Tag Archives: Hidden gems


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.

*************

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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(For part 1 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…”; for part 3, please see “I know one when I see one“.)

Spanish Court Riding School, Vienna

Spanish Court Riding School, Vienna

Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve known of the Lipizzaner stallions, the elegant grey-spotted horses that grace the performances of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School.  Perhaps because I spent three teenage years horseback riding, or maybe because I’m more interested in the future than the past, I’ve always remembered Vienna more for these horses than for its historical palaces and art.

Years and years of training...

Years and years of training…

Those of you that know of the Spanish Riding School will be familiar with the ritual formality and theatrical perfection of the School’s dressage, where the horses seem to float above the ground as they move through their routine.  As a demonstration of man’s control over nature it’s impressive, but entirely contrived – not that that makes it any less beautiful.

I never knew the Lipizzaner’s history or provenance, so it came as a surprise when I saw “Lipica” on Google Maps, near Slovenia’s border with Italy, and realised that the town’s Italian name was Lipizza – hence the horse breed’s name.  Since we started researching our European journeys I had wanted to visit. We had run out of time twice before, but I resolved that this time would be different!

An outing...at Lipica...

An outing…at Lipica…

At Sezana we left the highway that leads to Trieste, in Italy.  The GPS said we still had seven kilometers to go on the lovely meadow-lined road that leads south from Sezana.  The day had started overcast, but by now we were blessed with a blue-skied mid-summer morning, the sun glinting through the trees as we drove.  A signpost led us toward the Lipica Stud Farm down a narrower road, with white picket fences and linden trees lining it on both sides.  The air seemed soft and gently fragranced.  Almost involuntarily, we slowed down to enjoy the pleasure of entering this equine paradise.

Lipica Studfarm Stables

Lipica Studfarm Stables

Presently, we arrived at the entrance gate. While we couldn’t see many people, it was clear that at times the stud farm draws large crowds of visitors.  We were shown around by two guides. The first, Victoria, welcomed us to view the  horses’ morning dressage training, and then took us to the stables where the stallions are kept, all the while answering our questions with humour and authority.  Second, her colleague, Vid, gave us a glimpse of the network of paths used by Lippizan-drawn carriages to access the farm’s ten square kilometres.  Finally, we explored the farm’s museum and historic stables.  Victoria and Vid were so infectiously enthusiastic about their work that Pei Fen and I found ourselves falling in love with the farm and horses too.

Impatient to be free...

Impatient to be free…

“Next time, when you bring your guests, be sure to arrive well before 10 in the morning,” Vid told us.  “Why is that?” we asked.  “Because there is a spectacle you won’t want to miss…” Vid went on to explain that each morning, the mares are sent out to graze at 10am.  Vid’s animated description conjured up images of a herd of elegant Lipizzan mares stamping their feet, impatient to run free. The gates of their stables open.  They gallop away and the earth shakes.  A dust cloud rises goes up, and twirling, subsides.  Then silence, except for the rustling of the linden leaves in the gentle breeze.  At least, this is how I imagine it to be – the first time I see this sight will be with our guests later this summer

Eventually we had to leave for an appointment at a restaurant in the nearby Vipava valley.  We drove slowly to the exit of the stud farm’s grounds, trying to linger as long as possible in this corner of Slovenia.  After the past couple of hours, anything – even a restaurant that two of our Slovenian friends said “you absolutely must try” – would surely be a letdown?

And with that thought I put the address of Majerija into our GPS.

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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Batelina. The restaurant’s name came up three times in the span of three days while we were preparing for our research trip. A wine maker, an olive oil producer and a business school friend from Croatia, had all mentioned it in response to our enquiries about where we could enjoy the finest seafood in Istria. “Book well in advance”, I was told. A month before our trip, I dialled their number from Hong Kong. Greeted by a recording in Croatian, I decided to call back later. Which I did on the same day, the next day and quite a few more times. Never did I succeed in speaking to a person. “I can’t reach them,” I told one of the referrers. “They’re only open in the evenings,” he told me.  Given that “in the evening” in Istria means midnight or later in Hong Kong, for me, a morning person, that wasn’t going to work out any time soon. I could have asked referrers to help, but they had helped enough already, so I didn’t want to bother them further. I decided to wait until I was in Europe.  When eventually I called around 6pm Croatian time, I was greeted by a friendly voice, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to make a reservation,” I said, adding that there would be two of us on April 4th. “That’s a Monday night,” I tried to be helpful. “At night we sleep,” came the reply, “but in the evening we’re open. Would you like to book?”

