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Friday, September 11, 2009


From the timeless tranquillity of the desert to the lively bustle of the souk, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offers a kaleidoscope of attractions for visitors. In recent years, the country has rocketed to the forefront of the international tourism stakes.

has led the way with phenomenal investment in opulent hotels and infrastructure and is now firmly established as one of the world's top short break and holiday destinations. But Abu Dhabi is also developing fast, helped by its new airline, Etihad, and several other emirates are following suit.

The space age image of the UAE's
modern cities is in marked contrast to its comparatively recent past prior to the advent of the oil industry, when these seven sheikdoms were asleepy backwater reliant on fishing and pearls.

Abu Dhabi City is a modern and sleek city, filled with skyscrapers. The UAE's capital, located on an island connected to the mainland by two bridges, is increasingly developing visitor attractions. And dazzling Dubai is a tourism honeypot, with superb shopping and rich cultural life.

The UAE is a federation of seven states (emirates) - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaiwain - formed in 1971 after independence from Britain


Yemen has established itself as a tourist destination, attracting travellers with its strikingscenery and spectacular Islamic and pre-Islamic architecture. Yemen boasts hugely varied landscapes, from magnificentmountains to lush fruit-growing valleys to semi-arid plains and wide sandy beaches. The towns and cities hide souks and spice markets, mosques and ancient city walls.

To the
Romans, Yemen was Arabia Felix, whose mountains and fertile areas distinguished it from the barren desert of the rest of the Arabian peninsula. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Yemen came into the seventh century under the influence of Islam. It remained within the orbit of various regional powers until, in the 15th century, it became a flashpoint in the struggle between the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire. During the early 17th and early 19th centuries, the struggle for control was between the Europeans and the Ottomans. Split in two by political and civil warfare throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Yemen was finally reunited in 1990 under Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The country is home to numerous significant
archaeological sites, whileadventure travellers can enjoy camping and trekking in the unique Socotraarchipelago, which counts over 270 endemic species among its enormous range of wildlife and plant life


The Syrian Arab Republic revels in itsantiquity, having been inhabited for tens of thousands of years - and in the variation andcultural riches that such antiquity has brought it. This is a country that preserves scores ofrelics documenting the rise and fall of different civilisations, and which continues to welcome such diversity.

Syria was once regarded as a frontier region, bordered to the east by the
Arabs andPersians. The Persian invasions were repulsed but Syria eventually fell to the Muslims in the mid-seventh century. From then on, Syria was to be firmly part of the Muslim world, although retaining Christian and Jewish populations. Muslim control of Syria was vital to the defeat of the Christians and their expulsion from Jerusalem. Even when the terrifying force of the 13th century Mongols was unleashed on Syria, their massive Hulagu army was eventually defeated at the Battle of Goliath’s Well – a victory that, in retrospect, must be seen as one of the world’s most decisive military engagements, preventing both the Muslim world – and the Christian one – from certain doom.

Today, Syria's Islamic identity is as central to the country as its Arab roots. Such doctrine over-spilled into Arab nationalism in the 1950s - indeed, Nasser’s revolution in Egypt prompted Syria to join Egypt in the United Arab Republic. However, the alliance was short-lived, Syria seceding in 1961 to form the Syrian Arab Republic. Since then, Syria has been ruled at the head of a tightly controlled dictatorship. Even when General Hafez al-Assad of the Ba’ath Party (or Arab Socialist Renaissance) died in 2000, and his son Bashar assumed headship, Western hopes that the country would pursue a more pro-Western line proved misguided – in the vocabulary of the US Bush administration, the Syrian Arab Republic is a ‘state of concern’ (one level below the ‘axis of evil’).


There is a veil hung over Saudi Arabia that distorts the reality that resides behind it. Lift the veil, however, and you will find that many conceptions of Saudi Arabia are misconceptions. It is a country with many areas of beautiful oases and dramaticmountain-tops, beaches and rivers. Itscities, although having no nightlife, do have plenty of cafes and restaurants. There are alsoshops galore, from the souk to the huge department store. Indeed, Saudi Arabia's major cities are generally very modern, with amenities of a high standard.

