A Look at the Elemental Beauty of Mongolia

Seventeen years after photographer Frédéric Lagrange first visited this remote, sparsely populated land of steppe and desert, his debut photo book, Mongolia, captures the elemental beauty of the country and its people.

Bactrian camels grazing in the vicinity of the same lake.

Undulating grasslands, majestic mountains, boundless blue skies, an overwhelmingly friendly population of nomadic steppe-dwelling herders—it’s little wonder New York–based photographer Frédéric Lagrange became smitten with Mongolia, a vast, landlocked nation that he has visited more than a dozen times over the last 17 years. He first heard of the country from his paternal grandfather Louis, a former French soldier who had been interned at a POW camp in Germany during World War II.

A young herder in his ger near Khövsgöl Lake, northern Mongolia.

As a child in Versailles, Frédéric was captivated to hear of Louis’ release in 1944 by a detachment of Mongol troopers under Soviet command—fierce, otherworldly men who swept into camp and scattered the German soldiers before them. “That left an indelible picture in my mind of Mongolia and its people,” he writes in the introduction to his long-overdue first book of photography, Mongolia, which has just been released by Bologna-based publisher Damiani. “After all, I owe my grandfather’s life to them—and, in turn, my own.”

Portrait of a ranger in the Üüreg Lake area of western Mongolia, his face weathered by a lifetime spent mostly outdoors on horseback (and by a love of arkhi, the local vodka).

Frédéric was in his early thirties by the time he finally made it to Mongolia, having saved enough money from his job as a photo
assistant in New York to fly to Beijing and then make his way by rail to Ulaanbaatar. The year was 2001—little more than a decade since the former Soviet republic had regained its autonomy.

Men resting on the frozen surface of Khövsgöl Lake.

He stayed for four weeks and traveled as far as Üüreg Nuur, a saline lake in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. There, he befriended a family of nomads at a seasonal encampment, joining them on their marmot hunts and helping to keep their herd of cattle safe from marauding wolves. It was the beginning not only of his lifelong love affair with the country, but also of his career as a photographer in his own right.

A herder at Tolbo Lake.

Since then, Frédéric’s work has featured regularly in some of the world’s most prestigious magazines (including, humbly, this one). More to the point, he has revisited Mongolia 13 more times on month-long excursions that took in all four seasons and every corner of this immense and enigmatic land. Travel was by car, by old Russian-built Tupolev planes, by horseback, and by camel.

A family assembling their own tent at a summer camp in the province of Bayankhongor.

Conditions were often tough; Frédéric recalls blizzards, sandstorms, subzero temperatures that would cause his Pentax 6×7 camera to jam, and a dangerous crack in an iced-over lake he was traversing. But he also encountered “some of the warmest and most hospitable people I’ve met,” and every camp and village he visited put him up in the spare ger, or tent, they kept for travelers.

A bird framed in the smoke hole of a ger—the traditional Mongolian tent— being assembled in the village of Sagil, near the Russian border.

“My greatest asset throughout this long-term project were Mongolian guides like my dear friend Enkhdul Jumdaan. They helped me understand local systems, traditions, and eccentricities,” he tells DestinAsian. “I also learned early on to adapt myself to the Mongolian rhythm.

A horse on the shores of Üüreg Lake.

The people could be quite unpredictable and sometimes downright frustrating, so I did minimal planning. But I always made a point of participating in the local customs, which is crucial to establishing trust. Whenever I arrived at a camp, I’d be offered suutei tsai—a salty tea made with cow’s milk—and homemade cheese or meats. In return, I would offer sugar and salt or cigarettes and candy, paper, and pens for the children. I always made sure to have a gift of some sort.”

A marmot hunter in the Üüreg Lake area returning home with his catch.

Mongolia is the culmination of these experiences—a 252-page large-format book filled with images that portray the country with a vividness rarely seen before. Shot entirely on negative film, the pictures convey luminous landscapes as varied as desert, steppe, and taiga forest, offset by intimate portraiture that captures the smallest details, from the fissured wrinkles on the face of a local ranger to the flushed cheeks of a swaddled baby.

A Soviet-era theater in the town of Choir, which lies along the Trans-Mongolian Railway some 250 kilometers to the southeast of Ulaanbaatar.

