While the Chinese stretch of the Silk Road is world famous, the central Asian section is far less travelled but has no less to see. Kiki Deere describes travelling the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, from post-Soviet Tashkent, through the beautiful blue-tiled city of Samarkand, to unspoilt Bukhara.

I peered out of the window of our small wobbly plane – a large, desert-like expanse of sandy terrain spread out below. I began to make out the northern fringes of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a country whose exotic-sounding name resonated in a closed drawer at the back of my mind from distant school history lessons, when I’d sit in class daydreaming about Gengis Khan and his Mongol hordes galloping across the vast plains of Central Asia. And now, here I was, in one of the countries home to the ancient Silk Road route, ready to traverse the roads once threatened by waves of invaders and conquerors.

Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was one of the major trading centres along the Silk Road, and to this day remains one of the largest exporters of cotton, silk and textiles to Eastern Europe. Due to the 1966 earthquake and consequent Soviet rebuilding, little remains of the old city. I was not planning on staying here too long, for I was here to embark on a train journey south to explore the wonderfully preserved Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Photo courtesy of Kiki Deere

An olive green train sat at the station platform, its little windows graced by embroidered curtains that were gingerly clipped to the sides, revealing a comfortable compartment within. I sat by the window, eager to take in the dramatic scenery of these far flung lands. A stout lady stumbled in, with her little son in tow. They were to be my travelling companions for my first Uzbek train journey.

Our train chugged off, headed to the historic town of Samarkand, one of the planet’s longest inhabited cities. Positioned at the crossroads of the world’s greatest trade routes, Samarkand has a multi-millennial history. The city was founded in the seventh century BC, and eventually became part of Alexander the Great’s empire. It later gained further importance as a centre of the silk trade, where merchants and traders would ply its streets dealing in all manner of goods. Centuries later, the town was conquered by Turkish invaders, giving rise to the prevalence of Islamic art and culture.

“Ah, the Registan and the three madrasahs!” my fellow traveller exclaimed in perfect English, quite to my surprise. “Everyone travels here to see it. And Bukhara? You will go to Bukhara also, yes?” she asked, offering me an exotic-looking piece of fruit that her son was much enjoying. I nodded in excitement, prompting her to tell me more. “It was this route that merchants and traders travelled with plenty of goods: spices, ivory, silk, wine and even gold were transported between west and east. But, you know it wasn’t only goods that were transported here, but also religions and philosophies. There is so much history here. You will see!”

As our train pulled into Samarkand station, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I was eager to visit the Registan, a large public square fanned by three madrasas, Islamic schools. This was the heart of the ancient city, where people once gathered to socialise at bazaars and take part in festivities; it is also where public executions took place. The first madrasah was built here in the fifteenth century by the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, who transformed Samarkand into a centre of culture and learning. Ulugh Beg himself is said to have taught mathematics in the lecture halls.

I stood and gazed in awe at the complex of tiled emerald-coloured buildings that lay ahead of me, and soon got lost in a series of airy courtyards flanked by students’ former dormitory rooms turned souvenir shops. Vendors eagerly tried to attract custom, trying to entice the few tourists who strolled around in wonderment. Neat piles of turquoise and crimson scarves were carefully laid out on small wooden tables, while others were flung over a coarse piece of string, fluttering in the breeze in a rainbow of colours. Craftsmen here still practice ancient jewellery making techniques, and a selection of beautiful earrings gently chimed in the wind.

I poked my head into a dark room, its door wide open. A row of shoes lay outside, and I removed my footwear before entering, as is the custom here. A soft delicate hand wrapped itself around my wrist, leading me inside. Five middle aged, rotund women sat around a little table, feasting on large bowls of pilau, or plov, Uzbekistan’s national rice dish. The smell of steaming plov wafted through the air, and a bowl soon found its way in front of me, along with a piping hot piola, a small ceramic cup, of freshly brewed tea. “How many children do you have?” “Where is your husband?” “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” “How much money do you earn?” My warm and welcoming hosts were eager to learn more about their guest, and I was soon confronted with all manner of questions that I tried to respond in clumsy Russian, in between mouthfuls of succulent plov and freshly baked roundels of bread. Hospitality has been at the heart of Uzbek culture for thousands of years, since early travellers along the Silk Road harboured hope that they could seek shelter and be fed in the next village.

I wondered what treasures awaited in Bukhara, an economic and cultural centre dating back 25 centuries and undoubtedly the most unspoilt example of a medieval Central Asian town, which I would visit a couple of days later. It was once one of the largest cities of Central Asia, thanks to its position on a rich oasis at the crossroads of the Silk Road.

I wandered the dusty winding streets of Bukhara’s citadel, where dozens of azure onion domes dotted the skyline. Bukhara was the largest centre for Muslim theology, particularly Sufism, between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, and was home to over one hundred madrasahs and two hundred mosques. One of the city’s most impressive sights of all is the mausoleum erected as a family crypt for Ismail Samanid, founder of the Samanid dynasty who ruled Bukhara in the ninth and tenth centuries. It is the best surviving example of tenth century architecture in the whole Muslim world. I could have explored this labyrinthine town for days on end; at every corner there was a new sight to discover. But before I knew it, my short stay in these wondrous lands was up, and my train back to Tashkent awaited. I left content, knowing that I’d travel part of the Silk Road again, the route that has long harboured Asia’s undiscovered treasures.

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Embarking on a very personal and spiritual journey, Rough Guides writer Anna Kaminski shares her ayahuasca experience, after ingesting the hallucinogenic vines of the Amazon Basin.

