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ADVENTURE ISSUE

Thrills from the Himalayas to Papua New Guinea


Uncovering Hidden Indonesia Private Jet Journeys

Uncover the fascinating history of Indonesia with this luxurious tour of some of the country's best historic sites. Travel in style and experience the ultimate in comfort and convenience by flying to destinations on a private aircraft. Feel at home on your own personal Beechcraft King Air Turboprop and discover remote lands, ancient relics and abandoned kingdoms.

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Call +1-646-439-4426 for more details


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CONTENTS

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ISSUE 03 | MAY 2019

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Travel News

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PAPUA NEW GUINEA Inside the Gulf Mask Festival

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EXPLORING LADAKH’S NUBRA VALLEY Writer and adventurer Dave Stamboulis takes on the roof of the world in India, a journey like no other.

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Knocking On Turkmenistan’s Door To Hell

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Hero MTB Himalaya

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SEARCHING FOR THE UNICORN RHINOS OF NEPAL Remote Lands travels to Chitwan in Nepal, an area roamed by onehorned rhinos, tigers, and all manner of beautiful beast.

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With The Eagle Hunters Of Kyrgyzstan

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Diving Mergui and the Burma Banks

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THE BREATHING VOLCANO OF BROMO Jay Tindall climbs Bromo for a look into the heart of Java and one of Indonesia’s most fascinating mountain vistas.

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The Ultimate Roadtrip with The Ultimate Traveling Camp

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Itinerary Adventure Into Everest

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Bill Bensley: Saving the Cardamom National Forest

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Publisher

Remote Lands

Founders

Catherine Heald, Jay Tindall

LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Editor-in-Chief

Tyler Roney

Marketing

Phil Ingram

Yes, there are the plush spas and and infinity pools, but you can’t really have luxury without adventure. For this issue of Travelogues from Remote Lands, we travel to Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell and Nepal for safaris, all the way to the gulf tribes of Papua New Guinea. Dave Stamboulis is on hand to help us hike the Nubra Valley of Ladakh for our cover story, an intrepid quest into an untouched haven of culture and stunning natural beauty. Richard Collett travels to Kyrgyzstan for inimitable pictures of eagle hunting. And, in a real treat for us, Remote Lands had the chance to speak with star architect and designer Bill Bensley about how luxury camps are saving the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia. – Tyler Roney

Product Manager Trinity Nguyen Distribution

Liam Vickers

Design

Phoebe Storm

Cover Photo

Jordan Hammond

Contributors

Victoria Hilley, John McMahon, Olga Fontanellez, Tyler Roney, Jay Tindall, Juanita Pienaar, Richard Collett, Dave Stamboulis

Owner

Remote Lands, Inc.

Head Offices

Remote Lands, Inc., 120 East 56th Street, Suite 1150, New York, NY 10022, USA, +1 (646) 760-2048

Asia Offices

Remote Lands (Thailand) Co., Ltd., Mahatun Plaza Building, 7/F, 888/74 Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, +66 (094) 957-3143

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TRAVEL NEWS

REMOTE LANDS LAUNCHES THE BILL BENSLEY TRAIL Luxury tour operator Remote Lands has announced The Bill Bensley Trail, a journey through Southeast Asia with one of the planet’s most interesting design minds. Bill Bensley has created more than 200 hotels around the world, and guests will find themselves transported through Southeast Asia by

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the man himself. From Bill Bensley’s kitchen in Bangkok and the charm of Luang Prabang to the rain forests of Cambodia and the beaches of Vietnam, travelers on this exclusive Remote Lands journey will explore four countries with the genius and charisma of one of the most exciting characters in

the travel industry. Visitors will stay in tented camps, urban retreats, beachside getaways, and go behind the scenes for a look at Bensley projects in progress. Pricing begins at $37,888 for this first-of-its-kind expedition through Southeast Asia, set for February 16 through 1 March, 2020.


AQUA EXPEDITIONS ANNOUNCES 3 NEW INDONESIA CRUISE DESTINATIONS

The floating five-star cruises at Aqua Expeditions got a little bit more exciting in May with the announcement of new Indonesia voyages with Aqua Blu, the brand’s first coastal ship with year round departures. The Aqua Blu will feature 15 suites and a total of eight itineraries. The ship will serve three destinations

on seven-night coastal cruise itineraries starting November 2019, featuring Raja Ampat, a both ways Bali to Komodo route, and the Ambon and Spice Islands. Designed by Cor D. Rover, the RINA- and SOLAScertified Aqua Blu is the first of its kind serving East Indonesia. With a guest capacity of just 30, the suites on board will feature

three different categories, ranging from 12 to 31 square meters of space. The itineraries for the Aqua Blu are designed as seven-night, all-inclusive journeys, including five-star cuisine. Cruising the the Coral Triangle will put shipmates in contact with some of the most impressive underwater wildlife in Asia.

BAWAH RESERVE ADDS SECOND SEAPLANE TO RUN SEVEN DAYS A WEEK

The private island sanctuary of Bawah Reserve – a Remote Lands’ favorite – is just a twohour journey from Singapore by ferry and seaplane, and until recently the seaplane had to take a day off. Earlier this week, Bawah added another seaplane to its roster. As the nearest traditional airport to Bawah is at Letung, two hours away by boat, seaplanes are the quickest

and easiest way for travelers to visit the island. There are no immigration and customs clearance at Bawah transit in Batam, an Indonesian island easily reached by ferry from Singapore. Bawah’s seaplane takes off from Batam’s Hang Nadim International Airport complete with safety briefings prior to boarding. The seaplanes are part of the Airfast fleet, an Indonesian aviation company

with more than 35 years experience in the industry. The amphibious Twin Otter 300 has wheels and float pontoons, giving it the enviable ability of taking off and landing on water or land. “No arrival to an island is as thrilling as by seaplane and we are excited to introduce our second amphibious twin otter. Opening up more availability from 8th April 2019,” Bawah stated in a recent press release. 7


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PAPUA NEW GUINEA INSIDE THE GULF MASK FESTIVAL By Olga Fontanellaz 9


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ith garlands Goroka Show, and Rabaul weather and the infrastructure of fragrant Mask Festival – have become keep most travelers away. frangipani world-famous and are now Barely served by roads, river flowers on firmly on the travel itineraries and sea are the main means our necks and speeches in of tourists, photographers, of transportation, but even via our honor, we feel like a and journalists the world over. sea small boats stay ashore royal family on the official But none of these festivals, for about half the year. The visit to the Pacific southeast trade winds islands. “Welkam blowing directly into “While the Gulf isn’t an tru,” the villagers, the Gulf bring heavy entirely isolated province, it’s not accustomed to rains, making the sea seeing tourists, warmly rough and the journey a relatively remote region welcome us in Tok dangerous, conditions located on the southern coast Pisin, one of the three that contribute to the major languages of uniqueness of the Gulf of Papua New Guinea. The Papua New Guinea. culture. weather and the infrastructure We arrive for a Toare village, with festival in the small its blue sea and white keep most travelers away.” village of Toare, found sandy beach, is an about 300 kilometers idyllic location. But from Port Moresby, the known as a sing-sing, see the all thoughts of swimming are country’s capital, to see the performers from the Gulf abandoned with the sound of little known Gulf Mask Festival. province. While the Gulf isn’t rhythmic drum beats. Proudly As for PNG’s off-the-beaten an entirely isolated province, wearing the finest of their track reputation, in recent it’s a relatively remote region traditional attire and elaborate years some festivals – such located on the southern coast masks, the dancers enter the as the Mount Hagen Festival, of Papua New Guinea. The improvised showground.

