It’s art, myth and archeology, it’s visually stunning and you can reach back through the millennia and immerse yourself in its marks and contours. South Africa’s rock art represents one of the world’s oldest and most continuous artistic and religious traditions. Found on rock faces all over the country, these ancient paintings are a window into a historic culture and its thoughts and beliefs. In the Cederberg range alone, 250km north of Cape Town, there are some 2500 rock art sites, estimated to be between one and eight thousand years old.

The paintings are the work of the first South Africans, hunter-gatherers known as San or Bushmen, the direct descendants of some of the earliest Homo sapiens who lived in the Western Cape 150,000 years ago. Now almost extinct, their culture clings on tenuously in tiny pockets of Namibia, northern South Africa and Botswana.

If you’re looking to dig deeper, the easy-going Sevilla Trail gives you the opportunity to take in ten rock art sites along a stunning 4km route. The animals that once grazed and preyed in the fynbos (literally “fine bush’’) vegetation of the mountainous Cederberg are among the major subjects of the finely realized rock art paintings, which also include abstract images and monsters as well as depictions of people and therianthropes – half-human, half-animal figures. You’ll see beautifully observed elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, oryx, snakes and birds, accurately portrayed in sinuous outline or solid bodies of colour – often earthy whites, reds and ochres. Frequently quite small, they’re dotted all over rock surfaces, sometimes painted one over the other to create a rich patina.

Archeologists now regard many of the images as metaphors for religious experiences, one of the most important of which is the healing trance dance, still practised by the few surviving Bushman communities. The rock faces can be seen as portals between the human and spiritual world: when we gaze at Bushman rock art we are gazing into the house of the spirits.

You don’t need to book to walk the trail, but you do need a permit, which can be obtained from Traveller’s Rest Farm (www.travellersrest.co.za), which also has accommodation and lays on horse trails.

 

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After a search for the most captivating, exciting and beautiful travel photography, the Travel Photographer of the Year Awards announced their final winners last week. Here is a selection of our favourite images from this set of talented photographers.

Eagle hunter, Alti Region, Mongolia

By Simon Morris | www.tpoty.com

Powell Point, Grand Canyon South Rim, USA

 By Gerard Baeck | www.tpoty.com

 A woman serves butter tea in her home in Laya, Bhutan

 By Timothy Allen | www.tpoty.com

Emma Orbach playing the harp in her mud hut in Pembrokeshire, Wales

By Timothy Allen | www.tpoty.com

Japanese Macaques, Jigokudani Yaen Kōen, Japan

By Jasper Doest | www.tpoty.com

Nepali New Year festival, Bhaktapur, Nepal

By Jovian Salak | www.tpoty.com

Lionesses hunting, Chief’s Island, Botswana

By Ed Hetherington | www.tpoty.com

Northern Lights, Kirkjufell, Iceland

By James Woodend | www.tpoty.com

Lioness defends her kill from vultures, hyenas and jackals Masai Mara, Kenya

By Nicolas Lotsos | www.tpoty.com

 Phuket, Thailand

By Justin Mott | www.tpoty.com

Cheetah cub and mother, Masai Mara, Kenya

By Marco Urso | www.tpoty.com

Altai Mountains, Mongolia

By Tariq Sawyer | www.tpoty.com

Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India

By Roberto Nistri | www.tpoty.com

Lionesses hunting, Chief’s Island, Botswana

By Ed Hetherington | www.tpoty.com

A spear gypsy spear-fishing in the Andaman Sea

 By Cat Vinton | www.tpoty.com

Amazon rainforest, Brazil

By David Lazar | www.tpoty.com

Camel racing, north of Wahiba Sands, Oman

 By Jason Edwards | www.tpoty.com

Kolkata Skateboarding Club, Kolkata, India

By Gavin Gough | www.tpoty.com

A grain seller, Jaipur, India

 By Merissa Quek | www.tpoty.com

Pokot tribe, Amaya village, East Pokot, Kenya

 By Roberto Nistri | www.tpoty.com

The Flatiron building, New York City, USA

 By Tom Pepper | www.tpoty.com

Masai Mara, Kenya

 By David Lazar | www.tpoty.com

Pop stars, travelling from coach to bar and from plane to arena, are notoriously oblivious about the city they happen to be performing in. There are countless stories of frontmen bellowing “Hello, Detroit!” when they’re actually in Toronto. But some places have a genuine buzz about them. London is fine, but all too often its crowds sit back and wait to be impressed. If you want real passion, vibrant venues and bands who really play out of their skin, Glasgow is where it’s at.

