Vietnam tourism hotspot reopens, but draws locals not overseas visitors amid plunge in international travel

  • In Hoi An, businesses that have depended on overseas visitors are changing tack to draw domestic and expat tourists as Vietnam’s tourism sector reopens
  • The country is one of the first in Southeast Asia to revive its tourism industry thanks to its low number of coronavirus infections

A Blow-Your-Mind Adventure in Vietnam’s Caves

Vietnam is home to Asia’s most astonishing subterranean system. Here’s how to explore the caves on a 3-day swimming and hiking excursion

LAP UP Swimming in Ken Cave.
LAP UP Swimming in Ken Cave. PHOTO: TOBI SCHNOFEIL

THE BATS WERE in a frenzy. At first it was just a single creature, flashing past my face as seven of us, wearing life jackets, helmets and headlamps, bobbed in a shadowy river inside a 3-million-year-old cave in north-central Vietnam. As we swam deeper into the darkness, into a watery chamber the size of a basketball arena, our beams revealed scores of bats zipping around us from all directions, feasting on constellations of tiny white bugs orbiting our illuminated heads. Cave swimming isn’t for everyone.

I was halfway into a three-day hiking and swimming tour in what is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular caving destinations, a massive limestone formation 300 miles south of Hanoi. Hundreds of caves are carved out of an otherworldly landscape of undulating mountain ranges and isolated karst towers that feels so prehistoric you half expect pterodactyls to come swooping through.

Exploring Tu Lan Cave.
Exploring Tu Lan Cave. PHOTO: NGO TRAN HAI AN

Southeast Asia’s tourist-friendly bounty of caves entered the spotlight last summer, when heavy rain flooded the subterranean chambers that 12 young Thai soccer players and their coach were exploring post-practice, trapping them. Our expedition, run by Oxalis Adventure Tours, was painstakingly laid out by speleologists with extensive experience mapping caves and led by guides trained in first aid and water rescues. Most important, we weren’t in danger of surging waters because Oxalis doesn’t run tours in the rainy season. Cave tourism in Vietnam is a relatively recent phenomenon. British spelunkers started surveying the region in 1990 and discovered the largest known cave passage in the world, Son Doong, in 2009. It’s nearly 4 miles long and tall enough to contain a 40-story building. Oxalis, formed in 2011, started the first trekking and camping expeditions in that cave and several others. Even after the Thai incident, business is thriving for Oxalis and other local cave operators, they say.

I opted for the tour with the most swimming, Oxalis’ Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer. Our trip began in Phong Nha, a small town on the Son River surrounded by jagged ranges and populated by low-slung hotels and homestays run by locals capitalizing on the growing tourism. After a 90-minute drive northwest to Oxalis’ staging base, our tour guide, Pham Hong Dai, briefed my group, which included three Californians, a banker from Milan and a college student from Da Nang. He told us what was in store: six caves, 10 miles of hiking, 1,000 yards of swimming in four caverns, and two nights camping at waterfalls outside caves. And he offered some crucial bits of advice: Watch for poison ivy and snakes and don’t overtake him. Oxalis provided the caving gear, and porters carried our bags ahead to the first campsite.

Trekking to Tu Lan Caves.
Trekking to Tu Lan Caves. PHOTO: TOBI SCHNOFEIL

In the 90-degree heat and humidity, we walked from the Oxalis pavilion onto a concrete road built by the makers of “Kong: Skull Island,” filmed in the province in 2016, through a valley hemmed by lush peaks. We started with a hike up a mountainside to a dry chamber called Rat Cave, a lair for the movie monster and our setting for lunch. The opening of this dry cave was like a giant shark’s mouth with serrated teeth at the top. Inside, an obelisk-like stalagmite stood sentinel atop a mound decked with moss and neon-green ferns. After lunching on pork spring rolls and dragon fruit spread out on a tarp, we ventured into our first darkened chamber, headlamps exposing thousands of ashen stalactites clinging to the ceiling 50-feet above like icicles coated in cobwebs.

Every cave featured both tight passages and massive chambers, some as high as 150 feet, often streaked in blues, greens, grays or yellows derived from trace minerals and organic acids. Most of the rooms were encrusted with formations bulging from the walls, dripping from the ceilings and rising from the floor. Recurring shapes reminded me of Doric columns, mushroom clouds and giant squids.

