Monthly Archives: March 2016


Recently, I watched a documentary about Gwen Moffat, a redoubtable British climber who kept climbing into her 70s. The filmmaker asked Ms Moffat, now aged 91, if she missed the mountains. She answered, simply, “No, I don’t – they’re part of me you see, I had my time and now the hills are part of me.”

This idea – that some experiences become a part of us – is something that resonates with me, particularly this year. After years of fairly adventurous travel for work and pleasure, 2015 and (so far) 2016 have seen me on “home leave” after having a baby.

Nomads, Tibet

Going the same way, Tibet

During that time, I’ve found my thoughts returning repeatedly to past travels, to places I’ve visited and people I’ve met. After writing last year about how anticipation heightens an experience’s pleasure, I’ve realised afresh that remembering a journey enables one to experience the joy of it all over again.

Of course, a memory can be sculpted into a superior version of the lived experience. I can omit the leech bites from an impromptu jungle trek in Malaysia, I can forget the physical pain of the bumpy journey to and from Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar, and I can delete my sweaty panic from a bike ride along New Zealand’s beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound to catch a ferry.

Mr Wu, Tibet

Mr Wu on a memorable journey, Tibet

But instead, the memories that I recall most fondly aren’t the ones that I’ve manicured to remove the ragged edges from – they’re memories that involved some measure of personal challenge, difficulty or plain ridiculousness. That’s because they make better stories (whether I’m telling those stories to myself or to others), but also because those experiences shape my idea of what I’m capable of – even if it is a level of previously unthinkable idiocy…

As Ms Moffat says of the peaks she’s climbed, the memories of roads taken and journeys made have become part of me, and enable me to “travel” even when I’m sitting at home on a rainy afternoon. That’s what I call a souvenir…

Jo

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Since our last update in December, Christmas and the Western and Chinese New Years have come and gone…

Looking back…


Burma Research with Mareen and Nancy

Burma Research with Mareen and Nancy

 

In January, Mareen and Nancy, accompanied by Htein Linn, a Burmese photographer, went to Burma for three-and-a-half weeks. This on-the-ground research, together with knowledge gathered over the years, formed the basis for our first Burma itinerary (about which more below).

 

Red Earth and Fields of Gold

Red Earth and Fields of Gold

 

In March, Mareen, Nancy, Ron, and Fiona hosted a group of guests, many of whom have previously joined quite a few of our journeys, on a new itinerary, Yunnan through a Lens: Red Earth and Fields of Gold.

 

 

Our Customer - Andrew and Glenis

Our Customer – Andrew and Glenis

 

One of the guests told us after the journey that: …we had a wonderful trip, passing thru the most beautiful scenery ever. Mareen, Nancy & Fiona served us really well with their heart, that we appreciate & Ron has been a most professional mentor, patiently coaching the least qualified photographer like us. Our driver Mr. Wu was such a cautious driver with excellent driving manners.


Looking forward…

Burma really is the next big thing for us. In the next few weeks, we are very pleased to be able to share more information about our first Burma journeys. For now though, we can tell you:

  • Burmese fishermen

    Burmese fishermen

    The first journeys will depart 9 November, 2016 (4 cars booked, 1 more car available) and 29 November, 2016 (available). January 2017 is fully booked and Feburary 2017 (available).

  • You can view our all-new Journey Dossier here.

  • For those of you in Hong Kong, we will organise a Burma talk-and-dinner event in May.

 

Join Us

Join Us

 

We’re hiring… We are looking for journey hosts. If you know anyone like Mareen, Nancy or Peifen, our wonderful journey hosts, please let them know that we are hiring and ask them to visit our “Join us” page.


