Sunday, December 17, 2000

So what if British trains are slow?

So what if British trains are slow? They are only catching up with the rest of the world

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 17 December 2000

I do hope that there are some foreign tourists enjoying Britain's slow trains at the moment. Retired Americans, say, or mellow Australian backpackers. People who stay relaxed while looking out of windows at stationary British landscapes.

This is not to wish harm to foreign tourists. It is just to say that these are the only people who might actually be enjoying the experience of, say, spending entire nights on trains travelling between London and Nottingham (as opposed to the locals, most of whom probably want to string themselves up from the nearest broken signals).

Swedes, I hope, are already cracking jokes with Spaniards about funny British trains (maybe they will re-run the one about the man asking if he has the right platform for today's train. The guard replies: "No sir. This is yesterday's train. Today's train comes tomorrow") Commuters will not laugh, but if you are a Swede or a Spaniard, there is at least a chance that you will board your British train smiling contentedly at the ancient truth that timetables are not the only thing in life.

We are always reading in guidebooks, after all, about the pleasure of catching trains "just for the experience of it". How about the famous "toy train" to Darjeeling in India, for example, which takes an entire day to trundle up a miniature-gauge railway, along a route that can be covered in no time at all by bus? Everyone agrees (except, presumably, for local commuters) that the train is the only way to do it - because of the funny clanking noises and the sheer nostalgia the ride evokes.

Then there was the excellent direct train that, until recently, still ran between Athens and Istanbul. The only reason for getting on this train was the time it took: between one and two days (not precise enough for you? Go by bus then). What I particularly liked was that it was slightly slower than the same scheduled train service had been at the time of the Ottoman empire.

It is the same with all the great train rides. Yes, some of them are very long journeys. But what makes them really "great" is their slowness. The Trans-Siberian may be the longest railway in the world, but by any standards a whole week to get from Moscow to Vladivostok is a hell of a long time. A French TGV covering the same route could do it in not much more than a day.

My own favourite place for extremely slow trains used to be Spain. It was as recent as the late-1980s that I enjoyed the pleasure of taking the longest domestic train journey then available anywhere in the European Union, between Barcelona and Granada. Timetabled at an astonishing 18 hours, it was none-too-convenient for a quick business meeting. But for a tourist, creeping down the coast to Valencia, moseying inland across the plains of La Mancha to Ciudad Real, then meandering south through places like Valdepenas and Baeza... well, what could be better? The Spanish state train company, Renfe, seemed to understand this, deliberately slowing the train down the nearer you got to your destination. The last stages, inching between the barren hills of Andalucia, gave tourists a spooky feeling that they were coming to the last place in the world.

But that has all changed. These days Spanish trains have become so speedy that there is no fun in them any more. Riding to Andalucia is getting to be a lot faster than riding to (say) Nottingham. I don't see why British train operators cannot capitalise on this, and start making a virtue out of their slowness. At least it will please the tourists.

Sunday, December 10, 2000

The pleasure of Ramadan

The pleasure of Ramadan

No food, no drink, no sex, no work - observing Ramadan brings liberation in unexpected guises

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 10 December 2000

We're right in the middle of Ramadan, during which Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the hours between sunrise and sunset.
A shocking time to take a break in the Middle East, then, you must be thinking. Any chance of a glass of water during one's desert outing under the hot midday sun? Sorry.

Well, that's as maybe. But I once spent Ramadan in Riyadh, the none-too-festive capital of Saudi Arabia, and my memories of that time, I have to point out, are almost exclusively of merry-making and jollification.

For the entire month, all work went onto the back-burner. People did short hours, if any, on the grounds that it is not easy to concentrate when you have got a stomach full of nothing. A few bleary-eyed tellers continued counting money in the banks, and the odd grumpy traffic policeman could occasionally be seen waving cars through broken traffic lights in 100C, but the general rule was that life during Ramadan should be different.

The basic idea was to expend as little energy as possible during the daylight hours, then, at the moment the sun set, you broke your fast with a meal of dates before moving on to the harder stuff, if appropriate. Having spent the day sluggish and semi-comatose, it was quite normal to put in a few hours of work after your sunset meal, and then to spend the rest of the night feasting until dawn. And the best thing was that you knew everybody else was on short working hours as well, so there was no need to feel guilty.

A whole month every year, to put aside! It struck me even then, that this was at least as good as a month on the beach every August.

Inevitably there were a few people who took things to extremes: gloomy types, who went around in fear of accidentally swallowing their own spittle, for example, or who spent time checking that other people weren't sneaking a quick fag in the office toilet.

But most people were having the time of their lives, relishing the anomaly of sleeping late under the air-conditioners, enjoying not doing their jobs properly, savouring the possibility of catching up on old friends at four o'clock in the morning. Petty-spirited expatriates, I noticed, used to deride the evidence of people actually enjoying themselves as contrary to the spirit of Ramadan, but this usually meant two things: first, that they were bitter about their favourite cafes keeping unusual hours, and second, that their notion of Ramadan involved suffering and penance.

What would happen if we tried to inaugurate a Ramadan-style month of fasting and reflection in this country? Some, I suspect, would look at their diaries and think : "Oh no! What is the point of living if I am not working efficiently?". They would then lock themselves in their offices with piles of illicit sandwiches and coffee and pretend to sleep, while doing their utmost to exploit the temporary absence from work of the rest.

Worried that you might be one of these people? A short holiday in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan might be just the thing for you.

Sunday, November 19, 2000

'Tis the season to get cheap flights

'Tis the season to get cheap flights

Flying anywhere in late November is a pleasure easily comparable to shuffling through piles of dead leaves

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 19 November 2000

When everything is dark and meaningless, and people are too depressed to think about going away, air fares become ridiculously cheap. That's why I like the end of November.
When everything is dark and meaningless, and people are too depressed to think about going away, air fares become ridiculously cheap. That's why I like the end of November.
The owners of airlines, by contrast, must hate this time of year. The sight of the last yellow leaves clinging feebly to the treetops means empty seats in planes. Because what customer in their right mind is going to plan a holiday four weeks before Christmas? The only consolation for Go, Ryan Air, Buzz et al is that this low-season also gives them the opportunity to trumpet some absurdly cheap fares.
In six months' time, when the leaves are green and bees are buzzing in the sunshine again, some of that favourable publicity will begin to pay off. People will get up in the morning and ask each other: "Where did I see that advertisement for flights to Barcelona for £49?" By then, of course, the price will have doubled or tripled, but that won't matter: the seed of the idea that flights to Barcelona are cheap will have germinated in the spring warmth.
Anyway, right now, I can't get enough of these feeble yellow leaves. There are some at the bottom of my garden which I have been staring at fixedly for a fortnight. I am willing them to drop. It's a kind of superstition I have: cherry-tree leaves a-dropping, flights a-going cheap.
During the past week I've seen tickets to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Sardinia and Calabria all advertised for under fifty quid, including taxes. I couldn't help picking one up, almost as an involuntary reaction, like wiping a drop from the end of my nose. I regard buying tickets at this time of year as a seasonal rite, even if one has no intention of travelling. What do you lose after all? Well, £50, I suppose. But the gains are enormous: namely, the possibility of flying south, when everyone else is too depressed to move.
By the way, buying tickets merely on the grounds that they are extremely cheap (regardless of whether or not you will be able to use them) is another of those special pleasures that I associate with dark afternoons and mulch underfoot. It makes you realise how much of the joy of travel is in the anticipation.
Try it yourself: buy a ticket to Lisbon for £50 and carry it around in your pocket for a week. If you are feeling well-off, buy two or three tickets simultaneously to different destinations. Ask yourself how much pleasure the experience has given you. Then throw away the tickets.
Of course if you actually decide to get on one of your flights, then so much the better. Flying anywhere in late November is a pleasure easily comparable to shuffling through piles of dead leaves.
What I especially like, as soon as I get off the plane, is the sight of Latins dressed up for November: vast padded coats designed for Siberia - just bought for the season - tend to come out whenever the temperature drops below 15C.
And it's those giant autumn coats that help people, sitting over their correspondingly tiny coffees, to look serious. Before the atmosphere goes downhill in January with the addition of silly hats, these coats add to the general gravitas; to the sense of creativity, depth and intelligence.
Basically, they give you all the reassurance you need, that you are not completely out of your right mind taking a holiday four weeks before Christmas.
When everything is dark and meaningless, and people are too depressed to think about going away, air fares become ridiculously cheap. That's why I like the end of November.