The ancient Volkswagen Beetle climbs the hairpin bends high into the mountains, the lights of Cusco spread out in the valley beneath us.  On a particularly steep bend, it gives up the ghost and stalls. We follow the shaman up through unlit alleyways, accompanied by a howling chorus of the neighbourhood canines.

Behind a steel gate, a stone puma guards the steps down into the ceremonial hut with its thatched roof and skylights, lit by dim reddish bulbs and candles. Inside, there are several berths covered with thick woollen blankets, and an arcane-looking shrine covered with candles, crystals, giant dark feathers, mysterious little bottles and rocks. There are eight of us: Eddie and Katarina from New York, an Eastern European guy, an Aussie couple, a Spanish girl, myself, and an elfin girl with dark eyes who looks like she might be a regular. So what brings us all here?

Hallucinogenic vines

Associated largely with shamanism, the psychotropic Banisteriopsis caapi jungle vine Ayahuascaaya (spirit) and waska (vine) in Quechua – has been used as a religious sacrament for centuries by the indigenous tribes of northern South America and Brazil. The use of the brew to gain access to higher spiritual dimensions was described as ‘the work of the devil’ when 16th century Christian missionaries first came across it, but despite attempts to suppress the practice, it still flourishes, particularly in and around the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca is not for recreational use; it is said that it’s best to approach it with specific spiritual goals or questions in mind, and also with an experienced shaman present – not just one who knows how to brew the vine in the correct proportions, but also to provide spiritual protection. Ayahuasca is not known to cause flashbacks or to have long-term side effects but it’s an intense experience.

Kush certainly seems suitably shaman-like – an aquiline nose, indigenous features, shoulder-length greying hair, outlandish clothes and a powerful presence that inspires confidence. We talk to him about what we’re hoping to get out of this experience: shedding the fear of failure, trying to decide on a career path, finding love… Kush then asks us all whether we’ve ever experimented with any mind-altering substances before, to see how much he should give us to start with. He checks that we all have plenty of water and hands out plastic buckets, since ayahuasca is a powerful “cleanser” it often purges you of your stomach contents.

Psychedelic colours

Kush lights a candle, takes a small bottle of liquid, pours it into a stone receptacle filled with ashes, and sets it on fire. It burns with a strong blue light. He lowers his head and says something that sounds like a prayer, in a language that I don’t understand. He shakes a bottle filled with pinkish liquid and pours different measures for us all.

The liquid has a strong, bitter and organic taste, with grit at the bottom. I gulp it down, wrap myself in blankets, lie down and close my eyes. I wonder if I’d made a mistake by not being able to resist an avocado salad that lunchtime; you’re supposed to avoid meat, sex, alcohol, spices, citrus fruit, sugar and fat for at least a day before ingesting ayahuasca in order to leave the path clear for visions.

Kush begins to chant. Almost immediately, I begin to see kaleidoscopic shapes, psychedelic colours, lime-green snakes moving, changing in time with the chanting. When the chanting changes tempo, so do the shapes. I feel strangely removed from my body; it’s as if something is raising my body up, while another force is pressing down on it. When the feeling gets too intense, I open my eyes for a second and it abates. When I twitch my nose, it feels like my face doesn’t belong to me. My body seems far away. There are shivers down my spine, creeping slowly; I don’t feel them, but rather see them as lines of light, slow and thick like electric molasses. The chanting is replaced by the playing of a reed flute – a repetitive trill that triggers more images, more changing colours.

Hearing voices

When I open my eyes, I see a giant dark figure in the middle of room that is half-man, half-wolf. Then the Peruvian wolf moves into the candlelight, shrinks, and turns into Kush again.

Even when the chanting and the music stops, the sounds reverberate inside my head, become voices, and build into a crescendo. When it becomes too much, I open my eyes, see Eddie sitting up, the shaman kneeling in front of him, holding giant feathers in the air, one in each hand, chanting.

I lose all sense of time; I don’t know if minutes have passed, or hours, whether I have been dreaming or hallucinating. More images come: abstract colours, the face of an Andean child, a woman, a wizened old person. Then an undead face covered in cobwebs thrusts itself at me – it’s startling, but not frightening. Everything seems to shake, and I think there’s an earthquake, yet when I open my eyes, all is silent and still.

More voices, more faces – tribesmen from the jungle; the forest green is encroaching on my space, it’s intense, the tribesmen not friendly, nor overly hostile. The sounds in my head turn into a ringing in my ears which builds up and up. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I open my eyes and throw up into the bucket next to me. Everyone else is lying still. My vision is blurred, the room is spinning.

Then it feels as if I’d dreamed it all. Not sure if I had even been sick; only the slight rasping in my throat makes me sit up and check the bucket. Affirmative. The candle above the door seems to be crackling with purple lightning. I feel immediate relief after purging, and sink back down.

More images come, obeying the repetitive chant, the reed flute of the shaman’s assistant, the light drumming. I don’t know at what point the shaman falls silent. I sleep a dreamless sleep until it’s morning, and I can feel the sun through the skylight.

The following morning, as we head back down into central Cusco, we’re all silent, each of us still absorbing the night’s experience. Kush tells us that we’d been under the influence for five hours or so. It has been an intense, uncomfortable ride, but most importantly, we all feel that we got what we came for.

