Zen, Manga and the Art of public bathing – Outside-the-box accommodation in Tokyo

Japan has done it again. Despite putting up with a considerable deflation and a weaker yen, Tokyo has overtaken the Swiss city of Zurich to resume its position as the world’s most expensive city in the world.  The latest Worldwide Cost of Living Survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit shows the balance is clearly tilting with Australasian cities now being the biggest movers in the top 20 positions. No U.S. city made it to  the top 20.

If you are planning on visiting Japan, these are not the kind of news you want to hear. Of course, if money is not an objection, this does not really concern you. In that case, you´d probably best browsing any of the many accommodation booking sites you´ll find on the net. But if you are a budget conscious traveller who desperately want to visit this incredible country (just like me), the following suggestions might help you make that dream a reality, even if it isn´t the most comfortable reality 🙂

Manga kissa

Ok, maybe not the place where you want to spend more than one or two nights, but certainly an option that can help you save some cash if you are coffers are suffering while in the big city.

The “manga kissa” or “manga kissaten” are popular versions of the classic internet cafe with ´long stay´options. A five-hour stay in a ¨private¨ cubicle will set you back around 1500 yen 8 or US$20.  This price will give you unlimited access to  comic books, a shower, and all the soda you can drink. But if you prefer to bypass all the manga paraphernalia and try to catch some sleep, the chairs in the cubicles are fairly comfortable. You can even get an all-night pack (most places are open 24 hours) for around 1,000 yen if you check in at around midnight. The average place has about 20-30 booths I think, but there are huge ones which spans multiple floors and have over 100 individual booths.

24 Hour Baths

Oedo Onsen Monogatari
In addition to offering gender segregated baths, some of these centres provide lounging areas, large comfortable chairs, or private rooms where visitors can rest for the night. For around 3000 Yen (US$30), places like the Oedo Onsen and LaQua   will get you a decent sleep area with personal tv, blankets and pillows.

One word of caution when it comes to public baths in Japan. Although different genders bathe in different areas, if you are fairly modest and prefer not to be seen naked in public, public baths might not be your best choice. You will also be required to ¨shower¨yourself before you enter the actual bath in a somewhat peculiar  position (generally sitting down on cute little wooden stools) and it may feel like a very awkward way to present your nude self. For further etiquette rules, visit this article in the trip advisor.

Capsule Hotels

There is no denying you´ll surely feel trapped in a stacked-up sarcophagus but for an average of 3500 yen (US$37) will get you the rest you need and a few little gadgets to play with ( TV, radio, alarm clock and reading light). I don´t have to tell you there are a number of downsides to sleeping in these little pods – patrons could very well be quite rowdy as most often capsule hotels are found clustered around stations ready for  drunk businessmen who have lost their trains to crush on. Also, because of safety and privacy issues, women typically aren’t allowed at these hotels, so it is a good idea to check, as there are a few exceptions.

Capsule Hotel Asakusa River Side
Shinjuku Kuyakusho mae Capsule Hotel
Green Plaza Shinjuku

Low budget (standard) Ryokan and Minshuku

Ryokan (s) are traditional Japanese inns originated in the old Edo days (seventeenth century) which, generally feature tatami-matted rooms and communal baths. You can go totally up market and be paying 40,000 yen for a room in these traditional lodges or find a no-frills option for as little as 4,000 yen per person.

Ryokan and Minshuku are similarly styled although the latter  aims to project a more personalised and homey atmosphere where guests are treated to home-style Japanese cooking.

The following are some affordable Ryokan and Minshuku options in the Tokyo region:Both of these options will generally not provide a private bathroom and you´ll have to share the communal area with other guests (and sometimes the general public).

Homeikan
rest
Location: Near Tokyo University and Tokyo Dome
Cost: between 7,000 to 10,000 yen per person.
Hotel Kaminarimon
Location:  Asakusa district of Tokyo, 200 meters away from the Sensoji temple.
Cost: between 7,000 to 10,000 yen per person.
Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu
Location: Near Nakamise-dori, which is the main street in Asakusa.
On the 6th floor there are shared Japanese “hinoki” (cypress) baths for both women and men (same gender only) with views of the Asakusa district.
Cost: between 7,000 to 15,000 yen per person
Sumisho Hotel
Location: Near Tokyo Station,
There is a large shared bath for the guests  (same gender only).
Cost: between 7,000 to 15,000 yen per person
Yamanaka Ryokan
Location: Ueno district in northern Tokyo.
Each room has its own private bath and toilet.
Cost: between 7,000 to 15,000 yen per person

Backpakers

You can easily get a list of the best backpackers in town from any of the accommodation sites or from Trip Advisor, but you may want to start with these two popular spots:
Khaosan Tokyo Guest House Ninja
Not ideal for couples as they don´t have any doubles, the communal space in this centrally located hotel features free Wi-Fi and a large TV with cable that encourages a community spirit among guests.
Twin rooms start at US$60 and dormitory cabin beds from US$32, but you get free tea and coffee and Internet access.
YMCA Asia Youth Centre
You will find the rooms here rather small, but most of them feature an en suite bathroom and wireless internet.  Doubles start at US$150.

Buddhist monasteries (Shukubo)

Enlightenment
Buddhist temples and monasteries are ideal accommodation options to retreat to a world of zen calm after a busy day in the megacity. Most of them are quite a distance away from the tourist areas so you have to factor the transport when making your decision. Expect very minimalist (almost spartan) but clean rooms, vegetarian meals and the option to be part of the Buddhist rituals.  You will be expected to lay out your own futon mattress and quilt at  night and fold them up again next morning. The toilets will be  Japanese style, and the bath, if it exists, a communal one, perhaps  even shared with the priest’s family. Do not expect a  television nor  locks on the door and no front  desk at which to deposit your valuables.

