Sunday, December 22, 2013

Abisko National Park

In my quest for the Northern Lights, I've made trips to Finland and Norway, and on my Norway trip, I made a little excursion to Sweden too. This turned out to be one of the best side trips as I had one of my best aurora sightings there!

Watching the Northern Lights

Abisko National Park lies in the Swedish Lapland region and is a popular hiking and trekking area. In fact, it is part of the popular 425-km trail known as Kungsleden trail. In winter, it is popular for cross-country ski-ing and other winter sports activities. And being 100+km above the Arctic Circle, and with little light population, it is an excellent place for aurora hunting too!

Within the park, there is a village of the same name, and not far from that, a resort/lodge known as Abisko Turiststation. Aside from providing lodging, the park visitor information centre is also here. And the best part? A train station is just 5-min walk away! And the second best part? The lodge also provides hostel dormitories and a self-service kitchen!

Abisko Turiststation

For budget backpackers, this is as good as it gets for a DIY trip for Northern Lights. Just 20-min walk away from the lodge, there is a Torneträsk Lake where one can witness the lights. In fact, it just takes a 5-min walk away from the lodge and you would be in a dark enough place to see the phenomena (if it appears ;) ). On one of the 3 nights I was there, I was lucky that the display was so great that I could enjoy the sighting literally just outside the lodge! 

For those who have quite abit of money to spare, there are professional guiding as well, and there is a ski-lift ride that brings you up the mountain slope for viewing. The views from above would be quite spectacular especially if the aurora turns up! There is a full suite of activities available too, from dog-sledding, snow-shoeing to Sami camp hikes. The restaurant is supposedly very good as well, and all-in-all, it's an excellent tourist spot catered to various budgets!

Walking within the National Park

Frozen lake and surrounding mountains

You can easily get to Abisko Turiststation by train from either Kiruna or Narvik in Norway. The train ride itself is spectacularly scenic as well, and I've written about it here.

For independent travelers who are adverse to signing on expensive tours, Abisko makes an excellent easy option for Northern Lights hunting. Check it out!

Walking at night in the national park

Aurora swirling just outside the lodge
Viewing the Aurora Borealis

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Yazd, Iran

One of my favourite town stays in my trip to Iran has to be Yazd. While Esfahan attracts with its beauty, Yazd attracts with its simple authenticity.

Yazd is a stop in many typical Iran itineraries, although for shorter trips, it seemed to be left out for the more convenient Tehran-Esfahan-Shiraz route. Being one of the oldest towns in the world, it has its fair share of historical and cultural attractions, including quite abit of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion/culture. All these, like the Fire Temple and the Towers of Silence etc is easily found in guidebooks/online etc.

Admiring the interior of the Jame Mosque

For me, the highlight is the old town itself, which of course, is one of the attractions as well. I love wandering in the alleys and discovering unique encounters within the uniform coloured adobe maze. There is a historical air about the place, and everything you see is probably as is since the olden days. Unfortunately, this also means you do see parts or sections that has crumbled and nothing has been done to it. The people in Iran are also among the friendliest in the world, and chatting with the local residents can sometimes be as gratifying as gazing upon an expansive landscape. And capturing the expressions of the kids are also quite a delight!

Yes, you could cycle too!
The wind towers of Yazd

Life within the old town
Joys of travel encounters

Travel portraits!

For those souvenir shopoholic, Yazd's textiles and silk weavings are of good regard and even Marco Polo noted its quality when he visited the town on his journey. And you could get yourself Persian carpets too, and make it fly! (of course, current day carpets gotta fly by plane within some cargo hold or something.... ;) ). And to make any stay complete, alot of the accommodation options in Yazd are converted/renovated from old traditional houses which seemed to retain alot of charm, especially the beautiful courtyards for you to rest after a good day out.

Do include Yazd in your Iran itinerary!