‘The opening of the cave was like a giant shark’s mouth with teeth.’

After leaving Rat Cave, we hiked two hours down the mountain to our first campsite and our first swim, outside of Ken Cave. There, a one-story waterfall tumbled from the entrance forming our own private swimming hole. I walked straight into the warm emerald pool in pants and shirt before shedding them for a few laps, enamored of the white cliffs encircling the swimming hole. The light dimmed as I swam butterfly 75 meters into the back of the cave’s mouth. Thoughts of a Leviathan dragging me under sent me quickly in reverse, swimming backstroke under massive stalactites hanging two stories above like divebombing dragons. That night, at the campsite, we toasted our adventure with rice-wine shots. In our tents at 8 p.m., we fell asleep to the sounds of screeching insects and crashing water.

The second day brought swims in three caves. First we were back in Ken, in our shirts, pants, boots, life jackets and helmets, pulling against the slight current. After 150 yards, we climbed out onto a ledge, slowly moving over muddy paths, dry sandy floors and spiky rocks. We came to a 2-foot high stalagmite like a baptismal font. “Lights off,” Dai said. We sat on cool clay, listening to drops splashing every few seconds into the round font, leaving behind micro-traces of minerals that form dripstone over millennia. We ended the afternoon by hiking into nearby Kim Cave and into a shallow river. We trekked knee-deep before coming to a small series of rapids, our first waterfall in the dark.

Swimmin in Hung Ton Cave.
Swimmin in Hung Ton Cave. PHOTO: OXALIS ADVENTURES

On the third day, we entered our final cave, Ton. We swam through narrow passages that resembled canyon gorges, a few feet wide and 30 feet high, against the strongest current of the trip. “I thought you were going to pick an easy one for the end,” said Carlos Morales, one of the Californians, to Dai as we trudged out of the watery entrance. A quartet of white butterflies fluttered toward a path leading to an hour-long hike down to the valley, to showers and cold beer.

THE LOWDOWN / Spelunking in Vietnam

Getting There: Vietnam’s most popular caves are in mountainous Quang Binh Province. As a base, most tourists use the town of Phong Nha, about an hour drive from the nearest airport, Dong Hoi, which can be reached via multiple daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi (baolau.com). From Da Nang, you can also take a picturesque, six-hour train ride along coastal cliffs north to Dong Hoi.

Caving There: International speleologists attribute Vietnam’s outstanding caves to the abundance of thick limestone and warm water. Heavy rains in the fall mean the best caving months are February through August, and swimming is ideal in late summer when river temperatures are around 80 degrees. You can spend a few hours or a few days in the caves in and around Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Paradise and Phong Nha caves are mammoth, so-called show caves where thousands of visitors descend daily to tour from walkways or boats. Multiple-day tours are run by three companies—Oxalis Adventure Tours, Jungle Boss and Greenland Tours—each with government concessions to operate in separate caves. The tours are small, generally two to 16 customers, and operators provide van rides, caving gear and meals. Oxalis offers 11 tours ranging from one day in Nuoc Nut Cave for about $70 to four days in Son Doong, with guests camping inside the world’s largest known cave passage, for $3,000 per person. The best swimming is on the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer, with two nights jungle camping, for $350. There is no cellphone service or electricity in the jungle so bring a power pack for charging.

Staying There: Rooms in the growing number of guest houses along Phong Nha’s main road range from $15 to $30 a night. One of the few luxury offerings, Victory Road Villas opened in 2017 on the bank of the Son River with seven apartments in a fusion of French colonial and Vietnamese styles (from $150 a night; victoryroadvillas.com). Oxalis also runs Chay Lap Farmstay, a landscaped retreat with 39 rooms and cottages and a water sports complex on the river, where you can kayak and swim; it’s about a 20-minute drive from Phong Nha town (from $55 a night; chaylapfarmstay.com). Nguyen Shack Phong Nha Lake Hill opened this summer with 20 wooden bungalows in the countryside with a swimming pool shaped like a boat (from $35 a night; nguyenshack.com/phongnha/ecoresort/).

Gray Matters

Should Tourists Ride Elephants in Thailand?

