So, you've marvelled at the Taj Mahal, partied in Phuket and wandered along the Great Wall of China. You might have even watched a video one evening in Kathmandu, seen Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and zoomed to the top of the Petronas Towers. If so, you might be curious about what there is left to see on what is probably the world’s most diverse continent.
Don't worry – there's plenty to entertain you if you head off the tourist trail. From secretive dictatorships to dried-up seas, exploring alternative Asia will astonish you and show that our beautiful planet always has a new adventure for the bravest travellers.
Podok Hermitage © Uri Tours, Wikimedia Commons
Whilst independent travel is difficult in Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), every part of the country can be considered ‘alternative’. If you’re in Pyongyang be sure to visit Moran Hill, which is dotted with relics and pavilions dating across the past thousand years, as well as giving grand views of the city itself. The hill is a sea of cherry blossom in spring, a blizzard of snow in winter, and a cool haven of shade in Pyongyang’s baking summers.
In the countryside, try to arrange a visit to Inner Kumgang. It is unusual for visitors to gain access to the inner sanctum of this site, which is one of Korea’s most sacred, both historically and ecologically. If a trip can be negotiated, you should jump at the chance, particularly to visit the Podok Temple, high up on the hillside.
© Oman Ministry of Tourism
With its rolling grassy meadows following the summer khareef (monsoon), Dhofar is different from other areas in Oman. Unlike the rest of Oman, the temperature of this narrow band of green mountains and coastal strip rarely exceeds a perfect 30˚C. During the khareef there is a six-week-long carnival, a showpiece for Omani customs and traditions with folk bands, song and dance, art exhibitions and handicraft demonstrations.
Festivals aside, the few travellers who do make it to Dhofar are rewarded with dolphin and whale watching boat trips; caving in one of the largest sinkholes in the world; diving through kelp forests, coral and shipwrecks; and spotting the many African bird species which thrive here. Make sure to also visit the soft white-sand beaches near Salalah, the capital of the Dhofar region, roam through the lush plantations of coconut, papaya, banana and mango, and see pink flamingos in the lagoon of Khawr Ad Dahariz.
Aral Sea, Uzbekistan
© Daniel Prudek, Dreamstime
The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was once one of the fourth-largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000km2 (26,300 square miles). It straddled the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was clearly visible from space. In a period of just 50 years, however, it has declined to just 10% of its former size, with the remaining waters toxic and extremely saline.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea is one of the world’s greatest manmade environmental disasters, and nowhere is its impact being felt more poignantly than in Moynaq. Going to the town is, perhaps, what you’d term ‘disaster tourism’: there are parallels to be drawn with the Polygon or Chernobyl. You come to see where the sea used to be, and the suffering it has left behind. Close to the Hotel Oybek is the Aral Sea Memorial, and beneath it the ships’ graveyard, where various rusting hulks of former fishing vessels have been towed from elsewhere in the desert to create a tourist attraction. There were at one stage many more, but most have now been sold off for their scrap value in a desperate bid to compensate for the loss of income from fishing.
Zoroastrian ‘towers of silence’, Iran
© M.Khebra, Shutterstock
If you can, visit Yazd in Iran, a town long associated with Zoroastrianism and a centre of high quality textiles. The real highlight, however, is the dakhmeh (Zoroastrian ‘towers of silence’) that will transport you to an Iranian version of Tatooine. In accordance with Zoroastrian laws governing the sanctity of earth, fire, air and water, in Achaemenid times the dead were exposed and their bones later gathered to be placed in ossuaries or tombs in rock. But in later centuries large circular stone walls were built on rock and the bodies of Zoroastrian men, women and children were placed on their designated, paved zone on the open stone platform inside. A small central pit, filled with sand, charcoal and phosphorus to prevent pollution of the earth, acted as the drain. These towers are no longer in use (Zoroastrians are now interred in the nearby cemetery within a concrete chamber to avoid pollution of the earth), so with time and energy visitors may climb up them.
River islands of Bangladesh
© Sohel, Wikimedia Commons
If you’re in Bangladesh, take the opportunity to go to the chars (river islands). Scenic and serene, the chars are not easy places to reach as they can only be accessed by boat, but the stories of the people who live there, often the poorest of Bangladesh’s poor, are extraordinary. As the islands are vulnerable to yearly 'flooding, they shift constantly, causing the inhabitants to move perhaps a dozen times or more in one lifetime. Serious adventurers might want to find their way to these unique and isolated places to see people who still remain on the very edges of existence. Kurigram, in the northeastern reaches of the Rajshahi Division, is the best place to visit the islands.
