Image credit: swiss-image.ch/Andy Mettler
Following up on our first-ever edition in 2013, Quotient returns with another instalment of travel picks — in alphabetical order. The 2014 list is our attempt to cover a range of geographical locations and experiences — some with an element of risk and peculiarity.
Abraham Lake, Canada: This manmade lake in western Alberta, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, has risen in profile in the last couple of years, as more people become enamoured with its hauntingly beautiful frozen form come winter. Trapped in the rigid blue hue are stacks of methane bubbles released by decaying plant and animal matter further down in the water, embellished by brazen cracks and ridges caused by varying dam water levels.
While Abraham Lake is not the only lake with methane bubble artistry — there are many others in Alaska, Greenland and Siberia — it is accessible enough and a mere four hours’ drive from Calgary and Edmonton. Nordegg, a former mining town that lies by Highway 11, serves as the gateway to the lake and to a host of outdoor activities in every season, including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, kite-boarding, snowmobiling and skiing. Do remember to exercise caution if you head out on the ice and never attempt to start a methane fire unless you’re an experienced ecologist.
Ba’albeck, Lebanon: It’s not a known fact, possibly obscured by violence and instability in neighbouring Syria, but there is a UNESCO gem in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that we know today as Ba’albeck or Baalbek. Heliopolis, as it was called during the Hellenistic period, was a Phoenician city that worshipped the deity triad of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury but it was only during the Roman era that it truly flourished. The City of the Sun was where the Romans built their greatest and best-preserved temples over a period of more than two centuries, incorporating monolithic elements which ruins even today are breathtaking and awe-inspiring all at once.
Visitors to the temple complex will be greeted by two main sanctuaries — the Temple of Jupiter (Great Temple) and the Temple of Bacchus (Little Temple). Southeast of the acropolis is the Temple of Venus (Round Temple); only part of a staircase remains at the Temple of Mercury on Sheikh Abdallah hill.
Crab migration, Christmas Island: Every year, tens of millions of sexually mature red crabs on this Australian territory perform a spectacular migration from their shady retreats all over the island to the coast, to breed and spawn. This is nature at its rawest — the march at the start of the wet season dictated by weather and lunar patterns can be a perilous one, even though it pretty much brings traffic and perhaps even human activities to a standstill. Given the phenomenal numbers — the Christmas Island Tourist Association estimates there are a total of 120 million of these fiery-coloured crustaceans, the most striking of the island’s 14 species of land crabs — the experience alone is reason enough to make a trip here, but there’s certainly more to the island. Located 1,350 kilometres from Singapore, Christmas Island is mostly (63%) national park and offers an excellent landscape for observing endemic flora and fauna, snorkelling and scuba diving, fishing, hiking to waterfalls and grottos, and relaxing by the beach.
Do Son buffalo fighting festival, Vietnam: Recognised as national intangible heritage in 2013 is the custom of buffalo fighting in Do Son, said to have originated about 1,000 years ago. It may not be an easy tradition to stomach, and that’s no bull: contenders, winning and losing alike, are typically slaughtered on the grounds with their meat sold to buyers, who believe the purchase will bring them luck. Look beyond the blood and animal violence, and what you get is a long-held belief in the martial spirit of the coastal folk of Hai Phong and a cultural wealth encompassing elaborate activities and practices from choosing the right fighting buffaloes to the colourful pre-fight procession through town.
Extreme equestrian, Switzerland: We may be somewhat prejudiced for this entry, but it is the Year of the Horse after all and our four-legged equine pals are deserving of some attention. Part skiing, part horse-racing is what defines equestrian skijoring, a sport where thoroughbreds are controlled by skiers in tow and not riders on their backs. This equestrian form, which demands athletic prowess of a different level and intimate harmony between human and animal, is perhaps nowhere better experienced than in the Engadine valley, where the sport was said to have been invented in the early 20th century. Experience the thrill of skijoring and other horse races over three Sundays in February, when the White Turf championship is held in St. Moritz in search of a new “King of the Engadine”. This year’s programme will be held on 9th, 16th and 23rd February, with tickets ranging from CHF 45 to CHF 70.
