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Travel Writing Competition 2014: Winning words

This year’s National Geographic Traveller (UK) writing competition — launched in October — saw entrants submitting some truly exotic travel tales. Choosing the finalists was a difficult task but we’ve whittled it down to the very best — here we reveal the prize-winning story, along with six runners-up

Travel Writing Competition 2014: Winning words
Adamtash Peak. Image: Alamy

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The results for the 2014 travel writing competition are in! This year, we received submissions from an unprecedented number of entrants, and what a talented bunch of well-travelled wordsmiths they turned out to be.

This year’s challenge was a tough one: to distil a compelling travel experience into just 200 words. But our readers rose to that challenge, covering the four corners of the globe in tales that travelled from mountaintop to ocean bed and most altitudes in between.

After deliberating over every piece, we came to the near-unanimous conclusion that our winner had to be Doug Warner and his atmospheric piece on Tajikistan.

“Thanks so much to all those who entered and a huge congratulations to our runners-up and to Doug, in particular,” said National Geographic Traveller’s editor, Pat Riddell. “His beautifully written piece on the Central Asian country of Tajikistan really brings a mountain campfire experience to life, drawing the reader in from the first few words.”

Our sponsors
Courtesy of Rickshaw Travel and Vietnam Airlines, Doug has won a 10-day trip for two to Vietnam. He and a guest will fly direct with Vietnam Airlines, to stay on the tiny tropical Palm Island, then travel on to Ho Chi Minh City to take a street food tour on a Vespa, followed by a cookery lesson in Hoi An. Doug will also spend a night on a Chinese junk boat among the karst mountains of Bai Tu Long Bay. And along the way, he’ll travel in comfort via private transfers and sleeper trains.rickshawtravel.co.ukvietnamairlines.com 
Rickshaw Travel
Vietnam Airlines


The winner: Doug Warner, Tajikistan

We sat huddled round the campfire in silence waiting for the charred kettle to boil. Silent, except for the braying of our donkey tethered to a nearby tree and the occasional, bloodcurdling rumbling of rock and ice as it relinquished its ancient grip and charged for 2,000 uninterrupted metres down the face of Adamtash Peak behind us.

A log shifted in the flames and I watched as the sparks rose and merged with the Milky Way, which shimmered like a runway overhead.

We’d been trekking for two days to get here: 9,500ft up, camped on the edge of KuliKalon Lake in Tajikistan. In the orange glow of the fire I could make out the tired face of our guide; he’d done well to get us this far. The donkey handler fiddled with his phone, the cook tugged at the edges of his frayed pakol hat, my friends were starting to doze off.

And then, without warning, as distant as the groaning mountains, the chef started to sing in deep, beautiful Tajik. In an instant the spell was broken. The boundaries of culture and language melted away into the freezing night. The kettle began to whistle and we smiled.

The runners-up

Claire Morsman, China

Inconceivably, no one disturbs me as I pause on the Bund and look away from the contrasting colonial and modern architecture for which Shanghai is renowned.

Ahead, bulky cargo ships thrum along the Huangpu; their lowered anchors bossily creating wake, while the cheeky junk hybrids catch the waves. In Huangpu Park behind me, a beat regulates al fresco dancers as metal buoys clank mournfully below, corralling plastic and old shoes. The scent of frying squid and swirls of boiling sweetcorn vapour marry then separate. A thousand cigarette exhalations hang wheezily in the morning air, yet a breath here tastes of the river water and the pending rain.

The Huangpu is frantic with flotsam. Two wrinkly balloons and a white plastic crate collide, apologise and collide again. Polystyrene icebergs jostle anxiously and squeak their indignity at becoming ever more rounded and indistinguishable. A tiger’s face gurns across the sky as a tout trawls a kite, and cranes double over in misty Lujiazui on the far side, their backs broken by the constant development.

An inquisitive Shanghainese teen with headphones and a furry-toothed smile nudges me to say hello… the moment dissolves. Thank you, spirited Shanghai, this moment of pause was overdue and worth the wait. 

Bethan Thompson, India

The potter’s wife pushed past me as I stepped into the courtyard. Barely acknowledging me, she busied herself mixing the pale-grey clay. I felt like an intruder, an unwelcome distraction to the day’s work.

Inside, the potter was kneeling, kneading. His son sitting, warming, and rhythmically beating stout pots; transforming them into wide, elegant vessels. Smoke from their stoves mingled with the vapours of hot clay, creating a haze like incense in a temple.

The potter motioned for me to watch as he spun a simple lantern. I tried to mimic his movements; the clay — smooth and gritty to my fingertips — slipped from my grasp. His wife discarded her boulder of clay with a thud. Crouching in front of me, she guided my hands.