Respite after a hard day's "work"

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Svalbard was one of those places where once I found out where it was, I had thought how cool was it to visit, but in all likelihood, I would not. At that time, I had thought the only way to visit was via expensive cruise ships or be in some scientific expeditions.

But during my research for my Northern Lights trip to Norway, I realized that there are commercial flights from Tromso (one of the cities I'm visiting) to Longyearbyen, the capital city in Svalbard, and that they're reasonably priced (like us$180 for a return tix). And so I found myself in Svalbard!

Svalbard is an archipelago or group of islands situated north of Norway. In fact, it is about halfway between Norway and the North Pole! Spitsbergen is the largest of the islands, and that's where Longyearbyen is. Situated at 78°45'N, it is the northernmost town/city in the world (though there are smaller villages and settlements even further north!). As such, one would be visiting many "northernmost" things in the trip!

Being so far north also means that Longyearbyen experiences polar nights, and for 4+ months, the place is plunged into darkness. On March 8, the sun finally peeks over the horizon, and so a Sun festival is held to celebrate its arrival. I visited in late March, so I missed the festival, but during that time, the sun is always low in the sky and so the lighting is phenomenal for photography! The town itself has a "wild wild west" feel, except that its the wild wild north! :)

But one of the best experience in Svalbard is a trip into the Arctic wilderness. There are no roads in Spitsbergen, and so if one is to get to another settlement by land, the mode of transport is typically snowmobile. Thus, the most common things to do in Longyearbyen for tourists are dog-sledding or snowmobile trips out of the town. I went on a snowmobile expedition to the eastern coast of the island, and the experience was crazy. It was an adventure!

We were given a 15-minute crash course on operating the snowmobile. After which, it was "on-the-job training" which we had plenty of. The whole expedition was almost 10-hours, with most of it on the snowmobile. But the sights were simply amazing, and it was truly a wilderness out there. We were a little too early in the season, else we might be able to catch a glimpse of polar bears too! It was a very tiring trip, but certainly one of my top memorable travel experiences! 

As mentioned earlier, there are cruise ships that sail to Svalbard but the most common way to get to Svalbard is by flying. Svalbard is governed by the Svalbard Treaty, which separates it from normal Norway government, although it is under Norwegian sovereignty. So while Norway is in Schengen, Svalbard is not. Currently, all flights go through Norway, so check your entry requirements to Norway.

So for those in search of adventure in off-the-beaten-path places, Svalbard should be in your bucket lists!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nicosia, the Last Divided Capital

I have been through some interesting border crossings, and one of the most interesting ones I had was in Nicosia, the capital of the Republic of Cyprus.

Border crossing? In a capital? Well, in 1974, Turkish forces invaded the north portion of the island of Cyprus, and as a result, as much as 40% of the island came under Turkish control. A ceasefire line was then established, and this demilitarised zone became the United Nations Buffer Zone, more commonly known as the Green Line. The northern part went on to declare itself independent, and became what is known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), though it is only recognised by Turkey.

Amazingly, this Green Line cuts through the capital city, and equally amazingly, the border crossing is situated within the old walled city in its main shopping street!! Luckily, the old walled city separation was equal, and Nicosia became known as the last divided capital.

Interestingly shaped walled city, divided into two

Imagine walking along a shopping street known as Ledra street. Then the street abruptly ends at some sort of a junction (I was on the TRNC side and I remember there were some clothes on a rack on display) and right in front is the border controls. Border formality is simple enough, with a simple paper "visa" issued and stamped. Then you walk into a block of "alleyway" that is within the Green Line. When I was there, there was small a photo exhibition within it, surrounded by crumbling building facade! When you reach the other end of the border control, the shopping street then continues (but of course, in another "country")!

Border control & shopping
Within the Green Line
Photo of the historic event in the photo exhibition

Known as Lefkosia by the Greeks, the capital city itself is quite interesting, with contrasting architectures and lifestyles. The Republic of Cyprus is part of the EU and uses the euro, while TRNC uses the Turkish lira. So things are markedly cheaper on the Turkish side and I usually try to have my meals on the Turkish side :). Attractions are mainly the usual city stuff of museums, churches etc, so grab your favourite guidebook for that.

