Death of a Parisian tradition?

The bouquinistes have been a staple of Parisian culture for centuries, known as a go-to-source for out-of-print or rare reading material – but their livelihood is being threatened.

An office with a view (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

An office with a view

One of Paris’ most iconic sights are the famous bouquinistes: the booksellers who sell their wares day in and day out along the river Seine. With the trade dating back to the 1400s, the bouquinistes have been known for centuries as a go-to source for out-of-print or rare reading material, with both locals and travellers flocking here to find titles such as La Vagabonde, by the racy and controversial author Colette, or the first edition of the French comic book L’espiègle Lili, which dates from the early 1900s and was never reissued.

Growing from around 20 sellers at the turn of the 17th Century, today there are about 240 bouquinistes in Paris. Their traditional green wooden boxes dot both banks of the Seine, reaching from the Musee d’Orsay to the Institut de Monde Arabe, with the largest concentration found at the entrance to the Latin Quarter, home to the famed Sorbonne University. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

The traveller challenge (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

The traveller challenge

But even with 240 sellers lining the banks, competition doesn’t often come from nearby stalls. The bouquinistes’ greater challenge over the last 20 years has been the proliferation of e-readers and access to the internet, reducing book sales and making out-of-print materials easier to find.

To compensate for the drop in sales, many bouquinistes have turned to supplementing their income with tourist souvenirs, which are technically allowed under the city regulations that permit the selling of commercial wares out of one of the four green boxes each seller is allotted. But the move does not sit well with some of the bouquiniste population, sparking a debate among the sellers about what they can and cannot sell – and what will change a tradition that was once a staple of Parisian culture. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

The price of growth (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

The price of growth

In the late 1980s, Jean-Pierre Mathias quit his job as a philosophy professor to become a bouquiniste. “When I got my stall, I began by selling my old books… I loved the idea of continuing philosophy here without having to be a professor,” he said.

Mathias only sells books and old engravings; he refuses to cater to the ever-increasing number of foreign tourists by selling souvenirs. “For me, a book will always remain a book, and people who love books will continue to buy them. The theatre did not disappear with the onset of the cinema,” he said with a big smile. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

From comics to keychains (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

From comics to keychains

Francis Robert has been selling comics at his stall for more than 35 years. In the beginning, he explained, people would come to him if they were looking for a particular comic. If he didn’t have it, then they would go online. Now it’s the reverse: they only come if they can’t find it online.

To compensate, Robert’s collection of souvenirs – including the ubiquitous Eiffel Tower statues – has grown over the past few years. While locals still come by to purchase a book or two, he said the majority of his customers are from abroad and are more inclined to buy his souvenirs than his comics, which are primarily written in French. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

A job with benefits (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

A job with benefits

Each bouquiniste is required to maintain his or her boxes, but apart from that, the job has a lot of freedom. Traders can set their own daytime hours (the stalls are locked once the sun sets); choose the reading material they want to sell; and spend the day taking in one of the best views in Paris.

Still, many bouquinistes feel that the city should do more to support the tradition as sales dwindle. One suggestion is to have electricity installed so sellers can extend their hours into the night. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

Standing strong (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

Standing strong

Bernard Carver got into the rare-book-selling business 20 years ago after arriving from Lebanon without much money. He soon began living on the streets, he explained, and chose comfort in books rather than drinking. From that passion, he befriended some of the bouquinistes.

In order to sell your wares, he said, you have to know them well, bragging that he’s read everything on his shelf. But even that hasn’t kept sales from going down, and he expressed anger at the proliferation of trinkets being sold. Some traders have gone so far to add foldout tables in front of their stands to extend their collection of souvenirs – a tactic not covered by city regulations. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

A creative solution (Credit: Credit: Nick Kozak)

A creative solution

Many bouquinistes sell trinkets made in China, such as Eiffel Tower keychains and J’aime Paris mugs. One of the youngest traders, Roman George, opted instead to sell prints of old adverts created by himself and his father, as well as paintings by students from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, conveniently located just behind his stall. This way, he explained, he can sell souvenirs that are both made in France and connected to local culture – a solution, perhaps, that pulls from the best of both worlds. (Credit: Nick Kozak)

The lake at the end of the world

Barely one hour from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, Lake Bohinj is in the middle of nowhere – out of season and time – and it’s wonderful.

“We have a saying here in Slovenia,” said Grega Silc, a Hike & Bike Slovenia tour guide, as we cycled around the riotous green of the ridge. “In Bohinj, we’re a day or two behind the rest of the world.”

Silc grinned; a day or two is manageable. The lag used to be worse. For centuries, the sheep- and goat-herding villages around the glacial Lake Bohinj were cut off from the rest of Slovenia by poor roads and vertiginous terrain, clustered in the shadow of the Julian Alps. Transport to Ukanc – a hamlet on the far side of the lake whose name loosely translates to “the end of the world” – could take weeks.