Konoba Batelina

Konoba Batelina

While I still love printed maps, when it comes to finding a specific place, GPSs beat maps hands-down. When the GPS said “you’ve reached your destination”, we didn’t concur: finding ourselves on a residential street, we didn’t see anything that looked like a restaurant. We circled the “destination” once. With still nothing obvious in sight, we called Batelina and described what we saw around us. “Park your car on the lawn in front of you and walk around the hill to the house with the lights on…that’s us.” We did as we were told, trudging up the hill, still slightly doubtful that we were heading in the right direction until we spotted a sign leaving no doubt that we had arrived.

Batelina StartersSince it was a chilly evening, we opted for a cozy-looking dining room with a fireplace.  We were served by Ilya, who spoke excellent English. This came as a surprise – we had thought that we were coming to a very local restaurant – and almost put us off. Perhaps Batelina was no hidden gem after all, and that perhaps we were in for a meal of “tourist fare”. As became quickly apparent, this was an unnecessary worry: we had the finest seafood dinner of our lives.

I believe that one’s enjoyment of any experience in life depends at least as much on the setting, the circumstance, and your expectations as it does on the raw nature of the subject itself. The subject in this case was, first, the recommended starter selection – on this day, ten small dishes featuring the day’s catch, each one a culinary jewel coming out of the treasure chest of the chef’s imagination. For our main dishes, we chose scallops and clams. For desert, we picked mascarpone cream with wine-cooked figs and homemade biscuits.

Batelina - MainWhat made this evening such an utter delight? Was it that every bite enchanted our palates? Yes, indeed. Was it the complete absence of pretension? Was it that there was no Michelin, no Gault Millau, no Falstaff, no accreditation whatsoever in sight?  Was it the story of Danilo, the fisherman owner of Batelina, and David his motorcycle-loving son and the current chef who joined us after dinner for a chat? I don’t know except that this evening has engraved itself forever in my memory.

“How do you find a place like this?” I’m often asked. In our world of search engines, there is a belief that “you can find anything on the internet”. By now, I assume you will have googled “Batelina” and, voila!, there it is, you found it and with that “About 46,700 results (0.73 seconds)”. But Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind:

Batelina - Desert“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The magic of travel is that of turning some of the world’s unknowns – whether known or unknown – into knowns, the process of discovery that begins with a hunch, stops along the way at points of reference, and ends with an experience you’re dying to share. It’s that feeling of wonder about what “lies around the corner.” The hunch gives you the feeling that there is something out there waiting to be discovered. The points of reference, otherwise known as “friends”, are lighthouses that guide you along.  And the discovery ends with your personal experience, which is when you know whether your hunch was right, whether your friends know you well. Sometimes, the answer is no and you move on. At other times – at times like Batelina – the answer is a resounding yes and you linger to tell the story.

Come and visit Istria while I feel it to be true that “rarely have so few known so little about a place that offers so much.”

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

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Angie's Christmas Cookie

Angie’s Christmas Cookie

 

Welcome to our quarterly update, a whirlwind summary of what we’ve been up to in the past few months and what is to come in 2016 besides the smell of ginger bread cookies my wife will be baking in our kitchen this weekend.


Looking back…

Europe back roads

Europe back roads

 

The second half of 2015 stands out because we saw, at last, our first journeys in Europe. Given that “On the Road in the Europe” has been gestating for 15 years, it is with a great sense of pride that we can finally introduce our first itineraries in the Europe – to watch a beautiful video of our journeys in the Alps, click here.

 

Hong Kong guest yodelling for Swiss yodelers.

Hong Kong guest yodelling for Swiss yodelers.

I have two memories from our European journeys this autumn that I would like to share with you.

First, in Gstaad, a small Swiss town, we had arranged the surprise appearance of a Jodl (or Yodel) Choir to entertain our group while they dined on fondue one night. As the Swiss singers yodeled, they coaxed our guests to join their song.

Swiss Yodelers

Swiss Yodelers

Though initially shy, one of our Hong Kong guests suddenly seized the initiative and launched into a rendition of Teresa Teng’s classic, “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心) for the Swiss yodelers, with the remainder of our guests swiftly joining him for the chorus. Despite their lack of a common language (the yodelers speaking a Swiss dialect that I found difficult to understand myself), the two groups sang to each other with moving warmth, and toasted each other with infectious enthusiasm.