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On the drive up through the Imlil Valley into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, you have a sense that you’re going somewhere special. The road passes rose-coloured adobe villages and fields terraced with ancient irrigation channels that nourish apple, cherry and walnut orchards. Mules trot along the road carrying children, women return from the fields with sacks of wheat, and men congregate in small groups by the roadside. As you swing around steep-sided bends, you get glimpses of the looming massif at the head of the valley, and by the time you reach the mountain village of Imlil – just 65km from Marrakesh – you know you’re in another world. The light is brighter, the air thinner, the streets empty and the jagged peaks resplendent against the sky.

No wonder Martin Scorsese chose this setting for Kundun, his film about the life of the Dalai Lama. The grandeur and remoteness of the Atlas Mountains is every bit as magnificent as the Himalayas. Here, the Kasbah du Toubkal, the former summer home of local ruler Caid Souktani, is perched at 1800m in the shadow of Morocco’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal.

Run and staffed by Berbers, the Kasbah calls itself a “hospitality centre”, so expect pots of mint tea on your arrival, and jellabahs (long-sleeved robes) and leather babouches (traditional leather slippers) to slip into. The rooms have been furnished by Berber craftsmen using local materials and range from basic communal salons (often used by school groups) to comfortable private double rooms and one lavish, three-bedroom apartment.

Guests come on day-trips from the capital to dine on tagines on the large rooftop terrace, from where there are sweeping views of the valley. But you’ll need to stay here for a few days to make the most of the spectacular setting. You can hire a guide and climb Mount Toubkal in a day, then return to the hammam (steam bath) and dine in the Kasbah’s restaurant. Or try a four-hour trek to Toubkal Lodge in the Berber village of Idissa. Its three double rooms are similar in style to the plush apartment at the Kasbah, and are designed for just a handful of guests to use as a base for day-hikes in the mountains or as part of an overnight circular walking route from the Kasbah du Toubkal. And if you don’t fancy the four-hour trek over the mountain pass from the Kasbah to the village, you can ride in on horseback or go by mountain bike.

Take a shared taxi or local bus from Marrakesh to Asni then a local taxi from Asni to Imli (about 2hr in total). Alternatively, book a 90min transfer with the Kasbah (€85 per car). From Imlil it’s a steep 15min walk (a mule will carry your bags). The Kasbah does not stock alcohol, though you can bring your own. For prices, room reservations and booking transfers at both the Kasbah and Toubkal Lodge see www.kasbahdutoubkal.com; +33 (0) 545 715 204. A five percent tax on hotel invoices goes to the Imlilillage Association, which funds local community projects.

 

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

In 1971, fuelled by a cornucopia of drugs, Hunter S. Thompson set off for Las Vegas on his “savage journey to the heart of the American dream”. His adventures were initially serialized in Rolling Stone, before becoming a cult classic that spawned a writing style known as gonzo journalism. You can still rent a Cadillac for a night on the strip, but leave the acid behind.

Playing Pooh Sticks in Hundred Acre Wood

It was East Sussex’s Ashdown Forest that inspired A. A. Milne to write the delightful tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, “a bear of very little brain”. The highlight of these 6,000 acres of heathland is the Pooh sticks bridge. The rules of the game are simple: players choose distinctive sticks, drop them on the upstream side of the bridge and see which flows under first.

Find a room with a view in Florence

Over a hundred years after E. M. Forster’s gentle love story was published, it’s still possible to follow in the footsteps of Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett. Aside from renting a room with a view, you should visit the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria and the Basilica of Santa Croce, all of which make an appearance in the novel.

Unleash your “inner goddess” in Portland

Portland’s Heathman Hotel decided to capitalise on their literary connections last year, bringing 50 Shades scenes set in the hotel to life with a selection of decadent packages. E. L. James’ biggest fans can splash over $2,500 on a helicopter tour and romantic dinner; $40 will get you a bottle of Christian’s favourite wine and a grey tie as a memento.

Follow the Austen trail around Bath

Jane Austen lived in Bath for five years and the city provided the setting for both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Today walking tours lead you to significant locations, while the Jane Austen Centre paints a picture of the Regency Period and of her life in the city. A short drive away, the village of Lacock is where the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice series was filmed.

Get the 007 treatment in Paris

Sir Roger Moore’s gunfight atop the Eiffel Tower might not be quite true to Ian Fleming’s From a View to a Kill, but there’s a new way to immerse yourself in Bond’s Paris. The Latin Quarter’s Seven Hotel has created a lavish 007 suite, complete with revolver night lights and a TV loaded with the movie adaptations.

Explore Holden Caulfield’s New York City

J. D. Salinger’s classic coming of age tale The Catcher in the Rye is loved the world over and supposedly one of the ten most popular books in the USA. Today you can still retrace 17-year-old Holden’s journey through 1940s New York: start at Grand Central, drop by the Met, explore the American Museum of Natural History and end the day ice skating at the Rockefeller Centre or wandering Central Park Zoo.

Enter Narnia in Oxford

Just by the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford you’ll find the lamppost which supposedly sparked C. S. Lewis’ idea for Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy’s journey into Narnia. Together with Tolkien, Lewis was a member of the Inklings during his time at university here, and you can visit the Eagle and Child pub where they discussed early drafts of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Get on the road in the US

Kerouac’s jazz, booze and drug-filled tale of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s journey across the USA is the quintessential work of the Beat generation. Fans should make sure to include San Francisco in their On the Road revival, where the Beat Museum’s collection of memorabilia, letters and first editions help bring this period to life.

Visit Middle Earth in New Zealand

After Air New Zealand’s “unexpected safety briefing” went viral, you’d be hard pressed not to know that this antipodean nation provided the backdrop for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. As well as exploring the natural landscape that so closely echoes Tolkien’s imagery – from Tongariro Crossing to Glenorchy – you can also visit the Hobbiton movie set near Matamata.