Mount Mitake
Mount Mitake has been worshipped as a sacred mountain for a very long time in the Kanto region and shukubo lodges have spread around the Musashi Mitake shrine, most of them providing the option to perform Takigyo or  meditative practice under a local waterfall.

The trip from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Mitake Station on the Ōme Line takes about 95 minutes.

A shuttle bus, located 50 meters to the left of Mitake Station, travels to Takimoto village every half hour between 07:30 to 18:00. From Takimoto village, the Mitake-Tozan Railway cable car operates every half hour between 07:30 to 18:30 and leads to Mitakesan village at its top. Mitake summit and the Musashi-Mitake Shrine  (武蔵御嶽神社 Musashi Mitake Jinja?) can then be reached by trail—approximately 1000 meters.
Komadori Sanso (Mount Mitake)
Cost: without meals 5,250 yen ( approximately US$55), with two meals 8,400 yen (US$90), with Takigyo 10,500 yen or US$113.
How to get there: JR Yamanote line Shinjyuku Station” > “JR Mitake station” > (bus) > “Cable-Shita bus stop” > (Cable car) > “Mitakesan” > 15 minutes walk.
Seizanso (Mount Mitake)
Cost:  including 2 meals 7,350 yen (US$80), including 2 meals and takigyo 10,000 yen (US$108)
How to get there: JR Yamanote line Shinjyuku Station > JR Mitake station > (bus) > Cable-Shita bus stop > (Cable car) > Mitakesan > 8 minutes walk
Kanagawa (Greater Tokyo area)
Saijyoji
Cost: including 2 meals 5,000 yen (US$53)
How to get there: ”JR Daiyusan station” > (bus) > “Doryoson bus stop”
Togaku-bo
Cost: including breakfast 6,000 yen (US$65) including 2 meals
How to get there: ”Odakyu Railway Isehara station” > (bus) > “Robentakimae bus stop”
Seityo-ji temple (Chiba – South Tokyo) 
Cost:  accommodation and two vegetarian meals 8,000 yen (approximately US$85)
How to get there: JR Awaamatsu station and jump on the bus towards Chiba to stop in the Seityo-ji bus stop.
Syogaku-ji (Hanno, 50 km Northeast of  Tokyo)
Cost: accommodation and two vegetarian meals 6,500 yen (approximately US$70).
How to get there: JR Yamanote line Ikebukuro Station” > Seibu Ikebukuro Railway “Hanno station” > (55 minutes bus) > “Nago bus stop” > 1 minutes walk
For further information, the Tourist Information Centres in Tokyo  city can provide you with up up-to-date lists of temples where foreigners  are welcome to stay.

Homestays

Japanese Home
This may sound like an option best suited for the young but that is not the case. There are quite a number of websites that help you experience the real Japan and match people of any ages to households looking to host for up to 50,000 yen (US$550)per month.

Homestay Web – Tokyo
Homestay in Japan
Homestay Booking

Overnight transport

If you are on your way from Tokyo elsewhere in Japan, highway buses in Japan (kosoku for ‘highway’) will take you to any major city within six to nine hours, and even as far as the southern island of Kyushu in a 15-hour stretch. While day time buses cost anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 yen (US$100-150) one way,you can get a discount for the night ride that’s usually around half the daytime price.

One thing to be careful thought is to double check departure and arrival times and arrive at the pick-up area early, since sometimes it is difficult to find where the bus is parked.

For more information on overnight buses visit Japan-guide.com. If you prefer to travel by train, there are also some night options available to you, you can check them out here.

I hope this helps you get to Tokyo without having to break your bank. Of course, there is always the option of doing like quite a few of the locals and falling asleep in the train ( many travellers, like myself, have witnessed a few exhausted Japanese men stay behind after a train docked in its last stop :)).  When it´s time, it´s time.
Early One Morning

The highlands I once knew are fast vanishing – Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

I visited Cameron Highlands several times during my 6 year stay in Malaysia. When you live in congested, smothering Kuala Lumpur escaping to the cooler climate of the highlands helps you regain your breath and your sense of personal space. But not unconditionally and not before navigating your way up through the sinuous road often obstructed by fallen branches, rocks, animals, potholes and heavy vehicles. Such is the challenge that very often, the very last 5 kms of the road can take up to two hours to complete.

Cameron Valley Tea Plantation

But then, after the grueling journey, the deep green plateau. And hidden among the mist, the rich, intricate rainforest and the serene,  hypnotising undulations of the tea plantations. A landscape that has mesmerised many and offered a haven for the   ill since William Cameron first stumbled across it in 1885 during a mapping expedition on the Titiwangsa Range.

Cameron Highlands Sunrise

Visitors now come from far and wide, new infrastructure having been built to make access to the highlands a little easier. Besides the sheer beauty of the scenery, famous tea plantations, strawberry and vegetable farms, local markets and architectural remnants of a colonial heyday attract local and foreign tourists – far too many tourists.  So many that as a result, today, Cameron Highlands has become saturated with apartments, hotels, shops and stalls, exceeding its capacity by far.

Rolling Green Valley

The water is now polluted, the jungle is being cleared to farm illegally and, as a result the land and the indigenous Orang Asli population are suffering. Rampant land clearing for agricultural cultivation now riddles the hills, carried out by farmers who either do not have a permit or are simply flouting regulations. Heavy machinery is used for these purposes on weekends defying the prohibition to do so; land clearing is carried out on hill slopes with a gradient above 30, making the risk of landslides and soil erosion an imminent and risky possibility and some times, sadly, an actuality – on the 8th of August 2011, the local indigenous orang Asli settlement was severely affected by a landslide that killed four women and three men and injured many others.

