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For the author of Around the World in 80 Trains this was a standout journey, full of captivating encounters that could only happen on a train

With the air of melodrama unique to chic French women, the lady opposite me yanked open the overhead window then sat back down, grumbling to no one in particular and fanning herself with a copy of Paris Match. An aroma of pine filtered into the carriage and a breeze cooled my brow as the train clattered south to Bziers. Edging up to the window, I looked down to where a curl of sand and green water had appeared, an oasis where children bobbed about in dinghies and leapt off limestone rocks. This was the essence of why I love train travel: it allows me to see whats behind the trees in the Massif Central; to smell the coconut being fried in huts in Kerala; and to spot rainbows hovering in the spray of Niagara Falls.

Only on a train the writer chats to a Tibetan nun in China

A week earlier I had set off from London St Pancras to Paris with the aim of travelling around the world in 80 trains. In 2010, I had travelled around India in 80 trains and come away in thrall to the railways so much so that I decided to embark on a global railway adventure. For a long time, the rise of high-speed trains and budget airlines appeared to threaten the notion of romantic rail travel. But I wanted to see what slow travel means to people all over the world and what long-distance trains still have to offer the modern-day traveller. Hanging a map on my wall, I pinned cities of interest and tied coloured string from one to the next, watching the next seven months of my life wind around the world with surprising simplicity. With the exception of visas for Russia, China and Vietnam, few logistical issues arose. I bought rail passes for Europe, Japan and America, and booked long-distance journeys such as the Trans-Mongolian and The Canadian, before setting off, sewing in the other trains with ease.

Over the first four weeks, Europes TGVs, AVEs and Freccia Rossas swept me from city to city, allowing me to lunch on cassoulet in Toulouse and be in Barcelona in time for a dinner of gambas al ajillo. Punctual, quiet and efficient, the air-conditioned trains fulfilled their primary purpose taking me from one destination to the next but they were devoid of soul. Passengers boarded, stashed their bags and sat in silence, staring at phones and munching paper-wrapped panini. I threaded through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia before arriving in Moscow to board the Godfather of trains the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing. It was here that the journey truly began

A Russian locomotive

On the morning of departure, sirens wailed and police cordons appeared around Moscow, closing metro stations and blocking access to supermarkets owing to the arrival of Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. This meant I was unable to stockpile anything other than a four-pack of instant noodles, a couple of Kinder Bueno bars and all the biscuits and herbal teabags from my hotel room before embarking on the four-night leg to Irkutsk in Siberia.

Once on board, I surveyed my compartment complete with cracked window and condom wrapper under the berth before wandering up the corridor, glancing into my neighbours digs and wincing at the smell of dried omul (a fish found only in Lake Baikal) drifting in a warm fug. Long and thin as though ironed into strips, the yellowing fish was a staple in the makeshift pantries set up by my companions, along with loaves of bread and rounds of cheese wrapped in wet cloth. Breaking into a panic, I followed the tiring sound of Euro-trance and found the disco-dining car, relieved to see a kitchen, even though the chef was lighting a cigarette off the hob while smiling at me.

Trans-Siberian train window

Once the train had jolted out of Moscow, I slid into a red booth and tucked into a slightly faggy-tasting pork escalope draped in dill. As we sped through the bleakness of the suburbs, I was joined by Aleksandr and Aleksandr, both in Adidas vests and sliders, and wondering what on earth I was doing on board.

This train is trash, I hate it! declared Aleksandr I, a young lawyer. A lack of roads meant that he was condemned to using the Trans-Mongolian twice a month to attend court hearings 13 hours away in Kirov: one persons bucket-list adventure is anothers nightmare commute. He said he had never seen an English person on board the train which, it transpired, was a domestic service used by Russians only rather than the fancy Rossiya service preferred by tourists. Aleksandr II was visiting his parents, a five-day journey away, and was convinced I was a spy, photographing every page of my diary under the guise of liking my handwriting.

In between attempts to read War and Peace, I spent the next four days lying in damp, tangled sheets watching leafless trees flit by the window. Most afternoons Id play cards with kids or swap tat with soldiers, offering second-class stamps in exchange for a tube of Pringles or a smoke grenade, enjoying the clamour and constant companionship. But at dusk Id stand alone in the corridor meditating on the mists as they swirled in great halos. Charged by the sight of the world moving at pace before my eyes, Id still myself, knowing I was privileged to witness how deeply this train carved through the Earth, shining a light into its darkest corners.

