In 2021, We Were There: The Year’s 14 Most Popular Dispatches

As the world reopened cautiously in 2021, our correspondents seized the chance to venture out in search of stories that would astonish, delight, provoke and enlighten. We went from the heights of a Himalayan ski slope to the ocean depths off the Philippines where amiable giants dive, and from a rugged island where a whistling language is still used to an Italian atelier where robots carve the sculptures.

If the pandemic often kept our reporters confined to urban settings in 2020, this year afforded them the chance to explore deep into the countryside. We observed a (bogus) diamond rush in rural South Africa and accompanied Indigenous hunters in Taiwan. We trekked to Canada’s beaver dams, swam in a contested stream in northern Israel and returned home to a Tuscan village sliding back in time.

Many dispatches arrived from places difficult to access even in the best of times, from ancient ruins in Syria now housing the desperate and displaced to an island off New Guinea full of war relics and human remains. We also made it to Babylon, Suriname, Kaliningrad, Saudi Arabia, Albania and “Trump Lake” in Kosovo.

Cities demanded attention, too: We put Cairo’s glorious and glitchy elevators (and its Tahrir Square) in the spotlight, along with the giant murals transforming São Paulo into an open-air art gallery. Our stories stretched from an empty Louvre to Rio’s dive bars to Hong Kong’s newly crowded nature spots. Kolkata merited two dispatches: on its fairy tale trams and its cafes, where it’s all about the conversation.

While travel was a little easier, the coronavirus still gripped the globe. Our dispatches revealed how the world was adapting, from England, where people were moving onto canalboats, to a shuttered Paris, where France’s bureaucracy was in overdrive. We shared our experiences at a quarantine camp in Australia and at a mostly empty Taj Mahal. In Mexico, we spent time with the country’s suffering piñata makers and at its unexpectedly upbeat vaccination centers.

The year’s biggest news stories also led to memorable and moving dispatches, from the hometown of Haiti’s slain president to a border region in Turkey re-energized by Syrian refugees. In Afghanistan, our reporters were there to witness the fighting on the front lines and the final withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Here are the 14 dispatches most popular with readers in 2021:

A crematorium ground for Covid-19 victims in East Delhi in April.Credit…Atul Loke For The New York Times

‘This Is a Catastrophe.’ In India, Illness Is Everywhere.

As India in April suffered the world’s worst coronavirus crisis, our correspondent described the fear of living amid a disease spreading at such scale and speed: “Crematories are so full of bodies, it’s as if a war just happened. Fires burn around the clock. Many places are holding mass cremations, dozens at a time, and at night, in certain areas of New Delhi, the sky glows.”

— By Jeffrey Gettleman, photographs by Atul Loke

Members of a Taliban Red Unit in Laghman Province, Afghanistan. The sneakers they wear have become synonymous with violence.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

In Afghanistan, Follow the White High-Tops and You’ll Find the Taliban

For many Afghans, unassuming white high-top sneakers with green-and-yellow trim evoke only one emotion: fear. That’s because they’re beloved by Taliban fighters as a status symbol, and the shoes have become synonymous with violence.

— By Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fahim Abed; photographs by Jim Huylebroek

At the intersection of Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard Sebastopol in Paris during the evening rush hour in September.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

As Bikers Throng the Streets, ‘It’s Like Paris Is in Anarchy’

An ecologically minded experiment to make Paris a cycling capital has led to a million people now pedaling daily — and to rising tensions with pedestrians. “It’s chaos!” exclaimed Sarah Famery, a 20-year resident of the Marais neighborhood, shaking a fist at a swarm of bikes. “It’s becoming risky just to cross the street!”

— By Liz Alderman; photographs by Dmitry Kostyukov

The port of Monfalcone, Italy, where some cruise ships bound for Venice docked.Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

Looking for St. Mark’s Square? You May Find Yourself in a Shipyard Instead.

On the weekend that Venice’s ban on cruise ships took effect, some tourists were surprised to be docked hours away from the city’s famous sights. “It’s not exactly as charming as Venice,” said the honeymooning Vittoria Comparone, as she looked out from her ships’ cabin — not over St. Mark’s Square, but at towering cranes.

— By Jason Horowitz; photographs by Giulia Marchi

Kristina Berning, 21, holding her cow Ellie with her sisters Celine (left) and Michelle (right) sitting next to them.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

On This German Farm, Cows Are in Charge. Or at Least Coequals.

The cows don’t have to produce milk. The pigs sleep late. Their only purpose is to live peacefully — and provoke questions about how we eat. “We need to think about how we can live differently, and we need to leave animals in peace,” said Karin Mück who helps run an ex-dairy farm in Germany turned into an animal retirement home.