Wooden houses make Bohinj feel timeless (Credit: Credit: zkbld/Thinkstock)

Wooden houses make Bohinj feel timeless (Credit: zkbld/Thinkstock)

However in 1906, during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tunnels were blasted through the mountainside and a railway was added along the water, connecting the northern mining town of Jesenice to the empire’s Adriatic port of Trieste in the south. While the Bohinj region became slightly less remote geographically, it later spent decades as part of communist Yugoslavia, becoming isolated from the rest of Europe politically. And despite Slovenia’s independence in 1991 and admission into the Eurozone in 2007, a deep connection to the past and a slower-paced life remains.

Here, among the wooden houses and open haylofts of Bohinj’s sparse and scattered villages, it’s easy to pretend the Austro-Hungarian Empire has never fallen. Alpine shepherds and cowherds still head to the top of Mount Vogel to graze their livestock on wildflowers. Every September, villagers still celebrate their return on the banks of the lake with folk singing and dancing at the “Cow Ball”.

Cows graze in mountain pastures in the Julian Alps (Credit: Credit: Jezer Mojca Odar)

Cows graze in mountain pastures in the Julian Alps (Credit: Jezer Mojca Odar)

On the spring day that Silc and I went cycling through the region, we saw at most a hiker or two on the footpaths or cycle roads. The lake was so still it was impossible to tell where the pine-streaked ridges ended and the waters began. The silence was overwhelming.

In the hamlet of Ribčev Laz, we took a break from peddling and stood at the edge of the lake by the milk-coloured Church of St. John the Baptist. “A mystery”, Silc said. Nobody knows exactly how old it is – it was built sometime before the 15th Century – and no one knows the meaning of the interior fresco: a white devil sits on Cain’s shoulder and the angels have vampire fangs. But, as Silc explained, it was common for Christian dogma to meld with folk traditions in a place as historically isolated as Bohinj.

Across the bank from the church stands the slender, dark bronze statue of the Zlatorog, or Golden Horn – the magical stag believed to guard the ridges around the lake. In the glint of the afternoon light, it almost looks real. A 20-minute cycle ride from the church, “Devil’s Bridge” spans over a furious gorge. According to legend, the devil built it in exchange for the soul of the first one to cross; however, clever villagers tricked a dog into making the trip. This is a land of stories. It’s the sort of place where one’s imagination might run wild.

We continued to cycle through villages, alpine fields dotted with wildflowers and forests where the branches trellised above our heads. The white of the clouds, soft against the blue of the sky, faded into the snow on the mountaintops. It was the sort of place, I thought, where you can forget any other places exist.

The quiet stillness of Lake Bohinj can feel overwhelming (Credit: Credit: Slovenian Tourist Board)

The quiet stillness of Lake Bohinj can feel overwhelming (Credit: Slovenian Tourist Board)

“Agatha Christie used to come here,” Silc told me proudly. “But she never set any of her works here. She said it was too beautiful a place to set any murders.”

And Christie wasn’t the only writer to fall for Bohinj’s charms. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was a regular visitor to Ukanc. “An existentialist going to the town of the end of the world,” Silc acknowledged. “Makes sense.”

We stopped at the bottom of Mount Vogel, a seasonal ski resort, where a cable car took us to the top. A sign compared the current wait time – 15 minutes – to the six hours or more it took during the days of communist Yugoslavia, when facilities were limited and people queued up at dawn in the hope of a single trip up and down the slope.

A cable car pulls up to the snow-covered top of Mount Vogel (Credit: Credit: Turizem Bohinj)

A cable car pulls up to the snow-covered top of Mount Vogel (Credit: Turizem Bohinj)

As the car pulled us upward, forests gave way to bare cliffs. Silc pointed out a goat-like chamoix leaping across the snowdrifts. Spring – or summer – does not exist at the top of Mount Vogel. While people are swimming in the lake, up here, snow shrouds the horizon. Without even the changing seasons to mark the passage of months, time felt slower still.

We sat in the chalet at the top of the cable car, huddled over cabbage stew that had been sharpened with sausage and thickened with beans. Silc ran into two friends – also tour guides – napping against the wood-slat walls while their guests wandered the mountainside.

“A hard life”, one of them winked at me. “I quit. I am going back to the factory – first thing tomorrow.”

The Bohinj region is barely one hour from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, but we hardly noticed. We were in the middle of nowhere, out of season and time – and it was wonderful.

These cars are seriously adorable

Driving past towering icons like Big Ben and the Matterhorn, these tiny cars are taking on some proportionally epic adventures.

