Wild Junket » Photoblog http://www.wildjunket.com An adventure travel blog that brings you on a rollercoaster ride around the world Wed, 29 Oct 2014 14:30:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Photo Highlights of Iran: from Persian Architecture to Outstanding Hospitality http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/22/photo-highlights-iran/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/22/photo-highlights-iran/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 17:06:30 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17519 The Zagros Mountain in western IranMention Iran and many think of burkha-clad women, burning flags and war. But these stereotypes can’t be further from the truth. For those who are curious and open to new discoveries, Iran is packed full of surprises. It is a relatively safe country to visit and there’s so much to see and do in terms [...]

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I’ve just completed my Silk Road journey through Central Asia with Oasis Overland. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we traveled through KazakhstanUzbekistanTurkmenistan, Iran and ended in Turkey. During this overland trip, we spent just under three weeks traversing through Iran, from the eastern corner to the western edge. It was the highlight of our trip and I hope these photos will show you what an amazing country it is.

Mention Iran and many think of burkha-clad women, burning flags and war. But these stereotypes can’t be further from the truth.

For those who are curious and open to new discoveries, Iran is packed full of surprises. It is a relatively safe country to visit and there’s so much to see and do in terms of historical and cultural sights: wander through the thousand-year-old ancient city of Persepolis, get lost in the mud-brick alleys of Yazd, contemplate in the beautiful turquoise-domed mosques that dot Esfahan, meet locals in the gardens surrounding Shiraz and pray with thousands of pilgrims at the country’s holiest city Mashad. The Islamic Republic has an extremely rich cultural heritage and its attractions can definitely rival those of world-famous tourist destinations. Best of all, you won’t find hordes of tourists here. It won’t take you long to question how such a charming country can be portrayed in such a negative light by the media.

Beyond the stereotypes is a country desperate to been seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be. The Iranians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I’ve ever met in the world. Travelers will often find themselves getting invited to stranger’s homes, being treated to endless flow of tea from a shop vendor and getting a free ride from helpful drivers along the way. Locals tend to come up to you, ask where you’re from and genuinely want to get to know you. I’ve always agreed with the saying “it’s the people that makes a place”. It can’t be more true here in Iran where experiences with locals truly live the longest in your memory.

While traveling in Iran, the two topics that most find impossible to escape are religion and politics. These are complex issues that aren’t black or white, but as I discovered, if you’re respectful of their opinions, the Iranians will be more than happy to discuss them with you. It’s also important to note that the government’s views may not be in line with what average Iranians think. Regardless, if you do choose to travel here, a journey to Iran will certainly change your perspective of the country, and perhaps, the world.

Natural Landscapes and Ancient Cities

The Zagros Mountain in western Iran

The Zagros Mountains in western Iran provided some of the most scenic drives during our overland trip. We wound our way through each hairpin bend to find spectacular views waiting for us around the corner.

The abandoned mud brick city of Kharanaq

In the abandoned mud-brick city of Kharanaq, we got lost amidst the alleys and crumbling paths that overlooked this beautiful valley.

An oasis in the desert town of Gahmeh

Our short stay in the desert was particularly memorable thanks to the oasis town of Gahmeh that not only provided us with comfort but also an interesting homestay.

Driving in the desert

The roads in Iran were surprisingly smooth and well-paved. We criss-crossed the country from the northeastern corner to the western reaches, with amazing views like these.

The rock cut temples of Naqsh-e-Rostam

Right at the outskirts of Shiraz, we stumbled upon the spectacular rock tomb of Naqsh-e-Rostam. The ragged cliffs that the tombs are carved into remind me of those in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

Naqsh-e-Rostam

Dating back to almost 2,000 years ago, these ancient rock tombs still remain clearly etched within the cliffs. I was extremely impressed to find such well-preserved ancient ruins in a place where few people know about.

The ancient city of Persepolis

The ancient Archaemid city of Persepolis is one of the oldest in the world, at more than 2,500 years old.

Persian Architecture

Esfahan's Imam Square

Back in the days when Persia was a powerful empire in the world, lots of magnificent buildings were constructed all over the country. Today, they continue to be an important part of the cityscape. The Imam Square in Esfahan pictured above is known as the world’s second biggest square (after the Tiananmen Square in Beijing) and is flanked by two mosques and one palace.

Mosque at Imam Square in Esfahan

Imam Mosque in Esfahan is definitely one of the finest displays of Persian architecture with immaculate carvings and beautiful turquoise tiles framing its main entrance.

Inside a palace in Shiraz

The interior of Persian buildings is often just as impressive. This photo shows the interior of the Royal Palace in Shiraz, characterized by arches, spiraled columns and carvings.

A shrine near Mashad

Shrines are where many Islamic saints (known as ‘imam’ and their families are buried and mourned for even centuries after they have passed. It’s extremely moving to see how devout Iranians are and how emotional they get in these shrines.

Inside the Jameh Mosque at Yazd
Inside the Jameh Mosque in Yazd, the high domed ceilings and immaculate tilework make it one of the most impressive buildings we saw in Iran.

A gate in Yazd

Amir Chakhmagh in is an iconic landmark in Yazd and while it’s now nothing more than a gate (the rest of the building is gone), the unique architecture still makes it quite an impressive sight.