Farm to fork: Building on the slow food momentum, there is now, more than ever before, a hunger around the world to go fresh, eat local and understand more about gastronomical constituents and the preparation process itself. Quotient believes 2014 is the year, or at least the start of a trend, where travellers have a more consistent desire to make informed food decisions in their sojourns. This bodes well for individual farms and ranches from Thailand to France to the United States to Uruguay, but what will also be interesting are players such as Outstanding in the Field, which sets up nomadic al fresco kitchens on the go and serves dinners family-style, encouraging interaction not only with the farm host but also with other participants. Those who prefer more scenery and adventure to go with their epicurean journey may find themselves gravitating to Farm to Fork Events, an Oregon-based concept that blends together whitewater rafting, hikes, historical sightseeing, wood-fired cuisine and artisan beer and wine.
Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Scotland: Alice, the one who’s been to Wonderland, will feel right at home at this ingeniously sculpted garden spanning 30 acres, the creation of architect Charles Jenck. It’s actually pretty hard to describe, but envision a mix of twisted undulating ‘panels’, snail-shaped grass mounds that pass off as pseudo mountain trails and twisted DNA helix sculptures complemented by manmade lakes, massive staircases, striking bridges and deliberate structures that convey the coming together of art, nature and science. And with Glasgow set to host the XX Commonwealth Games in July and the commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in late June, Scotland will boast a buzz unlike previous years leading up to and during the summer months.
Technical details to note: Located in Holywood, about 8 kilometres north of Dumfries, the garden of Portrack House is open from 12pm to 5pm only on the first Sunday of May, so mark 4th May 2014 on your calendar. Admission is £6 and does not guarantee Cheshire cat sighting!
Heli-fishing in Iceland: Iceland is suddenly hot, thanks to high-profile films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Thor 2 and Noah. Even if you’re a first-timer to the land of fire and ice, don’t just pack your itinerary with the stupendous natural phenomena. Aside from surveying the likes of gushing geysers, gargantuan glaciers, otherworldly lava caving systems and fuming volcanoes, there are activities that will make for an even more memorable holiday given the remarkable terrain — and we don’t mean soaking in geothermal spas. A bout of heli-fishing, for instance, not only brings you to the most remote and rewarding angling spots but also the chance to soak in aerial highlights of the country.
Iran: Despite criticism that its tourism infrastructure is not quite ready, this strategic Middle Eastern country is finally gaining traction as a holiday destination. With a history of civilization dating back several thousands of years, Iran’s cultural and architectural wealth is unmistakable. Its diverse landscape — sea coast, mountains, desert and caverns — exude sheer beauty and shelter an incredible variety of plants, birds and animals. The Iran administration has set tourism goals, such as hitting 20 million visitors annually by 2015, and facilitated entry with the announcement of a visa-on-arrival last year for various nationalities, particularly Asian. Luxury travel may be a boom for the country, and already the first European private tourist train into Iran — the Golden Eagle Danube Express — is scheduled to commence in October. The 14-day eastward journey sets off from Budapest and stops across Europe including at Veliko Tarnovo, Braşov and Cappadocia before calling at various cities in northern and central-western Iran and finally concluding in Tehran.
Jindo Miracle Sea Festival, South Korea: This Moses-like phenomenon occurs once a year in Jindo in the Jeollanam-do Province at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, where the Jindo Sea parts just enough to reveal a 2.8 kilometre-long pathway about 40 to 60 metres wide connecting Hoedong-ri, Gogun-myeon and Modo-ri, Uisin-myeon. Every year, about 400,000 locals and tourists flock here to witness this rare spectacle caused by tidal dynamics, enjoying the pleasure of walking on parted sea whilst picking abalone, clams and seaweed. The miracle can be observed over a few days but only lasts about an hour each time; the festivities, thankfully, stretch longer — typically over four days — and involve folk art, traditional dances, maritime ship parade and performances by the famous Jindo dog.
