Fatehpur Sikri, located 40 km west of Sikandra in India's Uttar Pradesh state, was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1570 until 1586, when it was mysteriously abandoned. It is not a city in the modern sense, but a redoubt that is probably the best preserved archaeological site in India. It hasn’t been pilfered like every other site and this may be attributed to the presence of a venerated Sufi tomb: Shaikh Salim Chisti. Akbar of the great Mughal Empire was a Muslim and it is said that he revered Chisti's Sufi. The original name for the town was the Persian form, Fathabad, but this gradually became Indianized to Fatehpur Sikri. Over time, a fortification was erected which surrounded the town and protected it from any potential threat, though it was abandoned in 1585. Though more than four centuries have passed, it still looks much the same today.
I arrived at Fatehpur Sikri mid-morning and instructed my taxi driver to wait outside the palace complex. Everyone here is a guide. I didn't remember all the touts when I was last here, some 15 years earlier. Some old coot, who was old enough to be Jehangir’s grandson, came up to try and solicit my attention. He was an old toothless wreck of a man who needed a cane to steady himself on the cobblestone pavement. But he had a regal distinction about him, which made up for his physical shortcomings. His glasses didn’t fit properly either; probably something given to him by a VisionCanada project. He was hassled by other, equally old men: "He is too old a man,” scoffed one guy; "He is not an 'official guide'," yelled another. "We are 'official guides' and he is stealing money away from us!" He pulled out a dog-eared card to prove his claim. I felt sorry for Gramps, so I gave him a five rupee note for his trouble and a package of #30 beedies. He nodded his head from side to side in thanks. The other guides were nodding their heads the same way, so I figured I must have done a good thing.
Some years ago, another lifetime in fact, my Dad lent me a book, The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. It’s about that little bit of history when the Russian and British empires found themselves staring at each other across the vast and unknown steppe that separated their two frontiers. To 19th century minds what lay between - a vast, complicated tapestry of khanates, giant sandstone fortresses and intractable deserts - may as well have been the surface of another planet. The history of the Empire isn’t really what this is about; however, it’s important to stress the vividness of the images the book planted in my mind. There’s a tangible romance in the unknown and for some time my mind was full of pictures of strange and mysterious fortresses, endless deserts and ancient minarets towering out of the limitless expanse of the Central Asian Steppe. Given this, you can imagine my state of mind as, some years later, I lay on my bunk as the midnight train pulled its slow way out of Almaty and into the vast Kazakh wilderness. Managing expectations in such a climate can be tough.
As the saying goes, good things come in small packages and Sri Lanka is a small island that delivers on that promise. Now that the civil war is over, travellers are visiting by the planeload and are being welcomed by the friendly locals. Sri Lanka can be easily explored and offers up a large variety of things to do. From beaches to jungles, ancient cities to enchanting temples, there really is something to please all travellers here.
The starting point for most travellers is the largest city, Colombo. This is a big bustling city, but with its beach-side location isn’t as hectic as some other Asian cities. It can be pleasant taking an evening stroll along the coastline, particularly Galle Face Green, the locals’ playground. This is exceptionally full of people on the weekends, picnicking, playing frisbee and swimming. Next to this large open space you’ll find the Galle Face Hotel, a luxurious Colonial hotel that has claimed the ocean views since 1864. If you can’t afford the price tag to stay there - which most travellers cannot - you can still sit by the terrace and enjoy a cocktail and just pretend to be a little bit glamorous.
Colombo’s beaches, however, are not the city’s main attraction, as far cleaner and more beautiful beaches can be found elsewhere. There are lots of things to see and do, not the least of which is shopping and the city has enough to suit all shopping tastes. Odel is the best known department store with a wide variety of clothes and other items, while Majestic City and Liberty Plaza are two outlet stores where shoppers scramble over the bargains. For a real market experience, try the Pettah Market with its broad range of offerings from electrical goods to jewellery. Bargaining is expected, but it’s hard to out-bargain the locals.
Sumatra’s biggest draw card must be its orangutans, as this is one of the few remaining places that we can see them in the wild. This extraordinary yet highly endangered species has been given a sanctuary in Gunung Leuser National Park for which the jungle town of Bukit Lawang provides an easy access point. Bukit Lawang is also the site of the orangutan rehabilitation centre, which is where captive orangutans are taught how to become wild again so they can enter the jungle when they feel ready. The town is home to a feeding station that is frequented a couple of times a day by just about any hungry orangutan. Most visits to Bukit Lawang will include a visit to the feeding station because it is where you have the best chance of seeing orangutans close up. However, when there is a lot of fruit in the jungle, fewer orangutans will feel the need to drop by and eat so there is still no guarantee you will see them.
Most visitors to Sumatra will fly in to Medan, its largest city, and from there to Bukit Lawang is a three-hour journey by private car, or a slightly longer trip by local bus. If you take a private car, be warned! The hassling is likely to start early as the driver will surely have a friend or a cousin or a friend's cousin who is a guide or owns a hotel that they will recommend. Bukit Lawang's main industry is tourism and competition is as high as the locals’ persistence. You will need strong nerves if want to look around and decide for yourself and if you do, you will find a good selection of hotels built along the river that will seem luxurious compared to the rest of Sumatra. You'll even be able to get a shower instead of the traditional Indonesian baths that can remain full of water all day and offer buckets to pour water over yourself.