The owners of airlines, by contrast, must hate this time of year. The sight of the last yellow leaves clinging feebly to the treetops means empty seats in planes. Because what customer in their right mind is going to plan a holiday four weeks before Christmas? The only consolation for Go, Ryan Air, Buzz et al is that this low-season also gives them the opportunity to trumpet some absurdly cheap fares.

In six months' time, when the leaves are green and bees are buzzing in the sunshine again, some of that favourable publicity will begin to pay off. People will get up in the morning and ask each other: "Where did I see that advertisement for flights to Barcelona for £49?" By then, of course, the price will have doubled or tripled, but that won't matter: the seed of the idea that flights to Barcelona are cheap will have germinated in the spring warmth.

Anyway, right now, I can't get enough of these feeble yellow leaves. There are some at the bottom of my garden which I have been staring at fixedly for a fortnight. I am willing them to drop. It's a kind of superstition I have: cherry-tree leaves a-dropping, flights a-going cheap.

During the past week I've seen tickets to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Sardinia and Calabria all advertised for under fifty quid, including taxes. I couldn't help picking one up, almost as an involuntary reaction, like wiping a drop from the end of my nose. I regard buying tickets at this time of year as a seasonal rite, even if one has no intention of travelling. What do you lose after all? Well, £50, I suppose. But the gains are enormous: namely, the possibility of flying south, when everyone else is too depressed to move.

By the way, buying tickets merely on the grounds that they are extremely cheap (regardless of whether or not you will be able to use them) is another of those special pleasures that I associate with dark afternoons and mulch underfoot. It makes you realise how much of the joy of travel is in the anticipation.

Try it yourself: buy a ticket to Lisbon for £50 and carry it around in your pocket for a week. If you are feeling well-off, buy two or three tickets simultaneously to different destinations. Ask yourself how much pleasure the experience has given you. Then throw away the tickets.

Of course if you actually decide to get on one of your flights, then so much the better. Flying anywhere in late November is a pleasure easily comparable to shuffling through piles of dead leaves.
What I especially like, as soon as I get off the plane, is the sight of Latins dressed up for November: vast padded coats designed for Siberia - just bought for the season - tend to come out whenever the temperature drops below 15C.

And it's those giant autumn coats that help people, sitting over their correspondingly tiny coffees, to look serious. Before the atmosphere goes downhill in January with the addition of silly hats, these coats add to the general gravitas; to the sense of creativity, depth and intelligence.

Basically, they give you all the reassurance you need, that you are not completely out of your right mind taking a holiday four weeks before Christmas.

Sunday, November 12, 2000

Why must these gentle exiles from the world's most powerful nation humbly apologise for everything?

Why must these gentle exiles from the world's most powerful nation humbly apologise for everything?

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 12 November 2000

Don't talk to me about American politics. The only Americans I care about are the exiles: the sad ones, travelling the highways and byways of the world.

I am not, of course, talking about the sort of people who spend a week in New York and then go home to Texas believing they have seen Rome. Or the schoolkids in Wisconsin who don't even know that there are foreign countries.

No. It's the real American travellers - the world specialists - who fascinate me. The best travellers you can ever meet. There's no greater pleasure in life than bumping into solitary, bearded Americans in places like Kashmir or Beirut, looking depressed about the state of the world.

They don't necessarily say it out loud, but the feeling is written all over their pale blue eyes, watery after the latest sandstorm in, say, the Sinai Desert: "We come from a powerful country," they want to say, "but unfortunately we are powerless people."

They explain to me, modestly, that this country of theirs is located in the ocean half way between Japan and Britain. ("It divides the Atlantic from the Pacific," they say. "You find it between Canada and Mexico.") They then spend hours crushed into uncomfortable buses, telling me how sorry they are for everything.

It's taken me years to get the point. "Sorry for what?" I say, wondering if it is their squashy peaches I am sitting on. "Oh, you know," they murmur, in non-assertive voices, with Burmese peasants sleeping on their shoulders or sundry Vietnamese babies in their laps. "For... isolationism. For ignorance. For what we have done. For the mistakes we have made."

It is as if they think that the whole world is lined up in righteous accusation against them, behind Ayatollah Khomeini, and, moreover, that they themselves - even in sarongs - are morally responsible for global warming and Third World debt.

I actually feel very sorry for them. They are doing their bit. They know what all good travellers should know (that Yemenis, for example, use tufts of camel hair as coffee filters, and that there are pirates in the Sulu Sea).

I want to try to reassure them. "Oh don't worry about it," I say. "We're still grateful for the Marshall Plan." But they keep on giving me that sad and guilty look, even if they then turn out to have done a seven-year PhD in a dialect spoken only by the tribespeople of eastern Bangladesh, and have since devoted years of their lives to re-educating child-prostitutes and drug-users in northern Thailand.
A strange symptom of the heavy responsibility of world leadership? Probably. And perhaps these sad, gentle people in their big quilted coats up there in the High Karakoram (or in their sandals down there by the Ganges) were once sponsored by the State Department. Who can say?

But now they have become ultra-knowledgeable travellers. They are experts in unusual kinds of tea. They can summarise nations. They speak quietly, in the hope that nobody will recognise their accents. They get their facts right.

And regardless of whatever happens in Washington, I am looking forward to meeting many more American travellers like these in the very near future.

Monday, November 6, 2000

How to re-define fame

How to re-define fame

If you think the West has bizarre ideas about what defines celebrity, try visiting China

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 06 November 2000

I'm just back from China and am having to get used to the fact that people are no longer jostling to get better views of me as I step down from my bicycle rickshaw.

What a depressing transition. Last week, people were offering me congratulatory glasses of Chinese vodka every time I opened my mouth to speak. Since my return home - on the other hand - nobody has paid me the slightest bit of attention.

Nobody has asked me how much I earn, for example, or if I am married, or why I am balding, or how old I am, or whether it is true that the English masses drive their own cars. Now I know how bad Princess Diana would have felt had she ever found herself ignored by the paparazzi.
Celebrity status in China is great. It's also quite easy to acquire, if you have a big enough nose. Some of the most famous men in the world are obscure English teachers who have managed to get themselves on to Chinese television a few times.

What happens to you if you are a Chinese-speaking foreigner in China is that you instantly become a spokesperson acting on behalf of the entire Western world. You become the special envoy of the European and American intelligentsia (or proletariat, or peasantry, depending on how recently you have shaved).

For most Chinese, after all, it is a God-given truth that Chinese speak Chinese, and foreigners foreign - just as Chinese eat rice, drink tea and use chopsticks, while foreigners eat chips, drink coffee and use knives and forks. Any daring attempt on the part of a man with pale eyes and a giant nose to break these laws of heaven is enough to stop a billion people right there in their tracks. Your casual remarks during long bus journeys through Sichuan province will be capable of altering the future course of history. I have found that it helps to be polite.

Of course, fame in China has its low points, as it no doubt does in Hollywood as well. There are days when you would rather not have people staring at you too closely. The responsibility of representing the combined peoples of Europe and America is less attractive, for example, when you have just got off the Peking-Canton Express along with a population equivalent to that of several small African countries.

I'm also none too keen on being woken from my sleep just because somebody wants to ask me if I would mind posing for a photograph with his daughter who is due to be married later in the day. And be careful with that nose of yours which is going to generate such intense interest: whatever you do, don't pick it, and don't blow it loudly in public places.

