Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Off the Beaten Track in Tibet

After a busy Christmas writing up Lonely Planet's new Nepal guide, I've finally starting to look back over 2014's travels. My big Asian trip was to Tibet, researching Lhasa and central Tibet for the Lonely Planet guide. I always try to visit a few new places every time I go back to Tibet and there were a few crackers this trip.

Drak Yangzom & Dzong Kumbum
The cave complex of Drak Yangdzom has long been a favourite of mine because there's just nothing else like it in Tibet. Getting into the caves involves climbing a wood and yak hide ladder high up into the mouth of a cliff and then hauling yourself up a narrow, slippery shute into a sacred cave complex before a nun finally drags you by the feet through a tiny opening in the rock wall into the inner sanctum, the sacred cave of a Himalayan saint. It's the craziest excursion in Tibet.

On the other side of the valley is Dzong Kumbum, a less narrow but much longer cave complex of several branches. We joined a group of Tibetan pilgrims for a tour of the sacred marks, stalactites and pools. With a mixture of barely suppressed giggles and hushed reverence, like school kids on a sacred school trip, it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.  (Click on the photos for the bigger picture).

Pilgrims in Dzong Kumbum Cave

Exploring Drak Yangdzong Cave
Pilgrims posing for a souvenir photo at the entrance to Drak Yangdzong cave

On Valley
New for the guidebook this edition is this little-visited but surprisingly accessible valley. The main Keru Lhakhang dates back 1250 years and holds some of the oldest statues left in Tibet, revealing an early Central Asian influence. For a bit of adventure, make the 90-minute hike up to the ruins of Samtenling Nunnery and Chodung Monastery

Ruins of Samtenling Nunnery, On Valley

Samding Nunnery
I'd been to this nunnery before but this was the first time I stayed at the on site guesthouse. An overnight gives you time to head up the ridge behind the monastery for epic views over surrounding lakes, all the way to the Bhutan border.

Samding and Yamdrok-tso

Here are some more of my favourite places off the beaten track in central Tibet. For details of all these places see the new Lonely Planet Tibet guide.

View of Yarlung Tsangpo from Shedruling Monastery, near Gongkar airport
Samtenling Nunnery, near Reting Monastery
Reting Valley, en route to Samtenling

Chortens between Nyima Jiangre and Phondo
Sand mandala, Tsurphu Monastery
This toe is the only part left of a giant Maitreya statue that once stood at Jampaling

Painting murals inside a giant stupa, Rabse Nunnery, near Gyantse
Sili Gotsang Hermitage
View from Milarepa's Cave, near Nyalam

Chortens of the Dza Rongphu Retreat, with Mt Everest behind

Little-known hiking trail from Khamba-la pass overlooking Yamdrok-tso lake.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Slide Shows from the Arte Wanderlust Hiking Series

Hi. I'll be putting some slide shows from the Wanderlust hiking series up here this week as they are aired on Arte.

South-West Coast Path, Cornwall, UK
Mallorca Crete

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New TV series on Arte

Hi all,

So my second TV series is about to air soon on Arte in France and Germany. It's called Wanderlust in German, or Un kilomètre à Pied in French and it's a ten-part series looking at different regions of Europe through their long-distance hiking trails. In the course of the hikes I meet Cornish fishermen, Mallorcan beekeepers, French cheesemakers, Greek park rangers and German ceramics designers, and go hiking with local guidebook writers, environmentalists and even a German princess. I learn how to use a traditional slingshot in Mallorca, eat wild edible plants in Cornwall and help deliver a baby calf in Saar-Hunsruck. Now that's entertainment.

The films are broadcast on Arte from August 4th at 7.30pm.

Mon, 4.8.2014:  South-West Coast Path in Cornwall, UK

Tue, 5.8.2014: The Saar-Hunsrück-Steig, Germany

Wed, 6.8.2014: The Dry Wall Way, Mallorca

Thur, 7.8.2014: The Stevenson Way, France 

Fri, 8.8.2014: Through Crete's Gorges, Greece

In the meantime we've been busy shooting the second five films. Last week I was in Norway and for the next two weeks I'm in Austria's Lech Valley. Some photos below.

