Tag Archives: Discovery


On my first trip to China I kept hearing rumours about Laos, which at that time – mid-1999 – was still very much off the beaten track.

“The roads are all dirt tracks, and you’ll spend weeks getting rust-red dust out of your hair,” one fellow backpacker told me, knowingly. I had only recently discovered that such a country existed, so these survivors’ stories of epic bus journeys and remote villages combined with my near-absolute ignorance in a way that left me longing to hop over the border and explore.lao-countryside

Distracted by university and work, it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally managed to arrange a trip to Laos. Escaping the greyness of a Beijing winter, my husband and I flew to Kunming, caught a bus to Jinghong and took a minibus to the border at Mohan.

We negotiated our exit from China, and took a van across the few hundred metres of “no man’s land” that separates the two border posts. The Lao checkpoint fitted my idea of how it ought to look perfectly; a series of ramshackle huts where sullen officials stamped our passports with an improbable number of rubber stamps.

don-det-basile-morinOnce finished with the formalities, we clambered into a songthaew (an overgrown tuk-tuk where passengers sit facing each other on two benches inside), and drove off into the afternoon sunshine towards Luang Namtha, giddy with the excitement of being somewhere fresh and new.

We spent the next five weeks travelling the length of Laos by bus and songthaew. After the border checkpoint had confirmed my expectations, the rest of the country came as a surprise; more beautiful than I had pictured, less developed than I anticipated, and more fun to explore than I had imagined.

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Photo: Alexander Steffler

In Luang Namtha we discovered Lao food. In a thatched hut in the rice fields, our hiking guide produced a delicious lunch of herb-filled larb salad and sticky rice all wrapped in banana leaves, a meal that we still talk about to this day. We slurped steaming bowls of rice noodles in a street stall, tried chilli-spiked river fish grilled over an open fire in the night market and breakfasted on baguettes stuffed with cheese and sausage, locally-grown coffee and plates of juicy tropical fruit. Like hobbits, we took to having multiple meals – first and second breakfasts (on one occasion finding space for a third), first and second lunches, dinner and perhaps an evening snack or two.

Photo: McKay Savage

Photo: McKay Savage

After travelling through the country’s beautiful, rural north, where villagers’ income seemed to derive from drying grasses to make brooms, we arrived in Luang Prabang one evening to find its colonial villas converted to chic hotels and well-heeled tourists mingling with scruffy backpackers like ourselves in the night market. By day, it was clear to see what had drawn people to this elegant town, its neat grid of streets lined alternately with ornate monasteries and faded Indochinese villas. All this lies nestled amongst forest-clad hills on a tongue of land formed by the confluence of two rivers, the town as blessed by geography as it has been by history.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Father south, the workaday town of Vang Vieng – which grew up around a Vietnam War-era US air strip – had just established itself as a backpackers’ favourite, thanks to its beautiful surroundings and a handful of bars showing Friends on loop. We floated down the Nam Song River in the shadow of jagged limestone karst hills and slept to a chorus of croaking frogs that lived in our hotel’s lily pond.

By the time we reached Vientiane, the monochrome of Beijing’s winter streets was a distant memory. It came as a shock to drive past the country’s only “factory” – a small water bottling plant on the outskirts of the capital – our first brush with anything even remotely industrial since we had left China.

The Laotian capital seemed impossibly small and quiet for a capital city. We cycled along the wide boulevards, dined at the city’s night market and drank Beer Lao as we looked out across the dark waters of the Mekong towards Thailand.

Photo: Arian Zwegers

Photo: Arian Zwegers

By the time we crossed the border into Thailand a fortnight later – now with survivors’ stories of our own, mostly relating to bus travel – South-East Asia’s only land-locked country had found a place at the top of our list of places to re-visit.