As a great debate rages in Chiang Mai over elephant encounters, a writer visits to two camps—one that promotes riding, another that forbids it

TRUNK BONDS Elephant Nature Park, Thailand’s first “no riding” camp, offers visitors the chance to observe many of its 83 elephants as they roam freely in the 160-acre sanctuary.
TRUNK BONDS Elephant Nature Park, Thailand’s first “no riding” camp, offers visitors the chance to observe many of its 83 elephants as they roam freely in the 160-acre sanctuary.

THE ELEPHANT, my companion for the morning, lumbered out of the woods onto a dirt slope next to a stream in northern Thailand. He appeared calm, ears flapping and tail swinging. But he was 9 feet tall at the shoulders, with pointed tusks longer than my legs. I was dubious about standing too close to him, let alone climbing on top of him.

I was at Patara Elephant Farm in the forested mountains north of Chiang Mai to undertake a popular tourist activity that’s lately fallen under intense scrutiny: riding astride these mammoth creatures. With more than 90 elephant camps in the region, Chiang Mai serves as the world’s epicenter of elephant tourism. It’s also where the clash over whether to ride elephants is playing out most acutely.

Of the scores of brochures that litter the travel shops sandwiched between bars and Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai’s old city, roughly half tout “no riding” venues, with photos of tourists giving elephants mud baths and hugs. Many of those camps opened in the last few years as animal-welfare groups intensified campaigns against riding, tourists boosted the blitz on social media, and major European tour companies like TUI boycotted rides and circus-like shows.

Activists who condemn riding excursions say they often indicate abusive treatment, like chaining elephants between outings and breaking in the younger animals with unnecessary force.

Feeling unjustly maligned, riding camps like Patara started a counter offensive. Beginning this year, they are developing and promoting new standards for camps, supported by veterinarians at Chiang Mai University, that cover everything from shelter height to water quality. According to these standards, riding elephants is harmless as long as the animals carry less than 10% of their body weight, or about 600 pounds for a 3-ton elephant.

Feeling unjustly maligned by activists, elephant-riding camps started a counter offensive.

The day at Patara began with owner Pat Trangprakan briefing our group of 20, mostly from the U.S. and Europe, about how the camp provides lifelong health care for elephants. He and his wife, Dao, opened the farm 14 years ago and now have 68 elephants on nearly a half square-mile of rolling hills. After we were separated into smaller groups and paired with elephants at the stream, the handlers explained that signs of good health included sweat around the toenails and moist feces filled with fiber. We were encouraged to squeeze clumps of dung.

Barefoot and in shorts, we walked our elephants into a pool below a little waterfall and scrubbed their hides with soapy brushes to help keep them free of parasites. When it came to bareback riding, the handlers showed us how to step onto the elephant’s raised right-front leg and hoist ourselves up by grabbing the top of its ear and the rope over its shoulders.

My elephant, a 24-year-old named BoonYen, was surprisingly easy to mount. But as he plodded up a steep jungle hill and I rocked side to side behind his twin-domed head, I kept wondering if this was the life he wanted. And if it wasn’t, whether this 4-ton beast would suddenly bolt and send me flying.

Ahead of me, Emma Banbury from London was thinking about the similarities between this experience and taking her horse out for ride. “I don’t have a problem with riding,” she told me later, “because with horses they need work, they need a job to do.”

The other American in our group of six, Angela Peluso, said she had mixed emotions. “It just didn’t feel natural to me,” she said. “It felt too touristy.”

And that’s the rub. Tourism perpetuates captivity of elephants, but it also helps fund their care, especially since they were put out of work hauling teak after the government banned logging in 1989. Some animal-welfare advocates say the answer lies in creating sanctuaries where elephants roam free and have no direct interaction with visitors.

The day after my visit to Patara, I made my way to one of the few such venues moving in that direction, Elephant Nature Park, about 40 miles north of Chiang Mai. The country’s first “no riding camp,” it opened in 2002. I joined eight visitors from Europe as a guide led us around a valley in the mountains, stopping under towering thatch umbrellas to feed several elephants bananas and snap photos.

The park has 83 elephants, 25 of which the owner, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, said she rescued last year from street performing and begging. Many of them roam the 160 acres freely during day. Unlike at the majority of camps, the elephants are not chained at night, but are kept in large pens.