Restaurant owners grilling fresh mutton kebabs in China

Like most travellers, I broke up the journey in Irkutsk and spent a day chugging around Lake Baikal on the old Circum-Baikal steam railway before boarding the overnight Rossiya service to Ulaanbaatar. Fitted with soft-cushioned berths, automatic doors and heated toilets, the train rocked me into gentle slumber until I was screamed awake in the pre-dawn darkness by a sadistic provodnitsa (carriage attendant).

Often, an unavoidable side effect of long-distance train travel is finding yourself at the mercy of awkward timetables. Faced with the dilemma of spending five days in Mongolia which wasnt enough time to trek across the countryside or a measly two nights in the capital Ulaanbaatar before the final leg to Beijing, I opted for the latter, spooning up mutton broth with students at a popular restaurant called Modern Nomads, where the staff wore Genghis Khan outfits and white-collar workers sat around drinking Johnnie Walker and watching bad music videos. The following morning the final train thundered towards China across the Gobi desert, a thirsty, rust-red terrain mottled with tufts of yellowing grass. In the distance sat round nomads gers, their funnels piping smoke into the sky, double-humped camels tethered to the ground.

End of the line Beijing

It had been almost six weeks since Id glided out of St Pancras, and I was 6,000 miles away, all of which Id covered by rail. Inching through forests, curving around coasts and burrowing deep into the guts of towns and cities, these slow trains had destroyed my concepts of distance and space, and replaced them with a new truth: that we couldnt be more close or connected. From one country to the next, Id sat at the foot of my berth, my view universal: hawkers sold their wares, lovers held hands, and children played football. Id watched the skies close in, the ground level out, the seas pull apart and the land unlock. And now, as we sped towards the Chinese capital, billboards closing in, wires swinging low and buildings edging towards the tracks, I felt an undeniable sense of place. Slowing into the station, the train creaked and came to a halt. Through the roar of the crowd, rumbling of cases and muffled announcements, I stepped on to the platform and allowed Beijing to sweep me into its embrace.

How to do it

The Eurostar from London to Paris starts at 44 one-way. Consider an Interrail pass for travelling across Europe: a seven-days in one month option covering 31 countries costs 260 adult or 216 youth. There is also a weekly train direct from Paris Gare de lEst to Moscow from 267 one-way (see for details).Booking from Moscow to Beijing takes a bit of planning as each segment needs to be reserved separately; Real Russias advisers can help with what can be a daunting exercise, booking each segment, making hotel reservations and organising Russian and Chinese visas.

The paperback edition of Monisha Rajeshs Around the World in 80 Trains is out on 23 January (Bloomsbury, 9.99)

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The adventurer and explorer has been to the Amazon and the Arctic. Now hes setting up a project in Wales as a personal response to the climate crisis

Eventually, even the most intrepid adventurer has to come home. In the past 20 years Bruce Parry has been initiated, for our viewing pleasure, into indigenous tribes in Congo, Venezuela and Mongolia. He has had thorns forced through his nose in Papua New Guinea and has hunted crocodiles in Ethiopia. He has navigated the Amazon and sledged across the Arctic. His latest adventure in assimilation, however, is perhaps his most formidable challenge yet. In October last year the BBC ethnographer, former Royal Marines fitness instructor and determined hedonist moved from his long-time base in Ibiza to an isolated hamlet in mid-Wales. He plans to be here for many years to come.

I met him for lunch in the only cafe for 10 miles around, Cwtch in Pont rhyd-y groes, which is built above a gorge of the Ystwyth river beside the old workings of a lead mine. Parry has cycled from his cottage beside a waterfall on the neighbouring Hafod estate. Its a significant lunch for Parry in that the salad leaves seven varieties at the cafe are the first crop from a community garden project that he has helped to establish in the walled garden of the demolished estate manor house.

Food was one of the reasons that he ended up here. Having spent 30 years as a professional nomad, he not only wanted to put down roots, he also wanted to pull some up. He grew up in Devon, has family in Scotland and a Welsh surname, but he wasnt sure where to settle. I wanted somewhere wild, he says, and I wanted to get into wild food as a way of reconnecting with the landscape. His first foraging outing brought him to Hafod: it felt so right that he ended up buying the old stone cottage that he stayed in.

Parry has an instantly likable and high-energy presence. He has made no secret of indulging in all the delights that Ibiza can offer as well as taking just about every hallucinogen under the sun in order to be fully accepted in different jungle communities. He turned 50 in March. How, I wonder, did he cope with his first wet Welsh winter?

