The 33 Interval Temple in Kyoto

Sanjusangendo Temple

The 33 interval temple. Such a humble name for such an impressive place. It wasn’t a temple that I knew anything about before arriving in Kyoto but the impact it’s had on me will undoubtedly remain with me for a long time to come.

We just seemed to stumble upon it and in a city of around 2,000 temples and shrines, it would have been so easy to continue walking by without stopping. I can’t explain how pleased I am that we decided to pause at this one in particular, as it’s easily the most awe-inspiring temple I have ever seen.

From the outside, the Sanjusangendo Temple structure is the longest in Japan, measuring a length of 120 metres. During the Edo period, annual archery competitions required competitors to direct the arrow accurately from one end to the other. I’m not sure how successful they were as there is still plenty of evidence of archers who didn’t quite get their aim perfected.

The usual ritual of removing shoes over with, we were then told very insistently that no photos could be taken in the main hall and that cameras will be checked on departure. This suddenly piqued my interest. In a society where the mobile phone is mostly found hanging around your neck waiting for the next selfie opportunity, I was astonished and delighted to be told that everyone must put them away. An experience that was to be enjoyed and also savoured by allowing yourself to be in the moment with no distractions. Brilliant.

After a brief historical explanation from our guide Chiaki, I tentatively began walking into the main hall. I really had no idea what to expect. I turned the corner and tried to process what I was seeing. I had been told that the figures inside had all been handmade from wood and clad in gold leaf and depicted Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Already I had been impressed but when I saw the detail on each figure, I found it hard to comprehend how the carvers had managed to duplicate such an exact copy on each statue.

Despite being a Buddhist temple each statue reminded me of the Hindu God Durga as each had 42 arms holding something different, 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans plus an intricate crown. Standing at the same height as a typical Japanese person, each statue was then stood on a lotus flower, as it was believed that us humans live underneath.

Once I had analysed the first few figures in my immediate sight I allowed my eyes to travel down the length of the temple. Incredible. Row upon row of identical, human-sized statues. Numbering 1,001 in total, it took 100 years to accomplish this feat, meaning that the original shogun who commissioned the temple was not alive to see the finished product.

The task of putting into words the feeling of surprise, beauty and awe is almost impossible. It was such a personally emotive feeling that it is hard to describe. To be honest, I would rather leave it unsaid and simply encourage you to go and experience it for yourself. And don’t worry, I’ve neglected to describe the whole temple so there’s still an element of surprise left for you too…

A Personal Journey Through the Street Food of Tokyo

Yakitori Bar

There was no denying it, I was nervous. I was nervous that every meal I was to be given on the street food tour around Tokyo would be fish. Perhaps a ridiculous thing to be anxious about, but as it’s rarely my food of choice, I was delighted to hear that a Yakatori bar, specialising in skewered chicken, was to be our first stop. From the street, Nimo, our guide, directed us through some curtains which opened out into a small atmospheric bar. We sat around the bar front on stools and watched mesmerised as the Yakatori chef deftly cooked the skewered meat on the barbecue before serving them to the awaiting mouth-watering crowd. Tender and well-seasoned, the appetisers soon disappeared whilst being washed down with a cold Asahi beer. Maybe I could just stay here. This was my kind of food.

Apparently not, as a few moments later it was time to move on. The nervous fish dread was back.

This time I was right to be worried as the next bar specialised in sashimi. After Nimo had detailed some of the strong Japanese traditions linked to how hierarchy plays such an important part of eating and drinking habits in Japan, the fish arrived. Or to be more specific, the raw fish.

There were four different types of fish placed in front of me along with a bowl of soy sauce and a helping of wasabi. Whilst the other people in my group of eight started digging in I simply looked at the plate. Rather than being put off, I started to get curious. The rest of group were all displaying signs of enjoyment, so I had to try it, didn’t I?

I decided yes, I did. Using the chopsticks, I gingerly picked up a piece of raw tuna, dunked it in the soy sauce (for luck more than anything I think) and took a bite. Wow. Not what I had expected. It just melted in my mouth and tasted …. well… tasted not particularly fishy. I was so impressed I went back for more and soon enough my plate was empty. Something I had never thought would happen. I was seemingly loving this sashimi thing.

That was until the next plate arrived. On this plate was a whole fish with a skewer threaded through it and its meat, having been expertly sliced off, lying neatly next to it. More sashimi but the only difference this time was that this fish was alive just minutes before arriving at our table. How was I so sure? Because the head and tail were still twitching. I’m sure the raw meat would too have tasted amazing but this time I was not so inquisitive to try it, so graciously I left it for my new friends instead.

It was then time to travel on to our third destination of the evening: the yokocho or otherwise known as the alleyways. On our walk over, we were reminded that the Japanese are generally shy in character, so restaurants often provide separate rooms where small groups can dine. It was therefore surprising to come across such a social eating scene in Tokyo as these alleyways.  As we squeezed through the crowds the undercover alleyway uncovered a myriad of small open-fronted bars, packed solid with people eating and drinking. This felt like the place to be in Tokyo. I would have had very little chance of finding this place without Nemo. Most of the yokocho are post-WWII when they were used to support the black market, nowadays they offer a perfect way to feel like a local. We settled into our reserved spots in a tiny bar and almost immediately a tapas-esque selection of dishes appeared on our table. Okonomiyaki; a squid-filled omelette, prawns and avocado mixed in a mayonnaise sauce and Takoyaki; fried dough balls filled with minced octopus. I was eating more fish and seafood than I ever had. As I delved in, I took in the atmosphere, which was buzzing with Saturday night chat. I strangely felt quite proud of myself. From a fish disbeliever, it seems I had been thoroughly converted. Now time to bring on that sushi…

People of the Steppes

People of the Steppes

I am flying from Ulan Bataar to Uglii in the far west of Mongolia. Beneath me, dark patches of forest, multi-coloured lakes and strips of undulating, bronze sand give colour and depth to the otherwise desolate landscape. Unbelievably, next to these features – on the edges of the forests, by the shores of the lakes and in the shadows of the dunes are people. The tops of their gers reflect in the sun and shine like beacons from a forgotten world. In contrast to their natural surroundings these fabric homes are tiny but their presence out here in the silence, speaks volumes about a people with an innate will to survive, living a life far removed from the rest of the world. My anticipation builds at the prospect of exploring the wild country beneath me and meeting the extraordinary nomads who call it home.

I think back to what Jan, Steppes’ partner in Mongolia, said to me when we were planning our trip together.

“How do you spell Chigertei? I can’t find it on Google Maps…” I said to him.

“Forget Google Maps, they haven’t discovered this part of Mongolia yet, you’ll just have to trust me” he said with a mischievous laugh.

Walking through the bucolic valley of Chigertei I am glad I placed my trust in Jan. Two figures on horseback are ahead of us, adeptly corralling a large herd of goats. In front of the livestock is a small lake on which terns, cormorants and gulls feed. On the near horizon, the snow-capped Altai mountains that form the boundary between Mongolia and China, are pin sharp in the silvery light of late morning. The distant bleating of goats and the odd whistle and shout of the herdsman are the only sounds to break the serene silence. My senses are acutely attuned to the simple panorama in front of me, as if I am watching this timeless scene unfurl on an enormous high-definition screen with surround sound. The two herdsmen dismount from their horses, and it becomes apparent that one of them is in fact a young boy, no more than ten years old. Having effortlessly manoeuvred their livestock onto a fertile pasture, the father and son take time out together and lie down by the lake shore, propping themselves up with their elbows, one eye on their animals and the other eye on the Altai mountains that tower above them. It is a scene that conveys the essence of simple contentment.

The luxury of space and fresh air combined with a simple, pastoral lifestyle seems the perfect antidote to the stresses of the overpopulated western world. But it is all too easy to romanticise the life of a nomad. Living on the Mongolian steppes is harsh, especially in the winter when the cold is inescapable and bone-achingly cruel. It may be a life without complication and superfluity, but it is often a life lived on the very edge at the mercy of the elements. I am reminded of this when we meet with a herdsman, just outside the village of Deluun, on the outskirts of Hukh Serkhiin Nuruu National Park. We learn that he lost more than half of his livestock in the winter just passed and now his animals are in desperate need of fresh grass which is in short supply as the rains have yet to fall. He is stoic, and he deems our meeting as being auspicious. He gestures towards the sky where clouds are building and tells us that yesterday, he called on the local lama to give the pastures a blessing and to pray for rain.

“The rain is coming” he says with conviction and a big smile.

Hope is eternal on the Mongolian steppes. It is the belief of a better day tomorrow that propels the nomadic way of life.

Bulgan is a big woman with gold teeth and a kind face topped with a colourful headscarf. Formidable looking but soft around the edges, her young grand-children gravitate towards her as we take our seats at the north end of the ger (as Kazakh tradition dictates). We have been invited for tea with Bulgan and her family, whom like all the communities in this part of Mongolia are Kazakh. Bulgan’s daughter serves milky tea and bread with a fermented, salty butter that is strangely good. Bulgan tells us that she and her family only set up their summer camp here yesterday and will likely remain at this location for three months. She seems happy at this prospect and mentions how hard the recent winter was for all the people in the valley. Much of the livestock was lost, not only to the weather but also to predators such as wolves and eagles. Last night, we were looking at images of snow leopards captured by camera-traps positioned by researchers in the mountains just above Bulgan’s summer camp. I ask Bulgan if she has ever seen a snow leopard and she looks at me pensively. After a long pause, she tells us a story of another family who had to migrate their camp to a different valley because of a snow leopard encounter. One of the men, caught a snow leopard skulking around camp at night. He killed the animal, skinned it and ate some of the meat. The next night, two snow leopards came into camp and killed every single animal. The legend of the snow leopard looms large in the Altai. This is an animal worthy of fear and respect in equal measure.

Our flight back to Ulan Bataar is in the dead of night. I look out of the window but see no lights and therefore no sign of life. But I know it is there. I think about Bagan, the strong matriarch and her family. I think about the smile of the hopeful herdsman and the lama praying for rain. But most of all, I think about the bond I witnessed between the father and son on horseback, sat in the sun, dwarfed by the enormity of the Altai mountains. 

Pandas and Spice in Chengdu

Young panda, Chengdu

I am trying to fly like a bird. With limited success, I hasten to add but my tai chi teacher gives me a thumbs up. I must be doing ok. With the Qing Cheng mountain as a backdrop, I am taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn some of this art form in the Taoist area where it was first conceived.

Just one and a half hours from Chengdu, the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain Retreat has brought me away from the crowds to a peaceful, rural, luxurious alternative to the busy city of Chengdu. The Tai Chi class, just one of the many ways to relax into mountain life here.

Pandas. That, of course, is what Chengdu is famous for and I too am here to meet some of this fascinating species and the Dujiangyan rescue centre is just 15 mins away from the resort.

These black and white bears are solitary creatures, so each panda has its own sanctuary: an outside area to explore as well as an indoor air-conditioned escape. Having pandered (no pun intended) to these creatures for many years now in the race to save their species, they lack the ability to manage their temperature hence the seemingly extreme necessity for air conditioning. There are no fences just plenty of trees, water and green space in a low walled paddock. There are about 30 pandas here currently, all adults and they all look very relaxed; either appearing to be stuck in trees, sleeping in weird positions or munching on bamboo. If it’s young, cute, playful pandas you want to see then in Chengdu you can call into the Giant Panda Breeding Research Institute and with over 100 pandas it’s busy but that’s China. The Dujiangyan option is quieter, there were times when it was just me and the precious primate within metres of each other.

Dujiangyan is renowned for where you can get the closest and learn much more about the pandas. As well as a controversial 20-second photo opportunity sat next to a panda, you can opt to take part in a day volunteer programme. After plenty of camera snapping and panda souvenir purchased, I was ready to move on and see what else I could learn about this area of China. As a local saying goes; there is more to Chengdu than pandas.

Chengdu is actually one of six UNESCO cities of gastronomy, due to its position in the province of Sichuan. This popular style of Chinese food has 23 different flavours, most based around chilli and Sichuan pepper, which numbs your tongue. A strange sensation and to be honest one which I don’t particularly enjoy but each to their own I guess. During my cooking course I held back on both the chilli and the pepper but the Kung Pao Chicken and the Mapo Tofu plates I dished up still tasted pretty good to me. I do love learning how to cook alongside a local; the different ingredients, as well as the methods, always inspire me when I return home. And leaving aside the Sichuan pepper, I’m sure there will be more Chinese food on the menu soon, and I’m not referring to ordering regularly from the local takeaway.

With a satisfied stomach, I was then driven back to the Six Senses. Back to the mountains. Back to a haven of serenity. Whether you prefer to indulge in a spa treatment, take a dip in the outdoor pool or wander around the private garden and rice field, the six senses experience is just that: an experience. Slightly different to everyone I’m sure but with its contemporary, timeless and warming décor and exceptional level of service, it can’t fail to impress. The moon bar was a personal favourite with its fairy lights glittering as you listen to the nearby waterfall.

Now I’m sitting watching the mountains disappear into darkness over dinner. My time in China has been incredible. So much history, so much amazing scenery but also so many people in the cities. This mountain escape has been the perfect way to relax before my onward flight.

An adventurer’s insight – Q & A with Chris Aslan Alexander

Chris Aslan Alexander

Chris was born in Turkey (hence the Turkish middle name) and grew up in Ankara and war-torn Beirut. In 1998 he moved to Uzbekistan to work on a guidebook. He was adopted by a local family, fell in love with the place and people, and stayed. His book ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva – Seven years on the Silk Road’ tells this story.

After his time in Uzbekistan, Chris then went on to live in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A total of fifteen years in the region means Chris has travelled extensively, speaks fluent Uzbek and passable Kyrgyz, Tajik and Pamiri, and has also immersed himself in the history, culture and traditions of the region.

We asked Chris to share his thoughts on who has inspired him, his best travel advice and more…

How often do you travel?

I’ve just spent a couple of years studying full-time at Oxford with the long holidays that come with it and got to travel through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, which was wonderful. I should probably be more adventurous, but now that I don’t live in Central Asia, I’m constantly drawn back because I want to maintain friendships, and not let my languages get too rusty. I also think it’s impossible to tire of the incredible natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan or the breath-taking Silk Road cityscapes of Uzbekistan.

Who has inspired you to do what you do?

I love reading historic travel accounts of Central Asia. There were never huge entourages of coolies and servants or anything like that, but plucky women and men who knew what it was to rough it. I particularly love how Mildred and French, missionaries to inland China and Mongolia, managed to write with wonder, compassion, and respect about the people they met, downplaying their own discomfort or the very real danger they were often in.

What country surprised you?

It was my dream for many years to visit Iran, which is really hard to do as a Brit, although I finally made it last year. I was so surprised at how secular Iran was. Underneath the compulsory chador or headscarves, there’s a whole hidden existence and quiet rebellion towards the government. I was bowled over by the generosity and hospitality of strangers and found the people to be as much a highlight as the place.

Where is next on your travel ‘bucket list’?

I’ve always wanted to visit Madagascar, and have a really good friend who lives there and married a Malagasy. Peru is also high up on my list and I’m itching to do the Inca trail.

Do you consider your carbon footprint when you travel?

Yes. I’d rather go for a longer holiday somewhere and really explore it, rather than short-haul trips.

What is the one essential you travel with?

My kindle. As an author, I’ll always prefer paper, but gone are the days when I used to worry about running out of books on a holiday.

What is your best piece of travel advice?

I was leading a group recently and we went through a particularly demeaning and rigorous security check in an ethnically troubled part of China, which included having the soles of our feet scanned and having to remove all battery-powered items from our hold luggage. “I find it helps,” said one of the women in the group, “to remember that this isn’t a holiday, it’s travel. They’re both wonderful, but they are different.”

A journey through Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan – three countries and three (plus one) world number ones

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Old men chatting Kashgar Xinjiang Province China

It has been more than 10 years since I visited Pakistan. Much has happened during that time and most of it not for the better. I have a rule of thumb, ask the same question five times and if three answers come back the same, then usually that is near enough right. With Pakistan, I was asking the same question 10 times and getting very different answers each time.

The question related to security. Pakistan is one of my favourite countries to visit but I was worried about going back. Nobody wants to go on holiday feeling they have to look over their shoulder all the time but at last, it felt like the right time. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office have lifted the ban on travel to Gilgit Baltistan (Hunza) and further collecting of knowledge from news sources, our partner in Pakistan, our insurer and most recently a direct security contact in Pakistan provided, in my view, a well-balanced picture of life in the country.

I was there during Muharram, particularly marked by Shia Muslims, to mark the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, killed at Karbala in 680 CE. Thousands of people, dressed in black clothes, visit the mosques to listen to loud broadcast speeches by the mullahs and collect in large groups to march and beat themselves. Security was extremely tight. Armed police and Rangers were everywhere, the mobile telephone network was shut down in a number of cities and the Karakoram Highway was shut to all transport for two days, something that has not happened before. As a foreigner, I was told not to leave the hotel. I did not and never felt under threat. Precaution by the authorities being the key. It was for me more the frenzy of the crowds that was potentially intimidating but keeping away meant I was not subject to this real or perceived threat.