But make no mistake. Stardom in China has its uses. With a nose as big as yours, you will be allowed to use first-class waiting rooms at stations even if you are travelling on a second-class ticket. You'll always get to the fronts of queues more easily.

Best of all, though, is this: that the nicest, cleverest people in China will be queueing up to pay you attention. Just sit back and wait for them. Subjects for discussion will range from your attitude to China, right through to your feelings about your children and the level of your income.

And don't worry. You will also be congratulated, as often as you like, on your ability to speak Chinese (and to use chopsticks).

Monday, October 30, 2000

The blessing of sadness

The blessing of sadness

Siberia may be rich in dark resonances - gulags, starvation, eternal snows - yet it has hidden pleasures, too. And Listvyanka, a kind of Siberian Balmoral on the shores of Lake Baikal, is the best place to find them

by Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 30 October 2000

Autumn is on the point of death. Yesterday, I noted tattered birch leaves clinging to a memory of summer; today the first winter snows are gathered in freezing clouds above the lake. And from the forests, I smell edible berries, rotted trunks, strange gods: the fears and unquenchable hopes of old Russia.

But have I only travelled for 90 hours by train from Moscow? It feels like 90 years. Right now I am gazing over Lake Baikal, the deepest, oldest lake on Earth, and beside me my guide Elya is speaking. With her furry headband and expensive sunglasses, she might have arrived straight from St Moritz, though her eyes are blue as Baikal ice and her voice is of a Tolstoyan princess.

Unless it is the plunging Russian accent that renders her English aristocratic... "Where most lakes date back a few thousand years," she declaims nasally, "Baikal is at least 20 million years old. By its shores live bears, musk deer, lynx, fresh-water seals, wolverenes; and the rare sable, in search of whose fur the first Cossacks came exploring here four hundred years ago..."

I don't want this to stop. Can she show me real bears at Baikal? "I'm sorry," she sighs, collapsing into a smile worth all the sable in Siberia. "You can't see bears until they come to the lake in the spring."
As I write these words, it is only October, but the feathery larch trees are already golden. Whole hillsides are changing colour before my eyes. I jump down onto the shingly shoreline to stare at mist-rooted, unearthly mountains, hovering snow-white on Baikal's closest eastern shore, 60 miles away. This is Listvyanka, microscopic beside a lake hundreds of miles long.

But is it really lost in the endless taiga? In fact, it may be the most touristed village in Siberia. Boris Yeltsin had Helmut Kohl here to stay a few years back, for saunas and vodka at the presidential dacha; by Siberian standards, it is a kind of Balmoral. But then again, this is not saying much.
I am lodging in the one-storied wooden house of a Russian babushka named Valentina and her daughter Rita. Like much about Listvyanka, the household is not quite ordinary. Rita, with her copper-dyed hair and refined reticence, once worked as a microbiologist in the Crimea; in the current economic climate, she now finds that providing borsch and stuffed cabbage-leaves for tourists is more rewarding.

Valentina, though, when I meet her, looks as Russian as Chekhov. She is the eternal babushka. I find her stooped over the chrysanthemums, booted, headscarf tied grimly under chin. "Depressed about a bit of snow?" she is exclaiming, picking up her shovel with determination. "What? Why should I be? The colder the better."

She begins tossing snow ruthlessly over the fence, fiddling with the well pump, inspecting the garden flowers. At 76, Valentina is well past the national average life-expectancy, but she has the battling body frame of a worker. And her latest career is hosting tourists.

"My father's family used to be well-to-do before 1917," she explains in a nonchalant voice, later, at lunch. "My grandfather owned a shipyard on Baikal. I remember my father taking me to the local workers' club and sitting me down beside the piano. He couldn't say it out loud. But he told me the truth: that piano had once belonged to us."

I gaze around her simple wooden house with surprise. This place is certainly older than the revolution; it was built with carved lacework round the window frames. But what kind of people bring a piano to Listvyanka? While Rita cuts up a fish pie and Valentina shoves logs into the kitchen stove, I find myself transported back to an another world: of clavichords in drawing rooms, of libraries bulging with the works of Racine and Voltaire, of princesses in mink hats reciting the poetry of Pushkin...

Or am I getting carried away? Princess Elya, as ever, is sitting beside me, translating every word with effortless class. When I ask Valentina if she has any old photos, she immediately produces an envelope full of black-and-white images taken from the turn of the last century: women with strong faces and beautiful dresses.

"Old aunts," she says, carelessly. "Some went to America at the time of the revolution. Others went to Europe. They lived how we would have lived without Lenin." In the 1930s, people were sent to gulags for lesser offences than keeping photographs like these.

But Valentina's family has a history, all right, as I am soon finding out over frequent vodka toasts and little pieces of smoked fish and pickled cucumber. Her own grandmother, she declares with force, was born all the way back in 1866 - the year before Russia sold Alaska to the USA. She was 104 when she died and she had still not accepted the revolution.

We smile at our plates. Toughness, I see, is in the family. Valentina is getting her old Russia back. It was the USSR that was new-fangled and unintelligible; now life is reacquiring its logic - a logic half-remembered from sitting beside a piano, many years ago, on a father's knee.

Valentina says: "If people are hard-working, they can survive. Not like all these young drunkards nowadays. There's plenty of food in the forests for anyone to help themselves." A jar of pickled wild mushrooms is held out for my inspection. Valentina later lifts up the floorboards with glee to show me her newly harvested potato-store: all 500 kilos of it, brought in by hired labour. After a 70-year pause for the Communist experiment, she is picking up the threads of bourgeois life again.

Is this Siberia, then? Not so much the tragic land of exile, as a shining illustration of human optimism and endurance? I think back over the thousands of miles that I have travelled from Moscow and to the capital's churches and opera houses, its stuccoes, its columns and pediments, its Pushkin and Turgenev, its drunkenness and its sorrows. Yet it is Siberia that carries Russia halfway round the globe. It goes beyond India, beyond China. At its uttermost end, it is within walking distance of America itself...

Now I really am getting carried away. Under the influence of vodka, the millions of dead swallowed up by Siberia in the 20th century come to seem like a trifle: a mere detail. But Listvyanka was not immune to Stalin's terror. "Yes, one uncle of mine disappeared," Valentina grunts, wearily, when I remember to bring the subject up. "Nobody ever knew what happened to him. He was just a worker." She might say, but doesn't: it wasn't his fault that his father had owned a shipyard.

What bothers Valentina more, I feel, are the broken threads she has not yet been able to pick up. Munching heartily on little red Siberian apples, she speaks of a young American tourist who recently stayed with them. "His parents were Russian. And you know, he was more Russian than we were! He knew the church liturgies! He knew our old customs." For the first time, she looks vaguely regretful. "Our parents wouldn't have dared tell us so much about the old ways. Children would have talked... we wouldn't have understood... "

I walk again that afternoon along the shores of the lake, past the sprinkling of wooden houses with their picket fences and snow-filled cabbage patches, past beer shops, bars and the tiny harbour. Cows are grazing on the verges, under pine-clad hills. Baikal itself is moody: one minute its waters are pallid and oil-smooth, the next they are black and restless. They will be frozen solid by January, and not free of ice again until June.

Now there is nowhere much to go, nothing much to do. We catch the old ferry to Port Baikal on the other side of the Angara River, where the remains of the old Trans-Siberian railway is rusting slowly into oblivion, and where a lone factory draws untreated Baikal water from the depths of the lake to bottle for drinking.

But walking home at dusk, I suddenly feel the harsh power of Siberian cold. The last traces of warmth in the air are as evanescent as sunlight itself. Bitter winter is forming over our heads.

"Are you ready?" Princess Elya now asks by my side. I am. Even on days of unbearable melancholy like these - the last, dying moments of a Siberian summer - a secret pleasure awaits. Valentina's house has no running water or bathroom, but it has something better: an out-house in the garden, of clean, soft wood! A traditional sauna! Oh, to be hot and naked in the eternal birch forest! Under Siberian steam, on Siberian wood, I retire to cleanse my body, and (I feel) my soul, before dinner.

