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Monthly Archives: March 2017

Trip to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a compact country, not much larger than Wales, but has ancient cities, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries and, of course, glorious beaches.
Getting around the country is relatively simple, with a good network of buses and trains, but to get the most out of your visit the best way is to hire a car with a driver. It’s not expensive, less than £50 a day including the driver’s meals and accommodation, and it gives you the flexibility to stop whenever you want. The added benefit is that many of these drivers make excellent guides, just make sure they speak good English. You can do this itinerary in a week, but it makes sense to spend longer to give you time to linger.
Colombo
After a long flight, it’s worth stopping for a night in Colombo and the city is less than an hour from the airport. Of course like most Asian cities it’s rapidly growing a selection of high rise buildings, but it still retains much of its leafy charm, partly because investors shied away during the long civil war. Explore its narrow lanes, lined with colonial buildings to get a sense of the old Colombo and sights include the National Museum, the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, the restored Old Dutch Hospital, and the busy markets of Pettah.
Galle
There’s new highway linking Colombo with the south and it only takes around two hours to cover the 128 Km to the city of Galle. The 18th century Dutch fort area is a UNESCO world heritage site and is the best example of a fortified European city in South Asia.
Remarkably, in spite of the boutique hotels and handicraft shops, it’s still a working town with the law courts and schools drawing locals every day. It can get hot here so walk the ramparts and get some cooling sea breezes, watching local boys leap into the ocean. The 17th century Dutch Reformed church is worth a visit, but best just to wander the narrow streets past tumbledown colonial buildings and soak in the atmosphere.
Turtle Hatchery
Heading east along the coast it’s worth visiting the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. The beach here is a prime nesting site for turtles but locals have a taste for their eggs so they’re often stolen. The good folks at the hatchery either collect them from the beach, or buy them at the market, and incubate them until the hatchlings break out. They’re then released back into the sea after a few days. They also rescue injured turtles and you can see a few specimens here.
Nuwara Eliya
Turning north and climbing up to hill country, it’s a gruelling six hours on narrow winding roads to cover 253 km. The climate noticeably cools and the vegetation changes. It’s worth stopping at Ella, at 1,000 m, for scenic views of jungle covered mountains, notably through what they call Ella gap, a niche in the hills by the side of Ella Rock.
The road climbs further upwards and soon you’re in the cloud as you reach Nuwara Eliya at 1,868 m. This is the capital of the hill country and was founded by the British in 1846. It’s also known as Little England, since the buildings look like they’ve been transplanted from Surrey (a pretty part of South East England), complete with hedges and manicured lawns. Here hard drinking tea planters spent their leisure time, in between elephant and fox hunting trips. It still has a race course and of course, a huge golf course with an appropriate club house.
Tea Plantations
Even though the British are long gone, the tea plantations continue to thrive and the hillsides are covered in the emerald green bushes, dotted with workers still picking by hand. One of the tea factories has been imaginatively transformed into a hotel, complete with its own garden where you can try your hand at picking tea. You can taste the fruit of your labours, if you wait the two days it takes to dry the leaves. Instead I visit the Bluefield Tea Gardens Factory and see each stage of the process, of course accompanied by various tastings.
Kandy
It’s another three-hour drive and 85 km through the mist and drizzle to reach Kandy, Sri Lanka’s former capital. The town is tucked on the edge of an artificial lake, surrounded by green hills on all sides and it’s an attractive place. The big attraction is the Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth, where they have one of Buddha’s canines, kept hidden inside a Russian box of caskets. That doesn’t stop worshippers queuing up to see the monks opening the sacred sanctum twice a day. It’s a tremendous sight, with incense, drumming and exotic costumes adding to the sense of ceremony. There are usually cultural shows nearby with displays of traditional dancing and fire walking.
Sigiriya
Still heading north and descending to the plains, after 95 km and three hours driving, you reach Sigiriya, or Lion Rock. This Rock Fortress or “castle in the sky” was a royal citadel for 20 years in the 5th Century. It’s a massive monolith of red stone that rises 600 ft above ground and the climb to the summit is reached between the paws of a lion.
Beneath it are the remains of the Royal Palace landscaped with waterways and lakes and there’s also an excellent museum. On the way up there are well preserved frescoes depicting topless women and of course the view from the top is stunning. Signs warn of wasp attacks and they’ve been known to attack tourists, but there’s a caged shelter in the middle of the climb, just in case.
Minneriya National Park
There are a number of protected areas in the vicinity and Minneriya is known for its large herds of Elephants who gather to drink around the reservoir of the same name. It has all the ingredients of an African safari and you transfer to special vehicles to journey deep into the jungle.
I arrive in late afternoon and am rewarded by the sight of over 250 elephants milling around on the edge of the lake, some of them taking the opportunity to have an early evening bath, as the sun sinks on the horizon.
