Adventure Travel 2006
Adventure Travel 2006: The Best Trips: East
Text by Bonnie Tsui Photograph by Per-Andre Hoffman/Look
||SAILORS TAKE DELIGHT: A traditional Chinese junk sails the Vietnamese coastline.
Adventure Travel: Middle East Asia
Difficulty: Trips are rated from 1(easy) to 5 (difficult)
DIY Potential: Use this itinerary as inspiration for planning a do-it-yourself trip
First Ever: Exploratory trips, undiscovered places
Kayaking Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam >>
Climbing the Karakoram Range, Pakistan >>
Rafting the Mekong River, China >>
Jungle-Hiking Southern India >>
Trekking with Kazakh Eagle Hunters, Mongolia >>
Biking from the Dead Sea to Red Sea, Jordan >>
Exploring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan >>
Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: Explorers' Corner (www.explorerscorner.com) Editor's Pick
Length: 16 days
Mick O'Shea has logged first kayaking descents down 18 different rivers in Southeast Asia, including a first ever full kayaking exploration of the Mekong River from source to sea. Next September he leads a brand-new Explorers' Corner trip to Ha Long Bay, the Xépian wetlands, and the Mekong River in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. "Needless to say, Mick knows his way around Indochina," says Explorers' Corner owner Olaf Malver. "We asked him to create an itinerary that includes his favorite paddling locations in one diverse trip, and he came back with a proposal that simply blew us away."
O'Shea's 16-day excursion begins with the exotic lagoons and islets of UNESCO World Heritage site Ha Long Bay before visiting Laos's Louangphrabang: an unspoiled French colonial city with teakwood houses and rows of ancient Buddhist temples. Paddlers then swap boats for elephants to enter the freshwater marshes of the Xépian wetlands and commence a three-day journey down the Mekong River deep into Cambodia. The Mekong carries kayakers past Khone Falls, the mightiest cascade in Southeast Asia, and into one of few remaining habitats of the rare Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin, and the itinerary finishes with a paddle into the Angkor Wat temple complex—a first descent of its own sort. "As far as we know, we will be the first group ever to visit this incredible sight by kayak," says Malver.
Pick This If: You're seeking an under-the-radar tour of Southeast Asia led by its preeminent modern-day explorer.
Seeking Out Blanks on the Map
Pakistan 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.net)
Length: 33 days
Next summer, after a five-year hiatus, World Expeditions returns to Pakistan with a journey deep inside the Karakoram Range to 23,064-foot (7,030-meter) Spantik. "Only about a hundred people have ever summited Spantik," says World Expeditions' Brad Atwal. "It's one of the few blank spots left on the globe." Big-mountain experience is a must; expedition members will participate in all aspects of setting the route and planning a summit bid. After a three-day approach and several days of acclimatizing, two guides and 20 Pakistani high-altitude porters will lead climbers up the mountain, breaking trail up steep snow slopes to the summit. There, tremendous panoramas of the surrounding peaks and glaciers await—360-degree views take in the rugged, unexplored region where two of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, the Karakoram and Himalaya, collide.
The World Expeditions trip will be led by British mountaineer Simon Yates, climbing partner of Joe Simpson in the best-selling book Touching the Void. For inspiration, ask him about his first ascents in Patagonia, his climbs up Pakistan's other peaks, and his famously harrowing experience on the west face of Peru's Siula Grande. "Participants will feel like true explorers, which is tough to do in today's world," says Atwal. "This is a perceived off-limits destination with a challenging objective in a part of Pakistan that few have explored before."
Pick This If: You've watched your Touching the Void DVD more than five times.
Mekong River First Rafting Descent
China 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: Mountain Travel Sobek (www.mtsobek.com)
Length: 15 days
Nearly half of the fabled Mekong's 2,700-plus miles (4,345 kilometers) flow through China, and no commercial rafting company has yet guided clients down any of them. Next year, Mountain Travel Sobek will be first, floating the upper Mekong as part of their continuing work with the Nature Conservancy to help locals create sustainable industries. Crowned by glacier-covered mountains, the high-walled gorge of the upper Mekong is practically uncharted—and a lack of shoreline and fast-running, cold-water rapids adds to the Class IVV challenge.
The run begins in China's Yunnan province, primarily Tibetan in history and tradition, and a vivid cultural backdrop is evident from the start: A Buddhist monastery overlooks the put-in at the village of Xidan, where prayer flags flutter over the waters. Downstream, paddlers will mix river camping with village stays in traditional rammed-earth homes. The rafting trip culminates with a passage through Moon Gorge, a narrow 50-foot-wide (15-meter) chasm full of Class IIIIV rapids lined by steep walls and towering mountains above. But the physical adventure, says guide Jim Norton, is just a slice of the big-picture objective: to help build a locally owned and run tourism economy that's self-supporting and culturally sensitive. "What we're ultimately trying to do," says Norton, "is make ourselves obsolete."
Pick This If: You crave uncharted white water and a sustainable global economy, too.
Departs: March Song of the South
India 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: Alpine Ascents International (www.alpineascents.com)
Length: 21 days
"In northern India, the major destinations—Taj Mahal, Rajasthan—are all clustered near Delhi," says Gordon Janow, program director for Alpine Ascents International. "But in the south, there aren't huge sites lined up one after the next; they're harder to reach. You might wind up hiking through the jungle to reach the temples." Jungle jaunts are just a part of Alpine Ascents' new 21-day tour of southern India, where the nation's finest Hindu temple architecture lies alongside dense virgin forests that contain some of its most impressive wildlife: elephants, tigers, crested hawk eagles, and more. "It's very Kiplingesque," says Janow. "It's an incredible feeling to get lost in there, where there are no people or buildings and where it's hard to imagine developed life outside."