Mud-brick alleys of Yazd

The mud-brick alleys of Yazd form a labyrinth of sorts in the old town – this one in particular has been restored by the government but most of the town still retains a old-world atmosphere.

Iranian Way of Life

Colorful spices in the bazaar of Shiraz

Bazaars are an important part of Iranian life. They trace their roots back to the Silk Road days and even until today, Iranians are still known to be excellent traders and businessmen. Spices are of course a common sight in the bazaars.

Farsi poetry written in Arabic alphabets

Shiraz is known for its poets and their burial grounds. In Hafez’s mausoleum, we found several plaques carved with his Farsi poetry.

A religious festival in Esfahan

We happened to arrive in Esfahan during a religious festival held by the main bridge of the city. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of devout pilgrims poured into the city and mourned unanimously. I was stunned to see so many people cloaked in black chadors weeping for their saints. There were even men with Qoran in hand, openly sobbing.

Friendly students in Tehran

The Iranians are exceptionally warm and friendly, with many people stopping to strike up a conversation with us seeing that we’re foreigners. I met this bunch of students at the Golestan Palace in Tehran and they were all excited to practice their English with me.

Having dinner in a local's home

One of the highlights of our Iran trip was being invited to our local guide’s home for dinner. Nosrad’s gracious family prepared an amazing home-cooked meal and warmly welcomed us into their home. Nosrad introduced us to all his family members and everyone of them made an effort to speak to us and get to know us. This was definitely an experience that would live the longest in my memory.

Posing with friendly Iranians

Everywhere we went, people were curious about why we were in Iran (clearly there aren’t many tourists) and how we liked Iran. This kebab shopowner (on the right) was especially keen to make sure we had a good meal, and a good time in Iran.


Disclaimer: I traveled to Iran as part of  an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers journeyed through Central Asia on an overland truck that brought us through six countries from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, camping in deserts and mountains, and digging up the mystery behind the Silk Road. Although the company gave me a discount for my trip, all opinions expressed above are my own.

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The Gates to Hell — Darvaza Gas Craters in Turkmenistan http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/13/turkmenistans-darvaza-gas-craters/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/13/turkmenistans-darvaza-gas-craters/#comments Mon, 13 Oct 2014 14:00:13 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17488 Darvaza burning gas crater by dayIn the middle of the Karakum Desert, a roaring fire burns from deep beneath us, its flames dancing in the darkness taunting and teasing us. The walls of the oval crater drop vertically down into the abyss of fire — one careless step and you may well be on your way to hell. They named [...]

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I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we’ve traveled through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and have now reached Turkmenistan. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey!

In the middle of the Karakum Desert, a roaring fire burns from deep beneath us, its flames dancing in the darkness taunting and teasing us. The walls of the oval crater drop vertically down into the abyss of fire — one careless step and you may well be on your way to hell. They named this “darvaza” (meaning “gate” in Turkmen) for good reason. In the darkness of the night, the ferocious gas crater sure looks like the gates of hell. It’s one of the most unusual sights I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, one of those rare sights that will stay with me for years to come.

Strangely enough, the Darvaza gas craters aren’t the work of Mother Nature. Rather, they are a result of Soviet-era gas exploration that went terribly wrong in the 1950s. The three craters were all artificially created by gas exploration — today, one contains bubbling mud, another shallow one contains underground water, while the most impressive one is ablaze with fire visible from miles away. It’s said that scientists were concerned with the effects of the gas on nearby villages and so had lit up the crater with fire, hoping it would burn out after a few days. But now more than sixty years later, it’s still burning bright. Rumor has it that the burning gas crater may be put out for the government to continue gas exploration — so be sure to get there soon, before it disappears forever.

Sunset at the crater is a powerful sight, but by night, the fire crater is even more spectacular. Here are some shots from the gas craters both in the evening light and by night — regardless of the time of the day, the fire crater never fails to impress.

Darvaza burning gas crater by day

Before sunset, the light from the fire was already blinding.

A different angle

The fire crater has a diameter of approximately 70m and depth of around 50m.

Me standing by the edge

Standing by the edge of the gas crater is quite an exhilarating sensation.

Burning brightly by night

As night falls, the flames look even brighter.

Fire crater at night

The gates of hell indeed.

In contrast

I took a photo of my travel mate standing next to the crater to show the contrast.

The water crater

Another gas crater that’s filled with water springing up from beneath the ground.

The bubbling mud crater

The smallest crater of all is filled with bubbling mud.

Bubbling mud

Mud bubbling up from underground, producing a powerful sulphur smell.

How to get to Darvaza:

The Darvaza gas craters are located in the heart of the vast and remote Karakum Desert. Getting to the crater require off-road driving and it’s easy to get lost or stuck in the dunes. Most people visit on a tour. There are no hotels in the area, most visitors camp in sheltered areas around the crater.

I traveled to Darvaza as part of  an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers are traveling through Central Asia on an overland truck that will see us camping in deserts and mountains, and digging up the mystery behind the Silk Road.

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Bukhara — Uzbekistan’s Holiest or Most Touristy City? http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/06/bukhara-uzbekistan/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/06/bukhara-uzbekistan/#comments Mon, 06 Oct 2014 14:00:06 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17469 The dome of Mir-i-Arab medressaWith a history spanning a thousand years, Bukhara is dubbed Central Asia’s holiest city by many publications including Lonely Planet. As part of my Silk Road journey with Oasis Overland, we spent some time in Bukhara, learning about its history and much revered architectural marvels. The collection of medressas, minarets and mosques was outstanding and [...]