 

As long as it is a cabriolet!

As long as it is a cabriolet!

On our second foray into Europe, I was immensely pleased when our guests all selected open-top cars, perhaps following my advice that, for our European journeys, you “can drive any car you like, so long as it is a cabriolet!” Even on the trip’s rare grey mornings, our small convoy would roll away from the last night’s hotel, each car with its top down. When we pulled into the next hotel’s driveway that evening, the tops would still be rolled back, having remained that way throughout the drive. It was wonderful to see so much enthusiasm for driving in the crisp, fragrant mountain air of the Alps.  一百分!100 points to all of the participants!


In the second half of 2015, our team grew with Peifen, Liu (劉佩芬) and Kayin, Chau (周珈妍) joining us.

Peifen
Peifen

 

Peifen is based in Taiwan. She brings a breath of fresh air into the development of our business there, and in a very short period of time she has turned many customers into fans of hers and On the Road.

 

 

 

kayin

Kayin

Kayin has joined our Hong Kong team and now takes care of “Operations” – all the things that need to happen before a group of guests can hit the road; reserving hotel rooms, renting cars, booking flights and a million other details. This role was formerly filled by Cathy Choi, who is now focusing on marketing our journeys in Hong Kong.

 

 


Looking forward…

Stayed tuned for our Burma in 2016!

We’re in the midst of developing two new journeys, one in Asia, and one in Europe:

2016 will see the launch of On the Road in Burma, if I can call it this. We have long wanted to offer driving journeys in this remarkable country, and in January and February we will complete our ground research so that we can – fingers crossed! – begin taking bookings for our first journeys there in November 2016. Stay tuned!

 

 

More of Europe to be discovered

More of Europe to be discovered

In March, we will continue our research for a new set of European itineraries in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the focus on the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia. Our initial research has been incredibly exciting and we can’t wait to share the gems of cultural and scenic beauty that we’re discovering in this region!

 

 

Golden Sea of rapeseed flowers

Golden Sea of rapeseed flowers

This look ahead wouldn’t be complete without a brief mention of our upcoming journeys:

Our all new photography journey in Yunnan takes in three of the province’s most photogenic places: the striking fields of red earth around Dongchuan, the golden sea of rapeseed flowers that surrounds Luoping’s otherworldly karst scenery, and the “Mirrors of God” paddy fields outside Yuanyang. The journey starts on March 4th – it’s not too late to make time to join Ron and our team!

 

Meeting new friends in Vietnam

Meeting new friends in Vietnam

Over Easter, our “Family Adventures: Travel Photography in Yunnan” journey with Ron is fully booked, but there are two border-crossing journeys – one from Shangri-La via Laos to Chiang Mai in Thailand ; the other from Kunming via Laos to Mai Chau in Vietnam – that you will not regret joining. The variety of cultures, cuisines, landscapes and roads you will experience along both these routes is sure to make the holiday especially memorable!


Happy Holidays!

And now off to Perth, Australia, I go to celebrate the holidays with my wife Angie’s large Chinese family. Since they can all drink – no faces turning red in this family! – and all love to cook, I am, as always, in for a treat.

I wish you, your family and friends, wonderful end-of-year holidays too and thank you for all your interest and kind support throughout the years.

Peter

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Push StartMost of my travel this year has been restricted to the armchair variety – reading about others’ journeys and reliving my own. My mind returns again and again to certain trips; a cycling tour of New Zealand and a very bumpy journey across Myanmar on public transport last year, and a meandering trip to Kashgar the year before. Eventually, I realised that my fondest memories were of the journeys where I felt that I made a connection with the place and the people I travelled amongst, journeys where I’d lingered rather than rushed.

With everyday life often feeling like a hectic, headlong dash between home, work and social engagements, many of us wish to do nothing more on vacation than lie on a beach with a book. Others may prefer the other end of the spectrum and strive to fit as much as possible into a few precious days off, tearing across a continent on a breathless five-countries-in-four-days tour. Either option seems a reasonable reaction to the “time poverty” that we increasingly experience; however, another more meaningful way of seeing the world has recently gained popularity – Slow Travel.

LakeSlow Travel is an offshoot of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in the 1980s in protest against the opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Rome. The Slow Food philosophy, which celebrates regional cuisine and traditional farming methods, has since burgeoned into a movement that emphasises the connection between people, places and life in general.