As the award-winning essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer says in his forward to the book, “Frédéric knows every inch of the land, it seems, but, more important, he knows its people inside-out. He has learned to see things with their eyes, and felt them with his heart … I look at the weathered, indomitable faces in Frédéric’s vision—the exalting landscapes—and I’m reminded not only of a trip that lodged inside my memory, as few journeys do, but of a world that I knew in some part of myself before I ever set foot in Mongolia.” 

Mongolia is available online here

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mongolia”).

Rediscovering the Beauty of the British Virgin Islands

Battered by a devastating hurricane last year, the British Virgin Islands are once again among one of the Caribbean’s most captivating destinations.

A signpost at Smuggler’s Cove on Tortola.

For a terrifying week in September 2017, Hurricane Irma carved an unimaginable path of destruction across the normally sun-washed Caribbean before barreling into the Florida coast. With winds building to 290 kilometers per hour, Irma became the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, and there was little anyone in its path could do except to batten down and pray. 

In the British Virgin Islands (BVI for short), Irma arrived late in the morning of September 6 and moved on seven hours later, leaving behind shattered communities. The wreckage felt like the aftermath of a cinematic apocalypse. “Officially, it was a Category 5 hurricane, but it was off the chart,” recalls Keith Dawson, the marketing manager at BVI’s tourism board. He shakes his head at the memory. Entire hillsides once swathed in great cloaks of casuarinas and flamboyant trees looked like a deranged cosmic hairdresser had taken a giant chainsaw and sliced everything off mid-trunk in a savage buzz cut. Buildings were hollowed out, their roofs tangled in the wreckage of cars and fallen debris miles away. Catamarans and boats lay half submerged at their piers.

“The electricity was out for four months,” Alden Sprauve tells me as we sit on the gently rolling deck of the Dark N Stormy, a handsome catamaran chartered from Florida-based yacht outfit Sunsail. It is nine months after Irma, and although it’s hurricane season in the Caribbean again, the winds are calm and the wide June sky is cloudless. “But that storm brought us all together. Nobody waited for the government to help us. We got out our backhoes, trucks, and machetes. Within three days of Irma, almost all the debris had been cleared from the roads and traffic was moving again.”

The rum bar at Cooper Island Beach Club.

Compactly built with lively eyes and skin like polished ebony, Sprauve is our skipper and guide for the next three days of island-hopping through the BVI, a British overseas territory to the east of Puerto Rico. The plan is to sail from Tortola and wind our way through a chain of islands whose names might have been plucked from a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure: Scrub Island, Fallen Jerusalem, Van Ryan’s Rock. 

The BVI’s 60-odd islands, islets, and cays are strung out like a jade-green necklace across 153 square kilometers of sea. The most idyllic—and logistically effective—way to take it all in is by boat charter. In the high season, these waters are said to bristle with super yachts and other fancy boats, though we pass mostly smaller vessels, most of them seemingly captained by friends of Sprauve.

Born and bred on the main island of Tortola, our skipper knows these waters like the proverbial back of his hand, rattling off the best places to pick oysters and conchs and to spear fish. Tortola’s King Garden Bay and the reefs of Jost van Dyke, he opines, are great for snorkeling and scuba diving. But if it’s a quiet beach for sunbathing you’re after, you can’t do better than Dead Man’s Bay at Peter Island. 

In an hour or so, we’ll head to The Baths, a natural formation of enormous boulders that have been carved over the ages by wind and water to create a series of cathedral-like caverns of unearthly beauty. “We need to go before noon,” Sprauve says in a voice of quiet authority. “Before all the tourists arrive.”

A sunsail catamaran at anchor in the eastern British Virgin Islands.

Here, bobbing on a clear warm sea filled with fish and coral painted with the vivid colors of a child’s pencil box, it’s difficult to imagine the nightmarish landscape Irma left behind barely a year ago. While signs of the hurricane’s damage—conservatively estimated at around US$3.5 billion—still scar the islands, many of the resorts we pass have emerged from multimillion-dollar restoration projects. Trees are being replanted and beaches re-sanded, though it will take another generation at least for the BVI to recover its pre-Irma lushness. 

The sense of optimism I encounter is palpable. Tourism, which accounts for 30 percent of the BVI’s GDP even before you factor in satellite industries like airlines and ferries, began flowing back almost immediately after the hurricane passed. That said, super yachts—long a familiar sight in this part of the world—have yet to return in any discernible numbers. “They’re a bit embarrassed, I think, to be showing off that kind of wealth when people are still reeling,” one local suggests. 