Between May and September, we are offering journeys for photography lovers, for families with children and more. In case you’ve missed our announcements, please take a look at the schedule below:

Searching for SHANGRI-LA – April 8th & 29th and July 15th

  • Our most popular Yunnan journey…
  • Why go? Read our blog essay right here
  • In a nutshell
    • What?
      • In just a few days, see how beautiful China can be!
      • Discover where Shangri-La really might have been!
      • Stunningly beautiful boutique hotels, along back roads, far away from the crowds.
  • How long? 7 or 9 days
  • How much? Starting from CNY23,700/person
  • Click here for yet more info

PHOTOGRAPHY: Yunnan through a Lens:  Tea Horse Trails – June 3rd

  • For photography lovers…there’s nothing like working with Ron!
  • Read Ron’s recent short essay about travel photography in this region…
  • In a nutshell
    • Where? Hidden gems of Yunnan along the tea horse trail
    • What?
      • Capture moments with your camera like never before.
      • Work, hands-on, with Ron and learn his techniques for portraits, landscapes, architecture, low-light and many other situations.
  • How long? 6 or 9 days
  • How much? Starting from CNY29,600/person

FAMILY: Adventures in Yunnan  – July 4th and July 15th

  • An unforgettable adventure for the whole family!
  • In a nutshell
    • What?
      • Experiences, not things!
      • Haggling in the markets (in Pugonghua), gentle hiking, batik making, up-close-and-personal encounters with a Tibetan family…
      • Memories of a great time together!
  • How long? 8 or 10 days
  • How much? Starting from CNY78,000 (for a family of 4) less early-bird discount of 10% for those who book by March 31st!

FAMILY & PHOTOGRAPHY: Travel Photography with Ron Yue – June 24thand October 21st

  • Start the holidays with a Family Adventure with Master Photographer Ron Yue
  • Click here for more info and read Ron’s latest blog entry about photography…
  • In a nutshell
    • What?
      • Give your children the gift of photography…to see beauty everywhere!
      • See beauty where others don’t, learn to simplify life, re-learn the value of patience…
  • How long? 8 or 10 days
  • How much? Starting from CNY84,720 (for a family of 4) less early-bird discount of 10% for those who book by March 31st!

CROSSING BORDERS into Lao and Vietnam – May 13th  and September 16th

  • Travel through ancient Asian Border Lands
  • In a nutshell
    • What?
      • At the best times of the year…
      • … drive from Yunnan via northern Lao to Mai Chau in Vietnam.
      • Discover, along back roads, a region brimming with different minorities…
  • How long? 9 days
  • How much? Starting from CNY39,900  less early-bird discount of 10% for those who book by March 15th!
  • Alternative date September 16th : For a longer version “Summit to Sea: Yunnan to Vietnam”, please write to us for details.

On 16 April, On the Road will be a live-auction sponsor at the annual Gala Dinner of a Hong Kong-based charity called Kids4kids. Our sponsored prize is for a family of four to join our “Family Adventures – Travel Photography in Yunnan” journey. We have designed this journey to inspire an interest in travel photography – the art of seeing beauty everywhere – something that might become a lifelong passion for children, and an activity that parents and children can share. In this world of “insta-” everything, having a chance to explore a new environment as a family and learning a new skill together provides a particularly meaningful break from the frenetic pace of everyday life.

We are proud to be sponsoring several other charitable events in the months to come.


Happy Easter!

We wish you a Happy Easter!
We wish you a Happy Easter!

Over the Easter period, Angie and I will be in Europe. I’m selling it to her as a “holiday”. As she does every time, she will ask me “Do you call this a holiday?” Why? Because, during our trip we will be also researching a new itinerary that will run through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy (Fruili and Alto Adige). Whether business or pleasure – fortunately the two often overlap, we can’t wait to go!

We wish you, too, Happy Easter and a Peaceful Qing Ming!

Peter

 

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Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Burma’s jungles hide fabulous reserves of precious stones. Mines around the town of Mogok in Mandalay Division produce much prized “pigeon’s blood” rubies and beautiful sapphires. In Kachin State, Hpakant’s vast open-pit mines – visible on Google Earth – produce the world’s finest jadeite. And yet, rather than “Land of Rubies” or “Land of Jade”, Burma is known as the “Land of Gold”.

