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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Trip To Gaza

No, not me. I try to avoid, at least in theory, places with active armed struggles. My old pal, author Reese Erlich, is the opposite. He goes from one conflict zone to another. The last we heard from him, he was in Egypt, and before that in Cuba and Afghanistan. Gaza isn't exactly a tourist destination. But it's a historical and Biblical place and it can easily be on the route from history-rich Egypt to history-rich Israel... and Palestine. And as Reese told me, Gaza has a lot of potential for tourism, even if that needs to wait for political stability. "It's located along prime Mediterranean seafront. The local folks have enjoyed the sea, beaches and weather for many years. There's even a 5-star hotel built along the seashore, but not opened do to economic problems in Gaza."
There is no foreign tourism in Gaza at the moment because of the Israeli economic blockade. The Israelis restrict foreign travelers to journalists, aid workers, etc. The Egyptians don't allow general tourist traffic either.

The Hamas government is trying to promote what they call "internal" tourism, which means getting Gazans out of their houses and traveling to thebeaches, to parks, etc. The recreational area on the land formally occupied by Gush Katif is an example of internal tourism. It's as much a morale booster as an economic factor. So like everything else in Gaza, real tourism will have to wait until there's an overall political settlement.

Reese was in Gaza recently reporting for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. And it wasn't his first time in one of the world's most troubled areas:
In 2004, I reported from an Israeli settlement in the southern part of Gaza called Gush Katif. The ultra-conservative religious settlers living there told me Gaza was part of historic Israel, and they would never leave. Less than a year later, the Israeli government withdrew from Gaza and forced the settlers out.

A few days ago, I went back to visit the land that was once Gush Katif. The results were pleasantly surprising given my general disagreements with Gaza’s governing party, Hamas.

Back in 2004, I arrived in Gaza on a special road reserved for Israeli settlers and off limits to Palestinians. Gush Katif and other settlements dissected Gaza with settler-only roads. Palestinians couldn’t drive along the coastal highway. Military checkpoints dotted the alternative north-south road. Some days Palestinians got through the checkpoints, and other days they didn’t.

My trip to Gush Katif illustrated why the Israeli settlements are such a critical issue. It’s not just a question of settlers living on Palestinian land and commuting to Israel. The settlements require settler-only access roads, checkpoints and a constant military presence. Under those conditions, Palestinians can’t have sovereignty over their own country. They can’t even drive freely between two neighboring cities.

Since the unilateral withdrawal of Israel from Gaza in August 2005, the checkpoints and settlements disappeared. The coastal road is open. We turned onto a dirt road and there was the former Gush Katif. The city hall, schools and houses were gone. The Israeli military destroyed most of the buildings before departure. Palestinian scavengers walked away with the remaining cement blocks, rebar and other construction materials.

A few buildings still stand, along with the scaffoldings of former hothouses. “We had to rebuild everything,” says Mohammad Thuraya, director of Asda City, which now occupies the land.

The area around Asda City includes Hamas’ TV and radio station, a recreational park and agricultural land leased to local farmers.

In the park, families picnic, a water slide dumps screaming children into a huge swimming pool and a clown jumps around to the kids’ delight.

Outside the park, the Hamas government leased land to local farmers. Saleh Moshen has planted apple trees in the mixture of sand and clay that passes for soil in this part of the world. Within a stone’s throw of the former Gush Katif hothouses, he has several hundred trees.

“I don’t expect to make a profit right away,” he told me. “You need a few years for apple trees to be productive.”

The settlers used to export flowers and vegetables to Europe. Palestinians in other parts of Gaza also exported to Europe until 2006 when Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections, and Israel imposed economic sanctions on Gaza.

The Israeli pressure eased somewhat after May 31, 2010, when a flotilla of passenger boats from Turkey tried to bring supplies to Gaza. During the Israeli boarding of one vessel, nine people were killed and many injured.

The resulting international outcry forced Israel to modify its policies. Today, cement and construction materials can be imported, but only for previously approved UN projects. More food can be imported, and even a few new cars. Palestinian-grown flowers and strawberries can be exported, but in very limited quantities.

Allaa El-Rafati, Gaza’s Minister of National Economy, told me Israel’s policies still hurt ordinary Palestinians. Truck traffic between Israel and Gaza is only about 25 percent of what existed before 2005. “We’re particularly short of medicines and medical equipment,” he said.

Ordinary Palestinians would like to see an end to Israel’s sanctions and a return to normal life, but aren’t expecting that anytime soon.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Back from Tottenville!

Alas, the Pavilion at Conference House Park was used as a stage for the "musicians," and so was off limits to us Second Annual Raritan Bay Festivalgoers.

by Ken

So I really did it, and it all went off without a hitch -- the subway to South Ferry, the 10:30 Staten Island Ferry to St. George, the Staten Island Railway all to the end, at Tottenville, the walk to the Conference House Park Visitors Center for the Second Annual Raritan Bay Festival.

It's a good thing I'd been in the Pavilion at Conference House Park on my previous expedition to Tottenville. We ate our bag lunches in the Pavilion -- in the rain -- on that Municipal Art Society tour last month (link for Municipal Art Society tours: led by the remarkable Justin Ferate, without whom I would never have gotten to Tottenville once, let alone wanted to go back, or actually known where the heck I was going. As I explained last night, the view from the Pavilion was so reduced by the dreadful weather conditions that I could hardly see anything.

Today the weather held pretty well. There was a threat of showers, and from time to time the puffy white clouds gave way to gray ones of varying intensity, but mostly it was okay. So today I could see that what I thought looked like a view of the open ocean, but was really Raritan Bay, was no such thing -- the low visibility simply lopped off the Monmouth County shoreline. (Also, I have to say that Perth Amboy, across the Arthur Kill from Tottenville, looks more picturesque in the mist and gray.) Oh yes, the reason I was glad we'd made it to the Pavilion on that first trip: It was closed off to festivalgoers, to be used as a stage for the, er, musicians (I guess any group of people holding noise-making devices attached to amplifiers and speakers qualify as "musicians") scheduled throughout the afternoon.

This time, however, I made it down onto the beach, where I gave a wide beth to the kiddie kayaking that seemed to be drawing most of the crowd that had arrived in the first hour, in favor of the half-hour horseshoe-crab walk offered every hour by a smart fellow from the Staten Island Museum. (This seems to be my horseshoe-crab season.) I scored some cool literature from the tables of the aforementioned Staten Island Museum and a couple of other interesting-themed organizations (even including a free DVD from one, just for signing up for their e-mail list), and by then I'd been there an hour and decided I'd pretty well "done" the festival, and realized I was probably within striking distance of the S78 bus, which I'd scouted on my way to the park and which would take me close to the train station -- and which came exactly, and I mean exactly at the posted schedule time, 1:07, though I didn't take it all the way, realizing that (a) I would wind up getting to the station way too early for the next train, and (b) I would be deprived of the opportunity to fortify myself with some local victuals.