I feel that was my initiation, he says, smiling. He has a wood fire. I spent most of the winter in a hat and scarf inside. I survived that OK, though I havent met the midges yet I think thats August.

Just in 10 minutes sitting in Cwtch the name means both cosy corner and hug you can see Parrys gift for connection with people. He knows everyone who comes in like an old mate. Dom, the chef and proprietor here, and now purveyor of walled-garden lettuce, is greeted with genuine affection, and each delicious vegetarian dish off the specials board he brings out produces fresh rapture from Parry. Youre on fire today, Dom!

There is more to Parrys return than any kind of homesickness. He believed, having had an immersive understanding of the wisdom of some of the oldest human communities, that he should now try to put some of that into practice in the place he fell to earth. Parry had spent four or five years up to 2017 making a very personal film, Tawai: A Voice From the Forest. It was both a portrait of the perilous, joyful existence of one of the last hunter-gatherer societies, the Penan people of Borneo, and a meditation on the ways in which we are destroying their world and our planet.

Tawai was the last project, he says. I guess I thought I had seen it all, but then I met the Penan and there was something completely different about them. It was not only that they had a genuine pre-agricultural existence, of the kind that humans lived for 85% of the lifetime of our species. They had no competition, no hierarchy. They were the only group I had been in that had no pecking order, no chief, no elders.

He was struck by what such an egalitarian heritage might mean. Parrys journeys along the Amazon and across the Arctic had long since impressed on him the crisis that our planet is facing, a crisis of climate, and of consumerism, and he felt it was no longer enough to report the issues, he had to try to live what felt like possible solutions. His plan is to open up his house and create a small experiment in communal living.

I have no doubt that human beings have problems ahead, he says. Really big problems. And we are not doing it right. The BBC was keen for him to carry on gallivanting: Lets go down the Mekong, we can talk about important things ! and there was no doubt some temptation in that. But the problem is not really how China is polluting its rivers. The problem is how we are all, mainly in the west, living our lives.

Bruce and Tim shared Dwarf bean, beetroot and feta salad 4; red pepper, courgette and olive shakshuka 4; spinach and mushroom filo parcels 4 They Drank Water; filter coffee 1.50 Photograph: Keith Morris/The Observer

Parry talks fluently about the issues around land ownership in Britain, which has caused the majority of us to be so disconnected from the living environment. He sees the recent One Planet development scheme in Wales which allows anyone to build on agricultural land if they follow certain self-sufficiency guidelines as a model of a future revolution.

We are swimming so deeply in a world of competition and aggression and division that we dont even see it, he says. We are being fed this information that money and stuff will make you happy but I think that the right narrative can create a massive shift. We cant all have a Lamborghini, but maybe we could all have a bit of land and some joy and music and harmony.

In Ibiza, of course, those qualities were in generous supply. Where does he go to dance in Ceredigion? He mentions occasional late-night excursions up to the alternative communities in Machynlleth, 25 miles north.

I could have easily stayed in Ibiza, he says. We could have been having a long ros and seafood lunch on the beach, rather than Doms fantastic salads. It wasnt that all that fizzled out. But what I learned especially from the tribes is that there is an extra ingredient from knowing a place.

We talk about the upcoming engagements he has to discuss this thinking; one at the Port Eliot festival in the summer, another with the Canadian Stephen Jenkinson, the author of Die Wise, who has used the insights of a long career in palliative care to propose answers to our culture failure. If you are part of a tribe, says Parry, knowing that when you die you are going to feed the tree that feeds the fruit that feeds your community and that your life will be part of the whole ecosystem is a powerful thing.

Though Parry has more bucket-list ticks than most of the rest of us put together, he hasnt done some of the things that many men of his age have achieved. Having lived polyamorously for many years, he recently split from a long-term partner. He has no kids and, he says, no particular yearning for any.

Without question there is a lot of me that loves freedom, he says. But my driving force now is that I am madly trying to figure out what my role can be in moving this community idea forwards though maybe what I am proposing is only valid for what comes out of the ashes of the next big financial crash.

There is no doubt he will be well placed to survive catastrophe. He is trying to live mostly from what he can forage he loves cooking, he says, though he fears that love is not always shared by guests. I make my own bread, grind my own wheat, soak my own pulses. I have 25kg of wheat, huge tubs of chickpeas and lentils. If Im ever stuck for a couple of months, Ill be fine.

I wonder if the BBC are keen to film this latest venture? He suggests they would like to, but his new Welsh friends insist it will be over their dead bodies.