The advantage of this disruption was that the artistically painted lorries for which Pakistan is famous were all parked up. Vehicles have a finite life, especially when working but I did see a number of old Bedfords that started life in the U.K. Lorry art developed as a result of drivers being away from home for long periods of time. They wanted a connection with home so decorated their lorries. There are no rules and the imagination of the drivers and the artists assisting them makes for memorable adornment.

I entered Pakistan by crossing the Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved motorable border crossing in the World (4,693m) – my first world number one! I will not go into the procedures or the options available here suffice as to say that they are challenging for people without an open mind or patience. As you pass under the Chinese arch and enter Pakistan you pass the highest ATM in the World – number two ticked off.

This part of the country has some of the highest mountains in the world, 108 peaks over 7,000 metres. The country has five of the 14 highest peaks on the planet, those over 8,000 metres. Many lie in the Karakoram range which sits almost entirely in the Gilgit Baltistan (GB) region that I travelled through. As you travel down the Karakoram Highway, a road that has evolved over the years from a track hewn from solid rock one jeep wide to a far safer and wider road today, the wonders of the mountains are all around. Towering rocks, jagged glaciers and whitewater rivers never fail to impress. Stopping at the first Pakistani checkpoint to pay the compulsory entrance fee to enter the Khunjerab National Park, allowed me to view an Ibex resting on a mountainside through the scope of one of the security personnel’s rifles.

Everybody I met was welcoming. Domestic tourism is thriving which is a good barometer of how things have improved and now I feel that it is time for Western visitors to return. It helps to be reasonably fit in this area as there is some wonderful walking available. That said UNESCO submitted sites such as Baltit Fort in Karimabad (Hunza) and pre-history rock carvings at Heilkdesh, the wonders of village life (some houses are over 700 years old), fresh air, fresh fruit (apples and apricots) and nuts (walnuts), Spring blossoms and Autumn leaf colours make this a truly wonderful place to visit whatever your interests. Do not expect 5* accommodation but the best available is good. This should be seen as an adventure and not a sophisticated “pampered” holiday but for those that make the trip, the rewards are memorable.

I actually began my trip by flying into Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. I spent a day walking just outside the city at the Ala Archa National Park. Easily accessible but a great place to stretch the legs and get a taste for admiring the mountain scenery that awaited me in the coming weeks. From Bishkek, I ventured south spending the night at Chichkan in a small motel by a fast running river, drinking vodka with members of the Slavic, Kyrgyz, German University.

I then took a small diversion to see my third world number one – the world’s largest walnut forest in Arslanbob. The village has a small bustling centre where goods are traded, and people come to meet and chat. Part of the village lies on the valley floor, but parts climb the mountainsides. Here it is homestay accommodation with shared bathroom facilities. I took a local guide and spent the afternoon in the forest walking. He had a walnut grove himself and he explained to me how the allocation of individual walnut trees was made and who benefited from the collection of the nuts. The system had changed several times since Soviet times as different methods were tried and then refined because they either did not work or were unfair. He told me that villagers in Arslanbob were great climbers and could harvest and collect their nuts quickly. The adjacent villagers were poor climbers so those from Arslanbob made extra money by going to them and doing additional climbing.

The journey from Bishkek to the South and beyond to Kashgar travelling through the Irketsem Pass becomes ever more dramatic with wider vistas and taller more impressive mountains. The Irkestem Pass is another procedure I will not describe but what I said above applies in equal measure.

Kashgar has changed. The Chinese are paranoid about regional security and as such the city is patrolled by many police vans – this presence was increased as I was travelling close to National Day, 01 October which marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Changes aside, I did enjoy my few days there.  There is an old section of the town which is wonderful to stroll through and a real highlight for me was the Mausoleum of Apak Hoja, a beautiful building of mosaics and tile work adorned with four towers on each corner. Visiting at the end of the day meant we had the venue to ourselves. Another highlight was sitting in a local tea house while local musicians played and old men danced, a twinkle in their eye for the few female tourists enjoying the occasion. The famous Sunday Livestock Market is now held 15 kilometres from town.

Another first for me, and the final world number one was travelling out to see Shipton’s Arch. This is regarded as the largest natural stone arch in the World and at 365 metres this is just a little shy of the height of the Empire State building for comparison purposes. Discovered by Eric Shipton, former British Consul in Kashgar, in 1947 it lay undisturbed and not visited until a National Geographic expedition located it again in 2000. Until then, access was extremely difficult. Whilst today it is accessed along a river bed and by a number of staircases it still remains a challenge for some.

This was a momentous journey. A journey of adventure with some stunning locations and scenery and interesting people and varying cultures. I hope that some of you will be able to follow in my footsteps and tread a little off the path well-trodden.

Guizhou – Hidden Minorities of China

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Longhorn Miao Women Dancing Suoga Village Guizhou China

I have travelled to China over 30 times over three decades and seen many changes. On this trip, I went somewhere new – Guizhou Province in South Central China. Guizhou is an area of karst limestone scenery with mountains far bigger than its southern neighbouring province of Guanxi. Tree covered, mist-shrouded peaks and long deep valleys made this an inaccessible place and it became home to those marginalised in past battles lost. They were forced to the high ground to make a living from slash and burn agriculture and so remained isolated.

To think that the economy is shrinking in China takes one by surprise here. Guizhou relied on coal and heavy industry but was held back after these were closed because their antiquated techniques and outdated factories made them inefficient. The local government turned to tourism and infrastructure to reverse their fortunes.

What Guizhou offers is wonderful natural scenery and a large number of ethnic groups that attract visitors wishing to see different cultures. The Miao (Hmong), Buyei and Dong are the three dominant groups but even within these, there are many variations in customs and dress.

I travelled with our textile group and our appointed expert Gina Corrigan. I have known her for 30 years and come to know that she is respected greatly for her work in collecting and recording the costumes and techniques of primarily the Miao and Tibetans. She passed on her knowledge and introduced us to people she has built relationships with over the years. The owner of the Miao Costume Museum in Guiyang and a dealer/collector who had some beautiful pieces of traditional clothing as well as accessories that we were able to touch and see in detail the work.

We spent lots of time meeting local people and wandering in markets, a wonderful way to observe lives untouched by a more modern China. We took in a local festival and saw many of the techniques that make up the intricate costumes worn. Sadly, it is only really the women who wear their traditional clothes. The men, with a few exceptions, prefer Western dress nowadays.

I mentioned the economy earlier and infrastructure development has had a profound effect on the province and will continue to do so. Travel in Guizhou used to be slow. Journeys that took seven or eight hours previously now take two or three. We passed through 77 kilometres of tunnels in two days. A new high speed “bullet” train has been built, meaning that people in the richer Southern provinces of Guangdong, for example, can easily come up for the weekend. The motorways are at present very underused. This will change, I am sure, once the links through to the East coast are completed. Already seafood in abundance can be seen in markets and restaurants and has fallen in price by two-thirds.

Whilst roads and railways are improving hotels have some way to go. “Functional” is the best way to describe them. Breakfasts still have a very Chinese edge to them, steamed buns and rice porridge, and service varies. Breakfast at 07.00 turned out to be 07.45 with not a soul in sight until 07.20 and the hotel receptionist was stretched out asleep on the sofa in the lobby, covered in a blanket. All of which for me, only adds to the charm of this rural part of the world.

China never ceases to amaze. I saw a lady wearing a long elegant dress taking a piglet for a walk on a long piece of twine in the centre of town. A pet, not food. In the motorway service stations, you can buy snacks as you would expect. How about a vacuum packed chicken foot to chew on?

A contradiction of tourism and development is that local cultures change. We as visitors want them to remain unchanged whilst the cultures themselves want to access the latest trends and labour saving devices. In some respects, Guizhou is currently in a middle ground. The way local cultures do things is changing, buying ready-made fabric from the market instead of weaving it for example, but tourism does encourage these ethnic groups to maintain their costumes, dance, and way of life. Through education and tourism, it is hoped that more traditional techniques which are fast disappearing, like tablet weaving that we found one elderly man still doing, can be preserved.

Tourism must be managed. I do not like to visit places where visitors overrun the local sites they are seeing, and in China, this happens. The secret is to get a balance. Domestic tourism in China is growing at a phenomenal rate but they like places to be accessible. This leaves very interesting villages on the periphery for us to see with far fewer visitor numbers.
Guizhou to Western visitors is still an unknown. For those that want to see a China where people still nudge one another in the street to indicate the presence of a foreigner then Guizhou can still deliver. Domestic flights from the capital Guiyang are good and the high-speed train and motorways make it easily accessible to other parts of China including Guilin.

During this trip, we talked about the future and what tours we could and should offer in a changing China. In 2018 Gina will lead a group tour to Qinghai, a remote province on the Tibetan plateau, in northwest China, where Tibetan culture still thrives.

Dawn in the Japanese Alps

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Inishi Inari

Light strobes through the partitions of the rice paper shutters. It’s a Baltic cold morning with my breath visible as I lie warm wrapped in my duvet. The stiff Tatami mats I have slept on overnight have tied knots into my spine and I reluctantly rise into the cold of the room, stretching to loosen my weary limbs. Shuffling forwards the first thing I do is to turn on the gas heater over in the corner which kicks into life with the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the ignition and the blue, warm flames whirl into life. Still wrapped in my duvet I shuffle across the mats and open the partition to reveal the deep blue skies above. The tiled roof of the temple I am staying in is cloaked with a thin veil of frost, sparkling in the morning light.

I am walking a section of the ancient Nakasendo trail, once crowded with samurai, pilgrims and travellers and now a peaceful route dotted with old post towns through the Japanese Alps. It is 6am and I have forced myself out of my warm cocoon to rise early in time for a Buddhist ceremony. As I get ready, I don my issued Yukata – a synthetic kimono-esque gown – and squeeze on my tiny slippers which barely fit my size 11 feet, a daily theme throughout my trip in Japan. Walking along the lacquered wooden floors I flip-flap my way to the bathroom, stopping to look at the temple’s very typical interior garden. As I stand there I find myself mesmerised watching the bamboo Shishi Odoshi slowly fill with water, emptying its contents into a stone bowl below with a thud.

I spot a pair of slippers neatly left outside a room and see that as a sign of where I am meant to be. I slide the partition open and peer inside to see two others already kneeling with eyes closed and hands clasped. I shuffle in alongside them and take my place, mirroring exactly what they are doing. I feel completely out of place.

The priests soon come in with lit candles in their hands, dressed delicately in pastel coloured robes and bow to us before resting in lotus positions. The ceremony begins as I watch on wondering, with mystical chanting and the constant dong of tingsha bells. Before too long the blood supply in my legs begins to cease as I shuffle like a geriatric and settle myself in a part-crossed leg position. I look on as the ante of the ceremony rises higher, the flames from a cauldron burst in that dimly lit room as incense and oil is sprinkled on to the fire. Onwards still, I wonder.

Steppes Big 5: Film Locations in China

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The Great Wall, released today, is the most expensive shoot set entirely in China. Directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, the story may not be historically accurate (there were no monsters attacking China), but it reveals stunning panoramas of the man-made marvel that is the Great Wall of China.

The wall is made up of many sections built over time by the different ruling dynasties. The best preserved are just outside of Beijing, with many Steppes clients visiting the Mutianyu or Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall.

This is not the first movie to display China’s stunning beauty. Here are Steppes Big 5:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – The highest grossing foreign-language film in the USA was filmed in several magnificent locations in China such as the UNESCO-listed Hongcun Ancient Village near Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).

Hero (2002) – The highest grossing film in China on release and won several awards for its cinematography. It also alerted many to the spectacular scenery of Jiuzhaigou National Park, a short flight from Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

Avatar (2009) – The highest grossing film of all time and credited for the use of impressive 3D visual effects. The floating Hallelujah Mountains in the imaginary universe of Pandora were inspired by the sandstone karst formations of Zhangjiajie National Park within the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.

The Last Emperor (1987) – A true story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Chinese Ching Dynasty. Told in flashback, the film covers the years 1908 to 1967. Shot on location in China, the film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Visit the filming locations including the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Museums of the Imperial Palace, Changchun. This epic movie is still a feast for the eyes.

Kung Fu Panda (2006) – A computer animated action movie, revolving around a panda who aspires to be a Kung Fu Master in ancient China. Winning numerous Annie awards  for Best Animated Feature and Best Music in an animated feature the musical score alone is worthy of a watch, produced by Hans Zimmer collaborating with John Powell.

To absorb the culture of China, Zimmer spent time in the company of the China National Symphony Orchestra as part of his preparation. Why not time your travel to China to coincide with a performance at the Beijing Concert Hall.

Travel with Steppes and experience the best that China has to offer. From private access at some of the most important sights to lesser visited areas. Spend a day with pandas or hike along the Great Wall. If you are interested in visiting one or all these film locations, please contact our China experts.

Celebrating New Year

Paul has just returned from holiday in Georgia where he was somewhat taken aback by Georgian New Year Celebrations and their powerful and perturbing predilection for pyrotechnics. Even Nina, his Georgian fairer half, held a firework in her hand as it burst into flame with repeated loud bangs.

New Zealand was one of the first countries to usher in the new year. In London revellers gathered around Big Ben, in New York they crowded into Time Square, in Tokyo they released white balloons and in Rio they offered flowers to Yemanja, the goddess of the sea. Not only do we celebrate New Year in a variety of different ways but for some it is not celebrated on the 31st December/1st January. Here are some countries that do so a little differently:

China

Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first new moon between 21st of January and the 20th of February, which this year falls on 28th January. It is a time of family and thus hundreds and millions of people return home to their families to spend time with their loved ones and to honour their ancestors.

Chinese New Year is called Tet in Vietnam or Cambodia and Imlek in Indonesia.

Ethiopia
Enkututash is the first day of the New Year in Ethiopia. It is celebrated on 11th September and marks the end of the rainy season.

Iran
Iran celebrates Nowruz, literally new day, on the day of the vernal equinox which marks the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere. This day usually falls on 21st March. Iranians celebrate by visiting families, holding feasts and sharing gifts.

Russia
The Russian Orthodox Church observes the New Year according to the Julian calendar, which places the day on January 14. Christmas day is celebrated on January 7th.

Thailand
Thailand’s New Year festival is Songkran which is celebrated in April by visiting temples and pouring water onto Buddhist statues, representing purification.

New Year History
Ancient Greeks began their new year with the new moon after June 21. Before the time of Julius Caesar the Roman new year started on March 1st. In most European countries during the Middle Ages the new year began on March 25th, the day of the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Year of the Rooster

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On the 28th January it is Chinese New Year and 2017 is the year of the rooster. The words China and Rooster are inextricably linked in my mind with Paul Theroux’s classic ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ about travelling around China in the 1980s.

Travelling throughout China in the 1990s and leading groups across this most enigmatic of countries, I empathised with Thubron and sought solace in his words as I endured the curiosity of Chinese commuters, the blockages of loos and similar obstinacy of the train officials. I remember on several occasions having to sit with the chef and guard playing drinking games – my stomach still curdles at the thought of Bai jiu – to ensure that my lao wei clients could get private access to the dining car.

In highlighting such misadventures you might infer that I did not enjoy China. If so, I need to disavow you of any such impression. I was voracious in my learning of the language, history and customs. I am most definitely a Sinophile and a strong advocate for anyone to travel to China.

Thankfully train travel in China is now immeasurably more pleasurable and less alcoholic. Perhaps this is best epitomised by the Golden Eagle Train. Travel the Silk Road in luxury as you cross Central Asia into China and enjoy historic treasures such as the beautiful Buddhist art of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and the mesmerising Terracotta Warriors of Xian.

Beijing and Shanghai are two of China’s greatest cities and highlights. A high-speed train has now transformed this journey that gives you a ground-level view of the urban landscapes and cultivated countryside in China’s heartland. It is five hours well spent.

 

The Xining to Lhasa train must surely qualify as one of the great train journeys of the world. It is just under a two thousand kilometre journey that takes some twenty hours and reaches heights of 5,000 metres – making it the world’s highest rail journey – as you travel onto the Tibetan plateau and across the permafrost to Lhasa. You can take the train all the way from Beijing to Lhasa but that adds time and not much more to your journey – the most impressive scenery is definitely between Xining and Lhasa.

If you are looking for some Chinese reading other than ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, I would suggest the below:

Life under Mao

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Fire under Snow by Palden Gyatso

Travels post Mao

Red Dust by Ma Jian

Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron

More Recent

The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer

Beyond the Clouds

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China’s image is tainted by media reports of pollution. Whilst this might be true of certain cities and highly populous regions it is not a fair reflection on the country as a whole. At just under 10 million square kilometres, China is the fourth largest country in the word and forty times the size of the United Kingdom – there are many wonderful areas of China in which to escape. Here are some of our favourite places to travel in China.

Yunnan literally means clouds (Yu) south (nan) thus Beyond the Clouds. It is one of China’s most diverse provinces with landscapes ranging from the Tibetan plateau in the north to the sub-tropical forests of the south. Places to visit vary from the bamboo houses of the Bai to the historic Naxi city of Lijiang to the Tibetan monastery of Sumtseling. However, for me, the delight of Yunnan is its peoples. Not just in terms of the number of minorities but the colour and smiles that you meet throughout.

