Monthly Archives: June 2017

visiting Hunans cool capital with kids

Travelling families will have a ball in Changsha, capital city of China’s southern Hunan province, which delivers all the pleasures of a big city without the frustrations of one of the country’s huge metropolises.

When Mao Zedong was a young resident of Changsha, he paused on Juzizhou, its famous river isle, and penned a poem commonly considered one of his greatest. In it he recalls visiting the city as a youth, and being ‘full of enthusiasm’. Little did he know that future Changsha would embrace visitors from foreign lands and of all ages, including kids.

Though it might not figure prominently on some travellers’ Chinaitineraries, Changsha is a place for pressure-free time and good-value experiences, while still getting a dose of the big-city vibe thanks to its neon-clad streets and busy restaurants.

Changsha sees comparably fewer children from foreign lands, so the smiles and elated requests for selfies with the kids from locals (everyone should be prepared for this) make for a red-carpet experience. Changsha is also the hometown of China’s most famous leader, Mao Zedong, and there are ample possibilities for history lessons that expand young people’s world views. And of course, Changsha’s child- and wallet-friendly attractions, comparatively short travel distances and amazing food only add to the fun.

 

Sunday in the park

Weekends in China are when families flock to urban green spaces for exercise, dance, play and chat. When non-Chinese families, especially those with little children, join the mix, the friendly, inquisitive and shutter-happy locals make it hard not to feel welcome. Lively and central Lieshi Park is one of the biggest leisure parks in China and features a memorial tower dedicated to the country’s fallen heroes. There are also plenty of distractions for kids, like a climbing wall and bumper cars.

Even more famous is Tangerine Isle, a long, narrow river retreat said to be the largest inland islet in the world. Free to access and full of landscaped gardens through which kids happily romp, its five kilometres are best navigated by hiring bikes or hopping aboard an inexpensive tourist trolley.

 

New point of view

On the west bank of the Xiang River, Yuelu Mountain, rises 300 meters above sea level and 240 above the city. The park’s multiple peaks and ridges extend for several kilometres, embracing places of both historic interest and great scenic beauty – lush groves of maple, catalpa, pine and chestnut trees are fed by year-round water springs. The path to the top takes adult legs less than an hour but can sometimes be steep for shorter strides. Instead, there is a chairlift up and kid-pleasing toboggan ride down.

Central Asia trekking utopia

The Alay region of southern Kyrgyzstan is the kind of place mountain lovers dream about. Turquoise lakes fringed with yurts sit at the base of towering 7000m peaks, offering some of the world’s most glorious mountain views at every turn. It is simply a stunning corner of Central Asia that is almost completely unknown, cheap to visit and ripe for exploration. What’s the catch? There isn’t one.

Not many trekkers head to Central Asia, fewer still visit Kyrgyzstan and, of those, only a handful continue as far south as the Alay Valley, a claw of land squeezed between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The region consists of two parallel mountain ranges, the Alay and Trans-Alay (spurs of the Tian Shan and Pamir ranges respectively), separated by the high-altitude Alay Valley.

This is the crossroads of high Asia, where roads lead south onto the Pamir plateau of Tajikistan, east over the Irkestham Pass to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province, and north to the fertile silk-growing Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. These routes funnelled a major branch of the Silk Road; even Marco Polo passed nearby.

 

Trekking the Alay

The Alay today is primarily home to Kyrgyz herders who bring their cows, sheep, yaks and horses to fatten in the summer pastures, setting up yurt camps in the lush alpine valleys from June to September. Framing the pastures to the south, an unbroken chain of peaks rises sheer from the valley’s wide plain. There are no foothills and no pesky approach treks, just massive, stunning views of some of the highest peaks outside the Himalaya.

Mountains, yurts, horses – so far so good, but what makes the Alay region really special is the network of Community Based Tourism (CBT) providers that offer no-hassle vehicle and horse hire, guides, homestays and even a network of herders’ yurts. Set up to provide a source of income for communities bypassed by mainstream tourism, rates for these services offer excellent value because there are no middle men.

For visitors, yurts are the key that opens up the high valleys and their stunning scenery. With CBT’s help, you can hike several routes in the Alay with little more than a daypack, offering all the convenience of Nepali-style teahouse trekking without the crowds. It’s that rarest of travel alignments: world-class mountain scenery, easy accessibility and low cost.

We spent several weeks scouting the best trips in the Alay and the following are our favourites, ranging from a four-day trek to a series of day hikes done from a comfy yurt base at the foot of Peak Lenin. All offer epic scenery and adventure without the need for expedition-style planning. To arrange them, contact CBT in Osh or Sary Moghul a day or two in advance.