_DSC8009

Knowing that erosion causes loss of fertility and topsoil,  local farmers resort to copious amounts of manure and synthetic fertilisers that wash off during rainfall into the waterways. Conventional farmers also rely on pesticides, which they use indiscriminately and excessively to protect their crops. Again, with rain and irrigation, this flows into the waterways and gets deposited in sediment. Levels of DDT in tested water have been shown to be 200 times higher than the tolerated level in fresh water.  In 2004 and 2005 nine children died in the highlands, all of them Orang Asli who live in a settlement downstream. The authorities said that the reason of death was mysterious illness.

off to the fields

Farmers indiscriminately dump waste on the once green slopes, hoping to have it flushed down by the rain into the rivers. It saves them having to worry about properly disposing of it.

It´s a shame.

Fortunately, though, the rape of Cameron Highland´s unique natural ecosystem is not going unnoticed. Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (REACH), a group of concerned highlanders, has been championing the preservation of the region´s pristine environment since 2001. The group is now run by a group of volunteers with funds from membership, donations, small grants, reforestation activities and sales of souvenirs.

orang asli in cameron highland

There are also other responsible and respectful travel options to Cameron Highlands. Eco Cameron, for instance, offers numerous options for ecotourism in and around Cameron Highlands that are guided by experienced nature guides. You can read Matt Preston´s article recounting his experiences in one of Eco Cameron ´s day tours for a full insight into the beauty of this location.

And if you do visit this majestic destination, please try to enjoy its beauty with the reverence that it deserves and needs.

The price of fun and games in Ibiza

If we were to play a game of associations and I gave you the word ¨Ibiza¨ it´d probably immediately lead you to thinking about words like ¨party¨ and ¨chill out¨. I´d be the same, particularly if I rewind some 30 years and bring back those raving and memorable five days we happy eighties adolescents spent in the island, celebrating the end of high school. Even without  recalling the parties and the fun, I´d be hard pressed to establish an immediate link between the rustic beauty and wild party environment of this fine island  with the words ¨conservation¨and ¨biodiversity¨.

cafe del mar ibiza - spain

But let me tell you why Ibiza is more than sand and fun.

On the 4th of December 1999, Ibiza officially joined UNESCO´s World Heritage collection, an award that recognised the importance the biodiversity and culture of the island have played in the history of the Mediterranean sea and its people.  A number of Ibiza´s sites were included in the UNESCO World Heritage list like:

The acropolis of Dalt Vila (the old town of Eivissa), a treasure of all the cultures that have inhabited the island, from the very first settlers to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors, up to the Christian conquest led by the King of Aragón in the 13th century.

Eivissa – Old Ibiza Town, Ibiza

The underwater posidonia meadows, source of the rich marine biodiversity of the Pitiusas Islands. Posidonia are the source of the beauty and transparency of the waters of the Pitiusan Sea and as such the great biodiversity in the waters of Ibiza and Formentera directly depend on their strength and vitality:

Posidonia. El Dado, Ibiza
The Phoenician settlement of Sa Caleta:

Illa de sa Caleta

The Punic necropolis Puig des Molins, which contain the vestiges of the first settlements on the islands:

Ibiza y Puig des Molins

and Las Salinas, in the southern tip of the island, where human-induced activity has formed wetland areas of great beauty and ecological interest:

Las salinas-Ibiza_Spain

The threats

This mediterranean island paradise, however, is now paying the consequences of a massive influx of raging tourists and the rapid growth of urbanised areas over the last few decades. The rapid transition from a farming economy capable of comfortably feeding over 100,000 residents to one that relies mainly on the arrival of more than 2 million tourists annually has had a tremendous impact on the island’s environment.

stradina di Dalt Villa Eibissa Ibiza

This massive flow of tourists in a short period of time exceeds the capacity of the island’s environment, and has generated a huge demand for land, water and energy, while producing an increasing volume of wastes.

Flugtag Ibiza_9

Red Bull Flugtag Ibiza

Water shortage and pollution

With only an average of 46 days of rain each year and  the single river in Ibiza having ceased to flow long ago, the island is far from fresh water rich. Historically, residents have found various ways to compensate for the perpetual lack of water, like building houses with water catchment facilities incorporated into the ground and relying on the use of desalination plants. Water conservation has always been an integral part of their lives.

However, the escalating water demand from mass tourism in the last decades has led to depleted and polluted aquifers and to a growing dependency on desalination plants, that contaminate coastal waters and contribute strongly to Ibiza’s soaring energy demand.

Endangered biodiversity

Most of Ibiza’s important habitats are coastal or marine areas, threatened by mass construction and other activities connected to mass tourism.  Protection programs have not succeeded in natural parks like Ses Salines Park and marine habitats of key international importance like the Posidonia meadows  are currently threatened by navigation and by infrastructure projects.

Ibiza, Eivissa, Islas Baleares. Ubicación de fácil acceso desde las promociones

Increased energy use and waste generation

Energy consumption in Ibiza has risen almost 70% over the last decade. The increased demand for transport along the 571 km 2 of the island has translated into higher  fuel usage and consequent pollution of the environment.  Air traffic has become a main concern and will continue to be a priority for environmentalists as the plans to enlarge the existing airport to expand its capacity are put into action.

A project to expand the facilities of the existing port in the city of Ibiza was also approved in 2009 by the Spanish government even at the serious risk of damaging the World Heritage Posidonia meadows. A UNESCO mission that assessed the potential impact of this development concluded that the scale of the project is “beyond acceptable limits” and recommended “to re-examine alternative options for port development and select those which are more rational and involving limited expansion”.

In the meantime, alternative forms of energy like solar energy remain almost untapped.

