Saturday, 26 April 2014

Travel Writing, could this be you?

Dreams come true

Your name in print, free travel, extra cash, could this be you?
It isn't as hard as you think...
All you need are basic writing skills and a fair dose of determination.

 I took the long road to success - didn't know any better- but this little book of mine will show you how to get there so much faster. Follow the advice and before you know it, you could be selling every travel feature you write.

Well, that's the quickest way to get into print and whenever you hit the mark -as you will - your confidence soars and there's no stopping you. The whole English-speaking world is yours and the market as vast as you want it to be.

Travel writing changed my life, it could change yours.
Are you willing to give it a go?

'Be a Travel Writer' is on its way and if you'd like to preview on  Amazon, just click on the link.

Good luck and please let me know when your first travel piece is published.
 I'd love to read it!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu ©Solange Hando

Most visitors to Beijing head to Badaling to see the Great Wall but Mutianyu is worth the slightly longer drive (70 km) to soak in the atmosphere in quiet surroundings. There are fewer tourists around and less hassle in the string of the souvenir shops down in the valley.

It took four dynasties and 2000 years to build the Great Wall which protected the Middle Kingdom but most of what you see today dates back to the Ming who also built the Forbidden City. They ruled from 1367 to 1644 when taking advantage of a peasants' rebellion, the Manchus from the north seized their chance and breached the defences.

Ready to Go ©Solange Hando

There are two ways to reach the Great Wall in Mutianyu. Easiest and quickest is the cable car that will whiz you up to the ridge in minutes. When you get there, head first for the steeper section, then if time allows, walk along the other side of the cable car for plunging views over the valley.

The other way is to walk up the path, a long hot climb which, for some, is the 'proper' way to do it. Unless you are super fit however, it means you will have less time and energy to explore when you reach the top. 

Great Wall near Beijing ©Solange Hando

Stretching over 6000 km along the border of Inner Mongolia, much longer if you count all the offshoots, the Great Wall actually got longer in 2009 when sections long buried in the sand were discovered.

The Beijing province claims an impressive 630 km dotted with 827 fortifications. But whether the wall can be seen from space is still debatable since even the first Chinese astronaut failed to spot it in 2003.

Still Climbing ©Solange Hando

The further you go, the steeper and quieter it gets, with challenging upwards sections and knee-jerking dips before you climb again. Just keep your eyes on the next gate and finally the top of the ridge but bear in mind that you'll have to turn round at some point and it can be a long hard slog back to the cable car.

Views from the Great Wall ©Solange Hando

The key to a memorable visit to Mutianyu is to allow plenty of time to marvel at the world's largest defensive structure and enjoy the views, from the valley covered in orchards far below to the mountains all around, rugged ridges and steep green slopes where wild blossom adds a delightful touch of romance in the spring.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Explore Bumthang, Bhutan's Central Valleys

Bhutan Central Valley ©Solange Hando

Beyond Paro and Punakha, the turning point for most visitors, the high road  continues over spectacular passes before winding down to Bumthang, the meeting point of four bucolic valleys at the heart of the kingdom. It's all willows and apple trees and sleepy villages where women weave on the doorstep.

Bumthang has been a special place ever since a local guru named Pema Lingpa discovered sacred treasures and created religious dances which he saw in his visions. His descendants are said to include an ancestor of the royal family.

Shrines in Jakar ©Solange Hando

Jakar is the most convenient base to explore the central valleys, a bustling little place where you can buy Bhutanese crafts, Tibetan goods, fancy gifts and even cheese from a Swiss dairy. The whole area is sprinkled with Buddhist sites, most impressive Kurjey Lakhang with its sacred rock and 101 stupas. Up on the hill, Jakar dzong is named after a white bird which, according to legend, landed on this auspicious knoll in the 16th century.

Quiet trail, Jakar ©Solange Hando

The central valleys are ideal for trekking but even if you go no further than Jakar, there are lovely trails to explore along the tumbling river, where prayer wheels tinkle from morning to night, or up on the slopes dotted with shrines, wild flowers and cypress trees. Birds twitter all around and under the clear blue sky, this truly feels like the land of 'gross national happiness'.

 ©Solange Hando 

For the locals of course, there's work to be done. At 3100 metres, Ura (above) is the highest of the four valleys, a land of lush pastures and potato and buckwheat fields. Tiny blue flowers splash colour on the slopes, goats roam on the road and red-billed choughs circle above the village temple, another auspicious sign for sure.

Cultural trek ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile, the Bumthang cultural trek promises to show you local life along a trail winding through meadows and forests, past villages and temples. There are rushing streams, grazing yak, wild boar and you might even spot a black bear. It takes just three days to complete and is relatively gentle, with only one pass to tackle.

Plan your trip carefully and you could take in one of Bumthang's most amazing festivals  such as the Fire Blessing, when locals run through burning hay to purify their soul, or the Naked Dance (everyone welcome but no photos!). Well worth venturing beyond Paro , the lovely gateway to Bhutan.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Buddhism in Laos, Spirits, Temples and Monks

 Luang Prabang ©Solange Hando

Around 60% of people in Laos practise Buddhism and from tribal villages to cities, temples and shrines greet you with golden statues, incense, lotus offerings and the chanting of monks which seems to rise from the dawn of times.

