Thursday, February 28, 2008

North Korea is suddenly fashionable...

So, Hilary Howard writes in The New York Times travel section (no link, because you'll have to log in and all that), that Snow Lion Expeditions, a company from Utah, started to offer trips to North Korea for American citizens.
And the big deal here is what exactly?
Americans could always book a tour to the Stalinist theme park using one of the many European operators.

Which brings me to this comment by Steve Pastorino, VP of marketing for the company: “We have a crack in the door for Americans to get in.”

Oh what a crock of BS! Despite all the official propaganda, Americans are able to visit NK on certain dates, which must be approved by the great communist honchos in charge. Those days coincide with the Arirang Mass Games held in Pyongyang. No mystery here.

European tour operators, like for example Korea Konsult in Sweden, have been offering the American option for quite some time. And there is no need to combine their itinerary with a stay in South Korea. Here are their approved dates for Americans for 2008.

And wouldn't you know it, they're exactly the same as Snow Lion's. What a coincidence!


But it's nice to see that The New York Times has finally mentioned it at all. Must be a byproduct of the NY Philharmonic visit in Pyongyang...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Paper, no plastic

The question of “paper or plastic” does not exist in Bhutan. It’s always paper. Or crumpled, old newspapers. Or sheets of promotional gift wrap adorned with corporate logos, that somehow found its way from Japan. At fancier establishments, you will get a paper, or a canvas sack to carry your purchases to wherever you need to carry them.


Being at the forefront of environmental awareness, Bhutan banned plastic bags. A long time ago.
“How cool!”
I thought. Something that I totally agree with!

In hotel rooms, old newspapers line waste baskets, and in bathrooms - little paper baggies with printed instructions beckon you to use them for feminine products.
“Very environmentally friendly, but not so friendly for the cleaning staff,” I thought to myself.

Still, this was something I could embrace…

On Sunday, it rained. Dorji and I got totally soaked when walking back to the hotel. He reminded me to be ready at 6AM, bright and early, for the next day’s adventures. Sure, no problem! As long as I’ll find a way to wrap my wet clothes and shoes into something.

Suddenly, this environmental consciousness proved to be quite inconvenient. The front desk didn’t have any plastic bags. Neither did the housekeeping. In desperation, I went to the kitchen and explained my wet predicament. The chef laughed and translated the story for his staff. They all laughed. And gifted me with a giant sack. Burlap, of course.

My wet jacket smelled of chili powder for the rest of the trip.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ryanair across the Atlantic?

I shudder at the thought. Though it may be so. And sooner than you think.

On March 30, 2008 the Open Skies agreement is coming into effect, which will end the decades of strict regulations of transatlantic flights.

So basically, any European or American schmuck with a plane, who calls themselves an airline, will be able to fly from any airport in the EU to any airport in the US. And vice versa.

Will it bring the fares down? Maybe. And maybe not. It all depends on the budget airlines joining the transatlantic stampede. While I don’t really mind flying across the ocean on Jet Blue, I’d rather chew my leg off and bleed to death at the very thought of spending 7 hours on a Ryanair flight.

But hey! If it’s cheap enough, I know plenty of folks who’d be up for the challenge…

Full article here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hypocrisy at its finest

The stupidity of some publicity hungry morons never ceases to amaze me. Take for example the most recent call for the boycott of the Lonely Planet guide to Burma. Myanmar, or whatever it is called these days.

As BBC so helpfully reports, some organizations, such as the TUC, Tourism Concern, Burma Campaign UK and the New Internationalist, have launched an online petition calling for the immediate withdrawal of the book.

Why? Probably because it’s the only way they can draw attention to their existence.

Especially since it’s much easier to feel self-righteous by attacking a major guidebook publisher than doing something constructive about the Burma issue. I feel your pain… Like, totally...

But why just Burma? Why not the grand-daddy of all human right abuses – China? And what about Cuba? And the great majority of African fiefdoms?

Oh yes, I forgot! Burma is hot, and it’s always easier to be fashionably sensitive than objective.

New Internationalist co-editor, Chris Brazier, said: "Holidaying in Burma is one of the most unethical trips you could make, given the brutality of the current regime.”