With more than 22 million people in its greater metropolis area, Delhi is one of the loudest and most hectic cities in the world. In every street and alleyway of New Delhi there is a constant wall of noise that confronts you as you wander around this fascinating urban sprawl. So I was amazed that when I visited Old Delhi - the city's notorious market district - I managed to find a moment of complete tranquillity.
The day began with a journey from Connaught Place and the relative comfort and luxury of New Delhi into the more cultural and demanding area of Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi. For this trip I decided to test out the new metro system that had been put in place underneath the entire city.
I have to admit I was amazed by the efficiency, cleanliness and all around Western experience that was delivered from this shiny new method of transport. A stark contrast to the admittedly more entertaining, if not slightly terrifying experience, of navigating Delhi's congested network of roads above the ground.
“That was awesome!” doesn't even begin to cut it for an experience that truly defies description, and yet, it was the one our group of adventurers found ourselves using over and over again as an expression for our epic journey. To an outsider, it might have sounded trite, but to us, those three words held a world of meaning and seemed to sum up the range of emotions we all felt during a magical and memorable seven-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
There were 25 of us who came together to do this trip of a lifetime. Our group was comprised of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, good friends, husbands and wives, solo travelers and colleagues. And though we hailed from different places and backgrounds, we all had one thing in common – a shared desire to do the mother of all rafting trips through one of the most heralded natural wonders in the world. Each of us, however, had our own personal motivations for wanting to embark on this amazing experience. So, what is it that drives people to explore the Grand Canyon from the seat of a raft?
Like many a wayward Middle East backpacker before me, I came to Syria overland by way of Amman, Jordan. Unlike most other flip-flop-footed travelers in the region however, my journey was made at a rather precarious time, smack in the middle of the so-called “Arab spring” in June 2011. Mere weeks after my own home nest of Canada issued a warning against all travel to the country, I decided to take the plunge and make good use of the $78 tourist visa obtained one snowy, spring morning months earlier, after having mailed my passport all the way from Calgary to the Syrian embassy in Ottawa. It was a world away from the hot morning months later, where I waited anxiously in the Abbasi Palace hotel in downtown Amman - a friendly budget establishment which, despite their protests that Syria was unsafe for me to visit at the time, had arranged for me a ride to Damascus in a shared taxi across the border.
After breakfast, I paced about the common room, my backpack propped against the wall, shoes on and guide book in hand. I made those awkward prolonged goodbyes you have with people you've spent only a few days with, but through the intense chaos of travel feel like you’ve somehow known your whole life, and then my taxi arrived. Maria, my good humoured Aussie friend and travel companion, who had spent the last few weeks traipsing with me through the dust and sand of Jordan, helped carry my clumsy bag into the little elevator. She kissed me on both cheeks, said “stay in touch” and looked like she was going to cry - or perhaps it was the unforgiving glare of the Jordanian sun.
Herds of elephant, zebra, gazelle and giraffe grazing on the river bank, lurking crocodiles, charging hippos and lions chasing down young buffalo. Camping on the bank in pink sunsets, listening to not so distant lions roaring from the 'safety' of your tent and protecting your food from cheeky monkeys. It all sounds like a National Geographic special, perhaps, but it can all be on the menu for a journey into Africa.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll experience all this while paddling your canoe on the Zambesi River, but witnessing even one of them would make the trip more than memorable. Following my own paddling sojourn down the great river, I put together the following ten tips that will hopefully contribute to a enjoyable - and safe - trip.
1. Stock up on drinking water. Sure it can be a heavy load when lugging it all on board but you can never have too much of it. The local guides we used didn’t seem to mind when ours ran out with still a day and a half to go as they were partial to Coca Cola. Either they had a secret camel's hump hidden somewhere or they scored the secret advantage of having local DNA that enables you to go without water. There are no shops along the way for replenishing stocks so you will have no choice but to boil the Zambezi itself. Once suitably cooked, even with the floaty bits, it won’t actually do you any harm.
Our two-day journey into Indian Tibet began, sleepily, on an overcast and drizzly morning in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. We intended to drive the Manali-Leh highway across the Himalayas and through some of the highest mountain passes on Earth. Our driver, Dawa, picked us up at our hostel, and our group of four climbed into his car and began on our way. The ubiquitous concrete buildings with painted shop shutters quickly disappeared and were replaced by rugged hills, coniferous trees and waterfalls. Lots of waterfalls. In this part of India you are never too far away from dramatic scenery.
After a few hours on the road we stopped for a typical roadside breakfast: spicy dosas, an overly salty omelette and glasses of coffee with a layer of film, a veritable 'breakfast of champions'! The first leg of the journey was to take around ten hours, so we were back in the car before we had chance to digest our meals. As the ascent continued, Dawa began playing his Tibetan mantra CD. The music comprised of one song which was about an hour long and repeated the same prayer over and over. It was authentic to the region so I didn’t mind listening to it. A few yawns escaped me but I thought nothing of it, blaming it on the mantra, the swaying car, the mountain roads and a belly full of food.
The scenery changed frequently. As we climbed, there were fewer trees and more boulders and rocks. The road narrowed and began to flirt with the edge of the mountain. To one side of the car was a rock wall and to the other, a sheer drop. For the first time in India we all fastened our seatbelts. Overcast drizzle matured into rain and thick fog, which the car’s headlights struggled to penetrate. With no tree cover, the rain fell with impunity and quickly flooded the road. The surface was slick with mud and puddled water, not an optimum combination on this already-dangerous road.