Little did I know that a few years later I would be regularly driving across northern Laos with groups of guests for On the Road. Over the course of many journeys, we’ve seen the Lao infrastructure gradually improve – the shabby border checkpoint has been upgraded and the rickety car ferry that we used to cross the Mekong in Huay Xai has been replaced with a new bridge. Laos is gradually becoming more developed, but, by and large, this is happening in a gentle way – there are no traffic-choked highways or big box shopping malls. The country retains its quiet charm, the Lao people still welcome curious travellers and the food still tastes as good as ever…

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On the Road offers several journeys that go through Laos:

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I thought I was pretty familiar with Europe, and that I knew a thing or two about European culture and life. But when I say “Europe”, I mean the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy and so on – the countries that attract visitors from all over the world to spend their holidays there. When I set out on our June research trip, little did I realize that I was about to discover another understanding of the Continent.

One of the stops on our research trip was Slovenia. Before the trip I had only the haziest of ideas as to what Slovenia would be like. All I knew was that it had been communist until about twenty years ago, and so I imagined it to be a sombre place, its people dressed drably, its buildings colourless. Yet my experience of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, turned these expectations completely on their head.

One sunny, 34C Tuesday morning, the sunlight shining through the leaves, we drove into the city. I couldn’t stop looking around me, comparing what I saw before me to the mental picture I had conjured up before our trip. This was no grey, drab country! I had to laugh at my own ignorance. As we approached the city centre, the roadside was plastered with adverts of all kinds of cultural events and activities; classical music, pop concerts, dance, theatre, I even saw a poster for Beijing opera, which gave me a moment of disorientation. After parking the car beside Republic Square, a popular spot for concerts and a gathering place for local people, we walked around the square. The scene that greeted our eyes was one of unselfconscious relaxation: people lay back on the lush green grass, reading, talking, drinking red wine or peacefully soaking up the sun. It looked like a still from a slow-motion film, so complete was the air of leisure, like a remake of La Dolce Vita.

When dinnertime arrived, we accepted the invitation of friends to a restaurant in the hills, and took in the view out over nighttime Ljubljana. During the meal, the sound of distant music floated up from below. Our friends told us that there was an open-air concert being held in Republic Square, and I wished that I could hurry back down into the city to enjoy the summer evening programme.

Without realizing it, the sounds of the concert gradually disappeared as our meal drew to its end. When I looked at the time it was already 11pm, and I started to worry that the streets would be deserted by the time we returned to the spot where we had left the car many hours earlier. After all, when one is in a strange place there are so many uncertainties; would it be safe? I never thought that the scene on the streets would completely surpass my expectations. Restaurants were just as full as they had been earlier in the evening, and – their insides full to bursting – happy drinkers simply spilled out onto the steps in front of each bar!

Centuries ago, the earth was thought to be flat, and people believed that if you walked to the end of the earth, you would simply fall off.  And yet, as people gradually moved across the surface of the globe, eventually people discovered that our planet is a sphere. With every journey, as I gradually discover new places, I’m continually made to feel that the world is bigger than I could have imagined; a big and a beautiful place indeed.

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For many of us, the end of the year is a time for taking time off to reflect upon the year past and the year to come. For some of us, it is the time to celebrate Christmas and time for giving. Giving often means the “things”. But we believe the memories of meaningful experiences last longer…

On the way from Shangri-La to Chiang Mai in Thailand, during 12 days, here are 12 gift ideas :

Your 12 Gifts for Christmas…

Join the “gift-to-yourself-and-your-family” journey: Over Christmas and New Year!

From Shangri-La to the Lanna Kingdom – December 22, 2016

 

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai

  • An unforgettable way to close out 2016 and start the new year! 

  • Click here for more info

  • In a nutshell

    • What?

      • Travel from Shangri-La in Yunnan via Nothern Lao to Chiang Mai in Thailand

      • Luxury, Comfort and Adventure all in one

      • Christmas in wintry Shangri-La

      • New Year in subtropical Thailand

      • How long?  8 or 12 days

We look forward to welcoming you on what will be one of the most memorable journeys of your life!