Visitors lacking the deep pockets required of yachting holidays are being drawn to a wide range of beachfront accommodation options. Hurricane Irma damaged almost all the islands’ resorts, but intensive repairs and upgrades mean that, save for the traumatized native foliage, it is business as usual again.

Cooper Island Beach Club on Manchioneel Bay, for instance, pairs 10 spacious guest rooms dressed in recycled teak and driftwood hues with an on-site microbrewery, ice-cream parlor, and a rum bar stocking the BVI’s largest collection of rums. Oil Nut Bay on the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda is a sprawling 120-hectare oasis of hillocks and villas, with the choicest rooms sited on high bluffs that come with private plunge pools and mile-long views of white-foamed surf and coral reefs. And Anegada Beach Club, left with a hefty US$3 million repair bill by Irma, is now luring glampers with beachfront palapa tents constructed of recycled timber and thatch.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who has long had his second home on Necker Island, has meanwhile resumed building luxury time-share villas on Mosquito Island, which he also owns; Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are rumored to have bought in. Branson has also been quietly funding restoration projects, earning himself serious brownie points with the local communities. One evening, at the Leverick Bay Restaurant on Virgin Gorda, we spy the man himself dining with his family. When, like breathless stalkers, we mention the sighting to our waitress at a different restaurant the next day, she smiles like an indulgent grandmother. “Was he wearing shoes? Mr. Branson hates wearing shoes.” 

Flamingos in the salt ponds of Anegada.

Later that day, after marveling at Conch Island—a gigantic man-made pile of discarded conch shells that rises three meters above the waves—we arrive at Anegada’s East End. Here, darting below the flashing surface of waters the exact shade of a Tiffany’s gift box, are hawksbill and green turtles. And in the distance, a troop of flamingos, their feathers painted an outrageous pink from their diet of crustaceans, carefully pick their way back to the flat grassy shoreline in a single file, like avian Maasai.

I am, I realize, entirely unprepared for this sun-drenched, white-sanded paradise. In my previous life as a corporate lawyer, I’d spent a lot of time buying shell companies in the BVI on behalf of my clients—there is no corporate tax—but I never once thought of it as a potential holiday destination. 

How, I wonder to myself one evening at Anegada Beach Club, the powdery sand soft beneath my bare feet, has the BVI so entirely escaped my attention? How did I not know about its unbeatable trifecta of sun, sea, and sand, which segue over long, languid days into a host of maritime pursuits or the simple joys of lying on any number of empty beaches, alternating between trashy novels and napping?

Part of the explanation for the BVI’s obscurity, I know, is that it’s a bit of a schlep to get here, especially from Southeast Asia. I blame the rest on my unadventurous geography teachers in school.

Softly, gently, the sea laps a whispery adagio against the dark shore. Peering up at a velvet-black sky dense with a thick dusting of stars, I listen hard and hear only the unending night.  

The Baths is a natural formation of boulders, grottoes, and rock pools on the southern end of Virgin Gorda.

Getting There

There are no direct flights to any of the British Virgin Islands from outside the Caribbean; travelers flying in via North America or Europe typically connect to Tortola from Antigua, St. Maarten, or the adjacent U.S. Virgin Islands.

Yacht Charters

Sunsail’s four-cabin catamarans offer a perfect mix of privacy and insider guidance from a knowledgeable team of local captains. 1-877/ 772-3502; bareboat charters from around US$5,800 for seven nights.

Where to Stay

Anegada Beach Club 

1-284/340-4455; doubles from US$320. 

Cooper Island Beach Club 

1-284/345-6725; doubles from US$235.

Oil Nut Bay 

1-284/393-1000; doubles from US$750. 

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Smooth Sailing”).

4 Clubs in Singapore Every Partygoer Should Know

 Live it up from dawn to dusk — from immersive clubbing to champagne-fueled beach parties.

Photo: Avry

1. Avry

The newest club in Singapore is a luxe 557-square meter space, featuring a photo-worthy mirrored entrance, gilded VIP bird cage booths, and an 11-meter long bar. Arvy, as its name suggests, is an aviary-themed club where the imagination is encouraged to take flight.

