TRAVEL: YOUR QUESTIONS

The obsessive traveller

Opium dens

Is there anywhere in the world where it is possible to smoke opium without being arrested?

Andrew Douglas

London

Phil Haines replies:

I hate to say this but opium is terribly bad for the health, even in places where it will not get you arrested. But I entirely agree with you that the question is an interesting one.

Laos and Burma share the dubious distinction of being the world's main opium producers. But due to the political situation and the power of the opium-producing warlords, I suggest that Burma is probably the least likely place in the world to be arrested for smoking opium. You may be obliged to pay officials baksheesh to turn a blind eye, but, other than that, the only danger lies in accessing the drug production areas.

As for Laos, I must tell you that its days as a safe place to smoke opium may be numbered. Laos has started issuing visas to tourists on arrival and there are now regular long-tail Thai boats carrying travellers over the river between Chiang Rai and Luang Prabang. While the Laotian infrastructure catches up with this influx of visitors, there is a faintly worrying chance of backpackers stumbling - unintentionally or otherwise - across the poppy fields of the northern Hmong tribal people. But possibly not for much longer: the government is encouraging them to move over to other cash crops.

Another popular spot for the consumption of opium is north-western Pakistan (where alcohol, interestingly enough, is illegal). And, throughout the years of instability in neighbouring Afghanistan, I have often noticed opium-heads from Japan, the US and Europe infesting the city of Peshawar. But beware: the Taliban now control most of Afghanistan and they have outlawed production of the drug in their areas.

Phil Haines - the youngest person to have visited every country in the world - runs a travel company, Live Ltd (tel: 0181-737 3725; phil.haines@live- travel.com), specialising in travel to special places.

Into Africa

I have always fancied myself as a latter-day explorer. Can you please tell me which is the least visited corner of Africa?

Jane Lansdowne

Croydon

Phil Haines replies:

I have no hesitation in recommending Equatorial Guinea as Africa's least well-known country. The mainland section (known as Ro Muni) lies between Gabon and Cameroon but it is the island of Bioko - formerly Fernando P - that is more interesting.

Under Spanish rule in the 1920s Bioko was the world's foremost cocoa producer and troubled with accusations of slavery levelled by the League of Nations. From 1969 it was ruled for 11 years by Macias Nguema, who was said to have been more brutal and ruinous than either Idi Amin or Emperor Bokassa. The population halved and a form of slavery was reintroduced until Nguema was finally executed in 1979 - not before burning the contents of the National Treasury, amounting to more than $100m.

Getting into this little country is no mean feat. I was obliged to smooth- talk the ambassador in Madrid for several hours before finally receiving my visa. There are diplomatic representations in Paris and Madrid, but it is usually easier to obtain visas in Libreville, Gabon, or Douala, Cameroon. You can fly there with relative ease via Madrid on Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) if you are prepared to pay pounds 1,300 for the pleasure, stopping over in the Spanish capital on the way. There are intra-Africa arrivals from Lagos and Douala. I wish you all the best for your trip.

The long march

I want to spend time walking the Great Wall of China. Is it possible to do this?

William Earl

Shrewsbury

The Travel Editor replies:

The main problem about walking the Great Wall of China is that it is so discontinuous. This is not only because some sections of it have crumbled away and disappeared, it is also because there never really was "a" wall. It makes more sense to speak of many walls, which were built at various times to reinforce different parts of China's northern border against marauding nomadic people of the Mongolian steppe.

Another problem is the sheer length of these walls: stretching from Shanhaiguan by the ocean to the wall's last fort in Jiayuguan, far away in the western deserts - about 4,000 miles.

Of course, it is easy to visit the highly renovated bits of stone-built wall nearest to the Chinese capital Peking. There are countless tour buses doing day-trips all year round. To visit more obscure parts of the wall to the west will require ingenuity. You could travel independently, visiting the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Gansu, where you will find the wall comprises huge mud ramparts. Gansu is a particularly good place for wall-spotting, as the roads and the railways run along- side its course here for hundreds of miles.

Otherwise, you could look for a specialised tour. A company called Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612) offers 10-night tours of China (including a few nights in Peking), which include four full days walking along some of the wilder stretches of the wall. The tours start in April next year and cost about pounds 1,000, which includes return flights, accommodation and most meals.

Canada on skis

We are two families of four with children aged five to 10 and would like to go skiing in Canada next February. We have not skied before. Could you recommend the best resorts and companies?

S Scott

Durham

Kate Calvert replies:

Of the three main resort areas, there are two that are more suitable for families. Quebec resorts, reached via Montreal, involve a flight of up to six hours, plus a 90-minute transfer to Mont-Tremblant. There is ski-in, ski-out accommodation in both self-catering chalets and hotels, with lessons at all levels. Temperatures can be low, dropping to -15C in February with highs of -6C, making conditions difficult for small children. However, if you are planning to go for just a week, the area would be worth considering because of the flight time.

British Columbia ski resorts are reached via Vancouver. The flight takes 10 hours, plus a two-hour transfer to Whistler, a purpose-built resort with plenty of ski-in, ski-out accommodation at all levels, and plenty of lesson options. Being nearer the coast, Whistler has warmer temperatures than other Canadian resorts, with averages of 3C. This can mean rain, but snow can usually be found further up the mountain. If only because of the temperatures, Whistler is a good place to stay with children if you are planning a two-week holiday.

You should note that wherever you ski you can lose days to bad weather. On the other hand, children's clubs and creche facilities are the norm and, of course, all tuition is in English, which will make life easier. Lift queues are also shorter than in Europe and accommodation more spacious.

Tour operators that you could approach include Canada specialists such as Frontier Ski (tel: 0181-776 8709), Vacation Canada (tel: 0141-332 1511) and Canadian Connections (tel: 01494 473173). The Canadian Tourism Commission has a winter guide with more on the resorts mentioned (tel: 0906 871 5000; premium rate).

Kate Calvert is editor of 'Family Travel' (tel: 0171-272 7441), the subscription- only travel publication for parents.

Singles over 30

Could you recommend any organisations offering holidays for divorced or single people in their thirties?

Miss S Pearson

London

The Travel Editor replies:

Solos Holidays (tel: 0181-951 2800) offers a variety of options for single people of all ages. Its 15-day tour of Nepal takes in sightseeing in Kathmandu and the Chitwan National Park, with white-water rafting and elephant trekking, along with four days' light walking at altitudes not exceeding 2,500 metres. The cost of the tour is pounds 1,635 per person for a twin room or pounds 1,965 for a single. The price includes return flights, transport, guides, excursions, and full-board hotel accommodation.

HF Holidays (tel: 0181-905 9558) offers walking holidays in Europe. Its tours in Nepal are popular with single people, although not exclusively geared to them. A 15-night tour comprises three nights in Kathmandu, four nights in the Pokhara Valley and the remainder in small villages along the way. The cost of the holiday is pounds 2,063, including the single person's supplement, return flights, transport, full-board hotel accommodation and guides.

Have you got a question or problem? Whether you want to know the best place to go for a holiday or have a legal or medical concern, we will be able to help. We regret we can only respond to published letters. Write to: the Travel Editor, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Fax: 0171-293 2043. E-mail to:sundaytravel@ independent.co.uk

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