Dalt Villa Ibiza Eibissa
Sewage plants are also a serious problem. During the tourist season the existing facilities cannot cope with sewage discharge, which ends up being dumped into the sea.

As expected, the volume of household waste is also increasing. Selective collection and recycling currently represents a small fraction of total waste produced (some 6.6% and 5.4% in 2008). A new separation facility is expected to cut by half the amount of rubbish dumped in the landfill once it comes into operation, but further measures are required to encourage waste reduction and recycling, and to improve collection services.

The Greenheart Travel’s volunteer program

If Ibiza is in your bucket list but don´t want to be part of the crowds that contribute to the issues we have discussed above, then perhaps the Greenheart travel´s volunteer program is for you. You can visit their website to obtain more information but this unique travel group gathers dedicated activists concerned about the environmental damage heavy tourism has on the island and sends them on their way to La casita verde. Volunteers spend a minimum of two weeks in this working farm supporting Greenheart projects in ecological research, beach cleaning and environmental education programs.

la casita verde

The project is open from March 15 through September 15 and prices vary from $990 for two weeks to $1,930 for 6 weeks and include:

Accommodation in rustic on-site housing
3 vegetarian meals per day
Emergency medical insurance for the duration of your program
Arrival transfer service from Ibiza airport
Project supervisor and emergency staff available 24/7
Orientation pre-departure and upon arrival

Volunteer Activities:

Maintain and improve the farm facilities
Install alternative energy systems
Promote environmental awareness among visitors
Cook for visiting groups
Permaculture farming
Assist with Sunday community visits/meals
Requirements

If the program is not for you but you still want to visit the island, please be a wise and sympathetic traveller and help us retain the cultural and environmental richness of this Mediterranean paradise.

Exploring Medieval Ibiza

Ibiza

Cala Tarida Port d'es torrents Ibiza

Is Tuscany really all that green?

The Tuscan countryside is the type of landscape most people´s dreams are made of. Undulating green hills,  century-old towers and narrow cobblestone paved villages,  sunflower fields, traditional cuisine –  ingredients that have made Tuscany the prestigious tourist destination that has been since the late nineteenth century.

Fields of gold - Tuscany, Italy

Many tourists today, in selecting their holiday location, add another factor to the equation, a factor that a decade ago was highly neglected – the environment. This is certainly good news but the sad truth is that the majority of travellers are not aware of the impact their very presence has on the chosen destination. If we continue exposing our planet to the effects of mass tourism and to the effects of a holiday-maker that bear no respect for the local ecosystem most destinations will not be able to sustain such pressures.

Italy presents some clear examples of how  intrusive tourism can negatively affect a destination, Venice being the most obvious of all. In this world heritage site, the effects of ¨touristification¨ are now nearly irreversible with approximately 20 million annual arrivals having to be supported by a local population of  60,000 people.  As Henry James complained already more than a century ago: “though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” For decades, conservationists have warned about the impact of mass tourism in the city. Apart from the obvious environmental effects like water pollution, excessive wastage, destruction of artistic heritage, tourists in large numbers are also driving up real estate prices as palazzi get bought up and converted into tourist accommodation. Native Venetians are driven to the mainland and the city has become a museum that caters to every tourist´s whims.

The richness in Venetian color and subtle shifts of hue

San Gimignano, in Tuscany, is another example – a  stunningly well-preserved walled medieval town that is home to only 7,000 residents now having to cater for 3 million visitors each year.

SAN GIMIGNANO (14 towers up to 51 m. height)

If efforts to create a sustainable tourist industry are to be successful, there needs to be a two-way street, particularly in high-tourist traffic areas like Italy.  Tourists need to learn to be as non-intrussive as possible, yes, that´s a given, and education plays a crucial role here. But local entities have to commit to support and implement environmental practices as well. Investigative journalism has revealed that most of the recyclable items and trash in Rome, for example, ended up in the same place. Sewage treatment plants have only begun to spring up around Milan in the past decade or so – previously, it simply was flushed into the river Po. There needs to be serious regulations put in place that prevent greenwashing, a practice initially coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay regarding the hotel industry’s practice of placing placards in each room promoting reuse of towels ostensibly to “save the environment.” As he pointed out,  hotels invested more money in promoting their green label rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices.

That aside, the tourism industry in Italy has invested a significant effort to protect the resources of a country where visitor spending accounts for a whole lot of the nation’s income. Rural Tuscany is regularly credited with leading the charge for sustainable tourism and many hotels in Florence, Siena, and other Tuscan cities, as well as higher-end agriturismi in the countryside, have implemented standard green practices. Some properties have used only natural materials in the restoration, others have chosen sustainable power to run the house, some recycle rain water, others have chosen building materials and methods that reduce power usage in winter like floor heating. Some owners keep an organic garden at the house (with all that entails, like avoiding transportation and petrol costs), others use strictly natural cleaning products on the premises. But generally, most of them comply with standard green practices like reusing towels and bed sheets, installing low-flow toilets, providing guest room recycler baskets/bins for newspaper, white paper, glass products, aluminum cans, cardboard, and plastics and using earth-friendly detergents.  The food offered in most restaurants in central Italy generally comes directly from local farms thus sparing you from food additives and other added unpleasantness. Towns and provinces have been pushing for more intercity cycling paths to connect tourist sites.

A Tuscany delight

More could certainly be done to protect this privileged part of the world. For instance, there is no doubt that most travelling families with luggage will need a car to get around the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside – but to get a perspective of the effect their movement will have on the region, think about the 14 million tourists that visit Tuscany every year, divide that number by an average of four passengers for cars and you have nearly four times more the number of cars on the roads of Tuscany. If using public transport is not  an option for you and your family, there are other things you can do like reusing towels, cycling, discarding trash and recyclables in the appropriate white and blue bins around the region, and eating locally grown produce. And don’t shy away from Central Italy’s tap water; it’s very good.

