Sunday, June 28, 2015

Val d'Orcia & Pienza

The landscape in Tuscany is well-known, and many breathtaking images had been made there. Aside from the famous Chianti region, famed for its wine, there are other areas with equally enchanting landscapes. In particular, I am somewhat enamored with Val d'Orcia.

Val d'Orcia is added into UNESCO's World Hertiage Site list only in 2004. According to wikipedia, one of the criterions is :
"The Val d’Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create aesthetically pleasing pictures."

I am absolutely won over by the "aethestically pleasing pictures" part. Indeed, with the rolling hills, the varied shaded fields, and well placed trees, the light play during the early morning and late evening hours is truly mesmerizing. The light and shadows on display create endless possibilities for a stunning image. A landscape photographers' dream scene.

Tuscany is a region that is best experienced with a vehicle. Public transport is limited to buses with limited schedules and only certain towns are linked by trains. However, it is still possible to appreciate Val d'Orcia on public transport and come away with its beautiful landscape pictures. One of the possible village/town to stay is Pienza, which has bus connections with Siena. The town itself was declared a UNESCO site even earlier, and perched on a hill overlooking the valley, it is an excellent site for photographing the landscape right within the town itself!

Pienza, a beautiful old town with beautiful views

Pienza is also situated between Montalcino and Montelpuchiano, both famous wine town/regions. Hence Pienza benefits from their success as well. Good selection of the Brunello Montalcino and the Nobile Montelpuchiano (both very highly regarded wines) are available everywhere, and it is a good life staying here with different wines for each of your meals. Pienza itself is also famous for its pecorino, a kind of Italian sheep cheese. Thus a stay in Pienza entails enjoying Italian food with great wine, sampling pecorino with great wine, and photographing stunning landscapes with great wine. What is there not to like about Pienza? :)

Check out Pienza and Val d'Orcia when you next visit Tuscany!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Driving through the Lofoten in Winter

It is not often that I have a driving road-trip with friends, and it was by a stroke of luck that I had managed to get two friends to join me on a short part of my Norway trip - the Lofoten islands.

The Lofoten is an archipelago well beyond north of the Arctic Circle, and is famed for its natural beauty of mountains, seas, bays and islets. In summer, it is popular for hiking as well as boat trips and water-based activities. In winter, things die down quite a bit though, with alot of tourist facilities closing or operating at very limited hours. However, it is a wonderful location for Aurora hunting. In addition, the winter scenery is just phenomenally spectacular. and so appreciating it on your own terms in your own transport is probably the best bet.

The easiest and fastest way to the Lofoten is flying into Svolvaer, the administrative centre for most of the Lofoten. My friends flew in (from Oslo) and by their accounts, the flight in was absolutely beautiful. I flew from Oslo to Narvik (on mainland Norway) instead, on Norwegian, a low-cost airline, and then took a bus in. The bus journey to Svolvaer to meet my friends had me glued to the window already. For those who prefer to do overland travel from Oslo, you can take the train from Oslo to Bodo, and then take a ferry. Finally, if you find yourself in Kiruna Sweden, getting to Lofoten is also easy. Get onto the Arctic Circle Train, and then bus in. You'll be spell-bound on all segments of your journey!

Bussing in the Lofoten in winter

We rented a car in Svolvaer, and then drove around the islands. It was arguably one of the most beautiful drive trips I had. If you ever have the opportunity, and love winterscapes, do check it out. In the meantime, enjoy a timelapse snippet of our drive through Lofoten in winter! (Remember to maximise the youtube screen :) )

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Republic of Artsakh

The Republic of Artsakh, or officially Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, is one of the more interesting "countries" that I've visited. Landlocked between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is a de-facto independent state that is currently unrecognized by the United Nations and most of the world.

As a "oblast" (something like province) in Azerbaijan during the Soviet Union era, it came under dispute after the Soviet Union's collapse with both Armenia and Azerbaijan laying claims on it (majority of the people in the region are ethnic Armenians). It declared its own independence in 1991 (with support from Armenia) resulting in the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1991 to 1994. While the war had ended, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained unresolved, even till today.

