Monthly Archives: December 2016

This essential guide to backpacking China’s Silk Road

The section of the ancient Silk Road that runs through China is an epic journey through desert dunes to the end of the Great Wall, a length of pink mud that ends abruptly in the magnificent beige towers of the Jiayuguan Fort.

This is not a voyage that many travellers experience; it’s often and understandably overlooked in favour of more accessible and famous destinations in China.

But for adventurous travellers looking for something truly different, backpacking the Chinese Silk Road reaps glorious rewards: sand-sledding down a magical unmoving sand dune, a camel ride around an oasis, a trek up the end of the Great Wall and sipping wine under grape trellises are just a few of the possibilities. So don a sand-proof rucksack and check out our guide to backpacking the Silk Road through China.

The route

Historically, the Silk Road was not one but many routes that connected east and south Asia to Mediterranean Europe, so named because the largest commodity traded down the route was sought-after Chinese silk. The route traditionally started in Xi’an (then known as Chang’an), China and continued northwest through modern-day Gansu and Xinjiang provinces before reaching Central Asia.

Several historical splits in the road mean that you have options when deciding your route. By far, the most traversed portion of the route is from Xi’an to Lanzhou and Jiayuguan in Gansu. From here, you can choose to head northwest to Urumqi in Xinjiang, where fascinating Uigher culture, China’s wine country, and the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan mountains await.  Alternately, the southern route heads through the fiery desert of Gansu, with its huge dunes and ancient Buddhist caves, ending in the distinctly Central Asian city of Kashgar, renowned for its bustling Sunday livestock market. Adventurous travellers and those with extra time could potentially explore both routes by heading southward from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang in Gansu, then upwards to Urumqi and finally south again to end in Kashgar.

Don’t-miss sights

Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. This incredible desert landscape is striking for its orange, red and yellow hues of layered clay and sandstone, forming bizarre rainbow mountains. While you’re in Zhangye, also be sure to see the Giant Buddha Temple, which contains one of the largest wooden reclining Buddha statues in China.

Jiayuguan Fort. The ancient Great Wall ends in this towering mud fortress, which rises out of the desert like a mirage. Just a few kilometres northwest of Jiayuguan town, the fort boasts a few touristy activities like archery and camel rides, but the real reason to come is for the sweeping views from its ramparts.

Overhanging Great Wall. Named because it looks like a dragon hanging over a cliffside, this portion of the Great Wall is one of the most visually stunning: a mud maze that zigzags its way up a stark desert mountain. The wall is open for climbing and views from the top are incredible.

Singing Sands Dune. To call this a single dune would be an understatement. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, Singing Sands Dune is the first in a series of thousands of dunes that make up the Taklamakan Desert. This particular dune, though, is legendary for having never covered the oasis below, despite thousands of years of sand erosion. Adventurous types can climb the dune for great vistas of yet more dunes – and then sand-sled back to the bottom.

Mogao Grottoes. Just outside of Dunhuang, this series of caves contains an incredible wealth of Buddhist art and murals.

Turpan Grape Valley. China may not be known for its quality winemaking just yet, but Turpan – an oasis town – is home to one of the oldest and most prolific wine-making regions in the country. No matter the quality of the wine (some is actually quite quaffable), sipping a fresh glass of white under grape trellises as a brook babbles nearby is great way to beat the desert heat.

Jiaohe Ruins. This 2300-year-old archaeological site contains the ruins of an ancient capital that was destroyed by Mongol invaders around the 13th century. What remains today is an elaborate network of structures in various states of decay, connected by a maze of streets.

Tian Chi Lake. This mountain lake, whose name means ‘heavenly’, sits in the cradle of the Tian Shan mountains underneath the looming 5445m gaze of Bogda Peak. A popular destination with domestic tourists, the lake’s serenity is sadly hampered by honking boat horns and tramping visitors, but if you can find a spot of solitude, the vistas are incredible. It’s also possible to camp or stay in a yurt with a local Kazakh family – highly recommended for delivering a slice of the water and surrounding forest to yourself.