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 I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we’ve traveled through Kazakhstan and have now reached Uzbekistan. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey! 

With a history spanning a thousand years, Bukhara is dubbed Central Asia’s holiest city by many publications including Lonely Planet. As part of my Silk Road journey with Oasis Overland, we spent some time in Bukhara, learning about its history and much revered architectural marvels. The collection of medressas, minarets and mosques was outstanding and definitely deserving of UNESCO World Heritage status, yet I wasn’t quite as charmed by it as I’d thought I would be.

Granted, the compact lived-in old center was indeed impressive, with a conglomeration of bazaars, caravanserais and medressas within walking distance of one another. Restoration work by the Uzbek government was subtle and indiscriminate, unlike those in Samarkand, and the monuments in Bukhara remain authentic and original. It’s therefore no surprise that Bukhara has earned quite a reputation for itself in the travel circuit and it’s drawing more tourists than you would imagine.

I had no idea that Uzbekistan was this popular with travelers until I saw the bus-loads of tourists that descended upon the city, led by umbrella-toting, multilingual guides. The city’s attractions are all packed with souvenir shops (yes, behind the beautiful facades of the medressas are often just shops) and the vendors even speak a flurry of European languages. After a few days in the city, the large crowds and constant hassling from shopkeepers eventually got to me.

But just like many popular places in the world, if you can look past the crowd and touts, the beauty of the city is undeniable. Here’s a glance at the side of Bukhara that I love —  free of tourists and touts.

The dome of Mir-i-Arab medressa

The stunning dome of the Mir-i-Arab Medressa in Bukhara.

Mir-i-Arab, one of the only working medressas in Bukhara

The Mir-i-Arab medressa, one of the 11 working medressas (Islamic schools) in Uzbekistan. I started an interesting conversation with a young lad there who told me how prestigious the school is and how difficult it is to get a place in there.

Oldest mosque in Uzbekistan

Maghoki-Attar Mosque, the oldest mosque in Bukhara dating from the 12th century.

The Ulugbek Medressa lined with souvenir shops on its entrance

The Ulugbek Medressa lined with souvenir shops.

A caravanserai from those Silk Road days

A caravanserai from the Silk Road era.

Walls of the Ark

Walls of the Ark, a royal fort built to defend the city.

The Kalyan minaret and mosque

An icon of the city: the Kalyan minaret and mosque

Elaborate Arabic carvings on the Kalyan Minaret

Elaborate Arabic carvings on the Kalyan Minaret.

An intricately carved door in the alleys of the Old Town Bukhara

A beautifully carved door in Bukhara.

Kilim carpets on display

Kilim carpets on display.

There is no shortage of souvenir shops in Bukhara

There are no shortage of souvenir shops in Bukhara.

An artisan showing off his skills

An artisan shows off his skills in metalwork.

An artisan working on copper

Carving floral patterns on brass plates requires special skills.

A kind souvenir shop owner who invited me to have chai and samsas with him and never forced me to buy any of his hats!

A kind souvenir shop owner who invited me to have chai and samsas with him and never forced me to buy any of his hats!

How to get to Bukhara:

I traveled to Samarkand as part of an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers are traveling through Central Asia on an overland truck that will see us camping and cooking along the way. I chose this option instead of independent travel in order to see more of the backcountry of Central Asia and experience the countries on a closer level.

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The Golden Road to Samarkand: Uncovering Silk Road History http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/01/golden-road-samarkand-uncovering-silk-road-history/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/01/golden-road-samarkand-uncovering-silk-road-history/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2014 14:30:28 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17453 Turquoise domes are omnipresent in SamarkandWe travel not for trafficking alone, by hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned. For lust of knowing what should not be known. We take the Golden Road to Samarkand. – James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand Indeed, nowhere else is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. This ancient city was [...]

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I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we’ve traveled through Kazakhstan and have now reached Uzbekistan. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey!

We travel not for trafficking alone,

by hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.

For lust of knowing what should not be known.

We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

– James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

Indeed, nowhere else is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. This ancient city was the true heart of the Silk Road, lying in the epicenter of the region of Central Asia, and mid-way between the East and the West. It’s reminiscent of those bygone era when traders dressed in turbans and robes sauntered around with their camels and goods, bartering in the bazaars surrounding the mosques and medressahs. Wandering around the monuments, it’s easy to be transported through time into those days.

Prior to my visit, I had heard so much about the architecture of Uzbekistan, but nothing quite prepared me for it. The artful assembly of multicolored majolic tiles, intricately carved lattices and beautiful Arabic calligraphy, all combine to create such distinctive and outstanding display of Uzbek art and culture. Here’s a look at some of my favorite architecture in Samarkand:

Turquoise domes are omnipresent in Samarkand

The Registan

Lauded as the most famous landmark in Central Asia, the Registan is clearly the centerpiece of Samarkand. Translated to mean ‘sandy place’ in Tajik, the Registan is an ensemble of larger-than-life medressahs (Islamic schools) immaculately designed with majolica tiles, azure mosaics and Arabic scripts from the Qoran. This was medieval Samarkand’s commercial center, and the plaza was the city’s main trading spot. The three medressahs have withstood years of earthquakes and Soviet destruction but have been – some say, indiscrimately – restored to its original glory. The facades of these medressahs are definitely impressive, but sadly, what remains behind their gates are nothing more than souvenir shops. There is however an interesting photo exhibit and a beautiful golden-inlaid prayer hall in the Tilla-Kari Medressah that are worth visiting.