 In the lush northern hills, the old capital of Luang Prabang claims some 30 temples and monasteries, each one a peaceful oasis at the heart of town set among trees and flaming bougainvillea. For many, this is the most inspiring place on the banks of the Mekong, relaxed, charming and full of positive vibes.

 Time for a Break ©Solange Hando

As in other Asian countries, Buddhist men in Laos are expected to spend some time as monks, be it for a week, a month or longer. Many join as young men, or even children, but what happens if a married man suddenly decides the time has come for him to enter the monk hood and earn merits for his family? Monks cannot have a wife...

No problem here, you divorce your wife and when your time in the monastery is over, just marry her again. This time though, there's no need to splash out on a big wedding, a simple ceremony will do and you're be man and wife again. Astute, tolerant, what do you think?

 Luang Prabang ©Solange Hando

Traditionally, Buddhist monks 'beg' for their food, a daily ritual which gives them a chance to demonstrate humility, free more time to serve and pray for the community and offers their followers an opportunity to earn merits. Good all round.

For the people who line up the streets of Luang Prabang at dawn, it's an act of respect and generosity as they share their daily food and receive blessings.  Monks take only what they need and whatever is left, rice, fruit, biscuits, is taken home for the family's meal or given to the poor. It's about sharing rather than begging.

  Spirit House in Laos ©Solange Hando

But it isn't just about temples and monks. Respect for all living things is a guiding principle for all Buddhists and here, as in neighbouring Thailand, that includes paying homage to the spirits said to inhabit the natural world. So spirit houses pop up everywhere, among the trees or on the streets, in the gardens or along the river banks.

Most are painted red and gold, beautifully crafted and laden with fresh offerings every morning, flowers, water, sticky rice and more. I'm sure the the Buddha would approve.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Enticing Capital

  Phnom Penh ©Solange Hando

At the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong, Phnom Penh is well worth a detour after a visit to Angkor Wat. Chaotic and relaxed all in one, Cambodia's capital has a cool waterfront, colourful lanes and markets full of exotic trades, French-style boulevards fragrant with frangipani, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tempting open air kitchens.

Most attractions are close to the Tonle Sap and the few visitors who make it to Phnom Penh are soon swept off their feet by the myriad sights and sounds of this little known city, which many come to regard as Asia's most charming capital.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh ©Solange Hando

Set among flowers and lawns, the Royal Palace is a must-see, gleaming all white and gold with colonnades and spires, ornate gates and lofty pagoda roofs. Bougainvillea tumble over the walls, palms scatter a little shade and orange-robed monks wander around shrines and pavilions. In the Silver Pagoda, the floor is covered with 5000 silver tiles, though most are tucked under a carpet for protection.

The nearby National Museum displays the world's finest collection of Khmer sculptures, a lovely place where tourists can browse the galleries and cloisters set around the inner garden.

 Way to Wat Phnom ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile, the locals head for Wat Phnom, the capital's most sacred temple, to pray or make a wish among piles of offerings and volutes of incense. Monkeys scamper on the steps, stalls sell fresh pineapple and lotus seeds and fortune tellers wait for trade.

According to legend, the city owes its name to lady Penh who discovered Buddha images near the hill (Phnom) where this temple was especially built.

Sunset on the Mekong ©Solange Hando

For many visitors however, Phnom Penh's true highlights are the waterways, starting with the Tonle Sap which flows through the town, its breezy promenade lined with palm trees and flags while across the road, on Sisowath Quay, outdoor cafés beckon with plush cushions, rattan chairs and panoramic views. 

But beyond the city's heritage and bustling streets, sailing on the legendary Mekong comes top of anyone's list, chugging down to the confluence then a short distance up river. It's all you imagine it to be, houseboats draped in laundry and flower pots, floating villages with bamboo patios, women cooking dinner on open fires and children diving in murky waters while fishermen drag their nets in the sunset. Across the water, you might just spot the roofs of the Royal Palace, glowing like gold above one of the coolest capitals in Asia.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Gourmet Coffee in Costa Rica

Coffee Beans ©Solange Hando

Is coffee good for you? On the El Spiritu estate in Costa Rica, they certainly think so but only if you drink 'pure' coffee and in moderation.

It might prevent, they say, or at least slow down Alzheimer, Parkinsons, liver problems and some types of diabetes. It can counteract headaches and memory loss, boost energy and brain activity. Worth a try?

  Costa Rica ©Solange Hando

The first coffee bushes arrived in Costa Rica from Ethiopia in the late 18th century and the businesses remain pretty much a family affair, though some are grouped in cooperatives and employ seasonal workers for the harvest. Bushes are planted on well drained slopes where shade trees  filter excessive sunlight. Seedlings take around four years to grow into a bush which will be productive for up to 40 years.

