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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Secret Valleys Of The Sichuan Himalaya

Haizi Valley

The toughest and steepest walk of the three valleys, Haizi Valley also presents the most stunning panoramas of the surrounding mountains and, for strong walkers, a string of deep blue lakes to reflect the snowy peaks. Despite the long uphill walk from the valley floor at 3200m to the turn into Haizi Valley proper, Yaomei Feng (‘Youngest Sister Peak’) still towers impressively at 6250m above her three older siblings and the viewpoints far below. Along the walk, look out for strings of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and take time to stop and admire the panoramas that open up above each of the four small lakes that dot the valley.

Horsemen hire out mounts to Big Lake about halfway up the valley, so even those not keen on a steep hike can hitch a ride this far. Even if you push up the entire 19km valley to the Twin Lakes at 4600m, you’re still far below the enticing summits of Yaomei Feng and her three smaller sisters.

Changping Valley

Just beyond the small tourist village of Rilong, Changping Valley is the middle way between the heights of Haizi Valley and the managed experience of Shuangqiao Valley. Directly at the foot of the Four Sisters massif, Changping Valley offers more closed-in forest trails than sweeping panoramas, but be sure to continue at least to the Muluozi viewpoint for an up-close view of the sisters from below. A short boardwalk starts at the ruins of a Lama monastery, but quickly reverts back to dirt trails after just a few kilometres.

Visitors who’d rather skip the initial five-kilometre road walk from Rilong to the monastery ruins can catch a shuttle bus from the ticket office at the entrance of the valley. It’s also possible to combine Changping with more remote destinations: multi-day treks lead to destinations as close as Bipeng Valley just outside the national park boundary, or as far as the Chengdu Plain near Dujiangyan.

Shuangqiao Valley

The longest of the three hikes at Four Sisters Mountain, Shuangqiao Valley is also the most accessible, with a boardwalk path and bus transfers between the entrance gate and the end of the valley. Though the walk is easy, the views never fall short. Burbling streams, glaciated peaks, pristine ponds and Buddhist stupas line that path throughout. Even with the comparative crowds that come to this easiest hike of the Four Sisters, it isn’t hard to find a moment of peace in such a lovely natural setting. As the landscape transitions from larch forest at the top of the trek down to grasslands at the bottom, the viewpoints like those at White Lake and Hunter’s Peak offer not-to-be-missed looks back at the mountains that ring the upper end of Shuangqiao Valley.

Outside of peak season (May to October), some lower sections of the boardwalk may be closed, so while visitors can still enjoy the mountain vistas they may end up doing more through a bus window than originally expected.

Make it happen

In recent years, tourists have accessed Four Sisters Mountain from the west, via the gateway city of Danba, but nearly-complete construction will soon have the area within easy range of Chengdu once more. Close to the city of Wenchuan, epicentre of the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan, poor road connections with Chengdu have played a major part in keeping Four Sisters Mountain off the beaten tourist trail. With reconstruction of the direct route via Wolong Nature Reserve soon to finish, however, what was once an all-day trip will shrink to three or four hours from Chengdu’s Chadianzi station. Get there before the rest of the world finds out.

Camping is allowed within the valleys of the national park, though only with a local guide. Most travellers will base themselves in the small town of Rilong. There’s a stretch of expensive tour-group hotels along the highway, but about 1km up Changping Valley is a small tourist village in a ‘reconstructed historic’ style that caters more to independent travellers’ needs.

Way Prepare For A Perfect Voyage To Antarctica

Because of its delicate environment, strict regulations and a lack of tourism infrastructure on the continent’s shores, most travelers visit Antarctica on expedition cruises that circumvent the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding islands. Prep for your voyage with the help of a polar travel tour operator – they’ll handle the planning, but suitable packing, physical conditioning and mental readiness is up to you.

Lean on an outfitter for the logistics

Antarctic cruises have the benefit of organized pre- and post-voyage transportation and sometimes include additional excursions aroundUshuaia, Argentina (where most Antarctica-bound vessels call in to port) plus accommodations, on-board meals and expedition gear included in the price. Pick a reputable, International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators-affiliated (iaato.org) outfitter to ensure a safe and environmentally responsible experience.

The more you know, before you go

Reading about Antarctica’s history, geography and wildlife will not only provide pre-trip inspiration, but will help you appreciate the journey as you reflect on the tales of those first explorers who charted the very same waters you’ll be sailing. Antarctica showcases wildlife on a magnificent scale, so learning about the life-cycle and food chain of the continent’s species will provide insight on the mesmerizing and sometimes curious behavior you’ll bear witness to.