The Registan of Samarkand Inside the medressas Looking up at the tiled ceiling Stunning interior at the Tilla Kari Medressa

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Just a short walk from the Registan is this majestic mosque, ordered to be built by the great warrior/king Timur’s Chinese wife Bibi Khanym. This was once one of the biggest mosques in the Islamic world, with a 41m-high cupola on its main entrance. Much of the interior of the mosque is still in ruins but under restoration, but I think it adds to the historical charm of the place. Come in the evening to see the mosque all lit up in golden lights.

Bibi-Khanym lit up at night Inside Bibi-Khanym Dome in the Bibi-Khanym Mosque Detailed artwork on dome

Shah-i-Zinda

Of all the impressive monuments in Samarkand, Shah-i-Zinda is in my own opinion the most stunning piece of architecture in the city. This avenue of mausoleum is known for having some of the most beautiful tilework in the Muslim world — and you can easily see the immaculate artwork upon climbing the 40 steps that lead to the avenue. It’s flanked by massive tombs that are covered with shimmering azure majolica and terracotta tiles. This winding path of tombs eventually lead to the original grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who’s said to have brought Islam to the area. This is therefore a place of pilgrimage for Uzbeks—many villagers and people from around the country make their way here just to offer prayers in the holy shrine.

The Avenue of Mausoleum The tiled facade of the mausoleums The small mausoleums at Shah-i-Zinda Inside one of the mausoleums

Siob Bazaar

From the outside, Siob Bazaar looks overly-organized and almost sterile, nothing like the other chaotic and frenetic markets in Central Asia. But don’t be mistaken, venture in and you’ll find a sprawling mess of colorful spice stalls, vegetable stands and butchers. There are also the usual labyrinth of shops selling cakes, toiletries, electrical products and everything under the sun. It’s a great place to interact with locals and learn more about them. I love the bazaars in Central Asia for their energy and colors, and this market is no different.

A mono-eyebrowed lady Siob bazaar A vendor showing off his nan

How to get to Samarkand:

Samarkand is located in the center of Uzbekistan and it’s about a five-hour drive from the capital of Tashkent. There are shared taxis and buses that travel the route. I traveled to Samarkand as part of an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers are traveling through Central Asia on an overland truck that will see us camping and cooking along the way. I chose this option instead of independent travel in order to see more of the backcountry of Central Asia and experience the countries on a closer level.

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Uzbekistan’s Architectural Marvels — Best in the Muslim World http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/29/uzbekistans-architectural-marvel/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/29/uzbekistans-architectural-marvel/#comments Mon, 29 Sep 2014 14:30:22 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17460 A dome in SamarkandPrior to this Silk Road trip, I had seen photos of Uzbekistan’s monuments and I knew they were beautiful — but I had no idea of the extent and the sheer scale of it all. As my trip unveiled, Uzbekistan is home to some of the Muslim world’s best display of architecture, featuring grandiose gates, intricate [...]

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I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we’ve traveled through Kazakhstan and have now reached Uzbekistan. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey!

Prior to this Silk Road trip, I had seen photos of Uzbekistan’s monuments and I knew they were beautiful — but I had no idea of the extent and the sheer scale of it all. As my trip unveiled, Uzbekistan is home to some of the Muslim world’s best display of architecture, featuring grandiose gates, intricate Arabic carvings, immaculate layout of shimmering turquoise tiles.

Unlike the nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, the Uzbeks have always been good traders, hospitable hosts and tied to the land. Rather than moving from place to place in yurts, they built strong and sturdy monuments that could withstand centuries of earthquakes and Soviet attacks. Thanks to major restoration efforts on the Uzbek government’s part, hundreds if not thousands of larger-than-life medressas (Islamic schools), minarets and mosques continue to dot the country.

As part of my Silk Road trip with Oasis Overland, we visited the three main ancient cities of Uzbekistan: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Each of these cities has their own distinctive flavor and feel, some like Bukhara better than Samarkand while others favor the smal, compact layout of Khiva the most. Regardless, all three are treasure troves overflowing with more ancient monuments than you can handle.

For architectural buffs out there, here’s a look at my favorite buildings in Uzbekistan—trust me, they’re worth making a journey here to see:

 

A dome in Samarkand's Bibi-Khanym Mosque

A magnificent dome in Samarkand’s Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Samarkand's Registan surrounded by flowers

Samarkand’s Registan surrounded by beautiful flowers

Bibi-Khanym Mosque as seen from a different angle

The Bibi-Khanym Mosque, once one of the biggest mosque in the world, as seen from a different angle

Colorful stalactites carved into the top of the medressa's entrance

Colorful stalactites carved into the top of the Ulugbek Medressa’s entrance

One of the oldest buildings in Uzbekistan, now converted to a carpet museum in Bukhara

One of the oldest buildings in Uzbekistan, now converted to a carpet museum in Bukhara

