Unusual travel destinations: World's weirdest places to visit
There is a certain enjoyment in being completely confused. It's a reason some of us travel: to be baffled, to be surprised, to be shocked. To look around at our foreign surroundings and have absolutely no idea what's going on.
I've always loved that. It's not a judgment, or a criticism. It's a good thing. I want to be surprised when I travel, to find out that things in this new place I'm visiting are different. I want to discover the peculiarities that make a country or a culture tick.
This weirdness that you notice while on the road comes in different guises. It can be quirks of culture, or it can be unique attractions; it can be natural, or it can be man-made; in some cases it can be a complete mystery to even those who claim it as their own. Museums can be weird. Buildings can be weird. Entire cities or countries can be weird. And that's a very good thing to discover.
THE PLACE Thames Town, China
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Because this is England – only you don't have to go all the way to England.
THE WEIRD FACTOR It might be just an hour from central Shanghai, but Thames Town couldn't be further from traditional China. This enclave has been designed to look like an English village, with a church, a pub and a fish and chip shop that are exact replicas of their British counterparts.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR Thames Town is great for the pure discombobulation of walking the cobbled streets of an English village while surrounded by Chinese couples having their wedding photos taken.
DON'T MISS Taking tea in a mock-Tudor mansion.
ESSENTIALS Thames Town is in Songjiang University Town – take a train from Shanghai to Songjiang then a taxi. See cnto.org
THE PLACE Christiania, Denmark
WHY YOU SHOULD GO To experience a hippie "paradise".
THE WEIRD FACTOR Say you picked up Nimbin, Australia's infamous hippie enclave, in its entirety and plonked it down on the north shore of Sydney. That's essentially what Christiania is: an autonomous, alternative, self-proclaimed utopia that exists, bizarrely, in the centre of Copenhagen.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR It might be ramshackle and oddly intimidating, but Christiania's version of hippie heaven is as unique and fascinating as it out of place in the orderly Danish capital.
DON'T MISS The best way to experience Christiania is to simply stroll around.
ESSENTIALS While visitors are free to enter Christiania, bear in mind photos are prohibited. See www.visitcopenhagen.com
THE PLACE Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
WHY YOU SHOULD GO There is no other place on Earth like it.
THE WEIRD FACTOR You want strange? How about an iguana that swims in the ocean and snorts salt out of its nose? Or a cormorant that has shed its wings through evolution? Or a giant tortoise? Or a whole swag of animals that have no fear of humans? They're all in the Galapagos.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR All of these strange animals and the volcanic archipelago that they inhabit make for one of the most amazing tourism experiences around.
DON'T MISS Seeing a giant tortoise lumbering around in the wild.
ESSENTIALS The Galapagos can be accessed by air from Guayaquil in Ecuador. See www.ecuador.travel
THE PLACE Hearst Castle, US
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Why tour the world seeking history and culture when it's all been crammed together here?
THE WEIRD FACTOR When you're a passionate collector of art works, curios and entire antique ceilings, and you also have far too much money, you end up doing what publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst did, and build a mountaintop mansion to house it all.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR While Hearst Castle is an odd pastiche of architectural styles with a wide range of artefacts and a wild disregard for budget, it's an amazing place to tour and pretend you're one of Hearst's movie star dinner guests.
DON'T MISS The Neptune Pool, a re-imagining of a Roman grotto.
ESSENTIALS Hearst Castle is a four-hour drive north of LA. Tours cost $32; www.hearstcastle.org.
THE PLACE Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia
WHY YOU SHOULD GO To see Mongolians at their coldest and strangest.
THE WEIRD FACTOR In summer this is just any old lake, albeit a beautiful one. In winter, however, it's an enormous block of ice upon which games including tug of war, wrestling, and horse-drawn sleigh races are staged. This is also home to the Dukha people, an ancient tribe of reindeer herders.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR The natural beauty of the Khovsgol area is reason enough to visit, but this is also home to a unique culture that is all but cut off from the rest of the world.
DON'T MISS Time your visit to coincide with the Hovsgol Ice Festival in March.
ESSENTIALS Lake Hovsgol can only be accessed by four-wheel-drive – it's a four-day drive from Ulan Baator. See www.mongoliatourism.info
THE PLACE Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
WHY YOU SHOULD GO To embrace your inner hippie – or hunt for a god.