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In PNG, each tribe has its in style, shape, color, and size. men, who don’t stop their own distinctive attire and Ornate, large, tall or narrow, frenzied dancing on the beach, ornaments, or bilas. The Huli the masks are made of natural with their eyes staring through are known for their wigs which materials. Bark cloth, known as the masks’ tiny gaps. Not so are made from their own hair. tapa, is stretched over a splitlong after, the men representing Large round hats made characters from local of moss, plants, and legends make the public “The men, representing hair are the features giggle and laugh with characters from local of people from the their blunders and silly Enga province. The gestures. I capture their legends, make the public Western Highlanders comic performance, when giggle and laugh with their take pride in towering suddenly one particularly feathered headgear blunders and silly gestures.” enthusiastic dancer fixes and vivid body paint. his determined gaze upon The Chimbus are recognized cane frame, sewn with plant me and jumps forward with by giant headdresses made of fiber and painted with natural a long spear in the hand as if bird of paradise feathers, an pigments. Although large, the to attack. For a second, I see ornithologist’s nightmare. The masks are light-weight, allowing nothing but his crazed eyes in Elema, the coastal people of the the men to wear them for long my lens. Gulf province, have a trademark hours. Besides the masks and clay, too: their intricate masks. It’s a mid-day and the sun many men only wear bark With stylized facial features, is restless at the Gulf Mask loincloth and arse gras, a bunch the Gulf masks show diversity Festival, and so are the masked of leaves stuck into a belt to 11


cover the backside. The women are bare-breasted, with large kina shells dangling on their chests above their colorful grass skirts decorated with small shells; they swing their hips to the beat of kundu, or traditional drums. Made from sago palms, the grass skirts are the object of pride for local women. Soon, the chaotic Gulf Mask Festival begins winding down. Content to spend the rest of the time with toes in white sand, a man makes a sign for me to follow him into someone’s home. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I discerned the precious treasures: old Gulf masks, fish-tail drums, 12

and gope boards, elliptical ritual objects used in the past in headhunting raids for displaying enemies’ skulls and given to men for bravery. The man’s look is a mixture of pride and embarrassment. He is a Christian now, and the artifacts are the reminders of his people’s wild past. The sky darkens before night consumes the village. Traveling at night in PNG is a risky enterprise, and that night we slept in a thatched house on stilts. Besieged by persistent natnat, a far too kind term for mosquitoes in Tok Pisin, we find some refuge beneath mosquito nets full of holes.

Lying on thin mattresses on a creaky sago palm floor, listening to geckos, screeching piglets, and the whispered voices of our hosts, we felt humbled to be welcomed into their home. The morning greets us with a blue sky and sago pancakes. In this coastal province abundant with sago palms, sago is a main staple food and building material. Sago was once exchanged for clay pots and shells with the Motu people from the Central province. Sitting around the smoldering fire slowly baking our sago pancakes, I wondered if adding some Nutella on these starchy, bland flatbreads


would breach the local etiquette, but that condiment is unsurprisingly rare in the Gulf province. We make an exchange: sago for rice and tinned fish, which are immensely popular across the country. “Easy to store in a hot climate,” some say, but I think it’s more because of the status associated with Western food. Soon, with gifts of grass skirts received from women with large, comforting smiles, we are set for a rough, potholed ride back to Port Moresby. Things change fast in Papua New Guinea. Active missionaries, discovery of oil and gas, and the arrival of Digicel (the Irish mobile phone company) have transformed the people’s traditional way of life. But tribal identity is still a strong source of pride; nowhere is this more evident than the Gulf Mask Festival. 13


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Exploring Ladakh’s

Nubra Valley By Dave Stamboulis

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tones the size of large animals often rumble down the hillsides here, there are no guardrails, and the wreckage of vehicles that have gone over the edge dot the hillsides, making me pay far more attention to the moment than I’d prefer. From the front seat of my jeep as our driver navigates us over the snowbound Khardung La, the old adage that “the journey is more important

Route over Khardung La.

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than the destination” has never been more apt. In the rarified air, higher up here than most of the world’s mountain tops, everything seems to be in slow motion, which I suppose is a good thing, in that we have no chains on the tires and the road is an ice-covered slide that snakes down into the valley below. I’m making the journey from Ladakh’s capital, Leh, into the Nubra Valley,

an elongated valley that cuts between the mighty Karakoram Mountains and the Ladakh Range, and features some of the kingdom’s most stunning attractions, from serrated peaks and wild glacial rivers to some of the most mesmerizing alpine lakes in the world, to sects of Tibetan monks that don masks and colorful hats and engage in trance-like dances around the courtyards of their monasteries.


Costumed monks dancing at th Diskit Gustor Festival.

The Nubra was closed to the outside world for years, as it sits smack against the Chinese and Pakistan borders and its icebound mountainous terrain has been the site of the world’s highest military conflict (an ongoing dispute with Pakistan on the Siachen Glacier) and endless territorial skirmishes between all the countries involved. The Indian military requires travel

permits and plenty of red tape to get here, although this has recently been more relaxed as ceasefires have held in place for over a decade now and the region has become stable. Add to this obstacle the terrain; Ladakh means “land of high passes,” and nowhere is this more apt than crossing to the Nubra. The main route in, over the Khardung La, is claimed

by India to be the “world’s highest motorable road,” although recent measurements showed that the signs at the top proclaiming the pass to be 5,600 meters were in error, and that the pass is just a mere 5,359 meters (17,582 feet), surpassed not only by a road in Bolivia, but by yet another road recently built by the Indian border roads organization further on.

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The Khardung La, along with the neighboring Chang La, are both outrageously high. Indian army tents with emergency oxygen sit just off the summits, often needed to bail out tourists that haven’t acclimatized properly in Leh before setting off, and permanent teams of road workers huddle up here in the freezing temperatures, trying

to keep the roads clear yearround of snow, rockfall, and in passable shape for those trying to reach Ladakh’s most isolated corner. We inch our way down the pass toward the confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers. Coming from Tibet, the turquoise glacial-fed waterways meet at the center of the Nubra Valley,

Monk reading scripture inside a Diskit gompa.

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providing an irrigation source in an otherwise barren and inhospitable land, resulting in beautiful patchwork-quilt fields of wheat and barley that cover the oasis-like villages that are strung out here. It’s late September, and the rows of poplar trees are turning yellow, striking a vivid contrast to the brown mountains and high desert monochromes.


Bactrium camels of Nubra. As we pass the main Nubra settlements of Diskit and Hundar, sand dunes stretch across the road. It’s a bit hard to fathom, the thought of a desert set at 5,000 meters, and even harder to grasp the fact that I’m seeing Bactrian camels wandering across the dunes. In fact, camel and yak caravans were common here prior to the Chinese sealing the border at the end of the 1950s. The animals were used to transport spices, wool, silk, and other goods for trading on what was once the most hazardous transHimalayan routes of the fabled Silk Road, bringing good from China through to Pakistan, Central Asia, and beyond. Today, tourism is the economic lifeline of the Nubra, and my jeep mates and I get to witness this firsthand, stopping for the evening to enjoy a sky full of stars in a stylish desert camp, heading out for a short camel trek as the sun goes

down. Tsering, the owner of see the Diskit Gustor, an annual our camp, says that business is festival marking the triumph booming, with plenty of Indian of good over evil, in which tourists now coming to discover the resident monks put on the country’s most northern elaborate masks and costumes fringes. Making a pilgrimage and proceed to dance hypnotic to Ladakh on a motorcycle has “chaam” dances, in which they also become a sort of bucket twirl in a form of meditation list challenge, and indeed, the in the monastery courtyard, majority of our “glamping” and re-enact scenes from the companions tonight have literature of Padmasambhava, a arrived on overloaded classic 8th century teacher and Tantric Indian Enfield bikes. Buddhist master also known as In the morning, we arise Guru Rinpoche. early and head over to Diskit Gompa, a monastery “Shuddering in the that perches on a hillside overlooking the heart of high-altitude air, the Nubra. Home to the I’m struck by how Gelugpa “yellow hat” sect phantasmagorical this of Tibetan Buddhism (the same one that the Dalai scene appears, and I Lama belongs to), this is pinch myself to ensure the largest monastery in that it is real and not the valley, and its scenic location draws plenty of some illusion created by visitors. However, today, the lack of oxygen.” scores of pilgrims are making their way here to 19


The festival lasts for 48 hours, and although travelers make the tough journey from Leh specifically to see the celebrations, it is performed solely to the whims of the monks. They decide how many dances are needed for the day, and don’t have any fixed starting times. While neighboring Tibetan Buddhist countries such as Nepal and Bhutan also hold chaam dances, they are often done to

large tourist crowds, whereas here in Nubra, there are twice as many local monks watching the proceedings as there are outsiders. We sit in silence, with the only sound breaking the peace being blasts from elongated Tibetan horns and conch shell trumpets played by the monks. Meanwhile, their brethren emerge from the gompa wearing psychedelic colored aprons, sombrerolike hats, and thick felt shoes,

twirling in rhythm as they gaze upwards. The monks disappear into the monastery, only to come back out donning gaily colored paper mache masks that depict various demons. Shuddering in the highaltitude air, I’m struck by how phantasmagorical this scene appears, and I pinch myself to ensure that it is real and not some illusion created by the lack of oxygen.