Our guide fielded questions, rattling off answers—elephants gestate for nearly two years; herds consist of females and the young, while the bachelors are off on their own; these emotionally intelligent creatures have large brains that weigh about 11 pounds.

After a vegetarian buffet lunch in the park’s timber pavilion, our group trudged down to the riverbank. Tourists flanked the animals in the shallows, tossing up buckets of water for their daily baths.

One in our group, Gerhard Schuster, a retired orthopedic surgeon from Germany, voiced the question I’d been pondering since I arrived in Chiang Mai: “Is it good for them to be touched, each by 150 people?” he wondered. “I’m not sure.”

Veterinarians at Chiang Mai University are conducting stress studies to help find out. Meanwhile, the Elephant Nature Park stopped the splash baths a few weeks following my visit after guest surveys indicated a willingness to visit even if bathing was not part of the program.

Next up, Ms. Chailert said, will be phasing out tourists feeding the elephants. Instead, visitors will observe from a distance on elevated platforms. “In their lives they get a lot of hands on them,” said Ms. Chailert. “We call this a hands-off project. We move step by step.”

THE LOWDOWN / Tracking Down Elephants in Northern Thailand

GETTING THERE Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok, with multiple airlines offering regular daily flights.

STAYING THERE Most trips to camps in the Chiang Mai area are day visits, though some offer overnight stays for volunteers, which can cost several hundred dollars a week. Among the high-end, overnight camps farther away: Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, where guests can walk with elephants or ride them. A three-night package in a luxury tent including meals, a boat ride on the Mekong River and wine and cheese tastings, starts at about $2,800 a night for two. fourseasons.com/goldentriangle

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai lets guests walk with elephants (no riding permitted). A four-night package in a teak cottage including meals (no alcohol) and activities like collecting elephant food, costs about $180 a night a person blesele.org

ENCOUNTERING ELEPHANTS THERE Located along rivers or streams cutting through forested mountains, camps in the Chiang Mai region keep about 3 to 80 elephants and charge anywhere between $10 for a short visit to $180 a full day. Many no-riding camps allow tourists to walk with elephants, feed them bananas and bathe them. At riding camps, tourists also mount an elephant bareback or on a bench strapped to its back.

A day visit at Elephant Nature Park, about 40 miles north of Chiang Mai’s old city, costs about $75 a person, including lunch and transportation. elephantnaturepark.org Patara Elephant Farm charges about $175 a person for a day visit that includes two, 20- to 50-minute rides, lunch and transfers. pataraelephantfarm.com

Picture Yourself on a Raft on a River

The Beatles sought spiritual enlightenment in Rishikesh, a Himalayan mountain town on the banks of the Ganges. These days, it’s a white-water-rafting hub, offering more physical highs

Rafting the Ganges River: An Adrenaline Rush with Divine Rewards

SWEPT overboard by the churning rapids of the Ganges River, our rafting mate struggled in his life jacket and helmet to get back to our boat, terror flashing in his eyes. I sat closest to his flailing hands and the rest of the rafting group shouted for me to get a hold of him.

Just moments before, the scene had been anything but frantic. We’d all been drifting in the raft in calm emerald-colored water in the foothills of the Himalayas. On one bank of the river was a long beach of beige stones leading to a pink Hindu temple, and on the other were mossy boulders and towering slabs of rust-colored rock. All around us were lush peaks rising from the river valley.

As we heard the sound of water rushing down into our first major rapid of the day, adrenaline kicked in. “Let’s pull forward, guys,” shouted the river guide from the back of the raft. The seven of us stabbed our paddles into the waves, exhilarated.

Trayambakeshwar Temple, in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges.
Trayambakeshwar Temple, in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The thrill of riding white-water rapids on one of the world’s legendary rivers, and taking a plunge in its sacred waters, draws around 50,000 rafters to the mountain town of Rishikesh during the paddling season, which runs September to June. Think of the Ganges, and images of a dark soup of industrial and human waste, and the funeral fires on the banks of Varanasi, come to mind. But as it passes through Rishikesh, the river is still close to its glacial source, relatively clear and stunningly green. It is wide with long sections of flat but swift-moving water interrupted by a handful of class 3 rapids—sometimes strong enough to flip an eight-person raft.