Xinjiang, literally the ‘western region’, is the largest administrative district in China and home to the Uyghurs. A wonderful people of Turkic extraction, their thick (and delicious) laghman noodles are very different from the rice and finer noodles of the Han Chinese, a metaphor for the contrast between the different cultures. Such discrepancy is further emphasised in two of Xinjiang’s key cities, Turfan and the exotic Kashgar, which in spite of its Hanification still remains one of the must-see cities of the world.

The clouds that encircle Tibet are ones of controversy. Lhasa and the region is much changed – again through the influx of the Han Chinese as I wrote in my blog – Tibet – but there are areas which still have a strong and fascinating Tibetan identity. As I wrote, “Lhasa and Tibet are undoubtedly photogenic, but what lies beyond the lens is not.”

The Terracotta Warriors – Over 40 years on

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Time flies. I was a backpacker in China in 1983. Two currencies, no food after 6 pm, the high rise skyline of Pudong in Shanghai was rice paddies, there were no cars (all bicycles and lorries that were often broken down along the roads) and everyone was dressed in Mao suits.

The Terracotta Warriors at this time were housed under a metal framed fabricated building to protect them from the elements. No photographs were allowed but a few sneaky ones were taken at waist height on small film cameras. There was a small number of shacks selling a few poor quality souvenirs in a dusty dirt car park a short distance from site. There were only a few tourists and almost no local Chinese tourists as they were not able to travel at this time. It was an exhibit almost lost in the fields. Now there is a purpose built building, technological interaction and exhibits allowing close up views of the clay figures.

The warriors remain as commanding as ever, over forty years on from their initial discovery and are a highlight of any holiday to China.

Recently shown on BBC2 The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China investigates fascinating discoveries that unveil even more about this vast tomb.

 

Why not also visit the miniature warriors at the Han Yang Ling Mausoleum – these less imposing but no less fascinating warriors are far less visited yet are a highlight for many of our clients.

Speak to Paul to learn more about the Terracotta Warriors and how best to include them in a holiday to China. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

My meeting with a Geisha

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It may sound cheesy but I really did feel quite emotional at my evening with a Geisha in Kyoto. It was actually, a meeting with a Geiko as they are known in Kyoto or Maiko who are the younger Geiko in training and recognisable from a few differences, many of which are incredibly subtle.

The main difference is that a Maiko will wear an elaborate hair style fashioned from her own hair which is crafted once a week and after which they are expected to sleep on a wooden block pillow to preserve the style. However, a Geiko will wear a wig and surprisingly will also wear a far less elaborate kimono with shorter sleeves and much simpler hair accessories.

When a Maiko becomes a Geiko it is known as the changing of the collar, a first year Maiko will wear a red embroidered collar showing under her kimono and as their experience grows this collar will be slowly covered with white silk embroidery until after 5 years it is completely white.

Other more subtle differences lie in their makeup, with one Maiko who spent time with us having only her bottom lip painted red, signifying that she was only in her first year of training. With childlike excitement she told me that in one month she would be able to paint her top lip too but she was also scared of the expectation and pressure this would bring.

A Maiko is generally aged between 15 & 20 years and are at some stage within their five years training to become a fully-fledged Geiko. These first years are spent living in an okiya with their ‘mother’, who will support them and loan then all their kimono, many of which have been handed down through generations and can cost tens of thousands of pounds.

During these years there are no mobile phones or computers allowed in their lives so it can be an incredibly lonely existence which when asked, the girls said they had got used to it, but they did miss their friends and family who they could only see during their two weeks annual holiday. After five years it is their decision if they wish to ‘graduate’ and become a Geiko. Destined for a life alone, this is a huge decision for a young girl to take as no boyfriends or husbands are allowed in the world of a Geisha. It is an all consuming and ancient trade that takes incredible dedication, strength of mind, and body.

It seems I was extremely privileged and had the chance to be entertained by a Maiko in her fourth year of training. Alongside her was a Jikata (older Geiko) who had a wicked laugh and naughty air about her, playing the shamisen, a traditional three stringed instrument. When they had to leave for a further engagement we were joined by a young Maiko in her first year of training. She spoke excellent English, having spent four years of her young life living in New Zealand before returning to her place of birth Kyoto to become a Geiko. We were also joined by a third generation okiya owner or ‘mother’ as they are known to the Maiko.

As we were shown to a room covered with the traditional tatami flooring the sense of occasion and anticipation was palpable, I was surprised by how nervous I felt.

Initially a very awkward and foreign situation, we sat surrounded by these three women, who served our food and poured our drinks for us. Slowly conversation began in fast babbling Japanese with stilted translation for me.

I asked the young Maiko if she enjoyed her job and would make the decision to become a Geiko at the end of her training. She was suitably coy and her mother said they hoped so as she was one of the best with wonderful skills.

‘’I enjoy dancing the most’’ she said.

This was shown later when two beautiful dances accompanied by the Jikata were performed. So graceful and fluid with such intricate and seamless use of the flowing kimono she wore made me realise how much  of a craft this really was. It was mesmerising.

Between courses of our wonderful Japanese meal – which I’m afraid to say was a little overlooked when surrounded by such beauty and culture- we were asked if we wished to engage in a drinking game. I had read about this and heard that the Geiko were notoriously hard to beat. The simple game involved two people sitting opposite each other and tapping an upturned beer holder with a flat hand, alternately and in time with the music. When one of you picked up the beer holder the other had to tap the empty table with a fist rather than a flat hand. You could pick up the beer holder three times in a row but not more and the first to tap incorrectly was the loser so would have to drink. The music and speed of the game increased as it went on. I am ridiculously proud to say that I beat the lovely Maiko twice and there was general disbelief that I had never played the game before.

Sadly as with many ancient traditions it seems that the Geisha world is also changing as there are now far fewer private clients willing to pay the hefty charges to be entertained by Geisha. As a result they are having to find new ways to make money, one of them being to entertain tourists. There are still some ochaya or tea houses where it is only possible to enter and spend time with the Geiko by invitation. However, many of the old traditional houses where Geisha would entertain have been forced to become restaurants too in order to make ends meet.

My experience is a world apart from some of the tourist shows one can now have, where tribes don their tribal regalia to greet the tourists, only to be back in their jeans and trainers an hour later. Life for a Maiko and Geiko is still truly a way of life so although a ‘tourist experience’, it is a truly authentic and magical one. Daily life for the girls is taken up with lessons and training, before being dressed in their kimono in the early evening and applying their makeup, heading out for their evening appointments.

There are currently around 60 Maiko in Kyoto and about 180 Geiko with the oldest being around 90 years of age and still entertaining. Although not a cheap addition to a holiday an evening like this really does offer a magical window into an ancient world.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Japan and the chance to spend time with a Geisha. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Distinctly Different: North & South Korea

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Portrait of Kim Il Sung, North Korea

The difference between north and south cannot be more marked than between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea (DPRK), and the Republic of Korea or South Korea (ROK). These two areas could not be more diverse in political, social and economic terms. However, that has not always been the case – the landscape is similar, history is shared and it is only more recently that there has been one peninsula, two very different Koreas.

The differences are notable from the outset – a visa is required for the North, not so for the South. Entry into and a stay in North Korea is controlled by endless red tape. The North has its own extreme political system and is far more restrictive than either China or Russia were when they were deemed “mainstream” Communist countries. You will always be accompanied by at least two guides whether in a group or travelling on a private tailor-made holiday

Why go if you are so controlled? The reason we love this area is the fact that few westerners see it and that it holds a fascination so vastly different from our usual travelling experiences. Moreover, our expertise and experience is invaluable in negotiating this bureaucracy and trying to ensure that you get the most out of your stay.

Travel in the South is very different. Unhindered and with an excellent infrastructure of road, train (including high speed bullet trains) and air links. However, at times the roads become grid-locked. In comparison, in the North you can travel on a four lane highway and see almost no traffic at all. In the South you can walk out of your hotel, stroll in the market, go to a restaurant or purchase a product in a shop.

The hotels you walk out of in the South are large and modern, some of the best properties the world has to offer. Accommodation in the North is considered “comfortable” especially in the capital Pyongyang. Venture out of the capital and the accommodation is more basic but still comfortable and with private bathroom facilities. The one thing both the North and South have in common are the local hanoks, the traditional and historical houses where you sleep on the floor and have underfloor heating, similar to ryokans in Japan. A wonderful way to experience traditional life.

Technology is a feature of the South, one of the world’s most developed nations. Home to Hyundai, Samsung and Lotte and huge cities of sprawling residential tower blocks. The North does not allow internet access, has antiquated machinery and industrial procedures, harking back to a pre ‘Industrial Revolution’ period – they are keenly aware of this disparity and hence photography of its rusting rural relics is prohibited.

Whilst there are differences between the two, starkly illustrated by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), there are more similarities than at first glance. Yes, by dint of geography the scenery and climate is comparable – dramatic tree-covered mountains, fast flowing rivers and fertile valleys. Yes, as a result of the last sixty years, both strongly promote their culture, and own modern history. More importantly if you have the opportunity to meet some of the people, you will discover their wishes and smiles are akin. That is one of the joys of travel – understanding, appreciating and embracing.

Our recommendation is to visit both the North and South and see what similarities you can find.

Get in touch to learn more about holidays to North and South Korea. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Welcome to Uzbekistan

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Hast Imam Mosque, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

“Welcome to Uzbekistan Charles” my guide beckons me to follow as I bumper-car my way towards security. I squeeze my way past the crowds of revellers peppering the arrival area of the airport and make my way outside. The sun beats hard, not a wisp of cloud as its rays beam and the sweat on my brow begins to bead – at 0700 how can it be this hot!

My bright white chariot is waiting for me – a Chevrolet Cobalt – my driver says with a smug grin. He’s a proud man. I slide over the black leather seats into the back. His sunglasses on, my driver takes one wipe over the dashboard with a cloth to wipe away what little dust had gathered in the few seconds the door had been opened. As we pull away out of the airport, over the pot-holed street and out onto the open avenues I gaze outside at this unrecognisable world.

I love this moment of travelling to new places, that excitement of being somewhere I have never stepped before, a foreign land which has existed longer than I have been on this world. I smile, winding the window down and letting the passing breeze run through the palms of my sweaty hand. My driver turns to me once more and asks…‘Where are you going?’ ‘The Silk Road’ I reply. ‘To the golden roads of Samarkand’.

The shade is like strips of night, cooling us from the beating sun. I’m surrounded by wonder. Endless blue, specked green, dashes of orange, flashes of red all around me like stars in the night sky. The Silk Road’s wonderment has almost become normal as I crane my neck left and right, up and down.

My journey through Uzbekistan is quite literally brim full of magnificence of these ancient towns. So much wonder. The golden streets were long sung about before I’d heard of Uzbekistan, uttered to me from passage in the weeks leading up to my trip and now, here I stand.

Colossal monuments dominate the low rise city of Samarkand like Kings and Queens on a chess board. I have, for a split second, gone back to a time where the roads and alleys still have donkeys pulling carts laden with scythed grass, merchants stand leaning in their doorways and the smell of freshly baked bread fills my nostrils.

I amble amongst it all, soaking it in like a water to a sponge, dreamily wondering what it must have been like all those years ago. Surely, sweep away the Russian concrete blocks, add a coating of sand and dust, a sprinkling of desert shrubs, a few more wild animals and install a ruthless ruler and we would be there…

The sun begins to dip its fiery head, signalling to us our day is almost finished. The shadows grow amongst the splendour as the desert wind begins to blow.

Get in touch to learn more about holidays to Uzbekistan. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Big 5 iconic highlights of China

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I have just returned from a trip taking in some of the most popular places to be visited by the first time traveller to China; Beijing, Xian, Guilin (Yangshuo) and Shanghai, plus Chengdu, home of the Giant Panda. With such iconic sites come the inevitable crowds but I have found a few ways to view some of these amazing sites without the masses. As such here are my suggestions of how to avoid the masses and experience China a little differently.

1. Giant Pandas and Six Senses Luxury

It is hard to find havens of peace and quiet in China but at the Six Senses you are in a very quiet location with the opportunity to walk and cycle and see Giant Pandas at the new Panda reserve at Dujiangyan. This reserve is only accessible via a tour operator so offers the chance to view these gentle giants with few others around.
Beautiful rooms, a pool, gym and a pleasant garden in which to sit make the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain an ideal place to unwind after the direct flight on British Airways from London to Chengdu.

2. Wonders of Beijing

In the Forbidden City view the private living quarters in the Chonghua Palace, a truly exclusive behind the scenes opportunity. Spend a day being carried (not compulsory) in a sedan chair at the Great Wall and decadently dine in one of the watchtowers on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

Follow in the footsteps of emperors and stay at Aman at Summer Palace using their “secret” door to access the Summer Palace itself when the crowds have gone.

3. The Terracotta Warriors

Xian is home to the amazing life size terracotta warriors that guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Jump the queue using our fast track knowledge and electric cars and stand face to face with the warriors themselves while other visitors look down from above. See the miniature warriors of the Han dynasty, equally impressive, a great favourite with clients, but seldom included by most programmes, except us of course.

4. The Li River

Yangshuo, near Guilin, is well known for its stunning lime stone scenery, the Li River and cormorant fishing. In 1983 when I first visited, Yangshuo was a sleepy riverside town that awoke for two hours each day when the few tourist boats arrived and then resumed its slumbers. Now Yangshuo is a small town with literally hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists. Leave this behind and take a gentle raft trip along one of the tributary rivers, a far more peaceful and tranquil experience. Take a bicycle (the terrain here is great for cycling as it’s flat) and explore the winding tracks that pass through the farming community. Stop to speak with local people and gain an insight into rural life.

View Banyan Tree Yangshuo

5. Shanghai

Shanghai is changing all the time. A city that was once a thriving far Eastern port under the British and the French has again reinvented itself and is now the country’s leading financial centre. Bright lights and amazing food make it an exciting place to experience. It is also home to the world famous acrobats who perform death defying acts, ancient arts with a modern twist. Get the best of both worlds and stay in the picturesque water town of Zhujiajiao, located just one hour from Shanghai. Experience the buzz and energy of Shanghai before returning to the calm of your luxury hotel.

Luxury hosted holidays to China

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps suggests staying in the top hotel and dining in the finest of restaurants – however for us, service and expert guiding is key. Incredible attention to personal detail and immersion into a culture makes your experience.

We have fantastic guiding options. Opt for a local guide, someone chosen for their care, attention and knowledge. Or be guided by a western host who speaks fluent Chinese, lives in China and has studied this country’s culture and history. I was sceptical at first about the latter, but having experienced being guided by a western host on my trip I firmly believe that they are able to bridge the link effectively between the local community and the visitor for a fully immersive experience.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Food for thought in China

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Mother-and-daughter-enjoying-chinese-food,-China

That night we ate at a local restaurant, a table on the pavement; bones strewn around, watching the world go by. Chinese cooking is justifiably famous around the world and back at home it is no different with food being a national obsession, as evidenced by the common greeting “Have you eaten?”.

According to various phrase books and guide books this phrase is used commonly as a result of the many famines that China has suffered over the years, most recently the Great Leap Forward when some 40 million people died and the shortages of the Cultural Revolution. And yet I rarely heard this phrase used. Maybe this is due to the fact that there has been surplus since the opening up of the Chinese economy under Deng Xiao Ping and the Four Modernisations of 1978. Or maybe it is just that at the sight of two hungry foreign cyclists the Chinese wished to preserve and save their kitchens from the inevitable and did not ask this question.

Despite the importance of food and eating to the Chinese both at home and abroad, the experience of dining in China is very different from the UK. For a start the menus are almost unintelligible. This is not just due to their use of Chinese characters, but due to items such as ‘mayi shan shu’, which translates as ants climbing a tree but in actual fact is thin spicy noodles, and dishes such as fish heads and chicken feet. Exotica such as snake are available but not as widespread as stereotypes would have us believe, in part no doubt due to the cost of such items. The Chinese food that we get in Britain is largely of Cantonese origin, a lot of sweet and sour and mono sodium glutamate. In China there is not as much ‘sweet and sour’ or MSG, and Sichuan food, hot and spicy, is the most popular of cuisines.

Not only is the food itself different but also the manner in which it is consumed – eating in China is not for the faint-hearted or those obsessed by table manners. Sounds of slurping, noisy slurping that causes you to turn and stare, smacking chewing and occasionally spitting provide the background noise to animated conversations that become more heated as more alcohol is consumed. The end of the meal is a scene of debris and carnage, bottles, chopsticks and spilled food littering the table, bones and cigarettes strewn over the floor, not unlike a drunken student visit to a curry house.

People sat on stools and chairs outside their shop-fronts, chatting and laughing with friends, gossiping and joking. It was all very sociable, life happening on the street-side, lacking the privacy and personal space of the west as everything was out in the open. The meal itself was interesting, if only for the ordering. Presented by a menu written in Chinese I explained in Chinese that I could not read Chinese characters. Amusement at the fact that I could not read then worry and concern that I might not be able to order. I then began asking for various dishes that I could remember and each time received the answer ‘mei you’ which means ‘have not’. At the point of exasperation I was led into the kitchen to see what was available and to witness the killing of a chicken – at least one dish would be fresh.