Crossing the Dovrefjell on the St Olaf's Way, Norway

Lech Valley, Austria

Friday, January 24, 2014

New Guidebooks

I have three guidebooks at the printers at the moment. First is the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan, one of my favourite destinations and books to work on. For repeat visitors there are some cool off the beaten destinations and hikes in the central and eastern parts of the book, which are the areas I concentrated on.

Second up is the Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia. For this edition I focused on the background information, from history to outdoor activites. We have two brand new chapters on border crossings and visas, which should help clarify these tricky topics.

Finally we have the eighth edition of the Odyssey guide to Uzbekistan, the definitive guide to the architecture, culture and history of this key Central Asian state.

All three books are available now.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What I've Been Doing This Summer: Part II

In between guidebook writing, this summer I've been lucky to be involved in a new TV series for Arte called 'Wanderlust'. The films follow me as I hike a selection of Europe's best long-distance hiking trails, stopping en route to explore local history, learn about regional foods and chat with people I meet along the trail.

The series consists of ten 45-minute films and so far we've filmed five;
* The GR221 'Dry Stone Route' in Mallorca's Tramuntana Mountains
* On the trail of Robert Louis Stephenson in the French Cevennes
* The little-known Saar Hunsruck Steig in south-western Germany
* Along part of the wild South-West Coast Path in Cornwall
* Mountain and coastal sections of the E4 in sunny Crete.

The aim is to give a portrait of some of Europe's most interesting micro-regions by walking its most beautiful hiking trails.

Green valleys of the Saar Hunsruck Steig

Wild rocky coastline of Cornwall

Samaria Gorge, Crete

Lybian Sea from fort above Agia Roumeli, E4 Crete

Lovely village outside Soller, Mallorca

End of a day's hiking at Loutro, Crete

Mountain lake, Tramuntana Mtns, Mallorca

Filming a soundbite on the beach in Cornwall
We have another five films scheduled for next year, with broadcast on Arte in late 2014 or early 2015. We'll keep you posted!

Friday, September 20, 2013

What I've Been Doing This Summer: Part One

Two of the guidebooks I've worked on have been released in the last couple of months: Lonely Planet China and Lonely Planet India.

For the China guide I covered Xinjiang and Tibet, in total about one-third of the country in terms of size.

For LP India I covered Himachal Pradesh and the West Bengal Hills. My personal favourite was definitely Spiti but I also always enjoy returning to Dharamsala after so many trips to Tibet.

My top tips for HP: the Orchard House in Chamba as a super peaceful place to hang out for few days in the foothills and do some day hikes (great trekking opportunities in Chamba Valley!). I'd also recommend taking a few days and walk one of the homestay treks around Kaza in Spiti.

In West Bengal I enjoy the grand old dame that is the hill station of Darjeeling but my favourite place is Kalimpong, partly thanks to Norling at Holumba Haven who showed me some great regional hikes that I was able to squeeze into this edition of the guide. Anyone who has read the travel accounts of Francis Younghusband, Alexandra David-Neel, Charles Bell and Heinrich Harrer will definitely want to savour a beer at Himalayan Hotel, where all of these illustrious travellers spent a night before embarking on a classic Himalayan voyage.

My last tip: I thoroughly recommend a home stay and tea tasting at Makaibari Tea Estate. You can overnight in a homestay with a tea worker, pick leaves with them in the morning, roast them in the afternoon and then take away a packet of your very own hand-picked tea. How's that for a cool Christmas present?

More to come: currently putting the finishing touches to new editions of Lonely Planet guides to Bhutan and Central Asia, for publication in 2014. It's been a busy summer...

 Views of Kangchenjunga from Kalimpong walk

 Freshly picked tea leaves from tea estate in Darjeeling

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Trekking in Zanskar

In September last year I was in India to do the trans-Zanskar trek from Lamayuru Monastery in Ladakh to Himachal Pradesh. It was an excellent 18-day walk, with a tough first ten days (7 passes!), followed by a day's rest in Padum and then a delightful walk through farming villages to the high Shingo-la pass and then down to Darcha and Keylong in Lahaul.

