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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Asia.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Asia.
The last independent Buddhist mountain kingdom in the Himalayas, Bhutan (Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon) is one of the most remote and tantalizing corners of Asia. Seventy percent of its 18,000 square miles is forested, and the nation treats nature with admirable respect – its king is young and environmentally sensitive, and many of the country’s higher regions remain nearly free of the footprints of man, untouched examples of the fast-disappearing Himalayan environment.
The nine-day trek to Chomolhari, Bhutan’s sacred and highest mountain, at the border with Tibet, offers outsiders a rare opportunity to experience its unspoiled mountain wilderness and varied terrain, not to mention its almost complete lack of other trekkers (Bhutan heavily restricts tourism). Climbing beside terraced farms and verdant rice paddies, through meadows and low forests, travelers venture beyond the tree line into a world of glaciers and rock, where the legendary snow leopard prowls. Campsites are set up in high alpine pastures where yak herders bring their shaggy animals to graze by pristine mountain lakes.
Clinging to a sheer mountain ledge about 3,000 feet above the terraced Paro Valley, Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest, is a destination of treks long and short, and of reverent Buddhist pilgrims. The greatest of all Bhutanese monuments, it was founded in A.D. 747 by a Tibetan missionary venerated as the second Buddha and called Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher). Legend says he landed on this spot from neighboring Tibet astride a flying tiger, bringing the tenets of Buddhism with him. It’s startlingly scenic, with nothing breaking the silence except a waterfall, the call of a raven, the fluttering of the prayer flags, and the chanting of a few monks.
The stone monastery suffered from a major fire in 1998, but it is slowly being restored.
Now that Bhutan has ended its historic isolation from the outside world, its colorful traditional festivals, called tshechus, are the perfect window from which to view its heritage. These festivals traditionally take place in the courtyards of the great dzongs – the fortified monasteries that remain the centers of religion, education, and local government in each district of the kingdom.
They are not staged for the benefit of visitors, who can consider themselves privileged witnesses to these events, which have remained unchanged for centuries.
The springtime celebration in Paro is the country’s best-known annual dance festival. Throngs of joyful Bhutanese townspeople in traditional woven robes gather from all over the valley, while dancers (monks or trained laymen) in magnificent masks and costumes take on the aspects of peaceful or wrathful deities, demons, and animals, reenacting the legends of Himalayan Buddhism in the Dragon Kingdom.
The dances, known as cham, are performed to bring blessings upon all onlookers, be they from across the valley or across the globe, to protect them against misfortune.
Ever since Genghis Khan encouraged his people to live by the sword, not the plow, Mongolians have been nomadic herders, holding to their horse-based culture and leaving vast tracks of ruggedly beautiful countryside virtually untouched over the centuries.
To experience the land and spirit of this fiercely independent but traditionally hospitable nation, which has been autonomous since the 1920s, get on a horse yourself and take a ride through a land that betrays virtually no sign of the modern world. Organized treks head for one of Mongolia’s best-kept secrets, Lake Hovsgal.
A hundred miles long and 12 miles wide, it is one of the deepest and sweetest freshwater lakes in the world. West of Hovsgal lies the Darhat Valley, a huge basin surrounded by rugged mountains on three sides, resembling Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And within miles of the Russian border, visit the summer camp of the Tsaatan, or Reindeer People, an ethnic minority that raises, milks, eats, and rides reindeer.
The horse’s role in Mongolian life is brought into colorful focus during the Naadam Festival, held each July. Herdsmen and women of all ages from all over Mongolia – many on horseback – come to the capital of Ulaanbaatar for two raucous days of socializing and unbridled competition in the age-old sporting events of horse racing, archery, and wrestling.
The equestrian events are the festival’s highlight, held on the rolling, grassy steppe outside the city. The sight and sound of 600 horses charging in a headlong gallop over a 10-mile course is a heart-stopping sensation, and only the celebration that follows – with its open-hearted Mongolian hospitality, drinking, and food – can match it.