Turtuk, a Balti village at the end of the Nubra. 20


From Diskit we travel north through the Nubra. The road here has been recently paved by the army and road corps, but the permanently unstable terrain ensures that many sections are either washed out, covered in stones, or just returned to their dirt track state. As we approach the Pakistan border, the valley narrows and the Karakoram peaks become more jagged and foreboding, looming high above the valley floor. This section of the Nu-bra was only recently opened to tourism, and is home to one of India’s most unique villages, Turtuk. Turtuk is a Balti settlement, where villagers speak Balti language, practice Shia Islam, and where men still wear the traditional shalwar kameez and Balti caps, while the women are covered and wear embroidered print dresses. In fact, Turtuk was part of Pakistan’s Baltistan region until 1971, when Indian forces took it over during the border war, and then never returned it. Villagers who were out working elsewhere or visiting friends or relatives that day remained in Pakistan, many of whom have never come back, while Turtuk has become Indian, at least on paper and in passports.

A traditional Balti man in the store alleys of Turtuk.

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Pangong Lake. It’s a fascinating village, home to some of the most elaborately built stone irrigation channels in the world, and everything here is constructed from rock, from the homes built over

“Walking around the village, I’m immersed in a rural fairy tale.”

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cobblestone alleys to even cold storage systems created for perishables during the warm summer months. Some of the world’s highest mountains, from K2 to Masherbrum and Broad Peak, are all less than 100 kilometers from here, yet separated by the sealed border and impenetrable mountain walls. Spending an overnight in the village, I’m struck by how industrious the Turtuk Baltis are in contrast to the more

laid-back Ladakhis. From the labor-intensive buckwheat fields and row upon row of apricot trees (Turtuk provides India with the majority of its apricots), there is non-stop agricultural activity going on here, all the more amazing considering that the village feels so completely hemmed in by the fierce serrated peaks, the uncontrollable river, steep rock avalanche slopes above, and by the border, just a few kilometers down the road.


Unable to continue further, we turn around and retrace our steps. Yet we are far from finished, as the Nubra has been saving the best for last. We follow the Shyok back through Diskit, and then across crumbling unstable rock slopes, where the road

meanders up above the valley and then returns to the flood plain below once safe. Heading south now, we are skirting another disputed border area, the Aksai Chin, where the Chinese and Indians have argued over a wildly rugged swathe of mountains and high

altitude plain, home to Tibetan wild ass, snow leopards, and other rarely seen wildlife. These days, relations over the line of control here are calm, and tourists can pass through on their way to the Nubra’s crown jewel, the alpine lake of Pangong Tso.

Fall colors at the Merak village.

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Set at 4,300 meters, Pangong Tso meanders 135 kilometers through both China and India, with access to foreigners only possible on the Indian side. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the lake is spectacular, changing colors throughout the day and season, from deep blue to emerald, and every shade in-between. Despite no longer having an outlet and being highly saline, the lake still completely freezes over during the long winters, during which

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time villagers actually cross it and make forays into the mountains to gather supplies of wood for heating. Our driver brings us as far as we are legally allowed to go along the Indian side of Pangong, to Meerak, a small village set on the banks of the lake. Autumn is in full swing here, with the village bathed in golden yellow colors. Above, snow clad mountains surround, and then there is the lake, still, deep, and hypnotic.

Walking around the village, I’m immersed in a rural fairy tale. Ladakhi farmers tend to their fields, and several villagers walk around the dusty paths set between rows of poplars and willows, spinning prayer wheels as they go and reciting Tibetan mantras. They nod at me, smile, and say “Julay,� the all-inclusive Ladakhi word for hello, goodbye, and thank you. The owner of our homestay we are staying at, Tenzin, turns out to be more than


just a hotelier. He is actually a respected medicine man, just returned from being invited to various villages in the region to give blessings. He speaks decent English, and he is constantly smiling. His father, a wizened sunburnt man comes in to join us, bringing with him a large jug of chang, the local fermented millet beer, which he insists on passing around, all the while spinning his prayer wheel and beaming. I ask Tenzin why he and his father always appear

so happy, and he grins and says, “Life used to be really hard here. We were cut off from the outside for four-five months of the year, we had no electricity, there were no mobile phones, and the roads here were terrible. Now we have almost year-round road access from Leh, we have some hours of power, and we are able to meet visitors from around the world and share with them. What’s not to be happy about?” I reflect on how arduous the journey has been for me to

get here in these good times, and try to imagine how much harder it must have been, and how incredibly hearty all of the inhabitants of the Nubra must be, both then and now. Tenzin’s father refills my glass, and he toasts our visit. And almost as if reading my mind, says, “Enjoy the journey tomorrow, every minute of it.” Yes, in the Nubra Valley, it’s only about the journey itself, and the destination is just a sum of the parts.

Peaks of the Ladakh Range of Merak.

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Knocking On Turkmenistan’s

DOOR TO HELL By Jay Tindall

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here is a fiery crater in the desert that has been burning since 1971, and it smells like a gas grill. While the many dramatic photos and videos of the Darvaza gas crater bring the aberration to life, little can properly portray the sound: a whipping, low, persistent hum from hundreds of flames – almost industrial. The Door to Hell isn’t the most amenable site

in Turkmenistan; it’s in a desert far from the city, uncomfortably cold at night, and smells, obviously, of gas. But, those who see it never forget. The isolated crater is around 274 kilometers from Ashgabat on bumpy roads through empty Turkmenistan desert scrub, and the key to a pleasant Door to Hell experience is getting there for sunset. The drive takes only three hours under normal conditions, but

we were keen to see a little more of Central Asia’s most undiscovered country. Turkmenistan is a fascinatingly secluded country. Ruled over by some of the most autocratic dictators in modern history – namely Saparmurat Niyazov who made declarations against, among other things, beards, circuses, and gold teeth – Turkmenistan is largely unexplored by the tourist masses.