Drowsy with warmth, we sit at table later that night eating cheese pies and smoked sig, a kind of Baikal salmon. We are tiny - cosy - in the heart of eternal Siberia. Outside a wind begins to howl and hard, dry snowflakes scuttle on the windows. Rita puts on Cossack music and now proposes a rapid series of toasts, to an open Russia; to friendship; to love.

But old Valentina is already intoxicated by the oxygen of freedom. She leaps around with the spirit of a 20-year old, urging us young things to dance. "The most marvellous thing of all is to have real foreigners in my house!" she whoops, grabbing me round the arm and spinning me almost off my feet. "Old Brezhnev would never have let us do this. It's amazing."

Outside in the darkness, I picture old flowers poking through the snow. Siberia may be the saddest country, I smile to myself. But perhaps this is Siberia's blessing: that when its pleasures do come, they are the most beautiful in the world.

Jeremy Atiyah travelled with The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846, Similar 12-night trips cost from £650 per person, including accommodation, train travel between Moscow and Beijing, a half-day guide, activities such as walking and sauna, and a stopover in Listvyanka. The company can also arrange the necessary visas for you. An open-jaw plane ticket, flying into Moscow and back from Beijing, currently costs from around £370 through agents such as STA Travel (020-7361 6262,

'Something strange is going on'

'Something strange is going on'

Where is the dirt and the smoking? This place has come over all new-tech and polite. Is this really China?

Published: 30 October 2000

I've just spent a couple of days trundling across China on a slowish sort of train. This country has become so smart since I was last here that I can only assume the Ministry of Propaganda of the People's Republic of China has got wind of my presence.

Not that I'm getting ideas above my station, of course. I was travelling second class for example (honest), but the train itself was brand new. Fresh out of its wrappers.

Usually, Chinese trains are a sooty-green colour and look as though built by convict labour in the 1950s. But my train had blue and red stripes and clean windows. The toilet was immaculately clean. The windows were sealed and the temperature controlled. Even the communal Thermos flasks weren't decorated with chrysanthemums and peonies. They were made of chic stainless steel.

Could I have been been the victim of an extremely elaborate PR job? Was that woman hurriedly sweeping the platform as we rolled into Lanzhou railway station a party stooge? In the old days, (that is, until five years ago) everyone in China used to carry a jam-jar full of tea around with them whenever they travelled. But now everyone seemed to have purpose-designed flasks of brushed steel with screw-on lids, with words such as "exquisite craftsmanship" written on them. They had also replaced their splitting canvas bags with executive luggage with wheels and pull-out handles, and spent much of the journey talking to their relatives on mobile phones that miraculously worked - even when you could see nothing but desert and distant mountains all around you.

The first time I used a Chinese train the man in the sleeper next to mine spent the night spitting out a huge pile of phlegm on to the floor. Now, I found people looking askance at me for dropping bits of peanut shell on to the floor. And not only was nobody spitting: nobody was smoking. Instead, they were sipping tea and reading newspapers.

I've never met such model citizens. "Oh you Westerners are so clever compared to us," they kept saying. "And you are so young-looking as well."

When I pointed to my own bald-spot as a sign of early physical deterioration, they immediately responded by saying that baldness was a sign of intelligence. The man who said this the loudest was the man with the thickest brush of hair I had ever seen. My lingering suspicions of a set-up would not go away.

Anyway, I'm now in the far-off city of Jiayuguan, which has its points, but (believe you me) never claimed to be the Paris of the Gobi Desert. Last time I was here, five years ago, I was beaten up by a woman with a mop in my hotel for locking the door while trying to sleep. But look at it now! The internet cafe where I am writing these words contains a couple of dozen super-fast computers. Here,I am listening to Radio New York, beamed straight to Jiayuguan via the web.

Pavements have been remade in smart red and yellow tiles, as if in preparation for my arrival. Trees seem to have been planted, and are lit from beneath. Trendy people with platform shoes and foppish haircuts drift around on bicycles.

What else could be behind these extraordinary changes, except a cunning desire to hoodwink foreigners ? Could it possibly be true instead that the Chinese are trying to please themselves? Without us? What a shocking thought.

Sunday, October 22, 2000

Don't be fooled by Mongolia

Don't be fooled by Mongolia

No matter what they tell you, it really doesn't seem like a proper country, more like a corner of Russia

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 22 October 2000

Just got off the train again - in an alleged country called Mongolia. But I'm not falling for it. I'm pretty convinced that I'm still in some little-known corner of Russia. According to my map, after all, Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, doesn't look like a place you should be able to get to by train, even if it did exist. Why would anybody build across a country a railway which will take you 24 hours to ride but contains only this one stop worth speaking about?

The whole thing looks to me like a put-up job, to persuade the few tourists who choose to ride this train that they have come to the remotest place in the world. Take the shenanigans at the so-called "border" between Russia and Mongolia, for example.

It's the same old show, every night. A group of men looking like Samoan wrestlers - who pose as passengers - suddenly materialise to hide electronic goods, powdered milk and ladies' boots in secret compartments under corridor carpets up and down the train. Russian drunkards called Boris and Ivan look on, bewildered.

Everyone is then made to wait half the night while a sequence of uniformed actors take it in turn to investigate the smugglers. (These include the man who checks our customs forms who, as I recall, wears a wing collar and a monocle.) Occasional shouts and the sound of running and dragging interrupt our sleep. And in the end, to make it all seem more plausible, the most respectable people on the train get evicted.

But once you are inside, Mongolia - as a country - becomes no easier to believe. Its countryside makes Siberia look like the Garden of Eden. Before you get to Ulan Bator, all you see for hours is dead grass, ice, goats, nomads' tents and occasional distant horsemen riding to nowhere. And Ulan Bator itself? Well, it is the kind of place where the building that looks like your old primary school turns out to be the ministry of foreign affairs. As for that old ice cream parlour next door - that will be the state bank.

The other thing worrying me about this place is its recent history. Despite the (supposed) throwing off of the Russian yoke nearly 10 years ago, no Mongolian has yet got round to removing the statue of Lenin from the square in the middle of town. And why do the people still use the Russian cyrillic alphabet?

It's no use. I have even been out on to the steppe to stay in a nomad's tent (for tourists), on the grounds that the only fact any foreigner knows about Mongolia is that Genghis Khan rode out of here on a horse faster than the wind. Perhaps I could find there the proof that this was the country it purported to be.

Well, the tourist tents are certainly in a wild and remote place. But then again, mine did have an electric socket, and heating, and a shower block round the back. Later I was put on a horse, after being warned that it was liable to fly off faster than the wind at the slightest shock or provocation. In the end, no matter how fiercely I kicked and bellowed, my horse refused to do anything faster than a slow trot in three-second bursts. I did not have the sensation of following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan.

Don't get me wrong. This country's people - whoever they are - are charming. It's just that I haven't found out anything verifiable about their country yet.

Mongolia is excellent as a bench mark for remoteness. But I don't think it is the kind of place you'd try to go to.

Sunday, October 8, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: Guinea

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 08 October 2000

Official NameRepublic of Guinea.
LocationOn the western end of the bulge of West Africa.
LanguageOfficially French, though Malinke is spoken by at least 40 per cent of the population. Fula and Susu are among the other major languages.
SizeAbout 246,000sq km, or between seven and eight times the size of Belgium.
PopulationJust over seven million.
National DishThe usual West African specialities of grilled fish (the well-off) and rice with sauce (everybody else).
Best MonumentNobody would visit Guinea for its monuments, as opposed to its green, mountainous landscapes, but the Palais de l'OUA, in the capital Conakry, is the grandest building in the country. It is just a pity that the conference for the Organisation of African Unity in 1984 - for which it was built - was cancelled after the death of Guinean President Sekou Toure.
Most famous citizenOf the many famous Guinean musicians, Mory Kante is best known, especially in France, where he now lives. His speciality is fusing rock and soul with traditional African music.
Worst moment in historyPresident Toure, who led Guinea's drive for independence in the late 1950s, was to become a dictator who was more in the mould of Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung than General Charles de Gaulle. By the 1970s his rule had degenerated into a reign of terror that saw a quarter of the population forced to flee the country.
Best moment in historyProbably the 1977 "market women's revolt" which involved market women rioting in Conakry after Toure decreed that all agricultural produce be delivered to the state-run co-operatives. The riots then spread around the country and the governors of Kindia, Faranah and Boke were killed. Toure, remarkably, was forced to mend his ways.
Essential accessoryConakry is one of the wettest cities in the world, receiving more than four metres of rain per year. Take an umbrella.
What not to doDo not go wandering around the Palais de l'OUA at night. According to the travellers' grapevine (so it must be true) such behaviour will provoke security guards to shoot you.