Kissing in Roquemaure, France: The French have a reputation for being passionate lovers, even heads of state feel compelled to lead in that department. Maybe it’s time to uncover just what makes them tick, and where better than the Provencal town of Roquemaure, also known as La Capitale des Amoureux or The Capital of Lovers. Every year, on the Saturday after St. Valentine’s Day — the saint is the patron of the town and his remains are believed to be brought and housed here since 1868 — it hosts the La Fête du Baiser or Festival of the Kiss, an event where locals and tourists put on 19th-century attire, mostly priest and nun dressing, and honour the saint and the Cote du Rhone’s precious vines by smooching and drinking wine. Fabulous, just as long as you don’t equate Roquemaure kissing with French kissing!
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park: We may have intentionally excluded Rio de Janeiro in our list (sorry for the spoiler) despite it popping up in nearly every travel publication’s 2014 picks, but hey, just so you know there are actually 12 host cities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. There’s no escaping samba allure, however, and we found our eye candy in this gorgeous 155,000-hectare national park, about 10 hours by road from Fortaleza, the northernmost major host city for the tournament. Described as a ‘desert’ filled with lagoons, the vast, discrete white sand dunes have valleys that fill up with fresh water and present blue and green reflection pools.
The Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses is best visited between July and September, when the lagoons are at their fullest; the most convenient access is to fly into São Luis, the capital of Maranhão and journey on land for about 240 kilometres or via a 50-minute air taxi to Barreirinhas, the gateway to the park. Visiting just after sunrise — most day tours by road start 4am from São Luis — is the preferred arrangement.
Merry Cemetery in Maramureş, Romania: Located in Săpânta, a tiny village about 4km from the Ukrainian border, is a literally funny resting place and we’re dead serious about it. This special graveyard has wooden crosses in vivid colours, particularly a dominant blue shade known as the Săpânta blue. Etched onto each grave is a brutally honest summary of the deceased, much like a personal confession, revealing details such as character, outlook and way of life — some in more poetic fashion than others. According to the Maramureş County Council, one of the most famous sharing in the cemetery goes like this:
Under this heavy cross lies my mother-in-law
Had she lived another three days
It would have been me who lied here
And she would have been the reader
Maramureş in northern Romania is also a rural gem with romantic countryside, carefully-preserved culture and traditions such as wood sculpting and claywork, and UNESCO World Heritage Gothic wooden churches.
Naica Mine, Chihuahua, Mexico: A working mine in northern Mexico, Naica Mine is famed for its ginormous selenite crystals discovered in 2000, in what is now called the Cueva de los Cristales or Cave of Crystals. The cavern, a set of three linked caves, is located over 300 metres underground and contains massive translucent fingers placed in a haphazard manner, with some columns measuring up to 11 metres in length and 1.2 metres in diameter. Tourist access is, unfortunately, limited to the upper, less spectacular caverns, as temperatures and climate are arduous — the over 90% humidity makes the heat more lethal than the 58° C inside. Nonetheless, there may not be quite another place like Naica Mine.
One one three, UK’s rarest bus: Last August, the Guardian pointed out that the 113 Tavistock-Dawlish service is the most elusive public bus journey in the United Kingdom, and that intrigued us. The British countryside has always been attractive as a driving route, but even so there will be days when you are loathe to bother with traffic and simply want to arrive at the destination. Besides, bussing through a national park (Dartmoor) is neat. For the record, the Tavistock-Dawlish service will operate on 29th March, 31st May, 28th June and 30th August this year.
Pink lakes: Algae and pretty can hardly be mentioned in the same sentence, but a beautiful natural phenomenon around the world might just change your mind. Pink lakes, which colour typically come about due to the presence of algae that accumulates beta carotene given the right temperature, light and salinity, are not only mesmerizing especially when seen from the air but may also be fun for a good float a la the Dead Sea. These pleasantly-hued lakes can be found in almost every continent, with Lake Hillier on Middle Island in Australia’s Recherche Archipelago, the Dusty Rose Lake in Canada’s British Columbia, and Senegal’s Lake Retba among the best known. And if rosy algae still does not quite cut it for you, perhaps flamingo-filled lakes such as Lake Nakuru in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province will.