One reason, at least, is obvious from a casual walk around any Burmese town or village. Keep your eyes open, and the chances are that within a couple of minutes you’ll either spot the burnished gold of a pagoda at street-level, or see one glinting from a nearby hilltop.

Burma’s paya – a word usually translated as “pagoda”, although the majority resembles stupas more than Chinese-style pagodas – are almost universally covered with gold leaf or gold paint. Coating and recoating religious buildings with gold is one of the best ways for the building’s sponsors to earn religious merit.

 

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Elsewhere, the gold covering is more of a collective effort, with worshippers queuing to buy tiny squares of delicate gold leaf sandwiched between sheets of tissue. Mandalay’s Mahamuni Buddha is a good example; the lower part of this revered Buddha statue, believed to be one of a handful cast during Buddha’s lifetime, has slowly been obscured by layers of gold leaf applied by male devotees (women must watch the action on a television screen outside). The gold is now estimated to be between 20–30cm or almost 12 inches thick!

One of the most fascinating places I visited on my research trip to Burma was one of Mandalay’s gold leaf workshops. Considered a sacred craft, the leaves are handmade by a process that has changed little for centuries. First, an ounce of gold is placed in a bamboo paper wrapper and pounded with a heavy hammer for 30 minutes before being cut into six smaller pieces. These pieces are then stacked and the process is repeated again and again until the sheet reaches the requisite thinness, as you can see in the following video:

Crafting gold leaves is hard, but it pays well and, according to Buddhist tradition, buys good karma. Only men are allowed to do the hammering, taking up the job at the age of 16 and retiring in their mid-forties when their bodies can no longer endure the work. Women work at cutting the gold leaves, a less respected role than the men’s. Both men and women work in stuffy, wind- and draught-proof rooms to cut the feathery sheets of gold leaf into smaller pieces.

Mandalay Gold Leaf Workshop

Gold Leaf Workshop, Mandalay

Inle - Phaung Taw Oo Pagoda

Phaung Taw Oo Pagoda, Inle

The second and less immediately obvious reason behind Burma’s golden nickname is that both the Burmese and the Mon believe that a region of Lower Burma was once the site of Suvarnabhumi, a “Golden Land” mentioned in early Buddhist texts.

The town of Thaton in Mon State is supposed to have sat at Suvarnabhumi’s heart. Once the capital of a wealthy Mon kingdom, today Thaton is a sleepy little market town, where the only signs of a “golden land” are the pagodas that glint from the ridge behind the town, and the large Shwe Saryan pagoda complex next to the bus station.

As you can see, both of the reasons why Burma is known as the “Land of Gold” are intimately connected to its people’s strong Buddhist faith. Another story I was told during my trip attests to this strong link: many Burmese families do not have savings accounts, not because they don’t have any money to save, but rather because any surplus each month is spent on gold leaf and stuck on temple statues – savings for the next life, rather than this one, as it were…

 

Please click this link to our A Burmese Journey – From the Golden Triangle to the Bay of Bengal, that features a visit to a gold leaf workshop in Mandalay.

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(For Part I, click here)

silvretta

The Silvretta Range in western Austria, photographed from the roadside

The only way I can describe driving among the mountains on that day is as a sensation of near-flight. Gliding along the perfect mountain roads, I seemed to soar and sink, descend and climb, and in these motions partake in the sensations unique to flight, at once accelerating forward, upward and sideways.   On those mountain roads, I felt like a hawk, lifted and dropped at a thermal’s whim. The road set my course as the wind directs a paraglider’s flight. At times, I slowly ascended on a straight path, while at others, I spiraled up around serpentine twists and – coming to a standstill – seemed to float in midair atop each saddle. With each pass crested, I swooped into the first tight hairpin bend, only to take off once again as I reached the bottom of each valley. That morning, I frolicked and played for hours, diving into broad valleys and cleaving a way between sharp peaks, forgetting about the world left underneath.