Not shy of self-promotion, Rishikesh, a town of about 100,000 people a six-hour drive north from Delhi, bills itself as the yoga capital of the world and the rafting capital of India. It’s also popular with Hindu pilgrims, drawn to its sacred shrines, and Beatles’ worshipers—the Fab Four arrived in 1968 and spent several weeks at one of the hillside meditation retreats.

In the decades since, rampant construction of yoga and meditation ashrams, guesthouses and hotels, cafes and shops, and headquarters for rafting and trekking companies has cluttered the hills.

View of Rishikesh and the Ganges from Laxman Jhula bridge.
View of Rishikesh and the Ganges from Laxman Jhula bridge. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Spirituality and the Ganges have been commodified, with entrancing but chaotic results. Lining the switchback lanes, shops and lean-to stalls overflow with tunics, incense, boiling pots of milky tea and statues of Hindu gods. The town’s two suspension bridges, wide enough for a few people, are clogged with Indians in saris, Westerners in harem pants, honking motorbikes, dung-dropping cows and mooching monkeys.

For adventure travelers, it’s difficult to know which rafting business to choose. Tourism officials have licensed about 250 of them. Most offer half-day paddles down river, but you can also book overnight camping and rafting trips, as well as multiday excursions. According to longtime rafting operators, the vast majority of tourists on the river are Indian, rafting for the first time and not strong swimmers. The combination of their inexperience and the power of the river can be deadly. In the last five years, the local media has reported five rafting deaths, and while I was there, a woman died after her group’s raft capsized. Veteran guides say that about half of the operators are not properly trained or equipped. It’s wise to choose a company with seasoned guides and safety kayaks that accompany the rafts and can quickly reach castaways.

The cottages at Atali Ganga hotel, about 18 miles outside of Rishikesh.
The cottages at Atali Ganga hotel, about 18 miles outside of Rishikesh. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

With recommendations from an Indian white-water rafting association and several guides, I selected Aquaterra Adventures. The owners have been rafting since the 1990s and run an elegant hotel called Atali Ganga, a 35-minute drive from Rishikesh, tucked in a peaceful, forested mountainside. For about $200 a night, you get three delicious buffet meals and a choice of two activities such as rafting, kayaking or hiking.

I rafted on two of the three days of my stay, starting with a 7.5-mile paddle with a group of young technology workers who were staying at the hotel on a retreat. After a tranquil start, the seven of us were swept into a rapid known as Three Blind Mice. It was like a washing machine, tall waves rising up, curling back. The raft buckled into them as the bracing water washed over us.

A white-water excursion with Aquaterra Adventures, the rafting outfitter who also owns Atali Ganga hotel.
A white-water excursion with Aquaterra Adventures, the rafting outfitter who also owns Atali Ganga hotel. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Soon, we were slamming into even bigger waves, at least 10-feet high, and Anupam Dubey took his detour into the water. We couldn’t spot him at first, because he was under the boat. And then he surfaced, a few feet away. I grabbed his hand and, remembering our briefing, latched onto his life jacket lapels, dragging him into the raft on top of me.

“It was scary,” Mr. Dubey, 27, who works in sales for a mobile payments company in Delhi, told me later. “One moment I’m paddling and another moment, ‘Oh, this boat is going around my head.’”

The second day was a longer ride, 16 miles, with three other passengers—a husband and wife and a college student, all from Mumbai. After we successfully navigated Three Blind Mice, our guide asked if we wanted to hop out in our life jackets. He assured us it was safe, and I leaned back and splashed in, not noticing the chill of the 65-degree water. I bobbed downstream feet first, enthralled by the forested hills. A glimmering sandy beach on the shore seemingly zipped by.

Rishikesh is popular with Hindu pilgrims, drawn to its sacred shrines.
Rishikesh is popular with Hindu pilgrims, drawn to its sacred shrines. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

For many Indians, the dip is divine in another way. Hindus believe that the goddess Ganga descended to earth in the form of the river. Bathing in her is said to wash away sins, and if your cremated remains are scattered into the water, it’s believed your soul can be freed from the cycle of reincarnation. The river carries thousands of years of prayers, meditation and liberation, according to Hindus, and its inner vibration is the cosmic sound of the universe, Om.

