Saturday, 31 May 2014

Travel Stories? We love them...

On the Road ©Solange Hando

But tell me, how did you end up in a Chinese jail?

'Well there was a castle on top of the hill so I decided to go up and take pictures. Then I spotted a man following me, waving his arms, Sir, Sir, he shouted. Wants to sell me something, I thought, so the faster he walked, the quicker I went until I reached the gate. That's when I saw the guards, ready to escort me inside...'

Now, do you have a story to tell, yours or maybe from a fellow traveller?
 I bet you do, lots of them, humorous, dramatic, mysterious, amazing, we all want to read them and that's what travel writing is about...
So why not give it a go?

Here comes a little book to help you do just that and earn money along the way.
Less than a month to publication and if you'd like a peep, you can preview on Amazon.

And just in case you thought I'm the pretty girl on the cover, I'm not....

©Solange Hando

That's me in Taiwan, celebrating a 'big' birthday with the tribe!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Eastern Bhutan, the Remote Valley of Trashiyangtse

Lost Valley in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Deep in Eastern Bhutan, a tiny ribbon of road leads to the lost valley of Trashiyangtse, following the old muleteer track which once linked the eastern and central lands  .

 Opening up at the end of a spectacular gorge, this is indeed a lost Shangri-La where all of a sudden, the dry hills of the east make way to lush patches of millet and rice, forests of hemlock and pines and meandering trails strewn with orchids, violets and rhododendrons.

The Stupa in Trashiyangtse ©Solange Hando

Festooned in fluttering prayer flags, Trashiyangtse is a sleepy little place where only crickets and birds seem to disturb the peace. Down by the tumbling river, a white stupa beckons on the edge of the paddies while the fortified monastery -or dzong- guards the entrance to the town. 

Up there on a spur at 1800 metres, the dzong is all glistening roofs, carved eaves and balconies and mysterious temples reached by near vertical ladders. There are marigolds and sunflowers, laundry drying in the sun and crows waiting for spoils in the courtyard.

Young Artists in Trashiyangtse Institute ©Solange Hando

But in this remote valley, Trashiyangtse has two claims to fame, top of the list one of Bhutan's two Institutes of 13 Arts and Crafts where artists and craftsmen refine their skills, embroidery, painting, carving and more. There's an air of meditation all around, focused yet relaxed, for in Bhutan, creating beautiful things is considered an act of worship.

Trashiyangtse also has a university where youngsters from the east can enjoy equal opportunities to those residing in the west, close to the capital. All subjects are taught but campus life continues to revolve around Bhutan's traditional values .

Heading Home from School ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile, in the valley, daily life is unhurried, quiet, though moving gently with the times. Children go to school -in national dress-, farmers till the land, women weave on the doorstep.

Heading for a short trek into the hills, I took with me the good wishes of the valley's headman, the blessing of the red-robed lama and giant cucumbers offered by local farmers, just in case I went hungry. 

A Gift from the Farm ©Solange Hando

Follow the high road  across the kingdom and in these eastern reaches, you will discover values and traditions barely touched by the outside world.

 It's well worth the long drive from Thimphu with its the hairpin bends and dizzying passes, but beware: the views might simply take your breath away...


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Buenos Aires, Football and Tango in La Boca

Buenos Aires, Puerto Madero near La Boca ©Solange Hando

Hailed as the Paris of Latin America, Buenos Aires has much offer, from elegant French architecture to 21st century office blocks, from leafy boulevards to a pink government house once painted with cow's blood. Visitors search for Eva Peron's mausoleum in Recoleta, 'dog-walkers' head for the parks and the giant flower sculpture opens its petals at first light.

But beyond the city centre and the glistening river Plate (above), La Boca has a charm all of its own with more than one string to its bow.

La Boca Juniors Football Stadium ©Solange Hando

First of all, there's football and the Bombonera (or 'chocolate box'), home to the famed La Boca Juniors. Here, former player and supporter Maradona has his own executive box in a 49,000-seat stadium where tickets are worth their weight in gold.

