Seven places that hardly seem real

These seven dreamy destinations make you feel like you’ve stepped straight into a magical fairy tale world.

Where to go to escape the stresses of life, the bustle of the workweek and the noise of traffic? To find out, we turned to question-and-answer site Quora, where users have been sharing their opinions on real places that look plucked from a fairy tale.

From an enchanting Alpine palace in Germany that rivals Cinderella’s castle to a postcard-perfect English landscape that inspired Beatrix Potter and JRR Tolkien – these seven dreamy destinations are so magical, it’s hard to believe they’re real.

A giant patchwork quilt of kaleidoscopic colour
Holland’s stunning tulip fields, with their broad stripes of vibrant blues, reds, pinks and yellows, “look like the artwork in a children’s book”, wrote Quora user Rahul Shankar. He added that this coastal region of the Netherlands “strangely reminded [him] of the Wizard of Oz”.

Holland's tulip fields are reminiscent of the Yellow Brick Road (Credit: Credit: JacobH/istock)

Holland’s tulip fields are reminiscent of the Yellow Brick Road (Credit: JacobH/istock)

It’s a modern pastime to circle the flower farms on foot, bike or via caravan, and the tulips have a rich, storied history. The flowers were imported into Holland in the 16th Century and peaked in popularity in the 17th Century – during the Dutch Golden Age – when they grew so coveted they created the world’s first economic bubble: “Tulip Mania”.

The most popular fields are located in western Holland between the cities of Leiden and Den Helder. Others are situated near the city of Enkhuizen and in the nearby province of Flevoland.

The Holland tulip fields turn into a patchwork quilt from above (Credit: Credit: Hollandluchtfoto/Getty)

The Holland tulip fields turn into a patchwork quilt from above (Credit: Hollandluchtfoto/Getty)

More than three billion tulips are grown in Holland each year, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. Tulip season spans from March until August, giving travellers plenty of time to view the vibrant display.

A fantastical figment of Gaudi’s otherworldly imagination
With its intricate symbolic sculptures, monumental medallion-capped spires and wildly imaginative carved facades, theSagrada Familia rises from Barcelona’s urban setting like an elaborate Gothic castle ripe with stories, spirits and secrets.

The Gothic masterpiece is still under construction in Barcelona (Credit: Credit: Gustavo's Photos/Getty)

The Gothic masterpiece is still under construction in Barcelona (Credit: Gustavo’s Photos/Getty)

Designed by one of Spain’s most famed architects, Antoni Gaudi, the history of this Roman Catholic church and Unesco World Heritage Site is a legend in itself. Construction began in 1882, but less than a quarter of the project was complete when Gaudi died in 1926. Since then, work has progressed slowly, disrupted by the Spanish Civil War, a fire and a series of contentious controversies. The happy ending? Architects plan to complete the project in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

Barcelona’s most popular tourist site attracts three million visitors annually, and for good reason: it’s a dizzyingly elaborate masterpiece unlike anything else in the world. Which is why, according to Aditya Pandya, it has put Barcelona on the map.

Elaborate carvings adorn the massive Sagrada Familia (Credit: Credit: Cristinatrif/iStock)

Elaborate carvings adorn the massive Sagrada Familia (Credit: Cristinatrif/iStock)

“Anyone who is familiar with Gaudí’s work would appreciate his brazen and imaginative designs that left a lasting impression on Barcelona as a city,” Pandya wrote. “Gaudí’s phenomenal work between the late 1880s and 1920s is largely responsible for the city’s vibrant personality and in being recognised as the cultural capital of Spain.”

A setting that could steal the spotlight from any storybook hero
With its postcard-perfect valleys surrounded by glittering lakes, burbling brooks, rolling hills and craggy peaks, the Lake District in England’s northwest is quite literally taken out of fairy tales.

Sweeping views over England's lush Lake District (Credit: Credit: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy)

Sweeping views over England’s lush Lake District (Credit: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy)

“This place was JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for the Shire, Beatrix Potter’s inspiration for Peter Rabbit and eponymous residence of the Lake Poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey,” Jeff Chau wrote.

Each year, 16 million visitors come to the 2,292sqkm Cumbrian national park for its lake cruises, mountain hikes and awe-inspiring sightseeing. For city-dwellers especially, it can seem like stepping into a storybook realm of undulating fells, whitewashed cottages and stonewalled fields where ponies roam.

Bright skies reflect off of Buttermere Lake in Cumbria (Credit: Credit: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy)

Bright skies reflect off of Buttermere Lake in Cumbria (Credit: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy)

One of nature’s most magical optical illusions
Once upon a time in the faraway land of the Faroe Islands, glittering Lake Sørvágsvatn (also known as Lake Leitisvatn) became known as the most striking of all of the islands’ lakes.

At more than 6km long, it is the biggest in the Faroe Islands. And as the star of a clever optical illusion, the lake appears as if it’s resting hundreds of metres above the sea, with the ocean churning beneath its placid waters.

The Faroe Islands' Lake Sørvágsvatn, or Leitisvatn, tricks the eye (Credit: Credit: Jan Egil Kristiansen)

The Faroe Islands’ Lake Sørvágsvatn, or Leitisvatn, tricks the eye (Credit: Jan Egil Kristiansen)

But nature can be deceiving, explained Aneesh Wairagade. In reality, Lake Sørvágsvatn is actually no more than about 30m above sea level. A steep cliff in front of the lake and a clever camera angle make the lake appear to be much higher than it really is.

Visit the 18 rocky, volcanic islands connected by tunnels, ferries, causeways and bridges, and view Mother Nature’s oddest optical illusion on the island of Vagar. The islands are also home to other natural attractions, such as rare birds, dramatic coastal cliffs and grassy meadows dotted with sheep.

Vagar Island is full of dramatic lakes, waterfalls and cliffs (Credit: Credit: Adam Burtn/Alamy)

Vagar Island is full of dramatic lakes, waterfalls and cliffs (Credit: Adam Burtn/Alamy)

The ultimate cliff hanger
Jutting out dramatically above the reflective waters of Lysefjord, the spectacular precipice of Preikestolen in Ryfylke, Norway, could be the setting for any mythic Hollywood epic.

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, towers over Lysefjorden (Credit: Credit: David Robertson/Alamy)

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, towers over Lysefjorden (Credit: David Robertson/Alamy)

Also known as Preacher’s Pulpit or Pulpit Rock because it resembles a lectern, Preikestolen is a rocky 25m by 25m rocky plateau that towers 604m above the crystal-clear waters below. According to Derek Harkness, it looks “like something from the Roadrunner cartoons”.

