Drifting up the Niger, Mali

Boats have been ferrying people up and down the River Niger since 1964 and, although these days you are likely to see more goats than people on board, there is no better way to get close to Malian life as you slip past villages clinging to the cliff side and sand dunes reaching down to the water’s edge. It takes six days to drift from Koulikoro to Gao, a total of 1300km, but the benefit of taking a boat is the time spent with locals, sharing stories and exchanging views.

Drifting up the Niger, Mali

Exploring the Thar desert by camel, India

In defiance of its old name, Marusthali (Land of Death), the Thar is the most densely populated of the world’s great deserts. Yet the only way to reach the more isolated settlements is by camel: riding out into the scrub, two metres off the ground, the last citadel town behind, you enter another kind of India – one of shimmering vistas, blue skies and profound stillness.

Exploring the Thar desert by camel, India

Explore Dubai on a Dhow, United Arab Emirates

A cruise up Dubai’s historic Creek can reveal the history underneath the Vegas-style attractions of the modern city. In the past Stone, Bronze and Iron Age settlements sprang up on both sides of the river, followed by the famous mud and palm-frond huts of the early pearl divers. Now, amid the towering buildings of the oil-boom, are the low-rise sprawls with their temples, markets and teahouses. Drifting past the sights, smells and sounds you can explore real Dubai.

Explore Dubai on a Dhow, United Arab Emirates

Taking the train across Australia

Flying is the quickest and cheapest way to get between the major cities of Australia, but take the train and you’ll see the wheat fields of Victoria, the dusty outback towns and kilometres of endless white-sand beaches. The Indian Pacific, from Sydney to Perth, is one of the world’s longest train journeys. It’s a three-day, 4352km trip, stopping along the way for you to spend an evening in the gold-rush town of Kalgoorlie and visit the remote outpost community of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain.

Taking the train across Australia

Joining a boat up the Mekong, laos

The boat journey between Luang Prabang and the Thai border passes through some of the most unspoilt passages of the Mekong River. Evidence of civilisation is scarce amid the endless jungle that lines the steep, cloud-topped hills, and you’ll probably see little more than rice paddies, small teak plantations or isolated wooden fishing villages. Certainly speedboat or bus will get you to your destination faster but travelling on the Luangsuay, a 34m river barge, is a more peaceful, leisurely way to appreciate life on the river.

Joining a boat up the Mekong, laos

Taking a mekoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana

As your poler guides the traditional dugout canoe through the maze of islands and rivers, lilies and reeds, he’s also watching out for crocodiles and hippos. His vigilance means you can keep your binoculars trained on the bathing elephants and herds of antelope which seek sanctuary here, away from the barren Kalahari desert. Trips with the community-run Okavango Polers’ Trust last about three days, camping on islands and ensuring you leave no trace of your visit behind.

Taking a mekoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Pony trekking, Lesotho

The four-day horse-riding trip offered by Drakensberg Adventures begins with the Sani Pass in eastern Kwazulu Natal, a rubble strewn track and the highest pass in Southern Africa. Crossing the border at the top you reach The Sani Top Chalet where a sign lets you know that, at 3482m, you are sitting in the highest bar in Africa. Here the real journey begins: two days’ riding to reach Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest point south of Kilimanjaro, where you can stop for a well-earned lunch.

Pony trekking, Lesotho

Rafting on Klaralven River, Sweden

Build your own timber raft from a dozen ropes and logs and float down the Klarälven, Sweden’s longest river. You can take your raft out for just one afternoon, but to get the most from your DIY achievement it’s best to go on a five – or eight – day trip to fully explore the river. There are periods of intense activity (rapids and whirlpools) but most of the journey is a slow meander so you can keep an eye out for beaver and moose, and bask in the success of your handmade raft.

Rafting on Klaralven River, Sweden

Drifting down the Canal du Midi, France

Take a barge down the seventeenth century Canal du Midi and drift through Languedoc. The long hours of sunshine in this part of France power the boat’s hot water and electric motor, so the only complication you face is negotiating a “ladder” of seven lock gates before the final stretch of the 75km journey to Pont Neuf in Béziers. Your seven days begins in the medieval town of Carcassonne, and there’s plenty to do en route, or you could simply take it slow.