I definitely think I have more to share on this, though, he says, with a laugh.

We exercise that principle in the first instance by taking two forks to Doms lemon drizzle cake.

Bruce Parry is at Port Eliot festival, 25-29 July, St Germans, Cornwall;

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The worlds longest trail, ready this year, traverses the entire country. Its a busy path, our intrepid writer is told, so there shouldnt be bears

When I was a teenager, I met someone who had done the Pennine Way long-distance footpath. And I gazed with awe on him. After all, 267 miles seemed a heroic achievement, requiring several bars of Kendal mint cake and the courage to face aggressive sheep dogs. I recall that man as I step out, for the first time, on Canadas new long-distance footpath, The Great Trail (aka Trans Canada Trail). I am not at the start, or the finish, but somewhere in between, on a path that is a mind-boggling 15,000 miles (24,000km) in length, by far the longest footpath in the world. If you were to chop this distance into a series of satisfying 20-mile-long day walks, there would be sufficient for two years.


Yukon, Tombstone park

The Great Trail starts near St Johns, in Newfoundland and Labrador, and finishes on Vancouver Island, after an Arctic detour. I am in Yukon Territorys Tombstone territorial park, taking the first of my own day walks along the path. Here it follows the Dempster Highway through the park, heading north towards Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast. I am not going that far, only a few miles up a valley called Grizzly Creek towards the spectacularly jagged Tombstone peaks. Underfoot is soft mossy forest floor speckled with flowers, the path later climbing steeply on to a stony ridge with sweeping views of dark brooding peaks. En route, my guide Benny points out moose, then marmots, but no grizzlies.

Tombstone Mountain, Yukon

Im not sure what I think about the grizzly bear, the Great Trails top predator. In theory I would very much like to see one. In practice I have twice watched The Revenant, a movie that shows what will happen if you wander alone through the woods without bear-repellent spray. Im pretty sure Leonardo DiCaprio will not be making that mistake again.

Up the path we meet a Canadian family heading towards Grizzly Lake for a two-night camp. What does the Great Trail mean to them? We love the idea its like a huge long thread, connecting all Canadians together. And what about the bears? They smile they are from Yukon, where bears are as normal as sheepdogs in the Pennines.

My Tombstone hike ends with me watching beavers in a pool by the Dempster Highway. They slap their tails on the waters surface in an attempt to scare me away. Nearby, a skunk hustles off, fortunately without using his human-repellent spray.

Dawson City and gold rush territory

Dawson was at the epicentre of the 1897 gold rush

My next walk more of a stroll, really is 50 miles south and a very different experience, proof that the Great Trail is not only about wilderness. I pick it up as it crosses the Klondike river and heads into Dawson City.

Ever since I read Jack Londons tales of the Yukon as a boy, I have wanted to visit Dawson, capital of the Klondike gold rush. I feared, however, that all traces of the sprawling, brawling, caterwauling town he knew might have been erased. London himself arrived here in 1897, as a 21-year-old greenhorn. Gold had been found just a few miles from town and every panhandler and freewheeler who had ever seen a newspaper headline was heading for Dawson, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. It was one of those seminal moments in human history, like Woodstock, when you had to be there, or miss out forever. Most people missed out. The Klondike was so remote and dangerous to reach that the vast majority either gave up or died.

From the bridge on the outskirts of town I follow the Great Trail along the riverfront, admiring the period houses built on blocks to avoid sinking into the thawing permafrost. There is even an old bank made of tin, where the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once worked. He wrote the mantra for footloose long-distance walkers: Theres a race of men that dont fit in, a race that cant stay still He is remembered here less so in his native Scotland. A Parks Canada costumed guide does a great one-man show at Services old cabin in Dawson.

Up one side street I find remnants of Londons cabin, now part of an excellent museum. Back on the trail, I head around to Front Street. In one shop I buy, on impulse, a gold-panning dish and ask where to find the real flavour of London-era Dawson. The request leads to two tips. You should take the ferry and walk down river to the shipwrecks, says one man. Then tonight go to The Pit. He grins mischievously. Thats the bar the tourist office dont tell outsiders about, even though it was built during the gold rush.

One of the wrecked paddle-steamers by the Yukon river near Dawson

According to my map, I am on a spur of the Great Trail that actually ends where I catch the ferry across the river, so I am extending the path a little, adding about a mile. But that is the spirit of the trail, a project that started in 1992, Canadas 125th anniversary of confederation, with the aim of finishing it later this year, for the 150th. The entire, gargantuan production is the result of community effort: thousands of individuals and local organisations working on their own sections, with a small team of enthusiasts to stitch it all together, like some pioneer patchwork quilt.