Scotland’s biggest city has an alternative rock pedigree that few can match. Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Simple Minds, Snow Patrol and Belle & Sebastian have all sprung from a city that Time magazine has described as Europe’s “secret capital” of rock music. Its gig scene, which stretches from gritty pubs to arty student haunts, marvellous church halls to cavernous arenas, is enthusiastic, vociferous and utterly magnetic. Nice ’N’ Sleazy and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (where Alan McGee first spotted Oasis) are legendary in their own right, but if one venue really defines the city, it’s the Barrowland.

Opened in the 1930s as a ballroom (which explains the fine acoustics), it was the hunting ground of the killer known as “Bible John” in the late sixties. It’s still a fairly rough-and-ready place – the Barras market is just outside, and its location in the Celtic heartland of Glasgow’s East End makes it a favoured venue for rambunctious traditional bands. Shane McGowan’s been there, drinking lurid cocktails, his slurred vocals drowned out by a roaring crowd. So have Keane, flushed at the success of their piano-pop debut, and looking bemused at the small fights that broke out near the front at their performance.

Of course, most gigs finish without the drama getting violent. With a 2000-person capacity that’s atmospheric but intimate, and without any seats or barriers to get in the way of the music or the pogoing, the Barrowland is a wonderful place to see a live performance, full of energy and expectation. I’ve seen PJ Harvey transfix the crowd, the Streets provoke wall-to-wall grins, the Mars Volta prompt walkouts, Leftfield play spine-shaking bass and Echo and the Bunnymen cement their return with dark majesty. Go get some memories of your own.

The Barrowland is at 244 Gallowgate, Glasgow (www.glasgow-barrowland.com).

 

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Smartphones and tablets have become an essential item in our backpacks nowadays, especially as wi-fi is pretty much everywhere and roaming charges are soon to be scrapped in Europe. If you’re going away in 2014, make sure you’re in the know with the best travel apps and websites for your trip:

1. CityMapper

Got a trip to London or New York on the cards in 2014? Don’t dream of setting foot on those pavements/sidewalks without downloading the free CityMapper app. It’s the king of the transport apps, telling you exactly how to get from place to place by bus, train, tube, on foot or by bike. It even includes times, prices and real-time route problems. Plus, one click of the “get me home” button instantly redirects you back to where you are staying. There are plans to cover more cities in 2014, so stay tuned.

2. MyPlusOne

In 2012, MyPlusOne launched in Berlin on the back of a simple concept: renting out a stylish studio apartment, with the added bonus of a local guide/friend to be your “plus one”, as and when required. The company is now expanding, with a MyPlusOne network that allows people to meet locals in more cities, including London, Paris and Barcelona. Instead of paying money, users will be able to barter a skill or a gift in exchange for their local experience. Coming soon in beta, the official launch (on getmyplusone.com) will follow early in the New Year.

3. Hailo

Still phoning for a cab or simply waiting for one to pass by? How very old school. The smart kids are downloading the right app and e-hailing their ride. Hailo has assembled a network of taxi drivers in various global cities, including London, Dublin, Barcelona, New York, Toronto and Tokyo, and it’s expanding rapidly. Just two taps sends a car your way and you can watch it move towards you via your phone’s GPS. Available on iPhone and Android (free). See also: Uber (a growing private car network) and TapACab (UK only).