Peter

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Monks in Luang Prabang

The tak bat, morning alms of Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food in Luang Prabang

Early each morning, monks file out from the wats that line Luang Prabang’s loose grid of streets. Clasping their alms bowls, they walk, solemn and barefoot, along streets fringed with shaggy toddy palms, and past candy-coloured colonial villas and gilded temples.

Temperatures climb throughout the day, and most people retreat to the shade to sip cooling drinks and doze before venturing out again at dusk, when a vibrant night market sets up on Sisavangvong Road. Here, stallholders sell souvenirs and shake out bright silk scarves under bluish fluorescent lights as the sun sinks behind far bank of the Mekong.

As you leave Luang Prabang and set out on the road to the Chinese border, the drive punctuated by roadside villages thronging with children, any change seems faint. Three hundred kilometres away, Luang Namtha is clearly cut from the same languid, tropical cloth. Even just across the Chinese border in Xishuangbanna, people believe the same form of Buddhism, practice the same rituals, share the same traditional dress and enjoy very similar spicy-sour flavours in their food.

Mekong River

The tropical end of the Mekong

From Xishuangbanna, where the route of our journey Lands of Silk and Snow briefly reunites with the Mekong, the road climbs up out of the steamy basin where elephants and peacocks once strutted through the jungle, and onto the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. As you ascend, the air temperature drops and dries, and the vegetation changes; rubber trees and banana plantations fall away to be replaced by temperate forest and – as we approach Kunming, “the City of Eternal Spring” – fields of flowers.

North of Kunming, the pace of change picks up as you continue to climb up, past Dali and Lijiang to Shangri-La, the threshold of Tibet. From here to Lhasa our route takes us from the dramatic valleys that mark the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern fringe, crossing the Mekong again – and the Yangtze and the Salween – climbing over snow-dusted passes and swooping down through thickly forested valleys before spilling out into the broad Kyi-Chu valley on the final approach to Lhasa.

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

It is only by travelling overland that you can see how one land merges into the next; how the continuity of the tropics suddenly disappears as one ascends the 1500 metres between Jinghong and Kunming; how the long parallel valleys that run through northwestern Yunnan have given rise to dozens of ethnic groups and amazing biodiversity; and how Tibetan culture has overcome quite awesome geographical challenges in order to spread from Yunnan to the edge of Central Asia.

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La


And yet while there’s change, there are also elements that bind the entire route together. From Laos to Lhasa the main religion is Buddhism – albeit of different schools. Everywhere between Dali and Luang Prabang was once part of a single kingdom in the eighth century. And the waters of the Mekong gather our journey together at several points, like a purse-string, as we travel from South-East Asia, where its waters flow, brown and stately, up to the heights of Tibet where the young river tumbles wildly out of the hills.

Pity the poor traveller who flies over all this! In our busy times of direct flights and high-speed trains, it truly is a luxury to experience a long-distance overland journey, and to see a portion of the earth’s surface up close and personal, and to meet people along your route, at every turn learning that for all that separates us, there is as much that binds us together.

Jo

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(For parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…” and “Impatient to run free…“)

In the Vipava valley

In the Vipava valley

“What do you really mean by a ‘Hidden Gem’?” people often ask me. Everyone intuitively knows what we mean, but it’s tricky to put it into words. When I try to describe my idea of a hidden gem, I say that it’s a well-kept secret, found in the most unexpected location at the most unexpected of times.

Still, that’s the kind of answer that, if it came from a politician, might make you roll your eyes and say to yourself “That’s why I hate politicians,” because it feels calculated and inauthentic. And so, often, I end up answering “I know one when I see one.” While this is still unhelpful, at least it has the merit of being completely true.

Whenever we’re researching a new itinerary, the quest is really to uncover hidden gems. From the moment I type a query into Google or e-mail a friend for suggestions to the day I finally program the address of one of my potential gems into the GPS, I am filled with anticipation that we might, perhaps, have found another one.

