Gap year this, gap year that. It seems like wherever you look these days, gap years are being readily advertised. All the options, routes and 5-stop tickets on offer can be a deterrent for some young people looking for the ultimate gap year experience. A gap year should be fun, exciting and most of all, unique to you. For those looking for the gap year route to end all gap year routes, Richard Jones plans out the perfect travel guide for those looking to go on the road less travelled.
‘Travelling’, these days, is a term bandied about quite a great deal by essentially everyone you will ever encounter. “I just spent two weeks travelling around the Marbella” they say. “God! I had the greatest time travelling for almost 3 weeks in Rome with my parents” They say. It’s become a byword for ‘going on holiday’, and I don’t think its ok. Thesaurus.com might suggest both words can be used interchangeably- like the Coke/Pepsi situation every brand-loyal restaurant in the world seems determined to plague us all with- but I assure you they cannot.
I’m sure you see where I’m coming from. After all, you are currently reading a travel feature in a student magazine, so I like to think you fully understand what I’m getting at here. ‘Travelling’ is not a weekend in Paris with ‘bae’. It is not two buses to London and Blackpool for a boozy weekend. Travelling is about pushing yourself. It’s about finding things out, about learning, about other cultures, other religions, other viewpoints and by god, it’s even about picking up the top ten tips for bribing a Burmese border patrol guard at 4 in the morning (Disclaimer: DO NOT BRIBE) (winky face).
Playing volleyball in the Algarve with your aunt for a week is not ‘travelling’, because you won’t learn anything. Apart, that is, from the fact that Aunty June’s spiking is well below par. If you’re reading this with a sort of frustrating, niggling urge in the base of your skull urging you to push yourself in a way you never have; then you need to go. And not just anywhere. You need to go somewhere special, somewhere interesting, somewhere the Lonely Planet isn’t suggesting. Somewhere the locals will not understand your broken Standard Grade Spanish. Somewhere far away from fry-up-toting ex-pats. So without further ado, and in light of my previous comments about Marbella, Paris, London and the Algarve, allow me to plan out a proper traveller’s gap year for you.
Boom you’re in Germany. It’s not much important how you make your way east- although bonus points for hitchhiking (Disclaimer: DO NOT HITCHHIKE) (winky face) – as long as you do get there. Regensburg won’t be at the top of most people’s lists, but it should be. Regensburg is a (relatively) small city nestled in between Munich and Nuremberg in Bavaria, in the South of Germany. It’s a listed UNESCO world heritage site, chiefly because it happens to be “the only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany”. Simply, Regensburg is mind-bendingly beautiful, with tiny, traditional German houses squashed together in a series of narrow alleyways. Out of the labyrinth springs the jewel of the city, the Regensburg Cathedral, which rises high above the surrounding buildings like a gothic ode to Satan himself. I’m well informed it makes Notre Dame look positively boring. Spend some time in Bavaria after visiting Regensburg if you get the chance. Much like Naples in Italy, Germany’s south has its own unique culture and customs. Travel from town to town around Munich and absorb the atmosphere while you absorb beer after beer.
2. Kerala, India
Now is the time to switch it up. Culture shock-style. Hop on a plane to India and fly into anyone of 4 airports along the Malabar Coast in the South East of India, although I suggest the northern-most of the lot- Cochin airport- so you can move further south. Now; here’s all you need to know about Kerala.
Much of India’s tourist industry is comprised of domestic tourism. In a country so big and diverse, it makes sense many Indian people would rather travel within their own country than go abroad. When Indian’s do decide to go on vacation, it’s overwhelmingly Kerala they choose. I ask you: what’s more traveller than travelling to where the locals go on holiday? Nothing, that’s what.
Located in India’s South Western coast, Kerala has been named as one of the ’10 paradises of the world’ by National Geographic, and with good reason. Kerala is a tropical wonderland, filled with pristine beaches, rolling green hills and its own unique, individual culture. The food in Kerala is said to be unlike anywhere else in the world. In the ‘backwater’ region (a series of interlocking lakes and rivers away from the coast), It’s common for tourists to rent houseboats and drift aimlessly, sampling the local foods and entertainment as they travel. Essentially people, Kerala is like a muggy Valhalla. With more curried seafood.
3. Bagan, Myanmar
Now you’re headed North-East towards Myanmar (formerly Burma). Now, Geography enthusiasts, you are correct; Myanmar does indeed border India. So, if Kerala felt more like a starter than a main course, head clear across the India Sub continent, through Mumbai and New Dehli and around Bangladesh through the Sikkim state high in the Himalayan Mountains. Then all you need do is cross the border into Myanmar (here’s where you might learn those aforementioned bribing skills) and head South East towards Bagan. Even for experienced travellers, this trip would be a logistical and practical cluster headache, so just flying across India might be nice instead.
Bagan is an ancient city, situated in the Mandalay Region in the heart of Myanmar. It was once the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, and today the remains of around 2200 Buddhist Temples are still on show. Some of the remaining buildings are positively sure to take your breath away. Some of the temples and towers in Bagan are almost 1000 years old, painted all in gold and adorned with immeasurably detailed features.