In the year AD622, Prophet Muhammad launched a successful campaign to recapture Mecca from the Persians, who had made it a province of their empire. Afterwards, the Muslims would continue their expansion across the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia, and westwards into Egypt and North Africa.

As the
birthplace of Muhammad, Saudi Arabia contains the holiest cities of Islam. The Saudis take the responsibility for protecting the integrity of this holy land with utmost seriousness, and Islamic laws are strictly enforced by the mutawwa (religious police).

To the non-Islamic eye, Saudi Arabia also succeeds in being
beautiful andpraiseworthy. This complex country is likely to remain a significant part of the worldwide map for some time.


Forget the 20th-century stereotype of a richArab Gulf state, of hastily thrown up tower blocks, chaotic streets and bafflingly tacky urban sculpture: Qatar - or at least the capital,Doha - has metamorphosed into a self-confident, elegant entrepĂ´t that gives the UAE a run for its money.

Occupying a flat peninsula jutting into the oil-rich waters of The Gulf, Qatar is one of the
richest per capita countries in the world - a wealth exhibited in high-profile projects, such as the new Museum of Islamic Art, built to house the largest such collection in the world.

With 50% of Qatar's population living in the capital, the country is a
virtual city state. But for those not content with jogging around Doha's fine corniche, a string of beaches beckon for rest and recuperation, and the magnificent dunes of Khor al-Adaid help even up the odds between God and Mammon


With everything from fertile river plains to scrubby desert, from Mediterranean olive groves to liberal sprinklings of historical sites, Palestine seems to have it all. Sadly, war and intifadas mean this contested territory is badly damaged and for now theancient secrets and mysteries of this fascinating place may only be unlocked and enjoyed by its warm inhabitants and a few brave, some might say foolhardy, travellers.

Travel Warning: Travellers should be aware that the political situation in the Palestinian National Authority is extremely volatile. It is a hotly contested area where gun fights and violence between the Israeli Defence Force, Fatah militia and Hamas militia are unpredictable and not infrequent. Some areas, notably beaches in the Gaza Strip, are mined. Law and order are not reliably enforced and kidnappings of foreign nationals are not uncommon. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises caution when travelling in Jerusalem and against all travel to the Gaza Strip where the threat of kidnap is especially high. All but essential travel to the West Bank is advised against


Mountain villages clutched against canyon walls, clusters of dates weighing heavy in the plantation oases, a ribbon of sand blown across the dunes, a lone camel padding across the limitless interior - these are the kinds of images afforded by the beautiful and enigmatic country of Oman.

In years gone by, Oman was rich with copper and
frankincense, and enjoyed an extensive East African empire. Then, in the early 20th century, a deeply conservative ruler, Sultan Said, chose deliberately to isolate the country from the modern world. His son, peace-loving Sultan Qaboos, assumed the throne in 1970 and that date now marks the beginning of the widely celebrated 'Renaissance' in which the country has been returned to an age of prosperity and progression.

What makes Oman's renaissance somewhat unique in the region is that the transformation has been conducted with great sensitivity towards traditional values - there are few high-rise buildings in the capital, Muscat; the country's
heritage of forts (numbering over 2,000) are meticulously restored; ancient crafts like weaving are actively supported. Moreover, traditional Arabian values, such as hospitality and practical piety, are still in evidence making Oman somewhere to experience Islamic culture at its best


Lebanon's diverse patchwork of Mediterranean-lapped coast, rugged alpine peaks and green,fertile valleys is packed into a parcel of land some 225km (140 miles) long and 46km (29 miles) wide.

Once known as the ‘Paris of the East',
Beirutcommands a magnificent position, thrust into the Mediterranean. Behind the city are towering mountains, visible when the traffic haze settles down. The Corniche seafront boasts beaches, restaurants, theatres and a dazzling variety of shops and restaurants.