So I got off at the corner of Amboy Road and Main Street, which passes for a bustling intersection in Tottenville, and bought some local specialties at the Main St. Deli -- Sprite Zero and a Little Debbie peach pie (we urban gadabouts know that while gadding you need to provision yourself to last at least to the next deli). Then I walked on to the station and made the reverse trip again without a hitch. Since I was going to be home so much earlier than I expected, and from the ferry terminal had the whole of the city at my (and my unlimited MetroCard's) disposal, I did allow myself an only slightly out-of-the-way detour to Manganaro's Hero-Boy on Ninth Avenue between 37th and 38th. It was easy to set my sights on s chicken parmigiana hero. The agonizing part -- all the way from the ferry terminal to Manganaro's, in particular the walk from Seventh Avenue to Ninth -- was whether to eat in, as I normally do, or get the sandwich to go, so I could really celebrate the early return. (It was a tough call, but in the end I chose the "to go" option.)

Total travel time, deducting the added stopovers, was just over seven hours door to door. Which means roughly six hours traveling for one hour of festival. Is that a good ratio? You might not think so, but I thought it was a pretty swell adventure.

And the sandwich was, as always, wonderful. You'd think you wouldn't want to schlepp a chicken parmigiana hero around for another 45 minutes, but in fact, great as it is when you eat it freshly made and hot, when you let it sit like that, so it cools off and gets a little mooshy, it's just as good. The flavors mingle or something.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Urban Gadabout: To the end of the island (Staten) -- I'm headed back to Tottenville (weather permitting)

If you look out onto the water from Conference House Park in Tottenville, at the southern tip of Staten Island, you can imagine you're looking onto the open Atlantic Ocean, but off to the east skinny Sandy Hook juts northward from the Monmouth County shoreline, forming the eastern boundary of Raritan Bay. (For a larger view, click on the map.)

by Ken

If you don't have anything planned tomorrow between noon and 5pm, plus whatever travel time it would take you to get to Tottenville, at the southern tip of State Island, why not hie on down for the Second Annual Raritan Bay Festival?

It's going to be quite a schlepp for me from the northern reaches of Manhattan -- upwards of three hours if I do it the cheap way, by subway to South Ferry, Staten Island Ferry to St. George, the full length of the Staten Island Railway to Tottenville, then a 15-minute walk to the Conference House Park Visitors Center at Hyland Boulevard and Satterlee Street. I can cut a chunk of time off if instead I catch the X-1 express bus from Lower Manhattan across the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, connecting with the S78 bus on Hylan Boulevard virtually to within a block of the Visitors Center, but I have to be prepared to spend the $5.50 express-bus fare.

A conference took place there on Sept. 11, 1776, in the hope of resolving the unpleasantness (you may have heard of it -- the American Revolutionary War) between the newly-declared-independent Americans and their erstwhile colonial masters, the British. The Americans were represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge; the British, by their military commander in America, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, who was then occupying the house of Col. Christopher Billopp, which had been built in 1680 by his grandfather, British naval Capt. Christopher Billopp. (That's a reenactment in the photo, not the original event!) The conference doesn't seem to have accomplished anything. After the war, the actively Tory Billopp family was stripped of its properties.

Actually, I'm kind of looking forward to doing the walk between the SIR station and Conference House Park in at least one direction, which will be retreading old ground, from a Municipal Art Society walking tour to Tottenville led by the inexhaustibly knowledgeable Justin Ferate, on which we actually got to the Pavilion in Conference House Park, and also in the course of our tour visited a stunning private home where we got to meet a special guest, the preeminent historian of State Island, Barnett Shepherd, author of the 2010-published Tottenville: The Town the Oyster Built, published by the Tottenville Historical Society. (To put it another way, or maybe more or less the same way, the town was built on, and prospered from, the rich harvest of oysters in surrounding waters in the 19th century, until pollution put an end to its oyster trade.) Barnett had had quite a schlepp himself -- from the other side of the island, we were told, on an island that developed as a plethora of separate communities, where it's frequently not so easy to get from there to here.

On the May MAS Tottenville walking tour we made it to the Pavilion in Conference House Park at the southern edge of Staten Island, with a view across the Arthur Kill (separating Staten Island and New Jersey) of Perth Amboy, NJ.

The one downside to that trip was the weather, which was mostly rotten. By the time we got to Conference House Park, the overcast and mist were so heavy that, while we could see across the Arthur Kill, which separates Staten Island from the North American mainland, to picturesque Perth Amboy, NJ, we couldn't see much else, and it wasn't exactly an ideal day for exploring the shorefront.

A ferry used to join Tottenville to Perth Amboy, nestled between the Arthur Kill and the Raritan River ("perhaps the major drainage channel along the ice front throughout the Wisconsin glaciation," according to Wikipedia) Now they're linked by the Outerbridge Crossing, whose name derives not from a geographical description, as most of us initially suppose, but from Staten Island resident Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge, the first chairman of the Port of New York Authority. It's called "crossing," it was explained to us, because how goofy would "Outerbridge Bridge" sound? There are decent views of the bridge from the Tottenville railway station, by the way.

The Outerbridge Crossing over Arthur Kill, from Tottenville

For tomorrow the Conference House Park Conservancy is promising 45-minute shoreline walking tours (hourly, at 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30) plus "local musicians on two stages, crafts, exhibitions from maritime organizations and historic societies, and plenty of entertainment for children, including a petting zoo and water rides."

Provided the weather cooperates, of course. I mean, I've already seen the view from the Conference House Park in crappy weather, and it's not worth six hours' combined travel time for that again! (At the moment, is holding out: "Morning clouds/fog. Partly sunny in the afternoon. Spot thunderstorms." Uh-oh.)

An aerial view of the Pavilion in Conference House Park

Kathmandu Essentials: Flying, Breathing, Eating

Look really hard and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of Kathmandu

Did you think I was exaggerating the other day when I mentioned Kathmandu's air is the most polluted of any big city on earth and that it's dangerous to go out without a carbon-filter mask? See that photo above? When I first started visiting Nepal in 1971, you could actually see the Shangri-La-like city from the ridge of mountains that sound it. Now you're just as likely to see... filthy air.

And it turns out that it's even dangerous to fly in the soupy mess. The top story in today's English-language newspaper, Republica is ominously entitled "Smoggy Skies Threaten Aviation in Kathmandu."
Many times, environmental issues are sidelined with the assumption that its consequences will be gradual and hence can be dealt with in the future. The question is, how long though?

“We could’ve been killed in that flight. The air pollution in Kathmandu has gotten so bad that if people don’t act now, we’re putting lives in danger here,” Kevin A. Rushing, the former USAID Mission Director to Nepal, commented in a recent conference.

“Just when our plane was about to land in Kathmandu, due to thick smog over the Valley, we couldn’t see the runway, we couldn’t see anything.

The plane then had to divert all the way around, reroute and keep flying in such a condition despite the turbulence risking the lives of all people on board.” He added, “If things don’t improve, you’d really think twice about flying to Kathmandu.”

Captain Vijay Lama, a pilot with Nepal Airlines who has been flying for more than two decades, says that Rushing’s anxiety is valid.

“The flying conditions in Kathmandu have become terrible, especially during winter”, he says. “In winter, when fog combines with smoke and other pollutants in the air, the resulting smog worsens the visibility, and it’s far worse than when it’s foggy.”

According to Lama, the rising pollution can have drastic effects on visibility on both land and in air. “There’s an increase in the number of flights being backlogged, and there are always delays after delays.