They say that the blue and yellow colours were those of the first ship that sailed into the harbour as players debated the choice.The ship was Swedish. There's a museum and plenty of souvenir shops in the district, packed with T-shirts, footballs and anything which could possibly inspire a budding star.

Caminito, La Boca

But football aside, if you love bright colours,  La Boca is for you, especially around Caminito where restored traditional houses gleam like rainbows along the cobbled lane, a honey pot for the tourist trade but it's quaint, cheerful and unlike anywhere else in town.

There are street artists on the pavements, cartoons and paintings on the walls, al fresco restaurants and images of Pope Francis to welcome you, even in the shopping mall. Once settled by the Genoese who attempted to set up their own republic, La Boca has a strong Italian feel com Spanish as impromptu tango dancers liven up the scene or pose for photographs.

Tango Show in Buenos Aires ©Solange Hando

For according to the local lore, this is where the tango was born when immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe and the Med. mingled on the banks of the Riachuelo. Passionate, sensual, the dance developed in the 1880s to entertain would-be clients in houses of ill repute.

Later, when it became fashionable among the Parisian elite, the tango reinvented itself in Argentina as a classical art form. Today, a tango show in Buenos Aires is a very professional affair usually highlighting how the dance evolved over time, to the sound of various instruments including the concertina-like bandoneon.

In 2009, the tango was listed by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, another proud achievement for La Boca alongside the 50 or so official titles gained by the Boca Juniors. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Giant Pandas in the Chengdu Sanctuary, China

Giant Panda in Chengdu ©Solange Hando

Saving the giant panda isn't easy but in China's Sichuan province, the Chengdu Centre is dedicated to research, breeding and raising awareness on a world-wide scale.

Only 1000 pandas or so still roam the wilds of China but 100 have been successfully raised in Chengdu where they live in a semi-wild environment of hills and lakes, trees and of course bamboo. It is hoped that one day some may be released in their natural habitat.

Plenty of Space in Chengdu ©Solange Hando

Early morning is the best time to visit when giant pandas head out for breakfast before the crowds arrive or the heat starts to rise.

Enjoy and know that your entrance fee is going to a good cause for this is a non-profit organisation, funded through donations, sponsorship schemes and visits. Even if you can't afford the extra to see the newly-born in the nursery, there are vast landscaped grounds to roam around where you're sure to come face to face with fully-grown bears. You'll probably spot other wild life too, namely red pandas, monkeys and birds such as white storks or black-necked cranes.

Plenty to Eat ©Solange Hando

In Chengdu, it's a cosy life for pandas for unlike in the wild, they'll never run out of bamboo. They seem to munch for most of the daylight hours  but occasionally you'll see one or two dozing in the trees or if you're very lucky, a mother playing with her cubs.

But don't expect a lot of attention. In their large enclosures, they're far too busy getting on with their lives to take notice of visitors. Just watch and enjoy.

On a Mission in Chengdu ©Solange Hando

Along with the Great Wall  and the Terracotta Army, the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Centre has become one of China's top attractions and if you live in the UK, you can hop on a plane direct to Chengdu.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Kathmandu Monkey Temple, Swayambhunath

Swayambhunath in Kathmandu ©Solange Hando

Ready to climb 365 steps?
If you can't, don't worry, there's a road to the top but you'll miss out on the company, pilgrims, stall holders selling sun hats, silk scarves and flower garlands, and a monkey or two.

Up there, on a lofty hill top west of the city, the eyes of the Buddha look in all directions under a golden spire, showing the way to heaven. Myriad shrines and statues gleam around the white dome, said to represent the world, and along the ridge.This is one of the most sacred compounds in Kathmandu and a place where Buddhists and Hindus worship side by side. For Tibetans in Kathmandu, it is second only to Bodhnath.

Stone Carver in the Monkey Temple ©Solange Hando

Worshipping here takes many forms, praying, prostrating, lighting candles, offering garlands of marigolds or rice for the pigeons swooping over the complex from dawn to dusk.