If you don’t get a chance to read up before you go, most ships have reference libraries and offer lectures by on-board scientists. You may find yourself sitting next to one of them in the dining hall – pick their brains and you’re guaranteed top-notch dinner conversation.

At the very least, brush up on ice – it’s good to know the difference between a glacier and a ‘berg (the former chills on land while the latter floats out to sea).

Get the right gear

Many outfitters supply essentials like parkas, boots and waterproof trousers. These items are likely to commandeer most of your luggage space, so check with your operator to find out if these will be provided or if you must bring your own. Consult any packing list they supply, which should include items like hats, scarves and gloves (it’s wise to pack a back-up of each), wool socks and base layers.

Layers are everything on an Antarctic expedition, which goes for on-board time as well – you may be cozy with a cup of tea and a book one moment, then rushing outside to spot a pod of killer whales porpoising beside the ship the next. Best have a fleece and a down mid layer quick at hand, plus a pair of waterproof shoes with good grip for the slippery decks.

Non-clothing essentials

Bringing a quality pair of binoculars is wise, and if you want to get good photos of fast-moving wildlife, a zoom lens is ideal for your camera. Be sure to bring some kind of waterproof casing for your camera or mobile phone as splashes while riding on Zodiacs (the smaller boats used to venture out from the cruise ship) are certain.

Despite being a land of ice, the sun is incredibly strong in Antarctica and reflects blindingly off the snow, so sunscreen (at least SPF 45) and sunglasses are necessary. The cold wind can wreak havoc on your lips, so stock up on lip balm with SPF.

As minimal as you should strive to be, it’s nice to have a couple of creature comforts…particularly, edible ones. Most voyages have set meal times and the grub is plentiful, but outside of that, food may be hard to come by. Bring along some trail mix and chocolate or protein bars.

There’s often a strict weight limit on what you can bring on the ship (checked and carry-on luggage combined) and the average ship cabin is scant on square footage. Unless you find comfort in clutter, leave any unessential items at home – your cabin mate will appreciate it.

Shape up to ship out

You don’t have to be a triathlete to go on an expedition cruse to Antarctica, but general physical preparedness and sound mobility make for a much more comfortable voyage. One of the defining realities of a cruise expedition to Antarctica is the crossing of the Drake Passage – twice. This 600-mile stretch of sea between Tierra del Fuego (shared between Argentina and Chile) and the Antarctic Peninsula is notorious for rough waves. It’s the confluence of three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern; their temperatures and currents meld to create swell that once saw explorers perish.

Though the vessels of today are well equipped to maneuver such choppy waters, brace yourself for what will be a bit of a bumpy ride at best and vomitous at worst. When the ship starts to sway as you amble from deck to deck, good balance and leg strength well keep you sure-footed as a goat. When walking around, always keep one handsomewhere on the boat. The handrails you see everywhere serve a purpose (just don’t forget to hit a hand sanitizing station every time you pass one).

After crossing the Drake, it’ll be time to get onto the water in Zodiacs, which requires coordination and balance, plus a bit of core strength to stay upright and steady while zipping around brash ice and ‘bergs. Depending on the operator, excursions like kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, camping, skiing and mountaineering are sometimes on offer, so ensure you’re in the right physical condition to take part. The expedition may also feature a “Polar Plunge” event, where you jump – in most cases, with a harness – off the side of the ship into the freezing ocean. Harness aside, you’ll need to know how to swim for this one.

Settle into setting sail

Once you get onto the vessel, get comfortable – this is your home for at least a week. The people who boarded the ship with glee alongside you were once strangers but are now family, whether you like it or not; you may form fast friendships with some and avoid others as much as possible, until you’re all forced to come together over dinner. Revel in the conversations and share stories, but take solace in solitude where you can find it. Yes, there’s usually (expensive) wifi on board, though there’s no better place on Earth to unplug than at the end of it.

Ways To Explore Colombo For Free

Here are ways to explore this constantly evolving city for free.

Snake charmers charm at Viharamahadevi Park

Colombo is spoilt for choice when it comes to places to chill out, but beautifully maintained Viharamahadevi Park is a city favourite. The parades of palms and fig trees are spectacular, the lawns are dotted with statues and fountains, there are views of Colombo’s colonial-era Town Hall, and there’s always the chance of catching the odd snake charmer in action. Find a shady spot and you can people-watch for hours.