— By Melissa Eddy; photographs by Lena Mucha

A juice vendor in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly before the city fell to the Taliban.Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

A Journey Through Kabul on the Day of the Fall

A Times correspondent who grew up in the Afghan capital returned just before the Taliban’s victory, taking in the end of one era and the fearful start of another: “In the hours before the Taliban walked into Kabul, and the two-decade quest to build a democratic Afghanistan tumbled into fear and uncertainty, I left my parents’ home to take a bus around the city. This was not a reporting outing. It was personal.”

— By Mujib Mashal; photographs by Mr. Mashal and Jim Huylebroek

Dirty jackets amid the rubble in the backyard of a home in Kesen, a month after the tsunami.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

A 1,000-Year-Old Japanese Village, Erased

The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, wiped away the ancient Japanese village of Kesen. In the past decade, a small group of survivors has valiantly tried to rebuild the community, but a grim reality has set in: This emptiness will likely last forever.

— Photographs by Hiroko Masuike; written by Russell Goldman

Tourists taking photos on the clean ice of Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia.

For Russians in a Pandemic, Lake Baikal Is the Place to See and Be Seen

With borders closed because of the pandemic, crowds of Russian tourists have traded tropical beaches for Lake Baikal’s icicle-draped shores. What’s the appeal, especially when the temperature is subzero? “The assault on the senses is otherworldly,” writes our correspondent. “The silence around you is interrupted every few seconds by the cracking underneath — groans, bangs and weird, techno-music twangs. Look down, and the imperfections of the glass-clear ice emerge as pale, shimmering curtains.”

— By Anton Troianovski; photographs by Sergey Ponomarev

A boar crossing in Haifa, Israel, which stopped shooting the animals in 2019.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Where Boars Hog the Streets

Groups of boars have become an unavoidable presence in Haifa, Israel, charming some while scaring others. “It became like an everyday thing,” said a chef who lets his dog play with the boars that putter around city parks. Bumping into one is “like seeing a squirrel.”

— By Patrick Kingsley; photographs by Dan Balilty

Joe Gallagher performing “the cure” for a man in Pullough, in County Offaly, Ireland.Credit…Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

Secret Charms and 7th Sons: ‘The Cure’ Is Alive and Well in Ireland

Belief in the benefits of the cure, a type of folk medicine that interweaves home remedies with superstition, religion and a sprinkle of magic is still a way of life in pockets of Ireland. “That we don’t believe in miracles doesn’t mean we don’t hope for them,” a professor of Irish folklore said.

— By Megan Specia; photographs by Paulo Nunes dos Santos

A team of researchers catching bats as they fly out of the Khao Chong Phran cave at dusk.Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

Thai Caves Attract Millions of Bats (and Now Scientists Too)

A cave complex at a temple in Thailand has long drawn tourists, pilgrims and guano collectors. Now, scientists have arrived, looking for links to the coronavirus. “I’m worried that one day bats will only be a legend here,” said a monk at a nearby temple. “If we lose our bats, we lose what makes us special.”

— By Hannah Beech; photographs by Adam Dean

Irene García-Inés, an artist, and Jesus Jato, an innkeeper, on the Camino de Santiago with Óscar, their burro.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

On Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Even Óscar the Donkey Is a Pilgrim

An artist and an innkeeper have enlisted the help of a burro in their effort to rescue the traditions of Spain’s ancient pilgrimage route from mass tourism (and selfies). “Losing these traditions, it’s like what if we lost the pyramids?” said one of the pilgrims. “We put a lot of value on monuments, but less on the small things.”

— By Nicholas Casey; photographs by Samuel Aranda

At a milk bar in Kigali, Rwanda.Credit…Jacques Nkinzingabo for The New York Times

At Rwanda’s Favorite Bars, Forget the Beer: Milk Is What’s on Tap

Milk is a favorite drink in Rwanda, and milk bars serve it up in abundance, fresh or fermented, hot or cold. “When you drink milk, you always have your head straight and your ideas right,” a patron said.

— By Abdi Latif Dahir; photographs by Jacques Nkinzingabo

Cheon Song-ja, 78; Hong Seok-soon, 77; and Na Jeong-soon, 85, on a taxi trip that would cost them pennies. Credit…Jean Chung for The New York Times

‘It’s a Godsend’: 9-Cent Taxi Rides in Rural South Korea

One county’s plan to help older, carless citizens stuck in remote villages proved wildly popular and has been copied across South Korea, revolutionizing public transportation in the countryside. “I probably know more about these old folks than anyone else because I drive them two or three times a week,” said one of the a 100-won (9 cent) taxi drivers.

— By Sang-Hun Choe; photographs by Jean Chung

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