The Darvaza Gas Crater is one of the top places to visit in Turkmenistan. — Photos: CLIFF LAI

 

The most mysterious of the “stan” countries,

Turkmenistan is a destination worth checking out.

Stepping into the 126th country of my travels, I’m once again struck by the world’s diversity.

Turkmenistan is a country that carries the historical burden of wars and natural disasters. But God has also bestowed upon it a wealth of resources in the form of oil and gas. Throughout the years, the country has learnt to embrace change and progress in urban aesthetics. We may think that Turkmenistan is very different from our own country, but it is this uniqueness that makes it a destination worth visiting.

Turkmenistan is a pivotal station in the Silk Road of Asia and Europe, with an area of 440,000sq km. They have a population of six million people, of which 97% are liberal Muslims. It is a republic that practically rebuilt itself from the ground up after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in 1948 wiped out almost 2/3 of its population.

In addition to that disaster, the country also lived through 66 years of socialist rule under the Soviet Union.

 

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The Nazca Lines in Peru are one of the world’s unsolved archaeological mysteries.

The Nazca Lines in Peru showing shape of a monkey.

 

LEGEND has it that there was once an angel who loved to draw everywhere she went. One day, she flapped her wings and descended upon Earth to explore its secrets. To celebrate her visit, she left hundreds of graffiti etched on Earth’s surface.

Despite being created more than 2,000 years ago, and having gone through countless storms and other bad weather, it is rather strange that the lines and shapes left by this “angel” have not diminished. They are still clearly visible on this rocky surface, thus leaving us to wonder how they got there. I am talking about the Nazca Lines of Peru, a Unesco World Heritage Site (since 1995) that features these interesting geoglyphs.

While the story of the angel is only a myth, it nevertheless lends a mystical sense to the Nazca Lines. Who exactly made this artwork? As I waited for my team of 15 travellers to set off to the other side of South America, I pondered over the recent succesful landing of the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 4 on the far side of the moon. I felt like we were going on our own mission to explore the unknown.

 

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It’s hard to imagine there’s a salt flat 16 times the size of Singapore on the Andes Mountains, South America.

The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is simply breathtaking.

 

Slipping on my rubber boots, I step into the big pool that has a depth of about 8cm. Standing between the never-ending sea of white, I seem to have lost my bearings.

When the ripples on the pool stop and form a mirror, the water, blue sky and white clouds meld together, producing a paradise where the heavens and the Earth are connected. At this moment, I feel so close to the sky that I can reach out and touch it. How exhilarating!

My breathing accelerates; I’ve forgotten I’m 3,656m above sea level, where the oxygen is only 60% of the air. No wonder I’m dizzy.

It’s hard to imagine there’s a salt flat 16 times the size of Singapore on the Andes Mountains, South America. The area spans about 250km from east to west, around 100km from north to south, for a total of 10,582 sq km. It’s full of quality rock salt. Welcome to Bolivia’s Uyuni, the largest salt flat on Earth

After our 4WD cruised for 90 minutes on the flat, and the GPS started to lose track of our location, it really felt like being isolated from the world. In that moment of peace, take time to reflect and find yourself.

The white ground and blue sky seem to fuse into a seamless expanse. Is this the appearance of the legendary mirrored realm?

 

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More people are looking to Okinawa in Japan for a well-rounded holiday… and tips for longevity.

The writer (right) with folks from Ogimi Village, the world-famous Longevity Village in Okinawa. Photos: LEESAN

 

Twenty-four years ago, Miyazawa Kazufumi composed and wrote Shima Uta (Island Song), a sanshin (three-stringed instrument) performance accompanied by Natsukawa Rimi’s vocals. Thanks to its relaxing melody, sad yet rhythmic lyrics and its sense of “lazy leisure”, Shima Uta became a beloved folk song in southern Japan.

Around the same period, Li Manting wrote the Chinese words to Hua Xin (Flower Heart) which was composed by (Okinawa folk legend) Shoukichi Kina. It was sung by (HK pop star) Wakin Chau. The song shook the Chinese world, unexpectedly initiating the “Okinawa heat flow”, and spurred the idea of going to Okinawa to find love.

Okinawa is part of the Ryukyu Islands, a chain of islands that sits between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea. Perhaps the waves of the East China Sea swept island tribes from the Philippines many years ago to the Okinawa Islands, making this the “root” of the big island?

 

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Eight months of working at a foreign kitchen, I started to build up a firm relationship with Mr and Mrs Toyota, and over the next five years……

1991 spring, I arrived in the megalopolis of Tokyo alone without any knowledge of the Japanese language. There were fewer than 80,000 foreigners or foreign students in the whole of Japan back in those years, while the number of foreign tourists was just around two million.

Even though there were not too many foreign students in Japan, the convenience stores, fast food restaurants and other more formal restaurants refused to hire us as workers.

I still can remember that most foreign students could only manage to find some odd jobs at family-run factories, or collecting garbage behind garbage trucks, door-to-door delivery of morning newspapers, or cleaning up offices after dark.

Back then the seniors would tell us, go around your neighborhood to try your luck, perhaps some yoghurt factory would need a couple of hourly workers.

 

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Actually, there are many tribes that live along the Amazon River, and they lead very normal lives just like us, although they tend to encounter more real piranhas than we do.