China has a number of great culinary traditions, such as Canton, Sichuan and Hunan. Throughout there is variety. Muslim-Chinese cuisine emphasises lamb, cilantro, cumin, and breads. The food of Yunnan has more in common that of Southeast Asia. The Uighur cuisine of Xinjiang in the north-west of China is of Turkic origin and uses thick noodles, tomatoes and peppers. To fully appreciate this dizzying variety, you must embrace unfamiliar textures – the Chinese place great importance on kougan, literally mouth sensation.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

The Birth of a Nation

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Chinese-little-girl-behind-door,-China

The population of China, currently estimated at 1.2 billion, is bigger than the combined populations of the US, Europe and Russia. Although demographers argue that India will overtake China within the next thirty years, currently it remains the largest in the world.

Historically too, it has had one of the largest populations in the world. In the Tang Dynasty from the seventh to ninth century AD there were ten cities in China with a population greater than one million – after the Black Death in the fourteenth century the population of England was only some 3.5 million. The introduction by the Europeans in the sixteenth century of crops such as maize and peanuts that could be grown on sandier soils, and thus more land could be put under cultivation, led to a population boom. Thus the population of China in the nineteenth century was 450 million whereas the population of Europe at this time was only 250 million.

When the communists came to power in 1949 the population was approximately 600 million. Leaders of China today believe that the optimum Chinese population is 700 million. Mao discarded birth control as a capitalist plot to hinder his country’s growth and said that the strength and potential of the country lay in its people. This rhetoric along with improved sanitation and medical facilities introduced by the communists, and years of stability after the turmoil post 1919 of the Warlord era, the Japanese Occupation of China and the Civil War, led to a baby boom and today’s population.

In the late 1970s the government began to try to deal with the population explosion through campaigns and slogans such as ‘Longer, Later, Fewer’ and billboards showing a young couple with just one child, usually a girl in an attempt to break down established Chinese prejudices. Contraception became free and there was a sustained attempt to educate the people in the use of birth control. The legal age of marriage was raised to twenty-two for women and twenty-four for men, and women were encouraged to have children later by such incentives as longer maternity leave. In the cities married couples were encouraged to sign a one child pledge by offering them an extra month’s salary each year until the child is 14 years old. If the couple has a second child then this and other privileges are rescinded. This policy did not and does not apply to the countryside and to the minorities who are allowed two children before penalties are imposed.

 

Birth control measures appear to be working in the cities where an extra 300 million people would have been born over the last twenty years had there been no family planning. Yet some argue that if China’s one child policy does succeed than one consequence will be a rapidly ageing population. The argument being that Mao’s baby boom policies created a population that is today young and that the baby bust of today will have the opposite effect, and thus the result will be having to support a large number of geriatrics in the future.

One worrying side effect of the one child policy is the length that couples go to have a boy. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn in their book ‘Dragon Awakes’ talk of how in one province, Zhejiang province, 99% of aborted foetuses were female. Adoption and orphanages are sensitive issues in China but the overwhelming amount of evidence shows that most orphans and adopted children are female. In the countryside where couples are allowed two children if the first is not a boy the girl will often be called ‘Zhaodi’ or ‘Laodi’, variations on ‘Bring a little brother’. This preference, the importance of having a son is deep-rooted within Chinese culture and history, part of the Confucian orthodoxy, and even forms a part of the language. The Chinese character for the word good is the character for woman combined with the character for son – the implication being that it is good when a woman has a son.

This desire to have a male, a son, has led to a distortion of birth figures. Every people in every country have an approximate birth-rate of ratio of 106 male births to 100 female births. However in China, because of the importance of having a son, this figure has been skewed to 118 male births to every 100 female births. If you extrapolate the world-wide average figure on top of this, this being the norm, then approximately 1.3 million baby girls go missing every year. This raises the ugly question of female infanticide, however most baby girls are simply not reported to the authorities or are left on the doors of an orphanage. Perhaps more worrying for the young men of China there will be a lack of women in the future.

By 2020 China could have between 30 and 40 million men who cannot find wives.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Cherry blossom in Japan

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Cherry-blossom-in-Japan

March-April: Although the timing is difficult to predict, each year during these months the famous cherry trees in Japan bloom for one spectacular week. The exact dates of the cherry trees peak throughout the country, with certain regions blossoming earlier than others. This year, forecasts predict the trees will open on March 26 or 27 in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and be at their best April 2-10.

Experience Japan in blossom with Steppes, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

Japan - Highlights of Japan

Highlights of Japan

13 days from £3,795pp

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Japan - Family Japan - Ninja, Bullet Trains and Beach

Family Japan – Ninja, Bullet Trains and Beach

12 days

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Steppes Beyond | Mongolia & Chad – Beyond The Ordinary

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While we do sell luxury villas, beach holidays and family holidays, our forte remains the creation of tailor-made cultural and adventure journeys to the more exotic regions of the world. Our objective will always be to show you the highlights of a country, but we also like to take you off the beaten track to see the lesser known, but equally interesting places, not frequented by large numbers of tourists.

Below is copy of my presentation on Chad and Mongolia at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Start your beyond the ordinary adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Steppes Big 5: Books That Inspire Travel

Whether you’re an armchair traveller or in the midst of an adventure half way across the world, a good book always invokes a passion to learn and venture beyond what you know. For us, books are half the reason for spurring our next journey, creating a sense of place and revealing truths not only about destinations but about ourselves. As such we have a lot of favourites. However in keeping with our Big 5 theme here are our top 5.
Tweet or Facebook us to tell us your favourite book.

1. Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger

“Arabian Sands” is Wilfred Thesiger’s record of his extraordinary journey through the parched “Empty Quarter” of Arabia.  In the spirit of T. E. Lawrence, he set out to explore the deserts of Arabia, traveling among peoples who had never seen a European and considered it their duty to kill Christian infidels. His now-classic account is invaluable to understanding the modern Middle East.


 2. Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara

Written eight years before the Cuban Revolution, these are the diaries of Che Guevara, full of disasters and discoveries, high drama and laddish improvisations. Touring through Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela, his greatest concerns are where the next drink is coming from, where the next bed is to be found and who might be around to share it.


3. Behind the Wall, Colin Thubron

Having learned Mandarin, and travelling alone by foot, bicycle and train, Colin Thubron set off on a 10,000 mile journey from Beijing to the borders of Burma. He travelled through the wind-swept wastes of the Gobi desert and finished at the far end of the Great Wall.

What Thubron reveals is an astonishing diversity, a land whose still unmeasured resources strain to meet an awesome demand, and an ancient people still reeling from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution.


4. Clear Waters Rising, Nicholas Crane

Alone – though he was just married – and on foot, Nicholas Crane embarked on an extraordinary adventure: a seventeen-month journey along the chain of mountains which stretches across Europe from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul. His aim was to explore Europe’s last mountain wilderness and to meet the people who live on the periphery of the modern world.


5. The Valleys of the Assassins, Freya Stark

Hailed as a classic upon its first publication in 1934, The Valleys of the Assassins firmly established Freya Stark as one of her generation’s most intrepid explorers. The book chronicles her travels into Luristan, the mountainous terrain nestled between Iraq and present-day Iran, often with only a single guide and on a shoestring budget. Stark writes engagingly of the nomadic peoples who inhabit the region’s valleys and brings to life the stories of the ancient kingdoms of the Middle East, including that of the Lords of Alamut, a band of hashish-eating terrorists whose stronghold in the Elburz Mountains.

Town Mongol and Country Mongol

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“When did you last see your grandparents?”

“Many, many months ago.”

I look surprised. “But Boya, you have a young baby daughter? Do they not want to see her?”

Boya, my Mongolian guide, replied somewhat defensively, “But I speak to her (his grandmother) every week.” He added apropos nothing, “She has wisdom.”

I had just spend a remarkable few days with Boya in the company of Kazakh eagle hunters in the far west of Mongolia. We had not seen another soul for days on end – we were truly at the ends of the earth. We had been in the land of endless blue skies. We had experienced the classic rolling hills of central Mongolia, space, fluidity, landscape. The landscape was epic and empty. Our only form of transport the horse, Chinghis Khan’s limousine. My limited equestrian ability took succour in the Mongolian adage ‘Don’t be arrogant, even Chingis Khan fell’. It was life-affirming.

We had then got on a plane, an ancient Fokker, to fly back to the capital, Ulaanbaatar (or UB as it is known). A four hour flight in which I saw nothing except spectacular scenery – Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, a land of desert, dizzying expanses and blue skies.

Except in Ulaanbaatar which is shrouded in smog. Twenty years ago the population of UB was 400,000 and now it is 1.5 million. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, 27% of the population lived in UB. Today more than 50% of the population live in UB, meaning that more than half of Mongolia’s 2.8 million population live in 5,000 square kilometres of its 1.6 million square kilometres total.

Why this influx to the capital? Not so much a desertion of an ancient nomadic way of life but a number of bitter winters known as a zud which killed the nomads’ livestock. Over ten years ago there were 30 million livestock in Mongolia but 60% were lost in the winters of 2003 and 2004 and some more recently. The nomads had no choice but to pack up and move to the capital.

Yet they were not to give up their traditional life easily – ger translates as home and is their life, their symbol of freedom and hence the saying ‘if you can’t fart in your own ger your life sucks’.

Thus today 60% of UB’s population lives in the ger city a unique fusion of past and present. Small drab dirt plots demarcated by wooden fences and containing a small red brick building with corrugated iron roof and also a traditional ger. The Mongolian proverb, “Don’t forget your grandmother was born in a ger” still holds sway. The fires and stoves within a ger are not a problem on the plains of Mongolia but in the ugly concentration of UB they are an altogether different and contaminating prospect.

It was with this background that we struggled through the smog to meet Boya’s grandparents. Boya weeping and coughing – maybe this is why he does not visit the grandparents with whom he grew up. Whilst both his parents practised medicine in UB, Boya’s childhood and adolescence was spent with his grandparents leading a largely nomadic way of life.

‎His grandparents had moved to the ger village four years ago – the government gave everyone half a hectare of land to compensate for the loss of livestock. We took off our shoes and entered their house and were ushered into a simple room decorated by two proud photographs of the family. In the background a large sixty inch TV screen. Off this room were two bedrooms one of which contained a small shrine. Yurt. A small tv, fridge, freezer and washing machine. Eleven year old daughter doing her homework in the corner. Even here, as tradition and the harsh northerly winds dictate, the door faces south.

Grandmother (Togootsezen) was a midwife. Grandfather (Ishdorj) a commercial engineer. A tattoo on his left arm a mark of military service. She is a strong woman. She talks quickly, she talks easily. The antithesis of her laconic husband. She grew up in a nomadic lifestyle. Even when she was older she was an ambulance woman riding from ger to ger.

His grandparents speak no English and thus Boya was translating into Mongolian, a language crafted from centuries of coaxing and cajoling camels, horses and livestock.

“Why did you come to the city?”

“Retired. Family. No livestock.”

They had lost 200 sheep and goats, 100 cows and 20 horses. The animals died because of the snow – it was so deep that they could not reach the grass. Also because the cold froze their lungs.

“Would you go back?”

“We have no livestock.”

How do you respond to that? A change of tack in my line of questioning.

“How do you spend your time?”

“Doing chores around the house. Spending time with the grandchildren. Knitting.”

And to Boya’s grandfather, “What do you watch on TV?”

“Sport,” was his laconic reply.

Back to his more responsive grandmother, “What do you miss?”

“I miss the ground under my feet. The feel of grass. The sense of space. In the city there is nothing.”

“Except smoke. How do you find the smoke?”

“The smoke is not good. It smells. You can’t see.”

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, according to her. “The government will sort it out. They will use the experience of other countries to make a better future.”

“And what of the future?”

“The nomadic lifestyle must remain.”

Boya’s grandmother does have wisdom. I am not sure how widespread that wisdom is. The government does offer grants for people to go back to the countryside but without livestock this has little appeal. The government needs to do more – it is now or never as already city children have a fear of animals.

Nomadism will not be lost forever, vestiges will remain, but it will be very different.

Discover Mongolia with us, call us on 01285 800 980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more information.

Gallery: A glimpse of Mongolia

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Mongolia has a sense of space, tradition and laughter that cannot be found elsewhere. Travel west to the Altai mountains and the Kazakh eagle hunters who hunt on horseback in the winter. Few travel experiences can compare to riding on horseback in their company. Below is just a glimpse of what you can experience.

Video: Kazakh Golden Eagle Hunters

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Mongolia is not the exclusive preserve of the horseman, but if you want to experience the true essence of the country, it certainly helps. Over 70% of the population remain nomadic and as you ride across the flat open steppe you will still encounter isolated family ger (yurt) encampments whose occupants will inevitably offer you hospitality. The wiry little thirteen-hand ponies will seem a little small but their stamina is legendary and carried Genghis Khan across Asia. They will manage you for a few days!

The further west you travel and the more remote it becomes. The Altai Mountains in the far west are particularly beautiful in spring when a profusion of flowers appear, but one of the real spectacles remains the Kazakh eagle hunters who hunt on horseback in the winter.

Eagle Hunters of Mongolia

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Ulgii is a nondescript town of 35,000 in the far west of Mongolia. It was a three and a half hour flight from Ulaanbaatar on which I was the only westerner. My presence caused no raising of eyebrows nor did that of a Kazakh eagle hunter who looked noble in his long chapan (great coat) and fox fur hat, aquiline nose, wispy goatee and startled eyebrows.

I was met by Bek (Bekjan) and we headed west out of town. It did not take long to leave town nor to leave the comforts of the tarmac road. “Mongolian highway,” Bek beamed at me with no noticeable dip in his speed. “Mongolian Rally,” I retorted. Bek Beamed back with even more pride.

The landscape was forbidding and harsh but imbued with a stark beauty albeit from within the warmth of Bek’s Toyota Landcruiser. The scenery was yellow, brown and black – the colour bleached out by the harshness of the elements – and covered with a dusting of snow.

There was nothing. The emptiness was profound. Occasionally we passed yaks, the odd herd of sheep and once a Bactrian camel. A man was walking in the distance at the foothills of the mountain. Where was he going? Where was there to go to? The only vestige of civilisation we passed was the nondescript one horse town of Buynt where a group of men were cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen river to melt at home.

Three and a half hours later Bek stopped literally in the middle of nowhere. I got out and took a sharp intake of breath both from the cold and extent of my surrounds. I was in a wide flat valley flanked on both sides by high mountains. Everything was blanketed in snow. Pristine and immense, I could have gazed out over such vastness for hours but eventually took refuge from the cold in the small mud-brick Kazakh house in Mongolia close to the Chinese border.

Long before the drawing of arbitrary lines for borders reached these latitudes, this region was home to the first domesticated horses and the first hunting eagles: falconry was invented here. The Kazakh eagle hunters preserve the centuries-old tradition of riding with golden eagles to hunt for foxes, marmots and even wolves. Their love and knowledge of falconry is a source of pride and a badge of identity, as much as the extravagant fur coats and hats in which it resulted.

That is the extent of luxury in this part of the world; yet the welcome inside was both warm and friendly. The house was simple – no running water – with four separate rooms, two of which are separated by a stove wall. One room is kitchen/dining and the other three are bedrooms.

It is not the rooms that were inviting but the characters within. Dalaikhan, the eagle hunter, face creased by the elements, his eyes wise and alert. Tuyelbay, his loyal friend and berkuti – the Kazakh word for eagle is berkut and a hunter who trains and hunts with a berkut is known as berkuti. Kukhelbay, Dalaikhan’s brother, and his silent wife, Cakku. Jambal, their four year old boy full of pluck and determination – I have never come across a young boy so determined to ride a battered tricycle through inches of snow.

After introductions, much laughter and a revitalising noodle soup, we head out to saddle up. I am given a short briefing: “Mongolian horses are dangerous.” Unnerved by this passing comment, I struggle to mount the stocky, sturdy Mongolian horse – the saddles are Mongolian and much smaller than western saddles, being my excuse.

I am enveloped by down, Gortex and modern brands whilst Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay are dressed in a fox fur jackets with a heavily padded glove on their right arm on which sits a hooded eagle. They mount their horses, making it look unnaturally easy with a seven kilogramme bird of prey perched on their right arm. She – the Kazakhs only use female birds as they are bigger than the males – is hooded with a specially made hood called a tomega to keep her calm.

Unlike the glorious bird of prey I am ruffled. As if to add to my chagrin, Dalaikhan’s eldest son, Alpamis, named after a Kazakh hero, is assigned to accompany me. Worse still Alpamis puts me on a lead rein. A horse is worth US$800 alive and US$600 dead – I console myself that this is a surety until they realise that my horse riding ability is not as bad as it appears to be.

Thankfully for me, we walk and only occasionally trot. Not so much due to my limited horsemanship but the terrain – we are climbing ridges to get vantage from which to survey the surrounding land. The horses are sturdy and strong, both physically and mentally. They plod inexorably upwards.

I scan the horizon redundantly. Superfluous in that an eagle’s eyesight is seven times more powerful than the human eye. Everywhere I look I am awed by the spectacle. This is cinema on an epic and very personal scale. The scenery is overpowering. The lead characters are charismatic and iconic. At this precise moment, I do not want to be anywhere else on earth.

The hunters sense movement. The eagles’ hoods are removed. I shiver with frisson. I stare at the landscape in front of me with boyish desire, intent on being the first to spot something. A rabbit is sighted. Not by me. A cry goes up. The eagles are released. They swoop low to the ground. The prey is running. Desperately. The eagles are closing in. Then nothing. No success.