One thing seems to be true though – finding information on green agriturismi is not an easy task. You can start with booking sites like http://en.agriturismo.com  and http://www.farmholidaystuscany.com but you´d have to trust their green claims. I would recommend you visit Pure and Authentic Holiday Rentals as the writers spent a few months travelling around Italy meeting Italian owners of holiday accommodation who are sensitive to ecology. And once you have the chance to get there, remember to be a sympathetic tourist and respect the natural and cultural treasure that is Tuscany.

Bambina a Siena

Should we not leave the final Antarctic frontier alone?

Lake Vostok has yet to gain popularity as a travel destination. Blame it on the truly intolerable average temperatures -80°C or on the savage polar winds, or even on the fact that most of us have never heard of it, Lake Vostok remains possibly one of the only unexplored places on earth.

Secrets of the Ice Ages

In fact, it was only in 1993, after decades’ worth of seismic studies, radar surveys and satellite imaging, that a team of Russian and British scientists confirmed the existence of this 30 million year old lake. Sitting under a 4000 metre layer of icy Antarctic surface, Lake Vostok has proven to be almost impenetrable until last week, when a team of Russian scientists obtained the first sample of water from the depths of the  evasive lake.

 

Scientists are ecstatic – they rarely get their hands in microbes that have been in evolutionary isolation. The pristine waters of Lake Vostok harbour extreme organisms unchanged since prehistory that could very well parallel some of those thought to exist in other parts of our solar system,  A truly unique test tube of life from a primordial era.

Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok, © M. Studinger, 2001

So, what´s the problem?

Namely, contamination of the most pristine water on earth as a result of the application of Russian anti-freezing substances used to prevent the bore hole from refreezing during the drilling process.

The United States National Research Council takes the position that it can be and should be assumed that microbial life exists in Lake Vostok and that after such a long period of isolation, any life forms in the lake require strict protection. But Russian scientists wanted to reach the lake at all costs and started employing Freon and kerosene in their initial drilling techniques to lubricate the borehole and prevent it from collapsing and freezing over.  Approximately 54 tones of these chemicals have already been used on the ice above Lake Vostok.

No one seems to be able to convince Russia to stop drilling until such time when cleaner technologies like hot-water drilling are available. Though the Russians claim to have improved their operations, they continue to use the same borehole, which has already been contaminated. Environmentalist groups argue that this manner of drilling endangers Lake Vostok itself and also other sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica believed to be inter-linked with Lake Vostok.

On the 14th of April 2008, the Antarctic Southern and Ocean Coalition, a global coalition of environmental NGOs, wrote the following petition to the Russian authorities:

In this International Polar Year 2007-08, where so much important research is being done that will help humankind understand the risks posed by human-induced climate change to the whole earth, ASOC urges Russia, through the Duma, to re-consider its present plan to penetrate sub-glacial Lake Vostok. It would be far preferable to join with other countries to penetrate a smaller and more isolated lake, before re-examining whether penetration of Lake Vostok is environmentally defensible. If we are wise, the Lake
will be allowed to reveal its secrets in due course.

Granted – scientific advancement needs to be supported and encouraged as much as possible, but should we not learn to be patient and respect what´s been hidden from us for millions of years? Should we not learn our place in this planet once and for all and stop subjectting the environment to our whims constantly?

My impressions, you might differ…

 

The day the world did not end – Milford Sound

Waiting in Te Anau

Waiting in Te Anau

On the 21st of December 2012, precisely on the day the Mayans predicted the world would end, we walked off our accommodation in Te Anau, Southern New Zealand, at 7 am in the morning to find a completely desolate town. It was a beautiful, crisp morning but there was no one in sight. For a moment, we could not help but wonder: was my sweet little daughter right? She insisted we should not be in a remote mountainous location in Southern New Zealand on that day because if the world truly came to a stand still we would have no way to connect with the rest of the inhabitants of this doomed planet and it will be impossible to get back to Australia? No way, the Mayan apocalypse was just the dawn of an era for them, it had nothing to do with the rest of us. And yet there were no cars, no noises, no life.

We were supposed to be picked up by the local bus to drive us to Milford Sound at 7 am. It was 7.15 and the bus was nowhere to be seen. We looked at each other in disbelief. 7.20 – nothing. Ok, now, this is too creepy. 7.25 and in the distance an object is moving. It slowly approaches us, and yes, it does look like our transport.

Phwww, the world as we know it seems to keep on turning (more or less).

A smiley man in his fifties, white hair, white moustache, big blue eyes, harsh skin gets off the driver´s seat, comes towards us, shakes our hand and I say, ¨I thought you´d forgotten us¨, to which he replies, ¨nahhh¨. He smiles, asks us to jump on board and starts driving at what seemed to be a vertiginous speed. Well, we thought,  if the Mayans did not put an end to us, this lovely New Zealander very well might.

Robert drove through 119 kms of some of the most stunning scenery I have seen in this country, and possibly in the entire planet. The landscape in the Fiordland National Park intensifies as you get closer to the legendary Homer Tunnel and steep mountain faces covered with thick vegetation edge the road. Sadly, we did not have enough time to savour the  unspoiled landscape of this precious World Heritage Area – Robert had a goal in mind, and that was to get us to Milford Sound before all the tourist buses from Queenstown arrived, but we did appreciate the majestic beauty of the Mirror Lake:

Mirror Lakes, New Zealand

and the superb, organic elegance of the peaks around us:

From Te Anau to Milford Sound

From Te Anau to Milford Sound

until reaching the Homer Tunel, the 1.2km long road tunnel opened in 1954 to link Milford Sound to Te Anau and Queenstown. This unforgetable experience suddenly emerges before you, a simple dug out hole leading  onto a single-lane road that runs for 1270 m in near complete darkness. Not the place for someone who suffers from claustrophobia.
Clearing snow at the Homer Tunnel

But believe me, driving through the Homer tunel is worth the trauma. As soon as you leave the guts of the Darran mountain range, you regain your breath and open your eyes, the  Cleddau river valley surprises you with impossibly vertical peaks drizzled with capricious, vanishing waterfalls.

