Archive for Asia

Jan
08

Charyn Canyon Valley of the Castles

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Charyn Canyon215km east of Almaty towards the border with China is the Charyn Canyon National Park. Although it is nowhere near the size of America’s Grand Canyon, the Charyn Canyon is also a spectacular place to visit. Stretching almost 150km in length and dropping to 300m in places, there is one area of the canyon that is of particular interest.

The Valley of the Castles (known locally as Dolina Zamkov), this is the most commonly visited section of Charyn Canyon. A group of us arrange a day trip to Charyn Canyon using a local tour operator in Almaty who picked us up from our hotel and we headed out on a 3 hour trip to the Canyon.

Open Spaces, Kazakhstan

Open Spaces, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan was one of the largest former Soviet states and as we made our way east towards the Charyn Canyon, we really got a feel for the wide open spaces that go on for mile after mile. At one point we stopped at a little village and took the opportunity to buy some fresh fruit. Buying local produce in places like this always tastes better than what is available back home in the supermarkets and was all part of the day out. Eventually we reached our destination, the part of the Charyn Canyon known as the Valley of the Castles. The plan was to walk down into the bottom of the canyon to a point on the river where we would stop for lunch. We parked up and headed down the first set of steps into the bottom of the canyon to begin our walk down to the river.

Valley Of The Castles, Charyn Canyon

Valley Of The Castles, Charyn Canyon

The landscapes in this part of the canyon were simply stunning with jagged rocks and contours that had taken thousands of years to erode away into the shapes we see today. We didn’t notice it at the time but as we made our way towards the river, we were heading down a gentle slope. Its fair to say our group wasn’t a typical collection of hardened hikers so we made a gentle pace stopping to take pictures at various places. Eventually, we reached our destination next to the wide, fast flowing river. There were some tables where lunch would be served and while it was being prepared, our guide offered me and a friend the opportunity to climb to some other parts of the canyon. Apparently, we looked fitter and more able than the rest of the group…at this point we started to seriously question the guides judgement. Approaching my 40th, its fair to say I’m not in as good shape as I was in my early 20s.

Charyn River

Charyn River

Nonetheless, we took up the little challenge but I should point out that our footwear wasn’t ideally suited to hard core hiking but for some reason, we trusted our guide. He proceeded to lead us up and down all sorts of precarious and narrow little tracks and on more than one occasion, I would have been quite happy to see an RAF Mountain Rescue Sea King appear but unfortunately, the Charyn Canyon was outside the range of operation. After what seemed like an age of nervous progress, we eventually appeared on the ridge overlooking the river and our colleagues below and we made our way down to join them for lunch. Despite a few moments of concern, it was worth the effort as we managed to see the canyon from different aspects from the rest of the group.

Looking Down Into The Canyon

Looking Down Into The Canyon

After our lunch we took time to relax and soak up a bit of the Kazakhstan sun before heading back to the mini bus. It was now that we started to realise there had been a gentle downward slope towards the river. It was only a gentle rise but the walk back to the car park was energy sapping in the hot sun. Finally we reached the last set of steps to climb out of the canyon.

The one thing we hadn’t see a great deal of was wildlife. Perhaps it was a case of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” going out in the midday sun but we did find a couple of little creatures.

CharyLizard CharynSnake

After hours in the sun, it was a relief to get into the air conditioned mini-bus for the journey back to Almaty.

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Living in the UK and not being into the cold water diving thing, I normally end up diving in Egypt. When the opportunity came to visit a new diving destination, I couldn’t resist. That and getting the opportunity to fly on the Airbus A380.

Bunaken Island is a few miles off the coast of Manado in the north east corner of North Sulawesi in Indonesia. I’ve done relatively little diving in the Far East and Bunaken Island has a reputation as a great place to dive so it was an easy decision. There is a direct flight from Singapore to Manado which takes around 3.5 hours but it doesn’t operate every day. However, there are other options via Jakarta. Luckily, the connections from London with Sinagapore Air are pretty good and I ended up with just a single stop in Singapore.