Travel photographers often strive to capture wide-sweeping landscapes or aerial city shots that showcase a destination at its most grand. But Swiss artist Kim Leuenberger is turning that idea on its head: photographing icons like Big Ben and the Matterhorn at a micro level and using tiny toy cars to change viewers’ perspectives.

Leuenberger’s first tiny-car-photo was shot for an autism awareness project in Switzerland four years ago – and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Commenters said the little blue minivan brought them joy, so Leuenberger decided to turn photographing tiny cars into a bigger, personal project.

Behind the scenes of the tiny car adventure in the Isle of Skye (Credit: Credit: Alexandra Lhermitte Schwass)

Behind the scenes of the tiny car adventure in the Isle of Skye (Credit: Alexandra Lhermitte Schwass)

“I started buying more cars and taking them to different places. Now I always have a little car in my bag, just in case the occasion comes up,” Leuenberger said. “When I travel, I go with five different cars, finding the right car for the right place.”

In her photos, Leuenberger only hints at the destinations her cars travel to, subtly showing landmarks in the background. She prefers to highlight the more adventurous side of the vehicles’ personalities, positioning them as though they are splashing around in the water or off-roading in the mountains.

The tiny cars have journeyed to destinations like Greece, Spain and England, where Leuenberger studies photography at the University of Arts in London. She hopes to take them further north to Iceland soon, and her dream is to photograph her classic vans on the California coast.

“I keep taking these pictures because I have fun doing it,” Leuenberger said. “People say it makes them happy, and I love making people smile.”

Catalonia, Spain (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Catalonia, Spain (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

London, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

London, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Graubünden, Switzerland (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Graubünden, Switzerland (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Durdle Door, Dorset, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Durdle Door, Dorset, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

When cities rise from the depths

“There are hundreds of submerged cities around the world. We are only just beginning to discover what they have to tell us about the prehistoric human past.”

The church of 40,000 corpses

Travellers with a taste for the macabre will have a field day at this gruesome chapel, which is ornately decorated with skeleton chandeliers, hipbone chalices and skull bunting.

The downside to retiring in paradise

You’re tired of winter. But before you move somewhere warm to retire, consider this.

Kathy McCoy and her husband, Bob Stover, retired to Arizona from their home in California six years ago.

It’s not an uncommon move for US retirees, to relocate somewhere calmer and warmer in retirement. But, since they’ve moved, McCoy and Stover discovered a few things they didn’t anticipate. First, their city in Arizona is a “snowbird” destination, meaning that many people spend winters there but live elsewhere during other seasons.

The couple wasn’t prepared for the area’s summer weather.

“About half of our community is only here three to four months a year,” McCoy, 71, said. “The more affluent ‘snowbirds’ who spend winters in their second homes tend to look down on those of us who are full-timers.” Many community events are geared toward those temporary residents, as well, and little is offered during the “off” season.

The couple also wasn’t prepared for the area’s summer weather. “We expected heat,” McCoy said. “But we didn’t realise how humid it also gets with monsoon season in the summer. A 117-degree day (47 Celsius] with high humidity is not unusual.”

 For quick tips on what to consider if you want to retire abroad, watch the video above.

In the US, three out of five Americans hope to spend their retirement in another city or state, according to a survey from Bankrate. In the UK, more than six million adults plan to retire abroad, with Spain and France being top destinations, according to research from MGM Advantage, a retirement income specialist.

Before you join them, sunglasses in hand, here’s what you should know:

What it will take: Thoroughly research your retirement destination to make sure it meets all your needs. Ensure it doesn’t disrupt your financial situation via increased costs of living, such as higher healthcare, or through different tax rules that might impact your retirement savings. And you’ll have to give some thought to where family and friends are located and whether you’re ready to start over in a new city.

Spending a week somewhere every winter does not make you an expert.

“If you’re the sort of person who can join the local Y, take a class, make friends and start to do the things you’ve always wanted to do, that’s great,” said Gabrielle Redford, executive editor of integrated content at AARP. “But if you really place a lot of value in your friends and being close to your family, then that’s something you should consider. People get lonely.”

Make sure your dreams of a warm retirement don't become nightmares. (Credit: Alamy)

Make sure your dreams of a warm retirement don’t become nightmares. (Credit: Alamy)

How long you need to prepare: Make time to visit your chosen retirement destination extensively throughout the year, including the quiet months. You’ll also need time to seek advice on residency, tax and inheritance rules if you’re crossing borders — as well as to look into healthcare. Give yourself at least six to 12 months to do the research. And, consider what you would do if you change your mind. Could you afford to move back if things don’t work out?

Do it now: Get to know the place. Spending a week somewhere every winter does not make you an expert. You need to understand all the factors that might impact you, so you don’t end up moving to a location that turns out to be dangerous, expensive, unsuitable or with little support as you age. So, consider renting a place for several weeks at different times of the year. And, visit in the summer months to make sure you can take the heat.