Kashgar’s Grand Sunday Bazaar. One of the largest and liveliest markets in all of Asia, Kashgar’s bazaar is open every day but is especially bustling on Sundays, when the livestock market adds cattle, horses, sheep and goats to the mix.

Getting around

China’s northwest is historically one of its least connected regions. The Jiayu pass, where the impressive Jiayuguan Fort was built in the 1370s, marks the end of the Great Wall and the border of the ancient Chinese empire.

The region spreads over 2400km, most of which is separated by vast tracts of desert. Though you can still get on a long, bumpy bus ride if you want to, the region is now connected by high-speed rail, making getting around a breeze. Regular flights also connect most of the main airports in the region: Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Urumqi and Kashgar all have commercial airports, and tickets are often discounted.

Part of the allure of this trip is the vast journey overland, which hearkens to a day when explorers, traders and Buddhists rode and walked for weeks across the harsh desert. Doing at least part of your journey by rail is a good way to experience these landscapes up close. The entire journey could be done in 10 days by rail if pressed, but two to three weeks allow for explorations further afield and several days in each stopover to see the sights properly. Flying from Xi’an to Lanzhou and beginning your rail journey there would shorten the journey for those in a hurry.

An ideal Silk Road trip would include overnight or several-day stops in Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi (or Tian Chi Lake) and Kashgar.

Tips and recommendations

Most of this route follows extreme desert, so pack for dry heat. Carry plenty of sunscreen and breathable clothing that covers the skin. A bandana or lightweight scarf can be useful for shade and breathing in dusty conditions.

If taking an overnight train trip, equip yourself with food and plenty of sealed, bottled water before you embark. Hot meals are offered on trains, but tend to be very basic Chinese staples like rice, vegetables and stir-fried meats. Instant noodles, fruit, nuts and seeds are ubiquitous, easy to carry and keep well. Trains also usually sell beer and wine, but at high mark-up, so be sure to pack your own, as having a ganbei (bottoms up) is a great way to meet locals and make friends while travelling.

Officially, the entirety of China is in one time zone, China Standard Time, but the northwest, particularly Xinjiang province, often operates on its own locally created time zones. When purchasing train and bus tickets, double-check the departure time.

In general, Mandarin is spoken throughout the region, including by taxi drivers and hotel staff and at large stores and restaurants. However, in some more remote areas and at smaller cafes, you may find older people only speak local dialects of Chinese or Uigher.

This Luxurious lounges and hipster haunts In Venice

Venice may not be renowned for its nightlife, with most of its citizens tucking themselves in bed well before midnight, but Venetians do like a tipple, particularly at aperitivo time.

The city boasts more bars than you can shake a cocktail stick at, from spectacular rooftop views to hole-in-the-wall music joints, and whether you prefer to be shaken or stirred, our list will help you find your perfect watering hole.

Take in the view from Giudecca’s Skyline Bar

There are plenty of reasons to love rooftop Skyline Bar, despite its slightly awkward location on Giudecca island. First off, you get a free shuttle service from the city across the Giudecca Canal. Secondly, it offers great views of southern Venice and thus multiple photo ops. Then there is the lengthy – and idiosyncratically translated – cocktail menu. A nice touch has been to provide a Venetian take on the classics, with the drinks covering the six sestieri (districts) of the city. The free boat ride makes a cocktail (€16-20) at this glamorous hotel bar an affordable treat.

Join the young, hip crowd at Osteria da Filo

Known to locals as ‘La Poppa’, this buzzing watering hole has a great wine list and cocktail selection (€3.50-6), including the Zaza, a mean house speciality involving copious amounts of rum and fresh ginger. One of the few venues in Venice offering live music (early evening on Wednesdays), Osteria da Filo is crammed with a young hipster and alternative crowd. On Wednesdays, arrive early to grab a comfy sofa or seat near the stage; alternatively, squeeze yourself in at the bar. The music ranges from traditional swing to contemporary jazz with local and international acts performing. The staff are friendly and the mood convivial.

Bring out your inner Bond on the Terrazza Danieli

A Venetian institution, the Danieli Hotel has been frequented by James Bond, as well as featuring in 2010 comedy The Tourist. From May to September, the Terrazza Danieli is open for aperitifs on the roof. Take in the stunning views of San Giorgio Maggiore and the Doge’s Palace as you sip on a soothing Bellini (cocktails €15-18) after the heat of the day. In winter, head to the ground floor bar for a cosier aperitif.