It’s all because of the smog and haze condition,” he says. “As the smog is heavier, it settles in lower altitude, and with the amount of smoke and dust particles that adds on with the moisture in the air, it becomes denser, making it impossible to fly.”

Whereas smog is mostly formed in the winter due to the mixture of smoke and fog, haze often occurs in pre-monsoon seasons that have relatively dry air, combining with the smoke and dust or particulate matters or total suspended particles (TSPs) in the air.

The chemicals which contribute to formation of smog also include harmful man-made and naturally occurring compounds, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone.

As reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when these components of smog mix up, they can create dust clouds, black soot and gray fog. This can result in a smog cloud that can reduce visibility by 70 percent.

Captain Lama stresses that if the situation in the Kathmandu Valley isn’t addressed soon, the flying conditions will just get worse, and with the risks involved, the future of aviation in Nepal could be very bleak.

According to the 2006 report “Urban Air Quality Management Strategy in Kathmandu Valley” by Jitendra J. Shah and Tanvi Nagpal, atmospheric visibility data from Kathmandu’s airport, analyzed onwards from 1970, show that there’s been a very substantial decrease in the visibility in the Valley since about 1980.

The number of days with good visibility around noon has decreased in the winter months from more than 25 days per month in the 1970s to about five days per month in 1992/93.

“Visibility is the measure of the distance at which an object or light can be clearly distinguished or seen. In aviation, it can differ with the aircraft type,” says Mishri Lal Mandal, Deputy Director of Air Traffic Services (ATS) Division of Tribhuvan International Airport Civil Aviation Office (TIACAO).

Basically, for Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or visually aided flights, the minimum visibility to be maintained is 5km.

This means the pilot has to be able to clearly distinguish an object as far as five kilometers away with his eyes whereas for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) or instrument aided flights, pilots can fly even with the visibility is 800 meters while taking off and 1,600m for landing, he informs.

As helicopters in Nepal only operate with VFR, it’s more risky for helicopter pilots, according to Captain Nischal KC, helicopter pilot at Air Dynasty.

“When there’s haze or smog, it gets very difficult for pilots not just in terms of visibility but they also get disoriented and nauseous at times,” says KC “As helicopter pilots don’t have an instrument landing aid, we have to fly by considering the artificial horizon, and a lot of experience is required.”

KC adds that it’s the reason why during pre-monsoons and winters, when haze and smog problems are at its peak, new pilots aren’t allowed to fly without experienced co-pilots.

Ratish Chandra Lal Suman, General Manager of TIACAO, says, “Instrument flights for the Kathmandu Valley are more complicated with its hilly terrains. (So) We’re planning to bring Required Navigation Performance Authorization Required (RNPAR) technology that can help flights operate even in poor visibility as it operates through satellite signals and follows a specific path and reduces pilot workload.”

Suman shares that the increasing trends in poor visibility conditions result in flights being diverted or stranded. Then, as soon as the conditions become favorable, flights start piling up, and there’s more load than the capacity of the terminal building.

"Safety is our first concern. So we don’t authorize any flight to operate in poor visibility," says Suman. "Besides that, we also lose out on a lot of revenue when flights have to be cancelled, diverted or rerouted due to poor visibility."

KC, however, points out that flights and helicopters are also given the go ahead if there’s a visibility of more than 1,000m. From then on, it’s the pilot’s decision whether to fly or not.

In the article "Are Nepali Skies Safe?" by Amish Raj Mulmi and published in the Kathmandu Post in August 2010, Lama also mentioned that there is pressure for pilots to fly no matter what the weather condition or visibility is like. And the pressure came from everywhere-- political leaders getting late for a meeting, to airline operators losing out on revenues.

...As air pollution in Kathmandu worsens and its skies become obscure with layers of haze and smog looming in its atmosphere, nothing is being done to assure the safety of the thousands of passengers flying in and out of there everyday. Civil aviation remains at risk, and if these conditions remain unchanged, it can only get worse.

Health impacts, Dr Arjun Karki, Chest Specialist at Patan Hospital, says that the primary effects due to smog or haze would obviously be on respiratory health.

"Lung diseases can become chronic, proportionate to the concentration and density of smog," he says. "And if the gases present in the smog comprise specific toxins, the harm could be even greater."

According to Karki, on one hand, smog and haze can aggravate the health of people who already have respiratory problems, like asthma, it can also trigger lung disease in healthy people as well.

"Besides, it also depends on the length of exposure," he says. "Besides respiratory health problems, it can also cause eye irritation for some people."

However, Dr Mukunda Prasad Kafle, physician and Lecturer at the Teaching Hospital, says that while the unhealthy effects of smog or haze in particular can be many, not enough studies in this regard have been conducted here.

"As smog and haze come under air pollution, we can deduce that the health problems are similar to the ones caused by air pollution, like lung diseases and other respiratory problems. And smog can have its own adverse effects as well."

Safe to fly into Nepal? Not anymore safe than breathing the air when you get here. And this week, the tarmac at Tribhuvan International Airport buckled, "developed" potholes, and collapsed, delaying all international and domestic flights to and from and within the country for at least three hours. There seems to be a consensus that the board of Nepal Airlines is responsible.

Lucknow's nearby & Kathmandu's Kakori offers fabulous Awadhi cuisine

Now what about the restaurants? Nepal isn't a culinary destination. The best that can be said about the restaurants in Kathmandu is that they're pretty good... for Kathmandu. The acclaimed tourist spots in the tourist ghetto of Thamel are universally mediocre, although some are rated less mediocre than others. But there's no reason to ever visit one twice, unless you're just looking for fuel for your body. There were three stand-outs and I'll leave the best for last, since it's the only restaurant in the country that's actually good, not just "good for Kathmandu.

We had dinner twice in what used to be the best Indian restaurant in town, Ghar-e-Kabab in the Hotel de l'Annapurna on Durbar Marg (Kathmandu's sad version of 5th Avenue). It's relatively fancy and formal although, by our Western standards, pretty inexpensive for a quality meal. Like all restaurants we visited, around half the menu catered to vegetarians and they're very aware that most westerners are afraid of spices. If you tell them you like it spicy, they give you a normal Indian meal.

We also ate in a few of the tourist-only Nepali restaurants that serve authenticish Newari food (surprisingly decent with music and dancing). The best one was Bhojan Griha on Dilli Bazaar, a medium walk from Durbar Marg. It's in an historic old house and the hospitality is wonderful. The set meals are fine and they offer an à la carte menu as well. We found the food much better than in Thamel House, an old hippie standard, or the newer Utsav, which-- at least the night we were there-- seems to cater primarily to tourists from China.

Now, the one world-class actually excellent restaurant in the whole city is Kakori, an Indian restaurant in the Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel, far the hell away from anywhere else in town-- a 200 rupee taxi ride (less than $3). It was briefly called the Bukhara, having been developed and run by the folks from the restaurant of the same name in New Delhi's Sheraton, probably the best high-end restaurant in India. I reviewed it when I ate there in 2007. Kakori serves Awadhi cuisine (from Lucknow) and the restaurant's menu was developed by Nawab Sayed Nazir Haider Kazmi, grandson of Great Nawab Mir Wazir Ali Kazmi of Kakori, Uttar Pradesh's princely family. We had as good a dinner as we would have had in a fine Indian restaurant in India or London and at a fraction of the price, though expensive by Nepal's standards. And if you read my review of the ultra-rich dahl they serve in the Bukhara in Delhi... yes, it's pretty much the same-- not exactly but at least just as good.