Drifting down the Canal du Midi, France

Taking the Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

Board the Caledonian sleeper train one evening and the following morning you’ll wake up in the heart of the Scottish Highlands – a slow, subconscious teleport out of the urban grit and grind into the mountainous fresh and wild. The train leaves Euston at 9:15, reaching Crewe around midnight from where it trundles up to Scotland. It arrives mid-morning at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, but if you wake early you can always take a peek out your window at the Central Highlands.

Taking the Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

Going further, slower on a Keralan houseboat

In 1991 Tour India launched the first tourist houseboat, converted from an old kettuvallam barge. Today the company has six boats and offer long charters that allow you to explore more remote areas: little-visited waterways and genuine, workaday villages. For an even slower journey there’s Coco Houseboats. You don’t cover as much ground, but your journey is more peaceful, with time to enjoy the passing scenery.

Going further, slower on a Keralan houseboat

Taking a trip on a Dhow, Mozambique

Just hoisting the sail of a dhow is hard work, but as soon as it catches a breeze they sail across the ocean as gracefully as any yacht. A plank of wood nailed across the hull is where you sit, while the captain tills the wooden rudder. There are organised trips, but by asking around you should be able to arrange a ride with a local fishermen.

Taking a trip on a Dhow, Mozambique

Rough Guides writer Steve Vickers casts an eye over the big travel topics and unpicks some of the most unusual stories in the latest travel news.

Turkey introduces e-visas for tourists

If you’re travelling to Turkey later this year, you might have to do some forward planning. Tourists arriving in the country after 10th April 2014 will no longer be able to get a visa on arrival, and (with only a few exceptions) will instead have to apply for an ‘e-visa’ before travelling. According to the government website that’s been set up to deal with e-visa applications, the new system will help cut queuing times at immigration.

The cheap route to Okinawa

Okinawa island, Japan

Japan’s biggest airline, All Nippon Airways, will soon start operating new flights from London to Tokyo, increasing competition on an already busy route. Why should you care? Because the same airline’s budget offshoot, Vanilla Air, is now offering super-cheap fares from Tokyo to the sub-tropical island of Okinawa, almost a thousand miles to the southwest. When we last checked, one-way tickets from Tokyo to the easy-going island, home to some of the longest-living people on earth, were going for ¥7,500 (around £45). That’s cheaper than the basic one-way fare on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, a journey of just over 300 miles.

Flying got safer in 2013

Jittery at the thought of flying? This bit of news may encourage you to get back in the air. Statistics published by the European Aviation Safety Agency show that in 2013, the number of fatal accidents involving commercial planes was lower than at any time in the past decade. Worldwide, there were 17 accidents leading to 224 deaths, compared with a yearly average of 27 accidents and 703 deaths (to put things in perspective, the World Health Organisation estimates that around 1.24 million people are killed each year on the roads). Looking at European aviation alone, the statistics are incredible; despite more than 800 million passengers taking to the skies with commercial airlines in Europe, not a single fatal accident was recorded.

tan lines

“The best thing in tanning – since the sun”

Arriving home after a holiday in the sun, things can feel a little… dull. So why not spend your first day back at the office colouring yourself in? Tanee, a tan-line corrector pen, is now being sold at airports and hotels around the world with the aim of helping travellers to cover up their embarrassing tanning ‘blunders’. The product is being marketed – quite seriously, it would seem – as the ‘best thing in tanning since the sun’. The pictures on the Tanee website, though, make it look suspiciously like an orange marker pen.