Turn detective on a Nile cruise

Published in 1937, the glamorous and haunting tale of Death on the Nile was one of Agatha Christie’s best. The book sees eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot investigate a complex murder while their liner cruises past the pyramids. Today you can stay in the luxurious Agatha Christie suite on the Steam Ship Sudan or visit the refurbished Old Cataract hotel in Aswan where Christie wrote the book.

Write your own motorcycle diary

The memoir of 23-year-old Ernesto “Che” Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries charts his journey through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela; it was a trip that fuelled his passion for righting social injustice and formed the political views that later led him to Cuba. In the wake of the film version, South American trips from the US reportedly rose by over 20%, but few undertake the full 8000km odyssey.

Experience 1984 in North Korea

Barely an article is written about this secretive state without reference to Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. Life in North Korea might not be as bleak as it was for Winston Smith, but the Big Brother-style surveillance and fascination with war have an unnerving symmetry with the book. Tours are heavily choreographed affairs: you’ll need to leave your phone and political views at the airport.

Get your teeth into Transylvania

The Dracula trail is well worn in Transylvania, the land beyond the forest. It was here that Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, ruled from 1456 to 1462; he was later immortalized as Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Stoker reportedly did all his research remotely, but today you can visit suitably eerie Bran Castle, where Vlad Tepes was supposedly imprisoned, and the town of Sighisoara, where he was born.

Find love in Bali

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love has sold over ten million copies worldwide and inspired thousands of copycat pilgrimages to Ubud, where she met her partner. Aside from soaking up the atmosphere in a relaxing Balinese guesthouse, you could take a trip to the peaceful island of Gili Meno, where the book reaches its conclusion.

Unlock the Da Vinci Code in Paris

Reportedly the sixth most read book in the world, it’s no surprise that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has spawned a host of Parisian tours and experiences. Part of the mysterious thriller centres on Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu’s time in the Louvre, where nighttime tours now try to recreate the book’s suspense.

Follow Homer’s Odyssey in Greece

Written nearly three thousand years ago, Homer’s Odyssey describes King Odysseus’s ten-year journey from Troy to Ithaca and the mythical creatures he encounters along the way. There’s plenty of healthy debate as to whether the modern island of Ithaca is the one described in the epic, but it’s a good place to start your trip nonetheless.

Discover Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm

After it sold some more than sixty million copies, it’s no wonder that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been picked up by the city’s tour companies. Guided walks give you a glimpse into Stieg Larsson’s dark vision, featuring sites from the book such as Mikael Blomkvist’s home address and Mellqvist Kaffebar.

Encounter geishas in Kyoto

Published in 1997 and adapted into a film in 2005, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha charts Chiyo Sakamoto’s life and geisha training in Kyoto. You can still encounter geishas and novice maikos in this traditional city, where ochaya (tea houses) pepper the historic Gion district. Try to organise your trip to coincide with the cherry blossom in early April.

Make a pilgrimage to Canterbury

Published in the late fourteenth century, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales recount the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to visit Thomas Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. The Canterbury Tales attraction now vividly recreates the sounds and smells of this Middle Ages tale, with costumed actors sometimes adding an extra dimension.

Seek out Gatsby Glamour in New York City

The 1920s decadence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatbsy came to the big screen this year. New York’s Plaza Hotel was a personal haunt of Fitzgerald and featured the book. To celebrate their role they’ve created the lavish Art Deco Fitzgerald Suite, designed by Baz Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin, and launched ‘Gatsby Hour’ at the hotel’s Rose Club.

Brush off your broomstick in Scotland

J. K. Rowling has implied that Scotland provided the inspiration for the Hogwarts setting, and activities for Harry Potter fans abound. Start with a trip on the real life equivalent of the Hogwarts Express, the Jacobite steam train over the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct. At Alnwick Castle, the setting for Harry’s first quidditch lesson, you can even try your hand at riding a broomstick.

Find paradise on a beach in Thailand

Made famous by Leonardo di Caprio and Danny Boyle in 2000, Alex Garland’s dark story of a backpacker’s search for a paradise beach is a must-read for gap-year travellers on the banana pancake trail. The film was shot on Koh Phi Phi where you can visit the idyllic white-sands of Hat Maya, which provided the on-screen location.

Get knocked sideways by Santa Barbara Wine Country

There’s no better way to whet your appetite for a week of wine tasting than by reading Alexander Payne’s novel Sideways, which charts the story of Miles and Jack as they explore Santa Barbara Wine Country. Self-guided wine tours allow you to follow in their footsteps, tasting delicious Pinot Noirs and Syrahs as you go.

Savour sweet sorrow in Verona

Verona’s has certainly capitalized on being the setting of the world’s greatest love story, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The characters are allegedly based on the Montecchi and Capuleti families who lived here at the end of the thirteenth century; today you can tour a collection of slightly dubious sights from the Casa di Giulietta (balcony supposedly added in the 1900s) to Juliet’s tomb.

The pace of life is deliciously slow in Luang Prabang, but if you opt for a lie-in you’ll miss the perfect start to the day. As dawn breaks over this most languorous of Buddhist towns, saffron-robed monks emerge from their temple-monasteries to collect alms from their neighbours, the riverbanks begin to come alive and the smell of freshly baked baguettes draws you to one of the many cafés. It’s a captivating scene whichever way you turn: ringed by mountains and encircled by the Mekong and Khan rivers, the old quarter’s temple roofs peep out from the palm groves, its streets still lined with wood-shuttered shophouses and French-colonial mansions.