A dog yelps in fear as the eagles return and hover over it. The dog, unsurprisingly, does not follow us the next day.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. It seemed like minutes. Hours later we are back in the warmth of Dalaikhan’s Kazakh house. Layers shed, heavier with food and vodka, Alpamis plays the dombra, a long-necked lute. The women and children are next door. On the wall are carpets, one in particular displays the dombra and swans, which are a symbol of love. Alpamis sings of love, the Altai Mountains, a comedian and being away from home – an occupational hazard for a nomad.

The singing ends but conversation flows freely. Not least as I am intrigued to ask more about their lifestyle and their relationship with their eagles.

“What do you look for in an eagle?”

“Good claws. Big and strong. Wide chest. Sharp eyes.”

It seems fairly obvious but then Dalaikhan has been training eagles for 37 years – he was taught not by his father but by his uncle. He is also, incidentally, two time champion of the Ulgii Eagle festival. Dalaikhan has also taken eagles to compete in Kazakhstan but never won anything – hardly surprising in that it is a two day journey by bus. Even I can see that this is not the best preparation for an eagle, prompting my next question.

“What makes a good trainer?”

“It is a hobby. If someone wants to be an eagle hunter then the whole family have to like it.”

I discover what he means as my bladder gets the better of me and I stagger outside for a pee. In doing so bumping into the eagle in the darkness. Not outside but inside. She, the eagle, sleeps in his bedroom.

Dalaikhan brings the eagle into the room where we are. Her presence fills the room. The light does not trouble her. Nor the ambient sound. She responds only to the sound of Dalaikhan’s voice. Dalaikhan explains that eagles feel the emotions of humans – for example when humans are angry the feathers of the eagle stick up. Her feathers are beautifully calm.

Yet in spite of this connection, such affection, surprisingly, the eagle has no name. She is number seven. Simply a number in a long lineage – Dalaikhan has trained seven eagles. Like all of his eagles, he took her from her nest when she was young.

“How did you catch her? How do you catch an eagle?”

“It is a difficult process.”

Wonderful understatement. Eagles attack when their chicks are being taken. The eagles don’t bite but they flap their wings and it is all quite intimidating for the eagle hunters who lower themselves down a rocky outcrop to the nest by a rope using a stick to balance and stop themselves twisting on the rope. In the past there were many fatalities.

Dalaikhan has had her for seven years and she will soon be released to the wild

“Really. Why?”

“So that she can have her own family.”

“Do you have a favourite eagle?”

“Number six. She was brave but her best skill was her scouting.”

“Did you release her?”

“No she died,” the sadness in his voice palpable. “She was bitten by a rodent. The bite swelled. She died.”

He does not feel sad when releasing an eagle but did feel sad when number six died.  He felt grief at seeing her empty perch. He buried her. He has never been hurt by an eagle. Physically. Kazakh eagle hunters never keep any part of the eagle, whether talon or feather.

I am truly fascinated by this man. In awe of his bond with his bird and this ancient art. I want to know more.

“What do you think of the thirteen year old girl who recently won the eagle festival at Ulgii?”

“Her father and grandfather were eagle hunters. She has it in her blood but I am not sure about her future. When she marries her lifestyle will change.”

I think how easy this is to apply to someone else and would he say the same about his children and grandchildren. Will not their lifestyles change?

Dalaikhan’s response is typically measured, “Alpamis has not yet captured an eagle but he knows eagles and is interested in it as a hobby. I am one hundred percent sure that his son, my grandson, will be an eagle hunter.”

“If you are so sure then why do you live in Altai (the nearest village is some twenty miles away) and not out in the valley?”

“For my children, for school,” was Dalaikhan’s assured reply. He knows that if his hobby is to survive he and his children need to adapt: they do not want to become relics of the past.

Invigorated by this insight and the bright blue sky we awake to, I am captivated by my surrounds. The sun dazzles my eyes. The cold bites my legs. The snow squeaks underhoof as we head into the wilderness and the beckoning silence.

We scale the ridge like a Sioux scouting party, gaining height, gaining vantage. The views out of the landscape make me feel as though we are on the edge of the world.

On the snow-covered plains at the foot of the mountains, dark specks are hundreds of head of sheep and goats, tearing at the sparse vegetation. But it’s not on the herd that the eagle’s eyes are fixed but rather that elusive fox. It is down there, invisible to the human eye, creeping from the shade of a rock, somewhere.

Eagle number seven sits patiently. She scans the landscape. Surveys. Scours. Looking for the slightest movement.

Cries go up. The eagles are quickly released they fly low to the ground. There is much shouting, hooping and encouragement. Again to no avail.

We continue our search. Climbing ever higher. We have climbed 800 metres to reach the top of the ridge, 2,600 metres above sea level. There can be few more alien concepts than the sea in this remoteness.

Dalaikhan and Tuyelnay stand silhouetted against the most immense backdrop, eagles proudly on their arms. Unaware of the enormity of their environs, Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay descend into idle chitchat. They decide to retreat to lower ground. Out of frustration, training or a desire to impress – I am not sure which – they leave their eagles behind. The eagles sit patiently as we descend.

Many metres lower and minutes later, Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay call to their eagles. I look round to see the eagles screaming in like racing yachts with a fierce wind behind them. They slice diagonally across the sky with a sudden, stunning turn of speed. For a moment, all I can see is wings. And then, with the insouciance of an illusionist, they are sat on their respective gloves. Their impressive talons the only betrayal of their innocence.

The search continues. I am not sure for how long – I am absorbed by the cinematic qualities of the moment. Another cry goes up. I sense a different tone to Dalaikhan’s voice. He is animated. This is not for show. We are beckoned down the mountain – on foot rather than horseback as it is too steep for us on horseback. Yet Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay trot down the slope with ease, almost nonchalance with a seven kilogramme bird of prey proudly to their side.

“Manul, Manul,” they cry pointing at a cluster of rocks. I strain my eyes in search of this animal that I had never heard of. What am I looking for? All I can see is rocks. Even with my binoculars.

I discover afterwards that a Manul is a local word for a Pallas’s cat. I am no more enlightened. Further research reveals it to be about the same size as a cat but with a thick tail with clear black rings.

A stone is thrown and the cat darts out. Was it really just in front of me? Only yards away? It was only a flash, but even I that fleeing (sic) glimpse, it was much stockier and longer – perhaps due to its long dense fur – than a cat.

The eagles are released. They fly high. They fly swiftly. They swoop in unison. It is over in a matter of seconds. A flurry of feathers. The manul scampers free. All that remains is the eagles locked in combat. This was not how it was supposed to end.

Why Tokyo is amongst my top 10 cities

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I am not normally a ‘city’ person, preferring to head out to wilder and more scenic parts as soon as I touch down, but Tokyo seduced me.

It’s vast, I mean huge. It’s hot and bustling, as most capital cities are and yet there is a sense of calm and things seem orderly. A fusion of old fashioned genteel manners and modern, almost futuristic creative flare combine so beautifully. Glittering towers juxtapose with the old but still grand shrines and temples. It really does make for great exploring.

As a single female traveller I don’t think I have ever felt so safe. Within 3 hours of landing I was walking the streets, hopping on and off the bewilderingly efficient local transport networks and when I did get lost (often!) no one seemed too busy or to have too little English to try and help. The result is one of the most relaxed city explorations I have ever had, knowing if I did get lost, all would not be lost. Admittedly it was a Sunday, so I was fortunate enough to miss the normal commuter craziness of any city. Even on the following the following day, despite public transport being considerably busier people still had the time to smile.

A highlight, and some may say a strange one at that, is undoubtedly the Tsukiji fish market. Buzzing and atmospheric, it’s a thrive of activity even at 5am. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for the workers to go about their daily business surrounded by camera wielding tourists dodging the odd looking forklift trucks transporting the fish and desperately trying to capture the perfect shot. But they do, and so too with a smile and a gentle acknowledging nod of the head.

The tuna auction, where these huge fish can sell for up to $10,000 begins at around 5am daily, with the exception of Sundays and only small numbers are granted entry each day. Just 60 tickets are available and split into 2 tours at 5 & 530, not pre-bookable, it is just a case of an early rise and queuing with crossed fingers. The market is due to move but the latest news is that this won’t happen until 2020 or even 2026 when it will relocate to Toyosu, one of the artificial islands in the bay of Tokyo.

There can’t be many places in the world where one can see fish go to auction at 5 in the morning and be eating it in a world class sushi restaurant that very evening.

Add to this the plethora of eateries (both Michelin standard and street food), shops, sky scraping towers, enough temples and museums that could keep one busy for weeks, plus surprisingly pretty parks and waterways Tokyo is definitely in my top ten cities.

Tibet, Tibet

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Jokhang, Lhasa, Tibet

“I like Chinese tourists.” I turned round to Dorje, my Tibetan guide, in surprise, “Because they are good for business?” “They go back.”

Dorje’s acerbic comment cut to the core of the problems facing Lhasa and Tibet as a whole. The present invasion of Han Chinese being more far reaching than that of 1959 which caused the present Dalai Lama to flee his country.

The Han Chinese have taken over. Driving into Lhasa I was surprised by the extent of the city. Dorje told me that when he was young these were fields where the residents of Lhasa would come to make merry of a weekend. Now they are Chinese shops, Chinese homes and Chinese businesses. It bears witness to the fact that Han Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in Lhasa.

In search of a Tibet more familiar to me, I travel first to the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas. Norbu means precious stone and hence its name ‘Treasure Park’. A man at the gate with an oversized gold watch and an oversized pair of scissors cuts my entry ticket in half with disregard. His disinterest with stays me as I am ushered from building to building and asked to admire thangkas, the golds and reds of antiquity. Even in the Dalia Lama’s private quarters – the very bed where he spent his last night in Tibet – I am not moved, possibly because of the kitsch picture of three cats frolicking, given to the Dalai Lama by the Germans. It is a park of a very different theme today.

The Potala looms over Lhasa. I climb step by step. Frustrated by a shortness of breath. Irritated by sprouting Chinese tour guides. Unable to fathom the pantheon of deities and their relevance today.

Back down at the bottom, I reflect on my visit to one of the world’s most iconic buildings. With the exception of the impressive scale of the 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb, contained within the Potala, I find it underwhelming. It is nothing more than a museum. A sad reminder of a more illustrious and involved past. A rickshaw draws up alongside with speakers blurting out Gangnam style as if to reinforce the hollowness of my experience.

My camera tells it differently. Therein lies the problem. Lhasa and Tibet are undoubtedly photogenic, but what lies behind the lens is not.

The debates that I witnessed in a couple of monasteries are a good example. My images will report a vibrant monastic community listening to a young man espousing and gesticulating his knowledge of the scriptures. The reality is that these debates are now more of a performance than an exam. A spectacle that further illustrates the diminution of the role of monks within society.

Even in the Jokhang, Tibet’s most sacred shrine, sanctity is not sacrosanct. Pilgrims have to patiently squeeze past photographers. It is only outside on the Barkhor Kora that the pilgrims are free to perambulate. The old, young, large and small perform circuit after circuit. The most devout use aprons and wooden blocks on their hands to prostrate themselves as they go round. A pedestrian parade that is great to watch and wonder at. Scenes that have not changed in centuries.

Until I look to the skies and see that the lung ta, the wonderfully named ‘horses of the wind’ as they scatter the messages held within over the land (better known to us as prayer flags), are no longer the sole roof-top resident. Their colourful messages have been interspersed with Chinese flags.

I was hoping to find more of a sense of Tibet and what it meant to be a Tibetan outside of Lhasa. It was not to be in Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. Tashilhunpo, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas, is the one redeeming feature of Shigatse which has otherwise been consumed by Han commercialism.

It is not just the culture that has been devoured by the Chinese. The scenery is undoubtedly impressive but so too Chinese engineering. The tarred roads, the electricity pylons and the newly laid train tracks spoke of a shackled Tibet.

Like Lhasa, Gyantse is divided between the new nondescript Chinese quarter and the older Tibetan quarter. Walking through the old town I enjoy a tranquillity I did not find elsewhere in Tibet, a sense of community. Old women totter off to the monastery, young men paint decorative beams, cows are tethered next to piles of forage and dung is stacked to dry. I argued with myself as to whether the charm of the place was that it conformed to a stereotype or if there really was a sense of civic pride.

Separating Tibetans from the propaganda that smothers them, whether Chinese or western, is not easy. Most come to Tibet entranced by romanticised images and sentimentalised stories. They return very differently.

I board the plane to take me away from the rarefied heights of the plateau. It is an Airbus 320 and full. I am the only lao wei, foreigner, on board. Next to me sits a young Chinese woman, baseball cap round the wrong way, plastic pink lipstick and iphone glued to her multi-coloured finger nails. This is one of some fifty flights into and out of Lhasa every day.

Remote is somewhere that is increasingly difficult to find.

Galloping through Ulaanbaatar

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Try changing gear before arriving in Ulaanbaatar, and adjusting your expectations. This is a country where anything can – and often does – change. Mongolia is as beautiful as it is remote and still largely untouched by tourism.

The few people who live outside Ulaanbaatar are welcoming and friendly. We came across a Nomadic ger and “dropped in” as is customary, to meet a very shy husband and wife, with daughters aged 10 and 5 years – and a baby son just one month old! Remarkably she still produced biscuits to welcome us. We were the first tourists they had met. Fortunately the tiny baby boy will be nearly three months old before they have to move (which they do at the beginning of spring, summer, autumn and winter) and so will be stronger. Infant mortality is still high amongst these Nomadic people as conditions for much of the year are incredibly harsh.

Although it was a short visit to Mongolia, much was packed into this trip: horse riding, camel riding, trekking, camping and sightseeing all along the way. Cocktails were also briefly enjoyed before being enveloped in a severe sand storm! It is one of a very few countries left in the world where you can look in all directions and still see no sign of habitation whatsoever. However, look carefully and you will begin to appreciate the wildlife: we saw rare Argali sheep, the endangered wild Przewalski horses, native to the Mongolian Steppe as well as herds of yaks (not to be approached!) and goats, Steppe eagles, golden eagles (which are still used for hunting in western Mongolia), vultures and many hawks and smaller creatures such as marmots. Wolves were about, but not within sight during the day. Also hiding were snow leopards, easier to track when snow is on the ground.

Riding in a remote area to the east of Ulaanbaatar was another treat. It is a fantastic way to see more animals and explore. We found ourselves wading through deep streams and boggy marshland, leaving herds we passed undisturbed. We saw a horse in the distance unusually on its own: unusual because they are very much herd animals. Our guide galloped over to investigate and returned with news that it had a broken leg – probably having put its foot into a marmot hole. This served as a very stark reminder that we are visitors to this amazing country. Horses are working animals, not pets, in Mongolia and we cannot change or influence the culture or way of life here. Nature takes its course in the wild, even if it does mean leaving with a heavy heart.

I felt privileged to have visited – and cannot wait to return.

My first onsen

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I had mastered the hammam after numerous visits to the Middle East so I was determined not to miss out on what is an ancient and beloved tradition for the Japanese, the onsen, a hot spring bath.

Staying in a traditional ryokan in the mountain resort of Takayama I had a choice of onsens, from the mixed sex one on the 7th floor – I think not- or the female only onsen in a small building some 100 years old located opposite the hotel.

I had been given some instruction with limited English as well as a face towel, socks (the ones suitable for flip flops) an onsen bag (to carry all of ones toiletries) and a yukata, a traditional Japanese dressing gown.

My first dilemma as I was going to be walking across the road was, did I take the yukata with me to put on after the onsen or would this be like walking across the high street in your pyjamas? I decided against taking it, my first mistake, albeit not a dramatic one.

Entering through a low doorway offering no indication of what was inside I was delighted to find a beautiful building of dark wood with low beamed ceilings.

A group of Japanese women were busy getting dressed and as I undressed and entered the onsen area through rice paper sliding doors. It appeared I had the place to myself. I had already read that the water in the pool is for soaking in, not for cleaning oneself so I showered and washed before entering the shockingly hot water of the onsen. I wasn’t expecting such heat and after about 3 minutes sat waist deep I bailed and sat on a rock with my legs dangling in. Pathetic, I know. I was the only westerner and it was fascinating watching seasoned onsen users come and go. One woman spent about 15minutes cleaning herself from head to toe, removing every last speck of dirt from her hair and skin before submerging herself up to her neck in the steaming water. After about 5 minutes she exited the onsen. It appears it was not an endurance test and certainly not one that I was willing to sustain.

An Inspirational Evening with Jimmy Nelson

“There was no denying his passion for travel, endeavouring to document the beauty of largely unknown people at their most proud.”

As part of our 25th Anniversary celebration it was an honour and a privilege to have Jimmy Nelson talk about his latest project Before They Pass Away.

Having heard about the project last Autumn, the excitement in the company to see him live grew rapidly. Watching various online and TV interviews – CNN, Al Jazeera and his own TEDx talk to name a few – we were certainly very lucky to have him join us for the evening!

With a shared passion for travel, learning and an enthusiasm to share experiences, hundreds joined us at the Royal Geographical Society, London last week.

From the Kazakh women who, inspite of religious and cultural boundaries, helped save his life, to the beautiful yet fierce nature of the Samburu tribe in Kenya, guests were treated to a heartwarming insight into travel that is truly beyond the ordinary.

