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Nature

Against the tide

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The gharial is among the largest crocodile species, but it faces a fight to survive.

With its long, saw chain-like mouth, the gharial reminds of an unusual pre-historic or extinct species. Soon it might be one. In 2007 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the reptile as ‘critically endangered’. In 2006 it conducted a survey of breeding gharial adults in the wild. It found less than 200.

The gharial is native to the Indian subcontinent. Its appearance is unmistakable. Its narrow snout becomes shorter and thicker with age. At the end is a small lump called ‘Ghara’ – which is Indian for ‘pot’. It is a vocal resonator present on all adults, and a visual sign to females. The gharial is one of the largest crocodile species, just behind the saltwater crocodile. Males can become six metres long and weigh 180kg. The average lifespan is between 40 and 60 years.

The gharial’s habitat mainly consists of deep, fast-moving riverstreams. On land it is clumsy and its short, weak legs give it poor locomotion. The only times it leaves water is when basking or nesting. But in the rivers the gharial is king. It is too thin and delicate to attack large prey and therefore feeds on fish, which it grasps from the water with razor-sharp teeth. Continue Reading…

History and culture

Castle of Love

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The Swallow’s Nest is a romantic symbol of Crimea and has a compelling history.

 

Perched on the edge of a cliff on the Crimean south coast, the Swallow’s Nest is the postcard picture favourite of Ukraine’s southern peninsula. This miniature medieval castle hoovers some 40 metres above the water, but the more compelling view is the horizon towards the Black Sea. Beyond its touristic appeal it has featured in several books and Soviet films. “It’s very popular,” says Sergey Sorokin, a private tour guide on the peninsula. “Swallow’s Nest is the symbol of Crimea.”

The castle looks as if it could tip into the sea any minute. Once it went close. But it has stood its ground since 1912. The foundations were laid earlier. At the end of the 19th century a wooden cottage was constructed here in commemoration of a general of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and 1878. It looked nothing like the castle of today. But that did not stop it from acquiring the name ‘Castle of Love’, which is still used by some. Continue Reading…

Adventure, Asia

Hitting the road

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Corridors of snow tower 20 metres above the highway along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.

The mythical Mount Tateyama is a place of extraordinary sights – and none more so than the corridors of snow. From mid-April when the route opens, a 500-metre path is cleared where people can stroll between giant walls of snow. They are formed by the mountain’s excessive snowfall, which averages seven metres per year. Some years 20 metres arrive. The corridor shortens towards the end of June, and virtually disappears by August.

The sight is part of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which connects Toyama City, in the Toyama prefecture, with Ōmachi, in Nagano (the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics). The route, completed in 1971, crosses the 3,015-metre-tall Mount Tateyama in the Japanese Alps. It ascends 1,975 metres from the bottom to its highest point. To say the journey is ‘varied’ is an understatement: across its 90 kilometres (55 miles) it uses six different modes of transport and changes method eight times. Continue Reading…

Luxury

Credible comfort

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Costa Rica is renowned for its ecotourism, but how does one enjoy it in luxury?

‘No artificial ingredients’ goes the slogan of Costa Rica’s tourism campaign. Since the 1990s the Central American country has promoted sustainable tourism and invited travellers to its exotic terrain. It has worked. Ecotourism is now one of its fiscal cornerstones.

The strategy is logical. Costa Rica cannot sacrifice natural resources in order to develop its society, because nature is the only resource available. And what nature. There are active volcanoes, grand mountain ranges, pristine beaches. Kayakers and rafters swoosh down riverstreams while explorers negotiate rich rainforests. Wooden huts and lodges are nestled in jungle close to the coastline.

Costa Rica is not stupid. It knows that protecting its assets pays off. One-fourth of the entire country has been made national park. Despite its relatively small size, Costa Rica contains five per cent of the world’s biodiversity. In addition, the government aims to go carbon neutral by 2021; the same year Costa Rica celebrates its 200-year anniversary as an independent nation. Continue Reading…

Food and drink

Mixing it up

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It is the trademark dish of the Spanish cuisine, but what characterises good paella? 