We're staying at the Yak & Yeti and their signature restaurant, The Chimney-- which I remember as Boris'-- serves Russian and "continental" cuisine. The menu didn't appeal to us and we passed it up this time around. My tip: acclimate yourself to the fact that Nepal has other traits than great cuisine (or air) to recommend itself and... bring some of your favorite bars with you as a backup.

UPDATE: Tourist Plane Crashes Near Kathmandu

Both times I went to get a look at the Himalayas, I walked. This last time, we noticed there were flights-- really expensive ones-- that take a couple dozen tourists for a ride around Mount Everest. One of them crashed today, killing everyone on board.
A plane carrying tourists to view Mount Everest crashed while attempting to land in dense fog in Nepal on Sunday, police and eyewitnesses said. A witness said 18 bodies were pulled out of the wreckage of the plane, which was carrying 19 people.

The Beechcraft-made plane belonging to Buddha Air was carrying 16 foreign tourists and three crew members and crashed in Bisankunarayan village, just a few miles (kilometers) south of the capital, Katmandu.

...An eyewitness, Haribol Poudel, told Avenues Television that the plane had hit the roof of a house in the village and that 18 bodies were pulled out. He said a man who appeared to have survived was taken to a hospital.

Poudel said it was foggy, and that visibility was very low in the mountainous area... The plane had taken the tourists to view Mount Everest and other high peaks and was returning to Katmandu. The “mountain flight” takes tourists over the Everest region, and passengers can view some of the world’s highest peaks from the airplane windows.

Most of the tourists on board were Indian-- most tourists in Kathmandu are from India-- but there were two Americans on board as well.

Patan Durbar Square-- before and after

UPDATE: Katmandu Valley Earthquake

April 25, 2015 saw another devastating earthquake in Nepal, right in the Katmandu Valley, where most Nepalis live. Over a 1,200 people died, perhaps many more. Each city in Nepal has a main religious square (Durbar Square). The Katmandu Valley has three: Katmandu's, Bhaktapur's and Patan's. One of the first reports was that Patan's Durban Square was utterly destroyed and that buildings were damaged all over Nepal and in northern India.
Officials in Nepal put the preliminary number of deaths at 1,246, nearly all of them in Katmandu and the surrounding valley, with 4,108 injured. But the quake touched a vast swath of the subcontinent. It set off avalanches around Mount Everest, where several climbers were reported to have died. At least 34 deaths occurred in northern India. Buildings swayed in Tibet and Bangladesh.

The earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7.8, struck shortly before noon, and residents of Katmandu ran into the streets and other open spaces as buildings fell, throwing up clouds of dust. Wide cracks opened on paved streets and in the walls of city buildings. Motorcycles tipped over on their sides and slid off the edge of a highway... Though many have worried about the stability of the concrete high-rises that have been hastily erected in Katmandu, the most terrible damage on Saturday was to the oldest part of the city, which is studded with temples and palaces made of wood and unmortared brick.

Four of the area’s seven Unesco World Heritage sites were severely damaged in the earthquake: Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a temple complex built in the shape of a conch shell; Patan Durbar Square, which dates to the third century; Basantapur Durbar Square, which was the residence of Nepal’s royal family until the 19th century; and the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas.

For many, the most breathtaking architectural loss was the nine-story Dharahara Tower, which was built in 1832 on the orders of the queen. The tower had recently reopened to the public, and visitors could ascend a narrow spiral staircase to a viewing platform around 200 feet above the city.

The walls were brick, around one and a half feet thick, and when the earthquake struck they came crashing down.

The police on Saturday said they had pulled around 60 bodies from the rubble of the tower. Kashish Das Shrestha, a photographer and writer, spent much of the day in the old city, but said he still had trouble grasping that the tower was gone.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Failed States Of South Asia-- India's Unhappy Neighborhood

In some ways India and its neighborhood is about as different from the U.S. as you can possibly be. I've been writing about that since I first went there in 1969. But, viewed from Kathmandu-- where the tourist scene these days is almost all Indian and where the English language TV channels are all Indian-- India is very much like the U.S. Oh, not that India... the other one, the 21st Century one. That one watches Glee, How I Met Your Mother, HBO and Indian TV shows that display a culture so disgustingly celebrity-oriented that it even puts our own to shame... well almost. I don't know what they call Madison Avenue in Mumbai but, God do these guys ever run the show.

I just watched an episode of a popular show, India's Most Desirable. I don't recommend it... but go ahead:

India has (another) problem. It's surrounded by the world's most failed states Africa's worse. Somalia's #1. Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, and the Congo, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Niger, Burundi, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, even Ethiopia are right up there among the world's most vulnerable countries. But none of those places are as much like our country as India is. And India's neighbor's... every single one of them is high on the list of the most failed states index:
#7- Afghanistan
#12- nuclear-armed Pakistan
#18- Myanmar
#25- Bangladesh
#27- Nepal
#29- Sri Lanka
#50- Bhutan

India doesn't have any other neighbors-- except Tibet, which isn't considered a country, but a region of China. But the occupation forces there apparently feel there's a problem. They just pulled all foreigners' visas for a month. I know. I was supposed to be there now.
On Pakistan, the report said, "Pakistan has long been dubbed the world's most dangerous country in Washington policy circles" and "yet Pakistan isn't just dangerous for the West-- it's often a danger to its own people."

On Bangladesh, the report said, two of five Bangladeshis live under the poverty line. Any improvements will also be fighting the environmental clock. If sea levels rise just by 1 metre, scientists warn, 17 per cent of the country could be submerged.

"Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia, according to the United Nations, and that's unlikely to change until the peace process is implemented and security restored. There are signs that the Maoists may be losing patience-- and thinking about going back to the trenches to fight for more," the report said.

On Sri Lanka, it said, "The government's final push against the rebels relied on the shelling of civilians and other atrocities, according to a 2010 report by the International Crisis Group.

"The most recent statistics from last year indicate that some 327,000 are still displaced from the conflict."

"Despite the pronounced fractures still lingering, the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo seems eager to forget the past," it added.

I've visited almost all these countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1969 and 1972; Nepal 3 times, Sri Lanka in 1970 and again in 1997, Myanmar in 2007. I tried getting into Bhutan this month but it was so complicated and bothersome-- and the monsoon is so awful-- that we decided to go to Nepal and Tibet instead-- a bad idea (at least the Tibet part) because China was able to pull the rug out from under us suddenly after a year of planning. Do I feel like I'm in a failed state when I'm visiting these places? HELL YEAH! They're all unsafe on one level or another, usually more than one level. Some I affectionately refer to as hellholes. Even if we don't wind up in an airplane mishap here or get caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and garden variety Communists, Roland is certain we're taking a year off our lives just by breathing the air in Kathmandu.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kathmandu, Not #1 For Much... Except Pollution

I'm guessing anyone will look this dirty if they walked around Kathmandu for a day or two

I don't remember Kathmandu being especially more polluted than any of the Asian cities I visited in the late '60s and early '70s. Even in 1991, the last time I was here, the air quality wasn't especially unbearable. It is now. If there's one item not to forget when you plan a trip to Kathmandu, let it be as high a quality face mask as you can find. I've got one with a carbon filter by a company called I Can Breathe! I wouldn't go out of my hotel without it. Think I'm exaggerating? A couple weeks ago the Vancouver Observer published a feature by Linda Solomon, Air Pollution in Kathmandu Off The Charts.