Putting the romance back in rail travel

The South Coast Railroad Museum in California, USA, is doing its best to inject a bit of romance back into rail travel. On the 15th and 16th of February this year, the museum will be running Valentine’s themed train trips along a stretch of the Pacific coast that’s edged by vineyards on one side and surf-lashed beaches on the other. The ‘Sweetheart Special’ services (from $126) will take around six hours to travel from Santa Barbara to Goleta and back, with lunches served up in historic rail cars from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Goleta Depot, South Coast Railroad Museum, Goleta, California, USA

New maritime museum is a long way from the sea

The Texan city of Dallas is a good 260 miles from the nearest stretch of coastline, but that hasn’t stopped plans being made for a brand-new seafaring museum. This summer, work is expected to start on a new riverside development that will eventually house the Dallas Maritime Museum. When complete, the centrepiece of the museum will be the USS Dallas, a nuclear submarine that was named after the city and – although still in active service – is due to be decommissioned soon.

Final call

Iceland has been given a starring role in big-budget productions like Game of Thrones and Ben Stiller’s latest film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But the country is surely at its best when it’s filmed like this: rugged, wild and empty.

My magic Iceland | Timelapse from MY WORLD MY MAGIC on Vimeo.

Find out where you should be travelling this year with the Rough Guide to 2014: a comprehensive list of the best countries, cities and best-value destinations to visit this year.

First, tea is served. In a fancy teapot, with biscuits, by a butler dressed in pristine white uniform. You gaze lazily out of the window as porters labour in the crushing afternoon humidity, blissfully cool in your air-conditioned cabin. Then the train eases out of the station: the skyscrapers of Singapore soon fall away, and you’re across the Straits of Johor and into the lush, torpid palm plantations of Malaysia.

This is the Eastern & Oriental Express, the luxurious train service that runs between Singapore and Bangkok, the last remnant of opulent colonial travel in Southeast Asia – evoking the days of posh British administrators, gin-sloshed planters and rich, glamorous dowagers rather like the set of a Merchant Ivory movie.

To be fair, you’re more likely to meet professionals from San Francisco or Hong Kong on the train today. There are a couple of stops to break the three-day journey – a rapid but absorbing trishaw ride through old Penang, and an evocative visit to the bridge over the River Kwai – but it’s the train itself that is the real highlight of the trip.

If you feel the need to stretch your legs, the observation car offers a 360-degree panorama of the jungle-covered terrain, and there’s a shop selling gifts to prove you’ve been. Then there’s the elegant dining car. Eating on the train is a real treat, superb haute cuisine and Asian meals prepared by world-class chefs. Many choose to wear evening dress to round off the fantasy and after dinner retire to the bar car, where cocktails and entertainment await, from mellow piano music to formal Thai dance. A word of warning: after all this, reality hurts. Standing on the chaotic platform of Bangkok’s Hualampong station, you might long to get back on board.

Singapore to Bangkok costs around US$2000 one way – see www.orient-express.com.

 

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Opened in 1935, the Moscow Metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant projects. Its stations, with their lavish and ornate interiors, were conceived as showcases of Soviet success, and aimed at making the city the world’s capital of Communism. Follow Kiki Deere’s tour of the most spectacular metro stops to learn more about Russia’s past.

Today, Moscow’s Metro is a walking museum of Communist design, with underground halls and palatial vestibules decorated with mosaics, marble, bronze statues, stained-glass windows and bas-reliefs – to name a few. Whether you’re travelling one stop, or fancy taking a leisurely tour, there’s something to learn at every station.

BEGIN WITH BEAUTIFUL MAYAKOVSKAYA

Undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful metro stations, Mayakovskaya was named after the renowned Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The station is famous for the wonderful 34 oval niches that adorn the ceiling depicting “24 Hours in the Sky of the Soviets”. The mosaics within portray life in the USSR: tractors plough endless kolkhoz fields, fruits ripen and Soviet youth are hard at work or resting after a long day of labour. The ticket hall is covered with marble and limestone from Georgia, while the resplendent floor combines white marble with grey and pink granite. In 1938, the station was awarded the Grand Prize at the New York World Trade Fair.