Polonnaruwa
Not far away is Polonnaruwa, the island’s medieval capital from the 11th to the 13th Centuries, before being abandoned to invaders from South India. It spreads over a huge area, fortified by three concentric walls and laid out with an irrigation system and clusters of temples and shrines. You’ll need your guide to drop you off at strategic points, otherwise distances are too great to walk.
The highlight is the Buddhist temple containing four colossal Buddhas carved out of the rock, sleeping, sitting and standing.
Passikudah Beach
A couple of hours east, is Passikudah, a small coastal village about 35 km from Batticaloa. What brings people here is its long bay, fringed with golden sands, and clear shallow water which makes it safe to bathe. The hotels are all recent developments and, although they’re clustered next to each other, are tastefully low rise and hidden in the palms.
At the far end of the beach fishermen still set out in their canoes every night using lights to attract squid, their main catch. It’s a pleasant place to relax but just be aware that it can take seven hours to drive back to the international airport in Colombo.

Travel to Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.
Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.
It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.
Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Central and Western Ukraine show no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed.
Carpathian Mountains
The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.
Kolomyia
It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.
Yaremche
The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.
Bukovel
Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.
Verkhovyna
I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.
Chernivtsi
Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. Also a part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna because of its architecture is similar. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was part of that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Khotyn
An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but it’s still an impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.
Kamyanets Podilsky
Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the bridge connecting the medieval city, built on an island, with the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, its steep cliffs forming a natural moat. It originally had as many as twelve towers but only a few remain today. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.
Kiev
I catch the overnight train to Kiev, the carriages built in former East Germany and full of communist charm. It’s slow but comfortable, although all the windows seem to have been nailed shut.
Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.
Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator
No visit to the city is complete without a walk around the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of the city and the venue for pro-democracy demonstrations in recent years. It’s a place of tragedy as over 100 people were killed by snipers in February 2014. As a result former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Today, written in large letters on cladding covering building work, “Freedom is Our Religion”, is a slogan signifying that the struggle is still ongoing.
Chernobyl
Although there’s a small museum dedicated to the nuclear disaster in Kiev, a day trip to Chernobyl is the best way to appreciate the scale of the tragedy. It’s perfectly safe, they say, and it’s around a two hour drive from the city. You pass through a 30km checkpoint before entering a 10km exclusion zone where you’re warned not to touch anything. The reactor now has a new shiny metal shell, but the town of Pripyat, once housing 50,000 workers, is slowly being swallowed by the forest. This is a ghoulish tourist attraction but a grim reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.

Trekking in Tajikistan

There is a place where the mountains stretch up to touch the sky, turquoise lakes shimmer like jewels against a dusty backdrop, and — so they say — Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great, rises from the deep, dark waters on a full moon night, and grazes on the shore. History and legend here are intimately entwined, but one thing is for certain: the views alone will take your breath away in Tajikistan.
Where is Tajikistan?
Tajikistan is one of those funny places we know exists, but few people could actually place on the map. Nestled between China, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan it’s a small, mountainous state which was historically of great significance — Alexander the Great built cities here, it was central to the Silk Road, and the Great Game was played out along its rivers and passes — but in recent years it has fallen, undeservedly, into obscurity.
It’s all about the trekking
Thankfully, a new generation of trekkers, climbers, and other adventure seekers have decided it’s time for all that to change, and the Fann Mountains in northwestern Tajikistan look set to become one of the wildest and most exciting travel destinations of 2017.
Pioneering the development of trekking and tourism in Tajikistan is Luca Lässer, owner of Kalpak Travel, who fell in love with the ‘Stans whilst completing an exchange programme at the American University of Central Asia. He describes the Fann Mountains as “a magical destination [which] will quite literally take your breath away,” and as the peaks here soar to well over 5,000m, that’s no exaggeration!
The roads, often unmade, could do little more than cling to the mountainsides, rivers rushing hundreds of feet below, and a sheer face of rock above. Often I couldn’t see the sky: that required getting out of the vehicle and craning my neck back, staring straight up. The natural barrier created by the mountains was so high.
Amazing landscape
From the main road, we crossed a rickety metal bridge, rusted and barely holding together, and climbed and climbed, one hairpin bend after another. Clouds of dust blew up from the track, and on the barren slopes around us, there was little to see but scree.
But then we passed over a hump, and another bend, and laid out below us was a turquoise lake, the surface of the water glittering in the sunlight.  Around the lake, the vegetation was lush and jade green, a veritable oasis which until now had been completely hidden from view.
This lake was Iskanderkul, named for Alexander the Great. It is said that he came here whilst on campaign, and when his favourite horse, Bucephalus, died, he was buried in the lake. The shepherds will tell you that on a moonlit the ghost of this horse rises again, but though we watched intently from our campsite on the shore, we didn’t catch a glimpse of Bucephalus.
