Archive for December, 2007


I WON’T PRETEND THAT I’ve always been interested in traveling to Eastern Europe. Old Soviet Bloc era imagery dies hard I suppose; until high school I mainly just envisioned the region possessing two elements – cement and cold. But things have changed, and when I stare at the world map taped up to my apartment wall (as I often do) my eyes will drift to Budapest and Prague.

Of course, it is no secret that new generations of tourists and travelers are seeking to escape the high prices of Western Europe by branching out towards the east – apparently Prague’s locals have already caught on to this, driving prices up and muddling authenticity with more profitable kitsch. Now, according to The New York Times, the Czech capital is becoming a luxury destination – and this is supposed to be attractive?

The verdict is in. The Next Prague is … Prague. Stag parties have moved on, bohemians have left for cheaper rents, and youth hostels are being squeezed by luxe hotels. Joining a new Mandarin Oriental next year is the Augustine, converted from a monastery and other buildings into a Rocco Forte hotel, and the just-refurbished Hilton Prague Old Town, with a buzzing restaurant opened by Gordon Ramsay.

(from 53 places to go in 2008)

Perhaps I’m not the target audience of the NYT Travel section, but any way you slice it this kind of gentri-touristification (that’s my new fancy word) seems like a bad thing. Why would anyone want Prague to be anything other than…Prague? Why would anyone travel halfway across the planet only to be greeted by a luxury hotel similar to so many others found around the globe? How is it in any way desirable for affordable travel options to get “squeezed,” while options for rich jet-setters abound?


HRW Report: Crackdown

AFTER INTERVIEWING NEARLY 100 eyewitnesses in Burma, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has released its report on the violent crackdown in Burma this past fall (via BBC).

The report makes no recommendations to the Burmese junta, on the grounds that such pleas would be futile, and instead prods surrounding nations like China and India to take action. The entire report can be found here, and a haunting photo montage on the crackdown is here.

The people of Burma have sacrificed much in their effort to be free, and endured unimaginable repression. The least we can offer is our support. Please write to your local representatives – wherever in the world you may be.

Making the Long Haul? Get your Coffee On.

photo by yesmorelight

DESPITE WHAT THEY might tell you in drivers-ed, drinking coffee is apparently more effective than taking a nap in keeping sleepy drivers alert, according to a new study. An article in The New York Times the other day had this to say:

A driving instructor in the car counted the number of inappropriate line crossings during each driving test. Line crossings were measured because drifting over the center line or off the road causes 65 percent of sleep-related accidents.

The decaf drinkers racked up a total of 159 line crossings while drowsy, compared to just 2 line crossings during the daytime driving test. Nappers did better, crossing lines only 84 times. But surprisingly, the coffee drinkers did the best in the sleepy driving test, crossing lines a total of 27 times. [read full]

The Miles on my Traveling Shoes

WHENEVER I THINK about all the miles my shoes have seen, and about all the places to which they have carried me, I am reminded of a book that I keep meaning to read – Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. The opening paragraph alone is enough to stir a person’s soul out the door and to some far-off place:

The breezes of the West African night were intimate and shy, licking the hair, sweeping through cotton dresses with unseemly intimacy, then disappearing into the utter blackness. Daylight was equally insistent, but much more bold and thoughtless. It dazzled, muddling the sight. It forced through my closed eyelids, bringing me up and out of a borrowed bed and into brand new streets.

I hope that these new pair will carry me even farther.

‘Lost Horizon’ and Tibetan Kitsch

THE MUCH MUSED UPON Shangri-La is no more – if indeed it ever was. The Christian Science Monitor reports on how the town of Zhongdian has transformed from “heaven on earth” to “a high-altitude hell, choked by tour buses and overwhelmed by outsiders.” The community, once steeped in tradition, has now become little more than a shameless tourist trap (via China Digital Times):

“I remember it as a heavenly place,” Tibetan musical entrepreneur and local cultural icon Xuan Ke says of his birthplace. Living simply beneath the eternally snowy peaks of jagged mountains, “the people were very honest, kind-hearted, and rustic,” he says. “Now they have completely changed. The original spirit has disappeared.”

In the 1933 bestseller “Lost Horizon,” by James Hilton, Shangri-La is a secret and idyllic spot near the Himalayas. Many regions have claimed to be the inspiration for the imagined abode of the blessed, but China’s government officially endorsed the town then known as Zhongdian, in Yunnan Province, in 2001.

Ever since, the authorities in this town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau “have tried to build Shangri-La’s tourist brand,” explains Ren Jianhua, deputy director of the region’s tourism office. “We want to present it to the whole world.” […]

That approach has transformed a small village of wooden homes tucked along muddy lanes into a town covering 12 square miles and boasting more than 100 hotels. The so-called “old town” is not old at all: only one house has not been completely torn down and rebuilt in the past few years, residents say. [read full]

While in the rest of the world such cultural fakery is restricted to a street or tourist district, the watering-down of Tibetan culture into pseudo-spiritual kitsch is now pervasive throughout its lands.

Outsider political influence has had a hugely detrimental effect on the local religion, and to adapt the Dalai Lama has made a monumental change to a centuries-old tradition; to thwart any possibility that Beijing would prop up a pro-government successor, the 72-year-old Dalai Lama has said he will designate his successor while he is still alive (JoongAng Daily).

As travelers, are we contributing this mess by even setting foot near Lhasa? Even as we may seek an appreciation of one of the world’s oldest cultures, how do we save it from vanishing amid the crush of a shrinking world?

The Challenges of Expat Life

A FORUM BETWEEN SEOUL officials and the local expat community highlights the many pragmatic challenges that expats face in their adoptive countries (JoongAng Daily):

[…] In the ninth such forum, questions ranged from how to withdraw money abroad from South Korean bank accounts to why a national identification number is needed to purchase a theater ticket on a local Web site.

The room was packed with about 160 foreigners for the 2.5-hour meeting.

“I could not withdraw money from my Korean bank account with my ATM card when I was traveling abroad. But I saw my Korean companions withdraw money without any problem,” said Anne LaDouceur, the moderator of the meeting and a member of the city government’s Foreign Investment Advisory Council.

Some in the audience noted that they could not even use their ATM cards in Korea for several months after they opened new bank accounts here. “Nonghyup [Bank] recently refused to open my account even though I have lived here for four years and have an alien registration number and a passport. I was ashamed,” said a Nepalese man. [read full]

This also highlights the question of how traditionally closed societies – such as China, South Korea, and Japan – will adjust their infrastructure to as their immigrant communities grow.

RELATED NEWS: Korea is considering requiring criminal background checks from new English teachers after a recent child molestation case, which is certainly understandable, but the bureacracy that’s involved with getting these checks makes the process a logistical nightmare, at least for U.S. citizens not of Korean descent, as there apparently is no central agency that can provide these documents.

More visa information here.

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