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Monthly Archives: November 2016

The essential guide to backpacking China’s Silk Road

But for adventurous travellers looking for something truly different, backpacking the Chinese Silk Road reaps glorious rewards: sand-sledding down a magical unmoving sand dune, a camel ride around an oasis, a trek up the end of the Great Wall and sipping wine under grape trellises are just a few of the possibilities. So don a sand-proof rucksack and check out our guide to backpacking the Silk Road through China.

The route

Historically, the Silk Road was not one but many routes that connected east and south Asia to Mediterranean Europe, so named because the largest commodity traded down the route was sought-after Chinese silk. The route traditionally started in Xi’an (then known as Chang’an), China and continued northwest through modern-day Gansuand Xinjiang provinces before reaching Central Asia.

Several historical splits in the road mean that you have options when deciding your route. By far, the most traversed portion of the route is from Xi’an to Lanzhou and Jiayuguan in Gansu. From here, you can choose to head northwest to Urumqi in Xinjiang, where fascinating Uigher culture, China’s wine country, and the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan mountains await.  Alternately, the southern route heads through the fiery desert of Gansu, with its huge dunes and ancient Buddhist caves, ending in the distinctly Central Asian city of Kashgar, renowned for its bustling Sunday livestock market. Adventurous travellers and those with extra time could potentially explore both routes by heading southward from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang in Gansu, then upwards to Urumqi and finally south again to end in Kashgar.

Don’t-miss sights

Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. This incredible desert landscape is striking for its orange, red and yellow hues of layered clay and sandstone, forming bizarre rainbow mountains. While you’re in Zhangye, also be sure to see the Giant Buddha Temple, which contains one of the largest wooden reclining Buddha statues in China.

Jiayuguan Fort. The ancient Great Wall ends in this towering mud fortress, which rises out of the desert like a mirage. Just a few kilometres northwest of Jiayuguan town, the fort boasts a few touristy activities like archery and camel rides, but the real reason to come is for the sweeping views from its ramparts.

Overhanging Great Wall. Named because it looks like a dragon hanging over a cliffside, this portion of the Great Wall is one of the most visually stunning: a mud maze that zigzags its way up a stark desert mountain. The wall is open for climbing and views from the top are incredible.

Singing Sands Dune. To call this a single dune would be an understatement. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, Singing Sands Dune is the first in a series of thousands of dunes that make up the Taklamakan Desert. This particular dune, though, is legendary for having never covered the oasis below, despite thousands of years of sand erosion. Adventurous types can climb the dune for great vistas of yet more dunes – and then sand-sled back to the bottom.

Mogao Grottoes. Just outside of Dunhuang, this series of caves contains an incredible wealth of Buddhist art and murals.

Turpan Grape Valley. China may not be known for its quality winemaking just yet, but Turpan – an oasis town – is home to one of the oldest and most prolific wine-making regions in the country. No matter the quality of the wine (some is actually quite quaffable), sipping a fresh glass of white under grape trellises as a brook babbles nearby is great way to beat the desert heat.

Jiaohe Ruins. This 2300-year-old archaeological site contains the ruins of an ancient capital that was destroyed by Mongol invaders around the 13th century. What remains today is an elaborate network of structures in various states of decay, connected by a maze of streets.

Tian Chi Lake. This mountain lake, whose name means ‘heavenly’, sits in the cradle of the Tian Shan mountains underneath the looming 5445m gaze of Bogda Peak. A popular destination with domestic tourists, the lake’s serenity is sadly hampered by honking boat horns and tramping visitors, but if you can find a spot of solitude, the vistas are incredible. It’s also possible to camp or stay in a yurt with a local Kazakh family – highly recommended for delivering a slice of the water and surrounding forest to yourself.

Kashgar’s Grand Sunday Bazaar. One of the largest and liveliest markets in all of Asia, Kashgar’s bazaar is open every day but is especially bustling on Sundays, when the livestock market adds cattle, horses, sheep and goats to the mix.

Getting around

China’s northwest is historically one of its least connected regions. The Jiayu pass, where the impressive Jiayuguan Fort was built in the 1370s, marks the end of the Great Wall and the border of the ancient Chinese empire.

The region spreads over 2400km, most of which is separated by vast tracts of desert. Though you can still get on a long, bumpy bus ride if you want to, the region is now connected by high-speed rail, making getting around a breeze. Regular flights also connect most of the main airports in the region: Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Urumqi and Kashgar all have commercial airports, and tickets are often discounted.