With that I fully agree. I just hope that Chris will follow what he preaches and avoid China, Cuba, most of the Middle East, Egypt, Nepal, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and pretty much the whole of Africa.

And the best part? This:

The TUC's international secretary, Owen Tudor, said Lonely Planet was being singled out because "The country's main trade union organisation and the people of Burma oppose tourism."

He denied the Lonely Planet boycott should also apply to guide books on Cuba, Saudi Arabia or other governments around the world with poor human rights records.

Hypocrisy at its finest…

You can read the full article here.

PS. And for the record, I love LP guides, even if some of them suck really bad. It's a sentimental thing, you know...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Light my fire!

In Bhutan, you never need to wonder what’s for dinner. Or lunch. Or breakfast. The answer is always the same – chilies. Chilies with cheese, chilies with cheese and potatoes, chilies with cheese and spinach, chilies with chicken, or chilies with blobs of fried pork fat. You can literally feel your stomach ulcers forming…

“Can you eat spicy?” my guide asked with certain trepidation. We were late for lunch and the standard tourist fare at the hotel restaurant was already gone. Can I eat spicy? Are you kidding me? My kimchee has been known to make native Koreans weep!

“Duh! Sure I can!” But my guide was not convinced.
“In Bhutan,” he began, and I noticed he had a curious habit of starting almost every sentence with those words, “in Bhutan, chilies are a vegetable, not a seasoning,” he explained, stressing the word not.

What he should have asked me was how much cheese I could comfortably consume without getting the runs… Oh yes, cheese…

The most popular Bhutanese dish – ema datse – eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, consists of copious amounts of chilies smothered in a sticky cheese sauce. In fact, not only chilies come smothered in the ubiquitous cheese sauce. Potatoes, spinach, okra, carrots, mushrooms, and seemingly everything else, are fair game, too.

To the amazement of my guide, I woofed down my ema datse (ema=chili, datse=cheese in Dzongkha), diluting it with large helpings of red rice.

It was the hotel dinner buffet that evening that provoked my loud complaints. Spaghetti Bolognese, chicken cacciatore, sweet and sour pork. Even Swedish meatballs - no doubt requested by a group of Swedish tourists sitting at a table next to ours, who simply couldn’t survive without their national fare.

“Listen,” I told my crew, “I didn’t schlep all the way to Bhutan to eat spaghetti and meatballs.”
They looked at me with unease.
“But all the tourists eat that. They don’t like Bhutanese food,” my guide answered while staring at his plate of bja sha maroo (chicken with garlic and butter sauce), which oddly, was not available for the likes of me.
“Here! We’ll share!” and with that, he scooped away half of my spaghetti, and deposited chunks of his chicken in its place.

From that day on until the end of my trip, I was fed only local food. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. That included drinks as well. Apart from an odd practice of drinking warm, or boiling, water with their meals, the Bhutanese share with their Tibetan brethren a fondness for butter tea. Sudja, a milky concoction with a dollop of butter, and with salt instead of sugar, is not as vile as it seems. Thinking of it as the ultimate energy drink, Bhutanese style, helps the brew go down.

At the Red Rice restaurant in Paro... nothing to write home about.

My adventure with local cuisine ended abruptly in a little restaurant behind the Paper Factory in Thimphu. The place was a hole in the wall, lovingly adorned with photos of the Benevolent King (the handsome one) and the Crown Prince (the not handsome one).

Our lunch was served. Ema datse, potatoes with cheese, and other mysterious, chili-laden dishes. I dug in... and suddenly, my brain exploded into a billion tiny, little pieces. Tears started rolling down my face. I grabbed a pitcher of water, and proceeded to drink directly from the jug. And then gulped down my driver’s butter tea. My mouth was on fire. I could feel the flames traveling down into my stomach. The snot from my nose mixed with tears dripped slowly onto my plate. I was unable to speak. Unable to think. Unable to breathe. Vaguely, I recalled a time a few years back, when a bowl of Thai soup sent my friend to the ER… I started wondering what Bhutanese hospitals might be like…

Dorji, the driver, who just a few days ago proclaimed that he couldn’t eat food WITHOUT chilies, because it had no taste, took a large helping of my lethal ema datse. His eyes bulged out in horror.
“Damn!” he breathed trying to control his composure, “That was too hot even for me!”