Though it has the air of a rather grand village, Luang Prabang is the ancient Lao capital, seat of the royal family that ruled the country for six hundred years until the Communists exiled them in the 1970s. It remains the most cultured town in Laos (not a hard-won accolade it’s true, in this poor, undeveloped nation), and one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia – something now formalized by World Heritage status. Chief among its many beautiful temples is the entrancing sixteenth-century Wat Xieng Thong, whose tiered roofs frame an exquisite glass mosaic of the tree of life and attendant creatures, flanked by pillars and doors picked out in brilliant gold-leaf stencils. It’s a gentle stroll from here to the graceful teak and rosewood buildings of the Royal Palace Museum and the dazzling gilded murals of neighbouring Wat Mai.

When you tire of the monuments, there are riverside caves, waterfalls and even a whisky-making village to explore, and plenty of shops selling intricate textiles and Hmong hill-tribe jewellery. Serenity returns at sunset, when the monks’ chants drift over the temple walls and everyone else heads for high ground to soak up the view.

Luang Prabang is served by flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane. You can also reach it by bus and boat from Vientiane and by boat from the Thai–Lao border at Chiang Khong/Houayxai.

 

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After three hours trudging along steep forest paths, you come to a surreal sight. Hundreds of megalithic stone jars, large enough for someone to a crouch inside, are strewn all around. This group of 416 jars is the largest at the aptly named Plain of Jars, whose current tally stands at 1900 jars in 52 clusters, plus fifteen jar-making sites. They were made by a vanished civilization and their presence indicates that the mountains were prosperously settled at the time. Today the Xieng Khoung province is on the rise again, this time as a tourist hub.

Little is known about the jar-makers, except that the plateau was a strategic and prosperous centre for trade routes extending from India to China. Nearly 2000 years ago, possibly earlier according to new evidence, these jars functioned as mortuary vessels: a corpse would be placed inside the jar until it decomposed down to its essence, then cremated and buried in a second urn with personal possessions. Now all that remains here are the empty jars, set in clusters on the crests of hills, an imposing and eerie legacy.

At Phukeng, you can see where the jars were made. Dozens of incomplete jars lie on the mountainside where they were abandoned after cracking during construction. It’s a sight that evokes the magnitude of the effort: after many weeks spent gouging a jar from a boulder with hammer and chisel, the creators then had to haul the load of several tons (the largest jar weighs six tons) across the undulating, grassy, pine-studded landscape to the “cemetery” 8km away. How the jars were transported is another puzzle that serves to deepen the enigma that pervades the Plain of Jars.

Daily public buses connect Luang Prabang and Vientiane with Phonsovan. Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres ([email protected]) is the province’s best hotel, with private wooden bungalows.

 

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Tucked away between parallel rocky ranges in southern Jordan, Petra is awe-inspiring. Popular but rarely crowded, this fabled site could keep you occupied for half a day or half a year: you can roam its dusty tracks and byways for miles in every direction.

Petra was the capital of the Nabateans, a tribe originally from Arabia who traded with, and were eventually taken over by, the Romans. Grand temples and even Christian-era church mosaics survive, but Petra is best known for the hundreds of ornate classical-style facades carved into its red sandstone cliffs, the grandest of which mark the tombs of the Nabatean kings.

As you approach, modern urban civilization falls away and you are enveloped by the arid desert hills; the texture and colouring of the sandstone, along with the stillness, heat and clarity of light bombard your senses. But it’s the lingering, under-the-skin quality of supernatural power that seems to seep out of the rock that leaves the greatest impression.

As in antiquity, the Siq, meaning “gorge”, is still the main entrance into Petra – and its most dramatic natural feature. The Siq path twists and turns between bizarrely eroded cliffs for over a kilometre, sometimes widening to form sunlit piazzas in the echoing heart of the mountain; in other places, the looming walls (150m high) close in to little more than a couple of metres apart, blocking out sound, warmth and even daylight.

When you think the gorge can’t go on any longer, you enter a dark, narrow defile, opening at its end onto a strip of extraordinary classical architecture. As you step out into the sunlight, the famous facade of Petra’s Treasury looms before you. Carved directly into the cliff face and standing forty metres tall, it’s no wonder this edifice starred in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the repository of the Holy Grail – the magnificent portico is nothing short of divine.

Petra (daily 6am–sunset) is 240km south of the Jordanian capital, Amman. The adjacent town of Wadi Musa has restaurants and hotels. Check out petranationaltrust.org.

 

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Italy’s southern region of Basilicata is home to one of the country’s most distinctive towns: Matera. It’s a fascinating place, not least for its unique topography and intriguing history as a Mediterranean troglodyte settlement. Thanks to its biblical, otherworldly feel, it’s been used as the setting for Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ too. Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere went to discover more about Materas caves and their inhabitants.

The area around Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period, and to this day it retains an age old, nearly Jurassic feel, with vast tracts of verdant land breaking off into harsh rocky limestone ravines. Matera’s main attractions are its Sassi (rocks), old cavernous dwellings that to this day remain inhabited. A myriad of monochrome stone buildings overhang a deep gorge, perching unequally on top of one another, like a messy ensemble of vintage Lego pieces. The caves spring out of a rocky area that forms part of a limestone gully, taking on a ramshackle Flintstones-esque feel.

I quickly got lost in the city’s winding alleys, which converge into small squares and then branch off into a maze of twisting streets. Stone steps climb or spiral in different directions, snaking their way through age-old properties that overlap one another.