The Stelvio Pass Road

The Stelvio Pass Road

In the past – as was the case on this particular day – I had to steal a moment here or there to get my fix of mountain roads. Nowadays, it’s part of my job: I can’t believe my luck! In designing our European driving holidays, one pass that often features high on the list of “must-drives” is the Stelvio (or Stilfserjoch) at the eastern end of the Swiss-Italian border.  With its 48 hairpin turns, it attracts not only drivers of cars and motorbikers, but also masochistic cyclists.  For one reason or another, it has become the iconic Alpine pass and I am asked about it time and again.

St. Bernard Dog at the Hospice

St. Bernard Dog at the Hospice

So, last year when a client asked “Can we drive The Italian Job?”, I was taken aback. I hadn’t thought about the movie or the mountain pass featured in the original 1969 version of the film for a long, long time. “Of course,” I replied, relishing the thought that, in preparation for this client groups’ trip, I would be forced, as it were, to drive it ahead of time to re-familiarize myself with it.

Rather than the dramatic Stelvio Pass, The Italian Job features the Grand St. Bernard Pass, which straddles the Swiss-Italian border far to the west. This is the mountain pass that gave the St. Bernard dog its name. (I grew up with one of these furry, cuddly beasts, and always struggled to measure up to its size, much as my mom struggled to rid my clothes of its sticky, long hairs.)

Eventually, the day arrived, last June, when I drove the Grand St. Bernard again, retracing the legendary Italian-side ascent featured so beautifully in the opening scene of The Italian Job. While Rossano Brazzi drives his Lamborghini Miura through turn after turn, along this Alpine road on a gorgeous day, the song On Days Like These plays in the background. Never in the history of movie-making has a song matched the emotion evoked by the opening sequence of a film so well.

On the Grand St. Bernard Road

On the Grand St. Bernard Road

In my case, it was a lovely spring day and I was on my way from Milan to Gstaad in Switzerland. These days, the main road through the Aosta Valley goes through an ugly tunnel from Italy into Switzerland. If you want to drive over the pass, as I did, you have to pay attention to find the right turn-off, otherwise you might zip right past it.

Grand St. Bernard Pass

Grand St. Bernard Pass

The Italian Job road is relatively short, but what it lacks in length it compensates for with scenic beauty and spectacularly twisting bends. Its curves are just as enjoyable to drive as those of the Stelvio, if not more so: some of the Stelvio tornante are downright hard work, and drivers that miscalculate are forced, embarrassingly, to make a three-point turn. The Grand St. Bernard’s corners are gentle and a breeze to drive. Nerd that I am, I started playing On Days Like These, cranked up the volume, rolled down the window and opened the sunroof for the climb to the pass. The meadows were covered with spring flowers – I stopped a few times to smell them and take photos – and at the top, as spring gave way to vestiges of winter, I saw patches of snow.   After parking my car by the lake that graces the pass, I got out, leant against the bonnet, turned my head toward the sun and closed my eyes to listen to the birdsong that floated on the breeze.

Indeed, on days like these…

Peter

 

 

 

Please click this link an example of one of our On the Road in Europe itineraries that features the Grand St. Bernard Pass.

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For most people and much of human history, mountain passes evoked visions or memories of anything but pleasure. Instead, they were associated with the pinnacle of hardship as traders, exhausted and starving, struggled to carry their wares across mountain ranges wrapped in deep snow and whipped by ferocious winds. Or they were frozen graveyards of soldiers since mountain ranges formed natural boundaries turned political borders. Mountain passes were the places where one came face-to-face with the enemy and the violence of war.

The Tremola

One of more than 300 passes in the Alps…(c) Swiss Tourism

How different my world is.  I grew up in the heart of the Alps and in a period of peace and unprecedented wealth creation: there are fabulous roads to drive across the Alps and the only enemy I recall encountering at the top of a mountain pass was a bird that shat into my open-top car while I got myself a grilled sausage from a stand by the roadside.

According to one website for motorbikers, there are over 300 mountain passes dotting the Alps. I must have driven across at least a third of them, including some of the highest, like the Col de la Bonette in eastern France.