Majerija garden 1

What’s in the garden goes…

Back on June 23 this year, when I looked at my map of Slovenia the restaurant on our “to-do” list for the day, Majerija, looked like it was right off the highway. Thinking of greasy fast food at charmless service stations, I was almost put off visiting it. Would it be worth our while visiting it? That the restaurant is located in a village called “Slap” did little to assuage my worries.

Matej in the garden 1

Matej: “from the garden to the plate…”

From Lipica we turned north toward Ljubljana, before turning onto the highway to Trieste. After ascending a gentle pass, the modern highway swoops across elevated bridges and through brightly-lit tunnels into the Vipava valley, one of Slovenia’s wine-growing regions. Descending to near sea level, the temperature had risen to 35 degrees by the time we exited the highway. By this time one thing had become clear: wherever and whatever Majerija was, it wasn’t in a service station.

The road to Slap was so small that I missed the turn-off and had to do a U-turn to get back on course. Once on this little road, we saw a tiny village ahead, its diminutive skyline dominated by a church steeple. The road led through meadows, the air alive with the sound of cicadas and birds. Even though we were no more than two minutes from the expressway, it could not have felt further away. Both Pei Fen and I felt that as we drove we were not only slipping away from modern busy-ness, but also back in time.

Slap’s red, brick houses are situated on a gentle slope, and the village looks neat but still organic. Just 427 Slappers live in here. As we approached, I was filled with a mixture of apprehension and hope. It seemed highly unlikely that a restaurant worth a forty-five-minute drive could be here, in such rustic surroundings.

Dining in the garden 2

Dining in the midst of nature…

We drove past the church of St. Matthew and before we knew it the village was in our rear-view mirrors, and still the road kept rising and winding its way through the countryside as the road gradually narrowed futher. According to the GPS we had just another 200 meters to go to Majerija. We rounded one final corner and turned into a farmstead: if ever I’ve seen a “hidden gem” of a restaurant, this had to be it.

Majerija exists and is what it is because the owners, Matej and his wife, love what they do and because they are who they are: no attempt is made to convince others to like what they like; instead, they welcome those who, by word of mouth, love what they love.

Majerija Dish 1

Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini

Majerija is a collection of four 18th century buildings that were and are one home. Dark wood-framed windows, decorated with bright red geraniums, contrast against white stone walls. The buildings are surrounded by vineyards, trees and verdant undergrowth, and festooned by tangles of roses. On the day of our visit, the deep blue sky completed the image of a home completely in tune with the environment that surrounds it.

A curved walkway leads to the entrance of the restaurant. As we turned the corner we see a few wooden table with white tablecloths, crystal glasses and gleaming silverware set in the shade by the side of the house. Shortly after we sat down, Matej emerged from inside the house and handed us his menu. I knew we should order – we had so much to do in the afternoon – but I put down the menu, closed my eyes and felt that I wanted to stay there for the rest of the day.

Eventually I picked up the menu again and ordered: “Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini”, “Roasted shank of suckling pig and traditional autumn vegetables” and “Chestnut pave, homemade vanilla ice cream and cinnamon foam”, each one a feast for my eyes and my palate.

We spent one-and-a-half hours in the hands of Matej and the lap of Majerjia, a blink of an eye, it seemed – far too short in any event. When we took our leave it was with great anticipation of the time, in September, when we can share this experience with guests because, in the end, no words can do it justice.

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This post concludes a series of three posts about a single day on our latest research trip, June 23. A mad day of research? Yes, certainly. A typical day on the road when we’re putting together a new itinerary? Yup! But above all, an unforgettable day!

Peter

 

 

 

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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(Here are Part 2 “Impatient to Run Free” and Part 3 “I know one when I see one” of this trilogy.)

