Prior to writing this I was considering writing about 10 of my favourite travel destinations, though I thought I would challenge myself even more by condensing it down to 5 favourite places. As might be expected, this is quite a superficial list given that there are so many incredible and interesting places in the world, where I could imagine myself living or at least returning to.
- Shuhe, Yunnan, China
China is notoriously crowded and hectic. Though a walk around the gardens of the Summer Palace in Beijing, an exploration of the Xi’an Terracotta Army museum and a cruise down the Li River are fantastic unmissable experiences, as an introvert, sometimes I need to find a little solitude, stillness and nature between the megacities and hustle and bustle of places which are on most tourists’ itineraries. This is my favourite place in China, a oasis where I could live if need be, where the air is clear and you can actually breathe without inhaling fumes. Shuhe is close to Lijiang and shares the same consistently beautiful architecture, canals, weeping willows and proximity to the mountains. What it doesn’t share with Lijiang is Western tourists. The main tourists you’ll find in Shuhe are Chinese, many of whom come solely to take memorable wedding photos.
Part of what made this such a memorable place for me was the exceptional hostel I stayed in. The Nomad Hostel and Café resides in a what was previously a Buddhist monastery, complete with the mandala courtyard and a small meditation room. A couple owns the place, a Dutch guy who cycled all the way here from Europe and fell in love with the place, and his Taiwanese girlfriend. They run the business on a none-profit basis, donating takings to a local orphanage. The vegetarian café is excellent, serving fresh fruit juices, smoothies, pancakes and a healthy selection of Western and Asian dishes.
The town is small, yet in every corner you’ll find a photograph or painting in the making. A short walk from the town brings you to the mountains, where Tibetan flags flutter in the wind. In the neighbouring town you can meet the famous Chinese medicine man, Dr Ho, who speaks limited English and might be able to find an alternative remedy to any ailment. From Shuhe you can visit the more touristic town of Lijiang, with the majestic Jade dragon mountain looming over it, use it as a base to hike along an earlier course of the Yangtze River at Tiger Leaping Gorge (pictured below), or continue on your way to Shangri-la and Tibet. This part of China is relatively unexploited, and this is certainly one of the most magical places I have visited in the world.
India is an amazing country, rich in natural beauty, a fascinating diversity of religions and cultures and boasting an impressive wealth of architectural treasures. I return again and again and always discover something new about the culture, and about myself. After two weeks of being ill, faced with cold showers and no radiator in 5 degrees Celcius, delayed trains and a three-week personal journalistic project in Shimla and Kolkata, I was exhausted. I had a week left, and I knew I wasn’t spending it working or waiting for the days to pass in New Delhi. A long-term yogi, I headed to Rishikesh which lies on the banks of the Ganges river.
Serious yogis come here for the cheap ashrams, spiritual vibes and beautiful nature, inspired perhaps by the Beatles who came here in the 1960s and left their mark. My preferred yoga discipline is Ashtanga, whose repetitive sequence really allows you to know your mind and body, and heal if need be, though I also sometimes practice Yin to relax or hatha for a change. Of the ashrams I tried, I can thoroughly recommend AYM yoga and Vini Yoga. In the former, you can often find yourself alone with the teacher, and perhaps one other student. The latter focuses more on hatha yoga, and places much emphasis on correcting the alignment of its students.
Aside from offering yoga and a whole host of outdoor sports during the season, Rishikesh is a holy Hindu city where no meat is allowed. You can get fined for possession of eggs in the old town; I liked this place. When not practising yoga or walking along the river I could usually be found eating in the incredible Oasis that is Ramana’s Garden, an orphanage/vegetarian Café/meditation centre whose organic food is all sourced from the garden, or one of Rishikesh’s many other vegetarian cafés.
Upon arriving at my guest house in paraty, I was surprised to discover that the three co-owners were all German. “I just love it here”, explained one of the ladies, “it’s got to be the most beautiful place on earth”. Though this is quite a statement, I could see her point as I explored Paraty and its easily accessible nature. A stone’s throw away from Rio de Janeiro, one of my favourite cities in the world, and Saõ Paolo, a major business city, Paraty was a surprising find. The blue misty mountains are covered in luscious, unexploited forests, the beaches are quiet, the water is clear, and the colonial architecture in the old town compliments the beautiful surroundings.
Every full moon, the streets flood, an intentional design feature of an old street cleaning method. The colourful houses reflect in the temporary canals, which enhance its harmoniously natural and manmade beauty.
The food here is plentiful and fresh. From the ubiquitous Açaii bowls, featuring pulverised açaii sweetened with banana and topped with muesli and kilo ice cream parlours where you can often try exotic fresh fruit flavours such as cupuaçu and açerola to the street vendors selling pāo de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), locally distilled cachaça, which is the prime ingredient in the national drink, the Caipirinha and an Amazonian restaurant serving chewy tapioca pancakes, stuffed with soft cheese and guava jam.
Unlike much of Europe and Asia, South American nature is largely unexploited. Near Paraty you can cheaply go on a snorkelling boat trip, slide down a natural rock slide into a fresh water pool, hike through the Blue mountains, rent a surf board and hit the beach or explore the local countryside on horseback.
New Orleans, USA
Crazily I only made it to Nola last year, reeling in 2015 dressed in Bowie-esque attire with some of the greatest people on the planet who I met through Couchsurfing. New Orleans is one of America’s oldest cities architecturally, many of the buildings in the French Quarter dating back to the 1790s, it’s one of America’s more youthful cities in soul. The sky is heavy with humidity, you feel it on your skin. The streets are alive with music and strange folk who do the most unexpected things in public. This is a city that doesn’t give a fuck what you think about it, and I like it that way.
Cheaper than New York and more colourful, artists flock here. It’s the closest thing to the Caribbean on the Mainland, fusing French, Spanish, British and Afro-carribean cultures due to its unfortunate history of colonial conquest and slavery. Horror tales involving voodoo surround New Orleans and its old world cemeteries, spooky vine-covered manor houses and nearby swamplands. Stray from the disappointingly touristic Bourbon Street and enjoy Jazz music around Frenchman street, near to which you can also find the night art market, showcasing some of Nola’s young artistic talent (such as that belonging to my eccentric CS host Josh Hailey). Vegetarian and vegan options are plentiful in this progressive city. My favourite places are pictured below. Don’t miss out on Beignets, skip the crowded Cafe du Monde and get some plant-based ones in Seed. This fantastic restaurant also has a great variety of cooked and raw vegan dishes, whereas Dreamy Weenies is an omnivorous hot dog joint with some great vegan options.
Cycling or walking around this city you’ll often be asked “why you are not taking a cab?” Let it slide by and enjoy slow travel around Louisiana’s capital. Eat some incredible veggie food and experience créole flavours. Get lost in the French quarter, relax in the New Orleans City Park and Botanical gardens. I have never seen so much eccentricity and loveable weirdness as I did in Nola.
(In working progress)
The world is full of amazing sights, and if I had my way I’d also be adding Berlin, Koh Tao in Thailand, Edinburgh, New York, Copenhagen, Sa Pa in Vietnam, L’Isola di Capri in Italy, Takayama in Japan and Paraty in Brazil, to name just a few. But condensing it down to just five amazing destinations is more challenging, and it’s definitely less of a tiring read.