Drink in the luxury at the Bar Longhi

The newly restored Bar Longhi at the Gritti Palace hotel is sumptuous, elegant and the epitome of luxury. The interior is all marble and Murano glass and even boasts paintings by eighteenth-century artist and local son Pietro Longhi. The bar has a delicious eponymous signature cocktail, the Longhi, consisting of Campari, vermouth and stock orange liqueur, as well as an extensive cocktail list (€19-22). Sink into a plush sofa as you look out onto the Grand Canal in one of the loveliest hotels in the city.

Sip on a sun-downer at the Villa Laguna

During summer one of the best places in the city for a sun-downer is the bar at the Villa Laguna hotel on the Lido. The decking is right on the waterfront and offers a view of the city and her islands. Brush the sand off your feet after a day on the beach, order a spritz or classic cocktail (€12-16) and check out the setting sun as it steeps Venice and the lagoon is a rich rosy-orange glow. The Lido might boast fancier hotels with views of the Adriatic Sea, but none of them can match a summer sunset seen from here.

Gaze on the Grand Canal at Ancora

Offering outdoor seating overlooking the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, swish Ancora (ancoravenezia.it) is ideal for lunchtime aperitifs among the hubbub of the market. Indoor evenings are a more relaxed affair, though the place gets pretty full at aperitif time. Plates of mixed cold cuts, local fish or Normandy oysters can be washed down with a fine array of cocktail options (€9-15). There is live music occasionally and the bar closes late (by Venetian standards), at 2am.

Exotic and inventive cocktails at classy Il Mercante

At the foot of the bridge in Campo dei Frari, this Venetian stalwart (ilmercantevenezia.com) has recently undergone a facelift and is now all velvet sofas and low lighting. Though offering great breakfasts and snacks, as well as mouth-watering lunch options, this pretty bar changes management at cocktail hour and becomes a creature of the night. An inventive and fabulous cocktail selection (€8-16) is conjured up before your very eyes by Alessandro and his knowledgeable and super-friendly staff. They occasionally squeeze in some live music in the early evening. And if you grab a sofa upstairs by the window, you will be facing the impressive Gothic facade of the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

Get cosy with the locals at Osteria All’Alba

A bar the size of a postage stamp, this rough and ready haunt is a favourite with Venetians. Hidden down a side street at the bottom of the Rialto Bridge, music lovers and drinkers converge at Osteria All’Alba for DJ sets, cocktails and bar snacks – the mini sandwiches with inventive fillings are a particular favourite. This is neither the prettiest bar in town, its walls covered in messages from previous patrons, nor the classiest, but the cocktails (€5-8) and lively atmosphere more than compensate for any dearth of elegance. Classy decor and unmatched views at Blind Spot © Michael Faggiani / Blind Spot

Find inner beauty at Mestre’s Blind Spot

While not actually in Venice itself, this swish new bar (cocktaillab.it) is worth the bus ride across the causeway to Mestre (Venice’s mainland district). Situated in a tower in a supermarket car park, the inauspicious location makes the surprise even greater when you arrive on the 18th floor and find yourself in glamorous surroundings that are more redolent of Milan than workaday Mestre. A dazzling array of traditional and new-fangled cocktails (€9-12) are served with supreme elegance by the gracious waiting staff. Sit back and gasp at the views from the closest thing to a skyscraper in the area. And if you’re not too squiffy, you can continue your evening at the equally wonderful Japanese restaurant Aki on the floor below.

Wine and dine in style at Caffè Centrale

One of the first cocktail lounge bars to open in the city, this venue tucked in a quiet street behind St Mark’s Square hasn’t lost its appeal. If you are coming by taxi or gondola you can make a classy and dramatic entrance by mooring at the bar’s private dock. Along with its heftily priced but delicious food menu, Caffè Centrale serves a mean cocktail (€9-18), with classics intertwined with imaginative new concoctions. Book the table on the tiny deck to enjoy the gondolas gliding by as you imbibe.