Moving at a slow pace, you'll cover several hundred miles from the state of Tamil Nadu to Kerala, pausing in small towns to hike through ruins and witness temple ceremonies in which Brahman priests swing flaming candelabra. You'll also trek through the jungles of Periyår Sanctuary, where elephants have worn paths through the wilderness and a 75-foot (23-meter) tower hovers within the blooming canopy, offering views of langurs, water buffalo, wild boars, and the few remaining tigers below. The trip closes with a two-day boat ride down the palm-fringed canals of Kerala and a stay at an exclusive ayurvedic center, where you can rejuvenate with meditation, yoga sessions, and 3,000-year-old traditional herbal treatments.
Pick This If: You'd rather bushwhack than ride a tour bus.
Trekking With Kazakh Eagle Hunter
Mongolia 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: Sierra Club Outings (www.sierraclub.org/outings)
Length: 17 days
Everyone's clamoring to visit Mongolia—the Gobi's Flaming Cliffs, shimmering Lake Hövsgöl—but next summer, Sierra Club Outings plans to go deeper, to the Altai-Sayan Montane Forests eco-region in far western Mongolia. There, they'll explore snow leopard and lynx territory in the Tavan Bogd ("Five Saints") mountain range, where the 14,350-foot (4,374-meter), triple-divide peak of Nairamdal separates Mongolia, China, and Russia, and where local Kazakhs famously continue the traditional sport of hunting with trained eagles.
A support staff of Mongolian interpreters and guides facilitates travel through the region; baggage is transported by shuttle, so you can hike at elevation with only a daypack. Nights are spent camping and visiting with local families in their gers (yurtlike homes) where you'll experience that uniquely flavored (think fizzy, boozy yogurt) emblem of Mongolian hospitality: airag, or fermented mare's milk. As you trek through the undulating terrain of the Tavan Bogd, you'll observe the life of a people living on a true frontier: Wind turbines charge television batteries, and satellite dishes are mounted atop family gers. "In the middle of nowhere, these people are caught between a very old nomadic life and what's going on in the world today," says Kern Hildebrand, veteran Sierra Club Mongolia guide. "We're very excited to spend time with them."
Pick This If: You've caught the Mongolia bug but want to go where others haven't.
Dead Sea to Red Sea by Bike
Jordan 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: Exodus Travels (www.exodus.co.uk)
Length: 9 days
The pink-and-white sandstone landscape of Jordan's Wa¯dı¯ Rum served as headquarters for Lawrence of Arabia and Prince Feisal during the planning stages of their legendary 1917 attack on Al 'Aqabah. Now, an international climbing camp has replaced the guerrillas' canvas tents and, thanks to British outfitter Exodus Travels' new week-long, van-supported cycling tour of Jordan, mountain bikes, not camels, are the preferred mode of transport. Averaging 26 miles (42 kilometer) a day for five days on tarmac and unpaved roads, the Exodus trip is the first to trace the historic trading route from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. "This isn't an area that is widely used as a biking destination," says Exodus' Andrew Appleyard, a trained archaeologist who recently returned from the trip. "And we like that."
Starting in the capital of 'Amma¯n, cyclists wend their way south past carefully restored sixth-century Byzantine mosaics and 2,631-foot (802-meter) Mount Nebo, believed to be Moses' burial site, before cruising down to the Dead Sea. After pausing for a dip in the sea's buoyant waters, the tour continues along its eastern shore toward the startling canyon city of Petra, the Arab capital in Hellenistic and Roman times that was more recently featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Often called the eighth wonder of the world, Petra was carved directly from rusty red-and-yellow sandstone and boasts intricate houses, tombs, and a centerpiece treasury. From there, the journey heads south toward Al 'Aqabah and, after a long day of biking to Wa¯dı¯ Rum, ends with a night under the stars in a desert camp flanked by the dry river bed's signature soaring cliffs.
Pick This If: You'd enjoy pedaling in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.
Departs: Year-round, beginning in February
Calling All Stans
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan 1 2 3 4 5
Outfitter: Eco-Expeditions (www.zeco.com)
Length: 18 days
Central Asia's five Stans are home to some of the most legendary mountain ranges on the planet: the glacier-clad Pamirs, the jagged Tian Shan. In 2006, Eco-Expeditions pioneers a new trip to these five former Soviet republics, beginning on the steppes of Kazakhstan and moving west toward the Caspian Sea shoreline in Turkmenistan. "The ethnic groups and cultures that make up these places are incredibly diverse," says Spencer Lee, spokesperson for Eco-Expeditions. "And the whole area is really just now opening up to the West."
Half the thrill of the excursion is witnessing cultural treasures that few Westerners have seen since Marco Polo: in Kyrgyzstan, Saka petroglyphs that date back to the Bronze Age; in Kazakhstan, the Zenkov Cathedral, a wooden masterpiece built entirely without nails; in Tajikistan, early Persian ruins at Bunjikath; in Uzbekistan, the massive Bibi Khanym mosque, crown jewel of the Silk Road trading city of Samarqand; and in Turkmenistan, the brilliantly woven carpets (a regional specialty) in As˛gabat. The other half of the fun? Being among the first to check out the region's untrammeled natural landscapes—hiking to Kyrgyzstan's Ala-Archa Gorge, searching for rare snow leopards along Kazakhstan's Aksu River, and blissing out on unparalleled mountain views in Tajikistan, "the Nepal of the Stans."
Pick This If: You won the Central Asia geography bee but have yet to go there yourself.
Departs: May, September
Explore the world over with our guide to the best in adventure travel for 2006:
East | South | West | North | Space
Pick up the November 2005 issue for great adventure travel ideas, news, and articles by award-winning writers.