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Conversations regarding the Door to Hell invariably lead to the question of how there came to be a hellish crater filled with endless nightmarish fire in the middle of the Turkmen desert. The jury is still out in that regard. Most agree it was set on fire by Soviets trying to burn off noxious gas after a drilling rig collapsed, others that it was a local angry shepherd tossing a burning tire into the pit. Whatever the catalyst, the end result is a 70-meter hole of fire, gas, and boiling mud. There’s not much to describe in the way of sights to see along the desert road. Put the Darvaza gas crater into Google Maps and you’ll be well into your second scroll before you see so much as a road. Camels occasionally pepper the peaceful, empty wastes. There is, however, one stop on the way. At a village in the middle of the desert, we stopped to meet a family. Ushered to their yurt, they were kind enough to allow us to observe their life a little, offering us tea as we got to know their world a little bit better – from their food stuffs

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to their yarn making. Noting the friendliness of our hosts and their livestock, we continued on to catch the Door to Hell at its most impressive moment: sunset. At sunset, when the sky is dark, the crater glows. During the daylight hours, the Door to Hell is still impressive, to be sure, but it’s in the stygian black of the desert night that it comes alive. Looking at the crater, it’s not just the night that’s black, it’s the ground too. Nothing seems to exist but pit and fire. As a photographer and videographer, it was my goal to capture the peculiar crater with every weapon in my arsenal. Sadly, however, my luggage was lost for three days, so I had to make due, sans tripod. Long exposures and time lapses were less practical so the moment called for a great deal of running around – running up to the crater with the camera on an extension, which, in hindsight was not very safe. People have been known to fall into the Door to Hell. On my visit, I was told of a Russian who did so, alive though a little

worse for wear, and George Kourounis made his way down on the National Geographic show Die Trying. As to the experiences in the area, there is little more to do than walk around the crater or go to a nearby desert hill to see it from a distance – both of which are well worth the car journey. On our trip, there were only about 15 people in attendance for sunset. In the dark, people are only really visible when they’re right by the crater. If they step back, they disappear. Some people choose to camp on site, despite the cold. The only warm place is by the crater itself, but sucking in gas all night isn’t recommended by most health professionals – or amateurs for that matter. Similarly, there are barbeque options, but the waft of burning gas did little for the appetite. For us, it was time to return to the civilization of Ashgabat. It’s said that the original fire began because the Soviet scientists in 1971 wanted to burn off the excess gas. It burned as I left, and perhaps it will for another 46 years.


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dventure means different things to different people. For any mountain biker, hiker, or climber the definition probably tends toward the extreme – perhaps a sevenday mountain bike race over 565 kilometers with a vertical gain of 50,000 meters through the Himalayas. It’s the Hero MTB Himalaya mountain bike challenge. “It has been called both the most difficult and the most meaningful of riding events by 30

participants in the past. There must be something to it as 60 percent of those who ride it once return to ride it again, most notably the barefoot soldier, Datta Patil. He [has] ridden every year with bare feet. No shoes – that’s another full story,” says Ashish Sood, one of the event’s organizers. The Hero MTB Himalaya mountain bike challenge got its start in 2005 when Mohood Sood, a car rally racer, had a chance meeting with a traveling English mountain

biker who was dead reckoning his way from village to village. Mohood was already considering ways to increase adventure travel in the area and so was inspired to make mountain biking his focus. Since then MTB Himalaya has become a premier crosscountry endurance event which draws bikers from all over the world, profesional and amatuer alike. The course runs from Shimla to Mamali in Himachal Pradesh, through bustling


HERO MTB HIMALAYA Extreme Mountain Bike Challenge on the Top of the World By John McMahon

towns and remote villages, on sealed and dirt roads with runs on animal paths and single track trails. The route is broken into seven stages with inspirational names like Heavens Ridge, Kings Mutiny, and Land of Lamas. Riding distances range from 60 to 90 kilometers with average vertical gains of 2,000 meters of elevation per day. Day temperatures can shift up to 25 degrees celsius on some stages; on others oxygen thin air pushes riders and machines

to their limits. With the pain though comes the gain. In this case the rewards are many but the most immediate comes from the event’s terrain and scenery. The course’s low point at 700 meters has riders pedaling through dense rainforests then climbing through stages to rice fields, with trails crossing streams and rivers and higher up delving into pine forests until reaching the course’s ultimate elevation at 3,100 meters, where the peaks of

the Himalayan mountains envelope the surroundings. The Himalayan wilds are home to a number of exotic and endangered animals, a few that riders have been lucky enough to spot during the event. Being the natural habitat to both the snow leopard and black bear, it’s possible to get a rare glimpse, though it’s much more likely that participants will encounter a vast variety of birds. Each day ends at a full camp set up in a location 31


selected for its views and comfort in the spirit of the Indian mantra “Atithi Devo Bhava” – Guest is akin to God. A team of volunteers set up a mobile village of tents with foam pads and sleeping bags along with re-erect toilets, showers, and a bike washing station. Hot meals are prepared and served twice daily; the menu includes a mix of Indian and international foods with a focus on nutrition to keep riders energized. The last meal of the day isn’t served until the final riders show up at camp, exhausted and ready to 32

eat before collapsing into their tents. Volunteers are also tasked with setting up food stops and mechanical support along the course. Transportation is provided for riders in trouble and safety-rescue teams are available for emergency evacuation from the area in case of serious accidents or health issues. “Our core team is our strength, along with around 30 volunteers, plus the camp team. Altogether, a crew of around 40 to 50 people.They are everything for us,” says

Ahish Sahood. In addition to the challenge and natural beauty, riders are also exposed to the local culture and traditions as they pass through towns and rustic villages. Part of Mohood Sood’s initial inspiration for creating the race was to develop sustainable tourism in the area, which includes introductions between local people and visitors. “We feel that it’s our responsibility to promote these mountains but keeping ecology preservation in mind. We work with the local community


Day three of the Hero MTB Himalaya.

to ensure that a message of preserving the sensitive ecology of the Himalayas comes [...] across,” Mohood says. “The race has created and nurtured talent. [...] We have been able to nurture photographers, video makers, website editors, communication analysts designers – most of our team is employed from the local community of Shimla and around.” The 2019 event is limited to 80 participants and scheduled to take place from September 26 to October 3. Obviously, a certain level of physical

fitness and mountain biking experience is expected from the athletes taking part in the race, and pre and post luxury tours can be arranged for travelers who want to see the the Himalayas in more comfort. “MTB Himalaya is my personal favourite race. Riding in [the] Himalayas is a totally unique experience. Here we get a chance to ride with some of the world’s best riders. Climbs are so steep and never ending,” says David Kumar, three-time event racer and Hero Mtn Bike sponsored rider. “The trails are so rough and unpredictable [...]

the best part of the race is food and camping. You don’t get such food [at other races]. This is a lifetime experience.” Participates coming from around the world to take part in the race will be mentally prepared for the hardships of the race but that doesn’t mean they can’t take part in a little luxury before and after. Woodville Palace in Shimla continues to be the race’s official hotel, a hotel that dates back to the days of the Raj; for the sybarite cyclist, there’s also the ultra-luxe Wildflower Hotel from Oberoi. 33


“B

uttered popcorn,” Baburam says with a smile. “Tiger poo.” He searches the air with his nose, wafting the scent toward his face. He nearly stumbles on a pawprint – softly made, less than an hour old. “If you see a rhino, you are lucky,” says Baburam Mahato, my guide through Chitwan National Park from Kasara Resort. “A tiger? Very, very lucky.” For most, Nepal conjures to mind the snow-capped Himalayas and the colorful culture of Kathmandu, but in places like Chitwan and

34

Bardia, tigers, rhinos, deer, and leopards wander the warm forest mornings. Chitwan has made its way onto the tourist trail, part of the Kathmandu and Pokhara circuit, with Chitwan as a stopover before or after Annapurna. Most make their way to the elephant bathing and Tharu village visit before catching sight of crocs via canoe and a short jeep safari into the jungle. Whether or not one sees a rhino is on luck and the seasons, but for nature lovers there is much to see throughout. For those travelers, it’s possible to spend all day in a jeep or

on foot looking for the most incredible creatures in Asia. Guide and tracker with Kasara Resort, Baburam, is a member of the local Tharu tribe, an ethnic group known for their relative immunity to malaria, mud plaster houses, tattoos, and, in this Chitwan locale, their free growing marijuana. Most live in subsistence conditions in and around the Terai region and bordering India. “I didn’t have the chance for higher education,” Baburam says. “So I went to Dubai. I got a loan from the bank and I went to Dubai to be an office boy.” Working his way up through


By Tyler Roney

CHITWAN SEARCHING FOR UNICORN RHINOS IN NEPAL

the years, when the financial crash came for Dubai, he made his way back home to become a naturalist for Kasara Resort in the land he knew so well. The hottest months, March to June, are the best time to visit; the temperature can get prohibitively hot, but as long as the rains stay away, the grasses will be shorter. Travelers should be warned, however, that April is the burning season, so the foggy haze of the park comes with the acrid smell of smoke. This is, sadly, true of everywhere from Nepal to Thailand and beyond. The rhino is the prize of

Chitwan. When travelers land at sparse Bharatpur airport, they’ll see a mother and calf statue at the entrance. Once, this area was a hunting ground for the Nepali and foreign elite, where they would kill tigers, bears, and rhinos by the dozen. Today the land is protected. The rhinos of Chitwan are the one-horned variety, rhinoceros unicornis, and around 600 of the only 2,000 in the world can be found in Chitwan. Other than Assam in India, Chitwan is one of the best places in Asia to spot these animals.

