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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Escaping modern life in Moldova’s countryside

In an instant, modern civilisation seems to fall away. Cow-speckled grasslands unfurl across Moldova’s low hills, and farm-hands draw water from roadside wells. As for the horse-drawn hay carts, they rattle along at a surprisingly brisk pace – and I have a sneaking suspicion they are sturdier than our little rental car…

Exploring the country time forgot

Despite budget flights from western Europe to Chişinău, travellers aren’t yet descending in droves on this little country squeezed between Romania and Ukraine.  Starting from WWII, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union for five decades; the country continues to be dismissed as a gloomy throwback to that period. Certainly, modern Chişinău has its Soviet-era stalwarts – like the crumbling state circus building (Strada Circului 33) and the tanks assembled outside the Army Museum – though the city is freshened by fountain-filled parks and tree-fringed boulevards.

But if Chişinău feels anchored in the 1970s, the rest of Moldova froze in time centuries earlier. On our northbound drive, women in headscarves are stepping out into the road and waving hand-picked bouquets. They’re selling wildflowers to passing motorists, but for a moment it seems as though they are beckoning us towards Moldova’s time-trapped countryside.

Hiking the lonely roads of Old Orhei

Our destination is Orhei, a district of pastures and forests, around 45km north of Chişinău. The car nudges cautiously through quiet villages like Ivancea and Brăneşti, and before long we can see chalk cliffs rising into view.

Like a pair of cupped hands, these cliffs encircle Moldova’s holiest sight,Orheiul Vechi (‘Old Orhei’). From the 13th century, monks consigned themselves to silent contemplation within caves in the rock face, a practice that endured for some 500 years. Anchoring this sacred place is the Ascension of St Mary Church (1905), whose glinting dome catches the sunlight from far across the Răut River.

Cave-dwelling monks have largely cleared out, but Orheiul Vechi remains a site for contemplation: you can walk for miles without seeing a soul. As I trace the Ivancea–Orheiul Vechi road, not a single car interrupts my path; an occasional rider, hauling several farm-hands in a horse-pulled wagon, clatters past and gives me a startled stare.

In the villages, houses are painted powder-blue and green, backed by spectacular salt-and-pepper cliffs. Garden trellises are loaded with vines, and gargling turkeys loll in their shade. Faced with this scene plucked from a pastoral fairytale, it’s impossible not to slow down to the pace of village life in Moldova.

Tasting farm life in Trebujeni

Trebujeni, just southeast of Orheiul Vechi, is accessed by potholed, dust-and-dirt roads. The overwhelming majority of locals in this trio of villages are farming stock, and the trickle of pilgrims and visitors doesn’t create much of a tourist industry. Nevertheless, there is a scattering of places to stay, signalled by decoratively carved pensiunea(guesthouse) signs swinging in front yards.

As we drive tentatively into Trebujeni, geese scatter from our path and we’re blindsided by the odd surprise horse. Somewhere along the pitted roads, one of our car’s hubcaps wobbles straight off its wheel.

Our guesthouse here, Casa din Lunca (+373 794 55 100, Trebujeni), has a rustic air that matches its setting, from creaking gate to grandmotherly embroidery – but it’s an unpolished sort of place. I sling a rucksack onto my bedspread and dust puffs up from the sheets. We survey a backyard prowled by yowling cats, rugs as threadbare as the wi-fi signal, and a forlorn, empty swimming pool.

‘I’ll be in my room,’ sighs my travel companion Jane, ‘with my book.’

Our spirits are raised when the hostess of the house lays platefuls of country cooking across an outdoor dining table. There are wooden platters of smoke-scented meat, and voluptuous pitchers of tart red wine are finding space between salads and sour cream. We carve mămăligă, a cake of polenta, into cushiony wedges.

As we feast, rural Moldova is slowly working its magic. In the shade of a vine-covered awning, to the sounds of bleating farm animals, the atmosphere seems like a fair swap for our car’s lost hubcap.

Tiptoeing through secretive monasteries

North of Trebujeni, a different kind of wonder fills the air. Some 93% of Moldovans belong to the Orthodox church and the country’s monasteries act as lightning rods for intense spirituality.

Some of the loveliest monasteries are perched beside the Dniester River, a  slate-coloured seam between Moldova and the breakaway republic ofTransdniestr. Thirty kilometres north of Trebujeni lies Tipova, Moldova’s largest and one of its oldest cave monasteries. As in Orheiul Vechi, the area is scored with grottoes that were once hideaways for monks. But the site has other myths, too. According to local lore, Orpheus ventured to Tipova; other stories embellish further, declaring that this Greek poet of legend found his portal to the underworld through one of Tipova’s caves.