Detailed carving on the 218 columns that hold up the Juma Mosque in Khiva

Detailed carving on the 218 columns that hold up the Juma Mosque in Khiva

The Ark, a fortress, looms above the old town of Bukhara

The Ark, a royal fortress, looms above the old town of Bukhara

Inside Pahlova Mausoleum in Khiva

Inside Pahlova Mausoleum in Khiva, pilgrims from all over the country come to pray and pay their respect

An intricately carved wooden door in Khiva

An intricately carved wooden door in Khiva

Inside a mosque in Khiva

The tilework in Khiva’s Tosh Havli Palace is immaculate

The walls of the Konya Ark in Khiva curve like a serpent

The walls of the Konya Ark in Khiva curve like a serpent

Beautiful tilework

Inside the Registan in Samarkand, what used to Islamic classrooms have now been converted into souvenir shops

Detailed Arabic scripts from the Qoran carved onto the buildings

Detailed Arabic scripts from the Qoran carved onto the buildings

Floral tiles used in many of Uzbekistan's architecture

Floral tiles used in many of Uzbekistan’s architecture

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Exploring Kazakhstan’s Wilderness: Hiking in Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/15/exploring-kazakhstans-wilderness-hiking-aksu-zhabagly-nature-reserve/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/15/exploring-kazakhstans-wilderness-hiking-aksu-zhabagly-nature-reserve/#comments Mon, 15 Sep 2014 14:59:12 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17440 Gorgeous, accessible mountains in Aksu ZhabaglyKazakhstan may be known for its oil and the antics of the pseudo-Kazakh Borat, but few people are aware of the wilderness that covers a large part of the country. Last week, as part of my overlanding trip through Central Asia with Oasis Overland, we spent two nights camping out in the Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserve [...]

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I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey!

Kazakhstan may be known for its oil and the antics of the pseudo-Kazakh Borat, but few people are aware of the wilderness that covers a large part of the country. Last week, as part of my overlanding trip through Central Asia with Oasis Overland, we spent two nights camping out in the Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserve and experiencing the Kazakh backcountry at its best.

Located near the border of Uzbekistan, the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve is a huge area of wilderness that is surprisingly close to Kazakhstan’s southern capital of Shymkent. The territory of the reserve encompasses different types of terrain, ranging from steppe and upland meadow or jailoos, to juniper forests, high-altitude mountains and glaciers. Due to efforts by the government to protect this fragile environment, big animals like the ibex, lynx, wolves and bears still roam this area freely. Even snow leopards have been spotted in this part of Kazakhstan.

While I didn’t come across any wildlife in the area, I did feast on some spectacular views of the valley and mountains. I highly recommend a visit to the Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserve if you’re ever in Kazakhstan to see a side of the country that’s wildly different to Astana or Almaty. Here are some quick shots from the nature reserve:

Gorgeous, accessible mountains in Aksu Zhabagly

The peaks of Aksu-Zhabagly are within a short hike away from the base.

View of our campsite

Our campsite, Ruslan Camp, at the entrance of the reserve.

Hiking trail

Hiking up to one of the peaks with our Oasis Overland crew.

Hiking up the ridge
Making our way up the plateau and onto the ridge.

Water stream
Crossing a river stream that flows from the top of the mountains to the valley.

Wild berries

Wild berries grow in abundance at the foothills of the mountains.

Flora and fauna

Flowers are also found in clusters around the foothills.

Our Oasis Overland truck

Our Oasis Overland truck parked right at the entrance of the reserve.

Camping right next to the reserve

Camping just next to the mountains.

How to get to Aksu-Zhabagly:

The Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve is located in the southern part of Kazakhstan. The nearest town, Zhabagly, is around seven km from the nature reserve. The daily fee for entering the reserve is 2000T per person. To get there on public transport, get a mashrutka at Shymkent’s bus station and it’s a two-hour drive to Zhabagly.

I traveled to Aksu-Zhabagly as part of my Silk Road overland trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers are traveling through Central Asia on an overland truck and we’ll be camping and cooking along the way. I chose this option instead of independent travel in order to see more of the backcountry of Central Asia and experience the countries on a closer level, and it’s proving to be an excellent way to see the region.


Disclosure: While my trip was discounted, any opinions expressed above are my own.

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A Photo Essay from Mongolia — The Land of the Blue Sky http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/02/mongolia-photo-essay/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/02/mongolia-photo-essay/#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 11:34:19 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17375 An outstanding sunset on the grasslandsTraditional gers dot the vast steppes while sand dunes rise from empty deserts and snowcapped mountains loom over lush green grasslands: Mongolia is packed with so much pristine natural beauty that few other countries can rival. Every turn on the road reveals a different landscape, be it a hill of colors after emerging from parched [...]

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Traditional gers dot the vast steppes while sand dunes rise from empty deserts and snowcapped mountains loom over lush green grasslands: Mongolia is packed with so much pristine natural beauty that few other countries can rival. Every turn on the road reveals a different landscape, be it a hill of colors after emerging from parched earth, or rising from the dunes to find an oasis of lagoons. It is a special place, especially for those who love nature and wilderness.

Mongolia definitely has no shortage of land and area; in fact, it is three times the size of France and twice the size of Texas. With a population of three million people, two million of which live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, it is known as the most sparsely populated country in the world. But it’s the people of Mongolia that make the country such a special place. Nomadic families continue to live the way their ancestors did for centuries, and their infectious sense of hospitality is nothing short of overwhelming.