THE WEIRD FACTOR If you have ever wanted to study kinesiology, meditation, holistic healing, or lucid dreaming in one of the most naturally beautiful locations in the world, then San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan is the place for you.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR There is more to Lake Atitlan than Westerners on yoga retreats. This is also the home of Maximon, a deity worshipped for his love of rum and cigars, whose wooden effigy can be found in a local home.
DON'T MISS A stay at Casa del Mundo, a guesthouse on the lakeshore.
ESSENTIALS Lake Atitlan can be reached from the tourist town of Antigua. See www.visitguatemala.com
THE PLACE Hill of Crosses, Lithuania
WHY YOU SHOULD GO This is one of the world's strangest sites of pilgrimage.
THE WEIRD FACTOR First there was one crucifix, placed on a hill in northern Lithuania after the 1831 rebellion against the Russians. Then more were added, and more, to the point where now, about 185 years later, there are more than 100,000 crucifixes, effigies and carvings on the Hill of Crosses.
THE WONDERFUL FACTOR Aside from the "wow" experience of seeing so many crosses on a lonely hill, this is a site of pilgrimage for many in the Baltic States, particularly Lithuanians, who see it as a symbol of independence and endurance.
DON'T MISS Set aside enough time to properly explore the crosses.
ESSENTIALS The Hill of Crosses is three hours north-west of Vilnius. See www.lithuania.travel
FIVE WEIRD BUT WONDERFUL CITIES
PORTLAND, US The city's slogan is "keep Portland weird", and its residents take that seriously. Portland is the bastion of hipsterism, as well as alternative culture – there's an annual naked bike ride, plus a vegan strip club. See www.travelportland.com
TOKYO, JAPAN There are cafes in Tokyo where you will be served by people dressed as manga characters. In others, you can pet rabbits or hedgehogs. There are fetish dens in Roppongi, and a Robot Restaurant of Shinjuku. It's gloriously bizarre. See www.jnto.org.au
REYKJAVIK, ICELAND There are about 120,000 people in Reykjavik, and none of them have surnames. Well, not that are passed down through generations. Also, building developments have been altered so as not to disturb the homes of make-believe fairy people. See www.iceland.is
DUBAI, UAE About 50 years ago, this megalopolis of the biggest, most expensive and most luxurious of everything was little more than a fishing village. That Dubai now has a 154-storey skyscraper and a ski resort is phenomenal. See www.visitdubai.com
BARCELONA, SPAIN The works of architect Antoni Gaudi are as strange as they are beautiful, from the dripping-wax facade of his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, to the animal mosaics of Park Guell and the ghoulish jaws of Casa Battlo. See www.barcelonaturisme.com
FIVE MORE WEIRD BUT WONDERFUL MAN-MADE PLACES
CAPPADOCIA, TURKEY This series of pillar-like rock formations would be weird enough on its own, but people actually live here. In Goreme, the soft volcanic rock has been carved out to form houses, churches and monasteries. See www.tourismturkey.org
BONE CHURCH, CZECH REPUBLIC There are more than 40,000 human skeletons in Sedlec Ossuary, or the "Bone Church", in Kutna Hora. Those skeletons have been used as art works, with bone chandeliers, candelabras, and pyramids on display. See www.sedlecossuary.com
BUNKER 42, RUSSIA Anyone who has ever harboured fantasies of hiding out in a Russian war bunker and firing nuclear weapons at the US would be: a) a bit of a problem; and, b) perfectly catered to at Bunker 42, a Stalinist headquarters turned Moscow tourist attraction. Bunker42.com/eng
RENNES-LE-CHATEAU, FRANCE There are some deep mysteries surrounding Rennes-le-Chateau. One is whether, as legend has it, this village is the hiding place of the Holy Grail. The other is how Dan Brown managed to pinch the town's conspiracy theories and turn them into a bestseller. See www.rennes-le-chateau.fr
TEMPELHOF AIRPORT, GERMANY Wander around the Berlin suburb of Neukolln and you'll find hipster bars, live music venues, cafes, and a whopping great Nazi-era airport. While Tempelhof's runway area is now a public park, much of the huge terminal building, which has war bunkers and prison chambers in the basement, is deserted. See www.visitberlin.de