Sunday, October 1, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: Guatemala

192-Part Guide To The World: Guatemala

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 01 October 2000

Official NameRepublic of Guatemala.
LocationThe first Central American state you reach, moving south from Mexico.
LanguageSpanish, and many Mayan languages.
SizeAt 109,000sq km, this small country still manages to be more than three times the size of Belgium.
PopulationEleven million. Very crowded, by American standards.
National DishMeat. Lots and lots of it.
Best MonumentThe Mayan ceremonial centre at Tikal, near the town of Flores, comprises tall stone pyramids deep within a jungle full of parrots and monkeys. The ruins include an acropolis and temples.
Most Famous CitizenRigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work opposing the repression of native peoples by white colonialists. It was her book I, Rigoberta Menchu - documenting the experience of growing up in conditions akin to slave labour - that brought her international fame.
Best Moment In HistoryThe so-called Early and Late Classic Periods of Mayan civilisation lasted from around AD250 to 900. These years of great prosperity saw fabulous temple cities being constructed, first in the Guatemalan highlands, and later in the El Peten lowlands.
Worst Moment In HistoryIn 1523, Pedro de Alvarado came to conquer Guatemala for the King of Spain. The highland kingdoms of the
Quiche and Cakchiquel Maya were crushed, their lands divided up into vast estates and their people exploited by the new landowners.
Essential AccessorySpare wallet. Beware armed bus- and car-jackings, especially at night.
What Not To DoTry not to expropriate peasant lands or violently suppress anti-government elements - particularly if you come from the United States

Saturday, September 30, 2000

Where the Hel am I?

Where the Hel am I?

It's all very well Dante advocating that the middle of life is the time to take a tour of Hell, but where exactly is it? The best the atlas could offer was a little fishing port in Poland...

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 30 September 2000

I am standing in the middle of Essex. It's the middle of my life. And no, I am not in a good mood. In one hand I hold a sign which says Harwich, in the other I have a copy of Dante's Hell. Hitchhiking at my age? In this weather? There's no reason for such self-punishment, of course. I could take the train. Except that Dante has got me worried about spiritual choices. The middle of life - I've been reading - is time to take a tour of Hell.

In my case, I'm hoping that an earthly town called Hell will do. I've found two of them in my atlas: one is in clean and pleasant Norway, and one, spelled "Hel", is in Poland, on the grim, gloomy Baltic coast.

Poland wins it, and that missing final "l" doesn't bother me. Which is why I am here now, standing by a slip road in Essex with my thumb out. Hell, here we come! Cushy travel options not available.

Getting to Harwich, mind you, is almost cushy. One lift from a grumpy English man and his pleasant Dutch wife and I'm there, embarking the ferry. No drama. For the rest of that evening I'll be on the lookout for white-haired boatmen-of-death bawling Woe to the wicked!, but all I can see are British couples hiding behind Sunday newspapers all the way to Holland.

The next morning looks bad, though. I find myself in a drizzly Dutch town that I will spend five hours trying to hitch out of. Apart from two bleating sheep, Hoek van Holland is as silent as the grave - even if my mistake here is to hold a sign saying "Hamburg" (it's like standing outside Woking with a sign saying "Baghdad").

Eventually, a man in a Jeep stops. His odd diction emerges in an extremely strong Scottish accent. What man art thou, he seems to say, that free and dangerless, thus in deep Hell dost place thy living feet? Ah! He is in fact speaking Dutch. I want a lift, I tell him. He nods but drives away.

It is obvious that I fit the description of an evil child-rapist in this town. The only person who is eventually brave enough to pick me up is a stoned cockney. "We'll get you all the way to Rotterdam," promises Scott, from the driver's seat. Great, I think. Rotterdam is all of 30 minutes down the road. "Weed or hash for you, mate?" he asks, handing me two plastic sealed envelopes. "I'll take this one, mate," I reply.

Scott has now got one hand on the steering-wheel and one hand on a newly lit joint. Is smoking dope a sin, I worry? A kind of gluttony, perhaps? But what the Hell. The next thing I know, I am standing at a Dutch service station in the rain.

I feel like I am going backwards. My day deteriorates into an endless cycle of slip roads, filling stations, junctions and gravelly verges. At a spaghetti junction beyond Rotterdam, two men looking like Dennis Bergkamp and his toothless little brother, stop. "Hey, hitchhiker!" says little bro staring out of the window with glazed eyes, "wanna go to Papua New Guinea?"

Later I am treated to a series of rides with anonymous, gloomy men in jackets and ties, driving silent cars under black skies through dreary towns like Utrecht and Arnhem. The trouble is that they aren't going anywhere. No one ever is in Holland. These men of mud soon have me reaching for my Dante again. Sullen were we, we took no joy of the pleasant air... sullen we lie here now in the black mud... Is this a story about the Dutch nation? Only when I reach Germany, 24 hours later, do I feel like I'm making any serious progress.

Here everything changes. Suddenly, I am on an autobahn, in a little foreign car surrounded by muscular German cars, flying tail-to-bumper with the joy and precision of fighter pilots in formation. Everywhere I look I see German cars, proud and happy to be in their own country where no one can get at them.

Hamburg, when I reach it the next evening, is in a different circle of Hell altogether. Walking the streets behind my hotel I find respectable-looking people syringing themselves in broad daylight. Later, in the St Pauli area, I am approached by an attractive German girl who has the voice and manner of a PR executive and asks if I would like to have normal sex with her. What would Dante say, I wonder, flicking to the section on carnal desires?

The Germans have one response to worries: solve them. Nothing will be easier than hitching all the way from Hamburg to Berlin the next day. Taking advantage of that German invention, the Mitfahrzentrale - an agency that matches drivers and hitchhikers for a small fee - I promptly find myself being driven along the autobahn at 180kph by a man in a straw hat. We aim to reach Berlin by breakfast.

For a long time, the driver is silent, before he finally asks me whether London is blessed by a red-light district like that of Hamburg. "Actually, we are... discreet in this field," I reply, trying, but failing, not to sound like a hypocrite. Ah, yes. It was always so with you British, chuckles the man.

I am dropped off at Bahnhof Zoo, the centre of West Berlin. If only this place had been destroyed, I find myself wishing, in a Cold War nuclear hell. At least that would have saved millions of people the trouble of mooching here in gloomy eternity, hands in pockets, eating ice creams and sausages. Or am I being cynical? Should I perhaps join these eternal moochers, stuffing my mouth with eternal sausage? No. My journey through Hell is not yet finished. There's a brand new motorway from Berlin to Poland, which I ride that same afternoon in the Mercedes of two unfriendly men, one of whom resembles Hitler and the other Stalin. "Why does this man not speak our language?" they seem to be asking one another. "Of what use is he to our plans of world domination?"

Gloomy forests begin to crowd the road, pylons and pillars and poles and girders clog unkempt fields. I glimpse cobbled alleys and rusty fences. And look! Germans in uniform manning the border to Poland! But my fears are unnecessary. Have a nice day, they say. I laugh. Entering Poland there is no compulsory money exchange, no currency declaration, no visa inspection. Hell, I fear, is not what it was.