Photo: Avry

Helmed by the team behind ULTRA Singapore and some of Singapore’s most famed nightspots, Avry offers an immersive clubbing experience with roving performers showcasing Cirque du Soleil-esque stunts and enthralling dancers cloaked in little more than body paint.

More information here.

Photo: Bar Rouge

2. Bar Rouge

Taking over the long-standing New Asia Bar, Bar Rouge now calls the 71st and 72nd floors of Swissôtel The Stamford home. As the offshoot of the 13-year-old Shanghai club of the same name, Bar Rouge features a central bar with a cloud-shaped installation, performer cages, and various raised platforms for those who fancy showing off their moves. Come for its popular hip-hop nights and stay for its EDM, house, dance, and trance music.

Photo: Bar Rouge

Come for its popular hip-hop nights and stay for its EDM, house, dance, and trance music.

More information here.

Photo: Ola Beach Club

3. Ola Beach Club

For a much-needed dose of sunshine, head to Sentosa’s Hawaiian-inspired Ola Beach Club. In the day, the club offers family-friendly activities and various watersports like jet blading and stand-up paddling. When night falls, it transforms into a party hotspot, which has hosted a number of prominent dance music acts.

Photo: Ola Beach Club

On certain Sundays, partygoers can enjoy champagne and oyster promotions, alongside beer pong and live DJ. Don’t leave without trying the refreshing, rum-based tiki cocktails.

More information here.

Photo: Mao

4. Mao
Mao, a charming new club owned by operator Here Now Concepts, has taken over the former basement club Kyo. Embellished with 144 red lanterns, neon signs, and kitschy Asian-inspired decor, the club offers theme nights including Basement Soul Night and Ladies’ Night.

Photo: Mao

Partygoers will be spoiled for choice by its edgy playlists, which run the gamut from disco, house, garage, funk, to techno, trip-hop, and broken beats. After dancing up a sweat, head to the bar-kitchen for treats like truffle fries and lobster rolls.

More information here.

 

An Insider’s Guide to Hong Kong

Daisann McLane, travel journalist and director of private tour company Little Adventures in Hong Kong, shares some insights on her adopted home.

Curry beef sandwiches at For Kee.

Eat

I love the local neighborhood diners known as cha chaan teng. My favorite is For Kee (852/2546-8947), on the corner of Tai Ping Shan Street and Pound Lane. It’s a family-run hole-in-the-wall that’s about 40 or 50
years old; they make these amazing dishes with pork chop that is tenderized and then cooked to order. You can have it on rice or in a bun, though I also recommend the sandwich of curry beef and caramelized onion. Over on Mallory Street in Wan Chai, Ho Wah Café (852/2574-3069) makes an excellent milk tea in friendly, atmospheric surrounds—the diner has expanded into a row of restored shophouses from the 1910s. Among the city’s last remaining dai pai dong, or traditional open-air food stalls, is Sing Heung Yuen (852/2544-8368) on Central’s Mee Lun Street. One highlight is chui chui, or crispy toasted buns with honey; another is the macaroni in tomato soup. Nowhere else in Hong Kong does it better.

Inside Loveramics’ flagship store.

Shop

I usually send visiting friends
over to PMQ, where the shops are always changing and have an artistic bent. For local designer goods, you can’t go wrong with plasticized cotton tote bags from Mischa; they’re comparable to Goyard but a tenth of the price. Loveramics in Causeway Bay does some lovely pottery, mugs, and dish sets, all locally made. And on weekends, vintage hunters should seek out 
the utterly charming Sun Sat Store on the outlying island of Peng Chau. It’s curated by a pair of Cathay Pacific flight attendants who travel the world buying ’50s and ’60s knickknacks—like old wind-up toys and desk fans—made during Hong Kong’s golden age of manufacturing.

Enjoying a stroll through PMQ.

Hike

If you want to get away from it all, you have to go hiking. My idea of a great afternoon is to hop on a ferry to Lantau Island and hike for two hours from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo. It’s a little strenuous, but you pass a Trappist monastery and the views from the trail are extraordinary. Hong Kong is also full of pristine beaches that are only accessible on foot or by boat. On Lamma Island, hiking southward from the village of Mo Tat Wan (which has ferries to and from Aberdeen) will bring you to Tung O Wan Beach, where I once saw a woman harvesting sea urchins straight from the ocean.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Hong Kong Highs”).