Part of the allure of this trip is the vast journey overland, which hearkens to a day when explorers, traders and Buddhists rode and walked for weeks across the harsh desert. Doing at least part of your journey by rail is a good way to experience these landscapes up close. The entire journey could be done in 10 days by rail if pressed, but two to three weeks allow for explorations further afield and several days in each stopover to see the sights properly. Flying from Xi’an to Lanzhou and beginning your rail journey there would shorten the journey for those in a hurry.

An ideal Silk Road trip would include overnight or several-day stops in Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi (or Tian Chi Lake) and Kashgar.

Tips and recommendations

Most of this route follows extreme desert, so pack for dry heat. Carry plenty of sunscreen and breathable clothing that covers the skin. A bandana or lightweight scarf can be useful for shade and breathing in dusty conditions.

If taking an overnight train trip, equip yourself with food and plenty of sealed, bottled water before you embark. Hot meals are offered on trains, but tend to be very basic Chinese staples like rice, vegetables and stir-fried meats. Instant noodles, fruit, nuts and seeds are ubiquitous, easy to carry and keep well. Trains also usually sell beer and wine, but at high mark-up, so be sure to pack your own, as having a ganbei (bottoms up) is a great way to meet locals and make friends while travelling.

Must-see sights on China’s Silk Road

 Luckily, the Silk Road is ever-more accessible from the rest of Chinathanks to the opening of a new high-speed rail line through Xinjiang. This train will eventually connect the furthest reaches of China’s northwestern province to Xi’an, Beijing and beyond. Here we explore a must-see list of its east-to-west sights.

Army of Terracotta Warriors

Painstakingly cast as guardians for Qin Shi Huang’s – the first emperor of China – safe passage into the afterlife, the Army Of Terracotta Warriors was discovered in 1974. Since then, thousands of warriors, archers and chariots have been unearthed and remain on display just outside the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Xi’an is the first stop along an itinerary of the Silk Road from east to west – it was the capital of Chinese empires variously in ancient periods and its strategic north-central location on the Guangzhong Plain makes it a gateway from eastern China to the wild west. Today, Xi’an is a busy provincial capital home to numerous ethnic minorities, mainly Hui Muslims.

Labrang Monastery

One of the most important monasteries in the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang Monastery in Xiahe was once home to 4000 monks and echoes of a time when Buddhism passed through this part of the world on its great journey through China, from south Asia to the Far East. Today, Labrang Monastery is home to 1800 monks and its grand prayer halls and intricate yak-butter sculptures remain a draw for visitors and monks alike.

Mogao Grottoes

One of the most important Buddhist art sites in the world, the Mogao Grottoes near the oasis city of Dunhuang are what remain of a thriving ancient monastery usually dated to 366 AD. The caves were a repository of wall paintings, scrolls, carvings and texts left by monks and nuns who passed through on their way to or from Buddhist sites in south Asia. Though many of the caves’ most precious goods were looted in the early 20th century, they remain open for visitors to marvel at their intricate interior paintings.

Overhanging Great Wall & Jiayuguan Fort

The Great Wall is not one stretch of compiled stones, but an almost countless series of small walls stretching from the Bohai Sea in northeastern China to a desert outpost along China’s Silk Road:Jiayuguan. This, the westernmost end of the Great Wall once the last outpost of Chinese civilisation and marked the end of China and the beginning of everywhere else. Jiayuguan Fort’s giant mud walls rise strikingly out of the desert. Nearby, the mud-brick Overhanging Great Wall ascends a steep length of desert mountainside with sweeping views of the dry valley below. Jiayuguan itself makes for an interesting stopover to explore its selection of Han, Hui Muslim and Uighur cultures and foods, which can be enjoyed at the Jingtie andFuqiang night markets.

Singing Sands Dune and Crescent Lake

Dunhuang has the feel of an outpost town thanks to its incredible location at the literal edge of the harsh Taklamakan Desert. In addition to being a jumping off point to visit the Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang is also home to the incredible Crescent Lake. This half-moon shaped pond sits at the bottom of a giant sand dune and, according to local lore, possesses special magic as the lake itself has never been covered over with sand despite the local winds that give rise to its towering dune,Singing Sands Dune. Ascending to the top of the dune, only to peer out over an endless sea of sand further west, really gives a sense of the size and scale of this desert and the length of the Silk Road.