She starts by pointing to a World Health Organization report that declares Kathmandu is now the most polluted city in Asia. The air here can kill you.
WHO scientists estimate 537,000 people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific die prematurely each year due to air pollution. The level of PM10 in the air of Kathmandu is 120 microgram per square meter. As per the standard of the World Health Organization, the level of PM10 should be 20 microgram per square meter. The level of PM10 is higher than the official standard in most of the places of Kathmandu valley.

The air in several Asian cities will kill you sooner of later: Beijing, Dhaka, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Kolkata, New Delhi, Shanghai... But Kathmandu is worst of all, a big development since our report on the world's worst city air in 2009. In the list from 2004 Kathmandu didn't even show up in the Worst 20. Solomon knew it was going to be polluted but she wasn't prepared for how terrible it is now. No one could ever be.
Kathmandu in the dark on the way to the hotel from the airport had been hard to evaluate, beyond the obvious: people were poor.   Millions.   And the air stank and didn't go down easily into the lungs.  It was as bad or worse than the air I breathed in New York City right after 9/11.  I had fled  from post-World Trade Centre attack air, because I couldn't inhale it, and I believed it would do serious damage to my children's health.  And people here were much breathing worse, like it was normal. They were stuck in it. 

I had certainly HEARD about the pollution in big cities in the developing world. I'd experienced it in the nineties. But  between the nineties and now, pollution had taken quantum leaps. I thought of my friends in Canada working so hard to fight climate change. By comparison Canada seemed so pristine. Here was where the real work would need to happen. Cities in the developing world. Cities like Kathmandu.

The noise pollution is easily the worst I've ever heard. All drivers honking all the time. It's almost unbearable to be out in traffic. That's why everyone who comes to Kathmandu can't wait to get away from the valley as soon as possible.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Nepal Heading Backwards On Same-Sex Marriage?

I was especially glad I've been taking my Rhodiola Force 300, which purports to help you feel more energetic and improve your mood, mental alertness, memory, and physical endurance but was recommended to me by an L.A. herbologist as something to help with altitude sickness. It's derived from Rhodiola rosea or Rose Root, an exalted herbal stress “adaptogen.” It thrives in high altitudes and in nature’s most challenging climates and is supposed to enhance concentration and endurance and support optimal immune, adrenal and cardiovascular function under conditions of severe stress. It's advertised as being "widely used by Russian athletes and cosmonauts to increase energy, Rhodiola delivers the promise of an inner oasis of peace and energy in our hurly-burly world... Those phytonutrients include numerous and unique anti-stress compounds like rosavins, salidrosides and other biologically active compounds." I spent yesterday trekking in the Himalayan foothills at around 8,000 feet. And I felt great, even in the rain. We were wandering around, looking down at the clouds, in knee-high rubber boots, sure we were protecting from the leeches. That was why we came to Nepal. That and... well this very accurate description by Frommer's that updates my own first memories of the place from a far more tranquil (and less "developed") 1971:
Kathmandu. The very name conjures up images of snow-covered peaks, snake charmers and mountaineers, holy men and sacred cows. Perhaps no other city on earth has seemed so mysterious. This city, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, lies in a wide valley hidden behind a wall of nearly impenetrable mountains. Today, winging into Kathmandu on an international flight, the Mahabhaharat Range slides by below as the Himalayas shimmer in the distance. The jumbled landscape doesn't give the appearance that it could ever provide a level surface large enough to land a Boeing or Airbus. Then, as the peaks below grow uncomfortably close to the belly of the plane, mountainsides give way to gentler slopes and terraced hillsides, which are dun-colored in the post-monsoon months favored by trekkers. Brick houses dot the fields of a seemingly idyllic rural setting. Suddenly the city comes into view-- uniformly brown and low-rise, it sprawls across the valley floor. There's a quick glimpse of a huge white hemisphere in the distance, and suddenly the plane is on the runway. The passengers breathe a communal sigh of relief for having safely landed amid the Himalayan peaks. The excitement is palpable as passengers wait to deplane. Through the door lies Kathmandu, city of mystery, the most exotic city in Asia.

However, as feet hit tarmac, the reality of modern-day Kathmandu immediately comes to bear. The arrivals hall is a zoo and no one seems to know what to do. Guards want to inspect your bags as you leave the arrivals hall. Outside, hordes of taxi drivers, porters, and hotel touts block the exit door. Beyond the airport gates, the streets are chaotic at best. Clouds of blue-black smoke billow from diesel trucks, buses packed like sardine cans stop in the middle of the road, cows wander aimlessly, and horns blare incessantly. The smoke of funeral pyres mingles with the stench of garbage. Women in colorful saris dash out of the way of your careening taxi as it bounces upon potholes large enough to swallow a car.

However, once you have settled into your hotel, you can venture out onto the streets of old Kathmandu, where a different picture slowly begins to emerge. Kathmandu is a city of alleyways leading into the unknown, a city where roadside shrines are sprinkled with marigold petals and aging temples double as produce markets. Strange odors--a melange of incense, cow dung, and rotting garbage-- drift through the streets. Eerie discordant music-- the tinny jangling of cymbals, the drone of a harmonium, the pulse of drums-- might fill a nearly deserted square at nightfall as musicians sit hunched over their ancient instruments on the floor of a tiny temple. In the market, vendors swaddled in woolen shawls sit behind baskets full of mandarins and radishes. Kathmandu has been called a medieval city, and it is hard not to think of it as such as you wander its back streets. The lanes are narrow, and in the oldest parts of town, there is little traffic (though the few cars and motorcycles that venture into these ancient alleys make frequent use of their horns). People do the heavy work here, not vehicles. They carry heavy-laden baskets on their backs or slung from poles across their shoulders. Perhaps time has not completely stood still in Kathmandu, but it certainly has not passed as swiftly as it has in other parts of the world.

For more than a hundred years Kathmandu was cut off from the outside world by a government that wished to keep the country isolated. When the royal family was restored to power in the mid-1950s, Nepal opened its borders and the painful process of entering the 20th century began. Today, Kathmandu has much of the Western world's technology, but alas, many of its environmental and social woes as well. There are cars and computers, fax machines and factories, cellular phones and satellite TV. There are also traffic congestion and smog, deforestation and unemployment. However, with the help of the West, Nepal is working to overcome these problems. Kathmandu is certainly no Shangri-la, but it is one of the world's most fascinating cities, nonetheless.

Last year we saw how Nepal had moved so far as to legalize same-sex marriage after the people dumped the monarchy, like anywhere a bastion of conservatism, and embarked on a new progressive path. Well, we're not here to get married and it probably wouldn't have even crossed my mind except when I was in our hotel's business center I tried to access a post Ken wrote at DWT about the politics of same-sex marriage in the New York State Senate, a place not nearly as advanced as Nepal. There's nothing "sexy," let alone prurient about the post. But it was auto-blocked on the public internet. (I can access it in my room over the same wireless system.)