And then, there is *another* border crossing, just outside the walled city. And no less bizarre. This border crossing is actually within a hotel premises!! So for the curious, one should walk out of the walled city and do this crossing as well.

Ledra Palace Hotel crossing outside the walled city
Nationalistic border post

Getting in, there are flights to Larnaca in the south, from various European cities but they seemed quite expensive. Most would visit via ferry or cruise ships from Greece, but I flew into TRNC instead. Flights into TRNC are only available from Turkey, but I was in Turkey prior, and the flights are cheap, so it worked out well.

For those who are into quirky border crossings, you have to check out the last divided capital!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Amazon Riverboat Journey

For many travelers, the journey itself constitute as much of the trip experience as the destination. Sometimes more. Especially for long term budget backpacking trips, often than not, the time spent on the road is quite substantial. Of course, it need not be on the "road" per se. It could be on water/air etc. And arguably one of my most memorable travel experience would be the riverboat journey on the Amazon.

There are actually quite a number of options for a journey on the Amazon river. The most common ones are from Iquitos in Peru to Leticia in Colombia, Leticia to Manaus in Brazil, and even continuing within Brazil from Manaus to Belem. You have the options of slow boats and fast boats, and of course whether to go upstream or downstream. The journey from west to east is downstream, so its faster. I took the the boat from Leticia to Manaus, a 4D3N journey.

Leticia itself is quite interesting as a tri-border town. Tabatinga is the Brazilian town next to it, and is separated just by a street! Santa Rosa, a Peruvian island, is just a 5-minute boat ride away. There is a Brazilian consulate in Leticia, which processed my Brazil visa application in a day. Boat tickets are bought on the day itself, on the port in Tabatinga.

There are a very limited number of cabins on the riverboat, but the "magic" of the experience is doing it the local way. Which entails buying/getting a hammock in Leticia/Tabatinga, and getting comfortable with/in it. Yes, the 3 nights spent onboard the boat would be on your hammock, but still, that knowledge did little to prepare myself for the culture shock that follows. I guess it was the chaotic unexpected-ness of the whole situation that caught me.

Nevertheless, after things settle down, I find myself able to just relax and appreciate the journey. You need not confine yourself to your hammock, and there is a small cafeteria bar on the top deck (although also filled with hammocks). I find myself spending most of the time enjoying the views and the breeze at the two sides of the boat. After all, I was cruising down the Amazon river, and like the Trans-Siberian rail, was one of those dream journeys I had dreamed of, coming true.

For those of you who have slept in temple grounds, stayed in jungle huts, bunked in 30-bed dorms, or camped in desert dunes, try hammocking along the Amazon river! I'll bet it'll be one of your most memorable travel experience too!

Start of trip - the "less crowded" moment....

Introduction to Amazon fruits 101

Hammocks "night scene"

Enjoying the views/ride

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Svaneti, Georgia

The Caucasus mountain region of Svaneti in Georgia was raved about, both in guidebooks as well as by travelers. It is not difficult to see why. Boasting high mountain peaks, unspoilt trekking opportunities, and villages steeped in ancient traditions, it is an out-of-the-beaten-path destination that time had passed it by.

The town of Mestia is the tourism hub of Svaneti, with transport links to the rest of Georgia. But there are smaller villages in the region that could provide an even more authentic stay. I was referred to a homestay in the village of Becho, where indeed I had the experience of traditional living with a Svan family. Unfortunately, it was so "non-touristy" that no English was spoken, and I could not find out more information about their life. But I was treated to a small little "performance" by the little boy in the family, which I believe is a form of their traditional polyphonic singing in the Svaneti region - an art inscribed into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists!

Friendly villagers

Baking Khachapuri the traditional way!