The people
Though the landscapes in the Fann often seem empty, in fact that’s far from the truth. People have lived here for millennia, and some of them have preserved their languages and cultures since ancient times. Their villages sit by the riverside, and in summer the shepherds drive their flocks to high meadows over mountain passes. And so my second fond memory is of the people, and in particular a family in Aini who took me in for the night. The concrete wall around their plot encompassed not only the family home, but also a beautifully tended garden. The grandmother of the house sat with me beneath the apricot tree, telling stories I’ll never understand. But in the warmth of the sunshine, relaxed in the company of new friends, there was no better place in the world to while away an afternoon.
Access
Unlike the Alps or the Pyrenees, the Fann Mountains are hardly easily accessible, but their remoteness is part of their charms. You won’t find yourself following another trekking party up the pass, or competing for space at the best camping spots. The attraction of this wilderness is exactly that — it’s still wild. And the thrilling thing is that it’s waiting to be explored.
Practical Information
Kalpak Travel has 13-day trekking tours to the Fann Mountains, with scheduled departures in July and August. The tour costs €1,690 and this includes ground transportation, accommodation, meals, camping equipment, and services of an English speaking guide.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Tajikistan, but there are reasonable connections from London to Dushanbe (the capital) with Turkish Airlines, Air Baltic, and Air Astana. You will need to apply for an e-visa before you travel, and this currently costs $50. No additional permits are required to visit the Fann Mountains.

16-day cycling in Cuba

“We were returning to the morning light” – as a famous hit song by The Herd goes, which indeed we were, as our motley crew and team leader cycled off in bright morning sunlight on a 16-day tour through the extreme contrasts of this fascinating and contradictory totalitarian state-run country that is like no other … Cuba!
The official Cuban Tourist Map describes it as having “beaches of incomparable beauty, a fascinating seabed, wide variety of scenery, cities with estimable architecture” and I might add the most potholed of roads. I do not mean to be unkind, but it has to be mentioned since my trip was cycling tour on 21 gear hybrid cycles with panniers along with an experienced tour leader, assisted by official Cuban state tour guides. Our start and finish destination was the capital Havana.
Cuba is said to look like a crocodile on the map, or a great fish swimming in the Caribbean’s blue waters. Whatever its shape, Cuba possesses a rich culture and is by far the largest of all the Caribbean Islands. The land is made up of lush mountains, rolling hills and flat plains, all covered with a fertile soil from which springs sugar, tobacco and a vast array of tropical fruits and vegetables. Cuba’s mountains, swamps and offshore keys, conceal a wealth of plant and wildlife, barely seen by natives let alone tourists.
The island’s natural riches are equalled by the charms of its people. Cubans are a mulatto race from the early days of the colony, Spanish blood mixed with Indians and black slaves, bought over from Europe and latterly French from the 20th century. All these influences created something akin to a bottle of aged rum – dusky flavour, full and intoxicating!
Much evocative prose has been written about Havana. Words do not really do it justice with its diverse architecture, wide avenues and the famous ‘Malecon’ promenade, particularly those at the city centre of Old Havana. Its magnificent decaying edifices of the colonial buildings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Watch with a touch of nostalgia as 40’s & 50’s American cars drive by. Cubans live and breathe music and appear to know only one volume setting…….LOUD! from distorted blown speakers and a musical style all of it’s own.
Everything seems caught in a time warp of the decadent American influence of the 1950’s. As night falls the city sparkles with life and a visit to the bars that Hemmingway used to frequent – La Bodequita del Media or the Floridity – to sample his famous drink a daiquiri is a treat.
Many visitors feel the Viñales Valley is the most spectacular sight in Cuba. Certainly it was eventful getting there, as we were blessed with monsoon rains whilst traversing the banana and coffee plantations.
The valley is set in the Pinar del Rio province, Cuba’s westernmost region, a fringe of land with the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Caribbean to the South. The mighty Mojotes limestone outcrops provide the backdrop for the world’s finest tobacco fields, with spectacular scenes more akin to South East Asia than the Caribbean. Its’ easy somnolent pace of life provided a real tonic to the hustle of Havana. To get there we had to cycle along Cuba’s only main motorway. With little traffic, it provided a surreal experience as we idled along this vacant tarmac ribbon. This has to be the last motorway in the world where such an experience could occur.
Equally impressive is the infamous Bay of Pigs, an otherwise innocuous sandy shoreline. This is now forever recorded in historic folklore as the failed invasion debacle on 17 April 1961. Suffice to say the insitu museum celebrates repelling the 1297 CIA trained insurgents (US participation was denied at every stage), which led to a great boost in Fidel Castro’s domestic and international status. Soon after he declared Cuba a socialist one party state. A walk round the museum with the entire captured US remnant on display, is a seminal moment. It really hits home just what this unique country is all about.