Jimmy also touched upon the wild and raw nature of Papua New Guinea, offering a unique and diverse travel experience, with so many different cultures and languages to learn about; “beyond the senses of what we are used to”.

For Jimmy, photography simply isn’t just about the photo created, but the relationship that is built in taking that photo. In fact the picture is just the catalyst for something much greater. Creating a bond, despite barriers, that unites and allows us to share between one and another, to learn from one and another.

As Justin Wateridge commented, Jimmy indeed encapsulates what we believe travel to be: “Understanding and appreciating the great diversity of the world around us…all with a sense of fun and laughter”.

We hope you are as inspired as we are to continue to travel and explore. You can watch the highlights of the event or listen to the talk in full on our podcast below.

Steppes Travel Q & A with Jimmy Nelson

‘Before They Pass Away’ Photographer Jimmy Nelson has completed an odyssey of 13 journeys to 44 countries in an effort to bring to light the beauty and fragility of shrinking communities and tribes around the world.

What inspired you to document these tribes?
Having travelled for the whole of my life and often returning to previous locations, I saw the speed with which these cultures were disappearing.

*Most memorable encounter & why?*
It was with the Kazakhs in NW Mongolia. Standing on top of a mountain at daybreak photographing the hunters on their horses – my hands froze to my camera. In my despair, I ripped them away and they started to bleed. Two of the women who had followed us up the mountain, saved me by enveloping me in their coats, rocking me like a baby and bringing back some semblance of warmth to my frozen digits. True compassion against all of their cultural taboos, as I realised afterwards.

*The photograph which was the most challenging to take?*
Dealing with the extreme cold in Chukotka NE Siberia in February was the most challenging. At -50 degrees your brain begins to freeze, let alone your fingers needed to take the pictures.

*The most embarrassing travel experience*
In Mongolia. There’s no nice way to say this – I peed my pants drinking too much vodka. The tent was subsequently trampled by eager reindeers, attracted to the salt content in my urine. So, during a blizzard, in the middle of the night there was absolute chaos followed by much laughter. An experience I will never forget.

*One luxury when you travel*
I always take lots of vitamins to keep my strength up and stay healthy.

*Something you have learnt about yourself*
An ability to relax in situations which are far beyond my control.

*Strangest experience*
To be honest this has happened on my return, after the publication of my images. Pictures of places and people who are very normal and second nature
to me but unbelievable for others.

*Is there a common thread that runs through all these tribes? *
Yes, that of their extreme family and community bonds. An intimacy which I feel we have really lost in the developed world.

*Is it the journey or the destination?*
Oh, very much the journey… it never ends…

*Where’s left to explore and why?*
Objectively – all has been explored. However. from a personal point of view, the real journey has only just begun. Why, because the natural high that is felt when all the elements that are required to make the ultimate picture align is quite extraordinary and essentially becomes addictive. I am always searching for that decisive moment…

*To learn more about Jimmy’s experiences and about the communities he has photographed, join us at the Royal Geographical Society London on February 4th, 2014. You can book your tickets here. *

On the Songtsam Trail

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The Songtsam Lodges and where to start? I could use bountiful amounts of superlatives to describe my experience there but wouldn’t that be cliché? How about I give the truth and honest facts?

My experience about these truly fabulous, cosy sanctuaries blended in with local villages, off the beaten track and offering truly splendid scenery…oh dear, I seem to have dragged back to the clichés but they really are deserved!

More seriously though the five lodges that cluster through the valleys, gorges and mountain ranges of remote Yunnan deserve all the plaudits it can get. Who’d have thought, and now picture this, sitting embedded at the bottom of a valley ‘officially’ in Tibet, surrounded by fresh orange trees, green paddy fields, a stream bubbling nearby, toothy grins and flashes of colour from local minorities. Better still, while sitting under the veranda sipping fiery ginger tea and dunking Tibetan biscuits in freshly made Yak butter…I mean what could be better!

As night falls and the sun disappears, a chill arrives, not surprising being above 3000m. But go inside and your abode gets better. A log burner flickers in the background of your room to keep you nice and snug, now all you need to do is sit back and take in those wonderful views to enjoy…and most importantly – there is no TV!

Missed the train

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I love the adventure of using public transport when travelling, however this isn’t necessarily what I would recommend for Steppes Travel clients – please rest assured that a comfortable transfer with an English speaking driver and guide would be arranged to get you to your train on time!

I’ve missed the train, I can’t believe it. The times is 08:20, the train leaves at 08:21. ‘Ooh, too late!’ The check in girl says to me as I skid along the marble floor like a breaking juggernaut. ‘What! No, I’ve still got a minute, please!’ The poor girl doesn’t have a clue what I am saying and just points me back down the corridor, towards the escalator I have just come from. I just can’t believe it. I was supposed to be flying fast as a bullet on the Shinkansen to Xian this morning. I packed the night before, went to bed early, wolfed my breakfast this morning and left the hotel an hour and a half ago and made just about every metro without having to wait. I am now pouring with sweat, bewildered and unsure what to do.

Oh the joys of travel, I back away but after a few seconds and begin smiling at my misfortune. I even start to laugh. It’s nobody’s fault, I am just unlucky and have a swig of water to cool down. You see when I left my hotel at 06:50 this morning I walked leisurely towards the metro station. The air is cold, that Mongolian wind blowing from the north has started to crack my lips after a few days to its exposure, and the appearance of the sun looks like it is going to be a very pleasant day.

Underground I made three changes from Line 2, to 5 and then to 10. I try following signs from my last stop and as I emerge at the surface I don’t see any buildings resembling a station, I walk this way and that like a headless chicken, referring to my map, I haven’t got a clue. I see an old lady sweeping leaves with a bamboo brush. ‘’Hi, Ni Hao’’ I say to her, she looks at me and I carry on: ‘’Urrmm..Station, Beijing Xie?’’ Gesturing with my hands to suggest where it could be. She looks at me blankly and points another way. Off if go, crossing the road I have just crossed.

I check the time. It is 08:05 and I am still not there. I can’t miss this train, and I start having that heavy sinking feeling in my stomach.

I start to run. I ditch any attempt to find the station myself and look to grab a taxi. I start waving my hand in the road but the taxis are going too fast on this part of the highway.

I run up to the corner of a street hoping to intercept, waving my hand furiously as I go. At last one pulls over, bags thrown into the back of the cab: ‘’Beijing Xie!! Please’’

The driver nods and off we drive…at a snail’s pace! We pull up on the other side of the highway and out I get. I have to run 200metres to get to the over pass and take the escalator going up. Added to that, there is definitely no way to pass the heavy pedestrian flow with my bags. Once at the top I sprint down to the other side. ‘Ticket validation’, ‘Baggage drop’, ‘Refunds’… every sign but the actual entrance.

8.16 am. At last I find the entrance.

*Five* minutes to go.

I queue to enter but have to show proof of ticket and identity. I hand over my driver’s license and the assistance looks curiously at it, no good. She wants my passport now. Finally I pass through.

*Four* minutes to go.

Security next, putting my bags on a conveyor belt and hurriedly grabbing them back off again. Clearing the security check, I head towards another escalator where hundreds more people are also making their way up too. I reach the top.

*Three* minutes to go.

I look at the board ‘Train G633 Xian – Gate 10′. Look around, much to my horror, Gate 10 is at the other end of the station.
I run. Faster than I ever have…

Uzbekistan

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“Why do you come here?” asked an inquisitive young man. “There is no beach,” he added in meek and belated patriotic defence.

That was true – Uzbekistan is a landlocked country. “I come here for the people, to see something different, and for your wealth of history,” was my attempt at a reply. Not the most articulate answer that I have ever given but one that was certainly accurate.

Uzbekistan sits at the confluence of the ancient Silk Road, a misnomer that was in reality a network of routes that brought silk, paper, the compass and gunpowder to the West and horses, gold and wine to the East. The names Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand resonate with romantic and overused images of camels, caravanserai and cargoes. Aside from commercial trade, it was also the meeting point of thinkers, artisans and ideas. Due to its lucrative location and the ephemeral influences of diverse dynasties, Uzbekistan’s past is rich, its people eclectic.

My journey, as most now do, started in the capital, Tashkent, a city that betrays little of its history, the romance of its past buried beneath the boulevards of Soviet socialism. As I wandered around this modern city of 3 million people – the largest in Central Asia – I found a pervasive sameness to the layout and buildings. The city spreads outwards in a series of squares and streets, seismic activity of the past (1966) a constraint on the height of its buildings, the surrounding space no limit to the sprawl. Although clean it appears soulless, there is no atmosphere, there is no vibrancy.

No doubt I am being unfair to Tashkent, blinded by what I had read of the region’s exotic history, looking at Uzbekistan purely from the perspective of the past and blinded to its present and potential. It is important to appreciate that Uzbekistan, the land of the Uzbeks, remains a very modern creation and is still soul searching, eager to shake off the shackles of the Soviet era.

Perhaps this is why Karimov, the strong man leader of Uzbekistan, has strived to portray Timur as an Uzbek hero, displacing Marx. Timur, a common name meaning iron, ruled over the greatest extent in the world conquered by a single ruler. Wounded in battle he earned the affectation the lame and hence the European corruption Tamerlane. The Uzbeks are more generous in that they have bequeathed him the title Amir (the Great), and in spite of the fact that he was of Turco-Mongol stock, he has been adopted as father of the people. To learn more of the great man – Timur as opposed to Karimov – I headed to Samarkand, the seat of his ancient capital.

Festooned with epithets, Samarkand’s billing lived up to expectation. Preeminent among its sights is the Registan, which means sandy place, a name that demeans the architectural and decorative treasures on display. Curzon described it “as the noblest public square in the world” and in essence three madrassahs form three sides of a square. Their facades are imposing, giant complexes of gateways, domes and minarets. It is not just their size that inspires but the intricacy of the detail, the complexity of the calligraphy and the vibrancy of the colours of the mosaics. My head was repeatedly turning, my camera continually clicking – too much to take in at once.

On entering each madrassah, I was disappointed to discover that the academic and religious study of the student cells had been replaced by the creed of commercialism. Short-lived, my disdain of the gift shops was tempered on seeing old photographs which exposed that a century ago the madrassahs were home markets albeit selling to a more local clientele. The photographs also revealed the state of disrepair of the madrassahs. Whilst the restoration had snuffed out the strange vitality of ruin, I was hugely appreciative to be able to enjoy the glories of the Registan close to its original grandeur.

Samarkand has a wealth of sights spread throughout the city that I have not time to tell of here suffice two. Gur Emir, literally ‘tomb of the ruler’, is the resting place of Tamerlane, one of the greatest military leaders the world has seen. Humbling as it was to be at his tomb, it was the delicate and refined architecture that was most entrancing, enhanced by the tranquil birdsong in the trees. On the other hand, rent by fissures and cracks cascading through the brickwork and plaster, Bibi Khanum Mosque, Tamerlane’s own attempt to build a mosque without parallel and one of his foremost expressions of power, was a stark reminder how vulnerable these old buildings are to the ravages of time.

In the shadow of Bibi Khanum mosque is the market. Whilst the concrete slabs and counters speak of a more recent Soviet past, the bustle and banter of trade is faithful to centuries old tradition. As throughout the country, the people were hospitable and inviting. An Uzbek welcome is one of the warmest and most sincere, often resulting in a broad smile of an entire row of gold capped teeth.

Sweets were cheap and plentiful – is this the reason behind the golden smile? – and so too fresh baked non, the beloved round flat bread of Uzbekistan. Non plays a part in every meal, which is not insignificant given the Uzbek tradition of enjoying delicious food and unhurried conversation at a friendly table. The Uzbek national cuisine has a centuries-old history and reflects the diversity of the customs and traditions of the people. Popular dishes include lagman – pulled noodles, manty – a steamed dumpling, both still bearing the same name in China, and shashlik – grilled meat on a stick of Turkic origin. Like its people there is great variety in the food and each meal may span several eras and ethnicities.

Dubbed the most interesting city in the world, Bokhara’s history is murky and mysterious. Named after the Sanskrit word for monastery, vikhara, the city could not be more inappropriately labelled given its image of iniquity which reached its nadir with the reign of the deranged despot Nasrullah in the nineteenth century. There is little evidence of such cruelty today, the character of the city largely cleaned up through the auspices of restoration which still continues aplenty. The Ark Fortress is the imposing and dark heart of the emirate. Its western facade and entrance is forbidding but now only in size, the torture chambers of the past now replaced by artisans selling their wares to tourists who are much less resourceful and daring than their European predecessors who tried to enter this fabled city as ‘players of the Great Game’ in the nineteenth century.

In spite of such sanitisation, Bokhara does contain some real gems. For me the originality of Ishmael Samani Mausoleum and its breathtaking brickwork was an architectural treat. So too, the elegant and towering wooden pillars of Bolo Hauz Mosque with its craft and colour. However the Kalon Ensemble most impressed me. I am in auspicious company for legend has it that the size and sight of the minaret humbled even Genghis Khan some eight hundred years ago. So much so that he specifically instructed that it was spared whilst his troops razed the rest of the city to the ground. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the Minaret is the defining symbol of Bokhara. The Kalon Mosque is aptly named: kalon means great. The huge central square surrounded by colonnaded arcade of columns and arches was a peaceful sanctuary and a treasured reflective moment in the late afternoon sun.

Khiva is a spectacular open air museum, both in the sense that it is home to many treasures and also in that it lacks atmosphere. UNESCO’s decision to make Khiva into a world heritage site led to the eviction of much of the local populace from the old city. It is now too pristine and the romance of the past has gone. Yet in spite of this I was heartened to see the amount of Uzbeks that had come from around the country to spend time in and enjoy the delights of this ancient desert post.

“There are many more young children here,” I commented as we walked through the dusty streets of the fabled city of Khiva. “No electricity,” my guide quipped with a smile. His reply showed both the sense of humour and also the disarming candour that was such a pleasant surprise of my time in Uzbekistan.

I had hoped that the sights would be impressive and was not disappointed. As in anywhere that I am lucky enough to have travelled to, what makes a destination stand out is its people and your ability to be able to connect with them. Uzbek friendliness and hospitality make certain of this.

Smiles of gold, requests for photographs, impromptu dancing with a wedding party wandering the streets, good natured nods of welcome, the kindness of strangers, politeness, the right arm raised to left breast in respect and greeting. Uzbekistan is full of warmth and history waiting to be unearthed.

Elephant Safari in Chitwan

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Experiential is the buzz word in travel at present. An elephant safari at Tiger Tops in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, is certainly an experience. Yes you can go on a ‘tiger show’ in India and ride elephants in search of tiger but as its name suggests it is a performance, a parade. This is not the case in Chitwan.

Staying at Tiger Tops Lodge, famed for its ‘tree houses’, I had the benefit of experience and training both in terms of the wealth of knowledge accumulated over the years by the naturalists of Tiger Tops and its elephants. My guide was Rajdeen, whose insight was invaluable, and my elephant Hira Kali, who as a sight was magnificent.

Tiger Tops has thirteen working elephants and part of the thrill at staying at the lodge is spending time with and learning about them.

“Each has seventy-five sandwiches a day, each sandwich consisting of unhusked rice, molasses, chickpea and salt. It takes three men to make the sandwiches for one elephant,” Rajdeen explained, revealing that this was no small undertaking on the part of Tiger Tops. “They don’t have diabetes – each elephant eats about 500lbs of fodder and drinks 200 litres of water.”

Having got to know a little more about Hira Kali, i felt that I had earned the right to ride her: time for the elephant safari. Seated on a comfortable platform on her back, we swayed out into the forest. I was full of boyish excitement. Part of the thrill was being able to enjoy the bond between elephant and mahout – who sits astride the head of the elephant and guides it with gentle prods of his bare feet behind its ears – and access parts of the forest that are simply not passable by man or vehicle. With the snow capped Himalaya in the distance and the sun on my back, I was
blissfully happy.

Hira Kali strode slowly but confidently through the luxuriant vegetation of tall elephant grasses. Rajdeen had explained earlier that these grasses are the preferred habitat of the greater one horned rhino, of which there are over four hundred in the park. Given my knowledge of its African cousins I felt that we would have little chance of seeing one. I was wrong and more than once – we saw several individuals and also several mothers with young calves.

Moreover, I was surprised by how close we were able to get to the rhino, literally a matter of yards. And then with a loud snort of derision he swung round and trotted off into the sanctuary of the grass, his armour plated backside wobbling in defiance.

We also saw hog deer, spotted deer (chital) and gaur, the largest wild cattle. But of course tiger was the real draw. There are some sixty breeding tigers in Chitwan which is 923 square kilometres. Rajdeen astride on the back of the elephant as scouring the landscape for any sign of the apex predator.

“You see the pug marks there. Reasonably fresh. Earlier today.”

“Where the grass is all depressed – that was where the tiger was lying down not long ago.”

“Look there,” Rajdeen points. “Tiger claw marks on the tree. Marking its territory.”

I was amazed. Not by the marks but how high up they were – the size of our elusive prey suddenly dawned on me. In spite of Hira Kali’s height it would be incredible and a little daunting to see a tiger.

But in spite of the best efforts of Rajdeen and our mahout, the tiger remained hidden, retaining its mystery and again illustrating that unlike India this is not a show.