“You need to be there during the not-so-popular times,” said Jason Balm, a financial planner with Rehmann Financial in Florida in the US. “That means a couple of times during the rest of the year and for a minimum of two to three weeks to really tell if the environment or the locale you’re considering is ideal for you.”

When you’re considered a resident of most countries in the world, you have to file taxes there.

Think about family. Are you leaving friends and relatives behind to feel the sun on your face? You may find that you spend more than anticipated visiting them, even if you try to budget for it. And beyond the money, having a support network nearby becomes more valuable later in life. “Everybody needs an advocate as they age,” said James Bryan, a financial planner with Cahill Financial Advisors in Minnesota in the US. “If you’re widowed or divorced or alone and the children are living back home and you’ve relocated to a warmer state, it can get really tough.”

Figure out the tax situation. If your residency is changing, it may affect how you’re taxed. Canada, for instance, has many residents that spend half the year in warmer parts of the US. “One of the issues there is when you’re considered a resident of most countries in the world, you have to file taxes there,” said Julia Chung, a financial and estate planner with JYC Financial in Langley, British Columbia, in Canada. “We have a lot of Canadian residents that are just finding out they’re supposed to file a tax return with the US every year. It’s a huge problem up here.”

If you’re a US citizen residing elsewhere, you will still owe taxes to the US on income, including Social Security. And if you’re in the US but changing states, your new state may tax retirement benefits differently from your old one. Then there are estate and inheritance taxes and property taxes, which may change, depending on where you move. So seek expert advice.

Try your favourite locale at different times of the year first. (Credit: Alamy)

Try your favourite locale at different times of the year first. (Credit: Alamy)

See a money professional. If you’re getting a pension of any sort, make sure you can still receive it wherever you’re going. One of Canada’s government pensions, for instance, doesn’t transfer if you move to certain countries. In the UK, if you qualify for a state pension, you can be paid in another country — but you can only be paid in one country per year. A financial advisor can help you run the numbers to make sure you can afford the cost of living in your new home, and that you aren’t overlooking anything important.

If you’re crossing borders, the healthcare you have in your current country may not transfer.

Check into healthcare. If you’re crossing borders, the healthcare you have in your current country may not transfer. (Medicare in the US, for instance, does not.) “People are often surprised that they must pay contributions for healthcare cover or take out private cover — something that they did not include in their budget planning,” said Daphne Foulkes, a financial advisor and partner with the Spectrum IFA Group in France.

Have a back-up plan in case you're not happy. (Credit: iStock)

Have a back-up plan in case you’re not happy. (Credit: iStock)

Then there are your day-to-day health needs. Where will you get your prescriptions? Who will your doctor be? Is there a major medical facility nearby? “Some of these beach towns are terrific, but do they have a hospital?” Redford said. “As we get older, we all develop health issues. You need to be close to medical facilities that can give you the care that you need, whatever that care might be.”

Do it smarter: Consider making a part-time move. You don’t necessarily have to sell your house and move forever. “If I had to choose the perfect recommendation, it’s to leave for four months and rent,” Bryan said. “And then come back.”

It’s the best of both worlds—you still get to store the snow shovel and enjoy some warm weather, but for the rest of the year you’re close to your family, friends and regular doctors. You can even try a different warm climate every year. Just don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

Where modern China began

Centuries of glory and prestige can be found among Nanjing’s modern skyscrapers – if you know where to look.

Beijing may be the capital of China today, but for many centuries the country was ruled from Nanjing, a historic city located on the shores of the Yangtze River. Now recognised as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, centuries of glory and prestige can still be found scattered among Nanjing’s modern skyscrapers – if you know where to look.

In China, the tortoise symbolises long life
My first stop was the southern foothills of Zhongshan, or Purple Mountain,16km east of the city centre. Here lay the mausoleum where the first Ming dynasty emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was buried along with his wife.

After defeating the Mongolians in 1368, Zhu named Nanjing the capital due to its large size and convenient trade location. Nanjing had already been the capital a number of times during China’s tumultuous history of kingdoms and dynasties, but it was Zhu who solidified the city’s status for the first 53 years of the Ming dynasty.

Stone warriors outside the Ming dynasty's mausoleum (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Stone warriors outside the Ming dynasty’s mausoleum (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

As was customary in those times, Zhu commissioned the impressive mausoleum with its many pavilions and palaces to reflect the prosperity and stability of his empire. It took more than 30 years to build, during which time Zhu himself died and was buried on site in 1398.

I visited in September, and the humidity was high as I climbed up the hillside path surrounded by luscious vegetation and overhanging trees. On both sides of the track, stone warriors stood guard next to life-size elephants, lions and horses carved out of large rocks.