The steep cliff was formed during the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, when the edges of a glacier bumped up against the surrounding mountains. Water from the glacier penetrated the crevices of the mountain and froze, eventually breaking off colossal portions. Left behind was the dramatic precipice of Preikestolen.

A hiker revels on top of Preikestolen in Norway (Credit: Credit: Anton Sokolov/iStock)

A hiker revels on top of Preikestolen in Norway (Credit: Anton Sokolov/iStock)

Ice Age-era cracks in the plateau will eventually expand and fragment Pulpit Rock into a pile of rubble – but, according to geological investigations, not in the foreseeable future.

‘If I were a princess, I would want my castle to look like this’
If you don’t believe in fairy tales, you will after you set eyes onNeuschwanstein Castle. An enchanting Romanesque Revival fortress that rises majestically from the Alpine foothills of southwest Bavaria, this picture-perfect palace is rumoured to be the inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland and Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyworld.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is rumoured to have inspired Disney (Credit: Credit: Rudy Balasko/iStock)

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is rumoured to have inspired Disney (Credit: Rudy Balasko/iStock)

Straight from the dreams of little princesses across the globe, this magical palace has everything a fairy tale castle should: a romantic setting, a glowing limestone facade, fanciful turrets and an elaborate interior featuring shining suits of armour.

“It seriously looks like Prince Charming and his lovely wife are going to step right out of the front door to greet you,” wroteDanielle Maurer. “If I were a princess, I would want my castle to look like this.”

The halls of Neuschwanstein Castle are fit for a princess (Credit: Credit: Konstantin Mironov/Alamy)

The halls of Neuschwanstein Castle are fit for a princess (Credit: Konstantin Mironov/Alamy)

In reality, the castle was originally commissioned as a personal retreat in 1869 by King Ludwig II, the reclusive ruler of Bavaria. Immediately after his death in 1886, it was opened to the public and today more than 1.3 million tourists visit each year.

A zany Alice in Wonderland creation, reflected in a fun-house mirror
“This isn’t an illustration in a fairy tale book; this is a real house,” wrote Bruce Feldman, describing Poland’s fantastically topsy-turvy Krzywy Domek, or Crooked House.

The wacky, warped Krzywy Domek (Credit: Credit: James Freeman/Alamy)

The wacky, warped Krzywy Domek (Credit: James Freeman/Alamy)

With its undulating roofline and warped windows and doors, this 4,000sqm building “was inspired by the fairy tale illustrations of [prolific children’s book illustrator] Jan Marcin Szancer and the work of artist Per Dahlberg,” Feldman explained. The vertigo-inducing building in the seaside resort town of Sopot houses a shopping centre, restaurants and a radio station, and draws thousands of tourists each year to see the modern architectural marvel for themselves.

Scotland’s wee but wild road

A 516-mile route that passes through spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention distilleries.

Locals call it the “wee mad road”: a looping ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline between the fishing hamlets of Inverkirkaig, Coigach and Achiltibuie in the northwestern Scottish Highlands. “These single-track roads can take you to some wild places,” said Lesley Crosfield, the proprietor of nearby boutique hotel and restaurant The Albannach. “That’s why it’s always worth taking the slower road: there’s so much to learn around here.”

Crosfield runs Britain’s northernmost Michelin-starred restaurant, 85 miles northwest of Inverness. It’s exactly where she wanted to be. She first fell in love with Scotland’s northwest coast in the 1980s – and is now gearing up for more changes in the next year than she has seen in the past 25.

Achnahaid Bay (Credit: Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The view from Achiltibuie of Achnahaid Bay on Scotland’s northwest coast (Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The road that runs right past her front door now forms part of the North Coast 500, launched last summer by the North Highland Initiative. Taking its cue from one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems, (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles by The Proclaimers, the 516-mile itinerary climbs north from Inverness into the wild counties of Caithness and Sutherland, skirts the northern edge of the country, then drops south along the mountainous western coast. It runs past a sort of greatest hits of Scottish icons: spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention whisky distilleries.

At first, the road winds through lands of corn, sheep farms and grain distilleries: quiet places where puffy sheep and cattle grids bring traffic to a standstill.

Beach near Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Sham/Alamy)

The North Coast 500 cuts past wild sand beaches, like this one near Cromarty on the northwest coast (Credit: Sham/Alamy)

But when turning west at the village of John O’Groats in Scotland’s northeast corner, zigzagging across the largest rolling expanse of peatland and blanket bog in Europe, the circuit turns up the Highland drama, looping past ancient lochs and the denuded glens of Ross and Cromarty. Here, it veers into remoter parts of the Highlands that only those with more fertile imaginations care to call home.

Ross and Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

At the glens of Ross and Cromarty, shown here, the route turns up the Highland drama (Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

Such risk-takers include people like Danish sculptor and ceramic artist Lotte Glob, who – between hiking trips into the wilderness – attracts buyers from across Europe to her studio. Or Paul Maden and James Findlay, who left Glasgow for Durness to found Cocoa Mountain, the UK’s northernmost chocolatier – now located in a Cold War station built in the mid-1950s to warn in the event of a nuclear attack.

“The traditional crofting life doesn’t tend to match up with espresso and artisan chocolates,” Maden said while boiling cream for a batch of single malt whisky caramel cappuccinos. “But business is booming.”

These are the kinds of success stories that the North Highland Initiative, which was inaugurated by Prince Charles to stoke interest in the area’s off-grid attractions, is aiming for.

Loch Eriboll (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

A stop along the North Coast 500 at Loch Eriboll in northwest Scotland (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

Already reaping the benefits are Martin and Claire Murray, who began distilling Rock Rose gin in a copper still at the Dunnet Bay Distillers, eight miles northeast of the town of Thurso. Thurso is the improbable tip of another new Scottish touring route, the Scottish Gin Trail, launched in January by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

The botanicals used by the Murrays – 80 different kinds, at last count – have all been foraged and stocked from the surrounding wetlands with the help of local herbalist Brian Lamb. They include sea buckthorn, juniper, mint, hawthorn, bog myrtle and the Murrays’ signature ingredient, the flowering herb rhodiola rosea, which flourishes on brackish cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

To some extent, all of the historical romance of Scotland can be tied to this coast. At its halfway point sits the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, poised on the barren north-westerly corner of mainland Britain. Then there is Ardvreck Castle, a rectangular keep on Loch Assynt supposedly plagued by devilish mermaids. Pictish sculptures at the town of Portmahomack represent some of the great puzzles of medieval archaeology, while the holly-topped islands of Loch Maree shelter the remains of a forgotten graveyard and ancient druid hermitage.