Finally, my five uneven lanterns earned a nod of approval and a thimble of tea — cardamom sweetened. Over sips, I learned that Murti and her family are a rare find; potters from a potter family who still want, and are able, to earn a living from their traditional craft. I leave, hoping their son continues their work — as much a part of Rajasthan’s history as its forts and palaces.

Emma Stephenson, India

Bleary-eyed from the early start, we trudged along the street, dodging puddles and passing a young boy huddled beneath a weatherbeaten sheet of tarpaulin, sheltering from the rain. We climbed inside a rickety boat, aware of the eeriness along the Ganges compared to the chaotic hustle-bustle of the night before. As the glittering sun rose, we glanced at the calmness of daily life along the riverbanks. Children laughing and splashing one another as their mothers tried to wash them, in vain; women, a kaleidoscope of colours, dressed in their saris, cleaning their clothes in the river as they enjoy the day’s gossip.

The old man rowing our boat, growing tired and weary, cries out the familiar call of “chai?” at a passing friend. As he pauses for a drink, almost out of nowhere a small boat appears, ghostlike, rippling the tranquil waters. Two men delicately lower a body, painstakingly wrapped in beautiful cloths into the murky water, as his relatives mourn at the side of the river. Our rower picks up his oars once more and continues our journey, as we’re sadly reminded of the cycle of life and death.

Justine Board, Norway

This must be how distilled insomnia feels. It’s midnight on the Kattfjord, 350km north of the Arctic Circle, and I’m in a kayak drifting towards a pallid, spectral sun, hanging low in the still, cornflower sky. Hazy peaks and wooden shoreline cabins are captured, inverted, in languid, looking-glass waters, creating a bleached and sunken otherworld — neither liquid nor solid. In the winter half-light, humpback whales, orcas and sea eagles come in search of herring, but in summer the midnight sun confuses the body — used to twilights and dawns — and lulls it into a somnambulist state. Post paddle, we drink coffee and cook sausages over an open fire, swatting midges and celebrating the early hour, before returning to our base in Tromsø, the largest city in this watery outpost of northern Norway.

Tromsø hunkers down low, sprawling over Tromsøya island, with the iceberg peak of the Arctic Cathedral poking up above a wash of painted, wooden houses. The city is dwarfed by the magnitude of its landscape; for this is a place of mountains, fjords and islands; and vast, shape-shifting skies where nature’s panoply plays out and where summer’s incandescence will soon darken to winter shadow.

Natalie Laurence, New Zealand

In the cool morning when dew still clung to the earth, I climbed aboard the boat. It sliced through the ink-blue water of the fjord, exposing us to imposing mountains; their shadow shapes stencilled in the lightening sky. Where water gushed from the mouths of rocks and miniature canoeists glided, we edged out further to the widening horizon.

Milford Sound made an impression on me like no other wonder in New Zealand. It was a sight belonging to the sublime. At once beautiful and terrifying, here the raw power of nature could be seen; felt. A place to inspire writers as Shelley was once inspired by Mont Blanc.

As we swept in a soundless arc, a loud woman with smudged lipstick and pink claws cooed and groped at a group of seals sat out on a jagged limb; her sweet, chemical perfume in dissonance with the irony-wet smell of the fjord.

Water sprayed screaming revellers and I worked my way to the other end of the boat, where the cracked Tannoy voice was less audible. Rocky peaks disappeared into the bellies of clouds, which parted to reveal a blinding, mid-morning sun.

Emma Newland, Uganda

The density of the forest camouflages its many dwellers, but it’s obvious they’re here. Every so often the trees shake as a bird or monkey launches or lands. Every minute sound is magnified. I’m trespassing in a forest that, for the most part, is untouched — the property of the wildlife.

The tension is incredible. We’re getting close. We find ourselves staring down at a fresh pile of dung, right in the middle of the forest floor. The sheer size of it leaves me wondering about the size of its creator, and then, almost immediately, we hear him: his low grunt. He knows we’ve come, and I feel he knows exactly where we are. Steven, our guide, begins to grunt in return, sounding identical. He sweeps back some greenery and points into the blackness. All I can see is something shining pink, and, wait, bamboo being shoved into what I now make out to be a mouth. The wet pink becomes a nose. The rest is a black mass.

Steven pushes forward, carefully clearing the bush blocking our view. We move in together, keeping low and close. This is the silverback Kacupira. We’ve found the family of three. He sits, chomping on bamboo; his Buddha-like stomach falling over his feet. Kacupira doesn’t seem bothered we’ve arrived. On the contrary, it’s like he’s posing for us. Steven urges us to get closer; to take photos. But I feel I’m close enough, and besides, I can’t hold the camera steady.


Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)