Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: top 10 sights from my year in travel

It won't be long until the countdown to midnight begins, so let's take stock of the rip-roaring ride that has been 2013. These are my ten most memorable sights from the year.

10. Fighting gales in England's Lake District


Blustery winter's day in Tarn Hows near Keswick, England.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
You don't have to jump on a plane for a breathtaking view. The Lake District is only 90 minutes' drive from where I grew up in northwest England and hiking its dozens of trails, like this one near Keswick, is a fab way to explore my home island at its rugged (and oh-so-windy!) best.

9. Blue skies over Chateau de Chambord in France's Loire Valley


The decadent splendour of Chateau de Chambord in France.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Francois I, who ordered the construction of this impressive castle in France's Loire Valley, barely spent any time there at all. More fool him - I could spend days admiring its ornate turrets and walking the expansive grounds.

8. Looking down from Hong Kong's peak

Dying daylight over Hong Kong's skyscrapers.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Seeing this forest of skyscrapers at sunset was one of the highlights of my first trip to Hong Kong in 2013. That and the temples, the food, the shopping, the museums... seems like a second visit is in order.

7. A bird's-eye view over London from The Shard 

London's Tower Bridge from the top floor of the Shard.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
For all the time I've lived in London, I've never used the word 'tiny' to describe it. But from floor 72 of The Shard, I could see my city in miniature.

6. Walking an Icelandic glacier

The dramatic moonscape of Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I wanted to pack in as many adventures to my Iceland trip as possible, and one of my favourites was strapping on some crampons to scale the ash-streaked Sólheimajökull glacier.

5. Falling head over heels with Plovdiv, Bulgaria

A lazy late-afternoon view from one of Plovdiv's seven hills.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I had been aching to visit Bulgaria for years, and finally did some backpacking there in 2013. Rila Monastery and the capital Sofia were memorable, but it's the spirited city of Plovdiv that captured my heart.

4. Trekking in Tasmania's Cradle Mountain National Park

The mighty Cradle Mountain, in calmer weather than the days I hiked.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Don't mess with the mountain. Even one of the easier treks around Cradle Mountain subjected me to rolling mists, battering gales and eight different kinds of weather within the space of a few hours.

3. Epic snow in Austria

Nothing but big powder and bright blue skies in Zauchensee, Austria.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Ever felt like you were flying? The spectacular late-season snow in Europe meant abundant snow, and gliding around the silky fresh powder was the most thrilling ski experience I've ever had.

2. Descending into a volcano in Iceland

Inside the magma chamber of Thrihnukagigur.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I'd been fascinated with volcanoes for a long time, but the vividly coloured chamber of Thrihnukagigur was a subterranean wonderland unlike anything I'd ever seen. (Read more about my Icelandic adventures in my article for Lonely Planet.)

1. Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time

Hopefully the first of many visits to India. My first visit to the Taj Mahal.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
It'll be no surprise to anyone who has heard me banging on about making it to India that my number 1 most treasured travel experience of 2013 was finally standing in front of the Taj Mahal. It's been a truly wild year in travel, so what's in store in 2014? Let's pop open the bubbly and start this one off in style...

Monday, 30 December 2013

My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal

Few sights exhaust superlatives quite as quickly as Taj Mahal. I finally made it to Agra this year and my first glimpses of the world's most famous building lived up to the hype.

The pearly Taj Mahal dome peeking over the exterior fence.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Your first view of the Taj Mahal will be a tease. As you walk towards the main gate, the Taj's enormous dome peers over the wall like a watchful ghost. Although it wasn't yet fully in sight, this perfectly symmetrical building looked so unreal I shivered seeing it for the first time.

Silhouetted hands in front of the Taj as the photographic frenzy begins.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Unless you turn up at dawn, you can expect a crowd of travellers fumbling for their cameras to be your next view. Tourists clog the entryway, eager for that first snapshot of the Taj, and who can blame them? It's not only the Taj's beauty that draws visitors, but the story of its inspiration - Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's boundless love for his favourite wife Mumtaz.

There's an initial scrum at the first entryway to the grounds.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Expect to be jostled through the entryway by sharp elbows and camera lenses longer than your forearm, but once past the threshold you're in the dramatically wide open space of the Taj Mahal grounds. The white marble dome looks like a mirage on the horizon, mesmerising enough to allow you to ignore the sea of tourists.

After the crowd thins, the view opens out. And it's as amazing as you've heard.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Now you're free to wander the charbagh (traditional Persian-style gardens) and contemplate the splendid symmetry of the world's most famous mausoleum. The finely manicured grounds are divided up by sunken baths and fountains, to evoke the lush Paradise of the Quran.

Four minarets surround the principal dome of the Taj Mahal.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Lift your jaw from the floor for long enough to ponder on what you're seeing. The Taj is an intriguing blend of different architectural styles: the chief mosaic maker was from Delhi, the dome is a Turkish design, the Taj's calligraphy was perfected in the Syrian style and gems were inlaid by South Indian artists.

Quranic script inlaid gemstones in the pure white marble.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Quranic verses wind their way above the gateway and in a stroke of design virtuosity, the size of the inlaid characters increases the further up the wall you go, so they can be read from a distance.

Definitely a site that benefits from slow exploration.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Each of the four towers on each corner of the Taj is 40m tall. These gigantic constructions are working minarets, from which a muezzin can chant the Islamic call to prayer.

The gemstones on every wall are so perfectly inlaid that the wall feels smooth.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
It took 20,000 pairs of hands to design and create the Taj Mahal, with no detail left unpolished. Gemstones are set so smoothly into the white marble that surfaces feel perfectly smooth.

Floral carvings on every corner.
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Expert artists, marble workers and designers were summoned not only from across India, but from Persia, Syria and Uzbekistan to complete this master work. It took 21 years to complete, by which time a different political landscape was evolving. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj in memory of Mumtaz, would find his regent defeated in battle by his own son, Aurangzeb, who declared his father unfit to rule. Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agra Fort, where he was able to live out his days gazing out at his beloved Taj.

A final glimpse of the Taj (in my friend Nidhika's sunglasses) before leaving...
Image 
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
And it's a sight that leaves visitors spellbound to this day. I was overwhelmed imagining the number of stoneworkers, artists and logicians who lent their craft to the creation of this world wonder. If you are lucky enough to visit, do their toil justice by taking your time to explore the grounds and drink in the Taj's beauty and complexity at your own pace.