“You’ve got a dream job. You’re always on holiday, aren’t you?” is what we at On the Road hear all the time. I love what I do, but one long holiday it is not. So what is it like when we’re on the road? 

Take one day earlier this summer, June 23, as an example. Pei Fen and I were in Slovenia researching our new European itinerary. We left Ljubljana, the country’s capital, at 8am. Our first stop was at the Postonja Caves, although we just had enough time to make a GPS waypoint – the trip down into the cave was squeezed in later in our trip. Our next stop was an hour’s drive away in Lipica, the stud farm for the famous Lipizzaner horses. From there we drove an hour out of our way for lunch in a restaurant recommended by Slovenian friends.

Spot the Ferrari...

Spot the Ferrari…

After an excellent lunch (more on which later), we had a long drive south and into Croatia for a 3pm appointment with Istria’s regional Director of Tourism. By then the temperature had reached 37°C, although we kept the air-conditioning turned off in our car, relishing the dry heat after weeks of wet weather. After the meeting (held in a darkened room with no air-con and cups of room-temperature water, transforming our relish for the heat into a strong desire for a/c), we revved up Little Red – the colour of our VW Up! was a shade of red that made it look as though it was trying to impersonate a Ferrari – and headed farther south to visit one of our selected hotels for an update on the progress of their renovations and a detailed discussion of the arrangements for our first group of guests.

Even the ice cream was salty...

Even the ice cream was salty…

By this time it was 7pm, but we weren’t finished yet! Pei Fen and I went to find the team hotel we had researched and booked. But after bouncing along a pot-holed dirt road, turning left, right, back, and forward again, we just weren’t able to find it. So, to Plan B! “I know of another place, it’s a bit more expensive, but never mind, let’s call them. I hope they’ve got rooms…” We shamelessly name-dropped the Director of Tourism, finagling their last two rooms, drove there***

Miss Daisy's sister in Istria?

Miss Daisy’s sister in Istria?

, checked in, and headed out again, at 8pm, on another 45min drive to a restaurant I had tried before and wanted Pei Fen to experience: “Believe me, it’s awesome…and totally worth the drive!” In the event, though, the dinner took two-and-a-half-hours, because the chef wanted to showcase her best, and each dish was too salty – even the ice cream. By the time we returned to our hotel it was after midnight, and we had to be up by 5:45am for another, even longer day.

What a day! Does it still sound like a dream job? More like a nightmare perhaps. And yet this day was great because, amidst all the busyness, two experiences made it as special as any I can recall in a long, long time. One was seeing the majestic Lipizzaner horses; the other was the trip to find our lunch restaurant. Stay tuned for the stories of each of these magical experiences.

Peter

 

 

 

Miss Daisy in China

Miss Daisy in China…

*** Believe it or not, on the way to our hotel we came across a gleaming yellow Caterham Super 7, exactly like Little Yellow (小黄) which I drove 21,000km across China in 2007.

The Istrian countryside...a small corner of paradise...as Italy used to be...

The Istrian countryside…a small corner of paradise…as Italy used to be…

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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When we first came up with the idea behind “Adventures in Yunnan”, we weren’t sure how it would be received. We had a hunch that a family driving holiday in Yunnan could be great fun, but would anyone be adventurous enough to join us with their kids?

We put together a 10-day family-friendly journey that ran from Kunming to Lijiang in short chunks with plenty of interesting stops along as many quiet back roads as possible, and began to spread the word. Four daring families signed up for the first trip and off we went. The question now was how long would it take before the cry of “Are we nearly there yet?” was heard?

After leaving Kunming, our first stop was at Yunnan’s Dinosaur Valley, the site of a “dinosaur graveyard” where palaeontologists have unearthed hundreds of complete dinosaur skeletons since excavation began in the 1930s. Armies of reconstructed dinosaurs seem to march across the main hall, while scientists work away below, discovering yet more ancient bones. Exciting enough in its own right, when coupled with the small theme park that surrounds the museum, we had a hard time persuading anyone to leave – even with the promise of lunch ahead.