There's a Communist primer minister, a Maoist revolutionary opposition and one of the world's most vibrant revolutionary atmospheres in Nepal now. But there are also second-thoughts about the legalization of same-sex marriage, now three years old.
Gay rights activists are alarmed by a new bill that could become law soon if approved by parliament as part of the government's bid to modernise the legal code-- Muluki Ain, or law of the land-- formulated in 1854 first.

The law and justice ministry, in consultation with judges, has completed the drafts of a new criminal code and a civil code of law, which were submitted in parliament recently after being approved by the council of ministers. ... The marriage clauses in the new codes define the union as only that between a man and a woman, treating homosexual unions as "unnatural sex offenses."

"The proposed civil and criminal laws contain provisions to re-criminalise so-called 'unnatural sexual offenses'," [said Manisha Dhakal, a transgender and senior member of the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal's pioneering gay rights organisation]. "These attempts by the law ministry are a clear sign not to follow international human rights standards, a clear intention not to implement the Supreme Court's decision and also go against the spirit of the interim and new draft constitution of Nepal."

In November 2008, Nepal's Supreme Court recognised homosexuals as a "natural people" and asked the government to ensure that they received the same rights and considerations as any other citizen. In the landmark judgment, the court also ordered the government to enact laws to allow same-sex marriages.

...Since 2008, Nepal has established itself as a gay rights haven with people flocking to the Himalayan nation for same sex unions.

In the past, couples from India and Britain have tied the knot in Nepal and during the monsoon, the Blue Diamond Society has planned a public wedding between a lesbian couple from the US.

The weddings are part of the community's effort to draw gay tourists to Nepal and have been welcomed by Nepal's tourism ministry, which is celebrating 2011 as Nepal Tourism Year with the target of bringing in one million air-borne visitors.

On my way to Nepal, I stopped over for a couple days in Hong Kong, one of the world's most modern cities. In many ways it's more modern, at least superficially, than any city in the U.S. But not in a gay way. There was a big to-do over the city-state, a semi-autonomous part of China, hiring a "gay conversion expert" to "cure" government employees.
Hong Kong has hired a prominent local psychiatrist who claims he can "re-wire" homosexuals as a trainer for its social welfare staff, sparking outrage among gay rights activists on Friday.

Critics said the move could be the world's first government-sponsored training session on gay conversion therapy, which includes prayer, cold showers and practising abstinence as a way to avoid same-sex relationships.

"The government seems to think that homosexuals are possessed by evil spirits and needed to be 'cleansed' or 'cured' through conversion therapy," Joseph Cho, a spokesman for gay rights group Rainbow Action, told reporters during a protest outside the city's Social Welfare Department Friday.

"They are criminalising people with same sex orientation-- this is an international joke," he added. ... Despite its reputation as an international financial hub, critics said Hong Kong remains a conservative city when it comes to gay rights, only decriminalising homosexuality in 1991.

A government survey in the 1990s concluded that most Hong Kong residents were "not ready" for laws banning discrimination against homosexuals, and the city had made little headway since to protect gays, said Dora Choi, director of the Gender Studies Committee at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"(But) this is very bizarre that the government would sponsor classes like these," she told AFP.

"It is the first time the government has publicly taken a stance on this issue. (It) should be neutral but it is obviously taking sides," she added.

Maybe both these countries are ready to write off gay tourists and eager to invite evangelicals instead. Good luck with that!

UPDATE: This url is blocked here!

I guess "same sex marriage" triggers an auto-blocking mechanism. But this one isn't just blocked in public areas but in my own room! I feel like I'm back in Myanmar!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Two toxic-waterway tours in a single week -- does it get any better?

Scenic Superfund site: Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal

by Ken

The tease on the contents page of this week's Time Out New York got me: "Explore Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal, two of NYC's Superfund wonders." I confess that both of these industriaily befouled NYC waterways have fascinated me for ages, and I've become increasingly curious about having more or less direct contact with me.

Newtown Creek is the western segment of the boundary between the borough of Queens to the north and Brooklyn (which is Kings County, of course) to the south. Gowanus Canal is the man-expanded expansion of a onetime tidal inlet which links the onetime industrial heartland of central Brooklyn to Upper New York Bay. Both are massively polluted, and have been anointed Superfund sites, though it's my understanding that so little action is being taken on so many sites ahead of them on the list that one might not want to hold one's breath till the fund gets to them. One might, however, wish to hold one's breath around them for other reasons.

There has been increasing attention paid, and actual visitation, to both. Hence my response to the TONY tease. But imagine my horror when I thumbed ahead and found an entire magazine page devoted to a pair of events dedicated to these woebegone waterways, and it turned out that the events in questions are tours offered by the Municipal Art Society (MAS; the website is an incredibly easy-to-remember, which I already have marked as "must do"s on my calendar:

* Crossing Newtown Creek, this Wednesday evening (June 15), led by one of my most valued tour leaders, urban geographer (and Queens borough historian) Jack Eichenbaum.

* Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, this coming Sunday (June 19), led by MAS mainstay Matt Postal, an architectural historian with whom i've done countless tours, most recently day before yesterday: a tour of the skyscrapers of Park Avenue (starring Lever House and the Seagram Building, of course).

Now I hope it's blindingly clear that the horror to which I referred above is no reflection on the tours themselves. Let me stress that it would take some sort of personal crisis or mighty extreme weather (of the kind that would probably cause tour cancellation anyway), to keep me away from either of these tours. No, the horror is purely selfish. I'm just concerned about the effect this outstanding (and well-deserved) advance publicity is going to have on attendance.

You have to understand that the Municipal Art Society organizes its walking tours around the city, which it's been doing for 55 years now, in two ways -- some by advance reservation and payment, some by and pay-at-tour walkup. I have a personal fondness for the preregistered tours, which (1) put a cap on the number of registrants and also let me assure my place. In the mere eight months I've been a member (and it was, as I've mentioned, Jack Eichenbaum who first clued me in to MAS, when I did a sensational New York Transit Museum tour with him visiting three NYC subway nodes, which is to say places where two or more separate subway lines intersect, and seeing how being a transit hub has shaped those areas' development), I've learned to haunt the MAS website as the time approaches for announcement of the next two- or three-month bloc of scheduled tours, and to pounce on it and do a slew of online registrations.

. . . for MAS tours is a paltry $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers? Longer tours are priced accordingly. For example, this Saturday (June 18) I'm doing a half-day visit to Staten Island's Stapleton Heights with the amazingly well-informed and informative urban historian Justin Ferate, with whom I did a truly memorable most-of-the day tour last month to Tottenville, the southern tip of Staten Island. The Stapleton Heights tour, which is by reservation, and for which I think there may still be places available, is $20 for members, $25 for nonmembers.

By the way, an MAS individual membership is only $50, and benefits include a chit for a free nonreserved tour.