I walk off the ferry, then along the muddy riverbank. I stop and pan for gold, without success (I should have tried publicly accessible Claim 6 upriver, apparently). After a mile I spot my destination: three stern-wheel paddle steamers abandoned on the gravel bank above the river.

The paint has long since been stripped by a century of savage winters, but the old paddle wheels are there, and the smokestacks. I clamber across splintered decks, but it is difficult to recreate that lost world of gold fever, good-time girls and godawful hardships.

Sourtoe Sue gets up on the bar in The Pit

Later that night The Pit (actually the bar of the Westminster Hotel) proves a little more redolent, especially around midnight, when Sourtoe Sue gets up and dances on the bar to celebrate the arrival of a gold miner, who rings the bell and buys everyone in the house free shots. My head full of booze, I examine the colourfully suggestive paintings that adorn the walls. Did Queen Victoria really visit Dawson during the gold rush? And do that to a mounted policeman?

Alberta and the Rockies

Peaks surround the Great Trail in the Rockies of Alberta

For my final taste of the Great Trail, I transfer to Alberta and the Rocky Mountains. Above the town of Canmore, a new section of trail heads south along the spine of the Rockies, almost as far as the US border. Together with guide Nathan and the Great Trail co-ordinator for Alberta, Kirsten, I am going to walk by Spray Lakes reservoir and take a side path up to a viewpoint.

Is the Great Trail actually finished, I ask Kirsten.

Trails need to evolve and be dynamic, so maybe itll never be done. Its a work in progress, she says.

Has anyone actually walked it all?

Only one person has done it in one go: Sarah Jackson, a student from Edmonton. It took just under two years. Before that a forester, Dana Meise, also walked right across, touching all three oceans, but he did it in stages.

Did either have any trouble with bears?

I dont think so.

Will we have any trouble with bears?

Unlikely. The trail is pretty busy.

Trans Canada Trail sign on the path

It is a crisp sunny day in the Rockies and all the snow-streaked peaks are sharp against a deep-blue vault of sky. We rise up through spruce and fir towards West Wind Pass. Nathan points out pink calypso orchids and the white and yellow dryas flowers. Below us in the valley, the Spray Lakes are a glacial milky turquoise.

Around lunchtime we arrive at the pass and a magnificent panorama. I set down my rucksack and take out a sandwich. A hiker, coming up behind us, strolls over. I think theres a bear, he says. Its coming up the trail.

Nathan and I exchange a glance. For some people, every tree stump can become a bear about to pounce. I pick up my camera and take a few steps back down the path. Almost immediately I see a tree stump ambling directly towards me, a tree stump with black fur and white teeth. He disappears behind a clump of pines.

Lets bunch together, says Nathan.

The bear re-emerges suddenly very close indeed, only 10 metres away. He looks a bit ragged: his left ear is torn and there is fur missing from his shoulder. He looks like he needs a sandwich. I edge closer to Nathan and Kirsten.

The bear shows little interest. He crosses behind us and goes to a place where he can descend the slope safely. In a few more seconds he is gone. Only then do I realise that I had totally forgotten about the bear spray. It had never occurred to me.

Bears do sometimes attack, of course, but mostly they dont. The Revenant is a film and not a guide to bear behaviour. The creature that attacked DiCaprio was actually a stunt man in a fat suit. I should also point out that the man who walked the Pennine Way, all those years ago, was threatened by a dog, but not actually bitten. Scare stories should never deter us from the big trail.

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From Mozambique to Mexico, via Cornwall, here are great places to ride waves, find a bed close to the beach and eat drink and party after a day on the water

Canggu, Bali

A decade ago, Canggu was just a black-sand beach with one food shack, rice paddies as far as the eye could see and a fantastic reef break for intermediate surfers wanting to take their skill to the next level. The wave is unchanged, though a little more crowded in peak season and theres now a vibrant cafe scene and some hip places to stay, though its kept a laid-back, wellness-crowd vibe with none of the brashness of Kuta or swankiness of Seminyak. The Shady Shack is a great new spot for juices, low-alcohol coolers and tasty vegan food. Canteen Caf, where vintage surf and skateboards adorn the walls, does excellent coffee and brunch. The Chillhouse (doubles from 110 B&B) also offers surf lessons from 49, including board hire and a ratio of one coach to two guests. Yoga classes cost 9.