But an hour later, I am checking into a room in Szczecin. This is more like it. Within moments I am fixing a broken window frame, unblocking the toilet, killing a bluebottle. What more could I ask for? Heaven?

It's not far to Hell from here. The next morning, I wake to tricklings and gushings and lashings and gurglings and drummings. Mere thunderstorms, I tell myself. Nothing to stop my progress. After attaching an umbrella to the strap of my bag, I stand by a road on the edge of town getting sprayed by Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. Eventually a Lada stops.

The driver is a thin man with dyed black hair who speaks not a word of English, German, or indeed Polish. In his back seat, I notice a beautiful blonde girl reading a book about Buddhism. But as I climb in to join her, she climbs out. She is nothing but a Satanic trick! I find myself cuddling up to a stinky, muzzled black dog instead.

We drive on, with a curious lack of purpose, past fruit trees, crows, black muddy lanes, allotments and pine forests. The dog farts. There seems to be grave indecision as to where we are going at all. Ahem, I say, pointing at my map, but the driver only shakes his head sadly.

A horse-drawn wagon trundles past; village chimneys smoke furiously although it is mid-July. The end of my journey? Almost. That night I settle for a town called Wladyslawowo, where hundreds of bedraggled teenagers are hugging sleeping bags in the main street. I walk to the beach to find it packed, at 10pm, with people wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, sitting on benches, eating fried fish from cardboard plates and drinking beer from plastic cups. Is this where bad Mediterranean holidaymakers go after they die?

The next morning, the little fishing port of Hel is a short drive away, through mossy forests along a sand spit. Almost before I have stuck my thumb out, a local doctor whose car smells of medical swabs has picked me up. Are you going to Hell? I ask.

In fact, Hel has golden sandy beaches and picturesque cottages. But I've got Dante in mind and am finding the day oddly humorous. Where, for example, is the tortured, naked spirit of Judas Iscariot? I turn to the doctor as he drops me off: you know there's an English word, hell... I begin to explain. But I can't quite spit the words out.

Funnily enough, no Hel resident gets the joke, when I try telling it. Instead, they smile politely. Only the Yugoslavian ex-sailor who squirts cream into iced coffees at Hel's waterfront bar seems to understand. Yes, he tells me. But this Hel only has one "l".

You're right, say I, taking my coffee. But he has got me confused. A fragrant breeze picks up off the sea and a summery sun is trying to come out. Can it possibly be that this isn't really Hell at all? That I have hitch-hiked all this way for nothing?

Surely not. Happy gulls squawk overhead. People are taking their coats off. I spoon myself a mouthful of cream and sugary foam and conclude: Hell is just not the bad place you sometimes think it has to be.

Going to Hel
Hitchhiking: Jeremy Atiyah paid £22 from Harwich to Hoek van Holland onStena Line (0990 455 455). From there, the road to Hel recommended in 'Europe: a Manual for Hitchhikers' (Vacation Work, £4.95, but the most recent edition is 1985) cuts straight across via Rotterdam, Osnabrack and Hanover to Berlin, where you should bear left for Hel. For details of the German lift-share scheme, visit (in German only).Regrettably, the Polish Social Autostop Committee - Europe's only government-run hitchhiking scheme - collapsed at the same time as Communism.

Planes: the closest airport to Hel is Gdansk, accessible three times each week on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, This is a code-share flight in associationwith the Polish airline LOT. Specialist agents such as Polorbis (020 7636 2217) usually offer fares below those charged by the airlines themselves. Expect to pay around £186 return for travel from London in October - or £11 more if you travel inbound on a Friday. From Gdansk, a combination of trains, buses or (in summer) boats will get you to Hel. And back.

Buses: plenty of buses operate from various UK points to Gdansk. Eurolines (08705 143219, has a fare of £99 return from London's Victoria Coach Station to the city.

Visas: these are no longer required for British passport holders visiting Hel.

Information: Polish National Tourist Office, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (020-7580 8811).

Sunday, September 10, 2000

Miracle destination

Miracle destination

Three times a year, Naples' faithful wait for the miracle of San Gennaro. Jeremy Atiyah tries to stay sceptical

Published: 10 September 2000

No wonder the Neapolitans love him so much. This is the city where a red traffic-light means "go" and green means "proceed at risk"; where the payment of tax or the wearing of a car seat-belt is tantamount to betraying your people. Give me shambolic municipal services, unrepaired roads and a tragic football team, and I will show you Naples. But the thrice-yearly liquefaction - on time - of a block of congealed blood belonging to a local saint? No problem.

It was 17 centuries ago that the man later known as San Gennaro was beheaded for daring to express Christian beliefs in pagan Rome. The Emperor Diocletian gave the order, thus securing the place of Gennaro's name forever in the annals of Neapolitan martyrs. But not until 1389 - 1,000 years later - do the first reports emerge of the repeated "liquefaction" of his congealed blood, by now contained in a sealed vial.

You don't have to be crazy to believe in this medieval mumbo-jumbo, but it certainly helps if you come from Naples. "It seems miraculous," a Neapolitan friend assures me, "but the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood is not an officially recognised miracle." It turns out that the church is keeping an "open mind" on the matter, and will not submit the vials for inspection, partly on the grounds that opening them might destroy them.

Might, then, this whole liquefaction malarkey be a trick of the church, designed, say, to keep the ignorant masses in thrall? In Naples I stumble across a pamphlet speaking of "valueless hagiographical sources" giving excessive credence to the miracles surrounding San Gennaro. The rational rejection of miracles, I presume.

Until I turn a page to find an analysis of the behaviour of this "unpretentious blood clot", so "anxiously longed for" by the people of Naples. And if the following isn't obfuscation, the Pope is a communist: "Colloidal substances have their own viscosity, rigidity and particular adhesion qualities... Coagulation is the possibility to separate the large colloidal particles from the solvent colloid ... fibrin, serum, coagulum, celluli-lamina ... the presence of natural anti-coagulative substances like antithrombin and heparin..."

It so happens that I find myself in town on one of the three dates in the year on which the miracle is due to occur. According to my guidebook, the action starts early, but I arrive at the Duomo at 7.30am to find talk of jostling, fighting crowds somewhat overblown. Eventually a priest with a key as large as his forearm comes to open the church but inside I find no one save for two blonde French girls in the front pew. Moustachioed carabinieri are patrolling that pew with interest.

I stroll the side chapels, noting that one of them is lined by shelves and drawers resembling my grandmother's front room, except that these are stuffed with the bones and skulls of saints. In San Gennaro's chapel, meanwhile, the curious baroque-style candelabrum designed to contain the vials of his chocolate-solid blood is getting a polishing.

"At what time does San Gennaro's blood liquefy?" I ask the manager of my hotel later that day. He gasps as though I have asked a stupid question, and retorts that miracles do not occur to fit timetables. In fact it turns out that the liquefaction sometimes fails to occur, hence the "anxious longing" of the people of Naples. Such failures have included 1944, the year of the last eruption of Vesuvius, and 1980, the year of a disastrous earthquake in the Naples region.

Back to church. It is late afternoon and there is a crowd standing outside. I muscle my way in, following a crowd of stubbly youths with their girlfriends, photographers, godfathers in suits, coiffured dames, friars in robes, curtseying nuns. We weave and shove between massive columns to the front, where city dignitaries, priests, prelates, monsignors and cardinals mass like bumble bees round the altar. To one side a man in white robes appears to be fiddling with the vials of San Gennaro's blood - and presto! before I know it, the solid chocolate in the vial has taken on a fluid appearance.

Did I miss something? Applause breaks out. Friars and nuns are punching the air. A Sophia Loren lookalike clutches a hand to her mouth. The vial is picked up on a litter, shaken, and shouldered by a long line of chanting choristers. The procession out of the church and through the city begins.

Outside people are jabbing each other and pointing joyfully to see that the saint's blood has indeed become liquid. The procession proceeds at a snail's pace, comprising, first, the urn said to contain the saint's bones, then the vial of blood, then a silver bust, dressed, somewhat preposterously, in a papal cape and hat. Up ahead a priest is chanting a long litany of saints in ethereal tones while we, the people, straggle behind in a vast queue.