Join the locals on Colombo’s favourite promenade

Whilst it might not be quite as green as it once was, Galle Face Greenis still frequented by locals in search of some relaxing downtime. There’s a tacky but loveable charm to this seafront park, which is animated by bubble-blowers, bouncing beach balls and vibrant kites swooping across the sky. It’s also a great spot for a snack – street food traders congregate on the waterfront at sunset, serving delicious Sri Lankan treats, including crispy egg hoppers and the island’s signaturekottu, a griddle fry-up of chopped noodles, eggs and spices.

Dive into an open-air gallery at Kala Pola Art Market

On any non-rainy day of the week, you can catch a cohort of talented local artists as they transform the streets of Nelum Pokuna into an open-air gallery with their latest creations. The Kala Pola Art Market is the oldest art market in town, and traders have been holding court here for over a century. Some of the work on display is touristy and generic, but there are some gems to be unearthed here if you look beyond the clichéd depictions of elephants and tigers. If you feel like investing, paintings are usually on canvas and can be rolled up to carry away.

Engage with Sri Lankan contemporary art at Paradise Road Gallery

The Paradise Road Gallery (paradiseroad.lk) is a piece of art in itself. This upscale gallery is a beautiful space that exhibits contemporary Sri Lankan artists of high renown and is considered one of the most important art spaces in the country. The general ambience, decadent aesthetic and renowned Gallery Café add to its charm. With monthly rotating exhibitions, it’s definitely worth popping back again for a second visit before leaving the island.

Zen out and meditate at Bellanwila Temple

It’s a pretty tough job finding a temple in Colombo that doesn’t charge tourists nowadays, but for anyone venturing down south to Mount Lavinia, the Bellanwila Temple is a top detour. This is a real locals’ temple, where visitors can experience the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition without having to share it with camera-toting crowds. Unsurprisingly, it’s a great spot for meditation. The temple is famed for its bright and bold Buddhist statues and its revered bodhi-tree – one of thirty-two saplings taken from the sacred bodhi in Anuradhapura.

Love the sunset on Mount Lavinia Beach

Just a forty-minute bus ride from the centre, Mount Lavinia beach is the perfect refuge for travellers wanting to escape the city hustle. Whilst the main drag of Mount Lavinia beach is often dotted with litter, there are plenty of tucked away spots that remain unspoiled and the sunsets here are simply spectacular. As you make your way onto the golden sands, watch for locals taking the back route, walking fearlessly along the coastal railway tracks.

Graffiti in 3D at Diyatha Uyana

Colombo’s most happening public park, Diyatha Uyana, has become an outdoor hub of cultural activity. Created by unknown local artists, trompe l’oeil graffiti artworks that seem to burst into 3D are the latest addition to the park’s artistic legacy, creating dizzying optical illusions in front of the beautiful view over Lake Batturumullam. Make a day of it and explore the serene grounds, scan the vegetation for tropical birds or check out the Good Market held on Thursdays, selling healthy snacks and Sri Lankan crafts.

Books, exhibitions and more at Barefoot Bookshop

More than just a bookshop, Barefoot is a great find. As well as the carefully curated range of titles by Sri Lankan authors, exquisite coffee table books and insightful travel guides in the bookstore, there are free exhibitions, displays of cultural textiles and live Dumbara weaving, all taking place under one roof. Even if you don’t buy, browsing the bookshelves is a great way to learn about the vitality of Sri Lankan culture.

Have a run in with history at Independence Square

Finding time to exercise on a trip to Sri Lanka can be tricky when there’s so much to see and do, but taking a run on the tracks at Independence Square is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. As you work up a sweat, you can admire the Independence Arcade, whose white-washed colonial buildings once housed the Jawatta Lunatic Asylum and the offices of the former Western Provincial Council. Scattered fountains and green spaces en route make this a seriously pleasant place to work out.

Delve into Dutch history at Wolvendaal Church

A short distance from the chaos of Pettah Market, this impressive piece of Dutch architecture was put together in 1757. The jackals that used to roam this area were mistaken for wolves by early Dutch settlers, giving the church its curious name – Wolvendaal, or ‘Valley of Wolves’. Although the church isn’t well maintained, its five-foot thick stonewalls are laden with history. You could spend hours staring at the life stories of forgotten settlers, carved into the ornate tombstones that pave the floor. Catch a church service on Sundays at 9.30am.

Ways To Spend The Festive Period

Surfing in Hawaii

Hitting the waves rather than huddling around the hearth is the order of the day in Hawaii over Christmas. This US state’s surf is spectacular all year round, but takes on legendary status in December on Oahu’s North Shore. Pros and world-class board fanatics head here for swells of more than 30 feet. If that seems a tad too intense, why not join the New Year festivities and feast on whole roasted pig, a tradition which dates back to the native Hawaiians’ end-of-year Makahiki Festival, when locals took a whole four months out to party. Whether you opt for surfing or stuffing that tummy (or both), we’re sure you can squeeze in a few hours of post-Christmas dinner sunbathing.

