Walking and trekking
Oman is an extremely exciting place to trek at the moment: the country is undergoing something of a revolution, with walking trails being marked and signed for the first time, and more and more visitors being encouraged to visit by a government which seems to have recently woken up to the fact that it has something quite remarkable to offer the outdoor enthusiast. Oman is particularly enticing to western visitors as it blends the mystical feel of the east with some truly arresting, eminently walkable landscapes of limestone canyons, ragged-ridged tabletop mountain ranges, desert wadis, and many wild areas which were inaccessible until about a decade ago. This is truly Arabia’s wild east. Onesuch is the Al Hajar mountains, which stretch along the northern coast and through the north-east of the country and contain Oman’s (and eastern Arabia’s) highest point, Jebel Shams (3,075m). While its height is impressive, it’s the canyons which lie on its flanks which make this a truly unmissable destination, as they are far more interesting than the summit itself. One of the most popular treks in Oman is the Jebel Shams Rim Walk, which starts at the village of Al Khateem. Immediately the trekker is rewarded with sumptuous views of the canyons of Wadi Nakhr and Wadi Ghul (the prefix wadi refers to a river-cut canyon which often floods in heavy rain). It is a challenging, loose and at time exposed walk, which makes it ideal for the adventurous trekker who enjoys mountain terrain. The route contours around the mountain, offering breathtaking views of the canyon below. Traditional Omani markets andvillages line the canyons around Jebel Shams, as do ancient cliff dwellings and some thrilling rock climbs. Easier options for walking can be found in the Capital Area around Muscat. Wakan to Hadash is a classic walk which is very beautiful, offering panoramic views of traditional Omani life and scenery over Wadi Mistall and the extensive Ghubrah Bowl – a depression ringed by high peaks, where a number of walks leave from the picturesque mountain farming village of Wakan in the western Hajar mountains. The treks around here can be challenging, but offer a sumptuous slice of what makes this country so special.
Oman provides plenty to keep rock-climbers interested. Here you can find some extraordinary sport climbing via three terrifying via ferrata routes in the Grand Canyon region at Wadi Nakhr. There are also many multi-pitch climbing routes, both bolted or traditional. The monolithic towers of Wadi Al-Ghool in A'Dakhliyah Region reach a height of 300m and offer Alpine-style climbing at its best. The challenging south-western façade of Jabal Mishfat offers climbs from 120 to 500 m. But Jabal Misht beats all of these to the crown of Oman’s ideal climbing location, due to its huge exposed façade, which is thought to be one of the largest climbable face on the Arabian peninsula: the southeastern façade extends for 6km and rises to 850m, giving Alpine style routes of all grades.
Oman has over 3,000km of coastline, and the diving here ranks among some of the best in the world, especially off Fahal Island, the Damaniyyat Islands and (gulp) Cemetery Bay. Visibility is excellent and night diving is a big lure due to dramatic phosphorescent algae in the waters of the gulf. The limestone geology also yields an array of caves, including Majlis Al-Jinn in the A'Sharqiyah Region – one the world's largest caves and the most challenging in Oman. This is a serious cave and is only for experts (it still hasn’t been fully explored); a less technical but only marginally less spectacular grotto can be found at Al-Hotah. And this being the new Arabia, the shopping is spectacular and the dining is exquisite.
Ranulph Fiennes once tried to overthrow the government of Oman. FALSE: while critical of the Sultan’s government, Fiennes actually led several raids against the rebels who were attempting to launch a coup. He ended up being decorated for bravery.
Must see and do
- Snake Canyon Via Ferrata – a mixture of ziplines, via ferrata and wire traverses across a precipitous canyon. High adventure. Watch Julia Bradbury doing it here: http://travel.five.tv/trips_oman.htm
- Attack the desert in a 4x4 – Wahiba sands is a good place to do this. Dial it into Youtube to get an idea of what this place is like.
Walking and trekking
What can be said about Nepal that hasn’t already been gushed by everyone from hardened mountain-killers to septugenarian trekkers, except that to say it’s glorious, and go. Nepal’s mountain attractions seethe with clanging, fluttery eastern magic, and do not disappoint. Two of the world’s greatest treks in the world can be made here: the Annapurna Circuit, and the Everest Base Camp trek. The Annapurna Circuit is by far the more superior of the two from a trekking point of view, both in content, aesthetics and environment. Covering some 300km, the full trek lassoos the Annapurna massif (8,091m) and offers views of Dhaulaghiri (8,167m) and Machhupuchhare (6,993m) – or ‘fishtail’, long a shoe-in for the title of world’s most beautiful mountain.