The town of Thurso (Credit: Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

The town of Thurso is now a stop on both the North Coast 500 and the Scottish Gin Trail (Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

Even Loch Maree, like Loch Ness, has its own fable as a refuge for the Muc-sheilch: a cross between an eel and a muckle-headed sea monster.

Given that the road could scarcely be more isolated, it’s surprising to find so much life off of it. Beyond the road is the territory of the majestic red deer, where stalkers’ paths weave through swathes of Scots pine and forest oak. Muscular stags can often be seen surveying the roadside from a rocky outcrop.

The mountain pass to Applecross (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

The mountain pass to Applecross, the end of the North Coast 500, in the Scottish Highlands (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

Near journey’s end, toward the town of Torridon on Scotland’s west coast, the mountains create a shoulder of castellated tiers in red and chocolate sandstone. The highest and most imposing is Liathach, its great terraced wall dwarfing Upper Loch Torridon and the crenelated towers of theTorridon Hotel. Starkly beautiful, when wrapped in mist, it sends out a beautiful, welcoming impression. If only the mountain could speak, it would tell even better stories.

A one-way trip lasted seven years

As many of her friends settled down, Sabrina Iovino opted out of the rat race and began a life of full-time travel.

Surrounded by young, good-looking backpackers in Bangkok, Thailand, I made up my mind: once I got back home to Germany, I was going to quit my job and travel the world.

It was 2007, and I had taken a short trip to the humid nation to take a break from the rat race in Berlin. Almost everyone I met told me the same story: “I’m travelling around the world for a year, and you?” I was embarrassed to say I would go back home in a couple of weeks to my boring nine-to-five life as a graphic designer for a start-up company. My friends were getting married, buying cars and houses and looking down at me, wondering why I didn’t want to pursue the same goals. But rather than chasing material possessions, I craved freedom and adventure – and my new travelling friends seemed so happy and free. Suddenly I knew I had to change my life.

Rather than chasing material possessions, I craved freedom and adventure.

When I returned from South East Asia, I started to save as much money as I could. I worked more than ever and lived as frugally as possible. I rented out my room to tourists, cancelled all unnecessary insurance, ate at home and completely gave up shopping – instead, I sold most of my clothes and designer furniture. A year later I had saved up 20,000 euros and was ready to take the leap, so I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.

A vertigo-inducing view, found while couch-surfing in Hong Kong (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

A vertigo-inducing view, found while couch-surfing in Hong Kong (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Quitting my job = pure happiness
A day later I told my boss that I’d quit my job. I will never forget how I felt that day – it was pure happiness, knowing I wouldn’t have to work for a long time and I could instead just enjoy travelling. It was 2008, and the beginning of a new life – although I didn’t know it at the time.

I had enough money to travel for at least one or two years. In the beginning it was purely a holiday, and I knew I would have to return at some point. I travelled the first six months across South East Asia, then I headed to Japan and Australia before crossing the Pacific to Chile. From there I took a bus all the way up to Mexico. It was an insane trip – South and Central America were such colourful countries and Latin people are some of the most fun and friendly people on this planet. Afterwards I flew to New York and from there I returned back to Germany, after 14 months of travel. It was January 2010 and terribly cold.

Working in an office from nine to five seemed like a huge waste of time.

I got my old job back and started working again at the same company that I had left in 2008. It was then that I realised those 14 months away were not a holiday, they were what my life was supposed to be. My whole perspective had changed, and working in an office from nine to five seemed like a huge waste of time. I had better things to do with my time – like travelling.

Standing still at one of the world’s busiest crossings (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Standing still at one of the world’s busiest crossings (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

My return back to normal life didn’t last long. After exactly three months I quit again and was back on a plane, travelling to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece,  India and Japan. I have been travelling full-time ever since.

Nowadays, people always ask me how I am able to travel so much and if I will ever come home. Apart from a few short visits, I have never really returned to Berlin. But once I knew I wanted to travel full-time, eventually I would have to make money from it. I had no idea how I could do that, but I decided to figure it out on the way.

Making friends with turtles in the Philippines (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Making friends with turtles in the Philippines (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

A life of travel isn’t cheap
In 2012 I started writing down my travel experiences, and eventually set up a blog, JustOneWayTicket.com, to share my stories and photos with the world. My first blog post was called10 reasons why you should travel to the Philippines – a piece I wrote with all my heart. The post got picked up by the Philippine media and was shared thousands of times. Filipinos are very active on social media and they really helped me kick-start my blog by sharing my articles.

A month later I wrote a post showing my readers how they can live and travel full-time. The article was very popular, and from that point on my blog traffic went up, after one year my blog reached half a million page views and I was earning enough from it to travel full-time.

I did start the with the intention of making money with the blog, but I had no clue how. But I read as much as I could and studied other travel blogs, learning as I went. I learned how to optimise my site to get a better ranking for my blog posts, and that longer articles rank much higher than short ones. I try to provide value with every single post: I don’t write just for fun, I want my readers to learn something new with every article of mine.

The symmetric steps of Chand Baori, in Rajasthan, India (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

The symmetric steps of Chand Baori, in Rajasthan, India (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

One year after I started blogging, my life completely changed. Suddenly tourism boards were inviting me to explore their countries, luxury hotels were offering me free rooms in exchange for reviews, and airlines offered to sponsor flight tickets in exchange for some online exposure.

Today, I live completely off my blog. I make money through advertising and affiliate sales (where I recommend products, like the travel gear I use or the hotels I stay in). I also found some generous sponsors in the travel industry who are helping me to keep this lifestyle by featuring their branding on the site. I can’t ever imagine living my old life again – going to an office and working for someone else just seems a huge waste of time.

Soaking up the views in Cape Town, South Africa (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Soaking up the views in Cape Town, South Africa (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

The number of countries you visit isn’t as important as the experiences you have
So far, I have visited between 50 and 60 countries. I actually stopped counting after 50. It doesn’t matter, the number is not really important, the experiences are. India was probably the craziest place I’ve visited and the first country I really experienced culture shock – the sheer amount of people is hard to bear. India is another world, like a trip into a completely different time.