I had a good look at the various dive resorts in both Bunaken Island and Lembeh and I eventually decided to stay at Froggies. Apart from the superb rates, free wifi and laundry swung the decision for me. After connecting through the superb Singapore Airport, I was picked up at Manado airport and taken to the harbour for the 40 minute boat transfer to Bunaken Island.

 

Bunaken Island, Indonesia

 

Froggies is an intemate little resort. My bungalow overlooked the sea and at night you could hear the sound of the waves gently breaking. There isn’t really much in the way of infrastructure on the island but Froggies provided everything I needed. All meals were included in the rate. The dive boats left from right in front of the resort, usually departing at 9am and returning by 11.30am in the morning. The afternoon dives would depart around 1.30pm and by 4pm. This gave plenty of time to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.

Underwater, the diversity of marine life was superb. My first dive was at a site called Negeri and I don’t ever remember seeing so many different varieties of nudibranchs on a single dive. Everywhere I pointed my camera, I could see something new and exciting to take a picture of. Anyone with an interest in underwater photography can’t help but to be impressed.

 

Anna's Chromodoris

 

Bunaken Island isn’t really a destination for the family but if you want to chill out and relax in a serene setting or spend the days scuba diving, it is well worth the effort of getting here. Non-divers were also welcome on the boats and a number of the dive sites were also ideal for snorkelling. There were never more than 6 guests on a boat while I was here and every dive I made, it was always just me and my dive guide, Fendy. The relatively small number of divers mean that in most places, the coral is in pretty good condition. In turn, this attracts more fish, nudibranchs, lobsters, turtles and many other species.

 

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

 

Fendy was excellent and pointed out no end of marine life that I would almost certainly have missed if it wasn’t for his expertise. On two seperate dives, Fendy showed me an Ornate Ghost Pipefish which is a beautiful little creature. They are incredibly hard to find and I was even more pleased that the photos I took came out reasonably well.

 

Blacktip Reef Shark

 

We also found a small Blacktip Reef Shark under a piece of coral. Unfortunately, sharks are becoming harder and harder to find. That evening I was chatting with an instructor and looking back, we both estimated that we’d only ever seen sharks on about 5% of our dives.

 

Mandarin Fish

 

The night diving was equally enjoyable. I completed two night dives and we set out just before it got dark in search of the elusive Mandarin fish. It is a wonderfully coloured little fish that is also very shy. However, Fendy knew exactly where to look to find them and we soon saw them. It was difficult to use our torches as the bright beam would scare the Mandarin and as the light was fading, it was almost impossible to distinguish the colours. On our second night dive, I managed to get a couple of photos and we could see what all the fuss was about. Sometimes, the little fish can be as impressive as the larger sharks, rays and turtles.

By the end of my trip, I had managed 11 dives and taken well over 500 pictures of the amazing reefs and their inhabitants. If you are looking for a diving holiday in the Far East, Bunaken Island should definitely be on your list of places to consider.

Travel Information:

I booked my flights via Expedia from London to Manado on Singapore Airlines and Silk Air (http://holidaydestinations.at/bbmexplorer).

The accommodation and diving was booked direct with Froggies (http://www.divefroggies.com)

Photography Information:

My full portfolio of photos from Bunaken Island can be found on my Flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bbmexplorer/sets/72157627971197222/

I would also like to thank Maria Munn from Ocean Visions for helping me with my camera settings. It meant that more of my underwater pictures turned out how I wanted them to and I didn’t have to spend hours editing and tweaking them, trying to correct the colours and lighting on my computer. Maria runs underwater photography courses for compact cameras and has also just published an excellent guide book.

All my underwater images were taken using an Olympus C5060W with a fish-eye lens and Inon D2000 strobe. The shutter speed was set to 1/500 with the apenture f8.0.

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