7 Free Things to do in Shanghai

Tianzifang’s bustling alleyways

Expect cheerfully decorated shop fronts and a lively atmosphere in this fun shopping area at the edge of the French Concession. Tianzifang is a network of small alleys lined with craft shops, bars and food stands. Shoppers looking for the best bargains need to come armed with a price in mind and a knack for haggling – shopkeepers here love the chase!

The Bund waterfront

Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong.  Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.

Shanghai Museum

When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it’s free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.

Fuxing Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of theFrench Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.

French Concession stroll

No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.

Jing’an Temple

Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city.  Meandering through the temple’s three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you’re overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!

Yuyuan Garden

An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.

Three Unique Ways to Unwind in Okinawa

Snorkel, dive and mystery-seek

While scuba and snorkelling hardly count as unique, you will find great diversity in the wild blue under, from mass manta encounters to super-accessible snorkelling that even little kids can splash into. Floating around in bathtub-warm water, watching real-life Nemos and Dorys dart by, or spotting sea turtles placidly grazing on algae – what’s not to love?

You can rent snorkelling gear at any beach on any island worth its salt. And even if you’re not a certified diver, introductory dive courses can be booked on various islands. One of the challenges is finding English-speaking instructors and guides, but a handful of dive shops such as Piranha Divers (piranha-divers.jp) and Reef Encounters (reefencounters.org) on Okinawa-hontō (Okinawa’s main island) and Umicoza (umicoza.com) on Ishigaki-jima have multilingual guides on staff.

More experienced divers with a taste for mystery should book a flight toYonaguni-jima, Japan’s westernmost inhabited island. Off the rugged southern coast, where wild island horses graze on the windswept bluffs, the surface of the sea conceals a spectacular set of ‘ruins’ that a local diver discovered in the ’80s. With surfaces and walls jutting up at 90-degree angles, and features suggestive of passageways and stairs, some believe that the blocky rock formations are remnants of a Japanese Atlantis. However, geologists theorise (less glamorously) that these unusual formations probably occurred naturally. Either way, the maybe-not-actually ruins are a fascinating dive site to explore and are singular to Yonaguni-jima. If the geology doesn’t float your boat, then be sure to visit during the winter, when most divers come for the thrill of swimming among schooling hammerhead sharks (your relaxation miles may vary).

Take five on Taketomi-jima

Five hours on Taketomi-jima will reset your stress levels by transporting you back about five decades to simpler times.

From Ishigaki-jima, the hub of the Yaeyama island group, tiny Taketomi-jima is a fifteen-minute ferry ride into the past. At last count its population was 361, and these few hundred residents have fiercely preserved their island’s heritage, which is evident as soon as you arrive. The roads are blanketed with crushed coral that crunches underneath the bicycle tires most visitors rent for getting around. Bougainvillea-festooned walls lining the roads are also constructed of stacked chunks of coral, and all of the island-village buildings are roofed with red clay tiles. This low-scale vernacular architecture is topped with the traditional Okinawan shiisā, the pairs of lion guardians that invite good spirits in and keep bad spirits out. The effect is beautifully and tenaciously traditional.

Even if you don’t speak Japanese, another way of getting around the island is on an ox-pulled cart. You won’t get anywhere in a hurry, but as the gigantic-hoofed oxen plod along the zig-zagging crushed coral roads, their Japanese-speaking drivers talk story and plink out a few traditional songs on the three-stringed sanshin (Okinawan banjo), the ride itself making it worth the trip.

But even while this island’s devotion to tradition is alluring on its own, Taketomi-jima has one more bit of magic for you: star sand. Pedal your one-speed bike down to Kaiji-hama, a beach on the southwest coast, to hunt for star sand, a rare phenomenon unique to certain beaches in Okinawa and other Asian-Pacific shores. The ‘sand,’ shaped like variously pointed stars, is made up of the exoskeletons of tiny marine protozoa that wash up on shore. Walk down to the water’s edge to wet your hand, press your palm onto the beach and see how many grains of star sand have stuck: instant, joyous, meditative wonder.

Get crafty

There’s a reason art therapy exists. Humans have always created things with our hands, and though many of us don’t incorporate the act of art making into our daily lives, Picasso once allegedly said, ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once (s)he grows up.’ This problem is easily solved, and the solution often results in secondary positive consequences – like a sense of well-being, or… souvenirs.