4. Onavo

Europe is planning to scrap roaming charges from July 2014, but you can avoid any nasty bills in the meantime by keeping a closer eye on your data usage. Onavo – which was recently bought by Facebook – offers two free and very clever apps. Onavo Extend will shrink the amount of data you use (by routing it through its own servers). Onavo Count will then keep track of how you are using it. Remember: always get a data bundle from your operator before you travel.

5. Bustripping.com

Love overland travel and want to get the cheapest tickets? This site aims to be the Kayak.com of long-distance bus travel. Use the website (bustripping.com), or the new app to search for the best deals in across the USA and various European cities. It’s set to grow in 2014, in a bid to see off similar start-ups, including Wanderu (currently eastern USA only).

6. EatWith

Jumping on the supper-club trend with its online round-the-world directory, EatWith seems to be adding new countries by the day. Just pick a destination and find a home to eat in. At last count they have over 400 hosts in 20 different countries across Europe, the US and beyond (including Japan, Mexico, Argentina). Setting up a meal through this site is a sure-fire way to give your next trip an interesting and unusual dimension.

7. Pinterest

How did such a simple concept as an online picture scrapbook come to be worth $3.8bn? It’s the visual simplicity that people love. Travel content is one of its most popular features, providing a quick hit of inspiration and a great base for creating dream wishlists. Good travel boards include Places to See, featuring standout sights around the world. Rough Guides is on there too: www.pinterest.com/roughguides.

8. Tripping.com

If it can put its New York controversies to one side, Airbnb will continue to be a major travel force in the year ahead. But one site that is refusing to allow it complete domination is Tripping.com. Functioning as an aggregator, it brings together all the peer-to-peer accommodation rentals from varied Airbnb competitors, including Wimdu and HomeAway. Over one million properties are searchable on the site, making it the biggest in the business.

9. Workaway

Does everything have to be sparkly and new in 2014? Not necessarily. Sometimes we just need a reminder that a site is still out there and doing its thing, even if it has none of the whistles and bells of some of its contemporaries. In short, if you fancy doing something different this year, Workaway is worth a look for its lists of free work placements around the world, for volunteering, language learning or cultural exchanges. See also: Wwoof and GlobalHelpSwap.

10. Drungli

Ever just wanted to go somewhere, anywhere from the nearest airport – and on a limited budget? Having just launched in mid-2013, Budapest-based start-up Drungli.com is still in beta stage, but it could soon be the place to come for a roulette approach to holidays. Just add your starting point and your dates (which can be as wide as month-long period) and it will suggest a handful of places to try. If your new year’s resolution is to be more spontaneous, start here.

Book hostels for your next trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Throughout Scotland, not just in the Highlands, summer signals the onset of the Highland Games, from the smallest village get-togethers to the Giant Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, which draws a crowd of 10,000. Urbanites might blanch at the idea of al fresco Scottish country dancing, but with dog trials, tractors, fudge stalls and more cute animals than you could toss a caber at, the Highland Games are a guaranteed paradise for kids.

It’s thought that the games originated in the eleventh century as a means of selecting soldiers through trials of strength and endurance. These events were formalized in the nineteenth century, partly as a result of Queen Victoria’s romantic attachment to Highland culture: a culture that had in reality been brutally extinguished following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden.

The military origins of the games are recalled in displays of muscle-power by bulky bekilted local men, from tossing the caber (ie tree trunk) to hurling hammers and stones, and pitching bales of straw over a raised pole. Music and dance are also integral to the games, with pipe bands and small girls – kitted out in waistcoats, kilts and long woolly socks – performing reels and sword dances. You might also see showjumping, as well as sheepdogs being put through their paces, while the agricultural shows feature prize animals, from sleek ponies with intricate bows tied in their manes and tails to curly-horned rams.

Highland Games are held from May to September – the big gatherings include Braemar (www.braemargathering.org) and Cowal (www.cowalgathering.com).