Jiaohe Ruins

The origins of the ruined city of Jiaohe have been traced to as early as 108 BC, when it was known as Yarkhoto. It was an important Silk Road stopover in the desert between the Tian Shan mountains and the oasis of Dunhuang. Today you can explore the archaeological remains of Jiaohe, with its mud walls and crumbling buildings atop a steep embankment overlooking the confluence of two rivers. It’s an easy 10km taxi or bike ride along a paved road from Turpan, another Silk Road oasis town now known for its wine production.

Emin Minaret

No trip along the Silk Road would be complete without viewing the rising spire of China’s tallest minaret, Emin Minaret near Turpan. Built in the 1770s to honour a local general, the minaret’s intricate floral designs and bowling-pin shape formed from dried mud make it stand out among the Silk Road sites.

Flaming Mountains

The romantic name of these eroded sandstone hills do them perfect justice. The Flaming Mountains have been the subject of many artistic expressions, including in the classic Ming-dynasty novel Journey to the West, and they provided an otherworldly backdrop for the 2002 Jet Li epic film Hero. The hills extend for a whopping 100km across the Turpan Depression – the hottest, driest place in China and the lowest point in Central Asia (154m below sea level) – and reach 800m high.

An island unlike any other in Madagascar

 Kirindy and the baobabs

Start your trip in the west with wildlife encounters and a walk among iconic trees

Jean Baptiste strolls cheerfully through the forest, arms swaying, flip-flops flapping. For the past hour, he has led the way through a tangle of paths that each looks identical to the last, pausing to point out brown creatures hidden in the brown undergrowth: a twig-like pencil snake here, a fist-sized land snail there.

It takes some time to locate the lemur he spotted with barely a glance, but after much gesticulating (‘To the left of the fork, down from the second branch, no, not that branch, down further’), there it is: a sportive lemur, its teddy-bear head and goggly brown eyes poking out of a tree hollow. The sighting opens the floodgates to an embarrassment of encounters in the forest of Kirindy.

A few steps on, a black-and-white Verreaux’s sifaka appears far above, swinging between the treetops with the elegance of a trapeze artist, the tiny head of her baby peeking out from the fur of her belly. In a clearing nearby, Jean-Baptiste’s guttural ‘whoop-whoop’ is catnip to a family of red-bellied lemurs, and they soon make their way down from the canopy to inspect their human visitors.

The residents of Kirindy have made their home in the remains of the last dry deciduous forest on Madagascar’s west coast. It supports eight species of lemur – and the one creature in the country whose belly starts to rumble when it spots one. The forest is one of the best places to see the lemurs’ only predator: the endangered fossa.

Three of the animals have spent the day in the camp at Kirindy’s ecological research centre. One by one, they slink out from beneath a cabin, stretching and yawning in the sunshine, before hunching down in the dirt. They look like some terrible genetic mix-up between a dog and a weasel, with grey-brown fur, yellow eyes and a tail as long as their bodies. Mamy Ramparany, who manages the centre, would rather they didn’t feel so at home here. ‘One of the major issues for them,’ he says, squatting to check for other fossa beneath the cabin,  ‘is the destruction of their habitat through farming and logging. Maybe they come here because they don’t have enough food.’

Mamy watches as the creatures rise and stalk into the forest. ‘That is the challenge of conservation in Madagascar, to work out how people profit from the forest without destroying it,’ he says. ‘But it is an exciting challenge. As long as there are animals left, there is hope.’

The broad-trunked, spindly-topped trees that rise incongruously through the scrubby thicket of Kirindy give some clue to the nature of that challenge. These are baobabs – ‘mothers of the forest’ in Malagasy –  and the region was once full of them. Lost to deforestation and agriculture over the centuries, they now commonly stand alone, trunks thick as houses, towering over scorched earth cleared by slash-and-burn.

Some 25 miles south of Kirindy, the Avenue des Baobabs is a proud reminder of what has been lost. At dawn, a thick mist has settled over the road, and the 20 or so baobabs lining it – some 600 years old – are reduced to murky silhouettes. Farmers emerge through the fog, carrying scythes and axes, and leading zebu cattle, who stop to scratch their flanks on the gnarly bark of the trees. Fires are lit outside mud houses along the road, blackened pots placed over them, ready for a day’s cooking. As the sun rises, the mist seeps away. More traffic appears on the avenue: jeeps on their way to the main town of Morondava, motorbikes with mattresses balanced on the handlebars. By the roadside, revealed for the first time in the morning light, are 10 small enclosures. Inside are frail baobab saplings barely a centimetre thick and half a metre tall – dwarfed by the old trees around them, but a sign of a brighter future nonetheless.