“Ganga maiya ki jai” or “Glory to mother Ganga” cheered the raft-full of Indians as we paddled by, shaking off the chill of our swim.

A pit stop on an excursion with Red Chilli Adventure.
A pit stop on an excursion with Red Chilli Adventure. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Over the course of the day, our raft was sometimes the only boat on a bend of the river; other times, it was one of half a dozen floating downstream. Toward the end of the run, a flotilla of rafts had put in and paddlers waited in line to jump 20 feet from a shelf of rock into the water.

The couple from Mumbai, Rahul and Meenal Vaidya, knew about the risks, but he was keen on rafting for the first time, and she was returning for a second white-water ride. “It’s a place where you actually go very close to nature,” Meenal said. “A good place to look into yourself.”

Overlooking Rishikesh.
Overlooking Rishikesh. PHOTO: FRANCESCO LASTRUCCI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
THE LOWDOWN // Rafting in Rishikesh, India

Rafting the Ganges River: An Adrenaline Rush with Divine Rewards
ILLUSTRATION: JASON LEE

Getting There: Land in New Delhi and hire a car for the 6-hour drive north to Rishikesh. The travel service India Package Tour charges about $125 one way for up to three people. indiapackagetour.in.

Staying There: Yoga and meditation ashrams like Parmarth Niketan or Rishikesh Yog Peeth, rent rooms with vegetarian meals included, but without TVs or carpets, for about $20. parmarth.org, rishikeshyogpeeth.com. Among the higher-end hotels overlooking the Ganges, Atali Ganga offers 22 handsome cottages with floor-to-ceiling windows. From about $200 a night, ataliganga.com.

Rafting There: Trip prices range from a half-day paddle for about $20, to an overnight camping and rafting package for about $45, to multiple-day journeys for several hundred dollars. Long-established companies with expert white-water guides include Red Chilli Adventure, redchilliadventure.com; Aquaterra Adventures, aquaterra.in; Snow Leopard Adventures, snowleopardadventures.com; and Himalayan River Runners, hrrindia.com.

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Postcard from … the Taj Mahal

By Patrick Scott 

The Financial Times Feb. 17, 2018

 

It is shortly before 11pm in northern India and security officers shouldering AK-47s are ushering 50 of us toward the large main gateway leading to the Taj Mahal. We are the lucky few being allowed in to view the Taj by moonlight — the only way to behold India’s most popular and stunning monument at night.

Where other great attractions — the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Lincoln Memorial and the Giza pyramids, to name but a few — are artfully illuminated after nightfall, many of them with sound and light shows, the Taj remains in the dark. Artificial lights attract bugs, which would stain the white marble façade with excrement (as happened when security lights were erected and then lowered two years ago). However, unknown to many tourists, a strictly limited number of visitors are admitted at night each month on the full moon and the two nights before and after.

In the daytime, as one enters the sandstone main gate, the reddish hue of the interior provides a stunning contrast for the pearl-like lustre of the image in the distance. Framed in the arched doorways, the monument — with its onion dome, columned cupolas, arched portals and quartet of minarets — seems to hover like a perfectly symmetrical ivory castle in the sky. But at this hour, the main gate is ablaze with spotlights shooting down from above the doorways, one in front as we walk in and one behind as we walk out on to the terrace. The brightness makes it hard to even see the Taj itself, until a couple of minutes later the lights are slammed off in unison. We line up along a railing in the warm, still air, eyes slowly adjusting. “Ohhhh. Wow,” several people say in unison. “It’s beautiful,” declares one.

Although there is an eternal quality to it, the Taj was built in the mid-1600s by the Muslim ruler Shah Jahan as a memorial tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died delivering their 14th child. Meant to be a replica of her dwelling in the garden of paradise, it is described as the world’s greatest monument to eternal love, and the finest example of architecture from the Mughal empire, which ruled India in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As we stand on the sandstone terrace, the moon is high and white, over our right shoulders. We are not permitted to walk the gardens to the tomb, some 250 metres away, and the intricate details on the façade — the Koranic verses around the entrance, the swirling floral patterns above the arches, the honeycombed windows — are hard to make out. But the form and architectural mastery of the structure are visible; a sparkle of light emanates from a hanging lamp inside.

