For travel, 2020 was an exhaustive blur of disruption and confusion. But the best travel stories made us forget that, at least momentarily. In a year of not much travel, we encountered some unforgettable dispatches: few chronicles from before the pandemic, other features that were possible because of it. As far as vicarious journeys went, these stories were everything we could ask for.
Nostalgia for places was felt acutely this year and our feature on Singapore’s cool, new Instagram photographers was a beautiful balm. In Taiwan, we stumbled on the resonant tale of an American traveller whose vacation, extended by the pandemic, turned into an unlikely fresh start.
“This March, days before India sealed its borders to fight the coronavirus pandemic, I was booked on a red-eye flight to Singapore for a long sabbatical. Now I was stuck, and deeply unmoored at the thought that a year would pass before I’d see my partner who too calls Singapore home.
I turned to Instagram and soon I was mostly scrolling through accounts from the Lion City. Curiously the pictures were all shot on film cameras, carrying emphatic hashtags like #filmisnotdead and #staybrokeshootfilm. I wondered who these photographers were, celebrating ordinary moments in wistful cotton-candy colours: A sleepy grandpa in flip-flops peering at his laundry line, two girls sizing up a new playmate by the see-saw, aproned cooks silently sharing a smoke in a back alley. It was rare to see Singaporean life of quiet suburbs, not the downtown skyline; and everyday lives of the Chinese, Malays, and Indians, instead of partying ang mohs (Caucasians). In these pictures, a city known for its unbridled capitalism managed to look ethereal.”
“Arseny Kaluzhinsky never thought of moving to Taiwan. He simply got on a plane after saving up for a year, keen to see a new land and visit an old friend. Little did he know, sitting in row 16 seat C on March 9, 2020, that he wouldn’t be returning to his apartment and three roommates in Baltimore: in fact, he probably wouldn’t be setting foot in his American homeland until 2021.
When I reached out to him I discovered that after being stranded there due to the pandemic, he had decided to start a life in Taipei, complete with an apartment, steady girlfriend, marketing job, and health insurance—heck, he even had a motor scooter; meanwhile, everyone else I knew either had lost their job, or was preoccupied by that prospect. Life appeared to have thrown Arseny an unlikely rope, and he climbed it like a cat up a tree.”
In 2020, we connected with many famous travellers to discuss our mutual love for travel. Marquee names like Pankaj Tripathi and Shantanu Moitra were entertaining, but two conversations with photographer Chris Burkard and food writer Priya Krishna were a notch above gushing. As travellers, they both seemed deeply thoughtful and aware of the world they inhabit, adopting a mindful consideration that we could all emulate.
“What implanted the idea of the Trans-Icelandic bikepacking trip?
Iceland and I have a relationship. I have been there 43 times. About a year ago, I had raced along the famous Ring Road. It was something I had trained for, but I never thought I could actually do it. And then I did. I covered the 1,358-kilometre length while setting a new record for the fastest known time by completing the trip in 52 hours, 36 minutes, and 19 seconds. It was beautiful and the ride took me to some of the most gorgeous parts of the country. But the entire time, I kept thinking there has to be another route that takes you through the remote landscapes as opposed to staying on the national road. I started talking to friends and I got in touch with an Icelandic cartographer. I asked him if there was a route that one could hike, drive or ride along that would take them to the interiors, while allowing them to stay close to the glaciers. He put together a map for us. But ultimately, it was unproven and untested. He didn’t know if it would come through.”
“What in your view are some of the best food cities in America with a vibrant and thriving culture?
One of my all-time favourites is San Antonio, Texas. I absolutely love how vibrant and diverse the food community there is. It is just a couple hours from the border with Mexico. So, you can get amazing, unapologetic Mexican food. I loved the carnitas (literally meaning “little pieces of meat”) at Carnitas Lonja. I also had the chance to go to Brownsville, also in Texas, which is a little town right on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Just experiencing all of these regional styles of tacos was awesome. I loved Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, which is known for their barbacoa.”
This year’s standouts would have been highlights in any other year too—they were simply that arresting. One featured the bucolic idyll of a remote Ukrainian mountain village, another brought us glimpses of the snow leopard in Spiti’s snowscape. Seeing these pictures once hardly does them any justice.