Public discipline is maintained by carabinieri who are now wearing not merely red stripes on their trousers, but epaulettes like cabbage leaves, ceremonial swords, three-cornered hats and plumes. The whole apparatus of the church and Italian state are operating magnificently in tandem.

On we go, down the narrow street of San Biagio dei Librai. We slide past the red and ancient stucco of the church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo. Near me I notice the city mayor, Antonio Bassolino, sun-bronzed and sporting a well-coiffed head of hair, surrounded by besuited men. "Ciao Antonio!" shout affectionate grannies from upstairs balconies, before showering us with rose petals. No pushing or impatience mars our progress, only beaming shopkeepers and restaurateurs, waving from doorways.
Up ahead, the litany of saints is over and the prelate is now intoning about the blood of martyrs - a subject designed to appeal to young men willing to risk death for their inalienable right to ride motorbikes without helmets. A mother beside me is in tears; she hugs her small son who asks why she is crying.

Meanwhile, at the entrance to the Church of Santa Chiara, pandemonium has broken out. The bust, the bones and the blood are being ushered forward through closed lines of carabinieri, and through the entrance I glimpse the full power of the Catholic Church on display. Cardinal Michele Giordano, the Archbishop of Naples, sits staring sideways, aloof from the vast congregation. The pews are packed. Plumed carabineri guard the altar area. But entering the church I am confronted by dozens of people trying to force their way out, against the flow of traffic. What are they trying to escape from?

Eventually I understand. The cynics have got out in a hurry. The docile families inside will yawn and sigh beneath his feet, but Cardinal Giordano will exercise no mercy when it comes to the length of his speech, in describing the contemporary social significance of the miracle. And why should he worry? San Gennaro's liquid blood stands on the altar. It is the visible, undeniable, reliable proof - of the existence of God.

Sunday, September 3, 2000

'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

We are fascinated by the crumbling relics of lost empires

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 03 September 2000

In the light of fires, collapsing buildings, sinking subs, pipeline ruptures, radiation leaks, and toxic spills, there will soon be a new aspect to visiting Russia - tourists in the ghoulish pursuit of impending disaster.

Not that I blame them. In fact I'll probably be one of them. The desire to get melancholy in the ruined cities of collapsed empires is as old as tourism itself. We've all had some sort of look at the wreckage of the Roman Empire.

And connoisseurs of cities such as (say) Algiers or Lima will know the fetid delights of other ruined European empires too. The British Empire, which never really belonged to those people we now describe as the British, but rather to that alien species from the 1930s who spoke in funny accents on cinema news-reels, is no exception to this.

It's ethically dubious, but we all do it. Guide books always talk about the "crumbling colonial-style buildings" as excellent reasons to visit places in the developing world, narrowly second to the food and the beaches. Because it's true. Nobody wants to see the new steel and glass post office in (say) Havana if the grotty old Spanish-built one happens to be standing just next door.

The places we all want to see are those stucco-fronted buildings, unpainted for years, now stained, mouldy, cracked and damp, totally unsuited to the tropical climates in which they are located: the kinds of buildings you would find pretentious and dreary in London's Regent's Park for example, but which you'd marvel over and take photos of in Malaysia or India. Yes: under torrential tropical rain, with frying chilli in the air, cows and rickshaws wandering the alleyways, and parakeets chattering from the palm trees, even your suburban house can become a tourist exhibit!

Of course it's harsh on the places themselves. What hotel wants to be described as "so bad that it's good"? It's like having people come and stare at your wrinkles, or take photographs of the holes in your socks. Just think of the possible conversations that your morbid fascination with decay could engender. Local: "What do you like best about my town?" Tourist: "The fact that it's falling to bits, that it stinks and that nothing works." Local: "But you have not yet seen the brand new Italian- built power station." Tourist: "I don't need to. We've got lots of those back home."

Who knows. One day, Chinese or Indian tourists may pick about the ruins of cities like New York or London, enjoying the old-fashioned technology and the quaint old cityscapes now dwarfed by their own state-of-the-art skyscrapers back home in Bombay and Shanghai. In the interests of global equality one might hope that they do.

But in the meantime - where ruined empires are concerned - Russia is clearly the place. Get there before it's too late.

Sunday, August 27, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: Georgia

192-Part Guide To The World: Georgia

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 27 August 2000

Official Name:The Republic of Georgia
LocationSouth of the Caucasus, squashed with other small countries into the gap between the Black and Caspian Seas.
SizeAbout 70,000sq km, twice the size of Belgium.
Population:About 5 million
LanguageThe official language is Georgian, although almost everybody speaks Russian. Other languages that may come in handy are Armenian, Azeri, Ossetian and Abkhazian.
National Dish Georgia was once known as the Italy of the USSR - Russians came here for fresh produce and wine. Virtually every meal is served with khachapuri (unleavened dough wrapped round cheese); the best wine is from Kvanchkara.
Best Monument The 11th-century cathedral of Sveti-Tskhoveli in the holy town of Mtskheta.
Most Famous Citizen One Josef Jughashvili, better known as Stalin. Few Georgians see anything embarrassing about their association with him. Gori - Stalin's birthplace - still maintains not only a museum but also the last remaining public statue of him in the whole of the former USSR.
Best Moment In HistoryThe reign of the inspirational Queen Tamar, who ruled from 1184 to 1213. Then Georgia included much of what is now Armenia and Turkey; all the great movements in Georgian culture stem from this time.
Worst Moment In History The 20th century. If the 1921-91 Soviet experiment wasn't already bad enough, independence was to prove even worse for Georgia. The declarations of secession by South Ossetia (in 1991) and independence by Abkhazia (in 1992) led to civil war and to the reoccupation of parts of the country by Russian soldiers.
Essential AccessoryOily fish and ale. Take them to the public baths and enjoy them after a violent massage, as all Georgians do.
What Not To DoAt a Georgian banquet, do not attempt to ignore the commands of the tamada, or toastmaker. Stalin was said to have honed the art of dictatorship in his younger days by practising as one.

Sunday, August 20, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: The Gambia

192-Part Guide To The World: The Gambia

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 20 August 2000

Official Name:The Republic of the Gambia.
LocationOn the Atlantic coast of Africa, it is completely surrounded by Senegal - except for a short 80km (50 mile) coastline. The River Gambia runs the entire length of the country from Senegal in the extreme east to the river mouth on the coast.
Size11,300 square kilometres, which makes it even smaller than Belgium, and one of the smallest countries in Africa. From north to south it is at no point wider than 50km.
Population:The official estimate puts it at slightly more than a million.
LanguageOfficially English, but local languages include Mandinka (widely spoken throughout the country), Wolof (spoken in western areas), Jola (spoken by a nomadic people), and Serahule (spoken in the far east of the country).
National Dish The food is common to other parts of West Africa; traditional popular dishes include Benechin (rice cooked in a fish and vegetable sauce) and plasas (meat or fish cooked with vegetable leaves in palm oil and served with mashed cassava, locally known as foufou).
Best Monument Head for MacCarthy Square in the capital Banjul. Not only is it lined by 19th century colonial buildings, but it also contains a fountain "erected by public subscription" to commemorate the coronation of Britain's King George VI. In the interests of contemporary sensitivities, the fountain has since been converted to a drinks bar and is decorated with Coca-Cola signs.
Most Famous Citizen If anyone, possibly the current president, Yahya Jammeh, who in July 1994, as a young lieutenant, led a coup d'etat - making his first public appearance wearing combat fatigues and dark sunglasses. In 1996, he announced a new constitution, held elections, and duly won them.
Best Moment In HistoryIn the decade after The Gambia's independence in 1965, two events occurred that enabled this poverty-stricken backwater to prosper. First the world price for groundnuts increased hugely, almost tripling the country's GNP; and then - with longer term significance - The Gambia became a significant tourist destination.
Worst Moment In History Possibly the establishment of Portuguese settlements in Brazil in 1530. From then onwards a colossal demand for labourers developed, which the Portuguese satisfied through the seizure of thousands of people from West Africa for use as slaves. From the mid-16th century, Britain joined the trade as well and it continued until well into the 19th century. Alex Haley, in his famous book, Roots, claimed to trace his origins back to a village in The Gambia.
Essential AccessoryA pair of binoculars could be useful. Gambia is a bird spotter's paradise, especially the Abuko Nature Reserve where over 270 species of bird have been recorded. Noteworthy are turacos, kingfishers and starlings. Tanji Bird Reserve, on the coast, is an important stopover for migrating birds, particularly waterfowl, which return in large numbers each winter from Europe.
What Not To DoDo not forget to include the The in the country's name. Being preceded by a definite article is a distinction belonging to only a very few countries in the world (Sudan, Ukraine, and Lebanon are other examples).