Day 283 // Hairpin

milford sound 2

The rest can barely be justly described with words, images do a much better job but still fall short.

Camera NZ 256

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

The outstanding job that mother nature did in Milford Sound does not need any further recommendations. Every single second you spend in this privileged part of the world will have you jaw-dropping. But apart from the natural sceenery, there was one other thing that stood up for us in Milford Sound – the people.

Robert got us to the passenger terminal in time for our Milford boat experience. He helped us with our backpacks, and chatted to us about his life as a fisherman and his many trips to the other well-known Sound, the Doubtful Sound (but that´s another story I need to tell). We fell somewhat sad leaving this ruggedly sweet southerner behind but walked into the terminal to get our tickets sorted out. And then, the magic of the Milford community began unfolding. A lovely Malaysian young man helped us with everything and in no time, we were ready to jump on board. We talked to him and asked him about living in the sound, what life  was like here, in such a remote part of the world, where there is barely any Internet and mobile phone connectivity. He explained he had been here for nearly four years and loved every single minute of it and that what made it such a remarkable place to be was its beauty but above all else, its community – the Milford Sound community of young travellers that choose to remain isolated from the rest of us and enjoy each other, the visitors and nature for a few years of their lives.


Camera NZ 238

After navigating through the waters of the sound for three hours we made our way to theMilford Sound lodge and there, the magic continued. We were greeted by a smiley swedish young man who sorted all our accomodations details very merrily and efficiently and, in finding out we were from Barcelona he mentioned that two of the lodge´s employees were also from the peninsula. After having a rest in our room, we went back to the reception only to find Paco and Nicolás, two very helpful, jovial spaniards. They explained they had been in Milford for quite a number of seasons already and that even if they chose to move elsewhere, they always seemed to find their way back to this outstanding place. And somehow, and despite the aparent loneliness of this remote spot in this remote country, we understood what they meant.

Milford offers to these young travellers a perfect combination of a stress-free, simple life; a privileged work environment; contact with people from around the world who arrive to the Sound every day happy to be there; a community that choses to leave everything behind and experience what this far-flung, untarnished world has to offer; and above all, a superb display by mother nature when they open their eyes every single day.

Milford Sound Lodge Pano

Size does not matter in New Zealand

No, size did not seem to matter to the lovely New Zealanders we came across in our last visit to this majestic country. Don´t get me wrong, I´m all for getting rid of restrictions of any sort but let´s face it, when we are talking distances (both  horizontal and vertical), size (or length or height) does become an important factor and should indeed be taken into account.

But that doesn´t seem to be the case in New  Zealand. When you walk into any of the many information centres strategically located in the tourist  hot spots and you try asking the very helpful members of staff to give you an indication of the level of difficulty of this or that hike, bike ride, mountain climb, excursion – whatever physical activity you are planning for the day – you´ll most probably be met with a ¨no worries, that´s easy, we did it the other day and it was fine!¨ or ¨nahhh, you don´t need a map, mate, it´s well indicated¨. And so you are on your merry way full of confidence thinking that a mountain that starts its ascend after the second row of houses of a town like Queenstown cannot be too difficult to climb. You are well prepared, fancy mountain boots on, a couple of bottles of water to carry you all the way, sunblock, energy bars, sandwiches, apples and pears. And off you go.

You do notice that you are walking on possibly one of the steepest inclines you have ever walked as soon as you lose sight of  the lake (2o metres after leaving the information office) but that doesn´t face you, because you are full of energy and trust in the expert at the counter who just told you that this was a walk in the park. But somehow, 10 minutes in and you can no longer find the extremely well signalled path. Funny, it´s hard to miss those plastic orange triangles placed on a tree every now and then! Ah! You think you are back on track and start climbing on what seems to be a vertical cliff, grabbing on tree roots and thinking that if the whole walk is going to be like this, you best turn back right now and start figuring out some alternative way to make your life difficult. You get yourself out of that muddle, find the track and begin to climb.

Well, that was our first hour. By the time we got to the first and only rest place/water fountain, my husband was internally combusting, some sort of vapour exuding from his clothes. Bizarre. But, it´s all good. We are pumped, we are in New Zealand and Ben Lomond peak will not resist us.  The ascend begins again, we continue through a dark, misty (and of course steep , as steep as they come) forest. Still pumped because it is peaceful and extremely beautiful, exactly what we wanted. The fancy mountain boots start to hurt a little but that´s fine too.  We finally come to a clearing and continue our journey uphill, always uphill, without being able to see where the heck we are going because of the thick fog. We can´t see where Ben Lomond is, we can´t see the spectacular colours of Lake Wakatipu either. The fog is omnipresent. But that´s fine too.

So, we stopped probably about 40 metres from the peak and made the decision to give up.