I will be back to enjoy the experience again – hopefully for longer than one night and thus with a greater chance of success.

Kyrgyzstan

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“The Kyrgyz don’t like walking. It is hard work,” said my guide. I knew that I should have listened to the statistics given that 90% of Kyrgyzstan lies above 1,500 metres and the country’s topography is dominated by mountains.

Emerging from the quaint calm of Bishkek airport I am immediately greeted by snow capped mountains to the south. Arriving back in Karakol seemed like civilisation in comparison to the remoteness we had just experienced. The sun creeps over the snowy white of the peaks expunging the shadows of early morning and bathing us in the warming rays of sunlight.

Kyrgy-where? Allow me. Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian nation, part of the former Soviet empire, landlocked between Uzbekistan and China, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Of the 192 countries in the world, it must languish near the bottom of the name recognition league. If few people have heard of it, fewer still can tell you where it is.

Yet Kyrgyzstan is the great snow-capped hope of Central Asian tourism, eager that its name will soon conjure adventure holidays rather than triple word scores. Kyrgyz officials stress that it is (mostly) secure – sadly the suffix “-stan” induces a fear reflex in Western punters – and hope instead to rebrand it as “the Kyrgyz Republic”.

Their dream is that Kyrgyzstan will be the next big trekking destination. Nepal is struggling with its Maoist rebels; the Indian Himalaya is overdone. But Kyrgyzstan is rich in mountainous rambles – from soft walks across wildflower meadows, whitewater rafting and glacier treks, through to extreme climbing. It has few visitors, lowish prices and a bewitching folkloric backdrop of Silk Road nomadism. Here, adventure meets ancient culture, and the wilderness tourist is the richer for it.

The pass is laden with snow which makes the going tough but all the more rewarding for the sense of achievement and also adventure.  The contrast of the cold snow on bare legs with the scorching sun on frazzled heads. The battle is worth the effort as the pass not only brings a sense of achievement but also tantalising views of the valley below. As we round the corner its glories are laid bare. To stare out over such a vista is exhilarating and the work of achieving the pass drops off and feel invigorated and uplifted. The steely teeth of the Himalayas, spikes and blades of rock that looked like the surface of a carpenter’s rasp magnified a million times. They were sprinkled with snow and grouted with wrinkled glaciers.

Fall asleep to the gurgling of the river – such are the joys of the explorer/adventurer. The stream washes the cares of everyday life behind bringing in its stead the trials and tribulations of survival in this most remote of places – no motorised sound for days not even the snowy trail of aircraft and the curious eyes staring out.

The white felt cap is replaced by the white baseball cap, the horse and cart laden with hay by the latest automobile. Kyrgyzstan is struggling to find its identity but character – in its mountains – and personality – in its people – it has buckets of. Blonde haired beggars tug at your shirtsleeves and heartstrings. I am struck by the Caucasian poor perhaps more than anything else because it is so unexpected.

Sunbathers, stoic swimmers and multicoloured umbrellas dot the lakeside, whilst monstrous mausoleums mark the resting place of the dead. Blue lintels and railings hint at a bygone era of Russia. A more gentle time, less conformist than the Soviet sameness of buildings. A geographic smorgasbord of terms – hanging valleys, truncated spurs, glacial valleys – emerge from my murky past. I have a field day reminiscing of old O Level texts.

The yurt is a picturesque backdrop but even here there is the dichotomy of past and present. On the far side of the yurt is a huge satellite dish and within the yurt itself on the one hand is hand baked bread and on the other a small flat screen tv with dvd player – even a Kyrgyz teenager has succumbed to the lure of the moving image.

The food is not the most inspiring. Surrounded by sheep and with the luxury of wild rosemary in abundance my mind wonders to the diplomatic incident caused by a hungry traveller killing a local nomads sheep – it would put the FCO to the test in this otherwise uneventful backwater.

Many a photo opportunity en route including one of what I assumed to be three labourers taking a break on the grass. I of course could not resist the photo opportunity and as is the Kyrgyz way they smilingly obliged. It was only afterwards that I discovered that one of them had just buried his son.

Karakol has the feel of a frontier town and there are some sights worth visiting such as the church of Holy Trinity Cathedral, a wooden Russian orthodox church that dates back to  the late nineteenth century, the Dungan Mosque and the market. The market for me is the most interesting as this is where life centres and continues. The smells, sounds and smiles – the latter often in gold.

We stop outside an unassuming house on the edge of the village of Bokonbaevo. A beep of the horn announces our arrival, a dismissive raise of the head by the horse standing forlornly in front of the house. The metal gate squeaks open and out pops Tolgart. Dressed in everyday mufti he does not look the part but smiles and raises his hand if to say hang on a minute. A miraculous minute later and he reappears looking a little more convincing in traditional garb but more importantly with a magnificent eagle, Tomara, adorning his gloved hand. He mounts his trusty steed and with Tomara screeching her approval he heads out towards the nearby fields and we follow in his path, like children following a showman at a rodeo.

En route in broken English, Tolgart talks with intimacy of his relationship with Tomara and the paternal bond that he has with her. She is now six years old and in her prime and over the past six years – somewhat unethically he took her from her nest when only a few weeks old –

Unhooded, Tomara was alert and inquisitive, her eyes constantly scanning and scrutinising. And then with a couple of beats of her impressive wing span she is off, quickly honing in on her unsuspecting prey, a rabbit bought especially for the occasion. She swoops down and quickly begins devouring the rabbit, entrails, fur and tail. Her talons are strong and powerful but it is the strength of her beak and how she rips through the rabbit that took me aback.

Unlike the eagle, I couldn’t quite get to grips with the experience feeling a little ambivalent about it all. But as with most things in Kyrgyzstan, the warmth of the personality of Tolgart shone through.

No flags, no police, no billboards promoting politicians or presidents. Little of the paraphernalia of nationalistic bombast.

Icy shot glasses were prepared with vodka and, with a cry of Nastrovye, down they went. No fridge was necessary – we were on a glacier 13,000ft high beneath the Tien Shan mountain range of Kyrgyzstan. The peaks that encircled our tented base camp were not much lower than Everest. Should we be drinking at this height? “Of course,” yelled a tour guide, Divina, over the distant rumble of avalanches. “Vodka’s good for altitude acclimatisation.”

The morning revealed a tantalising frieze of mountains beyond the city. I collared a taxi (actually just a private citizen’s; every car is a potential cab in this poor country) to the Osh Bazaar to buy provisions – nuts, apricots, nan bread and cheese. Then it was back to Bishkek’s new Hyatt (Kyrgyzstan’s only Western hotel), to meet Bakyt, a Kyrgyz guide, and Valeri Hardin, a droll Russian professor-cum-tour-leader who spoke a meticulous teacher’s English in which, for instance, rain became “precipitation”.

The journey to the Tien Shan range is a few hundred miles and hazardous to the coccyx. A boneshaker bus took us through suburbs of grey Russian rectilinearity, over green velvet hills and past vast collective farms to the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul – the second largest high-altitude lake in the world after Titicaca.

The lake supports numerous beach resorts and somewhat joyless “sanitoria” that attract sun-seeking Russians, Uzbeks and Kazaks. And lo, we turned out to be a few yards behind Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president, at Issyk-Kul for a spot of R & R with his wife, Naina. He eluded us, but I saw his autograph in a guest book at a Kyrgyz museum. “A marvellous exhibition and a fairytale land,” he had rhapsodised.

We pressed eastwards. Chinese trucks passed as we traced the river along Kyrgyzstan’s northern border with Kazakhstan, stopping for beer, bread and koumys, the mare’s milk that sustains the Kyrgyz nomads. On the pastures, yurts sprouted like mushrooms.

There are fewer nomads now, but summer brings them hurrying back from Soviet tower blocks to graze their horses. Somehow they symbolise Kyrgyzstan, a land of transit and population shift; once a vital corridor in the Silk Road where several civilisations have left their mark.

Karakol, at the eastern end of the lake, is the launch pad for trekkers – the Kendal of the Tien Shan. A guesthouse trade has arisen, and at our hostel we feasted on clear soup of dill and mutton. At the cattle market, a man noticed my interest in his home-grown tobacco and rolled me a fag in the local newspaper.

As I spluttered through the foul cheroot, I recalled the advice of a friend who had worked in the region. “Watch out for the local hospitality,” she had warned. “It can get overpowering. Refusal is not an option.”

An elderly man with an eagle perched on his arm joined us, a walking photo-opportunity named Tenti Djamanakov. In a land where half the population is unemployed, his bird was a gold mine.

It was time to climb into the Tien Shan, and a boneshaker truck replaced the boneshaker bus. They say that the key to preventing altitude sickness is to go slowly and, sure enough, the crock finally reached the 12,100ft-high mountain pass five hours later. We toasted the view with vodka. “Wear your sun cream,” warned Valeri. “The solar radiation is powerful.”

The idea was to fly by helicopter up the valley for a glacier trek. Our fellow travellers included scary-looking Georgians who warmed up with topless t’ai chi, some British climbers and a few Austrian and Russian cartographers there to map the region digitally for the first time.

As we flew to the glacier, everything became totally white – including my knuckles. “Don’t worry,” said Manfred, an Austrian climber who had been here before. “These pilots have all worked in Afghanistan.”

“The mountains will always be there,” said climber Hervey Voge. “The trick is to make sure you are too.” We landed at a small camp on the Inylchek glacier, surrounded by peaks that included Khan Tengri, a mammoth 22,900ft high. Mountains do something disorienting to the senses. The scanty oxygen made me feel pleasantly light-headed, particularly as we walked across the glacier, our progress slowed by the recent snowfall. But the sound was the most remarkable aspect: a kind of muffled mega-silence giving the jagged amphitheatre a presence that was both calming and numinous.

And there I sat in a cafe, toying with a “cutlet clever girl” (mincemeat, spices, Coca-Cola) and an impulse purchase from the Osh Bazaar – a retina-mugging shyrdak rug mixing lime greens, reds and pinks in crazed patterns, a memento of this enchanting place. Boris was right: the land of the colliding consonants is indeed like a fairytale.

In this mountainous Central Asian nation, the size of Britain, the nomadic lifestyle has survived centuries of invasions and even Soviet collectivisation.

Mount Fuji Becomes UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Japan’s most sacred mountain has been added to the prestigious list of UNESCO World heritage sites, citing Mount Fuji for its contribution to Japanese culture, UNESCO stated the mountain has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.”

Mount Fuji is 3,776 metres high, a now dormant volcano which last erupted in 1708 and is the highest peak in Japan. It is not surprising that the nearly perfectly shaped volcano has been worshipped as a sacred mountain and experienced huge popularity among artists and common people. Visibility of the mountain tends to be better during the colder seasons of the year rather than in summer and in the early morning and late evening hours. It is officially open for climbing during July and August using several different routes. Around 300,000 people climb Mt. Fuji every year and the overnight trek to watch the sunrise from the roof of Japan is one of the most popular trips out of Tokyo.

Mount Fuji really comes to life when visibility is good and the snow peaked mountain appears over the clouds, making it a photographers dream.

Travel to Kurdistan. Leave your preconceptions at home

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The phrase “the people were really friendly” can be a cliché. Here in Kurdistan I truly felt it was meant.

I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan with our first Traveller group lead by lecturer Rebecca Bradshaw.

Kurdistan is not like anywhere I have been before.

I arrived a day before the group and ventured out into Erbil from my hotel. Wanting to get the “lay of the land” I left my camera and any obvious tourist trappings in the hotel. I like to walk so as to get a feel for the place, get my bearings and generally observe. I walked for an hour down the main Kirkuk Road to the centre, passing a small local football stadium thronging with fans adjacent to a busy shopping mall, where the Citadel is located, 30 metres above the surrounding city it is the longest continuously inhabited city on earth.

A number of public areas have been created around the base with fountains and men smoking hookahs. Inside the Citadel massive renovation work is going on to preserve to 18th century Ottoman houses and stabilise the Citadel’s boundary walls. The Textile Museum is being renovated and a small gift shop (the only one of any note in the country) and the small “Kurdistan Textile Centre” has been established.

From Erbil we made an excursion to Dwin Castle to see its remains and an interesting, and so far unexplained, cemetery with headstones carved with words, evidence of its origins dating back to the crusades. Set in beautiful mountain countryside, sheep wandered up the hillside and spilled on to the deserted road ahead of us.

From Erbil we went north to the town of Dohuk visiting a number of sites on the way including the 3rd century St Matthews Monastery located in the buffer zone between mainland Kurdistan and mainland Iraq. High on the mountain slope with fabulous views across the surrounding plain one can, on a clear day, see Mosul which experiences turmoil on a daily basis – metaphorically a million miles away from our peaceful surroundings.

We descended the mountain and continued to a flat hilltop nearby and were treated to lecture by Harry Schute, an historian, on the battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in one of world history’s most important battles that brought the Persian Empire to an end.

Using Dohuk as a base we travelled to Al Qush, a small mountain village inhabited by Christians. Al Qush is charming. Narrow streets and alleys wind their way between the houses made of rocks, giving an almost Mediterranean feel to the place. Home to the tomb of the prophet Nahum, who predicted the destruction of Ninevah, this in an area hugely complex in religious history.

We continued to a hidden, enclosed valley and located half way up this sheer rock cliff is the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, once home to 600 cave-dwelling monks. Today, some of those caves survive on the periphery of the modern monastic buildings.

On leaving Dohuk for Rawanduz we hugged the contours of the mountains that gradually get higher as they enter Iran itself. There were wonderful views and hairpin bends to negotiate on the roads. This was just spectacular scenery. We stopped at the small ruined Qubahan Madrassa in a wooded valley before reaching the hilltop fortress town of Amadiya best seen from a distance to fully appreciate its position.

The memorial of Mullah Mustafa was next, Mullah Mustafa is regarded as the father of modern Kurdistan and a huge centre is being constructed at the site to honour him, before continuing to the Shanidar Cave. In 1951 nine Neanderthal skeletons were found dating back 18,000 years. The walk, up some 270 plus steps, to the cave is pleasant and it is located in a pretty, hilly location although your imagination is needed once one gets there as there is just the depression where the skeletons were found and the huge cave opening itself.

Rawanduz was the next stop, with its spectacular gorge setting, several hundred metres deep with very sheer sides. After breakfast we departed to see more of the gorge and to walk along the Hamilton Road, a feat of great road building engineering completed by the British to link Iran and Erbil in the early 20th century. Parts of the road are literally carved in the rock forming a three sided tunnel in effect.

Suleimaneyah was similar in size to Duhok, again with much building in progress. This was one of the things that puzzled me, the lack of visual evidence of any of the 1,000′s of villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein during his Anfal campaign to eradicate the Kurds. There are, it seems, such places but they are not easily accessible by tourist bus.

I was told that Suleimaneyah was a city of culture. It had a certain buzz about it, it was where artists and musicians lived and the wonderful bazaar was full of life. All manner of birds were for sale from live turkeys being sold out of the boots of cars, song birds, pigeons, fighting cocks and multi-coloured dyed chicks along with fruit, nuts, sweets and vegetables. We spent time in the Sha’ab chaikana (tea house), a meeting place for men to discuss politics and play backgammon.

Suleimaneyeh is also the base from which to venture out to Halabja. A chilling visit where in 1991 Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds including women and children. Today, there is a museum and monument to the atrocities. Nearby, one can visit the nearby cemetery where three of the mass graves are located marked by a long white marble wall and an Kurdish flag to mark each spot. In town, and Saddam is in evidence again. We visited the Red House Prison, a former torture centre now pockmarked with bullet holes from the same uprising in 1991. You can walk through the cell blocks and a short video shows Kurds escaping to Turkey across the mountains only to be turned back or beaten by Turkish soldiers.

Before leaving Suleimaneyah we visited the Museum, regarded as the second largest in Iraq, although it did not give that impression. There were extremely interesting pieces dating from pre-history to modern times. The museum is being helped financially to rebuild itself and to become a modern up to date example museum and offer educational programmes.

We arrived in Erbil as the sun set to spend a last night in our hotel before a wander in the bazaar the following morning. What a wonderful area.
I am so pleased to have seen it now as it is emerging. It will change but at the moment it is a real gem of a destination. For many Iraq brings
preconceptions to mind, but I never felt unsafe in any way, leave you preconceptions behind and travel now.

For more information about travelling in Kurdistand or for expert advice about planning a holiday to Kurdistan please contact Paul on 01285 880 980.

North Korea – Breaking Stereotypes

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“Chinese made.”

A roar of laughter and much nodding in amusement from our Korean comrades as Max pointed at the designer tear in his jeans. The smiles and laughter of our carriage were far removed from the drab greyness that was passing by our train window. The contrast was as stark as the landscape outside. The contrast summed up my trip to North Korea, a mix of depressing stereotypes and wonderful revelations.

Flying into Pyongyang the land looked bleak. Perhaps this was exacerbated by the dullness of the skies but there really was little down there. There was no movement on the roads; this was not due to traffic gridlock as with most capital cities in the world but rather the opposite, namely that there were no cars on the road.

The gruff manner of the immigration and customs officials did little to lighten my mood; not least when they deprived me of my phone and
blackberry. North Korea is hugely controlled and one of the easiest ways of doing so is to deprive people of the means of communication: there is no internet access in North Korea.