I soon met Eustachio Rizzi, a septuagenarian grandfather who was brought up in the Sassi. Eustachio spent three years building a miniature model of the Sassi, constructing the town from childhood memory. He longs for Matera’s history not to be forgotten and is keen to act as a mouthpiece for its long and complex history.

The early morning sun lit a quarter of the pastel cream buildings, yet most still remained veiled by a cool haze of shade. Eustachio’s sunken eyes seemed to travel back in time, as he explained how parts of the town were built: “The caves have been here since time immemorial, and a great part of what is around us today was built by hand.

“The poor lived in the lower part of the city, and used pickaxes to dig into the stone. People would dig and dig, making sure to carve a concave shape into the rock, so that the weight rested on the arches on the sides, otherwise the structure would collapse. If a baby was born and a family needed more space, they would dig farther into the rock. Sometimes they would start hammering with their pickaxe and suddenly realise they were digging into another person’s home, so then they would start digging in the opposite direction”. The result is a unique city where streets, stony alleyways, uneven pavements and winding steps often coincide with the roofs of the houses that lie below.

Explore the region in more depth on our Destinations pages >

When Eustachio lived here just a few decades ago, houses had no running water and the city streets served as open sewers. Infant mortality hovered at 50% and illiteracy was rife. Families were large, often with six to ten members living in a damp room measuring little more than 50 square metres where the only form of light and ventilation was a little window giving onto the street.

Hens and their chicks nestled below a double bed, which was no more than an iron stand with wooden planks and a paillasse. Often, a drawer containing linen and clothes was pulled out and used as a baby’s cot. The kitchen was no more than a stove with a copper cauldron, while the facilities were limited to a chamber pot that was placed by the bed, or behind a little curtain for privacy. At the very back of the cave a mule provided heat to the rest of the house, and elsewhere a dug out cavity was used to store manure.

The cramped housing structures, lack of sanitation and inadequate living conditions of Matera’s urban poor reached such appalling levels that a scheme was eventually put in place to restore and renovate the Sassi. In 1952 over 15,000 inhabitants were evicted – albeit never forcefully – and relocated to purpose-built council houses on the outskirts, in what is now the ‘new town’.

Yet, many refused to leave. Eustachio told me: “At first most were reluctant to relocate, to leave their houses… the place they were brought up in, and where they had always lived. It was hard for all of us, but slowly people started to understand that living conditions in the new housing estates were better. There was running water, a heating system, toilets.”

Image courtesy of Kiki Deere

By providing the inhabitants with new accommodation, their former homes became state property and, to this day, 70% of the Sassi is still publicly owned. The town was thereafter entirely renovated and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the inhabitants began to return. Yet most preferred to stay in their well-equipped modern houses, some even refusing to visit “that filth where we once lived”. Ironically, many of these former slum homes have now become high-end hotels, some charging up to 700 euros a night for the experience of sleeping in such unique cavernous accommodation.

Today Matera attracts a fair share of Italian holiday goers, although for foreign tourists it still remains off the beaten track largely due to its poor public transport links. Yet no doubt partly because of this, southern Italy’s gem retains a true environmental and social feel, veiled by an aura of magic and underlying mysticism. As I later peered out over a stone balustrade to the Sassi that spread out into the distance, the town visibly took on a biblical dimension. A flock of black birds took flight over the town, mournfully hovering over the bewitching cluster of tumbledown dwellings below.

Explore more of Italy with our Rough Guide to Italy. Featured image courtesy of Kiki Deere.

Pity the poor folk picking through the rubble of the Forum in Rome. To make the most of the ruins there you have to use your imagination. In the ancient Roman resort town of Pompeii, however, it’s a little easier. Pompeii was famously buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD, and the result is perhaps the best-preserved Roman town anywhere, with a street plan that is easy to discern – not to mention wander – and a number of palatial villas that are still largely intact. It’s crowded, not surprisingly, but is a large site, and it’s quite possible to escape the hordes and experience the strangely still quality of Pompeii, sitting around ancient swimming pools, peering at frescoes and mosaics still standing behind the counters of ancient shops.

Finish up your visit at the incredible Villa of Mysteries, a suburban dwelling just outside the ancient city. Its layout is much the same as the other villas of the city, but its walls are decorated with a cycle of frescoes that give a unique insight into the ancient world – and most importantly they are viewable in situ, unlike most of the rest of Pompeii’s mosaics and frescoes, which have found their way to Naples’ archeological museum. No one can be sure what these pictures represent, but it’s thought that they show the initiation rites of a young woman preparing for marriage. Set against deep ruby-red backgrounds, and full of marvellously preserved detail, they are dramatic and universal works, showing the initiate’s progress from naïve young girl to eligible young woman. But above all they tell a story – one that speaks to us loud and clear from 79 AD.

Pompeii can be reached easily by train from Naples. See www.pompeiisites.org for more information.

 

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From Kinross to Kent, Britain is home to all manner of beautiful gardens, ranging from wild and sprawling estates to compact, tidy arrangements. Here’s a few of our favourites, taken from Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

Aberglasney Gardens

Once a grand Carmarthenshire estate, Aberglasney fell on hard times during the twentieth century and by the mid-1990s the house was totally derelict: its windows empty sockets, its masonry crumbling and its gardens choked with weeds. Just when it seemed doomed to collapse, a Restoration Trust stepped in, led by a team of experts who were determined to patch up the damage and perhaps reveal some of the glories of the past. The gardens (pictured above) were the main focus of their interest: they were known to date back well over 500 years, making them a perfect candidate for research. Their hunch has already paid off: little by little they have made some astonishing discoveries.