The trek leaves from Birethanthi, and there are many variations which trim the itinerary into manageable portions, such as the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. The circuit classically tops out at 5,300m on the Thorong La pass, where it skims the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Though you don’t always feel like you are in the middle of mountain range, you do trek through a very broad spectrum of cultures and environments, offering the best all-round experience of high Nepal. But there is a big itch that this trek doesn’t scratch: Everest. The Base Camp trek is justly popular – a trek into the heart of the Khumbu Himalaya to the bottom of the world’s highest mountain. Leaving from the famous trailhead at Lukla, the classic trek (again, there are many variations) winds through sherpa villages such as Namche Bazaar, trade routes, market towns and into the white wilderness of the Himalayas, immersing the walker in this famous and grand region. Treks to Base Camp usually feature a walk to the summit of Kala Pattar, the famous viewing platform which is a must-get photo for anyone who makes the trek. Basecamp itself infamously offers no view of the mountain, but is instead a sprawling town of tents, litter, oxygen cylinders, wreckage, prayer flags, exhausted climbers, research stations and memorials huddled beneath the chaotically jagged Khumbu Icefall – the first barrier to anyone who attempts the mountain. It sounds like a madhouse, and it is – but to be amongst the melee of a climbing season at basecamp is a priceless experience and a fine way to spend time in the mountain’s sway, even if you’re not one of the ones going for the top. Most trekking companies run trips to Everest base camp, and itineraries vary so there is plenty of scope to pick to suit your ambition.
Those who want to bag a true Himalayan peak can find some extraordinary but eminently achievable challenges in Nepal also: trekking mountains such as Mera Peak (6476m) and Island Peak (6189m) are exemplary, high-altitude mountaineering expeditions which offer insurmountable views of the world’s highest mountains. Island Peak is more technical and far more shapely – named by Eric Shipton for being an ‘Island in a sea of ice’ – than Mera Peak, and concludes with a satisfying snow crest leading to a compact summit offering some fine views of Everest. Other trekking highlights of Nepal include the junglyChitwan National Park, home to fiercely endangered mammals such as tiger and rhino in their natural habitat. Times are changing in Nepal, with restrictions being proposed to restrict unguided trekking and the continuing friction within the government, but experienced in a responsible way, Nepal remains the most illustrious destination for trekking in the world.
There is plenty to do in Nepal, most of it inextricably linked with the mountains or the deep-rooted culture that surrounds them. This is all good news: the whole country is thick with mysticism, and there is nobody who can hear the rumble of a Buddhist horn or the tinkle of prayer wheels in the surroundings of the high Himalaya and not feel something stir. In Kathmandu an easily achieved highlight is the Monkey Temple, perched high on a promontory overlooking the uninspiring sprawl of the city. It’s an atmospheric place, even in high season, and there is a monastery up here you can visit and catch a glimpse of Buddhist monks at prayer and performing their charismatic dirges. There are also many monkeys here, hence the name. The city is a great place to wander browse and absorb the chaotic bustle and tussle of rickshaws, temples, holy men, taxis, food sellers and the inevitable procession of knackered mountaineers and tourists. A must for those who aren't trekking is a mountain flight, which can be had for around US $200, and will fly you alongside Everest and its surrounding peaks. Check with the operator how close you get to the mountains - all the flights are worthwhile for the views, but some get you closer to the mountains than others.
If you fancy escaping Kathmandu for a place less chaotic and closer to the mountains, head for Pokhara, at the foot of the Himalayas in the shadow of Dhaulaghiri. Here lakes and temples against a backdrop of sharp, icy mountains make for an intoxicating atmosphere.
Everest is named after a surveyor. TRUE. Contrary to myth, Everest was not named by a man named George Everest - it was named for him, by his successor as Surveyor General of India, Andrew Waugh in 1865. There was no small amount of subterfuge, either – Waugh ‘pretended’ there were no local names for the mountain, despite their being two: Sagarmartha, and Chomulungma,
Nepal was ‘closed’ until 1949: TRUE. Like Bhutan, Nepal did not particularly welcome outsiders until well after World War 2, which scuppered mountaineers who wanted to attempt the as yet unclimbed Everest from the south.
Must see and do
- See Everest preferably by trek; if you’re adventurous, from a summit; if necessary, from a plane. But see it somehow.
- Have a drink at Rum Doodle legendary climber’s haunt in Kathmandu, whose walls are covered in cardboard yeti footprints recording mountaineering exploits through the years. The walls are like a history book, and all the greats are here if you look hard enough – Hillary, Messner, Bonington, Hinkes. A shrine. www.therumdoodle.com
- Go trekking! If ever there was a country that was built for walking, it’s this one – so don’t visit without getting into the mountains. Visit one of these companies to see what’s on offer. www.keadventure.com
Walking and trekking
It seems odd to think of Japan as a walking destination, given the amount of cultural lures the country offers the traveller. But in fact hiking is enormously popular here, and the country has produced some outstanding mountaineers (just take a look in the Everest log for Japanese names). It’s unsurprising given that some three quarters of the country is covered in mountains, either the forested gentle kind or the jagged, Andean kind. The relative lack of tourist interest in the walking trails of Japan (with one conular exception) make it one of the world’s most underrated destinations for the walker.