Meeting our guides, Mr A and Miss B, things quickly took a turn for the better and I realised the dangers of preconceptions and the foolhardiness of judging a country on airport officialdom. They were all smiles and politeness. But more than that, they broke the mould. Whilst waiting for the paperwork that would enable us to retrieve our phones as we left the country, Mr A shook his head and was derogatory about the attitude and efficiency of the officials.

“Is it the same in your country?” he asked. I nodded. “What are your perceptions of North Korea?” he continued. I found it difficult to answer. I kidded myself that this was because I did not want to cause offence but in reality it was that I too was wary of being stereotyped.

En route from the airport to the city, Miss B commented that, “There’s only one liar in this country.”

My interest was piqued at the possibility of some real political insight. “He is the weatherman.”

I nodded quietly recognising the fact that weathermen are the same the world over but also at her acuity. Her English was faultless – as was Mr A’s – and rather than spouting facts and figures, the mantra of the party line, she was showing real intellect and personality. That is not to say that she had liberal thoughts – you have to understand the extent to which North Korea is controlled, even conditioned.

It is not just the Koreans that are controlled. As a tourist you have to be accompanied by two guides, your schedule is a script that cannot be deviated from and you are restricted as to where you go and what you are allowed to take photographs of. Indeed, our hotel was situated on an island in the Taedong River that flows through Pyongyang and Mr A explained that we could walk around the island but under no circumstances could we cross the bridge.

“The bridge is the like the DMZ,” quipped Max. Mr A guffawed with laughter.

Driving into Pyongyang I was struck by the space and size of the city. Built within the last fifty years – it was largely destroyed during the Korean War – it is well laid out, spacious and green. Memorials and monuments to the people and the workers party are omnipresent. The
buildings are austere even drab – architecture is not a seven year university course here – the streets empty of both people and colour. There are no shop signs or advertising bill boards, although I suppose that the bombast of the revolutionary posters is North Korea’s equivalent.

Uniform is de rigueur, whether school or military, ancient costume or the ubiquitous Kim Jong Il jumpsuits. There is also uniformity of colour, with muted dark tones being prevalent (with the colourful exception of the ancient costume of the women, which are not worn as an everyday item). There is little no self-expression or sense of individuality with the exception of women’s shoes, the one concession to fashion.

The metro system is functional. Some bright mosaics illustrating industrious workers and the rousing lilt of revolutionary tunes do not
alleviate the sense of normality and daily routine. There are no smiles in evidence; but then to be fair there are few underground systems in the world that make one want to smile.

Kim Il Song is deity. Although he died some fifteen years ago he is still considered president and referred to as the ‘Great Leader’ (confusingly his son Kim Jong Il is referred to as the ‘Dear Leader’). His smiling charismatic face adorns walls, posters, buildings and the pledge pins worn by every man and woman. His statues occupy pride of place in vast squares and the impressive entrance halls of cavernous buildings.

One of the largest of such statues is the imposing twenty metre bronze statue at Mansudae Grand Monument. A place of pilgrimage for most Koreans and a key sight to be photographed in front of on your wedding day, millions of Koreans visit annually to pay their respects to the leader, laying a wreath of flowers at the foot of the statue and bowing. ‘When in Pyongyang,’ I thought to myself as I walked forward to place my flowers at the base of the statue. Unexpectedly, rather than just going through the motions for form’s sake, I found myself awed, humbled by the size of the statue and the scale of my surrounds. It was the closet that I have come to a ‘religious moment’ for many a year.

I did not feel quite so reverent the following day when we went to visit the Mausoleum where Kim Il Sung lies in state. The immaculate turn out of the North Koreans was testament to the esteem in which they held such a visit; I definitely felt self-conscious and under dressed just wearing a tie. I am not sure if this was the reason for my unease or rather that it was so stage managed, so processed as to be painful.

We walked along corridors and escalators for some twenty minutes in solemn procession, North Koreans from the countryside scrupulously avoiding my gaze as they passed in the other direction. Eventually we entered a hall to see a kitsch white statue of the ‘Great Leader’ backlit with pink and blue. The incongruity of the scene brought a wry smile to my lips. The cant of cult from the audio guide as we moved into the Hall of Mourning made me shake my head in wry amusement.

Finally it was into the hall itself where Kim Il Song’s body lies in state. Solemnly, seriously, in groups of four we walked around his body in an anti-clockwise direction, bowing deeply at both of his sides and also at his feet. Then it was the long walk back to where we had come from and out into the sunshine for the obligatory group photograph to commemorate the event.

The next day we drove to the DMZ some one hundred and sixty kilometres south from Pyongyang. The road was relentlessly straight, a homage to the Romans. The landscape was denuded; every inch of land is under cultivation, only a vestigial crown of trees lines the very top of the hills.

En route we stopped off to have coffee. Three uniformed ladies were in attendance of their trestle tables crammed full of tea, coffee, soft drinks and early signs of tourist tat. As we started joking and laughing with the ladies this became far more than just a prescribed stop but rather an opportunity to break down prejudices and barriers. Travel with laughter and you will derive so much more from a country but especially its people.

Arriving at the DMZ we were given the party line as we entered the hall where America and North Korea came to an agreement to end the Korean War. The spin was consummate: Alastair Campbell eat your heart out. Yet I am sure that the South Korean view of events was no less full of propaganda.

The view as I looked out over the South Korean side seemed to reinforce that: an American soldier barked at his troop of tourists ordering them around with ruthless efficiency and at the limit of his vocal chords. There was little such orchestration on the North Korean side. The irony was not lost on our guides.

Driving back at night allowed the briefest of glimpses into some apartments. No such luxuries as curtains to keep prying eyes out, no such luxury as a lampshade to dull the brightness of the single light bulb.

Mr A had mentioned several times that Mount Myohyang was very beautiful but for some reason I doubted him – perhaps due to the hitherto uninspiring scenery that we had seen – and felt that the two hour journey north and the overnight stop would not be worth it. It was a shock but a surprising and very pleasant one.

The water in the streams and rivers was crystal-clear, there were waterfalls, scenic views out across the forest. The concrete steps and path were a clear indication of traffic and sure enough as we were on our way back down we came across several large groups of locals being cajoled onwards and upwards by a leader spouting poetry through a megaphone. Whilst thankful that the group did not blight our peace and serenity at the top they did afford us yet more and different contact with the people of this extraordinary country. Again laughter and smiles was the order of the day.

The nearby Buddhist temple of Pohyon was exquisite. Remote, in the foothills, the soughing of the wind through the fir trees, the tinkle of wind chimes, it had atmosphere, character and peace. A charming refuge, this temple is a hidden treasure both literally and metaphorically.

Taking the train to Beijing we were reminded that the Buddhist temple and Mount Myohyang were the exception as opposed to the rule. Uninviting was the only word that I could use to describe the scenery and the people toiling out in the fields; not so their fellow countrymen on the train. With his new-found vocabulary, Max broke the ice with words such as ‘tongji’ (comrade), ‘agassi’ (young lady) and ‘sarung hasimika’ (I love you) and before we knew it we were sharing a couchette, cigarettes, beers and stories with four Koreans travelling to Beijing to work.

This was the most contact we had had with North Koreans. With the help of alcohol and a card trick, we discussed subjects ranging from the imminent football World Cup to the wonderfully polite Korean custom that you do not pour your own glass. We discovered that one man of sixty had played on the wing in rugby when younger, not a sport that I would have associated with North Korea. We discovered that another had been born in Japan. Above all we discovered a mischievous and infectious sense of humour.

At the border, a guard entered our couchette. He smiled politely. “Anjung hasimika,” he greeted us warmly. He motioned for me to open my bag and then my camera. As warned he was checking to see what photographs I had taken. Spinning through the images he suddenly stopped, wagged his finger and said “Delete.” The photo was of a man ploughing a field with an ox. “Delete.” This time it was an image of a train in the station. Whilst I was disappointed to lose some photographs I suppose that he was right: North Korea has enough image problems as it is without me adding to the stereotypes.

Next he turned to Max who was smiling nervously, like a naughty schoolboy awaiting punishment. Max was concerned that an image of him standing under a giant statue of Kim Il Song mimicking his pose with arm held aloft in salute would cause offence. Unexpectedly when the guard found this image he burst out laughing and showed it to the two Koreans sharing the couchette with us. Once again, when least expected, the unexpected.

Bizarrely in spite of its problems and lack of freedom, laughter is how I will remember North Korea. It might not be high up on your holiday list but it is the one holiday you will never forget. Go now before it changes.

For more information on tailor made holidas to North Korea or small, expert led group tours to North Korea please contact our specialists on 01285 880 980.

Along the Silk Road

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Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva….wonderfully evocative sounding names that trip off the tongue like a 1001 Arabian Nights.

I certainly wasn’t the first to respond to the siren call of these romantic sounding places and head east into the wilds of Central Asia, following in the footsteps of the Great Game players.

So what was it like? In short – mesmerizing! Beginning in Tashkent and journeying westwards along the string of glittering ancient Silk Road cities for which Uzbekistan is synonymous, at times it felt like a magical carpet ride. Tamerlane’s signature turquoise ribbed domes shimmering in the dry desert air, dazzling blue tile work running riot over entire buildings and wonderfully symmetrical madrassahs; it wasn’t so much of a feast for the eyes as a full blown ten-course visual banquet! One UNESCO World Heritage Site followed another in astonishing succession, however it was also the warmth of the local people, their propensity for gold dentistry and the piles of wonderful produce and decorative lipyoshka bread in the markets that left a marked impression.

Central Asia, a mesmerizing melting pot of peoples sitting astride the great Silk Road, has exerted its influence for millennia and in spite of the dangers at times has always attracted those in search of adventure. The good news now for those considering this fascinating region is that there’s never been a better time to visit, and you can do it comfortably, which isn’t necessarily the case across the whole of this region.

As Uzbekistan emerges from its communist past and re-discovers its national identity its embraced tourism, built up a decent tourist infrastructure and invested heavily in restoring its glittering cultural heritage. The region has also undoubtedly benefited from the turbulence in the Middle East as people look for alternative destinations without having to fly long haul.

My highlight (one of many), walking through Samarkand’s extraordinary Registan Square, Central Asia’s finest architectural assemblage, with the soft light of early morning playing on the tile work. The day ended as spectacularly as it started, with a blood red sunset as we traversed the fabled Kizilkum Desert and then peeling away layers of desert grime in a well-earned hammam in Bukhara.

This ancient cross road of cultures continues to more than live up to expectation. I left Uzbekistan with full memory cards and a new found taste for vodka.

North Korea

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I have visited North Korea 3 times.

It is a fascinating country, as the brief pictures of Kim Jong-Il’s death have shown. It is like no other country, not even China, which I have visited over 30 times since the early 1980′s, or Russia can compare. Will Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong Il’s successor, referred to as the “Dear Leader”, make changes? In the short term it seems not. He was, in late December made head of the army, the State and was called the “Supreme Leader”.

Where in the world are you escorted everywhere as a tourist, as I was on my last visit. This said, I did manage to watch my first ever football match in Pyongyang, an Olympic qualifier between North Korea and India. Even in China and Russia during the communist era you were allowed on public transport or to take a taxi, you could walk out of your hotel or dine in local restaurants. This is not so in North Korea. Your programme is very structured. Mobile telephones, no. You have to give them up on entry but they are given back on exit, even if you do enter by air and depart by train. One is encouraged to lay flowers at the huge statue of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather who is still referred to as the “Great Leader”.

2012 is the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung which promises to be a very grand event. Despite many restrictions and regulations, Steppes Travel can organise tailor-made trips to North Korea from a long weekend to a stay of 10 days or more which will allow you to see most of what you are allowed to see with visits to the coast, the mountains and the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The best time to visit is in the Spring and the Autumn.

Mongolian Adventures

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This was a trip with a difference. I had not been to Mongolia since the late 1980s and even then had only stopped in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, whilst passing through en route to China. What changes would I notice?

Two things that I always remember from my first trip were a man on a horse holding aloft a yellow flag at a level crossing on the Mongolian steppe, in the middle of nowhere with not a soul around; and secondly buying a bottle of Scotch whisky from the Friendship store during communist times for US$4!

Being so close to China, I had expected to see some positive effects due to the Chinese economic miracle. However, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state and what I found were the remnants of this era: tenement blocks complete with mosaic wall patterns extolling happiness and the wonders that living in a communist system brings, namely happy people and industrious workers.

However the capital is modernising and religious buildings are being built and restored for this is a Buddhist country, albeit small. There are 2.6 million Mongolians but these also include a number of ethnic minorities including Kazakhs in the West. By contrast there are 35 million head of livestock.

I started by saying that this was trip with a difference. The main one being that I took my eleven year old son Luke with me. When Luke told friends and school that he was off to Mongolia he was met with amazed silence.

Our trip began in Beijing with a quick trip to the Forbidden City and a ten hour delay at Beijing airport because of strong winds blowing across Mongolia from Siberia. We finally arrived in Ulaanbaatar to find that the hotel thought we were Mr & Mrs Craven and had given us a king size bed which amused Luke!

The following morning we set off on a five day trek supported by a guide, a cook, two herders, two yaks and a horse. Within a couple of hours of leaving Ulaanbaatar we were in remote wilderness and during our time out in the Khentii National Park we saw no foreigners and only a handful of nomadic herders. We stayed in tents and had a ger, the Mongolian felt tent, for cooking and relaxing in. Riding through the vast open spaces was just incredible.

Next, we ventured to the South Gobi. The Gobi is huge and encompasses a multitude of landscapes. We flew down to Dalanzagad on a new airline called Eznis that rivals any western carrier in terms of comfort and service. Dalanzagad is a small town of Soviet buildings and gers.

The Gobi here is treeless but beautiful and people come to see Yolynam or ice valley which survives year round despite the summer heat. In another valley there is a frozen waterfall. There are sand dunes here too and camel breeders. We met one such family and sampled cheese and fermented camel’s milk. We were lucky enough to chance on a local horse festival. Wow. We spent the whole day with local people dressed in their finest costumes, with their finest horses and performing on their horses; rodeo, lassoing and poling.

Our next visit, five hours drive from Ulaanbaatar, was Arburd Sands. A strip of sand 20km long and a couple wide, this area is home to an extended family of nomads who are hugely respected for their horsemanship. From the ger camp we rode camels and took a trip to the nearby rock outcrops in the hope of seeing Argali sheep and Siberian Ibex. Sitting on the dunes with a telescope looking for eagles or the night stars was magical.

Our final visit was to Ikh Nart National Park, again five hours away and again part of the Gobi. There are a few trees here in the small valleys but no tourists. We camped at the entrance to a valley and on our first evening saw Argali sheep wandering close to camp. The next morning we met with the ranger and went tracking for radio-collared animals such as foxes, Argali, Ibex and lynx. We were not disappointed.

Few people visit and the season is short – June to September – but you still have to book early to get what you want. N.B. The infrastructure is limited and Mongolia does not do ‘luxury’ but for the slightly more adventurous it has immense rewards.

To talk to Paul about his time in Mongolia, or to ask his advice about a possible holiday there, please contact him on 01285 651010.

Exceptional panda sightings on tour to China

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Clients on our recent trip to China, On the Trail of Wild Panda, were rewarded with exceptional sightings of the world’s most iconic, endangered animal.

March is prime time for seeing wild pandas as the animals descend from the snowy mountain peaks to lower ground for mating. Sightings are still rare however and often one only gets to hear the male pandas as they fight each other for mating rights while the females stay hidden in bamboo thickets.

On the first day of trekking in Foping Nature Reserve a female panda was spotted sunning herself up a tree while male pandas could be heard scrapping on the ground. On the third day a cold front enveloped Foping and heavy snow fell from mid morning to mid afternoon. The inclement weather did not deter our clients however and it was not long before our Chinese trackers found another female panda seeking shelter from the snowfall and potential male suitors, perched uncomfortably in a tree. As clients stood and watched a male panda came trundling through the undergrowth only 10 metres from where the group stood, moving quickly, spurred on by the scent of the female.

There are conservationists who believe we should give up on the panda and instead channel energies into conservation battles that can be more easily won. Pragmatism may well be the watchword however the plight of the panda has long been symbolic of the threats endangered animals face all over the world, so the repercussions of throwing in the towel on these remarkable animals will be felt right across the animal kingdom. Surely it is far better to maintain the struggle and allow responsible tourism to play a supporting role in the conservation efforts being made.

Find out more about our trip to China: On the Trail of Wild Panda

Eye opening view of Everest

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Despite the influx of trekkers heading to Everest Basecamp, the Khumbu valley is still a very beautiful and awe inspiring corner of Nepal.

The white glacial waters of the Dudh Kosi river carves its way deep into the valley, with the incredible mountains soaring up on either side.

We weren’t heading to basecamp, our highest point was a seven day trek to Tengboche. Famous for its Buddist Monastery and a first glimpse of Everest.

Reaching this altitude was a struggle, even the fittest of the group did not escape the exhaustion that comes with a lack of oxygen. With only two lodges in Tengboche, we were lucky to be able to overnight here. Cold and weary we headed to bed for a restless night at our highest altitude.

The next morning, scraping the ice off the inside of the window, I realised it had been worth the effort. Watching the sunrise over Everest, tucked up in my down sleeping bag with a cup of ‘bed tea’ is a memory I will always cherish.