“Tea!” Dorji yelled for the proprietor’s daughter, who doubled as our waitress. He made me drink the milky liquid until I regained my ability to speak. I couldn’t even taste its buttery saltiness.

Later that day, I had ice chips for dinner…

Yep, chilis, chilis and more chilis everywhere you look...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Anna and the King…

Bhutan was on my mind a lot. Every time I saw a story about the handsome king, the upcoming elections, and the Gross National Happiness, my resolve to visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon got stronger. Last year, I finally scrambled the cash together, and a couple thousand dollars later, I was a proud owner of a plane ticket on Druk Air – Royal Bhutan Airlines.

Bhutan ain’t cheap, that’s for sure. Every visitor pays a daily tourist fee set by the government, which means that only the truly determined, or very rich, make it there. There are no budget options and no hordes of shoestring travelers prancing around the countryside. Poor foreign folk stay in India or trek in Nepal. Bhutan is for the few chosen ones… And few it is, indeed. In 2007 only 17 thousand people visited the country, and this year the number is expected to be just a bit over 20 thousand.

However, with the US dollar getting weaker, 200 bucks a day in the high season suddenly doesn’t sound so bad. Especially since the cash covers all of your standard accommodations, food, transport, plus a guide and a driver at your beck and call. There’s also a hefty surcharge for solo travelers, but that only means you have two strapping young men, ready to cater to your every whim and desire, all to yourself.

So why, with all the places in the world, many of them cheaper and much easier to get to, I insisted on going to Bhutan? Well, for one, their king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck is hot. Like a combination of Chow Yun Fat and Ken Watanabe hot. Of course, as a huge fan of both, I felt the irresistible urge to check out the rest of the Bhutanese male population. Even if it had to cost me US$165 a day - the low season discount.

Yes, I’m THAT shallow. But the breakneck speed of social changes in Bhutan, and the fact that the country is soon to become a democratic, constitutional monarchy were just as fascinating as the studly king himself.

So the verdict? Social issues aside, the Haa Valley peasants were simply extraordinary. And very photogenic. Handsome men, looking mighty fine in their ghos (traditional outfits) and knee-high socks, having an archery competition a sunny afternoon. And showing off their mad skillz for the benefit of a lonesome foreign lady in their midst. The last Shangri-La, indeed. Archery is the national sport, and seemingly, even the poorest farmer is a proud owner of a fancy imported Hoyt bow.

Judging by the warning in the Lonely Planet guidebook, that romantic liaisons between female travelers and Bhutanese men are common, and the fact that many a tour guide actually married their foreign tourist lady, the appeal of handsome peasants was not to be taken lightly. But with the reputation of every foreign woman going to Bhutan resting on my shoulders, I simply smiled, shook my head and stayed proper.

And no, I didn’t meet His Royal Highness. And just as well. He has four wives and rabid hordes of local fan girls already. And his son, while kind and educated and very princely, is nothing to look at. So much for my Anna and the King fantasy…

Sharpshooting in Haa Valley

Friday, February 15, 2008

How I learned to care about travellers with disabilities...

How people with disabilities travel, was not something I thought much about. True, there was occasional pity, maybe on a train in Tokyo, or on the steps from the metro in Paris. The only time I paid any attention at all was at the airport, when the announcement invited “passengers with disabilities and those requiring special assistance to board now.” A couple of shaking grandmas, or an occasional young person, in wheelchairs pushed down the corridor by oblivious airport staff. As long as they were not screaming toddlers and sat next to me, I didn’t care.

Then I went to India… And everything changed. A close encounter with an Indian sidewalk left my legs covered with bandages the size of hockey pads, and my hands resembling baseball gloves. While I could take a few wobbly steps on an even surface, stairs were out of the question. I found myself sitting in an airport wheelchair, being pushed around by an oblivious airport worker. Suddenly, I started to care.