There are many tribes that live along the Amazon River. — Photos: LEESAN

 

Whenever the craftsmen of the Amazon River in South America are asked about the online “Amazon”, they turn shy and bashful. The fact is, they probably did not expect that their personally hand-crafted handicrafts can be sold to the world easily through a shopping site that shares the same name as their beloved river and home.

Of course, the Amazon’s terrifying piranha and anaconda, two popular “characters” in numerous thriller or horror movies, have also helped catapult the place to fame although perhaps in a more negative light. Most people are fearful of these animals, and therefore, they are fearful of the Amazon. When I told my friends I was going there for a visit, many asked me if it was a safe place to go. “Is there nowhere else you can go?” they asked.

Actually, there are many tribes that live along the Amazon River, and they lead very normal lives just like us, although they tend to encounter more real piranhas than we do.

 

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Beautiful glaciers at the Patagonia National Park in Chile. — Photos: LEESAN

During Barack Obama’s tenure as the United States president (and even after his resignation), he took his whole family, including his mother-in-law, twice for a vacation at the 55°S “end of the world” Patagonia National Park.

This park has a total area of more than 1,000,000sq km of wilderness and is a world heritage park shared and maintained by Argentina and Chile. The park features high mountain forest plains, rivers, waterfalls, fjords and an ice field hinterland with a total area of 1,700 sq km.

The Argentina part of the Patagonia block accounts for two-thirds of the whole place. It is home to the world-famous El Calafate glaciers and the world’s southernmost town, Ushuaia, which then leads to the southernmost continent – both extremes of the world!

I have visited El Calafate Glacier and its petrified forest twice, and been to Ushuaia three times; each time I was in awe of the scenery.

The El Calafate Glacier’s 70m-high ice tongue is constantly pushed from the rear. This results in huge ice cubes falling from the ice tongue into the waters of the Argentino Lake. This is quite a spectacular sight to behold, although sadly, this could be happening due to global warming.

However, this phenomenon is also fast becoming a tourist attraction.

 

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One of the farthest and most fascinating places Malaysians should aspire to visit are the Galapagos Islands in South America.

The Galapagos is a collective of 19 islands, about 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador. Because of their extremely remote location at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galapagos Islands are a haven for a wide range of unique animal species.

This was the place that inspired British biologist Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection after he visited in 1835.

Of all the extraordinary native animals, the one that stood out were the giant tortoises. That was why when the islands were discovered by Spanish sailors in 1535, they named the archipelago “galapago”, which is an old Spanish word for tortoise.

According to Wikipedia, these tortoises can weigh as much as 417kg and grow to be 1.3m long.

Almost half a century ago, in 1971, a Hungarian scientist on Pinta Island in the northern part of the Galapagos saw a rare giant tortoise and reported it to the Galapagos National Park. The rangers brought the creature to the Charles Darwin Research Station for protection and to breed.

It was the last known survivor of the Pinta tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) until its death in 2012. It was named Lonesome George and it became a famous symbol for critically endangered species.

 

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Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

In today’s geopolitics, it would be the United States who seem to be terrified by the rise of China’s economic and technological power and perceive the country as a “wolfish threat”. But many other nations have a different view. To them, China is the golden goose whose citizens can bring tremendous economic benefits as tourists.

Unfortunately, our country isn’t one of these nations. Our government can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether China is a wolf to be feared or a golden goose that will lay lots of lucrative eggs for us. While Putrajaya recognises China as Malaysia’s biggest trading partner and says it wants to attract more Chinese tourists, concrete action still lags behind.
News agencies recently reported that Malaysia has expanded its Visa-on-Arrival (VOA) facilities to 13 entry points to ensure hassle-free entry for nationals from China and India, two of the fastest-growing outbound tourist markets in the world. But is doing this enough, especially since there are so many conditions to getting the VOA? I would say it is not.

One of the fastest growing inbound tourism markets in the world today is China. The Malaysia government should do more to welcome Chinese tourists as their spending power is strong and beneficial to our tourism and retail industries. Photo by Leesan.

 

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This bridge connects KLCC to Pavilion KL. What if the bridge extends further, perhaps all the way to Berjaya Times Square? — Photos: LEESAN

 

Thanks to the nature of my work, I have been able to visit as many as 123 countries and see some unique tourist attractions. These include natural wonders like the Niagara Falls, Amazon Rainforest, Galapagos Island, Uyuni Salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) and the North Pole, as well as important historical sites like Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, Chichen Itza and Palace of Versailles.

I have also been to many cities, some of which offer great shopping attractions, fantastic restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.

At all these tourist destinations, safety, cleanliness, accessibility and availability of information are important things to take into account.

Perhaps affordability is also a factor for some people but high prices and entry fees do not usually deter travellers from visiting these places, if they feel they are worth it.

Still, when it comes to getting tourists to spend more money in our country, nothing beats shopping and eating, especially in our capital city, Kuala Lumpur, or KL.

KL is my city as I have lived here – in Bukit Bintang, specifically – for the past 23 years after returning from my studies in Japan. I know the ins and outs of the Bukit Bintang area like the back of my hand. I feel like there is so much potential to make KL even more popular than George Town and Melaka, for example, if we fix several issues.

As far as tourists are concerned, KL is synonymous with the Petronas Twin Towers and KLCC. They are Malaysian brand names known the world over. They are also icons of the city and a must-see landmark much like the Empire State Building in New York or Trafalgar Square in London.

 

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