The mausoleum consisted of a number of interconnected pavilions, gates and monuments decorated with carved pillars and gargoyles. The beautiful rooftops were painted in radiant reds, blues and golds, and the ceilings were fantastically decorated. One of the most eye-catching monuments was a carved stone stele, carried on the back of an enormous stone tortoise in the recently restored Sifangcheng Pavilion near the mausoleum’s entrance. In China, the tortoise symbolises a long life.

The onsite museum displayed beautifully crafted wooden combs, hairpins, knives and porcelain pots that had been found at the site. And while Zhu’s actual tomb has not yet been excavated, Chinese scientists believe there is a labyrinth of treasure-filled corridors below ground just waiting to be uncovered.

The Xiaoling mausoleum in the foothills of Zhongshan (Credit: Credit: traveler1116/iStock)

The Xiaoling mausoleum in the foothills of Zhongshan (Credit: traveler1116/iStock)

Nanjing’s claustrophobic labyrinth could confuse any intruder
Zhu’s other major legacy was the construction of a wall around Nanjing, designed to protect the empire’s capital. The mortar used was made from lime, tong paste and glutinous rice paste – a recipe that has proven to be very successful; after six centuries most of the bricks are still in place.

Just south of the city centre is Zhonghua gate, the largest of the wall’s original 13 gates and a huge defensive complex made up of courtyards and ramparts. At the foot of the wall, there were 13 caves that could hide about 3,000 soldiers if the city was under attack. They would quietly wait in the dark until the enemy had entered the first part of the complex. The gate would then be lowered and the adversaries would be trapped in the courtyards, where Nanjing’s soldiers would take them on.

A warrior sculpture stands atop the Zhonghua Gate (Credit: Credit: China Photos/Getty)

A warrior sculpture stands atop the Zhonghua Gate (Credit: China Photos/Getty)

The caves felt claustrophobic, so I quickly exited back into the light and climbed onto the wall. The top afforded a fantastic view over the wide battlements onto traditional Chinese rooftops nestled alongside messy construction sites and ugly modern apartment buildings – a testament to Nanjing’s rapid modernisation.

Where China’s Republican flag flies proudly
The capital moved to Beijing in 1421, for the remainder of the Ming Dynasty and almost the entire Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but returned to Nanjing in 1912, when the last empire fell and Republican Nationalist Sun Yat-sen took over. Today, the Republican flag still waves proudly behind the gates of Nanjing’s old presidential palace. It’s a symbol that’s not shown openly anywhere else in the now Communist country.

Fierce carvings outside the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum (Credit: Credit: Juan Luis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fierce carvings outside the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum (Credit: Juan Luis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

When I visited, the government offices were still scattered with old typewriters and faded documents behind glass displays. I could imagine Sun Yat-sen wandering with his confidants in the elegant Chinese garden with its typical zigzag bridge and fishpond.

These were chaotic times after the Republic was founded. Beijing was shortly appointed the capital again, but Chiang Kai-shek, Sun’s successor, brought the title back to Nanjing in 1927. After all, this was where the glorious Ming dynasty had ruled for six centuries, laying the basis for modern China.

Nanjing's Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Credit: Credit: Peter Dowley/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Nanjing’s Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Credit: Peter Dowley/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

To emphasize the prestige of Nanjing, Chiang bequeathed amausoleum to Sun, who died in 1925. It’s only a 10-minute walk from Zhu’s, and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Allegedly the Kuomintang, the revolutionary movement Sun and Chiang were part of, spent 1.5 million yuan on the site – and it showed.

A seemingly endless numbers of steps took me to the top of the hill, where the sarcophagus with the stone image of Sun Yat-sen was almost as impressive as the view. Inside, the pavilion’s bright blue ceiling was decorated with a golden star – the colours of the Kuomintang. It was much more modern than Zhu’s mausoleum, which, over the centuries, seemed have become part of the mountain.

After walking my way through centuries of history, I felt as though I’d finally come full circle. This was where both the first and the last man to give Nanjing its capital status lay together in peace.

The stone image of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen (Credit: Credit: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty)

The stone image of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen (Credit: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty)

Peru’s other lost city

Larger than Machu Picchu and far less known, Choquequirao still makes you feel as though you’re practically the first to arrive.

The trek to the lost Incan city of Choquequirao is one of the most difficult in Peru. From the town of Cachora, located 161km west of Cusco, it’s an 18km walk to Capuliyoc Mountain, then down to Playa Rosalinas, where travellers camp for the night. Waking early, trekkers then have to cross the Apurímac River and traverse 8km of gruelling uphill switchbacks to reach the campsite close to the ruins. Then, the next morning, it’s another 2km hike up to the ruins themselves, 3,100m above sea level. To get back? Well, it’s the same way you came.