You won’t achieve freedom by making more money. You will find freedom by working less and spending less.

The funny thing is, after seven years of travelling, I sometimes miss having a home – I hate to pack my bags and move on to a new location. I now travel at a slower pace than I used to – I love staying longer at places and digging into the local culture. My goal is to have home bases in several countries and being able to work from anywhere in the world.

It took me years to understand that I don’t have to do what everybody else is doing and that nothing is impossible as long as you have passion. I have chosen to remove myself from an ordinary life and live like a nomad. The best things in life aren’t things you can buy – you won’t achieve freedom by making more money. You will find freedom by working less and spending less. I’m not saying you should stop working, but you should work on something that you truly love. Never, never, never give up on your dream.

Working hard from a hammock in Indonesia (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Working hard from a hammock in Indonesia (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

India’s temples of sex

This extremely conservative country was once home to the world’s first sex treatise and the erotic art on display is perhaps more shocking now than when it was created.

In December 2013, India’s LGBT community suffered a severe setback as the country’s Supreme Court ruled homosexuality to be a criminal offence. More recently, in August 2015, the Indian government imposed a ban, lifted conditionally a few days later, on more than 800 websites deemed pornographic, in an ostensible bid to curb child pornography and sexual violence.

But India was not always like this. Sexual norms were far more liberal before the 13th Century.

India has been a particularly conservative country for the last few hundred years, influenced by the puritanism of several groups, including Islamic dynasties, British overlords and the country’s own Brahmin priestly caste. But India was not always like this. Sexual norms were far more liberal before the 13th Century, giving equal importance to the secular and the spiritual. Sex was taught as a subject in formal education, and Kamasutra, the world’s first sex treatise, was written in ancient India between the 4th Century BCE and the 2nd Century.

Sculptures of a sexual nature (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Sculptures of a sexual nature (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

In fact, if you look closely, reminders of these more liberal times can be seen across the country. They’re literally carved in stone in the form of erotic motifs on the lower walls of the 13th Century Sun Temple at Konark in the east Indian state of Orissa. Nudity is prominent in the paintings and sculptures of heavenly maidens at Maharashtra’s Buddhist rock-cut monastic caves, Ajanta (2nd Century BCE) and Ellora (5th to 10th Centuries).

Of the original 85 temples, just more than 20 remain (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Of the original 85 temples, just more than 20 remain (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

India’s most graphic example of erotic temple art
However, the best-preserved and most graphic example of erotic temple art can be found in the small town of Khajurahoin the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Its elegantly carved Hindu temples were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986. Built by the Chandela dynasty between 950 and 1050, only 22 of the 85 original temples remain.

When I entered the 6sqkm site late one winter afternoon, the sandstone glowed a burnished gold. Local women carried fresh flowers and incense sticks for their prayers, while visitors perambulated the outer corridors, gawking at the profuse and intricate sculptures that covered every inch of the walls. There were images of gods and goddesses, warriors and musicians, animals and birds. It could have been a scene from any temple in India.

Many of these carvings were of an intensely erotic nature, featuring men, women and animals.

But on closer inspection, many of these carvings were of an intensely erotic nature, featuring men, women and animals. There were depictions of threesomes, orgies and bestiality. Although I knew what to expect, I was still taken aback by shapely maidens and virile men contorting their bodies in impossible sexual positions, right next to sculptures of divine beings smiling blissfully at the devout. Although a few stones were chipped and several limbs broken, the carvings were incredibly pristine, considering that the temples are more than 1,000 years old.

A woman offers prayers at the temple (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

A woman offers prayers at the temple (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

 

There are various theories about the existence of such graphic erotic motifs. One of the more exotic ones propounds that since Chandela kings were followers of Tantric principles, which dictate the balance between the male and female forces, they promoted their faith in the temples they created.

Some believe the depiction of sexual activities was considered a good omen.

Other theories have to do with the role of temples themselves in those times: they were considered places of learning as well as worship – especially of the finer arts, including the art of lovemaking. In addition, some believe that the depiction of sexual activities in temples was considered a good omen because it represented new beginnings and new life.

Carvings cover every inch of the outer walls (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Carvings cover every inch of the outer walls (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

That apart, Hinduism has traditionally considered sex an essential part of life, which could be why the carvings are casually interspersed between others that portray activities as varied as prayer and war. The fact that they are set in plain view and not tucked away in an obscure corner seems to suggest that their creators meant for them to be seen by all.

Isolation helped these graphic motifs survive 
Bizarrely, there’s no reason why these ornate temples were built at Khajuraho, since there’s no clear record of whether there was even a kingdom in this location. The survival of these graphic motifs can likely be attributed to their isolation for hundreds of years in the region’s once-thick forest, only rediscovered by Englishman Captain TS Burt in 1838. In fact, Burt himself had to be persuaded by his Indian attendants to make the journey; he didn’t believe anything of interest would be found at the remote spot. These charmed temples have also managed to evade the wrath of India’s moral police, who in recent years banned or destroyed a range of cultural artefacts, ranging from Salman Rushdie’s books to MF Hussain’s paintings.

A visitor stops to admire the carvings (Credit: Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

A visitor stops to admire the carvings (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

But what I found even more interesting than the explicit carvings and the history behind them was the fact that entire families were quietly engrossed in the guide’s speech as he analysed the spicier carvings high on the walls of the magnificent Kandariya Mahadeva temple. No eyebrows were raised, no embarrassed looks were exchanged, no giggles escaped young lips. Perhaps the art is unobjectionable when crouched within a religious context – but I came away believing that Khajuraho holds within its walls a larger lesson on tolerance for India.

‘I was hoping he wasn’t a lunatic’

Deep in the wilds of Jordan’s desert, the generosity of a stranger offered a curious group of backpackers the adventure of a lifetime.

A bright pink 4×4 came barrelling across the desert, dust spiralling into the sky. As it skidded to a halt in front of me, I could feel the eyes of my friends boring into the back of my skull. We were about to head into the wilds of Jordan with a stranger I’d met on Couchsurfing.

“Come and stay with me, bring your friends,” Ghassab had written, offering to put us up in a rock-cut cave his family had owned for centuries. “It will be one of the best adventures of your life.” As our Bedouin host stepped out of the car and strolled towards us with a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, I was merely hoping that he wasn’t a lunatic.

Barreling across the desert in style (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Barreling across the desert in style (Credit: Will Jehring)

Ghassab was striking. His waist-length dreadlocks bounced in the sun. Colourful beads and amulets – gifts from previous Couchsurfers – hung from his chest. As he smiled, a flash of white spread across his tanned face.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“I want to see your goats,” I said.