 

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Stand in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square and in a 360-degree turn, the turbulent past and present of Russia is encapsulated in one fell swoop: flagships of Orthodox Christianity, Tsarist autocracy, communist dictatorship and rampant consumerism confront each other before your eyes.

Red Square, is, well, red-ish, but its name actually derives from an old Russian word for “beautiful”. It might no longer be undeniably so – its sometimes bloody history has put paid to that – but it continues to be Moscow’s main draw. In summer, postcard sellers jostle with photographers, keen to capture your image in front of one of the many iconic buildings; but in winter, you step back in time a few decades as Muscovites, in their ubiquitous shapki fur hats, negotiate their way through piles of snow, while the factory chimneys behind St Basil’s Cathedral churn out copious amounts of
smoke.

It’s hard to avoid being drawn immediately to St Basil’s, its magnificent Mr Whippy domes the fitting final resting place of the eponymous holy fool. Should retail, rather than spiritual, therapy, be more your bag, try GUM, the elegant nineteenth-century shopping arcade, which now houses mainly western boutiques, way out of the pocket of the average Russian, but very decent for a spot of window-shopping or a coffee, or just to shelter from the elements outside. If you think that the presence of Versace and other beacons of capitalism would have Lenin spinning in his grave, you can check for yourself at the mausoleum opposite, where his wax-like torso still lies in state. Despite the overthrow of communism, surly guards are on hand to ensure proper respect is shown: no cameras or bags, no hands in pockets and certainly no laughing. Putin’s police officers are never far away, casting a wary eye over it all – perhaps having learned a thing or two from Lenin’s bedfellows and disciples (including Uncle Joe), who are lined up behind the mausoleum under the imposing walls of the Kremlin.

Red Square can be reached from Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Aleksandrovskiy Sad, Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and Borovitskaya metros.

 

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Indigenous communities in Costa Rica are relatively unknown and often overlooked, so visiting them makes for a truly fascinating and authentic experience. In the remote Bribrí village of Yorkín, men and women are equal and sustain themselves through farming, fishing and hunting. Rough Guides writer, Anna Kaminski, met the woman behind the collective.

Our motorised dugout canoe makes its slow way up the Bribrí river, with dense jungle looming on either side and the air heavy with the promise of rain. The stillness around us is broken only by the lapping of the water and the frantic fluttering of parakeets overhead. It’s the beginning of the dry season, and parts of the river are already shallow; Victor, our guide, periodically jumps into the swiftly-moving, knee-deep water to help the boatman steer our craft towards deeper patches. Even getting to the boat dock was an adventure – a drive from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, through the town of Bribrí, and then a trundle along a bumpy track, complete with stream crossings, to the path through the cane fields leading to the boat landing.

Finally, a cluster of thatched huts on the riverbank comes into view. We have reached our destination: Yorkín, a remote village of 210 Bribrí people that sits just across the river from the border with Panama.

Though Costa Rica is very well-trodden as a tourist destination, the country’s indigenous population is often overlooked as it’s relatively unknown. Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups – the Boruca, Bribrí, Cabecar, Guaymí, Huetar, Maleku, Matambú and Térraba – number just over 100,000 and are spread over 22 reserves, the largest ones located in the southeastern part of the country, near the Caribbean coast. The Bribrí account for roughly a third of this population, and all communities face serious challenges – in spite of getting the right to vote in 1994 – such as stopping the government from encroaching on their land and preserving traditional culture and languages.

We’re met by Bernarda, a robust woman in her late thirties, with a ready smile and braided hair. She leads us to a large elevated communal space topped by a conical roof made of woven palm fronds. I ask her about the sign above the door that reads “Stibrawpa”, which apparently means “women who make handicrafts”.

“This is the meeting place of the women’s collective that I started twenty years ago. I was only nineteen years old; it was very hard work at the beginning. When I was fourteen, I had my first baby. I wanted a better life for him than what we had, so when I was eighteen, I went to university in Alajuela for a year to study tourism and equal rights. My idea was to find ways to preserve Bribrí culture and to educate outsiders about it. Sustainable tourism, in other words.”