“I’ve had people in their 60s and 70s do it,” said Juan Barrios, a guide from the Adventure Life trekking company. “[But] some people come out thinking that because it’s only 28km from the drop off they can do it in a day. Six or seven days for the trek is best.”

Tackling the trek (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Tackling the trek. (Cynthia Kane)

It makes sense, then, that Choquequirao draws only about 30 people a day during the high season (June through August). Compare that to the 2,500 people who arrive each day at the famed Incan city of Machu Picchu.

But for those who make the strenuous journey, the rewards are plentiful: lush wilderness, sweeping mountain views at every turn, and the chance to explore fascinating ancient ruins nearly alone.

Believed to be created around the same time as Machu Picchu, in 1445, Choquequirao is actually larger than its better-known, higher-trafficked counterpart. But very little has been written about Peru’s other lost city and archaeologists are still uncovering new parts of the ruins, leaving life on the mountain relatively untrammelled. Only about 30% of Choquequirao has been restored.

Exploring Choquequirao (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Exploring Choquequirao. (Cynthia Kane)

But the crowds may not stay away for long. Officials estimate that construction on the first cable car to Choquequirao will be finished sometime in 2016, shortening the several-day trek to a 15-minute tram ride. As a result, the handful of hikers that currently make the journey each week could turn into 3,000 visitors per day.

And campsite owners are already seeing an influx of trekkers following the August 2014 completion of the Puente Rosalina bridge, which spans the Apurímac River. Now tour operators can easily cross the bridge on horseback, instead of using a hand pulley system to transport them across the river one by one or hiring another set of horses to be waiting on the other side.

The Puente Rosalina bridge (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

The Puente Rosalina bridge. (Cynthia Kane)

Considering the bridge took six years to build, some locals believe that the construction of the cable car is still a ways off. In fact, the completion date has already been pushed back two times. “Too much fighting,” said Julian Cobarruvias, the owner of the Santa Rosa Baja campsite. “Ego. One side wants this, another that.”

But one thing is for certain: Choquequirao is spectacular now because of how untouched and remote it is. Even though the lost city was discovered (by Spanish explorer Juan Arias Díaz in 1710, and excavations began in the 1970s, the ruins still make you feel as though you’re the first to find them. (In comparison, Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, and excavations began the next year.)

Exploring Choquequirao (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Exploring Choquequirao. (Cynthia Kane)

As I sat in the stillness of morning, looking out over the ruins and the Apurímac Gorge, surrounded by snow-capped mountains of Ampay, Panta and Quishuar, I was amazed, not just at the beauty in front of me, but also with the power of the Incan Empire. I admired the detail of Pachacutec’s unfinished royal estate, which was divided into a lower and upper half. Everything was built with such precision: the water fountains made of large rocks, so they wouldn’t wear away; the houses with double doors to announce the wealth and power of their inhabitants; the flat slabs underneath the windows to store food for refrigeration.

The attention to detail continued down the stairway off the main plaza, where each terrace was decorated with white rocks in the shape of a llama. Llamas were used to transport food and supplies to the slaves, and the images were created to show the Inca’s  appreciation. Archaeologists have determined that slaves from the neighbouring villages, likely in the north, built Choquequirao, using vertical stonework and small stones (limestone and granite).

Terrace decorations (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Each terrace was decorated with white rocks in the shape of a llama. (Cynthia Kane)

There will certainly come a time when Choquequirao will change; when cable cars are built, facilities are expanded and tourism is burgeoning. But for now, Choquequirao rewards the adventurous few who make it there with an intimate look at a lost city that almost seems never to have been found.

The ideal way to reach Choquequirao is with a guide. Adventure Life offers five-, six- and 12-day treks with groups of up to 12 people. Most tour companies provide nearly everything that trekkers need: tents, food, snacks, water, sleeping bags and walking sticks, and horses are used to help carry most bags.

The nicest people in the world?

Life is hard enough, with plenty of jagged edges and pointy bits. Why not coat it with a glaze of politeness and humility?

Every August my family embarks on that great American ritual: the road trip. And we always head north. Canada may not be the most exotic of destinations, but sometimes, exotic is overrated. Canada tempts us with familiarity, blissfully cool weather and, most of all, a deep reservoir of niceness.

We experience Canadian nice as soon as we reach customs. The US border guards are gruff and all business. The Canadians, by contrast, are unfailingly polite, even as they grill us about the number of wine bottles we’re bringing into the country. One year, we had failed to notice that our 9-year-old daughter’s passport had expired. They, nicely, let us enter anyway. The niceness continues for our entire trip, as we encounter nice waiters, nice hotel clerks, nice strangers.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Canada Day (Credit: Credit: George Rose/Getty)

Royal Canadian Mounted Police celebrating Canada Day. (Credit: George Rose/Getty)

Canadian niceness is pure, and untainted by the passive-aggressive undertones found in American niceness (have a good day, or else!). It’s also abundant. Canada is to niceness as Saudi Arabia is to oil. It’s awash in the stuff, and it’s about time, I say, the rest of the world imported some. (France, Russia and the UK topped one recent list of rude countriesas perceived by travellers.) Researchers have yet to analyse Canadian niceness empirically, but studies have found that Canadians, perhaps in an effort not to offend, use an overabundance of “hedge words”, such as “could be” and “not bad”. Then there is the most coveted of Canadian words:  “sorry”. Canadians will apologize for anything and to anything.

