Taking the Road Less Travelled

There are plenty of “2015 Hot Travel Destination” lists circulating, even though the dust has settled a bit. As we field questions about our own favorite destinations, most memorable experiences and where we recommend people to travel this year, we thought we’d add a twist to the traditional 2015 travel lists and share some places that might not be on your travel radar — but maybe should be.

In travel marketing speak, one might call these emergingrecovery or even under-discovered destinations. But in our experience, they are simply fascinating places that travelers are either unaware of or actively avoid from a travel perspective. They are the sort of destinations that push you emotionally, sometimes physically, and always challenge you mentally — all with the result of returning you from your trip with a different view of the world and quite often with a different view of yourself.

Here’s the caveat. These places are not for everyone; they are not a universal fit for travel goals and style. They are the sorts of destinations in which things may not always go as planned; hotels and transport can even be a bit rough. Much time is spent outside the proverbial comfort zone in attempts to immerse yourself in a new culture, comprehend challenging socio-economic circumstances and process the stimuli swirling about you. Some days can even feel difficult.

But there is a payoff. If you were to sit down with us over a beer and ask: “I want to go somewhere different from what I’m accustomed to. I’d like a place that will make me think, feel and question some of my assumptions about the world and myself. Someplace not very well touristed, with a bit adventure and the unknown. Where would you suggest I go?

Here’s where we might suggest you go in 2015.

 

1. Kyrgyzstan

 
Horses in the fields of Kyrgyztan

Kyrgyzstan is filled with stunning mountain views like this one of Peak Lenin.

A Man sitting with his tent

First snow of the season at a shepherd’s village near Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan.

Why: To experience a country that is over 90% mountainous and littered with stunning landscapes. Add to that, a taste of traditional nomadic culture with a bit of a Soviet hangover, and you have the makings of a unique yet approachable destination. This makes Kyrgyzstan a great fit for trekkers and outdoor types, as well as those interested in culture and off-beat experiences. There is a terrific community-based tourism network throughout the country that makes it easy to connect and interact with locals. These networks can also organize mountain treks on horseback, homestays, and overnight yurt experiences.

 

2. Iran

Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque

Eye-bending Persian design at Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Esfahan.

Ruins of Persepolis, IranWhy: To travel to a country where the on-the-ground travel experience couldn’t be more different than impressions left by the news. Iran also features some of the most impressive historical sites we’ve ever seen (including 17 UNESCO sites). Visiting 2500-year-old Persepolis, once the capital of ancient Persia, is a lesson not only in the strength of the Persian Empire, but a perspective regarding how civilizations and power come and go. Eyeball-bending Persian design and architecture that holds the gaze can’t be missed either. In addition to Iran’s Big Three (Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd), expand your sense of the country with a visit to the northwestern part of Iran for even more surprises like fairy chimney villages and Armenian monasteries.

And again, it comes down to people. That’s what may surprise you most about Iran.

 

3. Bolivia

Hot springs en route to the Salar de Uyuni.

Hot springs en route to the Salar de Uyuni.

Unique Rock formations in Bolivia

Salt Flats in BoliviaWhy: Stunning and often surreal landscapes blended with a strong indigenous culture. For various reasons, travelers often skip Bolivia in favor of its neighbors — Peru, Argentina, Chile — when making their way through South America. For Americans, some say it’s because of the visa fees and paperwork, but Bolivia is more than worth the extra spend and brief bit of bureaucracy. The Salar de Uyuni and in particular the journey from Tupiza features some of the world’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes with green lakes, Dali-esque rock formations and the mind-bending salt flats. And although you’ll see tourists around the Salar, you see much less throughout the rest of the country. We recommend stopping by Lake Titicaca and taking a hike around Isla del Sol, Tarija in the south for a taste of the Bolivian wine scene, Potosi to understand the realities of mining on people and communities, Sucre for a beautiful colonial city and La Paz for the capital with the most dramatic mountain backdrop. Personally, I’d love to return to Bolivia to take on some of these treks.

 

4. Ethiopia

St. George Church

Church of St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century.

Gheralta Mountains

Hiking down from cave churches tucked in Gheralta Mountains of northern Ethiopia. An incredible experience.

Why: Ancient rock-hewn churches carved from below ground, remarkable mountain landscapes, castles, ridiculously large plates of delicious local food. Need we say more? Ethiopia surprised us in so many ways, especially with its depth of history and culture dating back over 2,000 years to the Aksumite civilization and the adoption of Christianity in 330 A.D. (the 2nd Christian nation in the world). One could feel a direct connection between Ethiopia’s past and present through its adherence to ritual. We also weren’t expecting to be awed by its mountains and trekking options available in the Simien and Gheralta Mountains.

 

5. Bangladesh

Boats in the River

Market day in Bandarban, Bangladesh (Chittagong Hill Tracts).

Kids in Bangladesh

Asking kids to imitate a tiger (name of the Bangladeshi cricket team) on the streets of Old Dhaka.

Why: To truly get off the tourist path and immerse yourself in a sea of humanity. We’re certain there are more tourists now, but during our five-week visit there a couple of years ago, we saw a total of five tourists. Bangladesh is funky. It’s intense. It’s Bangladesh. And the country actually offers more diversity in sights and experiences that you might first expect, from UNESCO pre-Moghul mosques and cycling through tea estates to tracking tigers in mangrove forests and visiting ethnic minority areas. But it’s the human interactions — and boy, are there a lot of them — that make visiting Bangladesh such a unique experience.

 

6. Pamir Holidays and Mountains (Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan)

Yamchun Fort

Ruins of the 12th-century Silk Road Yamchun Fort against the backdrop of the Pamir Mountains.

Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley

On their way home to Langhar in Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley. On the other side of the river is Afghanistan and in the distance, Pakistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

Why: To enjoy a road trip adventure in a mountainous region that not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but also shines for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there. The Pamir Highway, roughly speaking, begins in southern Kyrgyzstan and winds its way through Tajikistan, passing by some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen on our around the world journey thus far. As tourism infrastructure in this area ranges from little to none you’ll likely stay and eat with Pamiri families most of the time, one of the great joys of this journey.

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