Beirut suffered greatly from Lebanon's 16-year civil war, but following an impressive and ongoing process of
reconstruction, the city was poised to become one of the most popular tourist and business destinations in the Middle East before the Israeli attacks of 2006.

Outside of the capital, several
UNESCO World Heritage Sites await, many of which reflect the country's various ancient civilizations. Phoenician tombs, Roman temples, Crusader castles and Mamlouk mosques can be found in the cities and ruins of Baalbeck, Byblos and Tyre. The town of Aanjar in the Bekaa Valley contains an Umayyad site from the 8th century - a unique historical example of a commercial centre that was inland. Within themountainous interior of the Kadisha Valley, ancient monasteries and churches can be seen, including a chapel built into the rock face


Kuwait consitutes a puzzling but intriguing mix of Western liberalism and strict Islam. The capital, Kuwait City, is a bustling metropolisfull of the high-rise buildings and luxury hotels. Yet the country is also host to elaborate and opulent mosques and palaces, and its religion is an integral part of its affairs.

This juxtaposition perhaps stems from Kuwait's marrying of Islamism with
oil-wealth, mostly traded with Western superpowers. Upon independence from Britain in 1961, Sheikh Abdullah assumed head of state, adopting the title of Emir. The large revenues from oil production allowed independent Kuwait to build up its economic infrastructure and institute educational and social welfare programmes.

In the early 1990s, the emir established a National Assembly (
Majlis), which placed limits on the power of the ruling family. Since then, the national assembly has clashed several times with the emir and the cabinet (which is still dominated by the al-Sabah family) over misuse of state funds and poor management of the all-important oil industry. Underlying these disputes is the growing impression that the ageing and increasingly infirm al-Sabah clan is no longer capable of running the country. However, they continue to dominate Kuwaiti policies.


Petra, the jewel in the crown of Jordan's antiquities, has been declared by popular ballot one of the 'new' Seven Wonders of the World. The magnificent rock-hewn city of the Nabateans hardly needed further billing (since Jean Louis Burckhardt discovered it in the 19th century, it has been a favourite destination for Europeans) but at sunset on a winter's day, when the rose-pink city catches alight, it's easy to see why it has charmed a new generation of visitors.

Not to be outdone by Petra's success,
Wadi Rum, that epic landscape of Lawrence and Lean - 'Arabs' man' and moviemaker - is a contender as one of the Seven NaturalWonders of the World. Two such weighty accolades would be entirely disproportionate to the minimal size of Jordan.

But Jordan, once an important trading centre of the
Roman Empire and straddling the ancient Holy Land of the world's three great monotheistic religions, is no stranger to punching above its weight. Stand on Mt Nebo, newly consecrated by Pope John II, and survey the land promised to Moses; unwrap a scarf or two at Mukawir, where Salome cast a spell over men in perpetuity; float in the Dead Sea, beside a pillar of salt, reputed to be Lot's disobedient wife - go just about anywhere in Jordan and you'll find every stone bares a tale, and those of Madaba's legendary mosaics tell more tales than most.


Israel means many things to many people. For millions of travellers around the world, this is the ‘Holy Land', spiritually sacrosanct for the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Archaeology buffs, eco-tourists and beach bums all find their own reasons to visit. For others, Israel evokes images of war, suicide bombings and broken peace treaties. However you view the country; Israel is an undeniably beautiful slice of the world, with alternating scenes of sea, desert, ancient towns and verdant nature reserves .Weeding through Israel's convoluted history is both exhilarating and exhausting. There are crumbling temples, ruined cities, abandoned forts and hundreds of places associated with the Bible. One minute you're snooping around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the next you're amid dancing rabbis at the Western Wall. A short itinerary will leave you breathless. And while a sense of adventure is required, most sites are safe and easily accessible.Israel's three big cities each have a distinct character and atmosphere. Jerusalem is forever holy and the domain of the ultra-religious. In Tel Aviv you're more likely to spot latte-sipping liberals, internet entrepreneurs and late-night ravers. Haifa has a gritty industrial feel but, as the world centre for the Baha'i faith, it has an added complexity making it all the more intriguing. From the Dead Sea to the sea grottoes at Rosh HaNikra, there is plenty to see in between.