Gobi simply means “desert,” and of all the world’s arid lands, this remote region – lying between Siberia to the north and the Tibetan Plateau to the south – has the greatest air of mystery. Stretching for 1,000 miles west to east, the Gobi is divided politically into two sections: half in Mongolia proper and half in the area of northern China called Inner Mongolia. Either side can be visited, but the Mongolian side has a little more romance and several million fewer people.
Contrary to the sterile sameness that the word “desert” may suggest, the Gobi holds many fascinations, and not just paleontological. It is a place of subtle colors that change with the day’s light, of stark skies and vast spaces, an utterly silent landscape punctuated by the occasional ger (yurt), the Mongolians’ round, white, tentlike homes.
These cheerful people, who subsist on the animals they herd, are naturally generous, feeding and feting foreign guests who show up at their door unannounced. Their simple lifestyle continues in quiet, unspoiled isolation, much as it has for thousands of years.
Every year after the bleak winter skies disappear, tens of millions of Japanese flock to the parks and temple gardens in pursuit of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. When a gentle breeze carries snowflake-size pink-and-white petals fluttering to the ground on a spring day, it is easy to understand how the Japanese passion for these ephemeral blossoms is an almost spiritual thing.
In Tokyo, city-dwelling office workers make do with nighttime hanami, sake-drinking parties in the large Ueno Park or along the moat encircling the Imperial Palace. But purists and hanami connoisseurs who aim to get as much as possible out of the one- to two-week-long season head for Yoshino Mountain in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park, not far from Nara and Kyoto, Japan’s first capital cities.
The mountain is virtually covered with tens of thousands of centuries-old white mountain cherry trees divided into groves (called Hitome-Sembon, or One Thousand Trees at a Glance) that, according to their altitude, bloom at different times, usually beginning in early April. Marked pathways, scattered temples, a predominantly Japanese blossom-viewing crowd, and the shops and teahouses in the pleasant town of Yoshino promise an unforgettable experience.
Jet lag can be a wonderful thing. If you find yourself wide awake at 5 A.M. and in the mood for some predawn action, the cavernous wholesale Tsukiji Fish Market seethes with activity, as you would expect of a place that supplies 90 percent of the fish consumed in Tokyo.
Wander this staggering market’s side aisles; you won’t believe some of the things considered edible, much less prized delicacies. In a country where fresh seafood reigns supreme, maguro (tuna) is king: fresh and frozen, torpedo-size tunas are hauled in from the fishing boats alongside the market’s riverside piers or flown in from as far away as Africa.
At any of the lightning-fast auctions that begin the day, as many as 190 tons of tuna can be sold, and one fish alone can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. If you’ve worked up an appetite wandering the 50-acre market and are considering sashimi or sushi for breakfast, no one guarantees fresher fish nor a wider variety than the market’s no-frills sushi bars, such as Sushi Dai. They get high marks for local color too.
You’ve never seen anything like this ultramodern hotel (unless you’ve seen the award-winning Lost in Translation, which was filmed here) occupying the top floors above Tokyo’s busy nightlife district in a futuristic fifty-two-story skyscraper, one of the city’s most dramatic.
The largest guest rooms in Tokyo are equipped with every gadget and infinite amenities, including huge bathrooms, some with superlative views of Mount Fuji. The numerous restaurants offer soaring spaces with unmatched views.
The starkly beautiful Kozue restaurant and the stylish, super-trendy top-floor New York Grill/New York Bar – the latter with two-story windows, an amazing 1,600-bottle wine cellar, an open kitchen, and fabulous original art – have brought an unprecedented level of sophistication to Tokyo. Together, they’re the city’s uncontested power scene. The gym and pool area are housed in a three-story glass-enclosed pyramid, making sunset and the neon-lit evening hours the perfect time to work out.
The gorgeous, understated East-meets-West ambience in every facet of the design captures the trail-blazing essence of Tokyo better than any other city hotel – and that says a lot.