However, what is famous in the Svaneti region is their architectural monuments inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site - the defensive watch towers of the Svans. The Svans, a sub-group of Georgians with their own language, are a fiercely independent people, and during the old days, warring between villages and tribes are common. Thus these towers are built and usually connected to a family's house, and integrated for their protection. Now, these towers are found scattered around Mestia, and can be easily visited.

And of course, there is the trekking. Fabulous mountain country to trek in, although in summer, the weather is surprisingly humid hot. Even if you can't do the popular 4-day trek between Mestia and Ushguli, reputed to be the prettiest village in Svaneti, simple day treks around Mestia would easily let you appreciate the natural scenery around. 

Transport in Georgia is basically run by marshrutkas or mini-vans. Direct from Tbilisi, it takes 12-13 hours (usually more) and there is only 1 per day early in the morning. What I did was to stop at Kutaisi, where the town itself has several interesting sights. There are then slightly more marshrutkas from Kutaisi to Mestia. 

Check out Svaneti when in Georgia! 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fuji Five Lakes - Kawaguchiko

Most tourists in Japan would want to have a nice view of Mt Fuji, and the most common and easily accessible places would be Hakone and Fuji Five Lakes (Fujigoko) area. Lake Kawaguchiko is one of the five lakes in the Fuji Five Lakes area.

Kawaguchiko is the easiest to access of the five lakes in Fujigoko. So, inevitably, there will be a lot of tourists which I usually try to avoid. However, during autumn, the foliage around there is quite fabulous, and I was happy that I went to take a look. The town area is also quite spread out, so I didn't get the feeling of being too crowded. Which means also that you are at the mercy of their bus shuttle schedules (if you are backpacking alone), which can get rather annoying during the peak hours.

Getting there is also easy, with both bus and train services available. However, for trains, you would need a change of train at Otsuki. There are direct buses between Shinjuku and Kawaguchiko, so it was rather convenient.

So here's sharing a small gallery of Lake Kawaguchiko!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Kawah Ijen, East Java Indonesia

Volcano visiting in Indonesia is definitely one of the must-do's given that there are so many volcanoes in the country. One of the more interesting ones to visit is Kawah Ijen in East Java.

Kawah Ijen is an active volcano and it's crater holds the world's largest acid lake. The crater lake is quite a sight to behold with its mesmerizing turquoise colour. But its beauty belies the danger surrounding it. The water in the lake was measured to have a pH value of 0.5!! So it's literally really acid! And at the edge of the crater, a vent throws forth volumes of noxious fumes and volcanic gasses. And it's here that an active sulphur mine operates.

Visiting the crater lake entails close to 2 hours hike up, but half-way through the journey, one would have encountered the sulphur miners already. These miners literally carry blocks of sulphur weighing 75-90kg on their shoulders, and make their journey from the crater edge down to the volcano base. The sulphur fumes that they had to endure further aggravates the situation, and to make matters more miserable, they are paid pittance. It was an eye-opener (and heart-wrenching one) watching these miners working amidst the harsh and surreal environment.

For the adventurous, one could start the journey to the crater and sulphur mine at 1+am, and you would be rewarded with views of the 'blue flame'. Essentially, the molten sulphur in the mine burns with a beautiful blue flame, and it would really been quite a sight. After that, a hike to a viewpoint for sunrise completes the adventure. I did not take up this option as I arrived at 11pm after a 9+hr ride from Surabaya and was pretty tired. Do note that it is actually quite dangerous as the descent into the mine is quite steep, and even with torches, once the sulphur fumes obscure your sight, you are pretty much helpless!

Accommodation options near Kawah Ijen is limited though. The nearest village of Sempol has a Arabica Homestay which was popularly used by many agencies but reviews were pretty bad, and the room we had was indeed not particularly clean. The other options would be in Bondowoso, which is abit further away.

There are many agencies in Surabaya who can arrange the trip (together with Mt Bromo) and I think it's one of the more interesting volcano trip I had! For Singaporeans, it makes a great long weekend trip, especially with so many cheap flights to Surabaya. Check it out!