Mayakovskaya, Moscow Metro

POETRY AT PUSHKINSKAYA

From here it’s just one stop to Pushkinskaya, named after the Russian poet Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin. Illuminated by splendid nineteenth century chandeliers, the hall features marble columns with brass insertions devoted to the poet, each displaying his best-known lines. The passage that leads to the adjoining station of Chekhovskaya contains an elegant bust of the poet himself.

CELEBRATE THEATRE AT TEATRALNAYA

One stop further south is Teatralnaya, named after the Russian for “theatre” due to its proximity to a number of auditoriums, including the world-famous Bolshoi. This station, a cultural heritage sight, has a vaulted ceiling decorated with coffers and bas-reliefs fitted into diamond-shaped niches, celebrating the creative arts. The porcelain figures feature members of the Soviet republics in national dress performing folk dances and playing traditional musical instruments. The chequered floor is composed of black and yellow granite slabs; round marble pillars and lamps with bronze rims illuminate the hall.

HOP OFF AT OKHOTNY RYAD FOR RED SQUARE

An underground passageway connects Teatralnaya to Okhotny Ryad, where passengers alight for Red Square. The station, whose name over the years was changed a grand total of four times, is home to a mosaic portrait of Karl Marx, another clear reminder of the country’s communist past. Curiously, however, this is the only station on the original metro line where the materials used were imported from outside the USSR. Italian Carrera and Bardiglio marble dominate among white ceramic tiles and spherical lamps.

FIND GOOD FORTUNE AT PLOSHCHAD REVOLYUTSII

From Okhotny Ryad, passengers can connect to the station of Ploshchad Revolyutsii, or Revolution Square, where red, golden, white and grey Armenian marble embellish the hall and the floor is lined with granite. Seventy-six life-like bronze figures sit majestically in arched niches, personifying the glorious past and resplendent future of the USSR. Among the sculptures are revolutionary workers, sailors, athletes, peasants and soldiers. All manner of superstitions have settled around the statues, from stroking the nose of a frontier guard’s dog for luck in exams, to rubbing a sailor’s pistol early in the morning to wish good fortune for the upcoming day.

Electrozavodskaya, Moscow Metro

GET ILLUMINATED AT ELEKTROZAVODSKAYA

Three stations east is Elektrozavodksaya, named after a nearby electric light plant. This spectacular station has 318 circular inset lamps lining the vault. Construction was halted at the onset of World War II, but was subsequently resumed in 1943 when a new theme arose as a result; a series of beautiful bas-reliefs depict the struggle faced by forces returning home from the front.

HUNT FOR FOSSILS AT ARBATSKAYA

Heading west from Ploshchad Revolyutsii is Arbatskaya. Once home to a mosaic portrait of Stalin, made of jasper and other semi-precious stones from the Ural Mountains, which was eventually taken down in 1955. The red Crimean marble that now features contains clearly visible fossils and is lit up by large brass chandeliers, while the vault is decorated with floral reliefs.

Arbatskaya, Moscow Metro

CROSS BORDERS AT KIEVSKAYA

Two stops along is Kievskaya, with its elegant interior displaying a series of frescos devoted to life in Ukraine. The station, named after the city of Kiev, was designed to showcase the strong relationship between Russia and its neighbour. The central hall displays a mosaic panel celebrating the union between the two countries.

AN AURA OF MAGIC AT NOVOSLOBODSKAYA

From here, the circle line leads to splendid Novoslobodskaya, adorned with 32 stained glass panels displayed in ornamental brass frames and illuminated from within, lending the station an aura of magic. An intricate mosaic panel produced in Riga decorates the end of the platform.

Novoslobodskaya, Moscow Metro

PORTRAITS OF HEROES AT TAGANSKAYA

Further along is Taganskaya, with its splendid 48 majolica panels displaying portraits of Red Army heroes. Each of the bas-reliefs represent servicemen, from pilots to sailors, while twelve gilded chandeliers illuminate the central hall. The southern end of the platform formerly displayed a relief panel of Stalin, which was later replaced by a composition that included a portrait of Lenin and the emblems of the USSR. This panel was eventually removed to make way for an underground passageway.