Hailed as a goddess, revered as a sacred mountain and the country’s national symbol, 12,390-foot Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest peak, a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone that’s spellbinding when not shrouded in clouds, and is particularly beautiful when reflected on the mirror-calm surface of Lake Ashi-no.
Famous throughout the world, the dormant volcano has always exuded a strong pull on the Japanese, who believe that to experience goraiko (sunrise) on its summit is one of the most moving of all natural experiences. They also admit that while everyone should climb Fuji-san once, only a fool would climb it twice. Still, judging by the huge number of gung-ho climbers who show up every summer – an impressive number of grandparents in their seventies and older among them – a good many of them must be return contenders.
Six mountain paths, each with ten stations, lead to the summit, but most climbers begin a five- to six-hour climb to the top from the fifth station (8,250 feet), at either Gogome on the north side or Shin-Gogome on the south. The descent is a breeze.
The name Fuji means “fire” in the Ainu language, and in the resort area of Hakone, within the Mount Fuji National Park, intense volcanic activity can be observed from the funicular that passes above the Valley of Great Boiling (or Ojigoku, Big Hell) and its steaming sulfurous gorge.
Public baths tap into searing-hot, mineral-rich onsen (hot springs, which abound throughout Japan) and promise to cure everything from stress to rheumatism to muscles sore from climbing the mountain. Despite the modernization and Westernization of Japanese cities, onsen are a tradition that refuses to die, and on weekends the wonderfully scenic area of Hakone fills with Tokyoites who come for a long, hot soak.
Of the handful of traditional ryokan inns with their own indoor and outdoor onsen, Gôra Kadan, the former summer residence of the Kan-In-No-Miya imperial family, is one of the nicest in the country. The renowned Hakone Open-Air Museum houses sculptures by Henry Moore.
The Japanese talent for reshaping nature is unmatched. Small wonder, then, that the country that has raised ikebana (flower arranging) and garden design to an art form has also transformed this winter festival into a world-famous show where hundreds of mammoth snow and ice sculptures depict such universal forms as Michelangelo’s Pietà and the even more familiar Minnie Mouse.
Ice palaces are large enough for families to walk through, and a host of other fantasy shapes are created from packed snow and shaved ice, for which more than 38,000 tons of snow are trucked in from the nearby mountains. Some sculptures that can reach more than 130 feet in height and 80 feet in width are begun weeks before the festival’s February opening.
The festival was established in the 1950s after the dismal years following WW II but really caught on in 1972 when Sapporo, Japan’s newest major city, was chosen as the site for the Winter Olympics. Today the snow rides and entertainment transform the town into a wintertime outdoor theater and make Sapporo an excellent base from which to explore Hokkaido’s wild, dramatic interior and ski resorts. Don’t leave town without sampling the ramen noodles and Sapporo beer for which the city is famous.
The highlight of the parkland called Nara Koen is a colossal bronze image of a sitting Buddha housed in Todai-ji (the Great Eastern Temple), which is believed to be the world’s largest wooden structure. Nara’s most-visited site has drawn Buddhist pilgrims and foreign visitors for centuries.
The 53-foot Daibutsu Buddha, the largest in Japan, was originally commissioned in 743, not long after Nara was founded as the capital of a newly united Japan. (The court was moved to Kyoto in 794, where it remained for over 1,000 years.) Buddhism, imported from China in the 6th century, flourished, and so did Nara as a center of politics and culture.
Nara remains more intimate in scale, and its ancient buildings and temples more intact and authentic than in neighboring Kyoto, where ancient neighborhoods are being encroached upon as the city’s unplanned development continues. Nara Park’s 1,300 acres of ponds, grassy lawns, trees, and temples are home to the famous deer believed to be sacred emissaries of the temples’ gods. More than 1,000 roam the grounds, unintimidated by human visitors and endearing – until they start to eat straw handbags, schoolchildren’s lunches, even your paper map of the city.