail leading to Kosh (3,900m), just north of the Pakistani border. The first day involves both a surging, chest-high river crossing on a yak, as well as the route’s first high pass, Wuzed Pass (4,400m), before arriving at Kosh.
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.
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 yakback river crossings and the soaring Showr Pass. 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 (with large, curving horns), Ibex, and maybe even the elusive snow leopard.
Mula and Buzkashi Dating back 1,000 years or more to ancient Turkic nomads, Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s national sport that’s popular especially in Mula. The game involves horsebacked teams of 5-10 riders per side who battle to score goals with a headless goat or sheep carcass. Played in two 45-minute rounds, the unmarked field covers roughly several hundred square metres. Locals regularly organise Buzkashi matches on Fridays to bring together the surrounding villages.
As the route continues to climb from Elgonok (4,200m) to Mula (4,350m), the population becomes predom-
WAKHAN CORRIDOR 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. The Wakhan runs from Ishkashim, Afghanistan in the west, to the Wakhjir Pass (4,923m) on the Chinese border.
Despite poverty, poor health care and its near-total isolation from the outside world, it remains one of the most welcoming places in the country.
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.
While the well-documented situation in Afghanistan and Xinjiang means the Wakhan remains virtually unvisited by outsiders, its history dates back centuries as part of the Silk Road. The corridor is extremely sparsely populated, home to just 10,000 people, including the native Wakhi farmers at lower elevations, and Kyrgyz shepherds at higher altitudes. The Kyrgyz and Wakhi follow Ismail’i Islam, and look to the Aga Khan, meaning much of the infighting and extremism of mainstream Afghanistan are virtually unknown here.
and highest-altitude in the world, with numerous river crossings and frequent landslides as it passes through Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan.
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
Trekking groups generally take the opportunity to see Ishkashim for a day; there’s a famous Saturday market that many travellers do as a day-trip, crossing in from Tajikistan. Ishkashim, at 3,000m, is made up of dozens of small farming villages. 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.
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-eBroghil (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.
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Published on Oct 15, 2018
Singapore's free adventure travel magazine. Pick up your free copy now: www.sportsandtravelonline.com