It was the right answer.

There’s more to Jordan’s desert than Petra
We shook hands and piled into the back seat. With a worrying crunch of the gearbox, we took off, speeding across the desert. We jolted along a potholed road through the small town of Wadi Musa, which clings to the outside of Nabataea, one of Jordan’s most striking national parks and home to the ancient city of Petra. We passed a lone camel and its rider. Tantalising ruins and carved facades called to us but we did not stop; Ghassab drove deeper into the desert.

He chatted as we bumped along, telling us about his family, goats, two wildcat kittens he had rescued from the merciless sun, and his great love for Bob Marley. Ghassab was a Rastafarian Bedouin, perhaps the only one in the world.

'Come and stay with me, bring your friends,' Ghassab had written (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

‘Come and stay with me, bring your friends,’ Ghassab had written (Credit: Will Jehring)

We crossed a dry riverbed, rambled past towering rock formations and followed an ever-fainter track as we chased the sun across the horizon. Without warning, Ghassab made a sharp turn and we left the trail altogether, driving at full speed towards a huge pinnacle of rock that scratched at the sky. He stopped the 4×4, and as the dust began to settle, silence swallowed us.

“I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave.”

I looked around. A small tent, battered and much repaired, lent against a bronzed boulder. An enclosure made from stacked stones and topped with a tarpaulin sat sizzling in the sun. I could hear the shuffling and faint bleating of Ghassab’s prized goats. The heat was unbearable.

A warm welcome inside an ancient cave
Ghassab strolled over from the other side of the vehicle. He seemed excited. “I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave,” he said while pointing. About 50m away was a large lump of rock about 8m high where we would be laying our heads for the night. I could make out stairs, a gaping entrance and a fire pit with something shiny, perhaps a pan, glistening in the sun.

Ghassab looked at us and then up at the dropping sun. “There is no time to lose, we must gather firewood,” he commanded. He handed over a sledgehammer and an iron spike, and my friends and I followed him into the mountains. We scrambled and climbed, inching past precarious drops and sliding down rocky gullies. There was little sign of vegetation, and I doubted anything could grow here among the spirals of red desert dust and mounds of jumbled boulders. “If you want to eat then we must find wood,” Ghassab reiterated in a harsher voice.

He leapt from rock to rock like a cat, and we struggled after him until we found a large log lying in the middle of a ravine, perhaps left there from a rare downpour. We pounded our iron spike into small holes cut with a penknife, and slowly but surely, split the wood and made bundles to carry back to the cave.

As we sat around our roaring fire – the flames casting shadows on the stone home – Ghassab told us how he’s lived in the desert outside Petra all of his life. He inherited the rock-cut cave from his family, all of who had moved to Wadi Musa, a government town built in 1978 to accommodate the cave dwellers who were later forced out when Petra began to attract more tourists. As Ghassab’s cave was just outside Petra, he’d been able to stay.

Feeding the fire before dinner (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Feeding the fire before dinner (Credit: Will Jehring)

This cave was a place unlike any other
Darkness fell slowly. The desert faded away as night spread across the sky like a pot of spilled ink. Stars began to appear like pinpricks of light beneath an uncertain curtain of black. Our fire burnt merrily, with the remains of half a leg of goat sizzling above it, the fat dripping into open flames. Ghassab crouched nearby, the fire illuminating his hunched shoulders, his skinny frame and the deep furrows etched into his brow. He glanced at me and smiled gently. It was time for sleep.

By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel.

I scrambled for my head torch and set out to prep my bed before I froze to death. The winds of the night raced towards me, leaving me uncomfortable and cold. I wrapped myself in a pair of scratchy blankets and laid a lumpy mattress on the undulating rocks.

Flames flicker in the desert darkness (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Flames flicker in the desert darkness (Credit: Will Jehring)

This was a place unlike any other. Nearby, the ancient ruins of Petra stood hidden in the hills, and tens of thousands of stars glistened above. By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel. We’d spent the day with a Rastafarian Bedouin and I was now sleeping atop a rock-cut cave, looking up at the most stunning skies in the world.

An Australian outback road trip

Driving along the Stuart Highway, which cuts through the heart of Australia, is a journey through bleak and rugged landscapes punctuated by fuel stops that masquerade as towns.

The trip that transformed me: The student at sea

Rebecca Isaak attended the same study-abroad program as her mother – but her experiences were uniquely her own.

In January 2014, 21-year-old Canadian Rebecca Isaak boarded a ship in San Diego, California, eager to start what would be a five-month journey around the world. She was embarking on a Semester at Sea – a program where university students live and learn while stopping in ports across the globe – just like her mom did in 1981. And in many ways, she set sail expecting to have a very similar experience.

The author's mother on a Semester at Sea trip (Credit: Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

The author’s mother on a Semester at Sea trip (Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

“I wanted to hug the same statue she did in China, get a little too tipsy in Japan, make the same lasting friendships,” Isaak said.

But as she voyaged across the sea, she realized that her journey was bound to be very different.

A personal moment at the Taj Mahal
One of Isaak’s most memorable stops was India. As she slipped on her protective white slippers to enter the Taj Mahal, a realisation dawned over her.

“At the time, I was very conscious of the fact that my mother’s one regret from her travels was not getting to see the Taj Mahal,” she said. “And here I was.”

The palace looked just like it did in photos, but the experience was nothing like she imagined. The environment was chaotic as people stood outside and tried to sell trinkets to her. “They yelled and pushed, and grabbed your arm,” the Canadian student said. While listening to families scream and shout around her, she felt overwhelmed and “not at all serene” as she had presumed she would.

The interior of the structure was a surprise as well, but in a more aweing way. Isaak recalls seeing all the intricate and delicate details inside of the memorial, like the stone carved pattern found on the walls. She remembers thinking that the building massive, and quite ornate as she walked across the marble floors.

The Taj Mahal is enveloped in pastels as the sun sets (Credit: Credit: Thinkstock)

The Taj Mahal is enveloped in pastels as the sun sets (Credit: Thinkstock)

However, Isaak was more impressed by the other parts of India. She preferred immersing herself into the country and experiencing the liveliness found in everyday people. In fact, Isaak said, it was her interactions within the community that had the greatest impact .

