Images of Al Qasr

Some places in the world are so imbued with a sense of history that you seem to have walked backwards to have arrived there. The old caravan town of Al Qasr in Egypt’s Western Desert is one of them. Just a short journey from the fly-blown town of Mut (which lives up to its uninspiring name) in Dakhla Oasis, is this creaky time warp of mud-brick bordered by immense sand dunes. Thought to be the oldest town in the oasis, Al Qasr first rose to prominence in the 12th Century and became one of the most important centres of the Western Desert under Ottoman rule. Most of its remaining, though crumbling, architecture of covered alleyways, decorated brickwork and intricately inscribed acacia beam lintels dates from this period.

Visit during the early afternoon when the narrow high-walled lanes here provide some relief from the scorching desert heat.

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North Cyprus, away from the beach

It may have a reputation as a cheap, package-tourism destination but there’s more to North Cyprus than first meets the eye.

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Life on Mars, in Egypt

I have just come back from Mars. Or, at least, a place so unearthly that it is what I imagine snapshots from a holiday jaunt to Mars – or Uranus, or Jupiter – would look like. Black pitted landscapes of rippling rock. Mineral-rich conical mountains in shimmering oranges and emerald greens. Chalk pinnacles that rise out of the sand in shapes that seem to have fallen straight out of a surrealist painting. It’s a thoroughly alien environment supplanted firmly on earth. This is Egypt’s Western Desert.

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Cappadocia in winter

Cappadocia is beautiful at any time of the year but in winter its show-stopping landscapes take on an ethereal quality. In the valleys the rock cones are dusted with an icing sugar coating of snow while honey-stone villages are sandwiched between the rippling white sheets of the mountains. It’s Narnia for grown ups; sans the witch but definitely still with the Turkish delight.

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Inside the camel market

It ain’t for the squeamish. Birqash camel market, just outside of Cairo, stinks. The stench of animals swelters stagnantly in the heat until it rubs off on you. This isn’t a tourist attraction although a few intrepid travellers always make it out here – and the market organisers enterprisingly make foreigners buy a ticket to enter. But it is a side of Cairo far removed from pyramids and King Tut’s treasure.

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Images of northwest Kenya

The landscapes are big-sky country at their most brutally raw. Moonscape plains of rock. Scraggly bare-branched trees. Hills that twinkle in mineral-rich hues of muddy green and red.  And just when you think the parched land will roll on forever there is the emerald green ribbon of Lake Turkana slashing through the barren wilderness. It’s a harsh land. A bleak land. A place of hand-to-mouth existence eked out in scraps of villages held together by sticks and string. It’s not a place you forget in a hurry.

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Images of Algiers

The Algiers kasbah is all white-and-blue loveliness that tumbles down the hill towards the shore. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleyways, rimmed by tall, narrow buildings, that lead you on a merry maze of a stroll. Don’t bother with a map, they said. And they were right. Just head down. You’ll get out eventually.

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Beautiful Beiteddine

Abu Nasser pulled the taxi into the empty car park and made a theatrical swerve across the concrete. “Busy, isn’t it.” He joked. There were only two other tourists strolling around Beiteddine Palace when I visited. In any other country a tourist site like this would be swarming with camera-clickers. But Beiteddine is in Lebanon. And with no end in sight to the conflict across the border in Syria,  the glorious caramel and honey tinged stone and marble architecture of this peacock pile in the Chouf Mountains sits empty of admirers.

Beiteddine was built by the Ottoman governor Emir Bashir Shihab II in the 19th century. Today it positively drips with the memory of opulence that defined the interiors and architecture of that era. Walking around pompous rooms of grand mansions and palaces always make me feel uneasy. With the building devoid of tour groups this feeling was magnified. My shoes squeaked on the polished floors. A guard lounged in a doorway frame watching me set up a photo. My shoes scuffed again with a loud nails-on-chalkboard trill. I frowned in embarrassment and silently apologised to the house. The guard walked towards me and I wondered if I was about to be told off for having squeaky sneakers. But no. He just wanted to make me climb over the ropes into the ‘do-not-access’ side of the room so he could take a photo of me reclining on the sofa.

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Images of another side of Cappadocia

Proving that even in a major tourist destination there is still ample opportunity to get away from the tour bus crowds, Mt Hasan stands regally in Turkey’s southern Cappadocia region, untouched by the flocks of visitors who descend across the lunarscape of valleys just to the north. Practically nobody bothers climbing Mt Hasan. That’s a shame because this old volcano has a beguilingly stark beauty which will cast its magic over all who do journey to its summit.

And no, we don’t know why there’s a metal cow on the summit either.

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Images of Petra

Who were the Nabataeans?

Imagine what would happen if a bunch of wheeler-dealer nomads, with some seriously incredible ideas about hydraulics, decided to create a capital city amid a hidden canyon to protect and run their spice trading empire from.

Think about the work it must have taken to chisel 40m-high facades into sheer stone and the engineering wizardry of the channel system of terracotta pipes that brought water into the city.

Remember that what you see today is just the monuments, temples and tombs that have withstood 2000 years. This was once a living, breathing empire’s capital that managed to maintain its independence even as the might of the Roman Empire gobbled up the Middle East.

That was who the Nabataeans were.

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For more information on visiting Petra you can read my recent story on hiking Petra’s Bedouin back trails for BBC Travel.

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