Spain’s perhaps most famous dish was created by poor labourers in Valencian rice fields. So, at least, goes the story. At lunchtime they would cook rice in large pans over fire. They would eat it straight from the pan using wooden spoons. The ingredients? Whatever was available: tomatoes, onions, vegetables, snails, beans and rabbits. “It’s a peasant’s dish; an everyman’s dish. It came about as a result of needing to work in the fields,” says Nick Blythe of Paella Fella, a Spanish food caterer. “It was backbreaking work.”

Others tales go differently. In the time of the Moorish kings, another story says, servants would make rice dishes by using leftovers from royal banquets. They gathered the food in large pots and took it home. The theory also says the word ‘paella’ derives from the Arabic word for ‘leftovers’. Continue Reading…

Business

Staying afloat

Pacific

Pacific islands recently hosted a summit designed to increase global efforts against Co2 emissions. Now they hope nations will keep their promises.  

 

Climate change is upon us already, and some countries will feel the effects sooner than others. In the Pacific Ocean, smaller island states are vulnerable to rising ocean levels as the Arctic ice melts as a consequence of increasing carbon volumes released into the atmosphere. That includes the Marshall Islands, a group of 29 atolls and coral islands that are located on an average of two metres above the ocean.

The effects are being felt already. Coastal floods, soil erosion and droughts have hit islands in recent times. Earlier this year, the president of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, declared a state of emergency after a drought and floods nearly destroyed Majuro, the capital. Its seawall was breached and the airport runway flooded. Some 6,000 people were left to survive on less than a litre of water per day. Continue Reading…

Asia, History and culture

In the shadows

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Beside the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort stood as an impregnable bastion under the Mughal Empire.

 

In 1565, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the third ruler of the Mughal Empire – which controlled large parts of India in the 16th and 17th centuries – built the main constructions of the Agra Fort. He erected walls around what became a fortified city. The provincial city of Agra became the empire’s capital.

In 1627, Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, became the empire’s fifth ruler. Years later he moved to Delhi. He constructed the Taj Mahal, the famous white marble monument, in memory of his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal. He built it only a few kilometres from the Agra Fort.

Jahan fell ill in 1657 and resigned his throne to Dara Shikoh, the eldest of his four sons. His brothers were jealous. They attacked the Agra Fort and defeated Shikoh. The third son, Aurangzeb, appointed himself ruler and locked his father inside the fort. “He did it because Shah Jahan didn’t want Aurangzeb to become the ruler,” says Ruknuddin Mirza, conservation architect at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “It wasn’t revenge, but more about taking the power by force.” It is said that Jahan could see the Taj Mahal from his balcony. He died after eight years in imprisonment. Continue Reading…

Europe, Luxury

The place to be

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The Swiss village of Gstaad is a luxurious getaway for celebrities and Hollywood A-listers.

 

In the 1960s, TIME magazine summed it up when describing it as “the place to be”. Gstaad, a small settlement in the municipality of Saanen, south-western Switzerland, had already attracted personalities such as Grace Kelly and Roger Moore. Others included David Niven, Peter Sellers and Elizabeth Taylor. They fled to the Alps to escape busy lives. Continue Reading…

Asia, Ecology

Avant-garden

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The futuristic Gardens by the Bay have become one of Singapore’s major attractions since opening one year ago.

 

It looks like a scene from a science fiction movie. Stroll down Singapore’s Marina Bay and you will see 50-metre-tall trees branch out across blossoming gardens. Two air-conditioned conservatories lurk by the seaside, with glasshouse exteriors akin to giant snail shells. Inside one of them, a 35-metre-high mountain releases the world’s largest indoor waterfall. Welcome to the Gardens by the Bay. Continue Reading…