On her first and only night in New Delhi, India, a funny and earnest tour guide showed Isaak and her friends around a Sikh gurdawara. The guide stayed late to show Isaak and her friends the “holy place” where Sikh scriptures are kept. Followers go to the building for ceremonies and to hear readings, or to share meals with people of all denominations in the soup kitchen. They planned on staying for five minutes, but didn’t leave until an hour later. The students were learning about the gurdawara, but the tour guide also had the opportunity to learn about their respective cultures.

“It definitely stands out for our time in India, probably because I had the chance to authentically interact with someone from the country,” Isaak said.

Meeting the locals
Making an effort to interact with the locals became a theme for Isaak. Without some element of that, she felt like she was missing out on a core part of the experience. “I think it made me feel like I hadn’t actually experienced the country, I had just seen it,” the Ontario native said.

In Vietnam, another country her mother had never been to, Isaak discovered Couchsurfing, a website that connects travellers with locals that are looking for cheap accommodations and new friends, Isaak said. She spent three days in Ho Chi Minh City, just learning about her surroundings from the people who actually lived there.

First, she met a local English teacher. He took her to the first McDonalds that was built in his native country, and they sipped iced coffee on the side of the street. Isaak then returned the gesture by attending his class. “I had thirty Vietnamese students nervously and hilariously ask me questions about Canada and how I feel about Vietnamese boys,” she said.

Making friends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Credit: Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

Making friends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

She met two girls—best friends—who also took the initiative to show her around. Isaak thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but also became nostalgic for her friends back home. Ngan, another new friend would let Isaak stay at her home for two nights. She introduced the Ontario drama student to her housemates, showed her around her university and played badminton with her in the alleyways.

“I would run back to the ship to shower, drop off things – but I felt like I lived in the city,” Isaak said. Her program highly suggests that students do not embark on excursions by themselves because those experiences wouldn’t be covered by their travel insurance. The program also wouldn’t push couch-surfing or riding motorbikes, but Isaak revels in the fact that she “did all three”.

The boat would also stop in Myanmar for six days, another place Isaak’s mother did not visit on her voyage. A civil conflict had plagued the region for decades, which probably disallowed her mother from visiting, she said. Instructors made sure to remind the students that the country was still adjusting to having outside visitors.

Exploring Myanmar (Credit: Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

Exploring Myanmar (Credit: Rebecca Isaak)

Some friends joined Isaak and visited the ancient city of Bagan for four days after docking in the capital of the country, Yangon. The Semester at Sea program allows students to enjoy “in-port” time, giving them the opportunity to explore the country as long as they return by a specific time.

During this particular trip, they would “find the pagodas with wide open tops and dangle our legs over the side to watch the sunset”, she said. In moments like this, Isaak remembers feeling as if something was “burning into her soul”, because she was overcome with emotion. “I [felt] joy at the overwhelming beauty, and a comforting sense of peace,” Isaak said. “Like somehow this beautiful moment could settle all the worries I had ever had.”

She and her friends would have small interactions with the community, but it was more of a bonding experience for the group of students. Vietnam will always be special, Isaak said, simply because she treaded a new territory all on her own.

“No other country rivalled Vietnam for me,” she said.

Replicating another’s amazing adventures
Over the course of the four months, Isaak would also visit China, Hawaii, Japan, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana and London. The Semester at Sea program taught her how to step outside of her comfort zone, and be okay with being frightened about the unknown.

“Slowly, I began to realize that even if I was traveling in my mother’s footsteps, her shoes don’t fit my feet,” Isaak said. She needed to start living for herself – not in her mother’s shadow.

Before her semester at sea, Isaak had set expectations. But the trip revealed to her that she was different than her mom – it was time to live her life, and have her own adventures.

“When I arrived home, tan and quite bald, and hugged my mother, I knew that I had stories just as wonderful and unique as hers,” Isaak said. “And the best part is that they are all mine.”

Alice’s Australian wonderland

About 25km west of Uluru is another sacred site that rises even higher – but fewer people know about.

When you’re somewhere as remote as Australia’s outback, “over there” can mean a three-day drive to the state border. But when you’re standing in front of the region’s now famous spiritual icon, Uluru, “over there” could easily refer to the silhouette of remarkable proportions just 25km to the west.

Bigger, wider and taller than Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a spectacular collection of 36 enormous rocks. It’s also, arguably, one of Australia’s best-kept secrets, barely talked about among most Australians, let alone the world. Even today, pre-planned itineraries to Uluru rarely take in this magnificent sight.

The 36 granite and basalt conglomerate domes of Kata Tjuta (Credit: Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

The 36 granite and basalt conglomerate domes of Kata Tjuta (Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

“There’s a general lack of awareness in Australia about Kata Tjuta,” conceded Andrew Williams, CEO of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, which operates Ayers Rock Resort, the area’s sole resort.“You only have to look at the number of tours heading to Uluru versus the handful that visit Kata Tjuta to get an idea of demand. For many, even most Australians, it’s just not on the radar.”

In part, it’s the sheer unlikeliness of Kata Tjuta’s existence that makes this natural masterpiece so extraordinary. Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta is made of rusting rock, but the latter is a series of several domes, rather than one massif, that rise unbidden from the flat red surrounds, an oversized collection of marbles balancing on top at improbable angles. And they really are oversized. Uluru might be taller than the Eiffel Tower, but Kata Tjuta towers another 200m higher than that; it would dwarf even New York City’s Empire State Building. In Pitjantjatjara, the language of the local indigenous Anangu community, Kata Tjuta means “many heads”, and so they seem, crowded together like giant, sleepy children, their magnificent tops dusted with minuscule, feathery-golden trees.

The heads of Kata Tjuta crowd together like sleepy children (Credit: Credit: Georgia Rickard)

The heads of Kata Tjuta crowd together like sleepy children (Credit: Georgia Rickard)

The other reason for Kata Tjuta’s exceptionality is that, to the Anangu, Kata Tjuta is a place of particular cultural significance – so much so that the domes have the rare distinction of having dual World Heritage status, both for their indigenous heritage as well as for their natural beauty. And even though it is an exceptionally stunning place, the site is so sacred that almost all forms of close-up photography and videography have been banned.

The Anangu are notoriously quiet about their cultural practices and Kata Tjuta is known as a place of “men’s business”. If detailed photographs of the site were to be published, they might be seen by uninitiated young men, or by women, which would be considered highly inappropriate. So while outsiders are welcome to visit, no-one can broadcast the experience with the world. No wonder it’s still a secret.