When I visited in 2011, they are celebrating their 20th year of independence

The only way to visit Nagorno-Karabakh is through Armenia, on a land-border crossing. In fact, a visa is needed as well. Interestingly, this visa can be gotten in the capital Stepanakert itself which means that somehow, you have to get into the country first to get the visa....! Apparently, at the border crossing, you will be issued some papers, and the visa collected in Stepanakert, and all these to be checked upon exit of the country. However, it is better to get the visa in Yerevan, which is what I did. It is rather painless and takes just 1 working day. Because of the sensitive issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Artsakh, visitors who intend to visit Azerbaijan in the future may not want the visa affixed in the passport. Travelers will be denied entry when entering Azerbaijan if immigration officals find a Nagorno-Karabakh visa in their passport!

My visa

The typical attractions in Nagorno-Karabakh, like Armenia, centers around its churches and monasteries. I visited Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Christ the Holy Savio in Shushi, as well Gandzasar Monastery in Vank, which is an attraction in itself. However, what left the deepest impression was the people I met. Those that I spoke to who could speak English were friendly, and what struck me was that all of them seemed especially proud of their country, with sentences comprising of my country this, and my country that. In fact, when I was browsing in a cake/pastry shop, the owner asked me what I liked and I pointed to a cake. As probably one of her rare foreign customers, we had simple conversation and at the end, the cake was offered to me free with a farewell, "I hope you like my country."!

Local market
Cathedral of Christ the Holy Savio in Shushi

Of course, no visit to Nagorno-Karabakh is complete without visiting their "We are Our Mountains" monument, which is something of a national symbol. Known locally as Tatik-Papik (translated as Grandma and Grandpa), it is also found in their coat-of-arms, as well as the visa that you receive, which makes for a great souvenir!

Tatik-Papik monument

If you like off-the-beaten-path destinations, how about visiting this unrecognized country! 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Quirky Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic

One of the stranger villages I've visited in my travels happened to be in a country that has remained unrecognized internationally for over two decades. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a de facto independent state situated in the Caucasus region, and the town in question is Vank.

Situated in the northern part of the disputed region, Vank is the go-to village when visiting the historical 13th-century Gandzasar monastery. Well preserved of its Armenian architecture, this medieval monastery hold relics believed to be from St. John the Baptist, and so its one of the more "well-known" tourist attraction in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, aside from Gandzasar, Vank has turned out to be almost an attraction in itself.

Beautiful Gandzasar Monastery

You see, the village happened to be the birthplace of a certain Levon Hayrapetyan, a Moscow millionaire businessman, who decided to give back to his hometown. He pumped in money building a modern new school, a lumber mill, and a bizarre hotel named Hotel Eclectica, which everyone calls Hotel Titanik, presumably because, well, it is shaped like a ship!!

Together with the huge modern school building, the "Titanic" looked perfectly and spectacularly out of place in a village of simple stone houses. And somewhere between them, a street runs with a wall-fence of some sort that seemed to be made of rusting car license plates. Which in fact, it is. Apparently, these are car license plates from Azeris who had fled during the Nagorno-Karabakh War! (The Nagorno-Karabakh War is an ethnic war fought between the Armenians in this region and Azerbaijan)

Village of Vank
Village school building
Hotel Eclectica/Titanic

Hotel Eclectica/Titanic
I'm sure you can guess which part of the hotel this is....

Hotel restaurant
Wall of license plates

I stayed only 1 night in a cold unheated room in the Titanic @ 6000 (Armenian) dram a night (I remember it was approx us$16-18 then). I believe I was the only guest in the hotel. I was certainly the only guest in the restaurant and the food took 50 minutes to arrive. And I didn't have time to visit another "attraction" - a lion carved out of a mountainside rock. Apparently, it will roar when visitors walk past it. Hmm. 

