Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sümela Monastery, Turkey

For those who had ventured to the eastern part of Turkey, or specifically, for those who found themselves in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey, Sümela Monastery is simply one of the must-visit attractions there!

Also known as The Monastery of Virgin Mary, it was a Greek Orthodox monastery built into the face of a steep cliff. Founded by 2 hermit priests who discovered a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave in the mountain, the monastery had gone through various restorations in its long history. However, in recent times, it looks like the monastery could do with some preservation, especially the amazing frescoes found in the monastery!!

Indeed, the frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the various buildings in the monastery are one of the best I've seen! Unfortunately, poor protection of the site had resulted in most of the frescoes being damaged by wandering shepherds and ignorant tourists. However, there are reports that in 2012, the Turkish government would be funding some restoration works, and it would bode well for the local tourism.  Sümela Monastery is currently in the tentative list of UNESCO sites for Turkey.

There are many agencies and hotels in Trabzon arranging day tours to the monastery, which is basically just shared van transport to the monastery. You can, of course, pay for private tours and guides. You'll be deposited near the entrance of the monastery, and after approximately 1.5 hrs, you can take a short walk down a path back to the carpark where the van would bring you back to Trabzon.

Hopefully, the restoration works would enable the site to revert back to its full glory!! Check it out once you have the chance!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alamut Valley

One of my favourite places I visited during my trip in Iran is the trip to Alamut Valley. Famed for some great scenery, trekking opportunities and a famous castle ruin, backpackers and guidebooks gave really positive feedback for the place.

However, I went when the season was plunging into winter (Nov), and the night before, there was a heavy snowfall that blocked parts of the road such that I almost could not make the journey. So, I didn't have any trekking opportunities, but the resulting white landscapes more than made up for it! The whole journey as we entered the valley had us glued to the car window, and forcing our driver to make a couple of photography stops. And the amazement did not stop as we reach the village of Gazor Khan, our entry to Alamut Castle.

Perched on a steep cliff, Alamut Castle is one of the famed Castles of Assassins. This castle, led by Hassan-i Sabbah, is a stronghold of a Ismaili Muslim group. Part of this group, The Assassins, target high level figures and many stories of their history and origins etc can be found on the Net. As romantic as the history may sound, the hike up the snowy paths and stairs were alot more down-to-earth. Reaching the entrance, a soldier-cum-guard would register our presence, and then escorted us into the castle ruins. The ruins itself, though, were just stones and corrugated metal sheetings. But it's the commanding views that catches our breath away, and possibly explained why Alamut roughly means “Eagle’s Nest”! The view of the entire Alamut valley, with pretty Gazor Khan below all covered in a beautiful white coat was simply phenomenal! Truly one of the best landscapes I've seen in a while!

Alamut can be reached via shared taxis from Qazvin, a city north of Tehran. I managed to meet up with 3 other travelers in Qazvin, and shared taxis can be arranged from the hotel. From Gazor Khan, shared taxis back to Qazvin leaves early mornings 5-6am. There are a couple of homestays in Gazor Khan (as listed in Lonely Planet guide), and it's definitely recommended to stay a night or two if you're intending to trek/hike (where weather permits).

For me, the views atop Alamut Castle would stay foreever etched in my mind....

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stolby Nature Reserve, Krasnoyarsk

For travellers planning their Trans-Siberian journey, here's a tip. Besides your obligatory stop at Lake Baikal, do check out Krasnoyarsk. Or more pointedly,  check out Stolby Nature Reserve, especially if you're doing it in autumn!

The Stolby Nature Reserve is set in a taiga forest, and amidst this forest, rock cliffs of various shapes and sizes rise up majestically. These rocks are called 'stolby' and hence its name. 'Stolby' is actually the plural for 'stolb' which is Russian for 'pillar'. Naturally, some of the more uniquely shaped or prominent rocks would have names bestowed upon them, like 'Grandmother', 'Grandfather' etc.

Aside from hikes and walks, many of the locals also come here for another sporting activity - rock climbing! In fact, it is a very popular spot for 'free climbing', both for leisure as well as for training! I was lucky that I befriended some Russians who guided and helped me with some climbing. And atop some of the high stolby, the views are just spectacular! In summer, the expanse would be undoubtedly a sea of green (which can be nice), but in autumn, the ocean of yellow, splashed with pockets of green is one of the more impressive autumn scenes I've seen! And I would love to witness what it's like in winter!!

The nature reserve can be reached via public bus number 50 from Krasnoyarsk city (but do confirm again as bus number routes can easily change). There is also a ski resort area easily accessible by bus (no. 37), but I hear that the stolby there are limited. So I highly recommend a visit to the Stolby Nature Reserve as one of your stops on the Trans-Siberian rail!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Street Art :: Graffiti

For someone who can't draw, or paint or even sketch, I have thus always admired the beautiful street art or even graffiti art in the streets of some of the countries I've been. And huge hand-drawn murals on the walls of buildings would always make me pause and gawk.

As it turns out, when I visited the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, it was not the famous beaches, nor the carnival atmosphere that left the most impression. It was the impressive street art that decorate every drawable space on the streets!

So when you next visit Rio de Janeiro, try to walk the streets and admire these art. In any case, here's sharing some pictures of the street handiwork. Enjoy!