Xizhou Scenery - photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

Xizhou Scenery – photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

That first day’s drive ended in Xizhou, home of the Linden Centre, one of our favourite hotels in the region, and – it turns out – a great place for families with children. The second morning saw us walking through the rice fields and into the village to see the daily market, where our guests practised their Mandarin as we stocked up on Xizhou baba, a delicious local snack of fried dough smeared with rose jam. The region around Xizhou and Dali has plenty of other activities on offer, and that first trip saw us riding a cable-car up into the Cangshan Mountains to visit a Taoist temple, cycling down quiet village lanes and eating cream cakes in a German-run bakery – making it well worth the two nights we spent there.

Biking in Xizhou Village – photo by Ron Yue

From Xizhou we drove on to Shaxi, a small village packed with well-preserved examples of traditional Bai architecture. Our group walked out into the cornfields, picnicked and happily poked about the village streets – really a world away from the choked city streets of Beijing or Shanghai that often spring to mind when thinking about travel in China.

Golden Snub Monkey - photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

Golden Snub Monkey – photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

On leaving sleepy Shaxi, we drove up the Yangtze Valley to the tiny hamlet of Tacheng. The upper reaches of the Yangtze Valley (where the river is known in Chinese as the Jinshajiang, or “River of Golden Sand”) are wonderfully scenic, with thickly forested slopes dropping away to the sandy riverbanks. Tacheng lies at the edge of the Baimashan Nature Reserve in an area famed for its biodiversity. We made time here to drive up into the reserve to spy on its most adorable residents – troops of Yunnanese snub-nosed monkeys munching on the moss that festoons the reserve’s ancient trees.

Photo by Ron Yue

Beyond Tacheng it was a steep climb to the Tibetan region around Shangri-La, where we petted yaks and visited a Tibetan family in their home. There, our guests had the opportunity to try tsampa, a dish of ground roast barley mixed to a paste with tea and butter. Younger members of the group announced it was “just like Play-doh” and spent a happy half hour moulding it into animal shapes, before heading off for a more spiritual stop at the huge Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

Our last few nights were spent in the bustling city of Lijiang. One of Yunnan’s most popular destinations, this town lies in a beautiful valley dotted with pretty villages and headed at its northern end with the 5,600 metre-tall (18,360 feet) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Between horseback riding and watching a fantastic open-air show in the mountain’s shadow, trying to find our way through the labyrinthine old town and playing in the hotel pool, before we knew it the trip was over and we were on our way to the airport to fly home.

photo by Jane Yong

Did anyone – parents or children – ever ask if we were nearly there yet? No, not to my memory! As a host, this itinerary really was one of my favourites. Our younger guests revelled in being taken out of their everyday environment and exposed to so many new and interesting things. Every day my colleagues and I were asked a slew of new questions, every day we staff saw something afresh through the children’s eyes, or had our attention drawn to something we hadn’t noticed previously.

Photo by Ron Yue

“Adventures in Yunnan” has gone on to become one of our most popular itineraries, with multiple departures each year timed to coincide with the school holidays. Recently we’ve added a photography-themed version of the journey, where our photographer Ron coaches guests through a fun series of travel photography field workshops.

One of the fathers from that first trip later told me, “Because your team took care of everything, we were encouraged to do something more daring than we would have attempted on our own, but now we’ve been inspired…” Since then they’ve been travelling all over Asia as a family – be warned, adventures as a family can become addictive!

Jo_white (1)

 

 

Our family-oriented journeys include:
Adventures in Yunnan
Family Adventures: Travel Photography in Yunnan” (with Ron Yue)

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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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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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Everyone has heard of Shangri-La. Even for those who have not read James Hilton’s classic Lost Horizon, the name evokes visions of an earthly paradise tucked away amongst soaring mountain ranges, where humans live long and peaceful lives amidst pristine, otherworldly surroundings.