This A walk through Kyiv’s Soviet past

Ukraine has been a proudly independent nation since 1991, but for decades before that it formed part of the Soviet Union. Many elements of that era – and of the Russian empire before it – remain in the heart of Kyiv, intertwined with remembrances of the city’s medieval glory. It’s a fascinating array of clues from the past, within strolling distance.

As I step out of Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk metro station, the Ukrainian capital’s tumultuous postwar history is laid out before me – in concrete and steel. The busiest, grandest boulevard of downtown Kyiv, Khreshchatyk street is lined by buildings of communist-era vintage. Some are highly decorated, others bear plain facades; but all are lofty, intimidating structures.

There are hints, however, of post-Soviet adjustments. Down the street I spot a large star surmounting an imposing apartment building. When Ukraine was part of the USSR, it must have been painted revolutionary red; now it’s a striking blue over yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. And the metro station houses a branch of an American fast-food chain, sandwiched between Stalinist facades.

It’s outside this eatery I meet Anna, the guide who’ll be taking me on a walking tour of communist Kyiv. As I grew up in Australia during the Cold War years, I’m keen to learn what those times were like in the former USSR. Anna says I’ve come to the right place: after Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Kyiv was the third most important Soviet city. That’s one reason nuclear power plants were situated in the region, with catastrophic results in 1986 at nearby Chornobyl (commemorated in Kyiv at the sombre but interesting Chornobyl Museum).

The modern-day appearance of Khreshchatyk, however, was a consequence of the arrival of the German military. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the retreating Red Army had time to booby-trap and detonate its grand 19th-century buildings. With the additional destruction caused by aerial bombing of industrial areas, Kyiv was a mess by the end of WWII. Its makeover after the conflict was extreme.

‘We lost the opportunity to live in a fun city, because the architecture was gone,’ says Anna. The authorities saw the devastation as an opportunity to create a new Soviet-style city, rather than to re-create its old look. To my eye, it doesn’t seem that bad: on one side of the metro station, for example, an apartment building contains a surprising amount of detail in its tiles and pillars. On the other side, a slightly later building has a flatter, plainer facade. Even Soviet architects went through decorative phases, it seems.

Strolling along Khreshchatyk, we also see recent additions. One is a striking bust of the national poet Taras Shevchenko, mounted on a zig-zag frame of girders. A 19th-century nationalist who wrote in the Ukrainian language, Shevchenko is often compared to Shakespeare. Anna prefers to liken him to Robbie Burns, as she feels his role in sustaining Ukrainian identity mirrors that of the Scottish poet in regard to the Scots.

We turn onto Khelmnitsky Street (formerly Lenin Street), which housed many bookshops in Soviet times, then descend into the Teatralna metro station – one of the great legacies of that era. Moscow is famous for its elaborately decorated underground railway stations, and Kyiv has its own version of this splendour. Past huge recessed barriers designed to be lowered in the event of a nuclear war, we admire a concourse decorated with detailed bas-reliefs. One has the word ‘peace’ in various languages including English, beneath doves flying across the wall. Further below, the brown marble pillars between platforms were constructed of the same stone used for Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.

The most lavish decor is yet to come, however, as we stroll through a passage connecting to Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate) station. The arches leading to its platforms are decorated with mosaics of kings and saints, underlining the connection between Ukraine’s modern history and that of the medieval state of Kyivan Rus. As we inspect the art, a sea of commuters flows around us, passing beneath chandeliers. Kyiv’s metro has some of the world’s deepest stations, serving over a million daily passengers.

Outside the station is the Zoloti Vorota itself: a massive brick gate, a replica of fortifications which stood here during the city’s glory days as a trading hub. ‘In the 12th century, Kyiv was bigger than London, Paris and Rome combined,’ says my guide. Its only rival was Constantinople (now Istanbul), from where Kyiv drew its architectural and spiritual inspiration.