The media depiction of Iraq is of a place where humanity is found at its most ugly; a land of violent insurgency, kidnappings and religious intolerance and extremism. Yet this is also where humanity at its most tremendous once lived.

The core of modern Iraq was
Mesopotamia, at the heart of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires between the seventh century BC and AD100. Many great civilisations were cradled in often verdant arms here - amidst huge and unforgiving desert terrain snakes stupendous rivers such as the Euphrates andTigris. This country supposedly contained the glorious Garden of Eden and Babylon's bountiful Hanging Gardens.

Ancient Baghdad was a focal point of learning, a major stop along the Silk Road. The museums of Iraq were once testament to these cultural learnings, crammed with astonishing artefacts and relics, but sadly many of these were damaged or looted following the conflict.

However, Iraq has been blighted by
resurgent conflict: from the Arab Caliphate to Mongols, and from the Timur Empire to the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the Hashemite Amir Faisal ibn Hussain was proclaimed king; independence came in 1932. In 1958, the Hashemite Dynasty disintegrated via murder and coup. Iraq’s final coup in recent history came in 1968, bringing the Ba’ath Party to power.


Iran is located in the Middle East, bounded by Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, Iraq and Turkey. The centre and east of the country is largely barren desert withmountainous regions in the west. Tehran, the capital, is essentially a busy and modern city, but the best of the old has been preserved.

As one of the first countries to be occupied by the early Islamic armies which came out of Arabia in the seventh century, Iran has a rich and detailed history. The
antique sights of Persia, one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, can be witnessed alongsidebustling metropolises and vast mountain ranges. Several bazaars are just as old and Iran is the destination for those in search of the most expensive rugs and carpets in the world.

Iran has maintained a distinct
cultural identitywithin the Islamic world by retaining its own language and adhering to the Shi'a interpretation of Islam. As a unique Islamic Republic, Iran is ruled by both supreme leaders and elected presidents


With a name meaning ‘Two Seas' it is little wonder that Bahrain, an archipelago of 33 islands in the Gulf, defines itself in relation to the water that surrounds its shallow shores Those shallows once harboured a precious trade in pearls; now the same shallows are being reclaimed for ambitious, high profile developments, such as the twin 50-storey towers of Bahrain's World Trade Centre and the 2,787,000 sq m (30,000,000 sq ft) horseshoe of man-made islands at the southern tip of the country.In the middle of Bahrain, not far from where the Formula 1 racetrack now draws the crowds, is the point where in 1932 the Arab world first struck gold - black gold, that is - and oil has been the mainstay of the country ever since. As visitors travel the modest length of Bahrain, visiting the ancient burial mounds, forts, craft markets and potteries, they will run into many reminders of this momentous discovery, not least in the relaxed affluence of Bahrain's multicultural residents.


A teardrop-shaped island cast adrift in the Indian Ocean, Sri lanka is filled with cultural and natural treasures. Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British have all left their marks here, making for a delightful mix of ancient cities, monuments and atmospheric colonial architecture.

At the same time,
palm-fringed beaches are never far away and lush mountainous greenery beckons inland. It's clear to see why Marco Polo proclaimed Sri Lanka to be one of the best islands in the world.

However, its teardrop shape is not inappropriate and Sri Lanka has known its fair share of
political turmoil and natural disasters in recent decades. Once the country became a Republic in 1972, serious conflict arose from the Tamil minority (occupying the north and east), who demanded a separate state. Terrorist activity by the Tamil Tigers has been prevalent ever since - apart from a shaky ceasefire in 2002, which sadly did not last much more than two years.

The country was also devastated by the 2004
tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans and wiped out many coastal communities. While many tourists have been discouraged by the troubles, tourism is a healing force in this hard-hit country, and visitors will be guaranteed a warm welcome.