Did you know…?

1. The Moscow Metro is one of the world’s busiest undergrounds, carrying 9 million passengers daily.
2. A female voice announces stations when travelling out of the centre, while a male voice signals trains are moving towards the centre. This led to the saying “your boss calls you to work; your wife calls you home”.
3. On the circle line, moving clockwise announcements are spoken by a male while counter-clockwise they are spoken by a female, so that visually impaired people are aware of their direction of travel.
4. The stations served as bomb shelters during the Second World War, or Great Patriotic War, as it is referred to in Russia.
5. In 1941 Joseph Stalin addressed his party in the grand hall of Mayakovskaya station.

All photographs courtesy of Moscow Metro.
If you want to explore more of Russia, you can buy the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, and learn some Russian phrases to help you get around. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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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If you want to take a leisurely tour of the coastline between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the night train is the best way: you’ll travel as you sleep, leaving days free for exploring, and save money on hotel bills. Join Rough Guides writer Heidi Fuller-Love on her Vietnam railways adventure.

Known as the Reunification Express, Vietnam’s north-south line was built by the French when the region was part of French Indochina. Badly damaged by constant bomb attacks during the Vietnam War, it reopened in 1975 after the fall of Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon – and now I’m using it to navigate Vietnam’s coastal towns.

In Ho Chi Minh I head for the backpacker district, Pham Ngu Lao, and buy my ticket to Nha Trang from a travel agent, making sure they don’t charge me for a soft-sleeper and then book a hard one – a popular scam, apparently. In backstreets near Pham Ngu Lao I stock up on snacks for my trip: deep fried Nem Ran rolls stuffed with pork, yam and crab; Goi Cuon rice paper rolls bursting at the seams with shrimp, herbs and vermicelli, and a rice flour pancake Banh Xeo filled with pork, shrimps, and bean sprouts.

Nha Trang, Vietnam

A few minutes before midnight I’m battling with other passengers to board the battered night train. Fellow travellers had advised me to book the bottom bunk of a soft sleeper and I’m glad that I have – not only because the soft sleeper has less bunks, which means more space,  but because the it also has a mattress (albeit pancake-thin), whereas the hard sleeper berths are literally hard wooden planks.

As a solo female traveller, the prospect of a sleeping in a cramped four-bed cabin with total strangers is a little daunting, so it’s a relief when I find myself sharing with a friendly Vietnamese couple, the woman clad in the traditional ankle-length tunic and loose-fitting trousers known as ao dai. Rocked to sleep by the noisy click-clack of narrow gauge rails, I wake at 7am, just in time to stumble off the train at Nha Trang.

Vietnam’s most popular resort town ever since US soldiers came here to chill out during the war, Nha Trang is backed by mountains, borders a wide sandy bay and bursts to the brim with backpackers.

Along Tran Phu Street I discover the quirky little Yersin Museum filled with artefacts that once belonged to this Swiss-French doctor who discovered the plague bacillus here in 1894, and then toiling up 150 steps in tropical heat, I pay homage to the Long Son pagoda’s skyscraper-high white Buddha, built to commemorate monks who died demonstrating against the Diem government.

The Citadel, Hué, Vietnam

Two days and plenty of stray sand later I head for Nha Trang’s train station for the next leg of my trip: I’m heading to Hué.

Once again there’s a stampede when the train pulls in at ten minutes to midnight, but this time I’m positioned near the front of the queue and get on without too much pushing and shoving. The cabin is filthy: the floor strewn with the striped husks of sunflower seeds and the bed sheets grey and rumpled – I’m glad I brought my lightweight sleeping bag.

The train journey to Hué, 300kms north, takes 13 hours, so I have plenty of time to watch the scenery – rice fields, dense jungle and cemeteries dotted with US flags – flash by the following morning, before arriving at Hue’s  imposing red brick Ga just after midday.