We cycled on to the town of Cienfuegos, a port city 155 miles southeast of Havana. Tourism has yet to reach this town with any force and allows one to see life as it really is for Cuba laid bare. Despite the industry on its periphery, the centre is quite attractive, with pastel coloured neo-classical buildings. Travellers are now starting to use this as a stop-off point on the way to Trinidad. The focal point of the town is Parque Jose Marti, one of the grandest squares in the country. Here you will find the monumental red-domed government offices, and early 19th century cathedral with a startling gold-painted interior and a music hall (casa dela troua) with whimsical flourishes.
The huge Hotel Jagua was our base for two nights. Set on a peninsular into the bay (originally a Hilton Hotel, seized by Castro after the successful 1959 Revolution, as it had just completed construction), it served up a sumptuous colourful evening cabaret for the mighty price of 5 Cuban dollars. Cavorting mulatto dancers in sparkling G-strings and pairs of strategically placed stars, may not be most peoples’ image of socialist doctrine – but this is Caribbean communism.
The Palacio de Valle just next door to the hotel provided a very unusual dinner date. Built between 1913 – 1917, this is the most peculiar ‘neo-mudejar’ style in Cuba, an architecture using elements of pre-15th century Moorish Spain. Its’ rooftop terrace is a great place to sit in the evening and enjoy a Mojito, as the flame coloured evening sky provided a wonderful canvas for the setting sun.
Trinidad is totally beguiling, which assaults all your senses. Sugar barons, slaves and pirates have all left traces in this oldest of Colonial Caribbean towns dating back to the 1514. Today it is a world heritage site, due to its time-warp preservation of architectural jewels. Aimless wandering through cobbled streets proved especially productive in Trinidad, since dozens of street names have changed and neither map nor residents seemed sure of what to call them.
Next day, a visit to the San Luis and Sugarmill Valleys was particularly delightful. Highly recommended is the trip I took on a steam train once used in the sugar industry, which traverses the whole valley for tourists. It leaves daily from the Estacion Dragones station in the south of Trinidad. Leaving at 9.30 am and returning 2-3pm, it stopped off along the way at the old Manacas-Iznagas Tower, the iconic symbol of Trinidad’s rich history. This ‘frozen in time’ area transports you back to bygone days in the most colourful way. As I closed my eyes the whole sense of occasion and atmosphere washed over me.
Later that evening as night fell across the Plaza Mayor in the centre of town; it served up a special atmosphere of criss-cross rhythms of Cuban music to the twirling bodies of the multi-national gathering of tourists. As the live music punctuated the air, a luminescent moon bathed the whole event in that special ‘moon glow’, truly a magical occasion leaving yet another indelible image, which will long remain with me.
Another day another ride commencing on the highest section of the Sierra del Escambray (Escambray Mountains), arguably Cuba’s most beautiful range. From the village of Tapes de Collantes (built in the 1950’s), we experienced a dramatic downhill through this unique jungle of luxuriant vegetation, an area of waterfalls, river rapids and fantastic horizons. Blessed with its own microclimate, the mountains were a wonderful cool refuge from the baking Trinidad.
Over night was in Santa Clara, a town as iconic as any in this country. It was here Che Guevara had the most decisive battle of the revolution. This in turn led to the fall of Havana and the flight of Batista a few days later. Next day a visit to Che’s Mausoleum and Monument, proved particularly evocative and enthralling. In a massive and overbearing communist style, this solid concrete edifice celebrates the history of the successful Revolution, via statues, carvings and records. Inside the mausoleum burns an eternal flame guarding over the final resting place of Che Guevara and his fallen colleagues.
Mantanzas was the start of our final ‘open road’ day of riding through the Yuma Valley, surprisingly still relatively unknown to most western visitors. The town has redeeming features, worlds apart from the likes of Havana and Trinidad. Their poorly stocked shops, dusky back streets and primitive transport provide a convenient insight to the grimy real world of everyday Cuban life.
So the journey ends in Havana with time to reflect. Cuba is all of the ‘Shadows and Darkness’ of state monopolistic control. Try as it might though nothing can stop the ‘Morning Light’ bringing with it the irrepressible will and energetic drive of its people. My mind went back to dusk in the most run-down part of Cienfuegus. As I sat up high on a dumping ground overlooking the Barrios, everywhere I looked was a scene of abject poverty. Almost in defiance, childrens’ laughter rose from the maze of ramshackle streets as they danced and played. From every doorway the sound of music, dogs barking and lively chatter erupted in its own special orchestra of life. This is their microcosm, the very lungs and heartbeat of Cuba. Everywhere you see an industrious attitude, which turns ‘water into wine’; nothing is wasted but re-cycled time and again.