Buddas of Kargil in Kashmir, India
Buddha Statue in Kartse Khar © J&K Tourism
It is often said that a place has something for everyone, but in the case of Kashmir that is actually true. Thousands of years of history sit side by side with vibrant modern communities; spectacular natural landscapes ripe for exploration are dotted with all manner of architectural curiosities. Whether your idea of heaven is heli-skiing in Gulmarg or joining the monks for their early morning meditation, trekking along the frozen Zanskar River, white-water rafting on the Indus or simply lazing on a houseboat with a good book, you won’t be disappointed.
One sight in particular to look out for is the 7m-tall rock-cut Buddha at Kartse Khar. It is the far less famous but no less impressive than the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Dating back to the 7th/8th century ad, this statue was carved by early missionaries and the depiction of the body, jewellery and hair are typical of the Kashmiri style. Four other Buddha carvings, including the standing Buddha at Mulbekh, are also found within the Kargil.
Bandar Seri Begawan and Pulau Selirong, Brunei
© Don Mammoser, Shutterstock
Few people have heard of Brunei’s capital city before visiting, and is hardly the catchiest of names. Fortunately, everyone calls it BSB for short. It is a fascinating city – on the one hand, you feel you are in a place entrenched in trading history and Islamic exoticism, while on the other, is the emerging face of a ‘modernised capital’. The much-publicised ‘lavish adornments, gold towers, sparkling fountains and colourful mosaic tiles’ are scattered about the city, from the riverbank area to the new modern districts.
If you do ever find yourself in BSB, take the 45-minute boat ride for a day trip to Pulau Selirong (Mosquito Island), a small mangrove-forested island with a plankwalk through tropical forest, where you might spot an elusive proboscis monkey.
Amadiya, Iraqi Kurdistan
© Daniel Nelson, Wikicommons
Once an almost impenetrable fortress, Amadiya in Iraqi Kurdistan is a 4,000-year-old walled town perched atop a mountain plateau. It is located northeast of Zakhu with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, and overlooks the Sapna river valley which is fed by a geothermal spring originating far below the mountain. It is surrounded by many natural beauty spots, waterfalls, orchards and vegetable-growing areas. It is believed by some to be the home of the biblical Three Wise Men, who made a pilgrimage to see Jesus Christ after his birth. The town has ruins from the Assyrian era, as well as the ruins of a synagogue and a church.
Davarza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan
Davarza Gas Crater © Emma Rosen
Close to the northern border with Uzbekistan, in the depths of the Kara Kum Desert, a burning gas crater close to the settlement of Darvaza is a dramatic symbol of the results of man’s interference with nature. To reach the flaming crater, a 4WD is essential, as is a good driver who knows the route. The crater is roughly circular in plan, some 60m in diameter. Its floor crackles with hundreds of small fires, the flames fiercest around the edge. The smell of gas and all those flames will take you back to school chemistry lessons, with every Bunsen burner in the classroom in action. This is a worthwhile sight in daytime, but truly remarkable at night, when the glow from the crater can be seen for miles around.
Republic of Nagorno Karabagh, Armenia
Tatik yev Papik statue in Stepanakert © Salajean, Shutterstock
Take the time to travel to the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabagh (RNK). Predominantly inhabited by ethnic. Armenians – they make up around 95% of the population - it is not part of Armenia: it has its own government with its own foreign ministry, its own flag, its own stamps and its own national anthem. Despite all this, its existence as a state is unrecognised by any other state and no Western government can provide consular services there. It can only be entered from Armenia. Why go? One answer is that it has some magnificent scenery. Other reasons for going are that it has some very fine monasteries, and some thought-provoking damaged streets from which the ethnic Azeri population has fled.
RNK’s principle town is Stepanakert, and on the north side is a statue reproduced in a thousand Karabagh souvenirs. The creation of the sculptor Sargis Baghdasarian in Soviet times, it is called We Are Our Mountains. Looking like an elderly couple in national costume, the statue is intended to symbolise the unity of the Karabagh people with their mountains. It is universally referred to as Tatik yev Papik (sometimes Mamik yev Papik) (Granny and Grandad).
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