“The

rhino is placid aware of our presence but unconcerned. When you weigh 2,000 kilograms, there are few animals in the forest that can frighten you, least of all a 4x4 filled with squishy humans.” The first rhino spotting came from a jeep from afar. A white, rounded back can be seen through the tall green grass. For many, this is as close as they come. Later we were able 35


to climb an outpost to look out over a small, savannah-like clearing and spotted another – again, far away and barely visible to the naked eye. After an hour of trying to track down more rhinos, we finally come across one grazing close to the road and were able to photograph the animal for about 10 minutes. This would be our most rewarding sighting of the day. The animal’s thick skin maintains its imposing white hue, but this moves as the animal feeds, it’s plate-like armor shifting around its body. The beast seems almost like a clockwork creature. The rhino is placid - aware of our presence but unconcerned. When you weigh 2,000 kilograms, there are few animals in the forest that can frighten you, least of all a 4x4 filled with squishy humans. About 30 minutes later, we make another sighting of four rhinos, but the most visible are a mother and her calf. The mother isn’t placid. She’s panicked. We try to observe without threatening the great beast, but she gruffles and tries to back away; when it’s clear we intend to watch her regardless, she and her calf run at a gallop for safety. “If we go for a jungle walk

“There is much more to be found in Chitwan: leopards, jackals, snakehead fish, pangolins, and porcupines. But the park wasn’t always so kind to wildlife.” 36

and we see a rhino calf, we won’t go close,” Baburam says. “You have to be careful around the mothers, always the mothers.” A week previous, a guide and a guest were charged by a rhino; with three broken ribs, the guide was sent to Kathmandu for treatment. Though tigers are rare, there are a few other large animals of which travelers should be made aware. The sloth bears, another large predator of note in the park, are extremely difficult to spot, though their shabby dens can be found throughout. While it is possible to see wild elephants in Chitwan, most that safari-goers see will be the domesticated variety. In many areas throughout Southeast Asia, minds are changing about the cruelty of riding elephants, but these ideas are less common in India and Nepal. Elephant riding is common here and accepted; though, in the opinion of this writer, it is a facet of travel that should die quickly. While animals like the elephant, tiger, and even the wild boar are relatively rare, the park is alive with spotted deer, also known as the chital. While many North Americans may not be excited by the prospect of more deer, they are one of the most photogenic animals in the park. They’re also safe, calm, and will act as a herd within a relatively close distance. On foot patient, quiet travelers can spend more than 10 minutes with a calm enough herd. Hog deer are a somewhat rarer sighting, as they’re usually alone. They are the favorite prey of the local tigers, so if you see one, tigers might not be too far away. Sambar deer are the biggest deer in the

park but are much more rare, as are the barking deer – which you’ll hear before you see. There are some less cute fauna worth a visit in Chitwan, namely, the crocs. Frequent world travelers will be familiar with the look of the common mugger crocodile, but the curious snout of the gharial is quite odd. One of the more interesting facets to being at a Kasara resort is the proximity to the crocodile breeding sanctuary; one boards a canoe for a few sightings of the creature in the wild and is then treated to an up-close viewing of the gharial in captivity. The babies look like little more than green, basking sticks, but the larger examples in the breeding cages are imposing. Females can grow as large as 3.8 meters, but males – notable for their bulbous noses – can grow to five meters and 250 kilograms. The breeding pairs are exceptionally large. Though they may not be the cutest animals in Chitwan, the gharial croc is critically endangered and vital to the ecosystem. Monkey’s too, call Chitwan home, and regular travelers to Asia will be familiar with the rhesus macaques that are such an ornament of North and Southeast Asia. More exciting, however, may be the gray langurs, a rarish sighting outside of India, and a very photogenic monkey that likes to let its long, gray-white tail hang from the trees. For the twitcher, every corner of Chitwan has something to amaze. The colorful jungle fowl cross the jeep paths. Peacocks and peahens shuffle in the undergrowth. Kingfishers hunt. The cuckoo sounds throughout


Spotted deer.

Wild peacock.

Gharial crocodile.

the forest. And eagles manicure their wings. Of particular interest on this journey was the white paradise flycatcher. At first many may not know what they’re seeing, but a fluffy length of white parades across lakes and in the forest thicket. The body is so small and the tail so flamboyant and long that it looks like a stripe of reality has gone a bit mad. Of all the naturalist books Baburam might carry, he clutches his worn “Birds of Nepal” book throughout our adventures. Sightings of yellow martins, buzzards, and Siberian ducks add color to even the most staid safari. There is much more to be

found in Chitwan: leopards, jackals, snakehead fish, pangolins, and porcupines. But the park wasn’t always so kind to wildlife. By the 1960s, the voracious hunting and poaching in the area had left only around 90 rhinos. After malaria was eradicated in the Bharatpur region, the population exploded, and today, as travelers wend their way to the entrance of the park, they will see an agricultural world on fire. Water buffaloes and goats dominate the bucolic landscape. For now Chitwan National Park remains stable. Today only one resort, Tiger Tops, can be found inside the 952 square kilometers of the

park; the authorities kicked out all the others in 2012 out of concerns that their presence would affect the wildlife. For the traveler in the know, the dilapidated hotels of just a few years ago can be found, eaten by the unforgiving jungle. However, it has been reported that the authorities may be on the verge of loosening these rules. The tiger populations are increasing, despite severe flooding, and poaching is almost nonexistent. The Chitwan of today is not beaters and hunting parties, but tourists in floppy hats looking for tigers. If you stay in Chitwan long enough, you’ll find what you’re after. 37


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EAGLE HUNTERS OF KYRGYZSTAN By Richard Collett

O

n the rocky southern shore of Issyk-Kul Lake in the east of Kyrgyzstan, Nursultan waits patiently at the bottom of a dusty hill as his companion Aidar trudges to the top, a huge Golden Eagle gripped tightly onto his leather gauntlet. Nursultan begins to run, a smile on his face and a dead fox trailing on a rope behind him as he sprints along the road. With

40

a whistle, Aidar lets Sulukke the golden eagle loose, and within moments she has gained on the carcass and is tearing it to pieces, powerful talons ripping into soft fur while her huge wings flap effortlessly in the wind. As Aidar treks back down the hill, Nursultan strokes the eagle’s head affectionately as he feeds her strips of raw pink meat from his open hand. “I won third place at the

World Nomad Games,” Nursultan says casually as he waits for his fellow eagle hunter to walk down the slope. Like many local nomads, Nursultan was on the northern shores of Issyk-Kul Lake earlier in the year for the sporting and cultural feast that is the World Nomad Games. He competed in the Berkut Saluu event where he demonstrated the hunting prowess of his bird of prey. For a Kyrgyz, third place was a big


deal, but Nursultan wanted more. Hunting with eagles is an age-old tradition amongst the nomadic people of Central Asia; in Kyrgyz, the golden eagle is known as berkut. The bonds between man and eagle on the slopes of the steppe have been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries, and the Kyrgyz are some of the best in Central Asia at training these giant birds to hunt.

The custom was once widespread across the region, but now it’s confined to a select few locales in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan. “We take the eagles from their nests when they are very young,” Nursultan explains while he continues to feed Sulukke chunks of meat. “We try to take only the females and then we train them and keep them for no more than 20 years.”