Old-growth forests in the Three Parallel Rivers region

Old-growth forests in the Three Parallel Rivers region

In northwest Yunnan there is a Tibetan town, historically known as Zhongdian. Perched at the south-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and astride the main route to Tibet proper, the small town has long been a trading post and meeting point between Yunnan’s lowlands and highlands. Zhongdian’s compact old town was once filled with thick-walled Tibetan houses, yaks grazed in verdant fields around the town and stupas decorated the surrounding hillsides – undeniably picturesque, but still a far cry from Hilton’s fictional paradise.

Just over ten years ago Zhongdian’s enterprising mayor decided that since no one knew where Shangri-La was, it might as well be in Zhongdian. A pretext was fabricated (certain geographical features outside the town are said to resemble those mentioned in the novel) and Zhongdian was duly renamed Shangri-La, or Xianggelila in Chinese.

The new name and a new airport spurred a building boom that has seen old Zhongdian transformed into a somewhat ugly, modern town. Then, in early 2014 a devastating fire burnt much of the old town to the ground. Whatever faint resemblance the place may once have had to the Shangri-La of fiction, it has now gone for good.

So did the idea of Shangri-La go up in flames along with Zhongdian’s timber-framed old town?

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Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkeys, near Tacheng

The north-westernmost region of Yunnan is formally called the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Shaped like a triangle balancing on one point, the region is composed of three counties; Shangri-La (with Zhongdian/Shangri-La at its centre) in the east, Weixi in the west and Deqin at the uppermost tip of the triangle. If you are looking for Shangri-La, stop briefly in Zhongdian/Shangri-La, if you must, but make sure you leave time to explore Diqing’s beautiful hinterland. While it might not exactly match Hilton’s description, the region is so lovely and holds such natural bounty and variety that any such qualms will quickly be forgotten.

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Diqing is home to at least ten ethnic minorities. The largest of these is Tibetan, but there are also the Lisu, Naxi, Bai, Yi, Hui, Pumi, Miao, Nu and Drung, among others. Each speaks its own language, practices its own and religion, and wears – for the everyday, not for tourists’ benefit – its own traditional clothing. People are friendly and welcoming, especially in the remoter parts of Diqing where tourists are still rare.

Diqing straddles one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, the so-called Three Parallel Rivers, named for a short-range geographical accident that sees three of Asia’s great rivers – the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween – churn through lush, parallel valleys for several hundred kilometres. The Three Parallel Rivers region is home to many exotic and endemic species of flora and fauna. One of the most endearing is the Yunnanese snub-nosed monkey, one of the rarest primates on earth. Incredibly, it is easy to spot (and photograph) in a sanctuary of old-growth forest that lies in the mountains between the Yangtze and Mekong valleys.

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

The region’s human heritage and geography is no less rich and varied with a long list of little-visited, yet spectacular attractions. Each Sunday in the tiny village of Cizhong, a Tibetan priest holds mass in a nineteenth-century church built by French missionaries. Further north, there is the massive Meili Snow Mountain range. The highest peaks rise to over 6,000 metres, making for impressive prominence over the river valleys to the east and west. The highest peak is sacred 6,740-metre-tall Kawagebo, which – in deference to local religious beliefs – has never been summited.

While the mountaintops are left to local gods, it’s still possible to feel the magic of travelling through the mountains and climbing towards distant peaks on the ascent from lowland Yunnan to Diqing. Some may opt to fly straight into Zhongdian/Shangri-La, at the risk of both altitude sickness and a dislocating sense of culture shock. However, far better to travel overland, slowly acclimatising to the thinner air and absorbing the gradual change in your surroundings as the familiar trappings of modern life give way to something gentler and altogether rarer. By the end of your journey, you might just feel that you have, indeed, glimpsed Shangri-La after all.

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If you would like to go in search of Shangri-La for yourself, you may want to take a look at this travel idea here.