“I’ve apologized to a tree that I walked into,” confessed Michael Valpy, a journalist and author, noting that many of his fellow citizens have done the same.

Scenic Vancouver, Canada (Credit: Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty)

Scenic Vancouver, Canada. (Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty)

Traffic in Toronto and Montreal may be awful, but “you almost never hear a horn, even in the most frustrating traffic jams”, said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a Canadian journalism professor at the University of Toronto. Horn-honking is regarded as unnecessarily aggressive. And murder rates in Canada are low, he said, partly because “it’s quite rude to murder someone”.

The Canadian press is rife with examples of niceness in action. For instance, the National Post reported that in Edmonton, a law student, Derek Murray, left his headlights on all day. When he returned to his car, he found the battery drained and a note on his windshield. “I noticed you left your lights on,” it read. “The battery will probably not have enough charge to start your vehicle. I left a blue extension cord on the fence and … a battery charger beside the fence in the cardboard box.” The note went on to explain exactly how to jump-start the vehicle. “Good luck,” it added. In Ontario, a thief returned the goods he or she stole with $50 attached to a letter of apology. “I can’t put it into words how sorry I am,” the thief explained. “Please find it in your hearts to forgive the stranger who harmed you.”

Kevin Vickers honoured in Parliament in October 2014 (Credit: Credit: Jason Ransom/PMO/Getty)

Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers honoured in Parliament in October 2014. (Credit: Jason Ransom/PMO/Getty)

Canadians aren’t only polite; they’re incredibly humble too, and reluctant to take credit for even plainly heroic acts. When a gunman attacked the Canadian parliament building in October 2014, Kevin Vickers, Canada’s sergeant-at-arms, responded quickly and calmly by shooting the assailant with the handgun he keeps in his office.And while Vickers was glorified in the Canadian media, it was his humility, not his marksmanship or bravado, that was celebrated. (Canadians take great pride in their humility, an oxymoron that bothers no one.)

What explains this blizzard of humility and politeness? Taras Grescoe, a Montreal-based writer, believes Canadian niceness is born of necessity. “We’re a small group of people, spread across the second-largest national territory in the world,” he said. “We’ve always known that, in order to survive – or just stay sane – we had to watch out for one another. The old lady down the street, the teenager at the bus stop who forgot to bring a scarf when it’s 5 below. Hence our general willingness to proffer assistance rather than aggression.”

Another explanation for Canadian niceness stems from the “fragment theory”. First posited by the US scholar Louis Hartz, the theory states that colonial societies such as the United States and Canada began as “fragments” of the European nations they were escaping from. These new nations remain, in effect, frozen in time. Thus, Canada retains a conservative, Tory streak – that is, with a more deferential, “nicer” nature than the one embraced by the feisty US founding fathers.

Not everyone believes this is a good thing. Valpy sees Canadian niceness as a defence mechanism, one that “stems from inferiority and an awkward awareness that our clothes don’t fit properly and we always have bad haircuts and really don’t do anything great.”

Canadian athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics (Credit: Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

Canadian athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics. (Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

Also, in the land of nice, problems sometimes fester because everyone is too nice to say anything. Manjushree Thapa, a writer who recently moved to Canada from Nepal, recalls sitting in a movie theatre when the screen grew dimmer and dimmer as the projection bulb slowly burned out. The screen was almost black but no one spoke up. Exasperated, she finally prodded her Canadian partner to alert the management, which he did, reluctantly. “Niceness can silence people here,” she said.

Overall, though, she’ll take nice any day. And so will I. Life is hard enough, with plenty of jagged edges and pointy bits. Why not coat it with a glaze of politeness and humility? Politeness, at its best, is a way of honouring others, especially strangers. Politeness is the lubricant that makes social interactions run smoothly and reduces the risk of conflagrations. The world, I think, would be a better place if we were all a bit more Canadian.

Fortunately, Canadian niceness is contagious. On my annual northern migration, I find myself slowing down, saying “thank you” and “please” more often that I usually do. Maybe I go too far and cross the line from polite to unctuous. If I do, I can only say, in true Canadian fashion, I’m sorry.

The city of 60 gardens

When Shanghai residents are looking to escape, they head to this tranquil city of gardens and canals.