Québec, Canada: Canada is consistently ranked one of the top 10 cheese producing nations in the world, and nowhere is fromage making so concentrated than Québec, which boasts over 100 cheese makers and a tradition that dates back to the 16th century. This Canadian province, nicknamed cheese heaven, is celebrated for its specialty cheeses that are independent varieties in their own right and not just a replication of popular French ones. So esteemed are the cheeses here that there is a tourist route des fromages dedicated to explore artisan producers in the region. If you’re wondering what are the must-try cheeses in the country, take your cue from the results of the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix 2013, although ironically, the best cheese was conferred on an Ontario product for the first time. Recent trade developments, particularly between Canada and the European Union feared to put pressure on local cheese makers, may be impetus to head there, now rather than later.
Rjukan: Tucked in between steep mountains and shrouded in clouds for more than six months a year, Rjukan is, to say the least, changing its fate these days. Regarded as world famous for “heavy water sabotages”, the small Norwegian town of Tinn municipality in Telemark emerges once again with a clever concept, finally getting to see the sun for the first time during winter. In 2013, Rjukan’s residents cheered merrily when three solar-powered, computer-controlled mirrors were installed on the opposite mountainside, allowing them to finally get a glimpse of the winter sun. Be it artificial or not, the sun surely brings a lot of happiness in the inhabitants’ lives and for a 100-year-old concept that has come to pass, well, this is definitely warm reality!
Snorkelling in Palau’s Jellyfish Lake: Millions of jellyfish pack Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, creating a surreal image that seems hard to grasp as real. In fact, not only is it real, but you can actually get the chance (should you dare) to snorkel with these marine creatures you once considered dangerous. Fret not, as the cluster of pinkish jellyfish swiftly drifting towards you, have actually lost their ability to sting for they have been deprived of predators for thousands of years. Instead, the mushy invertebrates are more interested in algae and basking in the sunshine. As for your encounter with the jellyfish, it will only be memorable, so all you need is a camera to capture the unusual phenomenon.
Trolltunga: This jaw-dropping rock formation is located 700 metres above Ringedalsvatnet Lake in the village of Skjeggedal, in Odda municipality and with almost a surreal backdrop is, needless to say, now one of the most sought after locations in Norway. A precarious extension from the mountain, the fittingly named cliff (Troll’s Tongue) promises to make your legs literally wobble and give you (yes, all instagramers out there) quite a backdrop for your pictures. So here’s what you should do to strike off your bucket list; take the hike up through the high mountains and enjoy the awe-inspiring scenery you will be treated to along the way. However, take it easy, be physically prepared and make sure to bring suitable gear (and feel dwarfed in front of Nature) as the hike takes more than 10 hours to Trolltunga and return. If you are in for the thrill and you are not among the faint-hearted, ready your backpack between July and August and climb up on the “via ferrata”, a vertical iron ladder drilled into one side of the mountain which takes you up to the cliff.
Umeå: Sitting on an inlet of the Gulf of Bothnia is Umea, a no-frills university city with lesser hustle and bustle than the capital, but certainly becoming one of Sweden’s fastest growing cities. Popping up with modern buildings, the city seems to be reignited visually, and to a higher degree to turn into a thriving cultural and art centre, evident from its title of “European Capital of Culture 2014”. Just as appealing is its efficient bicycle lane system which makes the city be easily explored whilst cycling your way around. So, it’s simple; grab a bike and go about peddling to some of the city’s topnotch sights. Enhance your artistic spirit at Västerbottens Museum, a 10-minute walk from the centre, at the much awarded Umedalen Sculpture Park and at the world’s largest privately owned museum of guitars (which opens in February 2014). Alternatively, take some time to delve in the city’s musical scene which guarantees valuable metal and straight-edge bands or just set out discovering Umea’s gorgeous countryside.
Vanishing Trades of Asia: A dozens of centuries ago, people would make a living by mastering the art of craftsmanship. But nowadays, in our fast-paced society, a look back at traditions almost reads like a fantasy novel. With fewer artisans to perpetuate their craft, today’s trades are virtually extinct. We highlight a few here to catch before they become mere conversation topics. We start in Penang, Malaysia, where beyond colonial era structures from the UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town, we find handmade joss sticks (commonly known as incense) a tradition 81-year-old Lee Beng Chuan has hung on to since he left school. Also dubbed the Joss Stick Maker, Lee is probably a living legend who regards his work as “a heritage and a legacy”, preserving Penang’s Chinese culture with devotion. In his shop, beside the usual joss sticks, he also makes other types of incense burners and decorative sandalwood souvenirs.