But this tour is about the more recent past, so we pass by a statue of 11th-century Prince Yaroslav the Wise to pause in front of an imposing grey building. This was once the local headquarters of the feared KGB, also used by the Gestapo during the German occupation. This sinister place is surrounded by an eclectic mix of architecture, including a pretty yellow commercial building from the 19th century, and a grim apartment block of crumbling concrete from the 20th. ‘If you see an ugly building, it was definitely built during the Soviet times,’ says Anna. She goes on to describe her mother’s life in one of these apartments with their shared facilities. Incredibly, each family would own its own toilet seat for use with the communal facilities.

We also encounter sites of religious significance on our route: the beautiful St Sophia’s Cathedral which became a museum under the communists, and St Michael’s Monastery with its memorial to those who died in the horrific 1930s famine caused by Stalin’s agricultural policies. Next to the monastery is a vast, overbearing structure featuring enormous grey pillars. Now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was intended as the first building block of a vast modern square which never came to fruition.

A more welcoming plaza, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) is a long open space, with solid Soviet-era buildings at one end and the elegant 60m-high Independence Monument at the other. There are other Soviet-era relics worth seeing farther afield in the city, particularly the soaring Rodina Mat memorial and the adjacent Museum of the Great Patriotic War. However, bustling as it is with visitors and locals enjoying a sunny day, the Maidan seems the perfect place to end this initial walk through Kyiv’s complicated past.

Tips to build a perfect road-ready camera kit

With mobile phones that feature sophisticated cameras in the hands of most travelers, taking photos has never been easier. But if you want to level up your Instagram game with quality images beyond the typical smartphone fare, follow our tips for picking and packing a travel photography kit.

Selecting your system

There’s a perfect setup for every kind of adventure – pack according to the likeliest scenarios you’ll encounter and stay mindful of factors like climate, seasonality, the local culture and the length of your trip. Pick the proper camera system for yourself – think about features and controls you’ll need and get familiar with them long before you hit the road.

Bodies

DSLRs by big brands like Canon and Nikon have long been the go-to brands for serious shooters, but lighter and smaller mirrorless options are gaining traction with hobbyist and professional photographers alike. Mirrorless systems like the Fujifilm X Series (fujifilm-x.com) or Sony Alpha (alphauniverse.com) have the advantage of being extremely compact– half the size of traditional DSLRs – and many models host interchangeable lenses for an image quality that’s superior to point-and-shoot cameras.

Lenses

Lens selection depends on the nature of the trip and your planned itinerary. In general, opt for wide angle lenses (20mm and lower) for landscapes and telephoto lengths (50mm or higher) for shooting faraway subjects.

A versatile zoom lens that shoots from wide angle to telephoto provides enough range to capture a variety of travel scenes and situations. On the other hand, prime (fixed focal length) lenses are often more compact and an overall better choice for their faster optics and broader aperture settings. You can’t zoom with these lenses, which can be a good thing – it forces you to interact more with the environment as you work toward that perfect shot.

Select primes that cover a range of bases: 50mm is a popular ‘standard’ lens with a field of view that closely resembles the human eye; 35mm is a good wide length for landscapes, street scenes and architecture; 85mm is a solid choice for portraiture. When shooting wildlife, pick primes between 300mm and 600mm. Because animals tend to move quickly, a telephoto zoom lens ranging from 70mm to 400mm is also a good option.

Filters 

Thanks to digital editing, the use of filters on camera lenses to modify an image isn’t as necessary as it used to be, but there are still a couple of useful ones. UV filters cut atmospheric haze and protect your lens (many opt to leave them on at all times). Circular polarizer filters are good landscapes; they can boost color saturation, reduce glare and cut reflections on water or glass.

Flash

With the world as your studio, it’s typical to rely on available light when shooting your travels. That said, a flash can be beneficial when the ambient light isn’t sufficient indoors or when you’re trying to capture quickly-moving subjects outdoors at night. Luckily, hot shoe mount flash units are compact enough to pack with ease. For travel photography, use ‘through the lens’ (TTL) metering rather than manual flash for travel photography. The unit to select depends on the camera’s brand, as most are only compatible with specific models.

Bag basics

Luggage is a significant consideration for anybody who travels, but for the itinerant photographer, it’s key that the form fits the function. A camera bag’s style and capacity should suit not only your gear (an expensive investment, after all) but also the nature of the trip.

