Monthly Archives: August 2016

Travellers embark on journeys

While missed flights and lost luggage won’t make the headlines, some stories are a little more entertaining. From badly photoshopped holiday snaps to 47-year-long layovers, these are the silly travel stories that we’ll be giggling over long into 2017.

 

1. The man who x-rayed himself

Ah, border crossings. A bit boring once you’ve done enough of them, but bewildering the first time you try.

Spare a thought, then, for this man attempting to cross the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although he’s asked to put his bag through the x-ray machine, he seems to misunderstand and ends up putting his whole body through the scanner – much to the surprise of security staff on the other side.

 

2. The woman who photoshopped herself to China

Kenyan travel fan Sevelyn Gat became an internet sensation back in March 2016 when badly photoshopped images of her “travelling” began attracting thousands of likes on Facebook. Unable to afford a trip to Asia, she’d superimposed herself onto images of famous Chinese sights like the Great Wall – with hilarious consequences.

Sevelyn had the last laugh, though; a sympathetic Kenyan businessman later decided to fund her real-life trip to China.

Solo travelling guide

Ask anyone who’s ever travelled solo, and they probably wouldn’t want to adventure any other way. It might be daunting at first, and it’s certainly simpler for some people than it is for others. But spending time alone on the road is among the most rewarding travel experiences out there.

Whether it’s a long trip around the world or a habit of solitary weekend jaunts, here are 10 things everybody learns while travelling alone:

1. You always return home with lots of new friends

Ever noticed that you’re more likely to ask one person for directions than you are to ask a group of people? Solos are more approachable, plain and simple. Lone travellers learn that the benefits of this are twofold: not only will other travellers feel far more comfortable introducing themselves to you, but it’s actually easier for you to strike up conversation with others as well.

 

2. You can engage with locals on a level that only solo travellers can

You know that local folks are more open, and definitely more curious, when it’s only you walking into that hole-in-the-wall café, or sampling the pungent flavours of that roadside food stall. From a heartfelt conversation on a rickety train, to suddenly having a network of genial families happy to host you for a night, you know none of these incredible experiences would have been possible if you’d been travelling with others.

3. You’re free to adventure as you please, and it feels awesome

There is no need to compromise when travelling alone. No need to appease a friend’s unfortunate craving for an overpriced burger and fries, or their incessant complaints about mosquito bites in a jungle where you’re on travel cloud 9. As a lonesome wanderer you travel where you want, when and however you want to – all with a liberating degree of indulgence.

 

4. You gain a deep understanding of the destinations you’ve visited

Travelling solo, you’re more immersed in your surroundings. You notice the unique quirks, and subtle character that truly makes a place what it is. But walk around the same street chatting with an old friend, and your mind is often immersed elsewhere.

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5. There is something liberating about travelling to a place where no one knows you

For some, travelling alone is like a fresh start. Or a temporary escape from the life-baggage you’re forced to lug around back home. That’s not to say you’re a different person when abroad, but you may notice how much that therapeutic anonymity has changed you by the time you return home.

Eastern Europe

Bulgarian capital Sofia will only ever earn a “well-it’s-OK-I-suppose” rating on your list of travel highlights. It’s second city Plovdiv that inspires the superlatives, with its enchanting blend of Roman remains, Ottoman-era mosques, stately Levantine houses and fresco-filled churches.

There’s a bohemian nightlife district in the cobbled Kapana quarter, and a host of cultural festivals – the city will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and is already gearing itself up for the experience.

 

For brilliant beaches: the Curonian Spit, Lithuania

People say that the Baltic Sea is too cold for a beach holiday, and they’re almost always right. However it is home to some of Europe’s most unique landscapes, most notably the stark dune-scape of the Curonian Spit (called Neringa in Lithuanian).

Deep forest and never-ending beaches characterize this narrow strip of land just off the coast, although it is the huge, shifting dunes above the fishing village of Nida that make an unforgettable impression.

For a break from the crowds: Tartu, Estonia

Estonia’s second city Tartu is one of those European gems that will have you scratching your head as to why it’s not on everybody else’s bucket list. The leafy university city offers Neo-classical architecture, cute neighbourhoods and cult drinking dens – the ideal place to take a mid-journey breather.

 

For a real metropolis: Warsaw, Poland

Big, brusque, and frequently bewildering, Warsaw is the region’s only true metropolis. The city blends haughty grandeur and gritty history, suburbs which seem stranded in different epochs, and good, cheap food with lashings of beetroot.

It offers glimpses of the region’s future, too, thanks to its soaring architecture, increasingly cool design scene, and the al-fresco summer nightlife of the Wisła riverbank.

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For an island escape: Vis, Croatia

By all means hang out with the crowds in Split and Dubrovnik, but there’s really no point in coming all the way to the Adriatic coast without visiting at least one of the islands. All of them are enchanting in their own way, but Vis is special: there’s a minimum of mass-tourist development, loads of unspoiled coves and beaches, boat trips to stunning sea-caves and some of the best food and wine in the Mediterranean.

For the best beer: Prague, the Czech Republic

Prague is the city that’s got it all, the Gothic churches, the set-piece squares, the acres of park, the vast century-spanning museums and downtown streets that you never tire of walking.

The old Jewish quarter and the Franz Kafka trail provide extra allure; and the beer, of course, is quite simply the best in the world.

 

For laidback life: Odessa, Ukraine

If you have the time and inclination to take in Eastern Europe’s outer limits then aim for Odessa, the brash Black Sea port that combines buzzing beach life with belle-époque buildings and bags of exuberant, anything-goes attitude. Home to the Odessa Steps (dramatically featured in Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film Battleship Potemkin), it’s also Eastern Europe’s most famous film location.