The best walking is to be had in the Central Alps, which stretch between northern Honshu and run down the middle of Hokkaido. The mountains of Japan are vastly less populated than much of the rest of the country, and as well as offering a glimpse into the seductive mountain culture of Japan, you’re unlikely to encounter a fraction of the tourists who make their way to here every year. The alps are split roughly into the ranges of the Hida Mountains the Kiso Mountains and the Akaishi Mountains, which include several peaks exceeding 3,000 m in height - the tallest in Japan after Mount Fuji. The highest are Hotakadake at 3,190 m (10,466 ft) in the Northern Alps and Kita-dake at 3,193 m in the Southern Alps (10,473 ft). Both are included in mountaineer Kyūya Fukada’s book 100 Famous Mountains in Japan, a work which has become essential reading for any aspirant mountaineer at large in Japan. Both can be climbed by competent mountaineers, Hotakadake from the base of Kurasawa, Kitadake from Hirogawara, which is a popular base for mountaineering and has a network of mountain huts nearby.
Without question the most famous mountain in Japan (and one of the most famous in the world) is the stunningly symmetrical Fuji, which is also the country’s highest. It is a very popular mountain to climb, of which 200,000 do every year. Sadly it isn’t what could be called a mountaineers mountain as it is somewhat developed, with eight routes to the top, many of them bus assisted for part of the way.
Nevertheless, the views are extraordinary, and the satisfaction of climbing such a weighty international icon (of significant height – 3,776m is considerably more than a pimple) makes a trip to its summit essential.
Elsewhere in Japan, there are walking areas considerably close to the apocalyptic urbanisations of Tokyo, which makes their tranquility all the more disarming. Nikko National Park is unspeakably gorgeous, located within mountainous landscapes coursed with lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and walking trails. It is also home to Toshogu, Japan’s most famous shrine. Chichibu-Tama National Park is more overtly mountainous, located in the Chichibu range and home to Mt.
Mitsumine(1,103m), Okutama Gorge and Shosen-Kyo Gorge. The park is riddled with with forested peaks, ragged, sandstone mountains and lakes teeming with fish, and is readily accesible from Tokyo. Other areas of Japan which are ripe for exploration are the quiet, mountainous Gunma-Ken prefecture (region) and the prefectures of Kyoto, Shiga and Nara. As with much of Japan, the lower more verdant regions come alive with autumn colour – so for cooing walks through burning scenery, stay low at this time of year and enjoy Japan at it’s most vibrant.
As mentioned, most tourists don’t come to Japan for its walking, so when it comes to other diversions, you’re spoilt – something made all the more intoxicating by the relative peculiarities of Japanese culture. Cycling is very popular in Japan, and it is even possible to bike down Mount Fuji (though not recommended for amateurs as the mountain is superficially a pile of unstable ash). Walk in some of the more remote regions and you could end a walk with an onsen in one of the many hot springs in Japan (this is a ridiculously volcanic country, which means three things are a certainty: brilliant mountains, violent earthquakes and hot springs). For a list of onsen in Japan see links (below). Sticking with the watery theme, one of the most astonishing sights of Japan are the bathing snow monkeys – the macaques who don’t like the cold steaming in one of the onsen. This is one of the most iconic images of wildlife photography, and many people assume it is from somewhere arctic; but it isn’t, it’s from Japan. You can see them all over Japan, but your best bet is in Jigokudani, which worryingly means ‘Hell’s Valley’.
The Japanese culture is intoxicating to say the least, and essential experiences must be undertaken while you’re there. Temples, sumo tournaments, karaoke and sushi must all be experienced – as you never know when you might be coming this way again.
The pufferfish – or fugu, a famous Japanese delicacy – isn’t in fact poisonous. It was just a marketing ploy dreamed up by an over-zealous chef in Tokyo. FALSE. The pufferfish Takifugu rubripes is frightfully poisonous, containing lethal quantities of the poison tetrodotoxin, which paralyses the muscles and leads to conscious suffocation. Fugu can only be prepared by licenced chefs, and still people die every year. Probably not worth the risk.
Must see and do
- Visit the seafood markets of Tsukiji, in Chuo-ku, at dawn and eyeball a pufferfish. www.chuo-kanko.or.jp
- Check out a sumo wrestling match in Tokyo
- Climb mount Fuji. See a webcam of it here, though you will need a Japanese language pack installed via google. http://www.pref.shizuoka.jp/~live/
- Escape the madness of Tokyo with a trip to Chichibu-Tama National Park. http://www.jref.com/practical/chichibu_tama_kai_national_park.shtml
- See a snow monkey taking a bath in Jigokudani.
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