Speaking of the nonreserved tours, I've done plenty of them in my eight months too. The thing is, if the weather is good, and especially if the tour has been picked up by one of the big-reach media outlets -- I sometimes wonder how many zillions of people who just don't know about these tours, the way I didn't for so long, would show up if they knew about them -- the group can get pretty large. (Sometimes there's simply no explaining why people do or don't come out. In March I did a tour of Brooklyn's Crown Heights North with Matt Postal, who's doing the Gowanus Canal tour, on a not especially pleasant-looking Saturday, a tour that Matt indicated hadn't gotten much media notice, and the turnout was huge. Fortunately, Matt is extremely good with large groups, keeping them organized and in good hearing range.) It's another mark of what a bad person I am that after the big TONY spread, maybe the weather won't be so great Wednesday evening and Sunday morning.

We'll actually be crossing the Pulaski Bridge from (r to l)
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to Long Island City, Queens.

It was in early November, not long after my Transit Museum tour with Jack Eichenbaum, and I had joined MAS and gotten my free-tour chit in time to make this my first MAS tour. What's more, I even worked out the formidable transit logistics of getting from the way north of Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and arrived at the tour location what I considered a perfect 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time. Or it would have been if the tour was Sunday, when I arrived. Unfortunately, it was Saturday, so instead of being early, I was 24 hours late, or maybe 23 hours and 45 minutes.

(And wouldn't you know, there are not one but two other events Wednesday night that I dearly want to do, one of them a class I had previously scheduled and had to cancel when for medical reasons, the other something that's not likely to be repeated this year. I spent a couple of weeks going back and forth between them, even trying to figure out whether I could attempt to do both, which fortunately prevented me from registering for either, whenl I finally looked at the calendar and realized it's the same night as "Crossing Newtown Creek.")

As it worked out, my actual first MAS tour, later in November, was one with Matt Postal, and as I think I've mentioned here, it's still perhaps my favorite from a conceptual standpoint: a walk along the route of Robert Moses's never-built Lower Manhattan Expressway.

For those who are curious about what TONY dubbed "Postindustrial waterfront tours," for each, writer Andrew Frisciano begins with sections on "Where it is," "The history," and "How polluted is it?"

Wednesday, June 15, 6pm-8pm
Will hanging out there kill you? Probably not, although small amounts of harmful vapors have been detected. “When you get down to the water’s edge, the creek itself is pretty dismal,” says Eichenbaum. “But it’s not completely dead -- I’ve seen cormorants sitting on the side of Newtown Creek. They dive for fish, so there have to be some there.”

What you’ll see on the tour: Eichenbaum will stop at the nature trail that surrounds NCWTP [the Newtown Creek Water Treatment Plant]: The walkway, lined with sculpted concrete walls and native plants, features an amphitheater-like area for admiring the water. “Once you’re down at the creek level, the city opens up and becomes a much more horizontal landscape,” he says. The tour also visits the Pulaski Bridge to visit Long Island City’s Gantry Plaza State Park, which sits next to a cluster of shiny new condos. “You’re seeing resurgence in all kinds of industrial neighborhoods,” says Eichenbaum. “The artistic community has found new niches in these places.”

Check it out! Crossing Newtown Creek walking tour; meet at northeast corner of Greenpoint and Manhattan Aves, Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Sunday, June 19, 11am-1pm
Will hanging out there kill you? No, but you’ll probably get a whiff of something gross. “I notice [the smell] around Union Street or Butler Street,” says Postal. “There’s nowhere for it to go.” In 1999, the city repaired a flushing tunnel, which brings fresh water into the canal, to help ameliorate the stench. “There’s no question that it’s better than it was ten years ago,” says Postal. Plus, a recent study turned up an array of fish and even crabs -- though eating them isn’t advised.

What you’ll see on the tour: Postal will point out historic landmarks, including the retractable Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1889 and still functional today. He’s also interested in how the neighborhood’s residents interact with the canal’s industrial origins; off-the-grid types have built homes on the canal, while creative spaces embrace the canal’s less-than-pleasant past. “Proteus Gowanus [a stop on the tour] has an area of their building called Hall of the Gowanus, which is a kind of artistic response to the history of the area,” Postal says.

Check it out! Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal walking tour; meet at northwest corner of President and Smith Sts, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Summer Travel Plans-- The Price Of Gas To Last Minute Reservations At The Best Restaurant In Hong Kong

Although Hutong has the best views in town, it's even better known for it's incredible kitchen

A political polling firm, Anzalone Liszt Research, usually spends its time helping elect Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats. Perhaps because their client base was so badly decimated in the last election, they recently turned to examining how Americans plan on spending their time off, and their concerns about summer travel. Actually what they did was interpret the Trip Advisor survey that predicts that "despite a still-weakened economy and rising gas prices, a majority of Americans plan on getting away this summer, many of them by car"-- 86% of us. (up from 83% last year).
USAToday found that 61% of Americans believe that it is important to get away from home this summer, including 36% who said that it is "very" important. Despite this, CNN cites a Reuters poll that found that only 57% of US workers take off all the days they are entitled to.

A plurality of Americans will travel within the US, finds an AOL users poll (49%), and they are traveling with family (40%) compared with 36% who are not. In May, AAA's Memorial Day study found that 88% of Americans said they would travel via car for their trips that weekend, and TripAdvisor finds that 63% will travel by car for their summer travel plans. TripAdvisor also finds that 50% of Americans traveling this summer are heading towards a city destination, and New York City, Boston, and Washington DC top the list of cities. Closely behind cities are ocean destinations (40%), and then national parks (18%) and lakes (16%).

Cost is a concern among American travelers this year, and they expect to pay more this year for their travel. USA Today finds that 71% expect to spend more on transportation costs for their trips this year, and a AAA survey finds that 39% have scaled back their own vacation plans because of the rising gas prices. AAA finds that gas prices are already nearly a dollar more expensive than last year-- last Memorial Day weekend the average gas price was $2.85/gallon; this year it was $3.91. Americans expect prices to continue to climb this summer, and 76% believe they will hit at least $4.50. Twenty-six percent expect them to reach $5, and 13% see them exceeding $5.
Rising airfare costs are an additional cause of irritation to American travelers, tying the cost of gas for their biggest pet peeve when traveling (37%) according to AOL. Twenty-one percent of Americans say they would be willing to drive up to 10 hours to save money on airfare, and 43% have had to book connecting flights to reach their destination to stay within their travel budgets. Airline fees also frustrate travelers, and nearly half (46%) believe that the checked baggage fee is the most annoying, followed by 24% who believe seat selection fees are, and 18% who are most annoyed by the carry-on bag fees. Regardless of their irritation, 72% of Americans expect fees in general to rise during the remainder of the year.

Me... I'm making the last minute touches to my summer travel plans. I e-mailed the hotel in Kathmandu and persuaded them to give us a free upgrade to a two room suite. It's low season and there's an incipient revolution in Nepal and I knew the rooms wouldn't be in great demand. It just took two e-mails to convince them. I also made dinner reservations for my first night in Hong Kong-- I'm stopping on my way to Nepal to get my Asia sea legs-- at my all-time favorite Kowloon restaurant, Hutong. I e-mailed them for a table; they e-mailed me back with a reservation for 90 minutes at one of the most sought after tables in town. Then lunch the next day at Yan Toh Heen. And... on a more mundane level, if you print out your on-demand Nepal visa application, fill it out, stick on a passport-sized photo and have your $30 cash in hand, you don't have to wait on line at the airport. So I did that too.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Planning A Trip To Tibet?