After twenty years in captivity, the birds are released back into the wild to hunt as they wish, and many, Nursultan says, will live on for another twenty years in the mountains and on the steppe. Once Aidar has descended the hill he unleashes his own golden eagle, Karakoz. Together, the two eagle hunters pose for photographs on the edge of Issyk-Kul Lake, their young colleague in training 41


riding proudly astride a horse behind them. The bonds these nomads form with their animals is clear as they patiently soothe the birds while they allow the enthused tourists with cameras watching their demonstration. Traditionally, the eagles were captured and trained as an integral part of nomadic life. With their huge wingspans – some reaching well over two meters in length – the golden eagle is adept at not only hunting down prey such as rabbits and foxes but can in rare circumstances even be relied on to defend against wolves. Hundreds of years of heritage though were almost wiped out during the Soviet era, as the nomads of Kyrgyzstan and other Soviet Republics were forced to settle into villages, and much of their way of life 42

was lost under communism. With Kyrgyz independence, cultural traditions such as eagle hunting have seen a resurgence, although not on the scale known just a few generations ago. To pass on the training methods and to preserve their unique heritage, the Salburuun Federation of Kyrgyzstan was formed, of which Nursultan and Aidar are full-fledged members. In the 21st century though, the Salburuun Federation doesn’t train eagles to hunt out of necessity like their ancestors before them. Eagles are instead primarily trained for sporting competitions like the World Nomad Games and for demonstrations provided for tourists, such as this one on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake. The eagle hunters are not only adept on horseback and at handling their deadly birds of prey; they also train a

distinctive breed of dog known as the Taigan. “A Taigan can kill a wolf,” Aidar says with confidence, as he strokes the fluffy fur of his dog. These floppy-eared, soft and loveable looking canines are in fact, deadly killers, Aidar claimed. The nomads kept this unique breed on the steppe to defend their encampments and herds from wolves. It’s hard to imagine these friendly dogs taking down a wolf, but Nursultan mounts his horse and, taking the same dead fox he’d used to demonstrate the hunting prowess of the eagles, gallops at full pace along the dirt track with the carcass strung out behind him. Aidar waits for the dust to kick up and for the horse to be given a hefty head start, before setting the fluffy Taigans loose. Within moments, their


effortless bounding has allowed them to catch up with the fox and they tear what little remained into even smaller pieces. Although the traditions of the Kyrgyz nomads suffered for decades, tourism has in fact helped to fuel the revival of these ancient traditions,

particularly on the south shore of Issyk-Kul where the Salburuun Federation is based. Although there are few nomads left on the steppe, the training of eagles for both demonstrations and for competition has allowed the heritage and traditions of the Kyrgyz nomads to be revived

after the fall of communism. Although eagle hunters are still few in number, with ever-increasing tourism to Kyrgyzstan and ever more demand to see these mighty birds in action, this secrets of the Salburuun Federation looks set to continue to be passed on from generation to generation.

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M

yanmar opened up to tourism just a little over 20 years ago, so the Mergui Archipelago and Burma Banks are especially high on many divers’ bucket lists. With over 800 islands scattered over an area of 12,000 square kilometers, there are plenty of opportunities to see a wide variety of fauna. The Burma Banks are found about 125 kilometres west of Kawthaung (the southernmost Myanmar city) in international waters, though in an economic zone of Myanmar. The Banks – Big, Silvertip, Rainbow, Roe, Coral, and Heckford – are vast sea mounts that rise up from a depth of around 350 meters to within 15 meters of the surface. Everything about the Burma Banks is big, from the sea mounts to the sharks. Silvertips

of between two to three meters in length and nurse sharks up to three meters are commonly found around Heckford Bank. Ironically Silvertip Bank offers the best opportunity to see white- and black-tips. Divers might also see a tiger or hammerhead swimming past. The Burma Banks offer excellent open-ocean diving, with drift dives of over a kilometer – a great opportunity for advanced divers. Black Rock is about 160 kilometers northwest from Kawthaung, closer to the coast than the Burma Banks. It is a lone islet about 80 meters wide and the surrounding water is home to many large fauna. White, black, and silver-tips are often seen in the area. Mobula rays are also seen in abundance, with schools of manta and eagle rays soaring around the deep

north-western corner of the island. Marble stingrays and leopard sharks can be found on the sandy bottom. The boulder slopes on the south side of the island are home to massive barracuda, measuring over 1.5 meters long. Reef sharks and perhaps even bull sharks can be seen on the southwestern side of the island. Currents around Black Rock can be strong and down currents are often present, so divers stay closer to the rocks and within the shelter of the island’s east and west tips. For the Mergui Archipelago there is the North and South Twin Islands. North Twin Island can have strong currents but it also usually has exceptional visibility. Added to that is the chance to see zambezi (bull) sharks, leopard sharks, manta rays, eagle rays,

Manta ray in the Burma Banks.

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By Juanita Pienaar

DIVING MERGUI

and the

Black Rock in the Burma Banks. hawksbill turtles, and rainbow runners. The reefs around North Twin Island are reminiscent of those found in the Similan Islands in Thailand, with large granite boulders and swim-throughs covered in purple soft coral. Seahorses and ghost pipefish can be seen hiding amongst the seafans. South Twin Island has a similar typography to North Twin Island with white tip and nurse sharks hiding under the boulders. This is also an ideal site for night diving as currents are usually mild and visibility excellent. Tower Rock, 200 kilometres north of Kawthaung, is the place to go to see manta rays. Schools of these magnificent creatures are usually found around Tower

Rock, mingling with schools of devil rays and colorful tropical reef fish. Black tip sharks can sometimes be seen swimming through the swim-throughs created by the boulders. The currents around this dive site can be strong, making this dive for advanced and experienced divers. Western Rocky is the southernmost dive site of the Mergui Archipelago, a chance to see whale sharks and whitetip reef sharks. The site also has interesting typographical features that include a cavern with an archway swim-through and a tunnel that runs through the center of the island, home to huge lobsters and nurse sharks. Be warned, though, sharks can block the way through. Although some natural light

BURMA BANKS penetrates the tunnel and can be seen for its entire 30-meter length, it is recommended that only experienced divers with cavern diving qualifications enter the tunnel as some of the areas can be quite narrow. The diving season in Myanmar is between October and May; for clear skies and calm seas, visiting between December and April is recommended. Plankton blooms between February and May bringing reduced visibility but also a higher chances of seeing manta rays and whale sharks. The water temperature around the Mergui Archipelago fluctuates between 26°C at the beginning of the season, and 30°C toward the end of the season.

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THE

46

BREATHING VOL


LCANO OF BROMO By Jay Tindall

47


I

stood on a yard-wide path as the ground shook beneath me – on one side, a craggy cliff, on the other a caldera burning with smoke and ash – as I tried to control the drone. The thought crossed my mind that I could have – should have – just filmed all this before climbing to the volcano’s edge. Seas of ash, a precipitous caldera, and views of the tallest mountain in Java – Bromo is perhaps the most famous active volcano in Java. However, with insider access to lesserknown locations and proper timing, Gunung Bromo can be experienced in peace. The first question most have about visiting a volcano is, “Does it erupt?” In Bromo’s case, the answer is yes, most recently in 2015. The dramatic eruption in 2011 shot ash 18,000 feet into the air. These thoughts are never far from the mind when one feels the vibrations underfoot throughout climbing the ridge. Arriving at Surabaya and

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then Malang, my party woke early in the morning for the three-hour drive to Bromo, with little along with way of interest but a waterfall. But, the lush greenery of Java soon starts to fall away; we had entered the Tengger Semeru National Park. Trees are replaced by dust and ash – more like a torched lunar landscape than the jungles of Java. We drove through this strange landscape in an FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser, one of the few types of vehicles found nearby and a hearty vehicle to be sure with a 1960s design to it. But, even these tough vehicles have trouble with the sand sea. Cars will only take you so far on your way to Bromo, and they end at a tract known as the Tengger Sand Sea. From here, travelers will need to board a motorbike or a horse to get them over the fine ash and sand. The admiration for the mountain stretches here into the Pura Luhur Poten, a

