In the crowdfunding campaign that made this project possible, each contributor chose a reward as a token of my appreciation, and some of them chose mini-podcasts.
What is a mini-podcast? A short article or episode where I answer a question or dive into a topic of their choosing.
André, initially a sponsor of my brother (a swiss Olympic diver), became my backer and asked me a superb question. Sponsor & friend of the family!
André asked me to recommend ten must-see destinations. I loved the idea, so here we go!
I made my choices by choosing to embrace my bias – meaning I chose places close to my heart, places that mean a lot to me. I will do my best here to express my love of these places to you.
I have, of course, spent time in everyone of these places. You might notice that Latin America and Africa are missing from this article… that’s because I haven’t explored those continents yet, they are the two major worlds I hope to explore in the coming few years!
If you need some context on who I am or what experience this is based on, go here. Otherwise, let’s dive right in!
On the map above you can find my ten choices. Click on each one to find a fun little intro!
People often ask me what my favorite place in the world is. The fact is, there is no one place I prefer to all others, and of course I live by the saying the ‘home is where the heart is’. There are, however, places which have stroke my heart particularly strongly. Usually there is one or two such places in each region I explore.
These ten places can be grouped into three regions of the world:
Three Spots in East Asia
I spent an entire year exploring China – visiting over half of the provinces – and that’s not touching on how half of my cultural heritage (and family) is Chinese.China is a rough place, easily perceived as inhumane for a western visitor. From the air and food to customs and business practices, you are trained to be on your guards about everything, to trust sparingly. Communist rule, especially the decade of cultural revolution, has eradicated much of China’s past cultural wealth and diversity, making for an exceptionally homogeneous country of Han Chinese people.
But, as is often the case in homogeneous countries, areas on the fringe (e.g. border areas) tend to be more interesting, less affected and more diverse. Yunnan, the south-western most province of China, is such a place and is my first favorite province in the country.
Whereas 96% of people in China are Han Chinese, Yunnan is ‘only’ 67% Han Chinese. The remaining 33% of people belong to 25 different ethnic minorities, each with their own cultures, languages and histories. This, is what makes Yunnan unique.
Make sure you skip the ‘minority shows’, i.e. any place where you need to pay to see locals perform traditional acts. It’s a work of exploitation, and you’re better off getting to know the locals, for real. Plus, it’s easy: just step into a bus or train station and head towards any of Yunnan’s border areas with Laos, Vietnam or Myanmar to experience China at the fringe of Chinese culture.
Alternatively, rent a motorcycle in Kunming, the province’s capital, and plan a big loop through the province… just follow your intuition. Enjoy the quirky features of a land where each village is unique, set in surroundings geologically primed for photography.
But of course, while people are my main draw in travel, they are not the only feature that makes Yunnan such a pearl. You need only open your eyes on any rocky bus or plane trip to feel lost in valleys, rice fields, mountains of staggering beauty and rivers as majestic as they are fierce.
Check out the View
Click on the circles on the top left to hide or show captions, or to switch to the next picture.
Yeah, I love that country so much that I found a heart and posed inside it. In Sanxiantai, Taitung, Taiwan.
Taiwan is my true love in East Asia. I love the place so much that I canceled a gigantic hitch-hiking trip through Indonesia to fly back and participate in the Sunflower Movement. I I will publish a full-length podcast/article about that experience in the coming months – a crash course in protest movements and civil disobedience.
Taiwan is, today, a refuge of Chinese culture… with plenty of Japanese influence and a Taiwanese uniqueness to it all.
Now, say this to a young Taiwanese person and they might recoil and promptly tell you that they are not Chinese. That’s because there is a general repulsion towards mainlanders (=Chinese people from China) in Taiwan. Herein lies the crux of it all:
Taiwanese people are soft, calm and discreet. Mainlanders are loud, rash and rude.