One of the earliest revelations was a real breakthrough. Carefully, the team excavated the stone-walled cloisters immediately west of the mansion, digging down through the centuries to discover a formal garden dating back to late Tudor or early Stuart times. Even more astonishingly, coins dating back to 1288 were found among the debris. Now that a re-creation of the early seventeenth-century layout is in place, you can wander the raised stone path that tops the cloister walls to admire its geometric lawns and think yourself back to the grandeur of the era.

On the south side of the house is another superb development: the ruined masonry of an ancient courtyard has been shrouded in glass, creating a subtropical hothouse. Named the Ninfarium after the glorious Italian gardens of Ninfa, there’s a Zen-like calm to its shady, orderly pathways.

Aberglasney Gardens, Llangathen, Carmarthenshire, www.aberglasney.org

Drummond Castle Gardens

The long beech-enclosed drive that leads to Drummond Castle has a sense of drama, but gives no inkling of the exotic vision ahead. The castle itself is a bluff medieval keep surrounded by turreted domestic buildings, all heavily restored in the nineteenth century. You pass through a courtyard to access a wide stone terrace, and the garden is suddenly revealed: a symmetrical and stately Italianate vision in the shape of Scotland’s flag, a St Andrew’s Cross. The lines of the cross are punctuated by urns and Classical statues, and at their centre is a seventeenth-century obelisk sundial. It’s an artful garden in every sense: steep steps lead down to the sundial, and beyond the topiary and the neat flower beds a wide avenue cuts though dense woodland, continuing the line of the parterre’s central path but making a visual connection between the formal garden and wider, wilder estate.

The first Lord Drummond began building the castle in the late fifteenth century, and in 1508 there is evidence that the estate supplied cherries to James IV when he was on a hunting trip. The sundial created by Charles I’s master mason was put in place in 1630; in the following century the family was more preoccupied with assisting the Jacobite uprising than pruning the roses, but in calmer times in 1842 Queen Victoria planted two copper beeches here, and enjoyed walks in the garden with Albert.

It remains in feel very much a courtly garden. The paths seem tailor-made for stately strolling, giving you the space and time to admire the marble statuary, snooty peacocks and neatly clipped foliage. And when you’ve explored the parterre, don’t miss the abundant blooms in the glasshouses, and the impressive kitchen garden.

Drummond Castle Gardens, near Muthill in Crieff, Perth & Kinross, www.drummondcastlegardens.co.uk

Mottisfont Abbey

Before you even get to the roses at Mottisfont Abbey – which is, after all, the point of the visit – you encounter some sensuous temptations. First you cross the River Test, arguably the finest chalk stream in England, which runs clear and shallow through gentle meadows fringed by grassy downland. This is the place for walks (the Test Way passes by here), or quiet sitting – or trout fishing, if you can afford it.

You then walk through Mottisfont’s lovely grounds, a grassy haven bordered by chalk streams and studded with old oaks, sweet chestnuts and the improbably massive great plane. Then there’s the Abbey itself, a mellow pile with Tudor wings and Georgian frontages and a stately drawing room whose eccentric trompe l’oeil decor – all painted swags and smoking stoves sketched in grisaille – was created by the English prewar artist, Rex Whistler.

But beyond the river and the house and the grounds lies Mottisfont’s heart: its twin walled rose gardens. They are fabulous, harbouring one of the finest collections of old roses in the world. Among the six-hundred-odd varieties you’ll find names that hint at exotic beauty, such as Reine de Violette, Tuscany Superb and Ispahan, and names that suggest a more blushing Englishness, such as Eglantine and the Common Moss Rose. Climbers, noisettes and ramblers trace glorious patterns on the high brick walls, cross pergolas or spill up into apple and pear trees. The shrub roses, meanwhile, crowd noisily between the box hedges and lawns and lavender pathways, jostling among the hosts of bulbs and perennials. There is something to see, then, right through spring and summer.

Mottisfont, five miles north of Romsey, Hampshire www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Alnwick Garden

It makes sense to lock up dangerous criminals and wild animals, perhaps – but plants? Well, yes, when we’re talking about these plants. Within the 40-acre Alnwick Garden, the botanical annexe to Alwnick Castle, lies a sullen little plot of deadly flowers and bushes deemed so dangerous that they too are kept behind bars. Visitors to this cultivated collection of botanical death should be wary. Don’t sniff too hard, perhaps… Though one suspects their deadly pollen and spores could permeate even the ominous wrought-iron gates, fronted with skull and bone signs, that declare: “These plants can kill”.

Unlike the rest of Alnwick Garden, the poison garden can only be visited on a guided tour. The heavy iron gates are locked behind you. This is serious stuff. Flame-shaped beds are planted with tobacco, mandrake, hemlock – and innocent-looking rhubarb, the stalks of which make lovely crumble, but whose lush green leaves can kill. Maximum security is applied to coca (for cocaine), cannabis plants and poppies, the heads of which contain all that’s required to make opium, heroin and morphine.

Weaving through the garden, guides debunk myths, tell old wives’ tales and impart ancient wisdom. Learn here about Old Man’s Beard, rubbed by professional beggars into sores to make them weep piteously. Or the hallucinogenic properties of Deadly Nightshade. Chewing a humble laburnum leaf, you are told, will lead you to froth at the mouth and wildly convulse.