Slow Travel is less to do with your mode of transport (or your relative speed), but instead concerns your mindset on each journey. It means taking back roads, travelling overland rather than by air where possible, and focuses on forging a connection between traveller and destination. Instead of tackling a place armed with a list of “must-sees”, the slow traveller slips into the pace of the local culture and soaks in their new environment. It’s about not letting the anticipation of arrival undermine the pleasure of the journey.

Farm HandWhile Slow Travel is a new term, there’s nothing modish about the practice itself. Some of you will have instinctively travelled slowly before – stopping to observe local customs, interact with the people you meet en route and try local foods, preferring the quality of your experience over sheer quantity.

Through our experience of creating memorable driving journeys, we have become firm believers in the merits of Slow Travel. While crafting each of our itineraries we’re always on the lookout for what makes each of our drives and destinations special – whether it’s a spectacular view to soak up, a fantastic but out-of-the-way hotel, or even something as simple as a chance to dip your feet in a cool, clear stream on a hot day. We also enjoy searching for opportunities to bring our guests together with local people, whether that means joining a yodelling choir in the Swiss Alps or watching craftsmen at work in Lhasa’s old town. A journey is made as memorable by the people we share it with as it is by our destination, after all!

Market Day5 enjoyable ways to practice Slow Travel (even if you start at home):

  1. Linger over a drink in a locally-owned café, bar or teashop
  2. Take a back-road or try a new way to get from A to B – turn down a street you’ve never used before
  3. Hunt out regional dishes and specialties, and visit a local market.
  4. Savour the unexpected – missed connections can create new opportunities
  5. Take a breath, check your stride and remind yourself to enjoy the pleasure of the journey.

Jo_white (1)

 

 

 

To read more about the Slow Movement visit http://www.slowmovement.com/

 

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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.

On the Road Signature

 

 

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.


The first trip I led with Ron Yue, our team’s professional photographer, covered familiar ground. I had completed the itinerary through southern Yunnan several times before, both for research and with groups of guests, so I knew what to expect. Except that I didn’t.

Red Earth Dongchuan

Red Earth Dongchuan

Over the course of our week-long trip I discovered that travelling with a photographer is quite different to travelling without one. The pace is a lot more leisurely, for one thing, with plenty more photo stops, both scheduled and impromptu. The conversation over dinner tends towards discussion of f-stops and exposure compensation, and you return home with distinctly better quality holiday snaps. But the most significant – and unexpected – difference was that I discovered a fresh new beauty in those familiar places, thanks to Ron and to my camera.

Following Ron’s example and with his coaching, our group of photographers became more and more observant of our surroundings as we travelled. I found myself stopping more, enjoying scenes and noticing details that would have passed me by before. An everyday market was suddenly filled with unexpected moments of loveliness – a child playing amongst piles of chilli peppers lying around her mother’s stall, or an elderly lady deftly binding piles of damp, field-fresh herbs into bundles ready for sale.

Luoping Rapeseed Fields

Luoping Rapeseed Fields

If photography can help us to appreciate somewhere as down-to-earth as a local market, the impact of a truly splendid sight is magnified many times for the photographer. On that first trip, we visited one of Yunnan’s many photogenic landscapes, the Yuanyang rice terraces. Patterns emerged where before there were none, light danced over the landscape in a newly entrancing way and fleeting moments captured on film (or in pixels) still give me pleasure now, five years later.

By opening our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us, and by providing a keepsake to remind us of treasured moments, photography is a wonderful complement to travel, whether we’re documenting a family holiday or a once-in-a-lifetime expedition, whether we’re in the wilds of Yunnan or in the middle of a city. But maybe we can also bring that awareness back home, to help us reconnect with the beauty of the everyday, from the reflection of a vivid sunset on an office building to the warm smile of a loved one.

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Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

While our original photography itinerary (The Exotic South) took in just one of Yunnan’s iconic landscapes, the province has many more in store – as Ron says “there is an incredible diversity of colours and landscapes in Yunnan – plenty to keep a photographer busy!” Now, we have introduced a new photography journey that features three of the most beautiful landscapes on a single itinerary, Red Earth and Fields of Gold.

From the vivid red earth of Dongchuan to the limestone karsts and blazing yellow rapeseed fields around Luoping (and one of our favourites, the Yuanyang rice fields) generations of local people have dramatically added their own imprint to landscapes across eastern Yunnan, creating patterns that fuse the manmade with nature and creating scenes found nowhere else.

Working with Ron

Working with Ron

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