I wish I could just quote someone else, but nope. Yes, I just said this. Yes, it’s a tremendous generalization, but guess what: One of East Asia’s cultural pillars is the societal aspiration to homogenize people. Let me know in the comments if you disagree.
So Chiang Kai-Shek, whose portrait you can see to your left, was a pretty conservative guy. He was a fervent protector of Chinese traditional culture, and was against both western democracy and communism.
Conservatism’s weakness is, naturally, inflexibility. As leader of the Nationalist government in China, he couldn’t maintain good relations with the communists, and so sought to destroy them. He failed so bad that he lost the country to them and sought refuge in Taiwan after WWII.
He then proceeded to rule the island with an iron fist and under martial law, with tens of thousands of dissidents and protesters killed during 38 years of martial law. Martial law was lifted in 1987, twelve years after his death.
In 1990, the Taiwanese wild lily movement succeeded where the 1989 Tiananmen movement failed in China. The president at the time welcomed 50 students to his office, and started a series of reforms to implement democracy.
Skip to 2014. Taiwan is Asia’s most vibrant democracy. Chiang Kai-Shek’s portrait pictured here is littered with signs counting the amount of hours since the Parliament of Taiwan had been taken over by students. In 23 days of entirely illegal occupation, zero deaths and only a few minor injuries.
Anyway, enough politics, let’s enjoy the view!
Today’s Iran is a heir to one of the world’s oldest, largest empires. As a result, the country is peppered with ancient ruins, and the study of its history should be an integral part of a visit of the country.
Back in 3000 BC, the south-west of Iran was already home to a sophisticated civilization called the Elamites, who built structures still in stunning shape today. In 550 BC, Cyrus the Great unified Persia and built it into the largest and most sophisticated empire the world had ever seen – the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus was an enlightened ruler, who ruled over nearly half of the world’s population (50 million people) with tolerance and respect for the diversity of beliefs, traditions and customs of the people of this huge area.
Image source is here
Building superb road and postal systems, successful centralized government and rejecting slavery, Cyrus’ Achaemenid empire was the first of its kind. It’s official religion was Zoroastrianism, a curious faith often said to be the world’s first monotheistic religion.
Zoroastrianism, a religion based on three pillars: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.
Alexander the Great was tremendously inspired by Cyrus, and invaded Persia in 330 BC. Arriving at Persepolis, the capital of the empire, he was in such awe that he stayed in the city for 3 months. A raging alcoholic, it is said that in a drunken spree he burnt down the whole city.
Peter Pan in Persepolis
The Parthians, native Persians, took over shortly after Alexander’s death and were followed by the Sassanid Dynasty, which was one of the world’s leading powers for four hundred years. The Arabs conquered Iran in 633 AD and introduced Islam to the Persians, who contributed greatly in the Islamic Golden age that followed.
The expression ‘parting shot’ is believed to come from ‘Parthian shot’, referring to a military maneuver in which Parthian troops retreating on horseback turned back to face the enemy and shot a lethal arrow while retreating. The Parthian’s had nomadic tribal origins, much like the Turks or the Mongols.
Persia was the only place conquered by the Arabs that maintained its own language, though it adopted a modified form of the Arab alphabet. Nearly 900 years after the Arab conquests, the native persian Safavid dynasty took over and made Iran Shia, instead of Sunni.
Conflicts with Russia reduced Iran’s territory significantly between the 18th and 20th century. A popular revolution in 1906 instituted a constitutional monarchy, which was overthrown in 1953 by the UK and the US, who through the Pahlavi Shahs (Shah=King in Persian) liberalized the country… forcefully and autocratically.
Iranian Territories lost in the 19th and 20th century are in red.
The famous Islamic Revolution of 1979 followed, a strong ‘fuck-off’ to the previous foreign influences, and that conservative theocracy remains in power today.
Huge Mural of Khomeini (first supreme leader, on the left) and Khameini (supreme leader today, on the right) in Kerman, Iran