Yes, we gave up, I publicly admit it (I could have not said anything and the whole world will think we made it to the top). While we were in the middle of nowhere trying to come to terms with our situation, a young topless specimen walked (at a very fast pace) past us, greeted us condescendingly and continued his speedy journey.  We saw him later running down the mountain. That´s when we realised that it´s all a matter of perspective, really. For the locals, this is indeed, a walk in the park, your average Sunday family excursion.And so, to cut a long story short. After four hours walk amidst the fog, we get to the saddle. A lovely American traveller shares the fact that it doesn´t get any better from here on. Naahhh, it can´t be that bad, after all, it was meant to be an easy walk! Well, my friends, our American climber was absolutely right. It did get a lot worse, and frustratingly dangerous. We wanted to make it badly. I wanted to make it badly, I´m very competitive with myself. But after nearly five hours climbing non-stop, reality hit me – this is not an easy walk, you are not prepared for this, you just had a tuna sandwich on the thickest loaf of bread you could find, which is making you extremely thirsty and almost have no water left (smart move), but most importantly, you have no clue how much more there is to climb in this rocky, dangerous terrain.

We went to the same ladies in the information office later during our trip to get details on the Queenstown hill walk and we were told exactly the same, ¨easy as¨! Well, I challenge any of you to do just the first 100 metres of that walk!  Or try the supposedly easy bike ride from Queenstown to Arrowtown, 25 kms away, a lovely ride on tortuous gravel paths meandering along rivers and some of the worst hills ever seen, so impossible I couldn´t even push the bike on foot.

But you know what? It´s all worth it, the blisters, the thirst, the sweat and the pain because it truly is one of the most stunning destinations you could wish for. And you know what´s best? Despite the seemingly different perspectives in life, when you cross paths with a New Zealander, he or she will look you in the eyes and will make a conscious effort to ask you : Hello, how are you? And if time permits, there will be more questions, more interest, more conversation, and a hand shake. I do love that about New Zealand.

Bhutan’s intimacy with nature and all things happy

Until recently, there were hardly any mentions of Bhutan in the media. No surprises there – Bhutan is a simple, peace-loving nation of farmers wedged in between India and China that just wants to be left alone in their path towards a sustainable and happy future – not the kind of sensationalist story media outlets tend to go for.

The size of Switzerland and with a population of just over 1 million, Bhutan is the bastion of Vajaryana Buddhism, one of the most profound schools of teachings in the Buddhist world, which encourages practitioners to attain pure enlightenment in a single lifetime. The main goal of a Vajaryana devotee is happiness. As such, it is the responsibility of the Monarch of the country and the Buddhist priesthood to provide an environment that ensures and develops people´s happiness.

Can you imagine that? Probably not, particularly if you come from a Southern European country, like me. :)

bhutan

Two ¨newsworthy tems¨ have recently made it to the news, though.

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development. Having refused to acknowledge and accept GDP as the only measure of progress for decades, Bhutan has championed a new, holistic  approach to development – one which measures prosperity through the principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.

Until recently, most countries just had a good laugh at this proposal. But these days, in view of the obvious collapsing financial systems, rapid environmental degradation, increasing inequality, corruption, wars and general destruction of our planet… Bhutan´s approach is starting to make a lot more sense to most.

So when the world leaders met in Doha last November, Bhutan´s blatant warning caused a few spines to shudder:  the world is on an environmental and economical suicide path and unless a holistic approach to development is put in place, one that takes the welfare of its population and its environment seriously, the future for us is quite gloomy.

These words finally caused leaders to react and as we speak, a UN panel is considering ways to replicate Bhutan’s GNH model across the globe. Bhutan has proven that this simple approach works – in the ast 20 years the kingdom has doubled life expectancy, enrolled almost 100% of its children in primary school and overhauled its infrastructure.

Te invito a merendar

The royal family have guided the country into a democracy and voluntarily relinquished their monarchical role to a more ceremonial one so that the people of the country could aspire to govern as well. They are directly involved in ensuring the people of Bhutan are happy and well cared for, their simplicity being quite exemplary. They often travel to the remote regions to find out what are the people´s needs, setting up foundations to support those with specific problems.

Since the end of 2009, Bhutan has also been trialling a new approach to education. Its Green Schools for Green Bhutan program is part of the country’s attempt to integrate principles of its revolutionary GNH model into all areas of public policy. Alongside maths and science, children are taught basic agricultural techniques and environmental protection. A new national waste management program ensures that every piece of material used at the school is recycled. The infusion of GNH into education has also meant daily meditation sessions and soothing traditional music replacing the sound of the school bell.

Intimacy human-nature

Bhutan is also being held up as an example of a developing country that has put environmental conservation and sustainability at the heart of its political agenda. Having pledged to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its landmass will remain under forest cover, Bhutan has banned export logging and has even implemented a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from its roads.

Himalayas

Only recently, the Buddhist Kingdom has reported is putting in place the Bhutan Organic Certification System (BOCS) in order to ensure that vegetables are 100 percent organic. Authorities are planning on banning the sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers. Smallholders are trying to develop new techniques to grow more produce like SRI or ”Sustainable root intensification”, which  carefully regulates the amount of water that crops need and the age at which seedlings are planted out. They also plan to increase the amount of irrigated land and use traditional varieties of crops which do not require inputs and have pest resistance.

“We believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world”, says Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s minister of education, who has become one of the most eloquent spokespeople for GNH.

Bhutan - where Gross National Happiness is most Important

But plans are plans and no matter how well-meaning, very often they´ll differ substantially from the reality farmers face.  And so a few exceptionally warm years and erratic weather has recently left many farmers doubtful they can do without chemicals. In Paro, a largely farming district in south-west Bhutan, farmers are already struggling to grow enough to feed their families and local government officials say they are having to distribute fertiliser and pesticides in larger quantities to help people grow more.

“Going organic will take time,” said agriculture and forests minister Pema Gyamtsho. “We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop.”

Tourism

Let´s remember that this Himalayan kingdom had no paved roads until the 1960s, was off-limits to foreigners until 1974, and launched television only in 1999. To secure this purity, the Government of Bhutan has restricted the entry of tourists and imposed a  minimum daily package for tourists planning to travel there. This is how it works:

All travel must be booked through a Bhutanese tour operator or international partner.  The minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of 3 persons or more is as follows:
USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.
USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.