Hindu temple at the foot of the volcano – standing strong against the evacuations and warnings that come with life near the lip of a volcano. Bromo – a Javanese pronunciation of the Hindu creator god, Brahma – is a very spiritual place, sometimes disturbingly so. At the annual Yadnya Kasada Festival (or Kesodo), worshippers come with chickens and other livestock and chuck them into the volcano, others throwing gifts and money as some climb down into the upper reaches of the caldera to catch the offerings. The festival emanates from a legend that a couple were granted 24 children on the condition that they throw the 25th into the volcano as a sacrifice. The festival is held on the 14th day of the Kasada calendar month of the Hindu lunar calendar. Most who venture to Bromo do so in the morning for the sunrise, the area packed with eager photographers. Arriving in the afternoon after our drive,


we were determined to catch the sun on its way down. We walked up the volcano after visiting the temple in what turned out to be a steep climb. Stairs lead to the rim, where there is, thankfully a guardrail. That minor safety net disappears as one rounds the caldera, which is permitted to go about a quarter of the circumference. Only a few yards wide, it was slightly terrifying to walk on, let alone fly a drone. If it came to falling, my preference would be down the mountain craters as opposed to the precipitous, sheer drop into ash and lava. One of the most striking scenes at Bromo is the caldera. Unlike the colorful hell of Ijen or the cartoon puffing of nearby Semeru, Bromo’s steep caldera looks like an angry punch into the planet, a magma chamber that goes down an estimated six kilometers. With the drone in the air and my feet on perpetually and literally shaky ground, I will admit to getting a little vertigo on the rim. Shooting

in the middle of the day is not recommended as the lighting is quite harsh, and the sunset climb proved worth it. We were able to see fog falling over the edge of Tengger, like it was falling into a great, planetary soup bowl; our guide was sure to impress upon me the rarity of such a sight. We descended from the volcano in darkness and rode horses over the sand sea back to our hotel. The next morning we woke early – very early – to see Bromo from a distance. It should be noted that there are two view points for catching Bromo at sunrise, usually swarmed with people trying to get a gorgeous photo of how peaceful everything looks as they clamber over one another. We had a secret spot, only accessible by taking motorbikes through the early-morning dark. It’s surprisingly cold and exactly as dangerous as it sounds, complete with trees smacking us in the face. It was, however, worth it:

Bromo, Semeru, and Batok, all in one shot and slathered in early morning light. Timed correctly, even the normally crowded viewpoints can make for pleasant and peaceful viewing. Considering Bromo is one of the most visited sites in all of Java, experiencing the volcano is all about the timing. We stayed in the area for the day, filming, for one last day of the sun setting on Bromo. From far away, volcano looks lovely – positively pastoral – but at the rim, staring into the crater, it’s more imposing than idyllic. It’s strange to think of this land of lava, smoke, and ash as a haven, but it’s said that the Tenggerese fled to this area after the fall of the Majapahit Empire, bringing with them their traditions and beliefs. It is a strange, brave soul that is comforted by a breathing mountain, and while the gods and legends may seem, to me, fantasies, there is no denying that there is a little magic in Bromo.

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THE ULTIMATE

ROADTRIP WITH THE ULTIMATE TRAVELLING CAMP

By Victoria Hilley

A

s our plane began its descent in to Leh, I could not help but be taken in by the sheer beauty of the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas rising above the rugged Martian landscape – an impression that would be answered by many more similarly epic vistas across the “land of high passes” – home to jagged peaks, aquamarine lakes, striking monasteries, fluttering prayer flags, red-robed monks, and white-washed stupas. These northern reaches of India are known for a marked spirituality, nomadic lifestyle, and sheer remoteness. It is here that you know you are a traveler – not a tourist. 50

We were whisked away from the bustling little airport, catching our breath as we went; the altitude is a stiff reminder that you aren’t in Kansas anymore. Ladakh is a high altitude desert, and due to the extreme weather conditions, the best season to travel here is June to October. I traveled in early June, just at the start of the season, so there was still a chill in the air and snow on the mountains. After 45 minutes of winding through villages, we arrived The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) in Thiksey, which sits in a valley under the magnificent Thiksey Monastery. Warmly greeted, we were ushered in to the main

tent that acts as reception, the library, lounge, and the best chance at an internet connection in the camp. As part of our registration process, the resident doctor checked our blood pressure and oxygen levels to ensure the thin air was not having any adverse effects – and reminded us that as we were at 11,500 feet, we should take it easy, particularly on the first day, while we acclimatized to these heights (which included no wine – a rule we summarily broke within an hour to no ill effects). TUTC properties throughout India are synonymous with being the ne plus ultra of glamping, and truly the facilities could surpass many a 5-star


hotel. Nothing exudes luxury more than having all things luxe in a remote destination. Our heated triple-layered canvas tent had gleaming hardwood floors, Kashmiri carpets, a vintage travel trunk, elegant colonial furniture, hot shower, Ayurveda-inspired toiletries, complimentary refreshments bar, ample plug sockets, loungers, bejeweled chandeliers, and 24-hour butler service. The spacious tent sat on a raised thick wooden deck, which also served as a patio giving a splendid view of the yellow-flowered alfalfa field and the majestic Stok Mountain Range – the sheer pleasure of waking up to the Himalayas in your front yard never got old. Later that evening when we stepped out of our tent, I reveled in the glow of dozens of flickering lanterns. The dining tent was a comfortable affair,

with very warm and attentive service and gourmet food for both the Western and Indian palate. I loved the Indian thalis (tasting platters) and feta-laden Greek salads, as well as the decadent deserts that finished each meal. TUTC’s kitchen staff was truly adept at conjuring up all sorts of cuisines; during our stay we had a range of Indian, Continental, and local Ladakhi dishes, all meticulously executed, artfully presented, and uniformly delicious. All meals are inclusive while in residence, and they certainly do as much as they can to fatten you up while there – though be aware that the altitude can rob you of much of your appetite. TUTC can arrange excursions while you are in residence, and our lovely guide and driver stayed with us throughout the entire period. There is so much to do and experience in

Ladakh, if you can bear to push beyond the sheer comfort and relaxation offered within the confines of the Camp. On one day we did a simple village hike, stopping by the local nunnery and a tiny temple where only a handful of monks reside to join them in meditation and some gur-gur chai, a salted yak butter tea that is by far one of the most unique things you will ever taste. On another, we headed across the Indus River to the 15th Century Matho Monastery perched high up in the Stok Mountains. Here our guide gave us a crash course on Buddhism, using the monastery’s wall frescos as a guide to the finer points of the religion. Later, we explored the dusty, crowded city of Leh – a major center of hustle and bustle. We didn’t last long before we retreated back to the heavenly peace of our

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remote tented camp. My favorite excursion was the day we went to Alchi, an 11th Century Monastery founded by Ringchen Zangpo, the Great Translator. Alchi Gompa has a distinct Kashmiri influence in its art and architecture and is home to some of the most exquisite Buddhist frescos murals that I have seen in my travels through the Pan-Himalayan region. One special room had what seemed like 1000’s of images of the Lord Buddha repeated over and over, each one varying in the tiniest of detail. After our monastery visit, we were surprised with a special picnic lunch on a cliff-side overlooking the Indus River – a site that TUTC had sought out to create an unforgettable vista for its valued clients. The mighty river churning below us in an impossible greenish hue, and we were surrounded by spring wildflowers. On the way we passed by Basgo Fort, and stopped at Likir Monastery, which is presided over by the Ngari Rinpoche, a position held currently by the younger brother of the Dalai Lama. On one auspicious morning, our guide had us rise in the dark, so we could join the monks of Thiksey Monastery in their morning prayers. Sunrise is early in Ladakh, the tips of the mountains turn pink by 5am and the colors play out over the valley below. As we slowly make our way up the many stairs leading to the prayer hall, standing on the flat roof are two monks in maroon robes each blowing long trumpets – drungchens – out into the thin mountain air. The deep booming echoes around the Indus valley, bouncing off the slopes, reminding villages for 52