“Five hundred kilometres is a long way, especially through the cold Himalayas. It is also what it takes to reach a snow-quilted Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh from the capital Shimla. The photographer undertook the journey—with a quick stop at Kinnaur—for the love of Himalayan wildlife, and encountered it aplenty. He returned fuller than intended, memories inhabited by the great outdoors and its winter playmates: cold rivers, hot momos, and apple orchards dusted silver.”
“Volosyanka, a resort village studded with undulating hills and endless green pastures, tucked in the Lviv Oblast region of the Ukrainian Carpathians, is home to no more than 1,500 residents. Despite receiving a frequent influx of urban tourists—who sign up for hiking trails, mountain expeditions, and rural foraging—the village has not officially reported a single case of COVID-19. Every month since 2015, Artur Abramiv, a Ukraine-based documentary and adventure photographer, has left his cityscape of Novyy Rozdil to explore a different part of the area’s ridge. “I am an artist and I am inspired by the mountains,” states the 25-year-old. When the pandemic brought the world to its knees, Abramiv set out on a quest to reconnect with nature and satiate his natural curiosity for exploration.”
It’s not often that we hear from the Democratic Republic of Congo, for Indians the region is shrouded in mystery. So a hiking expedition to Mount Nyiragongo’s volcanic lava lake piqued our interest. Also worth a mention: a road trip feature from Vietnam, about two friends’ quest for a vintage bike, which coursed with the riotous bonhomie of a buddy comedy.
“Climbing Through the Rain
We wake up with the sunrise in anticipation of our climb. The skies are clear and the sun shines as Frank drives us towards Virunga. A nervous energy lingers as we approach Kibati Patrol Post, the starting point for our trek. Mount Nyiragongo’s last eruption was in 2002, the effects of which can still be seen in Goma and the national park.
A group of 10 eager climbers from different nations gather at Kibati along with a team of rangers armed with AK-47s, and porters carrying our food supplies. The hike starts at a gentle incline through rainforest terrain. Ahead of us, the volcano looms ominously. Behind us, the Great Rift Valley stretches for miles in thick green forested hills, extending west into the heart of the Congo and in the east towards Kenya. The sun shines bright as we take our first steps.”
“The traffic in Vietnam is somehow denser than traffic in India, but more free flowing. Danny and I were over-working the clutch, wobbling on wet turns, and generally disrupting the otherwise calm stream of two-wheelers surrounding us. When we finally made it out into the countryside, Phu pulled over and handed me the keys to the Iron Buffalo. I felt like a rodeo rider entering the bull pen. Before I knew it Danny was right alongside me, pushing his Honda to the limit, a wicked glint in his eyes. For a brief moment we felt like kids again, imagining we were Mongolian warriors gliding on our horses across the Gobi.”
Some stories encapsulated how travel is uniquely individual in its impact. A Kathak dancer found new meaning in her Spanish surroundings while learning flamenco and, in Rome, a veteran traveller finally relived his romance with Italy’s cinematic maestro Federico Fellini. As the latter once said, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” We made plenty of pasta this year, let’s hope 2021 is filled with the former. Happy New Year!
“No manual pretty much sums up my journey to Spain, halfway across the world from the car-choked city of Bengaluru. But the dream had simmered long and slow—over the 10 years that it took for a young Indian Classical dancer to chance upon the Spanish musical documentary Iberia, scoop up her savings, pack her bags, and arrive in the country.
And here I was. In the ‘cave classroom’ of Escuela Carmen de Las Cuevas, a Spanish Language school in Granada hosting its weekly flamenco jam session… working in the intense kathak footwork of teentaal (16 beats rhythm) to the fast-paced bulerias (12 beats rhythm). Around me were flamenco artistes who had mastered the art of tornado spins and rigorous footwork, of tender expressions one second, and angry stomping the next. I was here to tell them a story, about another dear dance form that I’d met at the age of five. The only way to tell it was to keep dancing.”
“Hopping onto the express train, in half-an-hour I’m zipped into Rome’s heart of darkness, the brutalistic railway terminal built on a site where the poor used to be buried—suitably named Termini, the last station. It set the tone for one of Federico Fellini’s final pictures, Ginger & Fred.
The filmmaker lives on in his films, so I chase him through his beloved theatrical backdrop of Rome—a high of caffeine, nicotine, absinthe and all the films of Fellini.”