Sennen Cove, Cornwall

Photograph: Alamy

If Newquay is the loud, beating heart of the UK surf scene, Sennen Cove is its more peaceful and reflective soul. It takes another hour to get there, almost as far as Lands End, but its worth every minute. The waves are some of the most consistent in the country, with a beach break that works left and right and will suit most abilities, but is far less crowded than many Cornish surf spots. The location feels wild and unspoiled with clear ocean, rolling grassy hills and craggy cliffs. The Sennen Surfing Centre offers lessons from 30, and board and wetsuit can be hired on the beach from 14. Yurt accommodation costs 19pp a night at Whitesands Lodge just inland from the beach. Ben Tunnicliffes Sennen Cove family-friendly restaurant is worth a visit for fresh, unfussy seasonal cooking, or a guest ale with a view of the waves at its wooden outdoor bar, the Surf Den.

Hoddevik, Norway

Photograph: Hallvard Kolltveit/

Thanks to recent advances in wetsuit technology, surfing in the icy waters off Norway is not just possible but wholly enjoyable. There are zero crowds and the beaches are wild and rugged in natural amphitheatres with steep majestic mountains all around. The cliffs also protect the waves from the wind and the swell is remarkably consistent, with breaks to suit all levels. Lapoint Surf Camps runs packages in the fishing village of Hoddevik for beginner and intermediate surfers, including accommodation for seven nights, small-group lessons, board and wetsuit hire and use of the house kitchen from 577.

Waikiki, Hawaii

Photograph: Warren Bolster/Getty Images

California may be the obvious capital of surfing in the US, but Hawaii, where the sport originated, is its spiritual home. Waikiki, the beachfront neighbourhood of Honolulu, is a great place to learn to surf, as the water is warm, the waves roll in gently and the rides are long, so when you do stand up you really get to enjoy it. With its high-rise backdrop, Waikiki is often dismissed as a tourist trap but its now finding fresh favour among visitors wanting a tropical beach holiday with some urban benefits, such as good food and decent coffee. Affordable hotels arent easy to come by but Maile Sky Court has doubles from $105. Star Beachboys runs group surf lessons for $40pp.

Lagos, Portugal

Beliche beach near Sagres, a short drive from Lagos. Photograph: Alamy

In the south-west corner of the Algarve, Lagos is well-placed to pick up swells from every direction; it has breaks for all levels of surfer within easy reach. The town beach, Meia Praia, is a good beginners wave, while Zavial, 20 minutes drive west, is a world-class point break for experienced surfers. The attractive old fishing town boasts great sea-themed restaurants such as Escondidinho (Rua do Cemitrio 38) and The Blue Door (Rua dos Ferreiros 17), but a big part of the Lagos sell has always been that it is a good place to party. Mellow Loco, run by pro surfers Marlon and Melvin Lipke, is the wildest spot, and Stevie Rays has popular live funk and soul nights. Health-conscious surfers will love new juice and salad bar Bora, healthy breakfast gem Fresca and the health store and restaurant Mar DEstorias.The oldest surf camp provider in town, Surf Experience, is introducing a Girl Fitness Surf Week () by sports coach and surfer Sophie Everard from 24 September-1 October. It costs 800 and includes meals, surfing, yoga, trail running, mountain biking, outdoor fitness classes, accommodation and transfers from Faro airport; flights are not included. Lagos Surf Rentals rents boards from 15 a day.

El Paredn, Guatemala


A growing band of travellers are converging on the small fishing village of El Paredn, which offers Guatemalas most consistent surf at a beach break that never gets crowded and can accommodate most levels of surfer, depending on the tide. Turtles nest on the black sand beach, and mangrove forests grow all around. At Paredn Surf House private surf lessons cost about 12, board hire starts at 10 a day, and dorm beds 8 a night. The surf house supports a social enterprise, La Choza Chula, which has built a secondary school and library in the village, and provides English lessons for children.

Hossegor, France

Photograph: Alamy

When the swell is pumping, Hossegors pounding beach breaks are not for the faint-hearted, but experienced and strong intermediates revel in some of the best waves in the world, and some of the warmest sea temperatures in the Atlantic. La Sud, at the southern end, is a calmer, more sheltered spot for beginners and improvers. With world-class waves come world-class surfers, and as a result theres no shortage of relaxed places to hang out and party. Lou Cabana on the naturist Plage des Culs Nus has a tasty daily menu and great music and vibes at sunset. Megs Caf is the place for coffee and Tante Jeanne the ultimate ice-cream spot. Collective Soul is good for vintage furniture, art and clothes. Local surf shaper Chipiron makes custom boards, offers surf lessons from 38 a day and rents good quality boards from 10. The rental cost is taken off the price for anyone who later buys a board. Hostel h2O Holidays does B&B from 30pp.