miles around that morning prayers are about to start. We settle onto rugs in the back corner, and watch as the monks file in – the eldest at the front, the youngest by the doors. At first the prayers seem very solemn, heads bowed over the text; the chanting is mesmeric and beguiling. Offerings of rice in round flat dishes are placed in intervals along the benches. A small boy wrapped tight in his maroon robes against the morning chill, leans over to his friend and whispers something into his ear. Without missing a beat, the friend, shoulders shaking with laughter, grabs a fistful of rice and chucks it at him. They laugh so hard they lose their place in the text. Behind them sits an older monk, completely bald, wearing dark sunglasses and mustard colored robes, swaying to the prayers like Stevie Wonder. Nearing the end of prayers, a young monk comes around, offering us gur-gur chai, the warm yak butter tea – and I’m not sure if it’s the altitude, or the early morning, or the sheer joy of being here – whatever it is, I’m weightless. After a few days at Thiksey camp, it was time to change our landscape and head over to the lesser-visited sister property in the remote Nubra Valley. The road to get here is long and winding, passing through the tawny barren landscape for hours on end, dotted with yak caravans, raging streams, snowcovered valleys, and glaciers. We stopped to take a mandatory selfie at Khardung La Pass, which is said to be the world’s highest drivable pass at 18,380 feet (exaggerated) – truly you feel you are on top of the world for the brief 10 minutes you can stand to

breathe the air here. The 7-hour journey at times was both eyepopping and death-defying – a road trip to rival all road trips. As we descended into the Nubra Valley, we were met by the confluence of two rivers, Nubra and Shyok, flanked by craggy mountains of the Ladakh Range, interspersed here and there with pockets of green where tiny villages had sprung up. Chamba Camp Diskit is just outside Diskit village and is done up in a more rustic style than the Thiksey camp. The surrounding dramatic landscape added to the roughand-ready camping vibe. The tent itself was anything but rough. The triple-layered beige tent stood on a solid wooden deck with a private sit-out and an uninterrupted view of the Diskit Monastery, which seems to have been hewn out of the very cliff on which it stood. Inside, a four-poster bed, bright orange furniture, and a gorgeous vintage leather trunkturned-wardrobe completed the style of an African safari camp. Chamba Camp Diskit offers many excursions as well. While in residence, we visited Diskit Monastery and its 100-foot Maitereya Buddha, the sanddunes at Hundar for a camel ride at sunset, and Yarab Tso Lake for a hike and a visit to a local organic farm house, where the owner joined us for a lengthy discourse on irrigation, farming, and Indian politics in the North. It was only afterward, that I found out we could have gone a bit further afield to visit the Balti Muslim villages beyond Hunder, and maybe meet the “king” of Turtuk, Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, a descendant of the Yabgo


Dynasty that ruled Balistan for 2000 years. Another guest had done this, and I had unmistakable travelers envy. Funny being in one of the most remote and enviable corners of the world and envying someone else’s concurrent travels. I have added it to my bucket list must-do’s for future travel. On our way back, we drove an alternative route, crossing Wari La from Sakti and traveling alongside the Shyok River. Though it was longer, it seemed less treacherous than our arrival journey – and in my opinion far more beautiful. The pastoral images of yaks, dzos (a hybrid of a cow and yak), shaggy horses, and lightning-quick marmots dashing about amongst the yellow buttercups dotting the boggy marshlands created by the melting snows are seared into my minds-eye. En-route back to Thiksey, TUTC set up the ultimate lunch for us – a tent with a commanding view down the valley – served impeccably by an army of waiters and chefs. Aside from the billowing gusts of wind that ran down the valley and threatened to topple my champagne glass, this may just be the most epic, or should I say ultimate, luncheon I ever experienced. It’s no secret that true luxury lies in slowing down, and you will find that the pace here in this northern corner of nowhere is well suited to this concept. While I certainly explored the area, more precious were the afternoons that I kept to myself to enjoy the impossibly blue sky suspended over my tent, mesmerized by the not-so-distant snow-capped mountains while coming up with names for the many birds that stopped by to say hello. Here, in the far northern reaches of India, deep in the wilderness – away from everything and everyone – I was able to redefine what ultimately makes me love travel – the simple act of reveling in the joy of the moment. 53


Itinerary

ADVENTURE INTO EVEREST

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DAY 1

Fly to Kathmandu and stay at the Dwarika before heading out on a whirlwind adventure to the top of the world.

DAY 2

Make the exciting flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, known as one of the most exciting flights in Asia. Get your first peek at the Himalayas and start your trek north from Phakding River.

DAY 3

Take the Bhote Koshi trail to sherpa settlements; halfway through your trek, you’ll find Everest and Lhotse before reaching the thriving little town of Namche Bazaar at nearly 1,200 feet.

DAY 4

Take time to acclimate to the altitude and explore Namche Bazaar. You can also travel to the sherpa village of Khune at the foot of Khumjung Khumbi Yul Lha.

DAY 5

Head for the prayer stone after getting permits for views of the Himalayas before descending into a rhododendron forest. Then, walk along the Imja Khla River before ascending to Tengboche Monastery, a stunning destination with a view of Everest’s southwest face.

DAY 6

Go to Devuche for the trekker’s aid post at Pheriche. Today’s trek is just under five hours long, featuring dinner and an overnight at Pheriche.

DAY 7

Relax a bit from all the trekking, or take a side trip to Chhukung and check out the Tsola River if you still want adventure.

DAY 8

Follow the valley between Periche to Phalang Karpo and marvel at the view of the Tawachi and Cholatse peaks. The trail is known to have snow leopards crossing through on occasion.

DAY 9

Climb at sunrise for one and a half hours for a view of the Khumbu Glacier, and reach Gorakshep in three hours before making the climb up to Kala Patthar for one of the best views of Everest in the world.

DAY 10

Take the famous trip to Everest Base Camp. Mt. Lhotse and Mt. Nuptse loom over the base camp, blocking out Everest.

DAY 11

Trek back to Dengbouche down a windy trail to Somare, where you will stop for lunch and chat with the friendly locals.

DAY 12

Head back to Namche Bazaar to let your legs and your lungs rest in the luxury of Yeti Mountain Home.

DAY 13

Enjoy your final moments of trekking as you return to Lukla for an overnight at another Yeti Mountain Home lodge.

DAY 14

Fly from Lukla to Kathmandu for some sightseeing in the capital. Shree Pashupatinath is always a highlight.

DAY 15

Cultures explored, trails walked, mountains summited, your adventure ends and you head back home.

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BILL BENSLEY

Saving the Cardamom National Forest

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n my 30 years years of constructing 200 plus hotels, the Shinta Mani Wild is the piece de resistance. I bought a piece of land there and it’s about the size of Central Park with the intent of teaching the Cambodian people that conservation is much more important and smarter than extraction. We have a big problem in the Cardamom National Forest of illegal poaching and illegal logging. My presence in the south of that park also supports the Wildlife Alliance rangers. Those rangers go on 56

very long walks and bike rides with AK-47s - always traveling in a group of four - to do some very serious conservation work. In the past 10 years, they’ve been responsible for capturing 71,000 live animals and returning to the wild. But, they’ve also been responsible for seizing 72,000 pounds of dead wildlife meat. That just give you an idea that this is serious business. There is some serious money going on in the poaching trade and the wildlife meat trade that are going into China and going into Vietnam. That’s what

Shinta Mani Wild is all about I want to be part of reversing that trend of the destruction of these forests. These forests are so important to the Cambodian people because it’s largest contiguous piece of rainforest in Southeast Asia, and that creates the rain for the rice bowl in the rest of Cambodia. If the Cardamom National Park would continue to be deforested, there would be no more rain. People would go hungry once again in Cambodia. So, that’s even more important.


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Profile for Travelogues from Remote Lands

Adventure Issue: Thrills from the Himalayas to Papua New Guinea