Even in today’s world, Mongolia remains a secret amongst the most hardened travelers who dare traverse its rugged terrain. For those curious enough to venture here, it’s definitely a visual feast for outdoor lovers. I’ll be sharing more of my experiences in Mongolia, but meanwhile here’s a quick look at some of my best photos from Mongolia.

An outstanding sunset on the grasslands

This was my favorite moment during the trip as we sat feasting on traditional Mongolian barbecue and watching the sky turn a shade of gold.

The sand dunes of Khongoriin Els

When we climbed up to the highest point of the Khongoriin Els sand dunes in the Gobi Desert, this was the view that greeted us: acres upon acres of sand dunes sprawling across the base of a mountain chain.

A spectacular view of the Orkhon Valley

Our ger camp in Karakorum stood beneath the Great Imperial Map monument overlooking the city. I climbed up to the hilltop to see a view of Karakorum, but my mind was blown when I turned around and saw this instead: a panorama of the Orkhon Valley with the tributaries of the river flowing like arteries across the floodplain.

Winding our way through Yolyn Am gorge

While driving to Yolyn Am gorge, we had to make so many stops because the view of the Gurvan Saikhan mountains was just outrageous.

Sunset at Ongiin Khiid

The golden hour at the Ongiin River with streaks of purple and pink jazzing up the sky.

Flaming Cliffs

Known as the Flaming Cliffs, Bayanzag is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This was where the first discovery of dinosaurs eggs was made in the 1920s.

The hills surrounding Ongiin Khiid

The hills surrounding Ongiin Khiid monastery came in shades of orange and lime green, sprinkled with wild flowers and dotted by gers of nomadic families.

The first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu

Erdene Zuu was the first Buddhist monastery built in Mongolia; even though many of its temples were destroyed during the Soviet purge, the few remaining ones show just how impressive the monastery must have been during its heydays.

A Mongolian ovoo

Found all over Mongolian, the ovoo is a shamanistic cairn made of rocks and wood, used in worship of the mountains and the sky.

Horseman herding his cattle

We spotted this horseman herding his cattle while driving along the rocky road towards Tsenkher hotsprings. Most nomadic families still live mainly from their cattles for their milk, meat, skin and for transportation.

The camels of Gobi Up close and personal with the Mongolian two-humped camels in the Gobi Deserts. These creatures sure had problems controlling their bowels.

Horseback riding at Tsenkher hotsprings

Another icon of Mongolia, horses are important assets to the nomadic families of Mongolia.

Drinking airag in a ger

The airag (fermented mare’s milk) is an alcoholic drink typically made in every Mongolian household and shared with guests as a form of hospitality.

Inside the ger of a nomadic family

We were fortunate enough to camp with this nomadic family and get to know their way of life and try the airag and vodka they made. It was definitely my favorite experience of the trip.

Our guide dressed in the traditional del

Our guide Amaraa with his Mongolian del.

A Mongolian girl dressed up in traditional wear

This young lady played dress-up and wore the traditional Mongolian costume for a photo.


Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by G Adventures as part of their Wanderers in Residence program. I traveled with them on their Nomadic Mongolia tour. All opinions expressed above are my own.

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Outback Queensland: Red Earth, Emerald Water and Blue Sky http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/05/12/outback-queensland-photo-essay/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/05/12/outback-queensland-photo-essay/#comments Mon, 12 May 2014 12:13:32 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=16776 Sunset at Harry HillRose red sandstone mountains rise from parched grey earth dotted with lime-green spinifex grass and eucalyptus tree, while emerald water runs through the gorges lined with green palm trees. This part of Outback Queensland reminds me of the Red Center (specifically the area around Uluru) — but  without the crowds. It’s hot, dry and harsh, studded with gorgeous unearthly landscapes and criss-crossed [...]

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Rose red sandstone mountains rise from parched grey earth dotted with lime-green spinifex grass and eucalyptus tree, while emerald water runs through the gorges lined with green palm trees. This part of Outback Queensland reminds me of the Red Center (specifically the area around Uluru) — but  without the crowds. It’s hot, dry and harsh, studded with gorgeous unearthly landscapes and criss-crossed with excellent hiking trails and waterways. Yet, it seems to be a secret even among Australians. It’s thousands of kilometers from the coastline that Queensland is so well known for, but as I found out last week, this is a part of Australia that is just as stunning as many of the country’s renown attractions.

My four-day glamping trip with Adels Grove took me in and around the Boodjamulla National Park and Riversleigh area, discovering an off-grid area of Queensland that few visit. During my stay there, I hiked in the Lawn Hill Gorge, canoed in the creek, drove off-road up to the escarpment of the Constance Range, swam in the waterfalls of the national park, and even found million-year-old fossils at Riversleigh. There was so much to do and too little time. I absolutely loved getting active in such a rugged and stunning terrain and most of all, I loved having the place to myself the whole time.

I’ll be writing more about my time in this well-kept secret of Queensland, but meanwhile here are some of my best photos from the past week, enjoy!