Pakistan encapsulates great variety, fromhidden bazaars in the narrow streets of Rawalpindi to architecture that rivals the Taj Mahal in Lahore. It is a land enriched byfriendly people and magnificent landscapes. Opportunity for adventure is as high as its mighty mountain ranges, withwatersports, mountaineering and trekking all popular and rewarding activities. Coupled with this is a profound sense of cultural concoction, Pakistan once being home to several ancient civilisations, and witness to the rise and fall of dynasties.

In ancient times, the area that now comprises Pakistan marked the farthest reaches of the conquests of
Alexander the Great. It was also the home of Buddhist Ghandaran culture. It was the independence of India in 1947 that catalysed Pakistan's nationhood. Under pressure from Indian Muslims, the British created a separate Muslim state. Originally, it consisted of two parts, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now a single unitary state).

Following military rule and civil war, Bangladesh became independent, truncating Pakistan. Today, the long-running Indo-Pakistan conflict continues, with the status of Kashmir at its heart. Although it has a majority Muslim population, Kashmir became part of India in 1947.


It's not just mountaineers with their hearts set on conquering Everest who fall in love with the Himalayan country of Nepal. With stunning scenery, fringed by the highest peaks on the planet, leading down to steamy jungle packed with wildlife, there's something for everyone.

In addition to a distinctive
ancient Hindu and Buddhist culture, Nepal has jaw-dropping mountains with spectacular scenery for walkers and trekkers. If there is a hikers' paradise, this is it, with picturesque mountain villages linked by hundreds of trails that have been used for centuries, with little change noticeable even today. Trails are dotted with intriguing temples to discover on the way.

Nepal was created from an amalgam of principalities in 1768 under King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Under the control of a hereditary king, it became a ‘buffer state' between the
British Empire and territories to the north. The country became independent in 1923, but it was not until 1947 (the year of Indian independence) and total withdrawal of the British before Nepal achieved complete autonomy. In May 2008, the monarchy was abolished making Nepal the world's newest republic.


The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted a cautious approach to tourism to avoid any negative impact on the country's culture and environment. All tourists, group or individual, must travel on a pre-planned all inclusive guided tour through a registered tour operator in Bhutan or their counterparts abroad. The basic rate is fixed by the government.

There are still plenty of takers wanting to explore the
breathtaking mountains and valleys of this astonishing country. The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle ofsustainability, meaning it must be environmentally friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. The number of tourists is also kept to a manageable level by the limited infrastructure.

The Bhutanese name for Bhutan,
Druk Yul, means 'Land of the Thunder Dragon'. Much of Bhutanese history is lost in legends but the first major event was the arrival of Guru Rinpoche, believed to have brought Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet in the eighth century. Bhutan, the world's last Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, became a coherent political entity around the 17th century and has never been conquered or ruled by another foreign power.

Bhutan is a peaceful country with strong traditional values based on religion, respect for the royal family and care for the environment.Yet even in paradise trouble can bubble beneath the surface. It is precisely because the Maldives is so low-lying (80% of the territory is less than 1m/3.3ft above sea level), so transparent and perfect for snorkelling, that their very existence is threatened by global warming. They are also particularly vulnerable to natural catastrophes, as shown in the devastating tsunami on 26 December 2004: of the Maldives' 199 inhabited islands, 20 were completely destroyed


The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted a cautious approach to tourism to avoid any negative impact on the country's culture and environment. All tourists, group or individual, must travel on a pre-planned all inclusive guided tour through a registered tour operator in Bhutan or their counterparts abroad. The basic rate is fixed by the government.

There are still plenty of takers wanting to explore the
breathtaking mountains and valleys of this astonishing country. The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle ofsustainability, meaning it must be environmentally friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. The number of tourists is also kept to a manageable level by the limited infrastructure.

