Saturday, 6 April 2019

Japan Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom in Takyama ©Solange Hando

When winter draws to a close, the whole of Japan looks forward to the arrival of cherry blossom. 
Every night on the news, the weather is followed by the 'cherry blossom forecast.'

Blossom in the Mountains ©Solange Hando

It starts in the south in the subtropical island of Okinawa, reaching Tokyo late March and finally the northern island of Hokkaido in May.
But should you miss it on the plain in Honshu, the main island, you might catch it in the mountains where it comes out later.

Springtime in Honshu Island ©Solange Hando

As iconic as Mount Fuji, Japanese cherry trees claim over 200 varieties, producing all kinds of blooms, from the most delicate flowers to frothy clouds of colour in every shade of red and pink or white, the rarest and definitely a favourite. 

Hanami Treats ©Solange Hando

Hanami, or flower-viewing, is enjoyed throughout the islands, with music and dancing, lots of parties and feasting on blossom-flavoured snacks, sweets, dumplings, kitkats, crisps,pastries, beer and even suitably flavoured Starbucks latte.

Cherry Blossom in Hida Folk Village ©Solange Hando

According to legend, Hanami began in the 8th century when Emperor Saga and his Kyoto Court offered flowers to the spirits dwelling in the trees. This was accompanied by plenty of sake, the traditional rice wine.

'Pink Snow' in Matsumoto ©Solange Hando

After just a couple of weeks, blossom falls from the trees carpeting the land with 'pink snow'. For many Japanese this is the time to remember that life is short and like the beautiful cherry blossom, we are just passing through.

Lovely Blossom in Tokyo ©Solange Hando

Friday, 22 March 2019

Astana / Nursultan, Kazakhstan New Capital

The Bayterek Tower in Astana ©Solange Hando

Rising to 97 metres to celebrate the capital born in 1997, this is the true icon, a 'tree of life' clutching a golden egg at the very top to ensure a successful and happy future.
Enjoy all round views from the top floor and make a wish when you rest your hand in the former President's golden print.
President since 1991, Nursultan has just stepped down (March 2019) and the capital is being renamed after him. 

Nurzhol Boulevard ©Solange Hando

Stretching from the tower all the way to the river, framed by 21st century high rise, this wide pedestrian area is full of art work and flower beds.
Lovely place to relax and watch the world go by.

Khan Shatyr Centre, Astana ©Solange Hando

Like the famous Bayterek, this yurt-like building was designed by Norman Foster. Inside you will find a shopping mall, eating venues and entertainment facilities, including a beach boasting sand from the Maldives.

 The Hazret Sultan Mosque

Named after a medieval poet and saint, this is the largest complex of its kind in Central Asia. Islam in Kazakhstan is tolerant and relaxed but visitors are requested to dress appropriately and respect praying areas. Arcades, chandeliers and carpets are magnificent.

River Ishmi ©Solange Hando

On the right bank of the river is the old town while the new luxurious apartments and offices rise on the left bank. The blue-domed building on this image may look like a mosque but this is in fact the presidential headquarters.

Samruk ©Solange Hando

Samruk, the sacred bird, is the legendary guardian of the Kazakh people. You see him frequently around town, wings spread out to offer happiness and peace. 
In 1999, Astana was declared a Unesco City Of Peace, a theme kept alive in monuments and buildings, including a glass pyramid with painted doves and a 'Peace' Wall where the word 'peace' is inscribed in 51 languages. 

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Kazakhstan, Charyn Canyon near Almaty

The End of the Road, Looking down into the Canyon ©Solange Hando

Named after the river, this spectacular canyon is located in a National Park close to the Chinese border, about a 3 hour drive east of Almaty.
There are five canyons altogether, stretching over 100 km, including the Valley of Castles which can be visited on a day trip from Almaty.

 Charyn Canyon, Desert and Snowy Tops ©Solange Hando

The Charyn is smaller than the Colorado but framed by the eternal snow of the Tien Shan mountains, it certainly claims a little extra.
A long flight of steps leads down to the bottom of the gorge where for the next 3 kms or so, the Valley of Castles meanders among high sculpted rocks, with patches of unexpected greenery scattered here and there.

The Valley of Castles in the Charyn Canyon ©Solange Hando

There is an adequate footpath down in the gorge but with due care, you can improvise as you wish, with no restrictions for the time being.
Most amazing in the canyon are the different colours, sandstone ranging from red to orange and pink, but also dark volcanic rock on some of the lower slopes.

Watch your Head ©Solange Hando

The path narrows in places, with big boulders almost barring the way or sharp precarious rocks barely hanging from the top, all created over millions of years by water and wind erosion.
You might just spot lizards, snakes or groundhogs but be prepared for extreme heat in summer.

The Sharyn River ©Solange Hando

Take your time then when you reach the bottom of the valley, you can relax by Sharyn's emerald water, paddle or even swim if the current is not too strong. 
The river comes down from the Tien Shan and white water rafting can be arranged.

Yurt in the Charyn Ecopark ©Solange Hando

Down by the river, the ecopark offers a few facilities, including food and drink, picnic spots and traditional yurts when you can rest at the heart the canyon among flowers and feathery trees.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Namib Desert, Sossusvlei Sea of Sand in Namibia

Big Daddy Dune in Namib Desert ©Solange Hando

Stretching along the coast of Namibia, the Namib desert is said to be 55 million years old and claims some of the highest dunes in the world

What's this? ©Solange Hando

My shadow in the early morning, at the entrance to the Naukluft National Park listed by UNESCO. This was my first view of the desert heading towards Sossusvlei and the Sea of Sand.