They say dawn is the best time to visit Bagan. As the usual morning mist lifts above the flat, grassy landscape which surrounds the temples, nothing will prepare you for what you are about to see. Spending time in the surrounding towns and villages around Bagan will be a true eye opener for any weary traveller; Myanmar’s culture is a quite unique mix between the central Asian culture to the west and the perhaps more familiar east Asian culture that lies to the east of its borders. That being said, the country has had its share of ethnic, political and military problems in the past. Civil war ravaged the country as recently as 2014, so be very careful.
4. Emeishan, China
At this stage of the trip your headed North East into China. Most people tend to think of China as one big giant smoggy conurbation, but in fact China is one of the most diverse countries in the world. From the mountains which role off the Himalayas in the South West, to the tropical climate of Hong Kong, to the vast farmlands in the North West, China’s got it all. On your way to Emeishan (or Mount Emei in English), you’ll get to enjoy some time to yourself nestled in some of the most incredible scenery in the world. Emeishan is a tiny town in the centre of China, not too far to the west of major city Chongqing, in Sichuan province. A friend who lived in China for three years recently described the mountain to me:
“By far the best place to visit in China is a place called Emeishan. There are tonnes of holy mountains in China but most of them are mobbed by tourists. This is one of the tallest and most beautiful. It’s hard to access, but worth it. A colony of monkeys lives on the summit alongside an enormous statue of Bhudda. There’s also a monastery at the top and the welcome you with open arms if you hike all the way to the top. There’s snow on top almost all year round and when you’re there, you can’t help but feel you’re somewhere very, very special.”
After climbing the considerable mountain (its over 3000 metres above sea level) you’ll want to return back to earth and head east to Chonqing. Once you’ve fought your way through India, Burma and China, you’ll want some creature comforts.
5. Pink Lake, Australia
Now, it seems like every man and his dog has relatives in Australia (parts of Western Australia have even been dubbed ‘Little Britain’), making it seem much less exotic. Not only that, but pretty much every student with access to an overdraft seems to have been snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef or spent an afternoon at Byron Bay. That’s not to say Australia doesn’t still hold some surprises, though. You’ll fly into Perth, on Australia’s west coast (simply for ease) before bus-ing, train-ing or hitchhiking (Disclam… you get the drift) South.
As you may have guessed by the title, Pink Lake, in the Esperance region of Western Australia on the country’s south coast, is a lake which is genuinely, actually pink thanks to a special brand of Algi that live in the lake. It’s quite spectacular. To get there from Perth, you’ll need to travel round the South Western tip of the county into Esperance, but the journey will hardly be difficult for you, the super-traveller who bribed a Burmese border patrol guard at 4am with a currency you found in a shoebox near the Ganges.
This region of Western Australia is also renowned for its wineries, so if you get thirsty on the way to Pink Lake, feel free to stop anytime. The Mediterranean climate also makes it a perfect place to produce chocolate and olive oil. The orange soil, mixed with the greenery of a world class wine region and the marble blue sky make the area a truly special, untouched destination. The (somewhat) amount of tourists might bug you a little, but before long you’ll be back on the road.
6. Santiago, Chile.
Now here’s a challenge; get to Chile. Sound easy, but it ain’t. You could bus across Australia and fly from Melbourne or Sydney, or head back to Perth and fly from there. Or if you’re the competitive type I don’t believe anyone has ever kayaked across the Pacific Ocean (Disclaimer: Do not attempt to kayak across the Pacific Ocean.)
Some fun facts for you: 1) Santiago is the capital of Chile, located in the West Coast of South America. 2) The Atacama Desert, to the North of Santiago, is the driest place on earth and 3) Santiago is cooler than the fonz.
To the East of Santiago lie mountains which form part of the Andes range. Their snow-capped peaks are visible from just about anywhere in the city, which is comprised of mainly gothic neoclassical architecture (think Edinburgh and Rome all mashed up in one) and windy side streets.
The cities’ recent economic growth has also led to the building of modern, daring architecture and a new bustling arts, restaurant and nightlife scene. Some streets are even lined entirely with graffiti which parallel’s the cities rich culture. What this means is Santiago, essentially, is the new Barcelona.
Aside from the architecture, you’ll have some more natural beauty to admire at the end of your trip. You know all those super HD pictures you see of the entire galaxy on the internet? They’re all taken in Chile. The combination of low light pollution, clear nights, and geographical position makes the Atacama desert a perfect storm for stargazers. Don’t bother with a camera; it won’t do it justice.
Now you’re free to go home. They’ll ask you how it went, and they’ll tell you it reminds them of a weekend they spent in Dublin once. And they’ll never understand. The good news is they don’t have to, because you didn’t make the trip for bragging rights. That little niggling feeling? Gone. Yeah, bro, you’ve been travelling. Wasn’t it worth it?