The road to Tsingy

Travel is all part of the adventure in Madagascar, and never more so than on the colourful journey along the bumpy 8a road from Kirindy to the north  

‘Apart from its unique biodiversity, Madagascar is also known for its bad roads.’ So says local tour guide Dennis Rakotoson, climbing into the jeep. He is not smiling.

With less than 20 per cent of its road network asphalted, getting from A to B in Madagascar is rarely straightforward. Google Maps will tell you that it’s a three-hour journey from Kirindy up the 8a road to Bekopaka, some 100 miles north. Google Maps is wrong – very, very wrong – but neither does it tell you that a day travelling the route is at least as exciting as a day in the forest with a family of lemurs.

For the most part, the 8a is more rutted mud track than road. It soon leaves behind the paddy fields surrounding the Avenue des Baobabs, their neat, green lines ploughed by zebu, trailed by squabbling ducks. The landscape becomes drier, the bushes lining the verge covered in sand thrown up by passing vehicles, as though someone has dumped a bucket of orange powder over them. Large patches of blackened earth still smoulder from recent forest clearings.

In the early morning, kids idle along the 8a on their way to school, kicking footballs in the dust. Women in bright skirts march between villages, bundles of maize or firewood balanced on their heads, and their faces covered in a paste made from tamarind bark, to keep off the sun. Families do their laundry in shallow streams, their clothes drying on the banks, or bump along on wooden carts, behind the camel-like humps and long horns of slow-plodding zebu.

‘The Malagasy are very attached to their zebu,’ says Dennis, leaning on the dashboard as the jeep negotiates one of many potholes the size of paddling pools. ‘They are used for transportation and in the fields, of course, but also in rituals, burial ceremonies and medicine. If you rub the oil from their humps into your skin, you will get very strong.’

At the midway point of the journey, the road stops, cut off by the great brown slug of the Tsiribihina River. Jeeps are manoeuvred gingerly down planks onto Heath Robinson-style ferries, seemingly made from random bits of metal roped together. Everyone on board, they chug past people in hand-carved wooden canoes on the hour-long journey to Belo sur Tsiribihina on the opposite bank. By the early afternoon, the town’s market is in full swing, and traders sit beside piles of sweet potatoes, sugarcane, dried red chillies, fried shrimps and fatty zebu humps, waving large flies away from their goods with their hands.

‘The road gets a little worse from here,’ says Dennis, as the 8a heads out of town. It is partially collapsed in places, weaving and dipping a new course around fallen trees and waterlogged craters.

As the intense heat of the day starts to fade, activity is stepped up in the roadside villages. Men cut earth into bricks, or scythe reeds for building, while their wives rhythmically pound rice with poles in giant mortars, turkeys waiting expectantly beside them. Children race out to every passing vehicle and peer inside, practising their foreign-language skills with polite requests for pens or bonbons.

By the time the jeep pulls in to the last stop at Bekopaka, via a final river crossing and many stops to let a brightly coloured giant coua bird, herd of goats or nervous chameleon cross the road, the sun has started to set through the mangrove trees. The journey along the 8a has taken over 11 hours, but, perhaps, it wouldn’t be so bad to turn around and do it all again.

Tsingy de Bemaraha

Strap yourself in for a couple of days’ climbing and clambering in Madagascar’s most unusual national park

In Bekopaka, three small boys are attempting to knock mangoes out of a tree with a stick. Around them, jeeps park up beside zebu carts, their passengers leaping out to stretch their legs before heading off to a small office in the village. They are here to book tickets to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, the reason most people travel up the 8a road from Morondava.

The park is split into two sections, Petit and Grand, and the smaller bit lies just beyond the office. Guide Charles Andriasy leads the way in, squeezing through a narrow passage, before issuing a warning: ‘This area is very sacred. There are many tombs in here; you must be respectful to the dead.’ Indeed, the three mango-bothering boys would be discouraged from entering, from the local belief that children might be more likely to encounter a ghost in here.

Some 150 million years ago, the entire region was under the sea; when the water receded, it left behind an otherworldly landscape of limestone spikes and caves, the fossils of long-lost marine animals still visible on their surface. The passing centuries have added new decoration to the rocks: the vines of strangler figs wrap around them and reach into crevices; dark pools of water hide eels and crabs; and the giant cobwebs of golden silk orb-weaver spiders stretch between pinnacles.