Okinawan arts are alive and kicking, as you will hear in the cheerysanshin-heavy soundtrack of restaurants and bars, and as you’ll see in the textile design of traditional fabrics or the beautifully-glazed, daily use ceramics sold in the Tsuboya pottery district of Naha, Okinawa’s capital city. Slowing down to spend a few hours learning the basics of creating Okinawan art can be a relaxing way to participate in its cultural traditions while also focusing on a rewarding, physically engaged project.

To get your hands dirty crafting some of your own Okinawan art, book a workshop at Naha City Traditional Arts & Crafts Center. You can try your hand at molding clay shiisā to guard your own home, or painting the brightly-coloured flower and wildlife designs of bingata, a wax-resist method of painting on fabric, or blowing glass.

Guide to Surfing in Nicaragua

Getting your bearings

Waves break year-round in Nicaragua and are best on the Pacific coast. Experienced riders should time trips according the swell and aim to get here from March through September. San Juan del Sur is the long-time surf capital of Nicaragua, and it has the partying pedigree to show for it. It’s also a good spot to gear up, hire out local tour boats to take you to hard-to-reach breaks and spend a few days cruising the colonial streets. Ironically, there’s only one half-decent break right in town. Unless you’re shelling out for daily boat charters, the real action happens in the little surf colonies north and south of here.

South of San Juan, Playa Remanso has a good beach break for beginners, with Playa Tamarindo just south offering up long left and right breaks. It’s also home to the lovingly playful Playa Hermosa Ecolodge (playahermosabeachhotel.com). On the other hand, you could head north, stopping off first at Playa Maderas and its gnarly reef break. Other worthwhile northern surf spots include Bahía Majagual and Arena Blanca.

If you continue on up the coast, you’ll find consistent waves as long as development doesn’t block your access. Playa Popoyo is the king of surf towns around the Central Pacific Coast, but most areas have local board rentals, surf cabins and schools. The good waves continue all the way up through El Salvador from here.

Bring, buy or rent?

If you really love your stick, bring it down. It can cost anywhere from US$50-200 to do it. The online hub of surf info Magic Seaweed (magicseaweed.com) is a great resource for baggage rates to help plan this out (they have good beta on Nicaragua breaks as well). If you’d rather skip that process, you could consider buying a board when you get here and selling it when you leave. San Juan del Sur and Popoyo are the best spots to buy boards. Rentals are often pretty dinged up, but perfect for beginners. Expect to pay $10-20 per hour (negotiating better rates for weekly rentals).

Picking your board

If you’re just getting started, start with a simple soft-top board. They don’t look as cool as ‘real’ surf boards that are traditionally made with a foam core and fiberglass outer shell. But they are easier to carry to the beach, float you like a mother, and are often cheaper than the glassed boards. They are also really stable, meaning you won’t fall off the board every time a wave rolls through the lineup (and won’t get wacked in the face with a hard edge when you do fall off). Generally, rental shops will have a selection of these ‘sponge’ boards, short and longboards, boogie boards and maybe even a few stand-up paddle boards to rent.

Most beginners will start with a longboard (better for less steep waves), while more advanced riders may move to shorter boards. Bigger, heavier surfers tend to go with a bigger, thicker ride. Funboards are a good option for intermediate riders – all the utility of a longboard with more maneuverability. Fishboards are another option for intermediate riders looking for quick takeoffs, some of the bounce of a short board, but more stability and easier paddles out.

For a fun treat, try a stand-up paddle board. They’re fun even if the waves aren’t breaking. You can unleash your ‘rhino chaser’ – your big wave longboard – on some of the bigger breaks up north. If all else fails, you can rent a boogie board and just play on the beach breaks.

Extra Nicaragua surf essentials

Water temps here are around mid-20oC (75oF) most of the year. This means you probably won’t need or want a wetsuit, but in December to April water temps can drop, making an optional wetsuit top like the Rip Curl Dawn Patrol (ripcurl.com) a good idea. You’ll probably want a rash guard top just in case. Billabong (ballabong.com) has some nice options. We only wish they offered more neon! You can pop one on for long sessions to protect you from the sun.

A good leash is essential to keep the board attached to your foot. Dakine (dakine.com) has a ton on offer. You can bring your favourite surf wax with you – even though they sell it in most spots. Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax (sexwax.com) has been around since 1972 (and you gotta love the name). For first timers, the wax goes on the top of the board to make it more grippy, not the bottom.

Things people often forget to bring are sunscreen – yes, they sell it, but it can be like twice the cost as back home. Bugspray. Ditto for price, plus local quality sucks. Also bring along a pair of long-sleeve pants and a long-sleeve shirt, for bug protection, heading to churches in the colonial villages and looking nice come party night.