On the S314, Tibet...

On the S314, Tibet…

(When I drove across this one many years ago I felt quite proud, though I’ve since driven over a mountain pass on the S304 in Tibet that’s early twice as high, topping out at 5,450m.)

Once, on one day alone, I crossed fifteen Alpine passes. On days like these, when I have the luxury of driving for fun, the agony of waking to the sound of an alarm clock in the early hours of the morning was almost instantaneously replaced with eager anticipation of the treat to come. In no time, I was up, dressed, had put on my soft driving shoes (all the better to work the pedals), and had rushed out to my car.

My home town Bregenz (c) Bregenz Tourism

My home town Bregenz (c) Bregenz Tourism

On that morning I started off in Bregenz, an Austrian town by Lake Constance.   At first, with the early morning temperature hovering around five degrees Celsius, the car’s engine was still cold, not ready to be put through its paces. The engine spluttered and vibrated edgily in its compartment. But by the time I reached the city boundaries, heading south, it was purring and I was raring to go.

When the last of the city’s stop-lights turned green, it threw open the road before me.  I sped up and found myself rushing toward immense beauty: the black, purple, pink and orange of dawn in the Rhine valley.  There was the instant thrill of being pressed into my seat, feeling the engine coming, then coming again, and again, as I shifted through the gears. It was a sensation of total immersion and bursting free, both at the same time.

Near the Bielerhoehe...

Near the Bielerhoehe…

About an hour later, the sun rose and divided the world in two, the still-dark valleys below and the glorious mountains above. In fact, I had finished climbing the first mountain, the Bielerhöhe, which separates Austria’s two western-most states, and was already descending into a Tyrolean valley, negotiating hairpin turns on the way down, one after another.

The only way I can describe driving among those mountains on that day is as a sensation of near-flight

Come back for the continuation of On days like these … soon…

Peter

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Go your own wayWhen I was working on The Rough Guide to Burma, I spent a week staying in a hotel in Hpa-An, Kayin State’s laidback capital, while I explored the surrounding region. One of my fellow guests was a slight, red-haired German man who wore wire-rimmed spectacles and a striped Kayin longyi, and spent afternoons drinking tea and reading on the hotel’s shady balcony. Intrigued as to why he didn’t seem to be going anywhere – other backpackers moved on after two or three nights – I eventually struck up conversation with him to find out why.

The man was actually on his third week in Hpa-An – this being the first major town he’d reached after crossing the border from Thailand. He’d arrived from with a two-week visa that he had used before returning to Bangkok for a second visa, which he was halfway through at the time of our conversation. “I just like to travel this way; I take a month off each year, and when I reach somewhere nice I’ll stop for a couple of weeks and spend my days exploring slowly and relaxing.”

 

Now, I write a blog that’s nominally about slow travel – a style of travel that I find very appealing and very unachievable, as I always end up in a mad dash to somewhere or other – so I began to enthuse about his slow travel philosophy and how everyone should travel like this (let’s put my own inability to do so aside for the moment). He politely let me go on for a bit before interrupting: “The main thing, I think, is that each of us gets satisfaction from our travels. Going so slowly would not suit everyone, it’s just important to know what you want to get out of your trip…”

Go your own wayAnd, of course, he’s right. But it strikes me that, with websites and magazines churning out lists of “must-sees”, “hot destinations” and “places to see before you die”, it is easy to get distracted and forget how you originally wanted to spend your travel time. Perhaps the best balance to strive for is between keeping an open mind and trying new things, and doing so in a way you find meaningful and fun.

That might mean taking the time to hunt down a special flavour of gelato in Florence rather than visiting another church; or sipping a cup of sweet tea in a Yangon teahouse rather than dutifully tramping around another yet pagoda; or blinking in bright sunshine from the roof of the Jokhang in Lhasa, rather than queuing to enter the crowded chapels below. Whatever it is that you enjoy, take time to seek it out and soak in the experience, rather than following crowds or fashion – go your own way.

Jo_white-1

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