Backed by the Truoung Son mountains (also known as the Annamite range), Hué is renowned for its bad-tempered weather, especially in Spring. With thunder grumbling and lightning sparking in the sky above, I stroll around the sprawling complex of temples, moats shops and museums in Hué’s walled citadel, which was once home to the Nguyen dynasty.

Hoi An tailor, Vietnam

The train dips inland after Hué so next morning I hop on a bus and take the spectacular three hour bus ride to the coastal Unesco world heritage site Hoi An. A major trading centre for spices until the 17th century, Hoi An’s pedestrian-only old town is magical and I spend a day browsing the clutter of Chinese temples, colonnaded colonial houses, fine jewellery stores and tailor shops. That evening I take a taxi to Danang for the last leg of my journey.

In Danang it’s so warm I’m wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, but by the time I reach Hanoi on the train the next morning, I’m shivering from the cold. On Vietnam’s northern tip, Hanoi is clouded in fog, but by the time I’ve found a street stand and ordered crispy Bánh Cun rice rolls stuffed with minced pork, and a syrupy-sweet cafe sua (coffee), the sun has come out.

There is plenty to see and do in Hanoi and I have plenty of time as I intend to spend the next month here. So, for now my journey is over. While the 726kms train ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi has been time and economically efficient, I am really looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed.

Book train tickets in Vietnam here, and find timetable and fares information.

Explore more of Vietnam with the Rough Guide to Vietnam, and discover neighbouring countries with our budget guide to Southeast Asia.
You can book hostels for your trip to Vietnam, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Earlier this year we gave one of you a chance to customise your own round the world trip and win an iPad. Now, our lucky winner Moira Ashely is back from the USA, and she kept us updated throughout her trip. Watch this interactive presentation in full screen to follow her footsteps and read all about her exploration of the USA’s southwest:

If you fancy exploring the USA head to our destination page for inspiration and buy the Rough Guide to the USA to help plan your trip. Book hostels for your trip here and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Rough Guides writer Steve Vickers casts an eye over the big travel topics and unpicks the top stories of the week.

More tourists welcome, but heavy planes are not

Climbers could soon be getting their crampons into five additional Nepalese peaks over 8,000m. Currently, just eight of the country’s highest mountains are accessible, but overcrowding on Everest (and an understandable desire to grow the industry) has encouraged officials to open up new mountains.

The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation is expected to make a decision about whether to approve expeditions on the new mountains at its annual summit (geddit?) this October.

If the new climbs are approved, increasing tourist numbers along the way, it’s not clear how well the country’s main airport will cope. Nepal’s civil aviation authority recently wrote to airlines using Tribhuvan International in Kathmandu, asking them to stop landing wide-bodied aircraft there. It’s thought heavier planes could be to blame for the cracks and potholes discovered on the ailing runway in recent weeks.

Blingy ringy thingies

With plenty of time left to run, an inventive Kickstarter campaign called Sesame Ring has smashed its fundraising target. The idea? To create wearable rings that act like Oyster cards, saving passengers the trouble of ever losing their travel passes. A nice twist is that the rings are created using 3D printers, making them super easy to customise.

But the thought of being married to one transport network, with a ring and everything, doesn’t sit easily with me. I can imagine promising myself to the London Underground, and then throwing the ring away to have an illicit affair with Bangkok’s Skytrain.

For anyone who travels a lot, the only alternative would be to wear a different ring for every city. As I still value the use of my fingers, I think I’ll stick to having a wallet full of travel passes.

Oyster card, London Underground

Art or porn?

Scandinavian hotel chain Nordic Choice has stopped giving its guests access to porn through on-demand TV stations. Yes, apparently that’s still a thing.

The chain’s owner, Petter Stordalen, reportedly reached the decision after getting involved with a Unicef campaign to help children affected by trafficking and sexual exploitation. “It’s a natural part of our social responsibility to not support an industry that contributes to trafficking,” he said.

Guests staying at the chain’s 171 hotels will instead be offered access to “high-end contemporary video art”. It’s a smart move, distancing Nordic Choice from a controversial industry. But with free, in-room wifi so widespread, it’s hard to imagine this kind of ban changing guests’ viewing habits.