A number of estates offer guided tours which include a chance to taste and buy your favourite beans as well as coffee-flavoured sweets and liqueur.

 Fair Trade Coffee ©Solange Hando

In Costa Rica, coffee grows from around 600 metres but as any gourmet will tell you, the best flavour is obtained between 1200 and 1600 metres. The white jasmine-like blossom usually appears in May, with the first rain, followed by green berries which turn red as they ripen.

Prime plantation areas are in the central valley where Costa Rican gourmet coffee has achieved world wide recognition. Top names include Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Tres Generaciones, Café Britt, Rey and Aventura.

Coffee Flower ©Solange Hando

Dark or light roast, coffee is serious business in this small country which claims its own Coffee Institute and a National Coffee Day when the highly-coveted Excellence Cup is awarded.

Drink your coffee black (as the locals do) or with a dash of cream or milk, relish the smooth taste, the aroma, and for any gourmet, it's like a love story. Climate, altitude and soil, Costa Rica and the 'golden grain' were simply made for each other.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lake Titicaca where Uros Indians Live on Man-Made Islands

Reed Boat on Lake Titicaca, Peru ©Solange Hando

Imagine building your own islands on a high Andean lake, cutting reeds in the shallows to assemble and anchor in deeper waters. Why should you take so much trouble?

Safety, thought the Uros Indians who set up home close enough to the shore for trading but ready to move at a moment's notice, pulling their islands along if danger arose. There are around 40 Uros islands on lake Titicaca, many easily accessed from the market town and tourist centre of Puno.

Uros Village on Titicaca Reed Islands ©Solange Hando

Here, in the world of the Uros Indians, everything is afloat, school, clinic, shrines and homes, glowing coppery gold as reed canoes and dragon-headed boats glide to and fro.

The islands must be constantly renewed to stop the reeds from taking root and everyone has work to do. Men fish and cut reeds, women in vivid skirts and bowler hats cook outdoors, embroider and knit while children chop up vegetables or do their homework at the water's edge under a crisp blue sky.

Lake Titicaca near Puno in the High Andes ©Solange Hando

At over 3800 metres, Titicaca is said to be the world's highest navigable lake, 80 km across at its widest point and 190 km long, stretching across the border into Bolivia. Close to Puno, the hills rise in shades of purple and pink, Andean gulls shriek now and then and coots and moorhens leave meandering trails across the water.

As in all high places, visitors who had little time to acclimatise should take care to avoid the dangers of altitude sickness.

Welcome Gate on Reed Island, Peru, Titicaca ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile for the Uros, visitors bring the promise of a little trade from boat trips around the islands to hard-to-resist souvenirs. You may even be invited into a hut , tiny, but complete with cell phone, black and white TV and the brightest rugs you've ever seen.

Family Life on Uros Island in High Andes ©Solange Hando

Lots of smiles, no hassle and just a few visitors to brighten up the day...Ready to sail? Or would you like a rug to keep you warm or hang on your wall?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Discover London's Newest Attraction, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford

The Orbit, Stratford New Olympic Park ©Solange Hando

 The ArcelorMittal Orbit, the tallest sculpture in the UK, is a work of contemporary art rising to 114.5 metres in the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Designed by Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, the orbit was created for the Olympic Games as a symbol of the continuous journey and efforts undertaken by every athlete. Red was chosen as it is an auspicious colour in many cultures.

Closed after the games while the Olympic site was being redesigned, the tower is now ready to welcome up to 5000 visitors a day. Tickets are on sale at £15 for adults, £12 for concessions and £7 for children.

View from the Top, Stratford ©Solange Hando

Two lifts whiz visitors to the top in 32 seconds or so or you could tackle the 455 spiral steps (best on the way down). This is the only structure in London looking from the outskirts into the heart of the capital, with views stretching some 20 miles around by clear weather.

Beyond the Olympic Park and the booming city of Stratford, you might spot some of London's most famous landmarks, from the Shard to St Paul's Cathedral. There are two viewing platforms, the upper deck with fun mirrors, and the lower deck with interactive displays about the tower, panorama and new Olympic Park.

Stratford's Aquatic Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park ©Solange Hando

The Orbit may hold centre stage in Stratford's new Olympic Park but there are other highlights, top of the list the stunning Aquatic Centre. This luminous structure, all graceful curves and glass panes (680 of them), claims two 50 metre pools (including one for competition) with movable floors so the water depth can be adjusted.

There's also a gym, a 'dry dive' area (with foam blocks) and seating for over 2000 spectators. Please note that booking is recommended for all activities due to popularity and occasional closure for events and competitions.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, East London, Stratford ©Solange Hando

Then, there's the park, with its trees and waterways, its fountains, landscaped lawns and themed activity trails, covering London 2012, biodiversity, kids' fun and art and culture. There's a small outdoor stage and a children's playground.

Other sporting areas include the Lee Valley VeloPark, a Hockey and Tennis Centre (open in May), the Copper Box Arena (professional basketball, netball and handball clubs) and the stadium which on completion, will be home to West Ham United.