Sunset at Harry Hill

Enjoying a beautiful sunset at Harry Hill with wine and nibbles

Indarri Falls lookout

Hiked 3.8km to the Indarri Falls Lookout to find this view of the upper and middle gorges of Lawn Hill Gorge

Walking on the top of the gorges

Rose red sandstone, eucalyptus tree and spinifex abound in Boodjamulla National Park

Canoeing on Lawn Hill Creek

Seeing the gorge from a canoe and gaining new perspectives

Swimming hole at Indarri Falls

A swimming hole at Indarri Falls

The trail that leads to to the gorges

The craggy trail that weaves its way up to the steep rock face

Duwadarri Lookout

Hiking up to the Duwadarri Lookout

Indarri Falls
Indarri Falls resemble an oasis in the middle of a desert

Canoeing in the Upper Gorge

Canoeing on the emerald waters surrounded by lush vegetation

The viewpoint at Upper Gorge lookout

After a grueling hike under the blazing sun, this is the view that awaits at Upper Gorge Lookout

Nellie at the Island Stack lookout

That’s me at the Island Stack Lookout

Constance Range

The Constance Range surrounds the Lawn Hill area

Constance Range from the Escarpment

Getting a 180 degree view of the area on our escarpment tour

A wallaby

Look who we found – a wallaby!

My ride from Adels Grove

The trusty trooper from Adels Grove


Disclaimer: Thanks to Tourism and Events Queensland and Adels Grove for making this trip possible! While the trip was sponsored, all opinions expresses above are our own.

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Street Art from Around the World http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/05/01/street-art-around-world/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/05/01/street-art-around-world/#comments Thu, 01 May 2014 18:15:29 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=16622 In the quirky Lapa districtn recent years, street art has evolved into something more than just graffiti. Renown artists like Banksy have helped bring awareness to street art, and cleared the cloud of mystery that used to revolve around it. What was once an act of vandalism is now a revered form of urban art that’s now appearing on the streets and walls of cities all around the [...]

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I[n recent years, street art has evolved into something more than just graffiti. Renown artists like Banksy have helped bring awareness to street art, and cleared the cloud of mystery that used to revolve around it. What was once an act of vandalism is now a revered form of urban art that’s now appearing on the streets and walls of cities all around the world.  It’s bold, brash and artistic, and most of all, street art is a form of expression and often has an underlying message of political and societal context.

From Brazil to Palestine, we’re bringing you on a visual tour to experience the latest street art culture that’s taking the world by storm.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

While exploring Rio de Janeiro, I found Lapa to be one of the most interesting areas in the city with gorgeous wall paintings and mosaic artwork. It may be a little gritty and scruffy, but there’s an undercurrent of bohemian and artistic vibes that epitomizes the character of Rio.

In the quirky Lapa district

An eclectic mixture off Sanskrit writings and contemporary art on the walls of Lapa

Preparing for World Cup

World cup fever in Rio de Janeiro

Contemporary artwork

Playing with femininity in Lapa

Childhood

The children of the streets

A world of contrast

Old vs new

Favela thoughts

In the favela of Santa Marta, the walls convey messages like “The rich want peace to get richer, we want peace for survival.”

West Bank, Palestine

During our visit to Israel over a year ago, we took the opportunity to cross over to the West Bank in the Palestinian Territories. What surprised us most were the street art lurking in every corner. Messages of the fight for freedom sprawled across the West Bank barrier that the Israelis erected. The strength and tenacity of the Palestinians are expressed through these evocative art work. Even Banksy left plenty of his masterpieces around the area.

Art that convey messages in Palestine

The Palestinians continue to fight for their freedom

the Palestine heroine

Leila Khaled is a famous female Palestinian freedom fighter born in the city of Haifa 1944. Khaled is the first ever woman to hijack a plane in history strapped with grenades around her waist and a pistol gun.

Free Palestine

Free Palestine

Banksy art work in Palestine

The art work of Banksy is seen on the streets of Bethlehem

Cape Town, South Africa

While in Cape Town, we went on a design walking tour with an architecture who led us through the streets of downtown Cape Town in search of contemporary urban art. What we found were really abstract and artsy work that we didn’t get understand but they got us thinking – and that was most important.

Creative artwork in Cape Town

Flying children on the walls

Design tour

Futuristic flashback

Street art in the township
While biking in the township of Masimpumelele, we stumbled upon this piece of art.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

 The Slovenian capital of Ljubljana is small but eclectic and creative. Far from the medieval city center, we found some bright and youthful street art at the area around Hostel Celica. The hostel used to serve as a military prison but the Metelkova Network managed to convert the building and its surroundings into an independent cultural hub. This area is now a place for free-spirited locals and tourists to hang out and exchange ideas.

Alternative artwork in Ljubljana

Big foot

In the back streets of Hostel Celica

Living by their own rules

A youth park

Freedom of expression

Quirky artwork

A blend of alien characters and modern scribbles

Basseterre, St Kitts

On the Caribbean island of St Kitts, we left the beaches behind to explore the capital city of Basseterre and were pleasantly surprised to find interesting little corners revealing hints of local culture and flavors. Just a few blocks behind the Independence Square, we found a few walls painted with local heroes and political characters.

Caribbean street art

The wall of fame include portrait paintings of Kim Collins, a local track and field sprinter, and Sir Kennedy Simmonds, the ex-premier of the country.

Political characters

More local characters on display

Local heroes

Politicians seem to play an important role here – from left to right: Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican civil rights activist; Sir Lee Moore, an ex-Premier of St Kitts; and Robert Bradshaw, the first Premier of St Kitts.