Journeys in South America

The four-day hike between Cusco and Machu Picchu, a spell-binding mountain trek into the Inca past, needs no introduction.

Although just one of the Inca trails you can follow across the Andes, what makes this 33km route so popular is the unrivalled reward of Machu Picchu at its end. The most famous ruins in South America are a place that – no matter how jaded you are – stop you in your tracks.

 

2. Carretera Austral, Chile

To see the wettest, greenest and wildest part of Chile, head to Northern Patagonia where the Carretera Austral, the partially paved, partly dirt-and-gravel “Southern Highway”, stretches for 1240km from Puerto Montt to tiny Villa O’Higgins.

The rounding ice-fields, vast glaciers and jagged fjords along this spectacular highway are most easily visited with your own wheels, but most are reachable by public transport; all you need is a bit of time and some organizational skills, since not all buses run daily.

3. Death Road, Bolivia

One of the most popular trips in Bolivia, and some travellers’ sole reason for crossing the border, is a chance to hurtle down the infamous Death Road. This hair-raising adventure involves a 3500m descent along the old road from La Paz to Coroico in the Yungas.

Be careful when planning a trip, though – cyclists have been killed or seriously injured on this rough, narrow track chiselled out of near-vertical mountainsides, and you must choose a tour operator with great care.

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4. Ruta 40, Argentina

The legendary Ruta 40 (or RN40) runs from the top to the bottom of Argentina, following the line of the Andes all the way to the far south from the border with Bolivia. It covers 5000km and 11 provinces, crosses 18 important rivers on 236 bridges, and connects 13 great lakes and salt flats, 20 national parks and hundreds of communities. There’s little wonder it’s one of the most famous attractions in the country.

If you haven’t got your own wheels, head to the section between El Calafate/El Chalténand Bariloche. Long popular with backpackers, with much of this route is paved and buses run its length almost daily in season – but it still retains a sense of isolation thanks to the endless pampas scrubland, interrupted only by the occasional tiny settlement or estancia.

First travelling in oman

Poised between the glitzy excess of the Emirates and the rigid conservatism of Saudi Arabia, Oman provides a winning introduction to the Middle East. Politically stable, and packing in a huge range of landscapes from rugged desert and turtle-nesting beaches to misty green mountains, you’ll find off-road adventures, winter sun and old-fashioned Arabian hospitality. Andy Turner introduces what not to miss on a first trip to the sultanate.

 

Make the most of Muscat

Snaking for 30km along the Gulf coastline, it’s hard to tell where the Omani capital, Muscat, begins and ends, yet among its sprawling apartments and fast freeways are several architectural gems worth seeking out.

First on any itinerary has to be the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, whose stunning latticework dome glints in the sun by day and is beautifully lit come nightfall. Inside the main hall, which can cram in 20,000 worshippers, is a gargantuan Swarovski crystal chandelier suspended above what seems like acres of hand-woven Persian carpet (now inevitably trumped by a slightly larger carpet in Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed mosque).

 

Portraits of Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s supreme ruler, gaze down at you across the country (the humblest shop is likely to have a framed photograph of the dear leader). Your best chance of catching a glimpse of the man himself is to wander past the Al Alam Palace, Muscat’s diminutive answer to Buckingham Palace, where His Majesty entertains other heads of state.

For a quick primer on Omani history, head to the Bait al Zubair museum, a cool, calm oasis in Muscat’s Old Town showcasing Arabian armour, jewel-encrusted daggers and tribal costumes. Standing guard in the courtyard are a dozen life-sized models of ibex, painted in kaleidoscopic colours.

 

Find frankincense and fake watches

Compared with Marrakesh or Istanbul, shopping in in Muscat’s Muttrah Souk is a breeze. Bargaining is done with a smile and you’re unlikely to get lost. Amongst the fake Rolex watches and “silver” shisha pipes, you’ll find authentic Omani frankincense, painstakingly harvested from trees in the wild Dhofar region. With prices starting at US$100 a kilo it’s worth haggling.

 

Hit the beach and reef

Thanks to its reliable blue skies and balmy temperatures from October to March, Oman makes for a perfect winter escape. While global hotel chains have popped up along the coast, development is mercifully low rise and sensitively done.

Even the vast Shangri La Barr al Jissah near Muscat (over 600 rooms across three hotels, nine restaurants and three beaches) looks tasteful when you compare its rivals in Dubai. Further north in Musandam, Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman’s most exclusive resort, barely peeks above the palm trees and is so remote it has to be approached by speedboat or 4WD.

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To experience a wilder side of Oman (and escape the sight of overwintering German pensioners), head to the World Heritage listed Daymaniyat Islands, 70km west of Muscat. SeaOman based at the Millennium Resort Mussanah, offers diving and snorkelling tripsto this beautiful marine reserve where there’s a good chance of spotting turtles and whale sharks.

See fabulous forts

Once a refuge from bandits and invaders from Persia and beyond, Oman’s forts are reminders of its hard-won independence. The Rustaq Loop takes in the pick of the bunch near Muscat, including the recently renovated Al Hazm Castle. Here an audio tour guides you through dungeons, secret tunnels and towers bristling with cannons, with a few scary-looking mannequins thrown into the mix.

A quick detour from the forts circuit takes you to the charming, oasis-like Nakhl Hot Springs. Here you can take a dip in the mineral-rich 30C water and, perhaps more tempting on a hot day, get a free fish pedicure. Tiny garra ruffa or “doctor fish” inhabit the crystal-clear stream next to the springs and will nibble on your feet as soon as you dip them in.