Playing with Penguins in Patagonia:
A Visit to Isla Magdalena
How to describe Isla Magdalena? Imagine that movie ‘March of the Penguins’, but instead of the remote and hostile shores of Antarctica it’s a chilled out two-hour cruise up the Strait of Magellan from the port town of Punta Arenas. That’s pretty much it. Penguins everywhere, unfathomable penguins, close enough to civilization for an afternoon visit.
A small island of about 210ac (or 85ha if we’re talking metric), yet home to an estimated 58,000 breeding couples that migrate here each year to make sweet sweet penguin babies. That’s a lot of birds. (That’s also a lot of poo and feathers.)
Hey That’s Me:
Features in Kyrgyzstan’s Media
Let’s talk, for a moment, about Kyrgyzstan’s media and about me. Big cities are great, wonderful in fact, full of culture and action and people and beautiful moments and hidden secrets. But they are not the places I crave. On those long dark nights when a trip has gone on for too long and I need to reanchor myself it’s not the nargile cafes of Istanbul or the dim sum joints of Hong Kong that I fiend for, but rather nature and mountains and a quiet campsite hidden far away from signs of civilization. These days, more often then not, the place I go to find that is Kyrgyzstan.
There’s something about that country, something about those mountains and that culture and the intangible feeling of just being there, that has an ever-growing hold over me. Of my ‘big projects’ that I’ll get around to in some theoretical future two of them are Kyrgyzstan-specific and two others are focused on Central Asia broadly (and so Kyrgyzstan would play a major role). It’s somehow delightful (and also occasionally frustrating, but more on that in a moment) then that I’ve randomly popped up several times in Kyrgyzstan’s media lately.
Skiing in Kyrgyzstan:
An Overly-Thorough Guide
Skiing in Kyrgyzstan – it doesn’t get a lot of international press, not nearly as much as it should. Kyrgyzstan isn’t necessarily the easiest place to spend winter, and for many I think dreams of Thai beaches and southern-hemisphere summer are often top of mind. While all the snow and ice and cold may not be so exciting when crunching around the slick sidewalks of Bishkek, though, it all pays off when you manage to get out to the mountains. Beautiful ski slopes, low prices, amazing scenery all around, and always a bit of plov and vodka to warm up when the runs are done.
I must admit to not having explored all the options for skiing in Kyrgyzstan with nearly as much diligence as I’d initially hoped, and as such my ongoing series on ‘Skiing in Kyrgyzstan‘ has so far only seen three updates:
Karakol Ski Base
Jyrgalan Freeride Base
ZiL Ski Base
Exploring Galveston Island:
Houston’s Favorite Beach Town
The fourth largest city in the US by population, and the 9th largest in the world by land area. A concrete jungle, a stretch of unbroken cityscape extending for miles and miles in every direction. Sometimes you need a break, and sometimes you need a beach, and unless you want to share it with a bunch of alligators you’re probably heading from Houston to exactly one place: Galveston Island.
Why Galveston Island?
Only an hour away, fifty miles from the city of Houston proper, Galveston is almost a different world. Two miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, trading the clogged city streets and constant city noise for the sounds of waves on the beach and live music in the bars is equal parts relaxation and party.
Relaxation, of course, is on those long stretches of beach that look out onto the Gulf of Mexico. While the innermost edge of Galveston town still has vestiges of the bars and restaurants that are the appeal for many, just beyond is a long stretch of beach houses and open sand calling out to those that visit for quiet and calm.
Cruising the fjords of Patagonia:
Bernardo O’Higgins National Park
The famed ‘fjords of Patagonia‘ – Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. This is the land of Magellan and pirates and National Geographic documentaries. Towering glaciers and mountains on the far edge of the world, home to dolphins and condors and maybe even the fabled ‘City of the Ceasars’. And yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of tourists passing through the nearby Chilean town of Puerto Natales each year, only a small fraction will set sail for a visit.
More than 300,000 visitors are expected to visit the famous Torres del Paine National Park annually by 2025. Yet aside from the brief river trip up the Rio Serrano to the southern entrance of Torres, spend any time on the waters surrounding the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and you’re more likely to see seals and cormorants than you are to find another boat. The world’s 2nd largest extra-polar field (nearly 17,000 square kilometers) sees very few visitors and the reason, of course, is accessibility. You can visit by helicopter, you can visit by boat, or in theory I guess you could walk in via several weeks of crossing difficult and dangerous glacial ice. Don’t do that.
A Weekend Of Not Skiing:
Kyrgyzstan’s Karakol Ski Base
Karakol Ski Base. Everybody says it’s the best. In the country for sure, in the region perhaps. It’s certainly the highest elevation of any in Central Asia, at 3040m. If you’re a skier looking for good runs and comfy hotels for a winter sports trip in Kyrgyzstan, Karakol Ski Base is where people will point you to.
Which is exactly why I didn’t ski there, you understand.
Because there’s a lot to see. A lot to photograph. And not enough time in a weekend to see it all AND make time to actually ski it. Which makes me, I suppose, amongst the least qualified to be telling you about how the skiing is. I hung out for a while atop the kiddie slopes, taking photos back towards the excited riders on the first of several lifts and the far-away mountain tops on the border with Kazakhstan across the lake. I spent some time off-piste to the east of the main runs, tramping through deep piles of powdery snow that even with snowshoes sunk me down to the knees at times. All the time waiting (and waiting, and waiting…) for somebody to ski past and play the impromptu model for the camera.
Shymbulak – Skiing in Kazakhstan
The Shymbulak Ski Resort, high above the city of Almaty and tucked deep into the mountains that stretch beyond the Medeo Ice-Skating Rink, is an area seemingly unknown to outsiders but may well be one of the best spots for snow-sports in all of Central Asia.
Exploring the Vienna Woods:
Mayerling, Seegrotte, and Heiligenkreuz Abbey
The ‘Vienna Woods‘. Rising to the northwest of Vienna atop the very first foothills of the Austrian Alps, the Wienerwald is a beautiful green belt and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve actually within the city limits of Vienna. With over 500 square miles of forest to wander through, it also makes the perfect day trip to get out of Vienna proper and do some biking or light hiking. Indeed this is one of the planned uses for the Vienna Woods, with 39 mountain biking trails and 12 hiking routes. Not feeling quite so ambitious? Vienna is ALSO the only city with proper vineyards inside the city limits as well, and you can sample the fruits of these vineries at the Heuriger restaurant/taverns in the small communities that dot the woods.
As a traveler in Vienna, there are really two ways to make a daytrip out into the Vienna woods.
The first (and easiest) is a day wandering through the trails that connect the small villages immediately ringing the northwest of Vienna. Some of them, like the village of Klosterneuburg with its monastery/winery/museum offerings, justify a whole day in their own right. Others, like Cobenzl and Kahlenberg, serve more as convenient stopping points in between long walks than as destinations in themselves. These points are all connected to Vienna by public transport and by fairly bike-able roads and trails, so if you want an independent freewheeling day out of the city this is the way to go.