Northern flights

Summer is ending and tour operators are already hard at work, trying to sell us winter breaks. Buried by the latest flurry of wintry PR was the news that fledgling Norwegian airline FlyNonStop will soon be launching flights from London City to Alta, in the far north of mainland Norway.

Northern Lights, Alta, Norway

As well as being a prime spot for watching the Northern Lights, the Arctic town has a rich Sami culture and thousands of prehistoric rock carvings on its doorstep. Best of all, the town’s sheltered location on the edge of a plunging fjord keeps temperatures mild. Well, for the Arctic.

Now for the bad news: the flights are not quite as direct as the airline’s name suggests (there’s a touchdown en-route at Bodø), and they are only available as part of a pricey package that includes a stay at the Sorrisniva igloo hotel.

Trips start in January. For information and prices contact The White Circle.

Disneyland in Africa

Hyperinflation and unrest scared tourists away, but Zimbabwe is hoping to win them back with a £193m theme park near Victoria Falls. The attraction, described by Zimbabwe’s tourism minister as “Disneyland in Africa”, is likely to include hotels, restaurants and conference facilities. Plans are still vague, but making anything manmade look good beside a natural wonder like Victoria Falls could be tricky.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

New Year in North Korea

Tourists making the trip to North Korea usually arrive on flights from China, but new routes to the country could soon be opening up – including some from Europe.

Jo Song Gyu, director of the state-owned International Travel Company, promised new flights as part of a “bright future” for tourism in the impoverished country. The news follows an announcement by Koryo Tours, a British-run company based in Beijing, stating that North Korea is now open to foreign visitors all year round, including the previously ‘closed’ period between December and January.

Before you get carried away with plans for a wild New Year in Pyongyang though, remember that visitors still have to spend their trips in the company of government minders.

Final call

Lastly, here’s a gorgeously shot video reminding us that modern jet planes are incredibly graceful machines, capable of bringing people together – or tearing lives apart.

Wolfe Air Reel from 3DF on Vimeo.

Spotted an unusual travel story? Let us know on Twitter (@RoughGuides) or Facebook, or comment below.

Camionetas (“chicken buses”) start their lives as North American school buses, Bluebirds built to ferry under-eights from casa to classroom. Once they move down to these parts, they’re decked out with gaudy “go faster” stripes and windshield stickers bearing religious mantras (“Jesús es el Señor”). Comfort, however, is not customizable: bench seat legroom is so limited that gringo knees are guaranteed a bruise or two, and the roads have enough crater-sized potholes to ensure that your gluteus maximus will take a serious pounding. But you choose to hop aboard in Antigua anyway, just to say you’ve ridden one if for no other reason.

Pre-departure rituals must be observed. Street vendors stream down the aisles, offering everything from chuchitos (stuffed maize dumplings) to bibles. Expect a travelling salesman-cum-quack to appear and utter a heartfelt monologue testifying how his elixir will boost libido, cure piles and insomnia (which won’t be a problem on the journey ahead). Don’t be surprised to find an indigenous family of delightful but snotty-nosed, taco-munching kids on your lap and a basket of dried shrimp under your feet; on the chicken bus, there’s no such thing as “maximum capacity”. A moustachioed driver jumps aboard, plugs in a tape of the cheesiest merengue the marketplace has to offer, and you’re off. The exhaust smoke is so dense even the street dogs run for cover.

Antigua to Nebaj doesn’t look much on a map – around 165km or so – but the route passes through four distinct Maya regions, so you look out for the tightly woven zig-zag shawls typical of Chichicastengo and the scarlet turban-like headdresses worn by the women of the Ixil. Considering the way the bus negotiates the blind bends of the Pan-American Highway, you’ll take anything to divert your attention.

With some luck, after five hours you arrive in Nebaj, a little shaken, slightly bruised, but with a story to tell.

Antigua’s main bus terminal is next to its market; set off for Chimaltenango, from where a directo leaves to Nebaj.

 

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