We hired a pony man and four horses for the two of us and camped mostly, though we did stay in homes in Reru and Photaksar villages. All in all a fantastic trek, though road construction is nibbling away at several of the trek days, especially from Honupatta to Singge La, from Hanumil to Padum, and from Padum to Tsetang. Following are photos from the trek, plus a few from Spiti and Kinnaur. Cheers to Andre for yet another fine Himalayan walk.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

One Month in Bhutan

I'm just back from a month in Bhutan in February/March. When people tell me how lucky I am to have the dream job of travel writer I normally roll my eyes and mutter something about how hard it is to get a good cappucino in Lhasa. But when it comes to researching Bhutan there are no excuses; it's simply the best job in the world.

This was my third trip to Bhutan and this time I focused on the centre and east of the country. There are plenty of up and coming places in Bhutan just begging to get in the new edition of the Lonely Planet guide. Manas National Park is now open for business and the four day trek through the forests from north to south looks fabulous. I had a great day hiking to monasteries in the hills above Mongar and did made it out to a fine meditation retreat above Shingkhar and to the remote Luege Rowe and Shugdrak retreats in the Bumthang Valley. I got as far north as Dungkhar, the ancestral home of the royal family, where I ran out of road, and made a fine hike to the fairytale chapel of Dechen Phodrang in Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary in the remote far northeast.

February was chilliy in the Bumthang Valley but it was worth suffering some cold to catch four festivals into four weeks. The Punakha Dromchoe and Tsechu was the most spectacular but also had the most tourists. The Buli tsechu was fantastic because there were only about 50 people there and no foreigners when I was there. The Chorten Kora festival was also excellent and attracted people from Merak, Sakten and Arunachel Pradesh in India. The Nomad's Festival in Bumthang was less authentic but still had some great moments, including some great traditional games and masked dances.

Only another four years to go until the next trip! Now the rather less fun of actually writing the guidebook...

Click on the slideshow below to see larger pics.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Central Asia Media Roundup

Hi all,

Just back from three months in India and I thought I'd share a few books, articles and radio programmes that I think would be of interest to fans of Inner Asia.

First up, and a shameless plug is Great AdventuresLonely Planet's latest photo-led reference book. I wrote sections on watching wolves in Yellowstone National Park, jeeping Tajikistan's Pamir Highway, horse trekking in Kham, tackling a trekking peak in Nepal and trekking to the source of the Oxus in the Afghan Wakhan.

It's great to finally see Odyssey's new guide to Xinjiang: China's Central Asia by Jeremy Tredinnick. Finally this region has got the coverage it deserves. The practical details aren't quite as up to date as my Xinjiang chapter for Lonely Planet's forthcoming China guide, but the scope of the coverage and background information blow everything else out of the water, as is normal for Odyssey guides. If only they would make books that you can actually carry with you on the road - Odyssey, electronic books please!

A more specialist book is Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta by David and Sue Richardson. It's out of the range of most casual budgets but it's a great look at one of Central Asia's forgotten corners. Check out the authors website at www.qaraqalpaq.com.

One of favourite recent reads has been Christoph Baumer's Traces in the Desert. I was sceptical about the 'modern-day explorer' nature of the title but it turned out to be a well-researched and engagingly written account of some very impressive trips through Xinjiang, eastern Tibet, Mongolia and Merv in Turkmenistan. If these places appeal, I'd definitely check it out.

Finally I'd like to draw your attention to some Central Asian-related BBC radio programmes that you may have missed. All are available to download or stream. 
In Our Time is a wonderful radio series hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Each programme features a conversation with several academics on a particular topic
The following programmes are required iPod listening:
The second radio series is 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' made in conjunction with the British Museum and looking at moments in history through specific items in the museum's collection. In cased you missed them, interesting tems include:
Be well,


Classic Pamiri Scenery of Gorno Badakhshan

Current Favourite Track