Over in Sichuan, China, there’s an old saying that cleaning the eyes renders the beauty in life, so crazy as it may sound, some people actually have their eyeballs literally shaved. Even if this ancient craft is on the edge of disappearing, some barbershops from Chengdu add the quirky service as an extra to a usual face shave. The nerve-wrecking process takes only five minutes, and involves a sharp razor which gently scrapes across the inner surface of both eye lids. The result, however, even if not very measurable, is to put some perspective into someone’s life and allow them to see life with, well, ‘new’ eyes. Moving on to India, street typing sees no return and becomes a dying breed as the ease and convenience of computers kill off the business. In Calcutta 20 years ago, the industry was blooming with more than 20,000 street typists but today, only a few hundred are left tapping away on the bustling streets of India. Typists’ rickety wooden tables are still a nostalgic view to admire, but due to the world’s rapid evolution, their work seems to no longer be needed anymore. Even if complex documents and love letters can be easily typed using our beloved computers, the art of typing is still remains a legacy of the past, when the clickety-clack sound of a typewriter would fill up the neighbourhoods.
World War I Centenary: 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War which claimed the lives of more than 16 million people across the globe. The consequences of this total war shaped much of the 20th century and its effect is visible till the contemporary time. Today, First World War sites such as museums, memorials, airfields and battle sites shed light on this great conflict.
In Verdun, France, Fort Douaumont acted as a shelter for locals during the famous Battle of Verdun. Today, the fort remains one of the best preserved World War I sites. Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium commemorates British and Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in Belgium during World War One and was a vital strategic point. Presently, at the site a memorial service is held at 8pm daily. Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, Turkey used to be the main base of Australian and New Zealand forces throughout World War I until Allied forces were evacuated, having failed to take Turkey out of the conflict. Nowadays, several memorial ceremonies are held there.
Xilitla, Mexico: If you thought you couldn’t put coffee, rainforest, an eccentric English man and surrealism in the same sentence, then it means you didn’t visit the picturesque village from the San Luis Potosí region, Mexico. With a solid preservation of its indigenous culture and strong will to be shielded from industrialisation, Xilitla, is a bewitching village renowned for its lush landscapes and coffee cultivation. However, the real justification of a lengthy trip to the village is not only to savour a cuppa and relax to the slow pace of life, but also to visit Las Pozas, only 2.5km away. There, in the midst of the jungle, you will come upon an ungraspable concrete structure which dominates the scenery. The mastermind behind these eerie oversized sculptures is James Edwards, an incredibly wealthy art patron who built the whole structure over a 20-year period. Today, whilst exploring the rainforest you will have the chance to enter a surreal portal where you will find odd gargoyles, spiralling stairways and columns topped with Gothic archways and dizzying walkways.
Yakima Valley Spring Barrel Tasting: Wine is great for your health and, well, spirit if consumed moderately — or generously for some. It is also one of those historically acclaimed drinks that must pair a palatable meal. The bacchic feat, however, requires some skill and practice, and here is where tastings come in handy. Famous wineries around the world boast some of the best types of wines a connoisseur can wish for, but just as interesting are some low-key wineries which offer sampling straight from the barrel. You can do so at Yakima Valley Spring Barrel Tasting every April, an event which takes place in the U.S., at the Yakima Washington’s Premium Wine Region. Washington’s top winery is as delightful as you can get and seems to be a leisurely challenge as it also offers additional activities such as golf, horseback riding through country lanes, vineyards and orchards.
Zhangye Danxia Landform: No, it’s not a surreal landscape on Mars, it’s a towering rainbow mountain or rather a colourful rock formation at Geological Park in Gansu Province, China and we cannot take our eyes away from it. Recently enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, the vivid site is probably the best thing to explore at the moment as it certainly is one of those attractions that please the eye of every enthusiastic traveller. With their technicolour patterns, the vivid mountains are the result of mineral deposits and red sandstone which formed layers of rock and are, without doubt, a marvel to admire.