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!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Season's Greetings!

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!!!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Qinghai-Tibet Railway

It is one of the great rail journeys of the modern world. The QingZang Railway, as it is called (Qing refers to Qinghai province in China, while Zang refers to Tibet), connected remote Tibet to China. The last section from Golmud to Lhasa was only completed in end-2005, and it was hailed as one of the major engineering marvels of China.

I did not quite take this train journey for the engineering feat though. Some of the reasons for the difficulty of building this railway is that altitudes at this part of the world exceeds 4000m and majority of the rail track would be on permafrost! But with such conditions, the scenery and landscapes along the way are also super fabulous, and I had wanted to see such remote landscapes.

There are already alot of information on the internet regarding the QingZang Railway, but whichever you choose, do note that train schedules may change. Note also that there are a number of trains that cover this rail journey, with different starting points, so note the various train numbers and the time of your point of embarkation. However, if you are trying to take a train from eg. Xining, and want to get the tickets for the train that originate from Beijing (but will stop at Xining too since all the trains that go to Lhasa will stop by Xining), the tickets are harder to get. There is, however, a train that originate from Xining (K9801). It is this train that I took (which starts at 14:55), and unfortunately, it is NOT the best of timings as I was to find out.

As described by many Tibet tour sites, the QingZang Railway is the world's highest railway, and will pass through the world's highest rail station (5068m) near Tanggula Pass. However, this Xining-Lhasa train (K9801) passes through this pass in the wee hours of the morning, and so we can't see anything of the pass nor the station! (And there's supposed to be a viewing platform on this station!) So for those who specifically want to see/take photos of this, you would have to either take the Lhasa-Xining train, or one of the trains that leaves Xining in the evening.

Nevertheless, the landscapes along the way is still stupendous. And I'm glad I am able to finally ride the QingZang Railway.

Tourists glued to the train window
Meals in the dining car were actually pretty good (though expensive)
Phenomenal landscapes along the QingZang Railway

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Helambu Trek, Nepal

Nepal is one of the top trekking places in the world, with the famous Annapurna Himalayan range as one of its most popular and most visited backdrop. Treks range from 3-18 days, so there is one to fit most people's schedule and fitness. And this is only one part of Nepal!

I've decided to try a less touristy trek, and I have 6 days. So I opted for the Helambu trek, which is part of a bigger Langtang-Gosainkunda-Helambu trek. The Langtang region is also a beautiful trekking region, and Helambu is south of the mountain range. Here's some feedback regarding this trek.

One of the plus points of this trek is its accessibility from Kathmandu. Trekkers to the Annapurna region would have to get to Pokhara, which is either a 7-8hr bus ride or a flight. The Helambu trailhead, on the other hand, is just an hour bus ride away from Kathmandu! At the end of the trek at Melamchi Puul Bazaar, it is also just a 4hr bus back to Kathmandu.

The highlight of the trek is the 3rd day/night at Therapati (3600m). So essentially, the first 2 days of the trek is the ascent to reach Therapati (from 1500m), and the 4th+5th day is the descent. The thing I didn't like about the trek is that most of the ascent (and descent) is all "bunched up". Especially the 4th day after Therapati, it was a continuous 4-hr steep descent which is a sure recipe for feet blisters and damaged knees.

The scenary during the trek is mostly of terraced fields and villages against the mountainous backdrop of the Langtang Himal, Jugal Himal range etc. So expect plenty of greenery. However, my first 2 days of the trek was marked by heavy mists and clouds, which is not common at this time of the year (Oct). So even though at Chisopani (first night), famous for its sunrise views and popular for weekend trips by the locals, I didn't quite get to see a good sunrise. Luckily, when I arrived in Therapati, the weather turned for the better, and it was a spectacular highlight. The lodge/guesthouse was set amidst a spectacular backdrop of mountains, and the setting was picture-perfect. Add to it a beautiful sunset, and an equally enchanting sunrise the next morning, it certainly washed away any negativity of the previous days.

At the end of the day, I had mixed feelings for the trek. If not for the wonderful highlight at Therapati, I would not have enjoyed the trek as much, the main gripe being the long continuous steep ascent/descent on the trek. I also didn't get good weather for half the trip but weather is not something anyone can control.

So for those wanting to experience a short less touristy trek, as opposed to something immensely popular like the Poon Hill trek, this is something to consider.

Terraced fields with snowcapped mountains as backdrop
Contrast of the fertile land and bare snowy mountains
Alpenglow on the Jugal Himal range at Therapati

Sunset in Therapati - High in the clouds
Guesthouse in the mountains (Therapati, 3600m)
Misty atmospheric post-sunrise at Therapati

Village life - one of the key aspects of the trek in Helambu