The collective now has its own school, with 53 students attending from four different Bribrí communities (including two from across the border in Panama), who learn the indigenous language; only half the Bribrí population used to speak it.

“This is the only community in Costa Rica where machismo [the belief of supremacy of men over women] has been eradicated; men and women work together as equals”, explains Bernarda. This is particularly unique as usually the Bribrí are a matrilineal society, so only women can inherit and when a man marries, he has to move in with his in-laws.

Last year, 4000 people visited this community, some to help rebuild houses after the floods of 2008, and others to learn more about the Bribrí way of life, staying overnight in “Stibrawpa 2” – another thatched-roof building.

We stroll along a dirt path that runs past the houses and Bernarda shows me their crops of cocoa and bananas, which are exported to Italy and the USA. For their own food, the Bribrí fish using sharp arrows and hunt, once a week, for agouti (a rodent like animal common in South and Central America).

In the clearing by the cooking hut, a small mound of cocoa beans is scattered along a stone tray. We all take turns crushing the beans using the grinding stone provided, then the mixture is put through the metal grinder, leaving us with a wonderfully aromatic brown paste. One of the women mixes some of the paste with boiling water and sugar, presenting me with the best hot cocoa I’ve ever had. Bribrí mythology says that God once turned a woman into a cocoa tree and as a result, only women are now allowed to make this delicious drink.

We try our hand at archery and then sit down to a simple lunch of chicken with rice, beans and cassava as a downpour finally lets loose, prompting the men –  who’ve been weaving a roof for a new house nearby – to run for cover. Bernarda tells us that such a roof, woven from tightly knotted palm fronds, can last up to eight years.

As dusk falls and we prepare to listen to the elders tell Bribrí stories of creation around the communal fire, I reflect on how content the villagers seem in spite (or perhaps because of) their relative isolation, and the simplicity of everyday life. Given the tenacious efforts of individuals such as Bernarda, it seems that this way of life may survive a while longer.

To explore more of this beautiful country, buy the Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Imagine spending all day sightseeing, taking a shower and a nap, and then looking out of the window to see the sky as bright as midday. Your body kicks into overdrive, and the whole day seems to lie ahead of you. The streets throng with people toting guitars and bottles of champagne or vodka; naval cadets and their girlfriends walking arm in arm, and pensioners performing impromptu tea-dances on the riverbank. The smell of black tobacco mingles with the perfume of lilac in parks full of sunbathers. It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and St Petersburg is gearing up for another of its White Nights.

Freezing cold and dark for three months of the year, St Petersburg enjoys six weeks of sweltering heat when the sun barely dips below the horizon – its famous Byele Nochy, or White Nights. Children are banished to dachas in the countryside with grandparents, leaving parents free to enjoy themselves. Life becomes a sequence of tsusovki (gatherings), as people encounter long-lost friends strolling on Nevsky prospekt or feasting in the Summer Garden at midnight.

To avoid disrupting the daytime flow of traffic, the city’s bridges are raised from 2am onwards to allow a stream of ships to sail upriver into Russia’s vast interior. Although normally not a spectacle, during White Nights everyone converges on the River Neva embankments to watch, while bottles are passed from person to person, and strangers join impromptu singsongs around anyone with a guitar or harmonium – chorusing folk ballads or “thieves’ songs” from the Gulag. Those with money often hire a boat to cruise the canals that wend through the heart of the city.

The bridges are briefly lowered during the middle of the night, allowing queues of traffic fifteen minutes to race across. Keeping in lane is entirely ignored, with drivers jockeying for position as if it was a chariot race. By this time, people are stripping off and jumping into the Neva – those too prodigiously drunk to realize go swimming fully clothed.

The White Nights last from June 11 to July 2.