Gearhead’s guide to surfing Nicaragua

 Getting your bearings

Waves break year-round in Nicaragua and are best on the Pacific coast. Experienced riders should time trips according the swell and aim to get here from March through September. San Juan del Sur is the long-time surf capital of Nicaragua, and it has the partying pedigree to show for it. It’s also a good spot to gear up, hire out local tour boats to take you to hard-to-reach breaks and spend a few days cruising the colonial streets. Ironically, there’s only one half-decent break right in town. Unless you’re shelling out for daily boat charters, the real action happens in the little surf colonies north and south of here.

South of San Juan, Playa Remanso has a good beach break for beginners, with Playa Tamarindo just south offering up long left and right breaks. It’s also home to the lovingly playful Playa Hermosa Ecolodge (playahermosabeachhotel.com). On the other hand, you could head north, stopping off first at Playa Maderas and its gnarly reef break. Other worthwhile northern surf spots include Bahía Majagual and Arena Blanca.

If you continue on up the coast, you’ll find consistent waves as long as development doesn’t block your access. Playa Popoyo is the king of surf towns around the Central Pacific Coast, but most areas have local board rentals, surf cabins and schools. The good waves continue all the way up through El Salvador from here.

Bring, buy or rent?

If you really love your stick, bring it down. It can cost anywhere from US$50-200 to do it. The online hub of surf info Magic Seaweed (magicseaweed.com) is a great resource for baggage rates to help plan this out (they have good beta on Nicaragua breaks as well). If you’d rather skip that process, you could consider buying a board when you get here and selling it when you leave. San Juan del Sur and Popoyo are the best spots to buy boards. Rentals are often pretty dinged up, but perfect for beginners. Expect to pay $10-20 per hour (negotiating better rates for weekly rentals).

Picking your board

If you’re just getting started, start with a simple soft-top board. They don’t look as cool as ‘real’ surf boards that are traditionally made with a foam core and fiberglass outer shell. But they are easier to carry to the beach, float you like a mother, and are often cheaper than the glassed boards. They are also really stable, meaning you won’t fall off the board every time a wave rolls through the lineup (and won’t get wacked in the face with a hard edge when you do fall off). Generally, rental shops will have a selection of these ‘sponge’ boards, short and longboards, boogie boards and maybe even a few stand-up paddle boards to rent.

Most beginners will start with a longboard (better for less steep waves), while more advanced riders may move to shorter boards. Bigger, heavier surfers tend to go with a bigger, thicker ride. Funboards are a good option for intermediate riders – all the utility of a longboard with more maneuverability. Fishboards are another option for intermediate riders looking for quick takeoffs, some of the bounce of a short board, but more stability and easier paddles out.

For a fun treat, try a stand-up paddle board. They’re fun even if the waves aren’t breaking. You can unleash your ‘rhino chaser’ – your big wave longboard – on some of the bigger breaks up north. If all else fails, you can rent a boogie board and just play on the beach breaks.

Extra Nicaragua surf essentials

Water temps here are around mid-20oC (75oF) most of the year. This means you probably won’t need or want a wetsuit, but in December to April water temps can drop, making an optional wetsuit top like the Rip Curl Dawn Patrol (ripcurl.com) a good idea. You’ll probably want a rash guard top just in case. Billabong (ballabong.com) has some nice options. We only wish they offered more neon! You can pop one on for long sessions to protect you from the sun.

A good leash is essential to keep the board attached to your foot. Dakine (dakine.com) has a ton on offer. You can bring your favourite surf wax with you – even though they sell it in most spots. Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax (sexwax.com) has been around since 1972 (and you gotta love the name). For first timers, the wax goes on the top of the board to make it more grippy, not the bottom.

Things people often forget to bring are sunscreen – yes, they sell it, but it can be like twice the cost as back home. Bugspray. Ditto for price, plus local quality sucks. Also bring along a pair of long-sleeve pants and a long-sleeve shirt, for bug protection, heading to churches in the colonial villages and looking nice come party night.

Surf safaris

A number of companies will build complete surf safaris. Unfortunately, with all the development on the coast, many of best breaks are no longer accessible from the road. You either need to hire local pangas(open-cockpit dorries) to get you there or consider doing a complete package that includes lodging, boats and sometimes all-you-can-drink beer. Most safari packages include three sessions a day at hard-to-reach breaks, plus sometimes a sunset ride on the local break right out your door.