Kata Tjuta at sunrise (Credit: Credit: Steve Swayne)

Kata Tjuta at sunrise (Credit: Steve Swayne)

It was pre-dawn when we left our hotel to make the journey to Kata Tjuta. The first stop was to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s sunrise dune viewing platform, from which we watched in silent awe as the outback’s lesser-known domes were seemingly lit from within with a slow rose-coloured light. Though it’s just another 18km to Kata Tjuta’s entrance, this is the closest that many visitors get to experiencing its wonders. And though it was a remarkable sight – a mountainous Morse code of dots and dashes directly in front of us, the silhouette of Uluru glimmering silently to our right – it was nothing compared to a face-to-face encounter.

Only photographs that take in the "V" of Walpa Gorge may be published (Credit: Credit: Georgia Rickard)

Only photographs that take in the “V” of Walpa Gorge may be published (Credit: Georgia Rickard)

Walking through Kata Tjuta has been compared to what a walk through Uluru might be like if you sliced the giant rock in half – and the site’s most popular walking track, a 2.6km roundtrip into Walpa Gorge, certainly felt that way. The easy stroll between two of the largest domes offered a breathtaking sense of scale, with the reward of a beautiful riverbed and small oasis of green at its end.

Even more impressive was the 8km Valley of the Winds hike, which takes you around, between and behind a dozen more domes, through a landscape seemingly not from this Earth. The day was warming up as we started walking, disturbing groups of tiny birds that lifted into mad, twittering flight above. We passed giant, popcorn-shaped pieces of ochre-coloured rock, as big as lounge-room furniture, which lay scattered like confetti on the valley floor. Corresponding holes in the fortress-like walls of the domes above told the story of their origins.

A burnt eucalypt in The Valley Of The Winds (Credit: Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

A burnt eucalypt in The Valley Of The Winds is silhouetted against the ochre domes of Kata Tjuta (Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

Every shade and texture of ochre, crimson, maroon, rust and slate could be found on the rock walls; the valleys between them filled with soft grey gums, shining emerald shrubs and the pale-green fuzz of spinifex. Hazy purple clouds puffed slowly through the sky above. With mobs of shy, shimmering grey euro wallaroos (similar to kangaroos, but smaller) and a semi-permanent, silvery creek completing the scene, the overall impression was of a psychedelic otherworld.

Surely, if Uluru is the Cinderella of the outback, then this is Alice’s Wonderland.

Unlike her famous sister, there is virtually no man-made imposition to be seen at Kata Tjuta: no boardwalks, no handrails, almost no signage. This makes it easier to picture how the Anangu’s lived before European settlement, even though little is known about Kata Tjuta’s place in indigenous life.

“It’s not for us to know,” confirmed Jennie Nowell, a visitor service officer at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. “But we’re talking about one of the oldest living cultures in the world, so I think we have an obligation to be mindful and respectful of their decision to share, or not share, their knowledge.”

The domes of Kata Tjuta rise 500 metres (Credit: Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

The domes of Kata Tjuta rise 500 metres (Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

I took a moment to look at the dove-grey tree trunks, the smoky blue shimmer of the gum leaves, the gentle, silent majesty of the domes above us.

“It’s very different to Uluru, in every aspect,” Nowell reflected. “I always tell people when they visit to just stop and take a moment to look at what’s around them – no walking, no taking photos, no moving around. It’s very special. There’s no denying that Kata Tjuta is a one off.”

A desert’s once-in-a-decade super bloom

Thanks to strong El Niño activity and heavy autumn rains, Death Valley – one of the least hospitable places on Earth – is experiencing its biggest explosion of flowers since 2005.

The desert was aglow with flowers. As I descended California’s Panamint Mountains, the familiar landscape turned my windshield into a movie screen. Vast swaths of yellow carpeted the once barren ground, the desert gold booms resting high on their stalks with vivid petals that radiated in the morning light. Other flowers with names like purple mat and gravel ghost peppered the landscape with fuschias and ethereal whites. I got out of my car, breathing in the sweet, lilting florals. This once-in-a-decade super bloom of wildflowers was why I and so many others had come to Death Valley National Park.

A patch of desert gold (Geraea canescens) flowers along the roadside (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

A patch of desert gold (Geraea canescens) flowers along the roadside (Credit: Sivani Babu)

“I was asleep, and I woke up, and there were flowers everywhere!” The bubbling voice that spilled into the morning belonged to a young girl of about six who wore fine pollen, the colour of a canary feather, like face paint. Her parents and she had driven all night from the lush redwoods of northern California to see the desert blooms. The largest national park in the contiguous United States, Death Valley stretches from California into Nevada and draws an international crowd of roughly 1m visitors each year, but seldom do people visit with so much urgency. Such is the power of a phenomenon that is both rare and transient.

Tangled stalks of desert gold (Garaea canescens) flowers (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Tangled stalks of desert gold (Garaea canescens) flowers (Credit: Sivani Babu)

The recipe for a Death Valley super bloom appears simple: heavy rains, followed by warm temperatures and lighter rain showers. If it is too hot or too cold, if the wind is too dry or if there is too much or too rain little, the wildflowers might still bloom, but not with the synchronization and density of a super bloom. The great complication, of course, is that Death Valley is the driest place in North America and the hottest on Earth. Rain is rare. Unmerciful heat is not.

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) and purple mat (Nama demissum) flowers along Badwater Road (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) and purple mat (Nama demissum) flowers along Badwater Road (Credit: Sivani Babu)

 

Much like the previous two super blooms in 2005 and 1998, this year’s bloom is the product of strong El Niño activity. Heavy rains fell last October, stimulating millions of seeds that had been lying dormant in the soil for years. Autumn and winter then brought the right amount of warmth and rain to trigger the mass sprouting of seedlings.

Visitors to Death Valley explore an expanse of desert gold flowers during the super bloom (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Visitors to Death Valley explore an expanse of desert gold flowers during the super bloom (Credit: Sivani Babu)

If conditions hold, the super bloom could carry through the month, but there are no guarantees in the desert. A change in the weather could return the land to barren rock and soil, rapidly turning the blossoms to seeds that might not sprout again for years. This is life in Death Valley: hard-fought and short-lived.