Tofo Beach, Mozambique

Photograph: Alamy

From a wave-riding point of view, Mozambique is relatively unexplored, yet much of its 2,500km coastline is surfable, with tropical blue waters washing on to palm-fronted white sandy beaches. Tofo, on the Ponta da Barra peninsula, is a pretty beach town with a central market that sells bright sarongs as well as fruit, veg and fish. Small, clean waves are protected by a headland and a reef, so its a good place for learners and improvers, though more advanced surfers wont have to travel far to find challenging reef breaks, and the world-class, right-hand point breaks at nearby Tofinho beach. Errant Surf offers seven nights in a shared house from 78pp, surf lessons from 12 and board hire from 13 a day.

San Vicente de la Barquera, Spain

Photograph: Markus Gebauer Photography/Getty Images

On the coast of Cantabria, amid the meadows, dunes, forests, cliffs and beaches of the Oyambre natural park, sits the estuarine village of San Vicente de la Barquera. Mern is its main beach, with great conditions for learning and more difficult peaks for more advanced surfers. San Vicente has many excellent seafood restaurants, such as Boga-Boga, which has been running for 50 years and has a great nautical-themed interior, but the region is also famed for its ham, wine and cheeses. Ncar, an offshoot of the Michelin-starred Annua, does tasty and reasonably priced tapas. Dream Surf Camp offers a weeks accommodation plus full board and surf kit in both normal and glamping tents from 229pp. Ten hours lessons costs 95. Yoga, mountain biking and massages are available, and theres an on site bar with musical instruments to borrow.

Sayulita, Mexico

Boy surfing in ocean Sayulita Photograph: Sollina Images/Getty Images/Blend Images

Lush tropical jungle meets eminently ridable waves for all levels in this former fishing village turned artsy surf town just 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexicos central Pacific coast. Colourful cafes and bars, and galleries peddling local Huichol tribal art, are plentiful and street food vendors sell original takes on the taco. Lunazul is a family-run surf school, where lessons start at $40pp including equipment, and theyre so confident of their teaching that anyone who doesnt stand up on their first lesson doesnt pay. Lunazul also rents high- quality shortboards, longboards and softboards for beginners, and runs trips to nearby secret spots. Petit Hotel Hafa is a colourful boutique hotel two blocks back from the beach, with doubles available from $50.

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Mark Vanhoenacker flies for a living yet the shock of arriving somewhere new with different air, different sounds, different everything still manages to surprise him. Place lag, as he calls it, is a wondrous thing

Jet lag is part of my job as a long-haul airline pilot for British Airways. Its something you cant avoid but that you quickly learn to cope with: I recommend eating lighter meals, exercising outdoors if possible and going easy on the espresso.

But theres another kind of lag that the speed and distance of a long-haul flight can induce; its a result of how seamlessly and completely an aeroplane transports you into the new world thats waiting at your destination into a whole realm of different smells, light, foods, views, words, vehicles, manners, street sign fonts and weather, into the universe of such details that make a place unique.

After a flight we walk out of the plane and then out of the terminal. I love that moment when the glass doors open and a gust of local air and sounds pour over you. Were suddenly immersed. Yet even as we plunge into the different air, the different everything of a new place, we know that only a few hours ago we were just as perfectly immersed somewhere else. It takes time for one to wash off and another to sink in more time than we spend on a plane, certainly, making in mere hours a journey that historically might have taken months, if it was possible at all.

Photograph: Alamy

When I described this sensibility in Skyfaring, my book about flying (I wanted to put it in the first main chapter, as its a feature of flying almost as astonishing to me as getting off the ground in the first place), I couldnt find the right word for it. So I decided to call it place lag. Place lag is as unavoidable as jet lag, but its far more interesting. Even wondrous, on occasion.

My most recent vivid experience of place lag came after a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. Its a flight of about 9 hours. The time difference is seven hours, so its not the toughest jet lag by any means; but its a place-change that the 5,000 intervening miles only begin to hint at.