Sunday, August 13, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: Gabon

192-Part Guide To The World: Gabon

Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 13 August 2000

Official name: Gabonese Republic
Language: Don't expect a simple answer to this one, given that we are dealing with a country whose population comprises about 40 Bantu groups, including four major tribes (Fang, Eshira, Bapounou, Bateke). The country's official language is French, but a command of Fang, Myene, Bateke, Bapounou or Bandjabi would come in handy.
Size: 267,670 sq km, or nine times bigger than Belgium, which is amazing considering how small it looks on the map.
Population: 1,320,000
National dish: Manioc paste (or rice) served in a spicy sauce alongside a selection of "bush meats". And watch out: these include antelope, monkey, porcupine and snake.
Best monument: The Palais Presidentiel right in the middle of the capital Libreville bears witness to President Bongo's lively sense of grandeur. Construction in the 1970s, mainly by Italian companies and using the finest Italian marble, cost over $1000 (in today's money) for every man, woman and child in the country. Tourists, in case you were wondering, are not allowed inside.
Most famous citizen: Without a doubt, President El Hadj Omar (formerly Albert-Bernard) Bongo, who has now been running the country for over 30 years - longer than most Gabonese can even remember.
Best moment in history: The 1970s, believe it or not, are referred to in these parts as the time of the "Gabonese miracle". It was a decade which saw not only the processing of very large manganese and uranium deposits, but also the rocketing of oil prices. Colossal oil revenues saw the country leap from the jungle (in some cases, literally) to caviar and champagne in a few years.
Worst moment in history: The early years of the 20th century, when French companies more or less enslaved large sections of Gabonese society to work for them. The result was a series of revolts, which were quashed with violence. In the process, the French managed to destroy forests and other natural resources, and the result was a disastrous economic slump.
Essential accessory: A pirogue: very useful if you want to get off the beaten track and see the wildlife. Boating up the Nouna river, for example, will enable you to see large numbers of forest elephants and possibly gorillas.
What not to do: Drive during the rainy season, (which lasts for eight months), when Gabonese roads are extremely slippery and dangerous.

Sunday, August 6, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: France

192-Part Guide To The World: France

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 06 August 2000

Official name: La Republique Francaise
Language: Not English, annoyingly enough. Instead one must make do with the language of Moliere, Voltaire, Baudelaire, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Proust et al. Otherwise, you could try Breton, Occitan, Corsican, Basque, Catalan or Arabic.
Size: About 544,000 square kilometres. Sixteen times larger than Belgium.
Population: 58,333,000.
National dish: By default, frogs, snails and onions: because the regions of Normandy, Alsace, Burgundy, the Dordogne, the Languedoc and Provence will never agree to a single dish. Whatever the answer, wash it down with a glass of Champagne and finish it off with a slice of Camembert or Roquefort.
Best monument: The cathedral of Notre-Dame is too medieval, the Eiffel Tower too industrial. The Louvre, on the other hand - once home to the French court, now home to the world's greatest art collection - is spot on for its haughty Frenchness.
Most famous citizen: Eric Cantona or Auguste Renoir? Brigitte Bardot or Marie-Antoinette? Jacques Chirac or Louis XIV? Gerard Depardieu or Jean-Paul Sartre? Unfortunately, one suspects that the little Corsican upstart Napoleon Bonaparte will beat all of this lot into the ground.
Best moment in history: The French are still terribly fond of their 1789 revolution, despite continued attempts by the British establishment to blacken its name.
Worst moment in history: Either Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, in 1815, or the German occupation of France in 1940.
Essential accessory: A packet of Tetley teabags.
What not to do: Add Coca-Cola to your Champagne.

Wednesday, August 2, 2000

192-Part Guide to the World: Finland

192-Part Guide to the World: Finland

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 02 August 2000

Official name
Republic of Finland; or in Finnish, Suomen Tasavalta.
Two official ones: Finnish, spoken by the vast majority, and Swedish, spoken by some people in the south and south-west. There are a few lapp-speakers in the far north.
338,000 sq km - 10 times the size of Belgium.
About five million.
National dish
Reindeer meat is a delicacy in some parts of the north: Poronkaristys, or sauteed reindeer, is the best known dish, but reindeer steaks and warm or cold-smoked reindeer meat are also popular.
Best monument
More chauvinistic Finns might not like it but the statue in the centre of the main square of old Helsinki is actually of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Defenders of the statue point to the fact that it was Alexander who acknowledged Finnish constitutionalism for the first time, in 1863.
Most famous citizen
Mika Hakkinen is Formula One World Champion, though one hopes that Finland will be remembered more for the music of Jean Sibelius.
Best moment in history
In 1906 Finland sprang out of the political dark ages with the introduction of a unicameral parliament elected by universal and equal suffrage - at the time, the most modern in Europe. After the Bolshevik revolution 11 years later in 1917, Finland was able to declare its independence.
Worst moment in history
In earlier Finnish history, there was the Great Wrath, the Long Wrath and the Lesser Wrath, all of which involved being attacked by Russians or Swedes. In more recent times there was the Second World War. At the beginning, thanks to a secret protocol in the Nazi-Soviet pact, Finland was attacked by the USSR and had to surrender a large part of the southeast of the country. In 1941 Finland joined the war on Germany's side - on the losing side again.
Essential accessory
In the summer, if you do not wish to turn into one big mosquito bite, do not forget your insect repellant.
What not to do
In the Aland Islands, to the southwest of the country, do not attempt to practise your Finnish. The Alanders are disgusted at the notion of being considered Finnish and insist on speaking only Swedish.

Sunday, July 23, 2000

192-Part Guide to the World: Fiji

192-Part Guide to the World: Fiji

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 23 July 2000

Official nameRepublic of the Fiji Islands
LocationThe 844 Melanesian and Polynesian islands that make up Fiji are in the South Pacific.
LanguageOfficially English, but there are some 300 regional variations of standard Fijian, and the large Indian minority speaks a unique variety of Hindi known, logically enough, as Fiji Hindi.
SizeAbout 18,300 square kilometres of land, so about two-thirds the size of Belgium (but if territorial waters are included, 1.3 million square kilometres, the size of western Europe).
PopulationAbout 800,000, of whom barely half are indigenous Fijians, the majority of the remainder being Fiji Indians, descendants of labourers brought in during the time of the British Empire.
National dishThe drinking of narcotic kava is fundamental to the culture.
Best monumentThe capital Suva contains colonial buildings dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, including the cathedral.
Most famous citizenRebel leader George Speight has become famous by taking the government hostage.
Best moment in historyOne of the finest assertions of Fijian rights over colonialist overlords occurred in 1867 when missionary Thomas Baker was killed and eaten - down to and including his shoes - by irritated villagers. Total independence from colonial rule only came in 1970.
Worst moment in historyProbably the current crisis, triggered by the actions of George Speight (see above).
Essential accessoryYour scuba-diving certificate: the diving is among the best.
What not to doTurn your back on kava bowl, or disattach the cord connecting the bowl to the cowry (don't ask why - these things matter).