Keep it festive: Honolulu’s annual City Lights event brings Rockefeller Center vibes to Hawaii. Think brash decorations, a brightly lit tree and carols.

An Antarctic cruise for Christmas and New Year

A cold Christmas doesn’t have to mean hunkering down when the sun sets at 3pm. Antarctica’s brief summer coincides with the festive period, making it the perfect time to hop on a boat and cruise along the icy continent’s peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. Polar Cruises (polarcruises.com) operates a 10-night trip which starts in Port Stanley on the Falklands and makes its way south for hiking stops on the mainland, plus the chance to see penguins, humpback whales and albatross up close. The constant daylight means the views are often relentless, so be sure to wrap up warm and spend as much time on deck as possible.

Keep it festive: If weather allows, take a hike on Winter Island and build a snowman at an old British Antarctic Survey hut.

Christmas and New Year safari in Namibia

After November’s rains, Namibia’s parched earth begins to turn a lush green. Newly replenished watering holes are a magnet for wildlife and the drier days of December make it the perfect time to visit. Etosha National Park, in the north of the country, is the classic destination for first timers, where big game, black rhino and some of Africa’s largest elephants roam in search of sustenance after months of dry and dusty conditions. Throw in huge views of the Etosha salt pan and the chance to drive through the ethereal red desert in the far south and this is a festive adventure as far removed from mince pies and wintry walks as you can get.

Keep it festive: Namibia’s status as a former German colony means finding traditional festive treats isn’t a struggle. Bars in the capitalWindhoek serve up warm glühwein, despite the scorching summer weather.

Fake snow and Christmas lights in Hanoi

Vietnam doesn’t stop for Christmas. But that doesn’t mean the locals don’t go in for all the usual festive brouhaha. Wander along Hang Ma Street in the city’s labyrinthine Old Quarter and you’ll find a huge selection of tacky decorations, with Christmas trees and snowmen lit up outside every shop. Fake snow is blown across parks, while many of the city’s moped riders don Santa outfits once 25 December comes around. And if you love a spot of bargain hunting, the city’s malls go all out when it comes to the festive sales, flogging off high-end goods at knockdown prices.

Keep it festive: Hanoi’s crumbling St Joseph’s Cathedral is the perfect place to attend midnight Mass and see traditional nativity scenes. Plus you can celebrate afterwards with a drink in one of the Bia Hoi (fresh draught beer) joints outside the main gates.

Tango in Buenos Aires

Argentina’s Catholic heritage means that the festive period is a huge deal in Buenos Aires. Festivities kick off on 8 December with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and there’s little let up until New Year’s Day. Christmas Eve is the day you want to make sure you’re in town though. This is the main day of celebration and undoubtedly the best way to spend it is at a tango show. Theatres lay on a feast while performers take to the stage, so you can enjoy a glass of Malbec and a hefty steak rather than sitting bolt upright in an uncomfortable seat in the stalls. La Ventana and El Viejo Almacen are both top picks.

Keep it festive: Buenos Aires does New Year fireworks like nowhere else. Armed with rockets, locals take the DIY approach, spending the minutes after midnight lighting up the city sky. Find a safe spot, look up and marvel.

A four-week festive party in Fiji

When it comes to indulging over the festive season, few places are better than Fiji. Beginning two weeks before the big day and continuing for two weeks after, Fijian communities gather together to perform ritual fan and spear dances, decorating their villages with lamps and candles. Feasts are prepared in traditional lovo hot stone ovens, with dishes including garlic chicken, cassava and Palusami, spiced mutton in coconut cream. Locals also indulge in the ritual drinking of kava, a homemade moonshine of pepper plant root and water which is not for the faint-hearted.

Keep it festive: Keep an eye out for Santa plying the beaches, handing out presents from his tropical sleigh, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a speedboat.

Beach vibes in Sydney

Escaping the frosty northern winter for fun in the Aussie summer sun is a ritual we can definitely recommend. For one, there’s Sydney’s first-rate surfing. Bronte and Tamarama beaches offer superb breaks for those wanting to get down with the locals. Then there’s the sheer novelty of having a barbecue rather than a gut-busting roast dinner come mid-afternoon. And on New Year’s Eve, you can enjoy spectacular fireworks over the harbour bridge and Opera House without having to wrap up against the midnight chill like you do in New York or London.

Keep it festive:It might be over 30℃, but it’s essential you don a cheap Santa hat if you’re spending the big day down at Bondi Beach.