The bus ride from the gate to the plane was uneventful. I was very efficiently loaded in by two guys and wished a pleasant journey. We arrived at the aircraft when a handsome young man appeared, and in a true Bollywood style, he scooped me into his arms and carried me onto the plane. He sat me down and an equally handsome flight attendant took over. Damn, what I want to know is where Kingfisher finds all these good-looking men?

In Chennai, the process was repeated in reverse. A Kingfisher ground employee (sadly, not as handsome) retrieved my checked-in luggage, and zoomed me over to the international terminal. He refused a tip, and wished me a pleasant journey. My bags and chair were handed over to an oblivious Chennai airport worker. After banging into a couple of unsuspecting passengers, he slammed me into the check-in counter. Well, at least I got to skip the line…

In a similar fashion, we breezed through the immigration and security lines, while hordes of tired, sweaty people started at me with hate in their eyes. At the gate my handler extended his hand and announced, “tip!” He looked with disgust at the 5-dollar bill in my hand.
“Sorry, I’m all out of rupees.”
He grabbed the money and disappeared.

The flight to Paris was hell. The Air France drill sergeants flight attendants would not let me use the bathroom located 2 meters ahead (“First class only!” one of them barked), making me hobble the length of the plane to the back.

In Paris, I was told I missed my connecting flight. The next flight to Stockholm was too late for my Swedish connection.
“Wait! Can’t you fly me through Amsterdam?”
I pleaded.
“No madam. Wheelchair passengers must go directly, airline policy,” a bored dude manning the transfer desk at CDG said and threw my boarding pass at me.
“What about my domestic flight? If I go through Amsterdam, I’ll make it!”
“Not my problem,” he said and blew his nose.

I was deposited at my gate, and with 6 hours to kill, decided to explore a little. Sadly, the shopping area was not designed to accommodate wheelchair passengers. Go to the food court instead? Yeah, try again! While there was an elevator, the food court had an additional step, which proved impossible to conquer. The bathroom? The handicapped stall did have enough room to maneuver, but all the handles and dispensers were positioned with mega-giants in mind.

A few years later, it was time to board.

“Can you walk down the stairs?” a woman checking boarding passes asked. Sure lady, and I’m just sitting in this wheelchair for shits and giggles. She sighed and called for assistance. We rode a special handicapped van to where the plane was parked. And then, there were the steps again, this time - no handsome Bollywood look-alike to carry me up.

“Elevator truck. We need an elevator,” my airport handler screamed into a walkie-talkie. He wanted to know why a healthy looking young woman couldn’t brave a flight of stairs onto the aircraft. I lifted my long skirt and showed him my legs. One of the hockey pad sized dressings was soaked with blood.

“Merde!” he yelled into the walkie-talkie some more.

Other passengers finished boarding. And we waited. And waited. 50 minutes later, the elevator truck arrived. A flight attendant opening the back door rolled her eyes upon seeing a seemingly fit young woman in a wheelchair. I felt like giving her the finger. Other passengers looked at me with disgust while I hobbled to my seat. Somebody was complaining about the delay. Somebody else bitched about missing a connection.

“Cripples shouldn’t travel,” a man in a fancy business suit said in French to a woman next to him.
"And assholes shouldn't fly," I responded in English and gave him the finger.

And all the way to Stockholm I marveled at how disabled travelers manage to move from point A to point B, and still smile and look gracious upon arrival.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bus travels...

Duty called me to Stockholm last week, and because I had loads of time, but not money, I decided to go by bus.

Truth be told that given a choice of planes, trains and automobiles, I pick the road transport. Every time. Is it really that weird to prefer spending 6 hours in a car or on a bus than 1 hour on a plane? I don’t think so. There is nothing more exciting than sitting in the passenger seat, sticking your head out the window, your hair, ears and tongue flapping in the wind. Damn, I must have been a dog in my previous life…

Traveling by bus became an economical choice for me. It’s cheaper than driving there myself, and definitely cheaper than flying. True, it’s not the most earth friendly option out there, but until the train companies can match bus prices, you will find me on the road. Especially during the winter months.

Stockholm was lovely, as always. If a bit contradictory, at times…

Swedish furs right next door to a pet shop. I don’t want to know…