St. Regis, Lhasa-- guests complained when they ran out of lobster

In 1971 I trekked up near the Nepali-Tibetan border and wondered if I'd ever get across it. Back then no Americans were allowed. Now, China encourages American tourists... kind of-- and sometimes. There's even a 5-star hotel there now, as China works to turn Lhasa into a kind of Disneyland destination for the wealthy.
For decades, the hardy travellers who braved the icy roads and 2,000-kilometre drive to Lhasa from Sichuan have been greeted with austere monasteries filled with crimson-robed monks and the terrible taste of yak-butter tea.

But the Chinese government, which defends its mandate to rule over Tibet by claiming to have brought economic prosperity to the region, is determined to make life more luxurious for today's pampered tourists by opening Tibet's first five-star hotel--The St. Regis Lhasa.

Guests arriving at Lhasa airport are whisked away in Mercedes-Benz limousines to one of the 150 suites or 12 private villas. Personal butlers escort guests to their rooms and give tips on life at Lhasa's 3,600-metre altitude. Guests are told not to shower on their first day, since hot water is believed by the Chinese to open up blood vessels and suck oxygen away from the brain. Each room, meanwhile, is equipped with oxygen tanks, just in case.

Downstairs there is a spa, a swimming pool, a restaurant boasting Cantonese and Sichuan delicacies, including yak meat, and a wine bar with hundreds of bottles specially flown in, including Château Lafite-Rothschild. Any guests wanting to taste "more basic Tibetan fare, such as yak butter and boiled noodles" will have to leave the premises, the hotel's website flatly states.

Tourism is now responsible for almost 15 per cent of Tibet's economy and more than six million tourists visited last year. Four more five-star hotels, including a Shangri-La and an Intercontinental, are to open in the next four years. Beijing is planning to introduce a luxurious train service to Tibet, with tickets costing as much as $9,000 per person.

I just spent the last six months or so planning a trip to Tibet, though the St Regis wasn't on our itinerary. A trip to Tibet isn't easy, not like getting on a plane and flying to Bamako, renting a jeep with a driver and going on an excursion through Mali's Dogon country and then on to Timbuktu. China makes it a lot more difficult-- and expensive. But in the end-- after lots of hassle and lots of weighing of conflicting moral perspectives-- it was all set. Then a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail that all foreign visas were canceled for the period I was planning to be there in June and July. They don't tell you why. But we knew.

There's been some trouble in paradise; the natives are restless. And the Chinese are cracking down again. Journalists are already banned from Tibet and they don't want any tourists there to bear witness to their brutality. For one thing, Beijing's nemesis, the Dalai Lama, has formally ceded any political role. The Dalai Lama will still be Tibet's spiritual and religious leader and a symbol of national unity but the Tibetan exiles' parliament has elected a Harvard scholar, Lobsang Sangay, to be the head of government (prime minister) based in Dharamshala, India.
Although the Dalai Lama will retain the more significant role of spiritual leader and will still be influential when it comes to major policy-making decisions, the transition will make Sangay a far more prominent figure than his predecessor as prime minister.

The Dalai signed amendments to the constitution of the Tibetan government-in-exile at the weekend to formally cede his political role. ...The Dalai Lama's political successor represents a major shift from the historic dominance of Tibetan politics by older religious figures.

The spiritual leader's move is part of an effort to strengthen the Tibetan movement's democratic structure so it can guide the movement following his death.

Sangay has publicly backed the Dalai Lama's policy of seeking "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet under Chinese rule.

But his former membership of the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress has fueled speculation he may take a more radical stance and embolden the political strategy of Tibetan exiles toward China.

Beijing considers the Dalai Lama as a separatist bent on fomenting unrest in his homeland.

By late this month expect to hear more unconfirmable rumors about more oppression in Tibet.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Delta Airlines-- Still The Worst Carrier In The Skies... But Even More So

Delta has been the #1 worst U.S. airline every year in a row since the founding of this blog-- and that's just based on their service. Turns out, though, there's more to Delta's unsuitability as a reliable travel partner than how badly the management runs their operations. As yesterday's Wall Street Journal pointed out, the airline is a bastion of right-wing anti-worker extremism. No wonder their employees always seem so down in the dumps and resentful! The National Mediation Board is now investigating charges by flight attendants that Delta, the only non-Union U.S. airline, illegally interfered in unionization elections by pressuring employees to vote against the unions. As Joe Sudbay observed at AmericaBlog yesterday, "Delta is like the Scott Walker of airlines. It wants to be known as anti-worker."

We can probably expect even more skullduggery from Delta in the coming weeks as they double down in their anti-union jihad. They've been a lead driver in pushing Republican extremists in the House to rescind fair election rules for air/rail workers for elections conducted under the National Mediation Board. For progressives who care about keeping elections fair, giving workers the choice whether or not they want to join a union, and supporting companies who operate under basic standards of decency, there are a number of reasons for progressives to be outraged about Delta Airlines:

•  Open advocacy against fair American elections:  Delta issued a press release commending the news that Darrell Issa's deranged Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will investigate the NMB’s 2010 decision to conduct union elections for air/rail workers the same as all other types of American elections. Mike Campbell, Delta’s executive vice president of H.R. and Labor Relations said, "This investigation is an important victory for Delta people because it will finally allow the facts to speak for themselves.” Unfortunately for Delta, the facts aren’t on their side-- there’s no reason to conduct NMB elections differently from every other form of election, union or non-union, in the nation. If congressional and Senate elections were conducted under such rules, in which non-participating eligible voters were counted as having voted, then zero Members of Congress would have won their last election.

• Bumping paying customers…so Delta employees can lobby:  Delta is so committed to its anti-union ideology that it offered its employees the chance to travel to Washington to lobby against fair union elections under a provision that may bump paying customers. Talking Points Memo reported that the group No Way AFA, “a coalition of Delta employees who want to deliberalize union rights,” came to Washington the week of the House vote on the FAA Reauthorization bill to lobby against fair election standards... and potentially bumping paying Delta customers in the process. According to the article, “A Delta spokesperson said No Way AFA operates separately from the company itself, but that the company "allow[s] employees to travel positive space to D.C. when supporting legislative efforts that the company supports.”  According to TPM, this means that “the "positive space" fly-in could squeeze out seating space for regular travelers.”

• Free upgrades and lining the pockets of policymaker friends:  An investigative journalism piece in Georgia recently found that leading Republican lawmakers in Georgia’s state legislature received free upgrades from Delta to platinum status, valued at approximately $10,000 to $15,000 per year. Valued as campaign contributions, the piece noted that Delta low-balled the reported value of the platinum upgrades in state ethics records. Unsurprisingly, Delta has a long history of being generous to lawmakers like Rep. John Mica, who have voted the right way in Delta’s eyes by seeking to return NMB union elections to the old, undemocratic rules.

I've long been going out of my way to look for alternatives to flying on Delta just because of the lousy service and their refusal to let people use frequent flier miles, but now I can see there are even more reasons to avoid the worst airline in the skies.