Morning Light in the Namib Dune Corridor ©Solange Hando

This is an oryx, the national animal, soon after sunrise. Superb colours across the dunes, changing all along the way,  from pink and apricot to orange or flaming red.

Greenery in the Desert ©Solange Hando

Moisture and even fog from the Atlantic can bring a semblance of life to the desert, such as wild sage or mirabilis popping up up here and there. You might also come across desert elephants and white ants found nowhere else on earth.

Deadvlei below Big Daddy Dune ©Solange Hando

Beyond the end of the road, a safari ride takes you to the start of a short trail which leads to this white clay pan, a dried up oasis bristling with dead camel thorn trees. Lovely contrasting colours.

Namib Desert from the air ©Solange Hando

This was my final view of the desert from a light aircraft, heading towards the Skeleton Coast.
Loved it and would highly recommend it, flight starts in Swakopmund.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Namibia Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon in Namibia ©Solange Hando

At an altitude of 900-1100 metres, this is the second largest canyon in the world, 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and 550 metres deep. It is part of Transfrontier Park shared with South Africa.

Steps down into the Canyon ©Solange Hando

Hiking down in the canyon must be booked in advance, guide compulsory, 86 km, 4-5 challenging days over pools and rocks and only two emergency exits. But a gentle up and down trail along the ridge is accessible to most visitors, with wonderful views and no commercialisation.

Eerie shadow over the abyss ©Solange Hando

Best time to see the canyon is early morning before the crowds arrive and strange shadows creep across the land. Notice the river, a mere trickle of water but expect floods in late summer.

Another dramatic view ©Solange Hando

Allow plenty of time to explore and you may spot the wild life, zebra, kudu, baboon, springbok and more.  There are hot springs at the lower end of the canyon in the Ai-Ais oasis.

Flowers in Fish River Canyon ©Solange Hando

Delightful for botanists too as wild lobelia, fire lilies, yellow devil's thorn and other flowers cling tenaciously to the very edge of the canyon.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Namibia Wildlife Images, Etosha National Park and nearby reserves

Cheetah in Africat Centre ©Solange Hando

This is the most endangered big cat species in Africa.  This cheetah is enjoying a rest but with their long legs, cheetahs can reach a speed of 70 miles per hour.  

Rhino in Mount Etjo ©Solange Hando 

There are two species of rhinos in Namibia, the 'black' rhino, long endangered but now recovering, and the more common 'white' rhino, identified by wider lips.

Giraffe Family, Mount Etjo ©Solange Hando 

Early morning and time to look for food. Grasslands are unsuitable but acacia trees are perfect and as giraffes feed from the top leaves, pollen is spread around.

Zebras in Etosha ©Solange Hando

Mountain and plain zebras have slightly different stripes but in both cases, the contrasting black and white colours protect them from tse-tse flies.

Making Friends in Etosha ©Solange Hando

With a daily diet including up to 200 litres of water and 260 kg of forage, elephants are amazing and very family like protecting babies in single file herds and mourning their dead.

Leopard in Etosha ©Solange Hando

Leopards are thriving in Etosha though they are rarely seen. Unlike the cheetahs with full black spots, some of the leopards' spots have a light-coloured centre.

Oryx in Namibia ©Solange Hando

This large antelope is the country's national animal featuring on the coat of arms. Proud and resilient, it symbolises Namibia's values.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Almaty in Kazakhstan

Panfilov Street and Opera, Almaty ©Solange Hando

For visitors and tourists alike, this is the heart of Almaty, Kazakhstan largest city and former capital. Lined with trees and traffic free, it's a lovely place to wander around, sip a cool drink on a shaded terrace and watch the world go by.

It is also a favourite spot for musicians and artists as it leads to the Abay Opera and Ballet, the largest theatre in Eurasia, fronted by elegant columns.

Almaty Independence Square ©Solange Hando

This wise old man and god of the sky sits on this spacious square. The nearby female represents the mother earth while two children on horseback symbolise the unity of the country's many tribes.

Independence was achieved in 1991 and the first military parade was held in Almaty to mark the fifth anniversary.

.Museum in Almaty ©Solange Hando

Contrasting with a modern background, this colourful wooden building dates back to 1908. It is dedicated to folk music instruments, displaying some 40 different types from Kazakhstan and further afield.

Most atmospheric is the background music which brings back to life the traditional throat singing of nomadic tribes. There is also a concert hall.

Ascension Cathedral in Almaty ©Solange Hando

First erected in 1904, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral is said to be one of the tallest buildings of its kind in the world. Current renovation means a lot of scaffolding but it is highly colourful nevertheless, surrounded by the fragrant flower beds of Pantilov Park.

Shymbulak near Almaty ©Solange Hando

Set at around 1000 metres in the Tian Shen mountains, Almaty has its own ski resort just a short drive out of town. There are three cable cars to the top, level 1 is at 2260 metres where you will find restaurants and caf├ęs and the president's mountain retreat, level 2 reaches 2860 metres while level 3 takes you to 3200 metres within arm's reach of eternal snow and glaciers.

There are rambling paths and 22 km of skiing trails, most of them challenging with a height difference of over 1000 metres.

View of Almaty from Kob Tobe ©Solange Hando

Back in town, another cable car takes you up to Kob Tobe -the blue mountain- for a bird's eye view of the city framed by extensive rose gardens. Relax in the tea house then look around the art gallery and find the popular statues of the Beatles sitting on a bench for ever more.