Vank is easily accessed via marshrutkas from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. I will cover more of Nagorno-Karabakh in my next post. Watch for it!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Valbonë and the Accursed Mountains

Albania may not be that well-known as a tourist attraction in Europe, let alone as a trekking & hiking destination. But its Albanian Alps is not just any hiking destination - it's a truly spectacular one.

Also known as the 'Accursed Mountains', the most popular trek/hike is between the villages of Theth & Valbonë. Unfortunately, I visited Valbonë in early spring, and the mountain pass between the two villages are still closed due to heavy snow, so I couldn't do the trek. In fact, the two days I was there, it was snowing and raining intermittently, and so the day-treks that I could do around Valbonë itself was also limited. Nevertheless, the mountain scenery was still breathtaking even if the canvas was a cloudy grey.

Hiking in the Albanian Alps
Hiking from this..... this! Too much snow for further hiking

Beautiful clear pools too

The best resource for this region is the website Journey to Valbona. Catherine, the driving force behind that setup, is a pot of energy and enthusiasm. Accommodation info, trekking maps, friendly chatter and all-round hospitality is available at her place. When I visited her, she was busy with the preparation for the official start of the trekking season due in a week. (Yes, I was early by 1 week! :( )
She even arrange local volunteers to check the hiking trails to ensure that the signs and markers are still visible. I stayed at the 'Farmhouse' just to savor Nene Sose Selimaj's homecooked food! A truly pleasant stay.

Guesthouse in Valbona

Homecooked food by Mother Sose Selimaj

Local minivan transport is available between Shkodra (a place to visit in is own right) and Theth, while Valbonë is similarly reached via the town of Bajram Curri. The lonelyplanet guide highly recommended the Koman Ferry route from Shkodra to Fierza (on Lake Komani) and then to Bajram Curri by minivan. Otherwise, if you are in Tirana, there are minivans plying between Bajram Curri and Tirana, but note that the route goes through Kosovo (ie you will go through entry and exit immigration to Kosovo!). For me, it worked out great as I planned on visiting Kosovo after Valbonë and it was just 2hours between Bajram Curri and Prizren.

Visitors to Albania would no doubt usually cover Tirana and the UNESCO sites south of it (Berat, Gjirokastr, Butrint) but for those who love nature and hiking, check out Valbonë and the Accursed Mountains up at the north!


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dallol & the Danakil Depression

After visiting Erta Ale, the next highlight of the Danakil Depression is equally surreal, and no less easy to visit - the salt mines and sulphur springs of Dallol.

This time, our base is the "village" of Hamed Ila that consists of more of the rickety "tree-branch" huts that is common in the Afar region. Like the night in Erta Ale, sleeping options were just "safari beds" - outdoor collapsible camping beds, which was laid out outside the hut. It would be much cooler to sleep in the open.

The Afar homestead, and the only accommodation option (though we slept outside)

Again, military escorts were brought in, and the visit to the sulphur springs was first. This time, we were driven barely an hour and then it was "only" a 30-40 minutes walk to the site. But it was a walk through a broken land of sharp rocks, bizarre-shaped formations, and soul-sapping heat. I had brought a 1-litre bottle of water along and it was barely enough.

The yellow-brown-stained landscape is an eye-opening sight. I had thought the Bolivian Altiplano desert to be unearthly but the scene here is downright alien. Bubbling pools of  yellow-white sulphuric acid smear the reddish-brown hardened ground, with pockets of greenish mineral ponds and ghastly weird protrusions scattered throughout. Admiration of the scene though, was somewhat marred by the suffocating sulphuric air (even with a face mask) and the constant heat. So remember to bring a good face mask and plenty of water! I was on the verge of a heat-stroke on return to our vehicle!

Military escort vehicle leading us through broken and used land - this used to be covered with salt!!