Spring for a bag with just enough room for your essentials so you won’t be tempted to overpack. Size and weight are important not only for airline carry-on restrictions, but also because the burden of toting cumbersome luggage can get annoying and painful quickly. Save your back and shoulders by selecting something comfortable enough to carry for an extended period of time. Backpacks are best for hands-free movement, and messenger styles allow easy access to your gear.

Ensure it has well-made protective features like padded, Velcro-adjustable compartments and waterproofing elements to help safeguard your gear. Typical bags (made from black nylon or polyester fabric) can be conspicuous – try one of these trip-specific designs to keep a low profile:

Best for adrenaline junkies

The MindShift Gear (mindshiftgear.com) Rotation 180 Series backpacks are made for photographers with a passion for high-octane adventure. Their rotating belt packs allow quick access to your camera when you see a shot, and safe stowing when you need to focus on the adventure in front of you – all without ever taking the backpack off. There’s ample room for essentials like snacks, extra layers of clothing and a hydration bladder.

Best for urban-to-outdoor adventures

For city slickers who regularly heed the call of the wild, the Langly (langly.co) Messenger Tote or Alpha Pro Backpack are ideal for seamless style that fits into photography settings from bustling urban centers to cozy campsites. Removable and adjustable inserts allow for customizable configuration. Bonus: you can match your bag with one of their sturdy and stylish camera straps or memory card and battery holders.

Best for style-savvy snappers

Fashion-conscious traveling photographers don’t have to sacrifice style for function. Beautifully-crafted bags like the Claremont by Lo & Sons (loandsons.com) are ideal for those who prefer to keep their kits covert. The comfortable cross-body looks like a chic satchel from the outside; inside are ideal features to protectively transport your gear.

Other necessities

With your camera picked and packed, get the most out of it by bringing the right accessories to help you get the shot in any situation.

Travel tripods

Tripods are necessary if you plan to do any kind of long exposures. There are compact models that provide steady support while minimizing weight and bulk. Try one from the Gitzo Traveler series (gitzo.us) or Joby’s GorillaPods (joby.com), whose flexible, rubberized segments can be set up like a traditional tripod or wrapped around available structures like trees, light poles or furniture.

Mind mother nature

Protect your camera from any kind of elemental forces (sand, snow, dust, salt spray) with a rain cover. Choices run the gamut of price point and sizes – disposable plastic covers can be picked up for under $10 from a photo supply shop. High-tech versions include the ThinkTank Hydrophobia (thinktankphoto.com) or Aquatech (aquatech.net) Sport Shield.

Power up

If there’s one thing to overpack in your kit, it’s batteries – especially if you’re shooting in situations where it’ll be tough to find a power source and recharge. The Watson (poweredbywatson.com) Duo LCD Charger, available for different battery styles, allows two batteries to charge at once. If you’re carrying different types of batteries, Watson’s Compact AC/DC Charger has interchangeable plates so you can save space and charge them all with one device.

Memory cards and storage

Bring at least two or three memory cards (in case one gets corrupted) and a card reader to regularly transfer your images off your camera. Transcend (transcend-info.com) has compact readers for multiple card formats to transfer and backup images onto a laptop. If you can’t bring a laptop with you, you can offload images onto an external hard drive using a portable memory backup device – the HyperDrive ColorSpace UDMA2 (hypershop.com) and Nexto DI (nextodi.com) ND2901 allow you to review images and single out selects on the go.

Cleaning supplies

Keep your camera clean with a squeeze-bulb blower, retractable brush (never touch the bristles), and microfiber lens cloth or pre-dampened lens wipes. If you choose to clean your camera’s sensor yourself, Photographic Solutions (photosol.com) Sensor Swabs are small enough to pack and remove dust from quickly and easily

Just because you’re not shooting with a smartphone doesn’t mean you can’t take selfies – remote shutter release controllers are great for setting up self-portraits and help eliminate vibrations caused by physically pressing the camera’s shutter release during long exposures. Most brands make models specifically for your camera, but Foto&Tech (fotoandtech.com) sells good, cheap versions for nearly all makes and models. Also see if your camera brand has an app to turn your smartphone into a remote controller – that’s one less thing to pack.