Tourists in our group — a few Americans, seven Brits and the rest Indians — aim digital glowing screens, catching the tomb’s cloud-grey image in the long reflecting pool. A bird caws. Music and chanting float on the air from a nearby Hindu temple.

“Is it what you expected?” I ask Sue Watson, a retired financial analyst from Hartford in Cheshire. “Yes, it’s amazing. It’s magical.”

The calm that embraces us belies a controversy over the origins of the monument that has been making headlines of late. A group of Hindu lawyers, in a court case resurrecting an old nationalist theory, claims that the site was originally a temple to the god Shiva, stirring extremist resentment against its Muslim heritage. The Archaeological Survey of India, the custodian of the Taj, in August last year told the court that the claims are “concocted”. In land and construction records “there is no mention of any temple being here, nor are there any structural remains of one,” Bhuvan Vikrama, the Archaeological Survey of India’s superintendent in Agra, told me.

On the bus back, Jafar Husain, a surgeon in Agra, was underwhelmed. “One would like to believe it shimmers,” he said, “but it doesn’t actually shimmer.”

Still, it was serene and a unique experience, even if our visit late last year was not during one of the best months for night viewing (September and October and from February to June). The minarets and façades have just emerged from a two-year cleaning project; the pollution-stained dome is next up for cleaning, due to start in the spring, the first time scaffolding will coat the dome since the 1940s. “It’s kind of a historic moment,” said Vikrama. Perhaps, for visitors who come next year, when the restoration is complete, the Taj might truly shimmer in the moonlight.

Details
The moonlight tours last 30 minutes and are limited to eight per night, from 8.30pm until 12.30am. A maximum of 50 visitors are allowed in each half-hour slot. Tickets cost Rs750 (£8.30) for foreigners, and must be bought in person a day before the viewing. The Taj is closed on Fridays. For more information, see tajmahal.gov.in/nightview.html

 

Meet Yara Shalaby, Egypt’s only female rally driver

By Patrick Scott | Jan 19, 2018
Special to espnW.com

As Yara Shalaby races through the desert toward a sand dune, the risks are high: She could flip her truck if she takes a wrong angle, get stuck if she accelerates too lightly, or crash if she speeds over the top too quickly.

Sometimes, though, surmounting the dunes is the least of her challenges: Shalaby is Egypt’s only female desert-racing driver.

When she took up the sport five years ago, she had to convince some of the male drivers that she was smart enough and strong enough to join their training safaris. In 2015, just when she was posting impressive finishes in races in Egypt, including a first for her country in the prestigious 1,800-mile Pharaons Rally, the government banned races in the desert, trying to stamp out a growing terrorist threat.

And when she turned instead to the deserts of the United Arab Emirates, nearly 2,000 miles from her home in Cairo, it began a two-year quest to enter the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge this March. The race is part of a World Cup for cross-country rallies, and drivers who have seen Shalaby in action have no doubt she can compete with the best in the sport.

“I love racing,” Shalaby says, “because I am able to cross the dunes and get into a lot of difficult situations and enjoy the desert for 300 and 400 kilometers. It’s an indescribable feeling.”

Rally drivers navigate off-road from point to point during a race — using only a road map.

Unlike other motorsports where drivers loop a set track for a set number of laps, rally drivers and copilots navigate off-road from point to point using a road book and their wits. In some rallies they ride for 10 hours a day, for multiple days, in rebuilt four-wheelers with roll cages and fire extinguishers, camping overnight in the wilderness with their support teams.

There are three groups of drivers in these races, says Mido Abouyoussef, a Pharaons organizer who has competed in rallies around the world. Those struggling to finish, those able to finish but far from the lead, and those with a shot at winning, he says. That last group holds teams run by auto manufacturers, and some amateurs like Shalaby.

“She has the talent to be in that top group,” Abouyoussef says.

Shalaby, 36, is an IT specialist at a bank, the single mother of an 8-year-old boy and an adventure junkie. She was already parachuting, parasailing and mountain climbing when she got hooked on desert driving in 2012 during a safari in the Sahara with coworkers. She was amazed at how the vehicles tore through deep drifts of sand, zoomed up and over tall dunes and streaked across rocky flats — and how the drivers commanded the terrain with so much skill.