 

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Exploring our Backyard: Granada, Spain http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/04/29/exploring-backyard-home-granada-spain/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/04/29/exploring-backyard-home-granada-spain/#comments Tue, 29 Apr 2014 15:48:46 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=16657 The AlhambraI’ve realized that we hardly write about our home base Granada here — perhaps it’s because we’re so familiar with it that we sometimes forget how beautiful it can be. It’s been almost four years since we’ve called Granada home, I think it’s time to shed some light on our life here in southern Spain. Entrenched [...]

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I’ve realized that we hardly write about our home base Granada here — perhaps it’s because we’re so familiar with it that we sometimes forget how beautiful it can be. It’s been almost four years since we’ve called Granada home, I think it’s time to shed some light on our life here in southern Spain.

Entrenched in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Granada is a whimsical city characterized not only by its natural setting but also its Moorish past. It was the last city to be reconquered from the Moors by the Christians – even until today it remains as one of the strongholds of the Moorish civilization. This can be seen from the architecture throughout the old town as well as the presence of Arabic teahouses, baths and souks. Perched on a hilltop, the old town, also known as Albayzin, is a hodgepodge of white-washed houses, lavish gardens and cobblestone alleys, with plenty of secret corners to be unraveled.

But Granada doesn’t just offer beauty: It’s also a great place to live for its affordable prices, tapas culture and natural environment. As a major university city, Granada is home to a large student population and therefore the prices of housing and food are really affordable here. In fact it’s well known for the free tapas that every bar serves. Another reason why we chose to settle in Granada was the rich and unspoiled nature surrounding the city–it doesn’t take more than half an hour to get out of the city and into the rural countryside for some hiking and relaxing. On weekends, we love heading out on short hikes in the valleys and gorges around the city or driving out to  the beaches or the mountains that are just an hour’s drive away.

Here’s a photographic tour of our home, Granada:

The Alhambra

The Alhambra

Looming over the city is the world-famous Alhambra Palace,  an impressive display of the Islamic Umayyad architectural style. Dating back to the 9th century, the Alhambra was originally constructed as a small fortress in 889 and then rebuilt in the mid 11th century by a Moorish king who built its current palace and walls, and later converted into a royal palace in 1333.

Inside the Alhambra

It takes more than a day to see the entire Alhambra Palace. Its hundreds of rooms, courtyards and patios are decorated with intricate carvings and high ceilings while its garden – the Generalife – is a sprawling maze that is a piece of art on its own. Everywhere in the Alhambra, you’ll find stunning views of the old town Albayzin.

Albayzin

Albayzin

Albayzin is a hodgepodge of white washed houses, pine tree gardens and cobblestone alleys all stacked up on one hill overlooking Granada. Its charm is undeniable and plenty of visitors choose to stay in this part of town to soak in the history of the city. This view of Albayzin was taken from the Alhambra.

Mirador de San Nicolas

The Mirador de San Nicolas is a viewpoint that is perched on the highest point of Albayzin, offering unobstructed views of the Alhambra and the rest of the city beneath. This may be an extremely touristy spot, but the view is well worth it and atmosphere here infectious. Hundreds of tourists sit by the ledge and drink in the view, while gypsy street artists strum their Spanish guitars and hippies sell their handicraft.

Granada Cathedral

The Cathedral in Granada

The Granada Cathedral, also known as Cathedral of the Incarnation, stands in the arterial heart of the city. The Cathedral had been intended to become the royal mausoleum by Charles I of Spain, but his son decided to move it to El Escorial outside of Madrid. The main chapel  now contains two kneeling effigies of the Catholic King and Queen, Isabel and Ferdinand

The bell tower of the cathedral

The bell tower of the Cathedral can be seen rising above the buildings in Granada’s city center. The buildings have to abide by the city’s maximum height limit due to the risk of earthquakes in the area.

A water fountain at the Alhambra

Water fountains are commonly seen in the city (this one in particular is in the Alhambra). Water in the area comes from the Sierra Nevada mountains and are fresh and clean.

Alcaiceria Market

Colorful Arabic lamps in the Alcaiceria

In the Alcaiceria (souk), plenty of Arabic ware and souvenirs are on offer. Moroccan lamps, handwoven rugs and leather bags all evoke flavors of North Africa.

Bib Rambla Square

Fountain in Plaza Bib Rambla

Plaza Bib Rambla is another one of the many squares in the city center where festivals are often celebrated. During Christmas, there’s usually a market in this square, with an enormous Christmas tree in the center of it all. Usually, this square is flanked by several restaurants and bars as well as ice-cream shops and souvenir stores.

Arches in Granada

This arch leads to the Alhambra Palace, which is just 850m of steep walking from Plaza Nueva in the city center.

Hiking in the Outskirts

Hiking in the outskirts of the city

You don’t have to walk far to be in the countryside. Many hiking trails in Cumbres Verdes and Llano de la Perdiz are just twenty minutes away from the city center and they bring you around the olive groves and rolling hills surrounding Granada. We love going out for a hike every other weekend to leave the city behind and find some peace and tranquility.

A view of the Sierra Nevada from one of the many hiking trails

One of the many stunning views while hiking outside of Granada.

More information:

Granada is located one and a hour half by bus/car away from Malaga, the gateway to southern Spain. Flying into Malaga is easy from anywhere in Europe. Alternatively, Granada also has a small airport that serves flights from Madrid, Barcelona and Milan. For cheap flights to Spain, you can easily find deals on Webjet. Come visit already!

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