The Bhutanese name for Bhutan,
Druk Yul, means 'Land of the Thunder Dragon'. Much of Bhutanese history is lost in legends but the first major event was the arrival of Guru Rinpoche, believed to have brought Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet in the eighth century. Bhutan, the world's last Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, became a coherent political entity around the 17th century and has never been conquered or ruled by another foreign power.

Bhutan is a peaceful country with strong traditional values based on religion, respect for the royal family and care for the environment.


india is a mystical land that presents the traveller with a bamboozling array of unforgettable experiences. Hinduism, the prominent religion, is intimately woven into the fabric of everyday life, reflected in an extraordinary range of time-honoured traditions. Apart from its ancient spiritual framework, India's vastness also challenges the imagination, being home to one sixth of the world's population.The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885, but made little progress on independence until Mahatma Gandhi began the policy of non-violent non-cooperation with the British. But the Congress itself was later split on the issue of Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims, under Mohammad Ali Jinnah, claimed a separate homeland and in August 1947 the independent states of India and Pakistan came into being. Since this time, India has been a democratic republic.Such a rich history has spawned an incredible number of exquisite palaces,temples and monuments. The most frequently visited part of India is theGolden Triangle, comprised of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Meanwhile, the people-packed cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) have a bustling, colourful charm, while the holy city of Varanasi and the awe-inspiring temples of Tamil Nadu are rewarding places of pilgrimage. For those in search of tropical bliss, there are the palm-fringed beaches of Goa and Kerala. And for fresh air and serenity, India ripples with pristine mountains and hills, from the towering beauty of the mighty Himalayas to a bevy of beautiful pine forests, orchards and babbling streams.

One of the greatest fascinations of India is the startling
juxtaposition of old and new; centuries of history rubbing shoulders with the trappings of modern-day living, from slick Internet cafes and fancy fast-food eateries, to swanky bars and chichi boutiques


Bangladesh tends to be thought of as poverty-stricken and disaster-prone - a pity for a fascinating and beautiful country with a friendly, welcoming population. Most of the country consists of the alluvial plain of the huge Ganges-Brahmaputra river system, the largest delta in the world. To the east of this lie thBangladesh first came into being as an independent nation in 1971, when the east and west parts of Pakistan split after a bitter civil war. Despite democracy being restored in 1990 after 15 years of military rule, the political scene remains fairly volatile.
e modest peaks of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.With a mostly pancake-flat landscape dissected by wide rivers, annual flooding is a fact of life that frequently causes widespread destruction. Such flooding also brings fertility and as a result Bangladesh is one of the world's most densely populated countries. Poverty is widespread but health and education standards are slowly improving

Monday, September 7, 2009


Taiwan is one of the most unsung tourist destinations in all of Asia, its modern emergence as an economic and industrial powerhouse still overshadowing the staggering breadth of natural, historic and culinary attractions this captivating island has to offer.

A fascinating mix of technological innovationand traditional Chinese and aboriginal cultures and cuisines, Taiwan is one of the only places on earth where ancient religious and cultural practices still thrive in an overwhelmingly modernist landscape.

On any given day, the casual visitor can experience this unique juxtaposition of old and new, witnessing time-honoured cultural practices while still taking in technological milestones such as the world's tallest building, Taipei 101, and the new High Speed Rail that links the island's two largest cities.

Beyond the narrow corridor of factories and crowded cities along Taiwan's west coast is a tropical island of astounding beauty, with by far the tallest mountains in northeast Asia and some of the region's most pristine andsecluded coastline. Add to this the impressive array of cuisines - with specialities from all corners of China as well as authentic aboriginal and Japanese fare - and you've got one of the world's most well-rounded and hospitable holiday destinations


TV scenes of thousands of red-wearing fans going crazy over their national team during the 2002 FIFA World Cup is an image which has helped convince a global audience that South Korea is in fact, a fun place to go, a place with dazzling cities, friendly peopleand beautiful, mystical countryside.

