People don’t have a lot of time for ugly when they travel. Markets that are more crowded than ‘bustling’, run down temples that aren’t as ‘glowing’ as they were described online, and waters that could never pass for ‘azure’ in a million years: these things exist, we just don’t want to look at them.
But why not? There’s just as much history and story behind the post-communist concrete of Ulaanbaatar as there is in Florence’s famous Duomo. One visit to the slums of Delhi can reveal more about local life than two weeks strolling through the manicured gardens of the Taj Mahal.
Want to start celebrating the world for what it really is? Here are five ways you can learn to love ‘travelling ugly’.
Float on waters that aren’t ‘azure’
Azure literally means “bright blue in colour like a cloudless sky”. When was the last time you actually saw an ocean like that? Even the world’s best beaches could only pass for turquoise, fading to some sort of ‘deep blue’ as the gradient drops off. But what a bland swim we would have if all seas and rivers were this colour: there’d be no reason to appreciate them.
Anyway the brown sluggish waters of the Mekong are just as interesting as Capri’s glittering grottos in their own way; by the time they lazily drift past Ho Chi Minh City, they’ve travelled 4,000km, all the way from the Tibetan plateau through China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. No wonder they’re heavy with silt, mud and nutrients – in fact it’s this very ‘ugliness’ that makes these waters so fertile, producing nearly half of Vietnam’s agricultural output.
Visit a temple that doesn’t ‘glow’
Okay, Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda can be legitimately called glowing. Its bright golden haze can be seen for about 20km in every direction, especially at night. But not every temple is like that, and there’s no good reason why they should be. Travel to the remote northern kingdom of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas and you’ll get a completely different experience.
The temples here are known as gompas: sort of a combination between monastic meditation hall and ancient fort, and they squat on rocky outcrops all over the country. They’re not classically gorgeous: gompas are blocky and square where Shwedagon is delicate, white-washed and stark where Thai chedis glitter with gold leaf. But for structures built to sacred geometrical patterns by poor labourers 500 years ago, they’re pretty damn impressive all the same. And the views are second to none.
Walk through forests that aren’t ‘lush’
The word ‘lush’ gets thrown around a lot, as if moisture and precipitation are really sexy attributes for a forest to have. But really unless you’re describing anything between 23.5° N or 23.5° S (the so called ‘tropics’ band) lush doesn’t really make sense. Nor is lush a prerequisite for beauty. The eucalyptus forests that run from the Victorian Alps all the way up the south-east coast of Australia are some of the driest in the world, but no-one could deny they’ve got a magnificence all of their own.
The boreal forests of the taiga (the world’s largest biome) don’t get a lot of rain either. Their trees are mostly firs and conifers – hardy small-leafed plants that can deal with the oblique sunlight you get at these latitudes. But try telling awestruck visitors that these arid, inhospitable forests full of wolves aren’t incredible because they’re not ‘lush’ enough. You won’t get very far.
Hike a mountain that doesn’t ‘soar’
When it comes to mountains, big isn’t always better. They don’t always need to loom to be impressive. It’s no drama if they aren’t as ‘soaring’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘snow capped’ as you thought they’d be. A lot more travellers flock to Everest each year, keen to reach the famous basecamp, visit quiet Nepalese teahouses and walk through rhododendron forests.
Not so many make the trip to the Kangra Valley and the little city of Dharamsala, set against the green flanks of the Himalayan foothills. And the High Atlas Mountains may not have the green allure of Swiss Alps in summer – there certainly aren’t any Julie Andrews character picking wildflowers and singing – but their harsh, arid moonscape is something truly special.
Find a market that doesn’t ‘bustle’
You know what? It’s okay if not every market has an exotic bustle, a fragrant whiff of spices, and locals with good teeth selling you reasonably priced and completely authentic craft goods. Some markets are confronting, there’s no other word for it. They’re cramped and noisy, hard to navigate, dirty and unwelcoming. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from them.
These are often the least ‘curated’ bazaars – the real deal where locals actually shop, not specially pre-prepared tourist traps designed to wow you with exoticness. You may not get as smooth a ride, but you’ll see how locals really live, how they eat and interact. Isn’t that why you’re there in the first place?