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blossoms in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blossoms in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms along Badwater Road (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms along Badwater Road (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Dramatic stretches of desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms flank Badwater Road (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Dramatic stretches of desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms flank Badwater Road (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Notch-leaf Phacelia flowers during Death Valley's super bloom (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Notch-leaf Phacelia flowers during Death Valley’s super bloom (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

A short walk into a canyon reveals the diversity of Death Valley’s super bloom (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

A short walk into a canyon reveals the diversity of Death Valley’s super bloom (Credit: Sivani Babu)

The ethereally pale blossoms of gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) along Furnace Creek Wash (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

The ethereally pale blossoms of gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) along Furnace Creek Wash (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys) blossom in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys) blossom in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Death Valley's super bloom awash in gold (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Death Valley’s super bloom awash in gold (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Notch-leaf Phacelia growing along the roadside (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Notch-leaf Phacelia growing along the roadside (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Swaths of flowers south of Badwater Basin at mile 27 (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Swaths of flowers south of Badwater Basin at mile 27 (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Teahouses that few foreigners see

The forgotten mountain (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

The forgotten mountain

Ask people to name the three highest mountains in the world, and few get past Mount Everest and K2. At 8,586m, Mt Kanchenjunga is only about 300m lower than Everest, but for all intents and purposes, the world’s third-highest peak has been forgotten.

Lying on the border between eastern Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim, Kanchenjunga is worshipped as a tutelary spirit by the Sikkimese. The mountain was first successfully tackled by British climbers in 1955, but they, like all who came after them, stopped just short of the summit out of respect for the locals’ belief that the mountaintop is sacred. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

World-class trekking (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

World-class trekking

Kanchenjunga, a name that originates from Tibetan, means the “five treasures of snow” and corresponds to the massif’s five distinct peaks.

Like many mountains in Nepal, Kanchenjunga offers world-class trekking. But unlike some of the country’s more popular routes, which can become overrun in the prime autumn and spring hiking seasons, the trails to and around Kanchenjunga’s two basecamps remain delightfully free of foreign visitors – likely due to the difficulty and expense of reaching the area. Kanchenjunga is well off the established tourist trail and reaching a trailhead requires several days of road travel or a costly flight. In addition, trekkers must have proper permits and be accompanied by a recognized guide company, generally arranged in Kathmandu. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Two ways up (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Two ways up

Trekkers can choose one of two routes: to the south or north basecamp. The trek to the 5,140m-high north basecamp is longer, but offers more time in the high mountains. It’s also possible, over the course of roughly 25 days, to link the two routes via a couple of high passes. I trekked to the 4,730m-high south basecamp, starting in the small market town of Taplejung, which is located a two-day drive from Kathmandu. It took me nine days to reach basecamp, and another five for the hike back.

For the first four days, the trail coursed through small villages, patches of tropical forest and terraced fields like the one pictured here. Crops vary depending on the altitude, with rice grown at lower levels and barley higher up. The big cash crop in the region is cardamom. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse trekking (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse trekking

Most people travel with porters and camping gear, but you can also stay in teahouses. In popular trekking areas such as Annapurna, Everest and Langtang, teahouses cater almost exclusively to foreign trekkers and are increasingly sophisticated, sometimes even offering hot showers and wi-fi. In the Kanchenjunga region, however, the teahouses are used mainly by local shepherds, traders and porters, and are simply villagers’ homes with a room or two for rent. Conditions can be basic – you’ll get a bed and a shared toilet – but staying in them allows visitors the chance to get to know locals in a way that’s rarely possible on more popular routes. The man pictured here owned this home and teahouse in the village of Phumphe. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse style (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse style

Teahouse decor has its own distinctive style. Newspaper is commonly used as wallpaper, and homes are further adorned with posters of fantasy American homes, fast cars or, as in the case of this teahouse in the village of Mamanke, images of Indian and Nepalese film and pop stars. The woman pictured here is a neighbour who stopped by for a chat and a cup of tea. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sweets and shops (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sweets and shops

While still difficult to reach, this remote region is becoming increasingly accessible. As such, many villages have at least one tiny shop selling a few basic provisions, including biscuits and sweets. The shopkeeper pictured here resides in Phumphe. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Yeti footprints (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Yeti footprints

In Yamphudin, the final village en route to the south basecamp, the man pictured told me that he and his son once walked over a high mountain pass that leads to Sikkim. On the way home, they spent a night in a remote shepherd’s hut on the edge of the tree line. When they went outside the next morning, they discovered giant footprints in the snow circling the hut and disappearing into the forest. He and the boy were too scared to follow the tracks, he said, as both believed they were the prints of a yeti. Many villagers, in fact, believe that yetis exist in the region. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

A misty forest (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

A misty forest

Beyond Yamphudin, the trail entered pine forests where rhododendrons blistered with red, pink and white flowers. Almost every tree was covered in Spanish moss, which hung from the branches like an old man’s beard. A dense, cloudy mist filled the air at all times, obscuring the mountain vistas and lending a silent, spooky feel to the forests. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

A bridge to the mountains (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

A bridge to the mountains

The trail then climbed sharply for a couple of hours, crossed a 2,540m pass and descended through tangled pine and rhododendron forests where red pandas and pheasants reside. We came to a modern suspension bridge spanning a river. These kinds of bridges have appeared only in the past couple of years. Prior to that, shepherds crossed the rivers on flimsy log bridges. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Symbols of the high Himalaya (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Symbols of the high Himalaya

In the summer (June to August), shepherds live with their yaks – symbols of the high Himalaya – in high pastures located up to and above 5,000m. As autumn approaches, the shepherds and their animals slowly descend from the mountains, seeking milder weather.

More often than not, these animals are actually a much stronger cross-breed of yaks and cows; pure-bred yaks are quite rare in Nepal. Locals often make cheese from the animals’ milk, and yak meat is eaten in much of Nepal. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sleeping outdoors (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sleeping outdoors

This photo was taken at dawn at Ramche, the highest night stop on the trek at 4,580m. The tents froze over during the night, but by midday, hikers could wear T-shirts. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

The end of the road (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

The end of the road

The trekking route to the south basecamp ends at Oktang, where a mixed Buddhist/Hindu shrine (pictured) overlooks both the basecamp and the upper part of the Yalung Glacier. Continuing any farther requires mountaineering experience and equipment. Unless you’re prepared to reach the high passes to get to the north basecamp route, you have little option but to spin around and retrace your steps back to where you started.

For me, that moment made for mixed emotions. The thought of enjoying a hot shower, donning clean clothes and checking emails filled me with anticipation, but I was sad to leave behind this incredible world of frozen glaciers, misty forests and villagers who open their homes and speak with passion about yetis. (Credit: Stuart Butler)