Until relatively recently, Korea was an insular place, existing under dynastic rulefor centuries. However, the 35-year Japanese occupation from 1910, the split of the peninsula after WWII and the subsequent Korean War shattered all that. Difficult times have however made the Koreans a resilient lot, succeeding economically whilst still holding onto their unique traditions and fascinating culture.

Korea is littered with fortresses, temples and palaces, many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition, the peninsula it shares with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea's official name) is one of the mostmountainous regions in the world, and Korea also has a significant beach-dotted coastline.

The capital Seoul winds around the Han River, punctuated by futuristic skyscrapers in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The city is an increasingly useful Asia-Pacific stopover point, or a hub for a three-centre Korea-China-Japan cultural trip.


The contrasts of Japan are startling. Big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo dazzle with bright lights and high-tech gadgetry, while in countryside villages and enclaves of historic cities such as Kyoto and Nara, centuries-old Japanese culture is alive and well: the geisha, the neighbourhood temple or shrine, community festivals and traditional food.
Since 1950, Japan has seen exceptional economic growth, becoming one of the world's most powerful economies; bustling cities burst with skyscrapers, bullet trains, trendy nightlife and endless shopping opportunities. Despite being afflicted by the familiar economic woes of recent years, to most visitors, it will appear as if the country's rampant consumerism and ceaseless pursuit of the new has hardly been dented.
A vibrant pop culture is a massive draw for wide-eyed tourists. Ground-breaking electronics and leading fashion and design items are available here long before the rest of the world, giving visitors to Japan's cities a sense that they're having a sneaky glimpse into the future. Electronic giants such as Nintendo and Sony thrive here - both have their head quarters in Japan - and manga (still cartoons) and anime (Japanese animation) are experiencing growing global popularity


Macau's historic centre was added to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site list in 2005, underlining its strategic and cultural importance over centuries. The mixture of colonial Portuguese architecture sits beautifully alongside its East-Asian flair.
Parts of Macau offer serenely traditional countryside, ancestral Chinese villages and pine-forested hills. Much of 'old' Macau is preserved on its islands, Taipa and Coloane, including fishing boat building yards, colonial mansions, Chinese temples and floating fisherfolk communities. Yet Macau is now famed for enticing visitors with its glitzy new Vegas-style casino resorts, both on the Macau peninsula and on the still under-construction Cotai Strip, a sliver of reclaimed land joining the islands of Taipa and Coloane.
Macau was founded in 1557 during the great era of Portuguese overseas exploration. It became the major port between the Far East and Europe and, in 1670, was confirmed as a Portuguese possession by the Chinese. Macau went into decline as a regional trading centre from the early 19th century, when the British occupied Hong Kong.


Visually stunning Hong Kong offers a warp-speed ‘shop till you drop' lifestyle combined with enclaves of Chinese tradition. It is a popular destination for Asian and Chinese tourists, as well as a major stopover destination for continental travellers. Self-branded as ‘Asia's World City', it is also one of the world's major financial and trading centres. Hong Kong's 260 outlying islands, few of which are inhabited, provide a tranquil alternative to its frenetic energy elsewhere. The two main parts, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, are an eclectic mix of modern skyscrapers, colonial buildings and traditional temples.
On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China in an arrangement lasting 50 years. Under the ‘one country, two systems' policy, Hong Kong maintains its own political, social and economic systems. English remains an official language and Hong Kong's border with China still exists.


China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics showed off to the world a nation on the rise, where ancient riches are complemented by modern marvels of architecture and engineering. The energy of the place is palpable as the world's largest population emerges from the shadows of recent history and rushes headlong into a future as a (perhaps the) major global player - and a must-see travel destination.
China's multi-millennial history has been a tumultuous one. One of the world's earliest civilisations, it was ruled for thousands of years by imperial dynasties until the overthrowing of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The civil war in 1945 defined the China of today, ending with the defeated Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan, while Mao's victorious Communists founded the People's Republic of China. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s effectively closed the country. However, China has made up for lost time since the 1990s: it now boasts the world's fastest growing major economy and its main cities are emerging as cosmopolitan global centres