From fire to ice and scary critters to tight security; here are five of the most extreme places I have visited during my travels in Asia.
Let’s start with some fire!
#5 Yanar Dag – Baku,Azerbaijan
What’s more extreme than a mountain (well, really it’s a hill) that’s on fire? One that has been burning since Marco Polo visited the site some 700 hundred years ago.
Situated less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful city of Baku in Azerbaijan, this rare phenomenon makes for a nice little excursion. As well as the burning hill, the surrounding panorama of green hills, sandstone settlements and distant skyscrapers of Baku make it the perfect place for a walk or picnic. Yanar Dag is also a stones-throw from the beautiful beaches of the Caspian Sea which are worth a visit in themselves.
#4 Festival of Ice and Snow – Harbin, China
Temperatures that plummet to minus 30 celsius in winter make Harbin one of the coldest cities on the planet. Every winter it plays host to the festival of ice and snow with sculptures carved out of ice and illuminated in bright neon colors. But be warned, standing in a field in -30 surrounded by blocks of ice is seriously cold. I could only handle half an hour there before succumbing and having to hide away from the freezing temperatures in a coffee shop erected at the site.
#3 Kaeng Krachan National Park – Thailand
What is extreme about a national park you might ask? The size of the spiders for a start! I recently camped there (the only tent in this vast jungle on the border of Thailand and Burma) and must say I didn’t have the best night’s sleep. After getting a little lost in the jungle and seeing some incredible wildlife (spiders, snakes, birds, monkeys and lizards) I found it hard to sleep with the adrenalin of being alone in such a place.
The park is home to tigers and leopards, with the latter being seen frequently around the campsite. Tigers are a little more scarce however and the ranger informed me that he hadn’t seen one in the twelve years he had worked there. Still, that didn’t stop me worrying that I would serve as a late night snack to the king of the jungle.
#2 Sinuiju, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
To be sure, North Korea is one of the most extreme tourist destinations there is and I have just recently returned from a day trip there with Young Pioneer Tours (YPT). Although only a brief visit, the day was packed with interesting excursions in the Hermit Kingdom. From the obligatory laying of wreaths at the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, to an impressive kindergarten performance, it was certainly a tour I will never forget.
Bicycles and pedestrians outnumber the cars, but policemen still stand on every street corner directing what little traffic there was.
What was it like you might ask? Well, to anyone who has spent time in China or the former Soviet Union, the architecture and land looked similar. Bicycles and pedestrians outnumber the cars, but still, policemen in their bright blue uniforms stand on every street corner directing what little traffic there was. In the parks, old men and women danced to music the same way they do in every park in China and kids ran around playing as anywhere else in the world.
Was it all stage managed, an illusion or propaganda – who knows? But the best way to find out is to visit yourself and make up your own mind! Book a tour with Young Pioneer Tours who specialize in budget travel to North Korea.
Click here for more information and a look at the various itineraries.
#1 Darvaza (The Door to Hell) – Turkmenistan
Fire again! Turkmenistan deserves a place all of its own for being an extreme destination. Harder to get into than North Korea and with fewer visitors than the DPRK this is one bizarre and secretive country. Things have eased a little since the death of President Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi, so-called leader of the Turkmen, but it is still an intriguing place to visit.
In a moment of Soviet genius, it was decided to set fire to the pit and burn off the excess gas.
Turkmenistan is mostly covered by the Karakum Desert and within this desert lies a truly strange attraction, the Door to Hell or Darvaza gas crater! A freak drilling accident in 1971 led to the opening up of a large crater in the ground some 69 meters (226ft) in diameter and 30 meters (98ft) deep. Natural gas was escaping from the crater so in a moment of Soviet genius, it was decided to set fire to the pit and burn off the excess gas. The engineers expected this to take about a week, but over 45 years later it is still burning strong!
I recently camped next to the crater and can honestly say it was the most extreme, rewarding and downright awe-inspiring camping trip I have ever taken. If you want to visit this unique site, then you better hurry as the paranoid Turkmen government wants to extinguish the flames to stop attracting more visitors to the country!