 

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Even after seven unbroken days on a train from Moscow, nothing can prepare you for the Chinese border. As you pull into the platform, which is lit up in neon colours, a Chinese-tinged version of the Vienna Waltz comes blaring over the Tannoy. Trying to work out the cultural relevance of this is a hopeless task, as the tune soon changes – moving through the works of Richard Clayderman before finishing as you draw away with a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. As the music fades, the train rolls into a vast shed manned with soldiers and workers in hard hats. Each carriage is then separated and raised on hydraulics, the wheels removed and new narrower ones rolled into place to match the Chinese gauges – the whole process lasting almost two hours. All while the passengers are still on board.

This isn’t the Trans-Siberian railway (which goes to Vladivostok) but its more tourist-friendly sister the Trans-Mongolian, which veers south just after Lake Baikal, stopping in Ulaan Bator on its way to Beijing. The first few days showcase the vastness of the forested Russian landscape, so that as you approach Lake Baikal early on day four, the sight of contours and water is a bit of relief – though it soon gives way to the barren steppe and then desert of Mongolia.

At times the train has quite a party atmosphere, with travellers playing cards, swapping anecdotes or eating and drinking in the restaurant car, which is replaced at each border by a new car serving food from and run by members of the country you’re passing through. The best is the Mongolian, but more for the ornate woodcarvings and wall-hangings than because the food is much to remember.

Buy your ticket in Moscow and it is probably the best-value form of intercontinental transport imagineable, especially if you get one of the two-person “first class” cabins – en-suite and complete with armchair and writing desk. Along the way you can get off at various stations to stock up on provisions sold by women from the surrounding villages. Normally they offer fresh vegetables and fruit from their gardens, dried fish and various homemade rolls, dumplings and cakes.

Cheaper than flying, many times more fun and at a fraction of the environmental cost, the Trans-Mongolian really is the epitome of the adage that it’s the journey that counts.

The best place to start researching is www.seat61.com. The weekly Trans-Mongolian train leaves Moscow for Beijing every Tuesday night. Fares start at around £220 one-way in a second-class four-berth cabin or £345 in a first-class two-berth. You can get tickets far cheaper than this (perhaps from as little as £150) if you buy them in Moscow but you’ll have to be very time-flexible and patient. Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk) is an efficient British/Russian agency that can organize the trip and process visas.

 

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Just as you should arrive in Venice on a boat, it is best to arrive in Lisbon on a tram, from the point where many people leave it for good: at Prazeres, by the city’s picturesque main cemetery. Get a taxi to the suburban terminus of tram 28 for one of the most atmospheric public-transport rides in the world: a slow-motion roller coaster into the city’s historic heart.

Electric trams first served Lisbon in 1901, though the route 28 fleet are remodelled 1930s versions. The polished wood interiors are gems of craftsmanship, from the grooved wooden floors to the shiny seats and sliding window panels. And the operators don’t so much drive the trams as handle them like ancient caravels, adjusting pulleys and levers as the streetcar pitches and rolls across Lisbon’s wavy terrain. As tram 28 rumbles past the towering dome of the Estrela Basilica, remember the famous bottoms that have probably sat exactly where you are: the writers Pessoa and Saramago, the singer Mariza, footballers Figo and Eusebio.

You reach central Lisbon at the smart Chiado district, glimpses of the steely Tagus flashing into view between the terracotta roof tiles and church spires. Suddenly you pitch steeply downhill, the tram hissing and straining against the gradients of Rua Vitor Cordon, before veering into the historic downtown Baixa district. Shoppers pile in and it’s standing room only for newcomers, but those already seated can admire the row of traditional shops selling sequins and beads along Rua da Conceição through the open windows.

Now you climb past Lisbon’s ancient cathedral and skirt the hilltop castle, the vistas across the Tagus estuary below truly dazzling. The best bit of the ride is yet to come though, a weaving, grinding climb through the Alfama district, Lisbon’s village-within-a-city where most roads are too narrow for cars. Entering Rua das Escolas Gerais, the street is just over tram width, its shopfronts so close that you can almost lean out and take a tin of sardines off the shelves.

Tram 28 runs from roughly 6am to 11pm. Check www.carris.pt for fares.

 

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