Life in one of the world’s most populous cities can be exhausting, which is why Shanghai residents are always looking for ways to escape the skyscrapers and traffic.

A favourite option lies just 100km to the east of the Chinese megacity – and only 30 minutes away by high-speed rail: the historic city of Suzhou.

Founded in 514 BC by King Helü of the Kingdom of Wu, Suzhou is one of the Yangtze Delta’s oldest and most prosperous cities. Its position between the Yangtze River in the north and Taihu Lake to the west meant that the city always had an abundant water supply, which fed the canals and classical gardens that Suzhou is world famous for.

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The first gardens were built in the 6th Century BC, but at the city’s heyday (roughly from 1500 to 1700), Suzhou had more than 800 of these tranquil spots, designed by scholars to replicate the natural environment on a smaller scale. Today there are 60 left to explore, nine of which are recognised asUnesco World Heritage sites.

My first stop was the Humble Administrator’s Garden–Suzhou’s largest – located north of the historical quarter. The secluded 52,000sqm park was commissioned between 1510 and 1516 by tired political envoy and poet Wang Xiangcheng, who wanted a place to spend his retirement in peace.

From the tall entrance gates, a labyrinth of cobblestone pathways led to small pavilions scattered throughout the garden on low, rocky hills; their curved roofs providing shade for the visitors resting on wooden benches below. In the garden’s centre were a number of ponds, interconnected via narrow streams that flowed underneath charming bridges, replete with darting orange-and-silver fish.

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

There must have been at least 100 admirers trying to catch the lush landscape on paper. Art students with sketchbooks and easels sat on the pavilion steps, or on large, smooth rocks by the main pond, which was barely visible under gigantic lotus leaves. It was a beautiful – though crowded – sight.

I made my way next door, to the free Suzhou Garden Museum. Inside the low Ming-style building were landscape designs made by artists hired by Suzhou’ intellectual elite during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Over hundreds of years, a large elite class had formed here due to Suzhou’s prosperity from trade and manufacturing, making the city synonymous with high culture and elegance.

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Back then it was believed that the unpredictable beauty of nature allowed intellectuals to think properly. This meant that having a garden was essential – and so a green space became part of every Suzhou household. While the elite competed over their elaborate garden designs, even the poorest city dweller would have planted some shrubs in his courtyard.

Chinese classical gardens are significantly different from gardens in the Western world, however. As the Chinese believe, Europeans want to conquer nature, keeping plants and bushes behind their appointed boundaries. Chinese garden designers, on the other hand, seek to find the ultimate harmony between man and the natural world.

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

This means that although the bushes, plants, trees and flowers might seem to grow wildly, they are in fact meticulously planned around pavilions, ponds and bridges in order to reflect the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony. Rocks play an especially important role in this philosophy, symbolising the bridge between humans and nature. Although stones might look scattered, their placement between the manmade pathways and the garden’s natural elements – bushes, trees and waterfalls – is highly deliberate.

To see the city in its heyday, visit Suzhou’s small historic quarter. White two-storey Ming-style houses look over tranquil canals bordered by graceful willows, and playful stone bridges and steps descend from the quays. The contrast with Shanghai’s shiny skyscrapers and intense traffic couldn’t be clearer.

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou's canals (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou’s canals (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

At times, the main street Pingjiang lu can feel like a tourist hotspot, with vendors selling everything from Nutella waffles to brightly-coloured Chinese fans. But when I visited, there was nothing glossy about the traditional wooden boats that drifted through the canals, steered by scruffy old men who didn’t seem at all eager to take my money.

I decided to stop for a light lunch of juicy xiaolongbao at Shi Jian Huo Jian, an unpretentious restaurant on the crossing of Pingjiang lu and Baita lu. This delicious dish of small, steamed, meat-filled soup dumplings is typical to the Jiangnan area, where both Shanghai and Suzhou are situated.

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

My final stop for the day was Jinji Lake, 7km to the east and one of the many lakes in the area that helps bring calm and cool air to the city.

While the lanes were narrow in the historic quarter, the landscape was here vast and open. As I followed a long, winding boulevard along the water, the only sounds were my footsteps on the wooden boardwalk and faint conversations blown from over the water. The few visitors I could see were riding the tandems and tricycles for hire on the west side of the lake. On the opposite side, the outline of a Ferris wheel loomed through the fog next to a series of high rises. Boats drifted to the manmade isles in the lake’s centre. As I strolled a little further, I heard some older ladies chatting in a thick Suzhou accent.

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

I felt myself relax and unwind. If I’d had more time, I would have gone camping at Lake Taihu in Suzhou’s southwest or visited the famous old town of Tongli in the city’s south. For now, though, I stopped and listened to the birds and the sound of the boats splashing on the water, enjoying the solitude and peace before returning to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.