Table For Two

These rates are applicable per tourist per night in Bhutan and include:

  • A minimum of 3 star accommodation (4 & 5 star may require an additional premium).
  • All meals
  • A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay
  • All internal transport (excluding internal flights)
  • Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
  • All internal taxes and charges
  • A sustainable tourism Royalty of $65. This Royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure.

BHUTAN:THE LAST SHANGRI LA

Entering the country was difficult prior to its opening the doors to the outside world, as it was only accessible by foot from two main entry points: the Northern route was through Tibet, crossing high mountain passes that were inaccessible throughout the winters and the Southern route through the plains of Assam and West Bengal. The high, frozen passes in the North and the dense, jungles in the South made it extremely difficult to enter the country.

The country is now much more accessible and there are now a network roads entering and traversing the country, as well as one international and multiple domestic airports.

Today the main roads entering the country are through Phuentsholing in the south, linking Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal, through the border towns of Gelephu, in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar, in the east, that link with the Indian state of Assam.

If you travel by air you will land in the Paro International Airport,  situated at a height of 2,225 m (7300 ft) above sea level. Currently,  Drukair is the only airline operating flights into and around the country from Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, Bodh Gaya, Guwahati, Dacca, Kathmandu and Singapore.

There are several travel agencies and adventure travel companies that specialise in Bhutan, and can help you organise your tickets on Druk Air and remove all the hassles of the booking process.

In Australia: Peregrine Adventures, World Expeditions  

In France: Explorator 

In Germany Hauser Exkursionen 

In Switzerland Horizons Nouveaux 

In the UK: Abercombie & Kent,Exodus, Explore Worldwide,Himalayan Kingdoms  

In the USA and Canada: Above the Clouds, Adventure Center, Asian Pacific Adventures, Bhutan Travel,

Geographic Expeditions, Journeys International 

For more information on how to reach Bhutan and the various requirements expected of travellers, visit Tourism Bhutan´s site.

As inconvenient and costly as it may seem to you and me, it makes sense to protect this pristine land and ensure that its children continue having a safe and happy environment to boast about in years to come.

Is Iran back in the tourist map?

ben affleck in iran

Ben Affleck reminded us yesterday that Iran exists with the dramatisation of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran.

The Canadians are not happy nor are the Iranians. The former have been stripped of the chance to tell and boast about a seriously good story, the latter, well, the whole world is reminded once again who the bad guys are.

Iran has not been getting any good press for decades now. Deservedly so? I really don´t want to make that judgement right now. What I want, instead, is to leave politics, religion and extremism behind (as if one could, I hear you saying…) and have a fair look at a country renown for the hospitality of its people, a country rich in history and tradition,  stunningly beautiful women and centuries old treasures.

Iran´s growing tourism industry

The U.N. World Tourism Organisation reported that  from 2004 to 2010, the annual increase in tourists visiting foreign countries was 3.2 percent. Iran, on the other hand, presented  a growing trend with figures over the same period showing tourism in this country grew at a much faster clip — 12.7 percent. The number of foreign tourists in Iran reached 3 million in 2011, contributing more than $2 billion to the national economy, according to Iranian data. Tour operators in Iran confirm the number sore last year.

But who are these foreign visitors? Most of us will probably be hard pressed to find someone amongst our circle of friends who had visited Iran. The restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities deter most Western tourists who prefer destinations where alcohol is easily accessible and women can enjoy the sun without having to worry about Islamic modesty. However, a small share of tourists to the country (approximately 10% of the total number of visitors) are attracted by the country’s  seemingly countless ancient sites and its reputation for hospitality and, find their way into Iran from North America (more than 1,000 Americans visited Iran as tourists last year, according to the Iranian Tour Operators Association) and the European Union including Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Belgium, and China.

Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organisation has plans to further expand tourism in the areas of eco tourism, coastlines, restoration of historical relics, handicraft township and health tourism, particularly in the country´s  most popular tourist destinations of Esfahan, Mashhad, Qom, Persepolis and Shiraz.  Besides, to further the growth in this industry and to encourage domestic and foreign direct investment in this sector, the 50 per cent tax exemption previously granted to tourism enterprises has been extended to include five-star hotels.

If you are one of those inclined to explore the unexplored, I suggest you browse Irpedia, one of Iran´s most complete resources for foreign travellers. I was once tempted, many, many years ago, when I was only 19, to visit this incredible place, but had a change of heart after visiting the Iranian embassy in Madrid, and had to undergo a fairly intimidating interrogation by what seemed to be a group of very intimidating men. I thought I´d leave Iran for a next time. Perhaps the time is approaching…

Iran - Esfehan - 33 pol - شهر آقا مسیح
Esfehan – 33 pol
Fateme Masumeh shrine and Feiziyah madrasa
Fateme Masumeh shrine and Feiziyah madrasa, Qom
In the mystic morning light
Fatimah al-Ma’sūmah in Qom, Iran
Arg-e Bam , Iran (Citadel of Bam, Unesco world heritage)
Arg-e Bam , Iran (Citadel of Bam, Unesco world heritage)
Masjed-e Vakil
Masjed-e Vakil, Shiraz
Tehran
Tehran
Persepolis 7- Shiraz - Iran | تخت جمشید - شیراز - ایران [Explored]
Persepolis 7- Shiraz
Iran-Esfahan
Esfahan market
Hamhen, Pirzan Kolun and Mehrchal peaks from Sarakchal mountains
Hamhen, Pirzan Kolun and Mehrchal peaks from Sarakchal mountains
area 4 free people
Imam Reza, Masshad, Iran
Sabalan
Sabalan volcano, Northwestern Iran