The day I leave starts as ordinarily as any other in London. Its only the open suitcase on the floor, the laundry thats still drying on the line, that reminds me Im going to spend tonight in the sky crossing between a pair of ancient, enormous capital metropolises on more or less opposite corners of the largest landmass on Earth.

Beijings Capital Airport. Photograph: Alamy

I have breakfast with a friend and I go for a longish run in a quiet park. Just before noon I fold a few pairs of socks and lay them in the suitcase I struggle to close (youd think a pilot would be better at packing after so many years). I take the bus to Paddington, get a hot chocolate and a sandwich, and then ride to Heathrow and meet my fellow crew members. Half an hour later we board a Boeing 747 and head upstairs to the cockpit. I download the route into the flight computers, and enter the code for our destination: ZBAA, for Beijings Capital airport, the worlds second-busiest, and in my opinion one of its most beautiful.

An hour later were airborne, climbing steadily as we soar over familiar places: the M11 and the M25, and Chelmsford and Harwich, and the West Frisian Islands off the Dutch coast, and sea realms, too Thames, Humber, German Bight that are well known to anyone whose job requires them to rise early enough to yawn or smile along to the shipping forecast.

Over the Bight we pick up a tailwind, a river of air racing through the sky, just as the flight planning data on our iPads predicted. We are crossing over the waves and farms and villages below, over so many places, at more than 670mph. Denmark passes in minutes, and soon were near Riga, then just south of St Petersburg, then north of Moscow. We sail high above the Urals and here, officially, is Asia, though from the window youd never know that everyone on the plane had just changed continent.

A man prepares to dip into the icy waters of the Ob river in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. Photograph: Reuters

We cross the Vasyugan river and pass near Novosibirsk, New Siberia, a name I still marvel at. Its a city where I planned to spend a summer homestay in high school in the early 1990s, until the programme was cancelled after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its something I think of whenever my work takes me to this neck of the (Siberian) woods: that Im suddenly quite close to Russian streets, a Russian house, a Russian family that in only a slightly different life I would know well.

We cross the invisible sky-border of Mongolia and pass the airport of Ulaanbaatar: I cant believe that not long after packing my socks Im looking down on the homeland of Genghis Khan, and on the blue circle on the 747s navigation display that denotes the airport named for him. Soon after we enter Chinese airspace. We cross the Great Wall and make a long, counter-clockwise arc around the centre of Beijing a route that highlights the size of the city, and its Game of Thrones-calibre location south of the mountains, and north of an enormous plain. And then, on a bright spring mid-morning, we touch down, the solid ground of north-eastern China spinning up the long-stilled wheels of the 747.

An hour later were on a busy highway heading south-west toward the city. Looking out from the bus I experience something thats still far more amazing to me than Siberia or Helsinki or the snow-capped peaks of Outer Mongolia or anything else I regularly see from the sky. Its the sense that yesterday I was in London and now Im in Beijing, in late-morning traffic; in a great citys most ordinary and present moment. This, I have to keep reminding myself, is the morning that would be carrying on here had none of us ever left London, had I never got out of bed and gone to Paddington to take the train to Heathrow. This is place lag, as bad (and good) as it gets.

A frozen river is seen next to a group of houses on the outskirts of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

In the bus, Chinese pop music is playing; the driver has the radio on. Outside the sunlight and the wind play in the densely planted trees that line the airport expressway, and beyond are the steadily pedalling cyclists on the nearby paths and smaller roads.

As a species we surely evolved to travel slowly, when we travelled at all, moving over the world in sight of everything along the way, as languages and weather and vegetation transition slowly from one realm to the next. If wed trekked overland from Europe to Beijing, or sailed halfway around the world to a Chinese port, it would still feel amazing to be here, of course. But the many remarkable differences might seem to roughly match the scale of the journey, as measured by its duration and its difficulties. Its the speed of flight that causes jet lag, and place lag, too, as we sail with relative ease over the 5,000 miles of intervening places.

Place lag is like jet lag in another way: we cant find a way around it, and we cant force ourselves to get over it any faster than our minds and bodies permit. Nobody enjoys jet lag, of course, but time zones do serve to remind us of a fact so fundamental we rarely consider it that the world is round and turning slowly in the light of a star. In the same way, place lag reasserts the fascinating differences that persist across the world even in this age of globalisation. To encounter such differences, of course, is the main reason people travel, and bringing travellers to those experiences not to mention having them myself, of course is one of the things I love most about being a pilot.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage, 8.99) is published in paperback on 7 July. To order a copy for 7.19 including UK p&p visit the guardian bookshop or call on 0330 333 6846

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