Pyramids of Meroe vs Pyramids of Giza
When Egypt’s pyramid boom burned out in 2500 BC, the country’s signature tomb design found its way up the Nile to northern Sudan, where it was embraced more than 2,000 years later by the Kushite Kingdom. Evidence of this architectural revival can be found at the great royal cemeteries of Bagrawiya, better known as the pyramids of Meroe, where dozens of steep-sided, chocolate-coloured pyramids litter the desert. This may be Sudan’s most iconic sight, but visitors are likely to have the tombs all to themselves. The pyramids are all that remain of a once-magnificent Kushite city, and bear witness to an empire once powerful enough to hold its own against Rome.
Why not Giza: Cairo’s urban sprawl has seen houses and fast-food chains expand to the very edge of the ancient site.
Been there: (clockwise from left) The Arc de Triomphe, Paris; The Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt; Thailand’s Ko Phi Phi where the movie The Beach was filmed.
Getting to Meroe: Khartoum International Airport is the main point of entry into Sudan. The pyramids are easily accessible from Khartoum. Website: www.sudan-tourism.gov.sd/english
A pyramid closer home: Brihadishwara Temple, in Thanjavur. The architectural pinnacle of the Tamil Chola Empire, the pyramidal temple at the building’s heart stands 13 storeys high and is gloriously decorated with carvings of the gods.
Imam Mosque vs St Peter’s Basilica
Few buildings can match the refined proportions and exquisite decoration of Isfahan’s Imam Mosque. In contrast to the vast, marble-clad interior of St Peter’s Basilica, the entrance of the Imam Mosque leads the visitor to a sun-filled open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by vaulted chambers, the largest of these framed by slender minarets and backed by a monumental dome. Almost every visible surface is covered with dazzling blue tiles. The Imam Mosque is the crown jewel of the Meydan-e-Imam, commissioned by Shah Abbas I to transform his capital into one of the most splendid cities in the world.
Why not St Peter’s Basilica: St Peter’s, like Rome, attracts an enormous number of visitors, tourists and pilgrims. The grand architectural design cannot help but lose something of its impact when seen amid a sea of bodies and voices.
Getting to Imam Mosque: Isfahan’s airport is 25km from the city. There are regular flights to Isfahan from Tehran. Website: www.isfahan.ir
A dome closer home: Great Stupa of Sanchi. A huge hemisphere crowned with a stone umbrella, it encases a smaller stupa built by Emperor Ashoka to shelter the relics of Buddha. Website: www.cultural-heritage-india.com
Ihuru vs Ko Phi Phi
When you close your eyes and picture the perfect island paradise, do you imagine an ocean of beach towels and the thumpety-thump of outboard motors? Almost certainly not. There are four essential ingredients for an island retreat—sand, sea, peace and seclusion—and Ihuru (northern Maldives) has them all. This is a proper desert island: the only noise comes from surf breaking over the distant reefs and the rustle of palm fronds, and the only reason to stir is the incoming tide. Thailand’s Ko Phi Phi has the surf and the palm fronds, of course, but the constant flow of tour boats is the nautical equivalent of rush hour in downtown Bangkok.
Why not Ko Phi Phi: The Beach (shot on Ko Phi Phi) was the fantasy. These days, the enclosed lagoon is a magnet for sea-borne litter and tour boats.
Getting to Ihuru: Fly to Malé International Airport. From here, it’s a 20-minute speedboat ride to Ihuru. Website: www.visitmaldives.com
An island getaway closer home: Radhanagar Beach, Havelock Island. You just might encounter a swimming elephant as you snorkel around the reefs of this tiny dot in the Bay of Bengal.
The Paris Marathon vs the London Marathon
London may be host to one of the most famous marathons in the world, but Paris can offer runners the same big-city buzz without the uncertainty of getting a place. Blessed with a beautiful setting, with its broad avenues ideal for mass runners, Paris is certainly no second-best alternative to London. Unlike London, which starts on the eastern outskirts, the Paris marathon begins and ends in the city centre, so you’ll be running along wide boulevards and passing famous Parisian landmarks. What could match the excitement of beginning a marathon at the top of the Champs-Elysées, with the Arc de Triomphe behind you and some 35,000 runners before you? Website: www.parismarathon.com
Why not London: London has become a victim of its own success. Competition for getting in is high—almost 100,000 applicants for 50,000 accepted places. Moreover, as most of the course is on relatively narrow roads, you become hemmed in, which can be frustrating and energy-sapping.
A marathon closer home: Everest Marathon, Nepal, is the highest marathon in the world at 5,180m. Runners even have to walk up to the start at Gorak Shep. Held in November. Website: www.everestmarathon.org.uk
Trekking in Bhutan vs Trekking in Chiang Mai
Considered to be a modern-day Shangri-La, Bhutan is one of the most remote and protected lands on the planet. From the tops of the 7,000-m Himalayan peaks, the land descends into high alpine slopes grazed by yaks and goats, into forests of spruce and oak which cover about 70 per cent of the country, and further down into fertile valleys and a low, subtropical southern strip.
Trekking in Bhutan is decidedly not adventure on a shoestring, but it is an exquisite journey into a diverse natural environment and a captivating culture. Bhutan can cater to a wide range of interests, including mountain scenery, birding, agriculture and architecture.
Why not Chiang Mai: Over the past 30 years, Chiang Mai in Thailand has become increasingly modern and more congested, with a crowded city centre. It hosts about 2 million tourists annually.
Getting to Bhutan: From India, along a single road that crosses the border. Or fly into Paro. Independent travel is not permitted. Website: www.bhutan.gov.bt
A trek even closer home: Coorg, Karnataka. The Western Ghat mountains combine jungle flora and cascading waterfalls with coffee and tobacco plantations.
Extracted from The Road Less Travelled: 1,000 Amazing Places Off the Tourist Trail with a foreword by Bill Bryson. Published in the UK in September 2009 and now available in bookstores across India. Price: Rs899. See www.dk.com/roadlesstravelled for more details.