Short hike to the sulphur springs

Alien landscape

Alien landscape
Sulphur deposits and acid pool

The visit to the open-plain salt mine is relatively "straitforward", as compared to the other sites. The depression was created as a result of tectonic plate movements, and as a result, seawater flooded the depression many years ago. When the seawater dried up, a layer of salt encrusted the entire ground. When we reached the "mining site", it was in the middle of nowhere, and there was nothing but some waiting camels and a group of Afar men hacking, cracking and prying salt blocks from the ground using primitive tools. There was absolutely no sign of any permanent structure or machine, and when enough salt is harvested, the salt merchant would then transport the salt out using their camel caravans. I could never imagine how they could work under such conditions with barely a shelter in sight!

Breaking the salt ground and prying out the salt

Blocks of salt would be cut into standard size and loaded onto the camels

As mentioned in the previous post, most trips to the Danakil Depression start from Mekele in northern Ethiopia, and include both Dallol and Erta Ale. Trips can be arranged in Addis Ababa and while overland trip is possible, you will need 2 more days to-and-fro from Addis. Flights to Mekele will make sense if your international flight to Ethiopia is on Ethiopian Airlines as you would get very competition prices for their domestic legs. So check out the prices before you decide.

The sights in the Danakil Depression are indeed extraordinary, and for those who are willing to face the hardship, they would be rewarded with a very memorable trip, though probably in more ways than one!

Salt merchants transporting salt in their camel caravans
-120m below sea level and 45 degrees Celsius

Monday, January 12, 2015

Erta Ale & The Danakil Depression

I have visited only a couple of volcanoes up-close (mainly in Indonesia), and none of it with any visible lava activity. So I was pretty excited when I finally came face-to-face with a lava lake in the crater of a volcano!

There are not many volcanoes out there with an active lava lake, and Erta Ale in northern Ethiopia is one of them. However, reaching it is an endeavour not to be taken lightly. Erta Ale lies in a region known as the Danakil Depression - a geographical depression and one of the lowest places/land in the world (-125m). It is also one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures reportedly soaring above 50 degrees Celsius, and with almost no rain year-round. Needless to say, this harsh and inhospitable land poses a logistic challenge to anyone who wants to go there.

Afar nomads in the harsh environment
Drought-stricken land

In order to visit the volcano, permits, military escorts and local politics add to the complexity. The Afar region, as it is also known, with its proximity to Eritnea and Djibouti, is pretty lawless and so a permit and four military personnel are required for a visit. Two local policemen were also deemed necessary for company, and of course, a special local Afar guide. And then it's hours of bumpy and dusty jeep ride in 40-ish degree or more temperatures (we went in Oct). While our jeeps have air-conditioning, oftentimes our driver had to switch it off intermittently for fear of engine overheat and/or to conserve power to maneuver over harsh terrain etc.

Finally, our jeep could only bring us to a El Dom, a village "base-camp" of sorts, close to Erta Ale itself. Led by the Afar guide and the militia, a 3-4 hour hike in darkness over jagged rugged volcanic terrain would then bring us up to near the crater to see the lava lake. The hike should only be attempted after the sun set, as otherwise, the heat would probably suck our bodies dry!

But brave through all of the above, and you would be rewarded with one of the most surreal and mesmerizing nature displays on earth....!

Heading towards the glowing crater mouth
Lava Burst
Photographing the lava lake!

Flowing Inferno
Pardon the poor timelapse video, which was done using an old GoPro2

The hardship is not over yet! A short nap in some ramshackle huts close to the crater allowed us some rest and before sunrise, we had to head back to El Dom. This time though, the brightening sky made the going easier. Otherwise, we certainly wouldn't want to be caught in the heat when the sun rose too high!

One of our soldier guide resting on the volcanic terrain

If it's not evident already, visiting Erta Ale is certainly quite costly. Most trips start from the city of Mekele, and typically would include another highlight of the Danakil Depression - the sulphur springs and salt mines of Dallol which I would cover in the next blog post. So, watch out for it!