Within a few months, she entered a rally in Egypt’s Eastern Desert and finished 10th out of 11 cars. By the end of 2013, she moved up to fourth out of 12 cars in a rally in the Western Desert.

Although a predecessor, Samia Allouba, was a copilot and co-driver with her husband in the Pharaons Rally in the early 1990s, Shalaby was the first Egyptian woman driver to finish the cross-country race. Typically spanning five days and covering about 370 miles a day, the race was started by a French racer in 1982 and suspended the past two years. Shalaby finished first in the national category in 2014, though there were only two Egyptian drivers, and 14th overall out of about 35, including one other woman.

Abouyoussef, the race organizer, remembers how Shalaby had to spend the night in the desert after car trouble set her back and left her inching around the dunes in the dark. She and her copilot were back on course at daybreak and, after some quick refueling and repairs, on the starting line in time for the third stage.

“Everybody thought the race was over for her,” Abouyoussef says. “Going through that ordeal is quite hard for any racer, irrespective of gender.”

But that was Shalaby’s favorite and most challenging race. “I love going in the desert for a long distance,” she says. “First, it’s the thrill and adventure of being on a high speed with all the obstacles and troubles that you might face, whether mechanical with the car or with driving in the desert and the navigation. Second is the speed. I like speed.”

After the Pharaons race, Shalaby was selected by the sport’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation, or FIA, with eight other female racers from around the world for a training course in Qatar in 2015. It was aimed at increasing the ranks of women in the sport, which crowned Michèle Mouton and co-driver Fabrizia Pons as the first women to win a world championship rally in Italy in 1981.

When Shalaby first started racing, she would occasionally hear sexist comments from opponents that she’d never be able to survive the course or that she had no business off-roading because women can’t even drive on paved roads. “Once I proved myself, the total opposite started to happen — complete support and cheering from the same exact individuals who used to mock me,” she says.

The FIA course fit right into her plan to form the Middle East’s first all-female rally team. Several women were interested in training to be copilots and mechanics with Shalaby, but they couldn’t dedicate enough time or their enthusiasm died, she says. And learning during races backfired, as two of her copilots got them lost in the desert.

“I failed miserably,” she says. The better approach, she says, would be establishing a school for women rally racers, a dream she has for the future.

Yara Shalaby has always been an adventure junkie. The single mom also loves parachuting, parasailing and mountain climbing.

In the meantime, she is making progress, slowly, toward the Abu Dhabi world cup race. Her first step was getting her Land Cruiser to the U.A.E. in the fall; that was the cheapest way to race in the Gulf, she figured. But the yearlong ordeal included being turned down for permission to drive through Saudi Arabia; shipping her car to a garage in Dubai that had no experience with FIA regulations; and finding a new garage with rally experts, who soon discovered that she would need an entirely new roll cage to comply with new FIA rules. It would be cheaper to buy a used rally car in the U.A.E., she realized, than to rebuild her 1997 Land Cruiser.

The next step was getting a copilot. Ian Greasby, an oil industry worker from England who moved to Egypt two years ago, was impressed with Shalaby’s ambition and wanted to see if it matched her talent. She wanted someone with experience, and Greasby had run the 1,500-mile Abu Dhabi course a dozen times, racing a motorcycle and driving a sweep truck that collects broken-down bikes.

They entered her Land Cruiser in a non-FIA, closed-circuit race in Dubai in early December. He was impressed with her gear selection and strategy around the 12-mile loop and up and over the dunes. She came in second of five cars in her category.

“Yara has done a lot of sand driving — she’s got the skill and the right mentality, there’s no two ways about that,” Greasby says. “Her problem is the budget.”

Even with Greasby paying his own way, Shalaby needs to raise about $55,000 to field an eight-person team for Abu Dhabi. About half would go toward a used four-wheeler and the rest for everything from hiring local mechanics to feeding her crew for the week. In late December, she secured about a quarter of the cost with a sponsorship by an auto paint company. By the end of this month, she was hoping to have another sponsor or two on board and her Land Cruiser sold.

“It’s all about money,” Shalaby says. And every bit of the hassle is worth it.

“That all fades on the start line,” she says. “You do not remember any of this but the joy of driving your race car in the desert.”