But for local artists, creating religious objects is also a way to earn merits while for visitors, it's a brilliant opportunity to browse quality craft imbued with a special meaning.

Buddhist Flags along the Ridge ©Solange Hando

Many pilgrims make their way up the hill in the early morning while tourists follow later, keen to tick off another World Heritage site on the list.

Few of them however venture beyond the main stupa but if you walk a short distance along the ridge, you reach a lovely area where prayer flags flutter in the breeze and nuns leave their retreat now and then to come and chat in the sun. It's a great place to reflect and savour the peace but beware: this isn't called the Monkey Temple for nothing.

That's mine...©Solange Hando

Sweet tooth? 
This greedy chap got away with the candy floss but I managed to save the coke. And don't worry about the wrapper, he won't eat it...

 There's whole colony of them frolicking on the ridge, claiming the trees as their own and the offerings left by worshippers. No one minds for these are holy monkeys, cheeky rather then aggressive unless you threaten their young.

View of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath ©Solange Hando

So just hold on to your belongings when you admire the view... Up there, Kathmandu is at your feet, an all round panorama framed by the hills and by clear weather, the snowy peaks of the Langtang range.

It's as good a reason as any to visit the temple. You can walk it from Thamel in 30 minutes but on a hot day, that may prove too much if you intend to tackle the steps. Unlike the monkeys below, you won't get the chance to cool down...

Swayambhunath ©Solange Hando

What more could you ask for if you were a monkey?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The High Road to Ladakh

On the Way to Ladakh ©Solange Hando

Hoping to go to Ladakh one day? Don't fly straight to Leh unless you're really short of time. Head for the lovely mountain resort of Manali, relax for a couple of days, then take the high road to Ladakh. It's one of the most spectacular rides you'll ever experience and it gives you a chance to acclimatise and lessen the risk of altitude sickness when you reach the capital.
Allow three days to enjoy the ever changing scenery, from snowy peaks and hanging glaciers to blue mountain lakes, dramatic rocks and precipitous cliffs.

On the Rohtang Pass above Manali ©Solange Hando

As you'll see above, there's never a dull moment so relax and take it easy. Just above Manali, Rohtang is the first of five high altitude passes, reaching 13,000 feet or more.

Even in summer, the snow falls on Rohtang but it's promptly cleared and the pass is rarely closed for more than a day. When that happens though, expect plenty of company along the way, tinselled trucks crawling up from the valley, roadside kitchens setting up their wares, honeymooners from the south posing in the snow and the odd flock of sheep and goats.

 But once you get over the top, it all seems to vanish as if by magic. 

Parachute Tents on the Road to Leh ©Solange Hando

You can spend your first night in a lodge in the quiet village of Keylong down in the valley (notice the sign: no petrol station for the next 365 Kms), then the next day start climbing again, crossing the Baralacha pass at over 16,000 feet. The highest will come later, Tanglung La, 17,582 feet.

But here's you reward, below the pass: a sprinkling of parachute tents (made from discarded army parachutes), bright and cheerful, beckoning along the road with the promise of a roaring fire inside and hot tea and noodles. In this vast wilderness, what more could anyone want?

Sarchu, Awesome and Cold ©Solange Hando

A moonscape, all shades of pink and blue? Join me... Sarchu is beautiful, not a house in sight,  but the tented camp has proper beds, blankets and hot water bottles. Even so, it's the coldest place where I've ever slept and I couldn't brush my teeth in the morning, the water was frozen.

Meanwhile on the edge of the road, truck drivers were lighting fires right under the fuel tanks to warm them up. Dangerous, I asked?  Sure, but what can we do?

The Young Indus near Leh ©Solange Hando

 Later, when you have crossed the high plateau dotted with nomad tents, the icy peaks begin to give way to mineral rich mountains glowing in amazing colours under the blue sky. The Indus greets you with limpid waters and the first greenery clinging to its white pebble banks.

Beyond the dramatic gorge, there will be willows and poplars along the river until at the heart of this beautiful mountain desert, you reach the stunning oasis of Leh, the legendary capital of Ladakh.