Alnwick Garden, Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland www.alnwickgarden.com

RHS Garden Wisley

As you walk through the brick entrance arch at Wisley, you’re hit by scented air wafting through from the flourishing acres beyond. And there really are acres and acres here – 240 of them, to be exact, all lovingly, scrupulously, passionately tended. Ahead lies the serene canal and walled garden; beyond, secretive paths lead through the Wild Garden’s woodlands to the staggering new glasshouse, which rises out of an entire lake. The preternaturally heated interior heaves with tropical ferns and palms and creepers, all fighting their way towards the glass. There’s even an indoor waterfall.

But why go straight on? A left turn takes you up a breathtaking avenue of lawn, between 20ft-deep mixed borders from which English cottage garden flowers dance and nod in coloured ranks. Beyond, there’s the elegant rose garden, and beyond again what seems like an entire ecosystem of rhododendrons and magnolias on Battleston Hill. And beyond that, the Jubilee Arboretum rises back up towards the Fruit Field, which is really an entire hillside combed with 450 types of apple, plum and pear, many of them rare and rich varieties. It’s not exactly encouraged, but on an early autumn day you could even quietly taste a windfall pear or two – or buy them in the shop later.

Wisley isn’t all about loveliness, though, or even drama. Instead, it’s alive with passion and energy. The Royal Horticultural Society is dedicated to research and education, so you’ll see guided tours pausing to consider a fine clematis, enthusiasts gleaning tips from the model allotment, or maybe volunteers weeding through a host of experimental pumpkins.

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey www.rhs.org.uk/wisley

Highgrove Gardens

It’s amazing what a few words of encouragement can do. When the Prince of Wales bought Highgrove House, his family home near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, the estate didn’t even have a lawn. Some thirty years later, what was once an empty landscape is now one of the most innovative gardens in Britain. Clearly, Charles has spent a lot of time talking to these plants.

Tours start at Highgrove House itself, surrounded by scented plants such as wisteria, honeysuckle, jasmine, holboellia and thyme, and meander for two miles through a series of interlinked gardens, from the immaculate Sundial Garden, fronting the house, to the Arboretum. Most eye-catching in its marriage of form and function is the Prince’s Islamic-style Carpet Garden, a medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, whose colour and appearance – which includes fountains decked in elaborate zelij tiling – were based on the patterns of Persian carpets within the house.

Arguably the most interesting sections, though, are the Wildflower Meadow and the Walled Kitchen Garden. The former was co-designed with one of the UK’s leading biodiversity experts, and – as an organically sustained initiative that also helps preserve the country’s native flora and fauna – is a living example of the philosophy that underlines much of Highgrove and the Prince’s nearby Duchy Home Farm. The meadow features more than thirty varieties of British wildflowers – ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and ragged robin among them – and is home to some of the National Collection of Beech Trees, part of a conservation programme that safeguards the diversity of the country’s plant heritage.

Highgrove House, Doughton, Tetbury, Gloucestershire www.highgrovegardens.com

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Edinburgh’s famous Botanic Garden may get the royal seal and most of the press, yet a mere 45-minute drive south stands what is arguably the world’s most exquisite arboretum. Sequestered in one of the most scenic corners of the Scottish Borders, Dawyck is a veritable masterpiece of horticultural passion and creativity, matured over three centuries into a stunning sixty acres of botanic forest.

The secret of this place lies in its range of species from climatically similar corners of the globe. One of the best times to visit is in spring, when you’re welcomed by the Himalayan feast that is the Azalea Walk in full bloom. Over the brow of the hill, 300-year-old giant redwoods tower next to a rustling brook. Incredibly, these are actually infant trees, just a tenth of the way through their lives, and mere striplings compared to their 300ft-tall Californian forebears.

Just beyond the upward curve of the burn another giant hoves into view: the rhubarb-like gunnera plant feels truly exotic, even tropical, a South American specimen with foliage as big as a golf umbrella.

Atmospheric features like the old chapel, the stone humpback bridge or Dawyck House, relics of the garden’s heritage as part of the Dawyck estate, give purpose to those panoramic shots, or you could zoom in to the striking snakeskin bark of the Manchurian striped maple, possibly an evolutionary disguise to protect saplings. Even if you forget your camera, Dawyck will imprint itself on your grey matter anyway, a humbling lesson in the glorious potential of landscape.

Dawyck Botanic Garden, Stobo, near Peebles, Borders www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/dawyck

Sissinghurst Castle

The famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle is equally fascinating both at a distance and close up. There are several angles from which to admire it – framed by a shady arch, for example, or backed by the weathered walls of the Priest’s House – and there’s fresh beauty in every white iris, lupin and sunny-centred daisy.

It’s one of a series of room-like areas of planting with which the poet Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, a diplomat-turned-politician, adorned the grounds of Sissinghurst. When they arrived in 1930, the site was derelict, but Vita, who had an ancestral connection with the castle, saw in it an opportunity to shake off some of the sadness she felt at being shut out of the inheritance of her childhood home, Knole, simply because she was a woman.

The couple had different approaches to gardening: Harold enjoyed the discipline of orderly spaces separated by brick walls, yew trees and box hedges, while Vita was a romantic who enjoyed creating mysteries and surprises. In 1938, they opened the garden for an entrance fee of a shilling. The romantic-looking Elizabethan Tower that dominates the estate was originally a lookout; for the Nicolsons, it was the perfect vantage from which to survey their leafy domain. Climb up to its highest windows and you can see how beautifully the gardens, orchards and vegetable plots nestle within the Wealden countryside, complementing it just as they intended.

The garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Biddenden Road, near Cranbrook, Kent www.nationaltrust.org.uk

 

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